Sviatoslav Richter – 16 settembre 1992

Qualche giorno fa ero a Firenze per un seminario. No, non la kermesse organizzata da la Repubblica, ma una cosa più paludata e accademica. Nell’intervallo c’era un light lunch, che è poi come un extended coffee break: finger food da mangiare in piedi, accumulando la stessa quantità di calorie di un piatto di rigatoni con la pajata ma sporcandosi anche l’abito o almeno la cravatta.

Io sono ormai perennemente a dieta e mi sono quindi astenuto dal pranzo, preferendo fare una passeggiata in un sole più che primaverile (ma non vi preoccupate, più tardi il temporale d’ordinanza è arrivato puntuale a spegnere gli entusiasmi e a fare alla mia giacca quello che non avevo lasciato fare al light lunch). Sono andato verso piazza del Duomo, passando davanti a Palazzo Medici-Riccardi e a San Lorenzo e mi sono subito trovato, inavvertitamente, a ripercorrere à rebours il cammino di Robert Langdon nella prima parte di Inferno di Dan Brown.

Apro una parentesi. È con viva e vibrante soddisfazione che vi segnalo che nella recensione comparsa sul prestigioso New Yorker (Joan Acocella, What the Hell?, 27 maggio 2013) si dicono cose non troppo dissimili da quelle che ho scritto io. Leggete tutto l’articolo, che ne vale la pena. Qui solo qualche assaggino:

As we saw in “The Da Vinci Code,” there is no thriller-plot convention, however well worn, that Brown doesn’t like. The hero has amnesia. He is up against a mad scientist with Nietzschean goals. He’s also up against a deadline: in less than twenty-four hours, he has been told, the madman’s black arts will be forcibly practiced upon the world.
[…]
[…] we have Brown’s beloved “symbologist,” Robert Langdon, a professor at Harvard, a drinker of Martinis, a wearer of Harris tweeds, running around Europe with a good-looking woman—this one is Sienna Brooks, a physician with an I.Q. of 208—while people shoot at them. All this transpires in exotic climes—Florence, Venice, and Istanbul—upon which, even as the two are fleeing a mob of storm troopers, Brown bestows travel-brochure prose: “The Boboli Gardens had enjoyed the exceptional design talents of Niccolò Tribolo, Giorgio Vasari, and Bernardo Buontalenti.” Or: “No trip to the piazza was complete without sipping an espresso at Caffè Rivoire.”
[…]
Finally, the conviction that everything refers to something else generates codes and symbols, which is what generates Robert Langdon. As a symbologist, he can read these runes. Often, the clue they give him does not point him to what he’s looking for but rather to something that will offer a further clue, which will get him a little closer to what he’s looking for, and so on, as in a treasure hunt.
[…]
The book has almost no psychology, because one of Brown’s favorite plot devices is to reveal, mid-novel, that a character presented all along as a friend is in fact an enemy […], or vice versa. To do that—and it’s always pretty exciting—Brown can’t give his characters much texture; if he did, they would be too hard to flip. Of course, without texture they don’t have anything interesting to say, except maybe “Stop the plane there.” The dialogue is dead. As for the rest of the writing, it is not dead or alive. It has no distinction whatsoever.

Ma questa era soltanto una digressione per spiegare perché mi trovassi in Via Por Santa Maria. Quasi arrivato a Ponte Vecchio si è aperto un passaggio tra due case e io ho avuto una vertigine proustiana che mi ha portato indietro di più di vent’anni.

Santo StefanoSanto Stefano a Ponte Vecchio

È l’ingresso della chiesa di Santo Stefano a Ponte Vecchio, che affaccia sulla sua raccolta piazzetta, defilata rispetto all’andirivieni di turisti della direttrice Ponte Vecchio-Piazza della Signoria. Lì, il 16 settembre 1992, venuti da Roma con un treno al pomeriggio e partiti prestissimo la mattina dopo aver dormito nella casa di Bagno a Ripoli, Morgaine e io abbiamo sentito un concerto di Sviatoslav Richter. Non il primo e non l’ultimo, ma comunque ogni concerto di Richter – mi creda chi non l’ha mai sentito – era un’occasione speciale.

L’acustica della chiesa è molto secca, o fredda: scegliete voi la vostra sinestesia. Forse sono tutti quei marmi, forse la totale assenza di superfici curve, che è una caratteristica della sua architettura. Non so se gli interventi successivi, che hanno accentuato le sue caratteristiche di auditorium (nel 1992 era ancora indubitabilmente una chiesa, ancorché sottratta al culto) abbiano ammorbidito la resa acustica. Nonostante la fama di Richter, la chiesetta non era stracolma. Era una giornata calda e serena (si erano toccati i 31 °C) e il concerto era nel tardo pomeriggio, alle 18 o alle 19. Nonostante le mie ricerche (disperate e frenetiche, ma non accurate) non ho trovato il programma, che però sono certo di avere conservato.

Nemmeno sull’enciclopedico sito dedicato alla memoria di Richter (In memoriam Sviatoslav Teofilovich Richter 1915-1997) è riportato il programma del concerto. Sono però abbastanza certo, basandomi – oltre che sulla mia fallibile memoria – anche sugli indizi offerti dalla cronologia di trovar.com, che il programma integralmente beethoveniano fosse lo stesso del concerto di pochi giorni dopo (20 settembre) a Briosco, a Villa Medici-Giulini e ancora, il mese successivo, in Olanda, a Eindhoven (22 ottobre) e Amsterdam (25 ottobre). Sempre lo stesso programma fu eseguito (e trasmesso dalla televisione tedesca) a Mosca il 2 dicembre e a fine mese, il 22, al Teatro Accademia di Conegliano di Asolo.

wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons

Il programma, dunque. Tutto Beethoven, sonate per pianoforte. In particolare:

  • Sonata n. 18 in mi bemolle maggiore, op. 31/3 “La caccia”
  • Sonata n. 19 in sol minore, op. 49/1
  • Sonata n. 20 in sol maggiore, op. 49/2
  • Sonata n. 22 in fa maggiore, op. 54
  • Sonata n. 23 in fa maggiore, op. 57 “Appassionata”.

Si tratta di sonate celeberrime (la prima e l’ultima) e di sonate relativamente meno eseguite (le due sonate op. 49 e l’op. 54 hanno la peculiarità di essere in soli 2 tempi e molto brevi). Richter partì un po’ nervoso e impacciato (come gli succedeva abbastanza spesso) ma poi giganteggiò.

Di questo programma abbiamo la testimonianza di un disco Philips (438486) registrato ad Amsterdam, durante il concerto del 25 ottobre (suppongo), privo però della prima sonata.

Della trasmissione effettuata dalla televisione tedesca NDR (e da quella russa TV Ostankino) del concerto del 2 dicembre 1992 sono riuscito a trovare il riferimento sulla videografia richteriana curata da Alex Malow, ma non la registrazione (47 minuti di delizia, suppongo). Accontentatevi della Sonata op. 49/1 (con una presa del suono molto approssimativa).

Qualche mese dopo, tra il 26 e il 27 maggio 1993, la chiesa di Santo Stefano al Ponte Vecchio fu gravemente danneggiata dall’attentato mafioso di via dei Georgofili (5 morti e 48 feriti).

Alan Bennett – Smut

Bennett, Alan (2010-2011). Smut: Stories. New York: Picador. 2012. ISBN 1846685265. Pagine 214. 7,78 €

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Un lettore onnivoro e impenitente si deve aspettare di tutto dai suoi impulsi. Anche di essere indotto a comprare e a leggere un libro da Facebook. La storia è questa (anche se su FB tutto è ultrapubblico tacerò i nomi): il 27 luglio 2012 un’amica (nell’accezione FB ma, mi auguro, anche in quella più ampia della vita reale) pubblica il seguente “aggiornamento di stato”: «Eh sì. Per me, letturine sporche. Anche.». E sotto questo libro, con il link alla bella copertina adelphiana e il testo del risvolto di copertina:

adelphi.it

Questa volta Alan Bennett svela una inusitata vena piccante: «lo scrittore più amato della Gran Bretagna» – ma non meno amato dai nostri numerosissimi lettori di Nudi e crudi e La sovrana lettrice – ci tuffa infatti in due farse scanzonate e impertinenti. Entriamo così nell’atmosfera briosa di Mrs Donaldson ringiovanisce, dove una rispettabile vedova di mezza età, dedita al mestiere di simulatrice di malattie in una clinica universitaria, si trova inopinatamente nel ruolo di apprendista voyeur; e poi nell’esilarante girandola di amplessi e ricatti incrociati di Mrs Forbes non deve sapere, la sorniona pochade familiare dove finiremo per godere del più grande fra i privilegi – quello di scoprire i segreti per primi. Tutto da ridere? Come sempre con Bennett, non proprio. Il nostro «maestro dell’osservazione» guarda il mondo come uno Swift fattosi malinconico e bonario; e con un’ironia mai livida, spesso affettuosa, irride le inibizioni, i convenzionalismi, le piccole miserie delle persone che si dichiarano normali nella loro vita di ogni giorno. Riuscendo anche questa volta, con la sua maliziosa levità, a insinuarsi nella psiche di tutti.

Nel mio animo alberga, neppur troppo sotterranea per la verità, una componente licenziosa e libertina. Più precisamente porcellina o porcellona, anzi. E quindi mi sono fiondato a comprare il libro su Kindle. Poi sono passati i mesi, altre urgenze, meno carnali e più intellettuali, hanno guidato le mie letture. Fino a quando, qualche giorno fa, l’ho aperto e divorato.

Sgombriamo subito il campo: non siamo di fronte a un romanzo porno, neppure nell’accezione soft delle 50 sfumature di tutto. Meno che mai ai sulfurei bagliori del divino marchese o dell’Histoire d’O. Nemmeno all’ikebana pubico di Lady Chatterley:

With quiet fingers he threaded a few forget-me-not flowers in the fine brown fleece of the mound of Venus.
‘There!’ he said. ‘There’s forget-me-nots in the right place!’
She looked down at the milky odd little flowers among the brown maiden-hair at the lower tip of her body.
‘Doesn’t it look pretty!’ she said.
‘Pretty as life,’ he replied.
And he stuck a pink campion-bud among the hair.
‘There! That’s me where you won’t forget me! That’s Moses in the bull-rushes.’

Siamo piuttosto di fronte a un divertito racconto britannico, pieno di compiaciuto understatement e di piacevolissima lettura. Il primo racconto è decisamente migliore del secondo, anche se è quest’ultimo a contenere le citazioni più memorabili e i dialoghetti più abrasivi. Il risvolto di copertina forse esagera i pregi dell’opera. Ma è il mestiere suo, e la fa molto bene, tanto che ho la tentazione di scrivere che è il brano più riuscito del libro…

Chissà se è poi piaciuto alla mia amica di FB-

* * *

Qualche citazione che, per una volta, dànno un’idea molto precisa dello stile e del tono dell’autore (riferimento come sempre alle posizioni sul Kindle).

