- Visual novels
- ARPA and SCI: Surfing AI (Review of Roland & Shiman 2002)
- Review of Like Engend’ring Like, Russell 1986
- Cat Sense, Bradshaw 2013: Are We Good Owners?
This is a sortable table of books I have read; it is compiled from a CSV export of my Goodreads account to Markdown/HTML by a Haskell script I wrote. (The GoodReads interface is too fancy for its own good.)
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, however, each column is toggleable and so one can sort by arbitrary combinations of date/title/author/review/rating/etc.
|Radiance: A Novel||Carter Scholz||★★★★★||2003||2014/02/20||
Somewhere in California, in the 1990s, a nuclear weapons lab develops advanced technologies for its post-Cold War mission. Advanced as in not working yet. Mission as in continued funding. A scandal-plagued missile defense program presses forward, dragging physicist Philip Quine deep into the machinations of those who would use the lab for their own gain.
Years ago, I ran into a book review titled “‘Its awful and enticing radiance’: The Beauty and Terror of Carter Scholz’s Radiance” by L. Timmel Duchamp; about a 2001 novel I had never heard of by an author I had never heard of, but it sounded interesting and I read the review until towards the end, it quote a key passage in Radiance:
A murmur of rain had started again. He lay there in the abyss of his thoughts as her breathing beside him steadied and deepened. Almost a voice stirred in him. It starts before Hanford, it almost said. It starts with Röntgen, with the piece of barium glowing in the path of invisible rays, striking out the fire that God had put there. It starts with his wife’s hand on the photographic plate, its transparence there, the ashen bones visible within the milky flesh. Who could imagine that this radiance at the heart of matter could be malign? That with its light came fire? (Yet from the first the ashen bones were there to see within the flesh.) It starts with Becquerel carrying the radium in his pocket that burned his skin, and darkened the unexposed film. It starts with Marie Curie poisoning herself in that pale uncanny glow. With Rutherford guessing at this new alchemy, guessing that matter, giving up its glow, transformed itself one element into another. With the miners at Joachimsthal, deep under the Erzgebirge, inhaling the dust of uranium and dying of “mountain sickness”. With women who by the thousands in watch factories tipped their brushes with that glow, touched it to their tongues before painting the dial face, women who only much later, when the watches’ glow had faded, sickened and died from that radiance taken into their bones. It begins with Ernest Lawrence rushing across the Berkeley campus, the idea of a proton accelerator uncontainable in his mind, calling out, I’m going to be famous! With Oppenheimer at Jornada del Muerte that morning of Trinity. With the scientists who had prised open the gates to that blazing realm past heaven or hell. What were they now at the Lab in all their thousands, but the colonial bureaucrats of that realm, the followers and functionaries, the clerks and commissars? Mere gatekeepers of that power. Or in its keeping. It goes of its own momentum beyond Hanford, to Trinity, to Hiroshima, to the prisoners, the cancer patients, the retarded children, the pregnant women injected or fed this goblin matter to see would it bring health or sickness, the soldiers huddled in trenches against the flash, bones visible in their arms through closed eyes, staring up at the roiling cloudrise, the sheepherders, the farms, the homes, the gardens downwind. And in his sleep the voice long stilled spoke once more. It starts with Sforza; in case of need I will make bombards, mortars, and firethrowing engines of beautiful and practical design. It starts with Archimedes focusing the sun’s rays upon the fleet at Syracuse, it starts with the first rock hurled by the first grasping hand. It starts where we start. It is mind, it is hunger, it is greed, it is defense, it is mischief, it is the devil, it is the god; it is life.
The force of the incantation struck me and a few years later, a copy finally appeared in my local library system. I requested it and devoured it in one or two sittings; Scholz’s favored punctuation-less style, using hyphens for voice transitions, annoyed me (but did not challenge me - I’d already read Stand On Zanzibar & Dos Passos’s U.S.A.). The swirl of references drenched the work in reality - Scholz seems to know everything about everything, from philosophy of science to the L5 Society to Wagner’s Parsifal, but the themes were grand and ones ‘modern literature’ so often fails to address and cedes to science fiction: the role of science in society, the tension between future gains and present losses, what is corruption, whether we live up to our own standards, the worth of truth…
You could only call it a satire if you didn’t realize how closely it all tracks to real events: it is a roman à clef of the Star Wars program, down to the nuclear tests which intrude onto 5 pages in the final section. (Scholz seems to have drawn heavily on Gregory Benford’s autobiographical essay “Old Legends”, included in the anthology the “Radiance” novella was first published in.)
The novel begins in media res, depicting a failed exorcism of the government labs, quickly turning to its protagonist, a good-natured but despairing and baffled Quine’s attempts to understand his predicament: in charge of designing a nuclear weapon where the data simply disagrees with the theory which is supposed to be right. The story unravels into one of deception and funding pressure, and Quine triumphs, unseating the culprit in it all, and realizing he doesn’t belong at the labs - “I belong inside!” he says, even as he is forced out in the turmoil of anti-nuclear protesters.
A hallmark of Radiance is the Gibsonian sense of alien entities and organisms clashing for life, at a level above individuals: the Labs has generated its own culture, with its own imperatives and loyalties and goals, fed by government money, but in this respect, we can say little better of the continual antagonist of the labs, the protesters, as it is its own alien entity, seeking funding for its protests (funding, Réti reminds us, comes from the enemy), subverting Lab members for information, pressuring characters like Lynn to serve it. And it doesn’t end there: the Pentagon lurks in the background, represented by Reese, quietly pushing along research into ever better nuclear weapons, and hinted at twice are foreign governments like North Korea, and beyond that? Here I borrow a term from Kevin Kelly and refer to the Technium: science and technology regarded as its own entity with its own drives and selection effects, including the proliferation of all forms of technology.
Section two turns to the unseated Highet: his ouster, and the epilogue of his story as he looks over the ruins of his life and seeks out a final resting place in a think-tank. The Biblical and Wagnerian overtones are strong in this section. Thinking of Parsifal‘s Grail quest, it’s hard not to remember that only one knight finds the Holy Grail in the end: the others all go astray or have sinned in various ways.
Section three completes the work. Just like Dune Messiah thoroughly subverted and undermined the simplistic narratives presented for the reader to swallow in Dune, part three shows the reader how Quine in his own turn is fully subverted by the environment, his sense of duty, and yes, his own belief in the desirability of progress. (“He goes right to the point and carries the reader / Into the midst of things, as if known already; / And if there’s material that he despairs of presenting / So as to shine for us, he leaves it out; / And he makes his whole poem one. What’s true, what’s invented, / Beginning, middle, and end, all fit together.”) The imagery and parallelism at times is not even subtle: for both Quine and Highet, Scholz arranges for them to at some point limp (just like Edward Teller) and have inflamed reddish faces - the implication could hardly be clearer if one of the characters had been named ’Faust’ and Lynn Hamlin renamed Margaret Hamlin.
And finally, having been ‘corrupted’ (but having succeeded in securing the future of the National Ignition Facility which runs to this day), Quine is dealt the final blow: the revelation of the leak of nuclear test data. The Technium strives toward openness and proliferation. Technology may be amoral but it has imperatives of its own. The book ends in Quine in despair and granted a moment of lucidity: seeing his entire life as a mixture of success and failure, as but a pawn of vast forces beyond his comprehension, beholding the presence of the ghostly Technium, far from exorcised.
…he stabbed the radio to silence as the dash blinked JAM and he accelerated into the next lane with the needle climbing past 80 past 90 when the CD player blinked PLAY and a falsetto whined, –gonna be just dirt in the ground –Damn it! Shut up…! banging the dash as his wheels trilled on the raised lane dividers and a horn snapped his head around to the panicked face of another drive too close as he yanked the wheel and the road slid on despite his foot wedged on the brake and the yank of the wheel back against a fishtailing swerve into a chorus of horns and gaping faces traveling sideways past him until the car came up hard against a curb and stopped. He was on the shoulder turned sideways. Through the passenger window he saw traffic rush toward him and pass behind him. Ahead of him, smoke rose from fields of stubble, and a flight of bird, scattered by some disturbance, wheeled, now black, now white, against the empty burning sky.
The 3 sections form closed circle: a tight ball of historical forces, corruption, science, despair, progress, failure, and personal tragedies.
The reader expecting further satire will not be pleased by this section. They’ve missed the point: this isn’t a comedy, it’s a tragedy. And what would a tragedy be without there being a great gap between what we hoped a character might accomplish and what actually happens? The higher they can fly, the sadder a crash.
Coyote, First Angry, enemy of all law, wanderer, desert mind, outlaw, spoiler, loser, clown, glutton, lecher, thief, cheat, pragmatist, survivor, bricoleur, silver-tongued Taliesin, latterday Leonardo, usurper Sforza, adulterer Lancelot, tell, wily one, by any means, of the man with two hearts, of knowledge and desire safely hidden from each other. Did not Paracelsus command us to falsify and dissimulate so that ignorant men might not look upon our mysteries? Did not the noble da Vinci hide the meaning of his thought by the manner of his script? What man has not two masters, two minds, two hearts? Tell of the man so wounded in himself that he tore his second heart from him and cast it out, naming it the world, and swore to wound it as it had wounded him.
It’s not as simple as ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It’s not even as simple as ‘corruption’ vs ‘honesty’: look around. Progress is not inevitable. Athens declined. Florence declined. Countries fall. Knowledge can be lost (look at scurvy). Science is not a formalized process, but a spirit of honesty and inquiry, which can be aped and the wordless teaching lost (how can Japanese or Chinese researchers run hundred of experiments, apparently complying with all known standards, every single one of which concludes acupuncture works, when results elsewhere show dramatically lower success rates?). After WWII, many Americans saw the ruins of Germany and Japan, and took to heart a lesson: the darkness waits. Anti-vaxxers to our left, Creationists to our right. And that’s in America, still preeminent in science, still one of the wealthiest countries in the world - based on just that science & technology. Highet is not wrong - just one-sided.
(“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”)
Throughout the book, we know “the work goes on”. Another of Scholz’s references, this time to alchemy’s magnum opus, the philosopher’s stone, which grants moral purification, eternal life, and the transmutation of base elements into nobler ones. (Transmutation has been realized as radioactive decay, while modern medicine would astound Bacon, and it does not seem absurd that in the next few centuries mankind will cure aging.) The double aspect pops up again, of fraud and greatness: research as practical work but also as spiritual quest. Another double aspect: alchemists were notorious scam artists & mountebanks, tricking others (particularly secular lords and governments) into funding their researches based on tricks with gold - but Isaac Newton was an alchemist, Robert Boyle based modern chemistry in part on the knowledge painfully gleaned by centuries of alchemists, and the formation of modern states was due in part to gunpowder (Chinese alchemists), and Roger Bacon, who I cannot resist supplying an apt quote about:
“Once upon a time, there was a man who was convinced that he possessed a Great Idea. Indeed, as the man thought upon the Great Idea more and more, he realized that it was not just a great idea, but the most wonderful idea ever. The Great Idea would unravel the mysteries of the universe, supersede the authority of the corrupt and error-ridden Establishment, confer nigh-magical powers upon its wielders, feed the hungry, heal the sick, make the whole world a better place, etc. etc. etc.
It starts with Bacon…
But the traffic rushes on. And the work goes on.
Worm (Table of Contents/official summary/TvTropes/Reddit/post-interview) is addictive superhero SF posing as fantasy; it is long, of consistently high quality, and features a huge amount of imaginative powers with equally imaginative applications & combos (the protagonist usage of bugs, as impressive as it is, is only one of many possible examples, although I particularly like the Regent & Shadow Stalker incident as an example of social-engineering/hacking); the setting excellently rationalizes the standard superheroes vs supervillains setup (which as often observed, makes little sense prima facie). The series opens in the smallest possible setting, the geeky introverted protagonist Taylor being bullied in school, steps logically towards a life of crime as a supervillain while trying to do the right thing (and being manipulated by multiple parties, some prescient) and slowly expands to multiversal scope with an appropriately epic & bittersweet ending. (Reminds me of Watchmen.) Or to borrow from the official summary:
An introverted teenage girl with an unconventional superpower, Taylor goes out in costume to find escape from a deeply unhappy and frustrated civilian life. Her first attempt at taking down a supervillain sees her mistaken for one, thrusting her into the midst of the local ‘cape’ scene’s politics, unwritten rules, and ambiguous morals. As she risks life and limb, Taylor faces the dilemma of having to do the wrong things for the right reasons…Readers should be cautioned that Worm is fairly dark as fiction goes, and it gets far darker as the story progresses. Morality isn’t black and white, Taylor and her acquaintances aren’t invincible, the heroes aren’t winning the war between right and wrong, and superpowers haven’t necessarily affected society for the better. Just the opposite on every count, really. Even on a more fundamental level, Taylor’s day to day life is unhappy, with her clinging to the end of her rope from the story’s outset. The denizens of the Wormverse (as readers have termed it) don’t pull punches, and I try to avoid doing so myself, as a writer. There’s graphic language, descriptions of violence and sex does happen (albeit offscreen).
I recommend reading single arcs at a time: calling the whole thing ‘Worm’ is a bit of a misnomer, it’d make much more sense to group a few arcs and call them individual novels in the ‘Worm Saga’ or something. Length-wise, it’s upwards of a million words, and according to my arbtt logs (using the rule ‘current window $title =~ [/.* Worm - Iceweasel/] ==> tag Worm’), took me 37 hours & 42 minutes over 5 days to read.
The work is not perfect. The opening is perhaps too slow: the first fight with Lung, which hooked me, took a while to happen as it only really starts in ch4. In the middle, I suspect there was perhaps too much material devoted to the Slaughterhouse Nine arc and not enough to later plot arcs like Taylor joining the heroes or dealing with later Endbringers. Further, there’s so many characters that a binge read is a good idea, but during a binge, the fights can blur together and become exhausting, suggesting Worm may spend too much time on that. Some good parts, like characters having reasons to be bad, are taken to an extreme where it seems like every character, no matter how mundane, must have a backstory explaining how their environment/society made them evil (even for characters like Emma where such a cause is unnecessary). But the flaws are relatively small and hopefully will be addressed in the editing process. I look forward to reading Wildbow’s Pact when it finished, and I think I’ll check out some of the fanfics like Cenotaph.
I read Worm after it was finished and I continued to see positive reviews of it, such as Eliezer Yudkowsky:
…I commend to you…the just-completed story Worm, which is roughly 1.75 million words in 30 volumes. The characters in Worm use their powers so intelligently I didn’t even notice until something like the 10th volume that the alleged geniuses were behaving like actual geniuses and that the flying bricks who would be the primary protagonists and villains of lesser tales were properly playing second fiddle to characters with cognitive, informational, or probability-based powers…Doing this so smoothly that I don’t even notice because my brain considers the resulting world to be ‘normal’ really ought to deserve some kind of epic bonus points….There are stories which are better than Worm, and stories which were written faster than Worm, but I don’t know of any epic which was ever written faster and better than Worm.
Other reviews include Joshua Blaine:
…a self consistent and expansive Super-hero universe, and with a ton of unique and powerful abilities, I’ve really been enjoying it. The story is Worm, and It’s easily one of my favorite web stories in awhile, and very dark (especially as the story progresses further).
I’ve been reading this awesome web serial called Worm. Highly recommend if you want some action and suspense. There’s a bit of rationality business in there as well, but it’s spaced out and the story is long. I see it’s been recommended previously on here as well.
Caveat: Worm is really dark. The characters are clever, the protagonist makes the most out of a superpower that seems mediocre at first glance, and there are enough twists and turns that I would look at the clock and realize that I’d been reading for six hours. (Worm is really long, so if you’re the sort of person who has to keep reading fiction be warned that it will eat a week or two.) But, despite those positives, terrible things happen to everyone always. I found it similar to Game of Thrones in that it was engaging but depressing, and unlike GoT where new characters are introduced, dance about, and then die, in Worm there’s a clear protagonist who, as far as I can tell, always wins eventually. I also found the superhero fight sequences less engaging as time went on - but they can be skimmed with little loss.
Indeed. Although, frankly, what I’ve seen of Worm so far seems to designate it as very similar to my idea of Hell; every accomplishment is either made moot or cost something irreplaceable and possibly of superior value, every victory is short-lived, every mistake is paid for dearly. Every situation is desperate, every problem urgent. By the time a conflict reaches its resolution, another is at its peak, and two more are right around the corner. Perhaps it’s even worse; hardship, instead of building character, corrupts it. For the characters, it must be like a nightmare they can’t wake up from.
|Stories of Your Life and Others||Ted Chiang||★★★★★||2010||2012/12/12||
What’s there to say about Chiang that all the others don’t say? He is the closest thing to a modern Jorge Luis Borges in melding high concepts with literature to create something better than either; in some respects, I’d rank his best short stories as better than Gene Wolfe’s (too often tedious & 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.
|Urne Burial||Thomas Browne||★★★★★||2005||2012/07/14||
I first heard of Browne in Borges - as so often - in the ending of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” where the narrator is attempting to translate it into Spanish. Borges is always interested in translation (see for example his fantastic essay on translating the 1001 Nights) and I made a note to look up this work which presented such challenges for rendering into Spanish. (The actual edition I used was James Eason’s online edition.)
“He that lay in a golden Urne eminently above the Earth, was not likely to finde the quiet of these bones. Many of these Urnes were broke by a vulgar discoverer in hope of inclosed treasure. The ashes of Marcellus were lost above ground, upon the like account. Where profit hath prompted, no age hath wanted such miners. For which the most barbarous Expilators found the most civill Rhetorick. Gold once out of the earth is no more due unto it; What was unreasonably committed to the ground is reasonably resumed from it: Let Monuments and rich Fabricks, not Riches adorn mens ashes. The commerce of the living is not to be transferred unto the dead: It is not injustice to take that which none complains to lose, and no man is wronged where no man is possessor.”
“If the nearnesse of our last necessity, brought a nearer conformity unto it, there were a happinesse in hoary hairs, and no calamity in half senses. But the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying; When Avarice makes us the sport of death; When even David grew politickly cruell; and Solomon could hardly be said to be the wisest of men. But many are too early old, and before the date of age. Adversity stretcheth our dayes, misery makes Alcmenas nights, and time hath no wings unto it. But the most tedious being is that which can unwish it self, content to be nothing, or never to have been, which was beyond the male-content of Job, who cursed not the day of his life, but his Nativity; Content to have so farre been, as to have a title to future being; Although he had lived here but in an hidden state of life, and as it were an abortion.”
“Nature hath furnished one part of the Earth, and man another. The treasures of time lie high, in Urnes, Coynes, and Monuments, scarce below the roots of some vegetables. Time hath endlesse rarities, and shows of all varieties; which reveals old things in heaven, makes new discoveries in earth, and even earth it self a discovery. That great Antiquity America lay buried for a thousand years; and a large part of the earth is still in the Urne unto us.”
“Some bones make best Skeletons, some bodies quick and speediest ashes: Who would expect a quick flame from Hydropicall Heraclitus? The poysoned Souldier when his Belly brake, put out two pyres in Plutarch. But in the plague of Athens, one private pyre served two or three Intruders; and the Saracens burnt in large heaps, by the King of Castile, shewed how little Fuell sufficeth. Though the Funerall pyre of Patroclus took up an hundred foot, a peece of an old boat burnt Pompey; And if the burthen of Isaac were sufficient for an holocaust, a man may carry his owne pyre.”
“The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying.”
“To be content that times to come should only know there was such a man, not caring whether they knew more of him, was a frigid ambition in Cardan: disparaging his horoscopal inclination and judgement of himself, who cares to subsist like Hippocrates Patients, or Achilles horses in Homer, under naked nominations, without deserts and noble acts, which are the balsame of our memories, the Entelecchia and soul of our subsistences. To be namelesse in worthy deeds exceeds an infamous history. The Canaanitish woman lives more happily without a name, then Herodias with one. And who had not rather have been the good theef, then Pilate?
“What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entred the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide resolution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarism. Not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the Provinciall Guardians, or tutellary Observators. Had they made as good provision for their names, as they have done for their Reliques, they had not so grosly erred in the art of perpetuation. But to subsist in bones, and be but Pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration. Vain ashes, which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves, a fruitlesse continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as Emblemes of mortall vanities; Antidotes against pride, vain-glory, and madding vices. Pagan vain-glories which thought the world might last for ever, had encouragement for ambition, and finding no Atropos unto the immortality of their Names, were never dampt with the necessity of oblivion. Even old ambitions had the advantage of ours, in the attempts of their vain-glories, who acting early, and before the probable Meridian of time, have by this time found great accomplishment of their designes, whereby the ancient Heroes have already out-lasted their Monuments, and Mechanicall preservations. But in this latter Scene of time we cannot expect such Mummies unto our memories, when ambition may fear the Prophecy of Elias, and Charles the fifth can never hope to live within two Methusela’s of Hector.”
|The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War||Graham Robb||★★★★★||2007||2013/10/24||
Discovery of France charts the transition of the region covered by modern France into the unified cultural/political/geographic entity of today. This is incredibly interesting because from our perspective, we have forgotten (if we ever knew) what went into the process of taking the thousands of villages and regions differing in all sorts of ways, and crushing them into the relatively homogeneous high-tech culture of today - unifying languages, political systems, forms of transportation, religion, and so on. A theme throughout is Scott’s legibility (Seeing Like A State); Robb gives all sorts of examples demonstrating local knowledge, specialized information, and resistance to outsiders.
|Selected Nonfictions||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||1999||2017/07/07||
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 deeply 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: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy||Adam Tooze||★★★★★||2007||2014/05/07||
A fascinating account of the economic transformation of Germany under the Nazis, the repression & distortion of the German economy, the strategic confusion & ignorance of their best options revealed by shifting armament priorities (such as the underemphasis on tanks & overemphasis on surface ships), the difficulties imposed by exchange rates, how often Germany teetered on the brink of disaster, and how Hitler’s constant focus on the danger of the American juggernaut guided his grand strategy; Nazi Germany’s militarization based on debt induced competing arms races / instability an the country quickly (and only temporarily) became the deadliest shark in the European waters, which had to desperately keep swimming forward & taking insane gambles if it was not to choke to death on its own accumulated wastes & bad decisions, in the hopes that it could eat all its enemies before they woke up & ate it, and while the shark got a reprieve in Austria and then the freak victory in France, it eventually hit a wall in Russia and died after thrashing around for a while.
|Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World||Liaquat Ahamed||★★★★★||2009||2012/09/16||
I enjoyed this tremendously for revealing a new world to me where I thought I already knew the lay of the land. Throughout were revelations to me - just how ruinous WWI was, how reparations kept echoing and damaging Germany, how exactly the hyperinflation started (it was only partly the Versailles payments but more the social programs?), how America aggravated the issue (the Coolidge quote and the American tourists certainly never appeared in my history textbooks…), how late the stock bubble was and the details of the endless succession of crises that rocked Europe. It’s also interesting to understand why Keynes had such a grip on economics until recently: he predicted repeatedly what would happen, and it’s hard not to sympathize a great deal with him.
|Bias in Mental Testing||Arthur R. Jensen||★★★★★||1980||2015/10/22||
(410k words / 840 pages; online edition; WP) One of the classics in the field, Jensen sets out to explain almost everything, it seems, in psychometrics, from the core concept of error-prone measurements and extracting factors to the various tests available, their correlates, concrete justifications for why the normal distribution is more than an assumption of convenience (a number of the points were new to me), exhaustive coverage of the core topic of various kinds of bias and evidence against them, to culture-fair tests, and finally how mental testing is best employed. (There is also some discussion of behavioral genetics and what the genetic architecture of intelligence might be, but that’s a minor topic and he gives more attention to other things like reaction-time research.)
|The Notenki Memoirs: Studio Gainax and the Men Who Created Evangelion||Yasuhiro Takeda||★★★★★||2005||2009/01/01||
For people interested in the history of the anime industry, Takeda fills in many gaps related to Gainax - it’s hard to think of any source which covers nearly so well DAICON III, DAICON IV, General Products, or throws in so many tidbits about surrounding people & Japanese SF fandom. It is an invaluable resource for any researcher, and I felt compelled to create an annotated e-book edition in order to elucidate various points and be able to link its claims with versions of stories by other people (for example, Okada’s extensive Animerica interview)
|The Remains of the Day||Kazuo Ishiguro||★★★★★||2005||2012/07/21||
Of Ishiguro’s novels, this is the most elegant, most restrained, and most English. The prose is so smooth that like Gene Wolfe’s, it becomes invisible, and you pass through it to the slow silent sorrow of the protagonist. Ishiguro makes the tragedy clear enough, shows us the heart of the story, but without ever being gauche.
|The Book of Lord Shang - A Classic of the Chinese School of Law||Shang Yang||★★★★★||2011||2008/01/01||
The Book of Lord Shang was very hard for me to read: there is something sublime about it, in the old sense of “terrifying” - the policies and reasoning laid out are a systematic crushing of anything that might oppose the State and its goals. It feels inhuman, mechanical, and all the more so when you know that these sort of policies were how the Qin crushed all their opposition - including those states espousing the other Hundred Schools of Thought like Mohism & Confucianism - and that the 20th century affords further examples of how these policies proved themselves in practice (unlike the former Schools).
|The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution||Francis Fukuyama||★★★★★||2011||2012/01/01||
It is, overall, an excellent book and one of the better ones on grand history I’ve read†… but Fukuyama does not have a very transparent prose style, and makes no concessions to those who don’t have a good grasp on global history and especially those who don’t know their Chinese history well (eg. if you can’t put the Qing, Han, Qin, and Shang dynasty in order, you aren’t going to enjoy at all the large amounts of material he rightfully devotes to Chinese politics). And it’s seriously big, no kidding. This is no fluffy Guns, Germs, and Steel walk through the park!
Decided to finally read Herodotus after I read Gene Wolfe’s historical fantasy novel Solder of Arete which draws heavily on him, and then when I had to track down a quote on LessWrong.com to the exact Herodotus passage. Overall, far more interesting than I had expected. Surprisingly funny or interesting anecdotes. There is a superfusion of gods and oracles, which was curious - the oracles truly were treacherous! The Persian kings come off as remarkably capricious and destructive, even the good ones. And Herodotus has a strange capacity to skeptically reason well & sensibly and then be completely superstitious in the next passage. Having read about these ancient events many times, I found half the value was just seeing a thorough account from a single Greek’s perspective.
|Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman||James Gleick||★★★★★||1993||2014/04/08||
A solid biography, though I don’t have anything in particular to say about it. It throws in all the classic anecdotes and quotes you expect (which are more than worth their weight in gold - certainly, the price of admission) doesn’t try to whitewash Feynman despite the temptation to hero-worship, and includes some critical examination, does at least try to explain all the physics which earned Feynman his prestige, etc. It’s a well-regarded widely-read biography on an excellent subject which I have nothing to say against (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: Why Violence Has Declined||Steven Pinker||★★★★★||2011||
This was really really good, as in, maybe the best book I’ve read that year. Time and again, I was shocked to find subjects treated of keen interest to me, or which read like Pinker had taken some of my essays but done them way better (on terrorism, on the expanding circle, etc.); even so, I was surprised to learn new things (resource problems don’t correlate well with violence?).
|The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet||David Mitchell||★★★★★||2010||
Finally got around to reading it. It was surprisingly unliterary and unpostmodern for Mitchell, but in exchange, he nailed the historical details and gave us an adventure which subverted many of the usual tropes - the raid on the nunnery was just a trap, the hero doesn’t get the girl, his chief heroism was standing there to be shot at, and the man who takes down the big baddie is someone we thought to be entirely in the baddie’s pocket. The supernatural aspects are implied to be genuine, but it’s never resolved, which I am grateful for. It would ruin the feel.
|Collapse of Complex Societies||Joseph A. Tainter||★★★★★||1990||
Very good: much better than Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and much more convincing than Spengler or Toynbee.
|Star Maker||Olaf Stapledon||★★★★★||1999||
Star Maker is one of the very few SF books that I’d place up there with Blindsight and a few others in depicting truly alien aliens; and he doesn’t do it once but repeatedly throughout the book. It’s really impressive how Stapledon just casually scatters around handfuls of jewels that lesser authors might belabor singly throughout an entire book.
|Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea||Barbara Demick||★★★★★||2009||
Highly recommended. Probably the second best book I’ve read about North Korea, after B.R. Myer’s The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.
|Schismatrix Plus||Bruce Sterling||★★★★★||1996||2010/11/13||
Quite remarkable. One of the best solar system colonization universes with a baroque and cyberpunk-inflected computer/biology split.
|The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death (Snarkout Boys, #1)||Daniel Pinkwater||★★★★★||1983|
|Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, #2)||Lewis Carroll||★★★★★||1993|
|Genetics and Analysis of Quantitative Traits||Michael Lynch||★★★★★||1998|
|Unforgotten Dreams: Poems by the Zen Monk Shotetsu||Steven D. Carter||★★★★★||1996||2017/10/05|
|Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century (A History of Japanese Literature - Volume 1)||Donald Keene||★★★★★||1999||2006/01/01|
|The Complete Winnie the Pooh||A.A. Milne||★★★★★||1992|
|Latro in the Mist||Gene Wolfe||★★★★★||2003|
|Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery||Henry Marsh||★★★★★||2014||2015/11/02|
|The Sign of the Seahorse||Graeme Base||★★★★★||1998||1999/01/01|
|Catch-22 (Catch-22, #1)||Joseph Heller||★★★★★||2004||2014/05/27|
|The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith||Cordwainer Smith||★★★★★||1993|
|The Collected Songs Of Cold Mountain||Hanshan||★★★★★||1983|
|The Ring of the Nibelung||Richard Wagner||★★★★★||1977||2006/01/01|
|100 Suns||Michael Light||★★★★★||2003|
|Raptor Red||Robert T. Bakker||★★★★★||1996|
|City of Golden Shadow (Otherland, #1)||Tad Williams||★★★★★||1998|
|The Jewish War||Flavius Josephus||★★★★★||1981|
|Great Mambo Chicken And The Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly Over The Edge||Ed Regis||★★★★★||1991|
|Cicero’s Treatise on the Nature of the Gods||Charles Duke Yonge||★★★★★||2010|
|Codex Seraphinianus. Ein Orbis Pictus des Universums der Phantasie.||Luigi Serafini||★★★★★||1983|
|The Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland||Winsor McCay||★★★★★||1997|
|Code: Version 2.0||Lawrence Lessig||★★★★★||2006|
|Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 5: Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 6: Military Technology: Missiles and Sieges||Joseph Needham||★★★★★||1995|
|The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade||Alfred W. McCoy||★★★★★||2003|
|A Presocratics Reader||Patricia Curd||★★★★★||1996|
|The Secret History of Star Wars||Michael Kaminski||★★★★★||2008|
|The Golden Age (Golden Age #1)||John C. Wright||★★★★★||2003|
|The Napoleon of Notting Hill||G.K. Chesterton||★★★★★||2008|
|Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||1964|
|The Protracted Game: A Wei-Ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy||Scott Boorman||★★★★★||1971|
|The Westing Game||Ellen Raskin||★★★★★||2004|
|Strega Nona||Tomie dePaola||★★★★★||1975|
|The Velveteen Rabbit||Margery Williams Bianco||★★★★★||1990|
|Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Charlie Bucket, #1)||Roald Dahl||★★★★★||2005|
|The Very Hungry Caterpillar||Eric Carle||★★★★★||1992|
|The Tale of Peter Rabbit (Rabbit Ears)||Beatrix Potter||★★★★★||2002|
|The Book of Imaginary Beings||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||2006|
|Snow Crash||Neal Stephenson||★★★★★||2000|
|Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead||Tom Stoppard||★★★★★||1994|
|Zen Flesh, Zen Bones||Paul Reps||★★★★★||1971|
|The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering||Frederick P. Brooks Jr.||★★★★★||1995|
|From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler||E.L. Konigsburg||★★★★★||2003|
|Compact Oxford English Dictionary||Oxford University Press||★★★★★||2008|
|The Complete Calvin and Hobbes||Bill Watterson||★★★★★||2005|
|Ring (Xeelee Sequence, #4)||Stephen Baxter||★★★★★||2001|
|Principles of Forecasting: A Handbook for Researchers and Practitioners||Jon Scott Armstrong||★★★★★||2002|
|Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained (Signet Classics)||John Milton||★★★★★||1968|
|The Poetic Edda||Snorri Sturluson||★★★★★||1990|
|Travelers of a Hundred Ages: The Japanese as Revealed Through 1,000 Years of Diaries||Donald Keene||★★★★★||1999|
|One Hundred Famous Views of Edo||Hiroshige Utagawa||★★★★★||2004|
|Ficciones||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||1994|
|Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior||Geoffrey Miller||★★★★★||2009|
|Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed||James C. Scott||★★★★★||1998|
|Is There Anything Good about Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men||Roy F. Baumeister||★★★★★||2010|
|Treasure Island||Robert Louis Stevenson||★★★★★||2001|
|Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Extraordinary Voyages, #6)||Jules Verne||★★★★★||2002|
|Wizard’s First Rule (Sword of Truth, #1)||Terry Goodkind||★★★★★||2003|
|What Is Life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches||Erwin Schrödinger||★★★★★||1992|
|Invisible Cities||Italo Calvino||★★★★★||1974|
|Mark Lombardi: Global Networks||Mark Lombardi||★★★★★||2003|
|Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength||Roy F. Baumeister||★★★★★||2011|
|Gormenghast (Gormenghast, #2)||Mervyn Peake||★★★★★||1998|
|Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950||Charles Murray||★★★★★||2004|
|Little, Big||John Crowley||★★★★★||2006|
|A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World||Gregory Clark||★★★★★||2007|
|The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography||Aleister Crowley||★★★★★||1989|
|A Colder War||Charles Stross||★★★★★||2005|
|Against the Day||Thomas Pynchon||★★★★★||2006|
|Gravity’s Rainbow||Thomas Pynchon||★★★★★||2006|
|James and the Giant Peach||Roald Dahl||★★★★★||2002|
|Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures||Tyler Cowen||★★★★★||2004|
|The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind||Julian Jaynes||★★★★★||2000|
|Rationality and the Reflective Mind||Keith E. Stanovich||★★★★★||2010|
|The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?||David Brin||★★★★★||1999|
|The Consolation of Philosophy||Boethius||★★★★★||1999|
|The Stars My Destination||Alfred Bester||★★★★★||1996|
|A Canticle for Leibowitz (St. Leibowitz, #1)||Walter M. Miller Jr.||★★★★★||2006|
|The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, #1)||Stephen King||★★★★★||2003|
|Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art||Scott McCloud||★★★★★||1994|
|Hell is the Absence of God||Ted Chiang||★★★★★||2002|
|Strategy||B.H. Liddell Hart||★★★★★||1991|
|The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire||Edward N. Luttwak||★★★★★||2009|
|Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer||Stewart Brand||★★★★★||2000|
|Alice in Wonderland||Jane Carruth||★★★★★||2004|
|Heart of Darkness||Joseph Conrad||★★★★★||2003|
|Dreamtigers||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||1985|
|Selected Non-Fictions||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||2000|
|The Library of Babel||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||2000|
|Collected Fictions||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★★||1999|
|Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles #2)||Frank Herbert||★★★★★||1987|
|The Leopard||Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa||★★★★★||2007|
|The Fall of Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #2)||Dan Simmons||★★★★★||1995|
|Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1)||Dan Simmons||★★★★★||1990|
|Ender’s Game (Ender’s Saga, #1)||Orson Scott Card||★★★★★||1994|
|Foucault’s Pendulum||Umberto Eco||★★★★★||2007|
|Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?||Philip E. Tetlock||★★★★★||2006|
|The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Chronicles of Narnia, #3)||C.S. Lewis||★★★★★||2006|
|The Cyberiad||Stanisław Lem||★★★★★||2002|
|The Martian Chronicles||Ray Bradbury||★★★★★||1984|
|Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)||Frank Herbert||★★★★★||2006|
|The Selfish Gene||Richard Dawkins||★★★★★||2006|
|Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time||Michael Shermer||★★★★★||2002|
|Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics||Gary L. Drescher||★★★★★||2006|
|The Player of Games (Culture, #2)||Iain M. Banks||★★★★★||1997|
|A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought, #1)||Vernor Vinge||★★★★★||2010|
|The Devil Is Dead||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★★||1999|
|Dangerous Visions||Harlan Ellison||★★★★★||2002|
|Fourth Mansions||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★★||1969|
|Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions||Edwin A. Abbott||★★★★★||1992|
|Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass||Lewis Carroll||★★★★★||2000|
|A Study in Emerald||Neil Gaiman||★★★★★||2007|
|The Absolute Sandman, Volume Two||Neil Gaiman||★★★★★||2007|
|The Absolute Sandman, Volume One||Neil Gaiman||★★★★★||2006|
|The Sandman: The Dream Hunters||Neil Gaiman||★★★★★||2000|
|Preludes & Nocturnes (The Sandman, #1)||Neil Gaiman||★★★★★||1998|
|Nightside the Long Sun (The Book of the Long Sun #1)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★★||1993|
|The Book of the New Sun (The Book of the New Sun #1-4)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★★||1998|
|Sword & Citadel (The Book of the New Sun #3-4)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★★||1994|
|The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun, #1)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★★||1984|
|Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun #1-2)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★★||1994|
|Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language||Douglas R. Hofstadter||★★★★★||1998|
|Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid||Douglas R. Hofstadter||★★★★★||1999|
|True Names: and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier||Vernor Vinge||★★★★★||2001|
|Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science)||Harold Abelson||★★★★★||1996|
|The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary||Eric S. Raymond||★★★★★||2001|
|In the Beginning…Was the Command Line||Neal Stephenson||★★★★★||1999|
|The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier||Bruce Sterling||★★★★★||1993|
|Blindsight (Firefall, #1)||Peter Watts||★★★★★||2006|
|Toast, and Other Stories||Charles Stross||★★★★★||2005|
|Permutation City (Subjective Cosmology #2)||Greg Egan||★★★★★||1995|
|Kiln People||David Brin||★★★★★||2002|
|The Demolished Man||Alfred Bester||★★★★★||1999|
|Stand on Zanzibar||John Brunner||★★★★★||1999|
|A Deepness in the Sky (Zones of Thought, #2)||Vernor Vinge||★★★★★||2000|
|The Gap Into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die (Gap, #5)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★★||1996|
|Ender’s Game, Volume 1: Battle School (Ender’s Saga)||Christopher Yost||★★★★★||2009|
|The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)||J.R.R. Tolkien||★★★★★||2003|
|Past, Present, and Future of Statistical Science||Xihong Lin||★★★★||2014||2014/07/13||
Past, Present, and Future of Statistical Science (ed. Lin et al 2014) is a large (52 chapters by ~50 contributors, 643 pages, 9.8M PDF) anthology of essays/articles/reviews/lists touching on all sorts of topics by many famous names (Efron, Rubin, Gelman, Wasserman, Tibshirani, Laird, Cook) - some of whom I know solely from methods bearing their names! The typesetting is tasteful & high quality, with so many equations & 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.
