The Essential Turing

Title:                      The Essential Turing

Author:                   B. Jack Copeland

Copeland, B. J.(2004),ed. The Essential Turing: Seminal Writings in Computing, Logic, Philosophy, Artificial Intelligence, and Artificial Life, Plus The Secrets of Enigma. New York: Oxford University Press.

LOC:       2004275594

QA7 .T772 2004

Date Posted:      April 28, 2013

The following review is extracted from one by Amnon H. Eden.[1]

Time Magazine’s “The Century’s Greatest Minds” rated Turing up there with Einstein. In The Essential Turing, Professor B. Jack Copeland, the Director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing and a renowned Turing scholar, delivers a sophisticated, compelling, and philosophically competent account for the role that Alan Mathison Turing has been playing in the information revolution.

There is little debate on Turing’s contribution to the foundations of computer science. In 1936, the twenty-four years old Turing wrote “On Computable Numbers”, an article which at once laid the elements of computing and shaped the central and the most influential paradigm of the 20th century. Turing’s theorem[2] outlines the precise limits of mechanical and electronic computers. Although since 1936 generations of programming languages, transistors, printed circuits, and microprocessors came and went, and the computing power of digital computing machines has improved in at least four orders of magnitude, Turing’s abstract computing machine[3] has proven to be computationally equivalent to almost any conceivable digital computing machine, including the generations of electronic, biological, and quantum computers to come, the precise limits of which have carefully been laid out in Turing’s paper.

Indeed, since Turing wrote “On Computable Numbers”[4], software has become a central player in modern life: it governs the majority of communications and mass media, controls the sale and purchase of stocks in stock exchanges, counts votes in national elections, guides “smart bombs” and operates machine guns, decides which vaccination our children receive, shortlists job applications, treats depression, operates artificial limbs, guides the navigation of automated and semi-automated vehicles, controls to some degree almost every single home appliance, and constitutes the subject matter of a growing proportion of scientific experiments. The prosperity of the 21st century industrialized (and industrializing) world has come to largely depend on cheap and efficient computing power. The most important constant emerging from these changes has been Turing’s contributions. Notwithstanding the contributions made by Gödel, Church, Post, and Kleene, much of the theory of computing can be taken to be little more than footnotes to Turing’s work.

The Essential Turing beautifully unravels Turing’s role in this revolution well beyond theoretical computer science. Copeland treatment of each one of Turing’s papers shows that Turing has also established the central paradigms in artificial intelligence, artificial life, and the philosophy of mind. Turing’s notion of abstract automata has also had profound implications on every branch of science, including psychology, physics, and genetics. Processes in any branch of science are first and foremost analyzed in terms of a Turing automaton. In particular, Turing’s automata were used to model the operation of quantum gates, DNA sequences, and even the process of intelligent thinking. Indeed, Turing automata have come be part of the lingua franca of the scientific investigation of every physical, chemical, biological, and psychological process that came under scrutiny.

But Turing’s contributions have gone even further. Turing’s profound insights into the philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and science offer compelling answers to questions that have remained open: What are the possible consequences of running a computer program? Is there a limit to the extent to which the behavior of computing machines can be predicted? Can machines be said to think? Can computers behave intelligently? For example, in 1950, having devised that which came to be known as Turing’s Test (Ch. 11, ”Computing Machinery and Intelligence”), Turing predicted that the day in which digital computing machines will pass for humans is near. Although Turing’s time frame has proved somewhat inaccurate[5], it has become evident that Turing is right to a large and ever increasing degree. Turing even foresaw the “software crisis” twenty years before it was declared, suggesting already in 1950 that surprises are inherent to computer programming. These and additional snapshots from Turing’s crystal ball are beautifully unravelled in The Essential Turing.

