December 02, 2002

The Puzzle Instinct, Marcel Danesi

I came nowhere near finishing this. I knew I wouldn't by page 17.

On page 15, he quotes Fibonacci's description of fecund rabbits in a cage. Two pages later- the two pages are a repetitive explanation of how the numbers of rabbits grow - he says

"Reification" is the term used by philosophers to refer to serendipitous actual manifestations of something that was originally conceived as an abstraction or as a figment of mind.
Why would this solution to a simple puzzle reveal patterns in the real world? There is, to my knowledge, no definitive answer to this question; nor, probably, can there ever be one.
But this wasn't conceived as a figment of mind; it's a perfectly realistic question. has this man never met a rabbit? had he no gerbils as a child? Was he so desperate to use the word 'reification'?

After some more clumsy explanations of simple mathematics, followed by what I think were equally clumsy arguments about the ineffability of the human mind and its puzzling, I gave up.

Posted by clew at 08:54 AM

The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley

A book not totally unlike Gosford Park, or that crossed with Cold Comfort Farm. the writing is all very well, gothic or modern as needed.

I was much struck that the old rules of morality, in it, punish a cross-class extramarital affair with madness, amnesia, an immediate suicide, a possibly suspicious early death, and social ostracism still active two generations later; it's hard to see how this could be worse than allowing the misalliance. I suppose that's what makes it an early modern novel: the nineteenth century would have made it clear why the misalliance was worse, and a late modern novel would have allowed it.

Posted by clew at 08:16 AM

Escaping the bad side of town

The Pact, Drs. Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt, with Lisa Frazier Page

Reaching Up for Manhood, Geoffrey Canada

Two books written by black men who grew up in bad circumstances and escaped. Canada has a faint air of bluster or swagger in his writing, not distracting, but an unusual counterpoint to his discussions of feelings and social engineering. The three doctors use plenty of slang, and have equally grim anecdotes, but mostly come across as really sweet.

Problem with Texas-style access to education, of letting the top 10% of each school into the desirable universities: thoe from the worst schools will be terrifically behind in all sorts of knowledge; the authors of The Pact manage to sound only exasperated about getting through premed and med school surrounded by children and friends of doctors, who understood a lot more of the system.

Posted by clew at 08:00 AM

How the Scots Invented the Modern World, Arthur Herman

Herman writes that Virginia Woolf said that one of Sir Walter Scott's literary virtues was that the reader never knew which side of the issue he was on while reading his novels. This is not a virtue that can be credited to Herman, who is so enthusiastic to prove that the Scots were necessary to every important development of modernization that he gets sloppy with his definitions; Scots abroad are Scots (no Scots-Irish, because he argues that they didn't blend: he calls them Ulster Scots), non-Scots in Scotland produce Scottish work, Gibbon counts as a Scot "for all intents and purposes" because he studied Scots writers but the Adams brothers do not become Italian by studying Italian architecture. I also find him sloppy in distinguishing between his summary of what an important Scot thought, and his assertion of the obvious truth demonstrating that the Scot in question was right; and also he tries to lead the reader by alluding to some current popular fallacy that the eighteenth-century Scots had already seen through, without explaining what the fallacy is.

When reading something so tendentious, it's hard not to look for the Heffalump; and I did catch him out in some at-best-dubious assertions. I could have believed that the Adam brothers improved classical architecture by adding servant's stairs, except that Rybczynski's The Perfect House mentions servant's stairs in the Villa Cornaro and shows them on the floorplan. Later he explains the Jardine's forcing the opium trade into imperial China with the argument that "Britain had no drug problem" in 1827 (considered relevant because it put fault for Chinese opium addiction on Chinese weakness); I checked Martin Booth's Opium . Booth confirmed widespread opium addiction among the poor of the Fens, for instance, who also needed opium as a medicine. Now, maybe Herman didn't know this, or maybe he thought all the use of opium in England was medicinal, but - from Opium -

When, in 1828, the earl of Mar died...his insurers refused to honour his life insurance, contending his [opium] habit affected his life expectancy. A few years later, a Professor Christiansen of Edinburgh concluded to a Scottish court that opium-eating shortened life.

Herman is familiar with the lives of other Earls of Mar, but this still might be sloppy scholarship accepting Jardine's rationalization; it isn't written clearly enough to tell if he was asserting that Jardine's rationalization was true. At least he didn't praise Prof. Christiansen immediately after admiring Jardine, the way he admired the Ulster Scots' armed land-grabs in the New World right after praising the innate Scots respect for private property.

A book asserting that Adam Smith begot the modern world would be plausible. (comment from my other half: "And Clausewitz!" I don't think there's any reason to consider Clausewitz Scots.) I'll try Rothschild's Economic Sentiments for that. What Herman finally convinced me of was not that the Scots made the modern world, but that the British Empire used the Scots to make the modern world. Scotland was a whole nation of younger sons, willing to learn a new language, do the dirty engineering, fight some nasty battles, for a chance to earn a place in the center of civilization. Even Herman's brief summary of Scotland in the 20th century was of a poor and low-wage nation, the ignored 'good child' of England as Ireland is the harassed 'bad child'.

Interesting tidbits; Highlanders fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie routed more-experienced, better-equipped troops more than once, something to consider when reading pulp fiction battles between savages with swords and troops with distance-weapons. They didn't win the war. Later, when Sir Walter Scott was inventing cod-Highland pageantry to amuse drunk king George IV, there was one group of real Highlanders sent, bare survivors of the clearances. They were so scruffy and frightening that they were shuffled away, fed scraps, not allowed to march.

Posted by clew at 07:20 AM
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