This is Hitchens' attempt at explaining Orwell's thoughts and to show how they are still relevant half a century later.
Hitchens opted for a thematic ap...moreThis is Hitchens' attempt at explaining Orwell's thoughts and to show how they are still relevant half a century later.
Hitchens opted for a thematic approach to Orwell rather than a chronological one. He has separate chapters for imperialism, socialism, nationalism, etc. Each time, Hitchens shows how Orwell's views were shaped by events in his life and how they evolved in his writings. Hitchens also shows how other writers perceived these views, some are contemporaries of Orwell and others are writers who came well after him. It was interesting when Hitchens had to disapprove of Salman Rushdie, whom he considers a close friend. Hitchens was definitely less harsh about this friend than about the other detractors.
Personally, I am not very familiar with Orwell's life, so a timeline of major events and publications would have been useful. I knew that Animal Farm came before Nineteen Eighty-Four, but I hadn't realized that Orwell had died right after publishing the latter.
Imperialism: About imperialism in general, and British imperialism in particular, Orwell wrote: the whole colonial 'racket' was corrupting to the British and degrading to the colonized. This passage shows how he empathized with the common people and how he disliked those who are entrusted with power but turn out to be bullies.
Political Left: About the Left, there is a hilarious quote where Orwell takes the contents of the Trotskist trials in Russia and changes the characters to English personalities. In it, Churchill is trying to convert the entire British Empire to communism by getting postal workers to draw moustaches on postage stamps. It's hilarious, until you realized such fabulations were taken as real in communist Russia. Orwell's total distrust of totalitarianism did not win him many friends in socialist circles who espoused the Russian Socialist Revolution. Many had set up to praise the Moscow regime and returned in disgust. Orwell didn't need to go there; his experience in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War had been enough for him to see the truth behind these regimes. He had first-hand exposure to how history is written by the victors, which would culminate in the thought, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that he who controls the present controls the past.
Political Right: On the Right, Orwell's love of individualism and popular wisdom didn't win him too many friends either. More exactly, they were quick to edit his thoughts, picking and choosing the bits that they liked and silencing those that they didn't agree with. They reconstructed an ideal Orwell, one that would be best suited to their own points of view. Orwell was a staunch anti-communist and was convinced that Socialism would inevitably lead to despotism. This view was not popular while the Powers of the West were still in alliance with Socialist Russia to fight facism in Europe. In one passage, Hitchens shows how a quote by Orwell about European nations being too weak individually resist super-powers and needing to band together. This quote was selectively edited to portray that these nations were too weak and needed to align with a super-power.
Orwell envied the freedom that was pervasive in America and its culture. In America the tradition of nineteenth-century freedom is still alive, though no doubt the reality is as dead as it is here [in England]. This quote shows that he yearned for the freedom that he felt was a available in America but he also feared disappointment if he should ever go looking for it and find it long gone. He was also very in love with the Birtish culture he had been raised in and resented the Americans caricatured the English.
The image of Orwell that emerges is that of someone who wanted each individual to be allowed to pursue happiness, distrusted elites (especially leadership social classes), and loved intelligence. He had a profound love for the pastoral English countryside and other staples of English life. But in a practical way, such as when he write about those who idealize nature: The fact is that those who really have to deal with nature have no cause to be in love with it.
As much the humanist as he might have been, Orwell may have had shortcomings regarding women, both in his novels and in his writings. Hitchens mentions that the women in Orwell's life were all strong-willed and very intelligent. Other anecdotes seem to indicate that he held very progressive views, but maybe these had more to do with women's low status in society and that he saw them as one more exploited class. He didn't care much for idealists that were all talk and no action, and his treatment of feminists was no different.
Late in his life, he drew up and shared a list soft socialists in what seems like a betrayal of his long hatred for the underhanded means of communists and facists. Hitchens tries to redeem Orwell by showing that the names on the list were either well-known for their softness, or were already a matter of puclic record, or were actually helped by their new-found publicity. Dubious, and disappointing nonetheless.
