created: 23 Aug 2013; modified: 30 Aug 2016; status: in progress; belief: log
This is a sortable table of books I have read; it is compiled from a CSV export of my Goodreads account to Markdown/HTML by a Haskell script I wrote. (The GoodReads interface is too fancy for its own good.)
|Radiance: A Novel||Carter Scholz||★★★★★||2003||2014/02/20||(Quotes are extracted from my annotated ebook edition of Radiance; see also my list of other review & excerpts from them.)
Somewhere in California, in the 1990s, a nuclear weapons lab develops advanced technologies for its post-Cold War mission. Advanced as in not working yet. Mission as in continued funding. A scandal-plagued missile defense program presses forward, dragging physicist Philip Quine deep into the machinations of those who would use the lab for their own gain.
Years ago, I ran into a book review titled “‘Its awful and enticing radiance’: The Beauty and Terror of Carter Scholz’s Radiance” by L. Timmel Duchamp; about a 2001 novel I had never heard of by an author I had never heard of, but it sounded interesting and I read the review until towards the end, it quote a key passage in Radiance:
A murmur of rain had started again. He lay there in the abyss of his thoughts as her breathing beside him steadied and deepened. Almost a voice stirred in him. It starts before Hanford, it almost said. It starts with Röntgen, with the piece of barium glowing in the path of invisible rays, striking out the fire that God had put there. It starts with his wife’s hand on the photographic plate, its transparence there, the ashen bones visible within the milky flesh. Who could imagine that this radiance at the heart of matter could be malign? That with its light came fire? (Yet from the first the ashen bones were there to see within the flesh.) It starts with Becquerel carrying the radium in his pocket that burned his skin, and darkened the unexposed film. It starts with Marie Curie poisoning herself in that pale uncanny glow. With Rutherford guessing at this new alchemy, guessing that matter, giving up its glow, transformed itself one element into another. With the miners at Joachimsthal, deep under the Erzgebirge, inhaling the dust of uranium and dying of “mountain sickness”. With women who by the thousands in watch factories tipped their brushes with that glow, touched it to their tongues before painting the dial face, women who only much later, when the watches’ glow had faded, sickened and died from that radiance taken into their bones. It begins with Ernest Lawrence rushing across the Berkeley campus, the idea of a proton accelerator uncontainable in his mind, calling out, I’m going to be famous! With Oppenheimer at Jornada del Muerte that morning of Trinity. With the scientists who had prised open the gates to that blazing realm past heaven or hell. What were they now at the Lab in all their thousands, but the colonial bureaucrats of that realm, the followers and functionaries, the clerks and commissars? Mere gatekeepers of that power. Or in its keeping. It goes of its own momentum beyond Hanford, to Trinity, to Hiroshima, to the prisoners, the cancer patients, the retarded children, the pregnant women injected or fed this goblin matter to see would it bring health or sickness, the soldiers huddled in trenches against the flash, bones visible in their arms through closed eyes, staring up at the roiling cloudrise, the sheepherders, the farms, the homes, the gardens downwind. And in his sleep the voice long stilled spoke once more. It starts with Sforza; in case of need I will make bombards, mortars, and firethrowing engines of beautiful and practical design. It starts with Archimedes focusing the sun’s rays upon the fleet at Syracuse, it starts with the first rock hurled by the first grasping hand. It starts where we start. It is mind, it is hunger, it is greed, it is defense, it is mischief, it is the devil, it is the god; it is life.
The force of the incantation struck me and a few years later, a copy finally appeared in my local library system. I requested it and devoured it in one or two sittings; Scholz’s favored punctuation-less style, using hyphens for voice transitions, annoyed me (but did not challenge me - I’d already read Stand On Zanzibar & Dos Passos’s U.S.A.). The swirl of references drenched the work in reality - Scholz seems to know everything about everything, from philosophy of science to the L5 Society to Wagner’s Parsifal, but the themes were grand and ones ‘modern literature’ so often fails to address and cedes to science fiction: the role of science in society, the tension between future gains and present losses, what is corruption, whether we live up to our own standards, the worth of truth…
You could only call it a satire if you didn’t realize how closely it all tracks to real events: it is a roman à clef of the Star Wars program, down to the nuclear tests which intrude onto 5 pages in the final section. (Scholz seems to have drawn heavily on Gregory Benford’s autobiographical essay “Old Legends”, included in the anthology the “Radiance” novella was first published in.)
The novel begins in media res, depicting a failed exorcism of the government labs, quickly turning to its protagonist, a good-natured but despairing and baffled Quine’s attempts to understand his predicament: in charge of designing a nuclear weapon where the data simply disagrees with the theory which is supposed to be right. The story unravels into one of deception and funding pressure, and Quine triumphs, unseating the culprit in it all, and realizing he doesn’t belong at the labs - “I belong inside!” he says, even as he is forced out in the turmoil of anti-nuclear protesters.
A hallmark of Radiance is the Gibsonian sense of alien entities and organisms clashing for life, at a level above individuals: the Labs has generated its own culture, with its own imperatives and loyalties and goals, fed by government money, but in this respect, we can say little better of the continual antagonist of the labs, the protesters, as it is its own alien entity, seeking funding for its protests (funding, Réti reminds us, comes from the enemy), subverting Lab members for information, pressuring characters like Lynn to serve it. And it doesn’t end there: the Pentagon lurks in the background, represented by Reese, quietly pushing along research into ever better nuclear weapons, and hinted at twice are foreign governments like North Korea, and beyond that? Here I borrow a term from Kevin Kelly and refer to the Technium: science and technology regarded as its own entity with its own drives and selection effects, including the proliferation of all forms of technology.
Section two turns to the unseated Highet: his ouster, and the epilogue of his story as he looks over the ruins of his life and seeks out a final resting place in a think-tank. The Biblical and Wagnerian overtones are strong in this section. Thinking of Parsifal‘s Grail quest, it’s hard not to remember that only one knight finds the Holy Grail in the end: the others all go astray or have sinned in various ways.
Section three completes the work. Just like Dune Messiah thoroughly subverted and undermined the simplistic narratives presented for the reader to swallow in Dune, part three shows the reader how Quine in his own turn is fully subverted by the environment, his sense of duty, and yes, his own belief in the desirability of progress. (“He goes right to the point and carries the reader / Into the midst of things, as if known already; / And if there’s material that he despairs of presenting / So as to shine for us, he leaves it out; / And he makes his whole poem one. What’s true, what’s invented, / Beginning, middle, and end, all fit together.”) The imagery and parallelism at times is not even subtle: for both Quine and Highet, Scholz arranges for them to at some point limp (just like Edward Teller) and have inflamed reddish faces - the implication could hardly be clearer if one of the characters had been named ’Faust’ and Lynn Hamlin renamed Margaret Hamlin.
And finally, having been ‘corrupted’ (but having succeeded in securing the future of the National Ignition Facility which runs to this day), Quine is dealt the final blow: the revelation of the leak of nuclear test data. The Technium strives toward openness and proliferation. Technology may be amoral but it has imperatives of its own. The book ends in Quine in despair and granted a moment of lucidity: seeing his entire life as a mixture of success and failure, as but a pawn of vast forces beyond his comprehension, beholding the presence of the ghostly Technium, far from exorcised.
…he stabbed the radio to silence as the dash blinked JAM and he accelerated into the next lane with the needle climbing past 80 past 90 when the CD player blinked PLAY and a falsetto whined, –gonna be just dirt in the ground –Damn it! Shut up…! banging the dash as his wheels trilled on the raised lane dividers and a horn snapped his head around to the panicked face of another drive too close as he yanked the wheel and the road slid on despite his foot wedged on the brake and the yank of the wheel back against a fishtailing swerve into a chorus of horns and gaping faces traveling sideways past him until the car came up hard against a curb and stopped. He was on the shoulder turned sideways. Through the passenger window he saw traffic rush toward him and pass behind him. Ahead of him, smoke rose from fields of stubble, and a flight of bird, scattered by some disturbance, wheeled, now black, now white, against the empty burning sky.
The 3 sections form closed circle: a tight ball of historical forces, corruption, science, despair, progress, failure, and personal tragedies.
The reader expecting further satire will not be pleased by this section. They’ve missed the point: this isn’t a comedy, it’s a tragedy. And what would a tragedy be without there being a great gap between what we hoped a character might accomplish and what actually happens? The higher they can fly, the sadder a crash.
Coyote, First Angry, enemy of all law, wanderer, desert mind, outlaw, spoiler, loser, clown, glutton, lecher, thief, cheat, pragmatist, survivor, bricoleur, silver-tongued Taliesin, latterday Leonardo, usurper Sforza, adulterer Lancelot, tell, wily one, by any means, of the man with two hearts, of knowledge and desire safely hidden from each other. Did not Paracelsus command us to falsify and dissimulate so that ignorant men might not look upon our mysteries? Did not the noble da Vinci hide the meaning of his thought by the manner of his script? What man has not two masters, two minds, two hearts? Tell of the man so wounded in himself that he tore his second heart from him and cast it out, naming it the world, and swore to wound it as it had wounded him.
It’s not as simple as ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It’s not even as simple as ‘corruption’ vs ‘honesty’: look around. Progress is not inevitable. Athens declined. Florence declined. Countries fall. Knowledge can be lost (look at scurvy). Science is not a formalized process, but a spirit of honesty and inquiry, which can be aped and the wordless teaching lost (how can Japanese or Chinese researchers run hundred of experiments, apparently complying with all known standards, every single one of which concludes acupuncture works, when results elsewhere show dramatically lower success rates?). After WWII, many Americans saw the ruins of Germany and Japan, and took to heart a lesson: the darkness waits. Anti-vaxxers to our left, Creationists to our right. And that’s in America, still preeminent in science, still one of the wealthiest countries in the world - based on just that science & technology. Highet is not wrong - just one-sided.
(“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”)
Throughout the book, we know “the work goes on”. Another of Scholz’s references, this time to alchemy’s magnum opus, the philosopher’s stone, which grants moral purification, eternal life, and the transmutation of base elements into nobler ones. (Transmutation has been realized as radioactive decay, while modern medicine would astound Bacon, and it does not seem absurd that in the next few centuries mankind will cure aging.) The double aspect pops up again, of fraud and greatness: research as practical work but also as spiritual quest. Another double aspect: alchemists were notorious scam artists & mountebanks, tricking others (particularly secular lords and governments) into funding their researches based on tricks with gold - but Isaac Newton was an alchemist, Robert Boyle based modern chemistry in part on the knowledge painfully gleaned by centuries of alchemists, and the formation of modern states was due in part to gunpowder (Chinese alchemists), and Roger Bacon, who I cannot resist supplying an apt quote about:
“Once upon a time, there was a man who was convinced that he possessed a Great Idea. Indeed, as the man thought upon the Great Idea more and more, he realized that it was not just a great idea, but the most wonderful idea ever. The Great Idea would unravel the mysteries of the universe, supersede the authority of the corrupt and error-ridden Establishment, confer nigh-magical powers upon its wielders, feed the hungry, heal the sick, make the whole world a better place, etc. etc. etc.
It starts with Bacon…
But the traffic rushes on. And the work goes on.
|Worm||Wildbow||★★★★★||2013||2014/08/13||Worm (Table of Contents/official summary/TvTropes/Reddit/post-interview) is addictive superhero SF posing as fantasy; it is long, of consistently high quality, and features a huge amount of imaginative powers with equally imaginative applications & combos (the protagonist usage of bugs, as impressive as it is, is only one of many possible examples, although I particularly like the Regent & Shadow Stalker incident as an example of social-engineering/hacking); the setting excellently rationalizes the standard superheroes vs supervillains setup (which as often observed, makes little sense prima facie). The series opens in the smallest possible setting, the geeky introverted protagonist Taylor being bullied in school, steps logically towards a life of crime as a supervillain while trying to do the right thing (and being manipulated by multiple parties, some prescient) and slowly expands to multiversal scope with an appropriately epic & bittersweet ending. (Reminds me of Watchmen.) Or to borrow from the official summary:
An introverted teenage girl with an unconventional superpower, Taylor goes out in costume to find escape from a deeply unhappy and frustrated civilian life. Her first attempt at taking down a supervillain sees her mistaken for one, thrusting her into the midst of the local ‘cape’ scene’s politics, unwritten rules, and ambiguous morals. As she risks life and limb, Taylor faces the dilemma of having to do the wrong things for the right reasons…Readers should be cautioned that Worm is fairly dark as fiction goes, and it gets far darker as the story progresses. Morality isn’t black and white, Taylor and her acquaintances aren’t invincible, the heroes aren’t winning the war between right and wrong, and superpowers haven’t necessarily affected society for the better. Just the opposite on every count, really. Even on a more fundamental level, Taylor’s day to day life is unhappy, with her clinging to the end of her rope from the story’s outset. The denizens of the Wormverse (as readers have termed it) don’t pull punches, and I try to avoid doing so myself, as a writer. There’s graphic language, descriptions of violence and sex does happen (albeit offscreen).
I recommend reading single arcs at a time: calling the whole thing ‘Worm’ is a bit of a misnomer, it’d make much more sense to group a few arcs and call them individual novels in the ‘Worm Saga’ or something. Length-wise, it’s upwards of a million words, and according to my arbtt logs (using the rule ‘current window $title =~ [/.* Worm - Iceweasel/] ==> tag Worm’), took me 37 hours & 42 minutes over 5 days to read.
The work is not perfect. The opening is perhaps too slow: the first fight with Lung, which hooked me, took a while to happen as it only really starts in ch4. In the middle, I suspect there was perhaps too much material devoted to the Slaughterhouse Nine arc and not enough to later plot arcs like Taylor joining the heroes or dealing with later Endbringers. Further, there’s so many characters that a binge read is a good idea, but during a binge, the fights can blur together and become exhausting, suggesting Worm may spend too much time on that. Some good parts, like characters having reasons to be bad, are taken to an extreme where it seems like every character, no matter how mundane, must have a backstory explaining how their environment/society made them evil (even for characters like Emma where such a cause is unnecessary). But the flaws are relatively small and hopefully will be addressed in the editing process. I look forward to reading Wildbow’s Pact when it finished, and I think I’ll check out some of the fanfics like Cenotaph.
I read Worm after it was finished and I continued to see positive reviews of it, such as Eliezer Yudkowsky:
…I commend to you…the just-completed story Worm, which is roughly 1.75 million words in 30 volumes. The characters in Worm use their powers so intelligently I didn’t even notice until something like the 10th volume that the alleged geniuses were behaving like actual geniuses and that the flying bricks who would be the primary protagonists and villains of lesser tales were properly playing second fiddle to characters with cognitive, informational, or probability-based powers…Doing this so smoothly that I don’t even notice because my brain considers the resulting world to be ‘normal’ really ought to deserve some kind of epic bonus points….There are stories which are better than Worm, and stories which were written faster than Worm, but I don’t know of any epic which was ever written faster and better than Worm.
Other reviews include Joshua Blaine:
…a self consistent and expansive Super-hero universe, and with a ton of unique and powerful abilities, I’ve really been enjoying it. The story is Worm, and It’s easily one of my favorite web stories in awhile, and very dark (especially as the story progresses further).
I’ve been reading this awesome web serial called Worm. Highly recommend if you want some action and suspense. There’s a bit of rationality business in there as well, but it’s spaced out and the story is long. I see it’s been recommended previously on here as well.
Caveat: Worm is really dark. The characters are clever, the protagonist makes the most out of a superpower that seems mediocre at first glance, and there are enough twists and turns that I would look at the clock and realize that I’d been reading for six hours. (Worm is really long, so if you’re the sort of person who has to keep reading fiction be warned that it will eat a week or two.) But, despite those positives, terrible things happen to everyone always. I found it similar to Game of Thrones in that it was engaging but depressing, and unlike GoT where new characters are introduced, dance about, and then die, in Worm there’s a clear protagonist who, as far as I can tell, always wins eventually. I also found the superhero fight sequences less engaging as time went on - but they can be skimmed with little loss.
Indeed. Although, frankly, what I’ve seen of Worm so far seems to designate it as very similar to my idea of Hell; every accomplishment is either made moot or cost something irreplaceable and possibly of superior value, every victory is short-lived, every mistake is paid for dearly. Every situation is desperate, every problem urgent. By the time a conflict reaches its resolution, another is at its peak, and two more are right around the corner. Perhaps it’s even worse; hardship, instead of building character, corrupts it. For the characters, it must be like a nightmare they can’t wake up from.
|Urne Burial||Thomas Browne||★★★★★||2005||2012/07/14||I first heard of Browne in Borges - as so often - in the ending of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” where the narrator is attempting to translate it into Spanish. Borges is always interested in translation (see for example his fantastic essay on translating the 1001 Nights) and I made a note to look up this work which presented such challenges for rendering into Spanish. (The actual edition I used was James Eason’s online edition.)
Urn Burial is hugely archaic, but also amazing. I am not sure where I have last seen any literary pyrotechnics to match Browne in English. David Foster Wallace sometimes approaches him, but beyond that I draw blanks. The book defies any simple summary as many passages are cryptic tangles and Browne says many things. So I will not try, and simply present some passages that struck me:
“He that lay in a golden Urne eminently above the Earth, was not likely to finde the quiet of these bones. Many of these Urnes were broke by a vulgar discoverer in hope of inclosed treasure. The ashes of Marcellus were lost above ground, upon the like account. Where profit hath prompted, no age hath wanted such miners. For which the most barbarous Expilators found the most civill Rhetorick. Gold once out of the earth is no more due unto it; What was unreasonably committed to the ground is reasonably resumed from it: Let Monuments and rich Fabricks, not Riches adorn mens ashes. The commerce of the living is not to be transferred unto the dead: It is not injustice to take that which none complains to lose, and no man is wronged where no man is possessor.”
“If the nearnesse of our last necessity, brought a nearer conformity unto it, there were a happinesse in hoary hairs, and no calamity in half senses. But the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying; When Avarice makes us the sport of death; When even David grew politickly cruell; and Solomon could hardly be said to be the wisest of men. But many are too early old, and before the date of age. Adversity stretcheth our dayes, misery makes Alcmenas nights, and time hath no wings unto it. But the most tedious being is that which can unwish it self, content to be nothing, or never to have been, which was beyond the male-content of Job, who cursed not the day of his life, but his Nativity; Content to have so farre been, as to have a title to future being; Although he had lived here but in an hidden state of life, and as it were an abortion.”
“Nature hath furnished one part of the Earth, and man another. The treasures of time lie high, in Urnes, Coynes, and Monuments, scarce below the roots of some vegetables. Time hath endlesse rarities, and shows of all varieties; which reveals old things in heaven, makes new discoveries in earth, and even earth it self a discovery. That great Antiquity America lay buried for a thousand years; and a large part of the earth is still in the Urne unto us.”
“Some bones make best Skeletons, some bodies quick and speediest ashes: Who would expect a quick flame from Hydropicall Heraclitus? The poysoned Souldier when his Belly brake, put out two pyres in Plutarch. But in the plague of Athens, one private pyre served two or three Intruders; and the Saracens burnt in large heaps, by the King of Castile, shewed how little Fuell sufficeth. Though the Funerall pyre of Patroclus took up an hundred foot, a peece of an old boat burnt Pompey; And if the burthen of Isaac were sufficient for an holocaust, a man may carry his owne pyre.”
“The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying.”
“To be content that times to come should only know there was such a man, not caring whether they knew more of him, was a frigid ambition in Cardan: disparaging his horoscopal inclination and judgement of himself, who cares to subsist like Hippocrates Patients, or Achilles horses in Homer, under naked nominations, without deserts and noble acts, which are the balsame of our memories, the Entelecchia and soul of our subsistences. To be namelesse in worthy deeds exceeds an infamous history. The Canaanitish woman lives more happily without a name, then Herodias with one. And who had not rather have been the good theef, then Pilate?
“What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entred the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide resolution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarism. Not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the Provinciall Guardians, or tutellary Observators. Had they made as good provision for their names, as they have done for their Reliques, they had not so grosly erred in the art of perpetuation. But to subsist in bones, and be but Pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration. Vain ashes, which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves, a fruitlesse continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as Emblemes of mortall vanities; Antidotes against pride, vain-glory, and madding vices. Pagan vain-glories which thought the world might last for ever, had encouragement for ambition, and finding no Atropos unto the immortality of their Names, were never dampt with the necessity of oblivion. Even old ambitions had the advantage of ours, in the attempts of their vain-glories, who acting early, and before the probable Meridian of time, have by this time found great accomplishment of their designes, whereby the ancient Heroes have already out-lasted their Monuments, and Mechanicall preservations. But in this latter Scene of time we cannot expect such Mummies unto our memories, when ambition may fear the Prophecy of Elias, and Charles the fifth can never hope to live within two Methusela’s of Hector.”
|The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War||Graham Robb||★★★★★||2007||2013/10/24||Discovery of France charts the transition of the region covered by modern France into the unified cultural/political/geographic entity of today. This is incredibly interesting because from our perspective, we have forgotten (if we ever knew) what went into the process of taking the thousands of villages and regions differing in all sorts of ways, and crushing them into the relatively homogeneous high-tech culture of today - unifying languages, political systems, forms of transportation, religion, and so on. A theme throughout is Scott’s legibility (Seeing Like A State); Robb gives all sorts of examples demonstrating local knowledge, specialized information, and resistance to outsiders.
Often people dramatically underestimate this. It’s easy to assume that the vast nation-states like China or America just sort of came into existence naturally, but this overlooks the amount of effort Chinese/American governments/organizations have put into unification, in aspects ranging from stamping out as many languages and other cultures as possible to simplifying existing languages (particularly striking in China) to enforcing standardized units & measures (encouraging cash crops is a good way) to standardized national educational curriculum inculcating patriotism and common beliefs. You may not think that they are ‘unified’, but they are far more unified than they used to be - contrast the original 13 American colonies to how large America is now, or look at historical maps of Han China with the current boundaries, and think about all the cultural, linguistic, political, and economic differences that used to exist, and how many of, say, the languages are now extinct. (To say nothing of the peoples… Tibet and the American Indians come to mind as examples unique only for the documentation and notice taken of their particular instance.) The process of homogenization and simplification happens in many large countries, for easily-understood reasons such as the convenience of the state. Besides Robb & Scott, some views of this process can be found in Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order for China. (You could also get a bit of the American process out of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States by looking at various incidents in the right way, but that’s too polemical & focused on other topics for me to really recommend.)
This may sound like a very grand theme, but Robb is able to give so many fascinating examples that one forgets the underlying demonstration and just basks in the knowledge of how the past is a very foreign country. (As I mention in my review of The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason, a sense of distance and alienation is one of the things I prize most in historical works - while there is continuity, continuity is easy to find and it is beyond easy to portray the past as proceeding Whiggishly and comprehensibly into the present, obscuring all the ways in which we are profoundly alien from the past.)
Where do I start… The extraordinary fact that until the 20th century, French was only a plurality language in France? The stiltwalking shepherds? The horrifying bits about drunken dying babies being carted to Paris by the ‘angel-makers’? The packs of smuggler dogs who smuggled goods in and out of France for their human masters? (Or the dog-powered factories?) The forgotten persecution of the cagot caste? The Parisian who sold maggots to fisherman, which he raised in his closet on a pile of cat & dog roadkill collected from the streets? The wars between rival villages? The commuting peasants who thought nothing of a 50 mile walk? The strange twists of fate that lead regions to specialize in particular wares? The villages of cretins or families who regard a cretinous child as a gift from god? The mapping of the hidden communication networks that spread rumor at the speed of a horse? The corvée system of road-building, so inefficient at points that transporting the materials to build 1 more meter of a road could destroy more than 1 meter of that same road? All of this and much more is to be found in Robb’s dizzying tour of France, past and present, a tour I found as entertaining as educational.
I made per-chapter excerpts of parts I liked:
|Stories of Your Life and Others||Ted Chiang||★★★★★||2010||2012/12/12||What’s there to say about Chiang that all the others don’t say? He is the closest thing to a modern Jorge Luis Borges in melding high concepts with literature to create something better than either; in some respects, I’d rank his best short stories as better than Gene Wolfe’s. His writing is deceptively excellent: I would call him a writer’s writer, because the flat evenness of his prose may strike a reader as boring unless they have tried to write as clearly themselves and failed abysmally, at which point they begin to appreciate Chiang’s infallible choice of words and lucid prose which sinks into the mind without friction.
Stories of Your Life and Others is much superior to his novella Life Cycle of Software Objects, and contains pretty much all of his greatest short stories which I have read, except for his excellent “Exhalation”. I read most of them online, so when I had the chance to read a hardcopy of the full collection, I seized it.
1. “The Tower of Babylon”; amusing, and in describing the lives of the people living on the tower, moving in some respects. The final ending feels like an appropriate conclusion. If one had to criticize it, it would be that the Tower itself is completely unrealistic even in the Biblical cosmology of the story: as I said, the best Chiang stories unite literature and good ideas. I would rank this #5 of the 8 stories.
2. “Division by Zero”; not terribly impressive - over-wrought, and I feel I have read this story before and better. #7.
3. “Understand”; a classic in the niche genre of superintelligence, and IMO better than Vinge’s “Bookworm, Run!” and at least as good as Flowers for Algernon. Chiang, like every other author, confronts the limits of his writing ability in trying to write convincingly of a superintelligence who is by definition vastly smarter than he is (the same challenge laid down by Campbell to Vinge: “you can’t write this story, and neither can anyone else”), and so the start of the story is much stronger than the later passages. But the whole is still memorable. #4.
4. “Story of Your Life”; I had actually read this one before, and dismissed it as sentimental tripe with some weak physics or linguistic layering that I didn’t really understand. Fortunately, just a few weeks ago I happened to read some material on the Lagrangian interpretations of physics and combined with knowing in advance the ending, I was able to appreciate the story much better this time. I would rank this #3 of the 8 stories. #3.
5. “The Evolution of Human Science”; short, dubious. Not Chiang’s best work, on either dimension. #8.
6. “Seventy-Two Letters”; simply fantastic. The setting is wonderful, the problem great, the ideas even better, and the solution & meaning better still. #2.
7. “Hell Is the Absence of God”; as an atheist who keeps coming back to the Book of Job, this story came as a gut punch. The writing is Chiang at his most Chiang-y, the world interesting and provocative, and the ending simply unspeakable. But don’t take my word for it, ‘decide for yourself’, as the fallen angels say. #1.
8. “Liking What You See: A Documentary”; interesting ideas, but something about the dialogues and characters seem off. It just jars me. #6.
|The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy||Adam Tooze||★★★★★||2007||2014/05/07||A fascinating account of the economic transformation of Germany under the Nazis, the repression & distortion of the German economy, the strategic confusion & ignorance of their best options revealed by shifting armament priorities (such as the underemphasis on tanks & overemphasis on surface ships), the difficulties imposed by exchange rates, how often Germany teetered on the brink of disaster, and how Hitler’s constant focus on the danger of the American juggernaut guided his grand strategy; Nazi Germany’s militarization based on debt induced competing arms races / instability an the country quickly (and only temporarily) became the deadliest shark in the European waters, which had to desperately keep swimming forward & taking insane gambles if it was not to choke to death on its own accumulated wastes & bad decisions, in the hopes that it could eat all its enemies before they woke up & ate it, and while the shark got a reprieve in Austria and then the freak victory in France, it eventually hit a wall in Russia and died after thrashing around for a while.
Tooze’s account of WWII explains many otherwise baffling points for me, such as the focus on futuristic weapons or why Nazi Germany sought an alliance with Japan even at the cost of declaring war on the USA & striking FDR’s shackles, why it invaded the USSR with less than an ultimate effort, and the economic consequences of its conquests (predictable to anyone who’s read Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies). Particularly surprising is Tooze’s description of how impoverished Germany was in comparison to rival countries (despite the gleaming technology and Blitzkrieg we associate with Nazi Germany, and the industrial conglomerates like IG Farben with Imperial Germany, most of Germany was still rural & unproductive, and the country abjectly dependent on imports to maintain its agriculture; Tooze includes a very telling anecdote: Ford Motors, when considering a plant in Germany, found that to give its blue-collar American workers their accustomed lifestyle would require expenses 4x that of normal blue-collar German workers; and horses will feature repeatedly throughout). Tooze also does a good job delineating how the Holocaust both exacerbated and helped with the severe labor & resource problems Nazi Germany began facing, and covers how it was a logical outcome of earlier policies: emigration failed because the German balance of payments did not allow for the Jews to leave with anything like their actual wealth, and unsurprisingly many Jews were not so fearful as to emigrate penniless, and starvation in camps was not far from the earlier Wehrmacht plan to make the conquest of the Ukraine pay by simply starving to death 30 million Slavs to free up food harvests. Indeed, given all the constraints and necessary imports in the 1930s and 1940s, one really has to wonder how contemporary Germany can be so wealthy and whether it really is due to labor reforms or thanks to the Euro…
One flaw is that Tooze freely goes from macro to micro, from the overall economy to very small subindustries or benchmarks, and it’s easy to get lost. And while the book covers the international finance in enough detail to understand it (and things like why Schacht was the ‘dark wizard of international finance’), I don’t think he does as good a job as Lords of Finance, which should probably be read before Wages of Destruction so one understands the international gold standard, and the French and British actions in the inter-war period.
|Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World||Liaquat Ahamed||★★★★★||2009||2012/09/16||I enjoyed this tremendously for revealing a new world to me where I thought I already knew the lay of the land. Throughout were revelations to me - just how ruinous WWI was, how reparations kept echoing and damaging Germany, how exactly the hyperinflation started (it was only partly the Versailles payments but more the social programs?), how America aggravated the issue (the Coolidge quote and the American tourists certainly never appeared in my history textbooks…), how late the stock bubble was and the details of the endless succession of crises that rocked Europe. It’s also interesting to understand why Keynes had such a grip on economics until recently: he predicted repeatedly what would happen, and it’s hard not to sympathize a great deal with him.
As far as criticism goes, I can agree with some of the other reviewers: Ahamed sometimes goes overboard with the narration, and skimps on the details one might want. He provides no convenient graphical network of how factors affect each other in a gold economy, so one is left constantly being surprised by connections, and the rare graph is not very helpful - for example, he provides a time graph of the big economies’ rises and falls in growths, and remarks that their recoveries in the Great Depression… and nowhere on the graph marks for each country the year in which they left gold! Well, that graph wasn’t very informative or helpful - Tufte would not be pleased.
Applying it to modern times is a little harder, although the ironies are many (particularly the Germans being hardasses on debt now, when they seemed to understand not all debts could be paid after WWI… -_-). One thing that struck me was how the nationalist demonstrations & protests in Germany reminded me of what I hear in China these days - which has a somewhat similar per capita GDP as those nations and is in a similar period of industrial growth, and indeed, is the young turk of Germany to the old tired island-nation England of Japan, with South Korea as a nervous smaller neighbor (France?). And China is quite aggressive lately. Before WWI, it was rightly pointed out that such a war between such networked nations as France/Germany/England would lead to ruin; and right now, one could point out a similar thing with China/SK/Japan/USA. But nevertheless, before WWI, they thought they could have a short victorious war against an encircling enemy; does China think it can have a short victorious war against their encircling enemy, the USA-coordinate nations? I don’t think it does, but I do think people underestimate the risk of war in East Asia. (Of course it could never happen; just like WWI could never happen.)
|Bias in Mental Testing||Arthur R. Jensen||★★★★★||1980||2015/10/22||(410k words / 840 pages; online edition; WP) One of the classics in the field, Jensen sets out to explain almost everything, it seems, in psychometrics, from the core concept of error-prone measurements and extracting factors to the various tests available, their correlates, concrete justifications for why the normal distribution is more than an assumption of convenience (a number of the points were new to me), exhaustive coverage of the core topic of various kinds of bias and evidence against them, to culture-fair tests, and finally how mental testing is best employed. (There is also some discussion of behavioral genetics and what the genetic architecture of intelligence might be, but that’s a minor topic and he gives more attention to other things like reaction-time research.)
Discussion of the topics straddles that fine line between too informal and too formal, as Jensen is careful to introduce and explain each concept as he goes and includes excellent summaries at the end of each chapter to the point where this would make a good textbook and it is so readable that I think even new tudents to statistics could understand almost everything in the book (at least, as long as they paid attention and occasionally checked back to the glossary to be reminded of which of the many formulas is relevant to a particular point; there is a ton of content and skimming will not work).
Overall, my impression is extremely positive. I’m especially impressed that despite now being 35+ years old (and hence based on research from before then), there’s hardly anything substantive I can object to. The statistical principles are largely the same, the black-white gap has hardly budged, the lack of bias remains accepted, etc. I saw no large mistakes or content that has been totally obsoleted, and in some areas one would have to say Jensen is being constantly vindicated by the latest research - in particular, in arguing for the genetics of people of non-retarded intelligence being largely uniform over the intelligence range and governed by a large number of additive alleles (yielding an objective normal distribution), none of it needs any correction. Afterwards I read a recent review, “Bias in mental testing since Bias in Mental Testing”, Brown et al 1999, comes to the same conclusion.
|The Notenki Memoirs: Studio Gainax and the Men Who Created Evangelion||Yasuhiro Takeda||★★★★★||2005||2009/01/01||For people interested in the history of the anime industry, Takeda fills in many gaps related to Gainax - it’s hard to think of any source which covers nearly so well DAICON III, DAICON IV, General Products, or throws in so many tidbits about surrounding people & Japanese SF fandom. It is an invaluable resource for any researcher, and I felt compelled to create an annotated e-book edition in order to elucidate various points and be able to link its claims with versions of stories by other people (for example, Okada’s extensive Animerica interview)
Those reading it solely for Evangelion material will probably be relatively disappointed: Takeda clearly finds NGE not very interesting, may have bad associations due to being targeted in the tax raids, and he was writing this in 2000 or so - too close to the events and still working at Gainax to really give a tell-all, and it’s not a terribly long or dense book in the first place. Nevertheless, NGE fans will still find many revelations here, like the origin of NGE production in the failure of the Aoki Uru film project (an origin simply not present in any Western sources before Notenki Memoirs was translated).
In general, Takeda is not interested in a ‘tell-all’; perhaps it’s due to fear, perhaps too many people involved are still alive and kicking, but he only covers the embarrassing things which are too well-known to omit, like the aforementioned tax raid or Toshio Okada’s ouster from Gainax.
I read it several times, and that was how I wound up transcribing my copy into a webpage which I could annotate with cross-references and interviews with other figures like Okada or Anno - I realized I could keep rereading it, or just do the job right the first time. It’s been a valuable resource for me ever since.
|The Remains of the Day||Kazuo Ishiguro||★★★★★||2005||2012/07/21||Of Ishiguro’s novels, this is the most elegant, most restrained, and most English. The prose is so smooth that like Gene Wolfe’s, it becomes invisible, and you pass through it to the slow silent sorrow of the protagonist. Ishiguro makes the tragedy clear enough, shows us the heart of the story, but without ever being gauche.
In July 2012, I re-read it and for good measure, I watched the movie too. (The movie, IMO, was pretty good with excellent casting, if unfortunately often blunter than the novel and the ending especially so.)
What struck me this time through was the ending of the novel: the butler has come to realize that his life has been suboptimal and less joyful than it could have been because he shunned Miss Kenton and denied his emotions out of a misguided sense of professionalism. But instead of the typical Hollywood ending where he woos Miss Kenton or quits his job etc, he realizes that it really is too late: his and Miss Kenton’s day is almost over, and the important thing to do is make the most of ‘the remains of the day’, which for him is returning to his butlering job but being less rigid and more human.
It is, in other words, a beautiful tale of not honoring sunk costs or pursuing lost opportunities.
|The Book of Lord Shang. a Classic of the Chinese School of Law.||Shang Yang||★★★★★||2011||2008/01/01||The Book of Lord Shang was very hard for me to read: there is something sublime about it, in the old sense of “terrifying” - the policies and reasoning laid out are a systematic crushing of anything that might oppose the State and its goals. It feels inhuman, mechanical, and all the more so when you know that these sort of policies were how the Qin crushed all their opposition - including those states espousing the other Hundred Schools of Thought like Mohism & Confucianism - and that the 20th century affords further examples of how these policies proved themselves in practice (unlike the former Schools).
It’s no wonder that there are so many negative reviews on the other copies here at Goodreads: you might as well ask your normal liberal Western to drink rat poison as read The Book of Lord Shang & try to fairly evaluate it. Even if they’ve read their share of Chinese classics & philosophy, they wouldn’t want to understand it, just like modern readers don’t want to understand the Unabomber’s philosophy.
(The version I read was an ebook version of Duyvlord.)
|The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution||Francis Fukuyama||★★★★★||2011||2012/01/01||It is, overall, an excellent book and one of the better ones on grand history I’ve read†… but Fukuyama does not have a very transparent prose style, and makes no concessions to those who don’t have a good grasp on global history and especially those who don’t know their Chinese history well (eg. if you can’t put the Qing, Han, Qin, and Shang dynasty in order, you aren’t going to enjoy at all the large amounts of material he rightfully devotes to Chinese politics). And it’s seriously big, no kidding. This is no fluffy Guns, Germs, and Steel walk through the park!
† for example, I found some sections very useful for structuring my thinking on the evolution of ethics and regard for ancestors.
|The Histories||Herodotus||★★★★★||2003||Decided to finally read Herodotus after I read Gene Wolfe’s historical fantasy novel Solder of Arete which draws heavily on him, and then when I had to track down a quote on LessWrong.com to the exact Herodotus passage. Overall, far more interesting than I had expected. Surprisingly funny or interesting anecdotes. There is a superfusion of gods and oracles, which was curious - the oracles truly were treacherous! The Persian kings come off as remarkably capricious and destructive, even the good ones. And Herodotus has a strange capacity to skeptically reason well & sensibly and then be completely superstitious in the next passage. Having read about these ancient events many times, I found half the value was just seeing a thorough account from a single Greek’s perspective.|
|The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined||Steven Pinker||★★★★★||2011||This was really really good, as in, maybe the best book I’ve read that year. Time and again, I was shocked to find subjects treated of keen interest to me, or which read like Pinker had taken some of my essays but done them way better (on terrorism, on the expanding circle, etc.); even so, I was surprised to learn new things (resource problems don’t correlate well with violence?).
I initially thought I might excerpt some parts of it for an essay or article, but as the quotes kept piling up, I realized that it was hopeless. Reading reviews or discussions of it is not enough; Pinker just covers too much and rebuts too many possible criticisms. It’s very long, as a result, but absorbing.
|The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet||David Mitchell||★★★★★||2010||Finally got around to reading it. It was surprisingly unliterary and unpostmodern for Mitchell, but in exchange, he nailed the historical details and gave us an adventure which subverted many of the usual tropes - the raid on the nunnery was just a trap, the hero doesn’t get the girl, his chief heroism was standing there to be shot at, and the man who takes down the big baddie is someone we thought to be entirely in the baddie’s pocket. The supernatural aspects are implied to be genuine, but it’s never resolved, which I am grateful for. It would ruin the feel.|
|Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman||James Gleick||★★★★★||1993||2014/04/08||A solid biography, though I don’t have anything in particular to say about it. It throws in all the classic anecdotes and quotes you expect (which are more than worth their weight in gold - certainly, the price of admission) doesn’t try to whitewash Feynman despite the temptation to hero-worship, and includes some critical examination, does at least try to explain all the physics which earned Feynman his prestige, etc. It’s a well-regarded widely-read biography on an excellent subject which I have nothing to say against.|
|The Collapse of Complex Societies||Joseph A. Tainter||★★★★★||1990||Very good: much better than Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and much more convincing than Spengler or Toynbee.
It was also deeply disturbing - the Ik amazed me in chapter 1, and the statistics in chapter 4 were extremely dismal and tie in far too well to Cowen’s The Great Stagnation and Murray’s Human Accomplishment. There are a great many datapoints suggesting that diminishing marginal returns to modern tech/science began sometime in the late 1800s/early 1900s…
|Star Maker||Olaf Stapledon||★★★★★||1999||Star Maker is one of the very few SF books that I’d place up there with Blindsight and a few others in depicting truly alien aliens; and he doesn’t do it once but repeatedly throughout the book. It’s really impressive how Stapledon just casually scatters around handfuls of jewels that lesser authors might belabor singly throughout an entire book.|
|Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea||Barbara Demick||★★★★★||2009||Highly recommended. Probably the second best book I’ve read about North Korea, after B.R. Myer’s The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.|
|Schismatrix Plus||Bruce Sterling||★★★★★||1996||2010/11/13||Quite remarkable. One of the best solar system colonization universes with a baroque and cyberpunk-inflected computer/biology split.|
|Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery||Henry Marsh||★★★★★||2014||2015/11/02|
|The Sign of the Seahorse||Graeme Base||★★★★★||1998||1999/01/01|
|100 Suns||Michael Light||★★★★★||2003|
|The Collected Songs Of Cold Mountain||Han-shan||★★★★★||1983|
|Raptor Red||Robert T. Bakker||★★★★★||1996|
|The Jewish War||Flavius Josephus||★★★★★||1981|
|Cicero’s Treatise on the Nature of the Gods||Charles Duke Yonge||★★★★★||2010|
|Codex Seraphinianus||Luigi Serafini||★★★★★||1981|
|The Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland||Winsor McCay||★★★★★||1997|
|Code: Version 2.0||Lawrence Lessig||★★★★★||2006|
|The Complete Winnie the Pooh||A.A. Milne||★★★★★||1992|
|Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 5: Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 6: Military Technology: Missiles and Sieges||Joseph Needham||★★★★★||1995|
|The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade||Alfred W. McCoy||★★★★★||2003|
|A Presocratics Reader||Richard D. McKirahan||★★★★★||1996|
|Unforgotten Dreams: Poems by the Zen Monk Shotetsu||Steven D. Carter||★★★★★||1996|
|The Secret History of Star Wars||Michael Kaminski||★★★★★||2008|
|The Golden Age (Golden Age #1)||John C. Wright||★★★★★||2003|
|The Napoleon of Notting Hill||G.K. Chesterton||★★★★★||2008|
|Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||1997|
|The Protracted Game: A Wei-Ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy||Scott Boorman||★★★★★||1971|
|The Westing Game||Ellen Raskin||★★★★★||2004|
|Strega Nona||Tomie dePaola||★★★★★||1975|
|The Velveteen Rabbit||Margery Williams||★★★★★||1990|
|Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Charlie Bucket, #1)||Roald Dahl||★★★★★||2005|
|The Very Hungry Caterpillar||Eric Carle||★★★★★||1992|
|The Tale of Peter Rabbit||Beatrix Potter||★★★★★||2002|
|The Book of Imaginary Beings||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||2006|
|Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead||Tom Stoppard||★★★★★||1994|
|Zen Flesh, Zen Bones||Paul Reps||★★★★★||1971|
|The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering||Frederick P. Brooks Jr.||★★★★★||1995|
|From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler||E.L. Konigsburg||★★★★★||2003|
|The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death (Snarkout Boys, #1)||Daniel Pinkwater||★★★★★||1983|
|Compact Oxford English Dictionary (Third Edition Revised)||Oxford University Press||★★★★★||2008|
|The Complete Calvin and Hobbes||Bill Watterson||★★★★★||2005|
|Ring (Xeelee Sequence, #4)||Stephen Baxter||★★★★★||2001|
|Principles of Forecasting: A Handbook for Researchers and Practitioners||Jon Scott Armstrong||★★★★★||2002|
|Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained (Signet Classics)||John Milton||★★★★★||1968|
|The Poetic Edda||Anonymous||★★★★★||1986|
|The Ring of the Nibelung||Richard Wagner||★★★★★||1977||2006/01/01|
|Travelers of a Hundred Ages: The Japanese as Revealed Through 1,000 Years of Diaries||Donald Keene||★★★★★||1999|
|One Hundred Famous Views of Edo||Hiroshige Utagawa||★★★★★||2004|
|Ficciones||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||1994|
|Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior||Geoffrey Miller||★★★★★||2009|
|Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed||James C. Scott||★★★★★||1998|
|Is There Anything Good about Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men||Roy F. Baumeister||★★★★★||2010|
|Treasure Island||Robert Louis Stevenson||★★★★★||2001|
|Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Extraordinary Voyages, #6)||Jules Verne||★★★★★||2002|
|Wizard’s First Rule (Sword of Truth, #1)||Terry Goodkind||★★★★★||2003|
|What Is Life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches||Erwin Schrödinger||★★★★★||1992|
|Invisible Cities||Italo Calvino||★★★★★||1974|
|Mark Lombardi: Global Networks||Mark Lombardi||★★★★★||2003|
|Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength||Roy F. Baumeister||★★★★★||2011|
|The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith||Cordwainer Smith||★★★★★||1993|
|Gormenghast (Gormenghast, #2)||Mervyn Peake||★★★★★||1998|
|Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950||Charles Murray||★★★★★||2004|
|Little, Big||John Crowley||★★★★★||2006|
|A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World||Gregory Clark||★★★★★||2007|
|The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography||Aleister Crowley||★★★★★||1989|
|A Colder War||Charles Stross||★★★★★||2005|
|Against the Day||Thomas Pynchon||★★★★★||2006|
|Gravity’s Rainbow||Thomas Pynchon||★★★★★||2006|
|James and the Giant Peach||Roald Dahl||★★★★★||2002|
|Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures||Tyler Cowen||★★★★★||2004|
|The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind||Julian Jaynes||★★★★★||2000|
|Rationality and the Reflective Mind||Keith E. Stanovich||★★★★★||2010|
|The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?||David Brin||★★★★★||1999|
|The Consolation of Philosophy||Boethius||★★★★★||1999|
|City of Golden Shadow (Otherland, #1)||Tad Williams||★★★★★||1998|
|The Stars My Destination||Alfred Bester||★★★★★||1996|
|A Canticle for Leibowitz||Walter M. Miller Jr.||★★★★★||2006|
|The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, #1)||Stephen King||★★★★★||2003|
|Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art||Scott McCloud||★★★★★||1994|
|Hell is the Absence of God||Ted Chiang||★★★★★||2002|
|Strategy (Second Revised Edition)||B.H. Liddell Hart||★★★★★||1991|
|The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire||Edward N. Luttwak||★★★★★||2009|
|Clock Of The Long Now: Time And Responsibility: The Ideas Behind The World’s Slowest Computer||Stewart Brand||★★★★★||2000|
|Alice in Wonderland (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, #1)||Lewis Carroll||★★★★★||2004|
|Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, #2)||Lewis Carroll||★★★★★||1993|
|Snow Crash||Neal Stephenson||★★★★★||2000|
|Heart of Darkness||Joseph Conrad||★★★★★||2003|
|Dreamtigers||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||1985|
|Selected Non-Fictions||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||2000|
|The Library of Babel||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||2000|
|Collected Fictions||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||1999|
|Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, #2)||Frank Herbert||★★★★★||1987|
|The Leopard||Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa||★★★★★||2007|
|The Fall of Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos #2)||Dan Simmons||★★★★★||1995|
|Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1)||Dan Simmons||★★★★★||1990|
|Ender’s Game (The Ender Quintet, #1)||Orson Scott Card||★★★★★||1994|
|Foucault’s Pendulum||Umberto Eco||★★★★★||2007|
|Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?||Philip E. Tetlock||★★★★★||2006|
|The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Chronicles of Narnia, #3)||C.S. Lewis||★★★★★||2006|
|The Cyberiad||Stanisław Lem||★★★★★||2002|
|The Martian Chronicles||Ray Bradbury||★★★★★||1984|
|Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)||Frank Herbert||★★★★★||2006|
|The Selfish Gene||Richard Dawkins||★★★★★||2006|
|Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time||Michael Shermer||★★★★★||2002|
|Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics||Gary L. Drescher||★★★★★||2006|
|The Player of Games (Culture, #2)||Iain M. Banks||★★★★★||1997|
|A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought, #1)||Vernor Vinge||★★★★★||1993|
|The Devil Is Dead||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★★||1999|
|Dangerous Visions||Harlan Ellison||★★★★★||2002|
|Fourth Mansions||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★★||1969|
|Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions||Edwin A. Abbott||★★★★★||1992|
|Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass||Lewis Carroll||★★★★★||2000|
|A Study in Emerald||Neil Gaiman||★★★★★||2007|
|The Absolute Sandman, Volume Two||Neil Gaiman||★★★★★||2007|
|The Absolute Sandman, Volume One||Neil Gaiman||★★★★★||2006|
|The Sandman: The Dream Hunters||Neil Gaiman||★★★★★||2000|
|The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes||Neil Gaiman||★★★★★||1998|
|Nightside the Long Sun (The Book of the Long Sun #1)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★★||1993|
|The Book of the New Sun||Gene Wolfe||★★★★★||1998|
|Latro in the Mist||Gene Wolfe||★★★★★||2003|
|Sword & Citadel (The Book of the New Sun #3-4)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★★||1994|
|The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun #1)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★★||1984|
|Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun #1-2)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★★||1994|
|Great Mambo Chicken And The Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly Over The Edge||Ed Regis||★★★★★||1991|
|Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language||Douglas R. Hofstadter||★★★★★||1998|
|Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid||Douglas R. Hofstadter||★★★★★||1999|
|True Names: and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier||Vernor Vinge||★★★★★||2001|
|Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science)||Harold Abelson||★★★★★||1996|
|The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary||Eric S. Raymond||★★★★★||2001|
|In the Beginning…Was the Command Line||Neal Stephenson||★★★★★||1999|
|The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier||Bruce Sterling||★★★★★||1993|
|Blindsight (Firefall, #1)||Peter Watts||★★★★★||2006|
|Toast, and Other Stories||Charles Stross||★★★★★||2005|
|Permutation City (Subjective Cosmology #2)||Greg Egan||★★★★★||1995|
|Kiln People||David Brin||★★★★★||2002|
|The Demolished Man||Alfred Bester||★★★★★||1999|
|Stand on Zanzibar||John Brunner||★★★★★||1999|
|A Deepness in the Sky (Zones of Thought, #2)||Vernor Vinge||★★★★★||2000|
|The Gap Into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die (Gap, #5)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★★||1996|
|Ender’s Game, Volume 1: Battle School (Ender’s Saga)||Christopher Yost||★★★★★||2009|
|The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)||J.R.R. Tolkien||★★★★★||2003|
|Past, Present, and Future of Statistical Science||Xihong Lin||★★★★||2014||2014/07/13||Past, Present, and Future of Statistical Science (ed. Lin et al 2014) is a large (52 chapters by ~50 contributors, 643 pages, 9.8M PDF) anthology of essays/articles/reviews/lists touching on all sorts of topics by many famous names (Efron, Rubin, Gelman, Wasserman, Tibshirani, Laird, Cook) - some of whom I know solely from methods bearing their names! The typesetting is tasteful & of high quality, with so many equations & graphs my PDF viewer visibly lags when scrolling. I read about it on Andrew Gelman’s blog & thought it would be interesting to read a broad survey of what’s going on in statistics.
The anthology ranges from bureaucracy to professional autobio to reviews of subfields to speculations & challenges about future developments to advice about publishing & research. (Probably it would have been better to turn this into 2 volumes: the readers interested in careers & advice have to the technical material, while readers interested in that may not survive the sections about COPSS & autobios.) Since statisticians get involved with any topic they please, the subject areas range from deer in Canada - & trying not to fall out of the helicopter - to traveling to the moon to breast cancer to polygraphs.
Given the heterogeneity, much of it was boring or over my head or both, but much was interesting & I learned about novel topics. In one chapter, a survey statistician reminiscences about how she stumbled into statistics accidentally & fighting sexism in her early career & another mentions that the methodological debates over the famous Kinsey studies of sexuality were her entree to biostatistics while a third was unfairly treated by a Coast Guard exam & learned statistics to prove the exam was bogus while yet a fourth picked math as his major because the signup line at the college was shorter & thereby wandered into the intersection of statistics & agriculture, & in another chapter, Arthur Dempster is still gamely defending the Dempster-Shafer paradigm of statistics after all these years, while in yet another chapter there is a discussion of issues in high-dimensional data I couldn’t understand etc.
The introductory bits about the history of COPSS were boring, self-indulgent, & devoid of explanations why the organization functioned or what good it did or why outsiders valued it & what really went on inside it.
The autobiography section features people who can remember all the way back to the 1920s or so, a time when statistics was very different than it is now. Reading them a few at a time (they’re generally easy reads), a number of interesting trends pop up. For example, people seem to get married extremely young, as grad students or undergrads, after short romances; it’s impossible to mistake the computing revolution: before the 1960s or so, computers & techniques requiring a great deal of computation never come up, but then they become increasingly common (sometimes with shocking details: one person mentions that to test a cool new idea, using a simulation method, ate their department’s entire computer budget for that month) & transformed approaches starting in the ‘80s, & Bickel mentions in his essay his “pleased surprise that some of my asymptotic theory based ideas, in particular, one-step estimates, really worked” when implemented on modern computers; a subtrend here is also that Bayesian methods seem to explode overnight then too & even frequentists begin borrowing Bayesian techniques & logic when useful (thankfully, Tukey’s quip that “The collective noun for a group of statisticians is a quarrel” may no longer be true); WWII appears as a clear break-line in the earliest autobios, & to judge by the autobios (a selected sample to be sure!) academia used to be far less competitive & one could (in the great post-WWII expansion) almost fall into a tenured position. Some bios are humorous, like Olkin’s :
…Wald had a classic European lecture style. He started at the upper left corner of the blackboard and finished at the lower right. The lectures were smooth and the delivery was a uniform distribution.
Or the history related is surprising, for example, the revelation that the Chernoff bound was actually proven by Rubin (yes, he did that too) in Chernoff’s essay “A career in statistics”, where he mentions a tragicomic incident in rocketry where a clever method for course-correction turned out to be unnecessary.While Cook’s distance in looking for problems in linear models stems from one bizarre rat (“Reflections on a statistical career and their implications”):
…I redid his calculations, looked at residual plots and performed a few other checks that were standard for the time. This confirmed his results, leading to the possibilities that either there was something wrong with the experiment, which he denied, or his prior expectations were off. All in all, this was not a happy outcome for either of us.
And naturally, someone will choose to go meta & criticize the implicit goal of the autobios & explicit goal of the career advice section - as one would hope of statisticians, he recognizes the epistemological peril of a series of highly-selected freeform anecdotes; Terry Speed in “Never ask for or give advice, make mistakes, accept mediocrity, enthuse”:
What’s wrong with advice? For a start, people giving advice lie. That they do so with the best intentions doesn’t alter this fact. This point has been summarized nicely by Radhika Nagpal (2013). I say trust the people who tell you “I have no idea what I’d do in a comparable situation. Perhaps toss a coin.” Of course people don’t say that, they tell you what they’d like to do or wish they had done in some comparable situation. You can hope for better. What do statisticians do when we have to choose between treatments A and B, where there is genuine uncertainty within the expert community about the preferred treatment? Do we look for a statistician over 40 and ask them which treatment we should choose? We don’t, we recommend running a randomized experiment, ideally a double-blind one, and we hope to achieve a high adherence to the assigned treatment from our subjects. So, if you really don’t know what to do, forget advice, just toss a coin, and do exactly what it tells you. But you are an experiment with n = 1, you protest. Precisely. What do you prefer with n = 1: an observational study or a randomized trial? (It’s a pity the experiment can’t be singly, much less doubly blinded.) You may wonder whether a randomized trial is justified in your circumstances. That’s a very important point. Is it true that there is genuine uncertainty within the expert community (i.e., you) about the preferred course of action? If not, then choosing at random between your two options is not only unethical, it’s stupid.
