Sunday, October 31, 2010

Holiday Gift Books 2010
White House Diary
by Jimmy Carter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A couple of the reviews of this book I've seen call it an example of why Jimmy Carter's presidency failed. I don't read it that way. As a book it's a fascinating glimpse into the day by day of a presidency. It doesn't provide an overall narrative, although Carter's Afterword tries to add some context. Instead it gives us some idea of the daily reality. Given that this was a significantly smaller country (in population) in the 1970s, this book probably only hints at the complexity of the presidential calendar.

Carter was a relative novice in Washington, but even so, some of what he learned is probably new in its extent to every President. He is surprised by the sloppy journalism of the national press, and he finds as Presidents before and after him did, that the military establishment can out and out ignore the President and try to out wait him. The diary does counter some impressions of his presidency overall--he was pretty popular at the beginning, more so than Clinton would be. And for all his attention to detail, he made some big initiatives right away, particularly in the Middle East.

He's been criticized for recording his fishing catches, or for scenes like getting down on the floor to help pianist Vladimir Horowitz spread carpets to dampen the sound for his concert that evening. But to me these are welcome examples of some balance in the White House, some break from weighty matters that is necessary for a President to stay sane. I doubt many general readers will want to read every word of every entry, but this book is surprisingly serviceable for casual reading.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Monster
by Michael W. Hudson
Times Books

Here's your Halloween horror story. The apparent conventional wisdom about the sub-prime mortgage crisis that plunged the U.S. into a near Depression is that it was banks giving in to the bad choices made by people who really had no business wanting those loans. The reality Michael Hudson exposes is very different: a morally corrupt and systematic campaign of predation, with no conscience and an excess of greed, by a sociopathic financial system--not at the fringes but in its vital centers. The victims are most often lied to and subjected to relentless psychological warfare, the records falsified and legal obligations of the lenders are circumvented. That the book begins with a primitive act of forgery is the signature of what goes on for the rest of its pages.

There are people who will enjoy reading this thoroughly reported expose as essentially a (multiple, serial, organized) crime story. I find it all too disgusting to enjoy as a reading experience, but I do want the truth even if it's hard to take. This is an important book.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Holiday Gift Books 2010
Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation
by Daisy Hay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Last year, Romantically inclined readers had The Age of Wonders (Richard Holmes, Pantheon) and The Atmosphere of Heaven (Mike Jay, Yale) that drew connections between science and literature in the lives of several generations of early and mid-19th writers and scientists. This book by Daisy Hay concentrates on the relationships within the younger Romantics--particularly the Shelleys and Lord Byron--and includes some fascinating but often forgotten figures, such as Thomas Love Peacock and the editor and writer that brought many of these young English idealists together, Leigh Hunt.

Hay especially gives the women their due, including the wives and sisters who at times came out of the troubled shadows of the men. But her account of Mary Shelley's literary career sets some proportions aright, as Mary was more famous than Percy B. during his lifetime, owing to the popularity of Frankenstein. Much has been made of the literary revelations concerning Mary's sister Claire, and her relationship with the Shelleys and Lord Byron (by whom she had a daughter), thanks in large part to Hay's discovery of Claire's long-lost unpublished short memoir. I suppose this may have rocked the literary world, but what comes across in reading this book is Daisy Hay's careful fair-mindedness. She doesn't sensationalize anything, and not only provides different perspectives but evaluates them sensibly.

Her point of view on what makes the Romantic approach to literature different is striking. It was in many respects "an avowedly democratic project, since it suggested that anyone could be a poet, as long as he or she understood that poetic inspiration was present in the sights and relationships of ordinary life..." But her key point is that while the image of these poets--Shelley, Keats and Byron--is of the solitary soul, in fact for all of them (though Shelley in particular), their lives would "move between solitude and sociability, for the two opposing states to be suspended in productively balanced tension."

This book itself expresses a productively balanced tension, between judicious information and an absorbing narrative. Let me put it this way: I read most literary biographies in small chunks--a few pages, a chapter at a time--and am content to do so. But I got to a point in this book that I had to keep reading, absorbed in the story. I had to finish it.

If you're looking for a gift book for someone fascinated by this period and these figures, this is a very good bet.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Getting Darwin Wrong: Why Evolutionary Psychology Won’t Work
by Brendan Wallace
Imprint Academic

The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology
by Mark Rowlands
MIT Press

One of the unfortunate consequences of relentless attacks on the Darwinian concept of evolution by religious and political zealots is that scientists and others often respond to all challenges in Darwin’s neighborhood as fundamentalist enemy attacks. But there are legitimate questions from those who also reject creationism and broadly speaking consider themselves Darwinists.

