In Code

Life in CodeEllen Ullman, has compiled a series of seventeen mostly witty, sometimes snarky,* often insightful essays about the intersection of technology and life. Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (2017) [link].

I particularly liked the earlier essays about “The Programming Life” in the 1990s, in which she explains tech and illuminates the social realities which programmers (particularly female programmers) faced, and probably still face.

Her social critique of the internet is also spot on, as she describes the searcher’s hopeless search, “adrift in a sea of empty, illusory, misery-inducing choice.” p. 89.

She sounds almost prescient as she writes (in 1998!):

Before the advent of the web, if you wanted to sustain a belief in far-fetched ideas, you had to go out into the desert, or live on a compound in the mountains, or move from one badly furnished room to another in a series of safe houses. Physical reality—the discomfort and difficulty of abandoning one’s normal life—put a natural break on the formation of cults, separatist colonies, underground groups, apocalyptic churches, and extreme political parties.

Id.

One point she circles back to from time to time is the way the internet removes the intermediaries from our decisions, stripping out those who “traditionally had been involved in [] transactions—even librarians and journalists—[but who were now seen as] incompetents, out for themselves, dishonest, the next thing to snake-oil salesmen and mustache twirlers.  The intermediaries were useless; you could trust only websites; go directly to the internet.” p. 297. This “disintermediation” has brought us closer to a kind of freedom which often just leaves us adrift. GOTO p. 89.

Recommended.

*”Microsoft, as ever, was last in invention but first in its ability to out-market its rivals.”

A gentleman and a novelist

Walter_Sullivan_FSWI just had the experience of reading a novel written by one of my professors at Vanderbilt University.

Walter Sullivan (1924-2006) introduced me to many of my favorite books, including Brideshead Revisited, The End of the Affair, War in Heaven, and “The Four Quartets” in a class he called “Angelic and Demonic Themes in 20th Century Literature.”  We also read The Spire and, I feel certain, some Flannery O’Connor. He was a marvelous teacher who started by teaching the basics of the Bible so that the class had a common language to discuss the modern works.  I have often wished I had spent more time working on “The Four Quartets” while I had opportunity to draw on his wisdom.*

Long Long Love

It turns out he wrote three novels and last night I read The Long, Long Love [link].**

It is the story of Horatio Adams, a man strangely incapable of accepting what happiness comes his way because of the pain and fear which distracts him.

It is a moving and lyrical book:

“I wondered about that, Horatio. What happened to us? Why did things work out the way they did?”

“Why?” I said. “Nobody ever really knows why. There are a thousand reasons for every turn of every day.” I pondered this a while, knowing it was true. Thinking that not only did God know about the fall of the sparrow, but that only the mind of God could know all the reasons why the sparrow fell.

Recommended (don’t expect any tank battles).

*Thomas Howard’s The Dove Descending (2006) [link] is the best substitute I know of.

**Sullivan had written it about twenty years before I met him.  How sad that I did not read it until more than twenty years after he died.  It is still in print.

Reading, 2017

This was a full year of reading for me, 38 volumes of (more-or-less straight) fiction, another 28 science fiction novels, and 28 volumes of non-fiction. Some could slide from one category to another, I suppose (is Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology science fiction?).

InterpreterofmaladiescoverI read three books by Adam Roberts (The Real-Town Murders, Bethany, Jack Glass); three by C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man, The Weight of Glory); three by Neil Gaiman (Norse Mythology, The View from the Cheap Seats, and with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens); three by Peter Heller (The Dog Stars, Hell or High Water, Celine), and four by William Gibson (The Peripheral, Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties).

The best new finds in fiction I read this year included Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (The Last 1956 Cessna 182); Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders, (R!-town) and Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies (a marvelous series of short stories).

Undoing ProjectTwo excellent new non-fiction offerings were Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project and Philip Allen Green, Trauma Room Two.

TraumaRoomTwoI think that Martin Luther King, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, and Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem should be required reading, but I had read neither of them before 2017 (see Jerusalem and Birmingham).

In 2018, I am hoping for some new fiction from Donna Tartt and Neil Gaiman (no novels since 2013); William Gibson, Emily St. John Mandel and Stephen Carter (no novels since 2014); and Mary Doria Russell and David Mitchell (no novels since 2015).* Indeed I have Agency, Gibson’s next, on pre-order from Amazon.

But there are lots of great books out there already.

*David Mitchell wrote From Me Flows What You Call Time, but that won’t be published until 2116, so I need something in the interim, I think.

Artemis

Artemis-Book-Cover-Andy-WeirAs you may have already read, Artemis is not The Martian.

This is not entirely bad, but I think that most who loved Andy Weir’s first novel will be at least a little disappointed in his second.  Remember how you felt when you read The Pelican Brief after you read The Firm?  Or Red Storm Rising after The Hunt for Red October?  Or The Burden of Proof after Presumed Innocent?  Or The Hotel New Hampshire after The World According to Garp?  Or Dune Messiah after Dune?

When an author has done something truly surprising with a first novel, then I suppose we have to expect a little bit of reversion to the mean* on the second.**

Artemis still has some of The Martian‘s engineering geekiness (not as much); and a good bit of Mark Watney’s snark (in a young female voice); but it entirely loses the grand heroic aspect of the earlier book.  The Martian showed the spunk and resilience of the engineer-hero placed in initial conditions beyond his control.   Artemis‘ heroine, Jazz Bashara, creates most of her own trouble and so the effect is very different.  Add to that the difficulty of writing a female lead, far more (and more diverse) characters, a more elaborate plot, and balancing new economic and social themes, and, well . . . okay, a little reversion to the mean is to be expected.

