Reflections are only that, reflections, nothing more nothing less. Often these reflections are related to books I read, but occasionally also other things. These are often written very late, very fast,  using notes from my mobile phone, so the grammar and spelling is horrible.



The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross

This book is fantastic. I have read it for more than a year and I’m still not done. First I read it at the same speed as I do with most books, but realised that I only had scratched the surface. I then read it over a long time where I streamed/downloaded all music that was mentioned in to book and listened to that while reading and thinking about the corresponding parts. After that, I went back and I’m now currently reading the parts where I think Ross has captured interesting transitions in society, from the perspective of music, and listened to the music related to the transitions mentioned in the book. I’m not sure when I will put this book to the side, but I’ve been asked about my reflections for a long time and I thought I could share some reflections while still reading it.

As a disclosure I should confess that I have read very little about classical music, especially modern. So, part of my passion for this book is probably due to the fact that so much in this book is new to me. I have been afraid that my emotional experience will be “tainted” and I would lose the emotional connection to the music if I add knowledge and theories about the music I listen to. With this book I can say that this  is not the case, the fact that I have read about most of the events Ross discusses from many different angles (political, economic, philosophic, etc.) meant that I have now added a flavour that I have missed so far. For me this book has already made so much of what I have read earlier richer and the music has not changed.

The book is so well written that I on occasions I took a step back and wondered if Ross would pull me down a rabbit hole to show the danger of being swept away by a book. Especially the parts about music and politics were interesting, and I do not think they would survive in mass media that tend to simplify and polarize.

I appreciate that the book does not really have a structure beyond a rough chronological order. In most chapters it is a small group of composers that we follow, with particular focus on one, and how they evolve as individuals as they struggle/enjoy/fight for/doubt some of their most well-known work. In other chapters Ross takes a step back and show how different composers fit into a broader historic context.

The Rest is Noise is so filled with interesting observations, fascinating knowledge, inspirational stories, and fantastic quotes that I feel that a proper reflection would be many times longer than the actual book.

I’ll just include one (random) observation about the relation between music and art that I found very interesting and it is a discussion about the contrast between Vassily Kandinsky’s “Impression III (Concert)” and Schoenberg’s “Five Pieces for Orchestra”, the third to be specific.

“Looking at a painting in a gallery is fundamentally different from listening to a new work in a concert hall. Picture yourself in a room with, say, Kandinsky’s Impression III (Concert), painted in 1911. Kandinsky and Schoenberg knew each other, and shared common aims; Impression III was inspired by one of Schoenberg’s concerts. If visual abstraction and musical dissonance were precisely equivalent, Impression III and the third of the Five Pieces for Orchestra would present the same degree of difficulty. But the Kandinsky is a different experience for the uninitiated. If at first you have trouble understanding it, you can walk on and return to it later, or step back to give it another glance, or lean if for a closer look (is that a piano in the foreground?). At a performance, listeners experience a new work collectively, at the same rate and approximately from the same distance. They cannot stop to consider the implications of a half-lovely chord or concealed waltz rhythm. They are a crowd, and crowds tend to align themselves as one mind.”

For those who do not have them fresh in mind here are two links: Kandinsky’s “Impression III (Concert)” Schoenberg’s “Five Pieces for Orchestra”

Curious to understand the full context for the experience I tried to find information about the full concert. Then I found an article by Zachary Woolfe, Painting Music, and Listening to Art where he wrote “The concert opened with the String Quartet No. 2 […] and moved on to the Three Piano Pieces, then to five of his songs and the String Quartet No. 1.

String Quartet No. 2 String Quartet No. 1

But as I write this I feel that this is not fair to the book, as the part above will take up such a large part of this reflection, but was only one of hundreds equally interesting observations that inspired new thoughts and knowledge.

