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January 09, 2012

The story of a slave in the White House

Some of the most interesting segments on The Daily Show are those involving authors and books that I had never heard of before. In this segment, Jon Stewart interviews Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, author of A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons.

A review of the book can be read here.

December 23, 2011

Book review: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

The main thesis of Steven Pinker's latest book is that violence has declined dramatically over time and that we are now living in the most peaceful time in history, and to suggest reasons for this. The decline has not been uniformly steady but has a saw-tooth pattern of periodic upticks of violence followed by steeper drops leading to an overall decline over time.

This is not a proposition that is obvious since many people despair of the state of the world now with wars between nations, civil wars, genocides, and the brutal suppression of dissent seemingly taking place all over the globe. It is in order to counter this perception that Pinker has to write such a long book (running to nearly 700 pages even without the endnotes and citations), amassing the data and evidence and arguments necessary whenever one is making a counter-intuitive case. So the book is heavy with numbers and graphs that could easily become tedious except that Pinker has a deft writing style that lifts the reader whenever the going gets tough. The book has sparked considerable interest and on his website Pinker has responded to some of the reactions and criticisms.

Pinker looks at all manner of violence from all kinds of conflicts, from wars, homicides, slavery, genocides, rapes, rebellions, and others as a percentage of the population at the time they occurred. In other words, he is using as his measure of violence not the actual number of casualties but the probability that an individual living at that particular time was likely to suffer violence and death at the hands of another.

Of the many charts, graphs, and tables in the book, the centerpiece is undoubtedly the table on page 195 that ranks the twenty one worst conflicts in history in terms of the absolute number of deaths and also in terms of its population-adjusted rank. While World War II had a death toll of 55 million that is the largest ever for a single identifiable conflict, when calculated as a fraction of the global population, it barely makes it into the list of the top ten worst conflicts of all time, being just number 9. The eight that rank above it involve some events that most people likely have never heard of, at least in the west. The An Lushan revolt and civil war that took place in China in the 8th century is the worst. The deaths caused by the Middle East and Atlantic slave trades are at #3 and #8 respectively while the annihilation of Native Americans is #7. World War I with its 15 million dead comes in at #16.

The reason for this distorted perception is that people tend to magnify events that they or their immediate ancestors have personal experience with, and discount others. So for us, relatively recent conflicts such as World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, the Rwandan genocide, the Stalin purges, etc. seem to dominate history when, when looked at in terms of the number of deaths as a ratio of population, some of them don't even register as significant sources of casualties.

People point to the two World Wars of the twentieth century with their terrible loss of life and ask how it can be that the twentieth century is not the worst century in history for violence. Pinker points out that although World Wars I and II were bad, they both occurred in the first half of the century and that the second half had no major conflicts, so the century average was lowered.

In seeking explanations for the decline in violence, Pinker, echoing Peter Singer in his classic work The Expanding Circle, invokes various revolutions that have led to an expansion in our circle of sympathy, so that we now view more categories of people to be like us instead of as the 'other', and now view as deplorable acts done to them that might have been acceptable in the past. The Age of Reason in the 17th century, followed by the Enlightenment towards the end of the 18th, leading to a humanitarian revolution in the 19th, followed by the various rights revolutions of the 20th century (civil, women's, children's, gay, animal) all led to a rise in the value attached to life and steps being taken to curb violence towards those formerly marginalized groups. While the improvement has been uneven, the overall trend is clear. These measures, combined with the increased state monopoly on the legitimate use of force, the increase in commerce between nations, greater cosmopolitanism, the rise in the status and role of women, and the increased application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs have been major factors in the reduction in the use of violence to resolve conflicts.

So why is it that so many still persist in thinking that things are really bad now and yearn for the 'good old days'? The decline in violence can have the perverse effect of making things seem to be bad now when in fact they have objectively got better. For example, we are now rightly outraged about the harsher prison sentences that African Americans get when compared with white people who commit the same crimes. And while this injustice needs to be corrected, we should not overlook the fact that not so long ago African Americans would have experienced summary and often lethal 'justice' at the hands of a mob for the most trivial of offenses and few would have spoken out in protest. So we have come a long way even as we have yet some ways to go.

While Pinker's analysis of the data showing a decline in violence and his arguments as to the reasons are persuasive, the book's main weakness weakness lies in his political analysis. The Canadian-born writer, who is a professor of psychology at Harvard, tends to view politics through a western prism and accepts much of conventional wisdom about political developments. While he does not spare the US and colonial powers for their historical contribution to violence, when he reaches for graphic recent examples to illustrate his points, he tends to pick on Nazis and Communism and other convetional villains and overlook similar examples that are closer to home. For example, when looking at the role of ideology in making leaders pursue policies that result in the deaths of thousands of people, his examples are of Stalin and Mao. But he could well ask the same question of president Truman and his decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or Lyndon Johnson's decision to carpet bomb Vietnam with conventional and chemical weapons that resulted in massive deaths and destruction and long—term harm to subsequent generations. As another example, when trying to understand what might make a soldier gun down a group of defenseless innocent people, his example is of a Nazi soldier massacring a group of Jews during the Holocaust. He does not mention My Lai, though that would also be apropos and is more recent.

It is easy for those who care about the state of the world and what we are bequeathing to future generations to succumb to a sense of despair and think that violence and cruelty are indelible features of our existence that have always existed and will always exist and may be getting even worse as our capacity to harm others increases with the development of more sophisticated weaponry. What this book argues is that while serious problems and conflicts still exist and we are by no means living in a utopia, such deep pessimism is unwarranted. Things are better now than they have ever been and can be yet better in the future as long as we continue to expand the circle of concern to include more and more people within its ambit.

Pinker is careful not to make predictions for the future since who knows what might happen but argues the future can be bright. This book's main virtue is that it provides hope that is not based on wishful thinking but on data.

In a TED talk on this topic, delivered in 2007, Pinker outlines the main theses that were later developed in the book.








Although long, this is a book that is definitely worth reading and having on your shelf because of the wealth of data that it gathers together between its covers. It is an encyclopedia of the history of violence and thus, at the very least, will be a useful reference work.

December 21, 2011

Book Review: With Liberty and Justice for Some by Glenn Greenwald

This is an infuriating book. There were many times during last weekend when I was reading it that I wanted to hurl it against the wall though I am not by nature prone to such dramatic displays of emotion.

The reason is not the usual one, which is that one hates the book. It is because the story that Greenwald tells, in his typically direct and lawyerly style, about how the US has steadily deteriorated to become a nation to which the labels 'oligarchy', 'plutocracy', and 'banana republic' have become so apropos, was so infuriating. I am old enough and follow politics closely enough that almost all of the individual cases that Greenwald talks about are familiar to me, at least in general terms. But to see it all carefully laid out end to end, to see the steady and deliberate and knowing erosion of the rule of law, to see the corruption and hypocrisy that is at the core of the government-business-media oligarchy that runs the US, to see the cheerleading for this process by the establishment media all the while relentlessly preening themselves on being watchdogs, is to realize how terrible is the current state of affairs.

The subtitle of the book How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful pretty much says it all. He points out that equality before the law is one of the bedrock principles upon which the US was built, and indeed is seen as the basis for any just society, but that ideal has been dramatically undermined in the last four decades. This does not mean that there is, or has ever been, perfect equality in the past. As he writes:

Wealth and power have always conferred substantial advantages, and it is thus unsurprising that throughout history the rich and well-connected have enjoyed superior treatment under the law. In the past, those advantages were broadly seen as failures of justice and ruefully acknowledged as shortcomings of the legal system. Today, however, in a radical and momentous shift, the American political class and its media increasingly repudiate the principle that the law must be equally applied to all. To hear our politicians and our press tell it, the conclusion is inescapable: we're far better off when political and financial elites-and they alone-are shielded from criminal accountability.

It has become a virtual consensus among the elites that their members are so indispensable to the running of American society that vesting them with immunity from prosecution-even for the most egregious crimes-is not only in their interest but in our interest, too. Prosecutions, courtrooms, and prisons, it's hinted-and sometimes even explicitly stated-are for the rabble, like the street-side drug peddlers we occasionally glimpse from our car windows, not for the political and financial leaders who manage our nation and fuel our prosperity. (p. 15)

He starts his story with the pardoning of Richard Nixon in 1974, where the novel idea was put forward that 'for the good of the country' the president should not be subjected to prosecution for his crimes and that 'he had suffered enough' merely because he had to resign and had his reputation damaged. At that time, some of Nixon's close aides were prosecuted and in fact served jail time. But the circle of immunity was expanded during the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration when even other officials who committed crimes were pardoned. The pattern of each president not prosecuting the crimes of its predecessor has accelerated right through to Obama and for good reason: that tacit expectation of immunity from their successor gives each president license to break the law as and when they see fit.

The next major erosion of the rule of law occurred in the past decade with the expansion of immunity to the private sector, by the granting of retroactive immunity from prosecution to the giant telecommunications companies for their collusion with the government in the illegal wiretapping of Americans. We recently saw elite immunity under the Obama administration on full display as his administration has engaged in a systematic avoidance of prosecutions in the case of the financial crisis of 2008 and the foreclosure frauds of 2010 (still continuing) where, as Jeff Connaughton describes, not a single senior executive has gone to jail or even been criminally indicted, the only punishments consisting of the occasional levying of fines to companies (without even requiring an admission of wrongdoing) that are trivial to these giant institutions and can simply be written off as the cost of doing business.

Greenwald says that the US has become the very sort of nation that its founders thought that they had escaped.

To be sure, this dynamic has prevailed in imperial capitals for centuries. And it is what explains much of official Washington. The crux of political power (the White House) is the royal court, the most powerful leader (the American president) is the monarch, and his highest and most trusted aides are the gatekeepers. Those who are graced with admission and access to the royal court-including "journalists"-are grateful to those who grant them that privilege. They are equally grateful to the political culture on which their special status, privileges, and wealth depend. Naturally, the journalists' impulse is to protect those who bestowed such favors on them and to promote the culture that sustains them, even as they sentimentally invoke their supposed role as watchdogs over the powerful-a role that they long ago ceased to perform. (p. 47)

Greenwald says that the revolving door between the government and elite sectors of the private economy ensures that there is continuity in the corruption.

It's vital to understand how this process truly works. People like [Director of National Intelligence] Mike McConnell don't really move from public office to the private sector and back again; that implies more separation than actually exists. Rather, the U.S. government and industry interests essentially form one gigantic, amalgamated, inseparable entity-with a public division and a private one. When someone like McConnell goes from a top private sector position to a top government post in the same field, it's more like an intracorporate reassignment than it is like changing employers. When McConnell serves as DNI he's simply in one division of this entity, and when he's at Booz Allen he is in another. It's precisely the same way that Goldman Sachs officials endlessly move in and out of the Treasury Department and other government positions with financial authority, or the way that health care and oil executives move in and out of government agencies charged with regulating those fields. (p. 75)

Just think about how this cycle works. People like Rubin, Summers, Patterson, and Gensler shuffle back and forth between the public and private sectors, taking turns as needed with their GOP counterparts. When in government, they ensure that laws and regulations are written to redound directly to the benefit of a handful of Wall Street firms, abolishing most regulatory safeguards that keep those behemoths in check. When the electoral tide turns against them, they return to those very firms and collect millions of dollars, profits made possible by the laws and regulations they implemented (or failed to implement) when they were in charge. Then, when their party returns to power, back they go into government, where they use their influence to ensure that the cycle keeps going. (p. 117-118)

The only people who are punished with jail are those who are stupid enough to swindle those of their same class or are more powerful than them (Rod Blagojevich, Bernie Madoff) or those celebrities who can be made an example of (Martha Stewart). It will be interesting to see what happens to Jon Corzine who has an impeccable elite pedigree (former Democratic US Senator and governor of New Jersey and, most importantly, former head of Goldman Sachs, the firm that pretty much controls US financial policy) for his role in the MF Global debacle. Will we be told that he has 'suffered enough' and should be free of prosecution or will he be made into a sacrificial lamb, in order to patch up the crumbling facade that no one is above the law?

We have now reached the stage where a small but powerful elite class now feels immune from prosecution for crimes, while at the same time the screws are being increasingly tightened on everyone else with more and more punitive laws stringently applied to those who are not of the elite. It is no accident that increased elite immunity from crimes has run parallel to the rapid growth of incarceration of the powerless. The rest of us are increasingly enmeshed in so many laws that we are all likely felons whether we knowingly commit crimes or not, and thus in danger of a vindictive prosecution if we should step out of line. Prosecuting and jailing the people who merely protest or commit low-level crimes has been a boon for the private prison industry, which has been booming in these hard times.

As Kozinski and Tseytlin note, anyone who has ever misfiled their taxes (even inadvertently), or consumed any illegal drugs (including marijuana), or bet on a sporting event with a bookie, or lied to a government bureaucrat, or even just performed their job poorly (if it's an occupation regulated by the federal government) has committed a federal offense for which they could be sent to prison-and for which many of their fellow citizens are now actually imprisoned. Similarly, the criminologists Beckett and Sasson report that "in 2000, police arrested more than 2 million individuals for such 'consensual' or 'victimless' crimes as curfew violations, prostitution, gambling, drug possession, vagrancy, and public drunkenness. Fewer than one in five of all arrests in that year involved people accused of the more serious 'index' crimes" such as assault, larceny, rape, or homicide. It should hardly be controversial that a system of criminal law that theoretically renders a substantial portion-if not an outright majority-of the citizenry subject to long prison terms is both excessive and unjust. (p. 234-235)

Observe how zealously the government aids the music and film industry in the prosecution of 'internet piracy'. Note how the loaded word 'piracy' is freely used when dealing with the kinds of people who do this kind of thing on a retail basis while much more benign terms are used to describe the wholesale criminal actions of the elite.

Where, in all this, are our erstwhile watchdogs of democracy, the media? They have long been coopted and are now the running dogs of the oligarchy, faithfully serving their interests in return for the scraps that fall their way. Their role is to provide distraction and entertainment, not news.

In this world, it is perfectly fine to say that a president is inept or even somewhat corrupt. A titillating, tawdry sex scandal, such as the Bill Clinton brouhaha, can be fun, even desirable as a way of keeping entertainment levels high. Such revelations are all just part of the political cycle. But to acknowledge that our highest political officials are felons (which is what people are, by definition, who break our laws) or war criminals (which is what people are, by definition, who violate the laws of war) is to threaten the system of power, and that is unthinkable. Above all else, media figures are desperate to maintain the current power structure, as it is their role within it that provides them with prominence, wealth, and self-esteem. Their prime mandate then becomes protecting and defending Washington, which means attacking anyone who would dare suggest that the government has been criminal at its core.

The members of the political and media establishment do not join forces against the investigations and prosecutions because they believe that nothing bad was done. On the contrary, they resist accountability precisely because they know there was serious wrongdoing-and they know they bear part of the culpability for it. (p. 220-221)

Greenwald shows how people like Joe Klein of Time and Richard Cohen and David Broder of The Washington Post all excuse high-level criminality and vociferously denounce any efforts to apply the law to their friends in high places while simultaneously righteously demanding that justice be strictly applied to ordinary people for petty crimes. And these people are 'liberal' journalists, supposedly on the side of the downtrodden. Greenwald (correctly, in my opinion) focuses on the collusion of Democrats in this corruption, thus disabusing us of the notion that it is only the Republicans and conservatives who are the servants of the oligarchy. It is only when people realize that the rot is deep and bipartisan, that the labels that politicians and business leaders and mainstream media pin on each other are meaningless, that we can expect to see real pressure for reform.

How is it that people allow such things to happen? The pattern is always the same:

Indeed, those who abuse state power virtually always follow the same playbook. By initially targeting new abuses at groups that are sufficiently demonized, they guarantee that few will object. But abuses of power rarely, if ever, remain confined to these demonized groups. Rather, degraded principles of justice, once embraced in limited circumstances, in time inevitably come to be applied more broadly. (p. 267)

This kind of oligarchic takeover of a country inevitably leads to greater and greater inequality and injustice and at some point even a passive population like that in the US will be stirred to anger and revolt. A hard reckoning awaits us.

My one quibble with the book is that Greenwald does not provide sources and citations for his information, which is surprising since his blog posts conscientiously link to source material. Providing such citations is a tedious chore for an author but valuable to the reader and if the book goes through another edition I hope he adds them.

This is a book that will make you angry and should make you angry. But it is also a book that must be read widely for the valuable information it provides. I urge you to buy it and read it and encourage others to do so.

October 10, 2011

Peter Singer's review of Steven Pinker's new book

The always readable Steven Pinker has a new book out titled THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: Why Violence Has Declined arguing that there has been a steady drop in violence over time. The equally readable Peter Singer has a very positive review of the book, of which the following is an excerpt.

Against the background of Europe's relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought.

Since 1945, we have seen a new phenomenon known as the "long peace": for 66 years now, the great powers, and developed nations in general, have not fought wars against one another. More recently, since the end of the cold war, a broader "new peace" appears to have taken hold. It is not, of course, an absolute peace, but there has been a decline in all kinds of organized conflicts, including civil wars, genocides, repression and terrorism. Pinker admits that followers of our news media will have particular difficulty in believing this, but as always, he produces statistics to back up his assertions.

The final trend Pinker discusses is the "rights revolution," the revulsion against violence inflicted on ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals that has developed over the past half-century. Pinker is not, of course, arguing that these movements have achieved their goals, but he reminds us how far we have come in a relatively short time from the days when lynchings were commonplace in the South; domestic violence was tolerated to such a degree that a 1950s ad could show a husband with his wife over his knees, spanking her for failing to buy the right brand of coffee; and Pinker, then a young research assistant working under the direction of a professor in an animal behavior lab, tortured a rat to death. (Pinker now considers this "the worst thing I have ever done." In 1975 it wasn't uncommon.)

May 23, 2011

Why people believe in gods

A new book Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith explains the basis of religious belief and the mechanisms that go into creating religious belief structures. I have not read it yet but it looks interesting and I will get to it soon.

Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith -- Dr. Andy Thomson from Kurt Volkan on Vimeo.

(Via onegoodmove.)

March 25, 2011

Review: The Count of Monte Cristo (no spoilers)

Long time readers may recall that I really liked the 2006 film V for Vendetta (if you haven't seen it, you really should). V's inspiration is Edmond Dantes, the hero of The Count of Monte Cristo and he repeatedly watches the 1934 black and white film with Robert Donat in the title role. You can see that scene here and it made me want to read the book and see that film.

I recently read the book since it was on the iPad that was loaned to me. The novel by Alexandre Dumas, creator of The Three Musketeers, is a classic adventure story centered on the themes of love and revenge. Set in France in the period just after Napoleon had been deposed from power for the first time and is plotting his comeback, Edmond Dantes is a worthy young sailor of humble origins whose merits are recognized by his employer and promoted to captain of his ship at a very early age. He is also betrothed to the beautiful but poor orphan Mercedes.

On the eve of their wedding in his hometown of Marseilles, the apolitical Dantes is framed as being a Bonapartist conspirator by Mercedes' cousin Mondego, who is Dantes' rival for her affections, and Danglars, Dantes' second-in-command of the ship, who is jealous of his promotion over him. These two send an anonymous letter implicating Dantes to the ambitious local magistrate Villefort. The 'evidence' against Dantes also implicates Villefort's father so, in order to protect himself and further his own career, Villefort summarily consigns Dantes without even a trial to solitary confinement in the prison dungeon at the Chateau d'If. (When reading this I thought of places like Guantanamo and the treatment of Bradley Manning. It is depressing how little has changed.)

The bewildered Dantes has no idea why he is being treated this way and becomes increasingly despondent and bitter as the days in his damp and dark dungeon stretch into months and years. After eight years he makes contact with Abbe Faria, a highly educated monk, who is in another dungeon cell and whose attempts to tunnel out take him by mistake to Dantes's cell. They become friends and for the next six years they try to tunnel out together while the Abbe tutors him so that he receives a much better education than what even a nobleman would receive. More crucially, the Abbe is able to figure out and tell the naïve Dantes who the people are who are responsible for his plight and their motives.

But then the old Abbe dies but before he does so reveals to Dantes the location of a great fortune that has been hidden on the rocky island of Monte Cristo in the Mediterranean. Dantes uses the Abbe's death to carry out a daring escape and find the treasure and becomes an extraordinarily wealthy man. He creates a luxurious home on the island and acquires the title of the Count of Monte Cristo.

In the intervening years all three of Dantes's enemies had prospered and moved to Paris. Mondego had married Mercedes and become a count, Danglars had become a wealthy banker, and Villefort had risen to the post of the king's attorney. All of them moved in the same high social circles.

Dantes, as the Count of Monte Cristo, decides to use his newfound wealth and power to plot revenge on his enemies. He also moves to Paris and his great wealth and personal magnetism take the city's elites by storm. Physically changed by the harshness of his long captivity, this mysterious newcomer is not recognized by his enemies. Only Mercedes recognizes him but does not reveal her knowledge even to Dantes.

The playing out of his plan constitutes the major part of the book. The book is a great read in the old-fashioned storytelling sense and is a page-turner. As soon as you encounter them, you know if a character is good or bad so one has no doubt about whom to root for. The plot is Dickensian in that it is full of surprises and consists of different story threads that intertwine. There are many improbable coincidences and characters who briefly appear early on suddenly reappear later, and relationships suddenly emerge between characters whom one thought were unrelated.

Such a complicated plot has to necessarily be trimmed to become a film. A lot of characters and sub-plots and story threads are eliminated, several characters are combined into one, and some relationships are altered. There have been many film adaptations, two of them in English. The 1934 version, which I saw after reading the book, is praised as being the most faithful adaptation but even there they take what seem to me to be unnecessary liberties. I did not see, but did read the plot of, the 2002 remake and they seem to have changed the story even more. You can see the entire 1934 film on YouTube, part 1 of which is below.

In making these adaptations, the film loses much of the richness and complexity of the book. What bothers me are those changes that are made not to simplify the complicated story (which I can sympathize with) but also to eliminate some of the darker elements of the book and to replace the book's bittersweet ending with a more formulaic one. Part of the book's message that is lost in the film version is that some injustices cannot be avenged, some things are irretrievably lost, some things cannot be made whole, and that Dantes's' single minded focus on revenge and his remorseless quest to destroy his enemies can result in incidental cruelty to others.

I can't think of when I have seen a film adaption of a great book that was as good as the book. The closest that comes to mind is David Lean's 1946 version of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations with those two wonderful actors John Mills and Alec Guinness.

Maybe I should just stop comparing them.

December 01, 2010

Paperback writer

My book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has now been released in paperback.

October 04, 2010

Book review: Quicksand by Geoffrey Wawro

The title of this book is taken from a quote by British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey at the dawn of the twentieth century who said that "The Arab question is a regular quicksand" and that, along with the subtitle America's pursuit of power in the Middle East, tells you pretty much what this new book is about. In its 610 pages, Wawro, a professor of military history at the University of North Texas, tries to provide a comprehensive overview of that region, with its complex interplay of tribal and religious conflicts, overlaid with superpower geopolitical meddling because of its oil and other strategic values.

