While rereading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, I watch the Errol Morris documentary A Brief History of Time (it’s on HBO Max for the moment) and then went right into reading the illustrated and expanded version of Stephen Hawking’s book from 1996. The joke about A Brief History of Time, when it debuted in 1988, is that it was the bestseller that every intellectual had on the shelf but that few have read — kind of a slim Infinite Jest for the set who brought the kinds of dates home who peruse the bookshelves in judgments while you’re in the other room, opening a wine you have a story about.
That’s unfortunate, if true! A Brief History of Time is exceedingly readable, and the prose is, possibly owing to Professor Hawking’s disability, unadorned and economical compared to Sagan’s. Hawking cuts out the flights of fancy in favor of bon mots (Sagan, for example, spends a few pages imagining the internal monologue of a primeval hunter/gatherer while Hawking makes due with one-liners about how reversing entropy would put crockery manufacturers out of business). Visiting Cosmos and A Brief History of Time back to back is like taking in a year’s worth of “physics for poets” symposia and really offers excellent grounding for keeping up with news about quantum mechanics and cosmology.
Particles and anti-particles annihilate each other.
Quantum fluctuations near the event horizon of a black hole generate particles and antiparticles from the black hole’s mass.
Sometimes the antiparticle falls back into the hole and the particle escapes as radiatiopn
You don’t need my take on the science but one thing I’ll remark on is that as fast as science seems to be moving that so much of what we know is still rooted in about a century’s worth of work, dating to the advent of General Relativity and The Uncertainty Principle. String Theory started in the 1960s. Hawking and Roger Penrose performed a lot of their black hole work in the 1970s. They’ve been talking about dark matter and dark energy since the 1970s. Everything that seems newfangled to outsiders has origins in our childhoods, if not before, it’s just that nobody was telling us.
Also, while the mathematics behind Hawking Radiation might be beyond most of us, the concept isn’t so tough: Quantum fluctuations near the event horizon of a black hole manifest as particles and anti-particles, from the mass of the black hole. Particles and antiparticles annihilate each other if they touch. But they don’t touch if the antiparticle falls back into the black hole and the particle escapes as radiation.
Going to take a break for some fiction but I think the next science book will be The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose. It intimidates a bit more from the shelf, with its Pynchonian girth. I flipped through and Professor Penrose seems unwilling to spare us the math, so this might take more time, which is finite but unbounded.
J.R.R. Tolkien cautioned against reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as simple allegory, as the mythos is meant to speak for itself. But taken as an epic cycle, it’s the story of an innocent Bilbo Baggins who takes a heroes journey and unearths a great lost power when he discovers the “one ring” forged by Sauron, the greatest, most powerful and corrupting evil in the world.
A generation later, Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins, equally as innocent as his uncle, is asked to deliver the ring to the wise and immortal elves. But even they are potentially corrupted by its influence and so Frodo and his friends, including the deposed king of men, a representative from the elves, a representative from the dwarves and Frodo’s hometown friends undertake to destroy the ring by hurling it into the fires of Mordor. Along the way, they are stalked by a pitiful creature corrupted by the ring’s influence and all are twisted by a plant engulfing war that spares no one and allows for no neutral parties.
In the end (spoiler alert?), Frodo and his best friend Samwise succeed at their task, but at the painful loss of their innocence and childhoods. There are themes of heroic sacrifice and, yes, the notion of seemingly powerless people accomplishing great things against the forces of history.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have occupied significant space in western popular culture, from Leonard Nimoy singing The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins to two film trilogies by genius director Peter Jackson that redefined the Hollywood blockbuster. Nerds love it.
Nerds name their businesses after it.
The most prominent example is Palantir, a global surveillance and big data analysis company that took its name from the crystal orbs that wizards in the Tolkien universe use to see far away places. It’s a clever name for a company that, as The Intercept described, “Helped the NSA Spy on the World.”
But it’s also misnamed. Palantir, founded by libertarian techno-tyrant Peter Thiel, who once destroyed the media outlet Gawker because he didn’t like it, has built a company where the looking glass focuses on others but nobody can see into Palantir (well, except that now Palantir wants to sell stock so we can see that prying into the lives of everybody on Earth is still a money-losing proposition.)
In The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf is aghast to find that his colleague Saruman is utilizing a Palantir. In the books, this is not a one way device. When you look into one Palantir, somebody looking into another might be watching you. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil Sauron is on the other end.
Another evil company with a Lord of the Rings name is Anduril. In The Lord of the Rings it is the sword of Aragorn, forged from the remnants of the sword the heroic Isuldur used to chop the ring off of Sauron during the first world war. So, this is the weapon that, in the novels, defeats the worst evil the world has ever known and reminds us that there’s always hope and cause to fight.
