Smile – Roddy Doyle

You must be a fan of fine writing to persevere with Smile, Roddy Doyle’s latest, because no genuine drama is apparent, except for the closing scene, which is deus ex machina hogwash.  Actually, not even that. At least that classic ending had cultural context, God dips his finger into human affairs and resolves all story problems.

In this case, the ending is equivalent to “…and then I woke up.”  It’s totally manufactured and it breaks the implicit contract with the reader who has been coddled along in a context of realism for two hundred pages.

The first-person narrator, Victor, is a divorced, middle-aged man living alone in an apartment in a small town or district in or near Dublin, in contemporary times.  He goes to the pub and meets people and drinks and that’s the extent of his life, on the outside, anyway, but the reader is ‘treated’ to his extensive backstory, especially his childhood education in a boarding school where he was sexually abused by the head priest. He represses and rationalizes that period, with Freudian costs.

That tale might have been shocking fifty, or even twenty-five years ago, but not today, so I was mystified as to why that was the main theme.  Doyle seems to have been trying to portray how seriously deep the psychological scars of such childhood trauma can be, not merely document that such things happened in boarding schools. If so, he missed the mark, in my estimation, missed it over the top.  The psychological consequences of repressed shame might manifest in many ways but psychotic hallucination and delusion would not be among them. It wasn’t believable and it stood out like the contrivance of a writer who had lost his way.

In a parallel backstory, we see Victor’s long-time relationship with a dynamic and beautiful woman, Rachel, who he was always amazed stayed with him, so undeserving of her fame and her charm he was.  That was an interesting relationship dynamic and could have been developed much more. But it wasn’t. We saw only endlessly repetitive episodes of crazed, passionate sex. We never did understand what Rachel saw in him until the whole story was undone with the phony ending. So that thread was also a disappointment.

As for the writing, it is seductive at first, but quickly becomes repetitively quirky and little more than recitation of quotidian detail and vapid chit-chat. This might have been successful as a tight story of under 10K words. At 200 printed pages, it’s not my pint of beer, I’m afraid.

Doyle, Roddy (2017). Smile. New York: Viking/Penguin/Random (pp. 214).

What Darwin Got Wrong

I never paid too much attention to the details of Darwinian theory before I read this book. I assumed, as many do, that the basic ideas are sound. The offspring of any animal vary in traits (blue vs brown eyes, large vs small wings, high vs low intelligence, etc.). Some of those offspring live to reproduce, some don’t.

Not all diversity is good for survival. Brown polar bears would have a harder time avoiding wolves than white ones. Over time and generations, the bears adapted for survival continue in the gene pool, while the nonadaptive ones die out.

Not only does natural selection seem to explain the animal world we see, but it’s also a great heuristic, for problem-solving, as an example. Throw a lot of solutions at the wall and keep the ones that stick, discarding the others. Likewise, social explanations often invoke the heuristic of natural selection.

Fodor, a philosopher, and Piatelli-Palmarini, a geneticist turned cognitive scientist, argue that Darwin’s idea cannot be correct. After plodding through their dense arguments, I came away with a shocking conclusion: they’re right. The theory of evolution by natural selection cannot be correct. The authors don’t offer an alternative theory, so they have left me with a profound puzzle I did not have a week ago. I love books like that.

This is not to say the book is all good. The arguments are often made badly, densely, obscurely, and sometimes fallaciously, so it’s not an easy read. But in the end, they do point out critical reasons that make them correct, in my opinion.

Evolution by natural selection is a scientific theory, that is, a naturalistic explanation depending only on physics, chemistry, and biology – not at all on God or magic; not on the idea of “progress” the erroneous notion that evolution is “heading towards perfection.” All of that is irrelevant. Evolution as a scientific theory is mindless, lacking in intention, purpose or direction, like wind rustling leaves for no reason at all. I was already on board with that understanding. If you’re not, this is not a book for you.

One more time: By arguing that Darwin was wrong, the authors do not say that Intelligent Design, Creationism, or any other such supernatural explanations are right. The theory has to be correct “on its own,” in the natural world. And Darwin’s theory cannot stand on its own, they say.

The seductive error we commonly make derives from the success of artificial selection. Humans have been breeding everything from roses to cattle since before Mendel’s peas. When you consider that all varieties of dogs have been bred from wolves, you have to respect the power of artificial selection. It works.

But artificial selection is not a proper model for natural selection because in the natural (non-human) world, nobody is doing the selecting. There is no literal “Mother Nature.” The process of natural selection is supposed to work the way water flows downhill, because according to natural laws, it must.

The problem is that we have no natural laws to explain natural selection.  Did evolution select white fur for polar bears, or did it select for “blending into the background?” If white polar bears lived in green grasslands (as they may well do in a few decades), they would not blend in, so white fur would be “maladaptive.” We can’t say if selection was for “white fur” or for “blending-in” because we don’t know how natural selection works.

The authors dismiss the idea that natural selection works directly on genes. The relationship between genes and traits is not one-to-one. One gene can produce many traits, and one trait can be produced by many genes. So the idea that environmental conditions, like the color of ice and snow, can select fur color at a genetic level, is not plausible. But how else could it work?

