Book Reviews

A compilation of books reviews of books I have read since ~1997.
personal, anime, criticism, shell, statistics, fiction, reviews, Gene-Wolfe
2013-08-232020-10-12 in progress certainty: log importance: 5

This is a com­pi­la­tion of book reviews; 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.)

Book reviews are sorted by star, and sorted by length of review within each star lev­el, under the assump­tion that longer reviews are of more inter­est to read­ers.

See also my and .

Links are included to my other reviews of books (eg the visual novel Umineko, or my long book reviews of ///) which were too long for GoodReads.

5 Stars

Like Engend’ring Like, Russell 1986

“Ori­gins of Inno­va­tion: Bakewell and Breed­ing”; A review of Rus­sell 1986’s Like Engend’ring Like: Hered­ity and Ani­mal Breed­ing in Early Mod­ern Eng­land, describ­ing devel­op­ment of selec­tive breed­ing and dis­cussing mod­els of the psy­chol­ogy and soci­ol­ogy of inno­va­tion.

See .

Cat Sense, Bradshaw 2013: Are We Good Owners?

I review John Brad­shaw’s book on cat psy­chol­o­gy, Cat Sense, after diffi­cul­ties deal­ing with my own cat. Brad­shaw reviews the his­tory of domes­tic cats from their appar­ent Mid­dle East­ern ori­gins as a small soli­tary desert preda­tor to their domes­ti­ca­tion in Ancient Egypt where breed­ing mil­lions of cats for sac­ri­fice may have played a crit­i­cal role (as opposed to any unique role as a ver­min exter­mi­na­tor) through to the mod­ern day and psy­cho­log­i­cal stud­ies of the learn­ing abil­i­ties and per­son­al­i­ties of cats, with par­tic­u­lar empha­sis on cat social skills in “cat colonies” and plas­tic­ity in kit­ten­hood. As Brad­shaw diag­noses it, these are respon­si­ble for what abil­ity they have to mod­ern pet life, even though they are not bred for this like dogs; every tame cat still has the feral cat in them, and are in many ways unsuited for con­tem­po­rary liv­ing, with dis­turb­ing hints that human lack of selec­tive breed­ing plus recent large-s­cale spay/neuter pop­u­la­tion con­trol efforts may be pro­duc­ing a sub­tle dys­genic effect on domes­ti­ca­tion, and this dou­ble neglect and back­fire may be respon­si­ble for dis­turbingly high rates of cat mal­adap­ta­tion and chronic stress dis­eases.

See .

The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T., Brand 1988

How do you time your star­tup? Tech­no­log­i­cal fore­casts are often sur­pris­ingly pre­scient in terms of pre­dict­ing that some­thing was pos­si­ble and desir­able and what they pre­dict even­tu­ally hap­pens; but they are far less suc­cess­ful at pre­dict­ing the tim­ing, and almost always fail, with the suc­cess (and rich­es) going to anoth­er.

Why is their knowl­edge so use­less? Why are suc­cess and fail­ure so inter­twined in the tech indus­try? The right moment can­not be known exactly in advance, so attempts to fore­cast will typ­i­cally be off by years or worse. For many claims, there is no way to invest in an idea except by going all in and launch­ing a com­pa­ny, result­ing in extreme vari­ance in out­comes, even when the idea is good and the fore­casts cor­rect about the (even­tu­al) out­come.

Progress can hap­pen and can be fore­seen long before, but the details and exact tim­ing due to bot­tle­necks are too diffi­cult to get right. Launch­ing too early means fail­ure, but being con­ser­v­a­tive and launch­ing later is just as bad because regard­less of fore­cast­ing, a good idea will draw over­ly-op­ti­mistic researchers or entre­pre­neurs to it like : all get immo­lated but the one with the dumb luck to kiss the flame at the per­fect instant, who then wins every­thing, at which point every­one can see that the opti­mal time is past. All major suc­cess sto­ries over­shadow their long list of pre­de­ces­sors who did the same thing, but got unlucky. The les­son of his­tory is that for every lesson, there is an equal and oppo­site les­son. So, ideas can be divided into the over­ly-op­ti­mistic and likely doomed, or the fait accom­pli. On an indi­vid­ual lev­el, ideas are worth­less because so many oth­ers have them too—‘mul­ti­ple inven­tion’ is the rule, and not the excep­tion. Pro­gress, then, depends on the ‘unrea­son­able man’.

This over­all prob­lem falls under the rein­force­ment learn­ing par­a­digm, and suc­cess­ful approaches are anal­o­gous to Thomp­son sampling/posterior sam­pling: even an informed strat­egy can’t reli­ably beat ran­dom explo­ration which grad­u­ally shifts towards suc­cess­ful areas while con­tin­u­ing to take occa­sional long shots. Since peo­ple tend to sys­tem­at­i­cally over-ex­ploit, how is this imple­ment­ed? Appar­ently by indi­vid­u­als act­ing sub­op­ti­mally on the per­sonal lev­el, but opti­mally on soci­etal level by serv­ing as ran­dom explo­ration.

A major ben­e­fit of R&D, then, is in lay­ing fal­low until the ‘ripe time’ when they can be imme­di­ately exploited in pre­vi­ous­ly-un­pre­dictable ways; applied R&D or VC strate­gies should focus on main­tain­ing diver­sity of invest­ments, while con­tin­u­ing to flex­i­bly revisit pre­vi­ous fail­ures which fore­casts indi­cate may have reached ‘ripe time’. This bal­ances over­all exploita­tion and explo­ration to progress as fast as pos­si­ble, show­ing the use­ful­ness of tech­no­log­i­cal fore­cast­ing on a global level despite its use­less­ness to indi­vid­u­als.

See .

Radiance, Scholz 2003

Radi­anceCarter Scholz2003★★★★★

(Quotes are extracted from my ; see also my list of other review & excerpts from them.)

Pub­lisher sum­ma­ry:

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.

The Soviet Union has col­lapsed. But new ene­mies are sought, and new rea­sons found to con­tinue the work that has legit­imized the power of the Lab, its man­agers, and the politi­cians who fund them. Quine is thrust into the cen­ter of pro­grams born at the inter­sec­tion of para­noia, greed, and ambi­tion, and torn by incom­men­su­rable demands. Dead­lines slip and cost over­runs mount. He is drawn into a mael­strom of pol­icy meet­ings, clas­si­fied doc­u­ments, petty betray­als, inter­rupted con­ver­sa­tions, missed mean­ings, unan­swered voice­mail, stolen data, and porno­graphic files. Amid all the noise and sta­tic of the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury made man­i­fest in weapons and anti-weapons, human beings have set in motion a malign and inhu­man real­i­ty, which now is beyond their con­trol.

More than a cri­tique of cor­rupt sci­ence and a per­ma­nent wartime econ­o­my, Radi­ance is a novel of lost ide­als, bro­ken aspi­ra­tions, and human costs. In this vivid satire, rela­tion­ships are just a ques­tion of who’s using whom. Fail­ure is just another word for oppor­tu­ni­ty. “Spin” is a prop­erty not of atomic par­ti­cles but of the news cycle. Nature is a blur beyond the wind­shield, where lives are spent on the road, on the phone, on the make, in fierce com­pe­ti­tion for finan­cial, polit­i­cal, and intel­lec­tual resources. It is a world which lan­guage is used to evade, manip­u­late, and expe­dite. It is a world where every­one’s story is always open to revi­sion and lan­guage is used for jus­ti­fy­ing every­thing from defense pro­grams to divorce.

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 and 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.

In the heart of that light, lucid and inevitable, all that was scat­tered cohered. Super­bright and all its prog­eny stood plain before him in con­cep­tion and in detail and in its com­po­nent part and its deep­est strate­gies and in its awful and entic­ing radi­ance. He saw the design and the mak­ing of that device com­plete, and of fur­ther devices with­out end, and he stood apart from them as if it mat­tered not at all whether the deviser was him­self or whether they came into being sooner or lat­er. Trem­bling he stared across the burn­ing fields and whis­pered, –Stop. Stop. But the traffic rushed on.

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 and 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.

The man was Fran­cis Bacon, his Great Idea was the sci­en­tific method, and he was the only crack­pot in all his­tory to claim that level of ben­e­fit to human­ity and turn out to be com­pletely right."

It starts with Bacon…

But the traffic rushes on. And the work goes on.

Stories of Your Life and Others, Chiang 2010

Sto­ries of Your Life and Oth­ersTed Chi­ang2010★★★★★

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 (too often tedious and unsolved puz­zle­box­es). 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. (Prob­a­bly an even bet­ter read for those who haven’t read about themes of super­in­tel­li­gence before.)
  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. In this respect, like many of the other review­ers on this page who pan it as ‘dumb see­ing-the-fu­ture’ tropes, the fault was mine: “Story of Your Life” is much bet­ter than the crit­ics give it credit for being, sim­ply because they entirely failed to under­stand the con­cept despite quite a lot of expla­na­tion from Chi­ang. 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. Think­ing about it, I real­ized it does some­thing unusual in pro­vid­ing another angle, a psy­cho­log­i­cal angle, to time­less inter­pre­ta­tions of physics and block uni­verses and back­prop­a­ga­tion in neural net­works and I even con­nected it to Zen, which makes them all a lit­tle eas­ier to under­stand for me. I did­n’t get it the first time, but I’m glad I even­tu­ally reread it and ‘got’ it. I would rank this #3 of the 8 sto­ries. #3. This story is what I believe was the first adap­ta­tion of any of Chi­ang’s sto­ries, despite being over­rated like “Life Cycle of Soft­ware Objects”, get­ting . Since there seems to be some con­fu­sion over what exactly Chi­ang is try­ing to say with this one, I’ve expanded out my thoughts on what is actu­ally going on in an essay: The movie, how­ev­er, avoids this almost entire­ly. When I heard there was going to be a movie, I said to myself, “I bet it’ll miss the entire point and make it about time travel or some­thing”. It does. Avoid­ing the physics entirely (!) the screen­writer takes the off­hand men­tion of Sapir-Whorf and inter­prets the pro­tag­o­nist as get­ting actual time-travel pow­ers; based on his inter­view mak­ing no men­tion of why and when he decided to dras­ti­cally sim­pli­fy, I sus­pect he does­n’t even real­ize how badly he failed to under­stand it. The scriptwriter appar­ently took the only bits he under­stood, a men­tion of the Sapir-Whorf hypoth­e­sis (which is mostly a hypoth­e­sis, as decades of search­ing have turned up less than impres­sive empir­i­cal results like slightly eas­ier per­cep­tion of named col­ors and bet­ter geo­graphic loca­tion knowl­edge when gram­mar encodes direc­tion—cer­tainly noth­ing like the grand expec­ta­tions in the 1960s that led to such lin­guis­tic neol­o­gis­tic mon­strosi­ties as ‘her­story’ or ‘womyn’). With the mean­ing of the story excised, he has to come up with a reg­u­lar plot, and does this by giv­ing the aliens a—dare I say—­more human moti­va­tion in try­ing to some­how save them­selves by uplift­ing humans. This is itself a betrayal of part of Chi­ang’s ethos: in many of his sto­ries, Chi­ang is depict­ing the unknown and the unknow­able and human con­fronta­tion with it. The heat-death of the uni­verse in “Exha­la­tion”, post-hu­man intel­li­gence in “Under­stand”, post-hu­man knowl­edge and sci­ence in “The Evo­lu­tion of Human Sci­ence”, the nature of God and moral­ity and the impli­ca­tions of divine-com­mand the­ory in “Hell is the Absence of God”, what lies beyond the sky or the cir­cu­lar uni­verse in “The Tower of Baby­lon”, and… alien cog­ni­tion and ways of view­ing the uni­verse in “Story of Your Life”. What’s left is mostly a glossy action movie heavy on mil­i­tary hard­ware (pre­sum­ably this is one of those Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tions where the US mil­i­tary pro­vides lots of equip­ment and per­son­nel in exchange for a pos­i­tive depic­tion as hon­est and com­pe­tent and not trig­ger-hap­py) about the need for a world gov­ern­ment, with the physics theme turned into just a Sapir-Whorf super­power though this makes no sense in-u­ni­verse (if the pro­tag­o­nist can cre­ate sta­ble time-loops and steal infor­ma­tion from the future, why does­n’t she steal a cure? Or why not see an alter­nate future where her child does­n’t get sick, or an entirely differ­ent hus­band and healthy child she could also love? Or how is Hep­tapodese not sup­posed to lead to incred­i­ble chaos as peo­ple learn it and start mon­key­ing with the future? Why do the aliens need any assis­tance from the humans in the first place, whether to learn their lan­guage or to save them­selves?) The spe­cial-effects depic­tion of Hep­ta­pod is some nifty cloud effects, but the hep­tapods them­selves are not ter­ri­bly com­pelling aliens. As a ren­der­ing of Chi­ang’s vision, I would have to give it an F because it is frus­trat­ingly almost the oppo­site of what he meant, and as a generic Hol­ly­wood SF movie I would give it a B. I would doubt­less have enjoyed it more if I had never read the sto­ry.
  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 and mean­ing bet­ter still. I can’t say it’s incred­i­bly deep, but it’s a look at a road not tak­en, and a reminder of how before we reached any­thing like the cur­rent Mendel-Fisher par­tic­u­late-in­her­i­tance par­a­digm. #2.
  7. “Hell Is the Absence of God”; as an athe­ist who keeps com­ing back to the Wis­dom Books and the par­tic­u­larly (KJV trans­la­tion, of course), this story came as a gut punch. The writ­ing is Chi­ang at his most Chi­ang-y, the world inter­est­ing and provoca­tive (Chi­ang takes the Bible ‘lit­er­ally but not seri­ously’, one might say), and the end­ing sim­ply unspeak­able. But don’t take my word for it, ‘decide for your­self’, as the fallen angels say. This story enriches read­ing the Book of Job for me, and I think ulti­mately ham­mers in for me the unac­cept­abil­ity of divine com­mand ethics and makes me more athe­is­tic. #1. Pairs well with Scott Alexan­der’s more free­wheel­ing .
  8. “Lik­ing What You See: A Doc­u­men­tary”; inter­est­ing ideas, but some­thing about the dia­logues and char­ac­ters seem off. It just jars me. I think some­where Chi­ang also notes his dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the writ­ing of this one. #6.

Worm, Wildbow 2013

Worm (Parahu­mans, #1)Wild­bow2013★★★★★

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 and com­bos (the pro­tag­o­nist usage of bugs, as impres­sive as it is, is only one of many pos­si­ble exam­ples, although I par­tic­u­larly like the Regent and 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 and 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 and 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.

and Ritalin:

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, Browne 2005

Urne Bur­ialThomas Browne2005★★★★★

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? But the iniq­uity of obliv­ion blind­ely scat­tereth her pop­py, and deals with the mem­ory of men with­out dis­tinc­tion to merit of per­pe­tu­ity. Who can but pity the founder of the Pyra­mids? Hero­s­tra­tus lives that burnt the Tem­ple of Diana, he is almost lost that built it; Time hath spared the Epi­taph of Adri­ans horse, con­founded that of him­self. In vain we com­pute our felic­i­ties by the advan­tage of our good names, since bad have equall dura­tions; and Ther­sites is like to live as long as Aga­menon, [with­out the favour of the ever­last­ing Reg­is­ter:] Who knows whether the best of men be known? or whether there be not more remark­able per­sons for­got, then any that stand remem­bred in the known account of time? with­out the favour of the ever­last­ing Reg­is­ter the first man had been as unknown as the last, and Methuse­lahs long life had been his only Chron­i­cle.”

“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, Robb 2007

The Dis­cov­ery of France: A His­tor­i­cal Geog­ra­phy from the Rev­o­lu­tion to the First World WarGra­ham Robb2007★★★★★

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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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.

Selected Non-fictions, Borges 1999

Selected Non-fic­tionsJorge Luis Borges1999★★★★★

“I owe to De Quincey (to whom my debt is so vast that to point out only one part of it may appear to repu­di­ate or silence the oth­ers) my first notice of …”

If at times I have appeared knowl­edge­able or worth read­ing to oth­ers, it is per­haps only because I have stood on the shoul­ders of Borges and Wikipedia. Borges the essay­ist is under­rat­ed. (Borges’s poetry does not sur­vive trans­la­tion very well; and his fic­tion often, I feel, strug­gles to har­mo­nize the diver­gence require­ments of truth and fal­si­ty, while in his essays he needs not cloak his thought­s.)

Of the 161 items trans­lated in this vol­ume, I would sug­gest as start­ing points these 22:

Borges, I think, died hap­py.

The Wages of Destruction, Tooze 2007

The Wages of Destruc­tion: The Mak­ing and Break­ing of the Nazi Econ­omyAdam Tooze2007★★★★★

A fas­ci­nat­ing account of the eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion of Ger­many under the Nazis, the repres­sion and dis­tor­tion of the Ger­man econ­o­my, the strate­gic con­fu­sion and 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 and tak­ing insane gam­bles if it was not to choke to death on its own accu­mu­lated wastes and bad deci­sions, in the hopes that it could eat all its ene­mies before they woke up and 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 and 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 4× 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 and 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, Ahamed 2009

Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the WorldLiaquat Ahamed2009★★★★★

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, Jensen 1980

Bias in Men­tal Test­ingArthur R. Jensen1980★★★★★

(410k words / 840 pages; online edi­tion; ) 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 stu­dents 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, Takeda 2005

The Notenki Mem­oirs: Stu­dio Gainax and the Men Who Cre­ated Evan­ge­lionYasuhiro Takeda2005★★★★★

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 and Japan­ese SF fan­dom. It is an invalu­able resource for any researcher, and I felt com­pelled to cre­ate in order to elu­ci­date var­i­ous points and be able to link its claims with ver­sions of sto­ries by other peo­ple (for exam­ple, )

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, Ishiguro 2005

The Remains of the DayKazuo Ishig­uro2005★★★★★

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, Yang 2011

The Book of Lord Shang—A Clas­sic of the Chi­nese School of LawShang Yang2011★★★★★

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 and 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 and 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, Fukuyama 2011

The Ori­gins of Polit­i­cal Order: From Pre­hu­man Times to the French Rev­o­lu­tionFran­cis Fukuyama2011★★★★★

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

The His­to­riesHerodotus2003★★★★★

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 and 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.

Genius, Gleick 1993

Genius: The Life and Sci­ence of Richard Feyn­manJames Gle­ick1993★★★★★

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 (aside from Gle­ick unfor­tu­nately repeat­ing Feyn­man’s story about his IQ with­out explain­ing the many rea­sons why this does­n’t mean what peo­ple are for­ever tak­ing it to mean).

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker 2011

The Bet­ter Angels of Our Nature: Why Vio­lence Has DeclinedSteven Pinker2011★★★★★

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, Mitchell 2010

The Thou­sand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetDavid Mitchell2010★★★★★

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.

Collapse of Complex Societies, Tainter 1990

Col­lapse of Com­plex Soci­etiesJoseph A. Tain­ter1990★★★★★

Very good: much bet­ter than Jared Dia­mond’s Col­lapse, and much more con­vinc­ing than Spen­gler or Toyn­bee. It was also 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, Stapledon 1999

Star MakerOlaf Sta­ple­don1999★★★★★

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.

4 Stars

ARPA and SCI: Surfing AI, Roland and Shiman 2002

Review of DARPA his­tory book, Strate­gic Com­put­ing: DARPA and the Quest for Machine Intel­li­gence, 1983–1993, Roland and Shi­man 2002, which reviews a large-s­cale DARPA effort to jump­start real-world uses of AI in the 1980s by a mul­ti­-pronged research effort into more effi­cient com­puter chip R&D, super­com­put­ing, robotics/self-driving cars, and expert sys­tem soft­ware. Roland and Shi­man 2002 par­tic­u­larly focus on the var­i­ous ‘philoso­phies’ of tech­no­log­i­cal fore­cast­ing and devel­op­ment, which guided DARPA’s strat­egy in differ­ent peri­ods, ulti­mately endors­ing a weak tech­no­log­i­cal deter­min­ism where the lim­it­ing fac­tors are too large for a small (in com­par­i­son to the global econ­omy and global R&D) orga­ni­za­tion best a DARPA can hope for is a largely agnos­tic and reac­tive strat­egy in which granters ‘surf’ tech­no­log­i­cal changes, rapidly exploit­ing new tech­nol­ogy while patch­ing up any gaps or lags that acci­den­tally open up and block appli­ca­tion.

See (due to greater rel­e­vance in that con­tex­t).

Past, Present, and Future of Statistical Science, Lin 2014

Past, Pre­sent, and Future of Sta­tis­ti­cal Sci­enceXihong Lin2014★★★★

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 and high qual­i­ty, with so many equa­tions and graphs my PDF viewer lags when scrolling. I read about it on Andrew Gel­man’s blog & thought it’d 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 and chal­lenges about future devel­op­ments to publishing/research advice. (Prob­a­bly it would have been bet­ter to turn this into 2 vol­umes: the read­ers inter­ested in careers and advice have to the tech­ni­cal mate­ri­al, while read­ers inter­ested in that may not sur­vive the sec­tions about COPSS and 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, over my head or both, but much was inter­est­ing and I learned about novel top­ics. In one chap­ter, a sur­vey sta­tis­ti­cian rem­i­nis­cences about how she stum­bled into sta­tis­tics and fight­ing sex­ism in her early career and 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 and 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 and thereby wan­dered into the inter­sec­tion of sta­tis­tics and agri­cul­ture, and in another chap­ter, is still gamely defend­ing the 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, and devoid of expla­na­tions why the orga­ni­za­tion func­tioned or what good it did or why out­siders val­ued it and 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 and 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) and trans­formed approaches start­ing in the ’80s, and 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 and even fre­quen­tists begin bor­row­ing Bayesian tech­niques and 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, and 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 :

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.

…The notion of an appli­ca­tion in its cur­rent use did not exist. I don’t recall the ori­gin of the fol­low­ing quo­ta­tion, but it is attrib­uted to Wald: “Con­sider an appli­ca­tion. Let X1, . . . , Xn be i.i.d. ran­dom vari­ables.”

…The Mas­ter’s degree pro­gram required a the­sis and mine was writ­ten with Wol­fowitz. The topic was on a sequen­tial pro­ce­dure that Leon Herbach (he was ahead of me) had worked on. Wol­fowitz had very brief office hours, so there usu­ally was a queue to see him. When I did see him in his office he asked me to explain my ques­tion at the black­board. While talk­ing at the black­board Wol­fowitz was mul­ti­-task­ing (even in 1947) by read­ing his mail and talk­ing on the tele­phone. I often think of this as an oper­atic trio in which each singer is on a differ­ent wave­length. This had the desired effect in that I never went back.

…Many promi­nent sta­tis­ti­cians attended the meet­ing, and I had a chance to meet some of them and young stu­dents inter­ested in sta­tis­tics, and to attend the cours­es. Wol­fowitz taught , Cochran taught sam­pling, and R.A. Fisher .

Or the his­tory related is sur­pris­ing, for exam­ple, the rev­e­la­tion that the was actu­ally proven by Rubin (yes, he did that too) in 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 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.

I sub­se­quently decided to use a sub­set of the data for illus­tra­tion in a regres­sion course that I was teach­ing at the time. Aston­ish­ing­ly, the selected sub­set of the data pro­duced results that clearly sup­ported my col­league’s prior expec­ta­tion and were opposed to those from the full data. This caused some anx­i­ety over the pos­si­bil­ity that I had made an error some­where, but after con­sid­er­able addi­tional analy­sis I dis­cov­ered that the whole issue cen­tered on one rat. If the rat was exclud­ed, my col­league’s prior expec­ta­tions were sus­tained; if the rat was included his expec­ta­tions were con­tra­dict­ed. The mea­sure­ments on this dis­cor­dant rat were accu­rate as far as any­one knew, so the ball was back in my now quite per­plexed col­league’s court.

