All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See
By Anthony Doerr
Scribner, New York, 2014

I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. It’s beautifully constructed, like an intricate puzzle box. All the pieces fit together with precision and artistry. But it just didn’t move me.

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A blind girl named Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father in 1940 ahead of the advancing German army, taking refuge in the home of her great-uncle in the walled port city of Saint Malo. They carry with them a jewel, the Sea of Flames, a legendary diamond with mythical powers. But are they a blessing or a curse?

Meanwhile in Germany, a young orphan boy named Werner discovers he has a gift for building and repairing radios. Soon he is drafted into a military academy to hone his skills and from there into the army to help the Nazis detect and shut down Resistance radio transmissions.

All the Light We Cannot See tells the story of their lives, how they are swept up and eventually brought together by the great historical torrents of their time.

It’s about people trying to do the right things under excruciating circumstances. For a few, courage and resistance come naturally, instinctively. Others must overcome fears and phobias before they can act. Some just need to survive long enough so they can grow up enough to even recognize what the right thing is. And many more must seek some measure of redemption after the fact for the evil they have committed or through inaction allowed to be committed.

I think the book is also about fate.  Is our fate determined by our actions, or by supernatural forces, or by random chance?  And how can you tell?  There are examples of all three, or at least the possibility of them, throughout the story. The book is inconclusive on this, and maybe that’s the point.

Anthony Doerr shows us a panorama of wartime Europe, from the poverty of German coal miners to the opulent apartments of upper class city-dwellers in Berlin, from the specimen-packed Museum of Natural History in Paris to the snail-encrusted outer walls of Saint Malo, and overshadowing all of it, the brutality and destruction of World War II. His imagery is vivid and evocative without being ostentatiously “great writing,” though there were some scenes I found especially striking.

In the end though I just didn’t connect emotionally with the story or the characters. I’m not sure why. It’s a long novel and I got to the end feeling detached and thinking, “Did I miss something?” Was there some detail I skimmed over that would have pulled me in, or an “aha!” moment that would have caused me to see the story in a completely different light? I kept waiting for something like that to happen but it never did.

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Tom Wolfe: A Tribute

I first encountered Tom Wolfe’s writing, or at least his books, as a young child, when a hardback copy of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby arrived at our house in Oakville, Ontario, about 25 miles west of Toronto. If I recall correctly, it came in the mail, probably as part of my mother’s subscription to the Book of the Month Club, which I’m stunned to discover, still exists. I don’t ever remember my parents actually reading the book, or discussing it at the dinner table, but it stood on top of the bookshelf in the living room for years. The title of course bemused me.

Later, as an adult, I read The Right Stuff when it first came out and then started working my way through Wolfe’s back-catalog which had been republished to capitalize on that book’s spectacular success. Now I have my own copy of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, in paperback, its pages considerably yellowed, along with half a dozen more of his books. I’ve even got a file folder full of magazine articles by and about Wolfe that I’ve collected over the years.

I never read much of his fiction though, just The Bonfire of the Vanities.

He died on May 14, 2018 at the age of 88.

Two things inspired me about his writing, and still do. The first is the sheer exuberance and unapologetic over-the-top-ness of his writing style. That, combined with the sarcastic smirk which was his default literary stance. You could recognize a piece of Wolfe’s writing even without his by-line just from the style, much as you can instantly recognize Glenn Gould at the piano, or Mark Knopfler on guitar. I think his example encourages writers to find their own voice and to be confident about using it.

The second thing is what he wrote about, which was essentially anything and everything. He delved into the nooks and crannies of American culture with seemingly unending curiosity. I learned much of what I know about modern architecture from his book From Bauhaus to Our House, and about post-modern art from The Painted Word. And for anyone interested in the tech industry, his lengthy 1983 Esquire essay, The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce, is probably the definitive origin story of Silicon Valley. He proved you can find interesting, compelling people and stories just about anywhere you look.

In a 1989 article in Harper’s Magazine, Wolfe, reflecting on both these aspects of his writing, pointed out that most people who decide to become writers do so because “they realize they have a certain musical facility with words.” Very soon, though, writers must confront the “damnable problem of material,” of what to write about.

