Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ                                                                 
Philip Pullman (Canongate 2010)

    I’m surprised to learn that the popular novelist Philip Pullman has retold the Gospels, because he is, quite publicly, a skeptic on religious matters, and a thoroughgoing materialist. (He started out as a schoolboy within the Anglican tradition, but turned away as a science-minded teenager.) But even if the Gospel is empty of religious truth for him, Pullman wants to wrestle with it; he’s a storyteller, so the Bible’s unresolved contradictions and paradoxes earn his interest and respect.

    In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman sticks very close to the received story, mashing highlights of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John into the familiar tale of a charismatic and impatient Jesus. Pullman’s imaginative innovation is to posit a twin brother for Jesus, called Christ. Christ is the chronicler, witnessing and recording key events of Jesus’ life, either at first hand or by the report of a friendly apostle. In his chameleon anonymity, he also serves as his brother’s betrayer, and the stranger the friends recognize in the resurrection.

    Christ is gifted, or perhaps cursed, with a long view of what Christianity will become; Jesus not only doesn’t share this vision, he spurns it. The temptation of Jesus in the desert, turned into a conversation between these two characters, acquires a new dramatic heft when told from the tempter’s point of view. His logic is, in fact, unassailable. The power of miraculous stories will indeed be one of the vehicles that carries the story from that day to this, so the resistance Jesus shows about being famous for his miracles is self-defeating.

    As Pullman says in his afterword, the Christ character got away from him in the course of the writing, developing motives and feelings Pullman did not have in mind at the outset. Like anyone, Christ is not the villain of his own story, and he’s doing the best he can. His treatment of the words of Jesus is at least a credible way of describing what may have happened in the handing down of the stories. It’s also a way of dealing with the parts of the Jesus story that cannot, on their face, have had human witnesses. (I’ve always balked at those parts, too, which is a literalist error of some kind.)

    If you think all this sounds terribly cheeky, it is, but it isn’t played for laughs, in the ‘Life of Brian’ vein. Pullman addresses one of Christianity’s central paradoxes, how the humility of Jesus stacks against the grandeur of the Church – can all that ritual, and material wealth, really have been what he had in mind? Do we know better than Jesus  himself what his life was about? And what was the price of Christianity’s trade-off in the time of Constantine, from being an oppressed minority to taking the reins of power, and inevitably becoming the oppressor?

    These are honest and genuinely provocative questions. I don’t think I’ll come out where Pullman comes out, but I’m grateful for the conversation.

Any Good Books                                                                                                                  
January 1, 2015

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Sense of Style

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Steven Pinker (2014, Viking)

    Steven Pinker is admirably qualified to write a style guide for the twenty-first century. He’s a leading thinker about linguistics and cognitive science; he chairs the Usage Panel for the American Heritage Dictionary; and he’s a wonderful writer. In The Sense of Style, he brings his expertise to bear on reading, writing, and the history of style guides. In particular, Pinker jousts with The Elements of Style, which dominated the field in the twentieth century. “Writers can profit by reading more than one style guide, and much of Strunk and White (as it is commonly called) is as timeless as it is charming. But much of it is not.”

    English changes all the time, of course; rules go out of date because the common usage changes. There are quite a few, as well, that never should have been rules in the first place, like the prohibition on split infinitives. “The very terms ‘split infinitive’ and ‘split verb’ are based on a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split a verb because it consists of a single word, such as amare, ‘to love.’” Pinker doesn’t replace the prohibition with a new rule, but with a set of observations that enable the writer to choose for herself. Perhaps the modifier is the main thing she wants to say, in which case she’ll consider moving it to the end of the sentence, doing justice to its importance. Maybe it sounds just fine coming earlier in the sentence, so she can painlessly avoid a run-in with the Gotcha! Gang; and sometimes, especially with negation, it fits most comfortably right up against the verb.

    The chapter on rules, worthy and unworthy, is great fun, but what stands out about this book is Pinker’s psychological acuity. He’s always paying attention to how writing works for the reader. In the chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge,” he explores the difficulty of remembering that the reader can’t see what you see and doesn’t know what you know. Specialized vocabularies in every scientific and academic field help experts communicate among themselves, at the cost of leaving the rest of the world out of their discussions. “The curse of knowledge is insidious, because it conceals not only the contents of our thoughts from us but their very form. When we know something well, we don’t realize how abstractly we think about it.”

    Pinker also brings his expertise in Linguistics to bear. The study of grammar has come a long way since the days of “A Noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.” The modern theory separates grammatical categories (like ‘noun’), from grammatical functions (like ‘subject’), and both from syntactic categories (like ‘physical object’). With just a little of this background in mind, we can follow Pinker as he diagrams sentences to show us how the parts fit together. While we will not often actually draw such diagrams in real life, we can develop a mental picture of the tree that will be a great help in combing out our snarled sentences.

