Month: January 2022


I recently finished The Glass Hotel, Emily St John Mandel’s wonderful novel about a Ponzi scheme, international shipping, prestige hotels, guilt, and ghosts. One idea that she and her characters wrestle with is that of the “counter-life” — the life a person could have been living had they made a different set of decisions. To some of the characters their counter-lives begin to feel as real as their own, taunting them from afar. Those characters involved in a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme consider their counter-lives had they taken a different job, gone to the authorities, or fled the country when the jig was up.

I can’t be alone in occasionally dwelling on a particular set of my own counter-lives. I can identify many pivotal decisions I have made (none of them criminal), but being a mathematician I cannot help but wonder what kind of life or person I would be had I chosen a different academic discipline. If my mathematical education has dramatically shaped the person I am — which is not obvious at all — then the implications are even more profound than the professional life I would pursued or my material circumstances. I would see the world differently.

I might as well entertain the most radical possibilities. Of course, life would have been different if I had continued to study physics, or even more so if I’d gone off to art school. But it’s the Shimer Great Books School that really makes me think.

I was first introduced to Shimer College by Jon Ronson, writing back in 2014 after Shimer had been ranked bottom in a survey of America’s colleges. Ronson discovered that the college wasn’t bad, but suffered because its singular vision of education, lack of the usual accoutrements of American college life, and its very small size left it badly served by the survey metrics. The singular vision was a complete dedication to studying the canon of literature, otherwise known as the “great books”.

Textbooks about the great books are forbidden. That would be too easy. It is primary sources only here. Students can concentrate on humanities, or natural sciences, they can take electives in feminist theories, or Auden, or Zen masters, but it’s all great books and nothing else. There are no lectures. Each class takes the form of Socratic dialogue between the students, guided by a professor if necessary.

This is very much not how most higher education works. If the Shimer curriculum is to believed and understood at face value, they actually read Newton’s Principia, presumably with pre-Leibniz notation (but not it Latin, surely). They read Darwin’s Origin of the Species over a modern understanding of the science. And they read da Vinci’s Notebooks, which I’m not entirely certain has any kind of easy comparison. Engineering textbooks?

The real draw of a great books course is exposure to foundational texts of the humanities. Books that most of us know of principally through their reputations; books that are believed to be a bedrock of a well cultured intellect. Not having read these books niggles away at me, like a known dietary deficiency that I cannot get around to addressing.

I’m not the only one to have felt this way. Last year Naomi Kanakia wrote an incredible essay analyzing and deconstructing her own relationship to the canon. Having dedicated nearly a decade of her life to doing the reading in her own time she discovered that very few people, especially those with an ostensibly fancy education, had actually read any the great books. Kanakia explains that it is a myth that the elite — political, pedaligical, cultural — are well read in the Western canon:

Moreover, when intellectuals, particularly academics, bewail the cheapening of elite education, there’s an almost comical element to their complaint. For most of their histories, neither the Ivy Leagues nor the Oxbridge colleges were particularly known for the difficulty of their education. It’s impossible to overstate how easy it was to get into Harvard in the 19th century. If you were of the right background and had gone to the right secondary school, you would get in. The Greek and Latin requirements were merely class markers. No intimate understanding of the texts or dedication to scholarship was needed to enter.

This leads Kanakia to considering the classes of people who actually produced the “great books”, and who actually read them. Or didn’t read them.

A class can be literate even if it doesn’t produce notable writers, but the English and American elites also became renowned for their disdain for learning. Although a stint at Cambridge and Oxford continued to be seen as de rigueur for the English gentry, just as acceptance at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton was for their American counterparts, neither set was famed for their commitment to learning. Even among the well-off, fashionable set, it would be quite rare to find someone who remembered their schoolboy Latin or who could discourse with any sense of authority on the work of the ancients. Edith Wharton claimed that, although her childhood home was full of books, nobody ever read them — that in fact, to her knowledge, nobody in her extended family had ever read her own books. In In Search of Lost Time, Proust describes a high society that grudgingly allows entrance to literary figures, so long as they are witty and entertaining, but pays no attention to their works. Indeed, Marcel is shocked by how distant many writers are from the heights of the fashionable society they write about, and by how quickly a writer is dropped by high society if he starts to talk of intellectual matters.

Kanakia’s misapprehension was likely cultivated by certain partisans within the education system. In a recent New Yorker hatchet job, Louis Menand attacks the underlying premise of two newly released polemics decrying the state of liberal education and the general neglect of great books. As Menand notes, there is a long history of such discourse. Shimer college was itself founded on the principals of one such polemic: Robert Maynard Hutchin’s The Higher Learning in America.