Tom Wolfe wrote mainly in scherzo, with virtuosity and flair, drawing upon the inexhaustible supply of material he found in modern American life.

Related Links

Tom Wolfe, 88, ‘New Journalist’ with Electric Style and Acid Pen, Dies
New York Times, May 15, 2018

Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel
Harper’s Magazine, November 1989

The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on Silicon Valley
Esquire Magazine, December 1983

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Factfulness

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why things Are Better Than We Think
By Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund
Flatiron Books, New York, 2018

First things first: if you’ve never seen any of Hans Rosling’s TED Talks, please go and watch this one right now.  His talks are way more important than my blog.  (But come right back!)

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Isn’t he fantastic!  Aren’t those bubble charts amazing!  Doesn’t his dataset change your mindset?

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Unfortunately, Hans Rosling died on February 7, 2017.  His book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why things Are Better Than We Think, written with his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund, is a guide to thinking carefully and critically. It’s the culmination of his personal mission to fight ignorance with a fact-based worldview he calls “factfulness.”

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To see the world more factfully, Rosling wants us overcome ten “instincts” that often get in the way of clear thinking and cause us to jump to the wrong conclusions. For example, there’s the Gap Instinct, our tendency to see things in binary, black and white, rich and poor, and most dangerously of all, us and them. We divide things in two, imagining there’s a large gap in the middle. In fact there’s usually a continuum. Most of the time, most of the things are in the middle.

For each of the ten instincts, Rosling provides interesting, fact-filled examples drawn from his own career as a doctor and international public health researcher and professor. He’s not shy about owning up to his mistakes either; some funny, and some tragic. He gives us tips on how to avoid or overcome these instincts. To avoid the Gap Instinct, he recommends we stay alert for comparisons of extremes and then look for the majority. Insist on seeing data about the middle because that’s where the majority usually is.

One of the themes that runs through the book, and through many of his TED Talks too, is that the gap between the developed and developing worlds no longer exists. He says it’s meaningless to talk about these two categories because they’re obsolete. Instead he uses a framework based on income levels.

Level 1 2 3 4
Population 1 billion 3 billion 2 billion 1 billion
Income $1 / day $4 / day $16 / day $64 / day

People in level 1, about 800 million today, live in extreme poverty on $1/day or less. Many of them live in sub-Saharan Africa or in war-torn places like Syria and Afghanistan. Another billion people live at the opposite extreme in level 4, mainly in Europe and North America. But the majority of the world, 5 of 7 billion, live in the middle.

Throughout the book, Rosling returns to these four levels as a framework for talking about life expectancy, child mortality, education, and other issues in public health and global development. It’s a powerful and eye-opening way to look at them.

Incidentally he echoes the optimistic views about human progress presented in Steven Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress which I reviewed here.

Rosling insists that data be used to tell the truth, and not to advance a particular cause.

In the chapter about the Urgency Instinct, the urge to “take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger”, he describes how former Vice President Al Gore wanted him to present only the most dire scenarios about the impact of global climate change in order to spur action. Rosling refused. He strongly believed that climate change is one of the most urgent threats facing humanity. But he believed even more strongly that presenting a distorted view of the data would inevitably lead to mistrust of both the data and the scientists presenting it.

“Data must be used to tell the truth, not to call to action, no matter how noble the intentions.” [p. 236]

Factfulness gives us three things: We get a fascinating look at Rosling’s life and career from the stories and examples he uses throughout the book. We get a progress report on how the world is doing addressing the problems of public health and human development. And most important, we get a vital toolkit for how to think critically, with both humility and curiosity, to understand our world. Because, as Hans Rosling concludes:

“When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.” [p. 255]

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Related Links

Hans Rosling’s TED Talks
https://www.ted.com/speakers/hans_rosling

Gapmider
https://www.gapminder.org/

Bill and Melinda Gates tribute to Hans Rosling
https://www.gatesnotes.com/About-Bill-Gates/Remembering-Hans-Rosling

Bill Gates review of Factfulness
https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Factfulness

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Enlightenment Now

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress
By Steven Pinker
Viking, New York, 2018

