I read the Fragments of Heraclitus

http://blog.jmac.org/2016-11-30-i-read-the-fragments-of-heraclitus.html

I read it twice, in fact: first as an elegant little volume translated by the American poet Brooks Haxton, and then again on Wikisource, based on a 1912 translation and maintained by the website’s omninonymous hivemind.

The former put the fragments’ original Greek on facing pages, letting me feel smart as I sought and found “λόγος” or “Πυθαγόρας” or whatnot when their English counterparts appeared. Haxton also accompanies the work with notes about choices he made regarding ordering and omission, as well as straight translation.

Wikisource’s collection orders (and numbers) the fragments wholly differently; if it (or its original translator, John Burnet) followed any philosophy in doing so, it does not share it. To its credit, though, the Wikisource version included (in a very in-character flourish) a citation for every fragment, naming the post-Heraclitus work that originally embedded it, unwittingly saving that little piece of Mr. H’s work from the pre-Socratic oblivion that otherwise swallowed all his work whole.

This helped give me a deeper understanding of the Fragments’ true nature, at least as far as their physicality. Having watched a lot of movies and played a lot of games featuring tomb-robbing treasure-hunters and such, I read Haxton’s book with an ignorantly literal notion of the fragments: little bits of ancient parchment, no doubt crisped at the edges, that some brave priest had fished from the ashes of Alexandria and then stored in a cinematically appropriate strongbox, perhaps! But, no, what survives is not crumbling ancient artifacts but memes, in the original sense. Pure information poured from the original, long-lost vessel of Heraclitus’ On Nature, and put to work in other contexts — yet still retaining enough strength and coherence to maintain a single identity and source, despite its dilution across dozens of derivations, and hundreds of years.

That must have been some pretty powerful stuff!

In another sense, I don’t feel that I read the Fragments at all, so much as visited them for the first time, touring them for a bit. They don’t really strike me as something to fully comprehend by simply reading in sequence, no matter now much work translators past and present have put into tweaking and arranging them to juice up their thematic flow. The fact remains that each fragment has been removed from context twice over — first by the ancient writers who quoted the even-more-ancient Heraclitus in order to illustrate an example or prove a larger point in their own work, and then again by the act of gathering all these quotations into a single collection, heedless of the middlemen’s own various uses.

I can share a particular aspect that did stay with me. I loved glimpsing, through the Fragments’ cloudy window, a world that saw itself literally — not metaphorically — comprising the four classical elements. Heraclitus wrote much of the play among earth, air, water, and fire, but the latter element seemed to earn his fascination — or, at least, earned his most memorable writing, such that his intellectual descendants so often quoted his thoughts on fire. I squint through the fragments and I see one observing the human world as based on earth, spread out under air, and surrounded by water — but which fire consumes, and which consumes the fire in turn. Hints of fire as both ultimate motive and ultimate fate, as well as the fuel for the whole journey in between.

A proper reading, I reckon, would involve deep, slow interaction: meditating on one fragment per day, perhaps, or trying one’s own hand at reordering or even remixing them, seeing what new tones and meanings might emerge. Over one brief tour, I feel I spent enough time with the Fragments to feel a shadow of the power that’s kept them preserved for millennia. Probably worth owning my own copy of them; if I did it for aha! Insight I can do it with this too.

I read Time Travel: A History

http://blog.jmac.org/2016-11-27-i-read-time-travel-a-history.html

Last year I read, and wrote about, William Gibson’s The Peripheral. It remains my favorite recent science-fiction novel, not least because of its surprising and elegant implementation of time travel. It happens to agree with a treatise on good fictional time travel that I posted to my LiveJournal four years ago, but I am quite willing to accept that Gibson independently came to the same conclusions as I for this novel.

I have a lot of respect for Gibson the novelist as well as Gibson the social-media junkie. Even though I find myself compelled to unfollow him for a length every now and again, his Twitter page remains a consistently excellent single-account source of relevant, culturally broad, and socially conscious news and links, even counting retweets alone. While currently off-list for me — his bleak post-election content became too heavy for me, what with everyone else I follow — through his “GreatDismal” account did I first hear praise of James Gleick’s Time Travel. I hadn’t read Gleick before, but the referral stayed with me due, in all likelihood, to my trust in Gibson’s taste when it came to this particular subject matter.

