Oscar E. Fernandez on The Calculus of Happiness

FernandezIf you think math has little to do with finding a soulmate or any other “real world” preoccupations, Oscar Fernandez says guess again. According to his new book, The Calculus of Happiness, math offers powerful insights into health, wealth, and love, from choosing the best diet, to finding simple “all weather” investment portfolios with great returns. Using only high-school-level math (precalculus with a dash of calculus), Fernandez guides readers through the surprising results. He recently took the time to answer a few questions about the book and how empowering mathematics can be.

The title is intriguing. Can you tell us what calculus has to do with happiness?

Sure. The title is actually a play on words. While there is a sprinkling of calculus in the book (the vast majority of the math is precalculus-level), the title was more meant to convey the main idea of the book: happiness can be calculated, and therefore optimized.

How do you optimize happiness?

Good question. First you have to quantify happiness. We know from a variety of research that good health, healthy finances, and meaningful social relationships are the top contributors to happiness. So, a simplistic “happiness equation” is: health + wealth + love = happiness. This book then does what any good applied mathematician would do (I’m am applied mathematician): quantify each of the “happiness components” on the left-hand side of the equation (health, wealth, and love), and then use math to extract valuable insights and results, like how to optimize each component.

This process sounds very much like the subtitle, how a mathematical approach to life adds up to health, wealth, and love. But just to be sure, can you elaborate on the subtitle?

That’s exactly right. Often we feel like various aspects of our lives are beyond our control. But in fact, many aspects of our lives, including some of the most important ones (like health, wealth, and love), follow mathematical rules. And by studying the equations that emerge from these rules you can quickly learn how to manipulate those equations in your favor. That’s what I do in the book for health, wealth, and love.

Can you give us some examples/applications?

I can actually give you about 30 of them, roughly the number discussed in the book. But let me focus on my three favorite ones. The first is what I called the “rational food choice” function (Chapter 2). It’s a simple formula: divide 100 calories by the weight (say, in grams) of a particular food. This yields a number whose units are calories per gram, the units of “energy density.” Something remarkable then happens when you plot the energy densities of various foods on a graph: the energy densities of nearly all the healthy foods (like fruits and vegetables) are at most about 2 calories per gram. This simple mathematical insight, therefore, helps you instantly make healthier food choices. And following its advice, as I discuss at length in the book, eventually translates to lower risk for developing heart disease and diabetes, weight loss, and even an increase in your life span! The second example comes from Chapter 3; it’s a formula for calculating how many more years you have to work for before you can retire. Among the formula’s many insights is that, in the simplest case, this magic number depends entirely on the ratio of how much you save each year to how much you spend. And the formula, being a formula, tells you exactly how changing that ratio affects your time until retirement. The last example is based on astronomer Frank Drake’s equation for estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy (Chapter 5). It turns out that this alien-searching equation can also be used to estimate the number of possible compatible partners that live near you! That sort of equates a good date with an intelligent alien, and I suppose I can see some similarities (like how rare they are to find).

The examples you’ve mentioned have direct relevance to our lives. Is that a feature of the other examples too?

Absolutely. And it’s more than just relevance—the examples and applications I chose are all meant to highlight how empowering mathematics can be. Indeed, the entire book is designed to empower the reader—via math—with concrete, math-backed and science-backed strategies for improving their health, wealth, and love life. This is a sampling of the broader principle embodied in the subtitle: taking a mathematical approach to life can help you optimize nearly every aspect of your life.

Will I need to know calculus to enjoy the book?

Not at all. Most of the math discussed is precalculus-level. Therefore, I expect that nearly every reader will have studied the math used in the book at some point in their K-12 education. Nonetheless, I guide the reader through the math as each chapter progresses. And once we get to an important equation, you’ll see a little computer icon next to it in the margin. These indicate that there are online interactive demonstrations and calculators I created that go along with the formula. The online calculators make it possible to customize the most important formulas in the book, so even if the math leading up to them gets tough, you can still use the online resources to help you optimize various aspects of health, wealth, and love.

Finally, you mention a few other features of the book in the preface. Can you tell us about some of those?

Sure, I’ll mention two particular important ones. Firstly, at least 1/3 of the book is dedicated to personal finance. I wrote that part of the book to explicitly address the low financial literacy in this country. You’ll find understandable discussions of everything from taxes to investing to retirement (in addition to the various formulas derived that will help you optimize those aspects of your financial life). Finally, I organized the book to follow the sequence of math topics covered in a typical precalculus textbook. So if you’re a precalculus student, or giving this book to someone who is, this book will complement their course well. (I also included the mathematical derivations of the equations presented in the chapter appendixes.) This way the youngest readers among us can read about how empowering and applicable mathematics can be. It’s my hope that this will encourage them to continue studying math beyond high school.

Oscar E. Fernandez is assistant professor of mathematics at Wellesley College and the author of Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us and The Calculus of Happiness: How a Mathematical Approach to Life Adds Up to Health, Wealth, and Love.

Sean W. Fleming on Where the River Flows

Rivers are essential to civilization and even life itself, yet how many of us truly understand how they work? Why do rivers run where they do? Where do their waters actually come from? How can the same river flood one year and then dry up the next? Where the River Flows by Sean W. Fleming is a majestic journey along the planet’s waterways, providing a scientist’s reflections on the vital interconnections that rivers share with the land, the sky, and us. Fleming recently took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

Your book is unique in that it explores the geophysics of rivers: where their waters come from, why their flows vary from day to day and decade to decade, and how math and physics reveal the hidden dynamics of rivers. Why is this important?

SF: Every aspect of our lives ultimately revolves around fresh water. It’s needed to grow food and brew beer, to build cars and computers, to generate hydroelectric power, to go fishing and canoeing, to maintain the ecological web that sustains the world. Floods are the most expensive type of natural disaster in the U.S., and droughts are the most damaging disasters globally. Yet as the margin between water supply and demand grows narrower, and tens of millions more people congregate in megacities often located on floodplains, we become more vulnerable to the geophysical subtleties of the global water cycle. It’s an important part of life that we need to understand if we’re going to make smart choices going forward.

Your book anthropomorphizes a lot. Is this just a way to make the subjects more accessible, or is there a little more to it?

SF: I ask questions like “how do rivers remember?” and “how do clouds talk to fish?” and “can rivers choose where they flow?” It’s a fun way to broach complicated topics about the geophysics of rivers. But posing questions like that also prepares us to open our minds to new ways of thinking about rivers. For instance, modern information theory allows us to quantitatively describe the coupled atmospheric-hydrologic-ecological system as a communications pathway, in which the weather literally transmits data to fish species using the watershed as a communications channel—modulating water levels almost like Morse code. There may be no intent in that communication, but mathematically, we can treat it the same way.

What are the main threats that rivers face? Are these challenges consistent, or do they vary from river to river?

SF: It does vary, but broadly speaking, watersheds face four main threats: pollution, land use change, climate change, and deliberate human modification. Pollution ranges from industrial effluent to fecal contamination to emerging contaminants like pharmaceuticals. Converting natural areas to urban land uses increases flooding and erosion and reduces habitat quantity and quality. Climate change is modifying the timing, volume, and dynamics of streamflows. And civil works like dams, flood control structures, and of course water withdrawals and consumption, alter river flows and ecosystems more profoundly than perhaps anything else. The common thread behind all these concerns is that human populations and economies—and therefore water needs, and our direct and indirect impacts on rivers—are growing much faster than our development of sustainable technologies.

How will climate change affect river flows?

