A Mathematician’s Apology (Modern Library Nonfiction #87)

(This is the fourteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Six Easy Pieces.)

mlnf87Clocking in at a mere ninety pages in very large type, G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology is that rare canapé plucked from a small salver between all the other three-course meals and marathon banquets in the Modern Library series. It is a book so modest that you could probably read it in its entirety while waiting for the latest Windows 10 update to install. And what a bleak and despondent volume it turned out to be! I read the book twice and, each time I finished the book, I wanted to seek out some chalk-scrawling magician and offer a hug.

G.H. Hardy was a robust mathematician just over the age of sixty who had made some serious contributions to number theory and population genetics. He was a cricket-loving man who had brought the Indian autodidact Srinivasa Ramanujan to academic prominence by personally vouching for and mentoring him. You would think that a highly accomplished dude who went about the world with such bountiful and generous energies would be able to ride out his eccentric enthusiasm into his autumn years. But in 1939, Hardy survived a heart attack and felt that he was as useless as an ashtray on a motorcycle, possessing nothing much in the way of nimble acumen or originality. So he decided to memorialize his depressing thoughts about “useful” contributions to knowledge in A Mathematician’s Apology (in one of the book’s most stupendous understatements, Hardy observed that “my apology is bound to be to some extent egotistical”), and asked whether mathematics, the field that he had entered into because he “wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively,” was worthwhile.

You can probably guess how it all turned out:

It is indeed rather astonishing how little practical value scientific knowledge has for ordinary man, how dull and commonplace such of it as has value is, and how its value seems almost to vary inversely to reputed utility….We live either by rule of thumb or other people’s professional knowledge.

If only Hardy could have lived about sixty more years to discover the 21st century thinker’s parasitic relationship to Google and Wikipedia! The question is whether Hardy is right to be this cynical. While snidely observing “It is quite true that most people can do nothing well,” he isn’t a total sourpuss. He writes, “A man’s first duty, a young man’s at any rate, is to be ambitious,” and points out that ambition has been “the driving force behind nearly all the best work of the world.” What he fails to see, however, is that youthful ambition, whether in a writer or a scientist, often morphs into a set of routines that become second-nature. At a certain point, a person becomes comfortable enough with himself to simply go on with his work, quietly evolving, where the ambition becomes more covert and subconscious and mysterious.

Hardy never quite confronts what it is about youth that frightens him, but he is driven by a need to justify his work and his existence, pointing to two reasons for why people do what they do: (1) they work at something because they know they can do it well and (2) they work at something because a particular vocation or specialty came their way. But this seems too pat and Gladwellian to be a persuasive dichotomy. It doesn’t really account for the journey we all must face over why one does something, which generally includes the vital people you meet at certain places in your life who point you down certain directions. Either they recognize some talent in you and give you a leg up or they are smart and generous enough to recognize that one essential part of human duty is to help others find their way, to seek out your people — ideally a group of eclectic and vastly differing perspectives — and to work with each other to do the best damn work and live the best damn lives you can. Because what’s the point of geeking out about Fermat’s “two squares” theorem, which really is, as Hardy observes, a nifty mathematical axiom of pure beauty, if you can’t share it with others?

But let’s return to Hardy’s fixation on youth. Hardy makes the claim that “mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game,” yet this staggering statement is easily debunked by such late bloomers as prime number ninja Zhang Yitang and Andrew Wiles solving Fermat’s Last Theorem at the age of 41. Even in Hardy’s own time, Henri Poincaré was making innovations to topology and Lorentz transformations well into middle age. (And Hardy explicitly references Poincaré in § 26 of his Apology. So it’s not like he didn’t know!) Perhaps some of the more recent late life contributions have much to do with forty now being the new thirty (or even the new twenty among a certain Jaguar-buying midlife crisis type) and many men in Hardy’s time believing themselves to be superannuated in body and soul around the age of thirty-five, but it does point to the likelihood that Hardy’s sentiments were less the result of serious thinking and more the result of crippling depression.

Where Richard Feynman saw chess as a happy metaphor for the universe, “a great game played by the gods” in which we humans are mere observers who “do not know what the rules of the game are,” merely allowed to watch the playing (and yet find marvel in this all the same), Hardy believed that any chess problem was “simply an exercise in pure mathematics…and everyone who calls a problem ‘beautiful’ is applauding mathematical beauty, even if is a beauty of a comparatively lowly kind.” Hardy was so sour that he compared a chess problem to a newspaper puzzle, claiming that it merely offered an “intellectual kick” for the clueless educated rabble. As someone who enjoys solving the Sunday New York Times crossword in full and a good chess game (it’s the street players I have learned the most from; for they often have the boldest and most original moves), I can’t really argue against Hardy’s claim that such pastimes are “trivial” or “unimportant” in the grand scheme of things. But Hardy seems unable to remember the possibly apocryphal tale of Archimedes discovering gradual displacement while in the bathtub or the more reliable story of Otto Loewi’s dream leading the great Nobel-winning physiologist to discover that nervous impulses arose from electrical transmissions. Great minds often need to be restfully thinking or active on other fronts in order to come up with significant innovations. And while Hardy may claim that “no chess problem has ever affected the development of scientific thought,” I feel compelled to note Pythagoras played the lyre (and even inspired a form of tuning), Newton had his meandering apple moment, and Einstein enjoyed hiking and sailing. These were undoubtedly “trivial” practices by Hardy’s austere standards, but would these great men have given us their contributions if they hadn’t had such downtime?

It’s a bit gobsmacking that Hardy never mentions how Loewi was fired up by his dreams. He seems only to see value in Morpheus’s prophecies if they are dark and melancholic:

I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream. He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100. A library assistant was going round the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down book after book, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell could recognize as the last surviving copy of Principia mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated….