There are also short nuggets that makes you wonder how you could have missed them (perhaps it has been my resistance to read about classical music that has resulted in a blindness for patterns) like this observation about the movie 2001:

“Among other things, the film neatly brackets the entire arc of twentieth-century musical history. It begins with Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra , the music of nature’s original majesty. In the final section, the movie is subsumed into Ligeti’s alternate universe, spiraling through the outer limits of expression before returning to the point of origin. As the august Zarathustra chords sound again at the end, the cycle is ready to begin anew.”

Ross also makes some very chilling observations on how music during parts of history seemed to live in a separate universe (like to many people at that time). E.g. this observation “On August 3, 1941, the day that Capriccio was finished, 682 Jews were killed in Chernovtsy, Romania; 1,500 in Jelgava, Latvia; and several hundred in Stanisl ⁄ awów, Ukraine. On October 28, 1942, the day of the opera’s premiere in Munich, the first convoy of Jews from Theresienstadt arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90 percent of them went to the gas chamber.”

One aspect, of what I think describes Ross view, on the relation between art and politics is beautifully described in the following quote: “Although there is no point in trying to restore Schopenhauer’s separation of art and state, it is equally false to claim the opposite, that art can somehow be swallowed up in history or irreparably damaged by it. Music may not be inviolable, but it is infinitely variable, acquiring a new identity in the mind of every new listener. It is always in the world, neither guilty nor innocent, subject to the ever-changing human landscape in which it moves.”

There are also condensed parts, such as this about Metamorphosen by Strauss, where a number of threads are pulled together in ways that forever link a number of iconic musical and historical events: “In the final section a new element enters: a quotation from the funeral march of Beethoven’s Eroica. As the story goes, Beethoven had planned to dedicate the Eroica to Napoleon, but when Napoleon crowned himself emperor the composer crossed out the dedication and wrote instead, “To the memory of a great man.” It has long been thought that Strauss was saying the same about Hitler, burying a man in whom he once believed. In light of the hidden citation of Goethe’s line “No one can know himself,” it is more likely that the hero being laid to rest is Strauss himself. There are anguished dissonances as Strauss’s own funereal anthem falls in and out of sync with Beethoven’s. Having seemingly reached bottom, it goes two more long steps down—a low G, then an even lower C. It is like the sunrise fanfare of Thus Spoke Zarathustra moving in retrograde, the harmonic series rewinding to the fundamental. There is no “light in the night,” only night.”

There is also a discussion about the current lack of beauty in classical music that helped me feel less frustrated with, what I consider, so much uninteresting music these days. I still have a hard time to appreciate much of the contemporary classical music, but feel that I understand (and in some ways respect) why we are where we are. More than anything else the book also gave me hope for the future. Below three key quotes:

"OMGUS [The U.S. Military Government in Germany] inadvertently helped to bring about a “segregation of the modern and the popular.”"

"there was, on the one hand, a classical establishment that eluded denazification, and, on the other, an avant-garde establishment that opposed itself so determinedly to the aesthetics of the Nazi period that it came close to disavowing the idea of the public concert. The middlebrow ideal of a popular modernism withered away, caught between extremes of revolution and reaction."

“The American composer Elliott Carter explained why he gave up Copland-style populism and Stravinsky-style neoclassicism: “Before the end of the Second World War, it became clear to me, partly as a result of rereading Freud and others and thinking about psychoanalysis, that we were living in a world where this physical and intellectual violence would always be a problem and that the whole conception of human nature underlying the neoclassic esthetic amounted to a sweeping under the rug of things that, it seemed to me, we had to deal with in a less oblique and resigned way.”

I would have liked to read more about what beyond God that can create an urge to write music that transcends. Nature seem to present that kind of inspiration to some, but for many the “divinity” seem to the most powerful inspiration, even if it is a mixture, e.g. this quote “These allusions suggest that Feldman is creating a divine music, appropriate to the somber spirituality of Rothko’s chapel. In a sense, he is fusing two different divinities, representative of two major strains in twentieth-century music: the remote, Hebraic God of Schoenberg’s opera and the gentle, iconic presence of Stravinsky’s symphony.”

