Book Reviews

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

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

See also my and .

Links are in­cluded to my other re­views of books (eg the vi­sual novel Umineko, or my long book re­views of ///) which were too long for GoodReads. Most of these re­views are ex­tracted from a CSV ex­port of my now-de­funct Goodreads ac­count to Markdown/HTML by a Haskell script I wrote. I stopped us­ing Goodreads in 2020 when I be­came fed up with the slow­ness & bug­gi­ness of the web­site, in­abil­ity to edit many of my re­views, and their re­moval of the API (re­mov­ing API or ex­port is a clas­sic sign of user-hos­tile soft­ware which in­tends to milk its users and so cuts off the es­cape route first).

5 Stars

Like Engend’ring Like, Russell 1986

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

See .

Cat Sense, Bradshaw 2013: Are We Good Owners?

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

See .

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

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

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

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

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

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

See .

Radiance, Scholz 2003

Ra­di­anceCarter Scholz2003★★★★★

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

Pub­lisher sum­ma­ry:

Some­where in Cal­i­for­nia, in the 1990s, a nu­clear weapons lab de­vel­ops ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies for its post-Cold War mis­sion. Ad­vanced as in not work­ing yet. Mis­sion as in con­tin­ued fund­ing. A scan­dal-plagued mis­sile de­fense pro­gram presses for­ward, drag­ging physi­cist Philip Quine deep into the machi­na­tions of those who would use the lab for their own gain.

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

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

Years ago, I ran into a book re­view ti­tled “‘Its aw­ful and en­tic­ing ra­di­ance’: The Beauty and Ter­ror of Carter Scholz’s Ra­di­ance by L. Tim­mel Duchamp; about a 2001 novel I had never heard of by an au­thor I had never heard of, but it sounded in­ter­est­ing and I read the re­view un­til to­wards the end, it quote a key pas­sage in Ra­di­ance:

A mur­mur of rain had started again. He lay there in the abyss of his thoughts as her breath­ing be­side him stead­ied and deep­ened. Al­most a voice stirred in him. It starts be­fore Han­ford, it al­most said. It starts with Rönt­gen, with the piece of bar­ium glow­ing in the path of in­vis­i­ble rays, strik­ing out the fire that God had put there. It starts with his wife’s hand on the pho­to­graphic plate, its trans­parence there, the ashen bones vis­i­ble within the milky flesh. Who could imag­ine that this ra­di­ance at the heart of mat­ter could be ma­lign? That with its light came fire? (Yet from the first the ashen bones were there to see within the flesh.) It starts with Bec­querel car­ry­ing the ra­dium in his pocket that burned his skin, and dark­ened the un­ex­posed film. It starts with Marie Curie poi­son­ing her­self in that pale un­canny glow. With Ruther­ford guess­ing at this new alche­my, guess­ing that mat­ter, giv­ing up its glow, trans­formed it­self one el­e­ment into an­oth­er. With the min­ers at Joachim­sthal, deep un­der the Erzge­birge, in­hal­ing the dust of ura­nium and dy­ing of “moun­tain sick­ness”. With women who by the thou­sands in watch fac­to­ries tipped their brushes with that glow, touched it to their tongues be­fore paint­ing the dial face, women who only much lat­er, when the watch­es’ glow had fad­ed, sick­ened and died from that ra­di­ance taken into their bones. It be­gins with Ernest Lawrence rush­ing across the Berke­ley cam­pus, the idea of a pro­ton ac­cel­er­a­tor un­con­tain­able in his mind, call­ing out, I’m go­ing to be fa­mous! With Op­pen­heimer at Jor­nada del Muerte that morn­ing of Trin­i­ty. With the sci­en­tists who had prised open the gates to that blaz­ing realm past heaven or hell. What were they now at the Lab in all their thou­sands, but the colo­nial bu­reau­crats of that realm, the fol­low­ers and func­tionar­ies, the clerks and com­mis­sars? Mere gate­keep­ers of that pow­er. Or in its keep­ing. It goes of its own mo­men­tum be­yond Han­ford, to Trin­i­ty, to Hi­roshi­ma, to the pris­on­ers, the can­cer pa­tients, the re­tarded chil­dren, the preg­nant women in­jected or fed this gob­lin mat­ter to see would it bring health or sick­ness, the sol­diers hud­dled in trenches against the flash, bones vis­i­ble in their arms through closed eyes, star­ing up at the roil­ing cloudrise, the sheep­herders, the farms, the homes, the gar­dens down­wind. And in his sleep the voice long stilled spoke once more. It starts with Sforza; in case of need I will make bom­bards, mor­tars, and firethrow­ing en­gines of beau­ti­ful and prac­ti­cal de­sign. It starts with Archimedes fo­cus­ing the sun’s rays upon the fleet at Syra­cuse, it starts with the first rock hurled by the first grasp­ing hand. It starts where we start. It is mind, it is hunger, it is greed, it is de­fense, it is mis­chief, it is the dev­il, it is the god; it is life.

The force of the in­can­ta­tion struck me and a few years lat­er, a copy fi­nally ap­peared in my lo­cal li­brary sys­tem. I re­quested it and de­voured it in one or two sit­tings; Scholz’s fa­vored punc­tu­a­tion-less style, us­ing hy­phens for voice tran­si­tions, an­noyed me (but did not chal­lenge me—I’d al­ready read Stand On Zanz­ibar and Dos Pas­sos’s U.S.A.). The swirl of ref­er­ences drenched the work in re­al­i­ty—Scholz seems to know every­thing about every­thing, from phi­los­o­phy of sci­ence to the L5 So­ci­ety to Wag­n­er’s Par­si­fal, but the themes were grand and ones ‘mod­ern lit­er­a­ture’ so often fails to ad­dress and cedes to sci­ence fic­tion: the role of sci­ence in so­ci­ety, the ten­sion be­tween fu­ture gains and present loss­es, what is cor­rup­tion, whether we live up to our own stan­dards, the worth of truth…

You could only call it a satire if you did­n’t re­al­ize how closely it all tracks to real events: it is a ro­man à clef of the Star Wars pro­gram, down to the nu­clear tests which in­trude onto 5 pages in the fi­nal sec­tion. (Scholz seems to have drawn heav­ily on Gre­gory Ben­ford’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal es­say “Old Leg­ends”, in­cluded in the an­thol­ogy the “Ra­di­ance” novella was first pub­lished in.)

The novel be­gins in me­dia res, de­pict­ing a failed ex­or­cism of the gov­ern­ment labs, quickly turn­ing to its pro­tag­o­nist, a good-na­tured but de­spair­ing and baffled Quine’s at­tempts to un­der­stand his predica­ment: in charge of de­sign­ing a nu­clear weapon where the data sim­ply dis­agrees with the the­ory which is sup­posed to be right. The story un­rav­els into one of de­cep­tion and fund­ing pres­sure, and Quine tri­umphs, un­seat­ing the cul­prit in it all, and re­al­iz­ing he does­n’t be­long at the labs—“I be­long in­side!” he says, even as he is forced out in the tur­moil of an­ti-nu­clear pro­test­ers.

A hall­mark of Ra­di­ance is the Gib­son­ian sense of alien en­ti­ties and or­gan­isms clash­ing for life, at a level above in­di­vid­u­als: the Labs has gen­er­ated its own cul­ture, with its own im­per­a­tives and loy­al­ties and goals, fed by gov­ern­ment mon­ey, but in this re­spect, we can say lit­tle bet­ter of the con­tin­ual an­tag­o­nist of the labs, the pro­test­ers, as it is its own alien en­ti­ty, seek­ing fund­ing for its protests (fund­ing, Réti re­minds us, comes from the en­e­my), sub­vert­ing Lab mem­bers for in­for­ma­tion, pres­sur­ing char­ac­ters like Lynn to serve it. And it does­n’t end there: the Pen­ta­gon lurks in the back­ground, rep­re­sented by Reese, qui­etly push­ing along re­search into ever bet­ter nu­clear weapons, and hinted at twice are for­eign gov­ern­ments like North Ko­rea, and be­yond that? Here I bor­row a term from Kevin Kelly and re­fer to the Tech­ni­um: sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy re­garded as its own en­tity with its own dri­ves and se­lec­tion effects, in­clud­ing the pro­lif­er­a­tion of all forms of tech­nol­o­gy.

Sec­tion two turns to the un­seated High­et: his ouster, and the epi­logue of his story as he looks over the ru­ins of his life and seeks out a fi­nal rest­ing place in a think-tank. The Bib­li­cal and Wag­ner­ian over­tones are strong in this sec­tion. Think­ing of Par­si­fal’s Grail quest, it’s hard not to re­mem­ber that only one knight finds the Holy Grail in the end: the oth­ers all go astray or have sinned in var­i­ous ways.

Sec­tion three com­pletes the work. Just like Dune Mes­siah thor­oughly sub­verted and un­der­mined the sim­plis­tic nar­ra­tives pre­sented for the reader to swal­low in Dune, part three shows the reader how Quine in his own turn is fully sub­verted by the en­vi­ron­ment, his sense of du­ty, and yes, his own be­lief in the de­sir­abil­ity of progress. (“He goes right to the point and car­ries the reader / Into the midst of things, as if known al­ready; / And if there’s ma­te­r­ial that he de­spairs of pre­sent­ing / So as to shine for us, he leaves it out; / And he makes his whole poem one. What’s true, what’s in­vent­ed, / Be­gin­ning, mid­dle, and end, all fit to­geth­er.”) The im­agery and par­al­lelism at times is not even sub­tle: for both Quine and High­et, Scholz arranges for them to at some point limp (just like Ed­ward Teller) and have in­flamed red­dish faces—the im­pli­ca­tion could hardly be clearer if one of the char­ac­ters had been named ‘Faust’ and Lynn Ham­lin re­named Mar­garet Ham­lin.

And fi­nal­ly, hav­ing been ‘cor­rupted’ (but hav­ing suc­ceeded in se­cur­ing the fu­ture of the Na­tional Ig­ni­tion Fa­cil­ity which runs to this day), Quine is dealt the fi­nal blow: the rev­e­la­tion of the leak of nu­clear test da­ta. The Tech­nium strives to­ward open­ness and pro­lif­er­a­tion. Tech­nol­ogy may be amoral but it has im­per­a­tives of its own. The book ends in Quine in de­spair and granted a mo­ment of lu­cid­i­ty: see­ing his en­tire life as a mix­ture of suc­cess and fail­ure, as but a pawn of vast forces be­yond his com­pre­hen­sion, be­hold­ing the pres­ence of the ghostly Tech­ni­um, far from ex­or­cised.

…he stabbed the ra­dio to si­lence as the dash blinked JAM and he ac­cel­er­ated into the next lane with the nee­dle climb­ing past 80 past 90 when the CD player blinked PLAY and a falsetto whined, –gonna be just dirt in the ground –Damn it! Shut up…! bang­ing the dash as his wheels trilled on the raised lane di­viders and a horn snapped his head around to the pan­icked face of an­other drive too close as he yanked the wheel and the road slid on de­spite his foot wedged on the brake and the yank of the wheel back against a fish­tail­ing swerve into a cho­rus of horns and gap­ing faces trav­el­ing side­ways past him un­til the car came up hard against a curb and stopped. He was on the shoul­der turned side­ways. Through the pas­sen­ger win­dow he saw traffic rush to­ward him and pass be­hind him. Ahead of him, smoke rose from fields of stub­ble, and a flight of bird, scat­tered by some dis­tur­bance, wheeled, now black, now white, against the empty burn­ing sky.

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

The 3 sec­tions form closed cir­cle: a tight ball of his­tor­i­cal forces, cor­rup­tion, sci­ence, de­spair, pro­gress, fail­ure, and per­sonal tragedies.

The reader ex­pect­ing fur­ther satire will not be pleased by this sec­tion. They’ve missed the point: this is­n’t a com­e­dy, it’s a tragedy. And what would a tragedy be with­out there be­ing a great gap be­tween what we hoped a char­ac­ter might ac­com­plish and what ac­tu­ally hap­pens? The higher they can fly, the sad­der a crash.

Coy­ote, First An­gry, en­emy of all law, wan­der­er, desert mind, out­law, spoil­er, loser, clown, glut­ton, lecher, thief, cheat, prag­ma­tist, sur­vivor, bricoleur, sil­ver-tongued Tal­iesin, lat­ter­day Leonar­do, usurper Sforza, adul­terer Lancelot, tell, wily one, by any means, of the man with two hearts, of knowl­edge and de­sire safely hid­den from each oth­er. Did not Paracel­sus com­mand us to fal­sify and dis­sim­u­late so that ig­no­rant men might not look upon our mys­ter­ies? Did not the no­ble da Vinci hide the mean­ing of his thought by the man­ner of his script? What man has not two mas­ters, two minds, two hearts? Tell of the man so wounded in him­self that he tore his sec­ond heart from him and cast it out, nam­ing it the world, and swore to wound it as it had wounded him.

It’s not as sim­ple as ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It’s not even as sim­ple as ‘cor­rup­tion’ vs ‘hon­esty’: look around. Progress is not in­evitable. Athens de­clined. Flo­rence de­clined. Coun­tries fall. Knowl­edge can be lost (look at scurvy). Sci­ence is not a for­mal­ized process, but a spirit of hon­esty and in­quiry, which can be aped and the word­less teach­ing lost (how can Japan­ese or Chi­nese re­searchers run hun­dred of ex­per­i­ments, ap­par­ently com­ply­ing with all known stan­dards, every sin­gle one of which con­cludes acupunc­ture works, when re­sults else­where show dra­mat­i­cally lower suc­cess rates?). After WWII, many Amer­i­cans saw the ru­ins of Ger­many and Japan, and took to heart a lesson: the dark­ness waits. An­ti-vaxxers to our left, Cre­ation­ists to our right. And that’s in Amer­i­ca, still pre­em­i­nent in sci­ence, still one of the wealth­i­est coun­tries in the world—based on just that sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. Highet is not wrong—just one-sided.

(“If only there were evil peo­ple some­where in­sid­i­ously com­mit­ting evil deeds and it were nec­es­sary only to sep­a­rate them from the rest of us and de­stroy them. But the line di­vid­ing good and evil cuts through the heart of every hu­man be­ing. And who is will­ing to de­stroy a piece of his own heart?”)

Through­out the book, we know “the work goes on”. An­other of Scholz’s ref­er­ences, this time to alche­my’s mag­num opus, the philoso­pher’s stone, which grants moral pu­rifi­ca­tion, eter­nal life, and the trans­mu­ta­tion of base el­e­ments into no­bler ones. (Trans­mu­ta­tion has been re­al­ized as ra­dioac­tive de­cay, while mod­ern med­i­cine would as­tound Ba­con, and it does not seem ab­surd that in the next few cen­turies mankind will cure ag­ing.) The dou­ble as­pect pops up again, of fraud and great­ness: re­search as prac­ti­cal work but also as spir­i­tual quest. An­other dou­ble as­pect: al­chemists were no­to­ri­ous scam artists & moun­te­banks, trick­ing oth­ers (par­tic­u­larly sec­u­lar lords and gov­ern­ments) into fund­ing their re­searches based on tricks with gold—but Isaac New­ton was an al­chemist, Robert Boyle based mod­ern chem­istry in part on the knowl­edge painfully gleaned by cen­turies of al­chemists, and the for­ma­tion of mod­ern states was due in part to gun­pow­der (Chi­nese al­chemist­s), and Roger Ba­con, who I can­not re­sist sup­ply­ing an apt quote about:

"Once upon a time, there was a man who was con­vinced that he pos­sessed a Great Idea. In­deed, as the man thought upon the Great Idea more and more, he re­al­ized that it was not just a great idea, but the most won­der­ful idea ever. The Great Idea would un­ravel the mys­ter­ies of the uni­verse, su­per­sede the au­thor­ity of the cor­rupt and er­ror-rid­den Es­tab­lish­ment, con­fer nigh-mag­i­cal pow­ers upon its wield­ers, feed the hun­gry, heal the sick, make the whole world a bet­ter place, etc. etc. etc.

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

It starts with Ba­con…

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

Stories of Your Life and Others, Chiang 2010

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

What’s there to say about Chi­ang that all the oth­ers don’t say? He is the clos­est thing to a mod­ern Jorge Luis Borges in meld­ing high con­cepts with lit­er­a­ture to cre­ate some­thing bet­ter than ei­ther; in some re­spects, I’d rank his best short sto­ries as bet­ter than Gene Wolfe’s (too often te­dious and un­solved puz­zle­box­es). His writ­ing is de­cep­tively ex­cel­lent: I would call him a writer’s writer, be­cause the flat even­ness of his prose may strike a reader as bor­ing un­less they have tried to write as clearly them­selves and failed abysmal­ly, at which point they be­gin to ap­pre­ci­ate Chi­ang’s in­fal­li­ble choice of words and lu­cid prose which sinks into the mind with­out fric­tion.

Sto­ries of Your Life and Oth­ers is much su­pe­rior to his novella Life Cy­cle of Soft­ware Ob­jects, and con­tains pretty much all of his great­est short sto­ries which I have read, ex­cept for his ex­cel­lent “Ex­ha­la­tion”. I read most of them on­line, so when I had the chance to read a hard­copy of the full col­lec­tion, I seized it.

  1. “The Tower of Baby­lon”; amus­ing, and in de­scrib­ing the lives of the peo­ple liv­ing on the tow­er, mov­ing in some re­spects. The fi­nal end­ing feels like an ap­pro­pri­ate con­clu­sion. If one had to crit­i­cize it, it would be that the Tower it­self is com­pletely un­re­al­is­tic even in the Bib­li­cal cos­mol­ogy of the sto­ry: as I said, the best Chi­ang sto­ries unite lit­er­a­ture and good ideas. I would rank this #5 of the 8 sto­ries.
  2. “Di­vi­sion by Zero”; not ter­ri­bly im­pres­sive—over-wrought, and I feel I have read this story be­fore and bet­ter. #7.
  3. “Un­der­stand”; a clas­sic in the niche genre of su­per­in­tel­li­gence, and IMO bet­ter than Vinge’s “Book­worm, Run!” and at least as good as Flow­ers for Al­ger­non. Chi­ang, like every other au­thor, con­fronts the lim­its of his writ­ing abil­ity in try­ing to write con­vinc­ingly of a su­per­in­tel­li­gence who is by de­fi­n­i­tion vastly smarter than he is (the same chal­lenge laid down by Camp­bell to Vinge: “you can’t write this sto­ry, and nei­ther can any­one else”), and so the start of the story is much stronger than the later pas­sages. But the whole is still mem­o­rable. #4. (Prob­a­bly an even bet­ter read for those who haven’t read about themes of su­per­in­tel­li­gence be­fore.)
  4. “Story of Your Life”; I had ac­tu­ally read this one be­fore, and dis­missed it as sen­ti­men­tal tripe with some weak physics or lin­guis­tic lay­er­ing that I did­n’t re­ally un­der­stand. In this re­spect, like many of the other re­view­ers on this page who pan it as ‘dumb see­ing-the-fu­ture’ tropes, the fault was mine: “Story of Your Life” is much bet­ter than the crit­ics give it credit for be­ing, sim­ply be­cause they en­tirely failed to un­der­stand the con­cept de­spite quite a lot of ex­pla­na­tion from Chi­ang. For­tu­nate­ly, just a few weeks ago I hap­pened to read some ma­te­r­ial on the La­grangian in­ter­pre­ta­tions of physics and com­bined with know­ing in ad­vance the end­ing, I was able to ap­pre­ci­ate the story much bet­ter this time. Think­ing about it, I re­al­ized it does some­thing un­usual in pro­vid­ing an­other an­gle, a psy­cho­log­i­cal an­gle, to time­less in­ter­pre­ta­tions of physics and block uni­verses and back­prop­a­ga­tion in neural net­works and I even con­nected it to Zen, which makes them all a lit­tle eas­ier to un­der­stand for me. I did­n’t get it the first time, but I’m glad I even­tu­ally reread it and ‘got’ it. I would rank this #3 of the 8 sto­ries. #3. This story is what I be­lieve was the first adap­ta­tion of any of Chi­ang’s sto­ries, de­spite be­ing over­rated like “Life Cy­cle of Soft­ware Ob­jects”, get­ting . Since there seems to be some con­fu­sion over what ex­actly Chi­ang is try­ing to say with this one, I’ve ex­panded out my thoughts on what is ac­tu­ally go­ing on in an es­say: The movie, how­ev­er, avoids this al­most en­tire­ly. When I heard there was go­ing to be a movie, I said to my­self, “I bet it’ll miss the en­tire point and make it about time travel or some­thing”. It does. Avoid­ing the physics en­tirely (!) the screen­writer takes the off­hand men­tion of Sapir-Whorf and in­ter­prets the pro­tag­o­nist as get­ting ac­tual time-travel pow­ers; based on his in­ter­view mak­ing no men­tion of why and when he de­cided to dras­ti­cally sim­pli­fy, I sus­pect he does­n’t even re­al­ize how badly he failed to un­der­stand it. The scriptwriter ap­par­ently took the only bits he un­der­stood, a men­tion of the Sapir-Whorf hy­poth­e­sis (which is mostly a hy­poth­e­sis, as decades of search­ing have turned up less than im­pres­sive em­pir­i­cal re­sults like slightly eas­ier per­cep­tion of named col­ors and bet­ter ge­o­graphic lo­ca­tion knowl­edge when gram­mar en­codes di­rec­tion—cer­tainly noth­ing like the grand ex­pec­ta­tions in the 1960s that led to such lin­guis­tic ne­ol­o­gis­tic mon­strosi­ties as ‘her­story’ or ‘womyn’). With the mean­ing of the story ex­cised, he has to come up with a reg­u­lar plot, and does this by giv­ing the aliens a—­dare I say—­more hu­man mo­ti­va­tion in try­ing to some­how save them­selves by up­lift­ing hu­mans. This is it­self a be­trayal of part of Chi­ang’s ethos: in many of his sto­ries, Chi­ang is de­pict­ing the un­known and the un­know­able and hu­man con­fronta­tion with it. The heat-death of the uni­verse in “Ex­ha­la­tion”, post-hu­man in­tel­li­gence in “Un­der­stand”, post-hu­man knowl­edge and sci­ence in “The Evo­lu­tion of Hu­man Sci­ence”, the na­ture of God and moral­ity and the im­pli­ca­tions of di­vine-com­mand the­ory in “Hell is the Ab­sence of God”, what lies be­yond the sky or the cir­cu­lar uni­verse in “The Tower of Baby­lon”, and… alien cog­ni­tion and ways of view­ing the uni­verse in “Story of Your Life”. What’s left is mostly a glossy ac­tion movie heavy on mil­i­tary hard­ware (pre­sum­ably this is one of those Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tions where the US mil­i­tary pro­vides lots of equip­ment and per­son­nel in ex­change for a pos­i­tive de­pic­tion as hon­est and com­pe­tent and not trig­ger-hap­py) about the need for a world gov­ern­ment, with the physics theme turned into just a Sapir-Whorf su­per­power though this makes no sense in­-u­ni­verse (if the pro­tag­o­nist can cre­ate sta­ble time-loops and steal in­for­ma­tion from the fu­ture, why does­n’t she steal a cure? Or why not see an al­ter­nate fu­ture where her child does­n’t get sick, or an en­tirely differ­ent hus­band and healthy child she could also love? Or how is Hep­tapodese not sup­posed to lead to in­cred­i­ble chaos as peo­ple learn it and start mon­key­ing with the fu­ture? Why do the aliens need any as­sis­tance from the hu­mans in the first place, whether to learn their lan­guage or to save them­selves?) The spe­cial-effects de­pic­tion of Hep­ta­pod is some nifty cloud effects, but the hep­tapods them­selves are not ter­ri­bly com­pelling aliens. As a ren­der­ing of Chi­ang’s vi­sion, I would have to give it an F be­cause it is frus­trat­ingly al­most the op­po­site of what he meant, and as a generic Hol­ly­wood SF movie I would give it a B. I would doubt­less have en­joyed it more if I had never read the sto­ry.
  5. “The Evo­lu­tion of Hu­man Sci­ence”; short, du­bi­ous. Not Chi­ang’s best work, on ei­ther di­men­sion. #8.
  6. “Sev­en­ty-Two Let­ters”; sim­ply fan­tas­tic. The set­ting is won­der­ful, the prob­lem great, the ideas even bet­ter, and the so­lu­tion and mean­ing bet­ter still. I can’t say it’s in­cred­i­bly deep, but it’s a look at a road not tak­en, and a re­minder of how be­fore we reached any­thing like the cur­rent Mendel-Fisher par­tic­u­late-in­her­i­tance par­a­digm. #2.
  7. “Hell Is the Ab­sence of God”; as an athe­ist who keeps com­ing back to the Wis­dom Books and the par­tic­u­larly (KJV trans­la­tion, of course), this story came as a gut punch. The writ­ing is Chi­ang at his most Chi­ang-y, the world in­ter­est­ing and provoca­tive (Chi­ang takes the Bible ‘lit­er­ally but not se­ri­ously’, one might say), and the end­ing sim­ply un­speak­able. But don’t take my word for it, ‘de­cide for your­self’, as the fallen an­gels say. This story en­riches read­ing the Book of Job for me, and I think ul­ti­mately ham­mers in for me the un­ac­cept­abil­ity of di­vine com­mand ethics and makes me more athe­is­tic. #1. Pairs well with Scott Alexan­der’s more free­wheel­ing Un­song.
  8. “Lik­ing What You See: A Doc­u­men­tary”; in­ter­est­ing ideas, but some­thing about the di­a­logues and char­ac­ters seem off. It just jars me. I think some­where Chi­ang also notes his dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the writ­ing of this one. #6.

Worm, Wildbow 2013

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

Worm (Ta­ble of Con­tents/offi­cial sum­mary/TvTropes/Red­dit/post-in­ter­view) is ad­dic­tive su­per­hero SF pos­ing as fan­ta­sy; it is long, of con­sis­tently high qual­i­ty, and fea­tures a huge amount of imag­i­na­tive pow­ers with equally imag­i­na­tive ap­pli­ca­tions and com­bos (the pro­tag­o­nist us­age of bugs, as im­pres­sive as it is, is only one of many pos­si­ble ex­am­ples, al­though I par­tic­u­larly like the Re­gent and Shadow Stalker in­ci­dent as an ex­am­ple of social-engineering/hacking); the set­ting ex­cel­lently ra­tio­nal­izes the stan­dard su­per­heroes vs su­pervil­lains setup (which as often ob­served, makes lit­tle sense prima fa­cie). The se­ries opens in the small­est pos­si­ble set­ting, the geeky in­tro­verted pro­tag­o­nist Tay­lor be­ing bul­lied in school, steps log­i­cally to­wards a life of crime as a su­pervil­lain while try­ing to do the right thing (and be­ing ma­nip­u­lated by mul­ti­ple par­ties, some pre­scient) and slowly ex­pands to mul­ti­ver­sal scope with an ap­pro­pri­ately epic and bit­ter­sweet end­ing. (Re­minds me of Watch­men.) Or to bor­row from the offi­cial sum­ma­ry:

An in­tro­verted teenage girl with an un­con­ven­tional su­per­pow­er, Tay­lor goes out in cos­tume to find es­cape from a deeply un­happy and frus­trated civil­ian life. Her first at­tempt at tak­ing down a su­pervil­lain sees her mis­taken for one, thrust­ing her into the midst of the lo­cal ‘cape’ scene’s pol­i­tics, un­writ­ten rules, and am­bigu­ous morals. As she risks life and limb, Tay­lor faces the dilemma of hav­ing to do the wrong things for the right rea­son­s…Read­ers should be cau­tioned that Worm is fairly dark as fic­tion goes, and it gets far darker as the story pro­gress­es. Moral­ity is­n’t black and white, Tay­lor and her ac­quain­tances aren’t in­vin­ci­ble, the he­roes aren’t win­ning the war be­tween right and wrong, and su­per­pow­ers haven’t nec­es­sar­ily affected so­ci­ety for the bet­ter. Just the op­po­site on every count, re­al­ly. Even on a more fun­da­men­tal lev­el, Tay­lor’s day to day life is un­hap­py, with her cling­ing to the end of her rope from the sto­ry’s out­set. The denizens of the Wor­m­verse (as read­ers have termed it) don’t pull punch­es, and I try to avoid do­ing so my­self, as a writer. There’s graphic lan­guage, de­scrip­tions of vi­o­lence and sex does hap­pen (al­beit off­screen).

I rec­om­mend read­ing sin­gle arcs at a time: call­ing the whole thing ‘Worm’ is a bit of a mis­nomer, it’d make much more sense to group a few arcs and call them in­di­vid­ual nov­els in the ‘Worm Saga’ or some­thing. Length­-wise, it’s up­wards of a mil­lion words, and ac­cord­ing to my arbtt logs (us­ing the rule ‘current window $title =~ [/.* Worm---Iceweasel/] ==> tag Worm’), took me 37 hours and 42 min­utes over 5 days to read.

The work is not per­fect. The open­ing is per­haps too slow: the first fight with Lung, which hooked me, took a while to hap­pen as it only re­ally starts in ch4. In the mid­dle, I sus­pect there was per­haps too much ma­te­r­ial de­voted to the Slaugh­ter­house Nine arc and not enough to later plot arcs like Tay­lor join­ing the he­roes or deal­ing with later End­bringers. Fur­ther, there’s so many char­ac­ters that a binge read is a good idea, but dur­ing a binge, the fights can blur to­gether and be­come ex­haust­ing, sug­gest­ing Worm may spend too much time on that. Some good parts, like char­ac­ters hav­ing rea­sons to be bad, are taken to an ex­treme where it seems like every char­ac­ter, no mat­ter how mun­dane, must have a back­story ex­plain­ing how their environment/society made them evil (even for char­ac­ters like Emma where such a cause is un­nec­es­sary). But the flaws are rel­a­tively small and hope­fully will be ad­dressed in the edit­ing process. I look for­ward to read­ing Wild­bow’s Pact when it fin­ished, and I think I’ll check out some of the fanfics like Ceno­taph.

I read Worm after it was fin­ished and I con­tin­ued to see pos­i­tive re­views of it, such as Eliezer Yud­kowsky:

…I com­mend to you…the just-com­pleted story Worm, which is roughly 1.75 mil­lion words in 30 vol­umes. The char­ac­ters in Worm use their pow­ers so in­tel­li­gently I did­n’t even no­tice un­til some­thing like the 10th vol­ume that the al­leged ge­niuses were be­hav­ing like ac­tual ge­niuses and that the fly­ing bricks who would be the pri­mary pro­tag­o­nists and vil­lains of lesser tales were prop­erly play­ing sec­ond fid­dle to char­ac­ters with cog­ni­tive, in­for­ma­tion­al, or prob­a­bil­i­ty-based pow­er­s…­Do­ing this so smoothly that I don’t even no­tice be­cause my brain con­sid­ers the re­sult­ing world to be ‘nor­mal’ re­ally ought to de­serve some kind of epic bonus points…There are sto­ries which are bet­ter than Worm, and sto­ries which were writ­ten faster than Worm, but I don’t know of any epic which was ever writ­ten faster and bet­ter than Worm.

Other re­views in­clude Joshua Blaine:

…a self con­sis­tent and ex­pan­sive Su­per-hero uni­verse, and with a ton of unique and pow­er­ful abil­i­ties, I’ve re­ally been en­joy­ing it. The story is Worm, and It’s eas­ily one of my fa­vorite web sto­ries in awhile, and very dark (e­spe­cially as the story pro­gresses fur­ther).


I’ve been read­ing this awe­some web se­r­ial called Worm. Highly rec­om­mend if you want some ac­tion and sus­pense. There’s a bit of ra­tio­nal­ity busi­ness in there as well, but it’s spaced out and the story is long. I see it’s been rec­om­mended pre­vi­ously on here as well.


Caveat: Worm is re­ally dark. The char­ac­ters are clev­er, the pro­tag­o­nist makes the most out of a su­per­power that seems mediocre at first glance, and there are enough twists and turns that I would look at the clock and re­al­ize that I’d been read­ing for six hours. (Worm is re­ally long, so if you’re the sort of per­son who has to keep read­ing fic­tion be warned that it will eat a week or two.) But, de­spite those pos­i­tives, ter­ri­ble things hap­pen to every­one al­ways. I found it sim­i­lar to Game of Thrones in that it was en­gag­ing but de­press­ing, and un­like GoT where new char­ac­ters are in­tro­duced, dance about, and then die, in Worm there’s a clear pro­tag­o­nist who, as far as I can tell, al­ways wins even­tu­al­ly. I also found the su­per­hero fight se­quences less en­gag­ing as time went on—but they can be skimmed with lit­tle loss.

and Ri­talin:

In­deed. Al­though, frankly, what I’ve seen of Worm so far seems to des­ig­nate it as very sim­i­lar to my idea of Hell; every ac­com­plish­ment is ei­ther made moot or cost some­thing ir­re­place­able and pos­si­bly of su­pe­rior val­ue, every vic­tory is short­-lived, every mis­take is paid for dear­ly. Every sit­u­a­tion is des­per­ate, every prob­lem ur­gent. By the time a con­flict reaches its res­o­lu­tion, an­other is at its peak, and two more are right around the cor­ner. Per­haps it’s even worse; hard­ship, in­stead of build­ing char­ac­ter, cor­rupts it. For the char­ac­ters, it must be like a night­mare they can’t wake up from.

Urne Burial, Browne 2005

Urne Bur­ialThomas Browne2005★★★★★

I first heard of Browne in Borges—as so often—in the end­ing of “Tlön, Uqbar, Or­bis Ter­tius” where the nar­ra­tor is at­tempt­ing to trans­late it into Span­ish. Borges is al­ways in­ter­ested in trans­la­tion (see for ex­am­ple his fan­tas­tic es­say on trans­lat­ing the 1001 Nights) and I made a note to look up this work which pre­sented such chal­lenges for ren­der­ing into Span­ish. (The ac­tual edi­tion I used was James Ea­son’s on­line edi­tion.)

Urn Bur­ial is hugely ar­chaic, but also amaz­ing. I am not sure where I have last seen any lit­er­ary py­rotech­nics to match Browne in Eng­lish. David Fos­ter Wal­lace some­times ap­proaches him, but be­yond that I draw blanks. The book de­fies any sim­ple sum­mary as many pas­sages are cryp­tic tan­gles and Browne says many things. So I will not try, and sim­ply present some pas­sages that struck me:

“He that lay in a golden Urne em­i­nently above the Earth, was not likely to finde the quiet of these bones. Many of these Urnes were broke by a vul­gar dis­cov­erer in hope of in­closed trea­sure. The ashes of Mar­cel­lus were lost above ground, upon the like ac­count. Where profit hath prompt­ed, no age hath wanted such min­ers. For which the most bar­barous Ex­pi­la­tors found the most civill Rhetorick. Gold once out of the earth is no more due unto it; What was un­rea­son­ably com­mit­ted to the ground is rea­son­ably re­sumed from it: Let Mon­u­ments and rich Fab­ricks, not Riches adorn mens ash­es. The com­merce of the liv­ing is not to be trans­ferred unto the dead: It is not in­jus­tice to take that which none com­plains to lose, and no man is wronged where no man is pos­ses­sor.”

“If the near­nesse of our last ne­ces­si­ty, brought a nearer con­for­mity unto it, there were a hap­pi­nesse in hoary hairs, and no calamity in half sens­es. But the long habit of liv­ing in­dis­poseth us for dy­ing; When Avarice makes us the sport of death; When even David grew pol­i­tickly cru­ell; and Solomon could hardly be said to be the wis­est of men. But many are too early old, and be­fore the date of age. Ad­ver­sity stretch­eth our dayes, mis­ery makes Al­cme­nas nights, and time hath no wings unto it. But the most te­dious be­ing is that which can un­wish it self, con­tent to be noth­ing, or never to have been, which was be­yond the male-con­tent of Job, who cursed not the day of his life, but his Na­tiv­i­ty; Con­tent to have so farre been, as to have a ti­tle to fu­ture be­ing; Al­though he had lived here but in an hid­den state of life, and as it were an abor­tion.”

“Na­ture hath fur­nished one part of the Earth, and man an­oth­er. The trea­sures of time lie high, in Ur­nes, Coy­nes, and Mon­u­ments, scarce be­low the roots of some veg­eta­bles. Time hath end­lesse rar­i­ties, and shows of all va­ri­eties; which re­veals old things in heav­en, makes new dis­cov­er­ies in earth, and even earth it self a dis­cov­ery. That great An­tiq­uity Amer­ica lay buried for a thou­sand years; and a large part of the earth is still in the Urne unto us.”

“Some bones make best Skele­tons, some bod­ies quick and speed­i­est ash­es: Who would ex­pect a quick flame from Hy­drop­i­call Her­a­cli­tus? The poysoned Souldier when his Belly brake, put out two pyres in Plutarch. But in the plague of Athens, one pri­vate pyre served two or three In­trud­ers; and the Sara­cens burnt in large heaps, by the King of Castile, shewed how lit­tle Fu­ell sufficeth. Though the Fu­ner­all pyre of Pa­tro­clus took up an hun­dred foot, a peece of an old boat burnt Pom­pey; And if the bur­then of Isaac were suffi­cient for an holo­caust, a man may carry his owne pyre.”

“The long habit of liv­ing in­dis­poseth us for dy­ing.”

“To be con­tent that times to come should only know there was such a man, not car­ing whether they knew more of him, was a frigid am­bi­tion in Car­dan: dis­parag­ing his horo­sco­pal in­cli­na­tion and judge­ment of him­self, who cares to sub­sist like Hip­pocrates Pa­tients, or Achilles horses in Homer, un­der naked nom­i­na­tions, with­out deserts and no­ble acts, which are the bal­same of our mem­o­ries, the En­t­elec­chia and soul of our sub­sis­tences. To be name­lesse in wor­thy deeds ex­ceeds an in­fa­mous his­to­ry. The Canaani­tish woman lives more hap­pily with­out a name, then Hero­dias with one. And who had not rather have been the good theef, then Pi­late? But the in­iq­uity of obliv­ion blind­ely scat­tereth her pop­py, and deals with the mem­ory of men with­out dis­tinc­tion to merit of per­pe­tu­ity. Who can but pity the founder of the Pyra­mids? Hero­s­tra­tus lives that burnt the Tem­ple of Di­ana, he is al­most lost that built it; Time hath spared the Epi­taph of Adri­ans horse, con­founded that of him­self. In vain we com­pute our fe­lic­i­ties by the ad­van­tage of our good names, since bad have equall du­ra­tions; and Ther­sites is like to live as long as Aga­menon, [with­out the favour of the ever­last­ing Reg­is­ter:] Who knows whether the best of men be known? or whether there be not more re­mark­able per­sons for­got, then any that stand re­mem­bred in the known ac­count of time? with­out the favour of the ever­last­ing Reg­is­ter the first man had been as un­known as the last, and Methuse­lahs long life had been his only Chron­i­cle.”

“What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles as­sumed when he hid him­self among wom­en, though pu­zling Ques­tions are not be­yond all con­jec­ture. What time the per­sons of these Os­suar­ies en­tred the fa­mous Na­tions of the dead, and slept with Princes and Coun­sel­lours, might ad­mit a wide res­o­lu­tion. But who were the pro­pri­etaries of these bones, or what bod­ies these ashes made up, were a ques­tion above An­ti­quar­ism. Not to be re­solved by man, nor eas­ily per­haps by spir­its, ex­cept we con­sult the Provin­ciall Guardians, or tutel­lary Ob­ser­va­tors. Had they made as good pro­vi­sion for their names, as they have done for their Reliques, they had not so grosly erred in the art of per­pet­u­a­tion. But to sub­sist in bones, and be but Pyra­mi­dally ex­tant, is a fal­lacy in du­ra­tion. Vain ash­es, which in the obliv­ion of names, per­sons, times, and sex­es, have found unto them­selves, a fruit­lesse con­tin­u­a­tion, and only arise unto late pos­ter­i­ty, as Em­blemes of mor­tall van­i­ties; An­ti­dotes against pride, vain-glo­ry, and madding vices. Pa­gan vain-glo­ries which thought the world might last for ever, had en­cour­age­ment for am­bi­tion, and find­ing no At­ro­pos unto the im­mor­tal­ity of their Names, were never dampt with the ne­ces­sity of obliv­ion. Even old am­bi­tions had the ad­van­tage of ours, in the at­tempts of their vain-glo­ries, who act­ing ear­ly, and be­fore the prob­a­ble Merid­ian of time, have by this time found great ac­com­plish­ment of their de­sig­nes, whereby the an­cient He­roes have al­ready out­-lasted their Mon­u­ments, and Me­chan­i­call preser­va­tions. But in this lat­ter Scene of time we can­not ex­pect such Mum­mies unto our mem­o­ries, when am­bi­tion may fear the Prophecy of Elias, and Charles the fifth can never hope to live within two Methuse­la’s of Hec­tor.”

The Discovery of France, Robb 2007

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

Dis­cov­ery of France charts the tran­si­tion of the re­gion cov­ered by mod­ern France into the uni­fied cultural/political/geographic en­tity of to­day. This is in­cred­i­bly in­ter­est­ing be­cause from our per­spec­tive, we have for­got­ten (if we ever knew) what went into the process of tak­ing the thou­sands of vil­lages and re­gions differ­ing in all sorts of ways, and crush­ing them into the rel­a­tively ho­mo­ge­neous high­-tech cul­ture of to­day—u­ni­fy­ing lan­guages, po­lit­i­cal sys­tems, forms of trans­porta­tion, re­li­gion, and so on. A theme through­out is Scot­t’s leg­i­bil­ity (See­ing Like A State); Robb gives all sorts of ex­am­ples demon­strat­ing lo­cal knowl­edge, spe­cial­ized in­for­ma­tion, and re­sis­tance to out­siders.

Often peo­ple dra­mat­i­cally un­der­es­ti­mate this. It’s easy to as­sume that the vast na­tion-s­tates like China or Amer­ica just sort of came into ex­is­tence nat­u­ral­ly, but this over­looks the amount of effort Chinese/American governments/organizations have put into uni­fi­ca­tion, in as­pects rang­ing from stamp­ing out as many lan­guages and other cul­tures as pos­si­ble to sim­pli­fy­ing ex­ist­ing lan­guages (par­tic­u­larly strik­ing in Chi­na) to en­forc­ing stan­dard­ized units and mea­sures (en­cour­ag­ing cash crops is a good way) to stan­dard­ized na­tional ed­u­ca­tional cur­ricu­lum in­cul­cat­ing pa­tri­o­tism and com­mon be­liefs.

You may not think that they are ‘uni­fied’, but they are far more uni­fied than they used to be—­con­trast the orig­i­nal 13 Amer­i­can colonies to how large Amer­ica is now, or look at his­tor­i­cal maps of Han China with the cur­rent bound­aries, and think about all the cul­tur­al, lin­guis­tic, po­lit­i­cal, and eco­nomic differ­ences that used to ex­ist, and how many of, say, the lan­guages are now ex­tinct. (To say noth­ing of the peo­ples… Ti­bet and the Amer­i­can In­di­ans come to mind as ex­am­ples unique only for the doc­u­men­ta­tion and no­tice taken of their par­tic­u­lar in­stance.) The process of ho­mog­e­niza­tion and sim­pli­fi­ca­tion hap­pens in many large coun­tries, for eas­i­ly-un­der­stood rea­sons such as the con­ve­nience of the state.

Be­sides Robb and Scott, some views of this process can be found in Fukuya­ma’s The Ori­gins of Po­lit­i­cal Or­der for Chi­na. (You could also get a bit of the Amer­i­can process out of Howard Zin­n’s A Peo­ple’s His­tory of the United States by look­ing at var­i­ous in­ci­dents in the right way, but that’s too polem­i­cal and fo­cused on other top­ics for me to re­ally rec­om­mend.)

This may sound like a very grand the­me, but Robb is able to give so many fas­ci­nat­ing ex­am­ples that one for­gets the un­der­ly­ing demon­stra­tion and just basks in the knowl­edge of how the past is a very for­eign coun­try. (As I men­tion in my re­view of The Dark Side of the En­light­en­ment: Wiz­ards, Al­chemists, and Spir­i­tual Seek­ers in the Age of Rea­son, a sense of dis­tance and alien­ation is one of the things I prize most in his­tor­i­cal work­s—while there is con­ti­nu­ity, con­ti­nu­ity is easy to find and it is be­yond easy to por­tray the past as pro­ceed­ing Whig­gishly and com­pre­hen­si­bly into the pre­sent, ob­scur­ing all the ways in which we are pro­foundly alien from the past.)

Where do I start… The ex­tra­or­di­nary fact that un­til the 20th cen­tu­ry, French was only a plu­ral­ity lan­guage in France? The stilt­walk­ing shep­herds? The hor­ri­fy­ing bits about drunken dy­ing ba­bies be­ing carted to Paris by the ‘an­gel-mak­ers’? The packs of smug­gler dogs who smug­gled goods in and out of France for their hu­man mas­ters? (Or the dog-pow­ered fac­to­ries?) The for­got­ten per­se­cu­tion of the cagot caste? The Parisian who sold mag­gots to fish­er­man, which he raised in his closet on a pile of cat and dog road­kill col­lected from the streets? The wars be­tween ri­val vil­lages? The com­mut­ing peas­ants who thought noth­ing of a 50 mile walk? The strange twists of fate that lead re­gions to spe­cial­ize in par­tic­u­lar wares? The vil­lages of cretins or fam­i­lies who re­gard a cretinous child as a gift from god? The map­ping of the hid­den com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works that spread ru­mor at the speed of a horse? The corvée sys­tem of road­-build­ing, so in­effi­cient at points that trans­port­ing the ma­te­ri­als to build 1 more me­ter of a road could de­stroy more than 1 me­ter of that same road?

All of this and much more is to be found in Rob­b’s dizzy­ing tour of France, past and pre­sent, a tour I found as en­ter­tain­ing as ed­u­ca­tion­al.

Selected Non-fictions, Borges 1999

Se­lected Non-fic­tionsJorge Luis Borges1999★★★★★

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

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

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

Borges, I think, died hap­py.

The Wages of Destruction, Tooze 2007

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

A fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count of the eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion of Ger­many un­der the Nazis, the re­pres­sion and dis­tor­tion of the Ger­man econ­o­my, the strate­gic con­fu­sion and ig­no­rance of their best op­tions re­vealed by shift­ing ar­ma­ment pri­or­i­ties (such as the un­der­em­pha­sis on tanks & overem­pha­sis on sur­face ship­s), the diffi­cul­ties im­posed by ex­change rates, how often Ger­many teetered on the brink of dis­as­ter, and how Hitler’s con­stant fo­cus on the dan­ger of the Amer­i­can jug­ger­naut guided his grand strat­e­gy; Nazi Ger­many’s mil­i­ta­riza­tion based on debt in­duced com­pet­ing arms races / in­sta­bil­ity an the coun­try quickly (and only tem­porar­i­ly) be­came the dead­liest shark in the Eu­ro­pean wa­ters, which had to des­per­ately keep swim­ming for­ward and tak­ing in­sane gam­bles if it was not to choke to death on its own ac­cu­mu­lated wastes and bad de­ci­sions, in the hopes that it could eat all its en­e­mies be­fore they woke up and ate it, and while the shark got a re­prieve in Aus­tria and then the freak vic­tory in France, it even­tu­ally hit a wall in Rus­sia and died after thrash­ing around for a while.

Tooze’s ac­count of WWII ex­plains many oth­er­wise baffling points for me, such as the fo­cus on fu­tur­is­tic weapons or why Nazi Ger­many sought an al­liance with Japan even at the cost of de­clar­ing war on the USA & strik­ing FDR’s shack­les, why it in­vaded the USSR with less than an ul­ti­mate effort, and the eco­nomic con­se­quences of its con­quests (pre­dictable to any­one who’s read Tain­ter’s The Col­lapse of Com­plex So­ci­eties). Par­tic­u­larly sur­pris­ing is Tooze’s de­scrip­tion of how im­pov­er­ished Ger­many was in com­par­i­son to ri­val coun­tries (de­spite the gleam­ing tech­nol­ogy and Blitzkrieg we as­so­ciate with Nazi Ger­many, and the in­dus­trial con­glom­er­ates like IG Far­ben with Im­pe­r­ial Ger­many, most of Ger­many was still rural and un­pro­duc­tive, and the coun­try ab­jectly de­pen­dent on im­ports to main­tain its agri­cul­ture; Tooze in­cludes a very telling anec­dote: Ford Mo­tors, when con­sid­er­ing a plant in Ger­many, found that to give its blue-col­lar Amer­i­can work­ers their ac­cus­tomed lifestyle would re­quire ex­penses 4× that of nor­mal blue-col­lar Ger­man work­ers; and horses will fea­ture re­peat­edly through­out). Tooze also does a good job de­lin­eat­ing how the Holo­caust both ex­ac­er­bated and helped with the se­vere la­bor and re­source prob­lems Nazi Ger­many be­gan fac­ing, and cov­ers how it was a log­i­cal out­come of ear­lier poli­cies: em­i­gra­tion failed be­cause the Ger­man bal­ance of pay­ments did not al­low for the Jews to leave with any­thing like their ac­tual wealth, and un­sur­pris­ingly many Jews were not so fear­ful as to em­i­grate pen­ni­less, and star­va­tion in camps was not far from the ear­lier Wehrma­cht plan to make the con­quest of the Ukraine pay by sim­ply starv­ing to death 30 mil­lion Slavs to free up food har­vests. In­deed, given all the con­straints and nec­es­sary im­ports in the 1930s and 1940s, one re­ally has to won­der how con­tem­po­rary Ger­many can be so wealthy and whether it re­ally is due to la­bor re­forms or thanks to the Eu­ro…

One flaw is that Tooze freely goes from macro to mi­cro, from the over­all econ­omy to very small subindus­tries or bench­marks, and it’s easy to get lost. And while the book cov­ers the in­ter­na­tional fi­nance in enough de­tail to un­der­stand it (and things like why Schacht was the ‘dark wiz­ard of in­ter­na­tional fi­nance’), I don’t think he does as good a job as Lords of Fi­nance, which should prob­a­bly be read be­fore Wages of De­struc­tion so one un­der­stands the in­ter­na­tional gold stan­dard, and the French and British ac­tions in the in­ter-war pe­ri­od.

Lords of Finance, Ahamed 2009

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

I en­joyed this tremen­dously for re­veal­ing a new world to me where I thought I al­ready knew the lay of the land. Through­out were rev­e­la­tions to me—just how ru­inous WWI was, how repa­ra­tions kept echo­ing and dam­ag­ing Ger­many, how ex­actly the hy­per­in­fla­tion started (it was only partly the Ver­sailles pay­ments but more the so­cial pro­gram­s?), how Amer­ica ag­gra­vated the is­sue (the Coolidge quote and the Amer­i­can tourists cer­tainly never ap­peared in my his­tory text­book­s…), how late the stock bub­ble was and the de­tails of the end­less suc­ces­sion of crises that rocked Eu­rope. It’s also in­ter­est­ing to un­der­stand why Keynes had such a grip on eco­nom­ics un­til re­cent­ly: he pre­dicted re­peat­edly what would hap­pen, and it’s hard not to sym­pa­thize a great deal with him.

As far as crit­i­cism goes, I can agree with some of the other re­view­ers: Ahamed some­times goes over­board with the nar­ra­tion, and skimps on the de­tails one might want. He pro­vides no con­ve­nient graph­i­cal net­work of how fac­tors affect each other in a gold econ­o­my, so one is left con­stantly be­ing sur­prised by con­nec­tions, and the rare graph is not very help­ful—­for ex­am­ple, he pro­vides a time graph of the big economies’ rises and falls in growths, and re­marks that their re­cov­er­ies in the Great De­pres­sion… and nowhere on the graph marks for each coun­try the year in which they left gold! Well, that graph was­n’t very in­for­ma­tive or help­ful—Tufte would not be pleased.

Ap­ply­ing it to mod­ern times is a lit­tle hard­er, al­though the ironies are many (par­tic­u­larly the Ger­mans be­ing hardasses on debt now, when they seemed to un­der­stand not all debts could be paid after WWI… -_-). One thing that struck me was how the na­tion­al­ist demon­stra­tions & protests in Ger­many re­minded me of what I hear in China these days—which has a some­what sim­i­lar per capita GDP as those na­tions and is in a sim­i­lar pe­riod of in­dus­trial growth, and in­deed, is the young turk of Ger­many to the old tired is­land-na­tion Eng­land of Japan, with South Ko­rea as a ner­vous smaller neigh­bor (France?). And China is quite ag­gres­sive late­ly. Be­fore WWI, it was rightly pointed out that such a war be­tween such net­worked na­tions as France/Germany/England would lead to ru­in; and right now, one could point out a sim­i­lar thing with China/SK/Japan/USA. But nev­er­the­less, be­fore WWI, they thought they could have a short vic­to­ri­ous war against an en­cir­cling en­e­my; does China think it can have a short vic­to­ri­ous war against their en­cir­cling en­e­my, the USA-coordinate na­tions? I don’t think it does, but I do think peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate the risk of war in East Asia. (Of course it could never hap­pen; just like WWI could never hap­pen.)

Bias in Mental Testing, Jensen 1980

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

(410k words / 840 pages; on­line edi­tion; ) One of the clas­sics in the field, Jensen sets out to ex­plain al­most every­thing, it seems, in psy­cho­met­rics, from the core con­cept of er­ror-prone mea­sure­ments and ex­tract­ing fac­tors to the var­i­ous tests avail­able, their cor­re­lates, con­crete jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for why the nor­mal dis­tri­b­u­tion is more than an as­sump­tion of con­ve­nience (a num­ber of the points were new to me), ex­haus­tive cov­er­age of the core topic of var­i­ous kinds of bias and ev­i­dence against them, to cul­ture-fair tests, and fi­nally how men­tal test­ing is best em­ployed. (There is also some dis­cus­sion of be­hav­ioral ge­net­ics and what the ge­netic ar­chi­tec­ture of in­tel­li­gence might be, but that’s a mi­nor topic and he gives more at­ten­tion to other things like re­ac­tion-time re­search.)

Dis­cus­sion of the top­ics strad­dles that fine line be­tween too in­for­mal and too for­mal, as Jensen is care­ful to in­tro­duce and ex­plain each con­cept as he goes and in­cludes ex­cel­lent sum­maries at the end of each chap­ter to the point where this would make a good text­book and it is so read­able that I think even new stu­dents to sta­tis­tics could un­der­stand al­most every­thing in the book (at least, as long as they paid at­ten­tion and oc­ca­sion­ally checked back to the glos­sary to be re­minded of which of the many for­mu­las is rel­e­vant to a par­tic­u­lar point; there is a ton of con­tent and skim­ming will not work).

Over­all, my im­pres­sion is ex­tremely pos­i­tive. I’m es­pe­cially im­pressed that de­spite now be­ing 35+ years old (and hence based on re­search from be­fore then), there’s hardly any­thing sub­stan­tive I can ob­ject to. The sta­tis­ti­cal prin­ci­ples are largely the same, the black­-white gap has hardly budged, the lack of bias re­mains ac­cept­ed, etc. I saw no large mis­takes or con­tent that has been to­tally ob­so­let­ed, and in some ar­eas one would have to say Jensen is be­ing con­stantly vin­di­cated by the lat­est re­search—in par­tic­u­lar, in ar­gu­ing for the ge­net­ics of peo­ple of non-re­tarded in­tel­li­gence be­ing largely uni­form over the in­tel­li­gence range and gov­erned by a large num­ber of ad­di­tive al­le­les (yield­ing an ob­jec­tive nor­mal dis­tri­b­u­tion), none of it needs any cor­rec­tion. After­wards I read a re­cent re­view, “Bias in men­tal test­ing since Bias in Men­tal Test­ing”, Brown et al 1999, comes to the same con­clu­sion.

The Notenki Memoirs, Takeda 2005

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

For peo­ple in­ter­ested in the his­tory of the anime in­dus­try, Takeda fills in many gaps re­lated to Gainax—it’s hard to think of any source which cov­ers nearly so well DAICON III, DAICON IV, Gen­eral Prod­ucts, or throws in so many tid­bits about sur­round­ing peo­ple and Japan­ese SF fan­dom. It is an in­valu­able re­source for any re­searcher, and I felt com­pelled to cre­ate in or­der to elu­ci­date var­i­ous points and be able to link its claims with ver­sions of sto­ries by other peo­ple (for ex­am­ple, )

Those read­ing it solely for Evan­ge­lion ma­te­r­ial will prob­a­bly be rel­a­tively dis­ap­point­ed: Takeda clearly finds NGE not very in­ter­est­ing, may have bad as­so­ci­a­tions due to be­ing tar­geted in the tax raids, and he was writ­ing this in 2000 or so—­too close to the events and still work­ing at Gainax to re­ally give a tel­l-all, and it’s not a ter­ri­bly long or dense book in the first place. Nev­er­the­less, NGE fans will still find many rev­e­la­tions here, like the ori­gin of NGE pro­duc­tion in the fail­ure of the Aoki Uru film project (an ori­gin sim­ply not present in any West­ern sources be­fore Notenki Mem­oirs was trans­lat­ed).

In gen­er­al, Takeda is not in­ter­ested in a ‘tel­l-all’; per­haps it’s due to fear, per­haps too many peo­ple in­volved are still alive and kick­ing, but he only cov­ers the em­bar­rass­ing things which are too well-known to omit, like the afore­men­tioned tax raid or Toshio Okada’s ouster from Gainax.

I read it sev­eral times, and that was how I wound up tran­scrib­ing my copy into a web­page which I could an­no­tate with cross-ref­er­ences and in­ter­views with other fig­ures like Okada or An­no—I re­al­ized I could keep reread­ing it, or just do the job right the first time. It’s been a valu­able re­source for me ever since.

The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro 2005

The Re­mains of the DayKazuo Ishig­uro2005★★★★★

Of Ishig­uro’s nov­els, this is the most el­e­gant, most re­strained, and most Eng­lish. The prose is so smooth that like Gene Wolfe’s, it be­comes in­vis­i­ble, and you pass through it to the slow silent sor­row of the pro­tag­o­nist. Ishig­uro makes the tragedy clear enough, shows us the heart of the sto­ry, but with­out ever be­ing gauche.

In July 2012, I re-read it and for good mea­sure, I watched the movie too. (The movie, IMO, was pretty good with ex­cel­lent cast­ing, if un­for­tu­nately often blunter than the novel and the end­ing es­pe­cially so.)

What struck me this time through was the end­ing of the nov­el: the but­ler has come to re­al­ize that his life has been sub­op­ti­mal and less joy­ful than it could have been be­cause he shunned Miss Ken­ton and de­nied his emo­tions out of a mis­guided sense of pro­fes­sion­al­ism. But in­stead of the typ­i­cal Hol­ly­wood end­ing where he woos Miss Ken­ton or quits his job etc, he re­al­izes that it re­ally is too late: his and Miss Ken­ton’s day is al­most over, and the im­por­tant thing to do is make the most of ‘the re­mains of the day’, which for him is re­turn­ing to his but­ler­ing job but be­ing less rigid and more hu­man.

It is, in other words, a beau­ti­ful tale of not hon­or­ing sunk costs or pur­su­ing lost op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The Book of Lord Shang—A Classic of the Chinese School of Law, Yang 2011

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

The Book of Lord Shang was very hard for me to read: there is some­thing sub­lime about it, in the old sense of “ter­ri­fy­ing”—the poli­cies and rea­son­ing laid out are a sys­tem­atic crush­ing of any­thing that might op­pose the State and its goals. It feels in­hu­man, me­chan­i­cal, and all the more so when you know that these sort of poli­cies were how the Qin crushed all their op­po­si­tion—in­clud­ing those states es­pous­ing the other Hun­dred Schools of Thought like Mo­hism and Con­fu­cian­is­m—and that the 20th cen­tury affords fur­ther ex­am­ples of how these poli­cies proved them­selves in prac­tice (un­like the for­mer School­s).

It’s no won­der that there are so many neg­a­tive re­views on the other copies here at Goodreads: you might as well ask your nor­mal lib­eral West­ern to drink rat poi­son as read The Book of Lord Shang and try to fairly eval­u­ate it. Even if they’ve read their share of Chi­nese clas­sics & phi­los­o­phy, they would­n’t want to un­der­stand it, just like mod­ern read­ers don’t want to un­der­stand the Un­abomber’s phi­los­o­phy.