The anx­i­ety that I felt dur­ing my explo­ration of the rat data abated but did not dis­ap­pear com­pletely because of the pos­si­bil­ity that sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions had gone unno­ticed in other regres­sions. There were no meth­ods at the time that would have iden­ti­fied the impact of the one unusual rat; for exam­ple, it was not an out­lier as judged by the stan­dard tech­niques. I decided that I needed a sys­tem­atic way of find­ing such influ­en­tial obser­va­tions if they were to occur in future regres­sions, and I sub­se­quently devel­oped a method that eas­ily iden­ti­fied the irrec­on­cil­able rat. My col­leagues at Min­nesota encour­aged me to sub­mit my find­ings for pub­li­ca­tion (Cook, 1977), which quickly took on a life of their own, even­tu­ally becom­ing known as Cook’s Dis­tance.

And nat­u­ral­ly, some­one will choose to go meta and crit­i­cize the implicit goal of the auto­bios and explicit goal of the career advice sec­tion—as one would hope of sta­tis­ti­cians, he rec­og­nizes the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal peril of a series of high­ly-s­e­lected 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.

When I asked whether the insurer could guar­an­tee that I would live longer than my male col­leagues, I was told that I just did­n’t under­stand sta­tis­tics. Learn­ing that the US Depart­ment of Labor was suing another uni­ver­sity that had the same pen­sion plan, I offered to help the attor­ney in charge, the late Ruth Weyand, an icon in wom­en’s rights lit­i­ga­tion…At first we con­cen­trated on gath­er­ing data to demon­strate that the differ­ence in longevity men and women was in large part due to vol­un­tary lifestyle choic­es, most notably smok­ing and drink­ing. In a set­tle­ment con­fer­ence with the TIAA attor­neys, one remarked, “Well, maybe you under­stand sta­tis­tics, but you don’t under­stand the law.”

A sta­tis­ti­cian ask­ing for guar­an­tees! and 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, and if men do not live as long as wom­en, ‘equal’ pay is never equal and defrauds them. Or, would Gray be against mater­nal leave, see­ing as preg­nancy is a “vol­un­tary lifestyle choice”? and 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 and 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 and pre­dictable and take actions based on that belief, because if the world is that way, then your actions will attain their ends and 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 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 and biases to keep in mind when eval­u­at­ing the lat­est clin­i­cal research (a skill use­ful for any­one), and 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/ 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 0.05% 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 , 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 = 0.5 [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 = 0.1, then we will need only 50% of the pop­u­la­tion to beat a SRS [sim­ple ran­dom sam­ple] with ns = 100…the same ρN = 0.1 also implies that a 96% sub­pop­u­la­tion will beat a SRS as large as ns = 0… 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 = 0.05, which many erro­neously think implies strong evi­dence against H0, actu­ally cor­re­sponds to a con­di­tional fre­quen­tist error prob­a­bil­ity at least as large as 0.289, which is a rather large error prob­a­bil­i­ty. If sci­en­tists under­stood that a p-value of 0.05 cor­re­sponded to that large a poten­tial error prob­a­bil­ity in rejec­tion, the sci­en­tific world would be a quite differ­ent place.

TABLE 23.1
Values of the lower bound α(s) in (23.4) for various values of p.
p    0.2   0.1   0.05    0.01  0.005  0.001  0.0001  0.00001
α(s) 0.465 0.385 0.289   0.111 0.067  0.0184 0.0025  0.00031

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 and 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 and 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 and dis­crim­i­na­tion?’ and 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 and worth read­ing (if not each and every paper).

The Cultural Revolution, Dikötter 2016

The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion: A Peo­ple’s His­to­ry, 1962-1976Frank Diköt­ter2016★★★★

Nar­ra­tive account of the . The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, along with the Great Leap Forward/Great Famine & , were col­lec­tively one of the worst things in human his­to­ry, and I am embar­rassed to be so igno­rant of them. Diköt­ter offers a recent look at the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion and par­tic­u­larly the unusual polit­i­cal tac­tics & social dynam­ics which made it so destruc­tive despite not being a (con­ven­tion­al) civil war or inva­sion.

As Diköt­ter explains it, the CR was a sec­ond rev­o­lu­tion, or coup within the Par­ty, by an aging Mao, who intended to elim­i­nate his ene­mies & threats to his lega­cy. Mao, that supreme nar­cis­sist, believed him­self a greater Com­mu­nist leader than Stalin and was deter­mined to avoid Stal­in’s 2 major mis­takes—hav­ing an indus­trial heart­land near the enemy Nazi Ger­many, and leav­ing behind a Com­mu­nist Party with strong fig­ures like heir appar­ent Lin Biao who would be able to denounce his cult of per­son­al­ity in a ver­sion of & ‘de-Stal­in­ize’ once he was gone.

Mao dealt with the first issue (the threat of Amer­i­can inva­sion (!) was to be reme­died by sink­ing a stag­ger­ing per­cent­age of Chi­nese GDP down the rat hole of the “Third Front” ie a vast indus­trial pro­gram to build use­less ill-de­signed shod­di­ly-built fac­to­ries hid­den away in moun­tain­s), and turned his atten­tion to not just pro­mul­gat­ing but ‘reform­ing’ the Com­mu­nity Party to ensure there would be no de-Maoifi­ca­tion, while avoid­ing direct action him­self to escape blame and exploit the power of ‘robust action’/non-commitment (Pad­gett and Ansell 1993).

How did it work?

The CR cycle starts with the promises of an ide­ol­o­gy; because the ide­ol­ogy is mis­taken about human nature, eco­nom­ics, and real­ity (hav­ing, among other things, trans­val­ued moral val­ues so that suc­cess is proof of cupid­ity while fail­ure is proof of wor­thi­ness), it does not and indeed can­not live up to the promis­es. The mis­takes lead to resources being squan­dered on ‘solu­tions’, leav­ing peo­ple worse-off than they were before. A regime can paper over this by draw­ing on growth that would have hap­pened any­way or faster under a bet­ter gov­ern­ment (eg indus­tri­al­iza­tion in Soviet Rus­si­a), redis­tri­b­u­tion and tem­po­rary expe­di­ents like eat­ing its seed corn (Venezuela spend­ing oil rev­enues on wel­fare rather than oil R&D or main­te­nance), or by mere sta­bil­ity (CCCP vs the end­less post-Qing ). But even­tu­al­ly, promises are bro­ken—‘tem­po­rary’ mea­sures become per­ma­nent, the (rare, dan­ger­ous) con­crete fore­casts pass with the goal yet dis­tant, the young grow up, and lack of progress becomes unmis­tak­able. Per , these dis­ap­pointed expec­ta­tions set the stage.

The dis­ap­point­ment gen­er­ates dis­so­nance: many peo­ple gen­uinely believed that the solu­tions had been found and that the promises could be kept and the goals were real­is­tic, but some­how it came out all wrong. () Why? It can’t be that the ide­ol­ogy is wrong, that is unthink­able; the ide­ol­ogy has been proven cor­rect. Nor is it the great lead­er’s fault, of course. Nor are there any ene­mies close at hand: they were all killed or exiled. The cargo cult keeps imple­ment­ing the rev­o­lu­tion and wav­ing the flags, but the cargo of First World coun­tries stub­bornly refuses to land.

The para­noid yet log­i­cal answer is that there must be invis­i­ble ene­mies: sabo­teurs, coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, and soci­ety remain­ing ‘struc­turally’ anti-ide­o­log­i­cal. No mat­ter that vic­tory was total, the fail­ure of their poli­cies proves that the ene­mies are still every­where. (“One man’s modus ponens…”) And the rot must go all the way to the top. (But, of course, not to the very top, as the actu­ally pow­er­ful are too pow­er­ful to crit­i­cize; the emperor is—as always—in­no­cent & benev­o­lent and a bene­dic­tion unto his peo­ple, and merely mis­led or betrayed by evil offi­cial­s). In actu­al­i­ty, the mid­dle’s evil incom­pe­tence and sab­o­tage, in addi­tion to the doubt­less high lev­els of cor­rup­tion (which may be much less than that of the top and often eco­nom­i­cal­ly-effi­cient work-around­s), is merely a mud­dling through with a mix of ide­ol­o­gy, prag­ma­tism, and incom­pe­tence, and there is noth­ing to purge.

Any dis­agree­ment is imme­di­ately pun­ished, the more vio­lently the more uncom­fort­able: “kill the chicken to scare the mon­key” (re­gional mur­der quo­tas were set: typ­i­cally 1 per 1000 humans, but often high­er), and soon, has set in and . With no free thought, all news is forced through an ide­o­log­i­cal lens where , and if flat­ter­ing news can­not be ginned up, it will sim­ply be faked (and should it some­how be debunked any­way, it will go down the mem­ory hole); no one need order fak­ing, it is sim­ply a nat­ural response to incen­tives and the dou­ble-bind placed on the lower ranks who simul­ta­ne­ously must sat­isfy their supe­ri­ors but are also forced into con­tact with real­i­ty. (Col­lec­tiviza­tion is a mis­er­able fail­ure and this can’t be denied by the regional com­mit­tee who are unable to con­jure grain up out of thin air? Sim­ply lie about the num­bers to the high­er-ups and cre­ate , anal­o­gous to ). Pro­pa­ganda hoaxes (like Lei Feng, Wang Jie, Ouyang Hai, Mai Xian­de, Wang Jin­si, or Liu Yingjun) could extend from whole diaries to pho­tographs of them or the per­son’s uni­form and per­sonal pos­ses­sions enshrined in a muse­um.

Since the vic­tors turn out to have been cor­rupted by coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary forces, the exist­ing party/organization can­not be trusted to cleanse the hid­den ene­mies. So what is the solu­tion? To go to war with the appa­ra­tus to purge it of the trai­tors while seek­ing out all the other trai­tors spread through soci­ety, using instead the masses in a decen­tral­ized and dis­trib­uted fash­ion, pro­pa­gan­dized and led by van­guards of activists, to seek out the invis­i­ble forces respon­si­ble for the con­tin­ued social evils. Or to put it another way, the top uses the bot­tom as a dis­trib­uted decen­tral­ized army to attack the mid­dle and purge it, reim­pos­ing top-down con­trol and dri­ving polit­i­cal shifts by nar­row­ing an Over­ton win­dow.

The top can com­mu­ni­cate directly with the bot­tom through the won­ders of mod­ern telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions such as radio broad­casts, while mes­sages can be sent back and con­sen­sus emerge through mass dis­cus­sion plat­forms such as posters on walls (hav­ing 144 ‘big char­ac­ters’ or less).

This opens up brand new avenues for elite con­flict: pro­les can be used as cat’s-paws, there is incen­tive to cre­ate ever new ide­o­log­i­cal ratio­nales to claim the moral high ground and strike first, while this same insta­bil­ity means no one is safe because what was once good­think tomor­row becomes crime­think (la révo­lu­tion dévore ses enfants) & old mate­ri­als like diaries (or year­books) are radioac­tive waste, the cycle can be used as sub­tle loy­alty tests to see who is the most sub­servient and eager to fol­low the lat­est fash­ion­able non­sense, any appar­ent loos­en­ing where reg­u­lar peo­ple gen­uinely speak their mind can of inten­si­fied ide­o­log­i­cal polic­ing, brief admis­sions of fault by those in unas­sail­able posi­tions can be used to elicit admis­sions from oth­ers who can then be imme­di­ately purged hav­ing been damned out of their own mouths (a tac­tic also enabled by self­-crit­i­cisms or attempts to pre-empt purg­ing). In the absence of any direct offense, the built-up pres­sures and anx­i­eties and need to con­tin­u­ously virtue-sig­nal may sim­ply pick up a rumor and amplify it into undoubted truth, pro­vid­ing a /tip­ping point to coor­di­nate on per­se­cu­tion. Even those appar­ently apo­lit­i­cal, like famous Mao por­trait painters, would be beaten or impris­oned for years when works were sud­denly dis­cov­ered to have ‘devi­ated’ in some respect.

Stu­dents, hav­ing no respon­si­bil­i­ties, no expe­ri­ence, over-e­d­u­cated on pro­pa­gan­da, full of igno­rance and ide­als, and des­per­ate to earn sta­tus among their peers (sta­tus which could become per­ma­nently entrenched as a hered­i­tary ‘red class back­ground’ with which to defeat the more aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly-tal­ented stu­dents of ‘exploit­ing fam­i­lies’ back­grounds, they quickly real­ized), were the per­fect activists for these ‘top against mid­dle’ tac­tics and could eas­ily be over-awed by Mao or other high­-rank­ing offi­cials, while police inter­ven­tion is coun­ter­manded from above such as by uni­ver­sity pres­i­dents. “If in anger they beat some­one to death, then so be it.”—what mat­tered was the truth of their feel­ings.

In one clever instance, Mao elim­i­nated a major Bei­jing fig­ure and source of sta­bil­i­ty, Peng Zhen, by sud­denly dis­cov­er­ing coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro­pa­ganda in a his­tor­i­cal play writ­ten by a Zhen sub­or­di­nate, yield­ing a dilem­ma: “If he shielded Wu Han—a friend, col­league and respected intel­lec­tu­al—he could be accused of allow­ing the cap­i­tal to har­bor revi­sion­ist ele­ments at the high­est lev­el. If he turned against him, he would be exposed for fail­ing to spot the dan­ger in the first place.” Zhen failed to real­ize Mao’s hand behind this and, fail­ing to take suffi­cient indi­rect action, was ousted a month lat­er. Another exam­ple inau­gu­rated the CR: a sub­or­di­nate who’d lost in an ear­lier sim­i­lar purge decid­ed, based on an edi­to­ri­al, to take revenge on Peking Uni­ver­si­ty, and put up a poster denounc­ing it; this poster was taken to Mao, who called it “more sig­nifi­cant than the man­i­festo of the Paris Com­mune” to imme­di­ately dis­sem­i­nate it through offi­cial pro­pa­ganda chan­nels, and launch a new series of purges/drills/propaganda ini­tia­tives.

How­ever clever these polit­i­cal maneu­ver­ings might be, by invok­ing mass riots and purges across the largest nation on earth in order to remove one rival offi­cial, they were like using a A-bomb to kill a fly. When Bei­jing sniffled, the provinces died of pan­demic, demon­strat­ing flaws to cen­tral­iza­tion and big gov­ern­ments. The bon­fire of art, grave­yards, reli­gious sites, books, and peo­ple was beyond cal­cu­la­tion (some sign of how thor­ough the destruc­tion was can be seen in the des­per­a­tion of Chi­nese enti­ties in buy­ing or steal­ing Chi­nese arti­facts which sur­vived by being over­seas or—the virtue of vice—­sold cor­rupt­ly). With them, of course, went all the stock (one com­pany had to dis­pose of 15,000m² of polit­i­cal­ly-in­cor­rect silk), crafts­men and their liveli­hood, and the web of eco­nomic rela­tion­ships , which in a coun­try as large as China meant equally large ruin (Diköt­ter notes of 20,000 peo­ple in Guang­dong province alone, two-thirds were unem­ployed & the re-em­ployed direly impov­er­ished).

Instead, resources were diverted to cult objects: 2–5 bil­lion Mao badges, for exam­ple, were man­u­fac­tured, imped­ing indus­tries like air­planes which needed alu­minum, and forc­ing Mao him­self to quash it. The ‘cult of the mango’ has been described else­where. Also bur­den­some were the cadres end­lessly vis­it­ing Bei­jing for end­less mass ral­lies (far­ci­cally con­clud­ing “when even the giant square in front of the For­bid­den City could no longer con­tain them, he [Mao] rode through the city in an open jeep, reach­ing 2 mil­lion stu­dents in one fell swoop” to dis­pel the masses he’d con­jured), increas­ing pop­u­la­tion by ~50%, lead­ing to infra­struc­ture like polit­i­cal offices cov­ered in shit (with pud­dles of urine com­mon sights at the mass ral­lies them­selves); cadres and Red Guards, given free travel for ral­lies, abused it to travel the coun­try and exploit the des­per­a­tion of locals to curry favor with free room and board and gifts, stress­ing a decayed econ­omy fur­ther and spread­ing plague (ex­ac­er­bated by med­ical short­ages down to face-masks, lead­ing to 90% liver infec­tion rates in one hos­pi­tals’ work­er­s), result­ing in a menin­gi­tis pan­demic killing 160,000.

Poverty esca­lat­ed, and fam­i­lies would share sin­gle sets of clothes (the rest going naked or in straw), with mud-eat­ing, goitre, and other dis­eases of mal­nu­tri­tion surg­ing. Stu­dents at Peking Uni­ver­si­ty, the elite, ate slop, chew­ing care­fully to avoid break­ing teeth. There were short­ages of but­tons, match­es, tooth­paste, and in some areas tooth­brushes were a lux­ury adopted only years lat­er, with wait­ing lists years long for ther­moses; in Tur­fan, there was allot­ted 1 bar of soap per 3 peo­ple—per sea­son. Sex­ual vio­lence was uni­ver­sal and the chaos served as a pre­text for what Diköt­ter bluntly calls a geno­cide of Mon­gols. School­ing col­lapsed as pro­pa­ganda replaced edu­ca­tion, so mid­dle-school chil­dren often could­n’t write their name or num­bers or add/subtract or locate Bei­jing, lead­ing to esca­lat­ing national illit­er­acy rates (teach­ers being too ter­ri­fied of stu­dents, lead­ing to grade infla­tion).

Mean­while, fur­ther extrav­a­gances were indulged, like a nation­wide civil defense build­ing pro­gram using ordi­nary peo­ple build­ing tun­nels by hand (us­ing mate­ri­als ripped from exist­ing pro­duc­tive build­ings), rem­i­nis­cent of the equally waste­ful , which, con­ducted by those lack­ing any train­ing, resulted in count­less casu­al­ties and con­struc­tion soon aban­doned. The nadir was The Third Front, an attempt to build an indus­trial war base of 1800 fac­to­ries in the safest and hard­est to reach (ie worst pos­si­ble) places in Chi­na, a pro­gram that diverted “two-thirds of the state’s indus­trial invest­men­t…­be­tween 1964 and 1971…the Third Front cost the coun­try hun­dreds of bil­lions in for­gone out­put alone”.

Such was the scale of the CR that I’d never heard of the Third Front, or any pan­demic being involved, and Diköt­ter gives these top­ics a few para­graphs before he must move on, such as to the open war­fare between fac­tions, with large-s­cale clashes like a Shang­hai bat­tle between 20,000 & 100,000 peo­ple. (While vic­tory or defeat in these clashes meant being purged and was a mat­ter of life and death, as the losers might even be rit­u­ally can­ni­bal­ized as sub­hu­man—“Can­ni­bal­ism? It was the land­lord’s flesh! The spy’s flesh!”—for­tu­nately the Army lost min­i­mal heavy weapon­ry, occa­sion­ally los­ing gun­boats or anti-air­craft guns, and remained capa­ble of crush­ing most groups in a pitched bat­tle; attempts to insti­gate rev­o­lu­tion in Hong Kong failed when Mao quashed it as too use­ful.)

The Rev­o­lu­tion ended as curi­ously as it began: Lin Biao pan­icked, and fled amid a half-baked coup attempt, dying in a mys­te­ri­ous air­plane crash (macabre detail: his skull was boiled and pre­served in the KGB archives post-i­den­ti­fi­ca­tion), while serendip­i­tous­ly, Nixon made over­tures for his famous visit to Chi­na, which was tai­lor-made for domes­tic pro­pa­ganda con­sump­tion as a com­plete vic­tory of Mao and China over the now-de­feated Yan­kee impe­ri­al­ists (a use famil­iar from North Kore­a), and pro­vided a face-sav­ing excuse to wind down the Third Front as well now that Amer­ica was defeated and unable to invade China (not that was a pos­si­bil­ity to begin with).

Mao, in increas­ingly ill health and hav­ing achieved his objec­tive, ceased to stoke the flames of rev­o­lu­tion, and an exhausted dam­aged impov­er­ished China began to recov­er; Mao finally died, and while he suc­ceeded in pre­vent­ing de-Maofi­ca­tion, the CR and Mao died in time to spare Deng Xiaop­ing, and we know what hap­pened next.

What should we make of this? For me, it dra­ma­tizes the effects of ide­ol­ogy on the real-world, espe­cially as it dis­sem­i­nates out from the elite and is ampli­fied by unchecked fol­low­ers.

Maoist cant and the­ory may seem abstract and amus­ingly detached from the real world in activ­i­ties like mem­o­riz­ing The Lit­tle Red Book and dis­cussing abstrac­tions inflated to mean­ing­less­ness like ‘class’ or ‘equal­ity’ and a mis­guided empha­sis on equal­ity of out­come & his­tor­i­cal injus­tices, but with a push from the reg­u­la­tors, that ide­ol­ogy sud­denly cashes out as a net­work of jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for col­lec­tiviza­tion and famine, pan­demic, illit­er­a­cy, mass rape and sui­cide, geno­cide, destruc­tion of sci­ence and exper­tise (which deliver incon­ve­nient truth­s), and mobs beat­ing oppo­nents to death, pow­ered by self­-re­in­forc­ing dynam­ics of loy­alty tests, virtue sig­nal­ing, cen­sor­ship, and pref­er­ence fal­si­fi­ca­tion. Mao, of course, would never have got­ten his own hands dirty by can­ni­bal­iz­ing some­one accused of being descended from a shop­keep­er, but a phrase from Bei­jing rip­ples out, cor­rectly inter­preted by the fringes as a dog­whis­tle.

This might seem extreme, but it all hap­pened, and was one of the worst things to ever hap­pen.

See also Tomb­stone, Myer­s’s , Mug­geridge, , “The Real Prob­lem at Yale Is Not Free Speech”, .

The Genius Factory, Plotz 2006

The Genius Fac­to­ry: The Curi­ous His­tory of the Nobel Prize Sperm BankDavid Plotz2006★★★★

Mil­lion­aire (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 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 . 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 and 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:

  • He notes that the press hyped the Repos­i­tory as the “genius fac­tory” or the “Nobel Prize bank” or calls them “superba­bies” or “genius babies”, and then he goes on and rou­tinely uses those hyper­bolic phrases him­self and indicts the Repos­i­tory as a fail­ure for pro­duc­ing no genius­es, even after hav­ing cor­rectly noted that the ‘genius babies’ would not have been any­thing of the sort because they would get only half their genes from the sperm donor:

    What were the kids like? Had the genius genes cre­ated genius babies? Were Repos­i­tory prodi­gies now skip­ping their way through Amer­i­ca’s best pri­vate schools, prep­ping for Har­vard, intent on cur­ing can­cer and rein­vent­ing physics? Were there lots of lit­tle Shock­leys out there, hot-wiring the lat­est Intel chips to work dou­ble time?…­Gra­ham thought his donors would sup­ply a mas­sive intel­li­gence boost. In fact, the genetic improve­ment was prob­a­bly minus­cule. Nobel sperm would give mod­est odds of slightly bet­ter genes in the half share of chro­mo­somes sup­plied by the father. And even then Gra­ham would be oper­at­ing on only the nature side of the equa­tion: he had no con­trol over nur­ture-schools, upbring­ing, par­ents. This was a for­mula for a B-plus stu­dent, not the “sec­u­lar sav­ior” Gra­ham hoped to breed.