Copeland’s edition is a first-class guide to Turing’s canon. The anthology includes a complete, annotated version of every important manuscript that Turing wrote. Turing’s manuscripts and Copeland’s commentary thereof are organized into four sections, each of which is dedicated to Turing’s contributions to a separate discipline: the foundations of computing, the construction of the Enigma computer during WWII, artificial intelligence, and artificial life. The anthology also includes a transcript of a BBC program from 1952 during which Turing spoke on the problems of thinking machines (Ch. 14, ”Can Automatic Calculating Machines Be Said to Think?”).

Although Turing wrote (and spoke) mostly plain and always very coherent English, the technical depth of his discussion may put the non- expert at a disadvantage. Difficulties in reading Turing may explain some of the common misinterpretations of Turing’s work, which are subjected to Copeland’s ruthless examination. In particular, Copeland wages a war on Church-Turing Fallacies. According to one, in “On computable numbers” Turing has set limits to human intelligence. A similar fallacy in physics takes Turing’s work to suggest limits to the capabilities of any physical process processes of computation (the Max-imality Thesis[6]). Copeland closely examines each misconception and carefully refutes it. Copeland’s effortless and skilful writing clarifies the precise nature of the difficult problems Turing tackled without trivializing them. He engages in translating Turing’s conjectures into the language of contemporary science, thereby simplifying the technical parts of Turing’s work and allowing the reader to appreciate Turing’s work in full.

Copeland’s insightful, illuminating, and very intelligent commentary also bracket Turing’s work in historical context. As much of Turing’s work is over 50 years old, the accompanying commentary helps the non-expert reader to bridge the time gap created by the evolution of the English language. For example, the naïve reader may mistake the “computers” mentioned in “On Computable Numbers” to stand for digital computing machines. This is an easy mistake to make, given that Turing has taken active part (and even a leading role, for example in the case of Enigma, discussed in the second part) in developing some of the very first digital computers. Contributing to this confusion are theorems which prove that Turing’s notion of abstract automaton precisely defines the limits of computations performed by any digital computing machine. But as Copeland points out, the first digital computing machines came to existence only over a decade after Turing wrote “On Computable Numbers”. Rather, the term “computer” in this paper is taken to mean a person performing a task of computing which does not require imagination or creativity. As it turned out, Turing’s analysis has set the limits to the technology which has evolved during the seven decades which followed in ways which nobody has envisaged. Evidently, Turing’s prophetic power can come to full view only when such terminological nuances are established. Copeland’s attention to detail is geared to root out any misconceptions arising from misreading Turing’s words.

No bibliography on the foundations of computing is complete without The Essential Turing. This attractive package offers an essential text for any scholar of the history, philosophy, or the future of computing, and an excellent textbook for every academic programs concerned with philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, or artificial life. Copeland’s commentary effortless writing turns reading the works of the father of the digital age into a pleasure, making The Essential Turing an accessible bestseller in popular science.

[1] Amnon H. Eden, Department of Computer Science, University of Essex, United Kingdom and Center For Inquiry, State University of Buffalo, Amherst, NY, USA

[2] In computability theory, the Church–Turing thesis (also known as the Turing–Church thesis, the Church–Turing conjecture, Church’s thesis, Church’s conjecture, and Turing’s thesis) is a combined hypothesis (“thesis”) about the nature of functions whose values are effectively calculable; or, in more modern terms, functions whose values are algorithmically computable. In simple terms, the Church–Turing thesis states that a function is algorithmically computable if and only if it is computable by a Turing machine. The Church–Turing thesis is a statement that characterizes the nature of computation and cannot be formally proven. Even though the three processes mentioned above proved to be equivalent, the fundamental premise behind the thesis— the notion of what it means for a function to be effectively calculable — is “a somewhat vague intuitive one”. Thus, the “thesis” remains a hypothesis.

