A compilation of books reviews of books I have read since ~1997.
- Like Engend’ring Like, 1986
- Cat Sense, 2013: Are We Good Owners?
- The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T., 1988
- Radiance, 2003
- Stories of Your Life and Others, 2010
- Worm, 2013
- Urne Burial, 2005
- The Discovery of France, 2007
- Selected Non-fictions, 1999
- The Wages of Destruction, 2007
- Lords of Finance, 2009
- Bias in Mental Testing, 1980
- The Notenki Memoirs, 2005
- The Remains of the Day, 2005
- The Book of Lord Shang—A Classic of the Chinese School of Law, 2011
- The Origins of Political Order, 2011
- The Histories, 2003
- Genius, 1993
- The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011
- The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, 2010
- Collapse of Complex Societies, 1990
- Star Maker, 1999
- ARPA and SCI: Surfing AI, Roland And 2002
- Past, Present, and Future of Statistical Science, 2014
- The Cultural Revolution, 2016
- The Genius Factory, 2006
- Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, 2008
- McNamara’s Folly, 2015
- The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, 2012
- Bad Blood, 2018
- A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century, 2014
- Moondust, 2006
- The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III, 2010
- Unsong, 2017
- Fortune’s Formula, 2006
- Digital Gold, 2015
- Playboy Interview II, 1983
- Spec Ops, 1996
- Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide?, 1979
- Titan, 2004
- A Perfect Vacuum, 1999
- Fujiwara Teika’s Hundred-Poem Sequence of the Shōji Era, 1200, 1978
- Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 2003
- The Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice, 2019
- Singularity Rising, 2012
- The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, 2014
- Savage Continent, 2012
- Quantum Computing Since Democritus, 2013
- A Life of Sir Francis Galton, 2001
- The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, 2016
- The Machiavellians, 1988
- The Vaccinators, 2007
- The Black Company, 1992
- Life in Our Phage World, 2014
- Tombstone, 2012
- Pact, 2014
- Drugs 2.0, 2013
- The Hall of Uselessness, 2011
- Packing for Mars, 2010
- The Windup Girl, 2009
- Haikai Poet Yosa Buson And The Bashō Revival, 2006
- Turing’s Cathedral, 2012
- Web Typography, 2017
- Echopraxia, 2014
- Ketamine, 2004
- Clear and Simple As the Truth, 1996
- In the Plex, 2011
- Ready Player One, 2011
- Cool Tools, 2013
- Proving History, 2012
- Wired Love, 1879
- The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, 1954
- The Devil in the White City, 2003
- The Mask of Sanity, 2003
- The End of History and the Last Man, 2006
- Hyperbole and a Half, 2013
- Declare, 2002
- A Shropshire Lad, 1990
- Chased by the Light, 2001
- The Great Gatsby, 2004
- The Signal and the Noise, 2012
- The Theory That Would Not Die, 2011
- The Man Who Knew Infinity, 1992
- Debt, 2011
- Red Plenty, 2010
- The Metropolitan Man, 2014
- The True Believer, 2010
- Dreams of Steel, 1990
- On China, 2011
- The Master Switch, 2010
- The Circus of Dr. Lao, 2002
- The Kindly Ones, 2009
- The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 1992
- Friendship Is Optimal, Iceman 2012
- Pioneers of Soviet Computing, 2010
- The Operations Evaluation Group, 1984
- Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 2003
- The Unholy Consult, 2017
- A Troublesome Inheritance, 2014
- The Recollections Of Eugene P. Wigner, 2003
- Donald Michie, 2009
- Average Is Over, 2013
- New Legends, 1996
- Perseverance Island, 2009
- Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders, 2013
- A Memory of Light, 2013
- Tokyo, 1999
- 1000 Poems from the Manyōshū, 2005
- Double Entry, Gleeson-2012
- Renaming of the Birds, 2013
- Drop Dead Healthy, 2012
- Spam Nation, 2014
- On the Historicity of Jesus, 2014
- Mathematical People, 2008
- The Riddle of the Labyrinth, 2013
- Pirate Freedom, 2007
- Japanese Love Hotels, 2007
- The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1993
- Selected Poems, 1972
- Moby-Dick Or, the Whale, 2003
- Japan As Number One Lessons for America, 1999
- Private Wealth in Renaissance Florence, 1968
- Before the Storm, Kube-1996
- Uncontrolled, 2012
- Research Fraud in the Behavioral and Biomedical Sciences, 1992
- 空ろの箱と零のマリア 1, 2009
- Game Programming Patterns, 2011
- The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, 2013
- Drift into Failure, 2011
- The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1976
- Possible Worlds, 2001
- Hanging Out With the Dream King, 2005
- Theological Incorrectness, 2004
- String of Beads: Complete Poems of Princess Shikishi, 1993
- On the Road, 1976
- Handbook of Intelligence, 2015
- The Secret History of the Mongols, 2006
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane, 2013
- A Confederacy of Dunces, 1994
- Bitter Seeds, 2010
- Modern Japanese Diaries, 1999
- Voyage of the Beagle, 1989
- Indiscrete Thoughts, 1998
- Inside WikiLeaks, Domscheit-2011
- The Bridge to Lucy Dunne, Exurb1a 2016
- The Japanese Family Storehouse, 1959
- The Pillow Book, 2006
- Robert Bakewell And the Longhorn Breed of Cattle, 1998
- Hive Mind, 2015
- The City of Falling Angels, 2006
- Structural Equation Modeling, 2007
- The Autobiography Of Benvenuto Cellini, 1999
- Newton and the Counterfeiter, 2009
- Drug Interdiction, 2010
- Daemon, 2009
- The Midas Paradox, 2015
- Clever Hans, 2011
- The Hye Ch’O Diary: Memoir of the Pilgrimage to the Five Regions of India, 1984
- Un Lun Dun, 2007
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998
- Curves and Angles: Poems, 2006
- An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry, 1968
- More Poems, 1936
- Tau Zero, 2006
- The Buried Giant, 2015
- Matter, 2008
- 50 in 50, 2002
- Shadow Games, 1989
- Silicon Snake Oil, 1996
- Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, 1986
- IWoz, 2006
- House of Leaves, 2000
- Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, 2008
- The Judging Eye, 2009
- No Country for Old Men, 2006
- Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, 2010
- The Rapture of the Nerds, 2012
- Chinese History in Economic Perspective, 1992
- The Wallet of Kai Lung, 2002
- Portfolios of the Poor, 2009
- A Random Walk Down Wall Street, 2004
- Kim, 1981
- Cognitive Surplus, 2010
- Genius Revisited, 1993
- Everything Bad Is Good for You, 2006
- Spice and Wolf, Vol. 01, 2009
- The Art of UNIX Programming, 2003
- Psychiatry And The Human Condition, 2000
- The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, 1980
- Being Wrong, 2010
- Silently and Very Fast, 2011
- The Cinema of George Lucas, 2005
- Practical Criticism, 1930
- Shame: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb, 2000
- The Man Who Would Be Queen, 2003
- Solid Fool’s Gold, 2011
- Existence, 2012
- The Master Algorithm, 2015
- Intellectuals and Society, 2010
- The Simple Men, 2012
- The Fountain, 2014
- Fascinating Mathematical People, 2011
- Soldiers Live, 2001
- The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 2009
- Tales of Ise, 1968
- The Mature Optimization Handbook, 2013
- Light, 2004
- Puzzles of the Black Widowers, 1991
- The Thousandfold Thought, 2007
- Good Thinking, 2009
- The Lady Tasting Tea, 2002
- Conversations With Goethe, 1906
- 1 Stars
- Visual Novels
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 anime / manga film / TV, & opera reviews.
Links are included to my other reviews of books (eg. the visual novel Umineko, or my long book reviews of The Media Lab/Strategic Computing/Like Engend’ring Like/Cat Sense) 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).
Like Engend’ring Like, 1986
Cat Sense, 2013: Are We Good Owners?
The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T., 1988
(Quotes are extracted from my annotated ebook edition of Radiance; see also my list of other review & excerpts from them.)
Somewhere in California, in the 1990s, a nuclear weapons lab develops advanced technologies for its post-Cold War mission. Advanced as in not working yet. Mission as in continued funding. A scandal-plagued missile defense program presses forward, dragging physicist Philip Quine deep into the machinations of those who would use the lab for their own gain.
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, 2010
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.
- “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.
- “Division by Zero”; not terribly impressive—over-wrought, and I feel I have read this story before and better. #7.
- “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.)
- “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 a movie in 2016. 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.
- “The Evolution of Human Science”; short, dubious. Not Chiang’s best work, on either dimension. #8.
- “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 confusing genetics was and how many strange ideas were proposed before we reached anything like the current Mendel-Fisher particulate-inheritance paradigm. #2.
- “Hell Is the Absence of God”; as an atheist who keeps coming back to the Wisdom Books and the Book of Job 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.
- “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 (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.
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, 2005
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, 2007
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 as life was a curse (like Russian peasants), or which went into a hibernation-like torpor in winter to conserve calories (see also Shadow of the Sun)? 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, 1999
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:
- 1929: “The Duration of Hell” (pg47-51)
- 1932: “A Defense of the Kabbalah” (pg83-86)
- 1932: “The Homeric Versions” (pg71-74)
- 1933: “The Art of Verbal Abuse” (pg 87-91)
- 1936: “A History of Eternity” (pg123-139)
- 1936: “The Doctrine of Cycles” (pg115-122)
- 1936: “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights” (pg92-109)
- 1937: “Ramon Llull’s Thinking Machine” (pg155-159)
- 1938: “Richard Hull, Excellent Intentions” (pg184)
- 1939: “The Total Library” (pg214-216)
- 1947: “A New Refutation of Time” (pg317-332)
- 1948: “Biathanatos” (pg333-336)
- 1951: “Coleridge’s Dream” (pg369-372)
- 1951: “Pascal’s Sphere” (pg351-353)
- 1951: “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”
- 1951: “The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald” (pg366-368)
- 1953: “The Dialogues of Ascetic and King” (pg382-385)
- 1953: “The Scandinavian Destiny” (pg377-381)
- 1961: “Edward Gibbon, Pages of History and Autobiography” (pg438-444)
- 1962: “The Concept of an Academy and the Celts” (pg458-463)
- 1964: “The Enigma of Shakespeare” (pg463-473)
- 1975: “Emanuel Swedenborg, Mystical Works” (pg449-457)
- 1977: “Blindness” (pg473-483)
Borges, I think, died happy.
The Wages of Destruction, 2007
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, 2009
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, 1980
(410k words / 840 pages; online mirror; WP) One of the classics in the field, Jensen sets out to explain almost everything, it seems, in psychometrics, from the core concept of error-prone measurements and extracting factors to the various tests available, their correlates, concrete justifications for why the normal distribution is more than an assumption of convenience (a number of the points were new to me), exhaustive coverage of the core topic of various kinds of bias and evidence against them, to culture-fair tests, and finally how mental testing is best employed. (There is also some discussion of behavioral genetics and what the genetic architecture of intelligence might be, but that’s a minor topic and he gives more attention to other things like reaction-time research.)
Discussion of the topics straddles that fine line between too informal and too formal, as Jensen is careful to introduce and explain each concept as he goes and includes excellent summaries at the end of each chapter to the point where this would make a good textbook and it is so readable that I think even new 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”, et al 1999 , comes to the same conclusion.
The Notenki Memoirs, 2005
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 an annotated e-book edition in order to elucidate various points and be able to link its claims with versions of stories by other people (for example, Okada’s extensive Animerica interview)
Those reading it solely for Evangelion material will probably be relatively disappointed: Takeda clearly finds NGE not very interesting, may have bad associations due to being targeted in the tax raids, and he was writing this in 2000 or so—too close to the events and still working at Gainax to really give a tell-all, and it’s not a terribly long or dense book in the first place. Nevertheless, NGE fans will still find many revelations here, like the origin of NGE production in the failure of the Aoki Uru film project (an origin simply not present in any Western sources before Notenki Memoirs was translated).
In general, Takeda is not interested in a ‘tell-all’; perhaps it’s due to fear, perhaps too many people involved are still alive and kicking, but he only covers the embarrassing things which are too well-known to omit, like the aforementioned tax raid or Toshio Okada’s ouster from Gainax.
I read it several times, and that was how I wound up transcribing my copy into a webpage which I could annotate with cross-references and interviews with other figures like Okada or Anno—I realized I could keep rereading it, or just do the job right the first time. It’s been a valuable resource for me ever since.
The Remains of the Day, 2005
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, 2011
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, 2011
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, 2003
Decided to finally read Herodotus after I read Gene Wolfe’s historical fantasy novel Solder of Arete which draws heavily on him, and then when I had to track down a quote on LessWrong.com to the exact Herodotus passage. Overall, far more interesting than I had expected. Surprisingly funny or interesting anecdotes. There is a superfusion of gods and oracles, which was curious—the oracles truly were treacherous! The Persian kings come off as remarkably capricious and destructive, even the good ones. And Herodotus has a strange capacity to skeptically reason well 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.
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, 2011
This was really really good, as in, maybe the best book I’ve read that year. Time and again, I was shocked to find subjects treated of keen interest to me, or which read like Pinker had taken some of my essays but done them way better (on terrorism, on the expanding circle, etc.); even so, I was surprised to learn new things (resource problems don’t correlate well with violence?).