She was (or thought herself) a conventional middle-class woman beached on the shores of widowhood after a marriage that had been, she supposed, much like many others…happy to begin with, then satisfactory and finally dull. [140]

‘If you are getting married in church, Graham, the vicar likes you to pretend you believe in God. Everyone knows this is a formality. It’s like the air hostess going through the safety drill. God’s in His heaven and your life jacket’s under the seat.’ [1307]

‘[…] What’s she like? Pretty?’
‘No,’ said Graham honestly. ‘
Big tits?’
‘Not particularly.’
‘Expecting?’
‘No.’
‘So what’re you marrying her for?’ [1352]

One of the functions of women, Mr Forbes had long since decided, was to impart an element of trouble into the otherwise tranquil lives of men. [1503]

There was, too…and this may be harder to understand…there was affection. Monstrous as she was, a tyrant and a snob, Graham’s mother was an ogre of such long-standing that her feelings (though they could often only be guessed at) nevertheless merited respect. Not yet an ancient monument she was a survival and on that score alone her outlook and her armour-plated ignorance merited preservation. [1843]

Gianni Mura – Ischia

Mura, Gianni (2012). Ischia. Milano: Feltrinelli. 2012. ISBN 9788807019180. Pagine 175. 9,99 €

Ischia

amazon.com

In realtà, avevo già detto tutto quello che avevo da dire su Gianni Mura in occasione del suo precedente avventurarsi nei territori del giallo, con Giallo su giallo: che adoro Gianni Mura (anche se non lo leggo più molto spesso) e che i consigli gastronomici sono interessanti. Identico il giudizio sintetico: «Leggibilissimo, ma ai limiti della truffa.»

Insomma, ci sono ricascato.

Il fatto è che, oltre a piacermi Gianni Mura, sono anche molto legato a Ischia – anche se sono alcuni anni che non ci metto piede – e la combinazione ha reso la tentazione irresistibile, anche se sapevo che cosa mi attendeva. Ne approfitterò per divagare.

* * *

Intanto mi dà l’occasione di fare i conti con il caso Armstrong e togliermi di dosso un peso. Penso che chiunque abbia letto il libro in cui Lance Armstrong (insieme a Sally Jenkins) raccontava la sua vita (It’s Not About the Bike) non possa non aver provato simpatia per lui e non essersi sentito dalla sua parte: non solo e non tanto la battaglia contro il cancro, ma anche l’infanzia infelice con il padre biologico che non lo riconosce neppure e il patrigno che maltratta lui e la madre; questa madre così ingombrante e americana (anzi texana); le prime gare e le prime cadute; la Cofidis, la sua squadra, che lo scarica, con una scusa, alla prima notizia della diagnosi di cancro (Armstrong era tecnicamente un collaboratore a tempo determinato e il suo contratto era scaduto da 2 giorni!); la cruda scena della crioconservazione dello sperma; la battaglia disperata contro le metastasi. Armstrong in quel libro dava l’impressione di non averci nascosto nulla, di averci messo a parte di tutto. Umano, dopo aver avuto l’impressione di essergli stati vicini nella tragedia, condividerne anche i trionfi, le passerelle sugli Champs-Élysées con la flute di champagne in mano e i bimbi sul palco, l’impresa che non era mai riuscita a nessuno, 7 Tour di fila. Una bella favola a lieto fine. Troppo bella per essere vero. Armstrong era il diavolo in persona, «il peggiore di tutti si è scoperto chi è».

Gianni Mura, che è stato un tifoso di Armstrong, compendia bene la nostra delusione (su La Repubblica del 23 ottobre scorso):

Armstrong è saltato sul cavallo bianco e ha affascinato molta gente (me compreso, almeno i primi anni). Tutto sbagliato, tutto da rifare, Bartali ha sempre ragione. Così, Armstrong non è il primo malato di cancro che guarisce e vince in modo pulito sette Tour. Armstrong è il primo malato di cancro che guarisce e vince sette Tour in modo sporco. Su quest’ultima e definitiva verità ognuno può fare le sue considerazioni.

* * *

Cambiamo registro. In Giallo su giallo Mura parla molto di gastronomia e, soprattutto, magnifica il cassoulet. Se non sapete di che si tratta (io non lo sapevo quando ho letto il romanzo di Mura): è una casseruola del Sud della Francia, in particolare del Languedoc. La versione originale sarebbe quella di Castelnaudary, anche se ne esistono altre versioni, da quelle “regionali” di Carcassonne e Toulouse, a quelle “locali” (Villefranche-de-Lauragais, Narbonne, Montauban, Pau e Pamiers). Chi ne vuol sapere di più può consultare la voce di Wikipedia.

Morivo dalla voglia di assaggiarla e mio figlio – che all’epoca studiava a Parigi – aveva scovato un ottimo ristorante, dove preparavano la versione (penso) di Tolosa: fagioli bianchi stufati fino a sciogliersi in bocca, confit de canard (“anatra candita”), salsiccia di Tolosa, lardo, cotenna, spalla di maiale disossata, cipolla, carota, crostini e lardoncelli.

Cassoulet

wikimedia.org/wikipedia/common

Un piatto non leggerissimo, la sera. Durante la notte, ho avuto qualche difficoltà di digestione, lo ammetto. Avete presente lo spot in cui il protagonista si sveglia con un irsuto cinghialone sullo stomaco? Forse, quando dopo il primo piatto, mi hanno riportato la casseruola ancora mezza piena chiedendomi se la volevo finire, avrei dovuto declinare l’invito. Ma era troppo buona per pensare alle conseguenze: il fenomeno è noto in letteratura come hyperbolic discounting e ne parla un famoso libro di George Ainslie del 2001, Breakdown of Will (su questo blog ne ho fatto un cenno qui). Il mattino dopo avevo un importante colloquio di lavoro, il motivo primario per cui ero a Parigi. Nonostante il cassoulet, o forse proprio per merito del cassoulet, me la sono cavata alla grande. Peccato che a volte persino in Francia gli esiti dei colloqui di lavoro siano predeterminati: ma questa è tutta un’altra (brutta) storia…

* * *

Ho accennato prima del mio amore per Ischia e delle mie ultra-trentennali frequentazioni ischitane. E dovrebbe essere più che chiaro, dall’aneddoto precedente, che sono goloso e appassionato del mangiare (e bere) bene. Uno dei motivi, dicevo, per cui Gianni Mura mi piace e mi intrappola con i suoi gialli di pura bufala.

Sono rimasto perciò sorpreso dall’assenza, nelle sua pagine, del Focolare del Cretaio (in comune di Casamicciola, ma in realtà a un passo da Barano). Il Focolare è una trattoria, animata da Riccardo d’Ambra e dalla sua numerosa famiglia. Me l’aveva consigliata un amico, anni fa (autunno 2000 o 2001, direi), dandomi indicazioni passabilmente corrette sulla strada da seguire (all’epoca la trattoria era in un posto diverso da dove si trova ora). Il problema che Ischia è un labirinto di stradine e stradicciuole, soprattutto nell’entroterra, in genere strettissime, un incubo per chi guida. Sbagliando strada, finiamo in una piazza e interpelliamo un signore elegante per chiedere indicazioni su come raggiungere la trattoria Focolare. «Ma come,» fa lui, «non sapete che è stata devastata da un’invasione di conigli di fossa?»

Insomma, era Riccardo d’Ambra in persona, che stava uscendo da un posto dove si era appena concluso un convegno sul locale coniglio di fossa e si accingeva ad accompagnare i suoi ospiti alla trattoria, dove si sarebbe passati dalle parole ai fatti, cioè alla degustazione del coniglio all’ischitana. Fummo prontamente invitati ad aggregarci agli illustri convegnisti (ricordo in particolare l’illustre professor Corrado Barberis) e da allora sono stato al Focolare tutte le volte che sono stato a Ischia.

Al Focolare si mangia la cucina di terra di Ischia. I d’Ambra sono una famiglia numerosa e tutti i figli collaborano, ognuno secondo i suoi talenti e le sue specializzazioni, all’impresa paterna. Il segreto, mi sembra, sono la rilettura attenta delle tradizioni e l’utilizzo degli ortaggi e delle erbe locali.

Ma la storia che merita di essere raccontata è quella del coniglio di fossa. Poiché Giovanna Esposito l’ha fatto meglio di quanto potrei fare io, vi rinvio al suo post L’isola di terra: la vite, il coniglio. Buona lettura.

Coniglio di fossa

gastronomiamediterranea.com

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Pochissime le citazioni meritevoli di essere riportate (riferimento come sempre alle posizioni sul Kindle).

[…] esteta estivo ed estatico. [969]

Il mare, pensa Magrite, lo contiene nel cognome. Mare, mer. Cosa resta? Git, gita. Gita-mer è cosa bilingue, da turisti. M’agiter è il suo anagramma. Sbagliato, perché si agita pochissimo. E anche ma tigre. Si chiamasse Magrice il suo anagramma sarebbe Grimace, smorfia. E sarebbe Magister se si chiamasse Magrites. [1123]

[…] la solitudine delle persone di buona volontà. [1275]

Per cena, il Melograno. Il giornalista gliene ha parlato bene. Lei, Libera, in cucina, lui, Giovanni, cantina e sala. [1824: ottimo, d’accordo, anche se un po’ fighetto; ma meglio il Focolare, mi dia retta Gianni Mura]

George Dyson – Turing’s Cathedral

Dyson, George (2012). Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. New York: Pantheon. 2012. ISBN 9780307907066. Pagine 338. 10,99 €

Turing's Cathedral

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Chi mi conosce o mi segue sa ormai che non mi entusiasmo troppo facilmente per un libro. Eppure questo lungo saggio di George Dyson merita un’acclamazione. È stato tradotto da poco da Codice edizioni (La cattedrale di Turing. Le origini dell’universo digitale) e quindi, se non volete fare la fatica di leggerlo in inglese, potete correre a leggerlo in italiano: ma ve lo raccomando, in qualunque lingua.

Ho impiegato molto tempo a leggere il libro (prevalentemente nei viaggi in metropolitana) e ho avuto perciò il tempo di anticipare alcune impressioni e riflessioni, qui (a proposito di previsioni) e qui (su Ape and Essence di Aldous Huxley).

Scopro proprio adesso, tra l’altro, che Dyson ha presentato questo suo libro al Festival della scienza di Genova pochi giorni fa, il 28 ottobre 2012. Io peraltro lo avevo incontrato qualche anno fa a Roma, al Festival delle scienze all’Auditorium di Roma dove aveva parlato dello stesso libro (all’epoca in gestazione) con lo stesso interlocutore italiano, Vittorio Bo (Roma, Auditorium Parco della musica, “Tra Possibile e Immaginario” Festival delle Scienze 2010, giovedì 14 gennaio 2010 Sala Petrassi ore 21: La Cattedrale di Turing e l’universo digitale. Conferenza con George Dyson, John Brockman, Vittorio Bo).

Nel post che gli avevo dedicato all’epoca raccontavo della sua bella metafora su kaiak e canoe, in risposta alla domanda annuale di John Brockman, che nel 2009 era stata «In che modo Internet ha cambiato la tua vita?». Se non l’avevate letta allora, correte a rileggerla ora, perché è bellissima, vera e molto profonda. Anzi, la rimetto, così non avrete scuse:

KAYAKS vs CANOES

In the North Pacific ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.

The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results — maximum boat / minimum material — by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unneccessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don’t will be left paddling logs, not canoes.

Quello che all’epoca non sapevo è che George Dyson, nipote figlio e fratello d’arte (di questo parleremo dopo), a 16 anni si era trasferito in British Columbia, nel Burrard Inlet a nord di Vancouver, abitando a lungo in una casa costruita con le sue mani con materiali di risulta a 30 metri d’altezza su un albero e fondando un laboratorio per kaiak di tipo baidarka.

Baidarka

guillemot-kayaks.com

In Turing’s Cathedral Dyson ricostruisce meticolosamente la nascita del primo computer digitale a Princeton nell’immediato dopoguerra. Il libro è ricchissimo di testimonianze e informazioni di prima mano. In questo, George Dyson è aiutato dalla circostanza di essere figlio del fisico Freeman Dyson e della sua prima moglie, la matematica Verena Huber-Dyson (oltre che fratello minore di Esther Dyson, e nipote del compositore inglese Sir George Dyson) e di aver passato l’infanzia e l’adolescenza all’Institute for Advenced Studies di Princeton. [Se posso raccontare un piccolissimo aneddoto personale: ho avuto l’avventura di passare un giorno allo IAS in visita a una persona che vi stava trascorrendo un periodo di ricerca, di pranzare alla sua leggendaria mensa e di incontrarvi il fragilissimo Freeman Dyson all’epoca 87enne.]

