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Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Peter Godfrey-Smith is an Australian professor of philosophy who has spent many hours scuba-diving in order to observe the behavior of octopuses and cuttlefish. The book is an attempt to trace the evolution of mental activity from its earliest beginnings hundreds of millions of years ago, when bacteria began reacting to their surroundings. The author believes that mind and consciousness didn’t suddenly spring into existence; they developed gradually through millions of years. But he admits that nobody knows for sure.

Neither do we know what it’s like to be an octopus. We don’t even know for certain that it’s like anything at all. Maybe octopuses go about their business without feelings or anything like consciousness. Godfrey-Smith, however, argues that it’s reasonable to believe that creatures of many sorts feel pain when they are injured. But where to draw the lines (if there are any lines) between bacteria that simply react, animals that feel pain and creatures like us who are self-conscious is a mystery.

Octopuses are especially interesting because our common ancestors lived about 500 million years ago. Octopuses developed complex nervous systems, arranged differently than ours, independently from most other animals, including us. That means, in Godfrey-Smith’s words, “meeting an octopus is, in many ways, the closest we’re likely to get to meeting an intelligent alien”. It’s really too bad that they can’t tell us what it’s like to be them.

I wish the book ended with a summation of the author’s conclusions. I do remember the idea that nervous systems first evolved in order to respond to a living thing’s surroundings, and then to monitor its internal states and control its movements. And I remember a lot about the interesting behavior of octopuses and their close relations, cuttlefish. But I can’t say I came to any solid conclusions about the deep origins of consciousness. If the author reached any conclusions, he should have reminded his readers what they were.

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A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer and More Efficient Tax System by T. R. Reid

The journalist T. R. Reid argues that America’s national tax system is a disaster, but we could fix it if we started over and adopted the best ideas about taxation from other countries. According to Reid, better systems of taxation are based on the BBLR model, i.e. they tax as much as possible (a “Broad Base”) but at rates that are as low as possible (“Low Rates”). So, instead of allowing lots of deductions and exemptions and credits, as we do now, we should simply tax all income. But since more income would be subject to taxation, the government could lower tax rates for everyone. Because their rates would be lower, fewer people and businesses would hire lawyers and accountants in order to avoid taxes. Business decisions and personal decisions would no longer be made on the basis of what taxes would be owed. In addition, filing a tax return would be much simpler than it is today.

Reid cites New Zealand as the country with the best tax system in the world. They once had a complicated tax system like ours, but were able to revamp the whole thing, following the BBLR model. He also argues for the adoption of a VAT (Value Added Tax), a kind of sales tax that every advanced country but the United States currently applies (one benefit of a VAT is that it’s hard to evade).

Some of the ideas Reid proposes would be acceptable, in theory, to both liberals and conservatives. But he admits that overcoming opposition from special interests and taxpayers who benefit from the system’s complexity would be a big challenge. For example, he recommends eliminating the deductions for charitable donations, local taxes and mortgage interest. I assume he would eliminate medical deductions as well. No doubt some taxpayers would end up paying more, while some would pay less. But we would have a system of taxation that was simpler, fairer and more efficient.

Given the benefits, it seems like the United States should do something like this. Given the craziness of the Republican Party, it seems unlikely that we ever will.

Salvador by Joan Didion

Joan Didion and her husband spent a few weeks in El Salvador in 1982. It was a dangerous place to be. Salvador is a short book about their visit. The book begins with a passage from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is fitting, given what it was like to be in El Salvador in 1982:

Terror is the given of the place. Black-and-white police cars cruise in pairs, each with the barrel of a rifle extruding from an open window. Roadblocks materialize at random, soldiers fanning out from trucks and taking positions, fingers always on triggers, safeties clicking on and off. Aim is taken as if to pass the time. Every morning “El Diario de Hoy” and “La Prensa Grafica” carry cautionary stories….A mother and her two sons hacked to death in their beds by eight “desconocidos”, unknown men….Same morning, different story: the unidentified bodies of three young men … their faces partially destroyed by bayonets….