SF: Global warming is expected to accelerate the water cycle, increasing both flooding and drought. Other impacts are more regional. Some areas will enjoy larger annual flow volumes, whereas others may suffer reduced water supplies. More precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow, and snowpack will melt earlier, changing seasonal flow timing. That may interfere with salmon spawning migration, for example, or render existing water supply infrastructure obsolete. In part due to anthropogenic climate change, mountain glaciers are retreating, effectively shrinking the “water towers” of the Himalayas, Andes, Alps, and Rockies—the headwaters of the great rivers that support much of the global human population, from the Columbia to the Yangtze to the Ganges.

What’s so important about understanding the science of rivers? What does it add to our view of the world?

SF: Just think about floods. Knowing how urbanization or deforestation may affect flooding, or how some kinds of flood control can backfire, or how the flood forecasting behind an evacuation order works, is important for making informed choices. There’s also a philosophical aspect. A dramatic view of a river meandering across a desert landscape of red sand and sagebrush at twilight is made even richer by being able to look deeper and recognize the layers of causality and complexity that contributed to it, from the rise of mountains in the headwaters as a continental plate split apart over millions of years, to the way the river shifts its channel when a thunderstorm descends from the skies to deliver a flash flood.

A consistent theme across the book is the interconnectedness of ideas. Why this emphasis? What’s the significance of those connections?

SF: A fundamental and amazing fact of nature is that not only can so much be so effectively described by math, but the same math describes so many different phenomena. Consider debris flows, a sort of flood-landslide hybrid posing serious dangers from Japan to California to Italy. It turns out we can understand phenomena like debris flows using cellular automata, a peculiar kind of computer simulation originally created to explore artificial life. What’s more, cellular automata also reveal something about the origins of fractal patterns, which occur in everything from tree branches to galaxies to the stock market. Recognizing that ideas from one field can be so powerful in another is important for pushing science forward.

The book seems to present a conflicted view of global water security. It paints an extraordinarily dark picture, but it is also very optimistic. Can you explain?

SF: Grave challenges often drive great achievements. Consider some United Nations numbers. Over a billion people don’t have sufficient water, and deprivation in adequate clean water claims—just through the associated disease—more lives than any war claims through guns. By 2050, global water demand will further increase by a stunning 55%. Little wonder that a former World Bank vice-president predicted the 21st century will see water wars. Yet there’s compelling evidence we can get serious traction on this existential threat. Advances in policy and technology have enabled America to hold its water demand at 1970s levels despite population and economic growth. A focused science investment will allow us to continue that success and replicate it globally.

FlemingSean W. Fleming has two decades of experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Canada, England, and Mexico, ranging from oil exploration to operational river forecasting to glacier science. He holds faculty positions in the geophysical sciences at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University. He is the author of Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways.

Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel on Decolonization

DecolonizationThe end of colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean was one of the most important and dramatic developments of the twentieth century. In the decades after World War II, dozens of new states emerged as actors in global politics. Long-established imperial regimes collapsed, some more or less peacefully, others amid mass violence. Decolonization by Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel takes an incisive look at decolonization and its long-term consequences, revealing it to be a coherent yet multidimensional process at the heart of modern history. Recently, the authors answered some questions about their new book:

You describe the dissolution of colonial empires as a major process of the twentieth century. What makes decolonization important?

In a way, decolonization is both among the most overrated and underrated historical processes of the twentieth century. On the one hand, many contemporaries pinned high expectations to the end of colonial rule: a new age of social and international equality, post-racism, peace, empowerment of the South, economic redistribution, cultural self-determination, democracy, technological progress, etc. Many of these expectations did not, or only partially, materialize. Hierarchies and inequality continue to shape the relations between formally independent states. It is thus only natural that many see decolonization through the prism of historical disappointment and disillusion. They regard decolonization as a failure. Yet we also have to see what decolonization did change: It dramatically altered the norms that govern the word-wide relations between nations and peoples. While in the late 1930s large parts of the world population still lived in territories that were under alien rule, this has become an anomaly in the present time. Racial hierarchy is no longer an accepted structuring principle of world order. This fundamental normative change is a major dimension—and yes, also an achievement—of the decolonization era. In general, it is important to go beyond these narratives of failure and success and to understand decolonization as a fundamental restructuring—and geopolitical fragmentation—of the international system. This is a perspective we put forward in the book.

How do you explain this international sea change?

This is a question that many contemporaries and witnesses of decolonization were already debating, and today’s historians and political scientists have inherited several ways of explaining the end of colonial rule: that the colonial powers simply could not stem against the rising tide of national liberation movements, that the new postwar international scene of the Cold War and international organizations forced Europe’s colonial powers to give up colonial rule, or that the colonial powers, in association with influential big business interests, realized that they could pursue their interests in more cost-effective ways than colonial rule, the classical “neo-colonialism” theory. In our book, in line with today’s excellent scholarship, we try to avoid overtly simplified models. Decolonization was a multifaceted and complex historical process, and its sheer geographical breadth should caution us against one-factor-theories. The book seeks to provide an analytical grid that takes into account various levels of historical action (local, imperial, international) and time frames. This grid may be used by our readers to analyze and describe specific cases, and may also help to explain decolonization in comparative perspective.

How irreversible is this process, in light of the current international scene? Are there no clear signs that the international order marked by decolonization is coming to an end?

Decolonization never did away with power structures between nations and peoples. Rather, it changed the ways in which these hierarchies are arranged and exercised. The formally sovereign nation-state—and no longer the empire—has become the basis of the international system. Despite the current renaissance of “spheres of interest” and “interventions,” as worrisome as these tendencies are, we do not see the reemergence of internationally codified hierarchies between “metropoles” and “colonies.” To be sure, the post-1989 international order has been under great pressure. Yet, there are no historical precedents for the reappearance of once collapsed empires. If current talk of a “Greater Russia” really leads to Russian “re-imperialization” remains to be seen. In that case, Russian ambitions will eventually clash with a self-confident China, ironically its old Asian rival, which, by the way, has never really ceased to be an empire. Elsewhere, the rise of xenophobic and racist movements throughout the Western world hardly seems to be inspired by the desire to be again at the pinnacle of a diverse and multi-ethnic empire. These movements want to minimize interaction with what they conceive as the inferior and dangerous other (be they Syrians, Eastern Europeans, or Mexicans); their new symbol is “the Wall.” Colonial re-expansion would necessarily go in a different direction.

You also argue that decolonization marked “a crucial phase in West European nation-building.” What do you mean by this?

Of course, decolonization did not bring about new European nation-states. This happened in the global South. Yet, it did have a considerable impact on the European metropoles, and also on Japan, which had built up its own colonial empire in Asia from the late nineteenth century on. These metropoles were closely tied to their overseas possessions, and it is one of the paradoxes of the decolonization era that such ties intensified at the very moment of imperial demise. After the Second World War, Great Britain and France, the two leading colonial powers, sought to facilitate mobility within their imperial spheres and set up, by today’s standards, relatively liberal citizenship laws for people from their respective empires. Decolonization, in this context, came as no less than a rupture in longstanding geopolitical orientations. It set off a new phase in European nation-building, a sort of nation-building by way of contraction. The metropoles had to dissolve or redefine the many—economic, political, social, also mental—ties to their respective empires. In light of increased immigration from their former colonial territories, they also had to redefine what it meant to be British, French, or Dutch. Though not produced by the end of empire, European supranational integration became enmeshed in European decolonization: the postcolonial European nation-states started to focus on Europe and the European market, which more than made up for their losses in former imperial trade. Great Britain, marked by a long-standing ambivalence toward continental Europe, made its first attempt to join the European Common Market in 1961, after the disaster of the Suez crisis and at the apogee of African decolonization. In a way, the 2016 “Brexit” vote to drop out of the European Union concluded this period of postimperial British supra-nationalism.

