The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

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The French Revolution is tough to understand. I was raised in Texas and at no time was the subject discussed in any way deeper than “The French saw how wonderful freedom was in America and wanted a revolution of their own. It went disastrously because the French are untrustworthy and incompetent.”

I’ve long suspected that the full story was more complicated than that.

This admittedly very short introduction lays out the confluence of economic, political, and social problems that riled France a decade. These were the growing pains of coming into the modern world; of casting off feudal lordship in favor of representative democracy. Or at least France’s version of that concept.

The author’s thesis is that the ‘revolution’ was not one single event but was a time period of extreme social unrest and suffering that lasted from 1789-1802 ending with the ascent of Napoleon. With the consolidation of power behind Bonaparte, “the nationwide sigh of relief was practically audible. Napoleonic rule would bring its own problems and contradictions, but it endured because it began by resolving others that had torn the country apart for more than a decade.”

This book didn’t give me a feeling of overwhelming competence on the subject but certainly drove home the complexity in any social upheaval. The revolution itself is a prism through which any number of ideas can be examined. Did it give birth to liberalism? The persistent wouldn’t-it-be-nice?-ism of communism? The modern world?

All of these thoughts and more can be re-examined through a careful study of the past.

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Can Big Data Highlight Our Unconscious Values?

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Reflections on Chapters 4 and 5 of Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and Identity–What Our Online Lives Tell Us about Our Offline Selves (‘You Gotta Be The Glue’ and ‘There’s No Success Like Failure’)

4.) A lot of big data analysis seems to me to be justifying the obvious. Teasing apart a massive set of information to capture and visualize the things we already know to be true. This might be the first step towards quantifying folk wisdom and making social science more scientific.

Of course, there are counter-intuitive surprises to be found in the process of discovery but this chapter doesn’t deal with any.

In this chapter, the author explores the point that couples who have more mutual friends are more likely to stay together. He shows how robust his relationship with his wife is by showing all the Facebook friends as a group of dot-and-line visualizations. All of their friends who are friends with each other are connected to each other by lines and so their unique friend groups are easily identifiable.

“Research using a variety of sources (e-mail, IM, telephone) has shown that the more mutual friends two people share, the stronger their relationship. More connections imply more time together, more common interests, and more stability.” He also examines what a couple whose social life isn’t so ’embedded’ would look like. Couples who aren’t each other’s most embedded node on their social network are 50% more likely to break up.

For me, the most interesting part of this chapter is the brief primer on the origins of network analysis. In 1735, the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler simplified the seven bridges of Königsberg down to a visual abstraction of lines and dots to prove that you couldn’t possibly cross all seven by walking across each one only one time. Since then, “Euler’s concept of nodes and edges, which at first unraveled nothing more than a day’s walk, has since helped us understand disease and its vectors, trucks and their routes, genes and their bindings, and of course, people and their relationships. And in just the last few decades, network theory’s application to these last have exploded–because the networks themselves have exploded.”Firefox_Screenshot_2017-12-08T00-06-11.352Z

 

5.) We are often led to believe something is more important that it is. Oftentimes, the choices available to us influence our decisions without our even being aware. This chapter explores that bias and what data shows is truly important to us as consumers, citizens, and in our relationships.

The examples begin in web design and end up in dating, with an examination of a well-worn quote from Steve Jobs: “But by far the biggest cause of frustration is that people don’t understand what they actually need. As Steve Jobs said, ‘People don’t know what they want until you show them.’ What he didn’t say is that showing them, especially in tech, means playing a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey with several million people shouting advice.” OKCupid has tried hundreds of iterations of presenting information to its users, each version highlighting both different

Most closely referenced here are two different datasets from OKCupid that suggest physical attractiveness isn’t very important when out on a first date with a stranger. The thing is, looks are heavily selected for because that’s about all the users have to go off of online. Other things people tend to say are very important don’t match user behavior. For example, caring about politics seems to actually be more predictive for a two strangers getting along than matching party affiliations.

As one of the architects of OKCupid’s choice architecture, this makes the author pause to reflect that, “Dating sites are designed to give people the tools and the information to get whatever they want out of being single–casual sex, a few fun dates, a partner, a marriage…anything. Stuff like height, political views, photos, essays, all of it is right there, easily sortable, easily searchable. It’s there to help people make judgments and fulfill their desires, and as fascinating as those judgments and desires may be to pic apart, there’s a side of it that I think does love a disservice. People make choices from the information we provide because we can, not because they necessarily should.”

Why Are Religion And Science Forever At Odds?

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Reflections on Chapter 5 of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: ‘The Odd Couple’

This chapter explores the complex relationship between science and religion. The author offers his own definition of religion and distinguishes it from spiritual pursuits: “Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimizes human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.” It differs from ‘spirituality’ because religions are strict and clear-cut. They proscribe goals and rules for groups to adhere to. Spiritual endeavors, on the other hand, are individualistic quests that seek answers to the questions that feel most pertinent to an individual: “Who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good?”

