Sunday, August 30, 2009

Darwin among the Machines

As far as we know mind and intelligence exist on an open-ended scale. Perhaps mind is a lucky accident that exists only at our particular depth of field, like some alpine flower that blooms between ten thousand and twelve thousand feet. Or perhaps there is mind at elevations both above and below our own.
- Darwin among the Machines, p. 217.

What do Thomas Hobbes, Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Butler, Alan Turing, Olaf Stapledon, and the RAND Corporation have in common? George B. Dyson explains what they have in common and more in his sometimes uneven but always fascinating book about "evolution of global intelligence" Darwin among the Machines. Dyson relates the story behind the growth of our global digital world through the individual stories of the above thinkers and more. They were all visionaries who saw beyond the everyday into the future and whose ideas led to the development of artificial intelligence and related fields that continue to undergo development in our new century. Dyson is good at relating these stories while weaving them into an evolutionary web that captures the changes that have occurred in the areas of digital computing and telecommunications, and the mechanics of the mind and artificial intelligence over the past century. The story that evolves from all his telling is both exciting and filled with possibilities for the future that border on science fiction. But in retrospect we see that science fiction has a way of becoming science fact. Readers who appreciate and want to learn more about the relationship of technology, humanity and nature will enjoy this book.

Darwin among the Machines by George B. Dyson. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. 1997.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Shirley is Charlotte Bronte's only historical novel and in that her most topical one. Written at a time of social unrest, it is set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, when economic hardship led to riots in the woollen district of Yorkshire. A mill-owner, Robert Moore, is determined to introduce new machinery despite fierce opposition from his workers; he ignores their suffering, and puts his own life at risk. Robert sees marriage to the wealthy Shirley Keeldar as the solution to his difficulties, but he loves his cousin Caroline.
She suffers misery and frustration, and Shirley has her own ideas about the man she will choose to marry. The friendship between the two women, and the contrast between their situations, is at the heart of this compelling novel, which is suffused with Bronte's deep yearning for an earlier time spent as a governess; her longing for a better past.

Shirley is not Charlotte Bronte's best book in the sense that it is less compulsively readable than Jane Eyre (I should note that I have read enjoyed Jane Eyre several times over the years and it is one of my favorite novels). Perhaps the lack of readability is because it is constructed in large part to make certain social statements, in the mode of Dickens, rather than written with a more singular focus on the romantic aspects of the plot (Shirley suffers when compared to most of Dickens' novels). Bronte does, however, express herself with great beauty in certain passages and demonstrates her character: her conviction that women might be as well qualified as men to practice a profession (which sets her apart from most of her own contemporaries); her contempt for the market of marriage; and her experience.
The book is worth reading and for some readers may resonate more positively than it did for me.

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte. Penguin Classics, New York. 2006 (1849)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dog Days

The monthly Convivium letter from Classical Pursuits has the following to share regarding the "dog days" of summer:

The term "Dog Days" was used by the Greeks (see, e.g., Aristotle's Physics, 199a2), as well as the ancient Romans (who called these days caniculares dies (days of the dogs)) after Sirius (the "Dog Star", in Latin Canicula), the brightest star in the heavens besides the Sun. The dog days of summer are also called canicular days. The Dog Days originally were the days when Sirius, the Dog Star, rose just before or at the same time as sunrise (heliacal rising), which is no longer true, owing to precession of the equinoxes. The Romans sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of the Dog Days to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that the star was the cause of the hot, sultry weather. Dog Days were popularly believed to be an evil time "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies" according to Brady's Clavis Calendarium, 1813. (Convivium, August 2009)

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Trojan War

"Both in his exaggerations and his honesty Homer is truer to the Bronze Age than is generally recognized." - Barry Strauss, The Trojan War, p185.

Ever since Heinrich Schliemann discovered the "gold of Troy" archaeologists and historians have been expanding our knowledge of this era at the beginning of Western history. Barry Strauss' account of this era of Bronze Age history is delineated in The Trojan War: A New History. He writes a narrative drawing on recent archaeological data that he uses to explain the events at Troy more than 3,000 years ago based on current evidence.
This book puts the events of the age into perspective with insight on the relations between Troy and the Hittite Empire of Anatolia and its impact on the battles between the Achaean's, as the Greeks were known then, and the Trojans. He comments on the story as found in Homer's Iliad, pointing out those aspects of the epic poem that have some basis in that can be connected with the archaeological data. I found the book to be a useful adjunct to my current rereading of Homer's Iliad and would recommend it to anyone interested in ancient history.

