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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Play it again, Chinaski

I was feeling peculiar. So many things didn’t fit. I mean, in the lawyer’s office, why was that man reading his newspaper upside-down? He belonged in the shrink’s office. Or maybe just the outside pages of the newspaper were upside-down and he was reading the inside straight-side-up? Was there a God? And where was the Red Sparrow? I had too many things to solve. Getting out of bed in the morning was the same as facing the blank wall of the Universe. Maybe I should go to a nude bar and stick a 5 buck bill into a G-string? Try to forget everything. Maybe I should go to a boxing match and watch two guys beat the shit out of each other?

But trouble and pain were what kept a man alive. Or trying to avoid trouble and pain. It was a full time job. And sometimes even in sleep you couldn’t rest. Last dream I had I was laying under this elephant, I couldn’t move and he was releasing one of the biggest turds you ever saw, it was about to drop and then my cat, Hamburger, walked across the top of my head and I awakened. You tell that dream to a shrink and he’ll make something awful out of it. Because you are paying him excessively, he’s going to make sure to make you feel bad. He’ll tell you that the turd is a penis and that you are either frightened of it or that you want it, some kind of crap like that. What he really means is that he is frightened or wants the penis. It’s only a dream about a big elephant turd, nothing more. Sometimes things are just what they seem to be and that’s all there is to it. The best interpreter of the dream is the dreamer. Keep your money in your pocket. Or bet it on a good horse.

(Pulp, Charles Bukowski, 1994)

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…each of the radical theories about language and thought refutes one of the others in a game of rock-paper-scissors. Differences among languages, the point of pride for Linguistic Determinism, is a headache for Extreme Nativism, which assumes that concepts are innate, hence universal. The precision of word senses, which Extreme Nativism uses to discredit definitions, cast doubt on Radical Pragmatics, which assumes that one’s knowledge of a word is highly malleable. And polysemy, which motivates Radical Pragmatics, spells trouble for Linguistic Determinism, because it shows that thoughts must be much finer-grained than words.

The theory of conceptual semantics, which proposes that word senses are mentally represented as expressions in a richer and more abstract language of thought, stands at the center of this circle, compatible with all of the complications. Word meanings can vary across languages because children assemble and fine-tune them from more elementary concepts. They can be precise because the concepts zero in on some aspects of reality and slough off the rest. And they can support our reasoning because they represent lawful aspects of reality –space, time, causality, objects, intentions, and logic– rather than the system of noises that developed in a community to allow them to communicate. Conceptual semantics fits, too, with our commonsense notion that words are not the same as thoughts, and indeed, that much of human wisdom consists of not mistaking one for the other. “Words are wise men’s counters,” wrote Hobbes; “they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools.” Centuries later, Siegfried Sassoon invoked a similar association when he wrote:

Words are fools

Who follow blindly, once they get a lead.

But thoughts are kingfishers that haunt the pools

Of quiet; seldom-seen..

(Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, 2007)

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And what about U.S. organ-donation policy, based on its unyielding belief that altruism will satisfy the demand for organs -how has that worked out?
Not so well. There are currently 80,000 people in the United States on a waiting list for a new kidney, but only some 16,000 transplants will be performed this year. This gap grows larger every year. More than 50,000 people on the list have died over the past twenty years, with at least 13,000 more falling off the list as they became too ill to have the operation.
If altruism were the answer, this demand for kidneys would have been met by a ready supply of donors. But it hasn’t been. This has led some people –including, not surprisingly, Gary Becker- – to call for a well-regulated market in human organs, whereby a person who surrenders an organ would be compensated in cash, a college scholarship, a tax break, or some other form. This proposal has so far been greeted with widespread repugnance and seems for now politically untenable.
Recall, meanwhile, that Iran established a similar market nearly thirty years ago. Although this market has its flaws, anyone in Iran needing a kidney transplant does not have to go on a waiting list. The demand for transplantable kidneys is being fully met. The average American may not consider Iran the most forward-thinking nation in the world, but surely some credit should go to the only country that has recognized altruism for what it is –and, importantly, what it’s not.

(Superfreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, 2009)

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A novel must not only reveal the world but it must be a world. Show me a good novel and I will show you a centre of vibrancy. Why, this dog could write a novel and I would read it tomorrow. It would no doubt  be a piratical compilation from the works of old Spanish masters. Old British masters. So be it. Let’s have it. We need more of this. Where are today’s comic novels? It is the heartbeat of the form. That’s how society might be examined and our examinations, God save us, might even prove to be entertaining.

(Andrew O’Hagan, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe)

2006 Michael Ochs Archives

After four years of waiting I’ve found the perfect opportunity to show everyone my favourite photograph of Marilyn Monroe: I’ve just finished Andrew O’Hagan’s ‘The life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe‘. A Marilyn for whom ‘fame doesn’t conceal private pain, it only emphasises it‘; a Marilyn for whom ‘the thing concealed by fame is self-knowledge‘; a Marilyn whose sadness broke my heart.

As for the explanation of those four years mentioned above, here it goes:

In December 2006 I was offered, as a gift, the  ‘Marilyn Monroe, 2007 Calendar’; 2007 have come and gone, but on my wall the calendar is still open at the same page: December 2007 (see above) . In the other 11 photographs Marilyn is smiling or laughing or simply posing for the press, but, as I’ve already confessed in my post ‘I just want to be wonderful’, ‘I don’t like her pictures in which she laughs as much as I like  her in moments of quiet beauty or sad expressions captured on film’.

As for the book itself, I didn’t expected to like it so much. I didn’t know anything about the author, much less had read any of his books. I approached the book somehow circumspect, but from page two I had a smile on my face almost till the very end, interrupted only by a few instances when I surprised myself having difficulty reading due to moist eyes; one of these moments being when Maf (short for Mafia Honey; why Mafia? it might have something to do with Frank Sinatra ;P) meets Marilyn for the first time, and the others moments…I’ll let you guess.

Now I realize that I wasn’t completely honest with you: I didn’t merely like the book, I loved it!

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What is the meaning of life? How the mind works? How we got here?

If you don’t ask any of  these questions once in a while, it is my belief that your life is not worth living.

Be the first to throw the stone. I’m well aware that I’ve addressed an insult to a lot of people. The strange thing is that I don’t feel a bit of shame for uttering that outrageous sentence. I have to confess that I’m also terrible annoyed by people who think that evolution is only a theory. What’s more, I have no patience to talk to people who kind of admit that it’s close to impossible that the Earth was created a few thousand years ago, and that the man was created from a lump of dirt by God etc. etc., but they embrace a rigid NO when it is suggested to them that the human mind was shaped by the very same process which produced the body.

‘You see, MAYBE the body of any organism was the result of some kind of evolution by natural selection or some other process, but wait, the MIND, oh my God, the MIND is surely the work of a mastermind, the Creator.’ (Dawkins has a beautiful and suggestive name for that creator: The blind watchmaker). My delicate answer to this objection is: all right, put on your blindfolds and enjoy the ride. After all, questions are an ugly invention.

Douglas R. Hofstadter described  GEB as ‘a statement of my religion‘, but don’t get fooled by the word religion.

Basically, Hofstadter is trying to answer this question: what is a self, and how can a self come out of inanimate matter?

The author chose to use analogies from the works of mathematicians, painters, composers, biologists, and his own genius to explain and to embark on a quest to find out how a bunch of firing neurons can create a mind capable of asking how a bunch of firing neurons can create a mind. A strange loop, indeed.

My main problem with the book is that it contains a lot of  equations, and only this fact alone will scare off  a lot of potential readers interested in the subject. The other problem was that it made me realise how dumb I am (but in a good way –insert your favorite smiley face here– ; the good part being that I know how little I know).