Ma il libro non è soltanto un’accurata ricostruzione storica. I singoli capitoli sono costruiti intorno alle tantissime persone interessanti, più o meno note, che hanno collaborato al progetto: su tutti giganteggia John von Neumann, ma Alan Turing e Kurt Gödel sono comprimari di lusso, per non parlare di comparse della stazza di Thorstein Veblen o di Stanislaw Ulam. Inoltre, ognuno dei 18 capitoli è incentrato – oltre che su uno o più degli scienziati che hanno contribuito al progetto – ai contributi che essi hanno dato a uno o più degli avanzamenti scientifici. Infine, emerge con nettezza, soprattutto nelle ultime pagine del saggio, l’idea cara a George Dyson che l’universo digitale percorra una sua propria traiettoria evoluzionistica. In questo senso è vero quanto ha scritto Janet Maslin nella recensione pubblicata sul San Jose Mercury News del 10 giugno 2012 (non vi metto il link perché è dietro un odioso paywall) che ha definito Turing’s Cathedral «a creation myth of the digital universe.»

Non vi dico altro: dovete leggerlo, se siete interessati agli argomenti che tratta, e anche se siete interessati a uno stile storiografico piuttosto originale.

Oltre alle solite citazione, che sono comprensibilmente moltissime e che riporterò alla fine, vorrei mettere il filmato di un intervento di George Dyson al TED e i link ad alcune recensioni comparse sulla stampa internazionale.

Ecco il link alla recensione di William Poundstone, pubblicata sul New York Times del 4 maggio 2012 (Unleashing the Power. ‘Turing’s Cathedral,’ by George Dyson), e quello alla recensione di Evgeny Morozov, pubblicata su The Observer del 25 marzo 2012 (Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson – review).

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Ecco le mie numerose annotazioni, con riferimento alle posizioni sul Kindle (sono annotazioni personali, che siete invitati ma non obbligati a leggere, naturalmente).

The term bit (the contraction, by 40 bits, of “binary digit”) was coined by statistician John W. Tukey shortly after he joined von Neumann’s project in November of 1945. [315]

The new machine was christened MANIAC (Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer) and put to its first test, during the summer of 1951, with a thermonuclear calculation that ran for sixty days nonstop. [405]

What could be wiser than to give people who can think the leisure in which to do it? — Walter W. Stewart to Abraham Flexner, 1939 [597]

Equations for gravitation, relativity, quantum theory, five perfect solids, and three conic sections were set into leaded glass windows, and the central mantelpiece featured a carving of a fly traversing the one-sided surface of a Möbius strip. [790]

Benoît Mandelbrot, who arrived at von Neumann’s invitation in the fall of 1953 to begin a study of word frequency distributions (sampling the occurrence of probably, sex, and Africa) that would lead to the field known as fractals […] [1039]

We are Martians who have come to Earth to change everything—and we are afraid we will not be so well received. So we try to keep it a secret, try to appear as Americans … but that we could not do, because of our accent. So we settled in a country nobody ever has heard about and now we are claiming to be Hungarians. — Edward Teller, 1999 [1061]

The good news is that, as Leibniz suggested, we appear to live in the best of all possible worlds, where the computable functions make life predictable enough to be survivable, while the noncomputable functions make life (and mathematical truth) unpredictable enough to remain interesting, no matter how far computers continue to advance. [1291]

“It was his genius at synthesizing and analyzing things. He could take large units, rings of operators, measures, continuous geometry, direct integrals, and express the unit in terms of infinitesimal little bits. And he could take infinitesimal little bits and put together large units with arbitrarily prescribed properties. That’s what Johnny could do, and what no one else could do as well.” [1300]

Vladimir Kosma Zworykin was a pioneer of television (and the last entry in many encyclopedias) […] [1602]

Mathematicians produce their best work at about the same time that they produce their children, and the nursery school helped keep the two apart. [2209]

“I can see no essential difference between the materialism which includes soul as a complicated type of material particle and a spiritualism which includes material particles as a primitive type of soul,” Wiener added in 1934. [2475]

Leibniz saw binary coding as the key to a universal language and credited its invention to the Chinese, seeing in the hexagrams of the I Ching the remnants of “a Binary Arithmetic … which I have rediscovered some thousands of years later.” [2497]

“There it might be said that the complete description of its behavior is infinite because, in view of the non existence of a decision procedure predicting its behavior, the complete description could be given only by an enumeration of all instances. The universal Turing machine, where the ratio of the two complexities is infinity, might then be considered to be a limiting case.” [2545]

Brownian motion — the random trajectory followed by a microscopic particle in response to background thermodynamic noise. [2628]

Maxim 7 advised “Never estimate what may be accurately computed”; Maxim 8 advised “Never guess what may be estimated”; and, if a guess was absolutely necessary, “Never guess blindly” was Maxim 9. [2667]

“We should clear any fog surrounding the notion of ‘prediction,’ ” Bigelow confessed. “Strictly and absolutely, no network operator—or human operator—can predict the future of a function of time.… So-called ‘leads’ evaluated by networks or any other means are actually ‘lags’ (functions of the known past) artificially reversed and added to the present value of the function.” [2675]

“A binary counter is simply a pair of bistable cells communicating by gates having the connectivity of a Möbius strip.” [2951]

[…] 1951 “Reliable Organizations of Unreliable Elements” and 1952 “Probabilistic Logics and the Synthesis of Reliable Organisms from Unreliable Components,” […] [2978]

Some failures stem from lack of vision, and some failures from too much. [3450]

“Consideration was given to the theory that the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has been increasing since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and that this increase has resulted in a warming of the atmosphere since that time,” the proceedings report. “Von Neumann questioned the validity of this theory, stating that there is reason to believe that most of the industrial carbon dioxide introduced into the atmosphere must already have been absorbed by the ocean.” The debate was on. [3962]

Imagine a future, combining the visions of Lewis Fry Richardson with those of von Neumann, where the Earth (including much of its oceans) is covered by wind turbines immersed in the momentum flux of the atmosphere, and photovoltaics immersed in the radiation flux from the sun. Eventually enough of these energy-absorbing and energy-dissipating surfaces will be connected to the integrated global computing and power grid, to form, in effect, the great Laplacian lattice of which Charney and Richardson dreamed. Every cell in this system would account for its relations with its neighbors, keeping track of whether it was dark, or sunny, or windy, or calm, and how those conditions may be expected to change. Coupled directly to the real, physical energy flux would be a computational network that was no longer a model—or rather, was a model, in Charney and Richardson’s sense of the atmosphere constituting a model of itself. [4008]

Monte Carlo opened a new domain in mathematical physics: distinct from classical physics, which considers the precise behavior of a small number of idealized objects, or statistical mechanics, which considers the collective behavior, on average, of a very large number of objects, Monte Carlo considers the individual, probabilistic behavior of an arbitrarily large number of individual objects, and is thus closer than either of the other two methods to the way the physical universe actually works. [4400]

Biological evolution is, in essence, a Monte Carlo search of the fitness landscape, and whatever the next stage in the evolution of evolution turns out to be, computer-assisted Monte Carlo will get there first.
Monte Carlo is able to discover practical solutions to otherwise intractable problems because the most efficient search of an unmapped territory takes the form of a random walk. […] The genius of Monte Carlo—and its search-engine descendants—lies in the ability to extract meaningful solutions, in the face of overwhelming information, by recognizing that meaning resides less in the data at the end points and more in the intervening paths. [4563-4568]

“He was simultaneously one of the smartest people that I’ve ever met and one of the laziest—an interesting combination.” [4594]

Ulam’s self-reproducing cellular automata—patterns of information persisting across time—evolve by letting order in but not letting order out. [5013]

“GOD DOES NOT play dice with the Universe,” Albert Einstein advised physicist Max Born (Olivia Newton-John’s grandfather) in 1936. [5137]

“Make life difficult but not impossible,” Barricelli recommended. “Let the difficulties be various and serious but not too serious; let the conditions be changing frequently but not too radically and not in the whole universe at the same time.” [5275]

No matter how long you wait, numbers will never become organisms, just as nucleotides will never become proteins. But they may learn to code for them. [5335]

“I would suspect, that a truly efficient and economical organism is a combination of the ‘digital’ and ‘analogy’ principle,” he wrote in his preliminary notes on “Reliable Organizations of Unreliable Elements” (1951). “The ‘analogy’ procedure loses precision, and thereby endangers significance, rather fast … hence the ‘analogy’ method can probably not be used by itself—‘digital’ restandardizations will from time to time have to be interposed.” [5343]

How did complex polynucleotides originate, and how did these molecules learn to coordinate the gathering of amino acids and the construction of proteins as a result? He saw the genetic code “as a language used by primordial ‘collector societies’ of t[ransfer]RNA molecules … specialized in the collection of amino acids and possibly other molecular objects, as a means to organize the delivery of collected material.” He drew analogies between this language and the languages used by other collector societies, such as social insects, but warned against “trying to use the ant and bee languages as an explanation of the origin of the genetic code.” [5425]

Aggregations of order codes evolved into collector societies, bringing memory allocations and other resources back to the collective nest. Numerical organisms were replicated, nourished, and rewarded according to their ability to go out and do things: they performed arithmetic, processed words, designed nuclear weapons, and accounted for money in all its forms. They made their creators fabulously wealthy, securing contracts for the national laboratories and fortunes for Remington Rand and IBM. [5448]

Twenty-five years later, much of the communication between computers is not passive data, but active instructions to construct specific machines, as needed, on the remote host. [5462]

Barricelli believed in intelligent design, but the intelligence was bottom-up. [5470]

The origin of species was not the origin of evolution, and the end of species will not be its end.
And the evening and the morning were the fifth day. [5529]

“One of the facets of extreme originality is not to regard as obvious the things that lesser minds call obvious,” […] [5611]

Complicated behavior does not require complicated states of mind. [5648]

The title “On Computable Numbers” (rather than “On Computable Functions”) signaled a fundamental shift. Before Turing, things were done to numbers. After Turing, numbers began doing things. By showing that a machine could be encoded as a number, and a number decoded as a machine, “On Computable Numbers” led to numbers (now called “software”) that were “computable” in a way that was entirely new. [5702]

The relations between patience, ingenuity, and intuition led Turing to begin thinking about cryptography, where a little ingenuity in encoding a message can resist a large amount of ingenuity if the message is intercepted along the way. […] A Turing machine can also be instructed to search for meaningful statements, but since there will always be uncountably more meaningless statements than meaningful ones, concealment would appear to win. [5752-5755]

“When the war started probably only two people thought that the Naval Enigma could be broken,” explained Hugh Alexander, in an internal history written at the end of the war. “Birch [Alexander’s boss] thought it could be broken because it had to be broken and Turing thought it could be broken because it would be so interesting to break it.” [5793]

Jack Good would later explain that “the ultraintelligent machine … is a machine that believes people cannot think.”
Digital computers are able to answer most—but not all—questions stated in finite, unambiguous terms. They may, however, take a very long time to produce an answer (in which case you build faster computers) or it may take a very long time to ask the question (in which case you hire more programmers). Computers have been getting better and better at providing answers—but only to questions that programmers are able to ask. What about questions that computers can give useful answers to but that are difficult to define? [5969-5971]

The paradox of artificial intelligence is that any system simple enough to be understandable is not complicated enough to behave intelligently, and any system complicated enough to behave intelligently is not simple enough to understand. The path to artificial intelligence, suggested Turing, is to construct a machine with the curiosity of a child, and let intelligence evolve. [5987]

