Thursday, April 30, 2015

Books Read in April

One of the strange things that has happened since I've gone back to working full time is that I still have time to read (at least as much) but less time to actually write.  Or maybe less time in the mental state most conducive to writing...
Anyway, April was a good month for reading:

  • The Joy of X, by Steven Strogatz - This is a collection of articles about mathematical concepts, pitched to aid the mathphobic.  I was hoping that this would be something along the quality level of 'The Disappearing Spoon' but I was disappointed.  Some of it was too simple, while other concepts were compressed to a point that I really didn't understand them.  A great idea, but not great execution.
  • Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand - A reread for me.  This is probably my very favorite play ever but it had been years since I last read it.  Cyrano is so, so beautiful!  Clever and courageous; only held back by his nose.  (I made the mistake of reading the last act while on a treadmill at the gym and I had to fight back tears.)
  • The Stranger by Albert Camus - Yes, more Camus for me. The Stranger is about a fairly normal (though possibly slow) man who murders someone almost on a whim.  The trial happens almost without his understanding.  Almost completely without his input.  A very interesting book but not as good as 'The Plague'.  Striking and well worth reading though.
  • Catcher in the Rye by Salinger - I never read this while young and perhaps I missed that window when it can be enjoyed.  I read the first half of the book and decided that I'd spent more than enough time with Caulfield.  If anyone wants to make the case that I should go back and read the second half, I'm willing to listen.
  • Delores Claiborne by Stephen King - A reread.  This story is told as a 300+ page monologue given from an older woman to the police after she is accused of a murder.  It's a fascinating story with that mixture of everyday observation and utterly horribleness that King does so well.
  • Some other this and that, including pieces of books like the last climatic 200 pages of Tom Clancy's 'Sum of All Fears'.
And then the short stories.  One of these days I'll sit down and figure out exactly where I should be as I certainly haven't stayed with any kind of strictly once a week rule.  In April I read:
The Calf by Sforim - good
Lady with a Lapdog by Chekov - very good
Texts by Leguin - haunting
The Flowers by Walker - very good

I continue to be very happy with this little side project and I mean to continue it again at least next year.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How We Know Things

Ok, so I've said that discussions of epistemology make my eyes glaze over and that's very true.  It's not that the subject is unimportant, it's just that so much of the discussion seems to come down to playing verbal games or making increasingly speculative guesses.  This makes it hard for me to take it seriously.
But what do I myself recognize?  How do I know things?  (And yes, I do know things.  Or at least if I don't, then no discussion is worth while.  You can put all theories of solipsism in this exact same bucket.)  So how does it happen?
I perceive things and learn from them.  This means learning through structured means like reading or listening to arguments but it also means having experiences that teach me on a subconscious level.  The structured means are the most obvious.  I gain knowledge (mainly) through my eyes and ears.  That knowledge is stored inside of me in an imperfect system.  Sometimes I can access that knowledge directly and perfectly, at other times I only get hints of it.  Sometimes I can move from hints to more perfect knowledge but not always.  (I think of this system as akin to an imperfect computer.  This thought makes me wonder if every age sees the knowledge metaphor change.  I wonder what comparison the people of 3000 AD will make?)  Why is it imperfect?  Is it a hardware imperfection?  I have no idea.
The subconscious stuff is still mainly learned, it just happens at a pre-thought level.  For instance, if I step on something in the dark, I quickly pull back regardless of whether it's a stuffed animal or a cat tail.  This doesn't happen because of a logical set of thoughts, the reaction is too fast.  It's near automatic.  Something similar happens when I move to catch a thrown ball.
Sword fighters use the automatic/subconscious knowledge all the time.  A fight happens too quickly for rational thought.  The actions happen in some other way, as if the hand/arm is thinking for itself.  But it isn't all untaught instinct either.  Experience makes for better fighters, as if the hand/arm is learning.  Lots of other skills fall into this exact pattern.  Try to type while concentrating on the letters and see just how much slower you suddenly become.
Are there other types of knowledge?*  Specifically, is there a spiritual knowledge that simply comes to people that are receptive to it?  I'm . . . skeptical.  But I can't really say a big no.  When someone prays and receives an answer, is that knowledge coming from a spiritual source or is it an echo from some part of their brain?  I don't know and I can't think of any way to falsify either part of that in an experiment. 
This is the big barrier to epistemology and psychology in general.  Internal things like a 'thought process' are stubbornly internal.  We can play around on the outsides and bring scientific method to bear in some small ways but the big stuff is outside of our grasp.  I'm not optimistic that we will break thought that barrier anytime soon nor do I particularly feel the lack.
And, I think, that is why I find so much of this to be uninteresting.