[3] Turing gave a succinct definition of the experiment in his 1948 essay, “Intelligent Machinery”. Referring to his 1936 publication, Turing wrote that the Turing machine, here called a Logical Computing Machine, consisted of: “…an unlimited memory capacity obtained in the form of an infinite tape marked out into squares, on each of which a symbol could be printed. At any moment there is one symbol in the machine; it is called the scanned symbol. The machine can alter the scanned symbol and its behavior is in part determined by that symbol, but the symbols on the tape elsewhere do not affect the behavior of the machine. However, the tape can be moved back and forth through the machine, this being one of the elementary operations of the machine. Any symbol on the tape may therefore eventually have an innings. Alan Turing, 1948, “Intelligent Machinery.” (Reprinted in Evans, C. R. (1968) and A.D.J. Robertson, eds. Cybernetics: Key Papers. Baltimore, MD: University Park ), p. 61

[5] See Moor, J. (2000), “Turings Prophecy Disconfirmed”, American Philosophical Association Newsletters, 99, 2 (Newsletter on Philosophy and Computers), Spring 2000.

[6] The maximality thesis asserts that anything computable by any means whatsoever is computable by Turing machine: the universal Turing machine is maximal among computing machines. It is another term for the Church-Turing Theorem.


Arctic Event

Title:                      Arctic Event

Author:                   James H. Cobb

Cobb, James H. (2007). Robert Ludlum’s The Arctic Event. New York: Grand Central Pub.,

LCCN:    2006925190

PS3553.O178 R63 2007


Date Updated:  June 9, 2017

This book is one in the series Covert One, created by Robert Ludlum.

On a remote island in the Canadian Arctic, researchers discover the wreckage of a mysterious World War II-era aircraft, a discovery that forces the Russian Federation into a shocking admission. The unmarked plane is a Soviet strategic bomber that disappeared with its crew more than fifty years ago while carrying two metric tons of weaponized anthrax.

Desperate to prevent a political and diplomatic firestorm, the U.S. president dispatches a Covert-One team led by Lieutenant Colonel Jon Smith to the crash site. But others have reached the frigid, windswept island first, including an international arms dealer and his crew of vicious mercenaries. As for the Russians, they are lying: a second, even deadlier secret rests within the hulk of the lost bomber, a secret the Russians are willing to kill to protect. Trapped in a polar wilderness, Smith and his team find themselves fighting a savage war on two fronts–against an enemy they can see and another hiding within their own ranks.

Cobb’s latest Covert-One novel comes to us under the Ludlum rubric, consistent with the endlessly high pace, supercharged energy and international intrigue characteristic of the franchise. While the concept of the plot might stretch credulity, it doesn’t go too far for the inveterate action thriller fan and has the great virtue of high craft in the writing — well up to the standards of Eric Van Lustbader who wrote the preceding two Ludlum sagas.

Wednesday Island, a remote, hostile place a short distance from the Earth’s magnetic pole, is an excellent challenge for an intrepid climbing team. When a member of just such a group spots a strange sight a plane on a glacier!—the adventure becomes more than a recreational outing.

Word goes out under official secrecy and the craft is identified as a World War II era Soviet strategic bomber—a discovery that has all the potentials of a diplomatic cataclysm. The Russians, currently engaged in an anti-terrorism pact with President Samuel Castilla and the U.S. government, reveal that the long-lost Tupolev Tu-4 heavy bomber, called the Misha 124, is a strategic biological weapons platform loaded with weaponized Anthrax. The plane and its cargo were lost 50 years ago—an admission forced on its manufacturers by the untimely and hugely embarrassing sighting. Worst of all, the deadly bacterial agent must be presumed viable.

Knowing that any admission by the Russians is like the one ninth of an iceberg that’s visible above sea level, Castilla suspects there’s much more to the story than the official line, but agrees to a cooperative approach toward the recovery and elimination of the weapon. Tasked to coordinate with our old Cold-War enemies in as diplomatic a way as possible under obviously competitive circumstances is Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Smith, MD, who immediately puts together a team of “mobile cipher” agents of exceptional skill to get to the crash site first.

Spicing up the operation are two gorgeous military-trained women, presumably to provide the sexual tension dimension in the rigorous reaches of human habitability. Not so credible when you consider the physical demands, but there are demands and then there’s fiction. The choice brings in a dynamic that has its allure for men of the species and satisfaction for the feminist wing of the action demographic. Call it a win-win.

