Sunday, August 9, 2015

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Thanks to Adam over at The Roof Beam Reader for hosting this years Austen in August Reading event. Be sure to check out this post for lots of great posts on all things Jane Austen.

My commentary contains major spoilers.

Persuasion by Jane Austen is a revered classic that lives up to its reputation. The plot centers around Anne Elliot. The activities and interactions of Anne, her family and her friends make up the plot. The prospects for marriage of Anne, and other characters as well, drive much of the narrative.

Anne is in her late twenties and has not yet married. Years earlier, under pressure from her family and friends, Anne had broken off an engagement with Captain Frederick Wentworth. When Wentworth returns to the scene, the stage is set for much of the drama that comprises the book.

Like many great works, there is much to ponder here. One of the major sources of interest is the state of Anne’s personality and psyche. She is surrounded by people who undervalue her and who do not appreciate her virtues.  She is often used and put upon. Her father, Sir Walter Elliot, and sisters are narcissistic and often behaved childishly. Her one friend who seems to appreciate her, Lady Russell, had unfortunately given Anne some very bad romantic advice when she urged Anne to break off her engagement with Wentworth.

I think that there is something dark and melancholy going on in Anne’s psyche. In today’s world she might be said to be suffering from depression. Perhaps, because her personality is in some ways understated, she is someone who does not outwardly display strong emotions. This inner sadness is easily missed by both the other characters in the novel as well as by its readers.  Perhaps this despondency would be overlooked even in today’s world due to the fact that Anne seems to be such an inward thinker. Quiet people sometimes hide their melancholia deep within their soul. In my opinion, Austen has portrayed this brilliantly here.

The state of Anne’s mind seems to be a function of several factors. She is surrounded by people who are of lesser substance than her. They undervalue substantive ideas, reading, real emotions and ethical behavior. At times in the narrative, one gets the sense that they are draining her.

In a striking passage, Anne’s father and sister enter a room where a cheerful gathering is taking place.

“the door was thrown open for Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, whose entrance seemed to give a general chill. Anne felt an instant oppression, and wherever she looked saw symptoms of the same. The comfort, the freedom, the gaiety of the room was over, hushed into cold composure, determined silence, or insipid talk, to meet the heartless elegance of her father and sister. How mortifying to feel that it was so! “

It is clear that Wentworth was the love of Anne’s life. Before his return, however, he had faded into the past. The one missed opportunity for a special human connection seems to hang around Anne’s neck like an albatross.

At one point, a walk with friends is described. As befitting her mood and perhaps her general position in the social connections of the book, it is observed,

“Anne's object was, not to be in the way of anybody”

As the walk proceeds, the symbolism and imagery of autumn seem to come into play in an important way.

from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves, and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling”

It seems that autumn, “that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind,” has been ingrained into Anne.

At another point, Anne realizes that though she is a talented musician, her family and friends disregard her abilities, but there is poignant allusion of a past when one person, Wentworth, did not diminish her,

Excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste” [Emphasis mine]

Notably, as the book ends, Anne and Wentworth are happily married, but there still seems to be that hint of dread in Anne’s soul.  There is the prospect that Wentworth might be called back to active duty and thus away from the household.

This subtle sadness inherent in Anna’s character has helped make this my favorite Jane Austen book thus far. I hade previously read Emma, my commentary being  here, and Pride and Prejudice my commentary being here and here.

There is a lot more to this book. It is full of Austen’s dry humor, keen insights into human relations, dynamic characters and an entertaining and fun plot. The writing is outstanding. I highly recommend this work for anyone who is even remotely interested in this type of novel. It is simply one of the best of its kind.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by is a thought-provoking book. The author is a philosopher who has a strong technical background in information technology and science. This work is devoted to the future development of machine intelligence and the potential dangers relating to its development.

First, since this book goes into territory that might initially seem far-fetched, and because “doomsday is coming” type books often lack credibility, I think it is important to discuss some reasons why I believe that Bostrom’s ideas hold some authority. This book is extremely well researched and the author has a strong technical grasp of the relevant subjects. He does not make unsupported contentions. Though a philosopher, Bostrom seems to have a scientific mind. He often speaks in terms of probabilities, not predictions or certainties. He does do a lot of speculation here, but he is careful to point out when it is speculation.