Our intuition (my intuition) is very strong that wolves would have caught and eaten the brown bears quickly, leaving only the white ones to reproduce, thus “selecting” for white fur. But intuition is not a fact. How can fur color in a bear be “selected” by the visual system in a wolf? The scientific fact is that we do not know exactly how natural selection works. I fought it, but I was forced to bow to that logic.

The authors argue along similar lines that we also don’t know what an “ecological niche” is. The planet has many, many environmental particularities. Why one set of circumstances is called a “niche” for an animal is a projection of our own human ideas. What’s a niche for you could be a hellhole for me. Who is to say what’s a niche, without human opinion?

The authors also prove, to my satisfaction, that the hypothesis of random mutation is wrong. Many, perhaps most traits, are severely constrained by endogenous factors, not by random mutation and subsequent environmental filtering. The fact that we see no pigs with wings is not a result of natural selection. It is a consequence of how genes and bodies work and has nothing to do with natural selection, so it is wrong to say that genetic variation is random.

I come away from this book with shaken confidence in the idea of natural selection. Evolution of the species is a reasonable, demonstrable fact, and there’s no problem with the theory of evolution in general. We just don’t know how it works. Natural selection cannot be the answer.

However, in their explanations, the authors engage in the same promiscuous point-of-view shifting that led to Darwin’s error. Just by using the word, “selection,” they automatically smuggle intentionality and purpose into the discussion because that’s what the word connotes. There is no such thing as selection without intention (except metaphorically). Nearly all the authors’ arguments are flawed by that error.

Despite that, I still was convinced by the gist of their main point, that “natural selection” is not an adequate explanation of how evolution is supposed to work. It’s a bit upsetting to be left dangling, but at the same time, when I’ve looked at some of the more incredible co-adaptations in nature, such as among bees and flowers, antibodies and pathogens, and so on, I’ve always had to suppress incredulity that a mindless process of natural selection was the best explanation. I’d rather have no answer than a wrong one.

Fodor, Jerry & Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo (2010). What Darwin Got Wrong. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 264 pp.

What Exists and How Do You Know?

From what I understand of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, this book about his work, The Clamor of Being, is not helpful. It seems to deliberately obfuscate rather than clarify Deleuze’s thinking, though that could just be the au courant style of French philosophy.  I managed to wrest some useful ideas out of this short essay, but I can’t recommend it as an exegesis.

Author Badiou was a co-founder of the University of Paris VIII, along with Deleuze, and with Michel Foucault and Jean-Francoise Lyotard. Quite a crowd of eminent founding fathers! Deleuze committed suicide in 1995, presumably in despair over his quality of life, which was marred by respiratory illness.

In my comments, I understand ontology to be the study of what exists. I understand epistemology to be the study of knowledge. Can things exist that you don’t know about? Of course. Can things exist that are unknowable, such as Kant’s “Things-in-themselves” or Freud’s “id?” That’s difficult to say.

Can you know about something that doesn’t exist? That depends on what you think “exist” means. I know about Mickey Mouse. How knowledge is related to what exists is a fundamental problem of philosophy.

This book seems to me Badiou’s attempt to articulate his own ontology by contrasting it to the views of Deleuze. But I understand Deleuze to be first an epistemologist. While Deleuze’s analysis of knowledge does inevitably lead to a study of what’s “there” (e.g., what one knows), Badiou wants to start with ontology and derive epistemology from it, a doomed endeavor, in my opinion.

Deleuze’s main work is considered by many to be Difference and Repetition (1968), in which he inverts the traditional relationship between being and knowing. Traditionally, one says that X is different from Y, which presupposes that X and Y exist, and the only question is how they differ.

Deleuze said, no, X and Y are defined by their differences. One comes to identify them as X and Y after detecting differences, or discriminating patterns in the flux of experience.

For example, one might decide, “wine tastes good!”  After some experience one discriminates that some wine is gold, other is purple, some fruity, some tannic, and so on, and eventually, one comes to see that there are white and red wines. The identity of the two classes arose from discriminated differences in experience. X and Y did not exist until differences were noticed and labeled.

By Deleuze’s account then, epistemology precedes ontology. It’s like baseball umpires comparing how they call strikes and balls. One says, “I call them as I see them.” Another says, “I call them as they are.” The third says, “They’re nothing until I call them.” The second umpire is correct, according to Deleuze. I would choose the third guy.

As a student of American psychologist James J. Gibson, I learned that from a perceptual point of view (the only one we have), the world is composed of invariant features detected over change. A world that does not change, quickly disappears from view. From change, we notice the features that change more slowly than others. Those are invariants. From invariants, we conceptualize what exists.

Badiou wants to argue that one must start instead with what exists, and worry about perception and knowledge later. He claims (wrongly, I believe) that Deleuze did the same.

He says Deleuze believed in a single, unitary Being (noun), something like the Platonic forms all mashed into one big one (though Platonism is vehemently denied). This One Being is sub-personal, so we have no direct, conceptual  (epistemological) relationship to it.

Instead, we are familiar with the multifarious forms of being (gerund and noun), very similar to Heidegger’s Dasein (although Heideggerian ontology is vehemently denied). From being, we infer knowledge of the One Being.