(The ver­sion I read was an ebook ver­sion of Duyvlord.)

The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama 2011

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

It is, over­all, an ex­cel­lent book and one of the bet­ter ones on grand his­tory I’ve read†… but Fukuyama does not have a very trans­par­ent prose style, and makes no con­ces­sions to those who don’t have a good grasp on global his­tory and es­pe­cially those who don’t know their Chi­nese his­tory well (eg. if you can’t put the Qing, Han, Qin, and Shang dy­nasty in or­der, you aren’t go­ing to en­joy at all the large amounts of ma­te­r­ial he right­fully de­votes to Chi­nese pol­i­tic­s). And it’s se­ri­ously big, no kid­ding. This is no fluffy Guns, Germs, and Steel walk through the park!

† for ex­am­ple, I found some sec­tions very use­ful for struc­tur­ing my think­ing on the evo­lu­tion of ethics and re­gard for an­ces­tors.

The Histories, Herodotus 2003

The His­to­riesHerodotus2003★★★★★

De­cided to fi­nally read Herodotus after I read Gene Wolfe’s his­tor­i­cal fan­tasy novel Sol­der of Arete which draws heav­ily on him, and then when I had to track down a quote on Less­Wrong.­com to the ex­act Herodotus pas­sage. Over­all, far more in­ter­est­ing than I had ex­pect­ed. Sur­pris­ingly funny or in­ter­est­ing anec­dotes. There is a su­per­fu­sion of gods and or­a­cles, which was cu­ri­ous—the or­a­cles truly were treach­er­ous! The Per­sian kings come off as re­mark­ably capri­cious and de­struc­tive, even the good ones. And Herodotus has a strange ca­pac­ity to skep­ti­cally rea­son well and sen­si­bly and then be com­pletely su­per­sti­tious in the next pas­sage. Hav­ing read about these an­cient events many times, I found half the value was just see­ing a thor­ough ac­count from a sin­gle Greek’s per­spec­tive.

Genius, Gleick 1993

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

A solid bi­og­ra­phy, though I don’t have any­thing in par­tic­u­lar to say about it. It throws in all the clas­sic anec­dotes and quotes you ex­pect (which are more than worth their weight in gold—cer­tain­ly, the price of ad­mis­sion) does­n’t try to white­wash Feyn­man de­spite the temp­ta­tion to hero-wor­ship, and in­cludes some crit­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion, does at least try to ex­plain all the physics which earned Feyn­man his pres­tige, etc. It’s a well-re­garded wide­ly-read bi­og­ra­phy on an ex­cel­lent sub­ject which I have noth­ing to say against (a­side from Gle­ick un­for­tu­nately re­peat­ing Feyn­man’s story about his IQ with­out ex­plain­ing the many rea­sons why this does­n’t mean what peo­ple are for­ever tak­ing it to mean).

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker 2011

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

This was re­ally re­ally good, as in, maybe the best book I’ve read that year. Time and again, I was shocked to find sub­jects treated of keen in­ter­est to me, or which read like Pinker had taken some of my es­says but done them way bet­ter (on ter­ror­ism, on the ex­pand­ing cir­cle, etc.); even so, I was sur­prised to learn new things (re­source prob­lems don’t cor­re­late well with vi­o­lence?).

I ini­tially thought I might ex­cerpt some parts of it for an es­say or ar­ti­cle, but as the quotes kept pil­ing up, I re­al­ized that it was hope­less. Read­ing re­views or dis­cus­sions of it is not enough; Pinker just cov­ers too much and re­buts too many pos­si­ble crit­i­cisms. It’s very long, as a re­sult, but ab­sorb­ing.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell 2010

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

Fi­nally got around to read­ing it. It was sur­pris­ingly un­lit­er­ary and un­post­mod­ern for Mitchell, but in ex­change, he nailed the his­tor­i­cal de­tails and gave us an ad­ven­ture which sub­verted many of the usual tropes—the raid on the nun­nery was just a trap, the hero does­n’t get the girl, his chief hero­ism was stand­ing there to be shot at, and the man who takes down the big bad­die is some­one we thought to be en­tirely in the bad­die’s pock­et. The su­per­nat­ural as­pects are im­plied to be gen­uine, but it’s never re­solved, which I am grate­ful for. It would ruin the feel.

Collapse of Complex Societies, Tainter 1990

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

Very good: much bet­ter than Jared Di­a­mond’s Col­lapse, and much more con­vinc­ing than Spen­gler or Toyn­bee. It was also dis­turbing—the Ik amazed me in chap­ter 1, and the sta­tis­tics in chap­ter 4 were ex­tremely dis­mal and tie in far too well to Cowen’s The Great Stag­na­tion and Mur­ray’s Hu­man Ac­com­plish­ment. There are a great many dat­a­points sug­gest­ing that di­min­ish­ing mar­ginal re­turns to mod­ern tech/science be­gan some­time in the late 1800s/early 1900s…

Star Maker, Stapledon 1999

Star MakerOlaf Sta­ple­don1999★★★★★

Star Maker is one of the very few SF books that I’d place up there with Blind­sight and a few oth­ers in de­pict­ing truly alien aliens; and he does­n’t do it once but re­peat­edly through­out the book. It’s re­ally im­pres­sive how Sta­ple­don just ca­su­ally scat­ters around hand­fuls of jew­els that lesser au­thors might be­la­bor singly through­out an en­tire book.

4 Stars

ARPA and SCI: Surfing AI, Roland and Shiman 2002

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

See (due to greater rel­e­vance in that con­tex­t).

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

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

Past, Pre­sent, and Fu­ture of Sta­tis­ti­cal Sci­ence (ed. Lin et al 2014) is a large (52 chap­ters by ~50 con­trib­u­tors, 643 pages, 9.8M PDF) an­thol­ogy of essays/articles/reviews/lists touch­ing on all sorts of top­ics by many fa­mous names (E­fron, Ru­bin, Gel­man, Wasser­man, Tib­shi­rani, Laird, Cook)—­some of whom I know solely from meth­ods bear­ing their names! The type­set­ting is taste­ful and high qual­i­ty, with so many equa­tions and graphs my PDF viewer lags when scrolling. I read about it on An­drew Gel­man’s blog & thought it’d be in­ter­est­ing to read a broad sur­vey of what’s go­ing on in sta­tis­tics.

The an­thol­ogy ranges from bu­reau­cracy to pro­fes­sional au­to­bio to re­views of sub­fields to spec­u­la­tions and chal­lenges about fu­ture de­vel­op­ments to publishing/research ad­vice. (Prob­a­bly it would have been bet­ter to turn this into 2 vol­umes: the read­ers in­ter­ested in ca­reers and ad­vice have to the tech­ni­cal ma­te­ri­al, while read­ers in­ter­ested in that may not sur­vive the sec­tions about COPSS and au­to­bios.) Since sta­tis­ti­cians get in­volved with any topic they please, the sub­ject ar­eas range from deer in Canada & try­ing not to fall out of the he­li­copter—to trav­el­ing to the moon to breast can­cer to poly­graphs.

Given the het­ero­gene­ity, much of it was bor­ing, over my head or both, but much was in­ter­est­ing and I learned about novel top­ics. In one chap­ter, a sur­vey sta­tis­ti­cian rem­i­nis­cences about how she stum­bled into sta­tis­tics and fight­ing sex­ism in her early ca­reer and an­other men­tions that the method­olog­i­cal de­bates over the fa­mous Kin­sey stud­ies of sex­u­al­ity were her en­tree to bio­sta­tis­tics while a third was un­fairly treated by a Coast Guard exam and learned sta­tis­tics to prove the exam was bo­gus while yet a fourth picked math as his ma­jor be­cause the signup line at the col­lege was shorter and thereby wan­dered into the in­ter­sec­tion of sta­tis­tics and agri­cul­ture, and in an­other chap­ter, is still gamely de­fend­ing the par­a­digm of sta­tis­tics after all these years, while in yet an­other chap­ter there is a dis­cus­sion of is­sues in high­-di­men­sional data I could­n’t un­der­stand etc.

The in­tro­duc­tory bits about the his­tory of COPSS were bor­ing, self­-in­dul­gent, and de­void of ex­pla­na­tions why the or­ga­ni­za­tion func­tioned or what good it did or why out­siders val­ued it and what re­ally went on in­side it.

The au­to­bi­og­ra­phy sec­tion fea­tures peo­ple who can re­mem­ber all the way back to the 1920s or so, a time when sta­tis­tics was very differ­ent than it is now. Read­ing them a few at a time (they’re gen­er­ally easy read­s), a num­ber of in­ter­est­ing trends pop up. For ex­am­ple, peo­ple seem to get mar­ried ex­tremely young, as grad stu­dents or un­der­grads, after short ro­mances; it’s im­pos­si­ble to mis­take the com­put­ing rev­o­lu­tion: be­fore the 1960s or so, com­put­ers and tech­niques re­quir­ing a great deal of com­pu­ta­tion never come up, but then they be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon (some­times with shock­ing de­tails: one per­son men­tions that to test a cool new idea, us­ing a sim­u­la­tion method, ate their de­part­men­t’s en­tire com­puter bud­get for that mon­th) and trans­formed ap­proaches start­ing in the ’80s, and Bickel men­tions in his es­say his “pleased sur­prise that some of my as­ymp­totic the­ory based ideas, in par­tic­u­lar, one-step es­ti­mates, re­ally worked” when im­ple­mented on mod­ern com­put­ers; a sub­trend here is also that Bayesian meth­ods seem to ex­plode overnight then too and even fre­quen­tists be­gin bor­row­ing Bayesian tech­niques and logic when use­ful (thank­ful­ly, Tukey’s quip that “The col­lec­tive noun for a group of sta­tis­ti­cians is a quar­rel” may no longer be true); WWII ap­pears as a clear break-line in the ear­li­est au­to­bios, and to judge by the au­to­bios (a se­lected sam­ple to be sure!) acad­e­mia used to be far less com­pet­i­tive & one could (in the great post-WWII ex­pan­sion) al­most fall into a tenured po­si­tion. Some bios are hu­mor­ous, like Olk­in’s :

had a clas­sic Eu­ro­pean lec­ture style. He started at the up­per left cor­ner of the black­board and fin­ished at the lower right. The lec­tures were smooth and the de­liv­ery was a uni­form dis­tri­b­u­tion.

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

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

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

Or the his­tory re­lated is sur­pris­ing, for ex­am­ple, the rev­e­la­tion that the was ac­tu­ally proven by Ru­bin (yes, he did that too) in es­say “A ca­reer in sta­tis­tics”, where he men­tions a tragi­comic in­ci­dent in rock­etry where a clever method for course-cor­rec­tion turned out to be un­nec­es­sary.While in look­ing for prob­lems in lin­ear mod­els stems from one bizarre rat (“Re­flec­tions on a sta­tis­ti­cal ca­reer and their im­pli­ca­tions”):

…I re­did his cal­cu­la­tions, looked at resid­ual plots and per­formed a few other checks that were stan­dard for the time. This con­firmed his re­sults, lead­ing to the pos­si­bil­i­ties that ei­ther there was some­thing wrong with the ex­per­i­ment, which he de­nied, or his prior ex­pec­ta­tions were off. All in all, this was not a happy out­come for ei­ther of us.

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

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

And nat­u­ral­ly, some­one will choose to go meta and crit­i­cize the im­plicit goal of the au­to­bios and ex­plicit goal of the ca­reer ad­vice sec­tion—as one would hope of sta­tis­ti­cians, he rec­og­nizes the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal peril of a se­ries of high­ly-s­e­lected anec­dotes; Terry Speed in “Never ask for or give ad­vice, make mis­takes, ac­cept medi­oc­rity, en­thuse”:

What’s wrong with ad­vice? For a start, peo­ple giv­ing ad­vice lie. That they do so with the best in­ten­tions does­n’t al­ter this fact. This point has been sum­ma­rized nicely by Rad­hika Nag­pal (2013). I say trust the peo­ple who tell you “I have no idea what I’d do in a com­pa­ra­ble sit­u­a­tion. Per­haps toss a coin.” Of course peo­ple don’t say that, they tell you what they’d like to do or wish they had done in some com­pa­ra­ble sit­u­a­tion. You can hope for bet­ter. What do sta­tis­ti­cians do when we have to choose be­tween treat­ments A and B, where there is gen­uine un­cer­tainty within the ex­pert com­mu­nity about the pre­ferred treat­ment? Do we look for a sta­tis­ti­cian over 40 and ask them which treat­ment we should choose? We don’t, we rec­om­mend run­ning a ran­dom­ized ex­per­i­ment, ide­ally a dou­ble-blind one, and we hope to achieve a high ad­her­ence to the as­signed treat­ment from our sub­jects. So, if you re­ally don’t know what to do, for­get ad­vice, just toss a coin, and do ex­actly what it tells you. But you are an ex­per­i­ment with n = 1, you protest. Pre­cise­ly. What do you pre­fer with n = 1: an ob­ser­va­tional study or a ran­dom­ized tri­al? (It’s a pity the ex­per­i­ment can’t be singly, much less dou­bly blind­ed.) You may won­der whether a ran­dom­ized trial is jus­ti­fied in your cir­cum­stances. That’s a very im­por­tant point. Is it true that there is gen­uine un­cer­tainty within the ex­pert com­mu­nity (i.e., you) about the pre­ferred course of ac­tion? If not, then choos­ing at ran­dom be­tween your two op­tions is not only un­eth­i­cal, it’s stu­pid.

Not all life in­ci­dents are amus­ing. In Gray’s “Pro­mot­ing eq­uity”, in be­tween fight­ing the good fight, she proudly re­lates an in­ci­dent I would be ashamed of, es­pe­cially were I a sta­tis­ti­cian:

Early in my ca­reer I re­ceived a no­tice from Teach­ers In­sur­ance and An­nu­ity As­so­ci­a­tion (TIAA), the re­tire­ment plan used at most pri­vate and many pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties in­clud­ing Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty, list­ing what I could ex­pect in re­tire­ment ben­e­fits from my con­tri­bu­tion and those of the uni­ver­sity in the form of x dol­lars per $100,000 in my ac­count at age 65. There were two columns, one headed “women” and a sec­ond, with amounts 15% high­er, headed “men.” When I con­tacted the com­pany to point out that Ti­tle VII pro­hib­ited dis­crim­i­na­tion in fringe ben­e­fits as well as in salary, I was in­formed that the fig­ures rep­re­sented dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of “longevi­ty,” not on the ba­sis of sex.

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

A sta­tis­ti­cian ask­ing for guar­an­tees! and why should vol­un­tary lifestyle changes affect whether a pre­dictable differ­ence be com­pen­sated for? Pen­sions are job com­pen­sa­tion, not a moral code handed down from on high, and if men do not live as long as wom­en, ‘equal’ pay is never equal and de­frauds them. Or, would Gray be against ma­ter­nal leave, see­ing as preg­nancy is a “vol­un­tary lifestyle choice”? and con­sider the sophistry: “in large part”—so would she have sup­ported a differ­en­tial which cor­re­sponded to the resid­u­al? If their analy­sis had showed up that black men drink and smoke even more than white men, would Gray be pleased to see a ‘black penalty’ ap­plied to their pen­sion pay­ments? When is equal not equal? As al­ways, one merely needs to ask: “who, whom?”

The au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal es­says are in­ter­est­ing, but some­what dry. I was pleased to reach the meat of the an­thol­o­gy: the freeform tech­ni­cal pa­pers. Some of the chap­ters in­tro­duced me to ideas I had missed, such as the “bet on spar­sity” ar­gu­ment (Cook, pg103), which re­minds me of one folk ar­gu­ment for Oc­cam’s ra­zor: you should as­sume the world is rel­a­tively sim­ple and pre­dictable and take ac­tions based on that be­lief, be­cause if the world is that way, then your ac­tions will at­tain their ends and that is good, while if the world is in­her­ently complex/unpredictable, then your ac­tions will have no net effect which is nei­ther good nor bad, so the for­mer sce­nario the lat­ter. I paid close at­ten­tion to Tib­shi­rani’s pa­per later in the vol­ume, “In praise of spar­sity and con­vex­ity”.

Sim­i­lar­ly, Dun­son’s “Non­para­met­ric Bayes” in­tro­duced me to an area I had lit­tle inkling of pri­or. The bio­sta­tis­tics pa­pers (eg Bres­low’s “Lessons in bio­sta­tis­tics” or Flournoy’s “A vi­gnette of dis­cov­ery”) bring up in­ter­est­ing chal­lenges and bi­ases to keep in mind when eval­u­at­ing the lat­est clin­i­cal re­search (a skill use­ful for any­one), and leave me heart­ened at the life-sav­ing prac­ti­cal work that field is do­ing. Nan M. Laird’s “Meta-analy­ses: Het­ero­gene­ity can be a good thing” re­minded me of the need, when do­ing my own meta-analy­ses, to not sim­ply ig­nore high I2/ but think hard about what mod­er­a­tors I should in­clude to try to ex­plain some of it. Oth­ers raised in­ter­est­ing ques­tions I’ve won­dered about my­self, for ex­am­ple, Xi­ao-Li Meng in “A trio of in­fer­ence prob­lems” asks how big a bi­ased sam­ple of a pop­u­la­tion has to be be­fore it’s of com­pa­ra­ble qual­ity to a ran­dom sam­ple:

Over the cen­tu­ry, sta­tis­ti­cians, so­cial sci­en­tists, and oth­ers have am­ply demon­strated the­o­ret­i­cally and em­pir­i­cally that (say) a 5% probabilistic/random sam­ple is bet­ter than any 5% non-ran­dom sam­ples in many mea­sur­able ways, e.g., bi­as, MSE, con­fi­dence cov­er­age, pre­dic­tive pow­er, etc. How­ev­er, we have not stud­ied ques­tions such as “Is an 80% non-ran­dom sam­ple ‘bet­ter’ than a 5% ran­dom sam­ple in mea­sur­able terms? 90%? 95%? 99%?” This ques­tion was raised dur­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing pre­sen­ta­tion by Dr. Je­remy Wu…The syn­thetic data cre­ated for LED used more than 20 data sources in the LEHD (Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Em­ploy­er-House­hold Dy­nam­ics) sys­tem. These sources vary from sur­vey data such as a monthly sur­vey of 60,000 house­holds, which rep­re­sent only 0.05% of US house­holds, to ad­min­is­tra­tive records such as un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance wage records, which cover more than 90% of the US work­force, to cen­sus data such as the quar­terly cen­sus of earn­ings and wages, which in­cludes about 98% of US jobs (Wu, 2012 and per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion from Wu). The ad­min­is­tra­tive records such as those in LEHD are not col­lected for the pur­pose of sta­tis­ti­cal in­fer­ence, but rather be­cause of le­gal re­quire­ments, busi­ness prac­tice, po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions, etc. They tend to cover a large per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion, and there­fore they must con­tain use­ful in­for­ma­tion for in­fer­ence.

which is what I’ve won­dered while work­ing on my , since my sam­ple is bi­ased but cap­ture-re­cap­ture analy­sis in­di­cates I’ve com­piled up to 1⁄3 of the pop­u­la­tion, so how much does that com­pen­sate, does it drive the er­ror from bi­ases down to the same size as the sam­pling er­ror? Meng de­rives an in­equal­i­ty:

For ex­am­ple, even if ns = 100, we would need over 96% of the pop­u­la­tion if ρN = 0.5 [level of bi­as]. This re­con­firms the power of prob­a­bilis­tic sam­pling and re­minds us of the dan­ger in blindly trust­ing that “Big Data” must give us bet­ter an­swers. On the other hand, if ρN = 0.1, then we will need only 50% of the pop­u­la­tion to beat a SRS [sim­ple ran­dom sam­ple] with ns = 100…the same ρN = 0.1 also im­plies that a 96% sub­pop­u­la­tion will beat a SRS as large as ns = 0… 2400, which is no longer a prac­ti­cally ir­rel­e­vant sam­ple size.

Berg­er’s “Con­di­tion­ing is the is­sue” is a bit lost on me but in­ter­est­ing is one pas­sage’s dis­cus­sion of turn­ing no­to­ri­ous p-val­ues into some­thing more mean­ing­ful, er­ror prob­a­bil­i­ties:

The prac­ti­cal im­port of switch­ing to con­di­tional fre­quen­tist test­ing (or the equiv­a­lent ob­jec­tive Bayesian test­ing) is star­tling. For in­stance, Sel­lke et al. (2001) uses a non­para­met­ric set­ting to de­velop the fol­low­ing very gen­eral lower bound on α(s), for a given p-val­ue…p = 0.05, which many er­ro­neously think im­plies strong ev­i­dence against H0, ac­tu­ally cor­re­sponds to a con­di­tional fre­quen­tist er­ror prob­a­bil­ity at least as large as 0.289, which is a rather large er­ror prob­a­bil­i­ty. If sci­en­tists un­der­stood that a p-value of 0.05 cor­re­sponded to that large a po­ten­tial er­ror prob­a­bil­ity in re­jec­tion, the sci­en­tific world would be a quite differ­ent place.

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

Other pa­pers are a bit of a mis­fire: I had­n’t heard of “sym­bolic data” be­fore Lynne Bil­lard’s “The past’s fu­ture is now: What will the pre­sen­t’s fu­ture bring?”, & the pa­per still leaves me won­der­ing what it re­ally is.

Some I had al­ready read­—Gel­man and Wasser­man has al­ready blogged about their en­tries.

And still oth­ers make one won­der; in Ru­bin’s in­ter­est­ing ret­ro­spec­tive of his great­est-hits, “Con­vert­ing re­jec­tions into pos­i­tive stim­uli”, he en­cour­ages the reader to not be dis­cour­aged by the jour­nal sub­mis­sion process as it is so ran­dom and some of his best pa­pers were re­ject­ed—which makes me won­der, ‘so why have this whole jour­nal rig­ma­role if re­jec­tion means so lit­tle…? would you use a sta­tis­ti­cal test which ex­hib­ited such poor cal­i­bra­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion?’ and his re­mark that “if you are re­peat­edly told by some re­view­ers that every­one knows what you are say­ing, but with­out spe­cific ref­er­ences, and other re­view­ers are say­ing what you are writ­ing is com­pletely wrong but with­out de­cent rea­sons, you are prob­a­bly on to some­thing” is true.

Over­all, the an­thol­ogy is in­ter­est­ing and worth read­ing (if not each and every pa­per).

The Cultural Revolution, Dikötter 2016

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

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

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

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

How did it work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Genius Factory, Plotz 2006

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

Mil­lion­aire (1980-1999) sperm bank was founded as a form of pos­i­tive eu­gen­ics in or­der to en­cour­age sperm do­na­tion by gifted men (ini­tially No­belists) for use in the nascent field of ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion. Launched to in­stant in­famy, it turned out to have ac­tu­ally struck a ma­jor chord among women seek­ing sperm, who were gen­er­ally treated ex­tremely shab­bily by the med­ical es­tab­lish­ment which when do­ing as it pleased, ca­su­ally chose donors largely at ran­dom and de­nied the women any kind of choice or in­for­ma­tion about the donor (Plotz notes the first recorded case of ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion in­volved abruptly chlo­ro­form­ing the woman and us­ing a ran­dom med­ical stu­den­t). How­ev­er, it en­coun­tered peren­nial trou­bles in ob­tain­ing suffi­cient sup­plies, as ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion (not necessarily/usually IVF, as I as­sumed for most of the book un­til I fi­nally re­al­ized my mis­take) used up large quan­ti­ties of se­men be­fore a suc­cess­ful preg­nan­cy, so the lack of No­belist par­tic­i­pants (be­tween the rig­or­ous med­ical test­ing and the no­to­ri­ety) im­me­di­ately forced a switch to less dis­tin­guished donors; fur­ther, fees charged to women never came close to cov­er­ing the op­er­at­ing ex­penses of re­cruit­ing those donors and schlep­ping all the se­men around, even as other sperm banks adopted the Repos­i­to­ry’s in­no­va­tion of strin­gent health ex­am­i­na­tions & forc­ing Gra­ham to sus­tain the Repos­i­tory him­self, and while he arranged for mil­lion­aire Floyd Kim­ble to take over fund­ing the Repos­i­tory when he died, that mil­lion­aire then soon died him­self with­out hav­ing made any fur­ther pro­vi­sions! Gra­ham’s fam­ily was happy to see the sperm bank die, and that was that.

Around 2000, jour­nal­ist be­gan a 13-part Slate in­ves­tiga­tive re­port de­scrib­ing the pos­i­tive eu­gen­ics back­ground, his­tory of the sperm bank, and try­ing to find donors/mothers/offspring—succeeding in reach­ing a small frac­tion of them. The on­line se­ries in­cludes some of their per­sonal re­ac­tions to their ex­pe­ri­ence, be­liefs about the harm, some of them be­ing re­con­nected with each oth­er, de­scrip­tions of their cur­rent cir­cum­stances etc.

The first ques­tion about this book is, is it worth read­ing if you’ve al­ready read the Slate ar­ti­cles and are in­ter­ested in learn­ing more? Yes. The back­ground on Gra­ham, Shock­ley, and mod­ern sperm bank­ing is much more ex­ten­sive in the book, and it goes into sub­stan­tially more de­tail about the donors/mothers/offspring. For ex­am­ple, the Slate se­ries has one 2001 post fo­cus­ing on “Donor White”, who had not been found by that point; but White showed up after­wards, was in­ter­viewed ex­ten­sively by Plotz (much of the book is in the first-per­son), and in­ter­acted a great deal with Beth/Joy over the fol­low­ing years, all of which is in The Ge­nius Fac­tory but not the Slate ar­ti­cles. He also corrects/updates a num­ber of as­ser­tions (eg how ex­actly the Repos­i­tory closed, with the on­line ver­sion con­clud­ing vaguely that it must have shut down be­cause Gra­ham some­how just did­n’t bother to put any­thing in his will and his rel­a­tives did­n’t sup­port it, while the book ver­sion fixes this by bring­ing in Kim­ble and ex­plain­ing what went wrong; ap­par­ently none of these cor­rec­tions have been added to the Slate ver­sions, check­ing back).

It’s in­ter­est­ing see­ing how dis­parate peo­ples’ re­ac­tions to the sperm bank are, rang­ing from (the prop­er) in­differ­ence to con­sid­er­able cu­rios­ity to al­most neu­rotic ob­ses­sion. I also ap­pre­ci­ated the book ex­pand­ing on the de­scrip­tions of the off­spring and their suc­cesses even in try­ing cir­cum­stances, and the mod­ern sperm bank­ing in­dus­try, which is hard to get a read on be­cause it’s so pri­vate (eg Plotz quotes Repos­i­tory staff not­ing that, as long sug­gest­ed, prospec­tive moth­ers value highly height and health; leafing through the cat­a­logue, every­one is a pos­i­tive eu­geni­cist), and the is­sue of where the un­re­lated fa­thers stand (in a very diffi­cult one, and at least for the women who con­tacted Plotz, in a gen­er­ally un­ten­able one, al­though he notes the se­lec­tion bi­as). So I en­joyed much of the book and read it in one or two sit­tings.

Much of this is rel­e­vant to any­one think­ing about the cur­rent . The es­trange­ment of fa­thers em­pha­sizes how naive it is to hope that merely offer­ing some sperm of bet­ter ge­netic qual­ity would be enough to en­cour­age en masse us­age: ge­netic re­lat­ed­ness is far too im­por­tant to al­most every­one, and giv­ing up re­lat­ed­ness for bet­ter traits is in­her­ently in­sult­ing to the cuck­olded fa­ther; egg/sperm donors are al­ways a last re­sort. (This is some­thing the it­er­ated em­bryo se­lec­tion & genome syn­the­sis ap­proaches must grap­ple with; who will use your op­ti­mized eggs/sperms if it means the child will be 50% or 100% un­re­lated to the birth-par­ents? On the other hand, reg­u­lar em­bryo se­lec­tion and CRISPR pre­serve re­lat­ed­ness al­most en­tire­ly.) The lure of greater in­tel­li­gence turns out, sur­pris­ing­ly, to not mat­ter as much to the moth­ers as does height/athleticism/health and avoid­ing be­low-av­er­age out­comes. So moth­ers prize phys­i­cal at­trib­utes as much or more than men­tal ones, and are risk-a­verse; sug­gest­ing the im­por­tance of do­ing se­lec­tion on mul­ti­ple traits of which in­tel­li­gence is only one and per­haps not even the most im­por­tant one and of em­pha­siz­ing that we have ex­cel­lent height poly­genic scores which right now would al­low height in­creases of <4 inch­es, and of fram­ing it in terms of re­duc­ing the chance of a low out­come rather than its equiv­a­lent in­creas­ing the mean.

What’s bad in the book? Plotz comes off, as a lit­tle snide & an­ti-in­tel­lec­tu­al; he seems to take an at­ti­tude in slightly dis­lik­ing al­most every­one in the book and it bleeds through un­avoid­ably. He lacks any kind of sym­pa­thy. This slight dis­dain ex­tends from the peo­ple to the core top­ics. Though he can’t deny the power of ge­net­ics when even the briefest meet­ing or de­scrip­tion of the sperm donors shows their re­sem­blance to their off­spring, he is an or­tho­dox lib­eral in do­ing his best to deny it. (Which lends some pas­sages sur­real qual­i­ties; hav­ing just de­scribed how suc­cess­ful a bunch of kids were or how they re­sem­ble their donor or con­ceded that in­tel­li­gence is in­deed heav­ily ge­net­i­cally in­flu­enced, he’ll then in­voke the shared en­vi­ron­ment or epi­ge­net­ics as the ex­pla­na­tion of every­thing and move on. I am re­minded of the story that Bertrand Rus­sell, seated next to a Chris­t­ian at din­ner, asked what he thought would hap­pen to him when he died: “Oh, well, I sup­pose I shall in­herit eter­nal bliss, but I wish we would­n’t talk about such an un­pleas­ant top­ic.”)

He also makes a num­ber of er­rors or ques­tion­able claims or per­pet­u­ates things he should know bet­ter. I noted down a few while read­ing:

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

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

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

  • Plotz’s time­line is hope­lessly pes­simistic when he writes

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

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

  • De­scrib­ing Gal­ton’s work:

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

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

  • On ap­pli­ca­tions of eu­gen­ics:

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

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

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

    Re­li­gious at­ti­tudes are her­i­ta­ble.

  • On speed of eu­gen­ics:

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

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

  • the time­line of be­hav­ioral ge­net­ics is quite bizarre:

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

    Well be­fore then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • more over­val­u­a­tion of shared-en­vi­ron­ment:

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

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

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Everett 2008

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

(~110k words; 2.5 hours) 2008 anthropology/linguistic mem­oir by about study­ing the fa­mous and par­tic­u­larly their lan­guage. Some of the ma­te­r­ial is cov­ered in the widely read New Yorker ar­ti­cle or else­where: the Pi­rahã pos­sess an , the Blub of nat­ural lan­guages, with­out re­cur­sion. The 18 chap­ters are or­ga­nized au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cally with Everett’s re­search con­clu­sions in­ter­spersed mostly chrono­log­i­cally (Ev­erett mak­ing no strong top­i­cal sep­a­ra­tions, which may an­noy some read­ers de­spite be­ing more re­al­is­tic—one does not live and do sci­ence in dis­crete blocks of time, after all, and Everett ne­glects nei­ther side of his life). Everett does go into some de­tail about the lin­guis­tic as­pects, but not very much (which is good be­cause I’ve al­ways found lin­guis­tics ex­cru­ci­at­ing) and it’s very pop­u­lar­ized and quick a read.

And a bit for­mu­laic: a naive an­thro­pol­o­gist joins a tribe, full of ide­ol­ogy (in Everett’s case, Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ary zeal), dis­cov­ers the chal­lenges of abo­rig­i­nal life, nearly kills him­self and his fam­ily sev­eral times, grad­u­ally comes to ap­pre­ci­ate and un­der­stand the tribe and its an­cient wis­dom, and re­turns to tell the tale. Everett’s chal­lenges in­clude deny­ing his wife and child were dy­ing of malaria rather than ty­phoid fevers even as every­one he met in­sisted it was ob­vi­ously malaria and mocked him for be­ing a stu­pid for­eigner who brought his fam­ily to Brazil, and dis­cov­er­ing the fa­tal­is­tic cru­elty and big­otry of pover­ty—a river­boat cap­tain and his crew tak­ing 2 hours off to play a soc­cer game, a nurse hu­mil­i­at­ing him in front of every­one sim­ply be­cause he was Protes­tant and she was Catholic (after sev­eral weeks in an ICU, both wind up sur­viv­ing), and mis­tak­ing the lack of overt co­er­cion in the staunchly egal­i­tar­ian Pi­rahã and barely de­fus­ing a drunken plot by the Pi­rahã to mas­sacre them al­l—as they years later do mas­sacre a group of Apu­rina they see as in­ter­lop­ers, or Everett’s offhanded men­tion of a vil­lage-wide gan­grape of one woman. (I am re­minded of things Grae­ber and Scott have writ­ten about tribal so­ci­eties often be­ing or­ga­nized to sup­press the ex­is­tence of lead­ers or in­come in­equal­i­ty.) Pi­rahã can be os­tra­cized, and when os­tra­cized, may be shot at. Like many groups, they do not tol­er­ate al­co­hol well at all (Ev­erett de­scribes flee­ing the vil­lage when they get par­tic­u­larly large quan­ti­ties of al­co­hol from traders, and re­turn­ing to see blood all over; I would have liked some more specifics about those events).

So what does he re­turn with? A sketch of a so­ci­ety which is hor­ri­bly fas­ci­nat­ing. Un­like the con­tro­ver­sial , the Pi­rahã have been doc­u­mented as ex­ist­ing for cen­turies in ap­par­ently iden­ti­cal to their cur­rent form; their lan­guage’s only re­la­tion is ex­tinct, and the Pi­rahã lan­guage is a lan­guage iso­late, with­out count­ing or re­cur­sion or color words or com­par­isons or quan­ti­fiers or plu­ral­iza­tion or dis­junc­tions, min­i­mal phatic el­e­ments, and so few sounds that it can be whis­tled, hummed, yelled, sung, or spo­ken, but also ev­i­den­tial gram­mar which in­di­cates if the speaker is speak­ing of some­thing from per­sonal knowl­edge; all cur­rent Pi­rahã speak only small frag­ments and phrases of Por­tuguese or other ma­jor Brazil­ian lan­guages (re­nam­ing for­eign­ers in Pi­rahã in or­der to talk about them), and are de­spite 8 months of en­thu­si­as­tic effort (to avoid be­ing con­stantly cheated by river traders and un­der­stand mon­ey) are un­able to learn to count to ten (mak­ing Everett’s abil­ity to pre­dict when re­sup­ply air­planes come nigh mag­i­cal to the Pi­rahã), add any num­bers, draw straight lines, or write. No Pi­rahã is ever men­tioned as learn­ing well an­other lan­guage, con­vert­ing to a re­li­gion, leav­ing the vil­lages for the wider world, or mat­ing with an out­sider (nor out­siders ever ac­cepted into the Pi­rahã). Everett re­counts that the Pi­rahã lusted after fine river ca­noes, and he arranged for a skilled ca­noe builder to come and teach them and even bought the nec­es­sary tools as a gift to the Pi­rahã, and they en­thu­si­as­ti­cally made a ca­noe; 5 days lat­er, they sud­denly re­fused to make an­other one, say­ing “Pi­rahãs don’t make ca­noes”. They seem to need rel­a­tively lit­tle sleep, ma­ture quick­ly, never plan ahead or make long-term in­vest­ments (such as mak­ing wicker rather than palm leave bas­kets) or talk about the dis­tant future/past (and will very rarely talk about any­thing they learned from some­one now dead: “gen­er­ally only the most ex­pe­ri­enced lan­guage teach­ers will do this, those who have de­vel­oped an abil­ity to ab­stract from the sub­jec­tive use of their lan­guage and who are able to com­ment on it from an ob­jec­tive per­spec­tive”), and will ca­su­ally throw away tools or things they will need soon. They know how to pre­serve meat, but never both un­less in­tend­ing to trade it; food is eaten when­ever it’s avail­able, and since they fish at all hours, every­one might wake up at 3AM for fish. Grow­ing and har­vest­ing man­ioc is uni­ver­sal in the Ama­zon de­spite the need to process it to re­move cyanide, but Everett says the Pi­rahã only grow and process man­ioc un­der the in­flu­ence of an ear­lier mis­sion­ary. They have no oral tra­di­tion but tell short repet­i­tive sto­ries of things that hap­pened to them or some­one they knew, no myths or ori­gin sto­ries (when asked: “Well, the Pi­rahãs say that these things were not made.”), no re­la­tion­ships closer than grand­par­ents (about the most dis­tant di­rectly ob­serv­able given that Everett puts their life ex­pectancy in the 40s, lead­ing to min­i­mal in­cest taboos, for­bid­ding only full sib­lings or par­ents or grand­par­ents). Buri­als are ad hoc, and big­ger men will be buried sit­ting be­cause, the Pi­rahã say, you need to dig less. They have diffi­culty un­der­stand­ing for­eign­ers are like them, and can un­der­stand lan­guage, in a bizarre echo of the Chi­nese room:

Then I no­ticed an­other be­mus­ing fact. The Pi­rahãs would con­verse with me and then turn to one an­oth­er, in my pres­ence, to talk about me, as though I was not even there. “Say, Dan, could you give me some match­es?” Xip06gi asked me one day with oth­ers pre­sent. “OK, sure.” “OK, he is giv­ing us two match­es. Now I am go­ing to ask for cloth.” Why would they talk about me in front of my face like this, as though I could not un­der­stand them? I had just demon­strated that I could un­der­stand them by an­swer­ing the ques­tion about the match­es. What was I miss­ing?

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

All of this is part of Everett’s case that the Pi­rahã are, like Luri­a’s peas­ant, ruled by an “im­me­di­acy of ex­pe­ri­ence prin­ci­ple” and this yields an ex­tra­or­di­nar­ily con­ser­v­a­tive cul­ture on which new ideas and con­cepts roll off like so much wa­ter off a duck’s back.

Their su­per­nat­ural be­liefs are par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nat­ing: dreams are sim­ply in­ter­preted lit­er­ally and dis­cussed as su­per­nat­ural events that hap­pened, and any ran­dom thing can be a ‘spirit’, with reg­u­lar the­atri­cal per­for­mances of ‘spir­its’ who are ob­vi­ously tribe men (but when asked, Pi­rahã deny that there is any con­nec­tion be­tween par­tic­u­lar men and spir­its, part of their weak grasp on per­sonal iden­tity (I was par­tic­u­larly amused by the Her­a­clitean tone of one anec­dote: “Pi­rahãs oc­ca­sion­ally talked about me, when I emerged from the river in the evenings after my bath. I heard them ask one an­oth­er, ‘Is this the same one who en­tered the river or is it ka­pi­ox­iai [a dan­ger­ous spir­it]?’”), where names change reg­u­larly and are con­sid­ered new peo­ple). Some of the spirit ap­pear­ances are group hal­lu­ci­na­tions or con­sen­sus, and Everett opens Don’t Sleep with the anec­dote of be­ing part of a group of Pi­rahã star­ing at an empty sand bank where they see the spirit Xi­ga­gai say­ing he will kill any­one go­ing into the for­est that day. This ex­am­ple is a bit per­plex­ing: what could pos­si­bly be the use of this and why would they ei­ther per­ceive it or go along with it? Sim­i­lar­ly, it’s hard to see how the spirit out­side the vil­lage talk­ing all night about how he wanted to have sex with spe­cific women of the vil­lage is serv­ing any role, and the tribesman re­ac­tion when Everett walks up and asks to record his rant­ing is hi­lar­i­ously dead­pan: “‘Sure, go ahead’, he an­swered im­me­di­ately in his nor­mal voice”. Other spir­its make more sense:

Pi­rahãs lis­ten care­fully and often fol­low the ex­hor­ta­tions of the kaoaib6gi. A spirit might say some­thing like “Don’t want Je­sus. He is not Pi­rahã”, or “Don’t hunt down­river to­mor­row”, or things that are com­monly shared val­ues, such as “Don’t eat snakes.” Through spir­its, os­tracism, food-shar­ing reg­u­la­tion, and so on, Pi­rahã so­ci­ety dis­ci­plines it­self.

The func­tion and eti­ol­ogy of re­li­gion like this re­mains per­plex­ing to me, but as a method of egal­i­tar­ian co­er­cion, it does at least ex­plain in­ci­dents like the Pi­rahã or­der­ing Everett to stop preach­ing about Je­sus be­cause the spirit of Je­sus was caus­ing trou­ble in an­other vil­lage and try­ing to rape their women with his three­-foot long pe­nis. Everett’s de­con­ver­sion from Chris­tian­ity is prob­a­bly the fun­ni­est I’ve read, but also very strange (some il­lit­er­ate tribes­men should make no im­pact on your re­li­gious be­liefs) and well ex­hibits the con­crete and ‘hard’ ten­den­cies:

…some­thing that I thought would make them un­der­stand how im­por­tant God can be in our lives. So I told the Pi­rahãs how my step­mother com­mit­ted sui­cide and how this led me to Je­sus and how my life got bet­ter after I stopped drink­ing and do­ing drugs and ac­cepted Je­sus. I told this as a very se­ri­ous sto­ry. When I con­clud­ed, the Pi­rahãs burst into laugh­ter. This was un­ex­pect­ed, to put it mild­ly. I was used to re­ac­tions like “Praise God!” with my au­di­ence gen­uinely im­pressed by the great hard­ships I had been through and how God had pulled me out of them. “Why are you laugh­ing?” I asked. “She killed her­self? Ha ha ha. How stu­pid. Pi­rahãs don’t kill them­selves” they an­swered. They were ut­terly unim­pressed. It was clear to them that the fact that some­one I had loved had com­mit­ted sui­cide was no rea­son at all for the Pi­rahãs to be­lieve in my God. In­deed, it had the op­po­site effect, high­light­ing our differ­ences.

Over­all, the pic­ture painted is as­ton­ish­ing. How is this pos­si­ble? How can such peo­ple and so­ci­eties ex­ist? But Everett does not find them piti­ful, and is se­duced by the Pi­rahã. Liv­ing by the plen­ti­ful river, with no na­tive tech­nol­ogy more ad­vanced than a bow, the Pi­rahã have low­ered their ex­pec­ta­tions to the point where the jun­gle is par­adise. If there is no food, then it is an op­por­tu­nity to “harden” them­selves and prac­tice self­-re­liance. (This is de­lib­er­ate, as it’s un­likely that if it was just the ran­dom chance of hunt­ing, they would be so uni­formly 100-125 pounds and 5-5.3 feet tal­l). The cli­mate means they don’t need much cloth­ing or shel­ter, and if it’s rain­ing, they can make a prim­i­tive hut. If they are hun­gry, they can go into the jun­gle and hunt. If there are for­eign­ers, they can beg for food. They amuse them­selves by talk­ing and danc­ing and hav­ing sex and hunt­ing and fish­ing and be­ing self­-re­liant. They have no wor­ries most of the time, have few du­ties—even child-rear­ing is easy, as women give birth with lit­tle cer­e­mony and die by them­selves, the Pi­rahã are will­ing to eu­th­a­nize in­con­ve­nient in­fants, and much like the child-rear­ing prac­tices de­scribed by Jared Di­a­mond, chil­dren are ex­pected to in­jure them­selves and learn—and are hap­py. Read­ing about them, they come off as a cross be­tween bono­bos and chim­panzees with wire­head­ing thrown in to boot.

So to ask again: how is this pos­si­ble? Prox­i­mate­ly, it’s be­cause Everett and FUNAI and oth­ers suc­ceeded in get­ting a reser­va­tion cre­ated just for the Pi­rahã. With less pres­sure from more suc­cess­ful groups, they can con­tinue to ex­ist. But that does­n’t an­swer how the Pi­rahã could ever come to ex­ist. Everett does not spec­u­late about this. A true an­thro­pol­o­gist, every­thing is due to chance, en­vi­ron­ment, or cul­ture, all of which ul­ti­mately spring from noth­ing­ness. (Where does cul­ture come from? An an­thro­pol­o­gist might give the Pi­rahã an­swer about where the world came from…)

I might be­lieve in cul­ture as an ex­pla­na­tion, with the Pi­rahã be­ing just the most ex­tremely con­ser­v­a­tive sur­viv­ing cul­ture, if the claims were not so ex­treme. But can that re­ally be the case?

Can we re­ally ap­peal to cul­ture as the ex­pla­na­tion for why not a sin­gle Pi­rahã is lit­er­ate, or can count, or has left the tribe to earn mon­ey, or brought a non-Pi­rahã woman in as wife, or to­tal cul­tural sta­sis for at least 300 years, and all of the other sin­gu­lar­i­ties Everett claims? Is this the case for any other tribe ever, even the ones con­sid­ered by their neigh­bors as the most prim­i­tive and least in­tel­li­gent, like the Pyg­mies, or cases of cul­tural re­gres­sion like the Tas­ma­ni­ans? Have the Amish ever suc­ceeded in hav­ing an at­tri­tion rate <5%, and that with a rel­a­tive level of wealth to the sur­round­ing Amer­ica far closer than the Pi­rahã rel­a­tive to Brazil­ian? Why are all the other groups like the Warlpiri of Aus­tralia able to bor­row num­bers when nu­meral sys­tems be­come use­ful, ex­cept the Pi­rahã? The Pi­rahã have been trad­ing with Brazil­ians for at least two cen­turies, and have not taken any steps to­ward it. The en­dogamy and lin­guis­tic iso­la­tion is sur­pris­ing; they seem more en­dog­a­mous than the Bush­men, whose lin­eage may have di­verged scores of thou­sands of years ago, or the castes of In­dia. They have, for all any­one knows, been sep­a­rate for thou­sands of years (the pop­u­la­tion his­tory of the Amer­i­cas is, likely in part be­cause of well-founded fears that it will un­der­mine rhetoric about be­ing de­scen­dants of the first set­tlers rather than just the sec­ond-to-last wave, still ob­scure but the lat­est work is con­sis­tent with colonization/replacements yield­ing tribes with lit­tle ge­netic flow be­tween groups and high ge­o­graphic struc­ture). This alone, along with their small pop­u­la­tion (both present and pre­sum­ably ), could yield ma­jor on many traits.

On the other hand, gene-en­vi­ron­ment co-evo­lu­tion would make tremen­dous sense; over mil­len­nia of re­pro­duc­tive iso­la­tion and spe­cial­iza­tion to their eco­log­i­cal niche, Pi­rahã have reached a lo­cal op­ti­mum where ab­strac­tion and plan­ning are un­nec­es­sary and only lead to trou­ble and the po­ten­tial for in­equal­i­ty, and ei­ther pun­ish­ment or sim­ply lack of ad­di­tional fit­ness for such cog­ni­tive traits, which was con­tin­u­ously re­in­forced by nat­ural and sex­ual se­lec­tion over hun­dreds of gen­er­a­tions (evo­lu­tion does not stop at the neck), lead­ing to a pop­u­la­tion many SDs from sur­round­ing pop­u­la­tions. (“I would go so far as to sug­gest that the Pi­rahãs are hap­pier, fit­ter, and bet­ter ad­justed to their en­vi­ron­ment than any Chris­t­ian or other re­li­gious per­son I have ever known.” In­deed.) This would be sim­i­lar to Harp­end­ing and Cochran 2015’s model of the Amish. This par­si­mo­niously ex­plains the ob­ser­va­tions with­out the need for back­flips in in­ter­pre­ta­tion of many anec­dotes. For ex­am­ple, if the Pi­rahã cul­ture is so ex­tra­or­di­nar­ily con­ser­v­a­tive, why did they ea­gerly learn to make ca­noes that they prize high­ly, say­ing that Pi­rahã ca­noes are bad, and only 5 days later de­cide it was a bad idea? But Everett gives us a valu­able clue in a differ­ent anec­dote:

…I was sur­prised that the Pi­rahãs did not seem tired at all, how­ev­er. In the vil­lage the Pi­rahã men avoided car­ry­ing heavy things. When I asked them for help in car­ry­ing boxes or bar­rels and such, they were al­ways re­luc­tant to re­spond. When they did help, they could barely lift things that I could carry with ease. I had just as­sumed that they were weak and lacked en­durance. But I was wrong. They did­n’t nor­mally carry for­eign ob­jects and they did­n’t like to dis­play their ig­no­rance of how to han­dle them.

Like any­one else, they are em­bar­rassed by what they don’t know—or have for­got­ten—and when asked, will make up ex­cuses or dodge it some other way. Sim­i­lar­ly, the fail­ure to teach count­ing does not re­quire some sort of sub­tle Pi­rahã ploy where they pre­tend to be in­ter­ested and to learn how to count for very prac­ti­cal rea­sons and then sab­o­tage it to com­ply with the dic­tates of Pi­rahã cul­ture; it was sim­ply that diffi­cult, and any teacher will be fa­mil­iar with stu­dents on whom in­struc­tions are writ on wa­ter. Sup­pos­edly , so it would be in­ter­est­ing to hear whether a Potemkin school (re­cent events doubt­less hav­ing re­minded every­one that the Brazil­ian gov­ern­ment has its fair share of prob­lems with cor­rup­tion and in­com­pe­tence), what frac­tion ever en­roll, how much at­tri­tion there is, and what per­for­mance lev­els any are able to reach.

Doubt­less Everett would vo­cif­er­ously ob­ject that such spec­u­la­tion is wrong, but he would in or­der to pro­tect re­search ac­cess to the Pi­rahã (the Brazil­ian gov­ern­ment be­ing as much a vil­lain as hero in these sorts of things, en­gag­ing in such sense­less prac­tices as out­law­ing two-way ra­dios for for­eign­ers) and to avoid be­com­ing a sec­ond Napoleon Chagnon, and prob­a­bly com­mits the same fal­lacy that Di­a­mond mem­o­rably does at the be­gin­ning of Guns, Germs, and Steel in ar­gu­ing that the Pi­rahã were so much bet­ter than him at us­ing the jun­gle they must be at least as in­tel­li­gent as any­one else (ig­nor­ing that they have had life­times to learn that, and un­der­per­form every­where else). If noth­ing else, the ge­net­ics of the Pi­rahã would be fas­ci­nat­ing for pin­ning down when they di­verged from other groups and how much ge­netic drift and di­rec­tional se­lec­tion has hap­pened since.

Let us hope that fu­ture re­searchers will not bow to the lo­cal pol­i­tics and con­tinue study­ing only the safe, soft­ball ques­tions like the Pi­rahã syn­tax.

McNamara’s Folly, Gregory 2015

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

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

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

It did not go well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gre­gory con­cludes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Swanwick 2012

The Iron Drag­on’s Daugh­terMichael Swan­wick2012★★★★

I read it based on Ana­toly Vorobey’s re­view:

“This is fan­tasy for adults: com­plex flawed char­ac­ters, a world rich in de­tail, mul­ti­tude of char­ac­ters who live and do things for their own sake rather than to ad­vance a plot point or help the hero. Ut­ter dis­re­gard for con­ven­tions and cliches of the genre. A hero who is an an­ti-Mary Sue. End­less in­ven­tive­ness of the au­thor. To my taste, this novel is what books like The Kingkiller Chron­i­cles promise, but then ut­terly fail to de­liv­er. But if you’re a fan of Roth­fuss, try Swan­wick any­way, and you might get a fuller and richer taste of what you like.”

I liked it a lot after I got through the ini­tial sec­tion in the fac­to­ry, which was over-the-top Dick­en­sian enough to make me won­der if it was worth­while. But it got bet­ter, and be­gan un­furl­ing into a mad Victorian/fantasy cross, heavy on the so­cial op­pres­sion and eco­nomic ex­ploita­tion, rem­i­nis­cent of China Miéville’s bour­geois im­pe­ri­al­ist . The plot breaks down into a few dis­crete chunks of the pro­tag­o­nist Jane’s life, which while high­light­ing the ruth­less na­ture of life in a uni­verse where the gods are real (the home­com­ing queen be­ing sac­ri­ficed may be hor­ri­fy­ing, but the con­se­quences of not sac­ri­fic­ing are even more di­re, as one mem­o­rable ni­hilist char­ac­ter makes clear; and our own so­ci­ety does not hes­i­tate to sac­ri­fice lives for its own ends, as with, say, coal-burn­ing power plants) also high­light her cow­ardice and selfish­ness in be­tray­ing her friends in­stead of… what? We’re not too clear, as the world be­gins melt­ing and things get weird in an In­vis­i­bles or Dick­-style turn to­wards rad­i­cal on­to­log­i­cal un­cer­tain­ty. (The drag­on, in­ci­den­tal­ly, ap­pears in far less of the novel than one would ex­pect from the ti­tle.)

This may sound te­dious, but Swan­wick re­ally does throw all sorts of fas­ci­nat­ing lit­tle twists in along the way that keep one read­ing: malls where time lit­er­ally stops so you can shop to your heart’s con­tent; fac­to­ries with ‘time clocks’ that age one if one does­n’t clock out; live gar­goyles, with all the food re­quire­ments fly­ing stone en­tails; a man who shrinks in his wife’s re­gard for be­ing a cow­ard un­til he’s the size of a ho­muncu­lus and is trapped in a jar beg­ging for death; mar­kets in en­ter­tain­ing slaves among the eloi up­per-class elves; mag­i­cal en­gi­neers who are cas­trated to en­sure they do not dam­age the mag­ics they work with; aca­d­e­mics who as­sault the cas­tles of the gods in the quest for knowl­edge, and get burned; uni­ver­si­ties with purges that are lit­er­ally dec­i­mat­ing… Still, it’s a happy end­ing, I think. Swan­wick puts it amus­ingly in a page of ex­pla­na­tions:

I gave her T as a re­ward for mak­ing it through to the end of the novel he’s the one worldly thing she wants—and, quite to my sur­prise, the God­dess threw in K as well. What hap­pens next? Does Jane marry T and keep K as best friend? Does K steal T from her? Do they all fall into bed to­geth­er? This one I re­ally don’t know be­cause the real re­ward I gave Jane for mak­ing it to the end of the book was free­dom. I ran across Carol Emsh­willer just after she fin­ished writ­ing Ledoyt and she said she was in mourn­ing, that all these peo­ple she had lived with for years were sud­denly gone and it felt as if they’d all died. “Does­n’t it feel that way to you, too, when you fin­ish a nov­el?” she asked. I thought about it. “No,” I de­cid­ed. “It feels like all these char­ac­ters who have suffered un­der my per­se­cut­ing hand have been set free. I imag­ine them run­ning joy­fully in all di­rec­tions, as hard and fast as they can, so that I can never catch them and put them in an­other book again.”

Any­way, go­ing over some of the parts of it which amused me while I was read­ing… You know your fan­tasy is grim and imag­i­na­tive when as­trol­ogy is due to ed­u­ca­tional cor­rup­tion:

“Hel­lo? I was sent here for re­me­di­al?” The pale man looked up. He nod­ded wan­ly. Un­hasti­ly, with­out em­pha­sis, he picked up a book, opened it, paged for­ward a leaf, and then back one. “There are three stars in the heav­ens,” he said, “mov­ing about Jupiter, er­ratic side­real bod­ies which es­tab­lish a lesser zo­di­a­cal process for that wan­derer in its mighty twelve-year pro­gres­sion about the sun.”…“Ex­cuse me,” she said hes­i­tant­ly, “but what effect do these mi­nor plan­ets have on our be­hav­ior and for­tunes? I mean, you know, as­tro­log­i­cal in­flu­ence?” He looked at her. “None.” “None at all?” “No.” “But if the plan­ets affect our for­tunes—” She stum­bled to a stop at the dis­pas­sion­ately scorn­ful look on the pale man’s face, the slow way he shook his head. “Surely you’ll agree that the plan­ets or­der and con­trol our des­tinies?” “They do not.” “Not at all?” “No.” “Then what does? Con­trol our des­tinies, I mean.” “The only ex­ter­nal forces that have any in­flu­ence on us are those we can see every day: the smile, the frown, the fist, the brick wall. What you call ‘des­tiny’ is merely a se­man­tic fal­la­cy, the at­tri­bu­tion of pur­pose to blind causal­i­ty. In­so­far as any of us are com­pelled to re­sist the flow of ran­dom events, we are dri­ven solely by in­ter­nal dri­ves and forces.” Jane seized on this last. “Then what you’re say­ing is that our fate lies within us, right?” He shook his head. “If so, it must be ex­tremely small and im­pos­si­bly dis­tant. I would not sug­gest you put any re­liance in such an in­signifi­cant en­ti­ty.”’…She wait­ed, but he did not elab­o­rate. “In in­tro­duc­tory as­trol­ogy they told us that each per­son has a tute­lary star and that each star has its own min­er­al, col­or, and mu­si­cal tone, and a plant as well that is a spe­cific for the dis­ease that is caused by that star’s oc­cul­ta­tion.” “All un­true. The stars do not con­cern them­selves in the least with us. Our to­tal ex­tinc­tion would mean noth­ing to them.” “But why?” Jane cried. “If it’s not true, why would they teach it to us?”A dry fin­ger­tip tapped the page not im­pa­tiently but ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly. “All courses re­quire text­books, charts, and teach­ing aids. By the time the in­for­ma­tion cod­i­fied as as­trol­ogy was dis­cred­ited and be­came ob­so­lete, it had a con­stituen­cy. Cer­tain…per­son­ages ben­e­fit from the sup­ply con­tracts.”

Ni­hilist the plot may seem to be, but it’s leav­ened with some sharp satire; for ex­am­ple, bu­reau­cracy in the fac­to­ry:

At last, late in the day, the in­spec­tor gen­eral ar­rived. A wave of dread pre­ceded the elf-lord through the plant. Not a kobold or ko­r­ri­g­an, not a spunky, pil­ly­wig­gin, nor lowli­est dunter but knew the in­spec­tor gen­eral was com­ing. The air shiv­ered in an­tic­i­pa­tion of his ar­rival. A glim­mer­ing light went just be­fore him, caus­ing all heads to turn, all work to stop, the in­stant be­fore he turned a cor­ner or en­tered a shop. He ap­peared in the door­way. Tall and ma­jes­tic he was in an Ital­ian suit and tufted silk tie. He wore a white hard hat. His face was square-jawed and hand­some in a more than hu­man way, and his hair and teeth were per­fect. Two high­-rank­ing Tyl­wyth Teg ac­com­pa­nied him, clip­boards in hand, and a vul­ture-headed cost an­a­lyst from Ac­count­ing trailed in his wake.


After Grunt had called at­ten­dance, he cleared his throat. “The Three B’s,” he said. “The Three B’s are your guide to scholas­tic ex­cel­lence. The Three B’s are your gold key to the door­way of the fu­ture. Now—all to­geth­er—what are they?” “Be-lieve,” the class mum­bled. “Be-have. Be Silent.” “What was that last?” He cupped a hand to his ear. “Be Silent!” “I caaaaaan’t heeeeear you.” “BE SILENT!” “Good.”

It was only when she went to empty out her locker that Jane re­al­ized how over­grown it had be­come. Or­chids and jun­gle vines filled most of the space within and a hum­ming­bird fled into the cor­ri­dor when she banged open the door.


It was a scorcher out­side, but the mall was kept so cool that Jane was sorry she had­n’t brought a sweater. The place was jammed with fugi­tives from the heat. They were recre­ational rather than se­ri­ous shop­pers, most of them. Their hands were empty and their eyes were clear.

Col­lege room­mate strife:

“The dis­sec­tion man­u­al?” Mon­key asked air­i­ly. “I ate it.” “You what?” “I ate it. Why else would I want it? I was hun­gry and I ate it.” “But I need it for class.” “Then you should­n’t have given it to me.” Mon­key’s beady eyes glit­tered strange­ly, ma­li­cious­ly, in her round face. “Re­al­ly, Jane, you can be so dim at times.” With a sud­den stand­ing back­flip she dis­ap­peared through the door­way. Jane’s hands clenched. But re­ally it was no more than she had learned to ex­pect. Room­mates were for­ever eat­ing your books, hav­ing anx­i­ety at­tacks, adopt­ing rats and car­niv­o­rous slimes which they then ex­pected you to feed, get­ting drunk and throw­ing up on your best dress, mov­ing into the closet and re­fus­ing to come out for months on end, threat­en­ing sui­cide the night be­fore Fi­nals, leav­ing piles of rot­ting leaves in the mid­dle of the floor, en­ter­tain­ing boyfriends in your bed be­cause it was made and theirs not, evolv­ing into large blood­suck­ing in­sects. Mon­key was ac­tu­ally good of her kind. Well, she could al­ways pick up a new man­u­al.

