• The God that Failed by Crossman, Richard

  • Poems of the Late T'ang by Graham, A.C.

  • Brewer's Rogues, Villains & Eccentrics by Donaldson, William

  • Tell Me No Lies by Pilger, John

  • The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Watterson, Bill

  • Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung by Bangs, Lester

  • Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall by Bernstein, Jeremy

  • Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner by Reid, Alastair

  • The Book of Disquiet by Pessoa, Fernando

  • Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Hickey, Dave

  • Mortal Questions by Nagel, Thomas

  • Beyond Good and Evil by Nietzsche, Friedrich

  • Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings by Borges, Jorge Luis

  • Iain Crichton Smith: Selected Poems by Smith, Iain Crichton

  • Collected Poems by Miłosz, Czesław

  • Oxford Book of Essays by Gross, John

  • The Penguin Book of English Verse by Keegan, Paul

  • The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse by Crawford, Robert

  • Collected Poems by Larkin, Philip

  • Travels With Myself and Another by Gellhorn, Martha

  • Ficciones by Borges, Jorge Luis

  • Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by McCarthy, Cormac

  • Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts by James, Clive

  • Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by Wallace, David Foster

  • The Fortune of War by O'Brian, Patrick

  • The Wind's Twelve Quarters by Le Guin, Ursula K.

  • Right Ho, Jeeves by Wodehouse, P.G.

  • The Oxford Companion to Philosophy by Honderich, Ted

  • Blindsight by Watts, Peter

  • A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by Wallace, David Foster

  • What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire by Bukowski, Charles

  • Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Wittgenstein, Ludwig

  • Infinite Jest by Wallace, David Foster

  • Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo by Herzog, Werner

  • Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Melville, Herman

  • Save Yourself, Mammal! by Weinersmith, Zach

  • The Patrick Melrose Novels by St. Aubyn, Edward

  • Hyperbole and a Half by Brosh, Allie

  • Computing machinery and intelligence by Turing, Alan

  • The Hedonistic Imperative by Pearce, David

  • What Should We Be Worried About? by Brockman, John

  • The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant by Bostrom, Nick

  • What If? by Munroe, Randall

  • The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule the Earth by Hanson, Robin

  • Incerto by Taleb, Nassim Nicholas

  • Tales from Earthsea by Le Guin, Ursula K.

  • The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Simler, Kevin

  • Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World by Rosling, Hans

  • How to Actually Change Your Mind by Yudkowsky, Eliezer

  • Selected Essays of Michel de Montaigne by Montaigne, Michel de

  • Good Old Neon by Wallace, David Foster

  • The Meaning of Recognition by James, Clive

  • Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems by Pearl, Judea

  • Mother's Milk by St. Aubyn, Edward

  • Cromartie High School, Vol. 01 by Nonaka, Eiji

  • The Far Side of the World by O'Brian, Patrick

  • An Englishman Abroad by Bennett, Alan

  • Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1: Back on the Street by Ellis, Warren

  • Collected Poems by García Lorca, Federico

  • A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love by Dawkins, Richard

  • The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence by Lawrence, D.H.

  • The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics by Easterly, William

  • The Black Halo: The Complete English Stories 1977-98 by Smith, Iain Crichton

  • Herzog on Herzog by Cronin, Paul

  • Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose by Rich, Adrienne

  • Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow by Hughes, Ted

  • Gangland by Azzarello, Brian

  • Samuel Johnson Is Indignant by Davis, Lydia

  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Le Guin, Ursula K.

  • The Compass Rose by Le Guin, Ursula K.

  • Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin by Spufford, Francis

  • Alan Turing: The Enigma by Hodges, Andrew

  • Medea. Stimmen by Wolf, Christa

  • We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews by Sinker, Daniel

  • Invisible Man by Ellison, Ralph

  • Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921 by Monk, Ray

  • The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays by Putnam, Hilary

  • The Way Things Are by Lucretius

  • Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by Gleick, James

  • A Spinoza Reader by Spinoza, Baruch

  • The Pleasures of the Damned by Bukowski, Charles

  • Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 by Reynolds, Simon

  • A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science by Koertge, Noretta

  • The Theory of the Leisure Class by Veblen, Thorstein

  • The View from the Ground by Gellhorn, Martha

  • Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character by Hibbs, Albert R.

  • How to Do Things with Words by Austin, J.L.

  • White Noise by DeLillo, Don

  • Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 by Wolk, Douglas

  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas, Alexandre

  • Studies in the Way of Words by Grice, Paul

  • Key Words: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Williams, Raymond

  • A Golden Treasury of English Verse by Palgrave, Francis Turner

  • Nua-Bhardachd Gaidhlig = Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems: A Bilingual Anthology by Macaulay, Donald

  • The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Collier, Paul

  • Yotsuba</li>

  • Writings on an Ethical Life by Singer, Peter

  • Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 by Azerrad, Michael

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Monk, Ray

  • A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bryson, Bill

  • Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China by Thubron, Colin

  • A Companion to Ethics by Singer, Peter

  • Monogamy by Phillips, Adam

  • The Shadow of the Torturer by Wolfe, Gene

  • The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce by McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen

  • Cyteen by Cherryh, C.J.

  • The Twits by Dahl, Roald

  • Carry On, Jeeves by Wodehouse, P.G.

  • Mushishi, Vol. 1 by Urushibara, Yuki

  • Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag by Rollins, Henry

  • The Philosophy of The Social Sciences by Ryan, Alan

  • Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training by Rippetoe, Mark

  • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature by Midgley, Mary

  • Lanark by Gray, Alasdair

  • The Squashed Philosophers by Lloyd-Hughes, Glyn

  • At Swim-Two-Birds by O'Brien, Flann

  • Do You Think What You Think You Think? by Baggini, Julian

  • Collected Poems by Plath, Sylvia

  • The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Kanigel, Robert

  • The Power and the Glory by Greene, Graham

  • Even As We Speak: New Essays 1993-2001 by James, Clive

  • The Earthsea Quartet by Le Guin, Ursula K.

  • Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs by Cohen, Leonard

  • Guards! Guards! by Pratchett, Terry

  • Roadside Picnic by Strugatsky, Arkady

  • Farewell, My Lovely by Chandler, Raymond

  • Axiomatic by Egan, Greg

  • The Social Construction of What? by Hacking, Ian

  • A Mathematician's Apology by Hardy, G. H.

  • Excession by Banks, Iain M.

  • Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis by Webster, Richard

  • How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Bayard, Pierre

  • Gateway by Pohl, Frederik

  • The Plato Cult: And Other Philosophical Follies by Stove, David C.

  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Juster, Norton

  • The Campus Trilogy by Lodge, David

  • Beggars in Spain by Kress, Nancy

  • All the Pretty Horses by McCarthy, Cormac

  • Selected Poems, 1954-1992 by Brown, George Mackay

  • The Plague by Camus, Albert

  • Kuhn vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science by Fuller, Steve

  • Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by Wallace, David Foster

  • The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Goffman, Erving

  • Master of Reality by Darnielle, John

  • The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age by Lem, Stanisław

  • The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Ross, Alex

  • Algorithmics: The Spirit of Computing by Harel, David

  • The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives by Ziliak, Stephen T.

  • The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Le Guin, Ursula K.

  • The Inimitable Jeeves by Wodehouse, P.G.

  • Flat Earth News by Davies, Nick

  • Extending Ourselves: Computational Science, Empiricism, and Scientific Method by Humphreys, Paul

  • Collected Poems by MacCaig, Norman

  • The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge by Vinge, Vernor

  • Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by Simon, David

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce, James

  • Dune by Herbert, Frank

  • Blue at the Mizzen by O'Brian, Patrick

  • Mathematics Made Difficult by Linderholm, Carl E.

  • Rice Boy by Dahm, Evan

  • Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism by Heath, Joseph

  • Women's Poetry of the 1930s: A Critical Anthology by Dowson, Jane

  • The Rorty Reader by Rorty, Richard

  • Rain by Paterson, Don

  • How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Lee, Stewart

  • The Information by Gleick, James

  • Chuck Klosterman on Media and Culture by Klosterman, Chuck

  • Retromania by Reynolds, Simon

  • A Chinese Anthology: A Collection Of Chinese Folktales And Fables by van Over, Raymond

  • Twilight of the Idols by Nietzsche, Friedrich

  • Museum Without Walls by Meades, Jonathan

  • The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing by Perry, John R.

  • CLOSURE by Stiff, Why The Lucky

  • American Hippopotamus by Mooallem, Jon

  • An Encyclopaedia of Myself by Meades, Jonathan

  • The Sellout by Beatty, Paul

  • Occasional Poets by Adams, Richard

  • Information Theory: A Tutorial Introduction by Stone, James V.

  • A Season in Hell by Rimbaud, Arthur

  • Step Aside, Pops by Beaton, Kate

  • Solutions and Other Problems by Brosh, Allie

  • Strangers Drowning by MacFarquhar, Larissa

  • Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Munroe, Randall

  • Through the Habitrails: Life Before and After My Career in the Cubicles by Nicholson, Jeff

  • Fooled By Randomness & The Black Swan: Two Books In One by Taleb, Nassim Nicholas

  • The Will to Battle by Palmer, Ada

  • Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation by Cuboniks, Laboria

  • Math with Bad Drawings by Orlin, Ben

  • For the Motherboard: The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Hodgkinson, Vanessa

  • Why Moral Theory is Boring and Corrupt by Anonymous

  • Exhalation by Chiang, Ted

  • Dril Official "Mr. Ten Years" Anniversary Collection by Dril

  • Science Fictions: The Epidemic of Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science by Ritchie, Stuart

  • Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers by Misak, Cheryl

  • The Borders of Infinity by Bujold, Lois McMaster

  • The Use and Abuse of Formal Models in Political Philosophy by Wolff, Robert Paul
  • </a></li>

    Sort by controversy

    Books I most disagree with others about:

    Title My Rating Average Rating
    The Prophet 1 4.22
    The Alexandria Quartet 1 4.17
    The Gift of Death 1 4.11
    The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness 1 4.09
    How to Be an Existentialist: or How to Get Real, Get a Grip and Stop Making Excuses 1 3.95
    The Five People You Meet in Heaven 1 3.94
    Night of the Living Trekkies 1 3.91
    Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates 1 3.89
    The Data Science Handbook 1 3.88
    User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development 1 3.88
    The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon, #2) 1 3.86
    The Art of Thinking Clearly 1 3.86
    The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (Martin Beck, #2) 1 3.84
    Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction 1 3.83
    The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality 1 3.81
    The Bald Prima Donna: A Pseudo-Play in One Act 1 3.81
    Prey 1 3.76
    Social Identity 1 3.75
    To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (Purdue University Series in the History of Philosophy) 1 3.72
    If You Take My Meaning 1 3.71
    Hite Report on Male Sexuality 1 3.70
    The Secret (The Secret, #1) 1 3.69
    Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Nation 1 3.68
    Diamonds Are Forever (James Bond, #4) 1 3.65
    Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4) 2 4.56
    The New Testament in Scots 2 4.53
    僕のヒーローアカデミア 1 [Boku No Hero Academia 1] (My Hero Academia, #1) 2 4.50
    Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power 1 3.50
    Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Harry Potter, #1) 2 4.47
    Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter, #2) 2 4.43
    Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst 2 4.42
    High Performance MySQL: Optimization, Backups, and Replication 2 4.38
    Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams 2 4.37
    The Shepherd's Crown (Discworld, #41; Tiffany Aching, #5) 2 4.36
    When Nietzsche Wept 2 4.34
    Matilda 2 4.32
    The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Interpreted Through Modern Science 1 3.31
    Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939 2 4.31
    Another Country 2 4.29
    The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1) 2 4.28
    Science: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness 2 4.28
    A Hat Full of Sky (Discworld, #32; Tiffany Aching, #2) 2 4.27
    Lirael (Abhorsen, #2) 2 4.26
    And Then There Were None 2 4.26
    The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30; Tiffany Aching, #1) 2 4.25
    Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability 2 4.25
    Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence 2 4.25
    Abaddon's Gate (The Expanse, #3) 2 4.24
    The Ph.D. Grind: A Ph.D. Student Memoir 2 4.24
    Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? 2 4.23
    The Annotated Chronicles (Dragonlance: Dragonlance Chronicles) 2 4.23
    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia, #1) 2 4.22
    Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1) 2 4.21

    Jump to


    5/5: Will re-read until I die. 97th percentile+

    Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (1997) by Dave Hickey None yet
    Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs (2004) by John Pilger
  • In one sentence: An anthology of the greatest investigative journalism, mostly about ignored or West-sponsored massacres.

  • To be read when: one becomes too complacent about world politics, thinking it generally benign; when one despairs of journalism; when you need righteous anger; when evaluating Kissinger's place in history.

  • I went into this with one eye on Pilger's ideology, but almost every piece is grounded and humane and appalling and beyond the reach of theory to pervert. (Only the Eduardo Galeano rant addresses too many targets at once and fades into zine-ish aspersion. But even that's about half true.)

    Gellhorn on Dachau. Cameron on North Vietnam. Hersh on My Lai. Lockerbie. Iraq. The overall target is the powerful who stand by or enable atrocities; Kissinger leers like a terrible wraith from more than a few of these pieces. I cried at this ten years ago and again now and again whenever.

  • Galef type:
    Data 2 - What does it imply about the world, that this could happen? &
    Values 2 - thought experiments to reflect on how you feel about something.
  • </td> </tr>
  • Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall (1995) by Jeremy Bernstein </div>

    There are few, if any, other instances in recorded history where we have the conversations of leading figures as they complete one era, come to terms with it, and prepare their strategy for the next. It is as though these men were lifted out of history at a crucial turning point—from the age of conventional weapons to the nuclear era — placed within a timeless container and told to discuss their past and future as the recorders roll.
    - Jeremy Bernstein

    Astonishingly dramatic; also as pure as primary sources get. These reports were the result of months of secret eavesdropping on the German nuclear scientists, including after they hear of Hiroshima. Innocent of the microphones, the men concede their ignorance without ego, their character without any obfuscating propriety. (There are still two impurities: their words are both transcribed and translated by strangers. The physicists speak to us here in full sentences, with little of the fragmentariness and repetition of real speech. And it takes someone as highly trained as Bernstein to get us over the technical barrier.) Even so, this is as plain and self-interpreting as history gets. For six months they play madlibs, argue, and run around the garden, while the English and we listen in.

    Hahn is a sweetheart and von Laue a droopy hero. The Party functionary Diebner is comic, even though he has most responsibility for the Nazi weapons project. Harteck is the most technically astute by far: he guesses a huge amount correctly, all in the teeth of loud ignorance by his more prestigious peers. von Weizsacker is the slimiest. Heisenberg is just weird: he has a very faint echo of the strange clear-sight-and-moral-vacuum of Eichmann. Enormous intelligence and no sense.

    The morality of their wartime actions does not come up very much (except when raised by sweetheart Hahn or von Laue). They are mostly glad of the destruction of the Nazis, and Wirtz is horrified by the scale and singularity of SS murder. But the rest are more self-regarding than pro or anti Nazi. (Again, it is wonderful to read these and actually know they meant it.)

    (What about the morality of our reading the reports? I don't have a clear opinion, but doing so after their deaths seems mostly fair.)

    They very often speak about money, Heisenberg in particular. (Not just research funding or aid for their families in Occupied Germany, but dolla dolla bills.) On hearing that Hahn had won a Nobel:
    "it says that you are supposed to receive the Nobel Prize for 1944." The excitement that struck the ten detainees at this moment is hard to describe in a few words. Hahn did not believe it at first. In the beginning he turned away all the offers of congratulations. But gradually we broke through, with Heisenberg in the lead, who congratulated him heartily on the 6200 pounds.

    As you can see, Bernstein's editorial voice is a bit strong. But his other qualities are huge and unique: he knew some of the protagonists personally, and worked on nuclear weaponry himself. He is out to get Heisenberg, and overreads a few times. But this is because people (Powers, Frayn to a degree) persist in rose-tinting him: there's this idea that Heisenberg feigned incompetence at reactor-making as anti-Nazi activism. The transcripts make clear that he'd have made a bomb if he could, not because he is a Nazi or a German but because he was amorally curious, and hungry for primacy. Heisenberg does object to Nazism. But not very strongly.

    Bernstein's conclusion is that the project was pretty much a shambles. They had a two-year head start on the Allies, but failed for several reasons: they had < 1% of the funding of the Manhattan Project, an unbelievably bad administration and communication of data and ideas, and key resources like deuterium kept getting bombed. But Bernstein feels able to go for the jugular:
    reading this lecture, I am once again struck by the intellectual thinness of this group. Here are ten German nuclear scientists — nine if one does not count von Laue — who are supposed to be the cream of the crop, the intellectual elite, of German nuclear physics, men who had been working on these questions for several years. And look at the discussion it produced.

    To see what I have in mind, let us entertain the following fantasy. Suppose the tables had been turned and ten of the best Allied scientists had been interned in Göttingen when a hypothetical German atomic bomb went off. Whom shall we include? Fermi, Bethe, Feynman, Serber, Wigner, von Neumann, Oppenheimer, Peierls, Ulam, Teller, Bohr, Frisch, Weisskopf... What would the technical conversation have been like? No doubt there would have been disagreements and some fumbling. But like this? The question answers itself.

    Yet even with these handicaps, it looks like Harteck could have built a basic pile in 1940, if the project was headed by someone less arrogant than Heisenberg. And that pile would have brought all the funding, and maybe sorted out their many collective muddles and lack of engineering care.

    5/5 for Bernstein's commentary and the hair-raising fact of their existence.
    Selected Essays of Michel de Montaigne (1592) by Michel de Montaigne None yet
    Bad Science (2008) by Ben Goldacre None yet
    Meditations (180) by Marcus Aurelius
    In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them.</i>
    </td> </tr>
    The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb None yet
    Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner (1987) by Alistair Reid In one sentence: Long essays on nations and nonbelonging, interspersed with really excellent poems.
    To be read when: home too long.

    A poet, Hispanicist, translator and long-time New Yorkerer. He was right there when the Latin American lit boom began, giving Neruda crash space in London - and mates with Marquez, insofar as anyone is. I like Reid's prose even better than his excellent poems.

    Foreigners are, if you like, curable romantics. The illusion they retain, perhaps left over from their mysterious childhood epiphanies, is that there might somewhere be a place – and a self – instantly recognizable, into which they will be able to sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh. In the curious region between that illusion and the faint terror of being utterly nowhere and anonymous, foreigners live.

    I love his scepticism about group identity - the piece on returning "home" to Scotland is great because of his distance from it.

    It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
    when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
    and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
    Greenness entered the body. The grasses
    shivered with presences, and sunlight
    stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
    Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
    the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!
    cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
    And what did she have to say for it?
    Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
    as she spoke with their ancient misery:
    'We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!

    • Galef type:

      Theory 1 - models of how a phenomenon works, &
      Style 3 - tickle your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker.

    The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) by Ted Honderich Amazing how far this took me, this bundle of short 9pt font columns. Many entries have the denseness of aphorism. Like a thousand dehydrated journal papers in one book. And hundreds of distinctive voices contributing.

    You could get very far through a philosophy degree with just this. Speaking strictly hypothetically, that is.
    How to Actually Change Your Mind (Rationality: From AI to Zombies) (2018) by Eliezer Yudkowsky Imagine someone great - I think of Bertrand Russell or Dan Dennett or CS Peirce or Alan Turing - writing really well about actually scientific self-help. Imagine they wrote most days for 2 years, and so distilled decades of trying to find the truth as a heavily biased primate barely out of the trees. Imagine it was empathic and well-justified with argument and experimental data. But imagine it turns out it wasn't a Canonical figure writing it, but instead some guy on the internet with no credentials and weird opinions. But imagine - or rather, I ask you to trust me, til you see for yourself - that the result matches what the greats achieved in the theory of practical reasoning. (Dennett actually wrote a practical-reason how-to book, and it isn't nearly as good.)

    These essays are fumbling attempts to put into words lessons better taught by experience. But at least there’s underlying math, plus experimental evidence from cognitive psychology on how humans actually think. Maybe that will be enough to cross the stratospherically high threshold required for a discipline that lets you actually get it right, instead of just constraining you into interesting new mistakes.

    This is only one-sixth of Yudkowsky's enormous Sequences - an unusually scientifically accurate philosophical system covering statistics, physics, psychology, history, ethics, and, most importantly, the specific universal obstacles to your being rational. (As a brutal compression, the philosophy can be glossed as radical Bayesian-Quinean evidentialism.) I've read it three times in 10 years, and got more from it each time. Quite a lot of it seemed absurd the first time I read it, for instance his principle of Conservation of Expected Evidence, but I now know it to be mathematically safe.

    There are loads of great tools here. Just one example out of dozens: the idea of a pejorative Fully General Counterargument, a good-sounding objection which applies equally to all possible arguments, and which thus tells you nothing about the truth of the matter. Examples

    * “Oh he's an 'expert' is he? Experts are systematically miscalibrated
    * “My opponent is [just] a clever arguer”
    * “That evidence was filtered by a biased person, therefore I can ignore it”
    * "There are arguments both for and against”

    Along with Kant's Transcendental Analytic, The Great Gatsby (don't ask), and Marfarquhar's Strangers Drowning, it's one of the only books I've ever taken paragraph-by-paragraph notes on.

    Free, or by donation to his nonprofit, here.
    Ficciones (1944) by Jorge Luis Borges Deeply uncanny - without worshipping mystery. ("Tlön" is scarier to me than anything in Lovecraft. "Babel" is also horrifying in its way.) Playing at the limits of reason - without renouncing objectivity. (There is something of the unearthly drama and transcendence of higher mathematics in a couple of these stories.) Somehow it manages to be cryptic without being annoying, to use literary gossip and the droning of archivists straight. Some of this is 80 years old, and it's still completely fresh.

    He makes literature larger, by bringing new things into scope - bibliographic minutiae, English department arcana, salon gossip. There's something refreshing about his perfect fake book reviews. Gushing praise of nonexistent authors draws back the veil (as if our world's reviewers would say the same things whether or not the authors existed).

    Borges was not a postmodernist but these anyway have the best of what postmodernism is taken to mean: nonliteral play, generative scepticism about sense and reference and language-games, reasoning about the limits of reason.

    I'm not sure of the significance of some of Borges' sentences here. But for once the critic's working assumption of meaning seems sound: if I thought about it, I could find out. (And not just in the ordinary way, by projection. I expect to find Borges in them if I try.)

    I've some ideas about each story, but none that fit completely or exhaust them. Here's one:


    Here's a banal idea: "language is composite". Characters go into words into sentences into works into worldviews. In "The Library of Babel", Borges stretches this fact until you see the horror in it, the shocking vastness of exponentiation on the tiny scale of a human life. The simple idea of mechanically generating all strings of length n=1,312,000 leads to an incredibly claustrophobic closed system. The story is not 8 pages long but contains more than most books.

    There exists one truth; there are uncountably many falsehoods; but worse, there's a far larger infinity of nonsense, of things which make sense in no language, which don't make enough sense to be false, which never will. This is the horror of Platonism or Many-world physics or Meinong: that we could be invisibly boxed-in by garbled infinities, endless keyboard mashing. The "noosphere" - all the good ideas, all the bad ideas ever had - is a tiny pocket of meaning in a sea of meaninglessness.

    The stunning effect of "Babel" depends on its not being magic, not hand-wavy (merely monstrous, physically impossible for interesting reasons which violate no particular law). Ted Chiang is grasping at a similar titanic scale when he uses a truly alien language to explain variational physics.

    Remember that Borges was a librarian. But, while he said photogenic things about libraries, he didn't necessarily like being in them. "The Library of Babel" adds an extremely mordant overtone to that quotation, by imagining an otherworldly library which breaks men just by being there. Sturrock, his biographer:
    Borges had some reason to dislike libraries because for nine years "of solid unhappiness", from 1937 to 1946, he was obliged to work in one, as a quite junior librarian, in order to make money. The cataloguing work he did was futile...

    The alphabet used for the Babel books has 22 letters and no uppercase. We could try and look up human languages with that many letters, but better to take this as a hint that our narrator is not us - he can be a total alien, far from Earth, and the exact same library will still confound him the exact same way. The same geometry constrains all minds. What looks like meaning need not be, if your sample is large enough:
    This useless and wordy epistle itself already exists in one of the thirty volumes of the five shelves in one of the uncountable heaxgons - and so does its refutation. (And n possible languages make use of the same vocabulary; in some of them the symbol 'library' admits of the correct definition 'ubiquitous and everlasting system of hexagonal galleries', but 'library' is 'bread' or 'pyramid' of anything else... You who read me, are you sure you understand my language?)

    The narrator says that the fall from his floor "is infinite" (or indefinite), that the rooms are "uncountable", but we can do better than this quite easily, given only the text. There are 410*40*80 = 1312000 characters per book. The number of distinct books is thus (22 + 3)^{1312000} or about 2 followed by about 1.8 million zeroes. It is hard to give a reference for how large this is: if every atom in the universe contained as many atoms as are in the universe (10^80), and each of the nested atoms was a Babel book, this would still contain only a laughably tiny fraction of Babel, less than one googolplexth. There's 4*5*32 = 640 books per hexagon, so we need about 3 x 10^1834094 room-sized hexagons. This is the full implication of the simple thought "every book of length 1312000".

    It couldn't possibly be even fractionally built. And yet, through the power of maths, it has been built - "only implicitly, skeletally", but it still counts.

    (Borges notes this infinity/finity conflict on the last page, explaining that the Library is unbounded and periodic, a hypersphere.)

    There is a beautiful, inspiring lesson to be taken from it actually: think about what the incredible feat of writing any book - no matter how bad - actually entails. Our nervous system shields us from Babel, from the larger part of possible meanings and the overwhelming majority of string space. This is an astonishing act, in information-theory terms: the ultimate search, which we succeed at effortlessly, many times a day. Epic achievements in life-giving ignoring.
    Oxford Book of Essays (1991) by 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 doing right now?

    Great essays share something. These 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.
    Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) by Ludwig Wittgenstein You already know the key superficial facts: it's brief, poetic, cryptic, it glorifies language. (Or is it damning language?) You might not know that it's intentionally cryptic:
    This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it - or similar thoughts... I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.

    - or that it's the most beautiful piece of metaphysics ever, or that its author repudiated it entirely ten years later, or that actually the book repudiates itself -
    My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

    or that (aside from the pure logic results) it probably isn't true, or that few people can possibly understand it without a lot of scholarly context, like without explanations 5 times the length of the original text. I recommend Anat Biletzki and Roger White. Grayling is good for the language bit too.

    I spent maybe a year, on and off, trying to understand it. Some funny results here.

    5 stars for poetry - not for its system, or its influence. (It has justified, or been appropriated in the service of, an awful lot of mystical poppycock. The author would be appalled to see this, while accepting that it was all his own fault.)

    A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (1997) by David Foster Wallace None yet
    Rationality: From AI to Zombies (2015) by Eliezer Yudkowsky
    These essays are fumbling attempts to put into words lessons that would be better taught by experience. But at least there’s underlying math, plus experimental evidence from cognitive psychology on how humans actually think. Maybe that will be enough to cross the stratospherically high threshold required for a discipline that lets you actually get it right, instead of just constraining you to interesting new mistakes.

    everyone needs to learn at least one technical subject. Physics; computer science; evolutionary biology; or Bayesian probability theory, but something. Someone with no technical subjects under their belt has no referent for what it means to "explain" something. They may think "All is Fire" is an explanation.

