Sunday, June 14, 2015

Books Read June 2015

Have I lost my last shred of humanity? Last month I was unable to read—bored with, really—two science fiction novels, but found myself staying up late and avoiding responsibilities to read Moby Dick. The two sci-fi novels weren't slouches either, Octavia Butler and Vernor Vinge are fine writers.  I simply didn't care. Melville though, wow. Even the spoilers didn't distract (the ship sinks, just like Titanic).

I suppose that sounds like a humblebrag. Maybe it is. As Muhammad Ali said, “It ain't braggin' if it's true.”1 But then Ali wouldn't be worried about the humble bit.

I do think it's odd that I've (at least temporarily) lost my taste for sci-fi. It's not as though I haven't championed the genre before. I'll continue to do so. There's a lot of good stuff (and a lot of dreck, but that's largely a function of volume) in sci-fi. Here's the thing though, sci-fi is plot driven, moral driven, it has a clear arc of progress and a certainty that, even if we can't tell the good guys from the bad, at least we can know what they did. The facts aren't in dispute. Anytime sci-fi diverges too much from this, say in Delaney's Dhalgren, Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, or Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, it is difficult to peg as sci-fi.

What I appreciate, what got me excited, about the books I did read this past month is that they aren't so easy. They're epistemically impoverished and evidence rich. They ask the reader to construct the character as a real human being, not a caricature. I think it is this demand on the reader that makes literature meaningful. It is this demand that makes me want to write, to emulate (all humility aside) these writers and explore what it might mean to be human and reclaim that humanity that I've lost. Why is this? I believe we're all a bit of a mystery, even to ourselves—then again, I've been told, in the most strenuous way short of physical violence, not to project my own inadequacies and failings onto others. But what can I do?

It is tempting here to delve into specifics, to tell you why Ahab isn't the simple obsessive he's made out to be in popular culture, to go on a tangent about negative capacity, but this isn't lit-crit, this is a blog listing the books I've read since school let out in May. So:

Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried.
This is the only book to read on how to tell, not just a true war story, but that oxymoron, the true story. I don't trust simple stories. I don't trust easy answers. If I could… But when someone tells me that something is true, or right, or obvious, my eyes narrow, I check my wallet, I lock my door.

I would say that these stories are universal, that they tell us something bigger, that these aren't stories about war. These are stories about life. But then I know better. I've been told. I can't comment—I'm not privileged to comment—on war stories. No, that's not right either. The privilege runs the other way. I'm privileged not to comment.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
There is nothing new under the sun. Everything has been done before, footnotes, lengthy asides, doubt, and so on. All those literary techniques and themes you thought were invented in the last half of the twentieth century were already used by Melville. And it's worth reading just for that.

There is an old joke that a classic is a book that people praise but never read. Perhaps. But I have found that classics are most often classics for good reason. I was bored by action and sci-fi. I've been bored by thrillers. I was never bored with Moby Dick. I read it in four days and when I read O'Brien's How to Tell a True War Story and then Chapter 54, 'The Town-Ho's Story,' I couldn't help but note that Melville had written a war story. Why did it happen? What's the moral? Wrong question.

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood.
This book sits next to on my shelf, shares a publisher with, and has a similar cover to The Stranger. That's serendipitous as the two also share themes of crime, purpose, and capital punishment. I think back to reading Camus in high school. I loved the book, but got a test question wrong. The question was, why did Mersault kill the Arab? I don't recall my answer, but I read into the story I couldn't help but speculate on why he did it. What it meant. But the correct answer, the answer indicated, was that the sun was in his eyes. That answer was too literal for me, yet not literary enough. How can you sum up the reason for the book in that phrase, “the sun was in his eyes?” Yes that's it. No it isn't.

Now, why did Dick and Perry kill the Clutters?