Perhaps some of my modern favourites can be explained in a way that I had not thought about:

“It is not hard to guess why Pärt and several like-minded composers—notably Henryk Górecki and John Tavener—achieved a degree of mass appeal during the global economic booms of the eighties and nineties; they provided oases of repose in a technologically oversaturated culture. For some, Pärt’s strange spiritual purity filled a more desperate need; a nurse in a hospital ward in New York regularly played Tabula Rasa for young men who were dying of AIDS, and in their last days they asked to hear it again and again.”

This was a surprising triangle for me. I have never before linked these three composers together. But if I do, as I did find them during the nineties, I would like to add Penderecki and Bryars, this pentagram brings together a longing for the eternal beautiful, other modern composers I like, e.g. , Nyman and Glass, seem to look more into the future. Others more in new interesting directions, e.g. György Ligeti and Thomas Adés.

Wabi Sabi: the Japanese art of impermanence, by Andrew Juniper

This is a short book, 160 pages, that probably covers a bit more than it should in order to provide the depth that Wabi Sabi requires. But in doing so it also manages to approach Wabi Sabi from many different angles. I would say it is a very good introduction to Wabi Sabi and Zen culture for those who do not know much about it.

For those who do know some, I think Juniper, manages to apply Wabi Sabi in so many unusual ways that I think almost everyone will find something to enjoy.

For me the book felt like four parts (not always in chronological order). 1. An general introduction to Wabi Sabi, Zen and Japanese culture 2. Specific examples of how related practises, like the tea ceremony and Kintsugi, fits in. 3. A guidebook for designers 4. A bridge to concrete issues today

I found the guidebook for designers a little unnecessary any “un-zen” in the way it lists “what is Wabi Sabi and what is not”, but apart from that I enjoyed the other parts of the book.

In particular I enjoyed the last part where Wabi Sabi is discussed in relation to some of the main challenges we face today. So many books about esoteric and complex concepts hide behind layers of philosophical arguments, without daring to relate them to current challenges. This books oversimplifies in a good way, and by that I mean that anyone can start to think about the challenges we have in our society, and how even with a glimpse of an interesting concept new ideas can emerge.

There is a longing for quality throughout the books that is also refreshing in an age where many cares about Twitter or a TED-talk. Quotes like this are frequent: “There is an expression in Japanese that says that someone who makes things of poor quality is in fact worse than a thief, because he doesn’t make things that will last or provide true satisfaction. A thief at least redistributes the wealth of a society.”

There is also a short part that touch upon commitment that I really like, where the following can be found: “A man called Shang Kwang, who sought the wisdom of Bodhidharma, asked that he might be admitted to study under him. Though he waited in the freezing snow for a week, it was not until he had cut off his own left arm and presented it as a symbol of his determination to learn that Bodhidharma relented and passed on his wisdom to the man who was to become his successor.”

The idea that you have to work hard for wisdom and that there is no easy short-cut is so at odds with our current culture that it is refreshing to have a book that briefly opens up a door to another world.

There are unfortunately also some language about modern physics and its relation to old wisdom that is not very good. Even if it is well intended it looks very much like the Deepak Chopra new age . e.g. “A solid particle has yet to be found, and instead scientists are coming to the realization that matter as we know it may not actually exist but is rather a movement of energy. Time, space, and mass are all relative concepts, and the view that the world in real, solid, and out there has become untenable to the scientific community, too. Despite these discoveries there still seems a dogged determination to hold on to the old views of reality, which tend to provide a rather comfortable haven for the frail intellect that feels the need to hold on to its view of the world.”

Language like this invite people who know nothing about physics to dream up their own “energy” theories where “quantum” can be used for anything where “God” was used earlier. I don’t think that this is what the authors intended, but it is how it can be interpreted.