…Wald had a classic European lecture style. He started at the upper left corner of the blackboard and finished at the lower right. The lectures were smooth and the delivery was a uniform distribution.
Or the history related is surprising, for example, the revelation that the Chernoff bound was actually proven by Rubin (yes, he did that too) in Chernoff’s essay “A career in statistics”, where he mentions a tragicomic incident in rocketry where a clever method for course-correction turned out to be unnecessary.While Cook’s distance in looking for problems in linear models stems from one bizarre rat (“Reflections on a statistical career and their implications”):
…I redid his calculations, looked at residual plots and performed a few other checks that were standard for the time. This confirmed his results, leading to the possibilities that either there was something wrong with the experiment, which he denied, or his prior expectations were off. All in all, this was not a happy outcome for either of us.
And naturally, someone will choose to go meta & criticize the implicit goal of the autobios & explicit goal of the career advice section - as one would hope of statisticians, he recognizes the epistemological peril of a series of highly-selected anecdotes; Terry Speed in “Never ask for or give advice, make mistakes, accept mediocrity, enthuse”:
What’s wrong with advice? For a start, people giving advice lie. That they do so with the best intentions doesn’t alter this fact. This point has been summarized nicely by Radhika Nagpal (2013). I say trust the people who tell you “I have no idea what I’d do in a comparable situation. Perhaps toss a coin.” Of course people don’t say that, they tell you what they’d like to do or wish they had done in some comparable situation. You can hope for better. What do statisticians do when we have to choose between treatments A and B, where there is genuine uncertainty within the expert community about the preferred treatment? Do we look for a statistician over 40 and ask them which treatment we should choose? We don’t, we recommend running a randomized experiment, ideally a double-blind one, and we hope to achieve a high adherence to the assigned treatment from our subjects. So, if you really don’t know what to do, forget advice, just toss a coin, and do exactly what it tells you. But you are an experiment with n = 1, you protest. Precisely. What do you prefer with n = 1: an observational study or a randomized trial? (It’s a pity the experiment can’t be singly, much less doubly blinded.) You may wonder whether a randomized trial is justified in your circumstances. That’s a very important point. Is it true that there is genuine uncertainty within the expert community (i.e., you) about the preferred course of action? If not, then choosing at random between your two options is not only unethical, it’s stupid.
Not all life incidents are amusing. In Gray’s “Promoting equity”, in between fighting the good fight, she proudly relates an incident I would be ashamed of, especially were I a statistician:
Early in my career I received a notice from Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), the retirement plan used at most private and many public universities including American University, listing what I could expect in retirement benefits from my contribution and those of the university in the form of x dollars per $100,000 in my account at age 65. There were two columns, one headed “women” and a second, with amounts 15% higher, headed “men.” When I contacted the company to point out that Title VII prohibited discrimination in fringe benefits as well as in salary, I was informed that the figures represented discrimination on the basis of “longevity,” not on the basis of sex.
A statistician asking for guarantees! & why should voluntary lifestyle changes affect whether a predictable difference be compensated for? Pensions are job compensation, not a moral code handed down from on high, & if men do not live as long as women, ‘equal’ pay is never equal & defrauds them. Or, would Gray be against maternal leave, seeing as pregnancy is a “voluntary lifestyle choice”? & consider the sophistry: “in large part” - so would she have supported a differential which corresponded to the residual? If their analysis had showed up that black men drink & smoke even more than white men, would Gray be pleased to see a ‘black penalty’ applied to their pension payments? When is equal not equal? As always, one merely needs to ask: “who, whom?”
The autobiographical essays are interesting, but somewhat dry. I was pleased to reach the meat of the anthology: the freeform technical papers. Some of the chapters introduced me to ideas I had missed, such as the “bet on sparsity” argument (Cook, pg103), which reminds me of one folk argument for Occam’s razor: you should assume the world is relatively simple & predictable & take actions based on that belief, because if the world is that way, then your actions will attain their ends & that is good, while if the world is inherently complex/unpredictable, then your actions will have no net effect which is neither good nor bad, so the former scenario dominates the latter. I paid close attention to Tibshirani’s paper later in the volume, “In praise of sparsity and convexity”.
Similarly, Dunson’s “Nonparametric Bayes” introduced me to an area I had little inkling of prior. The biostatistics papers (eg Breslow’s “Lessons in biostatistics” or Flournoy’s “A vignette of discovery”) bring up interesting challenges & biases to keep in mind when evaluating the latest clinical research (a skill useful for anyone), & leave me heartened at the life-saving practical work that field is doing. Nan M. Laird’s “Meta-analyses: Heterogeneity can be a good thing” reminded me of the need, when doing my own meta-analyses, to not simply ignore high I2/heterogeneity but think hard about what moderators I should include to try to explain some of it. Others raised interesting questions I’ve wondered about myself, for example, Xiao-Li Meng in “A trio of inference problems” asks how big a biased sample of a population has to be before it’s of comparable quality to a random sample:
Over the century, statisticians, social scientists, and others have amply demonstrated theoretically and empirically that (say) a 5% probabilistic/random sample is better than any 5% non-random samples in many measurable ways, e.g., bias, MSE, confidence coverage, predictive power, etc. However, we have not studied questions such as “Is an 80% non-random sample ‘better’ than a 5% random sample in measurable terms? 90%? 95%? 99%?” This question was raised during a fascinating presentation by Dr. Jeremy Wu…The synthetic data created for LED used more than 20 data sources in the LEHD (Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics) system. These sources vary from survey data such as a monthly survey of 60,000 households, which represent only .05% of US households, to administrative records such as unemployment insurance wage records, which cover more than 90% of the US workforce, to census data such as the quarterly census of earnings and wages, which includes about 98% of US jobs (Wu, 2012 and personal communication from Wu). The administrative records such as those in LEHD are not collected for the purpose of statistical inference, but rather because of legal requirements, business practice, political considerations, etc. They tend to cover a large percentage of the population, and therefore they must contain useful information for inference.
which is what I’ve wondered while working on my census of biracial characters, since my sample is biased but capture-recapture analysis indicates I’ve compiled up to 1/3 of the population, so how much does that compensate, does it drive the error from biases down to the same size as the sampling error? Meng derives an inequality:
For example, even if ns = 100, we would need over 96% of the population if ρN = .5 [level of bias]. This reconfirms the power of probabilistic sampling and reminds us of the danger in blindly trusting that “Big Data” must give us better answers. On the other hand, if ρN = .1, then we will need only 50% of the population to beat a SRS [simple random sample] with ns = 100…the same ρN = .1 also implies that a 96% subpopulation will beat a SRS as large as ns = … 2400, which is no longer a practically irrelevant sample size.
Berger’s “Conditioning is the issue” is a bit lost on me but interesting is one passage’s discussion of turning notorious p-values into something more meaningful, error probabilities:
The practical import of switching to conditional frequentist testing (or the equivalent objective Bayesian testing) is startling. For instance, Sellke et al. (2001) uses a nonparametric setting to develop the following very general lower bound on α(s), for a given p-value…p = .05, which many erroneously think implies strong evidence against H0, actually corresponds to a conditional frequentist error probability at least as large as .289, which is a rather large error probability. If scientists understood that a p-value of .05 corresponded to that large a potential error probability in rejection, the scientific world would be a quite different place.
Other papers are a bit of a misfire: I hadn’t heard of “symbolic data” before Lynne Billard’s “The past’s future is now: What will the present’s future bring?”, & the paper still leaves me wondering what it really is.
Some I had already read - Gelman & Wasserman has already blogged about their entries.
And still others make one wonder; in Rubin’s interesting retrospective of his greatest-hits, “Converting rejections into positive stimuli”, he encourages the reader to not be discouraged by the journal submission process as it is so random & some of his best papers were rejected - which makes me wonder, ‘so why have this whole journal rigmarole if rejection means so little…? would you use a statistical test which exhibited such poor calibration & discrimination?’ & his remark that “if you are repeatedly told by some reviewers that everyone knows what you are saying, but without specific references, and other reviewers are saying what you are writing is completely wrong but without decent reasons, you are probably on to something” is true.
Overall, the anthology is interesting & worth reading (if not each and every paper).
|The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976||Frank Dikötter||★★★★||2016||
Narrative account of the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution, along with the Great Leap Forward/Great Famine & Third Front, 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.
|The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank||David Plotz||★★★★||2006||2016/07/11||
Millionaire Robert Graham’s Repository for Germinal Choice (1980-1999) sperm bank was founded as a form of positive eugenics in order to encourage sperm donation by gifted men (initially Nobelists) for use in the nascent field of artificial insemination. Launched to instant infamy, it turned out to have actually struck a major chord among women seeking sperm, who were generally treated extremely shabbily by the medical establishment which when doing as it pleased, casually chose donors largely at random and denied the women any kind of choice or information about the donor (Plotz notes the first recorded case of artificial insemination involved abruptly chloroforming the woman and using a random medical student). However, it encountered perennial troubles in obtaining sufficient supplies, as artificial insemination (not necessarily/usually IVF, as I assumed for most of the book until I finally realized my mistake) used up large quantities of semen before a successful pregnancy, so the lack of Nobelist participants (between the rigorous medical testing and the notoriety) immediately forced a switch to less distinguished donors; further, fees charged to women never came close to covering the operating expenses of recruiting those donors and schlepping all the semen around, even as other sperm banks adopted the Repository’s innovation of stringent health examinations & forcing Graham to sustain the Repository himself, and while he arranged for millionaire Floyd Kimble to take over funding the Repository when he died, that millionaire then soon died himself without having made any further provisions! Graham’s family was happy to see the sperm bank die, and that was that.
Around 2000, journalist David Plotz began a 13-part Slate investigative report describing the positive eugenics background, history of the sperm bank, and trying to find donors/mothers/offspring - succeeding in reaching a small fraction of them. The online series includes some of their personal reactions to their experience, beliefs about the harm, some of them being reconnected with each other, descriptions of their current circumstances etc.
The first question about this book is, is it worth reading if you’ve already read the Slate articles and are interested in learning more? Yes. The background on Graham, Shockley, and modern sperm banking is much more extensive in the book, and it goes into substantially more detail about the donors/mothers/offspring. For example, the Slate series has one 2001 post focusing on “Donor White”, who had not been found by that point; but White showed up afterwards, was interviewed extensively by Plotz (much of the book is in the first-person), and interacted a great deal with Beth/Joy over the following years, all of which is in The Genius Factory but not the Slate articles. He also corrects/updates a number of assertions (eg how exactly the Repository closed, with the online version concluding vaguely that it must have shut down because Graham somehow just didn’t bother to put anything in his will and his relatives didn’t support it, while the book version fixes this by bringing in Kimble and explaining what went wrong; apparently none of these corrections have been added to the Slate versions, checking back).
It’s interesting seeing how disparate peoples’ reactions to the sperm bank are, ranging from (the proper) indifference to considerable curiosity to almost neurotic obsession. I also appreciated the book expanding on the descriptions of the offspring and their successes even in trying circumstances, and the modern sperm banking industry, which is hard to get a read on because it’s so private (eg Plotz quotes Repository staff noting that, as long suggested, prospective mothers value highly height and health; leafing through the catalogue, everyone is a positive eugenicist), and the issue of where the unrelated fathers stand (in a very difficult one, and at least for the women who contacted Plotz, in a generally untenable one, although he notes the selection bias). So I enjoyed much of the book and read it in one or two sittings.
Much of this is relevant to anyone thinking about the current prospects for embryo selection on traits. The estrangement of fathers emphasizes how naive it is to hope that merely offering some sperm of better genetic quality would be enough to encourage en masse usage: genetic relatedness is far too important to almost everyone, and giving up relatedness for better traits is inherently insulting to the cuckolded father; egg/sperm donors are always a last resort. (This is something the iterated embryo selection & genome synthesis approaches must grapple with; who will use your optimized eggs/sperms if it means the child will be 50% or 100% unrelated to the birth-parents? On the other hand, regular embryo selection & CRISPR preserve relatedness almost entirely.) The lure of greater intelligence turns out, surprisingly, to not matter as much to the mothers as does height/athleticism/health and avoiding below-average outcomes. So mothers prize physical attributes as much or more than mental ones, and are risk-averse; suggesting the importance of doing selection on multiple traits of which intelligence is only one and perhaps not even the most important one and of emphasizing that we have excellent height polygenic scores which right now would allow height increases of <4 inches, and of framing it in terms of reducing the chance of a low outcome rather than its equivalent increasing the mean.
What’s bad in the book? Plotz comes off, as a little snide & anti-intellectual; he seems to take an attitude in slightly disliking almost everyone in the book and it bleeds through unavoidably. He lacks any kind of sympathy. This slight disdain extends from the people to the core topics. Though he can’t deny the power of genetics when even the briefest meeting or description of the sperm donors shows their resemblance to their offspring, he is an orthodox liberal in doing his best to deny it. (Which lends some passages surreal qualities; having just described how successful a bunch of kids were or how they resemble their donor or conceded that intelligence is indeed heavily genetically influenced, he’ll then invoke the shared environment or epigenetics as the explanation of everything and move on. I am reminded of the story that Bertrand Russell, seated next to a Christian at dinner, asked what he thought would happen to him when he died: “Oh, well, I suppose I shall inherit eternal bliss, but I wish we wouldn’t talk about such an unpleasant topic.”)
He also makes a number of errors or questionable claims or perpetuates things he should know better. I noted down a few while reading:
|Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle||Daniel L. Everett||★★★★||2008||2016/03/27||
(~110k words; 2.5 hours) 2008 anthropology/linguistic memoir by Daniel Everett about studying the famous Pirahã people and particularly their language. Some of the material is covered in the widely read New Yorker article or elsewhere: the Pirahã possess an astoundingly crude and simple language, the Blub of natural languages, without recursion. The 18 chapters are organized autobiographically with Everett’s research conclusions interspersed mostly chronologically (Everett making no strong topical separations, which may annoy some readers despite being more realistic - one does not live and do science in discrete blocks of time, after all, and Everett neglects neither side of his life). Everett does go into some detail about the linguistic aspects, but not very much (which is good because I’ve always found linguistics excruciating) and it’s very popularized and quick a read.
Then I noticed another bemusing fact. The Pirahãs would converse with me and then turn to one another, in my presence, to talk about me, as though I was not even there. “Say, Dan, could you give me some matches?” Xip06gi asked me one day with others present. “OK, sure.” “OK, he is giving us two matches. Now I am going to ask for cloth.” Why would they talk about me in front of my face like this, as though I could not understand them? I had just demonstrated that I could understand them by answering the question about the matches. What was I missing?
All of this is part of Everett’s case that the Pirahã are, like Luria’s peasant, ruled by an “immediacy of experience principle” and this yields an extraordinarily conservative culture on which new ideas and concepts roll off like so much water off a duck’s back.
Their supernatural beliefs are particularly fascinating: dreams are simply interpreted literally and discussed as supernatural events that happened, and any random thing can be a ‘spirit’, with regular theatrical performances of ‘spirits’ who are obviously tribe men (but when asked, Pirahã deny that there is any connection between particular men and spirits, part of their weak grasp on personal identity (I was particularly amused by the Heraclitean tone of one anecdote: “Pirahãs occasionally talked about me, when I emerged from the river in the evenings after my bath. I heard them ask one another, ‘Is this the same one who entered the river or is it kapioxiai [a dangerous spirit]?’”), where names change regularly and are considered new people). Some of the spirit appearances are group hallucinations or consensus, and Everett opens Don’t Sleep with the anecdote of being part of a group of Pirahã staring at an empty sand bank where they see the spirit Xigagai saying he will kill anyone going into the forest that day. This example is a bit perplexing: what could possibly be the use of this and why would they either perceive it or go along with it? Similarly, it’s hard to see how the spirit outside the village talking all night about how he wanted to have sex with specific women of the village is serving any role, and the tribesman reaction when Everett walks up and asks to record his ranting is hilariously deadpan: “‘Sure, go ahead’, he answered immediately in his normal voice”. Other spirits make more sense:
Pirahãs listen carefully and often follow the exhortations of the kaoaib6gi. A spirit might say something like “Don’t want Jesus. He is not Pirahã”, or “Don’t hunt downriver tomorrow”, or things that are commonly shared values, such as “Don’t eat snakes.” Through spirits, ostracism, food-sharing regulation, and so on, Pirahã society disciplines itself.
The function and etiology of religion like this remains perplexing to me, but as a method of egalitarian coercion, it does at least explain incidents like the Pirahã ordering Everett to stop preaching about Jesus because the spirit of Jesus was causing trouble in another village and trying to rape their women with his three-foot long penis. Everett’s deconversion from Christianity is probably the funniest I’ve read, but also very strange (some illiterate tribesmen should make no impact on your religious beliefs) and well exhibits the concrete and ‘hard’ tendencies:
…something that I thought would make them understand how important God can be in our lives. So I told the Pirahãs how my stepmother committed suicide and how this led me to Jesus and how my life got better after I stopped drinking and doing drugs and accepted Jesus. I told this as a very serious story. When I concluded, the Pirahãs burst into laughter. This was unexpected, to put it mildly. I was used to reactions like “Praise God!” with my audience genuinely impressed by the great hardships I had been through and how God had pulled me out of them. “Why are you laughing?” I asked. “She killed herself? Ha ha ha. How stupid. Pirahãs don’t kill themselves” they answered. They were utterly unimpressed. It was clear to them that the fact that someone I had loved had committed suicide was no reason at all for the Pirahãs to believe in my God. Indeed, it had the opposite effect, highlighting our differences.
Overall, the picture painted is astonishing. How is this possible? How can such people and societies exist? But Everett does not find them pitiful, and is seduced by the Pirahã. Living by the plentiful river, with no native technology more advanced than a bow, the Pirahã have lowered their expectations to the point where the jungle is paradise. If there is no food, then it is an opportunity to “harden” themselves and practice self-reliance. (This is deliberate, as it’s unlikely that if it was just the random chance of hunting, they would be so uniformly 100-125 pounds & 5-5.3 feet tall). The climate means they don’t need much clothing or shelter, and if it’s raining, they can make a primitive hut. If they are hungry, they can go into the jungle and hunt. If there are foreigners, they can beg for food. They amuse themselves by talking and dancing and having sex and hunting and fishing and being self-reliant. They have no worries most of the time, have few duties - even child-rearing is easy, as women give birth with little ceremony and die by themselves, the Pirahã are willing to euthanize inconvenient infants, and much like the child-rearing practices described by Jared Diamond, children are expected to injure themselves and learn - and are happy. Reading about them, they come off as a cross between bonobos and Chimpanzees with wireheading thrown in to boot.
So to ask again: how is this possible? Proximately, it’s because Everett and FUNAI and others succeeded in getting a reservation created just for the Pirahã. With less pressure from more successful groups, they can continue to exist. But that doesn’t answer how the Pirahã could ever come to exist. Everett does not speculate about this. A true anthropologist, everything is due to chance, environment, or culture, all of which ultimately spring from nothingness. (Where does culture come from? An anthropologist might give the Pirahã answer about where the world came from…)
I might believe in culture as an explanation, with the Pirahã being just the most extremely conservative surviving culture, if the claims were not so extreme. But can that really be the case?
Can we really appeal to culture as the explanation for why not a single Pirahã is literate, or can count, or has left the tribe to earn money, or brought a non-Pirahã woman in as wife, or total cultural stasis for at least 300 years, and all of the other singularities Everett claims? Is this the case for any other tribe ever, even the ones considered by their neighbors as the most primitive and least intelligent, like the Pygmies, or cases of cultural regression like the Tasmanians? Have the Amish ever succeeded in having an attrition rate <5%, and that with a relative level of wealth to the surrounding America far closer than the Pirahã relative to Brazilian? Why are all the other groups like the Warlpiri of Australia able to borrow numbers when numeral systems become useful, except the Pirahã? The Pirahã have been trading with Brazilians for at least two centuries, and have not taken any steps toward it. The endogamy and linguistic isolation is surprising; they seem more endogamous than the Bushmen, whose lineage may have diverged scores of thousands of years ago, or the castes of India. They have, for all anyone knows, been separate for thousands of years (the population history of the Americas is, likely in part because of well-founded fears that it will undermine rhetoric about being descendants of the first settlers rather than just the second-to-last wave, still obscure but the latest work is consistent with colonization/replacements yielding tribes with little genetic flow between groups & high geographic structure). This alone, along with their small population (both present and presumably founding), could yield major genetic drift on many traits.
On the other hand, gene-environment co-evolution would make tremendous sense; over millennia of reproductive isolation and specialization to their ecological niche, Pirahã have reached a local optimum where abstraction and planning are unnecessary and only lead to trouble and the potential for inequality, and either punishment or simply lack of additional fitness for such cognitive traits, which was continuously reinforced by natural & sexual selection over hundreds of generations (evolution does not stop at the neck), leading to a population many SDs from surrounding populations. (“I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.” Indeed.) This would be similar to Harpending & Cochran 2015’s model of the Amish. This parsimoniously explains the observations without the need for backflips in interpretation of many anecdotes. For example, if the Pirahã culture is so extraordinarily conservative, why did they eagerly learn to make canoes that they prize highly, saying that Pirahã canoes are bad, and only 5 days later decide it was a bad idea? But Everett gives us a valuable clue in a different anecdote:
…I was surprised that the Pirahãs did not seem tired at all, however. In the village the Pirahã men avoided carrying heavy things. When I asked them for help in carrying boxes or barrels and such, they were always reluctant to respond. When they did help, they could barely lift things that I could carry with ease. I had just assumed that they were weak and lacked endurance. But I was wrong. They didn’t normally carry foreign objects and they didn’t like to display their ignorance of how to handle them.
Like anyone else, they are embarrassed by what they don’t know - or have forgotten - and when asked, will make up excuses or dodge it some other way. Similarly, the failure to teach counting does not require some sort of subtle Pirahã ploy where they pretend to be interested and to learn how to count for very practical reasons and then sabotage it to comply with the dictates of Pirahã culture; it was simply that difficult, and any teacher will be familiar with students on whom instructions are writ on water. Supposedly a school was opened in 2012, so it would be interesting to hear whether a Potemkin school (recent events doubtless having reminded everyone that the Brazilian government has its fair share of problems with corruption & incompetence), what fraction ever enroll, how much attrition there is, and what performance levels any are able to reach.
Doubtless Everett would vociferously object that such speculation is wrong, but he would in order to protect research access to the Pirahã (the Brazilian government being as much a villain as hero in these sorts of things, engaging in such senseless practices as outlawing two-way radios for foreigners) and to avoid becoming a second Napoleon Chagnon, and probably commits the same fallacy that Diamond memorably does at the beginning of Guns, Germs, and Steel in arguing that the Pirahã were so much better than him at using the jungle they must be at least as intelligent as anyone else (ignoring that they have had lifetimes to learn that, and underperform everywhere else). If nothing else, the genetics of the Pirahã would be fascinating for pinning down when they diverged from other groups and how much genetic drift & directional selection has happened since.
Let us hope that future researchers will not bow to the local politics and continue studying only the safe, softball questions like the Pirahã syntax.
|McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War||Hamilton Gregory||★★★★||2015||
(Ebook; ~2h. See also Gregory’s 2016 talk & Low-Aptitude Men In The Military: Who Profits, Who Pays?, Laurence & 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 largest non-nuclear explosions ever, the Port Chicago disaster 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 Robert McNamara & Lyndon Johnson’s “Project 100,000” 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 & the enlistees not being smart enough to qualify in the first place), and a forceful denunciation of the harms & 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” & 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:
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 (direct instruction, apparently) McNamara put faith in either wasn’t enough or simply never happened in the first place. (Thus demonstrating the iron & brass laws of social programs - 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 the rain follows the plow; which is to say, they do mostly by accident, and we find it easier to tailor our preferences to the results 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 & 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 & 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 Scott Alexander’s experiences in Haiti 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
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 & 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 & Ramberger 1991 - as a bonus, Laurence & 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||Michael Swanwick||★★★★||2012||2014/06/02||
I read it based on Anatoly Vorobey’s review:
“This is fantasy for adults: complex flawed characters, a world rich in detail, multitude of characters who live and do things for their own sake rather than to advance a plot point or help the hero. Utter disregard for conventions and cliches of the genre. A hero who is an anti-Mary Sue. Endless inventiveness of the author. To my taste, this novel is what books like The Kingkiller Chronicles promise, but then utterly fail to deliver. But if you’re a fan of Rothfuss, try Swanwick anyway, and you might get a fuller and richer taste of what you like.”
I liked it a lot after I got through the initial section in the factory, which was over-the-top Dickensian enough to make me wonder if it was worthwhile. But it got better, and began unfurling into a mad Victorian/fantasy cross, heavy on the social oppression & economic exploitation, reminiscent of China Miéville’s bourgeois imperialist New Crobuzon. The plot breaks down into a few discrete chunks of the protagonist Jane’s life, which while highlighting the ruthless nature of life in a universe where the gods are real (the homecoming queen being sacrificed may be horrifying, but the consequences of not sacrificing are even more dire, as one memorable nihilist character makes clear; and our own society does not hesitate to sacrifice lives for its own ends, as with, say, coal-burning power plants) also highlight her cowardice and selfishness in betraying her friends instead of… what? We’re not too clear, as the world begins melting and things get weird in an Invisibles or Dick-style turn towards radical ontological uncertainty. (The dragon, incidentally, appears in far less of the novel than one would expect from the title.)
This may sound tedious, but Swanwick really does throw all sorts of fascinating little twists in along the way that keep one reading: malls where time literally stops so you can shop to your heart’s content; factories with ‘time clocks’ that age one if one doesn’t clock out; live gargoyles, with all the food requirements flying stone entails; a man who shrinks in his wife’s regard for being a coward until he’s the size of a homunculus & is trapped in a jar begging for death; markets in entertaining slaves among the eloi upper-class elves; magical engineers who are castrated to ensure they do not damage the magics they work with; academics who assault the castles of the gods in the quest for knowledge, and get burned; universities with purges that are literally decimating… Still, it’s a happy ending, I think. Swanwick puts it amusingly in a page of explanations:
I gave her T as a reward for making it through to the end of the novel he’s the one worldly thing she wants - and, quite to my surprise, the Goddess threw in K as well. What happens next? Does Jane marry T and keep K as best friend? Does K steal T from her? Do they all fall into bed together? This one I really don’t know because the real reward I gave Jane for making it to the end of the book was freedom. I ran across Carol Emshwiller just after she finished writing Ledoyt and she said she was in mourning, that all these people she had lived with for years were suddenly gone and it felt as if they’d all died. “Doesn’t it feel that way to you, too, when you finish a novel?” she asked. I thought about it. “No,” I decided. “It feels like all these characters who have suffered under my persecuting hand have been set free. I imagine them running joyfully in all directions, as hard and fast as they can, so that I can never catch them and put them in another book again.”
Anyway, going over some of the parts of it which amused me while I was reading… You know your fantasy is grim and imaginative when astrology is due to educational corruption:
“Hello? I was sent here for remedial?” The pale man looked up. He nodded wanly. Unhastily, without emphasis, he picked up a book, opened it, paged forward a leaf, and then back one. “There are three stars in the heavens,” he said, “moving about Jupiter, erratic sidereal bodies which establish a lesser zodiacal process for that wanderer in its mighty twelve-year progression about the sun.”…“Excuse me,” she said hesitantly, “but what effect do these minor planets have on our behavior and fortunes? I mean, you know, astrological influence?” He looked at her. “None.”“None at all?” “No.” “But if the planets affect our fortunes—” She stumbled to a stop at the dispassionately scornful look on the pale man’s face, the slow way he shook his head. “Surely you’ll agree that the planets order and control our destinies?” “They do not.” “Not at all?” “No.” “Then what does? Control our destinies, I mean.” “The only external forces that have any influence on us are those we can see every day: the smile, the frown, the fist, the brick wall. What you call ‘destiny’ is merely a semantic fallacy, the attribution of purpose to blind causality. Insofar as any of us are compelled to resist the flow of random events, we are driven solely by internal drives and forces.” Jane seized on this last. “Then what you’re saying is that our fate lies within us, right?” He shook his head. “If so, it must be extremely small and impossibly distant. I would not suggest you put any reliance in such an insignificant entity.”’…She waited, but he did not elaborate. “In introductory astrology they told us that each person has a tutelary star and that each star has its own mineral, color, and musical tone, and a plant as well that is a specific for the disease that is caused by that star’s occultation.” “All untrue. The stars do not concern themselves in the least with us. Our total extinction would mean nothing to them.” “But why?” Jane cried. “If it’s not true, why would they teach it to us?”A dry fingertip tapped the page not impatiently but pedagogically. “All courses require textbooks, charts, and teaching aids. By the time the information codified as astrology was discredited and became obsolete, it had a constituency. Certain…personages benefit from the supply contracts.”
Nihilist the plot may seem to be, but it’s leavened with some sharp satire; for example, bureaucracy in the factory:
At last, late in the day, the inspector general arrived. A wave of dread preceded the elf-lord through the plant. Not a kobold or korrigan, not a spunky, pillywiggin, nor lowliest dunter but knew the inspector general was coming. The air shivered in anticipation of his arrival. A glimmering light went just before him, causing all heads to turn, all work to stop, the instant before he turned a corner or entered a shop. He appeared in the doorway. Tall and majestic he was in an Italian suit and tufted silk tie. He wore a white hard hat. His face was square-jawed and handsome in a more than human way, and his hair and teeth were perfect. Two high-ranking Tylwyth Teg accompanied him, clipboards in hand, and a vulture-headed cost analyst from Accounting trailed in his wake.
After Grunt had called attendance, he cleared his throat. “The Three B’s,” he said. “The Three B’s are your guide to scholastic excellence. The Three B’s are your gold key to the doorway of the future. Now—all together—what are they?” “Be-lieve,” the class mumbled. “Be-have. Be Silent.” “What was that last?” He cupped a hand to his ear. “Be Silent!” “I caaaaaan’t heeeeear you.” “BE SILENT!” “Good.”
It was only when she went to empty out her locker that Jane realized how overgrown it had become. Orchids and jungle vines filled most of the space within and a hummingbird fled into the corridor when she banged open the door.
It was a scorcher outside, but the mall was kept so cool that Jane was sorry she hadn’t brought a sweater. The place was jammed with fugitives from the heat. They were recreational rather than serious shoppers, most of them. Their hands were empty and their eyes were clear.
College roommate strife:
“The dissection manual?” Monkey asked airily. “I ate it.” “You what?” “I ate it. Why else would I want it? I was hungry and I ate it.” “But I need it for class.”“Then you shouldn’t have given it to me.” Monkey’s beady eyes glittered strangely, maliciously, in her round face. “Really, Jane, you can be so dim at times.” With a sudden standing backflip she disappeared through the doorway. Jane’s hands clenched. But really it was no more than she had learned to expect. Roommates were forever eating your books, having anxiety attacks, adopting rats and carnivorous slimes which they then expected you to feed, getting drunk and throwing up on your best dress, moving into the closet and refusing to come out for months on end, threatening suicide the night before Finals, leaving piles of rotting leaves in the middle of the floor, entertaining boyfriends in your bed because it was made and theirs not, evolving into large bloodsucking insects. Monkey was actually good of her kind. Well, she could always pick up a new manual.
Monkey snatched the pencil from her hand and snapped it in two. Jane closed her eyes and traced the sigil of Baphomet with her inner vision. When she was calm again, she slid open a drawer.“All right.” There was a pair of latex gloves within. “I wasn’t going to do this.” She pulled them on. “But you don’t exactly give me much choice, do you?” Credit where credit is due, Monkey didn’t back down. There was a touch of the trickster in her heritage, and the trickster gene was a dominant. She licked her lips nervously as Jane pretended to lift an invisible box from the drawer. “You don’t scare me.” “Good.” Jane swung a hinged lid back and reached within. “It works best if you don’t believe.” She removed an equally imaginary scalpel and held it up between thumb and forefinger, admiringly turning it one way and the other. “What are you going to do with that?” Jane smiled. “This!” She slammed her fist into Monkey’s stomach.
“I have been going over your laboratory reports, Miss Alderberry.” Dr. Nemesis put an arm through hers, and walked her toward the front. “They are, if I may confide in you, disappointing, most disappointing in a student of your potential.” “I’ve been having trouble with the sophic—”…“You must surely realize why I am concerned for you.” “Well…” Jane didn’t really, but that double glare bored into her, waiting for an intelligent response. “I’m here on a merit scholarship, so I suppose—” “No!” Dr. Nemesis stamped her foot impatiently. As if in response the elevator door slid open. She steered Jane outside. They were on an office level now. The walls were decorated with large unframed oils of umbrellas and sides of beef. The runners on the hall floors smelled new. “I am not talking about mere money, but about your very survival! This is a Teind year, surely you must know that.” Jane nodded, meaning no. “The department heads are even now assembling the list of those 10% of the students who are… expendable. Your name, Miss Alderberry, is going to be on that list unless you straighten up and fly right.” She glared at her: weakly, sternly.
