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Been reading, Q2 2017

‘Fall’ (2012) by Victoria Reichelt.
I can only really evaluate the truth of a book if it is on a topic I already know about. But books on topics I know about already are not nearly as worth reading as ones on new topics.

So, to maximise nonfiction, I need to know if a book is accurate before I read it. (Or, better, I need to know where exactly it is inaccurate.) This could be got using extremely detailed reviews by extremely involved experts - but they themselves would be wasting their time reading things they already know about. And reviews are generally too brief for this, even in academic journals or dedicated blogs; they gesture at one or two mistakes as a way of casting inductive aspersions on the whole. So what I really need is a wiki for errors and dishonesties, to spread out the Augean doings of journalists and average authors.


I don't read much fiction because I prefer reading people who know things. (That looks like a dreadful slander on novelists, but consider: the role knowledge plays in any work of fiction is proportionately much, much smaller than the role of knowledge in nonfiction, which lives and dies by its expressed knowledge. A novel doesn't need it much, and indeed they tend to have much less. This is true whether you select facts, laws, concepts or arguments as your unit.^ And of course great poets need know absolutely nothing new or arcane, to speak to us and change us.)

This hypothesis explains some of my favourites - Nabokov, Murdoch, Borges, Stross, DFW, and odd outliers like Le Carre. It implies that I should like historical fiction, but I don't yet.

^ Ideas - new combinations of things and concepts - are a bit different. Proust's novels really are a vehicle for his idealist idea of time, for instance, and that idea (which does not realy qualify as a theory) is much better described as cool idea than as knowledge or argument or whatever.

I haven't ruled on the relative proportion of ideas in fiction and nonfiction yet. (It's the kind of task I'd want to do with machine learning.) Except in scifi: what is scifi without ideas or knowledge?

1/5: Do not read.     4/5: Read with care.
2/5: Do not finish.     4*/5: Read agape.
3/5: Skim.     5/5: Read again
3*/5: Devour with a grin.    


  • Functional Programming Principles in Scala (2012), AKA "Progfun1" by Martin Odersky et al.

    The first online course I have liked. The lecturer is also the principal designer of the language, and is an awkward genius who tells you much more than you need to know. Scala is lovely: it is the kind of language that makes you want to write cleverer and cleaner code, and it is the most viable functional language in job terms. But this has lots of type theory and the crunchy pre-commericial / non-commercial kind of mathematical programming. Most of the assignments took me several hours, but the labour is more than worth it, especially since they are from the great MIT tradition: Huffman coding and so on. He thus salves my worry about not having been through full CS pedagogy. [Free! here]

  • Toast (1990 - 2000) by Charlie Stross.

    His first album, with all the glad rough edges and density of new ideas that implies. Bunch of short stories showing off his range and introducing themes. About half are very good, though the others are becoming very dated as the last twenty years of tech and tech hype overtake his speculations.

    In case you don't know, Stross is one of the greatest living genre writers, with heady subversions of the Lovecraftian, the Clancyan, the techno-optimist, and the Doctorovian. They are also silly and humane. His books sometimes receive symposia from eminent academics.

    Start with Accelerando though. [Free! here]


  • The Oxford Book of Essays (2008), ed. John Gross.

    I've been reading this slowly for 6 months; it is a belter. Gross has given me tender feelings for a hundred dead people, and what is one to do with those, except what I'm right now?

    Great essays share something. The essayists wouldn't all agree on anything, I'm sure. But there's something about their voices: personal, rational, intimate, concise, forceful. The essay is in the process of being superceded by the article and the blogpost, but we shouldn't judge those two forms by the dross we are all seeing from day to day; surely most essays were also petty and inelegant.

    Just one example: I bear quite a lot of ill-will toward Churchill; but his entry here is just incredibly beautiful; a hallucinatory conversation with his dead father, with junior struggling to bridge the violent gap the last two generations made in culture and history. I would not have believed him so self-aware:

    I also find myself nodding in agreement with the likes of Cardinal Newman and Makepeace Thackaray. I will again, too. I went and got Gross' Oxford collection of aphorisms, ready for the slow treatment.



  • Reread: Beast and Man (1992) by Mary Midgley.

    I have a bad habit when reading philosophy; I sometimes get deeply impressed by a book, so that it changes my view, but then forget that I ever thought otherwise. Midgley is so good I am prevented from this: I know I couldn't have come up with that.

    This is her engaging with evolutionary biology and ethology, as they speak to the old ancient questions. Enormous thoughts, all expressed with perfect wryness and tact. I get the same feeling of mental grinding from Midgley as I do from Wittgenstein or Anscombe - too dense with thought to skim - but Midgley is actually readable. Full review, anatomising the arguments, forthcoming.


