Book Review: "Genius at Play" by Siobhan Roberts

I've recently been able to read the book Genius at Play by Siobhan Roberts. It is a biography of John Conway from his high school days onward, covering a lot of his work on group theory, symmetries, number theory, and other fields; it does discuss the Game of Life but goes deeper into drawing out the evolution of his response to being solely associated with it, from joy to despair to resigned ambivalence. It also goes through various episodes in his personal life, and frequently switches between narrating recollections of past events and narrating the current events surrounding those recollections themselves. It shows what a whimsical, joyful, carefree, and gregarious man he has been when it comes to math, but while much of the middle section of the book makes this seem like his core personality, the beginning parts about him reinventing his personality after high school, the middle parts about others' (particularly Stephen Wolfram's) characterizations of him, and the end parts about his own feelings about it now (as an older man) make clear that the carefree part of his nature has been more of a facade to cope with his own ego & attendant insecurities.

I really enjoyed this book's progression through his life. It allowed me to once again experience the joys of seeing seemingly inconsequential math ideas that are easy to introduce but hard to truly explain to broad lay audiences, like I did in middle school with my fascination with numbers like pi and the golden ratio and the really random places they pop up. Plus, that juvenile whimsy combined with the human interest in reading about John Conway as a person, as well as my more mature recent interest in deeper philosophical questions, like the physical reality of mathematical theorems (whether they are invented by humans or discovered from the course of nature), or the nature of free will at the human versus subatomic quantum scales. The writing of this book really seemed reflective of John Conway's whimsical and sometimes scattered personality as well as of the people and environment surrounding him, painting a vivid picture of the man in context; I appreciated this to the same extent that I did Robert Kanigel doing the same for Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity, though in the latter case, Ramanujan seemed to be a rather shy person for whom information had to be gleaned from other sources (also because Kanigel wrote that biography many decades after Ramanujan's death), so Kanigel successfully painted the picture of the people and environment in India and the UK that shaped Ramanujan's personality and the course of his life. Overall, this was a really enjoyable book that went by quickly despite its length. Perhaps people who are slightly more acquainted with the basics of higher-level mathematics may enjoy it more than laypeople (and I would probably enjoy it more if I knew more math); nevertheless, I think the storytelling is quite engaging and accessible to a broad audience. Follow the jump to see a couple other brief thoughts.


Book Review: "Our Declaration" by Danielle Allen

I recently got to read Our Declaration by Danielle Allen. It's a book that carefully goes through every word, sentence, and passage of the US Declaration of Independence from 1776 to argue that the broad notion of equality of all people, not just of white landowning males, was embedded in the text even then (and are not simply hopeful modern reinterpretations), and that such a notion of equality is a precursor, rather than subjugate, to liberty (the latter point being more commonly found in today's political culture).

The first few chapters seem rather distracting, because while it's nice to hear about the author's own passion for and history with this subject, those plus the next few chapters obscure the structure of the argument of the book; only when the author starts to analyze the text of the Declaration starting from the beginning of the first sentence does the book really pick up and the structure of the argument of the book actually become self-evidently clear (which is in some sense appropriate, given that the author herself took time to conclude that this methodical and structured reading of the Declaration is the correct one, so it would likely take others quite a bit of time to reach the same conclusion too). Most of the book is structured as a detailed, slow, careful, methodical exegesis of the text of the Declaration in the service of a defense of equality as a companion, not subjugate, to liberty; its drawing forth philosophical arguments and examples through only the text and the immediate history surrounding the drafting of the text, rather than focusing too much on the broader events surrounding that time, makes this a compelling alternative view of the Declaration, and seems carefully crafted to essentially be a liberal form of the originalism and textualism espoused by conservative jurists today (of the mould of Antonin Scalia), so for these reasons, I rather enjoyed the argumentative style of the book. While there are some parts of the book that may seem repetitive, given that the Declaration is covered from start to finish in order, the structure of the Declaration is almost like a fractal, and I appreciated the author making this structure evident: at many different scales (whether within a sentence or over the entire text itself), arguments emerge like that of people having the right to good government, that bad government does not respect those rights, and that people therefore have the right to alter their government in such cases.

There are a few main criticisms I have of this book. Throughout the book, the author argues that the essence of democratic government is that everyone has a qualitatively equal capability of judging their own happiness and considering their past and present to then judge their own futures, and that these come together through communication, giving the example of how the drafting of the Declaration required the revolutionary framers to rely not only on their own judgment but mostly upon the experiences of ordinary people from all of the American colonies. While the author presents this as a model of democratic information-collection going into democratic writing, I think the confirmation bias inherent in this approach is actually the main flaw of the book: the author tries to be too clever in separating qualitative from quantitative statements of equality, forcing her to sweep under the rug the issues of demagoguery & mob mentality overwhelming critical thinking (especially in conjunction with lack of education among large groups of people), as well as of different marginalized groups (whether poor white people, black slaves, or native peoples) perhaps feeling differently about continued British rule than those who were more willing to share negative feelings therein — these issues of mob rule, factionalism, and guaranteed rights would be fleshed out more in the Constitution, but they are not so self-evident in the Declaration as the author seems to suggest. Furthermore, the author argues that the dissonance between the lofty ideals of equality in the Declaration and the brutality of chattel slavery and genocide committed upon black and native peoples, respectively, is only due to the lack of willpower and desire at that time to bring those lofty ideals into concrete action applicable to black and native peoples, and that would come later; while that may be empirically true in a historical sense, from a philosophical standpoint it seems strange to give the revolutionaries such a pass on those issues given that the author argues in the same passage that the Confederacy was founded in the Civil War using words that made explicit the opposition to notions of equality in the Declaration (thus justifying a more expansive reading of equality from the Declaration even in those days), and given that the author takes care to point out the many drafts of the Declaration that explicitly speak out against chattel slavery and brutality in war. Additionally, people complain about those who say one thing and do another, exactly because those who put forth a call to action can be reasonably be expected to be most likely to take such action, so such dissonance makes one wonder whether such action is really feasible at all, or whether those calling upon others to act in some way but themselves act differently are trying to exploit a loophole (like dehumanizing black people to justify their continued enslavement as being consistent with the notion of human equality). Moreover, while the author does point to several drafts denouncing slavery to mitigate the reality of slavery in the face of the ideals of the Declaration, there seems to be no such argument with respect to women or native peoples, and the latter is especially troublesome given that the Declaration does make a few extremely negative references to native peoples (appropriating land, or fighting "savages").

Overall, while my criticisms do make me feel a little less certain about some of the specific arguments promulgated in the book, I did rather enjoy the methodical textual analysis with only the most relevant external information injected when appropriate. I should admit that I read through this book perhaps a little faster than the author wants readers to read it, but having gotten a new view of the Declaration, I'd be more inclined to reread both the Declaration and this book at a more deliberate pace at a later date. The arguments are interesting and clear, so I'd recommend this to anyone who's interested in the subject, especially those who may be feeling a bit down on the notion that the US is a country for them too. Follow the jump to see a few more of my specific thoughts about this book.