Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

William Gibson’s best-known novel, Neuromancer, was published in 1984. I read it back then and thought it was excellent. I don’t remember much about it, but if I close my eyes, what comes to me is an image of cyberspace as a set of large, colored boxes, some labeled with their corporate names (like IBM or Exxon). The young man or woman at the center of the story travels through this bizarre virtual reality, but I can’t remember why. It’s fair to say the novel was ahead of its time.

I’ve been tempted to read something else by Gibson through the years but never bothered. I guess I doubted he had more to say. Then recently I saw a positive reference to his 2014 novel, The Peripheral. I wanted some lighter reading so made a trip to the library (which now asks us to visit for no more than 20 minutes and doesn’t allow access to the restrooms). On the shelf next to The Peripheral was Gibson’s 2003 novel, Pattern Recognition. A blurb on the back cover said it was his best novel since Neuromancer

Pattern Recognition wasn’t as futuristic as I expected. It’s a story about a woman, Cayce Pollard, who is extremely sensitive to contemporary culture (circa 2003). She makes her living by telling her corporate clients what’s “cool”. Is the new logo they’re considering acceptable or not? She’s paid to give a “yes” or “no” answer, no explanation required. It’s not her usual kind of job, but she accepts an assignment to investigate a series of mysterious little videos that have been popping up on the internet (the people who obsess about it online call these videos “The Footage”). Complications ensue.

What also ensues are many, many references to the clothes Cayce wears and the restaurants she visits. One minute she’s in London, then she’s flying to Tokyo, then it’s Paris, and then New York, followed by Moscow, and back to London. Cayce uses her client’s VISA card to really get around. I got tired of reading about her jet lag and the cool neighborhoods she visits. (Did William Gibson visit the major cities of the world as his career developed? Is that how he acquired so many details about city life here and there?)

Pattern Recognition might have been a better book if the author gave more attention to The Footage, which is rarely described, and less to Cayce’s favorite jacket and the decor in her hotel rooms. Maybe The Peripheral will be better than Pattern Recognition. I hope it’s Gibson’s best since Neuromancer.

Understanding Perspectivism: Scientific Challenges and Methodological Prospects, edited by Michaela Massimi, et al.

I’ve been building up to writing a book about perspective and perspectivism for about ten years now. I’ve read articles and books and written thousands of words in emails (mostly to myself) and other places. (It doesn’t pay to rush these things.) 

This isn’t about perspective in the artistic sense — how painters make a two-dimensional surface look three-dimensional — although that’s a related idea or practice. This is about perspective in the sense of a point of view or frame of reference or standpoint. It’s what we mean when we say “that’s your perspective” or “this is where I’m coming from”. Similarly, it’s what we mean by statements like “she’s speaking from a scientific perspective” or “it’s a bad decision from an ethical perspective”.

Perspectivism is a philosophical view about the importance of perspective when it comes to subjects like science or ethics, but also the way perspective functions in everyday life. This view is associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, but other philosophers have had similar ideas, including some academic philosophers working today. There is even a website devoted to “perspectival realism” funded by a European Union research program.

Understanding Perspectivism features essays by twelve academics. It’s not going to make the New York Times bestseller list. Putting aside the subject matter and the fairly technical language, that’s guaranteed by the price of a hardcover copy: $140. Rather oddly, however, anyone interested can download it free (which is how, no surprise, I got mine).

If you want to know more, there’s a positive account of the book at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. I’ll quote a bit that gives a feel for the collection’s subject matter and style:

Another standout [chapter] is David Danks’ “Safe-and-Substantive Perspectivism” which presents a view refreshingly unique from all other chapters. . . . Danks does what philosophers do best and takes a step back, thinking about perspectivism from a broader perspective. He works to dig in to just where and how perspectives enter into science and draws a useful distinction between two extremes: ‘unsafe’ hyperlocal perspectivism and ‘insubstantial’ high-level perspectivism. The former refers to the notion that perspectives set the basis for science at the level of individual scientists, which may be “dependent on local, contingent properties of specific people”. The latter refers to an opposite notion that scientific perspectives are highly abstract and general human activities — a notion that Danks deems uninformative regarding the nature of scientific perspectives.

To that end, Danks offers an alternative that construes science as necessarily and unproblematically perspectival. Here the big picture is that perspectives aren’t unique to science, and consequently aren’t any more of a problem for science than they are for any other domain where there are multiple, often incompatible perspectives, such as general human perception:

“More precisely, these sources of perspectivism are not unique to scientific theories, knowledge, and beliefs but rather apply to their everyday counterparts. That is, there is nothing special (with respect to these arguments) about science, and so the resulting perspectivism about science does not threaten a collapse into complete relativism (or at least, poses no more threat than we face about all of our beliefs and knowledge).”

“Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy” by Donald L. Miller

Ulysses S. Grant was an American hero. After attending West Point and serving in the Mexican War, he had a lackluster civilian career. But during the Civil War he rose to become the Union’s top general. After Abraham Lincoln, he was the person most responsible for ending the war and emancipating the slaves. I’ve read his memoirs and a few books about him and came away full of admiration.

The author of this book, a retired history professor, also admires Grant and recognizes his accomplishments. Here’s how he describes Grant’s campaign to take the city of Vicksburg in the spring of 1863:

It was a Civil War blitzkrieg. In eighteen days, Grant’s army had marched nearly two hundred miles; won five battles — four in six days’; inflicted a loss of 5,787 killed, wounded and missing; compelled the abandonment of two Confederate strongholds;  captured the capital of Mississippi; chased [Gen. John] Pemberton’s army inside Vicksburg; and positioned his own army between the only two rebel forces in the state. Along the way, he suffered only 4,379 casualties, among them 695 killed. It was a tactical and strategic masterwork, and the decisions that decided the outcome had to be made in a flash, without consulting staff, other commanders, or his superiors in Washington. . . .

After landing in Mississippi on April 30, 1863, Grant had conquered space and time, hostile terrain and climate, without adequate cavalry and reliable maps. Most of his men had made the march on five day’s rations, and none had tents…. But under Grant’s resolute leadership, there was little grumbling or complaining, perhaps because the general . . . “shared the hardships of the common soldier, living on hardtack and sleeping on the ground” [413-14].

After a siege lasting sixteen days, Vicksburg surrendered to Grant’s army. The author concludes:

Vicksburg was that rare thing in military history: a decisive battle, one with war-turning strategic consequences. The only Civil War battle remotely like it was Antietam. . . It did more than open the [Mississippi] river and split the Confederacy. It took the river counties of Mississippi and Louisiana out of the war and left the strongest Federal army in the Deep south, where it could move anywhere at will. . . .

Vicksburg was “the stab to the Confederacy from which it never recovered”, [historian] Edward Gregory wrote after the war. No reasonable chance of a Southern “triumph remained after the white flag flew on the ramparts of the terraced city . . . . There were desperate battles afterward, and occasional victories, but their light only rendered deeper the advancing and impending shadow of ultimate failure”. The military historian J. F. C. Fuller had it right: “Vicksburg, and not Gettysburg, was the crisis of the Confederacy”.

Strangely, the conqueror of Vicksburg failed to mention in his memoirs or battle reports the outstanding strategic accomplishment of his Mississippi campaign. At Vicksburg, Grant evolved a war-winning strategy for the North. His triumph led Lincoln to call him east to take on [Gen. Robert E. Lee] in Virginia, and there he fought as he had in the west. Turning the Army of the Potomac into an agile, improvising force, he used lighting maneuvers . . .  patient siege tactics . . . and scorched-earth raids — all of which led to Appomattox and the end. . . Even today, [Gen. William T. Sherman] is seen as the North’s avenging angel, but it was Grant who had “the real core of iron” [482-84].

Well, it sounds like Grant did pretty well.

What was strange about reading this book is that, despite its title and subtitle “Vicksburg: Grant’s campaign that broke the Confederacy”, it isn’t until page 327 of its 500 pages that we read that Grant “would be moving against Vicksburg soon, and with resolve”.  Before that the author explores Grant’s activities in Tennessee and northern Mississippi, including his victories at Forts Henry and Donelson and the titanic two-day battle at Shiloh. Then there are Grant’s failed attempts to take Vicksburg in 1862 and 1863 that involved trying to traverse various rivers, bayous and swamps, including efforts to construct canals under hellish conditions, with disease killing more men than enemy fire.

The author gives equal coverage, maybe more coverage, to the navy’s activities, including Admiral David Farragut’s capture of New Orleans and his attempt to take Vicksburg without significant support from the army. The navy played a major role all along the Mississippi and its tributaries, an aspect of the Civil War that usually doesn’t get much discussion. Even Grant admitted that finally taking Vicksburg might not have been possible without the blockade and extended bombardment provided by naval ironclads and gunboats. Those efforts were in addition to what the navy did to transport troops and supplies up, down, across and around the Mississippi.

The other surprising aspect of the book is that it presents a picture of Gen. Grant that is less flattering than other things I’ve read. The author accuses him of sometimes underestimating the forces against him, being careless with his supply lines, launching attacks that were doomed to failure, misrepresenting facts and occasionally drinking too much (although his drinking doesn’t seem to have affected his performance at all).

It’s impossible to read this book without being reminded that historical accounts, even ones as detailed as this, always leave things out and that war truly is hell.

“Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas” by Nicholas Pileggi

A more accurate subtitle would have been “Crime and Dysfunction in Las Vegas”.

