Zero History

by William Gibson

This was a fun read, and a fast read, but it didn’t blow me away. I’m not sure that anything Gibson writes from here on will ever top Neuromancer. That book set the bar for the particular brand of science fiction that places the future so near that you can practically smell it. And in fact the most recent books, Spook Country included, are set in what is recognizably the present.

And so while with Neuromancer Gibson seemed able to show us the world as it would be tomorrow or next week, Spook Country in some respects feels already dated. To be fair, it was published in 2010, and has been sitting on my shelf for months. A Gibson book published in 2010 must have been written in 2009, no? Therefore I should not be too critical of his use of the MacBook Air as the prop of choice, rather than the iPad… Plus the fact that the iPhone does play a prominent role, and this seems dead on. There’s an app for that.

Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will

by David Foster Wallace

Tough going. The most difficult Wallace of them all. This is Wallace’s graduate thesis in philosophy, a rebuttal of Richard Taylor’s argument that human beings have no free will. As background to the works of fiction that he was later to create, the book is fascinating. We learn what kind of mind was responsible, where it came from. From the introductory bits:

“Wallace would also identify  another subconscious desire behind his early philosophical enthusiasms: the craving for a certain kind of beauty, for the variety of aesthetic experience characteristic of formal systems like mathematics and chess.”

“The reason I applied to philosophy grad school is I remembered that I had flourished in an academic environment. And I had this idea that I could read philosophy and do philosophy, and write on the side, and that it would make the writing better.”

What kind of writing did Wallace want to do, exactly?

“…there are areas of inquiry that might seem remote from the concerns of everyday life but that can, in fact, offer an array of intimate emotional and aesthetic experiences. Even for the reader with an appetite for it, however, a theoretical work can be so intellectually taxing, so draining of one’s mental energies, that what Wallace called the ‘emotional implications’ of the text are overlooked. The novel of ideas is at its most valuable, he contended, not when making abstruse ideas ‘accessible’ or easy to digest for the reader, but rather when bringing these neglected undercurrents to the surface.”

So, without going into too much detail (or any at all, really) on what, first of all, Taylor was saying in his argument, is it possible to condense down Wallace’s counter-argument?

“I will be making a case for the claim that situational physical possibility is best understood in terms of compatibility between sets of physical circumstances under unvarying natural laws. Since the sets of circumstances that bear on the modal character of an event or state of affairs usually can and do vary with the passage of time, an since thus the physical-modal character of some event or state of affairs may very well change from time-and-situation to time-and-situation, it is not surprising to find that scope problems of significant complexity arise when we try to formalize and interpret tensed physical-modal propositions. It is precisely such a semantic scope confusion that I think Taylor, offering a semantic argument for a metaphysical conclusion, has fallen for, and would have us fall for.”

I am reminded, when I read Wallace’s explanations of how vital the distinctions of modal language are, of the arguments that I have had in the past with those who would accuse me of being a prescriptive grammarian for my desire to maintain and use words and sentences correctly and precisely:

“What it means in a nutshell is that the denial of the consequent’s obtaining today means only that it cannot today be the case that yesterday did occur, not that it was the case yesterday that the explosion could not occur. We might say, more naturally if less perspicuously, as we enjoy the relatively low radiation today, that the explosion ‘can’t have’ occurred yesterday, not that it ‘couldn’t’ occur yesterday. This is an absolutely vital sort of distinction. Compare the following sentences, and think of the kinds of ‘impossibilities’ they really express: ‘It can’t have rained last night; there are no puddles on the sidewalk this morning,’ vs. ‘It couldn’t rain last night; last night a high-pressure ridge was keeping all precipitation-causing clouds out of the area.’ ‘He can’t have gone for a drive in his car an hour ago; the hood of the car’s not even warm,’ vs. ‘He couldn’t go for a drive in his car an hour ago; an hour ago his car was broken.’