    Pinker’s own writing is both sturdy and beautiful, and frequently witty as well. He’s a professional descriptivist, an astute observer of how people actually talk and write, who is has written a distinctly prescriptivist guide. Of course, you are free to disagree with some of his opinions about usage – that’s part of the fun – but he explains his reasons, which helps you think more clearly about your own. His attitude is fundamentally courteous: “We can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.”

    As indeed he does. Thanks be.

Any Good Books   
Emailed December 1 2014

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Atul Gawande  (2014, Metropolitan Books)

    Atul Gawande is a surgeon, a writer, and, lucky for us, a perpetual student. What he knows about death and dying, he did not learn in medical school. In fact, the attitudes and practices of medicine often make aging and dying harder these days; since three out of three people die, Gawande is hoping we can learn to do it better.

    Geriatric care is one area with vast room for improvement. The care of the elderly  is not a glamorous or highly paid field, and there are far too few doctors (or nurses or social workers) taking it up. This is partly because of the perverse incentives of our insurance system, which would rather pay for x-rays and blood tests than for conversations about nutrition and exercise. Gawande thinks it’s also because people go into medicine to solve problems, and geriatric patients often have problems that can’t be solved. “What geriatricians do–bolster our resilience in old age, our capacity to weather what comes–is both difficult and unappealingly limited.” The results of such care can be dramatic, with far fewer negative side effects than drugs and operations, but it takes time, slow time, that doctors generally cannot spare.

    Nursing home care is another case of the medical model failing to give satisfaction. Gawande delves into history: for most of the human era, the few people who lived to old age were cared for by family or in community almshouses. Since the middle of the last century, people leaving hospitals when the hospitals couldn’t cure them have mostly been moved to nursing homes, where they’re treated as helpless patients. It’s no wonder people find them lonely and depressing.

    Gawande looks at several groups of people trying to work out a third way, that would relieve the burden on wives and daughters, yet feel more home-like, and give people an opportunity for a more meaningful life.  The original model of assisted living has been diluted, in many places, but the impulse is sound, to balance safety and autonomy. We don’t want people to fall and break their hips; but keeping them in wheelchairs, as though they already have broken hips, is a lousy solution.

    Gawande comes to a conclusion that challenges medicine at its foundation: “ people’s capacities wane, whether through age or ill health, making their lives better often requires curbing our purely medical imperatives–resisting the urge to fiddle and fix and control.” Patients, families, and doctors frequently wind up on a treadmill of treatments, side effects, and complications that no one knows how to stop, leading to a death without comfort or consolation.

    Hospice care tends to be seen as a last resort, implying that doctors have given up on a patient, but Gawande uncovers a more nuanced reality. Again, it is a matter of altered perspective, giving greater weight to what the patient actually finds meaningful, whether that’s visiting grandchildren, watching baseball games, or drinking beer.

    Most of us are not doctors, but we will surely not get through life without facing the question of how much treatment is too much. “The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life–to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be. Sickness and old age make the struggle hard enough. The professionals and institutions we turn to should not make it worse.”

    I hope this book starts a lot of conversations, both systemic and personal.

Email edition, November 2014

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How Not to Be Wrong

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
Jordan Ellenberg (2014, The Penguin Press)

    Jordan Ellenberg wants to teach us to love math because it’s a super-power. “Math is like an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” He’s not just talking about algebra, or Euclidian proofs, though he’d cheerfully confess to the beauty and utility of those things.   In How Not to Be Wrong, he’s talking about how we look at the world, and how we understand what we see.

    The world, as it turns out, is full of bad math, because people employ the tools and gadgets of math without the common sense. Ellenberg deconstructs a study that extrapolates from four decades of increasing obesity to conclude that all Americans will be obese by 2048, if current trends continue. “But current trends will not continue. They  can’t! If they did, by 2060, a whopping 109% of Americans would be overweight.” As it turns out, when looked at from the appropriate distance, many straight lines are actually curves.

    Probability is another area where mathematics helps make sense of our intuition. The probability that a large number of coin flips will come up heads half the time is too taxing to grasp, though we have to guard against believing that the coin remembers its previous results. But, says Ellenberg, what about expressing tomorrow’s chance of rain in percentage terms? “Tomorrow only happens once; it’s not an experiment we can repeat like a coin flip again and again.”

    Still, we use the tools we have, and Ellenberg wants us to use them wisely, or at least sensibly. The modern practice of statistics relies on the null hypothesis significance test, familiar from discussions of drug trials, economic theory, and psychological experiments. If you set up a null hypothesis, that such and such a thing has no effect, running tests, and finding the null hypothesis comes up less than five per cent of the time, you can say that the thing has a statistically significant chance of being true. Ellenberg points out, in the first place, that “the significance test that scientists use doesn’t measure importance,” though it sounds like it would.