    A very modern sort of rationalism, with buckets of scientific insights and a few genuine innovations* unified into a grand theory of reason and action: probability theory + decision theory. An ongoing concern.

    Yudkowsky’s writing suffers from this thing where we incorporate the ideas, but everyone begrudges the insight they glean from him and forget they thought otherwise. This is perhaps because his site carried a heavy pall of nerdiness (fan-fiction and Streisanding), a status deficit which prevents people from according the ideas their actual merit. His dismissive attitude to high-status people and ideas also drives a lot of people crazy, sometimes making them unable to care if the ideas are right. So we minimise his contribution to the life of the new mind, some of the brightest prospects in the dark world. This is unfair but the new mind is the main thing, and broader than him already.

    The section intros by Rob Bensinger, written a decade later, are helpful, but this book may need refreshing every decade, because of the replication crisis. This is no insult.

    *Some of Yudkowsky's new ideas (not the mere popularisations):

    • The abstract research chain into FAI: i.e. logical uncertainty, tiling, corrigibility, value learning. The leading academic textbook on AI gives a full page to his ideas.

    • \t
    • Pascal's mugging (see final footnote here).

    • \t
    • A new completeness theorem in probabilistic logic, discussed by a big-name mathematical physicist here.

    • \t
    • The term "Friendly AI"

    • \t
    • Probably the first to tie the Jaynesian probability calculus plus the Heuristics and Biases program plus rule-utilitarianism.

    What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (2014) by Randall Munroe Completely rigorous whimsy, often the first time science has been applied to the thing at hand. Pure mind-candy - but, in the absence of real physics education, also improving.

    They are free here.
    Stories of Your Life and Others (2002) by Ted Chiang In one sentence: Stunning expansion of science fiction to very distant possible worlds and emotionally unusual near ones. Borgesian scifi.

    To be read when: annoyed by the sterility of median scifi and the folksy ignorance of median litfic; if disparaging scifi; if you think Black Mirror is deep...

    Astoundingly good. The stories are extremely miscellaneous (hard Sumerian mythology, linguistic-physics ethnography, singularitarian tragedy, Arabian Nights fantasy, mechanical-philosophy tragedy, misotheistic tragedy), but bear one heavy 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 behind his powerful 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. It is about how alien and repugnant amor fati is, and maybe variational physics.

    '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!

    • Galef type:

      Theory 1 - models of how a phenomenon works, &

      Theory 3 - pointing out a problem, &

      Values 2 - thought experiments to reflect on how you feel about something , &

      Style 3 - tickles your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more generative thinker .
    • </td> </tr>
    The Will to Battle (Terra Ignota, #3) (2017) by Ada Palmer Sensational. Palmer starts in an Enlightenment utopia (post-war, post-nationalism, post-scarcity, post-gender, post-theocracy, post-fideism, post-meat, post-capital-punishment, post-nuclear-family, general justice via universal voluntary surveillance) and then shows what the tensions will do to any system that has to handle humans as we are.

    Many riches. There are constantly five or so subplots on the go, and when one ends it spawns two others. Best are its careful sketches of deep divides: Tradition vs progress, act vs rule, order vs freedom, safety vs optimum return.

    Some of the oppositions fall flat because I don't have the requisite respect for the other side. For instance Damnatio memoriae - the official expurgation of someone from history - is presented as an ultimate horror (the pain and execution preceding it is overwhelmingly more important).
    [the damned person is] neither slim nor mighty, stooped nor noble, just a shape... Somewhere in a dusty archive a baptismal registry records some Hildebrand, and, when that dry page molders... I can't look, I can't! Behind the shades, the broad gray plain, that sea of shapeless gloom extending on and on... all forgotten souls, minds empty of memory, smeared one into another... to this absolute dissolution Caesar damns his enemies... Not me! I will never let you take me! I will carve my memory into history, by work, by force, by guile, in swathes of blood and ashes if I must!

    I can admire Palmer's rendition of the old bad legacy code (it has driven quite a lot of history) but I admit it no part of a real morality. The dead are past caring.

    Elsewhere, the Aura (metaphysical identity) of art is used to devalue perfect replicas of the nuked Coliseum and Forum (which seems like magical thinking to me):
    All false. Our race cannot afford such losses again... On the Acropolis the tears we shed are still tears of connection: where I stand Socrates stood. In the [replica] Roman Forum, by the [replica] Coliseum or the [replica] Patheon, they are regret tears. Replicas cannot touch. That is what we all want, to touch what someone touched, a special someone... whose story reached forward through history...

    Speak for yourself; a perfect simulacrum is enough, though it screams depth to say otherwise. (I'm not actually salty: I love the breadth of ideologies on show here. No doubt someone else will grumble about how thin and unconvincing the utilitarian views presented here are. By writing so many good characters in disagreement, Palmer has passed about 10 Intellectual Turing Tests. )

    On the other hand, I feel the horror of true deontology quite keenly:
    Dominic would happily watch the world burn if he could defile the blasphemer's corpse amid the coals.

    Much as I like Jedd Mason, his rise to the top of every state - the expressionless, motionless, Spectrumy king of the world - is implausible, even given his mother's scheming; it only makes sense with Intervention. Which is fine, because Palmer is committed to that, but it would still have been nice to have a natural path.

    Many potential irritants. You'll have to be fine with long fourth-wall violations, long passages in macaronic Latin, hallucinated philosophers reacting to C25th scenes by expositing their extrapolated view of the 25th Century, allusions that yell 'REMEMBER ME??' in your face (Hobbestown, the anarchist commune). I found Mycroft's madness engaging but it does divert every chapter a bit.

    The best so far, but you must read the first two. I donno, I'm just rambling now cos I know I'll rewrite this after I read it again in like one unripe year.

    Misc notes

    * Achilles is an actual hero here - where in the Iliad he is merely impressively violent. Actually as any fool knows, the ancient heroes are mostly morally small, beneath even us. ("Hero" meant "Big Man", not "saviour".) This is good news, that Achilles (and say Jahweh) are not paragons any more.

    * Miracles happen; Bridger is magical through and through, not even needing a virgin birth. So there was no need for JEDD to be born of woman and Spain. Except that this allows him to be a stark example of Hegelian becoming, which here is the way that God speaks. (And what filth he says.)

    * Next time you complain about how undemocratic your country is, consider: The Mitsubishi here are not only a planned plutocracy, they also have 4 orders of delegated authority: the voters elect representatives who elect representatives who elect representatives who elect the executive.

    * Oh Mycroft. I spent the first book and a half wondering exactly why he is so indispensable, hounded, beloved. This mostly answers it: it's a mixture of macaronic language, dog charisma, and weird athleticism.

    * Nice, surprising bit of anarchism: Hobbestown, the anarchist syndicate, is the 'safest' place in the world. OK, its because of the deterrent of capital punishment but still.

    * A decent portrayal of the burgeoning far-future-focussed ethics, in the otherworldly, post-political, arch-instrumentalist scientists, Utopia. Palmer clearly sympathises with them. One contradiction in her portrayal, though: the Utopians are monomanaical consequentialists, who'll do anything to prevent human extinction or stasis. But they're shown throwing massive resources at trivial uneconomic projects (trivial compared to WMD destruction, space colonization, and terraforming): an underwater city, a city on Antarctica, robots in the shape of mythical beasts. I suppose it's possible this is a PR thing, either to charm or recruit.

    Their oath actually inspired moral guilt in me, which is hard to do:
    I hereby renounce the right to complacency, and vow lifelong to take only what minimum of leisure is necessary to my productivity... I will commit the full produce of my labors to our collective effort to redirect the path of human life away from death and toward the stars.

    * Palmer knows about a lot of things: Hobbes, evolutionary history, the way a small boat makes waves. Her using this knowledge never felt contrived to me - but again I suspect this is a niche I happen to fall in.
    The fittest survived, but with the conquered within them, as conquered bacteria became the mitochondria which feed the cells that crawl through volvox, trilobite, and coelacanth toward Mars.

    * It suits me that the psychoanalyst Hive choose to be the enemies of the future:
    "War?" Utopia offered.
    [the Head Analyst] Felix Faust... accepted the handshake. "War."

    * It's written with a future reader in mind, but then Mycroft explains too much; nothing is taken for granted, and this is obviously on our account, tainting the conceit.

    * Its gender dynamics don't constitute a polemic; instead the Hives' failing utopia shows what most feminist / Critical / international relations theory misses. 'Xenofeminism' (tech-positive, bioprogressive feminism) is a more complete answer to gender harms. But, hearteningly, even mainstream figures like Nussbaum seem to be on board with similar projects:
    this calls for the gradual formation of a world in which all species will enjoy cooperative and supportive relations with one another. Nature is not that way and has never been. So it calls for the gradual supplanting of the natural by the just.

    A man may leap into the fray in the name of Liberty, Homeland, Human Rights, Justice, but never Economics.

    (more's the pity)


    If my Saladin is childhood's fear, the unknowable evil in the closet's depths, I have become adulthood's fear, fear of power, law, illustrious contacts, police resources, covert agencies, and sweet judicial murder.

    * Mycroft's 'death' is immediately subverted by a footnote from him. But then the chapter plays out as if we hadn't seen that footnote, and so it loses most of its emotional charge. This is weird but obviously totally intentional. Twists the twist before the twist can begin. Not sure what's going on - maybe Palmer had tired of doing ordinary twists. (There are a lot of them.)
    The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant (2005) by Nick Bostrom None yet
    The Hedonistic Imperative (2015) by David Pearce
    Atrocious, agonising things are happening to people like you, me and our loved ones right now. The full horror of some sorts of suffering is literally unspeakable and unimaginably dreadful. Under a Darwinian regime of natural reproduction, truly horrible experiences - as well as endemic low-grade malaise - are both commonplace and inevitable. Chapter Two argues the moral case for stopping this nastiness. Since 'ought' implies 'can', however, it must first be established that scrapping unpleasant experience really is a biologically feasible option... from an information-theoretic perspective, what counts is not our absolute location on the pleasure-pain axis, but that we are "informationally sensitive" to fitness-relevant changes in our internal and external environment. Gradients of bliss can suffice both to motivate us and offer a rich network of feedback mechanisms; so alas today do gradients of Darwinian discontent.

    On what science is for, on the very most we could aim for.

    Late one evening, early one morning, I realised that I was not reading a crank on the internet. I'm not sure what exactly tipped me off: the page was called The Abolition of Suffering; the Naturalisation of Heaven. Maybe the extensive and thoughtful series of responses to objections. Not as late as the heart-stopping Alone Amongst the Zombies. Or the mixture of staggering ambition with modesty:

    As hedonic engineering develops into a mature biomedical discipline, the generic modes of paradise we opt for can be genetically pre-coded... The innovative, high-specification bio-heavens beyond will be far richer. We lack the semantic competence to talk about them sensibly. Yet however inelegantly our goal may be accomplished at first, the ultimate strategic objective should be the neurochemical precision-engineering of happiness for every sentient organism on the planet.

    Sounds flaky? Yes, but then so, originally, has almost every radical reform movement in history (including, of course, the genuinely flaky ones.)

    and philosophy with biochemistry. It is difficult to return to what you were studying - mealy-mouthed, apologist, naturalistic-fallacious bioconservative bioethics - after that.

    I hadn't considered wild-animal suffering before, the giant and at-best-ignored horror it is. People are at last starting to work on this, but Pearce was there decades ago. We have a long way to go before people stop making it worse even.

    More than {Singer, Ord, LessWrong}, Pearce set me on my way with an ideal ethics, which led quickly to effective altruism and AI safety. I'm not a negative utilitarian like him, but unlike almost everyone else I take that challenge seriously.

    I've met half a dozen people whose lives he affected this strongly, but the nonacademic setting limits his status.

    (The published collection Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering? is better, newer, covering more ground. I would have called it "The Molecular Biology of Paradise", a site header used elsewhere. Or "Better Living Through Chemistry".)

    • Galef type:
      Data 2 - What does it imply about the world, that X could happen?, &
      Theory 1 - models of how a phenomenon works, &
      Theory 3 - pointing out a problem, &
      Theory 4 - making predictions, &
      Values 1 - an explicit argument about values, &
      Style 3 - tickles your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more generative thinker.

    [Free! here]
    The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule the Earth (2016) by Robin Hanson Believe me that it's remarkable; it's easily in the top 5 most insightful books out of the 500 I have reviewed here. 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 it 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.
    Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (2018) by Hans Rosling
    1. In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?
    2. Where does the majority of the world population live?
    3. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…
    4. What is the life expectancy of the world today?
    5. There are 2 billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in the year 2100, according to the United Nations?
    6. The UN predicts that by 2100 the world population will have increased by another 4 billion people. What is the main reason?
    7. How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?

    Only 10% of people scored better than random guessing on these questions, the most important trends of the last hundred years. How can it be that we are both 1) a rabidly overconfident species and 2) an extremely pessimistic species that generally gets these simple, objective questions very wrong (doing far worse than random)? Sure, we could just be dogmatic nihilists or idiots, but that doesn't fit that well.
    A stunning 15% of humans managed to pick the wrong answer on all twelve questions. That’s almost impossible for a monkey to achieve. It requires systematic misconceptions. The problem here is not the lack of correct knowledge. The problem is the presence of wrong “knowledge”. To score this bad requires a false perception of the world, that make you pick the wrong answer systematically.

    Rosling explains it in terms of cognitive biases: we suffer from a dramatic worldview, binarised, conflict-obsessed, and blamey.

    People seem to find Development - the completely unprecedented explosion of survival, freedom, and dignity for the larger part of the entire world! - boring. (You could blame the media, but Rosling persuasively argues that they too are an epiphenomenon of our evolved fear and narrowness.)
    Your most important challenge in developing a fact-based worldview is to realize that most of your firsthand experiences are from Level 4 [the top 10% of global income]; and that your secondhand experiences are filtered through the mass media, which loves nonrepresentative extraordinary events and shuns normality.

    When you live on Level 4, everyone on Levels 3, 2, and 1 can look equally poor, and the word poor can lose any specific meaning... Anyone who has looked down from the top of a tall building knows that it is difficult to assess from there the differences in height of the buildings nearer the ground. They all look kind of small... It is natural to miss the distinctions between the people with cars, the people with motorbikes and bicycles, the people with sandals, and the people with no shoes at all.

    On the shocking lack of empiricism even in the most important places like medicine and policy:
    In the 1960s, the success of the recovery position inspired new public health advice, against most traditional practices, to put babies to sleep on their tummies... Even though the data showed that sudden infant deaths went up, not down, it wasn’t until 1985 that a group of pediatricians in Hong Kong actually suggested that the prone position might be the cause. Even then, doctors in Europe didn’t pay much attention. It took Swedish authorities another seven years to accept their mistake and reverse the policy...

    With my own hands, over a decade or so, I turned many babies from back to tummy to prevent
    suffocation and save lives. So did many other doctors and parents throughout Europe and the United
    States, until the advice was finally reversed, 18 months after the Hong Kong study was published.
    Thousands of babies died because of a sweeping generalization, including some during the months
    when the evidence was already available.

    Two hundred ninety-two brave young feminists had traveled to Stockholm from across the world to coordinate their struggle to improve women's access to education. But only 8 percent knew that 30-year-old women have spent on average only one year less in school than 30-year-old men.

    Bad incentives and noble lies are another reason for the stubborn gloom of intellectuals:
    There has been progress in human rights, animal protection, women's education, climate awareness, catastrophe relief, and many other areas where activists raise awareness by saying that things are getting worse.

    Relentlessly sensible:
    resist blaming any one individual or group of individuals for anything. Because the problem is that when we identify the bad guy, we are done thinking. And it’s almost always more complicated than that. It’s almost always about multiple interacting causes—a system. If you really want to change the world, you have to understand how it actually works and forget about punching anyone in the face.

    I've been studying Development for years and this still taught me plenty. It should shock you into awareness and hopefully more.
    Paying too much attention to the individual visible victim rather than to the numbers can lead us to spend all our resources on a fraction of the problem, and therefore save many fewer lives. This principle applies anywhere we are prioritizing scarce resources. It is hard for people to talk about resources when it comes to saving lives, or prolonging or improving them Doing so is often taken for heartlessness. Yet so long as resources are not infinite—and they never are infinite—it is the most compassionate thing to do to use your brain and work out how to do the most good with what you have.

    One of the "five books that represent my worldview": moral passion, strict empiricism, psychological depth, existential hope. I picked this rather than Enlightenment Now or Rational Optimist or Doing Good Better or Our World In Data or Whole Earth Discipline (out of the contemporary literature of progress) because it also covers heuristics and biases - and so substitutes / complements Kahneman, Taleb, Hanson, and Yudkowsky, without (what people insist on seeing as) their self-superior wonkishness.

    Thank you industrialization, thank you steel mill, thank you power station, thank you chemical-processing industry, for giving us the time to read books.

    In a sense he stays on the surface - this isn't the full radical evolutionary account of Elephant in the Brain, instead just noting some bad epistemic practices and gesturing at evolutionary theory. But that said, there's a "charity is not about helping" bit:
    If I check the World Wildlife Fund I can see how, despite declines in some local populations, the total wild populations of tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos have all increased over the past years. It was worth paying for all those pandas stickers on the doors all around Stockholm. Yet only 6% of the Swedish public knows that their support has had any effect.

    But despite all the suffering and error and backfiring efforts he describes, he is trying to make you realise how good things could be:
    Could everyone have a fact-based worldview one day? Big change is always difficult to imagine. But it is definitely possible, and I think it will happen, for two simple reasons. First: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, just like an accurate GPS is more useful for finding your way in the city. Second, and probably more important: a fact-based worldview is more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness than the dramatic worldview, simply because the dramatic one is so negative and terrifying.

    When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems— and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.

    This, then, is the same message as Sagan, 25 years ago: the emotional gain of reason.


    Misc notes

    - Binary categories are often unhelpful because they obscure continuum. Rosling ranted against "developed" / "developing" for 20 years. The World Bank has caught on but the UN haven't.

    - He is a better messenger for the cognitive bias alarm, for activists anyway, because of his deep credibility: he mucked in to anti-poverty measures for decades. Some of his anecdotes are chilling.
    I could tell you countless stories of the nonsense I saw in Cuba: the local moonshine, a toxic fluorescent concoction brewed inside TV tubes using water, sugar, and babies’ poopy diapers to provide the yeast required for fermentation; the hotels that hadn’t planned for any guests and so had no food, a problem we solved by driving to an old people’s home and eating their leftovers from the standard adult food rations; my Cuban colleague who knew his children would be expelled from
    university if he sent a Christmas card to his cousin in Miami; the fact that I had to explain my research methods to Fidel Castro personally to get approval. I will restrain myself and just tell you why I was there and what I discovered.

    - "I do not believe that fake news is the major culprit for our distorted worldview: we haven’t only just started to get the world wrong, I think we have always gotten it wrong."

    - "In the car industry, cars are recalled when a mistake is discovered. You get a letter from the manufacturer saying, “We would like to recall your vehicle and replace the brakes.” When the facts about the world that you were taught in schools and universities become out of date, you should get a letter too: “Sorry, what we taught you is no longer true. Please return your brain for a free upgrade.” "
    Mortal Questions (1979) by Thomas Nagel None yet
    Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work that Matters, and Make Smarter Choices about Giving Back (2015) by William MacAskill Best in class. (The class is "pop philosophy aimed at changing the world".) What you should do if you want to improve the world as much as you can: that is, he skips the soapbox moral suasion and spends the whole time explaining his impressive framework for getting shit done. (Includes a defence of foreign aid, achieving in two pages what my dissertation limped over the course of 40.) His rubric for assessing the optimality of an act is:

    1. How many people does A affect, and by how much? (Magnitude)

    2. Is A the best thing to do? (Relative magnitude; opportunity cost)

    3. What's the difference my doing A makes? (Effect minus counterfactual effect)

    4. What's the difference that one more A makes, on the margin? (Marginal benefit)

    5. How sure is A to help? What harms does A risk? (Risk)

    Too plainly written for my liking, but then it's not for me: it's for everyone else.

    You can mostly skip it if you read these:

    * His original careers paper, the best piece of practical ethics I've ever read. (encountered in 2013)
    * The original argument for urgency, taking the world's problems personally.
    * Ord on the moral importance of cost-benefit analysis.
    Library of Scott Alexandria (2015) by Scott Alexander Not really a book. But he's been so important to me that I wanted to include him here.

    ePub version free here.
    Famine, Affluence, and Morality (1972) by Peter Singer Changed my life, or, focussed the rays.
    Save Yourself, Mammal!: A Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Collection (2011) by Zach Weinersmith This review stands in for me reading everything Zach Weiner ever published online, including his reading lists (2005-13).

    More inspiring than a cartoonist has any right to be. An English graduate and physics dropout, his webcomic has an amazing wry view on basically every academic field.

    His jokes are sceptical and romantic, puerile and hyperintelligent. (There are not enough jokes about economists being bastards!)

    His science podcast with his wife is badly recorded but always worthwhile, his Youtube group is always funny and often transcendent, and even many of his blogged offcuts are charming- see in particular this one about the future of the library.


    Among the best internet intellectuals.
    Incerto 4-Book Bundle: Antifragile, The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, The Bed of Procrustes (2011) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb The most vibrant presentation of sceptical empiricism since Dawkins stopped being beautiful.

    Black Swan is a furious pompous attack on macroeconomics, journalism, and risk modelling via heuristics and biases; so it is an amazing introduction to modelling. But it's also an entire original worldview, applying to history, policy, science, and personal conduct. This is taken even further (too far?) in Antifragile, which is more or less a work of evolutionary epistemology, or evolutionary practical ethics. There's a lot of redundancy between them; Fooled by Randomness gives you the highest signal:rant ratio.

    The first three books are largely critical, hacking away at theory-blindness, model error, and the many kinds of people he sees as possessing unearned status (economists, journalists, consultants, business-book writers): this is the upswing, a chaotic attempt to give general positive advice in a world that dooms general positive advice.

    Every other page has something worth hearing, for its iconoclasm, or a Latin gobbet, or catty anecdote, if not something globally and evidently true. I think he is right about 30% of the time, which is among the highest credences I have for anyone. I only think I am 35% right, for instance. But a core point is that he thinks his approach should work even given our intractable ignorance.

    The core point, repeated a hundred times for various domains: In real life, many systems deteriorate without an irregular supply of stressors (non-fatal negative events), and actually benefit from them by constructively overreacting. By robbing such 'antifragile' systems of stressors, modern approaches to managing them do damage in the guise of helping out.

    Taleb was my introduction to the post-classical theory of reason, but the project overlaps a bit with the LessWrong school I now favour. Underneath (i.e. in the technical appendices), his approach is very similar but with more conservative goals. I think Taleb saved me years of synthesis and conceptual invention.

    His conduct on Twitter (ridiculous chest-beating, insulting anyone who disagrees with him, including great scholars like Tetlock and Thaler) is embarrassing, but does not detract from the accomplishment.

    In one sentence: Extraordinarily rude man marries classical ethics to modern mathematics and cognitive science.

    To be read when: young; if you have a news habit; when despairing of university economics.

    • Galef type:

      Data 3 - highlights patterns in the world
      & Theory 1&2&3&4&5 - a general concept or lens you can use to analyze many different things, &
      Style 1 - teaches principles of thinking directly.

    The God That Failed (1949) by Richard Crossman The God That Failed: Six Studies in Communism</i></b> (1949) by Silone, Koestler, Fischer, Gide, Wright, and Spender.

    Remarkable accounts of conversion by the most independent, earliest ex-Communists. From where we stand, it's easy to downplay the conversions - because, well, "obviously Stalinism was fucked" - but many of the most brilliant people kept clinging on to it through Kronstadt, through Pitchfork, through the Volksaufstand, through Hungary, through Prague, and even today (Carr never acknowledged the genocides; Hobsbawm knew the death tolls and kept betting on red; Grover Furr is still teaching) even in Russia.

    Persuasion may play a part in a man's conversion; but only the part of bringing to its full and conscious climax a process which has been maturing in regions where no persuasion can penetrate. A faith is not acquired; it grows like a tree.

    Foreword, by a peculiarly intellectual MP (by today's standards), is careful to set itself apart from the red-bashing of the time and lay out its humane purpose: to understand the emotional appeal of communism (: a religious one) and the disillusionment that the very most independent communists had already suffered.
    no one who has not wrestled with Communism as a philosophy, and Communists as political opponents, can really understand the values of Western democracy. The Devil once lived in Heaven, and those who have not met him are unlikely to recognize an angel when they see one... The Communist novice, subjecting his soul to the canon law of the Kremlin, felt something of the release which Catholicism also brings to the intellectual, wearied and worried by the privilege of freedom.

    Silone's testimony about the Comintern's sick irrationality would be enough to make the book prescient. Richard Wright's account of the fucked-up parties outside Russia is another really chilling bit: the rot was deep and wide. This was my great-grandfather's copy.

    (Form warning: Arthur Koestler was himself a monstrous man.)
    Brewer's Rogues, Villains & Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages (2002) by William Donaldson Addictive horrible hilarious biographies of British folly, banality and sin. A thousand years of tabloid gossip and popular madness, events too ephemeral for most serious historians: degradation, unchecked insanity and petty cruelty. But incredibly funny. The biographies are spaced out by Donaldson's wonderful little hooks, dry sentences that lead one on a wiki-walk:

    • ears, bagfuls of drying</li>
    • universes, privileged to be part of a team working in many

    • *
    • drinking 'brain damage' while composing a speech for Michael Heseltine

    • *
    • coal merchants, remarkable

    • *
    • voluptuous Tartars and tun-bellied Chinese

    • *
    • dog on a diet of cats, feeding one's 12-stone

    • *
    • soft heart and 83 previous convictions, a</i>
    • </ul>
      He has particular obsessions, and the book is organised around them: the fate of gays throughout British history; criminal priests, eccentric spinster aristocrats, the line of succession of London ganglords from Jonathan Wild onward; politicians doing what they ought not; the odd fates private schoolboys often find themselves in... Obviously this is no demerit in an unsystematic historian. The modern gang biographies attest to his personal acquaintance with the big diamond geezers (which makes him a "silly bollocks", a foolish gang dilettante). His wit's mostly very dry, on occasion boiling over into outrage:
      Dodd's execution took place at Tyburn on 27 June 1777 and the outcry it occasioned has been recognized by some historians as a key moment in focusing public attention on the brutality of capital punishment. It seems more likely, however, that it was caused less by any broad change in public opinion than by the fact Dodd was of the same class as those protesting his execution. A 15-year-old orphan, John Harris, hanged on the same day for stealing two and half guineas, received no such support, least of all from Dr Johnson...

      Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the law was changed to ensure that the production and supply of dangerous drugs should henceforth be in the hands of criminal organisations. Some people have argued that this is not an ideal arrangement.

