39 posts categorized "Books"

Posner's Reflections on Judging and on Scalia's Originalism

Richard Posner's "Reflections on Judging" is not a new book. It was published in 2013, and it appears to adapt prior articles and other writings of Judge Posner on the same themes. But I only just read the book over a short vacation in Palm Springs, California, and in any case it hasn't dated in three years (except perhaps with respect to his very brief discussion of MOOCs). I say it remains current because I want to encourage you to pick it up and read it.

9780674725089Come to think of it, with the passing of Antonin Scalia, "Reflections on Judging" couldn't be more timely. One of Judge Posner's arguments - perhaps the central one, or at least a facet of his thesis that complexity is threating to overwhelm justice - is that Justice Scalia's championing of "originalism" has distracted judges from engaging the complexity of the real world, making law a poorer servant to society than it should be. It's quite fun - I hope less in a mean-spirited way than in a civicly-minded intellectual way - to see Judge Posner ridicule Justice Scalia's performances as amateur historian.

Nor is it the case that justice is simplified (simplification might at least be a beneficial byproduct, you might think) when emulating Justice Scalia's stubborn refusal, at least professionally speaking, to live in the present. In aid of his life-long campaign of distraction, Scalia propounded "canons of construction," or rules of interpretation, that, according to Posner, are highly complex and internally inconsistent. Study and practice of these cannons focus a judge's attention ever inward, train him to fetishize texts which to a normal person appear plainly imperfect. For all the close reading, meaning is beside the point, and law is an afterthought. As you might suspect, methods of interpretation that forbid reference to society, culture, the economy, demographics, values and facts give the judge unrestricted license to pursue personal political agendas.

Refreshingly, Judge Posner says that Scalia's cannons of construction are a waste of time. Not a single one is helpful! He feels interpretation is a natural function of the human mind, and it is this more natural human function which not just welcomes but runs with intellectual curiosity to the world as it is, to the facts on the ground, to the understandings of science, to the study of cultures, for reference, context and guidance.

Posner does get meta with respect to interpretation in this respect: he believes that social science and psychology show that humans have cognitive biases that make their memories and opinions unreliable, and that it behooves a judge to be cognizant of these and self-reflective of her own inevitable biases. (One of these he calls out in this book is the cognitive heuristic of "anchoring," which I had not known of before. I educated myself on this concept by reading a Wikipedia article. This was, I now know, a very Posner-like strategy to obtain a working knowledge of a concept in the service of a task at hand.)

The best thing about this book is that Judge Posner's prose style is entertaining and completely non-judicial. And apparantly he writes his judicial opinions in the same voice!

I'm going to read more of Judge Posner's work. If you know of a discussion group organized around his writing, please let me know.

One Thousand Things Worth Knowing

This weekend I've read Paul Muldoon's newly published collection of poems, "One Thousand Things Worth Knowing." (The dust jacket sports a very pleasing design by the ubiquitous Quemadura, a brilliant designer and a kind man I will never forget for how he helped me during a brief turn I took as a publisher.)

I say I've read the book, present perfect, but I'm still reading it by way of re-reading it. Muldoon is new to me, and I don't yet find familiar his poetics or his themes.

His strangeness, to me, derives from his different commitments, you might say.

For instance, he utilizes the sonnet and other traditional stanzas with end rhymes (or slant rhymes; that itself is not unfamiliar); but his lines most often aren't in a regular meter, or at least not in a consistent pattern of feet.

Sometimes the effect (of what I might call free verse wrapped around visually recognizable stanzas and traditional rhyme schemes) is like that of a planet nearing the sun, utilizing the acceleration of gravity to whip itself around the star and propel itself away.

The density and earthiness of Muldoon's diction seems very much of a well-established, modern, Irish tradition, recognizable as the idiom of Seamus Heaney, not least of all when the poems allude to The Troubles and growing up in Ireland.

But Muldoon is an American as well. A verse in this book is just as apt to traverse the Civil War or the Southwest as Ireland or England or Viking invasions.

The best example I am able to give you – I'm not suggesting this is one of the finer poems in the book, just that it illustrates what I am currently able to describe - is a poem in the middle of the book called, "Some Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them," about the party of Lewis and Clark and their reliance on mercury-laden laxatives. Here is an excerpt, most of the final three stanzas:

"... Who would have guessed
that J.M.W. Turner was perfecting in his ability to scumble
cumulonimbus and stratocumulus
precisely as Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific coast

"And build Fort Clatsop? The Cheyenne chewed the gum
of both ponderosa
and lodgepole pines. Bear in mind how our fireside banter
may be lost to the generations to come

"but their native scouts
will still be able to follow our route across America
by the traces of mercury
in our scats."

You see what I mean. Stanzas of four lines in an ABBA in a rhyme or slant rhyme pattern; references to the exploration of the Pacific Northwest and to the most famous British landscape painter of the time.