Still a fun book, and I enjoyed it.

It should be easier to follow than The Martian, too.

*”Reversion to the mean, also called regression to the mean, is the statistical phenomenon stating that the greater the deviation of a random variate from its mean, the greater the probability that the next measured variate will deviate less far. In other words, an extreme event is likely to be followed by a less extreme event.” Wolfram MathWorld, “Reversion to the Mean” [link].

**Actually The Firm was Grisham’s second book, coming as it did after A Time to Kill which was wonderful (after the horrifying first chapter), but not genre breaking, and not well known before The Firm. Frank Herbert had publications before Dune, but nothing even close in stature.  Garp was John Irving’s fourth book. It is not always first and second books.

Listening, not arguing

current reading 2Recommended to me by my brother-in-law (the polymath), an old* piece from Nick Carr on the values of reading:

In our day-to-day routines, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings, whether it’s by turning a car’s steering wheel or frying an egg or tapping a button on a smartphone. But when we open a book, our expectations and attitudes change. Because we understand that “we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions,” we are relieved of our desire to exert an influence over objects and people and hence can “disengage our [cognitive] systems for initiating actions.” That frees us to become absorbed in the imaginary world of the literary work.

Nicholas Carr, “The Dreams of Readers” Rough Type (Jan. 9, 2014) [link] (Carr is quoting Norman Holland in the internal quotations.)

That seems to me to be exactly right.  If we read properly, we are not immediately arguing with everything. We can listen to an author in a way that we too seldom listen to the people in the room with us.  This is easier with novels than with history and easier with either than with newspaper editorials, but (I think) always easier with the written than the spoken word.

utopia is creepy*Obviously, if I am just now reading blog posts from 2014, I am never going to catch up.  Fortunately, this piece seems to be included in Carr’s new book, Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations (2017) [link]. That can be my next book of essays after The View from the Cheap Seats, which I continue to dip into when I am between books.

On “book lust”

ScreenShot164David Bentley Hart writes a nice piece on “book lust” (that’s what my wife and I have always called it) in First Things: “From a Vanished Library” (April 2017) [link].*  In this piece Hart reminds us that

I learned from the experience [of losing my library], in the end, that all vanity is vanity, all lust is lust, and all excess is excess, no matter what the objects of one’s desire. The aesthetics of bound volumes is unique and exquisite; but there are more important things.

In the end the article was somewhat deflating as I have not read a single one of the books in his “catalogue of suggestions.”  But it is good to remember that books, marvelous as they are, can be distractions from the common purpose of every human.


*Coming across this piece was particularly poignant (and ironic) as my church gave me two first editions as a (sabbatical? retirement?) gift after teaching Genesis, ExodusLeviticusNumbers, DeuteronomyJoshuaJudgesRuthSamuelKingsDanielEzra- Nehemiah, and Matthew (with some help, and a few detours) 2003-2017.

Doom

Some very interesting designs for a Holocaust Museum in London.  This one is my favorite — the sense of something vastly dangerous and beyond individual control*:

akzh-holocaust

Rory Stott, “10 Shortlisted Designs for London Holocaust Memorial Revealed,” Arch Daily (Jan. 17, 2017) [link].

Though not, of course beyond individual action: “…and yet, in the end, did Klara Hitler’s sickly son ever fire a gun? One hollow, hateful little man. One last awful thought: all the harm he ever did was done for him by others.” Mary Doria Russell, A Thread of Grace (2005).

J.R.R.T.

jrrt “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

     J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

J.R.R. Tolkien (January 3, 1892 – September 2, 1973) was born 125 years ago today.  He has been singing at the throne of God for 40 years.

The Nightingale

nightingaleKristen Hannah, The Nightingale (2016).

This month’s book club offering is a lively story of two sisters who live in France during the Nazi occupation.  Although it is longer on emotional than historical detail, it is definitely one of those novels that make you wonder how well you would hold up under the pressures of that situation.  The book was similar in tone and gravity to something like The Winds of War, thus not as serious as All the Light We Cannot See, or as literary as Brideshead Revisited, or as witty as Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

I like the cover design very much.

Recommended.

Brave & Forgiven

ebif A delightful book, full of clever dialogue (“Sorry I’m late.  There were Germans.”) and heartaches, about the beginning of World War II in London and Malta.  Cleave does a marvelous job of conveying a sense of oppression which must have been felt by the British before 1942:

“[Mary] loathed the way the newspapers printed maps with the stark Nazi symbol on a field of plain white, as if Hitler had sent armies of erasers.  Better to crowd the swastikas in, to have them jostle for space.  [For her class, she] drew them deliberately crooked.  Her swastikas were degenerates that leaned at sickly angles and resembled one another vaguely, the offspring of first cousins who had married against the family’s advice.

Finally, she drew Britain, being generous with the width of the English Channel and giving the British Isles three times the area on the blackboard that they merited.  She thought it unfair to expect children to understand that it was possible to resist, from an island the size of her hand, a tyranny that stretched the whole width of the blackboard from Brest to Bialystok.”

It is not really a book about the war, but about friendships, family relations and love affairs in the shadow of great uncertainty and disruption.

Highly recommended.