Apr 20, 2010

The middle way

The Way of Life by Lao Tzu changed my life.

I only read it once, as part of college studies in the history of religion, around 1970. I will have to re-read it to see if the breadcrumb trail is there at all, but as I recall the book was the foundation of a philosophy called "the middle way." To avoid excess or zealotry, to embrace the path rather than yearn for the goal, to seek moderation and not the extreme...these are the things I remember, and I wonder how far I am from what is actually there.

Mine is an English translation by Wittner Bynner, copyright 1944, a Capricorn Books paperback from 1962. Only 81 stanzas, just 75 pages even with Bynner's intruduction, and many lovely black-and-white illustrations.

Less can truly be more.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Physicist-author Tyson was interviewed one day by Bob Edwards on XMPR and I had to rush to the store and find the book they talked about, Death by Black Hole.

How dare I think I can read something so recondite? As it turns out, non-experts dabbling in subjects way over their heads is a time-honored tradition. Besides, part of the point is that Tyson writes so well that you don't have to be, well, a rocket scientist to follow what he's saying. Even if you don't get all of it (and I certainly didn't), it's really, uh, cool reading.

Tyson is a really cool guy, too, as it turns out. I haven't looked again but when I Googled him after reading this 2007 book, feature articles called him one of New York's most eligible bachelors. Forty-ish, an Olympic athlete, handsome and funny, a leading scientist among the scientists (not just the dabblers like me), and African-American to boot. What a fascinating individual! I wrote him full of praise for his book and he even wrote back a courteous thank you.

By the way, this morning on the Edwards program I heard an interview with author Richard Holmes, whose new book is entitled The Age of Wonder. Turns out he's an authority on Romatic poets, Keats and Shelley, those guys, and he talked about the fascination many of the Romantics had with science. Not everyone, to be sure, but for many artistic types it was quite the thing to be up on the latest discoveries, whether it was something about the outer planets (Jupiter and Saturn, in those days), or what Darwin was finding on Galapagos.

Holmes said we are in a new golden age of popular science writing, as so many brilliant scientists have found they can also write very well. I'd call Neil DeGrasse Tyson a wonderful and welcome case in point.

The Meaning of Everything

Is that a great title, or what? It's what Simon Winchester called his history of the Oxford English Dictionary, and a fitting title it turns out to be.

Visionaries, among them Samuel Coleridge, put the project in motion in 1860, but it was James Augustus Henry Murray who rescued it from chaotic enthusiasm. Sir James patiently set forth a system in which slips of paper would be received from correspondents located in every English-speaking country on the planet (mostly England and America), their contents logged and eventually compiled in the greatest multi-volume publishing enterprise ever undertaken. Its release in 1928, an astonishing 68 years later, was celebrated with an epic dinner for 150 guests, lovingly described in the pages of this lavishly illustrated gem.

What did it take to find every word in the English language and give it a proper definition? Read the book and find out. Don't be surprised to learn that diplomacy was necessary to maintain funding for the massive project, the kind that policitians then and now would call folly, or pork-barrel.

I was struck by the similarity to the Open Directory Project, where I was a volunteer editor for seven years. The infighting, the flashes of brilliance, the dogged determination to keep at it despite the inevitable irritation that comes from working closely with a lot of brilliant and often eccentric people, each of whom is generally convinced that they know what is right, if only everyone else would listen - the Oxford English Dictionary had all of these things just as the ODP does today.

I resigned from the ODP, also known as DMOZ, to devote more time to what we online denizens humorously call Real Life. The sobriquet is so widely used that it's often seen in its short form, RL. I can just imagine an OED contributor in, say, New Zealand in 1890, telling his wife "I'll be in to dinner in just a moment, dear, just as soon as I finish this definition for zymurgy. (Goodness, real life can be such a bother when there is so much important work to be done.)"

If it weren't for compulsively addicted people like my hypothetical Kiwi, things like the Oxford English Dictionary and DMOZ would never be attempted, let alone completed. Let's hear it for the hapless souls who sacrifice RL for all the grand schemes that seem impossible, and yet somehow reach fruition. Hear, hear!

Our Posthuman Future

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama made a famous announcement that history as we knew it had reached its end. Famous though it might have been, it was still news to me when I read about it on the flyleaf of his 2002 opus entitled Our Posthuman Future.

Can't remember for sure now, but I think this was one I picked up from Daedalus Books, the online and mail-order remainder house. I've found some great books from them, and saved a bundle in the process. That same flyleaf, for example, sets the price for this hardcover at $25, but I probably bought it for five or six bucks. Unless, of course, it's one I heard about on Bob Edwards' radio program, and dashed out and paid full price for. But I doubt it.

Anyway, Fukuyama had had a few years to reconsider whether he wanted to stand by his earlier pronouncement when he came out with Posthuman. He doesn't exactly repudiate what he said, but he sure finds some new stuff to talk about, the kind of stuff that will make new history after all. Mostly he looks at the social consequences of genetic engineering, foreseeing as inevitable a capitulation to parents on the subject of optimized offspring.

This is strong stuff, a fitting non-fiction companion to Michael Crichton's fictional Next. The next thing being post-human humans, of course.

If this has whetted your appetite, go for it.

Apr 13, 2010

Lincoln Child

I'll never catch up. A friend poked me lightly to say I hadn't posted in a while, and I thought I was due for the current month. Turns out that was last month. It's been two months since I sat down to write, yikes!

