Middlesex – This reads like an early 21st-century Great American Novel. Jeffrey Eugenides chronicles three generations of Greek Americans living in Detroit in three periods on the 20th century. The chronicle is narrated from the perspective of the protagonist, Calliope (turned Cal), an intersex man who ended up the way he is because of incest in his family. The book plays upon multiple literary traditions, with clear references to the Western Epic (invocations to the muses), Sterne’s Tristam Shandy (as the protagonist weaves between his present and her family’s past in early chapters, taking about 300 pages to get to her own story after covering those of her grandparents and parents), and the Bildungsroman tradition (as we watch Calliope, the young girl, enter into adolescence and grapple with her choice of gender identity). Eugenides does a skillful job weaving historical details and exploration of sociological issues contemporary to three different generations of the immigrant experience in Detroit into the emotional intrigue of the book’s central family. He uses many tropes from Greek tragedy to show how Cal can’t help but be the way he is, but that doesn’t stop him from exercising his rights to choose and shape his identity when he reaches adolescence. It’s a big book, a grand achievement, but reads quickly and is very enjoyable.
The Religious Case Against Belief – The underlying dialectic in this book is quite similar to the one Carse writes about in Finite and Infinite Games (see review below). As the title suggests, in this book Carse critiques closed-minded, ideological belief systems as being antithetical to authentic religion. He intends to be polemic, given our common assumptions that belief systems are correlates of religion. The first part of the book focuses on articulate what belief systems are. Carse marshals examples ranging from Galileo and Luther to Marxism and Nazism to describe the characteristics of the believer, one who creates a picture of the world that is closed minded, fixed, all-encompassing except that it requires an other, an enemy against which it can define itself to sustain itself. Belief systems are the conceptual companion to finite games, but have an anxiety-creating lacuna at their center because they can engender (but resist) the intrinsic doubts of any believer. They lead to violence, as anyone who doesn’t agree with the belief can be justified as an enemy. Carse contrasts this with religions, which are communities that arise from the bottom up (versus top down civitas identities that encapsulate physical boundaries and are guided by some authority or power) and sustain a long-term dialogue trying to parse mysterious sayings and texts around which the communities are formed. These sayings are the enigmas of Christ, the Buddha, ancient Hinduism. Language and existences that are incomplete, but for that reason can adapt and change form and shape to map to different individual and historical contexts. They are more like infinite games, open dialogues that sustain across time and can incorporate different perspectives and opinions as they evolve. Carse implicitly defines religions, then, as communities that endure over long periods of time (rather than codified sets of beliefs in sacred texts). The texts, stories of the lives of Jesus and Buddha, are starting points for open conversation. The disposition Carse celebrates is one of “higher ignorance,” not the layman ignorance of just not knowing a topic, not the deliberate ignorance of refusing to be open to ideas outside a belief system, but a wondrous ignorance that recognizes the fallibility of any and all human understanding in humble deference to the grandeur of the world around us. As such, Galileo, normally touted to be a scientific hero, emerges in Carse’s account as a kind of religious hero, opening up a space for reconciliation between the open-minded disposition of the scientist and that of the authentically religious…with the nuance that the religious celebrate poetry, enigmas, and creative language rather than rigidly descriptive epistemology.
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature – This book is too big to do service to in a short review. I would only recommend it to friends who have read a decent amount of philosophy (ranging from ancient to early modern to 20th-century analytic), as I don’t think others will have the patience or interest to work through the arguments. Written in 1979, the book is Richard Rorty’s magnum opus arguing for why we need to drop the assumption that man’s essence is to understand the essence of things (i.e., to focus philosophy and epistemology on creating truthful representations of objects in the world). The book doubles as a history of philosophy, unpacking arguments about the nature of the self and language from Plato through Descartes through Quine and Wittgenstein. I particularly liked his historical reading of Plato and Aristotle, where he argues that the Ancient Greek notion of the true self was concatenated with the concepts and images we have that don’t change in time; his reading of John Locke and the early modern empiricist’s conflation of justification with causal derivation/explanation, i.e., their faulty attempts to describe language that says truthful things about the world as the coming into concepts through the mind’s engagement with observations. Throughout the book, Rorty references Kant’s system as a means of justifying the discipline and practice of philosophy as the foundational discipline underlying all other disciplines, and mentions that a desire to protect this all-powerful stance undergirds, as ideology, many 20th-century philosophers’ reluctance to rid themselves of concepts like truth and the self and essences in the service of a more pragmatic philosophy. His heroes are Wittgenstein, Dewey, and Heidegger, whose work he describes as anti-systematic, and critical in a productive way, working ever to critique the basic assumptions driving others who want to preserve a place for epistemology. He ends by arguing that all we reliably have is hermeneutics, a practice of reading past texts not to discern the ahistorical truths they may (or may not) contain to reconcile them with our own, but to learn how to situate a statement within any discursive context. Having worked in literary studies in the early 2000s, I am quite familiar with the ideas Rorty worked to articulate and achieve. It was an interesting experience to read, from a vantage point in late 2019, ideas that were coming into force back in 1979. I leave the book primarily with a desire to deepen my curriculum in analytic philosophy, and to finally read Wittgenstein thoroughly.
Ravelstein – My second time reading Saul Bellow (I read Herzog years ago). I first read the book without reviewing any of the secondary literature, and found a novel that felt like a roman a clef divided into three parts. The first is a portrait of the book’s protagonist, Abe Ravelstein, that starts in Paris and ends in his apartment in Chicago. Ravelstein is a larger-than-life, relatively profligate academic who went from obscurity to public awareness and riches after writing a book criticizing the state of the humanities. The book’s narrator, Chick, focuses less on Ravelstein’s ideas and more on his day-to-day being: he loves luxury, and takes a trip to Lanvin to buy a $4,000 camel jacket only to spill coffee on it hours afterward at the Café de Flore. He prides himself on retaining contact with the many statesmen who were his former students, hearing about government decisions and intrigue before it makes the press. He lives with a younger Asian man revealed to be his lover, as at first Ravelstein’s homosexuality isn’t clear to the reader. The second part shifts the narrative focus from describing Ravelstein to recounting a few episodes in the near past where Ravelstein influenced Chick’s life. We learn more about our narrator’s perspective and relationship to Ravelstein by learning how Ravelstein coached him through his relatively toxic relationship with his former wife. We continue to see flashes of Ravelstein, but his prominence changes as the optics for the portrait migrate from observation to influence on subjective experience. By part three, Ravelstein has died, and Chick struggles to muster the gall to write a biography about his friend (he’d promised to do so before he died). The section focuses more on Chick’s own near encounter with death after eating a piece of toxic fish in the Caribbean. There’s a sense that the book the narrator is working to write is the book the reader has just read, harkening back to techniques Proust uses at the end of La Recherche (and the many postmodern novels that followed). I liked the book on its own. Didn’t love it, but liked it. It inspired me to return back to the Facebook portraits I worked on about a year ago. My view of the book, however, changed upon engaging with criticism and learning Ravelstein was none other than Allan Bloom, a contentious figure, educated by Leo Strauss, who at once upheld a heroism and beauty of reading Plato and Rousseau, and was criticized for remaining too conservative as literary studies became multicultural, relativist, and globalized. The criticism didn’t alter much in my appreciation of the work and its structure, but raised questions, especially alongside Nhat Hanh, about what it means to write at 85 (if it means anything different from writing at 25 or 35). I’m curious to read something by Bloom, saddened to learn that people’s learning he was gay put a dent in the veneer of their conservative idol.
The Art of Living – Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote this book at 91, after having a stroke. It reads like a series of dharma talks (talks monks give to share their wisdom, similar but not identical in function to a Christian sermon), with a whimsical elision of anecdotes (things that happened to him or someone else), abstract musings on philosophy and ways of being (general statements about our being in the world), and practical guidance and meditations (imperative statements to breathe or walk or eat or observe the world a certain way). Hanh’s age seeps through the way he encourages the reader to go beyond the confines of the self, encouraging us to recognize our interbeing — that we aren’t self-contained but connected to our family and the natural world around us that sustains us as we eat and migrate through environments — and that our being lives on through the practices and behaviors others pick up as they engage with us. This was my first time reading Thich Nhat Hanh, although I’d seen snippets of his work and heard about him through my many interactions with Buddhism and meditation. I’d recommend the book to anyone curious about the tradition, and willing to open their mind to take in its healing and beautiful precepts. Two passages are remain clearest in my mind. One focused on the dilation of time and experience through memory, how our imagination can take something as simple as a drop of cold water running from a sink and turn it into mountain ice caps that remind us of our childhood. Nhat Hanh describes a moment when he was preparing to give a speech, where, instead of anxiously anticipating what others will think of his words, he focuses on washing his hands and dives deep into memories of snow from his childhood. He carries the analogy through his subsequent walk to the tent where he will speak, seeing the dew on the grass, the water in his body, as the same snow that, through his memories, came from the faucet. He’s at once present, there, observing the world around him, but deep inside himself, following the tides of analogy and memory to bring his past into his present, all the while stilling the fear of an uncertain future. The second passage that sticks with me most clearly is his etymology of the word nirvana, which he says was an ancient Indian word that referred to the pleasant feeling of sticking one’s fingers into cooled ashes, ashes that only get this way after ember heat has subsided. Hanh use etymology to show the relationship between suffering and nirvana, between the fire that is the antecedent to this special kind of coolness, to encourage us to accept our suffering, rather than painfully avoiding it, as a means of coming into nirvana.
The Future of the MBA: Designing the Thinker of the Future – While written in 2008, this book foreshadows contemporary concerns about the algorithmization of white-collar skills. The punchline? Impactful business education would and should train “high-value decision makers” whose primary skills are those of an “integrator” who produces “constructive reconciliations of tensions among different models, theories, beliefs, and ways of knowing, acting, and being–to the end of enabling successful action in prototypically ‘postmodern’ organizational environments.” That means, the most valuable communicative, epistemological, and problem-solving skills of executives are not reducible to algorithmic representation, and are even difficult to compactly articulate in theory, but come to life through action. The consequences for business academia is an overhaul of the methods and practices of teaching. A marketing professor shouldn’t transmit his or her sociological findings to MBA students, as these findings aren’t often embodied in the practice of being a CMO. Instead, a marketing professor–as professors in other “business fields,” which authors Moldoveanu and Martin derive as applications of more general sciences to a particular topic or domain–should train students in the methods of falsification and engagement with theories and data that underpin their findings. MBA students should leave astute phenomenologists and communicators, who can suspend belief (and disbelief) of their own perceptions and adroitly migrate between the various functional perspectives of departments and line managers that compose the mosaic of their organizations. And all this should be learn through performance, practice, doing like they will do in their future roles.
The Idiot – My first time reading a Dostoevsky novel since college. It took me some time to complete it, perhaps because, as critics have critiqued, it lacks a tight narrative structure like Dostoevsky’s other novels (The Idiot is the only novel he wrote without a pre-sketched architectural plan). But it has the hallmarks of an essayistic novel with subplots branching to explore a particular philosophical or social idea (e.g., a long pre-suicide letter from the adolescent Ippolit, a side character with strong symbolic value in the novel) and passages that lack lacelike precision but still carry the plot forward. The eponymous idiot is Prince Myshkin, the book’s protagonist, who, like Dostoevsky, suffers from epilepsy and is a pure, direct man who perceives and articulates the psychological essence of situations in the midst of a feigning, dissimulating, falling aristocracy and burgeoning bourgeois society. The Prince finds himself in a love triangle between Aglaya Epanchin, the precocious but dupable young daughter of a just-about-but-not-quite aristocratic family, and Natasha Fillipovna, a Madame Bovary-inspired character who is orphaned and raised by a country-gentlemen and who, out of an ineluctable sense of her own depravity, both sees the goodness in Myshkin, and loves him for it, but wants to destroy any chances she has of achieving union and love with a presence she fears. The best part of the novel is the vividness of specific scenes — I won’t recount them here, but they remain in my mind like imprints from a good movie. Both Mihnea and I resonate with the prince’s belief that “beauty will save the world.”