“…This is so simply because physical modalities are understood here as sensitive to time and sensitive to world-situations causally joined in mother- and daughter-relationships, as parts of causal paths. And this understanding of physical modality seems to point to a way to solve the Taylor problem, to show that even under the most generous acceptance of his premises and reading of his argument, the fatalistic conclusion he wants to ‘force’ upon us simply does not validly follow.”

Simple, right?

“…physical possibility is, I have tried to argue, properly understood in a significantly different way from logical possibility. A ‘physical possibility,’ if it obtains, always obtains, and is to be evaluated in the context of, an index and a situation. It is to be understood as a relation of causal, physical compatibility between indices and their respective situations through time. It is true that in system J what is now-actual is also now-physically-possible, but this is a physical, not an alethic, relation; it is to be understood as holding simply for the reason that what is actual now is, quite obviously, physically compatible with what was actual a few moments ago and gave rise to what is actual now.”

Category: philosophy | Tags: , ,

The Fight

by Norman Mailer

It is not until page 177 that the bell rings to begin the fight of the title. But, of course, the Rumble in the Jungle was so much more than just 15 rounds of boxing. Mailer was of course a white man, writing about a predominantly black sport. “For Heavyweight boxing was almost all black, black as Bantu. So boxing had become another key to revelations of Black, one more key to black emotion, black psychology, black love.”

He also had extraordinary access to Ali, and although it is clear who he would like to see win, the reportage manages to be simultaneously very fair and impartial while also quite personal and intimate. His sometime technique of writing about the character Norman in the third person is perhaps a part of how he manages this.

We get historical context, not just in terms of boxing, of who had defeated whom in the lead-up to the bout, technique, records, weights, training camps, and all the rest, but also socio-political context, on both the American and the African sides of the Atlantic. Who in America knew where Zaire was, even, before this fight? Mailer takes us from the Belgian Congo of 1880 to present-day Kinshasa and the presidential domain of President Mobutu, and into the stadium, under which holding cells for prisoners had been filled with 300 of the worst criminals of the city, 50 of them executed to serve as an example to all, a bid to quell the wave of violence in the city. Still, it seemed an inhospitable place for two Americans, even black Americans, to come for a world championship: “Manners became so bad that American Blacks were snarling at African Blacks.”

But Ali is comfortable in this realm, and as the movie When We Were Kings showed, the people of Kinshasa loved him. He spent a good deal of time – and there was plenty of time, after the fight was postponed when Foreman was cut in sparring – out among the people.

We learn about the various circles of people who surround the boxers – their trainer, and managers, and sparring partners, and lawyers, and brothers and sisters and wives and hangers-on… A one-man sport that feels like it travels with a team, or like a rock band on tour. We learn also about Mailer’s circle, about the other writers – somewhere near 200 journalists covered the fight – and where they stay and what access they have to the fighters, and the angle they are going for.

What is Mailer’s angle? He gives enormous respect to Foreman, and we learn a great deal about him and his entourage. Still, it is Ali who he knows as a friend, and as an insider, he is permitted access unheard of for others covering the fight. Most impressive, even more impressive than access to Ali’s dressing room before and after the fight, is Mailer’s run with Ali, in the African pre-dawn, with lions roaring in the distance. How many writers – or anyone – can say they’ve done that? This is the relationship and perspective that Mailer brings to his subject.

And then there is the fight. If you’ve seen it, you know how it went. And yet Mailer’s description brings detail and nuance and yes beauty to the fight. That he is able to do this is a result of course of the luxury of retrospect and reviewing, of time spent finding the bon mot. Ringside announcing this is not. After the first round:

“How does Ali dare? A magnificent round. Norman has few vanities left, but thinks he knows something about boxing. He is ready to serve as engineer on Ali’s trip to the moon. For Ali is one artist who does not box by right counter to left hook. He fights the entirety of the other person. He lives in fields of concentration where he can detect the smallest flicker of lack of concentration. Foreman has shown himself a lack of quiver flat to the possibility of a right. Who before this had dared after all to hit Forman with a right? Of late his opponents were afraid to flick him with a jab. Fast were Foreman’s hands, but held a flat spot of complacency before the right. He was not ready for a man to come into the ring unafraid of him. That offered its beauty. But frightening. Ali cannot fight every round like this. Such a pace will kill him in five. Indeed he could be worried as he sits in the corner. It has been his round, but what a force to Forman’s punches. It is true. Foreman hits harder than other fighters. And takes a very good punch. Ali looks thoughtful.”