The women are: Randi Russell, who had spied in Red China for the CIA and has past history with team leader Smith which, for all her dedication, first-class experience and pilot training, could spell attitudinal trouble; and Valentina Metrace, professor of history and an equally smashing head turner of a more aggressive and sexually lively personality. She is to be Smith’s executive officer.

The fourth member is Russian liaison officer Major Gregori Smyslov of the Federation Air force, required by the Soviets to satisfy political demands. The major will ostensibly “aid and observe the team efforts,” officially. But his true task is to blunt the American effort and to facilitate the secret task force the Russians are sending out to “protect” the evidence. As for the good major himself, he’s more than a straight spy-automaton from the KGB, but a rather conflicted man with independent judgment. His wavering calculations between duty and decency generate a key vibe for Smith to assess. The question of Smyslov’s true values won’t be answered until the confrontations begin.

The more lethal threat is Anton Kretek, one ruthless arms dealer with spies everywhere and loyalty only to those who pay him best. To him, the anthrax is treasure that he will obtain at all costs. He brings in a twenty-man security and technical team, two helicopters, explosives and industrial equipment to thwart the plans of both the Russians, who will kill anyone to protect their secrets, and the Americans, who have a lot to lose if the biological agent isn’t destroyed and the full truth isn’t uncovered.

With precision staging, author Cobb’s mission is to convince us of his depth of knowledge about military culture, methodology, weaponry and the extremes of human savagery and survival—and he doesn’t let his readers down. His detailing of escape and evasion in the Arctic environment is tense and gripping—a lively demonstration of story structure and dramatic skill on the Ludlum scale of international intrigue.

This series seems to me to be much better written than some of the other series spawned by Ludlum and picked up by other writers.


J. Edgar Hoover (Gentry)

Title:                     J. Edgar Hoover (Gentry)

Author:                Curt Gentry

Gentry, Curt (1991). J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: Plume

LOC:       92053539

HV7911.H6 G46 1992

Date Posted:      April 25, 2013

In a richly textured biography of the former FBI director who died in 1972, Gentry, coauthor of Helter Skelter, takes a decidedly unfriendly look at the man and his career, revealing how Hoover found his niche in life as a “hunter of men,” served under 10 presidents over a period of five decades, creating what Eleanor Roosevelt characterized as an American Gestapo.

We’re shown Hoover scheming to help Thomas Dewey replace Harry Truman in the White House in return for a promise that he would be appointed attorney general; making use of secret information on Senator Joseph McCarthy while at the same time contributing significantly to “McCarthyism”; stalking John F. Kennedy even before he went into politics; covertly helping Richard Nixon become president, then virtually forcing the Nixon administration to embark on the road to Watergate.

Hoover believed that America’s morality was very much his business and, as Gentry demonstrates, the director equated morality with sexual abstinence. His horrified fascination with homosexuality (mixed with a strong streak of misogyny) are masterfully depicted here, as well as his virulent racism, disclosed in fresh material on Hoover’s efforts to destroy Martin Luther King Jr.

It is hard to imagine another portrait of Hoover that could surpass this one for detail, depth and sheer vitriol. Gentry makes clearer than previous biographers how J. Edgar Hoover became and, for the greater part of his tenure, remained the most powerful man in Washington.

Sweet Tooth

Author:                                Ian McEwan

McEwan, Ian (2012). Sweet Tooth. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

LCCN:    2012515700

PR6063.C4 S94 2012


Date Updated:  April 14, 2015

This is one of the books picked by the readers and editors of Newsweek as their favorite books of 2012. John Le Carrè meets Jane Austen in this utterly beguiling espionage novel in which a callow, beautiful Engilsh Girl comes of age as a spy and a seasoned woman. Few books have evoked quite so perfectly the disconcerting shabbiness of 1970s Britain.

