Umberto Eco: A Tribute

Umberto Eco is one of the authors whom I really admire although it has been several years since I read his books. Popular culture knows him as the one whose Foucault’s Pendulum foreshadowed medieval conspiracy theory fiction such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. He is also known as the author of The Name of the Rose which is a detective story set in medieval times and was made into a movie starring Sean Connery.

He was an expert in the medieval history of Europe and a Professor of the mysteriously named field of Semiotics. No one else has done more to popularize this field and its use in interpreting historical findings. His knowledge of these two areas were ingrained in his thinking as a philosopher and his writing.

Semiotics refers to the study of signs, their interpretation and use in communication, and their link to language. Since these are a lot of heavy words, let me give you an example that we can all relate to. I had a twitter account under a different name. When I created this blog, I wanted a matching twitter account (no, I don’t really use it!) but “@nilambar” wasn’t available. I was under the invisible time pressure we all feel when creating a username on online signup forms. So in my panic I was searching the screen and my room for some clue.

Here is a screenshot of the top right section on twitter:


This + “nilambar” = “quillambar“! I know the end result is extremely cheesy but let me explain how my brain worked: Green post button with feather logo -> a feather is used to make a quill which is used for writing -> rhymes with nil -> bingo!

After observing the icon, this whole cognitive process took less than a second. This is a simple example that shows how a sign (feather) combined with context (writing), produced an idea (quill) that produced a word (something related to writing + the rhyming?). There are probably interesting neuro-biological aspects to this as well but we will stick to the subject here. Semiotics is basically a formal study of such processes from the perspective of history, language and communication. Eco wrote definitive textbooks in his main field of Semiotics.

He also wrote more accessible essays where he deployed these skills. After a visit to the US, he wrote essays published as Travels in Hyper-reality that explore the reasons for America’s fixation with living life larger or in recreating reality (replicas of the Oval Office or installations in Disneyland) based on his observations.

He was an expert on the medieval and Renaissance period in Europe. He could connect historic development right from the crusades and the inquisition to modern times. But I don’t think Eco wrote a popular or academic book that purely covered history unlike for example, William Dalrymple’s research on Afghanistan or the Mughal times in India. Instead he liked to combine a lot of historical fact with handcrafted fiction and his most well-known novels do exactly that.

As a widely read person, he felt every book referred to many others consciously or not. Nassim Nicholas Taleb speaks about the massive library of Eco in his book, The Black Swan, and calls it the “anti-library” of which I wrote here. Taleb also calls him encyclopedic.

He wrote a set of essays, On Literature, that demonstrates his wide range of reading. One of themes was that Literature reinvents itself with the sensibilities of every passing age. The other theme was on the nature of writing. The last essay here, “How I write” has some immortal lines on the last page:

“There is only one thing you write for yourself, and that is a shopping list… One writes only for a reader… Whoever says he writes for himself is not necessarily lying. It is just he is frighteningly atheistic. Even from a rigorously secular point of view.

Unhappy and desperate the writer who cannot address a future reader.”

He combines knowledge of semiotics, history and literature into his fiction as demonstrated in The Name of the Rose:

  • The name of the book is not explained in the book and has no connection to the story. Later in a postscript he said that he chose this, “because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left”
  • The protagonist, William of Baskerville, is a play on William of Occam (known for the Occam’s Razor principle) and Sherlock Holmes
  • Jorge Luis Borges, who was the inspiration for many of the “magic realism” writers in South America like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a favourite of Eco. The main antagonist in this book is inspired by him. Borges wrote about a labyrinthine Library of Babel, in a short story. Eco sets a lot of the action in his book in a similarly modeled library.
  • The inquisition and fixations of the dark ages play a big role in this book. There is a theme of searching for heresies and punishing new ideas; destruction of books and scrolls that may contain knowledge that contradicts theology.

He also wrote commentary about the now. A set of essays titled Inventing the Enemy starts out with an idea that if one doesn’t have an enemy then one must invent it. He shows that even to have an identity (as a person or a group) that has some self-worth means we must invent an “other”; something foreign and repulsive – an enemy. It shows when you look around in today’s connected world. You can have enemies who you never see or speak to, provoke, draw reactions and deliver counter-reactions, and thereby establish and celebrate your identity as opposed to the “other”.

Eco left us earlier this year and will be sorely missed but his entire body of work says that what he wrote will endure and reinvent itself. May he rest in peace.

