Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

Il paradosso del tempo

February 27th, 2010

Ho finito un altro libro: "Il paradosso del tempo" di Philip Zimbardo. Tutto sommato è stato molto interessante. Si tratta della psicologia del tempo, cioè i modi in cui percepiamo il tempo come una condizione in cui vivere. Secondo Zimbardo, ci sono cinque modi di pensare il tempo. Essi sono il passato-positivo, il passato-negativo, il presente-edonistico, il presente-fatalistico, infine l'orientamento sul futuro. Quindi, ci sono delle persone che vivono soprattutto in uno di questi "orientamenti", ciò influenza la loro vita molto più di quanto non se ne rendano conto.

Tanto per cominciare, coloro i quali hanno avuto un passato molto traumatico, e in più vivono come si può dire "nel passato" non riescono a estrarsi da questi avvenimenti. Secondo questa psicologia del tempo, il passato è importantissimo per tutti noi, perché ci dà una continuità, ci dà delle radici. Senza un passato felice (o almeno un passato tranquillo), non si può vivere serenamente il presente.

Poi, c'è il presente. Ci sono delle persone che vivono "l'adesso" vivacemente, ma ci sono anche quelle per cui la vita non ha senso, è tutto deciso, non si può cambiare nulla. Quest'ultimo orientamento è distruttivo e ci fa cadere nella depressione.

Infine, c'è il modo in cui concepiamo il futuro. Per cui, per coloro i quali il futuro è più importante del presente, il vivere è sempre schiavo dell'orologio, lottando contro il passare del tempo.

Come ho detto, mi è piaciuto questo libro, ma non è proprio un testo di letteratura. Questi libri su base scientifica contengono molte note bibliografiche, attraverso le quali puoi accedere alle fonti scientifiche. Ma per questo sono anche un po' pesanti. Sono stati scritti per essere precisi, non per essere belli da leggere.

Atheism: the case against god

February 13th, 2009

I was recommended this book by a friend and it is above and beyond the most relevant address of the question of religion I have so far encountered. George Smith sets out to argue that the notion of a god in general, and the god of Christianity in particular, cannot be supported rationally. Other authors of atheist books have addressed the social and historical impact of religion, but none have gone straight to the foundation of religion in order to refute its logical premises. To follow Smith's reasoning takes effort, but he is persuasive.

After discussing the concept of god in the most general sense, Smith proceeds to show that Christianity is stacked high with self contradictions in its various doctrines, all of which makes it even more absurd (if one can say such a thing) than merely the idea of a god itself. The central problem in knowing god is that of assigning attributes to an inherently supernatural and transcendental (that is to say unknowable) being. Either a proposition is unknowable or it isn't. It makes no sense to accept the premise of unknowabability only to then assign attributes that are contingent upon knowability. Christianity attempts to jump the fence by making all attributes infinite. Instead of temporal he is eternal. Instead of finite he is infinite. The obvious problem is that the meaning of such attributes is predicated upon finiteness. To make an attribute infinite is to make it meaningless. So all that can be accomplished is to assign unintelligible attributes to an unintelligible being. This is most characteristic of the Christian doctrine, which essentially drapes layers of rhetoric in order to create the illusion of a god that is effectively not distinguishable from nothing at all.

Van Lustbader's Jason Bourne

January 27th, 2009

With Ludlum's passing in 2001, Eric Van Lustbader has taken up the mantle of writing more Bourne books for the fans. As it turns out, he does this surprisingly well in that his voice is very similar to Ludlum's. To date, he's put out three books, with a fourth on the way. Interestingly, Ludlum left Bourne when the character was 50 years old, so to the extent that Van Lustbader wants to keep this going, he'll have to equip Bourne with the characteristics of a James Bond, or... Donald Duck. Characters that never seem to age, merely appear again and again in successive episodes.