Finite and Infinite Games – This book presents a philosophy of life. Written in an aphoristic style that harkens Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, it describes, as the title suggests, two modes of being in the world: playing finite or playing infinite games. Finite games are games as we normally think of them, just extended to so many roles we play in society. Games that have a definitive winner and end, bounded in space and time. Games like chess, or even games like getting a promotion at work, achieving a quarter objective, becoming the state baton twirling champion of Indiana, or, more challengingly, games like playing the role of mother in the family unit. Being a mother is a finite game? For Carse, yes, because motherhood and fatherhood are socially defined roles that analytically cut into the purity and wholeness of the naive and native genius that is the I, big I, bigger than the normal capital letter personal pronoun, the I that is the endlessly creative potential of every human being, that brings us to freedom. Carse pits infinite games against the thousands of finite games we play throughout our lives. The goal of infinite games is to make it impossible to win, to change the rules as the game converges to conclusion, to open new space for deep, surprising, creative contact between people and nature. For Carse, gardening is a supreme infinite game, where we don’t seek to control nature and bend it to our ends, but adapt to provide conditions for the surprise and shock of nature to flourish. The supreme infinite game is a disposition towards life, a departure from the tokens of the ego that signal our value and control and power, and a releasing to open deep contact with the genius Is that surround us every day. So we can create novelty together, as is always available to us, but that we blind away under the glaring focus of the finite games that dominate our attention.
Petersburg – This novel is incredible. Book covers and wikipedia pages advertise how Nabokov ranked it “one of the four greatest masterpieces of twentieth-century prose, after Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Harkening Hamlet.” The plot centers around a conflict between a conservative, Tsarist father, Apollon Apollonovich, a quiet, measured bureaucrat whose behavior slips Quixotic as revolutionary tides stir the 1905 air after the Japanese conflict, and his neo-Kantian, cerebral and idealistically revolutionary son, Nicolai Apolloniovich, who has been ordered to kill his father with a time bomb lodged in a most horrible sardine tin. A soft emotionality brings the two characters surprisingly together, but through the ironic realism of Apollon’s childish rhyming jokes that even the servants struggle to laugh at and Nicolai’s becoming the laughing stock of high society as he masquerades as a masked domino in a red cape to court the married woman he loves (prompting a suicide attempt from her dishonored bureaucrat husband). The highlights of the book are the sinuous transitions between inner and outer worlds. Bely brings the reader through trippy dream sequences where characters on their death bed end up experiencing consciousness smattered into a thousands rings of Saturn, through a young revolutionary’s drunken, delirious encounter with Pushkin’s bronze statue come to life, giant, in his dingy bedroom. The reader is often perplexed and delighted by the quick transitions between the world of the mind and the world of the street, unsure where she currently stands. The novel is deemed “symbolic,” in part by the poetic plays on language that enliven nearly every page, but structurally by the symbolic role the characters play in representing how Russian society changed in the early twentieth century. These aren’t quite characters; we know Apollon, follow his thoughts, feel tenderness for him as we watch him do crunches every evening before going to bed to keep his seventy-year-old body taut; but Bely doesn’t go so far as to make him flesh, repeating geometric motifs to index he’s not quite real, but a symbol of a character of the time. And, like Ulysses for Dublin, the book makes the reader feel the streets of Petersburg, pays meticulous attention to the smells and sights of street corners, of lampposts on the river Neva, of sub-communities in different neighborhoods. This book isn’t for everyone, but is for anyone who appreciates challenging literature.
Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World – This is a great book for anyone interested in complexity theory and conceptualizing why learning algorithms differ from other programming algorithms. Probably approximately correct refers to a framework for bounding the errors algorithms make when learning from distributions: when we learn functions from data, errors can arise from misfortune (the sample we learn from not being representative of the other data) or rarity (edge cases that are unlikely to be drawn in any small sample). Performance metrics for learning algorithms relate to assessing and minimizing these kinds of errors. Valiant’s ambitions are large and his style unpretentious and patient. The book, encapsulating work he’d published in earlier papers, seeks to further the work Turing did for Turing Machines in the early 20th century to augment grounding for computation as a correlate foundation in biology and cognition as mathematics was to mechanics and physics. He replicates the form of Turing’s work by “defining an appropriate model that captures the realistic cost of a computing task; proving possibility results for this model/class of functions; and proving an impossibility results that shows, for example, that for the model defined no algorithm exists that takes fewer than so many steps.” Valiant grounds learning algorithms, or “ecorithms,” conceptually as “theoryless” algorithms that “change circuits so that they will behave better in the environment in the future and produce a better outcome for the owner.” The designer of ecorithms doesn’t know in advance what they will do in every situation: instead, they’re given a starting foundation to adapt to the environment and learn to cope within it through adaptation and change. Valiant proposes a computational base for Darwinian evolution and gestures towards a computational base for human cognition and learning (while recognizing this part the book is the most speculative). His account of the possibilities and limitations of artificial intelligence research aligns very closely with my own: he’s heartily skeptical of transferability of task learning given the “invariance assumption” that grounds what is learnable; he believes a combination of inductive and reasoning techniques is required to mimic human cognitive capabilities; and he thinks it’s a tall order for machines to learn common sense tasks because humans have millions of years of evolution baked in as priors. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in further their conceptual grasp of algorithms and machine learning.
The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations – Mihnea gave me this as a possible model for my book, given Nozick’s courage to write short, loosely argued meditations about first-person experiences of topics that matter (against the grain of most contemporary philosophers). Overall, I enjoyed this book, but only a few passages resonated deeply with me. I like how he presents a life lived like a work of art in the introduction, where “examination and reflection…are added within a life…and by their presence call for a new overall pattern that alters how each part of life is understood.” I like how he downplays the importance of happiness (pace so many other public intellectuals these days) to instead underscore the importance of “being more real.” I found, however, that Nozick’s conception of reality differs from my own. He cites historical figures like Socrates, Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Ghandi, and even literary heroes like Hamlet and Raskolnikov as “concentrated portions of reality.” He then breaks down reality into a matrix 4×7 matrix with various values related to integration, substance, light, scope, energy, focus, and fullness: value becomes associated with unity and coherence, and being more real takes on religious overtones as opposed to the raw acceptance of and absorption into the details of the everyday. As such, I found Nozick stronger when he meditates on selfhood (and selflessness), focus, and an attitude that recovers the holiness of the everyday life, than when he works towards a formalism of religious value. Finally, I was struck by his use of the word “coping” in his definition of wisdom (the end goal, as the name indicates, of all philosophy): “wisdom is what you need to understand in order to live well and cope with the central problems and avoid the dangers in the predicament(s) human beings find themselves in.” I’d recommend the book to certain readers, but not all; to those who ever cast ivy trellises out into the great reality.
The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time – This book presents and repeats a set of three interconnected ideas: 1) there is one universe (i.e., there is no multiverse, “which has sometimes been used to disguise certain explanatory failures of contemporary physics as explanatory successes”); 2) time is real (i.e., time does not emerge from space, and even the laws of physics change over time (i.e., the laws that governed the pre-big bang universe are different from those that govern the universe today); and 3) mathematics is selectively real (i.e., “mathematics begins in an exploration of the most general relations in the world, abstracted from time and of phenomenal particularity, but it soon escapes the confines of our perceptual experience…and events new concepts and new ways of connecting them” but does not and cannot replace empirical scientific discovery and imagination). The ideas ring true (although I have yet to deeply explore multiverses, so am in no position to make any claim, let alone a strong claim, and I am also attracted to the pragmatic and phenomenological utility of a multiverse…), but the book’s style, at least in the chapters written by Unger, is cumbersome. The authors are almost paranoid in their intentions, saying the same thing over and over again and saying what work they are doing by saying these things. I don’t get the sense one has to read the entire book to get the point, but do think the point is well worth consideration.
The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society – I figured this was a must read for anyone interested in computation and artificial intelligence after seeing so many references to the work by contributors to John Brockman’s Possible Minds (a compilation of introductory position pieces from philosophers of mind and computer scientists who grew up intellectually in the second half of the 20th century). Before reading this book, I had a polluted heuristic for the term cybernetics, categorizing it loosely together with transhumanism and cyberpunkism, Neal Stephenson’s fiction combined with post-modern diluted semiotics as a student of a student of Roland Barthes might write. Granted, author Norbert Wiener, an MIT mathematics professor, begins with a very broad definition of cybernetics as a “theory of messages,” but quickly constrains what this could mean by marshaling the etymology of the word (derived from the Greek word kubernetes, “steersman” or “governor”, to refer to what contemporary computer scientists call control theory, which is most closely related to reinforcement learning. Wiener positions his work as a response to the work of Gibbs in the late 19th century, “to whom we must attribute the first great revolution in twentieth century physics,” which has “had the effect that physics now no longer claims to deal with what will always happen, but rather with what will happen with an overwhelming probability.” Upon this foundation of the essential entropic nature of the universe, Wiener conceives of cybernetics as “a sequence of events in time which, though it itself has a certain contingency, strives to hold back nature’s tendency toward disorder by adjusting its parts to various purposive ends.” Control is required as a means of gathering feedback, of comparing the actual performance of some action or event in a machine, man, or social group, with the expected performance: such control is required to thwart the mechanical tendency towards disorganization. Control can act at a simple logical level (“confirm the elevator arrived at floor 2 as requested”) or a “high-order” logical level (“confirm that our learning algorithm has taken an action that optimizes the sum of rewards in a Bellman equation“). I find the theory breathtaking in its scope and essentiality and find Wiener does an outstanding job guiding any reader, even a novice in the field, through the conceptual foundations of his computational theory. The book is sowed with references to philosophers across the ages (including Leibniz, Augustine, and techniques of secrecy in the Venetian Renaissance), providing a soft nostalgia for the scope of mid-twentieth century thinkers in contrast to the myopic professionalism of our day. Wiener includes an incisive critique of bureaucratic academics who publish for career advancement rather than being driven by an urge to create, which certainly rings true today. That said, not all the book ages equally well: it’s clear he was writing during the Cold War, and the message he leaves his readers is one concerned with the misuse and abuse of science in that period. Today’s risks differ.
An Introduction to the Philosophy of Time – The title describes this book precisely: it’s an introductory overview to the philosophy of time, compiled by two younger Australian philosophers. The form is pedagogical, including summaries of the key ideas in each chapter, discussion questions and exercises, and straight-forward presentations of different philosophers’ ideas on what time is and how we can make sense of time using the tools of logic and metaphysics. It starts with McTaggart’s classic argument about how to make sense of ordered events in time and builds from there, examining ideas alongside metaphysical conceptions of presentism (only the present exists), growing block universes (that which exists accretes at an instant-by-instant pace), and spotlight theories of time (events exist, and the present spans over this pre-existing morass like a spotlight). What strikes me most in reading all philosophies of time how difficult it is to bring time to language: the thinking tools and concepts of logic and philosophy are good at articulating static predicates, but really poor at accounting for becoming, the way of being of beings in time. We get stuck in paradoxes about time travel, add on multiple dimensions to make it possible to change something about the past (which is kind of cool) and get stuck in logical snares as to whether things that persist in time endure, perdure, or transdure (the book explains what these three things mean). The book has given me a way of framing some questions I’m interesting in exploring, but also the desire to find a better way of articulating the way of being of beings in time. Perhaps I need to re-read Heidegger. The other big question I’m left with after reading this is: so what? Will I live differently, act differently, knowing that time travel can be accounted for by adding a hyper-dimension to time? Time will tell.