The period covered by the book starts at the end of World War I and the declaration by the then British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour that seemed to promise a "Jewish national home" in what was then Turkish Palestine. That set in motion a complex train of events involving many countries that Wawro tries to weave together into a comprehensive and yet coherent story. He goes into great detail on some aspects and necessarily glosses over others but in the process provides a useful single reference work for those trying to understand what is going on the region.

The first half of the book takes us up to around 1970 and devotes entire chapters to the history of Egypt and Nasser, the Suez crisis, Iran, the creation of Israel, the emergence of oil as valuable energy source and a political weapon, and the Six Day war, leading up to the Nixon era and the 'Nixon Doctrine'. The second half takes us right up to the present and has chapters on the first Gulf war, the history of Iraq and the rise of Saddam Hussein as a US protégé and ally, the rise of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the second Gulf war against Iraq. Interweaving through all this is Israel's role in the region and its relationship to the US.

The book is, frankly, depressing. One sees the same meddling being done over and over again by the great powers in the region, first Britain, then Russia, and finally the US; one sees feckless rulers of Arab countries imposing authoritarian rule and harsh conditions on their people even as they live in luxury. The worst hit are the Palestinian and Afghan people, whose conditions and prospects steadily worsen over time as they are used as pawns serving other people's agendas.

A central feature of the book is the cynical and cruel policies of Israel as it constantly seeks to expand its territory by force and then drive out the indigenous Palestinian people using terror, oppression, and coercion, a process that continues to this day with its deliberate building of settlements in the occupied territories even as it keeps stalling on negotiations. From the time of President Truman onwards, Israel used its lobbying power in the US to get vast amounts of military and civilian aid and thwart any attempt at establishing a viable Palestinian state. The book documents the amazement of Israeli leaders at how easy it is to get US presidents and other US leaders to take actions that are in the interests of Israel and not that of the US. Even recently, Israeli prime minister Netanyahu was caught on tape saying with contempt how easy it is to manipulate US policy and that repression of Palestinians is a deliberate policy of Israel. Even he thinks that the kind of support Israel receives in the US is 'absurd'.

Netanyahu is quoted as saying:

In the film, Mr Netanyahu says Israel must inflict "blows [on the Palestinians] that are so painful the price will be too heavy to be borne … A broad attack on the Palestinian Authority, to bring them to the point of being afraid that everything is collapsing".

When asked if the US will object, he responds: "America is something that can be easily moved. Moved to the right direction … They won't get in our way … Eighty per cent of the Americans support us. It's absurd."



Just this week Netanyahu let the moratorium on settlement building in the occupied territories expire, a direct slap in the face of president Obama and Hillary Clinton who had asked for a continuation, and all they could say in response was to give a limp statement that they were 'disappointed'. Of course, the entire 'peace process' is a façade designed to stall for time while Israel continues to steadily annex Palestinian lands.

The fact that Netanyahu's brazen contempt for the US government and its people made hardly a ripple in the news here is indicative of the protection Israel receives in the US because of the Israel lobby. For more details on who makes up the Israel lobby and how they operate, the book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt constitutes essential reading. I wrote a review of this book some time ago: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

The long-standing and cynical exploitation of the Afghan people is another crime of colossal proportions. The US, smarting from its defeat in Vietnam in 1975, helped lure the Soviet Union into Afghanistan in order to bog them down in their own unwinnable war in a country that is notorious for destroying its enemies and invaders by attrition. If any country deserves to be labeled as 'quicksand' it is Afghanistan. The USSR took the bait and in 1979, like the US in 2001, invaded the country and imposed a puppet government that in addition to serving the superpower's geostrategic goals, sought to at least partially modernize the country by reducing the influence of religion and introducing some reforms and advancing secular and modern ways of thinking such equal rights for women, more freedom of the press, etc.

But the USSR soon became found itself waging a guerrilla war in which they were confronted by the nationalist mujahadeens and the Taliban, al Qaeda, other religious groups, and assorted warlords and murderous thugs, all of whom were heavily supported by the US who provided them with money and sophisticated weaponry and expertise. When the USSR realized that Afghanistan was a hopeless cause and they had to leave, it tried to warn the US that it had created a monster in that country that would later turn against its patrons. Wawro writes that Gorbachev offered to make a deal with the US in which USSR would leave Afghanistan but together with the US they would try to put in place a government that would retain at least some of the reforms and not be a threat to the West. But the US was more interested in having the USSR humiliated and ignored the offer. The end result was an Afghanistan that ended up being ruled by the Taliban who provided a refuge for bin Laden and al Qaeda. We all know where that led.

Political cartoonist Ted Rall, just back from a visit to Afghanistan, says that there have been some definite improvements in that country since the US invasion of 2001, just as there was when the Soviets were there. (Rall's cartoon log of his trip can be seen here in slideshow format as well.) Despite the staggering corruption of the US-backed Karzai government, there are more schools, clinics, and medical services, better roads and communications, some relaxing of restrictions on speech and the press, and more freedoms for women. But what will happen when the US leaves? The history of that country, especially the example of Taliban rule after the USSR left, does not encourage optimism. It will likely revert to a period of ghastly repression because the Taliban now is even worse than the Taliban then.

Quicksand is well written and an easy read, despite its length. As I said before, it is a good reference book to have for a comprehensive summary of the history of a region that is the source of much of the world's conflicts. It is also a chronicle of the cynicism and duplicity of political leaders willing to sacrifice the lives of vast numbers of real people for short-term political gain and to enrich the pockets of the few.

September 30, 2010

Book review: The Grand Design (Part 4 of 4: Religious implications)

In part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this review, I reviewed the physics in the book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. In this last part I want to look at the book's implications for religion.

The book seeks to address three questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? These are, of course, big questions. Many people will recognize these questions as those on which sophisticated religious apologists have pinned their hopes as being the last remaining mysteries which science cannot answer and for which god is the only answer. What the book argues is that this hope, like similar hopes before it, has been dashed, and that what is called M-theory and the no boundary condition have eliminated any need for god.

It is important to realize that M-theory was not invented in order to eliminate god from the universe, any more than Darwin and Wallace's theory of natural selection was deliberately created to eliminate god from the creation of species. Questions of god's existence play no part in the normal workings of scientists. Despite what some religious people think, scientists do not spend their time trying to find ways to make religious people sad. Scientific theories rise and fall on the basis of how good they are in relation to empirical evidence and data, and their implications for theology are at best an incidental by-product or afterthought. As Hawking says, the "multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine-tuning. It is a consequence of the no-boundary condition as well as many other theories of modern cosmology." (p. 164)

In his books, Hawking refers to god a lot. I suspect that this is partly a publicity ploy. He knows how to market himself by pushing people's buttons and whenever an eminent scientist talks of god, people listen and buy their books. The very last sentence of his A Brief History of Time was, "If we find the answer to [why it is that we and the universe exist], it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God." This sentence has been widely quoted and led to hope among religious people that the world's most famous living scientist was religious, though those who know him said that he was not a believer and that his use of the word god is in the same sense as Einstein used it, as a label for the laws of nature, not in any sense the way that religious people use the term as some kind of entity that actually exists and can do things. In reading that earlier book, it was not clear to me whether he believed in the existence of a god-like entity or not. I got the sense that he was using the word god in both real and metaphorical senses but tellingly, God was not listed in the index, the way that other people mentioned in the book were.

What his latest book does is definitely eliminate any hope that Hawking believes in god. As the authors say, "Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is a God who chose to create the universe that way… We claim, however, that it is possible to answer these questions purely within the realm of science, and without invoking any divine beings." (p. 172) This probably explains why this time around, religious dignitaries have been quick to dismiss him. Woo master Deepak Chopra, who has made a career out of mixing quantum physics with religious ideas to create a ghastly mess of confusion that religious people like because they think that god is hidden somewhere in his fog of words, is of course disappointed with Hawking's conclusion.

Cosmologist Sean Carroll has a nice three-minute video that I've shown before that summarizes some of the points made in this review.

Of course, theologians and philosophers will rightly claim that Hawking has not proved that god does not exist. But that is a cheap point since science can never prove the non-existence of anything, whether it be god or Santa Claus or unicorns. What science has shown (even before Hawkng's book) is that god is an unnecessary concept. As Steven Weinberg says, "One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious."

I would actually put it in a shorter and stronger form than Weinberg. Science can never prove that there is no god but it has shown that there is no need for god. Disbelief in god is far more intellectually coherent than belief and thus should be the natural choice for any thinking person.

Although I said that there would be only four parts to the review, I have some final thoughts on the book and Hawking's views that I will add as a coda tomorrow.

September 29, 2010

Book review: The Grand Design (Part 3 of 4: The background physics)

In part 1 of this review I discussed the main issues raised by the book and in part 2 I said that the book by Hawking and Mlodinow argued that M-theory and the no boundary condition can provide answers to the three big questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?

To understand what lies at the basis of M-theory, we need to appreciate a key difference between classical physics (which describes the large-scale structure of the everyday world we live in and from which we draw our intuitions about how the world works) and quantum mechanics (which describes the microscopic atomic and subatomic world).

What classical physics says is that if we release an object at some point A, it will subsequently wander off on some trajectory (or path) that depends on its initial state of motion and the forces that act on it. This is what enables good football quarterbacks to throw passes to receivers with such accuracy. If the ball is poorly thrown on a windy day and/or we stop observing the ball, we may not know or be able to predict which path the ball will take or where it will land but our classical intuition tells us that it will go along some specific path that is determined by the initial throw and the wind conditions.

But quantum mechanics has this counter-intuitive idea that once we stop observing the object, the object takes every conceivable path simultaneously. This means that there is no unique location for the object at any given time, that it is everywhere at the same time and could eventually end up anywhere at all. Another way to say it is that an object has many different histories. This is what boggles most people's (including scientists') minds about quantum theory but we have to learn to live and work with it (i.e., develop 'quantum intuition', so to speak) because this theory is phenomenally successful and there seems to be no getting around it at this time. Some people are working on developing alternative theories that do not have its strange features but have not had much success so far.

Now if we detect the object at some later time to be at some point B, this eliminates some of the potential paths we started with because they would not have resulted in the object ending up where we detected it. So the act of detection picks out a subset of the initial set of possible histories, limiting the ones of interest to those that began at point A at the specified time and ended at B at the later time, which still includes an infinite number of paths or histories. An elaborate mathematical machinery (called the 'sum over histories' or more technically 'path integrals') has been created to add up all the possible paths the particle could have taken in going from A to B. The calculated results correctly predict the empirical observations, which is why scientists have confidence in quantum theory despite its counter-intuitive features.

What M-theory does is take this key idea of quantum mechanics and apply the 'sum over histories' approach to the universe as a whole. Building on the idea of the inflationary universe (see part 9 and part 13 of my series Big Bang for Beginners for more details), since the net energy of the universe is zero, there is no restriction on the number of new universes that can 'pinch' off from previously existing universes. Since the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that you can never have truly empty and inert space (p. 113) but that space constantly has particles coming into existence and disappearing again, any one of those fluctuations in space could form the seed of a quantum fluctuation that triggers the birth of a new universe.

So universes are being created all the time and there are a vast number of possible histories of the universe, of the order of 10500. They each have their own forms of matter and their own laws. According to the 'sum over histories' in quantum mechanics, all these universes exist simultaneously, giving rise to the name 'multiverse theory'. When we observe our universe, we are picking out just those histories that could produce the present state we see. As Hawking and Mlodinow state:

Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history. (p. 82)

We seem to be at a critical point in the history of science, in which we must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers, and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature are not determined by logic or physical principle. The parameters are free to take on many values and the laws to take on any form that leads to a self-consistent mathematical theory, and they do take on different values and forms in different universes. (p. 143)

Given the staggeringly large number of possible histories, it was almost inevitable that one of those universes would have the properties that ours has. It is like rain. If you pick a point on the ground, the probability of it being hit by a raindrop is infinitesimally small. But in a rainstorm, there is such a huge number of drops that it is inevitable that at least one will hit the ground there.

Hawking and Mlodinow's book does not shy away from making strong claims, such as that the theory they describe has to be the right one. "M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe… M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find." (p. 181, emphasis in original.)

That seems hubristic to me. If the history of science teaches us anything it is that theories, however successful at any given time, tend to be later replaced by other theories as the questions that need to be addressed change. However obviously important they may seem, is usually a mistake to think that the questions that concern us now will be the same questions that future generations care about. Also the theory of supersymmetry, which is central to M-theory though not necessarily to the idea of multiverses, has been around since 1970 or so, with none of the exotic partner particles it predicts having been detected as yet. The theory's supporters are pinning their hopes on the Large Hadron Collider that has just started operations, hoping that its energies will be sufficient to produce these particles.

In the last part of this review, I will look at the implications of M-theory for religion and give some of my reactions to other features of the book.

September 28, 2010

Book review: The Grand Design (Part 2 of 4: The basic ideas)

In part 1 of this review, I argued that the lack of a unified theory of gravity and quantum mechanics is what has stymied scientists in their attempt to understand the origins of our universe and even what came 'before', assuming that the question even makes sense. M-theory and the no boundary condition is what Hawking proposes as the candidate for a unified theory that can address the physics of the early universe.

M-theory is not an elegant theory expressed in a single equation (like Newton's law of gravity) or even a few equations (like Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism) but instead consists of a patchwork of theories, each with its domain of application, and overlapping with other theories so that the whole space of nature is covered. Hawking argues that this patchwork feature may not be due to our lack of imagination or inventiveness but intrinsic to the nature of the laws of science.

It is like the way we create accurate but flat maps of the Earth's surface. Because the Earth's surface is curved, no single flat map can ever do the entire job for us. Instead we are forced to take small portions of the globe and map each region separately. As long as the boundaries match up correctly, we effectively have a global flat map, although such a collection is not as elegant as having a single flat map. The versions of M-theory in each domain are referred to as 'effective' theories and are supposedly as real as those theories can get.

One big problem with dealing with the origins of the universe is how to deal with the so-called 'singularity' problem, in which the gravitational fields are so large due to the compression of the universe into a tiny space that space becomes so warped that the laws of physics we have (which were designed for flat spaces) break down. Hawking suggests that there is a way to overcome this hurdle, which he calls the 'no boundary' condition. He says that, "once we add the effects of quantum theory to the theory or relativity, in extreme cases warpage can occur to such a great extent that time behaves like another dimension of space." (p. 134) This is because of a technical maneuver in which time is treated as an imaginary quantity. ('Imaginary' in the scientific sense has a very precise mathematical meaning and does not have the everyday meaning of existing only in one's head.) "The realization that time behaves like space… removes the age-old objection to the universe having a beginning, but also means that that the beginning of the universe was governed by the laws of science and doesn't need to be set in motion by some god." (p. 135) (In chapter 8 of his earlier book A Brief History of Time Hawking describes the no boundary proposal in more detail and says that its predictions have been borne out.)

The amalgamation of M-theory with the no boundary condition is the central feature of Hawking's argument.

M-theory itself is a combination of string theory (in which elementary particles are assumed to be not point-like but like bits of vibrating string, either open or closed in loops) and supergravity (which itself is a combination of the theory of gravity and a theory of particle physics known as supersymmetry, one feature of which is that every particle we are familiar with has to have a partner particle with specific properties.)

M-theory requires eleven space-time dimensions. We cannot directly determine (at least as yet) the form of the laws of science in the eleven-dimensional space. Since we appear to exist in four space-time dimensions (three space and one time), the absence of those other dimensions need to be explained. The unobservable seven dimensions are assumed to be curled up to be so tiny that we cannot detect them at the present time with our present technology, giving us the illusion that we live in just four dimensions. The way the seven extra dimensions curl up is not uniquely determined and how they do so determines the nature of the laws we perceive in our reduced four-dimensional space. The number of ways in which they can be curled up, and hence the resulting number of potential universes each with its own laws and matter and parameters, can be as high as 10500! This is a staggeringly high number that is hard to even wrap our minds around but, as I will discuss in the next part of this review, it plays an important role in answering the questions raised in the book.

September 27, 2010

Book review: The Grand Design (Part 1 of 4: The nature of the problem)

This new book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow has generated some publicity and so I thought I'd check it out. The first part of my review will explain the basic questions that are being addressed by the book, the second will describe the physics behind the solutions that the authors propose, the third part will provide some of the more basic physics background that lies behind those ideas, and the last part will discuss the religious implications of the book, which have received the most attention, and some of my own reactions.

I should warn readers that cosmology and general relativity are not my fields of study, although I am a theoretical physicist and thus familiar with the basic theories of modern physics. So my knowledge of the book's subject matter is likely to be not that much greater than that of an informed layperson. If you want a really authoritative reaction, you will need to ask your friendly neighborhood cosmologist or read reviews by them such as the one by Sean Carroll in the Wall Street Journal.

The book seeks to address three questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? These are, of course, big questions that have long been the province of philosophers and theologians. But modern science has wrestled such questions away from them and made them into empirical questions to be addressed the same way that science addresses any questions about the physical world, making purely philosophical and theological speculations about them superfluous. Needless to say, philosophers and theologians are not happy about this development and are trying to assert that they still have a contribution to make and it is this that largely constitutes the modern science-religion debate.

To begin, we live in a universe that has three space dimensions and one time dimension, which we think of as distinct from the space dimensions. We are comfortable with the idea that there is no 'beginning' to space but with the conventional big bang theory there is the sense that there is a beginning to time, which naturally raises the question of what existed before that time or what triggered the start of the universe.

One answer could well be that the universe began as a quantum fluctuation and that there was no such thing as time before the universe began. The laws of science came into being with the universe and there is no mystery of why they happened to be such as to produce life like ours because if they hadn't been, we would not be here to ponder such questions. The laws had to take some form and the very fact of our existence means that that laws happened to be such as to produce us. Such as answer is sufficient for many people.

But the authors seek answers that go beyond that, hence the book.

At present, our understanding of the physical world is spanned by theories of gravity, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear forces, each successfully working in a specific domain of application. There has been some success in straddling the boundaries of the domains, especially those areas in which quantum mechanics, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces overlap.

Gravity has been the tough nut, the outlier, resisting strongly all attempts at combining it with other theories, and its unification with quantum mechanics has been the major challenge. Gravity is important in dealing with massive objects like planets, stars, and galaxies, while quantum mechanics deals with the very small. We use the theories of gravity to explain the large-scale structure of the universe and quantum mechanics to explain the sub-atomic world. For most things, the two domains do not overlap. But the unification of gravity and quantum mechanics becomes important in dealing with cosmological questions because when we speak of the beginning of the universe, we are talking about the entire universe being compressed into a tiny region of space and so we need a theory that combines the two domains if we are to make sense of that early state.

The main difficulty that has stumped scientists for so long is that space and time are not distinct but are intertwined due to the warping of space by gravity. At low speeds and in the presence of weak gravitational fields, the mixing is so slight as to be not noticeable which is why we perceive them as independent. The highly successful theory of quantum mechanics was developed for use in space that is 'flat', i.e., not warped by gravitational effects. But when we are dealing with the origins of the universe at very early times, the density of matter is extremely high. Consequently the gravitational fields are so large and the warping of space so great that the laws of physics, which were developed for use in flat spaces, appear to break down, depriving us of the only tools we have to study the world. As a result, we could not say what happened at times very close to zero or before. This has been a big barrier to progress.

The search for a quantum theory of gravity was the search for a theory that would work even under conditions of the extreme curvature of space that constituted the beginning of our universe. The original hope of Einstein and his successors in the search for such a unified theory was that it would be simple and elegant. But many have failed in this search and that goal has proved to be frustratingly elusive.

This book outlines a solution to this problem that is currently in vogue among cosmologists. It is based on what is known as M-theory and the 'no boundary' condition. The book lays this out in chapter 5, which is the heart of the book. (No one seems to know who coined the name M-theory or even what M stands for. I suspect that it was tossed out casually at a physics conference and became adopted by word of mouth.)

Next: M-theory and the no boundary condition.

September 16, 2010

Book review: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

This book is the story of Lenny, the 39-year old son on Russian Jewish immigrants to the US, who falls in love with Eunice, the 24-year old daughter of Korean Christian immigrants, though neither of them are religious. On one level this is the familiar story of cross-cultural tensions: between parents brought up in the traditional cultures of their country of origin and their children who have grown up in the US, and the difficulty for Lenny and Eunice to overcome the cultural baggage of different immigrant backgrounds and ages. (Fresh Air recently had an interview with Shteyngart which is where I heard about the book and was interested enough to read it.)

What fascinated me about the book is the background in which this relationship takes place. The time is a decade or two in the future and the state of the US that Shteyngart describes is what I have been gloomily predicting in my political analyses here. What he has done is take the trends that I have been writing about and extrapolated them to the extreme, resulting in a dystopian vision of what to expect if the US does not change course. In fact, the similarities between his vision and mine were so startling that this could have been a novel that I authored if I knew how to write a novel. In a way, this is a weakness of the author's imagination. He simply extrapolated all the current trends much as I might have done. There was no inspired bit of futurism of the kind that one finds in (say) Kurt Vonnegut's books, like the latter's invention of the concept of ice-nine in Cat's Cradle.

What the book portrays is an America that has collapsed from within. The manufacturing sector has disappeared and all that remains is the credit and retail shopping economy. The country is split between a small group of rich (referred to as High Net Worth Individuals) and many poor (Low Net Worth Individuals), some of the latter living in tent cities in public parks. The country is a one-party state ruled by a corrupt Bipartisan Party that monitors people closely, with checkpoints at all the major intersections with armed security personnel who check your identity and look for any warning signs of deviant behavior.

The immigrants who fled poverty and oppressive governments to come to the US as the land of opportunity decades ago now find that the US has the same kind of poverty and oppressive government they thought they had left behind, while their former home countries are prosperous and much freer. As a result, the more successful immigrants have abandoned the US and gone back to their home countries.

The dollar has sunk to such low values that it is no longer the reserve currency of the world and has been replaced by the Chinese yuan. The Europeans have also decoupled their economies from the US, seeing it as a basket case spiraling into oblivion. The most powerful person in the world is the governor of the Chinese Central Bank. China, Korea, Arab Middle East countries, Western Europe, and other nations are rich and powerful and modern, while the US is decaying everywhere, with crumbling roads and infrastructure and rotten public services, and police, National Guard and other protective services privatized to security contractors.

The US has declined so much that it can no longer win its wars and its latest conflict (with Venezuela) is going badly, with troops returning home injured and finding that there is no health care or jobs for them and becoming homeless.

Privacy has disappeared. The intimate details of everyone's personal life, down to one's income, credit rating, and even medical history can be retrieved by anyone on an iPhone-like device called an apparat that everyone carries around with them and is constantly looking at and communicating with as it streams information at them. People are obsessed with the trivial, such as shopping and monitoring the details of other people's lives and rating themselves and each other constantly using their devices. For example, in addition to giving others your personal history including the most intimate details, the devices can immediately rate your attractiveness, informing everyone nearby both your absolute score as well as your ranking in a room full of people, which is not good for the balding, paunchy Lenny who usually finds himself near the bottom in any group while Eunice is near the top.