These challenges are represented by three books with similar titles: What Darwin Got Wrong (by Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, 2010) questions some of Darwin’s own conclusions. Darwin’s Blind Spot (Ryan, 2002) summarizes new science that challenges Darwin’s most dominant scientific descendants, known as Neo-Darwinists (Richard Dawkins, for example.) And this book, Getting Darwin Wrong, challenges a theory in another field that in the author’s opinion misuses or misconstrues Darwinian evolution.

This epic theory has been misused from the start. Even 90 years ago George Bernard Shaw observed that Darwin “had the luck to please everybody with an axe to grind.” The first and perhaps still most influential were the Social Darwinists (survival of the fittest justifies predatory capitalism, etc.) and proponents of what philosopher Mary Midgley calls the Escalator Fallacy of evolution as inevitable progress. These days it can also be the sloppy or cynical use of natural selection to support a supposition, scientific or otherwise.

In this book Brendan Wallace is not attacking the general idea that the human psyche was influenced by evolution, but the particulars of the school of experimental psychology that uses Evolutionary Psychology as its brand name. He identifies it as holding that the brain processes information as a digital computer, and related “cognitivist” theories of mind as popularized by Steven Pinker, for example. Evolution, they say, has bequeathed a rigid “cognitive architecture” with pre-installed programs for dealing with the world. (Ironically, another theorist attacked in Getting Darwin Wrong is the co-author of What Darwin Got Wrong.)

While there’s some metaphorical appeal in such general statements, Wallace argues that the precise theory is a logical and empirical house of cards, and leads to a warped sense of how our minds work—one that turns out to repeat inferential errors of both the Social Darwinist and Escalator fallacies, and the simplistic Neo-Darwinist emphasis on the individual, as opposed to the group and the environment.

In general Wallace asserts that this theory at best oversimplifies both natural selection and the human mind, as well as revealing yet another academic dogma that may have survived not because it is valid but because famous people professed it, and academic departments and careers depended on it.

In The New Science of the Mind, Mark Rowlands argues for an approach to mental processes different from the dominant cognitive science models, without rejecting them. He argues that cognition is “embodied” (it occurs not only in the brain but elsewhere in the body) and “extended” (mental processes “extend out, in various ways, into the organism’s environment.”) He develops his theory of the “amalgamated mind” as “the conjunction of the mind embodied and the mind extended.”

Neither Wallace or Rowlands directly addresses the work of the other; neither even appears in each other’s index. (For those keeping score at home, Rowlands does subdivide the field into Cartesian, non-Cartesian and anti-Cartesian cognitive science. As far as I can tell, he’s non, Wallace is anti.)

Rowlands treatment is more extensive and theoretical (and his book has the more appealing cover and layout) but strikingly, neither he nor Wallace delves into much brain science. Their approach is philosophical, emphasizing close logical analysis (Wallace mostly in dispute, Rowlands mostly in support of his theory.)

While both books are written clearly enough to be read by readers who haven’t followed the ins and outs in this field, they both require a lot of attention and some specialized knowledge (especially Rowland.) Though both eventually include a level of detail that was beyond my interest, I do remember this kind of writing (rigorous, with a minimum of jargon and some humor) with some affection from my philosophy courses in college.

I come away from these books still suspicious of theories of mind based so much on computers (or in Rowland’s case, on ideas that sound as if inspired by GPS and the Internet), but noting the cautious expansion of ideas of mind Rowland espouses. I’m not convinced they are expansive—or accurate—enough to do the rest of us much good, yet.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

For Pleasure: Fall 2010
First, to finish summer...I finished Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (which means among other insane things that I read two novels this summer of more than 1000 pages each.) I not only admired this book but it inspired more feeling than I associate with past forays into Pynchon. So I dipped into some of the older books, as well as a fairly detailed exegesis of his work up to and including Gravity's Rainbow (Joseph W. Slade's book on Pynchon, published in the Warner Paperback Series on Writers for the 70s, which I must have picked up at some used bookstore somewhere), which in turn led me to look again at his sort of autobiographical introduction to Slow Learner, his volume of early stories. A few interesting keys there, including to his taste in detective fiction.

Which takes me into fall, which is busy with work and new fall releases. Two books I will --but have yet to-- review have led me to books I'm now reading for pleasure. Robert D. Richardson's First We Read, Then We Write (U. of Iowa Press) led me to his big biography of Emerson, The Mind on Fire, from which it is derived. The biography is currently my main bedtime reading.

Daisy Hay's Young Romantics (FSG) piqued my interest in the novels of Thomas Love Peacock. I'm currently enjoying his Headlong Hall in a volume from the Humboldt State University Library that was published in 1923 (when it was acquired by the then-Humboldt State Teachers' College) in an Everyman's Library edition first published in 1908, which was not quite a century after it was written. The edition includes Nightmare Abbey, which I'll read next. But there are eloquent and witty passages of Headlong Hall that still apply to today (as do passages and dialogue of G.B. Shaw, who I dip into on one excuse or another.)

