Pablo Nogueira | Reading Corner Updated:  17 October 2017

I discovered the vice of reading late. By ‘reading’ I mean reading and re-reading and underlining and taking notes and revising and pondering and all that.

In this Reading Corner I occasionally add quotes from authors, and add and update a few type-written notes of my own about some books or articles. Usually, I write my notes on the books themselves. If I type-write notes for particular books it's not necessarily because I find the book more relevant than others. The notes are personal reminders written to myself, not reviews, nor abridgements, nor literary criticism. Some notes won't make sense unless you've read the book or article. I share the notes in case they may be useful. At the end of the page I share my (incomplete) list of books that for one reason or another I don't want to forget. The list grows slowly but steadily, and brings me fond memories. Perhaps you might like to read the books too.

Quotes

It is fine to come up with good thoughts, but much better to know them when you see them in the works of other persons. You can get a lot more done that way.
(Guy L. Steele Jr., On Growing a Language.)

How can I tell what I think 'till I see what I say?
(E. M. Foster, Aspects of the Novel, p. 97.)

The man of knowledge in our time is bowed down under a burden he never imagined he would ever have: the overproduction of truth that cannot be consumed. […] choking on truth […] yet the mind is silent as the world spins on its age-old demonic career. […] add still another weighty tome to a useless overproduction? Well, there are personal reasons, of course: habit, drivenness, dogged hopefulness. And there is Eros, the urge to the unification of experience, to form, to greater meaningfulness.
(Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, p. xviii)

Whatever topic or subject you may come across to think about, there's probably somebody somewhere who thought about it before, sat down to write it, and expressed it better than you would.
(Applies to this very quote and myself.)

Einstein's space is no closer to reality than Van Gogh's sky. The glory of science is not in a truth ‘more absolute’ than the truth of Bach or Tolstoy, but in the act of creation itself. The scientist's discoveries impose his own order on chaos, as the composer or painter imposes his; an order that always refers to limited aspects of reality, and is biassed [sic] by the observer's frame of reference, which differs from period to period, as a Rembrant nude differs from a nude by Manet.
(Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation, Arkana, p. 252.)

Read the works of the masters on living, come to understand the true meaning of their words, make up your own idea about what you want to do with your life; give up the ingenuous idea […] that you are able to find out in the lapse of a lifetime what the greatest minds of human kind have discovered through many thousand years, based on the pillars and the outlines left by their predecessors.
(Erich Fromm, From Having to Being.)

Among the many scientists I have known, some are ruthlessly ambitious, others kind and generous; some boringly pedantic, others excitingly speculative; some narrow-minded, others visionary; some cowardly, others brave; some meticulous, others careless; some honest, others deceptive; some secretive, others open; some original, others unoriginal. In other words, they are people. They vary, just as other kinds of people vary. […] They are subject to social forces and peer-group pressure, and they need acceptance, funding and, if possible, political influence. Their success does not depend simply on the ingenuity of their theories or the facts they discover. The facts do not speak for themselves. To be successful, scientists need rhetorical skills, to build up alliances and win the support of others.
(Rupert Sheldrake, The Science Delusion, p. 297.)

It's not where you take things from, it's where you take them to.
(Attributed to Jean-Luc Godard.)

All of your good qualities become obscured by your super-cleverness and are made useless to the world merely because of your rage at wanting to know everything better than others; of wanting to improve and master what you cannot command. With this you embitter the people around you, since no one wants to be improved or enlightened in such a forceful way, least of all by such an insignificant individual as you still are; no one can tolerate being reproved by you, who also still show so many weaknesses yourself, least of all your adverse manner, which in oracular tones, proclaims this is so and so, without ever supposing an objection. If you were less like you, you would only be ridiculous, but thus as you are, you are highly annoying.
(Johanna Schopenhauer's letter to her son.)

Geniuses have been laughed at and had to accept it. You're no genius. With greater reason you must accept it.
(I've made this one up.)

[…] generations of men as they live their little hour of mock-existence and then are swept away in rapid succession; […] It is like a drop of water seen through a microscope, a single drop teeming with infusoria; […] How we laugh as they bustle about so eagerly, and struggle with one another in so tiny a space! And whether here, or in the little span of human life, this terrible activity produces a comic effect.
(Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘On the Vanity of Existence’, Studies in Pessimism.)

