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Been reading, Q1 2017

(c) Woman Reading (1970) by Wil Barnet

(c) The Times, 1849

I have never focussed on any thing for very long. In 2008 I took advantage of my government's inefficient good graces to study philosophy, thinking myself serious. In 2010 I started a blog, thinking myself serious. In 2012 I started reviewing everything I read, thinking myself serious. In 2014 I learned to code, and thought myself very serious. In 2016 I got myself a good, hard job and continue to think myself serious. But my job involves induction.


  • Sex by Numbers (2015) by David Spiegelhalter.

    Very fun, but with a serious scientific mission. The expected titillating facts are of course present (how many people have tried anal? How many people are gay? What's typical?) but there's also an intro to the many difficulties of social science, and a history of sexology in here. You learn why you should admire but not trust Ellis, Hirschfeld, Kinsey, Masters & Johnson, Hite... Something for everyone.


  • Evolving Ourselves (2015) by Steve Gullans and Juan Enriquez.

    Broad-minded venture capitalists seek to update Darwinism in light of new human capabilities. 100 tiny chapters on some facet of modern genetics and modern genomes and epigenomes and microbiomes... Topics are incredibly varied and excited, but it's sugary.


  • Chaos (1989) by James Gleick.

    Romantic, dramatic, and constructive pop science: the physics, meteorology and maths in this was famed but not well-explained before this came out. The theme of the very different results presented here is unprecedented successes in recognising and explaining nonlinear systems. Very human: every researcher is profiled sensitively, generally as an outsider challenging the stuffy, desk-bound precepts of 'linear science'. Since ornery, heroic Mandelbrot is included here, you get an exciting ride even if you don't like maths or science or the world or the underlying generative process of all instances of beauty.

    "Chaos" is a bad name for the field: it implies randomness, indeterminism, intractability. Better to question why "order" can only refer to equilibrium or periodic patterns - why it is we think of order as boring. "Deterministic disorder" is more honest - and better yet is Lao-Bin's "order without periodicity".

    Also, the diagrams are poor by contemporary standards: I had to stare at them for a while before grokking the concept of them.

    Borne on what must have felt like an epochal wave, Gleick overreaches. He calls Smale and Mandelbrot "the end of the reductionist program in science". How is seeking and finding a precise (nonlinear) equation - which is the case in the work of all these men - for a system holist!? I don't actually know if the maths in here has changed everything: maybe it has, and they suffer from the Seinfeld effect for dynamical systems, seeming obvious after the fact. But I do know that the Santa Fe strain of work is more of a tolerated eccentric uncle than a science-upending behemoth.


  • Age of Em (2016) by Robin Hanson.

    Believe me that it's remarkable; it is easily in the top 5 most insightful books out of the 400 I have reviewed here. Last year I called Superintelligence the most rigorous exploration of the nonreal I had ever read: this beats it by a lot. You will find yourself reading pages on the properties of coolant pipes and be utterly engrossed. It is imaginary sociology, imaginary economics, real fiction. But Age of Em lacks an ethnography entirely: no em speaks to us themselves.

    People tend to wrap Age of Em in ulterior motives and esoteric intentions, because they love it but see futurism as an unworthy goal for such an achievement. I am no different: this is the greatest compendium of real social science I have ever found.

    No review can do much justice, but here's one particularly hair-raising point in it: Hanson surveys the whole course of human history, and notes the many ways our culture is unprecedented and, in the evolutionary sense, nonadaptive:
    we live in the brief but important “dreamtime” when delusions [drive] history. Our descendants will remember our era as the one where the human capacity to sincerely believe crazy non-adaptive things, and act on those beliefs, was dialed to the max.