I initially thought I might excerpt some parts of it for an essay or article, but as the quotes kept piling up, I realized that it was hopeless. Reading reviews or discussions of it is not enough; Pinker just covers too much and rebuts too many possible criticisms. It’s very long, as a result, but absorbing.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, 2010
Finally got around to reading it. It was surprisingly unliterary and unpostmodern for Mitchell, but in exchange, he nailed the historical details and gave us an adventure which subverted many of the usual tropes—the raid on the nunnery was just a trap, the hero doesn’t get the girl, his chief heroism was standing there to be shot at, and the man who takes down the big baddie is someone we thought to be entirely in the baddie’s pocket. The supernatural aspects are implied to be genuine, but it’s never resolved, which I am grateful for. It would ruin the feel.
Collapse of Complex Societies, 1990
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, 1999
Star Maker is one of the very few SF books that I’d place up there with Blindsight and a few others in depicting truly alien aliens; and he doesn’t do it once but repeatedly throughout the book. It’s really impressive how Stapledon just casually scatters around handfuls of jewels that lesser authors might belabor singly throughout an entire book.
ARPA and SCI: Surfing AI, Roland And 2002
Past, Present, and Future of Statistical Science, 2014
Past, Present, and Future of Statistical Science (ed. 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, Arthur Dempster is still gamely defending the Dempster-Shafer paradigm of statistics after all these years, while in yet another chapter there is a discussion of issues in high-dimensional data I couldn’t understand etc.
The introductory bits about the history of COPSS were boring, self-indulgent, 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:
…Wald had a classic European lecture style. He started at the upper left corner of the blackboard and finished at the lower right. The lectures were smooth and the delivery was an 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 sequential analysis, Cochran taught sampling, and R.A. Fisher taught something.
Or the history related is surprising, for example, the revelation that the Chernoff bound was actually proven by Rubin (yes, he did that too) in Chernoff’s essay “A career in statistics”, where he mentions a tragicomic incident in rocketry where a clever method for course-correction turned out to be unnecessary. While Cook’s distance in looking for problems in linear models stems from one bizarre rat (“Reflections on a statistical career and their implications”):
…I redid his calculations, looked at residual plots and performed a few other checks that were standard for the time. This confirmed his results, leading to the possibilities that either there was something wrong with the experiment, which he denied, or his prior expectations were off. All in all, this was not a happy outcome for either of us.
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 (ie. 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.”
‘Equity’ apparently means to Gray only ‘equality’, no matter how injust. 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 dominates the latter. I paid close attention to Tibshirani’s paper later in the volume, “In praise of sparsity and convexity”.
Similarly, Dunson’s “Nonparametric Bayes” introduced me to an area I had little inkling of prior. The biostatistics papers (eg. Breslow’s “Lessons in biostatistics” or Flournoy’s “A vignette of discovery”) bring up interesting challenges 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/heterogeneity but think hard about what moderators I should include to try to explain some of it. Others raised interesting questions I’ve wondered about myself, for example, Xiao-Li Meng in “A trio of inference problems” asks how big a biased sample of a population has to be before it’s of comparable quality to a random sample:
Over the century, statisticians, social scientists, and others have amply demonstrated theoretically and empirically that (say) a 5% probabilistic/random sample is better than any 5% non-random samples in many measurable ways, eg. 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 census of biracial characters, since my sample is biased but capture-recapture analysis indicates I’ve compiled up to 1⁄3 of the population, so how much does that compensate, does it drive the error from biases down to the same size as the sampling error? Meng derives an inequality:
For example, even if ns = 100, we would need over 96% of the population if ρN = 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, 2016
The Genius Factory, 2006
Millionaire Robert Graham’s Repository for Germinal Choice (1980-1999) sperm bank was founded as a form of positive eugenics in order to encourage sperm donation by gifted men (initially Nobelists) for use in the nascent field of artificial insemination. Launched to instant infamy, it turned out to have actually struck a major chord among women seeking sperm, who were generally treated extremely shabbily by the medical establishment which when doing as it pleased, casually chose donors largely at random and denied the women any kind of choice or information about the donor (Plotz notes the first recorded case of artificial insemination involved abruptly chloroforming the woman and using a random medical student). However, it encountered perennial troubles in obtaining sufficient supplies, as artificial insemination (not necessarily/usually IVF, as I assumed for most of the book until I finally realized my mistake) used up large quantities of semen before a successful pregnancy, so the lack of Nobelist participants (between the rigorous medical testing and the notoriety) immediately forced a switch to less distinguished donors; further, fees charged to women never came close to covering the operating expenses of recruiting those donors and schlepping all the semen around, even as other sperm banks adopted the Repository’s innovation of stringent health examinations & forcing Graham to sustain the Repository himself, and while he arranged for millionaire Floyd Kimble to take over funding the Repository when he died, that millionaire then soon died himself without having made any further provisions! Graham’s family was happy to see the sperm bank die, and that was that.
Around 2000, journalist David Plotz began a 13-part Slate investigative report describing the positive eugenics background, history of the sperm bank, and trying to find donors/mothers/offspring—succeeding in reaching a small fraction of them. The online series includes some of their personal reactions to their experience, beliefs about the harm, some of them being reconnected with each other, descriptions of their current circumstances etc.
The first question about this book is, is it worth reading if you’ve already read the Slate articles and are interested in learning more? Yes. The background on Graham, Shockley, and modern sperm banking is much more extensive in the book, and it goes into substantially more detail about the donors/mothers/offspring. For example, the Slate series has one 2001 post focusing on “Donor White”, who had not been found by that point; but White showed up afterwards, was interviewed extensively by Plotz (much of the book is in the first-person), and interacted a great deal with Beth/Joy over the following years, all of which is in The Genius Factory but not the Slate articles. He also corrects/updates a number of assertions (eg how exactly the Repository closed, with the online version concluding vaguely that it must have shut down because Graham somehow just didn’t bother to put anything in his will and his relatives didn’t support it, while the book version fixes this by bringing in Kimble and explaining what went wrong; apparently none of these corrections have been added to the Slate versions, checking back).
It’s interesting seeing how disparate peoples’ reactions to the sperm bank are, ranging from (the proper) indifference to considerable curiosity to almost neurotic obsession. I also appreciated the book expanding on the descriptions of the offspring and their successes even in trying circumstances, and the modern sperm banking industry, which is hard to get a read on because it’s so private (eg. Plotz quotes Repository staff noting that, as long suggested, prospective mothers value highly height and health; leafing through the catalogue, everyone is a positive eugenicist), and the issue of where the unrelated fathers stand (in a very difficult one, and at least for the women who contacted Plotz, in a generally untenable one, although he notes the selection bias). So I enjoyed much of the book and read it in one or two sittings.
Much of this is relevant to anyone thinking about the current prospects for embryo selection on traits. The estrangement of fathers emphasizes how naive it is to hope that merely offering some sperm of better genetic quality would be enough to encourage en masse usage: genetic relatedness is far too important to almost everyone, and giving up relatedness for better traits is inherently insulting to the cuckolded father; egg/sperm donors are always a last resort. (This is something the iterated embryo selection & genome synthesis approaches must grapple with; who will use your optimized eggs/sperms if it means the child will be 50% or 100% unrelated to the birth-parents? On the other hand, regular embryo selection 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 = 16or ~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) * 05or 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 PGD 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 et al 2013 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 Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza 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 debate since then.
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, 2008
(~110k words; 2.5 hours) 2008 anthropology/linguistic memoir by Daniel Everett about studying the famous Pirahã people and particularly their language. Some of the material is covered in the widely read New Yorker article or elsewhere: the Pirahã possess an astoundingly crude and simple language, the Blub of natural languages, without recursion. The 18 chapters are organized autobiographically with Everett’s research conclusions interspersed mostly chronologically (Everett making no strong topical separations, which may annoy some readers despite being more realistic—one does not live and do science in discrete blocks of time, after all, and Everett neglects neither side of his life). Everett does go into some detail about the linguistic aspects, but not very much (which is good because I’ve always found linguistics excruciating) and it’s very popularized and quick a read.
And a bit formulaic: a naive anthropologist joins a tribe, full of ideology (in Everett’s case, Christian missionary zeal), discovers the challenges of aboriginal life, nearly kills himself and his family several times, gradually comes to appreciate and understand the tribe and its ancient wisdom, and returns to tell the tale. Everett’s challenges include denying his wife 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 Ik, the Pirahã have been documented as existing for centuries in apparently identical to their current form; their language’s only relation is extinct, and the Pirahã language is a language isolate, without counting or recursion or color words or comparisons or quantifiers or pluralization or disjunctions, minimal phatic elements, and so few sounds that it can be whistled, hummed, yelled, sung, or spoken, but also evidential grammar which indicates if the speaker is speaking of something from personal knowledge; all current Pirahã speak only small fragments and phrases of Portuguese or other major Brazilian languages (renaming foreigners in Pirahã in order to talk about them), and are despite 8 months of enthusiastic effort (to avoid being constantly cheated by river traders and understand money) are unable to learn to count to ten (making Everett’s ability to predict when resupply airplanes come nigh magical to the Pirahã), add any numbers, draw straight lines, or write. No Pirahã is ever mentioned as learning well another language, converting to a religion, leaving the villages for the wider world, or mating with an outsider (nor outsiders ever accepted into the Pirahã). Everett recounts that the Pirahã lusted after fine river canoes, and he arranged for a skilled canoe builder to come and teach them and even bought the necessary tools as a gift to the Pirahã, and they enthusiastically made a canoe; 5 days later, they suddenly refused to make another one, saying “Pirahãs don’t make canoes”. They seem to need relatively little sleep, mature quickly, never plan ahead or make long-term investments (such as making wicker rather than palm leave baskets) or talk about the distant future/past (and will very rarely talk about anything they learned from someone now dead: “generally only the most experienced language teachers will do this, those who have developed an ability to abstract from the subjective use of their language and who are able to comment on it from an objective perspective”), and will casually throw away tools or things they will need soon. They know how to preserve meat, but never both unless intending to trade it; food is eaten whenever it’s available, and since they fish at all hours, everyone might wake up at 3AM for fish. Growing and harvesting manioc is universal in the Amazon despite the need to process it to remove cyanide, but Everett says the Pirahã only grow 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 founding), could yield major genetic drift on many traits.
On the other hand, gene-environment co-evolution would make tremendous sense; over millennia of reproductive isolation and specialization to their ecological niche, Pirahã have reached a local optimum where abstraction and planning are unnecessary and only lead to trouble and the potential for inequality, and either punishment or simply lack of additional fitness for such cognitive traits, which was continuously reinforced by natural 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 2015’s model of the Amish. This parsimoniously explains the observations without the need for backflips in interpretation of many anecdotes. For example, if the Pirahã culture is so extraordinarily conservative, why did they eagerly learn to make canoes that they prize highly, saying that Pirahã canoes are bad, and only 5 days later decide it was a bad idea? But Everett gives us a valuable clue in a different anecdote:
…I was surprised that the Pirahãs did not seem tired at all, however. In the village the Pirahã men avoided carrying heavy things. When I asked them for help in carrying boxes or barrels and such, they were always reluctant to respond. When they did help, they could barely lift things that I could carry with ease. I had just assumed that they were weak and lacked endurance. But I was wrong. They didn’t normally carry foreign objects and they didn’t like to display their ignorance of how to handle them.
Like anyone else, they are embarrassed by what they don’t know—or have forgotten—and when asked, will make up excuses or dodge it some other way. Similarly, the failure to teach counting does not require some sort of subtle Pirahã ploy where they pretend to be interested and to learn how to count for very practical reasons and then sabotage it to comply with the dictates of Pirahã culture; it was simply that difficult, and any teacher will be familiar with students on whom instructions are writ on water. Supposedly a school was opened in 2012, so it would be interesting to hear whether a Potemkin school (recent events doubtless having reminded everyone that the Brazilian government has its fair share of problems with corruption 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, 2015
The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, 2012
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 New Crobuzon. The plot breaks down into a few discrete chunks of the protagonist Jane’s life, which while highlighting the ruthless nature of life in a universe where the gods are real (the homecoming queen being sacrificed may be horrifying, but the consequences of not sacrificing are even more dire, as one memorable nihilist character makes clear; and our own society does not hesitate to sacrifice lives for its own ends, as with, say, coal-burning power plants) also highlight her cowardice and selfishness in betraying her friends instead of… what? We’re not too clear, as the world begins melting and things get weird in an Invisibles or Dick-style turn towards radical ontological uncertainty. (The dragon, incidentally, appears in far less of the novel than one would expect from the title.)
This may sound tedious, but Swanwick really does throw all sorts of fascinating little twists in along the way that keep one reading: malls where time literally stops so you can shop to your heart’s content; factories with ‘time clocks’ that age one if one doesn’t clock out; live gargoyles, with all the food requirements flying stone entails; a man who shrinks in his wife’s regard for being a coward until he’s the size of a homunculus 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 https://pastebin.com/raw.php?i = HDrLMfQj
Bad Blood, 2018
Bad Blood is a straightforward read about the rise and fall of Theranos, done in chronological order in third-person up until Carreyrou becomes personally involved, at which point things accelerate to the SEC civil settlement. Carreyrou doesn’t end too strongly but says that the criminal investigation may well end up charging Holmes 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 an useful role in enforcing compartmentalization, risk-aversion, and covering up information, but might there not be another reason? Ian Gibbons puts his finger on it exactly when he said that “It’s a folie à deux.” Or perhaps it would be more precise to invoke narcissistic personality disorder and compare Elizabeth Holmes to Donald Trump.
