Mahathir Mohamad’s return shows the sorry state of Malaysian politics

July 3, 2017


Mahathir Mohamad’s return shows the sorry state of Malaysian politics

The former Prime Minister is reinventing himself as a leader of the Opposition

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The Doctor seeks a Return to the House

WHEN Mahathir Mohamad spent a week in hospital last year, at the age of 91, talk naturally turned to his legacy as Malaysia’s longest-serving former Prime Minister. How naive. Dr Mahathir may have stepped down in 2003 after 22 years in office, but he has hardly been retiring in retirement. His constant sniping helped topple his immediate successor, Abdullah Badawi, who lasted until 2009.

Now the old warhorse is picking a fight with Najib Razak, the Prime Minister since then and now leader of Dr Mahathir’s former party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has run Malaysia for the past 60 years. Dr Mahathir has registered a new political party and persuaded Pakatan Harapan, the fractious coalition that forms Malaysia’s main opposition, to admit it as a member. Now Pakatan is debating whether to make Dr Mahathir the chairman of their coalition—and, perhaps, their candidate for Prime Minister at elections which must be held within 13 months. Having long said that he would not be returning to Parliament, Dr Mahathir has lately been hinting that he would consider another stint in the top job.

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In Politics there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests

It is difficult to imagine a more unlikely turn of events. The original incarnation of the coalition Dr Mahathir might soon be running was formed in the late 1990s to oppose his own interminable rule. Its founder, Anwar Ibrahim, was Dr Mahathir’s deputy until the latter sacked him during a power struggle; he was later jailed on sham charges of corruption and sodomy. The current government’s methods are copied directly from Dr Mahathir’s playbook. Since 2015 Mr Anwar has been back in prison following a second sodomy conviction, this one just as dubious as the first. The reversal of the authoritarian turn Malaysia took under Dr Mahathir is one of Pakatan’s main objectives.

What makes all this even tougher to stomach is that Dr Mahathir’s conversion to the Opposition’s cause looks disturbingly incomplete. Though he is hobnobbing with former enemies, the old codger still finds it difficult to apologise for the excesses of his tenure. Many of his views remain wacky: in May he told the Financial Times that he still thinks the American or Israeli governments might have arranged the attacks of September 11th 2001. Can Malaysia’s opposition really find no more palatable leader?

These are desperate times, retort Dr Mahathir’s supporters. Since 2015 news about the looting of 1MDB, a government-owned investment firm from which at least $4.5bn has disappeared, has dragged Malaysia’s reputation through the muck. American government investigators say that 1MDB’s money was spent on jewellery, mansions, precious artworks and a yacht, and that nearly $700m of it went to the prime minister. Mr Najib says he has not received any money from 1MDB, and that $681m deposited into his personal accounts was a gift from a Saudi Royal (now returned). He has kept his job, but only after replacing the Deputy Prime Minister and the Attorney-General.

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The Prognosis is that Najib Razak is likely to win GE-14

One might expect this scandal to propel Pakatan into power at the coming election, but instead the opposition looks likely to lose ground, perhaps even handing back to UMNO and its allies the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution. This bizarre reversal has much to do with Malaysia’s regrettable racial politics: the Malay-Muslim majority largely favours the government and the big ethnic-Chinese and -Indian minorities tend to vote against it. Mr Najib has baited an Islamist party into renewing calls for more flogging for moral lapses, forcing them to leave Pakatan. The split in the opposition will lead to lots of three-candidate races, in which UMNO will romp home.

Put in this context, Dr Mahathir’s reappearance is a godsend. It stands to transform Pakatan’s chances by granting access to a broad swathe of rural constituencies that they had previously thought unwinnable. Many Malays have fond memories of the booming economy of Dr Mahathir’s era (they overlook its crony capitalism and his intolerance for dissent); in their eyes, he put Malaysia on the map. As coalition chairman, Dr Mahathir might also bring some order to Pakatan’s noisy council meetings. His backing could be invaluable after a narrow victory or in a hung parliament, when UMNO’s creatures in the bureaucracy might be expected to put up a fight.

All these benefits could probably be obtained without offering to make Dr Mahathir the Prime Minister. But he may be the only front man upon whom most of the coalition can agree. That role had previously fallen to Mr Anwar, but it has become clear to all but a few holdouts that he cannot continue to manage the quarrelsome coalition from his cell. Voters are not sure whether to believe Pakatan when it says that, should it win, it will find some way to catapult Mr Anwar out of his chains and into the country’s top job. Nor are they much inspired by the notion of accepting a seat-warmer to run the country while this tricky manoeuvre takes place.

