Sunday, November 19, 2023

My excellent Conversation with Jacob Mikanowski by Tyler Cowen


Dame Antonia Susan Duffy, 23.8.1936-16.11.2023., A.S.Byatt.

Blessings be heaped on the greatest human being I ever shared a chocolate bar, a bottle of Veuve, a platform, a novel reading with. She meant so much to me.

Fire at Campbelltown way today …

Book Review: Tackling the Riddle of Free Will

Two provocative books explore whether humans have “freee will,” as in control over their personalities, actions, and fates.

My excellent Conversation with Jacob Mikanowski

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

Jacob Mikanowski is the author of one of Tyler’s favorite books this year called Goodbye, Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land. Tyler and Jacob sat down to discuss all things Eastern Europe, including the differences between Eastern and Western European humor, whether Poles are smiling more nowadays, why the best Polish folk art is from the south, the equilibrium for Kaliningrad and the Suwałki Gap, how Romania and Bulgaria will handle depopulation, whether Moldova has an independent future, the best city to party in, why there are so few Christian-Muslim issues in Albania, a nuanced take on Orbán and Hungarian politics, why food in Poland is so good now, why Stanisław Lem hasn’t gotten more attention in the West, how Eastern Europe has changed his view of humanity, his ideal two week itinerary in the region, what he’ll do next, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why isn’t Stanisław Lem more popular in the West today as a writer?

MIKANOWSKI: That’s interesting. I grew up on Stanisław Lem like some people grow up on the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. My dad’s a computer scientist. His father set up one of Poland’s first computers. The world of Polish science and science fiction: he used to read the Tales of Pirx the Pilot and the Ijon Tichy stories — the robots, the short, fun ones — like they were fairy tales. I grew up with them.

I think — actually I have trouble going back to those. I’d go back to Solaris, and I think Solaris is a real masterpiece and I think it’s had lasting influence. But there’s something pessimistic about them. They don’t have that thing that Asimov does, or even Dune, of world-building and forecasting the human future far in advance. They are like Kafka in space, and that’s absurd situations, strange turns of events — I think a pretty pessimistic view of progress. Maybe that makes them hard to digest. Also a kind of odd sense of humor with the short stories. Almost a childlike sense of humor that maybe makes them hard to take.

I think there’s been a little bit of a Lem revival, though. I know technologists, some people like them; futurologists like him. I like him.

COWEN: Some of the cybernetics tales, they seem weirdly close to the current state of LLMs. And I think I’ve seen this mentioned once, but it’s not generally known: the idea that you use them to talk to, that they’re weird, they might be somewhat mystical, they serve as therapists or oracles — that’s very much in Lem, quite early.

MIKANOWSKI: I think people should go back to them. I think — I was just thinking of Solaris, which I always thought about as this story about contacting a truly alien alien. Now it’s like, well, this is a little bit of what we’re doing with virtual reality and AI. It’s like, what would happen if you could actually talk to your dreams, if you could revive people? You could have the mimicry of consciousness, the appearance of consciousness, without anything behind it — without a consciousness.

There’s something seductive about it, and there’s something monstrous about it. I think he was there way ahead of anyone else, and people should be going back to them. Maybe they will.

Of course we talk about the Suwalki Gap as well. And this: “Given all your study of Eastern Europe, what is it you feel you understand about the current war in Ukraine that maybe other well-informed people would not?”

Recommended, interesting throughout.  Again, here is Jacob’s new and excellent book Goodbye Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land.