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Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition -- and the Other Books I Read in July 2023

Books I read in July -- with ratings and some curated quotes!

< June 2023

Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer)
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Criticizing common sense, it must be said, is a tricky business, if only because it’s almost universally regarded as a good thing—when was the last time you were told not to use it? Well, I’m going to tell you that a lot. As we’ll see, common sense is indeed exquisitely adapted to handling the kind of complexity that arises in everyday situations. And for those situations, it’s every bit as good as advertised. But “situations” involving corporations, cultures, markets, nation-states, and global institutions exhibit a very different kind of complexity from everyday situations. And under these circumstances, common sense turns out to suffer from a number of errors that systematically mislead us. (Location 137)
Correspondingly, when we think about the future, we imagine it to be a unique thread of events that simply hasn’t been revealed to us yet. In reality no such thread exists—rather, the future is more like a bundle of possible threads, each of which is assigned some probability of being drawn, where the best we can manage is to estimate the probabilities of the different threads. But because we know that at some point in the future, all these probabilities will have collapsed onto a single thread, we naturally want to focus on the one thread that will actually matter. (Location 2253)
All’s well that end’s well, is it not? Well, maybe, but maybe not. To be clear, I’m not drawing any conclusion about whether Joseph Gray got a fair trial, or whether he deserved to spend the next fifteen years of his life in prison; nor am I insisting that all drunk drivers should be treated like murderers. What I am saying, however, is that in being swayed so heavily by the outcome, our commonsense notions of justice inevitably lead us to a logical conundrum. On the one hand, it seems an outrage not to punish a man who killed four innocent people with the full force of the law. And on the other hand, it seems grossly disproportionate to treat every otherwise decent, honest person who has ever had a few too many drinks and driven home as a criminal and a killer. Yet aside from the trembling hand of fate, there is no difference between these two instances. (Location 3060)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
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I can pinpoint the exact moment when I first thought I could write a novel. It was around one thirty in the afternoon of April 1, 1978. I was at Jingu Stadium that day, alone in the outfield drinking beer and watching the game. Jingu Stadium was within walking distance of my apartment at the time, and I was a fairly big Yakult Swallows fan. It was a perfectly beautiful spring day, not a cloud in the sky, with a warm breeze blowing. There weren’t any benches in the outfield seating back then, just a grassy slope. I was lying on the grass, sipping cold beer, gazing up occasionally at the sky, and leisurely enjoying the game. As usual for the Swallows, the stadium wasn’t very crowded. It was the season opener, and they were taking on the Hiroshima Carp at home. I remember that Yasuda was pitching for the Swallows. He was a short, stocky sort of pitcher with a wicked curve. He easily retired the side in the top of the first inning, and in the bottom of the inning the leadoff batter for the Swallows was Dave Hilton, a young American player new to the team. Hilton got a hit down the left field line. The crack of bat meeting ball right on the sweet spot echoed through the stadium. Hilton easily rounded first and pulled up to second. And it was at that exact moment that a thought struck me: You know what? I could try writing a novel. I still can remember the wide open sky, the feel of the new grass, the satisfying crack of the bat. Something flew down from the sky at that instant, and whatever it was, I accepted it. (Location 304)
I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance. (Location 419)
I placed the highest priority on the sort of life that lets me focus on writing, not associating with all the people around me. I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers. As long as I got my day-to-day life set so that each work was an improvement over the last, then many of my readers would welcome whatever life I chose for myself. Shouldn’t this be my duty as a novelist, and my top priority? My opinion hasn’t changed over the years. I can’t see my readers’ faces, so in a sense it’s a conceptual type of human relationship, but I’ve consistently considered this invisible, conceptual relationship to be the most important thing in my life. In other words, you can’t please everybody. (Location 421)

On Intelligence
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A human doesn’t need to “do” anything to understand a story. I can read a story quietly, and although I have no overt behavior my understanding and comprehension are clear, at least to me. You, on the other hand, cannot tell from my quiet behavior whether I understand the story or not, or even if I know the language the story is written in. (Location 305)
I want to understand intelligence and build intelligent machines. Being human and being intelligent are separate matters. An intelligent machine need not have sexual urges, hunger, a pulse, muscles, emotions, or a humanlike body. A human is much more than an intelligent machine. We are biological creatures with all the necessary and sometimes unwanted baggage that comes from eons of evolution. (Location 581)
Brains are pattern machines. It’s not incorrect to express the brain’s functions in terms of hearing or vision, but at the most fundamental level, patterns are the name of the game. No matter how different the activities of various cortical areas may seem from each other, the same basic cortical algorithm is at work. The cortex doesn’t care if the patterns originated in vision, hearing, or another sense. It doesn’t care if its inputs are from a single sensory organ or from four. Nor would it care if you happened to perceive the world with sonar, radar, or magnetic fields, or if you had tentacles rather than hands, or even if you lived in a world of four dimensions rather than three. (Location 877)

Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition
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Had Odysseus been forced to remain on Kalypso's island for the rest of his endless days, and had he not lost his humanity in the process, he most likely would have taken to gardening, no matter how redundant such an activity might have been in that environment. For human beings like Odysseus, who are held fast by care, have an irrepressible repressible need to devote themselves to something.
Achilles, who had a warrior's contempt for life while he lived, must die and enter Hades before coming to realize that a slave living under the sun is more blessed than any lord of the dead. When Odysseus attempts tempts to console him during his visit to the underworld, Achilles will have none of it: "0 shining Odysseus," he says, "never try to console me for dying. / I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another / man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on, / than be a king over all the perished dead" (11.488-91). The slave is happier than the shade not because he is laboring under the sun but because he is under the sun, that is to say on the earth.
In effect these gardens amount to the beginning of a dialogue, and the interlocutor is whoever takes the time to notice and wonder at them. That is why the transitory gardens evoke even more starkly and more poignantly than do community gardens the distinctly human need that went into their making, namely the need to hold converse with one's fellow humans.
To understand how Epicurus's garden reflects and even embodies the core of his philosophy, we must keep in mind first of all that it was an actual kitchen garden tended by his disciples, who ate the fruits and vegetables they grew there. Yet it was not for the sake of fruits and vegetables alone that they assiduously cultivated the soil. Their gardening activity was also a form of education in the ways of nature: its cycles of growth and decay, its general equanimity, its balanced interplay play of earth, water, air, and sunlight. Here, in the convergence of vital forces in the garden's microcosm, the cosmos manifested its greater harmonies; here the human soul rediscovered its essential connection to matter; here living things showed how fruitfully they respond to a gardener's solicitous care and supervision. Yet the most important pedagogical lesson that the Epicurean garden imparted to those who tended it was that life-in all its forms-is intrinsically mortal and that the human soul shares the fate of whatever grows and perishes on and in the earth. Thus the garden reinforced the fundamental Epicurean belief that the human soul is as amenable to moral, spiritual, and intellectual cultivation as the garden is to organic cultivation.
If the ethical claims for the Decameron which he lays out in his preface are finally extremely modest (the author hopes through his stories to offer diversion and consolation to those in need of them), it is because the human condition itself is a modest one. The plague demonstrates as much. To be human means to be vulnerable to misfortune fortune and disaster. It means periodically to find oneself in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification.

The Soul of a New Machine
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When I finally quit, I felt weary in my bones. I was actually sweating; my shirt stuck to my back. Things around me kept going in and out of focus. I looked at Alsing, and the rims of his eyes were red. He said he could remember experiencing weariness like this during his midnight-programming days, but he had been younger then. Weariness had been a badge and part of the fun. Some of his cohorts had suffered, it was true. “But college kids are vulnerable. They can get taken down by girls, or drink, or by programming.” As for him, he felt that he had gained far more than he had lost. (Location 1386)
Most engineers, I think, consider themselves to be professionals, like doctors or lawyers, and though some of it clearly serves only the interests of corporations, engineers do have a professional code. Among its tenets is the general idea that the engineer’s right environment is a highly structured one, in which only right and wrong answers exist. It’s a binary world; the computer might be its paradigm. And many engineers seem to aspire to be binary people within it. No wonder. The prospect is alluring. It doesn’t matter if you’re ugly or graceless or even half crazy; if you produce right results in this world, your colleagues must accept you. It’s an exciting environment to contemplate; you can change the way people think if you can provide the right reason, and you can predict the way in which others may change you. Since there are only right or wrong answers to questions, technical disputes among engineers must always have resolutions. It follows that no enmity should proceed from a dispute among engineers. (Location 2134)
It seemed curious: a company suffering from too much demand. Not that in the long run IBM was going to suffer more than discomfort from this backlog, but the collapse of many small, promising computer companies had begun with a similar problem. They’d announce a new product and then for one reason or another they wouldn’t be able to produce it in sufficient quantities to meet their obligations. They’d asphyxiate on their own success. But a small company had to court disaster. It had to grow like a weed just to survive. (Location 3450) is a reader-supported published Zettelkasten. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.