It could be worse

This is a depressing mess, even by Malaysia’s dismal standards. The opposition bears no blame for the dirty tricks which, over several shameful decades, the government has used to hobble Mr Anwar and many others. But by failing to nurture—or even to agree upon—the next generation of leaders, they have played straight into UMNO’s hands.

It is possible that the thought of hoisting Dr Mahathir into the top job will at last force the coalition to thrust a younger leader to the fore (some suspect that this is the outcome that Dr Mahathir, a shrewd strategist, has always had in mind). But it is also possible that, facing only uncomfortable options, they will end up making no decision at all. Some in Pakatan seem happy to barrel into the next election without telling voters who will lead Malaysia should they win. That might seem like pragmatism, but it is really just defeatism.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Doctor on call”

The Truth of Karl Popper–A Discourse

April 17, 2017

The Truth of Karl Popper–A Discourse

 by Paul Levinson and reply by Jonathan Lieberson

In response to:

The Romantic Rationalist from the December 2, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

Despite Jonathan Lieberson’s unsubstantiated summary of my In Pursuit of Truth (a Festschrift in honor of Karl Popper’s 80th birthday) as a series of “sugary and obsequious expressions of praise” in your December 2 issue, I found this and the first part of Mr. Lieberson’s two-part essay on Karl Popper’s philosophy to be a generally fair and reasonable attempt to explicate Popper’s work. Lieberson’s achievement, however, is unfortunately marred and nearly nullified by a conclusion that seriously misunderstands one of the central aspects of Popper’s philosophy.

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Lieberson begins with an essentially accurate description of how Popper’s method of “falsification” or conjectures and refutations seeks to improve upon the traditional Baconian scientific method of induction or absorption of knowledge from mere repeated experience. As Hume and even Sextus Empiricus before him had seen, no amount of induction or positive repeated experience can ever verify or even support a general theory (for all of our repeated observations may merely be at the tip of an iceberg that runs counter to our general theory); but even one negative or counter experience can, as Popper emphasizes, serve to logically falsify or refute a general theory. Thus, no amount of repeated observations of white polar bears can prove or strengthen a theory that all polar bears are white (for we may from then on encounter nothing but black polar bears), but observation of even one black polar bear—assuming it is indeed a black polar bear—means our theory that all polar bears are white cannot be right.

Lieberson then correctly points out, however, that Popper’s fallibilism is so pervasive as to lead Popper to assert that even observations of black or white polar bears are theory-impregnated (we identify the black object that we see as a polar bear rather than, say, a crow, because of theories that we hold about what polar bears look like, the constancies of species, etc.), and thus conjectural, uncertain, and eminently unprovable. How, then, Lieberson asks, may conjectures-and-refutations and its uncertainty be considered an improvement over induction and its problems? And why, recognizing the inconclusiveness of both, should we reject induction and rejoice in falsification? Since conclusive knowledge is not possible through Popper’s method of conjectures and refutations, Lieberson concludes that Popper’s hope for a non-inductive growth of knowledge is an impossible and thus misleading and dangerous ideal, a romantic “wild-goose chase.”

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The problem that Lieberson raises—the conjectural nature of falsifying observations—is indeed profound, and one that most intelligent people almost always bring up on their first reading of Popper. Indeed, had Lieberson come upon his knowledge of Popper a priori, or from some casual discussion in a classroom, then the conclusions that Lieberson draws from the fallibility of falsifications would be entirely understandable. But the fact of the matter is that Popper himself has continuously raised, addressed, and dealt with this problem throughout his writings, going back to his first published work on scientific method, Logik der Forschung of 1935; and, I am obliged to add, this problem is similarly raised and dispatched with in at least four of the “sugary” essays in my volume. The situation is actually quite simple. We indeed must begin, as Popper does, with the recognition that all observations—whether used to falsify or “verify”—are themselves conjectural, and of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory. We are then faced with a choice: do we use these uncertain, problematic observations to build knowledge inductively, or via a process of conjectures and refutations as suggested by Popper?

Our decision might take into account the fact that induction is, quite independently of the uncertainty of all observations, logically untenable (as Hume had shown, there is no logical warrant that allows us to jump from even a huge number of specifics to a general theory), but that falsification, or the negation of generalities by specifics, is (as Popper and others have shown) quite logically acceptable as a process, even though the contents of that process (the observations) may be forever uncertain. Our choice would thus seem to amount to this: use conjectural, uncertain tools in an illogical process (induction), or use conjectural, uncertain tools in a logical process (falsification). Granting the obvious fact that neither choice can yield perfect or certain knowledge, which one would you choose, Mr. Lieberson?