      I made the mistake of trying to read it over one week - so the endless succession of 18th century rapist officers being instantly pardoned and/or their victims being arrested kind of ran together. It is actually the best bog book ever and wants 4 slow months. I understand Britain a lot better now. The author would emphatically deserve an entry of his own in any future edition: astonishing wit, astonishing connections, astonishing potential, with little to show for it but a barrel of laughs and this.</td> </tr>
    Guards! Guards! (Discworld, #8; City Watch #1) (1989) by Terry Pratchett Even better than I remembered. Feudal-fantasy satire in the voice of pubs of C20th England, with dragons, wizards and pre-Peel police wheedling, appealing to genetics, sod’s law. An incongruous, dogged self-awareness.

    The prose is quieter (less self-referential and wilfully surreal) than his peers – Adams, Holt, Rankin – and occasionally gets actually wise. Discworld is his noble funhouse mirror of Britain.

    Pratchett is very good at technology fads, social class, the duality of human nature, and the excruciating embarrassment of romance. Everything a growing boy needs.

    (Read aloud)
    The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse () by Robert Crawford None yet
    What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (1999) by Charles Bukowski

    all theories
    like cliches
    shot to hell,
    all these small faces
    looking up
    beautiful and believing;
    I wish to weep
    but sorrow is
    I wish to believe but belief is a
    we have narrowed it down to
    the butcherknife and the
    wish us

    In one sentence: Just a man in a room - odd, then, that this is enough to make people read them voluntarily, religiously, unlike almost all contemporary poetry with their bigger brains and better politics and more eventful stories and uplifting messages.

    To be read when: you can't sleep and it's 2am and tomorrow's going to be a pain in the arse and you're alone in the house; no better book then.

    Unbeatable at sliding through the mind with zero friction, depositing emotional silt and cheap, warm style from a previously insane and helpfully hopeless man in you – whatever you want that for. More than any other poet, he just literally talks to you. You can roll your eyes at his gaucheness and despise his chauvinism and feel nothing all you like: that's fine. It doesn't matter. It's not the point.

    So it's barely art, but he knows it. Pity any academic working on CB: these poems don't invite analysis; they are worn on their own surface. They mean just what they first mean. Many of them are just about writing poems, but I cannot resent their hollowness, since emptiness is his brush. Its main virtue is complete honesty. much has gone by for most of us,
    even the young, especially the young
    for they have lost the beginning and have
    the rest of the way to go;
    but isn’t it strange, all i can think of now are
    cucumbers, oranges, junk yards, the
    old Lincoln Heights jail and
    the lost loves that went so hard
    and almost brought us to the edge,
    the faces now without features,
    the love beds forgotten.
    the mind is kind: it retains the
    important things:
    junk yards
    ...there used to be over 100 of us in that big room
    in that jail
    i was in there many
    you slept on the floor
    men stepped on your face on the way to piss.
    always a shortage of cigarettes.
    names called out during the night
    (the few lucky ones who were bailed out)
    never you.

    ...when love came to us twice
    and lied to us twice
    we decided to never love again
    that was fair
    fair to us
    and fair to love itself.
    we ask for no mercy or no
    we are strong enough to live
    and to die and to
    kill flies,
    attend the boxing matches, go to the racetrack,
    live on luck and skill,
    get alone, get alone often,
    and if you can’t sleep alone
    be careful of the words you speak in your sleep;
    ask for no mercy
    no miracles;
    and don’t forget:
    time is meant to be wasted,
    love fails
    and death is useless

    Everything that people mock Leonard Cohen for is much more true of Bukowski (misery, drawling, self-obsession, archness, chauvinism, treating the whole world as your confessional); he is just more direct and macho about it; that fact, and the very different crowd surrounding his medium is enough to earn him contempt rather than mockery. (And contempt is a kind of involuntary respect.) Backwards analogy: Bukowski is Tom Waits minus gospel, minus FX pedals, minus Brecht and Weill, minus one steady Kathleen peer. And minus metre of course. A grumpy adolescent old man; a sensitising misanthrope; a beautiful lech.

    He has only two modes: midnight countercultural raving and laconic woke-at-noon observation. Neither would work without his lecherousness and/or meanness and/or arrogance; they are the absolutely necessary breve before he blares out his concern.

    moments of agony and moments of glory
    march across my roof.

    the cat walks by
    seeming to know everything.

    my luck has been better, I think,
    than the luck of the cut gladiolus,
    although I am not sure.

    I have been loved by many women,
    and for a hunchback of life,
    that’s lucky.

    so many fingers pushing through my hair
    so many arms holding me close
    so many shoes thrown carelessly on my bedroom

    so many searching hearts
    now fixed in my memory that
    i’ll go to my death,
    I have been treated better than I should have
    not by life in general
    nor by the machinery of things
    but by women.

    but there have been other women
    who have left me
    standing in the bedroom alone
    doubled over—
    hands holding the gut—
    why why why why why why?

    women go to men who are pigs
    women go to men with dead souls
    women go to men who fuck badly
    women go to shadows of men
    women go
    because they must go
    in the order of

    the women know better
    but often chose out of
    disorder and confusion.

    they can heal with their touch
    they can kill what they touch and
    I am dying
    but not dead

    (That ^ might have gotten your back up, because it pattern-matches to modern whining about women's choices. But it isn't that: remember, from above, that he is calling himself a pig and a dead soul.)

    This is three books written over thirty years, one sentence per ten lines as always, stapled together to give the impression of a late-life opus. It covers the whole lot: his Great Depression origin myth; his meaningless, crabbed middle years; and his long, long late period spent in contempt of the arty people who pay and applaud him.

    I am nothing like him, except maybe in sense of humour. He is not anti-modern - grew up through the Great Depression, a simulation of pre-modern subsistence; loves shit cars; lives for late night recorded music - but science, growth, and the expanding circle give him nothing of the sense of direction, transcendence and hope that it gives to me and mine. But still I "relate", as the disgusting verb puts it.

    I have read this a half-dozen times in a dozen years. (It isn't hard; it takes an hour.) I know of no better poet to begin to explain why poetry is good and unique and feeds life. This surely says something about my character, but I don't expect to stop reading it.

    PS: Bukowski's epitaph is "Don't try". On the face of it that's mean and funny and fine, but it also means what Yoda means by it: Don't force it; Don't betray your nature; Do only what you are absolutely aligned behind. Is that good advice? Maybe not, but it is epitomises the man more than the nihilistic joke.

    • Galef type:

      Values 3 - written from a holistic value structure, letting you experience that value structure from the inside.
    • </td> </tr>
    Tales from Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #5) (2001) by Ursula K. Le Guin My favourite, but you can't just jump in here; it gets its power from reprise and reprisal.
    Map and Territory () by Eliezer Yudkowsky None yet
    Computing machinery and intelligence (1950) by Alan Turing More scientific than it's given credit for: the claim about the Turing test was

    Consider first the more accurate form of the question. I believe that in about fifty years' time it will be possible, to programme computers, with a storage capacity of about 10^9 [bits], to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. The original question, "Can machines think?" I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion.

    Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words, and general educated opinion, will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted. I believe further that no useful purpose is served by concealing these beliefs. The popular view that scientists proceed inexorably from well-established fact to well-established fact, never being influenced by any improved conjecture, is quite mistaken. Provided it is made clear
    which are proved facts and which are conjectures, no harm can result.

    We failed him on this specific timeframe, but it won't be too long (2030?).
    Watchmen (1987) by Alan Moore None yet
    Beyond Good and Evil (1886) by Friedrich Nietzsche None yet
    The Penguin Book of English Verse (2000) by Paul Keegan None yet
    Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov None yet
    Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung (1987) by Lester Bangs Haven't read this since I was 16 but it left such a dent in my head and my prose.
    Blindsight (Firefall, #1) (2006) by Peter Watts There is a horror in neuroscience. It isn't inherent: it depends on subverting your sentimental sense of self, meaning, will, introspection, spirituality; if you don't have these, it won't register. The horror takes unthreatening academic names like "agnosia", "readiness potential", "interhemispheric intrusion", "neurotheology", "reconstructive memory", "Chinese room". (Also "executive psychopath" though.)

    The Blindsight ethos - Gothic, fatalist, Darwinist, one of the grandest pessimisms I've ever seen - is what you get when you take a traditional worldview (dualism, free will, work as what dignifies life, human exceptionalism, further-fact identity) and slam the great disenchanting science of a hundred years into it. And then add the coming century's automation and self-modification.

    Blindsight put me in a funk for a week - even though I don't hold any of the positions it sinks. I suppose this is evidence of Watt's talent. ("Art is a nonrational tool for persuasion: beware.") Not the least of its achievements is maintaining its murky nihilism in a world where friendly superintelligences exist.

    Because of its actual knowledge, this is weird realism, well beyond Lovecraft's. They're coming out of the walls: they're coming out of our best science. The vampires (and, to an extent, the Jovian von Neumann spikefest the plot is about) detract from this deeper horror a bit. Doom; unfixable aberration; people who have warped themselves. If you find Black Mirror a bit too disturbing you might want to give this a miss. Watts even tackles "illusionism" - uniquely I think!

    Is it strange that the giant lessons of the cognitive revolution are still rare in fiction? The only explanations I can think of are: simply "the Two Cultures" (i.e. novelists are ignorant); or, more discreditable, that novelists are shilling for traditional philosophy, maybe because it sells. (#1 giant lesson: we do not have introspective access to most of what our brains or minds do, on the level of information processing, action, motivation, or even emotion. You might say Freud found this out - but he didn't use reliable methods, made huge obvious errors, and created a closed unfalsifiable loop and so did not really have knowledge.)

    In contrast, Watts knows a great deal, uses it well, and takes seriously what he knows: for instance, readiness potentials are given all the emotional weight they deserve. This novel has 100 scientific papers listed in the back. The only people who cram quite as many ideas into their books as Watts are Stephenson and Banks.

    His scorn for the fumbling entendres of psychoanalysis is also extremely endearing:
    According to the experts of that time, multiple personalities arose spontaneously from unimaginable cauldrons of abuse — fragmentary personae offered up to suffer rapes and beatings while the child behind took to some unknowable sanctuary in the folds of the brain. It was both survival strategy and ritual self-sacrifice: powerless souls hacking themselves to pieces, offering up quivering chunks of self in the desperate hope that the vengeful gods called Mom or Dad might not be insatiable.

    None of it had been real, as it turned out. Or at least, none of it had been confirmed. The experts of the day had been little more than witch doctors dancing through improvised rituals: meandering free-form interviews full of leading questions and nonverbal cues, scavenger hunts through regurgitated childhoods. Sometimes a shot of lithium or haloperidol when the beads and rattles didn't work. The technology to map minds was barely off the ground; the technology to edit them was years away. So the therapists and psychiatrists poked at their victims and invented names for things they didn't understand, and argued over the shrines of Freud and Klein and the old Astrologers. Doing their very best to sound like practitioners of Science.

    "So we're fishing for what, exactly? Repressed memories?"
    "No such thing." She grinned in toothy reassurance. "There are only memories we choose to ignore, or kinda think around, if you know what I mean."

    People diss the prose but I think it fits the ethos incredibly well:
    We fled like frightened children with brave faces. We left a base camp behind: Jack, still miraculously functional in its vestibule; a tunnel into the haunted mansion; forlorn magnetometers left to die in the faint hope they might not. Crude pyronometers and thermographs, antique radiation-proof devices that measured the world through the flex and stretch of metal tabs and etched their findings on rolls of plastic. Glow-globes and diving bells and guide ropes strung one to another...

    Inside each of us, infinitesimal lacerations were turning our cells to mush. Plasma membranes sprang countless leaks. Overwhelmed repair enzymes clung desperately to shredded genes and barely delayed the inevitable. Anxious to avoid the rush, patches of my intestinal lining began flaking away before the rest of the body had a chance to die.

    Siri, the sociopath pinhead, is a great character. But also often an infuriating Hollywood Rationalist, and several times he gets the last word which forces me to suspect Watts of it. Though the bit where his girlfriend is dying and he refuses to say anything because it would be cliched is clearly intentionally infuriating for the reader. So might be this stupid bit of game theory:
    "Well, according to game theory, you should never tell anyone when your birthday is."
    "I don't follow."
    "It's a lose-lose proposition. There's no winning strategy."
    "What do you mean, strategy? It's a birthday."

    Look, I'd said, say you tell everyone when it is and nothing happens. It's kind of a slap in the face.
    Or suppose they throw you a party, Chelsea had replied.
    Then you don't know whether they're doing it sincerely, or if your earlier interaction just guilted them into observing an occasion they'd rather have ignored. But if you don't tell anyone, and nobody commemorates the event, there's no reason to feel badly because after all, nobody knew. And if someone does buy you a drink then you know it's sincere because nobody would go to all the trouble of finding out when your birthday is — and then celebrating it — if they didn't honestly like you.

    ...I could just... plot out the payoff matrix, Tell/Don't Tell along the columns, Celebrated/Not Celebrated along the rows, the unassailable black-and-white logic of cost and benefit in the squares themselves. The math was irrefutable: the one winning strategy was concealment. Only fools revealed their birthdays.

    - this only follows if you have ridiculously strong error aversion, where the value of being certain about others' opinion of you overrules the pleasantness of ordinary interaction.

    He mentions (but then averts) the single most annoying error when talking about consciousness, which is that "maybe it's better for the p-zombie aliens to take over, since they are clearly fitter than us":
    "It doesn't bug you?" Sascha was saying. "Thinking that your mind, the very thing that makes you you, is nothing but some kind of parasite?"
    "Forget about minds," he told her. "Say you've got a device designed to monitor — oh, cosmic rays, say. What happens when you turn its sensor around so it's not pointing at the sky anymore,
    but at its own guts?" He answered himself before she could: "It does what it's built to. It measures cosmic rays, even though it's not looking at them any more. It parses its own circuitry in terms of cosmic-ray metaphors, because those feel right, because they feel natural, because it can't look at things any other way. But it's the wrong metaphor. So the system misunderstands everything about itself. Maybe that's not a grand and glorious evolutionary leap after all. Maybe it's just a design flaw."

    (Who cares about fitness? A world without qualia is 'Disneyland without children'.)

    His Mathesonian attempt to naturalise vampires is kinda clever (they are a subspecies of cannibal savants), and the exemplar vamp Jukka is one of the best characters in the book - but overall their presence is distracting and off-piste; the right-angles epilepsy thing, the revived-by-corporate-greed schtick, more generally holding that corporate culture is putting macroscopic selection pressure to psychopathic nonsentience: all these things jolt me out of his otherwise well-built world.

    Besides the vampires, there are a few more over-the-top ughs. His whole theme of technology as inherently dehumanising, Black Mirror / Event Horizon is just as cherry-picked and annoying as it always is. The idea that consciousness is unadaptive, and so a one-off aberration in a universe of blind replicators - which steamrolls all objections in the novel - is not obviously true. But it is certainly true either way that our society is currently unadaptive, in the sense of not maximising reproduction. (And thank god for that.)

    Wrenching but admirable. Great in spite of itself. For the nonangsty, post-dualist, post-further-fact version read Hanson and Simler instead.

    [Free! here]
    Small Gods (Discworld, #13) (1992) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) by David Foster Wallace Draining, scarifying, funny, hyperactive, elevating. ‘Content warning’, as we say now. For instance, the person described in this passage is one story’s hero, a powerful agent:

    [her] prototypical sandals, unrefined fibers, daffy arcana, emotional incontinence, flamboyantly long hair, extreme liberality on social issues, financial support from parents they revile, bare feet, obscure import religions, indifferent hygiene, a gooey and somewhat canned vocabulary, the whole predictable peace-and-love post-Hippie diction…

    i.e. He comes up with a perfect encapsulation of a facile social trend, but throws away his anger about it, makes us realise that our efforts to be tasteful / rational / grown-up are, here, making us small. DFW was an early mover in the revived 'Third Culture' we can all enjoy: i.e. writing about the highly technical in terms of its high meaning. But he was different: his syncretism came out of the negations of high postmodern theory, rather than the usual humanists with science backgrounds.

    Or like just another manipulative pseudopomo Bullshit artist who’s trying to salvage a fiasco by dropping back to a metadimention and commenting on the fiasco itself.

    ‘On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand’ made me cry a lot.
    Right Ho, Jeeves (Jeeves, #6) (1934) by P.G. Wodehouse Wodehouse belongs, not with Dickens or Tom Sharpe or Ben Elton, but with More, Morris, Roddenberry, and Banks. His Blandings is a utopia - just of the rarest kind, set in the present day. He is easy to dismiss as unserious - though actually he is anti-serious, his apparent deficit of gloom and pompousness a decision:
    I have it from her ladyship's own maid, who happened to overhear a conversation between her ladyship and one of the gentlemen staying here that it was her intention to start you almost immediately upon Nietzsche. You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.

    (I don't think he is but this still brings me joy.)

    RHJ is the very best Jeeves book. It's the one where Wooster contemptuously sends Jeeves away and sets about fixing everything on his own, with fully predictable and fully joyous results.


    Wooster's taboo:
    The Book of Disquiet (1982) by Fernando Pessoa In one sentence: Eventless autobiographical sketches about working a shit job in a shit town, and but the beauty of self-obsession.
    To be read when: unable to sleep; e.g. at 3am or when travelling for more than 15 hours.
    I asked very little from life, and even this little was denied me. A nearby field, a ray of sunlight, a little bit of calm along with a bit of bread, not to feel oppressed by the knowledge that I exist, not to demand anything from others, and not to have others demand anything from me - this was denied me, like the spare change we might deny a beggar not because we're mean-hearted but because we don't feel like unbuttoning our coat.

    Pessoa's uniqueness was invisible during his life; this is a shining, astonishing instance of what we now call neuroatypicality and of the everyday sublime. He's obsessed with cute fatalism, with his own inadequacy, with nothingness and loneliness, but almost every passage is wise or funny or beautiful. I catch no despair off him. Turning shite to gold. Like Larkin if Larkin were likeable; like Montaigne if terser and darker.

    And at this table in my absurd room, I, a pathetic and anonymous office clerk, write words as if they were the soul's salvation, and I gild myself with the impossible sunset of high and vast hills in the distance, with the statue I received in exchange for life's pleasures, and with the ring of renunciation on my evangelical finger, the stagnant jewel of my ecstatic disdain.

    Floreat inertia! the worker-poet distinctive and supreme. I first read this on a 22-hour international journey, unsleeping, undrinking, unreal; I prescribe the same conditions for you when you read him.

    I feel love for all this, perhaps because I have nothing else to love... even though nothing truly merits the love of any soul, if, out of sentiment, we must give it, I might as well lavish it on the smallness of an inkwell as on the grand indifference of the stars.

    This paperback is a super-slim selection of the full chaotic archive he left behind; only a tenth of the full Desassossego archive has been translated in to English; this is a great temptation towards a language I presently have no other reason to learn.

    • Galef type:
      Data 1 - a window onto an interesting piece of the world, &
      Value 3 - written from a holistic value structure, letting you experience that value structure from the inside, &
      Style 2 - from which you can learn a style of thinking by studying the author’s approach to the world.

    One of my constant preoccupations is trying to understand how it is that other people exist, how it is that there are souls other than mine and consciousnesses not my own, which, because it is a consciousness, seems to me unique. I understand perfectly that the man before me uttering words similar to mine and making the same gestures I make, or could make, is in some way my fellow creature. However, I feel just the same about the people in illustrations I dream up, about the characters I see in novels or the dramatis personae on the stage who speak through the actors representing them.

    I suppose no one truly admits the existence of another person. One might concede that the other person is alive and feels and thinks like oneself, but there will always be an element of difference, a perceptible discrepancy, that one cannot quite put one's finger on. There are figures from times past, fantasy-images in books that seem more real to us than these specimens of indifference-made-flesh who speak to us across the counters of bars, or catch our eye in trams, or brush past us in the empty randomness of the streets. The others are just part of the landscape for us, usually the invisible landscape of the familiar.

    I feel closer ties and more intimate bonds with certain characters in books, with certain images I've seen in engravings, that with many supposedly real people, with that metaphysical absurdity known as 'flesh and blood'. In fact 'flesh and blood' describes them very well: they resemble cuts of meat laid on the butcher's marble slab, dead creatures bleeding as though still alive, the sirloin steaks and cutlets of Fate.

    I'm not ashamed to feel this way because I know it's how everyone feels. The lack of respect between men, the indifference that allows them to kill others without compunction (as murderers do) or without thinking (as soldiers do), comes from the fact that no one pays due attention to the apparently abstruse idea that other people have souls too.
    </td> </tr>
    The Patrick Melrose Novels (2012) by Edward St. Aubyn Marvelous. Even though: nearly filled-up with resentment and self-pity. Patrick's staggering detachment from and humour about his own inner life makes the books rise far above him - most of the series is not spent in Patrick's head but instead depicts his brutal gilded circle - and, every few pages, there is a moment of beautiful lucidity or unvoiced empathy. The prose, the humour, the sadness are enough to make you glad, with Patrick, that his parents are dead.

    The prose is wonderfully smooth, but I took my time, jolted out every few pages by something demanding reflection: "Evil is sickness celebrating itself";

    Just as a novelist may sometimes wonder why he invents characters who do not exist and makes them do things which do not matter, so a philosopher may wonder why he invents cases that cannot occur in order to determine what must be the case.

    Underneath the filth and irony, Patrick is someone for whom philosophical questions are natural and urgent. The long discursions are more motivated and seamless than in any novel I can think of.

    At one point, Mary dismisses the idea that her son's anxiety and angst, so like his father's, could have a genetic component - and assumes that it has inadvertently leaked out of Patrick's behaviour. (She goes on to leave him, actually making a damage-control argument about removing the children from his helpless influence.)

    Yes: For all his insight, wit, cynicism, contrarianism, St Aubyn is still stuck in a giant contemporary ideology: the nurture assumption, the culture of environment-only development and essential woundedness.

    Sure, people get wounded all the time, and being able to say so in public is a great gain, (for one thing, no one in a confessional culture has to assume that they are alone, that their defects are bizarrely theirs. But if trauma is the centre of some people's sense of self - if it is fetishised and even incentivised (e.g. misery memoirs and high-clap Medium posts)... The risks of centring such things are large and underreported: self-fulfilling prophecies, agonising rumination, and the loss of the peace and pleasure of gratitude.

    Fine, Aubyn is correct about our sad path-dependence - he's just too recent in placing the start of the path. Here are genetic markers for anxiety and PTSD, against the novel's tacit, almost Freudian emphasis on environment alone.

    Aubyn is obviously somewhat detached from his own trauma - you can't write prose this fair and glowing if you're not - which is lucky. Otherwise, the seeker after truth would be senselessly telling the vulnerable they're deluded about their own life. (As we all are, though not in the same ways.)

    Serious engagement with philosophy of mind throughout:

    In any case, he now felt in danger all the time. Danger of liver collapse, marital breakdown, terminal fear. Nobody ever died of a feeling, he would say to himself, not believing a word of it, as he sweated his way through the feeling that he was dying of fear. People died of feelings all the time, once they had gone through the formality of materializing them into bullets and bottles and tumours.

    More generally, Patrick actually wrestles with materialism, rather than using the usual literary tricks of caricature and omission on it.


    Curious whether St Aubyn got his vicious rendition of Princess Margaret at first- or second-hand.


    The first three chapters of Mother's Milk, told from the perspective of Patrick's first child, are just perfect writing. Robert sees only the benevolence and humour of his parents, not their exhaustion, rage, and bad faith. They are anonymous to him and us, just Robert's mother and Robert's father. It is a glory and a high echelon, though it gives giving the emotional arc of the rest of the book a very long way to fall.

    Thomas [2 years old] still knew how to understand the silent language which Robert had almost lost as the wild margins of his mind fell under the sway of a verbal empire. He was standing on a ridge, about to surge downhill, getting faster, getting taller, getting more words, getting bigger and bigger explanations, cheering all the way. Now Thomas had made him glance backwards and lower his sword for a moment while he noticed everything he had lost as well. He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of colour on a page.

    The exaggeration of the wisdom of children is even stronger in Mother's Milk. This is no criticism because St Aubyn isn't very committed to realism, and because Robert's rich and sparkling inner life suits one of the themes: that children deserve to be treated well, taken relatively seriously, as we all do. And that purpose is not the same as result ('telos' indeed):

    We think the purpose of a child is to grow up because it does grow up. But its purpose is to play, to enjoy itself, to be a child. If we merely look to the end of the process, the purpose of life is death.

    The art of kintsugi.
    Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) by Herman Melville One of the Frankensteins, those endlessly interpretable load-bearing columns dotted around literature. Of negation, dignity, irrationality, silence, impermeability.

    What is Bartleby, if not just depressed or hyper-lazy? Well there’s the defensive Stoic catatonia, or wu wei; Bartleby as crypto-proto-Marxist; Bartleby as waning Übermensch, squatter monk, annoying Christ; Bartleby as dissociating schizophrene or autist; Bartleby as Death of Dead Letters; Bartleby as PTSD ghost; Bartleby as all our inarticulate idiosyncracy, as utter Other – “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!”

    Some people (e.g. Blanchot, Hardt & Negri, Setiya) view him as heroic, but he’s more hallucinogenic and morbid: he lacks everything but refusal; he throws his life away. And that’s a living death, a non-human void (“I never feel so private as when I know [Bartleby is] here”).
    So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it.

    That copyists are an extinct breed only adds to the seething flavour; it is possible that OCR and distributed Captchas could have minimised Bartleby’s suffering - that the condition the piece wrangles with isn’t eternal. What would Bartleby be today? Not, I think, an Occupier; rather a impassive backstreets bookshop owner, or a kombucha stallholder or whatnot.

    I prefer to read Melville’s voice - waffling Victorian persiflage - as an assumed decoration for the windbag lawyer’s voice (however much Moby Dick shouts otherwise).
    Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace

    The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.

    Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.

    The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life (2017) by Kevin Simler
    The best synthesis of the study of human nature (cognitive psychology, interactionist sociology, primatology, and economics) I've ever seen. Freud done right ("although the explanations in this book may seem Freudian at times, we follow mainstream cognitive psychology in rejecting most of Freud's methods and many of his conclusions"). It's introductory, laced with illustrative anecdotes but with much deeper scholarship underneath.

    The 'elephant in the brain' is our unwitting selfishness. We compete without knowing or admitting it, for we are social animals seeking power or status, and thereby sex.

    Modeling the world accurately isn't the be-all and end-all of the human brain. Brains evolved to help our bodies, and ultimately our genes, get along and get ahead in the world—a world that includes not just rocks and squirrels and hurricanes, but also other human beings. And if we spend a significant fraction of our lives interacting with others (which we do), trying to convince them of certain things (which we do), why shouldn't our brains adopt socially useful beliefs as first-class citizens, alongside world-modeling beliefs? Wear a mask long enough and it becomes your face. Play a role long enough and it becomes who you are. Spend enough time pretending something is true and you might as well believe it.

    Incidentally, this is why politicians make a great case study for self-deception. The social pressure on their beliefs is enormous. Psychologically, then, politicians don't so much 'lie' as regurgitate their own self-deceptions. Both are ways of misleading others, but self-deceptions are a lot harder to catch and prosecute.

    Simler undertook the book in lieu of a PhD, and his work is a welcome modification of Hanson's usual relentlessly lucid style: he is more concrete, chattier, more personable.

