Mga Archive ng Kategorya: Mga Aklat

Review Book ng Unreal uri. Dito, Talakayin ko ang mga libro Nabasa ko, at ibahagi ang aking mga impression sa aking mga mambabasa. Nabasa ko na halos non-Fiction o classics. At kapag sinabi ko basahin ang mga libro, Ko ibig sabihin makinig sa kanila sa audiobook (laging unabridged) paraan. Audiobooks ay may kakayahang upang gawin ang iyong magbawas o gym workout isang bagay tumingin ka inaabangan ang panahon na, sa halip na pangamba. Kapag nasuri, ipakita nila dehado bagaman, na sila ay hindi ma-refer sa. Kaya mga quote mula sa kanila maging paraphrasing, mga pangalan makakuha ng maling nabaybay at iba pa. Please excuse such shortcomings…

Tandaan na ang mga ito ay hindi tunay na mga review. Ang karamihan sa mga aklat na ito ay kaya mahusay na kilala na ang mga ito ay talagang lampas review. Kaya ang aking Unreal mga review ay mas katulad ng aking mga impression at mga pag-iisip, madalas na naglalaman ng spoilers.

Ang Edad ng Espirituwal Machine sa pamamagitan ng Ray Kurzweil

It is not easy to review a non-fiction book without giving the gist of what the book is about. Without a synopsis, all one can do is to call it insightful and other such epithets.

The Age of Spiritual Machines is really an insightful book. It is a study of the future of computing and computational intelligence. It forces us to rethink what we mean by intelligence and consciousness, not merely at a technological level, but at a philosophical level. What do you do when your computer feels sad that you are turning it off and declares, “I cannot let you do that, Dave?”

What do we mean by intelligence? The traditional yardstick of machine intelligence is the remarkably one-sided Turing Test. It defines intelligence using comparative means — a computer is deemed intelligent if it can fool a human evaluator into believing that it is human. It is a one-sided test because a human being can never pass for a computer for long. All that an evaluator needs to do is to ask a question like, “What is tan(17.32^circ)?” My $4 calculator takes practically no time to answer it to better than one part in a million precision. A super intelligent human being might take about a minute before venturing a first guess.

But the Turing Test does not define intelligence as arithmetic muscle. Intelligence is composed of “mas mataas” cognitive abilities. After beating around the bush for a while, one comes to the conclusion that intelligence is the presence of consciousness. And the Turing Test essentially examines a computer to see if it can fake consciousness well enough to fool a trained evaluator. It would have you believe that consciousness is nothing more than answering some clever questions satisfactorily. Is it true?

Once we restate the test (and redefine intelligence) this way, our analysis can bifurcate into an inward journey or an outward one. we can ask ourselves questions like — what if everybody is an automaton (except us — sa iyo at sa akin — oo naman) successfully faking intelligence? Are we faking it (at freewill) to ourselves as well? We would think perhaps not, or who are these “ourselves” that we are faking it to? The inevitable conclusion to this inward journey is that we can be sure of the presence of consciousness only in ourselves.

The outward analysis of the emergence of intelligence (a la Turing Test) brings about a whole host of interesting questions, which occupy a significant part of the book (I’m referring to the audio abridgment edition), although a bit obsessed with virtual sex at times.

One of the thought provoking questions when machines claim that they are sentient is this: Would it be murder to “kill” one of them? Before you suggest that I (o sa halip, Kurzweil) stop acting crazy, consider this: What if the computer is a digital backup of a real person? A backup that thinks and acts like the original? Still no? What if it is the only backup and the person is dead? Wouldn’t “killing” the machine be tantamount to killing the person?

If you grudgingly said yes to the last question, then all hell breaks loose. What if there are multiple identical backups? What if you create your own backup? Would deleting a backup capable of spiritual experiences amount to murder?

When he talks about the progression of machine intelligence, Kurzweil demonstrates his inherent optimism. He posits that ultimate intelligence yearn for nothing but knowledge. I don’t know if I accept that. To what end then is knowledge? I think an ultimate intelligence would crave continuity or immortality.