Search engines are copy engines: replicating everything they find. When a search result is retrieved, the data are locally replicated: on the host computer and at various servers and caches along the way. Data that are widely replicated, or associated frequently by search requests, establish physical proximity that is manifested as proximity in time. More meaningful results appear higher on the list not only because of some mysterious, top-down, weighting algorithm, but because when microseconds count, they are closer, from the bottom up, in time. Meaning just seems to “come to mind” first. [6009]

Structure can always be replaced by code. [6223]

Biology has been doing this all along. Life relies on digitally coded instructions, translating between sequence and structure (from nucleotides to proteins), with ribosomes reading, duplicating, and interpreting the sequences on the tape. [6262]

In biology, the instructions say, “DO THIS with the next copy of THAT which comes along.” THAT is identified not by a numerical address defining a physical location, but by a molecular template that identifies a larger, complex molecule by some smaller, identifiable part. This is the reason that organisms are composed of microscopic (or near-microscopic) cells, since only by keeping all the components in close physical proximity will a stochastic, template-based addressing scheme work fast enough. There is no central address authority and no central clock. Many things can happen at once. This ability to take general, organized advantage of local, haphazard processes is the ability that (so far) has distinguished information processing in living organisms from information processing by digital computers. [6269]

Part of the problem, as Jack Good put it in 1962, is that “analogue computers are stupidly named; they should be named continuous computers.” […] “If the only demerit of the digital expansion system were its greater logical complexity, nature would not, for this reason alone, have rejected it,” von Neumann admitted in 1948.
Search engines and social networks are analog computers of unprecedented scale. Information is being encoded (and operated upon) as continuous (and noise-tolerant) variables such as frequencies (of connection or occurrence) and the topology of what connects where, with location being increasingly defined by a fault-tolerant template rather than by an unforgiving numerical address. [6337-6345]

“[…] It is characteristic of objects of low complexity that it is easier to talk about the object than produce it and easier to predict its properties than to build it. But in the complicated parts of formal logic it is always one order of magnitude harder to tell what an object can do than to produce the object.” [6429]

Self-reproduction is an accident that only has to happen once. [6440]

Probabilistic Logics and the Synthesis of Reliable Organisms from Unreliable Components [6499]

Model of General Economic Equilibrium [6512]

We measure our economy in money, not in things, and have yet to develop economic models that adequately account for the effects of self-reproducing machines and self-replicating codes. [6520]

Evolution in the digital universe now drives evolution in our universe, rather than the other way around. [6534]

Over long distances, it is expensive to transport structures, and inexpensive to transmit sequences. Turing machines, which by definition are structures that can be encoded as sequences, are already propagating themselves, locally, at the speed of light. The notion that one particular computer resides in one particular location at one time is obsolete. [6545]

“My own personal theory is that extraterrestrial life could be here already … and how would we necessarily know? If there is life in the universe, the form of life that will prove to be most successful at propagating itself will be digital life; it will adopt a form that is independent of the local chemistry, and migrate from one place to another as an electromagnetic signal, as long as there’s a digital world—a civilization that has discovered the Universal Turing Machine—for it to colonize when it gets there. And that’s why von Neumann and you other Martians got us to build all these computers, to create a home for this kind of life.”
There was a long, drawn-out pause. “Look,” Teller finally said, lowering his voice to a raspy whisper, “may I suggest that instead of explaining this, which would be hard … you write a science-fiction book about it.”
“Probably someone has,” I said.
“Probably,” answered Teller, “someone has not.” [6600]

By mid-1953, five distinct sets of problems were running on the MANIAC, characterized by different scales in time: (1) nuclear explosions, over in microseconds; (2) shock and blast waves, ranging from microseconds to minutes; (3) meteorology, ranging from minutes to years; (4) biological evolution, ranging from years to millions of years; and (5) stellar evolution, ranging from millions to billions of years. All this in 5 kilobytes—enough memory for about one-half second of audio, at the rate we now compress music into MP3s. [6705]

The middle of this range falls between 104 and 105 seconds, or about eight hours, exactly in the middle of the range (from the blink of an eye, over in three-tenths of a second, to a lifetime of three billion seconds, or ninety years) that a human being is able to directly comprehend. [6711]

The “last mile” problem — how to reach individual devices without individual connection costs — has evaporated with the appearance of wireless devices […] [6754]

This is why it is so difficult to make predictions, within the frame of reference of our universe, as to the future of the digital universe, where time as we know it does not exist. [6769]

VON NEUMANN MADE a deal with “the other party” in 1946. The scientists would get the computers, and the military would get the bombs. This seems to have turned out well enough so far, because, contrary to von Neumann’s expectations, it was the computers that exploded, not the bombs. [6801]

Alfvén also argued, without convincing the orthodoxy, that the large-scale structure of the universe might be hierarchical to infinity, rather than expanding from a single source. Such a universe — fulfilling Leibniz’s ideal of everything from nothing — would have an average density of zero but infinite mass. [6838]

The power of the genetic code, as both Barricelli and von Neumann immediately recognized, lies in its ambiguity: exact transcription but redundant expression. In this lies the future of digital code. [6952]

So as not to shoot down commercial airliners, the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air defense system that developed out of MIT’s Project Whirlwind in the 1950s kept track of all passenger flights, developing a real-time model that led to the SABRE (Semi-Automatic Business-Related Environment) airline reservation system that still controls much of the passenger traffic today. [6955]

It is easier to write a new code than to understand an old one. — John von Neumann to Marston Morse, 1952 [7046]

[…] one for the Bureau of the Census […] [7183]

“The agreement with Poisson’s law of improbable events draws our attention to the existence of a persistent background of probability,” he concluded. “If the beginnings of wars had been the only facts involved, we might have called it a background of pugnacity. But, as the ends of wars have the same distribution, the background appears to be composed of a restless desire for change.”[7269]

“Science thrives on openness,” he reflected in 1981, “but during World War II we were obliged to put secrecy practices into effect. After the war, the question of secrecy was reconsidered … but the practice of classification continued; it was our ‘security,’ whether it worked or failed.… The limitations we impose on ourselves by restricting information are far greater than any advantage others could gain.” [7290]

At a Friends meeting, silence is a form of communication, an exception to Bigelow’s rule that absence of a signal should never be used as a signal. [7519]

Upton Sinclair – The Jungle

Sinclair, Upton (1906). The Jungle. Library of Alexandria. 2008. ISBN 9781477665879. Pagine 409. 2,27 €

The Jungle

wikimedia.org/wikipedia

Con questo libro completo, in realtà, una mia personalissima trilogia di Chicago, iniziata più di 10 anni fa con la segnalazione (e poi il dono) da parte di AD del bel saggio di Marco D’Eramo, Il maiale e il grattacielo (ne abbiamo parlato qui), proseguita lo scorso settembre con la mia visita di quella città (dove ho visto più grattacieli che maiali).

Upton Sinclair, scrittore socialista americano (1878-1968), è stato testimone di una parte consistente della tumultuosa crescita che ha portato gli stati Uniti a essere la prima potenza industriale del mondo. Scritto come un romanzo, The Jungle è la narrazione dell’accumulazione originaria del capitalismo americano e proprio per questo mi ha fatto immediatamente pensare a La situazione della classe operaia in Inghilterra di Friedrich Engels. Sinclair però, a differenza di Engels, organizza la sua narrazione come un romanzo, e non come un documentario: romanzo a lieto fine, naturalmente, perché siamo pur sempre dentro a una storia americana, anche se il lieto fine coincide con la scoperta del socialismo da parte del protagonista, l’immigrato lituano Jurgis Rudkus, e se l’unico a vivere felice e contento sarà (forse) lui (tutti gli altri della famiglia sono morti, per lo più tragicamente, o finiti male). Il romanzo si chiude, comunque, con il grido – ripetuto 3 volte – «Chicago will be ours!»

Scritto nel 1906, il romanzo mostra la corda nel linguaggio utilizzato, spesso gonfio e retorico, talora più attento agli effettacci strappacore che alla gelida documentazione, e nella prevedibilità della vicenda, che alterna folate di ottimismo e speranza a lunghi capitoli di angoscianti sequele di disgrazie. Resta, però, una bellissima prova di storytelling e di docufiction: parole e concetti che all’epoca non esistevano, e che quest’opera di Upton Sinclair ha contribuito a fondare.

Curiosa la ricezione che il romanzo ebbe all’epoca negli Stati Uniti: gli americani si preoccuparono piuttosto delle condizioni igieniche dell’industria alimentare che delle condizione degli operai immigrati e delle loro famiglie. L’opinione pubblica – nonostante le resistenze del presidente Theodore Roosevelt – portò all’adozione di 2 leggi nel 1906 (il Meat Inspection Act e il Pure Food and Drug Act), e in ultima istanza all’istituzione della Food and Drug Administration nel 1930. Sinclair fu deluso di questo esito del suo appassionato lavoro e commentò così: «I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.»

* * *

Qualche passo degno di nota (riferimento alle posizioni sul Kindle).

Brown and Durham were supposed by all the world to be deadly rivals — were even required to be deadly rivals by the law of the land, and ordered to try to ruin each other under penalty of fine and imprisonment! [691]

Jurgis, who knew nothing about the age-long and everlasting hypocrisy of woman, would take the bait and grin with delight […] [1960]

But a big man cannot stay drunk very long on three dollars. That was Sunday morning, and Monday night Jurgis came home, sober and sick, realizing that he had spent every cent the family owned, and had not bought a single instant’s forgetfulness with it. [3150]

There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside. [4632]

[…] the curse of the wage-slave […] [5015: se non sbaglio, questo è il passo in cui Sinclair usa per la prima volta il termine wage-slave, comparando esplicitamente la condizione operaia alla schiavitù, argomento tuttora molto connotato emotivamente nell’America di inizio Novecento. Jack London, in una recensione del romanzo, lo definì «the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery.»]

Allowing five to a family […] [5625: giusto per avere l’idea della demografia dell’epoca…]

[…] most of the ills of the human system are due to overfeeding! And then again, it has been proven that meat is unnecessary as a food; and meat is obviously more difficult to produce than vegetable food, less pleasant to prepare and handle, and more likely to be unclean. But what of that, so long as it tickles the palate more strongly?”
“How would Socialism change that?” asked the girl-student, quickly. It was the first time she had spoken.
“So long as we have wage slavery,” answered Schliemann, “it matters not in the least how debasing and repulsive a task may be, it is easy to find people to perform it. But just as soon as labor is set free, then the price of such work will begin to rise. So one by one the old, dingy, and unsanitary factories will come down—it will be cheaper to build new; and so the steamships will be provided with stoking machinery, and so the dangerous trades will be made safe, or substitutes will be found for their products. In exactly the same way, as the citizens of our Industrial Republic become refined, year by year the cost of slaughterhouse products will increase; until eventually those who want to eat meat will have to do their own killing—and how long do you think the custom would survive then? [5651: sorprendentemente, e per quanto lui si sia lamentato di questa sua lettura, il romanzo di Sinclair ha una vena, se non animalista, preoccupata degli effetti insalubri della macellazione di massa; e la soluzione, proposta come socialista, ha in realtà una logica fortemente economicistica]

6 cose da fare prima che il riscaldamento globale ci sommerga

Le ha proposte la rivista dello Smithsonian Institute il 20 settembre 2012: Six Things to Do and Places to See Before Climate Change Swamps the Party.

  1. Una passeggiata a piedi nudi sulla spiaggia di Tuvalu (o di Kiribati, di Vanikoro, delle Florida Keys o delle isole del delta del Po, se è per quello). Ci si aspetta per il 2100 un innalzamento del livello del mare di almeno un metro.

