Jun 092005

Now is the time on God of the Machine when I play nice with the other blogchildren, who must be exasperated by my philoso-scientific treatises. I have been tagged for a game by Agenda Bender, who sustains, practically single-handledly, my diminishing belief that homosexuals are, in fact, witty. I will indulge him.

1. Number of Books I’ve Owned: Lifetime, a few thousand, more than five and less than ten. Like Alfred Jay Nock in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man — which I own — I owe a great deal of my education to reading the spines of books. My apartment has room for only 1,500 or so, and henceforward each arrival necessitates a departure.

2. Last Book Bought: The Greeks and the Irrational, by E.R. Dodds. See last book read.

3. Last Book Read: The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I picked this up a few years ago and brought it to work, intending it for subway reading. My boss spotted it and called me “a Julian Jaynes homosexual.” I had to put the book down so I could think about how to punctuate that.

Jaynes’s book is interesting, if a bit off the wall, and he cites Dodds favorably, which prompted me to buy it. The portion of my education not due to book spines I owe to my habit of reading the books that the authors I admire read. A book without footnotes and bibliography is like a day without sunshine.

4. Five Books That Mean a Lot to Me: I just gave a reading list, and I hate reading lists. Instead you will get a reading history.

In my adolescence I had no mind to speak of. I read indiscriminately, remembered little and understood less. I assiduously studied Fowler’s Modern English Usage, utterly failed to discern its spirit, and became a pedant. The only books I thoroughly absorbed were about games: Bobby Fischer’s My 60 Greatest Games, Louis Watson’s The Play of the Hand, and The Baseball Encyclopedia.

At 20 my sneaking suspicion that I had been fed an awful lot of shit was confirmed by Ayn Rand, which helped to make me insufferable for the better part of a decade. Fortunately I was already a bit too old; Hazlitt and von Mises convinced me about economics before Rand made a dent. It usually begins with Ayn Rand, and usually ends there too.

At 25 I was browsing the back of the book in The New Republic and came across a reference to Yvor Winters as “being opposed to everything the 20th century stood for” or something like that. Not true — Winters believed that the 20th century is poetry’s greatest in English — but there, I thought, is the critic for me. After two years of immersion in Forms of Discovery and its accompanying anthology, Quest for Reality, I fancied myself a poet; after five, a poetry critic.

At 30 I took up computer programming. I learned how to think about programming problems from George Pólya’s various books about mathematical heuristic, especially How to Solve It; how to design complex systems from Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language; and how to develop reasonable coding habits from Code Complete by Steve McConnell and Refactoring by Martin Fowler. For any bugs in my current code these four men are entirely responsible.

Now I patch the holes in my defective education as best I can. Since I forget faster than I read, I keep falling further behind, in the manner of Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy, who needs half an hour to write fifteen minutes of his life. And there we are.

The culturati are going at it hot and heavy over the burden of consumer choice. So much food, so much art, so little time! Jon Hastings sympathizes; Virginia “Eternal Sunshine” Postrel is having none of it:

Since different people care intensely about different things, only a society where choice is abundant everywhere can truly accommodate the variety of human beings. Abundant choice doesnt force us to look for the absolute best of everything. It allows us to find the extremes in those things we really care about, whether that means great coffee, jeans cut wide across the hips, or a spouse who shares your zeal for mountaineering, Zen meditation, and science fiction.

True, sometimes, I guess, though one wonders in passing which supermarket Postrel bought her husband at. I will readily stipulate that there are markets, like mattresses or deodorants, in which people who “really care about” sleep or smelling fresh will not be any better served than the rest of us by the hundreds of indistinguishable products on offer. Point is, the mattresses and deodorants are all pretty good, for exactly the same reason that there are so many of them. Here our choices are limited: high quality and profusion, or neither.

Also, Anne Bancroft died. I exempt myself from my recent strictures on the grounds that I often talked about her but never got around to writing, and besides, I feel like it. She triumphed as Annie Sullivan and equally, in a completely different way, as Mrs. Robinson, in a dated and overrated movie that lives only when she is on screen (excepting Buck Henry’s neat turn as the hotel desk clerk). She also managed to stay married to Mel Brooks for forty years and keep her mouth shut in public. A working definition of adulthood is the day you watch The Graduate and not only find Anne Bancroft more alluring than Katharine Ross but wonder how you could have ever thought otherwise.

(Update: Colby Cosh comments. Alan Sullivan comments.)

  11 Responses to “Not Alpha”

  1. "Ayn Rand… helped to make me insufferable for the better part of a decade."

    What, precisely, makes you think that you’re not still quite insufferable?

  2. On a similar note as Jim, I have seen you play bridge before.

    What, precisely, makes you think that you absorbed Louis Watson’s The Play of the Hand?

  3. You certainly nailed it with ur ann bancroft hotter than katerine ross question.

    I remember thinking that exact thought but it wsa so long ago I cant remember when

    also once when in vegas, I went to see dom deluise and ms bancroft and her hilarious husband were in attendance. Dom deLuise blended them into his act. It was priceless as she did her mrs robinson pose

  4. Many forget those were not Ann’s legs in the famous poster shot on the bed. Still best movie of all time.

  5. What kind of eleven year old reads Ayn Rand. Hehehe.

  6. Out of my mouth, Tommy. And how much, exactly, 11 yo (or even better, 8yo) would pick up from Fountainhead? I happen to been reading it right now (yes, not REread it: I was denied access to Rand in my life behind the iron curtain! I was opressed in my childhood, man!), and I’m four times that age, let along do have professional connection to the premise of the book, unlike barely teenager, however wunderkind-ish (s)he might be. I find it, in some aspects, briliant, in style – very dated, but certainly not suited for children.

    Not that it has anything to do with the original post.

  7. What I never understood about Objectivists is why they don’t also get very into Max Stirner’s tome "The Ego and It’s Own" which is more like Ayn Rand than Ayn Rand was.

    I’m not a fan, I think it’s simplistic ("existence exists") assertion-pretending-to-be-argument ("capitalism is the best thing we could come up with ever, as I’ve been far, far in the future) and in part ontologically bass ackward (consciousness necessarily implies an ontologically disparate cosmos…. which would tend to mean that anytime you dream that you’re dead, you’re dead.)

    Anywhoo – one of my favorite all time books was Jaynes’ and it was sufficiently chewey that it’s also on my re-read list (as there’s no way I got it all first pass).

    I’d be interested to see your extended take/post on that book, perhaps married with alpha theory and something or other pertaining to "systems" or "computers" or such…


  8. – also, apropos of little, did you ever read “The User Illusion”? Would be right up your alley, I would think – gets into Maxwell’s demon gently enough I almost understood it all!

    Actually, it’s very readable (mostly) and, I think, implicit in its theses is strong evidence that theorists who are attempting to bring quantum theory into consciousness not only aren’t escaping “qualia” or “the binding problem” – time wise, they’re just not even in the same universe [not a premise of the book, but my inference].

  9. What’s the cash value of this post? After all Bud, money never sleeps.

  10. Yes but Bud can put money to bed son.

  11. "The portion of my education not due to book spines I owe to my habit of reading the books that the authors I admire read. A book without footnotes and bibliography is like a day without sunshine."

    Amen to that. Unfortunately this leads to its own maddening Uncle Toby effect — I’ve read 10 books in the past 3 months, and picked up a good 30 new titles to add to the To Read list. The economically inevitable triage is always downright painful.

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