How present is the history of decolonization today?

Remnants of the colonial past and the decolonization era are pervasive. They remind us that our current world was built out of the ruins of empire. For example, a large portion of international borders between states, including the conflicts they sometimes nourish, have been the result of colonial rule. Decolonization basically enshrined most of them as the borders between sovereign nation-states. Some of the most troubling conflicts in the world—such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the conflict between Pakistan and India—can be traced back to the decolonization era. Yet, notwithstanding the many apparent links, assessing the long-term impact of decolonization and the colonial past remains a tricky operation. Postcolonial countries have taken very different trajectories, sometimes starting from the same colonial system. Consider the two Koreas which had been under Japanese rule and which took diverging paths. The Syrian civil war, to cite another case, can hardly be seen as the ineluctable result of Franco-British quasi-colonial rule in the Middle East during the interwar years.

While the impact of the colonial past and the decolonization process may be fading with time, memories relating to this period have experienced a boom over the past two decades. Certainly, many episodes of the decolonization period remain largely forgotten. Who remembers the bloody repression of a major insurrection in Madagascar in 1947–49? Yet, debates about the colonial past and its end have attracted a great deal of attention not only in formerly colonized countries, but also in Japan and in many European countries. These memories have even become a concern in the diplomatic world. Internationally concerted efforts at remembering the effects—and the many victims—of colonial rule, similar to what we have seen with regard to the Holocaust or the world wars, however, are still no more than a wild dream by some historians.

Why did you write this book?

Decolonization has become an important topic in international historical scholarship, a development not completely detached from the memory boom we just talked about. Over the past two decades, historians and social scientists around the world have worked at piecing together a complex picture of this process and its reverberations. In many cases they have unearthed new archival evidence, a lot of which has only recently become accessible. Decolonization is in the process of turning into a highly productive—and specialized—research field. The wealth of new empirical studies, however, has been rarely accompanied by attempts at synthesis or general interpretation. The book offers such a broader survey. We sought to write it in a clear, accessible prose which addresses students and scholars, but also readers from outside the historical profession who are interested in this process.

Jan C. Jansen is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Jürgen Osterhammel is professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Konstanz. He is a recipient of the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, Germany’s most prestigious academic award. His books include The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton).

 

 

 

Craig Clunas on Chinese Painting and its Audiences

ClunasWhat is Chinese painting? When did it begin? And what are the different associations of this term in China and the West? In Chinese Painting and Its Audiences, which is based on the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts given at the National Gallery of Art, leading art historian Craig Clunas draws from a wealth of artistic masterpieces and lesser-known pictures to show how Chinese painting has been understood by a range of audiences over five centuries, from the Ming Dynasty to today. Recently, Clunas took the time to answer some questions about the book.

There are lots of books about Chinese art, what’s the particular scope of this one?

CC: This book isn’t about the whole of Chinese art, but it looks at the important art of painting in China over the last five hundred years or so, from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the very recent past. It does it not from the point of view of the creation of Chinese painting but through a history of looking at it, and a history of the types of viewers who have formed the very diverse audiences for it over those centuries.

If I don’t know much about Chinese culture, will I be able to understand this book?

CC: I hope anybody interested in art can get something from this book. It has its origins in a lecture series, the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, held regularly at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, since 1953. In 2012 I gave these lectures (with the same title as the book); that’s only the second time in over sixty years that art from China has been the focus of a Mellon Lecture series. So I was very conscious of addressing a non-specialist audience, of people with an interest in the visual arts generally but without any specific expertise, and I’ve tried to keep the technicalities to a minimum in the main text, while still providing the evidence for other scholars to judge the strength of my arguments. When people say, ‘I don’t know anything about Chinese art,’ they often in fact already have a strong set of preconceptions, and I want to dispel some of these by showing the actual variety of painting being produced over a long time span, including work made in China in the past which tends to get left out of the category called ‘Chinese painting’ today.

How would you break down the main argument? 

CC: Obviously, back in the sixteenth century people in China who viewed a work by a famous painter of the day, or an old master from the past, didn’t think of what they were looking at as ‘Chinese painting.’ To them, it was just ‘painting.’ Today, whether in the Chinese-speaking world or outside it, the category ‘Chinese painting’ is the meaningful one we use to describe both historic painting and contemporary work of certain kinds. The book looks at how this came about, and shows how it was through the actions of viewers that this cultural category was formed, concentrating on certain kinds of pictures and marginalizing others. I’m claiming that the understanding of Chinese painting in some ways ran before it could walk, making big generalizations about the subject before much of the detailed work was done. These generalizations then fed into art history as a whole, where ‘Chinese painting’ stands as probably the major counter-example to the western tradition of art. I’m arguing here that the category ‘Chinese painting’ isn’t a timeless essence of Chinese culture, or an imposition on China from outside, but the result of a complex set of historical processes involving different types of audiences.

How does the book do this? 

CC: Firstly, by showing a fresh and broad set of images, you can’t write about pictures without showing them! The book is very heavily illustrated; it includes some familiar paintings which everybody already interested in the topic might recognize (though I hope they are talked about in a new way), but it also has lots of unfamiliar images, pictures which haven’t been widely reproduced before. I hope every reader will see something surprising and something beautiful. At the book’s heart are a sequence of what to me are really interesting paintings of different types of people – men and women, emperors and merchants, scholars and gallery-goers – looking at paintings. These pictures which take viewing as their subject can tell us a lot. They are at the core of a sequence of chapters which roughly speaking takes the topic from the fifteenth century to our own time, looking at a number of ideal audiences for Chinese painting; I’ve called these: the gentleman, the emperor, the merchant, the nation, the people. I’ve tried to balance analysis of the images themselves with the context in which they were produced, and to look at audiences both inside and outside China, which go back a lot longer than people might imagine. I’m obviously dependent on the specialist scholarship of other writers, and I’ve tried to pull together some of this work to give readers who might be interested in knowing more about a particular topic a sense of some of the great work being done now on Chinese painting. You can now read extensively in English about Chinese painting theory and criticism, and the lives of individual artists, over a broad time span. I’d be pleased if this book made people just a bit more aware of that great body of knowledge, and of the sheer scale of China’s artistic production.

How do you think this book might be received in China? 

CC: I’ve written other books on Chinese art, mostly of the Ming period, which have been translated into Chinese, and what I find interesting (and a bit surprising) is how some Chinese readers find contemporary resonances in books which I thought of when I wrote them as being ‘just’ about history. So I’ve come to accept that the history we write is never ‘just’ about the past. I’ve also learned (and this would be one of the main arguments of the book) that it’s wrong to imagine some homogeneous ‘Chinese view’ of painting or anything else, as if everybody in that huge country thought the same way. I hope some readers there might find it intriguing, and that even if they don’t like its way of arguing they would recognise the respect I feel for one of the world’s great bodies of art and human creativity.

How do you see the story of Chinese painting and its audiences developing in the future? 