Not all life incidents are amusing. In Gray’s “Promoting equity”, in between fighting the good fight, she proudly relates an incident I would be ashamed of, especially were I a statistician:
Early in my career I received a notice from Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), the retirement plan used at most private and many public universities including American University, listing what I could expect in retirement benefits from my contribution and those of the university in the form of x dollars per $100,000 in my account at age 65. There were two columns, one headed “women” and a second, with amounts 15% higher, headed “men.” When I contacted the company to point out that Title VII prohibited discrimination in fringe benefits as well as in salary, I was informed that the figures represented discrimination on the basis of “longevity,” not on the basis of sex.
A statistician asking for guarantees! & why should voluntary lifestyle changes affect whether a predictable difference be compensated for? Pensions are job compensation, not a moral code handed down from on high, & if men do not live as long as women, ’equal’ pay is never equal & defrauds them. Or, would Gray be against maternal leave, seeing as pregnancy is a “voluntary lifestyle choice”? & consider the sophistry: “in large part” - so would she have supported a differential which corresponded to the residual? If their analysis had showed up that black men drink & smoke even more than white men, would Gray be pleased to see a ‘black penalty’ applied to their pension payments? When is equal not equal? As always, one merely needs to ask: “who, whom?”
The autobiographical essays are interesting, but somewhat dry. I was pleased to reach the meat of the anthology: the freeform technical papers. Some of the chapters introduced me to ideas I had missed, such as the “bet on sparsity” argument (Cook, pg103), which reminds me of one folk argument for Occam’s razor: you should assume the world is relatively simple & predictable & take actions based on that belief, because if the world is that way, then your actions will attain their ends & that is good, while if the world is inherently complex/unpredictable, then your actions will have no net effect which is neither good nor bad, so the former scenario dominates the latter. I paid close attention to Tibshirani’s paper later in the volume, “In praise of sparsity and convexity”.
Similarly, Dunson’s “Nonparametric Bayes” introduced me to an area I had little inkling of prior. The biostatistics papers (eg Breslow’s “Lessons in biostatistics” or Flournoy’s “A vignette of discovery”) bring up interesting challenges & biases to keep in mind when evaluating the latest clinical research (a skill useful for anyone), & leave me heartened at the life-saving practical work that field is doing. Nan M. Laird’s “Meta-analyses: Heterogeneity can be a good thing” reminded me of the need, when doing my own meta-analyses, to not simply ignore high I2/heterogeneity but think hard about what moderators I should include to try to explain some of it. Others raised interesting questions I’ve wondered about myself, for example, Xiao-Li Meng in “A trio of inference problems” asks how big a biased sample of a population has to be before it’s of comparable quality to a random sample:
Over the century, statisticians, social scientists, and others have amply demonstrated theoretically and empirically that (say) a 5% probabilistic/random sample is better than any 5% non-random samples in many measurable ways, e.g., bias, MSE, confidence coverage, predictive power, etc. However, we have not studied questions such as “Is an 80% non-random sample ‘better’ than a 5% random sample in measurable terms? 90%? 95%? 99%?” This question was raised during a fascinating presentation by Dr. Jeremy Wu…The synthetic data created for LED used more than 20 data sources in the LEHD (Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics) system. These sources vary from survey data such as a monthly survey of 60,000 households, which represent only .05% of US households, to administrative records such as unemployment insurance wage records, which cover more than 90% of the US workforce, to census data such as the quarterly census of earnings and wages, which includes about 98% of US jobs (Wu, 2012 and personal communication from Wu). The administrative records such as those in LEHD are not collected for the purpose of statistical inference, but rather because of legal requirements, business practice, political considerations, etc. They tend to cover a large percentage of the population, and therefore they must contain useful information for inference.
which is what I’ve wondered while working on my census of biracial characters, since my sample is biased but capture-recapture analysis indicates I’ve compiled up to 1/3 of the population, so how much does that compensate, does it drive the error from biases down to the same size as the sampling error? Meng derives an inequality:
For example, even if ns = 100, we would need over 96% of the population if ρN = .5 [level of bias]. This reconfirms the power of probabilistic sampling and reminds us of the danger in blindly trusting that “Big Data” must give us better answers. On the other hand, if ρN = .1, then we will need only 50% of the population to beat a SRS [simple random sample] with ns = 100…the same ρN = .1 also implies that a 96% subpopulation will beat a SRS as large as ns = … 2400, which is no longer a practically irrelevant sample size.
Berger’s “Conditioning is the issue” is a bit lost on me but interesting is one passage’s discussion of turning notorious p-values into something more meaningful, error probabilities:
The practical import of switching to conditional frequentist testing (or the equivalent objective Bayesian testing) is startling. For instance, Sellke et al. (2001) uses a nonparametric setting to develop the following very general lower bound on α(s), for a given p-value…p = .05, which many erroneously think implies strong evidence against H0, actually corresponds to a conditional frequentist error probability at least as large as .289, which is a rather large error probability. If scientists understood that a p-value of .05 corresponded to that large a potential error probability in rejection, the scientific world would be a quite different place.TABLE 23.1
Other papers are a bit of a misfire: I hadn’t heard of “symbolic data” before Lynne Billard’s “The past’s future is now: What will the present’s future bring?”, & the paper still leaves me wondering what it really is.
Some I had already read - Gelman & Wasserman has already blogged about their entries.
And still others make one wonder; in Rubin’s interesting retrospective of his greatest-hits, “Converting rejections into positive stimuli”, he encourages the reader to not be discouraged by the journal submission process as it is so random & some of his best papers were rejected - which makes me wonder, ‘so why have this whole journal rigmarole if rejection means so little…? would you use a statistical test which exhibited such poor calibration & discrimination?’ & his remark that “if you are repeatedly told by some reviewers that everyone knows what you are saying, but without specific references, and other reviewers are saying what you are writing is completely wrong but without decent reasons, you are probably on to something” is true.
Overall, the anthology is interesting & worth reading (if not each and every paper).
|The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank||David Plotz||★★★★||2006||2016/07/11||
Millionaire Robert Graham’s Repository for Germinal Choice (1980-1999) sperm bank was founded as a form of positive eugenics in order to encourage sperm donation by gifted men (initially Nobelists) for use in the nascent field of artificial insemination. Launched to instant infamy, it turned out to have actually struck a major chord among women seeking sperm, who were generally treated extremely shabbily by the medical establishment which when doing as it pleased, casually chose donors largely at random and denied the women any kind of choice or information about the donor (Plotz notes the first recorded case of artificial insemination involved abruptly chloroforming the woman and using a random medical student). However, it encountered perennial troubles in obtaining sufficient supplies, as artificial insemination (not necessarily/usually IVF, as I assumed for most of the book until I finally realized my mistake) used up large quantities of semen before a successful pregnancy, so the lack of Nobelist participants (between the rigorous medical testing and the notoriety) immediately forced a switch to less distinguished donors; further, fees charged to women never came close to covering the operating expenses of recruiting those donors and schlepping all the semen around, even as other sperm banks adopted the Repository’s innovation of stringent health examinations & forcing Graham to sustain the Repository himself, and while he arranged for millionaire Floyd Kimble to take over funding the Repository when he died, that millionaire then soon died himself without having made any further provisions! Graham’s family was happy to see the sperm bank die, and that was that.
Around 2000, journalist David Plotz began a 13-part Slate investigative report describing the positive eugenics background, history of the sperm bank, and trying to find donors/mothers/offspring - succeeding in reaching a small fraction of them. The online series includes some of their personal reactions to their experience, beliefs about the harm, some of them being reconnected with each other, descriptions of their current circumstances etc.
The first question about this book is, is it worth reading if you’ve already read the Slate articles and are interested in learning more? Yes. The background on Graham, Shockley, and modern sperm banking is much more extensive in the book, and it goes into substantially more detail about the donors/mothers/offspring. For example, the Slate series has one 2001 post focusing on “Donor White”, who had not been found by that point; but White showed up afterwards, was interviewed extensively by Plotz (much of the book is in the first-person), and interacted a great deal with Beth/Joy over the following years, all of which is in The Genius Factory but not the Slate articles. He also corrects/updates a number of assertions (eg how exactly the Repository closed, with the online version concluding vaguely that it must have shut down because Graham somehow just didn’t bother to put anything in his will and his relatives didn’t support it, while the book version fixes this by bringing in Kimble and explaining what went wrong; apparently none of these corrections have been added to the Slate versions, checking back).
It’s interesting seeing how disparate peoples’ reactions to the sperm bank are, ranging from (the proper) indifference to considerable curiosity to almost neurotic obsession. I also appreciated the book expanding on the descriptions of the offspring and their successes even in trying circumstances, and the modern sperm banking industry, which is hard to get a read on because it’s so private (eg Plotz quotes Repository staff noting that, as long suggested, prospective mothers value highly height and health; leafing through the catalogue, everyone is a positive eugenicist), and the issue of where the unrelated fathers stand (in a very difficult one, and at least for the women who contacted Plotz, in a generally untenable one, although he notes the selection bias). So I enjoyed much of the book and read it in one or two sittings.
Much of this is relevant to anyone thinking about the current prospects for embryo selection on traits. The estrangement of fathers emphasizes how naive it is to hope that merely offering some sperm of better genetic quality would be enough to encourage en masse usage: genetic relatedness is far too important to almost everyone, and giving up relatedness for better traits is inherently insulting to the cuckolded father; egg/sperm donors are always a last resort. (This is something the iterated embryo selection & genome synthesis approaches must grapple with; who will use your optimized eggs/sperms if it means the child will be 50% or 100% unrelated to the birth-parents? On the other hand, regular embryo selection & CRISPR preserve relatedness almost entirely.) The lure of greater intelligence turns out, surprisingly, to not matter as much to the mothers as does height/athleticism/health and avoiding below-average outcomes. So mothers prize physical attributes as much or more than mental ones, and are risk-averse; suggesting the importance of doing selection on multiple traits of which intelligence is only one and perhaps not even the most important one and of emphasizing that we have excellent height polygenic scores which right now would allow height increases of <4 inches, and of framing it in terms of reducing the chance of a low outcome rather than its equivalent increasing the mean.
What’s bad in the book? Plotz comes off, as a little snide & anti-intellectual; he seems to take an attitude in slightly disliking almost everyone in the book and it bleeds through unavoidably. He lacks any kind of sympathy. This slight disdain extends from the people to the core topics. Though he can’t deny the power of genetics when even the briefest meeting or description of the sperm donors shows their resemblance to their offspring, he is an orthodox liberal in doing his best to deny it. (Which lends some passages surreal qualities; having just described how successful a bunch of kids were or how they resemble their donor or conceded that intelligence is indeed heavily genetically influenced, he’ll then invoke the shared environment or epigenetics as the explanation of everything and move on. I am reminded of the story that Bertrand Russell, seated next to a Christian at dinner, asked what he thought would happen to him when he died: “Oh, well, I suppose I shall inherit eternal bliss, but I wish we wouldn’t talk about such an unpleasant topic.”)
He also makes a number of errors or questionable claims or perpetuates things he should know better. I noted down a few while reading:
|Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle||Daniel L. Everett||★★★★||2008||2016/03/27||(~110k words; 2.5 hours) 2008 anthropology/linguistic memoir by Daniel Everett about studying the famous Pirahã people and particularly their language. Some of the material is covered in the widely read New Yorker article or elsewhere: the Pirahã possess an astoundingly crude and simple language, the Blub of natural languages, without recursion. The 18 chapters are organized autobiographically with Everett’s research conclusions interspersed mostly chronologically (Everett making no strong topical separations, which may annoy some readers despite being more realistic - one does not live and do science in discrete blocks of time, after all, and Everett neglects neither side of his life). Everett does go into some detail about the linguistic aspects, but not very much (which is good because I’ve always found linguistics excruciating) and it’s very popularized and quick a read.
And a bit formulaic: a naive anthropologist joins a tribe, full of ideology (in Everett’s case, Christian missionary zeal), discovers the challenges of aboriginal life, nearly kills himself and his family several times, gradually comes to appreciate and understand the tribe and its ancient wisdom, and returns to tell the tale. Everett’s challenges include denying his wife & child were dying of malaria rather than typhoid fevers even as everyone he met insisted it was obviously malaria and mocked him for being a stupid foreigner who brought his family to Brazil, and discovering the fatalistic cruelty & bigotry of poverty - a riverboat captain and his crew taking 2 hours off to play a soccer game, a nurse humiliating him in front of everyone simply because he was Protestant and she was Catholic (after several weeks in an ICU, both wind up surviving), and mistaking the lack of overt coercion in the staunchly egalitarian Pirahã and barely defusing a drunken plot by the Pirahã to massacre them all - as they years later do massacre a group of Apurina they see as interlopers, or Everett’s offhanded mention of a village-wide gangrape of one woman. (I am reminded of things Graeber and Scott have written about tribal societies often being organized to suppress the existence of leaders or income inequality.) Pirahã can be ostracized, and when ostracized, may be shot at. Like many groups, they do not tolerate alcohol well at all (Everett describes fleeing the village when they get particularly large quantities of alcohol from traders, and returning to see blood all over; I would have liked some more specifics about those events).
So what does he return with? A sketch of a society which is horribly fascinating. Unlike the controversial Ik, the Pirahã have been documented as existing for centuries in apparently identical to their current form; their language’s only relation is extinct, and the Pirahã language is a language isolate, without counting or recursion or color words or comparisons or quantifiers or pluralization or disjunctions, minimal phatic elements, and so few sounds that it can be whistled, hummed, yelled, sung, or spoken, but also evidential grammar which indicates if the speaker is speaking of something from personal knowledge; all current Pirahã speak only small fragments and phrases of Portuguese or other major Brazilian languages (renaming foreigners in Pirahã in order to talk about them), and are despite 8 months of enthusiastic effort (to avoid being constantly cheated by river traders and understand money) are unable to learn to count to ten (making Everett’s ability to predict when resupply airplanes come nigh magical to the Pirahã), add any numbers, draw straight lines, or write. No Pirahã is ever mentioned as learning well another language, converting to a religion, leaving the villages for the wider world, or mating with an outsider (nor outsiders ever accepted into the Pirahã). Everett recounts that the Pirahã lusted after fine river canoes, and he arranged for a skilled canoe builder to come and teach them and even bought the necessary tools as a gift to the Pirahã, and they enthusiastically made a canoe; 5 days later, they suddenly refused to make another one, saying “Pirahãs don’t make canoes”. They seem to need relatively little sleep, mature quickly, never plan ahead or make long-term investments (such as making wicker rather than palm leave baskets) or talk about the distant future/past (and will very rarely talk about anything they learned from someone now dead: “generally only the most experienced language teachers will do this, those who have developed an ability to abstract from the subjective use of their language and who are able to comment on it from an objective perspective”), and will casually throw away tools or things they will need soon. They know how to preserve meat, but never both unless intending to trade it; food is eaten whenever it’s available, and since they fish at all hours, everyone might wake up at 3AM for fish. Growing and harvesting manioc is universal in the Amazon despite the need to process it to remove cyanide, but Everett says the Pirahã only grow & process manioc under the influence of an earlier missionary. They have no oral tradition but tell short repetitive stories of things that happened to them or someone they knew, no myths or origin stories (when asked: “Well, the Pirahãs say that these things were not made.”), no relationships closer than grandparents (about the most distant directly observable given that Everett puts their life expectancy in the 40s, leading to minimal incest taboos, forbidding only full siblings or parents or grandparents). Burials are ad hoc, and bigger men will be buried sitting because, the Pirahã say, you need to dig less. They have difficulty understanding foreigners are like them, and can understand language, in a bizarre echo of the Chinese room:
Then I noticed another bemusing fact. The Pirahãs would converse with me and then turn to one another, in my presence, to talk about me, as though I was not even there. “Say, Dan, could you give me some matches?” Xip06gi asked me one day with others present. “OK, sure.” “OK, he is giving us two matches. Now I am going to ask for cloth.” Why would they talk about me in front of my face like this, as though I could not understand them? I had just demonstrated that I could understand them by answering the question about the matches. What was I missing?
All of this is part of Everett’s case that the Pirahã are, like Luria’s peasant, ruled by an “immediacy of experience principle” and this yields an extraordinarily conservative culture on which new ideas and concepts roll off like so much water off a duck’s back.
Their supernatural beliefs are particularly fascinating: dreams are simply interpreted literally and discussed as supernatural events that happened, and any random thing can be a ‘spirit’, with regular theatrical performances of ‘spirits’ who are obviously tribe men (but when asked, Pirahã deny that there is any connection between particular men and spirits, part of their weak grasp on personal identity (I was particularly amused by the Heraclitean tone of one anecdote: “Pirahãs occasionally talked about me, when I emerged from the river in the evenings after my bath. I heard them ask one another, ‘Is this the same one who entered the river or is it kapioxiai [a dangerous spirit]?’”), where names change regularly and are considered new people). Some of the spirit appearances are group hallucinations or consensus, and Everett opens Don’t Sleep with the anecdote of being part of a group of Pirahã staring at an empty sand bank where they see the spirit Xigagai saying he will kill anyone going into the forest that day. This example is a bit perplexing: what could possibly be the use of this and why would they either perceive it or go along with it? Similarly, it’s hard to see how the spirit outside the village talking all night about how he wanted to have sex with specific women of the village is serving any role, and the tribesman reaction when Everett walks up and asks to record his ranting is hilariously deadpan: “‘Sure, go ahead’, he answered immediately in his normal voice”. Other spirits make more sense:
Pirahãs listen carefully and often follow the exhortations of the kaoaib6gi. A spirit might say something like “Don’t want Jesus. He is not Pirahã”, or “Don’t hunt downriver tomorrow”, or things that are commonly shared values, such as “Don’t eat snakes.” Through spirits, ostracism, food-sharing regulation, and so on, Pirahã society disciplines itself.
The function and etiology of religion like this remains perplexing to me, but as a method of egalitarian coercion, it does at least explain incidents like the Pirahã ordering Everett to stop preaching about Jesus because the spirit of Jesus was causing trouble in another village and trying to rape their women with his three-foot long penis. Everett’s deconversion from Christianity is probably the funniest I’ve read, but also very strange (some illiterate tribesmen should make no impact on your religious beliefs) and well exhibits the concrete and ‘hard’ tendencies:
…something that I thought would make them understand how important God can be in our lives. So I told the Pirahãs how my stepmother committed suicide and how this led me to Jesus and how my life got better after I stopped drinking and doing drugs and accepted Jesus. I told this as a very serious story. When I concluded, the Pirahãs burst into laughter. This was unexpected, to put it mildly. I was used to reactions like “Praise God!” with my audience genuinely impressed by the great hardships I had been through and how God had pulled me out of them. “Why are you laughing?” I asked. “She killed herself? Ha ha ha. How stupid. Pirahãs don’t kill themselves” they answered. They were utterly unimpressed. It was clear to them that the fact that someone I had loved had committed suicide was no reason at all for the Pirahãs to believe in my God. Indeed, it had the opposite effect, highlighting our differences.
Overall, the picture painted is astonishing. How is this possible? How can such people and societies exist? But Everett does not find them pitiful, and is seduced by the Pirahã. Living by the plentiful river, with no native technology more advanced than a bow, the Pirahã have lowered their expectations to the point where the jungle is paradise. If there is no food, then it is an opportunity to “harden” themselves and practice self-reliance. (This is deliberate, as it’s unlikely that if it was just the random chance of hunting, they would be so uniformly 100-125 pounds & 5-5.3 feet tall). The climate means they don’t need much clothing or shelter, and if it’s raining, they can make a primitive hut. If they are hungry, they can go into the jungle and hunt. If there are foreigners, they can beg for food. They amuse themselves by talking and dancing and having sex and hunting and fishing and being self-reliant. They have no worries most of the time, have few duties - even child-rearing is easy, as women give birth with little ceremony and die by themselves, the Pirahã are willing to euthanize inconvenient infants, and much like the child-rearing practices described by Jared Diamond, children are expected to injure themselves and learn - and are happy. Reading about them, they come off as a cross between bonobos and Chimpanzees with wireheading thrown in to boot.
So to ask again: how is this possible? Proximately, it’s because Everett and FUNAI and others succeeded in getting a reservation created just for the Pirahã. With less pressure from more successful groups, they can continue to exist. But that doesn’t answer how the Pirahã could ever come to exist. Everett does not speculate about this. A true anthropologist, everything is due to chance, environment, or culture, all of which ultimately spring from nothingness. (Where does culture come from? An anthropologist might give the Pirahã answer about where the world came from…)
I might believe in culture as an explanation, with the Pirahã being just the most extremely conservative surviving culture, if the claims were not so extreme. But can that really be the case?
Can we really appeal to culture as the explanation for why not a single Pirahã is literate, or can count, or has left the tribe to earn money, or brought a non-Pirahã woman in as wife, or total cultural stasis for at least 300 years, and all of the other singularities Everett claims? Is this the case for any other tribe ever, even the ones considered by their neighbors as the most primitive and least intelligent, like the Pygmies, or cases of cultural regression like the Tasmanians? Have the Amish ever succeeded in having an attrition rate <5%, and that with a relative level of wealth to the surrounding America far closer than the Pirahã relative to Brazilian? Why are all the other groups like the Warlpiri of Australia able to borrow numbers when numeral systems become useful, except the Pirahã? The Pirahã have been trading with Brazilians for at least two centuries, and have not taken any steps toward it. The endogamy and linguistic isolation is surprising; they seem more endogamous than the Bushmen, whose lineage may have diverged scores of thousands of years ago, or the castes of India. They have, for all anyone knows, been separate for thousands of years (the population history of the Americas is, likely in part because of well-founded fears that it will undermine rhetoric about being descendants of the first settlers rather than just the second-to-last wave, still obscure but the latest work is consistent with colonization/replacements yielding tribes with little genetic flow between groups & high geographic structure). This alone, along with their small population (both present and presumably founding), could yield major genetic drift on many traits.
On the other hand, gene-environment co-evolution would make tremendous sense; over millennia of reproductive isolation and specialization to their ecological niche, Pirahã have reached a local optimum where abstraction and planning are unnecessary and only lead to trouble and the potential for inequality, and either punishment or simply lack of additional fitness for such cognitive traits, which was continuously reinforced by natural & sexual selection over hundreds of generations (evolution does not stop at the neck), leading to a population many SDs from surrounding populations. (“I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.” Indeed.) This would be similar to Harpending & Cochran 2015’s model of the Amish. This parsimoniously explains the observations without the need for backflips in interpretation of many anecdotes. For example, if the Pirahã culture is so extraordinarily conservative, why did they eagerly learn to make canoes that they prize highly, saying that Pirahã canoes are bad, and only 5 days later decide it was a bad idea? But Everett gives us a valuable clue in a different anecdote:
…I was surprised that the Pirahãs did not seem tired at all, however. In the village the Pirahã men avoided carrying heavy things. When I asked them for help in carrying boxes or barrels and such, they were always reluctant to respond. When they did help, they could barely lift things that I could carry with ease. I had just assumed that they were weak and lacked endurance. But I was wrong. They didn’t normally carry foreign objects and they didn’t like to display their ignorance of how to handle them.
Like anyone else, they are embarrassed by what they don’t know - or have forgotten - and when asked, will make up excuses or dodge it some other way. Similarly, the failure to teach counting does not require some sort of subtle Pirahã ploy where they pretend to be interested and to learn how to count for very practical reasons and then sabotage it to comply with the dictates of Pirahã culture; it was simply that difficult, and any teacher will be familiar with students on whom instructions are writ on water. Supposedly a school was opened in 2012, so it would be interesting to hear whether a Potemkin school (recent events doubtless having reminded everyone that the Brazilian government has its fair share of problems with corruption & incompetence), what fraction ever enroll, how much attrition there is, and what performance levels any are able to reach.
Doubtless Everett would vociferously object that such speculation is wrong, but he would in order to protect research access to the Pirahã (the Brazilian government being as much a villain as hero in these sorts of things, engaging in such senseless practices as outlawing two-way radios for foreigners) and to avoid becoming a second Napoleon Chagnon, and probably commits the same fallacy that Diamond memorably does at the beginning of Guns, Germs, and Steel in arguing that the Pirahã were so much better than him at using the jungle they must be at least as intelligent as anyone else (ignoring that they have had lifetimes to learn that, and underperform everywhere else). If nothing else, the genetics of the Pirahã would be fascinating for pinning down when they diverged from other groups and how much genetic drift & directional selection has happened since.
Let us hope that future researchers will not bow to the local politics and continue studying only the safe, softball questions like the Pirahã syntax.
|The Iron Dragon’s Daughter||Michael Swanwick||★★★★||2012||2014/06/02||I read it based on Anatoly Vorobey‘s review:
“This is fantasy for adults: complex flawed characters, a world rich in detail, multitude of characters who live and do things for their own sake rather than to advance a plot point or help the hero. Utter disregard for conventions and cliches of the genre. A hero who is an anti-Mary Sue. Endless inventiveness of the author. To my taste, this novel is what books like The Kingkiller Chronicles promise, but then utterly fail to deliver. But if you’re a fan of Rothfuss, try Swanwick anyway, and you might get a fuller and richer taste of what you like.”
I liked it a lot after I got through the initial section in the factory, which was over-the-top Dickensian enough to make me wonder if it was worthwhile. But it got better, and began unfurling into a mad Victorian/fantasy cross, heavy on the social oppression & economic exploitation, reminiscent of China Miéville’s bourgeois imperialist New Crobuzon. The plot breaks down into a few discrete chunks of the protagonist Jane’s life, which while highlighting the ruthless nature of life in a universe where the gods are real (the homecoming queen being sacrificed may be horrifying, but the consequences of not sacrificing are even more dire, as one memorable nihilist character makes clear; and our own society does not hesitate to sacrifice lives for its own ends, as with, say, coal-burning power plants) also highlight her cowardice and selfishness in betraying her friends instead of… what? We’re not too clear, as the world begins melting and things get weird in an Invisibles or Dick-style turn towards radical ontological uncertainty. (The dragon, incidentally, appears in far less of the novel than one would expect from the title.)
This may sound tedious, but Swanwick really does throw all sorts of fascinating little twists in along the way that keep one reading: malls where time literally stops so you can shop to your heart’s content; factories with ’time clocks’ that age one if one doesn’t clock out; live gargoyles, with all the food requirements flying stone entails; a man who shrinks in his wife’s regard for being a coward until he’s the size of a homunculus & is trapped in a jar begging for death; markets in entertaining slaves among the eloi upper-class elves; magical engineers who are castrated to ensure they do not damage the magics they work with; academics who assault the castles of the gods in the quest for knowledge, and get burned; universities with purges that are literally decimating… Still, it’s a happy ending, I think. Swanwick puts it amusingly in a page of explanations:
I gave her T as a reward for making it through to the end of the novel he’s the one worldly thing she wants - and, quite to my surprise, the Goddess threw in K as well. What happens next? Does Jane marry T and keep K as best friend? Does K steal T from her? Do they all fall into bed together? This one I really don’t know because the real reward I gave Jane for making it to the end of the book was freedom. I ran across Carol Emshwiller just after she finished writing Ledoyt and she said she was in mourning, that all these people she had lived with for years were suddenly gone and it felt as if they’d all died. “Doesn’t it feel that way to you, too, when you finish a novel?” she asked. I thought about it. “No,” I decided. “It feels like all these characters who have suffered under my persecuting hand have been set free. I imagine them running joyfully in all directions, as hard and fast as they can, so that I can never catch them and put them in another book again.”
Anyway, going over some of the parts of it which amused me while I was reading… You know your fantasy is grim and imaginative when astrology is due to educational corruption:
“Hello? I was sent here for remedial?” The pale man looked up. He nodded wanly. Unhastily, without emphasis, he picked up a book, opened it, paged forward a leaf, and then back one. “There are three stars in the heavens,” he said, “moving about Jupiter, erratic sidereal bodies which establish a lesser zodiacal process for that wanderer in its mighty twelve-year progression about the sun.”…“Excuse me,” she said hesitantly, “but what effect do these minor planets have on our behavior and fortunes? I mean, you know, astrological influence?” He looked at her. “None.”“None at all?” “No.” “But if the planets affect our fortunes—” She stumbled to a stop at the dispassionately scornful look on the pale man’s face, the slow way he shook his head. “Surely you’ll agree that the planets order and control our destinies?” “They do not.” “Not at all?” “No.” “Then what does? Control our destinies, I mean.” “The only external forces that have any influence on us are those we can see every day: the smile, the frown, the fist, the brick wall. What you call ‘destiny’ is merely a semantic fallacy, the attribution of purpose to blind causality. Insofar as any of us are compelled to resist the flow of random events, we are driven solely by internal drives and forces.” Jane seized on this last. “Then what you’re saying is that our fate lies within us, right?” He shook his head. “If so, it must be extremely small and impossibly distant. I would not suggest you put any reliance in such an insignificant entity.”’…She waited, but he did not elaborate. “In introductory astrology they told us that each person has a tutelary star and that each star has its own mineral, color, and musical tone, and a plant as well that is a specific for the disease that is caused by that star’s occultation.” “All untrue. The stars do not concern themselves in the least with us. Our total extinction would mean nothing to them.” “But why?” Jane cried. “If it’s not true, why would they teach it to us?”A dry fingertip tapped the page not impatiently but pedagogically. “All courses require textbooks, charts, and teaching aids. By the time the information codified as astrology was discredited and became obsolete, it had a constituency. Certain…personages benefit from the supply contracts.”
Nihilist the plot may seem to be, but it’s leavened with some sharp satire; for example, bureaucracy in the factory:
At last, late in the day, the inspector general arrived. A wave of dread preceded the elf-lord through the plant. Not a kobold or korrigan, not a spunky, pillywiggin, nor lowliest dunter but knew the inspector general was coming. The air shivered in anticipation of his arrival. A glimmering light went just before him, causing all heads to turn, all work to stop, the instant before he turned a corner or entered a shop. He appeared in the doorway. Tall and majestic he was in an Italian suit and tufted silk tie. He wore a white hard hat. His face was square-jawed and handsome in a more than human way, and his hair and teeth were perfect. Two high-ranking Tylwyth Teg accompanied him, clipboards in hand, and a vulture-headed cost analyst from Accounting trailed in his wake.
After Grunt had called attendance, he cleared his throat. “The Three B’s,” he said. “The Three B’s are your guide to scholastic excellence. The Three B’s are your gold key to the doorway of the future. Now—all together—what are they?” “Be-lieve,” the class mumbled. “Be-have. Be Silent.” “What was that last?” He cupped a hand to his ear. “Be Silent!” “I caaaaaan’t heeeeear you.” “BE SILENT!” “Good.”
It was only when she went to empty out her locker that Jane realized how overgrown it had become. Orchids and jungle vines filled most of the space within and a hummingbird fled into the corridor when she banged open the door.
It was a scorcher outside, but the mall was kept so cool that Jane was sorry she hadn’t brought a sweater. The place was jammed with fugitives from the heat. They were recreational rather than serious shoppers, most of them. Their hands were empty and their eyes were clear.
College roommate strife:
“The dissection manual?” Monkey asked airily. “I ate it.” “You what?” “I ate it. Why else would I want it? I was hungry and I ate it.” “But I need it for class.”“Then you shouldn’t have given it to me.” Monkey’s beady eyes glittered strangely, maliciously, in her round face. “Really, Jane, you can be so dim at times.” With a sudden standing backflip she disappeared through the doorway. Jane’s hands clenched. But really it was no more than she had learned to expect. Roommates were forever eating your books, having anxiety attacks, adopting rats and carnivorous slimes which they then expected you to feed, getting drunk and throwing up on your best dress, moving into the closet and refusing to come out for months on end, threatening suicide the night before Finals, leaving piles of rotting leaves in the middle of the floor, entertaining boyfriends in your bed because it was made and theirs not, evolving into large bloodsucking insects. Monkey was actually good of her kind. Well, she could always pick up a new manual.
Monkey snatched the pencil from her hand and snapped it in two. Jane closed her eyes and traced the sigil of Baphomet with her inner vision. When she was calm again, she slid open a drawer.“All right.” There was a pair of latex gloves within. “I wasn’t going to do this.” She pulled them on. “But you don’t exactly give me much choice, do you?” Credit where credit is due, Monkey didn’t back down. There was a touch of the trickster in her heritage, and the trickster gene was a dominant. She licked her lips nervously as Jane pretended to lift an invisible box from the drawer. “You don’t scare me.” “Good.” Jane swung a hinged lid back and reached within. “It works best if you don’t believe.” She removed an equally imaginary scalpel and held it up between thumb and forefinger, admiringly turning it one way and the other. “What are you going to do with that?” Jane smiled. “This!” She slammed her fist into Monkey’s stomach.
“I have been going over your laboratory reports, Miss Alderberry.” Dr. Nemesis put an arm through hers, and walked her toward the front. “They are, if I may confide in you, disappointing, most disappointing in a student of your potential.” “I’ve been having trouble with the sophic—”…“You must surely realize why I am concerned for you.” “Well…” Jane didn’t really, but that double glare bored into her, waiting for an intelligent response. “I’m here on a merit scholarship, so I suppose—” “No!” Dr. Nemesis stamped her foot impatiently. As if in response the elevator door slid open. She steered Jane outside. They were on an office level now. The walls were decorated with large unframed oils of umbrellas and sides of beef. The runners on the hall floors smelled new. “I am not talking about mere money, but about your very survival! This is a Teind year, surely you must know that.” Jane nodded, meaning no. “The department heads are even now assembling the list of those 10% of the students who are… expendable. Your name, Miss Alderberry, is going to be on that list unless you straighten up and fly right.” She glared at her: weakly, sternly.
The University library opened its doors at midnight and closed at dawn. The rationale given for such extraordinary hours was that they discouraged dilettantes and idlers from wasting the library’s facilities.
Even for the School of Grammarie, which was widely held to have pushed the concept of liberal arts to an extreme, Professor Tarapple was grotesque. A burnt and crisped cinder of a creature was he, blackened and small, his limbs charred sticks, his torso rendered, reduced, and carbonized. His mouth hung open and his step was slow and painful. He seemed a catalog of the infirmities of age. He felt for the microphone. His hand closed about it with a soft boom, then retreated. The charred sockets of his eyes rose toward the ceiling. Jane realized that he was blind….Professor Tarapple groped for a laser pointer, leaving sooty handprints on the lectern top. He directed the pointer toward the slide with motions as jerky and unconvincing as a rod puppet’s. The red dot of light jiggled off to the side of the screen. “This is—” The head wobbled. “This is—is Spiral Castle itself.” Nobody so much as breathed. “No one but I myself has ever delved so deep into the Goddess’s mysteries. The Ocean above which it is suspended is Time itself, and so far as could be determined with our limited instrumentation extends to infinity in all directions. Next slide.”…Jane was having a hard time following the lecture. The harsh white image of Spiral Castle was like a magnesium flare. It swelled and dwindled in her vision, as if softly breathing. Her eyes pulsed, aching when she tried to follow the logic of its involutions. She had to look away…“Toadswivers! Curly-mounted bobtail jades! Codheaded pigfuck bastards!” With a start, Jane came to herself. Throughout the auditorium, the audience members were rousing themselves. A Teggish professor directly before Jane’s seat straightened with a lurch and a snort. A gnome to her left passed a hand over his mushroom-spotted pate. Professor Tarapple had abandoned his lecture in a rage. He was berating his audience. “Only one being—one! me!—has ever delved so far into the Goddess’s secrets and returned to talk of them. By cannon-fire, holy water, and bells, listen to me! I risked more than life and sanity to bring you these photographs. I—I—I was once young and tall and handsome. I had friends who died in this expedition and will never be reborn. We were caught and punished and punished again. I alone escaped. Look at me! See the price that I paid! So many times I have tried to tell you! Why do you never listen?” He was weeping now. “Woe!” he cried. “Alas for those who seek after Truth, for such is the Goddess’s most hoarded treasure. Ah, she is cruel and unfathomable, and bitter, bitter is her vengeance.” The lights came gently up. The applause was thunderous.
One of the parts towards the end which particularly reminded me of The Invisibles:
“One time, passing through the Carolinas somewhere between 2:00 and 3:00 A.M., Jerry and I picked up a white Lotus with two blonds in it. We honked and waved. They gave us the finger and put the pedal to the metal. I did the same, of course, but even with dual carbs it was no contest. We had a muscle car but they had a sex machine. They made us eat their dust….Ten-fifteen miles down the road we saw the Lotus in a Roy Rogers lot. We pulled in for some take-out burgers. There they were. We struck up a conversation. When we left, Jerry-D went with the driver of the Lotus. Her friend went with me…Anyway, there I was, a blond in pink hot pants rubbing up against me. I had my foot to the floor, her tongue in my ear, and her hand down my pants. I pushed up her halter top and squeezed her breasts. The air shimmered with the immanence of revelation. Little Richard was singing ‘Tutti-Frutti’ on the radio and it somehow seemed significant that what I was hearing had been electromagnetically encoded, transmitted as modulated radiation, reconstructed by the radio as sound, and only reinterpreted as music somewhere within the dark reaches of my head. I felt then that the world was an illusion - and a rather shabby one at that, an image projected upon the thinnest of membranes, and that were I to push at it just right, I could step out of the world entirely. I unbuttoned her shorts. She wriggled a little to help. I slid my hand under her panties. I was thinking that everything was information when I found myself clutching an erect penis. I whipped my head around. The blond was grinning wildly into my face. My hand involuntarily tightened about her cock. Her hand tightened about mine. They might have been the same hand. We might have been one person twinned. The car was up to about 100 mph. I wasn’t even looking where we were going. I didn’t care.
And finally, the gargoyle passage. It’s too long to quote, but I’ve posted it at http://pastebin.com/raw.php?i=HDrLMfQj
|The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family||Peter Byrne||★★★★||2010||2014/11/08||(~140k words, 4h read) Before reading, my knowledge of Hugh Everett was limited to basically the following sketch: a young American male who post-WWII suggested taking the Schrodinger wave-equation literally, yielding the infamous Many-Worlds Interpretation, and attacked over it, left academia for Wall Street where he became rich with an optimization algorithm, and in his absence, MWI very gradually gained adherents until it is now a respectable point of view (albeit still counterintuitive), and died at some point; also, some rumor that his daughter shot herself at a casino after losing, in a literal quantum suicide. This turns out to be incorrect and very incomplete: it wasn’t Wall Street but the Pentagon, he died quite young, MWI wasn’t attacked so much as ignored after being sabotaged, his daughter did commit suicide but it was at home with sleeping pills & had nothing to do with quantum suicide, and he did much more than just MWI & one optimization algorithm.
Byrne starts in media res, with Everett rich and drunk and self-destructing, then jumps back to his parents to start his tale; whether because ‘past is prologue’ or because of the heritability of personality traits, we get a sense that pathology (substance abuse, emotional problems) ran in the family, and his father survived some scrapes with corruption to finish out a reasonably good life; Everett bade fair to do better as a prodigy, excelling university, and arriving at Princeton & IAS in its golden WWII moment - the war won, von Neumann still alive & at the height of its powers (inventing game theory, modern computers, and steering the Cold War), and academia rushing into its Faustian post-war bargain with the US government and embarking on decade of exponential bloating (which, unsustainable, halted in the ‘80s or so, and this cauldron of legions of mediocre researchers + government funds + publish-or-perish has contributed to the modern scientific context in which we are awash in bogus results and worthless papers). An exciting time, and a fertile environment. I was surprised to learn that Everett made contributions to game theory, which turns out to later be relevant to one of the main mysteries of MWI (where the subjective or Born probabilities come from), and only then turned to quantum mechanics.
Byrne also covers his future wife, Nancy. He tries to be sympathetic, but it’s hard to like or find her interesting at all; her views are shallow and deeply conformist, she comes off as lacking real insight into herself despite all the navel-gazing, lies to herself and others, and to be a lump of flesh going nowhere fast. He wants to paint her as neglected and damaged by her relationship with Everett, and to paint Everett as a loathsome lecher who won’t take no for an answer, but it doesn’t succeed. I was left with a major question: why would Everett ever want to date her, much less marry her? (Dating her is the real question here since it’s clear why he married her: because she got pregnant and refused to abort, and given the straitlaced Pentagon world, he was put between a rock and a hard place. Byrne quotes her as denying this tactic, but that’s obvious bullshit, especially given the era.)
After a jump forward to Everett’s optimization work, we go back to Princeton and the genesis of MWI: like Columbus and Einstein and some others before him, Everett asked a deceptively simple question - what if we just take it literally? As a nice Schrödinger quote points out, it’s odd to accept that the world or objects act like a wave-function up until they are observed and then they collapse into normality but to refuse to accept that ’inside’ the wave-function it will also all add up to normality:
“Nearly every result [a quantum theorist] pronounces is about the probability of this or that … happening - with usually a great many alternatives. The idea that they be not alternatives but all really happen simultaneously seems lunatic to him just impossible. He thinks that if the laws of nature took this form for, let me say, a quarter of an hour, we should find our surroundings rapidly turning into a quagmire, or sort of a featureless jelly or plasma, all contours becoming blurred, we ourselves probably becoming jelly fish. It is strange that he should believe this. For I understand he grants that unobserved nature does behave this way - namely according to the wave equation. The aforesaid alternatives come into play only when we make an observation - which need, of course, not be a scientific observation. Still it would seem that, according to the quantum theorist, nature is prevented from rapid jellification only by our perceiving or observing it. And I wonder that he is not afraid, when he puts a ten-pound note into his drawer in the evening, he might find it dissolved in the morning, because he has not kept watching it.”
Pursuing his idea, Everett wrote his thesis, and here we run into the major theme of Byrne’s book, one he establishes admirably well: with many quotes from letters and recordings and referee reports, we see Everett’s thesis adviser, Wheeler, turn from a courageous physicist, well-regarded for his daring speculations, into a biased coward who bullies Everett into sabotaging & watering down his thesis so as to not give offense to his mentor Niels Bohr.
I’m a little familiar with Bohr’s philosophy of science & quantum mechanics from a course I once took on the topic, and I found it entirely without merit (the most unimaginatively instrumentalist ‘shut up and calculate’ viewpoint was preferable to Bohr’s ‘complementarity’, because at least one was not left with the illusion of knowledge), so to find an excellent case made that it sabotaged the initial presentation of MWI and responsible for a multi-decade drought in one of the best available interpretations… does not leave me with a good impression of Bohr, Wheeler, the power thesis advisors wield, or academic physics in general.
Certainly it is understandable that Everett would leave academia and enter the military-industrial complex where his work was interesting, valuable, valued, and well-remunerated. Everett dived straight into the heart of US nuclear politics, the intersection of nuclear physics with military strategy and game theory and computing and operations research: what levels of bombs would be developed (the Super? and even more exotic weapons?), what military services would get what delivery systems, what would be the effects of nuclear war, what was the best way to run the Cold War? (In the ‘50s, none of this was set in stone yet.) It’s a fascinatingly complicated period, for an overview see:
Byrne unfortunately is too unsympathetic to cover the period fairly, taking the Dr. Strangelove route: everyone was insane and evil. This biases his coverage badly since he’s so opinionated; in discussing the Prisoner’s Dilemma, for example, he implies it shows the irrationality of rationality and hence the intellectual bankruptcy of game theory and all related exercises - but this is a confusion of what he would like to be true with what is actually true, because the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows up again and again in all sorts of guises in the real world, along with the tragedy of the commons, and you know what? People in real life often do defect unless additional mechanisms are in place (often being put in place as a reaction to all the defecting). One of his footnotes reveals this strikingly:
In other words, rationality is a (sometimes) quantifiable quality. Most human beings would agree that it is not a rational act to cross the street in front of a speeding bus, or to poison the water supply in search of short term profit, or to depend on fossil fuels, etc. But people in power who do obviously irrational things are often compelled to rationalize these actions by falling back on agendized utility values and probability statements. Of course, if you start with an irrational premise, e.g. “nuclear war is a rational option,” no amount of utilitarian quantification can, believably, turn it into its opposite. Context is everything.
This is a tissue of nonsense which exposes clearly that Byrne does not deal with the real world, but with a world of ideals in which there are never any hard choices or necessity to make cost-benefit tradeoffs and all that matters is what sounds good. Accordingly, he presents a one-sided picture; a discussion of the Bohm hearings omits any mention of why the US government might be so paranoid and worried about spies (the Venona decrypts come to mind, as do the many high-ranking Soviet spies such as Harry Dexter White) and might target people involved with the Manhattan Project in particular; similarly, he uncritically cites Sakharov claiming the US was responsible for the arms races (which seems like an odd reading of Stalin’s character and his fellow researchers, for that matter), and later overestimates of nuclear winter. This bias on the biographer’s part makes one wonder to what extent Everett’s results about fallout were accurate: it’s not like he would tell us if the report was found to be fallacious or since debunked. Still, while irritating and depriving the reader of some key context, the WSEG section seems comprehensive as far as it comes to Everett up until he left the Pentagon to start his own consulting business, and that’s what really matters.
The business section is similar, but much less political as they consulted on more civilian topics. What he did is hard to tell: we’re held back by Byrne targeting the general audience - I would have liked to know more about the statistical techniques involved, rather than vague descriptions like “QUICK randomly sampled the vast range of probable outcomes to select the most probable results”, which could mean a lot of things; I can sort of guess what his ’Bayesian machine’ was (sounds like a Kalman filter implemented with MCMC), but I’m completely baffled by the section about ‘“attribute value” programming’ or what sort of database it was. It also sounds like Everett began drinking himself to death at this point (but why? he doesn’t come off as so deeply depressed about MWI being ignored that he’d be suicidal in the midst of all his financial success; given Byrne’s predilection for psychologizing, it’s odd that he seems to let this central mystery pass without much more comment than some speculation that Everett was just hedonistic), and the kids enter their troubled teens (but one would never grow out of it). Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t manage his finances very well, living extravagantly, making deeply questionable investments, and failing to diversify, all in contravention to established financial advice, flaws somewhat surprising in a statistically and economically inclined man. Eventually, he dies.
In the mean time, MWI was gradually being rediscovered and rehabilitated by the likes of Deutsch and novel approaches like a Bayesian justification of Born probabilities developed, leaving off at the present time in which MWI is a respectable position leading to interesting research and believed in by a good-sized minority of physicists; this is interesting, but already familiar to me. I will have to leave it to other readers to judge how good these parts of the book are.
Overall, indispensable to anyone interested in the man, and a good account of a productive yet wasted life.
|A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century||Ilia Stambler||★★★★||2014||2015/08/31||(Online fulltext: HTML, PDF; 280k words)
Official description sums it well: an ambitious survey of life-extension movements and researchers from the late 1800s onwards across the West (specifically, America, Europe, and Russia), giving capsule biographies of leading figures and brief descriptions of their views & work. Naturally, for some particular parts there are better things to read (for example, Carrel’s organ-preservation work is much more interestingly & thoroughly described in Friedman’s The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever) but nothing I know of comes anywhere close in being as comprehensive as Stambler in showing all the twists and turns of the field and the various characters that have populated it over the years and the occasional unexpected profit from the basic & applied research they conducted (eg hormone therapy and related techniques like sex reassignment therapy trace directly back to life-extension research), yielding an interesting overall portrait. I particularly appreciated the ample material devoted to Russia: Russia is too often neglected in Western publications because of the language barrier, and Russians feature even more in life-extension than in many fields. (The Russian & American history sections also, incidentally, show that Charlie Stross, in claiming American Singulitarianism directly descends from Nikolai Fyodorov, is guilty not just of an irrelevant genetic fallacy, but also deeply ignorant of the history of both countries’ schools of thought, which we can see clearly from Stambler’s accounts to be parallel but independent developments.)
Stambler is a little averse to trying to synthesize any lessons from this long litany of failed interventions, but I am opinionated and embittered enough to try some generalizations:
- there are no simple interventions that can change average life expectancy by more than a few years or maximum life span at all
- as a corollary, there is no single or small number of genetic or biochemical ‘master switchs’ of aging, because if there, some of the thousands of interventions during the past 3 centuries of active scientific research would have flipped them directly or as a downstream effect, someone would have exceeded the Calment limit, or heritability estimates of longevity would be far higher
- research proceeding on the basis of ‘identify a correlate of aging’ is effectively doomed: the signature feature of aging is that it is an exponential acceleration (the Gompertz curve) of mortality due to all causes ie. all organs are simultaneously becoming nonfuctional and losing homeostasis and efficacy, and these problems interact as well. Since the body is an absurdly complex dynamic system which, if drawn out as a causal network resembles the collected graphs of thousands of paranoid schizophrenics, the probability of any pair of variables being correlated is effectively 1 while the probability they are directly causally upstream/downstream of each other is close to zero. (The impressive thing is to find something which doesn’t correlate with aging, like blood magnesium levels.) It gets worse. Because the fallout from aging is destroying all bodily systems and impairing homeostasis, this implies there are hundreds or thousands of pseudo-interventions: interventions which deal with some downstream effect of aging and may help on that one thing, but nothing else. For example, if one fed amphetamines to an elderly mouse, it might act ‘young’ but it will proceed to die on schedule regardless. (This is the more abstract form of observing that curing cancer does not do much about curing aging.) This can very easily mislead one into thinking one is making progress and conducting important work: ‘I found a protein which correlates with aging and I even checked that it causally makes rats stupider by injecting it into random rats!’ These can both be true and yet I can be extremely confident that this will never lead to a useful anti-aging intervention or shed light on what aging is, and that one certainly cannot “start with an old cell, change its signaling, and make it behave like new again.” (Hence, we can predict that any exciting new discovery will turn out to experience an even more than usually severe ‘decline effect’ where the initial reports turn out to be driven by the usual methodological issues like sampling error & publication bias & non-randomized mice selection & breed-specific responses & mislabeled reagents & non-blinded evaluation & coding errors & etc or turn out to only be a pseudo-intervention on a symptom. This is because our prior for an intervention on aging is, at this point, extremely low and so all the alternative explanations are much more likely. Analogous to psychologists’ perennial quest to increase intelligence: no matter how good the study looks, it is more likely that the gains are inflated by bad methodology, the product of publication bias, not g-loaded, due to error or fraudulent data, or something else which in another context would look like meanspirited raillery and desperate grabbing at straws, but when it comes to IQ gains, is, sadly, always the correct answer thus far.)
- any life-extension paradigm described as “holistic” is a total and utter failure, incapable of any large effects and worse, scientifically sterile; in the descriptions of French and German ‘holistic’ attempts at life-extension, I saw them fail at creating a single scientific lead which yielded any new knowledge or techniques, and they (doubtless with the best of intentions) succeeded in creating unfalsifiable nonsense & harmful misinformation which continue to have circulation in the West. The only researchers whose work proved useful were the ones who insisted on ‘reductionistic’ approaches; Stambler quotes and paraphrases repeatedly (with a distinct tone of sarcasm, if I’m not mistaken) the better researchers noting how ignorant they were and how much research needed to be done before any interventions could hope for success, bit of course they were right
- the failure of holistic approaches is emphasized when one considers where the large life-extension gains in the 20th century came from: better hygiene, antibiotics, and vaccination - all some of the greatest fruits of the reductionistic approach to biology in looking at the tiniest isolated pieces
- rigour was insufficiently valued by many of the researchers, who, neglecting blinding and randomization and large sample-sizes, succeeded only in fooling themselves and wasting the time of fellow researchers, who might try something like the Steinach procedure only to watch the effects vanish quickly, if they ever were
- all-cause mortality is the king of endpoints; everything else can be cheated. When it comes to aging, ‘the treatment was a success but the patient died’ is unacceptable.
- many of the theories appear to have been composed in a vacuum, with little heed given to constraints on possible theories such as evolution: remarkably, it seems the first mention of “evolution” in the text has to wait all the way until the 1930s! How, you might ask, could anyone possibly try to explain the mechanisms of aging, estimate possible maximal lifespans, or give interventions without the Gompertz curve or evolutionary biology? Not well, is the answer. I could forgive the people in the late 1800s for not taking evolution or the Gompertz curve seriously in thinking about interventions, but it is baffling to read about Americans in the 1950s getting excited about organ-transplant and replacements as a path to immortality - and how, pray tell, given the exponential increase with age of all diseases and failure rates of organs, were you planning on handling replacing the brain…?
- Many of the theories are (at least in Stambler’s telling), little more than folk biology or moral intuitions dressed up as science: what people would like to be true applied to aging. The researchers are almost unanimous about moderate eating? They are just repeating long-standing cultural prejudices about under-eating being morally virtuous and superior, part of the religious attitudes towards food we can see on display at any Whole Foods. Now if any of those researchers had been able to predict that ‘intermittent fasting’ - with zero net reduction in calories - had benefits, then I might credit more what they say on diet. But as it is, diet is to longevity researchers what the Knights Templar or Jews are to the conspiracy theorists.
- incremental research is incremental. Our understanding of human aging is infinitely better than in 1900, yet there are still no meaningful interventions. Multi-decade gaps separate practical and theoretical breakthroughs. The standard medical-academic approach is very slow. It is entirely possible that in 2100, we will not be much beyond where we are in 2015. (I can remark that much gerontology, even today, leaves me simply mystified that anyone would feel it was worth studying: of what possible value is it to report soberly & in detail on how having a house radio during the Great Depression correlates with greater longevity? This is the sort of thing I feel can be described only as frivolous & unserious, and exemplifies how decades can pass with mountains of paper piling up and zero results of any importance.)
So, those are the hard and painful lessons taught by 3 centuries of life-extension work. Sometimes life gives you a Moore’s law or vaccines, where the work goes deliriously well and the wildest forecasts still fall short of the mark, and sometimes it just puts up a brick wall to let generations of researchers smash their face into. What are some of the more hopeful aspects?
- somewhat like cryonics, which could have been killed along the way by any number of fundamental research findings such as the original ‘exploding lysosomes’ theory or by human memory turning out to be implemented as fragile electrical pulses/dynamics rather than stabler chemical encodings in synapses, one of the more hopeful things about aging is that we have not found any fundamental reason why it should be impossible to slow or eliminate it. (And if not, then in the long run there may be escape hatches through cryonics or plastination.)
- theories seem to be converging on error theories of aging: accumulating damage that results in nonlinear increases in mortality, with many of the cross-species correlates explained by different evolutionary pressures driving more or less investment into repair mechanisms. This is not as we might wish it (programmed-aging would be easier to defeat) but it at least suggests we can make progress by brute-force inference of the entire causal network and figure out what repair mechanisms are necessary (which may or may not be covered by SENS’s current proposals).