We seem to be living in a time of perpetual crisis. It feels like the whole world is going off the rails. Everything decent seems to be under attack. We’re bombarded daily by reports of mass shootings and terrorist bombings. Large parts of the world are run by vicious idiots. Here in the US, during the Presidency of Donald Trump, respectful political discourse has become a distant memory. Talking heads bellow at each other on television, on social media and in our legislatures. Around the world, democracy itself is under threat with a growing list of counties electing populist, authoritarian leaders. World peace is endangered by endless conflicts in the Middle East and the looming possibility of a nuclear conflict with North Korea. Horrific diseases like Ebola and AIDS threaten us. Globalization, which promised to raise everyone’s standard of living, seems to have delivered nothing but inequality and unemployment. And anyone who hasn’t lost their job to globalization will soon be put out of work by technology. Finally, climate change and environmental degradation are poised to make our world unsuitable for human life.

Facing intractable problems, divided against each other, we live in tense, anxious times.

Enlightenment Now Cover

Steven Pinker, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, calls a hearty bullshit! on all this pessimism. In his latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science Humanism and Progress, he sets out to prove that this “bleak assessment” is “wrong, wrong, flat-earth wrong.” He makes two central arguments in Enlightenment Now: First, since the Enlightenment, humanity has made astonishing progress on just about every measure of well-being. And second, the ideals that form the basis of the Enlightenment – reason, science and humanism – are under attack and are worth defending.

Steven Pinker

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment, sometimes called the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, was a European philosophical movement that began in the early 1700’s and lasted until the start of the French Revolution in 1789. Its main idea is that we can “apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing.” [p. 4] Reason — not God, not religion or faith, not hereditary monarchy — reason is the ultimate source of authority and legitimacy.

Enlightenment thinkers like Kant, Hume, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Adam Smith, taught that we should question authority and received knowledge; that we should “dare to know.” The Enlightenment challenged the authority of monarchs and the Church, espousing instead individual liberty and religious tolerance. In the US, Enlightenment ideals influenced Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and are reflected in both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

Through the application of reason and the scientific method, we can solve problem, improve our lives and make progress. The Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution that arose from it, led to humanity’s “Great Escape from poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy and premature death.” [p. 24]

Progress

Is humanity really making progress? Are things getting better or worse? And what are the “things” by which we should measure progress?

Although people might have different values, and thus measure progress with different yardsticks, Pinker argues that the world has largely come to agreement on the most important measures of progress. Most of us, he says, value life, health, sustenance, abundance, peace and safety over death, sickness, hunger, poverty, war and danger. If we’re getting more of the former and less of the latter, that’s progress. These values are reflected in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, targets unanimously adopted in 2000 by the United Nations for the year 2015.

“And here’s a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress on every single measure of human well-being. Here’s a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.” [p. 52]

Pinker takes us through a frankly joyous survey of human progress roughly following the outline of the Millennium Development Goals, backed by solid publicly-available data. Here are some highlights.

Life: Average life expectancy around the world has doubled from about 35 in the mid-1700’s to 71.4 in 2015. Equally important, inequality in life expectancy had narrowed dramatically: even in Africa life expectancy is above 60 years and would be higher still were it not for the AIDS epidemic there. Child mortality rates – the percentage of children who die before their fifth birthday – has plunged from about 18% in the mid-1960’s to 4% today. 4% is still way too high, but it’s an amazing improvement.

Health: Infections diseases have been eradicated (smallpox), nearly eradicated (polio), or brought under control (malaria, measles, rubella, HIV/AIDS). Child mortality from all these diseases has fallen sharply since 1990.

Sustenance: We’re doing a better job of feeding the hungry. The fraction of undernourished people in developing regions was cut nearly in half from 1990 to 2015. This means that even as their populations were rising, a larger percentage were receiving adequate nutrition. Famine has been virtually eliminated outside of Africa.

Wealth: Extreme poverty is being eradicated and the world is becoming middle class. The number of people living on less than a dollar a day has fallen below one billion (still too high), but billions more in China, India and other parts of the world have been lifted out of poverty and into the middle class by globalization, technology, the decline of communism and the end of the Cold War.

