01 September 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 100

We're in the triple digits!!! =D Was anyone else around during our very first meeting? But regardless of when you "joined"--and even if you have since "left"--I'm grateful to have had your company at any point along the way. If you're also feeling nostalgic and have any "Two or Three" Book Club memories that you'd like to share, please let me know in the combox. =) But now that my copy of Oryx and Crake has finally arrived, I shouldn't keep you waiting any longer . . .

"Snowman, oh Snowman," [the children are] saying . . . To them his name is just two syllables. They don't know what a snowman is, they've never seen snow.

It was one of Crake's rules that no name should be chosen for which a physical equivalent--even stuffed, even skeletal--could not be demonstrated. No unicorns, no griffins, no manticores or basilisks. But those rules no longer apply, and it's given Snowman a bitter pleasure to adapt this dubious label. The Abominable Snowman--existing and not existing, flickering at the edges of blizzards, apelike man or manlike ape, stealthy, elusive, known only through rumours and through its backward-pointing footprints. Mountain tribes were said to have chased it down and killed it when they had the chance. They were said to have boiled it, roasted it, held special feasts; all the more exciting, he supposes, for bordering on cannibalism.

Oh, look! An unlikely and unexpected connection to the ending of State of Fear. LOL! (Sorry, Amy. But you know I couldn't resist. =P Let's just hope it's not foreshadowing!)

Chapters 1 to 3
("Mango" to "Downpour")

While waiting to start this novel, I kept up my steady stream of "What's wrong with the world?" reading. A couple of those books traced the present-day institutions and practices that they were most critical of back to some damning historical roots. Their mining of the past for clues to the present is what they have in common with our latest novel. For there's something wrong with Margaret Atwood's future world, and the key is clearly in the main character Snowman's memories. But it will be a while before we get to see the whole picture.

All we know at this early point is that Snowman is homeless, nearly starving, and barely able to take care of himself . . . and that his skin cannot bear the ultraviolet rays that don't seem to bother the naked children from a community he is estranged from . . . but we don't know how he got that way, and he himself probably couldn't tell us. His memory is fried and he doesn't seem in full control of his mental faculties.

We are given more details, however, about his childhood, when his world bore a closer resemblance to our own . . .

Compound people didn't go to the cities unless they had to, and then never alone. They called the cities the pleeblands. Despite the fingerprint identity cards now carried by everyone, public security in the pleeblands was leaky: there were people cruising around in those places who could forge anything and be anybody, not to mention the loose change--the addicts, the muggers, the paupers, the crazies. So it was best for everyone at OrganInc Farms to live all in one place, with fullproof procedures.

Outside the OrganInc walls and gates and searchlights, things were unpredictable. Inside, they were the way it used to be when Jimmy's father was a kid, before things got so serious, or that's what Jimmy's father said. Jimmy's mother said it was all artificial, it was a theme park and you could never bring the old ways back, but Jimmy's father said, why knock it? You could walk around without fear, couldn't you? Go for a bike ride, sit at a sidewalk cafe, buy an ice cream cone? . . .

Now, the description of the cities kind of excited me. They evoked memories of Bladerunner and other futuristic visions from the 1980s, and they made me wish that Jimmy/Snowman had grown up in one of them instead. But they don't sound any better than our own cities, which are mostly horrible places to raise children. Not that the Compounds are any better . . . The OrganInc Farm Compound, in which everything belongs to the corporation, which agrees to take care of you as long as you work for it, is no more the real world than a hothouse is. And although plants do seem to thrive in hothouse conditions (Let me know the deal, Stilwell!), people don't do half as well in climate-controlled bubbles.

Nevertheless, it's easy to see why people would want to live in them. Don't we all want to be able to walk our streets in safety, even at night . . . to give our children the freedom to go exploring on their bikes . . . to have an ice cream truck near the park? (I'll swear that Atwood threw in the ice cream cone to manipulate our sense of nostalgia.) But I've been thinking about this very issue a lot lately, and I always come back to the question of how dependent such ideal conditions are on bubbles. That is, how many of them require tradeoffs that are the equivalent of being guaranteed three full meals a day but never knowing just what is in your food or how it got to your table?

As you can see, the uncomfortable fact is that so many of us already live in bubbles. Here's a quick to test to determine how dependent on artificial controls your own society is . . . First, list the top seven or eight skills necessary for living comfortably in them. Let's start with those in the OrganInc Farm Compound, which make up the curriculum of Jimmy's junior high Life Skills class:

Double-entry on-screen bookkeeping, banking by fingertip, using a microwave without nuking your egg, filling out housing applications for this or that Module and job applications for this or that Compound, family heredity research, negotiating your own marriage-and-divorce contracts, wise genetic match-mating, the proper use of condoms to avoid sexually transmitted bioforms . . .