    Information is sensitive in part because it can threaten our self-image and therefore our social image. So the rest of the brain conspires—whispers—to keep such information from becoming too prominent, especially in consciousness. In this sense, the Freuds were right: the conscious ego needs to be protected. But not because we are fragile, but rather to keep damaging information from leaking out of our brain and into the minds of our associates.

    You can probably skip this if you're familiar with Overcoming Bias / LessWrong / Econlog - but even then it's a pleasant read. I'm going to give this to every teenager I know. Armour and key.
    Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985) by Cormac McCarthy
  • In one sentence: The greatest and truest western.

  • To be read when: strong-stomached; drunk as fuck.

  • Say it is 1985 A.P. (After Peckinpah). How can anyone write anything new about poor white psychopaths in the hot rural places of Victorian America? The answer turns out simple: just have prose so tight and freshening - a jet hose comprising one-third Bible, one-third Emerson, one-third Ballard - that you again uncover the elemental bones of the Western. Also savagely de-emphasise your characters. Place them in enormous, indifferent vistas; give us no inner monologue - nor even indirect report of subjective life; have no speech marks to set their words apart from the landscapes (do not draw the eye to their presumed humanity); have no apostrophes, no hyphens even, lest we remember; have as few names as possible, leave them as types - "kid" or "captain" or "mexican" or "brave"; set their incredible violence among such vast places it looks like little; have few capital letters but for God's.

    Lock your readers out; make everyone and everything opaque. As he says himself:

    In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence.

    These cowboys and injuns punctuate the beautiful land of Central America with hanged babies; rings of decapitate heads; a four-eyed dog; a man calmly eating his own shit; endless thirsty hallucinogenic despair. This is exhausting, quite hard to read:

    All night the wind blew and the fine dust set their teeth on edge. Sand in everything, grit in all they ate. In the morning a urinecolored sun rose blearily through panes of dust on a dim world and without feature. The animals were failing... That night they rode through a region electric and wild where strange shapes of soft blue fire ran over the metal of the horses' trappings and the wagonwheels rolled in hoops of fire and little shapes of pale blue light came to perch in the ears of the horses and in the beards of the men... the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.

    (As well as this Nabokovian trudge through the middle section, McCarthy sometimes steers close to the comical with sentences like 'Itinerant degenerates bleeding west like a heliotropic plague.')

    A typical human interaction in this book is "The kid looked at the man"; no more. There's plenty of grandeur - just not in humans.

    At the centre stands the Judge: Satan, Ahab and Moby Dick all in one. ("His skin is so pale as to have almost no pigment.") Racism, fear and poverty form the baseline. The Comanches, for instance, are here worse than demons

    ...grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns... riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning...

    - "at least demons are Christian"!

    Lots of descriptions of the stars, inbetween brutalities

    The night sky lies so sprent with stars that there is scarcely a space of black at all and they fall all night in bitter arcs and it is so that their numbers are no less...

    The stars burned with a lidless fixity and they drew nearer in the night until toward dawn he was stumbling among the whinstones of the uttermost ridge to heaven.

    For the first time I understand why Aristotle's physics divides the world into different celestial and terranean operations: from down here back then, the stars look so clean and permanent, they're just not of our world, dirty, unhinged, and endangered as it has been, for almost everyone.

  • Galef type:
    Data 2 - What does it imply about the world, that X could happen?, &
    Style 3 - tickle your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker.
  • The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975) by Ursula K. Le Guin 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.
    Poems of the Late T'ang (1965) by A.C. Graham I've been playing at knowing China for years, but of course I do not. (For instance, I picked this calm, modest book up unwittingly, and learn it is the gold standard translation by the greatest Western sinologist of the day.) It's a great hook: supposedly, Chinese poetry (world poetry?) peaked in the Ninth Century. For almost their whole history, passion and violence were considered inappropriate topics for poetry! They resented melodrama and fantasy in their poets! I must be jaded to think this is great.

    The poets seem all to be old men trying not to care about death - "snail shell men", in Ancient Chinese. They are mainly ultra-concrete - lots of masterpieces about mountains and rice and fish. Graham is a droll, masterful guide, making the requisite comparisons to Baudelaire and Pound for me, the clunking reader. (I can only assume the strange meters he uses are good approximations to the original.) The war between Confucianism and Buddhism is prominent here, and is hard for me to imagine -probably because I have a Hollywood understanding of these two "serene" "coping" philosophies. Li Shangyin's (李商隐的) "On a Monastery Wall":
    They rejected life to seek the way. Their footprints are before us.
    They offered up their brains, ripped up their bodies: so firm was their resolution.
    See it as large, and a millet grain cheats us of the universe:
    See it as small, and the world can hide in a pinpoint.
    The oyster before its womb fills thinks of the new cassia:
    The amber, when it first sets, remembers a former pine.
    If we trust the true and sure words written on Indian leaves
    We hear all past and future in one stroke of the temple bell

    Like a typical Westerner, I like the weirdoes: Li He (李賀), who's their wild fantasist (Blake?) and Meng Jiao (孟郊), barren kin of Poe. I enjoyed this, but don't really have the tools to judge:
    What Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night (2014) by John Brockman A portrait of the worst things in the world by some of the cleverest people in it. Loads of people went for the cheap way out and said "We should worry about too much worrying", which is true in one sense but not helpful.

    Quality varies: these are the most astonishing bits.

    Many of the entries are on far less important matters, but even those are valuable as evidence of expert disagreement / the deep human need for whimsy.

    [Free here]
    Iain Crichton Smith: Selected Poems (1986) by Iain Crichton Smith None yet
    Collected Poems (1988) by Czesław Miłosz Bought it for someone else, but couldn't give it away. Does much that I usually don’t appreciate – both Holocaust musing and the relative innocence of nature. But his indirectness and attentiveness lift it way, way beyond the ordinary run of those themes. Never mawkish. Epochal.

    Here, Here, Here, Here, Here, Here.
    Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo (2004) by Werner Herzog
    Laplace [the set engineer] is talking about levelling the slope to a mere 45 percent grade; but that would look like the narrow strip of land that forms an isthmus. I told him I would not allow that, because we would lose the central metaphor of the film. ‘Metaphor for what?’ he asked. I said I did not know, just that it was a grand metaphor. Maybe, I said, it was an image slumbering in all of us, and I happened to be the one to introduce him to a brother he had never met…
    he said he could not go working under these conditions, and wanted to leave.

    I have a weird relationship with Herzog. His films’ typical tone and message (Nietzschean tragicomedy) doesn't really appeal to me. I watch them – and I watch them all, even since Dinotasia – for their literal and figurative voice: his relentless, Teutonic ecstatic absurdity. I wait for that voice to roll out and make me hurt or laugh.

    (Since his humour is only sometimes on show, I am often laughing at him – and yet, out of mawkish brutalism, through my irony, rise the most affecting scenes I’ve ever seen: the beach shot in Cobra Verde; the clouds in Heart of Glass; the wandering penguin in Encounters; above all the final shot of My Best Fiend.)

    These diaries show him to be more thoughtful, rational, contrived and poetic than I had guessed. His sincere interest in the locals’ territorial plight, his physical participation in the set construction and management, his absorption in the suffering of jungle animals, his incongruous bright-eyed interest in mathematics, his astonishing codependency with Kinski, are all deeply disarming. The prose takes some getting used to, since the plain unflinching goth awe of it is the kind of thing we are primed to mock.
    The jungle is obscene. Everything about it is sinful, for which reason the sin does not stand out as sin. The voices in the jungle are silent; nothing is stirring, and a languid, immobile anger hovers over everything.

    It is worth acclimating to: each entry is both bleak and hilarious, and Krishna Winston's translation is a thing of wonder, no doubt improving on WH.
    I recall experiencing a similar shiver of awe as a child in Sachrang, when I found a fried piece of bright blue plastic that had floated down the brook and got caught on an over hanging branch. At the time, I had never seen anything like it, and I kept it hidden for weeks, licked it, found it slightly stretchy, full of miraculous properties. Not until weeks later, when I had my fill of owning it, did I show it to anyone. Till and I discovered when you held a burning match to it, it melted; it gave black smoke and a nasty smell, but it was something we had never seen before, an emissary from a distant world high in the mountains, along the upper reaches of the brook, where it vanished into gorges and there were no people. So where did it come from? Had it blown into the mountains by the wind? Idid not know, but I gave the plastic a name-what I do not recall. I do know it had a nice sound, and was very secret, and since then I have often racked my brains, trying to remember that name, that word. I would give a lot to know it, but I do not, and I also do not have that delicate piece of weather-beaten plastic anymore. Having neither the secret word nor the plastic makes me poorer today than I was as a child.

    He certainly views the natural world right: as overwhelmingly a place of horrifying and pointless suffering, cooed over by pseuds from cars.
    Sweat, storm clouds overhead, sleeping dogs. There is a smell of stale urine. In my soup, ants and bugs were swimming among the globules of fat. Lord Almighty, send us an earthquake.

    There’s not a lot of technical info here, or explanations of the crew’s role or background; there's no timeline or context added; nor even very much about the film at all. But who cares? This is incredible as nature writing, dream journal, and logistical poetry.
    Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007) by Clive James I love James because, though he is a literary intellectual through and through, he makes room for the other half of the human mind. He is still an arts supremacist - this personal portrait of the century contains no scientists, and many actors and novelists and politicians, but he is at least aware of the narrowness of this.

    Cultural Amnesia is an invitation to the humanities; defence of philosophy and art against politics; an attack on the hypocrisy of the left (Kollontai, Sartre, Brecht, Saramago), on the heartlessness of the right (Junger, Brasillach, Pound, Heidegger); a dark, teeming biography of C20th humanism and its enemies; a reading list for all of us bewildered by the bullshit critical fortresses of serious writing about art and history. James is deeply opinionated, often funny and occasionally heartbreaking.

    Of “the relationship between Hitler’s campaign on the eastern front and Richard Burton’s pageboy haircut”. It’s full of faded and non-Anglophone stars (Egon Friedell, Arthur Schnitzler, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Paz, Urena), villains (Brassilach, Celine, Pound, Sartre, Brecht), pop-defining celebrities (Beatrix Potter, Dick Cavett, Michael Mann) and sad outrage.

    It’s also or really an autobiography, a list of the people and one-liners that struck James as he travelled the century. WW2 and the Soviet Empire dominate as the most deadly instances of the theme “how politics invaded art and came close to killing it”.

    Other themes: irrational violence, the nonconformist left, collaborators and fellow-travellers, Jewish achievements, the failure of totalitarian simplicity, ‘the American century’, rise and fall of jazz. He falls for clash-of-civilisation talk a bit, but he’s never conservative without a reason. I think what I love about him is that he stands up for boring truths – ‘it takes another power to keep a power in check’, “the law’s imperfections are tokens of its necessity” etc.

    For every villain we are given a counter exemplar: Marc Bloch, Sophie Scholl, Jorge Borges...

    This is my second read-through in five years; I expect to read it again in another five.
    Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (1962) by Jorge Luis Borges None yet
    Reliable Essays: The Best of Clive James (2001) by Clive James Mostly haute subjects for once, but always bas on bs.

    He: brags about having spotted Heaney very early, points out the fatal ideological flaws in both Mailer and Greer, fiercely challenges translations from the Italian, the Russian, the German; summarises every major photography book of the late 70s; shows that liberalism and classicism remain standing, “less bad than all the others” even after the sustained insult of C20th Theory; and some other such generalist feats.

    The last two section titles – “Almost Literature” and “Practically Art” – are scale models of both his style and his critical mission: to raise the foully sunken, or shield the great assailed.

    Skip it, but only because you should be reading the full New Essays series these essays are lifted from.
    Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened (2013) by Allie Brosh None yet
    Travels With Myself and Another (1979) by Martha Gellhorn In one sentence: Great journalist goes on holiday to the shittest times and places on earth.
    To be read when: travelling; refusing to.

    Hilarious and patrician account of the worst of her many journeys, to: Guomindang China 1941, the U-boated Caribbean 1942, East through West Africa 1949, Russia 1966, hippie Israel 1971.

    She generalises a lot (e.g. she categorises each new tribe she comes across by their average attractiveness and prevailing smell; she often calls ‘racial’ what we’d deem 'cultural' traits). But her discrimination is more usually discriminating, making just distinctions. She’s fair, keen to empathise -

    I said it stood to reason that we must smell in some disgusting way to them.
    Yes, said Aya, they say we have the ‘stale odour of corpses’; they find it sickening.

    This cheers me; fair’s fair; I don’t feel so mean-minded

    – a point you can find in p’Bitek, among others. And she holds colonialists and bigots in far higher contempt (“it seems conceited to foist off our notions of religion, which we have never truly practised, onto people whose savagery is much more disorganised, personal and small-scale than ours”).

    My mate Paul – a noted cynic – believes, along with most of our generation, that travel is ennobling, inherently. It surely is not, but it certainly does put an edge on some folks’ writing. Not their souls:

    One needs Equanil here too, not just in our white urban civilisation; tranquilisers against impatience, against the hysteria induced by heat, and the disgust at dirt...

    Generous, stylish, and a fine if not superior substitute for going there.

    Galef type:
    - Data 1 - a window onto an interesting piece of the world, &
    - Values 3 - a holistic value structure, letting you experience that value structure from the inside.
    Collected Poems (1988) by Philip Larkin
    In one sentence: The apotheosis of perverse contentment or British miserabilism: Housman, if honest about his appetites; Lawrence with a sense of humour; Auden plus even more jazz..

    To be read when: ill, heartbroken, very young, quite old, too cynical, too hopeful.

    Of the consuming fear of death, sexual frustration, impostor syndrome: Britain.

    He was forever overawed by lack of control over his life; we are left with his superlative control of form. Motifs are well-known: the hostile wind heard from the cold attic; the diminishing of strength; the fall of desire without a fall in the desire to desire; the conviction that age is not running out of time, but running out of self. These are not moans: he loves jazz and booze and other things that make death recede. He’s vulgar, and wields it, but never as punchline; what startsGroping back to bed after a piss” will end with the universe :

    The hardness and the brightness and plain
    far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
    Is a reminder of the strength and the pain
    Of being young; that it can’t come again,
    But is for others undiminished somewhere.

    There’s too much in this volume. I mean that as criticism of its editor, not as expression of Larkin’s o’erflowing sublimity. But that too, actually: “Sad Steps”, “Aubade”, “For Sidney Bechet”, "No Road", and “Continuing to Live” are among my favourites.

    By ’72 his bitterness and fear had overcome his kindness, and he dried up, leaving doggerel for mates and nasty biz like “The Old Fools” or “The Card Players”. And yet even after three years of this came “Aubade”.

    I avoided the juvenilia, perhaps even out of superstitious respect.

    • Galef type:

      Data 3 - that highlight patterns in the world , &

      Style 3 - tickles your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker.

    4/5: Very impressed. 75th percentile.

    CFAR Applied Rationality Workshop - Participant Handbook () by CFAR, Duncan Sabien None yet
    The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge (2001) by Vernor Vinge More playful and miscellaneous than I was expecting. As always with him, there are grand gears turning in the background of his stories: there's more to his worlds than we see, and reasons beyond what the characters reason. But overall not as stunning as his novels, even accounting for scale. This is not surprising when you realise that the earliest of these was written when he was a teenager. He really hits his stride halfway through this, 1980.

    The main intellectual success is his depiction of anarchism, as stable, unstable, predatory, kind, natural, or requiring unnatural underpinning.

    I loved his forewords to each story:
    "The quality of the writing is about average for what I could manage in the 1960s... And the ideas? Ah, there's the problem. To date, "The Accomplice" is the most irritating combination of embarrassing gaffes and neat insights that I have ever created."

    Great fun but not as mind-bending as Egan or Chiang or Borges or Vinge.

    1. 'The Ungoverned'. How could anarchism resist invasion?: By being too expensive to conquer.
    2. The Peddlar's Apprentice'. Neat post-post-apocalypse. The control group are the good guys.
    3. 'Long Shot'.
    4. 'The Blabber'.
    5. 'Fast Times at Fairmont High'.
    6. 'Just Peace'.
    7. 'Conquest by Default'. Yet another anarchism, but with true aliens this time. Patches the gap in nonaggression with religious dogma: all obey the anti-monopoly priests. Colonialist anarchists!!
    8. 'Original Sin'.
    9. 'Bomb Scare'.
    10. 'Apartness'.
    11. 'The Whirligig of Time'. Tries too hard to be lyrical about nuclear holocaust. Rare depiction of winners of a nuclear war! Monarchy returns to post-apocalypse Russia, and then somehow they get to super advanced tech despite authoritarian thought control. You can feel the actual physical model straining underneath the prose and morals.
    12. 'Win a Nobel Prize!'.
    13. 'Run, Bookworm!'.
    14. 'The Science Fair'.
    15. 'Gemstone'.
    16. 'The Accomplice'.
    The Sellout (2015) by Paul Beatty
    [Ta-Nehisi] Coates and [Michelle] Alexander have gained wide audiences; their books are bestsellers, and they are celebrated across liberal media outlets. Their animating idea — that to overcome racism, the United States must discard any pretense to colorblindness — has become accepted across broad swathes of the mainstream Left. For better or worse, however, it marks a stark departure from King’s appeal that skin color should be ignored. The battle between colorblindness and active anti-racism will have enormous consequences for American society.

    - Christian Gonzalez

    In attempting to restore his community through reintroducing precepts, namely segregation and slavery, that, given his cultural history, have come to define his community despite the supposed unconstitutionality and nonexistence of these concepts, he’s pointed out a fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim we see equality.

    ‘I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, yellow, red, green, or purple.’ We’ve all said it... He’s painting everybody over, painting this community purple and green, and seeing who still believes in equality.

    - a judge in The Sellout

    The Sellout is filled with racism and racists - for one thing, the nearly-nameless protagonist, the Sellout, brings back segregated busses and schools, and (reluctantly) owns a volunteer slave - but the book is clearly itself not racist. (I can even quantify how much racism's in it: at one point a pompous character counts the slurs in Huckleberry Finn, arguing for censoring it:

    This is serious. Brother Mark Twain uses the ‘n-word’ 219 times. That’s .68 ‘n-words’ per page in toto.

    Well, including 'weren*r' and 'n*rized', etc, Beatty manages 146, or 0.52 a page. It feels like more.)

    That isn't the confusing bit; what is, is that none of the presented racists are white; in fact no substantial characters are. (The single named white person is present for all of seven pages, and is merely innocently patronising.) We could stretch and say that this is Beatty exclaiming at internalised racism. Or it could be a unusual claim about where racism (in the established sense of propositional or emotional racism, as opposed to structural racism) is openly expressed now: among nonwhites. (Or he could seriously just be trolling.)

    Further, it isn't just a Modest Proposal, despite the prevalence of this mistake of interpretation. A modest proposal is the deadpan presentation of a policy to make the reader realise that it is disgusting. In The Sellout, separatism and degradation work, they improve Dickens for the segregated: the policies are popular, grades go up, crime goes down, and people are polite within and without race categories. What is this saying?

    It's hard to work out Beatty's schtick, partly because the whole of the first 100 pages is a string of horrible and bravura one-liners, from "black literature sucks":
    I’m so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown!

    How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books? That’s why black literature sucks!


    Maybe race had nothing to do with it. Maybe Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat because she knew the guy to be unapologetically gassy or one of those annoying people who insists on asking what you’re reading, then without prompting tells you what he’s reading, what he wants to read, what he regrets having read, what he tells people he’s read but really hasn’t read. So like those high school white girls who have after-school sex with the burly black athlete in the wood shop, and then cry rape when their fathers find out, maybe Rosa Parks, after the arrest, the endless church rallies, and all the press, had to cry racism, because what was she going to say: “I refused to move because the man asked me what I was reading”? Negroes would’ve lynched her.


    I’d rather be called ‘nigger’ than ‘giantess’ any day of the week.”

    “Problematic,” someone muttered - invoking the code word black thinkers use to characterize anything or anybody that makes them feel uncomfortable, impotent, and painfully aware that they don’t have the answers to questions and assholes like me.

    Reviewers resolve this, in their neat way, by saying that Beatty is satirising "race in America". But that doesn't mean anything: Beatty is indiscriminate: mocking stereotyped black behaviour and police brutality, and pious diversity pushers, and white arrogance, and classic Civil Rights heroes, and radical black intellectuals, and assimilated Establishment black elites, and colorblind universalists. So, you can say "it satirises [more or less every position you can take on] race in America". But what's the point of doing that?

    I can think of three: 1) to say that there is no sensible position on this seething topic; or 2) to say that we haven't found it yet and must move past the existing positions, or 3) to use the nasty symmetry between the racist and the active anti-racist, to reflect well on Coatesian justice - maybe the thought is: 'colorblind egalitarianism is such a mad idea that even naked nineteenth-century racism is superior to it'.)

    I don't know which (if any) is Beatty's view. I know I don't agree. There's nothing actually wrong with MLK's principle, judge absolutely everyone on their own merits rather than treating them as a representative of their race or sex or anything, though it has usually been poorly realised.

    But I respect the chutzpah of pissing everyone off. If nothing else it's original and bullshit-free, two rare predicates around here.

    I’m not sure what Unmitigated Blackness is, but whatever it is, it doesn’t sell. Unmitigated Blackness is simply not giving a fuck. Clarence Cooper, Charlie Parker, Richard Pryor, Maya Deren, Sun Ra, Mizoguchi, Frida Kahlo, black-and-white Godard, Céline, Gong Li, David Hammons, Björk, and the Wu-Tang Clan in any of their hooded permutations. Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction. It’s the realization that there are no absolutes, except when there are. It’s the acceptance of contradiction not being a sin and a crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is the realization that as fucked up as it all is, sometimes it’s nihilism that makes life worth living.


    Daddy never believed in closure. He said it was a false psychological concept. Something invented by therapists to assuage white Western guilt. In all his years of study and practice, he’d never heard a patient of color talk of needing “closure.” They needed revenge. They needed distance. Forgiveness and a good lawyer maybe, but never closure. He said people mistake suicide, murder, lap band surgery, interracial marriage, and overtipping for closure, when in reality what they’ve achieved is erasure.

    The problem with closure is that once you have a taste of it, you want it in every little aspect of your life. Especially when you’re bleeding to death, and your slave, who is in full rebellion, is screaming,... you attempt to stanch the bleeding with a waterlogged copy of Vibe magazine someone has left in the gutter. Kanye West has announced, “I am rap!” Jay-Z thinks he’s Picasso. And life is fucking fleeting.

    Here's what I think is going on: It's hard to get through to people with the usual homilies and pieties, because they are deadened by cliché, bureaucratic muscle, tribalism, and historical ineffectualness. After hundreds of pages of troublingly hilarious japes (including ironic delight in old racist tv shows), Beatty has softened you up, left bare the old wound. That all may be healed, all must be shown.

    (c) Richard Vogel (2016)

    So, is the Sellout a charming pervert? A self-hating masochist? Or a nihilist with moral purpose?

    Spoiler! It's the first and third. Beatty has no answer and is again brave enough to say so; the book's last page admits no synthesis can win over that particular sceptic: Obama isn't enough, nothing is enough:

    I remember the day after the black dude was inaugurated, Foy Cheshire, proud as punch, driving around town in his coupe, honking his horn and waving an American flag. He wasn’t the only one celebrating; the neighborhood glee wasn’t O. J. Simpson getting acquitted or the Lakers winning the 2002 championship, but it was close. Foy drove past the crib and I happened to be sitting in the front yard husking corn. “Why are you waving the flag?” I asked him. “Why now? I’ve never seen you wave it before.” He said that he felt like the country, the United States of America, had finally paid off its debts. “And what about the Native Americans? What about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the poor, the forests, the water, the air, the fucking California condor? When do they collect?” I asked him.

    He just shook his head at me. Said something to the effect that my father would be ashamed of me and that I’d never understand. And he’s right. I never will.

    The protagonist segregates, and says things like this:

    I’m a farmer, and farmers are natural segregationists. We separate the wheat from the chaff. I’m not Rudolf Hess, P. W. Botha, Capitol Records, or present-day U.S. of A. Those motherfuckers segregate because they want to hold on to power. I’m a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.

    And yet he is not a separatist; he knows it's wrong when the minorities are shouted out of the public space:

    What the fuck you honkies laughing at?” he shouted. More chuckling from the audience. The white couple howling the loudest. Slapping the table. Happy to be noticed. Happy to be accepted. “I ain’t bullshitting! What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at? Get the fuck out!”

    There’s nothing funny about nervous laughter. The forced way it slogs through a room with the stop-and-start undulations of bad jazz brunch jazz. The black folks and the round table of Latinas out for a night on the town knew when to stop laughing. The couple didn’t. The rest of us silently sipped our canned beer and sodas, determined to stay out of the fray. They were laughing solo because this had to be part of the show, right?

    “Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!”

    No more laughter. Only pleading, unanswered looks for assistance, then the soft scrape of two chairs being backed, quietly as possible, away from the table. The blast of cold December air and the sounds of the street. The night manager shutting the doors behind them, leaving little evidence that the white people had ever been there except for an unfulfilled two-drink, three-donut minimum.

    When I think about that night, the black comedian chasing the white couple into the night, their tails and assumed histories between their legs, I don’t think about right or wrong. No, when my thoughts go back to that evening, I think about my own silence. Silence can be either protest or consent, but most times it’s fear. I guess that’s why I’m so quiet and such a good whisperer, nigger and otherwise. It’s because I’m always afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep. That’s what I liked about the man, although I didn’t agree with him when he said, “Get out. This is our thing.” I respected that he didn’t give a fuck. But I wish I hadn’t been so scared, that I had had the nerve to stand in protest. Not to castigate him for what he did or to stick up for the aggrieved white people... but I wish I’d stood up to the man and asked him a question: “So what exactly is our thing?

    Which is my laughter, but not my flight. The Sellout doesn't have an ism: they are all found wanting. I'm just glad it is still possible to explore this godforsaken crater without being screamed down. I'm glad Beatty didn't let it get to him, even if he leaves the Sellout hanging.
    Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (2006) by Christopher M. Bishop Timeless, towering. My yardstick: The first time I read it (looked at it) I was way out of my depth and understood little. Year by year I misunderstand less of it.
    Cyteen (Cyteen, #1-3) (1988) by C.J. Cherryh Magnificent. Cherryh is often deeply unclear (examples to follow), but she makes it work by using just enough unclarity to cover the gaps in her made-up mind engineering. I could call it allusion rather than unclarity.

    Very uncomfortable: large parts are about the internal motivations and human strengths of the leaders of a budding scientific dystopia with an immortal dictator. The humanists and abolitionists are the antagonists, and foiled at almost every turn. We follow the development of a charming little girl destined to grow into an anti-democratic power broker, the centre of a slave economy, and a serial rapist. Or is she?

    Better even than Vinge at baroque skulduggery, chilling effects, the spiritual harm of surveillance, and decades-long cons.
    Excession (1996) by Iain M. Banks In one sentence: A psychologically realistic utopia (: a flawed one) nestled in a soft opera-of-space-operas.

    To be read when: you don't think we have anywhere to go. / On a train.

