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Archive for July, 2006

Dennett

Finally finished “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” I really liked it. Dennett’s writing is elegant and witty, rife with metaphors and analogies (although it must be admitted that quite a bit of it was over my head).

I couldn’t possibly summarize the book, so I’ll just list some of the ideas that resonated for me:

“QWERTY phenomenom” – The letters of the typewriter were arranged that way because the pattern separated the keys most often used because keys tended to stick. Now that keyboards no longer stick, we are ‘stuck’ with QWERTY because that’s the way it’s always been done. The social cost of change ensures that keyboard configuration will remain as it is (look at the difficulty we’ve had in converting to the metric system). Evolution too may have come up with solutions for problems that have disappeared while the solutions remain.

“The Mephistophelian dice game” – If you propose to make one person the winner of ten consecutive dice throws, then discard each loser, you end up with a winner (someone has to win), who might think himself ‘a chosen one’. This in answer to those who think the universe was especially designed around us (the lucky winners).

Lots of stuff about ‘reverse engineering’ and ‘adaptionism’. The power of adaptionist thinking – figuring out what Mother Nature had in mind by adopting the intentional stance (an innate talent that humans seem to have).

“Biology as Engineering” was a tough chapter. I had flashes of understanding around the refutation of Locke’s “mind first” doctrine, that ‘there can be a gradual birth of function and the concomitant birth of meaning or intentionality.’

“Reverse Engineering” – figuring out ‘the why’ (also called adaptionism). ‘One must grant the premise of the argument from design’ – a found watch exhibits a tremendous amount of design work. Darwin’s path honors Paley’s insight by supplying the idea that intelligence could be broken into tiny, stupid bits (algorithms) distributed through time and space. Beware the Panglossian fallacy that natural selection favors adaptations that are good for the species as a whole (the best of all possible worlds).

The Role of Language – this got very interesting as Dennett takes on Chomsky and Gould, among others. More to follow.

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I finally finished the 6/12 Summer Fiction issue, featuring soldier stories. I liked Roger Angell’s tale of protesting the Vietnam War with his daughter, but I loved Italo Calvino’s fictional “Waiting for Death in a Hotel.” It was a simple enough story, but it captured something elemental about death. When one of the protagonists realizes that he will be executed the next day, there were in his words “the simplicity of something long feared and now inevitable.” This man starts pacing, when others address them, he stares back, bewildered, ‘as though having to return from a great distance to focus on what they were saying. Maybe he was thinking of the void, in order to prepare himself for not existing.”

When all the men are spared after all, they understand that ‘whatever their destiny, whatever violence, cries and exhaustion awaited them, they would nevertheless savor the bloody taste of being alive, of sharing pain like bread.’

I liked the profile of ‘the dog whisperer’ in the 5/22 (camel cover) and the profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor in “An Englishman Abroad.” Fermor recounts a time in 1944, when he and his men are in flight from German patrols towing a German general. As they are climbing Mt. Ida (in Crete?) the General watches the dawn break and murmers from Horace, “Vides ut alte stet nive candidum.” Leigh Fermor also knew Horace and continued the quotation, “nec jam sustineant onus, Silvae laborantes, gulque, Flumina constiterint acuto”, and so on to the end. Fermor adds, “for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Anthony Lane adds that “it feels like the end of something: the last, companionable gasp of a civilization– grounded in the knowledge of earlier civilizations, Roman and Greek– that had not just held sway in Europe for over a thousand years but had done more than any political truce or chicanery to bind Europe together. Both Leigh Fermor and the general had been raised to recognize Horzce odes 1.9, to get it by heart, and to realize that the poem itself is a crystallization of our common feelings.” (p. 64). We are so far from this now.

At the end of the article, Lane asks Leigh Fermor how he will get from Crete to the mainland. He decides to take the overnight ferry instead of a flight. Lane offers to book him a cabin, but Leigh Fermor replied that he would prefer a deck chair, adding, “My dear boy, I have a bottle of red wine and a copy of ‘Persuasion’, what more could I possibly need?” Lane adds that Leigh Fermor was at 83, “taking ship in the company of Jane Austen, one of his few peers in the art of the imperturbable. I could well imagine the pair of them at close of day: side by side, exchanging compliments, taking a little wine, and watching the old world slip away.”

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A fun vacation read

I usually like to read books that relate to the area I am visiting when on vacation (hence the Dickens choice for London), but since my new book about France (Suite Francais, by Irene Demirovsky) is a hardcover, I chose to read Sarah Vowell’s Assasination Vacation. I loved The Partly Cloudy Patriot and have been looking forward to this earlier work. It was great. I love her funny, philosophical approach to history and contemporary events. In this book, she visits sites that are relevant to three presidential assasinations (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley). She has a wonderful way of meandering through the facts in a not strictly chronological way with many asides that are always informative and entertaining. She visits little known monuments, such as the McKinley plaque in Buffalo, where the President was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz during the opening of the Pan-American Exposition in September 1901 (this was also touched on in The Proud Tower and The Devil in the White City). While talking about Garfield, she also sheds light on other obscure Presidents, such as Chester Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes. Garfield strikes me as a sane, gentle, bookish fellow and his death a sad travesty (shot by a crazy ex-cult –interesting aside about the Oneida cult that became Corningware — member who felt that he should be appointed Ambassador to France).

The facts about Lincoln, of course, are the most well-known, but Vowell brings a reverence for Lincoln as well as a lot of minor side-topics to bear. The story of Dr. Mudd, accused of conspiracy for sheltering Booth after his evil deed and the long debate over his guilt or innocence as well as his imprisonment in the Dry Tortugas was interesting. Also, Booth’s anticipation that he would be treated as a hero and the dismay of his famous actor brother, Edwin Booth, who gave up his career out of shame.

All in all, this book is like sitting down to a delectable spread of tapas, in the end, it is as satisfying as a full meal.

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Dickens

Just got back from vacation. I read “The Old Curiousity Shop” by Dickens, but mistakenly bought an abridged version at a book sale. It was an engaging story with a bit of bathos toward the end, but with some excellent characters, especially Dick Swiveller, the Marchioness and Sally Brass. The evil dwarf Quilp was a bit too much and Nell, of course, was a bit too good to be true. I hate abridged books. I don’t think I can even say I read it, since there was a good bit missing. It was rather like watching a foreign movie without subtitles since sometimes motivations and relationships were not clear. Plus with Dickens, the incidental and descriptive parts are often the best. I also regret not trying to see the actual shop when I was in London, but couldn’t get there, nor to his house, though I did see his grave in the poet’s corner at Westminster Abbey.

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