Holmes did not start off as a psychopath determined to rip off VC and SV by using her cunningly honed social skills and sexuality to manipulate horny old white men, as one narrative goes. She was a normal ambitious Stanford undergrad (having met a dozen or so Stanford undergrads recently, Holmes now seems much more understandable to me), perhaps a little too eager to launch a startup, with delusions of grandeur about a entrepreneurial destiny and a bit of a chip on her shoulder; for reasons which cannot be known (as counterfactuals are not observable), she got lucky or was female or had family connections or something and she got some VC and support from her professors for what was a more feasible sort of idea which might’ve been workable, dropped out for a startup, was mentored by the likes of Larry Ellison (surely a red flag if ever there was one), hooked up with an entrepreneur even luckier 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, 2014
(Online fulltext: HTML, 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 probability of any pair of variables being correlated is effectively 1 while the probability they are directly causally upstream/downstream of each other is close to zero. (The impressive thing is to find something which doesn’t correlate with aging, like blood magnesium levels.) It gets worse. Because the fallout from aging is destroying all bodily systems and impairing homeostasis, this implies there are hundreds or thousands of pseudo-interventions: interventions which deal with some downstream effect of aging and may help on that one thing, but nothing else. For example, if one fed amphetamines to an elderly mouse, it might act ‘young’ but it will proceed to die on schedule regardless. (This is the more abstract form of observing that curing cancer does not do much about curing aging.) This can very easily mislead one into thinking one is making progress and conducting important work: ‘I found a protein which correlates with aging and I even checked that it causally makes rats stupider by injecting it into random rats!’ These can both be true and yet I can be extremely confident that this will never lead to an 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, but 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).
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 “Alan Bean’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 John Young 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 David Scott might be onto something in identifying role and personality as moderators of the “overview effect”:
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 Imodium to cause constipation; John Young fell down repeatedly while cavorting on the moon and immortalized himself by radioing back to Earth, “I got the farts agin. I got ‘em agin, Charlie.”; Buzz Aldrin, while suffering from a peculiar phobia in which he is unable to write things and still upset about Armstrong breaking Apollo tradition by insisting on being first out, still invented the lunar cycler; David Scott, cashiered for smuggling postal covers onto the moon to resell, was probably unjustly persecuted as other astronauts had brought things to the moon as well (in part because they were paid next to nothing (Aldrin keeps his travel expenses from Apollo framed: “PAYEE’S NAME: Col. Edwin E. Aldrin 00018 / FROM: Houston, Texas / TO: Cape Kennedy, Fla. / Moon / Pacific Ocean / AMOUNT CLAIMED: $33.311”), and couldn’t even get life insurance); in Nepal, the astronauts would be asked constantly if they had seen peoples’ dead relatives on the moon; selection of astronauts was capricious and done at the whims of a resentful former pilot with a heart condition (although given his mother”used to tie him to a tree at the age of four to stop him from running into the road”, one suspects his grounding might’ve been a good thing); Armstrong only got the first moon landing due to the deaths of several astronauts ahead of him; Apollo 12 was hit by lightning while launching and NASA feared the parachute was permanently broken, but let them continue to the Moon because they might as well if they were doomed; most of the astronauts make little money but the orbiters in the command module make far less than the ones who actually walked on the moon, although the experience of orbiting the dark side of the moon helped make up for the resentment of coming so close but not landing; the ongoing problems of fake moon dust being peddled by con artists (fake because legally, only the US government is allowed to own/sell moon dust before 2014); a major finding in panspermia, that bacteria can survive a trip to the Moon, was caused by a worker sneezing into the Surveyor camera; Aldrin 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 Apollo 1 fire and never making it to the moon; Dennis Tito noting presciently that anyone wanting to go to the ISS in 2005 should do so as soon as possible as it would never be cheaper (proving to be right, in spades, as the price went up 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 Space Invaders than they did on the space program.
- Smith notes that due to a scheduling mishap, Edgar Mitchell’s attempt to communicate in orbit using ESP with partners back on earth was incorrectly timed, but in Mitchell’s defense, Daryl Bem has demonstrated that mere time is no barrier to ESP, so there’s no reason to critique it on those grounds!
The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III, 2010
(~140k words, 4h read; interview) Before reading, my knowledge of Hugh Everett was limited to basically the following sketch: a young American male who post-WWII suggested taking the Schrodinger wave-equation literally, yielding the infamous Many-Worlds Interpretation, and attacked over it, left academia for Wall Street where he became rich with an optimization algorithm, and in his absence, MWI very gradually gained adherents until it is now a respectable point of view (albeit still counterintuitive), and died at some point; also, some rumor that his daughter shot herself at a casino after losing, in a literal quantum suicide. This turns out to be incorrect and 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, Wheeler, 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:
- Turing’s Cathedral, Dyson
- Radiance (review)
- “Old Legends”
- Atomic Audit
- The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb
- The Physical Principles of Thermonuclear Explosives, Inertial Confinement Fusion, and the Quest for Fourth Generation Nuclear Weapons
- Shame: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb, Cohen (review)
- Project Air Force: 1956–1996
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, eg. “nuclear war is a rational option,” no amount of utilitarian quantification can, believably, turn it into its opposite. Context is everything.
This is a tissue of nonsense which exposes clearly that Byrne does not deal with the real world, but with a world of ideals in which there are never any hard choices or necessity to make cost-benefit tradeoffs and all that matters is what sounds good. Accordingly, he presents a one-sided picture; a discussion of the Bohm hearings omits any mention of why the US government might be so paranoid and worried about spies (the Venona decrypts come to mind, as do the many high-ranking Soviet spies such as Harry Dexter White) and might target people involved with the Manhattan Project in particular; similarly, he uncritically cites Sakharov claiming the US was responsible for the arms races (which seems like an odd reading of Stalin’s character and his fellow researchers, for that matter), and later overestimates of nuclear winter. This bias on the biographer’s part makes one wonder to what extent Everett’s results about fallout were accurate: it’s not like he would tell us if the report was found to be fallacious or since debunked. Still, while irritating and depriving the reader of some key context, the WSEG section seems comprehensive as far as it comes to Everett up until he left the Pentagon to start his own consulting business, and that’s what really matters.
The business section is similar, but much less political as they consulted on more civilian topics. What he did is hard to tell: we’re held back by Byrne targeting the general audience—I would have liked to know more about the statistical techniques involved, rather than vague descriptions like “QUICK randomly sampled the vast range of probable outcomes to select the most probable results”, which could mean a lot of things; I can sort of guess what his ‘Bayesian machine’ was (sounds like a Kalman filter implemented with MCMC), but I’m completely baffled by the section about ‘“attribute value” programming’ or what sort of database it was. It also sounds like Everett began drinking himself to death at this point (but why? he doesn’t come off as so deeply depressed about MWI being ignored that he’d be suicidal in the midst of all his financial success; given Byrne’s predilection for psychologizing, it’s odd that he seems to let this central mystery pass without much more comment than some speculation that Everett was just hedonistic), and the kids enter their troubled teens (but one would never grow out of it). Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t manage his finances very well, living extravagantly, making deeply questionable investments, and failing to diversify, all in contravention to established financial advice, flaws somewhat surprising in a statistically and economically inclined man. Eventually, he dies.
In the mean time, MWI was gradually being rediscovered and rehabilitated by the likes of Deutsch and novel approaches like a Bayesian justification of Born probabilities developed, leaving off at the present time in which MWI is a respectable position leading to interesting research and believed in by a good-sized minority of physicists; this is interesting, but already familiar to me. I will have to leave it to other readers to judge how good these parts of the book are.
Overall, indispensable to anyone interested in the man, and a good account of a productive yet wasted life.
(~233k words) Unsong (TVTropes) 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”, Foucault’s Pendulum, Illuminatus!, “American Pie” and Leonard Cohen, how William Blake was right about everything and Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, all the weirdest bits of the Bible and Talmud and Jewish folklore, the Book of Job, the most shameless aquatic mammal puns and Tom Swifties, the fruit of a dissipated youth pursuing the furtive vice of micro-nations, inventing an unusual theodicy justifying the coincidences that power the plot1, the implications of theism for Effective Altruism, and an extended demonstration/disproof2 of pareidolia by proving how America is an epic in which The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe predicted Trump’s election—or why Barack Obama is obviously a Lovecraftian demon, or how Moses = Confucius = George Washington, or how deep the identity of apples & knowledge goes, or the hidden identity of snakes & messiahs, or how both “Tyger Tyger” and “Had Gadya” are not about little goats or big cats but the creation of the universe, or how “American Pie” is about both Jesus Christ 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 Wall Drug 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, 2006
An engaging multi-biography/history of the repeatedly-reinvented Kelly criterion, mixed in with overviews of Claude Shannon, John Larry Kelly Junior, Ed Thorp, and their famous gambling adventures in beating blackjack and roulette and, as some of the first ‘quants’, the stock market. (Like Thompson sampling, the Kelly criterion has been reinvented many times; Poundstone lists at least 4 inventors: Kelly, Leo Breiman, Bernoulli, and Henry Latané.)
Poundstone starts with the early mob and the ‘numbers racket’ and sports gambling, where Kelly’s metaphor of ‘the wire’ giving an edge on betting was quite literal: spotters at the race-tracks would race to communicate the results to bettors and bookies across the country, so they could take bets on already-won races, leading to mob wars over the lucrative monopoly over using telephones/telegraph services to communicate said results, which constituted a remarkable fraction of telecom profits. (Shades of HFT.) Thus, notorious characters like Bugsy Siegel enter into a book about statistics as gambling becomes a major revenue source replacing the loss of alcohol. (Poundstone speculates that Edgar Hoover’s famous denial of the existence of the Mafias was due to being paid off by betting on fixed horse races.) The mob part may seem like a colorful and interesting yet irrelevant diversion, but it sets the context for inveterate mob gambler Manny Kimmel (famous for betting on anything, and knowing clever tricks like betting people about whether anyone in the room shared birthdays—in other words, one of the only practical applications of the birthday paradox I’ve seen outside of cryptography), who, aside from being the founder of Time Warner (!) would eventually pop up as Thorp 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 card counting, 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 efficient markets: a few bits of information about outcomes (ie. having probabilities which do not match the implicit probabilities in the prices of bets/investments) equates to excess returns, and the more information, the larger the returns with aggressive betting. The Kelly criterion optimizes the extraction of money, compared to other betting strategies like the martingale which don’t take into account the extra information. While excellent in theory, Thorp/Shannon/Kimmel’s (Kelly was uninvolved and busy chasing the still-elusive dream of voice synthesis) blackjack did not go well: the casinos shamelessly cheated any customer doing well, Thorp claims one even drugged him twice (although he was never beaten by casino thugs like other card counters), and new unpopular rules were announced to negate card counting. So Thorp moved onto roulette and the stock market. Thorp’s first big edge was in warrants: since warrants expire quickly, they need to go to 0 or 1 over a short time period, and if the market is efficient, they should follow a random walk of the sort familiar in physics from molecules, and their expected value easily calculated… and mispriced warrants spotted and purchased. Which sounds a bit paradoxical. And the risk of buying warrants can be offset just buy buying or selling short just some of the underlying stock. Thorp made money off warrants, and then published the strategy for increasing the credibility of his new hedge fund, and moved onto convertible bonds by applying similar reasoning: the bond should have a certain value which reflects the probability that the stock will spike high enough to make the built-in option worth exercising, and since stocks should follow a random walk, all you need to know is the variance… inventing Black-Scholes. With Kelly, he could bet heavily on the safest profitable investments, up to 150% of the fund, without blowing up. (In one amusing anecdote, Black-Scholes used their pricing model to spot a particularly mispriced warrant; then the company changed the terms of the warrants, wiping out the warrant holders and Black-Scholes, in a way that insiders had known was coming and sold all their warrants.) Thorp had a genius for regularly spotting these sorts of opportunities, and Poundstone says ‘“I’ve estimated for myself that if I had to pay no taxes, state or federal, I’d have about thirty-two times as much wealth as I actually do,” Thorp told me recently’ (Thorp’s net worth is estimated somewhere in the hundreds of millions) because his fund would have grown much faster if it could’ve reinvested all its earnings 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 Michael Milken’s financial empire as their stock broker, which, as part of Rudy Giuliani’s crusade in applying RICO to anything possible to get himself elected, turned up some tax fraud on Thorp’s fund’s part (he blames his partner who was in charge of the implementation end of things). The timing was particularly bad for Thorp because investors would flock to hedge funds during that time period, as exemplified by LTCM, which Poundstone devotes a section to, arguing that LTCM also exemplified the perils of non-Kelly investment by putting too much at risk (which seems a little tendentious, since my understanding was that the real problem was they underestimated the correlations of many assets in an economic crisis; the underestimation led them to overbet and thus exposed them to huge losses, and some formalized Kelly-like proportional investment wouldn’t’ve saved them from the fundamental mistakes, any more than the KC saves you from an incorrect estimate of your edge or assuming that correlated bets are independent). Thorp returned to trading eventually, and in terms of his lifetime performance:
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 probability matching/Thompson sampling), he benefits tremendously from extensive access to Shannon’s papers and Thorp’s reminiscences about his mob connections while trying to beat the casinos. Indeed, some of the reviews criticize the characterization of Thorp as almost forgettable and perhaps insufficiently critical due to Poundstone’s dependency. What is a little remarkable to me is how well Shannon did financially by 3 early venture capital investments, and how little Shannon contributed intellectually after his information theory paper; I had always somehow assumed that Claude Shannon, a genius who had offhandedly made a major contribution to genetics simply because his advisor forced him to work on genetics, and had created fully-formed information theory, had died in the 1950s or something, because how else would such a genius have not made further major contributions? But no! Shannon died in 2001! Ramsay died on the operating table; von Neumann had cancer; Kelly himself dropped dead of a stroke on a NYC sidewalk; Pitts was mentally ill and died of alcoholism; but Shannon was rich, tenured, sound as a bell in mind 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 Louis Bachelier’s life). One downside is that despite the involvement of Jimmy Savage, Poundstone never mentions the connections to subjective Bayesianism, personal interpretations of probability, or Thompson sampling. (Which would, if nothing else, have partially explained why Savage’s career was so peripatetic—it wasn’t just his acerbic opinions as Poundstone claims.)