    (This is more of a review of the Culture series. Excession is my favourite of them - even just seeing that slightly bad 90s cover gets a reaction out of me - but none of the books is so great on its own. I just keep re-reading them. This essay gives a flavour of the intellectual thrill underneath Banks' hand-waving, hand-wringing, and gags. Start with Player of Games or Use of Weapons, and leave Phlebas to last, it's not great except thematically.)

    The two worst omissions from sci-fi are social development and software development. Banks covers the first so memorably, so thrillingly, that the series is a permanent touchstone for me. The Culture is actually different from us - even though underneath their society revs our great alien machine, liberalism unbound.

    Banks was always quite open about how didactic his sci-fi was; it is saved by his inventiveness and psychological realism amidst technological fantasy.

    This scene (from Use of Weapons) had a large effect on me as a child:

    'Of course I don't have to do this,' one middle-aged man said, carefully cleaning the table with a damp cloth. He put the cloth in a little pouch, sat down beside him. "But look; this table's clean.'
    He agreed that the table was clean.
    "Usually,' the man said. "I work on alien -- no offence -- alien religions; Directional Emphasis In Religious Observance; that's my specialty ... like when temples or graves or prayers always have to face in a certain direction; that sort of thing? Well, I catalogue, evaluate, compare; I come up with theories and argue with colleagues, here and elsewhere. But ... the job's never finished; always new examples, and even the old ones get re-evaluated, and new people come along with new ideas about what you thought was settled ... but,' he slapped the table, "when you clean a table you clean a table. You feel you've done something. It's an achievement."
    "But in the end, it's still cleaning a table."
    "And therefore does not really signify on the cosmic scale of events?' the man suggested.
    He smiled in response to the man's grin, "Well, yes.'
    'But then what does signify? My other work? Is that really important, either?' I could try composing wonderful musical works, or day-long entertainment epics, but what would that do? Give people pleasure? My wiping this table gives me pleasure. And people come to a clean table, which gives them pleasure. And anyway" - the man laughed - "people die; stars die; universes die. What is any achievement, however great it was, once time itself is dead? Of course, if all I did was wipe tables, then of course it would seem a mean and despicable waste of my huge intellectual potential. But because I choose to do it, it gives me pleasure. And," the man said with a smile, "it's a good way of meeting people."

    As did this, before I studied formal philosophy and received a resounding confirmation of it:

    “Aw, come on; argue, dammit.”
    “I don’t believe in argument,” he said, looking out.
    “You don’t?” Erens said, genuinely surprised. “Shit, and I thought I was the cynical one.”
    “It’s not cynicism,” he said flatly. “I just think people overvalue argument because they like to hear themselves talk.”
    “Oh well, thank you.”
    “It’s comforting, I suppose.” He watched the stars wheel, like absurdly slow shells seen at night: rising, peaking, falling... (And reminded himself that the stars too would explode, perhaps, one day.) “Most people are not prepared to have their minds changed,” he said. “And I think they know in their hearts that other people are just the same, and one of the reasons people become angry when they argue is that they realize just that, as they trot out their excuses.”
    “Excuses, eh?"
    "Yes, excuses," he said, with what Erens thought might just have been a trace of bitterness. "I strongly suspect the things people believe in are usually just what they instinctively feel is right; the excuses, the justifications, the things you're supposed to argue about, come later. They're the least important part of the belief. That's why you can destroy them, win an argument, prove the other person wrong, and still they believe what they did in the first place." He looked at Erens. "You've attacked the wrong thing.”

    But this was also before I got into technical pursuits which lend us hope that the above grim realism can be defeated by self-awareness, quantification, and epistemic care. Sometimes.

    • Galef type:

      Theory 2 - model of what makes something succeed or fail &
      Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something.
      Style 3 - tickles your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker.

    Science Fictions: The Epidemic of Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science (2020) by Stuart Ritchie Wonderful introduction to meta-science. I've been obsessively tracking bad science since I was a teen, and I still learned loads of new examples. (Remember that time NASA falsely declared the discovery of an unprecedented lifeform? Remember that time the best university in Sweden completely cleared their murderously fraudulent surgeon?)

    Science has gotten a bit fucked up. But at least we know about it, and at least it's the one institution that has a means and a track record of unfucking itself.

    Ritchie is a master at handling controversy, at producing satisfying syntheses - he has the unusual ability to take the valid points from opposing factions. So he'll happily concede that "science is a social construct" - in the solid, trivial sense that we all should concede it is. He'll hear out someone's proposal to intentionally bring political bias into science, and simply note that, while it's well-intentioned, we have less counterproductive options.

    Don't get the audiobook: Ritchie is describing a complex system of interlocking failures. I need diagrams for that sort of thing.

    Ritchie is fair, funny, and actually understands the technical details. Supercedes my previous fave pop-meta-scientist, Ben Goldacre.
    Intelligence: All That Matters (2015) by Stuart Ritchie Calm empirical overview. Incredibly clearly written, stopping short of off-puttingly plain.

    Is the g theory of intelligence the most mature, replicated theory in psychology? 100 years old and ever-replicating; language- and culture-blind by now; at least somewhat predictive of some terminal values... What can compete? Operant conditioning, I guess.

    This book is part of the "All that Matters" series - a coincidental subtitle which has no doubt enraged many people and caused him no end of grief.

    I highly recommend his Twitter.
    What is this thing called Knowledge? (2006) by Duncan Pritchard None yet
    Axiomatic (1990) by Greg Egan (Probably 5 stars on re-read)

    Phenomenal. (Usually not nice phenomena, but always strong phenomena.) Every one of these produced an effect in me, from deep grimace to snort to total pathos. It took me a month to read 18 stories, because it is stressful to encounter characters this vivid in scenarios this brutal.* Every story has an actual logic - often a fantastical one, like the retrocausal literally-hypothetical boddhisatva posthumans of 'Eugene'. He has few peers in thinking this hard and making you feel the thought. What Black Mirror could have been: thought experiments like self-aware spears.


    1. The Hundred-Light-Year Diary

    2. The Moral Virologist. (Nauseating, lyrical evil.)

    3. Into Darkness

    4. Axiomatic

    5. Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies

    6. Learning to be me

    7. Eugene

    8. The Safe-Deposit Box

    9. The caress

    10. The Walk

    11. Seeing

    12. The Vat

    13. A Kidnapping

    14. The Cutie

    15. Closer

    16. The Infinite Assassin

    17. Appropriate Love

    18. Blood Sisters

    The worst of these is still well above average for sci-fi - clever, satisfying plot, sympathetic characters, moment of awesome. (I tested this here; Egan's entry, weak for him, was still the best in the collection. It would be last, here.)

    doing whatever it was designed to do. Enabling multiple orgasms of the left kneecap. Making the colour blue taste like the long-lost memory of mother’s milk. Or, hardwiring a premise: I will succeed. I am happy in my job. There is life after death. Nobody died in Belsen. Four legs good, two legs bad . . .

    The next rack contained a selection of religions, everything from Amish to Zen. (Gaining the Amish disapproval of technology this way apparently posed no problem; virtually every religious implant enabled the user to embrace far stranger contradictions.) There was even an implant called Secular Humanist (‘You WILL hold these truths to be self-evident!’). No Vacillating Agnostic, though; apparently there was no market for doubt.

    I could write something about each of these; sometimes hundreds of words. Next time.

    * It is probably best to treat this book as 2 or 3 small collections, for savouring and emotional rest.


    How does it do as serious science fiction?

    Social development: A great deal. Personal identity is twisted and torn a dozen times, and he sketches the social structures which would have to arise when there are two of you, none of you, half of you, chimeras. The Ndoli devices illustrate that social consensus replaces philosophy for most people. When perfect cloning and brain transplants are available - when medicine's grasp over injury is total - he still brings it back to hard economics, the small print. Better on this than Chiang, his great peer.

    Software development: Not a huge amount but enough. He knows that brain transplants couldn't work without software, and the Ndoli devices are an excellent picture of machine learning, even 25 years later, after the field became more than a toy.

    Actual Science: Half of these stem from an extrapolation of current science (transplants, brain editing, cloning, brain emulation, BioArt), rather than say the apriori thought experiments of Chiang. And not just science: combinatorics! Actual probability! But even his flights of fancy (like the programmable wormhole with bizarre physics of 'Into Darkness') are internally consistent, and display serious attempt to take physics or biology seriously.
    Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921 (1996) by Ray Monk None yet
    A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation (2000) by Peter Singer None yet
    Odds & Ends: Introducing Probability & Decision with a Visual Emphasis () by Jonathan Weisberg A beautiful thing. Humorous, careful, with plenty of depth just under the surface.

    It gives only the classical view, only the point estimate bit, only normal utility theory. If you are comfortable with formalism it is too slow. But it connects logic and probability and decision in the appropriately deep way. I didn't get any decision theory in philosophy class. Even in my economics classes Rational Choice was presented as a done deal, not argued for on the bedrock of expected value and Bayes. And it was a theoretical curio, not really for personal consumption.

    This part of philosophy still gives me hope and awe - the hacker's end of formal/information-theoretic/Bayesian epistemology and 'science. The common thread is paying such close attention to maths and science that they begin to fade into it. Weisberg goes as far as some open questions, like probabilistic abduction and Bertrand's paradox. (It is important to show newbies more than just the finished part of the building.)

    I was looking for a better absolute introduction than Tomassi or Hacking, and found it. Insofar as understanding probability is critical to patching the most common human errors, and insofar as stats is one of the few general thinking tools that really does reliably transfer out of the classroom, this is a vital thing for anyone who wants to think. Insofar as you presently think only in words this is the best object I know.

    Minus a half for no solution book for the end-of-chapter exercises. (I know why, but still.)

    Free here
    The Philosophy of The Social Sciences (1970) by Alan Ryan None yet
    Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007) by Walter Isaacson

    Physics becomes in those years the greatest collective work of art of the twentieth century.

    - Jacob Bronowski

    What to say about the stereotypically great? Start by scrubbing off the accumulated century of journalism and appropriations.

    Einstein's scientific achievements:

    • A model of Brownian motion: the decisive argument for the existence of atoms. His model enabled experimental confirmation of Dalton's theory, after a hundred years of denial or instrumentalism.

    • -
    • An elementary particle, the photon. The atomic hypothesis applied even to light.

    • -
    • A law for the photoelectric effect, implying a quantum theory of all EM radiation. (A realist about quanta, unlike Planck.)

    • -
    • So also lots of pieces of the "old" quantum theory.

    • -
    • A theory of light and so space and time, special relativity.

    • -
    • A flawed but progressive theory of heat capacity, the Einstein theory of solids
    • A better method of analysing quantum systems, "EBK". An ignored semiclassical precursor to quantum chaos theory.
    • The greatest scientific theory, General Relativity. Explaining gravity and, so, the shape of the universe.

      • -
      • Implies the first modern cosmology

      • -
      • Gravitational lensing (confirmed 1998)

      • -
      • Inadvertently predicted dark energy.

      • -
      • A crucial experiment: gravitational waves. (Confirmed 2015.)

      • -
      • Implies a whole lot more like black holes but you can't name everything "Einstein thing".

    • A general method for thermodynamics and information theory: Bose-Einstein statistics.

    • -
    • New state of matter: the Bose–Einstein condensate

    • -
    • Fruitful failed theory: first local hidden variable theory

    • -
    • A profound phenomenon, quantum entanglement. (Susskind calls entanglement "Einstein's last great discovery", though he 'discovered' it by trying to reductio away Copenhagen interpretation, taking entanglement to be a disproof.) (Confirmed properly 2015.)

      • -
      • A crucial experiment for a metaphysical principle, local realism is false!: EPR

      • -
      • Inadvertently, a physical constraint on metaphysics: nonlocality.

    • Thought-experiment: The content of the "Schrödinger's" cat setup

    • -
    • Repostulation of wormholes. (Not confirmed.)

    • -
    • Isotope separation methods for the Manhattan project.

    • -
    • Also a nontoxic fridge

    • Besides his own prize, confirmations of Einstein's theories have led to 4 Nobel Prizes (1922, 1923, 1997, 2001) so far, and first-order extensions several more (1927, 1929, 1933 at very least). We should expect a few more, for grav waves and not inconceivably for wormholes, some day.

      Isaacson, like most people, portrays Einstein's post-1935 work as a dogmatic waste - he spent about thirty years straining to produce a field theory that could get rid of the spookiness and probabilism of QM. If you compare the output of the first half of his life to the second, sure it looks bad. But he was giving classical physics (determinism, continuousness, simplicity, fierce parsimony, beauty-based reasoning) a well-deserved last shake.

      Imagine the strength of will needed to maintain full-time effort over thirty years of failures, with your whipsmart peers all tutting and ignoring you. His unified field efforts are methodologically sort of like string theory: a hubristic search over mathematical forms without contact with the actually physical to help limit the formal space.

      And he actually had a decent decision-theoretic argument for his doomed crusade:
      When a colleague asked him one day why he was spending — perhaps squandering — his time in this lonely endeavor, he replied that even if the chance of finding a unified theory was small, the attempt was worthy. He had already made his name, he noted. His position was secure, and he could afford to take the risk and expend the time. A younger theorist, however, could not take such a risk, for he might thus sacrifice a promising career. So, Einstein said, it was his duty to do it.

      People also try to attach shame to him for his wildly stubborn anti-Copenhagen crusade: years spent thinking up tricky counterexamples for the young mechanicians, like an angry philosopher. But I think he had a good effect on the discourse, constantly calling them to order, and leaving it clear, after all, that it is a consistent view of the evidence.

      The only unforgiveable bit in his later conservatism is that he ignored the other half of the fundamental forces, the strong and weak forces, and for decades. Two forces was hard enough to unify. I suppose another point against his long, long Advanced Studies is that he could have done even more if he had helped push QM along; as late as 1946, Wheeler tried to convince him to join in. As it is we have evidence against the unified field: "Einstein failed".


      Einstein is like Bertrand Russell, only much more so: even more brilliant, even more rebellious, even more politically active, even more aloof, even more relentless, even more neglectful of his family. (Russell, on hearing relativity for the first time: "To think I have spent my life on absolute muck.")

      Along with Ibn Rushd, Leonardo, Pascal, Leibniz, Darwin, Peirce, Russell, Turing, Chomsky, Mackay*, Einstein is one of our rare complete intellectuals: huge achievements in science, beautiful writing, good jokes, original philosophy, moral seriousness. To have warmth too, as Einstein does abundantly, doesn't have much of a precedent. However much Einstein is misattributed vaguely pleasant, vaguely droll, vaguely radical statements, the fact is he actually was brilliant, pleasant, funny, radical. Believe the hype.

      * The usual word is 'polymath', sure, but although we are mad keen on polymaths, their generalism is seen as a laudable extra, rather than the vital service I now think they alone can give: you want people who have proven they can discover truths to tackle your ancient ill-defined questions (beauty, justice, existence).

      And you can't do good unless you know a great deal about the targets of your morals; you want the vast imaginative search over philosophical possibilities to be aided by what we actually know. (As the noted writer against scientism, Ludwig Wittgenstein put it:

      Is scientific progress useful for philosophy? Certainly. The realities that are discovered lighten the philosopher’s task: imagining possibilities.


      Maxwell, Boltzmann, Schrödinger, and Feynman basically fit the above: they are as good at writing and philosophy as they are at physics, and very funny to boot. But they didn't push society forward much (...) Goethe tried admirably, but didn't achieve much science. Descartes should definitely be on there but eh. Hilary Putnam discovered important logical results and has all the other virtues, but I guess science is a stretch?. von Neumann covered perhaps the most intellectual ground of all of these people, but I'm not sure he had a moral or political life to speak of. Herbert Simon is deep and broad and fun. And Bohr is brilliant and moral but can't write.

      (There's others I'd include, but won't because I know I'm a fanboy** / it is too soon to say: Scott Aaronson, David Pearce, Nick Bostrom.)

      ** A new Moore's paradox: "I know I'm a fanboy, but my thinker is still better than your thinker."


      What was so moral about him? Well, he was ahead of his time (still is):

      • Denounced WWI as the senseless crap it was.

      • -
      • Never went to the Soviet empire (despite repeated invites).

      • -
      • Denounced the Nazis from '31, despite/because of public threats to his life.

      • -
      • Flipped from pacifism at the right moment.

      • -
      • Many early actions for US civil rights, including work against McCarthyism.

      • -
      • Sold his original manuscripts for War Bonds

      Even his Zionism was enlightened (pro-migration, anti-state, anti-Begin):
      Should we be unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs,” he wrote [Chaim] Weizmann in 1929, “then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering.

      He proposed, both to Weizmann and in an open letter to an Arab leader, that a “privy council” of four Jews and four Arabs, all independent-minded, be set up to resolve any disputes. “The two great Semitic peoples,” he said, “have a great common future.” If the Jews did not assure that both sides lived in harmony, he warned friends in the Zionist movement, the struggle would haunt them in decades to come. Once again, he was labeled naïve.


      One particularly charming bit in this book covers Einstein's long friendship with the Queen Mother of Belgium. When Szilard warns him that nuclear fission has been achieved and could give the Nazis dominion over all, Einstein's first thought is to ask Elisabeth to sort it out, by grabbing all the Central African uranium and sending it far from the Nazis. (As it happens, the Uranverein got their uranium from Czechoslovakia.)


      Isaacson read all the letters, formed a view on all the academic controversies (Maric's contribution, baby Lieserl, what sort of deist or Zionist or pacifist he was), and covers most of the papers, recasting the classic thought experiments very lucidly. This was a huge pleasure. Read with Wikipedia open, though: C20th physics and its physicists are way too deep and broad for one book.
      </td> </tr>
    The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan (1991) by Robert Kanigel One of the best biographies I've ever read. (The subtitle says it is about Ramanujan, but it is equally about Hardy, that perfect British intellect: more crystalline than Russell, more lofty than Moore, more self-critical than Hare, more fun than anyone, loveable atop it all.) Ramanujan's story is of course maximally moving to anyone with a shred of curiosity or pity. The most moving part of all is an absence, one of the darker thoughts among all thoughts:

    How many Ramanujans, his life begs us to ask, dwell in India today, unknown and unrecognized? And how many in America and Britain, locked away in racial or economic ghettos, scarcely aware of worlds outside their own?

    His research is patent throughout: he decodes South Indian religion and cuisine, British upper-class slang, and even something of the impressiveness of higher mathematics, while using mere natural language:

    Ramanujan's work grants direct pleasure to only a few - a few hundred mathematicians and physicists around the world, perhaps a few thousand. The rest of us must either sit on the sidelines, and, on the authority of the cognoscenti, cheer - or else rely on vague, metaphoric, and necessarily imprecise glimpses of his work.

    ...mathematics is not best learned passively; you don’t sop it up like a romance novel. You’ve got to go out to it, aggressive, and alert, like a chess master pursuing checkmate.

    Ramanujan himself left a tiny dense literature that we are still decoding:

    Ramanujan's notebooks formed a distinctly idiosyncratic record. In them even widely standardized terms sometimes acquired new meaning. Thus, an "example" — normally, as in everyday usage, an illustration of a general principle — was for Ramanujan often a wholly new theorem. A "corollary" — a theorem flowing naturally from another theorem and so requiring no separate proof — was for him sometimes a generalization, which did require its own proof. As for his mathematical notation, it sometimes bore scant resemblance to anyone else's.

    Many passages raise goosebumps: Kanigel unites the abstract and the bodily, the true and the human all-too-human.

    You cannot say much about Ramanujan without resorting to the word self. He was self-willed, self-directed, self-made. Some might conceivably label him selfish for his preoccupation with doing the mathematics he loved without any great concern for the better of his family or his country...

    Hardy discovered Ramanujan? Not at all: a glance at the facts of 1912 shows that Ramanujan discovered Hardy.

    A life-giving book.
    White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo
    The drug could be dangerous, after all. I was not a believer in easy solutions, something to swallow that would rid my soul of an ancient fear. But I could not help thinking about that saucer-shaped tablet...

    Tumbling from the back of my tongue down to my stomach. The drug core dissolving, releasing benevolent chemicals into my bloodstream, flooding the fear-of-death part of my brain. The pill itself silently self-destructing in a tiny inward burst, a polymer implosion, discreet and precise and considerate. Technology with a human face.

    Exhausting - but funny! - postmodern critique of postmodernism. Maybe David Foster Wallace did it better but this is still a thrill
    Fear and Trembling (1843) by Søren Kierkegaard None yet
    The Gig Economy () by Zero HP Lovecraft None yet
    Seven Surrenders (Terra Ignota, #2) (2017) by Ada Palmer It is so, so striking to see Palmer, who obviously lavishes enormous systematic attention on "worldbuilding", blow her own world up.
    The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives (2008) by Deirdre N. McCloskey Not the earliest critic - that's Meehl or Freedman or Gosset himself - but the most readable. You don't necessarily need to read past page 100, it's recapitulation.

    Very short version here.
    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) by James Joyce To use yourself for art you need a really interesting life, or sheer expressive skill - the ability to force anything to be interesting. Neither is easy: someone like Montaigne manages easily, but e.g. Rousseau doesn't (he just got there first, to the I Am Art game, so we have to talk about him).

    Joyce's life is only mildly interesting from the outside, so it falls to his evocation. I read this to find out whether to care about him, and I actually didn't until Part III, the rightly famous spiritual arc from apatheistic teenage kicks, to the ecstatic shame of submitting to the vast closed Catholic system, and through it to passionate agnosticism, anticlerical naturalism. Joyce's is the best portrait of the infinite terrorism of the Church:
    remember, my dear boys, that we have been sent into this world for one thing and for one thing alone: to do God’s holy will and to save our immortal souls. All else is worthless.

    As he crossed the square, walking homeward, the light laughter of a girl reached his burning ear. The frail, gay sound smote his heart more strongly than a trumpet blast, and, not daring to lift his eyes, he turned aside and gazed, as he walked, into the shadow of the tangled shrubs. Shame rose from his smitten heart and flooded his whole being. The image of Emma appeared before him and under her eyes the flood of shame rushed forth anew from his heart. If she knew to what his mind had subjected her or how his brute-like lust had torn and trampled upon her innocence! Was that boyish love? Was that chivalry? Was that poetry? The sordid details of his orgies stank under his very nostrils.

    As a teen Stephen tries to mortify himself, to not look at women, to not eat well, to just look at the mud. But he's too bright, too worldly and too proud. I cheered at the end of Part IV, when he throws off the yoke.

    The prose is port wine: lovely if sipped. It is mostly monologue but the dialogue is the best bit. He is passionate about anything, e.g. algebra -
    The equation on the page of his scribbler began to spread out a widening tail, eyed and starred like a peacock's; and, when the eyes and stars of its indices had been eliminated, began slowly to fold itself together again. The indices appearing and disappearing were eyes opening and closing; the eyes opening and closing were stars being born and being quenched. The vast cycle of starry life bore his weary mind outward to its verge and inward to its centre, a distant music accompanying him outward and inward. What music? The music came nearer and he recalled the words, the words of Shelley's fragment upon the moon wandering companionless, pale for weariness. The stars began to crumble and a cloud of fine stardust fell through space.

    The dull light fell more faintly upon the page whereon another equation began to unfold itself slowly and to spread abroad its widening tail. It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the bale-fire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos.

    The painful process of moving past family, nation, church, scholastic philosophy, to become yourself. Doing this in a country as maniacal about nation and church as eC20th Ireland was so much harder, and indeed he had to leave. He doesn't move past Art, and acquires a similarly monomanaical view of it -
    [To be an artist], a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life

    but if my prose was as good as Joyce's maybe I couldn't have moved past it either. Like Nietzsche if he wasn't an edgelord.

    That printers and governments treated Joyce and Lawrence the same is a laugh: Joyce has all of Lawrence's passion and none of the flat feet. Self-parody, odd humility, laughter at his own past dogmatism.

    His memory - or his notetaking? - is amazing: scholars have spent lifetimes checking and relating everything in this to recorded history, and he's usually spot on about details (though he changes names). I don't think I could write anything as accurate, even in my surveillance society.

    Fully half of my edition was taken up in footnotes and bibliophilia. (It also left Joyce's typos in, which is a bit much. In fact half the footnotes were as trivial as typos, e.g. pointing out where lines are reused from his draft Stephen Hero.)

    Portrait stops before the end of uni, before his odyssey, before his wife even. And much of the last section is a surprisingly flat, academic statement of Thomist aesthetics. But by then you've heard enough to love him anyway.
    The Periodic Table (1975) by Primo Levi None yet
    The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money (2018) by Bryan Caplan A powerful book, remarkably light on ideology given its extreme conclusions. (Caplan is not mad: he is right behind universal numeracy and literacy. So the title should be "Case Against Higher Education" but oh well.)

    Here's a flavour:
    I have a long list of strange and extreme views, and I've been an arrogant hedgehog for as long as I can remember.  As a rule, arrogant hedgehogs with lots of strange and extreme views are severely biased and grossly unreliable.  Which raises two daunting questions.

    The Reputational Challenge: Why should people take me seriously?  Even if I happen to be correct, why would a reasonable person bother giving me a chance? 

    The Self-Referential Challenge: Why should I take myself seriously?  Why should I consider myself so epistemically superior to the typical arrogant hedgehog with lots of strange and extreme views?

    In all honesty, I take both challenges seriously.  But it's the self-referential challenge that weighs on me.  I can endure the apathy of others, but not the idea that I'm living a lie.  So what should I do?

    What might explain the universal appeal of education?

    1. 1. learning specific facts and hard skills (private and social gain)

    2. 2. learning general rationality and meta-skills (private and social gain)

    3. 3. learning soft skills (private and social gain)

    4. 4. credentialing: showing off how smart, conscientious, conformist you are (zero-sum private gain)

    5. 5. culture fit: showing employers you are their kind of person (private gain)

    6. 6. networking (private gain)

    7. 7. assortative mating at university (near-zero-sum private gain)

    8. 8. primary schools are daycare (private gain by proxy (parents), social gain (doubling workforce))

    9. 9. it's fun (private gain)

    10. 10. conspicuous consumption (zero-sum private gain)

    11. 11. state propaganda about how developed the country is. (zero-sum and of no private or social gain)

    His conclusion is that about 80% of the personal economic gains from higher education are from (4): not improving your character, knowledge, or ability, but rather from certifying yourself as a good worker (smart, conscientious, conformist). Given the vast cost, time sink, and psychological toll of education, this implies a hugely wasteful, zero-sum arms race (grade inflation, degree inflation), since the income gain doesn't reflect productivity gain, and since we could be doing signalling in less indirect and foolish ways. I'll do a proper rundown of the (many) arguments he gives to end up at this separately.

    The mostly-signalling theory explains a huge number of confusing features (why do students and employers not value Ivy League MOOCs, even ten years on? Why are most of the income rewards concentrated in the instant of graduation? Why do students cheer when class is cancelled? If lectures are so economically powerful, why don't people just sit in on them without enrolling (and why doesn't the university put security on them to protect their livelihood)? How can human capital explain the income gains, when people forget almost everything about their major within 5 years and don't show very large soft skill increases?

    You often see people trumpeting the large (50-60%) income premium of higher education, as if that showed that added human capital was the reason for the premium (cough, correlation / causation). But even granting that uncritical leap, there's something strange about focussing on private income gains: the kind of people who believe in the centrality of education tend also to believe that pay is a poor indicator of social value. (For instance, our incredibly low opinion of investment bankers.) Caplan's disturbing point is that the private returns do not translate into social returns. This seeming paradox could happen a few ways: if credential inflation shifts jobs from nongraduates to graduates; or if there are minor human capital gains, but swamped out by the huge financial cost and time cost of uni.