Programming on the apparat is provided by ordinary people (like today's video bloggers) who go around showing what they see live and providing running commentary, and the only major content providers are variants of Fox News, with station names like FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra. Newspaper reporters have ceased to exist. Books are no longer published.

This book has been described as a black comedy. Shteyngart does a good job of trying to interweave the personal story of two people with the broader political message. I found the latter aspect more interesting but the book was an enjoyable read. I probably would have found the book funnier if it seemed like a total fantasy and did not so accurately reinforce my own sense of foreboding about where the US is headed.

I have expressed before my puzzlement that the general public does not share my sense of alarm at the seriously wrong direction in which the US is headed. Most Americans seem to be complacent that everything is just fine and that AMERICA IS AND ALWAYS WILL BE THE GREATEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN CHOSEN BY GOD TO BE HIS SPECIAL NATION, even as their oligarchy pursues policies that are driving it into the ditch. Coming across this book was a relief in a way, to find that someone else shared my sense of concern and that I am not totally nuts. Shteyngart is, like me, an immigrant, the child of Russian Jews who came to the US when he was seven. It made me wonder if there was something about being an immigrant that makes us look more globally and long term, and be more alert to dangerous political trends.

August 16, 2010

Book review: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

This is an extraordinary book about one family's experience with Hurricane Katrina.

As long time readers of this blog may recall, I was furious at the way that the poor people of New Orleans were treated like scum during and after Katrina (see my earlier posts here, here, here, here, here, and here), so much so that I couldn't bear the thought of reading another story about it.

But Zeitoun is on the short list of ten books that are competing to be selected as the choice for my university's common reading program for next year. Since I am on the selection committee, I feel obliged to read all of them. Once I started it, however, I could barely put it down, it is so well-written. It is written in a documentary style, using language that is spare and understated, yet extraordinarily compelling.

Dave Eggers tells the true story through the eyes of a devout Muslim couple in New Orleans caught up in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina. The husband Abdulrahman Zeitoun (known to everyone by just his last name which is pronounced 'zay-toon') was born in Syria but is now a long-time resident of the US. He is the co-owner with his American-born wife Kathy (who had converted to Islam before she met him) of a prosperous construction and renovation business,

After evacuating his wife and their four children to Baton Rouge at the last minute before the hurricane struck, Zeitoun stays behind to look after his own house and the rental properties he owns and those of his friends and neighbors. Using a canoe that he had bought earlier on a whim and which now turns out to be invaluable, he rows around the silent and submerged parts of the city and in the process discovers stranded people and animals and starts helping them out. By indiscriminately helping anyone in need he comes across, this generous and tireless man enters a calm and exalted state and begins to think that god has a plan for him and had placed him in that awful situation to be a good Samaritan to the people and animals in his adopted city and nation.

But then suddenly everything turns upside down. He and others are arrested by security forces who ignore their claims that they were on their own property and, in what can truly be described by the term Kafkaesque, he finds himself held for weeks in makeshift prisons under appalling conditions with cruel guards and indifferent officials, not allowed even a single phone call to his lawyer or to his frantic wife and family.

Zeitoun is a profoundly disturbing book. In a graphic demonstration of what the government's real priorities are, it contrasts the ruthless efficiency with which the government and its security forces rounded up ordinary people and treated them like dirt, with the appalling inefficiency and incompetence it displayed when dealing with the real humanitarian needs of people facing implacable forces of nature. It is a gripping account of what it is like when all the protections we take for granted are thrown out of the window in the name of security aided by xenophobia, and the dangers that arise when security forces are trained to ignore normal human feelings and treat people as enemies. If the US security forces can treat ordinary American citizens in America this way, one can only imagine how they treat their perceived enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book shows the creeping power of the national security state and the danger of allowing governments the right to think that they can disregard constitutional protections and the basic human rights of people. We tend to think of the armed services of a country as being there to defend the country from external enemies, or even on occasion to attack other countries. This is how these extremely expensive institutions are sold to the public. But we must never forget that another purpose of a nation's military is to enable the government to control its own people when it wants to, and in order to do that the soldiers must be trained so that if anyone, even members of their own local community and nation, is identified as a potential enemy, all human feeling is ignored and that person is treated like garbage. The fact that soldiers can be trained to be like that is a testament to how far we have gone along the road to becoming a national security state.

What happened in New Orleans during Katrina was compounded by the fact that the police in that city has long had a reputation of being highly corrupt and racist, preying on poor and black people, so that the police was seen by them as the enemy. Finally in July 2010, six police officers were charged with shooting people without cause during Katrina. The June 2010 issue of Z Magazine (not available online) has an article by Darwin Bond-Graham that gives the results of a long investigation into their practices. Titled The New Orleans Police Department's Culture of Corruption and Repression, it gives the sordid details of how they and the local power elite operated with impunity. Fresh Air had an interview with one of the reporters who investigated the murders and which led to indictments against sixteen police officers for shooting, murder, and cover-ups.

Even though Zeitoun himself was a hard-working and prosperous businessman, whenever he and his wife had any encounter with the police such as a routine traffic stop, she would insist on doing the talking, hoping that her white skin and local accent would enable them to avoid trouble.

Zeitoun is not just the story of what happened to one family because of a hurricane. It is also a grim reminder of the dangers of creating a national security state, driven by fear and paranoia, in which people sacrifice the rule of law for a spurious sense of security. What happened in New Orleans occurred under the Bush-Cheney regime which sought the elimination of all the major constitutional provisions that safeguard our rights to due process.

I would liked to have said that Barack Obama has reversed these policies. But although expressing vehement opposition to the Bush-Cheney policies when campaigning for president, he immediately reversed course upon his election and has taken those draconian measures even further. While he has admirably spoken out against the xenophobia that is at the base of the ridiculous opposition to the proposed new Islamic Center called Cordoba House in New York City, he has not taken any steps to dismantle the national security state he inherited, and has in fact expanded its reach.

POST SCRIPT: FBI investigates peace activist

A mother of five children, a registered nurse, who happened to attend a demonstration in support of Palestinian rights, gets a visit from the FBI. She shows remarkable calmness and presence of mind by videotaping the encounter, which you can see by clicking on the link

Just in case you should ever be visited by the FBI for whatever reason, here are some guidelines that outlines your rights.

Do you think that you are safe from FBI harassment because you are a law-abiding citizen? The fact is that the modern state has all manner of vague and obscure statutes that all of us unwittingly break. Susie Madrak at the website Crooks and Liars describes one such case where a US Senator invoked such a law to harass someone who merely wrote him an angry email. Madrak also mentions the book Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent by civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate who says that the average person now commits roughly three felonies a day without even knowing it. So if the government does not like you for any reason, they can always try and nail you for violating some law that you did not even know existed. Silverglate argues that this is now possible because the long-standing practice of prosecutors needing to show intent to commit the crime is vanishing.

October 21, 2009

Book review-2: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the previous post about Dawkins's book, I talked about almost all the kinds of evidence that Dawkins presents for evolution, except for the fossils.

But what about fossils? He talks about that evidence too but repeatedly points out that the case for evolution would be iron-clad even if there were no fossils at all. The fact that fossil evidence exists, and keeps accumulating thick and fast in recent years, is simply a bonus. Remember that when Charles Darwin developed his theory, there was hardly any fossil evidence to speak of, except for those that had been sufficient to persuade the geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875) to conclude that the Earth was at least hundreds of millions of years old, much older than the 6,000 years or so that was currently believed, even though he himself at that stage believed in special creation and thought that species remained unchanged.

So why do creationists keep focusing on the fossil record and keep saying things like "Where are the transitional fossils?" or more crudely "What about the missing links?" Some of them (yes, I am looking at you, Crocoduck) are either woefully ignorant of what the phrase 'transitional fossil' means or are taking advantage of the ignorance of their audience. Others who are a little more sophisticated do this because they know that the conditions for successful fossilization rarely occur, and since we are talking of a fossil record over hundreds of millions of years, there are bound to be periods for which we have no fossils along any branch of the evolutionary tree. But we keep finding new fossils and the intervals over which there are no fossils keep getting smaller.

Some evolution deniers exploit a feature of the Linnaean classification system of biology that divides living things into discrete categories and requires one to place a newly discovered fossil into a specific category. But evolution is a smoothly transitioning system and it is inevitable that some decisions as to where to place an item are going to be arbitrary. As Dawkins says, it is like the definition of an adult. The law might classify you as an adult on your eighteenth birthday but were you significantly different the day before? As one moves from (say) fifteen to twenty one, one makes the transition to adulthood but one cannot pinpoint exactly when it occurs. There are some people younger than eighteen who are very mature and there are people over that age who are quite immature. But the system requires us to fix who is an adult and who is not and put each person into one or other category. So people who really are in a transitional stage will be classified as either adult or non-adult, and the system of classification by itself eliminates any identification of transitional stages.

The classification system of biology similarly eliminates the labeling of transitional forms. One sign that a fossil is an intermediate between two species is when paleontologists strongly argue about the category in which it should be placed. But once that argument ends, and the fossil placed in one or other category, it does not mean it is no longer transitional. It simply means that it has been pigeonholed for convenience.

Dawkins points out that further evidence for evolution comes from the relatedness of the body patterns of living things that indicate that we had common ancestors. The closer the details of the plans, the more recent the common ancestor.

Furthermore, the way that our bodies are presently constructed reveals our evolutionary history. There are so many aspects of our bodies that are inefficient or wasteful and cannot be made sense of in terms of good design. But they can be understood when we look at the body plans of our primitive ancestors and see how the inefficient aspects of current species were the result of slow adaptations to changes in other parts of our bodies.

He provides a good analogy to illustrate the difference between how a god-like designer and natural selection work. An aircraft engineer (representing a god-like designer) can ignore much of what came before and design a jet engine from scratch using the principles of aerodynamics, and optimize its workings using current technology. But what if the designer were constrained (like natural selection is) to start with a propeller engine and had to make changes using only what was readily available at hand and each change had to be tiny and also provide at least a slight improvement in performance? He would still end up with a better aircraft engine but it would a patchwork mess, nowhere close to the sleek modern jet. Our body plans reveal the patchwork model of natural selection and not the planning of a god-like designer.

Will Dawkins persuade more people to realize that evolution by natural selection is the way to go and that the god hypothesis is unnecessary? Yes, but it will not be easy and not many will change their views directly. As Hugh Laurie says in one episode of House: "Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people." That might be an overly pessimistic view of the power of reason but I think it is largely true. But the secondary effect of the book, enabling many more people to make the arguments that only a few specialists like Dawkins makes, is what is important.

This is why we need to speak out for science and against religion and show that religious beliefs are in opposition to rational thought. We need to allow people's inner rationality, which we all possess and use in almost all aspects of our lives, to break free of the smothering effects of religion. Once people realize the need to apply rational thought to even their religious beliefs, then there is hope.

POST SCRIPT: Media coverage of atheism

NPR has a report on the new atheists and the accommodationists.

October 20, 2009

Book review-1: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I just finished the latest book by Richard Dawkins where he makes the case for evolution. One might think that this is what almost all his other evolution books have been about too but as he says in the introduction, in his previous books he was tacitly assuming that people accepted the basic idea of evolution. He was just explaining in more detail how it worked.

His goal in the current book is to persuade the reader that evolution is an undeniable fact by marshalling all the evidence and logic that has persuaded almost all scientists that it is true. Will he persuade those who disbelieve in evolution? That is unlikely to occur directly because the real disbelievers in evolution are too locked in their religious worldview to even read a book by a noted atheist. Even the few religious apologists and theologians who will read the book in order to try and counter its arguments are unlikely to change their views because their denial of evolution and the theory of natural selection has no rational basis. As Jonathan Swift said, "You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place."

But Swift may have been too gloomy in his assessment. If what he said were strictly true, then there would be hardly any atheists at all since almost all of us were likely raised in religious households and simply accepted religious beliefs the way we accepted Santa Claus and other fairy tales told to us by the adults in our lives. And yet unbelievers are a rapidly growing group. But in Swift's time (1667-1745), the arguments against god and religion were not nearly as strong as they are now and there were not nearly as many open atheists actively promoting disbelief, due to various blasphemy laws that protected religion from the arguments of apostates. We are truly living in a much more hopeful time.

The religious readers who may be persuaded by Dawkins's book are those who already realize that creationism is a weak explanation of life and are looking for something better. Others who may be persuaded are those religious people who have had some kind of epiphany that has made them realize that the god hypothesis is implausible and are now looking for a satisfactory worldview that can replace their former belief structure.

But the people for whom TGSOE will prove to be most valuable are readers like me, who are not specialists in evolutionary biology but have heard and read enough to realize that it is a powerful theory and that intelligent design and other forms of creationism are laughably inadequate as competing explanations of the diversity of species. What this book does is provide us with a one-stop shop, where the evidence is presented in a clear and concise way, that we can use to persuade those whom we know and who are open to persuasion.

In his book, Dawkins convincingly makes the case for two things: that evolution has occurred and that natural selection is (largely) how it occurred.

He points out how we know so much about evolution from artificial selection, from the experiences of breeders to produce new species and from the way that species like dogs and cabbages have evolved before our very eyes. Even the banana, which in its current form is seen by some as the 'atheists nightmare' because it seems to be so perfectly suited to human eating, was initially a highly unappealing and unpalatable food, coming into its present form only as a result of careful breeding.

He then talks about how in the wild, symbiotic relationships that occur between insects and plants or between predator and prey or as a result of competition for sexual favors or the sudden isolation of a species all can drive evolution quite dramatically, sometimes visible in our lifetimes, although most of the time it is very slow. These natural processes play the role that breeders play in artificial selection.

He points out that although evolution in the wild is usually glacially slow, we have many independent ways of judging time over geological scales, using sedimentation rates in geology, radiometry, the magnetic field switches that are recorded in the shifting continental plates, the rate of DNA mutations, and so on.

Furthermore, the way species are distributed across the globe is powerful evidence for evolution and against special creation. Why are the marsupials concentrated in Australia? Why is it that we find different species in different parts of the world? How come Madagascar and the Galapagos have so many species found nowhere else? This particular feature that Darwin noted in his around the world trip on the Beagle was what initially caused Darwin to question special creation by god and to realize that something else must be going on.

It is interesting that in Darwin's time the idea of continents moving was not even considered. And yet as that theory became accepted and the idea that initially there was a single land mass called Gondwanaland that became broke into bits and separated added to the explanatory power of evolution because it explained how species spread all over the globe.

And then there is the very recent and powerful DNA evidence, which really seals the case that we are all descended from a common ancestor, the original self-replicating molecule, probably a primitive form of RNA, that became DNA and slowly evolved as a result of errors during the replicating process, leading to the diverse species we see.

What is most impressive is that all these diverse pieces of evidence and argument tend to converge in their results. It is this convergence that provides the power of the argument for evolution.

Next: What about fossils?

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on superstition and spirituality

It is amazing how people take seriously stuff that they have just made up.

September 24, 2009

God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom

My new book is now available! I received my copy in the mail yesterday.

My publishers say that the book can be obtained through the usual outlets. You can order it from the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and also through your local bookstores.

I have a request to make of readers of this blog. If you have the time, I would really appreciate it if you could write reviews of the book on sites like Amazon and elsewhere, and make the book known to people and groups whom you think might be interested in it or might like me to come and give talks on it.

The book deals with the thorny question of the role of religion and the Bible in US schools. While school prayer has been one important facet of these attempts and has perhaps received the most publicity, the teaching of evolution has also been, at least in the US, the focus of many court cases involving various subtle shades of meaning and interpretation of the U.S. constitution, testing in particular the limits of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US constitution, which states simply that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

My book interweaves this general history of religion in schools with the specific history of the opposition to the teaching of evolution in US classrooms, starting with the Scopes trial in 1925 and ending with the intelligent design Dover trial in 2005, focusing on how the nature of this opposition has itself evolved as a result of repeated setbacks in the courts.

The book's dust jacket gives a good synopsis of the book.

In God vs. Darwin, Mano Singham dissects the legal battle between evolution and creationism in the classroom beginning with the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925 and ending with an intelligent design trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005. A publicity stunt, the Scopes Monkey trial had less to do with legal precedence than with generating tourism dollars for a rural Tennessee town. But the trial did successfully spark a debate that has lasted more than 80 years and simply will not be quelled despite a succession of seemingly definitive court decisions. In the greatest demonstration of survival, opposition to the teaching of evolution has itself evolved. Attempts to completely eliminate the teaching of evolution from public schools have given way to the recognition that evolution is here to stay, that explicitly religious ideas will never be allowed in public schools, and that the best that can be hoped for is to chip away at the credibility of the theory of evolution.

Dr. Singham deftly answers complex questions: Why is there such intense antagonism to the teaching of evolution in the United States? What have the courts said about the various attempts to oppose it? Sprinkled with interesting tidbits about Charles Darwin and the major players of the evolution vs. creationism debate, readers will find that God vs. Darwin is charming in its embrace of the strong passions aroused from the topic of teaching evolution in schools.

Jim Paces, executive director of curriculum of the Shaker Heights City Schools in Ohio and one of the early reviewers of the book, said the following:

[This] captivating new book draws on his knowledge of both history and science to provide an expert analysis of the ongoing opposition to the teaching of evolution in America's public schools. He offers a clearly written, concise explanation of the evolution-religion controversy which has continued to play out in local school districts across the country. This is an absolute "must read" for school officials and community members alike . . . indeed for anyone interested in a fascinating illustration of who decides what should be taught in our nation's schools.

Barbara Forrest, professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and co-author of Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, said:

In recounting the history of creationism through major legal cases, Professor Singham correctly exposes the fear that drives creationists to keep searching for ways to undermine the teaching of evolution despite consistent defeats in the federal courts. He shows convincingly that, while religious objections to evolution persist, such objections are ultimately powerless to stop the advancement of science. This book expands the growing list of excellent books available for anyone who wants to understand the phenomenon of American creationism.

Charles Russo, Professor of Education and Law at the University of Dayton, wrote in the Foreword that the book:

presents a highly readable and comprehensive analysis of this fascinating area. With the perspective of a physicist rather than a lawyer, educator, or social scientist, Mano Singham applies his dispassionate scientific eye in such a way that he presents fresh insights into the ongoing controversy over who should control the content of curricula, scientific or otherwise, in public schools.

At its heart, God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom offers a valuable learning experience for all of those interested in education, religion, science, and the law.

In a way, the readers of this blog shared in this book's creation because its nucleus consisted of a series of posts that I wrote a few years ago.

I hope that those of you who read it find it as least as enjoyable as I did writing it. And, again, please write a review if you can.

July 28, 2009

On books, audiobooks, and eBooks

When it comes to new communication technology, I can be labeled as both an 'early adopter' and and 'early abandoner'. I got a Facebook account very early on, and now don't do anything with it. I similarly got a Twitter account and abandoned it. I finally broke down and got a cell phone a couple of months ago under pressure from my family after I was in a few situations where having it would have been really helpful, but I use it only for emergencies and have given out the number to just a handful of people. In the three months since I got it, I have received about three real calls and a half dozen wrong numbers, which suits me just fine.

I think it is already pretty clear that I am a bit slow when it comes to new technology, adopting new things only when I absolutely have to. It is not that I am pathologically averse to new technology. It is just that so many new things come along that I prefer to wait until I feel that it serves a real need before I put in the time to learn the new tool. For example, I was quite happy with a pocket diary to keep track of my appointments until I got in a position where other people needed to make appointments on my behalf. Then I got a PDA (first a Palm and now an iTouch) so that I can sync with an online calendar that others have access to.

The only thing that I adopted fairly early and stuck with is my blog.

All this leads me to the topic of new book forms. I did listen to an audiobook a couple of times when I was driving long distance and it was not bad but the books that I listened to on it were lightweight humor. I usually read more serious non-fiction and that requires me to go back and re-read portions or jump to the index to find related things and audiobooks don't seem to be suited to that. Even with fiction I like to flip back to refer to earlier points and you can't do that easily with an audiobook.

Now we have eBooks. I tried out a Kindle that was loaned to me a few months ago (before the new version came out) because my university is embarking on an trial run to see if they might be good for students to use, so that they can have all their books in one portable device and not have to lug heavy textbooks around. My experience did not convince me enough to buy my own.

There are some good features to the Kindle. The screen was easy to read. You can also change the font size. Purchasing a book and downloading it from Amazon was very quick. Because it is small, about the size of a normal book, and yet has so much capacity, you can basically carry your entire library with you wherever you go.

But the reading experience was not as much fun as I would have liked, though some people really love it. There were also disadvantages. You cannot flip though the book easily, or jump to a page. I was reading Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin about how much of the human body originates from our fish ancestors and the book has lots of figures that are important in understanding how organisms evolved. The figures were hard to see and the labels impossible to read, and could not be enlarged, making it pretty much useless. The newest Kindle has a bigger screen that seems to partially solve this particular problem.

On balance, I did not like the Kindle. I prefer the tactile feel of a real book. After I returned the Kindle, I bought a hardcopy version of Your Inner Fish and enjoyed it much more.

Furthermore, with the Kindle you cannot lend a single book to someone without lending your entire library. This is a real drawback. There are many books that I have bought after I was first loaned a copy by someone who felt I would like it, and I have lent books to people as well. Furthermore, this will dry up the second-hand books market where you can find great old books that are otherwise unavailable. Almost every year, I give away a load of books to the university second-hand book sale and I like to think that others are going to enjoy what I once enjoyed. What are you going to do with all the old books on Kindle once you are done with them?

The new Kindle is also very expensive (about $500) and it locks you into only purchasing books that are offered in digital form by Amazon.

Users had a shock recently when they discovered that Amazon can unilaterally delete books they had already bought.

"It illustrates how few rights you have when you buy an e-book from Amazon," said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for British Telecom and an expert on computer security and commerce. "As a Kindle owner, I'm frustrated. I can't lend people books and I can't sell books that I've already read, and now it turns out that I can't even count on still having my books tomorrow."

Furthermore, because the font size can be changed, there are no page numbers (these being replaced for each page by a numerical range of numbers that did not relate to anything that I could tell) so I cannot cite a specific page of the book. This is a real drawback for academic use since I quote passages from books a lot and like to give the page numbers to readers so that they can see for themselves the full context of the quote.

I think that before eBooks really take off it needs to be the case that the eBook readers should be much cheaper (even free), and should be able to read digital books from any source.

The old-fashioned books have some real advantages. As Lawrence G. Smith, author of Cesare Pavese And America, says (thanks to Progressive Review for the quote):

The book has existed in its present format--essentially sheaves of paper between a binding of some sort--for over two millennia. It has done so because it is a perfect artifact of information technology. It is portable, permanent, nearly indestructible, easily shared. It suffers no damage near magnetic fields, and when opened its boot-up time is instantaneous--just open it and you are reading; close it and reopen and you are reading immediately once again. It uses no electricity and never crashes. When you are reading its pages, they never go blue or black and you never get a message "fatal error; system shutting down."

Maybe I am just too old fashioned and stuck in my reading ways, the way I continue to subscribe to newspapers. I can see that printing and distributing books, like newspapers, involves enormous costs and a lot of waste since publishers have to guess how many copies to print and how to distribute them. A purely on-demand printing process, where a book is published and bound and sent to the person who ordered it might reduce that.

