My summer reading

June 25, 2017

So summer is upon us once again. In Madrid that means temperatures of around 40 degrees. But it is also a great time to catch up on reading. This will be my last post until early October, so I thought I would share some of the books I plan to read over the following months. I am a non-fiction guy and I think I am pretty clear about what I want to read. I have doubts about the fiction I have chosen. Many of the books on this list are not new, but I just haven’t got round to reading them yet.

To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death   Mark O’Connell

I have been meaning to blog about the subject of the Singularity for a while now. So this book should give me some ideas. Journalist Mark O’Connell meets some of the leading Silicon Valley types who think that they transcend human existence. I am drawn to the wacky characters that O’Connell visits, but it is an opportunity to reflect on the ethical dilemmas that this brave new world raises.  Having said that, I am sceptical about many of the claims made by figures such as Ray Kurzweil.

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus Rick Perlstein

I have blogged about Goldwater before. He may have lost to LBJ in the 1964 election, but he was a pioneer of the Conservative revival, which would culminate in the election of Ronald Reagan. Goldwater was the target of the famous Daisy ad in that election.

Before the Fall Noah Hawley

I love Fargo, both the Coen brothers’ film and the TV series. The later was created by Hawley, so I couldn’t resist his foray into the world of suspense. I don’t know much about the story, only that it involves a private jet flying from Martha’s Vineyard to New York that plunges into the ocean.

Belichick and Brady: Two Men, the Patriots, and How They Revolutionized Football Michael Holley

I am not a big fan of Tom Brady’s lifestyle brand, as I pointed out in a post a few weeks ago, but what a quarterback the 199th overall pick in the 2000 NFL is. And Belichick is surely one of the greatest coaches in any sport. No head coach-quarterback pair has been more successful in NFL history than these two. I will be interested to discover the ins and outs of their relationship.

Flight Behavior Barbara Kingsolver

A number of colleagues have recommended this book to me. I have already read Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and am looking forward to reading this tale of the causes and consequences of climate change. Dellarobia Turnbow is a 28-year-old housewife who lives with her family on a farm in rural Tennessee. She is going on a hike and is planning to meet a telephone repairman who she is going to begin an affair with. She discovers millions of monarch butterflies in a nearby valley. I have been told that it begins slowly, but that it’s worth sticking with.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Yuval Noah Harari

I love this kind of big sweep book which looks at our history from around 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. How did these savannah-dwelling primates become the dominant force on the planet, beating out six other competing hominid species?  I also want to look at his second book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which takes our story into the future.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA Tim Weiner

I have read Weiner’s Enemies: A History of the FBI and now want to look at his book about the CIA, a controversial organisation if ever there was one.  Is it the last line of defence against America’s enemies, or an evil conspiracy to promote American imperialism? It is probably a bit of both with a lot of incompetence and delusional thinking added to the mix. Weiner’s is a critical account so perhaps I ought to look for amore favourable one too.

Summer House with Swimming Pool Herman Koch 

I have already read the Dutch author’s novel The Dinner, which was pretty macabre. This one seems to be in a similar vein. I’m not very sure about the plot about Dr. Marc Schlosser and a patient of his, actor Ralph Meier, who winds up dead. I do know that it will not be a feel-good book.

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World Sharon Weinberger

Founded in 1958 amidst the American angst after the launch of Sputnik, DARPA’s original mission was to create “the unimagined weapons of the future”. The threat of nuclear Armageddon led to massive investment in computer networking and the creation of the Internet. They were also behind or had an influential role in GPS, Agent Orange, driverless cars, the first stealth prototype aircraft, drones and the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. There is the wacky stuff such as building a planetary force field to protect America from nuclear weapons, draining the Great Lakes to power a missile-destroying particle beam and tens of millions of dollars spent on psychics to test ESP.

Have a great summer and I will be back in early October.


Misleading or what?