Having prepared your list, go through it and scratch out anything that you couldn't use if society collapsed. If the number of stricken items is greater than the number of unstricken items, then you probably live in a hothouse.

But just when I thought that I knew what I thought, Atwood threw in a metaphor that sang to my soul: Jimmy and his father compare their Compound to a castle. The sort of castle which is also a fortress, with a moat and ramparts. And she kind of had me there.

So what do you think of castles? My thoughts are along the same lines as a certain Twitter user I follow, whose feed is peppered with photographs of castles and other medieval buildings . . . and comments which express his belief that communities are best when they are as homogenous as possible. While I don't quite go to his extreme, I do think there are fundamental differences between cultures which only end up clashing when people who adhere to those differences try to live together. And because, as Michael Pollan has written, "Culture . . . is of course a fancy word for your mom," we need look no further than the latest "mommy war." The last time I lurked on a forum for mothers, nearly everyone seemed to have a story about ending a long-term friendship with someone else who had her son circumcised, a practice which those other mothers considered a barbaric form of abuse . . . and the last time I participated in one of the discussions, it was to defend a Catholic grandmother who had secretly baptised her grandchildren in the bathroom, after the infants' parents had declared that they didn't want to pass on the Catholic faith. No, sometimes we can't just play nice.

In that case, what are we to do as we form our own communities? What is the right level of cultural conformity--for there will have to be some? When does dissent become something to discourage, because it is also something damaging? How far can we go as individuals before we start to hurt the community that nurtures us and protects our freedom to push the limits? How far can communities go before the people in them are actually no better than OrganInc Farms' pigoons?

What are your thoughts on Chapters 1 to 3?

1. What new name would you like to go by in a dystopian world? (You may either follow Crake's directions or defy them!)
2. If your only two choices for a home were the Compounds and the cities, where would you prefer to live?
3. What is the most useless thing you had to learn in school and how did your teachers justify it to you?
4. Dare you tackle any question in my last paragraph?

* * * * *

Now that we're discussing a dystopian world, I want to bring Locus Focus back! But since I've already featured settings from the most obvious choices (two in my "Worlds of Tomorrow" Challenge, and one for a more informal "desert settings" project), I decided to pick a different, but still relevant theme. And it is . . .

Unschooling Settings

Having become convinced that modern schools are the most dystopian thing about our world--especially in countries where attendance is compulsory--I want to feature some settings in which education (that is, the educatio or the drawing out of young people's talents and powers) takes place despite the lack of anything we moderns would associate with schooling. If you can think of one or two of your own, I hope I can encourage you to write a post and to link it up. =)


Brandon said...

I'm still lagging behind, without a copy in hand, although I hope to have one by next Monday at the latest. But I found the questions in the last paragraph interesting; having just re-read Plato's Republic, I think they tie in to one of Plato's big questions -- indeed, the big question that determines the very 'personality' of a society: What is really doing the work in making the society one society? Perhaps that's the key question for a dystopia; when you have a dystopic story, for instance, in which a society seems on the surface to be nice and yet comes across as creepy, this often seems to be the cause -- it's all really being held together by manipulation or force.

Sheila said...

Yay, you got the book!

1. Gee, I don't know .... some kind of tiger maybe? I like tigers, but it seems kind of arrogant to name oneself after a tiger. I mean, I'm not very much like a tiger myself. But I don't know what animal I am like. (My friends say golden retriever puppy. I didn't like that.)

2. I hate to admit it, but Compounds. The pleeblands are no place to raise a family! And if you can ignore the injustice inherent in the system, it's pretty obvious the compounds are a much nicer place to live. (If you stick with the series, though, you'll see the place I'd *really* like to live -- the hippie commune!)

3. I'd have to say algebra. I enjoyed it, so it wasn't a problem, but John is always pointing out that he never learned any algebra and it hasn't harmed him one whit. And I have to admit, except for solving riddles, I don't use it either. I remember learning how to make graphs that showed how to find the ideal price point for a product, and the teacher saying how useful it would be .... and I thought, "Sure, if you happen to know what percent of people who would shell out $10 for your product would go up to $15 if they had to!" In other words, real life rarely gives you all the information the math book does.