One of an author’s worst nightmares is to have his work rendered instantly obsolescent not long after his death, even though there is a very strong likelihood that, in about 150 years, few people will care about the majority of books published today. (Hell, few people care about anything I have to write today, much less this insane Modern Library project. There is a high probability that I will be dead in five decades and that nobody will read the many millions of words or listen to the countless hours of radio I have put out into the universe. It may seem pessimistic to consider this salient truth, but, if anything, it motivates me to make as much as I can in the time I have, which I suppose is an egotistical and foolishly optimistic approach. But what else can one do? Deposit one’s head in the sand, smoke endless bowls of pot, wolf down giant bags of Cheetos, and binge-watch insipid television that will also not be remembered?) You can either accept this reality and reach the few people you can and find happiness and gratitude in doing so. Or you can deny the clear fact that your ego is getting in the way of your achievements, embracing supererogatory anxieties and forcing you to spend too much time feeling needlessly morose.

I suppose that in articulating this common neurosis, Hardy is performing a service. He seems to relish “mathematical fame,” which he calls “one of the soundest and steadiest of investments.” Yet fame is a piss-poor reason to go about making art or formulating theorems. Most of the contributions to human advancement are rendered invisible. These are often small yet subtly influential rivulets that unknowingly pass into the great river that future generations will wade in. We fight for virtues and rigor and intelligence and truth and justice and fairness and equality because this will be the legacy that our children and grandchildren will latch onto. And we often make unknowing waves. Would we, for example, be enjoying Hamilton today if Lin-Manuel Miranda’s school bus driver had not drilled him with Geto Boys lyrics? And if we capitulate those standards, if we gainsay the “trivial” inspirations that cause others to offer their greatness, then we say to the next generation, who are probably not going to be listening to us, that fat, drunk, and stupid is the absolute way to go through life, son.

A chair may be a collection of whirling electrons, or an idea in the mind of God: each of these accounts of it may have its merits, but neither conforms at all closely to the suggestions of common sense.

This is Hardy suggesting some church and state-like separation between pure and applied mathematics. He sees physics as fitting into some idealistic philosophy while identifying pure mathematics as “a rock on which all idealism flounders.” But might not one fully inhabit common sense if the chair exists in some continuum beyond this either-or proposition? Is not the chair’s perceptive totality worth pursuing?

It is at this point in the book where Hardy’s argument really heads south and he makes an astonishingly wrongheaded claim, one that he could not have entirely foreseen, noting that “Real mathematics has no effects on war.” This was only a few years before Los Alamos was to prove him wrong. And that’s not all:

It can be maintained that modern warfare is less horrible than the warfare of pre-scientific times; that bombs are probably more merciful than bayonets; that lachrymatory gas and mustard gas are perhaps the most humane weapons yet devised by military science; and that the orthodox view rests solely on loose-thinking sentimentalism.

Oh Hardy! Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Agent Orange, Nick Ut’s famous napalm girl photo from Vietnam, Saddam Hussein’s chemical gas massacre in Halabja, the use of Sarin-spreading rockets in Syria. Not merciful. Not humane. And nothing to be sentimental about!

Nevertheless, I was grateful to argue with this book on my second read, which occurred a little more than two weeks after the shocking 2016 presidential election. I had thought myself largely divested of hope and optimism, with the barrage of headlines and frightening appointments (and even Trump’s most recent Taiwan call) doing nothing to summon my natural spirits. But Hardy did force me to engage with his points. And his book, while possessing many flawed arguments, is nevertheless a fascinating insight into a man who gave up: a worthwhile and emotionally true Rorschach test you may wish to try if you need to remind yourself why you’re still doing what you’re doing.

Next Up: Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life!


Nikil Saval (The Bat Segundo Show #544)

Nikil Saval is the author of Cubed and an editor at n+1.

Author: Nikil Saval


Subjects Discussed: Karen Nussbaum and the Nine to Five movement, 9 to 5 as the template for the office comedy, whether the office workplace is permanently stacked against the worker (and attempts to find hope), the beginnings of human resources, the Hawthorne effect, efforts to control workers through close supervision, attention to light and the beginnings of office architecture, the National Labor Relations Act, attempts to organize office workers in the 1930s, anti-immigrant sentiments and racism among white collar workers, unions and white collar workers, why workers feel empowered when they have nothing, the rise of freelancing culture, Richard Greenwald, how office work creates the illusion of giving the worker mastery over his fate, the Bürolandschaft ideal, Robert Propst, Action Office, the historical beginnings of the cubicle, attempts to track down the guy who first closed partitions into the cubicle, Norbert Wiener and cybernetics, King Vidor’s The Crowd, Jacques Tati’s Play Time, futile attempts to photograph “action” in offices, sitting up and standing down, healthy activities in the workplace, Propst’s failed three wall ideal, Herman Miller propaganda and Action Office possibilities, when George Nelson was jilted from the office furniture plans, how changes in the broader culture influenced changes in office culture, managers pulled from offices and deposited in cubes, Barry Lyndon, the impact of mass layoffs, the recession of the 1980s and its impact on white collar culture, when the cubicle became associated with transience, the lack of privacy in the workplace, why European countries revolted against office layout while Americans stayed silent, Frederick Taylor and Taylorism, Taylorism’s rise and fall and second rise, Louis Brandeis’s popularization of Taylorism through “scientific management” (used in his argument of the Eastern Rate Case of 1910), Taylorized families, Harry Braverman, the beginnings of human resources, Taylorism vs. eugenics, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise as an anti-Taylorist tract, Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive as a return to Taylorism, Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, perpetuating familial attitudes in the workplace, advertising and irony (and parallels to Taylorism), Taylorism vs. Taylor in Planet of the Apes, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, natural light and the early forms of air conditioning, surveillance by overseers that is perpetuated in workplace architecture, zombie-like accountants, the ethical question of happy workers, the beginnings of glass buildings, Le Corbusier and urban planning, the Lever House, when glass curtains won over Lewis Mumford, Vico cycles, how offices may be returning to their original counting house forms, the Sony Tower’s transformation from work units to residential units in the next few years, the question of workplace architecture becoming an ineluctable and oppressive threat on the way we live, mistaken impressions of Marxism spouted by philosophers, companies spending less on office space, developments in living space and workspace, laptops in cafes, freelancers and co-working facilities, the upward presumptions of clerks, and how once stable labor conditions have become a fantasy.


