Here's my usual quarterly blog of books that I read over the last three months. It was a slow quarter where I could read less due to other engagements and travel.
Silas Marner (****)
Novels written in the mid-nineteenth century cannot match the complexity of today's writing. They also cannot always resonate with our contemporary sensibilities. Silas Marner, as expected, is a simple tale. Yet, I found it surprisingly refreshing. It was the literary cleansing that I was looking for.
The characters are not one-dimensional and exhibit a complex mix of moralities. The atmosphere is surprisingly realistic for its time. The sense of place is fantastic. The bigger historical backdrop is beautifully captured. But above all, there is something pure and refreshing about the characters that moved me. I am glad that I read it.
Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (****)
The topic of the Philosophy of Science has always fascinated me. I read sporadically on the subject, starting with Karl Popper and then Thomas Kuhn, followed by many other scientists who have written about what science is, what reality is, what rationality is, and a host of related questions. Most practicing scientists do not think of these things, which is one of science's strengths. One can contribute meaningfully to science without any deep philosophical understanding or even believing it. However, most serious scientists think about these questions and have shared it with others.
I stopped reading on the topic when the discourse was horribly muddied by thinkers in the 60s and 70s who conveniently misinterpreted some of the ideas of Kuhn and started believing there is nothing objective in science. That it is just a matter of political power and socially relative viewpoints. Not that there was no substance in their thinking, but the extremism of their perspective and their desire to reach a certain political goal at the cost of anything made it difficult for me to take any relativist conversations seriously.
Fortunately, the mainstream view has changed to a large extent during the next twenty-plus years. New, interesting perspectives are better at describing the process and development of science than the early pioneers.
This book was a great way for me to step back and take a long view of how our thoughts evolved on this subject. The author not only introduced me to recent thoughts on the topic but allowed me to make more sense of the books I had already read from some of the pioneers of the field.
In a world dominated by science and technology, it is hard for me to imagine any thinking person can afford to neglect this area of thought. We all have a huge stake in understanding the role of science in our daily lives and the future of the race and the planet. This is a great book to get an overview of the subject; the best thing is it does not require any prior training. That is not to say it will be an easy read for anyone. It will require close reading and some meditation, but it makes the subject accessible to anyone willing to devote the time.
AI Ethics (***)
it triggered, followed by the dangerous arms race among tech companies with their own large language models, I wanted to see what the experts have to say about the ethics of AI. I have been thinking about it since my graduate student days in the 80s when AI was this harmless intellectual exercise with no practical application. Later, I made art surrounding the same topic about ten years ago. But things have changed since then, and I wanted to catch up.
Two things happened -- (a) I did not find any new original ideas in the book. It discussed the same issues people discussed ten years ago. (b) A book written in 2020 reads incredibly dated. It did not foresee and therefore discuss the societal impact of the ubiquitous availability of large language models such as GPT.
That is how quickly things are moving. Any predictions are almost guaranteed to be shortsighted. It is at once exciting that I can witness this and very scary.
The Ministry for the Future (****)
Robinson, Kim Stanley
A most unusual book that stands right in the middle of fiction and non-fiction. The non-fiction part explores many ideas of technologically managing and reversing climate change. The time is in the near future and therefore does not assume the existence of magical new technologies. This greatly adds to the plausibility of the scenarios. The fictional part lacks literary depth and almost hangs as an appendix. I would have rather read it as non-fiction, with argued historical projections and documented technological possibilities. I doubt anyone would have missed the thin fictional storyline but would have benefited from a more compact text.
Sometimes I had difficulty accepting that we, as a species, are capable of such rational behavior, where we finally realize that working together is the only way we can fight climate change, but then again, I wanted to believe in such a future. One thing is for sure, whether we believe in such a trajectory, we must all see it as a possibility, and perhaps that will inject some new thoughts into our collective mind. That is why this book should be a must-read for everyone.
The argument that it is technology that created this mess, and therefore no technological solution can help us get out of it, is completely vacuous. Everything we have done from the start of our existence is through technology, be it using fire or forming a weapon from a piece of rock. We are weak and ineffective creatures without technology. If we must play a role in fighting climate change, it will involve the use of our ingenuity and technology. Of course, we must be cautious, but there is no way without it. The only other option is to remove ourselves from the planet and let it heal.
Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing (****)
Until I read this book, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how money came into being and, more importantly, how it works in today's world. The book delightfully made it clear that my understanding and confidence were on rather shaky ground.
Of course, I knew that money is a made-up thing, and it is only meaningful when most people also believe in it. However, I did not realize all the mechanisms behind the creation and destruction of existing money, who the players are, and how precarious this whole arrangement is. It also touched upon new proposals for conceptualizing money and the brief history and possible future of digital currency.
Very few novels spoke to me so intimately as this one in recent years. Even though the lives of the characters are very different from mine, I feel I know them so well, personally. This is the greatest achievement of a character-driven novel, and this one succeeds spectacularly.
I loved the narrative style -- locally nonlinear, yet having an overall chronological trajectory. McEwan's language is exquisite, so often, I had to stop and rethink the sentence to realize their depth and complexity.
It is an epic that covers the protagonist's entire life and follows hundreds of connections, like branching rivers, allowing us to float along them wherever they lead. Personally, the time span it covers starts slightly before my time, but not by that much. So the world events that are mentioned, except for the World War, are things I also experienced, making them extremely relatable.
The most intriguing aspect of this book is how it connects the trajectory of its characters to major world events. It is easy to imagine that these big world events happen in the backgrounds of our lives, and our personal lives meander independently of them. This book made me think deeper and ask how my life could have been different if some of these events did not happen.
There are just a few incidents in this novel that are a little too dramatic and less believable. I wish the author had avoided them. The book is great because nothing much happens, which is the essential quality of most lives.