A review by Kurt Andersen[1] says the following.

Ian McEwan’s work falls into two distinct periods. His early stories and novels were all cool post-1960s perversity, a high-end parade of deadpan macabre and kink and sideshow eccentricity: ghastly death, corpses and butchery, bestiality, incest and pedophilia, insanity, dwarves. But since he turned 50, around the turn of the century, he’s published lovely historical fiction about the disastrous sexual misunderstandings of youth (Atonement, On Chesil Beach), and contemporary fiction about an ­alternative-energy researcher (Solar) and a deeply sane, happily married surgeon (Saturday). It’s as if Johnny Rotten had changed into Bono. And in the same way I like both the Sex Pistols and U2, I’ve enjoyed the best of McEwan’s fiction in both modes.

Sweet Tooth, his new novel, is definitely mature McEwan, intermittently funny and much more sweet than bitter, about as entertaining as a very intelligent novel can be and vice versa. Even though the story is set inside a cold war espionage operation, no violence occurs—indeed, only one (secondary) character dies, of natural causes, and only after he’s exited the story.

The narrator and heroine, Serena Frome, is the elder daughter of an Anglican bishop who, she says, “I don’t think . . . had ever been in a shop.” “Nothing strange or terrible happened to me during my first 18 years” in the 1950s and ’60s, “and that is why I’ll skip them.” She “was both clever and beautiful,” and reminds us again 10 pages later: “I really was pretty.” Her mother persuades her to fulfill her “duty as a woman to go to Cambridge to study maths,” where she promptly learns “what a mediocrity I was in mathematics.”

What Serena really enjoys is reading fiction. “Reading was my way of not thinking. . . . I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in.” Her tastes are defiantly un-snobbish: she amuses university friends with her insistence that “Valley of the Dolls was as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote,” and she discovers Solzhenitsyn right after reading Ian Fleming’s Octopussy.

Although she “took the orthodox view of our generation” concerning the Vietnam War, the fiction she reads turns her into a young anti-Communist in the soft-on—Communism academia of the early ’70s. “I was also the first person in the world to understand Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.” She’s not quite Emma Bovary, ruined by the fiction she inhales, but “those books delivered me to my career in intelligence.” She has a brief affair with a-middle-aged history tutor who in turn gets her recruited by MI5, the domestic counter­espionage service.

Compared with the lavish attention Mc­Ewan often devotes to physical description, Sweet Tooth is light on telling period detail. “It pleased us, the general excitement in the air in 1969,” Serena says early on, and again, not many pages later: “A seedy, careless insurrection was in the air.” But we’re mainly obliged to take the countercultural atmosphere on faith, with the exception of some funny passages involving Serena’s hippie sister, Lucy, who lives “rent-free with another woman, a circus-skills instructor.” “Without asking too many impertinent questions, the state paid the rent and granted a weekly pension to artists, out-of-work actors, musicians, mystics, therapists and a network of citizens for whom smoking cannabis and talking about it was an engrossing profession.” Lucy’s boyfriend is one of these, doing “that inexcusable thing that men who liked cannabis tended to do, which was to go on about it. . . . Our parents had the war to be boring about. We had this.”

Yet Serena’s distaste for “this inglorious revolution” is more a matter of sensibility than ideology; she is a young fogy on instinct rather than principle. “I believed in nothing much—not carols, not even rock music.” Against the conformist nonconformity of her fellow youth, she enjoys being a (secret) nonconformist. “It gave me some innocent pleasure to think how horrified the counterculture crowd around us would be, to know that we were the ultimate enemy from the ‘straight’ gray world of MI5.”

Organizing an undercover operation code-named Sweet Tooth, this fictional MI5 contrives to pay long-term stipends, through a front foundation, to 10 up-and-coming writers. They didn’t need to be cold war fanatics, merely “skeptical about utopias in the East or looming catastrophe in the West.” The hope, one of the bosses tells her, is that they’d “turn out well and become, you know, important. This is a slow-burn thing.” Because Serena knows contemporary literature, she gets the assignment to recruit the young fiction writer Tom Haley.