Peace: Pinker’s earlier book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, made the case that in the 21xst Century, every objective measure of violence, including war, is in decline. He does not claim that war has ceased altogether or that Great Powers don’t fight each other through proxies. But the number of wars and the number of deaths due to war have fallen substantially since the end of World War II. War is no longer considered worthy, noble, or glorious. In fact war is illegal; it must be justified morally as well as politically. Consequently there is much less of it.

The Environment: Pinker rejects the radical environmentalist viewpoint that “humans are a vile race of despoilers and plunderers” and instead takes the Enlightenment position that environmental protection is a problem we can solve. Even here, he claims, we’ve made more progress than we think. As technology advances, it allows us to make more stuff with less raw material and less energy. As a result global carbon intensity – the amount of CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP — has been declining for half a century. Even so, we still need to ‘deeply decarbonize” through dramatic changes in policy and technology.

None of this progress is linear, nor is it inevitable since “… progress is not an outcome of magic, but of problem-solving.” [p.55] There will always be ups and downs from one year to the next, and there will be occasional setbacks against historical trends. But Pinker takes the long view and argues that despite present-day turmoil, the long-term progress we have experienced since the Enlightenment is unlikely to be reversed.

Reason, Science & Humanism

In the last few chapters of the book, Pinker mounts a vigorous defense of the ideals of the Enlightenment — reason, science and humanism — which are under attack from both the left and the right. I won’t attempt to summarize his arguments, but here are a few highlights that I found striking.

Reason: In the last few decades there’s been a lot of research in cognitive neuroscience that shows how fallible reason is, or at least how easily humans make errors. People often become more committed to an idea when they are presented with contrary evidence. In many cases holding patently irrational positions, such as belief in conspiracy theories, becomes less about the facts in question and more about the believer’s identity. How can we make reason the foundation of society when we are so error-prone? Pinker responds that just because we’re vulnerable to irrationality, it doesn’t mean we’re incapable of reason. Eventually, he says, reason becomes self-correcting because as contrary evidence builds up, a tipping point is reached. After all,

“We are a cognitive species that depends on explanations of the world. Since the world is the way it is regardless of what people believe about it, there is a strong selection pressure for an ability to develop explanations that are true.” [p. 353]

Science: What distinguishes science from ordinary reason are two principles. First that the world is intelligible: the phenomena we experience in the world can be explained by deeper principles and do not depend on deities or supernatural agents. The second is that “we must allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct.” In other words, ideas about the world must be tested both for their fit with existing knowledge and for their ability to make correct new predictions about the world. (Side note: Pinker points out that while most scientists would point to Popper for an explanation of how science works, the way science is actually done owes more to Bayes.)

Despite its many triumphs (e.g. the eradication of smallpox mentioned earlier), science is often attacked because it undermines traditional moral and religious teachings. Pinker refutes this, arguing that in fact science forms the basis of morality.

“By exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, science forces us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. … scientific facts militate towards a defensible morality, namely principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.” [pp. 394-5]

Humanism. I haven’t found a single crisp definition of humanism but it’s usually said to be a philosophy based on reason and compassion that emphasizes human agency and responsibility for leading meaningful, ethical lives that contribute to improved human flourishing. Pinker describes it as “a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics: good without God.” He tackles head-on the two main systems of belief that stand in opposition to humanism; traditional religious or theistic morality, and the ideology underlying authoritarianism, populism and nationalism which is often inspired by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Of theistic morality he says (among many other things),

“… even if there were a God, his divine decrees, as conveyed to us through religion, cannot be the source of morality. … Socrates points out that if the gods have good reasons to deem certain acts moral, we can appeal to those reasons directly, skipping the middleman. If they don’t, we should not take their dictates seriously.” [p. 428]

Pinker is unsparing in his criticism of resurgent authoritarianism, populism, and Romantic nationalism. He clearly despises “theoconservatives” who think we need to revert to some glorious past age in which primary allegiance was given to tribe or nation and to supposedly heroic leaders.

