First, a follow up to my Media Literacy post three days ago. Stop the Presses! Something amazing has happened!
Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 23 May 2023: Fox News falls for another hoax, as the Dominion defamation settlement pays off, subtitled “The most surprising part of the “homeless veterans” hoax? Fox News admitted they were wrong”
Apparently the Dominion defamation settlement had consequences, lest Fox News keeps getting sued for lying. The photo here… with her expression…. seems appropriate.
Michael Dirda is an eclectic literary critic for the Washington Post, and he’s enough of a genre fiction fan (science fiction, fantasy, mysteries) that he’s a member of an email newsgroup that I’ve subscribed to for decades called Fictionmags (mostly about magazines that publish fiction). Here are two of his recent reviews, not of genre fiction, but of two recent nonfiction books (which I happen to have bought, but have not read yet).
Michael Dirda, Washington Post, 4 May 2023: Simon Winchester considers fate of humankind when machines think for us, subtitled “‘Knowing What We Know’ explores the evolution of knowledge from oral storytelling to digital media to artificial intelligence”.
A perennial interest of mine, or at least a special interest of mine ever since the advent of the Internet and Facebook, when it became obvious to me — having previously lived within academic, professional, and literary ‘bubbles’ — that the vast majority of people are ignorant of many things and ‘believe’ many other things that simply aren’t true.
The book is Knowing What We Know: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic, by Simon Winchester.
Dirda admires Winchester’s prose and erudition. Then cites various examples of people he focuses on. And ends his review thus:
Winchester ends “Knowing What We Know” with the somewhat desperate speculation — earlier enunciated by Sherlock Holmes in “A Study in Scarlet” — that our minds can only retain so much information. By allowing computers to function as our brain attics, we might gain the mental space and leisure “to suppose, ponder, ruminate, consider, assess, wonder, contemplate, imagine, dream” and thus become more “thoughtful, considerate, patient” and “wise.”
Isn’t pretty to think so? Yet I suspect that people are too gloriously messy, too human, for this sort of austere, Utopian future, whether imagined by Plato, Wells or Winchester. In fact, all that high-minded thinking sounds more like how some bloodless and very smart computer might happily spend the livelong day.
I can’t criticize a book based on a review, but what I would hope to find in a book with such a grand title is some consideration of how knowledge passes from one generation to the next, and how conflicting or incompatible records are resolved. And similar themes such as, which version of history do we believe, when so many competing sides tell their own versions? This is epistemology.
Then this one, on the connection between math and literature, a theme I pursue in my own writings in a sense both broader and narrower (science and science fiction), seemingly related to the theme of another book I read a couple years ago, by John Allen Paulos, and wasn’t quite satisfied by (review here).
Michael Dirda, Washington Post, 19 May 2023: Math ruined my GPA. But a new book rekindled my fascination with numbers., subtitled “In ‘Once Upon a Prime,’ Sarah Hart takes readers on a fascinating tour of the world of numbers, finding connections between math and literature
This is Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature, by Sarah Hart.
Dirda begins by recalling his own miserable experience with math in high school, swearing to never take another course involving numbers. Still, he went on to read Gamow, Fadiman, and Gardner. (Dirda is an obsessive reader about many topics.)
He goes on to cite fascinating topics explored in Hart’s book, from prime numbers to the works of the French Oulipo. Then to mathematical symbolism, and magical numbers (3, 7, 12, 40) — here numbers are tied to narrative priorities. The final third of the book examines the use of math in famous works like Moby-Dick and Gulliver’s Travels, Life of Pi and Jurassic Park. Dirda concludes:
“Once Upon a Prime” is generally awesome, too, though some parts may require patience and close attention. At least that was my experience, but then I can do little more with numbers than make change and count my blessings.
Hart has no entry in her index for “science fiction” — though there are entries for particular authors, including Hilbert Schenck (!) and Isaac Asimov. Winchester’s book does have an index entry for “science fiction,” pointing a page with mentions of works by H. G. Wells.
(Hilbert Schenck was an author who produced four novels and a dozen or so stories from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, mostly on nautical themes, many of them well-received at the time, though he’s mostly a forgotten writer 40 years later. So it’s odd that Hart cited one story of his, out of the thousands of other SF stories related to math she might have cited.)