But if we opt for conjectures and refutations as at least being logically possible, does not the uncertainty of the observations used as refutations condemn us to stagnate in our knowledge, to wallow in a perpetual state of conjecture? Is Lieberson’s characterization of Popperian method as a wild-goose chase appropriate after all? It is not—as a careful reading of Popper and, again, any one of a number of the contributions to my own In Pursuit of Truth makes clear. Indeed, discussions of how knowledge can progress and even flourish despite the endemic uncertainty of our cognition predate Popper by many years, and in Peirce we even find an implication that knowledge grows precisely because it is uncertain (see, for example, the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 1, paragraphs 135-149; for extended discussions of Peirce on certainty and fallibilism, see any of Peter Skagestad’s recent writings).

From among the many arguments for the growth of knowledge in an uncertain world that Popper provides, let us look at but one—the biological or evolutionary analogy central to the field of “evolutionary epistemology,” which is where my own interest in Popper most lies. Assuming the general accuracy of the Darwinian model (but of course alert to its inevitable flaws), we notice three aspects of evolution that have pertinence to the possible growth of uncertain knowledge: (a) all organisms and organic adaptations are imperfect relative to their environments (i.e., they don’t always survive or succeed); (b) all organisms and adaptations appear to develop via a series of trial and error encounters with the environment, with organic characteristics initially generated or “proposed” independently of the environment, and then either eliminated or not by the environment; (c) on the basis of the first two processes, evolution or progressive change does indeed seem to occur, e.g., organisms seem to have developed from simple to complex, from non-intelligent to intelligent, etc., across time.

Now to the extent that the trial-and-error evolution of organisms seems descriptive of the conjectures-and-refutations growth of human ideas—and despite some obvious differences (for example, the important role of intentional rationality in the development of human knowledge), the two processes do seem to have much in common—we have in biological evolution an example of how progress can occur in a world utterly pervaded by, indeed constituted of, imperfection or uncertainty. In other words, if we accept the biological evolution of imperfect organisms as real, the growth of uncertain human knowledge through non-inductive conjectures and refutations seems possible: the nihilism that Lieberson imputes to Popper’s thoroughly conjectural method is unwarranted.

Of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution and for that matter the living world itself may be a chimera; reality and all our perceptions of it may be false or even non-existent. Popper’s philosophy does hold open such disturbing possibilities. But Popper’s philosophy also allows, more, encourages us to choose an alternative to the despair of nihilism and the illogic of inductivism, an alternative which seeks to parlay our uncertainty into a genuine, hard-won, painfully groping growth of knowledge. Granted that such a choice is something less than rational—I elsewhere call it “pre-rational”—but a choice and possibility it nonetheless is. It is just this golden egg of opportunity that Lieberson’s banishment of Popper’s wild geese would destroy.

Paul Levinson, Bronx, New York

Jonathan Lieberson replies:

Paul Levinson claims that the conclusion of my pieces on Popper displays a serious “misunderstanding” of “one of the central aspects of Popper’s philosophy,” namely Popper’s views on the nature and status of “falsifying observations.” But he does not accurately report my thesis: I did not say that since falsifying observation statements (not “falsifying observations”) are “fallible” or “conjectural” Popper’s theory of science falls to the ground. Nor did I claim that “since conclusive knowledge is not possible through Popper’s method of conjectures and refutations, his views are unacceptable.

My difficulty, as I explicitly stated [NYR, December 2] was that a combination of views held by Popper render his alternative to inductionism (as contrasted with Baconian inductivism, which nearly all contemporary philosophers disagree with) a self-defeating and incoherent account of scientific inquiry and the growth of scientific knowledge. As such, I went on, it does not constitute a serious alternative to inductionism.

Thus, although I certainly discussed it, the problem of falsifying observation statements was not my main concern. I was aware that Popper has repeatedly discussed this problem, which Mr. Levinson believes is “one that most intelligent people almost always bring up on their first reading of Popper.” I was not aware, however, until I read Mr. Levinson’s letter, that it has been “dispatched with” in his collection of essays. Mr. Levinson claims that the “situation” with regard to falsifying observation statements is “actually quite simple”: all observations are conjectural, “of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory.” Granting this point, he continues, we should clearly prefer the process of falsification to that of induction, which is “illogical.” I do not agree. While it is true that observation statements are, in a sense, “theory soaked” (as Popper says), not all the theories in which such statements are soaked are of equal merit, and not all observations are “of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory.”