Hitchens' book closes with a review of how Orwell's style progressed from the angry young man style of his early novels to his progressive hatred for totalitarianism that culminates in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Overall, the book is an extensive look at Orwell's novels, with extras from his other publications and his life. It does a great job to cover the ideas that Orwell expressed in his novels and how they were perceived by the litterary elite. He was a humanist that cared deeply about those oppressed by society and was very critical of the upper classes doing the oppression. He witnessed the rise facism and communism, appealing to populist and nationalist feelings. He saw how the educated elites were dismantled so they could not justify opposition to would-be despots. It is good, even now, to remember how democratic institutions can be co-opted by groups who seek only their own advancement at the expense of other members of society. (less)
The author takes a critical look at religion as a human, natural phenomenon, subject to forces from the natural world. In the opening chapters, he goe...moreThe author takes a critical look at religion as a human, natural phenomenon, subject to forces from the natural world. In the opening chapters, he goes to great lengths to appear non-threatening to religious people, trying to convince them that their religion is deserving of a critical look. It's a very different style from other stuff I have read where the author is usually much more straight-forward (e.g., Noam Chomsky or Milan Kundera).
On the same day I started reading this book, which proposes to apply the scientific method to the study of religion's evolution, I attended a talk by Kevin Kelly on the history of the scientific method and it will likely continue to develop in the next 50 years. Nice coincidence.
Dennett proposes that religion evolved following the mechanisms of memetics. Various memes compete for survival within human culture and the fittest perpetuate across generations. Following this view, if a meme, an idea, is too foreign to be transmitted unchanged from one generation to the next, it will only result in a short-lived cult that will most likely not survive its founder. If, on the other hand, the meme is very useful (or perceived useful) to its hosts, it will be passed on to descendants and thrive. As situations changes, new memes are introduced and old ones die. Dennett proceeds to examine many elements of religious experiences, from folk religions and shamans to organized religions with controlling bodies, and determines for each element what may have given rise to it, what conditions are needed for it to thrive, and how many of them may have combined to lead to today's religious landscape.
Since the word atheist has a bad rep, he mentions that increasingly, non-religious people are referring to themselves as brights, much in the same way that homosexuals refer to themselves as gays. They do not imply by this that non-brights are the opposite of bright, much like non-gays are not sad, they're straight.
The style of the book takes some getting used to, at least for me who is not used to the Socratic method. Most assertions are put down as rhetorical questions, so you're never sure if the author is opening a new line of questioning or closing an old one. Also, the presentation style lacks an establishing section at the beginning. So as you follow the author through his reasonings, it is not always obvious where he's leading you. At the end of the section, there is a QED that often takes you by surprise. If he had laid down his goals at the onset, I would have been in a better position to appreciate how each step lead me in that direction, instead of being taken by surprise by his conclusions.(less)
Christopher Hitchens references Bertrand Russell a lot. This books seems to be a good place to start to understand Bertrand Russell.
The book is actuall...moreChristopher Hitchens references Bertrand Russell a lot. This books seems to be a good place to start to understand Bertrand Russell.
The book is actually a collection of essays written by Russell over a 55 year period. I will comment on each one separately.
Why I Am Not a Christian (1927)
Defines what is a Christian. More than just living a good life, it implies a certain credo that begins with the existence of God. The piece then debunks the various proofs for the existence of God that have been advanced by past philosophers. He also highlights some of Christ's teachings that are not so popular among self-proclaimed Christians, such as "turn the other cheek" or "judge not" or "give to the poor", and others that are just plain destructive, such as the imminence of the Second Coming or Christ's conception of Hell has punishment for slights against his person. Religion does not appeal to reason, we accept it wholesale because of the disproportionate influence of our early interactions with our parents as a young child. "Fear is the basis of the whole thing - fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death."
Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization? (1930)
I got a good laugh at the opening statement: religion's only useful contributions have been fixing the calendar and predicting eclipses, and nothing else. He then discusses religions as social phenomena, started by individuals with strong beliefs that are almost immediately rejected by the people who carry out their legacy. Because the founders reveal one absolute and unchanging truth, their followers become "opponents of all intellectual and moral progress." The concept of sin is particularly dangerous because it gives people an excuse to indulge their sadistic urges at the expense of those who have transgressed the rules. Especially when it comes to sex.
"The objections to religion are of two sorts - intellectual and moral." We need the openness of the scientific method to decide truths objectively. Ancient morals were for crueler times that we have outgrown. The focus on the individual soul, and that it is sufficient to be good instead of doing good set Western religions apart and in the end are detrimental to social life.