    This is prob­lem­atic because, aside from putting words in Gra­ham’s mouth who rea­son­ably expected “a few more cre­ative, intel­li­gent peo­ple”, he is judg­ing the method fun­da­men­tally flawed when the results, as far as Plotz’s mini-cen­sus is able to uncover and Gra­ham him­self believed based on early reports (but was unable to con­firm due to non-co­op­er­a­tion from the moth­er­s), are con­sis­tent with what the sim­plest appli­ca­tion of genet­ics would have pre­dict­ed. At no point does Plotz fig­ure out what the results should have been So I will do it for him. The adult her­i­tabil­ity of IQ is ~0.8 now, increas­ing dur­ing child­hood, because schools/upbringing/parents just don’t mat­ter that much. The donors listed range in gifts, but an IQ of 130 seems like a rea­son­able guess given their gen­eral edu­ca­tion and often sci­en­tific suc­cess (at least two donors should’ve been excluded by the Repos­i­to­ry, but in both cases they are clearly well-above-av­er­age any­way). So they would be expected to yield a boost of +12 IQ points. The moth­ers them­selves range from below aver­age to per­haps 130s them­selves, we’ll guessti­mate 110. The off­spring will be half-re­lated to the donor and to the moth­ers; so their total expected adult IQ would be 30*0.8*0.5 + 10*0.8*0.5 = 16 or ~116 with the usual 15 SD; their child­hood IQs would tend to be a bit low­er. What would we expect from such a group? Well, we would expect them to do well in school, be healthy, ath­let­ic, a num­ber of them at the top of their class and MENSA lev­el—in short, we would expect what Plotz shows us, and we expect them to basi­cally resem­ble a group of Ashke­nazi chil­dren given mean Jew­ish IQs of ~110! (In­ci­den­tal­ly, an espe­cially high­-s­cor­ing child, such as Doron Blake would be expected to regress back to 116 due to the major insta­bil­ity of child­hood IQ; even if Doron Blake had scored at 160 or some­thing, very early child­hood IQ cor­re­lates r=0.5 or less with final adult IQ, so Blake would be expected to end up some­where around (160-116) * 05 or 138 IQ.) A mar­ginal +12 IQ points is no joke; that’s worth many thou­sands of dol­lars in annual income, increases the odds of grad­u­at­ing col­lege, etc; and from an eugenic per­spec­tive, this is a gain that can accu­mu­late over mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions. The world would look very differ­ent if each gen­er­a­tion was 12 points smarter. (To put that in a global per­spec­tive, a mean of 12 points takes you from the UK or USA to some­where like sub­sa­ha­ran Africa.)

  • Plotz’s time­line is hope­lessly pes­simistic when he writes

    The Nobel sperm bank kids, I real­ized, were mes­sen­gers from our future. We are on the brink of the age of genetic expec­ta­tions. Soon-maybe not in 5 years, but prob­a­bly in 50-fer­til­ity doc­tors will be able to iden­tify and manip­u­late genes for “intel­li­gence” and “beau­ty.”

    Indeed, not in 5 years from 2005, but he knew full well that existed in 2005 since he cov­ers it in the book and was being actively devel­oped, and had prob­a­bly heard about the ‘Moore’s Law for sequenc­ing’. It did­n’t take 50 years, it took 8: the pub­li­ca­tion of would make the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and manip­u­la­tion of intel­li­gence genes pos­si­ble, and PGD was already wait­ing for it. It can be done now if any­one wants to.

  • Describ­ing Gal­ton’s work:

    Suc­cess­ful fathers had suc­cess­ful sons. This, Gal­ton claimed, proved that God-given abil­i­ties were passed from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. (It did not con­cern Gal­ton that in Vic­to­rian Eng­land, advan­tages of birth, wealth, and edu­ca­tion might have given the sons of famous men a career boost.)

    Wrong. Gal­ton was well aware of the issue and tried to fig­ure out the effect of such envi­ron­ments, invent­ing the adop­tion & twin stud­ies (part of why he’s famous and coined nature vs nur­ture!), and find­ing—ex­actly as sub­se­quent stud­ies using a vari­ety of designs have also found—that the ‘advan­tages of birth, wealth, and edu­ca­tion’ did­n’t count for much. Sloppy axe-grind­ing.

  • On appli­ca­tions of eugen­ics:

    The Amer­i­can eugeni­cists’ most impor­tant cause was ster­il­iza­tion. How they longed to cut! They thought prac­ti­cally every­one should get the knife: the “fee­ble­mind­ed,” alco­holics, epilep­tics, pau­pers, crim­i­nals, the insane, the weak, the deformed, the blind, the deaf, and the mute-and their extended fam­i­lies. Of course, most of the pur­port­edly genetic ail­ments devel­oped by eugeni­cists were not, in fact, genetic in ori­gin.

    Wrong. All of those are highly her­i­ta­ble and many genetic vari­ants for them have been found, par­tic­u­larly alco­holism, insan­ity (pre­sum­ably schiz­o­phre­ni­a), and deaf­ness. (Plotz’s arro­gance is par­tic­u­larly offen­sive here as even in 2005, hun­dreds of deaf­ness genes had been iden­ti­fied.)

    Odd­ly, another trait that doc­tors some­times tried to match was reli­gion, as though it had some genetic com­po­nent.

    Reli­gious atti­tudes are her­i­ta­ble.

  • On speed of eugen­ics:

    And even if they had been genet­ic, ster­il­iza­tion would have been a hope­lessly bad cure for them. It would have taken lit­er­ally thou­sands of gen­er­a­tions of mass ster­il­iza­tion to sig­nifi­cantly reduce the inci­dence of genetic dis­eases. But eugeni­cists did­n’t stop to do the math.

    Like­wise wrong. I have no idea where Plotz got this claim of ‘thou­sands of gen­er­a­tions’ as he does­n’t cite it (it sounds like a gar­bled retelling of the debate about reces­sives, but as Fisher defin­i­tively pointed out, even if it would take hun­dreds of gen­er­a­tions of phe­no­typic selec­tion on dis­ease to 100% elim­i­nate reces­sives, that is because the dis­ease rate would have become ~0% within gen­er­a­tions! “Mis­sion accom­plished”), but where to start… Non-dis­ease traits respond extremely quickly to selec­tion, which would jus­tify eugen­ics on its own quite aside from dis­eases; the com­moner dis­eases could be sub­stan­tially decreased within a few gen­er­a­tions (I cal­cu­lated that after 20 gen­er­a­tions, schiz­o­phre­nia could be halved, which is more effec­tive than any other anti-schiz­o­phre­nia treat­ment cur­rently in use…); while it might take ‘thou­sands of gen­er­a­tions’ to com­pletely wipe out a par­tic­u­lar dis­ease, that will be because it had already dimin­ished to a great extent and as it becomes ‘harder’ to wipe out that becomes ever more unim­por­tant; eugeni­cists did stop to do the math because eugeni­cists like R.A. Fisher invented the math.

  • the time­line of behav­ioral genet­ics is quite bizarre:

    late 1970s. At the time, sperm col­lec­tion was prac­ti­cally the only widely avail­able fer­til­ity treat­ment that worked. Social sci­ence research was begin­ning to show that intel­li­gence was at least partly her­i­ta­ble.

    Well before then.

  • Plotz cites uncrit­i­cally both empir­i­cally fal­si­fied Gard­ner’s “mul­ti­ple intel­li­gences” and epi­ge­net­ics

  • many of Plotz’s crit­i­cisms make no sense or are self­-con­tra­dic­to­ry; he lam­basts the Repos­i­tory for the idea of focus­ing on Nobels, and then writes “Gra­ham would­n’t have known what to do with an odd­ball like Ein­stein.” Um, no, I think Gra­ham would’ve known exactly what to do with a Nobel Prize win­ner like Albert Ein­stein, since you just wrote an entire book on that top­ic.

  • a dis­turb­ing anti-in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism trend sur­faces in his descrip­tions of Shock­ley. I was par­tic­u­larly struck by

    Shock­ley him­self did­n’t seem like much of a provo­ca­teur. He dis­cussed incen­di­ary top­ics in a bizarre man­ner—ex­actly as if he were sum­ma­riz­ing the lat­est advances in semi­con­duc­tor research. He was the ice­man. He did­n’t exude hatred for black­s—he did­n’t have any. He did­n’t exude sor­row—he did­n’t have any of that, either. Shock­ley’s crit­ics assumed that his racial anx­i­ety stemmed from some per­sonal expe­ri­ence, some deep trau­ma, but it prob­a­bly did­n’t. He had no par­tic­u­lar feel­ings for blacks one way or anoth­er. He hardly knew any blacks. To him, his racial con­clu­sions were sim­ply the log­i­cal out­come of a train of thought. As far as he was con­cerned, once he started to address human qual­i­ty, he would fol­low its logic wher­ever it took him. In his mind, his con­clu­sions had noth­ing to do with any actual black per­son; he was sim­ply mak­ing an irrefutable point.

    One might think that in dis­cussing a highly con­tro­ver­sial and highly impor­tant top­ic, being dis­pas­sion­ate, hav­ing no per­sonal griev­ances, and attempt­ing to hew strictly to the sci­ence and logic would be laud­able. Appar­ently not. Appar­ently if you care about it, you’re a racist; if you are sci­en­tific and unbi­ased, then you’re ‘bizarre’ and the ‘ice­man’ (and still a racist). This total lack of sym­pa­thy or inter­est in under­stand­ing Shock­ly’s points leads Plotz into another genet­ics blun­der:

    Shock­ley thought he could prove to blacks that white­ness led to intel­li­gence. Shock­ley pro­posed to do this by mea­sur­ing the per­cent­age of “white” genes in blacks: he would show that the “whiter” the black per­son, the smarter he was. (Not that he had any real idea of how to test for “white” genes.) He asked NAACP leader Roger Wilkins to help him col­lect blood sam­ples from mem­bers of the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus and other cel­e­brated blacks, on the grounds that these accom­plished peo­ple would surely prove to be sig­nifi­cantly white. When Wilkins rejected him furi­ous­ly, Shock­ley sug­gested that Stan­ford blood­-test its five hun­dred black stu­dents. You can imag­ine how well that went over on cam­pus.

    Extract­ing racial ances­try and ‘white genes’ is hardly as diffi­cult as Plotz makes it out to be, and was busy doing just that at the time; ‘admix­ture stud­ies’ have been exten­sively used through­out med­i­cine to help pin down dis­ease-caus­ing vari­ants which differ by race, and—just as Shock­ley pro­posed—have been used in the .

  • more over­val­u­a­tion of shared-en­vi­ron­ment:

    The more I thought about it, the less sur­pris­ing the mater­nal resem­blance seemed. Most of these chil­dren had been raised only by their moth­ers. Their “social fathers” tended to be emo­tion­ally dis­tant, and their bio­log­i­cal donor fathers were out of the pic­ture. So of course they were tied tightly to their moms. The moth­ers were women anx­ious for chil­dren, so moti­vated that they had cho­sen a genius sperm bank. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, they had become dri­ven moth­ers. They spent more time with their kids than most par­ents did, cer­tainly more than I did with mine or than my won­der­ful par­ents had with me. Was it any won­der their chil­dren grew up to be like them? I got the feel­ing that Saman­tha could have taken sperm from the dumb­est player on the NFL’s worst team and would still have raised a bril­liant boy. Her good genes would have helped, but so would the stim­u­lat­ing world she cre­ated around her. Any child would have fallen under that spell.

    Plotz ignores that he spends much more time with the moth­ers than the donors in his quest to res­cue shared-en­vi­ron­ment.

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Everett 2008

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Lan­guage in the Ama­zon­ian Jun­gleDaniel L. Everett2008★★★★

(~110k words; 2.5 hours) 2008 anthropology/linguistic mem­oir by about study­ing the famous and par­tic­u­larly their lan­guage. Some of the mate­r­ial is cov­ered in the widely read New Yorker arti­cle or else­where: the Pirahã pos­sess an , 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 and 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 and 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 , 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 and 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?

Their lan­guage, in their view, emerges from their lives as Pirahãs and from their rela­tion­ships to other Pirahãs. If I could utter appro­pri­ate responses to their ques­tions, this was no more evi­dence that I spoke their lan­guage than a recorded mes­sage is to me evi­dence that my tele­phone is a native speaker of Eng­lish. I was like one of the bright macaws or par­rots so abun­dant along the Maici. My “speak­ing” was just some cute trick to some of them. It was not really speak­ing.

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 and 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 and high geo­graphic struc­ture). This alone, along with their small pop­u­la­tion (both present and pre­sum­ably ), could yield major 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 and 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 and 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 , 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 and 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 and 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.

McNamara’s Folly, Gregory 2015

McNa­ma­ra’s Fol­ly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Viet­nam WarHamil­ton Gre­gory2015★★★★

(Ebook; ~2h. See also Gre­go­ry’s 2016 talk and Low-Ap­ti­tude Men In The Mil­i­tary: Who Profits, Who Pays?, Lau­rence and Ram­berger 1991.) It’s not well-known, but one of the most con­sis­tent long-term spon­sors of research into intel­li­gence has been the US mil­i­tary. This is because, con­trary to lay wis­dom that ‘IQ only mea­sures how well you do on a test’ or book-learn­ing, cog­ni­tive abil­ity pre­dicts per­for­mance in all occu­pa­tions down to the sim­plest man­ual labor; this might seem sur­pris­ing, but there are a lot of ways to screw up a sim­ple job and cause losses out­side one’s area. For exam­ple, aim­ing and point­ing a rifle, or throw­ing a grenade, might seem like a sim­ple task, but it’s also easy to screw up by point­ing at the wrong point, requires fast reflexes (reflexes are one of the most con­sis­tent cor­re­la­tions with intel­li­gence), mem­ory for pro­ce­dures like strip­ping, the abil­ity to read ammo box labels or orders (as one Marine drill instruc­tor not­ed), and ‘com­mon sense’ like not indulging in ‘prac­ti­cal jokes’ by toss­ing grenades at one’s com­rades and for­get­ting to remove the fuse—­com­mon sense is not so com­mon, as the say­ing goes. Such men were not even use­ful can­non fod­der, as they were as much a dan­ger to the men around them as them­selves (never mind the ene­my), and jammed up the sys­tem. (A par­tic­u­larly strik­ing non-Viet­nam exam­ple is the case of one of the ever, the which killed 320 peo­ple—any com­plex dis­as­ter like that has many caus­es, of course, but one of them was sim­ply that the explo­sives were being han­dled by the dregs of the Navy—not even bot­tom decile, but bot­tom duo-decile (had to look that one up), and other sta­tions kept raid­ing it for any­one com­pe­ten­t.)

Gre­go­ry’s book col­lates sto­ries about what hap­pened when the US mil­i­tary was forced to ignore these facts it knew per­fectly well in the ser­vice of & Lyn­don John­son’s idea to kill two birds with one stone by draft­ing recruits who were devel­op­men­tally dis­abled, unhealthy, evil, or just too dumb to be con­scripted pre­vi­ous­ly: it would pro­vide the warm bod­ies needed for Viet­nam, and use the mil­i­tary to edu­cate the least for­tu­nate and give them a leg up as part of the Great Soci­ety’s faith in edu­ca­tion to elim­i­nate indi­vid­ual differ­ences and refute the idea that intel­li­gence is real.

It did not go well.

The main value of the book is pro­vid­ing many con­crete exam­ples of what a lack of intel­li­gence can mean (use­ful for peo­ple who spend their whole lives in high­-IQ bub­bles and have no idea of what that means; more exam­ples in Got­tfred­son’s “Why g Mat­ters: The Com­plex­ity of Every­day Life”), the diffi­culty of imple­ment­ing social wel­fare pro­grams (Mc­Na­ma­ra’s edu­ca­tion fan­tasies never mate­ri­al­ized for lack of funds and the enlis­tees not being smart enough to qual­ify in the first place), and a force­ful denun­ci­a­tion of the harms and cru­elty com­mit­ted by a will­ful blind­ness to the fact of indi­vid­ual differ­ences, harms which fall on those least able to under­stand or with­stand them. (“…He was per­pet­u­ally angry and aggriev­ed, and he talked back to the sergeants. When they cursed him and threat­ened him, he would say angri­ly, ‘I just wanna go home! Why don’t you let me go home?’”) The phrase “banal­ity of evil” comes repeat­edly to mind in exam­in­ing the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of McNa­ma­ra’s blank-s­latism through the mil­i­tary sys­tem.

Gre­gory him­self received an early intro­duc­tion into the topic when he showed up for boot camp and was put in charge of one of those con­scripted men: to his baffle­ment, his scrawny ward ‘Gup­ton’ was illit­er­ate, could­n’t under­stand the idea of a war or basic train­ing, could­n’t mem­o­rize his ser­ial num­ber, did­n’t know who Hitler was nor what state he was from nor his grand­moth­er’s name/address (ap­par­ently he had no par­ents or did­n’t remem­ber them), was ter­ri­fied of injec­tions, end­lessly fas­ci­nated by the dog tags he was required to wear, and thought a nickel was worth more than a dime because it was big­ger, and rou­tinely got into trou­ble because he could­n’t keep ranks/honorifics straight or (hope­lessly lit­er­al) under­stand humor or mil­i­tary slang in com­mands, and while he was unable to learn to make his bed, another recruit was able to even­tu­ally teach Gup­ton to at least tie his shoelaces. The cru­el­ties began early on when Gre­gory accom­pa­nies sev­eral of “McNa­ma­ra’s morons” and Gup­ton to their bar­racks where they are ordered to leave their back­packs out, all their money is stolen in the night by the sergeant, who then tells them to ‘report’ the crime to him rather than the MPs, which they guile­lessly do; Gre­gory notes that the sergeants appeared to have been tar­get­ing the morons rou­tinely and get­ting away with it every time. (Life is hard, but it’s much harder when you’re dum­b.)

The story of Gup­ton has a rel­a­tively happy end­ing: while even­tu­ally grad­u­at­ing boot camp and sent to Viet­nam despite Gre­go­ry’s attempt to get him safely dis­charged, he appar­ently was shel­tered by a sergeant (who had a men­tally hand­i­capped sis­ter of his own and under­stood), sur­vived his tour, and returned, even­tu­ally dying at age 57. (But note that this is still far short of a nor­mal male life expectan­cy: the IQ/all-cause mor­tal­ity cor­re­la­tion is sub­stan­tial, par­tic­u­larly at an extreme.)

Other sto­ries did not end well. Some were trapped in boot camp: Gre­gory describes how many would be sent to reme­dial train­ing, repeat­edly fail­ing the exer­cise require­ments because they did­n’t under­stand how to cor­rectly exe­cute actions; in swing­ing from mon­key bars, they would try to swing one bar at a time, com­ing to a halt each time; in run­ning an obsta­cle course, they would have to pause in front of each arrow and think about what an arrow meant before under­stand­ing which direc­tion to go, cost­ing them too much time to ever beat the dead­line; they would insist on throw­ing grenades like a base­ball directly to the tar­get, not under­stand­ing that throw­ing up in a parabola would gain them the nec­es­sary dis­tance; and in the mile run, they would sprint as fast as pos­si­ble at the start and be sur­prised when they became utterly exhausted long before the fin­ish line. One mutinied from the drills, under the impres­sion that being sent to the ‘stock­ade’ meant ‘going home’, until it was explained to him that the word meant ‘jail’.

One thing worth not­ing is that many of the short or unin­tel­li­gent peo­ple came from very poor envi­ron­ments. In think­ing about the past, it’s easy to for­get how poor the USA was until recent­ly; the USA dur­ing Viet­nam (to say noth­ing of ear­lier: “The life of Amer­i­can work­ers in 1915”) was what we would con­sider a Third World coun­try. Gup­ton, for exam­ple, was very thin, ate rav­en­ously dur­ing train­ing, and had abscessed teeth because he had never seen a den­tist in his part of Appalachia; one enlis­tee con­sid­ered him­self blessed to be in the Army rather than Mis­sis­sip­pi, where he could eat meat every day (in­deed, every meal! of which there were three­!), got beau­ti­ful new clothes, free doc­tor & den­tist vis­its, and was even paid money once a mon­th; another enlis­tee was thrilled about how he could sud­denly see peo­ple’s faces now that he had glass­es, after an Army doc­tor gave him a vision test. (Nev­er­the­less, the improved envi­ron­ment of the Army appears to have made lit­tle differ­ence.) It is not sur­pris­ing that McNa­ma­ra’s morons could be spot­ted on sight because of their short­ness, fun­ny-look­ing faces, and gen­eral ugli­ness—to the point where Gre­gory goes into detail about the one excep­tion, the hand­some Fred­die Hens­ley, who nev­er­the­less was not the sharpest tool in the shed, to the sur­prise of every­one inter­act­ing with him and dis­cov­er­ing things like his reflexes being far too slow to shoot a rifle or believ­ing that there was no con­nec­tion between thun­der and light­ning; Hens­ley was sent into com­bat and died:

‘I was not sur­prised to dis­cover that he had been killed in com­bat. With his good looks, he prob­a­bly was assumed to be “nor­mal” and was moved along to Viet­nam and sent out into the field­…Be­fore long, she was express­ing grief and anger and bewil­der­ment. She told me that when Fred­die received his draft notice, she and other fam­ily mem­bers went to the induc­tion cen­ter and explained that Fred­die had been in EMR (ed­u­ca­ble men­tally retard­ed) classes in school and had not been able to drive a car and that it would be a mis­take to draft him. In respon­se, a sergeant reas­sured the fam­ily that Fred­die would not be put into dan­ger—he would just do menial jobs such as sweep­ing floors and peel­ing pota­toes. “He was a good boy,” she said. “When he was lit­tle, we used to go every­where togeth­er. He was my Lit­tle Man.” She began to sob, and she lament­ed, “Why did they have to draft him? I want to know why.”’

When forced through basic train­ing by hook or by crook, fur­ther train­ing gen­er­ally proved point­less: there weren’t enough funds to pay for the exten­sive hand-hold­ing, so the fancy edu­ca­tion (, appar­ent­ly) McNa­mara put faith in either was­n’t enough or sim­ply never hap­pened in the first place. (Thus demon­strat­ing the —as well, pro­gram effi­cacy always declines as it scales up, because it must be run by exactly those peo­ple fail­ing at the task in the first place for lack of resources/competence/incentives/meaningful-interventions.) Where edu­ca­tion was tried, it turned out to be futile, and those who did train them found them too slow or too dan­ger­ous to trust. A man assigned to t-shirt print­ing shop was unable to under­stand alpha­bet­i­za­tion and had to pick out each let­ter for print­ing by scan­ning through the box one by one; a sergeant trained two men to drive mil­i­tary trucks some­what suc­cess­fully but they were too dan­ger­ous dri­vers to be used and were trans­ferred out; another sim­ply for­got to get back on the heli­copters after a vil­lage search forc­ing a sec­ond retrieval mis­sion; another was lucky enough to be shel­tered by his sergeant in mess hall duties (un­til a mor­tar hit it, killing him); one played a prank on his squad mates, toss­ing a defused grenade at them two times, but on the third throw for­got to dis­able it; another wan­dered away from an ambush and wan­der­ing back, was killed by his squad; while yet another almost shot his com­man­der with a LAW rocket when star­tled; another did kill his com­man­der while on guard duty when he for­got to ask for the pass­word before shoot­ing; another for­got to put his rifle safety on (shoot­ing a squad mate in the foot, who died); another tripped a booby-trap while not pay­ing atten­tion; another was cap­tured by the NVA and went insane, scream­ing end­lessly and defe­cat­ing on him­self while being beat­en… It is unsur­pris­ing that many of them would be made to ‘walk point’, or ejected some­how, in addi­tion to the con­stant insults and abuse—a new recruit was told the NVA would kill them all in a few hours, went insane from fear, climbed up a flag pole, and jumped off it; and another was beaten to death in Marine basic train­ing. (Mc­Na­mara may have had good inten­tions, but in the social sci­ences, good results fol­low good inten­tions much as ; which is to say, they do mostly by acci­dent, and we find it eas­ier to than vice-ver­sa.) Only a few of the sto­ries, like the recruit who was con­fused by hav­ing two left boots and two right boots but no com­plete pairs of boots, or the one who thought semen was urine, or the extreme­ly-short man who received an hon­or­able dis­charge and med­ical pen­sion for con­tract­ing the ter­ri­ble dis­abil­ity of ‘dwarfism’ in a war zone, or the draftee who tried to com­mit sui­cide “by drink­ing a bot­tle of Head and Shoul­ders sham­poo” could be con­sid­ered all that fun­ny. Most are painful to read. (But edu­ca­tion­al, again, espe­cially if you are in a high­-IQ bub­ble and have a lack of empa­thy for what low intel­li­gence mean­s.) Once you’ve read some of these anec­dotes, other anec­dotes—­like the , or Scott Alexan­der’s expe­ri­ences in Haiti, or of think­ing a nickel worth more than a dime, or Human Rights Watch’s oppo­si­tion1 to the death penalty for the retard­ed—no longer seem like such a stretch.