CC: Painting, whether in brush and ink or oil on canvas, is only one of the practices of the visual arts in China today, but it remains an extremely important one. This is not least because the boom in the art market in China makes works of both past and present hugely valuable commodities. It seems pretty unlikely to me that the significant collections of Chinese painting outside China (whether in museums or in private hands) will grow very much in the future, the gravitational pull of the Chinese market is now just too strong. But the digital reproduction of artworks, which is proceeding now at a terrific pace, may mean that the physical location of paintings will matter less and less, their audiences will become more global and the composition of these audiences will get more and more diverse. That’s perhaps going to make it harder and harder for a restrictive definition of ‘Chinese painting’ to sustain itself, and maybe in time it will just be part of something called ‘painting’ again, or – who knows – even the dominant strand within it.

Craig Clunas is the Professor of History of Art of Oxford University in England. His books include Screen of Kings: Royal Art and Power in Ming China, Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, and Art in China.

Cass Sunstein on the echo chamber and his new book, #Republic

SunsteinSocial media gives us ways to nurture ever more elaborate online communities, but is it friendly to the kind of democracy diverse societies need? In #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass Sunstein, the New York Times bestselling author of Nudge and The World According to Star Wars, shows exactly how today’s Internet is driving political fragmentation, polarization, and even extremism—and what can be done about it. Recently, Sunstein answered a few questions about his timely new book.

Why did you write this book, and how does it relate to your previous work?

Well, we are obviously in a time of national division. The splits between Americans across political lines are striking and disturbing, and there’s a lot of division and mutual misunderstanding out there. There is distrust and anger as well. Social media contributes to those splits. So I wanted to get hold of what is a really serious problem in a nation that aspires to E Pluribus Unum. The book grows out of my previous books on the general subject—but the media environment has changed so rapidly that some of the central arguments, e.g. about Twitter and Facebook, are entirely new.

What new threats to democracy does the internet pose now that it didn’t pose, say, five years ago? Haven’t people always sorted themselves into like-minded groups?

We used to have a much larger role for general interest intermediaries, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. That’s diminished, and with it, trust in them has diminished too. The use of niches—especially for people who are politically engaged—is pretty dramatic. Hashtag Nation (#Nation) isn’t really something we’ve seen before. I wouldn’t want to say that things are getting worse, but they’re getting differently bad.

We’ve all heard the term “echo chamber,” perhaps particularly in the recent election cycle. Can you talk a bit about this idea and the implicit dangers?

Echo chambers breed extremism. If you hang out with like-minded people, you’ll get more confident and more extreme—and the group will get more unified. Pretty soon, people in different echo chambers live in different political universes. That makes problem-solving really hard, and it makes enmity really easy. My own work in the White House showed me the importance of focusing on objective truths and of not insulating oneself—echo chambers are destructive to those endeavors.

How can the internet be made friendlier to democratic deliberation?

A big question. Let’s start with Facebook: It should redo its News Feed so as to ensure that there’s less in the way of informational cocoons. Let’s end with each of us: We should make choices so that we hear lots of points of view, including from people we think we disagree with. If you can’t learn something from someone with a very different political orientation, you’re missing a lot. You’re not an ideal citizen, or close to it.

What kind of democracy is needed in diverse societies, and how can your book help us to get there?

We need deliberative democracy—one in which people deliberate with people who are unlike themselves, and learn from them. We need to put a premium on science and facts. We need serendipitous encounters with people and ideas that we would not choose to engage. We need a lot more technocracy, not less. The book might have a few ideas on those subjects.

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler), The World According to Star Wars, and #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.

An interview with Andrea Carandini, editor of The Atlas of Ancient Rome

We’re thrilled to announce that The Atlas of Ancient Rome is now available for purchase. Take a moment to watch this interview with the volume editor, Andrea Carandini, in which he discusses why Rome merits its own Atlas, the appeal of the book as an object, and what makes this project unique. And be sure to check out the microsite for more information on this gorgeous tour through centuries of Roman history.

An Interview of Andrea Carandini Author of Atlas of Ancient Rome from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Tony Smith on how Woodrow Wilson shaped America’s foreign policy

Why Wilson Matters by Tony SmithThe liberal internationalist tradition is credited with America’s greatest triumphs as a world power—and also its biggest failures. Beginning in the 1940s, imbued with the spirit of Woodrow Wilson’s efforts at the League of Nations to “make the world safe for democracy,” the United States steered a course in world affairs that would eventually win the Cold War. Yet in the 1990s, Wilsonianism turned imperialist, contributing directly to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the continued failures of American foreign policy. In Why Wilson Matters: The Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today, Tony Smith traces how Wilson’s thinking about America’s role in the world evolved in the years leading up to and during his presidency, and how the Wilsonian tradition went on to influence American foreign policy in the decades that followed. Smith recently took the time to answer questions about his book.

How does Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy (1913-1921) relate to today’s world?

TS: Wilson never articulated a grand strategy for the United States. Still, his two terms in office, and especially his design for the League of Nations, laid out concepts for how to “make the world safe for democracy” that came to life with the challenges Washington faced to win the peace after victory in World War II. The package of Wilson’s proposals for a system of world peace called for an alliance of democratic governments, working to promote an integrated international economic system, through multilateral agreements that included first and foremost collective security, all maintained under American leadership. What at first would be a Pax Americana would in time become a Pax Democratica. The result is what we call “Wilsonianism,” the American variant of liberal internationalism. We can distinguish a “preclassical” stage of liberal thinking that goes back to our Revolution, a “classic” period with Wilson, a “hegemonic” stage during the cold war, and an “imperialist” phase that began in the 1990s. This last stage is best called “neo-Wilsonianism.”

Was President George W. Bush the heir of the Wilsonian mantle in world affairs?

TS: Certainly the Bush Doctrine (defined as the National Security Strategy of the United States in September 2002) seemed to show continuity between Wilson’s thinking and that of the Bush administrations of 2001-2009. The key difference lay in the defensive character of classical and hegemonic American liberal internationalism and the offensive posture of neo-Wilsonian imperialism. The neo-Wilsonian belief that democracy was a “universal value” that had “universal appeal” such that the United States could embrace a “just war” doctrine that overthrew the Westphalian system of state sovereignty in terms of a “responsibility to protect” peoples everywhere from autocratic government would never for a moment have been entertained by Wilson. Wilson did not march on Mexico City in 1914, nor on Moscow or on Berlin in 1918. By the same coin, he would surely not have approved the attack on Baghdad in 2003, nor is there reason to think he would have celebrated the April Spring eight years later.

Why, then, is Wilson’s name so often associated with American imperialism?

TS: At the root of the problem is the failure to study Wilson’s political thinking about the origins and character of democratic government developed during the decades when he was one of this country’s leading social scientists, ideas he later followed as president. The result is that American liberal internationalism has lacked a clear identity to give it a compass in foreign relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. To call Wilson, as so many have, “a crusader,” “messianic,” and “utopian” is simply to misunderstand the prudent restraint he repeatedly showed in thinking that democratic government would quickly, easily, or indeed ever at all expand worldwide. Yes, he was “idealistic” and “moralistic” in thinking democracy was the best form of government for peoples capable of enjoying its blessings of liberty. But a utopian, and so an imperialist, he never was. Let’s call him a “realistic liberal.”

Why does all this matter?

TS: The American tradition of human rights and democracy promotion, like that which sponsors open economic relations, all in the name of making the world safe for democracy, has badly overplayed its hand. Its belief that our way was the only way led to a clash of civilizations the fruits of which we can see on every side, from the Muslim world, to China and Russia to economic inequality at home. The tragedy is that a way of thinking that did so much to establish the strength of the free market democracies between the early 1940s and the early 1990s should have been the source of its own undoing is an irony whose logic needs to be grasped. Here lies the explanation for how the greatest successes in the Republic’s history in foreign affairs—going from the creation of the Bretton Woods System to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, passing by occupation policies for Germany and Japan—should give way to a change in its course that would lead to the invasion of Iraq under Bush and the surge in Afghanistan and enthusiasm about the Arab Spring under Obama –policies which now constitute the greatest defeats in our country’s history in world affairs.