I wonder whether Mr. Levinson actually believes what he says; for my part, I have no difficulty in concluding that the claim that I am now seated before a typewriter is of far greater “epistemic import” than the abstract theory that the world is entirely made up of butter. I also hold, for reasons I set forth in my articles, that we do upon occasion possess perfectly good reasons for accepting such observation statements as true, a view Popper does not hold. Secondly, while we await an accurate codification of inductive practice—a task to which many philosophers, statisticians, and others have devoted their labors—I do not think that we can responsibly and without qualification claim that induction is “illogical.” That induction does not conform to the standards of deductive logic is obvious, but as I took pains to point out in my essay, there are no good reasons for regarding deductive standards of inference as establishing the standard of rationality in science.

In short, I think I can answer the portentous question Mr. Levinson poses: granting that observation statements are not infallible, and that neither the methods of induction or of falsification can yield perfect knowledge, I continue to hold that induction is an activity—a “method” if you will—that we can in some circumstances rely on. It turns out, accordingly, that my alleged “misunderstanding” of Popper is no such thing, only disagreement.

I must add that the force of the evolutionary tale Mr. Levinson tells toward the end of his letter eludes me. Presumably it is an argument that is intended to contribute toward showing that the “nihilism” I impute to Popper, the view that his account of science describes a wild-goose chase (with respect to the aim of discovering the truth), is unwarranted. But does it do so? First of all, the argument depends upon an analogy that is seriously imperfect: the example of “obvious differences” between the “growth” of conjectures and refutations and the trial-and-error evolution of organisms that Mr. Levinson mentions is only one of many that could be presented—another would be the lack of analogy between the truth of a scientific statement and the adaptation of an organism to an uncertain environment.

Moreover, it is not clear to me that, even if we grant the analogy, the claim that imperfect organisms can develop through trial-and-error encounters with the environment into increasingly complex entities damages any of the points I made. The key issue, it seems to me, concerns “progress,” which in the case of science means making some advance toward the aim of discovering the truth about the world. After all, the whole process of evolution might yet be a non-progressive affair, displaying only a temporary “progressive” character, as indeed some celebrated and dismal evolutionary speculations have suggested. As such, the analogy does not seem to me to support Mr. Levinson’s thesis that he has presented a good argument for “the growth of knowledge in an uncertain world.”

When scientists speak of the growth of knowledge, they do not mean, I take it, simply a gradual increase in the complexity of their guesswork, or the increasingly successful adaptation of guesses to still other guesses. A parlor game or the process of creating myths and fairy tales, spurred on by problems of internal consistency, might exhibit this character; but while science might be an uncertain affair, wouldn’t this be a grossly exaggerated and perverse description of this uncertainty?

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Fareed Zakaria from Davos, Switzerland

January 25, 2017

Fareed Zakaria from Davos, Switzerland

The World Economic Forum this year feels like an exercise in ritual self-flagellation, which — as with the old Christian practice of fasting and whipping one’s own body — is supposed to purify the sinful nature of man. The sin, of course, is globalization, which everyone now seems to agree has been lopsided, inequitable and dangerous. In fact, most of the flaws attributed to globalization are actually mistakes in national policy that can be corrected.

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It took a Chinese billionaire to speak frankly on this topic. Jack Ma, the founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, estimated that over the past three decades the U.S. government spent $14.2 trillion fighting 13 wars. That money could have been invested in America, building infrastructure and creating jobs. “You’re supposed to spend money on your own people,” he said. He pointed out that globalization produced massive profits for the U.S. economy but much of that money ended up on Wall Street. “And what happened? Year 2008. The financial crisis wiped out $19.2 trillion [in the] U.S.A. alone. . . . What if the money [had been] spent on the Midwest of the United States developing the industry there?” he asked. “It’s not [that] the other countries steal jobs from you guys — it is your strategy,” he concluded.

You don’t have to accept Ma’s specifics and statistics to recognize the validity of his general point. Globalization created huge opportunities for growth, many of which were taken by U.S. companies. The global economy is still dominated by large American firms; 134 of Fortune’s Global 500 are American. And if you look at those in cutting-edge industries, the vast majority are American. These companies have benefited enormously by having global supply chains that can source goods and services around the world, either to lower labor costs or to be close to the markets in which they sell. Since 95 percent of the world’s potential consumers live outside the United States, finding ways to sell to them will have to be a core strategy for growth, even for a country with a large domestic economy such as the United States.

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Jack Ma said “It’s not [that] the other countries steal jobs from you guys — it is your strategy”

Obviously globalization has large effects on national economies and societies, and it produces some significant problems. What complex phenomenon does not? But it also generates opportunities, innovation and wealth for nations that they can then use to address these problems through good national strategies. The solutions are easy to state in theory — education, skills-based training and retraining, infrastructure. But they are extremely expensive and hard to execute well.

