Saturday, April 29, 2017

Compass III

I made an effort to finish the book carefully but in the end became sick of it and raced through the remainder quickly. The title apparently refers to a compass owned by Beethoven which was set to point east rather than north (Franz received a replica as a gift), and there is also mention of the compasses attached to prayer rugs in order to orient them towards Mecca. The entire book is supposed to represent Franz Ritter's reveries during a long, sleep-interrupted night, as if One Thousand and One Nights were written by Proust while lying in bed.

Following my last post, the anecdotes continued, and Franz and Sarah met occasionally. A dream sequence ran for a few pages. Later on, Flaubert came up briefly, with mention of his relationship with Louise Colet. Sarah was away most of the time pursuing research in the Far East and was engaged in a successful academic career. Her relationship with Franz developed slightly and became physical, but their commitment to each other remained circumscribed.

According to a few reviewers, there is supposed to be some sort of East-West hypothesis buried in this mess, and I don't see the point of trying to extract it. You can hardly read a page without one or two new names popping up, and, since Énard's ability to distill ideas is pathetic, I think the book is best suited to fuzzy thinkers and masochists. Énard's style emphasizes incidentals and minutiae more than theory or the integration of ideas. Most of his anecdotes amount to fragments, and if they had been expanded to make them collectively intelligible, the book would have been several thousand pages long. In later pages, World War I is described more explicitly than other historical periods, but I find Énard bereft of critical thinking, and a serious reader would be a fool to invest much time in this book. What we have is a novel that is considered timely and topical, because of the rift between European and Islamic cultures, and aesthetically sophisticated, because of Énard's academic exposure to Near-Eastern and Western music and literature. I don't think that Énard's riff on the cultures adds much to the topic – he's not much of an anthropologist – and his aesthetic observations, though memorable on occasion, are of greater interest to academic specialists than to novel readers. In other times a book such as this would simply be ignored, and with good reason.

The fact that Compass has just been shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize only confirms to me my belief that such awards must be viewed with caution. After this experience, I don't think that I'll be reading Énard again. Although European prizes may produce better results in fiction than American prizes, human nature in Europe is no different from human nature in North America and is still error-prone.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Compass II

I'm almost halfway through the book and, since I'm becoming tired of it, may just zip through the rest. Although Énard writes well, this is merely a series of anecdotes of variable interest to me. Most of them are about European travelers or would-be travelers to the Orient, beginning in the 1800's. I read with some interest the ones about Liszt, Talleyrand, Beethoven, Balzac and Stendhal, since I was already interested in them, but many are about persons of dubious historical significance and read to me like window dressing. Besides being a good writer, Énard is quite learned in these topics, or he at least has researched them fairly well. I am a little surprised, however, that he hasn't even mentioned Flaubert so far.

For a serious reader, this kind of writing wears thin quickly. Énard displays no deep interest in history, and his emphasis is on the follies of his colorful historical figures, who are often rich or aristocratic adventurers. Frisson is generated by Franz and Sarah's excitement over obscure topics, which, to a mature reader, seem like the reveries of over-educated, naïve graduate students. Franz and Sarah bring to mind the frivolity that has come to characterize scholarship in the humanities. Ironically, though I had thought that this might be a politically correct exposition on the value and sophistication of Middle Eastern culture, it looks more like a slightly condescending imperialist presentation of the Middle East as a playground for fatuous Europeans. Lacking Franz and Sarah's enthusiasm for these subjects, the two seem to me like misguided people who have chosen careers in an esoteric branch of tourism. To be sure, they do seem to possess an understanding of the cultures into which they have plunged, but they still seem dilettantish and psychologically detached from the immediate world.

To make matters worse, there is no real plot to the novel. Franz is a scholarly mama's boy who lusts after Sarah from the moment they meet. In the present, Franz is middle-aged and becoming ill. The story is told in a series of flashbacks occurring during conferences or while doing fieldwork. At this point in the book they have gone as far as to sleep side-by-side outdoors, and the only remaining question is whether they will actually have sex at some point in the future. However, they don't really have what I would consider to be a developing relationship. They simply do things together that they both enjoy, and Franz knows little about Sarah's background. Officially their relationship is nothing more than a chaste friendship.