This is all well and good, I say, except for one small detail. Without  consideration of epistemology, how could Badiou know these things? Is he magic? Mere declaration of what exists is authoritarian fiat. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong. Without a defined epistemology, you can’t know.

This is the fundamental problem with any philosophy that begins with ontology rather than epistemology. You’re left only with grand pronouncements. That worked for the Old Testament, but it’s not so good as contemporary philosophy.

This, and many other objections to the book, forced me to confront my presuppositions, always a good thing, and that’s how I managed to learn from Badiou, despite my rejection of his presentation. The main insight, which I came to reluctantly, is that there is a sense in which ontology does precede epistemology, and that is the sheer givenness of the world.

Before I embark on an intellectual inquiry, I sit at my desk with a cup of coffee and face my computer. Wait, what are those? Desk, coffee, computer? Are those things that exist? Yes. They must exist and I must believe in them at a pre-philosophical level or I cannot even begin the investigation. Ontological fact has preceded everything.

What Husserl called the “natural attitude” is taking the world “for granted,” as most of us do, most of the time. The “philosophical” or better yet, the “phenomenological” attitude that one uses for doing philosophy, is a special state of mind that comes later, and is built upon, and transcends, the natural attitude.

Nevertheless, I argue that if you are going to write a philosophy book, as Badiou did, you are entering the scene in the philosophical attitude and it is disingenuous to pretend you are starting with a pre-philosophical, pre-epistemological ontology. So I am still annoyed at Badiou and his book, even while I admit I gained significant insights from it.

Badiou, Alain (2000). Deleuze: The Clamor of Being. Louise Burchill, trans., Volume 16 in the Theory Out of Bounds Series. Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minn. Press, 142 pp.

Underwhelmed by Smart Speakers

I bought a “Google Home” voice-activated speaker (VAS) that uses Google Assistant, a synthetic voice that answers questions. Google Assistant is comparable to Siri, Cortana, and especially Alexa, the persona on Amazon’s “Echo” line of voice-activated speakers. For all of them, you bark out your command and get answers and actions.

I chose the Google Home over the Echo despite heavy discounting of the latter near year-end, because I do my work in a Google environment. I use Google as my search engine, Chrome as my browser, Gmail, Google calendar, maps, and so on. Echo has the advantage of making it easy to buy things on, but that solves a problem I don’t have. I’ve never had any trouble buying things on Amazon, except for the Google Home speaker, which Amazon refuses to sell. I bought mine at Target.

I thought I’d use the Google VAS (these talking speakers need a generic name. Voice-activated-speaker is not great. I hope somebody comes up with something clever) for two main chores: putting things on my grocery list, and retrieving shows from YouTube (which is also owned by Google).

When I’m up to my elbows in cooking and notice I need to replenish an ingredient, I am not likely to bring everything to a stop, wash my hands, find the list, and write on it. I’d like to just say as I work, “Hey Google, I need eggs.”

With Google Home, I can sort of do that. I say “Hey Google” or “Okay Google” to get its attention, which works well, even while it’s playing music, then I say, “add eggs to my shopping list.” Later, I can ask it to play back the list while I write it down.

What really want though is a generic notepad to which I could speak all kinds of random thoughts, reminders and lists while I chop then later print it all out.

To accomplish that, I had to create an Evernote account  then link it to Google Home using an app called “If This Then That” (IFTTT)  and then I could make generic notes using the VAS and print them out from Evernote on my PC. It’s a very round the bush way of doing things.

For selecting videos from YouTube on my TV, I was less than satisfied. The Google Home does not interface with Roku. It seems to recognize an Amazon Firestick but recently Google has pulled YouTube from Firestick (Ah, America!).  Google Home does work with Chromecast (made by Google). Even so, you need to know what you’re looking for.

I can say, “Hey Google, play funny cat videos on Chromecast,” which defaults to YouTube. But if what I really want are clips from Stephen Colbert’s monologue that I haven’t already seen, I’m going to have to browse with the TV remote as I always have. There’s no browsing with a VAS.

The same goes for music. I can say, “Hey Google, play some Jazz,” and it selects some insipid “smooth” jazz from, where else, Google Music ($15/month). Or, I can say, “Hey Google, play guitar blues on Pandora” and it will do that, provided I have already set up my Pandora account ($5/month) and linked it to the Google Home VAS. But again the software selects featureless soporifics. If I specifically want Stevie Ray Vaughan, I’m going to have to say that. Just as with YouTube, there is no opportunity to browse with the VAS. You have to say exactly what you want.

The speaker quality on the Google Home is not bad, with decent bass, and if I don’t mind asking for exactly the same few things every day, it’s nice to have the Google Home play music next to the reading chair. And it is great to have the google search engine at my fingertips.

Yesterday I asked it how long the French revolution lasted and the VAS told me, correctly, ten years It assumed I meant the first revolution in 1789, not the second, in 1830, which features in Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education,” which I was reading, and why I asked. My mistake.

When I wanted to know if the Dow Jones average had gone up or down that day, I asked “What is the Dow Jones?” and it explained to me that it was an industrial index of 30 American Stocks. Again, my mistake.