I […] am very different indeed from the most sublime invention I have produced and the most deeply felt conviction that pervades me, and I must never permit these inventions and convictions to get the upper hand and to turn me into their obedient servant. I might even ‘take a stand’ (though the practice and even the phrase with its Puritanical connotations put me off), but when I did so, then the reason was a passing whim, not a ‘moral conscience’ or any other nonsense of that kind.
(Paul Feyerabend, Farewell to Reason.)

The Universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not. The existence or nonexistence of a creator is independent of our desires. A world without God or purpose may seem harsh or pointless, but that alone doesn't require God to actually exist.
(Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing, preface.)

As with other discoveries about human nature, people hope to God it isn't true. But the truth doesn't care about our hopes, and sometimes it can force us to revisit those hopes in a liberating way […] a realism about the imperfect emotions we actually have may bring more happiness than an illusion about the ideal emotions we wish we had.
(Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, pp. 398 & 165.)

The time of individuals as measure and unappeasable determination of existence itself, which goes inexorably linked to the idea of ending, of an end as inevitable as radically incomprehensible. Our time appears here as the undetermined and threatening lapse in whose course humans struggle with the external world, only partially and occasionally apprehended, and with their own being: their origin, their strange and disconcerting condition as limited and finite beings, as entities that pretend by essential imperative the appropriation of their environment and of themselves, of their destiny, and nevertheless realise in each step the radical impossibility of fulfilling their aspirations.
(Ramón Sánchez Lizarralde, from his review of the novel Viaje de Estudios by Menchu Gutiérrez.)

[T]hat no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.
(Bertrand Russell, A Free Man's Worship.)

Man must at last wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realise that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes.
(Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, final chapter.)

[W]e have always operated at a tiny fraction of capacity. […] contrast how people usually hang around with how people come across in emergencies […] Children find the average inactivity very painful and they nag […] boredom […] doing nothing or something irrelevant, instead of something that he wants to do but won't, can't, or doesn't dare. Boredom is acute when he knows the other thing and inhibits his action […] A large part of stupidity is just this chronic boredom […] his repressed thoughts are elsewhere (Another part of stupidity is stubbornness, unconsciously saying “I won't, you can't make me”.)
A man of sense obviously cannot waste his life learning to sue to an ignorant electorate and coming up through political ranks in which disinterestedness and pure convictions are not the most handy virtues. […] the way to accomplish something great is to get together with the like-minded and directly do it.
First, if certain life behavior is necessary, no questions are asked. […] But secondly, if a man's developing needs and purposes do indeed keep meeting with real opportunities and duties, no “final” questions are asked. […] The sense that life is going on and the confidence that the world will continue to support the next step of it, is called Faith. […] Children […] abounding in simple faith […] try to fill the void […] substitute role playing, conforming, and belonging for the grace of meeting objective opportunity. Existence is not given meaning by importing into it a revelation from outside. The meaning is there, in more closely contacting the actual situation, the only situation that there is, whatever it is. As our situation is, closely contacting it would surely result in plenty of trouble and perhaps in terrible conflicts, terrible opportunities and duties, during which we might learn something and at the end of which we might know something […]
(Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd, pp. 70, 100, 128-129.)

Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.
(Latin proverb, known these days as Hitchens' Razor.)

Nullus in verba.
(Attributed to Horace.)

You cannot reason people out of positions they didn't reason themselves into.
(Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, p. 3.)

People refuse to question their convictions and will engage in argument to fight for them rather than to revise, test, improve and, if necessary, discard them.
(Can't remember who wrote this.)

Everything will be eventually forgotten or misremembered. Don't care about your name.
(Unknown.)

What we hate most is our own defects when we see them in other people.
(Spanish proverb.)

The trouble with artists is that they think they deserve our unrequited attention. Insufferably, most people think they're artists.
(Unknown.)

A noncommissioned officer I once knew divided recruits, and by extension all of humanity, into two distinct groups: Good Kids and Punks. Whatever the limitations of this classificatory scheme, I for my part continue to find merit in it.
(Emmanuel Carrère, I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick.)

[N]eighboring groups of people regularly fought with and even massacred each other, inspired by the competition of resources. In such an environment, a highly evolved sense of “us versus them” would have been crucial to survival […] hostility erupts more readily between groups than between individuals […] You may find it discouraging to hear that, even when group divisions are anonymous and meaningless, and even at their group's own personal cost, people unambiguously choose to discriminate in favour of their in-group, rather than acting for the greatest good […] mere contact […] did not reduce the negative attitude each group had for the other. But another tactic did: he set up a series of difficulties that the groups had to work together to overcome.
(Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behaviour, pp. 164, 172, 174.)

