“Their life is short, their numbers are infinite.”

Primo Levi: Ist das ein Mensch? (Translation by Heinz Riedt, English title: If This Is a Man) ISBN 978-3-424-12395-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ How can you think the unthinkable? How can you speak about the unspeakable? Primo Levi did both. Between 1945 and 1947 he wrote down what he saw, heard, smelled, tasted, felt and thought in Auschwitz. He had been deported from his Italian homeland in 1944, and the Nazis had planned to kill him slowly by having him work himself to death. They almost succeeded to destroy both his body and his soul. Luck and his will to live made it possible for him to survive until the German janitors fled from the advancing Soviet army.

“To succumb is the easiest way out”, Levi writes. “All you need to do, is to execute all orders, to eat no more than the ration [attributed to you] and to obey the discipline at your workplace and in the camp. Experience has demonstrated that one will survive only exceptionally beyond the time span of three months.” Those who succumb “have all the same story, or rather they have no story at all […] Their life is short, their numbers are infinite.”

Levi’s memories of his time in a Nazi concentration camp are to date the most impressive testimony of the Holocaust that I have read. Levi’s narrative style is resolutely non-dramatic. This sobriety is a result of his profound reflection about humanity: What defines man? How could humans do this to others? Levi tries to understand what cannot really be understood: the Germans’ mass killing of Jews, political opponents, mentally deranged people, disabled people, Roma and Sinti.

The many Levi saw die, “populate my memories having a presence but no face; and if I could sum up in one picture all the misery of our time, I would pick one that is familiar to me: a defeated man, his forehead lowered, his shoulders hunched, and with a face and eyes that show not the hint of a thought.” A living dead on the way to fade away without leaving a trace.

Levi isn’t angry. “I never hated the German people, and if I had, I would be cured by now. I cannot understand or accept that man is being judged for what group he belongs to instead of being judged for what he is”, he quotes from a letter to his German translator. That would mean repeating the Nazi logic. Levi’s wish is to testify, and specifically the translation of his book into German was meant to trigger a feedback, which would allow Levi to understand the Germans. At least that was Levi’s hope.

Levi witnessed how thousands of human beings were stripped of all that defined them as humans: their name, their honour, their religion, their belongings, their physical force and finally their life. And this is the key issue: the easiness with which the Holocaust seemed to have happened, with thousands of willing Germans and non-Germans – the Kapos – playing their little part in a huge machine. Can something similar happen again? In my opinion yes, if circumstances are right. There are easy victims and easy perpetrators. Add populism, hate-speech and a functioning burocracy… Dehumanization doesn’t take much.

In 1961, the Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko published a poem with the title “Babi Yar” remembering the victims of one of the largest war crimes committed by the Germans during World War II. It inspired Dmitry Shostakovich to write his Symphony No. 13:

Mass Murder and a Lesson in Morality

Fighting Tomorrow’s Wars

Paul Scharre: Army of None. Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War. ISBN 978-0-393-35658-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ You don’t read books about military affairs? You should. Weapons research has reached a point where humanity faces moral, legal and technical choices similar to those at the beginning of the nuclear arms race. High-performance sensors, remote platforms like satellites, artificial intelligence, communication networks and real-time transmission of high volumes of data converge and make the fielding of autonomous weapons a realistic option – weapons with little or no human input. Does that correspond to the future we want? Think about it.

We all know about drones circling above the Gaza strip, Ukraine, Syria or Afghanistan to locate and kill targets. So far there’s still a human being in the OODA loop: Observation – Orientation – Decision – Action. An analyst decides whether a target is eligible for a kill within a set legal framework, an operator pushes the button that fires the lethal missile.

But what if computers would take over these decisions? What if an algorithm would decide about who is to live and who is to die? After all computers are unemotional, never tired, never stressed, never sadistic. Objective in a way. What if a computer would release the missile from a long-endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or a seaborne platform? No more costly and dangerous deployments to war theatres far away. It could all be done from a terminal in the US or Europe or from a ship far away from a hostile coast.

Paul Scharre takes us on a journey into the world of software programmers and weapons engineers, of robotics and Artificial Intelligence to show where we stand in terms of technological progress. From there on he explores the moral choices we face and outlines the shape of tomorrow’s wars. This is insofar relevant as all major military powers push research in these fields, and in a world of global political and economic competition, war is always an option – open, offensive as well as undeclared, clandestine wars for some, purely defensive actions for others.