I like being able to ask for translations and dictionary lookups as I read. I have a tablet nearby, but I confess, just speaking out my request is easier. I’m lazy. I often ask the VAS odd questions as I read, like how much today’s dollar was worth in 1870.

As for all the other wonderful things a VAS can supposedly do for me, I am less enthusiastic. I do not want to order a pizza from Domino’s (only Domino’s – that sort of thing only works for companies Google has contracts with). If I want to order an Uber ride, I’m going to need to see my calendar and a map; it’s not something I can do only by voice (and there’s no easy interface to Lyft, which I prefer anyway). I don’t need Google to tell me a riddle. I don’t need it to tell me the time, I don’t need any recipes, and I don’t care how tall Ryan Gosling is.

I have not fully explored the Google Home. I haven’t had a need yet to ask questions about my calendar and I don’t want my email read out to me. Or the news, either. I don’t mind setting my thermostat myself and I can turn my lights on and off with an ordinary switch. I wish it could tell me if the garage door is closed, but it can’t do that (at least not cheaply or easily). I’m sure there’s more to the device I will discover over time.

I’m also worried about privacy. The speaker is always on, always listening. Supposedly it listens only for its wakeup phrase, “Okay Google,” but who knows what goes on behind the curtain? To link the Google assistant to another app, you are required to give it access to your entire location history, which includes your Android smartphone. There’s no logical reason for that except surveillance. We’re moving into unknown territory on the privacy question.

Paranoia aside, I am underwhelmed by the idea of a voice-activated speaker but I suspect that as the technology improves, and as the “internet of things” takes hold, the VAS will become an important part of the technosphere. For now, I’m keeping my Google Home for the expensive luxury of having convenient access to the google search engine while I read.

Children of Dynmouth

This is a very British tale by a very British author, an acquired taste, I believe. You must appreciate understatement and dry wit to find it engaging, and you also must be able to bulldoze past a mind-numbing batch of opening pages documenting the town’s scenery. It’s a very slow starter but picks up after the first quarter.

The town is a tiny seaside community in long decline where the chief economic engine is a sandpaper factory.  The characters are small-minded, dim-witted, and set in traditions and their habits of behavior, speech, and activity. These are ripe characters for satire, though by now, some forty years later, they are well-worn stereotypes.

Among the few children in the town is Timothy, an under-socialized and delusional sociopath who spies on the townsfolk, learning their secrets, such as infidelities, then insinuates himself into their lives with the promise that “their secret is safe with him.” People treat him with annoyed and chilly politeness at first, then later, with alarm. He is portrayed merely as a troublemaker at first but near the climax, more delusionally  psychotic.

I didn’t find the characters’ psychological moves realistic or convincing, but I admit the culture portrayed is not my own, so that could be my deficiency. The descriptions of the town and its characters are vivid.  In the end, we are told by the preacher that the “case” of Timothy is a study in the banality of evil. He is neither possessed by devils nor intentionally evil; just a mixed-up kid.

The writing is mild, the theme is mild, and the overall tone is mild. It is a mild book, a study of manners in a certain time in a certain place, interesting now because that time and place have virtually vanished from the modern world. Winner of the Whitbread Award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the novel will appeal to those who enjoy British dramas on PBS and appreciate a quiet, British sensibility.

Trevor, William (1976). The Children of Dynmouth. New York: Penguin, 195 pp.

And Now Here’s the Pitch

Morro Bay, CA

I recently attended a “pitch” conference for a week at a charming seaside town on the coast of California. Morro Bay is a fishing village and a tourist trap, stereotypically picturesque and aggressively insular, but like all such small towns, tawdry. You don’t have to look very deeply into the eyes of hotel and coffee shop clerks to see the hopeless boredom of a prisoner. Even the “fancy” restaurants on the boardwalk betray desperation with their superlative descriptions of the Pacific Ocean view to be had from their dilapidated deck. The tablecloths are white, the wineglasses spotless, the lighting soft, and the greasy menu offers “Chile Relleno Burrito” for $19.95.  Can’t beat that for elegance.

But I wasn’t there for the scenery or the culture.  I was there to pitch my latest novel to agents and editors.  The conference had two parts.  For the first three days, each person among the dozen writers pitched their novel to the group and got feedback, mainly from the expert workshop leader.  The “pitch,” also known as the “elevator pitch” is about 150 words that accomplishes these goals:

  1. Describes your whole novel, including title, genre, word count and comparables.
  2. Presents the main character, setting, story conflict, and antagonist
  3. Suggests the story arc and ends on a cliffhanger
  4. Engages the attention and interest of an agent or editor in about one minute.

Writing a good pitch is an art form similar to writing good haiku.  In this workshop, the emphasis was on how to make the pitch commercially marketable.  Every attendee struggled mightily with revision after revision after revision.

At the end of three days, we’d all heard iterations of the pitches so many times, any one of us could have described any other person’s novel in concise detail, even though no manuscripts or writing samples were exchanged. All the novels were in the sci-fi-fantasy genre, and actually all but two were fantasy. Only mine and one other lacked dragons, witches, and mythological beasts. It’s what’s happening.