Portraits of a Marriage – My favorite courses in graduate school were seminars devoted to reading the oeuvre of a single author. I took courses on Isaac Newton, Guy Debord, and Thomas Mann (I swore there were more…); decided to read through all of Leibniz while I was a fellow at an institute in Leipzig. I’m currently reading the novels of the 20th-century Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai. He authored 46 books, so I won’t read all of them, but will make a sizable dent in those translated to English. While critics celebrate Embers as his masterpiece, I found Portraits of a Marriage to be much more engrossing and expressive in its detail. Like Rashomon and Diary of a Bad Year, the book features different characters’ kaleidoscopic perspectives on a series of overlapping events, where the crux of the action is on the dissolution of the marriage of an upper-class Hungarian couple, Peter and Ilonka. Each of the characters–Ilonka, Peter, Judit, and Ede–give long (like 80-150 pages) soliloquies recounting their story to a friend, pausing here and there throughout to make sure the friend is still listening. Each conversation is embedded in a particular context, from a café in Budapest, where Ilonka tells her story to her friend after seeing her ex-husband walk in to buy candied oranges–to a bar in mid-town New York City, where the “stinking prole” Ede, a former drummer, serves a whiskey to an older Peter, stripped of wealth but never of manners, culture, and dignity, after moving to the US after WW II. The book uses the event of a husband leaving his bourgeois wife to marry a poor servant as a prism to discuss the cultural upheaval of the fallen Austro-Hungarian empire during the war and the rise of communism. It’s a book about class, about the illusions a rich man has to escape the rituals of the rich by adoring a poor servant and the disgust and scorn this servant mimicking and mocking the habits of the rich has towards a man who loves not her, not her inside, but the image he’s created of her in his imagination. There are stunning passages in Peter’s monologue, who, with exquisitely delicate sensibilities, comes to value our birth rite to die alone. There are riveting details, like Judit signaling how her tastes have grown decadent when she seeks for nail polish remover to remove the crimson polish from her fingers when Budapest is bombed. There is also a symbolic figure, like Kent in King Lear, named Lázár, a writer who gives up writing when the communists take over for fear that it will end up in the wrong hands, do work opposite to that which he intends. He plays a role in each character’s life, a convex mirror helping each discover their path to truth. He dies in Rome, alone, reading Hungarian dictionaries to savor the sound and smell of words as simple as “butterfly,” words bereft of sense in the wake of violence and disruption.
Technics and Civilization – I first discovered Lewis Mumford in graduate school in a seminar on the situationist philosopher Guy Debord. He’s the kind of polymath literary critic/cultural historian that existed back in the first half of the twentieth century, the kind of human encyclopedia I aspire to live, think, and write like. I picked up Technics because to read his take on how the mechanical clock–the kind of clock that is so commonplace today–changed culture in medieval monasteries. His account of seconds and minutes as the artificial products of the machine that is a clock is marvelous; the implications that this controlled divisibility are even better. Writing in 1934, on the heels of the industrial revolution, Mumford criticizes that period’s inhumanity, what with child labor, repetitive and mechanical tasks reducing human dignity to the point of totally alienated labor, and the horrendous impact big industry had on the late 19th- and early 20th-century environments. His book includes subtle pleas to readers to take technology into our own hands, to shape a future that promotes human values rather than adapting man to be more like a machine. The book reads fast and still has many thought-provoking lessons for our own age. I was also quite taken by his interpretation that the scientific method is itself a mechanical technology that saves our time by clipping the field of observation down to that which two independent observers can equally measure. Attention, or better, forms of acceptable attention, directed only where our machines can master and manipulate it. I do believe machine learning systems permit a slightly wider scope of observation and attention as the navigate the search space of possible models to fit a problem, but, as “totally obedient morons” (David Deutsch), they are far from having the disobedient wandering gaze that breaks the rules just because it’s fun, or is open to exploring a new move, not because it could reveal a here-to-fore overlooked optimum, but because it may be more beautiful.
Embers – I’d not heard of Sándor Márai until a few weeks ago, when my soon-to-be mother-in-law gave me two of his books as a birthday present. This book is exquisite, delicate like a Cellini statue. It has the understated temperament of the passing Austro-Hungarian empire its protagonist embodies, the clinging to the heart of the matter, where life is lived in quiet loneliness, yet pulsing through pressed manners to reveal the sadness that accompanies mobility. The book is a monologue the of 75-year-old general, exposing a long-known fact about an event that transpired 41 years ago to his closest friend. The friend says close to nothing throughout, but his presence is felt through the cloistered entanglement. The emotions are poignant and masterful, drawn from details but relevant for us all. The pace is quick but measured, just like the atmosphere of the world the protagonist represents. It felt so different from the way life is depicted today, brimming with nostalgia and the knowledge of loneliness.
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction – Enthused by J.D. Salinger’s uncanny ability to construct a world within the brief confines of a mother and son having a dialogue in the bathroom, I continued my journey through the Glass Family Novels (Novellas), which Salinger published in the New Yorker in the 1950s. I liked these two less than Franny and Zooey (which are masterpieces), but still devoured and enjoyed them. As Buddy Glass, the narrator of the novel series (himself a literature teacher and writer in a liberal arts college in upstate New York), states in the beginning of Zooey, the ghost of the eldest brother Seymour, who committed suicide at the age of 31, is present in all the books like a figure in Macbeth. That comes to the forefront of both these novels, the first of which (Raise High…) takes place the day of Seymour’s wedding (although Seymour himself is never present, except in traces left in his diaries, as Salinger does a fabulous job with embedded narratives and textuality in all four novels, where we read what characters read), where the groom is conspicuously absent because he was too happy to attend his own wedding. This one feels the most like urban satire, with all the unity of place, time, and action you’d find in Aristotelian satire. Seymour: An Introduction is the most post-modern of the four novels. Salinger hints at metatextuality throughout, but makes it the main character and formal composition in this final novel, which, reminiscent of Tristam Shandy, features a narrator who can never quite get to even giving a physical description of his late brother given all the potential conceptual meanderings that, at any moment, can pull an author off course. All the books, nonetheless, make the reader simply fall in love with Seymour, the poet, the childlike adult, who bids his brother to “write his heart out”: “Give me a story that just makes me unreasonably vigilant. Keep me up till five only because all your stars are out, and for no other reason.” Seymour is a celebration of the ease and purity of meaning, of the effortless ability to “go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next” that is at once so ubiquitous and so easily overlooked.
Franny and Zooey – This book is remarkably good. What struck me most was Salinger’s mastery in setting the scenes around the conversations that voice the book’s ideas. So, for example, when Zooey leaves the living room after giving Franny a spiel about what it would really mean to lose one’s mind for Jesus, and leaves an “indecisive, almost dazed” imprint “of his rubber heel on a sports-section photograph of Stan Musial holding up a fourteen-inch brook trout” before running into his mother Bessie (in a kimono whose pockets are filled with nails and all sorts of odd-ends stuff) next to a Philadelphia highboy temporarily displaced in the hall as the family repaints every room in the upper East Side Manhattan apartment. The details aren’t symbolic. Stan Musial’s brook trout doesn’t add any transcendental meaning to the story. They’re just vivid, like watching a movie. They are delightful in the true sense of the world, not in the wishy-washy marketing sense of creating a good experience for a customer. They make reading about kids who grew up on Buddhist philosophy like watching a Woody Allen movie. I can’t believe I never read this and can’t wait to devour everything Salinger wrote.
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid – My dad introduced me to this book when I was in high school. A colleague had introduced it to him. I can’t remember if the colleague gifted it to him or recommended it to him. I always saw it as a book that represented my dad’s mind, his taste for Bach’s fugues, his predilection for articulating formal systems as a math-major-turned-computer-scientist, not so much his fixation on self-reflexive systems, but certainly his humility before what appear like logical paradoxes. Given my admiration for my dad, I imbued GEB (as author Douglas Hofstadter refers to his magnum opus) with mystical properties, turned it into the kind of book someone like the person I wanted to be would read. But I never did. Instead I studied math in college. I learned how to build formal systems from the ground up without reading Hofstadter, learned about Gödel’s paradox even though I would have been hard pressed to articulate it precisely. And then, during my junior year abroad in Paris, a U Chicago classmate, whom I happened to have an enormous crush on and whose taste in Henry Miller temporarily shaped my own taste to favor the kind of literature cynical and striving young men tend to like, for I too wanted to write, for I too spent my year in Paris experimenting with poetry and prose, stretching my legs into form, leaving behind the formal trappings of complex analysis to explore film noir and pompous belfries and desiring glances from Maghreb immigrants as I hid my eyes in a book while taking le metro to my Mexican piano teacher’s apartment in the 18th arrondissement, turned me off from reading the book for years, claiming GEB was a plebeian NY Times bestseller whose style was for the birds, or worse, the merely human. I learned more about Hofstadter’s work in translation in graduate school, heard stories about Hofstadter the man from friends like George Smith and Dan Dennett. And then, so many years later, I finally read the book. Mihnea says it contains much more than just an attempt to get at consciousness as a strange loop that contains but can never be formally articulated by the system that generates it. Rather, it shows the freedom of a mind unfurling, the quest of a younger scholar to go deep and understand something as well as he could. Mihnea also recommended I read it now given the lessons it could impart for my own book project, which, also, winds back and forth between fiction and exposition to make abstract mathematical ideas more intuitive and accessible to a reader. In GEB, the fiction comes in the form of a ludic dialogue between naïve Achilles and curmudgeonly tortoise (“in the spirit of Lewis Carroll”): the style isn’t wonderful, but I was quite impressed by how the dialogues spurred the imagination to ground the formal points made in surrounding chapters. I’m glad I finally read it. It feels like a right of passage of sorts, even though I’m unsure what tribe I’ve joined by having read it. In a recent conversation, my dad told me he never made it past halfway.
The Manhattan Project – The book, “a literary diary presented as twelve chance encounters or coincidences alongside a PHOTOGRAPHIC ESSAY by Ornan Rotem,” is physically beautiful: as Hofstadter’s dialogues between Achilles and the Tortoise, Rotem’s photos are in dialogue with Krasznahorkai’s prose, each photo reshaping, tilting, inflecting the vector representation the reader makes of the words that compose each unit of thought, units that are bundled into short, diary-like entries dated to moments in Krasznahorkai’s stay in NYC, before she moves on to the next. The mood is of the book is one of longing and the distance between expectation and experience. Krasznahorkai goes to New York expecting that the city will generate an energy, will catalyze a certain kind of creativity. Instead he meets a Stasi-like, suffocating bureaucracy in the public library, is confronted by the ignorance of a culture that doesn’t think Bartók’s presence is anything significant. But within the space of longing and disappointment, Krasznahorkai creates a new kind of beauty, one of a journey to see what Melville saw, as refracted through how Malcolm Lowry also sought to see what Melville saw. And of course he never sees it; Melville’s world is no more. But it’s precisely in the space of recognition that the quest is impossible, but nonetheless girding the reader in the elegance of the quest, that he comes to see details he wouldn’t have looked for otherwise. Details of the bare landscape and surroundings.