The Science of Thinking and Deciding

This whole thing started when I picked up a pink hardbound second-hand copy of The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb at the famous Blossoms Book House in Church Street, Bangalore. He minces no words when pouring scorn on the financial sector and the “pseudo-science” that he claims they use to certify risky decisions that are motivated by short-term bonuses. I get that. I think I will change my investment strategies as a result! He summarizes, very well, the impact of events that were unforeseen and helps you with ideas on how to benefit from them while not getting steamrolled. This is a remarkably prescient book that foreshadowed the financial crisis and events such as the Arab Spring even though his philosophy eschews prediction and favours robustness in planning and preparedness in the face of such adversity. A friend of mine who read this book was put off by the amount of mud thrown on to academicians. But I feel that researchers need criticism to constantly improve research methodologies and words need not be minced as long as personal attacks are not made. The process by which research is published today leaves much to be desired and more on this later.

One little thing I liked was the fact that the book started with an Umberto Eco reference where he talks about Eco’s large library, the majority of whose books were unread. Umberto Eco is an old favourite of mine and I have read several of his fiction and non-fiction books. Taleb calls him encyclopaedic and this is visible in every chapter of any of Eco’s books. The reference to Eco made me feel good about all the books I keep buying and don’t end up reading immediately (Fooled by Randomness by Taleb is sitting unread in my bookshelf!). Taleb’s point is that one has a library not to fill it with more and more books as a matter of vanity but rather as a research tool. Having as much content as possible about what you don’t know is great for research and to keep you grounded! So it’s OK if you haven’t read every chapter of every book that you own. Taleb calls this great mountain of unread books the anti-library – a cool term in my opinion.

Reading this book led to several other books that I read thereafter. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, (and the shadow of the posthumous influence of his research partner, Amos Tversky) summarizes a few lifetimes worth of quality research into how people think and how they make decisions. How does our mind think about stuff and store or retrieve memories? How do we arrive at judgements and biases? How do we learn skills and can do some things almost subconsciously (intuition)? How do we make decisions in the face of the choices we have in real life? The difficult questions, an insane amount of experimentation, great anecdotes and good quality writing about the findings will undoubtedly leave an impact on the reader. The book explains the different cognitive systems we use and how we train them. It delves into decision making and how the human mind processes risk. The main link in terms of ideas between these 2 books is that humans don’t deal with randomness, uncertainty and risk very well. Even if those humans are statisticians and trained experts! The other important link is empiricism, which in this context (human behavior, economics etc.) means learn from experimentation and observation rather than established notions or theories. Taleb stresses that empiricism and healthy skepticism are vital for humans in this technology-driven world. Kahneman’s significant body of research uses this principle at every step. I would highly recommend this book. In terms of tone, it is exactly the opposite of Taleb’s! Reverential when talking about good research and politely criticizing the bad.

Taleb refers a lot to Karl Popper who I learned was a very important philosopher of science. I bought some of his masterpieces and they are currently in my anti-library! The writing is all pre-World War II and I am finding it difficult to switch from the more accessible language of the modern books I’ve been reading lately.

My friend (the one who wasn’t so thrilled with Taleb) then pointed me to How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg. Ellenberg was a child prodigy and is an accomplished mathematician. While I cannot judge his research, his ability to teach is amazing and you can experience that throughout this great book.  I never realized until I read this book that concepts like non-linearity, regression, correlation, probability, hypothesis testing and randomness could be taught so intuitively and used so powerfully. The concepts that link this to Taleb’s writing is Ellenberg’s critique on how these concepts are misused in when publishing academic research and the lack of importance given to simple things like sample size and repeating an experiment to verify original research. Taleb pours scorn into the gaping holes of academic research and Ellenberg suggests how to cement these voids. That is the difference. Kahneman shows how the typical process of “thinking and deciding” works and Ellenberg shows how you can use math to get better at it. Ellenberg is engaging and funny. He has done a humungous amount of reading and research into how mathematicians codified these concepts and he picks out some absolute gems. There was one anecdote in the section on regression where Hotelling delivers a “statistical smackdown” on the pointlessness of a gigantic research undertaking by Secrist to demonstrate what Hotelling called an “obvious mathematical fact”. This made me laugh for the better part of an hour and I did not expect that from a book written by a mathematician about how math should be used. May be the lack of expectation increased the pleasure (utils as Ellenberg might call it) I felt!

The differences in tone and writing style almost stereotypically correlate with age as I noted that Kahneman is in his 80s, Taleb in his 50s and Ellenberg in the 40s. Taleb’s time spent in hostile environments like the Lebanese civil war or Wall Street probably explains why he is so easily outraged when he thinks he sees incompetence.

I tend to read a series of books on any given topic right from school days. There was a Frederick Forsyth phase, a Robert Ludlum phase, a William Dalrymple phase which led into other engaging travel and history books by Robert Byron, Paul Theroux, Charles Allen, Pico Iyer and the like, a scientific phase with Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh, Siddharta Mukherjee, V.S. Ramachandran and others. They have all been rewarding in their own way and this one – the Thinking and Deciding phase – is now up there with some of the most fulfilling series of reading I’ve done.