As a group we also heard “war stories” from two recently published authors about how they got the job done.  Those tended to be not helpful, as every case is unique and there’s not much to generalize to your own situation.

During the final three days of the conference, each person pitched invited agents and editors, sometimes serially in the group setting, sometimes one-on-one in private.  There were five agents and editors present, not all at once.

By the time I was “up” for pitching, I had rewritten my pitch so many times I was dizzy. I had traveled down a long path from a conceptual exploration of an idea to almost an action-adventure format. I had my doubts about whether the final version was even interesting. But I pitched it.

The result was pretty good. I got three requests for “pages” from the five listeners.  One agent asked explicitly for three chapters, a two-page synopsis and a bio, “right away.” You bet I will!  Another just said, “That’s very interesting. Send me some pages.” By asking around I learned that meant send a query letter and about 25 pages. The third person gave me helpful notes on my pitch, said she liked it, and moved on to the next person in the circle, but at the end, just as we were breaking up, she handed me her card and said to send her “something.”

Three out of five ain’t bad, especially compared to three out of fifty on my last outing with a different project using the method of cold email query.  No fish have bitten that hook so far.

My problem now is that the pitch that “worked” at the conference has only a very loose connection to the actual manuscript.  I’ve got the main ideas, the characters and locations, but the story line is not the one I started with. Now I’m furiously rewriting my query letter, synopsis and first three to bring them into alignment with the pitch.  Then I face the daunting task of rewriting the whole manuscript to match.

So it goes.  Hope springs eternal.

More Things That Don’t Work *

* as well as they should.

Some time ago I posted a rant about things that don’t work, at least not as they should ( Those things included cell phones, ice-dispensers, gift cards, and others.

Here’s a list of a few more things that don’t work but somehow, inexplicably, flourish in the market as viable products and services.

  1. Streaming Movies

People don’t go to the movies anymore, not in the numbers they used to. They’re ‘staying away in droves.’  Part of that is price, but also the advent of large television screens and home theaters.

I hardly ever go to movies anymore, mainly because most movies seem targeted to children and are not for me. But also the journey across town to a theater is an obstacle, and parking, and then the admission price is too high. They can pump up the volume on the sound until the contents of my stomach curdle and it’s still not worth $12.

On the other hand, everyone and their dog now “streams” video online, from Netflix, Amazon, the cable provider, or whoever else is peddling movies. I’ve done it. It’s easy, fast, and cheap.

The problem is the catalog. Having all those movies digitized for on-demand access was supposed to be a boon for people like me, the outlier who doesn’t care about the next superhero and who has had it up to here with explosion movies.  It was supposed to be economically feasible to serve ‘long-tail’ customers like me who enjoy thoughtful and artistically done films which are not profitable to the mass market. Hasn’t worked out that way.

I have to spend an inordinate amount of time scrolling through providers’ film lists looking for movies that interest me. It’s all the more difficult because if I click on something I might be interested in, the entire list of movies presented is suddenly changed to emphasize those similar to what I just clicked on, even if (as usual) I reject it. I am therefore not free to pursue my own interests without interference by oxymoronic ‘artificial intelligence’.

For example, I recently got onto a ‘film noir’ kick for a while and watched, and enjoyed, “Night and the City” and “Elevator to the Gallows.” But after that, whenever I want to browse for another movie, I’m flooded with old black-and-whites from the ‘50’s and ’60’s and enough Alain Delon films for a lifetime.

If I want to see (again!) Goodfellas and Silence of the Lambs, no problem.  But if I’m interested in “The Conformist,” “Dogville,” or an old Jean Reno movie like “Crimson Rivers,” I have a much more difficult search ahead of me. Those are not movies easily browsed because they do not appear in the endless lists of ‘Most Popular!’ ‘Recent Hits!’ ‘Family Drama!’, and so on.  You have to already know about those films by other means to find them online.

So the reason streaming video doesn’t work is because of the catalogs. They are not well-indexed and tagged and therefore almost impossible to search if you want anything other than the latest cartoon or monster movie.

My solution is the video store. I’m lucky to have an excellent one near me, clogged floor to ceiling with DVD’s in a broad set of categories.  DVD’s are eminently browsable. You can see what’s there with a quick visual scan and read the boxes for details. The cost is the same as online rental. I always come away with a stack of good ones. Alas, I know that distribution model does not have long to live. I don’t know what I’ll do after the place folds.


  1. Electric Cars

I recently purchased a smallish second car when my old Scion xB was eaten by rats. They didn’t do serious damage, just nibbled the insulation off some wires, but they got inside the cabin and stunk it up like an abandoned carcass. No amount of carpet shampoo or detailing could make that right. So it was new car time.

I looked seriously at an electric car and I considered the top hybrid models as well. Many of them are attractive.  However, in the end, I bought a small, internal-combustion-engine hatchback (Chevy Sonic).

Electrics have not yet arrived, in my opinion, despite the hype.  For one thing, they are quite expensive and even with the government subsidies, which are fast declining, you pay a hefty several-thousand-dollar premium for the privilege of going electric (or hybrid). But I looked past that.

