Category Archives: Non-fiction

Self-Consciousness And Can a Machine Have It

Hugh Howey explains Theory of Mind and how it relates to artificial intelligence. He says AI can do marvelous feats of computation, but it can’t and probably will never think like we do. He says it’s fun to describe our minds as computers, but that’s misleading.

Computers are well-engineered devices created with a unified purpose. All the various bits were designed around the same time for those same purposes, and they were designed to work harmoniously with one another. None of this in any way resembles the human mind. Not even close. The human mind is more like Washington, D.C. (or any large government or sprawling corporation).

Parts of our brain can compete with each other, and what we call the mind is all of the brain and more combined. He describes seasickness as part of the brain believing it has been poisoned and vomiting to defend itself, even though you may know without doubt you have not been poisoned.

Not only are we unable to control ourselves completely, we also talk to ourselves incompletely. “The explanations we tell ourselves about our own behaviors are almost always wrong,” Howey says, because we defend ourselves even against our better judgment.

All of this leads to how AI machines will not and should not become so man-like as to pass for human beings. “The only reason I can think of to build such machines is to employ more shrinks.”

Howey has a book of new and collected sci-fi stories out this month.

‘Katharine von Bora: The Morning Star of Wittenberg,’ by Jenna and Shanna Strackbein

Katherine von Bora: The Morning Star of Wittenberg

In the spirit of the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, I have received a free review copy of Katharine von Bora: The Morning Star of Wittenberg, by Jenna and Shanna Strackbein, with illustrations by Emily and Jenna Strackbein.

This is a book for children — intermediate readers, I’d estimate. It narrates the life of the woman who became Martin Luther’s wife, from her childhood to the early years of their married life. The text is clear (with German pronunciations provided, which is a nice touch), and there’s a glossary in the back, as well as a timeline. The colored pictures are numerous and lively.

The story is addressed from a Lutheran theological point of view, so non-Protestants – or even some Reformed – may not appreciate parts of it. But it’s pretty handsome.

‘The Vikings: A New History,’ by Neil Oliver

The Vikings: A New History

Another history of the Vikings. This one, by Neil Oliver, a Scottish archaeologist and TV presenter, is more subjective than, say, The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth, which I reviewed recently. I don’t rate The Vikings: A New History as highly as Winroth’s book purely as a scholarly work, but I expect it might be just the gateway book for some readers.

The Vikings: A New History takes a generally chronological approach, which is a useful thing. Books on the Vikings, even histories, tend to separate various geographical spheres of interest into watertight sections. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think there’s also a need for a work that displays the sweep of Viking activity overall, decade by decade. So author Oliver has done a service in that regard.

The execution is a little idiosyncratic. The book begins (apart from personal reminiscences by the author, telling how he came to be interested in the Vikings) with quite a long survey of Scandinavian history beginning in the Ice Age. In compensation, perhaps, it seemed to me the later stages of Viking history got treated in a somewhat perfunctory manner. As if the author was running out of pages and needed to compress. Continue reading ‘The Vikings: A New History,’ by Neil Oliver

Medieval Women Were Not Waifs

A new exhibit at the Getty offers a revealing look at women from the Middle Ages.

With an understandable weariness, the exhibition’s creators acknowledge, both on the introductory museum label and catalogue book jacket, that most people imagine medieval women as damsels in distress, being rescued perhaps by a dragon-­hunting St. George. One has to meet the popular mind, fattened by dismissals of the Middle Ages (“a world lit only by fire”), where it unfortunately lags. But to slay this myth as surely as St. George speared his dragon, the curators unfurled manu­scripts of a different, lesser known legend, that of St. Margaret. Consumed by a dragon, Margaret ripped her way out of his stomach herself with a crucifix. Like Jesus, it seems, Margaret could be born (from a dragon at least) without the help of a man.

‘The Conversion of Scandinavia,’ by Anders Winroth

The Conversion of Scandinavia

It’s a little disappointing, after my glowing review of Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings (reviewed a few inches south of here), to deliver a less than enthusiastic review of his earlier work, The Conversion of Scandinavia. Of course it’s ridiculous for me, an amateur historian and fantasy novelist, to challenge a scholar of Winroth’s stature. But this is my area of interest, blast it, and I’m going to defend it with whatever flimsy weapons I’ve got.

The thesis of The Conversion of Scandinavia is fairly easily stated. In Winroth’s view, the conversion essentially never happened – not in the way we’ve been taught. All those cultural clashes and crusader atrocities are just the fancies of Icelandic storytellers. What actually happened (in this view) is that various chieftains and kings realized that Christianity offered both prestige and (in the Church) a bureaucratic model that could be expanded and adapted to solidify their own power. The kings were baptized, and their kingdoms declared officially Christian. Other than that, the changes were few, but the people gradually adapted to the new religious order.