    My philosophy department used to trumpet graduate income stats as evidence that critical thinking is valued in industry. (They don't anymore, possibly because philosophy is now associated with decreased earnings, at least in the UK.) This trump was an amusing triple failure of critical thinking: they confuse correlation and causation ("philosophy degree and income gain, therefore philosophy degree causes income gain"), fail to consider selection effects (philosophy students start out posher than the average student) and the Yes Minister fallacy:

    1. A philosophy degree causes an income premium.

    2. If something causes an income premium then it is valued in industry.

    3. A philosophy degree causes critical thinking.

    4. Therefore, critical thinking is valued in industry.

    The big concern with the sweeping cuts Caplan recommends is: how do you stop poor people losing their ability to signal their virtues, if the state withdraws the current subsidy?

    Remarkably, the book is in large part not based on economists' research: there is as much sociology, . This triangulation strikes me as the way to write lasting social science, social science with a chance of still being relevant in a decade. Who writes like this, aside from the GMU mob?

    Caplan is modest, thoughtful, an admirable empiricist. If you can't accept his argument you have a lot of work to do before you break even.
    Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems: Networks of Plausible Inference (1988) by Judea Pearl
    probability is not really about numbers, it is about the structure of reasoning
    -Glen Shafer

    By no means an introductory book; even chapter 1 will mean little to you if you haven't tried to model situations with both formal logic and probabilities before. (Some set theory wouldn't go amiss either.) Parts of it treat nearly-irrelevant dead controversies, just because he was still fighting off the McCarthy / production systems programme in the late Eighties. (For instance, I learned Dempster-Shafer theory in class, and it is sorta interesting and neatly evades Cox's theorem, but I still expect never to have to use it. It gets more than 50 pages here.) Bayesian networks, ingenious and progressive as they were, have peaked in use, though their children are still cutting edge and invaluable for human and nonhuman reasoning.

    All that said: Pearl thinks very hard about ultimate matters. He didn't develop Bayesian networks (and causal models) as a hack, but instead as a consequence of showing probabilities to be better than the alternatives when tweaked for computation, subjective Bayesianism to be capable of handling causal inference, graphs as the natural data structure for both relevance and cause, and the causal/evidential decision theory distinction as primal.
    On the surface, there is really no compelling reason that beliefs, being mental dispositions about unrepeatable and often unobservable events, should combine by the laws of proportions that govern repeatable trials such as the outcomes of gambling devices. The primary appeal of probability theory is its ability to express useful qualitative relationships among beliefs and to process these relationships in a way that yields intuitively plausible conclusions… What we wish to stress here is that the fortunate match between human intuition and the laws of proportions is not a coincidence. It came about because beliefs are formed not in a vacuum but rather as a distillation of sensory experiences...

    We therefore take probability calculus as an initial model of human reasoning from which more refined models may originate, if needed. By exploring the limits of probability in machine implementations, we hope to identify conditions under which extensions, refinements and simplifications are warranted.

    Building AI as feedback for formal epistemology! My favourite philosophers are technical like David Lewis; my favourite technical people are philosophical like Pearl.

    He's also very good at taking us through a derivation and underlining the big implications (e.g. P(A) = \sum P(A|B_i) P(B_i) as a model for hypothetical reasoning: belief in event A is a weighted sum over belief in all the ways A can obtain). There's plenty of maths in here but I never struggled much, probably because of this qualitative care of his.

    PRIS beats the arse off his own 2018 effort, perhaps because at this point he was still working incredibly hard to understand and synthesise competing approaches. Hard to rate. But if you want to seriously think about AI, you'll want to read it at some point.


    Misc notes

    * McCarthy is to probabilities as Minsky is to neural nets. He sent us down a rabbit hole, chasing nonmonotonic logic solutions to a numerical problem. (See also Chomsky vs prob language models.)
    * Others have used Pearl's vision to explain the ideal form of rationality, which humans depart from.
    * His discussion of extensional (hacking out a generalised logic) vs intensional (possible-world counting) approaches to uncertainty seems fundamental to me, bedrock.
    * The heart of the matter: Bayesnets are O(n) in variables, but actually with some complicated tweaks so are Dempster-Shafer galleries.
    * Dempster-Shafer is an interesting example of the contingency of (the context of discovery of) mathematics. It didn't have to be developed (since probs are adequate for so much), and yet it was, and it evades the normal arguments against other uncertainty measures and is thus alive, if unpopular. (Compare noneuclidean geometries.) What other dominant calculi would get similarly competing theories, if we threw a few decades of brilliance at them?
    Beggars in Spain (Sleepless, #1) (1993) by Nancy Kress Big, moving dynasty novel about a future class war. Elitism vs racism, individualism vs collectivism, negative freedom vs positive freedom, UBI and/or dignity. Kress' stated goal is to bring together Rand's ideal and Le Guin's (ambiguous) ideal and see how they spark off each other, their repulsion dance.

    The first two books seem simple: a good basic dramatisation of the excellence vs equality problem. But stick with it, dialectic comes. Kress is much better at inhabiting other views than Rand, but not quite as good as Le Guin (who surprised me with how ambivalent, careful and detached her books can be, when her essays are so often blunt and denunciatory). Unlike them, Kress allows her ubermenschen to be irrational, as when the Sleepers fall into stupid binary demonisation of the majority outgroup. The Sanctuary bunch start as Objectivists, but are twisted by Jennifer's wealth and terrorism into the worst totalitarian collectivism - one without even pity for misfortune.

    She climbs inside libertarianism, productivism, Objectivism, elitism - half of the protagonists are deeply, unreflectively into these ideologies for half the book. Leisha finds one fatal flaw with them - society is not a linear series of contracts but a chaotic informal web of micro-contracts and unthinking mutual structuration, with a thin layer of formal voluntary contracts on top.
    She remembered the day she had realized that [Objectivist] economics were not large enough. Their stress on individual excellence left out too many phenomena, too many people: those who had no excellence and never would. The beggars, who nonetheless had definite if obscure roles to play in the way the world ran. They were like parasites on a mammal that torment it to a scratching frenzy that draws blood, but whose eggs serve as food for other insects that feed yet others who fatten the birds that are prey for the rodents the tormented mammal eats. A bloody ecology of trade, replacing the linear Yagaiist contracts occurring in a vacuum. The ecology was large enough to take Sleepers and Sleepless, producers and beggars, the excellent and the mediocre and the seemingly worthless. And what kept the ecology functioning was the law.

    Miranda and the supers find another, which is that fortune can mock anyone regardless of momentary strength or weakness.
    Tony, Leisha said silently, there are no permanent beggars in Spain. Or anywhere else. The beggar you give a dollar to today might change the world tomorrow. Or become father to the man who will. Or grandfather, or great-grandfather. There is no stable ecology of trade, as I thought once, when I was very young. There is no stable anything, much less stagnant anything, given enough time. And no nonproductive anything, either. Beggars are only gene lines temporarily between communities.

    The hyper-precocious kids are about as off-putting as those in Ender's Game. I wish she had only given the Sleepless more time than the unmodified - not superintelligence and immortality to boot. This would still be enough to create the tension the plot needs, they'd just grow with a lower exponent, maybe taking 150 rather than 40 years.

    Everyone in this book, plus maybe Kress herself, are in serious need of the first lesson of first year economics, comparative advantage. This says, roughly, that it actually isn't a fatal problem if someone is better than you at every different economic task: they still have limited time, so they can still gain from trading with you (you each produce the thing you're best at making then swap some). This understates the problem with launching your entire city population into space, which is that you've just made transactions costs a thousand times more expensive (Y-energy or no). It would be so hard to make Sanctuary profitable, and yet it's implied to be about the GDP of the entire Decadent 20% Productive USA.

    Kress portrays a couple of neglected ideologies. One, which determines just as much of world events as liberalism or socialism, has only the ugly name 'productivism' (or maybe also the misleading name 'workaholism'). Leisha is a classic example. On worrying that her elderly stepmother might be just farting around the house:
    Leisha had felt a palpable relief, like a small pop in her chest, when she saw the terminal and medical journals in Susan’s office.

    On her relationship trouble:
    “We’re fine, Susan. We work together really well. That’s what really matters, after all.”

    You can laugh at someone missing the point of life so much, but you should consider how much of what you value depends on people like this. And, when summarised into the long-term growth rate, how much of the vast potential of the future does. (Ada Palmer covers this exact dynamic, as the romantic "vocateurs", people of vocation.) And another ideology neglected in fiction: Leisha is a rare instance of "bleeding-heart libertarianism" (another ugly name).


    * Kress:
    Genetic engineering is becoming a reality, one that many people are not ready to acknowledge, let alone allow. But you cannot put the genie back in the bottle. We know how to manipulate the human genome and so, inevitably, we will. The two sequels to Beggars in Spain, Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride, explore that issue in as much detail as I could invent. Even so, I didn’t come close to covering the excitement, the changes, the shock, and the controversy that genetic engineering will bring in the coming decades. I just wish that I could stick around for a hundred years or so to see it—and to write about it.
    Nah mate not a hundred years; try thirty.

    * There are eventually 4 classes: Livers (the idle cosseted underclass), Donkeys (the unmodified workers, the elite Sleepers), Norm Sleepless and the Super Sleepless. Ordered pair of ordered pairs.

    * One key to the conflicts is that people have grown used to certain ancient inequalities of degree, but new or qualitative ones should awake all of our envy and rage
    Beautiful or brainy children might encounter natural envy, but usually not virulent hatred. They were not viewed as a different race, one endlessly conspiring at power, endlessly controlling behind the scenes, endlessly feared and scorned. The Sleepless,

    * Most of the big interventions in the book fail. Yagai's gift to the US enables its slide into total indolence and short-termist hedonism. Hawke's nasty uprising for dignified labour morphs into shallow hedonistic Idiocracy, voting for more party money instead of doing things.

    * Sanctuary is grandly sick, a monarchy masquerading as half a democracy. (It is not quite as sick and complete as the totalitarianism in Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky.) The mad monarch, Jennifer is a blank evil cipher for almost the whole book, eventually cracking during the final confrontation.
    This… child, this girl who had never been spat upon because she was Sleepless… never locked in a room by a mother who was putrid with jealousy of a beauty her daughter would never lose, even as the mother’s beauty was inexorably fading… never locked in a cell away from her children… never betrayed by a husband who hated his own sleeplessness… this spoiled and pampered child who had been given everything was attempting to thwart her, Jennifer Sharifi, who had brought Sanctuary into its very being by the force of her own will.

    The children looked at their shoes. They were afraid of her, Jennifer saw. That was not bad; fear was only the ancient word for respect.

    She's a paranoid idiot, or rather mindkilled by fear and the dread ruthlessness of a survivor. Witness her adhoc patching of the edge cases of personhood on Sanctuary, her silly fixation on mere sleep and mere relative productivity, which is her downfall. And: What good outcome could there have been from her bioterrorist secession? She's an effective villain despite her inertness because she's so good at manipulating smart well-meaning people into vice. The horror of sophistry.
    She has a right to her life, whatever it is now!”
    Jennifer said, “The real question is, do we have the right to sacrifice someone else’s life to the care of hers?”

    * Libertarianism could be a lovely thing, for some other species. It builds a philosophy of life from a completely different direction than mine: top-down, from grand general ideas to morals and behaviour. (Has anyone teased them for having a top-down philosophy which demands the abolition of top-down forces?) The bottom-up approach, missing from this book, is to instead move from experiences, which motivate morals and nonmorals just by you understanding what it is like to experience them. Any subject of experience deserves good; the legal and political implications are distantly contingent on this, and vary massively from time to time as a result. Productivity is good when it leads to good lives: the enlightened definition of 'productive' is whatever does this. If pushpin or cartoons give you pleasure, they're productive. It just happens that there is generally currently millions of times more productive things to do. (The Livers are aesthetically repugnant to me, but eh their lives are better than most.) This isn't as vacuous as it sounds: consider the remarkable goodness of (most of) Jeremy Bentham's beliefs, in a time of universal bigotry. We got better, but we're still not optimising for good vibes.

    * "Community" is mostly malign here: the zero-sum nativism of We-Sleep, the incoherent defensive supremacism of Sanctuary. The idea does have a black heart: "us, not them", but there are better, nicer examples. (I suppose the Supers are the steelman.) The one grace of the instances here is separatism: they don't initially demand mutilation or submission, just space for their difference. We-Sleep is also a pretty weak exemplar for socialism.
    “Wake up, Jordan. No social movement has ever progressed without emphasizing division, and doing that means stirring up hate. The American revolution, abolitionism, unionization, civil rights—”
    “That wasn’t—”
    “At least we didn’t invent this particular division—the Sleepless did. Feminism, gay rights, Dole franchisement—”

    * The depiction of the supers' thought process is good and novel - they build and collaborate on "strings", complicated visual argumentation models, replacing natural language.

    * What is Kress' view? It's not that good a question, given that she's trying to do dialectic between ideologies, and does it pretty well. But if we let Leisha's mature view stand in, there are some authorial-sounding notes
    And throughout it all, the United States: rich, prosperous, myopic, magnificent in aggregate and petty in specifics, unwilling — always, always — to accord mass respect to the mind. To good fortune, to luck, to rugged individualism, to faith in God, to patriotism, to beauty, to spunk or pluck or grit or git, but never to complex intelligence and complex thought. It wasn’t sleeplessness that had caused all the rioting; it was thought and its twin consequences, change and challenge.

    Leisha settles on the idea that it is impossible to reconcile solidarity and high-variance freedom, that the attempt to reconcile them drove Jennifer and the US mad.
    When individuals are free to become anything at all, some will become geniuses and some will become resentful beggars. Some will benefit themselves and their communities, and others will benefit no one and just loot whatever they can. Equality disappears. You can’t have both equality and the freedom to pursue individual excellence.

    The book's answer is to not take either horn, to just juggle the contradiction forever. I don't see the dilemma really; you just separate moral worth from ability, then automate the economy: boom, equality and freedom.


    Maybe five stars on re-read, though the prose might be a bit flat for that (aside from a couple of moving passages, all quoted above) and maybe the dialectic is too heavy-handed.


    How does it do as Serious science fiction?

    Social development: Strong. The various caste systems that spring up are believable - for instance the Liver/Donkey one, where the donkeys downplay their own work and set up society as a circus, to short-circuit the questions of employment, dignity, status, revolution. Her nativists are very plausible, though they speak less about "natural life" than I expect ours to (the Sleepers seem happy with any genetic modification besides sleeplessness). The elitism of the Sleepless is just a stronger form of the sort already held by certain merely slightly more productive conservatives. Much of the economics is questionable though, particularly the C21st self-sufficient space city of 80,000(?).

    Software development: Good, though high-level even by fiction's standards. The plot hangs on software (including patent databases), though these are mostly reduced to relative hacking ability. Only Vinge is better.

    Actual Science: Some very sketchy genetics at the heart of the plot but not much. It's not pure magic - she puts realistically heavy limits on the genetic engineering of adults - but the rest is just assumed.
    A Companion to Ethics (1991) by Peter Singer None yet
    Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota, #1) (2016) by Ada Palmer SF with prose from the (radical) C18th, written IRL by a historian of that time. A big old bucket of ideas.

    I loved the many didactic discursions - e.g. de Sade's Christian name being a plot point, sections written in speculative future Latin - but I think most readers will not love them. I did choke a little at the constant coincidences, and at the enslaved protagonist meeting literally every elite in the world in the space of two days.

    Filled with what some have called out for, "competence porn" - i.e. the elites are manipulative, egotistical, and yet still acting in (what they think are) the best interests of the world.

    Will probably bump it up to a 5 on re-read.

    Get past the superficial quaintness, you'll be rewarded.
    The People's Act of Love (2003) by James Meek Found this very striking when I read it 13 years ago, but can't remember why.
    Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration (2019) by Bryan Caplan
    Beautiful stuff, perhaps the clearest economic argument I've ever seen, and more moving than expected. I've seen people dismiss it as narrowly economic ("people value more than money ya know") but this is stupid: fully half the book is about morals and culture. There are dozens of lovely little easter eggs in Weinersmith's art too (e.g. "Conspicuone Pecansumption" icecream).

    The arguments:

    1. Closed borders lead to incredible suffering - not just the obvious oppression of camps, raids, struggle and drownings, but also the unnecessary perpetuation of poverty.

    2. He argues that it's a human rights issue: "If a foreigner wants to accept a job offer from a willing employer or rent an apartment from a willing landlord, what moral right does anyone have to stop them? These are contracts between consenting adults, not welfare programs." The regulation is an apartheid with comparatively little outcry and great popularity.

    3. America had completely open borders until 1875 and comparatively-free undocumented immigration until 1924. It did pretty alright.

    4. Immigrants on average have been fiscally net-positive. Doing our best to isolate the effects, moving to a rich country seems to multiply your productivity. (For a few reasons: more co-operation, a larger market for your work, no tropical disease, coastal trade, IQ gain if you're young.) This model predicts trillions of dollars of gain from open borders. If true, this massively reduces global poverty.

    5. Immigrants are on average culturally positive, allowing the recipient country to select from the best of everything in the world. The first generation are quite a bit more law-abiding than average natives. (Nowrasteh estimates that just one in seven million immigrants turned out to be a terrorist.) Assimilation is high, usually complete within 2-3 generations. "Political externalities" (the idea that your good culture will be voted out by bad culture once you let immigrants vote) have not in fact been seen.

    Residual points:

    • The data is mostly from our current highly-restricted high-skill-only immigration regime. It's not clear which effects would change in the dramatically different world Caplan promotes, though he does his best to look at saturation effects and the low-skilled who are currently persecuted-out. (For instance, a large part of his cultural argument depends on the low-skilled continuing to not vote, as they haven't.)

    • The biggest risk by far is the damage caused by irrational native backlash against foreigners. This produces things like Brexit and the Jobbik and Austrian 'Freedom' governments. Chapter 6 addresses some of this by suggesting ways to make things unfair for the migrants (limiting their welfare access, entry tolls, language tests, slow naturalisation) to mollify the local problems / backlash and so protect people's right to move in the first place. I glumly suspect this wouldn't work, because much of the backlash isn't based on real effects, and so can't be mollified by policy. (Indeed, he notes that most of the suggested hobbles already exist in US law in some form, and might have somewhat dulled anti-immigration sentiment.)

    • He sometimes implies that he'd open borders in one big bang - but this size of policy shift should basically never be done, just out of epistemic modesty and reversibility. His counter is that the magnitude of the gains is too large to be possibly less than zero.

    • It's mostly based on US data and US policy is the target, which is completely fine but limits the inference. This is sensible; general theory, general policy usually fail.

    • To my surprise he doesn't much emphasise the macropolitical benefits of immigration: if people could just leave countries with terrible policies, taking their taxes with them, this would be a new and powerful check on government abuse. Voting with your feet, and governments actually trying to attract and retain people.

    • Though its evidence checks out (as far as I can tell), it's still a polemic (like The Wealth of Nations before it!). As such it's simple, too simple. The Center for Global Development has a sadder, equivocal summary congruent to the limits of social science:
      No case study or academic paper can—ever—spell out what “the” effect of “immigration” is. Asking this question has as little use as asking whether “taxes” are inherently “good” or “bad.” The answer depends on what is taxed and what the revenue is spent on. Those choices make the policy harmful or beneficial. The same is true of migration.

    The Age of Reason (1945) by Jean-Paul Sartre So nasty, but some great lines.
    The Replacing Guilt Series () by Nate Soares
    pinch yourself, and remember what you are. What do you see?

    I see bundles of proteins and lipids arranged in a giant colony of cells, lives given over to the implementation of a wet protein computer that thinks it's a person... Look at us, the first species among the animals that can figure out what the stars are, still tightly bound to impulse and social pressure. (Notice how silly it is, monkeys acting all serious and wise as they try to affect the course of history.)... [but still] see the lost monkey who's trying to steer an entire universe...

    Consequentialism for humans. Important because it is rare for discussions of "demandingness" or "scrupulosity" to speak about specific behavioural patterns or phenomenology. (It also has the most important part of self-help, an awareness that positive advice is never universal: "remember the law of equal and opposite advice. For every piece of advice useful to one person, there is some other person who needs exactly the opposite advice.")

    (I put off reading this for a whole year, and felt bad about it. So.)

    He'd have you move from external motivation to intrinsic motivation because it's more sustainable, and so more effective. He's quite radical about this, ditching normal moral psychology:
    the way that most people use the word "should," most of the time, is harmful. People seem to use it to put themselves in direct and unnecessary conflict with themselves... imagine the person who wakes up feeling a bit sick. They say to themselves, "ugh, I should go to the pharmacy and pick up medication before work." Now picking up meds feels like an obligation: if they don't get meds, then that's a little bit of evidence that they're incompetent, or akrasiatic, or bad... this disconnects the reason from the task, it abolishes the "why". The person feeling sick now feels like they have an obligation to pick up medication, and so if they do it, they do it grudgingly, resenting the situation... Now imagine they say this, instead: "ugh, if I went to the pharmacy to pick up medication, I'd feel better at work today."

    Your true shoulds, if I could show them to you, would not look like a list of obligations. Your true shoulds would look like a recipe for building a utopia.

    Many treat their moral impulses as a burden. But I say, find all the parts that feel like a burden, and drop them. Keep only the things that fill you with resolve, the things you would risk life and limb to defend.

    I find it amusing that "we need lies because we can't bear the truth" is such a common refrain, given how much of my drive stems from my response to attempting to bear the truth.

    "Badness" is not a fundamental property that a person can have. At best, "they're bad" can be shorthand for either "I don't want their goals achieved" or "they are untrained in a number of skills which would be relevant to the present situation"; but in all cases, "they are bad" must be either shorthand or nonsense.

    Wouldn't Nietzsche in his better moods (or Laozi at any time) smile?


    The strategy is roughly:

    1. Find something to care about. (Obstacles: hiding in bed, defensive relativism or nihilism, hiding in routine.)
    2. Drop all obligations and see what you still care about.
    3. Build intrinsic drive (change environment, train willpower and habit)
    4. Draw on the fact that the world is broken as fuel
    5. See guilt as an alien concept, unnecessary for the higher goals.

    An important distinction:

    * Listless guilt: feeling bad because you feel you should do something with your life, but not really thinking about what.
    * Specific guilt: feeling bad because of unmet obligations to a particular goal.
    * Akrasia guilt: feeling bad because you're not following the endorsed plan.


    One startling bit: some people report that following his advice has "broken" them, in the sense that guilt was indeed propping up their lives. His response is, "good":
    Some people, when they stop forcing themselves to do things because they "should," will do a bit less to improve the world. They'll bow a bit less to social pressure, and insofar as the social pressure was pushing them to do what you think is good, you might count that as a loss. Some people don't care about things larger than themselves, and that's perfectly fine, and making them more resilient to social pressure might lose the world some charity.

    I expect that far more charity is lost from people convincing themselves that their altruistic desires are external obligations and resenting them. I expect that most people who feel obligated to improve the world and only do it because they "should" will become much more effective if they stop forcing themselves...

    You can recover from breaking a few parts of yourself, so long as you're modular rather than fragile.

    (This attitude is strongly reminiscent of the person Scott Alexander is incredulous about at the end of this great, great piece, though with instrumental harm.)

    I'd probably be more cautious, and advise you not to read this if you don't have lots of slack, support, and stomach for horrible facts. (Soares finds intrinsic motivation in attending to how awful the world is, how much it needs fixing.)


    It's short but dense with interesting ideas. (e.g. the nice concise rebuttal of naive internalist egoism.)

    Each post repeats its point at least three times, which I suppose is intentional pedagogy, but it made me skim a lot. Soares also often links forward to posts you haven't read yet, confusingly.

    I'm not particularly guilt-ridden or scrupulous, on the scale of things, but I still found this good. Not sure I buy everything in it, but the rough method (move from vague to specific guilt, and then view the specific guilt as an external and unhelpful force in the light of your specific goal) seems sensible.

    If the following worldview or prose doesn't appeal to you, it's not for you:
    you will not be measured by the number of moments in which you worked as hard as you could. You will not be judged by someone rooting around in your mind to see whether you were good or bad. You will not be evaluated according to how unassailable your explanations are, for why things you couldn't possibly have prevented were the things that went wrong.

    You will be measured only by what actually happens... this is the driver that takes the place of guilt... All we need to do, in any given moment, is look upon the actions available to us and take whichever one seems most likely to lead to a future full of light.

    Why should we listen to self-help, unless the author has done something impressive? I don't know if you find these things impressive, but they serve.
    Do You Think What You Think You Think? (2006) by Julian Baggini Maybe the first philosophy (nominal philosophy? thing by a philosopher?) I read. Can't quite remember if it was amazing, but I ended up doing philosophy so it can't have been bad.
    This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (2009) by David Foster Wallace There's been a lot of DFW hate lately – here, here, here, here. But who else marries the syrupy plain with the thrilling theoretical arcane? Could anyone fail to understand the retrospectively obvious point of this little lecture? (Roughly just: It requires constant work to divert yourself from egotism and irritation; this work is the point of education and the essence of maturity.)

    The audience titters throughout the recording; this grates on me. It’s the forced, knowing laughter you hear in theatres. I submit that it’s this feature of DFW’s audience that Ellis and TLP hate. I don’t know if reading DFW makes me any less self-obsessed and disdainful, but actually it feels like it might.
    How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read (2007) by Pierre Bayard In one sentence: Relax, it's a game.

    To be read when: teenaged; burdened by the thought of the millions of unread books; before going to a posh party.

    There are too many books; among those worth reading at all, most are best skimmed; others are best interpreted via interpreters; you only see part of the possible meaning of the books you've read; and you've forgotten almost anything about even those. So relax and talk about the 'virtual' book, the idea of it, the version of it that you and your interlocutor inadvertently generate between you.

    The title sounds like vacuous click-bait (indeed, a friend who later wrote his thesis on Bayard initially thought I was recommending something like this fluff). But it is instead all of the following: a thrilling act of virtuoso postmodern over-reading, a serious look at intellectual status and neurosis, a really interesting phenomenology of books, a glowing review of a dozen writers (including my beloved-but-low-status Greene and Lodge), and sheer backwards-land satire.

    I found it liberating, not because I go round pretending to have read things (a free-rider in literary conversations), but because by the end of my arts degree I had found out, to my surprise and dismay, that high culture is 90% bollocks. Or, maybe: that arts culture is shallow and irrational, a thick and grasping vine overgrowing the lovely lonely tower of great writing and painting.

    Bayard (or anyway his cheeky narrator) help unhook you from the blind devotion of the reading classes, and lets you face books on your own terms, sceptical and skimming and agentic. I was freed - and immediately started to get technical.

    And 'Bayard's' style - pointing out the inconvenient but undeniable things about a cherished phenomenon - now reminds me of the arch-rationalist Robin Hanson. Which is where I went next.

    • Galef type:

      Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something, &

      Style 2 - learn a style of thinking by studying the author’s approach to the world Style 3 - tickle your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker

    The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing (2012) by John R. Perry
    structured procrastinator: a person who gets a lot done by [consciously] not doing other [important] things.