June 17, 2017

This week Fox News finally dropped its fair and balanced slogan, which was introduced by the US channel’s founder, the late Roger Ailes, when he set it up in 1996. For a channel whose presenters have included Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck this is stretching it a bit. Trump’s favourite news channel now has a replacement is “Most Watched. Most Trusted.”

This got me thinking about misleading names and slogans. A quick search on the internet found the following:
• Flying lemurs are neither lemurs nor do they fly.
• Panama hats actually come from Ecuador, but came to be associated with the building of the Panama Canal.
• While dry cleaning may not involve water, it does require the use of liquid solvents.
• Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. The game, which was invented in Germany, was rebranded Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. It was invented in Germany in 1892; the name was changed to make the game more marketable in 1928, the year in which my father was born.

But it is in politics that these questions become interesting. We have joke names like the German Democratic Republic or Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which is anything but. The National Bolshevik Party sounds Marxist, but is in reality a right-wing, anti-Semitic fringe party. Although I do seem to remember in my history class that Bolshevik is Russian for member of the majority faction. This was itself an example of a manipulative use of language as they weren’t really the majority.

Both Left and right use words as weapons. One successful example was the term dementia tax to describe the Conservative policy of counting people’s home as an asset when it comes to paying for the care. It was highly effective. I did hear one criticism that it was borrowing the right’s meme of taxes as something negative, as in expressions such as tax relief. By adding relief to tax you are implying that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain. In a post I did about metaphors I mentioned the linguist George Lakoff, who wanted Democrats to talk about membership fees, what you pay to live in a civilized, democratic society. I really don’t see that one working, but I might be wrong. This is what Lakoff calls framing. He argues that successful political discourse is able to impose its metaphors over those of the opposition. You are implying that the earth is a big, huggable Gaia that can be befriended. Those for and against abortion like to frame the debate with pro-choice and pro-life. I haven’t read Unspeak, but I have seen these videos.

A different point of view is that of the Guardian’s Steven Poole, who coined the term Unspeak. In this sense Poole is an heir of George Orwell and his language of tyranny, newspeak. Wikipedia has a glossary of Newspeak:
doublethink the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct
goodsex intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children and without physical pleasure
thoughtcrime – the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question Ingsoc
Unperson – someone who has been “vaporized”—not only killed by the state, but erased from existence.

Unspeak is a term or phrase that contains an unstated political argument. In the book, which he published more than a decade ago he took eight words – community, nature, tragedy, operations, terror, abuse; freedom and extremism – to show how they can be used to frame the debate. He gives some examples. For example if you say Friends of the Earth, does that make your opponents enemies of the earth? Unlike Lakoff, Poole thinks that fighting unspeak with unspeak is a bad tactic. From what I have read about human psychology it is naïve to think you can win arguments based on pure rationality.


The Internet and quotations

June 11, 2017

The Internet is awash with quotes. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. They may reveal profound truths or the bromides of positive psychology. In my blog I have used hundreds, or maybe even thousands. There is something deeply satisfying about a good quote. And they are powerful memes, which on internet can spread all over the world in seconds.  However, many have become the literary equivalent of fake news.

Recently the Republican Party was subject to a lot of mockery after they falsely attributed a quote to one of their great leaders from the past – Abraham Lincoln. The quote itself was rather banal; they tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with a quote: In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” Lincoln never said this.

Luckily there is a man who investigates the origins of quotes. Garson O’Toole is the quotation sleuth. Fittingly, for someone who investigates fake quotes, this is actually a pseudonym. Gregory F. Sullivan, a former teacher and researcher in the Johns Hopkins computer science department is the man behind the blog Quote Investigator, and he now has a new book, Hemmingway Never Said That. Sullivan is good at providing a typography of how quotes can go wrong.  Sometimes they get streamlined over time. Churchill never said “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears.” It was actually “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. But this went against the rule of three. Gandhi did not say “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” According to The New York Times What he actually said was: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