For other people, I'd say Latin. I *hated* that Latin was required at the school where I taught. The kids complained it was useless, and the fact is -- IT IS. Unless you want to read Cicero, which I did, or you'd like to make a career of it. But since the only career you can make of Latin is teaching Latin to other people who then can do nothing with it other than teach Latin ..... it strikes me as something of a pyramid scheme.

4. That's the question, now isn't it? I struggle with this often. For instance, I love that our culture's views on childraising are diverse enough that I am not a social pariah for not spanking my kids. But on the other hand, it means I can't ask my neighbor to babysit my kids because I don't know if she would care for them like I would, and they might not behave for her if she didn't use the same methods I do.

Yes, mothers complain that we no longer have a "village" to help us raise our kids. But the reality is that the "village" would end up looking like your mother-in-law .... people who don't necessarily think like you, pressuring you to do things a certain way. We gave up the "village" when we insisted on the right to do things our own way. Heck, many of us complain we don't have help from our families, when the fact is we don't trust our families with our kids, and that's why we aren't getting the help!

And yet .... I feel strongly enough about my life choices and especially my parenting choices that I feel I prefer isolation to a lack of freedom to make those choices. Could I bear living in a small village where my kids were always over at other people's houses .... and those people might spank them? Uh .... no. It's bad enough that my culture has such a mass paranoia about unattended kids that you can go to jail for letting a ten-year-old go to the park alone. For everything that really matters, I think freedom is pretty vital.

Of course it would be lovely to have a village that just happens to share all my values! But how could THAT ever happen?

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon -- Oh, I was definitely reminded of Plato! I wish I could spare more time for The Republic. =( Would asking what Plato's answer to that question is count as a spoiler request? LOL!

Sheila -- 1) Would "Tiger" be a reference to "Tiger Mother," perhaps? ;-) A friend once told me that I looked like a raccoon, and I took her seriously enough to use an image of one for my Blogger avatar. (LOL!) But I think I'd pick something like Inchworm (because of the song!) or Dugong (because the name is derived from a Filipino word--and it's no odder than a name like "Gudrun").

2) My first home was very much like a Compound: high walls with barbed wire and security at every gate. Inside, children could ride bikes and play in the parks; outside--and I do mean right outside the walls, homeless families lived in pushcarts. If those were my only two choices, I'd want in . . . but I'd probably end up a little like Jimmy's mother. =/

3) For me, it was definitely Trigonometry . . . and some of the weirder stuff in Physics class. I mean, why did we need to measure ripples??? One of the books I read last month was Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto, which is a critique of institutional schooling. In it, he says that the only higher maths that anyone really needs to know in modern society is statistical prediction. And that's probably the least likely to be taught in modern schools! Now, like you, I enjoyed my Algebra classes, because they started to feel like puzzle-solving classes after a while . . . but you already know what I mean when I admit that I never really needed to use what I learned and practiced in them, beyond doing actual puzzles!

My own students would probably throw the Iliad and the Inferno right on top of the pile of "useless" stuff. And how could I blame them? There's only so much you can say about the intellectual heritage of Christendom before eyes start to glaze over. And the one time I admitted that "high literature" isn't for everyone, because only people of certain dispositions could appreciate them anyway, I got into trouble because some students interpreted that as my saying that they were stupid. =(

And oh, how I loved Latin! But that's another story. =P

Enbrethiliel said...


4) The virtual schism between generations in a single family is one thing that really bothers me about the modern world. In one sense, it's a necessary corrective. For instance, if your mother and grandmother bought into the scientific fad that formula was better than breast milk, then of course you're not going to listen to them--but it's still a breach that shouldn't be there.

At least it's not as scary as certain practices becoming laws. A few days ago, I read an article on a British news site which said that babies who slept in the same beds as their parents took longer to learn to sleep through the night. (The implied message was that it is A Bad Thing if children do not all develop at The Same Rate.) And one of the commenters actually said that co-sleeping put a child in "third world" conditions and that British parents who couldn't afford a separate room for their infants had no business having children. Now, I can imagine brazening my way through a lot of opposition, but that comment seemed to represent something more dangerous and intolerant.

On the other hand, I've seen some very young "villages" put together by like-minded people--usually religious in nature--and I can't say I'm crazy about them, either. Everyone there seems to be so convinced that they have better ideas than the previous generations, and although this may be true, the attitudes that spring from the conviction become another sort of problem.

One of my fantasies is that there already is a really great village out there and that I just need to find it. Not a perfect village, of course--but one good enough for me to trust that I'm on the same wavelength as the neighbours. But it's really more likely that what I'll have in the future will be a version of what I have now: family and friends who like and respect me even though they disagree with some of my ideas, and who often end up more tolerant of those ideas over time--with me doing my own share of adjusting and learning to live as one body with many members.