    Kiribati

    wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons

  2. Snorkeling sulla Grande barriera corallina. Secondo l’agenzia di stampa sull’ambiente Grist, nel 2011 il 20% delle barriere coralline del pianeta erano già morte, e il 75% di quelle superstiti in pericolo, per effetto dell’acidificazione delle acque degli oceani, un altro effetto dell’eccesso di anidride carbonica.

    Barriera corallina

    smithsonianmag.com / Scientists predict that 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs, like this dying clump of coral on a reef in Cuba, are threatened by sea temperature rise and ocean acidification. Photo courtesy of World Resources.

  3. Una buona bottiglia di vino californiano. Ce ne sono da 1000$, ma non dureranno a lungo: secondo il climatologo Gregory Jones un aumento delle temperature medie di 2 °C renderebbe, nel 2050, la Napa Valley inadatta alla viticoltura. Anche il Chianti, le Langhe e Bolgheri, temo. Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus. Prosit!

    Cabernet Sauvignon

    smithsonianmag.com / Fine wines—like inky, opulent Cabs that can cost $1,000 for a newly released bottle—may lose value as global warming bakes the Napa Valley of California. Photo courtesy of Flickr user naotakem.

  4. Una passeggiata nelle foreste delle Everglades, in Florida. È un po’ lo stesso discorso di Tuvalu, soltanto che qui stiamo parlando di un ambiente tropicale tuttora abbastanza intatto. Lo stesso pericolo incombe su tutte le terre basse costiere, dalla Zelanda, all’Olanda, al Belgio (non una gran perdita, direte voi; ma abitano lì alcuni miei cari amici, e non ci sono alligatori). E anche la piana di Grosseto tornerà a essere un golfo, come ai tempi dell’esilio della bella Lesbia amata da Catullo.

    Isola Clodia

    abbazie.com

  5. Vedere un orso bianco nel suo habitat. Quest’estate, l’estensione della calotta artica aveva una superficie pari alla metà di quella dell’estate di 40 anni fa (sì, quell’estate del 1972 in cui invece di andare alle Svalbard siete andati in campeggio in Calabria con Lotta Continua). E gli orsi bianchi dove vanno? come fanno a sopravvivere? si accoppiano con gli orsi bruni, un ibrido fertile, per fortuna (sempre che gli orsi bianchi si accoppino con le orse brune, e gli orsi bruni con le femmine bianche): la buona notizia è che sopravviveranno, la cattiva che diventeranno color caffelatte…

    Orso bianco

    smithsonianmag.com / If the polar bear fails to adapt to a world without ice, it may be doomed—or be forced to interbreed with brown bears. Photo courtesy of Flickr user adjacknow.

  6. Una pagaiata nei canali di Venezia. Non contateci, sul MOSE. Meglio affittarsi un kayak, ad esempio qui

    Kayak a Venezia

    smithsonianmag.com / Sea kayaking in Venice is one vacation idea that you’ll have plenty of time to realize. As waters rise, this city is simultaneously sinking. Photo courtesy of Flickr user ECV-OnTheRoad.

Il rendimento dei BTP decennali sfonda nuovamente il 5% – FT.com

Torna lo spauracchio della crisi europea. E l’Italia torna al centro delle preoccupazioni. Lo segnala il Financial Times:

Spain’s borrowing costs back above 5.5% – FT.com

Spain’s borrowing costs rose above 5.5 per cent for the first time since January as investors fretted about another escalation of the eurozone crisis amid signs of further economic weakening even in Germany.

Investors, already nervous about Madrid’s deficit and weak growth prospects, pushed Spain’s benchmark 10-year bond yields up 14 basis points to as high as 5.53 per cent. Italy’s borrowing costs also rose with the yield on its 10-year bond breaking through 5 per cent.

Markets have been calmed in recent weeks by the European Central Bank’s cheap loans for lenders, known as the longer-term refinancing operation. But some investors are now becoming nervous that the impact of the two LTROs is already wearing off.

Mario Draghi

wikipedia.org

Marc Chandler, currency strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman, noted Italian 10-year yields have fallen 180bp so far this year while Spain’s have risen by 39bp.

“That is after two LTROs,” he said. “That definitely concerns me. When the bonds rally it helps the banks’ balance sheets. But when yields start rising it hurts the banks even more. It is a vicious circle.”

The economic fate of Spain and Italy is both viewed as central to assessing whether the eurozone debt crisis – quiet since Greece’s default earlier this month – could re-erupt. Investors worry that weak growth, not just in Italy and Spain but across the rest of the eurozone, could be the spark to reignite the crisis, despite some European politicians’ claims that it was largely over.

Eurozone purchasing managers’ indices, released on Thursday for March, suggest weakening growth prospects across the continent with an unexpectedly strong decline in Germany, the powerhouse of the eurozone.

Investors have started to focus on Spain again this year after its budget deficit overshot targets last year and the government proposed to cut it less than it had agreed with European authorities for 2012.

After Portugal’s bailout a year ago, markets expected Spain to be next in line. But partly due to Italy’s high debt burden and the stumbling performance of its former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, investors turned their sights on Rome first.

Now investors are back to worrying about Madrid with concerns ranging from its extremely high youth unemployment rate to its troubled banking sector and high budget deficit.

“Spain is a problem still,” said a fund manager at one large bond investor. “Maybe it doesn’t flare up for a while but it is hard to see it just muddling through forever: the numbers, particularly on unemployment, are just too bad.”

Investors sought haven bond assets on Thursday with German 10-year Bund yields falling 7bp to 1.91 per cent.

Robert Trivers – The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life

Trivers, Robert  (2011). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. New York: Basic Books. 2011.

The Folly of Fools

Difficilmente inquadrabile, Robert Trivers. Non ancora settantenne (ne compirà 69 il 19 febbraio), è considerato uno dei più importanti studiosi dell’evoluzione contemporanei. Basti pensare che è lui che ha scritto l’introduzione al libro sull’evoluzione più influente degli ultimi 40 anni, The Selfish Gene (Il gene egoista) di Richard Dawkins (non ditemi che non ne avete sentito parlare e, soprattutto che non l’avete letto: fatelo immediatamente).

A differenza di Dawkins, però, Trivers non è mai stato un “divulgatore” (per le mie riserve su questo termine, che giustifica la presa di distanza implicita nelle virgolette, vi invito a guardare questo post). Se non mi sbaglio, questo è il suo primo scritto non tecnico, se si esclude quello scritto – a 4 mani – sul disastro aereo del 13 gennaio 1982, quando un Boeing 737 diretto in Florida precipitò durante il decollo da Washington DC, schiantandosi su un ponte e precipitando nel Potomac a poche centinaia di metri dal National Mall e dalla Casa Bianca.

Robert Trivers

Robert Trivers

Non aiuta la popolarità di Robert Trivers, soprattutto nella bacchettona America, che si professi comunista, che sia stato un amico personale di Huey P. Newton, leader delle Pantere Nere, dal 1978 alla sua morte violenta nel 1989 (è con lui che Trivers ha scritto il libro sul disastro aereo del 1982 ed è a lui che The Folly of Fools è dedicato), che sia stato membro delle Pantere Nere dal 1979, che – pur essendo figlio di un ebreo profugo dalla Germania nazista – sia attivamente schierato a favore del popolo palestinese e accusi Israele di genocidio (altra posizione piuttosto impopolare negli Stati Uniti) e, last but not least, che sia un consumatore sistematico e confesso di cannabinoidi. Se vi interessa la sua biografia, che è piuttosto pittoresca, vi suggerisco la lettura di un profilo pubblicato sul Guardian nel 2005, in occasione di un precedente libro di Robert Trivers (Andrew Brown, The kindness of strangers, pubblicato il 27 agosto 2005).

Huey P. Newton

Huey P. Newton - wikipedia.org

Un aspetto essenziale della vita di Trivers è che è stato colpito in almeno due occasioni dalla depressione e dal disagio mentale. La prima volta fu quando, ancora intenzionato a laurearsi in legge, fu ricoverato per una grave forma di esaurimento nervoso (come si diceva all’epoca, testimoni gli Stones), apparentemente innescata da un eccesso di studio di Ludwig Wittgenstein (altro bel tipino: ma questa è tutta un’altra storia). La seconda fu quando nel 1978 lasciò Harvard per l’Università di California a Santa Cruz. Secondo lo stesso Trivers era “perhaps the second worst school in its class in the country. Lord, what a place. It was a very, very bad fit for me, and a dreadful 16 years.” Secondo il citato articolo del Guardian: “Santa Cruz [was] a university with a reputation for drug abuse and slackness. ‘It was a once-in-a-lifetime mistake,’ [Trivers] says, ‘in the sense that I can’t afford to make another one like that. I survived, and I helped raise my children for a while; but that was all.’

Trivers ha scritto 5 articoli entrati nella storia della teoria dell’evoluzione ancora prima di conseguire il Ph. D.:

Poi, come abbiamo detto, sostanzialmente sparisce. Nel 2004 John Brockman (ne abbiamo parlato qui) racconta la storia così:

Thirty years ago, Robert Trivers disappeared.
My connection to him is goes back to the 1970s. He had left Harvard and was roaming around Santa Cruz when I was introduced to him in a telephone call by our mutual friend Huey P. Newton, Chairman of The Black Panther Party. Huey put Robert on the phone and we had a conversation in which he introduced me to his ideas. I recall noting at the time the power and energy of his intellect. Huey, excited by Robert’s ideas on deceit and self-deception, was eager for the three of us to get together.
We never had the meeting. Huey met a very bad end. I lost track of Robert. Over the years there were rumors about a series of breakdowns; he was in Jamaica; in jail.
He fell off the map.
[…]
Several weeks ago, […] the mathematician Karl Sigmund […] and I talked about theories of indirect reciprocity, generous reciprocity, reputation, and assessment, and the relevance of these concepts in our everyday lives.
“Where did you come up with these ideas?” I asked Karl.
“In the early 70s,” he said. “I read a famous paper by Robert Trivers, one of five he wrote as a graduate student at Harvard, in which the idea of indirect reciprocity was mentioned obliquely. He spoke of generalized altruism, where you are giving back something not to the person you owed it to but to somebody else in society. This sentence suggested the possibility that generosity may be a consideration of how altruism works in evolutionary biology.”
Karl went on to explain how evolutionary concepts of indirect reciprocity, generous reciprocity, reputation assessment, cooperation, evolutionary dynamics—all inspired by Trivers’ early paper—are very much in play in all our lives: in Google’s page rankings; in amazon.com’s reader reviews; in the reputations of eBay buyers and sellers, and even in the good standing of a nonprofit web site such as Edge (for example, type the word “edge” in the Google search box, you arrive at this web site).