Mon­key snatched the pen­cil from her hand and snapped it in two. Jane closed her eyes and traced the sigil of Baphomet with her in­ner vi­sion. When she was calm again, she slid open a draw­er.“All right.” There was a pair of la­tex gloves with­in. “I was­n’t go­ing to do this.” She pulled them on. “But you don’t ex­actly give me much choice, do you?” Credit where credit is due, Mon­key did­n’t back down. There was a touch of the trick­ster in her her­itage, and the trick­ster gene was a dom­i­nant. She licked her lips ner­vously as Jane pre­tended to lift an in­vis­i­ble box from the draw­er. “You don’t scare me.” “Good.” Jane swung a hinged lid back and reached with­in. “It works best if you don’t be­lieve.” She re­moved an equally imag­i­nary scalpel and held it up be­tween thumb and fore­fin­ger, ad­mir­ingly turn­ing it one way and the oth­er. “What are you go­ing to do with that?” Jane smiled. “This!” She slammed her fist into Mon­key’s stom­ach.


“I have been go­ing over your lab­o­ra­tory re­ports, Miss Alder­ber­ry.” Dr. Neme­sis put an arm through hers, and walked her to­ward the front. “They are, if I may con­fide in you, dis­ap­point­ing, most dis­ap­point­ing in a stu­dent of your po­ten­tial.” “I’ve been hav­ing trou­ble with the soph­ic—”…“You must surely re­al­ize why I am con­cerned for you.” “Well…” Jane did­n’t re­al­ly, but that dou­ble glare bored into her, wait­ing for an in­tel­li­gent re­sponse. “I’m here on a merit schol­ar­ship, so I sup­pose—” “No!” Dr. Neme­sis stamped her foot im­pa­tient­ly. As if in re­sponse the el­e­va­tor door slid open. She steered Jane out­side. They were on an office level now. The walls were dec­o­rated with large un­framed oils of um­brel­las and sides of beef. The run­ners on the hall floors smelled new. “I am not talk­ing about mere mon­ey, but about your very sur­vival! This is a Teind year, surely you must know that.” Jane nod­ded, mean­ing no. “The de­part­ment heads are even now as­sem­bling the list of those 10% of the stu­dents who are… ex­pend­able. Your name, Miss Alder­ber­ry, is go­ing to be on that list un­less you straighten up and fly right.” She glared at her: weak­ly, stern­ly.

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

The Uni­ver­sity li­brary opened its doors at mid­night and closed at dawn. The ra­tio­nale given for such ex­tra­or­di­nary hours was that they dis­cour­aged dilet­tantes and idlers from wast­ing the li­brary’s fa­cil­i­ties.

Even for the School of Gram­marie, which was widely held to have pushed the con­cept of lib­eral arts to an ex­treme, Pro­fes­sor Tarap­ple was grotesque. A burnt and crisped cin­der of a crea­ture was he, black­ened and small, his limbs charred sticks, his torso ren­dered, re­duced, and car­bonized. His mouth hung open and his step was slow and painful. He seemed a cat­a­log of the in­fir­mi­ties of age. He felt for the mi­cro­phone. His hand closed about it with a soft boom, then re­treat­ed. The charred sock­ets of his eyes rose to­ward the ceil­ing. Jane re­al­ized that he was blind­…Pro­fes­sor Tarap­ple groped for a laser point­er, leav­ing sooty hand­prints on the lectern top. He di­rected the pointer to­ward the slide with mo­tions as jerky and un­con­vinc­ing as a rod pup­pet’s. The red dot of light jig­gled off to the side of the screen. “This is—” The head wob­bled. “This is—is Spi­ral Cas­tle it­self.” No­body so much as breathed. “No one but I my­self has ever delved so deep into the God­dess’s mys­ter­ies. The Ocean above which it is sus­pended is Time it­self, and so far as could be de­ter­mined with our lim­ited in­stru­men­ta­tion ex­tends to in­fin­ity in all di­rec­tions. Next slide.”…Jane was hav­ing a hard time fol­low­ing the lec­ture. The harsh white im­age of Spi­ral Cas­tle was like a mag­ne­sium flare. It swelled and dwin­dled in her vi­sion, as if softly breath­ing. Her eyes pulsed, aching when she tried to fol­low the logic of its in­vo­lu­tions. She had to look away…“Toadswivers! Curly-mounted bob­tail jades! Cod­headed pig­fuck bas­tards!” With a start, Jane came to her­self. Through­out the au­di­to­ri­um, the au­di­ence mem­bers were rous­ing them­selves. A Teggish pro­fes­sor di­rectly be­fore Jane’s seat straight­ened with a lurch and a snort. A gnome to her left passed a hand over his mush­room-spot­ted pate. Pro­fes­sor Tarap­ple had aban­doned his lec­ture in a rage. He was be­rat­ing his au­di­ence. “Only one be­ing—one! me!—has ever delved so far into the God­dess’s se­crets and re­turned to talk of them. By can­non-fire, holy wa­ter, and bells, lis­ten to me! I risked more than life and san­ity to bring you these pho­tographs. I—I—I was once young and tall and hand­some. I had friends who died in this ex­pe­di­tion and will never be re­born. We were caught and pun­ished and pun­ished again. I alone es­caped. Look at me! See the price that I paid! So many times I have tried to tell you! Why do you never lis­ten?” He was weep­ing now. “Woe!” he cried. “Alas for those who seek after Truth, for such is the God­dess’s most hoarded trea­sure. Ah, she is cruel and un­fath­omable, and bit­ter, bit­ter is her vengeance.” The lights came gen­tly up. The ap­plause was thun­der­ous.

One of the parts to­wards the end which par­tic­u­larly re­minded me of The In­vis­i­bles:

“One time, pass­ing through the Car­oli­nas some­where be­tween 2:00 and 3:00 A.M., Jerry and I picked up a white Lo­tus with two blonds in it. We honked and waved. They gave us the fin­ger and put the pedal to the met­al. I did the same, of course, but even with dual carbs it was no con­test. We had a mus­cle car but they had a sex ma­chine. They made us eat their dust…Ten-fifteen miles down the road we saw the Lo­tus in a Roy Rogers lot. We pulled in for some take-out burg­ers. There they were. We struck up a con­ver­sa­tion. When we left, Jer­ry-D went with the dri­ver of the Lo­tus. Her friend went with me…Any­way, there I was, a blond in pink hot pants rub­bing up against me. I had my foot to the floor, her tongue in my ear, and her hand down my pants. I pushed up her hal­ter top and squeezed her breasts. The air shim­mered with the im­ma­nence of rev­e­la­tion. Lit­tle Richard was singing ‘Tut­ti-Frutti’ on the ra­dio and it some­how seemed sig­nifi­cant that what I was hear­ing had been elec­tro­mag­net­i­cally en­cod­ed, trans­mit­ted as mod­u­lated ra­di­a­tion, re­con­structed by the ra­dio as sound, and only rein­ter­preted as mu­sic some­where within the dark reaches of my head. I felt then that the world was an il­lu­sion—and a rather shabby one at that, an im­age pro­jected upon the thinnest of mem­branes, and that were I to push at it just right, I could step out of the world en­tire­ly. I un­but­toned her shorts. She wrig­gled a lit­tle to help. I slid my hand un­der her panties. I was think­ing that every­thing was in­for­ma­tion when I found my­self clutch­ing an erect pe­nis. I whipped my head around. The blond was grin­ning wildly into my face. My hand in­vol­un­tar­ily tight­ened about her cock. Her hand tight­ened about mine. They might have been the same hand. We might have been one per­son twinned. The car was up to about 100 mph. I was­n’t even look­ing where we were go­ing. I did­n’t care. It was in that in­stant that I achieved en­light­en­ment.”

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

Bad Blood, Carreyrou 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(On­line full­text: HTML, PDF; 280k words)

Offi­cial de­scrip­tion sums it well: an am­bi­tious sur­vey of life-ex­ten­sion move­ments and re­searchers from the late 1800s on­wards across the West (specifi­cal­ly, Amer­i­ca, Eu­rope, and Rus­si­a), giv­ing cap­sule bi­ogra­phies of lead­ing fig­ures and brief de­scrip­tions of their views and work. Nat­u­ral­ly, for some par­tic­u­lar parts there are bet­ter things to read (for ex­am­ple, Car­rel’s or­gan-p­reser­va­tion work is much more in­ter­est­ingly and thor­oughly de­scribed in Fried­man’s The Im­mor­tal­ists: Charles Lind­bergh, Dr. Alexis Car­rel, and Their Dar­ing Quest to Live For­ever) but noth­ing I know of comes any­where close in be­ing as com­pre­hen­sive as Stam­bler in show­ing all the twists and turns of the field and the var­i­ous char­ac­ters that have pop­u­lated it over the years and the oc­ca­sional un­ex­pected profit from the ba­sic and ap­plied re­search they con­ducted (eg hor­mone ther­apy and re­lated tech­niques like sex re­as­sign­ment ther­apy trace di­rectly back to life-ex­ten­sion re­search), yield­ing an in­ter­est­ing over­all por­trait. I par­tic­u­larly ap­pre­ci­ated the am­ple ma­te­r­ial de­voted to Rus­sia: Rus­sia is too often ne­glected in West­ern pub­li­ca­tions be­cause of the lan­guage bar­ri­er, and Rus­sians fea­ture even more in life-ex­ten­sion than in many fields. (The Russ­ian & Amer­i­can his­tory sec­tions al­so, in­ci­den­tal­ly, show that Char­lie Stross, in claim­ing Amer­i­can Sin­guli­tar­i­an­ism di­rectly de­scends from Niko­lai Fy­o­dorov, is guilty not just of an ir­rel­e­vant ge­netic fal­la­cy, but also deeply ig­no­rant of the his­tory of both coun­tries’ schools of thought, which we can see clearly from Stam­bler’s ac­counts to be par­al­lel but in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ments.)

Stam­bler is a lit­tle averse to try­ing to syn­the­size any lessons from this long litany of failed in­ter­ven­tions, but I am opin­ion­ated and em­bit­tered enough to try some gen­er­al­iza­tions:

  • there are no sim­ple in­ter­ven­tions that can change av­er­age life ex­pectancy by more than a few years or max­i­mum life span at all
  • as a corol­lary, there is no sin­gle or small num­ber of ge­netic or bio­chem­i­cal ‘mas­ter switches’ of ag­ing, be­cause if there, some of the thou­sands of in­ter­ven­tions dur­ing the past 3 cen­turies of ac­tive sci­en­tific re­search would have flipped them di­rectly or as a down­stream effect, some­one would have ex­ceeded the Cal­ment lim­it, or her­i­tabil­ity es­ti­mates of longevity would be far higher
  • re­search pro­ceed­ing on the ba­sis of ‘iden­tify a cor­re­late of ag­ing’ is effec­tively doomed: the sig­na­ture fea­ture of ag­ing is that it is an ex­po­nen­tial ac­cel­er­a­tion (the Gom­pertz curve) of mor­tal­ity due to all causes ie. all or­gans are si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­com­ing non­func­tional and los­ing home­osta­sis and effi­ca­cy, and these prob­lems in­ter­act as well. Since the body is an ab­surdly com­plex dy­namic sys­tem which, if drawn out as a causal net­work re­sem­bles the col­lected graphs of thou­sands of para­noid schiz­o­phren­ics, the be­ing cor­re­lated is effec­tively 1 while the prob­a­bil­ity they are di­rectly causally upstream/downstream of each other is close to ze­ro. (The im­pres­sive thing is to find some­thing which does­n’t cor­re­late with ag­ing, like blood mag­ne­sium lev­el­s.) It gets worse. Be­cause the fall­out from ag­ing is de­stroy­ing all bod­ily sys­tems and im­pair­ing home­osta­sis, this im­plies there are hun­dreds or thou­sands of pseudo-in­ter­ven­tions: in­ter­ven­tions which deal with some down­stream effect of ag­ing and may help on that one thing, but noth­ing else. For ex­am­ple, if one fed am­phet­a­mines to an el­derly mouse, it might act ‘young’ but it will pro­ceed to die on sched­ule re­gard­less. (This is the more ab­stract form of ob­serv­ing that cur­ing can­cer does not do much about cur­ing ag­ing.) This can very eas­ily mis­lead one into think­ing one is mak­ing progress and con­duct­ing im­por­tant work: ‘I found a pro­tein which cor­re­lates with ag­ing and I even checked that it causally makes rats stu­pider by in­ject­ing it into ran­dom rats!’ These can both be true and yet I can be ex­tremely con­fi­dent that this will never lead to a use­ful an­ti-ag­ing in­ter­ven­tion or shed light on what ag­ing is, and that one cer­tainly can­not “start with an old cell, change its sig­nal­ing, and make it be­have like new again.” (Hence, we can pre­dict that any ex­cit­ing new dis­cov­ery will turn out to ex­pe­ri­ence an even more than usu­ally se­vere ‘de­cline effect’ where the ini­tial re­ports turn out to be dri­ven by the usual method­olog­i­cal is­sues like sam­pling er­ror and pub­li­ca­tion bias & non-ran­dom­ized mice se­lec­tion and breed-spe­cific re­sponses & mis­la­beled reagents and non-blinded eval­u­a­tion and cod­ing er­rors and etc or turn out to only be a pseudo-in­ter­ven­tion on a symp­tom. This is be­cause our prior for an in­ter­ven­tion on ag­ing is, at this point, ex­tremely low and so all the al­ter­na­tive ex­pla­na­tions are much more like­ly. Anal­o­gous to psy­chol­o­gists’ peren­nial quest to in­crease in­tel­li­gence: no mat­ter how good the study looks, it is more likely that the gains are in­flated by bad method­ol­o­gy, the prod­uct of pub­li­ca­tion bi­as, not g-loaded and re­stricted to a few sub­tests, due to er­ror or fraud­u­lent data, or some­thing else which in an­other con­text would look like mean-spir­ited raillery and des­per­ate grab­bing at straws, but when it comes to IQ gains, is, sad­ly, al­ways the cor­rect an­swer thus far.)
  • any life-ex­ten­sion par­a­digm de­scribed as “holis­tic” is a to­tal and ut­ter fail­ure, in­ca­pable of any large effects and worse, sci­en­tifi­cally ster­ile; in the de­scrip­tions of French and Ger­man ‘holis­tic’ at­tempts at life-ex­ten­sion, I saw them fail at cre­at­ing a sin­gle sci­en­tific lead which yielded any new knowl­edge or tech­niques, and they (doubt­less with the best of in­ten­tions) suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing un­fal­si­fi­able non­sense and harm­ful mis­in­for­ma­tion which con­tinue to have cir­cu­la­tion in the West. The only re­searchers whose work proved use­ful were the ones who in­sisted on ‘re­duc­tion­is­tic’ ap­proach­es; Stam­bler quotes and para­phrases re­peat­edly (with a dis­tinct tone of sar­casm, if I’m not mis­tak­en) the bet­ter re­searchers not­ing how ig­no­rant they were and how much re­search needed to be done be­fore any in­ter­ven­tions could hope for suc­cess, bug-lt of course they were right
  • the fail­ure of holis­tic ap­proaches is em­pha­sized when one con­sid­ers where the large life-ex­ten­sion gains in the 20th cen­tury came from: bet­ter hy­giene, an­tibi­otics, and vac­ci­na­tion—all some of the great­est fruits of the re­duc­tion­is­tic ap­proach to bi­ol­ogy in look­ing at the tini­est iso­lated pieces
  • rigour was in­suffi­ciently val­ued by many of the re­searchers, who, ne­glect­ing blind­ing and ran­dom­iza­tion and large sam­ple-sizes, suc­ceeded only in fool­ing them­selves and wast­ing the time of fel­low re­searchers, who might try some­thing like the Steinach pro­ce­dure only to watch the effects van­ish quick­ly, if they ever were
  • re­lat­ed: al­l-cause mor­tal­ity is the king of end­points; every­thing else can be cheat­ed. When it comes to ag­ing, ‘the treat­ment was a suc­cess but the pa­tient died’ is un­ac­cept­able. If the treat­ment in­vig­o­rated the pa­tient but they died on sched­ule, it was not an an­ti-ag­ing treat­ment. Use of prox­ies is the dark side of life-ex­ten­sion re­search: quick, easy, se­duc­tive, en­cour­ag­ing (one is con­stantly mak­ing pro­gress), but a dead end.
  • many of the the­o­ries ap­pear to have been com­posed in a vac­u­um, with lit­tle heed given to con­straints on pos­si­ble the­o­ries such as evo­lu­tion: re­mark­ably, it seems the first men­tion of “evo­lu­tion” in the text has to wait all the way un­til the 1930s! How, you might ask, could any­one pos­si­bly try to ex­plain the mech­a­nisms of ag­ing, es­ti­mate pos­si­ble max­i­mal lifes­pans, or give in­ter­ven­tions with­out the Gom­pertz curve or evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gy? Not well, is the an­swer. I could for­give the peo­ple in the late 1800s for not tak­ing evo­lu­tion or the Gom­pertz curve se­ri­ously in think­ing about in­ter­ven­tions, but it is baffling to read about Amer­i­cans in the 1950s get­ting ex­cited about or­gan-trans­plant and re­place­ments as a path to im­mor­tal­i­ty—and how, pray tell, given the ex­po­nen­tial in­crease with age of all dis­eases and fail­ure rates of or­gans, were you plan­ning on han­dling re­plac­ing the brain…?
  • Many of the the­o­ries are (at least in Stam­bler’s telling), lit­tle more than folk bi­ol­ogy or moral in­tu­itions dressed up as sci­ence to al­low right­eous lord­ing over oth­ers: odd­ly, it seems that what peo­ple are con­vinced is moral to eat just hap­pens to al­ways co­in­cide with what is healthy to eat and what will make one live longer, and de­li­cious things like ba­con never get held up as the Foun­tain of Youth, and no fruit or veg­etable ever turns out to have a ter­ri­ble draw­back. So re­searchers are al­most unan­i­mous about mod­er­ate eat­ing, or fruits and veg­eta­bles be­ing the path to long life while meat is the path to an early grave? They are just re­peat­ing long-s­tand­ing cul­tural prej­u­dices about un­der­-eat­ing be­ing morally vir­tu­ous and su­pe­rior and meat (which com­mits the sin of de­li­cious­ness) is bes­tial and evil, part of the re­li­gious at­ti­tudes to­wards food we can see on dis­play at any Whole Foods. What re­li­gion prizes meat-eat­ing and re­gards the keto diet as the height of or­thorex­ia? (Many of these rec­om­men­da­tions are clearly com­ing less from sci­en­tific ev­i­dence than from the dis­gust axis of moral­i­ty.) Now if any of those re­searchers had been able to pre­dict that ‘in­ter­mit­tent fast­ing’—with zero net re­duc­tion in calo­ries—had ben­e­fits, then I might credit more what they say on di­et. But as it is, diet is to longevity re­searchers what the Knights Tem­plar or Jews are to the con­spir­acy the­o­rist­s—a pre­dictable sign of de­range­ment.
  • in­cre­men­tal re­search is in­cre­men­tal. Our un­der­stand­ing of hu­man ag­ing is in­fi­nitely bet­ter than in 1900, yet there are still no mean­ing­ful in­ter­ven­tions. Mul­ti­-decade gaps sep­a­rate prac­ti­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal break­throughs. The stan­dard med­ical-a­ca­d­e­mic ap­proach is very slow. It is en­tirely pos­si­ble that in 2100, we will not be much be­yond where we are in 2015. (I can re­mark that much geron­tol­ogy, even to­day, leaves me sim­ply mys­ti­fied that any­one would feel it was worth study­ing: of what pos­si­ble value is it to re­port soberly and in de­tail on how hav­ing a house ra­dio dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion cor­re­lates with greater longevity (ac­tual study!), even if we were delu­sory enough to imag­ine SES and other con­founds could ever be mea­sured to suffi­cient pre­ci­sion to con­trol for just a few of the more bla­tant cor­re­lates? This is the sort of thing I feel can be de­scribed only as friv­o­lous and un­se­ri­ous, and ex­em­pli­fies how decades can pass with moun­tains of pa­per pil­ing up and zero re­sults of any im­por­tance.)

So, those are the hard and painful lessons taught by 3 cen­turies of life-ex­ten­sion work. Some­times life gives you a Moore’s law or vac­ci­nes, where the work goes deliri­ously well and the wildest fore­casts still fall short of the mark; and some­times it just puts up a brick wall to let gen­er­a­tions of re­searchers smash their face into and bab­ble TBI-induced non­sense into jour­nals. What are some of the more hope­ful as­pects?

  • some­what like cry­on­ics, which could have been killed along the way by any num­ber of fun­da­men­tal re­search find­ings such as the orig­i­nal ‘ex­plod­ing lyso­somes’ the­ory or by hu­man mem­ory turn­ing out to be im­ple­mented as frag­ile elec­tri­cal pulses/dynamics rather than sta­bler chem­i­cal en­cod­ings in synaps­es, one of the more hope­ful things about ag­ing is that we have not found any fun­da­men­tal rea­son why it should be im­pos­si­ble to slow or elim­i­nate it. (And if not, then in the long run there may be es­cape hatches through cry­on­ics or plas­ti­na­tion.)
  • the­o­ries seem to be con­verg­ing on er­ror the­o­ries of ag­ing: ac­cu­mu­lat­ing dam­age that re­sults in non­lin­ear in­creases in mor­tal­i­ty, with many of the cross-species cor­re­lates ex­plained by differ­ent evo­lu­tion­ary pres­sures dri­ving more or less in­vest­ment into re­pair mech­a­nisms. This is not as we might wish it (pro­grammed-ag­ing would be eas­ier to de­feat) but it at least sug­gests we can make progress by brute-force in­fer­ence of the en­tire causal net­work and fig­ure out what re­pair mech­a­nisms are nec­es­sary (which may or may not be cov­ered by SENS’s cur­rent pro­pos­al­s).
  • all the in­vest­ment into bio­med­ical re­search is start­ing to pay off with in­stru­ments and mea­sure­ments of un­par­al­leled pre­ci­sion. Early life-ex­ten­sion re­searchers could not pos­si­bly hope to mea­sure ge­netic changes with age; to­day, it’s both pos­si­ble and rel­a­tively cheap. Things like Hor­vath’s epi­ge­netic clock sug­gest that we are in­creas­ingly get­ting the big pic­ture, in­stead of be­ing forced to fo­cus on one or two iso­lated vari­ables (which is hope­less as out­lined ear­lier).

Some of the book is a mis­fire. Stam­bler’s con­stant in­ter­est in re­searchers’ per­sonal pol­i­tics ul­ti­mately winds up show­ing noth­ing other than no par­tic­u­lar con­sis­tency or trend, and he can only lamely re­mark that there was some ten­den­cies to­wards con­ser­vatism; less kind­ly-in­clined read­ers might not grant even that and note sim­ply that in­ter­est in geron­tol­ogy is or­thog­o­nal to pol­i­tics ex­cept for tac­ti­cal ne­ces­si­ty. Far too much rel­e­vant con­tent is buried in the foot­notes where few read­ers will check. I could wish Stam­bler made more of an effort to eval­u­ate re­searchers on sci­en­tific grounds and give a bet­ter idea of where ideas have been vin­di­cated or re­futed by sub­se­quent work; one would hope he had learned some­thing from his long-term per­spec­tive, but it’s un­clear what he or we should take away from turn­ing over this long ac­count (e­spe­cially if one is not al­ready fa­mil­iar with the area). Some of the things he men­tions were not worth men­tion­ing (eg the far­ci­cal ‘Tur­ing test passed’ a few years ago by a chat­bot pre­tend­ing to be a non-na­tive-s­peak­ing child) or should have been ex­am­ined much more crit­i­cally (whether the free-rad­i­cal the­ory of ag­ing, and the use of an­tiox­i­dant sup­ple­ments, is still vi­able). And the de­scrip­tion of con­tem­po­rary re­search is lack­ing in both de­tail and eval­u­a­tion (eg I thought a his­tor­i­cal­ly-in­formed dis­cus­sion of Aubrey Grey and SENS and how far they’ve got­ten would be most in­ter­est­ing, but in­stead he set­tles for some cur­sory men­tion­s).

Moondust, Smith 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III, Byrne 2010

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

(~140k words, 4h read) Be­fore read­ing, my knowl­edge of was lim­ited to ba­si­cally the fol­low­ing sketch: a young Amer­i­can male who post-WWII sug­gested tak­ing the Schro­dinger wave-e­qua­tion lit­er­al­ly, yield­ing the in­fa­mous , and at­tacked over it, left acad­e­mia for Wall Street where he be­came rich with an op­ti­miza­tion al­go­rithm, and in his ab­sence, MWI very grad­u­ally gained ad­her­ents un­til it is now a re­spectable point of view (al­beit still coun­ter­in­tu­itive), and died at some point; al­so, some ru­mor that his daugh­ter shot her­self at a casino after los­ing, in a lit­eral quan­tum sui­cide. This turns out to be in­cor­rect and very in­com­plete: it was­n’t Wall Street but the Pen­tagon, he died quite young, MWI was­n’t at­tacked so much as ig­nored after be­ing sab­o­taged, his daugh­ter did com­mit sui­cide but it was at home with sleep­ing pills and had noth­ing to do with quan­tum sui­cide, and he did much more than just MWI and one op­ti­miza­tion al­go­rithm.

Byrne starts in me­dia res, with Everett rich and drunk and self­-de­struc­t­ing, then jumps back to his par­ents to start his tale; whether be­cause ‘past is pro­logue’ or be­cause of the her­i­tabil­ity of per­son­al­ity traits, we get a sense that pathol­ogy (sub­stance abuse, emo­tional prob­lems) ran in the fam­i­ly, and his fa­ther sur­vived some scrapes with cor­rup­tion to fin­ish out a rea­son­ably good life; Everett bade fair to do bet­ter as a prodi­gy, ex­celling uni­ver­si­ty, and ar­riv­ing at Prince­ton and IAS in its golden WWII mo­men­t—the war won, von Neu­mann still alive and at the height of its pow­ers (in­vent­ing game the­o­ry, mod­ern com­put­ers, and steer­ing the Cold War), and acad­e­mia rush­ing into its Faus­t­ian post-war bar­gain with the US gov­ern­ment and em­bark­ing on decade of ex­po­nen­tial bloat­ing (which, un­sus­tain­able, halted in the ’80s or so, and this caul­dron of le­gions of mediocre re­searchers + gov­ern­ment funds + pub­lish-or-per­ish has con­tributed to the mod­ern sci­en­tific con­text in which we are awash in bo­gus re­sults and worth­less pa­per­s). An ex­cit­ing time, and a fer­tile en­vi­ron­ment. I was sur­prised to learn that Everett made con­tri­bu­tions to game the­o­ry, which turns out to later be rel­e­vant to one of the main mys­ter­ies of MWI (where the sub­jec­tive or Born prob­a­bil­i­ties come from), and only then turned to quan­tum me­chan­ics.

Byrne also cov­ers his fu­ture wife, Nan­cy. He tries to be sym­pa­thet­ic, but it’s hard to like or find her in­ter­est­ing at all; her views are shal­low and deeply con­formist, she comes off as lack­ing real in­sight into her­self de­spite all the navel-gaz­ing, lies to her­self and oth­ers, and to be a lump of flesh go­ing nowhere fast. He wants to paint her as ne­glected and dam­aged by her re­la­tion­ship with Everett, and to paint Everett as a loath­some lecher who won’t take no for an an­swer, but it does­n’t suc­ceed. I was left with a ma­jor ques­tion: why would Everett ever want to date her, much less marry her? (Dat­ing her is the real ques­tion here since it’s clear why he mar­ried her: be­cause she got preg­nant and re­fused to abort, and given the strait­laced Pen­ta­gon world, he was put be­tween a rock and a hard place. Byrne quotes her as deny­ing this tac­tic, but that’s ob­vi­ous bull­shit, es­pe­cially given the er­a.)

After a jump for­ward to Everett’s op­ti­miza­tion work, we go back to Prince­ton and the gen­e­sis of MWI: like Colum­bus and Ein­stein and some oth­ers be­fore him, Everett asked a de­cep­tively sim­ple ques­tion—what if we just take it lit­er­al­ly? As a nice Schrödinger quote points out, it’s odd to ac­cept that the world or ob­jects act like a wave-func­tion up un­til they are ob­served and then they col­lapse into nor­mal­ity but to refuse to ac­cept that ‘in­side’ the wave-func­tion it will also all add up to nor­mal­ity:

“Nearly every re­sult [a quan­tum the­o­rist] pro­nounces is about the prob­a­bil­ity of this or that … hap­pen­ing—with usu­ally a great many al­ter­na­tives. The idea that they be not al­ter­na­tives but all re­ally hap­pen si­mul­ta­ne­ously seems lu­natic to him just im­pos­si­ble. He thinks that if the laws of na­ture took this form for, let me say, a quar­ter of an hour, we should find our sur­round­ings rapidly turn­ing into a quag­mire, or sort of a fea­ture­less jelly or plas­ma, all con­tours be­com­ing blurred, we our­selves prob­a­bly be­com­ing jelly fish. It is strange that he should be­lieve this. For I un­der­stand he grants that un­ob­served na­ture does be­have this way—­namely ac­cord­ing to the wave equa­tion. The afore­said al­ter­na­tives come into play only when we make an ob­ser­va­tion—which need, of course, not be a sci­en­tific ob­ser­va­tion. Still it would seem that, ac­cord­ing to the quan­tum the­o­rist, na­ture is pre­vented from rapid jel­li­fi­ca­tion only by our per­ceiv­ing or ob­serv­ing it. And I won­der that he is not afraid, when he puts a ten-pound note into his drawer in the evening, he might find it dis­solved in the morn­ing, be­cause he has not kept watch­ing it.”

Pur­su­ing his idea, Everett wrote his the­sis, and here we run into the ma­jor theme of Byrne’s book, one he es­tab­lishes ad­mirably well: with many quotes from let­ters and record­ings and ref­eree re­ports, we see Everett’s the­sis ad­vis­er, , turn from a coura­geous physi­cist, well-re­garded for his dar­ing spec­u­la­tions, into a bi­ased cow­ard who bul­lies Everett into sab­o­tag­ing and wa­ter­ing down his the­sis so as to not give offense to his men­tor Niels Bohr.

I’m a lit­tle fa­mil­iar with Bohr’s phi­los­o­phy of sci­ence and quan­tum me­chan­ics from a course I once took on the top­ic, and I found it en­tirely with­out merit (the most unimag­i­na­tively in­stru­men­tal­ist ‘shut up and cal­cu­late’ view­point was prefer­able to Bohr’s ‘com­ple­men­tar­ity’, be­cause at least one was not left with the il­lu­sion of knowl­edge), so to find an ex­cel­lent case made that it sab­o­taged the ini­tial pre­sen­ta­tion of MWI and re­spon­si­ble for a mul­ti­-decade drought in one of the best avail­able in­ter­pre­ta­tions… does not leave me with a good im­pres­sion of Bohr, Wheel­er, the power the­sis ad­vi­sors wield, or aca­d­e­mic physics in gen­er­al.

Cer­tainly it is un­der­stand­able that Everett would leave acad­e­mia and en­ter the mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex where his work was in­ter­est­ing, valu­able, val­ued, and well-re­mu­ner­at­ed. Everett dived straight into the heart of US nu­clear pol­i­tics, the in­ter­sec­tion of nu­clear physics with mil­i­tary strat­egy and game the­ory and com­put­ing and op­er­a­tions re­search: what lev­els of bombs would be de­vel­oped (the Su­per? and even more ex­otic weapon­s?), what mil­i­tary ser­vices would get what de­liv­ery sys­tems, what would be the effects of nu­clear war, what was the best way to run the Cold War? (In the ’50s, none of this was set in stone yet.) It’s a fas­ci­nat­ingly com­pli­cated pe­ri­od, for an overview see:

Byrne un­for­tu­nately is too un­sym­pa­thetic to cover the pe­riod fair­ly, tak­ing the Dr. Strangelove route: every­one was in­sane and evil. This bi­ases his cov­er­age badly since he’s so opin­ion­at­ed; in dis­cussing the Pris­on­er’s Dilem­ma, for ex­am­ple, he im­plies it shows the ir­ra­tional­ity of ra­tio­nal­ity and hence the in­tel­lec­tual bank­ruptcy of game the­ory and all re­lated ex­er­cis­es—but this is a con­fu­sion of what he would like to be true with what is ac­tu­ally true, be­cause the Pris­on­er’s Dilemma shows up again and again in all sorts of guises in the real world, along with the tragedy of the com­mons, and you know what? Peo­ple in real life often do de­fect un­less ad­di­tional mech­a­nisms are in place (often be­ing put in place as a re­ac­tion to all the de­fect­ing). One of his foot­notes re­veals this strik­ing­ly:

In other words, ra­tio­nal­ity is a (some­times) quan­tifi­able qual­i­ty. Most hu­man be­ings would agree that it is not a ra­tio­nal act to cross the street in front of a speed­ing bus, or to poi­son the wa­ter sup­ply in search of short term profit, or to de­pend on fos­sil fu­els, etc. But peo­ple in power who do ob­vi­ously ir­ra­tional things are often com­pelled to ra­tio­nal­ize these ac­tions by falling back on agen­dized util­ity val­ues and prob­a­bil­ity state­ments. Of course, if you start with an ir­ra­tional premise, e.g.“nu­clear war is a ra­tio­nal op­tion,” no amount of util­i­tar­ian quan­tifi­ca­tion can, be­liev­ably, turn it into its op­po­site. Con­text is every­thing.

This is a tis­sue of non­sense which ex­poses clearly that Byrne does not deal with the real world, but with a world of ideals in which there are never any hard choices or ne­ces­sity to make cost-ben­e­fit trade­offs and all that mat­ters is what sounds good. Ac­cord­ing­ly, he presents a one-sided pic­ture; a dis­cus­sion of the Bohm hear­ings omits any men­tion of why the US gov­ern­ment might be so para­noid and wor­ried about (the come to mind, as do the many high­-rank­ing So­viet spies such as ) and might tar­get peo­ple in­volved with the Man­hat­tan Project in par­tic­u­lar; sim­i­lar­ly, he un­crit­i­cally cites Sakharov claim­ing the US was re­spon­si­ble for the arms races (which seems like an odd read­ing of Stal­in’s char­ac­ter and his fel­low re­searchers, for that mat­ter), and later over­es­ti­mates of . This bias on the bi­og­ra­pher’s part makes one won­der to what ex­tent Everett’s re­sults about fall­out were ac­cu­rate: it’s not like he would tell us if the re­port was found to be fal­la­cious or since de­bunked. Still, while ir­ri­tat­ing and de­priv­ing the reader of some key con­text, the WSEG sec­tion seems com­pre­hen­sive as far as it comes to Everett up un­til he left the Pen­ta­gon to start his own con­sult­ing busi­ness, and that’s what re­ally mat­ters.

The busi­ness sec­tion is sim­i­lar, but much less po­lit­i­cal as they con­sulted on more civil­ian top­ics. What he did is hard to tell: we’re held back by Byrne tar­get­ing the gen­eral au­di­ence—I would have liked to know more about the sta­tis­ti­cal tech­niques in­volved, rather than vague de­scrip­tions like “QUICK ran­domly sam­pled the vast range of prob­a­ble out­comes to se­lect the most prob­a­ble re­sults”, which could mean a lot of things; I can sort of guess what his ‘Bayesian ma­chine’ was (sounds like a Kalman fil­ter im­ple­mented with MCMC), but I’m com­pletely baffled by the sec­tion about ‘“at­tribute value” pro­gram­ming’ or what sort of data­base it was. It also sounds like Everett be­gan drink­ing him­self to death at this point (but why? he does­n’t come off as so deeply de­pressed about MWI be­ing ig­nored that he’d be sui­ci­dal in the midst of all his fi­nan­cial suc­cess; given Byrne’s predilec­tion for psy­chol­o­giz­ing, it’s odd that he seems to let this cen­tral mys­tery pass with­out much more com­ment than some spec­u­la­tion that Everett was just he­do­nis­tic), and the kids en­ter their trou­bled teens (but one would never grow out of it). Some­what sur­pris­ing­ly, he did­n’t man­age his fi­nances very well, liv­ing ex­trav­a­gant­ly, mak­ing deeply ques­tion­able in­vest­ments, and fail­ing to di­ver­si­fy, all in con­tra­ven­tion to es­tab­lished fi­nan­cial ad­vice, flaws some­what sur­pris­ing in a sta­tis­ti­cally and eco­nom­i­cally in­clined man. Even­tu­al­ly, he dies.

In the mean time, MWI was grad­u­ally be­ing re­dis­cov­ered and re­ha­bil­i­tated by the likes of Deutsch and novel ap­proaches like a Bayesian jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of Born prob­a­bil­i­ties de­vel­oped, leav­ing off at the present time in which MWI is a re­spectable po­si­tion lead­ing to in­ter­est­ing re­search and be­lieved in by a good-sized mi­nor­ity of physi­cists; this is in­ter­est­ing, but al­ready fa­mil­iar to me. I will have to leave it to other read­ers to judge how good these parts of the book are.

Over­all, in­dis­pens­able to any­one in­ter­ested in the man, and a good ac­count of a pro­duc­tive yet wasted life.

Unsong, Alexander 2017

Scott Alexan­der2017★★★★

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

Movie trailer sum­ma­ry:

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

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

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

This sum­mer, dis­cover the world of Un­song.

One could de­scribe it as a mix of Ted Chi­ang’s “Sev­en­ty-Two Let­ters”, , , and Leonard Co­hen, how William Blake was right about every­thing and , all the weird­est bits of the Bible and Tal­mud and Jew­ish folk­lore, the , the most shame­less aquatic mam­mal puns and Tom Swifties, the fruit of a dis­si­pated youth pur­su­ing the furtive vice of mi­cro-na­tions, in­vent­ing an un­usual theod­i­cy, the im­pli­ca­tions of the­ism for Effec­tive Al­tru­ism, and an ex­tended demonstration/disproof2 of by prov­ing how Amer­ica is an epic in which The Li­on, The Witch, and the Wardrobe pre­dicted Trump’s elec­tion—or why Barack Obama is ob­vi­ously a Love­craft­ian de­mon, or how Moses=­Con­fu­cius=­Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, or how deep the iden­tity of ap­ples & knowl­edge goes, or the hid­den iden­tity of snakes & mes­si­ahs, or how both “Tyger Tyger” and are not about lit­tle goats or big cats but the cre­ation of the uni­verse, or how “Amer­i­can Pie” is about both Je­sus Christ and the en­tire plot of Un­song, or the eerie cor­re­spon­dences of the Bay Area with Jerusalem—a­mong many many other co­in­ci­dences.

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

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

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

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

And there is, of course, a TvTropes en­try.

Fortune’s Formula, Poundstone 2006

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

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

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

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

Thor­p’s money may con­tinue on:

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

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

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

Digital Gold, Popper 2015

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

Pop­per de­liv­ers a whirl­wind tour of al­most all drama­tis per­sonae in the rise of Bit­coin over the past 5 years. He seems to have got­ten ac­cess to and in­ter­viewed every­one, from the early coders to es­pe­cially all the late-en­ter­ing busi­ness and en­tre­pre­neur types and the in­ces­tu­ous Sil­i­con Val­ley VC com­mu­ni­ty. (He did­n’t get ac­cess to Ul­bricht, for ob­vi­ous rea­son­s—even the NYT name can’t open all doors—but the ev­i­dence fil­ings make up for it.) Even I, some­one who’s watched the space in de­tail for years and made my own mi­nor con­tri­bu­tions to doc­u­ment­ing Bit­coin his­to­ry, learned a lot. (Karpe­les had a Japan­ese wife and son who now live in Canada? I had no idea!) From the Win­kle­vii open­ing the ki­mono to set­tle all their beefs with Char­lie Shrem for bungling BitIn­stant into bank­ruptcy and per­son­ally into prison to Martti and Gavin and other early coders giv­ing Pop­per Satoshi emails, he cov­ers every­thing. Even the end­lessly com­pli­cated story of SR1 gets a de­cent treat­ment (though nec­es­sar­ily not as thor­ough as Orms­by’s Silk Road, and like it, some­what out­dat­ed, and pass­ing over the post-SR1 DNM his­to­ry). As far as his­to­ries of Bit­coin up to 2014 go, I don’t know of any bet­ter sin­gle source to con­sult right now, and the in­side ac­cess means any fu­ture his­to­ries will have to look over it care­fully as a pri­mary source. (See also Satoshi on GPU min­ing & Martti and Satoshi dis­cussing growth strat­e­gy).

If the book suc­ceeds in cap­tur­ing what a wide breadth of char­ac­ters have been in­volved in Bit­coin (and yet, there are so many more things to cov­er—the Mt­Gox leak, the ASIC scams, the DNM exit scams and wars, the Chi­nese mar­ket ma­nip­u­la­tion, the Cam­brian ex­plo­sion of alt­coins with at­ten­dant pump-and-dumps, Ethereum’s at­tempt to e all things to all peo­ple, the block­size schis­m…), it per­haps does not suc­ceed at offer­ing any sort of over­all syn­the­sis or in giv­ing clo­sure to all the in­di­vid­ual sto­ries, or at least in­clud­ing a sum­mary of where every­one and every­thing stood where the book closed. The de­scrip­tion of growth can feel like just a chaos of events, one after an­oth­er. (It’s also fairly weak on ex­plain­ing the tech­ni­cal as­pect­s—I have to won­der if the lay reader comes away re­ally un­der­stand­ing why Proof-of-Work works or what the Bit­coin blockchain re­ally is.)

That said, as in any book touch­ing on so many top­ics, there are some er­rors. Here are some cor­rec­tions I no­ticed in ma­te­r­ial touch­ing on par­tic­u­lar in­ter­ests of mine, the DNMs and Satoshi:

The nine-page PDF at­tached to the e-mail made it clear that Satoshi was deeply versed in all the pre­vi­ous efforts to cre­ate a self­-sus­tain­ing dig­i­tal mon­ey. Satoshi’s pa­per cited Back and Wei Dai, as well as sev­eral ob­scure jour­nals of cryp­tog­ra­phy. But Satoshi put all these ear­lier in­no­va­tions to­gether to cre­ate a sys­tem that was quite un­like any­thing that had come be­fore it.

‘deeply versed’? It cited Dai only be­cause Adam Back had told Satoshi to cite Dai. It also did­n’t cite any of Sz­abo’s work, even though Finney had pointed that out on the mail­ing list be­fore. Fur­ther, it did not com­pare or con­trast Bit­coin in any mean­ing­ful way with all the pre­vi­ous work on dig­i­tal cur­rency like the whole uni­verse of tech­niques and ap­proaches based on Chau­mian blind­ing. Al­to­geth­er, it looks like the op­po­site of ‘deeply’.

Ross did­n’t know it at the time, but his down­fall had not come through the so­phis­ti­cated hack­ing tech­niques and leak­ing IP ad­dresses that he had wor­ried about so much. The In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice agent who fi­nally iden­ti­fied Ross did so by search­ing on Google through old posts on the Bit­coin fo­rum.

Every­one as­sumed from the in­clu­sion in the com­plaint that the email was his down­fall, but D-Y’s tes­ti­mony dur­ing the trial yielded the sur­prise (one of many) that he had found the email only shortly be­fore the ar­rest and that the sub­poe­nas had not yet come back with any in­for­ma­tion. They did help snag baron­syn­tax, but the ac­tual cause was the FBI find­ing the Ice­land server (thanks, pre­sum­ably, to Tar­bell hack­ing it), which had a VPN IP hard­wired and had a clear­net backup server in Penn­syl­va­nia, both of which led back to Ross in San Fran­cis­co.

Most bizarrely, Nick al­tered the dates on his 2008 post­ings about bit gold to make it ap­pear as though they had been pub­lished after Bit­coin was re­leased, rather than be­fore…­Most bizarrely, Nick al­tered the dates: the dates that Nick later put on the posts are at the top of each post. But the URL ad­dresses of the posts still show the orig­i­nal post­ing date. For in­stance, his post on “Bit Gold Mar­kets” says that it was writ­ten on De­cem­ber 27, 2008, but the URL is

Noth­ing bizarre about it. As I’ve pointed out re­peat­edly since then, Sz­abo al­ready in 2008 ex­plained what the re­dat­ing was about; he was re-run­ning older posts: That’s all.

Just a few months be­fore Bit­coin was re­leased, in April 2008, Nick had posted on his blog an item in which he talked about cre­at­ing a trial model of bit gold and asked if any­one wanted to help him “code one up.”

This is ev­i­dence against Sz­abo be­ing Satoshi! The pro­to­type was a big piece of soft­ware with a ton of mov­ing parts and low-level de­tails, writ­ten in a low-pro­duc­tiv­ity lan­guage, with a GUI, mock­ups for an on­line store and poker play­ing, and so on just in the first re­lease; cod­ing it up and de­bug­ging it to the point of a pub­lic re­lease in just 8 months would be a pretty im­pres­sive feat all on its own, and worse, Satoshi says it took ‘a year and a half’ in No­vem­ber 2008, so he prob­a­bly started around May 2007.

339“re­peated use of ‘of course’ with­out iso­lat­ing com­mas”: Skye Grey, “Satoshi Nakamoto Is (Prob­a­bly) Nick Sz­abo,” LikeinaMir­ror, De­cem­ber 1, 2013,

Skye Grey’s claims are BS; sty­lo­met­rics does­n’t work like that, and when peo­ple do run sty­lo­met­rics, Sz­abo does not come out on top. (While not named in the ar­ti­cle, I am told by an in­volved jour­nal­ist that Sz­abo’s writ­ings were in­cluded but were a poorer match than Finney.)

An aca­d­e­mic study of Silk Road later found that nearly 99% of all re­views gave the max­i­mum score of 5 out of 5.

This is too high and was a mis­take in that ver­sion of the pa­per. The per­cent­age was bi­ased up­wards by a sub­stan­tial amount be­cause when you are scrap­ing a site like SR1, you will only see a small frac­tion of the neg­a­tive re­views from an exit scam­mer; if an exit scam­mer rips off 1000 peo­ple, he will be banned after a few dozen neg­a­tive re­views, and then won’t ap­pear in your data at all. So as far as your analy­sis can tell, a 5-s­tar seller just van­ished overnight. For ex­am­ple, Tony76 could prob­a­bly ac­count for 1%+ of sales all on his own, yet his exit scam does­n’t ap­pear in the Christin data be­cause they had scrap­ing prob­lems at the time and by the time they got an­other copy of SR1, that ac­count was banned. An­other is­sue is early fi­nal­iza­tion; to FE, you have to leave a re­view, which of course will be 5-s­tars, and then when you ac­cept you’ve been scammed, you will prob­a­bly never go back to up­date it to 1 star. So one of the changes made to the preprint ver­sion of Christin’s pa­per was to ad­dress these is­sues, and the fi­nal ver­sion should be used in­stead: .

(Also as far as this part of the book goes, it would be bet­ter to use Ross’s own sales fig­ures from the court ev­i­dence.)

tied to an In­ter­net provider in Cal­i­for­nia: Hal’s de­bug log showed that the IP ad­dresses of the other user was reached through a Tor ser­vice that would have ob­scured the real IP ad­dress. But Tor gen­er­ally routes users to nodes in the same ge­o­graphic area, sug­gest­ing that the other user on Bit­coin’s first day was prob­a­bly in Cal­i­for­nia.

I’m a lit­tle an­noyed to see some­one else dis­cov­ered this, but in any case, this is only par­tially cor­rect. Freen­ode banned open prox­ies, Bit­coin only gained proxy sup­port in the later ver­sion 0.2 in De­cem­ber 2009 (be­fore, it could­n’t’ve worked us­ing Tor be­cause it op­er­ated by run­ning ‘/WHO’ on other Bit­coin nodes and con­nect­ing straight to their IP), the Bit­coin pro­to­type was de­signed to ‘pay to IP’, and in any case, the his­tor­i­cal Tor exit node data for Jan­u­ary 2009 do not list; of the 3 nicks in the Bit­coin IRC chan­nel, 1 was ob­vi­ously Finney’s client, Satoshi was prob­a­bly the Tor-cloaked user ‘x93428606’ in the log, and he was also al­most cer­tainly the fi­nal nick, the naked Bit­coin node 68.x, which re­solves to a res­i­den­tial ad­dress in San Diego be­fore 2009. (I looked into the one per­son I was able to link to that ad­dress, but un­for­tu­nately nei­ther he nor any of his rel­a­tives or friends on Face­book look re­motely like pos­si­ble Satoshi can­di­dates, so for non-s­tate ac­tors, that is a dead end.) Hence, I be­lieve Satoshi was in­deed in Cal­i­for­nia that day and this was a rare OPSEC fail­ure by him in ex­pos­ing his real IP. Al­so, as far as I am aware, Tor does­n’t, can’t, and should­n’t ‘route users to nodes in the same ge­o­graphic area’, as that would re­quire exit nodes to know where the user is and de­feat­ing the point.

(Full dis­clo­sure: Pop­per offered a free copy of Dig­i­tal Gold to me pre-pub­li­ca­tion to re­view, but I wound up not ac­cept­ing be­cause he was offer­ing a phys­i­cal book rather than an ebook. I also was a paid fac­t-checker on an ear­lier ri­val Bit­coin book, Do­minic Fris­by’s Bit­coin: The fu­ture of mon­ey?.)

Playboy Interview II, Golson 1983

Play­boy In­ter­view IIBarry G. Gol­son1983★★★★

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

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

Com­ments on In­ter­view:

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

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

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

  • Ian Flem­ing: rea­son­ably in­ter­est­ing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spec Ops, McRaven 1996

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

The The­ory of Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions by 1993 is a book-length the­sis de­scrib­ing 8 case-s­tud­ies of spe­cial ops mis­sions and the de­gree to which they ad­here to a few prin­ci­ples for spec-ops suc­cess that McRaven ex­tracts from their successes/failures. The case-s­tud­ies are in chrono­log­i­cal or­der and pri­mar­ily WWII-oriented:

The prin­ci­ples them­selves boil down to find­ing a chink in en­emy de­fens­es, con­cen­trat­ing force on it as fast as pos­si­ble, achiev­ing im­me­di­ate rel­a­tive su­pe­ri­or­ity to those en­emy forces in the way, and ex­e­cut­ing a well-trained and re­hearsed min­i­mal pos­si­ble mis­sion. Or as he puts it: “sim­plic­i­ty, se­cu­ri­ty, rep­e­ti­tion, sur­prise, speed, and pur­pose”.

Ar­guably, all of these prin­ci­ples could be boiled down to a sin­gle prin­ci­ple of speed—com­plex un­re­hearsed op­er­a­tions with mul­ti­ple ob­jec­tives by un­com­mit­ted troops against a wait­ing en­emy can­not be fast, while speed dic­tates all of the other re­quire­ments (ex­cept per­haps ‘se­cu­rity’). It’s sur­pris­ing to read through his case-s­tud­ies and re­al­ize that in many cas­es, the crit­i­cal part of the op­er­a­tion lasts no more than 5 min­utes, or even un­der a minute. For ex­am­ple, the suc­cess­ful part of the St Nazaire raid, from when the hell­burner was first at­tacked by Ger­man ar­tillery to when it rammed it­self into the dry­dock gates (and the de­struc­tion of the dry­dock be­came guar­an­teed as the explosives/ship could not pos­si­bly be re­moved) was that short (the rest be­ing, McRaven points out, an un­nec­es­sary de­ba­cle, and on a grand strat­egy lev­el, de­stroy­ing the dry­dock was prob­a­bly not even help­ful); the Gran Sasso raid, from when the Ital­ian guards fi­nally chal­lenged the Ger­man com­man­dos to se­cur­ing Mus­solini, was maybe a minute.

The im­por­tance of speed strikes me as be­ing, in some re­spects, due to the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of large or­ga­ni­za­tions; McRaven notes that all of the case-s­tud­ies in­volved greatly out­-num­bered com­man­dos, often by or­ders of mag­ni­tude with en­emy units within rel­a­tively close range, often heav­ily out­-gunned, often at­tack­ing po­si­tions heav­ily for­ti­fied against ex­actly the kind of at­tack done (eg Raid on Alexan­dria, St Nazaire, Op­er­a­tion Source), with ob­jec­tives that can some­times be de­feated if the en­emy re­acts quickly enough (the Ital­ian guards could’ve ex­e­cuted Mus­solini, the Japan­ese guards the POWs, the En­tebbe ter­ror­ists could’ve killed their hostages, the Tir­pitz/Valiant/Queen Eliz­a­beth cap­tains could’ve dragged chains to dis­lodge limpets and moved their ships to avoid the mines planted un­der­neath, etc). Why then are spec-ops not doomed to fail­ure? Be­cause the en­emy is un­able to col­lec­tively think, re­act, and ex­e­cute a coun­ter-plan as fast as the com­man­dos can, who have ex­e­cuted the plan many times pre­vi­ously in prac­tice, need only a few min­utes to do so, and have a ‘dis­trib­uted knowl­edge’ of the plan and ob­jec­tives al­low­ing in­de­pen­den­t-yet-co­or­di­nated ac­tion. The OODA loop is just in­her­ently too slow for phys­i­cally sep­a­rated forces to rec­og­nize the threat, re­al­ize it’s lo­cal and not part of a broader at­tack, de­duce the ob­jec­tives, coun­ter-at­tack, and ex­e­cute the coun­ter-at­tack; given enough time, the en­emy forces can do all this and crush the com­man­dos (St Nazaire) but by that point, they should be long gone. The com­man­dos sting the ele­phant and flee be­fore the gi­ant feet can smash them into paste. The par­al­lels with com­puter se­cu­rity and cy­ber­at­tacks is clear: a hack can take months or years to re­search and craft, but when trig­gered, it can at­tack and fin­ish within sec­onds or min­utes, far out­speed­ing the merely hu­man de­fend­ers. (A Sil­i­con Val­ley startup anal­ogy also makes it­self; in­deed “sim­plic­i­ty, se­cu­ri­ty, rep­e­ti­tion, sur­prise, speed, and pur­pose” would not be a bad set of found­ing prin­ci­ples for a star­tup!)

The case-s­tud­ies them­selves are in­ter­est­ing. McRaven was able to in­ter­view a num­ber of peo­ple in­volved in the case-s­tud­ies as well as visit the lo­ca­tions to see them for him­self. It’s in­ter­est­ing to note the pres­ence of glid­ers in at least two of the WWII case-s­tud­ies, be­cause of their stealth ad­van­tage right up to the in­stant be­fore land­ing, but never after­wards, and I can’t re­mem­ber the last time I heard of glid­ers used by mil­i­taries; I won­der if that’s be­cause para­chute tech­nol­ogy has evolved to the point that steer­able para­chutes ob­so­leted glid­ers? The Bat­tle of Fort Eben-E­mael case-s­tudy was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing be­cause while most his­to­ries men­tion that it was a huge suc­cess for the in­va­sion thanks to the glid­ers, McRaven em­pha­sizes that the glid­ers were only a small part, and the rea­son the Ger­man com­man­dos suc­ceeded so thor­oughly was be­cause they de­ployed a new bomb tech­nol­o­gy, , which lit­er­ally shat­tered the Bel­gium de­fend­ers and their for­ti­fi­ca­tions; oth­er­wise, they would have suc­cess­fully landed on the grassy field above the un­der­ground fortress but found them­selves trapped in a deadly killing field be­tween the var­i­ous bunkers and cupo­las. De­cep­tion plays sur­pris­ingly lit­tle role in most of the op­er­a­tions con­sid­er­ing its out­sized role in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion (the St Nazaire raid ship briefly pre­tended to be Ger­man; Gran Sasso brought along an Ital­ian gen­eral in the glid­ers to con­fuse the Ital­ians; Op­er­a­tion En­tebbe like­wise in­volved the com­man­dos pre­tend­ing to be lo­cals un­til they reached the build­ing with the hostages, ap­par­ently suc­cess­fully con­fus­ing the ter­ror­ists in­sid­e).

McRaven him­self, al­though I had­n’t re­al­ized it when I down­loaded the book on a whim, may be a fa­mil­iar-sound­ing name; turns out that he has since been putting his the­ory into prac­tice as a ma­jor con­troller of Amer­i­can spe­cial op­er­a­tions dur­ing the War on Ter­ror, in par­tic­u­lar head­ing the . In ret­ro­spect, one can see how the OBL raid largely con­forms to McRaven’s prin­ci­ples: a fast in­-and-out raid in as few stealth he­li­copters as pos­si­ble with lit­tle or no co­or­di­na­tion with the lo­cals (par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant given that Pakistan/ISI had been shel­ter­ing OBL and would doubt­less tip him off) de­spite the dan­ger of op­er­at­ing so near a Pak­istani base, with the whole op­er­a­tion re­hearsed ex­ten­sively with replica mod­els to make the ex­e­cu­tions as fluid as pos­si­ble.

The the­sis was ap­par­ently quite pop­u­lar and was re­pub­lished in 1995 as Spec Ops: Case Stud­ies in Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions War­fare: The­ory and Prac­tice. Dis­ad­van­tages to the on­line the­sis ver­sion: big PDF, harder to search due to OCR er­rors, a lot of ty­pos, and the pho­tographs McRaven in­cluded of all the sites he could visit are un­for­tu­nately to­tally de­stroyed by the photocopier/scanner (although the di­a­grams are still leg­i­ble). A skim of the Lib­gen EPUB ver­sion sug­gests that you might be bet­ter off with that edi­tion (although it ap­pears to drop the pho­tos en­tire­ly!).

Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide?, Gergel 1979

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

(~95k words, <3h read) In­sider mem­oir of a rel­a­tively Amer­i­can wheel­er-dealer in the chem­i­cal in­dus­try fin­ished March 1977, fol­low­ing him from high school dab­bling in chem­istry through to grad­u­a­tion and WWII uni­ver­sity work to found­ing a small chem­i­cal syn­the­sis com­pany un­til he turned it over to a suc­ces­sor. Gos­sipy, de­tailed, a vivid look in­side the in­dus­try. Long out of print, I read the on­line scan (2.3M).

Gergel seems to have an amaz­ing mem­ory for all the de­tails of his short stature, sec­u­lar Jew­ish­ness, school life, col­or­ful in­ci­dents (such as maim­ing a friend with in­ju­di­cious safety pro­ce­dures ap­plied to potas­si­um), the girls he swooned over (usu­ally blonde), and class­work; un­for­tu­nate­ly, some of the gos­sip aside, his school years aren’t that in­ter­est­ing since I have no idea what any of the chem­istry he was study­ing was (the pol­i­tics of draft de­fer­ment, offi­cial cor­rup­tion, and the mind­less pa­tri­o­tism of the day, are a bit in­ter­est­ing but he mostly hints at them). Things pick up markedly by pg60 or so when Gergel be­gins do­ing syn­the­ses for pay, even­tu­ally es­ca­lat­ing to his own busi­ness—and here a mod­ern reader will start blink­ing and won­der­ing whether Gergel is de­lib­er­ately try­ing to make a deeply com­pelling case for the ne­ces­sity of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion, ex­panded bud­gets for the EPA and FDA and DoJ, the Pre­cau­tion­ary Prin­ci­ple, and (much) higher Su­per­fund tax­es, and whether his life might not be a proof of quan­tum im­mor­tal­ity and a de­feat for the forces of nat­ural se­lec­tion, so reck­less and poi­so­nous and dan­ger­ous are his con­coc­tions and busi­ness deal­ings. So many of his co-work­ers and ac­quain­tances die young of ex­otic ail­ments that I am shocked to read in dis­cus­sions of Ex­cuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Iso­propyl Bro­mide? that not only is Gergel still alive as of 2012, but Derek Lowe says he’s even writ­ten a se­quel mem­oir, The Age­less Gergel!

