Skip to main content

Been reading, Q4 2017

Young Woman Reading (Ines) (1909) by Boccioni

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.    


  • The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975) and The Compass Rose (1982) by Ursula K LeGuin.

    Magnificent genre-breaking genre exemplification. She is to science fiction what the Elizabethans were to bawdy comedy. Aside from the two hippie stories, and the four fear-of-psychometrics stories, these will not age. Ranking of the stories here.


  • On the Origin of Species: Illustrated Edition (2008) by Charles Darwin, ed. David Quammen.

    Very beautiful. Filled with sketches, portraits, maps and suggestive remarks from the diaries. Particularly good if, like me, you've struggled with the plaintext. Keys:
    Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection.

    Looking not to any one time, but to all time, if my theory be true, numberless intermediate varieties, linking most closely all the species of the same group together, must assuredly have existed; but the very process of natural selection constantly tends, as has been so often remarked, to exterminate the parent forms and the intermediate links. Consequently evidence of their former existence could be found only amongst fossil remains

    There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
    (That last sentence had "by the Creator" tacked on in the second edition.)
    You would never guess the prose was written in a rush: possibly because the arguments were formed at the slowest possible rate.


  • Thrilling Cities (1957) by Ian Fleming.

    Before he was very famous, he got paid to go round the world and recommend hotels and restaurants. But being Fleming, he threw in lots of cynical and lascivious detail. And the travel-guide parts have passed right through "uselessly dated" and come back round to "interesting as history".

    As you expect, his cruelty is blunt and monotone, spanning the nations and races. But he is strangely aware of this.
    India has always depressed me. I can't bear the universal dirt and squalor and the impression, false I am sure, that everyone is doing no work except living off his neighbour. And I am desolated by the outward manifestations of the two great Indian religions.

    Ignorant, narrow-minded, bigoted? Of course I am.

    So that was that. I had gone round the world in thirty days, and all I had to show for the journey was a handful of pretty light-weight impressions and some superficial and occasionally disrespectful comment. Had I then, have I today, no more serious message for Britain from the great world outside?

    Well, I have, but it is only a brief and rather dull exhortation to our young to 'Go East, young man!' See the Pacific Ocean and die!

    What is so pleasant is that, combined with the delicious, always new sights and smells of 'abroad', there is a sense of achievement, of a task completed, when each target is reached without accident, on time and with the car still running sweetly. There is the illusion that one has done a hard and meritorious day's work (few women understand this—perhaps, poor beasts, because they have been only passengers).
    Shallow, witty, diverting. If this is a man.


  • Soonish: 10 Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve And/Or Ruin Everything (2017) by the Weinersmiths.

    Excellent, sceptical look at near-future tech, their enormous potential and risk. The technologies are: new ways of getting to space, asteroid mining, fusion power, programmable matter, robotic construction, brain-computer interfaces, synthetic biology, and bioprinting. They tend to be bearish about these technologies, because their default (i.e. unregulated) effects could be really dreadful. (Excepting robo-construction and organ printing because these are much less dangerous and dodgy than the existing hacks.) My favourite bit is the paean to Alvin Roth's organ-swap algorithm, which is a magnificent way of circumventing human squeamishness.

    Lots of direct quotation from the unprepossessing scientists doing all this, <3. There are also lots of addenda of the following sort:
    The story of Gerald Bull goes like this. You have a brilliant engineer who's especially good at ballistics at an early age, who had a brilliant career early on where he got funding from Canada and the US to work on these ballistics programs. Then basically the funding dried up. So he kind of did whatever it took to be able to keep working in this area, which led him to do work in weapons dealing, including dealing with then apartheid South Africa. And things basically unraveled from there, resulting in his humiliation and depression and alcoholism.