Correspondent: We are, in fact, talking in an office. So I’m not sure what that does to this conversation. But we’ll, I suppose, make amends.

Saval: I know. Well, at least it’s a private office and not a cubicle. Because that could be a…

Correspondent: Or an open office for that matter.

Saval: Or an open office. God.

Correspondent: Well, let’s get right into it. Back in the late 1970s, Jane Fonda met Karen Nussbaum, a remarkable figure who organized women clerical workers in this Nine to Five movement. And Fonda and a screenwriter spent an entire evening talking with 40 office workers. This became the basis for the wildly popular movie 9 to 5, which arguably set the template, comic wise, for Office Space, The Office, and, of course, most recently Silicon Valley. As you point out in the book, some of the proposed remedies at the end of that film — plants, rearranged desks, flextime, day care at work — they actually reflect what’s know as the Bürolandschaft ideal. And we’ll get to that in a bit. But, you know, this has me wondering if there is something permanently broken about the office. Is it possible that any attempt to remedy it or improve it is almost this kind of neoliberal trap? What hopes do we have for the worker? Or is the deck permanently stacked against her?

Saval: (laughs)

Correspondent: Just to start off here.

Saval: So softball.

Correspondent: It was such a wonderfully bleak book that I had to have a vivaciously bleak opener.

Saval: Gosh. I wish I could just say, “No no no. The story’s happy. It has a happy ending.” You know, I don’t really mean to say that the workplace is permanently broken. I guess I do want to say that the kind of repeated — as you pointed out, there’s a repeated attempt to make work better, usually through design but also through other kind of arrangements in the workplace. Architecturally and what have you. And a lot of these go wrong. And some of them go spectacularly wrong; the most famous being the office cubicle. And I think the point there is not just that the office seems to be broken, but that there is some sense of an idea of how work might be better and there is an idea of somehow you might be able to organize it better, somehow work might be more free, workers might have more control over their work. Things like that. And usually these are sort of fatally disabled by — I mean, it’s not always the case, but usually, roughly, it’s a presumption that these designers or planners know what’s best for an office worker. And there’s usually something imposed on an office worker. Or there’s a plan that starts out really well and then when it’s replicated ad nauseam, it goes wrong or it doesn’t even strike at the heart of what’s wrong at work and they try to design a way things are more fundamental to the issue of the workplace.

Correspondent: But as you also point out in the book, there is this brief moment for the worker — and perhaps it’s an illusional one or a delusional one — where you have a situation when suddenly there is care about what the worker thinks and how the worker can behave, as opposed to how the worker should behave. And I’ll get into Mr. [Frederick] Taylor in a bit. But what accounted for that particular moment, which was roughly around 1929 and up through about the 1950s, before yet another ideologue came in and had ideas about what to do for the worker and for the workplace?

Saval: Well, yeah, that’s, I guess you could call it, the human relations movement. That was the idea that…

Correspondent: That’s the 1960s of the office. (laughs)

Saval: Exactly.

Correspondent: That’s the hippie idealism, I suppose. That period.

Saval: Yeah. And it comes out of a lot of different sources. And one was just the office, but it was also the workplace. It took hold on factory floors as well. And the idea was just that workers needed to be in corporations that somehow ostensibly cared for them. It came out of what was known as the Hawthorne experiments, which are a famous social science experiment where they tried in the Hawthorne Works to experiment with different lighting levels and to see how this affected the way people worked. And what they realized was that actually there wasn’t a direct connection. It wasn’t that the light got better and workers worked better or got worse and workers worked better. It was just that when workers thought they were being watched — at least this was the conclusion — they felt like the company cared about them. And therefore they worked better. And so, especially at a time — this was not so true in the ’20s, but certainly in the ’30s this was true — when there were union movements, when there were the high points of the American labor movement, corporations and companies just felt that things were not going their way and they did not want unions in their workplaces. And so they thought, “Well, we just need to become more familial. We need to care more. We need to manage more lightly. We need to think of our workers’ psychology, not just their efficiency and their productivity.” And I think this results in all kinds of changes in the workplace. I sort of argue that even the architecture of the workplace somehow reflects this desire to make work better, to make workers feel more at home. Maybe with the mid-century corporation, I think I suggest that with things like the Lever House, the Seagram Building, the attention to light and to design and the explosion of design at that time in the workplace — even the idea that a workplace interior should be thoroughly planned and designed — I think reflects this attempt to make workers happy.

Correspondent: Do you think that many of the behavioral psychologists and these people who were looking into lighting were thinking very much about unions? I mean, we often forget from our — well, to get into the decline of labor in the 21st century is another can of worms, but we often forget from our vantage point now how much pull labor had in the early 20th century. And I’m wondering, in the attempt to determine how workers were feeling, how much was that a presence? How much was that a motivation? Or was it simply just innate curiosity? Or the kind of touchy-feely vibe we were implying earlier?