- all the investment into biomedical research is starting to pay off with instruments & measurements of unparalleled precision. Early life-extension researchers could not possibly hope to measure genetic changes with age; today, it’s both possible and relatively cheap. Things like Horvath’s epigenetic clock suggest that we are increasingly getting the big picture, instead of being forced to focus on one or two isolated variables (which is hopeless as outlined earlier).
Some of the book is a misfire. Stambler’s constant interest in researchers’ personal politics ultimately winds up showing nothing other than no particular consistency or trend, and he can only lamely remark that there was some tendencies towards conservatism; less kindly-inclined readers might not grant even that and note simply that interest in gerontology is orthogonal to politics except for tactical necessity. Far too much relevant content is buried in the footnotes where few readers will check. I could wish Stambler made more of an effort to evaluate researchers on scientific grounds and give a better idea of where ideas have been vindicated or refuted by subsequent work; one would hope he had learned something from his long-term perspective, but it’s unclear what. Some of the things he mentions were not worth mentioning (eg the farcical ‘Turing test passed’ a few years ago by pretending to be a non-native-speaking child) or should have been examined much more critically (whether the free-radical theory of aging, and the use of antioxidant supplements, is still viable). And the description of contemporary research is lacking in both detail and evaluation (eg I thought a historically-informed discussion of Aubrey Grey & SENS and how far they’ve gotten would be most interesting, but instead he settles for some cursory mentions of them).
|Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money||Nathaniel Popper||★★★★||2015||2015/11/12||Popper delivers a whirlwind tour of almost all dramatis personae in the rise of Bitcoin over the past 5 years. He seems to have gotten access to and interviewed everyone, from the early coders to especially all the late-entering business and entrepreneur types and the incestuous Silicon Valley VC community. (He didn’t get access to Ulbricht, for obvious reasons - even the NYT name can’t open all doors - but the evidence filings make up for it.) Even I, someone who’s watched the space in detail for years and made my own minor contributions to documenting Bitcoin history, learned a lot. (Karpeles had a Japanese wife & son who now live in Canada? I had no idea!) From the Winklevii opening the kimono to settle all their beefs with Charlie Shrem for bungling BitInstant into bankruptcy & personally into prison to Martti and Gavin and other early coders giving Popper Satoshi emails, he covers everything. Even the endlessly complicated story of SR1 gets a decent treatment (though necessarily not as thorough as Ormsby’s Silk Road, and like it, somewhat outdated, and passing over the post-SR1 DNM history). As far as histories of Bitcoin up to 2014 go, I don’t know of any better single source to consult right now, and the inside access means any future histories will have to look over it carefully as a primary source. (See also Satoshi on GPU mining & Martti & Satoshi discussing growth strategy).
If the book succeeds in capturing what a wide breadth of characters have been involved in Bitcoin (and yet, there are so many more things to cover - the MtGox leak, the ASIC scams, the DNM exit scams and wars, the Chinese market manipulation, the Cambrian explosion of altcoins with attendant pump-and-dumps, Ethereum’s attempt to e all things to all people, the blocksize schism…), it perhaps does not succeed at offering any sort of overall synthesis or in giving closure to all the individual stories, or at least including a summary of where everyone and everything stood where the book closed. The description of growth can feel like just a chaos of events, one after another. (It’s also fairly weak on explaining the technical aspects - I have to wonder if the lay reader comes away really understanding why Proof-of-Work works or what the Bitcoin blockchain really is.)
That said, as in any book touching on so many topics, there are some errors. Here are some corrections I noticed in material touching on particular interests of mine, the DNMs and Satoshi:
The nine-page PDF attached to the e-mail made it clear that Satoshi was deeply versed in all the previous efforts to create a self-sustaining digital money. Satoshi’s paper cited Back and Wei Dai, as well as several obscure journals of cryptography. But Satoshi put all these earlier innovations together to create a system that was quite unlike anything that had come before it.
‘deeply versed’? It cited Dai only because Adam Back had told Satoshi to cite Dai. It also didn’t cite any of Szabo’s work, even though Finney had pointed that out on the mailing list before. Further, it did not compare or contrast Bitcoin in any meaningful way with all the previous work on digital currency like the whole universe of techniques and approaches based on Chaumian blinding. Altogether, it looks like the opposite of ‘deeply’.
Ross didn’t know it at the time, but his downfall had not come through the sophisticated hacking techniques and leaking IP addresses that he had worried about so much. The Internal Revenue Service agent who finally identified Ross did so by searching on Google through old posts on the Bitcoin forum.
Everyone assumed from the inclusion in the complaint that the email was his downfall, but D-Y’s testimony during the trial yielded the surprise (one of many) that he had found the email only shortly before the arrest and that the subpoenas had not yet come back with any information. They did help snag baronsyntax, but the actual cause was the FBI finding the Iceland server (thanks, presumably, to Tarbell hacking it), which had a VPN IP hardwired and had a clearnet backup server in Pennsylvania, both of which led back to Ross in San Francisco.
Most bizarrely, Nick altered the dates on his 2008 postings about bit gold to make it appear as though they had been published after Bitcoin was released, rather than before….Most bizarrely, Nick altered the dates: the dates that Nick later put on the posts are at the top of each post. But the URL addresses of the posts still show the original posting date. For instance, his post on “Bit Gold Markets” says that it was written on December 27, 2008, but the URL is http://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2008/04/bit-gold-markets.html#links.
Nothing bizarre about it. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly since then, Szabo already in 2008 explained what the redating was about; he was re-running older posts: http://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2008/08/reruns.html That’s all.
Just a few months before Bitcoin was released, in April 2008, Nick had posted on his blog an item in which he talked about creating a trial model of bit gold and asked if anyone wanted to help him “code one up.”
This is evidence against Szabo being Satoshi! The prototype was a big piece of software with a ton of moving parts and low-level details, written in a low-productivity language, with a GUI, mockups for an online store and poker playing, and so on just in the first release; coding it up and debugging it to the point of a public release in just 8 months would be a pretty impressive feat all on its own, and worse, Satoshi says it took ‘a year and a half’ in November 2008, so he probably started around May 2007.
339“repeated use of ‘of course’ without isolating commas”: Skye Grey, “Satoshi Nakamoto Is (Probably) Nick Szabo,” LikeinaMirror, December 1, 2013, https://likeinamirror.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/satoshi-nakamoto-is-probably-nick-szabo/.
Skye Grey’s claims are BS; stylometrics doesn’t work like that, and when people do run stylometrics, Szabo does not come out on top. (While not named in the article, I am told by an involved journalist that Szabo’s writings were included but were a poorer match than Finney.)
An academic study of Silk Road later found that nearly 99% of all reviews gave the maximum score of 5 out of 5.
This is too high and was a mistake in that version of the paper. The percentage was biased upwards by a substantial amount because when you are scraping a site like SR1, you will only see a small fraction of the negative reviews from an exit scammer; if an exit scammer rips off 1000 people, he will be banned after a few dozen negative reviews, and then won’t appear in your data at all. So as far as your analysis can tell, a 5-star seller just vanished overnight. For example, Tony76 could probably account for 1%+ of sales all on his own, yet his exit scam doesn’t appear in the Christin data because they had scraping problems at the time and by the time they got another copy of SR1, that account was banned. Another issue is early finalization; to FE, you have to leave a review, which of course will be 5-stars, and then when you accept you’ve been scammed, you will probably never go back to update it to 1 star. So one of the changes made to the preprint version of Christin’s paper was to address these issues, and the final version should be used instead: “Traveling the Silk Road: A measurement analysis of a large anonymous online marketplace”.
(Also as far as this part of the book goes, it would be better to use Ross’s own sales figures from the court evidence.)
tied to an Internet provider in California: Hal’s debug log showed that the IP addresse of the other user was reached through a Tor service that would have obscured the real IP address. But Tor generally routes users to nodes in the same geographic area, suggesting that the other user on Bitcoin’s first day was probably in California.
I’m a little annoyed to see someone else discovered this, but in any case, this is only partially correct. Freenode banned open proxies, Bitcoin only gained proxy support in the later version 0.2 in December 2009 (before, it couldn’t’ve worked using Tor because it operated by running ‘/WHO’ on other Bitcoin nodes and connecting straight to their IP), the Bitcoin prototype was designed to ‘pay to IP’, and in any case, the historical Tor exit node data for January 2009 do not list; of the 3 nicks in the Bitcoin IRC channel, 1 was obviously Finney’s client, Satoshi was probably the Tor-cloaked user ‘x93428606’ in the log, and he was also almost certainly the final nick, the naked Bitcoin node 68.x, which resolves to a residential address in San Diego before 2009. (I looked into the one person I was able to link to that address, but unfortunately neither he nor any of his relatives or friends on Facebook look remotely like possible Satoshi candidates, so for non-state actors, that is a dead end.) Hence, I believe Satoshi was indeed in California that day and this was a rare OPSEC failure by him in exposing his real IP.
(Full disclosure: Popper offered a free copy of Digital Gold to me pre-publication to review, but I wound up not accepting because he was offering a physical book rather than an ebook. I also was a paid fact-checker on an earlier rival Bitcoin book, Dominic Frisby’s Bitcoin: The future of money?.)
|Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice||William H. McRaven||★★★★||1996||2016/07/16||
The Theory of Special Operations by William McRaven 1993 is a book-length thesis describing 8 case-studies of special ops missions and the degree to which they adhere to a few principles for spec-ops success that McRaven extracts from their successes/failures. The case-studies are in chronological order and primarily WWII-oriented:
The principles themselves boil down to finding a chink in enemy defenses, concentrating force on it as fast as possible, achieving immediate relative superiority to those enemy forces in the way, and executing a well-trained & rehearsed minimal possible mission. Or as he puts it: “simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed, and purpose”.
Arguably, all of these principles could be boiled down to a single principle of speed - complex unrehearsed operations with multiple objectives by uncommitted troops against a waiting enemy cannot be fast, while speed dictates all of the other requirements (except perhaps ‘security’). It’s surprising to read through his case-studies and realize that in many cases, the critical part of the operation lasts no more than 5 minutes, or even under a minute. For example, the successful part of the St Nazaire raid, from when the hellburner was first attacked by German artillery to when it rammed itself into the drydock gates (and the destruction of the drydock became guaranteed as the explosives/ship could not possibly be removed) was that short (the rest being, McRaven points out, an unnecessary debacle, and on a grand strategy level, destroying the drydock was probably not even helpful); the Gran Sasso raid, from when the Italian guards finally challenged the German commandos to securing Mussolini, was maybe a minute.
The importance of speed strikes me as being, in some respects, due to the vulnerability of large organizations; McRaven notes that all of the the case-studies involved greatly out-numbered commandos, often by orders of magnitude with enemy units within relatively close range, often heavily out-gunned, often attacking positions heavily fortified against exactly the kind of attack done (eg Raid on Alexandria, St Nazaire, Operation Source), with objectives that can sometimes be defeated if the enemy reacts quickly enough (the Italian guards could’ve executed Mussolini, the Japanese guards the POWs, the Entebbe terrorists could’ve killed their hostages, the Tirpitz/Valiant/Queen Elizabeth captains could’ve dragged chains to dislodge limpets & moved their ships to avoid the mines planted underneath, etc). Why then are spec-ops not doomed to failure? Because the enemy is unable to collectively think, react, and execute a counter-plan as fast as the commandos can, who have executed the plan many times previously in practice, need only a few minutes to do so, and have a ‘distributed knowledge’ of the plan & objectives allowing independent-yet-coordinated action. The OODA loop is just inherently too slow for physically separated forces to recognize the threat, realize it’s local and not part of a broader attack, deduce the objectives, counter-attack, and execute the counter-attack; given enough time, the enemy forces can do all this and crush the commandos (St Nazaire) but by that point, they should be long gone. The commandos sting the elephant and flee before the tail can smash them into paste. The parallels with computer security and cyberattacks is clear: a hack can take months or years to research and craft, but when triggered, it can attack and finish within seconds or minutes, far outspeeding the merely human defenders. (A Silicon Valley startup analogy also makes itself; indeed “simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed, and purpose” would not be a bad set of founding principles for a startup!)
The case-studies themselves are interesting. McRaven was able to interview a number of people involved in the case-studies as well as visit the locations to see them for himself. It’s interesting to note the presence of gliders in at least two of the WWII case-studies, because of their stealth advantage right up to the instant before landing, but never afterwards, and I can’t remember the last time I heard of gliders used by militaries; I wonder if that’s because parachute technology has evolved to the point that steerable parachutes obsoleted gliders? The Battle of Fort Eben-Emael case-study was particularly interesting because while most histories mention that it was a huge success for the invasion thanks to the gliders, McRaven emphasizes that the gliders were only a small part, and the reason the German commandos succeeded so thoroughly was because they deployed a new bomb technology, shaped charges, which literally shattered the Belgium defenders and their fortifications; otherwise, they would have successfully landed on the grassy field above the underground fortress but found themselves trapped in a deadly killing field between the various bunkers & cupolas. Deception plays surprisingly little role in most of the operations considering its outsized role in the public imagination (the St Nazaire raid ship briefly pretended to be German; Gran Sasso brought along an Italian general in the gliders to confuse the Italians; Operation Entebbe likewise involved the commandos pretending to be locals until they reached the building with the hostages, apparently successfully confusing the terrorists inside).
McRaven himself, although I hadn’t realized it when I downloaded the book on a whim, may be a familiar-sounding name; turns out that he has since been putting his theory into practice as a major controller of American special operations during the War on Terror, in particular heading the Osama bin Laden raid. In retrospect, one can see how the OBL raid largely conforms to McRaven’s principles: a fast in and out raid in as few stealth helicopters as possible with little or no coordination with the locals, given that Pakistan/ISI had been sheltering OBL and would doubtless tip him off despite the danger of operating so near a Pakistani base, an operation rehearsed extensively with replica models.
The thesis was apparently quite popular and was republished in 1995 as Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice. Disadvantages to the online thesis version: big PDF, harder to search due to OCR errors, a lot of typos, and the photographs McRaven included of all the sites he could visit are unfortunately totally destroyed by the photocopier/scanner (although the diagrams are still legible). A skim of the Libgen EPUB version suggests that you might be better off with that edition (although it appears to drop the photos entirely).
|Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide?||Max G. Gergel||★★★★||1979||2014/11/02||(~95k words, <3h read) Insider memoir of a relatively American wheeler-dealer in the chemical industry finished March 1977, following him from high school dabbling in chemistry through to graduation & WWII university work to founding a small chemical synthesis company until he turned it over to a successor. Gossipy, detailed, a vivid look inside the industry. Long out of print, I read the online scan (2.3M).
Gergel seems to have an amazing memory for all the details of his short stature, secular Jewishness, school life, colorful incidents (such as maiming a friend with injudicious safety procedures applied to potassium), the girls he swooned over (usually blonde), and classwork; unfortunately, some of the gossip aside, his school years aren’t that interesting since I have no idea what any of the chemistry he was studying was (the politics of draft deferment, official corruption, and the mindless patriotism of the day, are a bit interesting but he mostly hints at them). Things pick up markedly by pg60 or so when Gergel begins doing syntheses for pay, eventually escalating to his own business - and here a modern reader will start blinking and wondering whether Gergel is deliberately trying to make a deeply compelling case for the necessity of government regulation, expanded budgets for the EPA & FDA & DoJ, the Precautionary Principle, and (much) higher Superfund taxes, and whether his life might not be a proof of quantum immortality and a defeat for the forces of natural selection, so reckless and poisonous and dangerous are his concoctions and business dealings. So many of his co-workers and acquaintances die young of exotic ailments that I am shocked to read in discussions of Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide? that not only is Gergel still alive as of 2012, but Derek Lowe says he’s even written a sequel memoir, The Ageless Gergel!
Derek Lowe reviews it thusly:
I came across the book in Duke’s chemistry library in 1984, a few years after its publication, and read it straight through with my hair gradually rising upwards. Book 2 is especially full of alarming chemical stories. I suspect that some of the anecdotes have been polished up a bit over the years, but as Samuel Johnson once said, a man is not under oath in such matters. But when Gergel says that he made methyl iodide in an un-air-conditioned building in the summertime in South Carolina, and describes in vivid detail the symptoms of being poisoned by it, I believe every word. He must have added a pound to his weight in sheer methyl groups. By modern standards, another shocking feature of the book is the treatment of chemical waste. Readers will not be surprised to learn that several former Columbia Organic sites feature prominently in the EPA’s Superfund cleanup list, but they certainly aren’t alone from that era.
Throughout Max Gergel’s long career he has been an unforgettable character for all who encountered him in the many roles he has played: student, bench chemist, instructor of aviation cadets, entrepreneur, supplier to the Manhattan Project, buyer and seller of obscure reagents to a global clientele, consultant to industry, travelling salesman peddling products ranging from exotic halocarbons to roach killer and toilet bowl cleaner, and evangelist persuading young people to pursue careers in chemistry. With family and friends (and no outside capital) he founded Columbia Organic Chemicals, a specialty chemical supplier specialising in halocarbons but, operating on a shoestring, willing to make almost anything a customer was ready to purchase (even Max drew the line, however, when the silver-tongued director of the Naval Research Laboratory tried to persuade him to make pentaborane). The narrative is as rambling and entertaining as one imagines sharing a couple (or a couple dozen) drinks with Max at an American Chemical Society meeting would have been. He jumps from family to friends to finances to business to professional colleagues to suppliers to customers to nuggets of wisdom for starting and building a business to eccentric characters he has met and worked with to his love life to the exotic and sometimes bone-chilling chemical syntheses he did in his company’s rough and ready facilities. Many of Columbia’s contracts involved production of moderate quantities (between a kilogram and several 55 gallon drums) of substances previously made only in test tube batches. This “medium scale chemistry”-situated between the laboratory bench and an industrial facility making tank car loads of the stuff-involves as much art (or, failing that, brute force and cunning) as it does science and engineering, and this leads to many of the adventures and misadventures chronicled here. For example, an exothermic reaction may be simple to manage when you’re making a few grams of something-the liberated heat is simply conducted to the walls to the test tube and dissipated: at worst you may only need to add the reagent slowly, stir well, and/or place the reaction vessel in a water bath. But when DuPont placed an order for allene in gallon quantities, this posed a problem… All of this was in the days before the EPA, OSHA, and the rest of the suffocating blanket of soft despotism descended upon entrepreneurial ventures in the United States that actually did things and made stuff. In the 1940s and ’50s, when Gergel was building his business in South Carolina, he was free to adopt the “whatever it takes” attitude which is the quintessential ingredient for success in start-ups and small business. The flexibility and ingenuity which allowed Gergel not only to compete with the titans of the chemical industry but become a valued supplier to them is precisely what is extinguished by intrusive regulation, which accounts for why sclerotic dinosaurs are so comfortable with it. On the other hand, Max’s experience with methyl iodide illustrates why some of these regulations were imposed.
I made some excerpts conveying some of the key points.
|A Perfect Vacuum||Stanisław Lem||★★★★||1999||2015/11/10||As Lem explains in the introduction, the fake book review (and fake acceptance lecture), as particularly exemplified by Borges’s book reviews, is a micro-genre suited for intellectual jokes - for ideas which need more than a tweet, but can’t be written out unironically or in full as articles/books. (If dry academic humor is not your thing, you probably already know from reading descriptions that you should not read this book, so I can address fellow aficionados.)
One way to fail in this rather abstract micro-genre is to tell too much - since this is a genre where more detail can make it worse the same way that a horror movie can be worse when it shows too much and the horror collapses into irony & camp when you see the rubber monster. Lem’s own fakes succeed when they maintain this distance from the subject matter; this is why “Robinsonade”, “Gruppenführer Louis XVI”, “A Perfect Vacuum”, “You”, “De Impossibilitate Vitae and, De Impossibilitate Prognoscendi”, and “Non Serviam” fail, as they try to be the works they purport to describe (particularly “A Perfect Vacuum” and “Non Serviam”), but of course neither Lem nor anyone else could write them for lack of the required exceptional talent & knowledge.
Still, that leaves half the volume as successes, interesting and amusing.
“Gigamesh” takes Finnegan’s Wake into the Wikipedia age, describing a mobster story with improbable allusive density where a single item requires several pages of lists of things it is an allusion to; while it’s easy enough for Lem to merely tell us that such a chapter in Gigamesh is an encoded work of classical music which comments on the events of the chapter, Lem goes one better by showing us at least 26 interpretations or allusions he is able to contrive for the word ‘Gigamesh’.
“Sexplosion” is a satire of technologizing sex which takes a left turn, leaving us in not so much a dystopia but a weirdtopia where food assumes the role played by sex, down to the pornography and moral hysteria (a satire particularly pointed these days by the extent to which all sorts of sexual deviancies have been normalized but the moralizing of food seems to have hardly ever been stronger).
“Pericalypse” is a modest proposal to treat the inexhaustible emission of human culture as not an asset but info-pollution, to be discouraged because every book written obscures further the best books, a viewpoint with which I have some sympathy myself.
“Idiot” proposes a psychological horror novel (somewhat similar to “Robinsonade”) in which the parents of a retarded child convince themselves he is intelligent, and perhaps he is and has been murdering and rearranging his life as convenient; like most horror, in the end humans are the real monsters, as Lem has described little but ‘facilitated communication’ after all.
“U-Write-It” is another parody like “Sexplosion”, but where “Sexplosion” criticized human tendencies towards over-moralizing everything, “U-Write-It” criticizes apathy & disinterest toward fine literature by the general population in describing the commercial failure of an attempt of an Oulipo-like company to sell its kits for splicing together classic novels into new fanfictions - the moral being, of course, that most humans are not interested in or even capable of such disrespect. (One has to wonder what Lem would have made of FanFiction.net; is the glass half full or half empty?)
“Odysseus of Ithaca” offers an inversion and image that seems like it should have been in Calvino’s Invisible Cities: searchers convinced that the greatest wisdom by the greatest geniuses, truly original thoughts, would be ignored and not understood as comprehensible by the general population (‘if a lion could speak, we would not understand him’) and so to find treasures, they must search through sewers and insane asylums and trash cans. (“Odysseus” could have been combined nicely with “Pericalypse”, I think.)
“Being Inc” is an update on Borges’s “The Lottery in Babylon”, with more computers; what I loved most about this one was two throwaway lines: “Antitrust legislation in the U.S.A. forbids monopolies; consequently Being Inc. is not the only life arranger. There are its great competitors, Hedonica and the Truelife Corporation.”
The story “Culture as Mistake” has as its core an interesting argument: that ‘culture’ can only refer to everything which is not useful or backed up by reality, and so, in the strictest and most concrete sense, all of culture is lies and mistakes.
And finally, the piece Lem calls the best, and I would have to agree, the “A New Cosmology”. Here Lem offers up an explanation for the Great Silence: all our knowledge predicts countless alien civilizations but we observe not the slightest trace (here nothing has changed, as modern astronomy vindicates Lem’s assumptions of the commonness of planets and entire absence of signals or anomalies), and this is because the aliens have become so advanced that they have become indistinguishable from nature; but here, where most speculation idiotically stops, showing that the author has not thought in the slightest bit about resource limits or competition or exponential growth or the likelihood of all aliens being consistently the same way over billions of years without the slightest deviation, Lem keeps going, suggesting that the laws of physics themselves have already been molded by the most advanced aliens in a previous multiverse as a solution to an intractable conflict in which different bubbles of physics in the multiverse try to expand (erasing and eating other bubbles), where the solution hit upon by all parties independently is to fix a single common set of physics, and that we do not see the original universe but a successor, a stabler successor with physics strategically chosen to limit the ability of any alien civilization to expand or tinker with the laws (especially the lightspeed limit), where the existing alien civilizations continue to remain silent & hidden as they strategically continue to tweak physics like the value of certain constants while wishing to avoid tipping off competitors. This is a theory of the Great Silence which is far from idiotic and quite interesting as a hard SF premise. (It still doesn’t work, though. While the multiverse part is unfalsifiable, the explanation for our current universe still makes no sense as lightspeed is not that much of a barrier and we can easily imagine expansionist strategies which make more sense; eg when it only takes a few million years to colonize a galaxy, if you’re worried about competition, why not put Von Neumann probes around every planet to kill competitors in the womb, so to speak?)
|Chronicle of a Death Foretold||Gabriel García Márquez||★★★★||2003||2014/08/26||A quasi-police description of the events leading up to, then long preceding, an honor-killing of one Santiago. The style strikes me as vastly simpler and less magically-realistic than The Autumn of the Patriarch, and much shorter. An inversion of detective mysteries: it is agreed by all who the proximate killer is, and the mystery centers on the how & whydunnit. (Borges would approve.)
As the witnesses and reports pile up, it seems to become clear that it’s all a farcical assemblage of bad luck, buck-passing, murderous traditional cultures of machismo, and accident, but doubt is cast from the beginning - the murder happened on a beautiful clear day, which in the village’s memory has become a dark rainy day; witnesses crowd around the magistrate eager to tell their involvement and exaggerate their part (“…the crowd that was pouring in to testify without having been summoned, everyone eager to show off his own important role in the drama…”); and the basis for the murder itself was likely a lie. This uncertainty renders the story sinister by the end - did the village conspire to kill Santiago? Did he anger everyone in a way we are not told of, because to provide a motive would confirm their guilt, and they collectively fail to help him, explaining the repeated slurs like ‘“He thought that his money made him untouchable,” he told me. Fausta Lopez, his wife, commented: “Just like all Turks.”’? (A nice example of cunctation: the mayor stop in to check on a dominos match so and is too late to take away the murder-weapons.) How much is Angela responsible for failing to respect the charade of virginity and deliberately sabotaging her marriage? (She is ultimately punished by the deliciously cruel method of returning 20 years of love-letters, unopened.) The assembled villagers in the square shout advice at the last second, but somehow, their exhortations serve only to confuse him and maneuver him towards his killers; the killers are made to remark their knives are rather clean given they’re killing someone. And so on.
The more we read, the less we feel we know and the more worried we become that we’re being fed a pack of distortions and warped memories in which the events were far more dramatic and complicated than they actually were. The magistrate warns us that “Give [someone] a prejudice and [they] will move the world”, and the narrator remarks of one post hoc explanation that “It seemed to be such an easy truth that the investigator wrote it down…”, and “fatality makes us invisible” - or is it plot necessity that makes the victim invisible? The villagers know their stories must terminate in the death of the victim, and in the stories they confabulate, he must be invisible to have performed the actions ascribed to him. (Umineko no Naku Koro ni’s vocabulary is useful here: outside the cat box, it is known that Santiago was killed by two knife-wielding twins at such a time and place; but everything else before that is part of the cat box and can be endlessly revised.) But each story, however plausible in the singular, has a hard time surviving conjunction with all the other tales being peddled (“he never thought it legitimate that life should make use of so many coincidences forbidden literature”). And their story can always be continued by imagining or forcing consequences:
For years we couldn’t talk about anything else. Our daily conduct, dominated then by so many linear habits, had suddenly begun to spin around a single common anxiety. The cocks of dawn would catch us trying to give order to the chain of many chance events that had made absurdity possible, and it was obvious that we weren’t doing it from an urge to clear up mysteries but because none of us could go on living without an exact knowledge of the place and the mission assigned to us by fate….Hortensia Baute, whose only participation was having seen two bloody knives that weren’t bloody yet, felt so affected by the hallucination that she fell into a penitential crisis, and one day, unable to stand it any longer, she ran out naked into the street. Flora Miguel, Santiago Nasar’s fiancee, ran away out of spite with a lieutenant of the border patrol, who prostituted her among the rubber workers on the Vichada. Aura Villeros, the midwife who had helped bring three generations into the world, suffered a spasm of the bladder when she heard the news and to the day of her death had to use a catheter in order to urinate. Don Rogelio de la Flor, Clotilde Armenta’s good husband, who was a marvel of vitality at the age of eighty-six, got up for the last time to see how they had hewn Santiago Nasar to bits against the locked door of his own house, and he didn’t survive the shock. Plácida Linero had locked that door at the last moment, but with the passage of time she freed herself from blame. “I locked it because Divina Flor had sworn to me that she’d seen my son come in,” she told me, “and it wasn’t true.” On the other hand, she never forgave herself for having mixed up the magnificent augury of trees with the unlucky one of birds, and she succumbed to the pernicious habit of her time of chewing pepper cress seeds.
I am reminded of an old story:
One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he interrupted the lesson suddenly in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row, if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. “Nice biscuit, don’t you think,” said Korzybski, while he took a 2nd one. The students were chewing vigorously. Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog’s head and the words “Dog Cookies.” The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to vomit, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. “You see,” Korzybski remarked, “I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter.”
People do not live in facts, they live in stories; and as long as the story continues, they are satisfied.
Everything has been brought to light, it seems, but nothing has been enlightened. By the end, the death has been foretold but remains unknown.
|Existence||David Brin||★★★★||2012||2012/12/01||Existence is best-seen as a rewrite of Earth, and Earth was a sprawling futurological serious novel which was trying to both world-build by including countless perspectives and quotes and discussions and terms but also put them into context to build a overarching thesis. Similar to Tad William’s Otherland (the fantastic first book City of Golden Shadow, not the horrible sequels), Dos Passos’s USA, or particularly Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar (to which Brin alludes, actually, in having a alien say “what an imagination I’ve got.”)
The overriding theme is, of course, the Great Silence. Brin’s solution, characteristically for a guy who wants to be the ultimate moderate and more moderate than thou, is to take up every solution: the Great Silence is due to more efficient physical transportation and memetic viruses and Berserkers and Lurkers and panspermia and ecological collapse and nuclear war and… This is a little impressive to behold, and overall, I did enjoy reading the book. Brin has had a few new ideas since Earth like the smart-mob.
But for the bad:
This jumping makes the book something like a huge primer on the Great Silence/Fermi’s Question, yes, but also for something of a mess of a book. The book is huge, but a good deal of the bulk is fat and self-indulgent:
1. the dolphin sub-plot is rehashed Uplift material, which only very charitably has any relevance to anything else in the book (I thought that we would at least see them towards the end on spaceships as a token nod toward justifying the time spent on them, but no!)
2. More germane subplots feel incomplete; the autistic kids, “cobblies” and the “Basque Chimera” form one such oddly underjustified subplot - is this a thing, now, lauding crippled autistic kids as secret savant heroes? I don’t know which narrative is more denigrating of the human suffering involved, the standard one or this one. (Autism spectrum may be useful in some areas, but only a little is necessary and even the high-functioning often fail: I read in the New York Times the other day that that famous tech firm which uses autistic workers has a 5/6 rejection rate of applicants just from the start. One must sift a lot of sand.)
3. much material is borrowed from his previous nonfiction or fiction; allusions to The Postman are well and good, but when I could predict the resolution of the Senator Strong mystery from the instant we were told it was an addiction… This also means that I can track how many authorial mouthpieces there are in the novel, and it’s pretty much all of them. Even people you think are wrong like Hamish are just acting as conduits for Brin’s own beliefs. This leads to the severe problem, in a repeated first contact novel, that none of the aliens were remotely alien, and the humans all seemed pretty similar to each other too. It made me wish for Stanislaw Lem, or at least Watts’s Blindsight.
Brin also has a very weird attitude towards what he calls extropianism but most people these days just call transhumanism. For example, the bogus anti-caloric restriction argument Hamish gives; it is bogus because (a) none of those monks or monasteries are following nutritionally balanced diets, indeed, usually for religious reasons they’re following highly unbalanced diets if they’re not like the Taoists possibly actively poisoning themselves with mercury, and (b) the records do claim countless instances of extreme longevity, which of course we don’t believe because record-keeping was terrible - which means the evidence is so worthless and biased and corrupt that we can’t use it to claim the opposite either! I’ve told Brin this like twice before, not that he cared. But by the time the story is set, the caloric restriction question will be settled: the primate studies will be finished, the human CRers will be dead, and the underlying biochemistry (or lack thereof) will have been elucidated. Suppose he’s wrong? He probably doesn’t care, he’s dead-set against it anyway! I was a little awe-struck when he has his mouthpiece badmouth cryonics, after saying it worked and there had been revivals? WTF?
WTF indeed. This attitude could be called schizophrenic. Throughout the novel, Brin seems to struggle with the fundamental problem posed by Vinge: how does he keep the story human given his belief in progress and his basic acceptance of the Strong AI thesis? He never comes up with a good answers, but blatantly hand-waves them away: an emulated rat brain goes critical and escapes into the Internet? Well, uh - nothing happens because I say so (wow, ain’t it strange)! There are even more AIs pervading the world, controlling countless key functions? Well, uh - nothing happens because I insinuate something about parents and children and them being grateful! (wow, ain’t it strange - ever see a grateful river, spider, tow-truck, computer…? Humans can barely be grateful, ever.) Humanity is a few decades away from a general nanofactory assembler in his story and thousands of crystal probes come to visit? Well, uh - the crystal probes are completely inactive and don’t carry nanofactories or anything despite it being a mindbogglingly great & evolutionarily fit idea and perfectly doable for them, because I say so and it lets me write adventure arcs with primates fighting over & chucking around glowing rocks! (wow, ain’t it strange) He’ll mock the extropians in the first part for believing in cryonics or uploads or AIs even though their most-criticized belief, cryonics, has been vindicated 100% in his story even beyond their hopes, their expectations of uploads are equally justified by events towards the end - non-destructive uploading, even! We’d settle for destructive uploads at this point… and so on and so forth. Well, uh - they’re right but they’re wrong, don’t you see! (wow, ain’t it strange)
|Singularity Rising: Surviving and Thriving in a Smarter, Richer, and More Dangerous World||James D. Miller||★★★★||2012||2013/04/25||You could see Miller’s Singularity Rising as an attempt to swim against the book current of Ray Kurzweil and present some of the other visions of the Singularity: specifically, the Intelligence Explosion school as exemplified by Eliezer Yudkowsky and Robin Hanson. It then mixes in a bunch of material on intelligence & genetics, so we might identify an additional subschool: that of Steve Hsu on embryo selection for increasing human intelligence.
Miller succeeds in giving a wide overview of quite a few topics, from Hanson’s ‘crack of a future dawn’ em scenario to the Great Filter to comparative advantage & the advantages of trade as it applies (and doesn’t apply) to AIs to the intelligence orthogonality thesis (that intelligence does not imply benevolence) to the logic of arms race and its particularly unpleasant applicability to AI development. And then he tosses in the mentioned intelligence & genetics material, which I was a little surprised to learn from - I had read many of his citations (and actually host a few of the online copies of the papers on my personal site, gwern.net), but he still threw in some ones that were new to me.
On a purely factual basis, I have relatively little to fault Miller for. He makes a risible claim about 1700s French life expectancies not hitting the 50s (true only if you include infant mortality, otherwise hitting 50s was perfectly routine - even in the worst tabulations, generally if you made it to 20 on average you would reach the 50s; see 0, 1, 2, 3, 4) but he is far from the first to make that mistake; he brings up dual n-back more than once, but he avoids making too many or overreaching claims on behalf of dual n-back such as the increasingly questionable effect on intelligence (see my meta-analysis); he seems to criticize people for not taking seriously the method of castration for life extension but doesn’t mention the issues with the data and the likelihood that the method would not work post-puberty (ie. for everyone who is able to morally consent to such a procedure). Otherwise…
Otherwise Miller’s sins are simply that the writing is merely OK and while he does a reasonable job of, as Hanson puts it in his own review of Singularity Rising, “explaining common positions and intuitions behind common arguments”, he barely defends them or clearly justifies them. While I and many others involved in the area dislike Ray Kurzweil’s theories and arguments and books as being superficial, right for the wrong reason, overly optimistic etc, they do at least do their job of convincing people (and then hopefully they can adopt more nuanced or different views); but though I agree with a large fraction of it, it’s hard to believe that anyone could read Miller’s book and come out genuinely convinced of pretty much anything in it (as opposed to reactions like “that’s interesting” or “maybe”). For example, he does a nice question-answer sequence against the kneejerk bad-philosophy reactions to cryonics, but one could easily bite all the bullets and simply question the incredibly sketchy case he makes (yes, it’s great that wood frogs do cryonics all the time, but we’re not frogs). He asks that anyone who signs up for cryonics email him about what convinced them - I immediately thought, “50% odds that no one has done so yet”. (After writing this review, I asked Miller about this and he said no one had yet.)
And aside from as comprehensive a layman discussion of the issues involved in AI economics and technological unemployment as I’ve ever seen, I can’t really name any original contribution this book makes.
I can’t say I’m really glad I read it, but then I can’t say I really regret reading it (I got a number of IQ-related citations, a discussion of neo-Luddism, and info on the more esoteric possibilities of embryo selection). This is because I already know almost everything in the book and have read many of the citations already, so I am not the target audience; it’s good if you want an overview of non-Kurzweilian Singularity ideas and you don’t want to read through scores of webpages and papers, and more or less unique in conveying them all in a compact single place - so in acknowledgment of this, I bump my rating up to 4 stars (though for me it was more like 3).
|The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq||Hassan Blasim||★★★★||2014||2015/01/08||(~44k words) Short stories drawing heavily on Borges and the magical realists; Blasim writes in a deadpan vernacular in which even the most baffling, cruel or horrible events are noted calmly and passed on, in a world in which ‘confused armies clash by night’ while mere humans try to get along as they play endless roles with masks whose significance they do not understand for an audience they cannot see for an objective that does not bear examination (“The Corpse Exhibition”, “An Army Newspaper” and “The Reality and the Record” suggest obscurely that God is the artist portraying all these severities). “I know you now have some questions that are nagging you, but you will gradually discover that the world is built to have more than one level, and it’s unrealistic for everyone to reach all the levels and all the basements with ease.” Some set scenes are memorable; from “The Killers and the Compass”:
Abu Hadid knocked on a rusty door that still had a few spots of green paint, shaped like frogs, on it. We were received by a man in his forties with a thick mustache that covered his teeth when he spoke. We sat down in the guest room in front of the television. I gathered that the man lived alone. He went into the kitchen and came back with a bottle of arak. He opened it and poured a glass. My brother told him to pour one for me too. We sat in silence, and the man and I watched a soccer match between two local teams, while my brother stared into a small fish tank.
Or “The Song of the Goats”:
“As he drove through the wheat fields, he was barely in control of the steering wheel. The bumps were about to break my ribs, and only dust kicked up by the truck crept in through the holes in the barrel. The barrel stank like the dead cats on the neighborhood trash heap. Did my uncle pull out fingernails, gouge out people’s eyes, and singe their skin with branding irons in the vaults of the security department? Maybe it was the souls of his victims that drove him into the ravine, maybe it was my own evil soul, or maybe it was the soul that preordained everything that is ephemeral and mysterious in this transitory world.
The endings are abrupt, sometimes twist endings, leaving one pondering what moral there may be, if any; often the lack of closure itself seems to be the point. Given such a enigmatic style, unsurprisingly some of the stories worked much better for me than others (in particular, when he strays into clearer political commentary, the stories seem to get weaker). Hits:
|Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II||Keith Lowe||★★★★||2012||2014/12/07||(~144k words, ~4h) Nonfiction European history by Keith Lowe. Savage Continent is a fascinating book on the bloody aftermath of WWII as the destruction wound down, the lingering consequences of anarchy worked themselves out in the sudden peace, and people tried to find a new equilibrium, punishing collaborators and finishing the ethnic cleansings. Quickly summarized on NPR:
“I was used to seeing these wonderful, cozy myths about the way the war ended,” he tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “and everybody celebrating and sailors grabbing hold of nurses in New York’s Times Square and kissing them and all of these sort of things. And I was aware that it hadn’t quite ended like that.” Europe, he says, was so devastated that “it’s difficult for us to quite realize how bad the destruction was.”
WWII for Americans remains the good war; while one may be familiar with tarnished aspects of that (the atrocities in the Pacific, the unnecessary atomic bombings of Japan, the domestic censorship, etc), one hears less about the post-war period. Presumably after liberation, things were cleaned up quickly and calmly and a few years later our historical memory turns to the start of the Cold War.
An example of the fluffiness I have in mind is an old movie I watched in August, Three Coins in the Fountain, a romantic comedy set in post-war Rome, where while there is still poverty and recovery from the war, things are basically OK. But one might have a better idea from my earlier reading, Catch-22‘s Italy scenes; or from Gravity’s Rainbow’s depiction of partitioned Germany’s fierce stew of black-marketeering, Communism, corruption, crime, destruction, and prostitution. The end of WWII left much business unfinished: Wages of Destruction covers in detail the slave labor forces drawn from conquered Europe which worked in Germany up until defeat, and the parlous food situation of Germany and Europe at large - so what happened after? With all these victorious horny occupation forces? With the slave laborers, and the Jews, and the guerrillas or partisans or thieves or black-marketeers? How were morals slowly restored after being corrupted by the exigencies of war and the struggle for survival, and what was seen as now possible after the Holocaust?
The answers are rarely pretty, but Lowe gives a synoptic view. It can be hard to understand the early Cold War: what were the Americans & Europeans thinking when they set up Operation Gladio? What was with the persecution of homosexuals or the “Red Scare” & McCarthy? Or, when reading through Bryne’s The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett (review), one can see on display his incomprehension of how anyone could plan for nuclear war or be willing to go to the edge or the security mindset. But here we see it put in context: a Europe only just liberated from one despotism, half of which has been handed over to another despot even worse and who has displayed the ruthless techniques of subversion and rewriting society on a grand scale (chapter 25, “Cuckoo in the Nest: Communism in Romania”, is a surprisingly lengthy account of the sausage factory of of Communization - first, start with the internal security offices, exploit the electoral process, destroy opponents in detai, and finally with a captive government take naked control and begin the purges), in which Communist parties were not a political curiosity but popular, even a plurality sometimes. Without the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see how one might resort to deep states, alliances with the Mafia, and so on.
Throw on top of this the festering ethnic hatreds which all sides struggled to control or exploit, which had independent lives of their own… It’s hard to not see the echoes today: the Crimea appears often in Savage Europe, as it has in recent news; mentions of ’Novorossiya’ would not be out of place; the Ukraine is battered so relentlessly in WWII and afterwards that contemporary events look not like an aberration but a return to business as usual; and can Finland rest very easy about its independence from Russia when it gained its independence not that long ago and long memories are so politically profitable?
An enlightening and timely book.
|Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.||Ron Chernow||★★★★||2004||2016/05/03||Fascinating account of a Gilded Age titan much worse known than Carnegie.
His charming but scheming bigamist wandering con-artist father reminds me of my old observation that a lot of very successful people seem to be high but not too high on the psychopathy continuum and have had difficult or abusive childhoods; while we tend to think of psychopathy as all negative, aspects of it, like its heritability, are consistent with it being a lifecycle strategy under balancing selection, indicating advantages to the social skills, fearlessness etc. The benign end of psychopathy may give us great leaders and businessmen and heroes like firefighters.
Rockefeller’s puritanism and obsession with accounting & ledgers renders his early life unpromising. I suspect Rockefeller may’ve been a bit influenced by Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Although the virtues of accounting no longer appeal quite as much - for example, one thing Rockefeller was famous for later on was giving children shiny new dimes and then lecturing them about the virtues of savings and how a dime was the annual interest on a dollar in a savings account, 10%. This is no longer quite as compelling today when your bank’s annual CD pays 0.5% or less, which hardly even covers your time in filling out paperwork.
This clerkish fixation on details and pennies makes his subsequent ability, after some modest success in trading & transporting goods, to risk his entire fortune and career going deeply into debt on visionary speculation in the nascent Pennsylvania oil fields all the more extraordinary and inexplicable to me. How did he do it? How did he know that oil wasn’t some oddity but would be one of the defining resources of the 1800s-2000s? Rockefeller, in Chernow’s telling, keeps his own counsel. I am left to wonder if it is another selection effect and what I’ve noted elsewhere, like my review of The Media Lab: we often assume millionaires and billionaires must have deep wisdom (“if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”), when they may actually be deeply irrational, risk-seeking, and little more than lottery winners of timing and chance. (Several competitors to Rockefeller could easily have taken his place.)
Having somehow seen the future and figured out that the refineries, sitting squarely in the middle between the raw oil of the Pennsylvania derricks and the end product of refined kerosene sitting in cans in customers’ homes after being transported on railroad to their city, were the strategic point, he began buying up the Cleveland refineries to play off and balance the railroads (who otherwise would be propelled into ruinous competition) against his own cashflow needs and pipelines and the oil fields’ smalltimers. (It all sounds like it would make a great board game in the German vein where players compete to control geographical routes of railroads/pipelines/refineries and cooperate until the exact right moment to stab another player in the back and take them over. I checked but while there are 2 or 3 existing oil-themed board games, they either are about off-shore drilling or take a much more abstracted macroeconomics point of view.)
Rockefeller’s second career as a philanthropist is equally interesting and Chernow gives it plenty of space. it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Rockefeller was one of the first Effective Altruists, in caring deeply that his money was spent as carefully and sustainably as possible. Indeed, some of his favored projects like the deworming of the American South have echoes in modern EA projects - deworming being a particular focus of GiveWell! Rockefeller was a complex man trying to be simple: he knew many of the criticisms of him were true but tried to delude himself to the end; he was a devout Baptist, who was intelligent and worldly enough to see the problems there and how the wicked flourished; he loved homeopathy, but his funding of medical research and the Flexner Report would kill the last shreds of legitimacy it had.
The philanthropy transitions into an account of Rockefeller Junior, as he is entrusted with it, who emerges as diligent and effective, but not the man his father was. Senior attempted to replicate his own upbringing without the abusiveness, but as so often in dynasties, the founder’s extreme qualities do not fully carry over to his offspring, who regress to the mean. The lesson I take away from Senior’s disappointing offspring (variously mediocre, wastrel, neurotic, or gullible) is that if you want to build a family empire, you must have a lot of offspring so the maximum may be adequate, and also be willing to go outside direct descent or even adopt outsiders (eg the Romans or Japanese); this is the only way to keep a family business going for centuries.
|Quantum Computing Since Democritus||Scott Aaronson||★★★★||2013||2013/06/17||Aaronson’s book is based off his online lecture notes which I hadn’t read before though I’ve read his blog for years. I was really excited when the book was announced, since I hoped for expanded better version of his incredibly interesting paper/monograph “Why Philosophers Should Care About Computational Complexity” (abstract: “…In particular, I argue that computational complexity theory - the field that studies the resources (such as time, space, and randomness) needed to solve computational problems - leads to new perspectives on the nature of mathematical knowledge, the strong AI debate, computationalism, the problem of logical omniscience, Hume’s problem of induction, Goodman’s grue riddle, the foundations of quantum mechanics, economic rationality, closed timelike curves, and several other topics of philosophical interest. I end by discussing aspects of complexity theory itself that could benefit from philosophical analysis.”), and see also his more recent “The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine”.
The book turns out to be excellent, but not the 5-star universally-compelling, suitable for the layman & professional alike, complete coverage of all that is interesting about computational complexity and quantum I was hoping for. I’d say probably that one could get 80% of the value from reading “Why Philosophers Should Care About Computational Complexity”, and even more if one is not particularly interested in computational complexity or quantum computing for their own sakes.
- best book I’ve ever read on computational complexity
- repeatedly throws out fascinating observations
- learned a lot of new things even after years reading Aaronson’s blog - PAC learning, Blum’s speedup theorem, Tarski’s decision algorithm
- humor better than expected
- some key arguments are sketched out briefly or badly (eg. I don’t know how anyone would understand Aaronson’s version of Cantor’s diagonal proof, compared to longer better-illustrated versions like Hofstadter’s in Gödel, Escher, Bach)
- the complex-probability version of quantum mechanics didn’t seem much more transparent to me than other versions; maybe if I had a physics degree? (Not that I really understood the ‘Quantish’ universe in Drescher’s equally excellent book Good and Real, either.)
- overuse of complexity zoo abbreviations
- no discernible connection to Democritus or the Democritus quote
- some later chapters highly technical and specialized and uninteresting (eg. the size of quantum states), not always meaningfully connected
- Aaronson randomly inserts bizarre and sloppy anti-Bayesian digs - like at the end of his chapter on anthropics, he seems to think it refutes the ‘religion’ of Bayesianism. Dude, WTF? No one understands or agrees on anyone in anthropics, that’s the whole point of half the field (constructing paradoxes & unpleasant implications of the most sensible principles), and you want to use anthropics as an argument against Bayesianism‽ You want to disprove the eminently successful & practical by the useless & bizarre? If ever there was a moment that the saying ‘one man’s modus tollens is another man’s modus ponens’ was appropriate…
I made excerpts of the book as I read it:
- chapters 1-3
|A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics||Nicholas Wright Gillham||★★★★||2001||2016/04/13||An engaging biography of Francis Galton, heavy with the many amusing Galton anecdotes we all know (a sober analysis of the inefficacy of prayer which drew furious attack; recording people fidgeting during lectures or average attractiveness of women on the street; constructing devices to keep himself awake). Gillham devotes much space to Galton’s youthful travels and African expedition and to his fingerprinting work, less to the weather mapping, but that’s reasonable inasmuch as those are the most exciting to read about and anyone can understand & appreciate that, even if I have to say that in the long run, Galton’s work on the source of the Nile, as ancient a mystery as it may be, was infinitely less important than his other work like twin studies.
What is much more interesting to me is the almost as lengthy discussion of Galton and other biologists’ attempts to come up with a mechanistic model of how evolution & heredity could work which explained both simple Mendelian traits but also more complex breeding phenomenon like continuous traits, regression to the mean, and occasional throwbacks. This account of the dispute between the ‘Mendelians’ and ‘biometricians’ probably strikes most readers as deeply tedious and perplexing, but I found it interesting and enlightening as most histories of statistics tend to discuss briefly Galton’s inventions of correlation & regression and then skip forwards 10-20 years to when Karl Pearson has made many contributions and the stage has been set for R.A. Fisher, ignoring the interregnum, so I didn’t really understand what went between. Gillham helps in that respect, although in general his statistical explanations are poor enough and confused enough that I wondered if he understood the issues at all. (I assumed he was a historian, but looking up his biography, he apparently is even a geneticist, so he really ought to be able to do better. One is probably better off looking to Stigler for accounts of things like the Quincunx.)
Aside from being obscure, he often leaves out critical details; for example, two or three times in the account of the debate, he quotes someone coming close to the insight that would resolve it, but Gillham doesn’t explain what that insight was or how R.A. Fisher would push the insight through, so I suppose you simply have to already know that Fisher’s insight was that the Mendelian view was correct but that with a large number of Mendelian genes, the Central Limit Theorem shows that they will manifest as a continuous phenotype, and the Mendelian traits were simply the extreme where there are only a handful or one relevant gene. This omission is unfortunate because it’s a huge flaw in the Mendelian-affiliated eugenicists as it meant that their pedigrees of things like ‘feeble-mindedness’ were effectively useless since they were discretizing badly a continuous trait† they were often unable to measure accurately in the first place (no accurate IQ tests yet). Another example would be mentioning that Wissler’s analysis ended Cattell’s mental testing program without mentioning Wissler prompted Spearman to find the general factor (and indeed, some of the sensory testing like reaction time have shown a correlation with intelligence). Some of the criticisms that Gillham quotes approvingly are either ignorant or stupid - for example, that Shakespeare’s parents were undistinguished and thus evidence against heritability, which ignores that his father was a wealthy trader & smuggler who had been elected mayor (even if one discounts the Shakespeare arms as due to the son) and his mother descended from the notable Arden family, and would be a poor counterargument even if it were true since base rates alone imply that a large fraction of great men will be of humble origins simply because there are so many humble people that it overcomes their far lower per capita chance of success (as implied by the precis of Hereditary Genius that Gillham gives). In addition to occasionally repeating ridiculous arguments, it’s unfortunate Gillham doesn’t survey any of the later Fisher & Wright development of behavioral genetics which bore out so many of Galton’s inferences. Still, I think I have to give Gillham credit for being as fair as he was in 2001, and it overall is an excellent biography.
† Yes, I know that many cases of severe mental retardation are due to single mutations and so might be Mendelian, but they would be irrelevant from an eugenic perspective since they tend to not reproduce in the first place, while the eugenicists were concerned about the poor in general.
|The Machiavellians, Defenders of Freedom||James Burnham||★★★★||1988||2012/10/05||The best part of the book for me was that section which is already available online, “Dante: Politics as Wish” - Burnham’s convincing examination of Dante’s little-known book on divine-right-monarchical politics as intellectually dishonest & servile justification of treason.
Less convincing is his idolization of Machiavelli† as a transparent writer who meant exactly what he said and had no ulterior motives or proximate politics underlurking his writings; this claim would come as quite a shock to any Straussians in the room, and also doesn’t explain why some of his advice to The Prince was terrible advice or why he didn’t ever try to spread it about (Dietz mentions these details as he makes the case in her 1986 paper “Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception” that the Republican Machiavelli was dispensing deliberately bad and insane advice given the context) which rather makes one wonder what Burnham is going on about when he talks about Italy being told by Machiavelli to reunify to form a viable nation-state but refusing to.
† which actually surprised me: I had expected from the title that Burnham would go with some sort of Noble Lie theory in which Machiavellians ‘manufacture consent’ and defend republics or democracies from the illiberal masses
Similarly, his analyses of all politics or social movements as elite class warfare or expressions of the Iron Law of Oligarchy are interesting and I think to a large extent accepted these days (eg. the field of public choice), but his actual uses of the idea seem fairly inept. He is good enough to make a number of specific predictions… pretty much all of which are wrong.
For example, he predicts that post-WWII that the military would expand massively and form a real faction as opposed to a little ‘puddle’ (right) and that officers would enter the governing elites and change the composition of the ruling classes (wrong; Eisenhower was elected president, but there is no visible change in composition - few presidents or candidates have benefited from service, and contenders like Colin Powell or Wesley Clark have either not run or sunk like a stone. Congress remains a province of lawyers, and no one gets wealthy in the military until they take the revolving door), and further that his loosely defined Bonapartism is inevitable although I do not recognize Clinton, Bush, or Obama as being very Bonaparte-like figures.
On pg259-260, he presents a doozy of “scientific statements about social matters”:
…Thus we now may know, with considerably probability, that: if the state absorbs under centralized control all major social forces, then political liberty will disappear; if, after this war, Europe is again divided into a considerable number of independent sovereign states, then a new war will begin in Europe within a comparatively short time; if the present plan of military strategy (i.e., submarine attrition warfare, and “island-hopping”) continues unchanged in the East, then Japan will not be definitely crushed for many, many years, and perhaps never; if the present Administration plans to remain in office after 1944, then it will have to curtail political liberty further; and so on.
These statements were published in 1943, well after such events as the Battle of Midway (June 1942).
About the best I can say is that charitably, the counterfactual precondition for one may not have been true (if we assume ‘Administration’ refers to FDR, and not his Vice President, Truman, who succeeded FDR on his premature death and then was re-elected with no visible brownshirts stuffing pollboxes). The rest are simply embarrassing. The science of politics must indeed have been young… (Or perhaps there’s some other common thread to the political criticism that opens and closes the book. Always a problem with authors discussing deception.)
|The Black Company (The Chronicles of the Black Company, #1)||Glen Cook||★★★★||1992||2013/06/08||I read the trilogy in basically one sitting after reading the interesting opening to The Black Company on Tor.