They promptly begin an affair and fall in love. She keeps him in the dark about his true patrons. Meanwhile, her adulterous “old MI5 hand” turns out to have been a Communist asset, putting his protégé Serena under suspicion. As in any spy story, it’s unclear who’s lying to whom until late in the game. For all the modish noir of his early work, McEwan has always been a good old-fashioned teller of tales, and the suspense and surprises in this book are well engineered.

Most big-time novelists sooner or later write a novel or two about books and writers, and this is not McEwan’s first iteration. Its true subject is not espionage but, as in Atonement, the porous boundaries between the imaginary and the real—and, as in Atonement, he’s got a large metafictional trick up his sleeve. In other words, if I may indulge in my own meta-nonfictional swerve, Sweet Tooth is “a novel about the powerful influence literature can exert on life”—as a reviewer last summer wrote in these pages about my [Kurt Andersen ] own latest book, also a circa-1970 story concerning an upper-middle-class fiction-besotted baby boomer girl who reads Ian Fleming and plays at espionage with duplicitous friends, also narrated by the rueful heroine four decades later.

Serena tells Tom (and us) again and again that she has no use for the illusion-busting postmodern novelists he adores. “I wasn’t impressed by those writers . . . who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions. . . . I believed that writers were paid to pretend.” And, later: “No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and self-consistent as the actual.”

McEwan, however, has his cake and eats it, until the last chapter keeping us unaware of the metafictional con under way. Instead of flaunting it, in 20th-century spoilsport fashion, he uses his game to reinforce and deepen the pleasurable illusions of reality, thereby satisfying conservative readers like Serena as well as those like Tom with a taste for the literary fun house.

Even before the reveal, Sweet Tooth playfully hops and skips along the borders of make-believe and reality. Unlike her co-workers, who tell family and friends they work for MI5, Serena unnecessarily gives a cover story, turning herself into a kind of fictional character. A colleague warns her that in intelligence work “the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. . . . You imagine things—and you can make them come true.” She’s happy to indulge Tom’s masochistic sexual conceit that she’s cuckolding him with Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, “a deliberate and shared fantasy . . . usefully diluting my own necessary untruths.” But sex with a writer also unnerves her: “I couldn’t banish the thought that he was quietly recording our lovemaking for future use, that he was making mental notes.”

McEwan studs the novel with well-known Britons, both named (his former publisher, his former editor, his friend Martin Amis) and lightly fictionalized. The future MI5 director Stella Rimington is “Millie Trimingham”; the book’s ambitious undergraduate editor Rona Kemp (“She went on to Vogue . . . and then to an incendiary rise and fall, starting new magazines in Manhattan”) seems highly Tina Brownian; and Tom Haley is almost indistinguishable from McEwan himself. Serena summarizes a half dozen of Haley’s short stories, several of which are recognizable as versions of McEwan’s fiction from the 1970s.

Sweet Tooth is sort of a younger sibling to Atonement, less epic and grave, with lower stakes, more fun and an apparently happier ending. Tom is a self-consciously autobiographical figure, but one throwaway line of Serena’s—“And feeling clever, I’ve always thought, is just a sigh away from being cheerful”—could be an animating truth for McEwan as a writer. “Sweet Tooth” is extremely clever in both the British and American senses (smart as well as amusingly tricky) and his most cheerful book by far.

[1] Kurt Andersen is the author, most recently, of the novel True Believers. A version of this review appeared in print in the New York Times (November 25, 2012), p. BR15 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “I Spy.”