Unrighteousness is behavior that is disliked by the herd, which is therefore righteous by definition. Such behavior must be punished. "The essence of the conception of righteousness, therefore, is to afford an outlet for sadism by cloaking cruelty as justice."
"[...] the three human impulses embodied in religion are fear, conceit and hatred. The purpose of religion [...] is to give an air of respectability to these passions [...]." These are more effectively controlled with proper, caring education than with dogma that is shrouded in mystery.
What I Believe (1925)
Russell sets forth his core convictions and his basis for living a good life. He begins by grounding man in the physical world and expressing how science is in the process of finding out all there is to know about the physical world. His views are somewhat outdated; whatever limits to scientific exploration were looming in 1925 have long been surpassed. But the intent remains that even if the world is much more vast than expected, it is still finite; therefore its exploration will also be finite, even if very long. Russell says how boring physical science will become when it is complete. "It is like climbing a high mountain and finding nothing at the top except a restaurant [...] equipped with wireless." To me, "wireless" was wifi. I'm sure it meant something else in 1925. :-)
"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge." Love is a spectrum between "delight" (taking pleasure in the object of love) and "benevolence" (actually wanting something good for the object of love, like sympathy, but with an action component too). Love is at its fullest when both delight and benevolence are maximized. Knowledge is objective scientific knowledge. When it follows the majority's desires, we call that knowledge "ethical", but this qualifier only applies to the relation to our desires, not to the knowledge when considered by itself. "Outside human desires there is no moral standard."
A society needs moral rules to reconcile conflicting desires among its members. Criminal law attempts to punish transgressions, but it is more effective to find ways to align desires together in a win-win solution. It is better for society to use scientific knowledge to measure and maximize overall happiness. But religion too often is a set of arbitrary moral rules that only support the ruling class of society, at the expense of everyone else. "They condemn acts which do no harm and they condone acts which do great harm." This leads Russell to a line of thought where [consensual] sex in the absence of children is a private matter. Where children are concerned, he is adamant that measures must be taken to ensure their well-being.
Western religions have an individualistic perspective on how to lead a good life and often contain an element of catastrophic change or conversion. To Russell, the good life can only be led in a good society. It is necessary that it rest on more than mere conscience, but also include intelligence and health and a full social life. In the social context, individuals need security and courage.
Do We Survive Death? (1936)
Our belief in an afterlife is motivated by fear: fear of death, fear of the unknown.
Seems, Madam? Nay, It Is (1899)
Long-winded and pompous essay on the role of philosophy and whether we can explain reality purely in intellectual terms, separate from any desire for comfort or aesthetics. In its defense, it is dated 1899, when Russell was still pretty young and his style hadn't quite emerged yet.
A Free Man's Worship (1903)
Religion tries to make us feel important by pretending that all of Creation was built with us as its central purpose. Science shows us humanity's inconsequential place in the universe. There is an interesting progression of the idea of worship. "The savage, [...] having in himself nothing that he respects more than power, [...] is willing to prostrate himself before his gods, without inquiring whether they are worthy of his worship." "The divine power and knowledge are paraded, but of the divine goodness there is no hint."
Since there is evil in the world and God is said to be omnipotent, then we must conclude that either God is evil or it is a creation of our intellect. "The worship of force [...] is itself a prostrate submission to evil."
"To every man comes [...] the great renunciation. [...] The world was not made for us." First, we live in a world full of promise. Then, there is a period of despair, where we abandon hopes that we realize are unattainable. This act of renunciation can lead each one of us to wisdom where we can admire the world without the burden of desires.
On Catholic and Protestant Skeptics (1928)
Freethinkers coming from a Protestant background tend to be individualistic. They seek to lead a good life for themselves. Freethinkers coming from a Catholic background tend to be social. They seek for society to lead a good life.
Life in the Middle Ages (1925)
We are guilty of idealizing the Middle Ages and always showing them contrasted with our current epoch. "Most people are ordinary people, concerned with their daily bread rather than with the great themes of which historians treat."
The Fate of Thomas Paine (1935)
Paine took democratic ideas and made them available to every intelligent working man. He democratized democracy. His contemporary (Washington, Robespierre, etc.) tried to limit democracy to a select elite; whereas Paine insisted that it be of the people, for the people. He was crucial in promoting democratic ideals in England, America, and France, but in the end he died alone and destitute. He fought against tyranny, which put his at odds with those revolutionaries who wanted to become tyrant in place of the tyrant. "He was consistently opposed to every form of cruelty, whether practiced by his own party or by his opponents."