Derek Lowe re­views it thus­ly:

I came across the book in Duke’s chem­istry li­brary in 1984, a few years after its pub­li­ca­tion, and read it straight through with my hair grad­u­ally ris­ing up­wards. Book 2 is es­pe­cially full of alarm­ing chem­i­cal sto­ries. I sus­pect that some of the anec­dotes have been pol­ished up a bit over the years, but as Samuel John­son once said, a man is not un­der oath in such mat­ters. But when Gergel says that he made in an un-air-con­di­tioned build­ing in the sum­mer­time in South Car­oli­na, and de­scribes in vivid de­tail the symp­toms of be­ing poi­soned by it, I be­lieve every word. He must have added a pound to his weight in sheer methyl groups. By mod­ern stan­dards, an­other shock­ing fea­ture of the book is the treat­ment of chem­i­cal waste. Read­ers will not be sur­prised to learn that sev­eral for­mer Co­lum­bia Or­ganic sites fea­ture promi­nently in the EPA’s Su­per­fund cleanup list, but they cer­tainly aren’t alone from that era.

John Walker:

Through­out Max Gergel’s long ca­reer he has been an un­for­get­table char­ac­ter for all who en­coun­tered him in the many roles he has played: stu­dent, bench chemist, in­struc­tor of avi­a­tion cadets, en­tre­pre­neur, sup­plier to the Man­hat­tan Pro­ject, buyer and seller of ob­scure reagents to a global clien­tele, con­sul­tant to in­dus­try, trav­el­ling sales­man ped­dling prod­ucts rang­ing from ex­otic halo­car­bons to roach killer and toi­let bowl clean­er, and evan­ge­list per­suad­ing young peo­ple to pur­sue ca­reers in chem­istry. With fam­ily and friends (and no out­side cap­i­tal) he founded Co­lum­bia Or­ganic Chem­i­cals, a spe­cialty chem­i­cal sup­plier spe­cial­is­ing in halo­car­bons but, op­er­at­ing on a shoe­string, will­ing to make al­most any­thing a cus­tomer was ready to pur­chase (even Max drew the line, how­ev­er, when the sil­ver-tongued di­rec­tor of the Naval Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory tried to per­suade him to make pentab­o­rane). The nar­ra­tive is as ram­bling and en­ter­tain­ing as one imag­ines shar­ing a cou­ple (or a cou­ple dozen) drinks with Max at an Amer­i­can Chem­i­cal So­ci­ety meet­ing would have been. He jumps from fam­ily to friends to fi­nances to busi­ness to pro­fes­sional col­leagues to sup­pli­ers to cus­tomers to nuggets of wis­dom for start­ing and build­ing a busi­ness to ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters he has met and worked with to his love life to the ex­otic and some­times bone-chilling chem­i­cal syn­the­ses he did in his com­pa­ny’s rough and ready fa­cil­i­ties. Many of Columbi­a’s con­tracts in­volved pro­duc­tion of mod­er­ate quan­ti­ties (be­tween a kilo­gram and sev­eral 55 gal­lon drums) of sub­stances pre­vi­ously made only in test tube batch­es. This “medium scale chem­istry”—si­t­u­ated be­tween the lab­o­ra­tory bench and an in­dus­trial fa­cil­ity mak­ing tank car loads of the stuff—in­volves as much art (or, fail­ing that, brute force and cun­ning) as it does sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing, and this leads to many of the ad­ven­tures and mis­ad­ven­tures chron­i­cled here. For ex­am­ple, an exother­mic re­ac­tion may be sim­ple to man­age when you’re mak­ing a few grams of some­thing-the lib­er­ated heat is sim­ply con­ducted to the walls to the test tube and dis­si­pat­ed: at worst you may only need to add the reagent slow­ly, stir well, and/or place the re­ac­tion ves­sel in a wa­ter bath. But when DuPont placed an or­der for al­lene in gal­lon quan­ti­ties, this posed a prob­lem… All of this was in the days be­fore the EPA, OSHA, and the rest of the suffo­cat­ing blan­ket of soft despo­tism de­scended upon en­tre­pre­neur­ial ven­tures in the United States that ac­tu­ally did things and made stuff. In the 1940s and ’50s, when Gergel was build­ing his busi­ness in South Car­oli­na, he was free to adopt the “what­ever it takes” at­ti­tude which is the quin­tes­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent for suc­cess in start-ups and small busi­ness. The flex­i­bil­ity and in­ge­nu­ity which al­lowed Gergel not only to com­pete with the ti­tans of the chem­i­cal in­dus­try but be­come a val­ued sup­plier to them is pre­cisely what is ex­tin­guished by in­tru­sive reg­u­la­tion, which ac­counts for why scle­rotic di­nosaurs are so com­fort­able with it. On the other hand, Max’s ex­pe­ri­ence with methyl io­dide il­lus­trates why some of these reg­u­la­tions were im­posed.


Some of the top­ics cov­ered:

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

Titan, Chernow 2004

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

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

His charm­ing but schem­ing wan­der­ing bigamist con-artist fa­ther re­minds me of my old ob­ser­va­tion that a lot of very suc­cess­ful peo­ple seem to be high but not too high on the psy­chopa­thy con­tin­uum and have had diffi­cult or abu­sive child­hoods; while we tend to think of psy­chopa­thy as all neg­a­tive, as­pects of it, like its her­i­tabil­i­ty, are con­sis­tent with it be­ing a life­cy­cle strat­egy un­der bal­anc­ing se­lec­tion, in­di­cat­ing ad­van­tages to the so­cial skills, fear­less­ness etc. The be­nign end of psy­chopa­thy may give us great lead­ers and busi­ness­men and he­roes like fire­fight­ers.

Rock­e­feller’s pu­ri­tanism and ob­ses­sion with ac­count­ing and ledgers ren­ders his early life un­promis­ing. I sus­pect Rock­e­feller may’ve been a bit in­flu­enced by Ben­jamin Franklin’s Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. Al­though the virtues of ac­count­ing no longer ap­peal quite as much—­for ex­am­ple, one thing Rock­e­feller was fa­mous for later on was giv­ing chil­dren shiny new dimes and then lec­tur­ing them about the virtues of sav­ings and how a dime was the an­nual in­ter­est on a dol­lar in a sav­ings ac­count, 10%. This is no longer quite as com­pelling to­day when your bank’s an­nual CD pays 0.5% or less, which hardly even cov­ers your time in fill­ing out pa­per­work.

This clerk­ish fix­a­tion on de­tails and pen­nies makes his sub­se­quent abil­i­ty, after some mod­est suc­cess in trad­ing and trans­port­ing goods, to risk his en­tire for­tune and ca­reer go­ing deeply into debt on vi­sion­ary spec­u­la­tion in the nascent Penn­syl­va­nia oil fields all the more ex­tra­or­di­nary and in­ex­plic­a­ble to me. Why did he do it? How did he know that oil was­n’t some tem­po­rary Penn­syl­van­ian odd­ity which would run out soon, end­ing a quaint era of rus­tics slop­ping wooden vats of crude oil in horse-carts, but would be found world­wide and power the fu­ture, be­com­ing one of the defin­ing in­dus­tries and re­sources of the 1800s-2000s? Rock­e­feller, in Cher­now’s telling, keeps his own coun­sel. It is the piv­otal mo­ment of Rock­e­feller’s life, and thor­oughly un­sat­is­fac­to­rily de­scribed.

I am left to won­der if it is an­other se­lec­tion effect and what I’ve noted else­where, like of The Me­dia Lab: we often as­sume mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires must have deep wis­dom (“if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”), when they may ac­tu­ally be deeply ir­ra­tional, risk-seek­ing, and lit­tle more than lot­tery win­ners of tim­ing and chance. (Sev­eral com­peti­tors to Rock­e­feller which Cher­now men­tions could eas­ily have taken his place, and the post hoc ex­pla­na­tions of why they were ‘vi­sion­ar­ies’ and ‘busi­ness ge­niuses’ would also have been as easy to write.)

Hav­ing some­how seen the fu­ture and fig­ured out that the re­finer­ies, sit­ting squarely in the mid­dle be­tween the raw oil of the Penn­syl­va­nia der­ricks and the end prod­uct of re­fined kerosene sit­ting in cans in cus­tomers’ homes after be­ing trans­ported on rail­road to their city, were the strate­gic point, he be­gan buy­ing up the Cleve­land re­finer­ies to play off and bal­ance the rail­roads (who oth­er­wise would be pro­pelled into ru­inous com­pe­ti­tion) against his own cash­flow needs and pipelines and the oil fields’ small­timers. This was a house of cards on par with Elon Musk’s em­pire, as Rock­e­feller had to keep go­ing deeper and deeper into debt, but some­how, it all held to­gether and paid off enor­mously in the end. (It all sounds like it would make a great board game in the Ger­man vein where play­ers com­pete to con­trol ge­o­graph­i­cal routes of railroads/pipelines/refineries and co­op­er­ate un­til the ex­act right mo­ment to stab an­other player in the back and take them over. I checked, but while there are 2 or 3 ex­ist­ing oil-themed board games, they ei­ther are about off-shore drilling or take a much more ab­stracted macro­eco­nom­ics point of view.)

Rock­e­feller’s sec­ond ca­reer as a phil­an­thropist is equally in­ter­est­ing and Cher­now gives it plenty of space. It’s not much of an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that Rock­e­feller was one of the first Effec­tive Al­tru­ists, in car­ing deeply that his money was spent as care­fully and sus­tain­ably and effec­tively as pos­si­ble. In­deed, some of his fa­vored projects like the have echoes in mod­ern EA pro­ject­s—de­worm­ing be­ing a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus of GiveWell! Rock­e­feller was a com­plex man try­ing to be sim­ple: he knew many of the crit­i­cisms of him were true but tried to de­lude him­self to the end; he was a de­vout Bap­tist, who was in­tel­li­gent and worldly enough to see the prob­lems there and how the wicked flour­ished; he loved home­opa­thy, but his fund­ing of med­ical re­search and the would kill the last shreds of le­git­i­macy it had.

The phil­an­thropy tran­si­tions into an ac­count of Rock­e­feller Ju­nior, as he is en­trusted with it, who emerges as dili­gent and effec­tive, but not the man his fa­ther was. Se­nior at­tempted to repli­cate his own up­bring­ing (with­out the—well-in­ten­tioned, in­tended to raise them prop­erly with­out be­ing cor­rupted by wealth—abu­sive­ness), but as so often in dy­nas­ties, the founder’s ex­treme qual­i­ties do not fully carry over to his off­spring, who regress to the mean.

The les­son I take away from Se­nior’s oth­er, even more dis­ap­point­ing off­spring (var­i­ously medioc­re, wastrel, neu­rotic, or gullible) is that if you want to build a fam­ily em­pire, you must have a lot of off­spring so the sur­viv­ing max­i­mum may be ad­e­quate, and also be will­ing to go out­side di­rect de­scent or even adopt out­siders (eg the Ro­mans or Japan­ese); this is the only way to keep a fam­ily busi­ness go­ing for cen­turies. We just don’t know how to raise kids in a way which pre­vents them from eas­ily turn­ing out medioc­re, dumb, in­sane, or un­mo­ti­vat­ed, once all the ba­sics are pro­vided for. Any­one who claims oth­er­wise, like the Pol­gar sis­ters, is fool­ing them­selves, and ig­nor­ing the vast le­gions of ‘prodi­gies’ whose par­ents took the credit but who ac­com­plished noth­ing (eg Nor­bert Wein­er’s child prodigy peers at Har­vard, since for­got­ten), be­cause they sim­ply re­gressed to their adult mean, as ex­pect­ed, since there is no se­cret sauce. It’s mostly genes and ran­dom­ness.

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

A Perfect Vacuum, Lem 1999

A Per­fect Vac­uumStanisław Lem1999★★★★

As Lem ex­plains in the in­tro­duc­tion, the fake book re­view (and fake ac­cep­tance lec­ture), as par­tic­u­larly ex­em­pli­fied by Borges’s book re­views, is a mi­cro-genre suited for in­tel­lec­tual jokes—­for ideas which need more than a tweet, but can’t be writ­ten out uniron­i­cally or in full as articles/books. (If dry aca­d­e­mic hu­mor is not your thing, you prob­a­bly al­ready know from read­ing de­scrip­tions that you should not read this book, so I can ad­dress fel­low afi­ciona­dos.)

One way to fail in this rather ab­stract mi­cro-genre is to tell too much—s­ince this is a genre where more de­tail can make it worse the same way that a hor­ror movie can be worse when it shows too much and the hor­ror col­lapses into irony and camp when you see the rub­ber mon­ster. Lem’s own fakes suc­ceed when they main­tain this dis­tance from the sub­ject mat­ter; this is why “Robin­son­ade”, “Grup­pen­führer Louis XVI”, “A Per­fect Vac­uum”, “You”, “De Im­pos­si­bil­i­tate Vi­tae and, De Im­pos­si­bil­i­tate Prognoscendi”, and “Non Serviam” fail, as they try to be the works they pur­port to de­scribe (par­tic­u­larly “A Per­fect Vac­uum” and “Non Serviam”), but of course nei­ther Lem nor any­one else could write them for lack of the re­quired ex­cep­tional tal­ent and knowl­edge.

Still, that leaves half the vol­ume as suc­cess­es, in­ter­est­ing and amus­ing.

“Gigamesh” takes Finnegan’s Wake into the Wikipedia age, de­scrib­ing a mob­ster story with im­prob­a­ble al­lu­sive den­sity where a sin­gle item re­quires sev­eral pages of lists of things it is an al­lu­sion to; while it’s easy enough for Lem to merely tell us that such a chap­ter in Gigamesh is an en­coded work of clas­si­cal mu­sic which com­ments on the events of the chap­ter, Lem goes one bet­ter by show­ing us at least 26 in­ter­pre­ta­tions or al­lu­sions he is able to con­trive for the word ‘Gigamesh’.

“Sex­plo­sion” is a satire of tech­nol­o­giz­ing sex which takes a left turn, leav­ing us in not so much a dystopia but a weird­topia where food as­sumes the role played by sex, down to the pornog­ra­phy and moral hys­te­ria (a satire par­tic­u­larly pointed these days by the ex­tent to which all sorts of sex­ual de­vian­cies have been nor­mal­ized but the mor­al­iz­ing of food seems to have hardly ever been stronger).

“Per­i­ca­lypse” is a mod­est pro­posal to treat the in­ex­haustible emis­sion of hu­man cul­ture as not an as­set but in­fo-pol­lu­tion, to be dis­cour­aged be­cause every book writ­ten ob­scures fur­ther the best books, a view­point with which .

“Id­iot” pro­poses a psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror novel (some­what sim­i­lar to “Robin­son­ade”) in which the par­ents of a re­tarded child con­vince them­selves he is in­tel­li­gent, and per­haps he is and has been mur­der­ing and re­ar­rang­ing his life as con­ve­nient; like most hor­ror, in the end hu­mans are the real mon­sters, as Lem has de­scribed lit­tle but ‘fa­cil­i­tated com­mu­ni­ca­tion’ after all.

“U-Write-It” is an­other par­ody like “Sex­plo­sion”, but where “Sex­plo­sion” crit­i­cized hu­man ten­den­cies to­wards over-mor­al­iz­ing every­thing, “U-Write-It” crit­i­cizes ap­a­thy and dis­in­ter­est to­ward fine lit­er­a­ture by the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion in de­scrib­ing the com­mer­cial fail­ure of an at­tempt of an Oulipo-like com­pany to sell its kits for splic­ing to­gether clas­sic nov­els into new fan­fic­tion­s—the moral be­ing, of course, that most hu­mans are not in­ter­ested in or even ca­pa­ble of such dis­re­spect. (One has to won­der what Lem would have made of Fan­Fic­; is the glass half full or half emp­ty?)

“Odysseus of Ithaca” offers an in­ver­sion and im­age that seems like it should have been in Calvi­no’s In­vis­i­ble Cities: searchers con­vinced that the great­est wis­dom by the great­est ge­nius­es, truly orig­i­nal thoughts, would be ig­nored and not un­der­stood as com­pre­hen­si­ble by the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion (‘if a lion could speak, we would not un­der­stand him’) and so to find trea­sures, they must search through sew­ers and in­sane asy­lums and trash cans. (“Odysseus” could have been com­bined nicely with “Per­i­ca­lypse”, I think.)

“Be­ing Inc” is an up­date on Borges’s , with more com­put­ers; what I loved most about this one was two throw­away lines: “An­titrust leg­is­la­tion in the U.S.A. for­bids mo­nop­o­lies; con­se­quently Be­ing Inc. is not the only life arranger. There are its great com­peti­tors, He­do­nica and the Tru­elife Cor­po­ra­tion.”

The story “Cul­ture as Mis­take” has as its core an in­ter­est­ing ar­gu­ment: that ‘cul­ture’ can only re­fer to every­thing which is not use­ful or backed up by re­al­i­ty, and so, in the strictest and most con­crete sense, all of cul­ture is lies and mis­takes.

And fi­nal­ly, the piece Lem calls the best, and I would have to agree, the “A New Cos­mol­ogy”. Here Lem offers up an ex­pla­na­tion for the Great Si­lence: all our knowl­edge pre­dicts count­less alien civ­i­liza­tions but we ob­serve not the slight­est trace (here noth­ing has changed, as mod­ern as­tron­omy vin­di­cates Lem’s as­sump­tions of the com­mon­ness of plan­ets and en­tire ab­sence of sig­nals or anom­alies), and this is be­cause the aliens have be­come so ad­vanced that they have be­come in­dis­tin­guish­able from na­ture; but here, where most spec­u­la­tion id­i­ot­i­cally stops, show­ing that the au­thor has not thought in the slight­est bit about re­source lim­its or com­pe­ti­tion or ex­po­nen­tial growth or the like­li­hood of all aliens be­ing con­sis­tently the same way over bil­lions of years with­out the slight­est de­vi­a­tion, Lem keeps go­ing, sug­gest­ing that the laws of physics them­selves have al­ready been molded by the most ad­vanced aliens in a pre­vi­ous mul­ti­verse as a so­lu­tion to an in­tractable con­flict in which differ­ent bub­bles of physics in the mul­ti­verse try to ex­pand (eras­ing and eat­ing other bub­bles), where the so­lu­tion hit upon by all par­ties in­de­pen­dently is to fix a sin­gle com­mon set of physics, and that we do not see the orig­i­nal uni­verse but a suc­ces­sor, a sta­bler suc­ces­sor with physics strate­gi­cally cho­sen to limit the abil­ity of any alien civ­i­liza­tion to ex­pand or tin­ker with the laws (e­spe­cially the light­speed lim­it), where the ex­ist­ing alien civ­i­liza­tions con­tinue to re­main silent and hid­den as they strate­gi­cally con­tinue to tweak physics like the value of cer­tain con­stants while wish­ing to avoid tip­ping off com­peti­tors. This is a the­ory of the Great Si­lence which is far from id­i­otic and quite in­ter­est­ing as a hard SF premise. (It still does­n’t work, though. While the mul­ti­verse part is un­fal­si­fi­able, the ex­pla­na­tion for our cur­rent uni­verse still makes no sense as light­speed is not that much of a bar­rier and we can eas­ily imag­ine ex­pan­sion­ist strate­gies which make more sense; eg when it only takes a few mil­lion years to col­o­nize a galaxy, if you’re wor­ried about com­pe­ti­tion, why not put Von Neu­mann probes around every planet to kill com­peti­tors in the womb, so to speak?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

See also Mor­rel­l’s 1979 re­view.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Márquez 2003

Chron­i­cle of a Death Fore­toldGabriel Gar­cía Márquez2003★★★★

A qua­si­-po­lice de­scrip­tion of the events lead­ing up to, then long pre­ced­ing, an hon­or-killing of one San­ti­a­go. The style strikes me as vastly sim­pler and less mag­i­cal­ly-re­al­is­tic than The Au­tumn of the Pa­tri­arch, and much short­er. An in­ver­sion of de­tec­tive mys­ter­ies: it is agreed by all who the prox­i­mate killer is, and the mys­tery cen­ters on the how and why­dun­nit. (Borges would ap­prove.)

As the wit­nesses and re­ports pile up, it seems to be­come clear that it’s all a far­ci­cal as­sem­blage of bad luck, buck­-pass­ing, mur­der­ous tra­di­tional cul­tures of machis­mo, and ac­ci­dent, but doubt is cast from the be­gin­ning—the mur­der hap­pened on a beau­ti­ful clear day, which in the vil­lage’s mem­ory has be­come a dark rainy day; wit­nesses crowd around the mag­is­trate ea­ger to tell their in­volve­ment and ex­ag­ger­ate their part (“…the crowd that was pour­ing in to tes­tify with­out hav­ing been sum­moned, every­one ea­ger to show off his own im­por­tant role in the dra­ma…”); and the ba­sis for the mur­der it­self was likely a lie. This un­cer­tainty ren­ders the story sin­is­ter by the end—­did the vil­lage con­spire to kill San­ti­ago? Did he anger every­one in a way we are not told of, be­cause to pro­vide a mo­tive would con­firm their guilt, and they col­lec­tively fail to help him, ex­plain­ing the re­peated slurs like ‘“He thought that his money made him un­touch­able,” he told me. Fausta Lopez, his wife, com­ment­ed: “Just like all Turks.”’? (A nice ex­am­ple of cunc­ta­tion: the mayor stop in to check on a domi­nos match so and is too late to take away the mur­der-weapon­s.) How much is An­gela re­spon­si­ble for fail­ing to re­spect the cha­rade of vir­gin­ity and de­lib­er­ately sab­o­tag­ing her mar­riage? (She is ul­ti­mately pun­ished by the de­li­ciously cruel method of re­turn­ing 20 years of love-let­ters, un­opened.) The as­sem­bled vil­lagers in the square shout ad­vice at the last sec­ond, but some­how, their ex­hor­ta­tions serve only to con­fuse him and ma­neu­ver him to­wards his killers; the killers are made to re­mark their knives are rather clean given they’re killing some­one. And so on.

The more we read, the less we feel we know and the more wor­ried we be­come that we’re be­ing fed a pack of dis­tor­tions and warped mem­o­ries in which the events were far more dra­matic and com­pli­cated than they ac­tu­ally were. The mag­is­trate warns us that “Give [some­one] a prej­u­dice and [they] will move the world”, and the nar­ra­tor re­marks of one post hoc ex­pla­na­tion that “It seemed to be such an easy truth that the in­ves­ti­ga­tor wrote it down…”, and “fa­tal­ity makes us in­vis­i­ble”—or is it plot ne­ces­sity that makes the vic­tim in­vis­i­ble? The vil­lagers know their sto­ries must ter­mi­nate in the death of the vic­tim, and in the sto­ries they con­fab­u­late, he must be in­vis­i­ble to have per­formed the ac­tions as­cribed to him. (Umineko no Naku Koro ni’s vo­cab­u­lary is use­ful here: out­side the cat box, it is known that San­ti­ago was killed by two knife-wield­ing twins at such a time and place; but every­thing else be­fore that is part of the cat box and can be end­lessly re­vised.) But each sto­ry, how­ever plau­si­ble in the sin­gu­lar, has a hard time sur­viv­ing con­junc­tion with all the other tales be­ing ped­dled (“he never thought it le­git­i­mate that life should make use of so many co­in­ci­dences for­bid­den lit­er­a­ture”). And their story can al­ways be con­tin­ued by imag­in­ing or forc­ing con­se­quences:

For years we could­n’t talk about any­thing else. Our daily con­duct, dom­i­nated then by so many lin­ear habits, had sud­denly be­gun to spin around a sin­gle com­mon anx­i­ety. The cocks of dawn would catch us try­ing to give or­der to the chain of many chance events that had made ab­sur­dity pos­si­ble, and it was ob­vi­ous that we weren’t do­ing it from an urge to clear up mys­ter­ies but be­cause none of us could go on liv­ing with­out an ex­act knowl­edge of the place and the mis­sion as­signed to us by fate…Hort­en­sia Baute, whose only par­tic­i­pa­tion was hav­ing seen two bloody knives that weren’t bloody yet, felt so affected by the hal­lu­ci­na­tion that she fell into a pen­i­ten­tial cri­sis, and one day, un­able to stand it any longer, she ran out naked into the street. Flora Miguel, San­ti­ago Nasar’s fi­ancee, ran away out of spite with a lieu­tenant of the bor­der pa­trol, who pros­ti­tuted her among the rub­ber work­ers on the Vicha­da. Aura Villeros, the mid­wife who had helped bring three gen­er­a­tions into the world, suffered a spasm of the blad­der when she heard the news and to the day of her death had to use a catheter in or­der to uri­nate. Don Ro­ge­lio de la Flor, Clotilde Ar­men­ta’s good hus­band, who was a mar­vel of vi­tal­ity at the age of eighty-six, got up for the last time to see how they had hewn San­ti­ago Nasar to bits against the locked door of his own house, and he did­n’t sur­vive the shock. Plá­cida Linero had locked that door at the last mo­ment, but with the pas­sage of time she freed her­self from blame. “I locked it be­cause Div­ina Flor had sworn to me that she’d seen my son come in,” she told me, “and it was­n’t true.” On the other hand, she never for­gave her­self for hav­ing mixed up the mag­nifi­cent au­gury of trees with the un­lucky one of birds, and she suc­cumbed to the per­ni­cious habit of her time of chew­ing pep­per cress seeds.

I am re­minded of an old sto­ry:

One day, Ko­rzyb­ski was giv­ing a lec­ture to a group of stu­dents, and he in­ter­rupted the les­son sud­denly in or­der to re­trieve a packet of bis­cuits, wrapped in white pa­per, from his brief­case. He mut­tered that he just had to eat some­thing, and he asked the stu­dents on the seats in the front row, if they would also like a bis­cuit. A few stu­dents took a bis­cuit. “Nice bis­cuit, don’t you think,” said Ko­rzyb­ski, while he took a 2nd one. The stu­dents were chew­ing vig­or­ous­ly. Then he tore the white pa­per from the bis­cuits, in or­der to re­veal the orig­i­nal pack­ag­ing. On it was a big pic­ture of a dog’s head and the words “Dog Cook­ies.” The stu­dents looked at the pack­age, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to vom­it, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lec­ture hall to the toi­let. “You see,” Ko­rzyb­ski re­marked, “I have just demon­strated that peo­ple don’t just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the for­mer is often out­done by the taste of the lat­ter.”

Peo­ple do not live in facts, they live in sto­ries; and as long as the story con­tin­ues, they are sat­is­fied.

Every­thing has been brought to light, it seems, but noth­ing has been en­light­ened. By the end, the death has been fore­told but re­mains un­known.

The Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice, Stallings 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Existence, Brin 2012

Ex­is­tenceDavid Brin2012★★★★

Ex­is­tence is best-seen as a rewrite of Earth, and Earth was a sprawl­ing fu­tur­o­log­i­cal se­ri­ous novel which was try­ing to both world-build by in­clud­ing count­less per­spec­tives and quotes and dis­cus­sions and terms but also put them into con­text to build a over­ar­ch­ing the­sis. Sim­i­lar to Tad William’s Oth­er­land (the fan­tas­tic first book City of Golden Shadow, not the hor­ri­ble se­quel­s), Dos Pas­sos’s USA, or par­tic­u­larly Brun­ner’s Stand On Zanz­ibar (to which Brin al­ludes, ac­tu­al­ly, in hav­ing a alien say “what an imag­i­na­tion I’ve got.”)

The over­rid­ing theme is, of course, the Great Si­lence. Brin’s so­lu­tion, char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally for a guy who wants to be the ul­ti­mate mod­er­ate and more mod­er­ate than thou, is to take up every so­lu­tion: the Great Si­lence is due to more effi­cient phys­i­cal trans­porta­tion and memetic viruses and Berserk­ers and Lurk­ers and pansper­mia and eco­log­i­cal col­lapse and nu­clear war and… This is a lit­tle im­pres­sive to be­hold, and over­all, I did en­joy read­ing the book. Brin has had a few new ideas since Earth like the smart-mob.

But for the bad:

This jump­ing makes the book some­thing like a huge primer on the Great Silence/Fermi’s Ques­tion, yes, but also for some­thing of a mess of a book. The book is huge, but a good deal of the bulk is fat and self­-in­dul­gent:

  1. the dol­phin sub­-plot is re­hashed Up­lift ma­te­ri­al, which only very char­i­ta­bly has any rel­e­vance to any­thing else in the book (I thought that we would at least see them to­wards the end on space­ships as a to­ken nod to­ward jus­ti­fy­ing the time spent on them, but no!)
  2. More ger­mane sub­plots feel in­com­plete; the autis­tic kids, “cob­blies” and the “Basque Chimera” form one such oddly un­der­jus­ti­fied sub­plot—is this a thing, now, laud­ing crip­pled autis­tic kids as se­cret sa­vant he­roes? I don’t know which nar­ra­tive is more den­i­grat­ing of the hu­man suffer­ing in­volved, the stan­dard one or this one. (Autism spec­trum may be use­ful in some ar­eas, but only a lit­tle is nec­es­sary and even the high­-func­tion­ing often fail: I read in the New York Times the other day that that fa­mous tech firm which uses autis­tic work­ers has a 5/6 re­jec­tion rate of ap­pli­cants just from the start. One must sift a lot of sand.)
  3. much ma­te­r­ial is bor­rowed from his pre­vi­ous non­fic­tion or fic­tion; al­lu­sions to The Post­man are well and good, but when I could pre­dict the res­o­lu­tion of the Sen­a­tor Strong mys­tery from the in­stant we were told it was an ad­dic­tion… This also means that I can track how many au­tho­r­ial mouth­pieces there are in the nov­el, and it’s pretty much all of them. Even peo­ple you think are wrong like Hamish are just act­ing as con­duits for Brin’s own be­liefs. This leads to the se­vere prob­lem, in a re­peated first con­tact nov­el, that none of the aliens were re­motely alien, and the hu­mans all seemed pretty sim­i­lar to each other too. It made me wish for Stanis­law Lem, or at least Watts’s Blind­sight.

Brin also has a very weird at­ti­tude to­wards what he calls ex­tropi­anism but most peo­ple these days just call tran­shu­man­ism. For ex­am­ple, the bo­gus an­ti-caloric re­stric­tion ar­gu­ment Hamish gives; it is bo­gus be­cause (a) none of those monks or monas­ter­ies are fol­low­ing nu­tri­tion­ally bal­anced di­ets, in­deed, usu­ally for re­li­gious rea­sons they’re fol­low­ing highly un­bal­anced di­ets if they’re not like the Taoists pos­si­bly ac­tively poi­son­ing them­selves with mer­cury, and (b) the records do claim count­less in­stances of ex­treme longevi­ty, which of course we don’t be­lieve be­cause record-keep­ing was ter­ri­ble—which means the ev­i­dence is so worth­less and bi­ased and cor­rupt that we can’t use it to claim the op­po­site ei­ther! I’ve told Brin this like twice be­fore, not that he cared. But by the time the story is set, the caloric re­stric­tion ques­tion will be set­tled: the pri­mate stud­ies will be fin­ished, the hu­man CR­ers will be dead, and the un­der­ly­ing bio­chem­istry (or lack there­of) will have been elu­ci­dat­ed. Sup­pose he’s wrong? He prob­a­bly does­n’t care, he’s dead­-set against it any­way! I was a lit­tle awe-struck when he has his mouth­piece bad­mouth cry­on­ics, after say­ing it worked and there had been re­vivals? WTF?

WTF in­deed. This at­ti­tude could be called schiz­o­phrenic. Through­out the nov­el, Brin seems to strug­gle with the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem posed by Vinge: how does he keep the story hu­man given his be­lief in progress and his ba­sic ac­cep­tance of the Strong AI the­sis? He never comes up with a good an­swers, but bla­tantly hand-waves them away: an em­u­lated rat brain goes crit­i­cal and es­capes into the In­ter­net? Well, uh—noth­ing hap­pens be­cause I say so (wow, ain’t it strange)! There are even more AIs per­vad­ing the world, con­trol­ling count­less key func­tions? Well, uh—noth­ing hap­pens be­cause I in­sin­u­ate some­thing about par­ents and chil­dren and them be­ing grate­ful! (wow, ain’t it strange—ever see a grate­ful river, spi­der, tow-truck, com­put­er…? Hu­mans can barely be grate­ful, ever.) Hu­man­ity is a few decades away from a gen­eral nanofac­tory as­sem­bler in his story and thou­sands of crys­tal probes come to vis­it? Well, uh—the crys­tal probes are com­pletely in­ac­tive and don’t carry nanofac­to­ries or any­thing de­spite it be­ing a mind­bog­glingly great & evo­lu­tion­ar­ily fit idea and per­fectly doable for them, be­cause I say so and it lets me write ad­ven­ture arcs with pri­mates fight­ing over & chuck­ing around glow­ing rocks! (wow, ain’t it strange) He’ll mock the ex­tropi­ans in the first part for be­liev­ing in cry­on­ics or up­loads or AIs even though their most-crit­i­cized be­lief, cry­on­ics, has been vin­di­cated 100% in his story even be­yond their hopes, their ex­pec­ta­tions of up­loads are equally jus­ti­fied by events to­wards the end—non-de­struc­tive up­load­ing, even! We’d set­tle for de­struc­tive up­loads at this point… and so on and so forth. Well, uh—they’re right but they’re wrong, don’t you see! (wow, ain’t it strange)

Singularity Rising, Miller 2012

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

You could see Miller’s Sin­gu­lar­ity Ris­ing as an at­tempt to swim against the book cur­rent of Ray Kurzweil and present some of the other vi­sions of the Sin­gu­lar­i­ty: specifi­cal­ly, the In­tel­li­gence Ex­plo­sion school as ex­em­pli­fied by Eliezer Yud­kowsky and Robin Han­son. It then mixes in a bunch of ma­te­r­ial on in­tel­li­gence and ge­net­ics, so we might iden­tify an ad­di­tional sub­school: that of Steve Hsu on em­bryo se­lec­tion for in­creas­ing hu­man in­tel­li­gence.

Miller suc­ceeds in giv­ing a wide overview of quite a few top­ics, from Han­son’s ‘crack of a fu­ture dawn’ em sce­nario to the Fil­ter to and the ad­van­tages of trade as it ap­plies (and does­n’t ap­ply) to AIs to the in­tel­li­gence or­thog­o­nal­ity the­sis (that in­tel­li­gence does not im­ply benev­o­lence) to the logic of arms race and its par­tic­u­larly un­pleas­ant ap­plic­a­bil­ity to AI de­vel­op­ment. And then he tosses in the men­tioned in­tel­li­gence & ge­net­ics ma­te­ri­al, which I was a lit­tle sur­prised to learn from—I had read many of his ci­ta­tions (and ac­tu­ally host a few of the on­line copies of the pa­pers on my site!), but he still threw in some ones that were new to me.

On a purely fac­tual ba­sis, I have rel­a­tively lit­tle to fault Miller for. He makes a ris­i­ble claim about 1700s French life ex­pectan­cies not hit­ting the 50s (true only if you in­clude in­fant mor­tal­i­ty, oth­er­wise hit­ting 50s was per­fectly rou­tine—even in the worst tab­u­la­tions, gen­er­ally if you made it to 20 on av­er­age you would reach the 50s; see 0, 1, 2, 3, 4) but he is far from the first to make that mis­take; he brings up dual n-back more than on­ce, but he avoids mak­ing too many or over­reach­ing claims on be­half of dual n-back such as the in­creas­ingly ques­tion­able effect on in­tel­li­gence (see ); he seems to crit­i­cize peo­ple for not tak­ing se­ri­ously the method of cas­tra­tion for life ex­ten­sion but does­n’t men­tion the is­sues with the data and the like­li­hood that the method would not work post-pu­berty (ie. for every­one who is able to morally con­sent to such a pro­ce­dure). Oth­er­wise…

Oth­er­wise Miller’s sins are sim­ply that the writ­ing is merely OK and while he does a rea­son­able job of, as Han­son puts it in his own re­view of Sin­gu­lar­ity Ris­ing, “ex­plain­ing com­mon po­si­tions and in­tu­itions be­hind com­mon ar­gu­ments”, he barely de­fends them or clearly jus­ti­fies them. While I and many oth­ers in­volved in the area dis­like Ray Kurzweil’s the­o­ries and ar­gu­ments and books as be­ing su­per­fi­cial, right for the wrong rea­son, overly op­ti­mistic etc, they do at least do their job of con­vinc­ing peo­ple (and then hope­fully they can adopt more nu­anced or differ­ent views); but though I agree with a large frac­tion of it, it’s hard to be­lieve that any­one could read Miller’s book and come out gen­uinely con­vinced of pretty much any­thing in it (as op­posed to re­ac­tions like “that’s in­ter­est­ing” or “maybe”). For ex­am­ple, he does a nice ques­tion-an­swer se­quence against the knee­jerk bad-phi­los­o­phy re­ac­tions to cry­on­ics, but one could eas­ily bite all the bul­lets and sim­ply ques­tion the in­cred­i­bly sketchy case he makes (yes, it’s great that wood frogs do cry­on­ics all the time, but we’re not frogs). He asks that any­one who signs up for cry­on­ics email him about what con­vinced them—I im­me­di­ately thought, “50% odds that no one has done so yet”. (After writ­ing this re­view, I asked Miller about this and he said no one had yet.)

And aside from as com­pre­hen­sive a lay­man dis­cus­sion of the is­sues in­volved in AI eco­nom­ics and tech­no­log­i­cal un­em­ploy­ment as I’ve ever seen, I can’t re­ally name any orig­i­nal con­tri­bu­tion this book makes.

I can’t say I’m re­ally glad I read it, but then I can’t say I re­ally re­gret read­ing it (I got a num­ber of IQ-re­lated ci­ta­tions, a dis­cus­sion of neo-Lud­dism, and info on the more es­o­teric pos­si­bil­i­ties of em­bryo se­lec­tion). This is be­cause I al­ready know al­most every­thing in the book and have read many of the ci­ta­tions al­ready, so I am not the tar­get au­di­ence; it’s good if you want an overview of non-Kurzweil­ian Sin­gu­lar­ity ideas and you don’t want to read through scores of web­pages and pa­pers, and more or less unique in con­vey­ing them all in a com­pact sin­gle place—so in ac­knowl­edg­ment of this, I bump my rat­ing up to 4 stars (though for me it was more like 3).

Savage Continent, Lowe 2012

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

(~144k words, ~4h) Non­fic­tion Eu­ro­pean his­tory by Keith Lowe. Sav­age Con­ti­nent is a fas­ci­nat­ing book on the bloody after­math of WWII as the de­struc­tion wound down, the lin­ger­ing con­se­quences of an­ar­chy worked them­selves out in the sud­den peace, and peo­ple tried to find a new equi­lib­ri­um, pun­ish­ing col­lab­o­ra­tors and fin­ish­ing the eth­nic cleans­ings. Quickly sum­ma­rized on NPR:

“I was used to see­ing these won­der­ful, cozy myths about the way the war end­ed,” he tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “and every­body cel­e­brat­ing and sailors grab­bing hold of nurses in New York’s Times Square and kiss­ing them and all of these sort of things. And I was aware that it had­n’t quite ended like that.” Eu­rope, he says, was so dev­as­tated that “it’s diffi­cult for us to quite re­al­ize how bad the de­struc­tion was.”

WWII for Amer­i­cans re­mains the good war; while one may be fa­mil­iar with tar­nished as­pects of that (the atroc­i­ties in the Paci­fic, the un­nec­es­sary atomic bomb­ings of Japan, the do­mes­tic cen­sor­ship, etc), one hears less about the post-war pe­ri­od. Pre­sum­ably after lib­er­a­tion, things were cleaned up quickly and calmly and a few years later our his­tor­i­cal mem­ory turns to the start of the Cold War.

An ex­am­ple of the fluffi­ness I have in mind is an old movie I watched in Au­gust, Three Coins in the Foun­tain, a ro­man­tic com­edy set in post-war Rome, where while there is still poverty and re­cov­ery from the war, things are ba­si­cally OK. But one might have a bet­ter idea from my ear­lier read­ing, Catch-22’s Italy sce­nes; or from Grav­i­ty’s Rain­bow’s de­pic­tion of par­ti­tioned Ger­many’s fierce stew of black­-mar­ke­teer­ing, Com­mu­nism, cor­rup­tion, crime, de­struc­tion, and pros­ti­tu­tion. The end of WWII left much busi­ness un­fin­ished: Wages of De­struc­tion cov­ers in de­tail the slave la­bor forces drawn from con­quered Eu­rope which worked in Ger­many up un­til de­feat, and the par­lous food sit­u­a­tion of Ger­many and Eu­rope at large—so what hap­pened after? With all these vic­to­ri­ous horny oc­cu­pa­tion forces? With the slave la­bor­ers, and the Jews, and the guer­ril­las or par­ti­sans or thieves or black­-mar­ke­teers? How were morals slowly re­stored after be­ing cor­rupted by the ex­i­gen­cies of war and the strug­gle for sur­vival, and what was seen as now pos­si­ble after the Holo­caust?

The an­swers are rarely pret­ty, but Lowe gives a syn­op­tic view. It can be hard to un­der­stand the early Cold War: what were the Amer­i­cans & Eu­ro­peans think­ing when they set up ? What was with the per­se­cu­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­als or the “Red Scare” and Mc­Carthy? Or, when read­ing through Bryne’s The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett (re­view), one can see on dis­play his in­com­pre­hen­sion of how any­one could plan for nu­clear war or be will­ing to go to the edge or the se­cu­rity mind­set. But here we see it put in con­text: a Eu­rope only just lib­er­ated from one despo­tism, half of which has been handed over to an­other despot even worse and who has dis­played the ruth­less tech­niques of sub­ver­sion and rewrit­ing so­ci­ety on a grand scale (chap­ter 25, “Cuckoo in the Nest: Com­mu­nism in Ro­ma­nia”, is a sur­pris­ingly lengthy ac­count of the sausage fac­tory of of Com­mu­niza­tion—­first, start with the in­ter­nal se­cu­rity offices, ex­ploit the elec­toral process, de­stroy op­po­nents in de­tail, si­lenc­ing or at­tack­ing or killing as nec­es­sary, and fi­nally with a cap­tive gov­ern­ment take naked con­trol and be­gin the purges and theft of all pri­vate prop­er­ty), in which Com­mu­nist par­ties were not a po­lit­i­cal cu­rios­ity but pop­u­lar, even a plu­ral­ity some­times. With­out the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, it is easy to see how one might re­sort to deep states, al­liances with the Mafia, and so on.

Throw on top of this the fes­ter­ing eth­nic ha­treds which all sides strug­gled to con­trol or ex­ploit, which had in­de­pen­dent lives of their own… It’s hard to not see the echoes to­day: the Crimea ap­pears often in Sav­age Eu­rope, as it has in re­cent news; men­tions of would not be out of place; the Ukraine is bat­tered so re­lent­lessly in WWII and after­wards that con­tem­po­rary events look not like an aber­ra­tion but a re­turn to busi­ness as usu­al; and can Fin­land rest very easy about its in­de­pen­dence from Rus­sia when it gained its in­de­pen­dence not that long ago and long mem­o­ries are so po­lit­i­cally profitable, par­tic­u­larly in East­ern Eu­rope and Asia?

An en­light­en­ing and timely book. See also .

Quantum Computing Since Democritus, Aaronson 2013

Quan­tum Com­put­ing Since Dem­ocri­tusScott Aaron­son2013★★★★

Aaron­son’s book is based off his on­line lec­ture notes which I had­n’t read be­fore though I’ve read his blog for years. I was re­ally ex­cited when the book was an­nounced, since I hoped for ex­panded bet­ter ver­sion of his in­cred­i­bly in­ter­est­ing paper/monograph “Why Philoso­phers Should Care About Com­pu­ta­tional Com­plex­ity” (ab­stract: “…In par­tic­u­lar, I ar­gue that com­pu­ta­tional com­plex­ity the­o­ry—the field that stud­ies the re­sources (such as time, space, and ran­dom­ness) needed to solve com­pu­ta­tional prob­lem­s—leads to new per­spec­tives on the na­ture of math­e­mat­i­cal knowl­edge, the strong AI de­bate, com­pu­ta­tion­al­ism, the prob­lem of log­i­cal om­ni­science, , , the foun­da­tions of quan­tum me­chan­ics, eco­nomic ra­tio­nal­i­ty, , and sev­eral other top­ics of philo­soph­i­cal in­ter­est. I end by dis­cussing as­pects of com­plex­ity the­ory it­self that could ben­e­fit from philo­soph­i­cal analy­sis.”), and see also his more re­cent “The Ghost in the Quan­tum Tur­ing Ma­chine”.

The book turns out to be ex­cel­lent, but not the 5-s­tar uni­ver­sal­ly-com­pelling, suit­able for the lay­man and pro­fes­sional alike, com­plete cov­er­age of all that is in­ter­est­ing about com­pu­ta­tional com­plex­ity and quan­tum I was hop­ing for. I’d say prob­a­bly that one could get 80% of the value from read­ing “Why Philoso­phers Should Care About Com­pu­ta­tional Com­plex­ity”, and even more if one is not par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in com­pu­ta­tional com­plex­ity or quan­tum com­put­ing for their own sakes.



  • some key ar­gu­ments are sketched out briefly or badly (eg. I don’t know how any­one would un­der­stand Aaron­son’s ver­sion of , com­pared to longer bet­ter-il­lus­trated ver­sions like Hof­s­tadter’s in Gödel, Es­cher, Bach)
  • the com­plex-prob­a­bil­ity ver­sion of quan­tum me­chan­ics did­n’t seem much more trans­par­ent to me than other ver­sions; maybe if I had a physics de­gree? (Not that I re­ally un­der­stood the ‘Quan­tish’ uni­verse in Drescher’s equally ex­cel­lent book Good and Real, ei­ther.)
  • overuse of com­plex­ity zoo ab­bre­vi­a­tions
  • no dis­cernible con­nec­tion to Dem­ocri­tus or the Dem­ocri­tus quote
  • some later chap­ters highly tech­ni­cal and spe­cial­ized and un­in­ter­est­ing (eg. the size of quan­tum states), not al­ways mean­ing­fully con­nected
  • Aaron­son ran­domly in­serts bizarre and sloppy an­ti-Bayesian digs—­like at the end of his chap­ter on an­throp­ics, he seems to think it re­futes the ‘re­li­gion’ of Bayesian­ism. Dude, WTF? No one un­der­stands or agrees on any­one in an­throp­ics, that’s the whole point of half the field (con­struct­ing para­doxes and un­pleas­ant im­pli­ca­tions of the most sen­si­ble prin­ci­ples), and you want to use an­throp­ics as an ar­gu­ment against Bayesian­ism‽ You want to dis­prove the em­i­nently suc­cess­ful and prac­ti­cal by the use­less and bizarre? If ever there was a mo­ment that the say­ing was ap­pro­pri­ate…

A Life of Sir Francis Galton, Gillham 2001

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

An en­gag­ing bi­og­ra­phy of Fran­cis Gal­ton, heavy with the many amus­ing Gal­ton anec­dotes we all know (a sober analy­sis of the in­effi­cacy of prayer which drew fu­ri­ous at­tack; record­ing peo­ple fid­get­ing dur­ing lec­tures or av­er­age at­trac­tive­ness of women on the street; con­struct­ing de­vices to keep him­self awake). Gill­ham de­votes much space to Gal­ton’s youth­ful trav­els and African ex­pe­di­tion and to his fin­ger­print­ing work, less to the weather map­ping, but that’s rea­son­able inas­much as those are the most ex­cit­ing to read about and any­one can un­der­stand & ap­pre­ci­ate that, even if I have to say that in the long run, Gal­ton’s work on the source of the Nile, as an­cient a mys­tery as it may be, was in­fi­nitely less im­por­tant than his other work like twin stud­ies.

What is much more in­ter­est­ing to me is the al­most as lengthy dis­cus­sion of Gal­ton and other bi­ol­o­gists’ at­tempts to come up with a mech­a­nis­tic model of how evo­lu­tion and hered­ity could work which ex­plained both sim­ple Mendelian traits but also more com­plex breed­ing phe­nom­e­non like con­tin­u­ous traits, re­gres­sion to the mean, and oc­ca­sional throw­backs. This ac­count of the dis­pute be­tween the ‘Mendelians’ and ‘bio­me­tri­cians’ prob­a­bly strikes most read­ers as deeply te­dious and per­plex­ing, but I found it in­ter­est­ing and en­light­en­ing as most his­to­ries of sta­tis­tics tend to dis­cuss briefly Gal­ton’s in­ven­tions of cor­re­la­tion and re­gres­sion and then skip for­wards 10-20 years to when Karl Pear­son has made many con­tri­bu­tions and the stage has been set for R.A. Fish­er, ig­nor­ing the in­ter­reg­num, so I did­n’t re­ally un­der­stand what went be­tween. Gill­ham helps in that re­spect, al­though in gen­eral his sta­tis­ti­cal ex­pla­na­tions are poor enough and con­fused enough that I won­dered if he un­der­stood the is­sues at all. (I as­sumed he was a his­to­ri­an, but look­ing up his bi­og­ra­phy, he ap­par­ently is even a ge­neti­cist, so he re­ally ought to be able to do bet­ter. One is prob­a­bly bet­ter off look­ing to Stigler for ac­counts of things like the Quin­cunx.)

Aside from be­ing ob­scure, he often leaves out crit­i­cal de­tails; for ex­am­ple, two or three times in the ac­count of the de­bate, he quotes some­one com­ing close to the in­sight that would re­solve it, but Gill­ham does­n’t ex­plain what that in­sight was or how R.A. Fisher would push the in­sight through, so I sup­pose you sim­ply have to al­ready know that Fish­er’s in­sight was that the Mendelian view was cor­rect but that with a large num­ber of Mendelian genes, the Cen­tral Limit The­o­rem shows that they will man­i­fest as a con­tin­u­ous phe­no­type, and the Mendelian traits were sim­ply the ex­treme where there are only a hand­ful or one rel­e­vant gene. This omis­sion is un­for­tu­nate be­cause it’s a huge flaw in the Mendelian-affil­i­ated eu­geni­cists as it meant that their pedi­grees of things like ‘fee­ble-mind­ed­ness’ were effec­tively use­less since they were dis­cretiz­ing badly a con­tin­u­ous trait† they were often un­able to mea­sure ac­cu­rately in the first place (no ac­cu­rate IQ tests yet). An­other ex­am­ple would be men­tion­ing that Wissler’s analy­sis ended Cat­tel­l’s men­tal test­ing pro­gram with­out men­tion­ing Wissler prompted Spear­man to find the gen­eral fac­tor (and in­deed, some of the sen­sory test­ing like re­ac­tion time have shown a cor­re­la­tion with in­tel­li­gence). Some of the crit­i­cisms that Gill­ham quotes ap­prov­ingly are ei­ther ig­no­rant or stu­pid­—­for ex­am­ple, that Shake­speare’s par­ents were undis­tin­guished and thus ev­i­dence against her­i­tabil­i­ty, which ig­nores that his fa­ther was a wealthy trader and smug­gler who had been elected mayor (even if one dis­counts the Shake­speare arms as due to the son) and his mother de­scended from the no­table Ar­den fam­i­ly, and would be a poor coun­ter­ar­gu­ment even if it were true since base rates alone im­ply that a large frac­tion of great men will be of hum­ble ori­gins sim­ply be­cause there are so many hum­ble peo­ple that it over­comes their far lower per capita chance of suc­cess (as im­plied by the pre­cis of Hered­i­tary Ge­nius that Gill­ham gives). In ad­di­tion to oc­ca­sion­ally re­peat­ing ridicu­lous ar­gu­ments, it’s un­for­tu­nate Gill­ham does­n’t sur­vey any of the later Fisher and Wright de­vel­op­ment of be­hav­ioral ge­net­ics which bore out so many of Gal­ton’s in­fer­ences. Still, I think I have to give Gill­ham credit for be­ing as fair as he was in 2001, and it over­all is an ex­cel­lent bi­og­ra­phy.

† Yes, I know that many cases of se­vere men­tal re­tar­da­tion are due to sin­gle mu­ta­tions and so might be Mendelian, but they would be ir­rel­e­vant from an eu­genic per­spec­tive since they tend to not re­pro­duce in the first place, while the eu­geni­cists were con­cerned about the poor in gen­er­al.

The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, Luttwak 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Machiavellians, Burnham 1988

The Machi­avel­lians: De­fend­ers of Free­domJames Burn­ham1988★★★★

The best part of the book for me was that sec­tion which is al­ready avail­able on­line, “Dan­te: Pol­i­tics as Wish”—Burn­ham’s con­vinc­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of Dan­te’s lit­tle-known book on di­vine-right-monar­chi­cal pol­i­tics as in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­hon­est and servile jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of trea­son.

Less con­vinc­ing is his idol­iza­tion of Machi­avel­li† as a trans­par­ent writer who meant ex­actly what he said and had no ul­te­rior mo­tives or prox­i­mate pol­i­tics un­der­lurk­ing his writ­ings; this claim would come as quite a shock to any Straus­sians in the room, and also does­n’t ex­plain why some of his ad­vice to The Prince was ter­ri­ble ad­vice or why he did­n’t ever try to spread it about (Di­etz men­tions these de­tails as he makes the case in her 1986 pa­per “Trap­ping The Prince: Machi­avelli and the Pol­i­tics of De­cep­tion” that the Re­pub­li­can Machi­avelli was dis­pens­ing de­lib­er­ately bad and in­sane ad­vice given the con­text) which rather makes one won­der what Burn­ham is go­ing on about when he talks about Italy be­ing told by Machi­avelli to re­unify to form a vi­able na­tion-s­tate but re­fus­ing to.

† which ac­tu­ally sur­prised me: I had ex­pected from the ti­tle that Burn­ham would go with some sort of No­ble Lie the­ory in which Machi­avel­lians ‘man­u­fac­ture con­sent’ and de­fend re­publics or democ­ra­cies from the il­lib­eral masses

Sim­i­lar­ly, his analy­ses of all pol­i­tics or so­cial move­ments as elite class war­fare or ex­pres­sions of the Iron Law of Oli­garchy are in­ter­est­ing and I think to a large ex­tent ac­cepted these days (eg. the field of pub­lic choice), but his ac­tual uses of the idea seem fairly in­ept. He is good enough to make a num­ber of spe­cific pre­dic­tions… pretty much all of which are wrong.

For ex­am­ple, he pre­dicts that post-WWII that the mil­i­tary would ex­pand mas­sively and form a real fac­tion as op­posed to a lit­tle ‘pud­dle’ (right) and that offi­cers would en­ter the gov­ern­ing elites and change the com­po­si­tion of the rul­ing classes (wrong; Eisen­hower was elected pres­i­dent, but there is no vis­i­ble change in com­po­si­tion—few pres­i­dents or can­di­dates have ben­e­fited from ser­vice, and con­tenders like Colin Pow­ell or Wes­ley Clark have ei­ther not run or sunk like a stone. Con­gress re­mains a province of lawyers, and no one gets wealthy in the mil­i­tary un­til they take the re­volv­ing door), and fur­ther that his loosely de­fined Bona­partism is in­evitable al­though I do not rec­og­nize Clin­ton, Bush, or Obama as be­ing very Bona­parte-like fig­ures.

On pg259-260, he presents a doozy of “sci­en­tific state­ments about so­cial mat­ters”:

…Thus we now may know, with con­sid­er­ably prob­a­bil­i­ty, that: if the state ab­sorbs un­der cen­tral­ized con­trol all ma­jor so­cial forces, then po­lit­i­cal lib­erty will dis­ap­pear; if, after this war, Eu­rope is again di­vided into a con­sid­er­able num­ber of in­de­pen­dent sov­er­eign states, then a new war will be­gin in Eu­rope within a com­par­a­tively short time; if the present plan of mil­i­tary strat­egy (i.e., sub­ma­rine at­tri­tion war­fare, and “is­land-hop­ping”) con­tin­ues un­changed in the East, then Japan will not be defi­nitely crushed for many, many years, and per­haps nev­er; if the present Ad­min­is­tra­tion plans to re­main in office after 1944, then it will have to cur­tail po­lit­i­cal lib­erty fur­ther; and so on.

These state­ments were pub­lished in 1943, well after such events as the Bat­tle of Mid­way (June 1942).

About the best I can say is that char­i­ta­bly, the coun­ter­fac­tual pre­con­di­tion for one may not have been true (if we as­sume ‘Ad­min­is­tra­tion’ refers to FDR, and not his Vice Pres­i­dent, Tru­man, who suc­ceeded FDR on his pre­ma­ture death and then was re-elected with no vis­i­ble brown­shirts stuffing poll­box­es). The rest are sim­ply em­bar­rass­ing. The sci­ence of pol­i­tics must in­deed have been young… (Or per­haps there’s some other com­mon thread to the po­lit­i­cal crit­i­cism that opens and closes the book. Al­ways a prob­lem with au­thors dis­cussing de­cep­tion.)

The Vaccinators, Jannetta 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Company, Cook 1992

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

I read the tril­ogy in ba­si­cally one sit­ting after read­ing the in­ter­est­ing open­ing to The Black Com­pany on Tor.

I en­joyed the first book a great deal: it’s in a fairly stock me­dieval set­ting, but it han­dles the dark fan­tasy well and the plot quickly cur­dles into some­thing more com­plex than ex­pected as we gain en­tree via Croaker to the plot­ting of the Taken and the La­dy, clever gam­bits & strate­gies, all end­ing in the res­o­lu­tion of all plots, de­feat of the Dom­i­na­tor, and in­ci­den­tal­ly, the dis­cred­it­ing of the stock fan­tasy trope of a Joan-of-Ar­c-style mes­siah who will lead their forces to vic­tory over the evil op­pres­sor. It’s also in­ter­est­ing won­der­ing what Croaker is con­ceal­ing from us, what his sins are: he tells us, the read­ers of his An­nals, that he has con­cealed a great deal and soft­ened other parts.

The down­sides are few since it’s a quick read: we see en­tirely too much of the Com­pa­ny’s wiz­ards (how many times do we need to be told that Silent is silent? or that One-Eye has just one eye? or that Gob­lin gets the bet­ter of One-Eye?), and it does­n’t do a good job putting any real doubt into our minds about whether the Lady is the least of evils in the North, since she coun­te­nances quite a bit and the rebels’ sins seem like the usual sort of thing which hap­pens in war and then the wild dogs are put down dur­ing peace­time.

Book 2, Shad­ows Linger, was in some re­spects even bet­ter than The Black Com­pany. While al­most all the Taken are gone and so the scope for plot­ting has di­min­ished con­sid­er­ably, in­stead we get a cozy in­tense lit­tle drama set in Ju­niper, of plot­ting and mur­der and cor­rup­tion with the black cas­tle in the back­ground re­ward­ing and dri­ving it all with its tempt­ing sil­ver as it works to­wards its own lit­tle dooms­day (you might call it a col­lec­tive ac­tion prob­lem!). Shed’s plot thread is con­sid­er­ably more com­pelling than Croak­er’s this time, as we watch him give in to weak­ness, fol­ly, and bad luck time and again, each time help­ing the cas­tle grow a lit­tle closer to com­ple­tion and fi­nally trig­ger­ing an epic bat­tle de­stroy­ing the en­tire town and shat­ter­ing the Black Com­pa­ny. (The fo­cus on the lo­cals also has the ben­e­fit of not over-ex­pos­ing the Com­pany wiz­ards and let­ting us see them from an ‘out­sider’ per­spec­tive to re­store their sheen of in­ter­est.) While ad­mit­tedly the black cas­tle is more than a lit­tle con­trived (the Dom­i­na­tor fore­saw his de­feat and this was the only coun­ter­mea­sure? the cas­tle took 700 years to ma­ture? he did­n’t fore­see the Ju­niper death cult be­fore en­trust­ing his last best hope of res­ur­rec­tion to it?), the plot over­all still works well, and the crea­tures of the cas­tle start to give an im­pres­sion of why al­ly­ing with the Lady might be a good idea.