    This book didn't exactly change my life, but it made me feel better about what I was already doing. (Before, I'd been calling it slingshot akrasia.)

    Structured procrastination is that staple from stand-up comedy where the best way to get yourself to tidy your entire house is to sit down to do your taxes.

    : All of my reviews, all of my essays were written in the glow and shadow of other things I should've been doing.

    All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, such as gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they find the time. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because accomplishing these tasks is a way of not doing something more important.

    If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him to do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely, and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important...

    Doing those tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, you can become a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

    Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this approach ignores the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be, by definition, the most important. And the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is the way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being...

    The second step in the art of structured procrastination is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal projects have two characteristics -- they seem to have clear deadlines (but really don't), and they seem awfully important (but really aren't). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks. At universities, the vast majority of tasks fall into those two categories, and I'm sure the same is true for most other institutions...

    At this point, the observant reader may feel that structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is, in effect, constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. Exactly... what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the effects of another?


    Work and study pressurise my life. They give me a structure to defy, a gravity assist. I am happiest laden with obligations, when the set of tasks that is my life flies just out of control. I think the mechanism is this:

    1. I require a steady stream of variety.
    2. Having a job makes my days closely resemble each other.
    3. Intolerable resentment.
    I am forced to produce creative sparks to satisfy my basic drive.

    SP is related to how great I feel when I don't have to go to a party, to my sadly efficient approach to grades, to how giving work to a busy person is a good way of getting it done quicker, i.e. an implausible linear increase of output with increasing things to do. I read more fiction when doing a stats degree and learn more stats when in work.


    Antecedents of Perry and me.

    Fernando Pessoa:
    I often wonder what kind of person I would be if I had been protected from the cold wind of fate by the screen of wealth... to reach the tawdry heights of being a good assistant book-keeper in a job that is about as demanding as an afternoon nap and offers a salary that gives me just enough to live on.
    I know that, had that past existed, I would not now be capable of writing these pages, which, though few, I would undoubtedly have only day-dreamed, given more comfortable circumstances. For banality is a form of intelligence, and reality, especially if it is brutish and rough, forms a natural complement to the soul. Much of what I feel and think I owe to my work as a book-keeper since the former exists as a negation of and flight from the latter.

    the struggle against the ecclesiastical oppression of millenniums of Christianity... produced in Europe a magnificent tension of soul, such as had not existed anywhere previously; with such a tensely-strained bow one can now aim at the furthest goals... we have it still, all the distress of spirit and all the tension of its bow! And perhaps also the arrow, the duty, and, who knows? The goal to aim at...

    Geoff Dyer:
    The best circumstance for writing, I realized... were those in which the world was constantly knocking at your door; in such circumstances, the work you were engaged in generated a kind of pressure, a force to keep the world at bay. Whereas here, on Alonissos, there was nothing to keep at bay, there was no incentive to generate any pressure within the work, and so the surrounding emptiness invaded and dissipated, overwhelmed you with inertia. All you could do was look at the sea and the sky and after a couple of days you could scarcely be bothered to do that.

    Zach Weiner:
    [After months of working only on my main goal] I took on a job doing closed captioning because I found it [made for] an easier time writing. Just something about talking to people and watching weird media made the writing a lot easier. My new theory of self was that you can't write well unless you have a little strife in your life. I worked at the closed captioning job for 4-6 months and by then I was making enough money on the site to responsibly quit my job.

    The problem was I didn't want to quit my job and have readership fall off because I couldn't write, so my crazy idea was to go back to school. I thought, it'd to be this weird environment, with younger people, and that would be good...


    Is this platitudinous? It is possible that the grand narration above is delusional, and that the only actual content here is "A lot of people work better under pressure". Don't think so though.

    YMMV. 5/5 if you don't do this already.
    80,000 Hours: Find a fulfilling career that does good () by Benjamin Todd 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.
    Exhalation: Stories (2019) by Ted Chiang Wonderful again, worth the wait - 9 stories (including 4 novellas) in 12 years. The defamiliarisation, the perceptual aid in these is the equal of great philosophical work.

    The best bit is his patience and magnanimity with folk psychology. He is much more empathetic with bad philosophy that I am; he builds people very different from himself or me (a worried father writing a moral-panic piece about perfect recall; a young-earth creationist tipped into despair by being god's practice shot), and then around page 10 he flips their philosophy, showing how it unravels in the face of reality, and so makes me look like an idiot zealot for being irritated by them.
    many people became convinced that [alt-timeline creation devices] nullified the moral weight of their actions. Few acted so rashly as to commit murder or other felonies, but...

    In "What's Expected of Us" he has "one-third" of people driven mad by an intuitive demonstration of their lack of 'libertarian' free will. I don't doubt that some would be, but there's no way that one-third of people are that abstract, that philosophically susceptible. The world would look so different if they were. (We have "paradox-absorbing crumple zones", as Futurama puts it.) And as for the ones who did go mad, I would be tutting at them for letting bad philosophy confuse them to death.

    The title story is just perfect, the story of a robot dissecting itself and thereby learning of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its emotional implications. It's powerful because it's us. Our waste air is waste heat. Our pressure gradient is a proton gradient.

    Another distinctive thing: Half the stories have a pair of contrasting narrators, objective and subjective. One of these voices is merely expository, apparently styleless. But it just works.

    I was primed to dislike "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" from the title alone: despite popular usage, feelings are neither true or false, but instead grounded or ungrounded, helpful or unhelpful. (I was shocked to find this activist taxonomy very useful: valid / justified / effective.) But again it's larger than me: it links the great oral-to-literate transition to a near-future one from analogue-literate to digital-literate. God it's good, like Black Mirror if it wasn't relentlessly scaremongering and cheap.

    1. "Exhalation".
    2. "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling"
    3. "Omphalos"
    4. "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"
    5. "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom"
    6. "The Great Silence"
    7. "The Lifecycle of Software Objects"
    8. "What's Expected of Us"
    9. "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny"

    Not as good as his first collection, but what is? (With Le Guin and Wolfe gone, he might be the reigning master.)
    The Selfish Gene (1976) by Richard Dawkins None yet
    Information Theory: A Tutorial Introduction (2015) by James V. Stone
    rigour follows insight

    A pleasure to spend time with. Stone's arguments are complete without being bloated, and he has a keen eye for philosophical and intuitive implications ("Why does maximum information look like pure noise?", "What exactly does half a bit mean?", and much more). This completeness means that he sometimes repeats definitions or lemmas, but I defy you to find this unhelpful.

    The bibliography is also excellent, ranking a hundred books by their specialty and difficulty.

    (Quibble: at the end he suggests that Shannon's originality was so strong that he "single-handedly accelerated the rate of scientific progress, and it is entirely possible that, without his contribution, we would still be treating information as if it were some ill-defined vital fluid". But his work seems so natural and elementary that this would surprise me. Weak evidence: Konrad Zuse independently invented Shannon's boolean circuit theory...)
    Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (2013) by Sendhil Mullainathan Economics bills itself as 'the study of decisions under scarcity', though much of it is actually about excess: luxury substitution, savings rates, futures markets, conspicuous consumption, and so on. The psychological side - the panic, narrow focus, and sense of doom - was completely absent from my economics classes, but without it you can't really understand poverty, and thus can't value economic growth as the life-saving, mind-saving thing it has been.

    Reasons scarcity is bad:
    1. Lower consumption is less good (and sometimes very bad)
    2. Less freedom (fewer choices)
    3. Anxiety (emotional penalty)
    4. Cognitive penalty (bandwidth of worrying)
    5. Excessive focus on present, no planning, compromising future ("tunnelling")
    6. Have to spend time on careful allocation ("juggling")
    7. Excess self-consciousness means worse performance ("choking")
    8. It might also poison social interaction by encouraging zero-sum thinking and its attendent wasteful conflict. (Although see Junger for some positive social effects of shared adversity.)
    9. It recurses: Mistakes lead to real sacrifice (debt; traps; no slack means penalties bite, further reducing slack). Scarcity causes more scarcity by screwing with your planning and implementation skills.

    Economics only really handles costs (1) and (2). Psychology at its best handles (3-7). (9) is the author's new contribution, I think: this is cognitive economics.

    Without some spare resources it's impossible to be free, to be generous, to relax. That's obvious. Less obvious: Without slack you can't even think straight (there's a "bandwidth tax" on the poor, reducing their effective intelligence, willpower by perhaps an entire standard deviation). Most of the cited experiments are about money scarcity, but their ingenious move is to generalise to all of us, to all conditions where a person lacks some instinctively (evolutionarily) key resource: e.g. money, time, calories, friends. As well as a rare theoretical synthesis, this makes this book more evocative for its rich-world readers:
    We have used the psychology of scarcity to create an empathy bridge. We have used experience with one form of scarcity (say, time) to connect to another form (money). Having known what it’s like to badly need a little more time, we might start to imagine what it’s like to desperately need a little more money or even more friends. We used this bridge to draw a connection between a busy manager fretting about insufficient time before a deadline and a person short on cash fretting about insufficient funds to pay rent.

    Exciting! I've been reading development economics and behavioural science for years, and I still got a lot of new results and a whole gosh-darnit Practical Theory of Mind with moving parts from this.

    They compress all the complex constructs and determinants of their real theory into a lossy construct, "bandwidth". This is a shorthand for working memory & fluid intelligence & attention span & decision consistency & persistence & executive control & long-term planning inclination. They admit at the start it's a compression, so that's fine.
    With compromised bandwidth, we are more likely to give in to our impulses, more likely to cave in to temptations. With little slack, we have less room to fail. With compromised bandwidth, we are more likely to fail.

    Lesson: To actually optimise your life, you can't optimise too hard, in the sense of pushing right up against your budgets. This idea is not new; a different book would tie this to queuing theory and distributed systems, trying to find general theoretical truths about systems. (What's the maximum sustainable load for a server? For a life?) Excess capacity, 'slack', is short-run inefficiency and long-term shock-tolerance and thus true efficiency. The point seems to apply to servers, hospitals, and a single human life viewed from inside.

    This also adds to Taleb's critique of naive finance, encouraging 'risk-sensitive optimisation' (or, death-sensitive). Extends bounded rationality to limited attention, willpower, as well as computation and a search budget.

    The book's big philosophical question is the old Essence vs Context chestnut ("the poor are worse parents, drivers, borrowers" vs "given these constraints, people are worse parents, drivers, borrowers"). But it's a new twist on it: rather than (as well as) a developmental deficiency, poverty is an active, situational force:
    This shortfall is not of the standard physiological variety, having to do with a lack of nutrition or stress from early childhood hindering brain development. Nor is bandwidth permanently compromised by poverty. It is the present-day cognitive load of making ends meet: when income rises, so, too, does cognitive capacity. The bandwidth of the farmers was restored as soon as crop payments were received. Poverty at its very core taxes bandwidth and diminishes capacity.

    This surprises me: I generally accept that people are hard to change, that engineered context is relatively weak. But then all attempts at self-improvement are a denial of essentialism about something, and I'm well into those.
    To explain why the poor borrow excessively, we do not need to appeal to a lack of financial education, the avarice of predatory lenders, or an oversized tendency for self-indulgence. To explain why the busy put off things and fall behind, we do not need to appeal to weak self-control, deficient understanding, or a lack of time-management skills. Instead, borrowing is a simple consequence of tunneling.

    They don't sugarcoat it: they accept the massive body of evidence on how burdened the poor are, on dozens of axes. And they note that just giving them cash rarely solves the problem because this doesn't change the logic enough.
    The poor stay poor, the lonely stay lonely, the busy stay busy, and diets fail.

    One big gripe: They use the word "scarcity" for both a physical shortage (i.e. the normal economic sense) and for this special psychological burden. (Not having, and having your mind captured by not having.) This needs two words; it muddies their thesis.

    They've persuaded me that late fines are an extremely regressive tax. I'm open to the view that reducing poor people's options is sometimes best for them (e.g. if they are "hurt by the ability to borrow [at extortionate rates]" because it prevents them smoothing their income in a credit cycle). I agree that bandwidth is the deepest kind of human capital.

    Their treatment of the mental costs of education is important, given NGOs' blithe promotion of education over all else. (And it's a further argument for unconditional cash transfers.)
    To capitalize on a bonus payment for a child’s medical checkup, a parent must set up the appointment, remember to keep it, find the time to get there and back, and coerce the child to go (no child likes the doctor!). Each of these steps requires some bandwidth. And this is just one behavior. Conditional cash transfer programs seek to encourage dozens, if not hundreds, of these good behaviors. Just understanding those incentives and making the necessary trade-offs—deciding which are worth it for you and which are not, and when—requires bandwidth.

    We never ask, Is this how we want poor people to use their bandwidth? We never factor in this cost in deciding which behaviors are most worth promoting. When we design poverty programs, we recognize that the poor are short on cash, so we are careful to conserve on that. But we do not think of bandwidth as being scarce as well. Nowhere is this clearer than in our impulse to educate.

    I'm a keen and cynical student of social research, and but I only recognised one spurious result in this whole book. (ego depletion, p.107 - and that only in a tangent explicitly phrased as hypothetical.) They did a pretty convincing within-subjects study on sugar farmers before and after harvest income which nails down the effect as far as I can see.


    Only not five stars because we can't give any social science book five stars until it is 20 years old and more severely scrutinised.
    A Few Quick Ones (Jeeves, #11.5) (1959) by P.G. Wodehouse What else can you read one line of and feel this happy?

    In these disturbed days in which we live, it has probably occurred to all thinking men that something drastic ought to be done about aunts.

    "The whimsical way she put it was that a woman who married a man my size ran a serious risk of being arrested for bigamy."
    Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014) by Nick Bostrom Like a lot of great philosophy, Superintelligence acts as a space elevator: you make many small, reasonable, careful movements - and you suddenly find yourself in outer space, home comforts far below. It is more rigorous about a topic which doesn't exist than you would think possible.

    I didn't find it hard to read, but I have been marinating in tech rationalism for a few years and have absorbed much of Bostrom secondhand so YMMV.

    I loved this:
    Many of the points made in this book are probably wrong. It is also likely that there are considerations of critical importance that I fail to take into account, thereby invalidating some or all of my conclusions. I have gone to some length to indicate nuances and degrees of uncertainty throughout the text — encumbering it with an unsightly smudge of “possibly,” “might,” “may,” “could well,” “it seems,” “probably,” “very likely,” “almost certainly.” Each qualifier has been placed where it is carefully and deliberately. Yet these topical applications of epistemic modesty are not enough; they must be supplemented here by a systemic admission of uncertainty and fallibility. This is not false modesty: for while I believe that my book is likely to be seriously wrong and misleading, I think that the alternative views that have been presented in the literature are substantially worse - including the default view, according to which we can for the time being reasonably ignore the prospect of superintelligence.

    Bostrom introduces dozens of neologisms and many arguments. Here is the main scary apriori one though:

    1. Just being intelligent doesn't imply being benign; intelligence and goals can be independent. (the orthogonality thesis.)
    2. Any agent which seeks resources and lacks explicit moral programming would default to dangerous behaviour. You are made of things it can use; hate is superfluous. (Instrumental convergence.)
    3. It is conceivable that AIs might gain capability very rapidly through recursive self-improvement. (Non-negligible possibility of a hard takeoff.)
    4. Since AIs will not be automatically nice, would by default do harmful things, and could obtain a lot of power very quickly*, AI safety is morally significant, deserving public funding, serious research, and international scrutiny.

    Of far broader interest than its title (and that argument) might suggest to you. In particular, it is the best introduction I've seen to the new, shining decision sciences - an undervalued reinterpretation of old, vague ideas which, until recently, you only got to see if you read statistics, and economics, and the crunchier side of psychology. It is also a history of humanity, a thoughtful treatment of psychometrics v genetics, and a rare objective estimate of the worth of large organisations, past and future.

    Superintelligence's main purpose is moral: he wants us to worry and act urgently about hypotheticals; given this rhetorical burden, his tone too is a triumph.
    For a child with an undetonated bomb in its hands, a sensible thing to do would be to put it down gently, quickly back out of the room, and contact the nearest adult. Yet what we have here is not one child but many, each with access to an independent trigger mechanism. The chances that we will all find the sense to put down the dangerous stuff seem almost negligible. Some little idiot is bound to press the ignite button just to see what happens. Nor can we attain safety by running away, for the blast of an intelligence explosion would bring down the firmament. Nor is there a grown-up in sight...

    This is not a prescription of fanaticism. The intelligence explosion might still be many decades off in the future. Moreover, the challenge we face is, in part, to hold on to our humanity: to maintain our groundedness, common sense, and goodhumored decency even in the teeth of this most unnatural and inhuman problem. We need to bring all human resourcefulness to bear on its solution.

    I don't donate to AI safety orgs, despite caring about the best way to improve the world and despite having no argument against it better than "that's not how software has worked so far" and despite the concern of smart experts. This sober, kindly book made me realise this was more to do with fear of sneering than noble scepticism or empathy.

    [EDIT 2019: Reader, I married this cause.]

    * People sometimes choke on this point, but note that the first intelligence to obtain half a billion dollars virtually, anonymously, purely via mastery of maths occurred... just now. Robin Hanson chokes eloquently here and for god's sake let's hope he's right.
    Lost for Words (2014) by Edward St. Aubyn Brutal Booker Prize satire.

    'The measure of a work of art is how much art it has in it, not how much ‘relevance’. Relevant to whom? Relevant to what? Nothing is more ephemeral than a hot topic.'

    The targets I recognised were 'Wolf Hall', 'how late it was, how late' - and, among the judges, Stella Rimington, Chris Mullin, Malcolm Rifkind / Jim Murphy(?) Sam certainly sounds like Patrick, too:

    Like a man walking backwards along a path, erasing his footsteps with a broom, he had tried, through contradiction, negation, paradox, unreliable narration and every other method he could devise, to cancel the tracks left by his words and to release his writing from the wretched positivity of affirming anything at all.

    There's also an exquisite send-up of Deleuzian/Lacanian raving.
    An Introduction to Statistical Learning: With Applications in R (2013) by Gareth James Really good, heavy on intuition building, folk ML, and stuff which you'll actually use. I've brushed up against all of it before (: I've called all of it from the safe distance of a nice Python library before), but it took a second pass and doing all the exercises to click. To actually learn (grok) something, you need

    1. To do it, not just read about it
    2. To read it several times
    3. To feel challenged but not overwhelmed by it

    And 2&3 conflict.

    (Most books don't have a natural do-operator. How do you do a novel? I make do with these reviews; others do fanfiction and probably get the same benefit.)

    Kind of annoying that the figures are never next to their discussion. And I was hoping this would make me like R but I can't and I don't. But good.
    The AI Does Not Hate You: Superintelligence, Rationality and the Race to Save the World () by Tom Chivers To my surprise I recommend this for anyone. (The chapters are tiny and I did the whole thing in an hour.) For outsiders it's an honest and nontechnical portrait of a new, strange, and wonderful endeavour; and Chivers shows his path from ordinary sceptical thoughtfulness to taking the idea seriously. (However, there's almost no maths in it, and without maths you can only ever sort-of get the gist. For instance, one of the key premises of the whole programme is very easy to understand if you've ever seen the structure of a reinforcement learning algorithm - where the 'optimizer' and the 'reward function' are completely separate modules varying freely - and apparently quite difficult to accept if you haven't.)

    For insiders it's a reminder of just how strange the project seems from outside. The chasm of inferential distance. There's also fun new details: I had no idea that Bostrom is name-dropped in Donald Glover's new TV show, for instance. And this made me laugh:
    Buck Shlegeris, a young MIRI employee with excitingly coloured hair and an Australian accent, told me that 'A book on this topic could be good', and that 'if I could jump into your body I have high confidence I could write it'. However, his confidence that I could write it from within my own body seemed significantly lower, which is probably fair enough.

    If you've read much on the topic you can skip the whole middle third of the book, it's just Chivers paraphrasing bits of the first two Sequences.

    Chivers overemphasises Yudkowsky. Gwern, Grace, Sandberg, and Muehlhauser get one passing reference each, but their work (and Krakovna's) have each had a larger effect on me, and on others I know. Not to mention the tumblrs. Ach never mind: it's a huge illegible mess of a movement and he's done well.

    Some of the interviewees make patently poor arguments - Sabisky ("it's a sex cult"), Brooks ("no [AI safety proponents] have ever done any work in AI itself"), Gerard ("it's a money-spinning cult") but it's so patent that I think people will see their prejudices. The real shame is that better critics exist - I have in mind the anonymous prosaic-AI researchers Nostalgebraist ("alignment is equivalent to solving ethics and decision theory at once") and "Beth Zero". But I suppose anon randos are not the best subjects for a mass-market book.

    "Here is what this ends up looking like: a quest to solve, once and for all, some of the most basic problems of existing and acting among others who are doing the same... problems of this sort have been wrestled with for a long time using terms like “coordination problems” and “Goodhart’s Law”; they constitute much of the subject matter of political philosophy, economics, and game theory, among other fields. It sounds misleadingly provincial to call such a quest “AI Alignment” ...

    There is no doubt something beautiful – and much raw intellectual appeal – in the quest for Alignment. It includes, of necessity, some of the most mind-bending facets of both mathematics and philosophy, and what is more, it has an emotional poignancy and human resonance rarely so close to the surface in those rarefied subjects. I certainly have no quarrel with the choice to devote some resources, the life’s work of some people, to this grand Problem of Problems. One imagines an Alignment monastery, carrying on the work for centuries. I am not sure I would expect them to ever succeed, much less to succeed in some specified timeframe, but in some way it would make me glad, even proud, to know they were there."


    Young Yudkowsky is adorable - and I hope others are able to see this past his hubris and proclamations.

    Chivers manages to show the power and emotional impact of the 'internal double crux' idea:
    I can picture a world in 50 or 100 that my children live in, which has different coastlines and higher risk of storms and, if I'm brually honest about it, famines in parts of the world I don't go. I could imagine my Western children in their Western world living lives not vastly different to mine, in which most of the suffering of the world is hidden away, and the lives of well-off Westerners continue and my kids have jobs... Whereas if the AI stuff really does happen, that's not the future they have... I can understand Bostrom's arguments that an intelligence explosion would completely transform the world; it's pointless speculating what a superintelligence would do, in the same way it would be stupid for a gorilla to wonder how humanity would change the world.

    And I realised that this was what the instinctive 'yuck' was when I thought about the arguments for AI risk. 'I feel that parents should be able to advise their children,' I said. 'Anything involving AGI happening in their lifetime - I can't advise them on that future. I can't tell them how best to live their lives because I don't know what their lives will look like, or even if they'll be recognisable as human lives... I'm scared for my children.' And at this point I apologised, because I found that I was crying.

    (Amateur psychoanalysis is fine - if you're doing it to yourself, and if you don't take it too seriously.)

    I'm pretty sure I know who this is (that mix of iron scrupulousness and radical honesty) and before I read it I thought the same:
    I met a senior Rationalist briefly in California, and he was extremely wary of me; he refused to go on the record. He has a reputation for being one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, but I found him a bit stand-offish, at least at first. And I think that was because he knew I was writing this book. He said he was worried that if too many people hear about AI risk, then it'll end up like IQ, the subject of endless angry political arguments that have little to do with the science, and that a gaggle of nerdy Californian white guys probably weren't the best advocates for it then.

    Journalistic harm I feared, that didn't come to pass: he never comments on anyone's appearance ("It would be extremely easy for me to write a book mocking them. But I don't want to do that."); he mentions Dylan Matthews' irritating amateur psychoanalysis only once - roughly, "of course Silicon Valley people think that good software will save the world"; he gives exactly no time to that one proudly cruel subreddit devoted entirely to ad hominem idiocy about the Rats. He brings up polyamory a lot but not malignantly.

    The "Chinese robber fallacy" is that you can make any large group seem evil by selecting from bad actors among them, even if they have exactly the same rate of the selected bad behaviour. If there are ~1m views on LessWrong per month, say 100,000 unique visitors. If sociopathy is found in 1% of the general population then the site will have 1000 sociopathic visitors. If 99% of visitors are lurkers, never commenting then you should expect 10 sociopathic commenters a month. This is enough to satisfy me that the 'dark side' (i.e. the odd far-rightist, and two gendered tragedies) Chivers covers is the selfsame dark side as our dumb world at large.

    I hate Chivers capitalising "Rationalist" all the time. I double hate it when he pairs this with capitalised 'Effective Altruist', like "the Rationalist Effective Altruist Buck Shlegeris". At no point does Chivers use the full (and only appropriate) name for the identity: "aspiring rationalist". (No human is that rational.) But to be fair nor do most people online.

    Couple of harmless errors (Helen Toner wasn't 'doing' ML in China, for instance). But the big one is that, after talking to all these people for and against, Chivers ends with the deferential prior: 80% of technical researchers think it's 90% likely we'll have AGI within a century, and if (as Chivers thinks) 17% think it will be highly negative, then our best guess is a 14% chance of catastrophic AGI. (With very large error bars - but that's even worse when you think about it.) Now, since he began at extreme scepticism (<1%) this is a large update - and we were lucky that a journalist came this far out on the limb. But the arguments presented here for and against the Risk are not equally convincing. He is presumably just too modest to multiply them out, as an amateur, in the face of big expert surveys. But, see what you think.
    Joy in the Morning (Jeeves, #8) (1947) by P.G. Wodehouse An irony: Florence is noted for her urge to improve Wooster by forcing philosophy textbooks and boring modernist literature on him. This fails utterly and inspires revolt.
    she was one of those intellectual girls... who are unable to see a male soul without wanting to get behind it and shove. We had scarcely arranged the preliminaries before she was checking up on my reading... substituting a thing called 'Types of Ethical THeory'. Nor did she attempt to conceal the fact that this was a mere pipe opener and that there was worse to come.

    Jeeves, on the other hand, has no programme, he just slips allusions and lyricism into conversation, with at least passable results on Wooster.
    'I shall miss you, Jeeves.'
    'Thank you, sir.'
    'Who was that chap who was always beefing about gazelles?'
    'The poet Moore, sir. He complained that he had never nursed a dear gazelle, to glad him with its soft black eye, but when it came to know him well, it was sure to die.'
    'It's the same with me. I am a gazelle short. You don't mind me alluding to you as a gazelle, Jeeves?'
    'Not at all, sir.”

    'Propose, forsooth! She'll just notify me that the engagement is on again, like a governess telling a young charge to eat his spinach. And if you think I've got the force of character to come back with a nolle prosequi-'
    'With a what?'
    'One of Jeeves's gags. It means roughly "nuts to you!" '

    Indeed, since all the stories but one are told by Wooster, the title of this is down to this strategy. (This is only remarkable because I was not expecting ironies.)


    * Wooster's taboo: Sindbad fancy dress costume; fake ginger beard.
    * Triangle: Cheesewright - Wooster - Florence.
    * Subplot: Nobby and Boko; the brooch; the ball; the Clam Line.
    * Aunt: Percival Worplesdon
    * Antagonist: Cheesewright
    * Expedient: stealing a constable's uniform, kicking a child, lying to a Peer, lying to the police.
    The Divine Comedy (1320) by Dante Alighieri James claims Cultural Amnesia took him 40 years to write and that this translation took 50. Lucky he saw the two keystones to the end!

