Archive Page 2

21
May
18

The Name of the Wind

I just finished The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s a really solid book, but the problem for me is that it’s the first in an epic tale that is likely not going to be written by Rothfuss. Such a shame.

I  read this book a while back but didn’t quite finish it. I’m not sure what happened. Life just overtook me. But upon returning to it, I found it to be really strong. I’m not sure if I’m different (more mature? less?) or if I was able to take the time to really experience in the way that I sometimes don’t.

Anyway, watch out for some spoilers.

*spoilers*

The setting of this book is a world in which a sciency kind of magic and “real” magic live side by side, with the latter being much more rare and mysterious. The book has some things in common with the Stormlight series (which by the way I did not really enjoy) in that the past seems to have been lost. People just don’t really know what happened before, but there clues for those willing to look and to reconstruct what really happened. This book really only lays the foundation of the world unfortunately and the exploration was supposed to be still coming in the future. In this book, we learn of the protagonist and how he was orphaned by a supernatural, mysterious evil. The evil is interestingly well portrayed as dire and powerful, but not so big in scale as to be impersonal, like some creeping  ultra-deity or overlord who seeks to enslave everyone before him. Rather, the main motivation of the main enemy seems to be concealing his identity, though there are hints at that society wide war with evil powers is coming.

The book mainly goes through three phases. The protagonist as a young, happy child being raised by a troupe of traveling performers. Then he is orphaned and he must live alone in a big city, often stealing and scheming just to live. He slowly recovers though and comes into his own as a more confident person and goes to a magical university. The university I think is done very well and it’s interesting to compare its vision of magical education with something like Harry Potters. Magical academia is differently portrayed as a bureaucratic system which has more “adulty” themes in that the university must exist in political power structures, has to acknowledge realities like budgets and funding (the tuition for the university is an issue). However, one point of similarity is that there are masters of various aspects of magical education who have distinctive personalities like the teachers in Harry Potter. Interestingly, medicine is taught at the college — though its not really magical.

The very end of the book involves a kind of final confrontation with a mysterious danger wrapped into a love story. I want to give a shout out to this ending section as very good because there is a time when it looks like the love story is going to go in a VERY predictable direction: that the hero is “seen” with another girl in circumstances that can be misunderstood. I was expecting a quarrel and a reuniting, but no. The love interest is more independent and smarter than that and so there’s no quarrel along those lines. Instead, as I was saying, there is a final confrontation, the solution to which is unobtrusively prepared, somewhat covertly, in the lead up, so that the final means by which the hero achieves success feels less like plot destiny and more like ingenuity within the laws of the universe as they have been set out.

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17
May
18

Trust by Geoffrey Hosking

Trust is a fairly recent piece of scholarship. As the title suggests, it focuses on trust, but with a historical focus. Hosking starts with some theoretical buildup and then launches into a discussion of three technologies or systems of trust: finance and trade, religion, and the nation state. He then follows these through history to show the ways in which they are similar — he think that they offer symbols that unify the thinking of persons who live under them — but also different in the ways that they can go wrong and the ways that they need to be maintained.

The high points of the book are that Hosking has found some interesting cases to focus on, and when he talks about well known examples — like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis — he displays impressive knowledge, as especially evidenced by his excellent citations.

My criticisms of the book are that the paragraphs sometimes come off as a capsule summaries of issues or connections to trust without a clear view to the overall thesis of the book. I think the most consistent claim that is made is that trust can be quickly become distrust and that often, the way to fight distrust is to broaden the circle of trust with new institutions or practices. For instance, after WWII, international trust was at a low point, but it was powerfully bolstered by new attention to international institutions like the UN and various free trade organizations. Besides this, we are told in the introduction and conclusion that we need a historical perspective on trust. I agree, but I would have liked to know more about how taking that perspective helps us see our way past certain mistakes that have been in trust theorizing. I feel there is little application of the history to mistaken views of trust or to controversies about trust.

A further problem is that the definition/account of trust Hosking is using is too broad. He does not distinguish trust from confidence or reliance, and thus ends up using trust to cover anything in which it is better if persons believes some outcome will come about. But trust is not the same thing as reliance, because a person may rely on someone to do something, like a military commander who relies on an enemy to attack at dawn, but this kind of relying or confidence in the strategy or tactics of another is based purely on a prediction about their motives and how they will become manifest. One does not trust one’s enemy in this circumstance, though this may be obscured by the fact that the word trust can be used in many ways, such as when the commander says “I trust my adversary to attack at dawn,” which is just a way of saying that he believes the enemy will attack at dawn and that his own plan will be seriously jeopardized if he does not. Again, there is no trust of the general in the important moral sense in which someone may trust his neighbor to take care of his pet while he is away. In this case, there is, no doubt, belief that the other will do something, but the justification for the belief is the moral character of the other person.