The Active Side of Infinity – My first time reading Carlos Casteñeda. The book resonated with me. I felt that Casteñeda is after the same thing I am. The writing style isn’t lyrical or beautiful, but there’s a rugged nudity to the prose that makes the reading experience joyful. Not dissimilar from reading someone like Kerouac, but not nearly as smug or messianic or arrogant. Formally, the books reminded me of my own Facebook portrait project, with interstitial material that grafted each micro-narrative and portrait as part of the book’s larger goal to narrate Casteñeda’s journey of becoming a warrior-traveller like his sorcerer-mentor don Juan Matsus. Indeed, early in the book, Matus bids Casteñeda to overcome the “predatory” temptation of unifying experiences in a self by remembering, reliving, recapitulating situations with people who have graced his existence in detail. But the recapitulation serves as a means of shifting perspective, a means to reveal how interpersonal encounters can be viewed as an opening to lessons from the universe rather than arrows in the quiver of the self. I found don Juan’s philosophy welcoming, beautiful: the way I want to live. It is a way of being that attends, always, to death, a way of being that imbues each action with the commitment of mattering, if only because our time is so short and precious. A way that enables us to go beyond the petty pains of hierarchies and dominance and whatever the mind is agonizing over to instead look like straight in the eyes with fair-minded equanimity, and to cherish its terrific fragility. The end of the book is marvelous. Without ruining it for a curious reader, suffice it to say it makes a stranger looking at the protagonist and running away screaming an entirely joyful experience.
Master Passions: Emotion, Narrative, and the Development of Culture – As everything Mihnea Moldoveanu writes, this book is hard to categorize. We might, for example, situate it in the tradition of La Rocehfoucauld and Rousseau as a work of moral philosophy that disabuses us of our comfortable reliance on virtue and reason as the tissues that keep society intact by revealing how anxiety, envy, jealous, and ambition are the passions shaping how we think and what we see (the master passions that give the book its title). But the work’s belies a deeper enterprise. Moldoveanu and Nohria populate the book with vignettes — narratives and thought experiments — that help us get close to the phenomenon of a mind (or I) engrossed by a given passion (an envious I, an ambitious I), forcing us to grapple with the status of evidence and theory in social as in natural science. As opposed to siphoning off the complexity of internal experience as qualia we’ll never describe objectively (and therefore outside the domain of science), the authors embrace the project head on, leading the reader to grapple deeply with the questions that matter most for living well: how does a mind grapple with uncertainty? how might we escape from the master passions and make space to create instead of relying upon the extra-temporal (be it static, past or future) narratives of identity and self?
Happiness: A History – I started this book to prepare for a lecture by author Darrin McMahon, who was visiting Toronto. The style and approach immediately struck me as familiar: like me, McMahon grew up in the Great Books tradition, tracing how one idea evolves through 2500 years, as seminal authors engage with predecessors and shape an idea anew. The book surveys how Western philosophers think about happiness, tracing how it evolved from the mystical perception of truth in forms in Plato (a state only achievable by a few) to a natural right in the Enlightenment (tied up with the political transition to democracy and the state’s role in providing the conditions to enable individuals to maximize the pleasure:pain ration) to a tyrannical expectation in late capitalism (where, lacking a larger narrative and purpose, we default to anti-depressants and SSRIs to erase any negative feelings that hint at our abnormality or fallenness). The book is grand in scope, and therefore doesn’t expose the nuances of each philosopher in detail. But it’s much more grounded and well-researched than the other big picture histories peddled by public intellectuals these days.
The Effective Executive – This book is empowering to aspiring executives because it dismisses the idea that leadership is an innate quality or character trait and vehemently affirms effectiveness is a set of behaviors and practices that can be learned and that come naturally to no one. Drucker defines effectiveness as the ability to “get the right things done.” There’s a lot in that small phrase: how do you identify the right things for an organization? How do you extend making a decision to include carrying out the actions to bring this decision to life? A large portion of the book is about managing time. Saying no. Focusing. Providing space to think. Drucker hints throughout the book that the management style he proposes is fit for services/information organizations of the mid 20th century. It appears that many of the behaviors he recommends still hold today, but I wonder how being effective could or should change as the 21st-century evolves.
The Nonexistent Knight – This one spurred an experiment to go beyond the cursory reviews I provide in this section and engage more deeply with the text. It’s not incidental that it invited reflection on the relationship between reading, recollection, and identity: I classify the book alongside Borges’s Pierre Menard: Autor del Quijote, just-about-post-modern inversions of classics in the European literary canon that pose writing as reading, at once commenting, from a distance, on the ethical systems of the past and using that commentary to say something reflexive about the present and the act of writing. Book as lacuna, as performance of recursion that we nonetheless read and feel and enjoy. It’s a fast read. You’ll get something out of it even if you aren’t steeped in the Carolingian romance tradition to which it refers.
Inside Man: The Discipline of Modeling Human Ways of Being – The author (who is also the love of my life) says that this is his attempt to respond to Heidegger and Wittgenstein, and bring the two into conversation with one another. Readers for whom that project means something will find a rigorous treatment of questions from analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, game theory, and probability theory. For others, it is an excellent handbook for representing various problems, actions, concepts, and decisions algorithmically. You will leave having sharper intuitions for what artificial intelligence is and is not than you would have reading most other literature. The book is exhaustive, demanding, airtight. Not a word is spared and the logic linking sentences and chapters feels ineluctable. Some readers consider it a “cruel science” because of the alienation and distancing it invites between people, for, as the title suggests, the ways of being being modeled are human ways of being. It’s applied psychology. But the last page shows that this same science can be applied to the self as subject and object, calling for a standard of communicative ethics and fair-minded honesty in one’s own dialogue with one’s self that is at once an ideal to work towards and an invitation for deep, compassionate empathy.
When Things Fall Apart – The manifesto of the Shambhala tradition (which underwent its own abuse scandal this summer). I love this book. Formally, it is a collection of sprints about how to shift our perception on pain, anxiety, suffering, all the bad things, to come to view them as life opening up a space for us to expand our minds and amplify our experience as humans. It’s a handbook to go beyond samsara–the state characterized by suffering, where we think that if only we were thinner, if only we were married, if only we achieve our goal, if only something that is not this thing now would happen, then we would be happy–to realize that enlightenment is there available to all of us if we do the work to come into it. I read this stuff and it feels so fulfilling and safe and true I just love it. It’s a total inspiration. A book I will keep beside me like a talisman as I do the hard work of bringing the cushion every more deeply into the mind-space of my daily life. Also, this is one of the few books I’ve read a second time. I know I will read it again. You can turn to it when you are in pain and need wisdom and guidance.
Everybody Lies – It was ok. I may have trouble judging this one because I am so immersed in the field and it had to peel back and clarify many assumptions about data science and social science for a more general reader. I do think it achieved its goal to reveal how “big data” like Google and our ability to mine new data sources like text and images are changing social science. I loved some of the examples, in particular the one about a scientist who collected data about horse heart size (which he learns was the feature most tightly correlated with performance). Very quick read. The writing is journalist and the conclusion was self-reflective in a way that, for me, lacked literary maturity. As a first book, this wasn’t bad; feels like something written by a peer (he is my age exactly). It just hasn’t changed how I think.
Satantango – Great literature leaves a different footprint than decent literature. It pulverizes. It engages multiple mind channels at once to rise to an apotheotic (I guess not a word) catharsis. This book is great literature. I struggled to get engaged at the beginning, as I haven’t read something that demanded so much from my attention in a while, but once I was in, I was totally in. Here’s why I recommend this as required reading. It is relevant for our contemporary political situation, as it narrates how hopelessness and lack of economic opportunity breeds demagoguery, zeal, and chaos. It is an allegory for Trumpism. It seamlessly shifts from one character’s internal consciousness to the next, challenging the reader to pay attention to whose mind we’re living in, having desire for a woman the central object around which men’s minds unfold. It is a formal castle, a Möbius strip, exhibiting the mathematical rigor of Borges or Musil or Joyce or Foster Wallace or Cervantes, it uses form to provide the sublime (in the Lucretian sense), ironic distance between reader and text, to pull the letters and words away from their content and encourage the reader to know they are just words, and yet by doing so, to increase the emotional pathos rather than dampen it. The form is the emotional experience. And fuck this book is bleak. When you don’t think it could get any worse it does. Pushes the misery to its logical extreme, like Tarantino would do with gore. It’s a tour de force. Makes me thirst for more great literature.
The Adventures of Johnny Bunko – What I like most about this short manga business book (besides the fact that it’s a manga business book…) is that it uses form to subvert the common business book trap of taking 300 pages to communicate what could be said in a few pithy maxims on a power point slide. I’m likely falling prey to the intentional fallacy, but I can almost imagine the Edgar Allen Poe philosophy of composition-like process Dan Pink used to write the book (he describes his actual writing process, including reference to this book, on a Tim Ferriss podcast): I have 6 lessons, they can be written on a power point slide, ok let’s turn that into a chalk board to add some nostalgia, as opposed to using real anecdotes à la Malcolm Gladwell, what if I make up a fictional character to ground the lessons in narrative, cool – what will that character do?, and then Manga steps in to fill in the gaps so the narrative can stay crisp and precise and provide the pure, minimal, Japanese minimum context to impart the lessons effectively. It’s quite brilliant, and the lessons are, at least in my meager experience, true. An hour’s worth of reading very well spent.
The Three-Body Problem – I thought this was decent. I suppose I’m merely a lukewarm fan of science fiction, even though I’d really like to be a science fiction super fan because so many people I love are. My qualm lie in the fact that the characters are sketches that lack robust interiority: Liu does capture a few moments of existential questioning as his physicist heroes feel their fragility in the face of the cold infinite glare of the universe. But it’s not real interiority–the thoughts pop up out of nowhere, lacking embodiment. The best parts of the book, for me, were the quite imaginative visualizations of certain scientific and engineering concepts: the human motherboard teaching non-technical readers about von Neumann logical gates while critiquing the masses in the Cultural Revolution; the 9-dimensional photon spanning many Earths’ waistlines when unfolded to 1, 2, and 3 dimensions. I’ll plan to read the others in the series, as I liked it, but it wasn’t life changing.
The Order of Time – Love. Love. Love. Love. I wrote to the author, Carlo Rovelli, to thank him for making physics not just accessible, but lyrical. This small book explains how physics, from relativity to quantum theory, crumbles our common perceptions of time and presents a quite beautiful alternative based on Rovelli’s theories of loop quantum gravity and entropy. I cherished it because it’s the closest parallel I’ve found to my own writing: Rovelli explains abstract, technical concepts not just with metaphors, but by tying things back to life’s most meaningful experiences. For it’s love and death and the miraculous contingency of our tiny perspective in the world that makes us beings in time. I cannot wait to dig into Boltzmann and think further about our horizons of perceptions as approximations of approximations, and possibly to get a tattoo of ΔS ≥ 0 (seems less popular than Euler’s identity).
