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By Jonathan Lowe

February 2013

by Jonathan Lowe

Our culture prizes success above all else, but that success is largely about social status in business, sports, and the arts. Such success is mostly vain and non-progressive or static by nature. So that "smell of success" is more like a sickly sweet stench, while science is more interested in failure. Why? Because it is failure that propels science to understand more and to generate better explanations, according to David Deutsch in THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY, a landmark book about how philosophy and religion can deny progress in preventing ideas from ever germinating. Science is essentially anti-dogma, and uses failure as a motivator to expand knowledge. "Success" as defined by culture is meaningless by comparison, since it reinforces the status quo with rituals and rules that reward conformity. Deutsch argues that we now live in a dynamic society, unlike past static societies where individual thoughts and actions were suppressed. Ideas, and not "Guns, Germs, and Steel," are therefore what propel history forward, and so Jared Diamond got it wrong. (Ideas, good or bad, are memes that replicate themselves like viruses or computer programs that influence what we do and how we think.) Deutsch also takes issue with David Attenborough, whose program on Easter Island praised the skills and artistry of the long gone inhabitants who built massive stone statues, and drew the conclusion that their misuse of resources led to starvation and extinction in much the same way that we do in relation to the Earth today. But Deutsch points out that their deforestation, in pursuit of statue building, was not a microcosm of today, but rather the result of their society being static. Doing anything else simply did not occur to them. Forest husbandry was not an idea they imagined. Even their statues were all alike, with the same gaunt faces and no creativity in their design. As they began to starve, their statue building only increased in magnitude, as though to appease the gods right up to the end. Many of the biggest statues remain half completed in quarries, when there were no logs left to transport them. Conversely, the ideas of individuals such as Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs transformed the entire 20th Century in different ways. And Deutsch's premise is that there is no limit of ideas to solve whatever inevitable problems arise. Only static thinking has a limit, and that is extinction itself. As read by Walter Dixon, this profound and densely reasoned book turns political and sociological dogmas on their head, revealing their illogical conclusions. Knowledge and the spread of ideas is not just power, it is the key to the past and the future.

The insurance model of health care is broken, according to David Goldhill in CATASTROPHIC CARE - How American Health Care Killed My Father, And How We Can Fix It. "There are many perverse incentives," Goldhill says, "that are bankrupting the system." The book arose from an article the author wrote for The Atlantic magazine after his father died of infections acquired in a New York hospital in 2007. Amazingly, Medicare paid the bill in full for his father's treatments of several hundred thousand dollars, after the hospital first failed and then failed again (the patient died.) Goldhill then went on to research the problems within the health care system, asking how it could be that common medical errors coupled with unnecessary (or wrong) tests are considered "normal" by a public which seems to accept the continually rising prices of hospital or doctor visits as "inevitable." We shout when gas prices rise 10%, he says, but say nothing when, say, the simple pulling of a tooth goes up over 100% since one's last visit (as it did for this reviewer.) America spends $2.5 TRILLION per year on health care, more than any other country by any measure (per capita included.) This rise in costs is unsustainable, yet both Republicans and Democrats bat around the same old ideas that are not solutions, but simply more nails in a coffin that will delivered to everyone long before their actual death. Narrated by the listenable Dean Sluyter, the book shows why the insanity of making insurance pay for everything, (not just catastrophic care,) needs to be changed before the truly inevitable occurs---which is the collapse of the system. "Insurance for everything medically related has resulted in more procedures, higher costs, lower quality of care, and more paperwork. It's a lose-lose." Ironically, if one compares technology in consumer computers to technology in health care, home computers are cheaper and faster while health care technologies are more expensive and slower. Why? The system (whether Obamacare or the Republican model) is rigged to reward inefficiency. In no other business or enterprise do we pass out bonuses and paychecks based on how much was wasted that week. "We have all bought into this model, and it has to end." Goldhill tells how as well as why, along with nightmare examples of what happens to real people caught in the cogs of a berserk machine fueled by insurance premiums instead of prevention and accounting.

Years ago there was a PBS series on the connections between events and discoveries or inventions which seem unrelated. The nature of science is such that progress is not achieved in a straight, progressive timeline. Random events spark ingenuity and insight. A and B sometimes does not lead to C but rather to G or T. Stagnation can last for generations. In an examination of how we are connected to the base materials (chemicals) of which we are made, Neil Shubin presents a series of essays titled THE UNIVERSE WITHIN: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People. Read by Marc Cashman, the book covers the entire history of the universe in an easily understood and personably performed format. From the evolution of the solar system to continental drift…to ice ages and global warming…and to how animals and plants have adapted within complex environmental structures, Shubin provides a broad view of essential science and biology for those who might feel overwhelmed with more technical material. (6 1/2 hours unabridged)

After hearing TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders, I again wondered when exactly it was decided that an anagram of the word "hits" could not be spoken in polite society, while the word "feces" is acceptable. Here's a book which makes light of that fact in a series of short stories that some reviewers might be tempted to call "off the wall" and "screwball." The F word is used here a lot, too, but this is far from your typical humor book or text for some stand-up routine featuring low-brow bathroom jokes. Saunders is more like the female version of Jenny Lawson, but with even greater access to those regions of the brain which are mysterious and quixotic and imaginative. Wit is not the only thing in his arsenal, either. And this comes through in his narration. There are serious stories as well, with a profundity of insight present. The author takes chances with both technique and subject matter, imbuing his characters with rich internal lives in the process. Not surprisingly, Saunders teaches creative writing, and has won a MacArthur Genius Grant. What makes these stories work is their surprise, too. . . especially considering how the typical Hollywood mindset of most writers have them creating predictable thrills featuring shallow villains. The author also reads his own stories here, and adds colors and flavors to his performance that seem strikingly honest while being quirky. So, for those who believe that "different" is not a derogatory word (and I am one of them), this collection is well worth the price of admission.

2013 Past Columns