I didn't find this book terrifying in the same way that others seem to. I didn't have nightmares. I wasn't made nauseous.2 I find it terrifying that Capote makes these killers human. He makes them your brother—you. I don't want to read about inhuman killers, Lecters and Dahmers. Inhuman killers, psychopaths, sociopaths, may as well be accidents, rockslides, lightning. Human killers—killers who are like us—that is scary. But that isn't it either. This book isn't scary at all. It is sad and only sad.

Thom Jones, Pugilist at Rest.
Another book of war stories. Similar to O'Brien, but where O'Brien looks at war as an all too real dream, a nightmare come true that one hides from, Jones finds his message in war as a place of belonging, a place that might be home and brings a perverted form of comfort that peace and civilian life fails to provide. The image of the Pugilist at Rest, the statue and the words, brings together disparate images, violence and peace, readiness and relaxation. The pugilist is never truly at rest. Or, if he is it is a kind of senescence. Here I can't help think of Muhammad Ali. Where do we find our value when our powers are taken from us? What are we good for? Ali has his answer, do we? Does it satisfy?

1 Muhammad Ali never said this.
2No, it was Rich Dad; Poor Dad that made me nauseous and wouldn't let me sleep. Dead serious, that is what my nightmares are made of.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Books Read: July

It seems I can only keep up with the books I'm reading on this blog. I do have more to say, about life, the universe, and everything, but getting it out of my head and onto the page doesn't seem to be happening. I think it's because I've been procrastinating on revising my writing sample (for the 3rd time). If I turn on the computer and open up a word processor I feel obliged to write a couple of hundred words about the raven paradox and I'm a little sick of the raven paradox right now.

About three weeks ago I realized that in my rush to apply to grad school (an open secret) I had given someone else control of my happiness. Not one particular person, but just handed it over to professors, grades, acceptance into grad programs and so on. I don't do well (and I expect most of us don't) when I'm not in charge of my own happiness. I've been there before. I've handed happiness over to school before, to co-workers, to relationships. It doesn't work and it makes me rebel. I think it's a part of the reason that I didn't do well in school before. One of the things that allowed me to go back to school has been that I am doing it for my own reasons and not to please anyone else (you're welcome to be pleased about it, but I'm not doing it for you).

So upon realizing that I had turned those reasons, responsibility for my happiness, over to someone else I stopped and reevaluated. I had to approach this like an ultra. In the middle of a race you will lose your motivation and not want to continue. It happens to everyone. The trick, for me, is to look around and remind myself that this is where I want to be, I am doing what I want to do, and even if it isn't fun, be in awe of it and what I can do. So that's what I'm doing now. I'm in awe of all the learning I've done and the papers I've written. I know I'm not done and maybe I'll change my mind about grad school, but for right now it's easy enough to act as though I'm going to do it (that includes revising that paper). This is where I want to be and what I want to do right now.

Maybe I lied about not being able to get this stuff typed up. Once again I haven't read as much as I thought I would. I think that's in part for the reasons listed above. But looking back I guess I have read a fair bit, most of it classic sci-fi, the comfort food of books.

Infinite Possibilities, Robert Heinlein.
This is a collection of three of Heinlein's “juvenile fiction” novellas. Tunnel in the Sky was so-so. Although it had a few good psychological elements towards the end it seemed to be a stream of consciousness Boy's Life meets Lord of the Flies. Time For the Stars was much better as it had a good hard sci-fi grounding and explored the twins paradox of special relativity with literal twins. Not his best, but fun. Citizen of the Galaxy was the last and strongest. Not super deep, but it brings up some good points about how blind we are to what goes on in other places and cultures and different sorts of freedom. Besides, any novella that subverts the happily-ever-after trope by means of stifling bureaucracy is okay by me.

Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu/Stephen Mitchell.
A good reminder that I don't know as much as I think I do.

The Nine Billion Names of God, Arthur C. Clarke.
A collection of Clarke's favorites of his own short stories. Most of these follow the sci-fi short story formula pretty closely. Find a curious scientific fact/theory, run with it for a while, twist ending. Good stuff anyway. Clarke's dark but goofy sense of humor along with a frontier aesthetic and humanist ethic underpin these stories. It makes me wonder what is really important: here and now, something greater, or nothing at all.