The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google – Galloway’s maverick critique of the consumer internet/product giants is worth reading for those not steeped in the industry. I liked how he reduced their success down to basic human drives for things (consumerism so easy it’s passive on Amazon), sex (Apple is actually a luxury brand), love (Facebook addicts us–and profits from that–given our Smithian need to love and be loved) and god (Google is new the oracle). I liked his advice to young people entering into a job market defined by these four powers and his lament that so much awesome brain power and talent is basically being wasted. I found the style a bit too jostling and the analysis ultimately too high-level for someone deeply engaged in this world. But that wasn’t really the point of the book, so best to judge it for what it explicitly purports to be: an introduction to people outside trying to understand the inside.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Simply stunning. I loved the characters. I loved the lyricism of the prose. I loved the narrative structure and how Marra weaves back and forth between a ten-year period in the devastation of Chechnya to make the reader care deeply about what happens to the characters. It’s an astoundingly good first book that inspired me to give more to my own writing.
On Tyranny – First heard about this on the Sam Harris podcast (which I listen to more or less devotedly, although my fanaticism has waned from its original fervor). Very fast read. Style is didactic and imperative with the urgency of a mid-twentieth century manifesto. Worthwhile read to keep us vigilant in the age of Trump. As Hemingway said of finances, so Tim Snyder warns of tyranny: “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness – Loved it. Peter Godfrey-Smith presents quite complex and stimulating ideas (how do cephalopods see through their arms? what is octopus consciousness like given their distributed versus centralized nervous system? what are evolutionary arguments for senescence and why are cephalopod lifespans so short?) in accessible prose. Reading about species so different from our own–Godfrey-Smith says octopuses are the closest things to aliens we know on earth–takes us out of our day-to-day assumptions of how the world works or could works and opens new possibilities for creativity and wonder. In searching for a personal experience that felt closest to being an octopus, for example, I came up with the experience of leading a team: it’s an activity where I both exert some framework of centralized influence of the actions of others, but fundamentally observe independent action of my many arms. I love the idea of adopting an octopus leadership style: for octopuses are creative, whimsical creatures who shift shapes to become their environment and emote through the prism of the sea.
Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology – Speechless. Like, I can’t compose my review without tears welling in my eyes. Ellen Ullman, a computer programmer and humanist — where humanist means not paleographer but grounded in the rich, subjective, creative experience of the human, which Harari claims is losing its place as reigning ideology to data (see my review of Homo Deus below) — presents a series of essays composing different moments in her life and career. Each essay inlays multiple levels of meaning, a programming phenomenon indexing an epistemological search indexing the catharsis of loss indexing social observation and critique. The cadence of the prose intermixes long sentences with short, punctuating the heart and mind with their stature. I feel grateful to have read this book. I will share it with everyone I know. It grounds our technical Zeitgeist as only a personal history can do, and reminds us that the issues we think are new to 2017 have been brewing for more than 20 years, if not longer.
Seveneves – First time reading Stephenson. This is an epic science fiction book in which the moon explodes and fragmented particles collide into the atmosphere, destroying life on earth. A Noah’s ark of humanity survives to create a space civilization. The book is divided into three parts and I personally found the third part the most interesting: Stephenson turns his characters into allegories via the device of seven separate races stemming from the seven extant female survivors of the human race. He includes thinking on the status of what my friend Stephanie Schmidt would call “foundational narratives” in our collective notion of culture, dovetailing ideology with genetic and epigenetic determination. I didn’t love this book, but don’t mind having read it.
Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy – Delightful. Tim Harford provides fifty vignette histories of inventions that have had significant social and economic impact. This impact is arises from unintuitive places: sometimes it’s how the inventions came to be (e.g., the iPhone as a combination of multiple technologies funded by the US government); sometimes it’s what the inventions enable in combination with one another (e.g., air conditioning + elevator + concrete = high-rise living and modern urban cities); sometimes it’s the social changes the inventions unlocked (e.g., the pill and infant formula, and greater gender equality in the 20th century). I do agree with critics that each vignette must be taken for what it is: a vignette. These are not exhaustive histories. But Harford does manage to use his 50 examples to illustrate general abstract points about how inventions come to be, how they are adopted, and how they change how we engage with one another. And the book is a treasure trove of great examples for talks!
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – Reading this book is more about the context than the content. As my dear friend Tisse Takagi texted the other day, it’s become the book elite liberals read to empathize with the rust belt poor, an anecdotal window into the culture that led to Trump’s becoming president. In my own personal life, it helped me understand why my ex boyfriend, whose childhood was similar to that of author J.D. Vance, behaved the way he did: And I can tell you I wish I were able to apply to the same neutral compassion to him as I did to Vance. For this is the test. Not just reading about this world I barely know. Not just shedding tears from afar, in an act of self-admiring compassion. But more. Engaging, patiently absorbing the shock of violence, violence inherited from the trauma of a childhood where mothers skirt from one man to the next, drugged up and passed out, letting garbage collect, feeding their kids junk, all these chaos causing men, including the one I loved, to build armor around their souls because there is just too much instability to do anything else. It is our fucking duty to find a way to give every fucking kid on this planet an opportunity to become great. It starts way before college, way before social aid. It is indeed about the solid tissue of family, stability early in life that provides a platform for a healthy mind, not one broken like the minds and hearts of many of the men I have loved. Class is taboo. We skirt it like the plague. We have to face up, look the inequalities in the eye, and fucking do something about it.
How to be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life – Massimo Pigliucci provides a kind overview of Stoic philosophy via the literary device of a “conversation” with Epitectus, an ancient Stoic philosopher. While inspired by Dante’s conversation with Virgil in the Divine Comedy, the conversation doesn’t quite meet that level of literary sophistication. Indeed, it defaults more to a series of personal (and sometimes impersonal) anecdotes that serves as examples of what it might look like to be a contemporary stoic. As with many trade books of ancient philosophy (like The Path on classical Chinese philosophy), How to be a Stoic only touches the surfaces of the ethical precepts found in the ancient texts. But it is a good introduction to Stoicism, an honest exposition from a man trying to live well in the world, and a handy guidebook for various mantras and practices to live with the goal of optimizing virtue, not happiness, wealth, or pleasure.
From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds – As author Dan Dennett states a few times in this book (as in this Google talk), this is one of many attempts he’s made to convince readers of his Darwinian take on consciousness and minds. What interests Dennett is Darwin’s strange inversion of reason: that wonderfully designed products can result from random stuff happening in the universe, that competence without comprehension has created many marvels, but that this feels strange for us to accept because we design wonders from a top-down position of intentional design. But, as Dennett suggests, the age of machine learning may usher a new era of post intelligent design, where deep learning systems that exhibit competence without comprehension tip the scales back towards a sped up Darwinian paradigm. This book is wonderful. It gave me many thinking tools, to borrow Dennett’s phrase, to shape my own thinking on AI. And the beauty of Dan’s personality illuminates every sentence, his graceful, kind, and funny style making this a book very much worth reading.
The Arab of the Future – An adorable and adorably hilarious (e.g., one of my favorite details is the floating plastic blag that animates the landscape of the village near Homs where the protagonist’s father grew up and where the family returns during the protagonist’s childhood) graphic novel memoir of an Arab straddling European (Parisian) and Middle Eastern (Libyan and Syrian) cultures. The accessibility and humor help a reader curious understand the history of these war-torn lands with ease and empathy. Quick read, and I look forward to reading future volumes.
The Wealth of Humans – Those interested in the future of work and income inequality should read this book to add more nuance and substance to thinking about how the digital technology revolution impacts our world and lives. Start with this Medium post by Ryan Avent, an Economist editor and the book’s author. If you find the underlying economic argument balancing the cost of labor with the cost of investment in technology compelling, read the book. Avent is at his best discussing the social capital – the values and beliefs we imagine in our minds that motivates us as economic actors and defines our notions of the good life – that binds groups and shapes adoption of new tools. He’s at his weakest adding brief historical anecdotes that fall a bit flat and lack the panache of a more narrative historian. Adam Smith’s ghost guides the book with an invisible hand, ending with an implicit call to tear down national borders and redistribute social wealth in a way that goes beyond free trade and market forces.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – A delight. And I was very touched when the author, the amazingly quick-witted and precisely-minded Robin Sloan, told me I was the book’s “ideal reader.” Sloan deftly uses a mystery novel frame to weave a labyrinth of different styles and historical periods. The result is part contemporary social critique, part excavation of Renaissance mysticism, part fantasy novel, part post-modern möbius strip that use a narrative’s ability to wind in upon itself to as a deus ex machina to solve the mystery. It’s a light, joyful read, and one that shows how powerful it can be when the humanities and technology come together to elevate our aspirations and our hearts.
H is for Hawk – I adore this book. Many critiques classify it as somewhere between memoir, nature book, and literary criticism, which is apt because in it author Helen MacDonald chronicles her period of grieving for her recently deceased father by devoting herself entirely to the impossible task of training a goshawk. It struck very personal chords for me as MacDonald’s lifestyle is also outside the standard parameters of heteronormative society: she is lonely, and recognizes that the amazing kinship she builds with a wild animal, an animal that lacks a limbic system and with which she can never quite relate, can never substitute for the simplicity of human touch. The book is also about reading, about how she learns to read T.H. White’s The Goshawk in a much deeper and more profound way once her own life experiences force her to expose a deeper layer of herself. The prose is breathtaking, its rhythms hitting a perfect cadence. What I love most is MacDonald’s metamorphosis into hawk, and the terror she experiences in recognizing her loss of humanity. Just stunning.
Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm – This book strikes a personal chord, given my educational background (as in this post and this post) and current work building a company that uses algorithms to help businesses understand and engage with people. Madsberg’s strongest arguments stem from his training as a philosopher and ethnographer. He studied continental philosophy, and does a deft job making what are often hard-to-penetrate concepts from phenomenologists like Husserl and Heidegger both easy to understand and applicable for C-level executives. The gist is that we have to appreciate the uniqueness and differences of different social and cultural groups, and that businesses do a hell of a lot better winning new markets if they first take the time to apply ethnographic methods and understand what makes different peoples’ tick. My primary critique of the book is that it underestimates the power of new AI technologies. Madsberg reduces algorithms to strawmen, crass classifiers and metrics built from simple features. I believe we’re hitting a threshold where algorithms may be able to more fully capture the phenomenological mental models of different peoples. This new technological power makes the fusion between the humanities and technology all the more important, but in a way that is different from what Madsberg describes.
Moonglow – The first book I’ve read by Michael Chabon. I enjoyed it. Not the best book I’ve ever read, but certainly worth a read. It’s a biography of his grandfather, a Jewish engineer (enamored of the V-2 rocket until he learns about the atrocities perpetuated by Werner von Braun, all of which are narrated in a much more accessible manner than in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which is one of the few books I started but did not finish) who, like my great grandmother Annette, came from the early twentieth-century immigrant that doesn’t share much about their lives until they are about to die. Chabon uses the tricks of postmodern narrative sparingly, and keeps the reader’s attention with some more classical techniques, as when his grandfather first meets his delightful and ultimately schizophrenic, due to trauma from being a young Jewish girl in WW II, grandmother. Chabon’s sharp, precise prose tempers what would otherwise be the work’s deep emotionality. The reader leaves sharing Chabon’s affection for his grandfather, inspiring desire to dig as deeply into her own family history.
Nutshell – This novel makes me think that Ian McEwan is the best living English novelist. Yes, I’m comfortable with that claim when circumscribed to nationality: McEwan is the best British author writing today, and in the top 5 authors writing prose in English globally (JM Coetzee being up there as well). I loved this book. The prose has a lyricism, rhythm, and cadence fit for Cicero, but with pathos. The structure, a rewriting of Hamlet from the perspective of a still-unborn child witnessing a murder from his mother’s womb, is brilliant. The citations to Hamlet add an incredible layer of joy (e.g., he rewrites Hamlet’s comparison of his dead father to Claudius as Hyperion to a satyr with a meta-literary comparison to Virgil and Montaigne), and circumscribe the unborn narrator as author, narrator par excellence, observer without agency and yet with complete agency. A total triumph, and a relatively quick read.
