Saturday, June 23, 2012

Started (E-Reader): "In One Person" - John Irving

As a John Irving fan, and on the recommendation of my friend Gillian McLeod, I started Irving's latest novel "In One Person".

Finished (Audiobook) - "Events that Changed History" - The Great Courses

I liked "Events that changed history" to a point - what point?  Mid-20th century.  What lost me there?  The author's admission that he considers the U.S. the greatest country ever, that he is a patriot, and that the U.S. only does good works.

Immediately, I smell bias.  I think all "world powers", particularly at the height of their influence, feel exactly the same way - they want to share their culture, knowledge and world view, and for only the most altruistic of reasons.  However, as a historian, the author needs to step beyond that perspective.

I'm not a U.S. hater, I grew up on the Canadian side of the border, but as close as you can get.  However, I fail to see how the Cold War was always positive, even if the ultimate goals were considered required and honourable (some of the games were harmful to the countries where they were played out - Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, South America Cuba, border regions in Europe where the Iron Curtain was laid out...).  You don't have to be a communist to see that capitalism is not a force for pure good (slavery in the older days, sub-subsistence wages in the current environment).

It is hard to understand the role of the U.S. in world history, and to understand what will be seen as positive and negative in the view of future historians because we are still in the U.S.-era - we don't have the luxury of perspective from the post-U.S. era.  However, that doesn't allow historians to be flag wavers - they, more than most, need to keep their perspective and throw away the rose-coloured glasses.  Kennedy's assassination was a key point in recent history - I would have loved some understanding of what might have changed in the next election (or the 2nd Kennedy term) had he lived.  What further outcome to the Bay of Pigs/October Crisis might have arisen in a longer Kennedy presidency?  Might detente have come 20 years earlier?  Might Vietnam ended earlier or lasted longer, or spread more widely?  This would have provided the impetus for making the list.

9-11 ends the events - but is there enough perspective to do this justice?  What is the difference between the wars in Afghanistan (widely supported in the world) vs. Iraq (very little support) and how will that effect the U.S. international status in the longer term?  Changes to U.S. privacy laws, and pre-emptive arrest, Guantanamo - how are these changes expected to alter the basis the U.S. was founded on?  How do they influence world opinion of the U.S.?  Even with the stated goal of reducing terrorism - does it makes sense - is in inflaming rather than resolving?

I think the author might have been wiser to stop sometime around the Wright Brothers, where there is a key linkage between their experiments and subsequent world events (shrinking of the world through air travel, increases arsenals for wartime use, eventual moon landings...) and leave more recent history for historical fiction, or for a more nuanced and independent analysis.

Finished (E-Reader) - "What Doesn't Kill You" - Iris Johansen

I wanted a little escapist reading, some Ken Follett spy novel, or a Clancy Jack Ryan story.

I was quite disappointed in "What Doesn't Kill You" by Iris Johansen.  I don't like stories that have a "magic man" who has mysterious powers that just seem to be exactly appropriate to the situation at hand.  The Hu Chang character was just such a magic man - he seemed to be able to whip up any concoction with is magic herbs to fix any calamity.  Need to find out info - no problem, here's a truth serum - shot?  - just take this.  Oh, for some reason we don't know how to follow you without a bugging device (even though we have drones), here's some magic fingernail polish that can be tracked with heat sensors.

The story of a girl growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Hong Kong and meeting up with a pharmacist has some potential, as does the story that many years later her son is kidnapped for an extended period of time, and that she becomes an informant and later an agent for intelligence service(s).  I like all of that, but might have like the story better if it relied more on her skills, learned from living in the streets, and training with the CIA than being reliant on the "magic man".

Wouldn't recommend this book.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Finished (E-Reader) - A Beautiful Mind

I had seen the movie adaptation of "A Beautiful Mind" a number of years ago, which would have been my first experience with the John Nash story.

The book simultaneously goes into more and less depth than the movie.  The movie made is very unclear when John Nash was hallucinating, which made the story complex and a great movie.  The book dealt much more completely with what was lost when John Nash was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia - his relationships, his fortune, his possessions...

I don't accurately remember the movie ending, but the book ends on a pretty positive note, with recovery (to a large degree), awarding of a Nobel in Economics to Nash and others for game theory work in the 1950s.

The difficulty that Nash's family had, given his genius, determining a course of action was well documented - should they consider shock treatment, at the risk of losing whatever it was that made him a genius?  One course of treatment I was unaware of was insulin therapy, where a patient was put into an insulin coma every day for several months - an injection of insulin in the morning, induced coma, then IV or gastric-introduced glucose to recover from the coma.  Sounds hellish, but considered more humane than electro-shock.  The judgement from Nash's peers was mixed, with many blaming John Nash's wife for hospitalization, and considering the entire episode a misunderstanding of his genius.

It took time for John Nash to recover, which was gradual over decades.  It was astounding to those who ran into Nash on campus, where he was a legendary figure "haunting" the library and computer labs, that he was considered unfit - many saw him as "fit/unfit" as other mathematicians, particularly as his balance and stability became more apparent.

