Cloud Atlas–Promise and Disappointment

Sunday, 24 May 2009, 22:35 | Category : Uncategorized
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I’ve just finished reading a novel–Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, a very talented British novelist. It came heavily recommended by much admired literary friends, and it tries to do something that I believe few mainline fiction works do at all. That is, engage really major philosophical/scientific/social issues in a way that enlists and expands the very form of the novel itself. The fact that they don’t is the reason why I don’t read contemporary mainline fiction much at all–that, and the related problem that I never meet characters that I’d really like to know and be proud to know.

I mostly read science fiction, which almost always engages major issues, often in original ways, and sometimes has characters I respect and whose inner lives I actually don’t mind exploring. It’s not that I don’t think contemporary mainline fiction writers are stupid (though they’re very often pretty ignorant about anything except fiction writing and the stuff they researched for their novel); it’s just that I don’t see why the author has to have a monopoly on the intelligence and originality in a book. Shakespeare, by contrast, created characters that may have been even smarter than Shakespeare himself–Hamlet, Falstaff, Rosalind, Cleopatra.

Cloud Atlas is stylistically a tour de force–it’s made up of six interwoven stories, each in a different genre, and ranging in setting, style, language and worldview from the nineteenth century to several hundred years in the future. I suppose one could call it science-fiction overall, but only two of the stories are in that form (and those are profoundly different from each other–an account of a pre-execution interview in Korea and a first-person tribal tale from a last survivor of a technological apocalypse). The other forms he uses are the nineteenth century traveler’s journal, the British epistolary novel, the American West Coast conspiracy thriller, and the comic media anecdote. What’s especially interesting is that the tales begin in order of time, and then are completed in reverse temporal order, creating a chiastic or palindromic sort of shape.

With these fine technical devices, and the grand theme of the destruction of civilization by human greed, we have the ingredients of something very special. But the novel fails and disappoints, for many reasons. It has the same ignorance of economics, political science, natural science, and technology that marks most contemporary writers and artists. It demonizes the business corporation in a way that is becoming a weary cliche. It is simply superstitious about nuclear technology in a way that is already dated–these days it is coal that is the villain, not nuclear–and proposes using biotech to darken people’s skin as a protection against radiation, for instance. But worse–it seems to want to have the fading cachet of existentialist angst while sentimentally weaving in a spiritual message embodied in a miraculous birthmark suggesting a mysterious providence–a providence that is signally ineffective, since the “good” characters are as helpless against the western phallocentric colonialist capitalist villains as fish in a barrel.

An author who takes on major world historical themes owes it to his audience to do his homework, which Mitchell has not done. Science fiction writers are often pretty ignorant of economics, business, finance, etc–who invests in those splendid starships and pays the workers and votes for the project and staves off the political opposition?–but usually they know their science, and create characters that know something too, and can win the reader’s respect for that at least. I think Mitchell has a chance of becoming a great novelist if he takes ten years and some graduate courses in his missing disciplines, and reads a list of great books in the natural and social sciences.

Time and Hard Sums

Friday, 17 April 2009, 10:58 | Category : Uncategorized
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I’ve been thinking recently that maybe there’s an elegant way of describing Time simply as difficulty. Mathematicians now have a charmingly naive term, “hardness,” for describing the relative knottiness of a calculation problem. If asked to give an explanation to a layperson, they will often say something like: “Well, suppose you had a perfect computer. A hard problem takes it more time to solve than an easy one.” If you have a problem like the “traveling salesman” puzzle–given n cities, how do you figure out the shortest route by which he can visit all of them–it’s really easy if you have three or even five cities, but if you have a few hundred, no computer in the universe, using the fastest theoretical algorithm, could solve it in less than a billion years, by which time the salesman would long ago have moldered into atoms. These algorithms are called “NP hard.” There are even more difficult problems still, ones that ask, for instance, whether it is possible to prove whether or not a given problem has an algorithm to solve it at all–i.e. problems that can only be solved by the emergence of as-yet-undiscovered further problems that will require unimaginable algorithms of the future if they are to be solved.

If we describe the universe as a computational system–and the fact that all science expresses its conclusions in numerical terms strongly suggests that science “votes with its feet” for that hypothesis–then we can see all entities in the universe as the workings of problem-solving algorithms. The ones that are easily solved have been solved already and have stopped, and constitute the eternal constants of physics that are true at every instant through all time, like the instantaneous coexistence of the probabilistic quantum world described by David Bohm. The ones that are a bit harder but still solvable are the deterministic processes in nature that Newtonian science describes. The ones left over constitute the whole world of change and becoming, ranging from chemical reactions through self-cloning living organisms to ourselves, arranged in a nice pyramid of emergent temporal features as described by the great philosopher J. T. Fraser.