The University library opened its doors at midnight and closed at dawn. The rationale given for such extraordinary hours was that they discouraged dilettantes and idlers from wasting the library’s facilities.
Even for the School of Grammarie, which was widely held to have pushed the concept of liberal arts to an extreme, Professor Tarapple was grotesque. A burnt and crisped cinder of a creature was he, blackened and small, his limbs charred sticks, his torso rendered, reduced, and carbonized. His mouth hung open and his step was slow and painful. He seemed a catalog of the infirmities of age. He felt for the microphone. His hand closed about it with a soft boom, then retreated. The charred sockets of his eyes rose toward the ceiling. Jane realized that he was blind….Professor Tarapple groped for a laser pointer, leaving sooty handprints on the lectern top. He directed the pointer toward the slide with motions as jerky and unconvincing as a rod puppet’s. The red dot of light jiggled off to the side of the screen. “This is—” The head wobbled. “This is—is Spiral Castle itself.” Nobody so much as breathed. “No one but I myself has ever delved so deep into the Goddess’s mysteries. The Ocean above which it is suspended is Time itself, and so far as could be determined with our limited instrumentation extends to infinity in all directions. Next slide.”…Jane was having a hard time following the lecture. The harsh white image of Spiral Castle was like a magnesium flare. It swelled and dwindled in her vision, as if softly breathing. Her eyes pulsed, aching when she tried to follow the logic of its involutions. She had to look away…“Toadswivers! Curly-mounted bobtail jades! Codheaded pigfuck bastards!” With a start, Jane came to herself. Throughout the auditorium, the audience members were rousing themselves. A Teggish professor directly before Jane’s seat straightened with a lurch and a snort. A gnome to her left passed a hand over his mushroom-spotted pate. Professor Tarapple had abandoned his lecture in a rage. He was berating his audience. “Only one being—one! me!—has ever delved so far into the Goddess’s secrets and returned to talk of them. By cannon-fire, holy water, and bells, listen to me! I risked more than life and sanity to bring you these photographs. I—I—I was once young and tall and handsome. I had friends who died in this expedition and will never be reborn. We were caught and punished and punished again. I alone escaped. Look at me! See the price that I paid! So many times I have tried to tell you! Why do you never listen?” He was weeping now. “Woe!” he cried. “Alas for those who seek after Truth, for such is the Goddess’s most hoarded treasure. Ah, she is cruel and unfathomable, and bitter, bitter is her vengeance.” The lights came gently up. The applause was thunderous.
One of the parts towards the end which particularly reminded me of The Invisibles:
“One time, passing through the Carolinas somewhere between 2:00 and 3:00 A.M., Jerry and I picked up a white Lotus with two blonds in it. We honked and waved. They gave us the finger and put the pedal to the metal. I did the same, of course, but even with dual carbs it was no contest. We had a muscle car but they had a sex machine. They made us eat their dust….Ten-fifteen miles down the road we saw the Lotus in a Roy Rogers lot. We pulled in for some take-out burgers. There they were. We struck up a conversation. When we left, Jerry-D went with the driver of the Lotus. Her friend went with me…Anyway, there I was, a blond in pink hot pants rubbing up against me. I had my foot to the floor, her tongue in my ear, and her hand down my pants. I pushed up her halter top and squeezed her breasts. The air shimmered with the immanence of revelation. Little Richard was singing ‘Tutti-Frutti’ on the radio and it somehow seemed significant that what I was hearing had been electromagnetically encoded, transmitted as modulated radiation, reconstructed by the radio as sound, and only reinterpreted as music somewhere within the dark reaches of my head. I felt then that the world was an illusion - and a rather shabby one at that, an image projected upon the thinnest of membranes, and that were I to push at it just right, I could step out of the world entirely. I unbuttoned her shorts. She wriggled a little to help. I slid my hand under her panties. I was thinking that everything was information when I found myself clutching an erect penis. I whipped my head around. The blond was grinning wildly into my face. My hand involuntarily tightened about her cock. Her hand tightened about mine. They might have been the same hand. We might have been one person twinned. The car was up to about 100 mph. I wasn’t even looking where we were going. I didn’t care.
And finally, the gargoyle passage. It’s too long to quote, but I’ve posted it at http://pastebin.com/raw.php?i=HDrLMfQj
|Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup||John Carreyrou||★★★★||2018||
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 & 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 portolio, 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 & 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?
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 & 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 & laptops & 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 folie à deux.” 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 & more delusional in a remarkably long-term monogamous relationship, selected for employees who initially offered helpful advice in fitting into SV tropes & 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 very different, even if the end game, where criminal fraud and blatant lies are necessary to keep the show going, looks similar.
|A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century||Ilia Stambler||★★★★||2014||2015/08/31||
(Online fulltext: HTML, PDF; 280k words)
|Moondust: In Search Of The Men Who Fell To Earth||Andrew Smith||★★★★||2006||2017/04/25||
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”).
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 & nearly exploding; going to the bathroom in space was so horrifying one astronaut simply didn’t do it at all by taking Imodium 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 lunar cycler; 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 & 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 Apollo 1 fire 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 10x 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 Space Invaders 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: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family||Peter Byrne||★★★★||2010||2014/11/08||
(~140k words, 4h read) Before reading, my knowledge of Hugh Everett was limited to basically the following sketch: a young American male who post-WWII suggested taking the Schrodinger wave-equation literally, yielding the infamous Many-Worlds Interpretation, and attacked over it, left academia for Wall Street where he became rich with an optimization algorithm, and in his absence, MWI very gradually gained adherents until it is now a respectable point of view (albeit still counterintuitive), and died at some point; also, some rumor that his daughter shot herself at a casino after losing, in a literal quantum suicide. This turns out to be incorrect and very incomplete: it wasn’t Wall Street but the Pentagon, he died quite young, MWI wasn’t attacked so much as ignored after being sabotaged, his daughter did commit suicide but it was at home with sleeping pills & had nothing to do with quantum suicide, and he did much more than just MWI & one optimization algorithm.
“Nearly every result [a quantum theorist] pronounces is about the probability of this or that … happening - with usually a great many alternatives. The idea that they be not alternatives but all really happen simultaneously seems lunatic to him just impossible. He thinks that if the laws of nature took this form for, let me say, a quarter of an hour, we should find our surroundings rapidly turning into a quagmire, or sort of a featureless jelly or plasma, all contours becoming blurred, we ourselves probably becoming jelly fish. It is strange that he should believe this. For I understand he grants that unobserved nature does behave this way - namely according to the wave equation. The aforesaid alternatives come into play only when we make an observation - which need, of course, not be a scientific observation. Still it would seem that, according to the quantum theorist, nature is prevented from rapid jellification only by our perceiving or observing it. And I wonder that he is not afraid, when he puts a ten-pound note into his drawer in the evening, he might find it dissolved in the morning, because he has not kept watching it.”
Pursuing his idea, Everett wrote his thesis, and here we run into the major theme of Byrne’s book, one he establishes admirably well: with many quotes from letters and recordings and referee reports, we see Everett’s thesis adviser, Wheeler, turn from a courageous physicist, well-regarded for his daring speculations, into a biased coward who bullies Everett into sabotaging & watering down his thesis so as to not give offense to his mentor Niels Bohr.
I’m a little familiar with Bohr’s philosophy of science & quantum mechanics from a course I once took on the topic, and I found it entirely without merit (the most unimaginatively instrumentalist ‘shut up and calculate’ viewpoint was preferable to Bohr’s ‘complementarity’, because at least one was not left with the illusion of knowledge), so to find an excellent case made that it sabotaged the initial presentation of MWI and responsible for a multi-decade drought in one of the best available interpretations… does not leave me with a good impression of Bohr, Wheeler, the power thesis advisors wield, or academic physics in general.
Certainly it is understandable that Everett would leave academia and enter the military-industrial complex where his work was interesting, valuable, valued, and well-remunerated. Everett dived straight into the heart of US nuclear politics, the intersection of nuclear physics with military strategy and game theory and computing and operations research: what levels of bombs would be developed (the Super? and even more exotic weapons?), what military services would get what delivery systems, what would be the effects of nuclear war, what was the best way to run the Cold War? (In the ’50s, none of this was set in stone yet.) It’s a fascinatingly complicated period, for an overview see:
Byrne unfortunately is too unsympathetic to cover the period fairly, taking the Dr. Strangelove route: everyone was insane and evil. This biases his coverage badly since he’s so opinionated; in discussing the Prisoner’s Dilemma, for example, he implies it shows the irrationality of rationality and hence the intellectual bankruptcy of game theory and all related exercises - but this is a confusion of what he would like to be true with what is actually true, because the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows up again and again in all sorts of guises in the real world, along with the tragedy of the commons, and you know what? People in real life often do defect unless additional mechanisms are in place (often being put in place as a reaction to all the defecting). One of his footnotes reveals this strikingly:
In other words, rationality is a (sometimes) quantifiable quality. Most human beings would agree that it is not a rational act to cross the street in front of a speeding bus, or to poison the water supply in search of short term profit, or to depend on fossil fuels, etc. But people in power who do obviously irrational things are often compelled to rationalize these actions by falling back on agendized utility values and probability statements. Of course, if you start with an irrational premise, e.g. “nuclear war is a rational option,” no amount of utilitarian quantification can, believably, turn it into its opposite. Context is everything.
This is a tissue of nonsense which exposes clearly that Byrne does not deal with the real world, but with a world of ideals in which there are never any hard choices or necessity to make cost-benefit tradeoffs and all that matters is what sounds good. Accordingly, he presents a one-sided picture; a discussion of the Bohm hearings omits any mention of why the US government might be so paranoid and worried about spies (the Venona decrypts come to mind, as do the many high-ranking Soviet spies such as Harry Dexter White) and might target people involved with the Manhattan Project in particular; similarly, he uncritically cites Sakharov claiming the US was responsible for the arms races (which seems like an odd reading of Stalin’s character and his fellow researchers, for that matter), and later overestimates of nuclear winter. This bias on the biographer’s part makes one wonder to what extent Everett’s results about fallout were accurate: it’s not like he would tell us if the report was found to be fallacious or since debunked. Still, while irritating and depriving the reader of some key context, the WSEG section seems comprehensive as far as it comes to Everett up until he left the Pentagon to start his own consulting business, and that’s what really matters.
The business section is similar, but much less political as they consulted on more civilian topics. What he did is hard to tell: we’re held back by Byrne targeting the general audience - I would have liked to know more about the statistical techniques involved, rather than vague descriptions like “QUICK randomly sampled the vast range of probable outcomes to select the most probable results”, which could mean a lot of things; I can sort of guess what his ‘Bayesian machine’ was (sounds like a Kalman filter implemented with MCMC), but I’m completely baffled by the section about ‘“attribute value” programming’ or what sort of database it was. It also sounds like Everett began drinking himself to death at this point (but why? he doesn’t come off as so deeply depressed about MWI being ignored that he’d be suicidal in the midst of all his financial success; given Byrne’s predilection for psychologizing, it’s odd that he seems to let this central mystery pass without much more comment than some speculation that Everett was just hedonistic), and the kids enter their troubled teens (but one would never grow out of it). Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t manage his finances very well, living extravagantly, making deeply questionable investments, and failing to diversify, all in contravention to established financial advice, flaws somewhat surprising in a statistically and economically inclined man. Eventually, he dies.
In the mean time, MWI was gradually being rediscovered and rehabilitated by the likes of Deutsch and novel approaches like a Bayesian justification of Born probabilities developed, leaving off at the present time in which MWI is a respectable position leading to interesting research and believed in by a good-sized minority of physicists; this is interesting, but already familiar to me. I will have to leave it to other readers to judge how good these parts of the book are.
Overall, indispensable to anyone interested in the man, and a good account of a productive yet wasted life.
(~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, & statistics on SlateStarCodex.com/Tumblr.
Movie trailer summary:
One could describe it as a mix of Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters”, Foucault’s Pendulum, Illuminatus!, “American Pie” and Leonard Cohen, how William Blake was right about everything and Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, all the weirdest bits of the Bible and Talmud and Jewish folklore, the Book of Job, the most shameless aquatic mammal puns & 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 pareidolia 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” & “Had Gadya” are not about little goats or big cats but the creation of the universe, or how “American Pie” is about both Jesus Christ & 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 Wall Drug and some satire of Silicon Valley & 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 & there actually is both a just loving God & Hell. As Scott says:
One’s liking for Unsong will depend critically on whether one found the esoteric occult connections & 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 & 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.
* Scott again:
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.
|Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street||William Poundstone||★★★★||2006||2016/08/21||
An engaging multi-biography/history of the repeatedly-reinvented Kelly criterion, mixed in with overviews of Claude Shannon, John Larry Kelly, Jr., Ed Thorp, 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 ‘numbers racket’ 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 Manny Kimmel (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 birthday paradox I’ve seen outside of cryptography), who, aside from being the founder of Time Warner (!) would eventually pop up as Thorp & 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 card counting, which brought him to Shannon (for mechanical & 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 efficient markets: 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 betting strategies like the martingale 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 voice synthesis) 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 warrants: 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 random walk 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 convertible bonds 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 Black-Scholes. 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 & 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 Michael Milken’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 LTCM, 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:
Thorp’s money may continue on:
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 & biological interpretations of the Kelly criterion & probability matching/Thompson sampling), 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 & 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 Louis Bachelier’s life). 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: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money||Nathaniel Popper||★★★★||2015||2015/11/12||
Popper delivers a whirlwind tour of almost all dramatis personae in the rise of Bitcoin over the past 5 years. He seems to have gotten access to and interviewed everyone, from the early coders to especially all the late-entering business and entrepreneur types and the incestuous Silicon Valley VC community. (He didn’t get access to Ulbricht, for obvious reasons - even the NYT name can’t open all doors - but the evidence filings make up for it.) Even I, someone who’s watched the space in detail for years and made my own minor contributions to documenting Bitcoin history, learned a lot. (Karpeles had a Japanese wife & son who now live in Canada? I had no idea!) From the Winklevii opening the kimono to settle all their beefs with Charlie Shrem for bungling BitInstant into bankruptcy & personally into prison to Martti and Gavin and other early coders giving Popper Satoshi emails, he covers everything. Even the endlessly complicated story of SR1 gets a decent treatment (though necessarily not as thorough as Ormsby’s Silk Road, and like it, somewhat outdated, and passing over the post-SR1 DNM history). As far as histories of Bitcoin up to 2014 go, I don’t know of any better single source to consult right now, and the inside access means any future histories will have to look over it carefully as a primary source. (See also Satoshi on GPU mining & Martti & Satoshi discussing growth strategy).
The nine-page PDF attached to the e-mail made it clear that Satoshi was deeply versed in all the previous efforts to create a self-sustaining digital money. Satoshi’s paper cited Back and Wei Dai, as well as several obscure journals of cryptography. But Satoshi put all these earlier innovations together to create a system that was quite unlike anything that had come before it.
‘deeply versed’? It cited Dai only because Adam Back had told Satoshi to cite Dai. It also didn’t cite any of Szabo’s work, even though Finney had pointed that out on the mailing list before. Further, it did not compare or contrast Bitcoin in any meaningful way with all the previous work on digital currency like the whole universe of techniques and approaches based on Chaumian blinding. Altogether, it looks like the opposite of ‘deeply’.
Ross didn’t know it at the time, but his downfall had not come through the sophisticated hacking techniques and leaking IP addresses that he had worried about so much. The Internal Revenue Service agent who finally identified Ross did so by searching on Google through old posts on the Bitcoin forum.
Everyone assumed from the inclusion in the complaint that the email was his downfall, but D-Y’s testimony during the trial yielded the surprise (one of many) that he had found the email only shortly before the arrest and that the subpoenas had not yet come back with any information. They did help snag baronsyntax, but the actual cause was the FBI finding the Iceland server (thanks, presumably, to Tarbell hacking it), which had a VPN IP hardwired and had a clearnet backup server in Pennsylvania, both of which led back to Ross in San Francisco.
Most bizarrely, Nick altered the dates on his 2008 postings about bit gold to make it appear as though they had been published after Bitcoin was released, rather than before….Most bizarrely, Nick altered the dates: the dates that Nick later put on the posts are at the top of each post. But the URL addresses of the posts still show the original posting date. For instance, his post on “Bit Gold Markets” says that it was written on December 27, 2008, but the URL is http://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2008/04/bit-gold-markets.html#links.
Nothing bizarre about it. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly since then, Szabo already in 2008 explained what the redating was about; he was re-running older posts: http://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2008/08/reruns.html That’s all.
Just a few months before Bitcoin was released, in April 2008, Nick had posted on his blog an item in which he talked about creating a trial model of bit gold and asked if anyone wanted to help him “code one up.”
This is evidence against Szabo being Satoshi! The prototype was a big piece of software with a ton of moving parts and low-level details, written in a low-productivity language, with a GUI, mockups for an online store and poker playing, and so on just in the first release; coding it up and debugging it to the point of a public release in just 8 months would be a pretty impressive feat all on its own, and worse, Satoshi says it took ‘a year and a half’ in November 2008, so he probably started around May 2007.
339“repeated use of ‘of course’ without isolating commas”: Skye Grey, “Satoshi Nakamoto Is (Probably) Nick Szabo,” LikeinaMirror, December 1, 2013, https://likeinamirror.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/satoshi-nakamoto-is-probably-nick-szabo/.
Skye Grey’s claims are BS; stylometrics doesn’t work like that, and when people do run stylometrics, Szabo does not come out on top. (While not named in the article, I am told by an involved journalist that Szabo’s writings were included but were a poorer match than Finney.)
An academic study of Silk Road later found that nearly 99% of all reviews gave the maximum score of 5 out of 5.
This is too high and was a mistake in that version of the paper. The percentage was biased upwards by a substantial amount because when you are scraping a site like SR1, you will only see a small fraction of the negative reviews from an exit scammer; if an exit scammer rips off 1000 people, he will be banned after a few dozen negative reviews, and then won’t appear in your data at all. So as far as your analysis can tell, a 5-star seller just vanished overnight. For example, Tony76 could probably account for 1%+ of sales all on his own, yet his exit scam doesn’t appear in the Christin data because they had scraping problems at the time and by the time they got another copy of SR1, that account was banned. Another issue is early finalization; to FE, you have to leave a review, which of course will be 5-stars, and then when you accept you’ve been scammed, you will probably never go back to update it to 1 star. So one of the changes made to the preprint version of Christin’s paper was to address these issues, and the final version should be used instead: “Traveling the Silk Road: A measurement analysis of a large anonymous online marketplace”.
(Also as far as this part of the book goes, it would be better to use Ross’s own sales figures from the court evidence.)
tied to an Internet provider in California: Hal’s debug log showed that the IP 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||Barry G. Golson||★★★★||1983||
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:
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: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice||William H. McRaven||★★★★||1996||2016/07/16||
The Theory of Special Operations by William McRaven 1993 is a book-length thesis describing 8 case-studies of special ops missions and the degree to which they adhere to a few principles for spec-ops success that McRaven extracts from their successes/failures. The case-studies are in chronological order and primarily WWII-oriented:
The principles themselves boil down to finding a chink in enemy defenses, concentrating force on it as fast as possible, achieving immediate relative superiority to those enemy forces in the way, and executing a well-trained & rehearsed minimal possible mission. Or as he puts it: “simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed, and purpose”.
Arguably, all of these principles could be boiled down to a single principle of speed - complex unrehearsed operations with multiple objectives by uncommitted troops against a waiting enemy cannot be fast, while speed dictates all of the other requirements (except perhaps ‘security’). It’s surprising to read through his case-studies and realize that in many cases, the critical part of the operation lasts no more than 5 minutes, or even under a minute. For example, the successful part of the St Nazaire raid, from when the hellburner was first attacked by German artillery to when it rammed itself into the drydock gates (and the destruction of the drydock became guaranteed as the explosives/ship could not possibly be removed) was that short (the rest being, McRaven points out, an unnecessary debacle, and on a grand strategy level, destroying the drydock was probably not even helpful); the Gran Sasso raid, from when the Italian guards finally challenged the German commandos to securing Mussolini, was maybe a minute.
The importance of speed strikes me as being, in some respects, due to the vulnerability of large organizations; McRaven notes that all of the case-studies involved greatly out-numbered commandos, often by orders of magnitude with enemy units within relatively close range, often heavily out-gunned, often attacking positions heavily fortified against exactly the kind of attack done (eg Raid on Alexandria, St Nazaire, Operation Source), with objectives that can sometimes be defeated if the enemy reacts quickly enough (the Italian guards could’ve executed Mussolini, the Japanese guards the POWs, the Entebbe terrorists could’ve killed their hostages, the Tirpitz/Valiant/Queen Elizabeth captains could’ve dragged chains to dislodge limpets & moved their ships to avoid the mines planted underneath, etc). Why then are spec-ops not doomed to failure? Because the enemy is unable to collectively think, react, and execute a counter-plan as fast as the commandos can, who have executed the plan many times previously in practice, need only a few minutes to do so, and have a ‘distributed knowledge’ of the plan & objectives allowing independent-yet-coordinated action. The OODA loop is just inherently too slow for physically separated forces to recognize the threat, realize it’s local and not part of a broader attack, deduce the objectives, counter-attack, and execute the counter-attack; given enough time, the enemy forces can do all this and crush the commandos (St Nazaire) but by that point, they should be long gone. The commandos sting the elephant and flee before the 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, shaped charges, which literally shattered the Belgium defenders and their fortifications; otherwise, they would have successfully landed on the grassy field above the underground fortress but found themselves trapped in a deadly killing field between the various bunkers & cupolas. Deception plays surprisingly little role in most of the operations considering its outsized role in the public imagination (the St Nazaire raid ship briefly pretended to be German; Gran Sasso brought along an Italian general in the gliders to confuse the Italians; Operation Entebbe likewise involved the commandos pretending to be locals until they reached the building with the hostages, apparently successfully confusing the terrorists inside).
McRaven himself, although I hadn’t realized it when I downloaded the book on a whim, may be a familiar-sounding name; turns out that he has since been putting his theory into practice as a major controller of American special operations during the War on Terror, in particular heading the Osama bin Laden raid. In retrospect, one can see how the OBL raid largely conforms to McRaven’s principles: a fast in-and-out raid in as few stealth helicopters as possible with little or no coordination with the locals (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?||Max G. Gergel||★★★★||1979||2014/11/02||
(~95k words, <3h read) Insider memoir of a relatively American wheeler-dealer in the chemical industry finished March 1977, following him from high school dabbling in chemistry through to graduation & WWII university work to founding a small chemical synthesis company until he turned it over to a successor. Gossipy, detailed, a vivid look inside the industry. Long out of print, I read the online scan (2.3M).
I came across the book in Duke’s chemistry library in 1984, a few years after its publication, and read it straight through with my hair gradually rising upwards. Book 2 is especially full of alarming chemical stories. I suspect that some of the anecdotes have been polished up a bit over the years, but as Samuel Johnson once said, a man is not under oath in such matters. But when Gergel says that he made methyl iodide in an un-air-conditioned building in the summertime in South Carolina, and describes in vivid detail the symptoms of being poisoned by it, I believe every word. He must have added a pound to his weight in sheer methyl groups. By modern standards, another shocking feature of the book is the treatment of chemical waste. Readers will not be surprised to learn that several former Columbia Organic sites feature prominently in the EPA’s Superfund cleanup list, but they certainly aren’t alone from that era.
Throughout Max Gergel’s long career he has been an unforgettable character for all who encountered him in the many roles he has played: student, bench chemist, instructor of aviation cadets, entrepreneur, supplier to the Manhattan Project, buyer and seller of obscure reagents to a global clientele, consultant to industry, travelling salesman peddling products ranging from exotic halocarbons to roach killer and toilet bowl cleaner, and evangelist persuading young people to pursue careers in chemistry. With family and friends (and no outside capital) he founded Columbia Organic Chemicals, a specialty chemical supplier specialising in halocarbons but, operating on a shoestring, willing to make almost anything a customer was ready to purchase (even Max drew the line, however, when the silver-tongued director of the Naval Research Laboratory tried to persuade him to make pentaborane). The narrative is as rambling and entertaining as one imagines sharing a couple (or a couple dozen) drinks with Max at an American Chemical Society meeting would have been. He jumps from family to friends to finances to business to professional colleagues to suppliers to customers to nuggets of wisdom for starting and building a business to eccentric characters he has met and worked with to his love life to the exotic and sometimes bone-chilling chemical syntheses he did in his company’s rough and ready facilities. Many of Columbia’s contracts involved production of moderate quantities (between a kilogram and several 55 gallon drums) of substances previously made only in test tube batches. This “medium scale chemistry”-situated between the laboratory bench and an industrial facility making tank car loads of the stuff-involves as much art (or, failing that, brute force and cunning) as it does science and engineering, and this leads to many of the adventures and misadventures chronicled here. For example, an exothermic reaction may be simple to manage when you’re making a few grams of something-the liberated heat is simply conducted to the walls to the test tube and dissipated: at worst you may only need to add the reagent slowly, stir well, and/or place the reaction vessel in a water bath. But when DuPont placed an order for allene in gallon quantities, this posed a problem… All of this was in the days before the EPA, OSHA, and the rest of the suffocating blanket of soft despotism descended upon entrepreneurial ventures in the United States that actually did things and made stuff. In the 1940s and ’50s, when Gergel was building his business in South Carolina, he was free to adopt the “whatever it takes” attitude which is the quintessential ingredient for success in start-ups and small business. The flexibility and ingenuity which allowed Gergel not only to compete with the titans of the chemical industry but become a valued supplier to them is precisely what is extinguished by intrusive regulation, which accounts for why sclerotic dinosaurs are so comfortable with it. On the other hand, Max’s experience with methyl iodide illustrates why some of these regulations were imposed.
I made some excerpts conveying some of the key points.
|Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.||Ron Chernow||★★★★||2004||2016/05/03||
Fascinating account of a Gilded Age titan much worse known than Carnegie.
|A Perfect Vacuum||Stanisław Lem||★★★★||1999||2015/11/10||
As Lem explains in the introduction, the fake book review (and fake acceptance lecture), as particularly exemplified by Borges’s book reviews, is a micro-genre suited for intellectual jokes - for ideas which need more than a tweet, but can’t be written out unironically or in full as articles/books. (If dry academic humor is not your thing, you probably already know from reading descriptions that you should not read this book, so I can address fellow aficionados.)
|Fujiwara Teika’s Hundred-Poem Sequence of the Shōji Era, 1200: A Complete Translation, with Introduction and Commentary||Robert H. Brower||★★★★||1978||
(ebook) A short 1978 monograph examining one of the more notable works of the aristocratic court poet Fujiwara no Teika, one of my favorite traditional Japanese poets, written for the Ex-Emperor Go-Toba (himself a major poet and an even more dramatic figure).
See also Morrell’s 1979 review.
|Chronicle of a Death Foretold||Gabriel García Márquez||★★★★||2003||2014/08/26||
A quasi-police description of the events leading up to, then long preceding, an honor-killing of one Santiago. The style strikes me as vastly simpler and less magically-realistic than The Autumn of the Patriarch, and much shorter. An inversion of detective mysteries: it is agreed by all who the proximate killer is, and the mystery centers on the how & whydunnit. (Borges would approve.)
For years we couldn’t talk about anything else. Our daily conduct, dominated then by so many linear habits, had suddenly begun to spin around a single common anxiety. The cocks of dawn would catch us trying to give order to the chain of many chance events that had made absurdity possible, and it was obvious that we weren’t doing it from an urge to clear up mysteries but because none of us could go on living without an exact knowledge of the place and the mission assigned to us by fate….Hortensia Baute, whose only participation was having seen two bloody knives that weren’t bloody yet, felt so affected by the hallucination that she fell into a penitential crisis, and one day, unable to stand it any longer, she ran out naked into the street. Flora Miguel, Santiago Nasar’s fiancee, ran away out of spite with a lieutenant of the border patrol, who prostituted her among the rubber workers on the Vichada. Aura Villeros, the midwife who had helped bring three generations into the world, suffered a spasm of the bladder when she heard the news and to the day of her death had to use a catheter in order to urinate. Don Rogelio de la Flor, Clotilde Armenta’s good husband, who was a marvel of vitality at the age of eighty-six, got up for the last time to see how they had hewn Santiago Nasar to bits against the locked door of his own house, and he didn’t survive the shock. Plácida Linero had locked that door at the last moment, but with the passage of time she freed herself from blame. “I locked it because Divina Flor had sworn to me that she’d seen my son come in,” she told me, “and it wasn’t true.” On the other hand, she never forgave herself for having mixed up the magnificent augury of trees with the unlucky one of birds, and she succumbed to the pernicious habit of her time of chewing pepper cress seeds.
I am reminded of an old story:
One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he interrupted the lesson suddenly in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row, if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. “Nice biscuit, don’t you think,” said Korzybski, while he took a 2nd one. The students were chewing vigorously. Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog’s head and the words “Dog Cookies.” The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to vomit, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. “You see,” Korzybski remarked, “I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter.”
People do not live in facts, they live in stories; and as long as the story continues, they are satisfied.
Everything has been brought to light, it seems, but nothing has been enlightened. By the end, the death has been foretold but remains unknown.
Existence 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.”)
|Singularity Rising: Surviving and Thriving in a Smarter, Richer, and More Dangerous World||James D. Miller||★★★★||2012||2013/04/25||
You could see Miller’s Singularity Rising as an attempt to swim against the book current of Ray Kurzweil and present some of the other visions of the Singularity: specifically, the Intelligence Explosion school as exemplified by Eliezer Yudkowsky and Robin Hanson. It then mixes in a bunch of material on intelligence & genetics, so we might identify an additional subschool: that of Steve Hsu on embryo selection for increasing human intelligence.
|The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq||Hassan Blasim||★★★★||2014||2015/01/08||
(~44k words) Short stories drawing heavily on Borges and the magical realists; Blasim writes in a deadpan vernacular in which even the most baffling, cruel or horrible events are noted calmly and passed on, in a world in which ‘confused armies clash by night’ while mere humans try to get along as they play endless roles with masks whose significance they do not understand for an audience they cannot see for an objective that does not bear examination (“The Corpse Exhibition”, “An Army Newspaper” and “The Reality and the Record” suggest obscurely that God is the artist portraying all these severities). “I know you now have some questions that are nagging you, but you will gradually discover that the world is built to have more than one level, and it’s unrealistic for everyone to reach all the levels and all the basements with ease.” Some set scenes are memorable; from “The Killers and the Compass”:
Abu Hadid knocked on a rusty door that still had a few spots of green paint, shaped like frogs, on it. We were received by a man in his forties with a thick mustache that covered his teeth when he spoke. We sat down in the guest room in front of the television. I gathered that the man lived alone. He went into the kitchen and came back with a bottle of arak. He opened it and poured a glass. My brother told him to pour one for me too. We sat in silence, and the man and I watched a soccer match between two local teams, while my brother stared into a small fish tank.
Or “The Song of the Goats”:
“As he drove through the wheat fields, he was barely in control of the steering wheel. The bumps were about to break my ribs, and only dust kicked up by the truck crept in through the holes in the barrel. The barrel stank like the dead cats on the neighborhood trash heap. Did my uncle pull out fingernails, gouge out people’s eyes, and singe their skin with branding irons in the vaults of the security department? Maybe it was the souls of his victims that drove him into the ravine, maybe it was my own evil soul, or maybe it was the soul that preordained everything that is ephemeral and mysterious in this transitory world.
The endings are abrupt, sometimes twist endings, leaving one pondering what moral there may be, if any; often the lack of closure itself seems to be the point. Given such a enigmatic style, unsurprisingly some of the stories worked much better for me than others (in particular, when he strays into clearer political commentary, the stories seem to get weaker). Hits:
|Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II||Keith Lowe||★★★★||2012||2014/12/07||
(~144k words, ~4h) Nonfiction European history by Keith Lowe. Savage Continent is a fascinating book on the bloody aftermath of WWII as the destruction wound down, the lingering consequences of anarchy worked themselves out in the sudden peace, and people tried to find a new equilibrium, punishing collaborators and finishing the ethnic cleansings. Quickly summarized on NPR:
“I was used to seeing these wonderful, cozy myths about the way the war ended,” he tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “and everybody celebrating and sailors grabbing hold of nurses in New York’s Times Square and kissing them and all of these sort of things. And I was aware that it hadn’t quite ended like that.” Europe, he says, was so devastated that “it’s difficult for us to quite realize how bad the destruction was.”
WWII for Americans remains the good war; while one may be familiar with tarnished aspects of that (the atrocities in the Pacific, the unnecessary atomic bombings of Japan, the domestic censorship, etc), one hears less about the post-war period. Presumably after liberation, things were cleaned up quickly and calmly and a few years later our historical memory turns to the start of the Cold War.
An example of the fluffiness I have in mind is an old movie I watched in August, Three Coins in the Fountain, a romantic comedy set in post-war Rome, where while there is still poverty and recovery from the war, things are basically OK. But one might have a better idea from my earlier reading, Catch-22‘s Italy scenes; or from Gravity’s Rainbow’s depiction of partitioned Germany’s fierce stew of black-marketeering, Communism, corruption, crime, destruction, and prostitution. The end of WWII left much business unfinished: Wages of Destruction covers in detail the slave labor forces drawn from conquered Europe which worked in Germany up until defeat, and the parlous food situation of Germany and Europe at large - so what happened after? With all these victorious horny occupation forces? With the slave laborers, and the Jews, and the guerrillas or partisans or thieves or black-marketeers? How were morals slowly restored after being corrupted by the exigencies of war and the struggle for survival, and what was seen as now possible after the Holocaust?
The answers are rarely pretty, but Lowe gives a synoptic view. It can be hard to understand the early Cold War: what were the Americans & Europeans thinking when they set up Operation Gladio? What was with the persecution of homosexuals or the “Red Scare” & McCarthy? Or, when reading through Bryne’s The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett (review), one can see on display his incomprehension of how anyone could plan for nuclear war or be willing to go to the edge or the security mindset. But here we see it put in context: a Europe only just liberated from one despotism, half of which has been handed over to another despot even worse and who has displayed the ruthless techniques of subversion and rewriting society on a grand scale (chapter 25, “Cuckoo in the Nest: Communism in Romania”, is a surprisingly lengthy account of the sausage factory of of Communization - first, start with the internal security offices, exploit the electoral process, destroy opponents in 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 ’Novorossiya’ would not be out of place; the Ukraine is battered so relentlessly in WWII and afterwards that contemporary events look not like an aberration but a return to business as usual; and can Finland rest very easy about its independence from Russia when it gained its independence not that long ago and long memories are so politically profitable, particularly in Eastern Europe & Asia?
An enlightening and timely book.
|Quantum Computing Since Democritus||Scott Aaronson||★★★★||2013||2013/06/17||
Aaronson’s book is based off his online lecture notes which I hadn’t read before though I’ve read his blog for years. I was really excited when the book was announced, since I hoped for expanded better version of his incredibly interesting paper/monograph “Why Philosophers Should Care About Computational Complexity” (abstract: “…In particular, I argue that computational complexity theory - the field that studies the resources (such as time, space, and randomness) needed to solve computational problems - leads to new perspectives on the nature of mathematical knowledge, the strong AI debate, computationalism, the problem of logical omniscience, Hume’s problem of induction, Goodman’s grue riddle, the foundations of quantum mechanics, economic rationality, closed timelike curves, and several other topics of philosophical interest. I end by discussing aspects of complexity theory itself that could benefit from philosophical analysis.”), and see also his more recent “The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine”.
|A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics||Nicholas Wright Gillham||★★★★||2001||2016/04/13||
An engaging biography of Francis Galton, heavy with the many amusing Galton anecdotes we all know (a sober analysis of the inefficacy of prayer which drew furious attack; recording people fidgeting during lectures or average attractiveness of women on the street; constructing devices to keep himself awake). Gillham devotes much space to Galton’s youthful travels and African expedition and to his fingerprinting work, less to the weather mapping, but that’s reasonable inasmuch as those are the most exciting to read about and anyone can understand & appreciate that, even if I have to say that in the long run, Galton’s work on the source of the Nile, as ancient a mystery as it may be, was infinitely less important than his other work like twin studies.
|The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century Ce to the Third||Edward N. Luttwak||★★★★||2016||2017/09/04||
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.
|The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom||James Burnham||★★★★||1988||2012/10/05||
The best part of the book for me was that section which is already available online, “Dante: Politics as Wish” - Burnham’s convincing examination of Dante’s little-known book on divine-right-monarchical politics as intellectually dishonest & servile justification of treason.