*A quick word, if you will about one other spin off.  I think people really do experience forerunners of knowledge at times.  Not reliably and maybe some people have this better than others but I think it's there.  Personally, about once a month, I can predict the next song out of a 2000 song randomized playlist.  It starts in my head before the track changes.  I don't try to do this, but I recognize it when it happens.  I don't know how this fits in with the rest of my thoughts on how we know things other than to say that I think the room for mystery is very, very large here.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Confessions and Summa Theologica - Augustine, Aquinas

(Sorry, I thought I hit 'publish' on this earlier in the week.)

I don't really have a lot to say about the readings for April.  This is unfortunately becoming a theme for the year.  So much of the readings seem to be simply beside the point.

Take book eleven of 'Confessions'.  Augustine tries to understand the nature of time and how such a thing as time would coexist with an omnipotent God.  This quickly looks like a game of verbal puzzle making.
I find pretty much all attempts to logically (or physically) prove the existence of God to be fruitless.  An omnipotent God can defy any such proof simply by the virtue of having the power to overcome any obstacle.  Meanwhile, the spiritual element, the most important, is necessarily reduced.
Which isn't to say that there isn't some value to Augustine.  His worshipful approach is often beautiful, though it tends to blend together with time.  The first half of Confessions is Augustine's personal story of conversion and I found it much more compelling than the second half.

The readings from Aquinas suffer from much the same fault.  When we talk about the soul, we're off into some pretty uncharted territory.  We don't really know what the soul is or how it interacts with the rest of the person.  This means that discussing the exact method that the soul uses to gain knowledge is simply impossible.  Much of this section was similar in terms of actual usefulness.
I remain in awe of the style that Aquinas uses.  For those that aren't familiar, he first poses a general question and then breaks that question down into six or so smaller questions.  Each of these is then given a statement and then arguments against that statement.  Aquinas then responds to those arguments with his full understanding.  Then he finishes up with rebuttals to the arguments. 
You can't say that he doesn't give each question a full hearing.  I would love to see some modern writers adopt the very same method.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Reading For May

One piece for May:

Montaigne: Apology for Raimond de Sebonde link

This is looking like one of the better selections of the year.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Myths and Legends

Back around Christmas I read an excellent book about home schooling.  This really isn't a good option for my family but I've been using it as something of a supplement for the school learnin' that my kids are having.  (Or will have.  I've got three kids, ages 3, 5 and 7.)  One of the things that it stressed is using myths and legends to teach kids about the classical period.  Shortly after I read that, I spoke with someone else about a completely unrelated subject and he told me that his kids got virtually no coverage of Greek myths in our modern multi-cultural age.  Perhaps this is the way that it has to be but it didn't quite set well with me.
I took a flyer and got a simple book of Greek myths that is aimed at youngish kids.  The book has about 15 stories, each around ten to fifteen pages long, usually with at least one illustration.  Not surprisingly, the kids loved it.  (The middle one has become a huge fan of Hercules.)  I got a book of Roman myths from the same publisher and that's worked well too.  As a plus, I've gotten to explain how the Romans came after the Greeks and adopted many of their stories.  We've also looked at some of the locations on maps.  Maybe most importantly, we've talked about their daily lives and how they differed with our bustling technological society.
I followed this up with a history/picture book of Egypt, Greece and Rome that is aimed about third grade or so.  This led to a book of Egyptian myths, though that hasn't been as popular.  Last week I broke out an old book of 'Arabian Nights' and that has proved to be a winner.  It seems that if a story has been passed down for more than a thousand years, it just might have some value to it.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Links to the Past

(I'm trying out a new name for this.)

Dating tips from Ovid link

Why Study Latin link 

How Thucydides Can Help Explain Greece's Problem with Germany link

Blogging through Thomas Aquinas link

Most Ubermensch Man in the World (Existential Comics) link

(Btw, the autocorrect on the last link wants to change 'ubermensch' to 'lumbermen' which I find delightful!)

Monday, April 6, 2015


Biography of St Augustine

Biography of Thomas Aquinas.

These are two of the most important thinkers of the church.  St Augustine was around at the tail end of the western Roman empire.  Thomas Aquinas is on the other side of the 'great gap'.  He came in when at a time when Aristotle was reintroduced to the west and it shows.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Author Timeline

Euripides 480-406
Plato 428-348
Aristotle 384-322

Augustine 354-430
Aquinas 1225-1274
Montaigne 1533-1592
Galileo 1564-1642
Bacon 1561-1626
Descartes 1596-1650
Newton 1642-1726
Locke 1632-1704
Hume 1711-1776
Kant 1724-1804
Melville 1819-1891
Dostoyevsky 1821-1881
James 1842-1910

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Readings for April

Two meaty pieces:

St Augustine: Confessions (books 9-13) link
St Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica (part 1, QQ 16-17 and 84-88) link