Au Chateau d’Argol – This reads like a sustained lyrical poem. A deeply sensuous book whose lacy, delicate images and symbols wash over the reader like rosewater. In the preface, author Julien Gracq articulates that this is a self-conscious experiment to play with decadent Victorianism (the book is written in 1938, at the dawning of World War II, where the fall of European civilization is palpable), and write a “demonic version” of Wagner’s Parsifal (which shows up in the work). The structure has the same claustrophobia as Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, which was admired by the French symbolist poets. The book exposes the jealous, mimetic desire of René Girard, where the protagonist’s intellectual attachment to his male best friend gets displaced as an erotic attachment to a woman the best friend brings to the foggy, ivy-covered castle in Brittany. I adored this book. It titillated me, made my mind tingle with sensibility. Opened my senses. But it’s not for the faint of heart, and best for those for whom sentimentality enters through the abstractions of the pre-frontal cortex.
The Literary Conference – I’ve been curious to read César Aira for a while, and this book was a total delight. It’s a quick read, but packs together a post-modern critique of classical genres (the mad scientist who takes over the world, the adventure story, the lonely wanderings of the solitary protagonist), an automatic writing sense of surrealism, a wonderfully playful deus ex machina featuring giant silk worms and Carlos Fuentes’s tie, and some poignant, deeply emotional reflections on the miracle of unique, individual existence. I highly recommend this for any reader open to allowing their imagination to flow along a ramshackle, self-deprecatory train of absurd events, but wouldn’t recommend it to readers who stick with standard narratives driven by psychological intrigue.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – Noah Yuval Harari writes macrohistory, narrating in very broad strokes. This style would likely irritate the more scholarly among us, but I find his synthetic conclusions about different epochs to be interesting anchors for debate. The book is best in its critique and overview of Humanism, what he considers to be the dominant ideological religion of our time. He helps the reader appreciate that what we take to be given truths are just relative historical concepts, which may soon be replaced by a new religion, Dataism, where individual human life is no longer sacrosanct but just another point to enter into the matrix. As regards AI, Harari is right to decouple intelligence from consciousness. What also intrigues me in this book is an implicit argument in favor of a radically individual spiritual existence, one that stands separate from the communal beliefs that govern the bell curve. As Harari meditates 2 hours per day, I cannot help but see this as the locus of his deepest beliefs. So my question to him is, is this radical individualism compatible with Dataism? Or is it the stance we must take to retain autonomy in our new algorithmic world?
The Gene: An Intimate History – Cancer researcher Siddharta Mukherjee’s latest book is a masterful history of genetics from Aristotle through CRISPR-Cas9 and Trans-humanism. The prose is elegant and accessible: Mukherjee foregrounds each chapter with a literary reference to set the metaphorical tone for the concepts he explores. It’s a long book, and I found myself working to keep my attention focused in the last 100 pages. I most enjoyed the dramatic narrations of the big moments in the history of genetics, as when Watson and Crick first discovered the topography of the double helix, or researchers grappled with the ethical implications of understanding the human genome at Asilomar. The book is not only a scientific history; it is also a cultural and social history. We learn about the Holocaust as “applied biology” and revisit Roe v. Wade from the perspective of eugenics. Reading this is like taking a graduate seminar in genetics.
John Aubrey: My Own Life – A new kind of biography, where historian Ruth Scurr narrates the life of 17th-century collector and surveyor John Aubrey through a fictional first-person journal. The book has received much critical praise for its refreshing style. Having spent five years steeped in early modern history, I found the most pleasing and exciting part of this book to be the vignette encounters with the rock stars of the scientific revolution: we see grumpy Hobbes upset when his mathematical theories are rebuffed by Newton and Wilkins, we see Hooke and Christopher Wren hanging out at bars and dinner parties, and we see the history of ideas filtered through one man’s attempt to understand them and grapple with them. A lovely read for anyone interested in the scientific revolution, but likely boring for anyone not.
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space – History of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), which dovetails as a history of the 20th-century search to prove the existence of black holes. Janna Levin writes with a clear, accessible style punctuated with lyrical surprises (“In empty darkness, she could hear spacetime ring”) and does a great job showing how individual quirks shaped the development of physics.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed our Minds – Michael Lewis’ latest work surveys the friendship, partnership, hardship, and joint work of cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Lewis does a masterful job turning a dry biography into a nearly dramatic narrative. An accessible introduction to Tversky and Kahneman’s central thesis that we are all horrible Bayesian thinkers, and a better entry to these ideas than Thinking Fast and Slow for the many people out there who gave up after chapter two.
My Struggle: Book 4 – Fourth installment on Knaussgaard’s Proustian autobiography. Knaussgaard is not for everyone, but I like his hyperrealism. As with Proust, what’s philosophically interesting about Knaussgaard’s project is the balance between recollection and creativity. In his review of Book 4 for the New York Times, Jeffrey Eugenides says that Knaussgaard’s art is one of judgement and selection: “Knausgaard’s life is a grab bag of events and recollections, and he uses whatever is handy. He doesn’t lie or make things up (so far as I know). But the selection process he subjects his memories to in order to fulfill the narrative demands of his writing rises to a level of considerable artifice. Other writers invent; Knausgaard remembers.” This volume focuses on the period of late adolescence, the central dramas being the young Knausgaard’s learning what it takes to write and working to overcome premature ejaculation
Swing Time – Zadie Smith’s latest novel tells the story of an antihero female protagonist via her lifelong relationship with her childhood friend Tracey. What struck me about this book were the structural parallels to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Both women authors present first-person women protagonists who understand themselves and their successes and failures in life in constant comparison and contrast to other seemingly more vibrant friends. Contemporary Hamlets juxtaposed to Laertes. But while Ferrante’s duet are shaped by the socialist, Catholic landscape of mid-century Naples, Smith’s duet are shaped by the somewhat liberal, Protestant landscape of late-century London and New York. Race – and the potential to hypocritically exploit race to garner fame through philanthropic causes – shapes Smith’s narrative, her duet both mixed-race women. I found this to be a rigorously honest exposition of identity politics.
Scorekeeping in a Language Game – As often with David Lewis, this paper reads differently than your average philosophy article. In it, Lewis puts forth eight examples of “rules of accommodation” we tacitly accept in many daily conversations. These range from presupposition to permissibility to performatives to planning, and often focus on how the shiftiness of reference as a conversation evolves in time, and the abrupt accommodations we has listeners make (often without knowing we’re doing it) to make another’s speech make sense. Lewis loosely compares these rules to those of a baseball game in an interlude that interrupts his list of examples. The interlude is richer than it appears, including multiple references to the difference between constitutive and regulative rules, and the ontological presuppositions that make play possible. I found myself thinking that this is a great paper for computer scientists working in natural language processing to read as it would help them easily grasp the fluid semantics we so easily entertain in everyday discourse. Where we constantly make micro accommodations to reference so we can preserve sense and meaning in a messy world.
Truth as Convenient Friction – Reading this paper just after Davidson’s “The Folly of Trying to Define Truth,” one can’t help but see Price responding to Davidson’s invitation to elaborate the attitude speakers adopt when they speak the truth (a pragmatic approach that contrasts with attempts to define truth propositionally). Price begins by stating he disagrees with Richard Rorty that we should throw truth away as a metaphysical concept we’ve grown out of, just as we threw away theism. He maintains that “truth plays a crucial role as a norm of assertoric discourse” and goes on to argue why. Much of his task is to demonstrate that truth has more to it than sincerity, justification, and warranted assertibility, and he creates possible worlds where discourse is only governed by sincerity, or sincerity and “merely opinionated assertions,” to show that they entail a passiveness towards relativism where we don’t care if someone disagrees with our own opinion. Price contrasts this with situations where we do care that someone disagrees, as we feel there needs to be one and only one correct way to think about a situation. Whence the friction a truthful attitude entails, a friction that drives us to marshal evidence and reasons for thinking about something in a given way. I think this is a great paper for people to read in our age of identity politics, social media monologues, post-truth, hyper-truth, and strong relativism, so as to enable deeper thinking about what dialogue could and should be.
The Folly of Trying to Define Truth – Philosopher Donald Davidson’s primary argument in this article is that there are some basic concepts in philosophy that resist being broken down into clearer or more fundamental basic concepts, that is, being defined. One of these concepts is the qualification that something is true. Donaldson spends most of the article reviewing the “disquotational” theory of truth, which dates back to the logician Alfred Tarski. The disquotational theory takes the form “s is true-in-L if and only if p” where s is a sentence whose truth value we seek to evaluate, L is the language system within which this sentence appears, and p is a translation of s in a metalanguage within which we can say something about the truth value. That means, we step into a different logical plane to qualify a sentence’s truth value. That this all feels a bit empty is Davidson’s point (although he takes his time to contrast Tarski’s formulation with Aristotle’s and with variations that came after him). In conclusion, Tarski offers that instead of seeking for formal, propositional definitions of truth, we should, as Ramsey infers subjective probability from preference, observe the attitudes of speakers speaking truthfully. Davidson doesn’t dive deep into what this might mean, but leaves it as a parting methodological suggestion.
Habits, Rituals, and the Evaluative Brain – This sentence, for me, encapsulates the primary argument in this article: “Many…repetitive behaviors, whether motor or cognitive, are built up in part through the action of basal ganglia-based neural circuits that can iteratively evaluate contexts and select actions and can then form chunked representations of action sequences that can influence both cortical and subcortical brain structures.” Author Ann M. Graybiel goes on to say that this same process can metastasize into extreme habits, additions, or stereotypies (extreme repetitive behaviors as we’d see with OCD) if the beginning of the pattern-generating cycle is overly evaluative, as in instances when we suffer from stress. The article uses reinforcement learning as the computational backbone to explain how chunked representation sequences form as a result of action-reward sequences in the brain. It subtly differentiates procedural learning/skill acquisition from habit formation, or even addiction formation. I did not take the time to concisely understand the cognitive and brain science terminology, so only loosely grasped how repetitive sequence formation occurs in and across different parts of the brain, but believe the article will be cogent for anyone who knows the basic concepts behind reinforcement learning.
Paradoxes of Time Travel – It’s a pleasure to read David Lewis‘s philosophy because his style is more lyrical than most analytic philosophers. He has a humble kindness that reminds me of Richard Sutton. “Memories accumulate. Food digests. Hair grows. Wristwatch hands move.” This article is Lewis’s take on the Grandfather Paradox, the proof some “fatalists” (as Lewis deems them) use to show that time travel is impossible because an individual cannot go back in time to kill her own Grandfather. Lewis deploys some of the tools of the possible worlds theory for which he is famous in the essay. First, he splits time into two dimensions: personal time and external time. So, when Tim, the paper’s time traveler, travels back to 1921 to kill his Grandfather, the 30-minute trip takes 30 minutes in his personal time but “breaks the time streak” in external time. Next, Lewis unpacks the ambiguity in the word “can” to get into whether or not Tim can kill his grandfather in the first place. Considered by the frame of reference of physical capabilities (good aim, right position, etc…), Tim certainly can kill Grandfather; but he logically cannot if we include in our frame of reference the belief (knowledge…) of the future fact that this was not the case. Lewis uses this to show that time is not sub-divisible into parts: an event occurred or did not occur at a moment in time. Lewis’s final move is to bring in another possible world that forks into a new dimension in the past. Say Tim does kill Grandfather. In the actual world Tim inhabits when he starts his travel, Grandfather didn’t die. But then, we can open another dimension where he does, indeed, die. Each dimension preserves the logic of what is and isn’t possible. Grandpa dies and doesn’t die, just he doesn’t do both in the same world. I love how the argument stretches us to take a multiverse seriously. But I’m not convinced it’s the most useful way to think about probability, free will, and the different between the past and the future.