Furthermore, I have done a little research around this book. This work, as well as some other books and essays that have been published in the past several years, has garnered serious attention from a host of scientific, technical and industry experts. Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates are some of the more famous and prominent people who are looking at these issues as credible. In the past several years, these concerns have sparked a conversation among those in the know as it relates to this topic. Some are planning for what may be momentous events related to the possible coming of super intelligence.

Parts of this book are technical, and some of it was bit difficult for me to follow. It helped that I have a passing interest in this topic and in related issues and that I have occasionally read articles on the subject. In addition, the author references various writings and ideas relating to human consciousness and brain function. I have also done a little reading on those subjects, which proved helpful. Nevertheless, a patient lay reader without much background will mostly understand and get a lot out of this book.

In order to comprehend what this work is about, it is important that one understands several important concepts that Bostrom explores. First, this book is mostly concerned with what Bostrom calls general or strong artificial intelligence, or in layman’s terms, computers that will be able to think like humans in multiple ways. This is as opposed to systems that are currently labeled as artificial intelligence that are very good at accomplishing specific tasks, but only specific tasks.  This type of less sophisticated technology is already in use in all sorts of applications, including Internet search engines, navigational aides, medical application, etc.

General artificial intelligence, by definition, will initially be roughly on par with, or slightly superior to, human intelligence. As Bostrom points out, most of the film and book depictions of machine intelligences fall into this category.

Artificial intelligence is not synonymous with  “Suprintelligence.” Though Bostrom spends many pages explaining what he means by Suprintelligence and offers several definitions, it is basically intelligence that is far advanced of human thinking in every important area.

The author writes,

“The magnitudes of the advantages are such as to suggest that rather than thinking of a superintelligent AI as smart in the sense that a scientific genius is smart compared with the average human being, it might be closer to the mark to think of such an AI as smart in the sense that an average human being is smart compared with a beetle or a worm. “

Bostrom’s contentions are as follows: sometime in the next fifteen to ninety years, researchers will likely produce strong artificial intelligence. There will be constant improvement of this artificial intelligence, either through the efforts of its programmers or, more likely, it will be a self-improving system. This improvement will eventually create what Bostrom describes as an “intelligence explosion.” This will be a leap in intelligence of unimaginable magnitude. Suprintelligence will result.

This Suprintelligence will have an overwhelming advantage over the whole of human civilization. Bostrom explains how it might gain easy access to enormous financial resources and manufacturing faculties. Such an entity might be powerful beyond human comprehension. It will likely be driven to expand its intelligence further and further. Such expansion efforts could possibly bring about human extinction. If the results do not end up as dire as the end of humanity, Suprintelligence will at least have an enormous impact on the future of our species and civilization.

Bostrom speculates about many scenarios. Many of the most likely involve a Suprintelligence with seemingly godlike powers. In some of these scenarios, in its drive to become smarter and bigger, the Suprintelligence might begin changing the ecosystem of the Earth as to make human life impossible. Of one of these horrifying possibilities Bostrom writes,

if the AI is sure of its invincibility to human interference, our species may not be targeted directly. Our demise may instead result from the habitat destruction that ensues when the AI begins massive global construction projects using nanotech factories and assemblers— construction projects which quickly, perhaps within days or weeks, tile all of the Earth’s surface with solar panels, nuclear reactors, supercomputing facilities with protruding cooling towers, space rocket launchers, or other installations whereby the AI intends to maximize the long-term cumulative realization of its values. Human brains, if they contain information relevant to the AI’s goals, could be disassembled and scanned, and the extracted data transferred to some more efficient and secure storage format. “

Though the above seems fantastic, the author bases his speculations upon what are some educated guesses of modern scientific and technical minds as to what technologies are likely to be developed in the future.