Brandon said...


If we're talking about what Plato thinks the answer is for a good society, it's not all that much of a spoiler -- he thinks that truly good societies are united by philosophy (by which he means people striving to understand what is genuinely good for everyone)! But he thinks all societies tend to deteriorate unless people do a lot of hard work to prevent it, so this truly good society slowly degenerates into a society united by codes of honor and social reputation, which (because keeping a reputation for honor is sometimes expensive) slowly degenerate into societies based on profit and economic progress, which (because always working just to have more money is unpleasant for most people) slowly degenerate into societies where anything goes as long as it's not harmful, which (because people can't agree on what is genuinely harmful) degenerate into societies that (whatever front they may put up) are really united by bullying and deceit. But of course, it's a bit more complicated, since Plato thinks that the kind of society one has is a reflection of the kind of citizens that dominate its policies, and all societies have citizens whose characters correspond to each type, so changes in what kind of person is active in society can make it hop or skip up or down without much obvious external change.

This book has been remarkably difficult to get a copy of; there's a long waiting list for it at the public libraries and it's out of stock at all the local bookstores. I can get it through the college library, but it's only available at campuses completely out of my way, and while I can request it for pick-up at a closer campus, it's an absurdly slow process. I'll definitely be coming back to this post as soon as I get the copy.

Sheila said...

I just like tigers. Doesn't everyone? I was also born in the year of the tiger (so was Marko). You know, I'd always wondered about the raccoon?

You're reading Gatto now? I'm so proud. :) Not sure how much of your development in thought over the past years is attributable to me (or mine to you) but I love it when you get into stuff I'm into!

Literature ... I don't know if it's necessary. It seems to me it's the only way we ever learn how to step outside ourselves -- to put ourselves in others' shoes (1st person novels) or look at things from the outside (3rd person omniscient). It's how we learn to look at our lives as something with a theme and a central struggle, instead of just stuff happening. And every book has some important lesson about life -- because unlike other subjects, the topic IS life.

Of course some people would say the same about philosophy, and I loathe philosophy. Pretty much the only thing I agree with Plato on is what Brandon points out, how society degenerates. Right now America is "republic, nine-tenths of the way to oligarchy" and Plato gets proven right yet again.

It's not good to be at odds with previous generations, but I would go with Billy Joel here and point out that "we didn't start the fire." I was going to say the rift happened in the middle of last century, when mothers started listening to their doctors instead of their own mothers. But on second thought, it wasn't then at all. Western Civilization itself is only special at all because every generation has wanted to try something new. The 50's were rebelling against the 20's which were rebelling against yet another thing. Dr. Spock wasn't the first parenting book, Rousseau wrote one too and there were scads of them in between.

Which is why if you want to know anything about "natural" parenting, you have to go to non-Western cultures, because Western culture hasn't been "natural," ever. I think of cultural practices as evolving -- things that work get retained, things that don't get dropped. If you look at a tribe that's been about the same for 500 years, which has handed down all of its cultural practices in all that time, odds are good that practices that didn't work have been weeded out by that point. It's an "evolved" society; its memes have been pared down by the survival of the fittest. (That's why I like their nutritional advice, too. Their traditional diets might not be perfect, but if it has kept a tribe healthy for 500 or 1000 years, it can't be bad.)

But Western culture doesn't allow this process to happen. We're always getting ideas out of nowhere, and the new, untried idea always gets more traction than just what your grandmother said. And that's why, as partakers in Western culture, we can't go back. Our society has NEVER been stable enough to have solid traditions. Of course you can go back pretty far, and if you stick with peasants only, you do get some of that cultural knowledge. But of course we know very little about the everyday stuff about, say, whether or not medieval peasants breastfed on demand or what percentage of their plate was taken up with vegetables. And the sort of educated people who bothered to write things down were exactly the same people who were busy having new ideas and trying to be cleverer than their parents.

And yes, intentional communities always seem so dysfunctional, I couldn't sign up for that. Perhaps for the reason I mentioned -- the clever ideas dreamed up by individuals can never equal customs that have been tried for generations. We just don't know how to build a society from scratch. Utopias sound great in books, but they never WORK.