POST SCRIPT: Bronze age Luddites

Reluctance to adopt new technologies has a long history.

July 14, 2009

Science fiction and futurism

While I was completely absorbed in reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, someone else saw me reading it and said that she had started it and had given up. When I asked why, she said that she did not like science fiction in general. But Atwood herself in some interviews has rejected the label of science fiction for her work, saying that she prefers to call it 'futuristic'. She says that she is merely extrapolating from today's science to see what the future might be like and that she does not postulate any radical new scientific ideas.

This started me thinking about the difference, if any, between the genres represented by those two labels. It is not easy to draw a line separating the two.

It seems like if the plots involve development of things like time travel, or the ability to quickly travel intergalactic distances by means of hitherto unknown mechanisms (hyperspace, wormholes, and the like), or human-like robots or fully developed artificial intelligence, then people immediately classify such stories as science fiction, because as yet there seems to be no way of realizing such things.

On the other hand, a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Arthur C. Clarke's books in general) did not incorporate spectacular new scientific developments either but also just extended the science we have now. So using Atwood's definition, we might call those things futuristic too, not science fiction.

Any story that involves contact with extra-terrestrial beings also seems to be automatically considered science fiction, though this need not necessarily involve any major new scientific developments.

It seems to me that while authors of both genres try to predict what the future will be like, the difference might lie in the extent to which developments in science and technology based on extrapolations from the present dominate the narrative. Futuristic stories are those that focus on people and try to predict how society will respond to future conditions, and do not depend that much on some new scientific or technological development to serve as a deus ex machina to solve some problem in plot development.

Conversely, those stories for which the scientific and technological developments are the main source of plot development and interest might be called science fiction.

But pinning down the labels is not a very fruitful exercise. What is clear from either genre is that predicting the future is hard. The easiest way is to extrapolate the present and this can be done in an optimistic utopian way or pessimistic dystopian way.

In the latter case, for example, we might imagine a future in which global warming is unchecked and in which rising oceans and warm temperatures and changing climate have completely changed the global landscape, submerging the currently densely populated coastal areas, and shifting populations and political power to entirely different parts of the globe. Or we might see a future in which we run out of energy and have polluted our world, with fresh water supplies depleted, the land depleted of its nutrients with resulting lower crop yields, and the population being reduced to a much lower standard of living, except perhaps for a small elite. In other words, we might in essence retreat to a medieval model with a few nobles living well and almost everyone else living as peasants. This dystopian model cannot avoid having constant battles between nation-like entities over scarce resources or brutal suppression of the majority to preserve the privileges of the elite.

An optimistic vision might see us as having successfully harnessed new forms of sustainable power (say solar) and united to conserve water, land, and resources, and controlling population growth, resulting in greater well being for the vast majority. I can only see this happening with the kind of global cooperation that comes from some kind of world government, that sees the futility and waste that comes from wars and competing for scarce resources.

One lesson that I have learned from reading science fiction is that if I ever write such a story to not put a date on it. Those writers rash enough to put a date on their creations (1984, 2001) have seen those dates come and go with few of the technological innovations realized, though the human and political questions are still relevant.

Extrapolating the future from the past is risky. For example, in the early days of computers, more power came with larger computers. Early science fiction writers correctly saw that computers would revolutionize life as they became more powerful, but they mistakenly extrapolated that early trend and made the computers of the future more and more massive, and this led to computers becoming large and looming and malevolent presences, as in the films Colossus: The Forbin Project and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Computers became Darth Vader-like entities.

As far as I know, although miniaturization was an idea that was around (for example in the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage) as far as I know no futurist or science fiction writer applied that idea to computers, or foresaw personal computers or communication networks such as the internet, and the democratizing potential of such networks. I know that many of this blog's readers are much more knowledgeable about this genre than I am and I hope they will correct me on this if I am wrong.

POST SCRIPT: The director of Food, Inc talks with Jon Stewart

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Robert Kenner
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

June 16, 2009

The problem of endings: Review of Oryx and Crake

Almost everyone has at least heard of Margaret Atwood's excellent futuristic novel The Handmaid's Tale. I enjoyed that book and now can also strongly recommend her 2003 offering Oryx and Crake, a thought-provoking look at the future.

It would be hard to summarize the plot without giving away too much information so instead I want to look at the novel's structure and the problems with writing fiction in general, and futuristic or science fiction in particular.

In telling a story, one way is simply to tell it chronologically, starting at the beginning and following the characters to the end. That is somewhat old-fashioned. The structure of Oryx and Crake follows an alternative pattern that is fairly common in modern fiction. It starts with the story close to the end that has many puzzling, intriguing, and unexplained features, and then through a series of flashbacks that are interspersed with the forward chronology, the puzzling elements are slowly explained. Of course, the events in the flashbacks move much faster than the speed of events in real time so eventually, towards the end of the novel, the flashback story catches up with the real time story, and from then on the narrative moves only forward in time.

Another storytelling technique, which was used in another good novel A Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich that I read recently, is to start with a short and graphic and puzzling event, and then proceed to have different narrators tell their seemingly independent stories in flashbacks until the stories merge at the end, and the original vignette is explained.

In the case of Oryx and Crake, the story starts with a single human character who calls himself Snowman living alone in a primitive state with the decay of Earth's destroyed civilization all around him. He lives in a tree surrounded by dangerous and unfamiliar animals, with only a dirty bed sheet for clothing, and barely exists on a subsistence diet that he scavenges from the debris and trash around him, suggesting that the collapse of civilization is quite recent. But he is not entirely alone. There is a small colony of people nearby who seem almost but not quite human, childlike in their speech and behavior, able to eat and digest grass and other plant forms that we cannot, and who seem to revere him as some kind of prophet or guru. Who are these people? How did they come to be? And what happened to destroy everything? The unraveling of these mysteries (in this case in the form of Snowman recalling the past) forms the core of the novel, and it is gripping.

In the process of telling the story, Atwood raises some deep questions about the paradoxes of progress. She basically extrapolates the science and technology we now have and poses the question of how far are we willing to go with the powerful new knowledge we possess, especially when it comes to the ability to tamper with genetics and create new life forms. Some aspects of the novel, in which a few biological research companies make fortunes by marketing dubious anti-aging and sex and health products to consumers eager to cling on to youth, already exist.

She also ponders the question of how much inequality are we willing to tolerate. Are we heading towards a deeply bifurcated society, with the few elite living and working in communities that are completely segregated from the rest of society and yet controlling everything for everyone?

One of the biggest problem that a teller of tales faces is how to end the story. It is relatively easy to spin scenarios. It is more difficult to see beyond the immediate consequences and to have the characters develop. I have never written a novel because while I can think of interesting plots, I soon get defeated by how to progress beyond a certain point.

Nowhere is this problem of endings more acute than in comedy where one can imagine developing a funny sketch but then flounder about trying to bring it to a close, searching for an elusive punch line. Many film comedies suffer because of this. Monty Python solved this problem in their TV series of sketch comedies by deliberately breaking the spell and abruptly inserting a cartoon or otherwise jumping to the next sketch with no continuity. This non sequitur method did not work when it came to their first feature-length film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That ending was unsatisfying, especially since up to that point the film was terrific. This may be because there was a unifying narrative to the film that made the viewers more emotionally invested in expecting an outcome, and they expected a better resolution. Their next film Monty Python's Life of Brian had a much better ending.

Classical storytellers tended to use closed endings. Shakespeare's plays, for example, end with either happy-ever-after final scenes in the comedies or practically everyone dying in the tragedies. Some modern fiction writers follow that same pattern. In the Harry Potter books for instance, there was a satisfying climactic scene where all the major issues are resolved and everything was explained. There was even an epilogue describing the lives of the main characters many years later, which actually was a bit of overkill that could have been dispensed with.

This kind of closed-ending can be satisfying to the reader, but it also shuts down speculation and can be artificial. Real life rarely has such closure. The authors of more sophisticated modern novels tend to avoid such pat endings. An alternative way is to end abruptly, to just bring down the curtain, leaving the reader to speculate on what happens next. This can be dissatisfying to the reader, like watching a comedian who goes to elaborate lengths to set up a joke and then tells you to supply the punch line yourself.

On balance, I am a low-brow reader who likes closed endings, where there is a clear denouement. Maybe that is why I still enjoy the who-dunnit mystery novel genre of the type made famous by the Sherlock Holmes stories or the Agatha Christie novels, where events leads up to climax and resolution where everything is explained, and the tension is broken. With many modern novels, even those that I liked, after some time I forget how they ended, because they did not end in a memorable way but simply stopped. The tension dissipates slowly.

Oryx and Crake also ends with the reader wondering what comes next. But don't let that deter you. It is a terrific book.

March 05, 2009

Why I am not a good judge of novels

I serve on a committee to select the common book reading for Case Western Reserve University. This is a book that is sent out to all the new incoming students each year in the summer prior to their admission and forms the basis for some programs during their first year on campus. In 2008, for example, the book selected was The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, in honor of 2009 being the Year of Darwin, since it is the anniversary of the 200th year of his birth and the 150th year of the publication of On the Origin of Species. (Shameless plug: I have a book GOD v. DARWIN: The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom coming out later this year to also commemorate the event.)

In the seven years that this program has been held, two of the selected books were memoirs, two were biographies, and the other three were books about brain-damaged people, the working poor in America, and what it takes to be a great chef.

Despite the diversity of topics, it is notable that not a single novel has been selected so far. While many novels have been nominated and some have made it to the final short list, they have never been chosen. Although I would like to have a novel added to the list, I have not been able to wholeheartedly support any of the nominees and I am beginning to think that my problem is that I am not a good judge of novels, although I enjoy reading them.

With non-fiction, and especially advocacy books, the author's purpose is obvious and what constitutes good writing is also fairly unambiguous. The author is trying, or should be trying, to make his or her case as clearly as possible. So I can judge a non-fiction book on whether it was easily apparent to me what the author was trying to say and whether they said it as clearly and as entertainingly as possible. In non-fiction, while a good writing style definitely helps, there is usually little merit to burying the main point in metaphor and imagery. The reader is not expected to dig deeper than the content requires, to struggle to find out what the hidden meaning is.

Bu with fiction, I run into problems. In addition to the surface story of the book, there is also a subtext, where the author may be trying to convey something deeper. And this is where they sometimes lose me.

I am much more comfortable with the novelists of an earlier era, like Dickens or Tolstoy. Their novels had a clear surface story that could read and enjoyed merely at that level. The novels had deeper levels of meaning but these were not hard to discern. In many of his books, Dickens was trying to lay bare the appalling conditions under which children of his time suffered, and Tolstoy was making many points about the nature of personal and political relationships

But with more modern writers like William Faulkner, for example, even the surface story is hard to figure out. The story switches without warning between multiple narrators and out of chronological order, leaving the reader to often wonder, during the first reading, what the hell is going on. The novel is constructed like a jig saw puzzle in which the author gives the pieces to the reader to piece together to see the picture.

Even to understand Faulkner's short story A Rose for Miss Emily, after reading it I had to create a spreadsheet in which I inserted all major events mentioned in the text and used the allusions and historical references to try and order them so that I could at least decipher the chronological sequence of events as a prelude to making sense of the story. While that was kind of fun once I got into it, somewhat like solving the murder mysteries that I was addicted to in my youth, it is not something I want to routinely do when reading fiction.

I get the sense that Faulkner deliberately wrote in an obscure fashion for its own sake, simply to make the books difficult to understand. Consider The Sound and the Fury, which has multiple narrators and every narrator refers by name to a particular key character. The story makes no sense until one finds out at the very end that two different characters of different genders had that same name. There seemed to be no reason for the author doing this other than to confuse the reader. I found Faulkner infuriating because of this and he makes me resentful for having to work so hard just to understand even the surface story.

I have also tried several times and given up on reading James Joyce. I feel that Joyce, like Faulkner, deliberately obscures the message.

A novel should not require footnotes, or the reading of another book explaining it, or attending a college class, to explain its surface meaning. I definitely do value the scholarly insight that literary critics provide about deeper meanings but feel that the surface level should not need it.

I have heard it suggested that the reason English professors and literary critics like difficult authors like Faulkner or Joyce is because then readers need these same experts to explain to them what the novel is about. That may be too cynical. I am sure these books are the works of genius they are claimed to be. It is just that I don't want to work that hard to understand them. I think that I am just too low-brow to appreciate these works.

One can encounter the same surface-deep meanings problem with films. The difference with films is the time invested. Films too can have many layers of meaning with the surface one being obscure, but can get away with this because watching a film only takes a couple of hours and people are willing to invest the time to watch it again if the surface story intrigues them. For example Mulholland Drive or Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind can, on the first viewing, leave the viewer baffled as to what is going on but if the surface story is told in an entertaining way, the viewer is willing to take the time and effort to try and figure things out, and to see it again with even greater pleasure. But there are very few novels that I will re-read.

POST SCRIPT: What happened with AIG

The US treasury has been pouring money into AIG (American International Group), the company taken over last year as part of government efforts to stop the downward spiral of the financial sector.

In September of last year I explained the major role that AIG played in the collapse of the housing market and the resulting spread of financial disaster. Now Joe Nocera (New York Times, February 27, 2009) explains in more detail the whole sordid story.

February 23, 2009

Portrayals of the developing world

So Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture, Best Director, and a slew of other awards at the Academy Awards last night. I have not seen the film, but have been thinking recently about the way that the developing world is portrayed in western culture.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the much-hailed book Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. I had been hearing about this book and its anniversary for some time but did not read it until last month. It tells the story of one man but that story is merely the pillar to wrap other things around, mainly to describe the structure of life in a small Nigerian village as the British colonists, led by missionaries, start to make inroads into that country around the beginning of the twentieth century. Much of the book describes the traditional life and practices and religious beliefs of the villagers and what happens to their culture with the arrival of the colonialists and their new ways and religion.

I could see its appeal to some readers in the West. They would find interesting and amusing the superstitions of the villagers described in the book, with its many examples of how 'primitive' people believe the most absurd things about omens and the like. It would never strike such readers that their own religious beliefs are as absurd as those of the villagers. This is because they do not apply the same rigor to their own familiar and comfortable religious beliefs as they would to those that are unfamiliar to them.

I did not particularly care for the book. There is a genre of books that deal with the developing world that I am finding increasingly annoying. Another novel is The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton that deals with the efforts of a New Yorker to set up a mobile library using camels to take books to remote villages in Africa. The third is a non-fiction memoir Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin which described the heroic efforts of Mortenson to build schools in the remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

All these books tread the well-worn path of contrasting the affluent sectors of the developed world with the poverty-stricken life of the rural poor in the developing world, and thus may reinforce the misperception that the developing world is made up entirely of poor and illiterate and backward people. Although these books are well-meaning and sympathetic to the people they portray, they ignore the fact that although such deplorable conditions exist, the developing is also comprised of very modern cities and advanced technological societies.

It is not uncommon that such books and films about the developing world are praised in the developed world but are often disliked by those living in those countries. For example there have been protests in India over the film Slumdog Millionaire, because it apparently only shows the worst slums of Bombay and not its other highly modern sectors. As I said, I have not seen the film and am dependent on the reports of those who have, so stand to be corrected.

I remember the first time I read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, hailed by critics as a masterpiece. I was appalled at the blatantly racist portrayals of Africans and could barely get through the book. Many years later, I re-read it. The shock and anger that the original reading had aroused in me had worn off and I could see and appreciate Conrad's skill with words in creating the deepening sense of foreboding as Marlow goes deeper into the jungle in search of Kurtz.

Ironically, Chinua Achebe gave a talk criticizing the book and saying that Conrad's novel, whatever its other merits, perpetuated African stereotypes. The talk attracted a lot of attention and Conrad's many admirers leapt to his defense, saying that Conrad was a product of his times and merely reflecting the views then current and that his book was actually a critique of the evils of colonialism.

Maybe so, but the racism was still there and still bothered me even on the second reading.

POST SCRIPT: The need for green spaces

If I were given some of the stimulus money to spend, I would use it to create lots more green spaces in the poorest neighborhoods and in the inner cities. I would tear down abandoned building and build parks and playgrounds, and plant trees and bushes and grass all over so that the people who live in those areas would be able to enjoy the outdoors. I would also sponsor concerts, sports leagues, and other cultural public events for the communities.

Some may see such things as luxuries, to be done only after basic needs like food and shelter and health care are met. That is a strong argument. But I think giving people pleasant neighborhoods to live in as a sign of the respect that we have for them, that they too deserve the finer things in life, and is an important aspect of people's sense of dignity.

And the two positions may not be as incompatible as they seem on the surface. Some studies indicate that creating green spaces reduces the health gap between people.

July 10, 2008

"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard"

Those words were supposedly spoken by the actor Sir Donald Wolfit on his deathbed.

When it comes to acting, comedy is far harder to pull off well than tragedy. With tragedy, earnestness will take you a long way. Not so with humor. The elements of comedy are so ephemeral that it is hard to script. We all have had the experience of having laughed uproariously at something and then tried to tell the story to someone else and been confronted with bafflement or a polite smile and been reduced to weakly explaining "You had to be there." We all know people who can tell a marginally funny story in such a way that it evokes great laughs while others manage to make unfunny even the best comedic material.

This is true with writers too. Anyone who has tried to write anything humorous will immediately sympathize with Wolfit's sentiment. I suspect that most people who see themselves as writers eventually succumb to the temptation to try their hand at humor, usually with disastrous results. The worst culprits are those newspaper columnists who write on serious topics and once in a while try to write inject some humor. What they usually resort to is satire or parody because, being derivative, such forms require the least originality.

A favorite device of political columnists is to describe some fictional conversation between well-known figures on the topic of the day. The result, unfortunately, is usually cringe-inducing because it is usually so heavy-handed. Even satire and parody require a deft and light touch to pull off but most writers tend towards hamhandedness and overkill. The central humorous conceit that triggered the idea of writing a funny piece usually can be told in just a few lines but it takes a lot of skill to stretch it out over a whole essay, let along a book, and very few writers can do that. Because I love reading humorous writing, I too have succumbed to the temptation to try my hand at it and the results have appeared occasionally on this blog (though some readers might have not have realized the humorous intent!)

It is tempting to want to write humor because the experts make it look so deceptively easy. But the words that seem to have been just tossed off casually hide a lot of hard work. In the case of Wodehouse, he would rewrite repeatedly, trying to get just the right word or phrase, carefully setting up and rearranging scenes, and worrying about the pacing of the plot. If he was dissatisfied with the way a novel was developing, he would sometimes ruthlessly throw everything out and start over. That requires real toughness because it is easy to get attached to one's words and be loath to throw away weeks or months of hard work.

Good writing of any kind requires repeated rewriting and this is what makes humor so hard. When you are writing a serious piece, it is easy to go back and polish and re-polish, trying to make the point clearer and more effectively, trying to find the correct words and images to convey the central idea.

The reason it is so hard to do this with humor is that an important element of humor is surprise, the sudden appearance of the unexpected. Once the basic joke has been written, it is hard for the writer to go back to revise it and still think of it as funny. And the more one rewrites, the unfunnier it seems to get. This leads to the temptation to overwrite, to adorn the writing with flourishes that makes the humor seem forced.

Just as it takes hard work by a chef with great skill to get the lightness and airiness of a soufflé, the difficulty with comedy is keep it light. I suspect that good humorists have the ability to keep their focus on the central joke and to still see it as funny even after they have rewritten it many times. They are able to keep it light while sharpening it and making it more pointed, while those less skilled tend to weigh it down.

I cannot think of any contemporary novelists who I find to be in the same league of funniness as a Wodehouse. One of the funniest non-novelist writers currently is Dave Barry. His weekly columns in the Miami Herald are consistently good and his many books are a laugh riot. His humor is broader (and coarser) than that of a Wodehouse, funny is a very different way. His quick romp through American history in Dave Barry Slept Here and his travel book on Japan Dave Barry Does Japan are well worth reading. (For a brief excerpt of the latter, see here.)

POST SCRIPT: McCain=Bush in more ways than one

George Bush was notorious for being so insecure that his team would keep out of the audience anyone who looked like they might be even mildly critical of him, even if it was simply on a t-shirt. It looks like McCain is very much like Bush in this regard. At a recent public event, a librarian was threatened with arrest for having a sign that said simply 'McCain=Bush'.

It is interesting that being identified with the sitting president of your own party is seen as such a threat by the candidate.


July 09, 2008

The humor of P. G. Wodehouse

There is something very alluring about comedy and humor. Laughter is wonderful. It puts everyone in a good mood, at ease and lowers their defenses. To be able to make other people laugh and be happy is a wonderful talent and people like people who can make them laugh. It is no accident that public speakers often begin with a joke.

I have always enjoyed humor. My earliest childhood influences were the books by Richmal Crompton (author of the William series) and Frank W. Richards (creator of Billy Bunter). As I got older I started reading P. G. Wodehouse, S. J. Perelman, and Stephen Leacock and any other writer I could find in the library who was described as a comic or humorous writer. The comedy writers who appeal to me are those who edge on the absurd and who use the nature of the English language itself as a source for much of their humor.

Of them all, Wodehouse was, and remains, my favorite writer to this day. I have read the classic Jeeves/Wooster and Blandings Castle series many times over. He is the perfect choice for those days when one is feeling blah and nothing appeals to you to do.

Wodehouse's craftsmanship was so meticulous and his use of language so sublime that his readers did not care that the stock plots were contrived and the characters stereotypical, and that you knew that there would be a happy endings all around in which even the villains were let off lightly. With Wodehouse, the pleasure lay on two levels, the surface one in which one is just carried along by the smoothness of the writing and the frantic pace of events, and below the surface by the appreciation of observing a language master at work.

Take for example, the classic The Code of the Woosters. Bertie Wooster, the rich, idle, none-too-bright narrator once again, through a series of misunderstandings, finds himself in the situation in which Madeline Bassett, a woman whose personality he finds revolting, is convinced that Bertie is madly in love with her. Wodehouse, via Wooster, paints a portrait of this 'ghastly girl'.

I call her a ghastly girl because she was a ghastly girl. The Woosters are chivalrous, but they can speak their mind. A droopy, soupy, sentimental exhibit, with melting eyes and a cooing voice and the most extraordinary views on such things as stars and daisy chains. I remember her telling me once that rabbits were gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen and that the stars were God's daisy chain. Perfect rot, of course. They're nothing of the sort.

With those few deft lines, the reader is immediately made aware of what kind of person Madeline is and what the problem is. She is someone who oozes 'soul' from every pore, while Bertie has none.

The sappy Madeline, however, loves the equally sappy newt-fancier (and Bertie's friend) Gussie Fink-Nottle, and they become engaged, leaving Bertie relieved that he is off the hook. But she has told Bertie that if it should ever turn out that her marriage to Gussie should not take place and she can't have the happiness she desires with Gussie, she will sacrifice herself and at least make Bertie happy by marrying him. This is a prospect he finds alarming to the utmost but he is too chivalrous to tell her that the thought of marrying her gives him the heebie-jeebies. He has his code of behavior and it does not allow him to dump a girl. Many of the Jeeves/Wooster stories center around Jeeves' strategies to get the girl to dump Bertie.