One of the most strik­ing exam­ples is that the My Lai mas­sacre itself may have been directly due to low­ered recruit­ing stan­dards:

He cited Lieu­tenant William Cal­ley, con­victed in the mur­der of more than 100 unarmed civil­ians in the My Lai Mas­sacre in 1968. Accord­ing to Arnold R. Isaacs, the Viet­nam war cor­re­spon­dent for the Bal­ti­more Sun, Cal­ley “flunked out of Palm Beach Junior Col­lege with two C’s, a D, and four F’s in his first year and report­edly man­aged to get through offi­cer can­di­date school with­out even learn­ing to read a map or use a com­pass.”97 Marine Corps Colonel Robert D. Heinl said the Army had to take Cal­ley “because no one else was avail­able.”98 His own attor­ney used Cal­ley’s low intel­li­gence as a court­room defense: the Army, he said, was to blame for My Lai because if it had­n’t low­ered men­tal stan­dards, men like Cal­ley never would have been com­mis­sioned. Richard A. Gabriel, who spent 22 years as a U.S. Army offi­cer, says, “Even the staunchest defend­ers of the Army agree that in nor­mal times a man of Lieu­tenant Cal­ley’s intel­li­gence and pre­dis­po­si­tions would never have been allowed to hold a com­mis­sion.”99

Gre­gory con­cludes:

To jus­tify low­er­ing test scores for entry into the mil­i­tary, Robert McNa­mara said that Project 100,000 men “were not brain-poor at birth, but only priv­i­lege-poor, advan­tage-poor, oppor­tu­ni­ty-poor.”151 His descrip­tion was accu­rate, but only when applied to those men in Cat­e­gory IV who pos­sessed “street smarts”—a sound native intel­li­gence. They did poorly on the not because of men­tal defi­ciency but because of sub­stan­dard edu­ca­tion, learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties, or weak test­ing skills. Some of them were suc­cess­ful in the mil­i­tary, as I will show later in this book.

What McNa­mara failed to see was that many Project 100,000 were incur­ably lim­it­ed. They were indeed “brain-poor” for life, with no hope of mak­ing huge men­tal improve­ments. No amount of McNa­ma­ra’s audio­vi­sual gad­getry could trans­form them from slow learn­ers into bright, or even aver­age, cit­i­zens. But wait a min­ute: had­n’t psy­chol­o­gists dis­cov­ered that even peo­ple with seri­ous men­tal lim­i­ta­tions were capa­ble of absorb­ing much more train­ing than soci­ety had pre­vi­ously thought pos­si­ble? Yes, and it was a valu­able insight: men­tally lim­ited per­sons were not hope­less—they were capa­ble of growth and matu­ri­ty. But here was the prob­lem: they might be able to learn how to make change, but that did­n’t mean that they could some­day cre­ate a spread­sheet. They might be able to learn how to put together parts in a fac­tory assem­bly line, but that did­n’t mean they could some­day oper­ate a 105mm how­itzer in bat­tle. There was no hope of dra­mat­i­cally lift­ing the IQ of Project 100,000 men who missed a test ques­tion like this: “If a farmer had a bucket of 24 eggs and he stum­bled and broke half of them, how many eggs would he have left?”

The men who missed such ques­tions were slow learn­ers who were able to live hap­py, pro­duc­tive lives if they had a pro­tec­tive envi­ron­men­t—a cozy haven with lov­ing par­ents, help­ful friends, and sym­pa­thetic boss­es. Such was not the case for many Project 100,000 men.

The sto­ries come one after anoth­er, mak­ing it a grip­ping read and I fin­ished it in one sit­ting.

While Viet­nam was not lost because of Project 100k (wars are usu­ally won or lost for big­ger rea­son­s), Project 100k cer­tainly did not help mat­ters by doubt­less doing a good deal of dam­age the full extent of which will never be known, and arguably, Project 100k was symp­to­matic of both the ide­o­log­i­cal delu­sions of the Amer­i­can politi­cians and high­-level bureau­crats which con­ceived and pushed through the Viet­nam War, and per­haps more impor­tant­ly, was a stop-gap abused to deal with the fact that they could not jus­tify it to the pub­lic suffi­ciently well to get sup­port for a true pop­u­la­tion-wide draft which would touch the mid­dle & upper class­es. If a war can­not win the sup­port of the pop­u­lace, per­haps it should­n’t be fought in the first place…

I would have liked more sta­tis­ti­cal and psy­cho­me­t­ric details (such as a short lit­er­a­ture review of the exten­sive stud­ies of IQ and job per­for­mance espe­cially in the mil­i­tary eg. Kavanagh 2005, how the prob­a­bil­ity of com­bat death cor­re­lated with lower IQ, why IQ inter­ven­tions typ­i­cally fail etc) but it is prob­a­bly unre­al­is­tic to expect that from Gre­go­ry, and in any case, given the exten­sive lying, fraud, fal­si­fi­ca­tion of doc­u­ments, mis­clas­si­fi­ca­tion of mem­bers of the 100,000 etc, the sta­tis­tics would likely greatly under­state the true out­comes. For­tu­nate­ly, it turns out that a thor­ough sta­tis­ti­cal study of the avail­able data, and a fol­lowup sur­vey, is avail­able in an ear­lier book, the Low-Ap­ti­tude Men In The Mil­i­tary: Who Profits, Who Pays?, Lau­rence and Ram­berger 1991—as a bonus, Lau­rence and Ram­berger 1991 cover not just Project 100,000 but the almost-too-good-to-be-true nat­ural exper­i­ment known as the “ASVAB Mis­norm­ing”, where the mil­i­tary acci­den­tally and unwit­tingly engaged in the equiv­a­lent of a sec­ond Project 100,000 in peace­time.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Swanwick 2012

The Iron Drag­on’s Daugh­terMichael Swan­wick2012★★★★

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 and eco­nomic exploita­tion, rem­i­nis­cent of China Miéville’s bour­geois impe­ri­al­ist . 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 and 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.

…“What set me straight was one par­tic­u­lar inci­dent. My advis­er, none other than the wiz­ard Bon­gay him­self mind you, had obtained grant money from the Horned Man Foun­da­tion to cre­ate a div­ina­tory engine in the form of a brazen head. This was, you will under­stand, very early in the his­tory of cyber­net­ics. It was all done with vac­uum tubes then…Then he saw how the head glowed and how the sol­der ran in lit­tle rivulets from the seams in its neck and with it the gold and sil­ver of its cir­cuit­ry. Then did the wiz­ard Bon­gay him­self scream, in such fury that I fled for fear of his wrath.” She laughed. “He lost tenure over that inci­dent, and his life as well. That hap­pened near the end of the fis­cal year, and the Uni­ver­sity had been rely­ing on that grant mon­ey. Every­body involved with that fiasco was exe­cuted by order of the Bur­sar.” “How did you sur­vive?” “They needed some­body to write the final report.”

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. It was in that instant that I achieved enlight­en­ment.”

And final­ly, the gar­goyle pas­sage. It’s too long to quote, but I’ve posted it at

Bad Blood, Carreyrou 2018

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Sil­i­con Val­ley StartupJohn Car­rey­rou2018★★★★

Bad Blood is a straight­for­ward read about the rise and fall of Ther­a­nos, done in chrono­log­i­cal order in third-per­son up until Car­rey­rou becomes per­son­ally involved, at which point things accel­er­ate to the SEC civil set­tle­ment. Car­rey­rou does­n’t end too strongly but says that the crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion may well end up charg­ing Holmes and Sun­ny. This means that it lacks a really con­clu­sive ‘end­ing’: Ther­a­nos was con­tin­u­ing to limp on, hav­ing received fund­ing from a vul­ture on the strength of its patent port­fo­lio, iron­i­cally enough, which appar­ently was val­ued at $1b, and Car­rey­rou men­tions in one inter­view that Holmes was report­edly scout­ing VCs for a new start­up. (After read­ing BB, I had to think: maybe a sec­ond Holmes startup isn’t a bad idea—after all, if she could get this far with no work­ing prod­uct at all, what could she do with an actual pro­duct? It may look bad, but it’d prob­a­bly work bet­ter than most star­tup­s.) Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, I began read­ing this just hours before Holmes and Sunny were crim­i­nally indicted (vin­di­cat­ing what I had been telling peo­ple—the SEC civil set­tle­ment did­n’t mean they were going to get off scot-free). Good tim­ing on my part. This puts more of a period on read­ing BB, although the story is far from over. There’s a quip that the most Amer­i­can char­ac­ter is the con­man, because Amer­ica is the land of sec­ond chances—Eliz­a­beth Holmes is only 34 years old, after all, and even hav­ing aggra­vated the DoJ by per­sist­ing with Ther­a­nos, it’s hard to imag­ine her being sen­tenced (as a woman and with­out a lot of bod­ies and with­out Shkre­li’s autis­tic genius for infu­ri­at­ing judges) to more than a few years at worst, so I won­der if we’ve seen the last of her?

In any case, BB is good for resolv­ing a lot of details about Ther­a­nos.

For exam­ple, I was per­plexed at the time by the large Wal­greens deal: Wal­greens is a large, com­pe­tent, sophis­ti­cated provider of phar­macy ser­vices, well capa­ble of thor­ough test­ing; if Ther­a­nos was not what it was hyped up to be, how could Wal­greens fail to notice? My assump­tion was that Ther­a­nos had done some­thing clever to pro­duce fake results (if not per­haps as clever as the FSB at Sochi). BB pro­vides the answer, which is dis­may­ingly mun­dane: Ther­a­nos bluntly refused to pro­vide any kind of real val­i­da­tion or access to its machi­nes, and some Wal­greens execs were furi­ous about it and cor­rectly con­vinced Ther­a­nos was a fraud, but oth­ers were seduced by the vision, and the doubters signed on because they were ter­ri­fied of forc­ing Ther­a­nos into the arms of CVS, which is a rivalry I had no idea about. (“Van den Hooff lis­tened with a pained look on his face. ‘We can’t not pur­sue this,’ he said. ‘We can’t risk a sce­nario where CVS has a deal with them in six months and it ends up being real.’ Wal­green­s’s rivalry with CVS, which was based in Rhode Island and one-third big­ger in terms of rev­enues, col­ored vir­tu­ally every­thing the drug­store chain did. It was a myopic view of the world that was hard to under­stand for an out­sider like Hunter who was­n’t a Wal­greens com­pany man. Ther­a­nos had clev­erly played on this inse­cu­ri­ty. As a result, Wal­greens suffered from a severe case of FOMO—the fear of miss­ing out.” Who knew?) A sim­i­lar des­per­a­tion appears to have ani­mated Safe­way’s ill-fated Ther­a­nos com­mit­ment. And the gen­eral coverup appears to have owed much to the real­i­ties of law­fare in the USA: Ther­a­nos had enough cash to wield legal threats against the just­ly-ter­ri­fied whistle­blow­ers, cost­ing Tyler Shultz a stag­ger­ing $400,000+ and gaslight­ing sus­pects with con­stant PI sur­veil­lance, and pos­si­bly tac­tics that went beyond the legal (Theranos/Holmes appear sus­pi­ciously well-in­formed at times). It’s no sur­prise it took a major news­pa­per like the WSJ to inves­ti­gate it. It’s also inter­est­ing for the unex­pected details. For exam­ple, dress­ing like Steve Jobs was­n’t Holmes’s idea! She was told to do it by one of her ex-Ap­plers. And her fam­ily con­nec­tions were dan­ger­ous as much as they were help­ful: the shiny board of direc­tors, for every­one it impressed, put other peo­ple off and made them sus­pi­cious, and with­out her fam­ily con­nec­tions, the fam­ily friend Richard Fuisz would never have tried to paten­t-troll her out of peev­ish spite which directly fed into the first For­tune arti­cle and even­tu­ally Car­rey­rou’s own inves­ti­ga­tion. (With ‘fam­ily friends’ like the­se, who needs ene­mies?)

And Car­rey­rou is good about con­sid­er­ing to what extent Ther­a­nos really reflects on SV: as he points out, a lot of the actual investors were ‘dumb money’ (my phrase) who did min­i­mal real due dili­gence and ignored red flags, like Rupert Mur­doch who put in $125m on the basis of 2 meet­ings with Holmes and a phone call to some­one else, while the usual life-sciences VCs were unim­pressed with Holmes’s blus­ter & igno­rance and took a total pass on her. (Google Ven­tures took a hard pass when their guy walked into a Wal­greens and Ther­a­nos could­n’t do the test using just a nan­o­tainer of his blood—a sim­ple test that many oth­ers also did but then ignored the excuses and fail­ures.) Cul­tur­al­ly, Ther­a­nos was barely SV: yes, Apple may have fanat­i­cal inter­nal secre­cy, but they are the excep­tion that proves the SV rule and have suffered for it (in machine learn­ing espe­cial­ly), while every­one else adopts con­sid­er­ably more inter­nal trans­parency for pre­cisely the rea­sons that Ther­a­nos employ­ees cite—how do you do R&D if no one is allowed to talk to each oth­er? (Again, Apple has suffered for this in try­ing to keep up in non-ma­te­ri­al­s-science and non-man­u­fac­tur­ing R&D, like machine learn­ing: what’s the last impres­sive new tech you can think of which was devel­oped inside Apple?) It’s not easy to draw a novel les­son here. Was Ther­a­nos ini­tially too ambi­tious? Per­haps, but lots of star­tups scale back or pivot to new ideas based on their tri­al-and-er­ror; real­ity can­not be planned out. Did it get too much mon­ey? It raised $6m ini­tial­ly, which is not that much for their pur­pose. Should new star­tups not be funded at all or not allowed a decade+ to work out ideas, or Wal­greens blamed for seiz­ing on a new oppor­tu­nity as fast as pos­si­ble? But peo­ple already com­plain about investors being too risk-a­verse and short­-term (de­spite Ther­a­nos being 17 years old now!) and com­pa­nies being bloated slow bureau­cra­cies. Was the prob­lem lack of ‘peer review’? Except peer review does­n’t work and isn’t sci­en­tific, works the worst in cases of fraud (think of all the cases of peo­ple fab­ri­cat­ing scores or hun­dreds of papers which slide through ‘peer review’ only to finally be exposed not by ‘peer review’ but when the results failed to repli­cate), and would’ve been infe­rior to sim­ply see­ing if the tests worked or not, and that’s how all the smart money like Google Ven­tures took a pass on Ther­a­nos. Should we out­law invest­ing mil­lions of dol­lars based on a phonecall? Hard to imag­ine that work­ing out well. Should we crit­i­cize VCs for being gullible? But most of the VCs (not) involved weren’t gullible! Should we crit­i­cize the board for let­ting her accu­mu­late so much stock and then let­ting her talk them out of fir­ing her in 2008? Prob­a­bly, yes, but hind­sight is 20/20 and the worst prob­lems had­n’t hap­pened yet. Should blood test­ing in gen­eral be ver­boten to investors? But Holmes is very, very, far from the first per­son to try to improve on exist­ing blood tests and fail, much like the peren­ni­ally fruit­less quest for a Alzheimer’s dis­ease cure—a good book on this topic is John Smith’s The Pur­suit of Non­in­va­sive Glu­cose Blood Tests: “Hunt­ing the Deceit­ful Turkey” doc­u­ment­ing the end­less fail­ure of peo­ple try­ing to improve on fin­ger-stick blood glu­cose tests for dia­bet­ic­s—and peo­ple keep try­ing because any­one who suc­ceeds will make so much money because the human costs of fail­ing to suc­ceed is mea­sured in hun­dreds of mil­lions or bil­lions of lives over the com­ing cen­turies, and fail­ure is sim­ply not an accept­able option. Car­rey­rou sug­gests toward the end that Holmes might have psy­cho­pathic traits:

A sociopath is often described as some­one with lit­tle or no con­science. I’ll leave it to the psy­chol­o­gists to decide whether Holmes fits the clin­i­cal pro­file, but there’s no ques­tion that her moral com­pass was badly askew. I’m fairly cer­tain she did­n’t ini­tially set out to defraud investors and put patients in har­m’s way when she dropped out of Stan­ford fifteen years ago. By all accounts, she had a vision that she gen­uinely believed in and threw her­self into real­iz­ing. But in her all-con­sum­ing quest to be the sec­ond com­ing of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the “uni­corn” boom, there came a point when she stopped lis­ten­ing to sound advice and began to cut cor­ners. Her ambi­tion was vora­cious and it brooked no inter­fer­ence. If there was col­lat­eral dam­age on her way to riches and fame, so be it.

I think this is wide of the mark and he gets clos­est in the final lines. What is the stereo­typ­i­cal pro­file of psy­chopa­thy? One might put it as: some­one who is unable to make or com­mit to plans, who acts spon­ta­neously on selfish and often self­-de­struc­tive impuls­es, cov­er­ing up for it with manip­u­la­tion of oth­ers or with even more brazen decep­tions often so ill-thought-out and eas­ily fal­si­fied as to beg­gar belief, with a his­tory of vio­lence (often unre­port­ed) and espe­cially sadis­tic cru­elty (often emerg­ing dur­ing child­hood and focus­ing on ani­mal­s), unable to main­tain long-term rela­tion­ships, sex­u­ally promis­cu­ous and often impreg­nat­ing or preg­nant at an early age, often below aver­age intel­li­gence, greedy and cov­etous of money or rewards, apt to embez­zle or steal from employ­ers, typ­i­cally rac­ing from employer to employer to out­run immune sys­tems etc. The por­trait of Holmes in BB is very far from this. There is no hint of ten­den­cies towards sadism or vio­lence in her child­hood, merely a men­tion of com­pet­i­tive­ness. Holmes is, at least ini­tial­ly, quite bad at self­-p­re­sen­ta­tion: One quoted VC para­phrased describes her early pitches as unim­pres­sive: “she’d come off as a dowdy young sci­en­tist back then, wear­ing Coke-bot­tle glasses and no make­up, speak­ing ner­vously to an audi­ence of men two to three times her age” and Car­rey­rou points out (to my sur­prise) that her Job­sian wardrobe was­n’t even her idea—but that of an Apple designer she hired:

Ana felt that Eliz­a­beth could use a makeover her­self. The way she dressed was decid­edly unfash­ion­able. She wore wide gray pantsuits and Christ­mas sweaters that made her look like a frumpy accoun­tant. Peo­ple in her entourage like Chan­ning Robert­son and Don Lucas were begin­ning to com­pare her to Steve Jobs. If so, she should dress the part, she told her. Eliz­a­beth took the sug­ges­tion to heart. From that point on, she came to work in a black turtle­neck and black slacks most days.

An addi­tional inter­est­ing thread through­out BB (although Car­rey­rou puts no empha­sis on this and I won­der if he missed the con­nec­tion) is how Holmes con­tin­u­ously sought to amass more stocks or vot­ing con­trol of Ther­a­nos: one odd­ity in the end of the Ther­a­nos saga was that Holmes was nev­er, and could not be, fired because she con­tin­ued to own so much stock and vot­ing pow­er. Rather than sell­ing out early and retir­ing to a life of leisure, she held on to the bit­ter end. This is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing because, if I’m read­ing the time­line and indict­ment right, Ther­a­nos reached val­u­a­tions of $50m+ long before Holmes/Sunny ever did any­thing that was truly fraud and irre­versible; as far as I can tell, Holmes could have sold mil­lions of dol­lars of stock and left at many points, entirely safe­ly, and when Ther­a­nos ran out of run­way, it would be regret­table but noth­ing she could go to prison for. Instead, she invested con­sid­er­able efforts into claw­ing back the large, near co-founder-level stake of her first employ­ee, to the point of threat­en­ing to sue an extremely wealthy direc­tor who wanted to buy some of it him­self rather than giv­ing it to her at a huge dis­count; she fur­ther pro­posed in 2007 allot­ting a block of stock to a non­profit foun­da­tion in per­pe­tu­ity (con­trolled by, of course, her­self); and when­ever an employee was fired, Ther­a­nos prac­tice seems to have been to care­fully hunt using cowork­ers and lap­tops and files for any rea­son, no mat­ter how spu­ri­ous, to claw­back stock options.

And in Ther­a­nos’s mis­man­age­ment, we don’t see much that could be described as sadis­tic beyond ordi­nary bound­s—in­deed, the ‘dis­ap­pear­ing’ is about sep­a­rat­ing peo­ple from Ther­a­nos as quickly and totally as pos­si­ble, rather than toy­ing with their prey. The dis­ap­pear­ing served a use­ful role in enforc­ing com­part­men­tal­iza­tion, risk-aver­sion, and cov­er­ing up infor­ma­tion, but might there not be another rea­son? Ian Gib­bons puts his fin­ger on it exactly when he said that “It’s a .” Or per­haps it would be more pre­cise to invoke nar­cis­sis­tic per­son­al­ity dis­or­der and com­pare Eliz­a­beth Holmes to Don­ald Trump.

Holmes did not start off as a psy­chopath deter­mined to rip off VC and SV by using her cun­ningly honed social skills and sex­u­al­ity to manip­u­late horny old white men, as one nar­ra­tive goes. She was a nor­mal ambi­tious Stan­ford under­grad (hav­ing met a dozen or so Stan­ford under­grads recent­ly, Holmes now seems much more under­stand­able to me), per­haps a lit­tle too eager to launch a star­tup, with delu­sions of grandeur about a entre­pre­neur­ial des­tiny and a bit of a chip on her shoul­der; for rea­sons which can­not be known (as coun­ter­fac­tu­als are not observ­able), she got lucky or was female or had fam­ily con­nec­tions or some­thing and she got some VC and sup­port from her pro­fes­sors for what was a more fea­si­ble sort of idea which might’ve been work­able, dropped out for a star­tup, was men­tored by the likes of Larry Elli­son (surely a red flag if ever there was one), hooked up with an entre­pre­neur even luck­ier and more delu­sional in a remark­ably long-term monog­a­mous rela­tion­ship, selected for employ­ees who ini­tially offered help­ful advice in fit­ting into SV tropes and self­-p­re­sen­ta­tion but grad­u­ally were recy­cled into syco­phants and slaves, and devel­oped her real­i­ty-dis­tor­tion field abil­i­ties through prac­tice and self­-per­sua­sion and a cul­ti­vated paranoia/martyr com­plex, and mutual nar­cis­sis­tic feed­back loops with true-be­liever employ­ees and Sunny and even­tu­ally the media, ‘van­ish­ing’ any­one who threat­ened to dam­age her nar­cis­sis­tic sup­ply and pun­ish­ing them for being wretched hate­ful human beings and endan­ger­ing the mis­sion, all of which lasted for many years (while Ther­a­nos was only truly in the pub­lic eye from 2014–2017, the first ver­sion was founded in 2003, fully 11 years before!). That’s differ­ent, even if the end game going, looks sim­i­lar.

