My partner and I are lucky enough to be able to go away on vacation every year around Christmas, and to spend a week doing almost literally nothing other than reading books on the beach. It’s heavenly. Here are some quick synopses of what I read on the beach, and a few that I’ve read since she and I got back.
Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism
Capitalism ultimately murders the culture that sustains it, says Daniel Bell. We start with Protestant capitalism, or so he and Weber say; bourgeois capitalists set aside money to build their businesses, trading off some pleasure today for a brighter tomorrow. Over time the connection between Protestantism and capitalism has been sundered, so now capitalist society is based on mere acquisitiveness. And the libertarian ethos has changed us from a society of the “we” (our church, our society) to a culture of the “I”. Capitalism begets libertarian individualism, which begets destruction of community, which begets the end of the sociological support that makes capitalism even possible.
This I get, and it makes sense to me. A significant chunk of his book, though, is given over to the decay in avant-garde art, because Bell seems to equate “culture” with artistic innovation. The avant-garde, he says, must always (just look at its very name) set itself against the society that it lives in. But the bourgeois-capitalist society of the “I” rejects all limits on what man can do. The avant-garde wants to say to society, “Here is a limit you have placed on me, and here I am rejecting it!” To which society now says, “You have no limits; go do whatever you want.” How can avant-garde artists even exist in this limitless environment?
Which … fine. But I don’t see how it relates to the cultural underpinnings of capitalism. Maybe it does, but Bell seems to just take it as given that the avant-garde is important to the society in which it exists. Is it so? Is avant-garde art really a social support? Bell follows three broad pillars beneath a society: the economic, the political, and the cultural, and he just seems to take it as given that “culture” is synonymous with “high art”. I don’t see why.
Much of the book is tiresome, in the way that reading a lot of authors who believe they’ve found the one true key to unlock all of human knowledge is tiresome. And when he gets around to treating the problem of race relations in the U.S., it gets farcically bad. On page 198 he finds it paradoxical, for instance, that black people (“The blacks,” if you’re Daniel Bell) insist on being treated as a group (here he means things like affirmative action, as I recall), rather than as individuals … and seems to be completely unaware that they were enslaved as a group. These ungrateful blacks, demanding that after 500 years of being enslaved purely because of the color of their skin, they be treated differently than whites. How dare they!
Daniel Bell may have met the new definition of “douchebag”.
John Duffy, The Sanitarians: A History of American Public Health
This book is utterly fascinating. I’ve known in a general way for a while that nearly all the strides in health that the U.S. has made in the last 150 years have come from public health: vaccination, trash disposal, sewers, clean water for U.S. cities, and on and on. I’d not known a lot of the details, which Duffy runs through masterfully. He’s clearly so excited about the great works that public health has done for Americans that he’s nearly out of breath trying to convey them all. I contend that it’s impossible to finish this book without wanting to use public health to fix all of America’s current ills.
It turns out that that’s a bit of a problem for the discipline: once the problem of contagious disease as the prime killer had been eradicated, it was less than clear to the public-health community what the discipline actually did. What isn’t public health, really? Gun control is a public-health measure. Inasmuch as a better-educated populace is a healthier populace, public schools are a public-health measure. Meanwhile, medicine — working with patients one-on-one, rather than helping a whole population at once — had stolen public health’s fire. We’re now inclined to view fixing health as a problem of doctors, hospitals, and big machines, rather than as a problem of, say, making cities more walkable.
I can’t even really define for you where the boundary between public health and medicine is. Is vaccination a medical advancement, or a public-health advancement? How about publishing guidelines on babies’ vaccination schedules? Or how about the fascinating bit in Duffy, where he describes giving newborns eye drops to prevent blindness resulting from their parents’ gonorrhea? Perhaps it’s public health if it’s done on a broad scale? Whatever the taxonomy, the results have been remarkable.
Did you know that pasteurizing milk went a long way toward ending the scourge of tuberculosis? I did not.
