What We Are Reading Today: Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy

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Updated 16 September 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy

Author: John Rodden

Is George Orwell the most influential writer who ever lived? Yes, according to John Rodden’s provocative book about the transformation of a man into a myth. Rodden does not argue that Orwell was the most distinguished man of letters of the last century, nor even the leading novelist of his generation, let alone the greatest imaginative writer of English prose fiction. Yet his influence since his death at midcentury is incomparable. No other writer has aroused so much controversy or contributed so many incessantly quoted words and phrases to our cultural lexicon, from “Big Brother” and “doublethink” to “thoughtcrime” and “Newspeak.” Becoming George Orwell is a pathbreaking tour de force that charts the astonishing passage of a litterateur into a legend.
Rodden presents the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four in a new light, exploring how the man and writer Orwell, born Eric Arthur Blair, came to be overshadowed by the spectral figure associated with nightmare visions of our possible futures.
Rodden opens with a discussion of the life and letters, chronicling Orwell’s eccentricities and emotional struggles, followed by an assessment of his chief literary achievements. The second half of the book examines the legend and legacy of Orwell, whom Rodden calls “England’s Prose Laureate,” looking at everything from cyberwarfare to “fake news.” The closing chapters address both Orwell’s enduring relevance to burning contemporary issues and the multiple ironies of his popular reputation, showing how he and his work have become confused with the very dreads and diseases that he fought against throughout his life.


What We Are Reading Today: What Makes Us Smart by Samuel Gershman

Updated 20 October 2021

What We Are Reading Today: What Makes Us Smart by Samuel Gershman

At the heart of human intelligence rests a fundamental puzzle: How are we incredibly smart and stupid at the same time? No existing machine can match the power and flexibility of human perception, language, and reasoning. Yet, we routinely commit errors that reveal the failures of our thought processes. What Makes Us Smartmakes sense of this paradox by arguing that our cognitive errors are not haphazard. Rather, they are the inevitable consequences of a brain optimized for efficient inference and decision making within the constraints of time, energy, and memory—in other words, data and resource limitations. Framing human intelligence in terms of these constraints, Samuel Gershman shows how a deeper computational logic underpins the “stupid” errors of human cognition.

Embarking on a journey across psychology, neuroscience, computer science, linguistics, and economics, Gershman presents unifying principles that govern human intelligence. First, inductive bias: Any system that makes inferences based on limited data must constrain its hypotheses in some way before observing data. Second, approximation bias: any system that makes inferences and decisions with limited resources must make approximations. Applying these principles to a range of computational errors made by humans, Gershman demonstrates that intelligent systems designed to meet these constraints yield characteristically human errors.


What We Are Reading Today: A Place like No Other by Anthony R. E. Sinclair

Updated 20 October 2021

What We Are Reading Today: A Place like No Other by Anthony R. E. Sinclair

With its rich biodiversity, astounding wildlife, and breathtaking animal migrations, Serengeti is like no other ecosystem on the planet. A Place like No Other is Anthony Sinclair’s firsthand account of how he and other scientists discovered the biological principles that regulate life in Serengeti and how they rule all of the natural world.

When Sinclair first began studying this spectacular ecosystem in 1965, a host of questions confronted him. What environmental features make its annual migration possible? What determines the size of animal populations and the stunning diversity of species? What factors enable Serengeti to endure over time? In the five decades that followed, Sinclair and others sought answers. What they learned is that seven principles of regulation govern all natural processes in the Serengeti ecosystem. Sinclair shows how these principles can help us to understand and overcome the challenges facing Serengeti today, and how they can be used to repair damaged habitats throughout the world.


What We Are Reading Today: The Mechanization of the Mind by Jean-Pierre Dupuy

Updated 18 October 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Mechanization of the Mind by Jean-Pierre Dupuy

In March 1946, some of the greatest minds of the 20th century — among them John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, and Walter Pitts — gathered at the Beekman Hotel in New York City with the aim of constructing a science of mental behavior that would resolve at last the ancient philosophical problem of mind and matter. The legacy of their collaboration is known today as cognitive science.
Jean-Pierre Dupuy, one of the principal architects of cognitive science in France, reconstructs the early days of the field here in a provocative and engaging combination of philosophy, science, and historical detective work.
He shows us how the ambitious and innovative ideas developed in the wake of that New York meeting prefigured some of the most important developments of late-20th-century thought. Many scholars, however, shunned the ideas as crude and resented them for being overpromoted.
This rejection, Dupuy reveals, was a tragic mistake and a lost opportunity.


What We Are Reading Today: Russian ‘Hybrid Warfare’ by Ofer Fridman

Updated 18 October 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Russian ‘Hybrid Warfare’ by Ofer Fridman

During the last decade, “Hybrid Warfare” has become a novel yet controversial term in academic, political and professional military lexicons. Enthusiastic discussion of the notion has been undermined by conceptual vagueness and political manipulation, particularly since the onset of the Ukrainian crisis in early 2014.

Many political observers contend that it is the West that has been waging hybrid war since the end of the Cold War.

In this highly topical book, Ofer Fridman offers a clear delineation of the conceptual debates about hybrid warfare, according to a review on goodreads.com.


What We Are Reading Today: The Lessons of Tragedy

Updated 17 October 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Lessons of Tragedy

Author: Hal Brands and Charles Edel

The book offers an eloquent call to draw on the lessons of the past to address current threats to international peace.

Today, after more than seventy years of great‑power peace and a quarter‑century of unrivaled global leadership, Americans have lost their sense of tragedy. They have forgotten that the descent into violence and war has been all too common throughout human history.

In a forceful argument that brims with historical sensibility and policy insights, two distinguished historians argue that a tragic sensibility is necessary if America and its allies are to address the dangers that menace the international order today, according to a review on goodreads.com.