Wit and Wisdom in Chesterton’s Heretics

This year’s reading is off to a good start, not so much in terms of speed (work and other activities have put the brakes on that) but in terms of content.  I’ve just finished G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics, a light book for heavy hearts of little-‘o’ orthodox Christians who happen to be classic literature nerds.  Since I fall under that category, I found Heretics to be a bracing read and surprisingly relevant for the current times.  Chesterton is a hit-and-miss author for me; this book was definitely a “hit.”

Shaw, Belloc e Chesterton
George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and G. K. Chesterton.

Heretics (1905) comes under one of my favorite niche genres – authors writing about other authors.  In this series of essays, Chesterton critiques such literary luminaries as Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw, as well as others who have since fallen out of readership.  Imperialism, Nietzsche’s Superman, human progress, and other topics of the day are covered here, many of which are still relevant a little over a century later, albeit in other guises.  Chesterton’s overarching theme is that religion, specifically Christianity, is essential to contemporary dialogue, not a thing to be flippantly attacked or dismissed as irrelevant.

A non-Catholic myself, I still found encouragement in his defense of Christianity in the modern world.  I am not sure how non-Christians would find it; probably they would pick holes in Chesterton’s turns of phrase, which to me are devices to get you to think, not to necessarily persuade or convince.  In any case, this book shows off Chestertons’s signature style, often pithy and delightfully humorous, and I think anyone who can appreciate a Mark Twainian repartee could get some chuckles out of it.

These are some quotes I particularly liked:

The case of the general talk of “progress” is, indeed, an extreme one. As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative . . . Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. – “On the Negative Spirit”

The man who is misunderstood has always this advantage over his enemies, that they do not know his weak point or his plan of campaign. – “Mr. Bernard Shaw”

Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves. – “Mr. Bernard Shaw”

There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle. – “On Sandals and Simplicity”

All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. – “Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson.”  I may print this one and hang it up on my office wall…

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. – “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family.”

Democracy is not philanthropy; it is not even altruism or social reform. Democracy is not founded on pity for the common man; democracy is founded on reverence for the common man, or, if you will, even on fear of him. It does not champion man because man is so miserable, but because man is so sublime. – “Slum Novelists and the Slums”

Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. – “Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy”

What I’m Reading (and More): January edition

Ah, January.  I always find this month to be dreary.  (Anything coming after a glorious Christmas break is bound to be dreary).

My reading, as you might expect, has been somewhat sporadic and diverse, as I’m trying to escape the doldrums.  I don’t have full reviews yet, just a scattering of thoughts…

Reading

Fear No Evil, by Natan Sharansky
Finally reading this after hearing about it two years ago from Stephen.  I’m almost halfway and getting strong Kafkaesque vibes from the tedious, illogical interrogations by the KGB.  Also, the author is a fellow computer science major and Sherlock Holmes fan, which is personally inspiring.

Philosophy 101: From Plato and Socrates to Ethics and Metaphysics, an Essential Primer on the History of Thought, by Paul Kleinman
I am trying to rectify my ignorance in philosophy with this crash-course style book.  The author’s approach is sometimes questionable – he bizarrely mentioned Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the same breath, and I’m not sure what order he’s following, but it’s definitely not chronological.  In spite of its faults, this book is still better than me attempting to, say, follow the rabbit trails of Wikipedia on my own.  I’m halfway through and have learned quite a bit.

The Gospel of Luke
Been steadily reading through Luke with my morning coffee and lectio divina.  It’s sad to admit, but I never had much of a thirst for Bible reading before and always felt bad about it.  Now, with lectio divina, I read it daily, because it’s very calming and sets me up for the entire day, even if I don’t feel great (I’m not a morning person).  This method of Bible reading & prayer has honestly changed my life, and I’m so happy to have reached this turning point. 

The Professor, by Charlotte Brontë
The Professor was Charlotte’s first novel and one I’ve struggled in the past to get into.  (This time, I shall finish it.)  I haven’t read a Victorian novel in a long time, so it’s refreshing to get back into my old comfort zone.

Watching

Speaking of Victorian novels, last night I watched Victoria, Season 3 Episode 1.

I have a real love/loathe opinion of this series… mostly loathe.

I watched about half of Season 1, coming into it with the highest hopes and getting truly disappointed.  I don’t even remember if I saw Season 2.

The good: stunning cinematography and costumes, stellar cast
The bad: historical liberties, lackluster characterization, overly simplistic dialogue, and some aspects/characters which are way too similar to Downton Abbey

Sadly, S3E1 was no improvement over the previous episodes I saw.  I might watch more of S3 for the sheer eye candy (I LOOOVEEE Victorian costumes), but the script makes me cringe with second-hand embarrassment.

Listening

It’s early days, but I haven’t yet found any new favorite songs this year.

Till then, I’m still obsessed with “Rich Boy” (2018) by Sara Kays.  If you haven’t heard of her before…well, neither had I, till late last year.  I tend to stumble across obscure artists, because I enjoy indie folk music, especially songs that tell a story.  This one’s a classic tale, with sad Americana vibes.

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order

 

A snazzy red jacket, an evocative title, and glowing 5-star reviews.  (Let’s not forget the cover blurbs by the CEOs of Microsoft and O’Reilly Media, amongst other prominent tech figures.)  I have to say, when I eagerly began reading AI Superpowers, I was a little nervous – would this book live up to its hype?