Bostrom discusses many possibilities. Some involve human extinction. However, there is an entire range of eventualities are explored. Some involve less maleficent ills, such as a Suprintelligence dominating humanity in more benign but still stiffening ways. Other scenarios are bright, with a passive Suprintelligence helping humanity to avoid extinction and promoting human improvement.

But the author warns,

“Before the prospect of an intelligence explosion, we humans are like small children playing with a bomb.”

The author digs into a lot of detail involving the current state of artificial intelligence, its technical evolution, the revolution that is likely to occur after strong artificial intelligence is developed, as well as post Suprintelligence scenarios.

Bostrom does devote a lot of thought to solutions. He concedes that the development of Suprintelligence is likely inevitable. However, he explores numerous possibilities as to how it can be developed in order to avoid pernicious outcomes. The author digs deep into both technological as well as philosophical issues as they relate to creating favorable outcomes.

There is a lot more to this book than my summary does justice. Bostrom has a keen mind and takes the reader down all sorts of interesting scientific, technological and philosophic paths.

I think that it is important to remember that those who have attempted to forecast the future, even those who are knowledgeable, have often been proven wrong. However, based upon the serious and hardheaded way that this topic is explored, and based upon the fact that these concerns are being given serious consideration by bright people who understand these subjects, these ideas need to be carefully considered. There is much to ponder here.

I found both the hard technology as well as the predictive and philosophical musings contained within these pages fascinating. At the very least it is an excellent primer on the state of artificial intelligence research and its future development. I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in this type of technology, the future of humanity, or the state of the world in general.

Nick Bostrom’s website is full of interesting thoughts on the ethics, science, philosophy, the future of humanity and all sorts of other topics. It is here.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The below commentary contains major spoilers.

Those looking to obtain this novel should note: the story was turned into a play that was also written by Atwood. The play version, which I have not read but seems to be somewhat different from the novel, is also available and has the same title as the novel. The two books are difficult to distinguish.

The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of parts of Homer‘s The Odyssey. It centers upon the experiences of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and of Penelope’s twelve maids. It is told in the first person, alternating between Penelope and the maids. These folks now exist in Hades. They have been there for centuries, and it is now present day. Much of the story is told in flashback.

In the original epic poem, Penelope stayed faithful to Odysseus during his twenty years absence during the Trojan War and his long voyage home. This was despite the fact that she was besieged by scores of aggressive suitors who were vying for her hand in marriage.

When Odysseus returned, he killed the suitors. He also discovered that twelve of Penelope’s maids had fraternized and slept with various suitors. He ordered these maids to be hung.

The work mostly consists of a first person narrative from Penelope’s point of view. Portions are also told from the maids’ point of view.

In this work, Penelope’s story is told with a very different perspective as that of the original epic. She is required to enter into an arranged marriage with Odysseus at the age of 15. In a world where most men are brutal and sadistic to women, including their own wives, Odysseus seems to be relatively sensitive and refrains from cruelty. Though later we find that he is deeply flawed and can be insensitive and manipulative, this aspect of his personality nevertheless adds complexity and nuance to his character. Penelope develops both a love and a loyalty to him.

When he departs to fight the Trojan War, Penelope is left alone in Ithaca to fend for herself in a city full of political and family machinations. She grows into a smart and competent ruler. As Odysseus’s absence stretches past fifteen years, many assume him dead. The suitors begin to arrive, and Penelope does not have the military or political means to dismiss them.

As in the original epic, when Odysseus finally returns, he kills the suitors. He also orders the execution of Penelope’s twelve maids for fraternizing with them. These murders are perpetuated despite the fact that some of these young women have been raped by the suitors.

Despite its serious plot and themes, this work is funny and very creative. It is mostly prose, but the chorus of maids speaks in verse. Even Penelope’s view is written in a prose style that is almost poetic.

Atwood fits so many things into this short book. Among the many fascinating aspects to this work are: an exploration of different perspectives and their influences on storytelling, history and culture; an examination of the role and plight of women throughout history; an assessment of certain aspects of feminist literary criticism with a healthy dose of parody thrown in; and ruminations on applying modern morality and ethics to ancient texts. These somewhat serious subjects are explored with humor and intelligence.

