The Possibility of Life

The Possibility of Life coverThe Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos
Jaime Green
read by the author
Harlequin Audio (April 18, 2023), 8 hours and 25 minutes
$27.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

Jaime Green is an experienced science writer whose work has appeared in Slate, Popular Science, and The New York Times Book Review. She is also the editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing book series. So she has some credentials to write about the possibility of life outside the planet earth. Green says we shouldn’t be asking “whether or not,” but “what if.”

In The Possibility of Life, Green muses on what the chances might be for there to be life on other planets. She interviews a wide variety of scientists in multiple fields and describes their work. She describes how our knowledge of exoplanets has mushroomed over the past couple of decades, so much so that we now know of many planets orbiting stars in what are informally called “Goldilocks Zones,” that is being the right distance from their star that might allow it to support life.

Besides looking at science, Green writes about science fiction, but she is careful to be clear that science fiction is just that: fiction. But she also recognizes that science fiction might give us some clues about what life elsewhere in the galaxy might be like. She knows her Star Trek, both Next Generation and the original series (or TOS as Trekkers refer to it). She discusses the three-part Next Generation series finale, “All Good Things,” in which the omniscient being known as Q shows Captain Picard how life almost didn’t arise on earth. And she writes about the original series episode in which the crew of the Enterprise encounter the Horta, a silicon-base life form. Though she points out that based in the science we know, silicon-based life is not likely possible. Green also discusses several science fiction novels, many of which were unfamiliar to me.

Green writes extensively about Carl Sagan’s book Contact and the subsequent movie. She goes into such detail that if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie you might want to skip that chapter to avoid all the spoilers. She tells us that Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan was an uncredited coauthor of the book. Green discusses the golden records on the two Voyager spacecraft, a project that Druyan managed, and in which Sagan was heavily involved. Green was obviously deeply impressed by her in-person interview with Druyan.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Green read her own work and the enthusiasm that comes through as she discusses the various ideas and concepts that she contemplates. The print and e-book editions, however, have a bibliography, so that is worth taking into consideration. Either way, if you are interested in the search for like beyond earth, The Possibility of Life is well worth your time.

Knowing What We Know

Knowing What We Know coverKnowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic
Simon Winchester
Harper (April 25, 2023), 431 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $28.43

In Knowing What We Know author Simon Winchester covers human knowledge across history in a fascinating and highly readable volume. In the preface he describes how his own experience of knowledge began when as a toddler he put on a shoe in which a wasp had lodged itself. He describes the pain and his mother’s quick actions to relieve it. In Chapter One he writes about a woman who set up a free school for poor children in her neighborhood of Bangalore, India, youngsters who would otherwise have had no chance for an education. From there Winchester discusses the Rosetta Stone and cuneiform tablets from the Fertile Crescent in the ancient Near East. In particular he focuses on tablets that were the ancient equivalent of a twentieth century student workbook. Throughout the book Winchester provides a wide and sweeping survey of human knowledge right up to the present day (or as close as possible, given the time it takes to get a book to market) and the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and ChatGPT.

Winchester writes about the evolution of written works from the scroll to the codex, the precursor of the modern book. He discusses the care that monks took to preserve manuscripts, and how modern technicians are installing scanners in monasteries to digitize and electronically store those manuscripts.

The author has a long discussion of libraries, writing with admiration about the main reading room at the New York City public library, and mourning the loss of the old reading room at the British Library “with its twenty-five miles of shelves, the place where Karl Marx, Lenin (under the name Jacob Richter), and Bram Stoker all worked, creating their various nightmares for the world.” He writes about how Andrew Carnegie “salved his own plutocratic conscience by financing hundreds of libraries around the world.” (I certainly loved the Carnegie Library of my childhood. The modern building that replaced it was not at all the same.) Winchester tells us that Alexa from Amazon (with whom I speak several times a day) was named for the great library at Alexandria. (And he notes the library was not destroyed in a sudden conflagration but was in decline for many years before a fire in the time of Caesar.) He points out that open stacks are a fairly recent innovation, librarians once thinking that the average person did not have the skills to handle a book.

Winchester writes that when Encyclopædia Britannica was sold to an American buyer it became a strictly commercial venture, not a noble attempt to spread knowledge more widely. In his discussion of AI Winchester discusses HAL 9000 from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and implies that HAL had the last word. HAL did not, of course, as Dave was able to revert it to its factory default state before himself transforming into some kind of superbeing on a mission to save the planet. (I trust I’m not delivering any spoilers here, since the movie came out in 1968.) Winchester writes about spell checkers and grammar checkers, and then refers to autocomplete and predictive text technology as a “somewhat diabolical and wholly unnecessary nuisance, the bane of the writer’s life.”