This is how the book ends:

In the week that I am completing this report, … the offices in the Hotel Camino Real in Sal Salvador of the Associated Press, United Press International, …. NBC News, CBS News, and ABC News were raided and searched by members of the El Salvador National Police carrying submachine guns; fifteen leaders of legally recognized political and labor groups opposing the government of El Salvador were disappeared; … [the American ambassador] said that he was “reasonably certain” that these disappearances had not been conducted under Salvadoran government orders; … and the State Department announced that the Reagan administration believed that it had “turned the corner” in its campaign for political stability in Central America.

I’ve read a lot of Joan Didion’s journalism over the years, but have often felt I didn’t understand the point she was making. In an article called “The Picture In Her Mind”, Paul Gleason agrees that her “political meaning” often “remains obscure”. But he has an explanation:

Didion’s journalism from the Sixties and Seventies seems newly relevant because then (as now) American history had taken a few alarming turns, and everyone wanted to know why and what to do about it. While crossing the nation on book tour she heard the same question from every TV and radio host: “Where are we heading?” Today, the questions remain the same. “Why is this happening?” And: “What can we do to change it?” But Didion regarded answers to these questions with skepticism, bordering on contempt. At the heart of grand narratives about who we are and where we are heading she saw self-deception in the face of meaningless disorder. Instead of trying to change the world, Didion was content, as she writes in “South and West”, “to find out, as usual, what was making the picture in my mind”….

Didion had concluded “something about the stories people live by”:

“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Her disillusionment with her own story, it seems, positioned her especially well to see through the self-deceptions of others.

In Salvador, she reports what it was like to be in El Salvador in 1982, but makes it clear that what people there commonly referred to as “the situation” was too senseless to make sense of.

Ideology: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Freeden

This is volume 95 in the Very Short Introduction series published by Oxford University Press. I suppose it was worth reading, although I expected more about particular ideologies as opposed to the general nature of ideology.

Freeden defines a political ideology as: “a set of ideas, beliefs, opinions and values that

(1) exhibit a recurring pattern
(2) are held by significant groups
(3) compete over providing and controlling plans for public policy
(4) do so with the aim of justifying, contesting or changing the social and political arrangements and processes of a political community.”

He identifies four main political ideologies (socialism, liberalism, conservatism and fascism) but argues convincingly that none of them can be precisely defined. What they share are general commitments to certain fundamental principles, which can also be understood as preferred ways of applying certain key terms. For example, a liberal and a fascist may both be in favor of “freedom” and “justice” but define those terms differently and apply them to different situations.

Freeden doesn’t think that having an ideology is a bad thing. He clearly favors some ideologies over others, but suggests that having a political ideology is like having fundamental principles or preferences, and that it’s almost inescapable to have an ideology if you take politics seriously. At least in the Western world, the four mentioned above, although they have evolved through the years, have been the most frequently adopted.

Throughout the book, Freeden emphasizes the importance of language in the study of ideology:

Ideologies compete over the control of political language as well as competing over plans for public policy; indeed, their competition over plans for public policy is primarily conducted through their competition over the control of political language.

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges

The title pretty much sums up the book. In five chapters, the author discusses five dangerous illusions that beset the United States. They’re the illusions of:

  • Literacy — crap like professional wrestling and reality TV and the distractions of celebrity culture in general)
  • Love — the popularity of pornography, especially the kind that demeans women
  • Wisdom — how colleges have been turned into glorified vocational schools
  • Happiness — the “positive psychology” movement that offers false promises and promotes conformity
  • America — how the “greatest democracy” on Earth is actually a militaristic empire in the service of corporate capitalism.