Martin Scorsese’s 1995 movie Casino starred Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci. It wasn’t as good as some of his others. This is the book the movie was based on. It tells the true story of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a successful gambler and handicapper, who ran a handful of Las Vegas casinos in the 1970s (he was played very crisply by De Niro). Rosenthal was given his job in Las Vegas by the Mafia, otherwise known as the Outfit, the Organization or the Mob. He married a former showgirl and prostitute named Geri, who had a lot of problems (she was played by Sharon Stone), and had a childhood friend, Tony, who grew up to be a vicious mobster (Joe Pesci, of course).

In 1982, somebody planted a bomb in Rosenthal’s car. He survived and soon after left town, living quietly in California and Florida for another 30 years. His wife (by then his ex-wife) and his childhood friend weren’t that lucky. Geri was only 46 when she died of an overdose on a street in Hollywood. Rosenthal’s friend Tony was beaten to death and buried in a cornfield by some of his colleagues, possibly because he had an affair with Geri and was suspected of putting the bomb in his friend’s car. The crime bosses in Chicago and Kansas City didn’t like the fact that Tony had made trouble in Las Vegas. They preferred things to be quiet so they could continue stealing millions of dollars from the place (with Lefty Rosenthal’s help).

I kept reading the book even though it was tiresome at times. A lot of it is direct quotation from the people involved. They are what you might call “colorful”. I suppose that’s why stories about mobsters, factual or fictional, are popular. Although they’re very bad people who lie a lot and exaggerate their exploits, their lives are made to seem dangerous and exciting. And they can be funny guys, like the character Joe Pesci played in one of Scorsese’s better movies (“I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I’m here to . . . amuse you?”).

Nietzsche: Genius of the Heart by Charlie Huenemann

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Charlie Huenemann, a philosophy professor at Utah State, self-published this book in 2009. I don’t know why, because it’s an excellent introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche’s life and thought. Did Prof. Huenemann have trouble finding a publisher? Did he see it as a money-making opportunity? He has a sense of humor (that’s him in the picture when he was younger). Maybe he thought it would be an interesting thing to do.

Huenemann’s thesis is that Nietzsche’s philosophy was an attempt to make his miserable life livable:

I said it two times . . . and now this will make three: Nietzsche’s philosophy was the means by which he reconciled himself to his life. It was an  unfortunate life, beginning in tragedy [two deaths in the family], enduring through sickness and loneliness, ending in insanity [possibly due to a brain tumor, not syphilis], and then being twisted [by his anti-Semitic but apparently well-meaning sister] into abetting humanity’s worst atrocities.

Nietzsche’s task, as he saw it, was  to develop in himself the right attitude, so that no matter how unfortunate this life turned out to be . . . he would be able to surmount it, accept it, and embrace it. All of the magnificent monsters he pressed into his service — the Apollonian and Dionysian forces, his thoroughly skeptical neo-Kantian naturalism, Zarathustra, the eternal return, the will to power, the revaluation of all values — were, in the final analysis, devices, heuristics, visions and touchstones he needed in to order to accomplish this most extraordinary feat. If readers turn to his books in search of arguments for believing in these monsters, or reasons for taking them to be real, they have missed the entire point. The point was not truth. The point was triumph [204-5].

Academic philosophers tend to shy away from analyzing the personal reasons other philosophers have for adopting certain views. The ideas and arguments are what matter. Nietzsche didn’t agree. He believed philosophical positions (and religious beliefs) are explainable by individual psychology — which is partly what Huenemann is doing in this book. Huenemann considers whether Nietzsche would apply that same formula to his own views and decides he wouldn’t.

[Nietzsche] has a lot to say — indeed, many volumes! — about what is good and noble for human beings, and what is sick, weak and despicable. There are indeed facts about these values. His claim is only that the traditional assignment of values — particularly over what is “good or “evil” — is a huge mistake, grounded in a hopelessly inadequate understanding of reality.

This immediately raises a question about Nietzsche’s own consistency with the gospel he preaches. . . . Consider this comic tirade from a later work, Twilight of the Idols: “Finally, let’s consider how naive it is in general to say, ‘Human beings should be such and such!’ Reality shows us a captivating treasury of types . . . and some pathetic bystander of a moralist says to all this, “No! Human beings should be different‘? . . . He even knows how human beings should be, this sanctimonious sniveler”.

Nietzsche grants himself exemption . . . He thinks what what he is doing is significantly different from what other moralists do. . . .Whereas other moralists act as if they have just been handed the tablets of moral commandments from the sky, Nietzsche believes he is digging up his “commandments” from the earth — indeed, from the forces of life itself. His values are not dreamed up or invented, but wrested through bitter experience from genuine confrontations with a hard and unforgiving world [162-3].

Huenemann says “the supreme Nietzschean value is living power. What leads to the flourishing of living power . . . is good; what stifles or diminishes it is bad [167]“. Nietzsche: Genius of the Heart certainly has living power. It’s a lively, informative, sometimes critical account of one of philosophy’s most distinctive thinkers (and not expensive at all).