Is liberal imperialism related to the economic crisis that has best the world since 2007?

TS: Most certainly it is. To read the criticisms of Economics Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz is to see the logic of Wilson’s thinking applied to our day with the same concern from American power and American democracy being steadily eroded by what Wilson called “predatory” capitalism. He feared its machinations globally, and not only domestically. Wilson was right.

What can be done?

TS: Neo-Wilsonianism is now deeply embedded in American elite institutions. The neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party in the 1990s bears much of the blame for popularizing and militarizing the Wilsonian tradition. However, the neoliberal movement within the Democratic Party did most of the intellectual heavy-lifting in the development of this thinking, as can be seen from a review of the Obama years and the policies advanced by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. The international regulation of the capitalist world and the growth of a national security state simply have too much momentum behind them for us to have much confidence in a progressive future. That said, the faith of an earlier day returned under FDR with astonishing success and may yet be able to light the future before it is too late. Nation- and state-building that Washington likes to discuss so much with respect to our efforts to reform peoples abroad might better begin at home. From income inequality, to campaign finance reform, to prison conditions there should be quite enough here and with our democratic partners to keep us busy. “Physician, heal thyself.”

Tony Smith is Cornelia M. Jackson Professor emeritus of political science at Tufts University. The best know of his earliest work on American liberal internationalism is America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy (published by Princeton University Press in 1994 and again, in an expanded version, in 2012).

Robbert Dijkgraaf on The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

FlexnerA forty-year tightening of funding for scientific research has meant that resources are increasingly directed toward applied or practical outcomes, with the intent of creating products of immediate value. In such a scenario, it makes sense to focus on the most identifiable and urgent problems, right? Actually, it doesn’t. In his classic essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, describes a great paradox of scientific research. The search for answers to deep questions, motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications, often leads not only to the greatest scientific discoveries but also to the most revolutionary technological breakthroughs. This brief book includes Flexner’s timeless 1939 essay alongside a new companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Institute’s current director. Read on for Dijkgraaf’s take on the importance of curiosity-driven research, how we can cultivate it, and why Flexner’s essay is more relevant than ever.

The title of the book, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, is somewhat enigmatic—what does it mean?

RD: Abraham Flexner, an educational reformer and founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, wrote an essay with this title for Harper’s magazine in 1939. He believed that there was an indispensable connection between intellectual and spiritual life—“useless forms of activity”—and undreamed-of utility.

Cited as a philanthropic hero by Warren Buffett, Flexner was responsible for bringing Albert Einstein to America to join the Institute’s inaugural Faculty, just when Hitler came to power in 1933.

A true visionary, Flexner was acutely aware that our current conception of what is useful might suffice for the short term but would inevitably become too narrow over time. He believed that the best way to advance understanding and knowledge is by enabling leading scientists and scholars to follow their natural curiosity, intuition, and inquiry, without concern for utility but rather with the purpose of discovering answers to the most fascinating questions of their time.

Flexner’s 1939 article is reprinted in the book along with a companion essay that you have written. What did you realize in revisiting Flexner’s ideas?

RD: One large realization is that while the world has changed dramatically in terms of technological progress since Flexner’s time, human beings still wrestle with the benefits and risks of freedom, with power and productivity versus imagination and creativity, and this dichotomy continues to limit our evolution and sometimes leads to abhorrent behavior as we saw during Flexner’s era and which continues to haunt ours today.

A significant difference is that in the twenty-first century, we are increasingly creating a one-dimensional world determined by external metrics. Why? Our world is becoming ever larger and more complex. In order to provide some clarity, we try to quantify that world with share prices and rankings. In the process, we have exiled our intuition and have lost contact with our environment.

We need to return to timeless values like searching for the truth, while being honest about the things we don’t understand. There is also a great need for passion. I wake up every morning with the thought: I want to do something that I feel good about. As a society, we have largely lost that feeling. We need to reconsider: what kind of world do we want exactly? And what new systems do we need to do good things?

Why is curiosity-driven basic research important today and how can we cultivate it?

RD: The progress of our modern age, and of the world of tomorrow, depends not only on technical expertise, but also on unobstructed curiosity and the benefits of traveling far upstream, against the current of practical considerations. Much of the knowledge developed by basic research is made publicly accessible and so benefits society as a whole, spreading widely beyond the narrow circle of individuals who, over years and decades, introduce and develop the ideas. Fundamental advances in knowledge cannot be owned or restricted by people, institutions, or nations, certainly not in the current age of the Internet. They are truly public goods.

But driven by an ever-deepening lack of funding, against a background of economic uncertainty, global political turmoil, and ever-shortening time cycles, research criteria are becoming dangerously skewed towards conservative short-term goals that may address more immediate problems, but miss out on the huge advances that human imagination can bring in the long term.

The “metrics” used to assess the quality and impact of research proposals—even in the absence of a broadly accepted framework for such measurements—systematically undercut pathbreaking scholarship in favor of more predictable goal-directed research. It can easily take many years, even decades, or sometimes, a century, as in the case of the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity that were only detected last year, for the societal value of an idea to come to light.

In order to enable and encourage the full cycle of scientific innovation, we need to develop a solid portfolio of research in much the same way as we approach well-managed financial resources. Such a balanced portfolio would contain predictable and stable short-term investments, as well as long-term bets that are intrinsically more risky but can potentially earn off-the-scale rewards. The path from exploratory basic research to practical applications is not one-directional and linear, but rather complex and cyclic, with resultant technologies enabling even more fundamental discoveries. Flexner and I give many examples of this in our book, from the development of electromagnetic waves that carry wireless signals to quantum mechanics and computer chips.

How do curiosity and imagination enable progress?

RD: An attitude aimed at learning and investigating, wherein imagination and creativity play an important role, is essential not only in scientific institutions but in every organization. Companies and institutions themselves need to develop the inquisitive and explorative approach they would like to see in their employees. Organizations are often trapped in the framework of their own thinking. Out-of-the-box thinking is very hard, because one doesn’t know where the box is. At the basis of progress lies a feeling of optimism: problems can be solved. Organizations need to cultivate the capacity to visualize the future and define their position in it.

What conditions are necessary for the spark of a new idea or theory?

RD: If we want more imagination, creativity, and curiosity, we need to accept that people occasionally run in the wrong direction. As a business, institution, or society, we need to allow once again for failure. Encourage workers to spend a certain percentage of their time on the process of exploration. A brilliant idea never appears out of the blue, but is generated simply by allowing people to try out things. Nine times out of ten, nothing results, but something may emerge suddenly and unexpectedly. That free space and those margins of error are increasingly under pressure in our head, our role, our organization, and our society. I am worried about the loss of that exploratory force.

What don’t we know, and how does uncertainty drive advancement?

RD: How did the universe begin and how does it end? What is the origin of life on Earth and possibly elsewhere in the cosmos? What in our brain makes us conscious and human? In addition to these fundamental questions and many others, we are struggling with major issues about time and space, about matter and energy. What are our ideas on this and what questions are we trying to answer? In science, a long process precedes any outcome. In general, the media only has time and space to pay attention to outcomes. But for scientists it’s precisely the process that counts, walking together down that path. It’s the questions that engage us, not the answers.

