Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Month That Was - December 2016

And that's that. 2016, consensus choice for the most FUBAR year in living memory, evaporates into the history books.

I decided to recap my year below. It was a good year for me all in all, although it felt subpar as it was happening.

I am dug in for the winter, by which I mean the next couple of months. I will likely get a spring visit down to Florida, but until then it is cold and colder.

I am about halfway through the first draft of my next book. So all I have left is the first draft of the second half, followed by about 900 total revisions. Target release date Summer 2057.

Ah well, it's 2017, the world of the future. Even if my brain is wired not the feel it, I know my life is very good.  Probably better than that of 99.9999% of everyone who has ever lived.  If I am incapable of feeling fulfilled and lucky at least I can reason that I am.

[Rant] Annual Review
[Books] Book Look: The Last Samurai
[Rant] Dysfunction Far and Wide
[Books] Book Look: Black Hole Blues

[Rant] Annual Review

Looking back, here is my post from the start of the year about plans. So let's see how I did.

The House -- I said: "I want to re-landscape a section of the front yard. That should be readily do-able. I think the next renovation will be the master suite." The front yard got done as planned, a bit more expensive than anticipated. No progress on the Master Suite so that goal rolls over to 2017.

Travel -- I said: "I can count on a spring trip to FL and out west at Thanksgiving again, but beyond that who knows? I've had Alaska on my radar since forever. We'll see. But there is a plan floating around that might get me back to Hawaii, which I guess I could live with." Well, I did get to Florida again. I overachieved at going out west, first with a trip to Moab just after Labor Day and then extending my November Vegas trip to include a run up the Pacific Coast Highway to the Monterey peninsula. Also, I got in a very nice trip to Maine - Acadia National Park and all -- just before Memorial Day. So travel was a big success.

Fitness -- I said: "I want to do another triathlon. I'd like to do an Olympic distance (roughly twice as long as the Sprint distance I did last year). I'll probably do some of my tried and true foot races, being sure to get in a half-marathon somewhere along the way." I did not do another triathlon, never mind an Olympic, but I did do my longest open water swim (1.2 miles) and my longest bike ride (66 miles), and managed two half marathons so I'm going to call it a success, too.

Interestingly, while the year was progressing I always felt like I was slacking off. Only in retrospect do I see that I did OK. Next month, we'll look forward.

[Books] Book Look: The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt

This is a fascinating book. It is the story of a hyper-intellectual single mother raising a genius child, but I feel safe in saying that whatever narrative you have pre-conceived based on that description is wrong.

The mother, Sibylla, is a mess. She is in a constant battle against the world and its assorted hypocrisies, using logical argument as a bludgeon against any form of normalcy (she is given a brief biography nearly on to set up her personality). The story starts from her point of view and we have a certain sympathy. She has the same struggles all parents do, trying to provide the best for her son while his demands and neediness and out-right existence seem to conspire against her. She is relatively impoverished, wasting her intellect in drudgery to pay the bills all the while schooling her young genius, who has an incredible facility for languages among other prodigious skills. She sees a bit of potential relief when it comes time for the boy to finally go off to school -- imagine all she could accomplish with the five uninterrupted hours! But after a brief stint, it becomes clear that school will simply crush a beautiful outlier like her son, so she resorts to home schooling and trying not to go crazy.

As the boy ages our point of view changes. We start by getting regular and constant interruptions in the narrative as the boy, Ludo, pesters her questions. In time she suggests Ludo start a journal, from which we get occasional entries. From the journal we see she picks fights with strangers on the train who happen to passingly express more conventional views, or even just make small talk. More importantly, she is more brutally honest with the child than the child deserves (toying with him over the identity of his father), and she commits the grievous parental sin of making the child be the adult.

By midway through the book Ludo has reached his tween years and has taken over fully as narrator. He discovers who his father is -- a writer, held in artistic contempt by his mother -- and conspires to meet him. He turns out to be a very decent, rather normal man, but Ludo never reveals to him that he is his son. Either by his own mind or the influence of his mother or some combination thereof, Ludo feels he needs a father who does not feel the constraints of convention. So, influenced by his familiarity with the Kurosawa classic, The Seven Samurai (again, due to his mother's obsession), he hatches a plan to visit a series of outliers, both famous and infamous, and claim to be their child.

This sets up DeWitt to produce a wonderful series of character sketches. The potential "fathers" readily engage in biographic exposition for the precocious boy with the biting wit. This makes for some fun reading. When all's said and done though, the bigger-than-lifes either see through his ruse or are not worthy. But the point is made. Ludo is not going to be normal and no matter how much everyone thinks that he's being deprived of some vital experience for the lack of normalcy, he ends up with a vast amount of experience and ability that he would never have received had he been forced into a standard life-track. De-emphasized, but perhaps even more important is that he stumbles on a way to relieve his mother of the financial burden she struggles with.

