October 19, 2017

Reading Uncertainly: ‘Troubles’ by J. G. Farrell

When a world is collapsing all about us, how much are we willing to recognize? J. G. Farrell’s description of a veteran of the World War I trenches going to Ireland to rejoin a young lady he had met only once in London during the War is an allegory on human inertia and lethargy in the face of rapid change.

In 1919, Major Brendan Archer travels from London to Kilnalough, Ireland, thinking to ask Angela Spencer to join him in marriage, even though he could not remember ever asking her outright to do so. He finds an elusive young lady and a scene of inertia and decay. Ireland has entered the “Troubles” with Sinn Fein pushing for complete separation from the British Empire. And that Empire is collapsing just as the Majestic Hotel, owned and operated by Angela’s father, Edward, the scene of the entire novel, is doing the same.

Farrell gives us the Hotel dominated by “dust.” Every page describes dust, “mould”, gloom, creepers, grime, cobwebs, collapsing floors, “man-eating” plants, and an ever-expanding entourage of reproducing cats. One room featured “an enormous greyish-white sweater that lay in one corner like a dead sheep.” The weather wasn’t any better: “it rained all that July,” and the hotel residents complained of the coming  “dreadful gauntlet of December, January, February.” Both the hotel and Ireland exuded “an atmosphere of change, insecurity and decay.” But the residents continued to follow life’s rituals: prayers at breakfast, afternoon teas, dressing for dinner, and whist in the evening.

Add to this mordant scene the author’s interjection of gloomy news reports from around the world: White Russians and English military supporters being trounced in Russia, victorious Boers in South Africa, a mess in Mesopotamia and Egypt, rebellion in Poland, and, finally, the Indians attempting to remove themselves from British rule.

In the face of all this, the hotel’s owner and operator, Edward Spencer aggravates the Major: “ … his overbearing manner; the way he always insisted on being right, flatly stating his opinions in a loud and abusive tone without paying any attention to what the other fellow was saying.” Does this also describe the Brits in other sections of the world?

The Major remains always a drifter “with the tide of events,” never able to respond, dominated, it seems, by “the country’s vast and narcotic inertia.”

This is a story of the collapse of a hotel, descending at last into ashes, and an allusion to the similar collapse of the British Empire, with the Second World War being its enormous fire. It is a compelling read, one that some might say suggests some connections to the events of the second decade of the 21st century …

Editor’s Note:  ‘Troubles’ by J. G. Farrell is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1970.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Tide’ by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

A present from a New Hampshire daughter, The Tide is a delightful, entertaining, and thought-provoking mix of lucid, often poetic, language with numerous literary quotations plus detailed scientific explanations of the tides that embellish our lives on this earth. It is Aldersey-Williams’s thought-experiment.

It is also his history of the oceanic tides, mixed with a bit of mathematics. But not more than you can handle. As he notes, “You may be relieved to know that I will leave the mathematics aside here.” And, given that many tell us the world’s tides are soon to be much higher, this is a most worthwhile book.

It is, as he states, “not a book about the sea” (sailors, ships, and winds), but rather a book “about the seas” and the ever-changing space between land and water. The tide, he explains, “offers an irresistible mathematical tease” as we attempt to understand and predict it. It is both a horizontal and a vertical force. That is a “scientific challenge” and “a physical; and psychological influence on our culture.” The classic story of King Canute’s (or Cnut, as the author spells it) attempt to stem the tide may have altered the English view of nobility.

This is the author’s story of watching tides around the world, from the English Channel to, of all places, Griswold Point on the Connecticut River, with a cousin, David Redfield. Tides are entrancing: they give us slow, relative motion that produces a “hallucinatory feeling.” Water is, after all, “an inelastic fluid (that) cannot be compressed or expanded.” I too have been mesmerized: by the 10-foot tides in Tenants Harbor, Maine; by the rising waters in Bosham, West Sussex, England, that regularly swamp cars in the local bar’s parking lot; and by the rushing tidal currents in the Straits of Shimonoseki, between Honshu and Kyushu, Japan, through which we once sent our Navy ship (at slack water, of course!)

He acknowledges the inevitability of climate change and global warming, and the fact they will lead to rising seas: “The greatest impact of rising sea levels and the changing tides that may accompany them will be on human habitation.” After all, we easily succumb to the human drive to cling to shores. “In the long term, if not the short, ‘managed retreat’ is our only option. The sea always wins in the end.”

