Asimov Jones

Asimov Jones

Even though I studied political philosophy in college, and still spend the majority of my reading time on the humanities/social science side of things, many of my personal heroes happen to be scientists. The way that their scientific work requires them to look at the world (to perform it correctly, anyway) generates an unflinching, reality-oriented worldview. In a previous essay, I wrote about the physicist Richard Feynman. Today, I write about Isaac Asimov.

If they know him, people are first familiar with Asimov’s science fiction. He is a foundational pillar of the genre, and most know his three laws of robotics, which were popularized in the book (later Will-Smith-starring movie) I, Robot.

But he wasn’t just a writer, even though he was prolific enough. He was also a biochemistry professor at Boston University—a perfect union of the humanities and science in one person.

When I first sat down to write this essay, I thought I would summarize a few of Asimov’s essays that I enjoyed the most; but then I decided that they are best discovered and read personally, at least they were for me.

So start with “The Relativity of Wrong,” written in 1989. My summary of the essay is: Asimov is attacked by an English Lit thug wielding a scimitar forged from misunderstood Socrates (I have been on the receiving end of the same misunderstanding too many times—it’s not uncommon at Harvard). The English Lit thug twirls the Socrates scimitar in elaborate patterns in order to impress a gathering crowd and to intimidate Asimov. Asimov shoots him with a gun, end of battle.

From there, Google “Isaac Asimov essays,” and have a field day.


This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

More Books in 2018 (But Not Vampire/Werewolf Pseudo-porn)

More Books in 2018 (But Not Vampire/Werewolf Pseudo-porn)

Although I don’t endorse the concept of New Year’s resolutions as generally practiced, I have formed a plan to read more books. It happened to occur right as 2017 gave way and died, so it’s a superficially-similar-to-but-substantively-distinct-from New Year’s resolution for 2018.

The specifics are that I will read at least 50 books during 2018, but that’s a floor, not a ceiling. Ideally I read more, but we’ll see what happens. Since there are 52 weeks in the year, that works out to just under one book a week.

Why am I doing this?

In conjunction with other learning and knowledge reinforcement methods, reading books is the surest way for me to:

  • heap up knowledge,
  • integrate my acquired knowledge in various discrete subdomains together, thereby making the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and
  • learn and study methods to improve the way that I think, not just the contents of my mind. The aforementioned integration goes more smoothly and correctly with a more rational cognitive apparatus.

Assuming that I’m not half asleep or otherwise mentally inhibited (sleep-deprived, possessed of cognitive biases, &c) when I do it, reading books acts exactly like compound interest acts on money. The more book reading you do, the more knowledge you gain and are able to successfully integrate; the more money you have, the more money compound interest returns to you.

Gaining more knowledge in specific subdomains allows you to access increasingly complex knowledge in those domains, and gaining more knowledge across many subdomains gives you the polymathematic ability to access similarly complex knowledge in interdisciplinary domains—furthermore, you will also have the ability to bring the concepts and frameworks of one domain to bear on another.

(Good and easily accessible examples of this kind of analysis are Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics, which applies the conceptual frameworks of economics to a variety of personal and social issues, and Richard Posner’s Sex and Reason, which does the same with sexuality.)

For the same reason that it makes sense for me (or anyone) to take advantage of compound interest to earn money, it makes sense to read more books. But not all books are the same, just as all investment portfolios are not the same.

For my purposes, reading vampire/werewolf pseudo-porn, while enjoyable, is not helpful. Those books are not counted toward my total of 50. Similarly, books that are part of a series will only collectively count as one book, unless they are sufficiently distinct to generate the kind of thought that would have occurred by otherwise reading two unrelated books. As to what counts as distinct or some kind of pseudo-porn, I will be employing the same standard that Justice Potter Stewart used for identifying “hard-core pornography” in 1964’s Jacobellis v. Ohio:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”

Ideally, my targeted pursuit of knowledge and resultant cognitive development will be greater in 2018 than ever before. I guess we’ll see.


