Tuesday, October 14, 2014

More Foundation concepts: the Division of Logic and the Church of Science

So I finished reading Asimov's Foundation, and the details have already faded since I closed it about two weeks ago.

I think I kind of get why it's an important book, taking world-building to a new level and elevating the genre of science fiction by a few degrees of respectability. For its relatively low page count, Foundation is big in scope and ideas. But I didn't quite love it.

If you know it only by its reputation, as I did, then you probably don't know much about it at all. Foundation began life as a series of interconnected short stories. The basic premise: it's been foreseen that the Empire is in demise, and a foundation is established to preserve its knowledge. I stand by my initial impressions.

Asimov introduces some terrific concepts: psychohistory and the Encyclopedia Galactica chief among them.

And I love the application of symbolic logic, using it "to prune away all sorts of clogging deadwood that clutters up human language." Upon submitting to symbolic analysis the transcripts of Lord Dorwin's discussions during his diplomatic mission, the Division of Logic
"after two days of steady work, succeeded in eliminating meaningless statements, vague gibberish, useless qualifications — in short, all the goo and dribble — he found he had nothing left. Everything cancelled out."

"Lord Dorwin, gentlemen, in five days of discussion didn't say one damn thing, and said it so you never noticed."
(I wish we could run those analyses on the some of the meetings I'm forced to attend at work.)

And the Church of Science, established by the Foundation in order for the barbarians to more readily accept the science of the Foundation. Hah! Its high priests are in charge of the power plants. This is a wickedly satirical story.

The book reads to me as a cross between The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for its general tone, humor, and spaciness, and Game of Thrones, for its backroom dealings and back-stabby politics. All of Foundation was narrated to me in my head by the voice of the Guide, giving characters here and there a whiff of Zaphod or Slartibartfast, and adding greatly to my enjoyment.

I should note that the book contains one female character. I was reading some forum or other recently, and someone was criticizing an author for not writing women well and it led to accusations that the author was misogynistic. And so I happened to notice that to that point, I hadn't encountered a woman in Foundation. I don't think Asimov has been accused of these things. However, clearly he is a product of his times. (Possibly there are actually two female characters in Foundation — I can't be sure because my attention foundered toward the end.)

Is my life changed for having read Foundation? No. Am I dying to read the rest of the series? Not particularly. Am I glad to have read Foundation? Sure, but more for its historical significance than for the actual story. I wasn't quite in the perfect headspace for it, but I'll give the rest of the series a chance someday.

Have you read Foundation? How does it rank in your personal sci-fi pantheon?

Check out io9's chapter-by-chapter discussion of Foundation, its strengths and weaknesses and its big ideas.

Monday, October 13, 2014

How literature helps us live


As much as I dislike Alain de Botton, every now and then his projects demonstrate a glimmer of right and good.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why is this a book?

I'm mildly obsessed with Consumed, a new novel by David Cronenberg. I haven't actually read it yet — I'm still hoping someone will think to buy it for me for my birthday next month — but I'm reading every review I can find.

I'm not even that big of a Cronenberg fan (excepting Naked Lunch, which is one of my favourite films ever). I just feel compelled to watch his films, and now read his novel, even though I fully expect it to be an unpleasant experience.

According to Jason Sheehan on NPR (In Cronenberg's 'Consumed,' An Appetite For Sex, Death And The Latest Gear):
Here's everything you need to know about Consumed in one sentence: This is a book that is unmistakably written by David Cronenberg.

Not so much the newer, grayer Cronenberg either. Not Eastern Promises Cronenberg or A History Of Violence Cronenberg. No, this is something that feels more like the young, perverse, freakishly laser-beam-obsessive and deeply, deeply strange Cronenberg.
But what I desperately want to know, and which no reviews that I've found address, is, why is this book? Did this need to be a book? Is it better as a book than it would be as a movie? What is it about the narrative that makes it better suited to this medium?

David Cronenberg’s consuming obsession, by Geoff Pevere in Quill & Quire:
"I really wanted to become an obscure novelist."

And I come to understand that Cronenberg's influences are more literary than filmic, which may explain my interest in him.

What Cronenberg says
Virtual Reality, Corporeality Collide In Cronenberg's First Novel, NPR:
"I always thought I'd be a novelist. I never thought I'd be a filmmaker."

