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”

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?

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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.

Please Look After Mom

A glance at my blog will tell you I rarely read fiction published recently.  “In my younger and more vulnerable years,” I was unfortunate to read a lot of poorly written historical fiction and Sherlock Holmes pastiche.  I thirsted for greatness and found mediocrity.  Back then, I wasn’t part of a blogging community, or maybe this wouldn’t have happened.  Anyways, I developed a prejudice against modern authors, which, based on my limited reading, was not well founded.

I stumbled across this book on Goodreads; not sure how, exactly.  Like everyone else, I’ve been following the news on North Korea with uneasy interest, and at the same time, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with Korean culture, introduced to it by some of my favorite YouTubers, like Jen ChaePlease Look After Mom, by Kyung-sook Shin, sounded like a novel I could learn from.

The focus of the story is universal.  When Chi-hon’s elderly mother goes missing in a busy part of Seoul, the Park family reacts in different ways.  True, they go through similar motions of looking for her – from putting up flyers to searching the city on foot – but inside, each family member begins to mourn “Mom” as someone deeply integrated in their lives and yet ultimately an enigma.  “Mom” was strong, vulnerable, spiritual, superstitious, gentle, and violent.  “Mom” was a strange juxtaposition of tradition and modernity.  At all times, “Mom” was self-sufficient.  Somehow she had been all of those things, and yet, if that had been real, how could she be missing?

The first half of the book was truly gripping, told from the perspectives of Chi-hon and her brother Hyong-chol.  Shin’s prose, translated by Chi-young Kim, moves deftly from present to past, as we discover more about Chi-hon’s mother – whose first name is So-nyo – and the sometimes tumultuous relationships between her, her children, and her husband.

What impressed me here was the contrast between Chi-hon’s life and her mom’s.  In just one generation, the woman of the family had gone from being an illiterate yet knowledgeable farmer – working hard to get food on the table for five children – to living as a published author whose ties with tradition and the farmland are less strong.  I enjoyed learning about the Korean traditions which So-nyo held to so steadfastly, while the portrait of Chi-hon fulfilling her mom’s dream was quite moving.

The second half of the book covers the perspectives of So-nyo’s husband and So-nyo herself.  Here I must admit I was having to suspend some disbelief.  It was hard for me to follow that the father, self-centered his entire life, became suddenly remorseful; it just seemed a bit convenient.  Meanwhile, there are things we learn about So-nyo which sound a bit incredible, considering her life and surroundings.  Maybe I’m too critical.  In any case, I felt these were small weaknesses in the plot, and overall they didn’t detract from the core of the story.

One detail about So-nyo that stood out to me was her Catholicism.  While intermingled with her traditional beliefs, So-nyo’s Christian faith is a recurring emblem in her life, with allusions to charity and love, as well as sin and repentance.  The symbolism of Madonna as an inspirational figure is brief, yet effective.  The Christian themes are all very subtle in this book, and I was pleasantly surprised they were both realistic and well written.

Despite being a novel about women, social change, and Korean history, Shin’s story isn’t overwhelmed by a historical or pro-feminist narrative, and this is its strength.  At times, it’s a brutally raw story, heavy in tone and topic, but there is beauty in Please Look After Mom, and that is that we see the characters as individuals, rather than just types.  And as in Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, history is here more of a backdrop than a centerpiece, but this approach lends a humanity to the novel that makes it a worthy read for people of many backgrounds.  4.5 stars.

Horror and History in A Pale View of Hills

Goto island - panoramio
Goto island by Masoud Akbari [CC BY-SA 3.0]

One day, Etsuko’s quiet life is interrupted by a visit from her daughter Niki, who, though being independent and somewhat secretive, has taken time off from her London life to come visit her.  This visit prompts disturbing memories in Etsuko, from the recent suicide of her older daughter Keiko, whom she is still grieving, to her own life back in Nagasaki, Japan.