Over the span of several dozen pages the author segues from museums to the human brain to computers and hypertext (reminding me of my own foray in developing a computer hypertext help system for a pre-Windows software product). You can see how his writing incorporates dry British humor. And although British, Winchester lives in the United States and the book uses American spelling. He expects us, however, to understand British terms. Winchester uses the phrase “medium wave” when in the United States we would say “AM radio.” He uses words like “quiddity,” something I had to look up. (Oddly, Merriam-Webster does not note this as “chiefly British,” though I wouldn’t expect to see it from an author writing in American English.)

Fascinating stuff indeed, and well worth reading.


post-impressionism coverPost-Impressionism: The Beginnings of Modern Art
Ricky Allman
University of Missouri–Kansas City
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

Art history is not one area with which I have a great deal of familiarity, so I thought it would be a good diversion to watch this lecture series on post-impressionism. I found the course worth my time and I learned some new things.

Instructor Ricky Allman explains that post-impressionists were unhappy with the establishment art scene in Paris and broke out to try new styles and techniques in art. They experimented with different approaches to painting, such as creating an image with dots or using heavy brush strokes. The gallery run by the Paris art establishment was called the Salon, and its curators had very staid, conservative tastes. They were quick to reject the work of the post-impressionists for display at the Salon. Members of the group responded by creating their own shows.

The history of post-impressionism is tied closely to the turbulent history of France in the nineteenth century and to advances in technology. Allman devotes full lectures to these influences: politics and religion, science and industry, and photography. He also discusses how outside influences affected the work of the group, such as Japanese art.

Allman talks about the individual artists in the movement and discusses their personalities. He tells us that Vincent van Gogh was an unpleasant person who didn’t like people and that a lot of people didn’t like him. Tradition has sanitized the story about his sending part of his ear to the love of his life. The recipient was a prostitute at a brothel down the road and the piece of his ear may have been cut off in a tussle with Paul Gauguin, with whom he was rooming at the time. Not exactly the van Gogh of the Don McLean song. (And by the way, he only sold one painting during his lifetime.)

Speaking of Gauguin, he was a nasty person who had a penchant for teenage girls whom he got pregnant and to whom probably gave syphilis, from which he suffered. His images of Tahiti reflect the Tahiti he expected, not the Tahiti he discovered when he arrived, which had long since been modernized and westernized.

Allman takes the time to discuss lesser-known artists. He devotes a lecture to Suzanne Valadon, who was popular during her lifetime, but who is largely forgotten today except in France. (Just the opposite of van Gogh.) Valadon had a clear-eyed vision and did not romanticize her subjects. In the lecture on philosophy and culture he discusses Evelyn De Morgan, who was English and whose work is entirely female-centric.

While the post-impressionist movement was largely a French phenomenon, Allman discusses artists outside of France who contributed to the movement. In addition to De Morgan he offers three lectures on non-French post-impressionists. He devotes a lecture each to Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt, both of whom also represented the transition from post-impressionism to modern art.

There is a lot of material here, and although Ricky Allman’s delivery can be cloying at times, he is highly knowledgeable and presents a comprehensive survey of the post-impressionist movement.

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma

Monsters coverMonsters: A Fan’s Dilemma
Claire Dederer
Knopf (April 25, 2023), 286 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $25.20

In Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma Claire Dederer writes about creative people who do bad things. From the title alone one might assume that she has some strong judgments on the topic, but the subtitle makes clear that the discussion is much more nuanced.

Dederer opens the book writing about movie director Roman Polanski. She recalls the highly publicized incident of Polanski’s drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl. She then sits down and does a Polanski marathon in her living room. Her conclusion: with movies such as Chinatown, Polanski is a talented director, whatever his personal behavior.

The author devotes a long section of the book to Woody Allen. There are, of course, parallels between Allen’s real-life relationship with Soon-Yi Previn and the plot of his movie Manhattan several decades earlier. Dederer seems less inclined to give Allen a pass, at least in the context of Manhattan, and is irked at a male colleague who chastises her for not appreciating the cinematic skill Allen brought to the movie.

Dederer writes about J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and how countless youngsters who saw themselves as misfits found solace in the world of Hogwarts, and who felt betrayed when she started making comments that seemed to look down on the transgender community. The author reflects on how the death of David Bowie caused the story to resurface regarding Bowie’s being responsible for the loss of a fifteen-year-old girl’s virginity. Interestingly, the victim had no animosity toward Bowie.