Kurzweil assumes that all technology and intelligence would have all our material needs met at some point. Looking at our efforts so far, I have my doubts. We have developed no boon so far without an associated bane or two. Think of the seemingly unlimited nuclear energy and you also see the bombs and radioactive waste management issues. Think of fossil fuel and the scourge of global warming shows itself.

I guess I’m a Mr. Glass-is-Half-Empty kind of guy. Akin, even the unlimited access to intelligence may be a dangerous thing. Remember how internet reading changed the way we learned things?

Siddhartha sa pamamagitan ng Hermann Hesse

I don’t get symbolism. Sa lalong maliwanag, I do get it, but I’m always skeptical that I may be getting something the author never intended. I think and analyze too much instead of just lightening up and enjoying what’s right in front of me. When it comes to reading, I’m a bit like those tourists (Japanese ones, if I may allow myself to stereotype) who keep clicking away at their digital cameras often missing the beauty and serenity of whatever it is that they are recording for posterity.

Pero, unlike the tourist, I can read the book again and again. Although I click as much the second time around and ponder as hard, some things do get through.

When I read Siddhartha, I asked myself if the names like Kamala and Kamaswami were random choices or signified something. Pagkatapos ng lahat, the first part “Kama” means something akin to worldliness or desire (greed or lust really, but not with so much negative connotation) in Sanskrit. Are Vasudeva and Givinda really gods as the name suggests?

Pero, I’m getting ahead of myself. Siddhartha is the life-story of a contemporary of Buddha — tungkol sa 2500 years ago in India. Even as a young child, Siddhartha has urges to pursue a path that would eventually take him to salvation. As a Brahmin, he had already mastered the prayers and rituals. Leaving this path of piety (Bhaktiyoga), he joins a bunch of ascetics who see the way to salvation in austerity and penances (probably Hatayoga at Rajayoga). But Siddhartha soon tires of this path. He learns almost everything the ascetics had to teach him and realizes that even the oldest and wisest of them is no closer to salvation than he himself is. He then meets with the Buddha, but doesn’t think that he could “learn” the wisdom of the illustrious one. His path then undergoes a metamorphosis and takes a worldly turn (which is perhaps a rendition of Grahasthashrama o Karmayoga). He seeks to experience life through Kamala, the beautiful courtesan, and Kamaswamy the merchant. When at last he is fully immersed in the toxic excesses of the world, his drowning spirit calls out for liberation from it. He finally finds enlightenment and wisdom from the river that he had to cross back and forth in his journeys between the worlds of riches and wisdom.

For one who seeks symbolism, Siddhartha provides it aplenty.

  • Why is there a Vaishnava temple when Siddhartha decides to forgo the spiritual path for a world one? Is it a coincidence or is it an indication of the philosophical change from an Advaita line to a patently Dwaita line?
  • Is the name Siddhartha (same as that of the Buddha) a coincidence?
  • Does the bird in the cage represent a soul imprisoned in Samsara? Kung gayon, is its death a sad ending or a happy liberation?
  • The River of life that has to be crossed — ay ito Samsara itself? Kung gayon, is the ferryman a god who will help you cross it and reach the ultimate salvation? Why is it that Siddhartha has to cross it to reach the world of Kamala and Kamaswamy, and cross it back to his eventual enlightenment? Kamala also crosses the river to his side before passing on.
  • The affection for and the disillusionment in the little Siddhartha is the last chain of bondage (Mohamaya) that follows Siddhartha across the river. It is only after breaking that chain that Siddhartha is finally able to experience Nirvana — enlightenment and liberation. Is there a small moral hiding there?

One thing I noticed while reading many of these great works is that I can readily identify myself with the protagonist. I fancy that I have the simple greatness of Larry Darrell, and fear that I secretly possess the abominable baseness of Charles Strickland. I feel the indignant torture of Philip Carey or Jay Gatsby. At, sigurado, I experience the divine urges of Siddhartha. No matter how much of a stretch each of these comparisons may be. Admittedly, this self-identification may have its roots more in my vanity than any verisimilitude. Or is it the genius of these great writers who create characters so vivid and real that they talk directly to the naked primordial soul within us, stripped of our many layers of ego? In them, we see the distorted visions of our troubled souls, and in their words, we hear the echoes of our own unspoken impulses. Perhaps we are all the same deep within, part of the same shared consciousness.