One thing that immediately struck me was that Winroth completely bypasses the institution of the Things, the Viking democratic assemblies that balanced and limited royal power. He writes of the Scandinavian kings as if they were autocrats, ruling by decree. Although he doesn’t explain this omission, I imagine he considers the idea of the Thing another invention of Icelandic saga writers – and in his view (apparently) the very fact that a saga writer says it is conclusive proof of falsehood. He does not recognize the recent work of scholars in the field of folklore studies, who argue that useful information can be preserved in pre-literate societies for three centuries or more through traditional mnemonic devices, before being written down. Continue reading ‘The Conversion of Scandinavia,’ by Anders Winroth

Anders Winroth on the conversion of Scandinavia

Here’s a ten minute video of Anders Winroth, whose book The Age of the Vikings I reviewed a few inches south of this post. In this interview he discusses his previous book, The Conversion of Scandinavia. I have purchased that book and will report when I get it finished.

I generally agree with his view that conversion had prestige value in the Viking Age. I’m interested to see if he cites Fridtjof Birkeli’s untranslated book, Tolv Aar Hadde Kristendommen Vaert i Norge (Twelve Years Had Christianity Been in Norway). Birkeli argues that, in Norway, Haakon the Good’s peaceful approach to missionary work was just as (or more) effective over the long run than the better-publicized bloody crusades of the two Olafs.

‘The Age of the Vikings,’ by Anders Winroth

The Age of the Vikings

Charlemagne himself rode toward the plundering Northmen, bringing with him his beloved pet elephant, Abul-Abbas, a gift from the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid in Baghdad. The elephant suddenly died after crossing the Rhine River, a bad omen.

Hear me: From this day forth, and until I change my mind, when someone asks me for a good introduction to the Viking Age, I will recommend to them Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings.

The book opens with a vivid description of a feast in a Swedish chieftain’s hall. The warriors enjoy a dessert treat of exotic walnuts. A skald recites a poem, which all praise but few understand, in honor of his host.

This, in my opinion, is the way to open a book on the Viking Age. Author Winroth, who teaches medieval history at Yale, knows his material, but he also knows how to grab a reader. There’s no excuse for a book on the Vikings to be dull, though some writers accomplish that feat. Winroth, on the other hand, milks the drama for all it’s worth, and it makes his book a joy to read. He’s an excellent stylist too.

He covers such subjects as the relative violence of the Vikings (compared to their contemporaries), Viking Age emigration, Viking ships, Viking trade, Viking political development, everyday life, and religion. No subject is covered exhaustively, but his material is authoritative and his scholarship up to date.

He writes some things that surprised me and contradicted information I thought I knew. Chances are he’s right and I’m wrong. He exercises the normal caution of contemporary scholars in using the Icelandic sagas; I’m associated with the revisionist party on that point. I hope that scholarly opinion will alter in the future. Till then, Winroth’s cautious approach is prudent.

Highly recommended. Suitable for ordinary readers teenaged and up, but students of the age (like me) will also learn things.

The International Support for American Independence

“Americans today,” Ferreiro says, “celebrate the July Fourth holiday under somewhat false pretences.” Yes, the colonial-wide support of Boston in the wake of the Coercive Acts (1774) was a factor in pushing British Americans toward independence. So was the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. So were the ideas of the founding fathers and the activism of ordinary colonists who destroyed the homes of tax collectors, tarred and feathered loyalists, and burned tea. Yet, as Ferreiro shows us, the men sitting at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress also realized that a declaration of independence was their only real chance of securing the foreign aid necessary to defeat the mighty British army and navy. As Virginian Richard Henry Lee put it in June 1776, “It’s not by choice then, but necessity that calls for independence, as the only means by which foreign alliance can be obtained.”

John Fea draws these ideas from Larrie D. Ferreiro’s Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It. He says French and Spanish diplomats wanted to push back Great Britain’s power (particularly the French after their defeat in the French and Indian War) and exploited ways to encourage our War for Independence. (via Prufrock News)

‘Bandersnatch,’ by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Bandersnatch

Lewis’s writing process was quite different from Tolkien’s. While Tolkien wrote things out in order to discover what he wanted to say, Lewis tended to mull things over before committing anything to paper.

According to a well-known anecdote, C. S. Lewis never read newspapers. “If anything really important happens,” he said, “someone is bound to tell you about it.”