Given the importance of reasons for believing that someone will do something, it’s a serious question whether governments, by passing laws, engender trust. Because laws threaten punishment in many cases, it seems that laws foster confidence that others will act a certain way, but not trust in them. But then there is another sense in which it seems that laws do promote trust, even when trust is understood in the specifically moral ways as a response to a particular kind of reason.

For me, the most interesting examples in the book are about Russia before and after the USSR. Before hand, there is a good discussion about how a totalitarian society destroys trust but how this cannot last for long, as persons need to establish some trust somewhere. At the end of the USSR, Hosking again shows how trust crops up in odd places when the government is corrupt. He discusses how millions of dollars was moved around on just a handshake.

12
Apr
18

The Phantom Tollbooth

I just finished this short book. It’s “for kids,” but the best kids material is often that which speaks to mature and serious themes in an especially eloquent and accessible way. That’s the case here. I’m like 50+ years late to this book, but better late than never. As a philosopher, it was a satisfying read.

I didn’t think the wordplay was that fun, but I think for kids it might be more fun, but what I did like was the way in which it dramatizes the history-long struggle that persons have had with ignorance. Rhyme and reasons have left the kingdom and because of their absence, all sorts of other things are out of sorts, or done to extremes, or done not enough. Reason then is really the key to everything. Without reason to unite the various activities to do, and so to make sure that we do each activity in its right way, for its right amount of time, etc., everything goes haywire. Reason then is like the bookshelf for all the books of life — it keeps them organized (my metaphors are a little off, I’m writing this post very fast).

I also liked the theme in the book of abstract items like words and numbers being concretized as objects that are made, traded, and moved around in space. This is helpful to kids and adults alike and allows for creative and dramatic ways of illustrating the role that these things play.

My favorite part of the whole book is the way it tries to capture the idea that once one has been exposed to ideas and their constituent parts — numbers, words, arguments, etc. — then one is never the same. The world takes on a kind of bright stand-out-ed-ness in which everything is a mystery and a song wrapped together. Again, poetry is not my thing — I better keep my day job — but still the book really captures what philosophers themselves have not been able to decisively do, which is to say how knowledge changes our very experience of the world and makes our lives more satisfying.

Bonus: I like this better than the little prince, which I think falls in this genre of “mind blowing fiction that reveals complex themes to kids.”

07
Apr
18

Conversations With Friends

I just finished Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. It’s a skilled and well-crafted novel, which is different than saying I enjoyed it.

It’s set in Dublin, but interestingly, does not smash you over the head with culturally appropriate references. I felt like the store could have taken place “anywhere,” but I’m not sure I really know what I mean by that. In reading the story though, I don’t feel like it relies heavily or makes excessive use of its setting in Dublin. Sure there are some Dublin place names, but if it’s picking up a lot of Irish themes or tropes, I missed them. But maybe that’s because all I know about what is Irish is just crude stereotypes.

Anyway, the story is close study of relationships. The books feels, at some points, like its artistic premise is to place a few carefully chosen relationships into an ecosystem together and watch as the system dynamically adjusts and interacts. In the end, I feel like the characters are magnets that don’t match in polarity so that when you put one close to the others, they all snap into a new arrangement or push each other around. There is no attraction, just (temporarily) stabilized fields of repulsion or momentary equilibria sustained only by their tension and susceptibility to the next collapse or rearrangement.

In the writing, the book is, I think, quite skilled. Most of the descriptions and metaphors seem fresh and also apt to the situation, making you think “uh huh, yea, just like that.” The dialogue is also good, in a kind of spare kind of way. It works and it flows together, and, as one of my friends has pointed out to me, Rooney is able to move through many modalities of dialogue, from text, to phone call, to in person conversation, with care. That seems like something that would be hard to pull off.

Some parts about the book kind of let me down, though I don’t really think many of my criticisms really rise to an artistic criticism of any merit. But here they are. The characters just get annoying to me in that they seem over dramatic, “cool,” and kind of unlike the persons I often deal with and the emotions I often have. That is, the characters are so interior and second-guessing of their emotional life, like they have are never confident to know that they are angry and why. Maybe it’s cooler to be freudian, post-modern, and “self-is-an-illusion” about things, but I wonder if the other side of things can’t also have its due.

Bonus question:

Is this a book about class ? At some times I think so, but it’s also a receding them in the book too. Like, there are references to the semi-impoverished state of the main character and how this plays into the scenarios she finds herself, but usually it seems that the situations play out in ways that really have nothing to do with her economic background.