In a consumer society where more is more, the following observation is interesting:

“An English flower arrangement may, for example, take up two thirds of the area directly above the vase with an abundance of extrovert flowers, but a nagaire flower arrangement from the tea ceremony may take up less than one tenth. Again, the space afforded to the single flower forces the attention to focus on the smaller details, and in so doing the life of the flower becomes imbued with far more poetry.” Or as they say in fewer words towards the end “a beauty without need for splendor.”

I was happy to see an attempt to link Wabi Sabi to global sustainability. This is what Juniper writes: “There are in fact three ways in which the philosophy of wabi sabi relates to environmental issues:

  • Minimizing consumption
  • Choosing quality products that come from sustainable organic sources
  • Respecting nature”

If Wabi Sabi sounds interesting this is a very good introductory book that does not claim to be anything else. It is written by a person who is clearly passionate about the subject and who is not afraid of try8ing to make it relevant, even in ways where many others would hesitate to apply the concept.

Remembrance of Earth’s Past (地球往事), a trilogy by Liu Cixin

The trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past, by Liu Cixin is fantastic and anyone with an interest in the future, physics, and/or China should read it.

The three books are: 1. The Three-Body Problem 2. The Dark Forest 3. Death's End

The first book, The Three-Body Problem, blow me away. The second, The Dark Forest, took a step even further. While the final book, Death’s End, released now in September 2016, did not manage to continue the positive trajectory (that would have made the final book one of the best sci-fi books I have ever read), but it is still much better than most books in this category. Without any experience of Chinese I think the language might come across a little strange, but there are so many things in this book that captures different aspects of China in very good ways.

While I have not read the Chinese original I feel confident to congratulate Ken Liu for the translation.

The books are such a joy to read on so many levels. As many good science fiction books this trilogy inspire on so many different levels. Below are some of the things I appreciated with the book:

1. The overall narrative The story begins during the Cultural Revolution in China and tells a story of our first encounter with another intelligent species from another planet. The story around the encounter is one of the best I have read. The way a very different culture is described and how we as humans try to cope with the threat of our own extinction are just two examples of well-crafted stories. The gaming aspect (you will understand when you read it) is also great.

How society explore different paths in order to avoid being extinct is written a little clunky, but also in a way that reflects how many of our institutions operate. If the way of writing in the way that reflect the institutions being discussed is very clever, or just an accident I don’t know, but it worked for me.

Perhaps what I enjoyed the most, in terms of narratives, is the story about the universe (or universes). This story, is described and experienced through multiple encounters and it is about how the universe is going through different phases with reduced number of dimensions, and that the reason for the reduction of dimensions, and corresponding reduction of the speed of light, is short-term aggression. How the need to dominate results in a race to the bottom, in multiple meanings of the word, felt like a very passionate plea for wisdom.

In terms of current discussions, the ways universes can be created in parallel was inspiring.

One link to the current mainstream discussions relates to simulations. Thirty/forty years ago, when the first computers did the first advanced calculations and helped put humans on the moon science fiction authors discussed how we could create new worlds by simulating life in computers and that we might live in a computer. Perhaps it is the fact that computers now can create lifelike objects in movies that has resulted in the current mainstream discussion about the probability that we live in a simulation.

I’m actually a bit surprised that even clever persons like Elon Musk is talking about living in a simulation in a serious way without reflecting on the underlying assumptions http://www.theverge.com/2016/6/2/11837874/elon-musk-says-odds-living-in-simulation. Of course, if we make simple extrapolations of current trends it is easy to argue that any intelligent species is likely to develop technologies that is capable of simulations and therefore that we are likely to live in a simulation.

The problem with the argument is that it is possible to make a similar argument for world making on the scale of planets, universes, or dimensions, if we assume smart use of our current technological knowledge. So thirty forty years from now we can assume that mainstream “thinkers” will make similar arguments for how inevitable it is that we live in one of many planets, or even parallel universes, created by a curious species that use the next generation of technology.

