Thursday, August 29, 2013

Robot Futures
By Illah Reza Nourbakhsh
MIT Press

Forget the scary scenarios and dire special effects of our recently concluded Apocalypse Summer at the cinema.  Don't even bother anticipating the next climate crisis report.  This book is really frightening about a future that's coming on fast, and will be here in a decade or so. And we're really not ready for it, at all.

First of all, what is a robot?  Machine intelligence in a human-like shape, hostile or friendly?  An impressive tangle of arms and pistons making cars in the modern factory?  These images and the issues they raise just scratch the surface.  Nourbakhsh, who is Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, breaks down the functions to perception, action and cognition (which is "the ability to reason, to make decisions about what to do next.")  Robots have these in unequal measure, but together they exist or will exist with effects we can only imagine (and Nourbakhsh does.)  We aren't necessarily on a direct path to Robbie the Robot or even Data the android, "but rather on the road to a strange stable of mechanical creatures that have both subhuman and superhuman qualities all jumbled together, and this near future is for us, not just for our descendants."

Some of the most powerful robots aren't even physical in any familiar sense.  They operate mostly or entirely in cyberspace. They gather and analyze information and make decisions based on it.  Some are already doing so, helping marketers to not only learn consumer preferences but manipulate choices, and even set different prices for the same product for individual consumers.  Add inputs like cameras, and robots can predict what a consumer will like based on the make of the car pulling into the driveway.

Physical robots will also be different from our preconceptions--they will be larger and much smaller than people, able to see in the dark, snake through wreckage to sense survivors, and probably leap tall buildings in a single bound.  As microprocessors and sensors get smaller and more energy efficient, all kinds of robots for amusement as well as mischief become possible, and as costs drop and designs are standardized, they will become ubiquitous.  With 3-D printing, maybe even uncontrollable. "We will not be able to distinguish potential Borg from homebrew."

More complex robots will also be possible because all the information doesn't have to be stored within it--the robot's brain will link to the immensity of the Internet.  Some of the traditional issues will arise, though: when robots look like people or even like dogs, in what sense are they alive?  Is cruelty to robots even possible?  How do you act when you can't tell if the voice on the phone belongs to a robot or a human being?

Nourbakhsh communicates a lot of information in this small book, about what's possible now, what the limitations are and how soon they're likely to be overcome, as well as what's on the drawing board or could be.  He also produces future dialogues and scenarios that do what stories can do best--show us the possible effects of these technologies in the real world.  These are perhaps the most effective--and scariest--parts of the book.  Especially the stories based on something that's already happened.

He suggests that the most important effects may be the unintended consequences of decisions made by individuals, companies and other entities without sufficient regard for the public good.  He offers some ideas for turning potential horrors around before they happen, and suggests "we should become more deliberate and considered as we imagine and design technologies that carry us forward."  Knowing what we might face is the motivating first step, and this book helps us take it.  It should be widely read by all who care about the future they or anyone they care about will live in.  Meanwhile, there's a website:

Monday, August 26, 2013

Of Africa
By Wole Soyinka
Yale University Press

Wole Soyinka is a Nobel Prize winning playwright and writer from Nigeria (the first writer of African descent to win the Prize for literature), who has spent  many years in the U.S. and England, often in political exile.  But he has not detached himself from Africa, returning there to teach and be involved when political conditions permitted.  He is well qualified both in knowledge and the ability to communicate to a western audience, still mystified by an entire continent.

This ignorance is mostly self-imposed, arising in part from the resistance to learning the deep history of cultures different enough to question western assumptions, as well as resistance to accepting the later history that implicates the west in exploitation and oppression.  Perhaps most of all, resistance to the consequences of that history.

My first impression of this book was its refreshing eloquence.  Soyinka uses the English language with increasingly rare precision and imagination.  He begins by musing on Africa as a literary concept, in actual literature as well as in common belief and actual practice--for instance, the creation of countries and boundaries that have nothing to do with Africa itself or the differences among its people.  "Africa remains the monumental fiction of European creativity."