Photo from a tweet by The Irish Times.

One Thousand Things Worth Knowing

Alan Bennett's anthology of six English poets

Thanks to a London nephew, I'm reading Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin, an anthology of poems by Hardy, Housman, Betjeman, Auden, MacNeice and Larkin, chosen by the English playwright Alan Bennett, with commentary by Bennett between each presented verse.

6a01156e3d83cb970c01b7c6fabe8a970b-580wiThe commentary is more about the disposition of the poets and their subject matter, rather than the art of their verse. But it's breezy and entertaining, and interesting to try to situate the six poets Bennett chooses with one another as a group.

Bennett's critical method is to end-run the cultivated pretensions of each.

For instance, speaking of A. E. Housman and his preoccupation with death in English colonial wars, Bennet writes:

"When the Great War came, and hundreds of thousands of young men died in battle, it might be thought that Housman would have been particularly affected. In fact, he appears not to have been, and this seems shocking. But poets are not statisticians; to them, one death means more than a thousand. When men are dying like flies, that is what they are dying like."

Of Betjman, Bennet praises "his marvelous ear for language." But the praise is qualified. "It's the limited language of the middle class, or of those aspiring to be so, but he was a master of it."

A very English book. I see that the content relates back to a Channel 4 television programme from the 90s! Still I feel well ahead of things, reading this in the fall of 2014, rather than the spring 2015 publication date set in the US.

Twitter and idleness

In preparation for my trip to the East Coast next week (I'll be speaking at the Thomson Reuters Online Financial Services Symposium in New York City, and then at the 2014 Angel Capital Association Summit in Washington DC; details in this post from earlier this week), I'm reading Charles Simic's beautiful little volume about Joseph Cornell.

9781590174869_jpg_200x450_q85It's a series of prose poems, I guess you could say, about Cornell's art, but really about Cornell's daily habits, wandering around New York City. Reading Simic interpreting Cornell as an existential presence, you really track how living within the circumference of New York was more than sufficient for Cornell's artistic and reflective life. The outside world reached in through pictures, objects, references, stuff that travelled into the city - like minerals from other planets - and were lost there, for Cornell to find and curate.

Simic picks up on how a life of calculated idleness can engender emotions of the rawest authenticity and, through that meditation and suffering, art of the purest conceptual order.

And somehow all this makes me think of Twitter. (Twitter as proxy for social media, I think.)

My friend Joe Wallin joked some years back that exposing oneself on Twitter and/or social media generally was "a cry for help." I think he was joking, but I appreciate the point and it had a certain ring of accuracy back then.

Not now. Those who may have once been craving attention now want to slice through the noise to get you to buy something, or buy into them.

To use Twitter now other than to promote or advertise is to use it idly, for no real purpose.* Which raises the possibility: is there a Joseph Cornell-like art that can be tweeted to?

But is the idleness of using Twitter (not for PR, and thus, necessarily, by my measure anyway, to use it without direct purpose) analogous to the idleness of wandering around the streets and towers and theaters and basements of New York? Does it, might it, yield discovery, or nurture attitude that might pressure those discoveries into diamonds?

Or is Twitter more like watching cable TV?

It may depend on who you follow in your tweet stream.

*Maybe that's not true; maybe some people have relationships with others that are mediated at just the right equipoise of intimacy and distance through Twitter. I suppose I am necessarily talking about how Twitter seems to function or present possibilities to to me.

Bleeding prose

I've been reading the new Thomas Pynchon book, Bleeding Edge, and I'm puzzled about why I keep with it.

If the Thomas Pynchon name were not on it as author, I'd be quick to say, this is a book by someone with a snarky attitude about being a New York City insider. Somebody who over the years has collected inside tidbits about living in New York, and has little other purpose in his narrative than to showcase that he's hip and in the know.

But I do keep reading it.

Here's a quote from late in the book, from a character who's critiquing the Internet. Ostensibly, within the frame of the story, he's speaking and 2001; but it's obvious this perspective can only be from 2012 or 2013:

"Yep, and your Internet was their [Cold War-era intelligence types] invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there's no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and I don't think anything has changed, kid."

That's about as good as the book gets, but, you can't give it credit for prophesying the near future. This is 20-20 hindsight into the near past.

It makes me think again about the new Dave Eggers novel, set in the near future, which is just as outlandish, but at least can be read as satire and, if moral instruction might be the point, can be said to illustrate a future we might yet avoid.

Bleeding prose

Squaring "The Circle"

I squared "The Circle" last night. (Don't read further if you don't want to know yet how the plot works out.)

The main character, Mae Holland, does indeed reassert herself as the protagonist.

Mae's weakness of character and lack of integrity, now made impregnable by an impressionable audience of millions and a god-like control over a global surveillance network, turn her into a very formidable protagonist indeed.