Taking a step back it is easy to argue that many of the “thinkers” tend to be extremely limited in their thinking, or just happy to make a media friendly argument, or being used by journalists who wants a good story, or a combination of the above (after all we live in a Twitter/TED/Trending world that is in love with the Spectacle).

The way we use our current level of intelligence, knowledge about science and tools, as if we are the centre of the universe and that our time is the one that will define how everything will end is fascinating. I think good science fiction books like the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” can help us move beyond the massmedia narrative.

If we want to expand the horizon, the fact that our intelligence in relation to ants might be similar to an another civilisations intelligence is to us, is also worth considering. It does not really matter if we look at the last 300 000 or 3 million years as a reference for how our intelligence has evolved. If we consider that other species might have evolved millions, or even billions of years ahead of us it becomes cute to think that we are at the ultimate threshold now and that our current technology is what defines our existence at all levels. If we add to that an exponential development during parts of the later development it becomes even more absurd to claim that we can understand how civilisations evolve.

Neil deGrasse has highlight the fact that our level of intelligence might be very simple, or very different, compared with other lifeforms so making us the reference and expecting us to be able to communicate with an intelligence that could come and visit us (or that is capable of communicating with us in real time in some other way) is not really based on any logic. And even less likely is that civilisations way ahead of us would be any more interested in talking to us than we are in talking to a worm.

A couple of (intelligent) people have misunderstood the above argument and used it to dismiss the dangers of general level AI, including Neil deGrasse himself. I think that is very dangerous. While we might not be as intelligent as we like to think, our capacity to kill ourselves seems to be greatly underestimated by most. It is difficult to comprehend that we are “intelligent” enough to have the capacity to kill ourselves as a species, and still on a worm’s level compared to other civilisations.

The above dilemma has interested me for some time, and was highlighted with reading this trilogy, and one thing that I think would be interesting to do is to develop an index for civilisations where the capacity to manipulate matter (perhaps a mixture of the Kardashev scale with the capacity manipulate matter on smaller scales, i.e. microdimensional mastery”) is combined with 1. The capacity to destroy the civilisation 2. The relation in the civilisation between solutions aiming at destroy and those aiming at evolve.

The benefit with such an index would be to encourage a discussion about how we as a civilisation are directing our knowledge and how we can avoid a situation where our capacity for things like reflection and empathy are so far behind our capacity to do destroy things. It would also be a measure of how vulnerable a civilisation is to small groups, or even individuals, that want to kill everyone.

By measuring the difficulty to deliver civilisation ending technologies it would also indicate how prone a civilization is to a mistake/freak accident. It is a big difference to have the capacity to destruction is that require a number of people collaborating and using very sophisticated technology that few have access to (say large scale nuclear war) and the potential possibility in the future to use a future 3-d printer that is available on the open market to manufacture a tailor-made virus that could kill everyone.

2. The role of science in society When the aliens are able to block our frontiers in science (on the quantum level) this is described in a way that oozes of love for science and the scientific process. The way the lack of progress in science does not only brings much of the development to an halt, but also results in deep depressions is fascinating reading.

3. The nods to history and culture As many good books this provides fun links to literature and art. Sometimes it feels as a fun idea that got a little shoehorned into the story, but as many of them make you smile that is more than OK.

An example is how they discuss that some of Van Gogh’s paintings can be described as portraying a two-dimensional sky.