    Why is our era so delusory?
    1. Our knowledge has been growing so fast, and bringing such radical changes, that many of us see anything as possible, so that nothing can really be labeled delusion.
    2. Rich folks like us have larger buffers of wealth to cushion our mistakes; we can live happily and long even while acting on crazy beliefs.
    3. We humans evolved to signal various features of ourselves to one another via delusions; we usually think that the various things we do to signal are done for other reasons. For example, we think we pay for docs to help our loved ones get well, rather than to show that we care. We think we do politics because we want to help our nation, rather than to signal our character and loyalty. We are overconfident in our abilities in order to convince others to have confidence in us, and so on. But while our ancestors’ delusions were well adapted to their situations, and so didn’t hurt them much, the same delusions are not nearly as adapted to our rapidly changing world; our signaling induced delusions hurt us more.
    4. Humans seem to have evolved to emphasize signaling more in good times than in bad. Since very few physical investments last very long, the main investments one can make in good times that last until bad times are allies and reputation. So we are built to, in good times, spend more time and energy on leisure, medicine, charity, morals, patriotism, and so on. Relative to our ancestors’ world, our whole era is one big very good time.
    5. Our minds were built with a near mode designed more for practical concrete reasoning about things up close, and a far mode designed more for presenting a good image to others via our abstract reasoning about things far away. But our minds must now deal with a much larger world where many relevant things are much further away, and abstract reasoning is more useful. So we rely more than did our ancestors on that abstract far mode capability. But since that far mode was tuned more for presenting a good image, it is much more tolerant of good-looking delusions.
    6. Tech now enables more exposure to mood-altering drugs and arts, and specialists make them into especially potent “super-stimuli.”... today drugs are cheap, we can hear music all the time, most surfaces are covered by art, and we spend much of our day with stories from TV, video games, etc. And all that art is made by organized groups of specialists far better than the typical ancestral artist.
    7. We were built to be influenced by the rhetoric, eloquence, difficulty, drama, and repetition of arguments, not just their logic. Perhaps this once helped us to ally us with high status folks. And we were built to show our ideals via the stories we like, and also to like well-crafted stories. But today we are exposed to arguments and stories by folks far more expert than found in ancestral tribes. Since we are built to be quite awed and persuaded by such displays, our beliefs and ideals are highly influenced by our writers and story-tellers. And these folks in turn tell us what we want to hear, or what their patrons want us to hear, neither of which need have much to do with reality.

    These factors combine to make our era the most consistently and consequentially deluded and unadaptive of any era ever. When they remember us, our distant descendants will be shake their heads at the demographic transition, where we each took far less than full advantage of the reproductive opportunities our wealth offered. They will note how we instead spent our wealth to buy products we saw in ads that talked mostly about the sort of folks who buy them. They will lament our obsession with super-stimuli that highjacked our evolved heuristics to give us taste without nutrition. They will note we spent vast sums on things that didn’t actually help on the margin, such as on medicine that didn’t make us healthier, or education that didn’t make us more productive.

    Our descendants will also remember our adolescent and extreme mating patterns, our extreme gender personalities, and our unprecedentedly fierce warriors. They will be amazed at the strange religious, political, and social beliefs we acted on, and how we preferred a political system, democracy, designed to emphasize the hardly-considered fleeting delusory thoughts of the median voter rather than the considered opinions of our best experts.

    Perhaps most important, our descendants may remember how history hung by a precarious thread on a few crucial coordination choices that our highly integrated rapidly changing world did or might have allowed us to achieve, and the strange delusions that influenced such choices. These choices might have been about global warming, rampaging robots, nuclear weapons, bioterror, etc. Our delusions may have led us to do something quite wonderful, or quite horrible, that permanently changed the options available to our descendants. This would be the most lasting legacy of this, our explosively growing dream time, when what was once adaptive behavior with mostly harmless delusions become strange and dreamy unadaptive behavior, before adaptation again reasserted a clear-headed relation between behavior and reality.