Then there’s the philosophical thread underlying much of the history of American public health. It was believed, for a long while, that a certain amount of TB and a certain amount of yellow fever were just naturally going to appear in populations. Hence some people were just unavoidably going to die. I would love to trace what’s viewed as “natural” across many different human endeavors. We clearly no longer believe that death in infancy is natural, and in general I don’t think we believe it any more in areas that have been medicalized; we believe that everyone is entitled to — and should be able to attain — a healthy life of at least 80 years, let’s say. But I think we’re still implicitly committed to a belief that certain people are just “naturally” going to be poor. What if we got rid of that? Not only got rid of it, but what if we moved to a point where “some Americans are just going to be poor” sounded as ridiculous to modern ears as “some people are going to die of TB”?
Peter Pesic, Abel’s Proof: An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability
Remember the quadratic equation you learned in middle or high school? Given the “general quadratic” ax2 + bx + c = 0, there’s a formula called the Quadratic Formula (in Mrs. Rainey’s eighth-grade class, we sang it) which tells you exactly what values of x will make that true. Turns out there are two such values, not necessarily distinct. The highest power in the equation is 2, and the number of solutions (“roots”) is 2. That’s not an accident: Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the few greatest mathematicians who’s ever lived, was the first to prove that a polynomial whose highest power is n has n roots.
There’s a formula, like the quadratic, that gives the exact answers when n = 3; it’s much longer than the quadratic formula, but you can write it down. The formula is simple, in that it contains only addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, exponentiation, and roots (e.g., square roots). There’s a much longer formula when n = 4.
Which raises a natural question: if every polynomial of degree n has n roots, and if we can get explicit formulas for n less than 5, then can we get a formula for n = 5 and higher?
The remarkable answer is no, and it took until Niels Henrik Abel in the 19th century to prove this conclusively. You can find a formula for the roots of the “general quintic” that uses much more complicated mathematical functions than addition, subtraction, and so forth, but absolutely no formula based on elementary mathematical operations will suffice.
Pesic’s book walks me right up to the edge of understanding why this would be, but doesn’t get me over the line. He walks quite coherently through several hundred years of history of assaults on this problem, with attempted methods and incorrect proofs; but when it comes to actually explaining Abel’s successful method, he loses me. He explains the outline of what we would now call the algebraic proof; it has something to do with the subgroups of a certain mathematical group, but I don’t understand why that subgroup matters.
At the general level of method, I get why Pesic thinks algebra is so cool. The point of mathematical abstraction is to clear away the parts of a problem that are inessential to its solution, to see only the parts that make the problem tick; abstraction isn’t for its own sweet sake, but is rather a simplification method that should make the assault on problems easier. The concept of “number”, for instance, is probably the mathematical abstraction we’re most fluent with; if someone asks you how many oranges there are in total between two separate piles of oranges, the fact of their orangeness isn’t relevant, so it may as well be set aside, leaving only the abstract problem of the addition of two numbers. This process of abstracting to simplify a problem is so natural to us in the context of numbers that we may not always be aware of what we’re doing.
Apparently Pesic wants to show us that the group-theoretic abstractions underlying Abel’s proof are of this same form: that with inessential distinctions swept away, the boundaries of the underlying problem become clear. I get the general approach here, but I don’t get the particular attack on the particular problem. Perhaps this lack of understanding is the reader’s fault, or perhaps it’s the author’s.
Donald M.G. Sutherland, France, 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution
Apparently there’s a long-raging debate in the study of the French Revolution over how much support the Revolution had from the common people. Was the Revolution really a revolution of the bourgeois? Or did it have popular support?
If I’m reading Sutherland right — in fact, if my sense of the French Revolution in general is right — the Revolution was just far too anarchic to answer this question in general. The Revolution starts out with few specific goals, it seems: the peasants are rioting over high bread prices, a poor crop, and the centuries-long corruption of their government (see “tax farming”). Eventually the revolution eats its own, with the necks of Danton and Robespierre — among the intellectual fathers of the Revolution — under the guillotine.
The Revolution is almost unfathomably anarchic to me. All the existing order was turned upside-down. Fairly early in the Revolution, the revolutionaries sold off lands owned by the Catholic Church, then issued a currency (the ill-fated assignats) deriving its value from this land. I’m trying to imagine a similar upending of American life, and it’s hard for me to come up with anything comparable.
In parts of France, the anti-church revolution didn’t play so well; this is how we end up with the chouans in western France — a spontaneous counterrevolutionary uprising by those who didn’t necessarily miss royalty (though there was some of that), but who thought that the Revolution had destroyed important pats of their spiritual ways of life.