Another example is how a story (unknown to me), Ivan Turgenev’s “Threshold", is used: “People dug up an ancient story, Ivan Turgenev’s “Threshold,” and used it to describe her. Like the young Russian girl in that story, Cheng Xin had stepped over the threshold that no others dared to approach. Then, at the crucial moment, she had shouldered an unimaginable burden and accepted the endless humiliation that would be her lot in the days to come by refusing to send out the signal of death to the cosmos.” 4. Nods to the author’s experiences in China So much of what we read is still from the west and while most western authors (especially the English speaking) does not reflect on the language or references they use, it is very clear that Liu Cixin has. The way key characters in the future have names that are a mixture of western and Chinese, how rituals like the tea ceremony are described when we meet alien cultures, and also small references to the bad air in contemporary China, are all obvious example of a new set of references. References that are aware that they might be part of the future, but not necessary. And this is very refreshing.

”Cheng Xin could not imagine a more perfect beauty, a beauty animated by a lively soul. She smiled, and it was as though a breeze stirred a pond in spring and the gentle sunlight broke into a thousand softly undulating fragments. Slowly, Sophon bowed to them, and Cheng Xin felt her entire figure illustrated the Chinese character 柔, or soft, in both shape and meaning.”

” “Luo Ji, who had said nothing so far, seemed relaxed. He appeared familiar with the Way of Tea, and holding up his bowl in the palm of his left hand, he rotated it three times with his right hand before taking a drink. He drank slowly, letting time pass in silence, not finishing until the clouds outside the window were colored a golden yellow by the setting sun. He set down the bowl slowly, and said his first words.”

5. Basic scientific “facts” As all great science fiction books scientific facts are included in a way that makes you smile. The speed of light and the number of dimensions have been used before many times, but the way they become the very core of the story is really well done. The number of dimensions also gets a link to Chinese philosophy and our search for beauty.

“The universe of the Edenic Age was ten-dimensional. The speed of light back then wasn’t only much higher—rather, it was close to infinity. Light back then was capable of action at a distance, and could go from one end of the cosmos to the other within a Planck time.... If you had been to four-dimensional space, you would have some vague hint of how beautiful that ten-dimensional Garden must have been.”

Now over to the “negative parts”. Note that they are minor grievances in relation to the overall story and should not be seen as a reason not to read the books. I should also add that they manly refer to the last book, so there is no excuse for not starting (and after the first two books you will read the last).

1. Word explosion As many authors with a brilliant idea and a compelling story Liu falls into the trap of expanding the books in quantity rather than quality. The first book clocks in at 300 pages, and the expansion of the second book is more than welcome, I even think the 400 pages could have been extended. However, the third book could have been cut in half to 300 instead of 600 pages.

2. Boring/irritating character The third book manages to create the first character in the trilogy that is both boring and irritating. The fact that she is the main protagonist who is at the centre of many of the key events makes it difficult to ignore her. All other characters are interesting in some ways, or help move the narrative forward in fascinating ways, but she is given a personality that is not only boring but also irritating. It is as if she was created to push the story in the most uninteresting direction and do so in a boring way. On top of that, she has a way of talking that is hard to describe, but it is like a bad movie with a bad actor reading from a bad script. Sometimes this happens when sci-fi authors are accused of having to little character development and they try to develop characters that focus on the more “human aspects”, usually resulting in clunky dialogue related to romance. Perhaps this is what happened in the last book?

3. Lost opportunity for an interesting ending It is hard to write a really good book, and even harder to end such a book in a way that is inspiring. The good thing with this book is that up until the end it is hard to know where it will end, but then it just takes a standard route.

I want to end by stressing that I think the book should be read by almost everyone today.

Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension: A Mathematician's Journey Through Narcissistic Numbers, Optimal Dating Algorithms, at Least Two Kinds of Infinity, and More, by Matt Parker

This is such a wonderful book. I started to read this as I wanted some inspiration for how to communicate math to children who are just begin to explore mathematics, long before they move into formal education, to see if I could find a vaccine against boring teachers. What I found was much more.

It is not often you read a book about math that is not oversimplifying interesting areas, while still making you laugh. Too many of the books about math tries so hard to make people interested that it feels as if the book is written by a group of PR people without knowledge or interest in math.