Ignorance of the effects of history--of in some ways the lingering continuity--hampers western efforts to understand contemporary Africa.  Soyinka is especially illuminating on specific patterns of the slave trade that continue to shape events, incorrectly understood without this insight.  "It is short-changing the power of history to pretend that the events in the Sudan are not based on a perception that dates back to a relationship rooted in the history of slavery..."

Establishing these perspectives, Soyinka narrates some recent history that takes on different meaning.  Later he discusses the "spirituality of a continent" in illuminating terms, with relevance to existing conflicts.  This section of this book seems highly valuable if not indispensable to understanding the worst conflicts and problems in Africa today.

It is unusual--maybe even disconcerting at times--to read such informed and cogent analysis on important aspects of the real world, couched in glittering prose that sometimes stops the reader in admiration.  He somewhat playfully suggests that suppressing complex truths through political correctness is as distorting as denying them through ideology or dictatorship, capping the discussion with a phrase of brilliant music as well as meaning:   "Shall we appropriate the coy scissors of censorship?"

In words and number of pages this is a relatively brief book.  Yet it is dense with meaning, requiring careful attention from those with little knowledge of Africa--that is, most of us.  It is also a painful subject, and cowardice as well as denial are additional reasons for our willed ignorance.  But for those who appreciate fine writing--who in fact miss it--this book may contain difficult truths that are hard to assimilate, while the reading itself is revelatory.

The Obamas visiting cells for slaves on their recent trip to Africa

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Books for the Future

In new nonfiction books I have a prejudice: I look for books that may tell me the future.  Books that might contribute to a better understanding of the most important factors likely to govern the future, and that suggest action and attitudes to make a better future, and certainly to forestall a much worse one.

Environmental topics are prominent among them.  I've reviewed here and elsewhere some of the major and also some of the lesser known but worthy books specifically on the climate crisis.  Here are glimpses of several more pertinent books:

Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World by Catherine Tumber (MIT Press) is a model of the most valuable books for the future: it is on a specific but under-appreciated topic, it is very current and above all it is a laudable combination of thorough and relevant research (and reporting on such research), and it is well-organized, well written and readable, with useful notes, bibliography and index.

Millions of people live in these smaller cities, mostly in the northeast and midwest, that have rich histories but are neglected and generally ignored.  Tumber makes the case that these cities can not only be saved, but can be vital elements in the low-carbon future we must have if civilization is to have a continuous future at all.  These are cities like Syracuse, Youngstown and Hartford, but some of her findings and ideas can apply to the larger industrial cities now in various stages of confusion or deterioration.  Tumber stresses that this is a personal and even idiosyncratic book, involving personal experience as well as history and journalism.  Yet she comes up with very specific ideas on how these cities can contribute to a clean energy economy.

Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering by Clive Hamilton (Yale). However they reflect the moment, some of these books are destined to become reference works for the near future.  This is certainly one, for intentional climate engineering (as opposed to the unknowing kind that has been going on for more than a century, and still goes on even as we know better)  is still mostly a set of early ideas.  Yet because those ideas and research are being funded largely by the loose billions of fossil fuel and related companies, there is much impetus behind the scenes.  At the same time, Hamilton writes, "There is almost no information on public attitudes to geoengineering for the simple reason that almost no one has yet heard of it."

 This current research is apparently intended to offer technological fixes that won't require a switch from fossil fuel energy. Geoengineering projects are roundly criticized for their ineffectiveness and especially the foolhardy dangers they pose to the global environment.  Hamilton divulges who is doing what right now, and raises the practical and ethical issues involved.  Because such powerful interests are behind geoengineering, and also because some aspects of it may not require much technology or expenditure (and could even become a form of terrorism), this is a necessary book, a primer for the near future.