I enjoyed the first book a great deal: it’s in a fairly stock medieval setting, but it handles the dark fantasy well and the plot quickly curdles into something more complex than expected as we gain entree via Croaker to the plotting of the Taken and the Lady, clever gambits & strategies, all ending in the resolution of all plots, defeat of the Dominator, and incidentally, the discrediting of the stock fantasy trope of a Joan-of-Arc-style messiah who will lead their forces to victory over the evil oppressor. It’s also interesting wondering what Croaker is concealing from us, what his sins are: he tells us, the readers of his Annals, that he has concealed a great deal and softened other parts.
The downsides are few since it’s a quick read: we see entirely too much of the Company’s wizards (how many times do we need to be told that Silent is silent? or that One-Eye has just one eye? or that Goblin gets the better of One-Eye?), and it doesn’t do a good job putting any real doubt into our minds about whether the Lady is the least of evils in the North, since she countenances quite a bit and the rebels’ sins seem like the usual sort of thing which happens in war and then the wild dogs are put down during peacetime.
Book 2, Shadows Linger, was in some respects even better than The Black Company. While almost all the Taken are gone and so the scope for plotting has diminished considerably, instead we get a cozy intense little drama set in Juniper, of plotting & murder & corruption with the black castle in the background rewarding & driving it all with its tempting silver as it works towards its own little doomsday (you might call it a collective action problem!). Shed’s plot thread is considerably more compelling than Croaker’s this time, as we watch him give in to weakness, folly, and bad luck time and again, each time helping the castle grow a little closer to completion and finally triggering an epic battle destroying the entire town and shattering the Black Company. (The focus on the locals also has the benefit of not over-exposing the Company wizards and letting us see them from an ‘outsider’ perspective to restore their sheen of interest.) While admittedly the black castle is more than a little contrived (the Dominator foresaw his defeat and this was the only countermeasure? the castle took 700 years to mature? he didn’t foresee the Juniper death cult before entrusting his last best hope of resurrection to it?), the plot overall still works well, and the creatures of the castle start to give an impression of why allying with the Lady might be a good idea.
Book 3, The White Rose, sees it all fall apart. We’re plopped on the Plain of Fear at the heart of the renewed rebellion, which is OK enough, and we start learning what happened with Bomanz to release the Lady & the Ten which is even better. But the rebellion is a tawdry little affair, and the plot unengaging. Raven’s foolishness is difficult to credit. The White Rose’s power is almost too powerful. Parts don’t seem to hang together (how do Tracker & Toadkiller Dog arrive with Raven’s letter if they are only released by his interference?). The final alliance is too easily accomplished. The new Taken are only names. The finale is a succession of deus ex machinas - Father Tree’s offspring on top of the silver spike on top of the true effect of naming (if all it takes to destroy someone’s powers is to name them, why did this never happen before, and why were we told that true names merely allowed penetrating a magician’s spells and defenses?) On top of that, the finale is almost anti-climactic: they dismantle the defenses and neutralize the Dominator using the Rose, and bury him more thoroughly. Oh. Well, OK… The book isn’t so much bad, as disappointing since it features none of the intricacy of the previous books, is almost oddly streamlined and ‘easy’, and takes some easy way outs. I had come to expect more from Cook.
|Life in Our Phage World||Forest Rohwer||★★★★||2014||2015/02/10||(~400 pages; 4 hours) Saw a New Yorker article on phages - viruses specialized to prey on bacteria - and it mentioned the book was available; so I downloaded the biggest file and started reading.
The world of phages is more than a little scary. They have been evolving for billions of years, their numbers are so vast every writer in this anthology resorts to scientific notation (and when they don’t, the numbers are so unfamiliar they look like typos: “By killing nonillions of Bacteria, they have major effects on global energy and nutrient cycles…”), and their generation time is as low as minutes, making for dizzying amounts of selection pressure and optimization - phages seem to have explored every possible way of attacking, subverting bacteria, replicating faster, compacting and making themselves more efficient, and won every arms-race bacteria started with them.
If you think you’ve learned some generalization about phages, the next chapter may disabuse you by covering a phage which breaks that rule; and if it doesn’t, it may describe a back and forth sequence of arms races 4 or 5 steps deep. We learn about eerie dynamics like “kill-the-winner”, how φX174 squeezes several genes in by encoding them as overlapping with other genes (and then it gets spookier: “Even in this extremely small genome of a well-studied phage, two genes are not essential for phage replication in the lab, and thus their function has not been determined.”) or how phages proved DNA encoded genetics and their tools have been appropriated for genetic engineering and cancer research (most recently, the CRISPR proteins, a bacterial anti-phage defense system, have been stolen), or the exotic & dangerous locales phage researchers sometimes travel to in order to collect new phage samples or do clinical trials with phage therapy (India and the former USSR, mostly), or how “temperate” phages invade host bacteria but don’t burst it immediately but set up clever timing mechanisms to determine the best time & place to eat their host, or how phages “choose” whether to extend their “whiskers” / “tails” while floating around hoping to latch on to a bacteria (which is unexpectedly active a thing to do for a virus), or (reminiscent of polymorphic computer viruses) they invent mechanisms to shuffle their genes & vulnerabilities implemented in as few genes/proteins as possible. Not all the facts are intimidating - some of the temperate phages help out their host bacteria by bringing along particularly useful genes like photosynthesis, to undo the damage the phage causes; phages preying on bacteria increase bacterial production because when the phages burst bacteria, the bacteria guts are liberated for other bacteria to eat rather than the bacteria getting hoovered up by an amoeba or hydra or something and the resources being locked away and “lost from the productive surface waters, falling as marine snow to deep ocean communities.” Others are intimidating but in a good way (why do our delicious nutritious moist mucal membranes like our noses not get eaten by bacteria? because there’s an even more incredible density of phages in mucus, 40:1, than out, 10:1).
The material is presented engagingly - the vocabulary is a bit specialized but explained as it goes, and one can at least follow many of the articles. Most of the articles are interesting, even, although a few enthuse about aspects of proteins or DNA I can’t follow and some are uninteresting to an outsider (who cares about taxonomy?). The illustrations are worth looking at. I have to note the genomes: phages are such genetic minimalists that a functional overview of the gene-regions of phages are presented before each one, and they are sometimes barely a page.
|Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine||Yang Jisheng||★★★★||2012||2013/08/08||The statistics and anecdotes are fairly horrifying, and the sheer profusion drills in how widespread the famine was. But for me, the most fascinating part of Tombstone was how the vast Chinese government hierarchy rippled policies and misinformation up and down it - how the local cadres tried to bow to the demands they were hearing from higher up, how the higher ups took the falsified statistics and claims often at face value, and how the highest officials in Beijing seem almost childishly helpless as they stagger between skepticism of reports given them and unthinking acceptance of positive results. Mao particularly comes to mind in his constant swerving between “left deviationism” and “right deviationism” as he tries to get communal kitchens to work and takes at face value the harvest figures and “sputniks” (even as in other incidents, he scoffs at a local official, telling him flat out that such yields were simply impossible), as he is flattered by under-officials; despite his information problems, he astonishingly repeatedly engages in tactics of announcing liberal discussion and then brutally punishing anyone who was foolish enough to do aught but flatter Mao and his policies. Indeed, as Jisheng says, officials were placed into a situation of ‘slaves to those above, tyrants to those below’ (or however his phrase went).
With such perverse incentives, it’s no surprise that we run into such perfectly Hayekian examples as ‘deep plowing’ or ‘sputniks’ or ‘close planting’ or the failure of communes to realize any gains of scale (and did realize diseconomies, like the example of how communes needed lumber to fire their large ovens/stoves rather than the little bits of grass individual households could use).
What is surprising is how effective the Chinese government was in maintaining control despite these severe systemic problems. How could so many millions starve to death, and no province rise up in rebellion? How could the revolts be so small scale, when the abuses were so bad and the death tolls large fractions of entire local populations? How did emigration not overwhelm any checks set up? It’s easy to agree that Sen is basically right: Mao’s famine could not have happened in any country with remotely democratic institutions like India, because the pressure would simply have overwhelmed any coercion the feeble government could orchestrate. But there’s also a flip side here: Mao remarks with surprise ‘how good’ the Chinese people were, that he could summon millions and disperse them with a wave of his hand, and another high official says similarly that it is only the goodness of the people which prevented the Army from being called in. Jisheng is at pains to show that the Communist propaganda worked and the people were not uniformly cynical about the regime like the Russians at the end of the USSR were: many officials sacrificed their careers or lives for their people, high officials are routinely shocked when they return to their home villages, and throughout we see people who are in all seriousness convinced that all the faults stem from local or midlevel officials and if only they can get word to the Emperor in Beijing all will be made well. This naive faith, which initially strikes one as pathetic & moronic & lacking any critical thinking makes me wonder if it could also be related to how China seems to have vastly outperformed India in the past decades, since it switched to sane economic policies; if the Chinese people’s faith and hard work could lead to such utter disaster when applied to futile policies, does it yield equally unusual results when finally applied correctly?
|Pact||Wildbow||★★★★||2014||2015/03/16||Pact (~950k words; 3 days; TvTropes) takes the Worm formula but this time heads to modern urban Western occult fantasy. Where Worm tried to rationalize classic superhero fiction, Pact instead aims at rationalizing the quasi-Lovecraft paradigm of vaguely-Wiccan/occult fantasy set in small New England-esque towns with angels, demons, high-fantasy Elves, folklore creatures like goblins, oaths, and warring clans of secretive practitioners submerged in a sea of ‘muggles’; the continued survival of occult knowledge is attributed to a long demonic campaign of subversion, magic is gained by ritual rather than genes, a ‘karma’ mechanism and magically-enforced honesty (essentially, narrative causality souped way up) encourages dramatic acting and minimizing genuine conflict; and the supernatural is part of a feedback loop like superpowers in Worm. Curiously, for all the complaints about Pact being unbearably grim, the world itself is much more optimisticly constructed - as one character says, humanity has been winning (in contrast to the nigh-inevitable defeat of humanity in Worm).
The start of the plot itself is well-enough described officially:
Blake Thorburn was driven away from home and family by a vicious fight over inheritance, returning only for a deathbed visit with the grandmother who set it in motion. Blake soon finds himself next in line to inherit the property, a trove of dark supernatural knowledge, and the many enemies his grandmother left behind her in the small town of Jacob’s Bell.
It’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that the initial maneuvering will break out into open warfare and demons will be unleashed and fought. (Chekhov’s imp: if there is a devil in the attic in Act 1, it will be unleashed by Act 3.)
So what’s good about Pact? Well, it has a much faster start than Worm, the world-building takes what is usually authorial fiat and regulates it a bit so the action matters, some scenes are fantastic (who could not enjoy the chapter about Blake negotiating a contract with the demon Pazu?), the darkness is leavened by humor, and it is not as exhaustingly comprehensive as Worm. And demon lawyers are intrinsically funny.
The downsides are: Blake exists only to suffer, so people who found Worm too crushing to read will probably be unable to survive a reading of Pact and Blake himself winds up being mostly a cipher (and whether this was deliberate or not, it still damages the work); Wildbow repeats his ‘Slaughterhouse Nine arc’ error (this time, in the Toronto/Conquest fetch arc, which takes up a really absurd fraction of the work); a key twist is… questionably consistent with previously given rules & facts; the magic, while still much better than most fantasy, is still heavy on fiat and uncomfortably repetitive compared to the diversity and rigor of superpowers in Worm and some important elements seemed underused (for all the stress placed on threes, I have a hard time naming any meaningful examples); and the ending is shockingly abrupt, with almost all narrative threads and mysteries dropped or unresolved. Wildbow’s post-mortem covers some of these issues.
Overall: good but not as great as Worm.
|Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High.||Mike Power||★★★★||2013||2016/03/08||Journalistic history of the development of “designer drugs”/“research chemicals”, with focus on past two decades and Internet-based RC communities. This is a topic you might think I’d know all about, but actually I don’t, because my focus was always Silk Road & the dark net markets, where research chemicals often showed up after being banned, but I didn’t know much about what went on before they became normal illicit drugs. So this filled in a lot of holes for me.
Power starts with the Western discovery of psychedelics and LSD, giving an engaging potted history of the period to focus on the late Alexander Shulgin. Shulgin is the central figure in research chemicals for demonstrating that variants and twists on old drugs are almost as easy as falling off a log, one would think, coming up singlehandedly with dozens of stimulants and psychedelics and drugs with unclassifiable effects (the one which “makes everything sound 1 octave lower” always amuses me), all documented in his famous PIHKAL and TIHKAL. Shulgin’s work and other chemists (including the still-mysterious discoverer of MDMA) lit a long fuse that finally detonated with Usenet (now there’s a name you probably haven’t heard in a while) showing that the Internet could document and spread knowledge about drug use through newsgroups and forums, and eventually, in a miracle of globalization, chemists with foreign chemical laboratories with customers online. Here Drugs 2.0 really gets moving, covering Erowid, the Hive, Chinese labs doing dodgy syntheses, discussion of what chemical analogues are and how these grey-market communities can come up with literally scores of new substances every year, faster than they could be banned, interviews in person or email with some of these amateur chemists and Chinese lab operators and the intermediary businessmen, and of course, Silk Road 1 (Power’s chapter on it, while unavoidably obsolete in 2016, was one of the better writeups around when it was published). The focus tends to be on the UK, but that’s fine by me, as the UK’s more explicit drug policy makes changes easier to describe, and Power includes interesting material on fads in the UK drug consumer market and how it affected choices (the safrole oil shortage’s effects on MDMA and finding substitutes is a good one).
Where I’m left a little dissatisfied is in descriptions of effects of the various RCs which have been discovered. By the end, you don’t know too much about how the various drugs differ, or how many could be considered to have found a niche of their own as more than just a formerly legal analogue of something like psilocybin. Like a biography of a scientist which doesn’t go into much depth about what their ideas or discoveries were, it feels incomplete.
Disclosure: Mike Power has interviewed or quoted me on several occasions about the dark net markets, and gave me a free PDF of Drugs 2.0 back in 2014 or something. (But it was so hard to read because of publisher watermarking, that I downloaded a better copy from Libgen and read that instead.)
|The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays||Simon Leys||★★★★||2011||2015/04/27||(~180k words; 5 hours) Anthology of literature-focused essays, highly miscellaneous. Judged by wordcount and topic, it seems that Leys’s focus is fairly narrow - I would compare him to a lesser Borges, but Borges delighted too much in philosophical & scientific ideas and speculation for the comparison to really work, while Leys is very much the consummate man of letters. I was interested primarily in his comments on China, and was surprised the extent to which he fixates on French literature (especially for someone who wrote in English).
The good parts are his essay “The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote”, “Portrait of Proteus: A Little ABC of André Gide” (not so much because I care about Gide, but he does sound interesting), “Cunning Like a HedgeHog”, and many of his China essays such as “The Chinese Attitude Towards the Past” (which explains a physical absence of antiquity I had felt in my gut but had never risen to consciousness), “One More Art: Chinese Calligraphy” (which finally enlightens me on the role of calligraphy in both China & Japan), “The Wake of an Empty Boat: Zhou Enlai”, “The Art of Interpreting Non-Existent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page” (principally for the parable from which it draws its title), “Richard Henry Dana and His Two Years Before the Mast”, & “Tell Them I Said Something”.
Because of the goodness, I must overlook the bad. I have little interest in French politics of the 1800s or, much the same thing, its novelists and those essays were excruciatingly dull to me. The short “An empire of ugliness”, despite having the honor of being the second piece in the collection, is a remarkably lame attempt to defend Mother Teresa from Hitchens’s criticism (apparently the most important thing to discuss about Hitchens’s book is whether the title is obscene or merely a double-entendre, and Leys thinks it is perfectly acceptable to accept money from murderous thugs and dictators because… Jesus preached to taxfarmers?; discussion of the meat of the criticisms of Mother Teresa, is noticeable for its absence - apparently Leys believes that good results must follow good intentions while in truth good intentions follow good results, and does not appreciate that a 1% growth in GDP would do India more good than a thousand Mother Teresa); similarly, it seems that the first question Leys asks about any writer of the 20th century is what position they took on Communism, and Leys will never let you forget that he was staunchly against it & deserves credit as a seer (an anti-communism which runs so deep that his own blindness about Deng Xiaoping is all the more curious; he writes hostilely of Deng as late as 2008; to read his essays, one would have to conclude that no man’s hand authored China’s economic boom which has taken it from mass famines to a middle-income and Great Power, it just kinda sorta happened on its own and certainly Leys has no interest in the topic). And “The experience of literary translation” is not so much bad as completely inferior to Borges’s own essay on translating the Thousand and One Nights that I wonder why he bothered to write it.
|Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void||Mary Roach||★★★★||2010||2013/06/29||Hilarious, eye for details, incessant curiosity, good at tracking down bogus stories and rumors. Roach comes up with all the best quotes and stories, seems to have talked to everyone and done everything. And her running commentary is also hilarious - she’s almost as funny as she thinks she is. I laughed many times reading the book.
This is definitely more “mind candy” than educational as it jumps from food to sex to hygiene to acceleration issues to psychology without any overview or unifying ideas or concepts, although I did learn a fair bit anyway from the scattershot approach. (One chapter was a revelation for me in explaining why early science fiction often postulated space driving people insane). If there is any big picture to Packing for Mars, it’s that outer space is really hard for humans to survive in and everyone & everything has to be studied in microscopic detail for anyone to go there and come back alive. Reading all the checks and modifications and details, one is boggled that we made it to the Moon, much less we be musing a Mars mission.
(It makes for a pretty compelling argument that humans just don’t belong in space and that if we put half as much effort/time/money into automated exploration, we would know far more about the universe than we do - apparently, the ISS has cost us $150 billion‽ Roach is aware that this is the impression she gives in her conclusion where she criticizes ‘simulations’, but honestly, I didn’t find it a very compelling defense of the enormous difficulties & costs of shooting up some monkeys to walk around Mars compared to just sending probes.)
I compiled some excerpts from most of the chapters:
- chapters 1-2
|The Windup Girl||Paolo Bacigalupi||★★★★||2009||2015/10/07||WG is Burdett’s Bangkok 8 meets Chua’s World on Fire: a Thailand crime thriller which goes from commercial espionage to national politics in which the Southeast Asian mixture of deep reverence for a decaying & incompetent monarchy combines with globalizing capitalism and ambitious military leaders plotting a coup and a population stewing with resentment towards a Chinese immigrant underclass (exemplified by the clever Hock Seng who tries to sense the winds of ethnic cleansing & escape in time) which bids fair to turn Thailand into another Malaysia, which combustible mixture explodes when lit off by a crusading cop & his two-faced sidekick and the accident of a trafficked Japanese prostitute. While not a genre I have any particular devotion to, it’s a fun one to return too since I haven’t read a thriller novel set in Thailand in a long time so it’s fresh to me, and I particularly enjoyed the sections dealing with Hock Seng’s planning. (To a lesser extent, I was interested in the treacherous subordinate.) I read it in two sittings because I wanted to see what happened.
Oh, and apparently it’s supposed to be a SF novel as well. That part doesn’t need too much discussion since WG is not very good as a SF novel: while the worldbuilding is detailed, perhaps even excessive in terms of providing jargon and little tidbits for the reader to figure out (I can’t quite decide whether to fault WG for data-dumps, since it does a good job early on avoiding explaining too much but I think the discipline wavers later on), the world thus built unfortunately lacks any intellectual coherence, and so it fails utterly as any kind of Gibsonian near-future extrapolation, or any kind of extrapolation at all for that matter - in its thoughtlessness and cliches, it comes off as just more Al-Gore-style liberal chic (to list two examples I couldn’t stop thinking about: so the world economy is based on springs as an energy storage mechanism and coal & biofuel as the only apparent energy sources, with nothing about solar panels…? humanity is supposed to have engineered super-effective broad-spectrum plant viruses which Nature, despite billions of years/quadrillions of viral generations over quintillions of individual viruses, has not…? it’s hard to know which of these two points is more wildly improbable.) Also, I can forgive the mad scientist cliche who we’re supposed to have mixed feelings about (although to me as a transhumanist, the question is not ‘why not have everyone be New People’ but ‘why hasn’t that already happened when they’re described as a brilliant success and improvements in every way upon baseline humanity?’) but it seems a little dubious to name the book after one of the characters whose portrayal is the least convincing.
|Haikai Poet Yosa Buson And The Bashō Revival||Cheryl A. Crowley||★★★★||2006||2015/08/25||(~100k words, 3 hours) Academicly-oriented examination of the post-Basho haiku poet & painter Yosa Buson. Of obscure origins, Buson is one of the more popular post-Basho haiku poets, along with Kobayashi Issa. But where Issa is known for his idiosyncrasy and sympathetic focus on animals, Buson is much more traditional and tried to live up to the ideal of the bunjin or Chinese-like literary gentleman who has mastered all the arts of the brush in a refined and almost distant style.
Crowley has written a quasi-biography describing Buson’s life and putting his painting & haiku in their context of trying to de-commercialize and de-popularize haiku to return it to a more Basho-like tone, while reluctantly accepting the mantle of head of a haiku lineage, maintaining his pose as a detached amateur pursuing art for art’s sake, and trying to make a living by selling paintings to his patrons and customers in the provinces where he traveled widely. Knowing Buson through some of his more austere haiku, I found Crowley succeeds in humanizing Buson remarkably (the larger context here is her arguing against the late Japanese critic & poet Shiki, who had rediscovered Buson but presented him as a coldly detached observer); before, I could not imagine Buson writing about someone scratching their testicles.
I also appreciated that she gives ample space to covering the social aspects of the linked-verse form renga (which because of the difficulty in explaining what any of the links mean or the many formal rules involved, tends to be completely glossed over in all Western works; while I think renga never survives translation and is worthless aesthetically to read, it’s important to any history or discussion as it was one of the most common activities) - even translating one for the appendices - and also providing long translations of several other key works she quotes from. The discussion of his haiga likewise goes well beyond the usual superficialities and presentation of one or two photos, as Crowley comments in detail on how exactly the haiku and painting are supposed to combine into something more than their sum, and on the extremely obscure Chinese allusions Buson is prone to as a proper bunjin. (For example, the WP article on haiga includes as an example “A little cuckoo across a hydrangea by Yosa Buson” but does not give the translated haiku, which turns out to require 3 pages of commentary to unpack all the allusions in the haiku and painting.)
Needless to say, this will only be of value to those already interested in haiku and its history.
|Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe||George Dyson||★★★★||2012||2012/09/06||Mixed feelings. On the one hand, Dyson digs up all sorts of quotable lines and anecdotes and biographical details, many genuinely new to me. I enjoyed those greatly. For these I give it 4 stars. On the other hand…
He is obsessed with Von Neumann’s IAS/MANIAC, to the detriment of the rest of the book. The pre-WWII history is OK but signally fails to explain things like the Hilbert program, Goedel or Turing’s actual halting theorem. Someone who read this expecting to understand ‘Turing’s cathedral’ would be vastly better served reading a book like Hofstadter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach (as old as it is). Instead, countless pages are taken up with detailed technical information that is simultaneously in depth and also poorly explained. I repeatedly got the feeling that Dyson is indulging in that common temptation, allocating material based on how much effort it took to find, not what would inform the reader - he went through a lot of work documenting MANIAC and the rest of us must enjoy (suffer) the fruits of it. I felt that if I didn’t already know a great deal of this material, I would be completely lost inside the book; I wonder how much other people could get out of it.
The repeated analogies to search engines and modern computing come off very poorly (search engines are analogue? Oookkaayyy….); much could have been said about how modern chip architectures and cloud computing designs are not very Von Neumannian now, so here again I wonder if it’s a forced attempt to show contemporary relevance or perhaps just influence from his Google visit.
Other parts make one question how much Dyson understands: he links Goedelian/Turing incompleteness to computer viruses and concludes with grand ’90s-esque visions (pace Kevin Kelly’s old Out of Control book) of viruses spreading out through the Internet and beating on the walls of clean computers - but viruses aren’t really a problem these days, nothing like they used to be, and the situation seems apt to only improve! Like spam, the solutions are not perfect and require a great deal of manpower & cleverness, but they are working and currently seem likely to steadily improve; this wouldn’t be a surprise to him if he had really appreciated that Goedelian/Turing-incompleteness implies that there are large decidable subsets of programs and we can build our systems out of those. (Every programmer who uses a language with a decent type system is doing something a naive understanding of incompleteness says is impossible: he’s executing nontrivial predicates over his program.)
For those reasons and others, this will never get 5 stars from me, and if there were a 3.5 stars, I’d go with that.
|Echopraxia (Firefall, #2)||Peter Watts||★★★★||2014||2014/08/15||We’ve been waiting for this since Blindsight came out in 2006 and blew away all its readers. It’s been a long wait and those who read Watt’s blog and are familiar with his many travails (from a fight with the US federal government to flesh-eating bacteria) will understand the long wait. Was it worthwhile?
Not really. Echopraxia is a short fast read (~3-4h) which largely expands on the ideas that B introduced: the concept of new apex predators, vampires; the minimal value of consciousness and what non-conscious upgrades of the brain like the Bicamerals could do with the horsepower; hyper-advanced aliens; and subconscious manipulation. Watts adds in scientific ‘zombies’, but the idea never really goes anywhere - Watts’s side-story “The Colonel” is in some respects more interesting than the novel, and fleshes out the major character The Colonel in a way the novel never really does. (Although the novel at least does raise interesting questions about whether Siri Keeton really escaped alive in B, to recontextualize it - perhaps we’re simply reading alien propaganda!) The Bicamerals themselves are something of a disappointment compared to the invention of the Scramblers or vampires. The plot moves on rails from the biologist in the desert to the sun back to the desert, and likely B readers will see coming the major plot twists with the alien & vampire (it’s almost identical). Some potentially intriguing ideas go unexplored; for example, the spider/“eight-legged cat” suggestion is quite interesting, but the alien fungus winds up not doing anything beyond what a more normal version of intelligence would do and so it doesn’t illustrate the idea of a timesharing slow-but-powerful intelligence. The ending is opaque and knotty, but I think with some thought and review of terminology it becomes clear: the Bicamerals and emergent AIs have completed their plan in which the hijacked fungus is incubated in the protagonist to upgrade baseline humans to vampire-like entities (sans the vampire weaknesses and without consciousness), which will be able to go toe to toe with the God-like alien invader.
So, not a waste of time and probably pretty impressive to people unacquainted with Watts, but below B, some of the Rifter books, and the better short stories. I suggest reading B, then “The Colonel”, then Echopraxia.
|Ketamine: Dreams and Realities||Karl Jansen||★★★★||2004||2014/11/29||(~100k words, 3 hours; read MAPS-hosted ebook.) Everything ketamine (WP, Erowid).
Jansen begins with a short history of its discovery and diffusion into the psychedelic and club scenes, covers some of the more notorious cases, the neurobiology of ketamine as understood in 2004, and then a very long discussion of the similarities of near-death experiences with ketamine psychedelic trips, followed by thorough coverage of the notorious addictiveness of ketamine (which comes off a bit apologetic; ketamine strikes me as exceedingly dangerous if “In my opinion, the group who lose control over their use is unlikely to exceed 15% of those who find the experience rewarding”, even if the biological dangers are minimal), then a bunch of ideas on how to treat ketamine addiction (some dubious, others common addiction strategies), a discussion of bad trips, and the existing body of work on using ketamine to treat addictions and other problems. It seems pretty thorough, even to a fault - I can’t say I appreciated Jansen throwing in a bunch of quantum woo and half-baked speculation, but I suppose that’s probably an occupational hazard (thinking the grand visions are anything more than grand visions and abusing physics).
It’s also heavily leavened with excerpts from users’ experiences, many interviews by Jansen himself apparently; these are good to have, but perhaps not as necessary as it was in 2004 now that the Erowid trip library has over 324 reports.
My own interest in ketamine is curiosity about the peculiar immediate anti-depressant effects it seems to have even with non-psychedelic use, but while depression is occasionally mentioned as a risk factor for ketamine abuse or outcome of abuse, it seems all the most relevant research must have been done after this was published in 2004.
Still, an interesting and excellent overview of a niche topic, and well worth reading for more in-depth coverage after reading an overview like the Wikipedia article.
|Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose||Francis-Noel Thomas||★★★★||1996||2014/12/16||(~80k words book, ~56k word online guide; ~3h without doing any exercises) A style book which actually delivers real style advice! I first heard of it on Robin Hanson’s blog and followed up recently when I saw they’ve put up an online edition/guide. The “classic style” names a style I’ve always admired - smooth, calm, humanistic, and elegant - which appears in a variety of writers past and present (Gene Wolfe often writes in this style), and it’s a pleasure to see it examined and its strengths and weaknesses laid out. (As Hanson says, the classic style is a good way to lie or deceive as it encourages one to strip away details and qualifiers to maintain the smoothness of passages.) If one likes the classic style or has need of it, I could not name a better text. The authors may not be the greatest classic stylists ever, but they are the best in discussing it while often embodying it.
The book is split up into 3 parts, laying out the general attitude and evolution of classic style, then providing a few dozen short examples of the classic style vs other styles with some critical examination (noting the careful choice of language to produce striking sentences or pointing out how classic style would be disastrous in some contexts), and finally a list of writing exercises to help one learn this particular style.
The first part delves into some academic issues that really don’t concern anyone interested in the classic style (I suspect most readers have neither heard of nor care about ‘mimesis’), and second part, the ‘Museum’, seems to be substantially expanded in the online guide (eg Blaise Pascal’s Provincial Letters are mentioned a few time in the book, but the excerpt of the Jesuit/Jansenist debate over “proximate” only appears in the online guide as far as I can tell); the eccentric formatting of the online guide aside, since I enjoyed most reading all the examples side by side, it might be a good idea to read the online guide first which concentrates on describing classic style & providing examples. Then, when one knows the lay of the land, read the full book, where the tangents will not distract.
|In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives||Steven Levy||★★★★||2011||2013/03/24||I learned a great deal from this book about Google, which put some of my own experiences with Google products in context. Levy has information, anecdotes, quotes, and interviews which no one else does, which, like the recent Steve Jobs biography, makes his book indispensable for anyone interested in the topic regardless of the book’s other merits.
To continue the Jobs analogy, I think Levy is more independent of his subject and more willing to criticize it and poke holes in their narratives - he covers the criticisms I expected, doesn’t drop any particularly glaring issues, and more than once undermines their narratives with contrasting quotes & observations. In particular, Page repeatedly comes off as a narcissistic paranoid asshole, possibly due to his father’s death, who cannot empathize with others or understand their points of views (a trait perhaps endemic of Googlers, to judge by the Buzz fiasco).
But to compensate for all the great info and explanations (more than once I thought to myself, ‘ah, so that is what happened!’), there are downsides to the book. The principle one being:
|Ready Player One||Ernest Cline||★★★★||2011||2015/05/02||YA SF fiction; most similar in feel to Snow Crash and Otherland but a much faster read and overall simpler plot. Much of the appeal is simply all the ‘80s references to geeky movies and video/computer games (hard not to feel a rush of nostalgia at a mention of Robotron or a narration of a game of Tempest, which makes me wonder how much people younger than me would enjoy it), so I would strongly suggest watching at the very least War Games and since the game billionaire character seems to be based on John Carmack, Masters of Doom. (I wondered reading it how deep the resemblances go: the protagonist starts off much like Carmack did.)
I was not too keen to read this, because there seems to be a deep failure of creativity when it comes to VR: almost every work seems to pick one of two hackneyed plots - ’the characters are trapped in the game world!’ or ‘the characters are competing in a contest!’ (See: every American kid cartoon, every anime like .hack/Sword Art Online, etc.)
RP1 takes the latter tack, but it at least executes well. It’s fundamentally a silly idea to imagine that people would voluntarily stuff the entire Internet into World of Warcraft (way too slow and inconvenient) or that his early plot device of travel fees would ever exist (imagine paying each time you loaded a new HTML page while browsing or having to pay to switch games on your computer; absurd!) but the world at least feels reasonably realistic, with blogs and forums and professional gaming leagues and streaming video channels, and I can hardly blame him for the global-warming/energy-crisis dystopia he picks. (Many near-future SF fiction fail to achieve even a contemporary feel; many authors aim for 10 years in the future, but with the lack of smartphones and video and apps, wind up achieving a feel 10 years in the past.)
Eventually you get used to it and even a narrated game of Pac-man becomes gripping. (But a decent amount of the plot takes place offline, so it’s not all ’80s namedropping and narrating games.)
|Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities||Kevin Kelly||★★★★||2013||2014/01/01||Big heavy book compiling the best of the Cool Tools website/email-list, which is similar to Edmund’s Scientific Catalog; curious mix of cutting-edge Silicon Valley material, hobbies (hiking and travel especially), DIY/Maker, primitivist fetishism, and New Age stuff (yes, including the obligatory Rosicrucians) - very Californian, in other words. You might think reading a giant catalogue of stuff you’ll never buy would be boring, but it’s not.
While it can’t be updated and it’s hard to follow links, the book format is much nicer for browsing & reading than the website because one can instantly shift from item to item without any overhead or action (the colored backgrounds initially seem like a mess but work well for separating entries without using up any space),
On the downside, the reviews often heavily edited down from the Internet versions to save space (even with all the tiny fonts and edits, it’s still huge), occasionally out of date (eg Zeo sleep monitors - I love mine to death, but since the company shuttered ~2013, I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anyone), and has a lot of typos.
Offhand, things I’ve actually started using or bought thanks to CT (book or list): trackballs, LastPass, the “oblique strategies”, bidets for toilets. Oddly, I’ve benefited most from the media recommendations, particularly the nonfiction; thanks to CT, I’ve watched: Man on Wire, The Cove, Helvetica, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, March of the Penguins, Project Nim, The King of Kong, A State of Mind, & Dead Birds; and read the books: Finite and Infinite Games, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Fadiman’s Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Chased by the Light, Letters from a Stoic, A Pattern Language, How Buildings Learn, & Peopleware.
Conflict of interest: I was a contributor and got a free copy because I wrote the review of the Compact OED.
|Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus||Richard Carrier||★★★★||2012||2012/10/31||Overall, it’s an interesting book which I regard as basically correct and a fruitful approach for future research, and Richard Carrier is a good guy whose work should be supported.
On the other hand, so far it’s not quite as awesome as I was hoping it’d be when I was writing an essay on identifying the author of the Death Note movie script with Bayesian reasoning recently - I think Luke Muehlhauser was right in his LessWrong review that Carrier does his case a disservice by trying to expound Bayesian ideas in a New Testament context where, half the point of Bayesian ideas is to point out how useless the evidence is! That’s… not a good way to either demonstrate Bayes is good in history nor to convince people of his overarching claims like ‘all correct historical inference is Bayesian inference’.
The way to introduce a new paradigm is to start with its successes, where Bayesian methods led to a correct prediction or retrodiction of an issue where decisive evidence surfaced while before the issue was settled, conventional methods were confused, wrong, or underconfident; and then argue that its practical success combined with your philosophical arguments about Bayesian reasoning being the only correct reasoning is a convincing synthesis, maybe then work out verdicts/predictions/retrodictions on a non-controversial area so the experts can see how they like the conclusions, and only then extend it to highly controversial and difficult (scarce or low-quality evidence) material.
I understand how he would come to write it that way since that’s what he was paid to do and Biblical material has become his specialty but I can still regret that the outcome wasn’t as good as it could’ve been.
|Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes||Ella Cheever Thayer||★★★★||1879||2013/08/02||I read this on the strength of Clive Thompson’s review Wired Love: A tale of catfishing, OK Cupid, and sexting … from 1880; I downloaded & read the Google Books version.
Thompson summarizes it:
…Nattie is at work one day when a telegraph operator in another city, who calls himself “C”, begins chatting her up. They engage in a virtual courtship, things get funny and romantic, until suddenly things take a most puzzling and mysterious turn.
And also teens mooning over their cellphones!
“…and what with that and the telephone and that dreadful phonograph that bottles up all one says and disgorges at inconvenient times, we will soon be able to do everything by electricity; who knows but some genius will invent something for the especial use of lovers? something, for instance, to carry in their pockets, so when they are far away from each other, and pine for a sound of ‘that beloved voice’, they will have only to take up this electrical apparatus, and be happy. Ah! blissful lovers of the future!”
As promised, this was a very amusing Victorian novel, an easy read (perhaps a night’s worth), and the telegraphs were fascinatingly Internet-chat-like.
|The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field||Jacques Hadamard||★★★★||1954||2014/01/20||I took a gander at this for its possible relevance to an essay of mine on mathematical error - Hadamard’s book is one of the classics in the area of mathematical discovery, mentioned along with Poincaré’s lecture.
With due allowance for style and age, Hadamard ably describes and defends the basic model of ‘work, incubation, illumination, verification’, with reference to his own discoveries, his many famous acquaintances, Poincaré’s lecture, and a very interesting survey of mathematicians. In fact, it’s a little depressing that we don’t seem to have gone much beyond that in the half-century since this was published back in 1945 or so. While at least we no longer need his defense of the unconscious as a meaningful part of cognition, much of the rest is depressingly familiar - for example, his acute observations on mental imagery & people who solely think in words, and mention of Francis Galton’s survey (little-known outside of psychology), could be usefully read by many who commit the typical mind fallacy.
If Hadamard comes to no hard and fast conclusions, but merely raises many interesting points and criticizes a number of theories, we can hardly hold that against him, as we can do little better and so it becomes our failing, not his.
(I read the Internet Archive scan.)
|The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America||Erik Larson||★★★★||2003||2013/07/25||Two books in one: a relatively uninteresting psychopathic serial killer (I agree with Larson, anyone who’s read Cleckley will instantly see Holmes as a psychopath), and the other a very interesting portrait of a completely forgotten societal phenomenon - world fairs & expositions. They used to be so important, major matters of national prestige, key mechanisms in the spread of art (especially Japanese art, at the Paris one) and technology, and yet, they are completely forgotten; I hadn’t even heard of them until they came up in Men in Black because some leftover buildings got used in the movie. But as Larson tells the story, we learn that they were mega-events to which all celebrities attended, and a good fraction of the entire American population would attend; they were the originals of which Disney’s Epcot is the palest imitation, they were the reason we have the Eiffel Tower and the Ferris wheel and so many other things. This story is the fascinating story, and it’s almost a pity that Larson periodically interrupts the tale of the Chicago one to tell us more about Holmes, rather than giving us real photos and more stories from the fair (photos like those in Appelbaum’s The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record): after all we are told about the Court of Honor, it’s sad to be given only a tiny glimpse of it, and it’s really a pity we read only a few ‘con stories’, as it were, from the event itself. But so it goes.|
|The Mask of Sanity||Hervey M. Cleckley||★★★★||2003||2012/12/21||Cleckley scatters through this book constant fascinating anecdotes and remarks, some so outrageous or remarkable that one would assume he made them up if he were writing on some other topic.
Cleckley’s moralizing and occasional very old-fashioned comments are occasionally as interesting, and reading him in 2012, one feels very strongly just how distant (in a social mores sense) we are from him in the 1940s and earlier - when he writes of ‘miscegenation’ (I wonder how many teenagers now could tell you what ‘sexual miscegenation’ is), when he defends homosexuals as possibly not insane but sometimes even decent people, or when he speaks in horror of female psychopaths not guarding their virginity, or in a half-page fulminating against the hippies, or when he speculates that a healthy male adult might - after several years stranded on a desert island - enjoy masturbation (no, really?).
Sadly, Cleckley is not nearly as dated as one would hope after reading something like 200 pages detailing the endless wake of destruction, fraud, violence, deception, manipulation, and criminality: his basic conclusion that there are no effective treatments for psychopathy, and all previous attempts have been expensive failures, seems to remain true. Indeed, some attempts at treatment have backfired and resulted in even more crime being committed by subjects.
|The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don’t||Nate Silver||★★★★||2012||2012/11/19||An excellent popular (easy to read) overview of a variety of statistical topics, with a good focus on not fooling yourself with overfitting. Some of the technical aspects are a little weak (the Hume discussion comes to mind), but what do you expect, Silver’s a busy guy.
|Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened||Allie Brosh||★★★★||2013||2014/02/20||tl;dr: the webcomic is great, go read it.
I’ve been a devoted reader of Hyperbole and a Half for many years now, even through the long depression drought: Brosh is witty, ironic, self-aware, hilarious, and though her comics seem crudely drawn, they still perfectly convey the inner emotions of events, illustrate the prose, and (along with XKCD) give hope to us all that we may one day become world-class comic artists though we still draw like we’re in kindergarten.
Summary: I like her stuff. 5 stars.
I was curious how the book version would go, since I had already read all of the online ones (of course). I picked up the e-book, reader it in FBreader on my laptop, and… I’m not really impressed. These comic essays were written for scrolling web browsers, and it shows in the awkwardness of the pagination and book display form. I’m glad the book exists so she can make the money she deserves and for all the people who simply won’t read a web comic but will read a book, but at least for me, the original is best. (The extra content isn’t really enough to change my opinion.) Book: 4 stars.
|Declare||Tim Powers||★★★★||2002||2013/02/14||I enjoyed this greatly: Declare is a hybrid of a Le Carré espionage novel (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold in particular) and Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (in the meticulous pattern-seeking and warping of historical events and literature), with a bouncing action plot which appositely quotes from Fitzgerald-Khayyam, Spenser, Shakespeare and Swinburne especially to grant it greater depth than it might seem to merit. Even when you think it’s done on Mt Ararat (and Powers has in a final flourish explained Philby dying shortly before the Berlin Wall), the plot isn’t entirely over and there are multiple more deceptions and operations to go. And to top it all off, Powers takes an afterword to “show his work” and reveal how Cold War history was “freakier than fiction” (in TvTropes terms), but it’s hard to blame him for not being really pleased with some of the genuine incidents he works in. (The exploding car with Philby wearing a fox cape and escaping with a minor injury while everyone else died? Real. I was shocked.)|
|A Shropshire Lad||A.E. Housman||★★★★||1990||2015/05/27||A Shropshire Lad
(8.3k words; 1.5 hours; Wikisource edition) A.E. Housman’s first collection of 63 poems. I enjoy his terse, rhyming style of very short lines, which he somehow makes look easy and almost conversational, particularly poems II, IV, XXIII, XXX, XXXIII, XLIV, XLIX, LXII, LXIII; it’s particularly impressive how completely consistent they all are with each other. This consistency meant that when I read the parodies quoted on Wikipedia, I found them very funny.
It is short enough that the themes of romantic love and death do not grow too wearying before the end, although I was not particularly taken with the patriotic poems, particularly in a collection published not all that long before WWI (“State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies; and this lie slips from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’”), but on the plus side, none of the complacent Christianity still in vogue at the time. Overall, a good collection. I will continue on to Housman’s other collections.
|Chased by the Light: A 90-Day Journey-Revisited After the Storm||Jim Brandenburg||★★★★||2001||2007/01/01||I read this after reading Kevin Kelly’s review in Cool Tools, where he wrote
Take one, and only one, exposure per day. No second exposure, no second chance. A single arrow per day, and a bull’s eye each time. That’s zen. For amateurs and professionals alike this requires relying on the Force. Particularly since many of his subjects are wild birds and stealthy wolves. The ninety images stand strong, each on their own, but the complete symphony is one of the most impressive acts of mindfulness I’ve seen.
After finishing looking through it, I could not disagree too much. It is one of the best photo books I have seen. The subject matter is much less profound and terrifying than 100 Suns, but the general quality is higher. More than once I found myself wondering if Brandenburg was lying - these photos are too good and catch too many moments perfectly, surely he couldn’t’ve possibly really taken only 1 photograph a day and these were them, surely he sometimes took hundreds and is covering them up? But so it seems.
|The Great Gatsby||F. Scott Fitzgerald||★★★★||2004||2015/10/17||As a LIer, I felt embarrassed I’d never gotten around to reading the single most famous novel set on LI, so when I ran into a copy floating around during a trip, I took the opportunity. It is a very short novel, almost more of an overgrown short story or novella - which makes sense since Fitzgerald had become wealthy on his short stories, as bizarre as that may sound these days - and I was not too impressed at the end; but it was so short I thought I might as well give it a fair shake by reading it a second time, and the second read was much more enjoyable. Now that I knew the framework, it was much easier to note the similarities with The Count of Monte Cristo, one of my favorite plots, and notice the symbolism and foreshadowing scattered throughout. (The swimming pool was something I had totally missed on the first read, and the extent to which Daisy rather than Tom should be considered the bad guy or at least causally responsible.) It is not as tightly-written or chilling a tragedy as Ethan Frome, and it’s murky what Gatsby is supposed to be, but still good.|
|The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy||Sharon Bertsch McGrayne||★★★★||2011||Light history of Bayesian statistics & related topics. I enjoyed the book a lot; McGrayne has a good eye for the amusing details, and she conveys at least some of the intuition (although some graphs or examples would have helped the reader - I liked the flipping coin illustrations in Dasivia 2006 Bayesian Data Analysis). It’s also remarkably synoptic: I was repeatedly surprised by names popping up in the chronology, like BUGS, Bretthorst, Fisher’s smoking papers, Diaconis, the actuarial use of Bayes etc, and I have a better impression of Laplace and Good’s many contributions. The math was very light, which undermines the value of much of it since unless one is already an expert one doesn’t know how much the author is falsifying (for the best reasons), and means that some connections are missed (like empirical Bayes being a forerunner of hierarchical modeling, which aren’t well-explained themselves).|
|The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan||Robert Kanigel||★★★★||1992||2013/08/12||A long account of a short life. I knew only the bare outlines of Ramanujan’s story, but I think this does an excellent job in fleshing the famous anecdotes out; for example, I hadn’t realized how long he had twisted in the wind before his famous letter to Hardy, nor that he had spent a full year and more in India in a position before finally being brought to Cambridge. While Kanigel goes overboard in his novelistic scene-setting and psychologizing, one cannot say he does not try to set the scene for one and go beyond a bare recitations of events to the actual feel and texture of life in various places or of various persons; particularly noteworthy is his attempts to explain at least a little of the actual math which made Ramanujan worth a biography, beyond his romantic story, and here I think Kanigel does a really good job for the layman.|
|Debt: The First 5,000 Years||David Graeber||★★★★||2011||2011/09/24||Mixed feelings: many interesting little tidbits and quotes, but overall I get the feel of a vast thesis made up of confirmation bias and unreliable evidence like etymologies; some parts are flabbergastingly wrong, like his brief description of Apple Computer’s founding. (He apparently routinely makes factual mistakes; Brad DeLong apparently identified 50 in chapter 12 just to make that point.)
And while he’s very cynical about things he’s against, he exhibits a strange lack of cynicism about his in-groups (like the idle poor, or China - accusing the US of manipulating the rates!) Emphasizing the rather ideological bent of the book is his very thin skin as exhibited in response to online criticism like on Crooked Timber.
|Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties’ Soviet Dream||Francis Spufford||★★★★||2010||2012/06/02||Comparable to Dos Passos’s USA or Schulz’s Radiance, if that helps. Depicts how Russia fell into the middle-income trap and stagnated, and illuminates the early growth of Russia’s industrialization and why Khrushchev thought Russia could bury the US (not in dirt, but manufactured goods). Elegiac, enlightening, sympathetic.
- In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You, Cosma Shalizi (discussion)
- “The Myth of Asia’s Miracle”, Paul Krugman
|The Metropolitan Man||Alexander Wales||★★★★||2014||2014/08/02||The Metropolitan Man is an 80k-word novel following Lex Luthor as he realizes and then grapples with the threat Superman poses to the human race (now that I think about it, it is like Worm in this respect). I can’t fault Luthor’s analysis of the many risks of Superman or the ethics of his powers, and the plot develops well, finishing in an ending which however unexpected and abrupt is perfectly consistent with the plotter and thinker and careful preparer for all contingencies Luthor is shown as. But to some extent it leaves me cold - difficult to pin down what, but I think the writing may simply be too precise, dry, bloodless to really let me be absorbed by the story.|
|The End of History and the Last Man||Francis Fukuyama||★★★★||2006||2004/01/01||I’ve bumped this to 4 stars as, thinking back on the ~decade since I read this, Fukuyama is still right and yet no one seems to get this.
People, look at the Arab Spring. Did it yield any caliphates, say? Anarchistic self-governing communes? Self-governing city-states? Hanseatic Leagues? Or look at official rhetoric in places like China. Look at the gradual and continuing expansion of capitalism and democracy as the defaults for every country. Look at the discrediting of Putin’s Russian cronyism approach, or at the Muslim world’s shift away from marginal Salafist groups like al-Qaeda.
Fukuyama was right. There are no credible alternatives to the capitalist liberal democracy paradigm.
|The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements||Eric Hoffer||★★★★||2010||Many of his points and observations ring true, but Hoffer is fond of using only a few isolated examples to prove his points, and of affirming paradoxes; but the problem with each is that they are not as reliable as they may seem, and the general detachment from statistics and economics and demographics undermines my confidence in any of his claims. He cites Tocqueville approvingly on the lack of coherence of the narrative of the French Revolution with the observed facts that the French had never had it better than before the Revolution - but how can I then have any confidence in any of his narratives?|
|Dreams of Steel (The Chronicles of the Black Company, #5)||Glen Cook||★★★★||1990||2013/06/12||A major improvement over the previous two books and equal to the original The Black Company & Shadows Linger: we turn to the Lady’s perspective as she fights her way back from a debacle in the invasion of the Shadowlands, builds up an army, and imposes her own manipulative rule and empire-building tactics, heavily leavened by plotting by all parties. Pluses included no more Taken popping up, we saw very little of Goblin or One-eye, and soap-operatic twist at the end aside, the overall plot has built up nicely.|
|On China||Henry Kissinger||★★★★||2011||2012/01/31||Kissinger may be a duplicitous murderous bastard, but he’s an excellent analyst and while his ancient history is only so-so as far as I can tell from my other reading (eg. Needham), his takes on modern Chinese history is very interesting, and I learned a number of things I did not know before (I was shocked to learn that the Soviets at one point seriously considered pre-emptively attacking China’s nuclear program and had reached out to the USA to ask whether the USA would be very upset about it?).|
|The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires||Tim Wu||★★★★||2010||2010/01/01||His Cycle is a convincing paradigm. I already knew a lot of it from Lawrence Lessig and related copyright books & writings, but Tim Wu puts the history together nicely, and renders the 2000s a little clearer (not that I really needed to be told that Apple/Jobs are a clear incarnation of the empire-building trend; this was obvious even when Neal Stephenson pointed it out many years ago in “In The Beginning Was The Commandline…” )|
|The Circus of Dr. Lao||Charles G. Finney||★★★★||2002||2011/10/20||The book comes up often in Wolfe discussions of An Evil Guest, I noticed there was a copy on library.nu, so…
Short, but fairly funny; ending wasn’t quite as expected, but the dramatis personae and especially the section of questions listing contradictions/mistakes/obscurities made up for my lingering dissatisfaction. Don’t think it was directly useful for interpreting Wolfe’s An Evil Guest, but the dramatis personae is a clear inspiration for Wolfe’s own character lists.
|The Kindly Ones||Jonathan Littell||★★★★||2009||Very long, not a little tedious (although in places the detail reaches tour de forces, like the early discussion of German war on the Eastern front). Desensitized by the end. Not sure how to take it, but disagree with the protagonist - I don’t understand his constant depravity and murdering, and I don’t agree I would do much the same thing in his position. One or two murders, maybe, but even killing his best friend Thomas who time and again saved Aue’s ass?|
|The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution||Bernard Bailyn||★★★★||1992||2011/01/01||Bailyn was more or less as Moldbug described, and the quotes from the pamphlets fairly convincing. That said, I would have liked a lot more of those quotes about conspiracies and the origins of the plans to enslave the colonies for private profit, and much less paraphrase & political theorizing.|
|Friendship is Optimal||iceman||★★★★||2012||It’s an excellent dystopia which makes you feel that it’s hell - but also better than our reality.