Spanning the Century

Title:                      Spanning the Century

Author:                   Rudy Abramson

Rudy Abramson Rudy Abramson (1992). Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman 1891-1986. New York: Morrow

LOC:       91042483

E748.H35 A64 1992

Date Posted:      April 23, 2013


Spanning the Century is an absorbing account of the life of W. Averill Harriman, one of that remarkable group of “wise men” whose lives were so closely linked to the foreign policy of the postwar US as it emerged to world power; by a Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

Harriman was the son of Edward Henry Harriman, one of the great railroad pioneers—some say robber barons—of the Victorian era. For much of his life, he lived in the shadow of his father, and—though Abramson does not say so directly—his efforts as international banker, railroad executive, early pioneer of aviation, and assembler of America’s largest merchant fleet hardly showed the remarkable prescience that characterized his father’s reign; moreover, in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and early 30s, Harriman was taken for a ride in business dealings.

It may have been his lack of financial acumen that drove him into politics; in any case, FDR found this former Republican a useful weapon against the outraged financial community. Harriman’s most glorious days came during WW II, initially as Lend Lease administrator in London, where he worked closely with Churchill to bring the US into the war. Later, this taciturn, often inarticulate man served as ambassador to Moscow and, in the 1950s, as a one-term governor of New York.

In the 1960s, Harriman negotiated the neutralization of Laos and headed the American delegation seeking peace with North Vietnam. Abramson deals frankly with Harriman’s contributions; his stinginess; his years as a playboy and his adulterous affair with Pamela Churchill, whom he later married; and his sycophantic, even groveling attempts to curry favor with successive Presidents and to secure interesting diplomatic and other assignments. An unusual perspective that conveys an impression sometimes closer to the court intrigues of the past than to the supposedly more rational politics of the present.


On Saudi Arabia

Title:                      On Saudi Arabia

Author:                  Karen Elliot House

House, Karen Elliot (2012). On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Line—And Future New York: Alfred A. Knopf

LOC:       2012018977

DS215 .H68 2012

Date Posted:      April 21, 2013

Picked as one of their favorite books of 2012 by the readers and editors of Newsweek, this book is one of the most revealing and impressively reported books read recently. House’ has 30-plus years experience in a country that is hard to understand and access. In this book we see, hear, and experience Saudi Arabia like a local.

From the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who has spent the last thirty years writing about Saudi Arabia—as diplomatic correspondent, foreign editor, and then publisher of The Wall Street Journal—an important and timely book that explores all facets of life in this shrouded Kingdom: its tribal past, its complicated present, its precarious future.

Through observation, anecdote, extensive interviews, and analysis Karen Elliot House navigates the maze in which Saudi citizens find themselves trapped and reveals the mysterious nation that is the world’s largest exporter of oil, critical to global stability, and a source of Islamic terrorists.

In her probing and sharp-eyed portrait, we see Saudi Arabia, one of the last absolute monarchies in the world, considered to be the final bulwark against revolution in the region, as threatened by multiple fissures and forces, its levers of power controlled by a handful of elderly Al Saud princes with an average age of 77 years and an extended family of some 7,000 princes. Yet at least 60 percent of the increasingly restive population they rule is under the age of 20.

The author writes that oil-rich Saudi Arabia has become a rundown welfare state. The public pays no taxes; gets free education and health care; and receives subsidized water, electricity, and energy (a gallon of gasoline is cheaper in the Kingdom than a bottle of water), with its petrodollars buying less and less loyalty. House makes clear that the royal family also uses Islam’s requirement of obedience to Allah—and by extension to earthly rulers—to perpetuate Al Saud rule.

Behind the Saudi facade of order and obedience, today’s Saudi youth, frustrated by social conformity, are reaching out to one another and to a wider world beyond their cloistered country. Some 50 percent of Saudi youth is on the Internet; 5.1 million Saudis are on Facebook.

To write this book, the author interviewed most of the key members of the very private royal family. She writes about King Abdullah’s modest efforts to relax some of the kingdom’s most oppressive social restrictions; women are now allowed to acquire photo ID cards, finally giving them an identity independent from their male guardians, and are newly able to register their own businesses but are still forbidden to drive and are barred from most jobs.