One of the key take-aways is summed up by Brad Tousley, the director of DARPA, the Pentagon’s R&D agency tasked to imagine tomorrow’s game-changing military technologies: “Until the machine processors are equal to or surpass humans at making abstract decisions, there’s always going to be mission command.” This means that human beings will remain in charge when it comes to evaluate options for action the machine may propose. A target may be identified by an algorithm to be legitimate, e.g. a person carrying a rifle in an enemy controlled territory. But only a human will recognize that it is an adolescent guarding his sheep and understand that pictures of killed children help the enemy’s propaganda.

For the time being, algorithms seem to be unable to analyze multi-dimensional contexts in the way the human brain does. This may explain why Google, Twitter, Facebook etc. have such trouble finding and removing extremist propaganda from their networks. Context is key and context is complex when it comes to human behaviour. Our brain, the collective rules that govern our societies, our empathy, our experience – evolution has produced a sophisticated system over thousands of years that technology can not easily emulate or surpass. However technology is getting better and better. Drones take off and land by themselves on an aircraft carrier. Unmanned ships have put sea and navigate on their own and may soon hunt submarines. Automated logistics systems and surveillance platforms are already operational.

Humans make mistakes, no doubt. Usually the consequence of one human error of judgment is limited. But machines make mistakes too, even those with Artificial Intelligence. And if one machine makes a specific mistake, all machines of that type will make the same mistake. And they will repeat the mistake until a human steps in. In autonomous weapons there would be no human to step in. A horrifying scenario!

The key question for developers is: Can we build a piece of technology that fulfills mission requirement with a high level of reliability? Soldiers want weapons they can trust under many different circumstances. Their life may depend of it. If a certain piece of hard- or software is mission-critical and its reliability is not proven beyond doubt, it may be safe to keep a human operator or supervisor in the loop.

Not that this will prevent fatal errors. When the US attacked Iraq after 9/11, Patriot batteries shot down two allied fighters. The software did what it should do: track incoming targets and destroy them when authorised by the operator. Man in the loop working on tested equipment. The software however did not distinguish between Iraqi ballistic missiles and friendly planes. And the operators did not question the information the battery’s sensors fed back to them. Soldiers need to trust their weapons – but not blindly.

In his book Scharre goes to great lengths to point out what technology cannot do yet and what it may be able to do in the future. And he highlights the machines’ vulnerabilities and their inherent shortcomings. Each course of action in terms of developing and fielding autonomous or semi-autonomous weapons needs an ethical evaluation and a consistent set of rules for its operation, embedded itself in a general strategy. This is the point where the human input will always remain crucial: Man sets the rules.

Technology will do what we will let it do. We can decide not to pursue certain types of research. It has happened before with the neutron bomb. We can prohibit the use of certain technologies as we prohibited the use of (not very smart) anti-personnel mines and biological weapons. But first of all, we, the tax payers, must know what is possible. We may then ask our politicians to present to us options and cost-benefit analyses. And then we can make an informed political choice. This is why this book is so important. Stay informed not only about politics or climate change, but also about technology. All three factors will shape our future more than any time before.

This said I recently enjoyed a ride in what Luxembourg calls its “first autonomous bus shuttle”. Point 1: Its route is pre-defined by a human. The vehicle transports six passengers from a pedestrian escalator to a railway station and back. Point 2: It has an operator on board who defines when the bus moves and stops. The shuttle’s sensors identify obstacles on their own and forces the bus to stop, but the operator gives the go to move on once the obstacle is gone. Point 3: It is moving at a slow speed and it comes abruptly to a stop. At best we may call it semi-autonomous. And as far as its capacities are concerned, walking from the escalator to the station is smoother and almost as fast. But of course riding the shuttle was a lot funnier!

Napoleon Bonaparte revolutionized military affairs in the fields of training, tactics and grand strategy. His intellectual genius and his daring mindset enabled him to subjugate the European continent with the exception of Great Britain. He and his troops however failed to beat Russia in 1812. Napoleon’s lines of communication were overextended, his once successful maneuvering strategy failed when the enemy retreated further and further into the vast Russian plains. He occupied Moscow only to discover the Russians had set it on fire. Napoleon had to retreat without a decisive victory and his army was annihilated in rear-guard engagements, weakened by a harsh winter and a lack of both food and ammunition. Technology wasn’t an issue. Bad human judgment was the problem. Pyotr Tchaikovsky has set to music the events of 1812 in an overture of the same name:

Wargames at the Sound of Tchaikovsky

Intertwined Markets and the Armageddon to Come

Adam Tooze: Crashed. How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. ISBN 978-1-846-14036-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ This book is a challenge and it is a challenge worthwhile to be taken up. A basic understanding of how bond markets work and how the yield of bonds is tied to the evolution of interest rates is helpful. An interest in economy and politics is indispensable.