I think this is a good read for anyone in academics, as my experience has been that there are many straddling the line between "eccentric" and "needing assistance" - the extremes of Nash's life illustrate both.  At his "healthiest", he was egotistical and occasionally mean/cruel, with social difficulties, particularly related to close relationships with other men, and odd/abusive behaviour towards his significant females (girlfriends, wife, "common-law wife").  At his lowest points, he was unable to carry on non-paranoid conversations - though his fantasies did have a large degree of cohesiveness, indicating that some aspects of his underlying intelligence were working to make as much sense as possible out the bizzare visions.

The other primary audience should be those dealing with mental illness, either their own, or in the family or with close friends (this means pretty much everyone).  Understanding how difficult the decisions to medicate, hospitalize and even decide whether treatment is necessary are well laid out, and show a true anxiety about each level of decision.  The general misunderstanding of mental illness in society has not changed that much - there might be better treatments, but there is still a basic misunderstanding of where and if the line is between eccentricity, unique personality and illness, and there is no shortage of those who will judge the actions and inactions of those dealing with the issue, regardless of the road taken.  "Beautiful Mind" expresses these conundrums well - particularly as the patient and the co-workers were the most educated folks around, and presumably in the best position to understand.

As an aside, I found the discussions regarding the Nobel Prize interesting.  Economics was not an initial Nobel, and was funded separately, though administered in conjunction with the Nobel committee.  There are some who don't consider this prize a "real" Nobel Prize, as it wasn't identified by Alfred Nobel, and isn't funded by his trust (and it came about much later).  The reporting on the debates and processes of deciding and awarding the Nobel were worth reading (particularly the position that John Nash isn't really the "Same guy" who did the Nobel-work in an earlier decade), and worries that there might be embarrassment should he be granted an award.

Finished (Audiobook) - "Science and Philosophy" - The Great Courses

I should admit, up front, that I am not a big philosophy fan.  My experiences with philosophy have been technical diatribes that tend to absurdly extend arguments and then play the "defend that" game - a game that never seemed to get back to discussion of the initial issues.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to actually like "Science and Philosophy" of "The Great Courses" series.  Aside from some (to me) asinine asides using "breen and grue" for the absurd example of logical structure of mixed "green" and "blue" that change under logical conditions, the remainder of the discussions were interesting.

It is interesting to look at the limits of science, how much can be proven, and a reminder that theories are always under-supported by data (there is always a chance that a better explanatory theory may explain all of the existing theory plus other now-unrelated phenomena).  It was difficult at times on the audio-only version (as I was driving I didn't refer to the written guides which would have helped) to keep clear which philosopher we were discussing at any particular time, and given that current scientific thought has grown out of many of these roots, it was occasionally difficult to understand the "point", given that it has been adopted and should be in play.  I did find the actual philosophical discussions to be interesting and clear, even if the original author(s) were lost in transition.

Finished (Audiobook) - "Science and Religion" - The Great Courses

I listened to a second "Great Course" during my commute to and from Windsor.  "Science and Religion" was OK, but it seemed to me that the author was taking too great a step to make sure neither side "won".

It is interesting to see that science and religion were more intertwined in times past, particularly since higher education schools were typically religious institutions and there was a need to pledge allegiance to god in order to be in good standing (not a point stressed in the course).  However, there was much less dogmatic reliance on the biblical text, more on the interpretation, which didn't cause as much tension between the two.

They did go into the more modern, U.S.-based "intelligent design" debates.  Overall, I didn't find the discussion to be very even-handed - Galileo was under house arrest for violation of the biblical interpretation of genesis - has any religious figure been arrested by "science" for their beliefs?  Scientists may argue issues and differences, but there has not been opportunity, or desire to imprison "believers" on scientific grounds.

I did find the topic of Galileo interesting - the purely "scientific" community was not entirely convinced he had a good model.  The current thinking had a much smaller entire universe, so there should have been evidence of parallax with stars that could be seen from Earth as it revolves around the sun - something that couldn't be adequately explained given the state of knowledge at that time.  Even the philosophic analysis of Newton's gravity was interesting - the label "gravity" was not much better than "God did it" given the explanatory power of the times - there was no "substance" of gravity, nor a great explanation of how it worked at a distance.  Newton's laws of gravity could easily have been considered an explanation of how God chose to handle planetary motion.

Finished (Audiobook) - The Great Courses "The Big History"

Started some of "The Great Courses" university-level courses in various topics given by lecturers who've been recognized as excellent instructors in their field.

"The Big History" was a very nice course to start with.  The idea of "Big History" is to start with the Big Bang and go forward.  Typical history is very writing-oriented - where history can be pegged to named individuals with precise (or reasonably precise) dates.  From the "Big History" perspective, this is a kind of "pro-writing" bias, where many significant events (in fact THE significant events) are pre-historical in the classic sense.

Going through the eons in this course provides a nice overview of the sciences, from physics through chemistry, geology, seismology...  In fact, the history of the sciences themselves was interesting: the initial universe only has physics, as there was only hydrogen and helium atoms - when stars began to coalesce, there was a start of chemistry, which much later let to biology and later social sciences - each level increased complexity over the last.

I'd recommend this course, particularly as an overview to a large number of sciences - cosmology, plate techtonics, human evolution, politics, history...