I honestly can’t keep track of all the moves and the countermoves in the Revolution when covered as carefully as Sutherland does. This isn’t a knock on him at all; I think his whole point is that if you’re going to answer a big question about the people’s support for the Revolution, you need to answer it département by département. Even just trying to fathom a man like Napoléon would take volumes, and he’s only a small fraction of Sutherland’s book. Sutherland is admirably comprehensive and patient.
Lorrie Moore, Birds of America: Stories
A lot of rather short stories (I didn’t count, but I’d wager that they average 15 pages) of rather sad people trying to navigate romantic relationships and adulthood. The characters themselves, and the book, have a grim, absurdist humor to them.
One story in the book will be particularly useful to you if you find yourself unable to name or sing a single song, if your girlfriend breaks up with you as a result, if you get fired from your job, and if you then go on a spree of house robberies where you tie up the occupants, put a gun to their heads, and ask them to sing a song — any song — for you.
Another will prove useful if you accidentally kill a friend’s baby, then spend the next seven months holed up in an attic.
William Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma
Such a fascinating, disturbing book. It’s primarily concerned with the use of game theory during the nuclear arms race. I think the first part that really blew my mind was the observation that Bertrand Russell, of all people, once advocated pre-emptive nuclear war on the Soviet Union. I had always thought that pre-emptive war was the domain of lunatics like Curtis LeMay. Russell was far from a lunatic; it was only a matter of time, he said, before the Soviets got the Bomb, at which point nuclear war between the two great powers would become inevitable. Better to destroy the enemy now, before they managed to reach parity. And once you’ve decided that you’re going to pre-emptively destroy them, why wait? To quote John von Neumann (of whom more in a moment), “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?”
Whereupon Poundstone investigates the question of whether the U.S. had enough nukes on hand, during its period of unrivaled superiority, to destroy the USSR. Seems like not: for the first few years after Hiroshima, it only had a few bombs on hand; soon after that, Russia got the bomb, and the rest was history. And of course this gives an answer to von Neumann’s question: the reason not to bomb them now is that you only have a few bombs. Russia is a very large country. Sure, you could destroy Moscow and maybe Saint Petersburg, but you’d leave much of the country standing and ready to fight back. As I recall, the Russians relocated most of their heavy industry to the east during the Nazi invasion.
This kind of casually formal thinking-about-blowing-them-up seems like it was de rigueur during the Cold War. You can see how it would follow with half the precision of a logical proof, once you’d decided that your goal was to optimize the outcome of a nuclear attack. You can also see — this is the other half — how it’s completely insane. But in some sense it’s only collectively insane. If you don’t know what the other guy is thinking, but you suspect that he’s thinking just like you, and furthermore if there’s no way for you and the other guy to bind one another to do right, then you’re stuck making decisions that are correct from your perspective but very wrong from a global perspective. This is the crux of the prisoner’s dilemma in the title of Poundstone’s book: yes, it’s insane, but it’s the least-insane possible outcome. Suppose you decide to be the good guy and promise to destroy all your nukes. There’s no way for the other guy to know that you’re actually going to do this. If you actually do destroy your nukes, then the best outcome for the other guy is to secretly ramp up his production; that way he’s got the leg up, and can perhaps achieve global nuclear hegemony. Whereas if you don’t destroy your nukes, then it would be an act of suicide for the other guy to destroy his. So in either case, it makes sense for the other guy to manufacture more nukes. And since the U.S. and the USSR are both running through the same calculus, we can expect they’ll both end up at the same conclusion: manufacture more nukes. Now both sides are armed to the hilt, which is not an outcome that either side wanted. But it’s the best they could do, under the circumstances.
Poundstone’s book is a good survey of game theory as it was used during the Cold War — indeed, used and invented by one of the most brilliant figures of the Cold War, namely John von Neumann. von Neumann was one of the few greatest mathematicians of the last hundred years, who made significant contributions to pure mathematics and quantum mechanics, while inventing the theoretical underpinnings of the computer I’m typing this on, helping to build one of the earliest physical computers and, oh yes, co-inventing game theory. Rather more of the book that I might like is devoted to a study of von Neumann the person, which isn’t really relevant to the rest of the book. Those biographical aspects might be intended to overcome the image of von Neumann-as-inspiration-for-the-character-of-Dr.-Strangelove. (Me, I always thought Strangelove was based on Edward Teller. He was probably an amalgam of many such men. For all I know, now, he could have been inspired by Bertrand Russell.)