A confession: days before the election, maybe the day before the election, I borrowed Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation from the Newport Public Library’s new-nonfiction shelf. But then all that happened, and I found myself too utterly heartbroken to immediately proceed into reading a book with such a politically challenging topic that — for the time being — suddenly seemed utterly hopeless. I knew I wouldn’t even begin it, so returned it unread and found Time Travel instead. I wanted right then to escape. Embracing a bookful of pop-soc-sci fluff quite unrelated to the war on the ground seemed to adhere to the calls for self-care filling my personal Twitter timeline during those first post-election days.

I got what I came for, and I enjoyed myself. Its first couple of chapters apologize for the rest of it not presenting much of a “history”, despite the book’s full title. Scholars, we learn, find scarcely any concept of time travel in any human culture prior to the turn of the 20th century (and the original publication of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine). Before the industrial revolution began the whole-order acceleration of technological progress whose curve we were all born deep into, human societies simply had no reason to dream of the future. They had no reason not to assume that life for the next generations would be every bit the same, on the whole, as life for the current one. All evidence suggests they tended to think of the past in the same way. Why would anyone bother to imagine traveling through time, when neither direction held anything special?

The remainder of the book presents a tour of how western culture has broached the topic in science, philosophy, and in fiction since Wells’ nameless Time Traveller went slumming in A.D. 802,701. I read it quickly and pleasantly. I enjoyed soaking in the notion that science really has no agreement at all what time is, or indeed if it exists as any “is” in the first place. Schrödinger gave us his wave-function equation as an abstract tool that works time and again to explain and predict, but nobody can bust open Ψ and detail its contents. Reality isn’t made of spacetime so much as spacetime’s the best model we have to better understand and study reality, right now.

A digression by Gleick into Heraclitus, and his many-ways-translated aphorism about not stepping into the same river twice, led me to pick up a slim volume of that ancient one’s fragments, translated into english by a modern poet. At one point I needed a break from diving through Time Travel so I switched books, and couldn’t stop myself from saying “And speaking of time travel!” out loud, to nobody, except perhaps my own future blogging self. So there’s also that.

I read The Noble Hustle

http://blog.jmac.org/2016-11-17-i-read-the-noble-hustle.html

A couple of months ago I found myself fallen back in love with Poker, and especially zero-sum tournament-style play as one can find in console-based implementations such as Prominence Poker on the PlayStation. I wrote at the time how it inspired me to try my hand with writing some poker-playing computer programs. I had to put that exercise on ice in the face of more pressing projects, but my interest stayed strong enough to have me wander one day into my local public library’s stacks, seeking its single shelf of books on card games. While I found a copy of the seminal Positively Fifth Street there, I instead borrowed Colson Whitehead’s The Noble Hustle because it was short, and recent (from 2014), and I liked the funny cover design.

I really liked this book, an appropriately ramblesome account of the author’s magazine-subsidized trip to Las Vegas in 2011 to compete in the World Series of Poker. Unlike with the author of Fifth Street — a book for which Whitehead makes his own reverence plain — he did not come anywhere near winning the tournament, which helps to explain Noble Hustle’s brevity. He busts out, in fact, right as the story of his experience as a competitor starts getting interesting. Counterintuitively, I enjoyed the experience of feeling his narrative sliding towards a familiar sort of sports-movie cinematic tension while the brick wall of the book’s back cover stands mere millimeters away.

By that late point, the reader feels prepared for vicarious disappointment. The entire account comes from a loser’s perspective, beginning with the author’s page-one hypothesis that any skill he has with the game stems from his unperturbable countenance, due in turn to his feeling utterly dead inside. (His author photo depicts him wearing the hoodie he had custom-printed for the tournament, proclaiming his hailing from “The Republic of Anhedonia”.) But he does not dwell on himself, and over the tale of his brief adventure we meet friends, family, fans (some of whom cheer him on via Twitter), and most memorably the unflappable Poker trainer who does her best to make his game competition-grade.

I hadn’t heard of Whitehead’s work prior to this, so I couldn’t help but find amusing coincidence in reading of his very recent accolades for his novel The Undergound Railroad, which I’ve learned about only after finishing this short and unserious story about a Poker-tournament flameout. I look forward to reading that one, probably early next year.