That conflict is essentially a dispute over the purpose of college. How did the great books get caught up in it? In the old college system, the entire curriculum was prescribed, and there were lists of books that every student was supposed to study—a canon. The canon was the curriculum. In the modern university, students elect their courses and choose their majors. That is the system the great books were designed for use in. The great books are outside the regular curriculum.

(The emphasis is mine.) Indeed, there is an underlying hostility to precisely the kind of education I have received and benefited from.

The idea made its way into universities after 1900 as part of a backlash against the research model, led by proponents of what was called “liberal culture.” These were professors, mainly in the humanities, who deplored the university’s new emphasis on science, specialization, and expertise. For the key to the concept of the great books is that you do not need any special training to read them.

(I could argue that mathematical education predates anything like a “great books” education, but let’s ignore that rather appealing idea.)

So what benefit does an actual, honest to goodness, education in the great books actually offer? I discovered a recent PhD thesis from a former Shimer student, Jonathan Goldman, that seeks to address some version of that question. Conducting interviews with sixteen former students of the college from the sixties and seventies, he investigated the effect Shimer had on them. Certainly among those he interviewed the impact was very positive. They went on to graduate school, industry, and all kinds of other adventures, feeling well prepared and full of confidence. Whatever challenges they faced, they had no problem sitting down and doing the reading. The years in college were reportedly hugely rewarding — the holistic view of intellectual history, in particular. Their memories of college conform more strongly to what many of us hoped for from higher education, but maybe never quite attained.

Participants described their campus colleagues as being very smart, interesting, and always engaging. A few people felt that for the first time in their lives they were with students who were as smart as they were, if not smarter. Irv enjoyed being “surrounded by people who were smarter than I was … talking nonstop, they were just so excited.” Irene thought “the fact that it was small and yet there was a high percentage of very bright and interesting people there … was crucial.” Ian said, “a lot of the people who showed up at Shimer were very talented, they were creative, interested, and they have very active minds and they were—they had high IQs and were just smart.”

Particularly galling is the fact that those of us who haven’t enjoyed the benefits of the great books might not quite cut the mustard for them socially:

Participants discussed how their relationships at Shimer changed their perspectives about relationships after leaving school. Kathy said that she “never again found relationships as meaningful as at Shimer.” She added that Shimer “spoiled me for friendships.” Others felt that being around the people at Shimer set higher standards for future relationships. Olivia said that “I really can’t stand to be around people who are really ignorant” and that she likes “to have discussions with people about their ideas, and listen to what their ideas are, and challenge them, and have them challenge me, and talk about stuff.” Olivia said that people with whom she talks “can’t just arbitrarily say something and not be able to defend it.” Others discussed wanting only friends who are able to carry on a meaningful and rational conversation.

Unfortunately, I likely wouldn’t even understand their jokes.

The participants described Shimer people as having a different way of looking at things and Riley cited an adage popular among some Shimer alumni that “Shimer people don’t have to explain jokes to other Shimer people.” Carol said that being at Shimer “helped learning to work with lots of different people who think differently.” Zoe said that after leaving school, she would talk to people and I might then reference whatever the topic, social topic that was going on. Whether it was about cities and war or different things, poverty or something and then I might mention an author or subject I had studied, and people would respond to that as if it was unusual. I thought it was what we did. It was everyday conversation at Shimer or with people from Shimer, it wasn’t a big deal. I started realizing that is something of interest to other people and … things that were ordinary at Shimer were extraordinary elsewhere. She also noted that one person told her that she “talk[ed] in metaphors.”

These shared jokes and mutual understanding seems to be the upshot of what being unusually well read means. So while our elites do not actually bear the benefits of a liberal education we believed them to possess, the graduates of a weird little college (and a handful of others which also offer their own variation) have the actual goods.

Not that I am falling over myself to work my own way through the reading list. There is a great deal to be said for engaging with the contemporary. Or to put it another way, if I was busy reading through the canon, I likely would never have got around to The Glass Hotel.

On American Journalism

Back in 2018 I listened with great interest to the New York Times podcast series Caliphate. This ten part, multi-award winning series, narrated by the journalist Rukmini Callimachi, reported on ISIS, focusing on the testimony of Abu Huzaifa, née Shehroze Chaudhry. I heard Huzaifa describe, in interview, his online radicalization, journey into Syria, joining ISIS as a foreign fighter, and even performing executions.