With extraordinary access to Saudis—from key religious leaders and dissident imams to women at university and impoverished widows, from government officials and political dissidents to young successful Saudis and those who chose the path of terrorism—House argues that most Saudis do not want democracy but seek change nevertheless; they want a government that provides basic services without subjecting citizens to the indignity of begging princes for handouts; a government less corrupt and more transparent in how it spends hundreds of billions of annual oil revenue; a kingdom ruled by law, not royal whim.

In House’s assessment of Saudi Arabia’s future, she compares the country today to the Soviet Union before Mikhail Gorbachev arrived with reform policies that proved too little too late after decades of stagnation under one aged and infirm Soviet leader after another. She discusses what the next generation of royal princes might bring and the choices the kingdom faces: continued economic and social stultification with growing risk of instability, or an opening of society to individual initiative and enterprise with the risk that this, too, undermines the Al Saud hold on power.

A riveting book—informed, authoritative, illuminating—about a country that could well be on the brink, and an in-depth examination of what all this portends for Saudi Arabia’s future, and for our own.

The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity

Title:                      The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity

Author:                  Jürgen Habermas

Habermas, Jürgen (1987). The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: twelve lectures, Frederick Lawrence (trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

LOC:       87012397

B3258.H323 P5513 1987

Date Posted:      April 19, 2013

Habermas[1] writes of the attempt to deal with modernity, especially the problems posed by subjective purposive rationality, and the attempts to escape metaphysics since Hegel posited absolute Spirit. Chapters are devoted to Heidegger, Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault, Horkheimer, Adorno, et al.

In his discussion of Nietzsche’s “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life,” he writes:

Nietzsche analyzes the fruitlessness of cultural tradition uncoupled from action and shoved into the sphere of inferiority. Knowledge, taken in excess without hunger, even contrary to need, no longer acts as a transforming motive impelling to action and remains hidden in a certain chaotic inner world…and so the whole modern culture is essentially internal…a Handbook in Inner culture for External Barbarians. Modern consciousness, overburdened with historical knowledge, has lost “the plastic power of life” that makes human beings able, with their gaze on the future, to “interpret the past from the standpoint of the highest strength of the present.” Because the methodically proceeding Geistewsissenschaften are dependent on a false, which is to say unattainable, ideal of objectivity, they neutralize the standards necessary for life and make way for a paralyzing relativism: “Things were different in all ages; it does not matter how you are.” They block the capacity to “shatter and dissolve” something past from time to time, in order to “enable us to live in the present.” Like the Young Hegelians, Nietzsche senses in the historicist admiration of the “power of history” a tendency that all too easily turns into an admiration of naked success in the style of Realpolitik.

I [William Plank] think Nietzsche explained why the EMC faculty have been able to tolerate for so long the lack of leadership and the lack of a raise for the last four years, except for periods of private griping. They have great knowledge, but it is “taken without hunger,” and it no longer impels them to action. They have been profiting from the “fruitlessness of a cultural tradition uncoupled from action,” and paralyzed by the admiration of “historical knowledge” which “has lost the plastic power of life.” On the other hand, we may just be children of the Great Depression and grateful to the employer that he does not discover our Guilt and fire us.

A major hoax that has been played on the public is that Johnny and Jenny will perform beyond expectations in school if they are told they are wonderful. It has been called the “self-esteem movement,” and its shortcomings and duplicities have been exposed for all to see by Maureen Stout in her excellent book, The Feel-Good Curriculum (2001). Stout deconstructs the ten “myths” undergirding the movement, such notions as that competition and grading are bad for students’ self-esteem, that teachers should be counselors and friends with their students, that when students fail, it’s the teacher’s fault.

The above is Plank grinding an ax, but that does not mean he is wrong. Neither does Habermas have the answers regarding how we view the changes in mores we are experiencing, especially in the Millennium youth. I deal with them every day. Their ideas challenge the notions of right and proper, especially of the baby boomers, and the generation that preceded them.

[1] This review by William Plank, Modern Language & Literature, Eastern Montana College