Thje real-world Anduril, however, supplies drones to the U.S. Border Patrol for use stopping brave people fleeing political, social and economic oppression by making a hazardous trip across our militarized southern border. So, it is evil. Not only is it evil, it delights in its crapulence by boasting on its careers page:
“We won’t tell you that you’re making the world a better place with ad optimization and emoji filters. We believe the most socially impactful thing we can do is help people in life-and-death situations make better decisions.”
Ha, ha. Make the world a better place by utilizing drone chicanery against defenseless refugees. How heroic. Dorks.
Rereading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as part of a mission to brush up on my understanding of physics, astronomy and cosmology. I also rewatched the Errol Morris A Brief History of Time documentary and after Cosmos will reread The Illustrated A Brief History of Time. I plan to conclude, for now, with a first reading of The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose. I’m hoping some immersion study in popularized from from 1980 through now (I’d read Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time last year) will at least bring me to some acceptable level of comprehension.
Anyway, it feels like this:
This painting, which Lomborg made for the book, actually did help me get a sense of what it means for the universe to be finite but unbounded, at least from our perspective as prisoner of three physical dimensions.
I’ve never bee a huge fan of “man vs. nature” tales. Sure, I love The Old Man and the Sea, but that’s really existentialism at work, along the vein of Heart of Darkness. I haven’t delved into the James Fenimore Cooper or the Jack London. But I’ve add an odd little book by Edgar Allen Poe on my shelf since 2008 and finally opened it — the shuffle of the library being packed in one location and unpacked in another unearths all sorts of little surprises.
The Journal of Julius Rodman is five chapters of a fictionalized memoir of an expedition up the Rockies that Poe wrote for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine as a serial. It’s an incomplete novel as Poe was fired from the magazine and dropped the project. There are no supernatural or macabre elements, but the romanticism is in high gear.
Upriver, Rodman and his companions find dead buffalo washing up on the banks. Soon, they discover the source — a herd of the beasts attempting to cross the river at the wrong point, reaching steep embankments where they cannot climb out, criss-crossing the deep, flowing waters and exhausting themselves against the current. The band of explorers can only watch as:
“They now struggled fearfully to scramble up the bank, and one or two of them had nearly succeeded , when, to our great distress (for we could not witness their noble efforts without commiseration) the whole mass of loose earth above caved in, and buried several of them in its fall, without leaving the cliff in better condition for ascent. Upon this, the rest of the herd commenced a lamentable kind of lowing or moaning — a sound containing more of a dismal sorrow and despair than anything which is possible to imagine — I shall never get it out of my head.”
Imagine a company could hook you up to a machine, delve into your deepest interiors and tell you everything about your soul, including your past lives. Would you? Could you trust them? Sure you would, especially if it meant finding your true companion on life’s endless karmic journey. For the generation that’s given up its DNA to 23&Me and its browsing histories to every free social network out there comes Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler’s delightful and provocative novella, Soul Mates Inc. Erik is a photographer devoted to making art that’s just not selling, so he takes a journalistic assignment to photograph the clients of Soul Mates Inc. But his intentions as the skeptical outsider looking in are soon thwarted when he catches a glimpse of who he really is, where’s he’s been, all he’s done and who’s meant to share eternity with him. Quintenz-Fiedler imagines a universe with a definite absurdist bent and soon Erik’s on the trail of a life he can’t remember to meet the person he’ll never forget. It’s a perfect premise for readers who enjoy the philosophical storytelling of Milan Kundera, who enjoyed The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard and who became healthily skeptical of technology after reading Dave Eggers’ The Circle. This is smart, relevant and fast-moving fiction that reminds us we can’t get to know ourselves without changing ourselves.
“Why is Kubrick trending?” I wonder, and fall right into one of Twitter’s traps, despite having watched The Social Dilemma just two short days ago. I click, thinking maybe some undiscovered work has emerged or somebody has found yet another clever way to link Dr. Strangelove to current events. Instead I get this:
The Twitter takes were harsh and cutting. There are the jokes about Kubrick somehow not living up to his potential, there are the screen grabs that prove that most of Kubrick’s output was an outright criticism of toxic masculinity, there are screen grabs of other headlines by Mendelsohn that reveal, to put it kindly, immature tastes.
Which got me thinking, he must be young. I found his bio on ScreenRant and for sure he is new at this and developing his style there and at CBR.com, putting out a mix of serviceable listicles and criticism. He seems to be enjoying himself.
“Jon Mendelsohn is a graduate of Ithaca College with a degree in film. Currently a writer for both CBR and Screen Rant, Jon is also a filmmaker and lover of anything and everything pop culture. When not writing or binge-watching Netflix, Jon loves to travel and find all the hottest foodie spots.”