The thing with this book is that even if the reader is a creationist or a person who believes that she was abducted by aliens who implanted a chip in her brain, there’s still plenty of reasons to like GEB: M.C. Escher and Rene Magritte’s pictures, stories about Gödel, Zen, Bach, DNA and the beginning of AI, dialogues in the spirit of Lewis Carroll etc. etc.  all those linked together by strong or weak bonds, swirling and tangling on different levels in a maddening yet satisfying loop.

Now I’ll share with you a little joke, long time forgotten, which came to my mind after reading GEB. The joke, told to my class by the professor of mathematics, in high school, some twenty odd years ago, goes like this (please bear in mind that the d(ex)/dx=ex, which basically says that the derivative of ex is… ex):

Two students who just learned about differentiation have a chat. One of them, trying to impress his colleague with the new knowledge acquired, said, full of himself, to the other:

‘ I’m going to differentiate you till I’ll cancel you, reduce you to zero’.

And the reply came calmly:

‘Please let me introduce myself: I’m ex.’

Well, my feeling is that Hofstadter can use the same response to the critics who might try to nullify his work.

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Free as a bird?

It’s a wonder that the two of them are even still together.

I don’t think they’ve figured out yet how to live.

(Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, 2010)

562 pages.  Freedom (Jonathan Franzen, 2010). It took me 3 days to read the book. Bought it on Sunday afternoon, finished it Tuesday well past midnight. Franzen, the same fine psychologist from The Corrections, with his latest book strikes me as one of the few authors who seems to acknowledge that we, humans, are only a product of evolution by natural selection, and not the product, the goal of evolution. The author seems to me to be a firm believer in an unchanged human nature and thus an adherent to the Tragic vision about life, as opposed to an Utopian vision where the human nature can change with a little help from our little friend, Big Brother.

We have the freedom to accept our imperfections and live accordingly, or to revolt and make half of the globe population even more miserable (as ALL communist regimes did) and inflict pain in the name of the illusion that human nature can change at the will of the Party.

But even if you are lucky enough to be born in a modern democracy, there’s still other freedoms to ponder about.  For example, the problem of personal liberties:

People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.

Another thought about the book, after which I’ll share with you my feelings about the experience of reading Freedom.

If by some freaky accident all the postwar U.S.’s archive will be lost except for The Corrections and Freedom, an extra-terrestrial being reading those two novels will have a pretty good idea about how it felt to be part of an American family.

A friend of mine, who’s a sound engineer, told me , some years ago, the following little story.

One summer, he was busy working in the studio with a very beautiful and talented singer. She was hot as hell, and the summer day was almost as hot so my friend G. came to work wearing a T-shirt, Bermuda shorts and sandals. The recording session was going on good, but G. felt that something was missing. He didn’t want the album to be good, he wanted the album to be great. ‘Mon cher’, he said, ‘I decided to take a break and I went home to put some jeans on me and a pair of cowboy boots, and when I came back to the mixing table everything went great after that.”

While reading Freedom, there were a few moments when I was suspecting that Franzen was wearing sandals, but overall the book has the resonance of a writer wearing some heavy boots.

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Elective ignorance was a great survival skill, perhaps the greatest.

(The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen, 2001)

I’ve just finished The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen, 2001). I’m not gonna talk about the book (a great book) or the author (a great writer). On a second thought, I’ll say only this about Jonathan Franzen:beside being a brilliant psychologist (as all the great writers are), he’s an acute observer of the human nature.

The human species was given dominion over the earth and took the  opportunity to exterminate other species and warm the atmosphere and generally ruin things in its own image, but it paid this price for the privileges: that the finite and specific animal body of this species contained a brain capable of conceiving the infinite and wishing to be infinite itself.

I’ve used a still from the movie Away from her (Sarah Polley, 2006) to illustrate this post because often times, after putting the book down,  some images from this fascinating and insightful little movie were coming to my mind.

I’ll leave you in peace with this following phrase from The Corrections while I’ll be waiting patiently for Franzen’s latest novel (Freedom)  to meet the greedy hands of the readers.

Like a wife who had died or a house that had burned, the clarity to think and the power to act were still vivid in his memory.

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