The podcast made headlines, because this former ISIS member had returned to Canada where he was a citizen living freely. In discussion he remained sympathetic while disillusioned with the caliphate. Questions were raised in the Canadian parliament and inquiries made. At the time there was a great deal of concern in the media about fighters returning to the West after the collapse of ISIS. The media had reported with grim fascination on the alienated young people in the West who had been radicalized via social media and then traveling to Syria to join their new cause. ISIS itself had played up to its own sensational image by posting gruesome execution videos online.

But Huzaifa was lying. The entire podcast was based on a lie. He was a fabulist who no doubt harbored genuine sympathies for ISIS, but had likely never even entered Syria and certainly hadn’t joined the Caliphate. When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police concluded their investigation they prosecuted Huzaifa not as a terrorist, but for committing a terrorism hoax. (The case was later dropped in exchange for an admission in court to lying about joining ISIS and agreeing to a $10000 peace bond.) In late 2020 the New York Times issued a retraction.

Journalists live and die by access. Access to evidence, sources, records, and anything at all on which a story can be built. This leaves journalists in constant danger of getting burned by their sources. Leakers are notoriously difficult to work with. Often they are simply disgruntled former employees with a particular axe to grind, and the very same motivations that lead them to talking to a journalist make them suspect.

Sometimes the betrayals can seem utterly inexplicable. In 2020 the New Yorker informed its readers that a celebrated and award winning story on the “rent-a-family” industry in Japan, was compromised because no less than three of the sources used in the story had been lying outright to the writer, Elif Batuman. As Ryu Spaeth outlines in the New Republic:

The trouble began a year after the article was published, when a Japanese magazine reported that an employee of Family Romance had pretended to be a client of the company in a documentary produced by the giant Japanese broadcaster NHK. NHK confirmed that Ishii had told his staffers to carry out the ruse. The New Yorker then began its own investigation, culminating in the stunning admissions that were published this week: that “Kazushige Nishida,” the lonely widower, was in fact married and did not provide his real name; that “Reiko Shimada,” the lonely single mother, was in fact married and did not provide her real name; and that, craziest of all, Reiko and Yuichi Ishii are married to each other. Despite these elaborate deceptions, they all insisted that their stories were otherwise true.

In the aftermath of such retractions, the postmortem can present the mistakes made in the light of a morality play. In the case of Caliphate, the Times admitted that the series lacked the “regular participation of an editor experienced in the subject matter.” And on a practical level, they should have done reverse image searches on the pictures Huzaifa provided as evidence of his travels, and more thoroughly examined his passport and travel records.

But reading Ben Smith’s media column (in the very same newspaper) you are presented with a more expansive set of sins. The kind of narratives that Callimachi actively sought to present not only predisposed her to placing too much trust in a dubious source, but those narratives were themselves problematic.

Terrorism coverage can also play easily into popular American hostility toward Muslims. Ms. Callimachi at times depicted terrorist supersoldiers, rather than the alienated and dangerous young men common in many cultures. That hype shows up in details like The Times’s description of the Charlie Hebdo shooters acting with “military precision.” By contrast, The Washington Post’s story suggested that the killers were, in fact, untrained, and noted a video showing them “cross each other’s paths as they advance up the street — a type of movement that professional military personnel are trained to avoid.” On Twitter, where she has nearly 400,000 followers, Ms. Callimachi speculated on possible ISIS involvement in high-profile attacks, including the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, which has not been attributed to the group. At one moment in the Caliphate podcast, Ms. Callimachi hears the doorbell ring at home and panics that ISIS has come for her, an effective dramatic flourish but not something American suburbanites had any reason to fear.

This particular critique is interesting because although Huzaifa’s story was false, his story more or less follows the arc of the very real foreign fighters who joined ISIS. “Jihadi John” really did grow up in London, get a degree, and then later join ISIS and perform a series of beheadings that were recorded and uploaded online. But of course, by the time Caliphate was being made, Jihadi John was dead, leaving him very far from being inclined to offer any reporter at the Times his exclusive story.

Back with the rent-a-family story, Ryu Speath, writing at the New Republic, considered the possibility that the New Yorker fell into the “weird Japan” trap of reporting on the country to satisfy a preconceived notion of Japan’s otherness, oddness, and in-explicability.