But as great as the premise is, and as chilling (or thrilling?) as the results are, on reflection I’m not quite sure I can give this a rare 5-stars (as I did initially): the prose is a little too journeyman-like, the characters a little too undifferentiated.
|Steve Jobs||Walter Isaacson||★★★★||2011||2011/10/24||Long but good biography; in some respects, too cheerleading of Jobs (balanced by Isaacson not truckling too much and being willing to cover the ugly parts of Jobs’s life). But overall, a good detailed bio. I do not admire Jobs - perhaps if he were less neurotic or chewed through people less, but I respect him: he was a real mensch.|
|Shades of Grey (Shades of Grey, #1)||Jasper Fforde||★★★★||2009||2013/03/29||Post-apocalyptic Flatland meets Hunger Games via Paranoia - that is, an insane bureaucratic totalitarian Victorian nightmare mediated by color perception whose protagonists rebel against the order of things instituted after some doomsday. I enjoyed it a lot.|
|I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy||Lori Andrews||★★★★||2012||Remarkably thoroughly researched, with endless references and anecdotes, which is an achievement indeed for a topic as ephemeral and changing as social media. (I didn’t think too much of its critical analysis or conclusions, but the rest more than made up for it.)|
|World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability||Amy Chua||★★★★||2004||That was actually pretty good (better than one might guess from reading the discussions of her later tiger-mother book), many interesting observations. Her paradigm seems pretty generally applicable outside the First World. I took extensive notes.|
|Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives||David Eagleman||★★★★||2009||40 very short stories in the tradition of Borges, Calvino, and Stanislaw Lem (in ascending order). Overall, pretty good, although naturally the quality level varies considerably and the parables that spoke to me will not speak to others.|
|The Black Cloud||Fred Hoyle||★★★★||1998||2010/12/01||Good frame story, good science, good possibilities - the black cloud is still a novel proposal and interesting to think about in a panspermia context. Mind candy. (And short enough it doesn’t wear out its welcome.)|
|Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage||Kathryn Edin||★★★★||2007||2011/11/13||Incredibly sobering, explains a lot about inner-city illegitimacy, and the best thing I’ve read about the topic and why women would do something which from far away seems like a completely terrible idea.|
|Intelligence: A Unifying Construct for the Social Sciences||Richard Lynn||★★★★||2012||2012/08/14||Very wonky, of course, but still many interesting correlation; I excerpted parts I found interesting to a Google+ post.|
|Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery||Imre Lakatos||★★★★||1976||2011/12/28||Surprisingly interesting, like Wittgenstein if he wrote in a human fashion, and longer than one would think possible given how straightforward the problem initially appears.|
|Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture||Takashi Murakami||★★★★||2005||2011/11/24||Main use for this book: encyclopedia entries, Murakami’s long essay, the dialogue with Okada - rest is completely impenetrable, featuring fine gobbledegook.|
|Snuff (Discworld, #39; City Watch #8)||Terry Pratchett||★★★★||2011||2011/11/17||Curiously, this is the least funny but probably best Discworld book I’ve read so far. Vimes has grown a great deal since we first met him.|
|Birds||Aristophanes||★★★★||1998||I was mildly surprised by how much funnier than expected it was. One doesn’t expect such ancient contemporary humor to translate well.|
|The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance||David Epstein||★★★★||2013||2016/06/13|
|On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine||Nicolas Rasmussen||★★★★||2008||2016/04/28|
|Small Memory Software: Patterns for Systems with Limited Memory||James Noble||★★★★||2000||2008/01/01|
|Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High||Mike Power||★★★★||2014||2016/03/08|
|The Dark Forest||Liu Cixin||★★★★||2015||2016/01/07|
|On the Nature of Things (Hackett Classics)||Titus Lucretius Carus||★★★★||2001||2016/03/01|
|Ethan Frome||Edith Wharton||★★★★||2006||2002/01/01|
|The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever||David M. Friedman||★★★★||2007||2008/01/01|
|The Martian||Andy Weir||★★★★||2014||2015/07/25|
|Still Alice||Lisa Genova||★★★★||2007||2015/07/22|
|Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety||Eric Schlosser||★★★★||2013||2015/07/14|
|Reinforcement Learning: An Introduction||Richard S. Sutton||★★★★||1998||2015/07/22|
|From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry||Hiroaki Sato||★★★★||1987||2003/01/01|
|The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)||Liu Cixin||★★★★||2014||2015/03/06|
|Welcome to the N.H.K.||Tatsuhiko Takimoto||★★★★||2007||2015/03/04|
|Tuck Everlasting||Natalie Babbitt||★★★★||1985||1997/01/01|
|The Art of Writing: Lu Chi’s Wen Fu||Lu Chi||★★★★||2000||2013/01/01|
|The Causal Angel (Jean le Flambeur, #3)||Hannu Rajaniemi||★★★★||2014||2015/01/04|
|Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology||David Graeber||★★★★||2004||2014/06/18|
|The Fractal Prince (Jean le Flambeur, #2)||Hannu Rajaniemi||★★★★||2012||2015/01/03|
|The Quantum Thief (Jean le Flambeur, #1)||Hannu Rajaniemi||★★★★||2010||2014/05/05|
|The Autumn of the Patriarch||Gabriel García Márquez||★★★★||2006||2014/04/28|
|Rogue Male||Geoffrey Household||★★★★||2002||2014/04/02|
|The Making of Prince of Persia||Jordan Mechner||★★★★||2011||2012/04/11|
|Shadows Linger (The Chronicles of the Black Company, #2)||Glen Cook||★★★★||1990||2013/06/08|
|The Old Regime and the French Revolution||Alexis de Tocqueville||★★★★||1955|
|The Clouds Should Know Me By Now: Buddhist Poet Monks of China||Red Pine||★★★★||1998|
|Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness, and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier||Suelette Dreyfus||★★★★||1997|
|George’s Marvellous Medicine||Roald Dahl||★★★★||2003|
|Fantastic Mr. Fox||Roald Dahl||★★★★||2002|
|Four Past Midnight||Stephen King||★★★★||1991|
|The Paranoid Style in American Politics||Richard Hofstadter||★★★★||2012|
|Global Price Fixing: Our Customers Are the Enemy||John M. Connor||★★★★||2001|
|Demian. Die Geschichte von Emil Sinclairs Jugend||Hermann Hesse||★★★★||1996|
|Three Worlds Collide||Eliezer Yudkowsky||★★★★||2009|
|Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions||Julian P.T. Higgins||★★★★||2008|
|Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History||S.C. Gwynne||★★★★||2010||2015/01/26|
|The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament||Bart D. Ehrman||★★★★||1996||2012/11/14|
|The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945||Nina Tannenwald||★★★★||2008|
|Beyond Good and Evil||Friedrich Nietzsche||★★★★||2003|
|Walden||Henry David Thoreau||★★★★||2004|
|Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive||Bruce Schneier||★★★★||2012||2012/10/22|
|The Moral Basis of a Backward Society||Edward C. Banfield||★★★★||1967|
|When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God||T.M. Luhrmann||★★★★||2012||2012/10/04|
|Good & Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding||Tyler Cowen||★★★★||2006|
|The Unincorporated Man||Dani Kollin||★★★★||2009|
|The White-Luck Warrior: The Aspect-Emperor Book Two||R. Scott Bakker||★★★★||2011|
|The Darkness That Comes Before (The Prince of Nothing, #1)||R. Scott Bakker||★★★★||2005|
|City of Glass (The New York Trilogy, #1)||Paul Auster||★★★★||1987|
|De Profundis||Oscar Wilde||★★★★||2011||2012/08/13|
|Five Children and It (Five Children, #1)||E. Nesbit||★★★★||1996|
|War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War||John W. Dower||★★★★||1987|
|The UNIX Hater’s Handbook: The Best of UNIX-Haters On-line Mailing Reveals Why UNIX Must Die!||Simson Garfinkel||★★★★||1994|
|Reason & Persuasion: Three Dialogues By Plato||John Holbo||★★★★||2009|
|When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World||Leon Festinger||★★★★||1964||2012/10/27|
|Collected Poems of Robert Frost||Robert Frost||★★★★||2002||2012/07/26|
|Goodnight Moon||Margaret Wise Brown||★★★★||2007|
|The Lorax||Dr. Seuss||★★★★||1998|
|A Study of History, Vol 1: Introduction; The Geneses of Civilizations (A Study of History, #1)||Arnold Joseph Toynbee||★★★★||1934|
|The Decline of the West||Oswald Spengler||★★★★||1991|
|The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers||Richard McGregor||★★★★||2010||2015/11/11|
|Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery||Martin Gardner||★★★★||1995|
|The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle||Avi||★★★★||1992|
|Red Ranger Came Calling||Berkeley Breathed||★★★★||1997|
|The Anatomy of Revolution||Crane Brinton||★★★★||1965|
|The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary||Ambrose Bierce||★★★★||2002|
|The Epic of Gilgamesh||Anonymous||★★★★||2006|
|Wild Magic (Immortals, #1)||Tamora Pierce||★★★★||2005|
|Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (The Authorized Doubleday/Doran Edition)||T.E. Lawrence||★★★★||1991|
|Psychological Warfare (WWII Era Reprint)||Paul M.A. Linebarger||★★★★||2010|
|A Journey To The Tea Countries Of China||Robert Fortune||★★★★||2005|
|The Iron Dream||Norman Spinrad||★★★★||1986|
|The Rise and Decline of The Medici Bank, 1397-1494||Raymond de Roover||★★★★||1966|
|Muslim Neoplatonists: An Introduction To The Thought Of The Brethren Of Purity, Ikhwān Al Ṣafāʾ||Ian Richard Netton||★★★★||1982|
|The Autobiography of a Criminal||Henry Tufts||★★★★||1993|
|Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader||Peter Wright||★★★★||2003|
|Krazy and Ignatz, 1939-1940: A Brick Stuffed With Moom-bins||George Herriman||★★★★||2007|
|Krazy and Ignatz, 1929-1930: A Mice, a Brick, a Lovely Night||George Herriman||★★★★||2003|
|Krazy and Ignatz, 1931-1932: A Kat Alilt With Song||George Herriman||★★★★||2004|
|Krazy and Ignatz, 1933-1934: Necromancy by the Blue Bean Bush||George Herriman||★★★★||2005|
|Krazy and Ignatz, 1937-1938: Shifting Sands Dusts Its Cheeks in Powdered Beauty||George Herriman||★★★★||2006|
|Krazy and Ignatz, 1919-1921: A Kind, Benevolent, and Amiable Brick||George Herriman||★★★★||2011|
|ANSI Common Lisp||Paul Graham||★★★★||1996|
|Red Mars (Mars Trilogy, #1)||Kim Stanley Robinson||★★★★||2003|
|The Debian System: Concepts and Techniques||Martin F. Krafft||★★★★||2005|
|The Mysterious Stranger||Mark Twain||★★★★||1916|
|The Grand Inquisitor||Fyodor Dostoyevsky||★★★★||1880|
|The Wind in the Willows||Kenneth Grahame||★★★★||2005|
|Wizard’s Bane (Wiz, #1)||Rick Cook||★★★★||1989|
|Inferno (The Divine Comedy #1)||Dante Alighieri||★★★★||2003|
|Complete Tales of Uncle Remus||Joel Chandler Harris||★★★★||1955|
|The World Without Us||Alan Weisman||★★★★||2007|
|Neptune Crossing (Chaos Chronicles, #1)||Jeffrey A. Carver||★★★★||1995|
|Bush at War||Bob Woodward||★★★★||2003|
|Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy||René Descartes||★★★★||1999|
|On Liberty||John Stuart Mill||★★★★||1985|
|Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (Charlie Bucket, #2)||Roald Dahl||★★★★||2005|
|The Story of Doctor Dolittle (Doctor Dolittle, #1)||Hugh Lofting||★★★★||2005|
|Splendors of Meiji: Treasures of Imperial Japan: Masterpieces from the Khalili Collection||Joe Earle||★★★★||1999|
|Scythian Gold||Ellen Reeder||★★★★||1999|
|The Sufi Path Of Knowledge: Ibn Al ʻarabi’s Metaphysics Of Imagination||William C. Chittick||★★★★||1989|
|The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism||Max Weber||★★★★||2003|
|Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement||John U. Ogbu||★★★★||2003|
|IQ and the Wealth of Nations||Richard Lynn||★★★★||2002|
|The Double Axe, and Other Poems Including Eleven Suppressed Poems||Robinson Jeffers||★★★★||1986|
|Shadows of the New Sun||Peter Wright||★★★★||2006|
|Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History||James Carroll||★★★★||2002|
|On Thermonuclear War||Herman Kahn||★★★★||2007|
|A Journal of the Plague Year||Daniel Defoe||★★★★||2003|
|This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen||Tadeusz Borowski||★★★★||1992|
|Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam||Omar Khayyám||★★★★||2005|
|Terror and Liberalism||Paul Berman||★★★★||2004|
|The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment||A.J. Jacobs||★★★★||2009|
|The New Hacker’s Dictionary||Eric S. Raymond||★★★★||1996|
|The Art of UNIX Programming||Eric S. Raymond||★★★★||2003|
|The Rime of the Ancient Mariner||Samuel Taylor Coleridge||★★★★||1970|
|The King in Yellow||Robert W. Chambers||★★★★||2007|
|The Story of Hassan of Baghdad and How He Came to Make the Golden Journey to Samarkand||James Elroy Flecker||★★★★||2004|
|Nine Princes in Amber (The Chronicles of Amber #1)||Roger Zelazny||★★★★||1986|
|Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings||Kenji Tokitsu||★★★★||2006|
|Psychology of Intelligence Analysis||Richards J. Heuer Jr.||★★★★||2006||2012/07/21|
|The Questions Of King Milinda - Part I||T.W. Rhys Davids||★★★★||2011|
|Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret Pitch (Encyclopedia Brown, #2)||Donald J. Sobol||★★★★||2000|
|Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective (Encyclopedia Brown, #1)||Donald J. Sobol||★★★★||1985|
|Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny||Robert Wright||★★★★||2001|
|The World, the Flesh & the Devil;: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul||J.D. Bernal||★★★★||1969|
|Say Cheese and Die! (Goosebumps, #4)||R.L. Stine||★★★★||2003|
|Night of the Living Dummy (Goosebumps, #7)||R.L. Stine||★★★★||2003|
|Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture||David Kushner||★★★★||2004|
|Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science||Alan Sokal||★★★★||1999|
|The Red Castle||H.C. Bailey||★★★★||0|
|Stuart Little||E.B. White||★★★★||2005|
|The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer||William Irwin||★★★★||2001|
|Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland||William Ian Miller||★★★★||1997|
|The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia||René Grousset||★★★★||1970|
|The Man in the Iron Mask (The D’Artagnan Romances, #3.3)||Alexandre Dumas||★★★★||2003|
|Japanese Court Poetry||Robert H. Brower||★★★★||1988|
|The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History||David Hackett Fischer||★★★★||1999|
|Once and Forever||Kenji Miyazawa||★★★★||1998|
|War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race||Edwin Black||★★★★||2004|
|The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917||Jonathan Clements||★★★★||2001|
|Monkey: The Journey to the West||Wu Cheng’en||★★★★||1994|
|Indian Philosophy: An Introduction To Hindu And Buddhist Thought||Richard King||★★★★||1999|
|Philosophy of Mind||Jaegwon Kim||★★★★||2005|
|The Legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought||Patricia Curd||★★★★||2004|
|The Medici Bank: Its Organization, Management, Operations, and Decline||Raymond de Roover||★★★★||2008|
|Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy||Nick Bostrom||★★★★||2010|
|Haskell: The Craft of Functional Programming||Simon Thompson||★★★★||1999|
|The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance||K. Anders Ericsson||★★★★||2006|
|Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays||Laurent Bouzereau||★★★★||1997|
|Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Characters||Andy Mangels||★★★★||1995|
|Crimson Empire, Volume 1 (Star Wars: Crimson Empire, #1)||Mike Richardson||★★★★||1998|
|The Han Solo Adventures (Classic Star Wars)||Brian Daley||★★★★||1994|
|Iron Fist (Star Wars: X-Wing, #6)||Aaron Allston||★★★★||1998|
|The Bacta War (Star Wars: X-Wing, #4)||Michael A. Stackpole||★★★★||1997|
|I, Jedi (Star Wars)||Michael A. Stackpole||★★★★||1998|
|The Truce at Bakura (Star Wars)||Kathy Tyers||★★★★||1994|
|Shadows of the Empire (Star Wars)||Steve Perry||★★★★||1997|
|The Courtship of Princess Leia (Star Wars)||Dave Wolverton||★★★★||2011|
|The Last Command (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, #3)||Timothy Zahn||★★★★||1994|
|Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, #1)||Timothy Zahn||★★★★||1992|
|The Phoenix Exultant (Golden Age, #2)||John C. Wright||★★★★||2003|
|Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds||Harold Bloom||★★★★||2003|
|Cities in Flight (Cities in Flight, #1-4)||James Blish||★★★★||2005|
|Eon (The Way, #1)||Greg Bear||★★★★||1991|
|The Trumpeter of Krakow||Eric P. Kelly||★★★★||1992||1999/01/01|
|The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare||G.K. Chesterton||★★★★||2001|
|The Jungle Book||Rudyard Kipling||★★★★||1992|
|Man Into Superman: The Startling Potential of Human Evolution – And How to Be Part of It||Robert C.W. Ettinger||★★★★||2005|
|Breakdown of Will||George Ainslie||★★★★||2006|
|The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire||Edward Gibbon||★★★★||2003|
|The Underground History of American Education: An Intimate Investigation Into the Prison of Modern Schooling||John Taylor Gatto||★★★★||2003|
|Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility||James P. Carse||★★★★||1987|
|The Magus||John Fowles||★★★★||1988|
|And Then There Were None||Agatha Christie||★★★★||2004|
|A Scanner Darkly||Philip K. Dick||★★★★||2006|
|Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai||Tsunetomo Yamamoto||★★★★||2002|
|Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention||Stanislas Dehaene||★★★★||2009|
|New Urban Immigrants: The Korean Community in New York||Illsoo Kim||★★★★||1981|
|Culture and Customs of Korea||Donald N. Clark||★★★★||2000|
|Sunset in a Spider Web: Sijo Poetry of Ancient Korea||Virginia Olsen Baron||★★★★||1974|
|When We Were Orphans||Kazuo Ishiguro||★★★★||2007|
|The Reptile Room (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #2)||Lemony Snicket||★★★★||1999|
|The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #1)||Lemony Snicket||★★★★||1999|
|Across the Sea of Suns (Galactic Center, #2)||Gregory Benford||★★★★||2004|
|Red Emma Speaks||Emma Goldman||★★★★||1996||2008/06/19|
|The Known World||Edward P. Jones||★★★★||2006|
|The Last Ringbearer||Kirill Yeskov||★★★★||2010|
|Deep Time:: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia||Gregory Benford||★★★★||2001|
|Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States||Albert O. Hirschman||★★★★||1970|
|The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3)||Philip Pullman||★★★★||2003|
|The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)||Philip Pullman||★★★★||1996|
|Where the Wild Things Are||Maurice Sendak||★★★★||2000|
|Maniac Magee||Jerry Spinelli||★★★★||2002|
|The Stinky Cheese Man: And Other Fairly Stupid Tales||Jon Scieszka||★★★★||1992||1997/01/01|
|A Little Princess (World’s Best Loved Classics)||Frances Hodgson Burnett||★★★★||1994|
|The Indian in the Cupboard (The Indian in the Cupboard, #1)||Lynne Reid Banks||★★★★||2003|
|Anne of Green Gables (Anne of Green Gables, #1)||L.M. Montgomery||★★★★||2003|
|Winnie-the-Pooh (Winnie-the-Pooh, #1)||A.A. Milne||★★★★||2001|
|The House at Pooh Corner (Winnie-the-Pooh, #2)||A.A. Milne||★★★★||1988|
|How the Grinch Stole Christmas!||Dr. Seuss||★★★★||1957|
|A Christmas Carol||Charles Dickens||★★★★||1999|
|The Garden of Abdul Gasazi||Chris Van Allsburg||★★★★||1979|
|Harriet the Spy (Harriet the Spy #1)||Louise Fitzhugh||★★★★||2001|
|The Cat in the Hat||Dr. Seuss||★★★★||1985|
|The Consolations of Philosophy||Alain de Botton||★★★★||2001|
|Well Played 1.0: Video Games, Value and Meaning||Drew Davidson||★★★★||2009|
|Mr. Popper’s Penguins||Richard Atwater||★★★★||1992|
|Giants’ Star (Giants, #3)||James P. Hogan||★★★★||1982|
|The Gentle Giants of Ganymede (Giants, #2)||James P. Hogan||★★★★||1983|
|Inherit the Stars (Giants, #1)||James P. Hogan||★★★★||1978|
|Heirs of Empire (Dahak, #3)||David Weber||★★★★||1996|
|Path of the Fury||David Weber||★★★★||1992|
|Field of Dishonor (Honor Harrington, #4)||David Weber||★★★★||2002|
|The Short Victorious War (Honor Harrington, #3)||David Weber||★★★★||1994|
|On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington, #1)||David Weber||★★★★||2005|
|Necroscope II: Vamphyri! (Necroscope, #2)||Brian Lumley||★★★★||1989|
|Necroscope (Necroscope, #1)||Brian Lumley||★★★★||1994|
|The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect||Roger Williams||★★★★||2010|
|The Voyage of the Space Beagle||A.E. van Vogt||★★★★||1963|
|Purely Functional Data Structures||Chris Okasaki||★★★★||2003|
|The Last Aerie||Brian Lumley||★★★★||1994|
|Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project||Karl Franz Fogel||★★★★||2005|
|The Three Pillars of Zen||Philip Kapleau||★★★★||1989|
|Storm of Steel||Ernst Jünger||★★★★||2004|
|The Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying: A Spiritual Classic from One of the Foremost Interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism to the West||Sogyal Rinpoche||★★★★||2008|
|Sailing Bright Eternity||Gregory Benford||★★★★||1996|
|Beggars Ride (Sleepless, #3)||Nancy Kress||★★★★||1997|
|Magician’s Gambit (The Belgariad, #3)||David Eddings||★★★★||1983|
|Pawn of Prophecy (The Belgariad, #1)||David Eddings||★★★★||2004|
|The Sapphire Rose (The Elenium, #3)||David Eddings||★★★★||1992|
|When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management||Roger Lowenstein||★★★★||2001|
|The Great Brain (Great Brain #1)||John D. Fitzgerald||★★★★||2004|
|The Wasp Factory||Iain Banks||★★★★||1998|
|Vacuum Diagrams (Xeelee Sequence, #5)||Stephen Baxter||★★★★||2001|
|The Timeless Way of Building||Christopher W. Alexander||★★★★||1979|
|The Architecture of Open Source Applications||Amy Brown||★★★★||2011|
|The Algebraist||Iain M. Banks||★★★★||2005|
|Myth Conceptions (Myth Adventures, #2)||Robert Asprin||★★★★||2005|
|Phule’s Company (Phule’s Company, #1)||Robert Asprin||★★★★||1990|
|Myth-Nomers and Im-Pervections (Myth Adventures, #8)||Robert Asprin||★★★★||2006|
|Phule’s Paradise (Phule’s Company, #2)||Robert Asprin||★★★★||1992|
|A Phule and His Money (Phule’s Company, #3)||Robert Asprin||★★★★||1999|
|The Keep (Adversary Cycle, #1)||F. Paul Wilson||★★★★||2006|
|How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business||Douglas W. Hubbard||★★★★||2011|
|Revelation Space||Alastair Reynolds||★★★★||2002|
|The Prose Edda||Snorri Sturluson||★★★★||2005|
|The Book of Lost Tales, Part One (The History of Middle-Earth, #1)||J.R.R. Tolkien||★★★★||1992|
|Ideas and Integrities: A Spontaneous Autobiographical Disclosure||R. Buckminster Fuller||★★★★||1969|
|Modern Japanese Diaries: The Japanese at Home and Abroad as Revealed Through Their Diaries||Donald Keene||★★★★||1999|
|Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century (A History of Japanese Literature - Volume 1)||Donald Keene||★★★★||1999|
|Four Major Plays of Chikamatsu||Monzaemon Chikamatsu||★★★★||1997|
|Chushingura (the Treasury of Loyal Retainers): A Puppet Play||Takeda Izumo||★★★★||1971|
|World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Premodern Era - 1600-1867 (A History of Japanese Literature - Volume 2)||Donald Keene||★★★★||1999||2015/09/04|
|The Tao of Pooh||Benjamin Hoff||★★★★||2003|
|The Te of Piglet||Benjamin Hoff||★★★★||2003|
|The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus||Christopher Marlowe||★★★★||2009|
|Feynman And Computation||Anthony J.G. Hey||★★★★||2002|
|Bare-Faced Messiah||Frederic P. Miller||★★★★||2011|
|Excession (Culture, #5)||Iain M. Banks||★★★★||1998|
|Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming||Peter Seibel||★★★★||2009|
|The Hedgehog, the Fox & the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science & the Humanities||Stephen Jay Gould||★★★★||2004|
|The Golden Bough||James George Frazer||★★★★||1995|
|Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy: How Emperor Hirohito Led Japan Into War Against the West||David Bergamini||★★★★||2006|
|The Stainless Steel Rat for President (Stainless Steel Rat, #8)||Harry Harrison||★★★★||1988|
|The Stainless Steel Rat (Stainless Steel Rat, #4)||Harry Harrison||★★★★||1998|
|Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues||Steven M. Cahn||★★★★||2005|
|Catastrophe: Risk and Response||Richard A. Posner||★★★★||2004|
|How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer||Sarah Bakewell||★★★★||2010|
|The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters||B.R. Myers||★★★★||2010|
|The Authoritarians||Bob Altemeyer||★★★★||2006|
|Russian Silhouettes||Genna Sosonko||★★★★||2003|
|Superior Beings: If They Exist, How Would We Know?||Steven J. Brams||★★★★||2006|
|The Best Writing on Mathematics||William P. Thurston||★★★★||2011|
|The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness||Elyn R. Saks||★★★★||2007|
|Melmoth the Wanderer||Charles Robert Maturin||★★★★||2000|
|Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative||Edward R. Tufte||★★★★||1998|
|Envisioning Information||Edward R. Tufte||★★★★||1992|
|The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice||Christopher Hitchens||★★★★||1997|
|Beautiful Evidence||Edward R. Tufte||★★★★||2006|
|Yon Ill Wind (Xanth #20)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1997|
|Juxtaposition (Apprentice Adept #3)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1987|
|Blue Adept (Apprentice Adept #2)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1987|
|Split Infinity (Apprentice Adept #1)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1987|
|And Eternity (Incarnations of Immortality, #7)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1991|
|For Love of Evil (Incarnations of Immortality, #6)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1990|
|Centaur Aisle (Xanth, #4)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1997|
|Wielding a Red Sword (Incarnations of Immortality, #4)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1987|
|Bearing an Hourglass (Incarnations of Immortality, #2)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1984|
|On a Pale Horse (Incarnations of Immortality, #1)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1986|
|Foundation’s Edge (Foundation, #4)||Isaac Asimov||★★★★||2010|
|Forward the Foundation (Foundation: Prequel, #2)||Isaac Asimov||★★★★||1994|
|Around the World in Eighty Days (Extraordinary Voyages, #11)||Jules Verne||★★★★||2004|
|The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde||Robert Louis Stevenson||★★★★||2003|
|Where the Red Fern Grows||Wilson Rawls||★★★★||2000|
|The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings||Edgar Allan Poe||★★★★||2004|
|Journey to the Center of the Earth (Extraordinary Voyages, #3)||Jules Verne||★★★★||2006|
|Triss (Redwall, #15)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2004|
|Taggerung (Redwall, #14)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2003|
|Marlfox (Redwall, #11)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2005|
|Pearls of Lutra (Redwall, #9)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2004|
|The Long Patrol (Redwall, #10)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2004|
|Salamandastron (Redwall, #5)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2003|
|Redwall (Redwall, #1)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2006|
|Interview with the Vampire (The Vampire Chronicles, #1)||Anne Rice||★★★★||2004|
|Life of Pi||Yann Martel||★★★★||2006|
|The Alienist (Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, #1)||Caleb Carr||★★★★||2006|
|Famous First Bubbles: The Fundamentals of Early Manias||Peter Garber||★★★★||2000|
|Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why||Laurence Gonzales||★★★★||2004|
|U.S.A., #1-3||John Dos Passos||★★★★||1996|
|On the Beach||Nevil Shute||★★★★||2002|
|Anti-Intellectualism in American Life||Richard Hofstadter||★★★★||1964|
|His Master’s Voice||Stanisław Lem||★★★★||1999|
|Li Po and Tu Fu: Poems||Li Bai||★★★★||1973|
|Lords of the Middle Dark (Rings of the Master, #1)||Jack L. Chalker||★★★★||1986|
|The Principles of Psychology||William James||★★★★||1983|
|The Varieties of Religious Experience||William James||★★★★||2000|
|Not the Impossible Faith||Richard Carrier||★★★★||2009|
|The Sagas of Icelanders||Jane Smiley||★★★★||2005||2015/04/14|
|Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming||Stephen LaBerge||★★★★||1991|
|Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective||J. Philippe Rushton||★★★★||2002|
|Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (Dirk Gently #1)||Douglas Adams||★★★★||1991|
|The Three Musketeers||Alexandre Dumas||★★★★||2001|
|The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2)||Ursula K. Le Guin||★★★★||2001|
|Tehanu (Earthsea Cycle, #4)||Ursula K. Le Guin||★★★★||2001|
|Tales from Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #5)||Ursula K. Le Guin||★★★★||2001|
|Fables, Vol. 7: Arabian Nights [and Days]||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2006|
|Fables, Vol. 9: Sons of Empire||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2007|
|Fables, Vol. 10: The Good Prince||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2008|
|Fables, Vol. 5: The Mean Seasons||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2005|
|Fables, Vol. 6: Homelands||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2006|
|Fables, Vol. 2: Animal Farm||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2003|
|Fables, Vol. 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2004|
|Fables, Vol. 1: Legends in Exile||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2002|
|Titus Groan (Gormenghast, #1)||Mervyn Peake||★★★★||1991|
|Kick-Ass (Kick-Ass, #1)||Mark Millar||★★★★||2011|
|The Morning of the Magicians||Louis Pauwels||★★★★||2007|
|The Lost World (Professor Challenger, #1)||Arthur Conan Doyle||★★★★||2003|
|Count Belisarius||Robert Graves||★★★★||1982|
|Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010||Charles Murray||★★★★||2012||2012/10/23|
|The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life||Alison Gopnik||★★★★||2009|
|Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton||Edward Rice||★★★★||1991|
|The Case of the Animals Versus Man Before the King of the Jinn: An Arabic Critical Edition and English Translation of Epistle 22||Lenn E. Goodman||★★★★||2012|
|A Shadow in Summer (Long Price Quartet, #1)||Daniel Abraham||★★★★||2006|
|History of the Second World War||B.H. Liddell Hart||★★★★||1999|
|Queen Victoria’s Little Wars||Byron Farwell||★★★★||1985|
|Lucky Wander Boy||D.B. Weiss||★★★★||2003|
|Shadow Puppets (Ender’s Shadow, #3)||Orson Scott Card||★★★★||2003|
|Modern Operating Systems||Andrew S. Tanenbaum||★★★★||2001|
|The Crying of Lot 49||Thomas Pynchon||★★★★||2006|
|Lord of the Flies||William Golding||★★★★||1999|
|Gulliver’s Travels||Jonathan Swift||★★★★||2003|
|The Once and Future King||T.H. White||★★★★||1996|
|White Fang||Jack London||★★★★||2001|
|Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America||Barbara Ehrenreich||★★★★||2002|
|The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; The Wisdom of Life||Arthur Schopenhauer||★★★★||2006|
|A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court||Mark Twain||★★★★||2006|
|Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems and Drawings of Shel Silverstein||Shel Silverstein||★★★★||1974|
|The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin||Benjamin Franklin||★★★★||2010|
|The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better||Tyler Cowen||★★★★||2011|
|Waiting for Godot||Samuel Beckett||★★★★||1953|
|The Complete Maus (Maus, #1-2)||Art Spiegelman||★★★★||2003|
|Behemoth: β-Max (Rifters #3.1)||Peter Watts||★★★★||2004|
|Maelstrom (Rifters, #2)||Peter Watts||★★★★||2002|
|Starfish (Rifters, #1)||Peter Watts||★★★★||2000|
|The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self||Thomas Metzinger||★★★★||2009|
|The Brothers Karamazov||Fyodor Dostoyevsky||★★★★||2002|
|The Master and Margarita||Mikhail Bulgakov||★★★★||1996||2008/08/26|
|The Spy Who Came In from the Cold||John le Carré||★★★★||2001||2008/07/02|
|Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy||John le Carré||★★★★||2002|
|Democracy in America||Alexis de Tocqueville||★★★★||2003|
|Eaters of the Dead||Michael Crichton||★★★★||2006|
|Jurassic Park (Jurassic Park, #1)||Michael Crichton||★★★★||2006|
|The Cartoon Guide to Statistics||Larry Gonick||★★★★||1993||2004/01/01|
|Cloud Atlas||David Mitchell||★★★★||2004|
|The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time, #1)||Robert Jordan||★★★★||1990|
|Tao Te Ching||Lao Tzu||★★★★||1997|
|A Modest Proposal||Jonathan Swift||★★★★||2008|
|Common Sense||Thomas Paine||★★★★||2005|
|The Myth of Sisyphus||Albert Camus||★★★★||2000|
|Startide Rising (The Uplift Saga, #2)||David Brin||★★★★||1984|
|What Technology Wants||Kevin Kelly||★★★★||2010|
|A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy||Miyamoto Musashi||★★★★||1988||2004/01/01|
|Freedom Evolves||Daniel C. Dennett||★★★★||2004|
|The Wisdom of Crowds||James Surowiecki||★★★★||2005|
|Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality||Eliezer Yudkowsky||★★★★||2015||2015/03/14|
|Crime and Punishment||Fyodor Dostoyevsky||★★★★||2002|
|The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)||Patrick Rothfuss||★★★★||2007|
|The Door Into Summer||Robert A. Heinlein||★★★★||1997|
|The Last Unicorn (The Last Unicorn, #1)||Peter S. Beagle||★★★★||2008||1998/01/01|
|Perdido Street Station (Bas-Lag, #1)||China Miéville||★★★★||2003|
|Foundation and Empire (Foundation, #2)||Isaac Asimov||★★★★||2004|
|Fahrenheit 451||Ray Bradbury||★★★★||2006|
|Darwin’s Radio (Darwin’s Radio #1)||Greg Bear||★★★★||2003|
|Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy, #3)||Kim Stanley Robinson||★★★★||1997|
|Neuromancer (Sprawl, #1)||William Gibson||★★★★||1984|
|Stranger in a Strange Land||Robert A. Heinlein||★★★★||1991|
|The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)||Joe Haldeman||★★★★||2003|
|Never Let Me Go||Kazuo Ishiguro||★★★★||2010|
|The Man in the High Castle||Philip K. Dick||★★★★||1992|
|The Moon is a Harsh Mistress||Robert A. Heinlein||★★★★||2005|
|Old Man’s War (Old Man’s War, #1)||John Scalzi||★★★★||2007|
|To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Riverworld, #1)||Philip José Farmer||★★★★||1998|
|Childhood’s End||Arthur C. Clarke||★★★★||1987|
|Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)||Iain M. Banks||★★★★||2005|
|The Running Man||Richard Bachman||★★★★||1999|
|On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft||Stephen King||★★★★||2002|
|Charlotte’s Web||E.B. White||★★★★||2001|
|The War of the Worlds||H.G. Wells||★★★★||2002|
|The Years of Rice and Salt||Kim Stanley Robinson||★★★★||2003|
|Little Town on the Prairie (Little House, #7)||Laura Ingalls Wilder||★★★★||2007|
|Little House on the Prairie (Little House, #2)||Laura Ingalls Wilder||★★★★||2008|
|Little House in the Big Woods (Little House, #1)||Laura Ingalls Wilder||★★★★||2007|
|The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (Detective Mitarai’s Casebook)||Soji Shimada||★★★★||2005|
|V for Vendetta||Alan Moore||★★★★||2005|
|Der Mond: The Art of Neon Genesis Evangelion||Yoshiyuki Sadamoto||★★★★||2006|
|Neon Genesis Evangelion, Vol. 1||Yoshiyuki Sadamoto||★★★★||2004|
|Yotsuba&!, Vol. 01 (Yotsuba&! #1)||Kiyohiko Azuma||★★★★||2005|
|From Hell||Alan Moore||★★★★||2007|
|The Invisibles, Vol. 7: The Invisible Kingdom||Grant Morrison||★★★★||2002|
|The Invisibles, Vol. 6: Kissing Mister Quimper||Grant Morrison||★★★★||2000|
|The Invisibles, Vol. 1: Say You Want a Revolution||Grant Morrison||★★★★||1996|
|Batman: The Dark Knight Returns||Frank Miller||★★★★||2002|
|Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned (Y: The Last Man #1)||Brian K. Vaughan||★★★★||2003|
|Flight, Vol. 1 (Flight, #1)||Kazu Kibuishi||★★★★||2004|
|Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter, #2)||J.K. Rowling||★★★★||1999|
|Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Harry Potter, #5)||J.K. Rowling||★★★★||2004|
|Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3)||J.K. Rowling||★★★★||2004|
|The Diary of a Young Girl||Anne Frank||★★★★||1993|
|The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution||Gregory Cochran||★★★★||2009|
|The Tale of Genji||Murasaki Shikibu||★★★★||2003|
|The Silence of the Lambs (Hannibal Lecter, #2)||Thomas Harris||★★★★||2002|
|Flowers for Algernon||Daniel Keyes||★★★★||2005|
|The Anubis Gates||Tim Powers||★★★★||1997|
|Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed||Jared Diamond||★★★★||2005|
|The Hunting of the Snark||Lewis Carroll||★★★★||2010|
|Philosophical Investigations||Ludwig Wittgenstein||★★★★||2001|
|Reave the Just and Other Tales||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||2000|
|The Gap Into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge (Gap, #2)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||2010|
|The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story (Gap, #1)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||1992|
|The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, #1-3)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||1993|
|A Man Rides Through (Mordant’s Need, #2)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||2003|
|The Mirror of Her Dreams (Mordant’s Need, #1)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||2003|
|The Illearth War (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, #2)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||1989|
|Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies||Jared Diamond||★★★★||2005|
|The Art of War||Sun Tzu||★★★★||2005|
|Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook||Edward N. Luttwak||★★★★||1979|
|Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto||Stewart Brand||★★★★||2009|
|How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built||Stewart Brand||★★★★||1995|
|The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings, #3)||J.R.R. Tolkien||★★★★||1986|
|The Silmarillion (Middle-Earth Universe)||J.R.R. Tolkien||★★★★||2004|
|All Quiet on the Western Front||Erich Maria Remarque||★★★★||1987|
|The Count of Monte Cristo||Alexandre Dumas||★★★★||2003|
|Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch||Terry Pratchett||★★★★||2006|
|Night Watch (Discworld, #29; City Watch, #6)||Terry Pratchett||★★★★||2011|
|Hogfather (Discworld, #20; Death, #4)||Terry Pratchett||★★★★||2006|
|The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz, #1)||L. Frank Baum||★★★★||1995|
|The Picture of Dorian Gray||Oscar Wilde||★★★★||1998|
|2001: A Space Odyssey (Space Odyssey, #1)||Arthur C. Clarke||★★★★||2000|
|Lord of Light||Roger Zelazny||★★★★||2010|
|The Little Prince||Antoine de Saint-Exupéry||★★★★||2000|
|The Man-Kzin Wars (Man-Kzin Wars, #1)||Larry Niven||★★★★||2006|
|Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven||Larry Niven||★★★★||1981|
|The Gripping Hand||Larry Niven||★★★★||1994|
|The Mote in God’s Eye||Larry Niven||★★★★||2011|
|Mother Earth Mother Board||Neal Stephenson||★★★★||1996|
|The Big U||Neal Stephenson||★★★★||2001|
|The Hunt for Red October (Jack Ryan Universe, #4)||Tom Clancy||★★★★||1999|
|Tao of Jeet Kune Do||Bruce Lee||★★★★||1975|
|A Brief History of Time||Stephen Hawking||★★★★||1998|
|The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer||Neal Stephenson||★★★★||2000|
|The Instrumentality of Mankind (Instrumentality of Mankind)||Cordwainer Smith||★★★★||1979|
|The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature||Matt Ridley||★★★★||2003|
|Ender’s Shadow (Ender’s Shadow, #1)||Orson Scott Card||★★★★||2002|
|Quantum Psychology: How Brain Software Programs You & Your World||Robert Anton Wilson||★★★★||1993|
|Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy||Robert Anton Wilson||★★★★||2009|
|Animal Farm||George Orwell||★★★★||2003|
|The Poisonwood Bible||Barbara Kingsolver||★★★★||2005|
|A Clockwork Orange||Anthony Burgess||★★★★||1995||2014/11/27|
|Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values||Robert M. Pirsig||★★★★||2006|
|The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable||Nassim Nicholas Taleb||★★★★||2007|
|Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West||Cormac McCarthy||★★★★||1992|
|Oh, The Places You’ll Go!||Dr. Seuss||★★★★||1990|
|Mindfulness in Plain English||Henepola Gunaratana||★★★★||1996|
|Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae||Steven Pressfield||★★★★||2005|
|King Rat (Asian Saga, #1)||James Clavell||★★★★||2009|
|Noble House (Asian Saga, #4)||James Clavell||★★★★||1986|
|Tai-Pan (Asian Saga, #2)||James Clavell||★★★★||2009|
|Learning GNU Emacs||Debra Cameron||★★★★||2004|
|The Soul of a New Machine||Tracy Kidder||★★★★||2000|
|The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time, #5)||Robert Jordan||★★★★||1994|
|Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time, #6)||Robert Jordan||★★★★||1995|
|The Prince||Niccolò Machiavelli||★★★★||2003|
|The Origin of Species||Charles Darwin||★★★★||2004|
|Foundation (Foundation, #1)||Isaac Asimov||★★★★||2004|
|Stealing the Network: How to Own the Box||Ryan Russell||★★★★||2003|
|Feynman Lectures On Computation||Richard Feynman||★★★★||2000|
|The Book of Fantasy||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★||1988|
|Selected Poems||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★||2000|
|Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1)||Frederik Pohl||★★★★||2004|
|Tales from the Empire (Star Wars)||Peter Schweighofer||★★★★||1997|
|Flatterland: Like Flatland Only More So||Ian Stewart||★★★★||2002|
|The Dying Earth (The Dying Earth, #1)||Jack Vance||★★★★||1977|
|Tales from Jabba’s Palace (Star Wars)||Kevin J. Anderson||★★★★||1995|
|Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina (Star Wars)||Kevin J. Anderson||★★★★||1995|
|Tales of the Bounty Hunters (Star Wars)||Kevin J. Anderson||★★★★||1996|
|Champions of the Force (Star Wars: The Jedi Academy Trilogy, #3)||Kevin J. Anderson||★★★★||1994|
|Jedi Search (Star Wars: The Jedi Academy Trilogy, #1)||Kevin J. Anderson||★★★★||1994|
|Maker of Dune||Frank Herbert||★★★★||1987|
|Under Pressure||Frank Herbert||★★★★||1979|
|The Road to Dune (Dune Universe)||Frank Herbert||★★★★||2006|
|The Dosadi Experiment (ConSentiency Universe, #2)||Frank Herbert||★★★★||2002|
|God Emperor of Dune (Dune Chronicles, #4)||Frank Herbert||★★★★||2003|
|Frank Herbert (Twayne’s United States Authors, #532)||William F. Touponce||★★★★||1988|
|Prayers to Broken Stones||Dan Simmons||★★★★||1997|
|How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business||Douglas W. Hubbard||★★★★||2010|
|Consider the Lobster and Other Essays||David Foster Wallace||★★★★||2005|
|The City & the City||China Miéville||★★★★||2009|
|The Scar (Bas-Lag, #2)||China Miéville||★★★★||2004|
|The Hero of Ages (Mistborn, #3)||Brandon Sanderson||★★★★||2008|
|The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)||Brandon Sanderson||★★★★||2006|
|A Wild Sheep Chase (The Rat, #3)||Haruki Murakami||★★★★||2002||2008/08/15|
|Kafka on the Shore||Haruki Murakami||★★★★||2006|
|The Name of the Rose||Umberto Eco||★★★★||1994|
|Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell||Susanna Clarke||★★★★||2006|
|The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals||Michael Pollan||★★★★||2006|
|The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)||C.S. Lewis||★★★★||2005|
|I, Robot (Robot, #0.1)||Isaac Asimov||★★★★||2004|
|Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind||Hans Moravec||★★★★||2000|
|Brave New World||Aldous Huxley||★★★★||2008|
|Ubik||Philip K. Dick||★★★★||2004|
|Dragon Venom (Obsidian Chronicles, #3)||Lawrence Watt-Evans||★★★★||2004|
|The Dragon Society (Obsidian Chronicles, #2)||Lawrence Watt-Evans||★★★★||2003|
|Dragon Weather (Obsidian Chronicles, #1)||Lawrence Watt-Evans||★★★★||2000||2008/08/11|
|The Misenchanted Sword (Ethshar, #1)||Lawrence Watt-Evans||★★★★||2000|
|Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge||Paul Karl Feyerabend||★★★★||1993|
|The World of Parmenides||Karl Popper||★★★★||2001|
|Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion||David Sirlin||★★★★||2006|
|The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language||Steven Pinker||★★★★||2000|
|The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature||Steven Pinker||★★★★||2003|
|The Strategy of Conflict||Thomas C. Schelling||★★★★||1981|
|The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark||Carl Sagan||★★★★||1997|
|The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture||Jerome H. Barkow||★★★★||1995|
|Annals of Klepsis||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★||2001|
|The Fall of Rome||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★||1971|
|The Reefs of Earth||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★||1977|
|Okla Hannali||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★||1991|
|Nine Hundred Grandmothers||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★||1970|
|The Hobbit or There and Back Again||J.R.R. Tolkien||★★★★||1997|
|The Tao Is Silent||Raymond M. Smullyan||★★★★||1977|
|The Absolute Sandman, Volume Four||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||2008|
|The Absolute Sandman, Volume Three||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||2008||2008/06/26|
|The Sandman, Vol. 10: The Wake||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|The Sandman, Vol. 8: Worlds’ End||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|The Sandman, Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|Anansi Boys||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||2006|
|Lexicon Urthus: A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle||Michael Andre-Driussi||★★★★||2008|
|The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables & Reflections (The Sandman, #6)||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1990|
|The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1997|
|Soldier of the Mist||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1987|
|Epiphany of the Long Sun (The Book of the Long Sun, #3-4)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||2000|
|Litany of the Long Sun (The Book of the Long Sun, #1-2)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||2000|
|The Fifth Head of Cerberus||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1994|
|The Citadel of the Autarch (The Book of the New Sun #4)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1983|
|The Urth of the New Sun (The Book of the New Sun, #5)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1997|
|The Claw of the Conciliator (The Book of the New Sun #2)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1982|
|Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology||K. Eric Drexler||★★★★||1987|
|Introduction to Algorithms||Thomas H. Cormen||★★★★||2001|
|Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World||Kevin Kelly||★★★★||1995|
|Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity||Lawrence Lessig||★★★★||2005|
|Burning Chrome||William Gibson||★★★★||2003||2008/08/26|
|Consciousness Explained||Daniel C. Dennett||★★★★||1992|
|Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern||Douglas R. Hofstadter||★★★★||1996|
|The Meme Machine||Susan Blackmore||★★★★||2000|
|Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days||Jessica Livingston||★★★★||2007|
|Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution||Steven Levy||★★★★||2001|
|The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage||Clifford Stoll||★★★★||2005|
|All the Myriad Ways||Larry Niven||★★★★||1971|
|Blood Music||Greg Bear||★★★★||2005|
|Beggars in Spain (Sleepless, #1)||Nancy Kress||★★★★||2004|
|Look to Windward (Culture, #7)||Iain M. Banks||★★★★||2002|
|Infinity’s Shore (Uplift Storm Trilogy, #2)||David Brin||★★★★||1997|
|In the Ocean of Night (Galactic Center, #1)||Gregory Benford||★★★★||2004|
|Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (Heechee Saga, #2)||Frederik Pohl||★★★★||2000|
|Mission of Gravity (Mesklin, #1)||Hal Clement||★★★★||1953|
|The Rise of Endymion (Hyperion Cantos #4)||Dan Simmons||★★★★||1998|
|Green Mars (Mars Trilogy, #2)||Kim Stanley Robinson||★★★★||1995|
|The Uplift War (The Uplift Saga, #3)||David Brin||★★★★||1987|
|The Gap Into Power: A Dark and Hungry God Arises (Gap, #3)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||2009|
|Beggars and Choosers (Sleepless, #2)||Nancy Kress||★★★★||1996|
|Tea with the Black Dragon (Black Dragon, #1)||R.A. MacAvoy||★★★★||2001|
|The Sword of the Lictor (The Book of the New Sun #3)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1986|
|The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2)||Patrick Rothfuss||★★★★||2011||2016/07/18|
|Stone of Tears (Sword of Truth, #2)||Terry Goodkind||★★★★||1995|
|The Well of Ascension (Mistborn, #2)||Brandon Sanderson||★★★★||2007|
|Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo||Unknown||★★★★||1995|
|The Hobbit: Graphic Novel||J.R.R. Tolkien||★★★★||1990|
|The Dragon Reborn (Wheel of Time, #3)||Robert Jordan||★★★★||2002|
|Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter, #1)||J.K. Rowling||★★★★||2003|
|The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T.||Stewart Brand||★★★||1988||2010/01/01||Well-done bit of technological investigation & prognostication, now dated & historical. Enough time has passed since 1988 to enable us to judge the basic truthfulness of the predictions & expectations held by the dreamers such as Nicholas Negroponte: they were remarkably accurate!
If you aren’t struck by a sense of déjà vu or pity when you read this book, compare the people at the Media Lab with contemporary works like Cliff Stoll’s Silicon Snake Oil, & you’ll see how right they were.
The sad thing is noting how few future millionaires & billionaires grace the page of TML - one quickly realizes that yes, person X was 100% right about Y happening even when everyone thought it insane, but X was off by a few years & jumped the gun & so Z was the person who wound up taking all the spoils. I read it constantly thinking ‘yes, you were right, for all the good it did you’ or ‘not quite, it’d actually take another decade for that to really work out’.
“If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” The lesson I draw is: it is not enough to predict the future, one has to get the timing right to not be ruined. To borrow from my LW comments (1/2/3):
A good idea will draw overly-optimistic entrepreneurs to it like moths to a flame: all get immolated but the one with the dumb luck to kiss the flame at the perfect instant. (How many payment startup were there before Paypal? How many social networks before Facebook? How many search engines before Google?) How can you catch a falling knife?
Many ‘bubbles’ can be interpreted as people being 100% correct the future - but missing the timing (Thiel’s article on China & bubbles, The Economist on obscure property booms, Garber’s Famous First Bubbles). Consider the ill-fated Pets.com: was the investor right to believe that Americans would spend a ton of money online such as for buying dogfood? Absolutely, Amazon (which has rarely turned a profit & has sucked up far more investment than Pets.com ever did) is a successful online retail business that stocks thousands of dog food varieties, to say nothing of all the other pet-related goods it sells. But the value of Pets.com stock still went to ~$0. Many startups have a long list of failed predecessors who tried to do pretty much the same thing, & what made them a success was that they happened to give the pinata a whack at the exact moment where some cost curves or events hit the right point. (Facebook is the biggest archive of photographs there has ever been, with truly colossal storage requirements; could it have succeeded in the 1990s? No, & not even later, as demonstrated by Orkut & Friendster, & the lingering death of MySpace.) You can read books from the past about tech visionaries & note how many of them were spot-on in their beliefs about what would happen (The Media Lab is a great example, but far from the only one) but where a person would have been ill-advised to act on the correct forecasts. Or look at computers: imagine an early adopter of an Apple computer saying ‘everyone will use computers eventually!’ Yes, but not for another few decades, & ‘in the long run, we are all dead’.
Examples of this pop up all the time. I watched impressed recently as my aunt used the iPhone application FaceTime to videophone with her daughter half a continent away, & though about how people were disappointed by the failure of videophones in the ‘90s & previous & then concluded that perhaps people didn’t really want videophones at all - but really, it looks like the videophones back then simply weren’t good enough! & I’ve noticed geeks express wonderment at the Oculus Rift looking like it’ll bring Virtual Reality to the masses, & won’t that be a real kick in the teeth for Cliff Stoll or Jaron Lanier (who gave up VR for dead ages ago & has earned his daily bread being court jester to the elites & criticizing them)?
Smartphones are an even bigger example of this. How often did I read in the ’90s & early ’00s about how amazing Japanese cellphones were & how amazing a good smartphone would be, even though year after year the phones were jokes & used pretty much solely for voice? You can even see the smartphones come up again & again in TML, as the visionaries realize how transformative a mobile pocket-sized computer would be. Yet, it took until the mid-00s for the promise of smartphones to materialize overnight. I was reminded of this recently reading an interview with Eric Jackson:
Q: What’s your take on how they’re [Apple] handling their expansion into China, India, & other emerging markets?
Or to look at VR; a recent The Verge article on VR took a historical look back at past efforts, & what’s striking is that VR was arguably thought of back in the 1950s or so, more than half a century before the computing power or monitors were remotely close to what was needed for truly usable VR. The idea of VR was that obvious, it was that overdetermined, & so compelling that VR pioneers resemble nothing so much as moths to the flame, garnering grants in the hopes that this time things will improve. & of course, the money was largely wasted, because researchers can spend arbitrary amounts of money on topics without anything to show for it. Scott Fisher:
“I ended up doing more work in Japan than anything else because Japan in general is so tech-smitten & obsessed that they just love [VR]. The Japanese government in general was funding research, building huge research complexes just to focus on this. There were huge initiatives while there was nothing happening in the US. I ended up moving to Japan & working there for many years.”
Indeed, this would have around the Japanese boondoggle the Fifth Generation Project (note that despite Japan’s prowess at robotics, it is not Japan’s robots who went into Fukushima / flying around the Middle East / revolutionizing agriculture & construction). All those ’huge initiatives’ and…? Don’t ask Fisher, he’s hardly going to say, “yes, all the money was completely wasted, we were trying to do it too soon”. Researchers in general have no incentive to say, “this is not the right time, wait another 20 years for Moore’s law to make it doable”, even if everyone in the field is perfectly aware of this - Palmer Luckey:
“I spent a huge amount of time reading…I think that there were a lot of people that were giving VR too much credit, because they were working as VR researchers. You don’t want to publish a paper that says, ‘After the study, we came to the conclusion that VR is useless right now & that we should just not have a job for 20 years.’ There were a few people that basically came to that conclusion. They said, ‘Current VR gear is low field of view, high lag, too expensive, too heavy, can’t be driven properly from consumer-grade computers, or even professional-grade computers.’ It turned out that I wasn’t the first person to realize these problems. They’d been known for decades.”
And Lanier implies that Japan alone spent a lot of money:
Jaron Lanier: “The components have finally gotten cheap enough that we can start to talk about them as being accessible in the way that everybody’s always wanted…Moore’s law is so interesting because it’s not just the same components getting cheaper, but it really changes the way you do things. For instance, in the old days, in order to tell where your head was so that you could position virtual content to be standing still relative to you, we used to have to use some kind of external reference point, which might be magnetic, ultrasonic, or optical. These days you put some kind of camera on the head & look around in the room & it just calculates where you are - the headsets are self-sufficient instead of relying on an external reference infrastructure. That was inconceivable before because it would have been just so expensive to do that calculation. Moore’s law really just changes again & again, it re-factors your options in really subtle & interesting ways.”
Michael Wolfe offers some examples of this:
Thiel (Zero to One): “Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.”; this is precisely the opposite of reality: Bill Gates was not the first & only Gates, he was the last Gates; many people made huge fortunes off OSes, both before & after Gates - you may have forgotten Wang, but hopefully you remember Steve Jobs (before, Mac) & Steve Jobs (after, NeXt). Mark Zuckerberg was not the first & only Zuckerberg, he was the last Zuckerberg; many people made fortunes before him - maybe Orkut didn’t make its Google inventor a fortune, but you can bet that Myspace’s DeWolfe & Anderson did well. & there were plenty of lucrative search engine founders (is Jerry Yang a billionaire? Yes.)
Certainty is irrelevant, you still have problems making use of this knowledge. Example: in retrospect, we know everyone wanted computers, OSes, social networks - but the history of them is strewn with flaming rubble. Suppose you somehow knew in 2000 that “in 2010, the founder of the most successful social network will be worth at least $10b”; this is a falsifiable belief at odds with all conventional wisdom & about a tech that blindsided everyone. Yet, how useful would this knowledge be, really? What would you do with it? Do you have the capital to start a VC & throw multi-million-dollar investments at every social media until finally in 2010 you knew for sure that Facebook was the winning ticket & could cash out in the IPO? I doubt it.
It’s difficult to invest . There is no convenient CMPTR you can buy 100 shares of & hold indefinitely to capture gains from your optimism about computers. IBM & Apple both went nearly bankrupt at points, & Microsoft’s stock has been flat since 1999 or whenever (translating to huge real losses & opportunity costs to long-term holders of it). If you knew for certain that Facebook would be as huge as it was, what stocks, exactly, could you have invested in, pre-IPO, to capture gains from its growth? Remember, you don’t know anything else about the tech landscape in the 2000s, like that Google will go way up from its IPO, you don’t know about Apple’s revival under Jobs - all you know is that a social network will exist & will grow hugely. The best I can think of would be to sell any Murdoch stock you owned when you heard they were buying MySpace, but offhand I’m not sure that Murdoch didn’t just stagnate rather than drop as MySpace increasingly turned out to be a writeoff. In the hypothetical that you didn’t know the name of the company, you might’ve bought up a bunch of Google stock hoping that Orkut would be the winner, but while that would’ve been a decent investment (yay!) it would have had nothing to do with Orkut (awww!); illustrating the problem with highly illiquid markets in some areas…
And even when there are stocks available to buy, you only benefit based on the specifics - like one of the existing stocks being a winner, rather than all the stocks being eaten by some new startup. Let’s imagine a different scenario, where instead you were confident that home robotics were about to experience a huge growth spurt. Is this even nonpublic knowledge at all? The world economy grows at something like 2% a year, labor costs generally seem to go up, prices of computers & robotics usually falls… Do industry projections expect to grow their sales by <25% a year?