Dederer discusses a rock duo, popular with gay and trans young people, and how one member was allegedly guilty of an act of sexual violence. She describes how that did not diminish the duo’s popularity. She quotes one young fan, a friend of her daughter’s: “I still listen to them. I still love them. Even after everything.”

I had been looking forward to the publication of Monsters ever since I read a couple of months ago about its upcoming release. That’s because I have had my own fan dilemmas. Around Woody Allen, certainly. But even more so regarding Marion Zimmer Bradley and the tension between her known acts of child abuse and my desire to read her retelling of the Arthurian myth in her novel The Mists of Avalon. I wrote about that after watching Maureen Corrigan discuss the topic of separating the artist from the art (or not) in her Great Courses video series on banned books.

After writing about others, Dederer turns to herself and asks if she is a monster. In particular she asks if her desire to be productive as a writer and carving out time to do so made her a monster to her family. Near the end of the book, she admits to her alcoholism and how that might have brought out monster-like tendencies in her. She describes how she simply decided one day to stop drinking.

In the end Dederer gives us no definitive solution. She writes:

quoteThere is not some correct answer. You are not responsible for finding it. Your feeling of responsibility is a shibboleth…. There is no authority and there should be no authority. You are off the hook. You are inconsistent. You do not need to have a grand unified theory about what to do about Michael Jackson.

Dederer tells us, “The way you consume art doesn’t make you a bad person, or a good one. You’ll have to find some other way to accomplish that.”

No clear answers, for sure. I still don’t know what to do about The Mists of Avalon. That doesn’t mean Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma is not worth reading. For me it was worth every minute I spent with it.

it’s everywhere (AI, that is)

I can’t escape the discussion about AI (Artificial Intelligence). It’s everywhere. I see it constantly on my LinkedIn feed, and it shows up frequently on Mastodon (that non-commercial, open source alternative to Twitter). Geoffrey Hinton, the head of Google AI (and often called the Godfather of AI), recently resigned, according to The New York Times, “so he can freely speak out about the risks of AI.” It’s rather like Dr. Frankenstein leaving town and saying, “I guess creating that monster wasn’t such a good idea after all.” But Dr. Hinton deserves credit for taking action and speaking out.

artificial intelligence abstract imageThe whole conversation is overwhelming, rather like (spoiler alert!) the conspiracy between the Changelings and the Borg to wipe out humanity, as revealed in the final two episodes of Star Trek: Picard, season three. So much so that I have to write about it.

In the interest of full disclosure I have to admit to once having had a dog in this fight. During the nineties I worked for a software company that developed AI applications for the banking and insurance industries, although the preferred term was Expert Systems. (The software ran on a mainframe and on IBM OS/2, just to date myself.) Of course, the technology has evolved considerably since then.

It’s true that AI is everywhere. I have had predictive text on my iPhone for several versions of iOS now. Microsoft Word is now intrusive with its predictive text feature. My trusty grammar and style checker, ProWritingAid, uses AI to offer suggestions. (Will you please stop telling me I need to add commas all the time, dammit!) When Kaiser notified me that I needed to see my primary care physician, it directed me to an automated phone system with which I had a spoken conversation about the timing of the appointment. I suppose that beats sitting on hold for twenty minutes. Perhaps the system is in beta, because the next day I received an email in which they asked me to complete a survey about my experience with it. All of this is not to mention Alexa, to whom I speak several times a day and who lives in my three Amazon Echo devices.

A lot of the conversation, however, is around ChatGPT, a tool that is supposed to assist in creating content. By content I mean articles, essays, blog posts, thought pieces, etc. Even poems, it seems. One of the people I follow on LinkedIn opened a post saying, “ChatGPT is great.” Really? Are you kidding me? She then added some nuance and caveats, but still.

I have seen more than one LinkedIn post saying that ChatGPT is valuable for research, allowing the human writer to fill in and complete the piece. But ChatGPT has been documented to provide flat out wrong information, and it provides no attribution for the content it spews out.

For research, I can use Wikipedia, as long as I go back to the original references cited in the article and not rely on the Wikipedia article itself. (The Chicago Manual of Style monthly Q&A told me that.) And Google can provide useful references if you carefully check the sources. Google Scholar is even better.

