Saturday, January 23, 2010

G-d's Debris - A review. The proper

Scott Adams is well known all other the world for his famous "Dilbert" comic strip. He is less known to be software developer, CEO of vegetarian food production company and the co-owner of restaurant in California. Equally less is his renown for the books he has written.
The first of his, non-comic books was "G-d's Debris" (2001).
Described by the author as "thought experiment" this small (just 132 pages) book (available free on-line) discusses ages old philosophical problems and conundrums in a dialog between a common delivery man and an old "sage", calling himself Avatar.

Their dialog starts with a question: “If you toss a coin a thousand times, how often will it come up heads?”, and, by and by, they enter into enchanting philosophical discussion about the eternal philosophical problems of humanity. Do we have free will? If we do, how it relates to brain? What are consequences of G-d's free will? Why there are so many religions? What is the true nature and cause of physical universe? What is the meaning of evolution? and so on ...


In the discussion, the delivery man thinks and talks like common, media influenced, moderately educated person, while Avatar speaks as the one who knows everything, as a sage.

In some sense the "G-d's Debris" illustrates a kind of collision of modern practical mind and ages old philosophical thought.


Many of the explanations given by the sage are just plain baloney (in accordance to the author "thought experiment" rules and warnings). The concept of the universe as the G-d's Debris that came into existence after G-d "decided" to stop his existence, the concept of gravitation and inertia as probability, and many others are examples.


What is beautiful though, is that it just does not matter if these concepts are true or not - the essence is in bringing the common man higher in his awareness - moving him from level of scientific thinking to the "5th-level" where he recognizes that our mind is more delusion generator than "an engine" of truth...


In many dialogues of the book, the discussion is about the metaphorical nature of our knowledge - with overtones of George Lakoff's thoughts. In others we hear tones of Teilhard de Chardin deliberations, in others - the ideas of pantheists.


However, the true virtue of the book lies in its atmosphere; atmosphere of realistic irrationality - is I could call it this way. The books ends in surprising, yet anticipated way - but I will try not to spoil it for its future readers...


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

G-d's Debris - yet another "Avatar" emanation ..

No time for longer review today...
Let me only for few thoughts (after getting off tons of snow out of my roof..) about Scott Adams (yes - the guy behind the Dilbert sketches).

The G-d's Debris is short, intriguing, philosophical tale of utmost beauty and wit...

More to come here soon !

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Infotopia - In common knowledge we trust ...

In 2006 Oxford University Press published small but influential book by Cass R. Sunstain - "Infotopia". Sunstain is a legal scholar, specialized in constitutional, administrative and environmental laws and in behavioral economics.

The subtitle to Infotopia raises the question: "How many minds produce knowledge?".
Sunstain analyses the undergoing transformation of human knowledge accelerated by the Internet. He focuses on specific methods of obtaining the information dispersed in modern society. When the information is properly aggregated and analyzed it can be transformed into knowledge. He describes the role of deliberating groups, surveys, prediction markets, and specific new Internet-era inventions: wikis, blogs and open source software (it seems he omitts Social Networks).

The true value of the book lies not in exaltation upon these new methods, but in true and deep analysis of their internal problems and risks. For example, when he analyses famous Condorcet's Jury Theorem, he shows when the theorem may fail or not to be applicable.
Then, he specifically analyses the effects of social pressures in groups, amplification of cognitive errors, cascade effects, hidden profiles, group polarization and many others.

There is an intriguing chapter about prediction markets - the "tools" that work much better in almost all predictions than any survey or pool. Prediction markets realize in practice Friedrich Hayek conclusion about the price as one of the best aggregative mechanism.
As before, he also warns that they sometimes fail as well...

Despite all these warnings - the book is very optimistic in its final conclusion.

Let me know for somehow more personal conclusion. I read Infotopia just after "The Glass Bead Game". And I'm delighted - delighted about the state of the culture and society and the comunal knowledge, with all these shadows. And I'm happy the world is not and never will be as it was envisioned by Hesse in "The Glass Bead Game", where few cultivate the top knowledge, where elites are not only governing the masses but where the knowledge is under strict control of a few...



Saturday, January 16, 2010

Joseph Knecht's posthumous writings...

The "Glass Bead Game" by Herman Hesse, ends with lengthy postscriptum called "Joseph Knecht's posthumous writings". There are some poems and short stories. The most interesting is the triptych entitled "The Three Lives". Every story of the triptych is a kind of philosophical fairy-tale. "The Rainmaker" tells about a magus of a prehistorical tribe; "The Father Confessor" is about ancient monks of Early Christianity and is placed in the Holy Land. "The Indian Life" is a kind of Vishnu legend placed in ancient India.

The stories are interesting, mainly because they, in some sense alleviate the pain of elitism and aloofness of the main part of the Book. I wouldn't say, they change my opinion, but they make me a bit easier about Herman Hesse...

One remark - I found some far resemblance of many passages and thoughts found in these stories to thoughts of Eckhart Tolle found in his "Power of Now". I wonder if my impression is nothing more than serendipity of some far connections, found only because I just read some of Tolle's texts or whether there is some deeper link ...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Glass Bead Game - The dream of the future never to happen ...

Some 35 years ago I first read Herman Hesse's "Das Glasperlenspiel - Magister Ludi" - at that time - in my mother tongue. It was one of my "formative" books of life...