Abraham Flexner (1866–1959) was the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, one of the world’s leading institutions for basic research in the sciences and humanities. Robbert Dijkgraaf, a mathematical physicist who specializes in string theory, is director and Leon Levy Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. A distinguished public policy adviser and passionate advocate for science and the arts, he is also the cochair of the InterAcademy Council, a global alliance of science academies, and former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. They are the authors of The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.

Mircea Pitici on the best mathematics writing of 2016

PiticiThe Best Writing on Mathematics 2016 brings together the year’s finest mathematics writing from around the world. In the 2016 edition, Burkard Polster shows how to invent your own variants of the Spot It! card game, Steven Strogatz presents young Albert Einstein’s proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, Joseph Dauben and Marjorie Senechal find a treasure trove of math in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Andrew Gelman explains why much scientific research based on statistical testing is spurious. And there’s much, much more. Read on to learn about how the essays are chosen, what is meant by the ‘best’ mathematics writing, and why Mircea Pitici, the volume editor, enjoys putting this collection together year after year:

What is new in the new volume of The Best Writing on Mathematics series?

The content is entirely new, as you expect! The format is the same as in the previous volumes—with some novelties. Notably, this volume has figures in full color, in line with the text (not just an insert section of color figures). Also, the reference section at the end of the book is considerably more copious than ever before; besides a long list of notable writings and a list of special journal issues on mathematical topics, I offer two other resources: references for outstanding book reviews on mathematics and references for interviews with mathematical people. I included these additional lists to compensate for the rule we adopted from the start of the series, namely that we will not include in the selection pieces from these categories. Yet book reviews and interviews are important to the mathematical community. I hope that the additional bibliographic research required to do these lists is worth the effort; these references can guide the interested readers if they want to find materials of this sort on their own. The volume is not only an anthology to read and enjoy but also a research tool for the more sophisticated readers.

What do you mean by “the best” writings—and are the pieces you include in this volume really the best?

The superlative “best” in the title caused some controversy at the beginning. By now, perhaps most readers understand (and accept, I hope) that “best” denotes the result of a comparative, selective, and subjective procedure involving several people, including pre-selection reviewers who remain anonymous to me. Every year we leave out exceptional writings on mathematics, due to the multiple constraints we face when preparing these anthologies. With this caveat disclosed, I am confident that the content satisfies the most exigent of readers.

Where do you find the texts you select for these anthologies?

I survey an immense body of literature on mathematics published mainly in academic journals, specialized magazines, and mass media. I have done such searches for many years, even before I found a publisher for the series. I like to read what people write about mathematics. A comprehensive survey is not possible but I aspire to it; I do both systematic and random searches of publications and databases. A small proportion of the pieces we consider are suggested to me either by their authors or by other people. I always consider such pieces; some of them made it into the books, most did not.

Who are the readers you have in mind, for the volumes in this series?

The books are addressed to the public, in the sense that a curious reader with interest toward mathematics can understand most of the content even if their mathematical training is not sophisticated. And yet, at the same time, the series may also interest mathematical people who want to place mathematics in broad social, cultural, and historical contexts. I am glad that we struck a good balance, making this series accessible to these very different audiences.

Why should people read about mathematics, in addition to (or instead of) learning and doing mathematics?

Mathematics is to a high degree self-contained and self-explanatory, in no need for outside validation. One can do mathematics over a lifetime and not care about “the context.” From a broader intellectual perspective though, interpreting mathematics in social-historical contexts opens up the mind to grasping the rich contribution made by mathematics and mathematicians to ubiquitous aspects of our daily lives, to events, trends, and developments, and to imagining future possibilities. Writing about mathematics achieves such a contextual placement, unattainable by doing mathematics.

What drives you to edit the volumes in this series?

Curiosity, interest in ideas, joy in discovering talented people who show me different perspectives on mathematics; foremost, fear of dogmatism. This last point might sound strange; I readily admit that it is rooted in my life experience, growing up in Romania and emigrating to the U.S. (now I am a naturalized citizen here). Editing this series comes down to a simple recipe: I edit books I will enjoy reading; that sets a high bar by default, since I am a demanding reader. Editing this series allows me to have a personal rapport with mathematics, different from the rapport everyone else has with it. It’s my thing, my placement in relationship with this complicated human phenomenon we call ‘mathematics.’ Or, rather, it is one facet of my rapport to mathematics, one that transpired to the public and gained acceptance. I relate to mathematics in other ways, also important to me—but those facets remain unacknowledged yet, despite my (past) efforts to explain them. Most dramatically, once I went to a business school full of ideas about mathematics and how it relates to the world. At that well-known business school, a handful of faculty dressed down my enthusiasm so efficiently that I learned to be guarded in what I say. After that misadventure of ideas in a place that supposedly encouraged creative thinking, I lost confidence in my persuasive abilities and, disappointed, I gave up on expressing my views on mathematics. Instead, I now rejoice in accomplishing the next best thing: finding and promoting other people’s originality, not mine!

Are you working on the next volume in the series?

The content of the next volume is already selected. We are close to approaching the production stage.

Mircea Pitici holds a PhD in mathematics education from Cornell University and is working on a master’s degree in library and information science at Syracuse University. He has edited The Best Writing on Mathematics since 2010.

Eric H. Cline on the story of archaeology

Eric H. Cline taking measurements at Tel Kabri (Credit: Kabri Excavations)

In 1922, Howard Carter peered into Tutankhamun’s tomb for the first time, famously exclaiming, “I see wonderful things.” In a lively and essential introduction to the story of archaeology, Three Stones Make a Wall by well-known archaeologist Eric H. Cline, takes us from the pioneering digs of the eighteenth century, to Carter’s legendary discovery, to the exciting new discoveries being made today. Recently, Cline took the time to answer a few questions about his book, his most interesting discoveries, and provide insights into how excavations are actually done.

When did you become interested in archaeology? What inspired you to become an archaeologist?

EC: As I say at the beginning of this book, when I was seven years old my mother gave me a biography written for children called The Walls of Windy Troy. It was about Heinrich Schliemann, the man who discovered ancient Troy. After reading it, I announced that I was going to become an archaeologist. When I graduated from college with a degree in Classical Archaeology, my mother gave me the same book again.

How many digs have you been on and where?

EC: I’ve been going on digs since I was a sophomore in college. So far I’ve participated in more than thirty seasons of archaeological excavations and surveys, mostly in Greece and the Middle East, including Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Most of them were at places that nobody but archaeologists have ever heard of, like Ayios Dhimitrios in Cyprus and Palaiokastro in Crete, which are both Bronze Age sites dating back to the second millennium BCE, but ten of those seasons were spent digging at Megiddo in Israel, which people have heard of because it is biblical Armageddon. I’ve also dug a bit in the United States, in both California and Vermont. There was a time, back when I was in college and my early years in graduate school, that I would pick a country which I hadn’t visited before and find an interesting dig there to work on; then I would go over early and come back late, so I had time to travel in the country for a few weeks both before and after the dig. That’s what I did in both Jordan and Egypt, for example. But now I’ve been working at sites in Israel for pretty much the last 20 years, since about 1994.

What’s the best thing that you’ve ever found on a dig?