Flavorwire Interview: David Cronenberg on Body Horror, Dick Pics, and His First Novel, Consumed:
"Movies, in some way, are very restrictive — compared to what you can do in a novel."

It came from within, The National Post:
"Seduction of the reader is definitely where it’s at. In a novel it’s much more intimate, because you can be in the interior of these characters."

About the book
David Cronenberg’s debut novel, Consumed, is one of the strangest books you’ll encounter all year, by Pasha Malla in the Globe and Mail:
It’s really, really weird.

All Atwitter, by Jonathan Lethem in The New York Times:
The book presents a locked-room mystery of sorts: Can it be possible that a woman said to be dying of cancer, and whose philosopher-cannibal-husband left a record of her ­dismemberment, is still alive? Or was she a consensual accomplice to her own murder? This core plot is elaborated in a highly traditional (and satisfying) way: twin investigations, apparently unrelated, which gradually entwine. Amateur detectives who become complicit — and, of course, involved sexually — with their suspects.
These passages are typical of the book's descriptive exactitude and flatness, its use of banal signifiers like "GarageBand," and the constant germane ­citations of psychoanalytic or philosophical brands. The book seems to desublimate itself for you: No sooner does the reader think, "This is like the case of Louis Althusser's murder of his wife," than some character makes the comparison for you. The result is provocatively comic, and surreal in the manner of a Max Ernst collage.

The Strange and the Familiar: David Cronenberg's Consumed, by Karin L Kross at Tor.com:
So much of it exactly what you would expect from him — especially if your ideas of his films are shaped largely by his earlier work; pre-M. Butterfly, to put an arbitrary stake in the ground — that you occasionally wonder if he's not deliberately sending himself up.

[...] In its energy and content, Consumed feels like a younger man's work — specifically, a younger David Cronenberg's, though with the confidence of someone who has been telling stories for decades.

Body horror and techno lust in director's debut novel, by Steven Poole in The Guardian:
The 21st century's version of the hall of mirrors is the infinite regress of embedded recording devices. Naomi and Nathan are always stealthily recording their conversations with other characters by means of some hidden app on a MacBook Air or iPhone, when they are not overtly putting obscenely expensive Swiss voice recorders on glass coffee tables. Cronenberg's fiction is one of omnipresent multimedia surveillance and retention, though we never witness the heroes performing the subsquent grunt work of transcription and editing. Perhaps deliberately, because a major plot question becomes what one can trust of electronic recording, and what was only cleverly fabricated using Photoshop or its video equivalents.


David Cronenberg becomes novelist; other directors decide to pull a Cronenberg, by Mark Krotov at MobyLives:
A connoisseur of violence, brutality, and grotesquerie — all of which are banned in Canada, where he was born — David Cronenberg has been making dark and weird masterpieces since the late 1960s. And while he has directed films based on novels — including such conventional, mainstream, user-friendly books as William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, J.G. Ballard's Crash, and Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis — he had never actually written one himself until Consumed.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Three hearts!

Happy World Octopus Day!
The Octopus

Tell me, O Octopus, I begs,
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus
If I were thou, I'd call me Us.

— Ogden Nash


See also:


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Who doesn't love the universe?

Why Does the World Exist? asks Jim Holt. John Updike responds, "Beats me, actually, but who doesn't love the universe?"

And Jim Holt most certainly does love it:
  • "I found this idea of a hidden cosmic algebra — an algebra of being! &mdash irresistible."
  • "If you turn on your television and tune it between stations, about 10 percent of that black-and-white speckles static you see is caused by photons left over from the birth of the universe. What greater proof of the reality of the Big Bang — you can watch it on TV."
  • "As the German diplomat and philosopher Max Scheler wrote, 'He who has not, as it were, looked into the abyss of the absolute Nothing will completely overlook the eminently positive content of the realization that there is something rather than nothing.'"

When I was about 12, my best friend and I collaborated on a poem. We called it "Everything is Nothing," or maybe it was "Nothing Is Everything." Mostly, it was an extensive word game, bending semantics to our will, but there was a burgeoning metaphysics — just a hint — about it, too. It made us hypothesizers. I grew up being that kind of person, who now likes this kind of book.