One thing I re-learned from this book is that you cannot learn wisdom from someone else. (How is that for an oxymoron?) You can learn knowledge, information, data — oo. But wisdom — hindi. Wisdom is the assimilation of knowledge; it is the end product of your mind and soul working on whatever you find around you, be it the sensory data, cognitive constructs, knowledge and commonsense handed down from previous generations, or the concepts you create for yourself. It is so much a part of you that it is you yourself, which is why the word Buddha means Wisdom. The person Buddha and his wisdom are not two. How can you then communicate your wisdom? No wonder Siddhartha did not seek it from the Buddha.

Wisdom, according to Hermann Hesse, can come only from your own experiences, both sublime and prosaic.

Zen at ang Art ng Pagpapanatili ng Motorsiklo

Sa sandaling, Nagkaroon na ako ng ilang mga pagdududa tungkol sa aking katinuan. Pagkatapos ng lahat, kung nakita mo ang iyong sarili pagtatanong ang realness ng katotohanan, mayroon kang upang magtaka — ay ito katotohanan na unreal, o ang iyong katinuan?

Kapag ibinahagi ko ang aking mga ikinababahala sa philosophically hilig kaibigan ng minahan, reassured niya sa akin, “Katinuan ay overrated.” Matapos basahin ang Zen at ang Art ng Pagpapanatili ng Motorsiklo, Sa tingin ko siya mismo. Marahil hindi siya pumunta malayo sapat — Baka pagkabaliw ay paraan underrated.

Zen at ang Art ng Pagpapanatili ng Motorsiklo Tinutukoy pagkabaliw bilang ang proseso ng stepping sa labas mythos; mythos pagiging pinagsama-samang kabuuan ng aming pinagsamang kaalaman ang pumasa down na sa ibabaw ng henerasyon, ang “commonsense” Nauuna na lohika. Kung katotohanan ay hindi commonsense, ano ang? At doubting ang realness ng katotohanan, halos sa pamamagitan ng kahulugan, ay stepping sa labas ng hangganan ng mythos. Kaya umaangkop ito; ang aking mga alalahanin ay sa katunayan mahusay na itinatag.

Ngunit isang magandang pagkakaangkop ay walang garantiya ng “rightness” ng isang hypothesis, bilang Zen at ang Art ng Pagpapanatili ng Motorsiklo ay nagtuturo sa amin. Given sapat na oras, maaari naming palaging makabuo ng isang hypothesis na umaakma sa aming mga obserbasyon. Ang proseso ng hypothesizing mula sa obserbasyon at mga karanasan ay tulad ng sinusubukang i-hulaan ang likas na katangian ng isang bagay mula sa anino proyekto ito. At isang projection ay tiyak kung ano ang aming mga katotohanan ay — isang usli ng hindi kilalang mga form at mga proseso sa aming mga pandama at nagbibigay-malay na espasyo, sa aming mythos at logo. Ngunit dito, I may be pushing my own agenda rather than the theme of the book. Ngunit ito ay hindi magkasya, hindi ito? Iyon ang dahilan kung bakit natagpuan ko ang aking sarili muttering “Mismong!” nang paulit-ulit sa panahon ng aking tatlong bumabasa ng aklat, at bakit ako ay basahin ito sa marami pang beses sa hinaharap. Paalalahanan ang ating sarili muli Hayaan, isang magandang pagkakaangkop wala tungkol sa rightness ng isang hypothesis sabi.

One such reasonable hypothesis of ours is about continuity We all assume the continuity of our personality or selfhood, which is a bit strange. I know that I am the same person I was twenty years ago — older certainly, wiser perhaps, but still the same person. But from science, I also know for a fact that every cell, every atom and every little fundamental particle in my body now is different from what constituted my body then. The potassium in the banana I ate two weeks ago is, for instance, what may be controlling the neuronal firing behind the thought process helping me write this essay. But it is still me, not the banana. We all assume this continuity because it fits.