…Thus we now may know, with considerably probability, that: if the state absorbs under centralized control all major social forces, then political liberty will disappear; if, after this war, Europe is again divided into a considerable number of independent sovereign states, then a new war will begin in Europe within a comparatively short time; if the present plan of military strategy (i.e., submarine attrition warfare, and “island-hopping”) continues unchanged in the East, then Japan will not be definitely crushed for many, many years, and perhaps never; if the present Administration plans to remain in office after 1944, then it will have to curtail political liberty further; and so on.
These statements were published in 1943, well after such events as the Battle of Midway (June 1942).
About the best I can say is that charitably, the counterfactual precondition for one may not have been true (if we assume ‘Administration’ refers to FDR, and not his Vice President, Truman, who succeeded FDR on his premature death and then was re-elected with no visible brownshirts stuffing pollboxes). The rest are simply embarrassing. The science of politics must indeed have been young… (Or perhaps there’s some other common thread to the political criticism that opens and closes the book. Always a problem with authors discussing deception.)
|The Black Company (The Chronicles of the Black Company, #1)||Glen Cook||★★★★||1992||2013/06/08||
I read the trilogy in basically one sitting after reading the interesting opening to The Black Company on Tor.
|Life in Our Phage World||Forest Rohwer||★★★★||2014||2015/02/10||
(~400 pages; 4 hours) Saw a New Yorker article on phages - viruses specialized to prey on bacteria - and it mentioned the book was available; so I downloaded the biggest file and started reading.
|Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine||Yang Jisheng||★★★★||2012||2013/08/08||
The statistics and anecdotes are fairly horrifying, and the sheer profusion drills in how widespread the famine was. But for me, the most fascinating part of Tombstone was how the vast Chinese government hierarchy rippled policies and misinformation up and down it - how the local cadres tried to bow to the demands they were hearing from higher up, how the higher ups took the falsified statistics and claims often at face value, and how the highest officials in Beijing seem almost childishly helpless as they stagger between skepticism of reports given them and unthinking acceptance of positive results. Mao particularly comes to mind in his constant swerving between “left deviationism” and “right deviationism” as he tries to get communal kitchens to work and takes at face value the harvest figures and “sputniks” (even as in other incidents, he scoffs at a local official, telling him flat out that such yields were simply impossible), as he is flattered by under-officials; despite his information problems, he astonishingly repeatedly engages in tactics of announcing liberal discussion and then brutally punishing anyone who was foolish enough to do aught but flatter Mao and his policies. Indeed, as Jisheng says, officials were placed into a situation of ‘slaves to those above, tyrants to those below’ (or however his phrase went).
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).
Blake Thorburn was driven away from home and family by a vicious fight over inheritance, returning only for a deathbed visit with the grandmother who set it in motion. Blake soon finds himself next in line to inherit the property, a trove of dark supernatural knowledge, and the many enemies his grandmother left behind her in the small town of Jacob’s Bell.
It’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that the initial maneuvering will break out into open warfare and demons will be unleashed and fought. (Chekhov’s imp: if there is a devil in the attic in Act 1, it will be unleashed by Act 3.)
So what’s good about Pact? Well, it has a much faster start than Worm, the world-building takes what is usually authorial fiat and regulates it a bit so the action matters, some scenes are fantastic (who could not enjoy the chapter about Blake negotiating a contract with the demon Pazu?), the darkness is leavened by humor, and it is not as exhaustingly comprehensive as Worm. And demon lawyers are intrinsically funny.
The downsides are: Blake exists only to suffer, so people who found Worm too crushing to read will probably be unable to survive a reading of Pact and Blake himself winds up being mostly a cipher (and whether this was deliberate or not, it still damages the work); Wildbow repeats his ‘Slaughterhouse Nine arc’ error (this time, in the Toronto/Conquest fetch arc, which takes up a really absurd fraction of the work); a key twist is… questionably consistent with previously given rules & facts; the magic, while still much better than most fantasy, is still heavy on fiat and uncomfortably repetitive compared to the diversity and rigor of superpowers in Worm and some important elements seemed underused (for all the stress placed on threes, I have a hard time naming any meaningful examples); and the ending is shockingly abrupt, with almost all narrative threads and mysteries dropped or unresolved. Wildbow’s post-mortem covers some of these issues.
Overall: good but not as great as Worm.
|Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High.||Mike Power||★★★★||2013||2016/03/08||
Journalistic history of the development of “designer drugs”/“research chemicals”, with focus on past two decades and Internet-based RC communities. This is a topic you might think I’d know all about, but actually I don’t, because my focus was always Silk Road & the dark net markets, where research chemicals often showed up after being banned, but I didn’t know much about what went on before they became normal illicit drugs. So this filled in a lot of holes for me.
|The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays||Simon Leys||★★★★||2011||2015/04/27||
(~180k words; 5 hours) Anthology of literature-focused essays, highly miscellaneous. Judged by wordcount and topic, it seems that Leys’s focus is fairly narrow - I would compare him to a lesser Borges, but Borges delighted too much in philosophical & scientific ideas and speculation for the comparison to really work, while Leys is very much the consummate man of letters. I was interested primarily in his comments on China, and was surprised the extent to which he fixates on French literature (especially for someone who wrote in English).
|Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void||Mary Roach||★★★★||2010||2013/06/29||
Hilarious, eye for details, incessant curiosity, good at tracking down bogus stories and rumors. Roach comes up with all the best quotes and stories, seems to have talked to everyone and done everything. And her running commentary is also hilarious - she’s almost as funny as she thinks she is. I laughed many times reading the book.
|The Windup Girl||Paolo Bacigalupi||★★★★||2009||2015/10/07||
WG is Burdett’s Bangkok 8 meets Chua’s World on Fire: a Thailand crime thriller which goes from commercial espionage to national politics in which the Southeast Asian mixture of deep reverence for a decaying & incompetent monarchy combines with globalizing capitalism and ambitious military leaders plotting a coup and a population stewing with resentment towards a Chinese immigrant underclass (exemplified by the clever Hock Seng who tries to sense the winds of ethnic cleansing & escape in time) which bids fair to turn Thailand into another Malaysia, which combustible mixture explodes when lit off by a crusading cop & his two-faced sidekick and the accident of a trafficked Japanese prostitute. While not a genre I have any particular devotion to, it’s a fun one to return too since I haven’t read a thriller novel set in Thailand in a long time so it’s fresh to me, and I particularly enjoyed the sections dealing with Hock Seng’s planning. (To a lesser extent, I was interested in the treacherous subordinate.) I read it in two sittings because I wanted to see what happened.
|Haikai Poet Yosa Buson And The Bashō Revival||Cheryl A. Crowley||★★★★||2006||2015/08/25||
(~100k words, 3 hours) Academically-oriented examination of the post-Basho haiku poet & painter Yosa Buson. Of obscure origins, Buson is one of the more popular post-Basho haiku poets, along with Kobayashi Issa. But where Issa is known for his idiosyncrasy and sympathetic focus on animals, Buson is much more traditional and tried to live up to the ideal of the bunjin or Chinese-like literary gentleman who has mastered all the arts of the brush in a refined and almost distant style.
|Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe||George Dyson||★★★★||2012||2012/09/06||
Mixed feelings. On the one hand, Dyson digs up all sorts of quotable lines and anecdotes and biographical details, many genuinely new to me. I enjoyed those greatly. For these I give it 4 stars. On the other hand…
|Echopraxia (Firefall, #2)||Peter Watts||★★★★||2014||2014/08/15||
We’ve been waiting for this since Blindsight came out in 2006 and blew away all its readers. It’s been a long wait and those who read Watt’s blog and are familiar with his many travails (from a fight with the US federal government to flesh-eating bacteria) will understand the long wait. Was it worthwhile?
|Ketamine: Dreams and Realities||Karl Jansen||★★★★||2004||2014/11/29||
(~100k words, 3 hours; read MAPS-hosted ebook.) Everything ketamine (WP, Erowid).
|Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose||Francis-Noel Thomas||★★★★||1996||2014/12/16||
(~80k words book, ~56k word online guide; ~3h without doing any exercises) A style book which actually delivers real style advice! I first heard of it on Robin Hanson’s blog and followed up recently when I saw they’ve put up an online edition/guide. The “classic style” names a style I’ve always admired - smooth, calm, humanistic, and elegant - which appears in a variety of writers past and present (Gene Wolfe often writes in this style), and it’s a pleasure to see it examined and its strengths and weaknesses laid out. (As Hanson says, the classic style is a good way to lie or deceive as it encourages one to strip away details and qualifiers to maintain the smoothness of passages.) If one likes the classic style or has need of it, I could not name a better text. The authors may not be the greatest classic stylists ever, but they are the best in discussing it while often embodying it.
|In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives||Steven Levy||★★★★||2011||2013/03/24||
I learned a great deal from this book about Google, which put some of my own experiences with Google products in context. Levy has information, anecdotes, quotes, and interviews which no one else does, which, like the recent Steve Jobs biography, makes his book indispensable for anyone interested in the topic regardless of the book’s other merits.
|Ready Player One (Ready Player One, #1)||Ernest Cline||★★★★||2011||2015/05/02||
YA SF fiction; most similar in feel to Snow Crash and Otherland but a much faster read and overall simpler plot. Much of the appeal is simply all the ‘80s references to geeky movies and video/computer games (hard not to feel a rush of nostalgia at a mention of Robotron or a narration of a game of Tempest, which makes me wonder how much people younger than me would enjoy it), so I would strongly suggest watching at the very least War Games and since the game billionaire character seems to be based on John Carmack, Masters of Doom. (I wondered reading it how deep the resemblances go: the protagonist starts off much like Carmack did.)
|Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities||Kevin Kelly||★★★★||2013||2014/01/01||
Big heavy book compiling the best of the Cool Tools website/email-list, which is similar to Edmund’s Scientific Catalog; curious mix of cutting-edge Silicon Valley material, hobbies (hiking and travel especially), DIY/Maker, primitivist fetishism, and New Age stuff (yes, including the obligatory Rosicrucians) - very Californian, in other words. You might think reading a giant catalogue of stuff you’ll never buy would be boring, but it’s not.
|Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus||Richard C. Carrier||★★★★||2012||2012/10/31||
Overall, it’s an interesting book which I regard as basically correct and a fruitful approach for future research, and Richard Carrier is a good guy whose work should be supported.
|Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes||Ella Cheever Thayer||★★★★||1879||2013/08/02||
I read this on the strength of Clive Thompson’s review Wired Love: A tale of catfishing, OK Cupid, and sexting … from 1880; I downloaded & read the Google Books version.
…Nattie is at work one day when a telegraph operator in another city, who calls himself “C”, begins chatting her up. They engage in a virtual courtship, things get funny and romantic, until suddenly things take a most puzzling and mysterious turn.
And also teens mooning over their cellphones!
“…and what with that and the telephone and that dreadful phonograph that bottles up all one says and disgorges at inconvenient times, we will soon be able to do everything by electricity; who knows but some genius will invent something for the especial use of lovers? something, for instance, to carry in their pockets, so when they are far away from each other, and pine for a sound of ‘that beloved voice’, they will have only to take up this electrical apparatus, and be happy. Ah! blissful lovers of the future!”
As promised, this was a very amusing Victorian novel, an easy read (perhaps a night’s worth), and the telegraphs were fascinatingly Internet-chat-like.
|The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field||Jacques Hadamard||★★★★||1954||2014/01/20||
I took a gander at this for its possible relevance to an essay of mine on mathematical error - Hadamard’s book is one of the classics in the area of mathematical discovery, mentioned along with Poincaré’s lecture.
|The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America||Erik Larson||★★★★||2003||2013/07/25||
Two books in one: a relatively uninteresting psychopathic serial killer (I agree with Larson, anyone who’s read Cleckley will instantly see Holmes as a psychopath), and the other a very interesting portrait of a completely forgotten societal phenomenon - world fairs & expositions. They used to be so important, major matters of national prestige, key mechanisms in the spread of art (especially Japanese art, at the Paris one) and technology, and yet, they are completely forgotten; I hadn’t even heard of them until they came up in Men in Black because some leftover buildings got used in the movie. But as Larson tells the story, we learn that they were mega-events to which all celebrities attended, and a good fraction of the entire American population would attend; they were the originals of which Disney’s Epcot is the palest imitation, they were the reason we have the Eiffel Tower and the Ferris wheel and so many other things. This story is the fascinating story, and it’s almost a pity that Larson periodically interrupts the tale of the Chicago one to tell us more about Holmes, rather than giving us real photos and more stories from the fair (photos like those in Appelbaum’s The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record): after all we are told about the Court of Honor, it’s sad to be given only a tiny glimpse of it, and it’s really a pity we read only a few ‘con stories’, as it were, from the event itself. But so it goes.
|The Mask of Sanity||Hervey M. Cleckley||★★★★||2003||2012/12/21||
Cleckley scatters through this book constant fascinating anecdotes and remarks, some so outrageous or remarkable that one would assume he made them up if he were writing on some other topic.
|Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened||Allie Brosh||★★★★||2013||2014/02/20||
tl;dr: the webcomic is great, go read it.
I enjoyed this greatly: Declare is a hybrid of a Le Carré espionage novel (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold in particular) and Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (in the meticulous pattern-seeking and warping of historical events and literature), with a bouncing action plot which appositely quotes from Fitzgerald-Khayyam, Spenser, Shakespeare and Swinburne especially to grant it greater depth than it might seem to merit. Even when you think it’s done on Mt Ararat (and Powers has in a final flourish explained Philby dying shortly before the Berlin Wall), the plot isn’t entirely over and there are multiple more deceptions and operations to go. And to top it all off, Powers takes an afterword to “show his work” and reveal how Cold War history was “freakier than fiction” (in TvTropes terms), but it’s hard to blame him for not being really pleased with some of the genuine incidents he works in. (The exploding car with Philby wearing a fox cape and escaping with a minor injury while everyone else died? Real. I was shocked.)
|A Shropshire Lad||A.E. Housman||★★★★||1990||2015/05/27||
A Shropshire Lad
|Chased by the Light: A 90-Day Journey-Revisited After the Storm||Jim Brandenburg||★★★★||2001||2007/01/01||
I read this after reading Kevin Kelly’s review in Cool Tools, where he wrote
Take one, and only one, exposure per day. No second exposure, no second chance. A single arrow per day, and a bull’s eye each time. That’s zen. For amateurs and professionals alike this requires relying on the Force. Particularly since many of his subjects are wild birds and stealthy wolves. The ninety images stand strong, each on their own, but the complete symphony is one of the most impressive acts of mindfulness I’ve seen.
After finishing looking through it, I could not disagree too much. It is one of the best photo books I have seen. The subject matter is much less profound and terrifying than 100 Suns, but the general quality is higher. More than once I found myself wondering if Brandenburg was lying - these photos are too good and catch too many moments perfectly, surely he couldn’t’ve possibly really taken only 1 photograph a day and these were them, surely he sometimes took hundreds and is covering them up? But so it seems.
|The Great Gatsby||F. Scott Fitzgerald||★★★★||2004||2015/10/17||
As a LIer, I felt embarrassed I’d never gotten around to reading the single most famous novel set on LI, so when I ran into a copy floating around during a trip, I took the opportunity. It is a very short novel, almost more of an overgrown short story or novella - which makes sense since Fitzgerald had become wealthy on his short stories, as bizarre as that may sound these days - and I was not too impressed at the end; but it was so short I thought I might as well give it a fair shake by reading it a second time, and the second read was much more enjoyable. Now that I knew the framework, it was much easier to note the similarities with The Count of Monte Cristo, one of my favorite plots, and notice the symbolism and foreshadowing scattered throughout. (The swimming pool was something I had totally missed on the first read, and the extent to which Daisy rather than Tom should be considered the bad guy or at least causally responsible.) It is not as tightly-written or chilling a tragedy as Ethan Frome, and it’s murky what Gatsby is supposed to be, but still good.
|The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don’t||Nate Silver||★★★★||2012||2012/11/19||
(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: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy||Sharon Bertsch McGrayne||★★★★||2011||
Light history of Bayesian statistics & related topics. I enjoyed the book a lot; McGrayne has a good eye for the amusing details, and she conveys at least some of the intuition (although some graphs or examples would have helped the reader - I liked the flipping coin illustrations in Dasivia 2006 Bayesian Data Analysis). It’s also remarkably synoptic: I was repeatedly surprised by names popping up in the chronology, like BUGS, Bretthorst, Fisher’s smoking papers, Diaconis, the actuarial use of Bayes etc, and I have a better impression of Laplace and Good’s many contributions. The math was very light, which undermines the value of much of it since unless one is already an expert one doesn’t know how much the author is falsifying (for the best reasons), and means that some connections are missed (like empirical Bayes being a forerunner of hierarchical modeling, which aren’t well-explained themselves).
|The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan||Robert Kanigel||★★★★||1992||2013/08/12||
A long account of a short life. I knew only the bare outlines of Ramanujan’s story, but I think this does an excellent job in fleshing the famous anecdotes out; for example, I hadn’t realized how long he had twisted in the wind before his famous letter to Hardy, nor that he had spent a full year and more in India in a position before finally being brought to Cambridge. While Kanigel goes overboard in his novelistic scene-setting and psychologizing, one cannot say he does not try to set the scene for one and go beyond a bare recitations of events to the actual feel and texture of life in various places or of various persons; particularly noteworthy is his attempts to explain at least a little of the actual math which made Ramanujan worth a biography, beyond his romantic story, and here I think Kanigel does a really good job for the layman.
|Debt: The First 5,000 Years||David Graeber||★★★★||2011||2011/09/24||
Mixed feelings: many interesting little tidbits and quotes, but overall I get the feel of a vast thesis made up of confirmation bias and unreliable evidence like etymologies; some parts are flabbergastingly wrong, like his brief description of Apple Computer’s founding. (He apparently routinely makes factual mistakes; Brad DeLong apparently identified 50 in chapter 12 just to make that point.)
|Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties’ Soviet Dream||Francis Spufford||★★★★||2010||2012/06/02||
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.
|The Metropolitan Man||Alexander Wales||★★★★||2014||2014/08/02||
The Metropolitan Man is an 80k-word novel following Lex Luthor as he realizes and then grapples with the threat Superman poses to the human race (now that I think about it, it is like Worm in this respect). I can’t fault Luthor’s analysis of the many risks of Superman or the ethics of his powers, and the plot develops well, finishing in an ending which however unexpected and abrupt is perfectly consistent with the plotter and thinker and careful preparer for all contingencies Luthor is shown as. But to some extent it leaves me cold - difficult to pin down what, but I think the writing may simply be too precise, dry, bloodless to really let me be absorbed by the story.
|The End of History and the Last Man||Francis Fukuyama||★★★★||2006||2004/01/01||
I’ve bumped this to 4 stars as, thinking back on the ~decade since I read this, Fukuyama is still right and yet no one seems to get this.
|The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements||Eric Hoffer||★★★★||2010||
Many of his points and observations ring true, but Hoffer is fond of using only a few isolated examples to prove his points, and of affirming paradoxes; but the problem with each is that they are not as reliable as they may seem, and the general detachment from statistics and economics and demographics undermines my confidence in any of his claims. He cites Tocqueville approvingly on the lack of coherence of the narrative of the French Revolution with the observed facts that the French had never had it better than before the Revolution - but how can I then have any confidence in any of his narratives?
|Dreams of Steel (The Chronicles of the Black Company, #5)||Glen Cook||★★★★||1990||2013/06/12||
A major improvement over the previous two books and equal to the original The Black Company & Shadows Linger: we turn to the Lady’s perspective as she fights her way back from a debacle in the invasion of the Shadowlands, builds up an army, and imposes her own manipulative rule and empire-building tactics, heavily leavened by plotting by all parties. Pluses included no more Taken popping up, we saw very little of Goblin or One-eye, and soap-operatic twist at the end aside, the overall plot has built up nicely.
|On China||Henry Kissinger||★★★★||2011||2012/01/31||
Kissinger may be a duplicitous murderous bastard, but he’s an excellent analyst and while his ancient history is only so-so as far as I can tell from my other reading (eg. Needham), his takes on modern Chinese history is very interesting, and I learned a number of things I did not know before (I was shocked to learn that the Soviets at one point seriously considered pre-emptively attacking China’s nuclear program and had reached out to the USA to ask whether the USA would be very upset about it?).
|The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires||Tim Wu||★★★★||2010||2010/01/01||
His Cycle is a convincing paradigm. I already knew a lot of it from Lawrence Lessig and related copyright books & writings, but Tim Wu puts the history together nicely, and renders the 2000s a little clearer (not that I really needed to be told that Apple/Jobs are a clear incarnation of the empire-building trend; this was obvious even when Neal Stephenson pointed it out many years ago in “In The Beginning Was The Commandline…” )
|The Circus of Dr. Lao||Charles G. Finney||★★★★||2002||2011/10/20||
The book comes up often in Wolfe discussions of An Evil Guest, I noticed there was a copy on library.nu, so…
|The Kindly Ones||Jonathan Littell||★★★★||2009||
Very long, not a little tedious (although in places the detail reaches tour de forces, like the early discussion of German war on the Eastern front). Desensitized by the end. Not sure how to take it, but disagree with the protagonist - I don’t understand his constant depravity and murdering, and I don’t agree I would do much the same thing in his position. One or two murders, maybe, but even killing his best friend Thomas who time and again saved Aue’s ass?
|The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution||Bernard Bailyn||★★★★||1992||2011/01/01||
Bailyn was more or less as Moldbug described, and the quotes from the pamphlets fairly convincing. That said, I would have liked a lot more of those quotes about conspiracies and the origins of the plans to enslave the colonies for private profit, and much less paraphrase & political theorizing.
|Friendship is Optimal||iceman||★★★★||2012||
It’s an excellent dystopia which makes you feel that it’s hell - but also better than our reality.
|Steve Jobs||Walter Isaacson||★★★★||2011||2011/10/24||
Long but good biography; in some respects, too cheerleading of Jobs (balanced by Isaacson not truckling too much and being willing to cover the ugly parts of Jobs’s life). But overall, a good detailed bio. I do not admire Jobs - perhaps if he were less neurotic or chewed through people less, but I respect him: he was a real mensch.
|Shades of Grey (Shades of Grey, #1)||Jasper Fforde||★★★★||2009||2013/03/29||
Post-apocalyptic Flatland meets Hunger Games via Paranoia - that is, an insane bureaucratic totalitarian Victorian nightmare mediated by color perception whose protagonists rebel against the order of things instituted after some doomsday. I enjoyed it a lot.
|I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy||Lori Andrews||★★★★||2012||
Remarkably thoroughly researched, with endless references and anecdotes, which is an achievement indeed for a topic as ephemeral and changing as social media. (I didn’t think too much of its critical analysis or conclusions, but the rest more than made up for it.)
|World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability||Amy Chua||★★★★||2004||
That was actually pretty good (better than one might guess from reading the discussions of her later tiger-mother book), many interesting observations. Her paradigm seems pretty generally applicable outside the First World. I took extensive notes.
|Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives||David Eagleman||★★★★||2009||
40 very short stories in the tradition of Borges, Calvino, and Stanislaw Lem (in ascending order). Overall, pretty good, although naturally the quality level varies considerably and the parables that spoke to me will not speak to others.
|The Black Cloud||Fred Hoyle||★★★★||1998||2010/12/01||
Good frame story, good science, good possibilities - the black cloud is still a novel proposal and interesting to think about in a panspermia context. Mind candy. (And short enough it doesn’t wear out its welcome.)
|Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage||Kathryn Edin||★★★★||2007||2011/11/13||
Incredibly sobering, explains a lot about inner-city illegitimacy, and the best thing I’ve read about the topic and why women would do something which from far away seems like a completely terrible idea.
|Intelligence: A Unifying Construct for the Social Sciences||Richard Lynn||★★★★||2012||2012/08/14||
Very wonky, of course, but still many interesting correlation; I excerpted parts I found interesting to a Google+ post.
|Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery||Imre Lakatos||★★★★||1976||2011/12/28||
Surprisingly interesting, like Wittgenstein if he wrote in a human fashion, and longer than one would think possible given how straightforward the problem initially appears.
|Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture||Takashi Murakami||★★★★||2005||2011/11/24||
Main use for this book: encyclopedia entries, Murakami’s long essay, the dialogue with Okada - rest is completely impenetrable, featuring fine gobbledegook.
|Snuff (Discworld, #39; City Watch #8)||Terry Pratchett||★★★★||2011||2011/11/17||
Curiously, this is the least funny but probably best Discworld book I’ve read so far. Vimes has grown a great deal since we first met him.
I was mildly surprised by how much funnier than expected it was. One doesn’t expect such ancient contemporary humor to translate well.