But say that the market is wrongly pessimistic. If so, you might spend some of your hypothetical money on whatever the best approximation to a robotics index fund you can find, as the best of a bunch of bad choices. (Checking a few random entries in Wikipedia, maybe a fifth of the companies are publicly traded, so… that will be a pretty small index.) Suppose the home robotic growth were concentrated in a single private company which exploded into the billions of annual revenue & took away the market share of all the others, forcing them to go bankrupt or merge or shrink. Home robotics will have increased just as you believed - keikaku doori! - yet your ‘index fund’ gone bankrupt (reindex when one of the robotics companies collapses? Reindex into what, another doomed firm?). Then after your special knowledge has become public knowledge, the robotics company goes public, & by EMH, their shares become a normal investment.
Morgan Housel: “There were 272 automobile companies in 1909. Through consolidation and failure, 3 emerged on top, 2 of which went bankrupt. Spotting a promising trend and a winning investment are two different things.”
(Is this impossibly rare? It sounds like Facebook! They grew fast, roflstomped other social networks, stayed private, & post-IPO, investors have not profited.)
Because of the winner-take-all dynamics, there’s no way to solve the coordination problem of holding off on an approach until the prerequisites are in place: entrepreneurs & founders will be hurling themselves at an obvious goal like social networks or VR constantly, just on the off chance that maybe the prerequisites just became adequate & they’ll be able to eat everyone’s lunch. A predictable waste of money, perhaps, but that’s how the incentives work out. The first person to try at the right time may win the lottery; Palmer Luckey (founder of Oculus, sold to Facebook for ~$2 billion):
“Here’s a secret: the thing stopping people from making good VR & solving these problems was not technical. Someone could have built the Rift in mid-to-late 2007 for a few thousand dollars, & they could have built it in mid-2008 for about $500. It’s just nobody was paying attention to that.”
(At the margin, compared to other competitors in the VR space, did Luckey & co really create $2b+ of new value? Or were they lucky in trying at the right time?)
It’s a weird perspective to take, but we can think of other technologies which may be like this.
Bitcoin is a topical example: it’s still in the early stages where it looks either like a genius stroke to invest in, or a fool’s paradise/Ponzi scheme. We see what looks like a bubble as the price inflates from ~$0 to $130 as I write this, which look like a bubble - yet, if Bitcoin were the Real Deal, we would expect large price increases as people learn of it & it directly gains value from increased use, an ecosystem slowly unlocking the fancy cryptographic features, etc.
Or take niche visionary technologies: if cryonics was correct in principal, yet turned out to be worthless for everyone doing it before 2030 (because the wrong perfusion techniques or cryopreservatives were used & some critical bit of biology was not vitrified) while practical post-2030 say, it would simply be yet another technology where visionaries were ultimately right despite all nay-saying & skepticism from normals but nevertheless wrong in a practical sense because they jumped on it too early, & so they wasted their money.
When a knife drops, a fraction of a second divides a brilliant save from an emergency-room visit. The ‘bleeding edge’.
|Pioneers of Soviet Computing||Boris Nikolaevich Malinovsky||★★★||2010||2014/07/06||(Review of 2010 online 2nd edition.)
Malinovsky (b1921) is a Russian/Ukrainian who began working on computers as a grad student in the 1950s in the USSR. His book is a mix of personal reminiscences, short biographies, primary documents & long quotations from memoirs, a diary contrasting ‘40s/’50s to his life in the ’90s after a heart problem sent him to the hospital, and in this American edition a preface explaining the circumstances of an online release & appendix containing a few academic reviews of the English-translation manuscript.
As such, it is unique. The early American development of computing has been covered well & in detail by works such as Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral, but Russian development is shrouded in obscurity. Before reading PoSS, about the only thing I knew about Soviet computing was that there wasn’t much of it & that they had tried an interesting experiment in not binary but trinary or ternary-based computers, the Setun. Any attempt to give an overview of the history is bound to be interesting. It also vividly conveys the oppression that they worked under: blacklisting of people for trivial reasons like having an unusual Greek surname, discouragement of Jews, stringent security checks (why? given that no one in the world cared), difficulty in acquiring parts, expensive production, opaque bureaucratic decision-making about what projects to fund & the consequence reliance on military sponsorship to cut through red tape… (but also some of the benefits, like spies & industrial espionage of American projects).
That said, the informativeness is limited by the chaotic organization of topics, bouncing from person to person. This book would have benefited a good deal from some graphs or timelines to help one keep things straight, especially as PoSS spends a lot of time on the many overlapping projects in the ’40s-’50s to develop varying flavors of computers. For example, I often found myself confusing Lebedev with other pioneers. (The confusing nondescriptness of many organizations’ names also didn’t help.) Malinovsky also deliberately limits the discussion to computer hardware, mentioning that “Beyond the scope of this book is the whole range of Soviet software developed during the Cold War and the distinguished scientists behind it, this including A.A. Lyapunov, M.R. Shura-Bura, A.P. Ershov, V.M. Kurochkin, E.L. Yuschenko, and others”; unfortunately, it is the software developments which would still be comprehensible & of interest to technical readers, whose eyes glaze over at the endless mentions of hardware details like one kind of semiconductor chip vs a slightly larger kind of semiconductor chip; worse, it is difficult to evaluate hardware achievements without information about the software which ran on it, since code & hardware are a continuum (anyone can design an ultra-fast computer which is a nightmare to write for; indeed, that has oft happened).
Paton writes “Lebedev suggested that his students prepare and publish materials about the formation and development of computer technology in the Soviet Union. ‘In the West, they consider us to be worse than we really are. We have to change their opinion of us’, he said. Unfortunately, his idea was not properly implemented at that time and only now has been embodied in this book.” Indeed… In his attempt, Malinovsky omits perspective/context & is biased, which overall render the book more a source for future historians writing a history of Soviet computing than a history itself. Malinovsky patriotically protests
…the establishment and development of computer technology in the USSR advanced in the post-war years virtually without any contact with the Western scientists. The development of computers abroad was conducted secretly because at first, digital electronic computers were designated for military purposes. At the same time, the computer technology in the USSR evolved independently as well, led by top Soviet scientists.
Despite repeated quotes how they would avidly study American publications for any available details! If he cannot say a Soviet computer is faster, then it used less parts, or was more reliable, or was built quicker, or a cluster of 76 (!) was faster than an American supercomputer… In the biographies, each & every pioneer is hardworking, kind, modest, attentive, & loyal, & how each created computers in breathtakingly short times & how every computer seemed to operate perfectly & be competitive with the fastest American machines, & how many superlatives each super pioneer deserved (backed up by endless mentions of awards that they received, or occasionally, didn’t receive due to bureaucratic sabotage). As the Abbate review notes, “Occasionally the prose takes on a heroic or patriotic tone that may be jarring to American readers (though quite common in its Russian/Ukrainian context).” More importantly, through the book Malinovsky damns following the IBM 360 paradigm rather than continuing domestic lines of development; the Slava review:
As a participant first-hand account, Malinovsky’s book is both valuable & problematic. Like any other personal account, it is prone to certain biases. When Malinovsky touches upon controversial topics, he often provides only one side of the story. For example, the rivalry between the two first Soviet large-size digital computer projects, the BESM & the STRELA, is narrated largely from the viewpoint of the BESM camp. A historian would have written a more balanced account. Other topics that may require a historiographic commentary include the wide introduction of automated control systems actively promoted by the director of the Institute of Cybernetics in Kiev Viktor Glushkov (many observers claimed that this campaign led to inefficiency & waste) or the controversy over the decision to build the Unified Series of Computers that supposedly “copied” IBM 360 (Malinovsky claims that this decision directly led to the “demise” of the Soviet computer industry). In both cases, Malinovsky covers one side of the story in great detail but gives little voice to Glushkov’s critics or to the supporters of the Unified Series, who claimed that Unified Series computers were no copies of IBM but were only software-compatible with IBM & had high performance characteristics. Anne Fitzpatrick’s explanatory comments are very helpful; & it would be very beneficial for the reader if she could also address controversial historiographic issues, either in the endnotes or in the Introduction.
Malinovsky never really justifies his claims, and one wonders. The IBM 360 was a landmark design, successful in the market for all sorts of purposes, and in general, the computing market has been unkind to any attempts to take alternate paths from the current leading contender (the Lisp machines being an example), as by doing so, one cuts oneself off from an entire world of innovation & Moore’s law. (Vigoda: “In practice replacing digital computers with an alternative computing paradigm is a risky proposition. Alternative computing architectures, such as parallel digital computers have not tended to be commercially viable, because Moore’s Law has consistently enabled conventional von Neumann architectures to render alternatives unnecessary. Besides Moore’s Law, digital computing also benefits from mature tools & expertise for optimizing performance at all levels of the system: process technology, fundamental circuits, layout & algorithms. Many engineers are simultaneously working to improve every aspect of digital technology, while alternative technologies like analog computing do not have the same kind of industry juggernaut pushing them forward.”) Isn’t it more likely that Soviet computing could have gone down a dead end & stagnated permanently?
Indeed, there are many signs that Soviet computing could easily have disappeared up its own navel. For example, the parts dealing with Glushkov’s grandiose plans to turn the Soviet economy into a centrally-computer-planned cybernetic program by the 1970s - this sounds like complete idiocy to the modern mind, aware of the full complexity of a modern economy & how inefficient Soviet management was & how centralization inevitably fails & of the incredible computing power needed to efficiently run even a small chunk of the economy like Walmart or Amazon - & yet Malinovsky, even after the fall of the USSR & complete discrediting of centralized economies, seems to think it was a great idea killed by politicians & could have saved the USSR & Glushkov was a prophet rather than a dreamer! It’s no surprise that the politicians were not eager to spend 20 billion rubles on a plan with no guarantee of working. And even has the chutzpah to claim “And now a huge information network - the Internet - is stretching across the Commonwealth of Newly Independent States and around the world, fulfilling Viktor Mikhailovich’s dreams and predictions of forty years ago.” The Glushkov sections also exemplify Malinovsky’s willingness to claim credit for Soviet software achievements but not discuss any of the details, many of which sound like awful ideas or meaningless, leading one to wonder if he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about or just is bad at describing them eg he quotes Glushkov as writing:
What was the difference between Mir & other computers? We considerably upgraded the machine language. However, back then the popular point of view was that machine language must be as simple as possible & the rest would be done by software. We were even mocked for our efforts to develop different computers. The majority of computer scientists in the world believed that it was necessary to develop computer-aided programming, that is, to create software that would help produce other programs.
Yes, that was the popular view then & still is, because it’s right. RISC is still the dominant view of Western computer scientists as baroque CISC architectures are always left in the dust. Glushkov was dead-wrong, but no mention is made of this. Or,
In designing the Mir machines, we had tackled a daring problem - to match the machine language as close as possible to the human language, and here I mean mathematical nonverbal language, though later we made attempts with normal human language. So, we created ‘Analytic,’ a special mathematical language, supported by an internal interpretation system. Mir computers were used in all regions of the Soviet Union. Their creation became an intermediate stage in research aimed at the development of artificial intelligence, since the intelligence realized in them was still fairly primitive. It also looked very impressive when a machine quickly solved independent and dependent integrals, while not many professors of mathematics were able to solve them. In addition, the machine found substitutions, not just the easy ones from tables, but the difficult ones as well…the Mir computer family was quickly developed and put into serial production, receiving high marks from its users. Its creation was a giant step in the development of artificial intelligence in small computers.
In what sense? Solving integrals isn’t much of an accomplishment. What does it mean to “match the machine language as close as possible to the human language”? I’m not aware of any important work in AI stemming from USSR research. Or:
Glushkov proposed a macro-conveyer principle based on the idea that each processor was given a separate task during every step of the computing process, which allowed it to work independently for a long time without the interference from other processors. In 1959, at the Soviet All-Union Conference on Computer Technology in Kiev, Glushkov spoke about the idea of a brain-like computer structure that could be realized when the designers were able to integrate not thousands, but billions of elements with practically limitless connections between them, into a single system. There would also be a confluence of memory and data processing, a system in which data would be processed throughout the memory with a highest possible degree of parallelism in all operations…only the development of new non-Von Neumann computer architecture…would solve the problem of creating a supercomputer with unlimited growth in productivity and progressively more sophisticated hardware. Unfortunately, further research showed that a comprehensive realization of the construction principles of recursive computers and brain-like structures was beyond the level of electronic technology at that time.
Despite being a programmer interested in AI, I have no idea what any of it means. This culminates in idiotic boasting: “Unfortunately, the potential of the Mir computer line was never fully realized. During my 1979 presentation in Novosibirsk on the integration of artificial intelligence into computers, I heard the academician Andrei Ershov criticize the Institute of Cybernetics by saying: ‘If you had not stopped upgrading the Mir family, the USSR would have had the best personal computers in the world.’” No, there was 0 chance. Not in a system as pathological/impoverished/repressed as the USSR was - there were no opportunities for the economies of scale which power microchip development, & if there had, PCs would never have been allowed outside of a few restricted roles. The whole point of the PC revolution in America was that anyone, including little kids who would grow up to be great programmers & entrepreneurs, could access cheap unrestricted computing power for the most trivial of reasons & create whatever they wanted to without friction.
Nor was Glushkov alone. No matter how much dead, he’ll still hold out hope that a dead end is not a dead end. “To this day, Brusentsov maintains that the trinary system is superior to binary, but only time will be able to tell whether or not he is correct” - how long should we wait, exactly? Or from the Setun article, we read that its programming language, DSSP, “was not invented. It was found. That is why DSSP has not versions, but only extensions. Forth is created by practice. DSSP is created by theory. It is not a word.” This is pathological linguistic mysticism, one of the delusions of the 20th century - the idea that language is terribly important & that a better purer language would unlock wasted powers & enable undreamed-of productivity. If we could invent a more logical & compact language, if we could strip out the illusions built into language, if we could come up with a better one, we would solve AI / create world peace / become geniuses etc. What’s the stock trope for becoming superintelligent in 20th century SF? Your own language in which you can convey concepts more efficiently & fast; we see this in Heinlein’s Speedtalk, Anderson’s Brain Wave, even Chiang in (and anything to do with that nebulous cluster of Californian stuff called ), or enthusiasm for conlangs like Loglan/Lojban… it’s why Russian fascists intently studying Ithkuil feel like such an anachronism. It is the fallacy that strong Sapir-Whorf is correct, that languages powerfully shape thoughts rather than channel trivialities like color-name choices. The truth is that specialized languages & notations are indeed powerful, but they always succeed innovation & insight, not precede it: they codify powerful insights & choices, & can only be created after having had the insight they embody. to design a language before the powerful ideas it embodies is to put the cart before the horse. To go from Leibnizian calculus notation to say ‘Lojban will make your life more awesome’ is to ignore the specialization that gave the notation power. There are no general powerful insights you can embody in a language to turn its users into geniuses, although you can take the insights of past geniuses in statistics & design a specialized statistics language which is far better than ordinary language. Learning Ithkuil won’t give you access to any ideas or heuristics you didn’t have before, because natural language is already general & flexible. (Would Newspeak actually work? Consider Gene Wolfe’s counter-example, “Loyal to the Group of Seventeen’s Story - The Just Man” or the Darmoks of Star Trek).
The politics of Soviet computing are interesting. There remains a great deal of lingering guilt & doubt around the Manhattan Project - whether it was really a good thing. scientists working on the SDI missile defense program are even more prickly about whether their work was harmful in destabilizing the precarious peace. One wonders about Russian counterparts: did they regret endeavoring mightily to put atomic bombs in the hands of a psychopath like Stalin? Or assisting bomb & ICBM development to ensure that all of humanity would live under a Damoclean sword? Or how about the environmental consequences, far from limited to Chernobyl. But there is no such doubt in the people Malinovsky quotes: “In retrospect, the rush was justified: possession of such missiles gave our country weapons parity with the United States.”; ‘Once, one of Sergei Alexeevich’s daughters asked him: “Why do you make computers for the military?” He replied: “To avoid a war.”’; etc. Indeed, the worse the USSR treated its researchers, the more loyal & devoted they seemed to become. For example, Rameev saw his grandfather expropriated, his father fatally purged under Stalin & his great invention stolen from him, & Rameev’s conclusion? “a stern voice warned him: ‘Live quietly & don’t contact us ever again!’ At that moment, Rameev understood that he had to do something unusual, outstanding, & very important for his people & nation in order to give his life meaning.” Is that so? Or in the story of the researcher Akushsky who was threatened with summary execution because a plane went down, & who cleverly saves himself by proving it was the pilots’ fault; very amusing, & chilling. Malinovsky blandly remarks at one point, “Things did not go smoothly at first because some Communist leaders overseeing the project remembered that Kisunko was the son of a repressed kulak.”
|A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History||Nicholas Wade||★★★||2014||2014/09/24||Wade’s book is a short fairly breezy overview of population genetics, combined with some long overviews of a few previous works speculating on possible grand historical evolutionary changes in human groups like the Jews. Because he takes seriously all the genetics research, unsurprisingly it’s controversial.
I was waiting eagerly for it to come out to see whether Wade had put together a synthesis for the layman of all the extraordinary research which has been done over the past 20 years and summarized the flood of genetics research which has been unleashed by the crashing price of genome sequencing. I was disappointed. Wade’s book will convince no one: he hits a few highlights, but omits anything like comprehensive coverage of the theoretical and empirical grounds for accepting the laws of behavioral genetics (everything is partially heritable & usually highly polygenic, the effects of shared environment like family socioeconomic status is weak, and the rest of variance is unpredictable noise). All such a short overview can do is inflame the debate, when what is needed is to end it.
Wade doesn’t describe a century of consistent results from twin studies (it’s remarkable that he could write such a book without, as far as I could tell, mentioning Plomin even once!), the missing heritability’s problem resolution by GCTA as due to traits being highly polygenic & affected by rare variants, doesn’t describe the successes of GWAS (for example, to borrow one out-of-date tabulation we now have 23% of Alzheimer’s, 3% bipolar, 13% breast cancer, 25% CAD, 13% Crohn’s disease, 31% prostate cancer, 13% lupus, 14/28% type I/II diabetes; and schizophrenia seem to have recently yielded a bit), and in some cases dramatically understates the state of the art - he confidently predicts that as far as linking genes with intelligence, “that is unlikely to happen anytime soon”, because “each of which [genes] has too small an effect to be detectable with present methods”, citing a well-known paper on the failure of early hits due to small sample sizes, except that at the estimated effect sizes, with reachable sample sizes like 100k SNP samples, the hits were predicted to be detected, and indeed, before A Troublesome Inheritance was even published, the first hits came out and have been replicating well (see Rietveld et al 2013, Rietveld et al 2014, Ward et al 2014, Zhu et al 2015). Another passage I noted with a raised eyebrow argues that a change in a population’s mean of a trait is unimportant since it would be relatively small, which is wrong since that could have a profound impact on the tails of how many members of that population are extremely high or extremely low on that trait, which is something he acknowledges in a later chapter on Jewish intelligence - that their somewhat higher mean intelligence than the surrounding goyim would explain their enormous overrepresentation among geniuses and other elites. When I look through just some of my reading on related subjects over the past year, I find hardly any of it covered:
…Well, I could continue listing fascinating recent research for a while, let’s say. I don’t think Wade does a good job conveying the ferment and output of the field as increasing sample sizes and sophistication are making headway. (I felt it was out of date and not conveying the comprehensiveness of the genetic revolution when I read it in 2014; rereading this review in 2016, I feel this even more strongly.)
And it’s not like he’s omitting the cutting-edge research in favor of a detailed discussion for the layman of what genes are, what terms like “SNPs” or “haplotypes” are, what’s the distinction between your \$99 23andMe purchase and the \$1000 thing you might otherwise buy, the principles of population genetics like drift, fixation, IQ etc - actually, quite the opposite, he freely talks about variants and genes and only chapters later explains his terms, if at all.
So what is the book about if he isn’t covering those topics? Well, for the most part it seems to be a summary of The 10,000 Year Explosion, Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, Clark’s Farewell to Alms & The Son Also Rises, Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order, Botticini & Eckstein’s The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, and Cochran’s Ashkenazi intelligence hypothesis. Wade is interested in the possible different selective pressures on each population as they co-evolve with their institutions and environment, sometimes tending towards domestication, sometimes not. His presentation is not terrible, but I think most readers would be better off simply reading the source books (I have read most of them and they are worth reading in their entirety).
|The Recollections Of Eugene P. Wigner: As Told To Andrew Szanton||Eugene Paul Wigner||★★★||2003||2016/03/17||Oral-memoir/autobiography of Hungarian physicist-chemist Eugene Wigner. Wigner is not a name even people interested in the Cold War or the nuclear bomb will be all that familiar with (except it might ring a bell as Wigner’s friend or his famous essay “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”), but turns out to almost be a Zelig or Forrest Gump: he was one of the ‘Martians’, who went to school with von Neumann himself and worked with him on a number of things, was a lifelong close friend of Szilard, spent years in Göttingen with the famed German physics community which was creating quantum mechanics (experiencing a good deal of pushback in getting them to use group theory, an area of mathematics absolutely integral to modern physics now), got to America well before WWII, provided the Chianti wine drunk at Fermi’s splitting the atom, was a major mover in getting Einstein to write the letter that led to the Manhattan Project, and played his own role in designing nuclear reactors and producing plutonium - all this before winning a Nobel prize. Wigner protests repeatedly in the book that he is uninterested in fame or credit, and while one might think that the lady doth protest too much, one has to admit that for someone who was involved in so much and was a Nobelist, his name is known far below that of other Nobelists at the time like Feynman.
This genuine inconspicuousness carries over to the rest of the book: he seems so humble and sober that I was surprised to see that he was such an ultra-hawk that his main regret about the atomic bomb was that he had not been able to get it created even earlier so it could be used against Germany, and how he sees Hitlers & Stalins around every corner (one cannot doubt that if Wigner had not died in 1995, he would surely describe Putin and Donald Trump as future Stalins/Hitlers, and would be upset about anyone asking for his fingerprints). Wigner is more concerned with describing the great men he worked with like von Neumann or Einstein or Teller or Szilard and often defending them against criticism. (This does not always work; he has difficulty describing what he liked about Szilard in more than the extremely vague description of him being interesting, and is much more specific about Szilard’s failings, so one is likely to come away with a worse impression of Szilard than one came in with, and the defenses of Teller are equally unconvincing.) This is the source of several interesting descriptions of von Neumann by one of his fellow Hungarians who knew him best. (Quotes from this memoir on Steve Hsu’s blog about von Neumann were what convinced me to give the memoir a read.)
The descriptions of Hungary and Germany pre-WWII are also of interest as they offer another demonstration of what I’ve noted in my reviews of Mathematical People and COPSS: WWII represented a paradigm shift in science & technology, in which the tiny English/French/German European monastic world of academia (young Wigner tells his father he wants to be a physicist; how many jobs are there for physicists in Hungary?, he asks; 4, Wigner says, lying - it’s actually 3) is shattered, all of the great minds exiled to the USA or USSR, the global tongue switched to English, positions growing exponentially as universities pop up like mushrooms with exploding student body counts, and giant troughs of military money funneling compromising cash into coffers, scientists now a critical weapon in fighting the Cold War and a path to power & plenitude for the pushy & pleonexic. Some of the observations are interesting: for all that Jews have a ‘culture of learning’, it’s difficult how to see this explaining Wigner or von Neumann, neither of whom were religious Jews and Wigner so ignorant of whether his father was Jewish he spends several paragraphs speculating on the matter; Wigner notes that in the 1920s, Germany was seen as a safe-haven for Jews against the actual and potential Communist revolutions in Eastern Europe like the first brief Communist dictatorship over Hungary; that English physicists were looked down upon and papers written in English second-class before WWII; that while American high schools prepared high-caliber students poorly compared to the Hungarian high schools he went to, the American population was so large he still encountered many more prodigies in America (often a theme of European expatriate memoirs: educating their American replacements).
Some of the expression is stiff (I can’t forget how he expresses horror at the 1960s, noting that “Most young people in the United States seemed deeply restless. Many of them were ingesting powerful hallucinogens. Much of daily conversation was political, and people of all ages seemed highly agitated.” Martians indeed), but there are memorable parts:
This memoir omits most of the details of my personal life: just how I became fond of my wife or quarreled with my sisters. These are the things of diaries, a form that seems to me far inferior to the memoir. Diaries seem too often to only trace the patterns of the diarist’s unhappiness.
…Once I asked my father, “Why are people so attached to money?” He responded simply, “Because of the power and influence it gives them.” I disliked this bit of cynicism and told him so. It was years before I saw that he was largely right: The human desires for power and influence are very deep and strong. I learned a great deal from my father which I failed to fully credit at the time. These talks with my father led me to wonder, “Why am I on this earth? What do I want to achieve?” I felt my purpose should be to marry, to begin my own family, and to provide this family with a proper home and nourishment. Today, these things come far more easily and many youths no longer know what to strive for. Many of them see power and influence as the only valid goal. But in 1919, providing a home and nourishment was a valid purpose.
…Both his knowledge and his desire to relate it seemed inexhaustible. Most people walk straight home, already thinking of what they will do when they arrive. Not Jancsi [John von Neumann]. One got home late after a walk with him.
…Pernicious anemia was then not considered curable. So Hilbert suddenly seemed quite old. He was only about 65, which seems rather young to me now. But life no longer much interested him. I knew very well that old age comes eventually to everyone who survives his stay on this earth. For some people, it is a time of ripe reflection, and I had often envied old men their position. But Hilbert had aged with awful speed, and the prematurity of his decline took the glow from it. His breadth of interest was nearly gone and with it the engaging manner that had earned him so many disciples. Hilbert eventually got medical treatment for his anemia and managed to live until 1943. But he was hardly a scientist after 1925, and certainly not a Hilbert. I once explained some new theorem to him. As soon as he saw that its use was limited, he said, “Ah, then one doesn’t really have to learn this one.” It was painfully clear that he did not want to learn it.
…One day, I was lying on the grass near the Göttingen municipal swimming pool. Beside me sat the German astronomer Heckman. Suddenly, Heckman saw a lot of red ants crawling on one of my legs. He was surprised that I permitted this and asked did they not bite? When I answered that yes they did bite, Heckman asked why I did not kill them. “Well,” I said, “I can’t tell which ones are doing the biting.”
…When I first entered physics in 1921, people used to smile when I said I was a physicist. They saw my profession as the harmless pursuit of complex irrelevancies. Now they had stopped smiling. I had some pride, and I liked that. But I was one of many scientists who also looked back fondly to the days when science had been a monastic calling. One scientist wrote a song that expressed our feeling well: “Take Back Your Billion Dollars” [“Take Away Your Billion Dollars”, Arthur Roberts]. All of this money had brought bureaucracy and taken some of the pleasure from the practice of science. Modern physics was also disturbingly specialized. Specialization is productive; I clean the house much less well than my wife, so she cleans the house while I practice science. Scientists who specialize can pay closer attention to their work and better master it.
Ultimately, it is a good but not great autobiography of a fairly interesting life of a minor figure of the Cold War; if one is not already familiar with and interested with figures like Feynman and von Neumann, there are probably more rewarding books for one to read.
|Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation||Tyler Cowen||★★★||2013||2016/07/24||Followup to The Great Stagnation, AiO takes the same format awkwardly straddling the territory between overgrown Marginal Revolution blog posts and full-length books (AiO can easily be read in an afternoon and could be edited down further without much loss). AiO rehearses some of the background of TGS like the stagnation in median incomes and wretched income growth for most educational brackets. Americans, in 2013 and 2016, feel tremendously insecure; the absolute standard of living may be higher than before, but an iPhone doesn’t pay the bills, and YouTube doesn’t replace having a sense of self-respect or a stable job.
The Autor ‘wage polarization’ thesis argues this is due to the economy splitting between garbage jobs paying low-wage for unskilled but currently un-automatable jobs, and highly skilled and productive jobs, which benefit from globalization & technology. The unskilled and automatable jobs have been increasingly eaten by outsourcing to China or by technology (Cowen cites robotized factories, Netflix, dating sites, crime-predictive software for policing; he is skeptical in chapter 9 that outsourcing is the majority contributor to American trends). For the latter, technology & capital ‘complement’ the highly skilled, enabling them to produce ever more value (which is where their increasing salaries are coming from). This leads to some fairly dire forecasts: the banana republicization of America, with a self-regarding meritocratic class of wealthy white-collar workers continually concentrating into the metropoles and wealthy suburbs with their servants, leaving in the hinterlands the working poor, and the nonworking poor.
What is this complementation that robots or AIs help with? Financial trading and investment, technology tasks like enabling a Google-scale titan to run without collapsing instantly, drone strikes and organizing interrogation & imagery to decide who to drone strike, or just in general management to efficiently organize and run all the highly-paid specialists and keep them on track towards goals. More ordinary people get shut out; they cause too many problems, there’s too much overhead and inefficiency in trying to use them, they hold up deadlines or spit in the food & post the video to Facebook. Such zero-marginal product workers can’t be usefully used by specialists. Cowen finds himself perplexed to how he would use a person to help him even at a wage of $0:
As a professor, I am given a research assistant each year. Over the last twenty or so years, I have received some extraordinary assistance from some very good workers, students, and eventually, peers and coauthors.
(As AiO is fairly light on citation and referencing for a book advancing such broad theses, I think maybe Cowen should try to figure out how to manage more than one research assistant.)
Cowen’s central case-study of this complementation is chess, and Advanced Chess in particular: a human playing chess with the assistance of grandmaster-level (and not long after its founding, super-grandmaster level) chess AIs, which began in 1998 at Kasparov’s proposal. Cowen is an avid chess player, and these parts of the book are by far the best part of it. He describes the rapid progress of chess AIs after Deep Blue and the consequences for human chess playing of the availability of superhuman chess AIs. The chess AIs can see so far past the humans that Cowen, watching two play each other in a match and able to see each’s evaluation of their winning chances by using his own chess AI to follow along, became certain that Stockfish would lose despite the evaluations insisting it would win, because Stockfish was in just too horrible a position; but as the inhuman moves pass, suddenly a Stockfish win started to look not so implausible, and by the end, Cowen could confirm with his own AI that the evaluations from almost 30 moves before were correct. Cowen notes that even grandmasters have difficulty understanding, after the fact, the moves that the chess AI play and why they work despite being apparently insanely risky and chaotic - paradoxically, though the best chess ever played is being played now in computer chess tournaments and chess AIs are arguably approaching perfection, humans have hardly any interest in playing, watching, commentating, or analyzing those games! Optimal chess moves, apparently, often strike benighted humans as ugly and risky, for all that they are the correct moves. (One thinks of what the Go players said about some of AlphaGo’s moves during the Lee Sedol match.) What do ‘AI moves’ look like in life, or dating, or business negotiation, Cowen wonders? It might look like matching up people who are apparently antagonistic like conservative men and liberal women, but who might work out well anyway (Cowen cites one Match.com demonstration of a black/white couple where each violated the other’s ‘requirements’ for a match but they married anyway, and his own marriage through a dating site to a liberal women.)
However, as astoundingly excellent as chess AIs playing each other are, as of Cowen’s experience before the 2013 publication, a few humans are able to provide some sort of edge, overriding the chess AI to make a better move, and win. Oddly, this does not apparently require one to be a grandmaster or even a master chess player, but some sort of instinctive mechanical sympathy based on having an idea of where the chess AI is ‘weak’ and watching the evaluations in realtime (along with better preparation like gathering large chess game databases); indeed, being a GM may be a liability, as at least two GMs, Nakamura & Naroditsky, appear to have harmed or at least not helped their chess AIs with their lack of deep humility. (As chess AIs show, GMs arguably make mistakes on almost half of their moves.)
Cowen (as well as some other authors in 2013 like Clive Thompson) takes Advanced Chess as an optimistic paradigm for technological changes: it need not lead to unemployment if people can learn the skills which render them complements to new technology, instead of being substituted. One of his primary solutions is MOOCs and online education. I’m not sure MOOCs are so positively regarded in 2016 as they were in 2013. And like most authors who present education as a nostrum Cowen also doesn’t explain why we would expect more education to solve anything when the existing steep education/income penalties/correlations have not managed to motivate the general population. Computerized education has been great for chess education, certainly, with grandmasters minted ever younger; but that didn’t reverse Deep Blue’s victory.
I think Cowen knows that MOOCs and other band-aids aren’t going to reverse these trends, and the Advanced Chess example is telling: very few people can contribute to Advanced Chess, and the very best Advanced Chess players are adding ~100 Elo points, or a few % towards victory. 100 Elo points is not much. It’s about as much as chess AIs improve in 2 years. At what point will Advanced Chess stop ‘being a thing’ as the chess AIs will have become so good that Advanced Chess players can no longer make a discernible positive contribution? Oddly, I’m having a very hard time figuring that out. Advanced Chess is not mentioned much online after 2013. Some extrapolating suggests that Advanced Chess may already have become moot in 2013, and if not then, is probably finished by 2016; so at the most generous, Advanced Chess could be said to have only existed 1998-2016 (so 18 years, hardly enough time for a kid to grow up), and then only for the tiniest fraction of the population.
So he finishes up pessimistically with forecasts of current trends: the American governments, federal/state/local, are going to face the anvil of healthcare inflation and unfunded Medicaid/Social Security promises. These programs are politically untouchable because old people know what side their bread is buttered on, so they will paid out, one way or another. Which will involve systematic rises in taxation and decreases in services. What does the lower half of the polarized economy do to cope with this? They will have to flee to jurisdictions with smaller governments and less taxation and less goldbrick regulation of housing jacking up rents, however unpleasant such places are, like Texas (but which nevertheless has constant inflow of migration, compared to California). American standards of living will decrease: beef burgers will be replaced with bean burritos, houses will downsize. Alternately, this inevitability of lower incomes could be embraced and deregulation and reductions done deliberately rather than implicitly: “In essence, we would be recreating a Mexico-like or Brazil-like environment in part of the United States, although with some technological add-ons and most likely with greater safety.” This constriction won’t be as bad as it may sound. Just as most healthcare expenditures in the USA are wasted so getting health insurance doesn’t make much of a difference to health, many Americans (rich or poor) have extravagant spending habits (consider who buys all those lottery tickets and tobacco): “The bad news is that there is a lot of waste in American consumption-massive amounts of waste, in fact. Everyone has their favorite story about what the other guy spends his money on and could do without. But also the good news, oddly enough, is that there is a lot of waste in American consumption. Citizens faced with financial pressures will shift into cheaper consumption, and a lot of them will do so without losing very much happiness or value, precisely because there is already so much waste in what they buy.” I could hardly disagree. If I had a buck for every boat or in-ground pool I’ve seen people pay a fortune for and then never use, or use once a year, I could buy a bundle of burritos; or not take even a few seconds to shop around online; and one can go to Walmart and simply watch people shop as they buy the smallest unit grocery (despite having a large family or it being something which never goes bad), or buy a brand-name food which tastes exactly the same as the generic but costs 50% more, or buy food they’ll let rot before they can be bothered to eat it… (Nor do I exempt my relatives from this criticism.)
In this section Tyler also says something that particularly amused me in this election season: “Most American voters are fairly moderate, disillusioned with both political parties, and looking for someone who can fill the proverbial niche of”getting something done," or “unifying the nation.” Those are not the kind of attitudes that make for a revolutionary future." (A craving for strongmen like Mussolini is not revolutionary?)
So what does that leave us? A weak diagnostic followup to TGS. One of the longest and most interesting writeups of Advanced Chess around. Some vague speculation about specifics of software/AI improvements to other sectors of the economy, badly handicapped by being written in 2013 (hopefully Cowen could do a much better job now). Some weak solutions or bandaids like MOOCs. And a reasonable but pessimistic extrapolation. Overall, not particularly worth reading unless you are interested in chess.
|New Legends||Greg Bear||★★★||1996||2013/12/04||New Legends is an anthology of SF stories picked by Bear with an eye toward the psychological & personal lives of scientists/researchers. I purchased a copy of it to look at the novella “Radiance” by Carter Scholz and compare it with the full novel Radiance for the annotated ebook of Radiance I have been working on for a while. That will be its own review, so I will pass over it for now. An unexpected bonus for me was Gregory Benford’s contribution: not a story, but an autobiographical essay “Old Legends” on the real-life background to “Radiance” that he lived through, discussing his physics career, time at LLNL (where “Radiance” is set), experiences with other SF authors in the Reagan-era lobbying for SDI/Star Wars, the Cartmill incident, his admiration of Edward Teller, etc. Scholz clearly drew on Benford for his novella, and so it was unusually interesting for me.
The collection overall is good, but not great. A number of the stories are too clearly the product of early ‘90s anxious liberalism and have not aged well since they were written in 1993 or earlier (~20 years ago), some are half-baked, and some are just bad. A few are very good. They are grouped into thematic sections. To go through them in order (there are many spoilers below):
|Perseverance island: or, The Robinson Crusoe of the nineteenth century||Douglas Frazar||★★★||0||2014/12/13||(130k words; 2h) I read the Project Gutenberg HTML edition with illustrations.
An obscure Robinsonade proper, I was recommended it when a reader mentioned it as a counterpoint to my complaint that in Robinson Cruse, Crusoe is furnished with almost an entire ship of supplies and an island of abundance. Indeed, the preface of PI runs
In all works of the Robinson Crusoe type, the wreck is always near at hand, the powder dry and preserved, and the days for rafting the same ashore calm and pleasant. This unfortunate had no such accessories; and his story proves the limitless ingenuity and invention of man, and portrays the works and achievements of a castaway, who, thrown ashore almost literally naked upon a desert isle, is able by the use of his brains, the skill of his hands, and a practical knowledge of the common arts and sciences, to far surpass the achievements of all his predecessors, and to surround himself with implements of power and science utterly beyond the reach of his prototype, who had his wreck as a reservoir from which to draw his munitions.
This sounded promising. While detailed how-tos and manuals can be crushingly boring, a good narrative can weave them in and be both educational & interesting. (Neal Stephenson manages this sometimes.)
It starts off sensibly enough, with the expected disaster as part of a sequence of gradually worsening events that eventually strands him on an unknown island. Our protagonist is part of a colonization mission, but don’t worry, he doesn’t get a colony’s worth of equipment dumped on him: just his clothes, a few books, and an anchor. This seems like a good start.
It’s surprising when he manufactures nails out of his shoes, but boots did use to have nails in them and it’s clever, so no foul there. He immediately secures his priorities of food and water, perhaps in a little more baroque fashion than expected (I didn’t really follow the pipe set up), and then he makes a… “lamp-tower”. No, not for signaling passing ships. Just so he doesn’t have to rekindle fire with his flint and nails. And the lamps are powered by oil. (The oil is from the livers of sharks he spears. Of course?) This is the first sign of trouble with the narrative. The second sign comes when instead of immediately exploring the island like any sane person would, days pass as he is made to refine his landing spot and create a dwelling and begin manufacturing tools and planting seeds. …OK?
He explores the island and finds an absurd number of resources. Besides the sharks and turtles he’s feasted on, he finds wild goats (and why haven’t they denuded the island?) and even more: “Wild goats, quail, tortoise, tobacco, wild ducks, trout, sweet potatoes, mussels…Find coal and sulphur, seals, more turtles, gulls, etc.” I’m not sure what sort of tropical island yields all that and coal and sulphur. But wait, there’s more: there’s also saltpetre, iron, pearl oysters, gold mines, penguins, and sea serpents! And that’s not even covering all the stuff he makes; he apparently is some sort of superhuman genius master of all trades who can make anything on the first try without ever injuring himself. Mithridates over on Amazon puts it well:
The book does not live up to this vaulted goal - but rather dissolves into utter ridiculous and pathetic shows of limitless (and impossible) manifestations of human ingenuity (or rather magical conjuring experiments of every necessary mineral, metal, technology). These progression of these chapter subject headings illustrates my point -Hat Making, Knife Hammer and Spear, Discovery of Coal, Discovery of Sulphur, Steel, Cement, Iron, Astrolabe, Rifles, Submarine (Goat Powered), Steam Yacht, and eventually Chess and Backgammon (With a Goat). I understand that this is a ‘realistic’ form of fantasy writing but there are extremes to the ingenuity of man and the availability of an island with all the resources of the world. So is Frazar actually exploring the ingenuity of man? Or rather what man could do in a fantasy world? Anyone can do anything in a fantasy world… But that said, I suppose the genre had been relatively sucked dry by his illustrious predecessors - Verne and Defoe - and showing the humanity of goats was Frazar’s cherished original idea.
(One wonders what Frazar would have made of I am a Pencil…) If Frazar had dropped half of the elements and contented himself with just one of the peak technologies (steam boat would have made the most sense, although I think readers would still object at the idea of a desert island with both coal and iron reserves), the realism might have been preserved. But as it is? It’s ridiculous as any semblance of a realistic narrative. A castaway would have made a lighthouse on the bluffs of the island, and then been busied with maintenance of his food supplies, clothing, and shelter, lacking much practical experience in primitive methods of maintenance, resources, tools, economies of scale or the benefits of specialization. He would not accomplish 1/100th of what the protagonist supposedly does on his own in a decade or so. I must defend the honor of the goats, however: the narrator is perfectly clear the goats do not actually play chess or backgammon, and he has merely trained them to shake dice - which seems well within their capabilities.
Reading through the rhetoric, what I think this is supposed to be is a veiled metaphor of mankind, and particularly 1800s England and America. For example, these passages together very much sound like a progressive manifest destiny:
…portrays the works and achievements of a castaway, who, thrown ashore almost literally naked upon a desert isle, is able by the use of his brains, the skill of his hands, and a practical knowledge of the common arts and sciences, to far surpass the achievements of all his predecessors, and to surround himself with implements of power and science utterly beyond the reach of his prototype, who had his wreck as a reservoir from which to draw his munitions…I did not gather all these things about me without many bitter hours of loneliness and despair; but their constructions and the reading of my book, which I consulted almost nightly, kept me often from miserable repinings. I felt that I was gaining, and that I had not yet done making nature, ingenuity, and industry improve my condition and increase my comforts…On that terrible day in November I was cast on shore, with scarcely any food, no hat, no coat, and without water. With no aid but that given me by God, and by the use of my own hands and brain, I was to-day sitting in front of my home, erected by myself alone. In this short space of time, one year, I had wrested from Nature many things, showing the supremacy of mind over matter, and knowledge, over ignorance and sloth. I had in this year made fire without the aid of matches, distilled salt water to procure fresh, made myself implements of defence, and erected towers of perpetual lamps, made myself flint, steel, and tinder, bows and arrows, fish-hooks and lines; discovered coal, sulphur, saltpetre, and iron, and captured goats, fish, seals, birds, etc., and at the end of the year found myself sitting at my house door surrounded with my flock of goats, my garden and farm planted, my mill and smelting-house in running order, my canoe at my feet in the quiet water of the cove, and everything about me that could please or charm the eye. From absolutely nothing I had created everything; that is to say, the ground was now so laid out that in the future I saw no end to the daring attempts that I should make, and could make with every chance of success. I felt, now that the year was ending, that my hardest work was done; that I had so much now to do with, that all that I should now undertake would be comparatively easy; but then, on the other hand, my ambition was so great that I could see things in the dim future that would tax the strength and brain of any man to consummate, but which from my temperament and loneliness I knew I should be forced to attempt.
The pirate passages particularly highlight this:
My courage arose as I gazed upon the skeleton before me, and I moralized thus: You must have lived in an age when God had not granted to mortals the permission to discover and utilize many of the arts and sciences of my day; you did not live when steam was the motive power, when the lightnings of the heavens were made obedient to man to convey his demands and requests, when the paddle-wheels of floating steamers beat the waters of all the oceans of the earth. All of these things, and many others, were unknown to you. My case is not as bad as yours was, if you were shipwrecked. I, of this century, on this same island, have gathered about me, from nothing, strength and power. You, seemingly, have had only this rude hut over your head. I have chances of escape; I doubt if you ever had any from the first day of your arrival, for I cannot conceive of your having willingly remained upon this desert isle. And now, poor mortal, passed away so long ago, let us see if you can do anything for me, your living prototype.
Inasmuch as the pirate captain died in 1781, not that long ago, and had been shot through the chest & left to die, these are rather self-satisfied comments on the narrator’s part and hence, Frazar’s. (The achievements of Western civilization are great indeed, but they owe little to God, much to other civilizations, started well before the 1800s, and are the result of countless men striving rather than a few.)
So is it good or bad? We might say that one’s liking will depend on how well one likes a transition from realism to steampunk. Despite the wordcount, it’s not a long read because it’s written in the inflated prose style of the 1800s, and I for one didn’t pause to look up every technical term to figure out the exact details of the industrial processes.
|A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time, #14)||Robert Jordan||★★★||2013||2013/01/09||So. It has come to this. WoT finally ended.
I remember how the wheel of dharma began to turn for me: my mother ran a Girl Scouts troop while I was in middle school, and sometimes they met at a local town rec center. Rather than try to participate, I would sometimes kill time in the lounge reading their old donated paperbacks. One of them was remarkably thick, but the cover looked interesting, and I was hooked by the opening passages: a Tolkien-esque chapter about a young lad heading back to the Shire and haunted by a Ring-wraith. (Not so much the Prologue, which was too mystifying.) I’d read Tolkien by this point, of course, and wondered if it’d be an awful shameful ripoff like Sword of Shannara, but I kept reading.
The opening was nifty enough but not gripping, at least until I reached Moiraine’s speech to the villagers about Manetheren. I was spellbound and had not been so gripped at least since Tolkien with Gimli’s dirge for the dwarves in the Mines of Moria. And the book didn’t stop there: there was the creepy interlude at the cursed city of Shadar Logoth, the even more creepy Machin Shin of the Waygates, the unusual Templar/Children of the Light, the intriguing uncertainty about which of the kids was the Main Character (you thought it was Rand, of course, as the major viewpoint, but the dreams kept you uncertain - surely the author wouldn’t throw those in if there weren’t a good chance the obvious choice wouldn’t be picked?), the good troll character who is a scholar rather than a warrior, a Western-samurai militaristic setting a whole city of female magicians, Old Tongue on every other page culminating in no less than the Green Man at the Eye of the World (just one of many nods to real-world things). I was impressed as I read it over the weeks, meeting by meeting, and soon checked out the other 6 or so. This was a long time ago. A very long time ago.
Indeed, WoT could be considered Tolkien turned up. Tolkien had a cast of hundreds? WoT would have a cast of thousands! Tolkien had a few countries going to war against a dark lord? WoT would have dozens of countries and regions! Tolkien had two or three scheming magicians? WoT would have scores of scheming magicians, and they would be split into more than a dozen groups, all scheming. Tolkien had one or two trolls? WoT would have trolls too, all over the place, and they’d be the good kind, peaceful scholar; and Tolkien had a character recording events for a history, well, that’s a perfect task for one of the scholar-trolls. Tolkien had a few Ring-wraiths and a big fight against one at the end, well, WoT would have ring-wraiths in every book and they’d be a standard foe (which makes sense given all the magical powers given to every other character: you need to power up the bad guys if you power up the good guys). The Shire would be tainted by evil due to the hero & companions coming from there and eventually have to be led to an uprising? Emond’s Field would never fall and would wage epic battle against Padan Fain et al. And so on.
You couldn’t say that Wheel of Time had the restrained scholarly English sensibility of LotR, but it packed a punch. If LotR was the novel, WoT was the video game or maybe movie adaptation, with everything dialed up to 11 and an unlimited budget for explosions & exotic locations. And it did this very well in the early books. In that sense, it’s an excellent ‘Tolkien for teenagers’. (In another sense, reusing the old ‘hidden prince’ trope of being born to a destiny and with arcane powers, WoT is also good for teens: they’ve long loved that trope, perhaps because at that age they desperately love the idea of being given a defined role and the (unearned) ability to fill it. This trope is perhaps a bit too narcissistic for adults to enjoy as much, although given how popular Frozen has been and how many people, child or adult, claim to identify with Elsa, I may be wrong here.)
One of the lessons I learned from WoT was learning the hard way why one should avoid in-progress series: the mental suffering and time expended is radically out of proportion to the pleasure. (I am handily applying this lesson now to that other endless vast fantasy epic, GRRM. Given my pre-2007 comments that it was entirely possible that Jordan would die before finishing, I wonder how that one will turn out.) Another lesson is that length and a big cast of characters should not be taken as a goal in its own right because you descend into repetition and cliche.
In some sense, Sanderson’s AMoL for me succeeds just by existing and giving me closure. I would be happy if it is not as enraging as King’s ending to The Dark Tower, or as unremittingly awful and a disgrace to all parties involved as Brian Herbert & KJA’s work in the Dune universe. Perhaps all the people on Goodreads who are leaving laudatory 5 star reviews without even reading the book and apparently are ignorant of what a “review” is feel the same way - that as long as it’s not awful, it deserves 5 stars for giving them closure.
And it’s neither enraging nor terribly awful, so I am satisfied.
I share a lot of the complaints I’ve seen in other reviews. Some characters like Moiraine do nothing interesting; others have compressed endings like Luc/Isam and Padan Fain. Bela dies despite an expectation that she would continue her improbable luck. The body-swapping is unprecedented and confusing, since it apparently is not due to Rand indulging in cosmic powers but a mysterious gray-haired woman who I could not understand after two reads and googling a bit. The resolution of confrontation with the Dark One was clever as far as it went, but it relied on a feature of Callandor I am pretty sure was not mentioned before and I feel a bit deus ex machina-d, although I’m relieved that the general interpretation of Herid Fel’s basic point that because of the Wheel, you have to restore the prison to how it was before the Bore (rather than patch it again, kill the Dark One, etc) was correct.
There were many great bits. Rand and Matt bragging in one of their last meetings. Lan taking down Damodred (although didn’t we see the suicidal maneuver in a previous book…). Min vs spies. Demandred and Graendal make the Forsaken look less incompetent than usual. Thom casually knifing women while composing a poem.
Many bad parts.
The endless grinding battle - by the time I finished the book, I felt as exhausted as if I’d been pushing pikes with Trollocs myself. The worst part was, despite the endless pages of battle, the battles still didn’t feel epic or hardfought; they lacked any urgency or real drama. Perhaps WoT just massively over-indulged in battles before, or perhaps the battles were just disconnected - it’s a bad thing when you have characters lampshading the triviality of what they’re doing and asking ‘so why does this matter when the only battle that matters is Rand vs DO?’ The battles are weirdly parochial and limited to a few locations. 4 battlefronts is impressive? For the Last Battle, a worldwide struggle against the Shadow? We didn’t get so much as one point of view in, I dunno, Seanchan which was supposed to have waged its own epic struggle against Shadowspawn during the original colonization! We don’t get Waygates popping open in hundreds of locations, the entire Randland convulsed in thousands of battles… Basically, we didn’t see a world at war. We bounced between 4 locations again and again and again until it was an incredible chore to read another page. Last minute rescues are a storytelling device that work only a few times. In a chapter. Before they lose any impact.
Some of the writing seems stiff and clumsy, and I liked Matt less than in the previous book so I suppose that was just an anomaly.
The ‘philosophy’ bits of the Rand vs DO encounter were seriously juvenile; so Rand overcomes the DO with the Power of Love but then he realizes that to destroy the DO, he would take away Free Will! And just as any idiot could have predicted, he has to leave the DO alone and repair the prison good as new. And of course the DO whines at him and Rand has to lecture him self-righteously… Give me a break. I’m sure that this must have been Jordon’s notes, because I remember Sanderson doing better in Mistborn.
I suspect people will be identifying loose ends and missed prophecies or Min-visions for years to come. At least we did sorta find out who killed Asmodean.
So now that it is finished, what should I think of WoT? Would I recommend it to a younger version of me? I think I would. In bulk, WoT’s flaws are reduced. The repetition fades away like the Homeric epithets filling out lines, and the multi-million word count becomes less intimidating. The awful middle-late books, like possibly the series nadir Winter’s Heart, lose their severe aggravation when you have all the books in a pile waiting to be read instead of an unknown multi-year wait upon an author who may (and did) die on you. Without years between reads, the plots and characters will be easier to track, and even if one fails to pick up on clues or asides, the resolution will be delivered soon and one can go ‘ah!’ as one newly appreciates a new thread of the pattern.
But I would accompany it with this caution:
“WoT, in small chunks, is not good. The characters and writing is repetitious, the descriptions pedestrian; few passages will move you with the beauty of strangeness or exoticism that marks the best fantasy. What WoT does is take the ‘quantity vs quality’ tradeoff, and jam it all the way to ‘quantity’, to see what happens, and does so more extremely than any other fantasy series I know of. If you want to see ‘epic fantasy’, with a cast of who knows how many thousands, spread over more countries than you can keep straight, and watch this tapestry evolve over years and millions of words, then you must read WoT. If you want to maximize your enjoyment per word, if you want the heights of what the fantasy genre can deliver in terms of quality, then put away WoT for another day and instead do something like read through chronologically the winners of the Locus & World Fantasy Awards.”
There have been worse obituaries for pieces of your childhood.
|1000 Poems from the Manyoshu: The Complete Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai Translation||Anonymous||★★★||2005||2016/07/10||
While not as read as the classic Heian-era waka poets, themselves vastly less read than the haiku poets, the Man’yoshu remains the first Japanese poetic collection of note and something I’ve always meant to read. Even if the MSY wasn’t important as a foundational text or one of the major scholarly projects of Japanese literature, it is still of note for the diversity of its verse forms, contributors (not just aristocrats or townmen), topics (eg genuine poverty), and documenting early Japanese culture/politics/life. Reading Keene’s Seeds in the Heart which devotes a large section to the MSY, I decided I had put it off long enough. There aren’t many translations of it online, and this was the largest I found.