The great theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who died in 2018, warned about the dangers of AI in 2014, even though the technology he used to communicate with the world used a basic form of AI. At the end of March over a thousand technology leaders and researchers signed an open letter urging a pause in the development of AI. Signers included Elon Musk, Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak, and Yuval Noah Harari, professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The original web page, published by the Future of Life Institute, states that over thirty thousand signatures have been collected, of which over twenty-seven thousand have been verified. On Thursday Vice President Kamala Harris met with the CEOs of companies involved in AI and President Biden dropped by the meeting long enough to tell them, “What you’re doing has enormous potential and enormous danger.”

Perhaps ChatGPT has its uses, but I’m not convinced. There is, I believe, great danger here. There is greater danger in other applications of AI.

People, we need to pay attention.

Conversations with Birds

Conversations with Birds coverConversations with Birds
Priyanka Kumar
Milkweed Editions (November 8, 2022), 293 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $18.00

Priyanka Kumar is a writer and filmmaker. She also knows her birds.

Conversations with Birds is a collection of essays set in (almost) chronological order that describes her encounters with birds in the various places in which she has lived. The first essays in the book recount her time in Santa Cruz, where she was a visiting professor at the University of California. She then describes her time living near the Cal Tech campus in Pasadena where her husband had a temporary position. From there she and her husband move to New Mexico.

In New Mexico the couple first rents a house, but then found a house that they fell in love with, the deal for which almost fell through. The book concludes with her time enjoying a five-week residency in the cabin that Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, built and lived in.

Much of the book is memoir in its style. In Santa Cruz Kumar writes about her feeling of isolation from her film community, but that she was there to fill in for a professor of film who was on sabbatical. During her Pasadena time she describes a trip south to shoot a documentary about Ravi Shankar, who lived in Encinitas, on the California coast north of San Diego. She also recounts walking with her husband in the tree-lined streets of neighboring San Marino amongst the ostentatious mansions. In New Mexico she describes the downside to buying an old house and the fragility of the picture window, facing the back yard, that she loved so much.

Birds, however, dominate the book. Kumar writes about the tiny snowy plovers on the beaches of Santa Cruz (birds Terry and I loved to watch when we lived just an hour’s drive from there), about the bald eagle in New Mexico, and birds of all kinds in between. She sometimes delves into myth and folklore, as she does in her discussion of the owl, which is a symbol of death in some cultures (as it was in the case of her grandmother in India), but an auspicious sign in other cultures. Kumar is serious enough about birds that she provides the scientific name of every bird she mentions.

Nor is Kumar’s description of the natural world limited to birds. She describes encounters with cougars and mountain lions. She even describes coming across a herd of javelinas.

Kumar’s timeline is not wholly reliable. In one essay she mentions her two children playing near the Rio Grande, while in a later essay she recounts becoming pregnant for the first time. Nor am I entirely comfortable with the free pass she gives to Aldo Leopold. As much as I admire the early work he did in ecology, and as much as I enjoyed A Sand County Almanac when I first read it, I know from other sources that he was quite racist in some respects.

Nonetheless, as an essay collection that offers an appreciation of, and a respect for, the natural world in general and for birds in particular, Conversations with Birds does a superb job.

cooking show hosts: going their separate ways

Many of my cooking show hosts on Food Network and PBS seem to be going in different directions. That makes me unhappy.

Giada De Laurentiis, long of Food Network, announced a while back that she had a new deal with Netflix. I can deal with that as we have a Netflix subscription.

Rachael Ray announced she was ending her syndicated television show and creating a new production company. I trust new programs will have a wide availability.

cooking demoMing Tsai, previously of Food Network and more recently of PBS fame, has been promoting his new line of frozen vegetarian (vegan?) foods on Instagram. No word of a new season on PBS.

Sara Moulton announced on Instagram a new partnership with a quirky television service, of limited availability as far as I can tell, called Hungry TV. No more PBS shows for Sara?

Valerie Bertinelli announced, also on Instagram, that the current season of Valerie’s Home Cooking would be the last. Food Network canceled it.

Tricia Yearwood hasn’t had any new episodes of Trisha’s Southern Kitchen on Food Network in a couple of years, and while she posts somewhat regularly to Instagram she’s said nothing about any new shows. Of course she keeps busy touring on her own and with her husband Garth Brooks.

Food Network continues its focus on competition shows (I count at least three competition shows currently airing that feature Alex Guarnaschelli alone, not to mention all the others.) PBS seems less inclined to support cooking shows than it did in the past. I guess I’m going to have to find new sources for adding recipes to my collection.