Losing this continuity of personality is a scary thought. How scary it is is what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells you. As usual, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

In order to write a decent review of this book, it is necessary to summarize the “story” (which is believed to be based on the author’s life). Like most great works of literature, the story flows inwards and outwards. Outwardly, it is a story of a father and son (Pirsig and Chris) across the vast open spaces of America on a motorbike. Inwardly, it is a spiritual journey of self-discovery and surprising realizations. At an even deeper level, it is a journey towards possible enlightenment rediscovered.

The story begins with Pirsig and Chris riding with John and Sylvia. Right at the first unpretentious sentence, “I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning,” it hit me that this was no ordinary book — the story is happening in the present tense. It is here and now — the underlying Zen-ness flows from the first short opening line and never stops.

The story slowly develops into the alienation between Chris and his father. The “father” comes across as a “selfish bastard,” as one of my friends observed.

The explanation for this disconnect between the father and the son soon follows. The narrator is not the father. He has the father’s body all right, but the real father had his personality erased through involuntary shock treatments. The doctor had reassured him that he had a new personality — not that he was a new personality.

The subtle difference makes ample sense once we realize that “he” and his “personality” are not two. And, to those of us how believe in the continuity of things like self-hood, it is a very scary statement. Personality is not something you have and wear, like a suit or a dress; it is what you are. If it can change, and you can get a new one, what does it say about what you think you are?

In Pirsig’s case, the annihilation of the old personality was not perfect. Besides, Chris was tagging along waiting for that personality to wake up. But awakening a personality is very different from waking a person up. It means waking up all the associated thoughts and ideas, insights and enlightenment. And wake up it does in this story — Phaedrus is back by the time we reach the last pages of the book.

What makes this book such a resounding success, (not merely in the market, but as an intellectual endeavor) are the notions and insights from Phaedrus that Pirsig manages to elicit. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is nothing short of a new way of looking at reality. It is a battle for the minds, yours and mine, and those yet to come.

Such a battle was waged and won ages ago, and the victors were not gracious and noble enough to let the defeated worldview survive. They used a deadly dialectical knife and sliced up our worldview into an unwieldy duality. The right schism, according to Phaedrus and/or Pirsig, would have been a trinity.

The trinity managed to survive, albeit feebly, as a vanquished hero, timid and self-effacing. We see it in the Bible, for instance, as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We see it Hinduism, as its three main gods, and in Vedanta, a line of thought I am more at home with, as Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram — the Truth, ???, the Beauty. The reason why I don’t know what exactly Shivam means indicates how the battle for the future minds was won by the dualists.

It matters little that the experts in Vedanta and the Indian philosophical schools may know precisely what Shivam signifies. I for one, and the countless millions like me, will never know it with the clarity with which we know the other two terms — Sundaram and Satyam, beauty and truth, Maya and Brahman, aesthetics and metaphysics, mind and matter. The dualists have so completely annihilated the third entity that it does not even make sense now to ask what it is. They have won.

Phaedrus did ask the question, and found the answer to be Quality — something that sits in between mind and matter, between a romantic and a classical understanding of the world. Something that we have to and do experience before our intellect has a chance to process and analyze it. Zen.

However, in doing so, Phaedrus steps outside our mythos, and is hence insane.

If insanity is Zen, then my old friend was right. Sanity is way overrated.

Photo by MonsieurLui

The Moon and Sixpence

I confess that I had no idea what the title meant after I finished reading the book for the first time. My ignorance persisted even after the second perusal, although the title did suggest something like noble intentions and prosaic realities. Before the third reading, this time specifically for this blog, I decided to look it up. Like all good netizens, I consulted Wikipedia, which told me that the title was a reference to Of Human Bondage (where Philip Carey reaches for the moon while ignoring the sixpence at his feet.)

In The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham chronicles the life and adventures of Paul Gauguin — an artistic genius who stepped outside the bounds of ethics and morality in a single-minded pursuit of an unknown and troubling vision of his soul (“the moon”) at the cruel expense of his friends and family (the “sixpence,” presumably.)