When Gussie sends Bertie a telegram from Madeline's country estate saying that the two of them have had a tiff and their engagement is off, an alarmed Bertie quickly rushes to his friend's aid to try and patch things up. This has happened before in previous books and Bertie's earlier desperate attempts to reconcile Madeline with Gussie have been seen by her as noble self-sacrificial efforts on Bertie's part, to put his friend Gussie's interests above his own, and have only increased Bertie's esteem in her eyes.

On arrival, Bertie immediately runs into Madeline, who is surprised by his appearance at her home, leading to this priceless bit of dialogue.

"Why did you come? Oh, I know what you are going to say. You felt that, cost what it might, you had to see me again, just once. You could not resist the urge to take away with you one last memory, which you could cherish down the lonely years. Oh, Bertie, you remind me of Rudel."

The name was new to me.

"Rudel?"

"The Seigneur Geoffrey Rudel, Prince of Blaye-en-Saintonge."

I shook my head.

"Never met him, I'm afraid. Pal of yours?"

"He lived in the Middle Ages. He was a great poet. And he fell in love with the wife of the Lord of Tripoli."

I stirred uneasily. I hoped she was going to keep it clean.

"For years he loved her, and at last he could resist no longer. He took ship to Tripoli, and his servants carried him ashore."

"Not feeling so good?" I said groping. "Rough crossing?"

"He was dying. Of love."

"Oh, ah."

"They bore him into the Lady Melisande's presence on a litter and he had just strength enough to reach out and touch her hand. Then he died."

She paused, and heaved a sigh that seemed to come straight up from the cami-knickers. A silence ensured.

"Terrific," I said, feeling I had to say something, though personally I didn't think the story a patch on the one about the traveling salesman and the farmer's daughter. Different, of course, if one had known the chap.

I must have read this book at least half-a-dozen times and this passage never fails to make me laugh.

Of course, humor is highly idiosyncratic and what brings one person to tears of laughter can leave another mystified. But if you like humor and have never read any Wodehouse, you owe it to yourself to try him. I suggest starting with The Code of the Woosters and Leave it to Psmith, two of my all-time favorites.

POST SCRIPT: Right wing outrage, part MMCMLXVI

What is it about popular culture that has the right wing in a state of perpetual outrage? The latest target? The Pixar animated film Wall*E.

July 02, 2008

The difficulty of predicting the future

Science fiction writers have it tough. Although it is fun to predict what the world will look like in the future, the track record of success of past works is not great. (A caveat on what follows: I cannot really call myself a science-fiction fan, having read only a scattered sample of this vast genre, so I am expressing views based on a very limited awareness. Those who have read most of this genre may well disagree with my conclusions.)

Whether the future that is envisaged is dark (as in the films Blade Runner or Colossus: The Forbin Project) or somewhat optimistic (as in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the book Rendezvous with Rama), much of the predictions seemed to be focused on architecture, modes of transport, and video communication.

There seemed to be a consensus that the most dramatic changes would lie in our cities, featuring either exotic skyscrapers and clean, open spaces between, or dark visions of crowded, decaying dystopias. Transport is also a big focus. Flying high-speed cars or people movers or other forms of personalized transport seem to be a given. Space travel was assumed to be commonplace. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, travel in space was seen as almost routine as plane travel is now, with comfortable and spacious reclining seats for passengers and flight attendants serving meals, which is kind of ironic now that air travel is becoming cramped and food is a thing of the past, except on international flights.

As for advances in communication, the focus was on ubiquitous two-way video with a few exotic features like holograms thrown in.

Those predictions have not held up well. What we see is that the cities of today are not that dramatically different from those of fifty years ago and transport has not changed much either. There have been improvements no doubt, but no real breakthroughs.

What most writers failed to predict was the advent of the microchip and the resulting miniaturization of computers and other devices that allowed for new technologies, and the arrival of the internet, which has resulted in the highly diversified communication mechanisms that we now have.

But I think it is a mistake in evaluating science fiction literature to focus on the gee-whiz details of possible technological advances. The better and more lasting science fiction is that which focuses more on how human beings meet the new challenges that confront them.

In the science fiction that interests me, the author tries to deal with how people's views and behaviors might change as a consequence of increased sophistication in science and technology. In particular, how human society might reorganize itself in the future. Arthur C. Clarke seems to envisage a future in which racist and sexist attitudes largely disappear, marriage is a limited-term contract, and people have abandoned religion and belief in god.

One interesting question is how people might react to the sudden realization that we are not the only intelligent life in the universe, that more advanced civilizations exist, and that we have got in contact with them. Most of us simply do not consider this possibility or give it much thought. Try to imagine how we might react to the sudden announcement of contact with aliens. Would it be greeted with fear? Despair? For me, personally, the prime reaction would be excitement and hope. What new knowledge would this alien civilization bring and how would that change our views of everything?

While the fearful might worry about the harmful intentions of the aliens, it seems unlikely to me that an alien power would want to destroy us since we are so weak and no threat to them.

In Childhood's End, the initial shock and fear at the sudden appearance of a fleet of alien spaceships hovering over all major cities is replaced with resignation and submission when humans realize that they are being overseen by a vastly more powerful and sophisticated alien civilization whose intentions, fortunately, seem benign. The overlords quickly put an end to war and with the elimination of all the waste that it entails, humans find that they can produce enough food for themselves, that crime and violence disappears, and work requirements become so minimal that people only do the jobs they like. While all this seems like a good thing, Clarke suggests that without the challenges that adversity brings, the human drive to produce new science or works of art can become atrophied and people could become bored and lose their drive.

Clarke sees a future in which the arrival of aliens who are obviously highly advanced in science and scientific thinking and technology results in an end to beliefs in god and religion, which then become seen as quaint superstitions on a par with the way we view astrology and witchcraft now. I think that this is plausible. Most people's concept of god is very parochial, highly dependent on the uniqueness of Earth and humans. Finding that other advanced and powerful civilizations exist that have never heard of Yahweh, Jesus, or Muhammad, would likely make traditional religions obsolete. Of course, those who yearn for a father figure to look after them (which is what god is, when you think about it) might transfer their worshipful attitude to the aliens.

POST SCRIPT: John Yoo, torture accommodator

If you were a constitutional scholar and had been deeply involved in analyses about what the limits of interrogation were, you would think it would not be difficult to answer the question "Could the president order a suspect buried alive?"

And yet John Yoo, now professor of law at Berkeley after serving as legal advisor in the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel, and author of the infamous torture memo, seems to find it very hard to do so.

People like Yoo are despicable, serving as enablers of the worst abuses of human rights and basic civilized behavior committed by this administration.

July 01, 2008

A mini-Clarke festival

In addition to watching 2001: A Space Odyssey recently, I also indulged in a personal mini-Arthur C. Clarke festival, re-reading his novels Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama, and reading for the first time his short story The Sentinel that contains as its central idea a key plot element that reappeared in 2001.

One of the interesting things about Clarke's books is how for him, it is the science that is the most interesting element. That, and his vision of what future society will be like, are what moves his stories along. He tends to eschew traditional storytelling devices such as love, intrigue, violence, and all the other strong emotional factors. His stories focus less on fleshing out the characters and more on how normal human beings might react when they encounter an astounding new piece of information, such as making contact with intelligent life from elsewhere in space.

To the extent that one can discern an author's views from his books, Clarke sees a future in which racial prejudice has disappeared. His books contain a diversity of characters and it is taken for granted that these people take leadership roles in politics and science. In the case of gender, though, although women do play important roles, they do not seem to have reached full equality with men.

This was one feature in the film 2001 that did not ring true, where all the main characters were exclusively white men. That did not seem like Clarke's vision of the future and may have been more reflective of Kubrick's or the studio's attitudes of that time.

Marriage in the future is also seen by Clarke as a series of time-limited contracts and people can sign these contracts with more than one partner at a time.

In Childhood's End Clarke clearly sees war and conflict as infantile disorders, a human frailty that we are not be able to overcome on our own. It ends only with the arrival of superior aliens who, acting as overlords of the planet Earth, put a stop to it.

The aliens, although they allow the killing of animals for food, also put an end to wanton cruelty to animals. How that is done is interesting. Rather than the way we would do things, by issuing an edict or law against animal cruelty and punishing offenders, the aliens, for example, monitor a bullfight and whenever the bull is wounded, the alien spaceship hovering overhead uses its advanced technology to immediately inflict identical pain on all the spectators so that they experience the same sensation as the wounded animal. A few such demonstrations quickly put an end to the inhumane treatment of all animals.

In re-reading Childhood's End I realized (once again) how unreliable our memories are. Initially, the aliens do not reveal their appearance to humans, creating some speculation as to what they might look like. There is a very moving scene in which the aliens finally show themselves and that is the one vivid scene that stood out in my mind from the original reading over thirty years ago. I had remembered it as the climactic scene at the end of the novel. I was surprised to discover that it actually occurs about a third into the book. That scene was so vivid that it had erased everything that came after, even though the events that follow raise some interesting questions that I will discuss in the next post.

Just as I finished the book, I mentioned that I was reading it to a friend who had also read the book a long time ago and he too, without any prompting from me, immediately mentioned the same scene was as convinced as I that it came at the end. This may be a pure coincidence but also shows how unreliable our memories are and how our brains rearrange events to create new stories that conform to our own personal narrative preferences, using the most vivid memories as anchors.

Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained argues that our memories, and even the sense of who we are as individuals, are like drafts of screenplays that are constantly being rewritten, with the drafts are appearing and disappearing in our minds. Which one takes hold at any given time can change.

I was also interested on re-reading Childhood's End to see that Clarke describes in some detail a tsunami, where the first wave is followed by a deep retreat of the sea that draws curious onlookers onto to the newly revealed beaches, intrigued by this strange behavior, only to get destroyed by the massive second wave that suddenly hits. Given that Clarke lived in Sri Lanka for most of his life where exactly that scenario played out in 2004, it is a sad that more people had not read his book and thus been aware of the danger signs of a tsunami and fled away from the beaches as soon as they saw the sea withdraw.

POST SCRIPT: The danger of using the auto-correct utility

This is hilarious.

January 24, 2008

Review: God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

I finally got around to reading Hitchens' book debunking all forms of religion. I must say that I found it curiously unsatisfying. It is hard to put my finger on the reasons since I agreed with almost all the things he said.

The book seeks to show that religions (he focuses mainly on Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism) are basically frauds initiated by charlatans and con-men, perpetrated on gullible people, and perpetuated by huge religious vested interests that either make a lot money out of the religion racket and/or use it as a form of coercion to suppress dissent (both in thought and practice) often in collusion with corrupt governments.

The book looks at the sacred texts of these religions (Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon) and shows how they are riddled with contradictions and inaccuracies and downright barbarisms, are very parochial in their thinking, of extremely doubtful historicity, and the product of many writers and editors, polishing and changing to suit their own needs and to achieve largely self-serving political and social goals.

The book also looks at the founders of these religions (Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith) and either finds little or no evidence for their actual existence (no evidence at all for Moses and little for Jesus) or if they occurred later enough that their existence could be at least partially corroborated (Muhammad in the 7th century) or fully corroborated (Joseph Smith in the 19th century), contemporaneous records indicate that they were likely self-serving con-men who founded movements and doctrines that conveniently coincided with their own interests and personal gain.

All this is well and good and I have no quarrel with any of it. I think that what bothered me about the book was the unevenness of its writing, coupled with a certain amount of pretentiousness. Everyone, including critics of his views, says that Hitchens is a brilliant writer and I get the feeling that this has gone to his head, so that he tries too hard to live up to that reputation, dropping esoteric references to erudite works and inserting unfamiliar phrases in French and Latin without translations. I find him to be a good writer when he is in good form but have never been overwhelmed by his alleged brilliance. In this book, there are some very good passages mixed with others that seem to lack coherence, a product of either laziness or bad editing.

He also has some annoying verbal tics. For example, he frequently refers to human beings (especially those he does not approve of) as 'mammals' instead of 'people'. This is, of course, true but it is still jarring to read.

The book also flits from topic to topic, not going into much depth, and taking shots all over the place. It is a polemical book, which is fair enough. But it seems to be simply a collection of pot shots taken at religion. Let's face it, religion is an easy target: it is full of internal contradictions, free of evidence for its preposterous claims, lacking contact with reality, riddled with barbarities, profoundly anti-science, and its history is awful. Taking broad swipes at it as Hitchens does is bound to hit the target somewhere, just like firing a shotgun at a dense flock of birds is sure to bring down something as long as one aims in the general direction. But it is not pretty.

I personally prefer the rapier skills of writers like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett or Victor Stenger. They are the authors of more tightly argued books, which carefully lay out the premises and claims of religion, and then proceed to systematically demolish them.

Perhaps it is no accident that these other writers are scientists while Hitchens is not, and I am partial to science-based critiques of religion. I believe that it is science that is steadily demolishing the case for religion and god and thus scientists are best situated to deliver these blows. Science is advancing all the time, explaining the previously inexplicable and giving ever more reasons to not believe in god. In contrast religious apologists have no new arguments and still trot out those proposed by apologist religious philosophers from centuries or millennia ago, people who could only plausibly claim make their cases at a time before Newton and Darwin and Einstein, when the world seemed a lot less comprehensible than it does now. Even then, these philosophers' claims have to be reinterpreted and limited to take into account modern scientific developments.

So while Hitchens' book is a quick and easy read (I finished its nearly 300 pages over a weekend) and I can recommend it, it is not a book that will be on my reference shelf to be periodically sought for fresh insights.

When reading a book I like to mark out for future reference good passages that make a point tellingly. There are some in Hitchens' book that are very good and I have used them in previous posts. But sadly, he had only a very few passages that struck me as worth preserving.

God is Not Great is a good book, worth reading, but I expected much better. Perhaps that is my fault.

POST SCRIPT: Dan Savage in South Carolina

Dan Savage reports from South Carolina just before the Republican primary, and then has an amusing discussion about his experiences there with religion on Bill Maher's show.

October 30, 2007

Is Dumbledore gay?

By now everyone is aware of the bombshell dropped into the Harry Potter world by creator J. K. Rowling announcing that she had always envisaged Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore as gay, although she had not made it explicit in the books.

Advocates of gay rights have welcomed Rowling's statement, although some have said that they would have liked to have had this development made clear in the books itself, rather than revealed as an afterword. Those who already saw the books as evil because its magical aspects appeared like witchcraft to them, now have another reason to condemn the books, seeing it as an attempt by the author to 'further the gay agenda.' They fear that by making the most universally admired character in the books gay, young children will become (oh, the horror!) more tolerant of gay people.

But Rowling's announcement raises a different issue that has not received much attention and that is the question of to what extent an author has control of the content of her books after they have been published. In this case, does the fact that Rowling wrote Dumbledore thinking of him as a gay character actually make him so?

When I read the Harry Potter books, the question of Dumbledore's or any other adult person's sexuality rarely crossed my mind. The books are quite innocent in that respect and this is typical for this kind of British boarding school fiction where teachers tend to be portrayed as aloof, asexual figures, with no real life outside the classroom and school. On rare occasions I did idly consider the possibility of whether any romance existed between Dumbledore and Professor Minerva McGonagall that would be revealed at the end. There was nothing in the books to suggest this. It simply seemed like they would make a nice compatible couple, spending a quiet retirement together.

So is Dumbledore gay? One school of thought would argue that if his creator says so, then he must be so. After all, the entire Harry Potter universe is a product solely of her imagination so surely she has the right to determine the nature of each character. But the relationship of the author to her creations is not that simple because another school of thought says that once a book is published, it is no longer 'owned' by the author and the meaning of the books now lies with whatever meaning the reader assigns. While the reader cannot change the text in any way or create new facts, the reader's right to interpretation is on a par with that of the writer.

According to the latter view, since I had never considered the possibility that Dumbledore was gay while reading the books, he is not so, at least to me. Of course, now that this possibility has been raised, a re-reading of the books might cause me to change my mind, seeing in his character things I had not seen before. We all have experienced occasions when a conversation we have had or a film we have seen or a book we have read is suddenly recollected in a dramatic new light because we subsequently received new information. But whether Dumbledore is gay that is something that has to be determined by each reader, not the author.

I recall an author whose novels were sometimes assigned as texts by high school teachers and students would be asked to write essays on what was meant by such and such a passage. The author said that some enterprising students, realizing that he was still around, would track him down and call him to ask what he meant, hoping to get the 'correct' answer to their essay prompt. He would reply that he didn't know any more than they did. He was not trying to dodge the question, he was just expressing the view that once a work is published, the author has relinquished control of the meaning of the work. The same issues arise with the meaning of a painting or a sculpture or a piece of music.

This does not mean that all creators are comfortable relinquishing control of their work. I recall the story of an art museum docent who was horrified to find a visitor painting over a work hanging on the museum wall. Upon arrest and questioning, the 'vandal' turned out to be the original artist who had not been quite satisfied with the work he had sold, and had decided to make some changes.

A colleague and friend of mine Professor Christine Cano wrote a fascinating book called Proust's Deadline (2007) which dealt with the publishing history of Marcel Proust's epic multivolume novel In Search of Lost Time (formerly called Remembrance of Things Past). The volumes were published over the period 1913-1927, the last three edited and published posthumously after his death in 1922. Proust, like Rowling, had never published a novel before and yet ambitiously conceived of the first novel as an epic work whose story needed many volumes (seven in both cases) to tell. But whereas Rowling's story lent itself to being split into episodes and she seemed to have been a highly disciplined writer and mapped out the plotline carefully from the start and stuck to it, Proust had a much harder time of it. He was constantly rewriting, backtracking, changing course, and making revisions.

In 1987, long after Proust's death, one of his original publishers issued a revised version of Proust's novel based on an original manuscript in which Proust seemed, just before his death, to have deleted a huge 250 page chunk out of one of the novels. This posed a dilemma for Proust readers. Which was the 'real' novel: The longer version that had long been considered the canonical one? Or the 1987 abridged version that seemed to represent Proust's 'final' thoughts on his own work? Cano and most Proust scholars think that what was originally published is the final word. Once a work is published, the author's control over the story is over.

In a very minor way, I face the same problem with this blog. Sometimes, just after I have posted an item, I think of a revision that might improve the text. But I somehow feel that it is not quite correct to make the change, even though it is still 'my' work and I am the publisher. Once it has appeared on the internet, to be seen by the world, it no longer seems to belong to me except in the purely technical sense of owning the copyright. The only changes I make to published posts are if I discover a glaring factual error or a typo. I avoid making any substantive changes in meaning.

My discomfort with post-publishing changes may be because I have grown up with the older publishing model, where the appearance of a book was a landmark event simply because of the complex nature of creating a physical object. A bound book in one's hand has a sense of finality. Internet publishing, where changes can be easily made in a few minutes, has created a new dynamic. As it gains ground, it is not clear when any work will be seen as the author's final word.

POST SCRIPT: Janeane Garofalo

Watch actress and comedian Janeane Garofalo on a talk show a month before the invasion of Iraq. Notice that she was right about almost everything, unlike the idiotic interviewer. And yet she, and other people who were equally right, are almost never seen or heard from on the mainstream media while those who were wrong about everything (like the interviewer) are still there, this time yelling for war with Iran.

October 16, 2007

Harry Potter and the supernatural

The release of each new Harry Potter book or film bring out of the woodwork those religious people who are disturbed by them and decide they need to spam everyone and try to make money from it as well.

I received a spam email following the release of Deathly Hallows that recycled old warnings about the subversive nature of the books and asking me to buy a video to help combat the Potter menace. It said:

Through Harry's world of sorcery [children] are learning the occultic tools -- occult visualization and soulish mind power, wands, brooms, spells and curses.

In this video, you will see how completely occult is the world of Harry Potter. After reading the Harry Potter books, millions of children will demand to see Warner Bros. new movie, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

Christian parents have faced a similar problem for years with the teaching of evolution in their public schools. They have responded by teaching their children that they cannot believe everything they are taught in school. Now, with the Harry Potter books on sorcery becoming part of public school curriculum, parents need to know enough about it to also teach their children that the spell-casting and other activities of Harry Potter are also forbidden territory. This video will help.

I have touched on this topic before and I said I that those religious people who objected to the Harry Potter books on the grounds that they seemed to promote witchcraft had it all wrong. The reasons for their objections should have been that the wizarding community seemed to be all atheists. The magic in the books does not involve any kind of spiritualism. Instead it seems to follow a prescribed set of rules and students learned about spells the way craftsmen learn the skills of a trade, by learning recipes and prescriptions and carefully choreographed series of actions. It is more like technology than dealing with the spiritual world.

What is notable about the books is the lack of any formal religion or religious practices, Satanic or otherwise. There are no ritualized practices of any kind. Since Christmas falls during the school year, its presence is acknowledged but it is clearly purely a Muggle phenomenon that happens in the background. As far as the wizarding community is concerned, Christmas only involves exchanging presents. I cannot recall any person in the books praying for anything or to anyone or invoking god, even when they were in the most dire straits and facing immense dangers and even death. Although some wizards were 'godparents' of others, these seemed to be just formal titles without any religious significance.

But there were many mentions of the afterlife and communications with people who were dead. As I have said before, the idea of an afterlife where our loved ones exist and whom we can hope to make contact with again is a much more appealing prospect than a god and one can see why it has such a strong hold on people's imaginations. It also makes for good drama. J. K. Rowling's mother, of whom the author speaks fondly, died while she was writing her first book in the series and Rowling mentions her regret that she did not know about the books. The strong themes of people being able to communicate with the dead under limited circumstances may have been a reflection of her own sense of loss for her mother's companionship.

The absence of god and the devil and other supernatural entities may reflect Rowling's own religious perspective but may also be due to the concrete needs of fantasy writers. I am not in general a fan of the fantasy genre but as commenter Shruti pointed out in response to a previous post, it seems that such writers have good reasons for keeping gods out of the picture. It is hard to mix fantasy used in novels with the even greater fantasy that is god.

In regular fiction, one can have characters who experience all kinds of problems because even deeply religious people are used to the fact that god does not intervene in everyday life, even though they continue to believe he can. So they don't ask why god did not step in (say) to stop some evil or save a major character from dying.

But when you are dealing with the world of magic, you have chipped away at the wall that separates the real world from the magical and then it is hard to explain why god is not playing an active role in the events. If wizards can use spells, then why isn't god the biggest, baddest wizard out there? Where is god while the forces of good and evil are battling each other on the fields of Hogwarts? It is much easier for the novelist to keep god out of the picture altogether. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there did not seem to be a god either, though I only saw the films and have not read the books. Perhaps those who are more familiar with the fantasy genre can help me out here and say if there are any fantasy writers who have a role for god in their books.

Whatever the reason, the absence of any forms of religion or religious observances in the Harry Potter books is quite striking. It would be an interesting study to see what influence these books have had on children's views of god, religion, and spirituality in general.

POST SCRIPT: Left brained or right brained?