    Then much later in life he began working for Saddam Hussein, building, for reasons that are not well understood, a giant gun. To be clear, it was probably not useful as a weapon. It was not going to be moveable, it was not pointing at an enemy city: it was pointing as the Earth turns, which is what you'd want to do if you were shooting into space. Then, shortly after that, in the early ‘90s he ended up in a Brussels hotel with a bullet in his head and $20,000 on his body, and nobody is sure who killed him. I believe his son suspected Mossad, but no one as far as I can find has come forward to say here's who did it.
    Suitable for all ages, knob jokes aside. (There's a segue joke at the end of every block, and they are uniformly a bit forced.) The illustrations actually don't add anything, even though I love SMBC.



  • Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992) by James Gleick.

    Engrossing and detailed. Feynman is different from other first-rank minds: he values clarity and humour above all.

    A slightly hazardous role model though: his sheer speed, creativity, and high standards, which justify his arrogance and deviance, cannot be emulated by ordinary people; his mantra - "disregard [what other people are doing]" - is similarly high-risk; and his pickup-artistry after Arline died is at least icky. But the big accessible hazard is his thrilling science-supremacism. Gleick:
    Feynman told them [his self-spun legend]: how he became known in Far Rockaway as the boy who fixed radios by thinking; how he asked a Princeton librarian for the map of the cat; how his father taught him to see through the tricks of circus mind readers; how he outwitted painters, mathematicians, philosophers, and psychiatrists.
    For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
    His cheeky scientism will make unread teenagers insufferable at parties. More seriously, it could return our scientists to unreflective, uninspired positivism. But his anti-authoritarianism, his anti-pretension, his honest and sweeping scepticism, his existential peace, more than compensate. Filtering out the above, his life is an enormously fruitful applied epistemology.

    It is shocking, to anyone who knows the modern salami-slicing academic world, to hear how many breakthroughs he didn't publish, just out of high standards:
    A great physicist who accumulated knowledge without taking the trouble to publish could be a genuine danger to his colleagues. At best it was unnerving to learn that one’s potentially career-advancing discovery had been, to Feynman, below the threshold of publishability. At worst it undermined one’s confidence in the landscape of the known and not known.
    And how he resisted emeritus disease to the end. Hawking: “We may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature,”. Feynman:
    I’ve had a lifetime of that. I’ve had a lifetime of people who believe that the answer is just around the corner. But again and again it’s been a failure. Eddington, who thought that with the theory of electrons and quantum mechanics everything was going to be simple... Einstein, who thought that he had a unified theory just around the corner but didn’t know anything about nuclei and was unable of course to guess it... People think they’re very close to the answer, but I don’t think so...

      Whether or not nature has an ultimate, simple, unified, beautiful form is an open question, and I don’t want to say either way.
    Feynman's ideas are still completely modern. He'll be modern for a long time to come, too: as the main theorist of the path integral formulation of QM, the first theorist of nanotechnology and quantum computing, as storyteller, as a complete master of applied epistemology for humans.


  • Inadequate Equilibria (2017) by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

    Probably his best work. An attempt to reconcile individual reason with expert consensus when they conflict, and to diagnose when local evidence can trump the general rule. A clear qualitative account of economic reasoning, as applied to intellectual ambition, and from there to scientific discovery, business innovation, all life. The message is "be braver".

    (An important subtext though: "be braver, if you are the kind of person who reads books on epistemology and economics for fun".) His previous zaniness has settled down, emotional power increased, tone moderated.

    4*/5. [Free! here]

  • Reread: Consider Phlebas (1984) and Excession (1996) by Iain M Banks.

    Re-reading inspired by this humdinger essay by dear Joseph Heath. (Enough to make one think there's something to social theory, like I used to.) Here are some heavy derivative notes.

    Phlebas has his weakest prose and his strongest theory: a serious critique of liberal hegemony / materialist consequentialism which still comes out in favour of liberal hegemony.

    Excession is my favourite because it has the most Minds, who are the real Culture. The four levels of conspiracy of its plot is also just too much to process without making diagrams, which narrative opacity is fitting and enjoyable here.