    “If you make the test more sensitive–by increasing the size of the studied population, for example–you enable yourselves to see ever-smaller effects.” Just because something that almost never happens is three times likelier to happen doesn’t make it significant in the ordinary English sense, over-heated headlines notwithstanding. The significance test is a cousin to the reduction ad absurdum, in which mathematicians set up an assumption to disprove. But, Ellenberg warns, “impossible and improbable are not the same–not even close. Impossible things never happen. But improbable things happen a lot.” 

    How Not to Be Wrong is a delightfully approachable book, though there’s plenty of real math in it. The reader comes away knowing more about probability theory, encryption algorithms, alternative geometries, and why elections with more than two candidates are an unsolvable problem.

    And, Ellenberg hopes, we will find a taste for using reason in a structured way: “I find it’s a good habit to put pressure on all your beliefs, social, political, scientific, and philosophical. Believe what you believe by day; but at night, argue against the propositions you hold most dear. Don’t cheat! To the greatest extent possible you have to think as though you believe what you don’t believe. And if you can’t talk yourself out of your existing beliefs, you’ll know a lot more about why you believe what you believe. You’ll have come a little closer to a proof.”   

    Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful thing?   


E-mail edition, October 1, 2014

Monday, September 1, 2014


Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World
Michael Lewis (2011, W. W. Norton & Co.)

    Thanks to books like Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (2011), I was more or less acquainted with the financial crisis of the past ten years. In that book, Lewis followed the trail of collateralized debt obligations and sub-prime mortgage debt that led, in 2008, to the spectacular smash-up of a few Wall Street fortunes and many more American dreams. But I had not paid much attention to the global side of the story, the impact the credit crisis had on banks and governments overseas.

    Happily, Michael Lewis was on the job. When international credit seized up, Iceland, Greece, and Ireland all came to the brink of collapse; German banks found that they were holding billions in toxic assets. In Boomerang, Lewis explores the old-fashioned idea of national temperament, in search of the reason for the different way the crisis affected different places. Icelandic fishermen, for instance, have bravado to spare, so when many of them turned to bond trading, they ran outsized risks. It worked, for a while, but primarily as a nation-sized Ponzi scheme: in one case, “Virtually the entire bank’s stated profits were caused by its marking up assets it had bought at inflated prices.” It looked so good while it lasted that German banks put in $21 billion, which has turned out to be a costly mistake.

    The problem in Greece was an unholy combination of several forms of corruption. For one thing, the tax collection system was completely broken; the under-the-table economy dwarfs the official one. For another, the public sector was awash in bribery, over and above its generous wages and pension. On top of that, the books are a shambles. The reported 2009 budget deficit was first estimated at 3.7 percent, but the incoming minister of finance searched out better numbers that added up to nearly 14 percent. And, because of the election in 2009, the tax collectors had been called off. Between government borrowing and pension obligations, Greece’s debt amounted to more than a quarter million dollars per working citizen; since they’re members of the European Monetary Union, the problem is more complicated. But, says Lewis, “...this question of whether Greece will repay its debts is really a question of whether Greece will change its culture, and that will happen only if Greeks want to change.”

    Ireland used the easy global credit of the early 2000’s to perpetrate a truly spectacular housing bubble. “The Irish construction industry had swollen to become nearly a quarter of Irish GDP–compared to less than 10 percent or so in a normal economy–and Ireland was building half as many new houses a year as the United Kingdom, which had fifteen times as many people to house.” The credit was driving the supply, and the demand wandered along behind. “Their real estate boom had the flavor of a family lie: it was sustainable so long as it went unquestioned and it went unquestioned so long as it appeared sustainable.” But of course, the day that the bubble was questioned in the markets was the day it became unsustainable; real estate lost half its value almost overnight, and the government stepped up to guarantee the debts of the six largest Irish banks. “In retrospect, now that the Irish bank losses are known to be world historically huge, the decision to cover them appears not merely odd but suicidal.” Instead of letting bondholders take losses for stupid loans, the Irish government repaid them with money borrowed from the European Central Bank. Irish homeowners with overpriced mortgages will be repaying both their own and the government’s debts for a very long time.

    On Lewis’s visit to Germany he met some of the bankers who bought so many of the bad bonds Wall Street had been churning out. The German bank IKB borrowed money to buy CDOs, and wound up losing some $15 billion. Lewis says, “Perhaps because they were so enamored of the official rules of finance, the Germans proved especially vulnerable to a false idea the rules encouraged: that there is such a thing as a riskless asset.”

    This book has a stinger in its tail. As we’ve seen, it’s logical, in the moment, for governments to borrow for necessities, and hope to be out of office when the bills come due. Lewis’s last chapter applies this lens to the state of California, and its municipalities. By the end of the Schwarzenegger administration, the state had unfunded liabilities for salaries and pensions of at least $100 billion; cities like San Jose spend three quarters of their budgets on fire fighters and policemen, and it’s nearly impossible to raise taxes to keep other services running. There and everywhere, this is unsustainable, but a little too painful to face in the present. And things could always work out–after all, tomorrow is another day.

Any Good Books Email,
September 2014