He’s just out of school. He’s making films, thinking about films, talking about films and writing about them. He’s also coming up in an age where living wages for writing is rare, where the internet demands quantity over quality and where the traditional and vital relationships between editors and young writers is hard to come by.
Put another way, how many editors saved me from my own piss-poor, just out of school takes? Mendelsohn is trying to make his way through the world with some productive grit and creativity. The temptation to earn internet clout by citing Kubrick’s “toxic masculinity” as his artistic Achilles’ heel may be intense.
At my feet sits a bin of notebooks, written mostly between 1997-2000. Some of those thoughts went into columns and reviews I wrote for Lies Magazine. I had column one devoted to politics and one to jazz and blues music. That I considered myself an authority on jazz and blues is now embarrassing to admit. Politics is for everybody, but jazz and blues? That takes deeper understanding and I didn’t have it then and don’t have it now. Really liking Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown is not enough.
I’m always tempted to look in those notebooks but I know there’s embarrassment on top of embarrassment in there. Fortunately, they’re at my feet and not online. Even the stuff I put online, for publications or my old blog, seem not to have survived outside of the Wayback Machine, if they’re even there.
Young writers and critics and artists today are really operating without a net. They can publish on impulse and so their impulses have to be perfect. Hopefully, the day that a young John Mendelsohn tried to get a dead Stanley Kubrick to get over his hang-ups and realize his potential won’t be long remembered. If it is, let’s remember it for the risks young writers, thinkers and artists face these days. Mendelsohn has plenty of time to realize his potential and I’m sure he will, if he’s encouraged with care.
Just plucked Allan Bloom’s 1968 translation of The Republic off the shelf and read his introduction, where he explains that he has attempted a meticulous word for word translation of Plato’s text, without inclusion of modern words, which he believes can only be deviant from any meaning that Plato intended.
His prime example of this is that he does not replace Plato’s notion of “the beautiful and the good,” with something like “morality and values” or “discussing moral values,” or other such phrases popular in late 60s academia. Plato said “beauty” and he said “good,” and we should try to understand his meaning, Bloom argues.
Citing Nietzsche, Bloom argues that an attempt to do otherwise would turn our understanding of the Greek canon into a kind of archeological field where we have pre-populated the dig with artifacts of our own choosing.
What Bloom believes is controversial in 2020, but it strikes me as powerful: A careful reader with good intentions can understand the mind of somebody from a long ago culture with distinct social and economic conditions, even through the medium of a translator, if they commit themselves to the intellectual project.
There’s a lot that stands in the way of this kind of reading — the reader’s prejudices, the inability of the translator to overcome their own cultural biases and background no matter how hard they try, the inevitable gaps in our understanding about who Plato is, how he lived and what influenced him, would broadly define the chasm we must cross.
Bloom thinks it can be done and I think he has to be right, otherwise true scholarship and creative works that transcend autobiography would be impossible. This kind of careful, honest reading is a path towards empathy and a re-affirmation of the old, seemingly now abandoned belief that the old liberal arts education can serve as a pillar for the establishment of an open and civil society.
For some, this will seem a quaint notion at best and offensive at worst. People claiming objective and open study of canonical texts have intentionally or not, excluded entire cultures, diminished the roles of women and have called on the wisdom of ancients to justify the unjustifiable. For too many people, “civil society” has failed to function either civilly or socially.
But there are stakes here for human freedom. As Bloom points out, in The Republic described by Plato, society is protected by those who fight the wars. “There are no guardians above the guardians; the only guardian of the guardians is a proper education,” Bloom writes. Beyond just the guardians, Plato’s audience was a societal elite who would make decisions for everybody else. If you accept that such an elite cannot be eliminated, that it will always exist and propagate itself in one way or another, then the only way to control these people would be to educate them about the beautiful and the good and to hope that education will temper and inform their decision-making.
I wonder if our current crop of elites in the United States has been properly educated? It seems our President’s notion of “the beautiful and the good,” is banal, gaudy and self-interested but that its alternative is technocratic to a fault.
Deep reading with an open mind, along with the belief that we can understand the minds of others, seems more necessary now than ever.
What if all the good free speech has been defended already? The United States government hasn’t gone after James Joyce, DH Lawrence or Theodore Dreiser in a long time. While the occasional local library might perk up against this book or that, it seems like the real free speech fights are all about Twitter running the right wing QAnon conspiracy group off of its platform or whether Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos can visit a college campus. Even progressives who value freedom of speech highly yawn at that stuff.