Unsure of how to create a perfect Frenchman (as he later confesses in The Razor’s Edge), Maugham chose to “translate” Gauguin and portrayed him as an Englishman Charles Strickland, a semi-successful, though dull London stockbroker. At the unlikely age of 42 or so, Strickland decides to abandon his family to take up painting. The need to paint is a yearning of the soul for Strickland, and it doesn’t matter that he is no good at it — yet — as he explains, “I tell you I’ve got to paint. I can’t help myself. When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.” While saving himself from this metaphoric drowning, Strickland is indifferent (beyond cruelty) to the rest of the world. Then again, he is just as uncompromising and cruel to himself as well.

In portraying such a difficult anti-hero, Maugham showcases all the mastery and skill he possesses. To my untrained eyes, it looks as though Maugham builds this character so carefully and painstakingly that each one of the monstrosities Strickland commits is counter-balanced in some fashion. It is indeed a fine chisel that Maugham employs in crafting this masterpiece; none of those broad, confident strokes we would see in his later works.

We find Maugham at cynical and misogynistic best (or worst, depending on the perspective) in the early part of the book, especially in his descriptions of Mrs. Strickland and her children. We should condone this appearance of misogyny as a pardonable foible of a genius, I think. More than that, I see it as an effort, a successful one, to balance the callousness of Strickland’s disappearance that soon follows.

Such balancing devices can be found throughout the book. Perhaps to soften the shock of Strickland’s seemingly inexplicable renunciation of his family, his son’s hypocritical account of his later life is cynically ridiculed right in the beginning of the book. The unfortunate Dirk Stroeve, so cruelly used by Strickland, is also a buffoon who elicits derisive laughter rather than sympathy. Stroeve’s groveling adulation of Blanche perhaps serves to iron out the overtones of sexism or misogyny permeating the story. Blanche Stroeve’s betrayal is counter balanced with her own abominable indifference to Stroeve, which, in turn, gets evened out in what she receives from Strickland — “What an abyss of cruelty she must have looked into that in horror she refused to live.” Strickland, curiously, walks unaffected through all this death and mayhem, larger than life, tortured by his own private agonies of the soul well beyond our comprehension and his own. Even in his callousness, what Strickland invokes in Maugham and even Stroeve is, not merely a natural indignation, but an overwhelming compassion — astonishingly. The misplaced compassion is perhaps a device to prepare the reader for Strickland’s sordid and horrible death.

Maugham employs a variety of techniques to make the narration sound natural. If I was a fiction writer, I would study these techniques very carefully and try to employ them myself. To begin with, Strickland is a fictional portrayal of Gauguin, but Maugham takes great pains to pretend that the narration is not fictional. Even the narrator (Maugham himself) is portrayed as fallible, and contritely so, to lend credibility to the narration. For instance, Maugham gets exasperated at Stroeve’s weakness and is later ashamed of himself for getting angry.

The book has its elitist moments. When asked if it was better not to have known, Stroeve replies: “The world is hard and cruel. We are here none knows why, and we go none knows whither. We must be very humble. We must see the beauty of quietness. We must go through life so inconspicuously that Fate does not notice us. And let us seek the love of simple, ignorant people. Their ignorance is better than all our knowledge. Let us be silent, content in our little corner, meek and gentle like them. That is the wisdom of life.” It is as though the gift of inquiry and knowledge is given to a precious few — a special club to which Stroeve and Maugham are privy. This elitist attitude permeates not only Maugham’s works, but all great works of literature; it is only by masking his sense of superiority that an author or a thinker projects himself as non-elitist.

Perhaps it is some knowledge, or a vision of the world that Strickland’s soul yearned to share with the rest of us. Such communication is beyond language — a medium unequal to the task even when masterfully employed. Visual arts come closer. In Strickland’s tragic and cruel plight, along with that of almost all characters in the story, we see one eternal question. What is it that we are really after? Is it happiness? If so, Charles Strickland certainly didn’t find it. Very few do. Is it glory? Strickland did find that, albeit after his death.

Death is the great equalizer. It brings us back to the nothingness we spring from, however high we may fly or however low we may sink during the brief instant in between. The wisdom of the wise, the ignorance of the masses, the grandeur of the accomplished, the glory, the baseness — all matter very little when faced with such complete finality. In Strickland, Maugham has depicted the heights of glory as well as the nadir of baseness. The Moon and Sixpence — perhaps I have understood its meaning after all.