I am not much of a fan of things that seem to provide quickie answers to complex questions but this one is fun. It shows a silhouette of a twirling dancer and whether you see her as turning clockwise or counterclockwise (looking from the top presumably) supposedly determines which of your brain hemispheres is dominant.

Curiously, when I first looked at it, she seemed to be going clockwise for a very brief moment but then suddenly switched to counter-clockwise. I could never recapture that original perception.

September 04, 2007

Reflections on the Harry Potter books (no spoilers)

I read the last book in the Harry Potter series Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows about a week after it was released. It was necessary that I read it soon because I am surrounded by people who are die-hard Potter fans and they could not talk freely about it in my presence until I had done so.

This was a nice quality about true Harry Potter aficionados They tend to be very scrupulous about not wanting to spoil other people's fun, and carefully avoid saying anything that might give the ending away. So even though I surf the web and read a lot of websites, I found it easy to avoid accidentally tripping into a site that had spoilers. Of course, very shortly people who have not read the book or do not care for the series or even actually hate it will learn what happened and will not hesitate to reveal the ending, thinking it silly to treat it with such care. Such people do not really understand the wonder that is in books.

The whole Harry Potter phenomenon has been curious. Children in general have loved the books, but the adult reaction has spread across the board. Many loved the books as much as children did. There were, of course, those religious people who objected to the books on the grounds that it promoted witchcraft. There were also those who did not themselves read them but thought that having children read long books was a good thing. Meanwhile some book snobs sneered that the Potter books were just childish escapism and that children would be better off reading Wuthering Heights or other elevated forms of literature.

Although I am not one who went to the extent of dressing up as a wizard and attending parties, I found all that hype to be harmless fun and cannot understand those who frowned on it as overblown. What can be so bad about people getting highly involved with books and having fun with them? I also found it hard to sympathize with those adults who measured the value of the series based on whether it encouraged reading in general. Some praised the books because they felt it provided a doorway for children to enter the world of literature. Others said that it had a negative effect and pointed to some evidence that said that Potter fans were not moving on to read other books because they did not have the same appeal.

I find this debate to be silly. Why must the value of books be measured by whether they serve any important function? Why can't we just enjoy them just for their own sake? Clearly many, many people obtained a great deal of enjoyment from the books and that should be enough. Maybe the books encouraged them to tackle Beowulf next or maybe they went back to playing video games. Why should that influence our judgment of the books?

As for the books themselves, some people complained about the occasional uneven pacing where there seemed to be long stretches of time when little or nothing happened. This was especially true in the very last book. This was probably due to the books being firmly in the genre of British boarding school literature. In that genre, the stories follow two complementary schedules. One format is situated in the school or its environs and invariably starts with the beginning of the school year and the children arriving at the school from all over the country, the adventure beginning soon after, and ending just in time near the end of the school year when all the children disperse for the summer holidays.

The other schedule arises because the action is situated in a town and begins with children arriving home from boarding schools for the summer holidays, having an adventure whose end coincides with the end of summer and everyone then dispersing to their various schools for the new year.

J. K. Rowling follows the first schedule and this formula enforces a fairly rigid timetable on the adventure as she has to make sure that the plot is stretched out over nine months or so, and this requires a certain amount of treading water where the characters just fill in the time.

In the early books the reader does not notice this because there is a lot of character development, details about boarding school life, studying for tests, quidditch matches, and side plots that can be woven into the story, providing some humor as well. But in later books, as the emphasis shifted to the more serious and direct confrontation between the Voldemort and Potter sides, filling in the time gaps became more difficult although Rowling's skill as a writer managed to hide it well most of the time.

The first time the stretching out showed for me was in book four Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in which the central action involved the Triwizard tournament. This involved teams from three different schools, two of whom sent a large contingent to Hogwarts for it. The tournament involved just three events that individually lasted at most a few hours each, and realistically the whole thing could have been completed over a weekend (or at most a few days) like most interschool tournaments, But in the book there were long intervals between the events that lasted months. Although accommodating a huge number of visitors at Hogwarts for so long a time would have been unrealistic, no satisfactory explanation was given as to why this was necessary.

These are minor quibbles but may help to explain why in Deathly Hallows, the middle section had our hero and his friends wandering around in the woods with no clearly discernible purpose. Although compressing the time would have tightened the pacing, that would have resulted in the adventure ending before Christmas, something that Rowling presumably felt she had to avoid.

All in all, this was a very good series of books. Rowling handled emotions well, dealing with tragedy and death without being maudlin, with love without being sappy, and drawing moral lessons without being preachy.

December 29, 2006

Can the curriculum at Hogwarts be called science?

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.

I have somehow completed another full year of blogging. Over the year I have made about 250 posts, written over three hundred thousand words, and had a total of about 750,000 hits. In the process of researching for the posts, I have learned a lot.

I would like to thank all the people who visited, read, and commented. It has been a real pleasure and I wish all of you the very best for 2007.)

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke makes the point that any sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic to the naïve observer. This seems to be a good observation to apply to the magic that is practiced at Hogwarts. What seems to exist there is a world with highly advanced "technology", operating under strict rules that the inhabitants know how to manipulate. The more mature wizards seem to easily produce consistent results with their spells while the novices mess around until they get it right. This is not very different from what we do in the Muggle world, except that we are manipulating computers and cars that are controlled by knobs and dials and switches and keyboards, while the wizards use wands and spells. It is not a mystery to other wizards how specific results are obtained and what is required to achieve those results is skill and practice.

What is intriguing is that while the experienced wizards and witches know how to manipulate the wands and words and potions to achieve results that seem magical to us Muggles, they do not really understand the rules themselves. Hey don't even seem to be interested in understanding how their magic works. The classes at Hogwarts seem to be almost exclusively hands-on and practical, using trial and error methods, with no theory of magic. Hogwarts is more like a trade school, where they teach a craft. It is like a school of carpentry or pharmacy or boat making where you learn that "if you do this, then that will happen" without actually learning the underlying principles.

The world of Hogwarts is closer to the medieval world, where there were highly skilled craftsmen who were able to build cathedrals and ships without understanding the underlying science. Introducing modern knowledge and sensibilities into an earlier time period is a staple of fantasy and science fiction, and writers like Rowling, and Mark Twain with his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court do it well.

An interesting question to speculate on is whether the magic the students learn at Hogwarts castle would be classified as science today. If we go back to Aristotle, when he tried to distinguish science from other forms of knowledge he classified knowledge into ' know how' (the ability to consistently achieve certain results) and 'know why' (the underlying reasons and principles for the achievement). It is only the latter kind of knowledge that he counted as science. The 'know how' knowledge is what we would now call technology. For example, a boat maker can make excellent ships (the 'know how') without knowing anything about density or the role that the relative density of materials plays in sinking and floating (the 'know why').

Trying to make the world of Hogwarts consistent with modern science would have been difficult. Rowling manages to finesse this question by making life in Hogwarts similar to life in the middle ages, with no electricity, computers, television, and other modern gadgets. Students at Hogwarts don't use cell phones and instant messaging. In one book, this kind of anachronism is explained by Hermione saying, without any explanation, that electric devices don't work inside Hogwarts. By artfully placing the reader back in a time when it was easier to envisage magic (in the form of highly advanced technology) being taken for granted in the world, and the tools of modern scientific investigation were unavailable, Rowling manages to avoid the kinds of awkward scientific questions that would ruin the effect.

Thus Rowling manages to avoid the science dilemma altogether by creating in Hogwarts what seems to be a purely 'know how' world. This enables her to let magic be the technology that drives the stories forward.

POST SCRIPT: John Edwards declares his candidacy

I tend to be a bit cynical about politicians from mainstream parties because both parties are pro-war and pro-business but John Edwards, who announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in 2008, seems like a cut above the rest. In his announcement he said some encouraging things.

He pledged to "reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, combat poverty and global warming" and "he favored rolling back some of the tax cuts provided to wealthy Americans under President Bush as well as enacting new taxes on the profits of oil companies." He also wants to guarantee universal health care for everyone.

He said that his 2002 vote to endorse the invasion of Iraq was a mistake and that "We need to reject this McCain doctrine of surging troops and escalating the war in Iraq. . .We need to make clear we're going to leave and we need to start leaving Iraq."

The issues he highlighted include "restoring the nation's moral leadership around the globe, beginning in Iraq with a drawdown of troops; strengthening the middle class and "ending the shame of poverty"; guaranteeing health care for every American; fighting global warming; and ending what he called America's addiction to oil."

That's not a bad platform on which to run. Here is his campaign website and below is a preview of his announcement.

If he gets the nomination and persuades Russ Feingold to be his running mate, that would be a ticket with real promise.

December 28, 2006

The problem with parallel worlds

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

Fantasy writers like J. K. Rowling who want to interweave the magical with the ordinary face some serious challenges. As long as you stay purely within the world of magic at Hogwarts, you can create a self-contained world obeying its own rules. But there is clearly some added drama that accrues when you can contrast that world with the world we live in, because that helps readers to identify more with the characters. Having wizards live among Muggles opens up plenty of opportunities for both comedy and dramatic situations. It also enables us to imagine ourselves in the story, to think that there might be a parallel world that we get glimpses of but do not recognize because we do not know what to look for. Maybe our neighbors are witches and we don't know it.

The situation faced by authors like Rowling in coming up with a realistic scenario that convincingly weaves the magic and ordinary worlds is not unlike the problem facing religious people who believe in a parallel world occupied by god, heaven, angels, etc. For this parallel religious world to have any tangible consequences for people in the normal world, the two worlds must overlap at least at a few points. But how can you make the intersections consistent? How can god, who presumably exists in the parallel universe, intervene in the natural world and yet remain undetected? In a previous posting, I discussed the difficult questions that need to be addressed in making these connections fit into a coherent worldview.

In Rowling's world, one connecting point between the magical and normal worlds is the pub The Leaky Cauldron whose front door opens onto the normal world and whose back has a gate that opens onto Diagon Alley, a parallel magical world. Another connecting point is at Kings Cross railway station where the brick wall between platforms nine and ten is a secret doorway onto platform 9 ¾, where the students catch the train to Hogwarts. A third is the house at 12 Grimmauld Place, and so on.

But this plot device of having gateways connecting the two worlds, while amusing, creates problems if you try to analyze it too closely. (This is the curse of many, many years of scientific training, coupled with a determinedly rationalistic worldview. It makes me want to closely analyze everything, even fiction, for internal logical consistency.)

For example, although platform 9 ¾ is hidden from the Muggles in some kind of parallel world, the train to Hogwarts somehow seems to get back into the real world on its way to Hogwarts because it travels through the English countryside. I initially thought that this countryside might also be in the parallel world, except that in one book Ron and Harry catch up with the train in their flying car, and they started off in the normal world. In another book we are told that Hogwarts is also in the Muggle world but that it is charmed so that Muggles only see what looks like a ruined castle. We also see owls carrying mail between Hogwarts and the normal world. So clearly there must be many boundaries between the magic and Muggle worlds. What happens when people and owls cross these other boundaries?

When I read the books, such questions are for me just idle curiosity. I like to see how the author deals with these questions but the lack of logical consistency does not really bother me or take anything away from my enjoyment of the books. Rowling is not sloppy. She respects her readers' intelligence, and she gives the reader enough of a rationale for believing in her two-worlds model that we can be taken along for the ride. The logical inconsistencies she glosses over are, I think, unavoidable consequences of trying to create this kind of parallel universe model, not unlike those encountered by science fiction writers striving for plausibility. To her credit, she is skilful enough to provide enough plausibility so that the reader is not troubled (or even notices) unless he or she (like me) is actually looking for problems.

But the problems Rowling faces in constructing a two worlds model that is logically consistent is similar to that faced by people who want to believe in a spiritual world that exists in parallel with the physical world. Since Rowling is writing a work of fiction and nothing of importance rides on whether we accept the inconsistencies or not, we can just close our eyes to these minor flaws and enjoy the books.

But the same cannot be said for the similar problems that confront two-world models that underlies most religious beliefs that have a god, because we are now not dealing with fiction but presumably real life. And being able to construct a two-worlds model (with gateways between the spiritual and physical worlds) that is logically consistent is important because it may determine whether people believe or disbelieve in a god.

It was my personal inability to be able to do this that finally convinced me to become an atheist.

POST SCRIPT: Going to church

Homer Simpson makes the case for not doing so.

December 27, 2006

The secular world of Harry Potter

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

After reading the latest book in the Harry Potter series (#6 in the series called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) I got involved in discussions with serious aficionados of the series as to what might happen in the upcoming book, which will be the last in the series. I made my predictions but they were scorned by these experts since they knew I had not read the earlier books 1, 3, 4, and 5. (I had read #2 a few years ago.) The Potter mavens said that since the author had planned the books out carefully as one long, coherent story, what I was doing was like trying to predict the end of a whodunit after skipping two-thirds of the plot.

I had to concede the justice of the criticism and so the last few weeks I have been reading the entire series and am now in the middle of my last unread book, #5 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I am now well on the way to Harry Potter geekdom, though I will never reach the uber-geek status of some. It has not been a sacrifice on my part since the books are well written and I have been kept up many a late night because I could not put the books down. Clearly J. K. Rowling knows how to spin a good story.

What has struck me in reading the books in rapid succession over a short period of time is how secular and rational the world described by the books are. This may come as a surprise given that they are about witches, wizards, hexes, curses, and all kinds of magic that violate pretty much all the known laws of physics.

But while the world of Hogwarts is one in which magical phenomena are everyday events, it does not seem to be at all religious or irrational. So far not a single character has revealed any religious inclinations and there have been no prayers or any form of organized worship of any kind. Sunday seems to be just another off day. I cannot remember even seeing the word "god" used, even as an involuntary exclamation or a swear word.

Christmas does occur in every book but it seems to be true to its pagan origins and is celebrated as a secular holiday, with decorations, Christmas trees, feasting, and the exchange of presents, but with no indication that there is any religious significance to it. The closest that anything came to Christianity was a mention of the carol O Come All Ye Faithful which has references to Jesus and god, although if one is not a Christian you would not know this since the words of the carol are not given in the book. Clearly the world of wizards and witches and goblins and other assorted characters has no need of god.

Even the magic that is done seems quite rational. While the laws of physics as we know them seem to be routinely violated, the fundamental methodological principle of causality (that phenomena have causes that can be investigated systematically) remains intact. Spells are highly structured and prescribed and you have to do it in a particular way to achieve the desired result. Potions have to follow specific recipes to be effective. Deviations from the rigid rules of operation result in aberrant results, the source of much of the humor and drama of the books. It seems as if everything, even magic, follows laws that govern their behavior, and everything seems quite rational. One gets the sense that so-called "intelligent design creationism" (or IDC), with its emphasis on unknown and unnamed agents acting in innately unknowable ways, would not get a warm welcome in the rationalist atmosphere at Hogwarts. IDC ideas would have a tough time getting into that curriculum too.

Many fundamentalist Christian groups object to the Harry Potter books because they are drenched in sorcery and witchcraft, which the Bible supposedly condemns. (Scroll down this site for some negative reviews.) They say that the books lure young children towards sorcery, which they identify with devil worship.

I think these critics are making a profound mistake. Nowhere do the characters, either good or bad, do anything that can be remotely described as worshiping anything. Good and evil are represented by people such as Dumbledore and Voldemort, not by deities.

The religious fundamentalists, if they want to object to the books, should be focusing on the fact that, as far as I can tell, the entire wizarding community consists of a bunch of thoroughgoing atheists.

POST SCRIPT: SCOOP - The name of the 'intelligent designer' revealed!

In an earlier post, I mentioned how the so called 'intelligent design creationist' (IDC) people were extremely careful not to identify their 'intelligent designer, using various circumlocutions to avoid doing so. I thought it was prety obvious that the intelligent designer was god and said so. But I now realize I was wrong. Reading the Harry Potter books, the truth suddenly came upon me in a flash when I realized that nearly all the wizards and witches also carefully avoided giving a name to someone and kept referring to him as "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

The intelligent designer has to be Lord Voldemort. Remember, you read it here first.

December 26, 2006

Harry Potter's school life and mine

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

One of the appealing things for me personally about the Potter books are the similarities with my own education, which results in waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I read the stories. I went to a single-sex private school in Sri Lanka that was modeled on the British boarding school like Hogwarts, although about half the students (including me) commuted from home. We were called 'day-scholars' which, looking back now, seems like a quaint but dignified label when compared to the more accurate 'commuters.'

As in Hogwarts, we had teachers (some of whom we liked and others whom we disliked), who mostly taught in a didactic style, and we did have punishments like detention, writing lines, and even canings. In my own school, only the principal and vice principals could officially cane students, though some teachers still resorted to painful raps on the knuckles with rulers or even slaps across the face. Our chemistry teacher, who was an exceedingly kind and gentle man, nevertheless could be provoked to fits of violent rage which completely transformed him for a short time into a raging monster, like the Incredible Hulk, during which he would lash out with the rubber hoses that were readily available in the laboratories, sometimes raising welts on an offending student's arm. The rage would subside as quickly as it was triggered, and the teacher would be immediately overcome with remorse, apologizing profusely and begging for forgiveness, which we always agreed to because we liked him. We were fascinated by his Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations.

We also had the system of 'houses', which involved the separation of students into separate groups (such as Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw), each of which had a master in charge. The boarded students (or 'boarders') in my school, like those attending Hogwarts, even had separate dormitories based on the houses. These houses were set in competition with each other, earning points for various achievements, These points were totaled at the end of the year, with a trophy going to the winning house, giving them bragging rights for a year.

The houses were a good way of encouraging team spirit and intramural competition, and provided opportunities for students who were not good enough to be in the school teams (or 'varsity' teams as they are known here) to still take part in a competitive program with their fellow students. I think that this system helped to increase participation of students in extracurricular activities because most students took seriously their responsibilities to help their house do well. The downside was that the competition could sometimes be too fierce, leading to churlish and unsportsmanlike behavior. The intramural quidditch games that take place at Hogwarts were mirrored in the cricket, rugby, and field hockey matches at my school.

We also had the 'prefect' system, which must sound strange to American readers. (Hermione is a prefect in book 6 and I too was a prefect during my last two years in school.) A prefect was essentially a student who was given authority over his fellow students. A prefect was selected by the master in charge of each house and appointed by the school principal. Very few students were prefects. We had special privileges that others did not, such as being allowed to leave school premises during the day and a special lounge reserved exclusively for our use. We had the power to enforce rules during the school day, at special functions, and at athletic events, and could issue punishments such as detentions to 'evil doers.' In earlier times, prefects at my school were also allowed to use corporal punishments (such as caning misbehaving students), but that was taken away before my time as the use of corporal punishments became more restricted.

At that time, we saw it as a great privilege and honor to be selected as a prefect. It was viewed as recognizing and building leadership qualities. Looking back now, it does not seem to be such an unadulterated good thing. I sometimes wonder whether the house and prefect system was not also a cheap means of extending the reach of the school administration by creating a free labor force of rule enforcers. The house system and the prefect system may also have been a means of enhancing teacher and administration control over students by weakening overall student cohesion, another manifestation of the 'divide and rule' philosophy that the British used so successfully to maintain control over their colonies but which often resulted in ethnic strife and civil wars when they left.

But at other times I think that I am reading too much into this, and seeing too many dark undercurrents in well meaning, if perhaps misguided, attempts at encouraging student participation and developing student leadership. Perhaps I should lighten up.

POST SCRIPT: A-wim-a-weh-heh-heh

Here's some YouTube fun for the holidays.

December 25, 2006

Harry Potter's school life

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from writing new posts. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, starting with those about the Harry Potter books. It was announced recently that the title of the final book in the series is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Original posts will begin again on Wednesday, January 3, 2007. Until then, season's greetings and best wishes for 2007 to everyone.)

I just finished reading the latest episode of the Harry Potter saga. I cannot claim to be a rabid fan since I have read only book 2 (Chamber of Secrets) and book 6 (Half-Blood Prince), although I have seen all three film versions, but they have all been enjoyable.

Reading these books reminds me of my own school days and of much of the British schoolboy literature I read as a child, especially the Billy Bunter series and the Tom Merry series, both written by the same author Frank Richards. (These books were produced at such a prodigious rate that there were suspicions that 'Frank Richards' was the pseudonym of a whole stable of authors just churning out the stuff.)

There was a rigid formula to these books, the main features of which the Potter series largely adheres to. The schools were all boarding schools, and the stories started with students arriving at the beginning of the academic year and having various adventures that fortuitously ended just at the end of the school year. (There was a complementary series of children's books by Enid Blyton which took place during the summer, with a group of friends arriving at their home town from various boarding schools, and having an adventure that ended just in time for them to go their separate ways the next academic year.)

The big difference between Harry Potter and the earlier Billy Bunter and Tom Merry series is that although the context of a British boarding school is the same, the Potter books are far better written, with complex plots and characters developed realistically, dealing with important issues of good and evil, and real human emotions. The books I read as a child had stereotypical characters (the smart student, the bully, the figure of fun, the lisping aristocrat, the athlete, the sarcastic one, etc.) who all behaved in highly predictable ways. Those characters were two-dimensional and never changed, never grew or matured. This was reassuring in some ways because you knew exactly what you were getting with the books, but you cannot enjoy them as an adult the way you can with Potter.

The earlier books and schools were also single sex and we young boys only read the books about boys' schools, while girls only read equivalent books dealing with girls' boarding schools. The only members of the opposite sex that appeared in the books were siblings who made cameo appearances. For all we knew, the books written for the boys may have been identical to those written for the girls with just the genders (and sports) of the characters switched, such was the rigid separation between what boys and girls read when we were growing up. There was no romance whatsoever in any of the story lines. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is co-ed, a major difference.

Another similarity between Potter and the earlier books is that the educational practices in all the schools are pretty conventional. The classes are run in an authoritarian way. As someone pointed out, Hogwarts seems a lot like a trade school, with students learning very specific skills involving potions, hexes, and the like, mostly by rote memory and repetitive practice, similar to the way the earlier books had students learning Latin and Greek. There does not really seem to be a theory of magic or even any interest in developing one. Some magic works, others don't, with no serious attempts to discover why. There is little or no questioning of the teachers or class discussions, or inquiry-oriented teaching.

Rowling is mining a very rich vein of British school literature. As we will see in the next posting, the world she creates is probably very familiar to anyone (like me) who grew up in an English-language school anywhere in the British colonies. What she has done is added magic (and good writing) to a tried and true formula. But since that tradition of boarding school-based fiction is not present in the US, it is interesting that she has managed to strike such a chord in readers here as well.

POST SCRIPT: Holiday laughs

Comedian Eddie Izzard gives some background on the Christmas and Easter holidays.

August 25, 2006

Thoughts on the book Soul of a Chef

(Here are my remarks to the class of incoming first year students at Case's Share the Vision program held in Severance Hall which featured the common reading book Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman.)

They say that two things in life are inevitable – death and taxes. To this, you have to add a third and that is that at you will have to serve on many committees. Most committees, even in universities, tend to be routine and boring affairs but one of the best committees that I have served on for the past two years is that which selects the common reading for the incoming class and which this year selected the book Soul of a Chef. The reason that I enjoy this particular committee assignment is that I love books and reading, and this committee brings together students and staff and faculty who share that interest to talk about books and ideas. This exercise is what lies at the heart of a university. So you never have to twist my arm to get me to serve on this committee.