Apology, Plato.

A good reminder that I don't know as much as I think I do.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Books Read: June

Well, I didn't do as much reading in June as I'd have liked to.  Actually that's a bit misleading.  I read a lot, but not many books.  There is just too much on the internet that catches my attention and keeps me from reading all the books I'd like to.  There's a surprising number of good articles out there.  Sturgeon's Revelation may be true, but 10% of the internet is still quite a bit.  I also got a lot read in a book I've been working my way through for a while, but probably won't finish for another month or so.  It's not an easy one.  Here are the books I read in whole in June:

The Limits of Science, Peter Medawar.
Really I wanted to read Memoirs of a Thinking Radish, but since the neither of the two libraries I have easy access to had it on hand I read this instead.  I think I read this one too fast and without enough thought.  He's an easy and accessible writer and a good anthropologist of science, but I think that made it easy to miss what he was saying in some cases.  I kind of stopped reading after he dismissed induction by way of an apparent paradox; a paradox that I think has been reasonably solved.  Not only that, but I don't think that, understood properly, that particular paradox bears on induction one way or the other.  Because of that rather trivial mistake I kind of skimmed the rest of the book so I may have missed what he was getting at.  I read him as saying something like Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion are separate domains and never the two shall meet.  Of course hardly anyone believes this, not even Medawar or Gould.  Their religious beliefs were heavily influenced by their scientific worldview.  Still, a great scientist who I happen to think got the philosophy wrong is still worth listening to on the topic of what science is and how it works.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain.
As a self-identified introvert I object to the hamster ball theory of introversion.  I find it insulting to both the introvert and the extrovert, as though introverts are somehow fragile and special care needs to be taken or that extroverts are boorish and annoying and ought to back off, neither of which is accurate or useful.  I had hoped to find some alternative understanding in Cain's book, but it wasn't to be.  I don't think it's a bad book, and it certainly isn't as narrow-minded as the hamster ball theory, but it doesn't do much to explain introversion/extroversion.  The problem, I think, lies with trying to force the concepts to do more work than they are prepared to do.  For instance, Cain makes the case that introverts have trouble in school because schools encourage speaking up.  On the other hand Cain also makes the case that introverts do well in school because they can focus better than extroverts.  So which is it? Do introverts do better in school or worse?  I think the answer is that the I/E continuum doesn't have much to do with it at all.  There's a lot more in the book trying to reduce I/E to some other function like sensitivity or openness to experience, but these seem to be different traits that are at least partially independent of I/E.  Open/closed, sensitivity/insensitive, introvert/extrovert, liberal/conservative, fox/hedgehog. Once we cram everyone into some sort of simple dichotomy that purports to explain so much we end up losing what explanatory power the concept had to begin with.  Still, the concept does have some usefulness.  By knowing that I'm an introvert you know whether I'd generally prefer to go to a large exciting party with lots of people or talk one-on-one with someone.  Leave it at that and it's fine.  Then again the real case that Cain wants to make is that we ought to value the opinions of those who aren't outspoken or dead certain of their beliefs and that thesis seems entirely reasonable.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

You can make it, (only) if you try.

There are a few things about pop-philosophy that really get to me.  What do I meant by pop-phil?  I mean aphorisms, mostly about how to succeed, what we ought to do with our lives, what we should value.  It's not meant to be rigorous, it's meant to provide some guidance; to reassure or inspire us.  Pretty obviously there's some spillover from/to pop-psych.  Mostly, I don't mind it, Epictetus' Enchiridion (hardly new) is probably the best of the bunch, but unfortunately some of the aphorisms in other works or oft cited on social media are just plain wrong.