    Our dreamtime will be a time of legend, a favorite setting for grand fiction, when low-delusion heroes and the strange rich clowns around them could most plausibly have changed the course of history. Perhaps most dramatic will be tragedies about dreamtime advocates who could foresee and were horrified by the coming slow stable adaptive eons, and tried passionately, but unsuccessfully, to prevent them.

    It's easy to read a radical critique of our liberal values in there, but I believe him when he says that he doesn't dislike dreamtime; he just predicts it cannot last, because we are fighting an old and inexorable tide.

    There are several thoughts this large, and a thousand other small insights in Age of Em.


  • The King James Bible, Genesis (1611) by the First Westminster Company.

    Doing a chapter a day. (I only realised afterward that this is 3 years' labour.) Prose really is uniformly good, fresh - even bearing the weight of all the bizarre convolutions in the mind of the original authors ("in his kind, and in his kind and in his kind").


  • 80,000 Hours
    (2016) by Benjamin Todd et al.

    Collation of results from a very grand project: to channel young careerist thousands into better tasks in higher gear. If you have the will to do well you should read the website, and think through the planning exercise here. Unlike everything else I've read about career development, since it talks about work and success without being nauseating bullshit.

    4*/5 for anyone under 40.
    [Same material free here]


  • Humanity's Burden: A Global History of Malaria (2008) by Webb.

    Worthy, thoughtful, and on one of the most important topics in the history of the world. Didn't know that malaria was one of the many curses of the Columbian Exchange: it wasn't even on the continent before us. It was, however, prevalent in the marshes of Essex. Not useful per se, but it gives you a sense of the size and ancestry of the beast we are hunting.


  • (One of the most hideous book covers I've seen btw.)

  • The Quest For Artificial Intelligence (2010) by Nils Nilsson.

    A sweet informal history of AI research from a Stanford doyen. In places it is oral history -
    ...Jack was the Director of DARPA from 1987 to 1989 and presided over some cutbacks in AI research (including the cancellation of one of my own research projects)
    Like any history, the history of computing is full of little myths - e.g. that Lovelace was the first programmer, that von Neumann originated stored-program memory, that ENIAC was the first true computer, that hardware and software is a clean and natural division in kind... Nilsson calmly lets out the air of these and more.

    [Free here]

  • Reread: The Gigantic Beard that was Evil (2010) by Stephen Collins.

    Gorgeous, but not as deep as I felt last time.



  • Out of Sheer Rage: in the Shadow of DH Lawrence (1997) by Geoff Dyer.

    A book about an unwritten book about a writer I don't like much. And it's amazing! Not a study of Lawrence, a study of trying to write when you lack an iron will. So also a study of all work, so a study of the hard generation of value, and so, despite appearances, a study of what matters.

    The prose is circuitous, cantatory, shaggy-dog, but never dull:
    Oxford! Now if there is one place on earth where you cannot, where it is physically impossible to write a book about Lawrence it is here, in Oxford. You could write a book about plenty of writers in Oxford: Hardy, or Joyce even — people are probably doing just that, even now, dozens of them — but not Lawrence. If there is one person you cannot write a book about here, in Oxford, it is Lawrence. So I have made doubly sure that there is no chance of my finishing my study of Lawrence: he is the one person you cannot write about here, in Oxford; and Oxford is the one place where you cannot write about Lawrence.

    When I say you can’t possibly write a book about Lawrence in Oxford that is not to be taken too literally. At this moment, within a few miles of my flat, dozens of people are probably writing books about Lawrence. That tapping I can hear through my open window is probably someone writing a book or a thesis or preparing a lecture, or, at the very least, doing an essay on D. H. Lawrence. It can be done. It can be done — but it can’t be done, it shouldn’t be done. You can’t write a half-decent book about Lawrence in Oxford, can’t write any kind of book about Lawrence without betraying him totally. By doing so you immediately disqualify yourself, render yourself ineligible. It is like spitting on his grave.
    For a while I amused myself by seeing how many consecutive sentences used the same phrase, in a running stitch motif. He is playing a character, but like Rob Brydon does: only slightly heightened.

