Thursday, March 23, 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow

This is what humanity will aim to accomplish in the not too distant future: immortality, bliss and divinity. The claim was so bold I had to read the book and discover if author Yuval Noah Harari could support it. In his last book Homo Sapiens (a book I reviewed earlier) Harari achieved international bestseller status. That book covered the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the rise of the near god-like technological prowess of human beings. In this latest study, Homo Deus, which the author admits is more an exercise in that most precarious of all academic endeavours predicting the future, Harari looks at global and technological trends and surmises what they suggest about the direction our world is heading in.

The book is full of really interesting ideas (much like the previous Homo Sapiens book). I’ll take a moment to list some that I liked. He plots the advent of our species as supreme over all other sentient life on earth. We are thoroughly now the bosses of this corner of the universe. No controversy there. Harari goes on to make bolder claims about humanism as the great creed of the world; an argument I find convincing with some qualifications. Harari makes interesting use of the idea of algorithms. I have read and reread what he has to say on this topic and it is still not clear to me. My confusion stems from an ambiguity in his argument. Is he making a claim that all things in the universe (from rocks to humans) operate like algorithms or is he making the much stronger claim that the universe is a series of algorithms (what I would call an ontological or metaphysical claim)? What about consciousness? This is something that, notoriously, does not fit well into the algorithm analogy. Once again, Harari makes some audacious assertions. Biology is an elaborate algorithm and consciousness may just be really complicated biology. When we develop super computers perhaps we can reduce history to biology and so history will be an algorithm also (114—151). If after reading these lines you have images of Neo navigating the Matrix (red pill or blue pill?) then you’re not alone. This, to my mind, is the most startling claim of the book: if everything is algorithms, and we as algorithms ourselves come to know this, then we can remake the universe to suit our desires. Wow.

Science had knocked humans off the pedestal of specialness after having first knocked God off of His—much bigger—pedestal. They (the scientists) had told us our planet was just one of billions in an unimportant part of a galaxy that is itself just one of billions of galaxies. Well, that was then. Harari is suggesting humans are about to make a colossal return to specialness status as Homo Deus. Sounds great but there may be a very dark side to this new status—power and corruption and nihilism.

Predictions. These are just predictions. The paradox of knowledge may alter these predictions. What is the paradox of knowledge? It is this: knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless; knowledge that changes behaviour quickly becomes irrelevant (57).  The more we know about the course history is taking (the more data we accumulate) the faster we alter the situation, thus rendering our information and data collection quaint. Karl Marx wrote about an impending revolution in the world order, the great class struggle as he called it—but it never came to pass. Why? Because capitalists also read books. Governments around the world read Das Kapital and his other writings and came up with (socialist) fixes to many capitalist problems and voila, no revolution! The paradox of knowledge.

I like books in the Homo Deus vein. They give me this weird, almost guilty pleasure of seeing the future and knowing something others don’t about where the world is heading. But the prediction game is fraught with difficulties. Most future forecasts never come to pass. Predicting is hard because life has a funny way of grooving along to its own non-algorithm-rhythm. Some of what Harari says may come to pass, technology is sure to impact our lives in ways we can barely conceive. But I think he has the human bit wrong. We are more than biological beings; if pressed (as I’m sure Harari would insist on pressing) to explain the “more” I could offer nothing that would count as scientific—yet we are more. We (every single one of us) is a unique combination of utter contradictions. Predicting what we will do next, even with all the computing power in the universe, is hard (is it impossible?).  Homo Deus is very much worth the read if you enjoy thinking about these ideas.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy

On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two teenagers from Littleton, Colorado, marched into Columbine High School with explosives and automatic weapons. Their plan to blow up the entire school failed -- only because their homemade bombs did not explode -- so they walked around the school shooting people. They killed 12 students and one teacher, wounded 24 others, and unleashed untold mental suffering on their entire community, before killing themselves.