And thoughtful is, ultimately, one of the best ways to describe this book. A brutal sport, and a brutal fight, described in terms that return to it its humanity. Because, after all, why do we care? Why do we want to watch two men fight with their hands in a land thousands of miles away? Because of the people involved, because they are people that at some level we can see reflected in ourselves and in our cultures. The Africans of Kinshasa are people, the fighters are people, the audience are people, and for one night we leave behind all of our differences except perhaps which of the two we are rooting for, and share in some basic way our humanity.

Category: biography, sports | Tags: , ,

How Proust Can Change Your Life

by Alain de Botton

I’ve not read any Proust at all…this book makes me want to. Proust certainly seems to agree with many of my sensibilities, chief among them the dictum ‘eat, drink, and be merry’:

“The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”

Art, not unexpectedly, plays a leading role:

“Why does Proust privilege the connection between ourselves and works of art, as much in his novel as in his museum habits?

One answer is because it is the only way in which art can properly affect rather than simply distract us from life, and that there are a stream of extraordinary benefits attached to what might be termed the Marquis de Lau phenomenon (MLP), attached to the possibility of recognizing Kate in a portrait of Albertine, Philip in a description of Saniette, and more generally, ourselves in badly printed volumes purchased in train stations.”


“Hence Proust’s assertion that the greatness of works of art has nothing to do with the apparent quality of their subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter. And hence his associated claim that everything is potentially a fertile subject for art and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap as in Pascal’s Pensées.”

And de Botton’s take on what Proust felt was the reason we read:

“…he argued that we should be reading for a particular reason: not to pass the time, not out of detached curiosity, not out of a dispassionate wish to find out what [the author] felt, but because, to repeat with italics, ‘there is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master must have felt.’ We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel; it is our own thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer’s thoughts that help us do so.”

And so, de Botton explains after a description of the many who make a pilgrimage to Proust’s hometown, “it should not be Illiers-Combray that we visit: a genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not to look at his world through our eyes.”

Category: biography | Tags: , ,

Inside of a Dog – What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

by Alexandra Horowitz

It’s commonly accepted that the dog was the first animal to be domesticated by man. We’ve had thousands of years together, and there is no stronger bond between humans and other animals. And yet, what do we know about them? I mean, about their inner thoughts, motivations, feelings? Many a dog owner will tell you that s/he understands his or her dog, knows what they are thinking, and vice-versa. But do we really?

As Horowitz points out, in all these thousands of years, the dog has not really been studied in a scientific manner. The conventional wisdom in animal science is that the interesting things to be learned about animal minds will be found among the primates. But that is changing, as scientists realize that over the course of our long history together, dogs, “through the artificial selection of domestication, [ ] have evolved to be sensitive to just those things that importantly make up our cognition, including, critically, attention to others.”

Horowitz would seem to be qualified to talk about this stuff: she is a dog owner and lover, of course, and a scientist by training:

“I study animal behavior. Professionally, I am wary of anthropomorphizing animals, attributing to them the feelings, thoughts, and desires that we use to describe ourselves. In learning how to study the behavior of animals, I was taught and adhered to the scientist’s code for describing actions: be objective; do not explain a behavior by appeal to a mental process when explanation by simpler processes will do; a phenomenon that is not publicly observable and confirmable is not the stuff of science.”

So, the scientist observes dogs. And in doing so, Horowitz spends considerable and repeated time describing how dogs are also sensitive observers of humans. Dogs don’t know, for instance, that they should not stare at a handicapped person, and they don’t tire of repeated observation, but retain a childlike ability to be fascinated:

“What makes dogs good anthropologists is that they are so attuned to humans: they notice what is typical, and what is different. And, just as crucially, they don’t become inured to us, as we do–nor do they grow up to be us.”