There is no evidence that any of these cultures chose to be selfish, violent, or fearful. Their behavior does not make them happier: on the contrary, it causes suffering. Such practices and beliefs, which interfere with happiness, are neither inevitable nor necessary; they evolved by chance, as a result of random responses to accidental conditions. But once they become part of the norms and habits of a culture, people assume that this is how things must be; they come to believe they have no other options.
(Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, p. 79.)

Nothing is more repugnant to me than brotherly feelings grounded in the common baseness people see in one another.
(One of Milan Kundera's characters in The Joke.)

Nothing is more inadequate than a mature judgement when adopted by an immature mind.
(Attributed to J. W. von Goethe.)

Emigration is hard from the purely personal standpoint as well: people generally think of the pain of nostalgia; but what is worse is the pain of estrangement: the process whereby what was intimate becomes foreign […] the new country: there, the process is inverse: what was foreign becomes, little by little, familiar and beloved. […] Only returning to the native land after a long absence can reveal the substantial strangeness of the world and of existence.
(Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed, p. 92.)

Life is not linear, it's organic. We create our lives symbiotically as we explore our talents in relation to circumstances they help to create for us.
(Ken Robinson, How Schools Kill Creativity, TED Talk.)

I think it was in 1970 that I gave my first talk in a foreign country on the design of programs that you could actually control and prove were correct. […] The talk fell completely on its face. It turned out that management didn't like the idea at all. The company profits from maintenance contracts. The programmers didn't like the idea at all because it deprived them of the intellectual excitement of not quite understanding what they were doing. They liked the challenge of chasing the bugs. […] People get attached to their sources of misery—that's what stabilizes many marriages.
(Edsger W. Dijkstra, quoted in Out of Their Minds: The Lives and Discoveries of 15 Great Computer Scientists by Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere.)
[The] mind has never been dependent on machinery to reach the peaks of its achievement […] the merchandising of hardware and software remains as much of a carnival act as ever […] hybrid of reversionary-technophiliac vision […] its value [information's] would not be constant (let alone universally or invariably supreme) but would vary with its accuracy and applications […] How many people can there be who need to have their every last activity mediated—and presumably validated—by a machine? […] cast in the wishful role of a benign angelic protector that will relieve us of adult responsibilities that have become too burdensome […] Simulation, one must remember, applies only to models […] software has some repertory of basic assumptions, values, limitations embedded within it … they are ideas about the world … must be kept in clear, critical view. […] There is no way around the problem of personal evaluation. […] No data base will ever be invented that answers to the command “Show me everything that is true and relevant.” […] If the computer cannot rise to the level of the subject, then lower the subject to the level of the computer […] High-tech entrepreneurs can be strikingly Marxist when it comes to socializing other people's intellectual property.
(Theodore Roszak, The Cult of Information, 2nd ed., pp. xx, xxv, 148, 8, 36, 39, 69, 118, 162, 164, 78, 191.)

I taught myself early the art of poisoning my pleasures by reminding myself of their ephemeral nature. […] As the years wore on, my life gradually fell into a pattern, oscillating, like a pendulum, between periods of complete isolation and short bursts of hectic gregariousness. […] Yet the pattern of one's life depends to a large extent on the manner in which one organizes one's own particular phantom chase.
(Arthur Koestler, Arrow in The Blue.)

It was this element of ‘un-achievableness’. It reminded me of the feeling I used to get as a child if I was on a day-trip to the seaside, and the coach went over a river or past a lake: a curious, deep longing for the water that would certainly not be satisfied by drinking it or swimming in it. […] Others can never forget that they are being cheated; that life tempts them to struggle by offering them the essence of sex, of beauty, of success; and that she always seems to pay in counterfeit money.
(Colin Wilson, ‘Introduction: The Outsider 20 Years On’, The Outsider.)

