Category Archives: On the Bookshelf

Technical Absurdities

Here’s another instance of scan-to-gibberish in a chapter title from Jaron Lanier’s 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, followed by completely intelligible points he makes in the subsequent paragraphs.

an apocaLypse of seLF-aBDicanon  (Make that:  An Apocalypse of Self-Abdication)

….

“The Singularity is an apocalyptic idea originally proposed by John von Neumann, one of the inventors of digital computation, and elucidated by figures such as Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil…  In some versions of the story…. the internet itself comes alive and rallies all the net-connected machines into an army to control the affairs of the planet. Humans might then enjoy immortality within virtual reality, because the global brain would be so huge that it would be absolutely easy—a no-brainer, if you will—for it to host all our consciousnesses for eternity.

“The coming Singularity is a popular belief in the society of technolo­gists. Singularity books are as common in a computer science depart­ment as Rapture images are in an evangelical bookstore.

“(Just in case you are not familiar with the Rapture, it is a colorful belief in American evangelical culture about the Christian apocalypse. When I was growing up in rural New Mexico, Rapture paintings would often be found in places like gas stations or hardware stores. They would usually include cars crashing into each other because the virtuous dri­vers had suddenly disappeared, having been called to heaven just before the onset of hell on Earth. The immensely popular Left Behind novels also describe this scenario.)….

“The difference between sanity and fanaticism is found in how well the believer can avoid confusing consequential differences in timing. If you believe the Rapture is imminent, fixing the problems of this life might not be your greatest priority. You might even be eager to embrace wars and tolerate poverty and disease in others to bring about the conditions that could prod the Rapture into being. In the same way, if you believe the Singularity is coming soon, you might cease to design technology to serve humans, and prepare instead for the grand events it will bring.

you  aRE hot   a  gaDset  (the hapless scanner’s rendering of the book’s title in the chapter header with its eccentric font)

“But in either case, the rest of us would never know if you had been right. Technology working well to improve the human condition is detectable, and you can-see that possibility portrayed in optimistic sci­ence fiction like Star Trek.

“The Singularity, however, would involve people dying in the flesh and being uploaded into a computer and remaining conscious, or people simply being annihilated in an imperceptible instant before a new super-consciousness takes over the Earth. The Rapture and the Singularity share one thing in common: they can never be verified by the living.”

Technical Difficulties

This is an amazing book.

Lanier, of Virtual Reality fame, slams a) the rampant digitization of everything;  b) the quasi-religious impulse on the part of some digerati to anticipate a Rapture-like upload of human minds into digital existence;  c) the open, information-wants-to-be-free approach to creativity, along with the popularity of mashing up existing creative artifacts – books, movies, photos – into new, derivative works;  d) Google’s goal of digitizing every book it can grab,  e) Net anonymity that breeds trollishness, and f) numerous other errors and sins of computer culture.  Along the way he debunks the idea that creators can make a living with digital distribution.  He did a survey of musicians and found precious few who made any kind of money with digital distribution!   This does not bode well for authors.

At the same time, Lanier  has insightful, occasionally wistful, hopeful, and profound observations about technology and life.  The book transcends screed.  It’s one to read and heed.

Yesterday I scanned some pages of You Are Not a Gadget into Word.   My purpose was to put a few of Lanier’s choicest pages into my files for further study and easily quote a paragraph elsewhere, like here.   The scanner I used is a wonderful piece of tech:  it readily scans books and magazines and converts them into PDF, Word, jpeg, or tiff, and you can e-mail the results to yourself by touching your e-mail address into an alphabet touch screen or save to flash drive.  The scanner is a good instance of digital technology being highly and almost magically useful.

Interestingly, the scanner had trouble converting Lanier’s book to Word.  The book has atypical chapter and page header fonts and an offbeat approach to sidebars – so the Word version of the pages had some really odd glitches:

you  aRe  nox  a  gangeT

CHAPTER  11

bll HaiL THe MeMBRane

__ ..,„,.. , ,e,i.!Mm.,„^u^.–l garage to bring the entire human story to a

THe nODSPHeRG IS JUST anoTHeR hbme for eveRyone’s inneR troll

THRPB WclRniri95 have been presented in the pre­vious chapters,

«The alternative to wide-open development is not neces-_,warily evil. My guess is that a i”poorly* encapsulated com- • munal gloop of organisms lost but-to closely guarded