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon -- Your comment was fascinating enough to draw me toward your post on Plato's cities, and after I had read it, I liked the classifications even more. Right now, Sheila and I agree somewhat about wanting to live in the democratic fourth group ("anything goes as long as it's not harmful"); but I myself really long for Plato's first ideal, a society with more coherence and agreement about what is good. And I occasionally defy my own "live and let live" philosophy to argue with people about what we should all believe and what we should all do. I've been called controlling because of it--and perhaps I am slipping down toward the tyrannical fifth group rather than climbing upward toward the kallipolis. =/ But it's not just some intellectual exercise; I feel real psychic anguish when my friends and I must "agree to disagree" about things that are important to me.

So now I should probably read the parts of the Republic which address the education of citizens of a kallipolis, but I don't know when I can get to it.

As you might have noticed, it was difficult for me to get a copy of Oryx and Crake, too. I wonder how many others would have trouble if they tried to join the readalong now, and whether this "elusiveness" often ends up part of the experience of reading the novel!

Sheila -- There are a lot of things that I wouldn't have started doing or thinking if I hadn't been reading your blog, but you'd know them better than I! Incidentally, our influence over each other is exactly the sort of "village characteristic" I was describing at the end of my last reply to you. When people genuinely care about each other and about living together, I think that they can adjust their views to achieve harmony, without "selling out." It just takes time. I sometimes feel a little thrill of victory when a friend tells me about something she believes in strongly, and I remember that one year ago, it was my position and she was arguing against it. =P Given how many times I've done the same thing after vehemently debating my friends, however, it's silly to think that I've "won" anything. We're not one-upping each other; we're building a village/city together.

Your analysis of Western society is interesting. Perhaps the only time we were stable enough for traditions to make it through one century was the Middle Ages--and even then, only in some areas. Of course, as you point out, a fat lot of good that does us now when we have no records of what had worked for 500 years back in 1600 or something.

As for education, I'm torn between Gatto's ideal of children directing their learning according to their own interests and a "canon" that marks an educational ideal. Now, I've seen firsthand how a required syllabi makes education degrade from true learning to mere report card dressing, so I wouldn't push it . . . but this brings us back to the idea of tradition. As much as I like the freedom of Western civilisation, which I partake of somewhat, I'm not a fan of rebelling for the sake of rebelling or having to reinvent the wheel in every generation (for whatever reason). Of course, it's not either-or: a child can both pursue his own interests and pick up on his parents' values. But it's a balance that takes the ideal village/city that you and I have been experiencing with each other, and definitely not the institutions that we have now!

Sheila said...

The process you're talking about isn't "winning" or "one-upping" -- it's that when two people exchange ideas and discuss things with an open mind, one would hope that the better ideas rise to the top. Kind of a small scale of "cultural natural selection" I was talking about above.

If you want your kids to pick up your values, unschooling might work better than the alternative, at least from the people I know. Kids rebel against pressure, but if they look up to you, they are interested in what interests you. I share a lot of my parents' ideas, if not 100% of them, and many of the ones I picked up on (natural childbirth from my mom, free-market economics from my dad) they never pushed on me. It was just what they were interested in and read about, and I picked up their books and read them too.

The stuff I learned in actual homeschooling? I barely remember much of it.

I like the ability the internet has to create our own villages. Sure, it can be limiting too, and we have to watch out for the temptation of choosing to only associate with the internet friends who always agree with us rather than the neighbor next door who doesn't always. I know at least one person who has fallen so far into the echo chamber of anarchist Facebook groups that he can barely associate with anyone else -- he's too busy throwing around anarchist catch-phrases and abbreviations and no one knows what he's talking about. But conversely, it isn't good for us either to always hang out with those with whom we disagree. I see it in conservative people who went to liberal colleges -- they have this embattled attitude, like they always expect an argument. When real-life friends leave you feeling a little too alone in your ideas, there's always the internet. It can help, if you keep it in balance.

Sheila said...

Oh, and as far as "live and let live" -- I think there's a huge difference between saying "you should try X" and calling on the cops on someone because they did Y. The former isn't aggressive, though defensive people act like it is. You get people calling breastfeeding activists "the Breastapo." I want to ask, are they actually putting you in a concentration camp for using formula? No? Then just ignore them if you disagree! Free country, we can do that, right?

Of course you discredit your own message if you're pushy and rude, but that's still not aggression. Rather, I think that's how society is supposed to work -- exchanging ideas and trying to win people over to good ones, rather than establishing laws to force people to do what we think is good. The latter way seems ignorant of human nature, and how humans react when we feel we're being pushed around.

Belfry Bat said...

It's funny, but that phrase, there, "the only higher maths that anyone really needs to know in modern society is statistical prediction"... statistical prediction has not only got a huge algebraic and analytic background to it, but it's also the focus of huge amounts of on-going research.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila -- "Breastapo" is new to me. The one I was familiar with was "Nipple Nazi." ROFL! It's amusing enough for me not to begrudge people their hyperbole.