Photo by griannan

1984

All great books have one thing in common. They present deep philosophical inquiries, often clad in superb story lines. Or is it just my proclivity to see philosophy where none exists?

In 1984, the immediate story is of a completely totalitarian regime. Inwardly, 1984 is also about ethics and politics. It doesn’t end there, but goes into nested philosophical inquiries about how everything is eventually connected to metaphysics. It naturally ends up in solipsism, not merely in the material, metaphysical sense, but also in a spiritual, socio-psychological sense where the only hope, the only desired outcome of life, becomes death.

I think I may be giving away too much of my impressions in the first paragraph. Let’s take it step by step. We all know that totalitarianism is bad. It is a bad political system, we believe. The badness of totalitarianism can present itself at different levels of our social existence.

At the lowest level, it can be a control over our physical movements, physical freedom, and restrictions on what you can or cannot do. Try voting against a certain African “president” and you get beaten up, for instance. Try leaving certain countries, you get shot.

At a higher level, totalitarianism can be about financial freedom. Think of those in the developed world who have to juggle three jobs just to put food on the table. At a progressively subtler level, totalitarianism is about control of information. Example: media conglomerates filtering and coloring all the news and information we receive.

At the highest level, totalitarianism is a fight for your mind, your soul, and your spiritual existence. 1984 presents a dystopia where totalitarianism is complete, irrevocable, and existing at all levels from physical to spiritual.

Another book of the same dystopian kind is The Handmaid’s Tale, where a feminist’s nightmare of a world is portrayed. Here, the focus is on religious extremism, and the social and sexual subjugation brought about by it. But the portrayal of the world gone hopelessly totalitarian is similar to 1984.

Also portraying a dark dystopia is V for Vendentta, with torture and terrorism thrown in. This work is probably inspired by 1984, I have to look it up.

It is the philosophical points in 1984 that make it the classic it is. The past, for instance, is a matter of convention. If everybody believes (or is forced to believe) that events took place in a certain way, then that is the past. History is written by the victors. Knowing that, how can you trust the greatness of the victors or the evil in the vanquished? Assume for a second that Hitler had actually won the Second World War. Do you think we would’ve still thought of him as evil? I think we would probably think of him as the father of the modern world or something. Of course, we would be having this conversation (if we were allowed to exist and have conversations at all) in German.

Even at a personal level, the past is not as immutable as it seems. Truth is relative. Lies repeated often enough become truth. All these points are describe well in 1984, first from Winston’s point of view and later, in the philosophically sophisticated discourses of O’Brien. In a world existing in our own brain, where the phenomenal reality as we see it is far from the physical one, morality does lose a bit of its glamor. Metaphysics can erode on ethics. Solipsism can annihilate it.

A review, especially one in a blog, doesn’t have to be conventional. So let me boldly outline my criticisms of 1984 as well. I believe that the greatest fear of a normal human being is the fear of death. After all, the purpose of life is merely to live a little longer. Everything that our biological faculties do stem from the desire to exist a little longer.

Based on this belief of mine, I find certain events in 1984 a bit incongruous. Why is it that Winston and Julia don’t fear death, but still fear the telescreens and gestapo-like police? Perhaps the fear of pain overrides the fear of death. What do I know, I have never been tortured.

But even the fear of pain can be understood in terms of the ultimate fear. Pain is a messenger of bodily harm, ergo of possible death. But fear of rats?! Perhaps irrational phobias, existing at a sub-cognitive, almost physical, layer may be stronger than everything else. But I cannot help feeling that there is something amiss, something contrived, in the incarceration and torture parts of 1984.

May be Orwell didn’t know how to portray spiritual persecution. Luckily, none of us knows. So such techniques as rats and betrayal were employed to bring about the hideousness of the process. This part of the book leaves me a bit dissatisfied. After all, our protagonists knew full well what they were getting into, and what the final outcome would be. If they knew their spirit would be broken, then why leave it out there to be broken?