Book 3, The White Rose, sees it all fall apart. We’re plopped on the Plain of Fear at the heart of the re­newed re­bel­lion, which is OK enough, and we start learn­ing what hap­pened with Bo­manz to re­lease the Lady and the Ten which is even bet­ter. But the re­bel­lion is a tawdry lit­tle affair, and the plot un­en­gag­ing. Raven’s fool­ish­ness is diffi­cult to cred­it. The White Rose’s power is al­most too pow­er­ful. Parts don’t seem to hang to­gether (how do Tracker and Toad­killer Dog ar­rive with Raven’s let­ter if they are only re­leased by his in­ter­fer­ence?). The fi­nal al­liance is too eas­ily ac­com­plished. The new Taken are only names. The fi­nale is a suc­ces­sion of deus ex machi­nas—­Fa­ther Tree’s off­spring on top of the sil­ver spike on top of the true effect of nam­ing (if all it takes to de­stroy some­one’s pow­ers is to name them, why did this never hap­pen be­fore, and why were we told that true names merely al­lowed pen­e­trat­ing a ma­gi­cian’s spells and de­fens­es?) On top of that, the fi­nale is al­most an­ti-cli­mac­tic: they dis­man­tle the de­fenses and neu­tral­ize the Dom­i­na­tor us­ing the Rose, and bury him more thor­ough­ly. Oh. Well, OK… The book is­n’t so much bad, as dis­ap­point­ing since it fea­tures none of the in­tri­cacy of the pre­vi­ous books, is al­most oddly stream­lined and ‘easy’, and takes some easy way outs. I had come to ex­pect more from Cook.

Life in Our Phage World, Rohwer 2014

Life in Our Phage WorldFor­est Ro­hwer2014★★★★

(~400 pages; 4 hours) Saw a New Yorker ar­ti­cle on —viruses spe­cial­ized to prey on bac­te­ri­a—and it men­tioned the book was avail­able; so I down­loaded the biggest file and started read­ing.

The world of phages is more than a lit­tle scary. They have been evolv­ing for bil­lions of years, their num­bers are so vast every writer in this an­thol­ogy re­sorts to sci­en­tific no­ta­tion (and when they don’t, the num­bers are so un­fa­mil­iar they look like ty­pos: “By killing non­il­lions of Bac­te­ria, they have ma­jor effects on global en­ergy and nu­tri­ent cy­cles…”), and their gen­er­a­tion time is as low as min­utes, mak­ing for dizzy­ing amounts of se­lec­tion pres­sure and op­ti­miza­tion—phages seem to have ex­plored every pos­si­ble way of at­tack­ing, sub­vert­ing bac­te­ria, repli­cat­ing faster, com­pact­ing and mak­ing them­selves more effi­cient, and won every arm­s-race bac­te­ria started with them.

If you think you’ve learned some gen­er­al­iza­tion about phages, the next chap­ter may dis­abuse you by cov­er­ing a phage which breaks that rule; and if it does­n’t, it may de­scribe a back and forth se­quence of arms races 4 or 5 steps deep. We learn about eerie dy­nam­ics like “kil­l-the-win­ner”, how φX174 squeezes sev­eral genes in by en­cod­ing them as over­lap­ping with other genes (and then it gets spook­ier: “Even in this ex­tremely small genome of a well-s­tud­ied phage, two genes are not es­sen­tial for phage repli­ca­tion in the lab, and thus their func­tion has not been de­ter­mined.”) or how phages proved DNA en­coded ge­net­ics and their tools have been ap­pro­pri­ated for ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing and can­cer re­search (most re­cent­ly, the pro­teins, a bac­te­r­ial an­ti-phage de­fense sys­tem, have been stolen), or the ex­otic and dan­ger­ous lo­cales phage re­searchers some­times travel to in or­der to col­lect new phage sam­ples or do clin­i­cal tri­als with phage ther­apy (In­dia and the for­mer USSR, most­ly), or how “tem­per­ate” phages in­vade host bac­te­ria but don’t burst it im­me­di­ately but set up clever tim­ing mech­a­nisms to de­ter­mine the best time and place to eat their host, or how phages “choose” whether to ex­tend their “whiskers” / “tails” while float­ing around hop­ing to latch on to a bac­te­ria (which is un­ex­pect­edly ac­tive a thing to do for a virus), or (rem­i­nis­cent of poly­mor­phic com­puter virus­es) they in­vent mech­a­nisms to shuffle their genes & vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties im­ple­mented in as few genes/proteins as pos­si­ble. Not all the facts are in­tim­i­dat­ing—­some of the tem­per­ate phages help out their host bac­te­ria by bring­ing along par­tic­u­larly use­ful genes like pho­to­syn­the­sis, to undo the dam­age the phage caus­es; phages prey­ing on bac­te­ria in­crease bac­te­r­ial pro­duc­tion be­cause when the phages burst bac­te­ria, the bac­te­ria guts are lib­er­ated for other bac­te­ria to eat rather than the bac­te­ria get­ting hoovered up by an amoeba or hy­dra or some­thing and the re­sources be­ing locked away and “lost from the pro­duc­tive sur­face wa­ters, falling as ma­rine snow to deep ocean com­mu­ni­ties.” Oth­ers are in­tim­i­dat­ing but in a good way (why do our de­li­cious nu­tri­tious moist mu­cal mem­branes like our noses not get eaten by bac­te­ria? be­cause there’s an even more in­cred­i­ble den­sity of phages in mu­cus, 40:1, than out, 10:1).

The ma­te­r­ial is pre­sented en­gag­ing­ly—the vo­cab­u­lary is a bit spe­cial­ized but ex­plained as it goes, and one can at least fol­low many of the ar­ti­cles. Most of the ar­ti­cles are in­ter­est­ing, even, al­though a few en­thuse about as­pects of pro­teins or DNA I can’t fol­low and some are un­in­ter­est­ing to an out­sider (who cares about tax­on­o­my?). The il­lus­tra­tions are worth look­ing at. I have to note the genomes: phages are such ge­netic min­i­mal­ists that a func­tional overview of the gene-re­gions of phages are pre­sented be­fore each one, and they are some­times barely a page.

Tombstone, Jisheng 2012

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

The sta­tis­tics and anec­dotes are fairly hor­ri­fy­ing, and the sheer pro­fu­sion drills in how wide­spread the famine was. But for me, the most fas­ci­nat­ing part of Tomb­stone was how the vast Chi­nese gov­ern­ment hi­er­ar­chy rip­pled poli­cies and mis­in­for­ma­tion up and down it—how the lo­cal cadres tried to bow to the de­mands they were hear­ing from higher up, how the higher ups took the fal­si­fied sta­tis­tics and claims often at face val­ue, and how the high­est offi­cials in Bei­jing seem al­most child­ishly help­less as they stag­ger be­tween skep­ti­cism of re­ports given them and un­think­ing ac­cep­tance of pos­i­tive re­sults. Mao par­tic­u­larly comes to mind in his con­stant swerv­ing be­tween “left de­vi­a­tion­ism” and “right de­vi­a­tion­ism” as he tries to get com­mu­nal kitchens to work and takes at face value the har­vest fig­ures and “sput­niks” (even as in other in­ci­dents, he scoffs at a lo­cal offi­cial, telling him flat out that such yields were sim­ply im­pos­si­ble), as he is flat­tered by un­der­-offi­cials; de­spite his in­for­ma­tion prob­lems, he as­ton­ish­ingly re­peat­edly en­gages in tac­tics of an­nounc­ing lib­eral dis­cus­sion and then bru­tally pun­ish­ing any­one who was fool­ish enough to do aught but flat­ter Mao and his poli­cies. In­deed, as Jisheng says, offi­cials were placed into a sit­u­a­tion of ‘slaves to those above, tyrants to those be­low’ (or how­ever his phrase wen­t).

With such per­verse in­cen­tives, it’s no sur­prise that we run into such per­fectly Hayekian ex­am­ples as ‘deep plow­ing’ or ‘sput­niks’ or ‘close plant­ing’ or the fail­ure of com­munes to re­al­ize any gains of scale (and did re­al­ize dis­ec­onomies, like the ex­am­ple of how com­munes needed lum­ber to fire their large ovens/stoves rather than the lit­tle bits of grass in­di­vid­ual house­holds could use).

What is sur­pris­ing is how effec­tive the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment was in main­tain­ing con­trol de­spite these se­vere sys­temic prob­lems. How could so many mil­lions starve to death, and no province rise up in re­bel­lion? How could the re­volts be so small scale, when the abuses were so bad and the death tolls large frac­tions of en­tire lo­cal pop­u­la­tions? How did em­i­gra­tion not over­whelm any checks set up? It’s easy to agree that Sen is ba­si­cally right: Mao’s famine could not have hap­pened in any coun­try with re­motely de­mo­c­ra­tic in­sti­tu­tions like In­dia, be­cause the pres­sure would sim­ply have over­whelmed any co­er­cion the fee­ble gov­ern­ment could or­ches­trate. But there’s also a flip side here: Mao re­marks with sur­prise ‘how good’ the Chi­nese peo­ple were, that he could sum­mon mil­lions and dis­perse them with a wave of his hand, and an­other high offi­cial says sim­i­larly that it is only the good­ness of the peo­ple which pre­vented the Army from be­ing called in. Jisheng is at pains to show that the Com­mu­nist pro­pa­ganda worked and the peo­ple were not uni­formly cyn­i­cal about the regime like the Rus­sians at the end of the USSR were: many offi­cials sac­ri­ficed their ca­reers or lives for their peo­ple, high offi­cials are rou­tinely shocked when they re­turn to their home vil­lages, and through­out we see peo­ple who are in all se­ri­ous­ness con­vinced that all the faults stem from lo­cal or mi­dlevel offi­cials and if only they can get word to the Em­peror in Bei­jing all will be made well. This naive faith, which ini­tially strikes one as pa­thetic and mo­ronic and lack­ing any crit­i­cal think­ing makes me won­der if it could also be re­lated to how China seems to have vastly out­per­formed In­dia in the past decades, since it switched to sane eco­nomic poli­cies; if the Chi­nese peo­ple’s faith and hard work could lead to such ut­ter dis­as­ter when ap­plied to fu­tile poli­cies, does it yield equally un­usual re­sults when fi­nally ap­plied cor­rect­ly?

Pact, Wildbow 2014


Pact (~950k words; 3 days; TvTropes) takes the Worm for­mula but this time heads to mod­ern ur­ban West­ern oc­cult fan­ta­sy. Where Worm tried to ra­tio­nal­ize clas­sic su­per­hero fic­tion, Pact in­stead aims at ra­tio­nal­iz­ing the qua­si­-Love­craft par­a­digm of vaguely-Wiccan/occult fan­tasy set in small New Eng­land-esque towns with an­gels, demons, high­-fan­tasy Elves, folk­lore crea­tures like gob­lins, oaths, and war­ring clans of se­cre­tive prac­ti­tion­ers sub­merged in a sea of ‘mug­gles’; the con­tin­ued sur­vival of oc­cult knowl­edge is at­trib­uted to a long de­monic cam­paign of sub­ver­sion, magic is gained by rit­ual rather than genes, a ‘karma’ mech­a­nism and mag­i­cal­ly-en­forced hon­esty (essen­tial­ly, nar­ra­tive causal­ity souped way up) en­cour­ages dra­matic act­ing and min­i­miz­ing gen­uine con­flict; and the su­per­nat­ural is part of a feed­back loop like su­per­pow­ers in Worm. Cu­ri­ous­ly, for all the com­plaints about Pact be­ing un­bear­ably grim, the world it­self is much more op­ti­misti­cally con­struct­ed—as one char­ac­ter says, hu­man­ity has been win­ning (in con­trast to the nigh-inevitable de­feat of hu­man­ity in Worm).

The start of the plot it­self is well-e­nough de­scribed offi­cial­ly:

Blake Thor­burn was dri­ven away from home and fam­ily by a vi­cious fight over in­her­i­tance, re­turn­ing only for a deathbed visit with the grand­mother who set it in mo­tion. Blake soon finds him­self next in line to in­herit the prop­er­ty, a trove of dark su­per­nat­ural knowl­edge, and the many en­e­mies his grand­mother left be­hind her in the small town of Ja­cob’s Bell.

It’s prob­a­bly not much of a spoiler to say that the ini­tial ma­neu­ver­ing will break out into open war­fare and demons will be un­leashed and fought. (Chekhov’s imp: if there is a devil in the at­tic in Act 1, it will be un­leashed by Act 3.)

So what’s good about Pact? Well, it has a much faster start than Worm, the world-build­ing takes what is usu­ally au­tho­r­ial fiat and reg­u­lates it a bit so the ac­tion mat­ters, some scenes are fan­tas­tic (who could not en­joy the chap­ter about Blake ne­go­ti­at­ing a con­tract with the de­mon Pazu?), the dark­ness is leav­ened by hu­mor, and it is not as ex­haust­ingly com­pre­hen­sive as Worm. And de­mon lawyers are in­trin­si­cally fun­ny.

The down­sides are: Blake ex­ists only to suffer, so peo­ple who found Worm too crush­ing to read will prob­a­bly be un­able to sur­vive a read­ing of Pact and Blake him­self winds up be­ing mostly a ci­pher (and whether this was de­lib­er­ate or not, it still dam­ages the work); Wild­bow re­peats his ‘Slaugh­ter­house Nine arc’ er­ror (this time, in the Toronto/Conquest fetch arc, which takes up a re­ally ab­surd frac­tion of the work); a key twist is… ques­tion­ably con­sis­tent with pre­vi­ously given rules & facts; the mag­ic, while still much bet­ter than most fan­ta­sy, is still heavy on fiat and un­com­fort­ably repet­i­tive com­pared to the di­ver­sity and rigor of su­per­pow­ers in Worm and some im­por­tant el­e­ments seemed un­der­used (for all the stress placed on threes, I have a hard time nam­ing any mean­ing­ful ex­am­ples); and the end­ing is shock­ingly abrupt, with al­most all nar­ra­tive threads and mys­ter­ies dropped or un­re­solved. Wild­bow’s post-mortem cov­ers some of these is­sues.

Over­all: good but not as great as Worm.

Drugs 2.0, Power 2013

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

Jour­nal­is­tic his­tory of the de­vel­op­ment of , with fo­cus on past two decades and In­ter­net-based RC com­mu­ni­ties. This is a topic you might think I’d know all about, but ac­tu­ally I don’t, be­cause my fo­cus was al­ways Silk Road and the dark net mar­kets, where re­search chem­i­cals often showed up after be­ing banned, but I did­n’t know much about what went on be­fore they be­came nor­mal il­licit drugs. So this filled in a lot of holes for me.

Power starts with the West­ern dis­cov­ery of psy­che­delics and LSD, giv­ing an en­gag­ing pot­ted his­tory of the pe­riod to fo­cus on the late . Shulgin is the cen­tral fig­ure in re­search chem­i­cals for demon­strat­ing that vari­ants and twists on old drugs are al­most as easy as falling off a log, one would think, com­ing up sin­gle­hand­edly with dozens of stim­u­lants and psy­che­delics and drugs with un­clas­si­fi­able effects (the one which “makes every­thing sound 1 oc­tave lower” al­ways amuses me), all doc­u­mented in his fa­mous PIHKAL and TIHKAL. Shulgin’s work and other chemists (in­clud­ing the stil­l-mys­te­ri­ous dis­cov­erer of MDMA) lit a long fuse that fi­nally det­o­nated with Usenet (now there’s a name you prob­a­bly haven’t heard in a while) show­ing that the In­ter­net could doc­u­ment and spread knowl­edge about drug use through news­groups and fo­rums, and even­tu­al­ly, in a mir­a­cle of glob­al­iza­tion, chemists with for­eign chem­i­cal lab­o­ra­to­ries with cus­tomers on­line. Here Drugs 2.0 re­ally gets mov­ing, cov­er­ing Erowid, the Hive, Chi­nese labs do­ing dodgy syn­the­ses, dis­cus­sion of what chem­i­cal ana­logues are and how these grey-mar­ket com­mu­ni­ties can come up with lit­er­ally scores of new sub­stances every year, faster than they could be banned, in­ter­views in per­son or email with some of these am­a­teur chemists and Chi­nese lab op­er­a­tors and the in­ter­me­di­ary busi­ness­men, and of course, Silk Road 1 (, while un­avoid­ably ob­so­lete in 2016, was one of the bet­ter write­ups around when it was pub­lished). The fo­cus tends to be on the UK, but that’s fine by me, as the UK’s more ex­plicit drug pol­icy makes changes eas­ier to de­scribe, and Power in­cludes in­ter­est­ing ma­te­r­ial on fads in the UK drug con­sumer mar­ket and how it affected choices (the saf­role oil short­age’s effects on MDMA and find­ing sub­sti­tutes is a good one).

Where I’m left a lit­tle dis­sat­is­fied is in de­scrip­tions of effects of the var­i­ous RCs which have been dis­cov­ered. By the end, you don’t know too much about how the var­i­ous drugs differ, or how many could be con­sid­ered to have found a niche of their own as more than just a for­merly le­gal ana­logue of some­thing like psilo­cy­bin. Like a bi­og­ra­phy of a sci­en­tist which does­n’t go into much depth about what their ideas or dis­cov­er­ies were, it feels in­com­plete.

Dis­clo­sure: Mike Power has in­ter­viewed or quoted me on sev­eral oc­ca­sions about the dark net mar­kets, and gave me a free PDF of Drugs 2.0 back in 2014 or some­thing. (But it was so hard to read be­cause of pub­lisher wa­ter­mark­ing, that I down­loaded a bet­ter copy from Lib­gen and read that in­stead.)

The Hall of Uselessness, Leys 2011

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

(~180k words; 5 hours) An­thol­ogy of lit­er­a­ture-fo­cused es­says, highly mis­cel­la­neous. Judged by word­count and top­ic, it seems that Leys’s fo­cus is fairly nar­row—I would com­pare him to a lesser Borges, but Borges de­lighted too much in philo­soph­i­cal and sci­en­tific ideas and spec­u­la­tion for the com­par­i­son to re­ally work, while Leys is very much the con­sum­mate man of let­ters. I was in­ter­ested pri­mar­ily in his com­ments on Chi­na, and was sur­prised the ex­tent to which he fix­ates on French lit­er­a­ture (e­spe­cially for some­one who wrote in Eng­lish).

The good parts are his es­say “The Im­i­ta­tion of Our Lord Don Quixote”, “Por­trait of Pro­teus: A Lit­tle ABC of An­dré Gide” (not so much be­cause I care about Gide, but he does sound in­ter­est­ing), “Cun­ning Like a Hedge­Hog”, and many of his China es­says such as “The Chi­nese At­ti­tude To­wards the Past” (which ex­plains a phys­i­cal ab­sence of an­tiq­uity I had felt in my gut but had never risen to con­scious­ness), “One More Art: Chi­nese Cal­lig­ra­phy” (which fi­nally en­light­ens me on the role of cal­lig­ra­phy in both China and Japan), “The Wake of an Empty Boat: Zhou En­lai”, “The Art of In­ter­pret­ing Non-Ex­is­tent In­scrip­tions Writ­ten in In­vis­i­ble Ink on a Blank Page” (prin­ci­pally for the para­ble from which it draws its ti­tle), “Richard Henry Dana and His Two Years Be­fore the Mast”, and “Tell Them I Said Some­thing”.

Be­cause of the good­ness, I must over­look the bad. I have lit­tle in­ter­est in French pol­i­tics of the 1800s or, much the same thing, its nov­el­ists and those es­says were ex­cru­ci­at­ingly dull to me. The short “An em­pire of ug­li­ness”, de­spite hav­ing the honor of be­ing the sec­ond piece in the col­lec­tion, is a re­mark­ably lame at­tempt to de­fend Mother Teresa from Hitchen­s’s crit­i­cism (ap­par­ently the most im­por­tant thing to dis­cuss about Hitchen­s’s book is whether the ti­tle is ob­scene or merely a dou­ble-en­ten­dre, and Leys thinks it is per­fectly ac­cept­able to ac­cept money from mur­der­ous thugs and dic­ta­tors be­cause… Je­sus preached to tax­farm­er­s?; dis­cus­sion of the meat of the crit­i­cisms of Mother Tere­sa, is no­tice­able for its ab­sence—ap­par­ently Leys be­lieves that good re­sults must fol­low good in­ten­tions while in truth good in­ten­tions fol­low good re­sults, and does not ap­pre­ci­ate that a 1% growth in GDP would do In­dia more good than a thou­sand Mother Tere­sa); sim­i­lar­ly, it seems that the first ques­tion Leys asks about any writer of the 20th cen­tury is what po­si­tion they took on Com­mu­nism, and Leys will never let you for­get that he was staunchly against it and de­serves credit as a seer (an an­ti-com­mu­nism which runs so deep that his own blind­ness about Deng Xi­aop­ing is all the more cu­ri­ous; he writes hos­tilely of Deng as late as 2008; to read his es­says, one would have to con­clude that no man’s hand au­thored Chi­na’s eco­nomic boom which has taken it from mass famines to a mid­dle-in­come and Great Pow­er, it just kinda sorta hap­pened on its own and cer­tainly Leys has no in­ter­est in the top­ic). And “The ex­pe­ri­ence of lit­er­ary trans­la­tion” is not so much bad as com­pletely in­fe­rior to Borges’s own es­say on trans­lat­ing the Thou­sand and One Nights that I won­der why he both­ered to write it.

Packing for Mars, Roach 2010

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

Hi­lar­i­ous, eye for de­tails, in­ces­sant cu­rios­i­ty, good at track­ing down bo­gus sto­ries and ru­mors. Roach comes up with all the best quotes and sto­ries, seems to have talked to every­one and done every­thing. And her run­ning com­men­tary is also hi­lar­i­ous—she’s al­most as funny as she thinks she is. I laughed many times read­ing the book.

This is defi­nitely more “mind candy” than ed­u­ca­tional as it jumps from food to sex to hy­giene to ac­cel­er­a­tion is­sues to psy­chol­ogy with­out any overview or uni­fy­ing ideas or con­cepts, al­though I did learn a fair bit any­way from the scat­ter­shot ap­proach. (One chap­ter was a rev­e­la­tion for me in ex­plain­ing why often pos­tu­lated space dri­ving peo­ple in­sane). If there is any big pic­ture to Pack­ing for Mars, it’s that outer space is re­ally hard for hu­mans to sur­vive in and every­one and every­thing has to be stud­ied in mi­cro­scopic de­tail for any­one to go there and come back alive. Read­ing all the checks and mod­i­fi­ca­tions and de­tails, one is bog­gled that we made it to the Moon, much less we be mus­ing a Mars mis­sion.

(It makes for a pretty com­pelling ar­gu­ment that hu­mans just don’t be­long in space and that if we put half as much effort/time/money into au­to­mated ex­plo­ration, we would know far more about the uni­verse than we do—ap­par­ent­ly, the ISS has cost us ‽ Roach is aware that this is the im­pres­sion she gives in her con­clu­sion where she crit­i­cizes ‘sim­u­la­tions’, but hon­est­ly, I did­n’t find it a very com­pelling de­fense of the enor­mous diffi­cul­ties and costs of shoot­ing up some mon­keys to walk around Mars com­pared to just send­ing probes.)

The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi 2009

The Windup GirlPaolo Baci­galupi2009★★★★

WG is Bur­det­t’s Bangkok 8 meets Chua’s World on Fire: a Thai­land crime thriller which goes from com­mer­cial es­pi­onage to na­tional pol­i­tics in which the South­east Asian mix­ture of deep rev­er­ence for a de­cay­ing & in­com­pe­tent monar­chy com­bines with glob­al­iz­ing cap­i­tal­ism and am­bi­tious mil­i­tary lead­ers plot­ting a coup and a pop­u­la­tion stew­ing with re­sent­ment to­wards a Chi­nese im­mi­grant un­der­class (ex­em­pli­fied by the clever Hock Seng who tries to sense the winds of eth­nic cleans­ing & es­cape in time) which bids fair to turn Thai­land into an­other Malaysia, which com­bustible mix­ture ex­plodes when lit off by a cru­sad­ing cop and his two-faced side­kick and the ac­ci­dent of a trafficked Japan­ese pros­ti­tute. While not a genre I have any par­tic­u­lar de­vo­tion to, it’s a fun one to re­turn too since I haven’t read a thriller novel set in Thai­land in a long time so it’s fresh to me, and I par­tic­u­larly en­joyed the sec­tions deal­ing with Hock Sen­g’s plan­ning. (To a lesser ex­tent, I was in­ter­ested in the treach­er­ous sub­or­di­nate.) I read it in two sit­tings be­cause I wanted to see what hap­pened.

Oh, and ap­par­ently it’s sup­posed to be a SF novel as well. That part does­n’t need too much dis­cus­sion since WG is not very good as a SF nov­el: while the world­build­ing is de­tailed, per­haps even ex­ces­sive in terms of pro­vid­ing jar­gon and lit­tle tid­bits for the reader to fig­ure out (I can’t quite de­cide whether to fault WG for data-dumps, since it does a good job early on avoid­ing ex­plain­ing too much but I think the dis­ci­pline wa­vers later on), the world thus built un­for­tu­nately lacks any in­tel­lec­tual co­her­ence, and so it fails ut­terly as any kind of Gib­son­ian near-fu­ture ex­trap­o­la­tion, or any kind of ex­trap­o­la­tion at all for that mat­ter—in its thought­less­ness and clich­es, it comes off as just more Al-Gore-style lib­eral chic (to list two ex­am­ples I could­n’t stop think­ing about: so the world econ­omy is based on springs as an en­ergy stor­age mech­a­nism and coal and bio­fuel as the only ap­par­ent en­ergy sources, with noth­ing about so­lar pan­els…? hu­man­ity is sup­posed to have en­gi­neered su­per-effec­tive broad­-spec­trum plant viruses which Na­ture, de­spite bil­lions of years/quadrillions of vi­ral gen­er­a­tions over quin­til­lions of in­di­vid­ual virus­es, has not…? it’s hard to know which of these two points is more wildly im­prob­a­ble.) Al­so, I can for­give the mad sci­en­tist cliche who we’re sup­posed to have mixed feel­ings about (although to me as a tran­shu­man­ist, the ques­tion is not ‘why not have every­one be New Peo­ple’ but ‘why has­n’t that al­ready hap­pened when they’re de­scribed as a bril­liant suc­cess and im­prove­ments in every way upon base­line hu­man­i­ty?’) but it seems a lit­tle du­bi­ous to name the book after one of the char­ac­ters whose por­trayal is the least con­vinc­ing.

Haikai Poet Yosa Buson And The Bashō Revival, Crowley 2006

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

(~100k words, 3 hours) Aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly-ori­ented ex­am­i­na­tion of the post-Basho haiku poet and painter . Of ob­scure ori­gins, Bu­son is one of the more pop­u­lar post-Basho haiku po­ets, along with Kobayashi Is­sa. But where Issa is known for his idio­syn­crasy and sym­pa­thetic fo­cus on an­i­mals, Bu­son is much more tra­di­tional and tried to live up to the ideal of the bun­jin or Chi­ne­se-like lit­er­ary gen­tle­man who has mas­tered all the arts of the brush in a re­fined and al­most dis­tant style.

Crow­ley has writ­ten a qua­si­-bi­og­ra­phy de­scrib­ing Bu­son’s life and putting his paint­ing and haiku in their con­text of try­ing to de-com­mer­cial­ize and de-pop­u­lar­ize haiku to re­turn it to a more Basho-like tone, while re­luc­tantly ac­cept­ing the man­tle of head of a haiku lin­eage, main­tain­ing his pose as a de­tached am­a­teur pur­su­ing art for art’s sake, and try­ing to make a liv­ing by sell­ing paint­ings to his pa­trons and cus­tomers in the provinces where he trav­eled wide­ly. Know­ing Bu­son through some of his more aus­tere haiku, I found Crow­ley suc­ceeds in hu­man­iz­ing Bu­son re­mark­ably (the larger con­text here is her ar­gu­ing against the late Japan­ese critic and poet Shiki, who had re­dis­cov­ered Bu­son but pre­sented him as a coldly de­tached ob­server); be­fore, I could not imag­ine Bu­son writ­ing about some­one scratch­ing their tes­ti­cles.

I also ap­pre­ci­ated that she gives am­ple space to cov­er­ing the so­cial as­pects of the linked-verse form (which be­cause of the diffi­culty in ex­plain­ing what any of the links mean or the many for­mal rules in­volved, tends to be com­pletely glossed over in all West­ern works; while I think renga never sur­vives trans­la­tion and is worth­less aes­thet­i­cally to read, it’s im­por­tant to any his­tory or dis­cus­sion as it was one of the most com­mon ac­tiv­i­ties)—even trans­lat­ing one for the ap­pen­dices—and also pro­vid­ing long trans­la­tions of sev­eral other key works she quotes from. The dis­cus­sion of his like­wise goes well be­yond the usual su­per­fi­cial­i­ties and pre­sen­ta­tion of one or two pho­tos, as Crow­ley com­ments in de­tail on how ex­actly the haiku and paint­ing are sup­posed to com­bine into some­thing more than their sum, and on the ex­tremely ob­scure Chi­nese al­lu­sions Bu­son is prone to as a proper bun­jin. (For ex­am­ple, the WP ar­ti­cle on haiga in­cludes as an ex­am­ple “A lit­tle cuckoo across a hy­drangea by Yosa Bu­son” but does not give the trans­lated haiku, which turns out to re­quire 3 pages of com­men­tary to un­pack all the al­lu­sions in the haiku and paint­ing.)

Need­less to say, this will only be of value to those al­ready in­ter­ested in haiku and its his­to­ry.

Turing’s Cathedral, Dyson 2012

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

Mixed feel­ings. On the one hand, Dyson digs up all sorts of quotable lines and anec­dotes and bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails, many gen­uinely new to me. I en­joyed those great­ly. For these I give it 4 stars. On the other hand…

He is ob­sessed with Von Neu­man­n’s IAS/MANIAC, to the detri­ment of the rest of the book. The pre-WWII his­tory is OK but sig­nally fails to ex­plain things like the Hilbert pro­gram, Goedel or Tur­ing’s ac­tual halt­ing the­o­rem. Some­one who read this ex­pect­ing to un­der­stand ‘Tur­ing’s cathe­dral’ would be vastly bet­ter served read­ing a book like Hof­s­tadter’s Goedel, Es­cher, Bach (as old as it is). In­stead, count­less pages are taken up with de­tailed tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion that is si­mul­ta­ne­ously in depth and also poorly ex­plained. I re­peat­edly got the feel­ing that Dyson is in­dulging in that com­mon temp­ta­tion, al­lo­cat­ing ma­te­r­ial based on how much effort it took to find, not what would in­form the read­er—he went through a lot of work doc­u­ment­ing MANIAC and the rest of us must en­joy (suffer) the fruits of it. I felt that if I did­n’t al­ready know a great deal of this ma­te­ri­al, I would be com­pletely lost in­side the book; I won­der how much other peo­ple could get out of it.

The re­peated analo­gies to search en­gines and mod­ern com­put­ing come off very poorly (search en­gines are ana­logue? Oookkaayyy…); much could have been said about how mod­ern chip ar­chi­tec­tures and cloud com­put­ing de­signs are not very Von Neu­mann­ian now, so here again I won­der if it’s a forced at­tempt to show con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance or per­haps just in­flu­ence from his Google vis­it.

Other parts make one ques­tion how much Dyson un­der­stands: he links Goedelian/Turing in­com­plete­ness to com­puter viruses and con­cludes with grand ’90s-esque vi­sions (pace Kevin Kel­ly’s old Out of Con­trol book) of viruses spread­ing out through the In­ter­net and beat­ing on the walls of clean com­put­er­s—but viruses aren’t re­ally a prob­lem these days, noth­ing like they used to be, and the sit­u­a­tion seems apt to only im­prove! Like spam, the so­lu­tions are not per­fect and re­quire a great deal of man­power and clev­er­ness, but they are work­ing and cur­rently seem likely to steadily im­prove; this would­n’t be a sur­prise to him if he had re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated that Goedelian/Turing-incompleteness im­plies that there are large de­cid­able sub­sets of pro­grams and we can build our sys­tems out of those. (Ev­ery pro­gram­mer who uses a lan­guage with a de­cent type sys­tem is do­ing some­thing a naive un­der­stand­ing of in­com­plete­ness says is im­pos­si­ble: he’s ex­e­cut­ing non­triv­ial pred­i­cates over his pro­gram.)

For those rea­sons and oth­ers, this will never get 5 stars from me, and if there were a 3.5 stars, I’d go with that.

Web Typography, Rutter 2017

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

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

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

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

Echopraxia, Watts 2014

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

We’ve been wait­ing for this since Blind­sight came out in 2006 and blew away all its read­ers. It’s been a long wait and those who read Wat­t’s blog and are fa­mil­iar with his many tra­vails (from a fight with the US fed­eral gov­ern­ment to flesh-eat­ing bac­te­ria) will un­der­stand the long wait. Was it worth­while?

Not re­al­ly. Echopraxia is a short fast read (~3-4h) which largely ex­pands on the ideas that B in­tro­duced: the con­cept of new apex preda­tors, vam­pires; the min­i­mal value of con­scious­ness and what non-con­scious up­grades of the brain like the Bi­cam­er­als could do with the horse­pow­er; hy­per­-ad­vanced aliens; and sub­con­scious ma­nip­u­la­tion. Watts adds in sci­en­tific ‘zom­bies’, but the idea never re­ally goes any­where—Watts’s side-s­tory “The Colonel” is in some re­spects more in­ter­est­ing than the nov­el, and fleshes out the ma­jor char­ac­ter The Colonel in a way the novel never re­ally does. (Although the novel at least does raise in­ter­est­ing ques­tions about whether Siri Kee­ton re­ally es­caped alive in B, to re­con­tex­tu­al­ize it—per­haps we’re sim­ply read­ing alien pro­pa­gan­da!) The Bi­cam­er­als them­selves are some­thing of a dis­ap­point­ment com­pared to the in­ven­tion of the Scram­blers or vam­pires. The plot moves on rails from the bi­ol­o­gist in the desert to the sun back to the de­sert, and likely B read­ers will see com­ing the ma­jor plot twists with the alien and vam­pire (it’s al­most iden­ti­cal). Some po­ten­tially in­trigu­ing ideas go un­ex­plored; for ex­am­ple, the spider/ sug­ges­tion is quite in­ter­est­ing, but the alien fun­gus winds up not do­ing any­thing be­yond what a more nor­mal ver­sion of in­tel­li­gence would do and so it does­n’t il­lus­trate the idea of a time­shar­ing slow-but-pow­er­ful in­tel­li­gence. The end­ing is opaque and knot­ty, but I think with some thought and re­view of ter­mi­nol­ogy it be­comes clear: the Bi­cam­er­als and emer­gent AIs have com­pleted their plan in which the hi­jacked fun­gus is in­cu­bated in the pro­tag­o­nist to up­grade base­line hu­mans to vam­pire-like en­ti­ties (sans the vam­pire weak­nesses and with­out con­scious­ness), which will be able to go toe to toe with the God-like alien in­vad­er.

So, not a waste of time and prob­a­bly pretty im­pres­sive to peo­ple un­ac­quainted with Watts, but be­low B, some of the Rifter books, and the bet­ter short sto­ries. I sug­gest read­ing B, then “The Colonel”, then Echopraxia.

Ketamine, Jansen 2004

Ke­t­a­mine: Dreams and Re­al­i­tiesKarl Jansen2004★★★★

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

Jansen be­gins with a short his­tory of its dis­cov­ery and diffu­sion into the psy­che­delic and club sce­nes, cov­ers some of the more no­to­ri­ous cas­es, the neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy of ke­t­a­mine as un­der­stood in 2004, and then a very long dis­cus­sion of the sim­i­lar­i­ties of near-death ex­pe­ri­ences with ke­t­a­mine psy­che­delic trips, fol­lowed by thor­ough cov­er­age of the no­to­ri­ous ad­dic­tive­ness of ke­t­a­mine (which comes off a bit apolo­get­ic; ke­t­a­mine strikes me as ex­ceed­ingly dan­ger­ous if “In my opin­ion, the group who lose con­trol over their use is un­likely to ex­ceed 15% of those who find the ex­pe­ri­ence re­ward­ing”, even if the bi­o­log­i­cal dan­gers are min­i­mal), then a bunch of ideas on how to treat ke­t­a­mine ad­dic­tion (some du­bi­ous, oth­ers com­mon ad­dic­tion strate­gies), a dis­cus­sion of bad trips, and the ex­ist­ing body of work on us­ing ke­t­a­mine to treat ad­dic­tions and other prob­lems. It seems pretty thor­ough, even to a fault—I can’t say I ap­pre­ci­ated Jansen throw­ing in a bunch of quan­tum woo and half-baked spec­u­la­tion, but I sup­pose that’s prob­a­bly an oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard (think­ing the grand vi­sions are any­thing more than grand vi­sions and abus­ing physic­s).

It’s also heav­ily leav­ened with ex­cerpts from users’ ex­pe­ri­ences, many in­ter­views by Jansen him­self ap­par­ent­ly; these are good to have, but per­haps not as nec­es­sary as it was in 2004 now that the Erowid trip li­brary has over 324 re­ports.

My own in­ter­est in ke­t­a­mine is cu­rios­ity about the it seems to have even with non-psy­che­delic use, but while de­pres­sion is oc­ca­sion­ally men­tioned as a risk fac­tor for ke­t­a­mine abuse or out­come of abuse, it seems all the most rel­e­vant re­search must have been done after this was pub­lished in 2004.

Still, an in­ter­est­ing and ex­cel­lent overview of a niche top­ic, and well worth read­ing for more in­-depth cov­er­age after read­ing an overview like the Wikipedia ar­ti­cle.

Clear and Simple as the Truth, Thomas 1996

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

(~80k words book, ~56k word on­line guide; ~3h with­out do­ing any ex­er­cis­es) A style book which ac­tu­ally de­liv­ers real style ad­vice! I first heard of it on Robin Han­son’s blog and fol­lowed up re­cently when I saw they’ve put up an on­line edition/guide. The “clas­sic style” names a style I’ve al­ways ad­mired—s­mooth, calm, hu­man­is­tic, and el­e­gan­t—which ap­pears in a va­ri­ety of writ­ers past and present (Gene Wolfe often writes in this style), and it’s a plea­sure to see it ex­am­ined and its strengths and weak­nesses laid out. (As Han­son says, the clas­sic style is a good way to lie or de­ceive as it en­cour­ages one to strip away de­tails and qual­i­fiers to main­tain the smooth­ness of pas­sages.) If one likes the clas­sic style or has need of it, I could not name a bet­ter text. The au­thors may not be the great­est clas­sic styl­ists ever, but they are the best in dis­cussing it while often em­body­ing it.

The book is split up into 3 parts, lay­ing out the gen­eral at­ti­tude and evo­lu­tion of clas­sic style, then pro­vid­ing a few dozen short ex­am­ples of the clas­sic style vs other styles with some crit­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion (not­ing the care­ful choice of lan­guage to pro­duce strik­ing sen­tences or point­ing out how clas­sic style would be dis­as­trous in some con­texts), and fi­nally a list of writ­ing ex­er­cises to help one learn this par­tic­u­lar style.

The first part delves into some aca­d­e­mic is­sues that re­ally don’t con­cern any­one in­ter­ested in the clas­sic style (I sus­pect most read­ers have nei­ther heard of nor care about ‘mime­sis’), and sec­ond part, the ‘Mu­seum’, seems to be sub­stan­tially ex­panded in the on­line guide (eg Blaise Pas­cal’s Provin­cial Let­ters are men­tioned a few time in the book, but the ex­cerpt of the Jesuit/Jansenist de­bate over “prox­i­mate” only ap­pears in the on­line guide as far as I can tel­l); the ec­cen­tric for­mat­ting of the on­line guide aside, since I en­joyed most read­ing all the ex­am­ples side by side, it might be a good idea to read the on­line guide first which con­cen­trates on de­scrib­ing clas­sic style and pro­vid­ing ex­am­ples. Then, when one knows the lay of the land, read the full book, where the tan­gents will not dis­tract.

In the Plex, Levy 2011

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

I learned a great deal from this book about Google, which put some of my own ex­pe­ri­ences with Google prod­ucts in con­text. Levy has in­for­ma­tion, anec­dotes, quotes, and in­ter­views which no one else does, which, like the re­cent Steve Jobs bi­og­ra­phy, makes his book in­dis­pens­able for any­one in­ter­ested in the topic re­gard­less of the book’s other mer­its.

To con­tinue the Jobs anal­o­gy, I think Levy is more in­de­pen­dent of his sub­ject and more will­ing to crit­i­cize it and poke holes in their nar­ra­tives—he cov­ers the crit­i­cisms I ex­pect­ed, does­n’t drop any par­tic­u­larly glar­ing is­sues, and more than once un­der­mines their nar­ra­tives with con­trast­ing quotes and ob­ser­va­tions. In par­tic­u­lar, Page re­peat­edly comes off as a nar­cis­sis­tic para­noid ass­hole, pos­si­bly due to his fa­ther’s death, who can­not em­pathize with oth­ers or un­der­stand their points of views (a trait per­haps en­demic of Googlers, to judge by the Buzz fi­as­co).

But to com­pen­sate for all the great info and ex­pla­na­tions (more than once I thought to my­self, ‘ah, so that is what hap­pened!’), there are down­sides to the book. The prin­ci­ple one be­ing:

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

Ready Player One, Cline 2011

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

YA SF fic­tion; most sim­i­lar in feel to Snow Crash and Oth­er­land but a much faster read and over­all sim­pler plot. Much of the ap­peal is sim­ply all the ’80s ref­er­ences to geeky movies and video/computer games (hard not to feel a rush of nos­tal­gia at a men­tion of Ro­bot­ron or a nar­ra­tion of a game of Tem­pest, which makes me won­der how much peo­ple younger than me would en­joy it), so I would strongly sug­gest watch­ing at the very least War Games and since the game bil­lion­aire char­ac­ter seems to be based on John Car­ma­ck, Mas­ters of Doom. (I won­dered read­ing it how deep the re­sem­blances go: the pro­tag­o­nist starts off much like Car­mack did.)

I was not too keen to read this, be­cause there seems to be a deep fail­ure of cre­ativ­ity when it comes to VR: al­most every work seems to pick one of two hack­neyed plots—‘the char­ac­ters are trapped in the game world!’ or ‘the char­ac­ters are com­pet­ing in a con­test!’ (See: every Amer­i­can kid car­toon, every anime like .hack/Sword Art On­line, etc.)

RP1 takes the lat­ter tack, but it at least ex­e­cutes well. It’s fun­da­men­tally a silly idea to imag­ine that peo­ple would vol­un­tar­ily stuff the en­tire In­ter­net into World of War­craft (way too slow and in­con­ve­nient) or that his early plot de­vice of travel fees would ever ex­ist (imag­ine pay­ing each time you loaded a new HTML page while brows­ing or hav­ing to pay to switch games on your com­put­er; ab­sur­d!) but the world at least feels rea­son­ably re­al­is­tic, with blogs and fo­rums and pro­fes­sional gam­ing leagues and stream­ing video chan­nels, and I can hardly blame him for the global-warming/energy-crisis dystopia he picks. (Many near-fu­ture SF fic­tion fail to achieve even a con­tem­po­rary feel; many au­thors aim for 10 years in the fu­ture, but with the lack of smart­phones and video and apps, wind up achiev­ing a feel 10 years in the past.)

Even­tu­ally you get used to it and even a nar­rated game of Pac-man be­comes grip­ping. (But a de­cent amount of the plot takes place offline, so it’s not all ’80s name­drop­ping and nar­rat­ing games.)

Cool Tools, Kelly 2013

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

Big heavy book com­pil­ing the best of the Cool Tools website/email-list, which is sim­i­lar to Ed­mund’s Sci­en­tific Cat­a­log; cu­ri­ous mix of cut­ting-edge Sil­i­con Val­ley ma­te­ri­al, hob­bies (hik­ing and travel es­pe­cial­ly), DIY/Maker, prim­i­tivist fetishism, and New Age stuff (yes, in­clud­ing the oblig­a­tory Rosi­cru­cian­s)—very Cal­i­for­ni­an, in other words. You might think read­ing a gi­ant cat­a­logue of stuff you’ll never buy would be bor­ing, but it’s not.

While it can’t be up­dated and it’s hard to fol­low links, the book for­mat is much nicer for brows­ing and read­ing than the web­site be­cause one can in­stantly shift from item to item with­out any over­head or ac­tion (the col­ored back­grounds ini­tially seem like a mess but work well for sep­a­rat­ing en­tries with­out us­ing up any space),

On the down­side, the re­views often heav­ily edited down from the In­ter­net ver­sions to save space (even with all the tiny fonts and ed­its, it’s still huge), oc­ca­sion­ally out of date (eg Zeo sleep mon­i­tors—I love mine to death, but since the com­pany shut­tered ~2013, I can­not in good con­science rec­om­mend it to any­one), and has a lot of ty­pos.

Offhand, things I’ve ac­tu­ally started us­ing or bought thanks to CT (book or list): track­balls, Last­Pass, the “oblique strate­gies”, bidets for toi­lets. Odd­ly, I’ve ben­e­fited most from the me­dia rec­om­men­da­tions, par­tic­u­larly the non­fic­tion; thanks to CT, I’ve watched: , , , , , Project Nim, The King of Kong, , and ; and read the books: Fi­nite and In­fi­nite Games, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Fadi­man’s Psy­che­delic Ex­plor­er’s Guide, Tufte’s Vi­sual Dis­play of Quan­ti­ta­tive In­for­ma­tion, Chased by the Light, Let­ters from a Stoic, A Pat­tern Lan­guage, How Build­ings Learn, & Peo­ple­ware.

Con­flict of in­ter­est: I was a con­trib­u­tor and got a free copy be­cause I wrote the re­view of the Com­pact OED (which I still have al­beit rarely look up any­thing in these days).

Proving History, Carrier 2012

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

Over­all, it’s an in­ter­est­ing book which I re­gard as ba­si­cally cor­rect and a fruit­ful ap­proach for fu­ture re­search, and Richard Car­rier is a good guy whose work should be sup­port­ed.

On the other hand, so far it’s not quite as awe­some as I was hop­ing it’d be when I was writ­ing an es­say on re­cent­ly—I think Luke Muehlhauser was right in his Less­Wrong re­view that Car­rier does his case a dis­ser­vice by try­ing to ex­pound Bayesian ideas in a New Tes­ta­ment con­text where, half the point of Bayesian ideas is to point out how use­less the ev­i­dence is! That’s… not a good way to ei­ther demon­strate Bayes is good in his­tory nor to con­vince peo­ple of his over­ar­ch­ing claims like ‘all cor­rect his­tor­i­cal in­fer­ence is Bayesian in­fer­ence’.

The way to in­tro­duce a new par­a­digm is to start with its suc­cesses, where Bayesian meth­ods led to a cor­rect pre­dic­tion or retro­d­ic­tion of an is­sue where de­ci­sive ev­i­dence sur­faced while be­fore the is­sue was set­tled, con­ven­tional meth­ods were con­fused, wrong, or un­der­con­fi­dent; and then ar­gue that its prac­ti­cal suc­cess com­bined with your philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ments about Bayesian rea­son­ing be­ing the only cor­rect rea­son­ing is a con­vinc­ing syn­the­sis, maybe then work out verdicts/predictions/retrodictions on a non-con­tro­ver­sial area so the ex­perts can see how they like the con­clu­sions, and only then ex­tend it to highly con­tro­ver­sial and diffi­cult (s­carce or low-qual­ity ev­i­dence) ma­te­r­i­al.

I un­der­stand how he would come to write it that way since that’s what he was paid to do and Bib­li­cal ma­te­r­ial has be­come his spe­cialty but I can still re­gret that the out­come was­n’t as good as it could’ve been.

Wired Love, Thayer 1879

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

I read this on the strength of Clive Thomp­son’s re­view Wired Love: A tale of cat­fish­ing, OK Cu­pid, and sex­ting … from 1880; I down­loaded and read the Google Books ver­sion.

Thomp­son sum­ma­rizes it:

…Nat­tie is at work one day when a tele­graph op­er­a­tor in an­other city, who calls him­self “C”, be­gins chat­ting her up. They en­gage in a vir­tual courtship, things get funny and ro­man­tic, un­til sud­denly things take a most puz­zling and mys­te­ri­ous turn.

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

And also teens moon­ing over their cell­phones!

“…and what with that and the tele­phone and that dread­ful phono­graph that bot­tles up all one says and dis­gorges at in­con­ve­nient times, we will soon be able to do every­thing by elec­tric­i­ty; who knows but some ge­nius will in­vent some­thing for the es­pe­cial use of lovers? some­thing, for in­stance, to carry in their pock­ets, so when they are far away from each oth­er, and pine for a sound of ‘that beloved voice’, they will have only to take up this elec­tri­cal ap­pa­ra­tus, and be hap­py. Ah! bliss­ful lovers of the fu­ture!”

As promised, this was a very amus­ing Vic­to­rian nov­el, an easy read (per­haps a night’s worth), and the telegraphs were fas­ci­nat­ingly In­ter­net-chat-like.

The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, Hadamard 1954

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

I took a gan­der at this for its pos­si­ble rel­e­vance to an —Hadamard’s book is one of the clas­sics in the area of math­e­mat­i­cal dis­cov­ery, men­tioned along with Poin­car­é’s lec­ture.

With due al­lowance for style and age, Hadamard ably de­scribes and de­fends the ba­sic model of ‘work, in­cu­ba­tion, il­lu­mi­na­tion, ver­i­fi­ca­tion’, with ref­er­ence to his own dis­cov­er­ies, his many fa­mous ac­quain­tances, Poin­car­é’s lec­ture, and a very in­ter­est­ing sur­vey of math­e­mati­cians. In fact, it’s a lit­tle de­press­ing that we don’t seem to have gone much be­yond that in the half-cen­tury since this was pub­lished back in 1945 or so. While at least we no longer need his de­fense of the un­con­scious as a mean­ing­ful part of cog­ni­tion, much of the rest is de­press­ingly fa­mil­iar—­for ex­am­ple, his acute ob­ser­va­tions on men­tal im­agery and peo­ple who solely think in words, and men­tion of Fran­cis Gal­ton’s sur­vey (lit­tle-known out­side of psy­chol­o­gy), could be use­fully read by many who com­mit the .

If Hadamard comes to no hard and fast con­clu­sions, but merely raises many in­ter­est­ing points and crit­i­cizes a num­ber of the­o­ries, we can hardly hold that against him, as we can do lit­tle bet­ter and so it be­comes our fail­ing, not his.

(I read the scan.)

The Devil in the White City, Larson 2003

The Devil in the White CityErik Lar­son2003★★★★

Two books in one: a rel­a­tively un­in­ter­est­ing psy­cho­pathic se­r­ial killer (I agree with Lar­son, any­one who’s read Cleck­ley will in­stantly see Holmes as a psy­chopath), and the other a very in­ter­est­ing por­trait of a com­pletely for­got­ten so­ci­etal phe­nom­e­non—­world fairs and ex­po­si­tions. They used to be so im­por­tant, ma­jor mat­ters of na­tional pres­tige, key mech­a­nisms in the spread of art (e­spe­cially Japan­ese art, at the Paris one) and tech­nol­o­gy, and yet, they are com­pletely for­got­ten; I had­n’t even heard of them un­til they came up in Men in Black be­cause some left­over build­ings got used in the movie. But as Lar­son tells the sto­ry, we learn that they were mega-events to which all celebri­ties at­tend­ed, and a good frac­tion of the en­tire Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion would at­tend; they were the orig­i­nals of which Dis­ney’s Ep­cot is the palest im­i­ta­tion, they were the rea­son we have the Eiffel Tower and the Fer­ris wheel and so many other things. This story is the fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry, and it’s al­most a pity that Lar­son pe­ri­od­i­cally in­ter­rupts the tale of the Chicago one to tell us more about Holmes, rather than giv­ing us real pho­tos and more sto­ries from the fair (pho­tos like those in Ap­pel­baum’s The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Pho­to­graphic Record): after all we are told about the Court of Hon­or, it’s sad to be given only a tiny glimpse of it, and it’s re­ally a pity we read only a few ‘con sto­ries’, as it were, from the event it­self. But so it goes.

The Mask of Sanity, Cleckley 2003

The Mask of San­ityHer­vey M. Cleck­ley2003★★★★

Cleck­ley scat­ters through this book con­stant fas­ci­nat­ing anec­dotes and re­marks, some so out­ra­geous or re­mark­able that one would as­sume he made them up if he were writ­ing on some other top­ic.

Cleck­ley’s mor­al­iz­ing and oc­ca­sional very old-fash­ioned com­ments are oc­ca­sion­ally as in­ter­est­ing, and read­ing him in 2012, one feels very strongly just how dis­tant (in a so­cial mores sense) we are from him in the 1940s and ear­lier—when he writes of ‘mis­ce­gena­tion’ (I won­der how many teenagers now could tell you what ‘sex­ual mis­ce­gena­tion’ is), when he de­fends ho­mo­sex­u­als as pos­si­bly not in­sane but some­times even de­cent peo­ple, or when he speaks in hor­ror of fe­male psy­chopaths not guard­ing their vir­gin­i­ty, or in a half-page ful­mi­nat­ing against the hip­pies, or when he spec­u­lates that a healthy male adult might—after sev­eral years stranded on a desert is­land—en­joy mas­tur­ba­tion (no, re­al­ly?).

Sad­ly, Cleck­ley is not nearly as dated as one would hope after read­ing some­thing like 200 pages de­tail­ing the end­less wake of de­struc­tion, fraud, vi­o­lence, de­cep­tion, ma­nip­u­la­tion, and crim­i­nal­i­ty: his ba­sic con­clu­sion that there are no effec­tive treat­ments for psy­chopa­thy, and all pre­vi­ous at­tempts have been ex­pen­sive fail­ures, seems to re­main true. In­deed, some at­tempts at treat­ment have back­fired and re­sulted in even more crime be­ing com­mit­ted by sub­jects.

The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama 2006

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

I’ve bumped this to 4 stars as, think­ing back on the ~decade since I read this, Fukuyama is still right and yet no one seems to get this.

Peo­ple, look at the Arab Spring. Did it yield any caliphates, say? An­ar­chis­tic self­-gov­ern­ing com­munes? Self­-gov­ern­ing city-s­tates? Hanseatic Leagues? Or look at offi­cial rhetoric in places like Chi­na. Look at the grad­ual and con­tin­u­ing ex­pan­sion of cap­i­tal­ism and democ­racy as the de­faults for every coun­try (hypocrisy is the trib­ute virtue pays to vice). Look at the dis­cred­it­ing of Putin’s Russ­ian crony­ism ap­proach, or at the Mus­lim world’s shift away from mar­ginal Salafist groups like al-Qae­da. Does any­one ad­mire the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party and think that the mass con­cen­tra­tion camps for the Uighur, or the Hong Kong protests, shows that the model is work­ing bril­liantly and is a new su­pe­rior syn­the­sis that the masses world­wide are clam­or­ing for to be im­posed on them, to spare them the ter­ri­ble bur­dens of be­ing able to talk about Win­nie the Pooh? How about ISIS? Do re­ports from in­side the self­-pro­claimed ‘caliphate’, be­tween the sex slave mar­kets and the kid­nap­ping and oil theft and cor­rup­tion, make it look like any ide­o­log­i­cal threat to ne­olib­er­al­ism?

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

Hyperbole and a Half, Brosh 2013

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

tl;­dr: the we­b­comic is great, go read it.

I’ve been a de­voted reader of Hy­per­bole and a Half for many years now, even through the long de­pres­sion drought: Brosh is wit­ty, iron­ic, self­-aware, hi­lar­i­ous, and though her comics seem crudely drawn, they still per­fectly con­vey the in­ner emo­tions of events, il­lus­trate the prose, and (a­long with XKCD) give hope to us all that we may one day be­come world-class comic artists though we still draw like we’re in kinder­garten.

Sum­ma­ry: I like her stuff. 5 stars.

I was cu­ri­ous how the book ver­sion would go, since I had al­ready read all of the on­line ones (of course). I picked up the e-book, reader it in FBreader on my lap­top, and… I’m not re­ally im­pressed. These comic es­says were writ­ten for scrolling web browsers, and it shows in the awk­ward­ness of the pag­i­na­tion and book dis­play form. I’m glad the book ex­ists so she can make the money she de­serves and for all the peo­ple who sim­ply won’t read a web comic but will read a book, but at least for me, the orig­i­nal is best. (The ex­tra con­tent is­n’t re­ally enough to change my opin­ion.) Book: 4 stars.

Declare, Powers 2002

De­clareTim Pow­ers2002★★★★

I en­joyed this great­ly: De­clare is a hy­brid of a Le Carré es­pi­onage novel (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold in par­tic­u­lar) and Eco’s Fou­cault’s Pen­du­lum (in the metic­u­lous pat­tern-seek­ing and warp­ing of his­tor­i­cal events and lit­er­a­ture), with a bounc­ing ac­tion plot which ap­po­sitely quotes from Fitzger­ald-Khayyam, Spenser, Shake­speare and Swin­burne es­pe­cially to grant it greater depth than it might seem to mer­it. Even when you think it’s done on Mt Ararat (and Pow­ers has in a fi­nal flour­ish ex­plained Philby dy­ing shortly be­fore the Berlin Wal­l), the plot is­n’t en­tirely over and there are mul­ti­ple more de­cep­tions and op­er­a­tions to go. And to top it all off, Pow­ers takes an after­word to “show his work” and re­veal how Cold War his­tory was “freakier than fic­tion” (in TvTropes terms), but it’s hard to blame him for not be­ing re­ally pleased with some of the gen­uine in­ci­dents he works in. (The ex­plod­ing car with Philby wear­ing a fox cape and es­cap­ing with a mi­nor in­jury while every­one else died? Real. I was shocked.)

A Shropshire Lad, Housman 1990

A Shrop­shire LadA.E. Hous­man1990★★★★

(8.3k words; 1.5 hours; Wik­isource edi­tion) A.E. Hous­man’s first col­lec­tion of 63 po­ems. I en­joy his terse, rhyming style of very short lines, which he some­how makes look easy and al­most con­ver­sa­tion­al, par­tic­u­larly po­ems II, IV, XXIII, XXX, XXXIII, XLIV, XLIX, LXII, LXIII; it’s par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive how com­pletely con­sis­tent they all are with each oth­er. This con­sis­tency meant that when I read the , I found them very fun­ny.

It is short enough that the themes of ro­man­tic love and death do not grow too weary­ing be­fore the end, al­though I was not par­tic­u­larly taken with the pa­tri­otic po­ems, par­tic­u­larly in a col­lec­tion pub­lished not all that long be­fore WWI (“State is the name of the cold­est of all cold mon­sters. Coldly it lies; and this lie slips from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the peo­ple.’”), but on the plus side, none of the com­pla­cent Chris­tian­ity still in vogue at the time. Over­all, a good col­lec­tion. I will con­tinue on to Hous­man’s other col­lec­tions.

Chased by the Light, Brandenburg 2001

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

I read this after read­ing Kevin Kel­ly’s re­view in Cool Tools, where he wrote

Take one, and only one, ex­po­sure per day. No sec­ond ex­po­sure, no sec­ond chance. A sin­gle ar­row per day, and a bul­l’s eye each time. That’s zen. For am­a­teurs and pro­fes­sion­als alike this re­quires re­ly­ing on the Force. Par­tic­u­larly since many of his sub­jects are wild birds and stealthy wolves. The ninety im­ages stand strong, each on their own, but the com­plete sym­phony is one of the most im­pres­sive acts of mind­ful­ness I’ve seen.

After fin­ish­ing look­ing through it, I could not dis­agree too much. It is one of the best photo books I have seen. The sub­ject mat­ter is much less pro­found and ter­ri­fy­ing than 100 Suns, but the gen­eral qual­ity is high­er. More than once I found my­self won­der­ing if Bran­den­burg was ly­ing—these pho­tos are too good and catch too many mo­ments per­fect­ly, surely he could­n’t’ve pos­si­bly re­ally taken only 1 pho­to­graph a day and these were them, surely he some­times took hun­dreds and is cov­er­ing them up? But so it seems.