Time, Clocks, and the Ordering of Events in a Distributed System – 1978 article by Leslie Lamport, who has spent much of his career working on distributed computer systems (he came up with the Byzantine Generals’ Problem, which has such an awesome name and is important in Blockchains). Mihnea recommend I read this after reading Putnam’s essay “Time and Physical Geometry” because it illustrated how ideas and concepts from philosophy are stress-tested and rendered even more precise when they are imported into computational and algorithmic design: computers do exactly and only what we program them to do (even machine learning, just they have a few more degrees of freedom to explore a search space). As such, when we apply a concept from philosophy to computational design, we have to step back and patiently article what we mean in exact terms. I have yet to see how Lamport explores that with the Byzantine Generals’ Problem. We’re seeing it happen frequently these days with the Trolley Problem, imported from thought experiments in ethics to autonomous vehicle design. In this essay, Lamport puts conceptual notions from special relativity (the lack of any privileged objective observer) into practice in developing an algorithm that can synchronize various independent sub-processes in a distributed system. Here’s how I captured things. Say you have 3 parallel processes, each of which has a directed order of events (A1…AN; B1…BN; C1…CN). Each of these processes can pass message to the other. Each is like an isolated individual that has its own time: the events are ordered, by A5 doesn’t know if it occurs before or after B5 until the process exchange messages with one another. And it can happen that, from an external, physical observer’s point of view, A5 actually occurs before B5, but gets registered as if it happens later than B5 for lack of transmitting information between the two independent processes. Each process, then, is like a frame of reference in special relativity. Lamport then develops an algorithm that synchronizes all these different processes together, relative to a supposed physical and objective reference point. This algorithm has to be used iteratively because processes will drift as time goes on. I loved how crystal clear and easy-to-follow this paper was. It’s great.
Time and Physical Geometry – Hilary Putnam closes the penultimate paragraph of this article with a bold sentence: “I do not believe that there are any longer any philosophical problems about Time; there is only the physical problem of determining the exact physical geometry of the four-dimensional continuum that we inhabit.” Putnam gets to this conclusion in two big steps (with a few little steps subsumed under the big steps): first, he uses special relativity to show that, from three axioms (I-now am real; at least one other observer is real; if only the things that stand in relationship to me are real, and you’re real, then it’s also the case that things that stand in relationship to you are real), future things are already real (because if you move at a different velocity from me, then your light cone is different from my light cone, and if we keep doing this successively, building light cone upon light cone, all future events become already real); next, he brings up Aristotle’s claim that we cannot assess the truth value of a future state the same way we can of a present or past state, and debunks the tense distinction by showing that it would require a privileged observation frame (an absolute present), which violates the principle that there is no privileged observer. Thus, special relativity makes the tools of predicate logic and static tense no longer useful. Putnam’s language is extremely parsimonious: it’s as if he doesn’t spare a word, but says exactly and only what needs to be said to make his argument. It’s tight like a mathematical proof. I think this is what philosophy should look like: making arguments, using language to take a reader on a journey from premise to conclusion. That said, I don’t leave the article convinced that philosophy has nothing more to say about time. Perhaps it’s indeed the case that philosophy should stop trying to say something about the metaphysics of time, to articulate what time is and is not, because it feels like word games or a ceaseless struggle for tools that carry stasis with them like heavy luggage (i.e., words that refer) to articulate changing, moving, dynamic being. Perhaps the conclusion is that all that’s worth speaking about is the phenomenon of time as we experience it. I do walk away convinced that special relativity through a curve ball at McTaggart’s conception of the A, B, and C series, given the collapse of the future into the present.
Intelligence without representation – Rodney Brooks’ manifesto on model-free learning and robotics based on interconnected subprocesses and routines. The most impactful insights from the article are: 1) when we attempt to replicate abstract representations in an artificially intelligent system, we work from abstraction of our own abstraction capabilities, as we can’t observe what our brains actually do. That’s doomed to make systems brittle; 2) Subparts of an interconnected system designed in isolation will each have their own separate design presuppositions and will likely not work that well together. I see this in applied machine learning all the time. We can’t build a model in a vacuum isolated from the process into which we will integrate the model. Success criteria depend on the total integration; 3) We can combine together multiple finite state machines and run different subroutines, each reacting to the environment, or “world”, as their model, to generate insect-like intelligent behavior; and 4) This work is not intended to be the realization of Heideggerian theories of being in time (that shows up in the paper).
The Wife – Mihnea summed this up well: it’s a bad movie, but he’s glad it was made. The themes are promising. The movie puts a spotlight on the spectacle of reverence, how conventions indexing excellence blind us from digging deeper to see the truth for ourselves, to form our own judgments. It shows how we pardon promiscuity from male creators. How women have been put to the sideline as the wives that are there, as faithful companions to support their brilliant husbands’ careers, but who would have been the creators if the circumstances were otherwise. How selfhood can become an ossified performance and what it takes to resist it. The execution is a little painful. There were moments where I felt the wince of kitsch, vicariously embarrassed as if I’d made the film myself. Glenn Close’s acting, however, was quite good. Her face expressed complex layers of emotion throughout the film.
The Party – Like Fences (see below), this movie makes the difference between a play and a film clear. It’s absurdly claustrophobic. Kirsten Scott Thomas plays a newly-elected government official in London. She and her husband (Timothy Spall) throw a party with their closest friends to celebrate. While she steals sweet nothing texts from her lover, her husband performs a non-verbal monologue on his way to nearly dying, blasting jazz song after jazz song as a caricatural German Buddhist (Bruno Ganz) waxes poetic about impermanence. The movie certainly hits upon many social tropes of our age. I didn’t dislike it, but again, it was so so evidently a play. Aristotelian straightjacket of the unity of time, place, and action exploded to its logical conclusion, gun appearing in act 3 and all. It was a searing critique of contemporary mores, and I film worth watching, but lacked subtlety. Felt like it was trying too hard to squeeze Woody Allen dialogue into a classical play.
42 Grams – I watched this movie on a flight from NYC to SF. It’s about a Chicago chef who builds a pretty incredible underground restaurant in his home with his wife, Alexa, and then opens a restaurant that reaches 2 Michelin star status basically overnight. It’s a hero movie, focusing on the dedication and narcissism required to achieve excellence. We see glimpses of the chef’s temper in a few scenes, but ultimately leave wanting to go and try it, leave galvanized to push ourselves to that same level, leave wanting to use tweezers to lace our food with microflowers. Upon landing, I looked up the restaurant to send the link to my boyfriend, Will. We love good food and spend more money than is reasonable on it. And I learned that Jake Bickelhaupt’s restaurant was shut down after a case of domestic violence. The restaurant was called 42 grams to signify the unity of Jake and Alexa’s partnership, each soul weighing 21 grams. She supported him in his relentless desire to achieve. And he beat her. And if we lack this context we idolize him as a hero. Like Musk. Like Jobs. We overlook the cruelty for the sake of inhuman sacrifice, for the sake of what’s created. We don’t forgive it. It’s just unknown, forgotten, unobserved as we narrow our focus on the stuff we crave to see. It hurts.
Ramen Heads – Oh how the Japanese love to devote their entire life obsessively to mastering one thing. Jiro and sushi. That guy from Woman in the Dunes and water, water, water. This time it’s about ramen. Tomita, the chef around which most of the film centers, makes ramen with a ridiculously think broth and focuses on the noodles–they look perfect, studded with black, served on the side, the flour mix changing year after year. The broth of all the other chefs is so thin in comparison.
The Shape of Water – I saw this shortly after having seen The Phantom Thread and was struck by the very different type of love it depicts (see my post on different types of love). This film has all the trappings of great Latin American magic realism, from early scenes where Sally Hawkins masturbates every morning in the bath tub to late scenes where she effectively ascends to heaven under water with her sea monster lover. It’s a film about finding love where you least expect it, where love is accepting and cherishing the other for exactly who they are, not wishing them to be any different, loving them so fully they become shapeless, like water around us. The final poem is radically beautiful: Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.
The Phantom Thread – This one really affected me. It captures the viciousness of narcissistic love quite well and triggered an outpouring of emotion related to some of the deep, visceral patterns that have driven some of the worst choices I’ve made in my love life. It’s visually beautiful and has the majestic feel all Anderson films have, which shimmer in a way that elevates them to the status of myth as opposed to conjuring realism.
The Square – Meh. Swedish thought piece about the tenuous fragility of social order. More a series of vignettes than an Aristotelian narrative. As the film’s director explains in a prefatory clip, the film was inspired by an artwork just outside a contemporary art museum in a Swedish city whose name is escaping me but that is not Stockholm. The square is a symbolic space within which equality, compassion, and justice reign, which have fallen away from contemporary society. The events in the film push the limits of such basic moral tenets through the actions of its anti-hero, the (quite handsome) curator of the museum. The film asks good questions, but lack subtlety.
The Other Side of Hope – I’m a big fan of Kaurismäki’s films. I love the stark drabness of his cinematography, how the bareness of the scenes draws my attention to each sound, each gesture. I love the music (I think each film has some reference to Olavi Virta), how, in this film, what we expect to be soundtrack is consistently revealed as live music acts on the street or in working-class bars. Kaurismäki treats the European refugee crisis here with subtle pathos, his protagonist, Khaled from Syria, an assuming hero, but a hero nonetheless. He is unquestionably ethical. Some of the most powerful scenes in the film are the shots of bureaucratic institutions, the strange shapes of police stations and immigration centers. Most interestingly, the film changed my perception of my environment for the next couple of hours. Sounds were more vibrant, but I felt a distance between myself and my surroundings, as if all were abstracted away to the screen.
The Great Buck Howard – I have no recollection of this coming out in 2008, but actually think it’s quite timely in the age of Trump. It’s a coming-of-age tale of a young man who, after obeying his father’s guidance to become a lawyer, quits law school to pursue a more meaningful life of writing. Along the way, he meets a magician past his prime, The Great Buck Howard, played by the inimitable John Malkovich. Malkovich is perfect for this role precisely because he can take something relatively normal and make it really damn weird: in the film, it’s a performance of Dionne Warwick’s What the World Needs Now is Love. Buck Howard performs for the Trump constituency of our day: it’s the folks in small towns across America who inhabit a temporality different than the futurist pulse of the urban centers. And he loves these people. You sense, as a viewer, he loves them genuinely. The Nick Caraway-like protagonist comes to understand something about spectacle and the illusions people need in their lives in following Buck around. Given the surprising sociological relevance of the film, I find it worth watching.
Hidden Figures – This film stands on the right side of history. I’m a fan of historical non-fiction of technology in the 20th century, so appreciated the depiction of the early Eniac computer and Dorothy Vaughn’s recognizing the need for skills retraining to keep her cohort of “colored female” computers employed (she succeeds, but not without the growing pains of segregation and racism). The heroine is Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician whose work was seminal to the success of the American space program in the 60s. It’s very Hollywood, but a wonderful ode to African American Women heroines neglected alongside the stardom of the white men who dominate history.
