Jim Holt

Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? will be published later this year.

‘I don’t own a computer, have no idea how to work one,’ Woody Allen told an interviewer recently. Most of us have come to find computers indispensable, but he manages to have a productive life without one. Are those of us with computers really better off?

A surprising number of mathematicians, even quite prominent ones, believe in a realm of perfect mathematical entities hovering over the empirical world – a sort of Platonic heaven. Alain Connes of the Collège de France once declared that ‘there exists, independently of the human mind, a raw and immutable mathematical reality,’ one that is ‘far more permanent than...

Iraq is ‘unwinnable’, a ‘quagmire’, a ‘fiasco’: so goes the received opinion. But there is good reason to think that, from the Bush-Cheney perspective, it is none of these things. Indeed, the US may be ‘stuck’ precisely where Bush et al want it to be, which is why there is no ‘exit strategy’. Iraq has 115 billion barrels of known oil reserves. That is more than five times the total in the United States. And, because of its long isolation, it is the least explored of the world’s oil-rich nations. A mere two thousand wells have been drilled across the entire country; in Texas alone there are a million. It has been estimated, by the Council on Foreign Relations, that Iraq may have a further 220 billion barrels of undiscovered oil; another study puts the figure at 300 billion. If these estimates are anywhere close to the mark, US forces are now sitting on one quarter of the world’s oil resources. The value of Iraqi oil, largely light crude with low production costs, would be of the order of $30 trillion at today’s prices. For purposes of comparison, the projected total cost of the US invasion/occupation is around $1 trillion.

From The Blog
16 May 2012

Last week a new musical featuring W.H. Auden as a central character began previews at New York's Public Theater. Entitled February House, the musical concerns an improbable ménage that occupied a picturesque but shabby little row-house in Brooklyn Heights during the early years of the Second World War. Besides Auden, who lived on the top floor, the tenants were Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and – most improbably of all – Gypsy Rose Lee, who at the time was busy writing a mystery called The G-String Murders. Other occasional residents included Paul and Jane Bowles, Louis MacNeice, Richard Wright (who lived with his wife and child in the basement), and Golo Mann (who holed up in the attic). It was Anaïs Nin, a frequent visitor, who named it 'February House', because so many of the residents, including Auden, had birthdays in February. The address of the house, which was subsequently torn down to make room for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, was Middagh Street, number 7.

From The Blog
10 November 2009

In a ghastly vision of future desolation, Lord Byron foresees the contemporary American novelist’s dust-jacket photo:

From The Blog
24 December 2009

for his stalwart but sometimes uncouth friend, Christopher Hitchens Don't tipple at tiffin1 Or roar2 for your rum. Don't scowl at a griffin3 – You'll only look dumb. Don't nobble your neighbour4 Or haver5 at bees; But strive to be kindly And always to please.6 Notes: 1 Hitchens is known to imbibe immoderately at luncheon. 2 When his drink is slow in coming to the table, Hitchens often raises his voice at the waiter/bartender. 3 The griffin, being a union of terrestrial beast and aerial bird, is seen in Christianity as a symbol of Jesus, whom Hitchens deplores.

From The Blog
27 November 2009

In (another) ghastly vision of future desolation, Lord Byron foresees my family's Thanksgiving dinner yesterday: ...a meal was boughtWith blood, and each sate sullenly apartGorging himself in gloom; no love was left... 'Darkness', lines 39-41

From The Blog
4 November 2009

From 'Slate', 9 February 1999: Last week I went to Claude Lévi-Strauss's 90th birthday party at the Collège de France. It seemed an unremarkable occasion at first. Though the courtyard of the Collège de France is fittingly grand for the republic's premiere scholarly institution, the rooms inside are meanly proportioned and shabby. The three dozen or so academics in attendance looked dreary and moth-eaten the way academics do. There was a sprinkling of journalists, but no cameras or microphones. Fortified by a couple of glasses of indifferent burgundy, I obtained an introduction to Lévi-Strauss, who rose with difficulty from his chair and shook my hand tremulously. The conversation went poorly, owing both to my shaky French and to my lack of conviction that the nonagenarian I was talking to could actually be Claude Lévi-Strauss.

From The Blog
22 September 2009

The American philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004) was an odd case. For decades he held the prestigious John Dewey chair in philosophy at Columbia University. Before that, he was mentor to Hilary Putnam. Yet he rarely wrote anything. Instead, like Socrates, he was known for his viva voce philosophising. He was also known for his 'zingers', the most famous of which was allegedly uttered during an address on the philosophy of language being given by J.L. Austin. 'In some languages,' Austin observed, 'a double negative yields an affirmative. In others, a double negative yields a more emphatic negative.

From The Blog
3 August 2009

Think of a book. Then imagine someone other than the author who might – or could never – have written it.

Edward Said, as Adam Shatz notes, hated the nickname ‘Ed’ (LRB, 6 May). Susan Sontag, we are told in Sigrid Nunez’s memoir Sempre Susan (2011), ‘bristled and sharply corrected anyone who called her Sue’. And Christopher Hitchens, as I can personally attest, got annoyed when anyone addressed him as ‘Chris’. They kept you on your toes, those three.
In the late 1990s I met Dolores Vanetti – who, as Joanna Biggs notes, nearly displaced Beauvoir as Sartre’s grande passion – at a party in New York (LRB, 16 April). When I told Vanetti that I was a fan of the French philosopher Alain, she offered to give me several volumes of Alain’s essays that had belonged to Sartre. I enthusiastically accepted, imagining that the volumes...

It’s easy enough to prove that the external world exists. Doors, rocks, other people, we keep running into them. But that’s not much of a proof. It doesn’t show that any...

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