|Like Engend’ring Like: Heredity and Animal Breeding in Early Modern England||Nicholas Russell||★★★★||2007||
Due to length, posted my review at https://www.gwern.net/Bakewell
|Life on the Infinite Farm||Richard Evan Schwartz||★★★★||2019||
Online version: http://www.math.brown.edu/~res/Farm/RGB.pdf
|Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story||John Bloom||★★★★||2016|
|Waiting for the Wind: Thirty-Six Poets of Japan’s Late Medieval Age||Steven D. Carter||★★★★||1989||2019/04/28|
|Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days!||Stephen Manes||★★★★||1998|
|Tree Houses: Fairy Tale Castles in the Air||Philip Jodidio||★★★★||2013|
|An Artist of the Floating World||Kazuo Ishiguro||★★★★||2005|
|The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; The Wisdom of Life||Arthur Schopenhauer||★★★★||2006|
|The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer||Georges Ifrah||★★★★||2000|
|Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing||Neal Stephenson||★★★★||2012|
|The Vaccinators: Smallpox, Medical Knowledge, and the ‘Opening’ of Japan||Ann Jannetta||★★★★||2007|
|Low-Aptitude Men in the Military: Who Profits, Who Pays?||Janice H. Laurence||★★★★||1991||2018/08/10|
|Eclipse 2: New Science Fiction and Fantasy||Jonathan Strahan||★★★★||2008|
|Narrow Roads of Gene Land: The Collected Papers of W. D. Hamilton Volume 1: Evolution of Social Behaviour||W.D. Hamilton||★★★★||1998|
|Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet||John Bradshaw||★★★★||2013||2018/06/17|
|Zen Koans||Gyomay M. Kubose||★★★★||1973|
|Recollections of Wittgenstein||Rush Rhees||★★★★||1981|
|Genetic Diversity & Human Equality||Theodosius Dobzhansky||★★★★||1973||2018/01/03|
|Sunset in a Spider Web: Sijo Poetry of Ancient Korea||Virginia Olsen Baron||★★★★||1974|
|Artificial Life: A Report from the Frontier Where Computers Meet Biology||Steven Levy||★★★★||1993||2017/10/17|
|The Too-Clever Fox (Grisha Verse, #2.5)||Leigh Bardugo||★★★★||2013||2013/01/01|
|The King in Yellow||Robert W. Chambers||★★★★||2007|
|The Great Ordeal (Aspect-Emperor, #3)||R. Scott Bakker||★★★★||2016||2017/08/02|
|Site Reliability Engineering: How Google Runs Production Systems||Betsy Beyer||★★★★||2016||2017/01/31|
|London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopaedia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work; Volume 1||Henry 1812-1887 Mayhew||★★★★||2016|
|The Anubis Gates||Tim Powers||★★★★||1997||2017/01/17|
|Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story Of L. Ron Hubbard||Russell Miller||★★★★||1988||2008/01/01|
|Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám||Omar Khayyám||★★★★||2005|
|Spice & Wolf||Isuna Hasekura||★★★★||2016|
|Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error||Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie||★★★★||1979||2016/10/28|
|Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon||Lesley Adkins||★★★★||2004|
|The Complete Far Side, 1980–1994||Gary Larson||★★★★||2003||2005/01/01|
|The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2)||Patrick Rothfuss||★★★★||2011||2016/07/18|
|The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance||David Epstein||★★★★||2013||2016/06/13|
|On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine||Nicolas Rasmussen||★★★★||2008||2016/04/28|
|Small Memory Software: Patterns for Systems with Limited Memory||James Noble||★★★★||2000||2008/01/01|
|Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High||Mike Power||★★★★||2014||2016/03/08|
|On the Nature of Things (Hackett Classics)||Lucretius||★★★★||2001||2016/03/01|
|The Dark Forest (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #2)||Liu Cixin||★★★★||2015||2016/01/07|
|The Myth of Sisyphus||Albert Camus||★★★★||2000|
|The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers||Richard McGregor||★★★★||2010||2015/11/11|
|Ethan Frome||Edith Wharton||★★★★||2005||2002/01/01|
|Collected Poems of Robert Frost||Robert Frost||★★★★||2002||2012/07/26|
|World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Premodern Era - 1600-1867 (A History of Japanese Literature - Volume 2)||Donald Keene||★★★★||1999||2015/09/04|
|The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever||David M. Friedman||★★★★||2007||2008/01/01|
|Reinforcement Learning: An Introduction||Richard S. Sutton||★★★★||1998||2015/07/22|
|The Martian||Andy Weir||★★★★||2014||2015/07/25|
|Still Alice||Lisa Genova||★★★★||2007||2015/07/22|
|Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety||Eric Schlosser||★★★★||2013||2015/07/14|
|The Sagas of Icelanders||Jane Smiley||★★★★||2005||2015/04/14|
|Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality||Eliezer Yudkowsky||★★★★||2015||2015/03/14|
|From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry||Hiroaki Sato||★★★★||1987||2003/01/01|
|The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1)||Liu Cixin||★★★★||2014||2015/03/06|
|Welcome to the N.H.K.||Tatsuhiko Takimoto||★★★★||2007||2015/03/04|
|The Cartoon Guide to Statistics||Larry Gonick||★★★★||1993||2004/01/01|
|Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History||S.C. Gwynne||★★★★||2010||2015/01/26|
|The Causal Angel (Jean le Flambeur, #3)||Hannu Rajaniemi||★★★★||2014||2015/01/04|
|The Fractal Prince (Jean le Flambeur, #2)||Hannu Rajaniemi||★★★★||2012||2015/01/03|
|The Principles of Psychology||William James||★★★★||1983|
|The Quantum Thief (Jean le Flambeur, #1)||Hannu Rajaniemi||★★★★||2010||2014/05/05|
|A Clockwork Orange||Anthony Burgess||★★★★||1986||2014/11/27|
|Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy: How Emperor Hirohito Led Japan Into War Against the West||David Bergamini||★★★★||2006|
|The Art of Writing: Lu Chi’s Wen Fu||Lu Chi||★★★★||2000||2013/01/01|
|Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology||David Graeber||★★★★||2004||2014/06/18|
|The Trumpeter of Krakow||Eric P. Kelly||★★★★||1992||1999/01/01|
|The Autumn of the Patriarch||Gabriel García Márquez||★★★★||2006||2014/04/28|
|The Te of Piglet||Benjamin Hoff||★★★★||2003|
|Rogue Male (Rogue Male, #1)||Geoffrey Household||★★★★||2002||2014/04/02|
|Brief Lives (The Sandman, #7)||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|The Last Unicorn (The Last Unicorn, #1)||Peter S. Beagle||★★★★||2008||1998/01/01|
|Burning Chrome (Sprawl, #0)||William Gibson||★★★★||2003||2008/08/26|
|The Master and Margarita||Mikhail Bulgakov||★★★★||1996||2008/08/26|
|A Wild Sheep Chase (The Rat, #3)||Haruki Murakami||★★★★||2002||2008/08/15|
|Dragon Weather (Obsidian Chronicles, #1)||Lawrence Watt-Evans||★★★★||2009||2008/08/11|
|The Spy Who Came In from the Cold||John le Carré||★★★★||2001||2008/07/02|
|A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy||Miyamoto Musashi||★★★★||1988||2004/01/01|
|The Absolute Sandman, Volume Three||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||2008||2008/06/26|
|Red Emma Speaks||Emma Goldman||★★★★||1996||2008/06/19|
|Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement||John U. Ogbu||★★★★||2003|
|The Making of Prince of Persia||Jordan Mechner||★★★★||2011||2012/04/11|
|How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business||Douglas W. Hubbard||★★★★||2011|
|The Book of Fantasy||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★||1988|
|The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales||Jon Scieszka||★★★★||1992||1997/01/01|
|City of Glass (The New York Trilogy, #1)||Paul Auster||★★★★||1987|
|Shadows Linger (The Chronicles of the Black Company, #2)||Glen Cook||★★★★||1990||2013/06/08|
|The Old Regime and the French Revolution||Alexis de Tocqueville||★★★★||1955|
|The Clouds Should Know Me By Now: Buddhist Poet Monks of China||Red Pine||★★★★||1998|
|Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness, and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier||Suelette Dreyfus||★★★★||1997|
|George’s Marvellous Medicine||Roald Dahl||★★★★||2003|
|Fantastic Mr. Fox||Roald Dahl||★★★★||2002|
|The Paranoid Style in American Politics||Richard Hofstadter||★★★★||2012|
|Four Past Midnight||Stephen King||★★★★||1991|
|The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus||Christopher Marlowe||★★★★||2009|
|Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy||Nick Bostrom||★★★★||2010|
|Global Price Fixing: Our Customers Are the Enemy||John M. Connor||★★★★||2001|
|Demian. Die Geschichte von Emil Sinclairs Jugend||Hermann Hesse||★★★★||1996|
|Shadows of the New Sun||Peter Wright||★★★★||2006|
|The Mote in God’s Eye (Moties, #1)||Larry Niven||★★★★||2011|
|Three Worlds Collide||Eliezer Yudkowsky||★★★★||2009|
|Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions||Sally Green||★★★★||2008|
|The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament||Bart D. Ehrman||★★★★||1997||2012/11/14|
|Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues||Steven M. Cahn||★★★★||2005|
|When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World||Leon Festinger||★★★★||1964||2012/10/27|
|The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945||Nina Tannenwald||★★★★||2008|
|Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010||Charles Murray||★★★★||2012||2012/10/23|
|Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive||Bruce Schneier||★★★★||2012||2012/10/22|
|De Profundis||Oscar Wilde||★★★★||2011||2012/08/13|
|Beyond Good and Evil||Friedrich Nietzsche||★★★★||2003|
|The Unincorporated Man (Unincorporated Man #1)||Dani Kollin||★★★★||2009|
|Walden||Henry David Thoreau||★★★★||2004|
|The Moral Basis of a Backward Society||Edward C. Banfield||★★★★||1967|
|When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God||T.M. Luhrmann||★★★★||2012||2012/10/04|
|Good & Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding||Tyler Cowen||★★★★||2006|
|The White-Luck Warrior: The Aspect-Emperor Book Two||R. Scott Bakker||★★★★||2011|
|The Darkness That Comes Before (The Prince of Nothing, #1)||R. Scott Bakker||★★★★||2005|
|Path of the Fury||David Weber||★★★★||1992|
|Five Children and It (Five Children #1)||E. Nesbit||★★★★||1996|
|War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War||John W. Dower||★★★★||1987|
|The Art of UNIX Programming||Eric S. Raymond||★★★★||2003|
|The UNIX Hater’s Handbook: The Best of UNIX-Haters On-line Mailing Reveals Why UNIX Must Die!||Simson Garfinkel||★★★★||1994|
|Reason & Persuasion: Three Dialogues By Plato||John Holbo||★★★★||2009|
|Goodnight Moon||Margaret Wise Brown||★★★★||2007|
|The Lorax||Dr. Seuss||★★★★||1998|
|Psychology of Intelligence Analysis||Richards J. Heuer Jr.||★★★★||2005||2012/07/21|
|A Study of History, Vol 1: Introduction; The Geneses of Civilizations (A Study of History, #1)||Arnold Joseph Toynbee||★★★★||1934|
|The Decline of the West||Oswald Spengler||★★★★||1991|
|The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)||Joe Haldeman||★★★★||2003|
|Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery||Martin Gardner||★★★★||1995|
|The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle||Avi||★★★★||2003|
|Red Ranger Came Calling||Berkeley Breathed||★★★★||1997|
|The Anatomy of Revolution||Crane Brinton||★★★★||1965|
|The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary||Ambrose Bierce||★★★★||2002|
|The Epic of Gilgamesh||Anonymous||★★★★||2006|
|Wild Magic (Immortals, #1)||Tamora Pierce||★★★★||2005|
|Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph||T.E. Lawrence||★★★★||1991|
|Psychological Warfare (WWII Era Reprint)||Paul M.A. Linebarger||★★★★||2010|
|A Journey To The Tea Countries Of China||Robert Fortune||★★★★||2005|
|The Iron Dream||Norman Spinrad||★★★★||1986|
|The Rise and Decline of The Medici Bank, 1397-1494||Raymond de Roover||★★★★||1966|
|Muslim Neoplatonists: An Introduction To The Thought Of The Brethren Of Purity, Ikhwān Al Ṣafāʾ||Ian Richard Netton||★★★★||1982|
|The Autobiography of a Criminal||Henry Tufts||★★★★||1993|
|Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader||Peter Wright||★★★★||2003|
|Krazy and Ignatz, 1939-1940: A Brick Stuffed With Moom-bins||George Herriman||★★★★||2007|
|Krazy and Ignatz, 1929-1930: A Mice, a Brick, a Lovely Night||George Herriman||★★★★||2003|
|Krazy and Ignatz, 1931-1932: A Kat Alilt With Song||George Herriman||★★★★||2004|
|Krazy and Ignatz, 1933-1934: Necromancy by the Blue Bean Bush||George Herriman||★★★★||2005|
|Krazy and Ignatz, 1937-1938: Shifting Sands Dusts Its Cheeks in Powdered Beauty||George Herriman||★★★★||2006|
|Krazy and Ignatz, 1919-1921: A Kind, Benevolent, and Amiable Brick||George Herriman||★★★★||2011|
|ANSI Common Lisp||Paul Graham||★★★★||1996|
|Red Mars (Mars Trilogy, #1)||Kim Stanley Robinson||★★★★||2003|
|The Debian System: Concepts and Techniques||Martin F. Krafft||★★★★||2005|
|The Mysterious Stranger||Mark Twain||★★★★||1916|
|Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity||Lawrence Lessig||★★★★||2005|
|The Grand Inquisitor||Fyodor Dostoyevsky||★★★★||1879|
|The Wind in the Willows||Kenneth Grahame||★★★★||2005|
|All Quiet on the Western Front||Erich Maria Remarque||★★★★||1987|
|Wizard’s Bane (Wiz, #1)||Rick Cook||★★★★||1989|
|Inferno (The Divine Comedy #1)||Dante Alighieri||★★★★||2003|
|Complete Tales of Uncle Remus||Joel Chandler Harris||★★★★||1955|
|The World Without Us||Alan Weisman||★★★★||2007|
|Neptune Crossing (Chaos Chronicles, #1)||Jeffrey A. Carver||★★★★||1995|
|Bush at War||Bob Woodward||★★★★||2003|
|Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy||René Descartes||★★★★||1999|
|On Liberty||John Stuart Mill||★★★★||1985|
|Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (Charlie Bucket, #2)||Roald Dahl||★★★★||2005|
|The Story of Doctor Dolittle (Doctor Dolittle, #1)||Hugh Lofting||★★★★||2005|
|Splendors of Meiji: Treasures of Imperial Japan: Masterpieces from the Khalili Collection||Joe Earle||★★★★||1999|
|Scythian Gold||Ellen D. Reeder||★★★★||1999|
|The Sufi Path Of Knowledge: Ibn Al ʻarabi’s Metaphysics Of Imagination||William C. Chittick||★★★★||1989|
|The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism||Max Weber||★★★★||2003|
|IQ and the Wealth of Nations||Richard Lynn||★★★★||2002|
|The Double Axe, and Other Poems Including Eleven Suppressed Poems||Robinson Jeffers||★★★★||1986|
|The Legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought||Patricia Curd||★★★★||2004|
|Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews||James Carroll||★★★★||2002|
|On Thermonuclear War||Herman Kahn||★★★★||2007|
|A Journal of the Plague Year||Daniel Defoe||★★★★||2003|
|This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen||Tadeusz Borowski||★★★★||1992|
|Terror and Liberalism||Paul Berman||★★★★||2004|
|The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment||A.J. Jacobs||★★★★||2009|
|The New Hacker’s Dictionary||Eric S. Raymond||★★★★||1996|
|The Rime of the Ancient Mariner||Samuel Taylor Coleridge||★★★★||1970|
|The Story of Hassan of Baghdad and How He Came to Make the Golden Journey to Samarkand||James Elroy Flecker||★★★★||2004|
|Nine Princes in Amber (The Chronicles of Amber #1)||Roger Zelazny||★★★★||1986|
|Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings||Kenji Tokitsu||★★★★||2006|
|The Questions Of King Milinda - Part I||T.W. Rhys Davids||★★★★||2011|
|Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret Pitch (Encyclopedia Brown, #2)||Donald J. Sobol||★★★★||2000|
|Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective (Encyclopedia Brown, #1)||Donald J. Sobol||★★★★||1985|
|Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny||Robert Wright||★★★★||2001|
|The World, the Flesh & the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul||J.D. Bernal||★★★★||1969|
|Say Cheese and Die! (Goosebumps, #4)||R.L. Stine||★★★★||2003|
|Night of the Living Dummy (Goosebumps, #7)||R.L. Stine||★★★★||2003|
|Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture||David Kushner||★★★★||2004|
|Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science||Alan Sokal||★★★★||1999|
|The Red Castle||H.C. Bailey||★★★★||1932|
|Stuart Little||E.B. White||★★★★||2006|
|The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer||William Irwin||★★★★||2001|
|Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland||William Ian Miller||★★★★||1997|
|The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia||René Grousset||★★★★||1970|
|The Man in the Iron Mask (The D’Artagnan Romances, #3.4)||Alexandre Dumas||★★★★||2003|
|Japanese Court Poetry||Robert H. Brower||★★★★||1988|
|The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History||David Hackett Fischer||★★★★||1999|
|Once and Forever||Kenji Miyazawa||★★★★||1998|
|War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race||Edwin Black||★★★★||2004|
|The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917||Jonathan Clements||★★★★||2001|
|Monkey: The Journey to the West||Wu Cheng’en||★★★★||1994|
|Indian Philosophy: An Introduction To Hindu And Buddhist Thought||Richard King||★★★★||1999|
|Philosophy of Mind||Jaegwon Kim||★★★★||2005|
|The Medici Bank: Its Organization, Management, Operations, and Decline||Raymond de Roover||★★★★||2008|
|Haskell: The Craft of Functional Programming||Simon Thompson||★★★★||1999|
|The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance||K. Anders Ericsson||★★★★||2006|
|Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays||Laurent Bouzereau||★★★★||1997|
|Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Characters||Andy Mangels||★★★★||1995|
|Crimson Empire, Volume 1 (Star Wars: Crimson Empire, #1)||Mike Richardson||★★★★||1998|
|The Han Solo Adventures (Classic Star Wars)||Brian Daley||★★★★||1994|
|Iron Fist (Star Wars: X-Wing, #6)||Aaron Allston||★★★★||1998|
|The Bacta War (Star Wars: X-Wing, #4)||Michael A. Stackpole||★★★★||1997|
|I, Jedi (Star Wars)||Michael A. Stackpole||★★★★||1998|
|The Truce at Bakura (Star Wars)||Kathy Tyers||★★★★||1994|
|Shadows of the Empire (Star Wars)||Steve Perry||★★★★||1997|
|The Courtship of Princess Leia (Star Wars)||Dave Wolverton||★★★★||1995|
|The Last Command (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, #3)||Timothy Zahn||★★★★||1994|
|Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, #1)||Timothy Zahn||★★★★||1992|
|The Phoenix Exultant (Golden Age, #2)||John C. Wright||★★★★||2003|
|Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds||Harold Bloom||★★★★||2003|
|Cities in Flight (Cities in Flight, #1-4)||James Blish||★★★★||2005|
|Eon (The Way, #1)||Greg Bear||★★★★||1991|
|The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare||G.K. Chesterton||★★★★||2001|
|The Jungle Book||Rudyard Kipling||★★★★||1992|
|Man Into Superman: The Startling Potential of Human Evolution – And How to Be Part of It||Robert C.W. Ettinger||★★★★||2005|
|Breakdown of Will||George Ainslie||★★★★||2001|
|The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire||Edward Gibbon||★★★★||2003|
|The Underground History of American Education: An Intimate Investigation Into the Prison of Modern Schooling||John Taylor Gatto||★★★★||2003|
|Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility||James P. Carse||★★★★||1987|
|The Magus||John Fowles||★★★★||1988|
|And Then There Were None||Agatha Christie||★★★★||2004|
|A Scanner Darkly||Philip K. Dick||★★★★||2006|
|Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai||Yamamoto Tsunetomo||★★★★||2002|
|Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention||Stanislas Dehaene||★★★★||2009|
|New Urban Immigrants: The Korean Community in New York||Illsoo Kim||★★★★||1981|
|Culture and Customs of Korea||Donald N. Clark||★★★★||2000|
|When We Were Orphans||Kazuo Ishiguro||★★★★||2007|
|The Reptile Room (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #2)||Lemony Snicket||★★★★||1999|
|The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #1)||Lemony Snicket||★★★★||1999|
|Across the Sea of Suns (Galactic Center, #2)||Gregory Benford||★★★★||2004|
|The Known World||Edward P. Jones||★★★★||2006|
|The Last Ringbearer||Kirill Yeskov||★★★★||2010|
|Deep Time:: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia||Gregory Benford||★★★★||2001|
|Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States||Albert O. Hirschman||★★★★||1972|
|The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3)||Philip Pullman||★★★★||2003|
|The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)||Philip Pullman||★★★★||1996|
|Where the Wild Things Are||Maurice Sendak||★★★★||2000|
|Maniac Magee||Jerry Spinelli||★★★★||2002|
|A Little Princess||Frances Hodgson Burnett||★★★★||1994|
|The Indian in the Cupboard (The Indian in the Cupboard, #1)||Lynne Reid Banks||★★★★||2003|
|Anne of Green Gables (Anne of Green Gables, #1)||L.M. Montgomery||★★★★||2003|
|Winnie-the-Pooh (Winnie-the-Pooh, #1)||A.A. Milne||★★★★||2001|
|The House at Pooh Corner (Winnie-the-Pooh, #2)||A.A. Milne||★★★★||1988|
|How the Grinch Stole Christmas!||Dr. Seuss||★★★★||1957|
|A Christmas Carol||Charles Dickens||★★★★||1999|
|The Garden of Abdul Gasazi||Chris Van Allsburg||★★★★||1979|
|Harriet the Spy (Harriet the Spy #1)||Louise Fitzhugh||★★★★||2002|
|The Cat in the Hat||Dr. Seuss||★★★★||1985|
|The Consolations of Philosophy||Alain de Botton||★★★★||2001|
|Well Played 1.0: Video Games, Value and Meaning||Drew Davidson||★★★★||2009|
|Mr. Popper’s Penguins||Richard Atwater||★★★★||1992|
|Giants’ Star (Giants, #3)||James P. Hogan||★★★★||1982|
|The Gentle Giants of Ganymede (Giants, #2)||James P. Hogan||★★★★||1983|
|Inherit the Stars (Giants, #1)||James P. Hogan||★★★★||1977|
|Heirs of Empire (Dahak, #3)||David Weber||★★★★||1996|
|Field of Dishonor (Honor Harrington, #4)||David Weber||★★★★||2002|
|The Short Victorious War (Honor Harrington, #3)||David Weber||★★★★||1994|
|On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington, #1)||David Weber||★★★★||2005|
|Necroscope II: Vamphyri! (Necroscope, #2)||Brian Lumley||★★★★||1989|
|Necroscope (Necroscope #1)||Brian Lumley||★★★★||1994|
|The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect||Roger Williams||★★★★||2010|
|The Voyage of the Space Beagle||A.E. van Vogt||★★★★||1963|
|Purely Functional Data Structures||Chris Okasaki||★★★★||1999|
|The Last Aerie (Necroscope, #7)||Brian Lumley||★★★★||1994|
|Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project||Karl Fogel||★★★★||2005|
|The Three Pillars of Zen||Philip Kapleau||★★★★||1989|
|Storm of Steel||Ernst Jünger||★★★★||2004|
|The Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying: A Spiritual Classic from One of the Foremost Interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism to the West||Sogyal Rinpoche||★★★★||2008|
|Sailing Bright Eternity||Gregory Benford||★★★★||1996|
|Beggars Ride (Sleepless, #3)||Nancy Kress||★★★★||1997|
|Magician’s Gambit (The Belgariad, #3)||David Eddings||★★★★||1983|
|Pawn of Prophecy (The Belgariad, #1)||David Eddings||★★★★||2004|
|The Sapphire Rose (The Elenium, #3)||David Eddings||★★★★||1992|
|When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management||Roger Lowenstein||★★★★||2001|
|The Great Brain (Great Brain, #1)||John D. Fitzgerald||★★★★||2004|
|The Wasp Factory||Iain Banks||★★★★||1998|
|Vacuum Diagrams (Xeelee Sequence, #5)||Stephen Baxter||★★★★||2001|
|The Timeless Way of Building||Christopher W. Alexander||★★★★||1979|
|The Architecture of Open Source Applications||Amy Brown||★★★★||2011|
|The Algebraist||Iain M. Banks||★★★★||2005|
|Myth Conceptions (Myth Adventures, #2)||Robert Lynn Asprin||★★★★||2005|
|Phule’s Company (Phule’s Company, #1)||Robert Lynn Asprin||★★★★||1990|
|Myth-Nomers and Im-Pervections (Myth Adventures, #8)||Robert Lynn Asprin||★★★★||2006|
|Phule’s Paradise (Phule’s Company, #2)||Robert Lynn Asprin||★★★★||1992|
|A Phule and His Money (Phule’s Company, #3)||Robert Lynn Asprin||★★★★||1999|
|The Keep (Adversary Cycle, #1)||F. Paul Wilson||★★★★||2006|
|Revelation Space (Revelation Space, #1)||Alastair Reynolds||★★★★||2002|
|The Prose Edda||Snorri Sturluson||★★★★||2005|
|The Book of Lost Tales, Part One (The History of Middle-Earth, #1)||J.R.R. Tolkien||★★★★||1992|
|Ideas and Integrities: A Spontaneous Autobiographical Disclosure||R. Buckminster Fuller||★★★★||1969|
|Four Major Plays of Chikamatsu||Chikamatsu Monzaemon||★★★★||1997|
|Chūshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers): A Puppet Play||Takeda Izumo||★★★★||1971|
|The Tao of Pooh||Benjamin Hoff||★★★★||2003|
|Feynman And Computation||Anthony J.G. Hey||★★★★||2002|
|Bare-Faced Messiah||Frederic P. Miller||★★★★||2011|
|Excession (Culture, #5)||Iain M. Banks||★★★★||1998|
|Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming||Peter Seibel||★★★★||2009|
|The Hedgehog, the Fox & the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science & the Humanities||Stephen Jay Gould||★★★★||2004|
|The Golden Bough||James George Frazer||★★★★||1995|
|The Stainless Steel Rat for President (Stainless Steel Rat, #8)||Harry Harrison||★★★★||1988|
|The Stainless Steel Rat (Stainless Steel Rat, #4)||Harry Harrison||★★★★||1998|
|Catastrophe: Risk and Response||Richard A. Posner||★★★★||2004|
|How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer||Sarah Bakewell||★★★★||2010|
|The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters||B.R. Myers||★★★★||2010|
|The Authoritarians||Bob Altemeyer||★★★★||2006|
|Russian Silhouettes||Genna Sosonko||★★★★||2003|
|Superior Beings. If They Exist, How Would We Know?: Game-Theoretic Implications of Omnipotence, Omniscience, Immortality, and Incomprehensibility||Steven J. Brams||★★★★||2006|
|The Best Writing on Mathematics, 2010||Mircea Pitici||★★★★||2011|
|The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness||Elyn R. Saks||★★★★||2007|
|Melmoth the Wanderer||Charles Robert Maturin||★★★★||2000|
|Visual Explanations||Edward R. Tufte||★★★★||1998|
|Envisioning Information||Edward R. Tufte||★★★★||1992|
|The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice||Christopher Hitchens||★★★★||1997|
|Beautiful Evidence||Edward R. Tufte||★★★★||2006|
|Yon Ill Wind (Xanth #20)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1997|
|Juxtaposition (Apprentice Adept #3)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1987|
|Blue Adept (Apprentice Adept #2)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1987|
|Split Infinity (Apprentice Adept #1)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1987|
|And Eternity (Incarnations of Immortality, #7)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1991|
|For Love of Evil (Incarnations of Immortality, #6)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1990|
|Centaur Aisle (Xanth, #4)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1997|
|Wielding a Red Sword (Incarnations of Immortality, #4)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1987|
|Bearing an Hourglass (Incarnations of Immortality, #2)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1984|
|On a Pale Horse (Incarnations of Immortality, #1)||Piers Anthony||★★★★||1986|
|Foundation’s Edge (Foundation #4)||Isaac Asimov||★★★★||2010|
|Forward the Foundation (Foundation: Prequel #2)||Isaac Asimov||★★★★||1994|
|Around the World in Eighty Days (Extraordinary Voyages, #11)||Jules Verne||★★★★||2004|
|The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde||Robert Louis Stevenson||★★★★||2003|
|Where the Red Fern Grows||Wilson Rawls||★★★★||2000|
|The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings||Edgar Allan Poe||★★★★||2004|
|Journey to the Center of the Earth (Extraordinary Voyages, #3)||Jules Verne||★★★★||2006|
|Stone of Tears (Sword of Truth, #2)||Terry Goodkind||★★★★||1995|
|Triss (Redwall, #15)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2004|
|Taggerung (Redwall, #14)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2003|
|Marlfox (Redwall, #11)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2005|
|Pearls of Lutra (Redwall, #9)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2004|
|The Long Patrol (Redwall, #10)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2004|
|Salamandastron (Redwall, #5)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2003|
|Redwall (Redwall, #1)||Brian Jacques||★★★★||2006|
|Interview with the Vampire (The Vampire Chronicles, #1)||Anne Rice||★★★★||2004|
|Life of Pi||Yann Martel||★★★★||2006|
|The Alienist (Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, #1)||Caleb Carr||★★★★||2006|
|Famous First Bubbles: The Fundamentals of Early Manias||Peter Garber||★★★★||2000|
|Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why||Laurence Gonzales||★★★★||2004|
|U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel / 1919 / The Big Money||John Dos Passos||★★★★||1996|
|On the Beach||Nevil Shute||★★★★||2002|
|Anti-Intellectualism in American Life||Richard Hofstadter||★★★★||1964|
|His Master’s Voice||Stanisław Lem||★★★★||1999|
|Li Po and Tu Fu: Poems||Li Bai||★★★★||1973|
|Lords of the Middle Dark (Rings of the Master, #1)||Jack L. Chalker||★★★★||1986|
|The Varieties of Religious Experience||William James||★★★★||2000|
|Not the Impossible Faith||Richard C. Carrier||★★★★||2009|
|Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming||Stephen LaBerge||★★★★||1991|
|Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective||J. Philippe Rushton||★★★★||2002|
|Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (Dirk Gently, #1)||Douglas Adams||★★★★||2002|
|The Three Musketeers (The D’Artagnan Romances, #1)||Alexandre Dumas||★★★★||2001|
|The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2)||Ursula K. Le Guin||★★★★||2001|
|Tehanu (Earthsea Cycle, #4)||Ursula K. Le Guin||★★★★||2001|
|Tales from Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #5)||Ursula K. Le Guin||★★★★||2001|
|Fables, Vol. 10: The Good Prince||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2008|
|Fables, Vol. 9: Sons of Empire||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2007|
|Fables, Vol. 7: Arabian Nights (and Days)||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2006|
|Fables, Vol. 5: The Mean Seasons||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2005|
|Fables, Vol. 6: Homelands||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2006|
|Fables, Vol. 2: Animal Farm||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2003|
|Fables, Vol. 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2004|
|Fables, Vol. 1: Legends in Exile||Bill Willingham||★★★★||2002|
|Titus Groan (Gormenghast, #1)||Mervyn Peake||★★★★||1991|
|The Morning of the Magicians||Louis Pauwels||★★★★||2001|
|The Lost World (Professor Challenger, #1)||Arthur Conan Doyle||★★★★||2003|
|Count Belisarius||Robert Graves||★★★★||1982|
|The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life||Alison Gopnik||★★★★||2009|
|Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton||Edward Rice||★★★★||1991|
|The Case of the Animals Versus Man Before the King of the Jinn: An Arabic Critical Edition and English Translation of Epistle 22||Lenn E. Goodman||★★★★||2012|
|A Shadow in Summer (Long Price Quartet, #1)||Daniel Abraham||★★★★||2006|
|History of the Second World War||B.H. Liddell Hart||★★★★||1999|
|Queen Victoria’s Little Wars||Byron Farwell||★★★★||1985|
|Lucky Wander Boy||D.B. Weiss||★★★★||2003|
|Shadow Puppets (The Shadow Series, #3)||Orson Scott Card||★★★★||2003|
|Modern Operating Systems||Andrew S. Tanenbaum||★★★★||2001|
|The Crying of Lot 49||Thomas Pynchon||★★★★||2006|
|Lord of the Flies||William Golding||★★★★||1999|
|Gulliver’s Travels||Jonathan Swift||★★★★||2003|
|The Once and Future King (The Once and Future King, #1-4)||T.H. White||★★★★||1996|
|White Fang||Jack London||★★★★||2001|
|Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America||Barbara Ehrenreich||★★★★||2002|
|A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court||Mark Twain||★★★★||2006|
|Where the Sidewalk Ends||Shel Silverstein||★★★★||2002|
|The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin||Benjamin Franklin||★★★★||2010|
|The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better||Tyler Cowen||★★★★||2011|
|Waiting for Godot||Samuel Beckett||★★★★||2011|
|The Complete Maus||Art Spiegelman||★★★★||2003|
|Behemoth: β-Max (Rifters #3.1)||Peter Watts||★★★★||2004|
|Maelstrom (Rifters, #2)||Peter Watts||★★★★||2002|
|Starfish (Rifters, #1)||Peter Watts||★★★★||2000|
|The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self||Thomas Metzinger||★★★★||2009|
|The Brothers Karamazov||Fyodor Dostoyevsky||★★★★||2002|
|Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy||John le Carré||★★★★||2002|
|Democracy in America||Alexis de Tocqueville||★★★★||2003|
|Eaters of the Dead||Michael Crichton||★★★★||2006|
|Jurassic Park (Jurassic Park, #1)||Michael Crichton||★★★★||2006|
|Cloud Atlas||David Mitchell||★★★★||2004|
|The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, #1)||Robert Jordan||★★★★||1990|
|Tao Te Ching||Lao Tzu||★★★★||1997|
|A Modest Proposal||Jonathan Swift||★★★★||2008|
|Common Sense||Thomas Paine||★★★★||2005|
|Startide Rising (The Uplift Saga, #2)||David Brin||★★★★||1983|
|What Technology Wants||Kevin Kelly||★★★★||2010|
|Freedom Evolves||Daniel C. Dennett||★★★★||2004|
|The Wisdom of Crowds||James Surowiecki||★★★★||2005|
|Crime and Punishment||Fyodor Dostoyevsky||★★★★||2002|
|The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)||Patrick Rothfuss||★★★★||2007|
|The Door Into Summer||Robert A. Heinlein||★★★★||1997|
|Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon, #1)||China Miéville||★★★★||2003|
|Foundation and Empire (Foundation #2)||Isaac Asimov||★★★★||2004|
|Fahrenheit 451||Ray Bradbury||★★★★||2004|
|Darwin’s Radio (Darwin’s Radio #1)||Greg Bear||★★★★||2003|
|Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy, #3)||Kim Stanley Robinson||★★★★||1997|
|Neuromancer (Sprawl, #1)||William Gibson||★★★★||1984|
|Stranger in a Strange Land||Robert A. Heinlein||★★★★||1991|
|Never Let Me Go||Kazuo Ishiguro||★★★★||2010|
|The Man in the High Castle||Philip K. Dick||★★★★||1992|
|The Moon is a Harsh Mistress||Robert A. Heinlein||★★★★||2005|
|Old Man’s War (Old Man’s War, #1)||John Scalzi||★★★★||2007|
|To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Riverworld, #1)||Philip José Farmer||★★★★||1998|
|Childhood’s End||Arthur C. Clarke||★★★★||1987|
|Consider Phlebas||Iain M. Banks||★★★★||1988|
|The Running Man||Richard Bachman||★★★★||1999|
|On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft||Stephen King||★★★★||2002|
|Charlotte’s Web||E.B. White||★★★★||2001|
|The War of the Worlds||H.G. Wells||★★★★||2002|
|The Years of Rice and Salt||Kim Stanley Robinson||★★★★||2003|
|Little Town on the Prairie (Little House, #7)||Laura Ingalls Wilder||★★★★||2007|
|Little House on the Prairie (Laura Years, #2)||Laura Ingalls Wilder||★★★★||1994|
|Little House in the Big Woods (Little House, #1)||Laura Ingalls Wilder||★★★★||2007|
|The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (御手洗潔 #1)||Sōji Shimada||★★★★||2005|
|V for Vendetta||Alan Moore||★★★★||2005|
|Der Mond: The Art of Neon Genesis Evangelion||Yoshiyuki Sadamoto||★★★★||2006|
|Neon Genesis Evangelion, Vol. 1||Yoshiyuki Sadamoto||★★★★||2004|
|Yotsuba&!, Vol. 1 (Yotsuba&! #1)||Kiyohiko Azuma||★★★★||2005|
|From Hell||Alan Moore||★★★★||2007|
|The Invisibles, Vol. 7: The Invisible Kingdom||Grant Morrison||★★★★||2002|
|The Invisibles, Vol. 6: Kissing Mister Quimper||Grant Morrison||★★★★||2000|
|The Invisibles, Volume 1: Say You Want a Revolution||Grant Morrison||★★★★||1996|
|Batman: The Dark Knight Returns||Frank Miller||★★★★||2012|
|Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned (Y: The Last Man, #1)||Brian K. Vaughan||★★★★||2003|
|Flight, Vol. 1 (Flight, #1)||Kazu Kibuishi||★★★★||2004|
|Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter, #2)||J.K. Rowling||★★★★||1999|
|Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Harry Potter, #5)||J.K. Rowling||★★★★||2004|
|Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3)||J.K. Rowling||★★★★||2004|
|The Diary of a Young Girl||Anne Frank||★★★★||1993|
|The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution||Gregory Cochran||★★★★||2009|
|The Tale of Genji||Murasaki Shikibu||★★★★||2003|
|The Silence of the Lambs (Hannibal Lecter, #2)||Thomas Harris||★★★★||2002|
|Flowers for Algernon||Daniel Keyes||★★★★||2005|
|Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed||Jared Diamond||★★★★||2005|
|The Hunting of the Snark||Lewis Carroll||★★★★||2010|
|Philosophical Investigations||Ludwig Wittgenstein||★★★★||2001|
|Reave the Just and Other Tales||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||2000|
|The Gap Into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge (Gap, #2)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||2010|
|The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story (Gap, #1)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||1992|
|The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, #1-3)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||1993|
|A Man Rides Through (Mordant’s Need, #2)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||2003|
|The Mirror of Her Dreams (Mordant’s Need, #1)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||2003|
|The Illearth War (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, #2)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||1989|
|Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies||Jared Diamond||★★★★||2005|
|The Art of War||Sun Tzu||★★★★||2005|
|Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook||Edward N. Luttwak||★★★★||1979|
|Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto||Stewart Brand||★★★★||2009|
|How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built||Stewart Brand||★★★★||1995|
|The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings, #3)||J.R.R. Tolkien||★★★★||2003|
|The Silmarillion (Middle-Earth Universe)||J.R.R. Tolkien||★★★★||2004|
|The Count of Monte Cristo||Alexandre Dumas||★★★★||2003|
|Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch||Terry Pratchett||★★★★||2006|
|Night Watch (Discworld, #29; City Watch, #6)||Terry Pratchett||★★★★||2011|
|Hogfather (Discworld, #20; Death, #4)||Terry Pratchett||★★★★||2006|
|The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz, #1)||L. Frank Baum||★★★★||1995|
|The Picture of Dorian Gray||Oscar Wilde||★★★★||2004|
|2001: A Space Odyssey (Space Odyssey, #1)||Arthur C. Clarke||★★★★||2000|
|Lord of Light||Roger Zelazny||★★★★||2010|
|The Little Prince||Antoine de Saint-Exupéry||★★★★||2000|
|The Man-Kzin Wars (Man-Kzin Wars, #1)||Larry Niven||★★★★||2006|
|Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven (Known Space)||Larry Niven||★★★★||1981|
|The Gripping Hand (Moties, #2)||Larry Niven||★★★★||1994|
|The Big U||Neal Stephenson||★★★★||2001|
|The Hunt for Red October (Jack Ryan, #3)||Tom Clancy||★★★★||1999|
|Tao of Jeet Kune Do||Bruce Lee||★★★★||1975|
|A Brief History of Time||Stephen Hawking||★★★★||1998|
|The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer||Neal Stephenson||★★★★||2000|
|The Instrumentality of Mankind||Cordwainer Smith||★★★★||1979|
|The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature||Matt Ridley||★★★★||2003|
|Ender’s Shadow (The Shadow Series, #1)||Orson Scott Card||★★★★||2002|
|Quantum Psychology: How Brain Software Programs You & Your World||Robert Anton Wilson||★★★★||1993|
|Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy||Robert Anton Wilson||★★★★||2009|
|Animal Farm||George Orwell||★★★★||2003|
|The Poisonwood Bible||Barbara Kingsolver||★★★★||2005|
|Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values||Robert M. Pirsig||★★★★||2006|
|The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable||Nassim Nicholas Taleb||★★★★||2007|
|Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West||Cormac McCarthy||★★★★||1992|
|Oh, The Places You’ll Go!||Dr. Seuss||★★★★||1990|
|Mindfulness in Plain English||Henepola Gunaratana||★★★★||1996|
|Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae||Steven Pressfield||★★★★||2005|
|King Rat (Asian Saga, #4)||James Clavell||★★★★||2009|
|Noble House (Asian Saga, #5)||James Clavell||★★★★||1986|
|Tai-Pan (Asian Saga, #2)||James Clavell||★★★★||2009|
|Learning GNU Emacs||Debra Cameron||★★★★||2004|
|The Soul of a New Machine||Tracy Kidder||★★★★||2000|
|The Fires of Heaven (The Wheel of Time, #5)||Robert Jordan||★★★★||1994|
|Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time, #6)||Robert Jordan||★★★★||1995|
|The Prince||Niccolò Machiavelli||★★★★||2003|
|The Origin of Species||Charles Darwin||★★★★||2004|
|Foundation (Foundation #1)||Isaac Asimov||★★★★||2004|
|Stealing the Network: How to Own the Box||Ryan Russell||★★★★||2003|
|Feynman Lectures On Computation||Richard P. Feynman||★★★★||2000|
|Selected Poems||Jorge Luis Borges||★★★★||2000|
|Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1)||Frederik Pohl||★★★★||2004|
|Tales from the Empire (Star Wars)||Peter Schweighofer||★★★★||1997|
|Flatterland: Like Flatland Only More So||Ian Stewart||★★★★||2002|
|The Dying Earth (The Dying Earth, #1)||Jack Vance||★★★★||1977|
|Tales from Jabba’s Palace (Star Wars Legends)||Kevin J. Anderson||★★★★||1995|
|Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina (Star Wars)||Kevin J. Anderson||★★★★||1995|
|Tales of the Bounty Hunters (Star Wars)||Kevin J. Anderson||★★★★||1996|
|Champions of the Force (Star Wars: The Jedi Academy Trilogy, #3)||Kevin J. Anderson||★★★★||1994|
|Jedi Search (Star Wars: The Jedi Academy Trilogy, #1)||Kevin J. Anderson||★★★★||1994|
|Maker of Dune||Frank Herbert||★★★★||1987|
|Under Pressure||Frank Herbert||★★★★||1979|
|The Road to Dune (Dune Universe)||Frank Herbert||★★★★||2006|
|The Dosadi Experiment (ConSentiency Universe, #2)||Frank Herbert||★★★★||2002|
|God Emperor of Dune (Dune Chronicles #4)||Frank Herbert||★★★★||2003|
|Frank Herbert (Twayne’s United States Authors, #532)||William F. Touponce||★★★★||1988|
|Prayers to Broken Stones||Dan Simmons||★★★★||1997|
|How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business||Douglas W. Hubbard||★★★★||2010|
|Consider the Lobster and Other Essays||David Foster Wallace||★★★★||2005|
|The City & the City||China Miéville||★★★★||2009|
|The Scar (New Crobuzon, #2)||China Miéville||★★★★||2004|
|The Hero of Ages (Mistborn, #3)||Brandon Sanderson||★★★★||2008|
|The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)||Brandon Sanderson||★★★★||2006|
|Kafka on the Shore||Haruki Murakami||★★★★||2006|
|The Name of the Rose||Umberto Eco||★★★★||1994|
|Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell||Susanna Clarke||★★★★||2006|
|The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals||Michael Pollan||★★★★||2006|
|The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)||C.S. Lewis||★★★★||2005|
|I, Robot (Robot, #0.1)||Isaac Asimov||★★★★||2004|
|Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind||Hans Moravec||★★★★||2000|
|Brave New World||Aldous Huxley||★★★★||2008|
|Ubik||Philip K. Dick||★★★★||2006|
|Dragon Venom (Obsidian Chronicles, #3)||Lawrence Watt-Evans||★★★★||2004|
|The Dragon Society (Obsidian Chronicles, #2)||Lawrence Watt-Evans||★★★★||2003|
|The Misenchanted Sword (Ethshar, #1)||Lawrence Watt-Evans||★★★★||2000|
|Against Method||Paul Karl Feyerabend||★★★★||1993|
|The World of Parmenides: Essays on the Presocratic Enlightenment||Karl Popper||★★★★||2001|
|Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion||David Sirlin||★★★★||2006|
|The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language||Steven Pinker||★★★★||2000|
|The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature||Steven Pinker||★★★★||2003|
|The Strategy of Conflict: With a New Preface by the Author||Thomas C. Schelling||★★★★||1981|
|The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark||Carl Sagan||★★★★||1997|
|The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture||Jerome H. Barkow||★★★★||1995|
|Annals of Klepsis||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★||2001|
|The Fall of Rome||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★||1971|
|The Reefs of Earth||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★||1977|
|Okla Hannali||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★||1991|
|Nine Hundred Grandmothers||R.A. Lafferty||★★★★||1970|
|The Hobbit or There and Back Again||J.R.R. Tolkien||★★★★||1997|
|The Tao Is Silent||Raymond M. Smullyan||★★★★||1977|
|The Absolute Sandman, Volume Four||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||2008|
|The Wake (The Sandman, #10)||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|World’s End (The Sandman, #8)||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|The Kindly Ones (The Sandman, #9)||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|A Game of You (The Sandman, #5)||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|Season of Mists (The Sandman, #4)||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|Dream Country (The Sandman, #3)||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|The Doll’s House (The Sandman, #2)||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1999|
|Anansi Boys||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||2006|
|Neverwhere (London Below, #1)||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||2003|
|Lexicon Urthus: A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle||Michael Andre-Driussi||★★★★||2008|
|The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables & Reflections (The Sandman, #6)||Neil Gaiman||★★★★||1990|
|The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1997|
|Soldier of the Mist (Latro #1)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1987|
|Epiphany of the Long Sun (The Book of the Long Sun, #3-4)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||2000|
|Litany of the Long Sun (The Book of the Long Sun, #1-2)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||2000|
|The Fifth Head of Cerberus||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1994|
|The Citadel of the Autarch (The Book of the New Sun, #4)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1983|
|The Urth of the New Sun (The Book of the New Sun, #5)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1997|
|The Claw of the Conciliator (The Book of the New Sun, #2)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1982|
|Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology||K. Eric Drexler||★★★★||1987|
|Introduction to Algorithms||Thomas H. Cormen||★★★★||2001|
|Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World||Kevin Kelly||★★★★||1995|
|Consciousness Explained||Daniel C. Dennett||★★★★||1991|
|Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern||Douglas R. Hofstadter||★★★★||1996|
|The Meme Machine||Susan Blackmore||★★★★||2000|
|Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days||Jessica Livingston||★★★★||2007|
|Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution||Steven Levy||★★★★||2001|
|The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage||Clifford Stoll||★★★★||2005|
|All the Myriad Ways||Larry Niven||★★★★||1971|
|Blood Music||Greg Bear||★★★★||2005|
|Beggars in Spain (Sleepless, #1)||Nancy Kress||★★★★||2004|
|Look to Windward (Culture, #7)||Iain M. Banks||★★★★||2002|
|Infinity’s Shore (Uplift Storm Trilogy, #2)||David Brin||★★★★||1997|
|In the Ocean of Night (Galactic Center, #1)||Gregory Benford||★★★★||2004|
|Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (Heechee Saga, #2)||Frederik Pohl||★★★★||2000|
|Mission of Gravity||Hal Clement||★★★★||1974|
|The Rise of Endymion (Hyperion Cantos, #4)||Dan Simmons||★★★★||1998|
|Green Mars (Mars Trilogy, #2)||Kim Stanley Robinson||★★★★||1995|
|The Uplift War (The Uplift Saga, #3)||David Brin||★★★★||1995|
|The Gap Into Power: A Dark and Hungry God Arises (Gap, #3)||Stephen R. Donaldson||★★★★||2009|
|Beggars and Choosers (Sleepless, #2)||Nancy Kress||★★★★||1996|
|Tea with the Black Dragon (Black Dragon, #1)||R.A. MacAvoy||★★★★||2001|
|The Sword of the Lictor (The Book of the New Sun, #3)||Gene Wolfe||★★★★||1981|
|The Well of Ascension (Mistborn, #2)||Brandon Sanderson||★★★★||2007|
|Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo||Unknown||★★★★||1995|
|The Hobbit: Graphic Novel||Chuck Dixon||★★★★||1990|
|The Dragon Reborn (The Wheel of Time, #3)||Robert Jordan||★★★★||2002|
|Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter, #1)||J.K. Rowling||★★★★||1997|
|Pioneers of Soviet Computing||Boris Nikolaevich Malinovsky||★★★||2010||2014/07/06||
(Review of 2010 online 2nd edition.)