Penelope is a complex character. She is strong and intelligent. Yet, we find that she is deeply flawed and is an unreliable narrator. In some ways it turns out that she rivals Odysseus in cunning and in the ability to shape the narrative of one’s actions and life into a fabrication. We slowly learn that despite the narrative that she spins for herself, she did sleep with many of suitors. Worse yet, it becomes apparent that she may have been complicit in the murder of the maids.  

Odysseus is also not so simple. Despite his earlier sensitivity, it turns out that his ten-year voyage home was not what he claims that it was. His adventures were more about bar brawls as opposed to fighting Cyclopes and long stays in whorehouses as opposed to being entrapped by alluring goddesses. Of course, he is also primarily responsible for the killing of the maids.

Thus, the interactions between Penelope and Odysseus are similarly complex. At one point she describes the following scene that occurred after his return Penelope comments,

"Then he told me how much he’d missed me, and how he’d been filled with longing for me even when enfolded in the white arms of goddesses; and I told him how very many tears I’d shed while waiting twenty years for his return, and how tediously faithful I’d been, and how I would never have even so much as thought of betraying his gigantic bed with its wondrous bedpost by sleeping in it with any other man. The two of us were— by our own admission— proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said. But we did.

Or so we told each other. "

A good part of the narrative is dedicated to the plight of the maids. This encompasses an exploration of how the dispossessed and disenfranchised, as well as women in general, are often given short shrift in history, literature and culture as well as in real life.

At one point, in an absurd but hilarious scene set in Hades, Odysseus is on trial for the murders. The ghosts of the maids invoke the help of the mythological furies in their demand for justice,

“Oh Angry Ones, Oh Furies, you are our last hope! We implore you to inflict punishment and exact vengeance on our behalf! Be our defenders, we who had none in life! Smell out Odysseus wherever he goes! From one place to another, from one life to another, whatever disguise he puts on, whatever shape he may take, hunt him down! Dog his footsteps, on earth or in Hades, wherever he may take refuge, in songs and in plays, in tomes and in theses, in marginal notes and in appendices! Appear to him in our forms, our ruined forms, the forms of our pitiable corpses! Let him never be at rest! “

The above references to theses, margin notes and appendices are, for me, a hilarious but insightful call for what seems to be cultural and literary justice.

This is an extraordinary book. It is full of interesting insights and wit. It contains several intriguing themes of which I have only touched upon above. The characters are complex. The writing styles are varied and very well crafted. However, it is best enjoyed by readers who are already familiar with the The Odyssey, as it is structurally dependent upon the original work in terms of plot, character and themes. Ultimately this is an outstanding modern perspective on the original epic.

Friday, July 10, 2015

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I have read Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield for the first time. I am sorry that I waited so long. This novel, despite its flaws, is enjoyable, meaningful, artistic is one of the most famous books ever written and has had a great cultural impact.

This is a chronicle of the fictional David Copperfield’s life. It follows him from his earliest infancy through adulthood. It is the story of self-awakening, education, abuse, emotional turmoil, friendship, love and a lot more.

Born after the death of his father, David is left with a mother who loves him, but is terribly weak and who allows her new husband Edward Murdstoneand and Murdstone’s sister Jane, to abuse him. Eventually his mother also dies, and David endures years of physical and emotional abuse and neglect until he escapes to the safety and protection of his eccentric, but benevolent aunt, Betsey Trotwood. Though the years David encounters various interesting and colorful characters ranging from the saintly to the downright evil. He experiences love, difficulty in love, as well as tragedy and death. At the heart of this book is the central love story focusing upon the decades long relationship between David and his childhood friend, Agnes Wickfield.

So much can be said about this work, and volumes have been written about it. As I often do, I will focus upon just one small part of this story.

Dickens is sometimes criticized as being one dimensional and superficial. In the past I have had similar impressions. Though I see more to his writing, I also believe that these views are not completely unfounded. Though his characters are marvelously fun and amusing, some can be described as simplistic caricatures.