A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century, Stambler 2014

A His­tory of Life-Ex­ten­sion­ism in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­turyIlia Stam­bler2014★★★★

(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 and work. Nat­u­ral­ly, for some par­tic­u­lar parts there are bet­ter things to read (for exam­ple, Car­rel’s organ-p­reser­va­tion work is much more inter­est­ingly and 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 and 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 switches’ 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 non­func­tional 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 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 and pub­li­ca­tion bias & non-ran­dom­ized mice selec­tion and breed-spe­cific responses & mis­la­beled reagents and non-blinded eval­u­a­tion and cod­ing errors and 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 and restricted to a few sub­tests, due to error or fraud­u­lent data, or some­thing else which in another con­text would look like mean-spir­ited 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 and 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, bug-lt 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
  • relat­ed: 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. If the treat­ment invig­o­rated the patient but they died on sched­ule, it was not an anti-ag­ing treat­ment. Use of prox­ies is the dark side of life-ex­ten­sion research: quick, easy, seduc­tive, encour­ag­ing (one is con­stantly mak­ing pro­gress), but a dead end.
  • 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 to allow right­eous lord­ing over oth­ers: odd­ly, it seems that what peo­ple are con­vinced is moral to eat just hap­pens to always coin­cide with what is healthy to eat and what will make one live longer, and deli­cious things like bacon never get held up as the Foun­tain of Youth, and no fruit or veg­etable ever turns out to have a ter­ri­ble draw­back. So researchers are almost unan­i­mous about mod­er­ate eat­ing, or fruits and veg­eta­bles being the path to long life while meat is the path to an early grave? They are just repeat­ing long-s­tand­ing cul­tural prej­u­dices about under­-eat­ing being morally vir­tu­ous and supe­rior and meat (which com­mits the sin of deli­cious­ness) is bes­tial and evil, part of the reli­gious atti­tudes towards food we can see on dis­play at any Whole Foods. What reli­gion prizes meat-eat­ing and regards the keto diet as the height of orthorex­ia? (Many of these rec­om­men­da­tions are clearly com­ing less from sci­en­tific evi­dence than from the dis­gust axis of moral­i­ty.) 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—a pre­dictable sign of derange­ment.
  • 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 and in detail on how hav­ing a house radio dur­ing the Great Depres­sion cor­re­lates with greater longevity (ac­tual study!), even if we were delu­sory enough to imag­ine SES and other con­founds could ever be mea­sured to suffi­cient pre­ci­sion to con­trol for just a few of the more bla­tant cor­re­lates? This is the sort of thing I feel can be described only as friv­o­lous and 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 and bab­ble TBI-induced non­sense into jour­nals. 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 and 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 he or we should take away from turn­ing over this long account (espe­cially if one is not already famil­iar with the area). Some of the things he men­tions were not worth men­tion­ing (eg the far­ci­cal ‘Tur­ing test passed’ a few years ago by a chat­bot 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 and SENS and how far they’ve got­ten would be most inter­est­ing, but instead he set­tles for some cur­sory men­tion­s).

Moondust, Smith 2006

Moon­dust: In Search Of The Men Who Fell To EarthAndrew Smith2006★★★★

Gonzo-light style book by a music jour­nal­ist on try­ing to meet the sur­viv­ing 9 astro­nauts who walked on the moon, dis­cuss it and their post-moon lives, and draw Deep Lessons. Prompted by the inter­est­ing review of it in the LRB (“What did you expect? The banal­ity of moon-talk”).

Smith strives very hard to con­tex­tu­al­ize the short interviews/encounters, often unsuc­cess­ful­ly, bounc­ing between a frus­trat­ing amount of padding, the his­to­ry, and very short snip­pets from the actual inter­views—he is par­tic­u­larly baffled by Arm­strong, get­ting out of him only the inter­est­ing tid­bit that Arm­strong packed with him an album of theremin music (fit­tingly enough), con­clud­ing that Arm­strong must have deep mys­ter­ies indeed (although the more par­si­mo­nious expla­na­tion would be that Arm­strong is pretty much what he seemed). The strain­ing con­tin­ues with the other astro­nauts, with Smith ulti­mately more or less agree­ing with “‘s view that all the Moon­walk­ers came back ’more like they already were’”—the New Age astro­naut who tried to do ESP exper­i­ments from orbit* indeed con­tin­ued to dab­ble in New Age and psi and other sorts of futil­i­ty, the uncom­mu­nica­tive Arm­strong remained uncom­mu­nica­tive, the hilar­i­ously and endear­ingly Aspergery remained Aspergery, etc. The most inter­est­ing one is defi­nitely Alan Bean, who feels he was kept so busy dur­ing his brief lunar sojourn that he failed to truly appre­ci­ate it and has since devoted his time to paint­ing the Moon in pieces like “That’s How It Felt to Walk On The Moon” in order to regrasp the expe­ri­ence.

One pos­si­ble reg­u­lar­ity Smith notes in talk­ing to them is that per­son­al­i­ty-wise, the dis­graced might be onto some­thing in iden­ti­fy­ing role and per­son­al­ity as mod­er­a­tors of the :

The Apollo 15 com­man­der spent two days drift­ing home from the Moon with a man who had (or felt he had) heard God call­ing to him there—Jim Irwin—and I want to know whether the crew dis­cussed this at all?

The reply comes quick­ly. “No, there was­n’t really time, we were too busy doing the sci­ence.” And through the pause which fol­lows, I’m think­ing, “Oh well, I tried.” But then Scott con­tin­ues.

“That’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion, though, because Jim was deeply affect­ed. For instance, before the Moon, he was a good speak­er, but after­wards he was a great one. He really believed. Some­thing real hap­pened to him.” He then speaks about some­thing which he called his “left seat-right seat” the­o­ry, refer­ring to the fact that the com­man­der stood to the left in the lan­der with the Lunar Mod­ule pilot on his right. He sounds reflec­tive for the first time as he notes: “The six guys in the left seat went down paths you’d have expect­ed, but the six in the right seats went off in all kinds of unex­pected direc­tions.”

And I sud­denly recall Ed Mitchell say­ing some­thing sim­i­lar. In fact he had a name for it. I’d asked whether he thought some of the Moon­walk­ers had been more open to the expe­ri­ence than oth­ers and he answered:

“Well, one thing to note is that most of the guys who were vocal about the depth of the expe­ri­ence were Lunar Mod­ule pilots. It’s known phe­nom­e­non, from mil­i­tary stud­ies, that the guy in the rear seat of a two-seater air­craft and the guy actu­ally doing the fly­ing have differ­ent expe­ri­ences, because they’re focussed on differ­ent things. It’s the com­mand phe­nom­e­non. The view of the guy who has to be alert and on top of things is differ­ent from the guy who’s just along for the ride. So those of us com­ing back from the Moon who were LM pilots, we weren’t just along for the ride—we had chores—but we did­n’t have major respon­si­bil­i­ties, because the space­craft was func­tion­ing well. We could take it in and con­tem­plate what we were doing more thor­ough­ly.” He fur­ther added: “I think that was also true for peo­ple back home on Earth, though obvi­ously in a differ­ent way. Those pic­tures of the Earth from the Moon are the most pub­lished pic­tures in the world. And so one has to ask the ques­tion: Why is that so? What is that? And to me, it’s because they speak to that spirit of quest that humans have. And to the ques­tion ‘Who are we?’”

Yes. Now Scott is talk­ing about Ed and his noetic quest, and Buzz Aldrin with his post­flight break­down … and Alan Bean with his Close Encoun­ters Moon art … and of course Char­lie Duke and Jim Irwin, who were directly or indi­rectly led to their faiths by the Moon. Only Jack Schmitt fol­lowed a straight and nor­mal path, and then only if you con­sider a desire to enter the Sen­ate nor­mal. And for the first time, I fall to reflect­ing on my own encoun­ters with these men; on the LM pilots’ eager­ness to com­mu­ni­cate what they’d felt up there and the way it seemed to still live inside them, as against the by-turns mad­den­ing and amus­ing imper­vi­ous­ness of the sur­viv­ing mis­sion com­man­ders. Arm­strong, Young, Cer­nan, Scott: I can admire them all in differ­ent ways, but would­n’t want them near me if I were a talk-show host or com­poser of son­nets. After­wards, I go to find Scott, because I want to know whether he thinks this post­flight diver­gence is attrib­ut­able to the differ­ent expe­ri­ences of the Moon­walk­er­s—as he seemed to be imply­ing—or whether Deke sim­ply assigned them roles accord­ing to char­ac­ter type, with focus and sin­gu­lar­ity seen as the stuff of lead­er­ship.

…“No, char­ac­ter does­n’t come into it,” he says. Real­ly? I ask, but he shakes his head firm­ly. “Char­ac­ter was never an issue.” So he agrees with Ed Mitchell that there was some­thing pri­mal in the expe­ri­ence, at least for those who had the time and men­tal space to be affected by it? “I think so. Yes.” He leaves a short gap, as though con­sid­er­ing this for the first time. “It’s inter­est­ing, isn’t it?”

Yes, I agree, it is—even though by this stage of my trav­els I can no longer believe it to be true. I think Deke Slay­ton chose his com­man­ders pre­cisely for their rar­efied focus and tightly reined imag­i­na­tions; for their rel­a­tive immu­nity to doubt, ambiva­lence and vac­il­la­tion—s­tates that arise from sen­si­tiv­ity to one’s sit­u­a­tion, but might also delay deci­sions by the split sec­ond that turned suc­cess to anguish. What Slay­ton wanted was impreg­nabil­i­ty. Many of the com­man­ders appear to be fine men, but it seems to me unlikely that they were ever going to become painters or preach­ers or poets or gurus, or have much to say about the meta­phys­i­cal res­o­nance of their jour­ney.

…We pass through money and fam­i­lies and end up at Schmitt the sci­en­tist’s differ­ent take on the divorces, with him point­ing out: “Because it was obvi­ously frowned on for a long time, there were no divorces at first. And then there was some pen­t-up demand, of course, that finally occurred. But remem­ber, you’re deal­ing with a fairly spe­cial­ized selec­tion of Amer­i­cans. Most of them were only sons or eldest sons in Apol­lo, and they almost all exhib­ited what psy­chi­a­trists, I think, would call ‘Type A’ per­son­al­ity traits. And so you have to eval­u­ate every­thing that they’ve done since or dur­ing that time against that kind of a gen­eral per­son­al­ity back­ground.”

And I say: My God! Why did­n’t I notice this ear­lier? When I get home, I call some psy­chol­o­gists and they rec­om­mend a book called Born to Rebel by Frank Sul­loway, who sees fam­i­lies as “ecosys­tems in which sib­lings com­pete for parental favour by occu­py­ing spe­cial­ized nich­es.” In his view, the strate­gies required of these niches become major influ­ences on per­son­al­ity for­ma­tion. It’s a star­tling fact that every Moon­walker I’ve met has been either an eldest sib­ling or only son. More aston­ish­ingly still, this will turn out to hold true for them all. Is that what brought them here? Dri­ven, work-ob­sessed, time-ob­sessed, fiercely com­pet­i­tive, prone to stress-in­duced heart dis­ease … Type A. As the eldest of three sons, this pro­duces a par­tic­u­lar queasi­ness (bor­der­ing on pan­ic) in me. At any rate, the Type A the­sis would chime with the com­pet­i­tive­ness Gene Cer­nan and oth­ers have described in the Astro­naut Office—though Schmitt, another only son, takes a typ­i­cally ratio­nal and some­what differ­ent view of this, too, aver­ring: “It was­n’t so vicious, because nobody quite knew how Deke Slay­ton picked his crews.”…I ask whether Schmitt thinks that going to the Moon changed him, repeat­ing Alan Bean’s view that all the Moon­walk­ers came back “more like they already were,” and his face lights up. He says he did­n’t know that Bean had said that, but it’s exactly what he, too, has felt for the last thirty years. The only one who went in a direc­tion no one could have imag­ined, he sug­gests, was the Apollo 15 com­man­der, David Scott, whose lus­trous career was destroyed by the “stamp scan­dal” which over­took him a few months after his return: a storm which broke over NASA’s dis­cov­ery that he and his crew (LM pilot Jim Irwin and CM pilot Alfred Wor­den) had smug­gled 400 com­mem­o­ra­tive envelopes to the Moon, then sold them to a stamp dealer for a profit of around $6,000 per man. There was noth­ing ille­gal in this, but it was against reg­u­la­tions and the crew were canned, with the inci­dent fol­low­ing Scott like a toxic cloud ever after, because he was the com­man­der and thus forced to shoul­der the respon­si­bil­i­ty. Over the three decades which fol­lowed he would become the most eva­sive of all the astro­nauts, includ­ing Arm­strong. I find his story intrigu­ing and a lit­tle scary.

Not being an Apollo buff, I learned many inter­est­ing lit­tle bits. For exam­ple, the first land­ing was nearly a dis­as­ter due to com­puter issues, excess lunar dust, and a pipe get­ting jammed and nearly explod­ing; going to the bath­room in space was so hor­ri­fy­ing one astro­naut sim­ply did­n’t do it at all by tak­ing to cause con­sti­pa­tion; John Young fell down repeat­edly while cavort­ing on the moon and immor­tal­ized him­self by radio­ing back to Earth, “I got the farts agin. I got ’em agin, Char­lie.”; Buzz Aldrin, while suffer­ing from a pecu­liar pho­bia in which he is unable to write things and still upset about Arm­strong break­ing Apollo tra­di­tion by insist­ing on being first out, still invented the ; David Scott, cashiered for smug­gling postal cov­ers onto the moon to resell, was prob­a­bly unjustly per­se­cuted as other astro­nauts had brought things to the moon as well (in part because they were paid next to noth­ing (Aldrin keeps his travel expenses from Apollo framed: “PAYEE’S NAME: Col. Edwin E. Aldrin 00018 / FROM: Hous­ton, Texas / TO: Cape Kennedy, Fla. / Moon / Pacific Ocean / AMOUNT CLAIMED: $33.311”), and could­n’t even get life insur­ance); in Nepal, the astro­nauts would be asked con­stantly if they had seen peo­ples’ dead rel­a­tives on the moon; selec­tion of astro­nauts was capri­cious and done at the whims of a resent­ful for­mer pilot with a heart con­di­tion (although given his mother “used to tie him to a tree at the age of four to stop him from run­ning into the road”, one sus­pects his ground­ing might’ve been a good thing); Arm­strong only got the first moon land­ing due to the deaths of sev­eral astro­nauts ahead of him; Apollo 12 was hit by light­ning while launch­ing and NASA feared the para­chute was per­ma­nently bro­ken, but let them con­tinue to the Moon because they might as well if they were doomed; most of the astro­nauts make lit­tle money but the orbiters in the com­mand mod­ule make far less than the ones who actu­ally walked on the moon, although the expe­ri­ence of orbit­ing the dark side of the moon helped make up for the resent­ment of com­ing so close but not land­ing; the ongo­ing prob­lems of fake moon dust being ped­dled by con artists (fake because legal­ly, only the US gov­ern­ment is allowed to own/sell moon dust before 2014); a major find­ing in pansper­mia, that bac­te­ria can sur­vive a trip to the Moon, was caused by a worker sneez­ing into the Sur­veyor cam­era; Aldrin and Arm­strong had great trou­ble plant­ing a flag in the sharp hart lunar dust/soil and were ter­ri­fied it would fall while being video­taped; early in NASA his­to­ry, it was almost 20% British (50% of the engi­neer­s), scooped up from a bank­rupt Cana­dian air­craft man­u­fac­tur­er; of a num­ber of sad moments, the sad­dest may be one record­ing in an album of space pro­gram audio records, Flight to the Moon, where White is space-walk­ing and Gris­som orders him back in, White stalling, finally say­ing “This is the sad­dest moment of my life”, both of them dying just months later in the and never mak­ing it to the moon; Den­nis Tito not­ing pre­sciently that any­one want­ing to go to the ISS in 2005 should do so as soon as pos­si­ble as it would never be cheaper (prov­ing to be right, in spades, as the price went up 10× in the years after­wards before Rus­sia shut it down entirely in 2010); an astronomer get­ting excited over pho­tos of ejected urine, ask­ing what it was, and being told it was the “con­stel­la­tion Urion”; NASA seri­ously con­sid­ered send­ing an astro­naut on a one-way mis­sion and then try­ing to pick him up years later when they fig­ured that part out (which reminds me of some of the debates over how to do a manned Mars mis­sion); and nei­ther JFK nor Nixon really wanted Apol­lo, with JFK pick­ing it up as a spur-of-the-mo­ment des­per­ate response to Rus­sia and later backpedal­ing and propos­ing a joint pro­gram with the Rus­sians; and in 1980, Amer­i­cans spent more play­ing than they did on the space pro­gram.

  • Smith notes that due to a sched­ul­ing mishap, Edgar Mitchel­l’s attempt to com­mu­ni­cate in orbit using ESP with part­ners back on earth was incor­rectly timed, but in Mitchel­l’s defense, Daryl Bem has demon­strated that mere time is no bar­rier to ESP, so there’s no rea­son to cri­tique it on those grounds!

The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III, Byrne 2010

The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Mul­ti­ple Uni­vers­es, Mutual Assured Destruc­tion, and the Melt­down of a Nuclear Fam­ilyPeter Byrne2010★★★★

(~140k words, 4h read) Before read­ing, my knowl­edge of was lim­ited to basi­cally the fol­low­ing sketch: a young Amer­i­can male who post-WWII sug­gested tak­ing the Schro­dinger wave-e­qua­tion lit­er­al­ly, yield­ing the infa­mous , 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 and had noth­ing to do with quan­tum sui­cide, and he did much more than just MWI and 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 and IAS in its golden WWII momen­t—the war won, von Neu­mann still alive and 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, , turn from a coura­geous physi­cist, well-re­garded for his dar­ing spec­u­la­tions, into a biased cow­ard who bul­lies Everett into sab­o­tag­ing and 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 and 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 (the come to mind, as do the many high­-rank­ing Soviet spies such as ) 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 . 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.

Unsong, Alexander 2017

Scott Alexan­der2017★★★★

(~233k words) Unsong is a Kab­bal­ah-punk adven­ture ser­ial in ~72 chap­ters by Scott Alexan­der, gen­er­ally bet­ter known for his non­fic­tion essays/blog-posts on pol­i­tics, psy­chi­a­try, med­i­cine, and sta­tis­tics on Slat­eStar­Codex.­com/Tum­blr.

Movie trailer sum­ma­ry:

[Shot of choirs of angels, sud­denly ripped apart by explo­sions] The War in Heaven was lost. Satan won. [A blond man with ringlet curls in a sharp suit who looks sus­pi­ciously like Leonardo DiCaprio gazes impas­sively down.] But in the last redoubt, Uriel, the for­got­ten angel, [the heart of a storm cloud; large lumi­nous Hebrew char­ac­ters float in mid-air in front of an anx­ious, sad look­ing blond angel who looks sus­pi­ciously like Neil Patrick Har­ris; sud­den­ly, he begins glow­ing and reaches for­ward to slowly touch one char­ac­ter] did the unthink­able: seized the power of God and replaced the uni­verse with… math.

And all was well, [a green earth] until… [a cap­sule sud­denly cuts across the earth] one man dared to make… [an astro­naut] one small step for mankind… [as­tro­naut using radio] one great leap for meta­physics. [ex­plo­sions] This sum­mer, dis­cover a world of mag­ic… [a His­panic man dodges gun fire in a room while shout­ing ‘avada kedavra­bal­lah!’] a world which is end­ing… [A man with two heads and dark ringlet curls in a sharp suit smiles as a lit­tle girl screams] a world in which sci­ence still works, most­ly… [a young nerd who looks sus­pi­ciously like Tobey Maguire is bathed in light from a com­puter in a bed­room] a world in which there is no hope… [a sus­pi­ciously long-faced Eng­lish­man in a cape stares in shock out over what can only be Hell itself] but in the end, a world in which – [an astro­naut who looks sus­pi­ciously like Tom Hanks opens his hel­met in the mid­dle of infi­nite lumi­nos­i­ty, a tear down his cheek] “Noth­ing is wrong, Hous­ton. Noth­ing has ever been wrong. Noth­ing could be wrong.”

[rapid flash­es: an African-Amer­i­can-look­ing woman in a plum power suit in an inter­ro­ga­tion room; an end­less row of beige cubi­cles lit by flick­er­ing flu­o­res­cent lights; a blond woman walk­ing in won­der on clouds; a cloud-fortress rem­i­nis­cent of the front of Notre Dame; spe­cial forces break­ing into a house; final­ly, with a last bang, a large logo of Hebraic text flashes up on screen and shim­mers]

This sum­mer, dis­cover the world of Unsong.

One could describe it as a mix of Ted Chi­ang’s “Sev­en­ty-Two Let­ters”, , , and Leonard Cohen, how William Blake was right about every­thing and , all the weird­est bits of the Bible and Tal­mud and Jew­ish folk­lore, the , the most shame­less aquatic mam­mal puns and Tom Swifties, the fruit of a dis­si­pated youth pur­su­ing the furtive vice of micro-na­tions, invent­ing an unusual theod­i­cy, the impli­ca­tions of the­ism for Effec­tive Altru­ism, and an extended demonstration/disproof* of by prov­ing how Amer­ica is an epic in which The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe pre­dicted Trump’s elec­tion—or why Barack Obama is obvi­ously a Love­craft­ian demon, or how Moses=­Con­fu­cius=­Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, or how deep the iden­tity of apples & knowl­edge goes, or the hid­den iden­tity of snakes & mes­si­ahs, or how both “Tyger Tyger” and are not about lit­tle goats or big cats but the cre­ation of the uni­verse, or how “Amer­i­can Pie” is about both Jesus Christ and the entire plot of Unsong, or the eerie cor­re­spon­dences of the Bay Area with Jerusalem—among many many other coin­ci­dences.

It can be seen as some­thing of an exten­sion of some of his ear­lier short fic­tions, par­tic­u­larly “Uni­ver­sal Love, Said The Cac­tus Per­son” & “The Study of Anglo­physics” and the set­ting of his Dun­geons & Dis­courses cam­paigns “King Under The Moun­tain”/“Fer­mat’s Last Stand”, but much more so in that it includes all the odd­ball world-build­ing he’d built up over the years and his most ter­ri­ble jokes and bizarre analo­gies and coin­ci­dences and odd­i­ties like and some satire of Sil­i­con Val­ley and the Bay Area, all in the ser­vice of a seri­ous med­i­ta­tion on ethics and the nature of evil in a world in which the Bible is lit­er­ally true and there actu­ally is both a just lov­ing God & Hell. As Scott says:

This is going to be a book about good and evil. How do peo­ple react to evil? How do they under­stand it? Do they tol­er­ate it? Com­pro­mise with it? Try to fight it? Curse God for cre­at­ing it? What if twenty years ago the Mes­siah called for the great­est cru­sade in all of his­tory in order to con­quer Hell itself, failed, died, and now the world is just sort of limp­ing through the after­math of that with­out really ever hav­ing processed it? Nobody’s noticed it yet, but under­neath the facade of puns and stuff this book is really dark, and it’s going to get way dark­er.

One’s lik­ing for Unsong will depend crit­i­cally on whether one found the eso­teric occult con­nec­tions and debates in Fou­cault’s Pen­du­lum to be hilar­i­ous or hor­ri­fy­ingly tedious; Unsong is, for bet­ter or worse, very heavy on the world-build­ing and essays and info­dumps in order to fit every­thing pos­si­ble in, as most of the rel­e­vant events hap­pen in flash­backs or info­dumps and the main plot itself is very brief, only occa­sion­ally squeezed in, and fur­ther sub­di­vided into three inde­pen­dent threads. As a ser­ial it was a bit painful to read because the progress of the plot was so often inter­rupt­ed, but I think it will read bet­ter now that one does­n’t have to wait for updates (in this respect, I would have to say that another very pop­u­lar web ser­ial writer, Wild­bow, man­ages to do much bet­ter in Worm/Twig since while he is con­stantly esca­lat­ing and cre­at­ing cliff-hang­ers, he both updates fast and typ­i­cally keeps a tight focus on plot). The end­ing is regarded as rather abrupt and seem­ingly a lit­tle arbi­trary, although on my reread I found that there was a great deal more fore­shad­ow­ing of all the twists than I had noticed the first time and every­thing held together bet­ter. The end­ing is still a bit weak in that many events and entire sub­-plots seem largely unnec­es­sary and there just to ful­fill ten­u­ous kabbalistic/Blakean sym­bolic require­ments, but I’m hardly upset by that.