Trying to ‘stop the sea? “It is a futility that Sisyphus would understand all too well.” So New York is a potential Venice … and New London too!

But do not be deterred by such pessimism. The Tide is full of rich, poetic language, as in this description of birds above the sea: “Once aloft, the birds first coalesce as an egg-shaped cloud low over the water, before gaining height and taking on ever more extravagant, twisted shapes like a pixelated flamenco dancer.”

It is enough to send me down to the end of Ely’s Ferry Road to watch the Connecticut River slip by the marshes of Essex.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Tide’ by Hugh Aldersey-Williams was published by W. W. Norton, New York 2016.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Tide’ by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

A present from a New Hampshire daughter, The Tide is a delightful, entertaining, and thought-provoking mix of lucid, often poetic, language with numerous literary quotations plus detailed scientific explanations of the tides that embellish our lives on this earth. It is Aldersey-Williams’s thought-experiment.

It is also his history of the oceanic tides, mixed with a bit of mathematics. But not more than you can handle. As he notes, “You may be relieved to know that I will leave the mathematics aside here.” And, given that many tell us the world’s tides are soon to be much higher, this is a most worthwhile book.

It is, as he states, “not a book about the sea” (sailors, ships, and winds), but rather a book “about the seas” and the ever-changing space between land and water. The tide, he explains, “offers an irresistible mathematical tease” as we attempt to understand and predict it. It is both a horizontal and a vertical force. That is a “scientific challenge” and “a physical; and psychological influence on our culture.” The classic story of King Canute’s (or Cnut, as the author spells it) attempt to stem the tide may have altered the English view of nobility.

This is the author’s story of watching tides around the world, from the English Channel to, of all places, Griswold Point on the Connecticut River, with a cousin, David Redfield. Tides are entrancing: they give us slow, relative motion that produces a “hallucinatory feeling.” Water is, after all, “an inelastic fluid (that) cannot be compressed or expanded.” I too have been mesmerized: by the 10-foot tides in Tenants Harbor, Maine; by the rising waters in Bosham, West Sussex, England, that regularly swamp cars in the local bar’s parking lot; and by the rushing tidal currents in the Straits of Shimonoseki, between Honshu and Kyushu, Japan, through which we once sent our Navy ship (at slack water, of course!)

He acknowledges the inevitability of climate change and global warming, and the fact they will lead to rising seas: “The greatest impact of rising sea levels and the changing tides that may accompany them will be on human habitation.” After all, we easily succumb to the human drive to cling to shores. “In the long term, if not the short, ‘managed retreat’ is our only option. The sea always wins in the end.”

Trying to ‘stop the sea? “It is a futility that Sisyphus would understand all too well.” So New York is a potential Venice … and New London too!

But do not be deterred by such pessimism. The Tide is full of rich, poetic language, as in this description of birds above the sea: “Once aloft, the birds first coalesce as an egg-shaped cloud low over the water, before gaining height and taking on ever more extravagant, twisted shapes like a pixelated flamenco dancer.”

It is enough to send me down to the end of Ely’s Ferry Road to watch the Connecticut River slip by the marshes of Essex.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Tide’ by Hugh Aldersey-Williams was published by W. W. Norton, New York 2016.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘House of Lost Worlds’ by Richard Conniff

House_of_Lost_WorldsFor this month, a local author! Richard Conniff is a science writer, a contributor to The New York Times, and a resident of Old Lyme. He’s also a graduate of Yale University, one reason for his interest in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, which is now celebrating its first 150 years.

It is the story of a museum and its directors, explorers, paleontologists, ecologists, anthropologists, biologists, ornithologists, primatologists, plus a few reactionaries and, of course, 14 million specimens. It is also the story of large egos listening to “the mute cries of ages impossible to contemplate”(some 50 million years).

He explores five themes: (1) a teaching dream of leaders at the start (George Peabody, the original donor, for whom “education was (his) Rosebud”), (2) the “grandiose personality” of O. C Marsh, its first director, (3) the demolition and movement of the original building in 1905 and its effects, (4) the rise of anthropology and ecology as sciences, and (5) the invitation to go see for yourself.