And of course dogs have other highly acute senses, most notably smell. They can detect things about us by means of their noses that we humans would need special instruments to measure. Many of these things have bearing on our behavior. An example is testosterone level – not only can a dog sense when this is heightened in a human, but the cortisol level in the dog will rise or fall in correlation.

The book is full of many such observations, drawn from a multitude of studies –  animal behavior studies, human behavior studies, child-psychology studies,  comparisons of dogs and other animals, or of dogs and humans, etc. None of it is dry or tedious, and much of it is personal. Interspersed throughout are vignettes concerning the author’s own dog, Pump.

“Every dog owner would agree with me, I suspect, about the specialness of her own dog. Reason argues that everyone must be wrong: by definition, not every dog can be the special dog – else special becomes ordinary. But it is reason that is wrong: what is special is the life story that each dog owner creates with and knows about his own dog. I am not exempt from feeling that, even from a scientific vantage. Behavioral scientific approaches to dogs, far from displacing this story, simply build on the singular understanding of the dog owner – on the expertise that each dog owner has about her dog.”

Ever aware of the dangers of anthropomorphism, Horowitz introduces us early on to the concept of umwelt, or “self-world.” “Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal.” In other words, we have to think like dogs in order to understand them: “it will be our tool for resolving the tension between what we think we know about dogs, and what they are actually doing.” While it may be an imperfect tool, Horowitz provides a plethora of examples as she shares what she has learned about dogs which make vivid the gaps, and allows us to enter that much more deeply into the canine mind. While we might note that a dog has urinated on a fire hydrant, our dog, by taking a few whiffs of that urine, can know the sex and age of the peeing dog, what it last ate, and its general health…

Such are the things we learn about what dogs see, smell, and know.

Category: dog, science | Tags: ,

Katz on Dogs

by Jon Katz

I’ve been doing a lot of dog reading since getting Charlie, and not all of those titles are listed here. I figure I will remember what The Akita was about. But there were a few things in this present book that I wanted to take notes on. There are of course many schools of thought with regard to how to train dogs – dogs in general and particular types of dogs as well. Here are some of Katz’s thoughts:

“…what is perhaps the most essential ingredient in a dog’s life: a human who will take emotional responsibility for him.”

“Humans may not be as unique as we think; perhaps other animals also have a well-developed sense of self-consciousness. But probably not the animals that share our homes and menace our bedroom slippers. The more I’ve moved away from interpreting my dogs’ behavior as nearly human, the easier it is to train them, and the less guilt and anxiety I feel.”

“The reality is, we don’t know that much about what dogs think, because they can’t tell us. You can make up your own mind about what you think dogs think. Behaviorists tend to believe that dogs ‘think’ in their own way–in sensory images involving their finely honed instincts. They’re not capable of deviousness or spite. They love routine: nothing seems to make them more comfortable than doing the same thing at the same time in the familiar way, day after day–we snack here, we poop there, we play over here. I am astonished at how little it takes to please them, how simple their lives can be if we don’t complicate them with an overlay of human motivation.”

“Remember (and it can never hurt to say before each training session): ‘This is an animal, not a child.’ Most dogs are quite willing to follow the rules; when they don’t, most often it’s because they don’t understand the rules. Communication is the key to training. Don’t blame the dog for being confused. Challenge yourself to be clearer, more patient and creative about letting the dog know what you want. Try. Try again. Understand that real training takes many months, even years.”

Things to keep in mind as I try to make Charlie into the best dog he can be, while being to him the best owner that I can be. So far, so good.

Category: dog | Tags: ,


by Neil Stephenson

I bought the Baroque Cycle trilogy as they were published, but did not begin it until now… Somewhat daunting in length, this nevertheless was a pretty fast, enjoyable read. While I do like science fiction – and Snow Crash was my entry point to Stephenson’s work – I am not a particular fan of history, or of historical fiction. Still, he makes it easy. The characters are well drawn, and the physical environs vivid and palpable. Bringing historical figures such as Newton and Leibniz into the narrative only makes it that much more fun.