EC: The first great thing that I found on a dig was a petrified monkey’s paw. I tell the story at the beginning of the book, but it was on that first dig, when I was a sophomore in college. It was a Greek and Roman site in the north of Israel, called Tel Anafa. The University of Michigan was running the dig. So, one morning, I uncovered an object that was buried in the dirt. But, I didn’t uncover it so much as hit it accidentally and at such an angle that it flew up in the air. When it was in the air, almost in slow motion, I looked at it and thought, “oh, a petrified monkey’s paw!” But, by the time it landed, I knew that was ridiculous, because there hadn’t been any monkeys back in Greco-Roman Israel. It turned out to be a little bronze figure of the Greek god Pan (the guy with horns who plays a double flute and traipses through the forest), which would have originally been attached as an ornament to a wooden chair. The chair is long gone, but the little bronze figure was lying there, just waiting for me to find it more than 2,000 years later. It’s now in a museum in Israel. But, the second great thing, which is probably actually the best thing that I’ve ever found, is the wine cellar of a palace that is almost 4,000 years old. We’re actually still digging it and will be there this coming summer of 2017. It’s a Canaanite palace at Tel Kabri, in northern Israel, where we have found the oldest and largest wine cellar from the ancient Near East. So far we have found more than a hundred storage jars, each about three feet tall, which held the equivalent of thousands of bottles of wine in today’s terms. We have done Organic Residue Analysis on the pottery sherds that make up the jars and know that it was mostly red wine, with additives like honey, juniper berries, and mint in it. I talk about it in the book as well, including our hope to recreate the wine some day.

What is the most misunderstood thing about archaeologists?

EC: We don’t dig up dinosaurs; those are paleontologists. We dig up the remains left by humans, as well as the remains of humans themselves.

Aren’t there other introductory books on archaeology out there? What do you do differently?

EC: This is a pretty fast read and is designed so that the reader can skip around in it very easily and read it in any order that they want. In addition to discussing many of the world’s most famous sites and archaeologists, there are several chapters on how archaeologists actually find sites, dig them up, and date the artifacts that they find. I have also included anecdotes and stories from my own experiences, which livens things up a bit, such as the time that I thought I found a petrified monkey’s paw.

Who do you expect will enjoy reading this book – that is, who is your intended audience?

EC: I hope that everyone – from age seven to seventy – will enjoy reading this book. It is intended for anyone and everyone, from complete novices to those who already know a lot but want to know even more. I also hope that it inspires someone, somewhere, to become an archaeologist.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

EC: Apart from introducing people to archaeology in general, I have also included parts that will hopefully allow people to be a little more discerning when watching some of the shows on TV and reading about some of the claims that are occasionally made in the media. In addition, I discuss some of the problems that we currently have with the looting of archaeological sites in various parts of the world. This is a situation that should be of concern to all of us, since these sites are our shared heritage and are a limited resource; once they are gone, they disappear forever.

What is the one thing that you hope people will remember after reading your book?

EC: There is no need to ever invoke aliens in order to explain anything that archaeologists find.

ClineEric H. Cline is professor of classics and anthropology and director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University. An active archaeologist, he has excavated and surveyed in Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the United States. His many books include 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed and Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology.

Brian Kernighan on what we all need to know about computers

KernighanLaptops, tablets, cell phones, and smart watches: computers are inescapable. But even more are invisible, like those in appliances, cars, medical equipment, transportation systems, power grids, and weapons. We never see the myriad computers that quietly collect, share, and sometimes leak vast amounts of personal data about us, and often don’t consider the extent to which governments and companies increasingly monitor what we do. In Understanding the Digital World, Brian W. Kernighan explains, in clear terms, not only how computers and programming work, but also how computers influence our daily lives. Recently, Kernighan answered some questions about his new book.

Who is this book for? What kind of people are most likely to be interested?

BK: It’s a cliché, but it really is aimed at the proverbial “educated layman.” Everyone uses computers and phones for managing their lives and communicating with other people. So the book is for them. I do think that people who have some technical background will enjoy it, but will also find that it will help their less technical friends and family understand.

What’s the basic message of the book?

BK: Computers—laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, gadgets—are all around us. The Internet lets our computers communicate with us and with other computers all over the world. And there are billions of computers in infrastructure that we rely on without even realizing its existence. Computers and communications systems have changed our lives dramatically in the past couple of decades, and will continue to do so. So anyone who hopes to be at least somewhat informed ought to understand the basics of how such things work. One major concern has been the enormous increase in surveillance and a corresponding reduction in our personal privacy. We are under continuous monitoring by government agencies like the NSA in the United States and similar ones in other countries. At the same time, commercial interests track everything we do online and with our phones. Some of this is acceptable, but in my opinion, it’s gone way too far. It’s vital that we understand better what is being done and how to reduce the tracking and spying. The more we understand about how these systems work, the more we can defend ourselves, while still taking advantage of the many benefits they provide. For example, it’s quite possible to explore interesting and useful web sites without being continuously tracked. You don’t have to reveal everything about yourself to social networks. But you have to know something about how to set up some defenses. More generally, I’m trying to help the reader to reach a better than superficial understanding of how computers work, what software is and how it’s created, and how the Internet and the Web operate. Going just a little deeper into these is totally within the grasp of anyone. The more you know, the better off you will be; knowing even a little about these topics will put you ahead of the large majority of people, and will protect you from any number of foolish behaviors.

Can you give us an example of how to defend ourselves against tracking by web sites?

BK: Whenever you visit a web site, a record is made of your visit, often by dozens of systems that are collecting information that can be used for targeted advertising. It’s easy to reduce this kind of tracking by turning off third-party cookies and by installing some ad-blocking software. You can still use the primary site, but you don’t give away much if anything to the trackers, so the spread of information about you is more limited.

If I don’t care if companies know what sites I visit, why should I be worried?

BK: “I’ve got nothing to hide,” spoken by an individual, or “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” offered by a government, are pernicious ideas. They frame the discussion in such a way as to concede the point at the beginning. Of course you have nothing to hide. If that’s true, would you mind showing me your tax returns? How did you vote in the last election? What’s your salary? Could I have your social security number? Could you tell me who you’ve called in the past year? Of course not—most of your life is no one else’s business.

What’s the one thing that you would advise everyone to do right now to improve their online privacy and security?

BK: Just one thing? Learn more about how your computer and your phone work, how the Internet works, and how to use all of them wisely. But I would add some specific recommendations, all of which are easy and worthwhile. First, in your browser, install defensive extensions like like AdBlock and Ghostery, and turn off third-party cookies. This will take you less than ten minutes and will cut your exposure by at least a factor of ten. Second, make sure that your computer is backed up all the time; this protects you against hardware failure and your own mistakes (both of which are not uncommon), and also against ransomware (though that is much less a risk if you are alert and have turned on your defenses). Third, use different passwords for different sites; that way, if one account is compromised, others will not be. And don’t use your Facebook or Google account to log in to other sites; that increases your vulnerability and gives away information about you for minor convenience. Finally, be very wary about clicking on links in email that have even the faintest hint of something wrong. Phishing attacks are one of the most common ways that accounts are compromised and identities stolen.

KernighanBrian W. Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University. He is the coauthor of ten other books, including the computing classic The C Programming Language (Prentice Hall). He is the author of Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security.

Lewis Glinert tells the story of Hebrew

Hebrew has existed for over 3,000 years, but if Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation? According to Lewis Glinert, author of The Story of Hebrew, the answer is yes.

The first language of millions of Israelis today, the story of Hebrew’s origins and evolution is  extraordinary. Over the millennia, it attracted Kabbalists and humanists who sought philosophical truth, and Colonial Americans on a quest to shape their own Israelite political identity. The Story of Hebrew explores the hold that Hebrew has had on Jews and non-Jews alike, who have invested it with a symbolic power far beyond that of any other language in history. Preserved by the Jews across two millennia, Hebrew endured long after it ceased to be a mother tongue, resulting in one of the most intense textual cultures ever known. Recently, Glinert answered some questions about his book, Hebrew’s rebirth, and the elemental force driving this unique language.