If I had wanted to engross myself in Orientalism, I could have found much better books than this. Returning to my sociological perspective, Énard looks to me like a genuine academic who decided to capitalize on his writing skill by writing a bestseller. This book seems to fit a literary niche that might be described as A.S. Byatt meets J.K. Rowling meets Lawrence of Arabia. Most reviewers would probably find the book erudite enough to pass for literature while also offering excitement sufficient to insert words such as "romp" into their reviews. It makes the grade as "literary" while also offering a bare-boned human interest story. Since it is bereft of ideas and the main characters are immature, I am not finding it interesting: the target audience would be more entertained than I've been so far. To be fair, I'll finish the book to see whether my judgment is premature.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Compass I

I've barely started to read this novel by Mathias Énard because of the change of season and associated distractions, but thought I'd start writing about it anyway since I haven't written anything for a week. I chose it partly because it is a Prix Goncourt winner, and I have had better luck with those than with other prize winners. There are many problems connected with award-winning books or award-winning anything, but if you're as picky as I am you have to start somewhere. As a resident of the U.S., French awards still seem a little exotic to me, and, given France's literary history, the award standards are probably slightly higher, though the actual picks are also affected by local trends that may be just as arbitrary as local trends anywhere. While I don't have an enormous sample base, I have come to expect American literary picks to be the worst, Nobels in literature only slightly better, the British awards next, and the French the best. Literary awards are affected by the sense of responsibility of the awarders, which varies from country to country, and since I am most familiar with the U.S. I am automatically well-attuned to the latest groupthink or themes in political correctness that usually have a major impact on which books are selected here. If literary judges everywhere express biases according to their local standards, and those standards are similar to the standards in other countries, you can still get a sense of which book might win in your country by knowing the exact details of the environment in which the award is made. It's similar to politics, where you can see that Donald Trump isn't qualified for the job and doesn't even have a set of coherent ideas, but the trend was in his favor, because there were enough others who didn't view him the same way that you did. Literary awards are subject to similar sociological patterns, which means that they don't necessarily correlate with an objective measure of aesthetic merit, if there is such a thing. I have enough firsthand knowledge of the U.S. to know that it is not the best place to look for good writing.

Compass probably fits a current French award paradigm, because it explores music, literature and folklore spanning the geographical region from Western Europe to Persia. The narrator, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist who lives in Vienna, and his friend, Sarah, is a scholar who specializes in Persian and Arabic literature. In the same way that there is a pressure for American literary awards to go to minorities or women, in France there may be a pressure for literary awards to go to writers who demonstrate a sensitivity to Arabic or Persian culture. These pressures are not necessarily bad things, but they have a tendency to limit the scope of literature by ignoring works that don't fit a particular mold.

As I said, I've barely started reading this, so I don't have much to say at the moment. There seems to be a tension regarding Franz's unrequited love for Sarah. They are both brainy academics who are passionate about their subjects. Énard is a talented writer with respect to descriptions and esoteric knowledge, but it's too soon to say whether or not I'll find him too academic and pedantic after a few hundred pages. For the time being I am enjoying reading about intelligent, well-adjusted adults who are capable of having decent relationships with others. From reading Houellebecq, Krasznahorkai and many other modern literary writers, you would never know that there are people out there who don't lead dysfunctional, isolated or unhappy lives. I have long thought that the most challenging and interesting fiction would be about well-adjusted, educated, intelligent adults who think clearly on a variety of topics, are not conformists and have insights to offer. Believe it or not, I have yet to find a recent novel that fits that description. Contrary to Tolstoy's famous dictum, all happy families are not the same: it's just easier to write about unhappy ones.

Although it may not be the case, Énard could be pandering to or benefiting from the popularity of Islamic subjects in French literary circles. Even without its Islamic refugees, the French have been fascinated with Orientalism since the nineteenth century. Houellebecq probably was quite conscious of this when he wrote Submission. To compare the two, Énard is far more scholarly and knowledgeable than Houellebecq, who probably could have picked up his information on Islam and Huysmans from Wikipedia articles. Énard is probably a better writer in the technical sense, in which linguistic skill is emphasized, but may prove to be a weaker writer than Houellebecq when it comes to producing effects. For the moment I am enjoying his characters more than any of Houellebecq's, but I am aware that even the best academic writers tend to produce works that eventually lead nowhere. The book may be worth reading for Énard's expertise on Arabic and Persian culture, but, as I've said before, I don't believe it is incumbent upon me to learn about other cultures. Also, to the extent that religion is emphasized, I am so sick of hearing about it that I can hardly stand it anymore if I am expected to take it seriously. Whether it's Islam or Christianity, we are well past the time when educated adults ought to have moved on to other models for their worldviews.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017