John Brockman

John Brockman - edge.org

Nello stesso evento organizzato da Edge nel 2004 (che trovate qui) Steven Pinker (su questo blog ne abbiamo parlato, tra l’altro, qui) riassume così l’enorme influenza di quei 5 paper:

I consider Trivers one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that he has provided a scientific explanation for the human condition: the intricately complicated and endlessly fascinating relationships that bind us to one another.
In an astonishing burst of creative brilliance, Trivers wrote a series of papers in the early 1970s that explained each of the five major kinds of human relationships: male with female, parent with child, sibling with sibling, acquaintance with acquaintance, and a person with himself or herself. In the first three cases Trivers pointed out that the partial overlap of genetic interests between individuals should, according to evolutionary biology, put them in a conflict of psychological interest as well. The love of parents, siblings, and spouses should be deep and powerful but not unmeasured, and there should be circumstances in which their interests diverge and the result is psychological conflict. In the fourth case Trivers pointed out that cooperation between nonrelatives can arise only if they are outfitted with certain cognitive abilities (an ability to recognize individuals and remember what they have done) and certain emotions (guilt, shame, gratitude, sympathy, trust)—the core of the moral sense. In the fifth case Trivers pointed out that all of us have a motive to portray ourselves as more honorable than we really are, and that since the best liar is the one who believes his own lies, the mind should be “designed” by natural selection to deceive itself.
These theories have inspired an astonishing amount of research and commentary in psychology and biology—the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, Darwinian social science, and behavioral ecology are in large part attempt to test and flesh out Trivers’ ideas. It is no coincidence that E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene were published in 1975 and 1976 respectively, just a few years after Trivers’ seminal papers. Both bestselling authors openly acknowledged that they were popularizing Trivers’ ideas and the research they spawned. Likewise for the much-talked-about books on evolutionary psychology in the 1990s—The Adapted Mind, The Red Queen, Born to Rebel, The Origin of Virtue, The Moral Animal, and my own How the Mind Works. Each of these books is based in large part on Trivers’ ideas and the explosion of research they inspired (involving dozens of animal species, mathematical and computer modeling, and human social and cognitive psychology).
But Trivers’ ideas are, if such a thing is possible, even more important than the countless experiments and field studies they kicked off. They belong in the category of ideas that are obvious once they are explained, yet eluded great minds for ages; simple enough to be stated in a few words, yet with implications we are only beginning to work out.
The point that partial genetic overlap among individuals leads to partial conflicts of interests in their motives explains why human life is so endlessly fascinating – why we love, and why we bicker with those we love; why we depend on one another, and why a part of us mistrusts the people we depend on; why we know so much about ourselves, but can’t see ourselves as others see us; why brilliant people do stupid things and evil men are convinced of their rectitude. Trivers has explained why our social and mental lives are more interesting than those of bugs and frogs and why novelists, psychotherapists, and philosophers (in the old sense of wise commentators on the human condition) will always have something to write about.
Trivers is an under-appreciated genius. Social psychology should be based on his theory, but the textbooks barely acknowledge him. Even in his own field he has been overshadowed in the public eye by those who have popularized his ideas. An Edge event with other leading third culture thinkers focusing on his work will be a major contribution, and begin to give this great mind the acknowledgement it deserves.

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker - wikipedia.org

Tutte queste divagazioni per introdurre una recensione del libro che, a questo punto, è quasi superflua: il libro è come l’autore: affascinante, geniale, molto dispersivo e a tratti francamente irritante. una summa della biografia e degli interessi di Trivers. Stiamo parlando di oltre 300 pagine di testo, articolate in 14 capitoli.

I primi 3 sono dedicati alla teoria evoluzionistica dell’inganno e dell’autoinganno, come emerge dagli approfondimenti condotti nell’arco di 40 anni da Trivers, dalla sua logica evoluzionistica dell’autoinganno, alla sua presenza in natura, alla sua neurofisiologia.

I 4 capitoli successivi trattano della fenomenologia dell’inganno e dell’autoinganno, nella famiglia, nelle relazioni tra i sessi, nell’immunologia (una tesi artdita ma convincente), nella psicologia. Il passaggio alla vita quotidiana (capitolo 8) permette a Trivers di riprendere qui alcune sue ossessioni eccentriche (se così posso dire) al suo campo di ricerca principale: i disastri aerei (capitolo 9, il che permette a Trivers di riprendere l’analisi del disastro del 1982 e a noi di confrontare il suo metodo con quello proposto da Feynman per l’esplosione dello Space Shuttle), la genesi e l’inganno del sionismo (capitolo 10), la mistificazione della guerra in Iraq (11), la religione come autoinganno (12) e le stesse scienze sociali come pseudoscienze.

Lascio la parola allo stesso Trivers, in un TEDtalk in cui parla proprio di questo libro.

* * *

Citazioni: sono miei personali appunti che non siete obbligati a leggere, ma se siete curiosi qualcosa di utile e stimolante certamente lo troverete. Come di consueto il riferimento è alla posizione sul Kindle:

Although the biological approach defines “advantage” in terms of survival and reproduction, the psychological approach often defines “advantage” as feeling better, or being happier. Self-deception occurs because we all want to feel good, and self-deception can help us do so. There is some truth to this, as we shall see, but not much. [249]

[…] dishonesty has often been the file against which intellectual tools for truth have been sharpened. [273]

[…] overconfidence is one of the oldest and most dangerous forms of self-deception—both in our personal lives and in global decisions […] [424]

It has been said that power tends to corrupt and absolute power, absolutely. This usually refers to the fact that power permits the execution of ever more selfish strategies toward which one is then “corrupted.” But psychologists have shown that power corrupts our mental processes almost at once. When a feeling of power is induced in people, they are less likely to take others’ viewpoint and more likely to center their thinking on themselves. The result is a reduced ability to comprehend how others see, think, and feel. Power, among other things, induces blindness toward others. [526]

In short, powerful men suffer multiple deficits in their ability to apprehend the world of others correctly, due to their power and their sex. [540]

We often think that greater intelligence will be associated with less self-deception—or at least intellectuals imagine this to be true. What if the reverse is true, as I believe it is—smarter people on average lie and self-deceive more often than do the less gifted? [800]

Camouflage is so common in nature as almost to escape notice. [846: Non so l’autore ne è consapevole, ma questa frase ha un meraviglioso sapore escheriano e piacerebbe da morire a Douglas Hofstadter!]

One species of squid has also evolved a female mimic, one so good that he sometimes fools even fellow female mimics, who approach in search of copulation. [859]

The importance of aggression following knowledge of deception is that it may greatly increase the costs of deceptive behavior and the benefits of remaining undetected. Fear of aggression can itself become a secondary signal suggesting deception, and its suppression an advantage for self-deception. Of course, aggression is not the only social cost of detected deception. A woman may terminate a relationship upon learning of a lie, usually a crueler punishment than her giving you a good beating, assuming she is capable. [927]

Because we live inside our conscious minds, it is often easy to imagine that decisions arise in consciousness and are carried out by orders emanating from that system. We decide, “Hell, let’s throw this ball,” and we then initiate the signals to throw the ball, shortly after which the ball is thrown. But detailed study of the neurophysiology of action shows otherwise. More than twenty years ago, it was first shown that an impulse to act begins in the brain region involved in motor preparation about six-tenths of a second before consciousness of the intention, after which there is a further delay of as much as half a second before the action is taken. In other words, when we form the conscious intention to throw the ball, areas of the brain involved in throwing have already been activated more than half a second earlier. [1039]

[…] the proof of a long chain of unconscious neural activity before conscious intention is formed (after which there is about a one-second delay before action) does not obviate the concept of free will, at least in the sense of being able to abort bad ideas and also being able to learn, both consciously and unconsciously, from past experience. [1062]

A relatively gentle form of imposed self-deception is flattery, in which the subordinate gains in status by massaging the ego or self-image of the dominant. In royal courts, the sycophant has ample time to study the king, while the latter pays little attention to the former. The king is also presumed to have limited insight into self on general grounds; being dominant, he has less time and motivation to study his own self-deception. [1243]

Remunerectomies, for example, are performed solely to remove a patient’s wallet. [1342]

The neocortex is largely the social brain, differentially involved in interactions with close relatives and other social relationships; the hypothalamus is involved in hunger and growth, much more egocentric motives. One can well imagine an argument between the two, with the (maternal) neocortex saying, “Family is important; I believe in family; I will invest in family,” while the (paternal) hypothalamus replies, “I’m hungry.” That is, each argues for its favored position as if arguing for the good of the entire organism (“I”). [1508]

[…] when there is no disagreement, a whisper will do; shouting suggests conflict. [1610]

Few relationships have more potential for deceit and self-deception than those between the sexes. Two genetically unrelated individuals get together to engage in the only act that will generate a new human being—sex, an intense experience that is at best ecstatic and at worst deeply disappointing, or when forced, extremely painful and damaging. The act is often embedded in a larger relationship that will permit the two to stay together for years or even life—long enough to raise children. Opportunities for misrepresentation and outright deception are everywhere, and selection pressures are often strong. Likewise, each partner’s knowledge of the other is usually detailed and intense and (absent denial) grows with time.
Sex itself is fraught with psychological and biological meaning at every depth. Are we misrepresenting our level of interest, sexual or romantic, our deeper orientation toward the other, positive or negative, or our very sexual orientation? [1675]

Why sexual reproduction? Why not go the simple, efficient route and have females produce offspring without any male genetic contribution? Females typically do all the work; why not get all the genetic benefits? In other words, why males? [1691]

The metabolic requirements of mammals raised in germ-free environments drops by as much as 30 percent. Supplying antibiotics in food is associated with growth gains in birds and mammals on the order of 10 percent. [2032]

After all, they may just have met you, but you have known yourself all your life. So we expect overconfidence on deceptive grounds alone. [2361]

A nice example of unconscious persuasion concerns metaphors about the stock market taken from daily news broadcasts. The stock market moves up or down in response to a great range of variables, about most of which we are completely ignorant. The movement mirrors a random walk, with no particular pattern. And yet at the end of the day, its movements are described by the media in two kinds of language (agent or object) that are often used for movement more generally. The average listener will be completely unconscious of the metaphors being used. The key distinction is whether an agent controls the movement of something or it is an object moved by outside forces (such as gravity). Here are examples of the agent metaphor for stock movements: “the NASDAQ climbed higher,” “the Dow fought its way upward,” “the S&P dove like a hawk.” The object metaphors sound more like: “the NASDAQ dropped off a cliff,” “the S&P bounced back.” Agent metaphors tempt us to think that a trend will continue; object ones do not. The interesting point is that there is a systematic bias in the use of the language—up trends are more the action of agents, while down trends are externally caused. [2668]

[…] malphemism […] [2715: bello, se l’è inventato Trivers? Io sul Webster non l’ho trovato.]

An extraordinary verbal one-step has been spearheaded in multiple disciples in the past fifty years—the switch from “sex” to “gender” as words to denote the two sexes. From time immemorial (at least a thousand years), sex referred to whether an individual was a male (sperm producer) or a female (egg producer). In the past hundred years, the word was extended to “having sex.” “Gender” was strictly a linguistic term. It referred to the fact that in various languages, words may be feminine, masculine, or neuter, apparently in almost random ways. “Sun” is feminine in German, masculine in Spanish, and neuter in Russian, but “moon” is feminine in Spanish and Russian, and masculine in German. In German, a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are masculine, while noses, lips, shoulders, breasts, hands, and toes are feminine and hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, and the heart are neuter. Pronouns are assigned by gender, so you can say about a turnip, “He is in the kitchen.” You tell me. I have been a biologist for forty-five years and I can see no rhyme or reason to this system. It seems completely arbitrary, and this is perhaps the point. Since grammatical gender is arbitrary and meaningless, so also are biological sex differences if they can be rendered in the language of gender.
In a remarkable burst of activity, in fewer than forty years, “gender” took over entirely in many disciplines as the word for sex. [2722]

[…] a recurring theme in self-deception and human disasters: overconfidence and its companion, unconsciousness. […] This is a distressing feature of self-deception and large-scale disasters more generally: the perpetrators may not experience strong, nor indeed any, adverse selection. [3150-3155]

[…] [a] circular arguments with a remarkably small radius […] [3350]

It has been argued that organizations often evaluate their behavior and beliefs poorly because the organizations turn against their evaluation units, attacking, destroying, or co-opting them. Promoting change can threaten jobs and status, and those who are threatened are often more powerful than the evaluators, leading to timid and ineffective self-criticism and inertia within the organization. [3436]

In Franklin Roosevelt’s famous words (about Samosa), “He maybe a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” [3640]

Faulty decisions are said to arise from four main causes: being overconfident, underestimating the other side, ignoring one’s own intelligence reports, and wasting manpower. All are connected to self-deception. [4035]

[…] instrumental phase [4243: the phase of carrying out decisions, no longer wishing to hear about the choices not made or the possible downside to the decisions we have made]

