Suggested readings, #151

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Douglas Adams: There is no normal. If the universe were in any way fair or kind, satirist Douglas Adams would be turning 70 today. Adams was one of those people whose sensibility slapped me awake—not completely awake, but that’s good for a reason I’ll get to. Most of the time, despite the help of Adams and others, I’m fast asleep to our bizarre, fantastic situation. … (Only Skye) [I miss Douglas Adams. A lot.]

How tech despair can set you free. One way to look at the twentieth century is to say that nations may rise and fall but technical progress remains forever. Its sun rises on the evil and on the good, and its rain falls on the just and on the unjust. Its sun can be brighter than a thousand suns, scorching our enemies, but, with some time and ingenuity, it can also power air conditioners and 5G. One needs to look on the bright side, living by faith and not by sight. … (New Atlantis) [A short introduction to the otherwise unknown lay theologian Jaques Ellul and his criticism of techno-optimism.]

The nature of art. I have, on my hard drive, all the art that the Netherlands has produced—or at least all of it made since about the fourteenth century and that still exists: 120,000 images of paintings, and a lot of other things such as sculptures, etchings, and photographs besides. The totality of Dutch art occupies surprisingly little space, 500 GB or so. I also have images of 60,000 Greek vases, 1,400 images of Iznik tiles, 17,000 mostly American pop songs, and 220,000 scientific papers about my field, evolutionary biology. The Dutch art comes from the Netherlands Institute for Art History, also known as the RKD, an acronym for its previous name, Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, in The Hague. The Greek vases come from the Beazley Archive in Oxford, and the scientific papers from JSTOR. The Iznik tiles were scraped from various museum websites; the pop songs from a London-based streaming service that went under as Spotify rose. There is now an effective infinity of this kind of stuff out there. Pulling it together, curating it, and putting it online is what digital humanists do. The question is, to what end? … (Inference) [A mix of good ideas about cultural evolution and quasi non-sensical, Dennett-style, “Darwinian acid” stuff.]

The turbulent brain. According to thermodynamics, any living organism is constantly exchanging a flux of matter and energy with its environment. As such, the system is in non-equilibrium. In his book What Is Life? (1944), the Austrian physicist and Nobel Laureate Erwin Schrödinger proposed that sustaining life is exactly predicated on avoiding equilibrium: ‘How does the living organism avoid decay? … By eating, drinking, breathing and … assimilating. The technical term is metabolism.’ According to this view, the ultimate equilibrium is death, and thus survival depends on staying as far as possible from equilibrium. … (Aeon) [Yet another “here is the answer to how the brain works!” Still, interesting.]

What is a law of nature? In the original Star Trek, with the Starship Enterprise hurtling rapidly downward into the outer atmosphere of a star, Captain James T Kirk orders Lt Commander Montgomery Scott to restart the engines immediately and get the ship to safety. Scotty replies that he can’t do it. It’s not that he refuses to obey the Captain’s order or that he doesn’t happen to know how to restart the engines so quickly. It’s that he knows that doing so is impossible. ‘I can’t change the laws of physics,’ he explains. … (Aeon) [A good example of philosophy of science, regardless with whether one agrees with the analysis or not.]

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Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

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