Capture medium
Kai-Fu Lee – by SheilaShang [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Kai-Fu Lee

A Taiwanese American, Kai-Fu Lee came to the U.S. as a child in the 1970s to follow his older brother and gain an American education.  Lee would eventually earn his doctorate in computer science, becoming well versed in machine learning and applying his expertise to speech recognition projects at Apple.  From the late 90s to the late 2000s, he then pivoted to leadership roles at Microsoft and Google, ultimately becoming the president of Google China in 2005.

In 2009, Lee left Google and founded his own investment firm, now called Sinovation Ventures.  The investment money goes towards Chinese start-ups, where much of China’s AI development is happening.  Lee realized this momentum early on and was motivated to provide leadership and funding for these new companies.

AI & China: Explained

If you, like me, have little or no prior knowledge of AI, rest assured. Lee begins his book with two brief histories: AI and Chinese technology.

Lee describes the sophisticated AI of today: deep learning, also known as neural networks – a kind of digital impersonation of a human brain.  Deep learning leverages vast amounts of data to study and recognize patterns, and these patterns can be as intricate as human faces or dog breeds.  This concept originated in the 1950s, but it took decades of research, faster hardware, and more data before it really came to fruition in the mid-2000s (p. 9).

China’s technological success has also arrived in very recent decades and through mixed means.  Lee spends the entire second chapter, “Copycats in the Coliseum,” analyzing the cause and effect of Chinese companies’ reputation for copying American products (e.g. knockoff iPhones), not to mention each other’s.  From this “coliseum” arose a powerhouse of entrepreneurs – whom he calls “gladiators” – who survived the storm of competition and are now primed to take on similar challenges in AI.

I found this topic somewhat awkward to read (at times, Lee verges on sounding like an apologist for copyright infringement).  Nonetheless, if you push on, you’ll find some fascinating stories, like how WeChat, the Chinese super-app, popularized mobile payments one Chinese New Year (2014) by offering a “digital red envelope” service for people to exchange gifts (p. 60).  It was a creative and direct hit to Alibaba’s Alipay service.

China’s Advantage in AI

Lee’s current estimate of the two countries’ AI capabilities shows the U.S. with a lead (p. 136).  However, the running theme of the book is that China will surpass us in just five years or so.  He cites a number of reasons, for example:

  • Data – Chinese users generate an enormous amount of data.
  • Speed – Chinese entrepreneurs work very hard and very fast, having weathered the dog-eat-dog battle of copying each other
  • Culture – China (both entrepreneurs and government) may use tactics which its U.S. counterparts would avoid.  For example, China is more likely to devote significant funding to AI, accepting the risk of failure or waste in favor of longterm benefits. 
  • Government – China’s government has made AI a priority, and local governments are motivated to implement it just like any other central government policy.

The four areas of AI to watch: Internet, Business, Perception, and Autonomous.

Lee’s Warning, and a Call for Action

What is the biggest threat which AI poses to both countries?

From Lee’s perspective, the biggest danger isn’t robots ruling the world, or the more mundane term for it: “general AI.”  Rather, his concern is for the economies of both the U.S. and China. He forecasts that AI will, in the next decade, be capable of replacing many jobs – so many that the change in society will be monumental, like the discovery of electricity.  In chapter 6, he cites several studies and his own experiences, all of which make a pretty reasonable case for concern.

Here you will find the surprise in the book: a very personal story.  Lee, in the prime of his career, was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma and thought he had only a 50% chance of survival.  This led to a time of deep reflection, and he began to question the choices he had made.  Without giving it away, I will say that I found this section of the book incredibly moving, and I admire Lee for inserting this vulnerable story from his life into a book of this genre.

It was this turning point in his life which gave him an idea.  In the last chapters of the book, Lee describes the mainstream theories of how we can address the dangers of AI.  He then provides his alternative idea, one in which humans are reconciled with technology and economic damage is minimized.  Again, I won’t give it away.  What I can say: I see some significant problems with Lee’s concept, yet I also find it very interesting.

Overall

AI Superpowers is a fantastic book – intriguing and highly readable.  (Perhaps a little too polished; Lee acknowledges a co-writer, Matt Sheehan, which may explain it.)  I felt it was detailed enough that I learned a lot, yet not so heavy that I was overwhelmed.  If he writes a “sequel” or follow-up book, I plan on reading it.  4.5 stars.

New Year’s Eve & Reading Goals for 2019

Seattle New Years Eve Fireworks 2011 (8)
Rajiv Vishwa [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hoping all of you have a lovely New Year’s Eve, whether it’s already past midnight for you, or, like us West Coasters, you’re still waiting.  🙂

I typically spend New Year’s Eve all warm and cozy at home with a book.  It’ll probably be AI Superpowers (published just this year), which I started a couple days ago.  So far, it’s really intriguing:

As mentioned in my Top Ten of 2018, this was a great year in terms of number of books read, though it yielded fewer great books than I’d hoped for.  However, given some unexpected personal challenges in the second half of this year, I’m just glad I kept reading.

Some goals for 2019:

  • Blog at least once a week.  Because of new work responsibilities, I’m unlikely to resuscitate the podcast any time soon, sadly to say.  Till or if that happens, I plan to blog more frequently instead.
  • Get spun up on philosophy.  I’ve read bits and pieces of philosophy in the past, but next year, I want to really fill in the gaps.  My hope is to learn about the influence of various philosophical movements on literature, history, and Christianity.
  • Read even more nonfiction.  In part, by committing half of my Mount TBR list to nonfic!
  • Quit more books.  I hate leaving books unfinished…but life is short and the reading stack is long. If I give a book a decent chance and I still dislike it, I commit to not finishing it.

Thank you to everyone who’s read my blog or listened to my podcast this year!  This bookish community is such a joy to be a part of, and I can’t wait for the conversations to continue next year.  🙂