When the German tanks rolled into Warsaw, or the Russians into Budapest, it seemed perfectly obvious what we meant by freedom; it was something solid and definite that was being stolen, as a burglar might steal the silver. But when a civil servant retires after forty years, and finds himself curiously bored and miserable, the idea of freedom becomes blurred and indefinite […] When I am confronted by danger or crisis, I see it as a threat to freedom, and my freedom suddenly becomes positive and self-evident […] Similarly, a man who is violently in love feels that if he could possess the girl, his freedom would be infinite; the delight of union would make him undefeatable. When he gets her, the whole thing seems an illusion; she is just a girl…
(Colin Wilson, The Occult, preface.)

To be free is nothing, to become free is everything.
(Attributed, also with different wording, to J. G. Fichte and to G. W. F. Hegel.)

However radical, political programmes are expedients — modest devices for coping with recurring evils […] what is gained in one generation may be lost in the next […] humans can no more be masters of their destiny than any other animal […] knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same […] Technology is not something that humankind can control. It is an event that has befallen the world. […] it changes it in ways we can never fully understand. […] Technical progress leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble. […] Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. […] The uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves. Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs [the needs of the moment] — even if the result is ruin. […] Any new-model humanity will only reproduce the familiar defects of its designers. […] Human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mould.
(John Gray, Straw Dogs, pp. xv,xiii,4,14,15,25,28[17],33.)

Tragedy used to be part of everyone's life—the human condition. Until this century in the West, more than half the population thought life was a vale of tears. Not so now. It is not unusual to go through an entire life without tragedy. […] Once in a while, however, the ancient human condition intrudes, and something irredeemably awful, something beyond ordinary human loss, occurs. We are then reminded how fragile the upholstered cubicles we dwell in really are.
(Martin E. P. Seligman, What You Can Change and What You Can't.)

Each of us feels there is a single “I” in control. But that is an illusion that the brain works hard to produce, like the impression that our visual fields are rich in detail from edge to edge […] The brain does have supervisory systems in the prefrontal lobes and anterior cingulate cortex, which can push the buttons of behavior and override habits and urges. But those systems are gadgets with specific quirks and limitations; they are not implementations of the rational free agent traditionally identified with the soul or the self. […] The spooky part is that we have no reason to think that the baloney-generator in the patient's left hemisphere is behaving any different from ours as we make sense of the inclinations emanating from the rest of our brains. The conscious mind […] is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief […] our conscious minds do not control how we act but merely tell us a story about our actions.
 […] sense-making, in turn, works in the service of motives such as hunger, fear, love, curiosity, and the pursuit of status and esteem.
 […] people often have desires that subvert their proximate well-being, desires that they cannot articulate and that they (and their society) may try unsuccessfully to extirpate.
 […] the “we” is an imperfect product of evolution—limited in knowledge and wisdom, tempted by status and power, and blinded by self-deception and delusions of moral superiority […] constitutional democracy is based on a jaundiced theory of human nature in which “we” are eternally vulnerable to arrogance and corruption. The checks and balances of democratic institutions were explicitly designed to stalemate the often dangerous ambitions of imperfect humans.
 […] the timeless tragedies of our biological predicament: our mortality, our finite knowledge and wisdom, the differences among us and our conflicts of interests with friends, neighbors, relatives, and lovers. All are topics of the sciences of human nature.
 […] no mandarin is wise enough to be entrusted with directing the evolution of the species.
 […] The likelihood that inborn differences are one contributor to social status does not mean that it is the only contributor. The other ones include sheer luck, inherited wealth, race and class prejudice, unequal opportunity (such as in schooling and connections) and cultural capital: habits and values that promote economic success.
 […] there is no algorithm for growing a happy and successful child.
 [Quoting I. B. Singer's Enemies: A Love Story:] ‘victims of their own personalities and fates [earlier on page 397, the meaning of ‘fate’:] in the sense of uncontrollable fortune, not strict predestination.
(Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, pp. 42-43, 52, 54, 128, 418, 16, 150, 432.)

We are strangers to ourselves, the owners of highly sophisticated unconscious minds that hum along parallel to our conscious minds, interpreting the world and constructive narratives about our place in it.
(Timothy D. Wilson, Redirect. Changing the Stories We Live By, p. 27.)

[…] there may be a range of healthy narratives […] they should capture the nature of the person's nonconscious goals, feelings, and temperaments. […] gather enough information to develop an informed gut feeling and then not analyze that feeling too much […] let our adaptive unconscious do the job of forming reliable feelings and then trust those feelings, even if we cannot explain them entirely […] allow the feelings to surface and to see them through the haze of one's theories and expectations. […] To fashion a satisfying, functional, self-narrative, however, and to establish a desirable pattern of habitual, nonconscious responses, the best advice is practice, practice, practice.
(Timothy D. Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves. Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, pp. 181, 172-3, 216.)

Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain.
(William James, Principles of Psychology vol. 1, pp. 49-50.)

We acquire [virtues] by first having put them into action […] we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage.
(Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. M. Ostwald, p. 34.)

It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role […] It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves […] the role we are striving to live up to — this mask is our truer self […] our role becomes second nature and an integral part of our personality.
(Robert Ezra Park, Race and Culture, p. 240.)

[W]e do not merely live but act […] we encourage ourselves eloquently to be what we are […] we soliloquize (before an imaginary audience) and we wrap ourselves gracefully in the mantle of our inalienable part. So draped, we solicit applause […] The greater our difficulties the greater our zeal […] Everyone who is sure of his mind, or proud of his office, or anxious about his duty assumes a tragic mask.
(George Santayana, Soliloquies in England and other Soliloquies.)

Whatever it is that generates the human want for social contact and companionship, the effect seems to take two forms: a need for an audience before which to try out one's vaunted selves, and a need for team-mates with whom to enter into collusive intimacies and backstage relaxation […] there are no doubt times when both functions are performed almost simultaneously by the same others.
 […] this self — is a product of a scene that comes off, and is not a cause of it. […] the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited [not whether it is true of false] his body merely provide the peg on which something of collaborative manufacture will be hung for a time […] He is given to having fantasies and dreams, some that pleasurably unfold a triumphant performance, others full of anxiety and dread that nervously deal with vital discreditings in a public front region.
 […] Together the participants contribute to a single over-all definition of the situation which involves not so much a real agreement as to what exists but rather a real agreement as to whose claims concerning what issues will be temporarily honoured.
 […] Reinforcing these ideal impressions there is a kind of ‘rhetoric of training’, whereby labour unions, universities, trade associations, and other licensing bodies require practitioners to absorb a mystical range and period of training, in part to maintain a monopoly, but in part to foster the impression that the licensed practitioner is someone who has been reconstituted by his learning experience and is now set apart from other men.
 […] A status, a position, a social place is not a material thing, to be possessed and displayed [it is] something that must be realised.
 […] The members of the audience may discover a fundamental democracy that is usually well hidden […] the individual who performs the character will be seen for what he largely is, a solitary player involved in a harried concern for his production. Behind many masks and many characters, each performer tends to wear a single look, a naked unsocialized look, a look of concentration, a look of one who is privately engaged in a difficult, treacherous task.
 […] The ‘actual’ feelings of the performers for a member of the audience (whether positive or negative) seem to have little to do [with] how this member of the audience is treated to his face [or] behind his back.
 […] it is these covert forces of self-elevation and other-derogation that often introduce a dreary compulsive rigidity to sociable encounters.
(Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, pp. 201-202, 245, 21, 55, 81, 228, 173, 188.)

[H]umour […] is an invention bound up with the birth of the novel. Thus humour is not laughter, not mockery, not satire […] “renders ambiguous everything it touches.” […] Satire is a thesis art; sure of its own truth, it ridicules what it determines to combat. The novelist's relation to his characters is never satirical; it is ironic. But how does irony, which is by definition discreet, make itself apparent? By the context […] none of the assertions found in a novel can be taken by itself […] only a slow reading, twice and many times over, can bring out all the ironic connections […] novel: that is, a realm where moral judgement is suspended […] The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. […] individuals conceived not as a function of some preexisting truth […] but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws. […] the art of the novel, which teaches the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differ from his own.
(Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed, pp. 5-6, 200-201, 7-8,

Notes

Juan Domingo Argüelles

  • What Do Read Those That Don't Read?
    Original title in Spanish: ¿Qué Leen los que No Leen?
    Notes of March 2007 [txt]

    Why should we read? What is the real value of reading? How can we pass it on? What is the role of reading in the so-called ‘information society’? Argüelles gives wise answers to these and other questions, with much help from the authors he quotes.

David Brin

  • Tierra (Earth)
    Spanish title: Tierra. Published in 1992 by Ediciones B.
    Excerpts and notes in Spanish of 13 March 2010 [txt].