I came across the news that Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, has died at the age of 87. It took me a while to generate a reaction, because, as an editor, he placed himself at a distance from the reader, and whatever he thought or represented seems opaque. We know that he was the main force behind the publication, but we don't know exactly what he believed or considered important. In the end it seems as if he was a guy who liked editing and making a name for himself in erudite circles, and perhaps nothing more. The NYRB doesn't stand for much of anything other than general liberalism, and if its authors collectively represent any ideas, Silvers made sure that they were nuanced to death. When they were explicit, they were just as likely to be wrong as right. In two areas that interest me, he was on the wrong side of history, perhaps because underneath the surface lurked a creaky traditionalism that made him leery of evolutionary biology: maybe he was a closet conservative theologian of the humanist tradition. He favored writers such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin over Edward O. Wilson and Christopher Hitchens and promoted Garry Wills and Marilynne Robinson, who, from what I know, embrace obsolete or sentimental religious ideas that, to my way of thinking, do not belong in an intellectual journal. Tony Judt's comment about American intellectuals having no public impact also comes to mind; since no one pays attention to them, they are free to romp and play in the imaginary world of their choosing. On the pecuniary end, George Soros, whose writing style and qualifications as an intellectual were surely not sufficient to warrant his inclusion, got as much space as he liked, presumably because he had billions of dollars.

My negative thesis on intellectuals came to a head recently when I realized that Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were more poseurs than serious thinkers. Perhaps they and Robert Silvers were playing a game that they enjoyed more than actually figuring out anything important. By coincidence, I recently attended a surprisingly excellent student production of Tom Stoppard's play, Arcadia, which is partly about the stupidity and vanity of ambitious academics, and there may be parallels. Perhaps Silvers, Sartre and de Beauvoir simply sought fame, like Bernard Nightingale. Not many are immune to the allure of stature in the circle of their choice. When one looks closely at the petty ambitions of intellectuals, they come to resemble more pedestrian ambitions that lack the pretension of loftiness.

Although it's not yet green outside, the goldfinches are turning yellow again, and spring seems to have arrived. I've taken off my snow tires. For a change of pace, I am going to read the novel Compass, by Mathias Énard, next.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It's Taking Us Next II

In subsequent chapters, Dormehl describes new applications of AI, interviews various researchers and discusses issues that may come up in the future. One of the recent developments has been the arrival of helping software such as Siri from Apple, which acts as a personal assistant. There are several areas in which specific applications of AI have produced human-level results or better. Neural networks have been specifically designed to win at Jeopardy!, conduct drug research, drive cars and design equipment for NASA. We are currently surrounded by data mining on an enormous scale, and it seems as if companies such as Google and Facebook will soon understand people and their needs far better than we understand ourselves.

The most unsatisfactory chapter covers the effects that AI will have on employment. Although it is obvious that it will soon be able perform most tasks better than humans, Dormehl paints a rather naïve scenario in which people are employed either by producing code or by working as artisans and selling their wares on the Internet. Like many young, tech-savvy writers, he glosses over the basic economic problems that are being caused by new technology, particularly with the fact that AI is driving down costs in most industries and many traditional careers are disappearing. If you take the optimistic position, it is possible to envision a utopian future in which AI makes life better for everyone and standards of living generally improve, but Dormehl says nothing about how this major transition would occur and seems blind to the actual political and economic environment in which everyone lives. We are evolving toward a "gig" economy in which few have permanent employment or job benefits, and without significant structural changes most people are en route to lower incomes and little or no job security, which would destabilize society.

For my needs, Dormehl seems to do a fairly good job at distinguishing the types of AI that exist or will exist. First, there is the old number-crunching version that works with brute force through all of the possibilities, such as the early IBM Deep Blue, which defeated Garry Kasparov in chess. Then there is the neural network type that roughly simulates the human brain and processes large amounts of data to arrive at solutions. The former is logical and mainly involves a human-made program processing more data than a person could. The latter finds solutions statistically, without a step-by-step process, and though it can come up with excellent solutions to specific problems, it may be impossible to understand the internal logic of the outcome, which detracts from confidence in its reliability. The next step in AI will be artificial general intelligence, or AGI, in which AI will be able to perform over a wide range of tasks like a human, rather than in the task-specific manner that AI works now. The hypothetical singularity will occur when AGI surpasses human capabilities.

Then there is discussion of extreme futurists such as Ken Hayworth, who says "I absolutely believe that mind uploading is possible and I think it's something we should actively be working toward." Some futurists are obsessed with digitizing themselves and becoming immortal. This doesn't interest me at all: I'd rather die.