Saval: You know, certainly with industrial workplaces, it was definitely, absolutely a fear. Partly because union organizing, it just spiked, especially after the passage of the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act. With the office, I don’t think there was a huge worry about it. I did some, to me, very fascinating but probably to other people very tedious archival work where I looked into the proceedings of the International Association of Office Managers, or rather I think it’s the National Association, and there’s a point in the ’30s when they really express worries about this and they think, “Well, it’s really taken a hold on factories and even some offices are starting to unionize.” And there actually is, more than there used to be, in certain publishing houses. The New Republic organizes at the time, with something affiliated with the Communist Party. And so you have people talking about how the last redoubt of capitalism, the place where individualism thrives. The office. Even this is under threat. And so we really need it. I mean, once this goes, I think there’s a little bit of a sense that — and again it was not so widespread, but they were definitely afraid, I think.

Correspondent: Well, you do in fact quote the possibly apocryphal Samuel Gompers line, “Show me two white collar workers on a picket line and I’ll organize the entire working class.” Why didn’t office workers latch onto labor? You suggest that there is this assumption that their talents and their skills could in fact give them an independent shot. And I suppose, I guess we see the natural offshoots of this kind of libertarian impulse with some of the tech entrepreneurs that came later. But I’m wondering. Why couldn’t there be some sort of confluence here? Because it seems to me that everybody here had the same interests in mind.

Saval: Yeah. This is sort of the central contradiction of the white collar workplace. I mean, it’s just that there is, on the one hand, you have this ideal of this perfect meritocracy, that certainly the managers talk about this in their association, that you can rise — and this was true in the early antebellum offices especially. And it made more sense then. If you were a clerk, you would become the partner of that firm. And that lasted even past the point that that was true. When some offices became much larger, business became bigger and there were only so many places at the top and many more places at the bottom. So it was just less and less likely.

Correspondent: Toil long enough at the firm and you will ascend to heaven when you’re dead.

Saval: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: It’s a very familiar promise.

Saval: Right. Exactly. So the way that persists is partly that there’s just a lot of — that it makes sense. It was true for some people. And that had some effect. It made people think that it was true in the office. There’s something about the prestige and status of white collar work that has made it different from blue collar work, especially in the U.S. politically. It just seems like it’s cleaner. The work often required a high command of English. So when there were a lot of high waves of immigration into the United States, there weren’t a lot of immigrants working in white collar workplaces. So there was a kind of homogeneity. And then, of course, also it was very male up to a point. And then when women entered the office, they often entered into the steno pool, a typing pool, to jobs that didn’t have high levels of prestige so that men could feel themselves above in a way, could still feel like they were middle class even when they maybe weren’t. And the other thing — and I talk about this a little bit in a chapter about the skyscrapers — was that there were not a lot of appeals on the part of unions or political parties in the U.S. to white collar workers. It was not clear how to organize them.

Correspondent: It was not clear how to get through to them.

Saval: Yeah. Exactly. The whole model was predicated on industrial organizing. And this doesn’t mean that it didn’t work in a number of cases, a can of worms which I don’t deal with which is the public sector. Because I think it’s a different animal. Can of worms. Animal. Anyway.

Correspondent: Let’s mix as many metaphors as you like. (laughs) But this leads me to wonder. Why couldn’t these very dedicated labor unions get through to the white collar worker? I mean, they had — and again I cannot understate this — they had incredible power at the time.

Saval: Right.

Correspondent: How could they not actually have the communication skills or the fortitude or even the ability to massage their message? Why couldn’t they get through? I mean, they did try. There’s an AFL magazine article you quote, addressed to the white collar workers, where essentially the author says, “Hey. Look after yourselves. You want to think about the future.” But it seems to me that they needed to go further. I mean, what was the disconnect here?

Saval: You know, it just seems like a number of things. One was just the persistence of the idea that upward mobility was a given. And in periods where there are high levels, it’s mainly growth. I think of times like the 1920s, even when inequality widens, union influence starts to dip after a kind of high point in the late 1910s. And then in the ’30s, the union influence in the office increases. Because white collar unemployment becomes a real thing. But then it dips again in the ’50s and then it starts to spike up in the ’70s. And then actually in the ’80s, when things really actually go wrong for a little bit.

Correspondent: With Reagan and the air traffic controllers.

Saval: Yeah. And then it hasn’t really — I mean, you would think that and you would think now in the last four years that it would increase. I feel like I’ve read of isolated cases. But it’s not a trend. There’s a union organizer who I quote, writing in Harper’s in the ’50s — he’s an anonymous organizer — about why white collar workers can’t be organized. And he seems to think that there’s a way in which white collar workers see themselves, even though they are exploited. He says they are the most exploited workers in a certain way. But they see themselves as possessing certain skills, whereas an assembly line worker will talk about the industry that he works in. “I work in the auto industry.” Whereas a white collar worker will refer to his or her profession. “I’m a stenographer” or “I’m a typist.” “I’m a bookkeeper.” And that way of talking indicates that you’re able to move. That you have a skill that other people prize. And I don’t know if that’s a sufficient reason for people not to organize. But it sort of means that you need to talk about different things. And it’s not always the case. People do organize. It has happened. But this was his reason anyway.

Correspondent: In other words, with this particular notion, the suggestion is that one had a kind of linguistic independent identity. One had a label to hold as his own, whereas the organized worker would relate to an industry. This leads me to wonder why that notion of independence was, number one, so appealing to the worker and, number two, why they didn’t see, especially after toiling for many decades and not getting anywhere, that it was all a sham.

Saval: Yeah. It remains a sort of intractable question. But the notion of independence is powerful. And you even see that now in the rise of freelancing or contract work, which I do not want to attribute that too much to people choosing to do that all the time. I mean, there is a lot of it.

Correspondent: The sexiness of having to go ahead and pay for your own health care. Having to look for pennies under the couch. It’s just such a remarkably romantic ideal, isn’t it?