I have a similar attitude to books about C. S. Lewis and the Inklings. I’ve read several, but far from all of them, and I feel no obligation to. If someone writes a new book with fresh information, somebody is pretty likely to tell me about it, in a discussion group or in a review in the Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society.

So I didn’t learn a lot of new things from Diana Pavlac Glyer’s Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings. But this book wasn’t really intended to convey biographical information (though it’s as good an introduction as any for the curious). Its purpose is to analyze the ways in which the Inklings group, which lasted 17 years (quite an achievement for any writers’ group) served as a catalyst for its members’ creativity. She follows the Inklings’ history from its beginning when Tolkien – very shyly and with trepidation – showed a poem to his new friend Jack, taking a chance that he’d be the kind of person who’d appreciate it. Jack Lewis did – with great enthusiasm – and gradually they gathered about them a small community of fellow writers of like mind. They read their work to each other and boldly critiqued it, in a cloud of tobacco smoke in Lewis’ shabby rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford (the famous Tuesday meetings at the Eagle and Child pub were purely social, and guests were permitted, which was not true of the Thursday nights at Magdalen. I was amused to read that Tolkien made the mistake of bringing along the historian Gwyn Jones [a famous name to Viking buffs] one evening, and it got a little awkward, though Jones proved acceptable).

Author Glyer has done a tremendous job going carefully through old manuscripts and notes in various collections, looking for evidences of revision, and correlating them with reports of the Inklings meetings. It was a gargantuan task, and the result is a book that will be valuable to everyone interested in artistic mutual support groups – not just to writers, but to anyone who creates art. I recommend Bandersnatch.

‘The Vikings and Their Enemies,’ by Philip Line

The Vikings and Their Enemies

Some books are a chore to read, even if the subject interests you, but a necessary chore. Like textbooks when you’re in school. For me, Philip Line’s The Vikings and Their Enemies: Warfare in Northern Europe, 750-1100 was that kind of book. It contained information I needed and from which I profited, but I thought it would never end.

Casual readers will probably find it long and daunting, as the Amazon reviews indicate. First of all, though “Vikings” is in the title, that word here indicates the time period, not the main subject. Most of the material does not focus on the Vikings themselves. The main reason for this is that the author, like so many historians, is skeptical about the Icelandic sagas as sources, and so uses them only lightly. That leaves him with limited source materials about Scandinavians. Most of the ink is devoted to the Vikings’ enemies, the British, the Irish, the French, the Germans, and a few others. For them we have a certain amount of documentary evidence (though Line handles that evidence with caution too).

The practical upshot is that he spends a lot of time telling us that popular histories are wrong about many, many things that have entered the general information pool. Which is the mark of a rigorous historian. But it does not make for an exciting narrative.

However, the book contained, in particular, some information on Viking naval tactics that I needed for the book I am writing. So the work I put in reading The Vikings and Their Enemies was well worth it to me.

The normal reader will probably find other books on the period more interesting and easier to consume. I recommend this one only for its appropriate audience.

‘Stand Firm,’ by Svend Brinkmann

Stand Firm

There are people you like, public and private, not because you agree with them particularly, but because you’re both against the same things.

That’s kind of how I feel about Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, by Danish author Svend Brinkmann.

Brinkmann argues that this whole modern self-improvement thing, with all its books and seminars and courses, has resulted not in greater happiness, but in greater frustration, because we’re never “improved enough,” and we’re constantly made to feel guilty about our many failures to “live in the moment,” “think positively,” etc.

Taking his cue from some tenets of classical Stoicism, Brinkmann recommends a new program, whose bullet points are:

1. Cut out the navel-gazing.
2. Focus on the negative in your life.
3. Put on your No hat.
4. Suppress your feelings.
5. Sack your coach.
6. Read a novel – not a self-help book or biography.
7. Dwell on the past.

That reads as parody, and in fact the book is often funny. But there’s a serious point too. What Brinkmann calls “liquid modernity” – the “flexible” approach to life that the self-help gurus require – is murderous to the soul. We need a place to stand. That requires some negative thinking and a focus on our duties to others rather than just to ourselves. We live in community with others, and we often need to deny our own “needs” in order to maintain our relationships.

I found it interesting that Brinkmann appealed to Stoic philosophy rather than to Christianity in his quest for a backward-looking discipline through which to resist liquid modernity. It reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which also looked to Stoicism for a similar purpose. I don’t know whether this choice reflects an unthinking modern prejudice against the riches of Christian thought, or just a (probably well-founded) assumption that if you talk about Christianity, people today won’t listen to you. I think the book is diminished by the choice, but I can’t argue that my way would improve sales.

I don’t agree with all the guidelines recommended in Stand Firm, but I enjoyed reading it and consider it a tonic for our times. And the English translation is first-rate. Recommended.