Science was in its nascence, and while we might think we’ve come a long way since then, it is well to remember that not all lines of inquiry are going to lead where we hope. Still, the goals seem familiar:

“…the trick of refining, from the base, dark, cold, essentially focal matter of which the World was made, the Philosophick Mercury–the pure living essence of God’s power and presence in the world–the key to the transmutation of metals, the attainment of immortal life and perfect wisdom.”

So too, some of the arguments:

“Here Daniel was a bit lost. ‘Fluxion seems to mean a flowing over time–so it makes perfect sense when you apply it the word to the position of a punt on a river, who is as a matter of fact, flowing over time. But now you seem to be applying it to the shape of a weed, which is not flowing–it’s just standing there sort of bent.’

‘But Daniel, the virtue of this approach is that it doesn’t matter what the actual physical situation is, a curve is ever a curve, and whatever you can do to the curve of a river you can do just as rightly to the curve of a weed–we are free from all that old nonsense now.’ Meaning the Aristotelean approach, in which such easy mixing of things with obviously different natures would be abhorrent. All that mattered henceforth, apparently, was what form they adopted when translated into the language of analysis. ‘Translating a thing into the analytical language is akin to what the alchemist does when he extracts, from some crude ore, a pure spirit, or virtue, or pneuma. The foeces–the gross external forms of things– which only mislead and confuse us–are cast off to reveal the underlying spirit. And when this is done we may learn that some things that are superficially different are, in their real nature, the same.’”

Which philosophical approach are we getting at here? Stephenson’s quoting of Galileo leaves little doubt:

“Philosophy is written in this immense book that stands ever open before our eyes (I speak of the Universe), but it cannot be read if one does not first learn the language and recognize the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without the means of which it is humanly impossible to understand a word; without these philosophy is confused wandering in a dark labyrinth.”

And later:

“Every assertion that Euclid, et al., made concerning geometry was backed up by a chain of logical proofs that could be followed all the way back to a few axioms that were obviously true, e.g., ‘the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.’ The truths of geometry were necessary truths; the human mind could imagine a universe in which Daniel’s name was David, or in which Ipswich had been built on the other side of the Orwell, but geometry and math had to be true, there was no conceivable universe in which 2 + 3 was equal to 2 + 2.”

In one scene, the distinction between science and superstition is paired with a little joke about Asians not being good at math:

“This Mandarin seems to have no desire to refine his philosophikal position–to disentangle the worthy science of number theory from the base superstition of numerology–most unfortunate for him and the rest of his race.”

Stephenson wants to set the stage for the Enlightenment, and the role of science and reason in bringing that forth, as well as everything that has followed. Today it is information, or data, that has become the focus of the knowledge trades. At Trinity College in London, in 1672:

“And whereas the ’Change-men made common cause to buy shares in sailing-ships or joint stock companies, and traded Jamaica sugar for Spanish silver, these men were transacting diverse small conspiracies or trading snatches of courtly data.”

The story contains men of books, as well as men of action. They are to be contrasted, but their techniques are not necessarily mutually exclusive:

“And being an excellent commander, about to go into a real battle, he had the wit to bring along a few people who could actually get things done for him. It may seem hard for you to believe, but mark my word–whenever serious and competent people need to get things done in the real world, all considerations of tradition and protocol fly out the window.”

And unique men:

“No, even without lenses and parabolic mirrors, Newton and Hooke see things that you and I don’t. Leibniz is proposing a strange inversion of what we normally mean when we describe a man as distinguished, or unique. Normally when we say these things, we mean that the man himself stands out from a crowd in some way. But Leibniz is saying that such a man’s uniqueness is rooted in his ability to perceive the rest of the universe with unusual clarity–to distinguish one thing from another more effectively than ordinary souls.”

I look forward to reading further about unique men in The Confusion.

Category: novel | Tags: , , ,