I very clearly remember hearing about this, and just as clearly remember thinking that the Klebold and Harris families had suffered the worst tragedy of all. What could be worse than your child dying in a school shooting? To me, the answer is all too obvious: knowing your child took the lives of other children. I remember, too, feeling so sad and discouraged when some Columbine parents refused to allow Klebold and Harris to be memorialized along with the other victims, insisting the memorials acknowledge 13 dead, not 15.

When I saw a book review and noticed the author's last name, I knew instantly who she was, and immediately put the book on hold at our library. This is a rare opportunity to look behind the scenes at the bizarre phenomenon of mass shootings, from a perspective of kindness and mercy.

In the first half of the book, Sue Klebold details the day of the shooting, and the days and weeks that followed, from her own perspective. In the second half, she writes about her journey to try to understand her son's actions, and her long-term survival, as she finds community -- in this case, survivors of suicide loss -- and becomes a suicide-prevention activist. Her writing is vivid and intensely emotional. Some parts of this book are so raw and laden with such pain that they are barely readable. Reading this book sometimes feels like peering too deeply into someone's most private heart.

Throughout, Klebold is meticulously careful to explain that seeking to understand what her son did does not mean she is excusing it. Again and again, she writes that Dylan was responsible for his own actions and that probing his mental illness does not negate that. She writes this so often, as though she wants anyone who opens the book to any random page to read this. I found it very sad that she felt she needed to do that -- but her story makes it obvious why she did.

It did not surprise me to learn that almost everything written or said in the media about the Klebold family was completely wrong. This book is clearly, in part, an attempt to set the record straight, or at least get another perspective in the public view. And again, when one reads what was said versus what actually existed, the writer's desire to do this is very understandable.

The book is suffused in regret. Sue Klebold remembers every instance, every tiny moment, where she chided or nagged when she could have hugged, when she said, "Get yourself together!" instead of "How can I help you?" Yet these instances, as she recounts them, are so ordinary, so commonplace. She was a loving mother and if at times she was irritated with or tough on her teenage son, it was all within the bounds of normalcy.

One might say that Dylan Klebold exhibited no signs of depression or other mental illness before the shooting. Sue Klebold emphatically rejects this idea, and insists there were signs, but she and Dylan's father didn't know how to read them.

I cannot agree. I didn't think any of the instances she recounts were a red flag for such violence, nor did there seem to be a pattern. All the behaviour seemed like that of a normal, if somewhat troubled, teenager -- and "troubled teenager" can be a redundancy. After reading this book, I believe the only way Sue and Tom Klebold could have known that their son was at risk for violence is if they had constantly searched his room -- something they had no cause to do and an act that might have driven him further out of reach.

When Sue Klebold read her son's journals (found by police) and saw the videos the two boys made, she felt as though she was looking at a total stranger. Dylan Klebold led two lives. As some supportive letter-writers told Sue Klebold, if someone really wants to hide something, they will. (Eric Harris is a different story. There were many clear signs.)

I knew that many Columbine families blamed the parents for the boys' actions, which strikes me as strange, cruel, and grossly unfair. Because of that, I was very heartened to know that the Klebolds received thousands of letters of sympathy and support -- from people whose children had committed atrocities, from survivors of suicide loss, from victims of bullying who thought it lucky incidents like this don't happen more often. Many people understood the family's pain and wanted them to know they were not alone. I took great relief from this.

The latter portion of the book is largely about suicide prevention, and recognizing the signs of clinical depression in children and teens, which are different than in adults. Klebold calls for nothing less than an entirely new approach to mental health.

This is a very sad book, but in the end, it's a book about survival. Sue Klebold lived through a tragedy of immense proportions. She chose to survive and, eventually, found a way to create meaning from her loss. Her book is sure to help many other people do that, too. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived

Jacob Fugger of Augsburg (1459 – 1525) must be considered one of the wealthiest people, if not the wealthiest, to ever live. You can likely mention a few other individuals that surely, you would argue, were (or are) richer. But I don’t think so. Why? Because he arrived at a time when the rules of business were not clearly understood. Entrepreneurial savvy was not common. He was like a wolf among sheep. There were few restrictions to rampant wealth accumulation and he had business acumen to spare. His money touched everything—politics, religion, art, the military, natural resources, kings and queens, banks, transportation, legal systems, entire national states—everything!