“The claim that ethnic uniformity leads to cultural excellence is as wrong as an idea can be. There’s a reason we refer to unsophisticated things as provincial, parochial, and insular, and to sophisticated ones as urbane and cosmopolitan. No one is brilliant enough to dream up anything of value by himself. Individuals and cultures of genius are aggregators, appropriators, greatest-hits collectors. Vibrant cultures sit in vast catchment areas in which people and innovations flow from far and wide. This explains why Eurasia, rather than Australia, Africa or the Americas, was the first continent to give birth to expansive civilizations … It explains why the fountains of culture have always been trading cities on major crossroads and waterways. And it explains why human beings have always been peripatetic, moving to wherever they can make the best lives. Roots are for trees; people have feet.” [pp. 450-1]

That passage made me want to jump up and cheer!

Unsolicited Feedback

Enlightenment Now made me feel both reassured and vindicated. Reassured because despite our very serious problems, humanity has made a great deal of progress. It might seem heartless to talk about improvements in life expectancy and child mortality when too many people are still dying. But rather than taking a snapshot view of a single moment in time, Pinker shows us how the long term picture has developed over centuries. That picture is much brighter. We have come a long way. Life is getting better for most people. This should not obscure the fact that millions are still suffering, nor does past progress absolve us from the responsibility to continue working. But it should encourage us to know that our efforts can and do have positive results.

I also found it reassuring that these trends have been operating for a long time. They’ve persisted in the face of obstacles and setbacks. Yes, we face serious problems, but they are solvable. Decline and catastrophe are not inevitable. While extrapolation is always chancy, the most likely scenario is that present trends will continue.

Enlightenment Now also made me feel vindicated. I wouldn’t call myself a scientist, but I do work in a technical field. My career has been in software and I work at a tech company. I can say that I’m scientifically-minded. So, for example, when I see climate change deniers occupying the White House or destroying the Environmental Protection Agency from within, I’m horrified and disgusted. I was delighted by Pinker’s robust defense of reason and science.

I’m also an atheist, and I’m tired of sanctimonious religious leaders attempting to force their particular brand of morality on the rest of us while at the same time engaging in ludicrous moral contortions to excuse the flagrantly immoral behavior of Donald Trump. So I was gratified to read Pinker’s argument that reason and science form the valid basis for humanistic morality. Yes, you can be good without God.

I’m a city-dweller, and have been all my life. Sure, I love a nice day in the country or a walk along a deserted beach, but my place is in the city. I love how people and ideas come together in cities to create and invent. I’m also an immigrant to this country. I have the great fortune to work with people who, like me, have come from all over the world and I truly love that diversity. I guess I have a cosmopolitan outlook. I find the nationalistic, anti-immigration, and frankly racist views of the American right wing to be abhorrent. Pinker’s critique of those views and their philosophical foundations was thorough and compelling.

I admit, I may be guilty of a huge error of confirmation bias here, but the bulk of what Pinker has written in Enlightenment Now is backed by solid data. And the more philosophical parts of the book are a much needed counterweight to the torrent of “alternative facts” in this “post-truth” era.

Still this book will not please everyone. Pinker aims most of his criticism at the right, but the left doesn’t escape unscathed. On the environment, for example, he thinks we have no chance of restricting global warming to within 2°C without significant adoption of nuclear power. He says that organic farming is neither green nor sustainable because it consumes more land to produce a kilogram of food than conventional farming. He’s contemptuous of opponents of genetically modified crops, essentially accusing them of being indifferent to starvation.

I think he misses the mark in some places too. For example, he reports that poverty and income inequality have been dramatically reduced, which is supported by the available data. But he conflates income, what people earn, with wealth, what assets they own. It’s not clear how the distribution of actual wealth has changed over time. Pinker doesn’t address this at all and his imprecise use of the word “wealth” confuses matters.

Overall though, I hugely enjoyed Enlightenment Now. It is packed full of data and ideas that we just don’t see in our daily news.

Early in the book, Pinker says that the antidote to pessimism, to over-dramatization in the media, and to our own biases is counting. Simply count. Look at the data. Take the long view. Far from turning human beings into dry statistics,

“A quantitative mindset, despite its nerdy aura, is in fact the morally enlightened one, because it treats every human life as having equal value rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic.” [p. 43]

And it makes us realize that we have both the responsibility and the capability to look after ourselves, each other and the world.