The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science by Akiko Busch (Yale)  For a long time the observation and even experimentation applied to the natural world was conducted by amateurs, by monks in gardens and part-time naturalists.  They were motivated by curiosity and wonder, and often by an intense involvement and fierce love for the nature in the place they lived.  Busch updates this impulse to the computer age, in the course of describing her involvement with her home grounds of the Hudson river valley.  As a physical book it feels good in the hand, with paper and print meant to last.  Therefore it serves the savoring kind of reading it deserves.  Her fundamental point is itself important: it is the citizen scientist--like indigenous ancestors--who are vital to the future of nature, and therefore to the future.

Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World by Stephen R. Kellert (Yale).  Kellert is something of an expert in the relation of humans to the rest of nature, and in this book he explores ways in which humans at various stages in their lives are naturally affiliated with nature, borrowing E.O. Wilson's term of biophilia.  His observations are wide-ranging, and the book includes personal observations of nature and scenarios of possible futures.  This relation of humans to the rest of nature is essential to our well-being, to who we are.  But we are in danger of destroying our own birthright.  Kellert makes a comprehensive case for why we must be conscious of this and act with it in mind to make sure future generations can claim this birthright.

Those who assume an apocalyptic future often do so based on an interpretation of evolutionary science and natural selection.  It is true that the dominant interpretations have stressed individuals engaged in a selfish survival of the fittest, and those manifest aspects of animal life that counteract this dominant view have been ignored and under-studied.  But new research is redressing the balance.

Two new books from MIT Press are good examples of these newly robust areas of study.  From Groups to Individuals: Evolution and Emerging Individuality, a collection edited by Frederick Bouchard and Phillippe Huneman  reviews research within the context of the move away from organisms as the primary agent of evolution, taking into consideration however not only constituents of what we describe as organisms, but groups.  What makes individuality turns out to be a lot more complicated in biology as philosophers, psychologists and other social scientists have found applied to humans.  This is a nice sized book, sturdy and illustrated with drawings and charts.  This seems an exciting academic field right now, with important implications for our general understanding, and our approach to our future.

The same may be said of Cooperation and Its Evolution, a collected edited by Kim Sterelny, Richard Joyce, Brett Calcott and Ben Fraser.  Topics range from microbiology to human philosophy, and while animal cooperation is explored, the emphasis is on the human.  With more than 500 pages of text in a hefty but easy to handle volume, many current issues and arguments are explored.  This is the latest contribution to bringing research together to see where we stand.  In general, the idea that there is an evolutionary basis for cooperation is becoming more and more acceptable, and freed from the constraints of seeming heresy, how cooperation and conscious decision-making for a better common future can be achieved is an exciting area for creative research and theories.

Within the world of political action, there are books about under-appreciated elements of the present that are forming and in some cases threatening the future.  Occupy the Future, a Boston Review volume published by MIT Press, is a group of essays edited by David Grusky, Doug McAdam, Rob Reich and Debra Satz.  It emerged from the Occupy Wall Street movement, but the book is not about the movement itself.  It describes the current major income inequality in America--the vast proportion of wealth in the hands of a very few--and its current and future implications.  It looks at the causes and effects, and suggests remedies.  In nearly 250 pages of text, it goes into some detail, and at the very least is informative about today's workplace and the effects of computerization, globalization etc.  The breakdown of chapters is well organized, and some individual chapters go into detail.  It's longer than the Boston Review books I've seen, but it's still a handy paperback size, though a sturdy hardback.

Finally, there's the impact of the still evolving universe of computing and cyberspace on the future that is becoming the present every day.  The latest history to provide some perspective is On Computing: The Fourth Great Scientific Domain by Paul S. Rosenbloom (MIT).  But this is more than a history--the author is arguing that computing joins the physical sciences, life sciences and social sciences as a separate domain: information transformation.  The incredible growth of computing has regularly been accompanied by outsized claims that turn out to be both less and more than the truth.  This is a provocative thesis, which will likely occupy speculation and study for awhile to come.