    Genar-Hofoen's arc is also excellent, sad. After decades of immaturity, and real love, at the climax he chooses blokish abandon over enlightened . You do you.

    4/5, 4/5., but note I keep returning to the series, 5/5. This is maybe my fifth visit.

  • (Note the signal allusions in the titles: above, LeGuin using Housman, and Banks using Eliot to set out their Distinctive Seriousness from the get-go.)

  • Deep Learning (2016) by Ian Goodfellow, Yoshua Bengio, and Aaron Courville.

    The clearest statement yet of how these things actually work, and, what's more, a rare overview of where they don't work, what we could do next.

    4/5. [Free! here]

  • Reread: Antifragile (2014) by Nassim N Taleb.

    Still messy, still speculative, still a thrill.


  • CLOSURE (2010) by _why.

    Wilfully glitchy, difficult, intense handwritten sketches about unspecifiable loss, faltering ambition, unchecked and uncaught exceptions. Why he doesn't program any more. Along with Gwern and Perlis, _why is one of our developer-artists. Art about code.

    (A closure is a neat piece of code that can remember what has happened, knows what's going on outside, beyond what the code explicitly mentions.)

    A unique voice. That is a banal thing to say, but it is true here as I suspect it is not elsewhere. We get dead-format nostalgia, memery, a handwritten stretch of Ruby, and reflections on feeling inferior to Franz Kafka, of all people.
    Can anyone that has had a blog be called private? (Where are all the introverts these days? Technology has upgraded introverts into - soft extroverts I guess.)
    Full review here.

    4/5 iff you care already. [Free! here]

  • Behave (2017) by Robert Sapolsky.

    An ingenious structure: starting with a piece of behaviour, work backwards through the many scales that caused it: from the nerve bundles that enable the muscle motion, through the brain processing that ordered those, through that morning's hormonal predisposing, foetal genetic construction, all the way to the ancestral environment.

    Sapolsky is engagingly cranky about various things: traditional misogynies, war. He uses the neologism "pseudospeciation" (i.e. the dehumanising kind of racism) about 50 times. In some places he is thrillingly unimpressed:
    Jane Goodall blew everyone's socks off by reporting the now-iconic fact that chimps make tools... Most cultural anthropologists weren't thrilled by Goodall's revolution, and now emphasise definitions that cut chimps and other hoi polloi out of the party. There's a fondness for the thinking of Alfred Kroeber, Clyde Kluckhohn, and Clifford Geertz, three heavyweights who focused on how culture is about ideas and symbols, rather than the mere behaviours in which they instantiate, or material products like flint blades or iPhones... Basically, I don't want to go anywhere near these debates. For our purposes we'll rely on an intuitive definition of culture emphasised by Frans de Waal: culture is how we do and think about things.
    But he's way too credulous about social science. For instance, I recommend skipping the last half of chapter 3, on social psychology, entirely. In the space of two pages (p90-1) he cites power pose, facial feedback, ego depletion, and himmicanes; all as exciting, uncontroversial fact. This is a clean sweep of recent studies that are well-known to be p-hacked, low-power and spurious.

    He also endorses the results of Implicit Association and stereotype threat tests far too strongly. I don't know enough about neuroscience or endocrinology or ethology to make a similar recommendation for the other chapters. But the "Gell-Mann amnesia" effect sadly suggests that we should (partially) discount everything else in here, primates aside; evidence of credulity in one domain is evidence for others.

    (Best case, he just didn't keep up with the latest research dramas. Though some, like the litter -> theft link or the Macbeth effect, have been comprehensively criticised for 8+ years now.)

    (He also takes anthropologists at their qualitative, cherry-picking word when they try to maintain their academic boundary against Pinker's work on violence.)

    Still worth it for his first-hand stories - him watching Somali oil workers conduct ritual argument, him watching a troop of baboons spread a culture, a pocket of pacifism and gender sanity in the psychotic roundabout of nature.