With Dickens however, there is more then meets the eye. In the psychology of his characters, his plot, his themes, and his prose, there seems to be underlying manifestations of complicated things. I want to devote a few words to what seems to be something sinister integrated into Dickens’s reality.

There is something dark lurking behind many corners of the Universe built by Dickens in this work. Of course the book is filled with pernicious characters who do all sorts of terrible things. As a result good people suffer. But it gets a little more complex. It seems that Dickens might be saying that such evil is built into reality. I think that this is exemplified by certain descriptive passages.

Take the below description of a very run down London neighborhood,

“The neighbourhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive, sad, and solitary by night, as any about London. There were neither wharves nor houses on the melancholy waste of road near the great blank Prison. A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls. Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy land in the vicinity. In one part, carcases of houses, inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away. In another, the ground was cumbered with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers, wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells, windmill-sails, and I know not what strange objects, accumulated by some speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath which— having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather— they had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves. The clash and glare of sundry fiery Works upon the river-side, arose by night to disturb everything except the heavy and unbroken smoke that poured out of their chimneys. Slimy gaps and causeways, winding among old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to the latter, like green hair, and the rags of last year's handbills offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark, led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb-tide. There was a story that one of the pits dug for the dead in the time of the Great Plague was hereabout;”

The first thing that strikes me about the above passage is its rhetorical power. Dickens was a great describer of people and things. His greatness was not in realism; instead he was at his best when describing highly exaggerated, almost dreamlike depictions of reality. These descriptions ranged from joyful, to sad. But when these depictions were dark, as they are in the above passage, they resemble nightmares.

Here we have prose that exudes death and despair. Dickens presents us with a human made wasteland scattered with the monsters of industrialization. This is an amazing representation of Industrial Revolution nihilism. I think it is important, that the one vestige of human connection, houses, were never completed and are now abandoned. Even the printed material concerns itself with death. The slime and growth being compared to green hair is a horrifying touch.

As there is in reality there some mystery to evil, some horrors are apparent and some are not, as some of the objects have partially sunk into the ground, obscuring their nature.

Is the allusion to the prison symbolic of how life can be a prison for some people? Certainly many of Dickens’s characters find themselves trapped in terrible situations.

The rumor of a mass grave originating from the plague years only adds to the gloominess and the reminder of the inevitability of death.

The above is clearly a critique of industrialization that is worthy commentary in its own right.  But I think that this and similar scenes in this novel are trying to illustrate something dark that is woven into the Universe.

There are other hints regarding this darkness. For instance, Mr. Dicks, an eccentric but oddly wise character, is haunted in his daily life by thoughts of King Charles I, whose historical murder seems symbolic of something very wrong in the Universe. There are many other instances in this novel where this darkness is explored in all sorts of ways. I think that Dickens goes a little beyond a simple good verses evil comparison. Instead this perniciousness seems to be embedded into the Universe in a way that is not completely able to separate from good.

There seems to be an antidote to this darkness. Dickens was fascinated by, and advocated for human kindness and empathy. When his characters display these positive traits, it seems to be an effective counterpoint to the darkness. At one point Martha Endell, a young women who has fallen into disrepute, declines an offer of money in exchange for providing assistance to David’s friend Emily, who has fallen into terrible straits. Though in need of this help Martha declines it.

'I could not do what I have promised, for money,' she replied. 'I could not take it, if I was starving. To give me money would be to take away your trust, to take away the object that you have given me, to take away the only certain thing that saves me from the river.”

The above reference to the river seems to have double meaning as Martha has alluded to suicide and death in the water. It also seems to have a metaphorical meaning, as the part of the Thames that runs though industrial London also seems to represent the maleficent force in he Universe.

This darkness inherent in creation is presented in a complex way and appears throughout the novel in the characters, plot, as well as other descriptive passages.  I find that the above passages to be very aesthetically effective descriptions of this wicked influence. The book is filled with interesting explorations on this subject. This is just one of many reasons that David Copperfield deserves its reputation as an all time classic.