You haven’t heard of Jacob Fugger “The Rich”? Neither had I until I read a book about the Medici (a wealthy and influential renaissance family—see my review of The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance). The Medici were wealthy, most definitely, but Fugger was richer. Like the Medici, Jacob Fugger entered the banking trade (he had started life in the family’s textile trade). He proved in the long run to have had better business sense than Giovanni, Cosimo or Lorenzo de' Medici. Jacob had an uncanny ability to smell a good deal.  He bought mines, funded merchant ships, acquired jewels and much more—and it all turned a profit. He collected castles. Collected them! Five hundred years on and his descendants are still reaping the benefits of his property owning activities.His money begat more money, which begat more money. And on and on. Martin Luther hated his guts.

In The Richest Man Who Ever Lived author Greg Steinmetz describes how Jacob Fugger amassed his wealth at a time when individuals were only slowly realizing that wealth could be pursued as an end in itself and that having a lot of it could win you the king’s ear. Jacob was low key. He made his money quietly all the while staying in the shadows and influencing politics. He pulled the (coin) strings to ensure legislation matched (that is, didn’t impede) business enterprise. He made emperors. Charles V would not have made it to the imperial heights he did without Fugger money.

Jacob’s life was full of incident and he seemed to get caught up in the middle of world altering events. One example will suffice to show you what I mean. There was a revolt in the German states; historians call it the German Peasants War. “The peasants” had the wonderful idea that wealth should be shared equally by all. We call that communism today. The conceptual apparatus of communism didn’t exist in Fugger’s time but the animating idea was the same. Fugger, capitalist that he was, thought that the imposition of forced sharing would inhibit business creativity; it would quash the incentive to find new products and new efficiencies in manufacturing goods, it would hurt investment. Simply put, it would be bad for business. So Fugger money funded the army that went on to crush the revolt.

Jacob Fugger wasn’t the nicest guy. He didn’t have many friends. When he lay in bed dying his wife was off with her lover. He breathed his last surrounded by paid assistants. Money, ultimately, didn’t make him happy (at least it seems that way to this reader). The sense I have of the man after having read this book is that wealth accumulation was a kind of addictive game for Jacob. He was good at it. He was aggressive and sharp eyed and ambitious. He liked what money could do. Nowadays there are plenty of people who chase after wealth for its own sake. Jacob Fugger was the first and perhaps the supreme model of this personality type.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Isabella: The Warrior Queen