The Trojan War: A New History by Barry Strauss. Simon & Schuster, New York. 2006.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer

Lenin's Private War

The tremendous outflow of intellectuals that form such a prominent part of the general exodus from Soviet Russia in the first years of the Bolshevist Revolution seems today like the wanderings of some mythical tribe whose bird-signs and moon-signs I now retrieve from the desert dust. We remained unknown to American intellectuals (who bewitched by Communist propaganda, saw us merely as villainous generals, oil magnates and gaunt ladies with lorgnettes). That world is now gone.

- Vladimir Nabokov, Glory, p. 8

In September 1922 a steamer with Russian citizens aboard left Petrograd for the West with a group of the "intelligentsia" of Russia, literary critics philosophers and others . This ship and others would eventually carry more than two hundred into exile in what has been chronicled by Lesley Chamberlain in her book, Lenin's Private War. Subtitled 'The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia", the book, a sort of intellectual history and cultural biography, tells the story of this group of Russian thinkers, most of whom would never return to their homeland. This episode can be seen as the beginning of the closing of Russia to the West and one of the critical steps in the Bolsheviks exertion of complete totalitarian control over the arts and philosophy in the Soviet Union. Among the exiles were well-known thinkers including philosophers Nikolai Berdyaev and Nikolai Lossky; historians Myakotin and Kizevetter; and, many other writers, economists, journalists and social scientists. Their crime simply was they had overstayed their welcome. They did not fit into the plans of Lenin. Fortunately, while they were arrested, their end was one of exile rather than immediate execution.

Lesley Chamberlain vividly delineates the character of key members of this group, highlighting the singular importance of Berdyaev and his Christian idealism that was the antithesis of Lenin's Marxist materialism. The book is fleshed out with details from letters, memoirs and other documents that provide a solid foundation for the story she tells. We learn of their arrest and interrogation and the background leading to their ultimate exile. The irony of this exile is explored in the second half of the book which discusses the difficult world they faced in a Europe that came to be dominated by Hitler in the 1930s. Some of these thinkers faced even worse fates in that world than they had in the Russia from which they had been exiled. Ultimately many fled to the United States or merely went into hiding for the duration of the war. Their exile is magnificently told in this book. Chamberlain has provided us with a fascinating story of separation and hope.

Lenin's Private War by Lesley Chamberlain. St. Martin's Press, New York. 2007 (2006).

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Victorian Crime

In the midst of reading Dickens and attending a class at the Newberry Library a classmate recommended a "true crime" history book to our class. I have read that book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale and can report that it is an excellent read for those interested in Victorian history, true crime stories or Dickens, at least as he relates to the development of the detective profession.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher presents both the history of an horrific murder in an English Country House in 1860 and the life of Jonathan Whicher, one of the first detectives of Scotland Yard. The details of the crime presage our own era with its JonBenet Ramsey saga. In this instance it centers on the Kent family and their household. Ms. Summerscale does an effective job in presenting the details of the crime, but also focuses on the background of Mr. Whicher in a way that adds to the reader's interest. An additional advantage for this reader were the numerous references to Dickens and his friend Wilkie Collins who popularized the detective novel in Victorian England. The Dickens' character I most closely associate with detective fiction is Inspector Bucket who was introduced in Bleak House in 1853. Dickens interest in true crime continued from his early days as a journalist through his years as England's most popular novelist. This book falls short of the best of Dickens or Collins, but is a great introduction to one corner of the Victorian era, even if it is a grisly one.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. Walker & Company, New York. 2008.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Reading Pairs of Books

A 'Lit'tle Gimmick

I've hit upon a gimmick which I'm sure is not unique or new,
But it seems it will be fun to liven up one's reading for a bit.
I take the books I am reading, or will read, two by two
And thus pairing them create a list of potential reading 'lit'!
- August 2009 - uncollected rhymes

Here are some sample pairings of books I am reading or have read all of which are in my library:

The Trojan War by Barry Strauss and War & Peace by Tolstoy
An Iliad by Alessandro Barrico and Ilium by Dan Simmons
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Dickens and Drood by Dan Simmons
Journey for Our Time by Marquise de Custine and Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler
Blindness by Jose Saramago and Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley
Gulag by Anne Applebaum and The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn
Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn and Ward No. 6 by Chekhov
The Tree of Man by Patrick White and Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
Gravity's Rainbow by Pynchon and The Rainbow by Lawrence
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and The Rivals by Sheridan
Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym and Decadence by Maxim Gorky
Noble House by James Clavell and Heatbreak House by Bernard Shaw
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and Poison in Jest by John Dickson Carr

What do you think of the gimmick?