If time is a river, there would be nothing to indicate the passage of time unless some parts of the river were flowing faster than other parts. “Hardness” gives us a nice way of measuring which ones are faster and which ones are slower.

Here’s a nice thought-experiment to prove this idea. The increase of entropy (thermal disorder) is usually recognized by physicists as a reliable marker of the passage of time. Thermal disorder is what we call heat. If I am right, a large amount of local computation should be the same thing as a large amount of local time; and a large amount of time should be correlated with an increase of heat. If you are using a laptop, and it’s actually on your lap, you can feel the heat of computation generating time on your thighs.

A Brilliant Ramshackle Redemptive Book

Tuesday, 14 April 2009, 17:59 | Category : Uncategorized
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I’m reading Michael Strong’s BE THE SOLUTION. It’s co-written with the most exciting entrepreneurial thinkers around, like Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank, John Mackey the CEO of Whole Foods, Hernando de Soto the visionary Peruvian advocate of property rights, and others. I don’t usually like how-to books, and this is a how-to book about the whole world’s economy and is insanely ambitious. But this book has the goods. It’s popping with good ideas about do-gooder business, entrepreneurial education, free enterprise zones, prediction markets, microfinance, the rule of law, and poverty. The book blows the usual Left-Right, Conservative-Liberal divide right out of the water, and it has all the audacity of hope. Obama should read it. He’d like it, I think.

Chi and Quantum Gravity

Friday, 10 April 2009, 10:14 | Category : Uncategorized
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This week I gave a paper at a conference on “Translating China” at the Confucius Institute center at my university, the University of Texas at Dallas. Helped by my wise assistant on these matters, Daisy Guo, I read a few of my translations of the great Tang Dynasty poets.

One of the themes of the conference turned out to be Chinese metaphysics–if that’s the right word. If it means what Aristotle meant, that is, “further reflections on physics (the study of the productive and reproductive process of nature)”, then it could accurately describe this branch of Chinese philosophy. But if it means “the study of the supernatural (that which is not part of nature and temporal processes)”–the usual “Western” meaning–then it would be the wrong word.

Recent developments in cosmological physics implying that if the universe is made of anything, it’s not made basically of matter or static “stuff” but of dynamic feedback, seem to confirm the ancient Chinese (and Heraclitean) notion of harmonic change–CHI–as the origin and foundation of all things. Poetic form is the way feedback is generated in language–if you rhyme and keep to a metrical form, every word affects every other word. Classical Chinese poetry has many such rules, and so it naturally expresses chi. Here are a couple of the poems.

*Farewell, Upon Passing Mount Jin Men
Li Bai (701-762)

And now at length I’ve passed beyond Jin Men
On my adventure to the land of Chu.
The mountains end, the flatlands open out,
The Yangtze meets the vast plains and pours through.

The moon is flung upon its heavenly mirror,
The clouds grow mirages of towers and sea;
But still I love the waters of my homeland
That travel with my boat a thousand li.

A Song of Liang Zhou
Wang Zhihuan (688-744)

The Yellow River climbs away
to far white clouds and sky;
A lonely outpost fortress lies
in mountains ten miles high.

Qiang flute, why must you take to heart
the “Willow” song, alas?
You know the spring wind never blows
across the Yu Men pass.


Sunday, 29 March 2009, 16:25 | Category : Uncategorized
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We heard a wildly moving performance of Bach’s St. John Passion last night at the Dallas Bach Society. Much of it is in the strange key of F sharp minor, which caught exactly the feeling of imminent catastrophe, hysterical grief, horror and mystical excitement that must have characterized the city of Jerusalem during that Passover twenty centuries ago.

Things haven’t changed much. In many places today we could find violent religious revolutionaries like Barabbas, overwhelmed foreign military authorities like Pilate (usually American or UN), visionaries, betrayers, saints, puppet local leaders like Herod, screaming mobs, gentle peacemakers, a huge gap between a wealthy civilization and proud, ancient, impoverished local culture–and the close presence of heaven and hell. There’s a pretty good African movie entitled “Son of Man” that sets the Jesus story in contemporary Africa.