‘species on the,”primordial Earth for the same reason that-the Linux community didn’t come up with- the iPhone: encapsulation serves ^ a purpose.-   ,

 

The Shallows

This is an emphatic book – not quite strident, but assertively thought-provoking.  It insists that computers and the Internet undermine the human mind’s ability – hard won ever since the advent of the printing press and wide-spread literacy – to pay deep and reflective attention.  The book is The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (W. W. Norton, 2010.)  His thesis may be overstated, especially in attributing deep, sustained, and reflective attention primarily to reading.  After all, native peoples with oral traditions, craftsmen, and ascetics have always practiced  intense attention.

But I think Carr is right when he says that computers and especially Web surfing have a destructive effect on attention.  He laments the “permanent state of distractedness that defines the online life.”  He’s right about that! He accuses the Net of being a nexus of ‘interruption technologies’.”  I can’t quibble with that assessment.  I’ve watched myself flit around the Net and respond to e-mails that interrupt excursions on the Net that have interrupted something I should be  concentrating on….  Carr’s provocative book has me re-examining my Net habits.  Fortunately, I’ve never fallen into the habit of Net-surfing while writing, and I’m not going to let that camel get its nose in the tent of my vocation.

Carr isn’t sanguine about e-books either.  I hope he’s wrong, but this what he asserts:

“When Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, introduced the Kindle, he sounded a self-congratulatory note:  ‘It’s so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as a book and improve on it.  And maybe even change the way people read.’  There’s no ‘maybe’ about it.  The way people read – and write – has already been changed by the Net, and the changes will continue as, slowly but surely, the words of books are extracted from the printed page and embedded in the computer’s ‘ecology of interruption technologies’.”

Making Rounds with Oscar

When somebody may be suffering from Alzheimer’s,  neurologists and geriatricians administer certain cognitive tests.  Some of these tests are devastatingly simple.  One such test asks  the patient to draw a clock face when the time is 2:45.  People with Alzheimer’s are very likely to draw a clock with the short hand on 2 and the long hand between 4 and 5.

I learned this in a remarkable little book.  Making Rounds with Oscar (Hyperion 2010) was written by David Dosa, a geriatrician who works in a nursing home in Rhode Island.   Oscar is a tabby cat who also works in the nursing home. . . a resident companion animal along with several other animals and birds.  (Enlightened nursing home!)  Oscar has a unique talent.   He knows when somebody is dying.  He  goes and stays with them until the end, whether they are all alone or surrounded by grief-stricken loved ones.

This is a helpful, healing book about Alzheimer’s,  the end of life, and the mysterious connections between people and pets.  The savory irony is that Dr. Dosa is not a cat person.   He never gets to the point of doting on  Oscar – but he comes to respect the reality of the comfort Oscar brings to the dying and their loved ones.

Recommended.

brave new word

From an article in usatoday.com: a prediction that academic libraries will soon have less to do with curating physical materials, and more and more to do with digital resources; that e-books and e-journals are poised to turn librarians into e-sherpas; and that instead of being ensconced at the traditional Reference Desk, librarians will be embedded in academic departments.  And that these embedded librarians will be (in fact at Johns Hopkins University Medical library, they already are) called informationists.

The Lord of the Hallows

I love Interlibrary Loan.  It’s such a fine way to read books that my own Library doesn’t have, including obscure, scarce, or expensive titles and ones that for other reasons I’m just not in a position to buy.  Today I’m returning an Inter-Library Loan that I enjoyed very much – The Lord of the Hallows by Denise Roper (Denver:  Outskirts Press 2009.) It’s a compact  and insightful summation of the Christian symbolism in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.  That the series is loaded with  Christian symbolism was blazingly obvious by the climax of the seventh book .  Roper places the Harry Potter books  in the tradition of  Christian fantastic novels that includes Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia.   Recommended!

old India cookbook

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, I ran across a new edition of a classic cookbook written for British housewives in 19th-century India. Remarkable book.  It covers cooking, housekeeping, gardening, animal husbandry, and relations with native servants.  It throws light (some of it glaring in retrospect)  on the relationship between colonial England and colonized India.  There is solid practical advice, such as the recommendation to English wives to spend the hottest months in the hills rather than stick it out on the plains and end up so debilitated that it then becomes necessary to spend several years recuperating in England.  There’s a chapter on the special challenges of running a missionary household or living in a camp.  And there are recipes for making English food in India, and descriptions of Indian foods and ingredients.  The book is:

The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook by Flora Annie Steel & Grace Gardiner, ed. Ralph Crane and Anna Johnston, Oxford University Press 2010.