It is much easier to rail against foreigners and promise to fight them with tariffs and fines. But the cost of addressing these problems at the global level is massive. The Economist reports, in a survey on globalization, that in 2009 the Obama administration punished China with a tariff on its tires. Two years later, the cost to U.S. consumers was $1.1 billion, or $900,000 for every job “saved.” The impact of such tariffs is usually felt disproportionately by the poor and middle class because they spend a larger share of their income on imported goods, such as food and clothing. That same Economist survey points to a study that calculated that, across 40 countries, if transnational trade ended, the wealthiest consumers would lose 28 percent of their purchasing power, but the poorest tenth would lose a staggering 63 percent.

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Keeping pace with technology change–Learn, Unlearn and Relearn

Perhaps most important, the key driver depressing wages and eliminating jobs in the industrialized world is technology, not globalization. For example, between 1990 and 2014, U.S. automotive production increased by 19 percent , but with 240,000 fewer workers.

Even when manufacturing comes back to the United States, it is high-end manufacturing. It’s not just new Intel plants that have few workers anymore. Adidas has set up a new shoe factory in Germany that is run almost entirely by robots. It will open a similar one near Atlanta later this year. And the few workers in these factories tend to be highly skilled technicians and software engineers.

You can’t turn off technological revolutions. Nor is there a quick fix to stop business from going to other countries. Tariffs on China will simply mean that production will come from some other developing country.

The best approach to the world we are living in is not denial but empowerment. Countries should recognize that the global economy and the technological revolution require large, sustained national efforts to equip workers with the skills, capital and infrastructure they need to succeed. Nations should embrace an open world, but only as long as they are properly armed to compete in it. And that requires smart, effective — and very expensive — national policies, not some grand reversal of globalization.

The Kindleberger Trap

January 16, 2017

The Kindleberger Trap

by Joseph S.Nye

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CAMBRIDGE – As US President-elect Donald Trump prepares his administration’s policy toward China, he should be wary of two major traps that history has set for him. The “Thucydides Trap,” cited by Chinese President Xi Jinping, refers to the warning by the ancient Greek historian that cataclysmic war can erupt if an established power (like the United States) becomes too fearful of a rising power (like China). But Trump also has to worry about the “Kindleberger Trap”: a China that seems too weak rather than too strong.

Charles Kindleberger, an intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan who later taught at MIT, argued that the disastrous decade of the 1930s was caused when the US replaced Britain as the largest global power but failed to take on Britain’s role in providing global public goods. The result was the collapse of the global system into depression, genocide, and world war. Today, as China’s power grows, will it help provide global public goods?

In domestic politics, governments produce public goods such as policing or a clean environment, from which all citizens can benefit and none are excluded. At the global level, public goods – such as a stable climate, financial stability, or freedom of the seas – are provided by coalitions led by the largest powers.

Small countries have little incentive to pay for such global public goods. Because their small contributions make little difference to whether they benefit or not, it is rational for them to ride for free. But the largest powers can see the effect and feel the benefit of their contributions. So it is rational for the largest countries to lead. When they do not, global public goods are under-produced. When Britain became too weak to play that role after World War I, an isolationist US continued to be a free rider, with disastrous results.

Some observers worry that as China’s power grows, it will free ride rather than contribute to an international order that it did not create. So far, the record is mixed. China benefits from the United Nations system, where it has a veto in the Security Council. It is now the second-largest funder of UN peacekeeping forces, and it participated in UN programs related to Ebola and climate change.

China has also benefited greatly from multilateral economic institutions like the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. In 2015, China launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which some saw as an alternative to the World Bank; but the new institution adheres to international rules and cooperates with the World Bank.

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On the other hand, China’s rejection of a Permanent Court of Arbitration judgment last year against its territorial claims in the South China Sea raises troublesome questions. Thus far, however, Chinese behavior has sought not to overthrow the liberal world order from which it benefits, but to increase its influence within it. If pressed and isolated by Trump’s policy, however, will China become a disruptive free rider that pushes the world into a Kindleberger Trap?

Trump must also worry about the better-known Thucydides Trap: a China that seems too strong rather than too weak. There is nothing inevitable about this trap, and its effects are often exaggerated. For example, the political scientist Graham Allison has argued that in 12 of 16 cases since 1500 when an established power has confronted a rising power, the result has been a major war.

But these numbers are not accurate, because it is not clear what constitutes a “case.” For example, Britain was the dominant world power in the mid-nineteenth century, but it let Prussia create a powerful new German empire in the heart of the European continent. Of course, Britain did fight Germany a half-century later, in 1914, but should that be counted as one case or two?