Saval: It’s so freeing. It’s liberating. But on the other hand, there are people who choose to do it. And what they’re seeking is a certain kind of freedom and autonomy over their work.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, MaxJC, danke, ozzi, 40a, ebaby8119, and Dokfraktal. )

The Bat Segundo Show #544: Nikil Saval (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Kathryn Schulz

Kathryn Schulz appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #339. Ms. Schulz is most recently the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling wrong about whether or not he’s right.

Author: Kathryn Schulz

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off with Thomas Kuhn, who you bring up a few times. You note his observation that the breakdown of one belief system and the dawning of another is always characterized by an explosion of competing hypotheses. But he also argued that it was impossible to conduct science in the absence of a preexisting theory. This brings to mind the F. Scott Fitzgerald maxim that the sign of a first-rate intellectual is to be able to hold two opposing notions in the brain at the same time. How can the two opposing viewpoints viewpoint be reconciled with the Kuhnian viewpoint? Do you have any thoughts on this? Or is it really a matter of cognitive dissonance taking care of this problem?

Schulz: I don’t know that those two things are at odds with each other. I suspect that Thomas Kuhn would have been very much in favor of Fitzgerald’s notion that really sophisticated thinking involves the capacity to hold a belief while also being willing to entertain its antithesis, or entertaining evidence that potentially undermines it. And, of course, that’s what practicing scientists — at least in theory — do all the time. Now in practice, is everyone always out there in their labs questioning their own theories? Probably not. But it is part of the ethos in science in general. And there’s a political scientist I quite like named Philip Tetlock, who I cite in the book, who describes this kind of thinking as self-subversive thinking. Which is a phrase I really love. It’s this notion that you can believe something and simultaneously have this undercurrent in your brain that’s saying “Well, what if it’s not true in this situation?” or “What if this part of it’s right or that part of it’s wrong?” or “What if the whole thing falls apart?” And to me, that is the sign. Fitzgerald got it right. That is the sign of sophisticated thinking. And unless I’m missing something, I think Kuhn would have supported that.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, he believed in this kind of halfway house. Of having competing hypotheses. Or even just having some middle ground. Some transitional middle ground. That’s why I ask the question of whether that middle ground is really reflective of the same Fitzgeraldian viewpoint.

Schulz: Right. I think one distinction is whether you’re talking about an individual person or a system. And I think what Kuhn was getting at was that when you have a scientific paradigm collapse. Like let’s say that we think that the sun revolves around the earth. And suddenly there’s a lot of challenges to that. And we start seeing some counter-evidence. Then there’s this exciting, but also panicky air where everybody is generating new theories to account for this evidence that doesn’t seem to make sense under the old theory. And so you have a whole system that’s in crisis and is generating new theories. And then you’re exactly right. You shift the pedals down. And you arrive at one that new established theory. And I do think that that’s how systems work. Whether it’s science or, for that matter, book publishing. Book publishing is in the middle of a Kuhnian paradigm crisis right now. Where we have an old model. we don’t know what the new model is. And in the meantime, there’s a million competing hypotheses. But within any given individual, I still think that you can hold a belief. And if you are a sophisticated thinker, undermine it, question it, and challenge it in all these ways.

Correspondent: I want to shift tacks and bring up the case of Penny Beerntsen, who you bring up in the book. She was absolutely insistent that Steven Avery had raped and assaulted her. DNA testing demonstrated that Avery was innocent. Then Avery got out of jail and proceeded to murder Teresa Halbach in 2005, the first and only time in the history of the Innocence Project that an exoneree has gone on to commit a violent crime. Penny though, which is a very interesting case — despite the assault, the misidentification, the murder trifecta – she was able to accept the objective evidence of Avery being innocent in relation to her, but guilty in relation to this other woman. What do you think factors into account for that fixed belief? Of being able to look upon the scenario with some objective quality? Is it a matter of having gone through the act of denial? Do you have any particular speculation? Or does it go back to this Kuhnian idea? That once she had gone through the bridge, she was able to reconcile the truth, so to speak. She was not wrong.

Schulz: Well, a couple of things. I mean, first, I will say that having spent quite a lot of time with Penny Beerntsen to get this story out of her and hear all the details, she impressed me as someone who is exceptionally, exceptionally thoughtful about wrongness. And in that respect, could be, probably should be a role model for all of us. And then I think the underlying question is, the one that I assume you’re getting at, is that, well, why? What is it that makes her so able to be responsive in the face of shifting evidence? Because it’s very, very hard to do. Especially in a situation where the stakes are so high, so emotional, so personal. And I asked her that question straight up. You know, how is that when so many people around you were unable to face this evidence — and for that matter, when so many people are unable to face very trivial instances in coping with wrongness — what do you think it is about you that made you able to do this? And it was obviously something she’d thought about a lot, and didn’t have a completely clear answer. In part because personalities are so complicated. And at the bottom of what’s going on, it has something to do with her personality. But one thing she said that was very interesting was that she had spent many years between her assault and Steven Avery’s exoneration working in the prison system. She essentially decided to take the horrible experience that had happened to her and tried to heal herself and other people by working with violent criminals and try and help them understand the impact of their crimes on their victims and on their communities, and really work within a rehabilitation law of criminal justice. So she spent years and years and years talking to people about facing up to being wrong. And I think that she ultimately felt like her turn came. And she could not fail to practice what she had preached.