Nevertheless, The Bourne Legacy certainly does add to Jason's life story, as the title no doubt implies. Sadly, Van Lustbader kills off the lovable characters Alex Conklin and Morris Panov right off the bat. I suppose after three stories we've had it with them? This sets the stage for Jason, who is implicated as the suspect through a set up. Strangely enough, the CIA takes the bait without ever considering the possibility that something is amiss. What's mind boggling about these people is that they never seem to know what the people working for them actually are capable of. First they train a Bourne, and then they're astonished that a simple hit squad can't take him down. The agency director, a long time friend of Conklin's, puts a price on Jason's head without thinking twice about it.

It's odd that a man with no connections into the agency is able to execute such a plot, sending the whole agency after one of its agents. But that's what Stepan Spalko, on the face of it a well respected leader of a humanitarian organization, has done. His hired gun is a man called Khan, a superb assassin whose main asset is to never betray his emotions, no matter the situation. Van Lustbader lets it slip quite early on that Khan is actually Jason's long lost son Joshua, presumed dead, from his first marriage. But it takes us until the end of the story for Jason to accept this truth.

In the meantime, there is a scheme to execute a bacteriological attack on the participants of the terrorists summit in Iceland, that is leaders from the US, Russia and Arab states. Naturally, the plot is Spalko's, with the help of the puppeteer's favorite puppets: Chechnyan rebels. In the end, Khan has an unlikely soul cleansing moment with one of Spalko's betrayed Chechnyans, Zena, through which (although Zena is dying) he's able to gain some fresh perspective on his father who supposedly abandoned him back then in Phnom Penh.


I'm starting to resent Van Lustbader. He is systematically destroying everything Ludlum built up. First he killed off Panov and Conklin, and now Marie. Marie was shockingly absent from Legacy, and now she's met her end in the most trivial and un-Bourne like way, to pneumonia. Imagine, the strong and resourceful Marie to wither like this? It's absurd. I can think of two reasons. Either Van Lustbader doesn't like Marie or he doesn't have it in him to write her part.

The more I think about it, there's something bigger going on here. You don't just kill off the second most important character without reason. But it isn't just her. Van Lustbader's characters are different. They are exaggerated, caricatures almost. Conklin first appeared every bit the single minded, firing from the hip kind of guy, but he turned out to be a wonderfully nuanced character. And Panov had great personal warmth. Then it was Marie, the most complicated of all of Ludlum's characters. She was never a flat character instructed to repeat the same concerns in the same words. On the contrary, there was much growth, and you could always sense that Ludlum had a lot more in store for her, he was never finished with her. A wonderful aspect of the Bourne stories was precisely the unpredictability of Marie.

Contrast Conklin, David Abbott and Peter Holland to the nameless director of the CIA. Ludlum's characters are flesh and blood, they feel guilt and remorse. Van Lustbader's director, in contrast, is Pointy Haired Boss. And he barely has a handle on the job, consumed in the struggle to maintain his political position and that of the company. He knows little about the ongoings and understands even less, least of all about Bourne. It struck me how odd this was. Surely the CIA chief would be a highly sophisticated character, surely he'd be clever enough both to protect the agency and run it, or how else would he have risen to the highest position? Strangely enough, Van Lustbader uses him a lot, but then he doesn't bother to build him a decent character.

But that's the thing about Van Lustbader, he can't do characters. Ludlum would never motivate killing or terror with anger or hatred. Hatred is a complicated emotion, with forays into many other states of mind. Furthermore, a character who's hateful is not hateful all the time, he undergoes moments of weakness, of shame and doubt. Meanwhile, the CIA chief orders Bourne's execution more or less because he's sick of him. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Van Lustbader's one honest attempt at creating a character was Kahn who, agonizingly, doesn't reappear.

Van Lustbader's villains are also altogether different. They go under the common banner of "terrorists". First Chechnyan rebels and now Saudi jihadists. Their objective is a rather vague scheme to disrupt US-Saudi relations. Compare that to the mesmerizing plot of the Taiwanese magnate who wanted to seize control of a fragile Chinese state, now that was a plot! Van Lustbader's villains can said to be more or less "crazy", but in a more shallow sense than, say, Carlos. There is endless rhetoric about Western decadence, but what exactly are they trying to achieve? At least Carlos had his reasons, and there were reasons why he had them. Spalko too was a stronger character. If nothing else at least it was clear that he was a puppeteer, and a puppeteer never reveals his cards to his puppets. But Fadi and Karim spend 20 years planning a "Face Off" reenactment only to detonate a nuke in Washington DC. Well, so what? What does that accomplish?