Keene, as it happens, wrote a preface to this 1965 edition. He notes that the anonymous committee authors & 1940 date of its composition means the original Introduction (a long and extensive description of MSY-era Japan and facts of life relevant to interpreting the poems, such as the sending of expeditions to China and the ill-fated political alliances with Korean kingdoms) will raise some eyebrows:
Keene is, if anything, far too kind to the Introduction. I had come across references to the Japanese literary world’s perversion during the imperial period and the phrase “spirit of the MSY”, but I admit I had never understood how exactly a poetry collection could be employed in imperial propaganda but the Introduction is quite blatant, to the point of comedy (it’s difficult to not roll my eyes when the authors rhapsodize over how Shintoism involves belief in “mysterious powers which moved and had their being in nature”, while Taoism is a “cult that was imported from China…compounded with all manner of folklore and superstition…a belief in fairies and genii” and Confucianism irrelevant pedanticism unnecessary to the Japanese as it was merely “a canonical basis for those social values that had already prevailed. Loyalty, filial piety, brotherly affection, conjugal devotion, faithfulness, etc, taught by Confucianism, were virtues that had naturally grown within, and been fostered by, the clan system of Japan”). As Keene notes, the mentions of poverty undercut the Edenic pretensions, to which I would add the disturbingly frequent regularity of dead bodies by the road side, drafting peasants for border guards, conquest expeditions, and vagueness and lack of mention of any genuine accomplishments in the frequent praise of the emperors. I suppose as a surviving example of imperial propaganda, the Introduction is of some interest on its own but I wonder if it can be trusted for background and if Keene was right in keeping it unedited from the original version.
In any event, the poems are the main event, and Keene praises the translation as of high literary quality, so I should not be let down. Having read so much of the Heian-era poetry, I found the MSY ones interesting. They are clearly ancestors, showing both the early development of the waka and what would become stock themes, but also ‘roads not taken’, in particular the long verse forms like the choka. The waka could never express a vivid description of warfare like Hitomaro does in one choka, and it would be difficult indeed to think of a waka or several waka which could equate to his choka mourning his wife. One wonders what Japanese poetry lost by the possibility of the choka verse falling into obscurity and unreadability; I don’t think it would’ve choked off the waka’s growth, but allowed expression of weightier topics (a need which seems to’ve been only poorly satisfied by turning to Chinese kanshi).
On the downside, while the choka are impressive, for the most part, I am left unimpressed by the MSY corpus. Almost all poems come across in the English as plain statements and restatements. Yes, I know the MSY style is to be straightforward and not as indirect or complicated as the later Heian poems like the Kokinshu - but still. A poem should not read like prose. And for the most part, they do. The selection is also weakened by the inclusion of many trivial pieces which praise the Emperor in ways which are either boring or bullshit (although I suppose I can’t blame the poets for their sycophancy, which they at least had excuses and good practical reasons for writing, but should blame the translators for their ideology in emphasizing those poems out of the enormous MSY corpus).
Some of the ones I did like:
Man’yoshu 1964, pg352:
Yamabe no Akahito, Man’yōshū VIII: 1426
Kuramochi Chitose; 326-7 VI: 913-4; pg198:
Hitomaro, 103-5/ II: 199-201, pg127:
|Renaming of the Birds||David Troupes||★★★||2013||2014/01/01||
I’ve been a fan of the obscure webcomic Buttercup Festival since ~2005 when I discovered it and A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible (probably my 2 favorites were “Another Day” and the yeti) through Dinosaur Comics, and was pleased to see it restart in 2008.
It ended in 2013 with the announcement of a Kickstarter for his book Renaming of the Birds. I will be honest, I am not a big fan of Troupes’s realistic prose and poetry as compared to Buttercup Festival, An Island People Go To, or his unfinished Green Evening Stories - for the most part, they strike me as embodying the worst sins of English poetry in the 20th & 21st centuries, while his artwork at its best nears the spare beauty of some East Asian traditions. I was not pleased to hear that it was ending in favor of a short novel, but I did notice in the announcement:
and on the Kickstarter page:
Now that was a different story. I’ve always been a little bit impressed how effectively Troupes deployed Sharpies for his comics, and this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Plus, apparently I might get some books or something as well. I immediately subscribed and submitted my preferences:
Luckily, I spoke up quickly enough to get my first choice.
The Kickstarter succeeded and the printing of the book went through apparently without much issue, so I received my package in early January 2014.
The original of comic #120 turns out to be a sheet of stiffish paper about 29.2x20.3 centimeters, much larger than the web image. The image also doesn’t do it justice: the original is actually visibly textured with whiteout, you can see variation in the intensity of black, and between that, the stars in the stream seem to shine a little bit. So I was satisfied and just needed to find a frame for it. I scanned it to have a backup copy:
I also received:
Hastings’s artwork was interesting but not really in my vein. David’s poetry was decent enough that I copied part of 2 of the better ones; from “Their Daughter”:
And from “Pumpkinseeds”:
Not bad. I eventually wound up using the postcards for a prank.
Renaming of the Birds (2013; ISBN 978-0-9927133-0-0) is a 74pg novel with ~56 black-white sketches of birds/landscapes/people as illustrations. (There is one short poem at the end, but it seems they were all split out as the companion pamphlet The Fountain along with unused illustrations.) The Kickstarter for it describes it as
This is not inaccurate a summary, but it overemphasizes the ‘renaming’ part: one might think it’s a sort of magical realist novel or more upbeat Kafkaesque novel or an experimental novel, but the renaming part and the new names passes quickly. Which is too bad because I thought it was a nice parody; for example, the letter with the assignment:
It is Orwellian bureaucratic reasoning that would not be one bit out of place in England. Why not?
So the protagonist sets about his task, renaming mockingbirds to ‘Yelling Birds’, Crows to Rattles, Gulls to Tattles, Pigeons to Ladyfriends, Mourning Doves to Vinegar Doves, Grackles to Velvet Inkdrops, and runs out. So he sets off to the woods, and of course meets a woman there. In a few more vignettes wandering the woods, he kills time and renames some more birds. He declines to rename swans, and is puzzle by sparrows. It becomes an extended camping trip: the narrator sees some more trees, watches a kestrel kill one, sleeps in trees, and winter comes. He survives the snow by making a lean-to. (No mention of where he gets food initially before learning how to scavenge roots, which was a major concern of
The illustrations are appropriate and well-done.
The writing is fair enough. It’s not as overripe as much of Troupes’s poetry, and he generally underplays incidents and avoids too much mawkishness and invocations of God. It does indeed feel like a journal of a long camp-out, and Troupes is doubtless taking a lot of material from life. It’s pleasant, but not much beyond that.
|Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance||Jane Gleeson-White||★★★||2012||2014/10/31||(56k words, 1-2h read) Popularizing overview of Luca Pacioli’s publication of double-entry bookkeeping, and some historical tracing of its subsequent spread through Europe and use in modern corporate-capitalism. As an active user of ledger for my personal finances, writer of the WP article on the Medici Bank, & reader of Nick Szabo, I thought I might find Double Entry interesting.
The book sets up as a morality play, pointing to the many well-known corporate scandals in the 2000s, before quickly going to Ancient Sumeria & the invention of writing for business purposes (‘accounting’ might be a bit of an anachronism there), a few tantalizing Roman quotes & the possibility of Indian invention (although as with so many other things, the Indian dreamtime makes certainty difficult to reach), and settling down in the 1300s and sketching out Venice’s rise with its associated mercantile class, such as Datini, whose well-preserved business documentation is familiar to anyone interested in Renaissance commercial practices.
This sets the scene for Pacioli: Venice’s trade throughout the Mediterranean and Adriatic and Black Sea and especially Constantinople, its navy, which Pacioli witnessed as a young mathematician traveling and tutoring. He learned well, returning to Venice in time for the Gutenberg revolution to make financially feasible an enormous encyclopedia laying out the use of indispensable Arabic numerals and, as it happens, double-entry accounting. Along the way, he hung out with Leonardo da Vinci, compiled a book of cool magic tricks like handling molten lead barehanded (apparently featured on Mythbusters), wrote the first book on chess, got that portrait done, and so on. Pacioli turns out to be far more interesting than I would have guessed for a monk known for popularizing something as dull as double-entry!
We get a short introduction to double-entry; I’m not sure how well one would learn double-entry from that chapter if one didn’t already have a little experience. (It’s not that complex, but it can be tricky deciding what should be added/subtracted from what accounts.) The brevity of this section is a little odd since it is the major theme of the book: you expect a book on the history of accounting to discuss in detail accounting, like a book on physics or any other intellectual topics.
It’s also not a very good overview of Renaissance capitalism either: the great fairs appear in one or two sentences, the tricky methods of interest (exploiting exchange rate variations between currencies and geographic variation) are discussed too briefly to clarify, and we don’t get a good idea of how banks and trading companies were organized as a series of yearly partnerships (for example, the Medici bank was structured as several affiliated partnerships which dissolved and reformed every year; and this was how the financial state was calculated, and new partners/employees brought on) though later Gleeson-White contrasts the yearly partnership form to the continuous joint-stock corporation form - apparently forgetting that she never really covered the original form.
This leads into the Industrial Revolution. A few examples of the moralizing of good accounting are provided, but not that much. (There seems to be a lot of fertile material in the Netherlands which got omitted, judging from Soll’s article “The vanished grandeur of accounting”.) An interesting example of the effect of double-entry is provided by the famed Wedgwood pottery factory, which was staggering under financial problems despite enormous success until Wedgwood got his books in order and figured out where all his money was going. I wish Gleeson-White had provided a dozen examples in that vein: how was double-entry used in real life? The first railway bubble provided the impetus for British wholesale adoption, but I wonder how double-entry related to the Gilded Age in America? Since accounting is subjective in some senses, it would have been interesting to dig into the details of some of the collapses briefly mentioned to see what went into the differing appraisals - for example, I am intrigued by the final line of this quote, but the thread is dropped without any further discussion:
In the 1920s the US construction business Kreuger & Toll became one of the largest conglomerates and multinationals imaginable, like Enron seventy years later. After its founder Ivar Kreuger died in 1932, millions of investors discovered the company’s financial statements had been falsified over many years. But because of the company’s extraordinary organisational complexity, the investigating accountants Price Waterhouse could not determine the exact extent of the fraud and so the investors lost their money. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 revealed the accounts of another titanic company, Insull Utility Investments, to be ‘grossly misleading’. Its CEO Samuel Insull was tried for fraud in 1932 and acquitted on all counts. A considerable part of Insull’s defence rested on the persuasiveness of the commonsense rationale behind his accounting practices (he had treated stock dividends as income, which was prohibited at the time, but the prosecution was unable to make a clear case against it)-and, by implication, ‘the financial nonsense peddled in the conventional accounting wisdom’. The prosecution was left without a case, unable to deny that the accounting rules of the day were controversial and unable to claim that there was any consensus within the accounting profession on the particular rule in question. The Insull case highlighted the contentious and arbitrary nature of corporate accounting, especially regarding valuation and depreciation, issues which are essentially unresolvable and continue to be hotly debated today. Significantly, some of Insull’s accounting practices, which then lay outside conventional accounting practice, are now accepted wisdom.
I’m concerned because as useful as double-entry is, I don’t see a good case for identifying it as a major technology worthy of a book or marketing like ‘created modern finance’ (the Dutch would seem to have a better claim there); to quote the book:
“But detractors argue that a close reading of the historical evidence does not support Sombart’s generalisation: in fact the few merchants’ books which survive from the 1300s to 1800 indicate the double-entry system was not then widely adopted in practice. As part of his career-long dispute with Sombart, economist Basil Yamey argues that the spirit of capitalism animated numerous prominent Italian mercantile ventures before they adopted Venetian bookkeeping: ‘Perhaps it is sufficient to note that the Italian enterprises of the Bardi, Peruzzi, Alberti and Medici cannot be said to have been run less efficiently and “capitalistically” before they had adopted the double-entry system than after they had done so.’”
Indeed. The point is made even more strongly, inadvertently, by the emphasis on modern accounting scandals and Buffett’s observation that derivatives make a corporation’s true financial state nearly unknowable, combined with the observation that the world keeps on ticking and annual global growth continues: if modern financial reporting is so ambiguous and unreliable, doesn’t that imply that clear transparent books were never that important?
The book gets weaker as it returns to the original theme of the corruption of capitalism and its focus on internalizing gains while externalizing costs. While it’s true that GDP may not be a perfect measure, can we say that it’s really that bad? (Is it really plausible that a Big Mac actually costs $200 when all externalities are priced in?) I recall environmentalist activists making a big deal of Bhutan adopting ‘Gross National Happiness’, but last I heard, you still want to live in China with its focus on GDP and not impoverished unfree Bhutan (ask the Bhutanese refugees how well things worked out for them). There seems to be little critical consideration of this topic, or of arguments for optimism about the environment from the Kuznets curve (although Kuznets is certainly mentioned often enough) & the cornucopians. One feels that in the attempt to turn a long good article on Pacioli into a short book, some rather weak material got included.
|Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection||A.J. Jacobs||★★★||2012||2015/11/09||Another entry in the Jacobs formula: he’ll breeze through a large number of activities, giving very superficial descriptions & background, making wisecracks, and recording his wife’s reaction to everything.
The problem with this one is that ultimately, all his health interventions are lame. Tim Ferris may be a huckster, but at least in 4 Hour Body, he put himself out on the edge and wrote about interesting things which might make real differences if they panned out; while Jacobs recycles crunchy granola nonsense and works his way through a bunch of boring and tired interventions and foods, many of which could never make any large difference in his health or longevity even if true.†
He has no ambition or bravery at all: I was disappointed that he was scared off by caloric restriction and wouldn’t even give intermittent fasting a try (despite alternate-day fasting being probably the simplest diet ever), and when he finally does try something a little more drastic like Clomid for testosterone deficiency he seems to abandon it as fast as he possibly can despite admitting that it seemed to be more effective than pretty much anything else. This is a general trend with everything he reports back on: he drops them as fast as possible, without giving them a fair shake.
I mean, I don’t believe that, say, fruit juice fasts work but if Jacobs is going to try then, couldn’t he at least stick it out more than 3 days? I felt he was wasting both his and my time. (That said, I am amused to find out just how many eccentric exercise classes apparently can be found in Central Park over the course of a year.) Chapter 19 was on sleep, a subject near and dear to my own self-experimenting heart, so I had great expectations, and was disappointed to see that it boiled down to ‘get a CPAP for snoring’ and apparently using his brand-new Zeo less than week. Or on the topic of driving and walking helmets, whose net benefit I found myself uncertain of after reviewing some of the research literature, he brings them up but dismisses as impossible, not because they don’t seem worthwhile, but because they would be too embarrassing - Jacobs, seriously, are you a man or a mouse? (The only things he seems to really stick with is his treadmill desk - well, fair enough for a writer - and, weirdly given his terror of embarrassment, noise-canceling headphones. As if the photos of the headphones didn’t make him look like he was autistic…?) Some gaps just struck me as odd: why would a germaphobe look into squat toilets and wash his hands excessively, but omit any consideration of bidets which could remove most of the reason one would need to wash hands?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I reached the final chapter and was distinctly unimpressed what his two years of effort had wrought:
I went for my final exam at EHE and found out I’d lost another half pound, ending at 156.5 (total weight loss: 16 pounds). I’d gone down two belt sizes. Dr. Harry Fisch told me that my lipid panel numbers “are so good, they’ll give you a heart attack” (HDL: 48, LDL: 62). I more than halved my body fat percentage. I can now run a mile in less than seven minutes as opposed to not at all. I have a visible chest.
One might think that such results, while laudable, did not require 2 years and probably were entirely due his eating less and spending some time weightlifting and running.
The evaluation of research is also weak. Jacobs promises in the intro to draw as much on the Cochrane Collaboration as possible (fantastic!) but if he did so in the rest of the book, I must’ve missed it (boo, hiss). And while it’s a tired, sometimes overused truism in my parts of the Internet that ‘correlation is not causation’, Jacobs is one of the people for whom that dictum was meant.
Aside from the main storyline of the latest health fad, Jacobs counterpoints the slow death from old age & dementia of his grandfather and the unexpected death of his eccentric orthorexic aunt. These are good reminders of the horrors of aging but while well intentioned, Jacobs, superficial and middle-class humorously as ever, is unable to bring out the tragedy of the material anywhere near as well as, say, Still Alice, Do No Harm, or even blog posts like “Who By Very Slow Decay”.
So what’s good? Well, Jacobs is intermittently funny. He does go through a wide range of interventions, which is mildly interesting, and if nothing else, makes the point that there are a lot of hucksters and idiots and people fooled by randomness out there, and that there is no nostrum that will not put someone on cloud nine nor silver bullet so silly that it will not sooth someone’s sickness. For me, it functioned as reminders (the accident chapter reminded me that after a slip in my bathroom, I had meant to buy anti-slip pads, which I’ve put on my shopping list; his treadmill usage has inspired me to clean off my own treadmill desk and at least use it while watching movies or playing games; I had heard of the potential benefits of squat toilets but until reading the FAQ by the guy selling them I had not realized that it was possible to retrofit regular Western toilets to be squat toilets, so I may grab some cinder blocks & plywood and give it a try; and his own conspicuous failure to try out IF makes me feel more motivated to give it a try myself soon, especially now that I’ve got daily blood glucose measurements debugged). So it wasn’t all bad.
† To elaborate on this one point: we don’t have hard precise evidence on most of the claims covered in the book, but for a lot of them we can give upper bounds on maximum possible benefits. For starters, lifespan is in humans, as it is in other species, partially heritable, so about a quarter of variability is off the table from the getgo. And no one has ever lived longer than Jeanne Calment’s 122 years while life expectancy for Jacobs is ~80 (above-average since he’s an employed well-educated white man with good family longevity), so he couldn’t expect more than 40 years for anything that past humans have tried. Similarly, because of the exponential increase in death risk with age, the value of preventing any given disease in old age is not as high as it may seem, since if you prevent a heart attack, they may just die of a stroke or Alzheimer’s instead, which sharply limits how valuable any particular intervention could be. So for example, if you could prevent cancer in its entirety, I’ve seen estimates that this might add a grand total of 10 years to average life expectancy, which is much less than one would expect; Jacobs quotes one person as noting there’s something like 50k industrial chemicals out there; so if all cancers were caused by a modern industrial chemical, and you could eliminate each chemical completely for free at the cost of a day’s research or work or income, then doing so would be… a huge net loss since 50,000 days >> 10 years (3,652 days). Not to mention that adult life expectancies have kept increasing hand in hand with the proliferation of industrial chemicals, suggesting that all of them together can explain only a fraction of variance. If you spend a day worrying about Bisphenol, you’d better have good reasons for thinking it’s very likely to be harmful, because the prior probability is low, the harm is likely fairly minimal, you can’t do much about it, and what you can do is expensive.
|Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime — from Global Epidemic to Your Front Door||Brian Krebs||★★★||2014||2015/01/11||
Krebs has been engaged in a little war with Russian spammers: getting onto their forums, looking for weak points like abuse-friendly ISPs or payment processors, and blowing the whistle on them; he’s been heavily aided by the feuding community leaking lots of information and vouches to him, and the book revolves around one he’s hyped up as the ‘Pharma Wars’. All the leaks means he can do an unusually thorough job of documenting it and the principals, and the involvement of the Russian government in the e-crime scene. My own interests are mainly in the Western blackmarkets like Silk Road, and in the pharmacy affiliate networks which were one of the main routes for buying modafinil up until recently, so while Krebs doesn’t go into nearly as much detail as I would like, it’s still a fairly illuminating read. Few Westerners have as much experience with the area as he does, which makes it worth reading for anyone interested in this niche, and certainly it’s easier to read the book than try to piece together everything from his blog posts.
One downside is that the book comes off as a bit stream of consciousness and disorganized: there seems to be a rough chronological order, but not much of one; and a few diagrams of all the overlapping people and organizations (as well as a flowchart of the spam process) would probably be helpful. And I used the word ‘journalistic’ deliberately: Krebs’s writing is purple and sensationalistic. Something is not ‘terrifying’, it is ‘truly terrifying’; spammers are not a nuisance, but they become “potent threats”; in describing the fall of a small plurality source of spam (~20%, I believe he estimates), “consumers all over the world were enjoying a brief reprieve” from “the spam email empire”. His overheated writing aside, his own sources make the case that spam is not that important; eg towards the end:
(If spam is at 1/5 peak and even at the peak it was ‘maybe five to ten guys’…)
In other spots, Krebs makes mistakes or does not exhibit as much critical thinking as one would like: the illustration of the horrors of designer drugs is the infamous ‘causeway cannibal’ (except that that wasn’t bath salts, that was marijuana - and Krebs even acknowledges his mistake in a footnote! So why on earth does the main text confidently say he “turned into a real-life zombie after ingesting prodigious amounts of “bath salts””‽); when discussing the online pharmacies, he repeats idiotic pharmacorp talking points like “8% of the bulk drugs imported into the United States are counterfeit, unapproved, or substandard” without pointing out that no one actually cares about the fraction that are “counterfeit [or] unapproved”, and mentions that Marcia Bergeron’s poisoning death is “almost always recited in some form whenever experts allied with the pharmaceutical industry talk” without asking the obvious question if the online pharmacies are so dangerous, why is only that story ‘almost always recited’?; it’s interesting that there’s no mention of Kaspersky Lab’s connections to the FSB and why Krebs was being wined and dined by Kaspersky personally; there is a bizarre lack of mention of Bitcoin except for a throwaway line about Russian forums, which is particularly bizarre given that he discusses the rise of ransomware (now often Bitcoin-using) and seems to agree with the interviewed Russian spammers at the end that going after credit-card payment processors has effectively killed the industry (which would be an unwise prediction if they can move to Bitcoin, as many of the online pharmacies have begun to).
|Mathematical People: Profiles and Interviews||Donald J. Albers||★★★||2008||2014/10/08||A collection of interviews and occasional professional autobiographies in the 1960s-1980s focusing on mathematicians who worked in the 1920s-1970s or people closely associated with the field in other capacities (Martin Gardner, while describing himself as a journalist, impacted the field majorly through his famed Scientific American columns on recreational mathematics; another interview is with a biographer of Hilbert & Neyman, Constance Reid).
Some of these mathematicians one may well be familiar (Conway, Diaconis, Erdos, Gardner, Graham, Kline, Knuth, Mandelbrot, Pólya, Smullyan, Ulam), but many just made me draw a blank (Birkhoff, Blackwell, Chern, Coxeter, Halmos, Hilton, Kemeny, Lefschetz, Pollak, Rees, Reid, Robbins, Taussky-Todd, Tucker), so there’s a wide range from the famous and public intellectuals to the working mathematicians.
The interest of the interviews likewise range: Smullyan’s autobiographical essay (extracted from his autobiography, apparently) is stuffed full of hilarious stories and jokes as any reader of his books might expect, Diaconis has an interesting life story in going from a traveling stage magician to a mathematician/statistician who continues to dabble in magic (like Smullyan), Knuth’s reminiscences are of interest to any programmer, while Chern’s life is an unusual look into what it’s like to bring modern mathematics to a place like early Communist China; others are just terribly dull. Another issue is that the more pure mathematicians struggle to describe to interviewers in a short approachable fashion what, exactly, they’ve accomplished and why it’s of interest, while the geometers can at least draw pictures of some sort and the ones who dabble in application and especially statistics have all sorts of immediately-interesting topics to discuss. I admit I got very little out of the pure mathematicians, aside from being a bit amused at the aesthetic prejudices on display as algebraists sniff at analysts who sniff at topologists who sniff at combinatorics and meanwhile I have hardly any idea what those specialties are much less any opinion on their respective merits. It is difficult to maintain an interest in topics you don’t know anything about and the discussants can’t explain, so a good deal of the book was wasted on me.
Some topics surface repeatedly, to one’s surprise: “New Math”, a failed American program to rewrite lower mathematical pedagogy into teaching math in a much more abstract fashion, comes up repeatedly (perhaps because of the striking failure, none of the interviewees are willing to endorse it although Kline spends much time attacking it); the Hungarian Martians seem to come up in every other interview as the interviewee either taught or worked with a Hungarian, was inspired by a Hungarian, or was a Hungarian (Von Neumann, Halmos, Pólya, Erdős, Wald, and others), although none of the interviewees seemed to have any good suggestions for why the Martian cluster seems to exist (yes, Hungary was poor and so geniuses there might turn to math preferentially, but then why don’t we see similar clusters from other impoverished countries? the Hungarian per capita GDP in the early 1900s is probably equaled or exceeded by scores of countries since and present). Other tendencies in the biographies remind me of similar observations I noted in my review of Past, Present, and Future of Statistical Science - academia seems to have been infinitely less cutthroat than it is now and many of the subjects seem to almost luck into jobs and positions (Mandelbrot in particular seems to have been a beneficiary as he was able to continue his tertium quid career until fractals became a phenomenon), and in every professional life there is a clear discontinuity at WWII where it seems all of Europe’s intelligentsia packed up for America and get sucked into the military-industrial complex for application to complex Cold War topics (the Cold War was particularly good to statistics, as one can see how statistics & probability are mentioned only occasionally pre-WWII but then suddenly everyone is dabbling in it post-WWII; likely the Cold War/WWII influence would be even more obvious if interviewers & interviewees didn’t step so gingerly around the topic out of a mix of patriotism & shame, the former exemplified by a mention of the cryptographic work in WWII which the interviewee doesn’t describe but assures us has been written up in abstract form for the open literature); people married remarkably young and had children immediately which would be a bit odd in this age of prolonged PhDs & multiple postdocs & ‘the two-body problem’.
Other topic don’t: computers are surprisingly rarely mentioned, with the exception of one or two discussions of the four-color computer proof, and Kemeny who turn out to have been quite prophetic about computers becoming ordinary tools of scholars & to have been one of the developers of BASIC; a mathematically-inclined layman or technologist will be surprised at the general absence of topics like P=NP or Fermat’s last theorem, but of course those problems were only formulated or solved long after most of these interviews were conducted.
And I did like some of the anecdotes related. For example, I learned that the origin of Wald’s celebrated frequentist sequential analysis came from an incident which for all the world sounds like Bayesian reasoning: “These two men were puzzled because a Navy captain with whom they had discussed the problem of destructive sampling of munitions had said that he didn’t see why he had to destroy so much of the evidence—that there ought to be a way whereby, after a while, an experimenter, like a savvy captain, would know that this was a good batch or a bad one and stop sampling…Since they were unable to get anywhere with it because it required very special mathematical skills, they took it to an outstanding mathematical statistician who was associated with them—Abraham Wald, an émigré from Hitler’s He was intrigued by the problem and solved it by developing a new technique in statistics that is now one of great importance: sequential analysis.”
Active mathematicians may find these old interviews of great interest, but I think most people would be better off reading just a few of them: Diaconis, Knuth, Smullyan, Pólya, the 2 Gardner articles, Conway, Chern, Kemeny, Kline, and Mandelbrot (in no particular order).
|Pirate Freedom||Gene Wolfe||★★★||2007||2012/11/24||(This review is copied from an email sent to the Gene Wolfe mailing list.)
Quick read, reasonably entertaining. Sadly, I find myself even less interested than The Sorcerer’s House in figuring out the secret - but I am more interested, and I enjoyed Pirate Freedom more, than An Evil Guest. Faint praise, perhaps. Reading through the old email threads to see what I missed, I’m not sure about some of the ideas floating around.
First, where’s this stuff about him being cloned coming from? The one bit of evidence I’ve seen is a quote to the effect that “my father made me”; I can’t find this in my Pirate Freedom EPUB (but FBReader seems to have buggy search so this may not count). But at face value, this seems completely unconvincing to me: he’s a Mafia guy! All “my father made me” means is that he’s a “made man”, as one would expect of the son of a big Mafia figure. Chris even says at one point to a new pirate something to the effect ‘now you’re a made man’. Presumably no one thinks Chris just zapped him with some tailored RNA viruses… “Half-human monster” is more promising, but in context, there’s no mention of simply human: “The artists of the Middle Ages painted allegories, we say. What really happened was that they saw more clearly than we do, and painted what they saw - angels and devils, beasts, and half-human monsters like me.” The artists were painting clones? Or is this just more Christian thought a la Pope? The best line is “I am taller than most people - my father told me once he got me engineered that way - and I was taller than he was by quite a bit.” but height has been known to be heritable since Galton and a fair number of genes & SNPs have already been identified responsible for variance (eg. ~50% from SNPs), so even simple embryo selection (make multiple embryos, sequence the genomes of each, implant the best-scoring one) would work for that.
Second, there’s something really weird about the lack of attention paid to the timeslips. Chris doesn’t even explicitly mention anything about time travel until like pg 80 where he says it just sank in (?!!?!), and the implication is that the timeslip happened long before he left for the entire monastery: the enrolled kids are, after the closure of the school is announced, implied to be different from the previous kids, and at some point Chris notices no one has wristwatches. Now, this is the same Chris who after wandering around colonial age Cuba and sailing ships still hasn’t noticed what time period he is in, so the safe assumption is that the wristwatches disappeared when the school closed. So the entire monastery has been timeslipped for many years, and we are told that some of the monks go out to hear confessions each week, so the timeslip could not have gone unnoticed for more than a week at worst. So what’s going on here with the monastery? The lack of contact is curious, as Chris points out and as is emphasized when we learn that Chris thinks his house is so close that he’ll just walk there - he didn’t sneak out at any point, or have a vacation or break? (His father can’t visit him, but nothing is said of Chris visiting his father.)
His obliviousness and rationalizations are supposedly not that: he claims to pump for information the farmer he meets with the horse, but why didn’t he just turn around and go back to the monastery and ask ‘hey guys - what happened?’ He also then rationalizes blatantly: “And it was not there. I decided then that there were two Havanas, or maybe the city had changed its name and this little town had taken it over.” Sure, Chris. Sure. That’s totally plausible.
Having read a bunch of theories on the ML, I can’t say any of them seem especially plausible. No one has a good explanation of Jaime’s self-immolation or disappearance, Valentin & dog’s murder, the apparent foreknowledge of Lesage, Chris’s father (if he is a later Chris, why is he much shorter than his ‘son’?) or the monastery’s behavior. Nothing that ties them all together. It’s a little frustrating, since once the various points are identified it feels like there should be an obvious answer.
I feel a little like after reading The Sorcerer’s Houseor An Evil Guest here: by the end we’ve identified what the solution ought to look like (another time traveler acting at various points in the story / Bax killing his twin and usurping his identity / Cassie going to Woldercon and maybe time-traveling herself), but we don’t know how to go beyond that and make the whole thing fall into a satisfying whole (who and how and why / how the letters were mistakenly or deliberately rearranged and the deceptions before the final deception-letter / what Cassie actually did).
On a side note, the speech about the many Church sex abuse scandals is disgusting. I don’t take this as Wolfe deliberately giving us evidence of Chris being a depraved monster, it reads too sincerely and is consistent with the increasingly conservative crankery I’ve documented elsewhere (although I fully expect someone to reply saying ‘no, don’t confuse the text with the author, let’s interpret it as charitably as possible’, just like they did with the nonfiction predictions by Wolfe I posted); the lead-up to his speech is itself misleading and slanted, completely ignoring the central enabling coverup role the Church played for decades upon end. There is no reason to not mention the Church’s role, since the Bishop is not otherwise portrayed sympathetically and mentioning it would both be factually accurate and continue characterizing the Bishop… The setup is also, shall we say, curious for making the victims adolescents and not younger still as they so often were. It’s also a little strange that Wolfe expects the ‘Communists to fall’. Even when this was being written, Cuba’s government had been substantially liberalizing and privatizing. There’s pretty much no reason to expect them to ‘fall’ as opposed to follow a gradual transition to being, like China, Communist in name-only.
|Japanese Love Hotels: A Cultural History||Sarah Chaplin||★★★||2007||2015/02/15||(words: 110,626; ~3h) Heavily academicized discussion of contemporary Japanese love hotels, with an architectural history and history of some related locations for having sex. The prevalence of love hotels is interesting, and Chaplin backs it with a large survey she did of current love hotels. (Curiously, this survey goes almost entirely unused in the book - some photos from it, and a few statistics are mentioned like “Only one establishment in a sample of over 300 indicated room numbers and prices used Japanese numerals; the rest were all given in Arabic numerals” or how only 2 had manual rather than automatic doors, but given how huge an effort that survey must have been, it’s oddly underused.)
Much of what is a pretty good book is hidden in woolly academic discussion, referring to a panoply of Western & Japanese critics and writers. For the most part, these parts are the worst, since they are either masturbatory or obscure discussions of the obvious. (Does it really require an intimate familiarity with Benjamin’s Arcades Project and its various schemas, brought up repeatedly over the book, or Arie Graafland or Hidenobu Jinnai or Barrie Shelton or André Sorensen or Donald Richie or Mitsuo Inoue in order to notice how Japanese cities have large main streets but also narrower car-free intimate back-streets with a mix of housing and small shops/businesses? Or that there are distinct neighborhoods, sometimes with physical barriers or gates demarcating them? I would think anyone with a pulse who went there, or even just consumed some jidaigeki fiction - to give a random example, the movie Fuse Teppō Musume no Torimonochō - would notice most of the neighborhood and pleasure quarters background.) It is difficult to see what discussions of how love hotels are “liminoid” rather than “liminal” really add to one’s understanding.
What is good, however, is when we get down to brass tacks: what are love hotels, how do they operate on a day to day basis, how does the industry collectively respond to changing economic and social conditions, and what are the consequences of their existence? Chaplin takes a bit of an architectural focus to this, and I sometimes rolled my eyes at the attempts to divine deep meanings in various hotels’ choice of adornment or design (often, the true answer is simply that the architect liked it or was copying it from somewhere), but that focus is understandable since the bones of hotels are well documented and preserved in things like photographs while the living flesh is harder to capture.
Those more-factual parts are the best parts - learning how there are 30,000 love hotels, revenue of ¥4 trillion with 1.37m couples using daily and ~2.5 couples per room per day and as high as 7 (avg ~78.8 stays per room per month) which pays for decorating costs per room as high as $150k (black-lights: $10k per, saunas $15k per) and of course bribes (easily $100k) to all the local power groups, spotting love hotel tax evasion through water utility bills, the now-familiar immigrant-based cleaning staffs (but not South/Central American, SE Asian like Filipinos), how South Korea eradicated many of the Seoul love hotels by converting them into tourist housing for the Olympics, the 1985 law quasi-banning love hotels & how they responded (as you’d predict - like squeezing air in a balloon), the automation which saves face while using a love hotel and their cutting-edge entertainment systems (as well as how they can go wrong), or how the 12-zoning system lets love hotels infiltrate regions of cities where one would not necessarily expect anything associated with the sex trade or the power dynamics of the Tokugawa shogunate fighting organized religion & redlight districts (“By the end of the Tokugawa era…temples occupied 15 per cent of urban areas”, which leads to some amusing photos of conjunctions of love hotels & temples), the grumping of old people about how before proto-love-hotels everyone had sex outside in the field and enjoyed it more and noodle shops posting signs clarifying they were real noodle restaurants, the insinuation that a number of well-known architects designed love hotels but refused to take any credit or acknowledge involvement, the occasional discursion into a related topic (the adoption of Western-style beds turns out to be unexpectedly lengthy and interesting), some of the stranger decorations (“…one popular love hotel interior, in which ‘Yamamoto Shinya [a popular porno film director] appears on the transparent wall between the bathroom and the bedroom, as if to prompt us to act out a film.’”), the rural Japanese practice of “night-courting” which reminded me of some material on early British & American pre-marriage sexual practices like “bundling”, how the Crown Prince & Disney doubled Japanese TV ownership 1958-1959, and offbeat uses of love hotels (watching the 2006 FIFA World Cup with friends on a much nicer TV, families resting during city outings & enjoying the pool).
Most of this was new to me and interesting to read about, so it’s too bad that I had to slog through some deadly-dull material to get to the good parts.
|The Life of Samuel Johnson||James Boswell||★★★||1993||2015/07/19||(Project Gutenberg 6-volume edition, edited by George Birkbeck Norman Hill; 7.3MB or ~1,200,000 words, which included Boswell’s account of the Hebrides but also a decent chunk of the whole was footnotes which I skipped or indices or other such incidentals. This was a major reading project which took easily a month.)
It’s a curious book. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary was influential but totally obsoleted by the OED a century or two ago; his literature is little-read these days, and from what one reads in it, one has little desire to read any of it. (In fact, I think I would pay good money to not read any of his inscriptions, dedications, or verse ever again; and I have little interest in reading his plays, although The Rambler sounds like it may be worth reading.) Still, we are all familiar with lines drawn from it, and it’s been called the greatest biography in English, and there’s no time like the present to read a classic.
The book is a complete mess, covering little of Johnson while young and too much while he was old, with Boswell throwing in, apparently willy-nilly, random letters utterly devoid of interest, anecdotes without context, sayings, etc. I felt that I was reading randomly shuffled notes towards a biography than a biography. This mess does help create a vivid impression of the London milieu of mail twice a day, anonymous reviews and essays everywhere, books routinely ghostwritten, riots on the streets, supercilious nobility playing their games, foreigners constantly coming and going, the Scottish turmoil not far behind & not forgotten, but that could have been done more compactly or by the rest.
Johnson himself is a mixed bag: the famous quotations and quips which made him immortal in the English language are there, but so are much of less value; we like the Johnson who debunks witchcraft and correctly employs “explaining away” on a claim that “Ainnit”=“Anaitis”, not the Johnson who shuts off his mind and argues in all seriousness that Christianity must be true because so many people believe it or simply failing to respond to an argument & coercing the freethinker into silence; we like the Johnson making acerbic comments about politicians, not the Johnson accepting a pension from the government after writing pamphlets supporting it in bad causes and who defends at every turn the English social hierarchy & his social superiors who were in no way his superior; the Johnson praising the merits of Goldstone, not the Johnson who mocks David Hume & Adam Smith at every turn (having somehow failed to recognize two of the greatest thinkers of the age); the Johnson accurately noting details of chemistry or manufacture, not the Johnson who gives transparently fallacious economic arguments like arguing trade will decrease & land rents will increase (which could not have been more wrong) or that copyrights should be maximal; the quotable Johnson of brevity and wit, not the Johnson of bombast; the Johnson who divined the worthlessness of Ossian, not the Johnson of mindless obscurantist reverence for writing in Greek or Latin or forcing some absurd classical reference; the Johnson of The Rambler and “Meditation Upon a Pudding”, not the edited Shakespeare (was that really a good investment of years? he must have known perfectly well someone else would have come along).
Still, among all the downsides and all the puffery like letters and editorializing by Boswell apparently intended to boast about his & Johnson’s social connections and the embarrassed fumbling and excuses for things like the pension (Boswell’s initial defense is rather undercut by later comments that the government had expected him to write pamphlets for them, and he did), there’s a lot I liked and which did go beyond the parts which are famous. Reading through my excerpts, I particularly liked the story about George Berkeley being fined by his university (why? to pay for the windows he would break. why would he do that? well, it’s student tradition!); Johnson’s quip about the halo & horns effects; noting that physicians should be sent overseas to look for new breakthroughs like cinchona bark; his argument from silence about Ossian; numeracy in how many people dine in a house in a year or take opera singers as mistresses; the suicidee who ate buttered muffins first; Boswell tricking Johnson into dinner with Wilkes; Johnson’s conversation with the circumnavigators; the mystery of Johnson’s oranges; one of those interesting notes which reminds one how historically recent ‘silent reading’ is despite its universality now or how ‘giving the wall’ (with its connection to street violence) slowly transitioned to the modern rule that everyone walks on the right-hand side; and Johnson’s rebuke of Chesterton.
Overall, while it’s nice to have notched that book on my belt, I don’t feel it was worth the time to read the full 6-volume edition. If a ruthless editor were to take it and cut out the countless letters, the social posturing by Boswell, the poorer stories, and produce a 1-volume edition, it would be a much more rewarding read.
|Selected Poems||Paul Celan||★★★||1972||2014/06/01||Modern verse is always difficult to read, and I expect little from it since the freedom gives people far too much rope to hang themselves (“you need an infallible ear, like D. H. Lawrence, to determine where the lines should end”); Paul Celan is no exception in that most of his poems leave me simply baffled. Part of the problem is the shadow of the Holocaust lingering over many of the poems: an event too awesome and sublime to reduce to words, seemingly reducing Celan to slapping down words and fractured lines in frustration and despair, and not a little guilt, circling around the themes again and again (reminding me of Wittgenstein’s famous introduction to Philosophical Investigations).
That said, a few of the poems or parts of the poems worked for me - not just the famous “Fugue of Death” (WP) but several of the others. In poetry, a few gems is enough, because they stay with one in a way that prose rarely does, and so I forgive Celan for the poems I did not like and myself for the poems I did not get. Some excerpts:
“Aspen Tree…”, pg24:
“Aspen tree, your leaves glance white into the dark. / My mother’s hair was never white. / Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine. / My yellow-haired mother did not come home. / Rain cloud, above the well do you hover? / My quiet mother weeps for everyone. / Round star, you wind the golden loop. / My mother’s heart was ripped by lead. / Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges? / My gentle mother cannot return.”
“Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends. / From the nuts we shell time and we teach it to walk: / then time returns to the shell.”
“…We stand by the window embracing, and people look / up from the street: / it is time they knew! / It is time the stone made an effort to flower, / time unrest had a beating heart. / It is time it were time. / It is time.”
“Fugue of Death”, pg33:
“Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall / we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night / drink it and drink it / we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there / A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes / he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden / hair Margarete / he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter / he whistles his dogs up / he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in / the earth / he commands us strike up for the dance / Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night / we drink in the mornings at noon we drink you at / nightfall / drink you and drink you / A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes / he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden / hair Margarete / Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the / sky it is ample to lie there…”
“Thread Suns”, pg83:
“…there are / still songs to be sung on the other side / of mankind.”
“I Hear that the Axe has Flowered”, pg106:
“I hear that the axe has flowered, / I hear that the place can’t be named, / I hear that the bread which looks at him / heals the hanged man, / the bread baked for him by his wife, / I hear that they call life / our only refuge.”
Ironically, the reason I looked up Celan in the first place was a Japanese novella (a doujin for Touhou), Iyokan & Surrounded By Enemies’s Dream and Reality, included as a running theme quotes from Celan’s From Threshold to Threshold (perhaps because Celan’s poems in Japanese bring out the repeated themes of gates/thresholds/transitions, which complements the plot of the novella & a key character). I had been particularly struck by the poem “The Guest” from Threshold:
“Long before nightfall / someone who exchanged greetings with darkness / comes to spend the night with you. / Long before daylight / he wakes / and, before leaving, kindles a sleep, / a sleep echoing with footsteps: / you hear him going off, measuring distances, / and you throw your soul / after him.”
And since Selected Poems was available but Threshold was not, I downloaded it to read… and “The Guest” was not in it.
|Before the Storm (Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis, #1)||Michael P. Kube-McDowell||★★★||1996||As a kid collecting EU novels and stories, I was always puzzled by The Black Fleet Crisis trilogy. It was wildly different in tone and subject matter from most of the EU, I didn’t know whether I hated it or loved it, and it seemed to have been largely ignored by the rest of the EU (ever see the Yevetha or Black Sword Command or the White Current mentioned elsewhere?). This ignoring has happened for a number of other books like the Dark Empire comics or Crystal Star, but usually for good reasons: Dark Empire was so over-the-top and gothic that to take it seriously would undermine many other stories and so it’s usually name-checked briefly, if that, and ignored, while Crystal Star was just so terrible it can be ignored. Neither of these seem especially applicable, though, so I didn’t know what to think.
Having reread the trilogy now, I think I understand it better. It’s essentially a Weber/Drake/Clancy-style military or mil-sf novel, which happens to be set in the EU and feature 2 distracting large subplots. From the great opening Fifth Fleet exercise to the equally great small subplot of discovering the Black Sword records (I’m nerdy enough to really like that, and also the various library/research issues in the Lando subplot) to the excellent finish, that’s what it really is.
The problem is in large part the non-Yevethan subplots:
1. there’s a reasonably interesting first-contact story using Lando which keeps distracting from the real story and which has absolutely no relevance to the other 2 subplots and is completely unnecessary. (Another reviewer comments that it would fit nicely as a stand-alone story like the pulpy Han Solo Adventures; I agree, and actually there were multiple Lando Calrissian Adventures, so even more reason…)
2. The subplot for Luke has more justification than Lando, but is still problematic for how sheerly boring and pointless it is. The ultimate justification seems to be the White Current assistance in the final battle and revelation of how they had been working against the Yevetha all along, but this is not much of a justification. It’s probably just as well, since any real info about Luke’s mother would have been rendered moot by the prequels (and I wonder if that’s why the ending had to be so disappointing?). The positive side is that in some respects, this subplot seems to anticipate how a lot of later writers would handle Luke - so perhaps we should not criticize Luke’s hermetical ways and musings. (Some of the resemblances to the Yuuzhan Vong/New Jedi Order story-arcs are striking, although I hated them enough that I stopped reading the EU after they started coming out.) Certainly he serves as a vehicle for some interesting bits like reflecting on the death toll of the first Death Star (although the Imperial Museum in Wedge’s Gamble is still a far better scene).
(One missed opportunity is Drayson; since Drayson is a key player in the major arc, and a key player in the start and end of Lando’s arc, the trilogy missed a chance to make an interesting and subtle move: have Drayson be the topic of the trilogy! It would examine his methods, choices, and beliefs as contrasted against those he manipulates and serves. Most people would not appreciate this subtlety, but that only makes it mirror the life of its subject all the more. But he plays no role in Luke’s subplot, so the interpretation fails. Too bad. The spy novel aspects were a major reason why Zahn’s trilogy was, and probably still remains, the greatest EU series.)
The criticism of Leia in the trilogy is, I think, off-base. A good character is not a omni-perfect automaton who never makes mistakes; Leia needs to make mistakes, and this depicts one of them. Calling that ‘bad characterization’ is just fanboyism. I am reminded of a foreword to one of the character encyclopedias which enthused, “Check it out, Leia never misses [in A New Hope]”. I did. She does, several times.
|Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society||Jim Manzi||★★★||2012||2013/01/25||Speaking as a die-hard believer in the value of randomization and meta-analysis, I’m not entirely sure how much I got from this book other than some useful assertions and interesting claims. To go through it roughly in order:
1. the first few chapters are a serviceable philosophy of science primer. We get discussion of how the Scientific Revolution was a break, we get some Popper and falsificationism, and as a very important correction, some Duhem-Quine; we get some cultural and vocation material, and discussion of the value of prediction even in non-experimental sciences. Chapter 6 is a bit of a waste as Manzi makes the standard criticism of frequentism that the basic ideal - probability as the limit of some particular set of events - is extremely imprecise since it gives absolutely no guide as to which set of events, since you can choose arbitrarily complicated events, but he does so on his own terms and without any reference to competing paradigms such as the many flavors of Bayesianism.
2. then we get into genuinely important material on the development of RCTs (he uses the term “RFT”, which I find silly). Personally, I could wish for a whole book on the gradual development and refinement, and many more examples of the superiority of RCTs to other approaches; his summaries of things like the US social program experiments is short and in many ways inferior to, say, Rossi’s “metallic laws”. ch9’s example analyses read like columns folded into the chapter, but I still enjoyed them as fun examples of critical thinking and how analyses can reach any goal.
3. with ch10 we finally get into Manzi’s own career. This section is… weirdly lacking in many examples, even though it’s the section where you would expect Manzi to just lay the smack down with countless scores of anecdotes and stories and statistics about how experimentation is the ne plus ultra of epistemology and exactly how much money it made all these corporations. There’s a few, like Capital One and some Internet companies, but it is not very thematically separate from point #2.
4. he issues some policy recommendations. Hard to argue with some of them: why not let in some immigrants as part of randomized experiments? It can hardly be worse than the current system. Fairly anodyne.
So overall good, and maybe great for people who aren’t familiar with the topics. But I think in general if I wanted a layman to appreciate statistics and its pitfalls and experiments, I might actually be better off giving them Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise (although they’re not totally comparable, of course).
People seem impressed by his Hayekian libertarian arguments using genetic algorithms as arguments. I don’t think they’re as well supported as they may seem. Just to name the obvious, society has changed massively over short time-spans, corporate mortality is astonishingly high, corporations do not replicate with high fidelity (“corporate culture” is fragile) etc; evolution, as it happens, can only filter out so many mutations per generation so past a certain point, a genome just decays. This, along with other considerations, strongly suggests that corporate ‘evolution’ is nothing but a poetic metaphor.
|Game Programming Patterns||Robert Nystrom||★★★||2011||2014/05/18||(I read the online version.)
This book follows the standard pattern for design pattern books: short chapters on each particular style, with definition, pros & cons, simple pedagogic example, comparisons with other design patterns, and possibly some discussion of real-world implementations & game engines. I haven’t heard of any other place where one could find this sort of game-oriented programming design advice, and in that respect, this book is unrivaled.
While far from encyclopedic, the chosen design patterns all seem like reasonable choices for video game programmers: there are some architectural ones like Flyweight & Singleton which everyone needs to know, and then a good helping of high-performance or game-specific patterns (eg. Data Locality/Object Pool/Dirty Bit & Double Buffer/Game Loop/Spatial Partition, respectively), as well as a few fairly exotic patterns which often show up in games but not that many other areas (for example, Byte Code shows up in a lot of games to support modding, but you’ll otherwise spot such things only in a few extremely-extensible applications like text editors or programming languages).
The web presentation is in standard 2.0-style: big font, lots of whitespace. Not too bad for reading, although the sidebar notes were annoying since a lot of them would have been better off incorporated into the text or simply axed, and their relation to the text could be very confusing if there were 2 or 3 on the same page. The web presentation also omits a major advantage of being online: comments! I started reading the site solely because I saw one of the chapters submitted to Hacker News & found it interesting. By a quick count, there’s 18 relevant discussions on Hacker News and another 37 on Reddit, yet someone reading it has no idea. There were many interesting comments and suggestions in those submissions, why not excerpt the best? Or at least link them at the end of each chapter as a “further reading” or something?
|The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason||John V. Fleming||★★★||2013||2013/08/09||The title might lead one to believe that Fleming is trying to show an inherent duality to science and the Enlightenment in general - its reliance on irrational methods or its oppression or inherent contradictions, say, perhaps an updated (and more factual) Foucault. But while it’s a clever play on words, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment boils down to some short biographies of minor figures in Europe: the obscure English faith healer Valentine Greatrakes, the French Jansenists, the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, Cagliostro, and Julie de Kruedener. If one looks for any sort of demonstration of a duality to the Enlightenment, one will be disappointed, as all the examples seem amply explained by simply pointing out that alchemists and religious types and fraudsters have always existed, and the case studies simply show that the Enlightenment did not sweep them away instantaneously, lock stock and barrel; one is surprised to note Fleming’s lack of emphasis on the more famous examples of the coexistence of religion & science, like Isaac Newton. Perhaps this is to ascribe a failure at goals that Fleming never aimed at, but regardless none of the sections are particularly compelling: while the Rosicrucian and Freemason sections seem like reasonable overviews of their subjects for people who don’t know anything about the topic, Greatrakes and Kruedener left me completely bored and wondering why Fleming considered them interesting enough to write a good chunk of a book on them summarizing other people’s books on them, and the Cagliostro section seems rather apologetic (although I have only seen passing references to Cagliostro before and know little about him).
Fleming’s medievalist traits show in his resentment for the low modern opinion of the Dark Ages, which is a little amusing, and his predilection for using very old and obscure books as sources. But this is the cause of the best aspect of this book: Fleming’s genuine appreciation that even in the Enlightenment, a great many people thought very differently than we do today, centuries later in a completely transformed age, and his attempt to lay out the forgotten background and bring home the difference in consciousness. For example, Fleming points out the absurdity of claiming that Milton either subconsciously or consciously wrote Paradise Lost with the Devil as admirable, given the intense religious convictions of that age and Milton’s own strong beliefs, and he does a credible job of conveying how so many Europeans and Catholics could seriously and factually believe that Napoleon Bonaparte was the literal Anti-Christ foretold by John in Revelations who would usher in the end of the world and sketching the gematria-based arguments Christian occultists concocted to ‘prove’ this. Getting in the “mind” of past ages is always hard, and I appreciate any author who gives me a little insight, even if much of the rest of his book left me feeling like I was wasting my time.
|Drift Into Failure: From Hunting Broken Components to Understanding Complex Systems||Sidney Dekker||★★★||2011||2015/05/08||(101k words) Somewhat disappointing. Dekker focuses on how the occasional rare disaster is very complex, which they can be, but never gets off his high horse, instead spending a whole book talking about how everything is terribly terribly complicated.
He sets up a strawman in which attempts to improve things evidences a naive and naturally wrong “Newtonian worldview” in which tragic cases of reductionism run amok guarantee disaster, and particularly mocks the swiss-cheese model of failure. The problem is, the more he rails against it and runs through the stereotypical case-studies like Challenger, the more apt that model seems, and the less Dekker seems to be trying to understand ‘Newtonian’ views or acknowledge that improvements are possible, that drift into failure is not inevitable. For example, in discussing the recommendations produced by an aircraft investigation, like making a hatch easier for mechanics to see into, he asks rhetorically how all these fatally flawed designs and procedures could possibly have gone unnoticed before the accident; the answer is, of course, that airplane accidents are vanishingly rare and so a contributing cause can be responsible for a large fraction of the current accident rate and that flaw be unnoticed before the accidents - if only 0.001% of planes crash and a too-narrow hatch is responsible for a full 10% of all crashes, then the hatch is a risk of only 0.0001%, and it’s entirely understandable that no one would notice that, and also true that fixing the hatch is worthwhile!
And one might think that he would devote great attention to the steady decline in aircraft fatalities; I kept waiting for that to come up, and on pg150, it finally does in the mouth of one of his students, and his response is… global warming. I’m not making this up, that is what he says, he ignores the fatality question and starts talking about global warming. Give me a break. More generally, there never seems to be an economic perspective taken: what is the right number of disasters? Why must there be zero disasters and any disasters are a failure of ‘Newtonian’ thinking?
I experienced a similar bit of shock to see how much space he devoted to the Gaussian copula; the Gaussian copula, for those who don’t recognize it, is an obscure bit of financial modeling which, after the housing bubble burst in 2007/2008, a few people blamed its assumption of independence for causing underestimates of the probability of housing prices falling, but you haven’t heard of it since because it quickly became apparent that this was a ridiculous theory which didn’t explain anything and was picking out an incidental surface feature while ignoring the real underlying drivers of the crisis.
Overall, I don’t think I learned much from this. If you’re interested in disasters and complex systems, you’re probably better off reading more standard texts like Feynman’s “Appendix F - Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle” or even just random post-mortems like the 2001 report “The explosion of No. 5 Blast Furnace, Corus UK Ltd, Port Talbot”.
|The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins||Gerard Manley Hopkins||★★★||1976||2016/05/24||(WP; Poetry Foundation biography). Hopkins is known as one of the most difficult English poets to read, and his poems bear out this reputation: they are always challenging in syntax, the vocabulary occasionally fazes even me, and some border on the incomprehensible (I had to read “Carrion Comfort” at least 3 times before I could honestly say I started to understand any of it, and I don’t get the meaning of much of it).