Science is unable to answer these open-ended questions. It’s an institution designed to weigh-in on matters-of-fact. “Scientists study how the world functions, but there is no scientific method for determining how humans ought to behave. Science tells us that humans cannot survive without oxygen. However, is it okay to execute criminals by asphyxiation? Science doesn’t know how to answer such a question. Only religions provide us with the necessary guidance.”

Conflict is inevitable when either of these domains step into the other’s sphere of influence. Religions are prone to make ethical decisions based on factual claims that aren’t scientifically valid. At the same time, overzealous scientists tend to make moral assertions that sound insane when juxtaposed against religious doctrine. “Science has no ability to refute or corroborate the ethical judgments religions make. But scientists do have a lot to say about religious factual statements.” This is the heart of their conflict.

So what benefit do these two conflicting institutions provide to society? “Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research, it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth.”

I’ve heard people talk in apocalyptic terms about the ‘post-truth era‘ and perhaps that’s not what we’re living through so much as a period of profound moral confusion. Our technological abilities dazzle and leave our ethical reasoning behind:

“Every practical project scientists undertake also relies on religious insights. Take, for instance, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. When the Chinese government decided in 1992 to build the dam, physicists could calculate what pressures the dam would have to withstand, economists could forecast how much money it would probably cost, while electrical engineers could predict how much electricity it would produce. However the government needed to take additional factors into account. Building the dam flooded more than 200 square miles containing many villages and towns, thousands of archaeological sites, and unique landscapes and habitats. More than 1 million people were displaced and hundreds of species were endangered. It seems that the dam directly caused the extinction of the Chinese river dolphin. No matter what you personally think about the Three Gorges Dam, it is clear that its construction was an ethical rather than a purely scientific issue. No physics experiment, no economic model and no mathematical equation can determine whether generating thousands of megawatts and making billions of yuan is more valuable than saving an ancient pagoda or the Chinese river dolphin. Consequently China cannot function on the basis of scientific theories alone. It requires some religion or ideology, too.”

The intractable question of our time may very well be how can a mass of individuals make the tough decisions in a way that people can feel okay about. What should drive the undertakings our society undertakes? Greed? Christianity? The scientific method? Do we swing wildly between all extremes in a desperate attempt to please everyone?

Everyone has their own answer to that question and therein lies the conflict.

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“The Psychopath Test” and “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson

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“Sociopaths love power. They love winning. If you take loving kindness out of the human brain, there’s not much left except the will to win.” —The Psychopath Test

“We have always had some influence over the justice system, but for the first time in 180 years—since the stocks and the pillory were outlawed—we have the power to determine the severity of some punishments. And so we have to think about what level of mercilessness we feel comfortable with.” —So You’ve been Publicly Shamed

Jon Ronson’s books are compulsively readable. He knows how to spin a good story and ingratiate himself with strange and interesting people. My highlights in his books are sparse. His narrative is so tightly woven to its profundity that it was tough to spot the concise nuggets.

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he documents people who have had their careers ruined by the Internet. He feels like the Internet has unleashed virtual lynch mobs through message boards and Twitter. An example that he doesn’t cover but that I couldn’t help but think about was Bill Cosby. Rape allegations had been made against him for a couple decades, but it wasn’t until Hannibal Burress made a stand-up joke about it that someone recorded and posted on YouTube that Cosby’s career was forever tarnished in the public mind.

The Psychopath Test explores what he calls the ‘madness industry.’ The thing that stuck out to me the most was the humble beginnings of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which was haphazardly thrown together in 1952 by a roomful of psychiatrists shouting out symptoms to disorders they’d seen. The whole thing feels very mad, and that is why Jon Ronson is the perfect journalist to tell this story.

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“The Truth About Trump” by Michael D’Antonio

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“Trump begins each day with a sheaf of papers detailing where and how often his name has been mentioned in the global press. The reports are typically too numerous for him to actually read, but the weight of the pages gives his sensitive ego a measure of his importance on any given day. This need to be noticed, and his drive to satisfy it, has made him a singular figure worthy of close inspection.”

Say what you will about Donald Trump, his life has been fascinating. He’s been bumbling through American post-WWII history, as narcissistic as Forrest Gump was clueless, showing up at so many post-war events. I read the book to get a better feel for the man who could be president and came away shocked that he could go all the way to the Oval Office.

This book was originally published under the title Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit For Success in 2015, well before he was a serious presidential contender. D’Antonio’s reason for choosing to write about Donald Trump is a compelling one:

“But it is not Trump’s outrageousness that makes him worthy of interest. More important is that he has succeeded, like no one else, in converting celebrity into profit.(No matter how many billions he has, we are still talking about billions.) Somehow he has done this even as a substantial proportion of the population, arguably more than 50 percent, consider him a buffoon if not a menace. What does it say about Trump that he is so undeniably successful by the two measures that matter most to him—money and fame? And what, pray tell, does it say about us?”

In the end, the disturbing conclusion that D’Antionio draws is that Donald Trump is “a living expression of the values of our time.”

I wish this book was more widely read and this was the official narrative of who Donald Trump is, but every bookstore I walk into has Trump’s The Art of the Deal prominently on display, while this title is relegated to the back shelf.

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