Some will say Batuman, a gifted writer, got the story wrong because she had little professional or personal familiarity with Japan. But I think that only makes the Japanese seem even more mysterious, as if these strange creatures can only be understood through lengthy anthropological immersion. Anyway, Japanese journalists fell for the story, too. (No one is more fascinated by Japan’s weirdness than the Japanese themselves.) And everyone is susceptible to cultural blind spots. As I wrote earlier this year, I long viewed the Japanese fondness for sanitary masks as evidence of some deep-seated cultural defect. Now that I wear a mask myself every day, it’s amazing to me that I could not see the obvious, banal reason people use masks: to protect their health.

For all this I should say that I am a massive fan of journalists and the work they do. I consume considerable amounts of American journalism, and subscribe to both the Times and the New Yorker. There is a convenient argument that the retractions and subsequent analysis of their failings provide evidence for the very editorial standards these institutions failed to meet, but that argument is a little too convenient. Smith’s column strongly suggests that the flaws were fundamentally institutional, and the same thing could likely happen again. That said, I do think the retractions mean something.

Ultimately I want to sit down and read reporting from someone who has been there, talked to the people who were there, and gone through the evidence. I want to read articles which have been through a rigorous editorial process. I want to read analysis by people who have spent a lot of time thinking about an issue. Obviously I don’t want to be imbibing the talking points of corporate lobbyists, paying heed to astro-turfing organizations, treating cop-aganda credulously, letting green-washing get a free pass, or uncritically accepting press releases from the military-industrial complex. But assuming good faith, I’m ready to accept the inevitable mistakes, bias, and omissions.

Don’t believe everything you read in the papers. But that doesn’t mean you should stop reading the papers. Don’t expect the “truth” to be handed to you on a platter. Remember that some things really are too good to be true. But most of all, don’t shoot the messenger.

My attempt at a UK-style diary column…

New Hampshire’s state motto — Live Free or Die — struck me from the moment I first read it off a rear license plate as amusingly over-determined. Sure, the sentiment calls back to New England’s revolutionary tradition, but is now laden with so much other import that you have to laugh when you read it. Like with many other of the state mottoes I feel the need to ask “OK, but what are we really concerned about here?

In the case of New Hampshire the answer to that question seems to be “covered bridges”. Which are quite literally what the name suggests. That is to say bridges built with their own roofs, preventing snow and ice accumulating on the road surface beneath. I am to understand that such bridges last longer, are safer to use, and attract an unusual degree of local pride. Based on the selection postcards available on the rack I perused, they are far prouder of their covered bridges than most of the White Mountain peaks. Driving past a particularly congested covered bridge we could see visitors slowing down to gawk and take photographs of themselves.

It’s all much less “Live Free or Die”, and much more “We Like Our Safer Bridges.”

They liked their covered bridge so much they framed it.

The day after new year I went out for a jog around the small-town-liberal-arts-college-campus. With their leaves wet and glistening in sodden piles on the ground around them, the trees had the air of men who had thrown off their soiled garments and stood there completely exposed to the elements. They continued to hold up their branches — as dignified as they had been in their summer pomp.

One tree had been decorated in the fashion of a Christmas tree. I suppose we were still close enough to Christmas that this remained acceptable. Except that instead of the usual hung ornaments, baubles, tinsel and lights, the branches were laden with surgical masks, N95s, mini whiskey bottles, larger gin bottles, and the lids off tin cans, hanging by the ring pull. I imagine a student art project, or perhaps a particular kind of creative writing teacher trying to demonstrate the value of ritual and tradition, and the value of subverting it.

I jog by two kids throwing a blue American football back and forth while an adult supervised. They were wearing facemasks outdoors. I later pass a woman walking her dog and I began to sense a growing trepidation. Omicron was looming on the horizon.

I bought an LCD computer monitor for $25 on Craigslist and I’m feeling the thrill like it is 2002. The online listing site still lives, looking every bit like it is still 2002.

We drove across town to pick up the monitor, and I paid the man in cash. “I’m sorry, I just don’t like letting people into my house,” the seller told me as he led the way into his garage where he would demonstrate the monitor actually working before I took off with it. I told him that was entirely understandable, especially these days, but I realized his concern was not Covid related. After all, I was the only one of the two of us wearing a mask.

He was an older man, lean and wearing faded jeans and sneakers. His garage was tidy and well organized. The mind runs to dark and sensational places when a man explains that he doesn’t like letting strangers into his house. But these are usually the least interesting explanation for a man’s abiding attachment to his own privacy.