Tooze retraces the three highly dramatic episodes of the financial Armageddon of 2008/2009: It starts with the crisis of the US mortgage system, becoming victim of deregulization and banks accumulating debts. Tooze walks us through the failing of American and European banks to provide sufficient liquidity to alleviate that first crisis leading to a European follow-up crisis. The final episode is the rescue attempts of the US Federal Reserve Bank and the European Union, the first being forceful and crowned with at least some success, the latter being timid, incremental and prone to create new problems without solving the old ones. The author shows the different crisis response mechanisms on both sides of the Atlantic and how intimately the two financial markets are linked. If one fails, it draws down the other. Forget all those dreams about national independence. People like Donald Trump, Michael Gove or Nigel Farage are either incompetent or liars. Or both.

Tooze points out fundamental problems of the financial markets and especially the institutional weakness of the European Union when it comes to crisis response. The system of checks and balances between the Commission, the European Central Bank and the Council may give the EU a democratic veneer, but it ties crisis management to the political doctrines of the bigger member states: Germany and France. Greece become an unvoluntary guinea pig and its economy suffered to such a point that is no longer clear what was worse: the disease or the cure. The newly created European Stability Mechanism may able to absorb future shocks, bu for how long? And having a fire-brigade ready never prevented a fire from breaking out. The inherent logics of the financial markets present a risk of their own and the question is whether we have enough safety rules and firewalls to either prevent or contain in a very early stage a would-be inferno.

I learned a great deal from the book. I had to look up a few things I had not learned at school. I still don’t feel comfortable with the concept of bond yields. But once I had worked my way through the first 150 somewhat technical pages I began to dive into a fascinating and scaring politico-economical thriller – John Le Carré for economists! And since the errors of the past tend to be the precursors of the errors in the future, I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in current affairs. With Trump playing with fire and China holding large reserves of foreign assets – US bonds – we are heading for an uncertain future. If we can’t prevent the next crash, we may at least find some comfort in understanding it!

The potential risk of destabilisation and violent revolt after a collapse of financial markets is comparable to the French Revolution in 1789 and or the Russian Revolution of 1905. Dmitry Shostakovich has captured this spirit in his Symphony No. 11 in G Minor:

Managing Change – A Matter of Life and Death

Walking Around in the House of Suffering

George Szirtes: The Photographer at Sixteen ISBN 978-0-85705-853-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Quite a bewildering book. Szirtes sketches a portrait of his mother, and he sketches it with little sympathy. He is interested, but distant. Portraying a stranger. How little he knew when he started the journey back in time, trying to understand her. How much remained unclear when he was done. Right at the beginning, he says about his parents: “They were my parents. They did not speak. I did not ask.” Strangers. I always felt it was more cruel to be with people that do not communicate than to be lonesome. Silence works both ways: offensive as a weapon, defensive as a shield. But silence is always a challenge for a child. Just like a “no” , that perhaps might become a reluctant “yes”.

The portrait of the mother betrays the son. It is intentional. “The Photographer at Sixteen” is a hybrid: part portrait, part memoir. Death is never very far. Nor is desperation. Szirtes language is blunt, laconic. And if father-son-conflicts have inspired more than one novel, drama or poem, the relationship between mother and son is no less… no less what? Cruel? Fascinating? Parents, be they male or female, who pass their unfulfilled social ambitions on to their children are a terrible burden. They want you to have a happy life or what they consider a happy life. As for your wishes, they usually are secondary.

“She had suffered history, now history had to redeem itself through the future.” The future of young George and his brother. Their mother had survived the Nazi concentration camps, and the family had fled Hungary after the Soviet repression of the uprising in 1956. History, suffering, the will to survive, ambitions past, present, future – Szirtes offers a remarkable insight into his family’s story stretching “from Cluj or Koloszvar, also known as Klausenburg” to Wymondham. The elements he reveals give his mother and his relation to her a more precise contour: admiration for his mother’s beauty and her sense of chic, respect for her will-power and ambition, mixed with a healthy dose of scepticism about her choices, her priorities.

Changes in the society of Szirtes’ adopted home country and his mother’s declining health account for the souring relation between a challenging mother and rebellious son. The UK was a safe haven, but not heaven. Delusions, disappointments, a feeling of alienation leading to a certain bitterness – does that sound familiar? Brexit is the final episode of something that started back then in the 60s and is coming to its conclusion in our days. And it had and still has a profound impact on the individual’s life.

What struck me, was the effort invested by the Szirtes family in creating a maximum distance between them and their original Jewish identity. The Holocaust and the prevailing anti-Semitism may have justified such an attitude in Hungary, but not in the UK. To me it looks like fleeing from oneself. And what identity is to be found instead? A post-World War II British identity? If Britons struggled with this concept – they still do – how could a family of Hungarian exilees of Jewish descent possibly succeed?