Another problem is the batteries themselves. What am I buying there?  It is extremely difficult to get information about the batteries, what they are, how they work, whether they are safe, how long they are expected to last, and so on. I supposed those are all “proprietary” secrets but call me old-fashioned, I want at least some concept of what I’m buying.

I learned, for example, from a garage mechanic, not from any online research, that the battery packs in a Toyota Prius cost about $5,000 to replace, and there are two of them.  They last about five years, putting out less and less power with each charge until finally you have to replace them. Maybe the car is only designed to last 5 years, but in my mind, that’s a $10K hidden cost of ownership that does not appear with the sticker price. I don’t know what the comparable numbers would be for a Bolt or a Volt or a Leaf, or any of the others, and nobody will say.

Also, you cannot just park an electric vehicle in your garage and expect it to perform when you need it. The electrics are designed to be driven, the batteries discharged and charged continuously.  I only use my second car a few times a week for errands around town. Most of the time it stays parked.  But that’s no good. If you don’t drive an electric every day, the battery can go flat, and once it does, it cannot be revived. The electrics are designed for commuters, or at least for some kind of a hectic lifestyle I don’t engage in anymore.

The “range anxiety” problem is gradually reducing, and is not even a serious problem with the new hybrids.  Charging stations are popping up all around down, though I still would never try to drive an electric from Tucson to Los Angeles.

Finally, nearly all electricity in my part of the country comes from burning coal, so there is no environmental benefit from going electric, so that’s not even a consideration.

I think electrics are the future, more so than hydrogen power, but that future is still quite a ways off.  Electric cars are a product that’s not quite there yet.

  1. E-Books

I have several Kindles and I also sometimes read e-books on a tablet, but every time, it’s an unpleasant experience.

The main problem with e-books is navigation. You can’t easily see where you are in the book, can’t easily glance ahead or behind. It’s not easy to flip to the footnotes or the index or the table of contents, and if you do, you most likely will lose your place.  Reading an e-book is like reading through a soda straw.

I use e-books when there are few, or no alternatives.  One common case is for a book that costs too much in paper, which I consider to be over $30 or so.  If I can get an e-book for $10 that costs $50 otherwise, I do it.  That doesn’t come up as often as it used to, since E-books are now priced almost the same as paper, just a few dollars less usually, so I buy the paper.

A second good use of e-books is for textbooks. When I was teaching, I was loathe to lug around a six-pound, thousand-page book of statistics, but I had to do it.  When textbooks finally became available online I switched to that medium and I could carry three or ten reference volumes around with me. A lifesaver.

However, for most reading, novels, popular nonfiction, and so on, there is no advantage to an e-book and plenty of disadvantages. The main downside, as noted is the tunnel vision. A book is a Gestalt, a whole experience, from thumbing through the pages to writing in the margins.  An e-book is only good for processing sentences, one at a time, a charred ember of the full reading experience.

Yes, you can, in principle, enter highlights and underlines into an e-book, but try to access those later. It is possible, but certainly it is not easy to quickly survey the parts of the book you noted for later reference.  You essentially have to re-read the book page by page to find your highlights. A list of highlights in themselves are without context. There is a reference number with each highlight so you could find the textual context if needed, but good luck with that.

Likewise, marginal notations are useless in an e-book. It used to be possible to export all your notations into a file that could be word-processed into contextual relevance, but I don’t think that’s possible anymore. At least I haven’t been able to figure it out. And as with highlights, your notes are out of context, just a list of nonsequiturs.  Their accompanying “reference numbers” are not actual page numbers, so you don’t even really know what part of the book the note is from.

Finally, a paper book will sit on my shelf and stare at me. If I haven’t read it, it will nag me. If I have read it, it will call me back into memory, either good or bad. The spine, the cover, the title, the cover art, the size and shape – all of it triggers associations, thoughts, memories.  Old books are like old friends. New books are exciting promises.  E-books are like mummies – out of sight and out of mind.

So I admit there is a place for e-books and it is a technology that serves a purpose. Yes, you can quickly look up words in the dictionary in an e-book (if the dictionary has your word in it), and yes, you can enlarge the font size. These are positives.

Alternatively, you can load a dictionary app, or several of them plus an encyclopedia, and really find out what your mystery word means, and you can buy a pair of drugstore readers to enlarge the font of any book.

Reading a book, for me is a whole-body immersive experience that an e-book just cannot deliver. E-books are enormously popular because the producers of books love them. The incremental cost of production is very close to zero. How wonderful for them. For me, the benefits are just not there.

Talking Back About Talking Black

Is Ebonics a language?  It was popularized as a distinct language spoken by some American African-Americans in the 1980’s and 90’s, yet another note in the culture war symphony.

It’s interesting, and ironically humorous that linguist John McWhorter refers to a ‘Lingua Franca’ in the title of his book, not a ‘language.’ ‘Lingua Franca’ means literally, ‘French Language’ and connotes any universally understood tongue – as French virtually was in Europe in the years around World War I. That irony captures the light and sometimes humorous tone McWhorter takes toward the subject of African-American, or black speech in America.