The big one that bugs me is getting conditionals mixed up.  I suppose it could be affirming the consequent, but I don't even think that it's obvious what the antecedent and consequent are intended to be in many of these cases.  Usually it's something like:  If you work hard you will be successful.  If this is true then what do you know about someone who is not successful?  Well, they must not have tried.  But of course that isn't true.  People work hard and still fail all the time.  And what do you know about someone who succeeds?  Not much.  Maybe they worked hard, maybe not.  But flip it around, take the inverse and you get: If you don't work hard, you won't succeed.  That seems much more true to me.  And what do you know if someone doesn't succeed?  Not much.  Maybe they worked hard and something got in their way.  You don't know.  You can't point fingers.  You can't blame every failure on a lack of trying.  But at least you know what you ought to do if you want to succeed.  You ought to try.  You ought to work hard.

Another one is getting feelings mixed up with facts.  Confidence, fear, and epiphanies are some of the big offenders here.  One might consider these to be semantic disagreements, sometimes yes, but we still ought to be careful not to get too much spillover from one meaning to another.  Being selfish or judgmental is different from having self-interest or being discerning (respectively) even though these terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

I remember back in middle school someone claimed (in the gym locker room) that they weren't afraid of anything.  I answered back that I was afraid of lots of things.  I was justifiably afraid of falling from heights, getting in a car accident, disease, and the like.  Now maybe I'm getting fear and respect mixed up here, but I don't think the other guy was claiming that he had respect for heights, etc., it was a brag.  Of course being afraid here doesn't mean that I stayed in bed all day.  It meant/means that when I briefly worked as a rigger I clipped in, I do my best to drive responsibly, and I wash my hands, among other things.  Of course since we're talking about feelings versus facts here there are plenty of cases where it is unreasonable to have fear and fear is distinct from panic.

Confidence is a similar case.  If you are confident that you know what you are doing it doesn't mean that you do know what you're doing.  If you know what you're doing it doesn't mean that you're confident.  Well placed confidence is great.  It means you can apply your knowledge appropriately, but in many cases misplaced confidence is worse than no confidence.  Well placed confidence comes from long experience; from successes and peer evaluation.  If you think you're a great poet, but no one likes your stuff maybe you ought to take a step back (working hard couldn't hurt though).  Hedging bets and being unsure of oneself is a really great thing when it is called for.

I don't trust epiphanies or “ah-ha” moments either.  Just because I think I understand something doesn't mean that I do.  Just as with confidence, understanding is something that is proven through experience, not emotion.  If I read something and think, “yes, I got it,” I can't really be sure until I've checked my knowledge and believe me, many times I haven't “got it.”

“Do or do not, there is no try,” is still pretty cool however.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Be Careful

In my last post I mentioned that two of my professors had cautioned me to “be careful”. I think it's good advice and something I need to work at, especially in the field I've chosen. It's easy to take shortcuts and wave off mistakes with a, “you know what I mean.” Much of the time of course it's perfectly reasonable to be close enough or approximately right. Much of the time it doesn't matter. But then there are times when it does. Here are a few:

I try to be careful on this blog. I'm not always. Of course it's a personal blog and not a professional blog. The point isn't that I argue convincingly or am precise in all that I say. It's more important that I get across what I'm up to, how I'm feeling, and what I'm thinking. There's a balance to be struck here of course. Too careful and I write too much about too little. Not careful enough and I make unsubstantiated claims that deserve to fall. That said, in two of my posts of this year I have written about someone whom I don't know and been (at least a little) critical of them. In both cases one of the first responses was from the person who I was critical of! Its always a little shocking when someone I don't know reads my blog. I don't think that my criticisms were wrong, but if I had known they were reading I might have chosen my words more carefully and made weaker claims. I guess the internet really is a small place. All the more reason to be civil.

I've been taking an online logic class. Last night I took the first substantial quiz over the material. I missed a few questions. I didn't do poorly, but I really wanted to ace it. My first reaction to those questions that I missed was, “hey, that's a trick question,” or “that's just being pedantic.” True of course, but it's a logic exam: trick questions and pedantism are just exactly what the test is over. The real lesson is: be careful.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to play a game of Pente. For those who don't know it's a game somewhere between othello and connect four with a little go thrown in. I'm always a little leery of playing strategy games, somehow I think that if I don't do well it reflects poorly on my intelligence and thus my character, but knowing my lack of care, my need to improve, and remembering my “learning attitude” I decided to join in. I didn't win, but I did once force a loss. I'm actually looking forward to playing again.