As important as his Catholicism was to him, the insertions of God into his poems often comes off as blunt, didactic, and unconvincing, especially compared to his ability to lyrically evoke nature, and I often felt that a poem would have been better off without it, quite aside from the apparently baleful effects of becoming a Jesuit on his life. (One author argues that Hopkins could not have been Hopkins without a devotion to God to drive his verse; but Nature has always served poets adequately in this regard…) His friend and editor, Robert Bridges, in the afterword quite accurately describes Hopkins’s faults: the grammar and syntax is unusually elliptical and out of order, exacerbated by the use of ambiguous words or simply obscure ones, often jammed together or rewritten to suit the rhythm (scrambling the sense even further), and the use of appallingly conventional rhymes. (One thinks of people who have mastered erudite vocabularies, but have not mastered when to use those words.) Hopkins, in other words, needed an editor. Bridges defends Hopkins as growing out of his excesses at his untimely death, and it is to be regretted that we’ll never know what poetry a mature Hopkins might have written; had he lived to a ripe old age, he might be as well remembered as Robert Frost is, instead of as an obscure and little-read experimentalist.
In descending order, I particularly liked:
Overall, I felt Hopkins’s corpus exhibits more frustrated promise than reward.
I read the Project Gutenberg edition.
|Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t||D. Jason Slone||★★★||2004||2015/02/11||
(56k words; 1.5 hours) A short book on some of the possible psychological predispositions to religious thinking as indicated by intuitive thinking. He diagnoses overactive theories of mind; teleological thinking; intuitive ontologies of what kind of people and things there are in the world; cognitive biases related to the birthday paradox, gambler’s fallacy, and confirmation bias, as major causes of religious thinking.
I was mostly disappointed by this naturalistic account; Slone spends a completely unnecessary and insulting amount of the book going over vaguely related historical background like Durkheim and the idea of ‘postmodernism’ or explaining things like ‘deductive reasoning’. You could well skip the first 3 of the 7 chapters in their entirety without losing much at all. Chapter 4 gets more interesting, as it covers the historically recent creation of modern Protestantized & philosophized Theravada Buddhism which has become popular in the West; this is going to be surprising to those not familiar with it, but you could see David Chapman‘s blogging on the topic for online coverage of the material. (It’s out of place, though, since that particular form of Buddhism is only relevant as a counterexample and he hasn’t yet presented his account of the psychological origins of superstition/luck/religious practice.) Chapter 5 does another short case-study in looking at the great religious awakenings in America in the 1800s and argues basically they resulted in more intuitive forms of theology becoming more widespread - the argument running basically ’Calvinism is unintuitive; Calvinism became a minority belief in America; that was because of the unintuitiveness; unintuitiveness is important’, pointing out that the Puritans were Calvinist but now few people are; now, I’m not an expert on American religions or demographics, but I am fairly sure there were more people in America than the Puritans, and other people may have come from other countries at some point too… Chapter 6 discusses luck and the statistical illusions that power it.
Though the book is supposed to be about the psychology research, there’s little account of the research or the methods or caveats attached to the research. Instead, he writes at tremendously abstracted levels about the results: we hear repeatedly how believers are “theologically incorrect” in that they perceive gods as more limited, agent-like, and human-like than their theologies say… how they perceive them, what studies show this result, and what the results mean - well, for that, you’ll just have to look up all the citations and read the papers yourself! (The one result I remember being discussed in any meaningful detail was asking very young children about whether they thought a mouse that had been eaten would later be hungry, or have thoughts or beliefs; no to the former, but yes to the latter.)
|On the Road||Jack Kerouac||★★★||1976||2004/01/01||A curious book: an unusual stylistic effort which in some passages reach great heights of beauty, combined with the most malign content. The strange thing reading it is wondering how this could ever have inspired a generation or been received as a model rather than a warning - it is one long crime spree by the characters, particularly Neal Cassady, even if the author is too in love with him to have the slightest perspective or critical thought or to realize that there is no redeeming value or spiritual meaning to any of their experiences other than as a warning against nihilistic hedonism and how charismatic conmen exploit voids.
‘Conman’ might well be too light a word for it; consider the following excerpts from ‘The Great Sex Letter’:
She (her name Patricia) got on the bus at 8 PM (Dark!) I didn’t speak until 10 PM – in the intervening 2 hours I not only of course, determined to make her, but, how to DO IT. I naturally can’t quote the conversation verbally, however, I shall attempt to give you the gist of it from 10 PM to 2 AM. Without the slightest preliminaries of objective remarks (what’s your name? where are you going? etc.) I plunged into a completely knowing, completely subjective, personal & so to speak “penetrating her core” way of speech; to be shorter (since I’m getting unable to write) by 2 AM I had her swearing eternal love, complete subjectivity to me & immediate satisfaction. I, anticipating even more pleasure, wouldn’t allow her to blow me on the bus, instead we played, as they say, with each other. Knowing her supremely perfect being was completely mine (when I’m more coherent, I’ll tell you her complete history & psychological reason for loving me) I could concieve of no obstacle to my satisfaction, well, “the best laid plans of mice & men go astray” and my nemesis was her sister, the bitch.
This quote, or for that matter the entire plot, would fit without anyone noticing any discrepancy as a case study in Cleckey’s psychopathy examples in The Mask of Sanity.
|Handbook of Intelligence: Evolutionary Theory, Historical Perspective, and Current Concepts||Sam Goldstein||★★★||2015||2016/03/28||28 paper anthology focused on non-human intelligence, the history of IQ, education, and a heavy emphasis on the CHC factorizations and how this is the dawn of the age of Cattell-Hornquarius.
For a book titled “Handbook of Intelligence” and published in 2015, it is bizarrely antiquated and could have been written in the 1980s - it is totally bereft of the past 6 years of behavioral genetics, from Rietveld et al 2013 to the UK Biobank to the phenome papers to Domingues to the continuity hypothesis work. You would think that these rich and exciting breakthroughs, showing intelligence to have a highly polygenic additive architecture with high intelligence being merely enrichment of common variants and genetic intelligence underlying education / SES / health / lower schizophrenia/bipolar/depression/behavioral-disorder risk (rather than confounding or reverse causation) with 9+ GWAS hits and 80+ upcoming, would be of some interest to the collected authors, but you will not find any of this discussed! You will not find several papers on the topics (nor on any broader behavioral genetics topics), you will not even find so much as a single citation to Rietveld et al 2013, the most important intelligence paper of the past 25 years, likely (I checked; there’s one citation to a paper written by Rietveld, but an old and unimportant one). It is like reading a handbook of physics which does not mention the Higgs boson or gravity waves.
You will instead find many dozens of pages devoted to things like eugenics or puzzling papers like “Intelligence as a Conceptual Construct: The Philosophy of Plato and Pascal”. This is a huge missed opportunity and I had to raise my eyebrows at the closing comments:
We applaud the work of our colleagues in zoology, evolutionary science, psychology, and education to appreciate the genetic and evolutionary roots of intelligence and to move forward to define intelligence. We are confident that the next 50 years of intelligence research will usher a new age in our understanding, evaluating, and enhancing intellectual development.
Yes, I imagine the next 50 years will indeed be extraordinarily exciting for the field of intelligence; however, I suspect all of that excitement will have very little to do with debates over CHC, the career of Charcot, or how to use IQ tests to diagnose reading disabilities…
Papers I found worth reading were: “Evolution of the Human Brain: From Matter to Mind”; “The Life and Evolution of Early Intelligence Theorists: Darwin, Galton, and Charcot”; “Alfred Binet and the Children of Paris”; “Creativity and Intelligence”; & “Intelligence and Success”.
|空ろの箱と零のマリア 1 [Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria 1]||Eiji Mikage||★★★||2009||2014/10/23||(55k words, ~3-4 hour read; read the Baka-Tsuki translation.) Time loop mystery.
Those familiar with novel/light-novel series like Hyouka or The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (particularly “Endless Eight”) will be at home here: yes, there’s a Japanese high school classroom, yes there will be a beautiful long-haired girl who interacts with the narrator, yes there will be a silent mousy short-haired girl who looks an awful lot like Rei Ayanami/Yuki Nagato in it who is inexplicably popular with the protagonist & readers, yes there will be a goofball sidekick. But the core of Hakomari is not tired romcom tropes, but rather a somewhat intelligent exploration of time-loops/Groundhog Days: besides the obvious like being able to acquire many skills and ‘predict the future’, how would you detect the center of such a time-loop and escape? What happens to people over many loops? Perfect time loops are too boring since by definition they cannot change, so what kinds of imperfect time loops are there? Are the ‘awake’ people really as powerful as they seem, or might the loopers be powerful in some ways themselves, as they can keep doing the same thing indefinitely and can be guaranteed to do so?
The answer to each question may seem to be pretty obvious, but Mikage lets the reader infer an answer and then yanks it away several times, using reasoning that would not be out of place in Death Note or Hyouka, using the out-of-order chapters to, like Memento, maintain suspense and mimick forgetting - mysteries are often as much about figuring out why something happened in the past as what happened in the past. (In this respect, it’s a trickier exercise than “Endless Eight”, where there’s multiple bits of time-travel but they’re all straightforward to understand.) By the end, it seems all mysteries have been tidily resolved, and the answers are good.
The riddle aspect works well, but the characters and setting otherwise leave me unmoved. The writing is unremarkable, setting is arbitrary, the characters are (as already indicated) stereotypes, and the ending is both a partial copout in averting a death which had been giving it pathos/depath and also a blatant gimmick for continuing to write the series if the first one sold well enough (which given there’s 6 of them now, it must’ve). The mystery part is fun, but like Primer it’s too lacking in the other departments to be more than good.
|The Ocean at the End of the Lane||Neil Gaiman||★★★||2013||2014/06/28||A Gaiman novella of ~54236 words. It uses the device of a frame story around a flashback which is the meat of the novella. The frame story is a sad divorced English artist returning to where he grew up for a funeral, and recollecting the circumstances. This aspect is dry, mannered, and reminscent of Mitchell’s Black Swan Green or Kazuo Ishiguro. The flashback is vintage Gaiman, with a plot predictable by anyone’s who’s read his young adult works (particularly Coraline): an ordinary person meets uncanny folk, gets inadvertently involved in deep matters, goes through hell, defeats the enemy, and survives more mature for it. The narrator is wry, with many acute observations (indeed, why do so many people destroy pea by overcooking them when they’re tasty on their own?), and the antagonist is exceedingly cruel & clever in seducing & turning the protagonist’s family against him. It’s a quick read of perhaps 2 hours, and is not especially complex: the work is almost entirely set at the protagonist’s home or the Hempstock farm, and shows its origins as a short story.
What makes this more than Gaiman going back to the well of mythos he has drawn from so many times before (oh look, another triune of mysterious powerful women! oh look, the fairy tale motif of the one forbidden action & of course the character does it) is the frame story’s tone of sadness and loss and wasted opportunity which otherwise shows up rarely in Gaiman’s fiction - it’s comparable to the death of the Sandman. By the end, the protagonist is pitiable: it was his fault, time and again, and ultimately the sacrifice was for him, and what has he done with his life? Little enough. As the shadows warn him, “There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time, until your loved ones give you poison and sell you to anatomy, and even then you will die with a hole inside you, and you will wail and curse at a life ill-lived.” At the end, the best the trinity can say for him is that he’s growing a new heart. Not that he’ll remember even that faint progress report.
It’s an interesting combo, and helps excuse some of the lamer bits. (Talk of electrons is jarringly out of place in a Gaiman work, and some aspects are too explicit about fantasy elements better left for the reader to wonder about.)
|A Confederacy of Dunces||John Kennedy Toole||★★★||1994||2013/03/13||It’s hard to know what to make of this… I’ve rarely read a book where the main protagonists inspires such disgust in me - even for a picaresque, the main character Ignatius is extreme. It is as if Toole read Cleckley’s Mask of Sanity and a psychology textbook, and said to himself, “how can I make the most offensive moronic character which mashes up the traits of both psychopaths and autists?” and then wrote a novel on it in which the protagonist’s countless evil actions, glib lies, narcissism, ignorance, sloth, leeching, and other flaws finally brought down an appropriate punishment - only to rescue him at the last moment for further adventures.
In particular, I’m not bothered that Ignatius pretends to be a medievalist Catholic. I’m bothered that as far as I can tell, Toole seems to genuinely try to present Ignatius as educated and learned and with a worldview (and reading the reviews here, it seems that most people do indeed take this for granted). The problem is, Toole fails. Utterly. In the entire book, Ignatius’s learning is displayed solely as repeated surface allusions to Boethius and Hroswitha, and a few other dropped names, and never anything of substance. Someone who read Wikipedia on Boethius and Hroswitha would know more than Ignatius does, and is probably literate enough to spot Ignatius (and by extension, Toole’s) failures, like writing ‘gyro’ where they were trying to make an allusion to Yeats’s ‘gyre’ (way to mess up an allusion to only one of the most famous poems ever!).
So, with the complete failure of Ignatius to offer any sort of Catholicly-grounded interesting critique or reflection on society (as a good picaresque is supposed to!), we’re left with the evocation of New Orleans (seems good enough, although I don’t know enough about New Orleans to really judge), the humorous value of each set piece (overall, low. Jeeves this is not.), and the final convergence of plot threads at the bar (a decent enough denouement but still leaves the first 150 pages a drag).
Is that enough to make it a masterpiece? I should think not. Indeed, A Confederacy of Dunces overall stands in stark contrast to Gene Wolfe or R.A. Lafferty’s better novels.
|Bitter Seeds (The Milkweed Triptych, #1)||Ian Tregillis||★★★||2010||2013/03/20||I loved Stross’s “A Colder War”, and enjoyed Powers’s Declare and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, so this was right up my alley. I enjoyed the concept and a few touches like the Thule Society, and don’t regret reading it: taking blood sacrifice seriously in a “beware while fighting monsters” makes for a gradually creeping sense of doom which is fitting, and I was impressed to see the old medieval debate over the language of infants resurrected and then taken to the max, which was a real bit of esoterica. The logical conclusion, a British program into Enochian, is a nasty enough conclusion that it convinced me to keep reading the series.
Downsides: the repeated use of raven sections is blunt; Gretel’s character is even blunter, we’re told almost on sight that “she sees the future and is manipulating everyone” and this is ground in ad nauseam, while subtlety would’ve worked better (maybe 1 hint at the beginning and then a revelation at the end for the inattentive reader - but we get what must be dozens instead); Nazi Germany is a total caricature; while sometimes the descriptions of places or events are excellent (like the opening), characters can be pretty wooden and I feel like Marsh is made to punch people to move the plot along (eg. to get himself fired, and then to ignore Will and not ask the sane thing like ‘why would you suggest something so horrible as an abortion when you know how much losing our child hurt us?’). The alt history is a little crude and lacking in details: in contrast to Declare or “A Colder War”, which wove in and rewrote all sorts of historical tidbits (some extremely obscure, in Declare), Bitter Seeds only does big brushstrokes - tanks going through the Ardennes, bad winter weather in Russia, a failure of a hypothetical Operation Sea Lion - and it omits all sorts of historical backgrounds that could’ve enriched it (Nazi occultism is a bizarre subject which is surprisingly underused by Tregillis; someone should’ve given him a copy of Morning of the Magicians or something). Hopefully he’ll weave a more intricate tapestry for the Cold War books; at least, I’ll be quite disappointed if James Jesus Angleton doesn’t make some appearances.
|Voyage of the Beagle||Charles Darwin||★★★||1989||2012/12/14||Frequently exceedingly dry and of no interest except to naturalists, and probably not always them either: Darwin’s voyage was so long ago that much of his information and speculation is simply outdated (his talk of ‘miasmas’ is one instance where later information makes his material of purely historical interest).
If one is reading it for background on evolution and Origin of Species, one will be disappointed: there are a handful of lines in the main part of the work which may be taken as prefiguring or groping towards evolution, and then there’s some speculation in the surprisingly short Galapagos section (I suspect he spends as much time describing the gauchos’ methods of horsemanship and dealing with cattle as he does on all of the Galapagos material!). In general, the ‘pacing’ is quite odd: reams of material on South America, some pages on the Galapagos, a dash to New Zealand & Australia, a long section on islands and ‘cacao-nuts’ (coconuts), a mini-monograph on coral atolls, and the book abruptly ends.
Which is not to say he doesn’t occasionally drop in interesting or acute observations, for he does. (The shepherd-dog of South America quite took my fancy, for example.) They are just rare welcome morsels in the general desert of this door-stopper. If I had to recommend it to my past self, I would tell him to skip the bulk but to read the Tierra del Fuego sections where the events are both interesting and evocative of the long uncivilized past of man (and perhaps his future), the Galapagos section for its substantial historical interest, and maybe the brief conclusion.
My National Geographic anniversary edition is substantially lacking in additional material; there is surprisingly little about its reception, what contributions it made, where it was prescient and where it was wrong (disturbing, since one doesn’t know what mistakes, misimpressions, outdated information, plausible yet wrong speculation, etc. one might be absorbing over the 400+ pages). As well, Darwin’s original illustrations would benefit mightily from additional material like color photographs and maps.
|Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website||Daniel Domscheit-Berg||★★★||2011||2011/11/08||I give it 3 stars solely because it is a unique primary source about WikiLeaks; if this was not from a principal player, it would not be worth reading as it is shallow incomplete garbage.
Negatives: the writing is absolutely atrocious, although I don’t know if this is due to the translation from the German or whether the co-author journalist screwed it all up.
And Domscheit comes off in some passages as too ignorant to even understand Assange’s beliefs (for example, I seem to recall that there was an irritating passage where Domscheit mocks Assange’s use of red light to help his sleep - even though this is standard chronobiology, that blue light influences melatonin secretion to retard the sleep cycle and keep one awake!). One is strongly reminded of Russell’s famous description of Xenophon’s writings on Socrates: “A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something that he can understand. I would rather be reported by my bitterest enemy among philosophers than by a friend innocent of philosophy.” Which is not to say that Domscheit’s portrait of Assange as a megalomaniac asshole is wrong, because from all the other coverage of him, it’s clear there’s a lot of truth to this portrayal.
Domscheit’s personal failings are only highlighted by the since-complete & unmitigated failure of his ‘OpenLeaks’ project.
It’s also bizarrely lacking in technical details, which is the one part one would hope a supposed geek like Domscheit would at least make sure his book got right! (Probably also thanks to the journalist.)
Still, many interesting bits. I remember thinking way back that for a group claiming so many participants & advisers, it had an oddly low flow of leaks - which Domscheit says was because it was mostly him and Assange; makes sense. I was amused to learn that the Iceland laws were based by Assange in part on Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon - again, makes sense in a curious way.
|The Pillow Book||Sei Shōnagon||★★★||2006||2016/07/31||While the descriptions of natural beauty are admirable, and some of the anecdotes of court life are interesting, much of the material is boring and Shonagon herself has ugly streaks of elitism in her outright contempt for anyone lower than herself (eg casually declaring that lower-class women should not even be allowed long or medium-length hair, an opinion which is certainly not ‘delightful’) and fawning admiration over anyone higher than her, particular the thoroughly unimpressive emperor/empress, and her endless fascination with the emblems of rank such as expensive clothing, which she apparently considers to be the full measure of a human and little else about them requires description.
For a skilled poet and one with such recall of Chinese & Japanese classics, it’s distressing to see how little insight she apparently has into anything and anyone, how much learning without wisdom; the court and its pretensions and hanger-ons surely invited sharp criticism, or at least some awareness of its faults, but Shonagon manages to conceal any such insight. No wonder Murasaki Shikibu thought little of her. The translator warns that
“Similar opinions have continued to be expressed down the centuries, and modern scholars (men) have often been equally irritated by her. She has been dismissed by some as a mere chatterbox of a woman, and The Pillow Book considered to be nothing more than a silly gentlewoman’s idle thoughts spilling themselves haphazardly on to the page. It is common in Japan to contrast her with Murasaki Shikibu, and those who side with Sei Shōnagon in this perceived rivalry are often characterized as vacuous and frivolous.”
|Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own||Garett Jones||★★★||2015||2016/02/24||Pop sci, which reads more like overgrown blog posts. Very weak overview of IQ’s connection to income: poor overview of what IQ is, all its correlates, the evidence establishing its causal role like the iodization historical studies (which I think are extremely important yet there’s not even allusions to their results), and surprisingly brief coverage of the cross-national correlational and longitudinal regressions (which you would think would be discussed at length). Jones pretty much doesn’t discuss core issues like measurement error of IQ and income, and he is shockingly naively optimistic about the prospects of boosting global IQ - he takes the Flynn effect fully at face value, ignores education signaling (this, from a colleague of Caplan…?), and totally ignores the technical issues about IQ gains typically resulting from loss of validity of the test, publication bias, short-term gains fading out, and the almost total failure to find meaningful intelligence boosts from anything other than parasite eradication and iron & iodine supplementation - which have been largely done for most countries…
I am not surprised that I learned little from the book, but I am disappointed that it is so superficial & scattershot and I cannot link it to other people as a good explanation of why IQs matter so much to people & countries and why we should put very high valuations on charitable projects like iodization.
See also http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/12/08/book-review-hive-mind/ / http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/12/10/list-of-passages-i-highlighted-in-my-copy-of-hive-mind/
|The City of Falling Angels||John Berendt||★★★||2006||2014/01/07||An American writer with access to Venetian high society moves there and writes down all the gossip and good stories he witnesses or hears about while living there for a few years. This book has all the strengths and weaknesses that this sounds like: on the one hand, these are pretty much all stories I am completely unfamiliar with since the reflections of Venice in things I have read or seen are typically of pre-20 century Venice (think stories like The Count of Monte Cristo or film works like Aria or histories of the Mediterranean region) and so stories like theaters burning or the Save Venice feuds or the Pound scandal are news; on the other hand, they were news to me because I didn’t care about any of them before and I don’t care much about them having read Falling Angels either. As one might expect, there’s not much cohesiveness to the stories beyond the narrator himself because real life is not so cooperative as to combine all the storylines into a single satisfying conclusion.
On the positive side: Berendt is a fine writer who smoothly narrates events and lets people speak for themselves more than most writers would. He is aware of the danger of relying on gossip and seems to keep an open mind as he critically examines all the versions and stories he’s told, and he seems to have spoken to everyone so he has plenty to compare. He also has a good eye for details and and interesting people and anecdotes. I don’t regret reading it, even if I don’t expect to ever re-read it nor learned any ‘big’ truths or stories.
|Structural Equation Modeling: A Bayesian Approach||Sik-Yum Lee||★★★||2007||2015/08/31||Heavily mathematical treatment of SEMs, with little attempt at catering to beginners or non-mathematicians; all implementation details are purged from the text and segregated to a website (which was less than helpful when I got around to reading it during a period of no Internet). It’s hard to see who the formalism would be useful for: who is so intimately familiar with the math & notation & linear algebra that they could follow this text’s exposition but don’t know anything about SEMs? I didn’t get much out of it except a sense that ML estimation really struggles with any remotely complex model that I could fit without a second thought in JAGS.
And despite usually taking a high-level mathematical approach, it devotes a peculiar amount of space to depicting convergence plots and noting how many samples it took the MCMC to converge, which is something that is usually of the least importance especially since none of the models seem to take more than a few thousand iterations to converge, which was a trivial amount of computation in 2007 and is even more trivial now. Some other aspects of the modeling struck me as questionable: repeatedly the models are analyzed by a peculiar procedure in which noninformative priors are used to analyze 10% and then the posterior is reused as the prior for the other 90% of the data - which should be completely pointless a procedure since it should deliver exactly the same final result, but the author apparently thinks it’s worth doing.
|The Autobiography Of Benvenuto Cellini||Benvenuto Cellini||★★★||1999||2012/10/05||To read this, one wonders how Cellini survived to age 20, much less age 70! He is constantly killing and being attacked, wenching his models, contracting hideous illnesses (or noting in passing the constant unexpected death of others), and being betrayed (by this account) or insulting others. It’s an endless exhausting cycle such that even Cellini had to notice its futility and danger. One has to wonder how much he exaggerates: aside from the demonology and weather-controlling, it seems so routine for people to go around armed and attacking for minor insults and then dying of a scratch. Then there is his strange attitude to his patrons: on the one hand, he seems largely unable to criticize them or the system despite wallowing in their corruption and wealth (surely the King of France wasn’t all that, and given the sheer servility & ignobility & criminality of the popes he deals with, his tolerance of them is astounding), but on the other hand, he almost goes out of his way to mess with them.
Well, it’s fun in small doses, the constant tumult of Cellini’s life suggests that the constant murder & assault & theft & large gifts we read of in picaresques or stories (like the Decameron) are much more realistic than we give them credit for, and it’s pretty cool to look at the Wikipedia article and see images of the works he labors over at such length in his autobiography.
|Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist||Thomas Levenson||★★★||2009||2014/03/21||A quick breezy read good for an evening; Levenson touches on the highlights of Newton’s early life & throughout keeps an eye out for the telling detail or quote which might bring the past to life for us, is sympathetic towards the alchemy and tries to put it in a context, and then plunges into Newton’s war with an obscure counterfeiter.
This section would make good background reading for Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (despite Levenson’s book being published in 2009 and the cycle finished in 2004, and the latter being one of the few places a reader might have encountered Newton in the same breath as counterfeiters, entirely unmentioned), as it pretty clearly explains the monetary issues of clipping, recoining, balance of exchange with Asia, etc, in a less digressive & action-packed manner than Stephenson’s doorstoppers.
It’s interesting that Newton was so involved in criminal matters, but in some respects Levenson is trying to wring blood from a stone: Newton doesn’t seem to have been any Sherlock Holmes (an apt comparison since Moriarty was an expert on Newtonian mechanics), but rather, just obsessive & hardworking and applying all the standard investigative techniques. The story is hampered also by the relatively low amount of documentation (one wonders what the boxes of documents Newton burned would have revealed).
|Drug Interdiction: Partnerships, Legal Principles, and Investigative Methodologies for Law Enforcement||George S. Steffan||★★★||2010||2015/10/08||An inside view of how to run the War on Drugs for the boots on the ground. If you can manage to stand the unctuous & self-congratulatory tone and its brazenness in pretending that civil asset seizure is anything but a travesty, you will find it’s an informative overview of how cops approach drug busts and what limits are on them, and confirmation of much of the common wisdom (for example, that the private carriers like UPS or FedEx have zero interest in standing up for their customers); I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I reveal that the book’s advice for each transportation modality can be boiled down to (1) cultivate informants among regular staff; and (2) trick or intimidate as many people as possible into agreeing to searches of themselves or their homes or possessions.
Those interested in the DNMs should read Chapter 3: “Knock and Talk Technique” & Chapter 10: “Drug Parcel Systems”. (The claims in ch3 may seem improbable, but if you read through my census of DNM arrests, particularly Australia or New Zealand arrests, you’ll see many people do immediately confess.)
|Daemon (Daemon, #1)||Daniel Suarez||★★★||2009||2013/03/27||An unfriendly AI designed by a dead billionaire (who for some reason reminded me a little of an evil John Carmack) takes over the world. The overall combination is good but nothing to write home about. The frequent appearance of autonomous vehicles is a nice touch and one too often absent from SF, near or far. Most of the technical details were good (I was not surprised to read the short author bio and learn Suarez is a practicing programmer, since the Ross character felt like an author self-insert).
But the decentralized conspiracy was done better in Sterling’s “Maneki Neko”, the creepy persuasive AI was done better in ‘Friendship is Optimal’, the technical detail in Cryptonomicon, the futuristic developments in Otherland, and the plutocracy/government stuff in multiple William Gibson novels (Suarez’s version being more than a little bit crude - citing Confessions of an Economic Hitman, really?).
And despite the lauded technical detail, the AI presented is farcical; it’s hard to see how any ‘logic tree’ could possibly handle all that the AI does even if Suarez throws in some failures to parse responses and writes up . (If I had an iPhone I’d probably snark about how Siri can understand the responses given by various characters fine, and hasn’t taken over the world.)
|Un Lun Dun||China Miéville||★★★||2007||2014/12/24||British urban fantasy; think Gaiman crossed with Pratchett’s humor, but worse than either alone. Miéville thinks he can pull off Gaiman’s bildungsroman mythic double-world shtick with Pratchett’s pun humor and put in a hefty helping of his own Marxist people power politics & environmentalism, but he can’t. The plot, after an initial subversion of the Heroine’s Journey, settles back onto track, and most of the jokes are more wince-worthy than amusing (I did like the ‘binjas’ and the ‘Black Windows’ of ‘Webminster Abbey’, and the alternative city names like ‘Not York’, but that’s about all). There’s also a weird tendency where the story seems like it’s about to deliver a brutal punch to the reader and kill off a character gruesomely to continue the subversion of tropes, but then pulls aside at the last minute - characters tend to die offscreen and not be particularly remarked, and the Smog delivers some very villainous monologues but fails to follow up onscreen with appropriately horrifying actions, to be cleaned up with a plain old deus ex machina which is unusually lazy for Miéville.
So, this isn’t a particularly good book for adult fans of Miéville but maybe it’s a good book for young teens? I couldn’t say.
|Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas||Hunter S. Thompson||★★★||1998||2014/08/19||Fear and Loathing is famous through osmosis: the opening chapters, the lines about bats, ether, drug collections, etc. The first quarter or so of the novel is justly famous. The rest of it… one wonders. After Duke & his lawyer wake up to go to the race, most of the rest is fairly unmemorable (in particular, the two halves stitched together structure is fairly crude.) The story is not terribly long, and it feel like the mostly-nonfiction it is: drug fiction tends to the ‘you had to be there’ kind of humor, and we were none of us there.
It also aspires to a greater import than it ever achieves, gesturing toward the ‘American dream’ and finding ‘fear and loathing’, which from this remote perspective, looks like bombast & bluff - we know the Nixonian moment would pass in an epic crash, that the USSR would fall, that the War on Drugs would not be “a boot stamping on a human face - forever”. (In particular, the famous ‘wave’ quote seems arbitrary and unsupported by its surrounding text, although I don’t doubt that Thompson felt those sentiments deeply.) So, the opening is fantastic, but the rest isn’t really worth reading now, for an average less than its repute would suggest.
|More Poems||A.E. Housman||★★★||1936||2015/06/08||(4.1k words, 49 poems; fulltext available at Wikilivres but unfortunately their version is riddled with typos) A posthumous collection of A.E. Housman’s poems. The tone is more conceptual than A Shropshire Lad, with much heavier classical & Christian influence, and not so much emphasis on the easy & flowing rhymes in short lines (the lines are often much longer); overall, I did not get as much out of the poems.
Verses I liked included: II “When Israel out of Egypt came” (last 3 stanzas), XXII “Ho, everyone that thirsteth”, XXVI “Good creatures, do you love your lives”, XXVII “To stand up straight and tread the turning mill”, XLVIII “Parta Quies”; plus an honorable mention of XXXI “Because I liked you better”, which while not really great verse on its own, becomes very moving once you know the autobiographical background.
There are two poems in this collection that I really love: VII “Stars, I have seen them fall”, and XLV “Smooth between sea and land”. Unfortunately, they are fairly famous and much quoted, so I had already read them - rendering reading More Poems redundant.
|Tau Zero||Poul Anderson||★★★||2006||2013/08/10||The single central conceit is outstanding and excellent hard SF, an interesting entry in what one might call ‘time dilation horror’; there’s only one central idea, however, which becomes strained with repetition over the length of the novel (as short as it is), and while I appreciate that Anderson tried to leaven the hard SF with real characters and interpersonal drama, I can’t say he succeeded.
For punch, some of Larry Niven’s Known Universe short stories using ramjets may be better (“Rammer” and “The Ethics of Madness” come to mind) and I would be remiss to not mention Peter Watts’s “The Island” (suggested soundtrack: Cloud Cult’s “There’s So Much Energy In Us”), although Tau Zero is much more ambitious.
|Matter (Culture, #8)||Iain M. Banks||★★★||2008||Absurdly lengthy, with one of the slowest setups ever followed by an equally abrupt and unsatisfactory resolution which kills off pretty much every character we might have even a faint interest in† thanks to something which is introduced out of nowhere maybe 4/5s of the way through. Banks is a great author, so of course there are plenty of rewarding nuggets scattered through out (the haunted ex-Culture man, the deceptive artifact, the general convincingness of ‘the stage is small but the audience great’ theme etc.), but much less than expected from a groaning tome’s worth of Banks. The shell world concept is not developed or employed well (you could replace all of the maneuverings with 2D equivalents if you wished), and the rest of the background and concepts seem pretty stock Culture.
† eg. I was expecting the betrayal to be linked to alien machinations, but no, it turns out to be exactly as simplistic as it seems, the ex-SC guy’s good argument to the contrary, and a complete red herring as he dies with everyone else, the complexity of his character never ascending beyond cackling evil.
|50 in 50: Fifty stories for fifty years!||Harry Harrison||★★★||2002||2012/08/22||I downloaded it to read ‘The Streets of Ashkelon’ (which did not disappoint, even though I read an earlier version in Borges and a much later version in Simmons’s Hyperion).
It’s a fun collection of relatively light stories; in classic SF style, each story is usually short, punchy, with a single point or idea highlighted by the ‘twist’ or punchline-style ending.
This means that they are rarely subtle (eg. I see complaints online that ‘Streets’ is an unfair caricature and reveals Harrison’s stock atheism, but it’s hard to lay out the world, story, maintain a decent style, and also be subtle or fair in just a few pages), but that’s a price I’m willing to pay. Also on the downside for a modern reader, Harrison shared the common SF preoccupation with the ‘population bomb’ and coming Peak Oil/great dieback; neither of which seem to have happened, thankfully, but they still irritate one to read just a little bit.
Hence, I couldn’t give this a 4 or a 5, but I don’t regret reading it since some were pretty good and I did laugh while reading some. So a 3 it is. RIP, Harrison.
|Shadow Games (The Chronicles of the Black Company, #4)||Glen Cook||★★★||1989||2013/06/12||Croaker and company head south, and things go surprisingly smoothly and well in the African countries they travel through until south of the Nile, they discover an evil empire is in their path menacing an innocent Babylonian-style city. Naturally, Dances with Wolves style, they’ll help the hapless natives protect themselves. And we get not one but four of the old Taken coming back to life (Howler, Shaper, Stormbringer, and Soulcatcher) -_-. Oh and also a ‘buried evil’ a la the Dominator. Yes, another one. That’s what, the third now? Good grief.
Like the previous book, my complaint here is that the plot is simple and straightforward, parts of it are very ham-handed (eg. once I got over my disgust at yes, another Taken was back, it was pretty obvious where the crows were coming from).
The upside is that it’s fun watching Croaker becoming the Captain and growing still more.
|Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway||Clifford Stoll||★★★||1996||I read this not long after publication, and re-read it a year ago weeding through my books. Between the two, I would have to give it 2-3 stars.
The good part is that at the time, he was correct in puncturing or deflating a lot of the most hyperbolic claims about the benefits of computers and the Internet: online shopping did have a ways to go, kids’ education was not being improved by computers (and may still not be), etc.
The bad part is, he was correct only in the short run. On many claims or predictions where he was absolutist, he is laughably wrong now, and we can expect his track record to continue to worsen as time passes.
This is actually a pretty common failure mode for skeptics of technologies: I call this the Amara effect, after Roy Amara: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”
|Memoirs Found in a Bathtub||Stanisław Lem||★★★||1986||2016/02/18||Another Lem high-concept entry in the ‘incomprehensible higher force/universe’ vein akin to Solaris & His Master’s Voice, with a military-espionage theme. It is much less successful: the military satire is inferior to other works like Catch-22, with perhaps the funniest part being the introduction’s historical speculations on & comic misinterpretations of 20th century societies, and there aren’t many of the interesting intellectual confections you expect from Lem. At his best, Lem can dispense all sorts of peculiar paradoxes or proposals or bravura interpretations, but in Memoirs, hardly any appear aside from one late in the book after a drinking party, perhaps because the world-building is so cursory (eg where does this giant bomb shelter get all these resources and adult humans from in the first place?).|
|iWoz||Steve Wozniak||★★★||2006||Fairly interesting, although i wish he had dilated more on his technical achievements: he described them in enough detail, I think, to annoy the non-geeks but just tantalize the geeks.
Steve Wozniak strikes me as a naive guy who seems to willfully let himself be exploited because to be less exploited would entail abandoning some idealized sense of childlike innocence (I was particularly incensed by Wozniak handing free millions to a hedge fund just because Wozniak had made a verbal agreement months or years before - that the hedge fund broke! - and they came back asking for more); Steve Jobs inadvertently comes off as a grasping penny-pinching asshole. My opinion was modified only somewhat by reading Isaacson’s Steve Jobs: Jobs could be munificent and non-penny-pinching - for anything to do with himself.
|House of Leaves||Mark Z. Danielewski||★★★||2000||As impressive and inventive a multimedia presentation this is, it’s hard not to think that the fictional Navidson movie described by the novel would be far more interesting or moving than the actual novel is, dragged down by a narrator who is interesting neither in voice nor message; ‘trying too hard’ is a phrase I apply to some experimental or postmodern works, and it fits here better than most. And are we to be moved by this? The labyrinth is constantly described and discussed in it, but one thing that goes unnoticed is that with the exception of Daedalus’s labyrinth, at the enter of almost all labyrinths is nothing at all, and when one reaches it, the only thing to is shrug and head back out.|
|The Judging Eye (Aspect-Emperor, #1)||R. Scott Bakker||★★★||2009||Bakker says he’s influenced by Frank Herbert, and it’s nowhere clearer than here - the reader of Dune Messiah will notice the uncanny echos. The final sequence is the almost inevitable theft from Tolkien of the Mines of Moria, but it’s sufficiently exciting and well-done that unlike a similar theft in The Sword of Shannara I didn’t put down the book in disgust.
The Thousandfold Thought was a sheer disappointment, and I did wonder whether to continue on to The Judging Eye, but I don’t much regret it. The new characters are still pretty dubious (Mimara is just an annoyance), but the psychopathic son has real promise as a very dark inversion of Leto II.
|No Country For Old Men||Cormac McCarthy||★★★||2006||2012/08/28||Somehow a disappointment, especially compared with Blood Meridian. It has some fantastic moments & writing (eg. Chigurh’s first coin toss), but wrapped in a plot which feels simplistic, cheap, linear, and video game-like; I thought at one moment that it was no surprise that it made what was apparently a great movie, since it read like a screenplay version of the real novel. Harold Bloom mentioned that the apocalypticism was a flaw, and here I would agree: it’s a flaw I’ve also seen surface in Gene Wolfe, and which tarnishes the stories or novels which take up a crude - dare I say, conservative? - sort of jeremiad against these fallen latter days.|
|The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, posthumanity, and awkward social situations||Cory Doctorow||★★★||2012||A mixed bag. A third of the way through, I was ready for 2 stars, and reading only because I remembered the preview as being pretty good; it was reading like the worst parts of Doctorow crossed with cutting-floor scraps from Stross’s Accelerando (general advice: if you haven’t read Accelerando yet, I strongly strongly recommend it over Rapture of the Nerds).
After suffering through the crap of the first half, I finally get to the real story (recommendation: C-f to “It’s the Singularity!” if you want to save yourself the grief). This is pretty fun and decent, although the judge scenario is far from new.
|Chinese History in Economic Perspective||Thomas G. Rawski||★★★||1992||2012/09/08||Fairly technical, largely not of interest to non-specialists. Some of the papers captured my interest: the demographic analysis revealing very high infanticide rates and mortality patterns of females was quite interesting, and some of the papers revealed a better integrated and more sophisticated Chinese market economy than I had expected, with less income inequality or dysfunctionality than one gets the picture of when reading of pre-WWII warlordism and civil war.
(I read the online version.)
|The Wallet of Kai Lung (Kai Lung #1)||Ernest Bramah||★★★||2002||2013/07/19||One reads this for the language on display by Bramah: the absurd sustained Latinate circumlocutions which forever perendinate and cunctate on expressing their simple sense. As far as that goes, it’s quite an interesting exercise and the source of a number of parodic versions of China/Japan, I suspect. I am not sure how many people are up to a entire sustained anthology of this, though: the stories are relatively flimsy and one can drown in the prose while losing track utterly of the plot and personages, which certainly is not calculated to create charm nor cheer in the consumer.|
|Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day||Daryl Collins||★★★||2009||2012/12/10||The first 2 or 3 chapters are very interesting and enlightening on the risk borne by the poor and how they do their best to cope; however, the rest is generally repetitive and shows the same data in somewhat different ways and countries, and become boring quickly - making this one of the padded books which would’ve been a better read as a longform article or essay. (One exception is the discussion of APRs and how the loans actually are done which renders them far less usurious.) Ironically, the appendices were more interesting than many of the narratives in the later chapters.|
|A Random Walk Down Wall Street||Burton G. Malkiel||★★★||2004||It’s hard to believe at this point that Malkiel’s views on the desirability of indexing and not trading and the basic truth of the efficient market hypothesis were ever controversial or not conventional wisdom (the 1 and 2 star reviews here notwithstanding… how many geniuses like Peter Thiel blew up betting against Treasuries in the past few years, guys? Efficient markets FTW.), but nevertheless, he was a pioneer. I didn’t wind up learning too much from this since it’s targeted at beginners, but that is not its fault and the advice is generally sound.|
|Kim||Rudyard Kipling||★★★||1981||Though it’s one of his most famous, I found it hard to like. It’s laden in Orientalism, picaresque almost to a fault, the Buddhism is a little laughable for all that it might have been state of the art in the 1800s (although less laughable than the ornate antique language forced on every character), and the plot is a bit of a trainwreck with endless pages lavished on Kim growing up only to abruptly end in a short theft of documents and an equally abrupt and unsatisfying finish to the religious quest that previously drove events.|
|Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace||David Lipsky||★★★||2010||2015/09/13||For DFW completionists only. As DFW himself points out during the conversations, a writer is not at his best extemporaneously; any good work is the condensation of the peak moments of months or years. It is interesting to see DFW express his thoughts in a rather raw, unfiltered, and direct way, but I don’t think anyone needed confirmation of the standard interpretations of Infinite Jest when he already laid out all his cards in his “E Unibus Pluram” essay on television, did they?|
|Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age||Clay Shirky||★★★||2010||2012/10/03||Short, fluffy - an attempt to expand on what is a pretty short idea at core. If you read or watched any of his previous talks like “GIN, TELEVISION, AND COGNITIVE SURPLUS” and have followed some of his other writings, there’s little new here for you. One advantage of being in book form is that he includes his references.|
|Everything Bad is Good for You||Steven Johnson||★★★||2006||2011/11/03||I thought it was very short and not in depth at all; yeah, his handful of graphs of episodes was interesting from the data visualization viewpoint, but most of his arguments, such as they were, were qualitative and hand-wavey. (What, there are no simplistic shows these days?) The best I can say is: the thesis is not obviously impossible or wrong a priori, but needs a heck of a lot more empirical backing.|
|Spice & Wolf, Vol. 1||Isuna Hasekura||★★★||2009||2013/07/28||I’m afraid this suffers badly in comparison with the anime: Hasekura isn’t nearly as good at conveying Lawrence & Holo’s interactions as good animators + good seiyuu, and really, that’s the heart of the story. If you can’t get that perfect, then there’s not much to it, and the irritating aspects of light novels come to the fore (very short, sketchy chapters, endings that feel almost rushed, etc).|
|The Art of UNIX Programming||Eric S. Raymond||★★★||2003||2014/11/22||(Read online version.)
Not bad, but more than enough dated at this point (finished in 2004 and most of it is more relevant to before then) that I’m not sure how much is worth reading. The CLI material is as worthwhile as ever, but the GUI parts are totally obsolete. The case studies are also rather too brief.
|Psychiatry And The Human Condition||Bruce G. Charlton||★★★||2000||2012/10/23||Not really sure what to make of it; it has interesting ideas but so broad that one has no idea if they’re right or if Charlton is hiding fatal evidence (he doesn’t have the best reputation these days, and this book way back when wasn’t received with acclamations), and one would have to be an expert oneself to know whether Charlton is putting the pieces together in a licit way.|
|The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record||Stanley Appelbaum||★★★||1980||2013/08/07||As the other reviews say: worth it for the photographs, not so much the commentary. Some might be a little disappointed by the focus on the neo-classical prestige buildings and not parts us moderns would find of vastly more interest, like the first Ferris wheel, the first Japanese building in the US, Wild Bill’s show, etc, but it’s still much better than nothing.|
|Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error||Kathryn Schulz||★★★||2010||Touched on a lot of the standard points and citations you’d see somewhere in skeptical literature like LessWrong, but in a very much fuzzier humanities sort of way. Couldn’t really recommend it unless you’re the sort of person who has never heard of Tetlock or Quine or the studies on eyewitness fallibility or read their Kahneman etc - for beginners only.|
|Silently and Very Fast||Catherynne M. Valente||★★★||2011||2012/01/01||Read this on Cosma Shalizi’s recommendation.
While the writer is clearly skilled, the style grates and the story leaves me cold: the only fairy tale that really spoke to me was Turing’s (but turning his life into a fairy tale, given his death, is almost cheating).
|The Cinema of George Lucas||Marcus Hearn||★★★||2005||2012/04/26||Like any authorized, lots of interesting details, gorgeous photos, and thorough with the glaring exception of zero critical thought or criticism or appraisal (except, perhaps, for brief discussions of how Lucas wrote the Star Wars movies drawing on friends and acquaintances, a system which seemed to break down for the prequels - with dismal results).|
|The Difference Engine||William Gibson||★★★||1992||2011/03/10||Struck me as a lot like Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle though it came long before, and while very interesting and inventive, somehow the overall story never really gelled for me - I think the problem may be that Gibson doesn’t develop his milieu in enough detail or imaginatively enough that the world and its characters can really come to life for one.|
|It’s behind you - The making of a computer Game||Bob Pape||★★★||2013||2013/09/30||Vividly conveys the fly-by-night and chaos of early computer games and some of the contortions & challenges of dealing with the limited computers of the day. All in all, though, I think Mechner’s The Making of Prince of Persia is a better read if you’re not specifically interested in R-Type.|
|The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed: Computer Prose and Poetry||Racter||★★★||1984||2010/01/01||Summary: the dreams quote in the Wikipedia article really was the most evocative part of the collection. Most of it wasn’t worth reading, and extremely suspiciously sophisticated and likely written by Chamberlain, which reduces the novelty value. (I read the online version.)|
|Making Money (Discworld, #36; Moist Von Lipwig, #2)||Terry Pratchett||★★★||2007||2012/01/18||Pretty mediocre, hard to believe plot (since when did Ankh-Morpork need fiat money? the gold standard went fine for highly industrialized countries right up to the Depression), and when did the patrician become the philosopher-king? I enjoyed it much less than Hogfather, which I read around the same time.|
|A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!||Harry Harrison||★★★||2000||2011/05/25||Rather short, but a fast read - Victorian flavored but not unreadable like a lot of steampunk. Decent but not great alternate history. (To call it great, I’d want it to be harder alt history with more details about how a transatlantic tunnel could even work at all, wrapped into a more engrossing story.)|
|Handbook of Psychopathy||Christopher J. Patrick||★★★||2007||2012/09/07||Highly technical and definitely not for anyone who has not read on the topic before or read a great deal of psychology research. Some papers are a waste, but some other papers are really good: I admired Harris & Rice 2006, and especially their careful analysis/takedown of the Salekin meta-analysis.|
|Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work||Matthew B. Crawford||★★★||2009||2012/10/15||Overall, makes many good points.
His discussions of computers, though, are not very well-informed; in particular, his footnote on Godel and Turing is pretty bad, although I think he may just have been misled by the authors he’s relying on like Searle, Penrose, and Andrew Hodges.
|Back to Methuselah||George Bernard Shaw||★★★||2008||2013/01/15||Strange - a sort of extremely slow progress that runs antithetical to modernity. In many ways (in terms of the nonfiction aspect of Shaw’s project), J.B.S Haldane’s “Daedalus, or, Science and the Future” is far superior, or Bernal’s The World, the Flesh, and the Devil.|
|Ragnarok||A.S. Byatt||★★★||2011||2011/10/19||Byatt’s Norse is not mine; she writes very well, but to me, Norse myth is about the striking verse, the illuminating kenning, the weirdly powerful line, yoked to phantasmagoric unconnected incidents under the dark shadow of Wyrd… (Much shorter than expected.)|
|10 Print Chr$(205.5+rnd(1)); Goto 10||Nick Montfort||★★★||2012||2012/12/02||A “world in a grain of sand” enterprise, it succeeds better at the task than I expected. (The sections on modern art are very strained, however. I would’ve preferred some mathematical analysis of the mazes generated and their properties to that whole section.)|
|Vader’s Little Princess||Jeffrey Brown||★★★||2013||2013/08/02||Cute, but superficial as intended. The main appeal of this for me was seeing just how many classic Star Wars lines or scenes could be twisted into hoary stereotypical teen jokes - it was many more than I would have expected!|
|Musa Pedestris - Three Centuries of Canting Songs and Slang Rhymes [1536 - 1896]||John Stephen Farmer||★★★||2007||A great source for writers wishing to use cant since it shows them off in context. The best poem (most are pedestrian in the negative sense) would be “Villon’s Straight Tip To All Cross Coves”, which is a marvel of its kind.|
|The Far Side Gallery 3||Gary Larson||★★★||1988||2014/11/26||I think I liked them better as a kid; re-reading, I realize Larson really only had a few jokes & characters which he permuted endlessly. It doesn’t grow up with you as much as some others like Calvin & Hobbes do.|
|Economic Analysis of the Law: Selected Readings||Donald A. Wittman||★★★||2002||2011/10/20||Best essays were the blackmail, aboriginal, sports, and baby markets. The earlier ones were terribly dry, theoretical, and often justified themselves by appealing to rational actors and the status quo.|
|Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation||Jay L. Garfield||★★★||2001||2012/08/27||Much of it is relatively technical, especially the parts dealing with Nagarjuna, and not suited to those who haven’t read the key texts. I did enjoy the comparison with Sextus Empiricus a lot, though.|
|The Luck Factor: Changing Your Luck, Changing Your Life - The Four Essential Principles||Richard Wiseman||★★★||2003||2011/05/23||This book is almost too padded to be worth reading. Is there a condensed version anywhere? The ideas seem like they might have something to them, but it’s hard to find the meat under the flab.|
|The Sword of Good||Eliezer Yudkowsky||★★★||2009||A clever subversive ending doesn’t make a story great. To some extent, this critique was done much better in Spinrad’s The Iron Dream or Herbert’s Dune/Dune Messiah for that matter.|
|Surface Detail (Culture, #9)||Iain M. Banks||★★★||2010||2011/07/20||The usual intertwined Banks plotting was easier to follow this time, and the overall resolution very satisfactory. Not as interesting as Player of Games, but still a solid Culture novel|
|The Children of the Sky (Zones of Thought, #3)||Vernor Vinge||★★★||2011||2011/11/01||As much as I like the Zones of Thought universe, this drags in the middle, Tine society isn’t as interesting second time around, and it doesn’t end the storyline.|
|The Night Land||William Hope Hodgson||★★★||2001||2012/02/28||Very strange, studiedly & almost unreadably archaic, not really recommended except for the excellent early worldbuilding & evocation of the dying earth setting|
|Genius Revisited: High IQ Children Grown Up||Lee Kassan||★★★||1993||2016/06/13||Due to length I’ve split my review out to http://www.gwern.net/Statistical%20notes#genius-revisited-on-the-value-of-high-iq-elementary-schools|
|A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry||Czesław Miłosz||★★★||1998||2012/10/09||A fairly mediocre collection, with many cliched inclusions and far too many Polish or Chinese selections; Milosz’s prefaces shed little light.|
|The Closing of the American Mind||Allan Bloom||★★★||1988||2011/11/27||More interesting than I expected (not just a conservative cliched curmudgeon) but ultimately leaves me mostly unmoved.|
|Bleak Seasons (The Chronicles of the Black Company, #6)||Glen Cook||★★★||1997||2013/06/13||A dark fantasy version of Slaughterhouse Five, but more so.|
|Epic Measures: One Doctor. Seven Billion Patients.||Jeremy N. Smith||★★★||2015||2015/09/21|
|Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment||Ivor A. Richards||★★★||2004||2015/09/07|
|Last Poems by A. E. Housman||A.E. Housman||★★★||2010||2015/06/15|
|Congressional Anecdotes||Paul F. Boller Jr.||★★★||2006||1998/01/01|
|Fine Structure||Sam Hughes||★★★||2010||2011/01/01|
|Blood and Beauty: The Borgias||Sarah Dunant||★★★||2014||2014/09/21|
|A Night in the Lonesome October||Roger Zelazny||★★★||1994||2014/07/18|
|Roadside Picnic||Arkady Strugatsky||★★★||2000||2014/07/16|
|The Story of Life Insurance||Burton Jesse Hendrick||★★★||1907||2009/01/01|
|Guerrilla Warfare||Ernesto Che Guevara||★★★||1985||2003/01/01|
|Six Memos For The Next Millennium||Italo Calvino||★★★||1996||2014/01/29|
|Letters from a Stoic||Seneca||★★★||2004||2014/05/05|
|The Invention of Morel||Adolfo Bioy Casares||★★★||2003||2014/04/01|
|Myth-Taken Identity (Myth Adventures, #15)||Robert Asprin||★★★||2005||2008/07/15|
|An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake||Tom Horton||★★★||1997|
|Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach||Meryl Gordon||★★★||2008||2013/06/21|
|Water Sleeps (The Chronicles of the Black Company, #8)||Glen Cook||★★★||2000|
|How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic||Ariel Dorfman||★★★||1984|
|Introducing Nietzsche: A Graphic Guide||Laurence Gane||★★★||2005|
|History of the Conquest of Mexico/History of the Conquest of Peru||William H. Prescott||★★★||2000|
|The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte||Karl Marx||★★★||2005|
|Modern Egypt||Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer||★★★||2009|
|Young Philby||Robert Littell||★★★||2012||2013/04/01|
|Dreamland: Travels Inside the Secret World of Roswell and Area 51||Phil Patton||★★★||1998||2013/03/27|
|Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction||Damien Keown||★★★||2005|
|Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project, 1939-1945: A Study in German Culture||Paul Lawrence Rose||★★★||1998||2013/02/15|
|Man’s Search for Meaning||Viktor E. Frankl||★★★||2006|
|Heaven and Hell||Aldous Huxley||★★★||1956|
|The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell||Aldous Huxley||★★★||2004|
|Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy||Christopher L. Hayes||★★★||2012|
|Harry Potter and the Natural 20||Sir Poley||★★★||2012|
|The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement||Eliyahu M. Goldratt||★★★||2004|
|Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, #1)||Robin Sloan||★★★||2012|
|How to Succeed in Evil||Patrick E. McLean||★★★||2007|
|The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome||Tony Attwood||★★★||2006|
|The Testament||John Grisham||★★★||1999|
|The Drive-In||Joe R. Lansdale||★★★||2005|
|A Vindication of the Rights of Women||Mary Wollstonecraft||★★★||2004||2012/09/01|
|The Warrior Prophet (The Prince of Nothing, #2)||R. Scott Bakker||★★★||2005|
|The Locked Room (The New York Trilogy, #3)||Paul Auster||★★★||1986|
|Ghosts (The New York Trilogy, #2)||Paul Auster||★★★||1987|
|The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies||Michael Breen||★★★||2004|
|On Bullshit||Harry G. Frankfurt||★★★||2005|