Consider greater sexual promiscuity, or diversity of mating partners, well known to be higher in both birds and humans in the tropics, and presumed to represent an adaptive response to parasite load by increasing genetic quality of offspring. [4721]

As we have seen, power corrupts: the powerful are less attentive to others, see the world less from their standpoint, and feel less empathy for them. The converse is that the powerless are more apt to see things from the other person’s standpoint, to be committed to the principle of fairness, and to identify with people like themselves. [4739: poco oltre confonde Costantinopoli con Costantino, ma penso sia un errore materiale]

The Greek sage Thales once put the general matter succinctly. “Oh master,” he was asked, “what is the most difficult thing to do?” “To know thyself,” he replied. “And the easiest?” “To give advice to others.” [4844]

The structure of the natural sciences is as follows. Physics rests on mathematics, chemistry on physics, biology on chemistry, and, in principle, the social sciences on biology. At least the final step is one devoutly to be wished and soon hopefully achieved. Yet discipline after discipline—from economics to cultural anthropology—continues to resist growing connections to the underlying science of biology, with devastating effects. Instead of employing only assumptions that meet the test of underlying knowledge, one is free to base one’s logic on whatever comes to mind and to pursue this policy full time, in complete ignorance of its futility. [4943]

Is economics a science? The short answer is no. [5006]

Regarding one’s personal life, the problem with learning from living is that living is like riding a train while facing backward. [5168]

[…] an ancient Chinese expression: “When planning revenge, build two graves, not one.” [5177]

Self-deception, by serving deception, only encourages it, and more deception is not something I favor. I do not believe in building one’s life, one’s relationships, or one’s society on lies. The moral status of deceit with self-deception seems even lower than that of simple deception alone, since simple deception fools only one organism—but when combined with self-deception, two are being deceived. In addition, by deceiving yourself, you are spoiling your own temple or structure. You are agreeing to base your own behavior on falsehoods, with negative downstream effects that may be very hard to guess yet intensify with time. [5196]

There are two great axes in human mental life: intelligence and consciousness. You can be very bright but unconscious, or slow but conscious, or any of the combinations in between. [5291]

Obituary: Christopher Hitchens 2

Molti suoi amici hanno scritto necrologi di Hitchens e penso che valga la pena di segnalarveli.

Intanto, il New Statesman ha pubblicato una seconda anticipazione della lunga intervista di Richard Dawkins.

Hitchens on his legacy

RD I’ve been reading some of your recent collections of essays – I’m astounded by your sheer erudition. You seem to have read absolutely everything. I can’t think of anybody since Aldous Huxley who’s so well read.
CH It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth.
A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I’m in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I’m not. But it’s something to at least have had the comparison made – it’s better than I expected when I started.

Hitchens on Tony Blair

RD You debated with Tony Blair. I’m not sure I watched that. I love listening to you [but] I can’t bear listening to . . . Well, I mustn’t say that. I think he did come over as rather nice on that evening.
CH He was charming, that evening. And during the day, as well.
RD What was your impression of him?
CH You can only have one aim per debate. I had two in debating with Tony Blair. The first one was to get him to admit that it was not done – the stuff we complain of – in only the name of religion. That’s a cop-out. The authority is in the text. Second, I wanted to get him to admit, if possible, that giving money to a charity or organising a charity does not vindicate a cause.
I got him to the first one and I admired his honesty. He was asked by the interlocutor at about half-time: “Which of Christopher’s points strikes you as the best?” He said: “I have to admit, he’s made his case, he’s right. This stuff, there is authority for it in the canonical texts, in Islam, Judaism.”
At that point, I’m ready to fold – I’ve done what I want for the evening.
We did debate whether Catholic charities and so on were a good thing and I said: “They are but they don’t prove any point and some of them are only making up for damage done.” For example, the Church had better spend a lot of money doing repair work on its Aids policy in Africa, [to make up for preaching] that condoms don’t prevent disease or, in some cases, that they spread it. It is iniquitous. It has led to a lot of people dying, horribly. Also, I’ve never looked at some of the ground operations of these charities – apart from Mother Teresa – but they do involve a lot of proselytising, a lot of propaganda. They’re not just giving out free stuff. They’re doing work to recruit.

Christopher Hitchens at home in Washington D.C. on April 26, 2007

Mark Mahaney for The New York Times - nytimes.com

Passerei poi al ricordo di Ian McEwan sul New York Times:

Christopher Hitchens, Consummate Writer, Brilliant Friend

THE place where Christopher Hitchens spent his last few weeks was hardly bookish, but he made it his own. Close to downtown Houston is the Medical Center, a cluster of high-rises like La Défense of Paris, or London’s City, a financial district of a sort, where the common currency is illness.

This complex is one of the world’s great concentrations of medical expertise and technology. Its highest building denies the possibility of a benevolent god — a neon sign proclaims from its roof a cancer hospital for children. This “clean-sliced cliff,” as Larkin puts it in his poem about a tower-block hospital, was right across the way from Christopher’s place — which was not quite as high, and adults only.

No man was ever as easy to visit in the hospital. He didn’t want flowers and grapes, he wanted conversation, and presence. All silences were useful. He liked to find you still there when he woke from his frequent morphine-induced dozes. He wasn’t interested in being ill. He didn’t want to talk about it.

When I arrived from the airport on my last visit, he saw sticking out of my luggage a small book. He held out his hand for it — Peter Ackroyd’s “London Under,” a subterranean history of the city. Then we began a 10-minute celebration of its author. We had never spoken of him before, and Christopher seemed to have read everything. Only then did we say hello. He wanted the Ackroyd, he said, because it was small and didn’t hurt his wrist to hold. But soon he was making penciled notes in its margins. By that evening he’d finished it. He could have written a review, but he was to turn in a long piece on Chesterton.

And so this was how it would go: talk about books and politics, then he dozed while I read or wrote, then more talk, then we both read. The intensive care unit room was crammed with flickering machines and sustaining tubes, but they seemed almost decorative. Books, journalism, the ideas behind both, conquered the sterile space, or warmed it, they raised it to the condition of a good university library. And they protected us from the bleak high-rise view through the plate glass windows, of that world, in Larkin’s lines, whose loves and chances “are beyond the stretch/Of any hand from here!”

In the afternoon I was helping him out of bed, the idea being that he was to take a shuffle round the nurses’ station to exercise his legs. As he leaned his trembling, diminished weight on me, I said, only because I knew he was thinking it, “Take my arm, old toad…” He gave me that shifty sideways grin I remembered so well from his healthy days. It was the smile of recognition, or one that anticipates in late afternoon an “evening of shame:” — that is to say, pleasure, or, one of his favorite terms, “sodality.”

That must be how I came to be reading Larkin’s “Whitsun Weddings” aloud to him two hours later. Christopher asked me to set the poem in context for his son, Alexander — a lovely presence in that room for weeks on end — and for his wife, Carol Blue — a tigress for his medical cause. She had tangled so ferociously with some slow element of the hospital’s bureaucracy that security guards had been called to throw her out of the building. Fortunately, she charmed and disarmed them.

I set the poem up and read it, and when I reached that celebrated end, “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain,” Christopher murmured from his bed, “That’s so dark, so horribly dark.” I disagreed, and not out of any wish to lighten his mood. Surely, the train journey comes to an end, the recently married couples are dispatched toward their separate fates. He wouldn’t have it, and a week later, when I was back in London, we were still exchanging e-mails on the subject. One of his began, “Dearest Ian, Well, indeed — no rain, no gain — but it still depends on how much anthropomorphising Larkin is doing with his unconscious… I’d provisionally surmise that ‘somewhere becoming rain’ is unpromising.”

And this was a man in constant pain. Denied drinking or eating, he sucked on tiny ice chips. Where others might have beguiled themselves with thoughts of divine purpose (why me?) and dreams of an afterlife, Christopher had all of literature.

Over the three days of my final visit I took note of his subjects. Not long after he stole my Ackroyd, he was talking to me of a Slovakian novelist; whether Dreiser in his novels about finance was a guide to the current crisis; Chesterton’s Catholicism; Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” which I had brought for him on a previous visit; Mann’s “Magic Mountain” — he’d reread it for reflections on German imperial ambitions toward Turkey; and because we had started to talk about old times in Manhattan, he wanted to quote and celebrate James Fenton’s “German Requiem”: “How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times.”

While I was with him another celebration took place in far away London, with Stephen Fry as host in the Festival Hall to reflect on the life and times of Christopher Hitchens. We helped him out of bed and into a chair and set my laptop in front of him. Alexander delved into the Internet with special passwords to get us linked to the event. He also plugged in his own portable stereo speakers. We had the sound connection well before the vision and what we heard was astounding, and for Christopher, uplifting. It was the noise of 2,000 voices small-talking before the event. Then we had a view from the stage of the audience, packed into their rows.

They all looked so young. I would have guessed that nearly all of them would have opposed Christopher strongly over Iraq. But here they were, and in cinemas all over the country, turning out for him. Christopher grinned and raised a thin arm in salute. Close family and friends may be in the room with you, but dying is lonely, the confinement is total. He could see for himself that the life outside this small room had not forgotten him. For a moment, pace Larkin, it was by way of the Internet that the world stretched a hand toward him.

The next morning, at Christopher’s request, Alexander and I set up a desk for him under a window. We helped him and his pole with its feed-lines across the room, arranged pillows on his chair, adjusted the height of his laptop. Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton.

Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.

Consider the mix. Constant pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, Christopher’s head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review. His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame.” Right to the end.

Passerei al commosso ricordo di Richard Dawkins,sul sito della sua fondazione.

Farewell, great voice. Great voice of reason, of humanity, of humour. Great voice against cant, against hypocrisy, against obscurantism and pretension, against all tyrants including God. Farewell, great warrior. You were in a foxhole, Hitch, and you did not flinch. Farewell, great example to us all.
Richard

Hitchens e Dawkins

richarddawkins.net

Finirei con George Easton sul New Statesman:

“I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me,” wrote Christoper Hitchens in his most recent essay. But today, after 18 months, his duel with cancer ended. He was 62 years old. The world has lost one of its most outstanding and prolific journalists and a wonderful polemicist, orator and bon vivant. Hitchens could write brilliantly about an extraordinarily wide range of subjects and people: the death penalty, religion, Leon Trotsky, Evelyn Waugh, the British monarchy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, George Orwell, Saul Bellow, the Elgin Marbles, North Korea, the Balkans, Henry Kissinger, Thomas Paine and Philip Larkin.

In recent months, we had sad cause to add cancer to that list. The series of essays Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair about his illness stands as the finest writing on the subject since John Diamond’s C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too. Without a hint of self-pity or sentimentality, Hitchens confronted his fate with pure reason and logic. “To the dumb question, ‘Why me?’ ” he wrote, “the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: ‘Why not?’ ” Nor did his humour desert him. To a Christian who insisted that God had given him “throat” cancer in order to punish the “one part of his body he used for blasphemy”, he replied: “My so-far uncancerous throat . . . is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed.” And to those who insultingly suggested that he should embrace religion, Hitchens’s flawless riposte: “Suppose there were groups of secularists at hospitals who went round the terminally ill and urged them to adopt atheism: ‘Don’t be a mug all your life. Make your last days the best ones.’ People might suppose this was in poor taste.”

I interviewed Hitchens for the New Statesman in May 2010 during the UK leg of his Hitch-22 tour. Over several glasses of Pinot Noir and Johnnie Walker Black Label, we discussed, among other things, religion, neoconservatism (“I’m not a conservative of any kind”), his time at the NS, Zimbabwe (his biggest regret was that he hadn’t been tougher on Mugabe in the 1980s) and the euro. Hitch was on form that day, calmly eviscerating the likes of David Cameron (“He seems content-free to me. Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, ‘What do you think of him?’ and my answer is: ‘He doesn’t make me think’ “) and Sarah Palin (“I think she’s a completely straightforward cynic and opportunist and I think she’s cashing out . . . She’s made a fortune and she’ll make another. But she’s not actually going to do the hard work of trying to lead or build a movement”). Two days later he returned to the US. A month later he was diagnosed with cancer. He never returned to the country of his birth.