…the establishment and development of computer technology in the USSR advanced in the post-war years virtually without any contact with the Western scientists. The development of computers abroad was conducted secretly because at first, digital electronic computers were designated for military purposes. At the same time, the computer technology in the USSR evolved independently as well, led by top Soviet scientists.
Despite repeated quotes how they would avidly study American publications for any available details! If he cannot say a Soviet computer is faster, then it used less parts, or was more reliable, or was built quicker, or a cluster of 76 (!) was faster than an American supercomputer… In the biographies, each & every pioneer is hardworking, kind, modest, attentive, & loyal, & how each created computers in breathtakingly short times & how every computer seemed to operate perfectly & be competitive with the fastest American machines, & how many superlatives each super pioneer deserved (backed up by endless mentions of awards that they received, or occasionally, didn’t receive due to bureaucratic sabotage). As the Abbate review notes, “Occasionally the prose takes on a heroic or patriotic tone that may be jarring to American readers (though quite common in its Russian/Ukrainian context).” More importantly, through the book Malinovsky damns following the IBM 360 paradigm rather than continuing domestic lines of development; the Slava review:
As a participant first-hand account, Malinovsky’s book is both valuable & problematic. Like any other personal account, it is prone to certain biases. When Malinovsky touches upon controversial topics, he often provides only one side of the story. For example, the rivalry between the two first Soviet large-size digital computer projects, the BESM & the STRELA, is narrated largely from the viewpoint of the BESM camp. A historian would have written a more balanced account. Other topics that may require a historiographic commentary include the wide introduction of automated control systems actively promoted by the director of the Institute of Cybernetics in Kiev Viktor Glushkov (many observers claimed that this campaign led to inefficiency & waste) or the controversy over the decision to build the Unified Series of Computers that supposedly “copied” IBM 360 (Malinovsky claims that this decision directly led to the “demise” of the Soviet computer industry). In both cases, Malinovsky covers one side of the story in great detail but gives little voice to Glushkov’s critics or to the supporters of the Unified Series, who claimed that Unified Series computers were no copies of IBM but were only software-compatible with IBM & had high performance characteristics. Anne Fitzpatrick’s explanatory comments are very helpful; & it would be very beneficial for the reader if she could also address controversial historiographic issues, either in the endnotes or in the Introduction.
Malinovsky never really justifies his claims, and one wonders. The IBM 360 was a landmark design, successful in the market for all sorts of purposes, and in general, the computing market has been unkind to any attempts to take alternate paths from the current leading contender (the Lisp machines being an example), as by doing so, one cuts oneself off from an entire world of innovation & Moore’s law. (Vigoda: “In practice replacing digital computers with an alternative computing paradigm is a risky proposition. Alternative computing architectures, such as parallel digital computers have not tended to be commercially viable, because Moore’s Law has consistently enabled conventional von Neumann architectures to render alternatives unnecessary. Besides Moore’s Law, digital computing also benefits from mature tools & expertise for optimizing performance at all levels of the system: process technology, fundamental circuits, layout & algorithms. Many engineers are simultaneously working to improve every aspect of digital technology, while alternative technologies like analog computing do not have the same kind of industry juggernaut pushing them forward.”) Isn’t it more likely that Soviet computing could have gone down a dead end & stagnated permanently?
Indeed, there are many signs that Soviet computing could easily have disappeared up its own navel. For example, the parts dealing with Glushkov’s grandiose plans to turn the Soviet economy into a centrally-computer-planned cybernetic program by the 1970s - this sounds like complete idiocy to the modern mind, aware of the full complexity of a modern economy & how inefficient Soviet management was & how centralization inevitably fails & of the incredible computing power needed to efficiently run even a small chunk of the economy like Walmart or Amazon - & yet Malinovsky, even after the fall of the USSR & complete discrediting of centralized economies, seems to think it was a great idea killed by politicians & could have saved the USSR & Glushkov was a prophet rather than a dreamer! It’s no surprise that the politicians were not eager to spend 20 billion rubles on a plan with no guarantee of working. And even has the chutzpah to claim “And now a huge information network - the Internet - is stretching across the Commonwealth of Newly Independent States and around the world, fulfilling Viktor Mikhailovich’s dreams and predictions of forty years ago.” The Glushkov sections also exemplify Malinovsky’s willingness to claim credit for Soviet software achievements but not discuss any of the details, many of which sound like awful ideas or meaningless, leading one to wonder if he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about or just is bad at describing them eg he quotes Glushkov as writing:
What was the difference between Mir & other computers? We considerably upgraded the machine language. However, back then the popular point of view was that machine language must be as simple as possible & the rest would be done by software. We were even mocked for our efforts to develop different computers. The majority of computer scientists in the world believed that it was necessary to develop computer-aided programming, that is, to create software that would help produce other programs.
Yes, that was the popular view then & still is, because it’s right. RISC is still the dominant view of Western computer scientists as baroque CISC architectures are always left in the dust. Glushkov was dead-wrong, but no mention is made of this. Or,
In designing the Mir machines, we had tackled a daring problem - to match the machine language as close as possible to the human language, and here I mean mathematical nonverbal language, though later we made attempts with normal human language. So, we created ‘Analytic,’ a special mathematical language, supported by an internal interpretation system. Mir computers were used in all regions of the Soviet Union. Their creation became an intermediate stage in research aimed at the development of artificial intelligence, since the intelligence realized in them was still fairly primitive. It also looked very impressive when a machine quickly solved independent and dependent integrals, while not many professors of mathematics were able to solve them. In addition, the machine found substitutions, not just the easy ones from tables, but the difficult ones as well…the Mir computer family was quickly developed and put into serial production, receiving high marks from its users. Its creation was a giant step in the development of artificial intelligence in small computers.
In what sense? Solving integrals isn’t much of an accomplishment. What does it mean to “match the machine language as close as possible to the human language”? I’m not aware of any important work in AI stemming from USSR research. Or:
Glushkov proposed a macro-conveyer principle based on the idea that each processor was given a separate task during every step of the computing process, which allowed it to work independently for a long time without the interference from other processors. In 1959, at the Soviet All-Union Conference on Computer Technology in Kiev, Glushkov spoke about the idea of a brain-like computer structure that could be realized when the designers were able to integrate not thousands, but billions of elements with practically limitless connections between them, into a single system. There would also be a confluence of memory and data processing, a system in which data would be processed throughout the memory with a highest possible degree of parallelism in all operations…only the development of new non-Von Neumann computer architecture…would solve the problem of creating a supercomputer with unlimited growth in productivity and progressively more sophisticated hardware. Unfortunately, further research showed that a comprehensive realization of the construction principles of recursive computers and brain-like structures was beyond the level of electronic technology at that time.
Despite being a programmer interested in AI, I have no idea what any of it means. This culminates in idiotic boasting: “Unfortunately, the potential of the Mir computer line was never fully realized. During my 1979 presentation in Novosibirsk on the integration of artificial intelligence into computers, I heard the academician Andrei Ershov criticize the Institute of Cybernetics by saying: ‘If you had not stopped upgrading the Mir family, the USSR would have had the best personal computers in the world.’” No, there was 0 chance. Not in a system as pathological/impoverished/repressed as the USSR was - there were no opportunities for the economies of scale which power microchip development, & if there had, PCs would never have been allowed outside of a few restricted roles. The whole point of the PC revolution in America was that anyone, including little kids who would grow up to be great programmers & entrepreneurs, could access cheap unrestricted computing power for the most trivial of reasons & create whatever they wanted to without friction.
Nor was Glushkov alone. No matter how much dead, he’ll still hold out hope that a dead end is not a dead end. “To this day, Brusentsov maintains that the trinary system is superior to binary, but only time will be able to tell whether or not he is correct” - how long should we wait, exactly? Or from the Setun article, we read that its programming language, DSSP, “was not invented. It was found. That is why DSSP has not versions, but only extensions. Forth is created by practice. DSSP is created by theory. It is not a word.” This is pathological linguistic mysticism, one of the delusions of the 20th century among other centuries - the idea that language is terribly important & that a better purer language would unlock wasted powers & enable undreamed-of productivity. If we could invent a more logical & compact language, if we could strip out the illusions built into language, if we could come up with a better one, we would solve AI / create world peace / become geniuses etc. What’s the stock trope for becoming superintelligent in 20th century SF? Your own language in which you can convey concepts more efficiently & fast; we see this in Heinlein’s Speedtalk, Anderson’s Brain Wave, even Chiang in “Understand” (and anything to do with that <a href=“https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HumanPotentialMovement”Human Potentialnebulous cluster of Californian stuff), or enthusiasm for conlangs like Loglan/Lojban… it’s why Russian fascists intently studying Ithkuil feel like such an anachronism. It is the fallacy that strong Sapir-Whorf is correct, that languages powerfully shape thoughts rather than channel trivialities like color-name choices. The truth is that specialized languages & notations are indeed powerful, but they always succede innovation & insight, not precede it: they codify insights, & 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 & design a specialized statistics language which is far better than ordinary language. Learning Ithkuil won’t give you access to any ideas or heuristics you didn’t have before, because natural language is already general & flexible. (Would Newspeak actually work? Consider Gene Wolfe’s counter-example, “Loyal to the Group of Seventeen’s Story - The Just Man” or the Darmoks of Star Trek).
The politics of Soviet computing are interesting. There remains a great deal of lingering guilt & doubt around the Manhattan Project - whether it was really a good thing. scientists working on the SDI missile defense program are even more prickly about whether their work was harmful in destabilizing the precarious peace. One wonders about Russian counterparts: did they regret endeavoring mightily to put atomic bombs in the hands of a psychopath like Stalin? Or assisting bomb & ICBM development to ensure that all of humanity would live under a Damoclean sword? Or how about the environmental consequences, far from limited to Chernobyl. But there is no such doubt in the people Malinovsky quotes: “In retrospect, the rush was justified: possession of such missiles gave our country weapons parity with the United States.”; ‘Once, one of Sergei Alexeevich’s daughters asked him: “Why do you make computers for the military?” He replied: “To avoid a war.”’; etc. Indeed, the worse the USSR treated its researchers, the more loyal & devoted they seemed to become. For example, Rameev saw his grandfather expropriated, his father fatally purged under Stalin & his great invention stolen from him, & Rameev’s conclusion? “a stern voice warned him: ‘Live quietly & don’t contact us ever again!’ At that moment, Rameev understood that he had to do something unusual, outstanding, & very important for his people & nation in order to give his life meaning.” Is that so? Or in the story of the researcher Akushsky who was threatened with summary execution because a plane went down, & who cleverly saves himself by proving it was the pilots’ fault; very amusing, & chilling. Malinovsky blandly remarks at one point, “Things did not go smoothly at first because some Communist leaders overseeing the project remembered that Kisunko was the son of a repressed kulak.”
|The Operations Evaluation Group: A History Of Naval Operations Analysis||Keith R. Tidman||★★★||0||2018/02/08||
(~331pg; ebook) Official history of the US Navy’s CNA 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 RAND and to Blackett’s “Circus” operations-research group in the UK during WWII, and, like the national laboratories, draws mostly on civilian researchers & 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 catastrophic loss of shipping in the Atlantic. 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 Inchon landing 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 & silos) and among other things took a hand in the Polaris and Harpoon missile systems and (at least by Tidman’s retelling) was largely responsible for the infamous ‘missile gap’ (pg192).
Tidman writes in a clear style and provides a number of useful supporting graphs and maps; he tries to balance between discussing the military background of each problem, the analyses & solutions devised by OEG personnel (while avoiding going into too much statistical detail and including as few equations as possible), and the internal bureaucratic details of the OEG like various reshufflings and reorganizations and increases/decreases in personnel. I would have loved to see a great deal more detail on the analyses and results (particularly on the early development of Monte Carlo methods, linear programming, and Bayesian statistics for approximation, search, and decision theory), as I could care less about how the OEG was organized into departments at various times, but the latter is something an official history must cover, so I can’t blame Tidman if about a fifth of the book is totally devoid of interest to an outsider like me. More striking is the general elimination of other OR-related institutions (surely OEG engaged with RAND beyond merely RAND people being occasional guests at conferences? Especially given the bitter conflict between the armed-services post-WWII over nuclear strategy & dueling analyses), a refusal to discuss effects of OEG work (no history of RAND could avoid grappling with what extent RAND work contributed to the Vietnam War, while Tidman passes over OEG’s close involvement with a note that the politics are out of scope for his book); for that matter, what was the Navy and OEG’s work on nuclear weapons and strategy - for a book most of whose timespan is set in the Cold War, it’s remarkable how little discussion there is of the effects of nukes. (For example, Tidman discusses the vulnerability of carrier groups to massed missile attacks. Surely OEG has cast a cold eye on whether aircraft carriers make sense at all or are just vast white elephants, regardless of how upset the Navy might be by the findings?) One gets the impression that possibly a fair amount of material has been left out due to classification concerns, and Tidman gingerly steps around the topic of ULTRA & code-breaking (apparently only recently reported at the time of writing). Perhaps a book about the OEG written now could be more candid, and thus, much more informative.
While many people will have heard a few OR success stories like Abraham Wald’s diagnosis of bomber weaknesses via selection bias, a lot of the findings in TOEG were new to me and I suspect not well known (at least, outside US naval circles). Some tidbits that I noted as I went:
(OEG remained quite active after Vietnam, but unfortunately the interesting examples peter out around there. The US Navy hasn’t any major engagements, really, since the spectacular Inchon landing, and served mostly as floating air bases since then. Without an active war, it’s hard to tie OEG work to practical successes - when a study is done, maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t. So the post-Vietnam sections tend to degenerate into vague discussions of studies of field exercises and weapon systems analyses. Hard to take any of that as a clearcut success story of OR.)
So overall: reasonably well-written, covers intrinsically interesting topics like ASW in WWII and Vietnam air tactics; compromised by official history purpose to recount thoroughly uninteresting internal details while omitting too much of both context and technical detail for my tastes and suspiciously hamstrung in certain areas like nuclear strategy or Harpoon.
On a more meta-level, I was prompted to read it by a mention on isegoria.net, quoting another OR paper/book, Techniques of Systems Analysis, Kahn & Mann 1957 (RAND). Kahn makes an interesting point: one often sees an argument (particularly in conservative/libertarian circles) about ‘Chesterton’s fence’ and variants thereof - that societies have evolved rich and highly effective tactics through vast experience & evolution that mere humans cannot hope to improve upon nor understand; yet, as OR has proved many times, it is possible - easy, even (“it was found that almost any honest, technically competent person could turn out worthwhile and interesting results”) - to apply a little statistics to a problem and despite treating a caricature of a caricature with trivial algorithms or even none at all beyond basic arithmetic, improve, possibly quite a bit, over the carefully-considered judgments of humans in the field with decades of experience. And of course we can add many examples of human judgment being exceeded in areas like chess or Go or math despite millennia of study, or entire areas of human knowledge turning out to be almost 100% wrong (religion, medicine) before the introduction of methods like ‘record all data’ or ‘flip a coin to decide whether to administer a medicine to see if it works’.
Kahn ascribes this in part to technological change (no one is competent to understand how to hunt German submarines in WWII because it is too novel a problem for any folk wisdom to have evolved), and while that’s certainly a problem (witness Shockley’s anecdote of why no air crews could develop real expertise), we also have to note the presence of systematic biases and error in human reasoning demonstrated throughout OR. The problem with Chesterton’s fence is that everything does change, people can’t learn the right thing in the first place, and from an information-theoretic & genetics perspective, there just is not enough reliable transmission of information nor selection within or between societies to maintain more than a few traditional practices with cryptic efficiency. (If societies were a bacteria with a genome, they would succumb to mutational meltdown almost instantaneously.) There is not and cannot be an explanation for the majority of cultural practices; from a genetics or information theory point of view, the replication fidelity and selection pressure just is not there, and this is why not just most cultural practices or beliefs but entire fields are nulls. It’s all mutational noise, which, however, cannot be demonstrated without absurdly good records. (I’m reminded of my work hunting down various urban legends and rumors; often, one reaches a terminus where a quote or claim just appears out of thin air centuries after it supposedly was said or happened; would it not be thoroughly absurd to say, “you haven’t proved this quote was made up or for what purpose, so despite your heroic research and thoroughness, I choose to continue to believe it; go away until you can explain for what reason this quote was published”?) What are the explanations which neutralize Chesterton’s fence for all of pre-1900 medicine? Or the vast array of superstitions? There are none: they are simply the wild fancies of human minds blinded by biases such as regression to the mean, unconstrained by the mere fact that they are false. Intellectual games like Peter Leeson’s, however amusing and dressed up in models, are fundamentally unconvincing. Chesterton’s fence simply does not work as a heuristic - even in stable societies not undergoing any scientific/technological/economic changes of the magnitude of the past half-millennium.
(Some further reading: Search and Screening, Koopman 1946, Methods of Operations Research, Morse & Kimball 1951, “Scientists at the Operational Level”, Blackett 1941. See also The Theory That Would Not Die & The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III.)
|Confessions of an English Opium Eater||Thomas de Quincey||★★★||2003||2016/10/30||
One of the more famous drug memoirs, up there with Huxley’s The Doors of Perception in influence and how many people it has convinced to experiment. Most drugs that inspire prose tend to be psychedelics, and given the modern opiate epidemic, one is a little surprised to come across an opiate memoir, but de Quincey, when writing about opium, sounds remarkably like a modern drug writer, whose sentiments would fit right in at a 1960s California powwow, right down to his speculation that humans possess enormous powers of memory or thought which are suppressed in ordinary life but may reveal them under the proper (perhaps chemical) influence. I had heard the phrase ‘opium dream’ but somehow it had never dawned on me that this might be quite literal and smoking opium, like DMT, might cause dissociated states with engrossing hallucinations in addition to the euphoria and pain-killing aspects one expects from opiates.
The parts dealing with opium, however, are brief and could easily be excerpted in a review. The bulk of the work, which is hardly quoted, turns out to be a turgidly overwritten Romantic autobiography of de Quincey, where he professes to confess the troubles of his life and his innermost emotions; however, with de Quincey, author of “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts”, the more he confesses about his life, the more puzzling it becomes why he is boring us with his melodramatic autobiography which ultimately has so little to do with the humdrum entirely ordinary circumstances of his opium addiction, the less one believes him, and the more suspicion builds up that de Quincey is doing the exact opposite of confessing, he is instead an octopus camouflaging his real gothic self under a cloud of ink. One senses that de Quincey is engaged more in playing a role: a jaded hedonist, he wants to see and feel and provoke the extremes, and if that is not possible, then at least inflict an intimation of happy horrors or paranoid pleasures beyond normal human ken (which yet survives in Lovecraft):
Or Matthew Bevis:
While unprepossessing, we should be charitable; as Borges says of Galland’s Arabian Nights, “We, mere anachronistic readers of the twentieth century, perceive in these volumes the cloyingly sweet taste of the eighteenth century and not the evanescent oriental aroma that two hundred years ago was their innovation and their glory. No one is to blame for this missed encounter, least of all Galland.”
|The Unholy Consult (Aspect-Emperor, #4)||R. Scott Bakker||★★★||2017||2017/08/03||
The conclusion to the Second Apocalypse’s “The Aspect-Emperor” tetralogy, an extended double-book of The Great Ordeal/The Unholy Consult. After thousands of pages exhausting the reader in a ‘slog of slogs’, the two threads of the plot, the wizard and the crusade, finally converge at Golgotterath for the epic battle at the ultimate stronghold of the Consult, which consumes the majority of the book and harks back to Lord of the Rings & WoT’s A Memory of Light. The end of the battle sees a stack of revelations unfold, including at least two that could be called literal deus ex machinas, the failure of the Great Crusade and the second resurrection of the No-God. (I would worry about spoilers here but seriously, you are reading R. Scott Bakker’s fiction, you didn’t actually think the Crusade was going to succeed & defeat the Consult & prevent the No-God’s resurrection and not go horribly wrong somehow, did you?) This sets the stage for, presumably, another trilogy covering the fight against the No-God and Achamian re-enacting the First Apocalypse.
Bakker remains Bakker: technology like nuclear bombs & lasers are quietly slipped into the fantasy setting, the sex remains disturbingly weird, the influence of Frank Herbert remains profound and probably missed by most readers (I was particularly struck by “No-God” - literally there in the name, yet I missed it). What is good:
So, I thought The Great Ordeal was a considerable success, but The Unholy Consult… I am not sure. As the quip about the French student riots go, “it is too soon to tell”.
Dune and Bakker
To elaborate a bit on some of the easier analogies between Dune and Bakker: qirri : spice; Dunyain : Bene Gesserit+Mentat; Kelhus : Paul; the Breaking of the Houses/Great Crusade : Butlerian/Paul’s Jihad; Kelmomas/No-God : No-ships/No-globes/Siona; Tekne : Family atomics; Dûnyain whale-mothers : Tleilaxu axolotl tanks; Probability Trance : mentat computation; sorcery : prescience; Crusades : Caucasus rebellions. It would not be going too far to view Bakker as telling the Dune saga in a far more brutal fashion and going far more in depth into the Jihad part than Herbert did. Both are fundamentally concerned with human freedom in a deterministic universe—but reach opposite conclusions about the endpoint of human agency.
The most transparent reference to Dune is the name “No-God”, which follows the same naming pattern as “no-globes” and “no-ships” in the later Dune books. The reason this is important is that the ‘no’ prefix doesn’t mean simply ‘fake’ or ‘false’ (as I imagine most Bakker readers assume: the No-God is simply a fake replacement god, and it’s a derogatory name given by its enemies who follow the true gods), but it’s an active negation of another power: in Dune, no-globes actively destroy the power of prescient people to look into possible futures by hiding things which can then affect the future.
This, I think, may be key to interpretation. In Dune,, as often missed by readers of Dune, prescience doesn’t just work forward but also backward: those who foresee the future enable their future selves to reach back in time and create their futures. Thus, in the Dune novels, many of the characters are slaves.
In Dune, Paul Atreides is manipulating events from before he has ever consumed spice, and indeed, manipulating events before his birth; long before, the Spacing Guild sees a ‘nexus’ and the Bene Gesserit are concerned that a ‘higher-order power’ is taking control of Arrakis and thus the future of the universe, as revealed by anomalies like the Lady Jessica’s betrayal to conceive a son or the seeding of manipulative memes among the Fremen to make them tools of the Bene Gesserit. The move to Arrakis, defeat, the fleeing to the desert, the Jihad—all are caused by Paul’s prescient vision being so strong, as the first Kwisatz Haderach, as to override the weaker visions of spice consumers like the Fremen (aided by tools like the Dune Tarot), the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers, and the Guild Navigators, forcing them to act as necessary to bring Muad’dib into existence. Muad’dib is a self-fulling prophecy, but not merely self-fulfilling: he is the stable fixed point.
In Dune Messiah/Children of Dune/God-Emperor of Dune, Paul Atreides is, in turn, himself enslaved by his son, Leto II, who is an even more powerful prescient being, and manipulates Paul from the future to bring himself & his sister into being, and intervenes as necessary to defeat Scytale etc. Leto II’s ‘Golden Path’ creates no-globes/no-ships, the human equivalent of no-globes (Siona & descendants), and built-up pressures yielding the Scattering across the multiverse of Siona-descendants in no-ships. The no-ships & Sionas guarantee that no prescient vision, no matter how powerful, will ever again be able to see (and control) all of humanity, and the Scattering ensures that no single political polity or military or civilization can ever physically track and destroy all of humanity. Why is the Golden Path so critical and the core of Leto’s entire story? Because Leto’s actions in creating the Golden Path also make him the final all-prescient being and a fixed point: Leto’s prescient visions exploring all the possible futures showed him that there were still further distant futures in which Ixian hunter-kill prescient machines (the primitive prototypes of which replaced Guild Navigators) surpassed human beings, and thus, could create the past in their image—except that the Golden Path blocked their retrocausal influence by crippling prescience millennia before, taking much of the universe out of prescient control. Otherwise, the possibility of superhumanly prescient machines would have been another self-fulfilling stable point, manipulating human history to bring them into existence. (As is entirely possible, as machines are not limited by human limits, and can be superior to humans; the evil of the machines is that they do not share human values, and can be abused by other humans. ‘“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”’)
The self-proclaimed goal of the Bene Gesserit is to create ‘adults’, by breeding and every other method: humans who are self-controlled, who have all possible abilities (from martial arts to rhetoric to prescience to ancestral memory access), who can adapt to all circumstances and embrace change, who are ‘awake’ one might say. As the Dune saga develops, humans grow ever more capable: the revived swordmaster Duncan Idaho is told he is literally slower and an obsolete model by a distant descendant who even as an old man can defeat Idaho. Norman Spinrad remarks that the libertarian Herbert once told him that he’d like to conclude the saga by eventually developing the universe into a democracy, shedding the elitist aristocracies and gerontocracies and tyrannies and theocracies and secret societies which dominate the Dune universe; this would be the logical endpoint of the growth & maturation of humanity.
You are a contradiction, my friend. You choose. You decide. You hold responsible and are held responsible. But at the same time, you’re a machine, something that can be conditioned, repaired, turned on or off, piloted with greater ease than a drone—so long as you remain convinced that you choose and decide.
“The Dûnyain, have surrendered themselves to the Logos, to what you would call reason and intellect. We seek absolute awareness, the self-moving thought. The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before? Only the Logos allows one to mitigate that slavery. Only knowing the sources of thought and action allows us to own our thoughts and our actions, to throw off the yoke of circumstance. And only the Dûnyain possess this knowledge, plainsman. The world slumbers, enslaved by its ignorance. Only the Dûnyain are awake.”
(…“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning. The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.”…)
In Bakker’s terms, the goals of the Dûnyain and Bene Gesserit are the same: they seek to liberate mankind from “the darkness that comes before”. All men are slaves when they walk ‘conditioned ground’, and are bound by the shackles of causality. In particular, they are manipulated by the gods who wish to feast on their souls in the afterlife, and to ensure a steady supply of fodder, intervene in worldly affairs by manipulating probability and the future using prescience, creating entities like the White-Luck Warrior, who is simply so lucky that he can kill anyone he wants without any effort, because all events just happen to occur as necessary and foreseen (akin to Paul Atreides after being blinded in Dune Messiah). Whether men are manipulated by Dûnyain or by gods or by material conditions prior to that moment, what difference does that make? One must be freed.
But what of prescience? Normally, “that which comes before determines that which comes after”, but with prescience and retro-causation, “that which comes after determines that which comes before”. Bakker appears to be borrowing this heavily in discussing how the No-God overwrites the timeline of the gods in the past before it exists to bring itself into existence: “that which comes after determines that which comes before”. The gods see only that which comes before, and are blind to the No-God or a select few individuals like Kelmomas. They cannot see it except indirectly, and cannot prevent it or react to it. It provides freedom from the darkness that comes before. The Dûnyain, unsurprisingly, are natural allies of the Inchoroi & No-God once they learn they were so badly mistaken about the existence of sorcery, the gods, and afterlife/Hell: the gods are their enemies, any claims to being the font of ‘morality’ laughable, and the afterlife a fate far worse than death. Their sight must be blinded, and the world closed against Hell.
…Or so the Dûnyain taken captive think. Probably the key to the entire saga is Koringhus, ‘The Survivor’, greatest of the Dûnyain (The Great Ordeal, ch8/14), self shattered by the ordeal of the destruction of the Dûnyain. Emerging into the world, Koringhus realizes the error of the Dûnyain: they had deceived themselves, that which came after could indeed determine that which came before, and the world has many floors indeed. Meeting Mimara and seeing the one true god look at him via the Judging Eye, he completes the Dûnyain doctrine: the world is a block-universe and there is an unconditioned absolute which truly comes before all that which comes either before or father, and the past is determined by the future just as much as vice-versa. This absolute block-universe is the one true God, the ‘Zero that is One’. And, seeing the ‘semantic apocalypse’, enlightened into eliminativism, and forgiven by the Judging Eye, Koringhus leaps to his death: the Shortest Path to the Absolute, the Logo, the only source of all movement and darkness and wakefulness.
In Herbert, human development culminates in an endless jazz jam session across an infinitely undulating multiverse of provisional phenomena (dubbed ‘illusions’ by the pessimistic)—“If you must label the absolute, use its proper name: ‘Temporary’”; in Bakker, human development culminates in the shattering of all illusion, and the greatest illusion, that of the self—and embrace of the absolute in death.
|A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History||Nicholas J. Wade||★★★||2014||2014/09/24||
Wade’s book is a short fairly breezy overview of population genetics, combined with some long overviews of a few previous works speculating on possible grand historical evolutionary changes in human groups like the Jews. Because he takes seriously all the genetics research, unsurprisingly it’s controversial.
…Well, I could continue listing fascinating recent research for a while, let’s say. I don’t think Wade does a good job conveying the ferment and output of the field as increasing sample sizes and sophistication are making headway. (I felt it was out of date and not conveying the comprehensiveness of the genetic revolution when I read it in 2014; rereading this review in 2016, I feel this even more strongly.)
And it’s not like he’s omitting the cutting-edge research in favor of a detailed discussion for the layman of what genes are, what terms like “SNPs” or “haplotypes” are, what’s the distinction between your $99 23andMe purchase and the $1000 thing you might otherwise buy, the principles of population genetics like drift, fixation, IQ etc - actually, quite the opposite, he freely talks about variants and genes and only chapters later explains his terms, if at all.
So what is the book about if he isn’t covering those topics? Well, for the most part it seems to be a summary of The 10,000 Year Explosion, Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, Clark’s Farewell to Alms & The Son Also Rises, Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order, Botticini & Eckstein’s The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, and Cochran’s Ashkenazi intelligence hypothesis. Wade is interested in the possible different selective pressures on each population as they co-evolve with their institutions and environment, sometimes tending towards domestication, sometimes not. His presentation is not terrible, but I think most readers would be better off simply reading the source books (I have read most of them and they are worth reading in their entirety).
|The Recollections Of Eugene P. Wigner: As Told To Andrew Szanton||Eugene Paul Wigner||★★★||2003||2016/03/17||
Oral-memoir/autobiography of Hungarian physicist-chemist Eugene Wigner. Wigner is not a name even people interested in the Cold War or the nuclear bomb will be all that familiar with (except it might ring a bell as Wigner’s friend or his famous essay “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”), but turns out to almost be a Zelig or Forrest Gump: he was one of the ‘Martians’, who went to school with von Neumann himself and worked with him on a number of things, was a lifelong close friend of Szilard, spent years in Göttingen with the famed German physics community which was creating quantum mechanics (experiencing a good deal of pushback in getting them to use group theory, an area of mathematics absolutely integral to modern physics now), got to America well before WWII, provided the Chianti wine drunk at Fermi’s splitting the atom, was a major mover in getting Einstein to write the letter that led to the Manhattan Project, and played his own role in designing nuclear reactors and producing plutonium - all this before winning a Nobel prize. Wigner protests repeatedly in the book that he is uninterested in fame or credit, and while one might think that the lady doth protest too much, one has to admit that for someone who was involved in so much and was a Nobelist, his name is known far below that of other Nobelists at the time like Feynman.
This memoir omits most of the details of my personal life: just how I became fond of my wife or quarreled with my sisters. These are the things of diaries, a form that seems to me far inferior to the memoir. Diaries seem too often to only trace the patterns of the diarist’s unhappiness.
…Once I asked my father, “Why are people so attached to money?” He responded simply, “Because of the power and influence it gives them.” I disliked this bit of cynicism and told him so. It was years before I saw that he was largely right: The human desires for power and influence are very deep and strong. I learned a great deal from my father which I failed to fully credit at the time. These talks with my father led me to wonder, “Why am I on this earth? What do I want to achieve?” I felt my purpose should be to marry, to begin my own family, and to provide this family with a proper home and nourishment. Today, these things come far more easily and many youths no longer know what to strive for. Many of them see power and influence as the only valid goal. But in 1919, providing a home and nourishment was a valid purpose.
…Both his knowledge and his desire to relate it seemed inexhaustible. Most people walk straight home, already thinking of what they will do when they arrive. Not Jancsi [John von Neumann]. One got home late after a walk with him.