So how should we pronounce the name: “Pee-body” as Yalies and the donor said it, or “Pee-buh- de” as denizens of Cambridge slur the word?

The egos predominate, highlighting the single-mindedness and secrecy of many collectors.  Hiram Bingham, the sleuth of Machu Picchu, the “lost” Incan city, was one of the most notable. As the author notes, “if paleontologists were as aggressive as brontosauri they would have eaten each other.” In many respects they did: “Maybe academic life merely gives its verbally inclined thinkers the freedom to brood about it for too long, speak it too loudly, and pursue vengeance with wrath-of-God vigor.” They make this history continually exciting and amusing.

The Peabody Museum has expanded into a teaching, research, and study institution, whose practitioners take isolated pieces from the past (human, animal, mineral) to create a logical “story” to help guide us toward the future. But today they face modern visitors, “jaded and smartphone-addled, (who) expect special effects and instantaneous answers almost everywhere.”

In 1866, when the Peabody was created, there was no sign of a “Sixth Extinction” (now forecast by Elizabeth Kolbert), no “climate change,” only 32 million people in these United States (versus 320 million today), and only 1 billion on this earth (now 7.4 billion.)  Can the interest in and funding for museums like the Peabody, their teaching and research, help us alter our behavior for a more favorable future?

Like Alice, I am “curiouser and curiouser,” so I am off to the corner of Whitney Avenue and Sachem Street in New Haven to explore for myself …

Editor’s Note: House of Lost Worlds by Richard Conniff is published by Yale Univ. Press, New Haven 2016.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life’ by Edward O. Wilson

Half_EarthEdward O. Wilson, the remarkable professor emeritus at Harvard, who is known for his studies of ants, for the third time asks, “Who are we?” His first question was partially answered in The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) in which he analyzed the confusion of human existence, as our convoluted and introspective species tries to come to grips with our brief existence. Two years later, in The Meaning of Human Existence (2104), he described how, either deliberately or inadvertently, we are destroying other species even as we begin to recognize that we depend on them as much as they depend on us.

Now, concluding his trilogy, Wilson suggests a possible plan of action for homo sapiens. He continues his habit of short, punchy chapters, only one of 20 pages and most of 10 or less, even one of three. Instead of plunging into more verbiage, the reader must pause and think. His thesis: in order to survive we must commit “half of the planet’s surface to nature” in order to save “the immensity of life forms that compose it,” including us. A tall order, but is it possible?

Wilson begins with this earth’s extensive history of life extinctions. We’re lucky to be here! Should we worry? After all, the oldest major “extinction event,” at the end of the Ordovician period, happened some 455 million years ago and the most recent was a mere 66 million years back, when an enormous asteroid crunched into the Yucatan. Are we now coming close to a “Sixth Extinction”, the end of the current Anthropocene Era, as so clearly described by Elizabeth Kolbert in her The Sixth Extinction (2014)? Both Kolbert and Wilson recite alarming facts, plus suppositions, about our human relationships with other living creatures, large and small, on this earth. Are we the ultimate problem? They seem to think so.

To begin, “our population is too large for safety and comfort.” It is time to reduce, not expand, our footprint. “The biosphere does not belong to us; we belong to it.” But to acknowledge that, we must “… find our way as quickly as possible out of the fever swamp of dogmatic religious belief and inept philosophical thought.” We still understand too little about other species: some two million are “known” but there are perhaps some five to 100 million yet to be discovered. It is this enormous biodiversity that is the strength of this planet.

What then to do? Wilson suggests “… in order to save biodiversity it is necessary to understand how species interact with one another to form ecosystems.” But our enormous egos (and religions) tell us we are “Number One” when we are actually a small part of the action. His Solution: “Increase the area of inviolable natural resources to half the Earth or greater.” This will require a “fundamental shift in moral reasoning concerning our relation to the living environment.” We must “reduce the amount of space required to meet all the needs of an average person … habitation, fresh water, food production and delivery, personal transportation, communication, governance, other public functions (i.e. education), medical support, burial, and entertainment.” And note that this “average person” now lives in Asia and Africa as well as Europe and North America, with enormous current differences.