Over the past couple of days I've seen some pretty heavy Facebook arguments get going. It starts with a post or shared link with some uninformed or ill-formed arguments in it. Then some other party, with a differing opinion comments and gives their own uninformed or ill-formed argument for the other side. In particular these arguments seem to get down questions of what is science, how does explanation work, and how do we know things. These are just the questions that I am most drawn to in philosophy. They're where I want to do work. But I do not feel qualified to butt in, even when the questions are exactly the ones I am working on. Why not? These are difficult issues. I don't know what the answers are much of the time. When I do have an answer or an opinion Facebook is not generally a good forum to discuss it. It's pretty much impossible to be succinct and yet get across an argument for why I believe something. I hardly want to assert that I know the truth because I took a class (one!) in it.  To really get something across I need to sit down, discuss, and think about it.  Thinking clearly isn't something that happens in 140 characters.  Devastating arguments don't happen in a three minute video.  

In sum: The more I learn, the less I know.   

Monday, June 09, 2014

Books Read: May

I'm in a bit of a quandary here. I read a book that wasn't exactly assigned for class, but does relate directly to what I'm studying in school. Actually I'd say that the book has gotten me in a little trouble. It caused me to go off on a tangent in a paper I was writing. In any case since I'm a bit fussy about what I say about what I'm studying I don't think I ought to write much about it here. When I do say something I want to get it right or at least have thought carefully about it. As more than one (two!) of my professors has admonished me, I need to “be careful.” So if you came here for a review of Pursuit of Truth by W. V. Quine you've come to the wrong place.

That said, I have done some less than academic reading this month. I won't try to justify it too much, but I do believe there is such a thing as 'marginal time'; time that isn't worth as much in terms of getting stuff done, but is well spent in entertainment or napping. Sometimes watching TV, reading celebrity autobiographies, or schlock fantasy really is the best use of your time. So with no further ado, here are the books I read in May:

Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
A well written fantasy novel. No dragons, but a few dungeons. It's pretty classic low fantasy fare, but Lynch does a good job of fleshing out the characters and giving some plausibility to their hi-jinks. I also appreciate that while this book is a part of a series it is also stand-alone. I like series, TV, movie, book, etc., that are either episodic (this book, Star Trek) or have a complete arc (LOTR, Babylon 5), but I can't stand those that are soap operas, that aren't going anywhere, but like to trick you into thinking they are (Game of Thrones, Lost, anything by Orson Scott Card). Lies hints at deeper back story, but doesn't make it essential to understanding and appreciating the story.

Singled Out by Bella DePaulo
I picked this one up while I was 'researching' my last blog post. I was looking for a single people's support group online, but there doesn't seem to be one. Or at least not of the sort I was looking for. The cursory search that I did pointed me to DePaulo's work and website. Apparently she's the big name in research on single people qua single people. That is, not single people who want to become coupled as their primary life goal.
The first few chapters are occupied with taking marriage researchers to task for sloppy and misleading studies and headlines. I think she does a pretty good job of demonstrating the problems that plague the field: conflating single with divorced, widowed, or coupled-but-unmarried, cross-sectional versus longitudinal studies, leading survey questions, biased funding sources. None of these problems are fatal, but they must be carefully parsed. What do the studies really say? DePaulo's own studies, however, seem to run into some of the same problems. She sometimes conflates categories when it suits her and her website sports a blatantly leading survey.
The second part of the book is more about the stigma and discrimination that single people are subject to. In large part I agree with her. Coupled people and even more so married people are given privileges that single people are not. Tax breaks and health care discounts on the more tangible side and a perception that they are less responsible and more selfish on the less tangible. Unfortunately she sometimes goes too far by suggesting that coupled people are in fact the less responsible and more selfish ones.  We'd best settle on what it means to be responsible and unselfish before we try and point fingers on those topics.
As I read it DePaulo is trying to make two different points in the book. First that single people are happy, healthy, and productive. Second, that they are but ought not be discriminated against. She uses the first point to bolster the second. I don't see the need for the first point though. It seems clear enough to me that even if single people were less productive, happy, or healthy in general that they ought not be discriminated against just for their 'alternative lifestyle.'