Digital Gold, 2015
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 https://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2008/04/bit-gold-markets.html#links.
Nothing bizarre about it. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly since then, Szabo already in 2008 explained what the redating was about; he was re-running older posts: https://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2008/08/reruns.html That’s all.
Just a few months before Bitcoin was released, in April 2008, Nick had posted on his blog an item in which he talked about creating a trial model of bit gold and asked if anyone wanted to help him “code one up.”
This is evidence against Szabo being Satoshi! The prototype was a big piece of software with a ton of moving parts and low-level details, written in a low-productivity language, with a GUI, mockups for an online store and poker playing, and so on just in the first release; coding it up and debugging it to the point of a public release in just 8 months would be a pretty impressive feat all on its own, and worse, Satoshi says it took ‘a year and a half’ in November 2008, so he probably started around May 2007.
339”repeated use of ‘of course’ without isolating commas”: Skye Grey, “Satoshi Nakamoto Is (Probably) Nick Szabo,” LikeinaMirror, December 1, 2013, https://likeinamirror.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/satoshi-nakamoto-is-probably-nick-szabo/.
Skye Grey’s claims are BS; stylometrics doesn’t work like that, and when people do run stylometrics, Szabo does not come out on top. (While not named in the article, I am told by an involved journalist that Szabo’s writings were included but were a poorer match than Finney.)
An academic study of Silk Road later found that nearly 99% of all reviews gave the maximum score of 5 out of 5.
This is too high and was a mistake in that version of the paper. The percentage was biased upwards by a substantial amount because when you are scraping a site like SR1, you will only see a small fraction of the negative reviews from an exit scammer; if an exit scammer rips off 1000 people, he will be banned after a few dozen negative reviews, and then won’t appear in your data at all. So as far as your analysis can tell, a 5-star seller just vanished overnight. For example, Tony76 could probably account for 1%+ of sales all on his own, yet his exit scam doesn’t appear in the Christin data because they had scraping problems at the time and by the time they got another copy of SR1, that account was banned. Another issue is early finalization; to FE, you have to leave a review, which of course will be 5-stars, and then when you accept you’ve been scammed, you will probably never go back to update it to 1 star. So one of the changes made to the preprint version of Christin’s paper was to address these issues, and the final version should be used instead: “Traveling the Silk Road: A measurement analysis of a large anonymous online marketplace”.
(Also as far as this part of the book goes, it would be better to use Ross’s own sales figures from the court evidence.)
tied to an Internet provider in California: Hal’s debug log showed that the IP addresses of the other user was reached through a Tor service that would have obscured the real IP address. But Tor generally routes users to nodes in the same geographic area, suggesting that the other user on Bitcoin’s first day was probably in California.
I’m a little annoyed to see someone else discovered this, but in any case, this is only partially correct. Freenode (now Libera) 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, 1983
The Playboy interview II, ed. Barry G. Golson: 511 pages of dense challenging interviews with 23 famous people 1964–1982. “I only read Playboy for the articles”, the joke goes, but the joke is funny because the interviews in Playboy were… amazing.
I was already reasonably impressed with their interviews after reading their interview with Frank Herbert (which was remarkably insightful in understanding what he was getting at with his full Dune series and I think is very under-read by Dune fans), but this anthology shows that was no fluke—I’m not sure I can think of any periodical whose interviews show so much background preparation or are so long, in depth, revealing, uncompromising in challenging the interviewee and refusing to settle for pablum. Each interview takes a good 20 pages, and these are not small pages, either, but hefty small font pages.
Comments on Interview:
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
Robert Shelton: 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 Junior: 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.)
Roone Arledge: 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.
Oriana Fallaci: 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 was published 3 days after Koch announced his run for governor. (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, 1996
The Theory of Special Operations by William McRaven 1993 is a book-length thesis describing 8 case-studies of special ops missions and the degree to which they adhere to a few principles for spec-ops success that McRaven extracts from their successes/failures. The case-studies are in chronological order and primarily WWII-oriented:
The principles themselves boil down to finding a chink in enemy defenses, concentrating force on it as fast as possible, achieving immediate relative superiority to those enemy forces in the way, and executing a well-trained 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, shaped charges, which literally shattered the Belgium defenders and their fortifications; otherwise, they would have successfully landed on the grassy field above the underground fortress but found themselves trapped in a deadly killing field between the various bunkers 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 Osama bin Laden raid. In retrospect, one can see how the OBL raid largely conforms to McRaven’s principles: a fast in-and-out raid in as few stealth helicopters as possible with little or no coordination with the locals (particularly important given that Pakistan/ISI had been sheltering OBL and would doubtless tip him off) despite the danger of operating so near a Pakistani base, with the whole operation rehearsed extensively with replica models to make the executions as fluid as possible.
The thesis was apparently quite popular and was republished in 1995 as Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice. Disadvantages to the online thesis version: big PDF, harder to search due to OCR errors, a lot of typos, and the photographs McRaven included of all the sites he could visit are unfortunately totally destroyed by the photocopier/scanner (although the diagrams are still legible). A skim of the Libgen EPUB version suggests that you might be better off with that edition (although it appears to drop the photos entirely!).
Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide?, 1979
(~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 methyl iodide in an un-air-conditioned building in the summertime in South Carolina, and describes in vivid detail the symptoms of being poisoned by it, I believe every word. He must have added a pound to his weight in sheer methyl groups. By modern standards, another shocking feature of the book is the treatment of chemical waste. Readers will not be surprised to learn that several former Columbia Organic sites feature prominently in the EPA’s Superfund cleanup list, but they certainly aren’t alone from that era.
Throughout Max Gergel’s long career he has been an unforgettable character for all who encountered him in the many roles he has played: student, bench chemist, instructor of aviation cadets, entrepreneur, supplier to the Manhattan Project, buyer and seller of obscure reagents to a global clientele, consultant to industry, travelling salesman peddling products ranging from exotic halocarbons to roach killer and toilet bowl cleaner, and evangelist persuading young people to pursue careers in chemistry. With family and friends (and no outside capital) he founded Columbia Organic Chemicals, a specialty chemical supplier specialising in halocarbons but, operating on a shoestring, willing to make almost anything a customer was ready to purchase (even Max drew the line, however, when the silver-tongued director of the Naval Research Laboratory tried to persuade him to make pentaborane). The narrative is as rambling and entertaining as one imagines sharing a couple (or a couple dozen) drinks with Max at an American Chemical Society meeting would have been. He jumps from family to friends to finances to business to professional colleagues to suppliers to customers to nuggets of wisdom for starting and building a business to eccentric characters he has met and worked with to his love life to the exotic and sometimes bone-chilling chemical syntheses he did in his company’s rough and ready facilities. Many of Columbia’s contracts involved production of moderate quantities (between a kilogram and several 55 gallon drums) of substances previously made only in test tube batches. This “medium scale chemistry”—situated between the laboratory bench and an industrial facility making tank car loads of the stuff—involves as much art (or, failing that, brute force and cunning) as it does science and engineering, and this leads to many of the adventures and misadventures chronicled here. For example, an exothermic reaction may be simple to manage when you’re making a few grams of something-the liberated heat is simply conducted to the walls to the test tube and dissipated: at worst you may only need to add the reagent slowly, stir well, and/or place the reaction vessel in a water bath. But when DuPont placed an order for allene in gallon quantities, this posed a problem… All of this was in the days before the EPA, OSHA, and the rest of the suffocating blanket of soft despotism descended upon entrepreneurial ventures in the United States that actually did things and made stuff. In the 1940s and ’50s, when Gergel was building his business in South Carolina, he was free to adopt the “whatever it takes” attitude which is the quintessential ingredient for success in start-ups and small business. The flexibility and ingenuity which allowed Gergel not only to compete with the titans of the chemical industry but become a valued supplier to them is precisely what is extinguished by intrusive regulation, which accounts for why sclerotic dinosaurs are so comfortable with it. On the other hand, Max’s experience with methyl iodide illustrates why some of these regulations were imposed.
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.
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 my review of The Media Lab: we often assume millionaires and billionaires must have deep wisdom (“if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”), when they may actually be deeply irrational, risk-seeking, and little more than lottery winners of timing and chance. (Several competitors to Rockefeller 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.3
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 medical4 projects like the deworming of the American South have echoes in modern EA projects—deworming being a particular focus of GiveWell! Rockefeller was a complex man trying to be simple: he knew many of the criticisms of him were true but tried to delude himself to the end; he was a devout Baptist, who was intelligent and worldly enough to see the problems there and how the wicked flourished; he loved homeopathy, but his funding of medical research and the Flexner Report would kill the last shreds of legitimacy it had.
The philanthropy transitions into an account of Rockefeller Junior, as he is entrusted with it, who emerges as diligent and effective, but not the man his father was. Senior attempted to replicate his own upbringing (without the—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 turning out mediocre, dumb, insane, or unmotivated, once all the basics are provided for. Anyone who claims to have a secret sauce5, 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 Wiener’s child prodigy peers at Harvard, since forgotten)—because the prodigies simply regressed to their adult mean, as expected. 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, 1999
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 I have some sympathy myself.
“Idiot” proposes a psychological horror novel (somewhat similar to “Robinsonade”) in which the parents of a retarded child convince themselves he is intelligent, and perhaps he is and has been murdering and rearranging his life as convenient; like most horror, in the end humans are the real monsters, as Lem has described little but ‘facilitated communication’ after all.
“U-Write-It” is another parody like “Sexplosion”, but where “Sexplosion” criticized human tendencies towards over-moralizing everything, “U-Write-It” criticizes apathy 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 FanFiction.net; is the glass half full or half empty?)
“Odysseus of Ithaca” offers an inversion and image that seems like it should have been in Calvino’s Invisible Cities: searchers convinced that the greatest wisdom by the greatest geniuses, truly original thoughts, would be ignored and not understood as comprehensible by the general population (‘if a lion could speak, we would not understand him’) and so to find treasures, they must search through sewers and insane asylums and trash cans. (“Odysseus” could have been combined nicely with “Pericalypse”, I think.)
“Being Inc” is an update on Borges’s “The Lottery in Babylon”, with more computers; what I loved most about this one was two throwaway lines: “Antitrust legislation in the U.S.A. forbids monopolies; consequently Being Inc. is not the only life arranger. There are its great competitors, Hedonica and the Truelife Corporation.”
The story “Culture as Mistake” has as its core an interesting argument: that ‘culture’ can only refer to everything which is not useful or backed up by reality, and so, in the strictest and most concrete sense, all of culture is lies and mistakes.
And finally, the piece Lem calls the best, and I would have to agree, the “A New Cosmology”. Here Lem offers up an explanation for the Great Silence: all our knowledge predicts countless alien civilizations but we observe not the slightest trace (here nothing has changed, as modern astronomy vindicates Lem’s assumptions of the commonness of planets and entire absence of signals or anomalies), and this is because the aliens have become so advanced that they have become indistinguishable from nature; but here, where most speculation idiotically stops, showing that the author has not thought in the slightest bit about resource limits or competition or exponential growth or the likelihood of all aliens being consistently the same way over billions of years without the slightest deviation, Lem keeps going, suggesting that the laws of physics themselves have already been molded by the most advanced aliens in a previous multiverse as a solution to an intractable conflict in which different bubbles of physics in the multiverse try to expand (erasing and eating other bubbles), where the solution hit upon by all parties independently is to fix a single common set of physics, and that we do not see the original universe but a successor, a stabler successor with physics strategically chosen to limit the ability of any alien civilization to expand or tinker with the laws (especially the lightspeed limit), where the existing alien civilizations continue to remain silent 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, 1978
(ebook) A short 1978 monograph examining one of the more notable works of the aristocratic court poet Fujiwara no Teika, one of my favorite traditional Japanese poets, written for the Ex-Emperor Go-Toba (himself a major poet and an even more dramatic figure).
The importance of the sequence, as Brower covers in an exhaustive introduction (and I cover to a briefer degree in the Wikipedia article), 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 Shin Kokinshu, 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 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”, 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 1979 review.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 2003
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 second 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, 2019
Review of new translation of a well-known but now-neglected ancient Greek satirical poem parodying the Homeric epics. Stallings’s rhymed-couplet translation is winsome and charming, preserving the too-cute names and bathos, and pairs well with Grant Silverstein’s energetic pencil drawings. A light and enjoyable read.
2019 translation of the Batrachomyomachia 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 giants, Titans, Amazons, Centaurs, Griffons, Pygmies vs cranes) and not even the only animal one (there were at least 4 others about cranes, starlings, frogs, and spiders attested in the Suda), 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 George Chapman, 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 Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows, 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!