Related Links

United Nations Millennium Development Goals
http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/

Bill Gates’ review of Enlightenment Now
https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Enlightenment-Now

Web sites providing great statistical data:

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The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness
By Ursula K. LeGuin
Walker and Company, New York, 1969

I read The Left Hand of Darkness a long time ago, back in my university days I think. It popped back up to the top of my reading list when Ursula K. LeGuin died earlier this year on January 22, 2018.

The Left Hand of Darkness - Cover

I remembered the broad arc of the story and some of the major characters and plot points. But I read as if for the first time the rich culture, complex politics and brutal physical world LeGuin created for this book.

The Left Hand of Darkness is told mostly through the voice of Genly Ai, the human envoy of an alliance of humanoid worlds called the Ekumen. Ai is sent to the planet Gethen to invite the people of this mostly frozen world to join the Ekumen if they so desire. But Gethen has its own internal political and cultural conflicts to resolve, and Ai gets caught up in the subtle yet deadly intrigue and jockeying for power within and between the competing nations of this planet.

So far, so conventional.

But Gethenians are strikingly different from the people of other humanoid worlds: they have no fixed gender. They are ambisexual. Most of the time they are androgynous. About every 26 days they enter a period called kemmer during which they become fully male or female and may mate with another Gethenian in kemmer.

From this one “simple” premise, LeGuin creates a fantastically detailed culture and society. Its implications are profound and far-reaching.

Like all good science fiction, this story is as much about us as it is about the future or some alternate world. We see ourselves reflected through a twisted mirror, from different angles and perspectives. We get to imagine ourselves living different lives in a different kind of world. Things we take for granted, like gender, are rendered strange and mutable when placed in a context where they are absent or radically altered.

We also encounter characters who exhibit a range of responses to their world, mirroring the behaviors of people in our own. In this case it’s responses towards change – first contact with aliens – from those more open and receptive to new people and new ways to those who are more closed-off and reluctant to engage.

The Left Hand of Darkness really is one of the finest examples of what makes science fiction, or better yet speculative fiction, so rewarding. Take some aspect of human society or technology, change it or extrapolate it to an extreme, and then tell a compelling story.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic award-winning novel is worth re-reading many times over.

Related Links

New York Times obituary:
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/23/obituaries/ursula-k-le-guin-acclaimed-for-her-fantasy-fiction-is-dead-at-88.html

OpEd: The Category-Defying Genius of Ursula K. LeGuin:
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/opinion/ursula-le-guin.html

Acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Et9Nf-rsALk

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Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci
by Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017

The first thing you notice about Walter Isaacson’s latest book, Leonardo da Vinci, is its weight. This is a hefty tome. It tips the scales at three pounds even (1360g for those of the metric persuasion) which, based on a completely unscientific sampling of my bookshelves, is about twice the weight of the average hardback. Three pounds may not seem like much, but when you’re sitting up in bed – I hope I’m not over-sharing here – holding a book that large gets to be a bit of a strain after a while.

Leonardo - Cover

The book is a little longer than average too, about 525 pages. But the main reason for the extra weight is that it’s printed on high quality glossy white stock and lavishly illustrated with over 140 reproductions of Leonardo’s paintings, sketches, drawings, and pages from his notebooks.

In short, it’s a beautifully produced book, as befits its subject.

OK, enough about the book. What about the book?

Walter Isaacson has constructed his biography of Leonardo da Vinci as a chronological tour of Leonardo’s work. Yes, there’s plenty of extremely well-researched family and historical information to round out the story, but essentially we see Leonardo develop and mature as a scientist and as an artist through his major works, culminating in the Mona Lisa.

Isaacson meticulously examines each piece, describing the context of the work, and the novel techniques Leonardo had developed or mastered to produce the work. I found myself examining the reproductions in the book under a photographer’s loupe so I could better see Leonardo’s brush strokes and left-handed cross-hatched shading, and look more closely at the geologically accurate rock formations he painted in the background of many of his portraits.

We get to see not just Leonardo’s famous paintings, but also many of the drawings, sketches and even doodles from his notebooks.

After taking this journey through Leonardo’s life and work, I’m left with a few powerful impressions.