Risk – Laura Poitras’s documentary about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks is harrowing in its ambiguity. The World Socialist Web Site twice damns the film, calling it a confused, superficial documentary that fails to take a strong stance in support of or against WikiLeaks, and then citing how WikiLeaks’s lawyers believe the film places their clients in legal jeopardy. I disagree, and think the ambiguity is the film’s strength. Poitras is incredibly courageous in her efforts to expose the contradictions underlying Assange and Jacob Applebaum‘s personae: like situationist Guy Debord, both straddle the demagogue and the revolutionary. We cannot shy away from the fact that these figures, driven by absolute commitments to free speech at any cost, these subversive heroes of contemporary digital society, are also fallible, complex individuals. Assange knows that his willingness to allow Poitras to capture his vulnerabilities always also promotes the strength of his seemingly superhuman character. The final scenes about Russian involvement in the US election were harrowing in light of last week’s events (the week when Trump fired Comey). I think this movie is a must see.
Fences – Denzel Washington’s adaptation of an August Wilson play about the struggles of a black garbage collector and former baseball player. The movie preserves the feel of a play: the strict unity of place has an important role in the film (a good two-thirds of the play takes place in the small backyard of a Pittsburgh home) and the play develops through dialogue, not editing or somersaulting time. My favorite moment is a monologue by Viola Davis: having just learned her husband has cheated on her, she (ironically or not?) asserts her strength as a woman via her steadfast commitment to her marriage, via her having sacrificed her self and ambitions to support the dampened dreams of her husband. She cries so hard she has snot running down her face, and it’s so raw and real.
La La Land – I hate musicals (I think I’m the only person in New York who didn’t like Hamilton) and there were certainly a few moments in this film, like the opening number, that were a bit kitschy for my sensibilities. But I thought the movie was great. I loved how they used a split narrative at the end to enable romanticism and reality to coincide. The life not lived by the two lovers kaleidoscoped with the value nostalgia, jazz, and old cinema can play in our lives. I left the film feeling happy and alive.
Syrian Symphony – A temporary exhibition at Toronto’s Aga Khan museum. The centerpiece painting, Ahmed Moualla’s People and Power, is the highlight of the show. It feels like a contemporary reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica, with the same expansive scope and opportunity to scan the canvas to notice the detailed hints of pain, suffering, and corruption. I also really loved a triptych of paintings by Kevork Mourad, which used tromp d’oeil techniques where images that from afar seemed like Rorschach ink blogs metamorphosed into architecture and then, upon further inspection, people. A seemingly inhumane landscape was actually human, with people camouflaging themselves as scenery to avoid the dangerous gaze of Assad and his regime.
The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers – Where the hell did this guy come from? I’ve been a fan of early modern Dutch art (Rembrandt, Vermeer, Bosch, Hals, Bruegel, Rubens, Ruysdael, etc) for some time, but I was unaware of Segers. His work is amazing. Samuel van Hoogstraten succinctly sums up why: “For he also printed paintings.” Indeed, Segers pushed the boundaries of etching and printmaking techniques, burrowing minute landscapes–which often include a lonely wanderer tucked away into the foreground, melancholic–and using paint to blur the boundaries and show how one ur-image can spawn so many different variations of mood, tone, and style. Something akin to Monet’s paintings of the same church at different times of day a few centuries later. I’ve never read the 20th-century German author Robert Walser, but have heard talks about his micorscripts. Segers called forth this same spirit, an avatar for a later age.
Keyon Harrold & Pharoahe Monch at Blue Note – I used to listen to a lot of jazz, seeking out Dave Holland shows in Paris or taking my dad to see McCoy Tyner at Scullers in the DoubleTree Hotel in Boston (perhaps his favorite Christmas present). I haven’t seen nearly enough live music in the past few years, and it was a treat to hear Keyon Harrold play last Wednesday. What I loved about this show was how they fused so many different musical traditions. Harrold riffed on standard melodies, with some maniac bravado reminiscent of late Coltrane or John Zorn. The pianist, Shedrick Mitchell, played atonal chords above the more lazy and languid background of the guitar and bass. And then Monch’s rap just took it to another level. It helped me appreciate how hip hop grew from improvisational jazz, word poetry the verbal parallel to instrumental improvisation, both taking a white man’s form and twisting it, turning it, rendering it smoother and sexier with a black man’s experience and soul.
Actinolite – Loved it and will go back. Because it felt so personal! Head chef Justin Cournoyer lives right above the restaurant and was in and out during our 7-course meal. I spoke with him for about 15 minutes afterwards, explaining what I experienced during each course. The food largely featured vegetables (which I personally love) with acute attention paid to seasonality: the snacks course, for example, featured an oyster with fermented kelp accompanied by fresh turnips with their bitter, lightly salted leaves. We noticed that the wine pairing was tightly integrated to create balance with the dishes, as the food notes were generally more basic and warm, and the wines were largely funky and pungent, ranging from notes of Amontillado (paired with the rutabaga and walnut milk course) to barnyard white Jura (with the golden beet and chamomile broth course). My only complaint was the restaurant’s smell: I have an extremely sensitive nose, and when I walked in I was hit with wafts of a slightly grungy bar. To be a truly excellent experience, I’d want the place to smell as clean and fresh as the food.
Canis – Hands down the best restaurant I’ve been to in Toronto. The food is exquisite. 7-course tasting menu that is an ode to minimalism: plating is spare and elegant, ingredients are clean and carefully chosen. The signature dish, duck with cabbage and pearl onion (where the pearls are flaked into delicate, individual leaves), was astoundingly good (I carved away the fat and gristle to my intestine’s content). Also minimal, the ambience could be improved, as there were a few clunky details. We sat at one of the two front tables near the window, for example, where I was seated on the sill and my dining companion started on the chair facing me. There was such a height mismatch I felt like I was looking down from a throne, so he switched seats and joined me on the window ledge. But this place is marvelous.
lbs. – Came on recommendation from a Toronto native. I liked it and would go back. Decor had a southern California under-the-sea vibe, new and shiny and risking the border of kitsch but not offensive. Atmosphere was a bit yuppy: they were hosting a social networking event, and there were 30-40ish business types mingling, with the air and energy of mingling, around the central bar (which is grand and seats people on both sides like a massive family dinner table). Did enjoy the food. Octopus crudo was spectacular, with turmeric-scented oil that glowed yellow, some simple celery leaves and salt. Trout salad was surprisingly smoky and paired well with a bulky grain. Loved the brussel sprouts fried in a sweet, fish sauce-like sauce. Lobster roll didn’t have mayonnaise, so you could taste the fish. Burnt marshmallow ice cream was awesome. The flavors were stark and memorable. Loved it.
Cafe Cancan – Love the atmosphere (hipster, airy pink with hints of Miss Havisham decay) and the food (twist on classic French, with foie gras and tournedos Rossini and steak au poivre and as much meat and fat as you need). Deplorable service. We waited about 2 hours for our main course to arrive. Wine by the glass had maderized. The waiter had a chipper attitude that seemed impervious to his incompetence, which made it all the more irritating. It’s still new, so can be salvaged. Hope that will be the case.
George Restaurant – Did a 7-course tasting menu. Presentation was artful – the type of presentation that requires tweezers to place the flowers in just the right spot and lots of different overlapping colors. Food was of a high caliber but there weren’t really tastes or combinations that blew me away – it was like craft to art, not new inventive creative food, but a solid take on work someone had already done. Wine pairings were nice – like many upscale restaurants, they naturally had to include selections from the Jira. Pure malvasia and mourvedre, taking the accent grapes and foregrounding them. Ambience was also fine, but not out of this world. A bit more rustic than my sleek taste likes. Definitely a date spot, although most of the couples spent more time looking at pictures on their cell phones than into their lovers’ eyes. I liked this, don’t get me wrong, just have extremely high standards for restaurants I’d like to be the best of the best.
Estia – Brand new Mediterranean spot in Yorkville. The food was spectacular: pea tendril, lemon, shaved goat cheese (semi-soft, not soft variety) salad with beautiful purple flowers; short ribs that included the bone, so had all the gristle and fat; really elegant deconstructed baklava like dessert. Service was a bit bombastic, mostly due to a cloying server. Sat outside on the patio, loved every minute of it.
Planta – A vegan spot up in Yorkville. The menu is “inspired by cuisines from all over the world” so we were able to create a Frankenstein combination of za’atar dusted flatbread with baba ganoush (excellent with little pools of olive oil) and lettuce wraps with tofu and kimchi and mushrooms disguised as calamari. Food quality was great – I’d definitely go back. The ambience had the same surgical confusion: it had a zebra-striped copacabana meets Javanese villa feel, the live plants in the wall accented by geometric plant motifs etched into the white finishings. But again, while verging on kitsch, it didn’t offend me. It’s really healthy food and I’ll definitely go back. Best part was the amazing conversation with my former law student Keri Grieman, who has the smartest take on liability in self driving cars out there. A rising star to watch carefully.
Buca Yorkville – The claim to fame here are the sashimi salumi, tiny little fish that look like meat and sometimes are prepared using meat products. I had the bigoli, a duck egg pasta dish, for my main, and found it was just ok. Pizzas are fantastic and I bet the other mains are also great. The ambience is very urban, but the restaurant can be extremely loud (we had to move tables to hear one another). Overall I’m a fan.
The Beast Restaurant – Small plate joint out in King West. The food was decent but very fatty and we ordered WAY too much. I left feeling like a beast and continuing to feel like one for the entirety of the next day. Decor is a bit dingy, but it has charm. I’d go back, but would stick to only 2 small plates per person.
Marben – My first meal as an immigrant to Canada! I found the atmosphere at this restaurant to be bizarre: a generally rustic, flashback to hunting days ambience juxtaposed with some ultra-sleek contemporary accidents that just didn’t work. But the food was good. Best dish was the Burrata with sunchoke, grilled fennel, agrodolce, and sourdough – the combination was divine, and tasted great with the Niagara Cab Franc we drank. The charred octopus and Japanese eggplant was also fantastic.
New York & Brooklyn
Awash Ethiopian on Court Street – This is some of the best Ethiopian food I’ve ever had. The spice profile is extremely complex and the kitfo is spectacular (if you’re into steak tartare and raw meat). Ambience ain’t much but that’s not why you go to an Ethiopian restaurant.
Lilia – Hats off to Sean Feeney for managing this quite excellent restaurant. The late April weather was just warm enough to allow for outdoor dining. Taste profile was delicate and the lamb portion was enormous! We loved the Cacio e Pepe Fritelle, cured Sardine toasts with dill, and sheeps milk agnolotti with saffron. It’s a trendy spot, so the clientele was a bit bombastic, but I’d go again.
Wallflower – I like how this place feels. It’s small, with decor that’s cutesy rustic contemporary. The food has a delicateness that merits attention. They serve their steak tartare on a tiny baguette (making it harder to share than most tartare dishes). They have a pork shoulder dish with speculoos and very densely grained brown mustard that hits the right pitch of sweet and savory. I didn’t care as much for the seabream dish. Wine list also good.
Little Park – The food here is great. I had this salt-baked carrot appetizer with coconut, coffee, cardamon foam that was delicate and refined. The salmon main was cooked perfectly, skin super crispy and the inside still close to rare. Portions were civilized, so I didn’t leave feeling overly full (opposite would hold for heftier eaters who like large portions). There’s a spaciousness to the tables that makes it feel like a restaurant in California or a boxy, oversized tee-shirt.