DeWitt takes a lot of chances. She employs an unusual way of transcribing dialog, omitting quotes and simply prefacing standard text with "He saids" and "I said." It requires somewhat closer reading as she seems to have no strict method for when the "saids" appear, occasionally not even being in the same paragraph. It seems to work, at least for me, as it gave me a stronger sense of the dialog as emerging from memory, not intended as a transcription of real-time action. She also doesn't hesitate to spend some time indulging in descriptions of Ludo's lessons, which often take the form of extended lessons in the translation of ancient Greek or other languages, much only partially comprehensible to the average reader (such as me).

A clear theme to the book is the examination of the fate of those who are different, those who are dedicated to artistic or human endeavor that is beyond the paths most people take, and the reaction such people can expect from others. This is a treacherous trope -- the misunderstood genius -- but DeWitt brings to bear a great deal of sympathy to such people, and an appreciation of the courage it takes. A lesser talent would either turn the story into symbolic appeal for tolerance of the poor misunderstood geniuses, or a sentimental tale where normalcy is found to be not so bad after all. DeWitt sees the balance of the cost and rewards of such a life.

Should you read The Last Samurai? That's a tough one. I loved it. I found it beyond just affecting; it was truly stimulating, as you can tell from the length of this review. It is not, however, for the casual reader. Or at least the casual reader will not get out of it what a thoughtful, intellectually inquisitive reader would. But if you are one of the eternally shrinking pool of people who are dedicated to the written word, it's a gem at a minimum, perhaps one for the pantheon.

[Rant] Dysfunction Far and Wide

I mentioned last month that my Liberal friends (and that's most of them since I live near Ann Arbor) we're losing their minds over the election. It has only slightly abated; they are still convinced that Donald Trump is destined to destroy the world. It prompted me to give some thought to how many dysfunctional presidents there have been in my lifetime (that would be from Eisenhower forward). It turns out quite a few:
  • Eisenhower - Functional.
  • Kennedy - Dysfunctional. Behaved towards women in a way that would be called misogynist today. Also took so many drugs for various maladies he was regularly judgment-impaired (even during the Cuban Missile Crisis).
  • Johnson - Dysfunctional in the extreme. Sociopathic, and a sex pervert. Referred to his penis as Jumbo and would whip it out at inappropriate times while defying people to say they had ever seen a bigger one. On one occasion, urinated on the pant leg of one of his Secret Service bodyguards in a display of dominance.
  • Nixon - Dysfunctional. Paranoid, power mad, and deeply corrupt. Towards the end he was given to such troubling behavior that there was an informal agreement among his staff that if he ever ordered a nuclear strike they would get approval from Kissinger first.
  • Ford - Functional.
  • Carter - Functional.
  • Reagan - Functional, with the exception of the end when he began to exhibit signs of Alzheimers.
  • Bush 1 - Functional.
  • Clinton - Dysfunctional. Combined Nixon's affinity for corruption with JFKs attitude toward women.
  • Bush 2 - Functional.
  • Obama - Functional.
  • Trump - Well...
A couple of observation leap out. First, neither party has a monopoly on lunacy. Second, bad results don't automatically follow from mentally unbalanced presidents. From that list it seems there is no telling whether we are in for good times or bad times based on the mental stability of the president. That would point to the conclusion that the office of the President isn't as important as it is portrayed. My personal belief is that the country isn't run by the President or Congress or the Supreme Court, but by the Washington Bureaucracy. People are yelling at it from the right and from the left, but The Bureaucracy travels its own undiscoverable path, like the gods of Greek mythollogy arbitrarily bestowing reward and punishment on mortals. (Yes, my internal narratives are more fanciful than most.)

Also, it's worth pointing that we are still not certain about Trump. He behaves and speaks abysmally, but his actual actions since the election have been pretty normal. I know that people of my generation seem to value the office of president as culturally symbolic beyond just functional policy making and so have certain behavioral expectations, but maybe things have changed. Maybe people are so comfortable with a disconnect between words and deeds now that the president is free to act like a reality show star without consequence to policy. It's not 1965 anymore. It's not even 1995.