The most interesting chapter for me is the one on creativity in AI. It is already starting to occur and brings into question the nature of creativity itself. We are in the early stages of AI producing what is considered original, which had been the exclusive domain of humans. AI can already write rudimentary fiction, paint artistically and design new products. The capabilities of AI in these and other fields are sure to devalue what has been thought of as talent among humans. This is another area in which Dormehl seems oblivious to the effects of advances in AI. It is easy to imagine a future in which the supposed strokes of genius that have occurred throughout history are considered lucky stumbles by feeble brains. In the process of providing deeper insights into the world and new ways of expressing our humanity, AI will deflate a class of accomplishments that we have been using to assign social status among ourselves, because the importance of talent will be diminished once it becomes commonplace.

Dormehl also briefly covers the risks of AI and the moral and legal questions that are surfacing around it. However, the book is primarily a broad survey of the field and doesn't go to any great depth on the issues at hand. Nevertheless, I found it informative and useful for my rudimentary purposes.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It's Taking Us Next I

I am now reading this short book by Luke Dormehl to get a better handle on AI. With all the fuss I've made about the subject, I thought I ought to inform myself on it a little better. This is a readable, journalistic history of AI from its earliest days up to the present, with some speculation about the future at the end. As far as I've read, it has covered the early years of computational logic under Marvin Minsky and others, which proved to be far less fruitful than people had hoped. Now I am moving into neural networks and deep learning, which have transformed the field into its current state. It shouldn't take me long to finish the rest of the book, and I will probably have more to say about the later chapters.

My interest in AI is not at all technical and has more to do with the sociological and philosophical changes that it is precipitating. There are still skeptics around, but I think we are well on the way to superintelligence, and there is already a certain pressure to reevaluate our collective self-conceptions and modes of living. If you have a materialistic view of the world, there is no magic ingredient to human beings that can't be replicated and magnified or reworked into a more effective form. But even without superintelligence, radical changes are occurring, because businesses are requiring fewer and fewer employees with the new technologies available. Developed countries are going to have to rethink their public policies whether they like it or not, because unemployment is slowly becoming the norm. Those who point to formulas of the past, such as boosting economic growth to increase household incomes, are toying with concepts that are nearly obsolete and have no chance of solving the social problems to come. In particular, the American model of working hard and getting ahead financially is increasingly untenable for the majority of workers, because their skills simply are not needed. It seems to me that as the demand for human labor declines, sinecures, basic income, or perhaps even the elimination of currency will replace the current model. At the policy level, little is being done in preparation now, because the political system is reactive to the immediate perceptions of voters who have no idea what is in store for them.

Another aspect of AI, which, fortunately, is being examined at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, is that it may result in unexpected disasters unless it is controlled properly. Even if the intentions of AI developers are good, AI may go awry or it may fall into the wrong hands. At this point I am less worried about it going awry than about it falling into the wrong hands. The wrong hands could be those of anyone from amoral technocrats to egomaniacs to religious fundamentalists, the latter including both Islamic terrorists and Christians. This technology is becoming powerful, and power has inevitably been abused throughout history.

Perhaps it is the philosophical aspects of AI that interest me the most. As I've said, we're not as smart as we think we are, but we've never had to deal with anything that clearly exceeds our intellectual capabilities. I expect there to be a series of shocks and rude awakenings that may change how we think about ourselves and our relationship to the universe. One of the reasons why I like the work of E.O. Wilson is that he was the first scientist to suggest that humans are eusocial creatures, like ants. This is simply an extension of Darwinism that, to me, provides the best framework for understanding our moral tendencies. AI researchers are currently a little stumped by the problem of making AI people-friendly, and that seems natural, because AI did not come into existence through a biological, evolutionary process in which morality became a key ingredient of survival. In fact, AI has no survival, reproductive or moral imperatives at all unless we build them into it. What we are about to find out is that most, if not all, of the "values" that we hold dear are mere evolutionary accidents that steered our behavior in a direction that allowed our species to survive up to the present. AI will not inherently possess any superstitions and will not be able to understand ours the way we do. I am wondering whether we will be able to understand the thinking processes of autonomous AI, because ultimately it will be self-teaching and will use methods that it develops on its own. I also think that there will be limitations to interfacing humans with AI, because our little brains have limited capacities. Eventually, assuming no disasters occur, AI will become the new God, but without the religious mumbo jumbo. My preference would be for it to become the keeper of our habitat, and I have no desire to expand the capabilities of my brain or to become immortal. That, in effect, would be death, because I would no longer be who I am now.