  • The Czar's Madman (1978) by Jaan Kross.

    Pleasant, mostly fabricated historical novel about an obscure Estonian nobleman who sent his friend Czar Alexander a draft constitution which ended the absolute monarchy, and inherited titles, and removed the Czar from military command, and gave out universal education and the franchise, and who got what you'd expect in return. All the events come to us filtered through a ignoble narrator representing the standard 'enlightened' view of the time: sure the Romanovs are evil, but for God's sake don't say so.

    Lots to admire, in the slow, tense pace - nothing really happens in the present, it's all uncovered in letters - or in his handling of Timo's idealism/insanity. This prison scene made me laugh out loud, on the tube:
    'Timo - are you really sure it was the Czar?'
    "I wasn't sure at first. He was wearing a short black cloak with a hood covering his head. I couldn't open my eyes and look straight at him, because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Then I recognized him with certainty, in the light... he stepped back from my cot, and – just imagine this! – knelt down on the floor that was covered with rat droppings – I watched him through my eyelashes – and began to pray – two feet away from my ear! I could hear every word he whispered:

    '... I beseech Thee, Lord, make him see reason and make him apologize to his Sovereign for his unimaginable words — so that I might forgive him and become free of the burden it is to me to keep him im­prisoned...’ He closed his eyes and said, as if to himself: ‘But if Thou hast decided otherwise, I say like Thy son said to Thee at Gethsemane: Father, I pray to Thee — but let Thy will be done, not mine. ’ And then, Jakob — then he lowered his head and opened his eyes, and looked straight into mine...

    “Well. Two words was all we exchanged. He whispered:
    And I said, '

    “He covered his ears with his palms and ran out of the casemate, in rather an unimperial fashion. And I haven’t seen him since.” Timo cleared his throat and added, sounding somewhat self-deprecating: “At least not awake, that is...”
    I said, “Timo, this story — surely it was only a dream?”

    Timo had walked over to the far corner of the room where the shadows cast by the sconce mirrors combined to create near­ darkness. He stood there, almost invisible; even the glow of the pipe he was holding had gone out. Then he laughed and said:
    “Well — whatever you think best... ”
    But Kross is clumsy in inserting an enchanting peasant as Timo's wife; everyone who knows her is a complete Eeva fanboy, rhapsodising. But it's not clear why; she's brave and catty but otherwise pretty indistinct. There's definitely an undercurrent of promoting Estonian accomplishments here - not many of Timo and Eeva's grand and broad virtues are attested in the evidence, which makes them Mary and Marty Sue in Kross' fanfiction - but it strikes me that this is not just chauvinism, given Kross' context. Consider: an Estonian living under Russian totalitarianism writes about an Estonian speaking out against Russian totalitarianism.

    I resent Kross for the M. Night Shymalan ending, a bit, though it is possible that I should be resenting the narrator's fantasies of it instead.


  • Einstein (2007) by Walter Isaacson.

    Engrossing, surprising, and bringing it all home. The man could think, the man could write, the man could act, and with power and beauty. Full review here.



  • All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.

    Wonderful. About two boys who are not boys, mostly because they don't want to be. They are only 16 but already have the skill and stoicism which actually constitute adulthood, rather than mere age. It is also about law and morals and power and the chasms between these things. Also suddenly, bizarrely, about pre- and post-revolutionary Mexico.
    They were zacateros headed into the mountains to gather chino grass. If they were surprised to see Americans horseback in that country they gave no sign... They themselves were a rough lot, dressed half in rags, their hats marbled with grease and sweat, their boots mended with raw cowhide... They looked out over the terrain as if it were a problem to them. Something they'd not quite decided about.
    They pulled the wet saddles off the horses and hobbled them and walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they'd ever heard before... something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool.
    The country rolled away to the west through broken light and shadow and the distant summer storms a hundred miles downcountry to where the cordilleras rose and sank in the haze in a frail last shimmering restraint alike of the earth and the eye beholding it.
    Finally he said that among men there was no such communion as among horses and the notion that men can be understood at all was probably an illusion.

