Brain Pickings

Ralph Ellison on Fiction as a Voice for Injustice, a Chariot of Hope, and a Lens on the Human Condition

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“…there must be possible a fiction which… can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.”

“Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by,” beloved writer Ralph Ellison famously said. In 1953, upon winning the National Book Award for Invisible Man, the only novel he published in his lifetime, Ellison — a lover of language, symbolism connoisseur, and astute observer of humanity — captured the heart of fiction in his remarkable acceptance speech:

If I were asked in all seriousness just what I considered to be the chief significance of Invisible Man as a fiction, I would reply: Its experimental attitude and its attempt to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our nineteenth-century fiction.

When I examined the rather rigid concepts of reality which informed a number of the works which impressed me and to which I owed a great deal, I was forced to conclude that for me and for so many hundreds of thousands of Americans, reality was simply far more mysterious and uncertain, and at the same time more exciting, and still, despite its raw violence and capriciousness, more promising.

To see America with an awareness of its rich diversity and its almost magical fluidity and freedom I was forced to conceive of a novel unburdened by the narrow naturalism which has led after so many triumphs to the final and unrelieved despair which marks so much of our current fiction. I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, but yet thrusting forth its images of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization. A prose which would make use of the richness of our speech, the idiomatic expression, and the rhetorical flourishes from past periods which are still alive among us. Despite my personal failures there must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.”

For more on the distinction between truth and fiction, see this omnibus of insights by some of modernity’s greatest writers.

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From Francis Bacon to Hobbes to Turing: George Dyson on the History of Bits

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What Sir Francis Bacon has to do with the dawn of the Internet and the inner workings of your iPhone.

“It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence,” proclaimed twenty-four-year-old Alan Turing in 1936.

The digital text you are reading on your screen, which I wrote on my keyboard, flows through the underbelly of the Internet to transmit a set of ideas from my mind to yours. It all happens so fluidly, so familiarly, that we take it for granted. But it is the product of remarkable feats of technology, ignited by the work of a small group of men and women, spearheaded by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Legendary science historian George Dyson traces the history and legacy of this pioneering work in his highly anticipated new book, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, based on his 2005 essay of the same name — the most comprehensive and ambitious account of that defining era yet, reconstructing the events and characters that coalesced into the dawn of computing and peering into the future to examine where the still-unfolding digital universe may be headed.

It begins with a captivating promise:

There are two kinds of creation myths: those where life arises out of the mud, and those where life falls from the sky. In this creation myth, computers arose from the mud, and code fell from the sky.”

The book is absolutely absorbing in its entirety, but this particular abstract on the history of bits illustrates beautifully Dyson’s gift for contextualizing the familiar with the infinitely fascinating:

A digital universe — whether 5 kilobytes or the entire Internet — consists of two species of bits: differences in space, and differences in time. Digital computers translate between these two forms of information — structure and sequence — according to definite rules. Bits that are embodied as structure (varying in space, invariant across time) we perceive as memory; and bits that are embodied as sequence (varying in time, invariant across space) we perceive as code. Gates are the intersections where bits span both worlds at the moments of transition from one instant to the next.

The term bit (the contraction, by 40 bits, of “binary digit”) was coined by statistician John W. Tukey shortly after he joined von Neumann’s project in November of 1945. The existence of a fundamental unit of communicable information, representing a single distinction between two alternatives, was defined rigorously by information theorist Claude Shannon in his then-secret Mathematical Theory of Cryptography of 1945, expanded into his Mathematical Theory of Communication of 1948. “Any difference that makes a difference” is how cybernetician Gregory Bateson translated Shannon’s definition into informal terms. To a digital computer, the only difference that makes a difference is the difference between a zero and a one.

That two symbols were sufficient for encoding all communication had been established by Francis Bacon in 1623. ‘The transposition of two Letters by five placeings will be sufficient for 32 Differences [and] by this Art a way is opened, whereby a man may expresse and signifie the intentions of his minde, at any distance of place, by objects… capable of a twofold difference onely,’ he wrote, before giving examples of how such binary coding could be conveyed at the speed of paper, the speed of sound, or the speed of light.

That zero and one were sufficient for logic as well as arithmetic was established by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in 1679, following the lead given by Thomas Hobbes in his Computation, or Logique of 1656. ‘By Ratiocination, I mean computation,’ Hobbes had announced. ‘Now to compute, is either to collect the sum of many things that are added together, or to know what remains when one thing is taken out of another. Ratiocination, therefore is the same with Addition or Substraction; and if any man adde Multiplication and Division, I will not be against it, seeing… that all Ratiocination is comprehended in these two operations of the minde.’ The new computer, for all its powers, was nothing more than a very fast adding machine, with a memory of 40,960 bits.”

Turing’s Cathedral, though dense at times, is fascinating in its entirety.

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Religion for Atheists: Alain de Botton on What Education and the Arts Can Learn from Faith

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How to glean secular models for engagement and inspiration from religious rituals.

The tension between secularity and religion has endured for centuries, infusing academia and science with a strong and permeating undercurrent of atheism. But if we can divorce the medium from the message, there might be some powerful communication lessons secular movements could learn from religious ones. That’s the premise behind Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, a provocative and thoughtful new book by modern philosopher, prolific author, and School of Life founder Alain de Botton, who recently made a passionate case for redefining success.

One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Eightfold path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, inspire travels, train minds and inspire gratitude at the beauty of spring. In a world beset by fundamentalists of both religious and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.”

Particularly noteworthy are de Botton’s insights on what education and the arts can borrow from the formats and paradigms of religious delivery, from why the sermon is more effective than the lecture to how engineering visceral encounters can help draw power from art.

It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.

[…]

The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.”

Sample the book with de Botton’s compelling talk from TED Global 2011:

A sermon wants to change your life, and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. And I think we need to get back to that sermon tradition.”

Religion for Atheists is the latest in de Botton’s prolific portfolio of thought, including the excellent The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Essays in Love, and The Consolations of Philosophy.

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