The first is awe. True awe. Leonardo had an utterly insatiable curiosity and a passion for learning. This may have been the result of his lack of formal education – he had to teach himself virtually everything he ever knew. He learned enormous amounts and his curiosity knew no boundaries. Anatomy, astronomy, biology, geology, hydrology, mechanics, optics, and many other fields fell under his purview. Instead of seeing them as distinct fields of study he discerned patterns and connections among them. He not only learned but advanced our knowledge in any area he chose to explore.

In addition, Leonardo’s work spanned the divide between art and science in a way that today seems almost impossible. He really saw no distinction between the two. His artistic capabilities enabled his scientific pursuits; his drawings of machinery and human anatomy are not just accurate, they’re exquisite. And his scientific endeavors certainly helped make him arguably the greatest painter of all time. Leonardo could not have painted the Mona Lisa’s famous enigmatic smile had he not dissected over 30 corpses and understood profoundly how the muscles of the lips and face work together when we smile.

(Here she is, smiling enigmatically at me and some other tourists in the Louvre.)

Leonardo - Mona Lisa

And finally, Leonardo easily crossed the boundary between reality and imagination. It was this that enabled him for example, to design flying machines and other devices that wouldn’t be built for hundreds of years.

Leonardo was a master of sfumato, the painting technique of using fine subtle shading rather than hard lines to produce transitions between light and dark or between one object and another. It’s as if he saw distinctions between the arts and sciences, between reality and fantasy in the same softly shaded way. Or perhaps those distinctions didn’t exist with quite the same sharpness in Leonardo’s time as they do in ours.

If Leonardo had a failing, it is that he rarely finished anything. He worked on the Mona Lisa for the last 16 years of his life, carrying it with him as he moved from city to city until finally settling in France, occasionally adding a few brushstrokes here or there. He planned to publish books on many subjects, but never carried them out. He was literally centuries ahead of his time in many fields, but because he never published his work, it was left to the scientists of future centuries to rediscover much of what Leonardo already knew. As Isaacson puts it,

“He enjoyed the challenge of conception more than the chore of completion.” [p. 518]

Another impression I have from the book is how much documentation exists about Leonardo. Of course there are hundreds of pages of his notebooks still in existence in various libraries and private collections all over the world. But Isaacson was able to draw on a wealth of primary and secondary sources in researching the book. Possibly this is because Leonardo’s father was a notary and record-keeping was part of the family heritage. Beyond that though, there are notes and books and records from and about people who associated with or did business with Leonardo. That such a paper trail still exists five hundred years after his death is amazing.

How much of the enormous amounts of data we keep, or others keep, about us today will survive five centuries after we’re gone?

I also like that Walter Isaacson is very much present in the book. He’s more than just a narrator. He gets involved. He’s not afraid to take a stand on some of the controversies about Leonardo still being debated by scholars today, like whether this or that painting was really done by Leonardo or by one of his students. And he shares with us his own sense of wonder as he delves deeply into Leonardo’s life and works.

For example there’s a chapter on Vitruvian Man, Leonardo’s famous drawing of a naked man standing spread-eagle inside a square inside a circle. You know, this one:

Leonardo - Vitruvian Man

Isaacson writes of his experience seeing the original:

“Rarely on display, because prolonged exposure to light would cause it to fade, it is kept in a locked room on the fourth floor of the Gallerie del’Accademia in Venice. When a curator brought it out and placed it before me on a table, I was struck by the indentations made by the stylus of Leonardo’s metalpoint pen and the twelve pricks made by the point of his compass. I had the eerie and intimate sensation of seeing the hand of the master at work more than five centuries earlier. “ [p. 153-5]

I felt a thrill reading that passage!

And the rest of the book too.

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Video: What the Future of Energy Means for Canada

A link to this panel discussion cane across my FB feed and I wanted to share it here in a brief post.

http://singularityucanadasummit.org/event/debate-future-energy-means-canada/

The context is Canadian but the perspective is definitely global. Really intelligent, though-provoking discussion about the energy and climate challenges facing not just Canada but the whole world.

And how stimulating to hear a vibrant yet respectful exchange of ideas by passionate people that doesn’t degenerate into a partisan shouting match!

It’s like a high protein meal for your mind!

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