Jesus and Christ

Philip Pullman – author of the fabulously written, famously antireligious Dark Materials fantasy trilogy – is at it again.  According to an NPR interview, his latest novel was inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury asking him where Jesus fit into the Dark Materials world. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ posits Jesus of Nazareth having a psychologically disturbed twin brother named Christ.  The storyline plays on the inconsistencies of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.

It sounds a bit silly to me.  Progressive Christian theology distinguishes between Jesus and Christ with the phrase “Jesus the Christ.”  Jesus was a human being, the Christ is the salvific, revelatory presence of God unveiled by a human life.  Progressive Christians tend to be comfortable with the idea of more than one Christ in history, in the world, and most certainly in art and fiction.  Woman Christ?  Oh yes, see the feminist sculpture Christa by Edwina Sandya, or  read Elizabeth Moon’s fantasy novel Deed of Paksenarrion. Wizard Christ?! Harry Potter.  Google “Christ Figure” in Wikipedia and check the notes under Literature for a fascinating remark: that generally in literature (many examples listed), Christ figures stop at being martyred and don’t get as far as resurrection.   Paksenarrion and Harry do get resurrected.  So does the extraterrestrial Christ, E.T. in the movie.  Offhand I’d say that convincingly resurrecting a Christ figure is, in terms of storycraft, quite a challenge.

In Pullman’s new book the resurrection is a fraud perpetrated by the twin brother, Christ.

Well, intellectually honest theologians, intelligent believers, and Christian agnostics (of whom there are many, and some of them write novels) have grappled for a long, long time with the original incredibleness of the Gospel, the devastating imperfection of the Church, the inconsistency of the Bible, and the darkness of the human unconscious.   One of the first theologians to recognize the deep waters below the conscious mind was Martin Luther in the 1500’s. WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!! is hardly a newsflash.

On the other hand, Philip Pullman does what he’s doing very well, and faith is well served by brilliant honest skepticism.  It can clear out mindless weediness and rank undergrowth.  One of the most amazing anti-religious tales ever written is Olaf Stapleton’s classic Star Maker. That novel alone, taken with the seriousness it deserves,  destroys the credibility of  God the Supreme Being in our day.

Theologian Paul Tillich’s God Beyond God and God the Ground of Being held up to the 20th Century a lot better than orthodoxy’s  Supreme Being or the Watchmaker of Deism.  Process Theology has held up too.  Liberation Theology brewed in the 20th Century, proclaiming God’s “preferential option for the poor” and stirring the pot of the Roman Catholic Church.  One thing critics like Pullman may miss – understandably, if they decamped from organized religion at an early age – is the extend of the prophetic, i.e., critical and reformational, tradition, in religion.  And the mystical undercurrents.  Christian mystics across the centuries called God  shining darkness, mystery that terrifies and fascinates, lover of souls,  cloud of unknowing, and on and on, images and stories that didn’t square with Church doctrine and sometimes got the mystics into trouble.

My copy of the Dark Materials trilogy was a gift from a Roman Catholic priest who valued its message against the worst perversions of organized religion. This priest – since deceased and celebrated by a funeral Mass that drew in all sorts of friends and clergy – knew well that Church and Christ are not coextensive.   He also knew how mystical and prophetic movements always bubble up in organized religion and are never welcome there.

The mystics experienced God in ways that doctrine made little or  no allowance for.  Reformation happened because Luther saw the Church in dire need of reforming from the top down.  And then there was the real Jesus of Nazareth.  Believe me, many intellectually honest theologians, seminary professors, and Biblical scholars and historians have studied the words and works of Jesus to learn what he really said and meant.  Much of the best scholarship points to this:  with his parables and his paradoxical sayings wasn’t spelling out what people should think about God.  He was dislodging God from the mental and cultural boxes in which the idea of God was contained.  And he was freeing people from mind-bending, heart-breaking condictions imposed by religious authorities.  Which is, to say the least, work that forever needs doing.