In any case, if the idea of com­bin­ing whale puns and Kab­balah with Fou­cault’s Pen­du­lum sounds like three great tastes that go great togeth­er, you hardly need me to sell you on read­ing Unsong. I enjoyed it a great deal.

And there is, of course, a TvTropes entry.

I want Unsong to have a theme of texts that are way too easy to under­stand—in other words, pat­tern-match­ing, parei­do­lia, see­ing a mil­lion con­nec­tions but not being sure any of them are really there. The book’s cen­tral metaphor for this is kab­bal­ists study­ing the Bible, but I want the book itself to chan­nel that same feel­ing in a non-metaphor­i­cal way.

So for exam­ple, in Chap­ter 5 Ana uses this metaphor of good­ness as music and evil as a dis­cor­dant oppo­site of music. It’s easy enough to tie this into the book’s use of “singers” who sing the Names of God vs. UNSONG the United Nations Sub­com­mit­tee On Names of God who try to stop them. But then the con­nec­tions mul­ti­ply. The title page quotes , which does have a verse on Names of God—but which also refers to God as “Lord of Song”. The inter­lude ref­er­ences as the in-world arche­type of good. Its morally ambigu­ous main char­ac­ter has the last name “Teller”, which seems clearly jux­ta­posed to Singer as if it’s some­one who is work­ing at some­thing sim­i­lar but miss­ing the beauty and finesse—but then the book says that it derives from , who invented the H-bomb and almost caused the apoc­a­lypse. But then maybe that’s also a smoke­screen and he’s just called “Teller” because he’s the nar­ra­tor of the sto­ry. But then the book also talks about how he works as a lit­eral (bank) teller at Cash For Gold and how this is a metaphor for kab­balah because he’s “freely inter­chang­ing sym­bols with mate­r­ial real­ity”. And also, a smith is some­one who forges things and “tel­lus” as in “tel­lurium” is Latin for “Earth”, so Smith-Teller is some­one who remakes the world. (There are other things in this space too, but I won’t spoil them.)

And at some point you real­ize I can’t pos­si­bly have intended all of these mean­ings, because most of this stuff is in real­ity and not in the book at all and I don’t have enough degrees of free­dom to make it work. I can con­trol the name of the in-book orga­ni­za­tion UNSONG (although even there, “United Nations Sub­com­mit­tee On Names of God” is by far the most log­i­cal thing to call the thing that it is, so can that really be counted as autho­r­ial med­dling?), but I can’t con­trol Peter Singer’s name, or Edward Teller’s name, or what a bank teller is, and some of these things have to be coin­ci­dences, and then you either go full skep­tic and start ques­tion­ing whether your pat­tern-match­ing abil­ity even works at all, or full kab­bal­ist and assume all pat­terns are sig­nifi­cant, even the ones in the real world which don’t make sense in a ratio­nal frame­work.

Fortune’s Formula, Poundstone 2006

For­tune’s For­mu­la: The Untold Story of the Sci­en­tific Bet­ting Sys­tem That Beat the Casi­nos and Wall StreetWilliam Pound­stone2006★★★★

An engag­ing multi-biography/history of the repeat­ed­ly-rein­vented , mixed in with overviews of , , , and their famous gam­bling adven­tures in beat­ing black­jack and roulette and, as some of the first ‘quants’, the stock mar­ket. (Like Thomp­son sam­pling, the Kelly cri­te­rion has been rein­vented many times; Pound­stone lists at least 4 inven­tors: Kel­ly, Leo Breiman, Bernoul­li, and Henry Latané.)

Pound­stone starts with the early mob and the ‘’ and sports gam­bling, where Kel­ly’s metaphor of ‘the wire’ giv­ing an edge on bet­ting was quite lit­er­al: spot­ters at the race-tracks would race to com­mu­ni­cate the results to bet­tors and book­ies across the coun­try, so they could take bets on already-won races, lead­ing to mob wars over the lucra­tive monop­oly over using telephones/telegraph ser­vices to com­mu­ni­cate said results, which con­sti­tuted a remark­able frac­tion of tele­com profits. (Shades of HFT.) Thus, noto­ri­ous char­ac­ters like Bugsy Siegel enter into a book about sta­tis­tics as gam­bling becomes a major rev­enue source replac­ing the loss of alco­hol. (Pound­stone spec­u­lates that Edgar Hoover’s famous denial of the exis­tence of the Mafias was due to being paid off by bet­ting on fixed horse races.) The mob part may seem like a col­or­ful and inter­est­ing yet irrel­e­vant diver­sion, but it sets the con­text for invet­er­ate mob gam­bler (fa­mous for bet­ting on any­thing, and know­ing clever tricks like bet­ting peo­ple about whether any­one in the room shared birth­days—in other words, one of the only prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tions of the I’ve seen out­side of cryp­tog­ra­phy), who, aside from being the founder of (!) would even­tu­ally pop up as Thorp and Shan­non’s bankroller. Thorp then enters the pic­ture as a grad stu­dent deeply inter­ested in mak­ing money using physics, start­ing with roulette wheels, which did­n’t work out ini­tial­ly, and then pub­lish­ing an instantly famous paper on beat­ing black­jack with , which brought him to Shan­non (for mechan­i­cal and math­e­mat­i­cal assis­tance) and Kelly (for decid­ing how much to bet) and Manny Kim­mel (for the money to bet with). An inter­lude brings in Kelly and his Kelly cri­te­rion itself, and makes clear the con­nec­tion to infor­ma­tion the­ory and : a few bits of infor­ma­tion about out­comes (ie hav­ing prob­a­bil­i­ties which do not match the implicit prob­a­bil­i­ties in the prices of bets/investments) equates to excess returns, and the more infor­ma­tion, the larger the returns with aggres­sive bet­ting. The Kelly cri­te­rion opti­mizes the extrac­tion of mon­ey, com­pared to other like the which don’t take into account the extra infor­ma­tion. While excel­lent in the­o­ry, Thorp/Shannon/Kimmel’s (Kelly was unin­volved and busy chas­ing the stil­l-elu­sive dream of ) black­jack did not go well: the casi­nos shame­lessly cheated any cus­tomer doing well, Thorp claims one even drugged him twice (although he was never beaten by casino thugs like other card coun­ter­s), and new unpop­u­lar rules were announced to negate card count­ing. So Thorp moved onto roulette and the stock mar­ket. Thor­p’s first big edge was in : since war­rants expire quick­ly, they need to go to 0 or 1 over a short time peri­od, and if the mar­ket is effi­cient, they should fol­low a of the sort famil­iar in physics from mol­e­cules, and their expected value eas­ily cal­cu­lat­ed… and mis­priced war­rants spot­ted and pur­chased. Which sounds a bit para­dox­i­cal. And the risk of buy­ing war­rants can be off­set just buy buy­ing or sell­ing short just some of the under­ly­ing stock. Thorp made money off war­rants, and then pub­lished the strat­egy for increas­ing the cred­i­bil­ity of his new hedge fund, and moved onto by apply­ing sim­i­lar rea­son­ing: the bond should have a cer­tain value which reflects the prob­a­bil­ity that the stock will spike high enough to make the built-in option worth exer­cis­ing, and since stocks should fol­low a ran­dom walk, all you need to know is the vari­ance… invent­ing . With Kel­ly, he could bet heav­ily on the safest profitable invest­ments, up to 150% of the fund, with­out blow­ing up. (In one amus­ing anec­dote, Black­-Sc­holes used their pric­ing model to spot a par­tic­u­larly mis­priced war­rant; then the com­pany changed the terms of the war­rants, wip­ing out the war­rant hold­ers and Black­-Sc­holes, in a way that insid­ers had known was com­ing and sold all their war­rants.) Thorp had a genius for reg­u­larly spot­ting these sorts of oppor­tu­ni­ties, and Pound­stone says ‘“I’ve esti­mated for myself that if I had to pay no tax­es, state or fed­er­al, I’d have about thir­ty-two times as much wealth as I actu­ally do,” Thorp told me recently’ (Thor­p’s net worth is esti­mated some­where in the hun­dreds of mil­lions) because his fund would have grown much faster if it could’ve rein­vested all its earn­ings and profitabil­ity did­n’t have to take into account tax­a­tion. This is plau­si­ble con­sid­er­ing com­pound growth, the fund’s final 15.1% aver­age annual return, and what ulti­mately killed Thor­p’s fund: involve­ment in ’s finan­cial empire as their stock bro­ker, which, as part of Rudy Giu­lian­i’s cru­sade in apply­ing RICO to any­thing pos­si­ble to get him­self elect­ed, turned up some tax fraud on Thor­p’s fund’s part (he blames his part­ner who was in charge of the imple­men­ta­tion end of things). The tim­ing was par­tic­u­larly bad for Thorp because investors would flock to hedge funds dur­ing that time peri­od, as exem­pli­fied by , which Pound­stone devotes a sec­tion to, argu­ing that LTCM also exem­pli­fied the per­ils of non-Kelly invest­ment by putting too much at risk (which seems a lit­tle ten­den­tious, since my under­stand­ing was that the real prob­lem was they under­es­ti­mated the cor­re­la­tions of many assets in an eco­nomic cri­sis; the under­es­ti­ma­tion led them to over­bet and thus exposed them to huge loss­es, and some for­mal­ized Kel­ly-like pro­por­tional invest­ment would­n’t’ve saved them from the fun­da­men­tal mis­takes, any more than the KC saves you from an incor­rect esti­mate of your edge or assum­ing that cor­re­lated bets are inde­pen­den­t). Thorp returned to trad­ing even­tu­al­ly, and in terms of his life­time per­for­mance:

In May 1998 Thorp reported that his invest­ments had grown at an aver­age 20% annual return (with 6% stan­dard devi­a­tion) over 28.5 years. “To help per­suade you that this may not be luck,” Thorp wrote, “I esti­mate that…I have made $80 bil­lion worth of pur­chases and sales (‘action,’ in casino lan­guage) for my investors. This breaks down into some­thing like one and a quar­ter mil­lion indi­vid­ual ‘bets’ aver­ag­ing about $65,000 each, with on aver­age hun­dreds of ‘posi­tions’ in place at any one time. Over all, it would seem to be a mod­er­ately ‘long run’ with a high prob­a­bil­ity that the excess per­for­mance is more than chance.”

Thor­p’s money may con­tinue on:

The Thorps recently endowed a chair at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Irvine math­e­mat­ics depart­ment. The gift con­sists of one mil­lion dol­lars to be invested entirely in stocks, with the uni­ver­sity lim­ited to with­draw­ing only 2% a year. The fund is expected to com­pound expo­nen­tially in infla­tion-ad­justed dol­lars. Ulti­mate­ly, Thorp hopes, it will fund the most richly endowed uni­ver­sity chair in the world, and will help draw excep­tional math­e­mat­i­cal tal­ent to UC Irvine.

Pound­stone goes in more depth into the sta­tis­tics than I expect­ed, and although there’s not that much that can be said about the Kelly cri­te­rion (par­tic­u­larly in 2005, before the lat­est burst of inter­est in it due to evo­lu­tion­ary and bio­log­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tions of the Kelly cri­te­rion and /), he ben­e­fits tremen­dously from exten­sive access to Shan­non’s papers and Thor­p’s rem­i­nis­cences about his mob con­nec­tions while try­ing to beat the casi­nos. Indeed, some of the reviews crit­i­cize the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Thorp as almost for­get­table and per­haps insuffi­ciently crit­i­cal due to Pound­stone’s depen­den­cy. What is a lit­tle remark­able to me is how well Shan­non did finan­cially by 3 early ven­ture cap­i­tal invest­ments, and how lit­tle Shan­non con­tributed intel­lec­tu­ally after his infor­ma­tion the­ory paper; I had always some­how assumed that Claude Shan­non, a genius who had offhand­edly made a major con­tri­bu­tion to genet­ics sim­ply because his advi­sor forced him to work on genet­ics, and had cre­ated ful­ly-formed infor­ma­tion the­o­ry, had died in the 1950s or some­thing, because how else would such a genius have not made fur­ther major con­tri­bu­tions? But no! Shan­non died in 2001! Ram­say died on the oper­at­ing table; von Neu­mann had can­cer; Kelly him­self dropped dead of a stroke on a NYC side­walk; Pitts was men­tally ill and died of alco­holism; but Shan­non was rich, tenured, sound as a bell in mind and body, and infi­nitely respect­ed—what was his excuse? Pound­stone explains that Shan­non was sim­ply too unam­bi­tious (and per­fec­tion­ist) to work hard on any big top­ics or write up and pub­lish prop­erly any of his find­ings! (In­stead, he worked on an end­less suc­ces­sion of hob­bies like jug­gling or Rubik’s cube or dis­cov­er­ing that the small­est ride-able uni­cy­cle is >18 inch­es.) One of the more depress­ing demon­stra­tions that raw genius is not enough.

I did not notice any major errors (asides from per­haps a con­fu­sion of Euler and Gauss, and over­stat­ing the obscu­rity of ). One down­side is that despite the involve­ment of Jimmy Sav­age, Pound­stone never men­tions the con­nec­tions to sub­jec­tive Bayesian­ism, per­sonal inter­pre­ta­tions of prob­a­bil­i­ty, or Thomp­son sam­pling. (Which would, if noth­ing else, have par­tially explained why Sav­age’s career was so peri­patet­ic—it was­n’t just his acer­bic opin­ions as Pound­stone claim­s.)

Digital Gold, Popper 2015

Dig­i­tal Gold: Bit­coin and the Inside Story of the Mis­fits and Mil­lion­aires Try­ing to Rein­vent MoneyNathaniel Pop­per2015★★★★

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 and 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 and 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 and 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

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: 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,

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: .

(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 addresses 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. Also, as far as I am aware, Tor does­n’t, can’t, and should­n’t ‘route users to nodes in the same geo­graphic area’, as that would require exit nodes to know where the user is and defeat­ing the point.

(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?.)

Playboy Interview II, Golson 1983

Play­boy Inter­view IIBarry G. Gol­son1983★★★★

The Play­boy inter­view II, ed. Barry G. Gol­son: 511 pages of dense chal­leng­ing inter­views with 23 famous peo­ple 1964–1982. “I only read Play­boy for the arti­cles”, the joke goes, but the joke is funny because the inter­views in Play­boy were… amaz­ing.

I was already rea­son­ably impressed with their inter­views after read­ing their inter­view with Frank Her­bert (which was remark­ably insight­ful in under­stand­ing what he was get­ting at with his full Dune series and I think is very under­-read by Dune fan­s), but this anthol­ogy shows that was no fluke—I’m not sure I can think of any peri­od­i­cal whose inter­views show so much back­ground prepa­ra­tion or are so long, in depth, reveal­ing, uncom­pro­mis­ing in chal­leng­ing the inter­vie­wee and refus­ing to set­tle for pablum. Each inter­view takes a good 20 pages, and these are not small pages, either, but hefty small font pages.

Com­ments on Inter­view:

  • Ayn Rand: one of the mis­fires, unfor­tu­nate­ly, as Rand refuses to be rat­tled by any ques­tions and just gives her canned respons­es. This was done dur­ing Rand’s early rise and might be use­ful to biog­ra­phers but is deadly dull to read.

  • Sal­vador Dali: delight­fully bat­ty, even if one is sure most of ‘Dali’ is an act.

  • Henry Miller: pos­si­bly inter­est­ing but I am totally unfa­mil­iar with Henry Miller so most of the dis­cus­sion of his books were lost on me.

  • Ian Flem­ing: rea­son­ably inter­est­ing.

  • Jean-Paul Sartre: by chance, one of the only inter­views with Sartre around the time he turned down the Nobel, it shows him in full polit­i­cal flow

  • : a par­tic­u­larly appro­pri­ate inter­view at the present moment; Shel­ton is not a name you’d rec­og­nize, but he was a head of the KKK at a time when that meant some­thing, and Shel­ton is super racist and neo-Nazi, show­ing what those terms actu­ally mean. It’s a flab­ber­gast­ing inter­view to read as Shel­ton is indis­tin­guish­able from a par­ody and asserts the most vile and absurd things. Par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable was this exchange:

    “Play­boy: ‘You announced in a speech not long ago that Negroes are “respon­sive to the phases of the moon”. Just what did you mean by that?’ Shel­ton: ‘Our research and stud­ies have found that there is more stir­ring and move­ment of the nigra when they have a full moon; they show a higher increase in the rate of crime and sex dur­ing the full moon.’ Play­boy: ‘Can you name the sci­en­tific sources on which this “research” was based?’ Shel­ton: ‘Not right off.’”

    The Shel­ton inter­view also shows the Play­boy inter­viewer at their most aggres­sive, con­fronting Shel­ton at every turn with con­tra­dic­tory evi­dence and the KKK’s lies and involve­ment in crime and vio­lence. It’s quite some­thing to read, and makes me roll my eyes at the con­tem­po­rary huffing and puffing about the “resur­gence of fas­cism”.

  • Arnold Toyn­bee: mostly of inter­est for his com­ments on the in-progress Viet­nam war, to be opposed to William F. Buck­ley Jr’s inter­view and the Jane Fonda and Tom Hay­den inter­view (on the right and far left respec­tive­ly). Of the 3, Toyn­bee acquits him­self the best in see­ing it as pri­mar­ily a nation­al­ist move­ment, in con­trast to Buck­ley’s water-car­ry­ing and Fonda/Hayden’s third-world roman­ti­ciz­ing.

  • Johnny Car­son: this was prob­a­bly much more inter­est­ing when it was done, as Car­son was so pop­u­lar then but appar­ently pri­vate; few things age more poorly than inter­views of enter­tain­ers, though, and it’s to Play­boy’s credit that they have as few actors/actresses in this vol­ume as they do. Car­son appears to be a quite ordi­nary man.

  • William F. Buck­ley, Jr.: one of the plea­sures of read­ing old works is that their authors give many hostages to for­tune and one can judge their true desserts. Buck­ley is no excep­tion here; it would be invid­i­ous to speak fur­ther ill of the dead.

  • Roman Polan­ski: a short pugna­cious man, with one of those bog­gling East­ern Euro­pean life sto­ries that so many of the peo­ple who sur­vived WWII had, who also reminds me of no one so much as Har­lan Elli­son. Polan­ski comes off as over­sexed, self­-en­ti­tled, and misog­y­nist, and the rape claims sound that much more plau­si­ble after read­ing his own words.

  • Grou­cho Marx: I know noth­ing about Grou­cho Marx other than the few quips which are com­mon cur­ren­cy. Marx comes off as… kind of a jerk?

  • Jane Fonda and Tom Hay­den: earnest, well-in­ten­tioned—and smack dab in the mid­dle of the loony left next to Noam Chom­sky, and wrong on just about as much as Buck­ley except in being opposed to the Viet­nam war.

  • Robert Red­ford: Red­ford pro­vides a par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing inter­view in light of the later enor­mous influ­ence of his Sun­dance Fes­ti­val (still nascent at the time of the inter­view) because of his peri­patetic life before dab­bling in act­ing and becom­ing a lead­ing man, and for how he is more than a lit­tle crazy—­for exam­ple, he men­tions trav­el­ing to Flo­rence and spend­ing weeks or months just sit­ting in his room con­cen­trat­ing and even­tu­ally induc­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tions. (He stopped because “then it got fright­en­ing because I thought I was los­ing con­trol of it. I started to con­jure up phys­i­cal symp­toms of mad­ness and sick­ness. I was get­ting these odd vis­i­ta­tions from strange crea­tures, and it cer­tainly was­n’t any­thing I could share with any­body. I was too young and I did­n’t feel like any of my friends could under­stand…I remem­ber one par­tic­u­lar time lying there in that lit­tle room, puffing away on cig­a­rettes all day, and think­ing that no one any­where knew where I was. I was com­pletely alone, and I started think­ing about Las Veg­as, and it made me crazy. I could hear the slot machi­nes, and I could see the Cadil­lacs pulling up and the guys with the shark­skin suits step­ping out with the chicks on their arms, and I was hal­lu­ci­nat­ing like mad. It was then that I real­ized how much you can really do on your own, and the idea of drugs and liquor could­n’t carry much weight with me after that.” Quite under­stand­able, real­ly.)

  • : the busi­ness executive/nerd behind tele­vised sports intro­duc­ing all sorts of audio-vi­sual trick­ery and spe­cial effects, involv­ing in run­ning Olympics. I do not watch sports and I had never heard of him before, but I am a sucker for behind-the-scenes dis­cus­sions of the eco­nomic and tech­ni­cal aspects of major endeav­ours like Arledge’s.

  • Alex Haley: focused pri­mar­ily on his research of Roots which was becom­ing a nation-wide obses­sion at the moment. Haley did some of the inter­views him­self, being a Play­boy employ­ee, so this one is chum­mier than the oth­ers. An account of the viral­ity from the inside.

  • William Shock­ley: a long inter­view with Shock­ley about his eugen­ics and behav­ioral genet­ics views. This is one of the fullest accounts of Shock­ley’s views avail­able (look­ing through accounts of his views, I am gen­er­ally appalled at the selec­tive quo­ta­tion, the igno­rance of genet­ics, and retail­ing of sec­ond-hand cita­tions rather than pri­mary sources, of most peo­ple writ­ing about Shock­ley), and par­tic­u­larly shows the value of the Play­boy inter­view­ers bon­ing up on the inter­vie­wees before doing the inter­view and of their long­form inter­views. Shock­ley words a lot of things awk­wardly but care­ful­ly, and the inter­viewer does a good job of push­ing him.

  • G. Gor­don Lid­dy: appar­ently the inter­view here had the unin­tended effect of prompt­ing Liddy to turn him­self into a pub­lic speaker retelling his auto­bi­og­ra­phy. I admit to almost total igno­rance of Lid­dy, but in between Liddy coyly dis­cussing how he intended to assas­si­nate a Nixon critic or how he could kill the inter­viewer with a pen­cil into the eye, tried to buff him­self up Atlas-style as a teenager and learned mar­tial arts (from an instruc­tor who could kill with a sin­gle blow), or quot­ing pop Niet­zsche, I find it impos­si­ble to believe Liddy ever out­grown being a 1970s chu­u­nibyou.

  • Robert Gar­wood: a Viet­nam POW, who for some rea­son was court-mar­tialed when released long after­wards. His account of his cap­ture and impris­on­ment is pitiable but of lit­tle inter­est these days.

  • : a famous Ital­ian journalist/interviewer her­self. She takes to the Play­boy inter­view for­mat the way a cat takes to water. The fire­works are exhaust­ing and largely get in the way of her mem­o­rable anec­dotes about Qaddafi or Khome­i­ni.

  • Henry Fon­da: another actor, not as inter­est­ing as Red­ford. Fonda was dying, so he can be for­given for this.

  • Lech Wale­sa: as frus­trat­ing as the Rand inter­view, but for a differ­ent rea­son. Where Rand was crys­tal clear, merely unyield­ingly dog­mat­ic, Walesa says much which means noth­ing

  • Ed Koch: I was always amused at read­ing Koch’s kvetch­ing columns in News­day as a kid, and his inter­view pro­vides a good end­ing—Koch is blunt about every­thing, and most amus­ing­ly, he insults upstate New York and denies any inter­est in run­ning for gov­er­nor (the tra­di­tional post may­ors are always sus­pected of cov­et­ing), mak­ing it par­tic­u­larly unfor­tu­nate that this inter­view . (What was that about ‘giv­ing hostages to for­tune’?)

Almost all of the inter­views are worth read­ing and include good tid­bits I wish I could excerpt from my print copy, but over­all, I would say the best inter­views were: Dali, Shel­ton, Haley, Arledge, Shock­ley, and Koch. (Pos­si­bly Lid­dy’s depend­ing on one’s tol­er­ance for macho pos­tur­ing.)