Singularity Rising, 2012
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 Great Filter to comparative advantage 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 my meta-analysis); he seems to criticize people for not taking seriously the method of castration for life extension but doesn’t mention the issues with the data and the likelihood that the method would not work post-puberty (ie. for everyone who is able to morally consent to such a procedure). Otherwise…
Otherwise Miller’s sins are simply that the writing is merely OK and while he does a reasonable job of, as Hanson puts it in his own review of Singularity Rising, “explaining common positions and intuitions behind common arguments”, he barely defends them or clearly justifies them. While I and many others involved in the area dislike Ray Kurzweil’s theories and arguments and books as being superficial, right for the wrong reason, overly optimistic etc, they do at least do their job of convincing people (and then hopefully they can adopt more nuanced or different views); but though I agree with a large fraction of it, it’s hard to believe that anyone could read Miller’s book and come out genuinely convinced of pretty much anything in it (as opposed to reactions like “that’s interesting” or “maybe”). For example, he does a nice question-answer sequence against the kneejerk bad-philosophy reactions to cryonics, but one could easily bite all the bullets and simply question the incredibly sketchy case he makes (yes, it’s great that wood frogs do cryonics all the time, but we’re not frogs). He asks that anyone who signs up for cryonics email him about what convinced them—I immediately thought, “50% odds that no one has done so yet”. (After writing this review, I asked Miller about this and he said no one had yet.)
And aside from as comprehensive a layman discussion of the issues involved in AI economics and technological unemployment as I’ve ever seen, I can’t really name any original contribution this book makes.
I can’t say I’m really glad I read it, but then I can’t say I really regret reading it (I got a number of IQ-related citations, a discussion of neo-Luddism, and info on the more esoteric possibilities of embryo selection). This is because I already know almost everything in the book and have read many of the citations already, so I am not the target audience; it’s good if you want an overview of non-Kurzweilian Singularity ideas and you don’t want to read through scores of webpages and papers, and more or less unique in conveying them all in a compact single place—so in acknowledgment of this, I bump my rating up to 4 stars (though for me it was more like 3).
The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, 2014
(~44k words) Short stories drawing heavily on Borges and the magical realists; Blasim writes in a deadpan vernacular in which even the most baffling, cruel or horrible events are noted calmly and passed on, in a world in which ‘confused armies clash by night’ while mere humans try to get along as they play endless roles with masks whose significance they do not understand for an audience they cannot see for an objective that does not bear examination (“The Corpse Exhibition”, “An Army Newspaper” and “The Reality and the Record” suggest obscurely that God is the artist portraying all these severities). “I know you now have some questions that are nagging you, but you will gradually discover that the world is built to have more than one level, and it’s unrealistic for everyone to reach all the levels and all the basements with ease.” Some set scenes are memorable; from “The Killers and the Compass”:
Abu Hadid knocked on a rusty door that still had a few spots of green paint, shaped like frogs, on it. We were received by a man in his forties with a thick mustache that covered his teeth when he spoke. We sat down in the guest room in front of the television. I gathered that the man lived alone. He went into the kitchen and came back with a bottle of arak. He opened it and poured a glass. My brother told him to pour one for me too. We sat in silence, and the man and I watched a soccer match between two local teams, while my brother stared into a small fish tank.
“Do you think the fish are happy in the tank?” my brother asked, calm and serious.
“As long as they eat and drink and swim, they’re fine,” the man replied, without looking away from the television screen.
“Do fish drink water?”
“Sure they drink; of course.”
“How can fish drink salt water?”
“Sure they have a way. How could they be in water and not drink?”
“If they’re in water, perhaps they don’t need to drink.”
“Why don’t you ask the fish in the tank?”
Before the bald man could turn to look at him, my brother had jumped on top of him like a hungry tiger. He threw him to the ground, squatted on his chest, and pinned his arms down under his knees. In a flash he took a small knife out of his pocket, put it close to the man’s eye, and started shouting hysterically in his face, “Answer, you cocksucker! How can fish drink salt water? Answer, you son of a bitch! Answer! Do fish drink water or don’t they? Answer, shit-for-brains!”
Abu Hadid stuck a cucumber up the man’s ass and we left the house. I never would understand what the man had to do with my brother.
Or “The Song of the Goats”:
“As he drove through the wheat fields, he was barely in control of the steering wheel. The bumps were about to break my ribs, and only dust kicked up by the truck crept in through the holes in the barrel. The barrel stank like the dead cats on the neighborhood trash heap. Did my uncle pull out fingernails, gouge out people’s eyes, and singe their skin with branding irons in the vaults of the security department? Maybe it was the souls of his victims that drove him into the ravine, maybe it was my own evil soul, or maybe it was the soul that preordained everything that is ephemeral and mysterious in this transitory world.
Seven barrels lay in the darkness at the bottom of the cliff like sleeping animals. The pickup had overturned after my uncle tried to take a second rocky bend in the hill. The barrels rolled down into the ravine with the truck. I spent the night unconscious inside the barrel. In the first hours of morning the rays of sunlight pierced the holes in the barrel, like lifelines extended to a drowning man. My mouth was full of blood and my hands were trembling. I was in pain and frightened. I started to observe the rays of the sun as they crisscrossed confusingly in the barrel. I wanted to escape the chaos that had played havoc with my consciousness. I felt as if I had smoked a ton of marijuana: a fish coming to its senses in a sardine tin, a dead worm in an abandoned well, a putrid fetus with crushed bones in a womb the shape of a barrel. Then my mind fixed on another image: my brother sinking to the bottom of the septic tank and me diving after him.
The bleating sounded faint at first, as though a choir was practicing. One goat started and then another joined in, then all the goats together, as if they had found the right key. The rays of the sun moved and fell right in my eye. I pissed in my pants inside that barrel, appalled at the cruelty of the world to which I was returning. The goatherd called out to his flock, and one of the goats butted the barrel.”
The endings are abrupt, sometimes twist endings, leaving one pondering what moral there may be, if any; often the lack of closure itself seems to be the point. Given such an enigmatic style, unsurprisingly some of the stories worked much better for me than others (in particular, when he strays into clearer political commentary, the stories seem to get weaker). Hits:
- “The Corpse Exhibition” (de Quincey-esque)
- “The Killers and the Compass” (nihilistic)
- “The Green Zone Rabbit” and “An Army Newspaper” (magical realistic)
- “The Song of the Goats”
- “The Reality and the Record”
- “The Hole”
- “The Madman of Freedom Square”
- “The Iraqi Christ”
- “A Thousand and One Knives”
- “The Composer”
- “That Inauspicious Smile”
- “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes”
Savage Continent, 2012
(~144k words, ~4h) Nonfiction European history by Keith Lowe. Savage Continent is a fascinating book on the bloody aftermath of WWII as the destruction wound down, the lingering consequences of anarchy worked themselves out in the sudden peace, and people tried to find a new equilibrium, punishing collaborators and finishing the ethnic cleansings. Quickly summarized on NPR:
“I was used to seeing these wonderful, cozy myths about the way the war ended,” he tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “and everybody celebrating and sailors grabbing hold of nurses in New York’s Times Square and kissing them and all of these sort of things. And I was aware that it hadn’t quite ended like that.” Europe, he says, was so devastated that “it’s difficult for us to quite realize how bad the destruction was.”
WWII for Americans remains the good war; while one may be familiar with tarnished aspects of that (the atrocities in the Pacific, the unnecessary atomic bombings of Japan, the domestic censorship, etc), one hears less about the post-war period. Presumably after liberation, things were cleaned up quickly and calmly and a few years later our historical memory turns to the start of the Cold War.
An example of the fluffiness I have in mind is an old movie I watched in August, Three Coins in the Fountain, a romantic comedy set in post-war Rome, where while there is still poverty and recovery from the war, things are basically OK. But one might have a better idea from my earlier reading, Catch-22’s Italy scenes; or from Gravity’s Rainbow’s depiction of partitioned Germany’s fierce stew of black-marketeering, Communism, corruption, crime, destruction, and prostitution. The end of WWII left much business unfinished: Wages of Destruction covers in detail the slave labor forces drawn from conquered Europe which worked in Germany up until defeat, and the parlous food situation of Germany and Europe at large—so what happened after? With all these victorious horny occupation forces? With the slave laborers, and the Jews, and the guerrillas or partisans or thieves or black-marketeers? How were morals slowly restored after being corrupted by the exigencies of war and the struggle for survival, and what was seen as now possible after the Holocaust?
The answers are rarely pretty, but Lowe gives a synoptic view. It can be hard to understand the early Cold War: what were the Americans & Europeans thinking when they set up Operation Gladio? What was with the persecution of homosexuals or the “Red Scare” 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 ‘Novorossiya’ would not be out of place; the Ukraine is battered so relentlessly in WWII and afterwards that contemporary events look not like an aberration but a return to business as usual; and can Finland rest very easy about its independence from Russia when it gained its independence not that long ago and long memories are so politically profitable, particularly in Eastern Europe and Asia?
An enlightening and timely book. See also “Cleaning up after WWII”.
Quantum Computing Since Democritus, 2013
Aaronson’s book is based off his online lecture notes which I hadn’t read before though I’ve read his blog for years. I was really excited when the book was announced, since I hoped for expanded better version of his incredibly interesting paper/monograph “Why Philosophers Should Care About Computational Complexity” (abstract: “…In particular, I argue that computational complexity theory—the field that studies the resources (such as time, space, and randomness) needed to solve computational problems—leads to new perspectives on the nature of mathematical knowledge, the strong AI debate, computationalism, the problem of logical omniscience, Hume’s problem of induction, Goodman’s grue riddle, the foundations of quantum mechanics, economic rationality, closed timelike curves, and several other topics of philosophical interest. I end by discussing aspects of complexity theory itself that could benefit from philosophical analysis.”), and see also his more recent “The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine”.
The book turns out to be excellent, but not the 5-star universally-compelling, suitable for the layman 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.
- best book I’ve ever read on computational complexity
- repeatedly throws out fascinating observations
- learned a lot of new things even after years reading Aaronson’s blog
- PAC learning, Blum’s speedup theorem, Tarski’s decision algorithm
- humor better than expected
- some key arguments are sketched out briefly or badly (eg. I don’t know how anyone would understand Aaronson’s version of Cantor’s diagonal proof, compared to longer better-illustrated versions like Hofstadter’s in Gödel, Escher, Bach)
- the complex-probability version of quantum mechanics didn’t seem much more transparent to me than other versions; maybe if I had a physics degree? (Not that I really understood the ‘Quantish’ universe in Drescher’s equally excellent book Good and Real, either.)
- overuse of complexity zoo abbreviations
- no discernible connection to Democritus or the Democritus quote
- some later chapters highly technical and specialized and uninteresting (eg. the size of quantum states), not always meaningfully connected
- Aaronson randomly inserts bizarre and sloppy anti-Bayesian digs—like at the end of his chapter on anthropics, he seems to think it refutes the ‘religion’ of Bayesianism. Dude, WTF? No one understands or agrees on anyone in anthropics, that’s the whole point of half the field (constructing paradoxes 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 ‘one man’s modus tollens is another man’s modus ponens’ was appropriate…
A Life of Sir Francis Galton, 2001
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 (see Bakewell for earlier confusions). 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, 2016
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, 1988
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 Machiavelli6 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 context7) 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.
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 (ie. 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, 2007
This review was written in August 2018, ~1.5 years before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before convenient smallpox vaccines, transmitting cowpox 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 Jenner, such as the extraordinary Balmis Expedition, 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 a sufficient refutation 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, 1992
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, 2014
(~400 pages; 4 hours) Saw a New Yorker article on phages—viruses specialized to prey on bacteria—and it mentioned the book was available; so I downloaded the biggest file and started reading.
The world of phages is more than a little scary. They have been evolving for billions of years, their numbers are so vast every writer in this anthology resorts to scientific notation (and when they don’t, the numbers are so unfamiliar they look like typos: “By killing nonillions of Bacteria, they have major effects on global energy and nutrient cycles…”), and their generation time is as low as minutes, making for dizzying amounts of selection pressure and optimization—phages seem to have explored every possible way of attacking, subverting bacteria, replicating faster, compacting and making themselves more efficient, and won every arms-race bacteria started with them.
If you think you’ve learned some generalization about phages, the next chapter may disabuse you by covering a phage which breaks that rule; and if it doesn’t, it may describe a back and forth sequence of arms races 4 or 5 steps deep. We learn about eerie dynamics like “kill-the-winner”, how φX174 squeezes several genes in by encoding them as overlapping with other genes (and then it gets spookier: “Even in this extremely small genome of a well-studied phage, two genes are not essential for phage replication in the lab, and thus their function has not been determined.”) or how phages proved DNA encoded genetics and their tools have been appropriated for genetic engineering and cancer research (most recently, the CRISPR proteins, a bacterial anti-phage defense system, have been stolen), or the exotic 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.
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 (~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, 2013
Journalistic history of the development of “designer drugs” / “research chemicals”, with focus on past two decades and Internet-based RC communities. This is a topic you might think I’d know all about, but actually I don’t, because my focus was always Silk Road 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 Alexander Shulgin. Shulgin is the central figure in research chemicals for demonstrating that variants and twists on old drugs are almost as easy as falling off a log, one would think, coming up singlehandedly with dozens of stimulants and psychedelics and drugs with unclassifiable effects (the one which “makes everything sound 1 octave lower” always amuses me), all documented in his famous PIHKAL and TIHKAL. Shulgin’s work and other chemists (including the still-mysterious discoverer of MDMA) lit a long fuse that finally detonated with Usenet (now there’s a name you probably haven’t heard in a while) showing that the Internet could document and spread knowledge about drug use through newsgroups and forums, and eventually, in a miracle of globalization, chemists with foreign chemical laboratories with customers online. Here Drugs 2.0 really gets moving, covering Erowid, the Hive, Chinese labs doing dodgy syntheses, discussion of what chemical analogues are and how these grey-market communities can come up with literally scores of new substances every year, faster than they could be banned, interviews in person or email with some of these amateur chemists and Chinese lab operators and the intermediary businessmen, and of course, Silk Road 1 (Power’s chapter on it, while unavoidably obsolete in 2016, was one of the better writeups around when it was published). The focus tends to be on the UK, but that’s fine by me, as the UK’s more explicit drug policy makes changes easier to describe, and Power includes interesting material on fads in the UK drug consumer market and how it affected choices (the safrole oil shortage’s effects on MDMA and finding substitutes is a good one).