Another bedside read--which in this case is a re-read--is Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics. It was only after I started reading it that I realized that it had certain resemblances to Lightman's Einstein's Dreams which I read in the spring in the same circumstances, fulfilling the same function or need--these relatively short, thematically related flights of imagination. Very good ushers into dreamland.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Life Like Other People’s
by Alan Bennett
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Leaving the obscure and dour birthplace, the Working Class Hero travels far to lead a completely different life in a faster, posher, smarter capital of the world. So the story goes, but even though Alan Bennett went to Oxford, became a global celebrity soon afterwards (performing in the groundbreaking 1960s satirical review, Beyond the Fringe) and later a respected London playwright (The History Boys) and screenwriter (The Madness of King George from his play), the complications of his aging provincial parents’ lives became part of his.

This is a memoir of those interactions, a portrait of his parents and their marriage, as well as of other family members, and an unstinting account of his own responses (which weren’t always so selfless.) Though depression and dementia are among the obligatory topics in today's memoirs, this book plays it straight, without hyped-up drama. So at least for American readers, its grace is surprising.

The depression that came upon his mother was not part of Alan's childhood. It was only in her later years that it appeared in seriously distorting form, requiring periodic hospitalizations and some scary therapies. It also brought some hidden family history to the surface. Over decades Alan became more involved in her care, even returning to live at home for a time.

His father was steadfastly loyal to his wife, but Alan realized it was more when he saw them together in the hospital, sharing a world entirely of their own. “What led my father to drive fifty miles a day to visit his wife in the hospital was the conviction that no one knew her as he knew her, that if she were to regain the shore of sanity he must be there waiting for her; finding him she would find herself.”

But his mother’s depression is only part of this story. Through his family, Bennett brings to life the recent history and even the geography of this milieu in this part of England. During Alan’s youth, the paradoxical battle of his working class mother not to be “common,” while perhaps less familiar these days, is familiar to me. But his flamboyant aunts were as cinematic as their fates. One began the mental deterioration of her last years by talking just as brightly, in perfectly constructed sentences as she always had, but making no sense whatever.

Bennett sees it all with a precise dramatist’s eye, both objective and involved. He writes with occasional humor, constant honesty and a quiet eloquence. This is a book warm with life, even if it covers uncomfortable aspects of it. The predominant feeling I came away with was wonder, at the vital complexity of people, and at the fierce creativity of fate.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America
by David E. Nye
MIT Press

We live in a world where time and space have been eliminated, where millions of people increasingly live in virtual worlds, and there’s no turning back. Right, and the real estate bubble will never burst and the stock market never goes down.

The problem with our electronic future is that it all depends on electricity, while the U.S. grid is aging and vulnerable, no new capacity is being added, and dominant energy sources are dwindling and/or terminally toxic. Still there seems to be this sense that the growth of the Internet is cost-free. However, the New Yorker quotes a high-powered engineer that the Internet probably uses twice the energy as air travel, and that use is growing faster than anything else. A few years ago conservative futurist George Gilder predicted that Internet computing would soon require as much power as the entire U.S. economy did in 2001.

David E. Nye has written a wide-ranging and very readable book that’s basically about how electricity became a foundation of modern society, as revealed especially in what happens when it goes off. There’s the social dimension (the Great Northeastern blackout of 1965 that in New York led to unexpected friendliness, and a similar blackout in 1977 that led to looting), and the technical and economic dimensions. Those who remember the Enron-rigged rolling blackouts of the 90s in CA will get more context along with a return of rising blood pressure.

But accompanying the thought-provoking entertainment, there are warnings about the current U.S. grid’s much-ignored problems of capacity and vulnerability. Perhaps surprisingly, Nye suggests that terrorism is a less of threat than complacency (because power disruptions usually get fixed before people panic.) Greater energy efficiency and decentralization, especially with green technologies, aren’t just nice goals—they’re vital if the power is going to keep flowing. The problems are less technological, he writes, than political and economic. “The problem is not a lack of means but a lack of political will.”

Blackouts remind us what we don’t have when we don’t have electricity. Nye quotes an architect that without it “there is no compression of time and space anymore,” and “one cannot hide behind a wireless phone nor dive yourself into the Internet.”

Apropos of a previous review (of another book from the academic press), I noted with some amusement that Nye felt it necessary to write, somewhat defensively, in his introduction: “Each theory is briefly introduced as the story moves between technical, social, political, and cultural history. Specialists often want theory to be highly visible, like scaffolding covering a building. I prefer to build it unobtrusively into the argument...” In other words, he’s apologizing for using such common tools as narrative and clear, standard English so this book is accessible and even enjoyable for those outside the brotherhood of Theory. The result is a book for both energy techies and the rest of us. Though a bit diffuse, its emphasis on narrative makes it a provocative pleasure.