He often exaggerates how bad things are, but the book serves as a good corrective to the idea that this is a healthy nation. Some of the negativity derives from the fact that Empire of Illusion was published in 2009 during the financial turmoil of the Great Recession. For example, Hedges casts doubt on the idea that the Obama administration would make any improvement to our health care system, such as making sure that more of us have adequate health insurance.

Even if he overstates some of the problems, he criticisms all have a basis in reality. A brief sample:

Individualism is touted as the core value of American culture, and yet most of us meekly submit, as we are supposed to, to the tyranny of the corporate state…. There is a vast and growing disconnect between what we say we believe and what  we do. We are blinded, enchanted and finally enslaved by illusion…..[p. 182].

The more we sever ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence, the more we are destined to implode. As the collapse continues and our suffering mounts, we yearn, like World Wrestling Entertainment fans, or those who confuse pornography with love, for the comfort, beauty and reassurance of illusion….And the lonely Cassandras who speak the truth about our misguided imperial wars, the economic meltdown, or the immindent danger of multiple pollution and soaring overpopulation, are drowned out by arenas of excited fans….[pp. 189-190].

I expect Mr. Hedges would offer our demagogic president’s scary political rallies as further confirmation of his thesis.

Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) rose to become the commanding general of the Union forces in the Civil War. In 1865, after defeating Robert E. Lee, he accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. In 1869, he became the 18th president of the United States. He served two terms. In 1884, he was diagnosed with cancer. To provide for his family, he immediately began writing this memoir. He died a few days after finishing it. From Wikipedia:

Grant’s memoirs treat his early life and time in the Mexican–American War briefly and are inclusive of his life up to the end of the Civil War. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was a critical and commercial success. [His wife] Julia Grant received about $450,000 in royalties….The memoir has been highly regarded by the public, military historians, and literary critics…. He candidly depicted his battles against both the Confederates and internal army foes. Twain called the Memoirs a “literary masterpiece.” Given over a century of favorable literary analysis, reviewer Mark Perry states that the Memoirs are “the most significant work” of American non-fiction.

Grant was a wonderful writer. His language is elegant but easy to understand. The book should be of interest to anyone who wants to learn about the Civil War, but also to anyone who wants to appreciate the complexities involved in leading a massive army. Grant’s comments on the nature of the Southern rebellion are especially interesting. He appreciated the skill and bravery of his opponents, but makes it clear that they were fighting for a terrible cause.

The only problem I had with the book is that there are lengthy descriptions of large and small-scale troop movements. Grant describes how troops were deployed in individual battles as well as the movement of armies containing as many as 80,000 soldiers. The problem is that it’s hard to understand what’s happening without being familiar with the geography of both individual battles and the Southern states. The maps in this edition were useless. I would have loved to hear Grant’s words while watching an animated video showing what he was describing.

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

This is the third of Al Franken’s books I’ve read. The first two were Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The titles reflect Senator Franken’s first career as a comedian and writer. The sarcastic title of his new book reflects his current career as the junior senator from Minnesota.

This book isn’t as funny as his earlier ones. That’s because, as he points out several times, a senator has to be more careful about what he says. This is more like a standard politician’s autobiography than I expected. He spends a lot of time telling his life story and how he got into politics, and how much he enjoys serving the people of Minnesota. There is a lot about his accomplishments as a senator. There are also serious discussions of important issues (his discussion of the Affordable Care Act is especially good).

I learned about the day-to-day life of a U.S. senator and how frustrating it can be to get things done now that one of our major political parties has become dangerously dysfunctional. I also had to relive some horrible recent history, for example, how one of the worst people in America became president. Fortunately, he still has his sense of humor and allows himself to use it fairly often.

It should be noted that Sen. Franken has shown himself to be quite a good senator. He’s especially done an excellent job during committee hearings on the president’s terrible nominees to cabinet positions. Now some people (for example, in this article from a couple days ago) are talking about Franken as a presidential candidate in 2020. I doubt if he’ll run, but we could do much, much worse. We already have (twice in this century).