It also begs the question of how much is too much. I think that expressions like the above reflect some people's belief that certain forms of breastfeeding activism count as uncivil behaviour. They wouldn't want there to be a law against it, but they do think it clashes with the cohesive values of their society. And their way of protesting against it is equally democratic and equally free for others to ignore.

So yeah, what do we do if it is "too much"--not according to the law, but according to culture or social norms? Perhaps the best example I can think of is a practice among some feminists of wearing white trousers during certain days of the month and not making any effort to hide what those days of the month mean for them. (I hope that description manages to stay tasteful?) There are rightly no laws against what they're doing, but that doesn't make their behaviour any less uncivil. Do we just accept everything that doesn't break the law or violate our rights? It might be overreaching for Individual A to tell Individual B how to act, but a community made up of Individuals A to Y seem to have a better basis for telling Individual Z what he may or may not do in their society.

"Unschooling" is a lot closer to my own educational philosophy these days. I wish I could remember where I read that one good mentor whom a child looks up to and trusts is all that a child really needs to start learning. (Since I've been reading a lot of Gatto, I assumed it was in one of his books, but it doesn't seem to be in any of the parts I've reread.)

Twitter is more of my village than blogs, because everything is on one feed. (I'm choosier when it comes to which blogs to visit.) When a controversial issue makes the news, I'm always surprised to see how many people whose tweets I enjoy disagree with me about politics. And sometimes, when I follow someone because of politics, I can also be surprised by his taste in music or movies. =)

Bat -- Okay, I'll bite. Precisely how many maths are in statistical prediction? And how basic would maths have to be for us to be able to say "the only maths"? That is, what is a universally recognised single unit of maths?

Belfry Bat said...

I think what I'm really trying to get at is that "maths" actually isn't something that comes in bits and pieces; at the same time, it isn't more than ordinary logics. As a method, maths is logic, aided by a terse language of abbreviations and transposable names, fin. As an art or a cultural endeavour, maths is logic applied to particular hypotheses, and I'll grant that lots of the time those hypotheses are great whoppers.

So, yes, unless you're an architect or engineer, you probably don't need to solve quadratics, not even to stop a car on the highway before running over the fawn in your lane. And unless you're in that kind of competition or in the circus/theatre, you don't need to turn summersaults, though they may have been in your gym curriculum, or have helped you make friends in the playground. Algebra was brain exercises. There are other ways to exercise, but algebra should have been a good one.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think that what Gatto was really trying to get at is that "the most essential form of advanced math apart from arithmetic in modern society is statistical prediction." In fact, I know that's what he was really trying to get at because I just quoted the passage from the book. Is that correct enough for you?

Belfry Bat said...

"Correct" enough? I don't know what you mean. I'm not complaining about correctness, though perhaps what he's describing as the most important facet of numeracy in the modern world is not something I'd call mathematics --- not being really part of logic.

If all he means by "statistical prediction" is a sense or knack for deciding which of two given counterfactuals is more likely, I'll agree it's useful, and that it doesn't fit in grade school anywhere --- though I'm not sure that what he seems to be expecting is quite realistic either (alas! for these over-loaded words...); doing the necessary calculations properly quickly becomes inhuman work, the sort we want machines to do for us...

Maybe I'll counter that the mathematics the modern world has made most necessary and least taught is contract law. (entirely a mess of implications expected of named hypotheticals depending on variable things... ). And it is also so inhuman a task that it's mostly left to computers, these days, to sort it out.

Enbrethiliel said...


You may not know what I mean, but now you know the effect you have on others. LOL!

Here is the rest of the passage, for your fine-toothed comb:

[Statistical predition] is in use on an everyday basis in thousands of practical applications, from political predictions to advising clothing manufacturers what colours will be preferred in the months ahead. The math required to hold this power in one's hands is hardly taxing for people of junior high school age. For ordinary lives, nothing in the world of number beyond arithmetic is remotely useful; if statistics were the mathematical idea taught, past long division, most students would be more effective for the simple ability to predict with numbers. Check what percentage of your school's math curriculum is devoted to statistics.

DMS said...

I haven't read this book- but it does sound like it is off to an interesting start!

I would say the most pointless classes I ever had to take were Algebra and Geometry. I am not saying they are pointless for everyone- but just for me. I have never used either in any of the jobs I have had (or in my regular life). If I have even come close to using either in any of my jobs, I didn't need to use any advanced formulas or ideas covered in the these classed. Teachers never really gave me a good reason for either math class- just that I would need them for the next math course.