‘The Last Gunfight,’ by Jeff Guinn

The Last Gunfight

None of the Earps were flawless saints, but they also were not shady characters who lucked into heroic places in Western history. What they did do, Wyatt especially, was exaggerate their accomplishments and completely ignore anything in their past that reflected badly on them. In this, they were typical of men of their time—and men today.

Wyatt Earp wanted a desk job. You could argue that that simple fact is responsible for the bloodletting that occurred in an empty lot next to C.S. Fly’s photographic studio, not far from the OK Corral, on October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona. All the Earps dreamed of wealth and social respectability, but they had to settle for gambling, police work (usually as deputies), and sometimes less reputable work like pimping, until they could catch the brass ring. Which none of them did in their lifetimes.

Wyatt thought he had a fair shot at being elected sheriff of the newly-created Cochise County, Arizona, on the Republican ticket. He was a deputy to his brother, Deputy US Marshal Virgil Earp, who was also Tombstone chief of police. He thought he could arrest several wanted “cowboys” (a word that meant rustlers at the time), if he made a deal with the rancher Ike Clanton to betray his cowboy friends. Unfortunately, Ike got the idea that Wyatt had been telling people about the deal, and got so mad that he spent the night of October 25 lurching from one saloon to another, bragging about everything he was going to do that two-faced Earp. This was a stupid thing to do if he wanted the deal kept secret, of course, but brains were never Ike’s strong suit. The next day Virgil deputized his brothers and Doc Holliday and led them down to the vacant lot to disarm Ike and his friends. The rest is… about 1% history and 99% myth and romance.

Though the Amazon description calls Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight the “definitive” account of the affair, it’s not and cannot be, as Guinn himself admits in his Afterword. New information keeps turning up, and sometimes it’s pretty illuminating. What The Last Gunfight offers is a fairly recent, and fairly comprehensive, account of the personalities and forces that led to the shoot-out, and the events that followed, with the focus on the Earps. Continue reading ‘The Last Gunfight,’ by Jeff Guinn

Marx Was a Racist

Karl Marx, blockhead“Few people who call themselves Marxists have ever even bothered to read Das Kapital,” writes professor Walter Williams. “If one did read it, he would see that people who call themselves Marxists have little in common with Marx.”

In a piece today, Williams says Karl Marx was a racist who would not be tolerated on Twitter, and yet many people who style themselves as his disciples would be outraged if a current public figure said things he said. Pulling from a book by ex-communist Nathaniel Weyl, Williams offers examples.

Marx didn’t think much of Mexicans. When the United States annexed California after the Mexican War, Marx sarcastically asked, “Is it a misfortune that magnificent California was seized from the lazy Mexicans who did not know what to do with it?”

Engels said similar things, such as writing that a political foe who had African heritage was suitable to represent the people living in a district that contained a zoo because he was biologically closer to the animals than other other men.

Of course, the question is not whether anyone from history said anything hateful or disagreeable to modern listeners. The question is whether such statements flow naturally from the speaker’s worldview. Given Communism’s bloody history, even its current practice, I don’t find Marx’s views of personal superiority surprising on any basis.

‘The Benedict Option,’ by Rod Dreher

The Benedict Option

“When a man first comes to the monastery, the first thing he notices is everybody else’s quirks—that is, what’s wrong with everybody else,” said Father Martin. “But the longer you’re here, the more you begin to think: what’s wrong with me? You go deeper into yourself to learn your own strengths and weaknesses. And that leads you to acceptance of others.”

OK, this time it is a review. I read The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher.

I won’t lie to you–I didn’t want to. I had a pretty good idea what this book would be—a depressingly realistic appraisal of the current, radically changed situation in which orthodox Christians find themselves. Plus a series of suggestions for dealing with the new normal—all of them uncomfortable.

I was correct.

Dreher describes how the situation of the (small “o”) orthodox church in America (and in the west as a whole) has changed, suddenly and (apparently) for the foreseeable future. Thanks to the cultural earthquake that the Gay Movement brought forth, Christians who had been ensconced, relatively comfortably, within our culture just a decade ago are now an isolated, and increasingly threatened, minority.

Dreher sees no chance of altering that situation through politics or public relations. All we can do, he believes, is what Saint Benedict of Nursia did in the 6th Century, after the fall of Rome. Benedict founded western monasticism, creating communities of committed believers who cared for one another, cared for their neighbors, and preserved the wisdom of the Classical age for the future. Little Noah’s Arks in a sea of barbarism. Continue reading ‘The Benedict Option,’ by Rod Dreher