    I remain amazed by McCarthy's ability to use the most hollow and worn-out tropes - horse whispering, the stableboy and heredera, cowboys and varmints, injustice and redemption, the climactic shootout - and make them new, blasting through your cynicism with sheer force of prose. It's a dark book, but I laughed a lot, mostly at the boys' philosophising, which natural creasing I recognise from most boys I have known, educated or not.
    My daddy run off from home when he was fifteen. Otherwise I'd of been born in Alabama.
    You wouldn't of been born at all.
    What makes you say that?
    Cause your mama's from San Angelo and he never would of met her.
    He'd of met somebody.
    So would she.
    So you wouldn't of been born.
    I dont see why you say that. I'd of been born somewheres.
    Well why not?
    If your mama had a baby with her other husband and your daddy had one with his other wife which one would you be?
    I wouldn't be neither of em.
    That's right.

    Rawlins lay watching the stars. After a while he said: I could still be born. I might look different or somethin. If God wanted me to be born I'd be born.
    And if He didnt you wouldnt.
    You're makin my goddamn head hurt.
    I know it. I'm makin my own hurt.

    You ever get ill at ease? said Rawlins.
    About what?
    I dont know. About anything. Just ill at ease.
    Sometimes. If you're someplace you aint supposed to be I guess you'd be ill at ease. Should be anyways.
    Well suppose you were ill at ease and didnt know why. Would that mean that you might be someplace you wasnt supposed to be and didnt know it?
    You are disoriented when John goes home, to 1950s Texas; the rest of the novel operates with early nineteenth century logic and props. You wake up from a long nightmare into the modern dreamtime.


  • Hitler's Uranium Club (1996), ed. Jeremy Bernstein.

    A selection of surveillance transcripts from that time the Brits locked up pretty well all of the Nazi nuclear research program in a manor house wired up the wazoo for sound. Vital technical reconstruction and sarcasm supplied by the editor. Essential for anyone interested in inherently interesting things. Full review here.


  • Blitzed (2015) by Norman Ohler.

    Such an insultingly dumb plot - "the Nazis act as they do because they are all on crystal meth" - except it's nonfiction and quite plausible. The 70-hour assaults of Blitzkrieg in particular could not have happened without heavy stimulants. And Hitler becomes much more understandable when you learn of his ten year binge on injected pharmaceuticals.

    Juicy bits:
    [Around 1923] forty per cent of Berlin doctors were said to be addicted to morphine

    Telling propaganda: ‘[Hitler] mortifies his body in a way that would shock people like us! He doesn’t drink, he practically only eats vegetables, and he doesn’t touch women.’ Hitler allegedly didn’t even allow himself coffee and legend had it that after the First World War he threw his last pack of cigarettes into the Danube near Linz; from then onwards, supposedly, no poisons would enter his body.

    Telling propaganda: ‘For decades our people have been told by Marxists and Jews: “Your body belongs to you.” That was taken to mean that at social occasions between men, or between men and women, any quantities of alcohol could be enjoyed, even at the cost of the body’s health. Irreconcilable with this Jewish Marxist view is the Teutonic German idea that we are the bearers of the eternal legacy of our ancestors, and that accordingly our body belongs to the clan and the people.’

    Chocolates spiked with methamphetamine were even put on the market. A good 14 milligrams of methamphetamine was included in each individual choc – almost five times the amount in a [prescription] pill.
    Ohler argues that drugs have been overlooked as the (unsustainable) engine of the Nazi economic recovery, and of the alien intensity of the ideology, because people took Goebbels at his word about the Nazi drive for natural organic wellness and purity and so ignored this 'medicine' that millions of Germans were supplied by the state and IG. I don't know whether Ohler is making a revisionist stretch or not, but certainly Pervitin had a role.


  • At Last (2011) by Edward St Aubyn.

    As stylish but much less grim; almost bucolic in the last twenty pages. Found in a tube station library.


  • A Fire Upon the Deep (1993) by Vernor Vinge.

    Deeply satisfying space opera. I thought of The Fifth Element and the Culture throughout, it is as stylish as these while being more serious. Software permeates the book in a way it unforgiveably doesn't in most scifi. Vinge is a master of dramatic irony - the reader wriggles with knowledge of treachery for hundreds of pages. His cool, medieval dog aliens are less interesting to me than the space opera bit, but you have to admire the craft involved in them. The big bad is genuinely unnerving. An elevation of plotfests.


  • Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood (2017) by Luke Muehlhauser.

    Huge, literate, and thoughtful infodump on the most important topic that we know this little about. Indirectly, also an excellent argument for naturalised philosophy.
    For this investigation, I focused on just one commonly endorsed criterion for moral patienthood: phenomenal consciousness, a.k.a. “subjective experience.” I have not come to any strong conclusions about which (non-human) beings are conscious, but I think some beings are more likely to be conscious than others, and I make several suggestions for how we might make progress on the question.