The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald 2004

F. Scott Fitzger­ald2004★★★★

As a LIer, I felt em­bar­rassed I’d never got­ten around to read­ing the sin­gle most fa­mous novel set on LI, so when I ran into a copy float­ing around dur­ing a trip, I took the op­por­tu­ni­ty. It is a very short nov­el, al­most more of an over­grown short story or novel­la—which makes sense since Fitzger­ald had be­come wealthy on his short sto­ries, as bizarre as that may sound these days—and I was not too im­pressed at the end; but it was so short I thought I might as well give it a fair shake by read­ing it a sec­ond time, and the sec­ond read was much more en­joy­able. Now that I knew the frame­work, it was much eas­ier to note the sim­i­lar­i­ties with The Count of Monte Cristo, one of my fa­vorite plots, and no­tice the sym­bol­ism and fore­shad­ow­ing scat­tered through­out. (The swim­ming pool was some­thing I had to­tally missed on the first read, and the ex­tent to which Daisy rather than Tom should be con­sid­ered the bad guy or at least causally re­spon­si­ble.) It is not as tight­ly-writ­ten or chill­ing a tragedy as Ethan Frome, and it’s murky what Gatsby is sup­posed to be, but still good.

The Signal and the Noise, Silver 2012

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

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

The Theory That Would Not Die, McGrayne 2011

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

Light his­tory of Bayesian sta­tis­tics and re­lated top­ics. I en­joyed the book a lot; McGrayne has a good eye for the amus­ing de­tails, and she con­veys at least some of the in­tu­ition (although some graphs or ex­am­ples would have helped the read­er—I liked the flip­ping coin il­lus­tra­tions in Da­sivia 2006 Bayesian Data Analy­sis). It’s also re­mark­ably syn­op­tic: I was re­peat­edly sur­prised by names pop­ping up in the chronol­o­gy, like BUGS, Bret­thorst, Fish­er’s smok­ing pa­pers, Di­a­con­is, the ac­tu­ar­ial use of Bayes etc, and I have a bet­ter im­pres­sion of Laplace and Good’s many con­tri­bu­tions. The math was very light, which un­der­mines the value of much of it since un­less one is al­ready an ex­pert one does­n’t know how much the au­thor is fal­si­fy­ing (for the best rea­son­s), and means that some con­nec­tions are missed (like em­pir­i­cal Bayes be­ing a fore­run­ner of hi­er­ar­chi­cal mod­el­ing, which aren’t well-ex­plained them­selves).

The Man Who Knew Infinity, Kanigel 1992

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

A long ac­count of a short life. I knew only the bare out­lines of Ra­manu­jan’s sto­ry, but I think this does an ex­cel­lent job in flesh­ing the fa­mous anec­dotes out; for ex­am­ple, I had­n’t re­al­ized how long he had twisted in the wind be­fore his fa­mous let­ter to Hardy, nor that he had spent a full year and more in In­dia in a po­si­tion be­fore fi­nally be­ing brought to Cam­bridge. While Kanigel goes over­board in his nov­el­is­tic scene-set­ting and psy­chol­o­giz­ing, one can­not say he does not try to set the scene for one and go be­yond a bare recita­tions of events to the ac­tual feel and tex­ture of life in var­i­ous places or of var­i­ous per­sons; par­tic­u­larly note­wor­thy is his at­tempts to ex­plain at least a lit­tle of the ac­tual math which made Ra­manu­jan worth a bi­og­ra­phy, be­yond his ro­man­tic sto­ry, and here I think Kanigel does a re­ally good job for the lay­man.

Debt, Graeber 2011

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

Mixed feel­ings: many in­ter­est­ing lit­tle tid­bits and quotes, but over­all I get the feel of a vast the­sis made up of con­fir­ma­tion bias and un­re­li­able ev­i­dence like et­y­molo­gies; some parts are flab­ber­gast­ingly wrong, like his brief de­scrip­tion of Ap­ple Com­put­er’s found­ing. (He ap­par­ently rou­tinely makes fac­tual mis­takes; Brad De­Long ap­par­ently iden­ti­fied 50 in chap­ter 12 just to make that point.)

And while he’s very cyn­i­cal about things he’s again­st, he ex­hibits a strange lack of cyn­i­cism about his in­-groups (like the idle poor, or Chi­na—ac­cus­ing the US of ma­nip­u­lat­ing the rates!) Em­pha­siz­ing the rather ide­o­log­i­cal bent of the book is his very thin skin as ex­hib­ited in re­sponse to on­line crit­i­cism like on Crooked Tim­ber.

Red Plenty, Spufford 2010

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

Com­pa­ra­ble to Dos Pas­sos’s USA or Scholz’s Ra­di­ance, if that helps. De­picts how Rus­sia fell into the mid­dle-in­come trap and stag­nat­ed, and il­lu­mi­nates the early growth of Rus­si­a’s in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and why Khrushchev thought Rus­sia could bury the US (not in dirt, but man­u­fac­tured good­s). Ele­giac, en­light­en­ing, sym­pa­thet­ic.

Fur­ther read­ing:

The Metropolitan Man, Wales 2014

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan ManAlexan­der Wales2014★★★★

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Man is an 80k-word novel fol­low­ing Lex Luthor as he re­al­izes and then grap­ples with the threat Su­per­man poses to the hu­man race (now that I think about it, it is like Worm in this re­spec­t). I can’t fault Luthor’s analy­sis of the many risks of Su­per­man or the ethics of his pow­ers, and the plot de­vel­ops well, fin­ish­ing in an end­ing which how­ever un­ex­pected and abrupt is per­fectly con­sis­tent with the plot­ter and thinker and care­ful pre­parer for all con­tin­gen­cies Luthor is shown as. But to some ex­tent it leaves me cold—d­iffi­cult to pin down what, but I think the writ­ing may sim­ply be too pre­cise, dry, blood­less to re­ally let me be ab­sorbed by the sto­ry.

The True Believer, Hoffer 2010

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

Many of his points and ob­ser­va­tions ring true, but Hoffer is fond of us­ing only a few iso­lated ex­am­ples to prove his points, and of affirm­ing para­dox­es; but the prob­lem with each is that they are not as re­li­able as they may seem, and the gen­eral de­tach­ment from sta­tis­tics and eco­nom­ics and de­mo­graph­ics un­der­mines my con­fi­dence in any of his claims. He cites Toc­queville ap­prov­ingly on the lack of co­her­ence of the nar­ra­tive of the French Rev­o­lu­tion with the ob­served facts that the French had never had it bet­ter than be­fore the Rev­o­lu­tion—but how can I then have any con­fi­dence in any of his nar­ra­tives?

Dreams of Steel, Cook 1990

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

A ma­jor im­prove­ment over the pre­vi­ous two books and equal to the orig­i­nal The Black Com­pany and Shad­ows Linger: we turn to the La­dy’s per­spec­tive as she fights her way back from a de­ba­cle in the in­va­sion of the Shad­ow­lands, builds up an army, and im­poses her own ma­nip­u­la­tive rule and em­pire-build­ing tac­tics, heav­ily leav­ened by plot­ting by all par­ties. Pluses in­cluded no more Taken pop­ping up, we saw very lit­tle of Gob­lin or One-eye, and soap-op­er­atic twist at the end aside, the over­all plot has built up nice­ly.

On China, Kissinger 2011

On ChinaHenry Kissinger2011★★★★

Kissinger may be a du­plic­i­tous mur­der­ous bas­tard, but he’s an ex­cel­lent an­a­lyst and while his an­cient his­tory is only so-so as far as I can tell from my other read­ing (eg. Need­ham), his takes on mod­ern Chi­nese his­tory is very in­ter­est­ing, and I learned a num­ber of things I did not know be­fore (I was shocked to learn that the So­vi­ets at one point se­ri­ously con­sid­ered pre-emp­tively at­tack­ing Chi­na’s nu­clear pro­gram and had reached out to the USA to ask whether the USA would be very up­set about it?).

The Master Switch, Wu 2010

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

His Cy­cle is a con­vinc­ing par­a­digm. I al­ready knew a lot of it from Lawrence Lessig and re­lated copy­right books and writ­ings, but Tim Wu puts the his­tory to­gether nice­ly, and ren­ders the 2000s a lit­tle clearer (not that I re­ally needed to be told that Apple/Jobs are a clear in­car­na­tion of the em­pire-build­ing trend; this was ob­vi­ous even when Neal Stephen­son pointed it out many years ago in “In The Be­gin­ning Was The Com­man­d­line…” )

The Circus of Dr. Lao, Finney 2002

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

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

Short, but fairly fun­ny; end­ing was­n’t quite as ex­pect­ed, but the drama­tis per­sonae and es­pe­cially the sec­tion of ques­tions list­ing contradictions/mistakes/obscurities made up for my lin­ger­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion. Don’t think it was di­rectly use­ful for in­ter­pret­ing Wolfe’s An Evil Guest, but the drama­tis per­sonae is a clear in­spi­ra­tion for Wolfe’s own char­ac­ter lists.

The Kindly Ones, Littell 2009

The Kindly OnesJonathan Lit­tell2009★★★★

Very long, not a lit­tle te­dious (although in places the de­tail reaches tour de forces, like the early dis­cus­sion of Ger­man war on the East­ern fron­t). De­sen­si­tized by the end. Not sure how to take it, but dis­agree with the pro­tag­o­nist—I don’t un­der­stand his con­stant de­prav­ity and mur­der­ing, and I don’t agree I would do much the same thing in his po­si­tion. One or two mur­ders, may­be, but even killing his best friend Thomas who time and again saved Aue’s ass?

The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bailyn 1992

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

Bai­lyn was more or less as Mold­bug de­scribed, and the quotes from the pam­phlets fairly con­vinc­ing. That said, I would have liked a lot more of those quotes about con­spir­a­cies and the ori­gins of the plans to en­slave the colonies for pri­vate profit, and much less para­phrase and po­lit­i­cal the­o­riz­ing.

Friendship is Optimal, iceman 2012

Friend­ship is Op­ti­malice­man2012★★★★

It’s an ex­cel­lent dystopia which makes you feel that it’s hel­l—but also bet­ter than our re­al­i­ty.

But as great as the premise is, and as chill­ing (or thrilling?) as the re­sults are, on re­flec­tion I’m not quite sure I can give this a rare 5-s­tars (as I did ini­tial­ly): the prose is a lit­tle too jour­ney­man-like, the char­ac­ters a lit­tle too un­differ­en­ti­at­ed.

3 Stars

Pioneers of Soviet Computing, Malinovsky 2010

Pi­o­neers of So­viet Com­put­ingBoris Niko­lae­vich Ma­li­novsky2010★★★

(Re­view of 2010 on­line 2nd edi­tion.)

Ma­li­novsky (b1921) is a Russian/Ukrainian who be­gan work­ing on com­put­ers as a grad stu­dent in the 1950s in the USSR. His book is a mix of per­sonal rem­i­nis­cences, bios, pri­mary doc­u­ments and long quo­ta­tions from mem­oirs, a di­ary con­trast­ing ’40s/’50s to his life in the ’90s after a heart prob­lem sent him to the hos­pi­tal, and in this Amer­i­can edi­tion a pref­ace ex­plain­ing the cir­cum­stances of an on­line re­lease and ap­pen­dix con­tain­ing aca­d­e­mic re­views of the Eng­lish-trans­la­tion man­u­script.

As such, it is unique. The early Amer­i­can de­vel­op­ment of com­put­ing has been cov­ered well and in de­tail by works such as Dyson’s Tur­ing’s Cathe­dral, but Russ­ian de­vel­op­ment is shrouded in ob­scu­ri­ty. Be­fore read­ing PoSS, about the only thing I knew about So­viet com­put­ing was that there was­n’t much of it and that they had tried an in­ter­est­ing ex­per­i­ment in not bi­nary but tri­nary or , the . Any at­tempt to give an overview of the his­tory is bound to be in­ter­est­ing. It also vividly con­veys the op­pres­sion that they worked un­der: black­list­ing of peo­ple for triv­ial rea­sons like hav­ing an un­usual Greek sur­name, dis­cour­age­ment of Jews, strin­gent se­cu­rity checks (why? given that no one in the world cared), diffi­culty in ac­quir­ing parts, ex­pen­sive pro­duc­tion, opaque bu­reau­cratic de­ci­sion-mak­ing about what projects to fund and the con­se­quence re­liance on mil­i­tary spon­sor­ship to cut through red tape… (but also some of the ben­e­fits, like spies and in­dus­trial es­pi­onage of Amer­i­can pro­ject­s).

That said, the in­for­ma­tive­ness is lim­ited by the chaotic or­ga­ni­za­tion of top­ics, bounc­ing from per­son to per­son. This book would have ben­e­fited a good deal from some graphs or time­lines to help one keep things straight, es­pe­cially as PoSS spends a lot of time on the many over­lap­ping projects in the ‘40s-’50s to de­velop vary­ing fla­vors of com­put­ers. For ex­am­ple, I often found my­self con­fus­ing Lebe­dev with other pi­o­neers. (The con­fus­ing non­de­script­ness of many or­ga­ni­za­tions’ names also did­n’t help.) Ma­li­novsky also de­lib­er­ately lim­its the dis­cus­sion to com­puter hard­ware, men­tion­ing that “Be­yond the scope of this book is the whole range of So­viet soft­ware de­vel­oped dur­ing the Cold War and the dis­tin­guished sci­en­tists be­hind it, this in­clud­ing A.A. Lya­punov, M.R. Shu­ra-Bu­ra, A.P. Er­shov, V.M. Kurochk­in, E.L. Yuschenko, and oth­ers”; un­for­tu­nate­ly, it is the soft­ware de­vel­op­ments which would still be com­pre­hen­si­ble and of in­ter­est to tech­ni­cal read­ers, whose eyes glaze over at the end­less men­tions of hard­ware de­tails like one kind of semi­con­duc­tor chip vs a slightly larger kind of semi­con­duc­tor chip; worse, it is diffi­cult to eval­u­ate hard­ware achieve­ments with­out in­for­ma­tion about the soft­ware which ran on it, since code and hard­ware are a con­tin­uum (any­one can de­sign an ul­tra­-fast com­puter which is a night­mare to write for; in­deed, that has oft hap­pened).

Pa­ton writes “Lebe­dev sug­gested that his stu­dents pre­pare and pub­lish ma­te­ri­als about the for­ma­tion and de­vel­op­ment of com­puter tech­nol­ogy in the So­viet Union. ‘In the West, they con­sider us to be worse than we re­ally are. We have to change their opin­ion of us’, he said. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, his idea was not prop­erly im­ple­mented at that time and only now has been em­bod­ied in this book.” In­deed… In his at­tempt, Ma­li­novsky omits perspective/context and is bi­ased, which over­all ren­der the book more a source for fu­ture his­to­ri­ans writ­ing a his­tory of So­viet com­put­ing than a his­tory it­self. Ma­li­novsky pa­tri­ot­i­cally protests

…the es­tab­lish­ment and de­vel­op­ment of com­puter tech­nol­ogy in the USSR ad­vanced in the post-war years vir­tu­ally with­out any con­tact with the West­ern sci­en­tists. The de­vel­op­ment of com­put­ers abroad was con­ducted se­cretly be­cause at first, dig­i­tal elec­tronic com­put­ers were des­ig­nated for mil­i­tary pur­pos­es. At the same time, the com­puter tech­nol­ogy in the USSR evolved in­de­pen­dently as well, led by top So­viet sci­en­tists.

De­spite re­peated quotes how they would avidly study Amer­i­can pub­li­ca­tions for any avail­able de­tails! If he can­not say a So­viet com­puter is faster, then it used less parts, or was more re­li­able, or was built quick­er, or a clus­ter of 76 (!) was faster than an Amer­i­can su­per­com­put­er… In the bi­ogra­phies, each and every pi­o­neer is hard­work­ing, kind, mod­est, at­ten­tive, and loy­al, and how each cre­ated com­put­ers in breath­tak­ingly short times and how every com­puter seemed to op­er­ate per­fectly and be com­pet­i­tive with the fastest Amer­i­can ma­chi­nes, & how many su­perla­tives each su­per pi­o­neer de­served (backed up by end­less men­tions of awards that they re­ceived, or oc­ca­sion­al­ly, did­n’t re­ceive due to bu­reau­cratic sab­o­tage). As the Ab­bate re­view notes, “Oc­ca­sion­ally the prose takes on a heroic or pa­tri­otic tone that may be jar­ring to Amer­i­can read­ers (though quite com­mon in its Russian/Ukrainian con­tex­t).” More im­por­tant­ly, through the book Ma­li­novsky damns fol­low­ing the rather than con­tin­u­ing do­mes­tic lines of de­vel­op­ment; the Slava re­view:

As a par­tic­i­pant first-hand ac­count, Ma­li­novsky’s book is both valu­able and prob­lem­at­ic. Like any other per­sonal ac­count, it is prone to cer­tain bi­as­es. When Ma­li­novsky touches upon con­tro­ver­sial top­ics, he often pro­vides only one side of the sto­ry. For ex­am­ple, the ri­valry be­tween the two first So­viet large-size dig­i­tal com­puter pro­jects, the BESM and the STRELA, is nar­rated largely from the view­point of the BESM camp. A his­to­rian would have writ­ten a more bal­anced ac­count. Other top­ics that may re­quire a his­to­ri­o­graphic com­men­tary in­clude the wide in­tro­duc­tion of au­to­mated con­trol sys­tems ac­tively pro­moted by the di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute of Cy­ber­net­ics in Kiev Vik­tor Glushkov (many ob­servers claimed that this cam­paign led to in­effi­ciency and waste) or the con­tro­versy over the de­ci­sion to build the Uni­fied Se­ries of Com­put­ers that sup­pos­edly “copied” IBM 360 (Ma­li­novsky claims that this de­ci­sion di­rectly led to the “demise” of the So­viet com­puter in­dus­try). In both cas­es, Ma­li­novsky cov­ers one side of the story in great de­tail but gives lit­tle voice to Glushkov’s crit­ics or to the sup­port­ers of the Uni­fied Se­ries, who claimed that Uni­fied Se­ries com­put­ers were no copies of IBM but were only soft­ware-com­pat­i­ble with IBM and had high per­for­mance char­ac­ter­is­tics. Anne Fitz­patrick’s ex­plana­tory com­ments are very help­ful; and it would be very ben­e­fi­cial for the reader if she could also ad­dress con­tro­ver­sial his­to­ri­o­graphic is­sues, ei­ther in the end­notes or in the In­tro­duc­tion. The trans­la­tor should be com­pli­mented on hav­ing done an ex­cel­lent job in con­vey­ing the style of the orig­i­nal Russ­ian text. This style, how­ev­er, may sound a bit too heavy for an Amer­i­can read­er, for it car­ries some of the typ­i­cal fea­tures of So­vi­et-era for­mal dis­course: too many nouns, the abun­dance of pas­sive voice, overblown ep­i­thets, etc. Ad­just­ing the style for an Amer­i­can au­di­ence would make the book much more read­able.

Ma­li­novsky never re­ally jus­ti­fies his claims, and one won­ders. The IBM 360 was a land­mark de­sign, suc­cess­ful in the mar­ket for all sorts of pur­pos­es, and in gen­er­al, the com­put­ing mar­ket has been un­kind to any at­tempts to take al­ter­nate paths from the cur­rent lead­ing con­tender (the be­ing an ex­am­ple), as by do­ing so, one cuts one­self off from an en­tire world of in­no­va­tion and Moore’s law. (Vigo­da: “In prac­tice re­plac­ing dig­i­tal com­put­ers with an al­ter­na­tive com­put­ing par­a­digm is a risky propo­si­tion. Al­ter­na­tive com­put­ing ar­chi­tec­tures, such as par­al­lel dig­i­tal com­put­ers have not tended to be com­mer­cially vi­able, be­cause Moore’s Law has con­sis­tently en­abled con­ven­tional von Neu­mann ar­chi­tec­tures to ren­der al­ter­na­tives un­nec­es­sary. Be­sides Moore’s Law, dig­i­tal com­put­ing also ben­e­fits from ma­ture tools and ex­per­tise for op­ti­miz­ing per­for­mance at all lev­els of the sys­tem: process tech­nol­o­gy, fun­da­men­tal cir­cuits, lay­out & al­go­rithms. Many en­gi­neers are si­mul­ta­ne­ously work­ing to im­prove every as­pect of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, while al­ter­na­tive tech­nolo­gies like ana­log com­put­ing do not have the same kind of in­dus­try jug­ger­naut push­ing them for­ward.”) Is­n’t it more likely that So­viet com­put­ing could have gone down a dead end and stag­nated per­ma­nent­ly?

In­deed, there are many signs that So­viet com­put­ing could eas­ily have dis­ap­peared up its own navel. For ex­am­ple, the parts deal­ing with grandiose plans to turn the So­viet econ­omy into a cen­tral­ly-com­put­er-planned cy­ber­netic pro­gram by the 1970s—this sounds like com­plete id­iocy to the mod­ern mind, aware of the full com­plex­ity of a mod­ern econ­omy and how in­effi­cient So­viet man­age­ment was and how cen­tral­iza­tion in­evitably fails & of the in­cred­i­ble com­put­ing power needed to effi­ciently run even a small chunk of the econ­omy like Wal­mart or Ama­zon—and yet Ma­li­novsky, even after the fall of the USSR and com­plete dis­cred­it­ing of cen­tral­ized economies, seems to think it was a great idea killed by politi­cians & could have saved the USSR and Glushkov was a prophet rather than a dream­er! It’s no sur­prise that the politi­cians were not ea­ger to spend 20 bil­lion rubles on a plan with no guar­an­tee of work­ing. And even has the chutz­pah to claim “And now a huge in­for­ma­tion net­work—the In­ter­net—is stretch­ing across the Com­mon­wealth of Newly In­de­pen­dent States and around the world, ful­fill­ing Vik­tor Mikhailovich’s dreams and pre­dic­tions of forty years ago.” The Glushkov sec­tions also ex­em­plify Ma­li­novsky’s will­ing­ness to claim credit for So­viet soft­ware achieve­ments but not dis­cuss any of the de­tails, many of which sound like aw­ful ideas or mean­ing­less, lead­ing one to won­der if he does­n’t un­der­stand what he’s talk­ing about or just is bad at de­scrib­ing them eg he quotes Glushkov as writ­ing:

What was the differ­ence be­tween Mir and other com­put­ers? We con­sid­er­ably up­graded the ma­chine lan­guage. How­ev­er, back then the pop­u­lar point of view was that ma­chine lan­guage must be as sim­ple as pos­si­ble and the rest would be done by soft­ware. We were even mocked for our efforts to de­velop differ­ent com­put­ers. The ma­jor­ity of com­puter sci­en­tists in the world be­lieved that it was nec­es­sary to de­velop com­put­er-aided pro­gram­ming, that is, to cre­ate soft­ware that would help pro­duce other pro­grams.

Yes, that was the pop­u­lar view then and still is, be­cause it’s right. is still the dom­i­nant view of West­ern com­puter sci­en­tists as baroque CISC ar­chi­tec­tures are al­ways left in the dust. Glushkov was dead­-wrong, but no men­tion is made of this. Or,

In de­sign­ing the Mir ma­chi­nes, we had tack­led a dar­ing prob­lem—to match the ma­chine lan­guage as close as pos­si­ble to the hu­man lan­guage, and here I mean math­e­mat­i­cal non­ver­bal lan­guage, though later we made at­tempts with nor­mal hu­man lan­guage. So, we cre­ated ‘An­a­lyt­ic,’ a spe­cial math­e­mat­i­cal lan­guage, sup­ported by an in­ter­nal in­ter­pre­ta­tion sys­tem. Mir com­put­ers were used in all re­gions of the So­viet Union. Their cre­ation be­came an in­ter­me­di­ate stage in re­search aimed at the de­vel­op­ment of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, since the in­tel­li­gence re­al­ized in them was still fairly prim­i­tive. It also looked very im­pres­sive when a ma­chine quickly solved in­de­pen­dent and de­pen­dent in­te­grals, while not many pro­fes­sors of math­e­mat­ics were able to solve them. In ad­di­tion, the ma­chine found sub­sti­tu­tions, not just the easy ones from ta­bles, but the diffi­cult ones as well…the Mir com­puter fam­ily was quickly de­vel­oped and put into se­r­ial pro­duc­tion, re­ceiv­ing high marks from its users. Its cre­ation was a gi­ant step in the de­vel­op­ment of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in small com­put­ers.

In what sense? Solv­ing in­te­grals is­n’t much of an ac­com­plish­ment. What does it mean to “match the ma­chine lan­guage as close as pos­si­ble to the hu­man lan­guage”? I’m not aware of any im­por­tant work in AI stem­ming from USSR re­search. Or:

Glushkov pro­posed a macro-con­veyer prin­ci­ple based on the idea that each proces­sor was given a sep­a­rate task dur­ing every step of the com­put­ing process, which al­lowed it to work in­de­pen­dently for a long time with­out the in­ter­fer­ence from other proces­sors. In 1959, at the So­viet Al­l-U­nion Con­fer­ence on Com­puter Tech­nol­ogy in Kiev, Glushkov spoke about the idea of a brain-like com­puter struc­ture that could be re­al­ized when the de­sign­ers were able to in­te­grate not thou­sands, but bil­lions of el­e­ments with prac­ti­cally lim­it­less con­nec­tions be­tween them, into a sin­gle sys­tem. There would also be a con­flu­ence of mem­ory and data pro­cess­ing, a sys­tem in which data would be processed through­out the mem­ory with a high­est pos­si­ble de­gree of par­al­lelism in all op­er­a­tions…only the de­vel­op­ment of new non-Von Neu­mann com­puter ar­chi­tec­ture…­would solve the prob­lem of cre­at­ing a su­per­com­puter with un­lim­ited growth in pro­duc­tiv­ity and pro­gres­sively more so­phis­ti­cated hard­ware. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, fur­ther re­search showed that a com­pre­hen­sive re­al­iza­tion of the con­struc­tion prin­ci­ples of re­cur­sive com­put­ers and brain-like struc­tures was be­yond the level of elec­tronic tech­nol­ogy at that time.

De­spite be­ing a pro­gram­mer in­ter­ested in AI, I have no idea what any of it means. This cul­mi­nates in id­i­otic boast­ing: “Un­for­tu­nate­ly, the po­ten­tial of the Mir com­puter line was never fully re­al­ized. Dur­ing my 1979 pre­sen­ta­tion in Novosi­birsk on the in­te­gra­tion of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence into com­put­ers, I heard the aca­d­e­mi­cian An­drei Er­shov crit­i­cize the In­sti­tute of Cy­ber­net­ics by say­ing: ‘If you had not stopped up­grad­ing the Mir fam­i­ly, the USSR would have had the best per­sonal com­put­ers in the world.’” No, there was 0 chance. Not in a sys­tem as pathological/impoverished/repressed as the USSR was—there were no op­por­tu­ni­ties for the economies of scale which power mi­crochip de­vel­op­ment, and if there had, PCs would never have been al­lowed out­side of a few re­stricted roles. The whole point of the PC rev­o­lu­tion in Amer­ica was that any­one, in­clud­ing lit­tle kids who would grow up to be great pro­gram­mers and en­tre­pre­neurs, could ac­cess cheap un­re­stricted com­put­ing power for the most triv­ial of rea­sons and cre­ate what­ever they wanted to with­out fric­tion.

Nor was Glushkov alone. No mat­ter how much dead, he’ll still hold out hope that a dead end is not a dead end. “To this day, Brusentsov main­tains that the tri­nary sys­tem is su­pe­rior to bi­na­ry, but only time will be able to tell whether or not he is cor­rect”—how long should we wait, ex­act­ly? Or from the Se­tun ar­ti­cle, we read that its pro­gram­ming lan­guage, DSSP, “was not in­vent­ed. It was found. That is why DSSP has not ver­sions, but only ex­ten­sions. Forth is cre­ated by prac­tice. DSSP is cre­ated by the­o­ry. It is not a word.” This is patho­log­i­cal lin­guis­tic mys­ti­cism, one of the delu­sions of the 20th cen­tury among other cen­turies—the idea that lan­guage is ter­ri­bly im­por­tant and that a bet­ter purer lan­guage would un­lock wasted pow­ers and en­able un­dreamed-of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. If we could in­vent a more log­i­cal and com­pact lan­guage, if we could strip out the il­lu­sions built into lan­guage, if we could come up with a bet­ter one, we would solve AI / cre­ate world peace / be­come ge­niuses etc. What’s the stock trope for be­com­ing su­per­in­tel­li­gent in 20th cen­tury SF? Your own lan­guage in which you can con­vey con­cepts more effi­ciently and fast; we see this in Hein­lein’s Speedtalk, An­der­son’s Brain Wave, even Chi­ang in “Un­der­stand” (and any­thing to do with that ), or en­thu­si­asm for con­langs like Loglan/Lojban… it’s why Russ­ian fas­cists in­tently study­ing Ithkuil feel like such an anachro­nism. It is the fal­lacy that is cor­rect, that lan­guages pow­er­fully shape thoughts rather than chan­nel triv­i­al­i­ties like col­or-name choic­es. The truth is that spe­cial­ized lan­guages and no­ta­tions are in­deed pow­er­ful, but : they cod­ify in­sights, and can only be cre­ated after. To de­sign a lan­guage be­fore the pow­er­ful ideas it em­bod­ies is to put the cart be­fore the horse. To go from Leib­niz­ian cal­cu­lus no­ta­tion to ‘Lo­jban will make your life more awe­some’ is to ig­nore the spe­cial­iza­tion that gave it pow­er. There are no gen­eral pow­er­ful in­sights you can em­body in a lan­guage to turn its users into ge­nius­es, al­though you can take the in­sights of past ge­niuses in sta­tis­tics and de­sign a spe­cial­ized sta­tis­tics lan­guage which is far bet­ter than or­di­nary lan­guage. Learn­ing Ithkuil won’t give you ac­cess to any ideas or heuris­tics you did­n’t have be­fore, be­cause nat­ural lan­guage is al­ready gen­eral and flex­i­ble. (Would Newspeak ac­tu­ally work? Con­sider Gene Wolfe’s coun­ter-ex­am­ple, or the Darmoks of Star Trek).

The pol­i­tics of So­viet com­put­ing are in­ter­est­ing. There re­mains a great deal of lin­ger­ing guilt and doubt around the Man­hat­tan Pro­jec­t—whether it was re­ally a good thing. sci­en­tists work­ing on the SDI mis­sile de­fense pro­gram are even more prickly about whether their work was harm­ful in desta­bi­liz­ing the pre­car­i­ous peace. One won­ders about Russ­ian coun­ter­parts: did they re­gret en­deav­or­ing might­ily to put atomic bombs in the hands of a psy­chopath like Stal­in? Or as­sist­ing bomb and ICBM de­vel­op­ment to en­sure that all of hu­man­ity would live un­der a Damo­clean sword? Or how about the en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences, far from lim­ited to Cher­nobyl. But there is no such doubt in the peo­ple Ma­li­novsky quotes: “In ret­ro­spect, the rush was jus­ti­fied: pos­ses­sion of such mis­siles gave our coun­try weapons par­ity with the United States.”; ‘On­ce, one of Sergei Alex­ee­vich’s daugh­ters asked him: “Why do you make com­put­ers for the mil­i­tary?” He replied: “To avoid a war.”’; etc. In­deed, the worse the USSR treated its re­searchers, the more loyal and de­voted they seemed to be­come. For ex­am­ple, Rameev saw his grand­fa­ther ex­pro­pri­at­ed, his fa­ther fa­tally purged un­der Stalin and his great in­ven­tion stolen from him, and Rameev’s con­clu­sion? “a stern voice warned him: ‘Live qui­etly & don’t con­tact us ever again!’ At that mo­ment, Rameev un­der­stood that he had to do some­thing un­usu­al, out­stand­ing, and very im­por­tant for his peo­ple and na­tion in or­der to give his life mean­ing.” Is that so? Or in the story of the re­searcher Akush­sky who was threat­ened with sum­mary ex­e­cu­tion be­cause a plane went down, and who clev­erly saves him­self by prov­ing it was the pi­lots’ fault; very amus­ing, and chill­ing. Ma­li­novsky blandly re­marks at one point, “Things did not go smoothly at first be­cause some Com­mu­nist lead­ers over­see­ing the project re­mem­bered that Kisunko was the son of a re­pressed ku­lak.”

The Operations Evaluation Group, Tidman 1984

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

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

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

Tid­man writes in a clear style and pro­vides a num­ber of use­ful sup­port­ing graphs and maps; he tries to bal­ance be­tween dis­cussing the mil­i­tary back­ground of each prob­lem, the analy­ses and 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, , 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 and 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 and 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 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:

  • after com­pil­ing all data about U-boat sink­ings, Edi­son found mer­chant ship­ping routes were un­changed de­spite the risk, 94% of sink­ings were dur­ing the day, and <4% of ships car­ried lis­ten­ing de­vices or ra­dios. Edi­son set up a sim­ple war game on a map sim­u­lat­ing a mer­chant vs U-boat, prov­ing that travel by night from port to port would largely elim­i­nate sink­ings. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, his find­ings were ig­nored.
  • Black­et­t’s Cir­cus used an­i­mal ex­per­i­ments demon­strat­ing that lethal­ity of air pres­sure blasts was over­es­ti­mated 5×, re­duc­ing over-op­ti­mistic es­ti­mates of the effect of bomb­ing cam­paigns in Ger­many
  • Depth charges were set to ex­plode at 100 feet depth, on the as­sump­tion that U-boats would be that deep after be­ing spot­ted; analy­sis in­di­cated that half had not even sub­merged when depth-charged, much less reached 100 feet, and the op­ti­mal set­ting was 20 feet (which the depth charges did­n’t even al­low as a set­ting), which “new set­ting [of 35 feet] at least quadru­pled their de­struc­tive ca­pa­bil­i­ty.”
  • Big con­voys turned out to have half the loss rate of small con­voys, due to U-boats be­ing un­able to amass more, lead­ing to a shift away from small con­voys
  • A British naval pro­gram in the Mediter­ranean armed mer­chant ships with AA guns to re­duce losses from aer­ial bomb­ing; the pro­gram was go­ing to be can­celed be­cause only 4% of at­tack­ing planes were be­ing shot down and the de­ploy­ment of scarce guns looked like a waste, how­ev­er, an OR re-analy­sis of ship rather than air­craft losses showed that the armed ships had a 10% loss rate ver­sus un­armed ships’ 25% loss rate. The lat­ter was clearly a more rel­e­vant end-met­ric.
  • ini­tial at­tempts by naval re­searchers to record un­der­wa­ter ship sounds to fool sound-based naval mines failed as the de­vice in­vented to make ship-like sounds turned out to not sound much like a ship at all; this de­vice serendip­i­tously turned out to be nearly per­fect for fool­ing the Ger­man sound-seek­ing hom­ing tor­pe­does, largely scup­per­ing their de­ploy­ment (and freak­ing out the U-boat crews by its bizarre sounds, who were sure that the “singing saws” were “some pow­er­ful, dan­ger­ous weapon”)
  • William Shock­ley (tak­ing a break from elec­tron­ics re­search to serve as an OEG an­a­lyst dur­ing WWII), de­ployed to Eng­land to ob­serve ASW there and was struck by an in­ci­dent in which a plane at­tempted to bomb a dis­cov­ered U-boat but the bomb jammed due to rust, then, fixed, went out again 2 days later only to crash in the fog. Shock­ley found that “on the av­er­age, an air­crew had just one op­por­tu­nity to kill a sub­ma­rine be­fore its own mem­bers were ei­ther killed or wounded or at least moved on to an­other as­sign­ment. An air­crew thus had lit­tle or no op­por­tu­nity to learn on the job.” ASW could only be de­vel­oped in­sti­tu­tion­ally and given the na­ture of search over large ar­eas, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly.
  • OEG was deeply in­volved in the early de­vel­op­ment of op­ti­mal search the­ory (Bayesian or oth­er­wise), de­vel­op­ing mod­els of what prob­a­bil­ity a search plane had of spot­ting U-bots or periscopes un­der var­i­ous con­di­tions and al­ti­tudes. This then al­lowed de­vel­op­ment of op­ti­mal search pat­terns and set­ting up bar­rier pa­trols, which, when de­ployed in the Strait of Gibral­tar, caught 3 U-boats in 4 months and then sealed off the Mediter­ranean; this was fol­lowed by cap­ture or de­struc­tion of 4 of 5 Ger­man block­ade-run­ners car­ry­ing vi­tal rubber/tin sup­plies from Malaysia/Japan (the equiv­a­lent of “a year and a half” of Ger­man sup­plies).
  • study of U-boats off the US East Coast and also the Caribbeans showed that air pa­trols were stay­ing far too close to land and needed to be out­fit­ted with ra­dios and spot­lights; the pa­trol pat­terns were changed.
  • on the other side of the At­lantic, radar+spot­lights on even a few planes around France proved to be a po­tent com­bi­na­tion in strik­ing U-boats at night when they typ­i­cally sur­faced to rest and travel rapid­ly, forc­ing them to shift travel to dur­ing the al­ready-dan­ger­ous day. “In sum, the night fly­ing of 2 squadrons had in­creased the effec­tive­ness of an­ti­sub­ma­rine op­er­a­tions in the Bay [of Bis­cay] by more than 7 squadrons of day fly­ing.” (And also prompt­ing the in­tro­duc­tion of radar-de­tec­tors, which led to radar-de­tec­tor-de­tec­tors etc.) A sim­i­lar sce­nario played out in the Paci­fic: analy­sis demon­strated that US subs were lost at the same rate re­gard­less of us­ing their radar, so the Japan­ese planes did not have radar-de­tec­tors, and US subs could go back to us­ing radar ful­l-time.
  • The ex­is­tence of radar-de­tec­tors led Caribbean pi­lots, when out­fit­ted with a new radar that reg­u­larly re­vealed van­ish­ing con­tacts, to as­sume they were be­ing de­tected by U-boats, and to aban­don use of the highly effec­tive radar, crip­pling their sub­ma­rine hunt­ing. OEG did­n’t be­lieve radar-de­tec­tors could have been de­ployed so fast by the Ger­mans and in­ves­ti­gat­ed; the van­ish­ing con­tacts turned out to be glitch in the radar and the pi­lots re­sumed use.
  • US sub­marines were be­ing lost at high rate in the Pa­cific for un­known rea­sons, as few sur­vived long enough to re­port the cause; study of US sub­ma­rine miss rates in at­tack­ing Japan­ese subs (which able to re­port back) re­vealed that con­trary to the US Navy’s be­lief, most of the US subs were be­ing killed by Japan­ese subs and not air­planes or sur­face ships. Im­me­di­ate­ly, tac­tics and sound equip­ment were re­vised to em­pha­size an­ti-tor­pedo tac­tics, and “By the close of the war, sev­eral com­man­ders had cred­ited the mod­i­fied tor­pedo de­tec­tion equip­ment and new tac­tics with sav­ing their sub­marines from de­struc­tion.” While they were at it, they mod­eled mine fields and ap­pro­pri­ate coun­ter-tac­tics, and “of 12 sub­marines as­signed to op­er­ate in the Sea of Japan, none was lost to the mines that heav­ily dot­ted the straits lead­ing into and out of the area.”
  • an­ti-kamikaze tac­tics were like­wise worked out (eva­sive ma­neu­vers: big ships yes, small no; turn to­wards a high­-div­ing but away from a low-div­ing)
  • Analy­sis of Ko­rean fight­er-bomber strikes showed the F4U was much more vul­ner­a­ble than the F9F, due to tac­tics like go­ing much lower and more often in range of AA (and even smal­l­-arms fire). It also showed pi­lots were wrong about their be­lief that the last air­plane in a strike ran the largest risks due to loss of the el­e­ment of sur­prise (it ac­tu­ally ran the least risk). Changes re­duced the F4U loss­es.
  • a 1958 OEG study found a ‘win­dow of vul­ner­a­bil­ity’ of the US to USSR pre-emp­tive strikes 1961-1963 and a ‘mis­sile gap’. Tid­man de­fends the re­port, not­ing that it made a num­ber of sug­ges­tions for elim­i­nat­ing the ‘win­dow’, many of which were tak­en: “…the hard­en­ing and dis­per­sal of fixed weapons sites, a pro­gram of con­tin­u­ous flights by SAC bombers, the sped-up pro­cure­ment of avail­able weapons sys­tems (such as mo­bile cruise mis­siles), and the in­creased pre­pared­ness of naval air. OEG also rec­om­mended that em­pha­sis re­main on the de­vel­op­ment of mo­bile and con­ceal­able forces, rather than on fixed-site forces. Po­lar­is, for ex­am­ple, was spot­lighted as mer­it­ing ac­cel­er­ated pro­duc­tion. The de­fense poli­cies of two ad­min­is­tra­tions were greatly in­flu­enced by this ex­pec­ta­tion of a pos­si­ble low point in U.S. de­ter­rence…As soon as John F. Kennedy took over the pres­i­den­cy, how­ev­er, he de­cided to em­bark on an ex­ten­sive pro­gram of strength­en­ing Amer­i­can strate­gic forces. Mir­ror­ing much of what OEG’s study had rec­om­mended three years ear­lier, he in­creased the pro­duc­tion rate of Po­laris sub­marines by sev­eral months, and added 10 sub­marines to the orig­i­nal planned to­tal. He also dou­bled the ca­pa­bil­ity for pro­duc­ing Min­ute­man and im­proved the alert sta­tus of SAC’s B-52s.”
  • dur­ing the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis, Kennedy’s or­der to block­ade Cuba was im­ple­mented by the US Navy based heav­ily on OEG-researched doc­trines and with ac­tive OEG as­sis­tance; OEG fur­ther stud­ied data dur­ing the block­ade about in­ter­cept rates, help­ing con­firm that the block­ade was tight and in­ter­cept­ing al­most all So­viet ves­sels.
  • this block­ade re­search would be fur­ther used in Viet­nam as part of the blockade/intercept line, where OEG op­ti­mized it and showed that the block­ade there too was highly effec­tive in elim­i­nat­ing Vi­et­cong sup­plies
  • around 1966, OEG “con­ducted a study of sur­face-to-sur­face mis­siles that led di­rectly to the de­vel­op­ment of the Har­poon an­ti­ship cruise mis­sile.” (Un­for­tu­nate­ly, Tid­man does­n’t go into more de­tail about Har­poon other than to note later OEG in­volve­ment in fine­tun­ing Har­poon based on field ex­er­cises and against what was known of Russ­ian ship de­fens­es.)

(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 isego­ri­, quot­ing an­other OR paper/book, Tech­niques of Sys­tems Analy­sis, Kahn and 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 and 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 and Kim­ball 1951, “Sci­en­tists at the Op­er­a­tional Level”, Black­ett 1941. See also The The­ory That Would Not Die and The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III.)

Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Quincey 2003

Thomas De Quincey2003★★★

(I read the Project Guten­berg edi­tion, which ap­pears to be the first ver­sion which is shorter but . 36k words, 1-2 hours.)

One of the more fa­mous drug mem­oirs, up there with Hux­ley’s The Doors of Per­cep­tion in in­flu­ence and 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 , 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):

I trust that it will prove not merely an in­ter­est­ing record, but in a con­sid­er­able de­gree use­ful and in­struc­tive. In that hope it is that I have drawn it up; and that must be my apol­ogy for break­ing through that del­i­cate and ho­n­ourable re­serve which, for the most part, re­strains us from the pub­lic ex­po­sure of our own er­rors and in­fir­mi­ties. Noth­ing, in­deed, is more re­volt­ing to Eng­lish feel­ings than the spec­ta­cle of a hu­man be­ing ob­trud­ing on our no­tice his moral ul­cers or scars, and tear­ing away that “de­cent drap­ery” which time or in­dul­gence to hu­man frailty may have drawn over them…­Con­nected with this sleep was a lit­tle in­ci­dent which served, as hun­dreds of oth­ers did at that time, to con­vince me how eas­ily a man who has never been in any great dis­tress may pass through life with­out know­ing, in his own per­son at least, any­thing of the pos­si­ble good­ness of the hu­man heart-or, as I must add with a sigh, of its pos­si­ble vile­ness. So thick a cur­tain of man­ners is drawn over the fea­tures and ex­pres­sion of men’s na­tures, that to the or­di­nary ob­server the two ex­trem­i­ties, and the in­fi­nite field of va­ri­eties which lie be­tween them, are all con­found­ed; the vast and mul­ti­tudi­nous com­pass of their sev­eral har­monies re­duced to the mea­gre out­line of differ­ences ex­pressed in the gamut or al­pha­bet of el­e­men­tary sound­s…­Je­remy Tay­lor con­jec­tures that it may be as painful to be born as to die. I think it prob­a­ble

Or Matthew Be­vis:

But De Quincey did­n’t merely re­veal dan­ger­ous ap­petites; he was one of the first to think through what such ap­petites might be con­ceal­ing. He vir­tu­ally in­vented the cat­e­gories of mod­ern psy­chol­o­gy—the OED cred­its him with bring­ing the words “evad­able,” “patho­log­i­cal­ly,” and “sub­con­scious” into the lan­guage…In a style that is some­how both lo­qua­cious and sur­rep­ti­tious, De Quincey is fre­quently drawn to en­closed spaces… His beloved sis­ter Eliz­a­beth died (prob­a­bly from menin­gi­tis) when he was six years old. In Sus­piria De Pro­fundis (1845), the as­ton­ish­ing se­quel to Con­fes­sions, he writes that, the day after she died, he crept into the room where her corpse was laid out. Struck by the con­trast be­tween her beau­ti­ful, stiff­en­ing fig­ure and “the trop­i­cal re­dun­dancy of life in sum­mer,” he fell into a kind of daze:

When I re­turned to my­self, there was a foot (or I fan­cied so) on the stairs. I was alarmed; for I be­lieved that, if any body should de­tect me, means would be taken to pre­vent my com­ing again. Hasti­ly, there­fore, I kissed the lips that I should kiss no more, and slunk like a guilty thing with stealthy steps from the room. Thus per­ished the vi­sion, loveli­est amongst all the shows which earth has re­vealed to me; thus mu­ti­lated was the part­ing which should have lasted for ever; thus tainted with fear was the farewell sa­cred to love and grief, to per­fect love and per­fect grief.

Com­ing back to the room a few hours lat­er, he found the door locked and him­self “shut out for ever.”…Wil­son does­n’t ne­glect her pro­tag­o­nist’s ad­dic­tion, but she’s more in­ter­ested in what Thomas Car­lyle re­ferred to as his “dis­eased acute­ness” than in the acute­ness of his dis­ease. De Quincey di­ag­nosed one ill­ness as his “in­tol­er­a­ble pro­cras­ti­na­tion”; de­lays, de­fer­rals, missed ap­point­ments and dead­li­nes, all served to put off the fu­ture, but they also helped to cre­ate a fu­ture that was full of promise…De Quincey’s life and his writ­ing are fu­eled by a sense that he ab­hors what he adores—and vice ver­sa. He re­calls that, when he was younger, he had “a per­fect craze for be­ing de­spised. I doted on it, and con­sid­ered con­tempt a sort of lux­ury that I was in con­tin­ual fear of los­ing.” This thought shines as much light on those who feel con­tempt as on those who suffer it. Be­fore the vi­sions of his opi­um-in­duced dreams, he ad­mits, “I stood loathing and fas­ci­nat­ed.” Loathing, for him, is it­self a kind of fas­ci­na­tion; to be dis­gusted is to be im­pli­cat­ed. (He writes of how dis­gust may “fas­ten on” things, rather than, say, “re­coil from” them.)…And like his dis­ci­ple, the poet knew about the strange­ness of guilt; in his pref­ace to The Bor­der­ers, Wordsworth notes that “every time we plan a fresh ac­cu­mu­la­tion of our guilt”—that is, every time we plan to do some­thing that we know will later cause us to feel guilt —we in­volve our­selves in a “per­turbed plea­sure.” This sense of per­turbed plea­sure is what made Con­fes­sions such a shock­ing, grip­ping book for con­tem­po­rary read­ers. The baroque black com­edy of De Quincey’s style—what Poe de­scribed as “the lu­di­crous height­ened into the grotesque”—is founded on a por­trait of the artist as some­one who both col­ludes with and con­spires against him­self, some­one who wears his predica­ment like an achieve­ment. There’s a self­-rel­ish­ing arch­ness hid­den within De Quincey’s pen­chant for emer­gen­cy, a sense that he knows his avoid­ances are the spur to his in­sights, as his opium dreams sug­gest…Early re­view­ers of the Con­fes­sions did­n’t know whether to stare or grin. “It is not easy to say what the au­thor in­tends by his book,” one re­marked, sens­ing a sub­tle hu­mor at work, pro­vok­ing the reader to “laugh, with­out know­ing, why or at what.”…Ev­ery­where in the writ­ing there lurks this sense of spec­u­la­tive arousal, the feel­ing that sup­ping on hor­rors is a pre­lude to an­other kind of ex­per­i­ment. In a draft pas­sage that did­n’t make it into “The Eng­lish Mail-Coach,” De Quincey ex­plains that, along the jour­ney, he fasted from every­thing but tea, “a tri­fle of opi­um,” and sin. And that sin is to be lib­er­ally in­ter­pret­ed; im­me­di­ately after the near-fa­tal crash that he de­scribes in such lov­ing, lurid de­tail, he con­fesses that on reach­ing an inn, he had the base­ness to talk only about cold beef and port wines. “There is not much to be said in de­fence of such con­duct,” he ad­mits, “but there is al­ways some­thing to be said in de­fence of any pos­si­ble con­duct.”

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.”

Hav­ing got­ten through the bi­og­ra­phy part, one fi­nally gets the opium proper and since it is such a short book (re­al­ly, an es­say), the opium parts are sur­pris­ingly short for what is the first ma­jor de­scrip­tion of opium and opium ad­dic­tion in Eng­lish. Some of the ex­cerpts:

…Now Sat­ur­day night is the sea­son for the chief, reg­u­lar, and pe­ri­odic re­turn of rest of the poor; in this point the most hos­tile sects unite, and ac­knowl­edge a com­mon link of broth­er­hood; al­most all Chris­ten­dom rests from its labours. It is a rest in­tro­duc­tory to an­other rest, and di­vided by a whole day and two nights from the re­newal of toil. On this ac­count I feel al­ways, on a Sat­ur­day night, as though I also were re­leased from some yoke of labour, had some wages to re­ceive, and some lux­ury of re­pose to en­joy. For the sake, there­fore, of wit­ness­ing, upon as large a scale as pos­si­ble, a spec­ta­cle with which my sym­pa­thy was so en­tire, I used often on Sat­ur­day nights, after I had taken opi­um, to wan­der forth, with­out much re­gard­ing the di­rec­tion or the dis­tance, to all the mar­kets and other parts of Lon­don to which the poor re­sort of a Sat­ur­day night, for lay­ing out their wages. Many a fam­ily par­ty, con­sist­ing of a man, his wife, and some­times one or two of his chil­dren, have I lis­tened to, as they stood con­sult­ing on their ways and means, or the strength of their ex­che­quer, or the price of house­hold ar­ti­cles. Grad­u­ally I be­came fa­mil­iar with their wish­es, their diffi­cul­ties, and their opin­ions. Some­times there might be heard mur­murs of dis­con­tent, but far oftener ex­pres­sions on the coun­te­nance, or ut­tered in words, of pa­tience, hope, and tran­quil­li­ty. And taken gen­er­al­ly, I must say that, in this point at least, the poor are more philo­sophic than the rich-that they show a more ready and cheer­ful sub­mis­sion to what they con­sider as ir­re­me­di­a­ble evils or ir­repara­ble loss­es. When­ever I saw oc­ca­sion, or could do it with­out ap­pear­ing to be in­tru­sive, I joined their par­ties, and gave my opin­ion upon the mat­ter in dis­cus­sion, which, if not al­ways ju­di­cious, was al­ways re­ceived in­dul­gent­ly. If wages were a lit­tle higher or ex­pected to be so, or the quar­tern loaf a lit­tle low­er, or it was re­ported that onions and but­ter were ex­pected to fall, I was glad; yet, if the con­trary were true, I drew from opium some means of con­sol­ing my­self.

…The wa­ters now changed their char­ac­ter-from translu­cent lakes shin­ing like mir­rors they now be­came seas and oceans. And now came a tremen­dous change, which, un­fold­ing it­self slowly like a scroll through many months, promised an abid­ing tor­ment; and in fact it never left me un­til the wind­ing up of my case. Hith­erto the hu­man face had mixed often in my dreams, but not despot­i­cally nor with any spe­cial power of tor­ment­ing. But now that which I have called the tyranny of the hu­man face be­gan to un­fold it­self. Per­haps some part of my Lon­don life might be an­swer­able for this. Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rock­ing wa­ters of the ocean the hu­man face be­gan to ap­pear; the sea ap­peared paved with in­nu­mer­able faces up­turned to the heav­en­s-faces im­plor­ing, wrath­ful, de­spair­ing, surged up­wards by thou­sands, by myr­i­ads, by gen­er­a­tions, by cen­turies: my ag­i­ta­tion was in­finite; my mind tossed and surged with the ocean.

…No man can pre­tend that the wild, bar­barous, and capri­cious su­per­sti­tions of Africa, or of sav­age tribes else­where, affect him in the way that he is affected by the an­cient, mon­u­men­tal, cru­el, and elab­o­rate re­li­gions of In­dostan, &c. The mere an­tiq­uity of Asi­atic things, of their in­sti­tu­tions, his­to­ries, modes of faith, &c., is so im­pres­sive, that to me the vast age of the race and name over­pow­ers the sense of youth in the in­di­vid­ual. A young Chi­nese seems to me an an­te­dilu­vian man re­newed. Even Eng­lish­men, though not bred in any knowl­edge of such in­sti­tu­tions, can­not but shud­der at the mys­tic sub­lim­ity of castes that have flowed apart, and re­fused to mix, through such im­memo­r­ial tracts of time; nor can any man fail to be awed by the names of the Ganges or the Eu­phrates. It con­tributes much to these feel­ings that south­ern Asia is, and has been for thou­sands of years, the part of the earth most swarm­ing with hu­man life, the great offic­ina gen­tium. Man is a weed in those re­gions. The vast em­pires also in which the enor­mous pop­u­la­tion of Asia has al­ways been cast, give a fur­ther sub­lim­ity to the feel­ings as­so­ci­ated with all Ori­en­tal names or im­ages. In Chi­na, over and above what it has in com­mon with the rest of south­ern Asia, I am ter­ri­fied by the modes of life, by the man­ners, and the bar­rier of ut­ter ab­hor­rence and want of sym­pa­thy placed be­tween us by feel­ings deeper than I can analyse. I could sooner live with lu­natics or brute an­i­mals. All this, and much more than I can say or have time to say, the reader must en­ter into be­fore he can com­pre­hend the unimag­in­able hor­ror which these dreams of Ori­en­tal im­agery and mytho­log­i­cal tor­tures im­pressed upon me. Un­der the con­nect­ing feel­ing of trop­i­cal heat and ver­ti­cal sun­lights I brought to­gether all crea­tures, birds, beasts, rep­tiles, all trees and plants, us­ages and ap­pear­ances, that are found in all trop­i­cal re­gions, and as­sem­bled them to­gether in China or In­dostan. From kin­dred feel­ings, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods un­der the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chat­tered at, by mon­keys, by par­ro­quets, by cock­a­toos. I ran into pago­das, and was fixed for cen­turies at the sum­mit or in se­cret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was wor­shipped; I was sac­ri­ficed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came sud­denly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the croc­o­dile trem­bled at. I was buried for a thou­sand years in stone coffins, with mum­mies and sph­ynx­es, in nar­row cham­bers at the heart of eter­nal pyra­mids. I was kissed, with can­cer­ous kiss­es, by croc­o­diles; and laid, con­founded with all un­ut­ter­able slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

I thus give the reader some slight ab­strac­tion of my Ori­en­tal dreams, which al­ways filled me with such amaze­ment at the mon­strous scenery that hor­ror seemed ab­sorbed for a while in sheer as­ton­ish­ment. Sooner or later came a re­flux of feel­ing that swal­lowed up the as­ton­ish­ment, and left me not so much in ter­ror as in ha­tred and abom­i­na­tion of what I saw. Over every form, and threat, and pun­ish­ment, and dim sight­less in­car­cer­a­tion, brooded a sense of eter­nity and in­fin­ity that drove me into an op­pres­sion as of mad­ness. Into these dreams only it was, with one or two slight ex­cep­tions, that any cir­cum­stances of phys­i­cal hor­ror en­tered. All be­fore had been moral and spir­i­tual ter­rors. But here the main agents were ugly birds, or snakes, or croc­o­diles; es­pe­cially the last. The cursed croc­o­dile be­came to me the ob­ject of more hor­ror than al­most all the rest. I was com­pelled to live with him, and (as was al­ways the case al­most in my dreams) for cen­turies. I es­caped some­times, and found my­self in Chi­nese hous­es, with cane ta­bles, &c. All the feet of the ta­bles, so­fas, &c., soon be­came in­stinct with life: the abom­inable head of the croc­o­dile, and his leer­ing eyes, looked out at me, mul­ti­plied into a thou­sand rep­e­ti­tions; and I stood loathing and fas­ci­nat­ed. And so often did this hideous rep­tile haunt my dreams that many times the very same dream was bro­ken up in the very same way: I heard gen­tle voices speak­ing to me (I hear every­thing when I am sleep­ing), and in­stantly I awoke. It was broad noon, and my chil­dren were stand­ing, hand in hand, at my bed­side-come to show me their coloured shoes, or new frocks, or to let me see them dressed for go­ing out. I protest that so aw­ful was the tran­si­tion from the damned croc­o­dile, and the other un­ut­ter­able mon­sters and abor­tions of my dreams, to the sight of in­no­cent hu­man na­tures and of in­fan­cy, that in the mighty and sud­den re­vul­sion of mind I wept, and could not for­bear it, as I kissed their faces.

…As a fi­nal spec­i­men, I cite one of a differ­ent char­ac­ter, from 1820.

The dream com­menced with a mu­sic which now I often heard in dream­s-a mu­sic of prepa­ra­tion and of awak­en­ing sus­pense, a mu­sic like the open­ing of the Coro­na­tion An­them, and which, like that, gave the feel­ing of a vast march, of in­fi­nite cav­al­cades fil­ing off, and the tread of in­nu­mer­able armies. The morn­ing was come of a mighty day-a day of cri­sis and of fi­nal hope for hu­man na­ture, then suffer­ing some mys­te­ri­ous eclipse, and labour­ing in some dread ex­trem­i­ty. Some­where, I knew not where-some­how, I knew not how-by some be­ings, I knew not whom-a bat­tle, a strife, an agony, was con­duct­ing, was evolv­ing like a great drama or piece of mu­sic, with which my sym­pa­thy was the more in­sup­port­able from my con­fu­sion as to its place, its cause, its na­ture, and its pos­si­ble is­sue. I, as is usual in dreams (where of ne­ces­sity we make our­selves cen­tral to every move­men­t), had the pow­er, and yet had not the pow­er, to de­cide it. I had the pow­er, if I could raise my­self to will it, and yet again had not the pow­er, for the weight of twenty At­lantics was upon me, or the op­pres­sion of in­ex­pi­able guilt. “Deeper than ever plum­met sound­ed,” I lay in­ac­tive. Then like a cho­rus the pas­sion deep­ened. Some greater in­ter­est was at stake, some might­ier cause than ever yet the sword had plead­ed, or trum­pet had pro­claimed. Then came sud­den alarms, hur­ry­ings to and fro, trep­i­da­tions of in­nu­mer­able fugi­tives—I knew not whether from the good cause or the bad, dark­ness and lights, tem­pest and hu­man faces, and at last, with the sense that all was lost, fe­male forms, and the fea­tures that were worth all the world to me, and but a mo­ment al­lowed—and clasped hands, and heart-break­ing part­ings, and then— ever­last­ing farewells! And with a sigh, such as the caves of Hell sighed when the in­ces­tu­ous mother ut­tered the ab­horred name of death, the sound was re­ver­ber­at­ed—ev­er­last­ing farewells! And again and yet again re­ver­ber­at­ed—ev­er­last­ing farewells!

And I awoke in strug­gles, and cried aloud—“I will sleep no more.”

Bakker’s Second Apocalypse vs Frank Herbert’s Dune: Time Loops and Finding Freedom In An Unfree Universe

The Un­holy Con­sult (Aspec­t-Em­per­or, #4)R. Scott Bakker2017★★★

Re­view of SF/F au­thor ‘s long-run­ning Sec­ond Apoc­a­lypse se­ries, which fin­ished in 2017. The se­ries, a loose retelling of the Cru­sades, set in a fal­l­en-SF fan­tasy en­vi­ron­ment, has drawn at­ten­tion for its am­bi­tious scope and ob­scure philo­soph­i­cal mes­sage cen­ter­ing around de­ter­min­ism, free will, moral ni­hilism, elim­i­na­tivism of cog­ni­tive states, and the in­ter­ac­tion of tech­nol­ogy and ethics (which Bakker terms the ’Se­man­tic Apoc­a­lypse’). In this se­ries, the pro­tag­o­nist at­tempts to stop the apoc­a­lypse and ul­ti­mately ac­ci­den­tally causes it.