When authors choose their subjects for the biographies they plan to write, I wonder how many of them ask themselves the simple question: How much did this individual accomplish in his/her lifetime? Few individuals, I would suggest, can compare with the array of items on the “To Do List” of Queen Isabella of Castile (1451—1504). In this sense, author Kirstin Downey chose her subject wisely.
Isabella had little down-time in her eventful life yet things started off rather quietly for her. Isabella, a girl (obviously), 2nd child of King John II of Castile and Isabella of Portugal was not expected to rule and her birth was not celebrated or even widely known in her homeland of Castile y Leon. Yet by the whims and quirks of historical circumstances, and with no small measure of guile, planning, courage and luck, Isabella ascended to the throne. Actually, amidst the succession mayhem that ensued upon the death of King Enrique, she essentially crowned herself. You would have to dust off some very old history books in search of a precedent for a female as sole ruler of a kingdom in Iberia, or any place in all of Europe for that matter. Names such as Urraca and Queen Berenguela are Iberian figures from the deep middle ages, figures obscured by time. Isabella was acutely aware of the rarity of what she was trying to accomplish; she wanted to be THE queen with ultimate say regarding the affairs of Castile (her husband Ferdinand had ultimate say in Aragon, it was how they worked out their particular marital arrangement). Queens did rule in Europe but only at the pleasure of their husbands, the Kings, who ensured the populace bent their collective knees when the female royal so ordered.
Life as queen of a troubled kingdom was not easy. A war with Portugal, not to mention appeasing many disgruntled Spanish Grandees, was her introduction to high-stakes politics in the Renaissance age. But she handled matters effectively. Isabella had grit and determination in abundance. Besides overseeing a war abroad against the king of Portugal over her succession and dealing with the bitter rivalries of nobles and courtiers at home, what else occupied the time of the Queen of Castile? To begin, she initiated and completed the conquering of Granada (the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula), she sponsored the voyages of a wannabe explorer named Christopher Columbus with his tantalizing plan to sail to India by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, she brought considerable pressure to bear on Papal elections (the notorious Pope Alexander VI, patriarch of the influential Spanish Borgia family, was a sometimes friend-sometimes enemy of Isabella), she helped keep the powerful French armies out of Aragon, she was instrumental in organizing a pan-Christian-European response to the very aggressive Ottoman Empire. If this seems like a lot for a person to handle in one lifetime, you would be absolutely correct. Yet Isabella had more on her plate. Columbus, as we know, didn’t land in India he landed on the as-yet unknown (to Europeans) continents of the Americans. Isabella alone among European monarchs was first to realize the magnitude of the discovery and its future possibilities. Now she added to her already busy schedule the colonization of the “new world.” Isabella was also principally responsible for bringing the cultural spirit of the Renaissance to the Iberian Peninsula. She had a deep appreciation for the value of art and education and felt keenly her own lack of education; her parents didn’t think educating her beyond the intricacies of needlepoint was worthwhile. Isabella insisted that all of her children (girls included) receive the best education Spanish gold could buy. She accomplished more, too much for me to list for you here. You’ll have to read the book if your curious.
Downey’s book does a very good job bringing Isabella to life. The author pays particular attention to the challenges Isabella faced as a woman in a man’s world. This aspect of Isabella’s life story does not define her, but it was a major theme throughout her life. Isabella: The Warrior Queen is a rags to riches tale featuring a very gutsy, likable heroine and is recommended for fans of royal biographies and Spanish history buffs.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Who Needs Books?

This little booklet is the transcript of a lecture given for the Canadian Literature Centre as part of the Kreisel Lecture Series. At 49 pages, it is more than ideal for a coffee-talk or brief book club meeting. It is written (and was delivered) by Lynn Coady, author of Hellgoing and The Antagonist.
The premise is that books are at their marketable end and “who needs ‘em?” The fact that this essay was published as a book after being a lecture might head-off the reader where the author is going to go. The medium is indeed the message in this case.
Coady begins with relating her first introduction to an interactive metafiction.   The book in question was narrated by Grover, as in Sesame Street’s blue furry monster, who doesn’t want the young reader to make it to the end of the book, where there is a terrible monster.
The fact that this book celebrated the physical experience of moving through a book, engaging each page as the weight of the pages shift from the one side of the cover to the other, is just as important as the fact that this brilliant little book was based on a TV show. Wasn’t television seen as “the idiot box”, or the “natural enemy of books in the wilds of modern life”, as described (tongue-in-cheek) by Coady?  Does that one villainous fact outweigh the other virtues inherent in this book that so inspired young Coady?
It is important to point out that books did not disappear in the ensuing years after television.   Readers did not give up reading in order to only watch TV. Yet here we are, bemoaning again the loss of the book under the shadow of another medium. This time it is the Internet. Despite all the worry inspired by other well-established authors who are quoted in this treatise (Jonathan Franzen, Will Self), this anxiety has proven to have little foundation.
Coady offers perspective by quoting from an 1859 Scientific American article that finds the pervasiveness of a new hobby “an amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements.” The writer is lamenting about a preoccupation with the game of chess.
Chess did not supplant books. Nor did the printing press cause cathedrals to fall (another terrific citation found by Coady), but it did make people aware that spellings and grammar vary constantly, that language is always changing--or deteriorating, if you are a negative thinker. But the presses are still churning out physical books 577 years later. And stories are not born until they are received; read, heard, seen, felt in whatever form.
 Don't you need books?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450 --1650

The title is what first caught my eye when I browsed the new books shelf at my library. Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450 – 1650 by Carlos M. N. Eire. It is arresting because of the pluralized form of the word: reformation. Normally we think of the great disruptions that rocked the religious world of early modern Europe as all falling under the rubric of “The Reformation” a label that encompasses the great discontent of a nascent Protestant movement against the perceived corruption and moral laxity of the Catholic Church. This book by Carlos M. N. Eire seeks to complicate the picture and does an excellent job at that.