04
Apr
18

Really good interactable game theory explanation

http://ncase.me/trust/

Whoever put this together is doing god’s work, intellectually speaking. The explanation is so crisp and well organized that it puts a fairly complex sets of game theory concepts right at your fingertips. So helpful.

Math is not life though. We may wonder whether this model holds up if we think that people are much more complex than this suggests.

25
Mar
18

Literacy and Orality

I just finished a book about the differences between literacy and orality, or writing versus talking. There are a huge number of differences and this book (by Walter Ong) identifies them well.

What I find interesting is that I was looking back over old blog posts, and not only was I interested in this issue a long time ago without any such reading in this area, but I made some of the key distinctions that Ong mades. This is not congratulate myself. My ideas were primitive and from a theoretical perspective, the distinction I made between language  being natural (normal development as a human gives us language) but writing itself being “artificial” or learned, is pretty intuitive. The point for me is really the way thoughts recur in unexpected ways and build quietly on each other.

16
Mar
18

Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong

Today, a top reddit post is from someone who learned that Socrates was worried about the increase in books and that the only reason we know that is that he wrote it down.

This is an appropriate post because Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong, a classic text, takes up this question and argues that Socrates (really Plato) was alive during a turning point from an oral culture to a literate one. He then goes on to describe a number of characteristics that come with these two modes of communication.

Though the point really is that they are not modes of communication but ways of organizing mental life. A world organized by literacy has certain features, like catch phrases, aphorisms, and heroic stories, that, on closer inspection, take much of their features from the memory form that they had to obey. Thus, things had to rhyme or have certain metrical properties, or be organized into catchy aphoristic language. Knowledge was stored by storytellers who told stories slightly differently each time. Research on modern day oral poets and traditional storytellers confirms these ideas according to Ong.

The idea, once one gets a hold of its basic tenets, goes deep. Real deep. Ong has the idea that in an oral culture, knowledge is closely tied “to the lifeworld” of those who invoke the knowledge orally. This can results in a kind of conservatism or aggressive orthodoxy since its harder to stake out ideas for oneself to think about them in privacy or at one’s own pace.

The shift from orality to literacy (first script then print) is a long process that happens historically and results from a range of changes. And even when it is largely complete, it leaves “residual orality” or we could say “residual rhetorical influences.” The book really showed me how important the study of RHETORIC used to be, and why it was important — because it was at home in an oral culture. As life become more and more textual, the influence of rhetoric as a subject waned drastically. For instance, I did not study rhetoric in school and no one I did studied it (not saying that’s a good thing). There are many interesting other examples of residual orality, namely the shift over time to NOVELS as a form of art, which are heavily “interiorized” in that they deal with the consciousness of the protagonist and their mental life. Epic poetry by contrast is not concerned with this interior perspective but focuses on deeds. Again, on “the collective life world.” Another example is that in  medieval scholarship, texts were prepared to be read aloud and to be debated orally. Also, early novelists or pamphleteers would start their books “dear readers,” which Ong notes is a kind of awkward, half-realizing way of grappling with a new intellectual form. They model early “private writing” on letter writing, which is a more well known private form at the time.

Books change things because one can read an idea away from its author, reducing the pressure to conform one’s thinking to that way of arguing. One can read “in private” and Ong thinks that this leads to the creation of an “interior self” for persons and thus a complexifying of human life. Books give us more memory, let us critique our own thinking, let us edit ourselves repeatedly before exposing the idea to someone else, and perhaps most of all, have a kind of a-contextuality, by which I mean that when one writes a book to an anonymous audience, one must provide the whole thought. This is the kind of writing I do — which is to set up an idea completely, even for someone who has not seen it before, so that they can engage with the rest of one’s paper. In oral exchanges, we don’t need to express ourselves correctly “for all time.” We can count on the listener asking questions, reading their faces, and perhaps relying on the shared aspects of our life world or immediate surroundings (“take that tree right there” — we can both look at it.

Another interesting dimension is how oral and literate cultures share ideas. Books share ideas in sequence. First I have the idea — I write it in privacy (though I don’t mean removed from social or political forces) and I try to get it all out in a way that the “average reader” could understand. THEN, you read it. You take it in privately at your own speed and on your own time with your own thoughts. You are free to interpret it how you will. HOwever, oral culture is more marked by simultaneity which is to say, we both have a thought or idea at the same time. I am forming the idea as I externalize it to you in real time and you process it in real time as you hear it from me. We co-create the thought as we talk about. This is not bad, but one feature of it is that our knowledge of the thought is more closely tied to the way in which the other person is thinking about it.

A soft criticism of Ong is that he sometimes draws really big lessons from data that seems like to be contested or at least is not a completely reliable




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