Ludlum believed that life can twist you every which way, but it does not ultimately possess you. He used a lot of older characters, he believed in redemption and forgiveness. With Van Lustbader, there are three options. You are corrupt from the start and eventually meet your end. You start out good, then become corrupted. Or, you remain good, but you'll be put through the very harshest episodes in life. That's the complete set of human experience with Van Lustbader.

A final, smaller, matter is Van Lustbader's courageous stab at computer security. I understand his motive, but he should keep it to a minimum. That scene where Karim runs a virus on the mainframe and brings down the entire network is quite sad. So the CIA, one of the most technologically advanced organizations (as every spy fiction writer insists) only has a single mainframe? He completely betrays his ignorance of the computer networks present even in small businesses, let alone huge organizations. The insistence on portraying "the firewall" as some kind of fantastic artificial intelligence is also rather tedious.


As much as the previous Van Lustbader novels were sub par, this one just didn't grip me at all. His lack of imagination is tiring.

Tiring is also his reliance on recycling the same themes again and again. CIA gets a new female director. None of the men respect a woman in charge. Yadayadayada. And it drags on and on. Come to think of it, this feminist angle has been present in all of his books. Yes, we get it, don't you have anything else?

The plot this time is convoluted without being especially interesting. Which is an odd thing to say for a Bourne story. But lo and behold, another Van Lustbader favorite theme: muslim fundamentalism. A group calling themselves the Black Legion is planning a large scale attack on the continental US. Their motive is typically weak. "We can not accept the Western way of life so we must strike." Another pointless motive that can't possibly accomplish anything, this is starting to feel familiar. Let's see, all of Van Lustbader's villains are muslim terrorists.

The other half of the story is the CIA vs NSA power struggle. This is what Van Lustbader loves to write about, the hard man in charge. Again in stark contrast to Ludlum's characters. Yes, Luther Laval is clever, but he's not as sophisticated as Ludlum's characters. He's simple minded, one sided, flat. At least the two agencies fighting it out is somewhat interesting, but Van Lustbader completely fails to imprint Veronica Heart's character on the story.

So how does it go? Pick some tried and true themes. Add a few locations, some exotic names (preferably Russian or Turkish), shallow characters and wrap it up with Bourne. Oh, and add a lot of politics. Yeah, that seems to work well enough.


December 27th, 2008

Steven Levitt, the economist, and Stephen J. Dubner, journalist, collaborate on this title that has become something of a household name. Freakonomics is the study of common phenomena through the lens of incentives and economic reality. Levitt takes on teachers inflating test scores when standardized tests are a determining factor in their careers. It's hardly surprising, but nevertheless few people seem to give it a second thought. Likewise, in every area of life there are interests and motives, and the powers that be wish to wield a certain amount of control over the situation. But the incentives they set are often not effective.

A compelling example is the study of crack dealers, based on field data supplied by Sudhir Venkatesh. There is a certain public perception that drug dealers wield a lot of power and consequently enjoy much wealth. In reality, it turns out, much like any corporation, the foot soldiers live on minimum wage level incomes, while only the fat cats cash in. But then why would people subject themselves to such high risk for little reward? The answer seems to be that this is the only career that seems plausible to their lives.

While Levitt's case studies are generally informative, Dubner's presentation is often dull and publication-like.

A season with Verona

December 12th, 2008

Tim Parks's chronicles in the footsteps of Hellas Verona with the Brigate Gialloblu are well known to Serie A fans. I'm not one for books about football - I've never been so deeply interested as to study the history and try to find out absolutely everything, to me it's about what's happening in the present. But I thought I would give this one a try, after seeing it recommended by everyone who'd read it. I thought it would be an anthropological book, but it turns out Parks is Veronese: an immigrant who's found himself at home after 20 years in Verona.