Spec Ops, McRaven 1996

Spec Ops: Case Stud­ies in Spe­cial Oper­a­tions War­fare: The­ory and Prac­ticeWilliam H. McRaven1996★★★★

The The­ory of Spe­cial Oper­a­tions by 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 and 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 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 and 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 and 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 giant feet 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, , 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 and 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 . 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 (par­tic­u­larly impor­tant given that Pakistan/ISI had been shel­ter­ing OBL and would doubt­less tip him off) despite the dan­ger of oper­at­ing so near a Pak­istani base, with the whole oper­a­tion rehearsed exten­sively with replica mod­els to make the exe­cu­tions as fluid as pos­si­ble.

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?, Gergel 1979

Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Iso­propyl Bro­mide?Max G. Gergel1979★★★★

(~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 and 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 and FDA and 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 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.

John Walker:

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.


Some of the top­ics cov­ered:

  • How to acquire chem­i­cals as a poor high school stu­dent.
  • How to get the most out of col­lege.
  • Start­ing up a com­pa­ny, find­ing your first cus­tomers and expand­ing your mar­kets.
  • Being a sup­plier to the Man­hat­tan Pro­ject.
  • What chem­i­cal engi­neer­ing was like before the EPA and OSHA.
  • What went on to cre­ate a future Super­fund site.
  • The tricks and tech­niques of trav­el­ing sales­men in the ’50s.

Titan, Chernow 2004

Titan: The Life of John D. Rock­e­feller, Sr.Ron Cher­now2004★★★★

Fas­ci­nat­ing account of a Gilded Age titan much worse known than Carnegie.

His charm­ing but schem­ing wan­der­ing bigamist 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 and 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 and 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. Why did he do it? How did he know that oil was­n’t some tem­po­rary Penn­syl­van­ian odd­ity which would run out soon, end­ing a quaint era of rus­tics slop­ping wooden vats of crude oil in horse-carts, but would be found world­wide and power the future, becom­ing one of the defin­ing indus­tries and resources of the 1800s-2000s? Rock­e­feller, in Cher­now’s telling, keeps his own coun­sel. It is the piv­otal moment of Rock­e­feller’s life, and thor­oughly unsat­is­fac­to­rily described.

I am left to won­der if it is another selec­tion effect and what I’ve noted else­where, like 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 which Cher­now men­tions could eas­ily have taken his place, and the post hoc expla­na­tions of why they were ‘vision­ar­ies’ and ‘busi­ness geniuses’ would also have been as easy to write.)

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. This was a house of cards on par with Elon Musk’s empire, as Rock­e­feller had to keep going deeper and deeper into debt, but some­how, it all held together and paid off enor­mously in the end. (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 and effec­tively as pos­si­ble. Indeed, some of his favored projects like the 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 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—well-in­ten­tioned, intended to raise them prop­erly with­out being cor­rupted by wealth—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 oth­er, even more 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 sur­viv­ing 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. We just don’t know how to raise kids in a way which pre­vents them from eas­ily turn­ing out medioc­re, dumb, insane, or unmo­ti­vat­ed, once all the basics are pro­vided for. Any­one who claims oth­er­wise, like the Pol­gar sis­ters, is fool­ing them­selves, and ignor­ing the vast legions of ‘prodi­gies’ whose par­ents took the credit but who accom­plished noth­ing (eg Nor­bert Wein­er’s child prodigy peers at Har­vard, since for­got­ten), because they sim­ply regressed to their adult mean, as expect­ed, since there is no secret sauce. It’s mostly genes and ran­dom­ness.

The strat­egy of the rich, putting all their eggs into 1 or 2 bas­kets, is hope­lessly frag­ile and a hostage to the slight­est bit of bad luck. (Con­sider the Kennedys!) Why do so few of the rich and pow­er­ful not real­ize this and max­i­mize their fam­ily size? I have to won­der. Per­haps it’s the selec­tion effect again: if so many peo­ple think that Rock­e­feller would have reli­ably become rich in many pos­si­ble worlds due to his own per­spi­cac­ity and hard work, why should we expect Rock­e­feller to think any less of him­self or believe less that he could mold his chil­dren into wor­thy suc­ces­sors? (Live by the sword, die by the sword.) Or per­haps it’s peer effects and nur­ture illu­sions: hav­ing more kids is what poor peo­ple do, a good rich par­ent has two chil­dren and makes sure they both get into Har­vard by get­ting into elite pre-k and sum­mer schools.

A Perfect Vacuum, Lem 1999

A Per­fect Vac­uumStanisław Lem1999★★★★

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 and 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 and 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 .

“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 and 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 Fan­Fic­; 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 , 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 and 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?)

Fujiwara Teika’s Hundred-Poem Sequence of the Shōji Era, 1200, Brower 1978

Fuji­wara Teika’s Hun­dred-Poem Sequence of the Shōji Era, 1200: A Com­plete Trans­la­tion, with Intro­duc­tion and Com­men­taryRobert H. Brower1978★★★★

(ebook) A short 1978 mono­graph exam­in­ing one of the more notable works of the aris­to­cratic court poet , one of my favorite tra­di­tional Japan­ese poets, writ­ten for the (him­self a major poet and an even more dra­matic fig­ure).

The impor­tance of the sequence, as Brower cov­ers in an exhaus­tive intro­duc­tion (and I cover to a briefer degree ), was that a behind-the-scenes power strug­gle had resulted in Teika’s exclu­sion from the pres­ti­gious poetry com­pe­ti­tion and thus the court of the ris­ing ex-em­peror (one of the curi­ous aspects of the emper­or­ship is that emper­ors typ­i­cally became much more pow­er­ful and influ­en­tial after abdi­ca­tion), requir­ing per­sonal inter­ven­tion from the grand old man of court poet­ry, Shun­zei him­self, to get Teika includ­ed. Teika had one chance to redeem him­self for his dar­ing early poetry and a pre­vi­ous trans­gres­sion, and, though a day or two over­due and break­ing Go-To­ba’s explicit com­mand that no-one try to include poems allud­ing to per­sonal griev­ances. Teika’s sequence was mas­terly enough that Go-Toba for­gave that and ear­lier trans­gres­sions and admit­ted Teika to his court and favor, in one of Teika’s great­est tri­umph­s—a­side from vin­di­ca­tion, it would mean Teika would be involved in com­pil­ing the next impe­r­ial anthol­ogy of poet­ry, pos­si­bly the great­est and most influ­en­tial one, the , as well as the one after that. Poetry back then was srs bsns. The rela­tion­ship did­n’t last—both Teika and Go-Toba were, in some ways, too much alike. (The intro­duc­tion cov­ers much of the same ter­ri­tory as Brow­er’s ear­lier papers: “Fuji­wara Teika’s Hun­dred-Poem Sequence of the Shoji Era”/“Fuji­wara Teika’s Hun­dred-Poem Sequence of the Shoji Era [Con­tin­ued]” and Brower 1972, “‘Ex-Em­peror Go-To­ba’s Secret Teach­ings’: Go-Toba no in Goku­den.) But the effects would linger. Aside from being the cen­ter­piece of one of the piv­ots of Teika’s life, it is, as I said, one of his mas­ter­pieces. (It is, how­ev­er, not a good intro­duc­tion to court poetry and is prob­a­bly best read by those who are already some­what famil­iar with the events sur­round­ing the 100-poem sequence!)

Brower trans­lates the 100-poem sequence, pro­vides com­men­tary explain­ing the allu­sions (of which there are many, as Mor­rell notes, clas­si­cal court poetry is so depen­dent on a shared set of allu­sions as to be triv­ial and bor­der­ing on mean­ing­less if you are igno­rant of them), and high­lights the aspects of the poems which are ref­er­ences to the cur­rent poet­ic-po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion and Teika’s hopes for impe­r­ial favor. The com­men­taries look thor­ough to me and do a good job of explain­ing how the sequence of poems is not a jum­ble of 100 poems which hap­pen to be orga­nized by top­ic, but a sequence, linked together by theme and pro­gres­sion. (See “Asso­ci­a­tion and Pro­gres­sion: Prin­ci­ples of Inte­gra­tion in Antholo­gies and Sequences of Japan­ese Court Poet­ry, A. D. 900-1350”, Kon­ishi 1958.) Brower ben­e­fits from the then-re­cent extra­or­di­nary rev­e­la­tion that the orig­i­nal Teika man­u­script of the 100-poem sequence had sur­vived all these years and even included crit­i­cal com­men­tary by Teika’s father, Shun­zei, on the draft poems (which is how we know about Teika defy­ing Go-To­ba’s edict against griev­ances), and includes pho­tographs and trans­la­tions of the draft man­u­script.

I’ve wanted to read it ever since I was work­ing on the Teika WP arti­cle a decade ago, but I could­n’t afford it back then, and was only recently able to order a copy from a Swedish used book sell­er. The book is a hand­some hard­cover which is a plea­sure to han­dle, and the ele­gant paper cover is a fine match for the sub­ject mat­ter—it’s hard to believe it’s older than me, as it looks like it has­n’t aged a day. (I am going to regret cut­ting it up, but that’s the only way to get a scan which will do it jus­tice.)

Brow­er’s trans­la­tion is, in my opin­ion, some­what on the wordier and explicit side. I gen­er­ally pre­fer Keene’s trans­la­tions a lit­tle more, and Steven D. Carter’s much more. But I think it still does Teika jus­tice. Some sam­ples:


Tell it in the capital:
That like the steadfast pine trees
On Takasago's sands,
At Onoe the cherries on the hilltops
Wait in the fullness of their bloom.


The playful sky
Tangles threads of gossamer haze
Among warp and weft
Of the brocade that Spring
Weaves from cherry flowers.


Although forewarned
When I first gazed upon the sky
At this day's dusk,
I was startled by the altered color
Wrought by autumn in the moon.


Has the clear echo
Of the fullers' mallets pounding clothes
Of pure white linen
Become embedded in the color
Of the frost that settles everywhere?


There is no shelter
Where I can rest my weary horse
And brush my laden sleeves:
The Sano Ford and its adjoining fields
Spread over with twilight in the snow.


Rising from the river,
Does the roar of waves break in upon the sleep
Of the Uji villagers,
So that even at night their way is perilous
Across the floating bridge of dreams?


Now that the year
Has closed in which it lost its way
Upon the cloudland path,
Must the crane still be kept apart
Even from the haze of a new spring?


In our Lord's gracious reign,
Will I still have cause to cry aloud
As cries the crane
That now stalks desolate in reedy marshes
Far from its former cloudland of spring haze?

See also Mor­rel­l’s 1979 review.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Márquez 2003

Chron­i­cle of a Death Fore­toldGabriel Gar­cía Márquez2003★★★★

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 and 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.

The Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice, Stallings 2019

The Bat­tle Between the Frogs and the Mice: A Tiny Home­ric EpicA.E. Stallings2019★★★★

2019 trans­la­tion of the or “Bat­tle of the Frogs and Mice” (TVTropes), a short (~300 lines) satir­i­cal Greek mock epic poem. It is just one of many ‘machys’ in Gre­co-Ro­man lit­er­a­ture (eg the , , , , , ) and not even the only ani­mal one (there were at least 4 oth­ers about cranes, star­lings, frogs, and spi­ders attested in the ), but it is one of the only sur­viv­ing ones, the first book printed in Greek, and was quite pop­u­lar in teach­ing Greek from the Byzan­tine onward­s—Stallings, in the per­sona of a learnèd mouse (mouse/mus is but one let­ter from Muse!), spec­u­lates that var­i­ous Eng­lish folk songs may derive from it. Ref­er­ences to it pop up in curi­ous places, like Albert Ein­stein dis­gust­edly refus­ing to inter­vene in a jour­nal’s edi­to­r­ial dis­pute (“I do not intend to plunge as a cham­pion into this frog-mice bat­tle with another paper lance.”).

Stallings choos­es, like the first Eng­lish trans­la­tion by , to trans­late it into rhymed cou­plets; unlike Chap­man, she makes a point of trans­lat­ing names: “Crum­beater”, “Puffer­throat”, “Morsel­snatcher”, “Lick­-a-plate”, “Cab­bagestrider”, “Bogspawn”, “Pot­creeper son of noble Chis­el-cheese”—these are all too pre­cious to leave to the Greek. Grant Sil­ver­stein pro­vides appro­pri­ately droll pen­cil draw­ings which remind me of Alice in Won­der­land and , and are inter­twined with the poem to sug­gest a recita­tion. (Not to wor­ry, a stan­dard sin­gle-col­umn ver­sion with just text is pro­vided as an appen­dix for eas­ier con­sul­ta­tion.)

I saw the favor­able review in the LARB and it was as adver­tised. The whimsy comes through with the rhyme and trans­la­tion so grace­ful it appears effort­less; who can avoid a smile at Crumb­snatcher’s encomium to eat­ing?

In Old Wain­scot­ing I was bred and born.
She fed me there on figs and wal­nut meat
And gave me dain­ties of all kinds to eat.
I’m so unlike you, how can we be friends?
Our natures are designed for differ­ent ends—
You live out on the water as you’re able,
While I am used to eat­ing from man’s table—
I never miss the fresh loaf, kneaded thrice,
Tucked in its tidy bas­ket, or a slice
Of mar­bled ham, or pas­try stuffed with cheese
And sesame, as flaky as you please,
Or liver robed in fat like fine, white silk,
Or cheese that’s freshly cur­dled from sweet milk,
Or heav­enly hon­ey­cake that’s so divine
One whiff makes even the immor­tals pine.
All dishes cooks pre­pare, with every spice
For the ban­quets of mankind, are fit for mice.

(Even if I have to admit that liver robed in white fat are a culi­nary delight I have yet to enjoy.) Or at his dying (and quite extend­ed) cry:

His wet fur pulled him under with its weight,
And sink­ing, he cried out for one last time:
“O Frog! You shall be pun­ished for your crime—
…But you mis­led me, cast me in the water.
God has an eye for jus­tice, and my slaugh­ter
Will not go un-avenged—y­ou’ll pay the price.
You won’t escape the Army of the Mice!”

When not trip­ping along to squeaks of “you’ll pay the price / You won’t escape the Army of the Mice!” or seri­ous-yet-some­how-satir­i­cal descrip­tions (“But Croaker came to aid with an attack / And struck the mouse right in the furry belly—/ The sharp reed ran right through, and guts like jelly / Spilled out”), one sus­pects Stallings is enjoy­ing her­self as much as the read­er, as in her depic­tion of the crab army crush­ing the mice with syn­tax tai­lored to sub­ject:

Thus out They came, with backs like armored tanks,
Crook-clawed, cross-eyed, side­step­ping, ranks on ranks,
Scis­sor-mouthed, eight-legged, and bony-shelled,
Flat-bod­ied, gleam­ing-shoul­dered, hands out­-held,
With eyes chest-high and hides immune to stabs,
Twin-horned, unyield­ing nation of the Crabs!
They snapped the Mice’s tails and snipped their paws—
The Mice’s spears were bent back by their claws,
And soon the Mice were fright­ened, on the run.
While in the west the set­ting of the sun
Announced to all the One-Day War was done.

This vol­ume is adorable enough to need no other defense or pon­der­ous expli­ca­tion of the satire. You already know if you’d enjoy it or not from the sam­ples; if you think you would, I rec­om­mend it—you won’t regret pay­ing the price to read about the army of mice!

Existence, Brin 2012

Exis­tenceDavid Brin2012★★★★

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, Miller 2012

Sin­gu­lar­ity Ris­ing: Sur­viv­ing and Thriv­ing in a Smarter, Richer, and More Dan­ger­ous WorldJames D. Miller2012★★★★

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 and 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 Fil­ter to and 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 site!), 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 ); 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).

Savage Continent, Lowe 2012

Sav­age Con­ti­nent: Europe in the After­math of World War IIKeith Lowe2012★★★★

(~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 ? What was with the per­se­cu­tion of homo­sex­u­als or the “Red Scare” and 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 detail, silenc­ing or attack­ing or killing as nec­es­sary, and finally with a cap­tive gov­ern­ment take naked con­trol and begin the purges and theft of all pri­vate prop­er­ty), 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 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, par­tic­u­larly in East­ern Europe and Asia?

An enlight­en­ing and timely book. See also .

Quantum Computing Since Democritus, Aaronson 2013

Quan­tum Com­put­ing Since Dem­ocri­tusScott Aaron­son2013★★★★

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, , , the foun­da­tions of quan­tum mechan­ics, eco­nomic ratio­nal­i­ty, , 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 and 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.



  • some key argu­ments are sketched out briefly or badly (eg. I don’t know how any­one would under­stand Aaron­son’s ver­sion of , 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 and 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 and prac­ti­cal by the use­less and bizarre? If ever there was a moment that the say­ing was appro­pri­ate…

A Life of Sir Francis Galton, Gillham 2001

A Life of Sir Fran­cis Gal­ton: From African Explo­ration to the Birth of Eugen­icsNicholas Wright Gill­ham2001★★★★

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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, Luttwak 2016

The Grand Strat­egy of the Roman Empire: From the First Cen­tury Ce to the ThirdEdward N. Luttwak2016★★★★

Luttwak’s con­tro­ver­sial the­sis on inter­pret­ing the pre-Byzan­tine Roman Empire’s geopo­lit­i­cal strate­gies from roughly the early Empire to Con­stan­tine as 3 broad sys­tems of gov­er­nance and fron­tier defense. (The Byzan­tine Empire’s own long and intri­cate mil­i­ta­rized his­tory is dealt with by Luttwak in a sep­a­rate later book, unsur­pris­ingly titled, The Grand Strat­egy of the Byzan­tine Empire, which in gen­eral I found far more inter­est­ing as the Byzan­tine Empire is con­sid­er­ably under­rated & ignored.) Not being a Roman his­to­rian or archae­ol­o­gist, I can only say of the con­tro­versy it did­n’t strike me as obvi­ously wrong or mak­ing major errors, although the the­sis appears most strained when Luttwak tries to dis­cuss the third sys­tem, the late empire after the third cen­tury cri­sis, as form­ing a coher­ent strat­egy of par­tial defense-in-depth.

What most inter­est­ing about the dis­cus­sion of the first two stages is the extent to which Luttwak takes what you might call a “Chi­nese” focus, by empha­siz­ing the rel­a­tive small­ness of the Roman mil­i­tary com­pared to its vast ter­ri­to­ries, exploit­ing a “use the near bar­bar­ian against the far” strat­egy of neigh­bor­ing (rel­a­tive­ly) bar­baric vas­sal states to defend its bor­ders and pro­vide strate­gic depth—s­tates like King Herod.

In most accounts, these vas­sal states are treated almost as come­dies, lit­eral side-shows to the real busi­ness of state and war in the Roman Republic/Empire itself. Luttwak sees the bor­der func­tion as crit­i­cal to remov­ing the need for a large mil­i­tary spread across many small far-flung bor­der forts and detach­ments, allow­ing a con­cen­tra­tion of sol­diers into the hand­ful of enor­mous Roman legions which could shat­ter any enemy in their way while being deploy­able with­out denud­ing any fron­tiers, giv­ing them cred­i­bil­ity as deter­rents—and, “the para­dox of strat­egy”, by such deter­rence, ensur­ing they were only occa­sion­ally needed and leav­ing the Empire’s mil­i­tary deter­rence flex­i­bly deploy­able. Mean­while, the neigh­bor­ing vas­sals would grad­u­ally urban­ize & Roman­ize thanks to con­stant influ­ence from the Empire and the ben­e­fits for devel­op­ment of the Pax Romana, and even­tu­al­ly, their incor­po­ra­tion into the Empire would be a fait accom­pli and mere change of labels. Areas too impov­er­ished, dried, or inde­fen­si­ble would not devel­op, and would be bypassed. The occa­sional revolts or inva­sions could be swiftly sup­pressed by the near­est legion marched or sailed into place. Thus, the Empire could enjoy a small cheap but invin­ci­ble mil­i­tary and steady expan­sion into rich lands, with the bor­ders even­tu­ally sta­bi­liz­ing at their outer lim­its of cost-ben­e­fit, and the golden age of the Empire. Far from being amus­ing anec­dotes of ancient legal­is­tic squab­bling, the vas­sals were crit­i­cal for free­ing up legions and a nec­es­sary tran­si­tion phase.

The sim­i­lar­i­ties with Chi­nese grand strat­egy are unmis­tak­able: the same tac­tics reap­pear like the use of bribes, hon­orary titles and sta­tus­es, inter­mar­riage with gen­er­als or aris­to­crats, use of neigh­bor­ing vas­sal states to insu­late and con­trol fur­ther ene­mies, and the grad­ual expan­sion of the for­mal bound­aries of the Empire with the expan­sion of the Han pop­u­la­tion-cul­ture-plex, economic/agricultural devel­op­ment of once remote regions, and incorporation/suppression of indige­nous pop­u­la­tions.

Whether this is really a “grand strat­egy” in the sense of a con­sciously enun­ci­ated strat­egy even to the degree of Chi­nese literati debat­ing tac­tics and bar­bar­ian-quelling strate­gies in memo­ri­als to the emperor is largely unan­swer­able, as so much Roman mate­r­ial fails to sur­vive and such strate­gic con­sid­er­a­tions might be expected to be con­sid­ered key state secrets. Luttwak can’t make much of a case one way or anoth­er, and it would be rea­son­able to sup­pose that the fact that the many deci­sions and bat­tles and for­ti­fi­ca­tions look fairly coher­ent reflects local deci­sion-mak­ing and nar­rowed choices and tri­al-and-er­ror reach­ing fairly opti­mal out­comes, an emer­gent order as in so many things. It might be bet­ter to take this book as a sort of “how I would do it”, in the man­ner of a strat­egy game walk­through like an account of a game of Europa Uni­ver­salis; Luttwak’s opin­ions are usu­ally inter­est­ing and amus­ingly expressed, so it is cer­tainly not a waste of time.

The Machiavellians, Burnham 1988

The Machi­avel­lians: Defend­ers of Free­domJames Burn­ham1988★★★★

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 and 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 Vaccinators, Jannetta 2007

The Vac­ci­na­tors: Small­pox, Med­ical Knowl­edge, and the ‘Open­ing’ of JapanAnn Jan­netta2007★★★★

This review was writ­ten in August 2018, ~1.5 years before the .

Before con­ve­nient small­pox vac­ci­nes, trans­mit­ting required a human chain of donors, who were infec­tious for short peri­ods before recov­er­ing; Jan­netta cov­ers the diffi­cult logis­tics of this global feat of phil­an­thropy, orches­trated by , such as the extra­or­di­nary , which required 22 orphans to carry the pox safely across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, each being infected in turn.

Even­tu­ally the nar­ra­tive reaches Japan where it runs up against the shogu­nate’s pol­icy of exclu­sion and min­i­mal Dutch trade.

The Dutch gov­er­nors in Batavia made duti­ful efforts, once a year, to ship a serum sam­ple to the Nagasaki out­post where it could be used to infect a vol­un­teer and seed Japan­ese vac­ci­na­tion, but the pox repeat­edly died en route. After a great while, they suc­ceeded and the prob­lem became how to build a crit­i­cal mass: the shogu­nate refused to endorse vac­ci­na­tion, but benignly neglected it; in the end, the suc­cess­ful strat­egy was for the Dutch-e­d­u­cated Japan­ese doc­tors to vac­ci­nate their fam­i­lies and the fam­i­lies of their spon­sor­ing daimyo, and by this dis­play of elite aris­to­cratic con­fi­dence in the vac­ci­na­tion, the ordi­nary peo­ple would want to imi­tate them (mime­sis!) and grad­u­ally be will­ing to send their chil­dren for a stay in the pox clin­ics and vac­ci­nate other chil­dren in turn. (De­press­ing­ly, con­tem­po­rary anti-vaxxers exhibit the same mech­a­nism of fol­low­ing lat­ter-day aris­to­crats like Hol­ly­wood stars.)