An occupational hazard of books about the fast-changing world formed by computing is instant obsolescence.  Still, reports such as Crowdsourcing by Daren C. Brabham (MIT) are valuable as snapshots of the present (or recent past) and especially as indications of direction for the immediate future, and expression of potential uses.  This is a well organized and thorough treatment of the phenomenon and related research, in a handy-sized volume, a paperback with the publishing quality of a hardback.

Then there are books that reflect an emerging field that makes particular use of computing potential and behavior while advocating for it.  Digital Humanities (MIT) by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp is creative description and manifesto for a view and a field that conceptualizes computing as a transformational technology within the traditional area of study called the humanities. The book includes a "short guide" that defines digital humanities as "an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the primary medium" for the production and dissemination of knowledge. The book, about the size of many children's picture books, contains many examples of such current research as well as directions for future inquiry.

An open version of this book is also available as a free digital download.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

For Pleasure: Spring and Summer 2013

My major spring project was reading all twelve of the novels by Robert Heinlein in his Scribners series of juvenile science fiction.  I write more about them here.  These were originally published from 1947 to 1958.  Though I recall the Winston Science Fiction series from my youthful library prowling, I may well have read some of these in my teen years, since our public library held on to their books.  And though this spate of reading began with a library reject of the final novel in the series, I also found earlier ones in a university library's children's section, in their first editions.

Of this series Heinlein said somewhat slyly, " books for boys differ only slightly from my books for adults--the books for boys are somewhat harder to read because younger readers relish tough ideas they have to chew, and don't mind big words--and the boy's books are slightly limited by taboos and conventions imposed by their elders."  That discipline turned out to be good for Heinlein's writing actually.

After I finished these, I read several of Heinlein's stories in his "future history" series, collected in The Past Through Tomorrow (1967.)  The consistent future universe of these stories is pretty much the same as in the juvenile novels.

I read H.G. Wells novel Tono-Bungay, a first person account of the rise and fall of a great commercial venture based on a popular tonic that basically does nothing.  An early (1908) and lively fictional analysis of the advertising-driven consumer economy that became so predominant in the second half of the 20th century. I continue to be impressed by Wells as a wordsmith, and in this novel he is actively inventing a way to tell the story he wants to tell by expanding at least the rhetorically reach of the novel, and a little of the form.  Perhaps in the light of Dickens etc. and the amazingly predatory practices of the 19th century (when for example much of the forests of Europe and America were finally cut down) it shouldn't be surprising that the rhetoric of Wells' narrator in 1908 sounds so contemporary a theme:  "It is all one spectacle of forces running to waste, of people who use and do not replace, the story of a country hectic with a wasting aimless fever..."

Other reading was in connection with projects or new books.  I've already written here about re-reading Steinbeck's Travels With Charley.  I investigated several books about World Fairs, and carefully read an unusual one: 1939: The Lost World of the Fair by David Gelernter.  This combines journalistic research (presented as such) on the 1939 New York World's Fair, the famous "Building the World of Tomorrow" extravaganza, wrapped around a central love story that is fictional but (the author says) based pretty closely on fact.  Both stories are interesting--the fair and the affair--but I didn't get a sense of each being dependent on the other.  A hybrid that I enjoyed, even if I didn't see how it quite makes a whole.  It also led me to E.L. Doctorow's novel World's Fair which I've begun.

But apart from the very valuable sense of texture about the Fair, Gelernter's point of view on its utopian aspects (he concludes that we have no more utopias because by the 1960s we were living in the one the Fair proposed--namely, prosperity and suburbia) and particularly his evocation of the 1930s (especially the later years, the "high thirties") and what makes them unique, is strongly expressed, pretty convincing and certainly memorable.