World War I was not simply a case of an established Britain responding to a rising Germany. In addition to the rise of Germany, WWI was caused by the fear in Germany of Russia’s growing power, the fear of rising Slavic nationalism in a declining Austria-Hungary, as well as myriad other factors that differed from ancient Greece.

As for current analogies, today’s power gap between the US and China is much greater than that between Germany and Britain in 1914. Metaphors can be useful as general precautions, but they become dangerous when they convey a sense of historical inexorableness.

Even the classical Greek case is not as straightforward as Thucydides made it seem. He claimed that the cause of the second Peloponnesian War was the growth of the power of Athens and the fear it caused in Sparta. But the Yale historian Donald Kagan has shown that Athenian power was in fact not growing. Before the war broke out in 431 BC, the balance of power had begun to stabilize. Athenian policy mistakes made the Spartans think that war might be worth the risk.

Athens’ growth caused the first Peloponnesian War earlier in the century, but then a Thirty-Year Truce doused the fire. Kagan argues that to start the second, disastrous war, a spark needed to land on one of the rare bits of kindling that had not been thoroughly drenched and then continually and vigorously fanned by poor policy choices. In other words, the war was caused not by impersonal forces, but by bad decisions in difficult circumstances.

That is the danger that Trump confronts with China today. He must worry about a China that is simultaneously too weak and too strong. To achieve his objectives, he must avoid the Kindleberger trap as well as the Thucydides trap. But, above all, he must avoid the miscalculations, misperceptions, and rash judgments that plague human history.–nye-2017-01

NY Times Sunday Book Review: Anthony Doerr Reviews a New Book on Time Travel

October 3, 2016

NY Times Sunday Book Review: Anthony Doerr Reviews a New Book on Time Travel

 I was 10 years old when my brother handed me Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” with the endorsement that it was “probably the raddest story ever.” The action opens in 2055, and the United States has just elected a moderate presidential candidate named Keith over a strongman named Deutscher, “an anti-everything man for you, a militarist, Antichrist, anti-human, anti-intellectual.”

In the story a hubristic big-game hunter named Eckels pays Time Safari Inc. $10,000 to ride a time machine 60 million years back in time to shoot a rather vividly rendered T. rex. But there’s a Red Riding Hood-style catch: Eckels must stay on “the Path,” an antigravity sidewalk Time Safari Inc. has ­suspended over the jungle floor.

Why? Because, the lead hunter explains, “the stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our Earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundations.”

Eckels, of course, stumbles off the Path and squashes a butterfly, “a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time.” When the hunting party gets back to the future, guess who the president-elect is? “Not that fool weakling Keith,” declares the desk jockey at Time Safari Inc. “We got an iron man now, a man with guts!”

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(All of which makes one worry that a dino-hunter from 2055 has recently been mucking around in the underbrush of the Mesozoic.)

At age 10, I was gripped by Bradbury’s dramatization. I read the story a half-dozen times, then stepped gingerly through the yard, wondering if every ant I squashed spelled doom for civilization in 3924.

As I grew, so did the number of time travel stories I devoured. I watched Superman spin the Earth backward; I watched John Connor send a young soldier (who was somehow also his dad?) back in time to protect his mom from a Terminator; I watched Keanu Reeves offer Genghis Khan a Twinkie in Bill and Ted’s (not so) Excellent Adventure. Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” made me long to wake in an era when my Casio wristwatch would strike folks as sorcery, and Martin Amis’s “Time’s Arrow” wrecked my assumption that all narratives had to proceed from Then to More-­Recently-Than-Then. Indeed, as a world culture, we have indulged in so many time travel stories that, in 2011, ­China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television officially denounced them, charging that they “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.”

That’s enough to start any storyteller building her time machine. Enter James Gleick’s “Time Travel: A History.”

Bad news first: Though the title might suggest otherwise, this is not a book sent through a wormhole from the future to detail the glorious evolution of time ­travel. Darn it. Gleick even goes so far as to declare that literal time travel, as imagined and reimagined by writers over the decades, “does not exist. It cannot.”

The good news? “Time Travel,” like all of Gleick’s work, is a fascinating mash-up of philosophy, literary criticism, physics and cultural observation. It’s witty (“Regret is the time traveler’s energy bar”), pithy (“What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track”) and regularly manages to twist its reader’s mind into those Gordian knots I so loved as a boy.