What I appreciated most about the book, is the fact that Szirtes does not shy away from showing us how little he knows of the biography of his mother. By extension he says that we can only have a fuzzy idea of some person’s identity, changing over time and with the source of our information about that person. How little we know about even those who seem close to us. “I am interested in her, so I go on inventing a truth I can believe in … The trick is to invent the truth.” This book is about composite identities: what others see in us, what we see in us, what we try to make others see in us. Man is a confusing species.

I recently came across a composer who first had to flee the Nazis and seek refuge in the USSR, where a decade later he was arrested by the Soviet authorities who sensed a “Jewish cosmopolitan conspiracy”, whatever that might have been. In 1940 Mieczyslaw Weinberg wrote his String Quartet No. 2:

A Quartet Written on the Way to Tashkent

From Quarks to Black Holes and Back

Marcus de Sautoy: Ce que nous ne saurons jamais (English title: What We Cannot Know, translation by Raymond Clarinard) ISBN 978-2-35087-405-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Warning: If you don’t like abstract thinking, don’t buy this book. If you cringe at the sight of an even simple mathematical formula, don’t start reading this book. If you think an electron is a weapon from “Star Wars”, stick to science fiction and don’t loose you time pretending to read this book. Nobody will believe you anyway. However, if none of the above is true and if you are interested in the limits of human knowledge, in questions about the (in)finity of the universe, the place of God in cosmology or the prelude to the Big Bang, then and only then, do read this book.

The book is well written. It is well researched. It does not shy away from controversial discussions, absurd conclusions and highly hypothetical models of what was, is and will be. It offers a contradicting look into the past and a fuzzy view of the future slong with a disputed assessment of the present. It is full of facts about theories, theories about so-called facts, formulas and though experiments and entertaining jokes.

“What We Cannot Know” is written by a mathematician, who plays the trumpet (rather well it would appear) and the cello (not so well, if we believe de Sautoy). De Sautoy is an official atheist obsessed by his dice and the question of God. This alone sounds promising and makes it worthwhile to hear what he has to say. I shall not attempt to write a synopsis of this book. I would have to rewrite it, which would make no sense at all, would it? I will just enumerate a few topics from a scientist’s everyday life about which humanity knows little and about which it will perhaps never know everything.

The subdivision of the atom for instance: protons, neutrons, electrons and, one level deeper, the quarks. Easy stuff. Unknown and unimaginable some 100 years ago. Can we go deeper and divide matter even further? Can we smash the quark and “look” inside to see what’s in there and what holds it together? We don’t quite know how much we (don’t) know. Space is next. It expands with unequal speed. Why? For how long already? Will it contract at some point? We can’t say. Is it infinite? Some say humanity is inherently unable to answer that question.

What about time? Since we cannot prove it, we BELIEVE that time started to come into existence at some point, but will it ever end? And how exactly did it come into existence? Some respected researchers believe that time is an illusion, just as others believe that any form of “confirmed” knowledge is an illusion. Science is what happens after we have proved that one theory is wrong and before we publish a new one. Or so it would seem.

How about aliens – should we look for them? If there is some kind of intelligent life in outer space different from ours, we should expect it to be more developed. SETI might be a risky bet. Do we really want to meet something more clever than us? Finally conscience. What is it? Where is it located in the brain? How does it start? Can it transcend death? Or be emulated by Artificial Intelligence? We don’t know. In a more general way, our brain and the way it works are one of the biggest mysteries of all. I think, therefore I am, you may say with René Descartes. Really? But who is I? Think about it. Cogito, sed sum?

We know so little despite 10,000 years of scientific research, religious experiences and philosophical debates. We strive to gain insight, instead we discover the dimension of our ignorance, the limits of our thinking. De Sautoy takes the reader on an exciting trip through the history of science and into its possible future, showing us the known unknowns and trying to figure out ways to identify unknown unknowns.

“What We Cannot Know” is one of those books that I had been looking for for a long time, and it was not me who found it. The book rather found me, since I did buy it initially not for myself. Once I had started to read it, I had a hard time to put it down. Understanding how knowledge grows and why in certain areas we fail, is truly fascinating. Realizing that this question cannot be dissociated from the question of God (or any other supposed Creator) makes it even more interesting. A delight for an armchair philosopher like me!

De Sautoy was once asked which piece of music he would like to be able to play, and he chose Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites. An excellent choice since Bach’s music is full of intricate maths:

Resting body and soul in Bach’s geometry