I high­light that Frank Her­bert’s Dune uni­verse is far more in­flu­en­tial on Bakker than re­view­ers of Bakker have ap­pre­ci­at­ed: count­less el­e­ments are re­flected in Bakker, and the very name of the pri­mary an­tag­o­nist, the ‘No-God’, uses a nam­ing pat­tern from Dune and op­er­ates sim­i­lar­ly. Fur­ther, both Dune and the Sec­ond Apoc­a­lypse are deeply con­cerned with the na­ture of time and tem­po­ral loops con­trol­ling ‘free’ be­hav­ior.

Where they di­verge is in what is to be done about the hu­man lack of free­dom and ma­nip­u­la­bil­ity by ex­ter­nal en­vi­ron­ments, and have rad­i­cally differ­ent views about what is de­sir­able: in Dune, hu­man­ity grad­u­ally grows up and achieves free­dom from the time loops by the cre­ation of a large time loop whose sta­ble fixed point is the de­struc­tion of all time loops, en­sur­ing that hu­man­ity will go on ex­ist­ing in some form forever; in the Sec­ond Apoc­a­lypse, lib­er­a­tion is achieved only through death.

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 and 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 and de­feat the Con­sult and 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 (although that the res­ur­rec­tion of the No-God is in fact the planned cul­mi­na­tion, the fi­nal mean­ing of the se­ries, which “ends the Thou­sand­fold Thought”, with the rest be­ing “fuzzy” ap­pen­dix, so we should not try to in­ter­pret it as merely a cliffhanger and pro­logue to the ‘real’ end­ing).

Bakker re­mains Bakker: tech­nol­ogy like nu­clear bombs and 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 its mean­ing for sev­eral book­s). What is good:

  • I found The Great Or­deal to be more com­pelling in sev­eral ways; in par­tic­u­lar, I was in­ter­ested in the de­scrip­tion of the Cru­sade’s lo­gis­ti­cal strug­gles across the plains and their slow bru­tal moral & men­tal degra­da­tion and de­gen­er­a­tion from eat­ing Sranc meat and Kell­hus’s ma­nip­u­la­tions of the Cru­sade to get it to Gol­got­terath such as a nifty ex­e­ge­sis of Gi­rar­dian mime­sis (in­clud­ing, in a sig­na­ture Bakker ‘WTF’, a sud­den ho­mo­sex­ual rape out of nowhere). While the writ­ing here got repet­i­tive, I think it was nec­es­sary to drum things in.
  • the Non-men, a dark twist on Tolkienesque elves, re­ceive ex­ten­sive cov­er­age as long pas­sages are set in the last Non-men city of Ishtere­binth; while with world­build­ing and alien species, fa­mil­iar­ity all too often breeds con­tempt, Bakker man­ages to make the Non-men even more in­ter­est­ing than they were when we had mostly hints.
  • a lot of world-build­ing and back­story gets filled in
  • the fi­nal bat­tle is worth the jour­ney it took to get there


  • end­ing is a huge ques­tion mark: abrupt, sev­eral of the rev­e­la­tions, as men­tioned, feel like deus ex machi­nas and not in a good way. Think­ing about it made some of it make a lit­tle more sense, but most of it re­mains un­sat­is­fy­ing and await­ing bet­ter jus­ti­fi­ca­tion in the se­quels.

  • Kel­mo­mas, as both a char­ac­ter and plot arc, con­tin­ues to feel ar­bi­trary and poorly writ­ten; I hated and was bored every page he was in ex­cept the last. (Bakker wrote a nar­cis­sis­tic psy­chopath child with­out any effort to make him sym­pa­thetic or in­ter­est­ing, whose chap­ters vastly slow down the main plot—the parts which we are in­ter­ested in­—­for rea­sons which re­mains deeply opaque even after you fin­ish the book. )

    This made sev­eral arcs ap­pear to­tally point­less, par­tic­u­larly Sor­weel: I loved see­ing Ishtere­binth, but was all of that re­ally noth­ing but setup for Kel­mo­mas to in­ter­fere at the last sec­ond?

  • con­sid­er­ably less quotable; prose can be de­scribed as over­wrought to the point of mak­ing it hard to un­der­stand what is go­ing on at all; cer­tain words, such as ‘li­cen­tious’, are vastly overused by Bakker (where was the ed­i­tor?) and he should write a lit­tle shell script to flag them in his drafts. I must, how­ev­er, de­fend Bakker against the re­view which called it 450 pages of “var­i­ous de­scrip­tions of each and every char­ac­ter’s turgid mem­ber”, how­ev­er—­many of those mem­bers were flac­cid, not ‘turgid’. They are op­po­sites.

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; Kell­hus : 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 the Dune-verse, as often missed by read­ers, 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 and 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 and 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 and 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.”3

In Bakker’s terms, the goals of the Dûnyain / 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’, 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, be­cause all events just hap­pen to oc­cur as nec­es­sary & 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 are nat­ural al­lies of the In­choroi and No-God once they learn they were mis­taken about the ex­is­tence of sor­cery, gods, and afterlife/Hell: the gods are their en­e­mies, claims to be the font of ‘moral­ity’ laugh­able, & the after­life a fate far worse than death. Their sight must be blind­ed, and the world closed against Hell.

…Or so the cap­tive Dûnyain think. The key to the 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.

A third SF per­spec­tive is the Zen of : the en­light­ened is one with cau­sa­tion, nei­ther free nor un­free.

In Zen, ac­cep­tance and free­dom in the mo­ment; 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, Wade 2014

A Trou­ble­some In­her­i­tance: Genes, Race and Hu­man His­toryNicholas Wade2014★★★

Wade’s book is a short fairly breezy overview of pop­u­la­tion ge­net­ics, com­bined with some long overviews of a few pre­vi­ous works spec­u­lat­ing on pos­si­ble grand his­tor­i­cal evo­lu­tion­ary changes in hu­man groups like the Jews. Be­cause he takes se­ri­ously all the ge­net­ics re­search, un­sur­pris­ingly it’s con­tro­ver­sial.

I was wait­ing ea­gerly for it to come out to see whether Wade had put to­gether a syn­the­sis for the lay­man of all the ex­tra­or­di­nary re­search which has been done over the past 20 years and sum­ma­rized the flood of ge­net­ics re­search which has been un­leashed by the crash­ing price of genome se­quenc­ing. I was dis­ap­point­ed. Wade’s book will con­vince no one: he hits a few high­lights, but omits any­thing like com­pre­hen­sive cov­er­age of the the­o­ret­i­cal and em­pir­i­cal grounds for ac­cept­ing the laws of be­hav­ioral ge­net­ics (ev­ery­thing is par­tially her­i­ta­ble and usu­ally highly poly­genic, the effects of shared en­vi­ron­ment like fam­ily so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus is weak, and the rest of vari­ance is un­pre­dictable noise). All such a short overview can do is in­flame the de­bate, when what is needed is to end it.

Wade does­n’t de­scribe a cen­tury of con­sis­tent re­sults from twin stud­ies (it’s re­mark­able that he could write such a book with­out, as far as I could tell, men­tion­ing Plomin even on­ce!), the miss­ing her­i­tabil­i­ty’s prob­lem res­o­lu­tion by as due to traits be­ing highly poly­genic and affected by rare vari­ants, does­n’t de­scribe the suc­cesses of GWAS (for ex­am­ple, to bor­row one out­-of-date tab­u­la­tion we now have 23% of Alzheimer’s, 3% bipo­lar, 13% breast can­cer, 25% CAD, 13% Crohn’s dis­ease, 31% prostate can­cer, 13% lu­pus, 14/28% type I/II di­a­betes; and schiz­o­phre­nia seem to have re­cently yielded a bit), and in some cases dra­mat­i­cally un­der­states the state of the art—he con­fi­dently pre­dicts that as far as link­ing genes with in­tel­li­gence, “that is un­likely to hap­pen any­time soon”, be­cause “each of which [ge­nes] has too small an effect to be de­tectable with present meth­ods”, cit­ing a well-known pa­per on the fail­ure of early hits due to small sam­ple sizes, ex­cept that at the es­ti­mated effect sizes, with reach­able sam­ple sizes like 100k SNP sam­ples, the hits were pre­dicted to be de­tect­ed, and in­deed, be­fore A Trou­ble­some In­her­i­tance was even pub­lished, the first hits came out and have been repli­cat­ing well (see Ri­etveld et al 2013, Ri­etveld et al 2014, , Zhu et al 2015). An­other pas­sage I noted with a raised eye­brow ar­gues that a change in a pop­u­la­tion’s mean of a trait is unim­por­tant since it would be rel­a­tively small, which is wrong since that could have a pro­found im­pact on the tails of how many mem­bers of that pop­u­la­tion are ex­tremely high or ex­tremely low on that trait, which is some­thing he ac­knowl­edges in a later chap­ter on Jew­ish in­tel­li­gence—that their some­what higher mean in­tel­li­gence than the sur­round­ing goyim would ex­plain their enor­mous over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion among ge­niuses and other elites. When I look through just some of my read­ing on re­lated sub­jects over the past year, I find hardly any of it cov­ered:

…Well, I could con­tinue list­ing fas­ci­nat­ing re­cent re­search for a while, let’s say. I don’t think Wade does a good job con­vey­ing the fer­ment and out­put of the field as in­creas­ing sam­ple sizes and so­phis­ti­ca­tion are mak­ing head­way. (I felt it was out of date and not con­vey­ing the com­pre­hen­sive­ness of the ge­netic rev­o­lu­tion when I read it in 2014; reread­ing this re­view in 2016, I feel this even more strong­ly.)

And it’s not like he’s omit­ting the cut­ting-edge re­search in fa­vor of a de­tailed dis­cus­sion for the lay­man of what genes are, what terms like “SNPs” or “hap­lo­types” are, what’s the dis­tinc­tion be­tween your $99 23andMe pur­chase and the $1000 thing you might oth­er­wise buy, the prin­ci­ples of pop­u­la­tion ge­net­ics like drift, fix­a­tion, IQ etc—ac­tu­al­ly, quite the op­po­site, he freely talks about vari­ants and genes and only chap­ters later ex­plains his terms, if at all.

So what is the book about if he is­n’t cov­er­ing those top­ics? Well, for the most part it seems to be a sum­mary of The 10,000 Year Ex­plo­sion, Pinker’s Bet­ter An­gels of Our Na­ture, Clark’s Farewell to Alms and The Son Also Rises, Fukuya­ma’s Ori­gins of Po­lit­i­cal Or­der, Bot­ticini and 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, Wigner 2003

The Rec­ol­lec­tions Of Eu­gene P. Wign­er: As Told To An­drew Szan­tonEu­gene Paul Wigner2003★★★

Oral-memoir/autobiography of Hun­gar­ian physi­cist-chemist . 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 or his fa­mous es­say ), but turns out to al­most be a Zelig or For­rest Gump: he was one of the ‘Mar­tians’, who went to school with von Neu­mann him­self and worked with him on a num­ber of things, was a life­long close friend of Szi­lard, spent years in Göt­tin­gen with the famed Ger­man physics com­mu­nity which was cre­at­ing quan­tum me­chan­ics (ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a good deal of push­back in get­ting them to use group the­o­ry, an area of math­e­mat­ics ab­solutely in­te­gral to mod­ern physics now), got to Amer­ica well be­fore WWII, pro­vided the Chi­anti wine drunk at Fer­mi’s split­ting the atom, was a ma­jor mover in get­ting Ein­stein to write the let­ter that led to the Man­hat­tan Pro­ject, and played his own role in de­sign­ing nu­clear re­ac­tors and pro­duc­ing plu­to­ni­um—all this be­fore win­ning a No­bel prize. Wigner protests re­peat­edly in the book that he is un­in­ter­ested in fame or cred­it, and while one might think that the lady doth protest too much, one has to ad­mit that for some­one who was in­volved in so much and was a No­belist, his name is known far be­low that of other No­belists at the time like Feyn­man.

This gen­uine in­con­spic­u­ous­ness car­ries over to the rest of the book: he seems so hum­ble and sober that I was sur­prised to see that he was such an ul­tra­-hawk that his main re­gret about the atomic bomb was that he had not been able to get it cre­ated even ear­lier so it could be used against Ger­many, and how he sees Hitlers and Stal­ins around every cor­ner (one can­not doubt that if Wigner had not died in 1995, he would surely de­scribe Putin and Don­ald Trump as fu­ture Stalins/Hitlers, and would be up­set about any­one ask­ing for his fin­ger­prints). Wigner is more con­cerned with de­scrib­ing the great men he worked with like von Neu­mann or Ein­stein or Teller or Szi­lard and often de­fend­ing them against crit­i­cism. (This does not al­ways work; he has diffi­culty de­scrib­ing what he liked about Szi­lard in more than the ex­tremely vague de­scrip­tion of him be­ing in­ter­est­ing, and is much more spe­cific about Szi­lard’s fail­ings, so one is likely to come away with a worse im­pres­sion of Szi­lard than one came in with, and the de­fenses of Teller are equally un­con­vinc­ing.) This is the source of sev­eral in­ter­est­ing de­scrip­tions of von Neu­mann by one of his fel­low Hun­gar­i­ans who knew him best. (Quotes from this mem­oir on Steve Hsu’s blog about von Neu­mann were what con­vinced me to give the mem­oir a read.)

The de­scrip­tions of Hun­gary and Ger­many pre-WWII are also of in­ter­est as they offer an­other demon­stra­tion of what I’ve noted in my re­views of Math­e­mat­i­cal Peo­ple and COPSS: WWII rep­re­sented a par­a­digm shift in sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, in which the tiny English/French/German Eu­ro­pean monas­tic world of acad­e­mia (y­oung Wigner tells his fa­ther he wants to be a physi­cist; how many jobs are there for physi­cists in Hun­gary?, he asks; 4, Wigner says, ly­ing—it’s ac­tu­ally 3) is shat­tered, all of the great minds ex­iled to the USA or USSR, the global tongue switched to Eng­lish, po­si­tions grow­ing ex­po­nen­tially as uni­ver­si­ties pop up like mush­rooms with ex­plod­ing stu­dent body counts, and gi­ant troughs of mil­i­tary money fun­nel­ing com­pro­mis­ing cash into coffers, sci­en­tists now a crit­i­cal weapon in fight­ing the Cold War and a path to power & plen­i­tude for the pushy and pleonex­ic. Some of the ob­ser­va­tions are in­ter­est­ing: for all that Jews have a ‘cul­ture of learn­ing’, it’s diffi­cult how to see this ex­plain­ing Wigner or von Neu­mann, nei­ther of whom were re­li­gious Jews and Wigner so ig­no­rant of whether his fa­ther was Jew­ish he spends sev­eral para­graphs spec­u­lat­ing on the mat­ter; Wigner notes that in the 1920s, Ger­many was seen as a safe-haven for Jews against the ac­tual and po­ten­tial Com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tions in East­ern Eu­rope like the first brief Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ship over Hun­gary; that Eng­lish physi­cists were looked down upon and pa­pers writ­ten in Eng­lish sec­ond-class be­fore WWII; that while Amer­i­can high schools pre­pared high­-cal­iber stu­dents poorly com­pared to the Hun­gar­ian high schools he went to, the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion was so large he still en­coun­tered many more prodi­gies in Amer­ica (often a theme of Eu­ro­pean ex­pa­tri­ate mem­oirs: ed­u­cat­ing their Amer­i­can re­place­ments).

Some of the ex­pres­sion is stiff (I can’t for­get how he ex­presses hor­ror at the 1960s, not­ing that “Most young peo­ple in the United States seemed deeply rest­less. Many of them were in­gest­ing pow­er­ful hal­lu­cino­gens. Much of daily con­ver­sa­tion was po­lit­i­cal, and peo­ple of all ages seemed highly ag­i­tat­ed.” Mar­tians in­deed), but there are mem­o­rable parts:

This mem­oir omits most of the de­tails of my per­sonal life: just how I be­came fond of my wife or quar­reled with my sis­ters. These are the things of di­aries, a form that seems to me far in­fe­rior to the mem­oir. Di­aries seem too often to only trace the pat­terns of the di­arist’s un­hap­pi­ness.

…Once I asked my fa­ther, “Why are peo­ple so at­tached to mon­ey?” He re­sponded sim­ply, “Be­cause of the power and in­flu­ence it gives them.” I dis­liked this bit of cyn­i­cism and told him so. It was years be­fore I saw that he was largely right: The hu­man de­sires for power and in­flu­ence are very deep and strong. I learned a great deal from my fa­ther which I failed to fully credit at the time. These talks with my fa­ther led me to won­der, “Why am I on this earth? What do I want to achieve?” I felt my pur­pose should be to mar­ry, to be­gin my own fam­i­ly, and to pro­vide this fam­ily with a proper home and nour­ish­ment. To­day, these things come far more eas­ily and many youths no longer know what to strive for. Many of them see power and in­flu­ence as the only valid goal. But in 1919, pro­vid­ing a home and nour­ish­ment was a valid pur­pose.

…Both his knowl­edge and his de­sire to re­late it seemed in­ex­haustible. Most peo­ple walk straight home, al­ready think­ing of what they will do when they ar­rive. Not Jancsi [John von Neu­man­n]. One got home late after a walk with him.

I have known a great many in­tel­li­gent peo­ple in my life. I knew Max Planck, Max von Laue, and Werner Heisen­berg. Paul Dirac was my broth­er-in-law; Leo Szi­lard and Ed­ward Teller have been among my clos­est friends; and Al­bert Ein­stein was a good friend, too. And I have known many of the bright­est younger sci­en­tists. But none of them had a mind as quick and acute as Jancsi von Neu­mann. I have often re­marked this in the pres­ence of those men, and no one ever dis­puted me.

You saw im­me­di­ately the quick­ness and power of von Neu­man­n’s mind. He un­der­stood math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lems not only in their ini­tial as­pect, but in their full com­plex­i­ty. Swift­ly, effort­less­ly, he delved deeply into the de­tails of the most com­plex sci­en­tific prob­lem. He re­tained it all. His mind seemed a per­fect in­stru­ment, with gears ma­chined to mesh ac­cu­rately to one thou­sandth of an inch.

De­spite his sin­gu­lar achieve­ments in math­e­mat­ics, Jancsi was raised to be well round­ed. He knew Eng­lish al­most as well as Hun­gar­i­an, per­haps from a tu­tor en­gaged at home. Even­tu­al­ly, he also spoke flu­ent Ger­man, French, and Ital­ian.

But Janc­si’s in­tel­li­gence never ap­palled me. He was clearly bet­ter in math­e­mat­ics than I was. But so were many oth­ers; I was not a math­e­mat­ics prodi­gy. And I knew more physics than he did. I did not com­pete with von Neu­mann for prizes, schol­ar­ships, or po­si­tions. If we tried, in a friendly way, to per­suade each other of cer­tain things, that is not com­pe­ti­tion.

…Jancsi von Neu­mann and I had writ­ten three pa­pers to­gether in 1928 and two more in 1929. What a plea­sure it was to work with von Neu­mann. I might be in Göt­tin­gen and he in Berlin. It did not mat­ter. Each of us worked effec­tively alone. If I found a snag, I pre­sented it to Janc­si. There was never a snag that he could not un­tan­gle. He ex­plained the most com­plex math­e­mat­i­cal ques­tions in a light, ca­sual tone. If I told him I failed to un­der­stand War­ring’s Law, he might smile and ask: “Do you know Hilbert’s Third Propo­si­tion?” “No,” I would say. “Then, do you know D’ Alem­bert’s The­o­rem?” he would con­tin­ue, quite eas­i­ly. “Yes, I think so.” After three or four more ques­tions, he would fi­nally be­gin to ex­plain War­ring’s Law, re­fer­ring only to the the­o­ries that I knew and avoid­ing the oth­ers. By such cir­cuitous paths, he quickly reached the core of the mat­ter, which he ex­plained eas­i­ly. Von Neu­mann had the gift of mak­ing even the most com­plex con­cepts seem sim­ple. Jancsi von Neu­mann taught me more math­e­mat­ics than any other of my teach­ers, even Ratz of the Lutheran gim­näz­i­um.

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.

..I had come to Göt­tin­gen to be Hilbert’s as­sis­tant, but he wanted no as­sis­tance. We can all get old by our­selves.

…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.

But it is sad to lose touch with whole branches of physics, to see sci­en­tists cut off from each oth­er. Dis­per­sion the­o­rists do not know ax­iomatic field the­o­ry; cos­mol­o­gists do not know nu­clear physics. Quan­tum me­chan­ics is hard to ex­plain to a chemist; its terms and con­cepts are highly de­vel­oped. And yet the best the­o­ret­i­cal chemists re­ally ought to know quan­tum me­chan­ics.

Spe­cial­iza­tion of sci­ence also robbed us of much of our pas­sion. We wanted to grasp sci­ence whole, but by then the whole was some­thing far too vast and com­plex to mas­ter. Only rarely could we ask the deep ques­tions that had first drawn us to sci­ence.

In 1870, the year my fa­ther was born, a first-rate physi­cist could ex­pect to mas­ter every branch and as­pect of physics. There was a great ig­no­rance sur­round­ing many ba­sic phys­i­cal el­e­ments, but there was also a free­dom and gra­cious­ness that al­lowed physi­cists to range freely over the field. Even as a young man in the 1920s, I had ex­pected in my heart to one day know all of physics. I was ashamed then that I hardly knew plan­e­tary the­ory or elec­tro­mag­netic the­o­ry. I said, “Well, I will be­gin to rem­edy the sit­u­a­tion just as soon as I fin­ish writ­ing this ar­ti­cle. . .” Per­haps the ex­pec­ta­tion of learn­ing all of physics was just an il­lu­sion, but it was a beau­ti­ful il­lu­sion, and near enough to the truth to be cred­i­ble.

One day around 1942 I told James Franck, “I don’t think I will give much to physics after the war.” Physics is a young man’s game; I was then 40 years old and be­gin­ning to feel like an old fo­gey. Franck dis­agreed with me, but only be­cause he felt that physics would evolve slowly after the war. But the growth of physics never slowed—it sped up. And that changed physics, not only in prac­tice, but emo­tion­ally as well.

By 1950, even a con­sci­en­tious physi­cist had trou­ble fol­low­ing more than one sixth of all the work in the field. Physics had be­come a dis­ci­pline, prac­ticed within nar­row con­straints. I tried to study other dis­ci­plines. I read Re­views Of Mod­ern Physics to keep abreast of fields like ra­dio-as­tron­o­my, earth mag­net­ism the­o­ry, and mag­ne­to-hy­dro­dy­nam­ics. I even tried to write ar­ti­cles about them for gen­eral read­ers. But a grow­ing num­ber of the pub­lished pa­pers in physics I could not fol­low, and I re­al­ized that fact with some bit­ter­ness.

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, Michie 2009

Don­ald Michie: On Ma­chine In­tel­li­gence, Bi­ol­ogy and MoreDon­ald Michie2009★★★

(A posthu­mous an­thol­ogy of edited ex­cerpts from cor­pus.)

Don­ald Michie was one of those men who, per­haps thanks to liv­ing through WWII and 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 and sym­bolic games which seemed to be vi­tal in cryp­tog­ra­phy. He turned out to be good at work­ing with (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 and 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 and 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):

The for­mal or­ga­ni­za­tion, in the case of the New­man­ry, was quite ex­tra­or­di­nary. I don’t think any of us re­al­ized un­til we got into or­di­nary peace­time or­ga­ni­za­tions (some­times called bu­reau­cra­cies) what a dy­nam­ic, de­mo­c­ra­t­ic, but effi­cien­cy-ori­ented com­mu­nity could be like. Just how in­cred­i­bly effec­tive was the hut com­pared to al­most any­thing that is pos­si­ble to or­ga­nize in peace­time con­di­tions. There are var­i­ous so­ci­o­log­i­cal rea­sons how peo­ple change their effec­tive pri­or­i­tizes when the emer­gency goes. Now it so hap­pens that I had the op­por­tu­nity or it was placed in my lap, in 1963 to recre­ate an or­ga­ni­za­tion of that kind. There was a sense of ur­gency but from a differ­ent source. This was orig­i­nally an un­offi­cial group which fi­nally won recog­ni­tion—the ex­per­i­men­tal pro­gram­ming unit—and it was run by what we called ‘The Round Ta­ble’, which I set up and mod­elled ex­actly on New­man’s tea par­ty. The tea party was the au­thor­ity and also the tea party could work fast and could de­cide some­thing—that was it, and if Max New­man was out of town at the time—­too bad—he would just have to read in the [log] book and find out what the tea party had been up to. My Round Ta­ble was based ex­actly on that and the psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tions in that pe­riod of try­ing to start AI in Britain when there was­n’t any. So all the prej­u­dices and mech­a­nisms were against it, and all my peo­ple were ex­tremely un­tried, so they had to es­tab­lish them­selves…There is a par­tic­u­lar mix which cre­ates a group psy­chol­ogy cer­tainly in which ex­tra­or­di­nary free­dom and ex­tra­or­di­nary dis­ci­pline are com­bined—and then you can go like a bomb…[HOLTZMAN]: You hear about the wartime group who missed the good old times in the war be­cause of the ex­cite­ment, pre­sum­ably; after­wards you missed that ur­gency. [MICHIE]: The same can be said of a great num­ber of ‘boffin’ groups: they had a tremen­dous amount of spe­cial sci­ence that sprang from ex­pe­ri­ence of sci­en­tist­s—radar, op­er­a­tions re­search, many other things—and many, many of these groups re­port the same kind of thing . . . of course, it can’t help but be ex­cit­ing.

After WWII, he con­tin­ued in acad­e­mia where he moved to ge­net­ics, play­ing a role in in­vent­ing /linkage dis­e­qui­lib­rium (a phe­nom­e­non which has grown vastly in im­por­tance ever since, and is the bless­ing and 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:

One of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of suc­cess­ful sci­en­tists is hav­ing courage. Once you get your courage up and be­lieve that you can do im­por­tant prob­lems, then you can. If you think you can’t, al­most surely you are not go­ing to. Courage is one of the things that Shan­non had supreme­ly. You have only to think of his ma­jor the­o­rem. He wants to cre­ate a method of cod­ing, but he does­n’t know what to do so he makes a ran­dom code. Then he is stuck. And then he asks the im­pos­si­ble ques­tion, “What would the av­er­age ran­dom code do?” He then proves that the av­er­age code is ar­bi­trar­ily good, and that there­fore there must be at least one good code. Who but a man of in­fi­nite courage could have dared to think those thoughts? That is the char­ac­ter­is­tic of great sci­en­tists; they have courage. They will go for­ward un­der in­cred­i­ble cir­cum­stances; they think and con­tinue to think.

Michie pro­posed tri­al-and-er­ror learn­ing, dra­ma­tized by MENACE (Michie 1961/Michie 1963). To solve the RL prob­lem, one sim­ply writes down a list of all pos­si­ble states which could be ob­served and the next ac­tion, and then be­gin play­ing ac­tions ran­domly through a se­ries of states; when we en­counter a re­ward, we then add +1 to all the pre­vi­ous state-ac­tions. We do not even try to es­ti­mate which ac­tion was re­spon­si­ble for the re­ward, we as­sign col­lec­tive blame and keep play­ing. As time pass­es, we play fewer moves at ran­dom, and more often take the move cur­rently es­ti­mated to be best. Over enough games, all the ac­tion-choices which were good will grad­u­ally av­er­age out to net good es­ti­mates, and the bad ones will av­er­age out to bad es­ti­mates. This is what we would now call a kind of tab­u­lar Q-learn­ing. Re­mark­ably, tab­u­lar Q-learn­ing is a uni­ver­sal and con­sis­tent so­lu­tion to the RL prob­lem: given enough mem­ory and enough time to ex­plore, it does­n’t mat­ter how ar­bi­trar­ily com­plex the pay­offs are or what any dis­tri­b­u­tions in­volved look like or how fine­ly-honed the op­ti­mal strat­egy is or how con­fus­ing the tem­po­ral de­lays, tab­u­lar Q-learn­ing can in the­ory con­verge to it. To demon­strate this, Michie’s MENACE solves Tic-Tac-Toe us­ing noth­ing but a pile of match­boxes split up into mul­ti­ple com­part­ments and some match­sticks to keep track (no com­puter nec­es­sary!); it plays Tic-Tac-Toe, and if the re­sult of the list of the state-ac­tion pairs is a win, matches get added, and if a loss, matches get re­moved. (JavaScript im­ple­men­ta­tion; video of a MENACE im­ple­men­ta­tion at a mu­seum.) So the sys­tem learns, can suc­cess­fully as­sign credit to good ac­tions and bad ac­tions, con­verges on the op­ti­mal Tic-Tac-Toe strat­e­gy, and as an en­core, it can even learn all this from self­-play. Not bad for 1961!

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 and 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 fil­ Michie’s ca­reer demon­strates the com­plete post-WWII com­pla­cency and 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, Cowen 2013

Av­er­age Is Over: Pow­er­ing Amer­ica Be­yond the Age of the Great Stag­na­tionTyler Cowen2013★★★

Fol­lowup to The Great Stag­na­tion, AiO takes the same for­mat awk­wardly strad­dling the ter­ri­tory be­tween over­grown Mar­ginal Rev­o­lu­tion blog posts and ful­l-length books (AiO can eas­ily be read in an after­noon and could be edited down fur­ther with­out much loss). AiO re­hearses some of the back­ground of TGS like the stag­na­tion in me­dian in­comes and wretched in­come growth for most ed­u­ca­tional brack­ets. Amer­i­cans, in 2013 and 2016, feel tremen­dously in­se­cure; the ab­solute stan­dard of liv­ing may be higher than be­fore, but an iPhone does­n’t pay the bills, and YouTube does­n’t re­place hav­ing a sense of self­-re­spect or a sta­ble job.

The Au­tor ‘wage po­lar­iza­tion’ the­sis ar­gues this is due to the econ­omy split­ting be­tween garbage jobs pay­ing low-wage for un­skilled but cur­rently un-au­tomat­able jobs, and highly skilled and pro­duc­tive jobs, which ben­e­fit from glob­al­iza­tion and tech­nol­o­gy. The un­skilled and au­tomat­able jobs have been in­creas­ingly eaten by out­sourc­ing to China or by tech­nol­ogy (Cowen cites ro­bo­t­ized fac­to­ries, Net­flix, dat­ing sites, crime-pre­dic­tive soft­ware for polic­ing; he is skep­ti­cal in chap­ter 9 that out­sourc­ing is the ma­jor­ity con­trib­u­tor to Amer­i­can trend­s). For the lat­ter, tech­nol­ogy and cap­i­tal ‘com­ple­ment’ the highly skilled, en­abling them to pro­duce ever more value (which is where their in­creas­ing salaries are com­ing from). This leads to some fairly dire fore­casts: the ba­nana re­pub­li­ciza­tion of Amer­i­ca, with a self­-re­gard­ing mer­i­to­cratic class of wealthy white-col­lar work­ers con­tin­u­ally con­cen­trat­ing into the me­trop­o­les and wealthy sub­urbs with their ser­vants, leav­ing in the hin­ter­lands the work­ing poor, and the non­work­ing poor.

What is this com­ple­men­ta­tion that ro­bots or AIs help with? Fi­nan­cial trad­ing and in­vest­ment, tech­nol­ogy tasks like en­abling a Google-s­cale ti­tan to run with­out col­laps­ing in­stant­ly, drone strikes and or­ga­niz­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tion and im­agery to de­cide who to drone strike, or just in gen­eral man­age­ment to effi­ciently or­ga­nize and run all the high­ly-paid spe­cial­ists and keep them on track to­wards goals. More or­di­nary peo­ple get shut out; they cause too many prob­lems, there’s too much over­head and in­effi­ciency in try­ing to use them, they hold up dead­lines or spit in the food and post the video to Face­book. Such ze­ro-mar­ginal prod­uct work­ers can’t be use­fully used by spe­cial­ists. Cowen finds him­self per­plexed to how he would use a per­son to help him even at a wage of $0:

As a pro­fes­sor, I am given a re­search as­sis­tant each year. Over the last twenty or so years, I have re­ceived some ex­tra­or­di­nary as­sis­tance from some very good work­ers, stu­dents, and even­tu­al­ly, peers and coau­thors. About once a year I re­ceive an offer, usu­ally by email, from some­one who wants to work as my re­search as­sis­tant for free. Typ­i­cally the offer is ac­com­pa­nied by a re­sume, and for the most part these re­sumes ap­pear quite good. The emails sound rea­son­able and friend­ly. I turn such offers down. I don’t think the ap­pli­cants are lemons, but still I find that one re­search as­sis­tant is for me the right num­ber, at least if I have a good one, as is usu­ally the case. Even when it comes to the as­sis­tant whom I have the time to man­age, I am most of all con­cerned about hav­ing a con­sci­en­tious per­son at my dis­pos­al. The work with an RA is ba­si­cally a team re­la­tion­ship, and the core prob­lem is that I don’t have the time to build an­other team, even if it does­n’t cost me any money up­front. I don’t have the time to work with and man­age an­other per­son. To put this point in a broader busi­ness con­text, un­til an­other good man­ager is hired, there is no point in em­ploy­ing an­other as­sis­tant. It’s the man­ager who is the scarce in­put, and that is one way to think about why man­age­r­ial salaries have been go­ing up so much. Man­agers play a role of grow­ing im­por­tance in co­or­di­nat­ing com­plex, large-s­cale pro­duc­tion process­es. …To hire a risky and iffy work­er, with­out a com­pe­tent over­seer, sim­ply is­n’t worth it, no mat­ter how low the wage. And so a lot of work­ers have a hard time be­ing picked up and in­te­grated into pro­duc­tive teams. It is pre­cisely that process that man­agers are paid to make work more effi­cient­ly. It is a process that is con­tin­u­ing its long, long trend to­ward in­creas­ing im­por­tance. And, fi­nal­ly, it is why man­agers are be­ing paid more.

(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 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, Bear 1996

New Leg­endsGreg Bear1996★★★

New Leg­ends is an an­thol­ogy of SF sto­ries picked by Bear with an eye to­ward the psy­cho­log­i­cal and 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 , his ad­mi­ra­tion of Ed­ward Teller, etc. Scholz clearly drew on Ben­ford for his novel­la, and so it was un­usu­ally in­ter­est­ing for me.

The col­lec­tion over­all is good, but not great. A num­ber of the sto­ries are too clearly the prod­uct of early ’90s anx­ious lib­er­al­ism and have not aged well since they were writ­ten in 1993 or ear­lier (~20 years ago), some are half-baked, and some are just bad. A few are very good. They are grouped into the­matic sec­tions. To go through them in or­der (there are many spoil­ers be­low):

  • “El­egy”, Mary Rosen­blum. Good. A sci­en­tist work­ing on con­trolled use of squid neu­rons to re­pair hu­man brains and cure trauma like Alzheimer’s strug­gles with guilt about her de­mented moth­er, fear her re­search will fail, and wor­ries that the squid she uses as raw ma­te­ri­als may be part of some­thing far greater.
  • “A Des­per­ate Cal­cu­lus”, Ster­ling Blake. Bad. World-trot­ting sci­en­tists strug­gle to or­ga­nize a re­sponse to a dev­as­tat­ing pan­dem­ic. Twist end­ing: the pan­demic was en­gi­neered to ren­der women ster­ile, stop­ping the threat of over­pop­u­la­tion, forc­ing hu­man­ity to dieback and live in har­mony with the en­vi­ron­ment, and the (im­mune) pro­tag­o­nists were spread­ing it through their jet­set­ting, over­laid on a geopo­lit­i­cal fore­cast of North­ern hemi­sphere vs South­ern hemi­sphere balka­niza­tion and re­sent­ment. The en­gi­neered pan­demic con­ceit is nice but has been done many times be­fore, and the pol­i­tics are in­cred­i­bly grat­ing. Even in 1994 it should have been ob­vi­ous that over­pop­u­la­tion was not go­ing to be an ex­is­ten­tial threat and that the worst of the en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems are often solved by ad­di­tional eco­nomic growth (the Kuznets curve). This story is par­tic­u­larly dat­ed; con­tem­po­rary writ­ers think­ing about us­ing global warm­ing as their threat should con­sider how much they care about dat­ing them­selves.
  • “Scenes from a Fu­ture Mar­riage”, James Steven­s-Arce. Mediocre. An un­lucky cou­ple who screw up all their life de­ci­sions fail again, and re­view their choices while con­tem­plat­ing sui­cide. Set against a vaguely dystopian back­ground. This one did noth­ing for me as it was so over the top.
  • “Com­ing of Age in Karhide”, Ur­sula K. Le Guin. Great. In an age­less city where every life fol­lows an­cient fine­ly-honed pat­terns, a fear­ful child grows into its sex­ual ma­tu­rity and be­comes an adult. This is very much a Le Guin tra­di­tion­al­ist story with her trade­mark gen­der twist, and it does what it does very well.
  • “High Abyss”, Gre­gory Ben­ford. Good. An alien re­li­gious war about the physics of the uni­verse, in a uni­verse which is not ours, cul­mi­nates in vic­tory for the rene­gade math­e­mati­cian who led the re­volt with his hereti­cal the­ory that the world is not a line, but an­other topol­o­gy. A treach­er­ous coun­ter­at­tack sends the prophet aloft on a hot-air bal­loon and he re­al­izes that his heresy did not go far enough—that the world was a string em­bed­ded in a far grander, far larg­er, more spher­i­cal uni­verse (ours?). He is si­mul­ta­ne­ously ex­alted and de­based by the epochal dis­cov­ery of the truth of the Uni­verse. Ben­ford throws you in the hard SF deep­-end to fig­ure out the uni­verse (I’m ac­tu­ally re­minded a lit­tle of The Clock­work Rocket here as a re­cent ex­am­ple). Does it work? It’s hard to say be­cause the story is so short. I’m not sure what the “string” is even sup­posed to be—a su­per­string? How does that work with the given sys­tem of the world with ‘lava’ bub­bling up in the cen­ter of the world? I thought ini­tially the story was be­ing set un­der­seas on a crustal fault, and the lava was lit­eral lava and the cold abyssal wa­ters doomed the peo­ple if they tried to leave the long line/ridge, but then “stars” came up and I had to aban­don that the­o­ry. I’m not en­tirely sat­is­fied with my in­ter­pre­ta­tion and wish the story had been longer and ex­plained its world a lit­tle more.
  • “Record­ing An­gel”, Paul J. McAuley. Mediocre. In a vastly dis­tant post-hu­man fu­ture, a In­di­an-like city’s an­cient rhythms are dis­turbed by a hu­man re­turn­ing from an eon­s-long space trip. She leads some sort of rev­o­lu­tion. Did noth­ing for me, as noth­ing about it seemed im­por­tant, the world-build­ing failed to ex­plain what was go­ing on, etc.
  • “When Strangers Meet”, So­nia Orin Lyris. Bad. A mind-con­trol­ling alien (the One) cel­e­brates, with its many ser­vants, the fes­ti­val at the end of its year, cul­mi­nat­ing in a grand dance to the death (by ex­haus­tion) of its vaguely hu­man-like slaves. In­ter­spersed are oc­ca­sional com­ments about in­ter­stel­lar com­mu­ni­ca­tion with aliens (hu­man­s?). This one frankly made lit­tle sense to me. There’s some re­peated lines about the dan­gers of the ser­vants be­com­ing “too fa­mil­iar” to the One, but also a line about “strangers bring ben­e­fits”. The story feels omi­nous but noth­ing gels be­fore it abruptly ends with the dance per­for­mance and an­other use of the strangers line. What does it all mean? I have no idea. I can barely fig­ure out what the alien so­cial sys­tem is sup­posed to be (I think it’s mod­eled after eu­so­cial in­sect­s), much less any theme or mes­sage. This might have worked if Lyris had­n’t badly over­es­ti­mated my abil­ity to un­der­stand what she wrote.
  • “The Day the Aliens Came”, Robert Sheck­ley. Very bad. Sup­pos­edly hu­mor­ous. A writer non­cha­lantly ac­cepts em­ploy­ment with an alien tourist, but then sud­denly he’s shack­ing up with an­other alien, and sud­denly the cou­ple is hav­ing kids and merg­ing into a group or­gan­ism with other cou­ples and then the story just ends. WTF‽ This badly needed to be re­jected or at least, Bear should have re­jected it and sent it back to Sheck­ley with a note say­ing “where’s the sec­ond half of this sto­ry?”
  • “Gnota”, Greg Abra­ham. Mediocre. A mid-fu­ture sol­dier gets hit by an IED due to sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty; his heart is to be re­placed by a clone of his heart grown in­side a ge­net­i­cal­ly-engi­neered pig. He bonds with the pig.
  • “Rorvik’s War”, Ge­offrey A. Lan­dis. Good. A cit­i­zen is con­scripted into a war against the Rus­sians. He dies in an at­tack­—or maybe he dies an­other way, and then an­oth­er. War is hell, and waste­ful since the mil­i­taries’ com­put­ers can all sim­u­late the out­come of the bat­tles, ex­cept can they re­ally take into ac­count the hu­man fac­tor? Rorvik dies again and again, is taken POW and sent to a Com­mu­nist re-e­d­u­ca­tion camp, un­til fuzzily he re­al­izes: he’s in the com­puter sim­u­la­tions. He grap­ples back to re­al­i­ty, and his con­scrip­tion is over. He re­turns home with all his limbs, hav­ing ap­par­ently served his coun­try with­out any reper­cus­sions. But will he psy­cho­log­i­cally truly re­cov­er? I en­joyed this one in part be­cause it un­der­cut my ex­pec­ta­tions: I was men­tally a lit­tle bored with yet an­other war against Rus­sians and think­ing it was a lit­tle stu­pid, but then the story jus­ti­fied its choices quite nice­ly.
  • “Ra­di­ance”, Carter Scholz. Great. See Ra­di­ance.
  • “Old Leg­ends”, Gre­gory Ben­ford. Great. See open­ing sum­ma­ry.
  • “The Red Blaze Is the Morn­ing”, Robert Sil­ver­berg. Great. Sil­ver­berg turns in one of the best sto­ries in this vol­ume: an old ar­chae­ol­o­gist, al­most out to pas­ture, strives in his Turk­ish dig site to make one last ex­tra­or­di­nary find jus­ti­fy­ing his het­ero­dox the­ory of the ori­gins of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion, fol­low­ing the clue of a few out of place ar­ti­facts. He is lone­ly, his body is fail­ing, but his pas­sion to un­der­stand the past dri­ves him on in his fruit­less digs. Haunted by his con­tin­u­ing fail­ure to find any­thing at all, he be­gins hal­lu­ci­nat­ing vi­sions from the end of time, the dy­ing Earth, the ru­ins of the might­i­est civ­i­liza­tions that hu­man­ity will one eon give birth to. The vi­sions are sent by his coun­ter­part, one of the last sapi­ent be­ings left in the ru­ins after the Got­ter­dammerung, who makes him an offer: to swap their minds (shades of Love­craft’s schol­ars), so the be­ing can study the im­pos­si­bly re­mote ori­gins of hu­man­ity and the pro­tag­o­nist study un­dreamt-of eras. He re­fuses of course, and the dig con­tin­ues to go poor­ly, he drinks more and more, un­til fi­nally in the cli­max, a Turk­ish offi­cial ar­rives with the shat­ter­ing truth: the ar­ti­facts were planted by a cor­rupt Turk­ish offi­cial for the ex­press pur­pose of egging him on and mo­ti­vat­ing more work at the site. His dig is fu­tile, was al­ways fu­tile, and even the slen­der ev­i­dence he had was mean­ing­less. His the­ory will not be vin­di­cat­ed. Ut­terly de­stroyed by the rev­e­la­tion, he ac­cepts the Faus­t­ian bar­gain and flees into mad­ness—or the fu­ture? And awakes at the end of time, with end­less ru­ins to in­ves­ti­gate and pon­der. This story im­pressed me as close kin to “Ra­di­ance” and show­ing the dark side of a quest for truth.
  • “One”, George Alec Effin­ger. Mediocre. A hus­band-wife team set out in a space­ship to search for life. As pre­dicted by the Fermi para­dox, they fail to find any on thou­sands of worlds. The wife dies, the pro­tag­o­nist slowly goes in­sane, and con­verts to re­li­gion as he con­tin­ues to fail to find life on any plan­ets he sur­veys. Wholly un­con­vinc­ing, I thought.
  • “Scare­crow”, Poul An­der­son. Mediocre. An al­most Asi­mov­ian pas­tiche, of an­other hus­band-wife team whose ship crashes on the chaotic moon Hy­pe­r­i­on. They strug­gle to reach shel­ter in the in­stal­la­tion on the moon, manned by ro­bots, only to dis­cover the ro­bots have, yes, gone in­sane—or be­come re­li­gious, specifi­cal­ly, hav­ing de­vel­oped a re­li­gion fo­cus­ing on darkness/chaos/bad vs light/order/good. The pair need to prove they fol­low the light and are not sin­is­ter agents of chaos. Based on the wife’s brief re­li­gious di­a­logue with the ro­bots, the hus­band re­ceives in­spi­ra­tion: he proves that they come from the light by teach­ing the ro­bots about frac­tals and chaotic equa­tions which nev­er­the­less have a sim­ple beau­ti­ful math­e­mat­i­cal core. Hav­ing proven his theod­i­cy—how a good and or­derly god could have cre­ated the chaotic Sat­urn en­vi­ron­men­t—they are ac­cepted by the ro­bots as fel­low wor­ship­pers and ad­mit­ted into the base. While I re­ally en­joyed the last page, I level the op­po­site ac­cu­sa­tion at this story that I did some of the oth­ers: it is far too long, al­most all of it could be trimmed out, and some of the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion is very poor (the wife is wholly un­nec­es­sary and IMO is con­stantly ir­ri­tat­ing).
  • “Wang’s Car­pets”, Greg Egan. Great. I would put this with “Ra­di­ance” and “The Red Blaze Is the Morn­ing” as the 3 best sto­ries in this vol­ume. Up­load civ­i­liza­tion fires off a bunch of copies to re­mote sys­tems to look for life, in part as a fi­nal at­tempt to find a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for re­main­ing in­volved in the real world and pur­su­ing the great sci­en­tific project of un­der­stand­ing the uni­verse, rather than en­joy­ing ever more ab­stracted or re­fined sim­u­la­tions. They dis­cover an ap­par­ently dull gi­ant sim­ple ocean life form based on self­-repli­cat­ing car­bo­hy­drate sheets. Egan offers a truly in­spired bit of world­build­ing when he sug­gests the sheets then are —which are Tur­ing-com­plete, , and so host en­tire com­pu­ta­tional civ­i­liza­tions of their own! A won­der­fully alien sug­ges­tion. This was ap­par­ently ex­panded in , which if it’s as good as the short sto­ry, is well worth the read­ing. I’ll look for a copy.

Perseverance island, Frazar 2009

Per­se­ver­ance is­land: or, The Robin­son Cru­soe of the nine­teenth cen­turyDou­glas Frazar2009★★★

(130k words; 2h) I read the Project Guten­berg HTML edi­tion with il­lus­tra­tions.

An ob­scure , I was rec­om­mended it when a reader men­tioned it as a coun­ter­point to my com­plaint that in Robin­son Cruse, Cru­soe is fur­nished with al­most an en­tire ship of sup­plies and an is­land of abun­dance. In­deed, the pref­ace of PI runs

In all works of the Robin­son Cru­soe type, the wreck is al­ways near at hand, the pow­der dry and pre­served, and the days for raft­ing the same ashore calm and pleas­ant. This un­for­tu­nate had no such ac­ces­sories; and his story proves the lim­it­less in­ge­nu­ity and in­ven­tion of man, and por­trays the works and achieve­ments of a cast­away, who, thrown ashore al­most lit­er­ally naked upon a desert isle, is able by the use of his brains, the skill of his hands, and a prac­ti­cal knowl­edge of the com­mon arts and sci­ences, to far sur­pass the achieve­ments of all his pre­de­ces­sors, and to sur­round him­self with im­ple­ments of power and sci­ence ut­terly be­yond the reach of his pro­to­type, who had his wreck as a reser­voir from which to draw his mu­ni­tions.

This sounded promis­ing. While de­tailed how-tos and man­u­als can be crush­ingly bor­ing, a good nar­ra­tive can weave them in and be both ed­u­ca­tional and 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. …I saw plainly that I should have to blow open the hull to get at what I wanted and ex­pose it. In the mean­while I was fas­ci­nated with the thou­sand and one old-fash­ioned shapes about the hull that struck my eye­,—the pe­cu­liar long brass eigh­teen pounders, some of which lay be­side her, cov­ered with bar­na­cles, but yet show­ing their shape and gen­eral for­ma­tion; the blunt bows of what the pi­rate cap­tain had termed a fast-sail­ing ves­sel; the com­i­cal an­chors, and pe­cu­liar for­ma­tion of the decks, that to me, as a sailor, were very in­ter­est­ing. She looked to me more like Noah’s ark than the ves­sel of a civ­i­lized na­tion. How rapidly and al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly had we ad­vanced in this sci­ence since this tub was called a ves­sel, fast, strong, and staunch; and how many hours would she have been able to keep in sight a mod­ern clip­per-ship, much less over­take her. In com­par­i­son to the lat­ter she seemed like a ship’s jol­ly-boat. And so in­deed she was, be­ing about 300 tons, as against the 2,000 and 2,500 tons ship of my day and time.

Inas­much as the pi­rate cap­tain died in 1781, not that long ago, and had been shot through the chest and 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, Buffett 2013

Berk­shire Hath­away Let­ters to Share­hold­ersWar­ren Buffett2013★★★

(on­line let­ters) The fa­mous an­nual let­ters of Buffett lay­ing out the progress of Berk­shire Hath­away and his and Munger’s in­vest­ment be­liefs. Apro­pos of , 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:

  1. smal­l­-s­cale stock mar­ket trad­ing in the 1940s, pick­ing up mi­nor in­effi­cien­cies in dead­-end com­pa­nies or war­rants or what­not. (All those op­por­tu­ni­ties have of course long since van­ished.)

  2. par­lay­ing that into a se­ries of pur­chases of pri­vate, off-mar­ket pur­chases of small cap busi­nesses with steady cash­flow, by cul­ti­vat­ing a folksy mys­tique and offer­ing very fast deals in which the own­ers do not shop around for al­ter­na­tives, then fold­ing their fu­ture earn­ings into the con­glom­er­ate but oth­er­wise not in­vest­ing in them and leav­ing them en­tirely alone with the same CEOs etc (1950s-1980s)

  3. ex­pand­ing hold­ings in in­sur­ers in or­der to ben­e­fit from their float (1970s-1990s)

  4. us­ing float plus cash­flow to main­tain a large cap­i­tal which can be de­ployed for brief on­ce-in-a-decade op­por­tu­ni­ties like stock mar­ket crashes or com­pa­nies in sud­den dis­tress or (in one par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple) re­solv­ing the , reap­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary re­turns (1960s-p­re­sen­t). As Buffett puts it:

    Oc­ca­sion­al­ly, though, ei­ther be­cause of com­pa­ny-spe­cific prob­lems or a world­wide short­age of cred­it, ma­tu­ri­ties must ac­tu­ally be met by pay­ment. For that, only cash will do the job. Bor­row­ers then learn that credit is like oxy­gen. When ei­ther is abun­dant, its pres­ence goes un­no­ticed. When ei­ther is miss­ing, that’s all that is no­ticed. Even a short ab­sence of credit can bring a com­pany to its knees. [We, at Berk­shire] have pledged that we will hold at least $10 bil­lion of cash. We cus­tom­ar­ily keep at least $20 bil­lion. By be­ing so cau­tious in re­spect to lever­age, we pe­nal­ize our re­turns by a mi­nor amount. Hav­ing loads of liq­uid­i­ty, though, lets us sleep well. More­over, dur­ing the episodes of fi­nan­cial chaos that oc­ca­sion­ally erupt in our econ­o­my, we will be equipped both fi­nan­cially and emo­tion­ally to play offense while oth­ers scram­ble for sur­vival. That’s what al­lowed us to in­vest $15.6 bil­lion in 25 days of panic fol­low­ing the Lehman bank­ruptcy in 2008.

  5. as cap­i­tal ex­pands and re­turns fall, with small pri­vate com­pa­nies no longer worth the time it takes to in­ves­ti­gate, move to purchasing/investing in mega-cor­po­ra­tions with vast cap­i­tal in­vest­ments re­quired (2000s-p­re­sent)

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 tem­porar­ily in­sane and 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. To para­phrase Grou­cho Marx, you should never sell any busi­ness to Buffett that Buffett would buy; and given the ob­served re­sults and how he preys on sex­a­ge­nar­ian and old­er, ‘at­tempt­ing to sell to BH’ could jus­ti­fi­ably be added to the DSM-5’s di­ag­nos­tic cri­te­ria for se­nile de­men­tia… 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 “su­per” (a very in­ter­est­ing area of 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, Jordan 2013

A Mem­ory of Light (The Wheel of Time, #14)Robert Jor­dan2013★★★

So. It has come to this. WoT fi­nally end­ed.

I re­mem­ber how the wheel of dharma be­gan to turn for me: my mother ran a Girl Scouts troop while I was in mid­dle school, and some­times they met at a lo­cal town rec cen­ter. Rather than try to par­tic­i­pate, I would some­times kill time in the lounge read­ing their old do­nated pa­per­backs. One of them was re­mark­ably thick, but the cover looked in­ter­est­ing, and I was hooked by the open­ing pas­sages: a Tolkien-esque chap­ter about a young lad head­ing back to the Shire and haunted by a Ring-wraith. (Not so much the Pro­logue, which was too mys­ti­fy­ing.) I’d read Tolkien by this point, of course, and won­dered if it’d be an aw­ful shame­ful ripoff like Sword of Shan­nara, but I kept read­ing.

The open­ing was nifty enough but not grip­ping, at least un­til I reached Moiraine’s speech to the vil­lagers about Manetheren. I was spell­bound and had not been so gripped at least since Tolkien with Gim­li’s dirge for the dwarves in the Mines of Mo­ria. And the book did­n’t stop there: there was the creepy in­ter­lude at the cursed city of Shadar Lo­goth, the even more creepy Machin Shin of the Way­gates, the un­usual Templar/Children of the Light, the in­trigu­ing un­cer­tainty about which of the kids was the Main Char­ac­ter (you thought it was Rand, of course, as the ma­jor view­point, but the dreams kept you un­cer­tain—­surely the au­thor would­n’t throw those in if there weren’t a good chance the ob­vi­ous choice would­n’t be picked?), the good troll char­ac­ter who is a scholar rather than a war­rior, a West­ern-samu­rai mil­i­taris­tic set­ting a whole city of fe­male ma­gi­cians, Old Tongue on every other page cul­mi­nat­ing in no less than the Green Man at the Eye of the World (just one of many nods to re­al-world things). I was im­pressed as I read it over the weeks, meet­ing by meet­ing, and soon checked out the other 6 or so. This was a long time ago. A very long time ago.

In­deed, WoT could be con­sid­ered Tolkien turned up. Tolkien had a cast of hun­dreds? WoT would have a cast of thou­sands! Tolkien had a few coun­tries go­ing to war against a dark lord? WoT would have dozens of coun­tries and re­gions! Tolkien had two or three schem­ing ma­gi­cians? WoT would have scores of schem­ing ma­gi­cians, and they would be split into more than a dozen groups, all schem­ing. Tolkien had one or two trolls? WoT would have trolls too, all over the place, and they’d be the good kind, peace­ful schol­ar; and Tolkien had a char­ac­ter record­ing events for a his­to­ry, well, that’s a per­fect task for one of the schol­ar-trolls. Tolkien had a few Ring-wraiths and a big fight against one at the end, well, WoT would have ring-wraiths in every book and they’d be a stan­dard foe (which makes sense given all the mag­i­cal pow­ers given to every other char­ac­ter: you need to power up the bad guys if you power up the good guys). The Shire would be tainted by evil due to the hero & com­pan­ions com­ing from there and even­tu­ally have to be led to an up­ris­ing? Emond’s Field would never fall and would wage epic bat­tle against Padan Fain et al. And so on.

You could­n’t say that Wheel of Time had the re­strained schol­arly Eng­lish sen­si­bil­ity of LotR, but it packed a punch. If LotR was the nov­el, WoT was the video game or maybe movie adap­ta­tion, with every­thing di­aled up to 11 and an un­lim­ited bud­get for ex­plo­sions and ex­otic lo­ca­tions. And it did this very well in the early books. In that sense, it’s an ex­cel­lent ‘Tolkien for teenagers’. (In an­other sense, reusing the old ‘hid­den prince’ trope of be­ing born to a des­tiny and with ar­cane pow­ers, WoT is also good for teens: they’ve long loved that trope, per­haps be­cause at that age they des­per­ately love the idea of be­ing given a de­fined role and the (un­earned) abil­ity to fill it. This trope is per­haps a bit too nar­cis­sis­tic for adults to en­joy as much, al­though given how pop­u­lar Frozen has been and how many peo­ple, child or adult, claim to iden­tify with El­sa, I may be wrong here.)

One of the lessons I learned from WoT was learn­ing the hard way why one should avoid in­-progress se­ries: the men­tal suffer­ing and time ex­pended is rad­i­cally out of pro­por­tion to the plea­sure. (I am hand­ily ap­ply­ing this les­son now to that other end­less vast fan­tasy epic, GRRM. Given my pre-2007 com­ments that it was en­tirely pos­si­ble that Jor­dan would die be­fore fin­ish­ing, I won­der how that one will turn out.) An­other les­son is that length and a big cast of char­ac­ters should not be taken as a goal in its own right be­cause you de­scend into rep­e­ti­tion and cliche.

In some sense, Sander­son’s AMoL for me suc­ceeds just by ex­ist­ing and giv­ing me clo­sure. I would be happy if it is not as en­rag­ing as King’s end­ing to The Dark Tower, or as un­remit­tingly aw­ful and a dis­grace to all par­ties in­volved as Brian Her­bert and KJA’s work in the Dune uni­verse. Per­haps all the peo­ple on Goodreads who are leav­ing lauda­tory 5 star re­views with­out even read­ing the book and ap­par­ently are ig­no­rant of what a “re­view” is feel the same way—that as long as it’s not aw­ful, it de­serves 5 stars for giv­ing them clo­sure.

And it’s nei­ther en­rag­ing nor ter­ri­bly aw­ful, so I am sat­is­fied.

I share a lot of the com­plaints I’ve seen in other re­views. Some char­ac­ters like Moiraine do noth­ing in­ter­est­ing; oth­ers have com­pressed end­ings like Luc/Isam and Padan Fain. Bela dies de­spite an ex­pec­ta­tion that she would con­tinue her im­prob­a­ble luck. The body-swap­ping is un­prece­dented and con­fus­ing, since it ap­par­ently is not due to Rand in­dulging in cos­mic pow­ers but a mys­te­ri­ous gray-haired woman who I could not un­der­stand after two reads and googling a bit. The res­o­lu­tion of con­fronta­tion with the Dark One was clever as far as it went, but it re­lied on a fea­ture of Callan­dor I am pretty sure was not men­tioned be­fore and I feel a bit deus ex machi­na-d, al­though I’m re­lieved that the gen­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Herid Fel’s ba­sic point that be­cause of the Wheel, you have to re­store the prison to how it was be­fore the Bore (rather than patch it again, kill the Dark One, etc) was cor­rect.

There were many great bits. Rand and Matt brag­ging in one of their last meet­ings. Lan tak­ing down Damodred (although did­n’t we see the sui­ci­dal ma­neu­ver in a pre­vi­ous book…). Min vs spies. De­man­dred and Graen­dal make the For­saken look less in­com­pe­tent than usu­al. Thom ca­su­ally knifing women while com­pos­ing a po­em.

Many bad parts.