How will this take place? Here in Lyme, our Lyme Land Conservation Trust (www.lymelandtrust.org) has preserved in some fashion 3,000 acres of land and water resources in our small town. It and comparable efforts in this country and around the world are effective bottom-up programs. But Professor Wilson argues that these are not enough: we will need top-down guidance plus massive re-education for everyone. Is this economically possible? Do we have a choice?

Professor Wilson is obviously an optimist: “So we stumble forward in hopeful chaos.” Elizabeth Kolbert had her own conclusion: “The history of life consists of long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic.”

Half-Earth and its sister volumes should be required reading for all of us. Perhaps we can wake up and change.

Editor’s Note: ‘Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life’ by Edward O. Wilson is published by W. W. Norton, New York 2016.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Wild Places’ by Robert Macfarlane

The_Wild_Places_by_Robert_MacFarlaneLast year, at our son’s suggestion, I read and reviewed with enthusiasm Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways (2012), his recounting of extensive walks in Great Britain, Spain, Palestine, and Tibet (see LymeLine.com review of Oct. 12, 2014) That led me to his Landmarks(2015), and now to an earlier work, The Wild Places.

What begins as a eulogy for our disappearing wilderness becomes an elegy, even a celebration of remoteness, privacy and “the wild.” But the reply of the wild, wherever he finds it, at the remote corners of the British Isles or in his own Cambridge backyard, is “reports of my demise are premature!”

Macfarlane, a don at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, mixes remarkable research, reading and language, to explore both geographic and intellectual wildness. On his perambulations, he is always picking up small rocks, leaves, stems, feeling them, admiring them, and saving them for his library. He links every trek with apt, far-ranging quotations from a global entourage of writers. And his words, what words …

Consider:

  • “ideas like waves have fetches.”
  • The sky a “slurless blue”
  • The “grain of the mind”
  • “a row of hawthorns quaffed eastwards by the onshore winds”
  • the “krekking of a raven”
  • “small waders – knots, plovers, turnstones – form their palping jellyfish-like shoals”
  • “a gang of rooks chakked over the corn stubble”
  • “I had a heptic memory, too.”
  • A rock that was “knapped out.”

Do you recognize any of the places he visited: Ynys Enlli (Scotland), Coruisk (Isle of Skye), Rannoch Moor (near Glencoe), Black Wood (east of Rannoch Moor), Cape Wrath (Scotland north coast), the Holloways (Dorset), Orford Ness (Suffolk), and Burren (north of County Clare, Ireland)? Macfarlane comes to acknowledge that wildness is often found close to home. How many of us know Hog Pond (the old name), Cedar Pond, Brown Hill, Joshua Rocks, Whalebone Creek, Nickerson Hill, Moulson’s Pond, Oliver’s Hole or Rat Island?

Wildness, to this professor, is “a quality to be vanquished and to be cherished.” It has “implications of disorder and irregularity” but it is also “an expression of independence from human direction . . . containing an energy both exemplary and exquisite.” Wild places remind us “of the narrow limits of human perception, of the provisionality of (our) assumptions about the world.” Our response: “a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest” in what we humans have created — they give us “this sense of the human presence as being something temporary.”

Fellow wanderers appear. Macfarlane asks a “Helen” to join a walk seeking birds: falcons, tiercels, ospreys, goshawks, and peregrines. None other than Helen Macdonald, also a professor at Cambridge, whose H Is For Hawk I enjoyed earlier this year.

The Wild Places reminded me of my own traipsing along the public footpaths of West Sussex and the South Downs, in the fall of 1978, and along the wanderwegs of St. Gallen and the Appenzell in Switzerland in the 1980s and 1990s. Plus the trails of Nehantic State Forest in the 1990s …

Macfarlane suggests wildness is an attribute to be carefully enjoyed, with both sight and sound: “rooks haggled in the air above the trees … the noise of the wood in the wind; a soft marine road. It was the immense compound noise of friction – of leaf fretting on leaf, and branch rubbing on branch.”

His admonitions: listen and look. Wildness may be close at hand.

Editor’s Note: The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane was published by Penguin, New York, 2007.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’ by Edward O. Wilson

SocialConquest_Mech.inddWho are we?