We were recently in Costa Rica for business, research, and a change. We took a trip into Nicaragua. You could feel that same atmosphere–hundreds of beggars, open sewers, a dead kid beside a mangled bicycle on the highway with a gathering crowd, political ads and graffiti, the luxurious houses of the rich, the presence always of guys with smart uniforms toting large new automatic weapons. Yet the evidence of vital art, poetry, music, was everywhere, the simple homes painted in gorgeously unlikely colors. Costa Rica by comparison is a bit drab, but it’s clearly getting rich, has an excellent government, gave up its army 60 years ago, and is eco-friendly. Not much chance of Golgotha there.

I will return

Friday, 6 March 2009, 13:52 | Category : Uncategorized
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I’m going to be off the web for a week–work, research, exploration.

The Gift Oeconomy

Wednesday, 4 March 2009, 12:36 | Category : Uncategorized
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For several years I’ve been thinking about gifts as the essential partner to market exchanges. Basically, we haggle and buy and sell to make money to give to our nearest and dearest to show our love and invite theirs; and we do good market business by giving our customers or employers more in terms of what they want than they are giving up to us. “Gifts” is the word we use for the human talents that create the arts and ideas that nourish our economies; and the Humanities are the disciplines that deal with those gifts. In this spirit one might check out George McCully’s Catalogue for Philanthropy and Lenore Ealy’s blog . (Oeconomy is an old spelling of the word that reminds us that it literally means “the rules of the home”.)

More Writings Available

Thursday, 26 February 2009, 16:25 | Category : Uncategorized
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Hello, I’m Ben, Fred’s son.  We have uploaded a bunch of my dad’s writings not only to the site here (see the Pages on the right sidebar or go to Other Published Works), but also to his account on Scribd, a site that lets you embed, socialize around, and share text documents.

And please think about donating to Fred (see to the right) — we’re putting up his work online for you to quote, cite, play with, and share…in order to contribute to the wealth of knowledge online.  This stuff is the work he didn’t get compensated for before!


Poetry and Currency

Monday, 23 February 2009, 11:34 | Category : Uncategorized
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Here’s an outtake from my talk last Friday in New York introducing Dana Gioia, an old friend who has just resigned the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts with great relief to go and write poetry. He was receiving the annual Award for Excellence given each year by the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, which I am part of and which publishes the American Arts Quarterly.   I was praising Dana’s reading initiative while he was chairman:

“The message was that the word is still the heart and meaning of the flesh, that our material culture draws its basic vital energies from our literary culture.

“We can communicate and create effectively only if there is a place where language can refine itself to say things with exactness while still preserving their richness and multivocality.  As our present economic crisis shows, if our currency is replaced by dishonest derivatives, we will be ruined: true poetry is the hard currency of communication, a language that keeps its promises and honors its bonds.

“Since the invention of the typewriter poetry has become disproportionately a visual art.  Its orphic and intuitive powers, however, come from its musical and aural character—it is memorable because it sings.  New research has shown that the prosodic character of spoken language is essential to its meaning.  This is obvious in a tonal language like Chinese, where the very meaning of a word depends on its tone. But English is no less tonal, except that we use tone and pitch not to establish our lexicon but to establish our syntax and logic.  In English we cannot speak a sentence without instinctively giving it a melody—all songwriters understand this.  It is a natural genius that we all possess, and that poets refine and amplify by the arts of meter and rhyme.

“The Greeks believed that the muses of the arts were the daughters of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory.  True poetry is poetry that is remembered, a meme that sticks in peoples’ heads to be recovered at great need in love, grief, triumph or despair.”

By the way, for anyone in the Dallas area who might be interested, I am premiering my new science-fiction dramatic poem Resurrection tonight (6:30 pm, Mon 2/23/09) at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture downtown on Routh Street.

Surgeons and health nuts

Saturday, 14 February 2009, 11:29 | Category : Uncategorized
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There seem to be only two schools of economic thought in Congress: surgeons and health nuts.  The health nuts are the economic libertarian Right; if you are dying of dengue fever or hit by a beer truck, they prescribe the economic equivalent of tofu and brisk exercise.  The surgeons are the economic dirigiste Left; if a healthy economy has constipation or a cold they want to do heart bypass surgery or a brain transplant.  Right now we need drastic surgery, and the health nuts tell us the crisis is good for us and we should lots of pushups and eat wheat germ.  But if we do get the necessary surgery, be assured the surgeons will want to do it again and again even after we get well.