Test of Metal by Matthew Woodring Stover
Yes that's really the title. Sorry. It's a Magic: The Gathering novel. I've only played the game a few times (okay, only twice) and I had no idea that there was actually some sort of back story for the game. Apparently there is, or at least there is money to be made in selling novels with the name slapped on them. In fact this is a very well written fantasy novel. I've read a few of Stover's books in the past and true to form he elevates what can be a very painful genre to thoughtful and introspective heights. It might be that early on he lampshades a Gettier problem or that he talks in some detail about the consequences of the existence of many worlds (I'm a sucker for that stuff), but I really thought it had something going on. Stover is also well aware that he isn't writing a literary novel. He has no problem throwing in anachronistic phrases and acknowledging that he's writing for an editor and a shared world. It seems like he has fun messing with other people's characters. Also there are dragons in this one.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Being Single

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to reflect on being single. I needed someone to drive me to and from a surgical appointment and I didn't know where to turn. For a moment I was envious of those people who have someone special in their lives. Who know exactly who they are supposed to turn to in times of need. I don't have anyone like that; anyone who is my everything and who will do anything for me.

I have never really felt the need to be in a relationship. I've tried dating. I've had one relatively serious relationship that didn't work out. Other than that I've been single my entire life.  But I am perfectly happy on my own. In fact I was much less happy, much more uncomfortable, in a relationship. I felt as though I was always performing for my S.O. and never quite like I was myself. I told myself that it was just because I wasn't used to it, I would get used to including someone in all of my plans, and that eventually I would be able to be myself again. I would become comfortable. That didn't happen. I should have realized, I did realize, just two months in that the relationship was not going to work out. Still I continued, sure that I simply had to get over my misgivings.

Eight months later I finally called it quits. It was one of the best decisions I've made in my life. I was upset about it of course. It probably took me two years to get over the disappointment. No one likes failing at something, especially something that everyone is told they ought to do. Something we are told that we need to be truly happy. More than that though I was relieved. I was able to do what I wanted for the reasons that I wanted. (What I wanted was to race ultras, but I've already told that story.)

Still, there I was: low wage job, no car, no house, no kids, over thirty, and single. It looked like a recipe for no life.

Then a few years ago I was talking with a good friend who was also single. She asked, when are we going to get to real life? When do we start? I hadn't really thought about it, but the answer just came out of my mouth: Life is what happens to you while you're making other plans. We already had lives and our lives had meaning. I was a bike mechanic who liked his job and loved to race ultras. Who cares what other people, or even I, thought I needed to be happy? I was happy!

Since then I've tried dating a few times, but it hasn't worked out. Usually when I felt that someone else was interested in me.  I haven't been on a second date though and, largely, that's my choice. For me the costs simply don't outweigh the benefits. There is nothing special that a romantic relationship offers me that I need or particularly want. I am perfectly satisfied being single and the longer I stay single the more I think it suits me.

The realization I have come to is that I was being too narrow minded when I thought that I needed an S.O. to help me. I have relationships that work for me. Marriage or a coupled relationship is no guarantee that someone will be there for you and neither does being single guarantee that there is no one there for you. I had two great offers from good friends, people whom I trust, to drive me to and from my appointment. It was humbling to realize that I needed someone and more humbling to realize that someone really was there for me. My view of relationships was too narrow. I have friends to have intellectual discussions with. I have friends to bike or run with. I have friends to have deep personal discussions with. I don't need someone to be my everything when I have so many someones who are something.