    3/5. Minus 1 point because his empirical judgments are unreliable. : (


  • Back in the USSR (2017) by José Luis Ricón Fernández de la Puente.

    I was a radical teen, so I can't help a twinge of umbrage when I see anything by the Adam Smith Institute. But they put out good stuff, alongside Butler and Pirie's swill.

    3/5.. [Free here. Disclaimer: I know the author.]

  • And the Weak Suffer What they Must? (2015) by Yanis Varoufakis.

    Much better than I thought it'd be! Literary, clear, almost bipartisan. As a former socialist finance minister, he has a healthy blend of actual economic knowledge and smouldering will to improve an irrational status quo. (He uses "irrational" far more than the usual pejoratives of the left, "greedy" or "exploitative" or "racist" or "neoliberal".)

    He makes lots of literary allusions and shares personal tales of fascist Greece. These make the deadly dull business of postwar European monetary politics readable. He talks about the duty of surplus nations to stabilize the world system, which is true and good but unworkable. He has a remarkable admiration for American institutions and figures - not just the New Dealers, but also, in a way, for Volcker and Geithner - while also pointing out astutely. Full marks for tone, basically.

    A good writer, with only a couple of wrongfooted sentences. Potted history of post-war international macroeconomics. His policies do not much resemble socialism: the same neoliberal institutions. He's just someone who cares about the vulnerable. As much as socialists would like to think that's the definition of socialism, it isn't.. America (Harry White, Volcker) had a chance to stabilise the world, but instead grabbed national interest at the expense of others. Then - according to Varoufakis - they grabbed hegemony at the expense of their own, which is even more depressing. His current-account focussed theory is a bit narrow. There is already a eurozone surplus recycling mechanism.

    His 2015 Greek policy platform continues to look better than the current blind bailout plus permadeflation non-solution: Greece should have defaulted. His (and Holland's) recommendations are all very sensible.

    Despite being short, it is really repetitive; I skimmed chapters 4-6 heavily. It is also disappointingly short on private gossip about the dark back-corridors of Brussels; he saved that for the next book.


  • Gilliamesque (2015) by Terry Gilliam.

    Surprisingly bland, sturdy. No drugs, for instance. But actually this is well and good - a stable life being very helpful in the production of the wild and new.

    Lots and lots of name-dropping, which I feel is included for our benefit rather than his; "ah, yes, recognise that one, ok".

    He endorses something that I, a sheltered western European, have previously felt about America, but which I assumed was a ridiculous exaggeration:
    Disembarking in Southampton, I remember... feeling, for the first time in my life, totally safe - safe from people who might want to hit me, or do things to hurt me...

    one of the weird things about America is the feeling you get there that if someone doesn't approve of you, there's a good chance they're going to pop you one. It's probably just that go-getter American attitude which dictates that guys who don't like you feel they have to do something about it... I've to ascribe it to the fact that people in England seem to have a much better sense of personal space... They don't feel entitled to invade your territory the way Americans do - perhaps they just scratched that itch with the whole British Empire thing.
    I was intrigued to learn that Brando was a compulsive consequentialist:
    I said the only way to get [Brando] was to... tell him we'd pay him $2 million, but only if we could give the money direct to the American Indians. I think we would've got him that way, because his own moral scheme would have left him no option but to accept.
    The first thing about him I like. Here is one real hallucination:
    ...people will often be telling me that my producer is a bit of an operator, and my reply to them is generally "Well, that may very well be true, but I'm only interested in one thing, and that's getting the film done - whether or not I get screwed in the process"... we got two films made together, and no amount of documentaries about his pivotal role in the Israeli nuclear weapons programme can change that.
    3/5.. Skip to chapter 7 in fact.

  • In the Basement of the Ivory Tower (2008) by Anonymous.