9197481_abed7d9ab6_oWith her power she hunts down and literally drives an old boyfriend, in his pickup, off a bridge, the deadly crash and explosion streamed live from cameras fixed to drones crowdsourced at Mae's command.

She also betrays Ty, the hoodied, Mark Zuckerberg-like figure who founded The Circle intending to bring civility to the interwebs, but who inexplicably keeps himself aloof from direct interaction with the public or even company employees - other than Mae - even after he realizes that the company is now an instrument of tyranny.

Ty remains an icon with company employees. At company events, old videos of Ty speaking, shot years ago, are reassembled and projected onto a wall. Invariably, he apologizes for being too busy on an important project (always unspecified) to attend the company event in person. But from time to time he is indeed present in the halls, passing himself off as an employee named Kalden who doesn't have much to do other than attend meetings; he skulks around, sans hoodie, sans glasses, self-consciously altering the way he carries himself so his Ty identity isn't recognized. Most of the time, he confines himself to secret vaults deep underneath the company campus.

Ty is incidentally Mae's lover. Inexplicably, until the very end of the book, Mae buys Ty's Kalden cover. Even though he is the one person on the globe she cannot effectively research on The Circle's systems, even though he secretly escorts Mae to the most proprietary parts of the campus, she can't connect the dots. Eggers' reader makes the connection right away. I suppose the point is that someone like Mae cannot process any information that is not mediated by a server.

(The spooky connotations of that common name for a computer, "server," are thrown into relief by this book.)

The politics of the book are summarized in a single speech from Ty, who at the end of the book, and for a second time, implores Mae to publicly turn against The Circle. (Ty intimates that he has incriminating, inside information that will support a change in public attitude about the company - but it's never clear why he doesn't simply conduct the campaign on his own.)

And the politics are this: information communism mixed with capitalism yields poison. Privacy may or may not be theft, but if all information is to be monetized, you do have to be concerned with who keeps the keys to the cloud.

But Ty is talking to exactly the wrong person. Mae is a true believer and she turns Ty in to the Eric Schmidt-like figure (personified in two characters, the better to identify the uneasy tension in techno-utopianism that Ty spells out).

In a brief dénouement, Mae sits by the bedside of her hospitalized friend and former mentor, Annie. Annie previously collapsed from information overload and remains in a coma. A hospital monitor shows Annie's brain is active.

While Mae is not a sympathetic character at any point in the book, Eggers does at least build narrative turns that help explain how she might have been brainwashed so thoroughly. For instance, an episode in which Mae innocently sets out for a nighttime kayak ride is turned by the powers at the company as a means to shame and humiliate her. The episode sets up her "redemption" as the face of the company and all that it represents.

But at the end of the book, by the unconscious Annie's side, Mae becomes a pure grotesque. Watching the monitor tracking Annie's brain activity, Mae finds she wants to know what is going on in Annie's head. Worse yet, she finds it intolerable that Annie should keep her dreams from her. She resolves to task The Circle with the project of outing Annie's unconscious mind.

My previous posts about this new novel by Dave Eggers are 100 pages into "The Circle" and Center of the circle. For a post about Jaron Lanier's critique of techno-utopianism, see Mark Byrnes on Jaron Lanier's "Who Owns the Future?"

Photo: cobalt123/Flickr.

Center of the circle

I'm about halfway into Dave Eggers' "The Circle," his new novel about techno-utopianism.

The main character (at this point I'm not sure she's the protagonist), Mae Holland, continues to suffer indoctrination by friendly intervention.


One particularly intense session is a round of overt censure at the hands of two members of the company's social media police. During the course of questioning, they learn that Mae enjoys kayaking. One of the inquisitors becomes incredulous.

"Josiah was looking intently at his tablet. 'Mae, I'm looking at your profile, I'm finding nothing about you and kayaking. No smiles, no ratings, no posts, nothing. And now you're telling me you kayak once every few weeks?'"

The second inquisitor can't understand how Mae can identify the birds and wildlife Mae sees while on the water, without being connected to the interwebs. Mae explains that she carries around a little foldout paper guide an old boyfriend once gave her.

Josiah's reaction is priceless.

"Josiah rolled his eyes. 'No, I mean, this is a tangent, but my problem with paper is that all communication dies with it. It holds no possibility of continuity. You look at your paper brochure, and that's where it ends. It ends with you. Like you're the only one who matters. But think if you'd been documenting. If you'd been using a tool that would help confirm the identity of whatever birds you saw, then anyone can benefit – naturalists, students, historians, the Coast Guard. Everyone can know, then, what birds were on the day on that day. It's just maddening, thinking of how much knowledge is lost every day through this kind of shortsightedness. And I don't want to call it selfish but –'

"'No. It was. I know it was,' Mae said."

Photo: Pierce Hanley/Flickr.

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