It was the United States, where Hitchens lived for more than 30 years, that he came to call home. By the end of the 1970s, he had tired of Britain (“Weimar without the sex”, was his verdict on the Callaghan era) and longed for the bigger stage of America, moving first to New York and later to Washington, DC. He struggled at first, eking out a living writing a biweekly column for the Nation magazine and relying on the kindness of friends such as the radical journalist Andrew Cockburn. But the move paid off when he landed a column for Vanity Fair in 1992, greatly increasing his income and his readership. It was also there that he met his adoring second wife, Carol Blue, who once remarked of him: “I was just glad such a person existed in the world.” He is survived by Blue, their daughter, Antonia, and two children from his previous marriage to Eleni Meleagrou, Alexander and Sophia.

“I believe in America. America has made my fortune,” declares Bonasera in the opening line of The Godfather. Hitchens’s allegiance to the US (he became a citizen in 2007) had more to do with its secular constitution and its commitment to free expression but America did make his fortune. By the end of his life, with regular slots in Vanity Fair, the Atlantic and Slate, several bestselling books and a lucrative place on the lecture circuit, Hitchens was earning nearly $1m a year.

His extraordinary output – 12 books, five collections of essays – was suggestive of a solitary, bookish man, rather than a compulsively social hedonist. In resolving this apparent paradox, Hitchens was aided by two attributes in particular: his prodigious memory (as Ian McEwan once remarked: “It all seems instantly, neurologically available: everything he’s ever read, everyone he’s ever met, every story he’s ever heard”) and his ability to write at a speed that most people talk. The late, great Anthony Howard, who as New Statesman editor hired Hitchens in 1973, told me last year: “He was a very quick writer . . . Hitch could produce a front-page leader, which would take me a couple of hours, in half an hour.”

In his final interview, with Richard Dawkins (published in the current issue of the NS), Hitchens reflected, with touching modesty, on his status as an essayist. After Dawkins told him that he could think of no one since Aldous Huxley who was so well read, he replied:

It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth.

A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I’m in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I’m not. But it’s something to at least have had the comparison made – it’s better than I expected when I started.

Hitchens’s modesty was unwarranted. In this age of high specialisation, we will not see his like again.

It was God Is Not Great, his anti-theist polemic, that sent him supernova. While Dawkins’s atheism is rooted in science, Hitchens’s was rooted in morality. He was repelled by the notion that people do good only because they fear punishment and hope for reward. The question he often posed about believers was: “Why do they wish this was true?” Heaven, for Hitchens, was a place of “endless praise and adoration, limitless abnegation and abjection of self; a celestial North Korea”.

It is Hitch the controversialist that many will remember. The man who said of Jerry Falwell, “If you gave Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox,” and of Ronald Reagan: “Reagan is doing to the country what he can no longer do to his wife.” But as John Gray wrote in his NS review of Hitchens’s fifth and final collection of essays, Arguably, he was no mere provocateur or contrarian. Throughout his career, Hitchens retained a commitment to the Enlightenment values of reason, secularism and pluralism. His targets – Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, God – were chosen not at random, but rather because they had offended one or more of these principles.

Over the past decade, many on the left came to regard Hitchens not as a friend but as an enemy. Tariq Ali, a fellow soixante-huitard, wrote: “On 11 September 2001, a small group of terrorists crashed the planes they had hijacked into the Twin Towers of New York. Among the casualties, although unreported that week, was a middle-aged Nation columnist called Christopher Hitchens. He was never seen again . . . The vile replica currently on offer is a double.” And yet, contrary to reports, Hitchens did not perform a crude midlife swerve from left to right (also known as doing a “Paul Johnson”). Unlike Johnson, a former New Statesman editor who became a reactionary conservative (“Pinochet remains a hero to me,” he wrote in 2007), Hitchens did not give up everything he believed in. He maintained, for instance, that the US invasion of Vietnam was a war crime, that Kissinger belonged behind bars (see his 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger for a full account of the former US secretary of state’s “one-man rolling crime wave”) and that the Israeli occupation of Palestine was a moral and political scandal.

His support for the “war on terror” was premised not on conservative notions but on liberal principles. As he wrote in a column for the Nation published on 20 September 2001, “What they [the 9/11 attackers] abominate about ‘the west’, to put it in a phrase, is not what western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state.”

He was wrong, badly wrong about Iraq, but for the best of reasons. His support for the invasion arose out of a long-standing solidarity with the country’s Kurds (see his long, 1992 piece for National Geographic, “The Struggle of the Kurds”, collected in Love, Poverty and War) and his belief that even war was preferable to the survival of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime (“a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave beneath it”). It was not an attempt to ingratiate himself with the neoconservatives, whom Hitchens had fought and continued to fight with on issues from gay rights to the death penalty to Israel. But he was too casual in dismissing the civilian casualties (estimated at anything between 100,000 and a million) that resulted directly or indirectly from the invasion of the Iraq and, as he later conceded, too optimistic about the Bush administration’s ability to stabilise the country. In his boisterous advocacy of the war there was more than a hint of the Marxist belief in the necessity of violence in order for history to progress. As Stalin once grimly phrased it, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

Yet those who stopped reading Hitchens after 11 September 2001 are all the poorer for it. They have not read his haunting account of napalm’s deadly legacy in Vietnam: “Some of the victims of Agent Orange haven’t even been born yet, and if that reflection doesn’t shake you, then my words have been feeble and not even the photographs will do.” Or his unrivalled indictment of capital punishment: “Once you institute the penalty, the bureaucratic machinery of death develops its own logic, and the system can be relied on to spare the beast-man, say, on a technicality of insanity, while executing the hapless Texan indigent who wasn’t able to find a conscientious attorney.” Or his unique denunciation of waterboarding: “I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: ‘If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.’ Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

The tragedy of Hitchens’s illness was that it came at a time when he was enjoying a larger audience than ever. Of his tight circle of friends – Martin Amis, James Fenton, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie – he was the last to gain international renown, yet he is now read more widely than any of them.

In his later years, Hitchens was fond of quoting his late mother’s assertion that “the one unforgivable sin is to be boring”. Today, as I realise I will never hear that resonant baritone again, that Hitchens’s mighty pen is still, I feel certain in saying that the world has become a more boring place.

Robert Harris – The Fear Index

Harris, Robert (2011). The Fear Index. London: Hutchinson. 2011.

In pratica, l’unica cosa che posso scrivere senza rovinarvi il romanzo (è un thriller) è che è il secondo di Robert Harris ad avere l’articolo nel titolo (l’altro era The Ghost, che ho recensito qui)

Vi avverto di nuovo: da qui in avanti quello che scrivo potrebbe rovinarvi la lettura.

* * *

In realtà, la lettura rischia di rovinarvela lo stesso Harris, dal momento che la prima delle epigrafi che premette a ognuno dei 19 capitoli è tratta da Frankenstein di Mary Shelley (meglio, di Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin). Ma se Frankenstein (e Prometeo, che il romanzo della Wollstonecraft richiama già nel suo titolo completo, e Pandora, che Harris evoca a proposito del World Wide Web in questo romanzo– la citazione è qui sotto) sono il genus cui narratologicamente questa storia appartiene, la sua specie è l’HAL9000 di “I’m sorry, Dave” in 2001: Odissea nello spazio di Kubrick, il computer che diviene più intelligente, dunque superiore all’uomo, e inesorabilmente lo sfratta dal primo posto nella classifica dell’evoluzione (e della catena alimentare) e ne minaccia la stessa sopravvivenza. Il tema è anche tipicamente anche uno di quelli cari a Michael Crichton, e questo non è necessariamente un complimento.

Ma ho detto troppe cose in una frase sola. Tiriamo fiato un attimo e andiamo con ordine:

  1. Riferimenti a Frankenstein: l’io narrante del romanzo di Mary Wollstonecraft è di Ginevra, città in cui si svolge il romanzo di Harris. Anche il cognome Walton compare in entrambe le opere.
  2. Riferimento a Pandora:
    […] she noticed an old computer in a glass case. When she went closer, she read that it was the NeXT processor that had started the World Wide Web at CERN in 1991. The original note to the cleaners was still stuck to its black metal casing: ‘This machine is a server – DO NOT POWER DOWN!’ Extraordinary, she thought, that it had all begun with something so mundane.
    ‘Pandora’s Box,’ said a voice behind her, and she turned to find Walton; she wondered how long he had been watching her. ‘Or the Law of Unintended Consequences. You start off trying to create the origins of the universe and you end up creating eBay.
  3. Riferimento a 2001: Odissea nello spazio:

Insomma, tanto per essere chiari, tutti i riferimenti alla crisi globale, alla speculazione finanziaria, agli hedge funds e tutto il resto sono – per quanto ben studiati e ben raccontati – tutto sommato secondari rispetto al cuore narrativo del romanzo. Che è e resta una piacevolissima lettura (che peraltro ho divorato quasi senza riuscire a metterlo giù se non per le più elementari esigenze biologiche), ma non è opera di sconvolgente originalità.

Mi è molto piaciuta anche la morale: non c’è nuovo padrone, per quanto alieno, che non trovi sùbito una genia di zelanti servitori. L’eterna familiare morale del Franza o Spagna purché se magna – o qui, nella sua versione più anglo-calvinista, Franza o Spagna purché se guadagna.

Harris scrive piuttosto bene e ha una vena alla Le Carré (che esplicitamente ammira, e cui a volte si avvicina, come potrete leggere nelle citazioni qui sotto).

* * *

Come di consueto un florilegio di citazioni (faccio riferimento alla posizione sul Kindle).

[A proposito del Pronto soccorso di un ospedale:] the kingdom of the sick, where every citizen was second class. [629]

[Sull’information deluge:] over the past couple of years a whole new galaxy of information has come within our reach. Pretty soon all the information in the world – every tiny scrap of knowledge that humans possess, every little thought we’ve ever had that’s been considered worth preserving over thousands of years – all of it will be available digitally. Every road on earth has been mapped. Every building photographed. Everywhere we humans go, whatever we buy, whatever websites we look at, we leave a digital trail as clear as slug-slime. And this data can be read, searched and analysed by computers and value extracted from it in ways we cannot even begin to conceive. [1578]

[…] various lawyers and advisers exuding the natural bonhomie of men charging hourly fees while simultaneously enjoying a free meal. [2760]

‘I cannot eat veal,’ said Elmira, leaning confidingly across the table to Hoffmann, offering him a brief glimpse of her pale brown breasts. ‘The poor calf suffers so.’
‘Oh, I always prefer food that’s suffered,’ said Quarry cheerfully, wielding his knife and fork, his napkin back in his collar. ‘I think fear releases some especially piquant chemical from the nervous system into the flesh. Veal cutlets, lobster thermidor, pâté de foie gras – the nastier the demise the better, that’s my philosophy: no pain, no gain.’ [2796]

He felt as if he had been smiling solidly for about fifteen hours that day already. His face ached with bonhomie. [3203]

[Citazione di una frase originariamente attribuita a Bill Clinton:] “normalcy is overrated: most normal people are assholes” [3421]

[Sull’effetto che può avere su un ricercatore la chiusura del suo progetto]
‘I’m afraid I had to tell Alex that that particular line of research was too unstable to be continued.’
[…]
‘And that was when he had his breakdown?’
Walton nodded sadly. ‘I never saw a man so desolate. You would’ve thought I’d murdered his child.’ [4037-4040]

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