Enbrethiliel said...


I enjoyed Algebra and Geometry . . . but I can't say that I've used them, either!

By the time I was teaching, the reason was no longer, "You'll need it for the next class," and had become, "You'll need the grade from this class to get into uni." Sigh!

Sheila said...

Oh, I use geometry all the time! Okay, I'm not constructing circles on lines or anything, but being able to calculate area, volume, circumference, and so forth is useful in all kinds of situations. I use it a lot in sewing, sometimes in gardening, building chicken coops, etc.

The thing about society is, it does police itself. If you're a pushy person who can't stop being rude when sharing your ideas, you're likely to have no friends. That's why most people try hard NOT to be that sort of person. Does it hurt you to see a rude person, say, walking around topless with political slogans painted on her chest? Not really -- but it does hurt the rude person in some ways, and that's why most people don't do that. We don't like to be thought weird. You could say it's our pro-social instinct.

Shame I don't do Twitter, I'd see more of you! My usual agora is Facebook. I feel that posting under your own name, where all your friends and family can see you, forces people to be more polite than they are in the rest of the internet. And of course the same thing happens there that does to you on Twitter -- I find many people with whom I disagree when my friends are selected by blood relationship, having gone to school together, etc. Unlike my blog, my friends aren't selected by the fact that they agree with me, and thus I am exposed to a variety of ideas.

Belfry Bat said...

Oh, the most useless thing I learned is definitely that in some viscocity-dominated laminar flow regime, a cylindrical column of water constrainted to rotate uniformly at the cylinder boundary AND flow around a stationary turtle will become translation invariant along the cylinder axis, so that you might as well have the turtle in its own parallel cylinder... there was a proof for it (it's called the "big turtle theorem"!), but the fellow presenting it also admitted it was just for fun.

There have been even-more-useless things I've listened to, but I couldn't say I ever ever learned them.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila -- You know what totally boring lesson I use a lot? Conversion! No, not religious conversion (LOL!), but metric conversion. =) I need it for cooking and baking. And I'm sure that if I sewed, I'd use it for that, too.

Now let me say upfront (in case I already haven't elsewhere) that while I think the democratic model of society has great advantages, I'm not a huge fan of it. The built-in self-policing function (i.e., peer pressure) is only as good as the stuff that it gets us to do. You're right that we don't like to be thought of as weird, but then we have (to take one random example) all the young people, male and female, pressured into hooking up at uni because virginity is apparently weird these days.

And I really do think that some ideas are superior to others--sometimes vastly, obviously so. If there are people who decide they'd rather go with the inferior ideas, there's a sense in which it's not my problem at all . . . and another sense in which they're polluting the ground water.

Bat -- #speechless

Belfry Bat said...

Like, how do you arrange to have a stationary turtle in an otherwise rotating cylindrical column of water??? And, then, is this good for something? You might think it just means that nesting of vortices is a stable phenomenon, which is part of why fluid dynamics is impossiblehard, but actually no: there's a nonzero drag force on the turtle in this problem, and if the turtle isn't there, the flow really wants to be "rigid", eventually...

Brandon said...

Finally have a copy, so I can answer the question about city vs Compound. I think I'd go the city all the way. We only really get to see them from the Compound point of view, but it seems fairly clear to me that the pleeblands are our cities, or something close to them. I don't see that the Compounds are actually any better than the cities -- more orderly, perhaps, but that's because money, not the people themselves, is calling the shots.

But I think I'm also inclined in this direction by the fact that the perspective of the Compounds is so obviously elitist, looking down on the plebeians in the awful, terrible pleeblands, that I'm already convinced that it has to be misleading, and is probably false. Also, I find the way the castle metaphor is used a bit telling. The point of a castle is to protect a town, not to leave the townspeople to their own fate because they aren't kings and dukes; anyone who is doing the latter is not using it as a castle but as a beachhead in a slow-moving civil war.

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat -- It occurs to me that the real question is whether the theorem would work if we substituted an armadillo for the turtle.

Brandon -- Yay! How are you finding Oryx and Crake so far?

Yeah, the cities would have to be really, really bad for the Compounds to be preferable. That's one reason why I thought of Bladerunner . . . and a friend's description of the more recent movie Elysium . . . and well, the seedier parts of Manila. =P

That's a good point about castles. Would Plato say that what we have here is an oligarchy trying to appropriate the symbols of a kallipolis?

Belfry Bat said...

That is a very interesting question!

Brandon said...