Jim Holt's question to many is naïve. It seems a lot of philosopher simply don't take the problem of nothing seriously anymore.
"I could understand why someone might think the mystery of existence was, by its very nature, insoluble. But to laugh it off as a pseudo-problem seemed a bit too cavalier. Still, if Grunbaum turned out to be right. the whole quest to explain the existence of the world would be a colossal waste of effort, a fool's errand. Why bother trying to solve a mystery when you can simply dissolve it?"

This book then is a survey of 20th-century philosophy. Holt looks to philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, economists, novelists, his mother, and Woody Allen. As Parfit "hated the 'naturalizing' of epistemology — the idea that the project of justifying our knowledge should be taken away from philosophers and given to cognitive scientists," Holt's book attempts to straddle the rift.

I learn that the now obsolete steady-state theory of the universe was allegedly inspired by a 1945 British horror film, Dead of Night. This awes me. This is the coolest movie I ever saw, or so I thought when I saw it when I was 11. I'm pretty sure this was a year before the Nothing poem. We had to write a radioplay, and I based mine on the coolest movie I'd ever seen, and then my script was one of the plays chosen to be produced. I'd asked my teacher to supply some text — something highfalutin and jargon for the psychiatrist to spout out. So the movie — there's a psychiatrist, goes to work, hears some pretty wacky, creepy supernatural stories in group therapy and at a climactic point wakes up to discover, relieved, that it was all a dream. And his day starts over exactly as it had already unfolded in his dream. It's a loop. So the thing is, 30+ years and I never knew the name of this movie, and Jim Holt brought it to me again and explained how truly significant it was.

Quite apart from steady-state theories, Holt raises lots of arguments that beg to have their assumptions examined:
  • It is more perfect to exist than not to exist.
  • The reason there is Something rather than Nothing is, as they fancifully put it, that nothingness is unstable.
  • A self-subsuming principle is certainly preferable to a brute fact.
  • Are the laws of physics somehow to inform the Abyss that it is pregnant with Being?
  • No explanation of reality is capable of explaining itself.
  • A cosmic possibility chosen at random is overwhelmingly likely to be thoroughly mediocre.
  • The existence of this cosmos can be fully explained only on the assumption that it is middling in every way — a vast Walpurgisnacht of mediocrity.

Holt, with the help of Alex Vilenkin, finally achieves a precise definition of nothingness: "a closed spacetime of zero radius."

Surprise, Holt doesn't actually find an answer to his question. Also not surprisingly, there are several hints along the way that while it's important to ask the question, the answer doesn't really matter.

I had a passing familiarity with several of the concepts discussed in this book. While I've picked up a few new facts and technical details, this book has not swayed me in my beliefs. However.
However — and now we move on to the third part of the axiarchic case — is it really plausible that the explaining reason should be that this world is better than an ontological blank? Actually, the axiarchist is committed to a much stronger thesis. He must believe that the world is not merely better than nothing. but that it is maximally good, infinitely good, the nicest reality that money can buy.

There's this theory that the universe exists because it ought to exist (I think it's John Mackie; I remember using a text of his in Moral Philosophy). And even while I think the theory's kind of stupid, it put a smile on my face, and I consider the possibilities of there being something to that. Holt's book has helped me rediscover my awe.

Everything is as it should be.

The Basic Question — Sarah Bakewell in The New York Times
He is an urbane guide, involving us in his personal adventures. We join him for a weekend sipping claret and reading Parfit in a bathtub at the Athenaeum Club in London. He takes us to Paris for no good reason except to sit in the Café de Flore with a volume of Hegel. We stay with him through the death of his dog, and — movingly — even attend his mother’s deathbed, where she undergoes "the infinitesimal transition from being to nothingness."

What Can You Really Know? — Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books
When and why did philosophy lose its bite? How did it become a toothless relic of past glories? These are the ugly questions that Jim Holt’s book compels us to ask. Philosophers became insignificant when philosophy became a separate academic discipline, distinct from science and history and literature and religion. The great philosophers of the past covered all these disciplines.