    Tierra is a long and mostly boring novel with occasional glimmers of interrelated themes such as life's and existence's contingency and finiteness, ecology, evolution (competition and cooperation), and the human condition (politics, social organisation, relationships, etc) set against the futurist backdrop of a global information society. I've recorded some bits.

Rodney A. Brooks

  • Robot: The Future of Flesh and Machines
    USA title: Flesh and Machines: How Robots will Change Us
    Notes of 30 April 2015 [html].

    The director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab explains with a bit of history the origins of his ‘intelligence without representation’ approach to developing intelligent creatures. He announces the forthcoming robotics revolution where humans will integrate with intelligent machines. Behind what initially looks like another far-fetched sci-fi proposition there lies some intriguing stuff and some unsatisfactory arguments.

Tom Cargill

  • Exception Handling: A False Sense of Security
    Notes of 4 July 2012 [html].

    This landmark paper appeared in The C++ Report (volume 6, number 9, November-December 1994). The focus is on C++ and some of the criticisms are due to the nature of that programming language. From the title, I expected a general discussion of the problems raised by exceptions. Fortunately there is some of that.

Michael Crichton

  • Esfera (Sphere)
    Spanish title: Esfera. Published in 1993 by Plaza y Janés.
    Notes in Spanish of 23 July 2007 [txt].

    Excerpts and comments to this roller-coaster of a novel which I read (almost in one sitting) in its Spanish translation published by Plaza & Janés. I very much enjoy Mr Crichton's scientific digressions and criticism of the scientific establishment. You can tell the novel was written like a script. The movie adaptation was disappointing despite the starred cast.

Terry Eagleton

  • Material Girl No More
    Excerpts and notes of 21 February 2007 [txt].

    On the ‘Meaning’ vs the ‘meaning’ of life. Some excerpts from the article published in The Times Higher Education Supplement on 16 February 2007.

The Economist

  • Merit in Motion
    Excerpts and notes of 26 November 2005 [txt].

    A few excerpts from the article published in The Economist on 26 November 2005. The article is a review of the book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel, published by Houghton Mifflin. In short, Mr Karabel's conclusion is that ‘the idea of meritocracy … is inherently unattainable’.

Fernando González Urbaneja

Arthur Koestler

  • Arrow in the Blue
    Excerpts and notes of 7 February 2006 [pdf].

    Excerpts with interspersed remarks taken from the 1954 Readers Union edition of his autobiographical book. The choice of fragments is personal and they don't constitute an abridgment.

    I have found the following chapters of special interest:

    - The Hour Glass and Arrow in the Blue where Koestler attempts to explain, respectively, the origins of his boisterous nature and his ‘thirst for absolute values’ which drove him to utopias, science and, eventually, to the paranormal.

    - The Blessings of Unreason narrates Koestler's decision to ‘burn his bridges’ and ‘jump off the track’ after a late-night dicussion on determinisim with a student called Orochov. Here Koestler introduces some of his terminology: ‘oceanic feeling’, ‘tragic plane’, ‘trivial plane’, etc.

    - The Psychology of Conversion is an acute description and commentary on closed systems of thought. Koestler lists Marxism, orthodox Freudianism, and Catholicism as stereotypical examples. Closed systems dreprive their proselytisers of an objective view of the world by means of indoctrination and scholastic casuistry.

Bart Kosko

  • Fuzzy Thinking
    Original title in Spanish: Pensamiento Borroso. Published in 1995 by Editorial Crítica (Serie Drakontos).

    Even if at times demagogic, lampooning, and propagandistic (e.g., constantly selling fuzzy systems as the panacea to machine intelligence), Kosko's popularising account of fuzzy sets, fuzzy inference systems, and their philosophical implications in other human concerns (laws and rights, life and death, truth, paradoxes) is really worth reading.

    Outstanding shortcomings: all he sweeps under the rug. For example, not explaining why fuzzy theories should be applied to problems other than those where there is imprecision or vagueness; not explaining the openness of the logic's connectives (T-norms, T-conorms, Negation, etc.), and hence that his examples of results and concepts (fuzzy cubes, fuzzy entropy) assume an underlying (Max, Min, 1-x) calculus. Finally, he repeats ad nauseam the motto ‘to some degree’ (elements belong to a set to some degree, men are tall to some degree), but barely explains that such degree is established by convention (expert and designer) and therefore the intelligence of a fuzzy inference system reflects the designer's ability to establish a fuzzy ontology.