The Bat Segundo Show #339: Kathryn Schulz (Download MP3)

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Thoughts on the Mime

mime1. The difference between the theatrical and the theoretical mime. — In the one the performance is palpable, but removed from pragmatic use, so that the mime is widely reviled out of habit, even when his actions beckon a half-hearted attention. Some wish to beat the mime to a pulp. More uncivilized spectators, containing their feral thoughts within the imagination, ruminate over whether or not the mime’s hypothetical gush of blood will be as invisible as the box that he is “trapping” himself in. One sees the mime’s principles within his performance, but the mime represents both theater and theory in practice. This causes hostility. This causes ulcers. This causes many to complain to their spouses and, in the most extreme cases, a temporary shift in slumbering receptacle from bed to couch.

2. But in the theoretical mime, the principles are fully separate from the theatrical. The mime neither exists nor is permitted to exist. It maintains its imaginative perch within an active noggin and proves so stubborn a resident that hostility is eked out at the theatrical mime, who shares nothing more than this subjective projection and is thereby innocent. The spectator only has to look at a real mime to be reminded of these theoretical speculations, and no real effort is necessary; for the theatrical mime’s performance is far from subtle and mimes themselves are numerous within our society.

3. All mimes would then be theoretical if they had access to the spectator’s theoretical viewpoint, or if they could indeed speak. But mimes are only permitted to convey their thoughts and feelings through silent action. And the mime rules dictate that props and gait must be invented. Since the mime is so occupied with these inherent duties, the communication between the spectator who contains the theoretical projection and the mime is one way. A mime is a terrible thing to waste, both in its theoretical and theatrical forms.

4. The reason therefore that the spectator remains so hostile to the theoretical mime is because he is not dressed up in striped shirt and his face is not attired in white paint. If the spectator is asphyxiated by a necktie as he watches the mime and his mind is occupied by negative thoughts pertaining to his work, then the spectator is likely to project additional theoretical mimes upon the theatrical mime.

5. But dull mimes are never either theatrical or theoretical.

6. The mime, if he is lively, is drawing from his own inner theoretical mime, shifting his arms and legs and chest by subconscious instinct. He therefore contains more of the theatrical mime than the theoretical mime as he carries out his performance. But it is just the reverse with the spectator. And where the spectator feels hostility towards the mime, the mime, by way of inhabiting more of the theatrical mime, feels ebullience, which he then applies to the performance.

7. Just as we harm the mime by projecting our theoretical mime upon him, so too does the theatrical mime harm the spectator in failing to project the theoretical upon us. That the theoretical forms the emotional bridge between mime and spectator, rather than the theatrical, is the chief cause for the many negative feelings directed towards the mime.

8. There are many people who witness a mime in the same way as they crave Ian Fleming’s vespers.

9. There remains the possibility of rectifying the theoretical/theatrical balance, but this will involve a good deal of mime outreach to beleaguered sectors of humanity. And since outreach is associated with many of the regrettable sensitivity and self-help movements of the 1970s, and since mimes themselves have already garnered a hostile position within civilization, the only practical solution to destroying this dichotomy is for the mimes to become spectators and the spectators to become mimes. The difficulties with establishing a World Mime Day come with the necessary autocratic enforcement. For in order for mimes to be understood as theatrical beings, it will be necessary for 90% of the spectators to become mimes. This is a difficult ratio, one that will certainly cause numerous spectators to resist and one that will cause further anti-mime propaganda to be disseminated through various circulars, several social networks, and numerous snarky websites.

10. But let us momentarily adopt an optimistic position and assume that such a possibility becomes plausible. Many of the new mimes (formerly spectators) will have difficulties adjusting to the role, and may come to resent the theatrical mime further, retreating again to the theoretical. Some may indeed decide that their roles as spectators have been balderdash all along and may become permanent mimes. But would such born again mimes be finding the right role in relation to society? It might be sufficiently argued that being a mime for a day is much better than toiling in a maquiladora. Then again, if being a mime is largely voluntary and without compensation, one might also argue the reverse.

11. Eloquence. — It requires the theatrical and the theoretical, but the theatrical must itself be drawn from the true. Eloquence is a bit like a high school blood drive, but the stakes are higher and the ambitions are tantamount to climbing Everest.

12. Eloquent responses to the mime problem therefore require one entire year, whereby the shift from spectator to mime is staggered over a 365 day period, and the many impromptu mimes scattered into everyday society is not so shocking. Governments must institute special tax incentives, encouraging spectators to become mimes and let the natural eloquence of the theatrical noodle its way into the theoretical. We must believe that mimes are more than two conditions. In this way, the spectators might overcome their internal skepticism by momentarily embracing the obverse.


The Onion Narrative

On the morning of Saturday, March 21, 2009, I left the house to purchase an onion. This action, in and of itself, might be considered meaningless. Most would consider this a perfunctory deed or an insignificant errand. There isn’t a foolproof way to capture all comparable actions occurring at the same moment (9:30 AM EDT), but why should any of us ignore the potential pleasures contained within such a routine act? Are we taking this modern convenience for granted? Is a trip to the store to be sneered at? If we view a produce run with contempt, do we therefore view a previous age of humanity with contempt? Why should it have to be about us? A 10th century Viking berserking his way across North America certainly didn’t have this option of a neighborhood market. The Viking’s diet consisted of what he was able to hunt and gather. I am certain that if the Viking learned of developments eleven centuries later, common to every civilized being, and further ascertained that we were complaining about what a pain in the ass it was to get an onion so early in the morning (for the Viking surely had to spend half of his day plunging through the river for some fish), he’d put a battleaxe through our skulls. And we might very well deserve it. (At the risk of self-aggrandizement, let the record show that I did not complain.)