I find it hard to pick any particular favorite areas so I will just leave two examples of the kind of style of writing in two of my favorite areas:

1 “Infinity” for an example of the short and brilliant explanations “People seem to have the idea that if you keep counting up along the number line past bigger and bigger numbers, in the end, the numbers just give up. They can’t be bothered to go on, and there’ll be an infinity sign (∞) there to mark the end of the number line. This is not the case. There is always a bigger number. Infinity is not safely contained at the end of the number line. Infinity is not a big number. Infinity is actually a measure of how many numbers there are. The number line never stops, so we say it is infinitely long. Just like we said before that the number ‘five’ is the size of any set of five things, infinity is the size of a never-ending set of things.”

The whole chapter on infinity is very good. Infinity has been almost a hobby for me for a long time and I think the way Matt captured what infinity is, and what it is not, is a good example of the straight forward language that this book excels in. I’ve been surprised over the years of how many people that does not understand infinity, as they think it is a large - but impossible - number, rather than a description of a certain situation. This is true for some academics as well. The people I had the hardest time explaining infinity to has been philosophers who considered themselves experts on extreme risks and neoclassical economists who consider themselves experts on math. I wonder if “infinity” is extra hard for people who are control freaks and struggle to think outside a very specific box.

2. “Ridiculous shapes” for an example on how complex issues are brought into an everyday situation “I had seen a few knitted Klein bottles online, so I asked my mother if she could knit me the 3D immersion of the 4D Klein bottle so I could wear it as a hat. She just looked at me. We then had a long conversation where I was talking Maths and my mum was speaking fluent Knitting, but because she is quite the dedicated knitter, she eventually got it to work. The first one she knitted for me (the prototype, as I called it; or as she called it, a perfectly good gift) worked well, but it was all the same colour. I asked if she could knit me one that was stripy. Apparently, this is easy enough to do when knitting – you just change colours after a few rows – so I gave her a long list of numbers for the thickness of each stripe in the hat. The photo here is me wearing my Klein hat. The stripes are the digits of pi. Should anyone have a nerdier hat than this, I’d like to hear. ” For me the two texts above represent the core of the book. It is a book written by a passionate person who loves to share his experiments and ideas. If the tone in the book seems off sometimes (it did for me at first) have a look at Matt’s YouTube channel and you will understand how you should read the book. https://www.youtube.com/user/standupmaths

My only frustration with this book was that it was too short. I particularly would have liked one, or a few, chapters about fractals. In the next books it would also be great if Matt could include even more great ideas for making math physical, like the Möbius loop suggestions in the chapter “Ridiculous shapes” and how to make a four-dimensional cube by straws and pipe cleaners in the chapter “the fourth dimension”. Matt has already done a lot in the area of fractals, and I really like the fractal Christmas tree.

I would even like to challenge Matt, or anyone else with a similar skill set, to develop a toolkit for math. Something like the Snatoms, but for different themes in math… I’m sure that would be a successful Kickstarter project.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, By Steven Pinker

steven-pinker
steven-pinker

First of all I want to clarify that I highly recommend Pinker’s book. When I read reviews back in 2011, when the book was released, it felt as if this was another of the “optimistic” books that floods the market where authors confuse their unwillingness to accept serious threats with optimism. Therefore I ignored the book for five years, until I picked it up to check out one of Pinker’s arguments after a discussion. Reading the book I was surprised how interesting and well researched it was.

Pinker is not a person who confuses ignoring scientific facts, with being optimistic. He does cherry pick data occasionally, but it is done in a systematic and transparent way (i.e. scientific way) so that is not a problem. I would actually argue that a broad approach to changes in society, along the lines that Pinker is presenting, is impossible to conduct without a cherry picking process (or to be more scientific, iterative process based on intuition). Many authors try to pretend that their assumptions are objective, but Pinker is transparent and tells us that the structure he presents is the result of a process that he think is worth presenting.