He studies “black speech” in this book, he says, because that carries a specific ethnographic meaning.  White, Afrikaans-speaking citizens, for example, who immigrated from South Africa, are also “African-Americans,” but we don’t call them that. He’s interested in what’s called “African-American Vernacular,” Sometimes he calls it black dialect. He avoids the term, ‘language’.

“Ain’t nobodycan diss my ride, you fill me?”  I can understand that sentence but intelligibility is not the only criterion for defining a distinct language according to ISO Standard 639-3. Just as important is for communicators to have a “common literature or a common ethnolinguistic identity,” which nearly all Americans do, in whole or part. But conversely, having “distinct ethnolinguistic identities can be a strong indicator that [the groups’ speech] should nevertheless be considered to be different languages.” On that criterion, one could argue that there is indeed a distinct black language. It’s a difficult definition.

McWhorter’s main point is that whether characteristically black American speech is considered a language, dialect, or vernacular, it is a distinct and legitimate form of speech and above all NOT a devolution of “standard” American English, which hardly anybody speaks anyway. He labors to make this point: Black speech is in no way inferior to Standard English. He brings forth plentiful historical and linguistic evidence for this point and even points out how black speech is in some ways more rich in expression than Standard English.

That’s exactly the thesis that makes this book and McWhorter’s point of view controversial. Even educated black people, he says, even his close friends, do not admit that there is a distinctly black way of speaking, even though it is patently obvious that there is. Why? Because black speech patterns are considered, by educated, “proper” society to be vulgar, inferior, low-class, uneducated and degenerate.  And why that judgment?  Racism, pure and simple.

Most educated black people don’t even like to admit there is a black accent, or “blaccent,” as McWhorter names it, though a simple test is to listen to a television program with your eyes closed and pick out the black voices then look to confirm. Anyone can do this.  But again, to admit that black people have a blaccent is to implicitly make a judgment that black speech, and therefore black people, are inferior to the (white) standard.

McWhorter’s mission is to overcome these racial biases with reason and evidence. Black accent, vocabulary, and grammar, are not a matter of slang, not merely a Southern dialect, and not a product of ignorance. Black speech has legitimate historical roots and is organic to an ethnicity, and should be taken as a legitimate vernacular of its own.

Besides all that, code-switching is common. Most black people can speak Standard English perfectly well if circumstances call for it (very funny examples are often found in the work of Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and many others). Just as interesting, many black speakers, like McWhorter (I’ve heard many recorded lectures by him) have no discernible blaccent yet can speak black vernacular at will. Barack Obama was once criticized for doing exactly that.

I was fascinated by the historical and linguistic evidence, for example, from early 19th century recordings of black speech that McWhorter describes as sounding like Irish or Scottish, nothing like today’s vernacular. Language, any language, is alive, always changing, never static.

I’m a huge McWhorter fan. It was only from him that I came to understand proto-Indo-European, and much else.  Since I was already on board with him concerning the uniqueness and legitimacy of black speech, it’s hard for me to evaluate how convincing his arguments are. I was convinced, but racism is not an evidence-based attitude so I don’t think he’ll change any minds on that front. But he might give pause for thought among those willing to listen, because the topic of black vernacular is widely misunderstood. I admire him for the effort.

McWhorter, John (2017).Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 191 pp.

The Vegetarian

I usually have good luck with Man-Booker Prize-winners, but not this time. The Vegetarian is a story of a woman who goes insane.  At the current time, medical science does not, for the most part, understand insanity, its causes or cures. So to have a character “go” insane is simply to abrogate one’s responsibility as a writer to provide proper motivation. Hey, she went insane – no explanation needed for her behavior, no matter how weird or erratic.  To  me, that’s a wobbly crutch for any writer, almost as bad as “…it was all just a dream after all.”

Another point of irritation for me is the mischaracterization of vegetarianism, if it can be called an “-ism”.  As a lifelong practitioner, I do have some insight into that diet and first of all, it is not any kind of self-deprivation, asceticism, or self-denial. Plant food is rich and abundant and healthier to eat than any meat, fish or poultry. Secondly, the moral implications of eating meat can be serious concerns, depending on what you think of your fellow animals and how they should be treated. Finally, the idea that a vegetarian diet will make you weak, in body or mind, is simply absurd, as is the idea that it is in any way related to anorexia nervosa.  All these myths are proffered in this book and I was put off  by the perpetuation of such superstitious folklore.

The woman who “goes” vegetarian does so suddenly, and for no reason except perhaps the stimulus of a dream, which, as much of it as is tediously presented, seems to have nothing to do with diet.  So this is the same thing as saying the triggering act that drives the whole novel, her becoming vegetarian, is without motivation. That cannot lead to a strong story.

A more subtle reader might discern that her dreams might be about childhood sexual abuse, so “eating meat” might have symbolic meaning to her as she attempts to somatize her unacknowledged inner distress.  That is a generous reading, hinted at but not obvious in the text.

I am interested in Korean society and tracked how the people around her reacted to her non-decision to forego eating meat. Essentially, they react violently against her, and it is a reaction against her nonconformity as much as anything else. That is the author’s representation of the way women are regarded in that society, by both men and women, and that part of the story was interesting.