Nice People (1931)
A nice tongue-in-cheek look at the hypocrisy of people who claim to be of good morals but in reality use moral rules to gratify their sadistic impulses.
The New Generation (1930)
Just as scientific knowledge is informing our views of the world, we should also apply it to raising the next generation. Knowledge cures ignorance and makes actions more deliberate. Education is no exception, where new methods informed by new knowledge can replace the old dogmatic methods. Russell describes a social model where both men and women can pursue self-realization. Higher standards of living ease the burden of child rearing, freeing people for to pursue other goals. He also recommends letting children explore a lot more freely and let them go where their thirst for knowledge leads them. Taboos create areas of artificial interest and in the end are self-defeating.
These ideas may seem self-evident to us now, but this was written in 1930. The ideas that Russell rails against are the same ones that my parents were raised in.
Our Sexual Ethics (1936)
Modern life is evolving in directions that work against traditional, monogamous unions. We need to adopt new ethics to ensure overall happiness. What is detrimental to no one should not be proscribed. Rather than promoting chastity unsuccessfully and forcing young men to turn to prostitutes, it would be far better to encourage experimentation between members of the same social class. This can help everyone develop useful relationships that will help them grow into better citizens.
Freedom and the Colleges (1940)
On the subject of academic freedom, Russell contends that "whether a man is a good mathematician, or physicist, or chemist, can only be judged by other mathematicians, physicists, or chemists." Opponents to academic freedom would also want that such a person "should have never expressed any opinion which controverts those of the holders of power." He discusses the tyranny of the majority and how a healthy democracy must tolerate minorities.
There is an interesting argument regarding the tradition of freedom in the West. If we consider that dissenting opinions must be tolerated, it means that we need institutions that can guard them against the holders of power. The latter will have a strong desire to silence opposing opinions and there must be a force strong enough to counter them. In the West, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Church and the State were constantly pitted against one another. In Constantinople, the Church was subjugated to the State and therefore there never arose a spirit of freedom in Russia and other Orthodox countries, where the State went unchallenged, as in the West.
NOTE: This belongs elsewhere, but I'm noting it here for now. The majority opinion is self-reinforcing since each individual will naturally side with the majority to avoid being on the outside. It follows that any hope of progress lies with the minority opinion. If the majority is not kept in check and if it is allowed to successfully silence dissent, society will stagnate.
Can Religion Cure Our Troubles? (1954)
Russell wrote this article in 1954. "It is the question whether societies can practice a sufficient modicum of morality if they are not helped by dogmatic religion." His answer is yes, and that some important virtues might be better found by rejecting religion than by embracing it, such as truthfulness and intellectual integrity.
Russell describes how some rules are purely a quirk of the religion and how others have a strong social basis. While religion might have been useful to primitive societies in maintaining order, providing divine justice to cover the cases missed by the temporal one, this is less true in modern societies. The problem with bundling moral rules with religion is that once we start doubting the religious claims, there is a risk that we will reject the entire moral code along with the religion.
Religion and Morals (1952)
Can religion make us happy and virtuous? Russell argues that the virtue and happiness of believers is not really distinguishable from those of unbelievers. "There are various practical ways in which traditional morality interferes with what is socially desirable." What we need is tolerance and intelligence.
How Bertrand Russel Was Prevented from Teaching at The College of the City of New York
A journalistic-like account, by editor Paul Edwards, of how Bertrand Russell was offered a position at The College of the City of New York and how influential people who opposed the appointment fought it in the public opinion. They mounted a campaign to vilify Russell and any intellectual who would support him. When that didn't work, they took the fight to the courts and, with the help of a hardly objective justice, managed to overturn the appointment. This brought into question the notion of academic freedom and how a small minority can meddle in the affairs of others. The board of directors of The College of the City of New York, the faculty, the student body, the parents of students, and the academic community at large broadly supported Russell's appointment. Those opposed were religious groups with ties to influential people in New York. The case in court was even brought up by woman fearful for her daughter, at a time when the college was for men only and her daughter would therefore not have been able to attend or be exposed to Russell. (less)
At work, we use jQuery for client-side logic. Since we don't have a front-end engineer yet, I need to be able to maintain and extend this code. I like...moreAt work, we use jQuery for client-side logic. Since we don't have a front-end engineer yet, I need to be able to maintain and extend this code. I like the other "... in Action" books and this one has good ratings on Amazon. Plus, I get the PDF of it so I can search through it for specific keywords.