The years covered span 1450 to 1650, a sizable chunk of time with a lot going on. For the most part the setting is Europe though the new world (North America) and the Middle East are discussed tangentially. There are four main sections to the book each a logical step in the historical development of the era. We begin with a section on the pre-reformation time of the late middle ages, a time of growing unhappiness and overall disgruntlement with the status quo. The next section is simply titled Protestants and covers the religious revolution brought on by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and others. The proceeding section is titled Catholics and covers the reaction of that camp to the movements of the Protestants (a period often referred to as the counter-reformation). Lastly a section called Consequences fills out the picture of these tumultuous two hundred years.  As I said the outline is logical and it makes the rather lengthy treatise (the book runs to about 760 pages) flow a little quicker.

The simplicity of the outline is, however, misleading---in a good way. What Eire does is demonstrate the dynamics of influence ebbing and flowing between all of the participants in this historical drama. For example, at one point Eire talks about the Deists and their rational-religious movement and how the Protestants and Catholics both reacted to them in similar ways with similar critiques. The inclusion of such disparate players on the political stage with the usual participants (Protestants and Catholics) makes for a fuller account of the era. Another example of the dynamics of influence is the inclusion by the author of critiques of geographic place. The reformation was viewed differently and reaction to the events of this time played out differently depending on where one was on the continent, that is to say, the energy of the epoch diffused differently depending on where one lived. The Scots were restless in one way the Spaniards in another. I appreciate how the author shows the different actions and reactions to all that was happening at the time. I like that the picture of the time is muddied.

This is essentially the great merit of this work, it demonstrates how complicated the era was. Most accounts of the Reformation simplify the narrative to Protestants vs Catholics. But Eire shows how there were smaller reformations occurring even within these two larger camps. There were reactions to various renditions of the Protestant theological outlook happening within the Protestant communities that did as much to divide them as to unite them. Similarly, the Catholic Church was having to deal with many different and often competing catholicisms (if I can use that word). For example, heresy flirting mystics did battle with theologians who insisted on their form of orthodoxy. Add to this interesting Catholic-political-theological cocktail the explosion of new religious orders, with the Jesuit order being one conspicuous example, and you have a recipe for fascinating political history; fascinating because it’s messy.

All of it, the nuances in theological debates, the new religious orders, the rational and atheistic reactions to the ongoing religious strife, the shifting alliances, makes for enjoyable and informative reading. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in religious ideas, high stakes political debate and conflict and, generally, a love of European history.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women

Twenty-one women contributed to The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women, edited by Saima S. Hussain. Hussain selected a diverse assortment of stories to reflect the myriad lives of Canadian Muslim women, thus no two stories were the same. Some women were born in Canada, while some were from immigrant families. Some women wore hijab or niqab, while others didn't. Some were not heterosexual while others cussed like sailors. Most women were able-bodied but one was blind and used a wheelchair. The point in selecting these contributions was to show the reader that there was more than one kind of Muslim woman out there, and she could be as diverse within her faith as in any other religious group. I was touched by the stories by women who were struggling in their marriages or going through divorces. 

Many of the immigrant women wrote to praise Canada for its openness to diversity and acceptance of Islam and the choice of some Muslim women to wear hijab. These testimonials touched me most of all. Azmina Kassam wrote:

"I was learning more about being Canadian, which has meant for me openness, tolerance, curiosity, and respect. It has been about engaging the other in meaningful dialogue so as to learn and expand one's understanding."