Pinker is nowhere close to the simplistic media pundits dominating media when it comes to statistics. Pinker’s approach and findings are much more interesting. The transparent cherry-picking result in significant oversimplifications in a number of areas, but even those simplifications are inspiring as it is easy to see what happens is you change the key parameters Pinkers use.

Pinker’s book provides a lot of material for a conversation about global priorities and it also provides countless nuggets of fun information.

The following two random quotes from the book are good examples of the kind of style he uses: “It’s safe to say that the pilot of the Enola Gay who dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima would not have agreed to immolate a hundred thousand people with a flamethrower one at a time”

“Paul Slovic has confirmed the observation attributed to Stalin that one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic. People cannot wrap their minds around large (or even small) numbers of people in peril, but will readily mobilize to save the life of a single person with a name and a face.”

He use proper footnotes and usually have decent sources for the facts included. This is something that I think should be standard, but it feels as if people are becoming more and more sloppy with sources and footnotes.

When it comes to the basic structure of the book it structured around six trends. Pinker presents them in the following way: “To give some coherence to the many developments that make up our species’ retreat from violence, I group them into six major trends.”. These six trends are illustrated in the graph below.

 pinker Timeline

pinker Timeline

The first trend, the Pacification Process, is mainly outside the graph as it “took place on the scale of millennia, was the transition from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history to the first agricultural civilizations with cities and governments, beginning around five thousand years ago. ”. This trend started 3000 BC and ended around 1000 AD. This is the only trend that does not overlap with any other trend and is also the trend where data is most difficult to get.

The other five trends are overlapping and as in most simplified overviews the trends gets shorter and shorter as they get closer to todays date. Of the six trends, four are still ongoing and often difficult to separate.

The second last trend, the rights revolution, is different. All others focus on reduction of traditional violence (basically armed groups fighting in different shapes and forms), but the rights revolution focuses on the more cultural/institutionalized violence against “ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals.”. The last is also the one where Pinker has to admit that the trends are pointing in the wrong direction regardless on how you play with data when it comes to our relation to other animals.

He then creates a framework where he identifies the forces that can help us reduce violence. He calls these our four “Better angles”: 1. Empathy 2. Self-control 3. Moral sense 4. Reason

The forces that needs to be tamed/addressed he calls the “Five Inner Demons”: 1. predation, 2. dominance, 3. revenge, 4. sadism, or 5. ideology”

In the end he tries to identify (five) historic forces that have helped us reduce violence: 1. Leviathan 2. (Gentle) Commerce 3. Feminization 4. Cosmopolitanism 5. Escalator of reason

It is when he comes to the concrete forces that things become interesting, but it also then where the weakness of the book becomes evident. The forces are poorly defined, and how they have impacted society is not very clear.

“The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species. Its implications touch the core of our beliefs and values—for what could be more fundamental than an understanding of whether the human condition, over the course of its history, has gotten steadily better, steadily worse, or has not changed?”

Pinker argues that from many perspectives we have seen an overall trend where organized violence between humans has been reduced over time. I would argue that as an overall assessment it is easy to argue that this is true, but that such an assessment is not always very helpful. Where such an assessment could be interesting is if measures that people want to implement to reduce current violence (or other problems) could be shown to have been part of a situation where we had much more violence earlier.

Regardless of the problems I see with the book there are a number of message that I think are important:

➢ The idea of the noble savage is a myth ➢ The period of industrialization has been very positive when it comes to reduced human-human violence ➢ The last decades have continued to deliver reduced direct physical violence against humans in most societies around the world ➢ There is nothing inherently peaceful in humans, we create different frameworks that can strengthen and weaken different parts of us. So far we have been successful in reducing many of the violent aspects. ➢ The violence against other species and nature has continued to increase. While general acceptance for such violence has decreased, the industry so far have mainly responded by hiding the problems. Some improvements have been made, but the rapid increase in volume has more that offset those improvements.