Having said all that, I must say that when this book was first selected, I had some personal misgivings about it. Let me explain why. How the selection process works is that any member of the university community is welcome to nominate books, so we get a huge number of nominations. Of those, some are immediately eliminated for various practical reasons that I won't go into but that still leaves a lot of books remaining. Of course each person on the committee cannot all read all the books that make the final cut, so each person selects a few books to read and reports back to the committee on their merits. We then compare notes, whittle down the list even more, and then make the final selection.

I did not select Soul of a Chef as one of the books that I would personally read. It deals with material that is of no real interest to me. Food to me is largely just a means of sustenance and little more. The world of high cuisine is not my world. In fact, I have never ever even eaten in a fancy restaurant and have no real desire to do so, except as a curiosity, and only if somebody else is paying the expensive bill. I rarely ever cook and when I do no one else wants to eat what I make. I have no ambitions of rising to the level of being even a mediocre cook. So the book basically dealt with a world that was completely foreign to me and which I had no real desire to enter.

But I went along with the choice because the students on the committee were very enthusiastic about it and I respected their judgment. But now I had to read the book. How do you set about reading a book that one is unenthusiastic about? When I flipped open to the very first page, there were already three new words, cooking terms that I had never heard before in my life, which was also kind of discouraging.

It then occurred to me that the situation I was in was a reversal of the typical teacher-student roles. Usually, it is the teacher who selects a book and is really enthusiastic about it, while students are completely baffled as to what is so great about it, groan at the choice, and wonder how on Earth they are going to work their way through it. Those of you who had to read Moby Dick for high school English know exactly what I am talking about. The teacher excitedly announces that you are going to read the greatest novel in American literature and then hands out what initially seems to you like 500 pages of very small type of a textbook dealing with the whaling industry, a subject about which you never had the slightest interest.

So I told myself to follow the suggestions that I give my students when I assign a book for them to read and know that they may not be as enthusiastic as I. Rather than simply read the book and absorb all of it, I tell them to read it with an attitude, with the following four questions in mind, and to focus on those parts of the book that provide answers to them. The four questions are:

1. What is the author trying to convince me of?
2. What is the author assuming that I already think about the topic?
3. Was the author successful in getting me to change my mind?
4. Does the book provide any insights to things that I care more about?

Reading a book with this kind of attitude makes it much more enjoyable because then you are effectively engaging in a dialogue with the author, and sure enough I became very engrossed in the book that I had been initially hesitant to read. It also helped that it is a far easier read than Moby Dick.

So here are my answers to those four questions.

1. What is the author trying to convince me of?

It seemed to me that the author was trying to make the case that being a chef was very demanding and requires one to be very tough, both physically and mentally. There was a macho, even sexist, strain to being a chef that was revealed in the book, especially the first part where the cooks were taking the certified master chef exam. Recall the sole woman who was tearfully eliminated early on. Basically the author was implying that it takes a 'real man' to be a chef.

2. What is the author assuming that I already think about the topic?

It seemed to me that the author was assuming that the reader thought cooking was a pretty wimpy activity, a hobby, a pastime, something that anybody could do by just picking up a cookbook and following a recipe.

I will address question 3 after I discuss question 4 about the relevance to things I care about.

4. There were other important educational lessons from the book that relate closely to the academic experience you will have here at Case:

1. Many times students complain that what they learn in class is not related to "real" life. You would think that training to be a chef would not be like this, that it would involve only making real dishes that people eat. But in the certification exercises, I found it interesting that the training of chefs involved having students master highly contrived dishes that they would never actually make as chefs, but which were meant only to develop specific skills that would come in useful in actual cooking situations.

You will find the same thing in college. If you take an introductory physics course, you will study the behavior of blocks sliding down inclined planes and do a lot of problems about them. Here is a secret. No physicist really cares about blocks sliding down planes. The only reason we ask students to study this type of problem is because it is a very good method of learning important basic physics principles that can be applied in real situations.

Often you need to learn things that are artificial and contrived because they highlight important basics that you can then use for real-life complex problems. Many of the things you will do as students may seem arbitrary (just like the timed tests and the pressure that is put on the chefs) but they have a deeper purpose that may not be apparent at first.

I admit that this can be irritating. Following strict rules can seem tiresome especially when you see experts breaking the very rules that they tell you to follow. You too may want to rebel and break them. But great chefs break the rules only after learning all the rules, because only then do they know what rules to break and when, and what the consequences are. Michael Symon is quoted as an example of someone who knows how to break cooking rules to good ends. Professional physicists are also like that.

2. What may seem trivial or irrelevant to a student can, to the expert, be an important sign of understanding. This was the case of the student crying after failing buffet on page 59. To us, a buffet may seem trivial but not being able to handle it was considered a big deal by the examiners. Things that seem like petty details can contain deep subtleties.

3. Sometime students think that the only kinds of objective judgments that one can make are those to numerical problems on multiple-choice tests. Assessments of essays are thought to be subjective and thus inferior. But the reality is that all assessments are judgments and that expert professionals in the field can often make precise and consistent assessments of things that we might think are purely subjective and opinion. You might think that whether a dish is good or not is largely opinion, just like whether a painting is good or not. But experts in those fields can make surprisingly precise and consistent judgments. For example, Brian gets scores of 62.82 on classical cuisine and 62.55 on mystery basket (p. 115). OK, going to the second decimal point is a bit over the top, but the fact remains that the examiners had little difficulty is agreeing as to the quality of the dishes and rating it on a 100-point scale. The main difference in judgments between cooking and something that appears more objective like physics is that in physics, the judgments that need to be made are buried more deeply and not as easily visible to students until they get to the more advanced levels. But they are still there.

4. When teachers set high standards, it is usually meant to challenge students to reach excellence, not to cause them to fail. Teachers in college are sad when their students fail to do well, just like the examiners were sad when the chefs dropped out at various stages of the exam. Very, very few teachers delight in deliberately failing students and such people do not belong in the teaching profession. Most teachers want their students to succeed and delight when they do so, but at the same time want to ensure that students are challenged so that they grow.

5. The final insight that I got is that the key to success in any thing in life is discovering some aspect of the task that you want to do really well and using that as a gateway to other things. In the case of Thomas Heller, it started with his obsession with making a perfect Hollandaise sauce (p. 266). In repeatedly trying to perfect it, he realized that he wanted to be a chef and used that as his entry point.

Of course, you may not agree with me on any of these answers. That is the beauty of books. They do not have a unique meaning, even to the author. A writer of novels tells of how his book was assigned as a high school text and as a result he would occasionally get phone calls from students who had tracked him down. The students would say that their teacher wanted them to write about what a particular passage means and they thought that the author would know the 'real' answer. He tells them that he does not know what it means any better than they do.

All knowledge is obtained by taking the words that are 'out there' in books and other sources and combining them with our own life experiences to construct our own meanings. This is why the discussions that you have in seminars and with your friends and companions at other times is so important to learning, because that is how we best figure what we believe and what books are saying to us. If your experience at Case ends up as a four-year long in-depth conversation about ideas with other students and faculty, then you have got a real education.

For the third question, was the author successful in convincing me to change my mind? All I want to say is that while reading the book, especially the first part dealing with the grueling certification exam, Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket kept coming to my mind. The first half of that film dealt with the brutal and grueling training that new recruits to the marines undergo.

So I guess the author did manage to persuade me that being a chef required real toughness.

November 04, 2005

Is the curriculum at Hogwarts science?

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke makes the point that any sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic to the naïve observer. This seems to be a good observation to apply to the magic that is practiced at Hogwarts. What seems to exist there is a world with highly advanced "technology", operating under strict rules that the inhabitants know how to manipulate. The more mature wizards seem to easily produce consistent results with their spells while the novices mess around until they get it right. This is not very different from what we do in the Muggle world, except that we are manipulating computers and cars that are controlled by knobs and dials and switches and keyboards, while the wizards use wands and spells. It is not a mystery to other wizards how specific results are obtained and what is required to achieve those results is skill and practice.

What is intriguing is that while the wizards and witches know how to manipulate the wands and words and potions to achieve results that seem magical to us Muggles, they do not really understand the rules themselves. The classes at Hogwarts seem to be almost exclusively hands-on and practical, using trial and error methods, with no theory of magic. Hogwarts is more like a trade school, where they teach a craft. It is like a school of carpentry or pharmacy or boat making where you learn that "if you do this, then that will happen" without actually learning the underlying principles. The world of Hogwarts is closer to the medieval world, where there were highly skilled craftsmen who were able to build cathedrals and ships without understanding the underlying science.

An interesting question to speculate on is whether the magic the students learn at Hogwarts castle would count as science today. If we go back to Aristotle, when he tried to distinguish science from other forms of knowledge he classified knowledge into ' know how' (the ability to achieve certain results) and 'know why' (the underlying reasons and principles for the achievement). It is the latter kind of knowledge that he counted as science. The 'know how' knowledge is what we would now call technology. For example, a boat maker can make excellent ships (the 'know how') without knowing anything about density or the role that the relative density of materials plays in sinking and floating (the 'know why').

Trying to make the world of Hogwarts consistent with modern science would have been difficult. Rowling manages to finesse this question by making life in Hogwarts similar to life in the middle ages, with no electricity, computers, television, and other modern gadgets. Students at Hogwarts don't use cell phones and instant messaging. In one book, this kind of anachronism is explained by Hermione saying that electric devices don't work inside Hogwarts. By artfully effectively placing the reader back in a time when it was easier to envisage magic (in the form of highly advanced technology) being taken for granted in the world, Rowling manages to avoid the kinds of awkward scientific questions that would ruin the effect.

Thus Rowling manages to avoid the science dilemma altogether by creating in Hogwarts what seems to be a purely 'know how' world. This enables her to let magic be the driving technology that moves the story forward.

Introducing modern knowledge and sensibilities into an earlier time period is a staple of fantasy and science fiction, and writers like Rowling, and Mark Twain with his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court do it well.

POST SCRIPT

A survey indicates that more Britons believe in ghosts than they do in god. I am not sure what to make of this, so am just passing it along.

November 03, 2005

The problem with parallel worlds

Fantasy writers like J. K. Rowling who want to interweave the magical with the ordinary face some serious challenges. As long as you stay purely within the world of magic at Hogwarts, you can create a self-contained world obeying its own rules. But there is clearly some added drama that accrues when you can contrast that world with the world we live in, because that helps readers to identify more with the characters. Having wizards live among Muggles opens up plenty of opportunities for both comedy and dramatic situations. It also enables us to imagine ourselves in the story, to think that there might be a parallel world that we get glimpses of but do not recognize because we do not know what to look for. Maybe our neighbors are witches and we don't know it.

The situation faced by authors like Rowling in coming up with a realistic scenario that convincingly weaves the magic and ordinary worlds is not unlike the problem facing religious people who believe in a parallel world occupied by god, heaven, angels, etc. For this parallel religious world to have any tangible consequences for people in the normal world, the two worlds must overlap at least at a few points. But how can you make the intersections consistent? How can god, who presumably exists in the parallel universe, intervene in the natural world and yet remain undetected? In a previous posting, I discussed the difficult questions that need to be addressed in making these connections fit into a coherent worldview.

In Rowling's world, one connecting point between the magical and normal worlds is the pub The Leaky Cauldron whose front door opens onto the normal world and whose back has a gate that opens onto Diagon Alley, a parallel magical world. Another connecting point is at Kings Cross railway station where the brick wall between platforms nine and ten is a secret doorway onto platform 9 ¾, where the students catch the train to Hogwarts. A third is the house at 12 Grimmauld Place, and so on.

But this plot device of having gateways connecting the two worlds, while amusing, creates problems if you try to analyze it too closely. (This is the curse of many, many years of scientific training, coupled with a determinedly rationalistic worldview. It makes me want to closely analyze everything, even fiction, for internal logical consistency.)

For example, although platform 9 ¾ is hidden from the Muggles in some kind of parallel world, the train to Hogwarts somehow seems to get back into the real world on its way to Hogwarts because it travels through the English countryside. I initially thought that this countryside might also be in the parallel world, except that in one book Ron and Harry catch up with the train in their flying car, and they started off in the normal world. In another book we are told that Hogwarts is also in the Muggle world but that it is charmed so that Muggles only see what looks like a ruined castle. We also see owls carrying mail between Hogwarts and the normal world. So clearly there must be many boundaries between the magic and Muggle worlds. What happens when people and owls cross these other boundaries?

When I read the books, such questions are for me just idle curiosity. I like to see how the author deals with these questions but the lack of logical consistency does not bother me or take anything away from my enjoyment of the books. Rowling is not sloppy. She respects her readers' intelligence, and she gives the reader enough of a rationale for believing in her two-worlds model that we can be taken along for the ride. The logical inconsistencies she glosses over are, I think, inevitable consequences of trying to create this kind of parallel universe model. To her credit, she is skilful enough to provide enough plausibility so that the reader is not troubled (or even notices) unless he or she (like me) is actually looking for problems.

But the problems Rowling faces in constructing a two worlds model that is logically consistent is similar to that faced by people who want to believe in a spiritual world that exists in parallel with the physical world. Since Rowling is writing a work of fiction and nothing of importance rides on whether we accept the inconsistencies or not, we can just close our eyes to these minor flaws and enjoy the books.

But the same cannot be said for the similar problems that confront two-world models that underlies most religious beliefs that have a god, because we are now not dealing with fiction but presumably real life. And being able to construct a two-worlds model (with gateways between the spiritual and physical worlds) that is logically consistent is important because it may determine whether people believe or disbelieve in a god. It was my personal inability to do so that finally pushed me into atheism.

POST SCRIPT

As usual, political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow gets to the heart of the Judith Miller-New York Times-WMD story.

November 02, 2005

The secular world of Harry Potter

After reading the latest book in the Harry Potter series (#6 in the series called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) I got involved in discussions with serious aficionados of the series as to what might happen in the upcoming book, which will be the last in the series. I made my predictions but they were scorned by these experts since they knew I had not read the earlier books 1, 3, 4, and 5. (I had read #2 a few years ago.) The Potter mavens said that since the author had planned the books out carefully as one long, coherent story, what I was doing was like trying to predict the end of a whodunit after skipping two-thirds of the plot.

I had to concede the justice of the criticism and so the last few weeks I have been reading the entire series and am now in the middle of my last unread book, #5 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I am now well on the way to Harry Potter geekdom, though I will never reach the uber-geek status of some. It has not been a sacrifice on my part since the books are well written and I have been kept up many a late night because I could not put the books down. Clearly J. K. Rowling knows how to spin a good story.

What has struck me in reading the books in rapid succession over a short period of time is how secular and rational the world described by the books are. This may come as a surprise given that they are about witches, wizards, hexes, curses, and all kinds of magic that violate pretty much all the known laws of physics.

But while the world of Hogwarts is one in which magical phenomena are everyday events, it does not seem to be at all religious or irrational. So far not a single character has revealed any religious inclinations and there have been no prayers or any form of organized worship of any kind. Sunday seems to be just another off day. I cannot remember even seeing the word "god" used, even as an involuntary exclamation or a swear word.

Christmas does occur in every book but it seems to be true to its pagan origins and is celebrated as a secular holiday, with decorations, Christmas trees, feasting, and the exchange of presents, but with no indication that there is any religious significance to it. The closest that anything came to Christianity was a mention of the carol O Come All Ye Faithful which has references to Jesus and god, although if one is not a Christian you would not know this since the words of the carol are not given in the book. Clearly the world of wizards and witches and goblins and other assorted characters has no need of god.

Even the magic that is done seems quite rational. While the laws of physics as we know them seem to be routinely violated, the fundamental methodological principle of causality (that phenomena have causes that can be investigated systematically) remains intact. Spells are highly structured and prescribed and you have to do it in a particular way to achieve the desired result. Potions have to follow specific recipes to be effective. Deviations from the rigid rules of operation result in aberrant results, the source of much of the humor and drama of the books. It seems as if everything, even magic, follows laws that govern their behavior, and everything seems quite rational. One gets the sense that so-called "intelligent design creationism" (or IDC), with its emphasis on unknown and unnamed agents acting in innately unknowable ways, would not get a warm welcome in the rationalist atmosphere at Hogwarts. IDC ideas would have a tough time getting into their curriculum.

Many fundamentalist Christian groups object to the Harry Potter books because they are drenched in sorcery and witchcraft, which the Bible supposedly condemns. (Scroll down this site for some negative reviews.) They say that the books lure young children towards sorcery, which they identify with devil worship.

I think these critics are making a profound mistake. Nowhere do the characters, either good or bad, do anything that can be remotely described as worshiping anything. Good and evil are represented by people such as Dumbledore and Voldemort, not by deities.

The religious fundamentalists, if they want to object to the books, should be focusing on the fact that, as far as I can tell, the whole wizarding community consists of a bunch of thoroughgoing atheists.

POST SCRIPT: SCOOP - The name of the 'intelligent designer' revealed!

In an earlier post, I mentioned how the so called 'intelligent design creationist' (IDC) people were extremely careful not to identify their intelligent designer, using various circumlocutions to avoid doing so. I thought it was pretty obvious that the intelligent designer was god and said so. But I now realize I was wrong. Reading the Harry Potter books, the truth suddenly came upon me in a flash when I realized that nearly all the wizards and witches also carefully avoided giving a name to someone and kept referring to him as "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

The intelligent designer has to be Lord Voldemort. Remember, you read it here first.

August 26, 2005

Reflections on "Mountains Beyond Mountains"

Yesterday (Thursday) was the Share the Vision part of the orientation program for the new Case students. This year's theme was based on the biography Mountains Beyond Mountains: The quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world by Tracy Kidder, which the incoming class had read over the summer. This is a truly inspiring book about a man who is driven to bring quality health care to the poorest of the poor, mainly in remote regions of Haiti. Severance Hall was almost full with students and faculty and I was one of the panel of speakers. Below is the text of the talk I gave to the group.

I was reading Mountains Beyond Mountains and enjoying it when I came across something that made me sad and melancholy. It occurred when I read that Paul Farmer was nine years younger than me. I was immediately reminded of satirist Tom Lehrer who said in the introduction to one of his songs, "It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished." Lehrer was just 37 years old at the time, and he added: "It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years."

I had pretty much that same feeling when reading this book.

Of course, you are much younger than Paul Farmer and so have many years to achieve as much or more than him, if you desire to do so.

But there are still some aspects of reading inspiring biographies of people like Farmer or Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks that can be discouraging, and it is that question that I want to address.

Such people are often portrayed as having confronted some great challenge in their lives that they rose to meet, and so achieved greatness. Unfortunately this portrayal of such people as unusual heroes and saints confronting extraordinary challenges breeds the feeling that these were somehow rare people with special qualities, and that the rest of us either do not have these unusual qualities or that we may not be fortunate enough to be confronted with a great challenge that will enable us to show our mettle.

I remember the high school I went to in Sri Lanka. It was a Christian school and at the beginning and end of each year we would sing a hymn that had the words (not quite in this order):

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide
In the strife of truth with falsehood
For the good or evil side
Some great cause, some great decision,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
Then it is the brave man chooses
While the coward stands aside

It was a very inspiring hymn, so much so that I still remember nearly all the words decades later. When we sang it we hoped that one day we too would be confronted with that once-in-a-lifetime moment, with a stark choice between good and evil, right and wrong, because then we too would bravely choose the side of right and, like Gandhi and King and our other heroes of that time, we would show the world what we were made of.

So we wait for this major choice to occur. And we wait. And we wait. And we wait. And then, one day we find that life has almost passed us by and we have that Tom Lehrer moment of sad realization that we have not really done anything.

I now feel that the sentiment expressed in that hymn is profoundly wrong. In fact, if you look more closely at the lives of the people I mentioned, they did not wait for the great moment of choice, that big decision that changed their lives. What really happened is that these people, throughout their lives, kept making small but important decisions.

To get a visual sense of what I am saying imagine that you are going along some road and waiting for some major fork to appear so that you can choose between two very divergent directions. What the lives of these great people really teach us is that often the road we travel actually has a large number of little forks that each diverge slightly. Each choice does not change our direction by that much. But when we consistently choose to go in a particular direction, we end up going in a much different direction than if we had chosen randomly.

What people like Farmer and the others did was to make deliberate choices in the small things in life. Then when some major decision did come along, they almost did not have to think about what to do. Their instincts, developed by years of small choices, kicked in and they knew what they must do. What I have learned is that it is the little decisions and challenges that we are confronted with every day that matter, Those are the decisions that shape our instincts, that make us who we are.

I remember Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT who has also been a prolific and sharp analyst of US foreign and domestic policies, talking about an incident in his life when he was in elementary or middle school. He said that a fat classmate of his was having his life made miserable by class bullies. Chomsky said that he felt sorry for that poor boy but did nothing to help him. He said that his inaction haunted him afterwards and made him feel guilty and he vowed that henceforth he would always take the side of the underdog. And I believe that that is what made him what he is today. I think all great people, when you look closely at their lives, made small but critical choices all along the way.

So the lesson of Paul Farmer's story is not only to think of grand goals of changing the world, although we should have such goals. It is also to look around us right now, to see who are the people who are the underdogs, who are the people left out, who are the people discriminated against, victimized and picked on, and consistently take their side.

On page 244 of the book, Kidder describes Farmer "stewing over an email from a student who had written that he believed in Farmer's cause but didn't think he could do what Paul did. Farmer said aloud to his computer screen, "I didn't say you should do what I do. I just said these things should be done!""

That's the take home message for me from this book. We should look around and see what should be done, however small, and set about doing it. Paul Rogat Loeb in his excellent book Soul of a Citizen says, "[T]here is no perfect time to get involved in social causes, no ideal circumstances for voicing our convictions. What each of us faces instead is a lifelong series of imperfect moments in which we must decide what we stand for."

I remember the news report of a British soldier who performed an act of heroism. The Queen of England, when giving him an honor, asked him how he made his decision so quickly to risk his life to save others. The soldier played down his heroism saying, "It was nothing. It's just the training."

Training builds instincts. When you consistently take the honorable side, the side of the weaker against the strong, the side of those who have not against those who have, the side of the powerless against the powerful, you find that without even realizing it, you have already made the major decisions of your life. That is the true lesson of biographies like these.

POST SCRIPT

I have been asked by Micah Waldstein and Jim Eastman to appear on their radio show 'Saturday Science' where they discuss current events in the intersection between science, technology and politics. They say the primary topic of discussion will be this blog (Jim has commented on some topics in the past) but I am sure the topics will range further afield.

The show is on Saturday, August 27 from 1:30-2:00 pm on WRUW FM 91.1. You can listen over the internet too.

It should be fun (for me at least!).

August 02, 2005

Harry Potter's school life and mine (safe to read - no spoilers!)

One of the appealing things for me personally about the Potter books are the similarities with my own education, which results in waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I read the stories. I went to a single-sex private school in Sri Lanka that was modeled on the British boarding school like Hogwarts, although about half the students (including me) commuted from home. We were called 'day-scholars' which, looking back now, seems like a quaint but dignified label when compared to the more accurate 'commuters.'