Milan Kundera

  • Ignorance
    Notes of 27 February 2006 [txt].

    Kundera wrote this novel in French. It touches upon some of his usual themes: emigration, misunderstandings, memory and forgetting, laughter, lightness and weight, the irony of the unattainable against the backdrop of the communist occupation, etc.

    Some day I'll hook my notes on the novels The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (my favourite), Immortality, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Life is Elsewhere, and The Joke. And on his essays The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed (my favourite essay), and The Curtain.

Glyn Moody

  • Rebel Code: Linux and the Open Source Revolution
    Notes of 20 June 2003 [html].

    Although it does not encompass the whole story, otherwise it would have been many more pages long, this well-written book is an excellent introduction to the ideas of free software, open source, the GNU/Linux world, and some of the politics.

Theodore Roszak

  • The Cult of Information
    Published by University of California Press. 1st edition 1986. 2nd revised edition 1994.

    I found a Spanish translation of the 1986 edition by chance on a sale at the VIPS restaurant chain. Some years later I bought the 2nd revised English (original) edition.

    There are many recent books which discuss, analyse, and criticise the so-called information age/society, and the misuse and abuse of computers, social networks, and the Internet. This book is the unsurpassed precursor. It's beautifully written and a pleasure to read, so I prefer to re-read the passages I've underlined than to type-write notes. But I want to recommend it.

    Roszak touches all aspects, and writes lucidly with humour and style. The starting point is the need to discriminate between data, information, knowledge, judgement (moral, in particular), imagination, insight, and wisdom. He moves on to discuss at length Information-the-Science, Information-the-Weapon (e.g. the War Machine), Information-the-Commodity (e.g. The Money Machine, rather prescient about derivatives and programmed trading a decade before 2008's Credit Crunch), The Government Machine, the salesmanship and unfulfilled promises of Artificial Intelligence, Edutainment, etc. Roszak of course also considers the positive aspects of computers, information technology, and Seymour Papert's ‘Procedural Thinking’ (known these days as ‘Computational Thinking’).

    The book is neo-Luddite in the sense of asking how machines are being used, by whom, and for whose benefit (p. xviii), and of helping to distinguish usage from abusage.

Rupert Sheldrake

  • The Science Delusion
    2013 Coronet paperback.

    I did enjoy this book and do recommend it. Sheldrake criticises what in my view is a narrow version of materialism / reductionism / determinism / mechanicism embodied in what he claims to be the ten core beliefs of ‘most scientists’: (1) everything is mechanical, (2) all matter is unconscious (including humans), (3) the total amount of energy remains the same (conservation principle), (4) the laws of physics are fixed, (5) nature is purposeless, (6) biological heritability is material and [exclusively] carried in genetic DNA, (7) there is no mind separate from the brain, (8) memories are stored in the brain, (9) psychic phenomena don't exist, (10) only mechanistic medicine works.

    I don't think those are core beliefs, but he's not attacking a straw man either. Some scientists hold those beliefs, but I wonder how many. Certainly not all. Those beliefs don't define Science with capital S. Sheldrake draws attention to open problems in physics (dark matter, dark energy, variability of physical constants, etc.) and biology (missing heritability problem, epigenetics, etc.). He occasionally addresses non-sequiturs, and ad-hominen and straw man arguments pointed at his side. But occasionally falls into a few himself, e.g. Richard Dawkins's selfish-gene ‘theory’ is not mainstream (see Ernst Mayr's What is Evolution).

    Many scientists disagree with (2) and (4), and so with (3) which is affected by (4). There's no scientific theory of consciousness. As far as I know, it's well-established there's more to heritability than DNA. There are scientists that research to explain psychic phenomena, thus assuming such phenomena exists. They just disagree on the cause. What Sheldrake calls ‘mechanistic medicine’ is actually big-pharma medicine. There are several schools of materialism. Many would agree with Sheldrake that science is a human affair, subject to human defects, where knowledge could even be inexorably partial due to our limitations. Materialism is an astonishing hypothesis indeed, but to believe in it, it's important its details make sense and explain a lot. Many materialists are comfortable widening, not narrowing, what's physical. In fact, they see it as a necessity.