…Pernicious anemia was then not considered curable. So Hilbert suddenly seemed quite old. He was only about 65, which seems rather young to me now. But life no longer much interested him. I knew very well that old age comes eventually to everyone who survives his stay on this earth. For some people, it is a time of ripe reflection, and I had often envied old men their position. But Hilbert had aged with awful speed, and the prematurity of his decline took the glow from it. His breadth of interest was nearly gone and with it the engaging manner that had earned him so many disciples. Hilbert eventually got medical treatment for his anemia and managed to live until 1943. But he was hardly a scientist after 1925, and certainly not a Hilbert. I once explained some new theorem to him. As soon as he saw that its use was limited, he said, “Ah, then one doesn’t really have to learn this one.” It was painfully clear that he did not want to learn it.
…One day, I was lying on the grass near the Göttingen municipal swimming pool. Beside me sat the German astronomer Heckman. Suddenly, Heckman saw a lot of red ants crawling on one of my legs. He was surprised that I permitted this and asked did they not bite? When I answered that yes they did bite, Heckman asked why I did not kill them. “Well,” I said, “I can’t tell which ones are doing the biting.”
…When I first entered physics in 1921, people used to smile when I said I was a physicist. They saw my profession as the harmless pursuit of complex irrelevancies. Now they had stopped smiling. I had some pride, and I liked that. But I was one of many scientists who also looked back fondly to the days when science had been a monastic calling. One scientist wrote a song that expressed our feeling well: “Take Back Your Billion Dollars” [“Take Away Your Billion Dollars”, Arthur Roberts]. All of this money had brought bureaucracy and taken some of the pleasure from the practice of science. Modern physics was also disturbingly specialized. Specialization is productive; I clean the house much less well than my wife, so she cleans the house while I practice science. Scientists who specialize can pay closer attention to their work and better master it.
Ultimately, it is a good but not great autobiography of a fairly interesting life of a minor figure of the Cold War; if one is not already familiar with and interested with figures like Feynman and von Neumann, there are probably more rewarding books for one to read.
|Donald Michie: On Machine Intelligence, Biology and More||Donald Michie||★★★||2009||
(A posthumous anthology of edited excerpts from Donald Michie’s corpus.)
Donald Michie was one of those men who, perhaps thanks to living through WWII & the Cold War, lived an absurd-seeming life. Originally a classics scholar, he was roped into Bletchley Park, then on the hunt for chess players, crossword players, mathematicians, and anyone who might be good at the twisty cattywompus thinking & symbolic games which seemed to be vital in cryptography. He turned out to be good at working with Good (I.J., that is, who also provides a preface to this volume), and met Turing. Bletchley Park was an intense time for him, a gathering of highly motivated and highly intelligent (and sometimes highly eccentric) people given substantial resources & freedom to pursue a mission with clearly-defined & measurable goals which was of the utmost importance; when Michie began to get antsy, upset by the implicit social criticism directed at him for being a healthy young man in England while the other young men were busy being blown up (not least by his parents), Bletchley Park sent a colonel around to his father to instruct him that Michie’s work was far too important to the war effort for him to be permitted to do something as damn-fool & useless as sign up to fight in Egypt, and that was the end of that (pg37). Of that period he remarks (shades of the Apollo Project, the Manhattan Project, the Radio Lab, Skunk Works, Xerox PARC, von Neumann’s ICBM development project, or perhaps startups in general - see also Dominic Cummings 1/2; pg34):
After WWII, he continued in academia where he moved to genetics, playing a role in inventing linkage/linkage disequilibrium (a phenomenon which has grown vastly in importance ever since, and is the blessing & bane of GWASes), then helped invent in vitro fertilization, and finally layed a small role in the development of organ transplants (which, I was interested to learn, depended heavily on identical twin experiments).
None of that, however, is why I bought the book. The real reason is that after departing genetics, Michie turned his attention to a different form of artificial conception: the nascent field of artificial intelligence, where probably his most lasting contribution will be helping inaugurate reinforcement learning.
The problem of reinforcement learning is to learn what actions are most rewarding when executed in a potentially unbounded long series of action in an environment. The effects of these actions can be arbitrarily delayed, the rewards likewise can be delayed, the environment can be arbitrarily complex and uncooperative, and no one will tell you whether you have found the best rewards or actions, you have to somehow estimate all of this. At first glance, while the simplest form, the multi-armed bandit, where there’s only 1 time-step, seems soluble, the general problem seems impossible. If there’s only 1 action and then everything resets, it’s easy to figure out that the outcome must be due to that action and start estimating how good each action is; but if there are hundreds or thousands of actions, how is it ever possible to figure out which action is responsible and solve ‘the credit assignment problem’? It seems like you have to introduce more assumptions: assume that the environment is drawn from some small-sized distribution of models and then you can start figuring out what model the environment is and plan over that model, although this becomes almost immediately intractable as soon as you want anything more complex than Tic-Tac-Toe and you can forget about robotics anytime soon.
Is RL even possible in a general sense? Michie’s response to a colleague that bet him that “learning machines were an impossibility” (pg67) reminds me of Hamming’s description of Shannon:
Michie then went on to solve “cart-pole” (infamous to RL researchers now) but in real life, with a real robotic cart-pole, using BOXES, an extension of MENACE.
Unfortunately, MENACE/BOXES and Michie’s RL work is almost totally omitted from this volume, rating only a few brief mentions in passing. Srinivasan warns that he chose to omit most technical papers in favor of softer writings, and that drains much of the interest of this volume for me. Hopefully Michie’s On Machine Intelligence will be more useful. (Although in light of DL, the chapter “Human Window on the World” from The Creative Computer, 1985, is an interesting discussion of how frustratingly opaque a superhuman AI may be using the example of chess endgame solution databases, and timely given current interest in ‘explainable’ systems. Not, of course, that human brains are really all that explainable either - just a few chapters later, in “Rules from the Human Brain”, he recounts the problems in expert system research that ‘think-aloud protocols’ do a poor job of explaining how humans reach their answers, mentioning of A.L. Samuel’s attempt to write a checkers program by interviewing checkers masters that (pg136) “…he had numerous sessions with leading checkers masters directed toward dialogue acquisition of their rules and principles. Samuels reported (personal communication) that he had never had such frustrating experiences in his life. In terms of relationship to what the masters actually did, the verbal material he elicited contained almost nothing he could use or interpret. In similar vein, Feigenbaum & McCorduck describe this type of expert response in the following terms: ‘That’s true, but if you see enough patients/rocks/chip-designs/instrument-readings, you’ll see that it is not true after all.’ They conclude, ‘At this point, knowledge threatens to become ten thousand special cases.’…Lacking a declarative model [of what key is what letter], the touch-typist is ordinarily unable to do so (see, for example, Posner 1973), other than by deliberately typing a symbol and seeing where the finger went!”)
What does it contain? While a thick book, this is due as much to thick paper and large font than a cornucopia of contents, featuring primarily short excerpts from some of the research papers, a number of interviews/discussions, and many popularized, opinion or, ‘think pieces’. (There are an unfortunate number of typos suggesting insufficient copyediting, incidentally.)
In particular, a theme that emerges (I don’t know if Srinivasan intended this in his editorial choices) is that Michie’s AI career was repeatedly stymied and stunted by the British government imposing bureaucracy, top-down orders, and limited funding. It has often been remarked that Britain should have led the development of computers based its early successes such as Alan Turing or Colossus, and its rich vein of human intelligence; even if Britain, so much smaller than the USA in every way, might not have become the majority of the computing industry, it should have snagged a far larger share of the pie than it did, building off first-mover effects and plowing the early economic returns back in. The subsequent history of English computing can be described as isolated sparks of brilliance, often spurred by games (see filfre.net). Michie’s career demonstrates the complete post-WWII complacency & lack of ambition, vision, or interest in economic growth that threw away this early opportunity, and he laments the constant brain-drain of talented Englishmen to the USA (as indeed would happen to I.J. Good after not terribly long, and one regrets that Michie didn’t follow him across the pond to MIT or somewhere). Can one imagine a British ARPA/DARPA? It’s hard to, unfortunately. It’s equally unfortunate that he died when he did in as stupid a way as a car accident, not living to see the reinforcement learning renaissance of the past decade.
So, it didn’t cover what I wanted to know, but the historical background and the genetics/biology work was unexpectedly interesting.
|Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation||Tyler Cowen||★★★||2013||2016/07/24||
Followup to The Great Stagnation, AiO takes the same format awkwardly straddling the territory between overgrown Marginal Revolution blog posts and full-length books (AiO can easily be read in an afternoon and could be edited down further without much loss). AiO rehearses some of the background of TGS like the stagnation in median incomes and wretched income growth for most educational brackets. Americans, in 2013 and 2016, feel tremendously insecure; the absolute standard of living may be higher than before, but an iPhone doesn’t pay the bills, and YouTube doesn’t replace having a sense of self-respect or a stable job.
As a professor, I am given a research assistant each year. Over the last twenty or so years, I have received some extraordinary assistance from some very good workers, students, and eventually, peers and coauthors.
(As AiO is fairly light on citation and referencing for a book advancing such broad theses, I think maybe Cowen should try to figure out how to manage more than one research assistant.)
Cowen’s central case-study of this complementation is chess, and Advanced Chess in particular: a human playing chess with the assistance of grandmaster-level (and not long after its founding, super-grandmaster level) chess AIs, which began in 1998 at Kasparov’s proposal. Cowen is an avid chess player, and these parts of the book are by far the best part of it. He describes the rapid progress of chess AIs after Deep Blue and the consequences for human chess playing of the availability of superhuman chess AIs. The chess AIs can see so far past the humans that Cowen, watching two play each other in a match and able to see each’s evaluation of their winning chances by using his own chess AI to follow along, became certain that Stockfish would lose despite the evaluations insisting it would win, because Stockfish was in just too horrible a position; but as the inhuman moves pass, suddenly a Stockfish win started to look not so implausible, and by the end, Cowen could confirm with his own AI that the evaluations from almost 30 moves before were correct. Cowen notes that even grandmasters have difficulty understanding, after the fact, the moves that the chess AI play and why they work despite being apparently insanely risky and chaotic - paradoxically, though the best chess ever played is being played now in computer chess tournaments and chess AIs are arguably approaching perfection, humans have hardly any interest in playing, watching, commentating, or analyzing those games! Optimal chess moves, apparently, often strike benighted humans as ugly and risky, for all that they are the correct moves. (One thinks of what the Go players said about some of AlphaGo’s moves during the Lee Sedol match.) What do ‘AI moves’ look like in life, or dating, or business negotiation, Cowen wonders? It might look like matching up people who are apparently antagonistic like conservative men and liberal women, but who might work out well anyway (Cowen cites one Match.com demonstration of a black/white couple where each violated the other’s ‘requirements’ for a match but they married anyway, and his own marriage through a dating site to a liberal women.)
However, as astoundingly excellent as chess AIs playing each other are, as of Cowen’s experience before the 2013 publication, a few humans are able to provide some sort of edge, overriding the chess AI to make a better move, and win. Oddly, this does not apparently require one to be a grandmaster or even a master chess player, but some sort of instinctive mechanical sympathy based on having an idea of where the chess AI is ‘weak’ and watching the evaluations in realtime (along with better preparation like gathering large chess game databases); indeed, being a GM may be a liability, as at least two GMs, Nakamura & Naroditsky, appear to have harmed or at least not helped their chess AIs with their lack of deep humility. (As chess AIs show, GMs arguably make mistakes on almost half of their moves.)
Cowen (as well as some other authors in 2013 like Clive Thompson) takes Advanced Chess as an optimistic paradigm for technological changes: it need not lead to unemployment if people can learn the skills which render them complements to new technology, instead of being substituted. One of his primary solutions is MOOCs and online education. I’m not sure MOOCs are so positively regarded in 2016 as they were in 2013. And like most authors who present education as a nostrum Cowen also doesn’t explain why we would expect more education to solve anything when the existing steep education/income penalties/correlations have not managed to motivate the general population. Computerized education has been great for chess education, certainly, with grandmasters minted ever younger; but that didn’t reverse Deep Blue’s victory.
I think Cowen knows that MOOCs and other band-aids aren’t going to reverse these trends, and the Advanced Chess example is telling: very few people can contribute to Advanced Chess, and the very best Advanced Chess players are adding ~100 Elo points, or a few % towards victory. 100 Elo points is not much. It’s about as much as chess AIs improve in 2 years. At what point will Advanced Chess stop ‘being a thing’ as the chess AIs will have become so good that Advanced Chess players can no longer make a discernible positive contribution? Oddly, I’m having a very hard time figuring that out. Advanced Chess is not mentioned much online after 2013. Some extrapolating suggests that Advanced Chess may already have become moot in 2013, and if not then, is probably finished by 2016; so at the most generous, Advanced Chess could be said to have only existed 1998-2016 (so 18 years, hardly enough time for a kid to grow up), and then only for the tiniest fraction of the population.
So he finishes up pessimistically with forecasts of current trends: the American governments, federal/state/local, are going to face the anvil of healthcare inflation and unfunded Medicaid/Social Security promises. These programs are politically untouchable because old people know what side their bread is buttered on, so they will paid out, one way or another. Which will involve systematic rises in taxation and decreases in services. What does the lower half of the polarized economy do to cope with this? They will have to flee to jurisdictions with smaller governments and less taxation and less goldbrick regulation of housing jacking up rents, however unpleasant such places are, like Texas (but which nevertheless has constant inflow of migration, compared to California). American standards of living will decrease: beef burgers will be replaced with bean burritos, houses will downsize. Alternately, this inevitability of lower incomes could be embraced and deregulation and reductions done deliberately rather than implicitly: “In essence, we would be recreating a Mexico-like or Brazil-like environment in part of the United States, although with some technological add-ons and most likely with greater safety.” This constriction won’t be as bad as it may sound. Just as most healthcare expenditures in the USA are wasted so getting health insurance doesn’t make much of a difference to health, many Americans (rich or poor) have extravagant spending habits (consider who buys all those lottery tickets and tobacco): “The bad news is that there is a lot of waste in American consumption-massive amounts of waste, in fact. Everyone has their favorite story about what the other guy spends his money on and could do without. But also the good news, oddly enough, is that there is a lot of waste in American consumption. Citizens faced with financial pressures will shift into cheaper consumption, and a lot of them will do so without losing very much happiness or value, precisely because there is already so much waste in what they buy.” I could hardly disagree. If I had a buck for every boat or in-ground pool I’ve seen people pay a fortune for and then never use, or use once a year, I could buy a bundle of burritos; or not take even a few seconds to shop around online; and one can go to Walmart and simply watch people shop as they buy the smallest unit grocery (despite having a large family or it being something which never goes bad), or buy a brand-name food which tastes exactly the same as the generic but costs 50% more, or buy food they’ll let rot before they can be bothered to eat it… (Nor do I exempt my relatives from this criticism.)
In this section Tyler also says something that particularly amused me in this election season: “Most American voters are fairly moderate, disillusioned with both political parties, and looking for someone who can fill the proverbial niche of”getting something done," or “unifying the nation.” Those are not the kind of attitudes that make for a revolutionary future." (A craving for strongmen like Mussolini is not revolutionary?)
So what does that leave us? A weak diagnostic followup to TGS. One of the longest and most interesting writeups of Advanced Chess around. Some vague speculation about specifics of software/AI improvements to other sectors of the economy, badly handicapped by being written in 2013 (hopefully Cowen could do a much better job now). Some weak solutions or bandaids like MOOCs. And a reasonable but pessimistic extrapolation. Overall, not particularly worth reading unless you are interested in chess.
|New Legends||Greg Bear||★★★||1996||2013/12/04||
New Legends is an anthology of SF stories picked by Bear with an eye toward the psychological & personal lives of scientists/researchers. I purchased a copy of it to look at the novella “Radiance” by Carter Scholz and compare it with the full novel Radiance for the annotated ebook of Radiance I have been working on for a while. That will be its own review, so I will pass over it for now. An unexpected bonus for me was Gregory Benford’s contribution: not a story, but an autobiographical essay “Old Legends” on the real-life background to “Radiance” that he lived through, discussing his physics career, time at LLNL (where “Radiance” is set), experiences with other SF authors in the Reagan-era lobbying for SDI/Star Wars, the Cartmill incident, his admiration of Edward Teller, etc. Scholz clearly drew on Benford for his novella, and so it was unusually interesting for me.
|Perseverance island: or, The Robinson Crusoe of the nineteenth century||Douglas Frazar||★★★||2009||2014/12/13||
(130k words; 2h) I read the Project Gutenberg HTML edition with illustrations.
In all works of the Robinson Crusoe type, the wreck is always near at hand, the powder dry and preserved, and the days for rafting the same ashore calm and pleasant. This unfortunate had no such accessories; and his story proves the limitless ingenuity and invention of man, and portrays the works and achievements of a castaway, who, thrown ashore almost literally naked upon a desert isle, is able by the use of his brains, the skill of his hands, and a practical knowledge of the common arts and sciences, to far surpass the achievements of all his predecessors, and to surround himself with implements of power and science utterly beyond the reach of his prototype, who had his wreck as a reservoir from which to draw his munitions.
This sounded promising. While detailed how-tos and manuals can be crushingly boring, a good narrative can weave them in and be both educational & interesting. (Neal Stephenson manages this sometimes.)
It starts off sensibly enough, with the expected disaster as part of a sequence of gradually worsening events that eventually strands him on an unknown island. Our protagonist is part of a colonization mission, but don’t worry, he doesn’t get a colony’s worth of equipment dumped on him: just his clothes, a few books, and an anchor. This seems like a good start.
It’s surprising when he manufactures nails out of his shoes, but boots did use to have nails in them and it’s clever, so no foul there. He immediately secures his priorities of food and water, perhaps in a little more baroque fashion than expected (I didn’t really follow the pipe set up), and then he makes a… “lamp-tower”. No, not for signaling passing ships. Just so he doesn’t have to rekindle fire with his flint and nails. And the lamps are powered by oil. (The oil is from the livers of sharks he spears. Of course?) This is the first sign of trouble with the narrative. The second sign comes when instead of immediately exploring the island like any sane person would, days pass as he is made to refine his landing spot and create a dwelling and begin manufacturing tools and planting seeds. …OK?
He explores the island and finds an absurd number of resources. Besides the sharks and turtles he’s feasted on, he finds wild goats (and why haven’t they denuded the island?) and even more: “Wild goats, quail, tortoise, tobacco, wild ducks, trout, sweet potatoes, mussels…Find coal and sulphur, seals, more turtles, gulls, etc.” I’m not sure what sort of tropical island yields all that and coal and sulphur. But wait, there’s more: there’s also saltpetre, iron, pearl oysters, gold mines, penguins, and sea serpents! And that’s not even covering all the stuff he makes; he apparently is some sort of superhuman genius master of all trades who can make anything on the first try without ever injuring himself. Mithridates over on Amazon puts it well:
The book does not live up to this vaulted goal - but rather dissolves into utter ridiculous and pathetic shows of limitless (and impossible) manifestations of human ingenuity (or rather magical conjuring experiments of every necessary mineral, metal, technology). These progression of these chapter subject headings illustrates my point -Hat Making, Knife Hammer and Spear, Discovery of Coal, Discovery of Sulphur, Steel, Cement, Iron, Astrolabe, Rifles, Submarine (Goat Powered), Steam Yacht, and eventually Chess and Backgammon (With a Goat). I understand that this is a ‘realistic’ form of fantasy writing but there are extremes to the ingenuity of man and the availability of an island with all the resources of the world. So is Frazar actually exploring the ingenuity of man? Or rather what man could do in a fantasy world? Anyone can do anything in a fantasy world… But that said, I suppose the genre had been relatively sucked dry by his illustrious predecessors - Verne and Defoe - and showing the humanity of goats was Frazar’s cherished original idea.
(One wonders what Frazar would have made of I am a Pencil…) If Frazar had dropped half of the elements and contented himself with just one of the peak technologies (steam boat would have made the most sense, although I think readers would still object at the idea of a desert island with both coal and iron reserves), the realism might have been preserved. But as it is? It’s ridiculous as any semblance of a realistic narrative. A castaway would have made a lighthouse on the bluffs of the island, and then been busied with maintenance of his food supplies, clothing, and shelter, lacking much practical experience in primitive methods of maintenance, resources, tools, economies of scale or the benefits of specialization. He would not accomplish 1/100th of what the protagonist supposedly does on his own in a decade or so. I must defend the honor of the goats, however: the narrator is perfectly clear the goats do not actually play chess or backgammon, and he has merely trained them to shake dice - which seems well within their capabilities.
Reading through the rhetoric, what I think this is supposed to be is a veiled metaphor of mankind, and particularly 1800s England and America. For example, these passages together very much sound like a progressive manifest destiny:
…portrays the works and achievements of a castaway, who, thrown ashore almost literally naked upon a desert isle, is able by the use of his brains, the skill of his hands, and a practical knowledge of the common arts and sciences, to far surpass the achievements of all his predecessors, and to surround himself with implements of power and science utterly beyond the reach of his prototype, who had his wreck as a reservoir from which to draw his munitions…I did not gather all these things about me without many bitter hours of loneliness and despair; but their constructions and the reading of my book, which I consulted almost nightly, kept me often from miserable repinings. I felt that I was gaining, and that I had not yet done making nature, ingenuity, and industry improve my condition and increase my comforts…On that terrible day in November I was cast on shore, with scarcely any food, no hat, no coat, and without water. With no aid but that given me by God, and by the use of my own hands and brain, I was to-day sitting in front of my home, erected by myself alone. In this short space of time, one year, I had wrested from Nature many things, showing the supremacy of mind over matter, and knowledge, over ignorance and sloth. I had in this year made fire without the aid of matches, distilled salt water to procure fresh, made myself implements of defence, and erected towers of perpetual lamps, made myself flint, steel, and tinder, bows and arrows, fish-hooks and lines; discovered coal, sulphur, saltpetre, and iron, and captured goats, fish, seals, birds, etc., and at the end of the year found myself sitting at my house door surrounded with my flock of goats, my garden and farm planted, my mill and smelting-house in running order, my canoe at my feet in the quiet water of the cove, and everything about me that could please or charm the eye. From absolutely nothing I had created everything; that is to say, the ground was now so laid out that in the future I saw no end to the daring attempts that I should make, and could make with every chance of success. I felt, now that the year was ending, that my hardest work was done; that I had so much now to do with, that all that I should now undertake would be comparatively easy; but then, on the other hand, my ambition was so great that I could see things in the dim future that would tax the strength and brain of any man to consummate, but which from my temperament and loneliness I knew I should be forced to attempt.
The pirate passages particularly highlight this:
My courage arose as I gazed upon the skeleton before me, and I moralized thus: You must have lived in an age when God had not granted to mortals the permission to discover and utilize many of the arts and sciences of my day; you did not live when steam was the motive power, when the lightnings of the heavens were made obedient to man to convey his demands and requests, when the paddle-wheels of floating steamers beat the waters of all the oceans of the earth. All of these things, and many others, were unknown to you. My case is not as bad as yours was, if you were shipwrecked. I, of this century, on this same island, have gathered about me, from nothing, strength and power. You, seemingly, have had only this rude hut over your head. I have chances of escape; I doubt if you ever had any from the first day of your arrival, for I cannot conceive of your having willingly remained upon this desert isle. And now, poor mortal, passed away so long ago, let us see if you can do anything for me, your living prototype.
Inasmuch as the pirate captain died in 1781, not that long ago, and had been shot through the chest & left to die, these are rather self-satisfied comments on the narrator’s part and hence, Frazar’s. (The achievements of Western civilization are great indeed, but they owe little to God, much to other civilizations, started well before the 1800s, and are the result of countless men striving rather than a few.)
So is it good or bad? We might say that one’s liking will depend on how well one likes a transition from realism to steampunk. Despite the wordcount, it’s not a long read because it’s written in the inflated prose style of the 1800s, and I for one didn’t pause to look up every technical term to figure out the exact details of the industrial processes.
|Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders||Warren Buffett||★★★||2013||2017/03/24||
(online letters) The famous annual letters of Buffett laying out the progress of Berkshire Hathaway and his & Munger’s investment beliefs. Apropos of an investigation into Long Bets as a charitable giving opportunity, I read through them. Perhaps the most interesting part about them is how skewed Buffett’s reputation is, given how often he is cited as a counter-example to EMH, despite him clearly explaining his strategy many times. What is most striking about Buffett’s returns is how, despite talking about how irrational “Mr. Market” is, Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway stay away from the general stock market. Reading through, I am stuck by the critical roles played by captive insurance companies and by buying private companies which are not on the stock markets; the methods are radically different from those of hedge funds like Thorp or RenTech, which focus on mispricings in the stock market and whose long-term successes might indeed show substantial weaknesses to the weak EMH. To summarize, the overall arc of Buffett/Hathaway appears to have been:
Step #2 is interesting. Buffett praises the businesses he bought in step #2 like See’s Candy as all being solid businesses that an idiot could run, with little competition, long streams of earnings, requiring little or no capital investment and benefiting from no synergies with other BH companies, and which the existing managers (often family) could be left in place to run as before they sold out (all being highly capable managers Buffett praises in the most extravagant terms), and notes that cumulatively they earned billions of dollars which fueled his purchases of GEICO and General Re etc. Given all these facts, one has to ask: why did any of these companies’ owners ever sell to Buffett in the first place? And the answer is… I don’t know. Even by Buffett’s presumably favorable recounting, many of the reasons were downright idiotic, like the furniture store owner who sold to ‘stop her kids from fighting over it’ (which is one of the worst forms of estate planning I’ve ever heard of and doesn’t actually resolve the issue since presumably then they would simply fight over the estate’s cash). A better reason is that they don’t want to go public and corrupt their vision, so they sell to Buffett instead, but that’s not a great reason either as they forfeit a tremendous cashflow. Given his famously fast offers and handshake deals, I can only guess that either sometimes even highly experienced entrepreneurs go insane & decide to sell on the spur of the moment, or they develop bizarrely high discount rates and decide to sell lucrative income streams for a pittance up front. After finishing, I went looking for commentary and found Matt Levine and an investment banker noting the same thing (albeit in much more cynical terms), and I can’t really disagree: reading Buffett’s own descriptions, he drove extremely hard bargains and almost all of the business owners (except Dexter Shoes, who correctly insisted on BH stock instead of cash) would’ve made a lot more money selling to anyone but the kind avuncular Sage of Omaha. I don’t blame Buffett for doing this, as it is the owners’ faults for being so easily out-negotiated, and certainly Buffett is making far better use of his money in philanthropy than any of them would have, but still, this is not a model which can be emulated and such a method can hardly be considered a strike against the EMH.
Step #3 is interesting since float isn’t necessarily that profitable, but aside from some discussions of “supercat insurance” (a very interesting area of reinsurance I always enjoy reading about), Buffett doesn’t explain exactly why it worked so well; as far as I can tell, none of the supercat events wound up severely impacting BH and so BH got very lucky in those contracts. If he went into why BH insurance was so efficient and well-priced, I might have been more impressed by his skills.
Step #4 is something of an exception that proves the rule. If Buffett has to wait a decade for major vulture buying opportunities, that implies that such mispricings are actually quite rare, since he is not out routinely making such deals. Here he clearly benefits from the unique access to insurance floats to have lots of large but very cheap capital to throw around. One has to suspect that any returns from that are not that impressive after accounting for that, a pool of money simply not available to most investors.
And in step #5, returns have fallen drastically and are no longer anything much to explain.
So the critical steps are either forever vanished (there will never be inefficiencies in stocks and warrants as enormous as they were in the 1940s-1950s, and there will perhaps never again be an economic boom to compare with the US post-WWII return on all American equities) or irreproducible (there are only so many insurers), and Buffett appears to have benefited from a large helping of luck: luck that nuclear war didn’t break out, luck that he has lived so long and in such health that his persona could pay off in off-market purchases, luck that BH avoided all the supercatastrophes in the 1990s, luck that he cottoned onto GEICO early on, luck that BH never fell prey to legal action like some hedge fund competitors such as Thorp did etc. Looking at how he did it, I feel certain that if Buffett were reborn today and handed a copy of Graham, he would find it thoroughly useless and not die a billionaire.
And one wonders how much return Buffett’s mistakes cost him. For example, the initial foray into textiles he often mentions, but he repeated it with Dexter Shoes - I read the letter announcing the purchase and thought to myself, “buying another textile/clothing company in New England? Why on earth? It doesn’t sound like it has any monopoly or regulatory capture or other moat at all. This is not going to end well” and indeed it did not - and in early letters he focuses heavily on inflation long after it had been tamed (at what cost to investment decisions, one wonders), and then in the 2000s forecast doom for the US via the trade deficit (which thus far has not eventuated and he quietly dropped the topic altogether). I can’t say I feel like I learned all that much from reading his analyses.
So to sum up based on his letters: Buffett made his money largely off the efficient stock markets in irreproducible ways exploiting individual irrationality while benefiting from historical and personal luck and is a poor example for anyone trying to argue that the weak EMH is sufficiently false as to make stockpicking a good idea. His investment advice is not particularly impressive or actionable (does anyone need to be told to invest in indexes now?) while the more interesting technical areas like his actual securities trading and insurance pricing methods are deftly concealed under rustic bonhomie, and his writings, while clear, are increasingly repetitive and recycling of jokes toward the end (hopefully as a result of needing to reiterate basics to the growing legions of BH shareholders and not because of senility). All in all, I came out less impressed with Buffett’s investment acumen than I started. There are probably better materials to read on stock markets and investment (certainly, Fortune’s Formula was much more interesting).
|A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time, #14)||Robert Jordan||★★★||2013||2013/01/09||
So. It has come to this. WoT finally ended.
|Tokyo: A Certain Style||Kyoichi Tsuzuki||★★★||1999||2017/11/30||
(scan) Photography book of cluttered Tokyo apartments, illustrating messy everyday life and various approaches.
I picked up a used copy as part of my interest in MUJI and William Gibson’s short essay “Shiny Balls of Mud”. Tsuzuki doesn’t specify when the photos were taken or how they were selected that I’ve found yet, but given the 1997 Japanese publication date and the most recent video game console I spotted being the SNES, it seems likely most of the photos postdate 1990 but predate December 1994 (the release of the very popular & distinctive-looking PlayStation 1). The brief biography sketches mention rock music critics, music critics, teachers, students at an elite art college, fashion models, NHK documentary cameramen, computer programmer American expats, mangaka, etc, so Tsuzuki clearly recruited by word of mouth and personal acquaintances (so I must note that this is not remotely a representative population sample).
Some observations on looking through the photos:
|1000 Poems from the Manyōshū||Ōtomo no Yakamochi||★★★||2005||2016/07/10||
While not as read as the classic Heian-era waka poets, themselves vastly less read than the haiku poets, the Man’yoshu remains the first Japanese poetic collection of note and something I’ve always meant to read. Even if the MSY wasn’t important as a foundational text or one of the major scholarly projects of Japanese literature, it is still of note for the diversity of its verse forms, contributors (not just aristocrats or townmen), topics (eg genuine poverty), and documenting early Japanese culture/politics/life. Reading Keene’s Seeds in the Heart which devotes a large section to the MSY, I decided I had put it off long enough. There aren’t many translations of it online, and this was the largest I found.
Keene, as it happens, wrote a preface to this 1965 edition. He notes that the anonymous committee authors & 1940 date of its composition means the original Introduction (a long and extensive description of MSY-era Japan and facts of life relevant to interpreting the poems, such as the sending of expeditions to China and the ill-fated political alliances with Korean kingdoms) will raise some eyebrows:
Keene is, if anything, far too kind to the Introduction. I had come across references to the Japanese literary world’s perversion during the imperial period and the phrase “spirit of the MSY”, but I admit I had never understood how exactly a poetry collection could be employed in imperial propaganda but the Introduction is quite blatant, to the point of comedy (it’s difficult to not roll my eyes when the authors rhapsodize over how Shintoism involves belief in “mysterious powers which moved and had their being in nature”, while Taoism is a “cult that was imported from China…compounded with all manner of folklore and superstition…a belief in fairies and genii” and Confucianism irrelevant pedanticism unnecessary to the Japanese as it was merely “a canonical basis for those social values that had already prevailed. Loyalty, filial piety, brotherly affection, conjugal devotion, faithfulness, etc, taught by Confucianism, were virtues that had naturally grown within, and been fostered by, the clan system of Japan”). As Keene notes, the mentions of poverty undercut the Edenic pretensions, to which I would add the disturbingly frequent regularity of dead bodies by the road side, drafting peasants for border guards, conquest expeditions, and vagueness and lack of mention of any genuine accomplishments in the frequent praise of the emperors. I suppose as a surviving example of imperial propaganda, the Introduction is of some interest on its own but I wonder if it can be trusted for background and if Keene was right in keeping it unedited from the original version.
In any event, the poems are the main event, and Keene praises the translation as of high literary quality, so I should not be let down. Having read so much of the Heian-era poetry, I found the MSY ones interesting. They are clearly ancestors, showing both the early development of the waka and what would become stock themes, but also ‘roads not taken’, in particular the long verse forms like the choka. The waka could never express a vivid description of warfare like Hitomaro does in one choka, and it would be difficult indeed to think of a waka or several waka which could equate to his choka mourning his wife. One wonders what Japanese poetry lost by the possibility of the choka verse falling into obscurity and unreadability; I don’t think it would’ve choked off the waka’s growth, but allowed expression of weightier topics (a need which seems to’ve been only poorly satisfied by turning to Chinese kanshi).
On the downside, while the choka are impressive, for the most part, I am left unimpressed by the MSY corpus. Almost all poems come across in the English as plain statements and restatements. Yes, I know the MSY style is to be straightforward and not as indirect or complicated as the later Heian poems like the Kokinshu - but still. A poem should not read like prose. And for the most part, they do. The selection is also weakened by the inclusion of many trivial pieces which praise the Emperor in ways which are either boring or bullshit (although I suppose I can’t blame the poets for their sycophancy, which they at least had excuses and good practical reasons for writing, but should blame the translators for their ideology in emphasizing those poems out of the enormous MSY corpus).
Some of the ones I did like:
Man’yoshu 1964, pg352:
Yamabe no Akahito, Man’yōshū VIII: 1426
Kuramochi Chitose; 326-7 VI: 913-4; pg198:
Hitomaro, 103-5/ II: 199-201, pg127:
|Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance||Jane Gleeson-White||★★★||2012||2014/10/31||
(56k words, 1-2h read) Popularizing overview of Luca Pacioli’s publication of double-entry bookkeeping, and some historical tracing of its subsequent spread through Europe and use in modern corporate-capitalism. As an active user of ledger for my personal finances, writer of the WP article on the Medici Bank, & reader of Nick Szabo, I thought I might find Double Entry interesting.
In the 1920s the US construction business Kreuger & Toll became one of the largest conglomerates and multinationals imaginable, like Enron seventy years later. After its founder Ivar Kreuger died in 1932, millions of investors discovered the company’s financial statements had been falsified over many years. But because of the company’s extraordinary organisational complexity, the investigating accountants Price Waterhouse could not determine the exact extent of the fraud and so the investors lost their money. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 revealed the accounts of another titanic company, Insull Utility Investments, to be ‘grossly misleading’. Its CEO Samuel Insull was tried for fraud in 1932 and acquitted on all counts. A considerable part of Insull’s defence rested on the persuasiveness of the commonsense rationale behind his accounting practices (he had treated stock dividends as income, which was prohibited at the time, but the prosecution was unable to make a clear case against it)-and, by implication, ‘the financial nonsense peddled in the conventional accounting wisdom’. The prosecution was left without a case, unable to deny that the accounting rules of the day were controversial and unable to claim that there was any consensus within the accounting profession on the particular rule in question. The Insull case highlighted the contentious and arbitrary nature of corporate accounting, especially regarding valuation and depreciation, issues which are essentially unresolvable and continue to be hotly debated today. Significantly, some of Insull’s accounting practices, which then lay outside conventional accounting practice, are now accepted wisdom.