Since this Fair and its historical context was my main interest, I read more about the thirties, particularly the account of the world situation and the 1936 U.S. presidential election in one of my favorite references, William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream.   (I still have the two volume deep blue covered hardbacks I bought for 10 cents each at a library sale in the early 80s.)  This led happily to a new book, Susan Dunn's 1940, which I write about in the post just previous to this one.  Dunn's book--and her particular praise for the playwright and FDR speechwriter Robert Sherwood--led me to a book I am currently reading, Sherwood's Roosevelt and Hopkins.  Most of this book concerns the World War II years, so it follows nicely from this previous reading.  (I'm also planning to read one of Sherwood's Pulitzer-winning plays.)  In the accounts of the 1936 and 1940 elections, and the surrounding politics, I found several disconcerting parallels to more recent elections and politics.  I suppose that was somewhat comforting, if fatalistic in effect.

Apart from new books for review, a few D.H. Lawrence short stories, the beginning chapters of Arthur Zajonc's intriguing Catching the Light and some chapters on Shakespeare plays in conjunction with a production review, I think that's about it.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

1940: FDR, Wilkie, Lindbergh, Hitler--the Election and the Storm
by Susan Dunn
Yale University Press

This very readable history is structured like a suspense novel--will FDR break precedent and run for a third term?  Can he pacify the public and his political opponents about keeping America out of war, while following his conviction that the U.S. is in fact threatened by the European war and must help England hold off the Nazis?  Will he win the 1940 election, and save the nation from delusional isolationists and fans of fascism as the wave of the future?

The fact that we know the answers really doesn't detract from the drama.  The stakes are that high, and Susan Dunn is that skillful a writer.  In the course of her narration she describes the political complexities of the late 30s, and highlights the fascinating people of the time--not only the obvious FDR and people like Harry Hopkins but notably the playwright Robert Sherwood, who became FDR's chief speechwriter.

On the other side she details just how intense the opposition was from congressional isolationists and FDR-hating Republicans, but also FDR's own ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, father to the future and non-isolationist President John F. Kennedy.  And the real wild card: the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh and his writer wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  Both were not only isolationist but believed that fascist governments like Hitler's and Mussolini's were the wave of the future ( which was the title of Morrow Lindbergh's best-selling book.)

FDR's delicate dance in preparing the U.S. for the possibility of war is especially dramatic as Dunn describes the weakness and unpreparedness of U.S. forces.  The national reaction to World War I was understandable horror but the idea that a European aggressor could simply be ignored was contrary to the technological capabilities of the time.  American culpability for the botched treaties at the end of the first world war that virtually guaranteed a second was largely outside the scope of this book.

Dunn's portrait of FDR as a master politician--and world leader-- is nuanced and informed.  It comports with the work of other historians.  I did miss however any description similar to William Manchester's, of FDR sitting on his boat for hours in absolute silence, and then emerging to lay out not only the Lend-Lease plan that helped save England, but exactly how he could sell it to Congress and the nation.  Perhaps the story is apocryphal, but it's a good one.

Her book however provides a fuller portrait than usual of FDR's 1940 Republican opponent, Wendell Wilkie, before and during his somewhat quixotic campaign, and  afterwards when he surprisingly became a valuable ally to FDR in the early days of the war. Yet Dunn's description makes this a believable and somewhat consistent twist. In a sad coda she describes how the two became friends, and died within a year of each other, Wilkie at age 52, FDR at age 63.

Dunn does not pretend total objectivity--she obviously finds the isolationists and Nazi apologists delusional. This is a very absorbing book about a fascinating and important time.  Taken together with Manchester's description of the 1936 campaign, it's clear that a great deal of what's going on now is not as unprecedented as it may seem, however outrageous and sad.  Today's climate crisis deniers sound a lot like those isolationist Congressmen, refusing to believe the facts.  The political hypocrisy of congressional Republicans voting down FDR's requests for military spending and then criticizing him for a weak military is also way too familiar.

This book is not only eye-opening history, it's a page-turner, too.