    I like Sheldrake's distinction between debate and dialogue. And his insistence that we must remain open and apply the same rigorous standards everywhere. What I find discouraging is the ethereal nature of the counter-hypotheses (at least as explained in the book). What's that separate entity called mind and how does it interact with the brain? What does it mean that the mind is ‘non-physical’? What exactly are those ‘morphic fields’ and how do they work? The testing experiments he proposes for some of his hypotheses (habits of crystallisation, rats learning at a distance, humans that detect stares, animals that predict natural disasters) all seem to me too indirect and don't exactly prove the existence of the fields. Other explanations aren't ruled out. Morphic fields left me with more questions than answers.

    Sheldrake's hypotheses have been criticised for their unfalsifiability. I don't think falsifiability is an absolute requirement. Not being falsifiable can be transitory. Many accepted theories were initially unfalsifiable, or the experiments that falsified them were subject to question. And just because a theory isn't fully spelled out doesn't mean it's wrong. But the problem to me is how much spelling there is. Science is a social enterprise. Consensus is important, and one has to fight (ideally, engage in dialogue) for hypotheses with accompanying strong evidence to be accepted. Not all resistance to a theory is based on dogmatism. The weight of evidence in favour, despite its incompleteness and unexplained cases, is often the cause for preference. This is what sets science apart from knowledge based on authority like religion. But in the end, the aim of Sheldrake's book is to ask mainstream science to remain on its ideal path.

Peter Straub

  • Houses without Doors
    Spanish title: Casas Sin Puertas. Published in 1993 by Ediciones B.
    Excerpts and notes in Spanish of 13 July 2007 [txt].

    A book of short psychological-horror stories. I don't remember plots and characters. I do remember the author managed to immerse me into a strange and smothering atmosphere. I've underlined a few paragraphs and sentences that called my attention. Perusing some reviews in Amazon.com I've found this one by C. T. Mikesell that approximates the general impression the book had on me:

    This collection of short stories lifts its title from an Emily Dickinson poem ("Doom is the house without a door…"). There is a sense of doom pervading each of the stories, as the major characters are cursed by psychological maladies (psychosis, repression, obsession) or are forced to interact with powers beyond their (and our) comprehension. Some of the stories end with the characters clearly not escaping their doom (most notably in "The Buffalo Hunter"), while others leave it to the reader to guess at the outcome ("Mrs. God," "The Juniper Tree"). All of the stories, including the interludes, work over time to produce a dark mood and an off-kilter worldview […] and transport readers to worlds they'd not likely find on their own […]

Colin Wilson

  • The Occult
    Spanish title: Lo Oculto. Published in 1974 by Editorial Noguer.
    Excerpts and notes in Spanish of 10 January 2003 [pdf].

    This book is a mixture of history of the occult (focused on important personalities and cases), of Mr Wilson's opinions on the subject, and of his own insights on existentialism, phenomenology, and positive psychology, which are what I find interesting. I have stripped away most of the latter into an annotated document in Spanish. Even if I don't agree with all he says or the way he categorises, I find Mr Wilson stimulating.

    Some day I'll hook my notes on other books by Mr Wilson — his famous The Outsider, his failed and misleading attempt at summarising in Introduction to the New Existentialism, his autobiographical Dreaming to Some Purpose, his interpretation of Gurdjieff in The War Against Sleep: The Philosophy of Gurdjieff, etc.

    In the meantime, I agree with most points raised by this critique. Wilson's non-fiction books are promissory variations on the same theme that end in anticlimax. He has written extensively and repeatedly about the same insight, what he calls the ‘St Neot Margin’, and has found its correlation with ideas from existentialism, phenomenology, and positive psychology (Abraham Maslow's ‘peak experience’, George Pransky ‘you're not unhappy, Syd, you just think you are’, and I'd add Mikail Csikszentmihalyi's ‘flow’ and Martin Seligman's ‘learned optimism’). He's also found its correlation with the life and works of every writer he reveres, deeming the rest as negligible ‘insiders’. But I find Mr Wilson's ideas and breadth interesting nevertheless.

Commentaries hyperlinked within some of the above notes

  • Turing Test Rant (6 July 12) [html]
  • The Chinese Room (6 July 12) [html]
  • AI = Alchemy of Intelligence (6 July 12) [html]

My (incomplete) list of books

Ordered alphabetically by first author surname. Titles in the language in which I first read them. Original title enclosed in parentheses. My own English translation of the title enclosed in square brackets when I haven't found or there isn't an official English title. Underlined titles are to me essential and indispensable.