I’m concerned because as useful as double-entry is, I don’t see a good case for identifying it as a major technology worthy of a book or marketing like ‘created modern finance’ (the Dutch would seem to have a better claim there); to quote the book:
“But detractors argue that a close reading of the historical evidence does not support Sombart’s generalisation: in fact the few merchants’ books which survive from the 1300s to 1800 indicate the double-entry system was not then widely adopted in practice. As part of his career-long dispute with Sombart, economist Basil Yamey argues that the spirit of capitalism animated numerous prominent Italian mercantile ventures before they adopted Venetian bookkeeping: ‘Perhaps it is sufficient to note that the Italian enterprises of the Bardi, Peruzzi, Alberti and Medici cannot be said to have been run less efficiently and “capitalistically” before they had adopted the double-entry system than after they had done so.’”
Indeed. The point is made even more strongly, inadvertently, by the emphasis on modern accounting scandals and Buffett’s observation that derivatives make a corporation’s true financial state nearly unknowable, combined with the observation that the world keeps on ticking and annual global growth continues: if modern financial reporting is so ambiguous and unreliable, doesn’t that imply that clear transparent books were never that important?
The book gets weaker as it returns to the original theme of the corruption of capitalism and its focus on internalizing gains while externalizing costs. While it’s true that GDP may not be a perfect measure, can we say that it’s really that bad? (Is it really plausible that a Big Mac actually costs $200 when all externalities are priced in?) I recall environmentalist activists making a big deal of Bhutan adopting ‘Gross National Happiness’, but last I heard, you still want to live in China with its focus on GDP and not impoverished unfree Bhutan (ask the Bhutanese refugees how well things worked out for them). There seems to be little critical consideration of this topic, or of arguments for optimism about the environment from the Kuznets curve (although Kuznets is certainly mentioned often enough) & the cornucopians. One feels that in the attempt to turn a long good article on Pacioli into a short book, some rather weak material got included.
|Renaming of the Birds||David Troupes||★★★||2013||2014/01/01||
I’ve been a fan of the obscure webcomic Buttercup Festival since ~2005 when I discovered it and A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible (probably my 2 favorites were “Another Day” and the yeti) through Dinosaur Comics, and was pleased to see it restart in 2008.
It ended in 2013 with the announcement of a Kickstarter for his book Renaming of the Birds. I will be honest, I am not a big fan of Troupes’s realistic prose and poetry as compared to Buttercup Festival, An Island People Go To, or his unfinished Green Evening Stories - for the most part, they strike me as embodying the worst sins of English poetry in the 20th & 21st centuries, while his artwork at its best nears the spare beauty of some East Asian traditions. I was not pleased to hear that it was ending in favor of a short novel, but I did notice in the announcement:
and on the Kickstarter page:
Now that was a different story. I’ve always been a little bit impressed how effectively Troupes deployed Sharpies for his comics, and this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Plus, apparently I might get some books or something as well. I immediately subscribed and submitted my preferences:
Luckily, I spoke up quickly enough to get my first choice.
The Kickstarter succeeded and the printing of the book went through apparently without much issue, so I received my package in early January 2014.
The original of comic #120 turns out to be a sheet of stiffish paper about 29.2x20.3 centimeters, much larger than the web image. The image also doesn’t do it justice: the original is actually visibly textured with whiteout, you can see variation in the intensity of black, and between that, the stars in the stream seem to shine a little bit. So I was satisfied and just needed to find a frame for it. I scanned it to have a backup copy:
I also received:
Hastings’s artwork was interesting but not really in my vein. David’s poetry was decent enough that I copied part of 2 of the better ones; from “Their Daughter”:
And from “Pumpkinseeds”:
Not bad. I eventually wound up using the postcards for a prank.
Renaming of the Birds (2013; ISBN 978-0-9927133-0-0) is a 74pg novel with ~56 black-white sketches of birds/landscapes/people as illustrations. (There is one short poem at the end, but it seems they were all split out as the companion pamphlet The Fountain along with unused illustrations.) The Kickstarter for it describes it as
This is not inaccurate a summary, but it overemphasizes the ‘renaming’ part: one might think it’s a sort of magical realist novel or more upbeat Kafkaesque novel or an experimental novel, but the renaming part and the new names passes quickly. Which is too bad because I thought it was a nice parody; for example, the letter with the assignment:
It is Orwellian bureaucratic reasoning that would not be one bit out of place in England. Why not?
So the protagonist sets about his task, renaming mockingbirds to ‘Yelling Birds’, Crows to Rattles, Gulls to Tattles, Pigeons to Ladyfriends, Mourning Doves to Vinegar Doves, Grackles to Velvet Inkdrops, and runs out. So he sets off to the woods, and of course meets a woman there. In a few more vignettes wandering the woods, he kills time and renames some more birds. He declines to rename swans, and is puzzle by sparrows. It becomes an extended camping trip: the narrator sees some more trees, watches a kestrel kill one, sleeps in trees, and winter comes. He survives the snow by making a lean-to. (No mention of where he gets food initially before learning how to scavenge roots, which was a major concern of <href=“http://www.gq.com/news-politics/newsmakers/201409/the-last-true-hermit?printable=true” title=“The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit: For nearly thirty years, a phantom haunted the woods of Central Maine”>a Maine hermit I read about recently and who I’m reminded strongly of when rereading RotB). After winter, he wanders his way back, eventually returning to his house. Wandering around some more, he re-meets the woman and together they wander out into the woods and watch birds. He still doesn’t know what to rename sparrows to.
The illustrations are appropriate and well-done.
The writing is fair enough. It’s not as overripe as much of Troupes’s poetry, and he generally underplays incidents and avoids too much mawkishness and invocations of God. It does indeed feel like a journal of a long camp-out, and Troupes is doubtless taking a lot of material from life. It’s pleasant, but not much beyond that.
|Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection||A.J. Jacobs||★★★||2012||2015/11/09||
Another entry in the Jacobs formula: he’ll breeze through a large number of activities, giving very superficial descriptions & background, making wisecracks, and recording his wife’s reaction to everything.
I went for my final exam at EHE and found out I’d lost another half pound, ending at 156.5 (total weight loss: 16 pounds). I’d gone down two belt sizes. Dr. Harry Fisch told me that my lipid panel numbers “are so good, they’ll give you a heart attack” (HDL: 48, LDL: 62). I more than halved my body fat percentage. I can now run a mile in less than seven minutes as opposed to not at all. I have a visible chest.
One might think that such results, while laudable, did not require 2 years and probably were entirely due his eating less and spending some time weightlifting and running.
The evaluation of research is also weak. Jacobs promises in the intro to draw as much on the Cochrane Collaboration as possible (fantastic!) but if he did so in the rest of the book, I must’ve missed it (boo, hiss). And while it’s a tired, sometimes overused truism in my parts of the Internet that ‘correlation is not causation’, Jacobs is one of the people for whom that dictum was meant.
Aside from the main storyline of the latest health fad, Jacobs counterpoints the slow death from old age & dementia of his grandfather and the unexpected death of his eccentric orthorexic aunt. These are good reminders of the horrors of aging but while well intentioned, Jacobs, superficial and middle-class humorously as ever, is unable to bring out the tragedy of the material anywhere near as well as, say, Still Alice, Do No Harm, or even blog posts like “Who By Very Slow Decay”.
So what’s good? Well, Jacobs is intermittently funny. He does go through a wide range of interventions, which is mildly interesting, and if nothing else, makes the point that there are a lot of hucksters and idiots and people fooled by randomness out there, and that there is no nostrum that will not put someone on cloud nine nor silver bullet so silly that it will not sooth someone’s sickness. For me, it functioned as reminders (the accident chapter reminded me that after a slip in my bathroom, I had meant to buy anti-slip pads, which I’ve put on my shopping list; his treadmill usage has inspired me to clean off my own treadmill desk and at least use it while watching movies or playing games; I had heard of the potential benefits of squat toilets but until reading the FAQ by the guy selling them I had not realized that it was possible to retrofit regular Western toilets to be squat toilets, so I may grab some cinder blocks & plywood and give it a try; and his own conspicuous failure to try out IF makes me feel more motivated to give it a try myself soon, especially now that I’ve got daily blood glucose measurements debugged). So it wasn’t all bad.
† To elaborate on this one point: we don’t have hard precise evidence on most of the claims covered in the book, but for a lot of them we can give upper bounds on maximum possible benefits. For starters, lifespan is in humans, as it is in other species, partially heritable, so about a quarter of variability is off the table from the getgo. And no one has ever lived longer than Jeanne Calment’s 122 years while life expectancy for Jacobs is ~80 (above-average since he’s an employed well-educated white man with good family longevity), so he couldn’t expect more than 40 years for anything that past humans have tried. Similarly, because of the exponential increase in death risk with age, the value of preventing any given disease in old age is not as high as it may seem, since if you prevent a heart attack, they may just die of a stroke or Alzheimer’s instead, which sharply limits how valuable any particular intervention could be. So for example, if you could prevent cancer in its entirety, I’ve seen estimates that this might add a grand total of 10 years to average life expectancy, which is much less than one would expect; Jacobs quotes one person as noting there’s something like 50k industrial chemicals out there; so if all cancers were caused by a modern industrial chemical, and you could eliminate each chemical completely for free at the cost of a day’s research or work or income, then doing so would be… a huge net loss since 50,000 days >> 10 years (3,652 days). Not to mention that adult life expectancies have kept increasing hand in hand with the proliferation of industrial chemicals, suggesting that all of them together can explain only a fraction of variance. If you spend a day worrying about Bisphenol, you’d better have good reasons for thinking it’s very likely to be harmful, because the prior probability is low, the harm is likely fairly minimal, you can’t do much about it, and what you can do is expensive.
|Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime — from Global Epidemic to Your Front Door||Brian Krebs||★★★||2014||2015/01/11||
Krebs has been engaged in a little war with Russian spammers: getting onto their forums, looking for weak points like abuse-friendly ISPs or payment processors, and blowing the whistle on them; he’s been heavily aided by the feuding community leaking lots of information and vouches to him, and the book revolves around one he’s hyped up as the ‘Pharma Wars’. All the leaks means he can do an unusually thorough job of documenting it and the principals, and the involvement of the Russian government in the e-crime scene. My own interests are mainly in the Western darknet markets like Silk Road, and in the pharmacy affiliate networks which were one of the main routes for buying modafinil up until recently, so while Krebs doesn’t go into nearly as much detail as I would like, it’s still a fairly illuminating read. Few Westerners have as much experience with the area as he does, which makes it worth reading for anyone interested in this niche, and certainly it’s easier to read the book than try to piece together everything from his blog posts.
One downside is that the book comes off as a bit stream of consciousness and disorganized: there seems to be a rough chronological order, but not much of one; and a few diagrams of all the overlapping people and organizations (as well as a flowchart of the spam process) would probably be helpful. And I used the word ‘journalistic’ deliberately: Krebs’s writing is purple and sensationalistic. Something is not ‘terrifying’, it is ‘truly terrifying’; spammers are not a nuisance, but they become “potent threats”; in describing the fall of a small plurality source of spam (~20%, I believe he estimates), “consumers all over the world were enjoying a brief reprieve” from “the spam email empire”. His overheated writing aside, his own sources make the case that spam is not that important; eg towards the end:
(If spam is at 1/5 peak and even at the peak it was ‘maybe five to ten guys’…)
In other spots, Krebs makes mistakes or does not exhibit as much critical thinking as one would like: the illustration of the horrors of designer drugs is the infamous ‘causeway cannibal’ (except that that wasn’t bath salts, that was marijuana - and Krebs even acknowledges his mistake in a footnote! So why on earth does the main text confidently say he “turned into a real-life zombie after ingesting prodigious amounts of “bath salts””‽); when discussing the online pharmacies, he repeats idiotic pharmacorp talking points like “8% of the bulk drugs imported into the United States are counterfeit, unapproved, or substandard” without pointing out that no one actually cares about the fraction that are “counterfeit [or] unapproved”, and mentions that Marcia Bergeron’s poisoning death is “almost always recited in some form whenever experts allied with the pharmaceutical industry talk” without asking the obvious question if the online pharmacies are so dangerous, why is only that story ‘almost always recited’?; it’s interesting that there’s no mention of Kaspersky Lab’s connections to the FSB and why Krebs was being wined and dined by Kaspersky personally; there is a bizarre lack of mention of Bitcoin except for a throwaway line about Russian forums, which is particularly bizarre given that he discusses the rise of ransomware (now often Bitcoin-using) and seems to agree with the interviewed Russian spammers at the end that going after credit-card payment processors has effectively killed the industry (which would be an unwise prediction if they can move to Bitcoin, as many of the online pharmacies have begun to).
|On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt||Richard C. Carrier||★★★||2014||
Sequel to Proving History; Carrier’s smug style continue to grate, and the Bayesian framework, as I expected in my review of the first one, turned out to be useless. Carrier basically makes up numbers because there’s nothing available to work with.
But getting into the meat of it, Carrier presents interesting evidence about early Christianity. I was doubtful of the “mythicist” position, minimal or otherwise, because where does the whole paradigm come from? Religious figures can be made up out of whole cloth, but it’s doubtful. Where does all the stuff about “Jesus” and resurrection and blood sacrifice redemption and celestial victories come from?
Carrier assembles a surprising amount of evidence that a figure like Jesus the Christ could organically emerge out of existing Greco-Roman and Jewish theology and imaginative pesher (as exemplified by groups like Qumran or the various Gnostics or, to be a little cheeky, Scott Alexander’s Unsong), and highlights the striking cosmogony of the “Ascension of Isaiah” which underneath a blatant interpolation features an angelic Jesus descending from the heavens to be martyred by an unsuspecting Satan, which Carrier links to other wacky Jewish theology about celestial victories over the Romans or the multiple heavens and ‘as above so below’ magical thinking in which a heavenly sacrifice is superior to earthly temple sacrifices. (Such contortions of logic and reading into passages in the Psalms and Isaiah strike me as bizarre, but then, I’m not a 1st century Jew, and they had no problem with elaborate pesher.) The “Ascension” probably isn’t earlier than Paul’s letters but it strikingly establishes that something like minimal mythicism could easily emerge from the stew of mystery cults and early Judaism/Christianity without any modern scholar trying to read some alternative theology into Paul’s letters.
Combined with the old observations about the extensive euhemerism of mystery cult figures (along with more documented recent examples of religions emerging & retroactively historicizing their ‘founders’), complete with detailed sober historical biographies of demigods we know never existed in any way, the almost total absence of any mention of Gospel events inside Paul’s (heavily-edited) letters despite extensive opportunities for allusions while instead talking about Jesus and his martyrdom by demonic “archons” in ways highly suspiciously consistent with a celestial Jesus (with the best mention being the very vague “brother of the lord” which would be good if Christianity hadn’t made a fetish of family tropes and titles and used those sorts of terms quite indiscriminately), scraps of early Christian writings admitting to exoteric and esoteric doctrines, the presence of conflicts in the early letters driven by people having different visions of Jesus (driving the need to euhemerize Jesus and “shut the gates of ijtihad”, so to speak), and various anomalies like early traditions which thought Jesus was martyred a century before Pontius Pilate under Alexander Jannaeus, or by Herod, or during the reign of Claudius (bizarre mistakes if they had any access to the Gospels, since the Gospels contradict each other to a much smaller degree about the timings, but the dates here are being calculated by symbolic/theological means like in the Book of Daniel).
Of course, Carrier covers many other familiar points about the “Rank-Raglan heroes”, wholesale falsification & editing & destruction of religious texts, the lack of real historiography, the non-independence of the late external sources like Tacitus and the forgery of Josephus (I still can’t believe that Christian scholars seriously try to argue that “yes, the passage is partially forged by early Christians but underneath the forgery is still a real passage discussing Jesus”), the almost targeted pattern of omissions or losses of ancient texts which would have described Christianity or the esoteric doctrines of contemporary mystery cults, the artificial literary structure & origins of the Gospels and wholesale copying with modification indicative of total disinterest in anything we would recognize as reliable historical texts, the many inconsistencies between the Gospels and Acts and the letters, etc.
I read some of the criticisms listed by Carrier and there don’t seem to be any major flaws in Carrier’s claims, although I still continue to worry about lacking necessary context & expertise to even follow the arguments. I am a little dismayed to note that while I didn’t put too much stock in mythicism before reading it, and I still hate Carrier’s writing style* and totally unnecessary invocations of Bayesian statistics, Carrier answers most of my questions by finding antecedents for the apparently novel & historical aspects of Christianity and many parallels for mythicism along with many oddities which are inconsistent with a simple historicism, so I do now think “we might have reason to doubt”.
On a side note, after reading On the Historicity of Jesus, I began wondering a little about Islam & Muhammed too. After some checking, apparently there is only 1 known probable contemporary reference to Muhammed, and there are otherwise a lot of red flags: the Koran talks very little about Muhammed or his life, and includes many unreadable passages which have to be interpreted by fiat; the hadith literature - supposed contemporary stories about Muhammed, complete with detailed chains of oral transmission - is acknowledged by the even the most orthodox as containing many false stories, showing the ease of making up Muhammed legends and quotes; all Koran variants and dissenting religious texts were famously hunted down and destroyed by a well-organized centralized religious theocracy (unlike Christianity, where many of them survived and are highly informative about the manufacturing of the texts); and textual material about Muhammed only starts emerging around this time, as much as a century or two after his death. Islam has yet to undergo meaningful examination by higher criticism, and in any case, there’s a major void of material to work with, but still, one wonders. There are still a lot of sites in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia which have yet to be even cursorily excavated, so who knows? If a Nag Hammadi library or Dead Seas caves equivalent is ever discovered for Islam, the consequences should be… interesting.
|Mathematical People: Profiles and Interviews||Donald J. Albers||★★★||2008||2014/10/08||
A collection of interviews and occasional professional autobiographies in the 1960s-1980s focusing on mathematicians who worked in the 1920s-1970s or people closely associated with the field in other capacities (Martin Gardner, while describing himself as a journalist, impacted the field majorly through his famed Scientific American columns on recreational mathematics; another interview is with a biographer of Hilbert & Neyman, Constance Reid).
|The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code||Margalit Fox||★★★||2013||2016/10/23||
A clearly written history of the decipherment of Linear B, structured as a 3-part autobiography with linguistic background interspersed chronologically as understanding of Linear B & Crete developed.
Fox’s mission, as she makes clear, is revisionism: drawing heavily on personal letters, she casts Alice Kober (incidentally, a graduate of Hunter High School & teacher there) as the Rosalind Franklin of Linear B, and castigating Michael Ventris. In this, she does not particularly succeed; she’s reduced to arguing that perhaps Kober could have and that despite her increasing age, strong hostility towards speculating about what language it was written in or trying to match up anything, and methodical approach, she might have succeeded where omnilingualist Ventris did a few years later. Which is not very persuasive since she doesn’t show such creative leaps in her earlier work, Ventris independently discovered some of the same things, and in any case, intellectual history does not typically assign credit based on what someone might’ve done if they had lived longer because that is unknowable and many people fail to live up to their initial promise as they regress to mediocrity or just go off on fatally unproductive tangents (eg Isaac Newton or Einstein). Fox’s hostile approach to Ventris left a bad taste in my mouth, as Ventris does not appear to have had an easy life whatever his ‘privilege’ and there’s an unpleasant emphasis on how he wasn’t credentialed like Kober (apparently it’s not cool to be the underdog outsider if you’re a white male).
Actually, the impression I strongly got was that long duration from discovery to Linear B’s decipherment reflects not so much Linear B being extraordinarily difficult or bad luck by Kober, so much as as the severe damage done to research progress by the refusal to share data by almost all parties involved beginning with Arthur Evans (an academic sin which we remain all too familiar with), continuing with Blegen, and through to Kober - by my counting, once more than 200 inscriptions became even semi-publicly available in the mid-1940s, the solution followed in 1952 after not even a decade! As is not that surprising in retrospect, inasmuch as the language turned out to be the obvious one and lots of proper names survived into Greek sources and so were available for Rosetta Stone-style comparison. Kober’s exhaustive cross-classifications on 180000 index cards, which took so many years, would have been trivial with a full corpus and a 1950s-era computer, or even just an electromechanical IBM card machine (which could do sorting, cross-tabulation, and other summaries); it leaves one with a sense of pity and disgust to see so much effort expended on such a extraordinarily inefficient way of going about things when waiting a decade or two would have reduced a task from requiring multiple years of labor to weeks or months. While granted Kober didn’t have the budget for renting such equipment, that doesn’t necessarily justify such an approach. Sometimes the time is just not ripe for attacking a problem and one should have the good judgment to work on something else for a while instead of childishly insisting on working on that one thing, which often helps with the original thing as well (perhaps Kober would’ve gotten that tenured position if she had something, anything else to show published; I’ve noted in my other reviews that during the post-WWII hyper-expansion of America, getting tenure at a university was apparently as easy as falling off a log, even for women, so Kober’s failure with Penn is all the more striking). So a sobering double lesson for modern researchers: data hoarding can be extraordinarily harmful and is probably not stigmatized or penalized nearly enough, and stubbornness about a topic to research can be as much a fault as stubbornness about the details of a theory about that topic.
One of the things I dread in a work like this is an author who is in a hurry to cover up and hide all the technical details and dreads that her audience is too dumb, ignorant, and impatient to reach any genuine understanding and settles for ‘lies to children’. She seems to avoid this trap and I felt, at least as a non-classicist and non-linguist, that I got an intelligible and reasonably accurate understanding of the intellectual puzzle and accomplishment of the decipherers.
But was Linear B really worth reading about? The decipherment of hieroglyphics, of course, unlocked an extraordinary array of Egyptian riches from the baroque mythology, endless ancient Egyptian history, and many interesting magical, religious, and everyday letters and documents; there is no question as a layperson that you are interested in what hieroglyphics have to say even more than in how they say it and how they were unlocked. Mesopotamian clay documents are often boring, but so many survive and give us things like Gilgamesh that there too the results seem worth learning about, even the commercial ones which can build up a whole market economy before our eyes. With Linear B… the deciphering turns out to be the most interesting part. The documents are boring and the world depicted in the administrivia is about exactly what you would expect from reading about the palace, a totalitarian agricultural economy, and are a disappointment. A few enigmatic names and allusions are a poor catch. (It is just as well Nero didn’t see the true translation of the tablets discovered during his reign, because he would have been greatly disappointed to see nothing at all on the level of the memoirs of a participant in the Trojan War.) With Linear B, the journey is more interesting than the destination, which makes the account somewhat sterile. (In contrast, while I haven’t been able to finish reading Empires of the Plains, Henry Rawlinson had an extraordinarily interesting life and provided the gateway to the ancient Mesopotamian world.)
|Pirate Freedom||Gene Wolfe||★★★||2007||2012/11/24||
(This review is copied from an email sent to the Gene Wolfe mailing list.)
|Japanese Love Hotels: A Cultural History||Sarah Chaplin||★★★||2007||2015/02/15||
(words: 110,626; ~3h) Heavily academicized discussion of contemporary Japanese love hotels, with an architectural history and history of some related locations for having sex. The prevalence of love hotels is interesting, and Chaplin backs it with a large survey she did of current love hotels. (Curiously, this survey goes almost entirely unused in the book - some photos from it, and a few statistics are mentioned like “Only one establishment in a sample of over 300 indicated room numbers and prices used Japanese numerals; the rest were all given in Arabic numerals” or how only 2 had manual rather than automatic doors, but given how huge an effort that survey must have been, it’s oddly underused.)
|The Life of Samuel Johnson||James Boswell||★★★||1993||2015/07/19||
(Project Gutenberg 6-volume edition, edited by George Birkbeck Norman Hill; 7.3MB or ~1,200,000 words, which included Boswell’s account of the Hebrides but also a decent chunk of the whole was footnotes which I skipped or indices or other such incidentals. This was a major reading project which took easily a month.)
|Selected Poems||Paul Celan||★★★||1972||2014/06/01||
Modern verse is always difficult to read, and I expect little from it since the freedom gives people far too much rope to hang themselves (“you need an infallible ear, like D. H. Lawrence, to determine where the lines should end”); Paul Celan is no exception in that most of his poems leave me simply baffled. Part of the problem is the shadow of the Holocaust lingering over many of the poems: an event too awesome and sublime to reduce to words, seemingly reducing Celan to slapping down words and fractured lines in frustration and despair, and not a little guilt, circling around the themes again and again (reminding me of Wittgenstein’s famous introduction to Philosophical Investigations).
“Aspen tree, your leaves glance white into the dark. / My mother’s hair was never white. / Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine. / My yellow-haired mother did not come home. / Rain cloud, above the well do you hover? / My quiet mother weeps for everyone. / Round star, you wind the golden loop. / My mother’s heart was ripped by lead. / Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges? / My gentle mother cannot return.”
“Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends. / From the nuts we shell time and we teach it to walk: / then time returns to the shell.”
“…We stand by the window embracing, and people look / up from the street: / it is time they knew! / It is time the stone made an effort to flower, / time unrest had a beating heart. / It is time it were time. / It is time.”
“Fugue of Death”, pg33:
“Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall / we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night / drink it and drink it / we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there / A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes / he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden / hair Margarete / he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter / he whistles his dogs up / he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in / the earth / he commands us strike up for the dance / Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night / we drink in the mornings at noon we drink you at / nightfall / drink you and drink you / A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes / he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden / hair Margarete / Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the / sky it is ample to lie there…”
“Thread Suns”, pg83:
“…there are / still songs to be sung on the other side / of mankind.”
“I Hear that the Axe has Flowered”, pg106:
“I hear that the axe has flowered, / I hear that the place can’t be named, / I hear that the bread which looks at him / heals the hanged man, / the bread baked for him by his wife, / I hear that they call life / our only refuge.”
Ironically, the reason I looked up Celan in the first place was a Japanese novella (a doujin for Touhou), Iyokan & Surrounded By Enemies’s Dream and Reality, included as a running theme quotes from Celan’s From Threshold to Threshold (perhaps because Celan’s poems in Japanese bring out the repeated themes of gates/thresholds/transitions, which complements the plot of the novella & a key character). I had been particularly struck by the poem “The Guest” from Threshold:
“Long before nightfall / someone who exchanged greetings with darkness / comes to spend the night with you. / Long before daylight / he wakes / and, before leaving, kindles a sleep, / a sleep echoing with footsteps: / you hear him going off, measuring distances, / and you throw your soul / after him.”
And since Selected Poems was available but Threshold was not, I downloaded it to read… and “The Guest” was not in it.
|Moby-Dick, or, the Whale||Herman Melville||★★★||2003||2017/09/05||
(PG edition) Some time ago - never mind when precisely - I became embarrassed with the omission of Melville’s Moby Dick, and encouraged by a read of “Bartleby the Scrivener” that Melville & I might be more sympatico than I had hitherto presupposed, I resolved to betake myself to a purveyor of fine e-books, to see if I might not challenge the great whale hisself, for if it could challenge myself why then I could challenge it too, as ever there is a justice in the play of things…
|Japan as Number One Lessons for America||Ezra F. Vogel||★★★||1999||
(Scan) A historical throwback, one of the books most cited in the Japan panic of the 1980s/1990s which has such an echo in a China panic these days; Vogel synthesizes in an ethnography aspects of the Japanese economy/society ranging from the salaryman tradition and zaibatsu/banking conglomerates, the ‘elite bureaucrat’ & MITI government departments, the localized policing, public schooling, etc, which are contrasted to American malaise, stagflation, escalating crime rates, and anomie. The descriptions of Japan will sound very familiar, perhaps because so many later narratives draw on Vogel’s well-known book.
What is interesting to me is the lessons on forecasting: as far as I can tell, Vogel’s descriptions of Japan & America at the time were factually accurate and generally consistent with what I know of the two countries in the mid-1970s, the problem is that his causal interpretations of his descriptions are completely wrong. He commits, essentially, a cargo cult or perhaps ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy, where he believes that the various differences are why Japan was growing so fast rather than mere surface features or accidental or one of many equally viable alternatives. Some of his causal interpretations were knowably wrong at the time (eg attributing Japanese intelligence to their public schooling, which is wrong because education only minimally increases intelligence if at all and doesn’t explain why their high intelligence exists prior to any public schooling), but many others have become much clearer in hindsight with the Japanese bubble & lost decades simultaneous with the other Asian tigers like South Korea & China. The lost decades demonstrate that many of the things Vogel lauds were weaknesses as much as strengths, such as the strong preference for debt-financing of corporations by captive banks or MITI’s constant attempts to pick winners & losers and repeatedly going all-in on technologies that were more valuable to others or were simply dead ends (Prolog or hydrogen cars, anyone?), nemawashi consensus building, preference for information gathering than action etc; and the Asian tigers demonstrate that many of the supposedly critical aspects, like the wise benevolent guidance of MITI or the ‘elite bureaucrat’ system or salarymen or kids cleaning their schools, were not necessary at all. And as a further counter-example about the non-causality of Vogel’s identified ingredients, we would have to note that the pessimism about America was not vindicated as America rebounded, and not along Japanese lines as Vogel believed necessary: eg US carmakers did learn from their Japanese competition and recover, but along mostly narrow technical lines like factory organization, while America in general became even more free-market/individualistic/competitive/de-regulated instead of more communitarian/Japanese; crime did ultimately fall enormously, but for still unclear reasons which did not entail installing kōban on every corner, etc.
So what did happen? I think the null hypothesis is that what happened in Japan is what happened elsewhere repeatedly: nothing but industrialization of a country with relatively high pre-existing human capital catching up to the production frontier. The same thing that happened in USSR which liberal pundits ascribed to the superiority of Communism’s rational economic planning which would soon bury the inefficient wastefully-competitive West, the same thing that happened in the USA to leapfrog the UK, the same thing that happened in South Korea, and then in China, etc. A poor non-industrialized country grows rapidly for a long period, insiders & outsiders ascribe the growth to various idiosyncratic features of that country with the self-congratulatory connivance of political leaders, then growth slows down and stops and attention moves on. That’s all. It’s happened many times before, and I am sure it will happen again. (Perhaps we will read in another two decades of how India’s ethnic diversity is responsible for its blistering growth, or perhaps instead we’ll be hearing about how the legacy of cross-border smuggling networks laid the groundwork for North Korean stock market outperformance…)
|Before the Storm (Star Wars : Black Fleet Crisis, #1)||Michael P. Kube-McDowell||★★★||1996||
As a kid collecting EU novels and stories, I was always puzzled by The Black Fleet Crisis trilogy. It was wildly different in tone and subject matter from most of the EU, I didn’t know whether I hated it or loved it, and it seemed to have been largely ignored by the rest of the EU (ever see the Yevetha or Black Sword Command or the White Current mentioned elsewhere?). This ignoring has happened for a number of other books like the Dark Empire comics or Crystal Star, but usually for good reasons: Dark Empire was so over-the-top and gothic that to take it seriously would undermine many other stories and so it’s usually name-checked briefly, if that, and ignored, while Crystal Star was just so terrible it can be ignored. Neither of these seem especially applicable, though, so I didn’t know what to think.
|Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society||Jim Manzi||★★★||2012||2013/01/25||
Speaking as a die-hard believer in the value of randomization and meta-analysis, I’m not entirely sure how much I got from this book other than some useful assertions and interesting claims. To go through it roughly in order:
|Research Fraud in the Behavioral and Biomedical Sciences||David J. Miller||★★★||1992||2018/06/28||
(ebook) A rather boring collection. The main theme of note is a considerable level of denial of the extent of the issues of not just outright data fabrication but the countless practices of p-hacking and “questionable research practices” that have given us the replication crisis, as evidenced by the weakness of the proposed remedies, including some we know are totally ineffective (eg the chapter by the journal editor who, unsurprisingly, denies that there is any particular problem or that journals have any responsibility, and suggests, apparently in all sincerity, that it is adequate to merely ask article authors to make available their data on request - which we know how well that works…) The IRB chapter is striking for its sheer level of bureaucracy & legalistic blinkered thinking, without any consideration of the damage caused by prior restraint or whether IRBs do any good at all.
Only two chapters rose to the level of moderate interest for me. The first was the chapter “Cardiology: The John Darsee Experience” by Eugene Braunwald, in which the department head Braunwald describes the painful experience of the unmasking of Darsee and then spending much of the next decade dealing with the fallout of investigating all Darsee’s falsified research - although perhaps I should say ‘lack of fallout’, as one of the smoking guns was the fact that some of Darsee’s mice, supposedly used with radioactive tracers for cardiology research, exhibited no residual radiation.
Second, the chapter by Arthur Jensen, “Scientific Fraud or False Accusations? The Case of Cyril Burt” on “The Burt Affair”, where he explains why he had changed his mind about believing Burt may’ve faked data and now believes he was effectively framed.
Jensen discusses the peculiar circumstances of the burning of Burt’s data at the instigation of a longtime opponent shortly before Jensen tried to obtain it, the suggestion of Burt’s avowedly Marxist rivals years beforehand that he might’ve faked data, the gross exaggeration of Hearnshaw’s supposedly definitive examination of Burt’s diaries (whose lack of mention of data collection despite being trivially detailed was taken as a strong argument from silence that the data was never collected but fabricated, but Jensen notes that the diaries never mention anything but trivia, not even events like the death of the secretary he worked with for decades, only covered half the dates while lapsing for months at a time), the consistency of the supposed fraudulent figures with copying typos or standard statistical procedures at the time, the tendentiousness of the claim that Burt lied about the history of factor analysis (Jensen, himself an expert on factor analysis, points out correctly that Spearman’s factor analysis is in total desuetude and all the techniques people actually use descend from Pearson’s principal components), and that while the Clarkes told Hearnshaw that Burt had written articles under their names which were extremely biased, Fletcher dug up the supposed articles and found they were simply abstracts of the Clarkes’ PhD dissertations and accurate abstracts too.
|空ろの箱と零のマリア 1||Eiji Mikage||★★★||2009||2014/10/23||
(55k words, ~3-4 hour read; read the Baka-Tsuki translation.) The Empty Box and The Zeroth Maria (WP/TVTropes) is a time loop mystery light novel.
|Game Programming Patterns||Robert Nystrom||★★★||2011||2014/05/18||
(I read the online version.)
|The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason||John V. Fleming||★★★||2013||2013/08/09||
The title might lead one to believe that Fleming is trying to show an inherent duality to science and the Enlightenment in general - its reliance on irrational methods or its oppression or inherent contradictions, say, perhaps an updated (and more factual) Foucault. But while it’s a clever play on words, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment boils down to some short biographies of minor figures in Europe: the obscure English faith healer Valentine Greatrakes, the French Jansenists, the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, Cagliostro, and Julie de Kruedener. If one looks for any sort of demonstration of a duality to the Enlightenment, one will be disappointed, as all the examples seem amply explained by simply pointing out that alchemists and religious types and fraudsters have always existed, and the case studies simply show that the Enlightenment did not sweep them away instantaneously, lock stock and barrel; one is surprised to note Fleming’s lack of emphasis on the more famous examples of the coexistence of religion & science, like Isaac Newton. Perhaps this is to ascribe a failure at goals that Fleming never aimed at, but regardless none of the sections are particularly compelling: while the Rosicrucian and Freemason sections seem like reasonable overviews of their subjects for people who don’t know anything about the topic, Greatrakes and Kruedener left me completely bored and wondering why Fleming considered them interesting enough to write a good chunk of a book on them summarizing other people’s books on them, and the Cagliostro section seems rather apologetic (although I have only seen passing references to Cagliostro before and know little about him).
|Drift Into Failure: From Hunting Broken Components to Understanding Complex Systems||Sidney Dekker||★★★||2011||2015/05/08||
(101k words) Somewhat disappointing. Dekker focuses on how the occasional rare disaster is very complex, which they can be, but never gets off his high horse, instead spending a whole book talking about how everything is terribly terribly complicated.