This has been the eternal question of our curious and self-reflective species. Paul Gauguin, in Tahiti in 1897 in his final painting, expanded this question into three: D’ou Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Ou Allons Nous?  (Where do we come from? What are we? And where are we going?) As the weather cools, it is time for some serious reading …

Edward O. Wilson, the noted Harvard chronicler of ants, has embarked on a trilogy to try and answer all three. The first, The Social Conquest of Earth, addresses the Gauguin threesome in short, pithy chapters, easy for today’s creatures accustomed to electronic social networks. No Proustian rambling for him!

“We have created a Star Wars civilization,” he begins, “with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.” His argument, which represents the story of the evolution of social life and its driving forces, is controversial.

It goes like this: “The social conquerors of Earth” dominate today, but they include not only homo sapiens but also ants, bees, wasps, and termites, species that are possibly more than 100 million years older than us (we emerged several 100,000 years ago, only spreading across this globe over the past 60,000 years). It is altogether probable that these other “eusocial species” — less than two percent of  the one million known species — will remain long after we disappear.

Our human condition is both selfish and selfless: “the two impulses are conflated … the worst of our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be.” Our “hereditary curse” is “our innate pugnacity … our bloody nature (in which) individuals prefer the company of others of the same race, nation, clan, and religion.”

Wilson continues, “The biological human mind is our province. With all its quirks, irrationality, and risky productions, and all its conflict and inefficiency, the biological mind is the essence and the very meaning of the human condition.”

In answering the question, “What are we?” Wilson explores the origins of culture, language, cultural variation, morality, honor, religions and creative art, suggesting “human beings are enmeshed in social networks.” And in these networks, we express our “relentless ambivalence and ambiguity … the fruits of the strange primate inheritance that rules the human mind.”

Wilson submits that religions are logical hallucinations in response to the ever-unanswered question, determining that, “ … religious faith is better interpreted as an unseen trap unavoidable during the biological history of our species. Humankind deserves better … than surrender and enslavement.”

The final chapter of this engrossing and illuminating exploration asks, “Where are we going?” Do we have free will? Wilson answers his question thus: “We are free as independent beings, but our decisions are not free of all the organic processes that created our personal brains and minds. Free will therefore appears to be ultimately biological.” Are we social creatures? Wilson suggests, ” … group selection (is) the driving force of where we have been and where we are going.”

We, a convoluted and introspective species, live in an “extremely complex biosphere” in which we must respect the “equilibrium created by all the other species, plants, animals, and microorganisms around us.” Failure to do so may mean our collapse or even that of the entire system.

But Wilson concludes on an optimistic note, saying, “Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one.”

This first philosophical exploration of human existence has been followed by the second, The Meaning of Human Existence, published in early 2015, and the third, The End of the Anthropocene will follow shortly.

Together they require serious reflection.

Editor’s Note: The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O.Wilson was published by W. W. Norton & Co., New York 2012.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: Book Review of ‘The Innovators’ by Walter Isaacson

This is the remarkable and intricate story of the computer, the Internet and the World Wide Web, all of which transformed and continue to alter this globe. It is a story of human collaboration, conflict, creativity and timing, from Ada, Countess of Lovelace in 1843 to the more familiar names of Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John Mauchly, John von Neumann, Grace Hopper, Robert Moore, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Tim Berners-Lee, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and, of course, “Watson,” the almost-human Jeopardy contestant of IBM.

Isaacson stresses the importance of the intersection of individual thinking combined, inevitably, with collaborative efforts. Ideas start with non-conformists, in many of whom initiative is often confused with disobedience. But it is in collaboration that we have found the effectiveness of the Web, a “networked commons.”

These changes have come about through conception and execution, plus “peer-to-peer sharing.” Isaacson cites three co-existing approaches: (1) Apple with its bundled hardware and software, (2) Microsoft with unbundled software, and (3) the Wikipedia example of free and open software, for any hardware. No one approach, he argues, could have created this new world: all three, fighting for space, are required. Similarly, he believes that a combination of investment works best: Government funding and coordination, plus private enterprise, plus “peers freely sharing ideas and making contributions as a part of a voluntary common endeavor.”

In his concluding chapter, Isaacson raises the question of the future for AI, artificial intelligence. Stephen Hawking has warned, yet again, that we may create mechanisms that will not only think but also re-create themselves, effectively displacing homo sapiens as a species. But Isaacson is more optimistic: he sees and favors a symbiotic approach, in which the human brain and computers create an information-handling partnership. Recent advances in neuroscience suggest that the human brain is, in many ways, a limited automaton (see System One of Kahneman). But our brain, with its ability to “leap and create,” coupled with the computer’s growing ability to recall, remember, and assess billions of bits of information, may lead us, together, to better decisions.