This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

Birthday Reflections

Birthday Reflections

On Saturday it will be that time of year: my birthday. Specifically: the twenty-sixth one. (Please mail bulk uncut diamonds and wheels of hard cheese to Cambridge, Massachusetts.)

I don’t primarily like my birthday because of presents, although some people give me excellent gifts. I like it because, like New Year’s Eve, it is a built-in benchmark that prompts reflection on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.

Reflections on my twenty-fifth revolution around the sun all concern the concept of “home.”

I no longer have (the operative word) a home. I consider “home” to be a feeling of belonging and membership in a family, history, or community, and an expectation that these things will remain stable past the short term; often these things are also rooted in a place. Although I have an affinity for the Boston area, which has hosted the majority of my adult maturation, it’s not my home—it’s just where I live for now.

 

Boston’s Back Bay, seen across the Charles River from Longfellow Bridge.

 

I grew up on a farm in Dublin, Wayne County, Indiana, and I currently reside a short walk from Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since leaving Wayne County for college I’ve lived and worked in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain; Bloomington, Indiana; Heidelberg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany; Dayton, Ohio; Cambridge, Winthrop, Somerville, and Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts; Cincinnati, Ohio; and finally Cambridge again.

All of this moving around is an effect; the cause is my search for happiness and fulfillment. The constants in this search have been a constellation of a few individuals scattered around the US and the deliberate products of my own creative work. These give me a feeling of belonging (to myself) and membership in a history (the one I share with those individuals); so, I do experience the emotion attached to the word “home,” but mine, unlike a traditional understanding of the concept, is no longer a place.

One would no more ask me “Where is home?” than the question “When long is a foot?” to an engineer. The selected interrogative produces a category error. Regarding my home, the interrogative should be what. Home isn’t a place I can go to, it’s the knowledge and contemplation of certain things that I have: my people, and myself (in the form of my mind, learning, and creative output). I don’t have a home, and I am my home.

 

rocket-launch-rocket-take-off-nasa-73872

 

I know other people feel this way; if your parents hopped around military bases during your childhood, or you had or have any reason to just keep moving, you might be in my boat. But science fiction and fantasy, genres that I build my life around, have introduced me to an interesting group of others who feel the same way: immortals. In Blue Mars, humanity has lived on Mars for over one hundred years, and a native Martian visits Earth for the first time. The novel’s expository prose, voiced by a man well into his second century, says that:

“…for Nirgal no place endured. His hometown was crushed under a polar cap…and every place since then had been just a place, and everything everywhere always changing. Mutability was his home” (from Spectra’s 1997 mass market paperback, p. 186).

It continues to say that:

“…to some people home was home, a complex of feeling far beyond rationality, a sort of grid or gravitational field in which the personality itself took its geometrical shape. While for others, a place was just a place, and the self free of all that, the same no matter where it was. One kind lived in the Einsteinian curved space of home, the other in the Newtonian absolute space of the free self” (p. 242).

I’m not an Earth émigré, not for a few decades at least, but my spatial concept of home is the same as one. It is internal and self-contained, fed by phone calls and texts from my people and long nights reading and writing by myself. In Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, one centuries-old vampire says the words below to a second, who will soon learn of the fiery death of his only longtime companion:

“She’s an era for you, an era of your life. If and when you break with her, you break with the only one alive who has shared that time with you. You fear that, the isolation of it, the burden, the scope of eternal life” (Ballantine Books’ 1991 reissued mass market paperback, p. 282).

Without the people who know and share my history, it isn’t home; it’s only a memory at the mercy of my own mind.


THREE closing items:

(1) The first two songs in the playlist below connote the nostalgia I feel for the time when my home was tied to a place. Currently, my home (more specifically: myself) can be connoted with last one.

(2) No birthday reflection would complete without thinking of my mother, the one and only Susan Golliher; she is one principal constituent of my home. Appropriately, Mother’s Day always falls near my birthday (this year it is May 14).

(3) I will be going into my twenty-sixth year having written four books and two screenplays, with two other books on the way. Two hours after the exact anniversary of my birth, I will board a flight to attend the wedding of my oldest friend. When I turn twenty-six, I will be home.