What often happens is that famous people often get the credit for something that was said by somebody less famous. Some famous people, such as Mark Twain, Gandhi, and Albert Einstein are quote magnets. Mark Twain is often credited with saying “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”, but ironically he probably didn’t invent the phrase. Albert Einstein did not say: Two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity.” The true source, as is often the case is unknown. And that famous Churchill quote, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain”, may well have been said by Francois Guizot, a 19th century French historian, orator, and statesman, but this is not sure either. That classic Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, was actually a summary of his views by the author S.G. Tallentyre in the 1906 book “The Friends of Voltaire. Tallentyre was a pseudonym used by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer best known for her biography of Voltaire entitled The Life of Voltaire. Sometimes a quote is attributed to a historical figure because of what appears in a in a film, novel or other work of fiction. Houston, we have a problem.” Tom Hanks does say it in the film; this was never said by Jim Lovell on the Apollo 13.

Apart from misquotes the Internet is also replete with positive psychology quotes aka bullshit. A couple of years ago there was a study, On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls**t, by Gordon Pennycook, a cognitive psychologist, in the journal Judgement and Decision Making. This seems to have been misreported by the Daily Mail: “People who post inspirational quotes on Facebook and Twitter ‘have lower levels of intelligence.”   I do not think it is a question of intelligence, but it is necessary to have a healthy dose of scepticism. I hate bullshit but it can come from New Age gurus, the corporate sector or postmodern academics.  In a previous post I mentioned how physicist Alan Sokal was able to get an article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in an American cultural-studies discussion journal, Social Text. This, despite the fact that it was a nonsensical spoof based on mathematical absurdities and ideas and quotes borrowed from various postmodernist philosophers. What we all need is what Carl Sagan called a baloney detection kit.

My favourite example was cited by Sullivan. Samuel Johnson chided James Boswell for coming out with some fashionable platitude: My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. Now, however this has been reinvented as a positive thinking slogan, clear your mind of can’t. This is exactly the kind of cliché that Johnson was urging Boswell to avoid!

I admire the debunking work of people like Sullivan. With the exponential growth in the use of quotations, we need people like him. Does it matter when we get a quotation wrong? Maybe sometimes we can get at a greater truth. Sometimes the truth can get in the way of a good quote. As Mark Twain said: “What’s the point of life if you can’t make up a quotation from time to time.”

 


Language corner: drinking the Kool-Aid

June 4, 2017

Last week in my piece about the prevalence of pseudoscience in the world of professional sport I used the expression drinking the Kool-Aid. I was going to put an asterisk after the expression, but I forgot. This was probably a good thing as it has lot to unpack – this will be the subject of this week’s blog.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as to “demonstrate unquestioning obedience or loyalty to someone or something.” They also furnish us real-world examples

…his real ire is directed at the news media for drinking the Kool-Aid and not being tougher on the president

In other words: everyone had drunk the New Economy Kool-Aid.

If you can’t see the bias in almost every news organization, then you’re probably drinking their Kool-Aid.

Kool-Aid is a brand of flavoured drink mix manufactured by Kraft Foods. Invented by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Nebraska, it is usually sold in powder form, in either packets or small tubs. Working out of his mother’s kitchen, Perkins was able to remove the liquid from Fruit Smack, a liquid concentrate. The resulting powder was much cheaper to ship, and so Kool-Aid was born. This powder is generally mixed with sugar and water and served in a pitcher. Kool-Aid has other uses too – dyeing your hair and cleaning pots and pans, washing machines, silverware and toilets.

I have to say it doesn’t sound particularly appetising, but how did it become associated with following blindly? This is where the story takes a dark turn. It is to events to in a jungle in Guyana nearly four decades ago that we need to go. The terrible happenings are known as The Jonestown Massacre. I am currently reading The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn. The author also wrote an excellent biography of Charles Manson, which was the basis for the You Must Remember This podcast series about the cult leader. I am still on the early part of Jones’s life.