As it should, Poundstone’s book later on gets us to how we might escape the prisoner’s dilemma. On this topic you should read Robert Axelrod’s great, hugely influential Evolution of Cooperation. The basic gist is that a lot changes if you and I play repeated games against one another, rather than a single shot. If you refuse to be a scoundrel in your dealings with me — if you don’t “defect,” in the terminology of the formal game — then a good strategy is for me to not defect against you, either; but if you do defect, I should retaliate. This strategy of being nice until the other guy isn’t, then punishing, then quickly forgiving — is called “tit for tat”, and it’s gotten a huge amount of attention. Some of my favorite economists have turned it into a fundamental principle in the ethical organization of humanity.
Axelrod shows that the outcome of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma depends upon what he poetically calls the “shadow of the future”: if you know that the game is going to go on for a long time, you’ll behave much differently than if you know it’ll end today. If you know that this is your last game, then you needn’t worry about retaliation if you’re a scoundrel. So according to the utility-maximization theory, you’ll be a scoundrel during the last round. And both sides know that you’ll be a scoundrel. So the other guy expects you to be a scoundrel in the last round, and you expect him to do the same. And if you’re going to be a scoundrel in the last round no matter what, then there’s no value in the other guy’s being nice during the last-but-one round: he’s not going to get any points later on for being nice. So he’s a scoundrel in the last-but-one round. And you know that he’s going to be a scoundrel in the last-but-one round …
You see where this is going. If there’s a known endpoint, backward induction makes the whole repeated game fall apart right away. Whereas if you don’t know when the game will end, you’ll continue to be a good guy rather than a scoundrel.
I always want to face off this attitude against the ethical teaching that you should do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you. Those following the golden rule might be suckers, as far as game theory is concerned. Because of the dark times we live in, we’re supposed to have to justify the golden rule to the economists or to naïve Darwinian theory. “How could the golden rule possibly survive in a world of scoundrels?” This is where evolutionary game theory (see Maynard Smith’s wonderful Evolution and the Theory of Games) would come in. You’d want to show that the golden rule is an “evolutionarily stable strategy”: that a population of humans following the golden rule could not be defeated by a population of invaders who refuse to follow it. I could come up with a model whereby this is true; I could also come up with one where it isn’t.
I’d prefer to avoid the whole discussion altogether, or sigh at the society which thinks that discussion is even necessary. I’d prefer to live in a society where adherence to the golden rule is so unquestioned that even raising these evolutionary objections is considered disgraceful. You treat your neighbors well because that’s the right thing to do; end of story.
Barring that, the formal theory may be useful: perhaps the golden rule is more likely to take root in a community where people are forced to repeatedly interact with one another. This turns the golden rule into an outcome of cold-blooded calculation rather than a deeply felt ethical principle. And it also raises a very difficult question: in an urban, capitalist world of bloodless, anonymous transactions, the parties to which are often thousands of miles apart, should we expect that the whole world will soon enough turn into scoundrels? Finding a theory that salvages the golden rule in the industrial era would seem incredibly urgent.
Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
This is a lovely, sad commentary on end-of-life care, by a surgeon who has seen the end of many lives. He charts the evolution of death from something that happened in your house, with your family (with whom you lived), to something that happened in a hospital, to something that happened in grim, industrial nursing homes, to something that may now be happening in warmer environments like assisted-living facilities.
There are two connected kinds of trouble here. First, it seems that there comes a point in every person’s life when he or she needs medical help beyond the level that an assisted-living facility can provide. You want to live independently as long as you possibly can, but there comes a point when you just can’t anymore. And second, once you’ve reached that point, you return to the industrialized medical system, where doctors view it as their solemn duty to do everything they can to keep you alive.
But mere living isn’t the point of life. We want to live a life under our own control, doing what’s important to us: spending time with our families, engaging in meaningful work, traveling, or whatever. Gawande wants doctors to spend more time understanding what patients want, then helping them pursue that rather than pursue the mere accumulation of miserable years. It’s a sad, thoughtful, important book.