Where I’m left a little dissatisfied is in descriptions of effects of the various RCs which have been discovered. By the end, you don’t know too much about how the various drugs differ, or how many could be considered to have found a niche of their own as more than just a formerly legal analogue of something like psilocybin. Like a biography of a scientist which doesn’t go into much depth about what their ideas or discoveries were, it feels incomplete.
Disclosure: Mike Power has interviewed or quoted me on several occasions about the dark net markets, and gave me a free PDF of Drugs 2.0 back in 2014 or something. (But it was so hard to read because of publisher watermarking, that I downloaded a better copy from Libgen and read that instead.)
The Hall of Uselessness, 2011
(~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, 2010
Hilarious, eye for details, incessant curiosity, good at tracking down bogus stories and rumors. Roach comes up with all the best quotes and stories, seems to have talked to everyone and done everything. And her running commentary is also hilarious—she’s almost as funny as she thinks she is. I laughed many times reading the book.
This is definitely more “mind candy” than educational as it jumps from food to sex to hygiene to acceleration issues to psychology without any overview or unifying ideas or concepts, although I did learn a fair bit anyway from the scattershot approach. (One chapter was a revelation for me in explaining why early science fiction often postulated space driving people insane). If there is any big picture to Packing for Mars, it’s that outer space is really hard for humans to survive in and everyone 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 $150 billion‽ Roach is aware that this is the impression she gives in her conclusion where she criticizes ‘simulations’, but honestly, I didn’t find it a very compelling defense of the enormous difficulties and costs of shooting up some monkeys to walk around Mars compared to just sending probes.)
The Windup Girl, 2009
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, 2006
(~100k words, 3 hours) Academically-oriented examination of the post-Basho haiku poet and painter Yosa Buson. Of obscure origins, Buson is one of the more popular post-Basho haiku poets, along with Kobayashi Issa. But where Issa is known for his idiosyncrasy and sympathetic focus on animals, Buson is much more traditional and tried to live up to the ideal of the bunjin or Chinese-like literary gentleman who has mastered all the arts of the brush in a refined and almost distant style.
Crowley has written a quasi-biography describing Buson’s life and putting his painting 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 renga (which because of the difficulty in explaining what any of the links mean or the many formal rules involved, tends to be completely glossed over in all Western works; while I think renga never survives translation and is worthless aesthetically to read, it’s important to any history or discussion as it was one of the most common activities)—even translating one for the appendices—and also providing long translations of several other key works she quotes from. The discussion of his haiga likewise goes well beyond the usual superficialities and presentation of one or two photos, as Crowley comments in detail on how exactly the haiku and painting are supposed to combine into something more than their sum, and on the extremely obscure Chinese allusions Buson is prone to as a proper bunjin. (For example, the WP article on haiga includes as an example “A little cuckoo across a hydrangea by Yosa Buson” but does not give the translated haiku, which turns out to require 3 pages of commentary to unpack all the allusions in the haiku and painting.)
Needless to say, this will only be of value to those already interested in haiku and its history.
Turing’s Cathedral, 2012
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, 2017
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 Gwern.net. It is not too outdated, and covers most of the topics you’d want, with acknowledgement of the realities of responsive web design for mobile support.
There are two major flaws to Rutter’s approach: he is 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; in 2017, 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 claim8, 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.
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 Portia spider/“eight-legged cat” suggestion is quite interesting, but the alien fungus winds up not doing anything beyond what a more normal version of intelligence would do and so it doesn’t illustrate the idea of a timesharing slow-but-powerful intelligence. The ending is opaque and knotty, but I think with some thought and review of terminology it becomes clear: the Bicamerals and emergent AIs have completed their plan in which the hijacked fungus is incubated in the protagonist to upgrade baseline humans to vampire-like entities (sans the vampire weaknesses and without consciousness), which will be able to go toe to toe with the God-like alien invader.
So, not a waste of time and probably pretty impressive to people unacquainted with Watts, but below B, some of the Rifter books, and the better short stories. I suggest reading B, then “The Colonel”, then Echopraxia.
(~100k words, 3 hours; read MAPS-hosted ebook.) Everything ketamine (WP, Erowid).
Jansen begins with a short history of its discovery and diffusion into the psychedelic and club scenes, covers some of the more notorious cases, the neurobiology of ketamine as understood in 2004, and then a very long discussion of the similarities of near-death experiences with ketamine psychedelic trips, followed by thorough coverage of the notorious addictiveness of ketamine (which comes off a bit apologetic; ketamine strikes me as exceedingly dangerous if “In my opinion, the group who lose control over their use is unlikely to exceed 15% of those who find the experience rewarding”, even if the biological dangers are minimal), then a bunch of ideas on how to treat ketamine addiction (some dubious, others common addiction strategies), a discussion of bad trips, and the existing body of work on using ketamine to treat addictions and other problems. It seems pretty thorough, even to a fault—I can’t say I appreciated Jansen throwing in a bunch of quantum woo and half-baked speculation, but I suppose that’s probably an occupational hazard (thinking the grand visions are anything more than grand visions and abusing physics).
It’s also heavily leavened with excerpts from users’ experiences, many interviews by Jansen himself apparently; these are good to have, but perhaps not as necessary as it was in 2004 now that the Erowid trip library has over 324 reports.
My own interest in ketamine is curiosity about the peculiar immediate anti-depressant effects it seems to have even with non-psychedelic use, but while depression is occasionally mentioned as a risk factor for ketamine abuse or outcome of abuse, it seems all the most relevant research must have been done after this was published in 2004.
Still, an interesting and excellent overview of a niche topic, and well worth reading for more in-depth coverage after reading an overview like the Wikipedia article.
Clear and Simple As the Truth, 1996
(~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, 2011
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:
Ready Player One, 2011
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, 2013
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: Man on Wire, The Cove, Helvetica, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, March of the Penguins, Project Nim, The King of Kong, A State of Mind, and Dead Birds; and read the books: Finite and Infinite Games, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Fadiman’s Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Chased by the Light, Letters from a Stoic, A Pattern Language, How Buildings Learn, & Peopleware.
Conflict of interest: I was a contributor and got a free copy because I wrote the review of the Compact OED (which I still have albeit rarely look up anything in these days).
Proving History, 2012
Overall, it’s an interesting book which I regard as basically correct and a fruitful approach for future research, and Richard Carrier is a good guy whose work should be supported.
On the other hand, so far it’s not quite as awesome as I was hoping it’d be when I was writing an essay on identifying the author of the Death Note movie script with Bayesian reasoning recently—I think Luke Muehlhauser was right in his LessWrong review that Carrier does his case a disservice by trying to expound Bayesian ideas in a New Testament context where, half the point of Bayesian ideas is to point out how useless the evidence is! That’s… not a good way to either demonstrate Bayes is good in history nor to convince people of his overarching claims like ‘all correct historical inference is Bayesian inference’.
The way to introduce a new paradigm is to start with its successes, where Bayesian methods led to a correct prediction or retrodiction of an issue where decisive evidence surfaced while before the issue was settled, conventional methods were confused, wrong, or underconfident; and then argue that its practical success combined with your philosophical arguments about Bayesian reasoning being the only correct reasoning is a convincing synthesis, maybe then work out verdicts/predictions/retrodictions on a non-controversial area so the experts can see how they like the conclusions, and only then extend it to highly controversial and difficult (scarce or low-quality evidence) material.
I understand how he would come to write it that way since that’s what he was paid to do and Biblical material has become his specialty but I can still regret that the outcome wasn’t as good as it could’ve been.
Wired Love, 1879
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, 1954
I took a gander at this for its possible relevance to an essay of mine on mathematical error—Hadamard’s book is one of the classics in the area of mathematical discovery, mentioned along with Poincaré’s lecture.
With due allowance for style and age, Hadamard ably describes and defends the basic model of ‘work, incubation, illumination, verification’, with reference to his own discoveries, his many famous acquaintances, Poincaré’s lecture, and a very interesting survey of mathematicians. In fact, it’s a little depressing that we don’t seem to have gone much beyond that in the half-century since this was published back in 1945 or so. While at least we no longer need his defense of the unconscious as a meaningful part of cognition, much of the rest is depressingly familiar—for example, his acute observations on mental imagery 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 typical mind fallacy.
If Hadamard comes to no hard and fast conclusions, but merely raises many interesting points and criticizes a number of theories, we can hardly hold that against him, as we can do little better and so it becomes our failing, not his.
(I read the Internet Archive scan.)
The Devil in the White City, 2003
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, 2003
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, 2006
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, 2013
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.
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, 1990
(8.3k words; 1.5 hours; Wikisource edition) A.E. Housman’s first collection of 63 poems. I enjoy his terse, rhyming style of very short lines, which he somehow makes look easy and almost conversational, particularly poems II, IV, XXIII, XXX, XXXIII, XLIV, XLIX, LXII, LXIII; it’s particularly impressive how completely consistent they all are with each other. This consistency meant that when I read the parodies quoted on Wikipedia, I found them very funny.
It is short enough that the themes of romantic love and death do not grow too wearying before the end, although I was not particularly taken with the patriotic poems, particularly in a collection published not all that long before WWI (“State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies; and this lie slips from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’”), but on the plus side, none of the complacent Christianity still in vogue at the time. Overall, a good collection. I will continue on to Housman’s other collections.
Chased by the Light, 2001
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, 2004
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, 2012
(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, 2011
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 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, 1992
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.
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 as being founded by circles of IBM engineers (!). He apparently routinely makes factual mistakes; Brad DeLong identified 50 in chapter 12 just to make that point. (Graeber’s response was to shamelessly throw an unnamed copyeditor under the bus—as if so many and such severe errors could be a copyeditor’s fault, or that it was not still his fault for signing off on the edits.) Where not completely wrong, in some cases, like Graeber’s claim like about Nazis & Harvard marching songs, he has stretched the truth beyond reason. When I see errors like those on topics I know or can easily check, it makes me wonder how bad the rest of it is. Such works are no mitzvah, no matter how passionately he believes he needs to reform the modern world into an flattened egalitarian version.
Trying to think kindly about the late David Graeber in email conversation I came up with the following. At his best, he’s like good science fiction. He’ll bodge the fundamentals of physics to tell a good story, but he can expand your imagination about what the possibilities are.
“Can you think of analogous intellects from the more distant past who are remembered well in the present day?” “Fourier?”
Henry Farrell 2022-01-10
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, 2010
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.
- In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You, Cosma Shalizi (discussion)
- “The Myth of Asia’s Miracle”, Paul Krugman
- Evolution as Backstop for Reinforcement Learning
The Metropolitan Man, 2014
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, 2010
Many of his points and observations ring true, but Hoffer is fond of using only a few isolated examples to prove his points, and of affirming paradoxes; but the problem with each is that they are not as reliable as they may seem, and the general detachment from statistics and economics and demographics undermines my confidence in any of his claims. He cites Tocqueville approvingly on the lack of coherence of the narrative of the French Revolution with the observed facts that the French had never had it better than before the Revolution—but how can I then have any confidence in any of his narratives?
Dreams of Steel, 1990
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, 2011
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, 2010
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, 2002
The book comes up often in Wolfe discussions of An Evil Guest, I noticed there was a copy on library.nu, so…
Short, but fairly funny; ending wasn’t quite as expected, but the dramatis personae and especially the section of questions listing contradictions/mistakes/obscurities made up for my lingering dissatisfaction. Don’t think it was directly useful for interpreting Wolfe’s An Evil Guest, but the dramatis personae is a clear inspiration for Wolfe’s own character lists.
The Kindly Ones, 2009
Very long, not a little tedious (although in places the detail reaches tour de forces, like the early discussion of German war on the Eastern front). Desensitized by the end. Not sure how to take it, but disagree with the protagonist—I don’t understand his constant depravity and murdering, and I don’t agree I would do much the same thing in his position. One or two murders, maybe, but even killing his best friend Thomas who time and again saved Aue’s ass?
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 1992
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
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.
Pioneers of Soviet Computing, 2010
(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 ternary-based computers, the Setun. Any attempt to give an overview of the history is bound to be interesting. It also vividly conveys the oppression that they worked under: blacklisting of people for trivial reasons like having an unusual Greek surname, discouragement of Jews, stringent security checks (why? given that no one in the world cared), difficulty in acquiring parts, expensive production, opaque bureaucratic decision-making about what projects to fund 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 IBM 360 paradigm rather than continuing domestic lines of development; the Slava review:
As a participant first-hand account, Malinovsky’s book is both valuable 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 Lisp machines 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 Glushkov’s grandiose plans to turn the Soviet economy into a centrally-computer-planned cybernetic program by the 1970s—this sounds like complete idiocy to the modern mind, aware of the full complexity of a modern economy 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. RISC is still the dominant view of Western computer scientists as baroque CISC architectures are always left in the dust. Glushkov was dead-wrong, but no mention is made of this. Or,
In designing the Mir machines, we had tackled a daring problem—to match the machine language as close as possible to the human language, and here I mean mathematical nonverbal language, though later we made attempts with normal human language. So, we created ‘Analytic,’ a special mathematical language, supported by an internal interpretation system. Mir computers were used in all regions of the Soviet Union. Their creation became an intermediate stage in research aimed at the development of artificial intelligence, since the intelligence realized in them was still fairly primitive. It also looked very impressive when a machine quickly solved independent and dependent integrals, while not many professors of mathematics were able to solve them. In addition, the machine found substitutions, not just the easy ones from tables, but the difficult ones as well…the Mir computer family was quickly developed and put into serial production, receiving high marks from its users. Its creation was a giant step in the development of artificial intelligence in small computers.