I tend to try to withhold judgment about how well the storytelling works until I have a good sense of what the author is trying to do with all the elements, but so far the language is prettily written enough: the adjectives are well-chosen and the metaphors and similes seem appropriate, which is good, since she uses a whole heck of a lot.

I think 'oligarchy trying to appropriate the symbols of a kallipolis' is probably a good description, in Platonic terms. Plato thinks of an oligarchy as a split city -- there's the city of the rich and the city of the poor. It only maintains unity because the rich use the poor to profit and then bribe them with whatever keeps the poor working. And that does seem to be how the Compounds work.

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat -- Or even a raccoon, you know! Would all that lovely fur affect the drag?

Brandon -- I spent a couple of hours last night reading and taking notes on Books VII to IX of The Republic. I see our world as a cross between oligarchy and democracy, because one way that our wealthy classes try to keep everyone else in line is by providing them with endless options for consumption and the illusion of freedom in the ability to choose between those options.

I also like the idea that emphasising one aspect of education at the expense of others (such as when timarchical souls spend more time on gymnastics than on music) can only lead to divisions in the soul and in the state, although it definitely challenges the unschooling model that I seem to be promoting! =P The idea of division reminds me that the one thing about modern homeschooling that doesn't sit right with me is its Protestant-like isolationism from one's community. I'm not talking about children missing out on "socialisation," but on members of a body failing to act as members of a body. The division from society could also lead to a division in the homeschooled children's souls. Homeschooling parents could very easily fit the profile of the timarchical youth's parents!

Brandon said...

Reading a bit further into the book, and in particular looking at the games and entertainments Crake and Jimmy have growing up, I think we see the dystopic element, and get a better sense of why the people flock to the Compounds: the world Crake and Jimmy are dipping into there is a world of brutal pleasures -- what Plato calls the tyrannical city -- and even an oligarchy seems innocent in comparison (hence the ice cream cone!).

Oligarchies have a natural tendency to slip toward democracy, so I think it's plausible to categorize us in that transitional area: the democratic society is just when the bribes by which the rich keep the poor in line become the conveniences to which everyone thinks themselves entitled.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm simply floored that Plato's model is proving so reliable! =D

I can easily see how oligarchies degenerate into democracies, but not quite how democracies turn into tyrannies. Is the driving force fear, as people start to think that their "necessary" conveniences are drying up? Does this make Malthusianism a gateway to tyranny? (And now that I've asked the question, I recall Malthus coming up in Michael Crichton's State of Fear earlier this year. Environmentalism that hinges on the idea of conserving finite resources definitely leads to "government by a protector"! But as Crichton pointed out, those who use up most of the resources for their "conveniences" want to keep what they've got while denying some truly necessary things to those who actually need them.)

Brandon said...

I've always been impressed by it. Obviously it doesn't get everything important, but it's always good for a crude first approximation. And I suppose it makes sense that it would have a lot to say if we're talking about utopias and dystopias and their comparison to us!

According to Plato, democracies turn into tyrannies in a sense just by being democracies, because they are inherently unstable -- in a democracy, the governing principle is that everyone gets to do whatever they please as long as it is harmless. But a society structured this way cannot guarantee agreement about whether this or that is really harmful. The democracy is slipping over into tyranny -- even if it is not structured yet like a tyranny -- when people start ganging up on other people to coerce them into agreement about what is harmful. I never got around to reading State of Fear, but from what you've said and what I remember of your posts, I suspect it could fit this kind of scheme -- people are insisting that their 'necessary' conveniences are harmless pleasures and taking them away is harmful, while others are insisting that the conveniences themselfs are harmful pleasures, so live-and-let-live stops making any sense. Since they aren't working this out by calm philosophical conversation (kallipolis) or appeal to traditional standards their honor requires them to uphold (timarchy) or calculation of profit (oligarchy) but by trying to bully each other into submission, that's already the first step in tyranny for Plato.

Belfry Bat said...

Chesterton's line was that a Tyranny is a tired Democracy. Perhaps a more positive-sided way of putting that is, in a democracy, everyone ought to take very seriously (and wisely) their duty of governing the government.

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon -- We already do see a lot of ganging up happening now. I guess it's inevitable. Even those who'd rather have freedom than rules seem to want to agree on the good with everyone whom they must live with.

Bat -- Right now, Plato is feeding into a growing conviction I've had that democracy is not the way to go. Democracy itself is a tired version of another sort of government (namely, oligarchy), and that makes it only marginally better than tyranny. The idea of people governing the government is also starting to seem highly inefficient to me--like parents teaching the teachers so that their children can be educated properly.