    One long stream of scenes, unthemed, unbracketed. He is the critic I would have hoped to be: sceptical of the novel, sceptical of the spiritual pretensions of artists, sceptical of children, sceptical of travel and sceptical of home, sceptical of self. He is free to admit his boredom and his joy, unlike the academic critics he often erupts against. Here is the key passage (not that you can trust him to cleave to it twenty years or minutes on):
    Hearing that I was ‘working on Lawrence’, an acquaintance lent me a book he thought I might find interesting: A Longman Critical Reader on Lawrence, edited by Peter Widdowson. I glanced at the contents page: old Eagleton was there, of course, together with some other state-of-the-fart theorists: Lydia Blanchard on ‘Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality’ (in the section on ‘Gender, Sexuality, Feminism’), Daniel J. Schneider on ‘Alternatives to Logocentrism in D. H. Lawrence’ (in the section featuring ‘Post-Structuralist Turns’). I could feel myself getting angry and then I flicked through the introductory essay on ‘Radical Indeterminacy: a post-modern Lawrence’ and became angrier still. How could it have happened? How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? I should have stopped there, should have avoided looking at any more, but I didn’t because telling myself to stop always has the effect of urging me on. Instead, I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off. Oh, it was too much, it was too stupid. I threw the book across the room and then I tried to tear it up but it was too resilient. By now I was blazing mad...

    I burned it in self-defence. It was the book or me - writing like that kills everything it touches. That is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches. Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch. I recently met an academic who said that he taught German literature. I was aghast: to think, this man who had been in universities all his life was teaching Rilke.
    Rilke! Oh, it was too much to bear. You don’t teach Rilke, I wanted to say, you kill Rilke! You turn him to dust and then you go off to conferences where dozens of other academic-morticians gather with the express intention of killing Rilke and turning him to dust. Then, as part of the cover-up, the conference papers are published, the dust is embalmed and before you know it literature is a vast graveyard of dust, a dustyard of graves. I was beside myself with indignation. I wanted to maim and harm this polite, well-meaning academic who, for all I knew, was a brilliant teacher who had turned on generations of students to the Duino Elegies. Still, I thought to myself the following morning when I had calmed down, the general point stands: how can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?

    Now, criticism is an integral part of the literary tradition and academics can sometimes write excellent works of criticism but these are exceptions - the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of books by academics, especially books like that
    Longman Reader are a crime against literature.
    The final passage hits you over the head with what you have certainly already worked out, but it is still very powerful. Dyer is inspiring, pure nevertheless:
    One way or another we all have to write our studies of D. H. Lawrence. Even if they will never be published, even if we will never complete them, even if all we are left with after years and years of effort is an unfinished, unfinishable record of how we failed to live up to our own earlier ambitions, still we all have to try to make some progress with our books about D. H. Lawrence. The world over, from Taos to Taormina, from the places we have visited to countries we will never set foot in, the best we can do is to try to make some progress with our studies of D. H. Lawrence.
    4*/5. (Once only.)

  • Stories of Your Life (2002) by Ted Chiang.

    Astoundingly good; he is our Borges. The stories are miscellaneous, but all bear the weight of one core theme - that rationalism, materialism is not the enemy of humanism, but is much more able to accommodate us, our highest values, than is romantic supernaturalism.

    So he's an artistically successful Yudkowsky; Chiang's own presumable nerdiness disappears in his powerful but austere prose, even when characters are expounding the principle of least action or the details of ancient masonry.

    'Story of Your Life' is so much more interesting, emotionally and scientifically, than the Arrival film it was made into. 'Tower of Babylon' is rousing minutiae. 'Hell is the Absence of God' takes the tired, speculative, stupid themes of the Abrahamic conversation - faith, will, love, persistence, atheism - and wrings out a new chord from them. Ah!