I just finished reading Lauren Hough’s collection of autobiographical essays Leaving isn’t the Hardest Thing. One of her more famous essays that appeared a few years back recounted her years working as a “cable guy” in a DC suburb. She often had to explain to customers that if they wanted their internet back, they were going to have to let her go down into their basements. “Unless you have kids in cages, I don’t care,” she would assure them. As she discovered, people have all kinds of reasons to be cautious about letting strangers into their home, many of them not actually sinister.

High Resolution

I feel a real thrill at the prospect of making a New Year’s resolution. While usually inclined toward maintaining my set routine, I remain vulnerable to the countervailing compulsion to rearrange my life, as some are drawn to rearranging the furniture every couple of months. Even the common varieties of vague and Protestant resolution stir something in me. Cook more, eat vegetarian, cut the processed sugar, cut the booze, hit the gym, walk a mile a day; I’m not a fan of the misery and the defeat and, worst of all, the society that makes people suffer for their bodies, yet the idea of experimenting with the way I live persists. Also, I am always eager to hear from someone who has made a resolution because, to my mind, they are setting off on a kind of adventure.

I have a history of resolutions — New Year’s and otherwise. As a graduate student in Montreal I spent a year exclusively reading books written by women. Another year I read the news exclusively in French. Lent 2017, now living in Israel, I ignored the news entirely. In 2020 I started listening to a slow French news podcast every day, and I succeeded until the national lock-down was declared. That resolution was less failed, more redundant. While half the world was planning on Duolingo-ing their way through their confinement, I realized that my resolution had become superfluous. Like it or not, the entire world’s collective furniture was being rearranged. I no longer had to worry about breaking up my own routines or trying out a new way to live. Not when going to the supermarket became a surreal and uncertain experience. Not when the pandemic began to change the way we dreamed.

The desire to find a different way to live is tightly coupled with a prurient interest in the way other people live. Praise be then to those brave voyagers reporting back to us with their experiences and collected wisdom via You-tube. They have tried doing 100 press-ups a day, 100 crunches a day, and 100 squats a day. They have tried reading 100 pages a day, writing 1000 words a day, and writing a novel in a month. You can find them quitting smoking, vaping, drinking, coffee, sugar, gluten, video games, world of warcraft specifically, social media, and the internet. You can find them trying meat for the first time, playing magic the gathering for the first time, watching a BTS music video for the first time, a kitten seeing snow for the first time, Amish girls seeing an airport for the first time, and Koreans trying bourbon for the first time. People have will tell you how they found eating like Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, Christiano Ronaldo, Adele, Michael Phelps, and The Rock. There are people who try, and debate the merits of, military rations from across the world.

To my mind, we (and especially these Youtubers) are all the descendants of Henry David Thoreau, the New England writer, proto-naturalist, proto-activist, and abolitionist. From July 1845 to September 1847 Thoreau lived apart from his town and community, working with his hands, in a cottage on the edge of Walden pond. His written account of the experiment was published almost seven years later so we can, as the expression goes, read all about it — from growing beans to visiting town every once in a while. But he also explains his motivations — principally, a deep cynicism about the lives of the men around him. He saw them “digging their graves before they are born” and living under the tyranny of their own opinions of themselves.

But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost.

Walden – Thoreau

It is not easy to transpose a thinker of the past into current circumstances. If Thoreau was alive today I can’t be sure if we’d find him vlogging about polyamory, a mid level marketing scheme, or radical politics. Quite possibly all of the above. I doubt that he would be the kind of person to play the incredibly sincere looking video game adaptation of his book.

In lieu of Thoreau, we have the likes of the Try Guys, who arrived on the video landscape with a four minute report on wearing women’s underwear for the first time.

You cannot watch such a video of those young men and not acknowledge that they are bucking against the tyranny of their own opinions of themselves. And having glanced through all these videos of people trying, quitting, warning and advising I suspect there is also the underlying cynicism about the way we live our lives that reflects something of Thoreau as well.

So what is my own new years resolution? As a teenager I read a book whose title and precise nature has faded from memory, but what I do remember is that the author, by way of illustrating some other point, briefly described spending a year reading the complete works of Shakespeare. At first, he recounted, it was difficult going, trying to soldier on through all that pentameter. But with perseverance the language opened up and he developed an authentic appreciation of the plays. It was far neater experience than I would today grant credence to, but it struck me at the time as a deeply worthy thing to do. I know for a fact, however, that I would not be able to read that much Shakespeare in a year. Aside from anything else, I am generally committed to reading wherever my fancy takes me. Instead, and by way of trying to get some Shakespeare into my system, I will commit myself to devoting each year to a different play. And I will begin, in 2022, with Macbeth.