The story has three parts, each told from a different point of view. The first is told by the woman’s husband and he relates his confusion and dissatisfaction and finally anger at his wife’s behavior. The second part is told by her brother-in-law, who inexplicably and suddenly desires her sexually after being told she has a birthmark on her butt. The reaction and consequent behavior is again utterly unmotivated. Nevertheless, he pursues her, and her passive reaction is as horrifying as his unthinking predation.

The final section is told by the woman’s sister as she attempts to care for her in the hospital, but ultimately succumbs to some sort of unspecified depression, as if mental illness were contagious.

It all adds up to nothing because none of the characters is motivated, nearly all their actions arbitrary. That is a recipe for a failed story, which this is. The writing is lovely in places, and there are many haunting images, such as the two painted bodies having sex. Nevertheless without story or character development, even a collection of striking images is pointless.  Apparently however, that is enough to constitute a novel these days, at least for the Man-Booker judges, but not for me.

Kang, Han (2007/2016). The Vegetarian. New York: Hogarth/Crown/Penguin/Random, 188 pp.

Scientific Revolution

This monster book is actually an easy read because the concepts are not difficult. It is a history of the scientific revolution, which took place in Europe in the decades around 1600. The so-called revolution was a change in world-view among the intelligentsia that developed incrementally, not analogously to a sudden political revolution. The scientific revolution was stealthy and few people recognized it was even happening.

Wootton identifies several events that led to the enormous change in thinking from the middle ages to the modern age. It started in 1572, he says, when astronomer Tycho Brahe observed a supernova. A new star had appeared in the sky, but that was simply not possible. According to Aristotle and everyone since him, the heavens were fixed and eternal. If heaven changed, then religion was called into question, and if you do that, where does it leave us mortal sinners?  So a new star in the sky was not conceivable, yet there it was.

Other events that shook up the status quo were the invention of the printing press with movable type, which created communities of like-minded intellectuals faster, and more broadly, than had ever before been possible. Ideas moved quickly and built upon each other rapidly. Today we would call it the network effect. After book printing,  individuals who would be the future scientists were known to each other. Before books there were only a few scattered philosophers and crackpots.

The invention of the telescope was huge, of course. Galileo didn’t invent the telescope but he perfected the lenses well enough to be useful for astronomy, and we know how that worked out when he discovered the moons of Jupiter in 1610.

Wootton points out that the microscope was invented at the same time, since if you look into a telescope the wrong way it is essentially a microscope. But the microscope had virtually no influence on the development of scientific thinking at the time because there was no theoretical framework to enclose what was seen. You found incredible, squirming animals in pond water? How charming. It didn’t make any sense because it didn’t fit into any philosophy or theory of the world, so the microscope was ignored as a mere toy until much later. Science is not, and never was, only about observing the world. It has always been about trying to make sense of the world, and if something doesn’t make sense, it just doesn’t count.

Also on the topic of Galileo’s discovery, Wootton makes the interesting point that the churchmen who refused to ‘look for themselves’ through Galileo’s telescope were not being self-defensively stubborn. They did not have our modern conception of what ‘observation’ means. For them, observation meant something like ‘evidence’ and that comes from testimony, as it does in a courtroom. Therefore Aristotle’s and Ptolemy’s evidence that all heavenly bodies revolve around Earth overwhelmed any nonsense a pipsqueak like Galileo might have to say, telescope or not.

Wootton provides many unexpected insights into the history of science, such as revolutionary thinking provoked by the discovery of the perspective effect in painting, the invention of gunpowder, the practice of rubbing garlic on magnets.  The pages turn themselves.

One criticism of the book is that it seems to be structured around the discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that you can’t think about something you have no words for. Wootton goes to great etymological lengths to show that common modern terms, like ‘observation’ and ‘experiment’ had to be invented and defined, true enough, but he attaches a lot more significance to linguistic development than I think is warranted and may even get cause and effect reversed at times.

Along those lines, Wootton does not himself distinguish between observed phenomena and propositions about those phenomena. He seems to think they are the same thing, and he calls phenomena in the natural world “facts,” which is wrong and confusing. A proposition can be true or false, but a rock is just a rock.

Wootton also makes much of the ‘progress’ of science but never defines what that is, a remarkable oversight given his other linguistic obsessions. I infer he means that scientific measurement has become more precise over time and consequently prediction has become more accurate. That is a convincing definition of progress offered near the very end, but throughout the book he writes as though there were more at stake. He repeatedly refers to something called ‘irreversible knowledge’ without defining it, suggesting science progresses in knowledge or truth, which is disputable.

The book is totally Euro-centric. There is little mention of the development of scientific thinking in China, the Arab world, among the Incas, and so on.  Maybe there wasn’t any. I doubt that.

The last few chapters concern historiography rather than history and seem tacked on. They are much less satisfying for being cursory, and should have been developed into a separate book.

In the hardback volume there is an entire signature of beautiful color plates, and monochrome figures are presented throughout the book, some of them helpful. The bibliography is extensive (up to about 2004) and the book is well-indexed. Recommended.

Wootton, David (2015). The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Harper Collins, 769 pp.