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“Time Travel” begins at what Gleick believes is the beginning, H.G. Wells’s 1895 “The Time Machine.” “When Wells in his lamp-lit room imagined a time machine,” Gleick argues, “he also invented a new mode of thought.” Western science was undergoing a sea change at the same time, of course: Lyell and Darwin had exploded older conceptions of the age of the Earth, locomotives and telegraphs were transforming space, and Einstein was about to punch a major hole in Newton’s theory of absolute time. Meanwhile, in literature, Marcel Proust was using memory to complicate more straightforward storytelling, and it wouldn’t be long before modernists like Woolf and Joyce were compressing, dilating, and folding time in half.

James Gleick

But according to Gleick, Wells was the first to marry the words “time” and “travel,” and in doing so, “The Time Machine” initiated a kind of butterfly effect, the novel fluttering with each passing decade through the souls of more and more storytellers, who in turn influenced more and more of their successors, forking from Robert Heinlein to Jorge Luis ­Borges to Isaac Asimov to William Gibson to Woody Allen to Kate Atkinson to Charles Yu, until, to use Bradbury’s metaphor, the gigantic dominoes fell. Nowadays, Gleick writes, “Time travel is in the pop songs, the TV commercials, the wallpaper. From morning to night, children’s cartoons and adult fantasies invent and reinvent time machines, gates, doorways and windows, not to mention time ships and special closets, DeLoreans and police boxes.”

It’s also in the science. Gleick is a polymathic thinker who can quote from David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate thesis as readily as from Kurt Gödel or Lord Kelvin, and like many of the storytellers he thumbnails, he employs time travel to initiate engrossing discussions of causation, fatalism, predestination and even consciousness itself. He includes a humorously derisive chapter on people who bury time capsules (“If time capsulists are enacting reverse archaeology, they are also engaging in reverse nostalgia”), he tackles cyberspace (“Every hyperlink is a time gate”), and throughout the book he displays an acute and playful sensitivity to how quickly language gets slippery when we talk about time. Why, for example, do English speakers say the future lies ahead and the past lies behind, while Mandarin speakers say future events are below and earlier events are above?

“If you say,” he writes, “that an activity wastes time, implying a substance in finite supply, and then you say that it fills time, implying a sort of container, have you contradicted yourself?”

Image result for hg wells quotes

(A footnote here: Gleick is a brilliant footnoter; never more than in this book have I been reminded of how footnotes can function as breaks in the time of a writer’s sentences, wormholes in the space-time of a ­paragraph.)

As in his 2011 exploration of information theory, “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood,” Gleick’s greatest skill in “Time Travel” is to synthesize: He sees practice in theory, literature in science, ­Augustine in Rivka Galchen. If this new book can sometimes feel like a mind-smashing catalog of literary and filmic references to time ­travel, it’s also a wonderful reminder that the most potent time-traveling technology we have is also the oldest technology we have: storytelling.

Read a verse of Homer and you can walk the walls of Troy alongside Hector; fall into a paragraph by Fitzgerald and your Now entangles with Gatsby’s Now; open a 1953 book by Bradbury and go hunting T. rexes with Eckels. Gleick’s epigraph to his penultimate chapter comes from Ursula Le Guin: “Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time,” and she’s right, of course. The shelves of every library in the world brim with time machines. Step into one, and off you go.

May 15, 2016

NY Times Books of The Times

Review: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘The Gene,’ a Molecular Pursuit of the Self

by Jennifer Senior


Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee

Thank heavens Gregor Mendel was a lousy priest. Had he shown even the faintest aptitude for oratory or ministering to the poor, he might never have determined the basic laws of heredity. But bumbling he was, and he made a rotten university student to boot; his failures drove him straight to his room, where he bred mice in secret. The experiment scandalized his superiors.

“A monk coaxing mice to mate to understand heredity was a little too risqué, even for the Augustinians,” writes Siddhartha Mukherjee in “The Gene: An Intimate History.” So Mendel switched — auspiciously, historically — to pea plants. The abbot in charge, writes the author, acquiesced this time, “giving peas a chance.”

Love Dr. Mukherjee, love his puns. They’re everywhere. I warn you now.It is Dr. Mukherjee’s curse — or blessing, assuming he’s a glass-half-full sort of fellow — to have to follow in his own mammoth footsteps. “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” his dazzling 2010 debut, won the Pulitzer and almost every other species of literary award; it became a three-part series on PBS; Time magazine deemed it one of the 100 most influential books written in the English language since 1923.

In his acknowledgments to “The Gene,” Dr. Mukherjee, a researcher and cancer specialist, confesses that he once feared his first book would also be his last — that “‘Emperor’ had sapped all my stories, confiscated my passports and placed a lien on my future as a writer.” The solution, he eventually realized, was to tell the story of the gene. It is his debut’s natural prequel, a tale of “normalcy before it tips into malignancy.”