Has the Meaning of Nothing Changed? — Ron Rosenbaum in Slate
Why should you care about nothing? Well, I know what I care most about is the purity of the nothing invoked in this maddening question. Pure nothingness: It’s the last unspoiled, uncluttered concept in the cosmos. I don't believe in God, but I do believe in Nothing, in the sense I want to believe in mysteries beyond the reach of the mind. It makes life more interesting if existence can't yet be reduced to a series of equations.

Jim Holt's TED Talk: Why Does the Universe Exist?

Wednesday, October 01, 2014


He was the kind of young man whose handsome face has brought him plenty of success in the past and is now ever-ready for a new encounter, a fresh experience, always eager to set off into the unknown territory of a little adventure, never taken by surprise because he has worked out everything in advance and is waiting to see what happens, a man who will never overlook any erotic opportunity, whose first glance probes every woman's sensuality and explores it, without discriminating between his friend's wife and the parlour-maid who open the door to him. Such men are described with a certain facile contempt as lady-killers, but the term has a nugget of truthful observation in it, for in fact all the passionate instincts of the chase are present in their ceaseless vigilance: the stalking of the prey, the excitement and mental cruelty of the kill. They are constantly on the alert, always ready and willing to follow the trail of an adventure to the very edge of the abyss. They are full of passion all the time, but it is the passion of a gambler rather than a lover, cold, calculating and dangerous. Some are so persistent that their whole lives, long after their youth is spent, are made an eternal adventure by this expectation. Each of their days is resolved into hundreds of small sensual experiences — a look exchanged in passing, a fleeting smile, knees brushing together as a couple sit opposite each other — and the year, in its own turn, dissolves into hundreds of such days in which sensuous experience is the constantly flowing, nourishing, inspiring source of life.
— from Burning Secret, by Stefan Zweig.

Monday, September 29, 2014

We must obey the forces we want to command

For a recent MOOC, On Strategy: What Managers Can Learn from Great Philosophers, the final exam asked us to respond to Francis Bacon's assertion that "we must obey the forces we want to command," presenting two arguments, with a quotation and an example for each.


Francis Bacon famously wrote that we must obey the forces we want to command in reference to the laws of nature. One can readily transpose this dictum to other domains: market forces, military forces, cultural forces, psychological forces, etc. — each being subject to the same rigor and scrutiny we demand when performing natural science.

Literature is one such domain. Although it is steeped in tradition – the rules of language (from grammar to semantics), conventions of genre, formal narrative structures, as well as cultural expectations – truly original work emerges only once these elements are firmly understood [Argument 1]. The rules are acknowledged and assimilated, and subverted to new ends. This is especially true in the example of Oulipo – a formally defined literary movement. Cofounder Raymond Queneau described Oulipians as "rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape"[1].

Consider for a moment, though, how it (or any other constraint, for that matter) works. It places a restriction on the expressions and phrases that can be used in a poem, and it determines to some extent what the poet is able to say. It makes the process of writing both more difficult — by short-circuiting habitual modes of self expression — and, paradoxical as it may seem, easier: certain decisions have already been made for the writer. A constraint confronts the writer with a puzzle to solve, not a blank page, and this can be strangely comforting. Finally, a constraint will almost always force a writer to be creative, to seek out new means of self expression.[2]

Clearly the forces of language are fully obeyed by Oulipians in order that their practitioners can bend them to their will.

Science has evolved since Bacon’s time, and its ambitions have become more complex and its progress more nebulous. The pursuit of artificial intelligence is limited in exactly the way Bacon’s dictum would suggest [Argument 2]: "How do you make a search engine that understands if you don't know how you understand?"[3].

Douglas Hofstadter is a cognitive scientist who has become disillusioned with the common approach: "Sometimes it seems as though each new step towards AI, rather than producing something which everyone agrees is real intelligence, merely reveals what real intelligence is not"[4].

While advances have been made in data processing, and a form of "intelligence" has grown out of this capability, we have not yet achieved a truly artificial intelligence. We cannot master this domain until we have fully understood the workings of the mind and can obey the algorithms that are in play.

Bacon's assertion is thus borne out in both successes and failures across domains.

1. Raymond Queneau. Definition provided at Oulipo meeting. Apr 5, 1961.
2. Paul Kane. Review of Oulipo Compendium. Oct 2006.
3. James Sommers. "The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think." Atlantic Monthly. Oct 23, 2013.
4. Douglas Hofstader. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. 1979.