I've been busy, yeah, yeah, so what? We're all busy yadda yadda so there's no excuse.

Anyway I spotted something by Lincoln Child and decided to give him a try. Terminal Freeze turned out to be, well, a page-turner. Not for me to eschew the well-worn cliché, especially when it fits so well.

Lincoln Child writes thrillers with a science background. He may write lots of other stuff but I'm in too big a hurry to do the research. Very busy, you know. At any rate, Terminal Freeze retreads ground covered by Michael Crichton in Next, at least to some small extent. I mean that in a good way, because he does it so well. Besides, if you ask me, in Next, Crichton was echoing his own Jurassic Park. You're not asking me, I know, but if you don't agree - hey, start your own blog.

Again, Child writes well. That's really all I ask. Somebody said there are only seven plots anyhow, so you're always going to be using something somebody used before. Just do it well, OK? Thanks.

Speaking of next, after the Arctic Circle adventure, the library coughed up Child's Utopia. Now we're really talking. A slightly off-kilter computer scientist whose belief in machine learning earned him disrespect from his peers but a blank check from a fabulously wealthy illusionist, who with his help builds the ultimate theme park. Then he dies (the illusionist, not the scientist) and the scientist is dismayed as the bean counters betray the founder's vision in favor of gift shops and casinos. Boo, hiss!

I love stories with a fabulously wealthy character conveniently inserted, don't you? Look at what Jack Nicholson's hospital mogul capitalist did for The Bucket List. Insert endless additional examples here...

Getting back to Utopia (which come to think of it, is an odd locution - anyone lucky enough to find utopia would hardly leave, a necessary precursor to "getting back"), the scientist conveniently has a fourteen-year old daughter who accompanies him on a business meeting to the theme park, and who naturally falls into the path of (evil music here) bad guys.

Add not one but two brainy and very attractive women, one a business type and the other a fellow off-kilter computer scientist (guess which one our protagonist ends with, go on, guess), and then a highly trained James Bondish type "bodyguard" who happens to be vacationing with his dorky in-laws when the excrement hits the ventilation device, and decides to join forces with the first scientist.

Might sound cartoonish, and hey, if you can't go for this sort of thing then you already stopped reading long ago, so the heck with you. For the rest of us, Lincoln Child is a real winner. Sometimes you want to know why networks behave non-intuitively, or learn about the inner workings of human language, or watch a documentary on the history of metallurgy. Sometimes you just want to escape into a land where the good guys stop the bad guys from blowing stuff up and getting away with computer secrets worth a hundred million dollars, preferably hurting them badly in the process, and oh yes, saving a sweet teenager and a couple of beautiful women from harm. Add some decent science as a backdrop, and you've got a winner, at least in my book.

P.S. Not to be confused with Lee Child. The other L. Child writes action thrillers around a recurring character named Jack Reacher. Lean, tall, a hard case capable of killing with his bare hands but only in the pursuit of worthy causes. A complete independent, travels with only a toothbrush, wiring "home" for money earned while in some branch of special forces, from which he was pressured to resign after learning all these advanced combat skills. He only gets enough money for bus fare and cheap motels, and to buy a T-shirt and jeans he will wear until they get too dirty. Throw away, repeat...

I like Lee Child, too. But not to be confused with Lincoln Child.


Jimi Hendrix said he would "wave his freak flag high." Frank Zappa warned us, or our parents, actually, about "hungry freaks, daddy." Steven J. Levitt called his off-kilter take on economics "freakonomics" not only because his conclusions made him freakish by the standards of conventional economics. I think it's really because he relished not being asked to sit at the economists' table in the college cafeteria. He likes being a freak, and you know what, so do I.

I am surely not alone. Even if Frank Zappa fans will always be relatively few and far between, Hendrix sold bajillions of albums to people who recognized a fellow traveler. And I was impressed but not all that surprised to read on the Wikipedia entry for Levitt's book Freakonomics that it sold four million copies. There must be lots of us freaks around, or maybe we're not as freaky as we'd like to believe.

Jerry Maguire's character loved to say, "Show me the money!" Levitt might not say "show me the data" in so many words, but that is surely his message. Like my friend Ted (whose comment appears on an early post, and who may weigh in on this one as well), Levitt is not exactly scornful of bad logic (or in the other Ted's case, bad science). He simply keeps asking for the backup. And if it's not forthcoming, he goes out and finds it, and lets the conclusions fall where they may.

This is good logic, or good science. Look at the data first, then draw your conclusions. Everyone knows you're not supposed to start with conclusions you'd like to support, then dig around to find some. So why do economists, and scientists, and lots of the rest of us, keep doing just that?

Maybe we're human. Maybe we should shake the dust off our freak flags and start waving.

One last word about Zappa's "hungry freaks, daddy." Daddy was as in daddy-o, not the paternal parent, at least in my opinion. When it comes to parents, we (I'm a Boomer, of course) are not only the people our parents warned us about, we are our parents as well. I just became a grandpa for the first time, and I'm as pleased and giggly as my own dear dad was when my daughter, the new mother, was a newborn herself. It's not so bad, in fact it's really great.

You want to know why he called it Freakonomics" Read the sucker, or least Google it for the Wikipedia page, and read that. What could be more 21st-century?