His story is appealing on many levels. What strikes me first is the cozy nostalgia of Serie A in 2001. That Verona team had a lot of players who went on to bigger things. The Verona of Frey, Adailton and Mutu. With players who would make a career at Parma: Gilardino, Bonazzoli, Morfeo, not to mention Prandelli. With Laursen, who would sign for Milan. With Camoranesi, the oriundo, who would lend creativity and dribbling to Lippi's all winning Italy; and keystone of present day Juventus, of course. With Oddo, the most abused of all players, who allegedly had secured a transfer to Lazio in mid season and didn't seem to try very hard. With the Parma veteran Apolloni, his last season before hanging it up. With a young and hopeless Cassetti, present day Roma.

The Bari of Yksel Osmanovski and Daniel Andersson, and the very young Antonio Cassano. Luca Toni playing for Vicenza, long before his rise to fame. It was the start of Parma's sad demise, they had sold Crespo and Veron, brought in Ariel Ortega. They were still impressive, however, with Buffon, Thuram, Cannavaro, and a goal hungry Di Vaio. There were the lacklustre Inter and Milan, the latter would appear in the Uefa Cup the following season. Lazio, champions, had the most expensive squad in the world, way before their financial collapse. Eriksson had done it with Nesta, Nedved, Veron, Almeyda and Sergio Conceicao. Up front they had, no less, Boksic, Salas, Roberto Mancini, Kennet Andersson, Simone Inzaghi and Fabrizio Ravanelli. Roma had brought in Emerson, Batistuta and Nakata, and clinched the title.

And finally it was the Juve of Ancelotti, the man who came so close, but couldn't seem to win anything. Davids ruled the midfield with an iron fist that of Montero in defense. Conte would supply crucial goals when the chips were down, but the sole responsibility for offence was on Zidane's shoulders. It was Trezeguet's first season, after that golden goal at Euro2000. He made short process of Pippo Inzaghi, who was promptly sold. And it was still a time of struggle for Del Piero, who would strike up a golden partnership with Trezeguet the following season, in an improbably league triumph.

And so this is the world in which the story is told. Hellas was fighting for survival just as Chievo was on the brink of promotion to Serie A. They did stay up, but only for a year. Today we find Chievo in Verona's place, and Hellas at the bottom of Serie C1. How time flies. Parks sets out to write a book about Hellas, and the Brigate Gialloblu. Out of all the supporter groups in Italy, they are infamous for being the most racist of them all. By reputation, at least. As it turns out, they are not so much racist, complete with their monkey chants, as just plain antagonistic. But this is Italy, where everything is politicized. And Verona is cast as the racist town.

What matters, above all, in Italy is pretense, theater. It is not so much that rules are bent, they just don't exist as rules, merely as guidelines. And there are always grounds for appeal. In one incident, the police state in no uncertain terms that noone will be let into the stadium without a ticket. But then they are allowed in anyway. One must always be seen to play one's part, that is the crucial thing. On a different occasion, there is heavy rainfall during a match, and by half time the pitch is flooded. The rules state that the ball must be thrown up in the air and made to bounce on the surface, or else the game must be abandoned. But neither the referee nor the teams wish that to happen, so the man in black boldly goes around the pitch trying to get the ball to bounce until he finds a spot where it does. He repeats the test a few more times and now, clearly, a pretense to the rule has been made, the match continues. (Incidentally, that explain's Collina's Perugia in 2000.)

Parks gives us a broad description of Hellas. Both the supporter culture he participates in, and the inner workings of the club. He relays conversations with fans, players, coaches and administrators. What's really interesting is that it would seem everyone in that world, down to the president of the club, is victim of circumstance. The fans are the mercy of the management and the players. The players are at the mercy of the resources the administration has available, the coach, the fans, and public opinion. The coach is at once the most empowered person of all, deciding who will play and where, but then every single decision he makes will be scrutinized. And the president, supposedly all powerful, can do no more than to balance the budget by selling the most valuable players, while facing pressure from fans to spend more and spend wiser.

All in all, a book for a Serie A fan. Humorous in part, revealing to a point, but also padded with a lot of relatively boring storytelling.