    In the long run, to form well-grounded impressions about how much we should value grants aimed at (e.g.) chicken or fish welfare, we need to form initial impressions not just about which creatures are more and less likely to be conscious, but also about (a) other plausible criteria for moral patienthood besides consciousness, and also about (b) the question of “moral weight”. However, those two questions are beyond the scope of this initial report on consciousness. In the future I hope to build on the initial framework and findings of this report, and come to some initial impressions about other criteria for moral patienthood and about moral weight.
    Read if you want to take ethics seriously.


  • Leonardo's Mountain of Clams (1998) by Stephen Jay Gould

    Start by listing Gould's virtues: passionate about paleontology and paleontologists, contagiously curious about nature and obscure history, scrupulously fair to the religious and the pre-modern, animated by justice. For an academic, his prose is highly flavoursome and fun. He has a considered opinion about Darwin's handwriting and the meaning of baseball. One of his essay collections was very important to me as a teen, showing me that I could unify truth-seeking and justice-seeking, and with style.

    But this is all countermanded, because he is just not trustworthy on human topics, and neither on core evolutionary theory, I'm told. From his enormously influential, fallacious dismissal of intelligence research in general and Morton in particular, to his dishonest coup of public discourse over punctuated equilibrium (pushing the flashy and revolutionary version in literary magazines, retreating to minimal and uncontentious forms in the science journals who could actually evaluate it), he muddied the waters even as he brandished real literary talent and noble political intentions. This is unforgiveable: empirical clarity is too rare and precious to sacrifice so.

    Maynard Smith:

    Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists. All this would not matter, were it not that he is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory.


    Gould is the John Kenneth Galbraith of his subject. That is, he is a wonderful writer who is beloved by literary intellectuals and lionized by the media because he does not use algebra or difficult jargon. Unfortunately, it appears that he avoids these sins not because he has transcended his colleagues but because he does does not seem to understand what they have to say; and his own descriptions of what the field is about - not just the answers, but even the questions - are consistently misleading. His impressive literary and historical erudition makes his work seem profound to most readers, but informed readers eventually conclude that there's no there there.

    Tooby and Cosmides:
    We suggest that the best way to grasp the nature of Gould's writings is to recognize them as one of the most formidable bodies of fiction to be produced in recent American letters. Gould brilliantly works a number of literary devices to construct a fictional "Gould" as the protagonist of his essays and to construct a world of "evolutionary biology" every bit as imaginary and plausible as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Most of the elements of Gould's writing make no sense if they are interpreted as an honest attempt to communicate about science (e.g., why would he characterize so many researchers as saying the opposite of what they actually do) but come sharply into focus when understood as necessary components of a world constructed for the fictional "Gould" to have heroic fantasy adventures in...

    "Gould" the protagonist is a much loved character who reveals himself to be learned, subtle, open-minded, tolerant, funny, gracious to his opponents, a tireless adversary of cultural prejudice, able to swim upstream against popular opinion with unflinching moral courage, able to pierce the surface appearances that capture others, and indeed to be not only the most brilliant innovator in biology since Darwin, but more importantly to be the voice of humane reason against the forces of ignorance, passion, incuriousity, and injustice. The author Gould, not least because he labors to beguile his audience into confusing his fictional targets with actual people and fields, is sadly none of these things.

    Yet in the final analysis, there are genuine grounds for hope in the immense and enduring popularity of Gould. Gould is popular, we think, because readers see in "Gould" the embodiment of humane reason, the best aspirations of the scientific impulse. It is this "Gould" that we will continue to honor, and, who, indeed, would fight to bring the illumination that modern evolutionary science can offer into wider use.

    Here is a fictional leaf from Gould's ad hominem book, to give you a sense of what he does, at his worst:

    Gould is famed for the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which holds that adaption and speciation is not generally a slow, gradual process measurable in tens of thousands of year periods, but instead a rapid response to environmental shocks, measurable in hundred-year periods. The political bias of this theory is too blatant to ignore: as a Marxist, Gould requires that sustainable change be possible by revolution rather than by long accumulation (...)
    (For full effect I should now chide him for his genic panadaptationism.)

    Along with Lewontin and Rose, Gould mediated a huge contradiction in our culture: they allowed the C20th left to feel we were scientific, in our comfortable blank-slatism. That we had already incorporated the deep challenge of evolutionary biology - since these eminent men told us it had no human implications.

    Read Gould for fun and uplift, but take great care, for he cares about other things more than truth. (Read Midgley and Singer first if the politics scare you; they might stop you fleeing into Gould's dodgy arms.)

    From James.

    3/5. The Leonardo and Columbus esays are 4/5.

‘the big twitch’ (2008) by Victoria Reichelt