Many did­n’t, but the effect size of vac­ci­na­tion was so large that it could be observed with the naked eye dur­ing sub­se­quent small­pox out­breaks, con­vinc­ing hold­outs. West­ern med­i­cine was already one of the best argu­ments for open­ing Japan to for­eign­ers, and the small­pox vac­ci­na­tion surely helped; iron­i­cal­ly, the even­tual open­ing of Japan would lead to even more epi­demics (as the iso­la­tion had been so suc­cess­ful at block­ing impor­ta­tion of infec­tious dis­eases as well) and the need for for­mal gov­ern­ment pub­lic health bureau­cra­cies and offi­cial vac­ci­na­tion cam­paigns.

Per­haps the most strik­ing aspect of Jan­net­ta’s whole his­tory is the level of exis­ten­tial hor­ror pro­voked by the sheer casu­al­ness and uncon­cern man­i­fested by almost every­one but “Jen­ner­ites”: despite small­pox being a global threat killing >10% of all peo­ple, nearly guar­an­teed and of reg­u­lar occur­rence, pref­er­en­tially killing chil­dren & the aged, and the vac­ci­na­tion indis­putably and dra­mat­i­cally effec­tive—one of the great­est sil­ver bul­lets in the his­tory of med­i­cine—­most peo­ple… just. did­n’t. care.

The ear­lier method of var­i­o­la­tion killed around or less than 1%, dra­mat­i­cally less than the usual small­pox mor­tal­ity of >10%, but was still highly unpop­u­lar. Even the peo­ple who did some­thing, like the Dutch gov­er­nors & sta­tion-chiefs, often did so in a bizarrely lack­adaisi­cal man­ner: the death toll of small­pox was so well known, and the pop­u­la­tion of Japan suffi­ciently numer­ous, that if they had thought about it for even a few sec­onds, it would be clear that the cost of each year of delay was on the order of 360,000 lives; but their reac­tion to the fail­ure of send­ing one pack­age of cow­pox sam­ples to the Nagasaki sta­tion was to try the same thing again, the next year, instead of, I don’t know, try­ing a hun­dred differ­ent kinds of pack­ages simul­ta­ne­ous­ly—or any­thing resem­bling a gen­uine effort. (Sup­pose your child was dying in front of you, and you had pills which were a cure; you give them one pill, and it does­n’t work. Do you shrug and decide to wait another day before try­ing again? What would a gen­uine effort look like?)

In a sim­i­lar vein, Jan­netta spends a pecu­liar amount of space defend­ing Jen­ner against charges that his cow­pox research was uneth­i­cal and immorally con­ducted and could not have been approved by an IRB; I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the exis­tence of such crit­i­cism, other than to note that if Jen­ner’s cow­pox research would not have been approved by an IRB, that is of IRBs, and I seri­ously won­der whether human­ity would still be capa­ble of cur­ing a future equiv­a­lent of small­pox. In gen­er­al, I’m reminded of a tweet about self­-driv­ing cars:

“so what did you do before self­-driv­ing cars?”
“we just drove ’em our­selves!”
“wow, no one died that way?”
“oh no, mil­lions of peo­ple died”

‘So what did every­one do while they were ignor­ing both var­i­o­la­tion & cow­pox vac­ci­na­tion for cen­turies?’ ‘They just endured small­pox epi­demics.’ ‘Wow, no one died?’ ‘Oh no, hun­dreds of mil­lions died.’ (And then there’s the mos­qui­toes…)

Some­times peo­ple read about a con­cept like nuclear war, or strong AI, or Effec­tive Altru­ism, or astro­nom­i­cal waste, and they seem to be unable to deal with the pos­si­bil­ity that the sta­tus quo is awful:

“surely”, they think, “if it was really that bad or seri­ous, some­one would have said so; there would be enor­mous ongo­ing efforts to deal with it; surely there isn’t any real risk that nuclear war could kill hun­dreds of mil­lions or bil­lions of peo­ple, or that so many lives are wasted in Africa, or that there could, in gen­er­al, just be sil­ver bul­lets sit­ting around unfired. Humans aren’t like that, we’d fix it! And it’s good to not be reck­less or move fast, and be Very Seri­ous Peo­ple and care­fully check that there are no rare malar­i­a-mos­qui­to-eat­ing frogs before we gene drive malaria out of exis­tence and save mil­lions of lives a year. It’s not like delays are really killing mil­lions of peo­ple, that’s just alarmist and not seri­ous or respectable!”

The his­tory of small­pox shows that none of these com­fort­ing assump­tions are true; when you fail to do enough, real­ity does­n’t care and peo­ple just die:

In the real world things are very differ­ent. You just need to look around you. Nobody wants to die that way. Peo­ple die of dis­ease and acci­dent. Death comes sud­denly and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dra­matic feel­ing but great empti­ness. When you lose some­one you loved very much you feel this big empty space and think, ‘If I had known this was com­ing I would have done things differ­ent­ly.’ These are the feel­ings I wanted to arouse in the play­ers with Aerith’s death rel­a­tively early in the game. Feel­ings of real­ity and not Hol­ly­wood.

The Black Company, Cook 1992

The Black Com­pany (The Chron­i­cles of the Black Com­pa­ny, #1)Glen Cook1992★★★★

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 and mur­der and cor­rup­tion with the black cas­tle in the back­ground reward­ing and 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 and 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 and 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, Rohwer 2014

Life in Our Phage WorldFor­est Rohwer2014★★★★

(~400 pages; 4 hours) Saw a New Yorker arti­cle on —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 pro­teins, a bac­te­r­ial anti-phage defense sys­tem, have been stolen), or the exotic and 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 and 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, Jisheng 2012

Tomb­stone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great FamineYang Jisheng2012★★★★

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 and moronic and 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


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 opti­misti­cally 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, Power 2013

Drugs 2.0: The Web Rev­o­lu­tion That’s Chang­ing How the World Gets High.Mike Power2013★★★★

Jour­nal­is­tic his­tory of the devel­op­ment of , 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 and 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 . 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 (, 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, Leys 2011

The Hall of Use­less­ness: Col­lected EssaysSimon Leys2011★★★★

(~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 and 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 and 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”, and “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 and 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, Roach 2010

Pack­ing for Mars: The Curi­ous Sci­ence of Life in the VoidMary Roach2010★★★★

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 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 and 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 ‽ 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 and costs of shoot­ing up some mon­keys to walk around Mars com­pared to just send­ing probes.)

The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi 2009

The Windup GirlPaolo Baci­galupi2009★★★★

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 and 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 and 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, Crowley 2006

Haikai Poet Yosa Buson And The Bashō RevivalCheryl A. Crow­ley2006★★★★

(~100k words, 3 hours) Aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly-ori­ented exam­i­na­tion of the post-Basho haiku poet and painter . 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 and 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 and 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 (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 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, Dyson 2012

Tur­ing’s Cathe­dral: The Ori­gins of the Dig­i­tal Uni­verseGeorge Dyson2012★★★★

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 and 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.

Web Typography, Rutter 2017

Web Typog­ra­phy: A hand­book for design­ing beau­ti­ful and effec­tive respon­sive typog­ra­phyRichard Rut­ter2017★★★★

Com­pendium of typo­graph­i­cal approaches to HTML/CSS, it is con­sid­er­ably more detailed and web-ori­ented than But­t­er­ick’s Prac­ti­cal Typog­ra­phy, and I ben­e­fited early on from his sam­ple chap­ter on “Numer­als and Tables”, although not as much as if I had read it before we began redesign­ing It is not too out­dat­ed, and cov­ers most of the top­ics you’d want, with acknowl­edge­ment of the real­i­ties of for mobile sup­port.

There are two major flaws to Rut­ter’s approach: he is ver­i­ta­bly obsessed with tak­ing a geo­met­ric and grid-like approach to cre­at­ing for­mu­las for defin­ing the font sizes etc of var­i­ous ele­ments, tak­ing respon­sive web design too far; and, per­haps in a well-in­ten­tioned attempt to future-proof his writ­ings, he pays lit­tle atten­tion to browser sup­port for fea­tures, and cov­ers even fea­tures which are not sup­port by any browser and likely never will be, often with­out any par­tic­u­lar warn­ing that a fea­ture is more fancy than fact. The wise reader will dou­ble-check any­thing Rut­ter sug­gests against Caniuse and triple-check against MDN. An exam­ple of this is his “All you need to know about hyphen­ation in CSS blog post which cov­ers much of the same mate­r­ial as the book hyphen­ation chap­ter; at pre­sent, 11 years after its first release, Google Chrome is still unable to hyphen­ate words on the desk­top because the Chrome devs can­not fig­ure out how to ship a dic­tio­nary, they claim, but Rut­ter goes beyond this to sug­gest using a bunch of fancy hyphen­ation adjust­ments whose stan­dard­iza­tion is not remotely com­plete and which are imple­mented by Safari and Edge only, some­times. At best, this wastes the read­er’s time; at worse, it tempts them into wast­ing them time on minor details (who is going to notice any of those hyphen­ation details he doc­u­ments at length even if they worked?) using buggy unsta­ble fea­tures which will look differ­ent across web browsers (which already are hard enough to get con­sis­tency across). This is the sort of thing that one trusts a man­ual or ref­er­ence writer to take into account in decid­ing whether to cover some­thing at all.

Still, some traps for the unwary and schemas aside, this is still the best sin­gle resource on web typog­ra­phy I’ve read so far.

Echopraxia, Watts 2014

Echopraxia (Fire­fall, #2)Peter Watts2014★★★★

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 and vam­pire (it’s almost iden­ti­cal). Some poten­tially intrigu­ing ideas go unex­plored; for exam­ple, the spider/ 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, Jansen 2004

Ket­a­mine: Dreams and Real­i­tiesKarl Jansen2004★★★★

(~100k words, 3 hours; read MAPS-hosted ebook.) Every­thing ket­a­mine (, 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 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, Thomas 1996

Clear and Sim­ple as the Truth: Writ­ing Clas­sic ProseFran­cis-Noel Thomas1996★★★★

(~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 and pro­vid­ing exam­ples. Then, when one knows the lay of the land, read the full book, where the tan­gents will not dis­tract.

In the Plex, Levy 2011

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our LivesSteven Levy2011★★★★

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 and 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:

Levy’s writing/presentation is extremely jour­nal­is­tic and dumbed down. I’m not sure whether Levy sim­ply does­n’t under­stand pro­gram­ming & com­put­ers very well despite his long career cov­er­ing the tech indus­try, or if he delib­er­ately treats tech­ni­cal top­ics sim­plis­ti­cal­ly. (A descrip­tion of JavaScript pre­fixes it with the unde­fined buzz­word ‘dynamic’, although dynamic run­time typ­ing is far from the most impor­tant aspect of JS; some­one writ­ing an early web spi­der is described as hav­ing a break through when they real­ize they can make it mul­ti­thread­ed, while I’m sit­ting back and think­ing “there is no way that even in ~1995, any pro­gram­mer, upon notic­ing that their web spi­der was not crawl­ing as many URLs as he needs, would not instantly reach for multiprocessing/multithreading”.) Sim­i­lar sim­plis­tic­ness applied to the legal dis­cus­sions as well (you won’t come away with a real under­stand­ing of all the legal issues at play in the Google Books con­tretemp­s), and the eco­nomic ones fared much the same (I was glad Levy cov­ered the auc­tion inno­va­tions at Google, but could­n’t he explain why sec­ond-price auc­tions are so ele­gant and effec­tive?).

Ready Player One, Cline 2011

Ready Player One (Ready Player One, #1)Ernest Cline2011★★★★

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, Kelly 2013

Cool Tools: A Cat­a­log of Pos­si­bil­i­tiesKevin Kelly2013★★★★

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 and 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: , , , , , Project Nim, The King of Kong, , and ; 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 (which I still have albeit rarely look up any­thing in these days).

Proving History, Carrier 2012

Prov­ing His­to­ry: Bayes’s The­o­rem and the Quest for the His­tor­i­cal JesusRichard C. Car­rier2012★★★★

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 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, Thayer 1879

Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and DashesElla Cheever Thayer1879★★★★

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 and 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.

It’s all quite nut­tily mod­ern. Wired Love antic­i­pates every­thing we live with in today’s online, Iphoned courtship: Assess­ing whether some­one you’ve met online is what they say they are; the mis­un­der­stand­ings of tone and sub­stance that come from com­mu­ni­cat­ing in rapid-fire, con­ver­sa­tional bursts of text; or even the fact that you might not really be sure of the gender/nationality/species of the per­son you’re flirt­ing with.

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, Hadamard 1954

The Psy­chol­ogy of Inven­tion in the Math­e­mat­i­cal FieldJacques Hadamard1954★★★★

I took a gan­der at this for its pos­si­ble rel­e­vance to an —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 and 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 .

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 scan.)

The Devil in the White City, Larson 2003

The Devil in the White CityErik Lar­son2003★★★★

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 and 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, Cleckley 2003

The Mask of San­ityHer­vey M. Cleck­ley2003★★★★

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 End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama 2006

The End of His­tory and the Last ManFran­cis Fukuyama2006★★★★

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 (hypocrisy is the trib­ute virtue pays to vice). 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. Does any­one admire the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party and think that the mass con­cen­tra­tion camps for the Uighur, or the Hong Kong protests, shows that the model is work­ing bril­liantly and is a new supe­rior syn­the­sis that the masses world­wide are clam­or­ing for to be imposed on them, to spare them the ter­ri­ble bur­dens of being able to talk about Win­nie the Pooh? How about ISIS? Do reports from inside the self­-pro­claimed ‘caliphate’, between the sex slave mar­kets and the kid­nap­ping and oil theft and cor­rup­tion, make it look like any ide­o­log­i­cal threat to neolib­er­al­ism?

Fukuyama was right. There are (still) no cred­i­ble alter­na­tives to the cap­i­tal­ist lib­eral democ­racy par­a­digm.

Hyperbole and a Half, Brosh 2013

Hyper­bole and a Half: Unfor­tu­nate Sit­u­a­tions, Flawed Cop­ing Mech­a­nisms, May­hem, and Other Things That Hap­penedAllie Brosh2013★★★★

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, Powers 2002

DeclareTim Pow­ers2002★★★★

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, Housman 1990

A Shrop­shire LadA.E. Hous­man1990★★★★

(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 , 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, Brandenburg 2001

Chased by the Light: A 90-Day Jour­ney-Re­vis­ited After the StormJim Bran­den­burg2001★★★★

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, Fitzgerald 2004

The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzger­ald2004★★★★

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 Signal and the Noise, Silver 2012

The Sig­nal and the Noise: Why So Many Pre­dic­tions Fail—But Some Don’tNate Sil­ver2012★★★★

(excerpts) An excel­lent pop­u­lar (easy to read) overview of a vari­ety of sta­tis­ti­cal top­ics, with a good focus on not fool­ing your­self with over­fit­ting. Sil­ver, some­what like Meehl, is a sub­jec­tive Bayesian deci­sion-the­o­rist in fun­da­men­tal out­look and approach to analy­sis, but a method­olog­i­cal plu­ral­ist, which makes some of his work a lit­tle con­fus­ing: he is judg­ing things by how they approx­i­mate a proper fully Bayesian deci­sion analy­sis (as is nec­es­sary for bet­ting and other appli­ca­tions of fore­cast­ing), but this is not always explicit and he can’t com­pare the imple­mented meth­ods with the gold stan­dard (be­cause they’re too diffi­cult to imple­ment, which is why he falls back to more con­ven­tional meth­od­s). And 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.

The Theory That Would Not Die, McGrayne 2011

The The­ory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russ­ian Sub­mari­nes, and Emerged Tri­umphant from Two Cen­turies of Con­tro­versySharon Bertsch McGrayne2011★★★★

Light his­tory of Bayesian sta­tis­tics and 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, Kanigel 1992

The Man Who Knew Infin­i­ty: A Life of the Genius Ramanu­janRobert Kanigel1992★★★★

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, Graeber 2011

Debt: The First 5,000 YearsDavid Grae­ber2011★★★★

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, Spufford 2010

Red Plen­ty: Inside the Fifties’ Soviet DreamFran­cis Spufford2010★★★★

Com­pa­ra­ble to Dos Pas­sos’s USA or Scholz’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.

Fur­ther read­ing:

The Metropolitan Man, Wales 2014

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan ManAlexan­der Wales2014★★★★

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 True Believer, Hoffer 2010

The True Believ­er: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Move­mentsEric Hoffer2010★★★★

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, Cook 1990

Dreams of Steel (The Chron­i­cles of the Black Com­pa­ny, #5)Glen Cook1990★★★★

A major improve­ment over the pre­vi­ous two books and equal to the orig­i­nal The Black Com­pany and 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, Kissinger 2011

On ChinaHenry Kissinger2011★★★★

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, Wu 2010

The Mas­ter Switch: The Rise and Fall of Infor­ma­tion EmpiresTim Wu2010★★★★

His Cycle is a con­vinc­ing par­a­digm. I already knew a lot of it from Lawrence Lessig and related copy­right books and 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, Finney 2002

The Cir­cus of Dr. LaoCharles G. Finney2002★★★★

The book comes up often in Wolfe dis­cus­sions of An Evil Guest, I noticed there was a copy on, 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, Littell 2009

The Kindly OnesJonathan Lit­tell2009★★★★

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, Bailyn 1992

The Ide­o­log­i­cal Ori­gins of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tionBernard Bai­lyn1992★★★★

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 and polit­i­cal the­o­riz­ing.

Friendship is Optimal, iceman 2012

Friend­ship is Opti­malice­man2012★★★★

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.

3 Stars

Pioneers of Soviet Computing, Malinovsky 2010

Pio­neers of Soviet Com­put­ingBoris Niko­lae­vich Mali­novsky2010★★★

(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, bios, pri­mary doc­u­ments and 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 and appen­dix con­tain­ing aca­d­e­mic reviews of the Eng­lish-trans­la­tion man­u­script.

As such, it is unique. The early Amer­i­can devel­op­ment of com­put­ing has been cov­ered well and 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 and that they had tried an inter­est­ing exper­i­ment in not binary but tri­nary or , the . 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 and the con­se­quence reliance on mil­i­tary spon­sor­ship to cut through red tape… (but also some of the ben­e­fits, like spies and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and every pio­neer is hard­work­ing, kind, mod­est, atten­tive, and loy­al, and how each cre­ated com­put­ers in breath­tak­ingly short times and how every com­puter seemed to oper­ate per­fectly and 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 rather than con­tin­u­ing domes­tic lines of devel­op­ment; the Slava review:

As a par­tic­i­pant first-hand account, Mali­novsky’s book is both valu­able and 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 and 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 and 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 and had high per­for­mance char­ac­ter­is­tics. Anne Fitz­patrick’s explana­tory com­ments are very help­ful; and it would be very ben­e­fi­cial for the reader if she could also address con­tro­ver­sial his­to­ri­o­graphic issues, either in the end­notes or in the Intro­duc­tion. The trans­la­tor should be com­pli­mented on hav­ing done an excel­lent job in con­vey­ing the style of the orig­i­nal Russ­ian text. This style, how­ev­er, may sound a bit too heavy for an Amer­i­can read­er, for it car­ries some of the typ­i­cal fea­tures of Sovi­et-era for­mal dis­course: too many nouns, the abun­dance of pas­sive voice, overblown epi­thets, etc. Adjust­ing the style for an Amer­i­can audi­ence would make the book much more read­able.

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 being an exam­ple), as by doing so, one cuts one­self off from an entire world of inno­va­tion and 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 and 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 and stag­nated per­ma­nent­ly?

Indeed, there are many signs that Soviet com­put­ing could eas­ily have dis­ap­peared up its own navel. For exam­ple, the parts deal­ing with 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 and how ineffi­cient Soviet man­age­ment was and how cen­tral­iza­tion inevitably fails & of the incred­i­ble com­put­ing power needed to effi­ciently run even a small chunk of the econ­omy like Wal­mart or Ama­zon—and yet Mali­novsky, even after the fall of the USSR and com­plete dis­cred­it­ing of cen­tral­ized economies, seems to think it was a great idea killed by politi­cians & could have saved the USSR and 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 and 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 and 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 and still is, because it’s right. 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, and 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 and entre­pre­neurs, could access cheap unre­stricted com­put­ing power for the most triv­ial of rea­sons and 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 among other cen­turies—the idea that lan­guage is ter­ri­bly impor­tant and that a bet­ter purer lan­guage would unlock wasted pow­ers and enable undreamed-of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. If we could invent a more log­i­cal and 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 and fast; we see this in Hein­lein’s Speedtalk, Ander­son’s Brain Wave, even Chi­ang in “Under­stand” (and any­thing to do with that ), 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 is cor­rect, that lan­guages pow­er­fully shape thoughts rather than chan­nel triv­i­al­i­ties like col­or-name choic­es. The truth is that spe­cial­ized lan­guages and nota­tions are indeed pow­er­ful, but : they cod­ify insights, and can only be cre­ated after. 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 ‘Lojban will make your life more awe­some’ is to ignore the spe­cial­iza­tion that gave it 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 and 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 and flex­i­ble. (Would Newspeak actu­ally work? Con­sider Gene Wolfe’s coun­ter-ex­am­ple, or the Darmoks of Star Trek).

The pol­i­tics of Soviet com­put­ing are inter­est­ing. There remains a great deal of lin­ger­ing guilt and 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 and 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 and devoted they seemed to become. For exam­ple, Rameev saw his grand­fa­ther expro­pri­at­ed, his father fatally purged under Stalin and his great inven­tion stolen from him, and 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, and very impor­tant for his peo­ple and 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, and who clev­erly saves him­self by prov­ing it was the pilots’ fault; very amus­ing, and 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.”

The Operations Evaluation Group, Tidman 1984

The Oper­a­tions Eval­u­a­tion Group: A His­tory Of Naval Oper­a­tions Analy­sisKeith R. Tid­man1984★★★

(~331pg; ebook) Offi­cial his­tory of the US Navy’s Oper­a­tions Eval­u­a­tion Group (OEG) up to post-Viet­nam period (pub­lished 1984 but quite vague post-1980). The OEG is, rough­ly, the Navy’s answer to the US Air Force’s and to “Cir­cus” group in the UK dur­ing WWII, and, like the national lab­o­ra­to­ries, draws mostly on civil­ian researchers and is usu­ally run by a US aca­d­e­mic insti­tu­tion under con­tract while pur­su­ing a mix of clas­si­fied research and open research.

The author starts off in WWI with the first appli­ca­tions of oper­a­tions-re­search think­ing to naval prob­lems, by Thomas Edi­son of all peo­ple, who quickly focused on opti­miz­ing con­voys pat­terns to avoid Ger­man U-boats, a rel­e­vant his­tor­i­cal tid­bit as it was WWII sub­ma­rine war­fare that would sum­mon the OEG into exis­tence to stem the . This his­tory cov­ers the for­ma­tion of the OEG in WWII under the pres­sure of anti-sub­ma­rine war­fare (ASW) in the crit­i­cal Bat­tle of the Atlantic, then as that the­ater wound down, OEG refo­cused on the Pacific the­atre and prob­lems like anti-kamikaze tac­tics; recon­sol­i­dat­ing after WWII end­ed, the Korean War’s block­ade assess­ment (highly effec­tive) and soon led to the inti­mate involve­ment of OEG in Viet­nam for tasks rang­ing from plan­ning bomb­ing cam­paigns to inter­fere with Viet­cong logis­tics to opti­miz­ing river war­fare to air­plane tac­tics; post-Viet­nam, the OEG moves (amid a fair amount of bureau­cratic infight­ing) onto a more strate­gic focus in plan­ning long-term weapon sys­tems devel­op­ment & nuclear war­fare (again with a heavy sub­ma­rine focus, but this time due to the major advan­tages of nuclear bal­lis­tic mis­sile sub­marines in main­tain­ing deter­rence com­pared to the Air Force’s bombers and silos) and among other things took a hand in the and mis­sile sys­tems and (at least by Tid­man’s retelling) was largely respon­si­ble for the infa­mous (pg192).

Tid­man writes in a clear style and pro­vides a num­ber of use­ful sup­port­ing graphs and