Mona Hashim, who wears hijab, wrote: "I have to admit that throughout my ten years in Toronto, I always felt welcome wherever I went. People helped me to get my shopping cart to the bus, guided me through the downtown streets. Once, on a dark and cold Christmas eve, a nice bus driver pointed out to us the mosque in Scarborough. Of course there were a few incidents where I was called names and had the middle finger raised at me. But generally speaking, I didn't feel like a stranger."

The hijab is a major theme in some of the stories, as the writers shared their reasons for abandoning it when they came to Canada, or for deciding to wear it later. Each woman had her own reasons for wearing hijab or niqab, and all of them do so freely as their own personal choice. Mariam Hamaoui sums up the whole "issue" of wearing hijab in a paragraph that the French government should read and apply:

"I support those who wear the hijab and I support those who don't wear the hijab. Hijab is a choice. Often difficult, but the choice has to be made by the woman. If a woman chooses to wear it, it is not for the sake of anyone else but for herself and God. Neither her mother nor her father can order her to wear it. Neither her brother nor her husband can order her to wear it. It is a choice and as such should be respected. By the same token, women who decide that the hijab is not for them should be respected equally and should not be ridiculed or disrespected."

Yet Tammara Soma summed it up the most succinctly:

"It takes a strong heart and a thick skin to wear a hijab."

If I ever hear Islamophobic prejudice against the hijab or niqab, I draw attention to women of another religious group, a group protected in our own constitution: Catholic nuns. Nuns are covered in a garb very close in resemblance to that worn by some Muslim women. Why does a nun's head and body covering threaten no one, yet a Muslimah's gives rise to such prejudice? 

The women write about their struggles with mental illness, integrating and finding work, yet the comic relief is provided by the stories about overbearing relatives who try to fix them up with potential husbands. I especially liked the poems and vignettes by Meharoona Ghani in "Letters to Rumi". In it, she feels conflicted while ogling a muscular construction worker:

"We passed a construction worker whose tight white t-shirt outlined his muscular upper arms and chest, revealing a hint of a tattoo below his collarbone. 'I've always wanted a tattoo...wait...I don't think I should be staring at him while I'm wearing a hijab and observing Ramadan!'"

Almost all of the stories followed a similar style of narrative, as a first-person chronological account of each writer's history as a Muslim woman in Canada. Two of the stories were endnoted and one in particular was like a formal dissertation: Maryam Khan's "Queering Islam Through Ijtihad", who tripped over herself from the very first paragraph in trying not to offend. Two stories integrated the authors' own poetry, which was a welcome treat within the reading experience.  

Hussain left the writers' stories in their original states, without any kind of editorial explanations or parenthetical insertions to elaborate on some Muslim (or specifically Arabic) terminology. For the most part, meanings could be derived from context, yet there were some instances where an explanation would have been helpful. Perhaps Hussain left the texts in their original states to show the authenticity of the writers, however I feel that the following grammatical gaffes should have been corrected. In all of the quotations below, the I in italics should be me:

"As we settled into our new life in Cairo, my parents had to make some difficult choices regarding schooling for my siblings and I." (pp. 34-35)

"...and as our family grew bigger, the distance between my biological father and I grew wider." (p. 73)

"It eventually become [sic] a home to my brother and I when many years later my mom remarried..." (p. 99)

"Yup, those white kids surrounded my sister and I, made fun of our names and yelled 'Paki' and 'Hindu.'" (p. 153)

The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth took its name from one of the stories within, and its author, Munirah MacLean, explained the origin of the title. It certainly is a brilliant title for this collection. As a non-Muslim man, the twenty-one stories left me feeling proud of Canada and of being Canadian, yet most of all proud of living in a country that welcomes diversity and thrives on it, while our neighbour to the south recoils in horror at the thought of a threat to its national security from Syrian refugees. The US should hang its head in shame. Please take the opportunity to see Hussain and some of the contributing authors as they promote this book in public readings throughout the Greater Toronto Area.