Who really wants to go to the mat for the organizers of a white supremacy march looking for a parade permit? Who has the time, energy or spirit to want to stick up for those people? Free speech has an image problem. If the voices most prominent suppressed by legal, corporate or cultural voices are the ones spreading hate, racism, conspiracies and misinformation, folks will not lose sleep over it.
In her new book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech in Our Time(HarperCollins, July 2020), PEN America president Suzanne Nossel explores our collective willingness to loosen our commitment to the First Amendment in favor of other values that seem at least as important right now. “If free speech is discounted as a retrograde precept used mainly to provide a safe harbor for hateful ideologies, these protections will be vulnerable as political attitudes evolve,” she writes.
Attitudes are changing quickly among the young, who seem to take a narrow view of free speech rights (only the government can censor you, nobody has a right to a book deal) and who increasingly believe the government should get into the content regulation business. In 2017, Smith College surveyed its students and asked if “free speech should be granted to everyone regardless of how intolerant they are of other people’s opinions.” Only half said yes. When Smith conducted the same survey in 2007, 70% answered affirmatively. Pew says that 40% of Millenials support the government regulating speech that might be offensive to minorities. Nossel recalls a Black woman employee at PEN telling her “The First Amendment wasn’t written for me,” and then concedes that her employee had a point.
Nossel sees danger here and attempts to address it from a couple of a couple of angles. First, her book is a defense of free speech as an innate human right, necessary for self-governance, economic success and all creative endeavours. But she recognizes this is not enough. While Pen America steadfastly defends, say, the rights of white novelists to write from the point of view of characters from other cultures and while it refuses to support boycotts that threaten to stop publications or to shutter events, she believes that the commitment to freedom of speech will only erode if other values aren’t included.
So, for example, while she’ll defend the rights of white authors to create whatever characters they want, she’ll also push the publishing industry to diversify itself, for its own good and the good of society. Maybe people would object less to the white voice if it weren’t the only voice. She also warns against needless provocation, particularly online, and counsels that better quality speech (knowing what you’re talking about) might pre-empt those social media cultural cancellations that get so much press. It’s the ignorant statement, rather than the innocent statement, that tends to cause people trouble, after all. Also, cool it on calling people “snowflakes.” It doesn’t help.
Of activists compelled to protest the speech of others, Nossel has some requests that will likely be ignored. Say your piece, she says, but stop short of drowning out the speaker. Attack ideas with enthusiasm, she says, but if your activism denies other people the chance to hear a talk, buy a book or see a film, you’ve gone too far. Eschew “The Heckler’s Veto” and don’t celebrate using social power to get people removed from their jobs or books pulled from store shelves. But Nossel’s call for civility has already been rejected by activists who claim the rules for civil debate seem designed specifically to mute their impact.
All of this seems to point towards either a resurgence of government regulation of the content of speech or for the government to encourage and reward large companies and social media platforms for acting on its behalf by running services that look like public spaces but are, in fact, gated gardens where owners can make the rules.
Our current system, where the government takes a largely neutral approach to speech content is only a century old, emanating from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in Abrams vs. The United States where the Supreme Court allowed for the imprisonment of left wing activists protesting the U.S. contravention of the Russian Revolution. We could easily slip backwards.
“University of Michigan Law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon argues that judicial interpretations of the First Amendment have been progressively corrupting, such that ‘once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful.’” writes Nossel. “She decries that a one-time shelter for radicals, artists, and activists is now used to protect Nazis, Klansmen, racists, and misogynists.”
Countries in the European Union routinely ban hate speech, Holocaust denial and the like. Such laws would be unconstitutional here, but Nossel sees that public opinion is shifting to where most people would likely accept such prohibitions as fine. Then, if laws also required social networks to conform, people wouldn’t object to that either. To most people, the EU is hardly oppressive. So what if it’s illegal for some chump to show off his white power tattoos?
The full-throated defense of even abhorrent speech might become an extreme position in American politics. Nossel is committed to it and her book is necessary right now, both as a guide for how to argue and as a celebration of the moral foundation of an open society. Nossel should win the day. But I’m skeptical she will.
A Czech refugee working in theater in England, Stoppard had been playing with language and writing metatexts for years, but without intellectual pretense — he came up in a theater full of demanding audiences who needed to be entertained, not lectured to. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead realized the best of this, with a fun riff on Hamlet and Waiting for Godot and mathematics and probability that’s genuinely touching and funny. It’s a rare achievement in art.
A low budget film version, starring Tim Roth and Gary Oldman helped usher in a vital 90s independent film movement and put Stoppard in a good position to write Shakespeare in Love another classic from the time.
Meanwhile, Stoppard became ever more ambitious in theater, perhaps topping R&G with the expansive Coast of Utopia trilogy and the fantastic Rock’n’Roll.
Happy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern day to you all!