In what sense? Solving integrals isn’t much of an accomplishment. What does it mean to “match the machine language as close as possible to the human language”? I’m not aware of any important work in AI stemming from USSR research. Or:
Glushkov proposed a macro-conveyer principle based on the idea that each processor was given a separate task during every step of the computing process, which allowed it to work independently for a long time without the interference from other processors. In 1959, at the Soviet All-Union Conference on Computer Technology in Kiev, Glushkov spoke about the idea of a brain-like computer structure that could be realized when the designers were able to integrate not thousands, but billions of elements with practically limitless connections between them, into a single system. There would also be a confluence of memory and data processing, a system in which data would be processed throughout the memory with a highest possible degree of parallelism in all operations…only the development of new non-Von Neumann computer architecture…would solve the problem of creating a supercomputer with unlimited growth in productivity and progressively more sophisticated hardware. Unfortunately, further research showed that a comprehensive realization of the construction principles of recursive computers and brain-like structures was beyond the level of electronic technology at that time.
Despite being a programmer interested in AI, I have no idea what any of it means. This culminates in idiotic boasting: “Unfortunately, the potential of the Mir computer line was never fully realized. During my 1979 presentation in Novosibirsk on the integration of artificial intelligence into computers, I heard the academician Andrei Ershov criticize the Institute of Cybernetics by saying: ‘If you had not stopped upgrading the Mir family, the USSR would have had the best personal computers in the world.’” No, there was 0 chance. Not in a system as pathological/impoverished/repressed as the USSR was—there were no opportunities for the economies of scale which power microchip development, 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 nebulous cluster of Californian stuff), or enthusiasm for conlangs like Loglan/Lojban… it’s why Russian fascists intently studying Ithkuil feel like such an anachronism. It is the fallacy that strong Sapir-Whorf is correct, that languages powerfully shape thoughts rather than channel trivialities like color-name choices. The truth is that specialized languages and notations are indeed powerful, but they always succede innovation and insight, not precede it: 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, “Loyal to the Group of Seventeen’s Story—The Just Man” or the Darmoks of Star Trek).
The politics of Soviet computing are interesting. There remains a great deal of lingering guilt 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, 1984
(~331pg; ebook) Official history of the US Navy’s CNA Operations Evaluation Group (OEG) up to post-Vietnam period (published 1984 but quite vague post-1980). The OEG is, roughly, the Navy’s answer to the US Air Force’s RAND and to Blackett’s “Circus” operations-research group in the UK during WWII, and, like the national laboratories, draws mostly on civilian researchers 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 catastrophic loss of shipping in the Atlantic. This history covers the formation of the OEG in WWII under the pressure of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in the critical Battle of the Atlantic, then as that theater wound down, OEG refocused on the Pacific theatre and problems like anti-kamikaze tactics; reconsolidating after WWII ended, the Korean War’s blockade assessment (highly effective) and Inchon landing soon led to the intimate involvement of OEG in Vietnam for tasks ranging from planning bombing campaigns to interfere with Vietcong logistics to optimizing river warfare to airplane tactics; post-Vietnam, the OEG moves (amid a fair amount of bureaucratic infighting) onto a more strategic focus in planning long-term weapon systems development & nuclear warfare (again with a heavy submarine focus, but this time due to the major advantages of nuclear ballistic missile submarines in maintaining deterrence compared to the Air Force’s bombers and silos) and among other things took a hand in the Polaris and Harpoon missile systems and (at least by Tidman’s retelling) was largely responsible for the infamous ‘missile gap’ (pg192).
Tidman writes in a clear style and provides a number of useful supporting graphs and maps; he tries to balance between discussing the military background of each problem, the analyses 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, search, and decision theory), as I could care less about how the OEG was organized into departments at various times, but the latter is something an official history must cover, so I can’t blame Tidman if about a fifth of the book is totally devoid of interest to an outsider like me. More striking is the general elimination of other OR-related institutions (surely OEG engaged with RAND beyond merely RAND people being occasional guests at conferences? Especially given the bitter conflict between the armed-services post-WWII over nuclear strategy 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 ULTRA 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 Abraham Wald’s diagnosis of bomber weaknesses via selection bias, a lot of the findings in TOEG were new to me and I suspect not well known (at least, outside US naval circles). Some tidbits that I noted as I went:
- 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 “Operation Market Time” 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 isegoria.net, quoting another OR paper/book, Techniques of Systems Analysis, Kahn and 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, 1946, Methods of Operations Research, Morse and 1951, “Scientists at the Operational Level”, 1941. See also The Theory That Would Not Die and The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III.)
Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 2003
(I read the Project Gutenberg edition, which appears to be the first version which is shorter but generally said to be the better version. 36k words, 1-2 hours.)
One of the more famous drug memoirs, up there with Huxley’s The Doors of Perception in influence and how many people it has convinced to experiment. Most drugs that inspire prose tend to be psychedelics, and given the modern opiate epidemic, one is a little surprised to come across an opiate memoir, but de Quincey, when writing about opium, sounds remarkably like a modern drug writer, whose sentiments would fit right in at a 1960s California powwow, right down to his speculation that humans possess enormous powers of memory or thought which are suppressed in ordinary life but may reveal them under the proper (perhaps chemical) influence. I had heard the phrase ‘opium dream’ but somehow it had never dawned on me that this might be quite literal and smoking opium, like DMT, might cause dissociated states with engrossing hallucinations in addition to the euphoria and pain-killing aspects one expects from opiates.
The parts dealing with opium, however, are brief and could easily be excerpted in a review. The bulk of the work, which is hardly quoted, turns out to be a turgidly overwritten Romantic autobiography of de Quincey, where he professes to confess the troubles of his life and his innermost emotions; however, with de Quincey, author of “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts”, the more he confesses about his life, the more puzzling it becomes why he is boring us with his melodramatic autobiography which ultimately has so little to do with the humdrum entirely ordinary circumstances of his opium addiction, the less one believes him, and the more suspicion builds up that de Quincey is doing the 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.”
The Unholy Consult, 2017
See Bakker’s Second Apocalypse vs Frank Herbert’s Dune: Time Loops and Finding Freedom In An Unfree Universe.
A Troublesome Inheritance, 2014
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 GCTA 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 et al 2013 , et al 2014 , et al 2014 , 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:
- “Hints of genomic dark matter: rare variants contribute to schizophrenia risk”
- “Genetic enhancement of cognition in a kindred with cone-rod dystrophy due to RIMS1 mutation”, et al 2007
- “Common DNA Markers Can Account for More Than Half of the Genetic Influence on Cognitive Abilities”, et al 2013
- “Genes Take Charge, and Diets Fall by the Wayside”
- “Not by Twins Alone: Using the Extended Family Design to Investigate Genetic Influence on Political Beliefs”, et al 2010
- “Chimpanzee Intelligence Is Heritable”, et al 2014
- “Genetic Variation Associated with Differential Educational Attainment in Adults Has Anticipated Associations with School Performance in Children”, et al 2014 ( et al 2013’s 3 SNP hits for intelligence are starting to replicate)
- “The genetics of investment biases”, Cronqvist and 2014
- “Genetic Relations Among Procrastination, Impulsivity, and Goal-Management Ability: Implications for the Evolutionary Origin of Procrastination”, et al 2014
- “A Gene That Makes You Need Less Sleep?” (see “Heritability of Performance Deficit Accumulation During Acute Sleep Deprivation in Twins”, “The Transcriptional Repressor DEC2 Regulates Sleep Length in Mammals”, and “A Novel BHLHE41 Variant is Associated with Short Sleep and Resistance to Sleep Deprivation in Humans”)
- “On the genetic architecture of intelligence and other quantitative traits”, 2014
- “The Importance of Heritability in Psychological Research: The Case of Attitudes”, 1993
- “Inheritance of migratory direction in a bird species: a cross-breeding experiment with SE- and SW-migrating blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla)”, 1991 (“For blackcap warblers, the direction of migration is clearly innate, so crossbreeding a group of blackcaps who flew south for fall migration with a group that oriented westward resulted in offspring who flew in a southwesterly direction.”)
- “Common genetic variants associated with cognitive performance identified using the proxy-phenotype method”, et al 2014; supplementary information (et al 2013 hits replicate some more; discussions: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
- “Substantial SNP-based heritability estimates for working memory performance”, et al 2014
- “Growth, efficiency, and yield of commercial broilers from 1957, 1978, and 2005”, et al 2014
- “The high heritability of educational achievement reflects many genetically influenced traits, not just intelligence”, et al 2014
- “Genome-wide meta-analysis identifies six novel loci associated with habitual coffee consumption”, The Coffee and Caffeine Genetics et al 2014
- “Friendship and natural selection”
- “Defining the role of common variation in the genomic and biological architecture of adult human height”
- “Predicting human height by Victorian and genomic methods”
- Ancestry Informative Marker Sets for Determining Continental Origin and Admixture Proportions in Common Populations in America
…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, 2003
Oral-memoir/autobiography of Hungarian physicist-chemist Eugene Wigner. Wigner is not a name even people interested in the Cold War or the nuclear bomb will be all that familiar with (except it might ring a bell as Wigner’s friend or his famous essay “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”), but turns out to almost be a Zelig or Forrest Gump: he was one of the ‘Martians’, who went to school with von Neumann himself and worked with him on a number of things, was a lifelong close friend of Szilard, spent years in Göttingen with the famed German physics community which was creating quantum mechanics (experiencing a good deal of pushback in getting them to use group theory, an area of mathematics absolutely integral to modern physics now), got to America well before WWII, provided the Chianti wine drunk at Fermi’s splitting the atom, was a major mover in getting Einstein to write the letter that led to the Manhattan Project, and played his own role in designing nuclear reactors and producing plutonium—all this before winning a Nobel prize. Wigner protests repeatedly in the book that he is uninterested in fame or credit, and while one might think that the lady doth protest too much, one has to admit that for someone who was involved in so much and was a Nobelist, his name is known far below that of other Nobelists at the time like Feynman.
This genuine inconspicuousness carries over to the rest of the book: he seems so humble and sober that I was surprised to see that he was such an ultra-hawk that his main regret about the atomic bomb was that he had not been able to get it created even earlier so it could be used against Germany, and how he sees Hitlers 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.
…Pernicious anemia was then not considered curable. So Hilbert suddenly seemed quite old. He was only about 65, which seems rather young to me now. But life no longer much interested him. I knew very well that old age comes eventually to everyone who survives his stay on this earth. For some people, it is a time of ripe reflection, and I had often envied old men their position. But Hilbert had aged with awful speed, and the prematurity of his decline took the glow from it. His breadth of interest was nearly gone and with it the engaging manner that had earned him so many disciples. Hilbert eventually got medical treatment for his anemia and managed to live until 1943. But he was hardly a scientist after 1925, and certainly not a Hilbert. I once explained some new theorem to him. As soon as he saw that its use was limited, he said, “Ah, then one doesn’t really have to learn this one.” It was painfully clear that he did not want to learn it.
…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, 2009
(A posthumous anthology of edited excerpts from Donald Michie’s corpus.)
Donald Michie was one of those men who, perhaps thanks to living through WWII 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 Good (I.J., that is, who also provides a preface to this volume), and met Turing. Bletchley Park was an intense time for him, a gathering of highly motivated and highly intelligent (and sometimes highly eccentric) people given substantial resources 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/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 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, 1973), other than by deliberately typing a symbol and seeing where the finger went!”)
What does it contain? While a thick book, this is due as much to thick paper and large font than a cornucopia of contents, featuring primarily short excerpts from some of the research papers, a number of interviews/discussions, and many popularized, opinion or, ‘think pieces’. (There are an unfortunate number of typos suggesting insufficient copyediting, incidentally.)
In particular, a theme that emerges (I don’t know if Srinivasan intended this in his editorial choices) is that Michie’s AI career was repeatedly stymied and stunted by the British government imposing bureaucracy, top-down orders, and limited funding. It has often been remarked that Britain should have led the development of computers based its early successes such as Alan Turing or Colossus, and its rich vein of human intelligence; even if Britain, so much smaller than the USA in every way, might not have become the majority of the computing industry, it should have snagged a far larger share of the pie than it did, building off first-mover effects and plowing the early economic returns back in. The subsequent history of English computing can be described as isolated sparks of brilliance, often spurred by games (see filfre.net). Michie’s career demonstrates the complete post-WWII complacency 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, 2013
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 Advanced Chess in particular: a human playing chess with the assistance of grandmaster-level (and not long after its founding, super-grandmaster level) chess AIs, which began in 1998 at Kasparov’s proposal. Cowen is an avid chess player, and these parts of the book are by far the best part of it. He describes the rapid progress of chess AIs after Deep Blue and the consequences for human chess playing of the availability of superhuman chess AIs. The chess AIs can see so far past the humans that Cowen, watching two play each other in a match and able to see each’s evaluation of their winning chances by using his own chess AI to follow along, became certain that Stockfish would lose despite the evaluations insisting it would win, because Stockfish was in just too horrible a position; but as the inhuman moves pass, suddenly a Stockfish win started to look not so implausible, and by the end, Cowen could confirm with his own AI that the evaluations from almost 30 moves before were correct. Cowen notes that even grandmasters have difficulty understanding, after the fact, the moves that the chess AI play and why they work despite being apparently insanely risky and chaotic—paradoxically, though the best chess ever played is being played now in computer chess tournaments and chess AIs are arguably approaching perfection, humans have hardly any interest in playing, watching, commentating, or analyzing those games! Optimal chess moves, apparently, often strike benighted humans as ugly and risky, for all that they are the correct moves. (One thinks of what the Go players said about some of AlphaGo’s moves during the Lee Sedol match.) What do ‘AI moves’ look like in life, or dating, or business negotiation, Cowen wonders? It might look like matching up people who are apparently antagonistic like conservative men and liberal women, but who might work out well anyway (Cowen cites one Match.com demonstration of a black/white couple where each violated the other’s ‘requirements’ for a match but they married anyway, and his own marriage through a dating site to a liberal women.)