Right off the bat, the introduction to jQuery really helped me make sense of the notation and some of the weird incantations. It also mentioned some DOM navigation methods that I will be able to apply immediately to our codebase to make it a little better.(less)
Actually, it's a complete rewrite of the first edition.
Actually, it's more like reinventing XP. Kent Beck is adjusting XP so w...moreeXtreme Programming 2.0.
Actually, it's a complete rewrite of the first edition.
Actually, it's more like reinventing XP. Kent Beck is adjusting XP so we can benefit from his additional five years of XP experience. The first XP was squarely aimed at programmers; this new version should appeal to everyone involved in software development. The practices have been updated: some have been dropped, some are new. He recommends a much more gradual introduction if you want to move to XP, instead of the strong push from the first edition. He is also much more explicit about ways to customize XP to your circumstances.
Like Tom DeMarco's Peopleware and Alistair Cockburn's Agile Software Development, he reminds us that software is written by people. But he goes further, showing how XP brings back humanity to those who practice it.
Still a quick read and very inspirational. Plus, the bibliography at the end has many of my favorite authors and titles.
Came recommended by Kent Beck. The authors wrote jMock. This books explains how they approach writing tests.
Well worth the read, whether you're new to...moreCame recommended by Kent Beck. The authors wrote jMock. This books explains how they approach writing tests.
Well worth the read, whether you're new to TDD or if you're a seasoned practitioner. Part I and II lay out how TDD works and the authors' philosophy with regard to writing software. Many other books describe TDD and the authors are candid when it comes to their personal practices. YMMV. Part III is a very comprehensive case study where they use the practices in anger, that is, trying to achieve some goal and not for as a toy exercise. Part IV revisits some of the concepts illustrated in the case study. Part V pays special attention to some advanced concerns when writing tests, such as testing persistence or multithreaded code.
Ever since I began using JUnit, I've been adamant about initializing the fixture in the setUp() method and not in the constructor. Early JUnit would create all test instances before it ran the first one, so you didn't want to reserve any resources in the constructor. I class with 20 tests would reserve and hold 20 resources for the duration of the test run. Instead, you reserve the resource in setUp() and free it in tearDown(). Now, instead of holding up 20 resources, at most one is held at any given time. And the best way to remember to reserve expensive resources in setUp() only is to do all fixture initialization there rather than split it up between constructor and setUp().
So you can imagine my surprise when I see the authors initialize their fixtures in their test class constructors. What are they thinking?!?! I had to go back and write some sample tests using the latest JUnit and print traces in constructors, setUp(), tests, and tearDown() to validate my assumptions. Lo and behold, at some point in time, JUnit got it's act together and now creates test instances as it runs tests, not all of them at the beginning of the test run. For a moment, I was afraid that Grails might leave me stuck in the dark ages of setUp()-only initialization, but I'm safe there too. Not I've got to update my habits.
The sample problem had lots of complexity: GUI, asynchronous communication, Jabber-based RPC, etc. Some of the code transformations are sometimes hard to follow, especially the further you get in the case study and they pick up the pace. Some side-by-side comparisons would have been welcome, but maybe hard to do in the limited space of the book.
The authors used a neat trick to track their development progress through the sample problem. They kept a hand-written list of tasks on a sheet of paper, crossed out items as they completed them, and added tasks as they happened upon them. Here's a snapshot from the somewhere halfway through:
Todo single item - join, lose without bidding single item - join, bid & lose single item - join, bid & win single item - show price details multiple items add new item through the GUI stop bidding at stop price translator - invalid message from Auction translator - incorrect message version handle XMPException on send
I used a similar technique a long time ago to implement a feature with great success. I'm going to re-introduce it to my toolset going forward.
I really liked the chapter on test data builders. I already grew more comfortable using test helper methods to clarify the text of a given test after reading Gerard Meszaros' xUnit Test Patterns. The builders in this book take it to another level. The authors use builders and Hamcrest matchers to create DSLs that really make tests easy to read and makes their purpose crystal clear. Groovy and Grails already have support for writing builders and I'll have to spend some time adapting the examples in the book to the Groovy way.(less)