The end­less grind­ing bat­tle—by the time I fin­ished the book, I felt as ex­hausted as if I’d been push­ing pikes with Trol­locs my­self. The worst part was, de­spite the end­less pages of bat­tle, the bat­tles still did­n’t feel epic or hard­fought; they lacked any ur­gency or real dra­ma. Per­haps WoT just mas­sively over-in­dulged in bat­tles be­fore, or per­haps the bat­tles were just dis­con­nect­ed—it’s a bad thing when you have char­ac­ters lamp­shad­ing the triv­i­al­ity of what they’re do­ing and ask­ing ‘so why does this mat­ter when the only bat­tle that mat­ters is Rand vs DO?’ The bat­tles are weirdly parochial and lim­ited to a few lo­ca­tions. 4 bat­tle­fronts is im­pres­sive? For the Last Bat­tle, a world­wide strug­gle against the Shad­ow? We did­n’t get so much as one point of view in, I dun­no, Sean­chan which was sup­posed to have waged its own epic strug­gle against Shad­ows­pawn dur­ing the orig­i­nal col­o­niza­tion! We don’t get Way­gates pop­ping open in hun­dreds of lo­ca­tions, the en­tire Rand­land con­vulsed in thou­sands of bat­tles… Ba­si­cal­ly, we did­n’t see a world at war. We bounced be­tween 4 lo­ca­tions again and again and again un­til it was an in­cred­i­ble chore to read an­other page. Last minute res­cues are a sto­ry­telling de­vice that work only a few times. In a chap­ter. Be­fore they lose any im­pact.

Some of the writ­ing seems stiff and clum­sy, and I liked Matt less than in the pre­vi­ous book so I sup­pose that was just an anom­aly.

The ‘phi­los­o­phy’ bits of the Rand vs DO en­counter were se­ri­ously ju­ve­nile; so Rand over­comes the DO with the Power of Love but then he re­al­izes that to de­stroy the DO, he would take away Free Will! And just as any id­iot could have pre­dict­ed, he has to leave the DO alone and re­pair the prison good as new. And of course the DO whines at him and Rand has to lec­ture him self­-right­eous­ly… Give me a break. I’m sure that this must have been Jor­don’s notes, be­cause I re­mem­ber Sander­son do­ing bet­ter in Mist­born.

I sus­pect peo­ple will be iden­ti­fy­ing loose ends and missed prophe­cies or Min-vi­sions for years to come. At least we did sorta find out who killed As­mod­ean.

So now that it is fin­ished, what should I think of WoT? Would I rec­om­mend it to a younger ver­sion of me? I think I would. In bulk, WoT’s flaws are re­duced. The rep­e­ti­tion fades away like the Home­ric ep­i­thets fill­ing out lines, and the mul­ti­-mil­lion word count be­comes less in­tim­i­dat­ing. The aw­ful mid­dle-late books, like pos­si­bly the se­ries nadir Win­ter’s Heart, lose their se­vere ag­gra­va­tion when you have all the books in a pile wait­ing to be read in­stead of an un­known mul­ti­-year wait upon an au­thor who may (and did) die on you. With­out years be­tween reads, the plots and char­ac­ters will be eas­ier to track, and even if one fails to pick up on clues or asides, the res­o­lu­tion will be de­liv­ered soon and one can go ‘ah!’ as one newly ap­pre­ci­ates a new thread of the pat­tern.

But I would ac­com­pany it with this cau­tion:

“WoT, in small chunks, is not good. The char­ac­ters and writ­ing is rep­e­ti­tious, the de­scrip­tions pedes­tri­an; few pas­sages will move you with the beauty of strange­ness or ex­oti­cism that marks the best fan­ta­sy. What WoT does is take the ‘quan­tity vs qual­ity’ trade­off, and jam it all the way to ‘quan­tity’, to see what hap­pens, and does so more ex­tremely than any other fan­tasy se­ries I know of. If you want to see ‘epic fan­tasy’, with a cast of who knows how many thou­sands, spread over more coun­tries than you can keep straight, and watch this ta­pes­try evolve over years and mil­lions of words, then you must read WoT. If you want to max­i­mize your en­joy­ment per word, if you want the heights of what the fan­tasy genre can de­liver in terms of qual­i­ty, then put away WoT for an­other day and in­stead do some­thing like read through chrono­log­i­cally the win­ners of the Lo­cus and World Fan­tasy Awards.”

There have been worse obit­u­ar­ies for pieces of your child­hood.

Tokyo, Tsuzuki 1999

Tokyo: A Cer­tain StyleKy­oichi Tsuzuki1999★★★

() Pho­tog­ra­phy book of clut­tered Tokyo apart­ments, il­lus­trat­ing messy every­day life and var­i­ous ap­proach­es.

  • Phys­i­cal for­mat: de­spite be­ing en­tirely color pho­tographs edge-to-edge, Tokyo: A Cer­tain Style had a MSRP of just $13. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, this came at the com­pro­mise of be­ing ex­tremely smal­l­—the book could eas­ily fit into a large pocket as it mea­sures 6 by 4 inch­es. (In com­par­i­son to my other two pho­to­graph books on hand, Light’s Moon and 100 Suns, each page has ~1/4 and ~1/7th the area re­spec­tive­ly; in prac­tice, their pho­tographs are larger be­cause all notes are rel­e­gated to end­notes in­stead of fit­ting into cropped out rec­tan­gles next to the pho­to­s.) This makes de­tails in the pho­tos quite hard to make out even open­ing the book as flat as pos­si­ble, and one will be stick­ing one’s nose into it to ex­am­ine spots. A Com­pact OED-style mag­ni­fy­ing glass might not be amiss while read­ing this. (It also would be im­pos­si­ble to scan with­out de­bind­ing; in­deed, the spine has al­ready come loose on mine, and I’ve dam­aged it fur­ther by try­ing to spot a toy un­der­neath a TV split in half by the spine.) For a pho­to­graph book, this is a se­ri­ous flaw and I have to dock 1 star for it.
  • Writ­ing: it’s hard to be­lieve Tsuzuki wrote it him­self but he ap­pears to have a real chip on his shoul­der and the in­tro­duc­tion is a lit­tle snide and jokey for my tastes. For­tu­nate­ly, the writ­ing is the least im­por­tant part and the an­no­ta­tions to the photo are use­ful.
  • Pho­tos: land­scape shots of apart­ments with­out the in­hab­i­tant typ­i­cally taken from an en­trance, some­times with fol­lowup shots of the ex­te­rior of it and neigh­bor­ing build­ings or in­te­rior an­gles look­ing back to­wards the orig­i­nal pho­to. They do the job.

I picked up a used copy as part of my in­ter­est in MUJI and William Gib­son’s short es­say . 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 and 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:

  1. Tsuzuki de­scribes Tokyo as be­ing the liv­ing room of in­hab­i­tants, com­pen­sat­ing for the tiny 1-room ‘rab­bit hutches’. This is true. Aside from the com­mon shar­ing of toi­lets in apart­ment build­ings, many res­i­dents rely on pub­lic baths, con­ve­nience stores for mis­cel­lany, and small restau­rants for food (one mu­sic critic is de­scribed as never eat­ing at home, but sim­ply eat­ing else­where, as her heat­ing pad is cov­ered by a teapot and other stuff), laun­dro­mats or shared wash­ing ma­chines for cloth­ing (us­ing clothes lines for dry­ing and stor­age) etc. The lack of cars is strik­ing par­tic­u­larly since it goes un­men­tioned, as use of Toky­o’s ex­cel­lent trains/subways is taken for grant­ed. A city is the orig­i­nal “shar­ing econ­omy” and this is prob­a­bly par­tially re­spon­si­ble for the economies of scale in ur­ban liv­ing (it is highly waste­ful to have cars, toi­lets, baths, wash­ing ma­chi­nes, dry­ers etc, for each per­son, which are thus in use <5% of the time if that much).

  2. apart­ment effi­cien­cy: some­what dis­ap­point­ing­ly, there are few clever tricks for ‘cock­pit liv­ing’ or at­tempts at op­ti­miz­ing liv­ing space. For the most part, ‘cock­pit liv­ing’ con­sists of pil­ing stuff on top of stuff and get­ting out of the house as much as pos­si­ble to avoid be­ing too an­noyed. I had to shake my head at all the un­nec­es­sar­ily gi­gan­tic tea ket­tles squat­ting on stoves (not even elec­tric, so they boil much slower and more dan­ger­ous­ly). The MUJI life this is not. A few tricks I did see in­clude: 1. putting wash­ing ma­chines out on the apart­ment mini-porch (I guess the rain is min­i­mal enough to not de­stroy it quick­ly), 2. hang­ing clothes lines over one’s bed (mak­ing use of the dead ver­ti­cal space, bunkbed-style), 3. hang­ing dish racks over sinks (to drip into the sink and again make use of dead space). It mostly makes me want to spend a day go­ing through my own apart­ment and ruth­lessly prun­ing—­many of the pho­tos make me itch.

  3. Japan has long had a rep­u­ta­tion as a na­tion of read­ers and book buy­ers and boasted prob­a­bly the high­est trans­la­tion per capita rates any­where or any­when. This im­pres­sion is re­in­forced by open­ing up ran­dom pages: my first re­ac­tion is often, ‘so many books/newspapers/magazines!’ It’s par­tic­u­larly strik­ing be­cause they make up such a large frac­tion of free space, just pa­per every­where.

  4. the con­sumer elec­tron­ics pic­ture is in­ter­est­ing pri­mar­ily for how out­dated much of it is. We see lots of chunky CRT TVs, lots of big boom box­es, lots of au­dio cen­ter black slabs which I don’t even re­call what ex­actly they did (ra­dio, tape play­ing… what else?), more than a few fax ma­chi­nes, the oc­ca­sional SNES/Famicom, some CDs, and cas­sette tapes and vinyl records every­where. We see near-zero per­sonal com­put­ers: I spot­ted one old Ap­ple Mac­in­tosh un­plugged and buried in a cor­ner by a de­scribed “col­lec­tor” (whose om­niv­o­rous­ness and dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion looks more like hoard­ing), and that’s about it for per­sonal com­put­ers. There’s a few more shown in more business/professional con­texts. In con­trast, in the USA, the Dot­com bub­ble was get­ting un­der­way by this point and even my fam­ily had a PC. One could be­lieve the pho­tos were from the 1980s or per­haps the 1970s with­out close ex­am­i­na­tion. Japan has never been a fan of PCs or com­put­ers.

  5. the pa­per and elec­tron­ics offer an in­ter­est­ing com­par­i­son with the 2017 pre­sent: you could re­place some­thing like a quar­ter of the con­tents of these apart­ments with a smart­phone or tablet. (I no­tice in the pho­tographs of 2019 Tokyo mi­cro-a­part­ments just how much they ben­e­fit from desk­top com­put­er­s+s­mart­phones, even for cre­ative types, in mak­ing tiny 9m² spaces tol­er­a­ble.) The vinyl records take up hor­rific amounts of space in some apart­ments as even 2 or 3 rows of records is equiv­a­lent to a fu­ton, the cas­settes aren’t much bet­ter, and the manga and books piled every­where, but all of these can be dig­i­tized and streamed or stored on a smart­phone with lit­tle or no loss. (S­can­ning my own books has saved me a great deal of space, and in many re­spects a scan is more use­ful.) Fax ma­chines are ob­so­lete every­where ex­cept Japan and can be thrown out. Mod­ern flatscreen TVs take up much less space than the old CRT boxes and can be put on shelves be­cause they are so thin, cost­ing no us­able space. Ra­dios and boom boxes are ob­so­leted by smart­phones, as are land­lines and the gi­ant chunky wire­less phones and the an­swer­ing ma­chines and the grotesquely large ‘word proces­sor’ I spot­ted in one room. Likely a num­ber of (pho­to­graph­ic) cam­eras took worse pho­tographs than a ran­dom 2017 smart­phone and could be re­placed; there are a few video cam­eras which I’m not sure about. The mis­cel­la­neous pa­pers can be scanned for long-term stor­age, re­placed by email, or are ren­dered un­nec­es­sary by apps/websites (eg restau­rant menus). Even ap­pli­ances like heaters or air con­di­tion­ers have grad­u­ally shrunk in size (and im­proved in effi­cien­cy) over the past 20 years.

    The most empty apart­ment pho­tographed fills all its spaces with kawaii char­ac­ter goods and toys, so I as­sume that as Japan­ese apart­ments empty out thanks to tech­no­log­i­cal pro­gress, they’ll fill right back up with other con­sumer goods, in a con­ser­va­tion of vol­ume.

  6. the wide range of clothes points to an­other longer-term his­tor­i­cal com­par­ison: tex­tiles have be­come so cheap that they bor­der on pol­lu­tion. When you can go to a thrift store and spend $20 to get a trash­bag full of per­fectly us­able clothes (each of which would have cost, in terms of labor-days, the equiv­a­lent of $2000+ 500 years ago, thus elim­i­nat­ing en­tire pro­fes­sions such as “rag­pick­ers”), the prob­lem be­comes less get­ting clothes than stor­ing and get­ting rid of them. This is ex­ac­er­bated by apart­ments with no clos­ets (or clos­ets al­ready col­o­nized by stacks of man­ga).

  7. no pets or chil­dren al­lowed: hardly any­one has them. If they have any kids, it’ll be 1 kid, and if they have pets, it may well be in vi­o­la­tion of their rental agree­ment (eg the mu­sic critic with 2 cat­s). One might ob­ject that this is skewed by sam­pling ur­ban cre­ative pro­fes­sion­als, but it defi­nitely con­sis­tent with Japan­ese de­mo­graph­ics…

  8. no bub­ble: the Japan­ese real es­tate bub­ble popped ~1991-1992, so my best guess is all the pho­tos are after; but there’s no sign of it in the pho­tos or cap­tions.

1000 Poems from the Manyōshū, Yakamochi 2005

1000 Po­ems from the ManyōshūŌtomo no Yakamochi2005★★★

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 and 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:

we can­not help but be struck by the re­peated al­lu­sions to a phi­los­o­phy of the Japan­ese state which, though nor­mal in 1940, has largely been dis­cred­ited since. Not only is the im­pe­r­ial au­thor­ship of many po­ems stressed (though more re­cent schol­ars cast doubt on these at­tri­bu­tions, aware that anony­mous po­ems were often dig­ni­fied by as­so­ci­a­tion­s—how­ever un­like­ly—with rulers of the dis­tant past), but the glory of the Im­pe­r­ial House it­self is pro­claimed in a man­ner as for­eign to the Japan­ese of to­day as to our­selves: “Turn­ing to hu­man re­la­tions, Japan­ese clan moral­ity in its pu­ri­fied for­m—­name­ly, that which is based upon the con­scious­ness of the Im­pe­r­ial House as the supreme head of all clan­s—­man­i­fests it­self in the NSY in spon­ta­neous sen­ti­ments of the loveli­est kind, giv­ing the An­thol­ogy its chief dis­tinc­tion.” Dur­ing the war years of 1941-45, the “spirit of the MSY” was con­stantly in­voked by lit­er­ary men. They meant by the phrase wor­ship of the Em­peror and an in­sis­tence on “pure Japan­ese” virtues un­tainted by for­eign in­flu­ence or by the over-re­fined, effem­i­nate sen­ti­ments dis­played in later po­etry As a re­sult of the de­feat of Japan in 1945, the MSY ac­quired still an­other mean­ing: this time it was ac­claimed as a “de­mo­c­ra­tic” an­thol­ogy that was given its chief dis­tinc­tion by the po­etry of the com­mon peo­ple (or of the hum­bler ranks of the no­bil­i­ty), un­like sub­se­quent an­tholo­gies filled with je­june com­po­si­tions by the deca­dent courtiers. The po­etry of the MSY is suffi­ciently var­ied and abun­dant to afford cor­rob­o­ra­tive ev­i­dence for all these the­ses, but though each is ten­able as an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of part of the work, it can­not be ac­cepted as a judg­ment of the whole. The com­pil­ers of this edi­tion, em­pha­siz­ing the “cheer­ful­ness” of an age when the Im­pe­r­ial fam­ily ruled with­out in­ter­fer­ence, de­clared that the “pre­vail­ing at­mos­phere is hap­py, bright and peace­ful”. Yet surely the “Di­a­logue on Poverty” by Ya­ma­noe Okura (pg 205) offers un­mis­tak­able ev­i­dence that, what­ever con­di­tions may have pre­vailed at the court, all was not joy and light in the vil­lages…A­gain, such an as­ser­tion as “But fil­ial piety, so sin­cere, in­tense and in­stinc­tive as shown in the Manyo po­ems is not likely to be du­pli­cated by any other peo­ple and un­der any other so­cial or­der” is cer­tainly open to chal­lenge, if not to be­ing dis­missed out­right as ab­surd. But this nos­tal­gic view of a dis­tant golden age de­serves our at­ten­tion still, if only as a tra­di­tion­al, per­sis­tent Japan­ese in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the MSY.

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:

"To what shall I liken this life?
It is like a boat,
Which, unmoored at morn,
Drops out of sight
And leaves no trace behind."

Yam­abe no Akahi­to, Man’yōshū VIII: 1426

"To my good friend
Would I show, I thought,
The plum blossoms,
Now lost to sight
Amid the falling snow."

Ku­ramochi Chi­tose; 326-7 VI: 913-4; pg198:

"The beach is beautiful; and there grow
The sea-tangles swaying,
Lapped by a thousand waves
In the calm of morning,
And by five hundred waves
In the evening calm.
O Suminoe Beach,
Where white-crested waves are racing around!
Could I weary of watching, not only now,
But day in, day out, over and over again,
As those waves break on the shore?

Let me go, with my clothes stained
For remembrance with the yellow clay
Of Suminoe's shore, which white-crested waves
Visit, ceaselessly lapping!"

Hit­o­maro, 103-5/ II: 199-201, pg127:

"...Forthwith our prince buckled on a sword,
And in his august hand
Grasped a bow to lead the army.
The drums marshaling men in battle array
Sounded like the rumbling thunder,
The war-horns blew, as tigers roar,
Confronting an enemy,
Till all men were shaken with terror.
The banners, hoisted aloft, swayed
As sway in wind the flames that burn
On every moorland far and near
When spring comes after winter's prisonment.
Frightful to hear was the bow-strings' clang,
Like a whirlwind sweeping
Through a winter forest of snow.
And like snow-flakes tempest-driven
The arrows fell thick and fast.
The foemen confronting our prince
Fought, prepared to a man to perish,
If perish they must, like dew or frost;
And vying with one another like birds upon the wing,
They flew to the front of battle---
When lo, from Watarai's holy shrine
There rose the God's Wind confounding them,
By hiding the sun's eye with clouds
And shrouding the world in utter darkness..."

Double Entry, Gleeson-White 2012

Dou­ble En­try: How the Mer­chants of Venice Cre­ated Mod­ern Fi­nanceJane Gleeson-White2012★★★

(56k words, 1-2h read) Pop­u­lar­iz­ing overview of pub­li­ca­tion of , and some his­tor­i­cal trac­ing of its sub­se­quent spread through Eu­rope and use in mod­ern cor­po­rate-cap­i­tal­ism. As an ac­tive user of for my per­sonal fi­nances, writer of the , and reader of Nick Sz­abo, I thought I might find Dou­ble En­try in­ter­est­ing.

The book sets up as a moral­ity play, point­ing to the many well-known cor­po­rate scan­dals in the 2000s, be­fore quickly go­ing to An­cient Sume­ria & the in­ven­tion of writ­ing for busi­ness pur­poses (‘ac­count­ing’ might be a bit of an anachro­nism there), a few tan­ta­liz­ing Ro­man quotes and the pos­si­bil­ity of In­dian in­ven­tion (although as with so many other things, the In­dian dream­time makes cer­tainty diffi­cult to reach), and set­tling down in the 1300s and sketch­ing out Venice’s rise with its as­so­ci­ated mer­can­tile class, such as Da­tini, whose well-p­re­served busi­ness doc­u­men­ta­tion is fa­mil­iar to any­one in­ter­ested in Re­nais­sance com­mer­cial prac­tices.

This sets the scene for Pa­ci­oli: Venice’s trade through­out the Mediter­ranean and Adri­atic and Black Sea and es­pe­cially Con­stan­tino­ple, its navy, which Pa­ci­oli wit­nessed as a young math­e­mati­cian trav­el­ing and tu­tor­ing. He learned well, re­turn­ing to Venice in time for the Guten­berg rev­o­lu­tion to make fi­nan­cially fea­si­ble an enor­mous en­cy­clo­pe­dia lay­ing out the use of in­dis­pens­able Ara­bic nu­mer­als and, as it hap­pens, dou­ble-en­try ac­count­ing. Along the way, he hung out with Leonardo da Vin­ci, com­piled a book of cool magic tricks like han­dling molten lead bare­handed (ap­par­ently fea­tured on Myth­busters), wrote the first book on chess, got that por­trait done, and so on. Pa­ci­oli turns out to be far more in­ter­est­ing than I would have guessed for a monk known for pop­u­lar­iz­ing some­thing as dull as dou­ble-en­try!

We get a short in­tro­duc­tion to dou­ble-en­try; I’m not sure how well one would learn dou­ble-en­try from that chap­ter if one did­n’t al­ready have a lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence. (It’s not that com­plex, but it can be tricky de­cid­ing what should be added/subtracted from what ac­counts.) The brevity of this sec­tion is a lit­tle odd since it is the ma­jor theme of the book: you ex­pect a book on the his­tory of ac­count­ing to dis­cuss in de­tail ac­count­ing, like a book on physics or any other in­tel­lec­tual top­ics.

It’s also not a very good overview of Re­nais­sance cap­i­tal­ism ei­ther: the great fairs ap­pear in one or two sen­tences, the tricky meth­ods of in­ter­est (ex­ploit­ing ex­change rate vari­a­tions be­tween cur­ren­cies and ge­o­graphic vari­a­tion in a kind of put-call par­i­ty) are dis­cussed too briefly to clar­i­fy, and we don’t get a good idea of how banks and trad­ing com­pa­nies were or­ga­nized as a se­ries of yearly part­ner­ships (for ex­am­ple, the was struc­tured as sev­eral affil­i­ated part­ner­ships which dis­solved and re­formed every year; and this was how the fi­nan­cial state was cal­cu­lat­ed, and new partners/employees brought on) though later Gleeson-White con­trasts the yearly part­ner­ship form to the con­tin­u­ous join­t-s­tock cor­po­ra­tion for­m—ap­par­ently for­get­ting that she never re­ally cov­ered the orig­i­nal form.

This leads into the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion. A few ex­am­ples of the mor­al­iz­ing of good ac­count­ing are pro­vid­ed, but not that much. (There seems to be a lot of fer­tile ma­te­r­ial in the Nether­lands which got omit­ted, judg­ing from Sol­l’s ar­ti­cle “The van­ished grandeur of ac­count­ing”.) An in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple of the effect of dou­ble-en­try is pro­vided by the famed Wedg­wood pot­tery fac­to­ry, which was stag­ger­ing un­der fi­nan­cial prob­lems de­spite enor­mous suc­cess un­til Wedg­wood got his books in or­der and fig­ured out where all his money was go­ing. I wish Gleeson-White had pro­vided a dozen ex­am­ples in that vein: how was dou­ble-en­try used in real life? The first rail­way bub­ble pro­vided the im­pe­tus for British whole­sale adop­tion, but I won­der how dou­ble-en­try re­lated to the Gilded Age in Amer­i­ca? Since ac­count­ing is sub­jec­tive in some sens­es, it would have been in­ter­est­ing to dig into the de­tails of some of the col­lapses briefly men­tioned to see what went into the differ­ing ap­praisal­s—­for ex­am­ple, I am in­trigued by the fi­nal line of this quote, but the thread is dropped with­out any fur­ther dis­cus­sion:

In the 1920s the US con­struc­tion busi­ness Kreuger and 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) and 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, Troupes 2013

Re­nam­ing of the BirdsDavid Troupes2013★★★

I’ve been a fan of the ob­scure we­b­comic since ~2005 when I dis­cov­ered it and (prob­a­bly my 2 fa­vorites were “An­other Day” and the yeti) through , 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 and 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:

Among the re­wards are orig­i­nal Se­ries 2 BF strips and it’s first-come-first-served for choos­ing strips, so if there’s one you’d re­ally like to have hang­ing on your wall, bet­ter get a move on.

and on the Kick­starter page:

Pledge £80 [$120] or more

23 back­ers; Lim­ited (77 left of 100)

THE MIGHTY EAGLE: Barn Owl re­ward plus the orig­i­nal art­work for the Se­ries 2 But­ter­cup Fes­ti­val comic of your choice! First back­ers are first choosers, so let David know your top choices in or­der of pref­er­ence.

Now that was a differ­ent sto­ry. I’ve al­ways been a lit­tle bit im­pressed how effec­tively Troupes de­ployed 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 29.2×20.3 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:

“Stand­ing in the Sea” [2011] set of 6 post­cards fea­tur­ing David’s po­etry and the fab art­work of Lau­rie Hast­ings.

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”:

The cool­ing, stil­l-warm blue
of Sep­tem­ber rolls west­ward
…Their daugh­ter toe-steps among the twiz­zles
of melon vine, which fol­low
every­thing, seek every­thing,
labour­ing now and again to fat­ten a soul
sweet and blind.

And from “Pump­kin­seeds”:

sum­mer tum­bles
like a slob through the val­ley.
We roll up our sleeves to the shoul­der,
we dip our chil­dren in greeny ponds.
It is only for us that cat­birds mock cats.
It is only for us that pump­kin­seeds
float in weedy splen­dour, flecked
like whit­tles of sun.

Not bad. I even­tu­ally wound up us­ing the post­cards for a dark­net-mar­ket-re­lated 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

…an il­lus­trated sto­ry­book about a young clerk who is as­signed to re­name all the birds in his town. The book is in the form of a jour­nal kept by the clerk, and pro­ceeds through a whole year, as he ven­tures far­ther and far­ther into the woods, look­ing for new birds to re­name. He ends up sleep­ing out­doors, trav­el­ling all around, build­ing a win­ter den and go­ing a bit crazy. I orig­i­nally thought of this as a kids’ book and kept the lan­guage within hear­ing of 10 to 12 year-olds, though re­ally it’s a book for all ages, and adults will find plenty to think about. If you’re fa­mil­iar with my we­b­comic But­ter­cup Fes­ti­val you’ll know the sort of whim­sy, hu­mor and out­doorsi­ness you’ll find in Re­nam­ing of the Birds. If you’re not—I hope you’ll find out!

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:

Spe­cial Com­mit­tee for the Avoid­ance of Bird Death Un­hap­pi­ness

To Whom It Will Con­cern:

It has been de­ter­mined that the re­cent phe­nom­e­non of Bird Death Un­hap­pi­ness will best be avoided by a process of de-bird-fa­mil­iar­iza­tion. We are there­fore un­der­tak­ing to ren­der birds less fa­mil­iar, and this will be ac­com­plished through the as­sign­ment of new bird names.

The task of bird name re­as­sign­ment will be passed to the ap­pro­pri­ate lo­cal agen­cies, to be staffed at their dis­cre­tion. Agents should re­name every type of bird within their town.

All nec­es­sary forms are en­closed. Agents are to be­gin im­me­di­ate­ly.

Ever Yours,

I had to read that fifteen or twenty times be­fore it be­gan to sound like real words. But the gist of it, I think, is that they wanted me to re­name the birds.

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 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, Jacobs 2012

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Hum­ble Quest for Bod­ily Per­fec­tionA.J. Ja­cobs2012★★★

An­other en­try in the Ja­cobs for­mu­la: he’ll breeze through a large num­ber of ac­tiv­i­ties, giv­ing very su­per­fi­cial de­scrip­tions and back­ground, mak­ing wise­cracks, and record­ing his wife’s re­ac­tion to every­thing.

The prob­lem with this one is that ul­ti­mate­ly, all his health in­ter­ven­tions are lame. Tim Fer­ris may be a huck­ster, but at least in 4 Hour Body, he put him­self out on the edge and wrote about in­ter­est­ing things which might make real differ­ences if they panned out; while Ja­cobs re­cy­cles crunchy gra­nola non­sense and works his way through a bunch of bor­ing and tired in­ter­ven­tions and foods, many of which could never make any large differ­ence in his health or longevity even if true.†

He has no am­bi­tion or brav­ery at all: I was dis­ap­pointed that he was scared off by caloric re­stric­tion and would­n’t even give in­ter­mit­tent fast­ing a try (de­spite al­ter­nate-day fast­ing be­ing prob­a­bly the sim­plest diet ever), and when he fi­nally does try some­thing a lit­tle more dras­tic like Clo­mid for testos­terone de­fi­ciency he seems to aban­don it as fast as he pos­si­bly can de­spite ad­mit­ting that it seemed to be more effec­tive than pretty much any­thing else. This is a gen­eral trend with every­thing he re­ports back on: he drops them as fast as pos­si­ble, with­out giv­ing them a fair shake.

I mean, I don’t be­lieve that, say, fruit juice fasts work but if Ja­cobs is go­ing to try then, could­n’t he at least stick it out more than 3 days? I felt he was wast­ing both his and my time. (That said, I am amused to find out just how many ec­cen­tric ex­er­cise classes ap­par­ently can be found in Cen­tral Park over the course of a year.) Chap­ter 19 was on sleep, a sub­ject , so I had great ex­pec­ta­tions, and was dis­ap­pointed to see that it boiled down to ‘get a CPAP for snor­ing’ and ap­par­ently us­ing his brand-new Zeo less than week. Or on the topic of dri­ving and walk­ing hel­mets, whose net ben­e­fit I found my­self un­cer­tain of after re­view­ing some of the re­search lit­er­a­ture, he brings them up but dis­misses as im­pos­si­ble, not be­cause they don’t seem worth­while, but be­cause they would be too em­bar­rass­ing—­Ja­cobs, se­ri­ous­ly, are you a man or a mouse? (The only things he seems to re­ally stick with is his tread­mill desk—well, fair enough for a writer—and, weirdly given his ter­ror of em­bar­rass­ment, noise-cancel­ing head­phones. As if the pho­tos of the head­phones did­n’t make him look like he was autis­tic…?) Some gaps just struck me as odd: why would a germa­phobe look into squat toi­lets and wash his hands ex­ces­sive­ly, but omit any con­sid­er­a­tion of bidets which could re­move most of the rea­son one would need to wash hands?

Per­haps un­sur­pris­ing­ly, I reached the fi­nal chap­ter and was dis­tinctly unim­pressed what his two years of effort had wrought:

I went for my fi­nal exam at EHE and found out I’d lost an­other half pound, end­ing at 156.5 (to­tal weight loss: 16 pound­s). I’d gone down two belt sizes. Dr. Harry Fisch told me that my lipid panel num­bers “are so good, they’ll give you a heart at­tack” (HDL: 48, LDL: 62). I more than halved my body fat per­cent­age. I can now run a mile in less than seven min­utes as op­posed to not at all. I have a vis­i­ble chest.

One might think that such re­sults, while laud­able, did not re­quire 2 years and prob­a­bly were en­tirely due his eat­ing less and spend­ing some time weightlift­ing and run­ning.

The eval­u­a­tion of re­search is also weak. Ja­cobs promises in the in­tro to draw as much on the Cochrane Col­lab­o­ra­tion as pos­si­ble (fan­tas­tic!) but if he did so in the rest of the book, I must’ve missed it (boo, hiss). And while it’s a tired, some­times overused tru­ism in my parts of the In­ter­net that ‘cor­re­la­tion is not cau­sa­tion’, Ja­cobs is one of the peo­ple for whom that dic­tum was meant.

Aside from the main sto­ry­line of the lat­est health fad, Ja­cobs coun­ter­points the slow death from old age and 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 .

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 and 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, Krebs 2014

Spam Na­tion: The In­side Story of Or­ga­nized Cy­ber­crime—from Global Epi­demic to Your Front DoorBrian Krebs2014★★★

(2h; ~73k words) Jour­nal­is­tic ac­count of Brian Kreb­s’s (, blog) ex­pe­ri­ence with some Russ­ian spam­mers and as­so­ci­ates.

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 like , and in the phar­macy affil­i­ate net­works which were one of the main routes for buy­ing 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:

Vrublevsky and Gu­sev’s Pharma Wars were ex­tremely costly for the spam in­dus­try, and their in­ternecine war cost every­one in their busi­ness plen­ty. The two are now widely re­viled on cy­ber­crime fo­rums for cost­ing spam­mers tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in profits, and for fo­cus­ing at­ten­tion from law-en­force­ment offi­cials and se­cu­rity ex­perts on in­di­vid­ual spam­mers. “These two fuck­ers killed the spam busi­ness,” Vish­nevsky said in a May 2012 in­ter­view. “It was never su­per profitable for most guys; maybe five to ten guys earned re­ally good money with spam. But after Pavel and Gu­sev started their war, every­one started think­ing that every spam­mer is a mil­lion­aire and started hunt­ing for spam and spam­mers.”…Le­git­i­mate high­-tech and well-pay­ing pro­gram­ming jobs are in­creas­ingly avail­able to tal­ented coders in Moscow, and many of his long­time em­ploy­ees have been hired away to le­git­i­mate jobs in Moscow’s young but promis­ing tech sec­tor. “Many rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the un­der­ground can’t find good coders now, be­cause their salaries in Moscow are much more than you can earn with spam,” Vish­nevsky said. “This busi­ness went to shit when Pasha [Vrublevsky] got bust­ed. If Pasha and Gu­sev [had] not start[ed] that stu­pid war, every­one would be much hap­pi­er.” Vish­nevsky’s crit­i­cism may be harsh, but it is hardly an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. The spam in­dus­try has in­deed taken a huge hit in the past few years. Prior to SpamIt’s clo­sure in Oc­to­ber 2010, the vol­ume of spam sent world­wide each day hov­ered at around 5.5 bil­lion mes­sages. Since SpamIt’s clo­sure, how­ev­er, the vol­ume of global spam sent daily has been in marked de­cline. Ac­cord­ing to Syman­tec, by March 2011, spam lev­els had fallen to just over one bil­lion junk mes­sages per day, and the to­tal has hov­ered at or very close to that di­min­ished level ever since.

(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).

Fur­ther read­ing:

On the Historicity of Jesus, Carrier 2014

On the His­toric­ity of Je­sus: Why We Might Have Rea­son for DoubtRichard C. Car­rier2014★★★

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 (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 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 and 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 and edit­ing and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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.

† while it’s oth­er­wise clear and un­der­stand­able to a lay read­er, the tone is in­fu­ri­at­ing. Se­ri­ous­ly, can’t he hire an ed­i­tor who can tell him “OK, you got it out of your sys­tem—now stop be­ing a prat and edit that part out”?

Mathematical People, Albers 2008

Math­e­mat­i­cal Peo­ple: Pro­files and In­ter­viewsDon­ald J. Al­bers2008★★★

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 and Ney­man, Con­stance Rei­d).

Some of these math­e­mati­cians one may well be fa­mil­iar (Con­way, Di­a­con­is, Er­dos, Gard­ner, Gra­ham, Kline, Knuth, Man­del­brot, Pólya, Smullyan, Ulam), but many just made me draw a blank (Birk­hoff, Black­well, Chern, Cox­eter, Hal­mos, Hilton, Ke­meny, Lef­schetz, Pol­lak, Rees, Reid, Rob­bins, Taussky-Todd, Tuck­er), so there’s a wide range from the fa­mous and pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als to the work­ing math­e­mati­cians.

The in­ter­est of the in­ter­views like­wise range: Smullyan’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal es­say (ex­tracted from his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, ap­par­ent­ly) is stuffed full of hi­lar­i­ous sto­ries and jokes as any reader of his books might ex­pect, Di­a­co­nis has an in­ter­est­ing life story in go­ing from a trav­el­ing stage ma­gi­cian to a mathematician/statistician who con­tin­ues to dab­ble in magic (like Smullyan), Knuth’s rem­i­nis­cences are of in­ter­est to any pro­gram­mer, while Chern’s life is an un­usual look into what it’s like to bring mod­ern math­e­mat­ics to a place like early Com­mu­nist Chi­na; oth­ers are just ter­ri­bly dull. An­other is­sue is that the more pure math­e­mati­cians strug­gle to de­scribe to in­ter­view­ers in a short ap­proach­able fash­ion what, ex­act­ly, they’ve ac­com­plished and why it’s of in­ter­est, while the geome­ters can at least draw pic­tures of some sort and the ones who dab­ble in ap­pli­ca­tion and es­pe­cially sta­tis­tics have all sorts of im­me­di­ate­ly-in­ter­est­ing top­ics to dis­cuss. I ad­mit I got very lit­tle out of the pure math­e­mati­cians, aside from be­ing a bit amused at the aes­thetic prej­u­dices on dis­play as al­ge­braists sniff at an­a­lysts who sniff at topol­o­gists who sniff at com­bi­na­torics and mean­while I have hardly any idea what those spe­cial­ties are much less any opin­ion on their re­spec­tive mer­its. It is diffi­cult to main­tain an in­ter­est in top­ics you don’t know any­thing about and the dis­cus­sants can’t ex­plain, so a good deal of the book was wasted on me.

Some top­ics sur­face re­peat­ed­ly, to one’s sur­prise: , a failed Amer­i­can pro­gram to rewrite lower math­e­mat­i­cal ped­a­gogy into teach­ing math in a much more ab­stract fash­ion, comes up re­peat­edly (per­haps be­cause of the strik­ing fail­ure, none of the in­ter­vie­wees are will­ing to en­dorse it al­though Kline spends much time at­tack­ing it); the Hun­gar­ian seem to come up in every other in­ter­view as the in­ter­vie­wee ei­ther taught or worked with a Hun­gar­i­an, was in­spired by a Hun­gar­i­an, or was a Hun­gar­ian (Von Neu­mann, Hal­mos, Pólya, Erdős, Wald, and oth­er­s), al­though none of the in­ter­vie­wees seemed to have any good sug­ges­tions for why the Mar­t­ian clus­ter seems to ex­ist (yes, Hun­gary was poor and so ge­niuses there might turn to math pref­er­en­tial­ly, but then why don’t we see sim­i­lar clus­ters from other im­pov­er­ished coun­tries? the Hun­gar­ian per capita GDP in the early 1900s is prob­a­bly equaled or ex­ceeded by scores of coun­tries since and pre­sen­t). Other ten­den­cies in the bi­ogra­phies re­mind me of sim­i­lar ob­ser­va­tions I noted in my re­view of Past, Pre­sent, and Fu­ture of Sta­tis­ti­cal Sci­ence—a­cad­e­mia seems to have been in­fi­nitely less cut­throat than it is now and many of the sub­jects seem to al­most luck into jobs and po­si­tions (Man­del­brot in par­tic­u­lar seems to have been a ben­e­fi­ciary as he was able to con­tinue his ter­tium quid ca­reer un­til frac­tals be­came a phe­nom­e­non), and in every pro­fes­sional life there is a clear dis­con­ti­nu­ity at WWII where it seems all of Eu­rope’s in­tel­li­gentsia packed up for Amer­ica and get sucked into the mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex for ap­pli­ca­tion to com­plex Cold War top­ics (the Cold War was par­tic­u­larly good to sta­tis­tics, as one can see how sta­tis­tics and prob­a­bil­ity are men­tioned only oc­ca­sion­ally pre-WWII but then sud­denly every­one is dab­bling in it post-WWII; likely the Cold War/WWII in­flu­ence would be even more ob­vi­ous if in­ter­view­ers & in­ter­vie­wees did­n’t step so gin­gerly around the topic out of a mix of pa­tri­o­tism and shame, the for­mer ex­em­pli­fied by a men­tion of the cryp­to­graphic work in WWII which the in­ter­vie­wee does­n’t de­scribe but as­sures us has been writ­ten up in ab­stract form for the open lit­er­a­ture); peo­ple mar­ried re­mark­ably young and had chil­dren im­me­di­ately which would be a bit odd in this age of pro­longed PhDs & mul­ti­ple post­docs and ‘the two-body prob­lem’.

Other topic don’t: com­put­ers are sur­pris­ingly rarely men­tioned, with the ex­cep­tion of one or two dis­cus­sions of the four-color com­puter proof, and Ke­meny who turn out to have been quite prophetic about com­put­ers be­com­ing or­di­nary tools of schol­ars and to have been one of the de­vel­op­ers of BASIC; a math­e­mat­i­cal­ly-in­clined lay­man or tech­nol­o­gist will be sur­prised at the gen­eral ab­sence of top­ics like P=NP or Fer­mat’s last the­o­rem, but of course those prob­lems were only for­mu­lated or solved long after most of these in­ter­views were con­duct­ed.

And I did like some of the anec­dotes re­lat­ed. For ex­am­ple, I learned that the ori­gin of Wald’s cel­e­brated fre­quen­tist se­quen­tial analy­sis came from an in­ci­dent which for all the world sounds like Bayesian rea­son­ing: “These two men were puz­zled be­cause a Navy cap­tain with whom they had dis­cussed the prob­lem of de­struc­tive sam­pling of mu­ni­tions had said that he did­n’t see why he had to de­stroy so much of the ev­i­dence—that there ought to be a way where­by, after a while, an ex­per­i­menter, like a savvy cap­tain, would know that this was a good batch or a bad one and stop sam­pling…S­ince they were un­able to get any­where with it be­cause it re­quired very spe­cial math­e­mat­i­cal skills, they took it to an out­stand­ing math­e­mat­i­cal sta­tis­ti­cian who was as­so­ci­ated with them—Abra­ham Wald, an émi­gré from Hitler’s He was in­trigued by the prob­lem and solved it by de­vel­op­ing a new tech­nique in sta­tis­tics that is now one of great im­por­tance: se­quen­tial analy­sis.”

Ac­tive math­e­mati­cians may find these old in­ter­views of great in­ter­est, but I think most peo­ple would be bet­ter off read­ing just a few of them: Di­a­con­is, Knuth, Smullyan, Pólya, the 2 Gard­ner ar­ti­cles, Con­way, Chern, Ke­meny, Kline, and Man­del­brot (in no par­tic­u­lar or­der).

The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Fox 2013

The Rid­dle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an An­cient CodeMar­galit Fox2013★★★

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 and Crete de­vel­oped.

Fox’s mis­sion, as she makes clear, is re­vi­sion­ism: draw­ing heav­ily on per­sonal let­ters, she casts (in­ci­den­tal­ly, a grad­u­ate of Hunter High School and teacher there) as the Ros­alind Franklin of , 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 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 (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, had an ex­tra­or­di­nar­ily in­ter­est­ing life and pro­vided the gate­way to the an­cient Mesopotamian world.)

Pirate Freedom, Wolfe 2007

Pi­rate Free­domGene Wolfe2007★★★

(This re­view is copied from an email sent to the Gene Wolfe mail­ing list.)

Quick read, rea­son­ably en­ter­tain­ing. Sad­ly, I find my­self even less in­ter­ested than The Sor­cer­er’s House in fig­ur­ing out the se­cret—but I am more in­ter­est­ed, and I en­joyed Pi­rate Free­dom more, than An Evil Guest. Faint praise, per­haps. Read­ing through the old email threads to see what I missed, I’m not sure about some of the ideas float­ing around.

First, where’s this stuff about him be­ing cloned com­ing from? The one bit of ev­i­dence I’ve seen is a quote to the effect that “my fa­ther made me”; I can’t find this in my Pi­rate Free­dom EPUB (but FBReader seems to have buggy search so this may not coun­t). But at face val­ue, this seems com­pletely un­con­vinc­ing to me: he’s a Mafia guy! All “my fa­ther made me” means is that he’s a “made man”, as one would ex­pect of the son of a big Mafia fig­ure. Chris even says at one point to a new pi­rate some­thing to the effect ‘now you’re a made man’. Pre­sum­ably no one thinks Chris just zapped him with some tai­lored RNA virus­es… “Half-hu­man mon­ster” is more promis­ing, but in con­text, there’s no men­tion of sim­ply hu­man: “The artists of the Mid­dle Ages painted al­le­gories, we say. What re­ally hap­pened was that they saw more clearly than we do, and painted what they saw—an­gels and dev­ils, beasts, and half-hu­man mon­sters like me.” The artists were paint­ing clones? Or is this just more Chris­t­ian thought a la Pope? The best line is “I am taller than most peo­ple—my fa­ther told me once he got me en­gi­neered that way—and I was taller than he was by quite a bit.” but height has been known to be her­i­ta­ble since Gal­ton and a fair num­ber of genes and SNPs have al­ready been iden­ti­fied re­spon­si­ble for vari­ance (eg. ~50% from SNPs), so even sim­ple em­bryo se­lec­tion (make mul­ti­ple em­bryos, se­quence the genomes of each, im­plant the best-s­cor­ing one) would work for that.

Sec­ond, there’s some­thing re­ally weird about the lack of at­ten­tion paid to the times­lips. Chris does­n’t even ex­plic­itly men­tion any­thing about time travel un­til like pg 80 where he says it just sank in (‽‽‽), and the im­pli­ca­tion is that the times­lip hap­pened long be­fore he left for the en­tire monastery: the en­rolled kids are, after the clo­sure of the school is an­nounced, im­plied to be differ­ent from the pre­vi­ous kids, and at some point Chris no­tices no one has wrist­watch­es. Now, this is the same Chris who after wan­der­ing around colo­nial age Cuba and sail­ing ships still has­n’t no­ticed what time pe­riod he is in, so the safe as­sump­tion is that the wrist­watches dis­ap­peared when the school closed. So the en­tire monastery has been times­lipped for many years, and we are told that some of the monks go out to hear con­fes­sions each week, so the times­lip could not have gone un­no­ticed for more than a week at worst. So what’s go­ing on here with the monastery? The lack of con­tact is cu­ri­ous, as Chris points out and as is em­pha­sized when we learn that Chris thinks his house is so close that he’ll just walk there—he did­n’t sneak out at any point, or have a va­ca­tion or break? (His fa­ther can’t visit him, but noth­ing is said of Chris vis­it­ing his fa­ther.)

His obliv­i­ous­ness and ra­tio­nal­iza­tions are sup­pos­edly not that: he claims to pump for in­for­ma­tion the farmer he meets with the horse, but why did­n’t he just turn around and go back to the monastery and ask ‘hey guys—what hap­pened?’ He also then ra­tio­nal­izes bla­tant­ly: “And it was not there. I de­cided then that there were two Ha­vanas, or maybe the city had changed its name and this lit­tle town had taken it over.” Sure, Chris. Sure. That’s to­tally plau­si­ble.

Hav­ing read a bunch of the­o­ries on the ML, I can’t say any of them seem es­pe­cially plau­si­ble. No one has a good ex­pla­na­tion of Jaime’s self­-im­mo­la­tion or dis­ap­pear­ance, Valentin and dog’s mur­der, the ap­par­ent fore­knowl­edge of Lesage, Chris’s fa­ther (if he is a later Chris, why is he much shorter than his ‘son’?) or the monastery’s be­hav­ior. Noth­ing that ties them all to­geth­er. It’s a lit­tle frus­trat­ing, since once the var­i­ous points are iden­ti­fied it feels like there should be an ob­vi­ous an­swer.

I feel a lit­tle like after read­ing _The Sor­cer­er’s House­_or An Evil Guest here: by the end we’ve iden­ti­fied what the so­lu­tion ought to look like (an­other time trav­eler act­ing at var­i­ous points in the story / Bax killing his twin and usurp­ing his iden­tity / Cassie go­ing to Wold­er­con and maybe time-trav­el­ing her­self), but we don’t know how to go be­yond that and make the whole thing fall into a sat­is­fy­ing whole (who and how and why / how the let­ters were mis­tak­enly or de­lib­er­ately re­arranged and the de­cep­tions be­fore the fi­nal de­cep­tion-let­ter / what Cassie ac­tu­ally did).

On a side note, the speech about the many Church sex abuse scan­dals is dis­gust­ing. I don’t take this as Wolfe de­lib­er­ately giv­ing us ev­i­dence of Chris be­ing a de­praved mon­ster, it reads too sin­cerely and is con­sis­tent with the in­creas­ingly con­ser­v­a­tive crankery I’ve doc­u­mented else­where (although I fully ex­pect some­one to re­ply say­ing ‘no, don’t con­fuse the text with the au­thor, let’s in­ter­pret it as char­i­ta­bly as pos­si­ble’, just like they did with the nonfic­tion pre­dic­tions by Wolfe I post­ed); the lead­-up to his speech is it­self mis­lead­ing and slant­ed, com­pletely ig­nor­ing the cen­tral en­abling coverup role the Church played for decades upon end. There is no rea­son to not men­tion the Church’s role, since the Bishop is not oth­er­wise por­trayed sym­pa­thet­i­cally and men­tion­ing it would both be fac­tu­ally ac­cu­rate and con­tinue char­ac­ter­iz­ing the Bish­op… The setup is al­so, shall we say, cu­ri­ous for mak­ing the vic­tims ado­les­cents and not younger still as they so often were. It’s also a lit­tle strange that Wolfe ex­pects the ‘Com­mu­nists to fall’. Even when this was be­ing writ­ten, Cuba’s gov­ern­ment had been sub­stan­tially lib­er­al­iz­ing and pri­va­tiz­ing. There’s pretty much no rea­son to ex­pect them to ‘fall’ as op­posed to fol­low a grad­ual tran­si­tion to be­ing, like Chi­na, Com­mu­nist in name-on­ly.

Japanese Love Hotels, Chaplin 2007

Japan­ese Love Ho­tels: A Cul­tural His­torySarah Chap­lin2007★★★

(words: 110,626; ~3h) Heav­ily aca­d­e­mi­cized dis­cus­sion of con­tem­po­rary Japan­ese , with an ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory and his­tory of some re­lated lo­ca­tions for hav­ing sex. The preva­lence of love ho­tels is in­ter­est­ing, and Chap­lin backs it with a large sur­vey she did of cur­rent love ho­tels. (Cu­ri­ous­ly, this sur­vey goes al­most en­tirely un­used in the book—­some pho­tos from it, and a few sta­tis­tics are men­tioned like “Only one es­tab­lish­ment in a sam­ple of over 300 in­di­cated room num­bers and prices used Japan­ese nu­mer­als; the rest were all given in Ara­bic nu­mer­als” or how only 2 had man­ual rather than au­to­matic doors, but given how huge an effort that sur­vey must have been, it’s oddly un­der­used.)

Much of what is a pretty good book is hid­den in woolly aca­d­e­mic dis­cus­sion, re­fer­ring to a panoply of West­ern and Japan­ese crit­ics and writ­ers. For the most part, these parts are the worst, since they are ei­ther mas­tur­ba­tory or ob­scure dis­cus­sions of the ob­vi­ous. (Does it re­ally re­quire an in­ti­mate fa­mil­iar­ity with Ben­jam­in’s Ar­cades Project and its var­i­ous schemas, brought up re­peat­edly over the book, or Arie Graafland or Hi­de­nobu Jin­nai or Bar­rie Shel­ton or An­dré Sorensen or Don­ald Richie or Mit­suo In­oue in or­der to no­tice how Japan­ese cities have large main streets but also nar­rower car-free in­ti­mate back­-streets with a mix of hous­ing and small shops/businesses? Or that there are dis­tinct neigh­bor­hoods, some­times with phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers or gates de­mar­cat­ing them? I would think any­one with a pulse who went there, or even just con­sumed some jidaigeki fic­tion—to give a ran­dom ex­am­ple, the movie Fuse Teppō Musume no To­ri­mono­chō—would no­tice most of the neigh­bor­hood and plea­sure quar­ters back­ground.) It is diffi­cult to see what dis­cus­sions of how love ho­tels are “lim­i­noid” rather than “lim­i­nal” re­ally add to one’s un­der­stand­ing.

What is good, how­ev­er, is when we get down to brass tacks: what are love ho­tels, how do they op­er­ate on a day to day ba­sis, how does the in­dus­try col­lec­tively re­spond to chang­ing eco­nomic and so­cial con­di­tions, and what are the con­se­quences of their ex­is­tence? Chap­lin takes a bit of an ar­chi­tec­tural fo­cus to this, and I some­times rolled my eyes at the at­tempts to di­vine deep mean­ings in var­i­ous ho­tels’ choice of adorn­ment or de­sign (often, the true an­swer is sim­ply that the ar­chi­tect liked it or was copy­ing it from some­where), but that fo­cus is un­der­stand­able since the bones of ho­tels are well doc­u­mented and pre­served in things like pho­tographs while the liv­ing flesh is harder to cap­ture.

Those more-fac­tual parts are the best part­s—learn­ing how there are 30,000 love ho­tels, rev­enue of ¥4 tril­lion with 1.37m cou­ples us­ing daily and ~2.5 cou­ples per room per day and as high as 7 (avg ~78.8 stays per room per mon­th) which pays for dec­o­rat­ing costs per room as high as $150k (black­-lights: $10k per, saunas $15k per) and of course bribes (easily $100k) to all the lo­cal power groups, spot­ting love ho­tel tax eva­sion through wa­ter util­ity bills, the now-fa­mil­iar im­mi­grant-based clean­ing staffs (but not South/Central Amer­i­can, SE Asian like Fil­ipinos), how South Ko­rea erad­i­cated many of the Seoul love ho­tels by con­vert­ing them into tourist hous­ing for the Olympics, the 1985 law qua­si­-ban­ning love ho­tels and how they re­sponded (as you’d pre­dic­t—­like squeez­ing air in a bal­loon), the au­toma­tion which saves face while us­ing a love ho­tel and their cut­ting-edge en­ter­tain­ment sys­tems (as well as how they can go wrong), or how the 12-zon­ing sys­tem lets love ho­tels in­fil­trate re­gions of cities where one would not nec­es­sar­ily ex­pect any­thing as­so­ci­ated with the sex trade or the power dy­nam­ics of the Toku­gawa shogu­nate fight­ing or­ga­nized re­li­gion & red­light dis­tricts (“By the end of the Toku­gawa er­a…tem­ples oc­cu­pied 15 per cent of ur­ban ar­eas”, which leads to some amus­ing pho­tos of con­junc­tions of love ho­tels and tem­ples), the grump­ing of old peo­ple about how be­fore pro­to-love-ho­tels every­one had sex out­side in the field and en­joyed it more and noo­dle shops post­ing signs clar­i­fy­ing they were real noo­dle restau­rants, the in­sin­u­a­tion that a num­ber of well-known ar­chi­tects de­signed love ho­tels but re­fused to take any credit or ac­knowl­edge in­volve­ment, the oc­ca­sional dis­cur­sion into a re­lated topic (the adop­tion of West­ern-style beds turns out to be un­ex­pect­edly lengthy and in­ter­est­ing), some of the stranger dec­o­ra­tions (“…one pop­u­lar love ho­tel in­te­ri­or, in which ‘Ya­mamoto Shinya [a pop­u­lar porno film di­rec­tor] ap­pears on the trans­par­ent wall be­tween the bath­room and the bed­room, as if to prompt us to act out a film.’”), the rural Japan­ese prac­tice of “night-court­ing” which re­minded me of some ma­te­r­ial on early British and Amer­i­can pre-mar­riage sex­ual prac­tices like “bundling”, how the Crown Prince and Dis­ney dou­bled Japan­ese TV own­er­ship 1958-1959, and off­beat uses of love ho­tels (watch­ing the 2006 FIFA World Cup with friends on a much nicer TV, fam­i­lies rest­ing dur­ing city out­ings and en­joy­ing the pool).

Most of this was new to me and in­ter­est­ing to read about, so it’s too bad that I had to slog through some dead­ly-dull ma­te­r­ial to get to the good parts.

The Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell 1993

The Life of Samuel John­sonJames Boswell1993★★★

(Project Guten­berg 6-vol­ume edi­tion, edited by George Birk­beck Nor­man Hill; 7.3MB or ~1,200,000 words, which in­cluded Boswell’s ac­count of the He­brides but also a de­cent chunk of the whole was foot­notes which I skipped or in­dices or other such in­ci­den­tals. This was a ma­jor read­ing project which took eas­ily a month.)

It’s a cu­ri­ous book. Samuel John­son’s dic­tio­nary was in­flu­en­tial but to­tally ob­so­leted by the OED a cen­tury or two ago; his lit­er­a­ture is lit­tle-read these days, and from what one reads in it, one has lit­tle de­sire to read any of it. (In fact, I think I would pay good money to not read any of his in­scrip­tions, ded­i­ca­tions, or verse ever again; and I have lit­tle in­ter­est in read­ing his plays, al­though The Ram­bler sounds like it may be worth read­ing.) Still, we are all fa­mil­iar with lines drawn from it, and it’s been called the great­est bi­og­ra­phy in Eng­lish, and there’s no time like the present to read a clas­sic.

The book is a com­plete mess, cov­er­ing lit­tle of John­son while young and too much while he was old, with Boswell throw­ing in, ap­par­ently willy-nil­ly, ran­dom let­ters ut­terly de­void of in­ter­est, anec­dotes with­out con­text, say­ings, etc. I felt that I was read­ing ran­domly shuffled notes to­wards a bi­og­ra­phy than a bi­og­ra­phy. This mess does help cre­ate a vivid im­pres­sion of the Lon­don mi­lieu of mail twice a day, anony­mous re­views and es­says every­where, books rou­tinely ghost­writ­ten, ri­ots on the streets, su­per­cil­ious no­bil­ity play­ing their games, for­eign­ers con­stantly com­ing and go­ing, the Scot­tish tur­moil not far be­hind and not for­got­ten, but that could have been done more com­pactly or by the rest.

John­son him­self is a mixed bag: the fa­mous quo­ta­tions and quips which made him im­mor­tal in the Eng­lish lan­guage are there, but so are much of less val­ue; we like the John­son who de­bunks witch­craft and cor­rectly em­ploys “ex­plain­ing away” on a claim that “Ain­nit”=“Anaitis”, not the John­son who shuts off his mind and ar­gues in all se­ri­ous­ness that Chris­tian­ity must be true be­cause so many peo­ple be­lieve it or sim­ply fail­ing to re­spond to an ar­gu­ment and co­erc­ing the free­thinker into si­lence; we like the John­son mak­ing acer­bic com­ments about politi­cians, not the John­son ac­cept­ing a pen­sion from the gov­ern­ment after writ­ing pam­phlets sup­port­ing it in bad causes and who de­fends at every turn the Eng­lish so­cial hi­er­ar­chy and his so­cial su­pe­ri­ors who were in no way his su­pe­ri­or; the John­son prais­ing the mer­its of Gold­stone, not the John­son who mocks David Hume and Adam Smith at every turn (hav­ing some­how failed to rec­og­nize two of the great­est thinkers of the age); the John­son ac­cu­rately not­ing de­tails of chem­istry or man­u­fac­ture, not the John­son who gives trans­par­ently fal­la­cious eco­nomic ar­gu­ments like ar­gu­ing trade will de­crease and land rents will in­crease (which could not have been more wrong) or that copy­rights should be max­i­mal; the quotable John­son of brevity and wit, not the John­son of bom­bast; the John­son who di­vined the worth­less­ness of Os­sian, not the John­son of mind­less ob­scu­ran­tist rev­er­ence for writ­ing in Greek or Latin or forc­ing some ab­surd clas­si­cal ref­er­ence; the John­son of The Ram­bler and “Med­i­ta­tion Upon a Pud­ding”, not the edited Shake­speare (was that re­ally a good in­vest­ment of years? he must have known per­fectly well some­one else would have come along).

Still, among all the down­sides and all the puffery like let­ters and ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing by Boswell ap­par­ently in­tended to boast about his & John­son’s so­cial con­nec­tions and the em­bar­rassed fum­bling and ex­cuses for things like the pen­sion (Boswell’s ini­tial de­fense is rather un­der­cut by later com­ments that the gov­ern­ment had ex­pected him to write pam­phlets for them, and he did), there’s a lot I liked and which did go be­yond the parts which are fa­mous. Read­ing through my ex­cerpts, I par­tic­u­larly liked the story about George Berke­ley be­ing fined by his uni­ver­sity (why? to pay for the win­dows he would break. why would he do that? well, it’s stu­dent tra­di­tion!); John­son’s quip about the halo & horns effects; not­ing that physi­cians should be sent over­seas to look for new break­throughs like cin­chona bark; his ar­gu­ment from si­lence about Os­sian; nu­mer­acy in how many peo­ple dine in a house in a year or take opera singers as mis­tress­es; the sui­cidee who ate but­tered muffins first; Bosw