The Reverend Jim Jones, a communist and an infrequent Methodist minister, who founded his own church in the late 1950s, the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church, which was generally shortened to the “Peoples Temple.” He had a strange mix of Evangelical Christianity, Marxist dogma, racial integration and paranoia. The latter led him to preach about an impending nuclear apocalypse, for which a specified a date July 15, 1967, after which there would be a socialist paradise on Earth. This didn’t happen, but this is not usually a problem for cult leaders and their followers.

Concerned that the Peoples Temple might lose its tax-exempt religious status in the U.S. and paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community, Jones moved the Temple to the South American nation of Guyana. One of the reasons it was chosen was because its socialist policies. They had been building a settlement there since 1974. Jonestown, AKA the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project occupied nearly 4,000 acres. Many members of the Peoples Temple believed that Guyana would be a paradise or utopia. But, it was not a great place to establish a settlement. It was isolated, the soil was of poor quality and it had limited fresh water. By 1978 the population was around 900, many of whom were African-American.

In November of that year U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, a Democrat, visited Jonestown to investigate alleged human rights abuses at the Temple. Accompanied by members of the media and concerned family members, Ryan met with a number of Temple members who sought to leave. Eventually the entire Ryan party and the Jonestown defectors drove to a nearby airstrip to board the planes that would get them out of this hell-hole. But Jim Jones had sent armed Temple members, known as the Red Brigade to prevent this. They opened fire killing Ryan three members of the media party, and one of the defectors. Eleven others were injured and fled into the jungle.

The murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones immediately called a meeting, of which there is a chilling audiotape. Jones suggested that the settlement would soon come under attack from U.S. intelligence agencies. He offered Temple members these choices:

  1. stay and fight the invaders,
  2. escape to the Guyana jungle or the USSR,
  3. commit “revolutionary suicide” (in other words, mass suicide as an act of political protest).

They had already tested the third option in the past. He had given members small cups of liquid, which supposedly contained poison. They followed the orders. Jones then revealed that there was no poison in the drink, but one day there would be. He has, indeed, been stockpiling cyanide and other drugs for years. Now the Temple members were creating a cocktail of chemicals including cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine and chloral hydrate (both sedatives), and Flavour Aid — a grape-flavoured drink similar to Kool-Aid.

First mothers squirted poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. They were given their dose. Eventually 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped Jonestown. These were residents who were away on errands or when playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place. Jim Jones did not drink the poison, preferring to shoot himself. He would have seen the horrible deaths, which involve foaming at the mouth and convulsions. Jones, his wife, and various other members of the Temple left wills leaving their assets to the Communist Party of the USSR.

Curiously, it was Flavour-Aid and not Kool-Aid that was used to make the deadly cocktail. I suppose that it is the most famous brand.  Be that as it may many people object to the use of this expression. One such person is Jackie Speier, then a 28-year-old aide to Congressman Ryan. Having been shot five times, Speier lay bleeding for 24 hours before she was discovered by rescuers. She now holds Ryan’s seat in Congress. She is not a fan of this expression:

“There was nothing about it that was a suicide … They were killed, they were murdered, they were massacred. You can’t tell me that an infant or a two-year-old child that was injected with cyanide does so voluntarily. And that horrible phrase now that is part of our language ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ is always one that sends me into orbit because I think people so misunderstand what took place there.”

 Last night in London we saw another example of murderous psychopaths who use religion as a justification for their perverted ideologies. Will we never learn?

_______

On the Mental Floss website they mention Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a non-fiction account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they drive from California to New York in their party bus. The stoned hippies want to promote the use of LSD and they make a cocktail of acid with Kool-Aid.  This is the acid test of the title. The book’s description of one man’s bad acid trip is perhaps the first negative use of the expression:

… There was one man who became completely withdrawn … I want to say catatonic, because we tried to bring him out of it, and could not make contact at all … he was sort of a friend of mine, and I had some responsibility for getting him back to town … he had a previous history of mental hospitals, lack of contact with reality, etc., and when I realized what had happened, I begged him not to drink the Kool-Aid, but he did … and it was very bad.”