As a young, pregnant mother and married to her first husband, Jiro, Etsuko’s earlier life had been a witness to sweeping changes in Japanese society, as well as to the physical and cultural presence of the Americans, post WWII.  Most troubling of all, however, is her recollection of her friendship with Sachiko, a confident, middle-aged woman who had moved in to a nearby cottage.  Sachiko had a little daughter named Mariko, who suffered trauma from the bombings of Tokyo and other scenes of the war.  No matter how much Etsuko tried to help Mariko, it seemed her mother had wished to brush it all aside.

Through her memories, Etsuko begins to have recurring dreams about the child, while attempting to find answers that will bring closure to her past acquaintance with her mysterious neighbors.

I was eager to read Kazuo Ishiguro‘s first novel, but I did not realize when I picked it up that it’s a ghost story.  I’m fairly squeamish and tend to shy away from creepy books – the last one I read was Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and that was enough for a long while.  It’s as well I didn’t know, because, while A Pale View of Hills (1982) is absolutely terrifying, it is so excellently written and evocative that I’m glad I read it.

As historical fiction, the book succeeds largely in its portrayal of emotional scars, both in terms of personal life and historic events.  The theme of societal changes present in An Artist of the Floating World (1986) is debuted here: women’s right to vote, legalization of the Japanese Communist Party, parent-child relationships, and American influence are some of the trends which, to the older generation, seemed radical.  The dark legacy of the atomic bomb is present, though in the background.  Overall, the historical elements serve to support the characters, rather than vice-versa.  With this subtle approach, Ishiguro sets up his novel to perhaps age better than other historical fiction, including his better-known novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), in which history may, at times, overwhelm the life of Stevens the butler.

In terms of personal impact, I feel this book is nearly up there with Till We Have Faces.  Ishiguro’s fine balance of frank, polite prose and cryptic omissions make this a story where reading between the lines renders volumes of meaning, even though the book itself is scarcely novel length.  And even though I knew, from reading another review, that there was a big twist coming towards the end, the actual conclusion of the story caught me off-guard.

This is a strange, haunting tale which has the capacity to frighten you, but also to make you want to weep.  The touch of realism that permeates the plot makes it seem to be more than fiction: it’s disturbing, but somehow believable.  I talked more about A Pale View of Hills in my latest podcast episode (spoiler free), as a potential contender for the next generation of classics.  I am sure I shall read it again.

Till We Have Faces – a story of love

There was a time I might have disliked this book.  Years ago, two things could easily ruin a story for me: harsh protagonists and untidy endings.  Till We Have Faces is guilty of both.  I think I would not have liked it those years ago, so why do I wish I had read it then?  Possibly to become aware of what I was doing.  Experience, however, was the best way to learn, and this is exactly why I felt this novel, tremendously.

Orual is an unattractive young woman – so much so, that her own father, the violent king of Glome, reminds her when he’s angry.  Her grim life is changed completely when she adopts her beautiful baby half-sister, Psyche, and raises her with all the affection she can give and has never quite received.  In a world where Orual finds her father, the people, and the gods set against her, it is only a matter of time before tragedy hits.  She lives and strives for just one thing: to hold on to what love she has.

You never comprehend how much you love someone until something comes along to break it.  You don’t realize your own mistakes until it’s too late.  I could hardly put the book down; I empathized only too well with the narrator, seeing where her sad tale was going.  How did C. S. Lewis, of all authors, understand her so deeply?  I think the line between devotion and idolatry concerns more than solely human relationships; it is directly related to our spiritual condition.  As Kierkegaard wrote in Works of Love, God must be our middle term in human relationships – if we don’t view others through Him, we can’t love them truly.  By approaching love from this larger viewpoint, Lewis so deftly characterized Orual that she is as true to life as fiction gets, harsh as she is.

I give it 4.5 stars overall.  The ending is not bad – in fact, it is fitting to the theme – but it didn’t quite captivate me like the first part.  Also, in view of the fact that this story is set in a fantasy pagan world, I can’t help but wish Lewis had taken more liberties with the resolution, since he was already so far from the original.  That said, I rounded it to a 5 on Goodreads, where the rating system only takes whole stars.  This is my first favorite read of the year.