However, as astoundingly excellent as chess AIs playing each other are, as of Cowen’s experience before the 2013 publication, a few humans are able to provide some sort of edge, overriding the chess AI to make a better move, and win. Oddly, this does not apparently require one to be a grandmaster or even a master chess player, but some sort of instinctive mechanical sympathy based on having an idea of where the chess AI is ‘weak’ and watching the evaluations in realtime (along with better preparation like gathering large chess game databases); indeed, being a GM may be a liability, as at least two GMs, Nakamura & Naroditsky, appear to have harmed or at least not helped their chess AIs with their lack of deep humility. (As chess AIs show, GMs arguably make mistakes on almost half of their moves.)
Cowen (as well as some other authors in 2013 like Clive Thompson) takes Advanced Chess as an optimistic paradigm for technological changes: it need not lead to unemployment if people can learn the skills which render them complements to new technology, instead of being substituted. One of his primary solutions is MOOCs and online education. I’m not sure MOOCs are so positively regarded in 2016 as they were in 2013. And like most authors who present education as a nostrum Cowen also doesn’t explain why we would expect more education to solve anything when the existing steep education/income penalties/correlations have not managed to motivate the general population. Computerized education has been great for chess education, certainly, with grandmasters minted ever younger; but that didn’t reverse Deep Blue’s victory.
I think Cowen knows that MOOCs and other band-aids aren’t going to reverse these trends, and the Advanced Chess example is telling: very few people can contribute to Advanced Chess, and the very best Advanced Chess players are adding ~100 Elo points, or a few % towards victory. 100 Elo points is not much. It’s about as much as chess AIs improve in 2 years. At what point will Advanced Chess stop ‘being a thing’ as the chess AIs will have become so good that Advanced Chess players can no longer make a discernible positive contribution? Oddly, I’m having a very hard time figuring that out. Advanced Chess is not mentioned much online after 2013. Some extrapolating suggests that Advanced Chess may already have become moot in 2013, and if not then, is probably finished by 2016; so at the most generous, Advanced Chess could be said to have only existed 1998-2016 (so 18 years, hardly enough time for a kid to grow up), and then only for the tiniest fraction of the population.
So he finishes up pessimistically with forecasts of current trends: the American governments, federal/state/local, are going to face the anvil of healthcare inflation and unfunded Medicaid/Social Security promises. These programs are politically untouchable because old people know what side their bread is buttered on, so they will paid out, one way or another. Which will involve systematic rises in taxation and decreases in services. What does the lower half of the polarized economy do to cope with this? They will have to flee to jurisdictions with smaller governments and less taxation and less goldbrick regulation of housing jacking up rents, however unpleasant such places are, like Texas (but which nevertheless has constant inflow of migration, compared to California). American standards of living will decrease: beef burgers will be replaced with bean burritos, houses will downsize. Alternately, this inevitability of lower incomes could be embraced and deregulation and reductions done deliberately rather than implicitly: “In essence, we would be recreating a Mexico-like or Brazil-like environment in part of the United States, although with some technological add-ons and most likely with greater safety.” This constriction won’t be as bad as it may sound. Just as most healthcare expenditures in the USA are wasted so getting health insurance doesn’t make much of a difference to health, many Americans (rich or poor) have extravagant spending habits (consider who buys all those lottery tickets and tobacco): “The bad news is that there is a lot of waste in American consumption-massive amounts of waste, in fact. Everyone has their favorite story about what the other guy spends his money on and could do without. But also the good news, oddly enough, is that there is a lot of waste in American consumption. Citizens faced with financial pressures will shift into cheaper consumption, and a lot of them will do so without losing very much happiness or value, precisely because there is already so much waste in what they buy.” I could hardly disagree. If I had a buck for every boat or in-ground pool I’ve seen people pay a fortune for and then never use, or use once a year, I could buy a bundle of burritos; or not take even a few seconds to shop around online; and one can go to Walmart and simply watch people shop as they buy the smallest unit grocery (despite having a large family or it being something which never goes bad), or buy a brand-name food which tastes exactly the same as the generic but costs 50% more, or buy food they’ll let rot before they can be bothered to eat it… (Nor do I exempt my relatives from this criticism.)
In this section Tyler also says something that particularly amused me in this election season: “Most American voters are fairly moderate, disillusioned with both political parties, and looking for someone who can fill the proverbial niche of”getting something done,” or “unifying the nation.” Those are not the kind of attitudes that make for a revolutionary future.” (A craving for strongmen like Mussolini is not revolutionary?)
So what does that leave us? A weak diagnostic followup to TGS. One of the longest and most interesting writeups of Advanced Chess around. Some vague speculation about specifics of software/AI improvements to other sectors of the economy, badly handicapped by being written in 2013 (hopefully Cowen could do a much better job now). Some weak solutions or bandaids like MOOCs. And a reasonable but pessimistic extrapolation. Overall, not particularly worth reading unless you are interested in chess.
New Legends, 1996
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 Cartmill incident, his admiration of Edward Teller, etc. Scholz clearly drew on Benford for his novella, and so it was unusually interesting for me.
The collection overall is good, but not great. A number of the stories are too clearly the product of early ’90s anxious liberalism and have not aged well since they were written in 1993 or earlier (~20 years ago), some are half-baked, and some are just bad. A few are very good. They are grouped into thematic sections. To go through them in order (there are many spoilers below):
- “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 Wang tiles—which are Turing-complete, surprisingly enough, and so host entire computational civilizations of their own! A wonderfully alien suggestion. This was apparently expanded in Diaspora, which if it’s as good as the short story, is well worth the reading. I’ll look for a copy.
Perseverance Island, 2009
(130k words; 2h) I read the Project Gutenberg HTML edition with illustrations.
An obscure Robinsonade proper, I was recommended it when a reader mentioned it as a counterpoint to my complaint that in Robinson Cruse, Crusoe is furnished with almost an entire ship of supplies and an island of abundance. Indeed, the preface of PI runs
In all works of the Robinson Crusoe type, the wreck is always near at hand, the powder dry and preserved, and the days for rafting the same ashore calm and pleasant. This unfortunate had no such accessories; and his story proves the limitless ingenuity and invention of man, and portrays the works and achievements of a castaway, who, thrown ashore almost literally naked upon a desert isle, is able by the use of his brains, the skill of his hands, and a practical knowledge of the common arts and sciences, to far surpass the achievements of all his predecessors, and to surround himself with implements of power and science utterly beyond the reach of his prototype, who had his wreck as a reservoir from which to draw his munitions.
This sounded promising. While detailed how-tos and manuals can be crushingly boring, a good narrative can weave them in and be both educational 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.
A Memory of Light, 2013
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.
(scan) 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 an used copy as part of my interest in MUJI and William Gibson’s short essay “Shiny Balls of Mud”. Tsuzuki doesn’t specify when the photos were taken or how they were selected that I’ve found yet, but given the 1997 Japanese publication date and the most recent video game console I spotted being the SNES, it seems likely most of the photos postdate 1990 but predate December 1994 (the release of the very popular 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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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…
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, 2005
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? [Envoy] 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-2012
(56k words, 1-2h read) Popularizing overview of Luca Pacioli’s publication of double-entry bookkeeping, and some historical tracing of its subsequent spread through Europe and use in modern corporate-capitalism. As an active user of ledger for my personal finances, writer of the WP article on the Medici Bank, 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 Medici bank was structured as several affiliated partnerships which dissolved and reformed every year; and this was how the financial state was calculated, and new partners/employees brought on) though later Gleeson-White contrasts the yearly partnership form to the continuous joint-stock corporation form—apparently forgetting that she never really covered the original form.
This leads into the Industrial Revolution. A few examples of the moralizing of good accounting are provided, but not that much. (There seems to be a lot of fertile material in the Netherlands which got omitted, judging from Soll’s article “The vanished grandeur of accounting”.) An interesting example of the effect of double-entry is provided by the famed Wedgwood pottery factory, which was staggering under financial problems despite enormous success until Wedgwood got his books in order and figured out where all his money was going. I wish Gleeson-White had provided a dozen examples in that vein: how was double-entry used in real life? The first railway bubble provided the impetus for British wholesale adoption, but I wonder how double-entry related to the Gilded Age in America? Since accounting is subjective in some senses, it would have been interesting to dig into the details of some of the collapses briefly mentioned to see what went into the differing appraisals—for example, I am intrigued by the final line of this quote, but the thread is dropped without any further discussion:
In the 1920s the US construction business Kreuger 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, 2013
I’ve been a fan of the obscure webcomic Buttercup Festival since ~2005 when I discovered it and A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible (probably my 2 favorites were “Another Day” and the yeti) through Dinosaur Comics, and was pleased to see it restart in 2008.
It ended in 2013 with the announcement of a Kickstarter for his book Renaming of the Birds. I will be honest, I am not a big fan of Troupes’s realistic prose and poetry as compared to Buttercup Festival, An Island People Go To, or his unfinished Green Evening Stories—for the most part, they strike me as embodying the worst sins of English poetry in the 20th 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 Sharpies for his comics, and this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Plus, apparently I might get some books or something as well. I immediately subscribed and submitted my preferences:
Luckily, I spoke up quickly enough to get my first choice.
The Kickstarter succeeded and the printing of the book went through apparently without much issue, so I received my package in early January 2014.
The original of comic #120 turns out to be a sheet of stiffish paper about 29.2×20.3 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”  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”:
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.
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, 2012
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 near and dear to my own self-experimenting heart, so I had great expectations, and was disappointed to see that it boiled down to ‘get a CPAP for snoring’ and apparently using his brand-new Zeo less than week. Or on the topic of driving and walking helmets, whose net benefit I found myself uncertain of after reviewing some of the research literature, he brings them up but dismisses as impossible, not because they don’t seem worthwhile, but because they would be too embarrassing—Jacobs, seriously, are you a man or a mouse? (The only things he seems to really stick with is his treadmill desk—well, fair enough for a writer—and, weirdly given his terror of embarrassment, noise-canceling headphones. As if the photos of the headphones didn’t make him look like he was autistic…?) Some gaps just struck me as odd: why would a germaphobe look into squat toilets and wash his hands excessively, but omit any consideration of bidets which could remove most of the reason one would need to wash hands?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I reached the final chapter and was distinctly unimpressed what his two years of effort had wrought:
I went for my final exam at EHE and found out I’d lost another half pound, ending at 156.5 (total weight loss: 16 pounds). I’d gone down two belt sizes. Dr. Harry Fisch told me that my lipid panel numbers “are so good, they’ll give you a heart attack” (HDL: 48, LDL: 62). I more than halved my body fat percentage. I can now run a mile in less than seven minutes as opposed to not at all. I have a visible chest.
One might think that such results, while laudable, did not require 2 years and probably were entirely due his eating less and spending some time weightlifting and running.
The evaluation of research is also weak. Jacobs promises in the intro to draw as much on the Cochrane Collaboration as possible (fantastic!) but if he did so in the rest of the book, I must’ve missed it (boo, hiss). And while it’s a tired, sometimes overused truism in my parts of the Internet that ‘correlation is not causation’, Jacobs is one of the people for whom that dictum was meant.
Aside from the main storyline of the latest health fad, Jacobs counterpoints the slow death from old age 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 “Who By Very Slow Decay”.
So what’s good? Well, Jacobs is intermittently funny. He does go through a wide range of interventions, which is mildly interesting, and if nothing else, makes the point that there are a lot of hucksters and idiots and people fooled by randomness out there, and that there is no nostrum that will not put someone on cloud nine nor silver bullet so silly that it will not sooth someone’s sickness. For me, it functioned as reminders (the accident chapter reminded me that after a slip in my bathroom, I had meant to buy anti-slip pads, which I’ve put on my shopping list; his treadmill usage has inspired me to clean off my own treadmill desk and at least use it while watching movies or playing games; I had heard of the potential benefits of squat toilets but until reading the FAQ by the guy selling them I had not realized that it was possible to retrofit regular Western toilets to be squat toilets, so I may grab some cinder blocks 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, 2014
(2h; ~73k words) Journalistic account of Brian Krebs’s (Wikipedia, 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 Western darknet markets like Silk Road, and in the pharmacy affiliate networks which were one of the main routes for buying modafinil up until recently, so while Krebs doesn’t go into nearly as much detail as I would like, it’s still a fairly illuminating read. Few Westerners have as much experience with the area as he does, which makes it worth reading for anyone interested in this niche, and certainly it’s easier to read the book than try to piece together everything from his blog posts.
One downside is that the book comes off as a bit stream of consciousness and disorganized: there seems to be a rough chronological order, but not much of one; and a few diagrams of all the overlapping people and organizations (as well as a flowchart of the spam process) would probably be helpful. And I used the word ‘journalistic’ deliberately: Krebs’s writing is purple and sensationalistic. Something is not ‘terrifying’, it is ‘truly terrifying’; spammers are not a nuisance, but they become “potent threats”; in describing the fall of a small plurality source of spam (~20%, I believe he estimates), “consumers all over the world were enjoying a brief reprieve” from “the spam email empire”. His overheated