    Encounters with unlucky Americans and the system that thieves money and part of their lives. The human cost of credential inflation and hegemonic education.
    our society views college not as a consumer product at all, but as both a surefire, can’t-lose financial investment and, even more crucial than that, a moral imperative.
    45% of the 20 million annual enrolments do not finish the course. A lot of this is due to ability deficit (measured by remedial class enrollment), besides obvious financial constraints. Because of the sheepskin effect - part of a degree is not worth much to the job market - and the low social return on completed education, this means billions of dollars, and millions of years of life wasted. Not to mention the unnecessary stress and humiliation of pushing people into it.

    This book is just a minor autobiographical expansion of this essay; you should read Caplan instead.

    One thing I got from the expanded version: I'd forgotten the grinding quietism that a lot of arts people have.
    I’m not willing to say that my intellectual pursuits have done me the smallest bit of good; in truth, they may have done little more than fill me with unrealistic ambition, impoverish me, and needlessly clutter my thinking.
    This is another unfair advantage of STEM: it is hard for depressive people there to think that they've only learned illusory or useless things. Knowledge, especially the creation or sintering-together of new knowledge, is the most stable coin of meaning.

    3*/5. [Original essay 4/5.]

  • Enlightenment 2.0 (2014) by Joseph Heath.

    Heath has been improving my understanding of the world for most of my life; I read The Rebel Sell when I was 14, to great effect, and Filthy Lucre when I was 20; it was the most important information I absorbed in three years of university economics.

    This looks like an entry in the anti-fake-news / post-post-truth / Putin-Trump politics / pop epistemology genre. But note the date; Heath has been thinking about this for longer, and it has no mayfly sensationalism. It is instead an empirically literate response to the dark and shrugging meta-ethics found in e.g. Haidt and Brooks.
    The problem with the Occupy movement was not that it lacked good slogans. The difference between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement is that the Tea Party’s slogans were also its policies, and so the Tea Party had an easier time motivating its followers to get involved in the political process in order to make very specific demands of their representatives. The problem with Occupy is it they never got beyond slogans—and not for want of trying. It’s because the type of changes its participants wanted were intrinsically more complicated, more controversial, and could not so easily be derived from its slogans...

    If the mental environment is dominated by propaganda, it is not obvious that producing counterpropaganda will improve things in any significant way, just as when someone is yelling, yelling back at him may not be a useful way to respond — it may just increase the noise level... We may need to change... so that a more dispassionate, informed, civilized debate can take place. The only problem is, we seem to have no idea how to do this.
    For a flavour of what Heath can do, read this piece on the ultimate end of liberalism. (To delete that awful background, right-click, "Inspect Element", and delete "custom-background" from the body tag's class string.)


  • Kitchen Confidential (2000) by Anthony Bourdain.

    Lots to dislike but I like it. The prose is just a voiceover: short sentences, newline punchlines, chatty laddish bluster. You wouldn't want to spend time with young Bourdain; too edgy, too miserable, too addled. At no point does he disown his wild years, but this is written as a different, charming, distant man. I suppose this made him a star because honesty and filth are rare in high cuisine, or in the received notion of high cuisine. He refers to himself as a "cook" throughout (or even "cookie"), endearingly.

    Anyone else playing at being a junkie cuisinier, sexual tyrannosaurus, smash-hit author, primetime travel host, and, most recently, jiujitsu japer would surely be risible. But his enthusiasm is convincing.

    It may well be that Bourdain was a 6/10 chef; I can tell you he's a 6/10 writer. But domains multiply when they intersect.

    3*/5 but I liked his shows already.

  • Feynman's Rainbow (2003) by Leonard Mlodinow.

    A masked autobiography, which masking I resented. About 180pp of anxious stories about LM, and Caltech local colour; about 20pp of original, direct quotation from RP. but even these are not so distinctive.

    Feynman's work and worldview are fantastic and nourishing, but get it from him. (Funny line from a blurb in the front of this book: "physics, that seemingly grey subculture".)

    2/5 for anyone who knows about RP already.

Woman Reading (1909) by Boccioni