By the time “The Gene” is over, Dr. Mukherjee has covered Mendel and his peas, Darwin and his finches. He’s taken us on the quest of Watson, Crick and their many unsung compatriots to determine the stuff and structure of DNA. We learn about how genes were sequenced, cloned and variously altered, and about the race to map our complete set of DNA, or genome, which turns out to contain a stunning amount of filler material with no determined function.

Many of the same qualities that made “The Emperor of All Maladies” so pleasurable are in full bloom in “The Gene.” The book is compassionate, tautly synthesized, packed with unfamiliar details about familiar people. (Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, used to rank the beauty of women on the street by “using pinpricks on a card hidden in his pocket.” Ick.)

But there are also crucial differences. Cancer is the troll that scratches and thumps beneath the floorboards of our consciousness, if it hasn’t already beaten its way into the room. The subject immediately commands our attention; it’s almost impossible to deny, and not to hear, the emotional clang of its appeal. In Dr. Mukherjee’s skilled hands, the story of this frightening disease became a page-turner. He explained its history, politics and cunning biological underpinnings; he traced the evolving and often gruesome logic underlying cancer treatment.

And in the middle of it all, agonizing over treatment protocols and watching his patients struggle with tremendous existential and physical pain, was the author himself.

There are far fewer psychological stakes in reading about the history of genetics. “The Gene” is more pedagogical than dramatic; as often as not, the stars of this story are molecules, not humans. Dr. Mukherjee still has a poignant personal connection to the material — mental illness has wrapped itself around his family tree like a stubborn vine, claiming two uncles and a cousin on his father’s side — but this book does not aim for the gut. It aims for the mind.

So what does this mean? That there are many excursions deep into the marshes of biochemistry and cellular biology. Bring your waders. It gets dense in there. Dr. Mukherjee can write with great clarity about difficult genetic concepts — he’s especially handy with metaphors — but the science gets increasingly complex, and it lasts for many pages. Even when the going is easy, readers should be prepared for parentheticals like this: “i.e., ACT CCT GGG –>ACU CCU GGG.”

Dr. Mukherjee’s explanations are sometimes so thorough they invite as many questions as they answer — from the most elementary (why is something that contains so many bases called deoxyribonucleic acid?) to the more esoteric (if, as he says in a Homeric footnote on Page 360, the Y chromosome is so unstable it might eventually disappear, will we still reproduce?)

I do not mean to suggest that Dr. Mukherjee has neglected to attend to big questions or ideas in this work; they just get lesser billing than I’d have liked. But any book about the history of something as elemental and miraculous as the gene is bound, at least indirectly, to tell the story of innovation itself. “The Gene” is filled with scientists who dreamed in breathtakingly lateral leaps.

Erwin Schrödinger in particular was one visionary cat: In 1944, he hazarded a guess about the molecular nature of the gene and decided it had to be a strand of code scribbled along the chromosome — which pretty much sums up the essence of DNA.

With each and every genetic discovery, a host of questions arose, both ethical and philosophical. What are the implications of cloning, of creating genetic hybrids, of gene editing? Is there any value in knowing about the existence of a slumbering, potentially lethal genetic mutation in your cells if nothing can be done about it? (Personally, I wish he’d dedicated 50 pages to this question — it’d have offered a potentially moving story line and a form of emotional engagement I badly craved.)

Does the genome have anything to tell us about race, sexual identity, gender? Do these three-billion-plus base pairs connect, in any way, to what we think of as “a self”?

Dr. Mukherjee answers these questions cautiously and compassionately, if at times too cursorily for my satisfaction. He notes, repeatedly, that for all we know about the genome, there is so very much we don’t — it is a recipe, not a blueprint, as Richard Dawkins likes to say. Yes, sometimes one gene controls one specific trait; but often, dozens of genes do, and in ways we do not understand (or cannot even fully identify), and they interact mysteriously with the environment all along the way.

But as research continues apace, we must entertain the sci-fi prospect of one day customizing ourselves and our children. For now, we’re burdened with more and more moral decisions to make as genetic tests become increasingly refined.

“If the history of the last century taught us the dangers of empowering governments to determine genetic ‘fitness,’” Dr. Mukherjee writes — referring to Nazism, eugenics, every genocidal experiment involving social engineering — “then the question that confronts our current era is what happens when the power devolves to the individual.”

But we are not apps. Dr. Mukherjee knows this, struggles with it. Is optimization really the point of life? “Illness might progressively vanish,” he writes, “but so might identity.”

A version of this review appears in print on May 9, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: In Molecular Pursuit of the Genetic Code. Today’s Paper.