GlinertIn an age where language is increasingly treated as a mere commodity—a ticket to a job or a mark of prestige—Hebrew is often described as a linguistic miracle. Can that really be so?

LG: Hebrew is certainly unique among languages in being reborn as a mother tongue after 2,000 years—reborn just a century ago, and spoken today by millions. I’ll leave the definition of miracles to philosophers. Even if we could be sure of the constellation of social, political and spiritual forces that made it happen—and we really aren’t—it was clearly an extraordinary event in human history. Could it be repeated? Perhaps. But it’s a tall order to recharge languages in decline even if they’re still spoken, let alone when all you have is written texts.

So how did the rebirth of Hebrew start? Was there a moment of conception?

LG: Yes, it was quite a romantic affair—at least as I heard it from a 91 year old lady, Dola Ben-Yehuda, when I interviewed her 25 years ago for a BBC documentary. She was the last living daughter of the man they called ‘the father of Modern Hebrew,’ Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He was a fiery young Jewish nationalist, but deeply pessimistic for the future of Jewish cultural identity. So one day he resolved that the Jews must speak their own ancient tongue in their ancient homeland—and in 1881 he made a tryst with his bride that they and any offspring they might have would sail to Israel and speak only Hebrew. And they did! Her father, she told me, wouldn’t even send them to parties in case they picked up Yiddish or Arabic. So there’s your moment of conception…

So one family revived Modern Hebrew?

LG: Far from it. They had to get tens of thousands of people on board—and make it economically viable. Playgroups, schools, workplaces, newspapers, public institutions. They also had to coin an entire modern vocabulary. Pre-State Israel attracted waves of Zionists who loathed Yiddish and other Diaspora languages and loved Hebrew. Some of them, in fact, had already acquired Modern Hebrew in Europe, from newspapers and novels. And then in 1917 came the British, who at first supported Jewish statehood and actually financed the entire school system in Hebrew (standard colonial policy!).

“Let There be Hebrew” is the intriguing name of your first chapter. Does Genesis portray Hebrew as the mother of all tongues?

LG: Not in so many words! But the opening chapters of Genesis explain several names of persons by what they mean in Hebrew. Thus Adam calls his wife Hava (Eve) because ‘she was the mother of all life’ (hay). So, yes, Genesis seems to imply that Hebrew was the first language. But there’s much more to it than that: Genesis has God say ‘Let there be light.’ Did language transcend Creation? How? Religious philosophers and mystics have variously viewed Hebrew as inherently sacred or as a regular human language, or somehow as both. As for the rest of the world’s languages, everyone knows the story of the Tower of Babel and the Lord’s linguistic retribution, but wait—here again, the Bible is unclear: Perhaps there were different languages from the start, and the World Hebrew lost at Babel had just been an acquired lingua franca, a kind of World English ahead of its time.

If Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation?

LG: If you gave him a dictionary and a few minutes to adjust to the accent, then yes, Moses would be taking it all in. It’s the same basic vocabulary and word structure as 3,000 years ago, with a streamlined European-style syntax. Kudos to the men and women a century ago who grafted the new Hebrew onto its ancient roots. An Israeli adult can readily open the Bible and start reading.

What about Jesus and his disciples?

LG: Yes, they’d also understand today’s Hebrew! In truth, most of them were more comfortable in Aramaic, which had largely supplanted Hebrew (Aramaic was the main lingua franca in the Near East). But they must all have been versed in reading the Torah and the other Hebrew Scriptures.

You devote considerable space to “Hebrew in the Christian Imagination.” What has Hebrew meant for Christians?

LG: At times a great deal, at times nothing. For centuries, Christians learned the Bible in Latin or Greek or whatever, but suddenly a cry would arise: “Our translations are false. Let us revisit the Hebrew!” And so you have the 4th century hermit Jerome mastering Hebrew and producing what became the standard Latin translation. And again with the humanists—Erasmus, Tyndale, and the authors of the King James version. Hebrew also provided the combustion in religious break-outs: Reformation, Puritanism, Mormonism, and endless but fruitless attempts to use it to convert the Jews. And here and there, a quest for deeper dimensions (Christian Kabbalah) and a new society (Colonial America), which gave us all those American Hebrew place names and perhaps even contributed to our distinctive laws and values.

If a language can maintain its integrity and identity across 3,000 years, is there some elemental force driving it?

LG: A marvelous question. I tried to shake it off (Western academia is uncomfortable with the metaphysical!), but it kept coming back to haunt me. Up to our own times, for a Jewish person to use Hebrew, even just the Alef-Bet, was a statement, and often a struggle. It was about perpetuating a heritage or studying sacred texts, or just connecting with other Jews. The rebirth of Modern Hebrew was perhaps the most intense twist in this elemental vortex. But now, paradoxically, for many Israelis using Hebrew is often an act without meaning. It’s just in the air, taken for granted. For many other Jews, though, the elemental force is still with them—in their language use, their language community, and in the language itself.

What false beliefs have people held about Hebrew?

LG: To name just a few:
“Hebrew letters and sounds have magical powers”.
Esoteric, yes—in the right hands. Magical, no. But once widely believed by simple folk and by Renaissance scholars.

“Native Americans are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and spoke a garbled Hebrew.”
Wildly wrong, but some intelligent folk, especially millennialists, thought so—take Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress in 1782.

“Hebrew was dead for 2,000 years until it was reborn.”
OK, it has been reborn in a sense, but it never ‘died.’ It was no longer a mother tongue but it went on being written and read (often aloud), sometimes creatively, and far more widely and intensively than Medieval Latin ever was.

“During those 2000 years, it was just a language of religion.”
Nonsense. It was the written language for European Jewish science, medicine, trade, all serious writing—until the 19th century.

Of all the great works that Hebrew has produced, which would you say are the ‘must reads?’

LG: Where does one begin! Genesis, Isaiah 1 and 11, Ecclesiastes, Psalms 120-134, David’s lament for Saul (2 Samuel 1), Ruth, the Song of Songs, Job. So much of the Bible was once part of the English canon (sigh). Dip into the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire (Hasidic wisdom), the short stories of Nobel laureate S.Y.Agnon, and a ‘must hear:’ the enchanting songs of Naomi Shemer.

What moved you to write this book? And where do you fit into the story of Hebrew?

LG: Like so many Jewish children down the centuries, I was raised in postwar London on the classic religious texts of ancient Hebrew—Torah, Rashi, Mishnah, Talmud—but when my parents brought me to Israel as a ten-year old, I was enthralled to see people speaking it. I remember thinking: gosh, they have a word for ‘already’ that I never saw, and my father wants me to buy a ‘bus ticket’ in Hebrew! I vowed I would never take it for granted. And behold, my Ph.D. dissertation and my first book were about the syntax of this amazing new Hebrew—then almost uncharted territory. But as I learned from my mentors in Oxford and Jerusalem, Roy Harris and Chaim Rabin, there’s another, richer and even more complex dimension of language: How we use it and what it means for us. And in writing The Story of Hebrew, I hope I can be a tiny part of this story.

Lewis Glinert is Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, where he is also affiliated with the Program in Linguistics. He is the author of The Grammar of Modern Hebrew, The Joys of Hebrew, and The Story of Hebrew.