As in Hogwarts, we had teachers (some of whom we liked and others whom we disliked), who mostly taught in a didactic style, and we did have punishments like detention, writing lines, and even canings. In my own school, only the principal and vice principals could officially cane students, though some teachers still resorted to painful raps on the knuckles with rulers or even slaps across the face. Our chemistry teacher, who was an exceedingly kind and gentle man, nevertheless could be provoked to fits of violent rage which completely transformed him for a short time into a raging monster, during which he would lash out with the rubber hoses that were readily available in the laboratories, sometimes raising welts on an offending student's arm. The rage would subside as quickly as it was triggered and the teacher would be immediately overcome with remorse, apologizing profusely and begging for forgiveness, which we always agreed to because we liked him. We were fascinated by his Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations.

We also had the system of 'houses', which involved the separation of students into separate groups (such as Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw), each of which had a master in charge. The boarded students (or 'boarders') even had separate dormitories based on the houses. These houses were set in competition with each other, earning points for various achievements, These points were totaled at the end of the year, with a trophy going to the winning house, giving them bragging rights for a year.

The houses were a good way of encouraging team spirit and intramural competition, and provided opportunities for students who were not good enough to be in the school teams (or 'varsity' teams as they are known here) to still take part in a competitive program with their fellow students. I think that this system helped to increase participation of students in extracurricular activities because most students took seriously their responsibilities to help their house do well. The downside was that the competition could sometimes be too fierce, leading to churlish and unsportsmanlike behavior. The intramural quidditch games that take place at Hogwarts were mirrored in the cricket, rugby, and hockey matches at my school.

We also had the 'prefect' system, which must sound strange to American readers. (Hermione is a prefect in book 6 and I too was a prefect during my last two years in school.) A prefect was essentially a student who was given authority over his fellow students. A prefect was selected by the master in charge of each house and appointed by the school principal. Very few students were prefects. We had special privileges that others did not, such as being allowed to leave school premises during the day and a special lounge reserved exclusively for our use. We had the power to enforce rules during the school day, at special functions, and at athletic events, and could issue punishments such as detentions to 'evil doers.' In earlier times, prefects at my school were also allowed to use corporal punishments (such as caning misbehaving students), but that was taken away before my time as the use of corporal punishments became more restricted.

At that time, we saw it as a great privilege and honor to be selected as a prefect. It was viewed as recognizing and building leadership qualities. Looking back now, it does not seem to be such an unadulterated good thing. I sometimes wonder whether the house and prefect system was not also a cheap means of extending the reach of the school administration by creating a free labor force of rule enforcers. The house system and the prefect system may also have been a means of enhancing teacher and administration control over students by weakening overall student cohesion, another manifestation of the 'divide and rule' philosophy that the British used so successfully to maintain control over their colonies but which often resulted in ethnic strife and civil wars when they left.

But at other times I think that I am reading too much into this, and seeing too many dark undercurrents in well meaning, if perhaps misguided, attempts at encouraging student participation and developing student leadership. Perhaps I should lighten up.

POST SCRIPT

I find William Faulkner difficult to read and understand, and struggled through The Sound and the Fury. But I found the winning essay in the 2005 FAUX FAULKNER contest hilarious. It is by Sam Apple and is called The Administration and the Fury: If William Faulkner were writing on the Bush White House. You can read it here.

August 01, 2005

Harry Potter's school life (safe to read - no spoilers!)

I just finished reading the latest episode of the Harry Potter saga. I cannot claim to be a rabid fan since I have read only book 2 (Chamber of Secrets) and book 6 (Half-Blood Prince), although I have seen all three film versions, but they have all been enjoyable.

Reading these books reminds me of my own school days and of much of the British schoolboy literature I read as a child, especially the Billy Bunter series and the Tom Merry series, both written by the same author Frank Richards. (These books were produced at such a prodigious rate that there were suspicions that 'Frank Richards' was the pseudonym of a whole stable of authors just churning out the stuff.)

There was a rigid formula to these books, the main features of which the Potter series largely adheres to. The schools were all boarding schools, and the stories started with students arriving at the beginning of the academic year and having various adventures that fortuitously ended just at the end of the school year. (There was a complementary series of children's books by Enid Blyton which took place during the summer, with a group of friends arriving at their home town from various boarding schools, and having an adventure that ended just in time for them to go their separate ways the next academic year.)

The big difference between Harry Potter and the earlier Billy Bunter and Tom Merry series is that although the context of a British boarding school is the same, the Potter books are far better written, with complex plots and characters developed realistically, dealing with important issues of good and evil, and real human emotions. The books I read as a child had stereotypical characters (the smart student, the bully, the figure of fun, the lisping aristocrat, the athlete, the sarcastic one, etc.) who all behaved in highly predictable ways. Those characters were two-dimensional and never changed, never grew or matured. This was reassuring in some ways because you knew exactly what you were getting with the books, but you cannot enjoy them as an adult the way you can with Potter.

The earlier books and schools were also single sex and we young boys only read the books about boys' schools, while girls only read equivalent books dealing with girls' boarding schools. The only members of the opposite sex that appeared in the books were siblings who made cameo appearances. For all we knew, the books written for the boys may have been identical to those written for the girls with just the genders (and sports) of the characters switched, such was the rigid separation between what boys and girls read when we were growing up. There was no romance whatsoever in any of the story lines. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is co-ed, a major difference.

Another similarity between Potter and the earlier books is that the educational practices in all the schools are pretty conventional. The classes are run in an authoritarian way. As someone pointed out, Hogwarts seems a lot like a trade school, with students learning very specific skills involving potions, hexes, and the like, mostly by rote memory and repetitive practice, similar to the way the earlier books had students learning Latin and Greek. There does not really seem to be a theory of magic or even any interest in developing one. Some magic works, others don't, with no serious attempts to discover why. There is little or no questioning of the teachers or class discussions, or inquiry-oriented teaching.

Rowling is mining a very rich vein of British school literature. As we will see in the next posting, the world she creates is probably very familiar to anyone (like me) who grew up in an English-language school anywhere in the British colonies. What she has done is added magic (and good writing) to a tried and true formula. But since that tradition of boarding school-based fiction is not present in the US, it is interesting that she has managed to strike such a chord in readers here as well.

POST SCRIPT

An anonymous commenter to an earlier post gave a very useful link to the various shades of meaning attached to atheism and definitions of atheism and agnosticism.

May 18, 2005

Creating the conditions for a just society - 3

According to John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice we have to get together once and for all and make the rules of operation without knowing our particular situation. (See here, here, and here for previous postings on this topic.) And once we make the rules, and then lift the veil of ignorance and find out our particular situation (our gender, age, abilities, skills, talents, health, community, position in society, wealth, income, educational qualifications, level of authority and power, etc.), we are not allowed to renegotiate to get more favorable terms for us. This restriction is important since it ensures that careful deliberation goes into making sure that the rules created are perceived as fair by all.

Let's work through a specific simple case. People who are generally law-abiding would like to see laws and enforcement mechanisms that ensure their own safety and security and protect their property. If I belong to that category, I might want to advocate stern penalties (fines, imprisonment, harsh prison conditions, torture, even death) for law-breakers. But there is no guarantee that once the veil of ignorance is lifted, that I (for example) will be in the category of law-abiding people. It may turn out that I am actually a crook or have criminal intentions. Normally we would try and exclude crooks from the decision-making process because we have decided that they do not deserve the same rights as law-abiding people. But the veil of ignorance means that we cannot exclude people we disagree with in the rule-making process. I have to consider such possibilities as well when we agree to the rules.

So it is in my interest to make sure that the penalties for law-breaking are not too severe, since there is a chance that I may have to suffer them. Does this mean that crooks will prefer to opt for no penalties at all? No, because even crooks can function effectively only if they are the exception, if there is a general level of law-abiding behavior. After all, the executives who looted Enron and Tyco and caused thousands of people to lose all their savings could only do this because almost everyone else was behaving fairly honestly. This is why crooks can stash their stolen money in off-shore bank accounts and retrieve it later. If the officials in the off-shore banks were also crooks, the stolen money would not be 'safe.' Also if the other employees in your own company were not honest, the company would not make the amount of money that makes it worthwhile for you to steal it.

Even petty thieves could not function if everyone around them was also stealing from everyone else with no restriction. And since there is no guarantee that I will be the toughest crook around to fend off the other thieves, allowing for a totally lawless society could result in a terrible situation for me personally if it turns out (once the veil is lifted) that I am not very bright or strong or am clumsy with weapons. After all, there is no guarantee that I will be a skillful crook. An incompetent crook in a lawless society would fare much worse than one in a law-abiding society.

So it is in the interests of even crooks to create rules that encourage and reward honest behavior while ensuring reasonable treatment for law-breakers, just in case they get caught. So the two extremes (law abiding and honest people on the one hand, and crooks on the other) both have an interest in creating rules that balance the interests of both, since no one knows where they personally will end up.

What of the situation that triggered this series of posts, that of gay rights coming into conflict with certain interpretations of religions? Since the rules do not allow you to specify particulars, you cannot say (for example) that the Bible must be the basis for policy decisions. You would have to allow for the possibility for any religious text or that no religious text can form the basis. In other words, if the rules are to allow primacy for religion-based laws, you have to allow for the possibility that once the veil is lifted, you might end up as a Buddhist in a Judaism-based state or a Christian in a Hinduism-based state or you might be a gay person in an Islam-based state. If that should turn out to be the case, would you be content with the result?

Allowing for religious views to be the basis of regulating the private lives of individuals in a society also means allowing for the possibility that we might end up in a society run by groups like the now-defunct Shaker Christian sect, which advocated strict celibacy among its members. Of course, such a society would not likely last very long for obvious reasons (and the Shakers did, in fact, eventually disappear), but would we be willing to allow for this possibility?

Clearly the fact we could end up in any of these situations and have to live with it should cause us to think very carefully about what exactly are the rules of societal regulation that are important to us. I don't know what specific resolution will be arrived at using the veil of ignorance to address the problem of gay rights and religious opposition to homosexuality. But what I am suggesting is that that is the way we have to address problems such as these if we are to not to just continue to talk through each other, simply asserting our preferences based on our situation and repeating the same arguments.

In some ways, what Rawls is suggesting is that we need to get in the habit of seeing what the world looks like through the eyes of others who may be quite different from us, and ask ourselves whether we would still see the world to as fair from that vantage point. It also requires us to think in terms of universal principles as opposed to principles based on the beliefs and practices of specific groups.

Thinking in this way is hard to do but needs to be done if we are to have any hope of overcoming the differences in policy preferences created by the huge diversity that exists amongst us.

Now clearly those who believe that their vision of God is the right one, and/or their particular religious or secular text is the only source of authority, are going to find it hard to deal with Rawls' insistence that no identifiable and named groups can be used in formulating the rules. If you believe (for example) that Islam is the one true religion and that the Qu'ran (or Koran) has to be the basis of civil law, I cannot see how you can accept the 'veil of ignorance' principle (unless I am missing something). But rejecting this principle also means rejecting the idea of 'justice as fairness,' and dooms us to never-ending conflict because people who feel they are being unfairly treated will eventually rise up against their oppressors.

POST SCRIPT

There is an interesting article by Steven Pinker titled Sniffing out the Gay Gene that is well worth reading. I came across it in the excellent blog run by The Center for Genetics Research Ethics and Law.

May 17, 2005

Creating the conditions for a just society - 2

In the previous posting we saw how people tend to advocate policies based on their own particular background, situation, or preferences, and this necessarily results in perceptions of unfairness over the decisions made.

The key to understanding Rawls' idea of 'justice as fairness' is that people perceive fairness in terms of the process by which results are achieved, not in terms of the actual outcomes of the process. When children play a game and at the end, one child complains that it was not fair, it usually means that the child feels that the rules of operation were either violated or exploited unethically, not that the child should not have lost (unless we are talking about a really spoiled child who feels entitled to always win).

So what Rawls is saying in his A Theory of Justice is that we need to collectively determine the rules by which decisions affecting all of society are arrived at, so that whatever results from that decision making process, everyone will accept that it is fair, although we may not agree with any given decision.

Rawls argues that the essential ingredient to achieving this fairness in process is the 'veil of ignorance' under which everyone who is involved in creating the rules (known as the 'persons in the original position') operates. What he means by this is:

First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like. Nor, again, does anyone know his conception of the good, the particulars of his rational plan of life, or even the special features of psychology such as his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism. More than this, I assume that the parties do not know the particular circumstances of their own society. That is, they do not know its particular economic or political situation, or the level of civilization and culture it has been able to achieve. The persons in the original position have no information as to which generation they belong. (p. 118)

The veil of ignorance only excludes particular knowledge about the state of individuals or societies. It allows for the kind of general information needed to make meaningful decisions.

It is taken for granted, however, that they know the general facts about human society. They understand political affairs and the principles of economic theory; they know the basis of social organization and the laws of human psychology. Indeed, the parties are presumed to know whatever general facts affect the choice of the principles of justice. (p. 119)

The rules which are arrived at cannot involve identifiable persons or groups or create special exemptions for such groups. For example, if one is making rules about religion, one cannot create rules that apply to a named religious group. You cannot say, for example, that a particular rule will be applied only if the majority of the population (once the veil of ignorance is lifted) turns out to be Christian (or Hindu or whatever.) You cannot also make rules dependent on what the particular situation of a named individual turns out to be. So you cannot say, for example, that the rule of free health care being available to all only kicks in if person X turns out to be sickly.

How would this work in practice? I will see in the next posting by applying it to special cases, including that involving the rights of gays.

May 16, 2005

Creating the conditions for a just society

The previous post that dealt with Dominionist's negative views towards gays generated an interesting set of comments that frame nicely the kinds of problems we face when we try to arrive at rules for society that we can all live by and perceive as fair. (I will defer the planned posts on the religious opposition to Darwin to address this question first.)

In those comments, Joe's understanding of Christianity leads him to think of homosexual behavior as sinful although he is not hostile to gays as people, drawing a parallel between the way that we can view alcoholism as bad while not thinking of alcoholics as evil people. Katie's interpretation of Christianity, on the other hand, leads her to being a passionate supporter of gay rights. Aaron is an atheist, and Christianity-based arguments don't have much sway with him. And, of course, there is a huge range of beliefs that span these three particular viewpoints. So how does one arrive at public policies that can be accepted as fair by everyone, not just with regard to gay rights, but in all aspects of public life?

Joe quotes the Bible to support his position on the gay issue but such an argument has no persuasive power for those who do not accept the Bible as anything other than literature. For such people, quoting the Bible carries as much weight as quoting Shakespeare. Also, quoting the Bible gets one into dueling battles of scripture verses, because those Christians (like Katie and Ran) who are accepting of gays have their own Biblical justifications for their actions and can cite verses too. And I suspect that if members of some other religion (say Islam) quoted their religious text in support of some policy that Christians found unacceptable, the latter are not likely to find it persuasive. So how do we decide what to do?

The problem has an easy solution if you think you are right and everyone who disagrees with you is wrong. Then all you have to do is to find the means to enforce your ideas on everyone, using the apparatus of state power, comforted in the knowledge that you alone are the guardian of universal truths. This is the way that authoritarian governments function. Such governments may claim to base their actions on religion or morals, and feel that they are serving God and that everything they do is for the greater good. But those people who do not share the beliefs and values of those in power are unlikely to feel that they are being treated fairly, even if they are not being severely discriminated against or suffering outright persecution.

Leaving aside this option of imposing one's views on others by force (which I am assuming that we agree is a bad idea), the other usual solution is majoritarianism (not to be confused with democracy) where the views of the majority are allowed to prevail unchecked by any other considerations. Then the political struggle lies in how to persuade the majority to adopt the point of view that we prefer, and once persuaded, to codify those ideas into laws that can be enforced on the minority.

But majoritarianism is also unlikely to be perceived as fair by all except in those extremely rare instances where everyone has a fair chance at being in the majority or to persuade the majority to accept their point of view. So, for example, since Christians are the numerical majority in the US, believers in that religion have a chance of getting majority support for government laws and policies based on Christianity, assuming for the moment that they want to. But Muslims, Wiccans, Jews, Buddhists, etc. have little or no chance of getting their religion as the basis of policy in this country.

Christians might respond that that is just tough luck. They might argue that the US is a Christian country and all others will just have to live with the consequences of this. This is what members of groups like the Dominionist want to see happen and are working towards, and since Christians are in the majority, they have a chance of making this come to pass.

A lot of public policy advocacy involves this type of reasoning. We advocate and make rules and laws based on our own particular situation. So for example, people who think they personally are unlikely to commit particular acts can advocate harsh penalties for those acts while going easy on other acts that they can conceive being guilty of. So we have harsh penalties for smoking marijuana while cheating on taxes gets off easy. Petty thievery carries with it a good chance of prison but abusing and harassing workers does not. Those who never drink alcohol might be in favor of draconian penalties for drunk driving while people who do drink moderately may favor a system of warnings and graduated penalties, since there is always the chance that they might inadvertently do this. Of course, each side can rationalize their decisions.

It is hard to ignore the fact that self-interest and self-preservation play a role in creating those policies that we now take for granted. The problem is that basing policy preferences on our own personal situation is unlikely to lead to consensus on what is a fair policy, since each person's situation is different. It also means that those people who are not members of the rule-making majority class are unlikely to perceive the society as treating them fairly.

This is where John Rawls' policy of trying to achieve 'justice as fairness' by creating rules behind a 'veil of ignorance' comes in handy in trying to see how to work things out. (See here for a previous posting on this subject. Full disclosure: I haven't completed reading Rawls' book A Theory of Justice yet so I will probably not be portraying his ideas correctly in all its aspects. But his 'veil of ignorance' idea strikes me as a really powerful problem-solving heuristic for addressing social problem and I am going to start using it to analyze this problem, even if I get some things wrong. I know that some readers of this blog are more familiar with Rawls' ideas and I hope they will feel free to correct and elaborate as needed.)

The main idea of Rawls is that we decide on the rules of society without knowing in advance what our own specific situation in society is. So the challenge for all of us is to decide on the laws and policies under which we are all going to be governed, while acknowledging that there are going to be a whole range of possible personal situations in society, that we might occupy any one of them, and that we do not know in advance of making the rules what our specific situation is going to be.

This is not such a strange concept. In fact it is quite instinctive in some aspects of ordinary daily life. We do it all the time, for example, when designing and playing games. The rules of games are decided in advance of the game beginning so that all players, whether they eventually win or lose, will accept the outcome as fair. And these rules are not always based on assuming that each player has equal talents but presuppose that the players will have a range of abilities.

So if people organize a pickup game of softball and teams have to be selected, it is usually done in a manner (by picking randomly or taking turns in picking players or some such system) so that the two teams have roughly equal chances at success. The same is true for the NFL draft, where the rules are more elaborate. The order of selection is decided in ways that serve the goal of achieving some level of parity for the teams and so that all teams feel that the draft selection process is fair.

Even in a game like chess, where playing white gives you an immediate advantage, you can address fairness by tossing a coin to see who gets white or by playing multiple games and changing colors each time. In professional tennis, where having the service is important, you neutralize the effect of one side of the court bestowing an advantage (because of wind direction, playing surface, background, sunlight, shadows, officials, etc.) by requiring that a player win each set with at least a two-game lead, and having the service change after the first game of each set and after every two games thereafter.

All these things are decided in advance so that once the game starts, and you know your specific situation (that you are playing black in chess or you have to receive service in tennis) you still feel that the game is fair, even if you find yourself in a slightly disadvantaged position. If the rules were such that one side had an overwhelming advantage simply due to their initial situation, then no one would play the game. In golf, allowance is also made for unequal skill by means of the handicapping system.

If we can go to such elaborate lengths to ensure that games are perceived as fair by all concerned, why is it that we do not take the same trouble to ensure that the rules and laws which govern our lives have the same structures to ensure perceptions of fairness?

One might argue that this is not possible because in the case of society, the game (so to speak) has already started, the rules are already in place, and our positions in the game are known, so we do not have the luxury of predetermining the rules using the 'veil of ignorance.'

In future posts, I will see how we might use Rawls' ideas to address this problem.

March 08, 2005

A Theory of Justice

I have to confess that this blog has been guilty of false advertising. On the masthead, of all the items listed, the one thing I have not talked about is books and it is time to make amends.

But first some background. Last week, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening having an informal conversation with about 20 students in the lobby of Alumni Hall (many thanks to Carolyn, Resident Assistant of Howe for organizing it). The conversation ranged over many topics and inevitably came around to politics. I had expressed my opposition to the attack on Iraq, and Laura (one of my former students) raised the perfectly legitimate question about what we should do about national leaders like Saddam Hussein. Should we just let them be? My response was to say that people and countries need to have some principles on which to act and apply them uniformly so that everyone (without exception) would be governed by the same principles. The justifications given by the Bush administration for the attack on Iraq did not meet those conditions.

But my response did not have a solid theoretical foundation and I am glad to report that a book that I have started reading seems to provide just that.

The book is A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, in which the author tries to outline what it would take to create a system that would meet the criteria of justice as fairness. The book was first published in 1971 but I was not aware until very recently of its existence. I now find that it is known by practically everyone and is considered a classic, but as I said elsewhere earlier, my own education was extraordinarily narrow, so it is not surprising that I was unaware of it until now.

Rawls says that everyone has an intuitive sense of justice and fairness and that the problem lies on how to translate that desire into a practical reality. Rawls' book gets off to a great start in laying out the basis for how to create a just society.

"Men are to decide in advance how they are to regulate their claims against one another and what is to be the foundation charter of their society…Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, not does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like…The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance." (my emphasis)

In other words, we have to decide what is fair before we know where we will fit into society. We have to create rules bearing in mind that we might be born to any of the possible situations that the ensuing structure might create. Right now what we have is 'victor's justice', where the people who have all the power and privilege get to decide how society should be run, and their own role in it, and it should not surprise us that they see a just society as one that gives them a disproportionate share of the benefits.

Rawls argues that if people were to decide how to structure society based on this 'veil of ignorance' premise, they would choose two principles around which to organize things. "[T]he first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities, for example, inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society. These principles rule out justifying institutions on the grounds that the hardships of some are offset by a greater good in the aggregate."

Rawl's argument has features similar to that young children use when sharing something, say a pizza or a cookie. The problem is that the person who gets to choose first has an unfair advantage. This problem is overcome by deciding in advance that one person divides the object into two portions while the other person gets first pick, thus ensuring that both people should feel that the ensuing distribution is fair.

(Here is an interesting problem: How can you divide a pizza in three ways so that everyone has the sense that it was a fair distribution? Remember, this should be done without precision measurements. The point is to demonstrate the need to set up structures so that people will feel a sense of fairness, irrespective of their position in the selection order.)

All this great stuff is just in the first chapter. Rawls will presumably flesh out the ideas in the subsequent chapters and I cannot wait to see how it comes out.

I will comment about the ideas in this book in later postings as I read more, because I think the 'veil of ignorance' gives a good framework for understanding how to make judgments about public policy.