Rose Wilder Lane & her Mother

I never read the "Little House" books when I was growing up and my only acquaintance with them and their author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was through the extremely popular television series based on the stories.
Presumably the popularity of the books, which predated the television hype, was not due to the same saccharin qualities that permeated the faux-rustic TV show.

I did, however, read The Discovery of Freedom, a unique and iconic personal view of the history of the idea of freedom, penned by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. It is a foundational document for many latter-day libertarians and a great read for those who love the history of ideas. For those who are interested in these two very long-lived and lively women The New Yorker has a fascinating article about their lives by Judith Thurman in the current issue. There are a host of interesting details including a discussion over Rose's controversial "editing" of the Little House books, apparently a collaborative effort.

The Discovery of Freedom by Rose Wilder Lane. Fox & Wilkes. 1993 (1943).

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Love Story

Never the Sinner

Many years ago I read Compulsion, Meyer Levin's fictional novelization of the Leopold and Loeb case. It was a great read, both suspenseful and provocative in its presentation. Last night I saw a production of Never the Sinner, playwright John Logan's taut dramatization of the essentials of the same case. In Logan's telling the focus was on the relationship of the two young men, Leopold and Loeb who either in spite of or because of their contrasting personalities formed an erotic bond that became one aspect of their criminal behavior.
Logan's emphasis of this relationship as what he called "a love story" provides sensation and titillation of a sort, but there is also the relationship of Robert Crowe, the prosecutor, and Clarence Darrow, the renowned defense attorney who represent two different approaches to the case that are fundamentally in opposition, not just because they are on opposite sides of the court room.

The production by Project 891 Theatre Company, a newcomer to Chicago's crowded theater scene, is excellent with great direction by Michael Rashid with the support of a talented crew. The key quartet of players is also excellent with each actor shining in his respective role: Ron Popp and Matt Hays as Leopold and Loeb (Hays was particularly effective as a charmer who had the whole house mesmerized by his gregarious amorality); and, Robert Kaercher and Gary Murphy as Crowe and Darrow (both of whom had fine moments with Murphy moving in his compassionate arguments for preserving the lives of the two young men and opposing capital punishment). The scenes shifted back and forth quickly both in time and from court room to the trysts of Leopold and Loeb. This was handled efficiently with a staging that at moments had a ballet-like choreographic quality.

I enjoyed this fine production by a new theater company and I look forward to seeing more of their work in the future.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Tristram Shandy

Never poor Wight of a Dedicator had less hopes from his Dedication, than I have from this of mine; for it is written in a bye corner of the kingdom, and in a retir'd thatch'd house, where I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,--but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to this Fragment of Life.
- Laurence Sterne, prologue to Tristram Shandy

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Tristram Shandy) is a novel by Laurence Sterne. It was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759, and seven others following over the next 10 years.

As its title suggests, the book is ostensibly Tristram's narration of his life story. But central to the novel is the theme of not explaining anything simply, thus there are explanatory diversions to add context and colour to his tale, to the extent that we do not even reach Tristram's own birth until Volume III. However, beginning the narrative before one has been born is not unique in literature, for example see the opening chapter of David Copperfield. Consequently, apart from Tristram as narrator, the most familiar and important characters in the book are his father Walter, his mother, his Uncle Toby, Toby's servant Trim, and a supporting cast of minor characters including Doctor Slop and the parson Yorick (no doubt inspired by Shakespeare).

Most of the action is concerned with domestic upsets or misunderstandings, which find humour in the opposing temperaments of Walter—splenetic, rational and somewhat sarcastic—and Uncle Toby, who is gentle, uncomplicated and a lover of his fellow man. "The long-nosed Stranger of Strasburg": Book IV opens with a story from one of Walter's favourite books, a collection of stories in Latin about noses.

In between such events, Tristram as narrator finds himself discoursing at length on sexual practices, insults, the influence of one's name, noses, as well as explorations of obstetrics, siege warfare and philosophy, as he struggles to marshal his material and finish the story of his life. What makes this novel remarkable is the seeming modernity of the technique and style. As with Rabelais, Sterne does not follow the "rules" for writing a novel, thus one encounters multiple allusions to other writers and their works and interjections of many kinds into the novel so that you begin to wonder what kind of book this is. Sterne was particularly influenced by Rabelais and his bawdy humor is no doubt due in part to that influence. This is not an easy read but one worth taking in small sections, a bit at a time. Having read Tristram Shandy you may be ready for twenty-first century post-modern literature or you may want to hang up the idea of literature altogether.