What I hope to document here is one such act, which I style “The Onion Narrative.” Because my effort to obtain this onion exists in the past, fixed and immalleable and further complicated by the mind tinkering even as it accounts for what happened. I have provided diagrams (certainly not to scale) that have divided my Onion Narrative into three tidy stages. And to demonstrate how imperfect this process is, as an experiment, I attempted to recreate my Onion Narrative on video, following the exact same walking route and purchasing yet another onion. My recollection of the details isn’t nearly as precise as I’d like to think. The video confirms that I overstated the width of the food aisles in my diagrams. For the diagrams, I used only memory as my guide. And the video camera placed additional limitations. I was forced to adjust the narrative circumstances contained within my memory. Because I was holding a camera, admittedly a small one, I was nevertheless required to take a dollar out of my wallet in advance so that I could hand it to the register clerk. This way, I wouldn’t have to set down the camera and extract the dinero from my leather pouch. In addition, the price of the onion was different from the initial price. The onion itself was different. Moreover, the social conditions surrounding my journey had drastically changed. (For one, there were more dog walkers.) I’ll explore the implication of these details very soon. But for the moment, let’s concentrate on the original narrative contained within my memory.

The Original Narrative

We needed the onion to make breakfast. We had run out of onions the night before because we had used the last one in our kitchen to make some homemade soup. The market was only blocks away from where we lived. The task offered an opportunity for me to walk. And I also found it somewhat comical that I would be going to the market for only one item. Just some commonplace produce that cost under a dollar. Was this bad time management on my part? After all, if you’re going to go to the store, shouldn’t you go there for multiple items so that you might save yourself some trips?

I did not see the situation that way. Here were my priorities for this five-minute excursion:

Priority One: Obtain onion.
Priority Two: Go for a walk, commune with the world, get away from the damn computer.
Priority Three: Find random opportunities for recurring curiosity about others to take root.

I willfully revolted against my first priority by purchasing not one onion, but three. It might be argued that by purchasing one onion, I had fulfilled my priority and that the two additional onions represented a new priority that I had whipped up on the spot; a spontaneity that I had not anticipated until I arrived at the onion bin. A more austere type might wish to punish me for my failure to obey the set dicta, or for not following the subconscious directions to the letter or for exceeding my budget, as ridiculously minuscule as it was. (For what it’s worth, I only purchased one onion when I recreated the incident.) I suppose it all depends on how much value you place on the onion or whether you feel comfortable having an extra onion around the house. Nearly anybody can afford an onion. Or at least nearly anybody lucky enough to have a roof over his head. And perhaps purchasing two extra onions doesn’t really matter if you have, as I did, even four dollars in your wallet. But if you only have a dollar and you purchase two more, then you are forced into a position of potential embarrassment when the clerk is forced to put the additional onions back. The second onion, beyond your means in this hypothetical case, determines your social position, which is very low indeed. But maybe you have no shame and you wish to max out your meager budget. Or maybe you want to see how the clerk will react to such a dilemma.

stageoneAs I progressed to the store (see the accompanying graph labeled Stage One), the first priority became less significant. I found myself considering the number of cigarette butts scattered on the sidewalk, which had proliferated considerably from last evening. This then led me to wonder if there was a higher percentage of smokers in my neighborhood than I originally estimated, or whether there were some people who who only liked to smoke on Friday night. But could I really make such a judgment when I wasn’t devoting my complete attention to how frequently the streets were cleaned or the people cleaning them? I then began to observe people as I walked. Over the course of my journey, I counted 31 people who were out and about.

31 people! And this was just over the course of five minutes. That’s 372 people in one hour, assuming that the rate of wanderers remains constant and that you don’t run into the same person twice. Given these numbers, small wonder then that we still obsess over the phenomenon of “running into someone.” And yet none of us, I think, are quite aware of just how many people we see or how many social or conversational possibilities we are presented with at any given time. We are often so fixated on our solitary task (in this case, the purchase of an onion) that we fail to consider our true insignificance.


Since I was in a jocular mood, I’d like to think that I plentifully partook of these social opportunities. But there were only two people with whom I had direct contact with. And this was in the store. (I do not count the dog with a sad-looking face just outside the store who angled his head through two metal railings for attention and who I proceeded to pet and speak in a soothing voice to.) At Point A: A boy saddling along with his mother and carrying a glum expression. Recognizing the boy’s need to feel happier, I stuck out my tongue at him, and he smiled. At Point B: Some banter with the register clerk. A “Good morning” and “How are you doing?” and a “Thanks.” A smile. But nothing beyond that. Indeed, at Point B in the video, I did even worse. My recreated journey on video sees me communicating with nobody save the clerk, and my socialization was limited to “Thanks.”

I felt like a terribly selfish person when these details were revealed. Had the video made me more self-conscious? Was I less jocular? Or were the circumstances inveterate? Can we be exonerated if we aren’t really aware of how few people we talk with? Or is it incumbent on us to be more socially responsible? If it is socially acceptable not to talk with even half of the 31 random people we regularly run into on any given day, then are we any less culpable in failing to live up to the possibilities before us? In 2007, a University of Melbourne researcher concluded that political candidates sitting on the left-hand position of a stage are more likely to draw attention. Because the brain, when tracking a tableau, has a tendency to drift to the left. I must note that in Points A and B that the individuals were to my left. I also see that my own journey to and from the store had me situated mostly on the left side of the street. Therefore, if my brain was going out of its way to excluding people, it was possibly because my visual cortex was occupied with the buildings and edifices. Was I subconsciously going out of my way to avoid people? (Additional factors to consider: I learned later in the afternoon that I was in need of social engagement. Several opportunities presented themselves and were taken.)

What is also troubling in my video reenactment is that the only time I comment on anything is when I see a bus parked at a stoplight. This bus is in almost the exact same position as another bus was during my original journey. And seeing the similarity, I am forced to violate the conditions of my recreation: commenting upon the action. This would further support the “running into someone” theory. Consider what cognitive scientist Colin Cherry identified as the cocktail party effect, whereby a person has the ability to focus in on one talker while a steady chatter of conversation is going on. This was supported last year by a study that revealed the auditory cortex does a good deal of work in filtering conversation. And if your brain has robust basal ganglia, well, then you likewise may have a robust “irrelevance filter.”