This is not to say the election didn't bother me. It did, but not for the same reason as most people. What disturbed me most was how thoroughly every aspect of it was dominated by emotion and irrationality. Now, I understand that human decisions are made irrationally, from a hot mess of pattern matching against memories and neurons firing in probabilistic variations around an innate behavioral tendency, and rationalized afterwards. But as the election season went along, everybody, including people I know and respect, built these astonishing narratives in their heads of the horrors that would certainly be visited upon us should the other side win. The basis of these narratives had virtually no relationship to objective reality, often running exactly counter to factual evidence. In all elections the parties work hard to demonize each other but in my memory the majority of people understand that this is just a marketing ploy, essentially a use of advertising tricks to sway opinion. Not this time around. This time it seemed not only that everyone was taking these portrayals as established truth, but actually building more outrageous stories from them. And the more outrageous the narratives got, the deeper people believed in them.

That's what's scary to me. Evil people coming to power doesn't scare me so much. The world is huge and complicated and, short of North Korea, the bad guys always have opposition. No, the really terrifying thing is righteousness. All the greatest horror in history stems not from people planning to do evil, but from people with absolute certainty in their righteousness. That's what I saw that disturbed me so much. People were so thoroughly convinced of their righteousness that I could picture them doing terrible things in support of it. And to pile on, they believed their pure righteousness was the only thing standing the way of the other side's pure righteousness. Lather, rinse, repeat until the end of civilization.

I always thought that humanity was characterized constant push pull of the rational and irrational, analysis and emotion, objectivity and sentiment. But now I see it is hardly an equal match. My view has changed and I see humanity as a chaotic stew of battling primal instincts, with only occasional flashes of reason bringing any growth or progress or hope. It's a sad belief to be forced to adopt, but at my age there is no excuse for naivete.

[Books] Book Look: Black Hole Blues, by Jenna Levin

I originally thought this book would in the pop science genre -- a layman-level description of the theory and concepts behind gravitational waves. It's not that, but a wonderfully sensitive and beautifully written piece of scientific history.

Gravitational waves are by products of the violent actions of objects of extraordinary mass; two black holes colliding and such. They are predicted by General Relativity and provide the only information we have about the universe that does not come through radiation. Levin analogizes this to sound; so far all we have had to understand the universe is sight -- radiation -- now we have sound -- gravitational waves -- which opens an entirely new possibilities for understanding.

That's about the extent of the science. The story here -- and it is a story, as compelling as a good novel -- is the five-plus decade search for these things, and more importantly, the lives devoted to that search. What follows are in-depth portraits of the scientists (many now quite renown) -- their quirks and dysfunctions, their conflicts and camaraderie, their victories and disappointments. Scientists are, perhaps, an odder group of people than most, their relationships often accurately characterized as an interaction of pathologies. Levin brings both the pain and exhilaration of their obsessions alive as this singular pursuit grows from makeshift garage-level do-it-yourself projects to a multi-million dollar, taxpayer-financed, congressionally overseen initiative.

The story is best summed up in Levin's closing passage. Sorry for the length, but if you like this quote, you'll like the book:
Initiated by a collision of black holes or neutron stars or an exploding stars, maybe more than a billion years ago, the waves in the shape of space have been on their way here ever since.

A vestige of the noise of the crash has been on the way to us since early multicelled organisms fossilized in supercontinents on a still dynamic Earth. When the sound moved through our Local Supercluster of galaxies, dinosaurs roamed the planet. As it passed the nearby Andromeda galaxy, the Ice Age began. As it entered the halo of our Milky Way, we were painting caves. As the wave approached a nearby star cluster, we were in the final furlong, the rapid years of industrialization. The steam engine was invented and Albert Einstein theorized on the existence of gravitational waves. When I started to write this book, the sound reached Alpha Centauri.

In the final miniscule fraction of that billion year journey, a team of hundreds of scientists will have built an observatory to record the first notes from space. As the sound moves through the interstellar space outside the solar system, the detectors will be operational.

As the wave nears the orbit of Neptune, we only have a few more hours. Past the Sun, we have eight more minutes. Someone will be on duty in the control room...after the passage of eight unexceptional minutes, she might barely hear something that sounds different...A sophisticated computer algorithm will parse the data stream in real time and send notification to the data analysts...and one will be the first to look over the specs...and think calmly, "This might be it."

As much as this book is a chronicle of gravitational is a tribute to a quixotic, epic, harrowing experimental endeavor, a tribute to a fool's ambition.
That's a better description than I could write; and prescient. It was written before the first successful observation of gravitational waves and is pretty close to what actually happened (which is covered in an epilogue). I found myself quite happy for all people who had devoted their lives to this "fool's ambition" to see their life's work finally succeed and find a major sense of closure to their lives. I can only hope have the same feeling someday.

Should you read Black Hole Blues? Even if you have the slightest interest in science you should. It is a truly great story.