Over last couple of weeks I returned to it, now in a beautiful English translation of Clara and Richard Winston and in remarkable audio narration by David Collaci.

The book is the last work of the prolific writer, and is often called his "Magnum Opus". In some sense the book is philosophical science-fiction, though there are no typical elements of sci-fi genre. The author predicts that the period in human history will come when the knowledge became wide-spread and popular, with multitude of authors writing multitude of stories. This period, called in the book as "The Age of Feuilleton" was intellectually "bourgeois" and in the same time highly individualistic. The main feature of the age was the passionate search of freedom of thought and the liberation of belief from the sway of all authority. The descriptions Hesse writes about this age, and the general feeling is that he, in some sense, predicted the early Internet as the medium for millions of people to indulge in something remotely called "feuilletonism".

At this moment comes the main prophecy of the book. Hesse predicts that on the ashes of the feuilletonistic age, new mysterious movement is born. Built along the patterns of medieval monasteries and religious societies, new unreligious, secular "order" arises. The purpose of the order is the preservation and cultivation of science, philosophy and music. The order, called "Castalia" creates a province, independent from civil authorities, modeled after religious abbeys. Inside, the order cultivates highly elitist structure and its rule is as strong as the rules of old religious orders. It also includes meditation and contemplation.

The culmination of the order achievement is the synthesis of all sciences and music in an instrument or rather a system called "glass bead game". A game or composition, was a like a computable symphony with deep scientific background. The games could be just about music, but also about logic, language or about the most secret mysteries of the Universe.

The main character of the book, Joseph Knecht, after beautifully described carrier, becomes the chief Glass Bead Game custodian and player (Magister Ludi), and his position equals that of a prior in a classical monastery. The most of the book is about his life and his path - first to the order of Castalia, than through the rungs of the order hierarchy - to the marvelous and startling decision to leave the order, and become "awaken" to the everyday life and the role of simple and modest teacher - in which he could not live too long...

Despite the end of the Jospeh Knecht story - Hesse, through the entire book, demonstrates the admiration to the concept of intellectual elitism, to the notion of "intellectual order" to the medieval concept of hierarchical knowledge, well organized, and integrated with the quintessence of art - with the classical music.

I was shocked when I compared my impressions from my secondary school years reading of The Book, to today's rendering, in my fifties...

When I was 16 I was fascinated by the monastic life, I even spent few months in Benedictine monastery (the one of which my friend Jan Bereza comes from). I shared the admiration to the intellectual elite of these places...

However, so much has changed around me since my school times. And the world has changed so much. I'm no longer a Christian, no longer 'am fascinated by the intellectual utopian elitism of monastic traditions. Though I'm still a friend to many wise monks of the Benedictine order, and I value their achievements - I no longer share the Hesse prophecy about the development of human intellectual life.

I think, we no longer need any "mental elite" - the current culture proved to be vibrant, colorful and precious. We do not have, nor need, strict rules. The human knowledge can, and is, built, on our eyes, by millions of people, yet no one could even think of our time as of "The Age of Feuilletonism".

Today, maybe, "Everything is Miscellaneous", perhaps the communal Wikipedia is not yet, for many of us, better than "Encyclopedia Britannica" - but I'm certain that our "miscellaneous" model of the intellectual and cultural life is much better....

In some sense the Hesse prophecy is dangerous. It promotes the strong hierarchy, strong elitism in education and culture, such concept of culture where the true value comes from anointed few. We already have witnessed where such utopia could lead us...

However, the greatness of the writer is demonstrated in that part of the plot when he puts the main hero out of the Order, giving us a very strong signal of his worries about the elitist foundations of XX century European culture. Reading of that part of the book was very rewarding...

Last, but now least - the book is a true page turner - beoynd everything I wrote here - it is just the great story...

BTW, I still read the last part of the book: "Joseph Knecht Posthumous writings" ... so some update may arrive here ...

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

"The Art of Everyday Life"- Jan Bereza Meditations

I have just published my friend Jan Bereza 18 meditations called:
"The Art of Everyday Life"":

http://lubin.benedyktyni.pl/jan.shtm

and directly on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=B1D42942B507E74E

Its pitty I do not have yet English translations - his texts are increadible ...
However... , I just decided to add English captions to the recordings...
Stay tunned :-)

In fact, the first meditation has already the English captions. More to come soon !!!

 
 

Friday, January 01, 2010

2009/2010 - writing and reading on the brink of the new decade

I marked the end of new decade by finishing (almost) of my two years old project of manually typing XIX century Rabbi Cylkow two first books of Torah translation to Polish. Before my project (at http://www.cylkow.pl/) there was no exact, unmodified electronic version of famous Cylkow's Torah. So far I managed to type the first two books (Genesis/Bereshit, Exodus/Shemot). I will announce it again after some final touch and corrections....

I opened the new decade by mysterious and a bit surprising come back to the book I read in my school years, some 35 years ago. It is Herman Hesse Magnum Opus - The Glass Bead Game. I started the reading while going to Cracow and in Cracow on the New Year Eve...

35 years ago it was an awakening to me, comparable only to my readings of J.P. Sartre....
I'm sure that everybody, who contemplates culture, music and science must read Hesse's Magnum Opus ....