I do not know how tough my basal ganglia are. But I am troubled by how smoothly my brain deems certain details irrelevant. How little it notices. How needlessly egocentric it is on a subconscious level. After the fact, I am going out of my way to locate the new, the unseen, the underdogs, the moments I didn’t seize, the people I could have talked to, the emphases I now find phony or false.

stagethreeStage Three of my journey seems less significant than the first two stages. By my own judgment, it is also the least interesting part of the video recreation. The onion has been obtained. I recall that during the original narrative, I found myself observing more people. I was not in a rush to get back. But on the video, I am circling around people rather than approaching them. I do not know if this is because of the camera or because I felt uneasy reproducing the narrative. And why should Stage Three be the least of the three? The primary goal has been obtained. The mind is at ease and can be more spontaneous with the rigid order out of the way. Or so one would think.

This exercise originated, in part, from ruminating over Roger Ebert’s recent post about the determinism of the universe, although the subject has long been on my mind. I am a secular type who does not believe in a deity, and yet, on some primordial level, my mind seeks to find connections and patterns. Even in thinking about why my mind reacted the way that it did, I am still trying to pinpoint a framework. How is this any different from Intelligent Design?

Among George Santayana’s great arsenal of pithy maxims is this one, written in response to William James’s the Varieties of Religious Experience: “Experience seems to most of us to lead to conclusions, but empiricism has sworn never to draw them.” I hope that I have been more explicit about my free will than James was, and yet I share with James a strange pleasure in vivisecting my experience. Of coming to terms with my subconscious limitations as a human being through diagrams and video reenactments. One should probably not approach life this way, because on a certain level, one must live with blind and uncomfortable truths. But is the truth really unraveled when we consider the structure beneath it? Or is the mind so hopelessly fallible, so determined in its determinist filtering, that human beings are doomed to repeat the same mistakes even when the horse has been led to water? This seems cynical rhetoric, but it’s quite liberating to know that, no matter how much you slice and dice up a moment, the mind remains a dutiful deflector.


The Bat Segundo Show: Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #245. Stephenson is most recently the author of Anathem. It is not known whether or not he “likes cake a lot.”

Condition of Mr. Segundo: He likes cake a lot.

Author: Neal Stephenson

Subjects Discussed: Seven as the ideal number of guests for dinner, William Gibson, the shift from the near future to the past, Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, science fiction about the alternative present, the various manners in which one interprets information as forms of discipline, Kurt Godel’s life at the Institute for Advanced Study, Platonism, Edmund Husserl, the Kantian influence in Anathem, units of measurement, Gene Wolfe, the use of “runcible,” using very old words to avoid the high tech feel, “aut” and auto-da-fe, devising quasi-Latin lingo, Riddley Walker, learning new words as an essential part of the experience of literature, considering the general reader, devising a script that went through the entire text to determine how many words were invented, concocting an intuitive vernacular, cognitive philosophy concerning the fly, the bat, and the worm inspired by Husserl, reader accessibility, My Dinner with Andre, the danger of getting caught up in an invented world, the snowscape journey as a side quest, finding humor in unexpected places, Ras as the anti-Enoch Root, Robert Heinlein’s YA novels, Ras’s perception of music, music and mathematics, literal and figurative meanings, Max Tegmark’s The Mathematical Universe, creating a metaverse and happy accidents, being “family-based” and types of relationships within the Avout, Laura Miller’s suggestion that Anathem is “a campus novel,” use of the first-person, narrative constraints, criticism about women as nurturers, female characters, and the risk of writing books about ideas.


Correspondent: Going back to the idea of the general reader, or the common reader — whatever we want to call the audience here — the philosophical proposition involving the fly, the bat, and the worm expressing basic cognitive abilities, and how cognitive abilities come together so that humans are a higher form of animal than other animals, this was a very clear way of expressing this particular concept of individual senses. And I’m wondering if this was something that you concocted. Or that you took from Kant. Because I actually tried to find a philosophical precedent for this as well.

Stephenson: It’s more from [Edmund] Husserl. So Husserl was an amazing guy who could just sit in his office and look at a copper ashtray, and then write at great length about all of the processes that went on in his mind when he was perceiving that ashtray, and recognizing it from one moment to the next as being the same object. And so he’s got a number of lengthy books about this, which, as you can imagine, are pretty hard to read. So the content of the dialogue, or the parable you mention — the fly, the bat, and the worm — really comes from him. But it’s me trying to write a somewhat more accessible version of similar ideas.

Correspondent: So you really wanted to be accessible in some sense, it seems to me.

Stephenson: In some sense, yeah.

Correspondent: Well, what sense exactly?

Stephenson: (laughs) Well…

Correspondent: If the reader doesn’t matter and, at the same time, there’s this accessibility here, it seems…what’s the real story? (laughs)

Stephenson: Oh no. The reader matters. The criterion is very simple. It’s got to be a good yarn. If it’s not a good yarn, then the whole enterprise fails. So I think that to have a good yarn, you’ve got to have characters that people are interested in. And they’ve got to get into situations that make for a good story. It’s okay to stop the action and have them sit down and have an interesting conversation. You know, for some reason, I always go back to the movie, My Dinner with Andre, which is a long movie consisting of two guys just sitting there talking with each other. But it’s a completely engaging and fascinating movie. That’s kind of an existence proof that you can build a good yarn that consists largely of people just having conversations. And so that was kind of my guiding — that was my guideline, I guess you could say, for trying to work that material in.

BSS #245: Neal Stephenson (Download MP3)

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