His final “five lessons” are worth inscribing:

  1. “Creativity is a collaborative process.”
  2. “The digital age was based on expanding ideas handed down from previous generations.”
  3. “The most productive teams were those that brought together people with a wide array of specialties.”
  4. “Physical proximity is beneficial.”
  5. To succeed, “pair visionaries, who can generate ideas, with operating managers, who can execute them.”

Isaacson’s final lesson: humans bring to our “symbiosis with machines . . . one crucial element: creativity.” It is “the interaction of humanities and sciences.”

And we wouldn’t have LymeLine without the Innovators!

Editor’s Note: “The Innovators” is published by Simon & Schuster, New York 2014.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Welcome, Felix Kloman: Our Newest Columnist

Felix Kloman

Felix Kloman

We are delighted to welcome a new columnist to our ranks today. Felix Kloman will be writing book reviews under the column title of “Reading Uncertainly” and we are pleased to publish his first review in a separate article today.

Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.

For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings.

His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer. Her characters also explore the world, causing murders or tripping over bodies in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Stockholm, Sweden, Hamilton, Bermuda, Newport, R.I., Bainbridge Island, Wa., and, believe it or not, Old Lyme, Conn.

He can be reached at fkloman@aol.com.

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Reading Uncertainly? Book Review of “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert

The_Sixth_ExtinctionRats!  Is there a real possibility that rats may be the species that survives the human race?  Elizabeth Kolbert suggests such an outcome in her engrossing perambulation around this modest earth on which we live, since we may well be living at the start of the “Sixth Extinction.”

Science tells us the earth has experienced five earlier “extinctions,” when many living creatures, small and large, disappeared because of a major change in the earth’s constitution or because of an errant asteroid.  But these five occurred approximately 450, 375, 250, 200 and 60 million years ago, in a universe that is 13.5 billion years old.

So we are minute upstarts on this planet.  But, as a thinking and intensely curious species, we’ve tried to understand that long past, plus our present and a most uncertain future.

Kolbert’s question: are we creating our own Sixth Extinction?

Like Pogo, she suggests “the cataclysm is us!”  “Since the start of the industrial revolution,” she writes, “humans have burned through enough fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—to add some 365 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere.  Deforestation has contributed another 180 billion tons.  Each year we throw up another nine billion tons or so . . . . The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air today . . . is higher than at any other point in the last eight hundred thousand years. . . . It is expected that such an increase will produce an eventual average global temperature rise of between three and a half and seven degrees Fahrenheit . . . (triggering) the disappearance of most remaining glaciers, the inundation of low-lying islands and coastal cities, and the melting of the Arctic ice cap.”

Then add to that “ocean acidification.”

We know that all species on this planet are interdependent, but are humans also an “invasive species?” Yes, we seem to be collective problem solvers (much like ants, according to E. O. Wilson) but we seem to be unable to solve our biggest problem: us!  “Though it might be nice to imagine there was once a time when men lived in harmony with nature, it is not clear he ever did!”

Is it possible, then, as Kolbert suggests, “ . . . a hushed hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man – the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories – will all be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper?”

Kolbert visits locations all around this earth – some 11 countries – very much like Alan Weisman’s research for his Countdown, exploring current rates of extinction.  One is on an island in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, looking at the erosion of coral.  Another is the decline of bats in the eastern United States.  Still another is the Panamanian golden frog.  Together, she says, they indicate we are a part of the Anthropocene epoch, during which we may well become extinct.

This is a sobering analysis of current practices and signs.  She acknowledges the possibility that “human ingenuity will outrun any disaster that human ingenuity sets in motion.”  But I’m left with the likelihood that our friend the rat, who has hitchhiked to almost every piece of this earth with us, and who successfully scavenges our debris, may survive us.  As Ratty pronounced, in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (my paraphrase), “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing —  half so much worth doing as simply messing about with humans.”

Her book is “one of 2014’s best” according to The Economist.

HFK_headshot_2005_284x331About the author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer.  He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008).  A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history.  But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings.  His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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