    I was surprised by how much of Dante’s audacious fleshing out of vague Scripture is revenge verse; standing in judgment over his historical (Alexander, Attila) and contemporary enemies (his Latin teacher). He was probably echoing Church proclamations, but still: the author as towering demigod.

    After Book One you’d be forgiven for thinking that most people in hell are Italian. It’s impossible to ignore Dante’s medieval sneer in places (even though he was a big liberal by the going standard): he parades the Church’s varied idiot retributions, some of which persist, e.g. promising suicidal folk that they are going to get fucked up, or having sweet modest Epicurus roasted alive forever for holding the soul to be mortal. The final, most irredeemable circle of hell is reserved for, well, me: childless anti-nationalist atheists. Didn't quite have the stamina, but I'll be back.
    Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell None yet
    Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1) (2002) by Richard K. Morgan Class act: cyberpunk without cheap gothic neon and lolspeak; noir without cartoonish conventions. A meditation on identity and consent via sex and violence. Genuinely. The Scene: Consciousness can be up- and downloaded. In this world, if you are rich enough, you do not die. If you're richer than that, you get uploaded into a young clone of yourself - otherwise you take whatever marginalised corpse is going and adjust your sense of self to fit.

    He picks out implications brilliantly (e.g. what happens to celebrity culture?). The inevitable neologisms are excellent, intensely suggestive of the new culture's inner life: death is just "storage"; bodies are just "sleeves" and to be reincarnated is to be "sleeved"; a plasma gun is a "sunjet". Murder is just "organic damage". Catholics are (once again) the world's underclass - unable to travel interstellar because it involves casual storage (suicide) and resleeving (heresy), and killed with near-impunity because they alone cannot testify at their own murder trials. Cartoonish moments: our anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs is attacked or apprehended 7times in the first 150 pages.) People transition gender with regularity. Morgan makes a bold essentialist statement, which is somewhat backed-up:
    To be a woman was a sensory experience beyond the male... To a man, skin was a barrier. To a woman it was an organ of contact. That had its disadvantages</span>.
    (Kovacs is tortured, horrifically, as a woman.) Advertising can be beamed obtrusively into your mind. The UN has become a Shady Galactic Empire. It is strongly suggested - not least by our trained-psychopath protagonist - that this transhuman society is more psychopathic, owing to the lower stakes of violence, injury, and taboo-breaking. Gritty but not just gratuitous. Better than Gibson.
    At Last (2011) by Edward St. Aubyn None yet
    ワンパンマン 1 [Wanpanman 1] (Onepunch-Man, #1) (2012) by ONE
    Note that you will only be recognised as a super hero if you are registered in the National Super Hero Registry. If you are not registered, you will always be seen as a delusional weirdo and looked down upon, regardless of how many times you save the world.

    What's the name of the thing where you don't like a genre, but you do like deconstructions of it? I have it with horror (Cabin in the Woods and Tucker and Dale vs Evil!) and now, to my surprise, with shonen anime (Evangelion, Mob Psycho and this). Despite appearances OPM is a serious comment on credentialism, mob psychology, existentialism. The heroes and monsters are all ranked, but the ranking has little relation to their power. The unboundedly powerful protagonist is quite depressed because nothing in life is a challenge to him any more, no foe ever lasts.

    (Disappointed by the second series of the TV show, so turned to this.)

    The art is surprisingly bad (though the creator improved massively over a couple of years). Unlike most manga it looks like what it is: a five day rush job. The show plays with this by using art crudeness to represent Saitama's emotional state: when he's actually focussing he's drawn in great detail. The other 99% percent of the time he's round-faced, blank, and unshaded to represent how little effort he is giving whatever perilous situation the world is in.

    Still, hilarious.
    Collected Poems (1981) by Sylvia Plath The first raw confessional poet? Which is to say the first very-modern-poet, mother of 100,000 epigones, confessing when we've done nothing in particular worth admitting or renouncing.

    Actually, have any metal bands covered Plath?
    Nua-Bhardachd Gaidhlig / Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems: A Bilingual Anthology (1976) by Donald MacAulay None yet
    Museum Without Walls (2012) by Jonathan Meades The best bellowing contrarian in the land. This is mostly just TV scripts I've already seen, and though this means that we can at last catch up with his rapid-fire aesthetic barbs, they still suffer without their inspired, bizarre visual production.

    A sense of loneliness comes through on paper (anger and historical command is the dominant note in the programmes). You can see almost all his work at this Youtube channel. It is a fine use of a week.
    A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science (1998) by Noretta Koertge None yet
    Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1) (1977) by Frederik Pohl

    Hits hard, leaves marks. The ignoble, epistemically pinched, economic-realist sci-fi as written by the Strugatskys or Stross. I love it so much that even the Rogerian psychotherapy at its core doesn't annoy me; that even its 90% focus on one spoiled and abusive bastard is a merit of it. Spoilers everywhere. Physics and sin. No shortage of things left to do.

    In one sentence: Dreadful human being reflects on his dreadful actions while dead aliens look on.

    To be read when: overconfident; always.

    • Galef type:

      Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something .

    The Earthsea Quartet (Earthsea Cycle, #1-4) (1984) by Ursula K. Le Guin If fantasy tends to strike you as pompous or tasteless - if you can't get through 'Lord of the Rings', 'Game of Thrones' or whatnot, you should try this. Anthropological fantasies. The first three books are about: mortality, deconversion and addiction. But the fourth, about two women in two farmhouses, is actually the most ambitious.

    'Tales of Earthsea' is my favourite, but you can't just skip to it, since it gets its power from reprise and reprisal.

    The cycle is relentlessly pro-death though; Ged does not become a man until he faces and integrates a manifestation of his own death; Cob's terror of, and resistance to death enslaves and drains the entire continent; an ancient attempt to create an afterlife is actually an act of betrayal, colonialism, and Frankensteinian hubris. The cycle ends with the circle of life and death restored, and everyone right pleased and relieved at this, not least the undead who get to not exist. Now, you can counter that le Guin is more pro-stoicism, pro-serenity, pro-enlightened-adaption-to-the-inevitable than she is pro-death. But deathists always are; they are harmful because of their apriori ban on potentially wonderful undertakings, not because they are goth as fuck.

    As always, she is a wonderful read even when I disagree with her very strongly. To be read by 10 year olds and 27 year olds, presumably by 50 year olds and definitely by 75 year olds.
    Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs (1993) by Leonard Cohen I don't think he's depressing! Does that make me in some way broken? Anyway: Cohen the Jewish Buddhist leverages literary power from a faith he does not own: his poems are thus as erotic and grotesque as the best Christian writing. Much funnier and more concrete than his songs, too. Sure, everything is ominous in his work, but it's also banal, and these often admit they're ridiculous. To my surprise he is never obscure; to my relief he is never fatally wounded by the vicious retribution his many flaws invite.

    Gnarled urban spirituality. A strong, unlikely comparison: Bukowski. They both fixate on: plain poems about poems, bitter desire, nakedness, grandiose self-loathing, losers in love, and the significance of everyday things.(Look at this: "The art of longing's over and it's never coming back.") Speaking of Bukowski: is Cohen sexist? Arguable. For every slap in the face like 'Diamonds in the Mine', there are several tendernesses ('Portrait of a Lady') and self-aware apologies for lust. I would say: shocking and honest about patriarchal shapes, generally not unfeminist. ("You took my fingerprints away / So I would love you for your mind.") Moments of chastity inamongst the randy fury - for instance he never says 'God', always 'G-d'. Lots about the Holocaust too, mostly its banal consequences.
    Kiss me with your teeth
    All things can be done.
    whisper museum ovens of
    a war that Freedom won

    The newer stuff is generally weak, because less wry, profane and specific.
    (4/5 with lots of 5/5 moments: 'French and English', 'Israel', 'A Working Man', 'Queen Victoria and Me', 'Montreal' 'Hydra 1960', 'A Cross Didn't Fall on Me', 'Disguises', 'It's Probably Spring'.)
    I Think You'll Find it's a Bit More Complicated Than That (2014) by Ben Goldacre

    A hundred clear, witty, and literate attacks on the agreeable nonempiricism that most worldviews and most conversations are based in, even in the modernised, developed world. (It covers such anti-scientific fields as alternative medicine, journalism, politics, and policy. You may regard anti-vaxxers, face cream 'science', homeopathy, and AIDS denialism as too obviously false to be worth your time deriding. But these hopeful, manipulative falsehoods are where many if not most live: someone has to defend people.)

    This makes it a collection of a hundred enjoyable tutorials in statistics, experimental method, and epistemology:
    Alternative therapists don't kill many people, but they do make a great teaching tool for the basics of evidence-based medicine, because their efforts to distort science are so extreme. When they pervert the activities of people who should know better – medicines regulators, or universities – it throws sharp relief onto the role of science and evidence in culture...

    Goldacre is a gifted populariser: by focussing on particular abuses, he is able to animate very hard and theoretical topics by leveraging our anger, or our humour. (In a similar way to Nassim Taleb's snark. Of course, as strict empiricists, the two men share many targets: the powerful and overconfident, the famed and hollow, the predatory and avaricious). Since British libel law opens him to constant financial hazard, even when he is entirely careful and correct, he calls his writing "pop science with a gun to your head". (Actually it is mostly pop metascience; even better. There are shout-outs to the great critics of C20th science: Celia Mulrow, John Ioannidis, Uri Simonsohn, who are too-rarely praised; for they turned on the people who might otherwise have lionised them.)

    He shows policy analysis to be lagging a century behind the standard set by medical trials, and not mostly for the good reasons (which are: that they have a more causally dense subject than medicine has; and because they face absolute ethical restrictions on their experiments: it is politically impossible to experiment with welfare systems). e.g.: Policy people set no required evidence threshold before administering their treatments en masse, have no controls, no randomisation, no calibration, no statements of formal uncertainty, no malpractice system to punish their recklessness, nor often any honest fucking posthoc evaluation of their treatment.
    [Andrew Lansley's] pretence at data-driven neutrality is not just irritating, it's also hard to admire. There's no need to hide behind a cloak of scientific authority, murmuring the word "evidence" into microphones. If your reforms are a matter of ideology, legacy, whim and faith, then, like many of your predecessors, you could simply say so, and leave "evidence" to people who mean it.

    Journalists come across as badly as the quacks - even BBC, Panorama, C4 News. This may be being ameliorated at last by the rise of the specialised blogospheres and by the Nate Silver / Rich Harris / Keith Frey school of data journalism. But not generally yet and not for sure.

    I love his rationalist war-cry, against the public and dinner-party proponents of the never-supported MMR -autism link:
    Many of these people were hardline extremists - humanities graduates - who treated my arguments about evidence as if I were some kind of religious zealot, a purveyor of scientism, a fool to be pitied. The time had clearly come to mount a massive counter-attack.

    ...nerds are more powerful than we know. Changing mainstream media will be hard, but you can help create parallel options. More academics should blog, post videos, post audio, post lectures, offer articles and more. You'll enjoy it: I've had threats and blackmail, abuse, smears and formal complaints with forged documentation. But it's worth it, for one simple reason: pulling bad science apart is the best teaching gimmick I know for explaining how good science works. I'm not a policeman, and I've never set out to produce a long list of what's right and what's wrong. For me, things have to be interestingly wrong, and the methods are all that matter.

    His website is a bit ugly but has most of this content for free; the extras in this volume are oddities for fans (an undergraduate paper of his, BMJ editorials and notes from his heartening rise into British policy establishment (he is a public health researcher at the NHS). This was my second pass at his columns; I was again refreshed and uplifted and enraged. We might despair at how persistent insensitivity to evidence has been, and at how unnatural empiricism remains, in a society totally transformed by it. But I don't despair, because it has never been easier for us to check and rebut liars and fools. I sincerely aspire to become a "research parasite" (an independent checker of analyses, a rogue forensic statistician) and to write as clearly and well as him.

    Goldacre is that rare thing, someone doing the best work they possibly could be. (If he could be persuaded to migrate to the global south...)
    Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990) by Ray Monk None yet
    Math with Bad Drawings (2018) by Ben Orlin
    Fables and math have a lot in common. Both come from dusty, moth-eaten books. Both are inflicted upon children. And both seek to explain the world through radical acts of simplification. If you want to reckon with the full idiosyncrasy and complexity of life, look elsewhere... math makers are more like cartoonists.

    Taken as a collection of words, literature is a dataset of extraordinary richness. Then again, take as a collection of words, literature is no longer literature. Statistics works by eliminating context. Their search for insight begins with the annihilation of meaning... Is there peace to be made between the rich contextuality of literature and the cold analytical power of stats?

    So wise. You'd think a high-school maths teacher who draws intentionally badly wouldn't have much to say about the nature of reason, the ecstasy and despair of learning and abstraction, the beauty of inevitability. But here we are - this only looks like a children's book. For better or worse there's a pun or goofy self-deprecating joke every couple sentences. (The greatest of these: " CHAPTER 21: THE TIME HAS COME, LEON WALRAS SAID, TO TALK OF MANY THINGS")

    Everything in it is elementary, but using these simple examples Orlin covers a dozen of the most important intellectual developments: constraint theory of beauty, "unreasonable effectiveness", probability theory (via fascinating government lotteries with positive expected value!), the Great Recession from the quants' perspective, the replication crisis, the marginalist revolution... And he disses school mathematics often enough to charm anyone. I learned plenty (about bridges, polar animals, sabermetrics, about the inevitability and brilliance of ISO 216, and so on).

    Dissing folks for their probabilistic failures is a bit like calling them bad at flying, or subpar at swallowing oceans, or insufficiently fireproof. No big deal, right? I mean, does probability ever come up in the real world? It's not like we spend our lives clawing for intellectual tools that might offer the slightest stability in the swirling miasma of uncertainty that surrounds us every waking moment...

    He goes a bit wrong in his probability / lottery chapter - he spreads the rational choice theory (the idea that lotteries are good because it buys you nice daydreams) without reflecting that human attention and gumption are finite, and that the daydream thus robs people of a mildly but actually better future. Surprisingly, he also disses expected value (first-order users of which are "educated fools") with the trivial fact that infinities are strange: "Perhaps the ultimate repudiation of expected value is the abstract possibility of tickets [promising infinite payoff but only asymptotically]". Luckily decision theory is larger than one rule, and nowhere says that you must ignore your budget (+ leverage) and blindly obey the result of one multiplication... He also uses the false positive / false negative framework, which is usually misleading for squishy things like medicine and social science.

    (He also thinks Han Solo is valid.)

    While I am bitter that my own early maths education was so mindless, I'm amazed and glad that a few kids out there get to learn from someone like this.
    The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence (1964) by D.H. Lawrence Far better than his far more famous novels. Bitter and randy but often sensational, bringing flowers

    Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
    Let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of a flower
    down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness
    down the way Persephone goes, just now, in first-frosted September
    to the sightless realm where darkness is married to dark
    and Persephone herself is but a voice, as a bride
    a gloom invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
    of the arms of Pluto as he ravishes her once again
    and pierces her once more with his passion of the utter dark
    among the splendour of black-blue torches, shedding
    fathomless darkness on the nuptials.

    There's about 6 duds for every one of those - as always, a Collected is never judged by its hit rate but by its best. His philosophy is rank nonsense ("Sexless people transmit nothing."; "The machine shall be abolished from the earth again; / it is a mistake that mankind has made;") - as always, this has no bearing on the poems. What do I care that he is the most unsound voice in the great unsound choir of English literature?

    See here, here, here, here, here.

    The dirt-cheap holly-green Wordsworth paperbacks are where I got my first education. (I think this is what older generations got via Dover Thrifts or Pelicans.)
    Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: A Reader's Guide (2006) by Roger M. White None yet
    The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (2011) by James Gleick Ah! I am a sucker for this form in pop science: “primary research into some unjustly obscure thing, pulling together the historical and scientific strands, revealing the excitement and transcendence in the unsexy, un-Arts thing, and making the reader feel smarter and more solidly located in the modern world”. Here it's information technology very broadly construed – so African talking drums, Morse, bioinformatics, memetics, Hawking radiation, Wiki, and so on.

    Unbelievably, I’d never heard of the hero of the tale, Claude Shannon, because he was quiet and didn’t make any metaphysical claims for his profound work. Loads and loads of tasty gobbets to boot
    I do not believe that my father was such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst (& Metaphysician)…” - Lovelace

    A theoretical physicist acts as a very clever coding algorithm.

    Across the centuries they all felt the joy in reckoning: Napier and Briggs, Kepler and Babbage, making their lists, building their towers…

    Shot through with the joy of discovery, and all of it unbleached by the drudgery, familiarity, and commercialism evoked in “I.T.”.

    The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age (1965) by Stanisław Lem Superlatively brainy and silly fairytales, with wizards replaced by AI engineers. Think Carroll, Smullyan, Juster, Egan, heavier than heaven.

    Quantitative slapstick:
    And the mathematical models of King Krool and the beast did such fierce battle across the equation-covered table, that the constructors' pencils kept snapping. Furious, the beast writhed and wriggled its iterated integrals beneath the King's polynomial blows, collapsed into an infinite series of indeterminate terms, then got back up by raising itself to the nth power, but the King so belabored it with differentials and partial derivatives that its Fourier coefficients all canceled out (see Riemann’s Lemma), and in the ensuing confusion the constructors completely lost sight of both King and beast. So they took a break, stretched their legs, had a swig from the Leyden jug to bolster their strength, then went back to work and tried it again from the beginning, this time unleashing their entire arsenal of tensor matrices and grand canonical ensembles, attacking the problem with such fervor that the very paper began to smoke. The King rushed forward with all his cruel coordinates and mean values

    Despite appearances, it's not light fiction. It covers the impossibility of making people happy, the absurd birth and death of a robot without senses, the arbitrariness of power. The shadow of the Soviets falls on the stories quite hard.
    Trurl notarizes, issues directives, the typewriter chatters, and little by little an entire office takes shape, rubber stamps and rubber bands, paper clips and paper wads, portfolios and pigeonholes, foolscap and scrip, teaspoons, signs that say “No Admittance,” inkwells, forms on file, writing all the while, the typewriter chattering, and everywhere you look you see coffee stains, wastepaper, and bits of gum eraser. The Steelypips are worried, they don’t understand a thing, meanwhile Trurl uses special delivery registered C.O.D., certified with return receipt, or, best of all, remittance due and payable in full- he sends out no end of dunning letters, bills of lading, notices, injunctions, and there are already special accounts set up, no entries at the moment but he says that’s only temporary. After a while, you can see that that is not quite so hideous, especially in profile - it’s actually gotten smaller!-yes, yes, it is smaller! The Steelypips ask Trurl, what now?
    “No idle talk permitted on the premises,” is his answer. And he staples, stamps, inspects vouchers, revokes licenses, dots an I, loosens his tie, asks who’s next, I’m sorry, the office I closed, come back in an hour, the coffee is cold, the cream sour, cobwebs from ceiling to floor, an old pair of nylons in the secretary’s drawer, install four new file cabinets over here, and there’s an attempt to bribe an official, a pile of problems and a problem with piles, a writ of execution, incarceration for miscegenation, and appeals with seven seals. And the typewriter chatters:
    “Whereas, pursuant to the Tenant’s failure to, quit and surrender the demised premises in compliance with the warrant served habee facias posessionem, by Div. of Rep. Cyb. Gt. KRS thereof, the Court of Third Instance, in vacuo and ex nihilo, herewith orders the immediate vacuation and vacation thereunder. The Tenant may not appeal this ruling. Trurl dispatches the messenger and pockets the receipts. After which, he gets up and methodically hurls the desks, chairs, rubber stamps, seals, pigeonholes, etc., out into deep space. Only the vending machine remains.
    “What on earth are you doing??” cry the Steelypips in dismay, having grown accustomed to it all. “How can you?”
    “Tut-tut, my dears,” he replies. “Better you take a look instead!” And indeed, they look and gasp-why, there’s nothing there, it’s gone, as if it had never been! And where did it go, vanished into thin air? It beat a cowardly retreat, and grew so small, so very small, you’d need a magnifying glass to see it. They root around, but all they can find is one little spot, slightly damp, something must have dipped there, but what or why they cannot say, and that’s all.
    “Just as I thought,” Trurl tells them. “Basically, my dears, the whole thing was quite simple: the moment it accepted the first dispatch and signed for it, it was done for. I employed a special machine, the machine with a big B, for, as it is the Cosmos in the Cosmos, no one’s licked it yet!”
    “All right, but why throw out the documents and pour out the coffee?” they ask.
    “So that it wouldn’t devour you in turn!”

    how do you [humans] build your progeny?" asked the [robot] princess.

    "In faith, we do not build them at all," said Ferrix, "but program them statistically, according to Markov's formula for stochastic probability, emotional-evolutional albeit distributional, and we do this involuntarily and coincidentally, while thinking of a variety of things that have nothing what­ever to do with programming, whether statistical, alinear or algorithmical, and the programming itself takes place autonomously, automatically and wholly autoerotically, for it is precisely thus and not otherwise that we are constructed, that each and every paleface strives to program his progeny, for it is delightful, but programs without programming, doing all within his power to keep that programming from bearing fruit."

    Kandel's translation (from the Polish) is maybe the greatest I've ever seen: hundreds of puns, neologisms, fake academese, and absurd alliterative names, all rendered into English without slips or missed opportunities. I read this over a month, savouring.

    Probably 5/5 on re-read.
    Writings on an Ethical Life (2000) by Peter Singer
    If a critical mass of people with new priorities were to emerge, and if these people were seen to do well, in every sense of the term -- if their cooperation with each other brings reciprocal benefits, if they find joy and fulfillment in their lives -- then the ethical attitude will spread, and the conflict between ethics and self-interest will have been shown to be overcome, not by abstract reasoning alone, but by adopting the ethical life as a practical way of living and showing that it works, psychologically, socially, and ecologically...

    One thing is certain: you will find plenty of worthwhile things to do. You will not be bored or lack fulfillment in your life. Most important of all, you will know that you have not lived and died for nothing, because you will have become part of the great tradition of those who have responded to suffering by trying to make the world a better place.


    I've read a lot of Singer, mostly papers and columns and distilled arguments, not books. I can't remember not wanting to life an altruistic life, so I don't know exactly how much influence he had on me - but I'm a tithing vegan with a lot of respect for evolutionary arguments, who bites many utilitarian bullets, so it's probably plenty.

    Clear, unflinching, inspiring. Reading this, it's easy to see why the heroes of a fantasy novel could be called Singers.


    PS: Can anyone explain why, alone amongst philosophers, his face is so often on his book covers? Just fame? Just his strong brand?

    Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1) (2009) by Hilary Mantel Engrossing, a great charitable reconstruction of a terrible age. Besides the subtle portrayal of the latent Reformation revolution, there's also a far more important upheaval: the rise of brilliant laymen and potent commoners (e.g. More and Cromwell), that is, the beginning of the end of feudalism.

    Never been very interested in the Tudors. Henry is fickle and narcissistic even compared to other early Modern monarchs, and Anne is a boring climber. He appeared to set off a revolution for no better reason than he was too sexist to accept a female heir. Mantel shows how Henry, Anne and Katherine are a microcosm of their time - Mother Church vs the nationalism-Protestantism complex, and England slowly tearing itself away from former to latter. The first Brexit.

    It's an imperfect model - Henry still burns un-Catholic books and men, and Luther and Tyndale don't support the shady divorce (against their own interests). A mixture of lust, opportunism, influence from competent rebels (Cromwell, Cranmer)?

    Most characters are portrayed as pragmatic and modern, prayer aside. They know most relics are bogus, that the "medicine" of the day is hazardous, that the Church's decisions are deeply contingent and political, and they mock the superstitious lord who believes in ghosts. This is probably going too far, but it makes for great fiction.

    The treatment of More vs Cromwell is the reverse of that in A Man for All Seasons: here Cromwell is a rational, catholic, and empathetic gent, while More is a scary authoritarian fundamentalist, closer to a Daesh jihadi than Rowan Williams.
    [Cromwell] can’t imagine himself reading [the Bible] to his household; he is not, like Thomas More, some sort of failed priest, a frustrated preacher. He never sees More, a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod - without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you have learnt, confirm you in what you have believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away, a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too.

    Mantel has a funny way of letting her grammar show that Cromwell is The Man - she'll use "he" to mark him, even when this breaks the normal "pronouns refer to the most recent subject of that gender" convention. This is disorienting, but I appreciate the effect.

    I was recently baffled by this sentence, from a contemporary American evangelical: "I was baptised Catholic before I became a Christian." The violence of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation is the nastiest evidence of the power and horror of the narcissism of small differences.

    I liked the book recommendations, the 16th Century equivalents of discussions on here. It is so hard to know, from 500 years away, what's worth reading. Though I suppose the real C16th dross is dead, all out of print, unarchived, unextant. For instance:
    Castiglione says that everything that can be understood by men can be understood by women, that their apprehension is the same, their faculties, no doubt their loves and hates.

    This bit was funny:
    When the last treason act was made, no one could circulate their words in a printed book or bill, because printed books were not thought of. He feels a moment of jealousy towards the dead, to those who served kings in slower times than these; now a days the products of some bought or poisoned brain can be disseminated through Europe in a month.

    He's talking about a time with ~0.1% annual growth, starting from very little; where new books per year was still in the three digits; where new actual insights per year was probably lower, where it takes an entire month and ~thousands of pounds for one troll to even partially foul a discussion.</td> </tr>
    Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help (2015) by Larissa MacFarquhar
    I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them... The moral virtues, present... to an extreme degree, are apt to crowd out the non-moral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy,
    well-rounded, richly developed character... there seems to be a limit to how much morality we can stand.
    – Susan Wolf

    ...the moral narcissist’s extreme humility masked a dreadful pride. Ordinary people could accept that they had faults; the moral narcissist could not. To [André] Green this moral straining was sinister, for the moral narcissist would do anything to preserve his purity, even when doing so carried a terrible price... new qualifiers appeared: there was "pseudo-altruism", a defensive cloak for sadomasochism; and there was "psychotic altruism", bizarre care-taking behaviour based in delusion... the analyst surmised that the masking of their own hostility and greed from themselves might be one of altruism's functions for people of this type.
    – Larissa MacFarquhar

    ...we cannot and should not become impartial, [Bernard Williams] argued, because doing so would mean abandoning what gives human life meaning. Without selfish partiality—to people you are deeply attached to, your wife and your children, your friends, to work that you love and that is particularly yours, to beauty, to place — we are nothing. We are creatures of intimacy and kinship and loyalty, not blind servants of the world.
    – Larissa MacFarquhar

    Twelve profiles of recent radical altruists, and the backlash they receive from the rest of us. (^) Besides, MacFarquhar has some deep reflections on the good life and human nature to work through. So: There are people who shape their lives around the need of the world – in particular around strangers who are constantly, in some sense, drowning. This category of person does more than just work a caring job and be dead nice to those around them: instead, their entire lives are dominated by the attempt to do the most good.
    The profiled altruists are:

    • A fairly fearless nurse who organised the Fast for Life and trained generations of Nicaraguan nurses, continuing for thirty years despite specific threats to her life by Contras.

    • -
    • A pseudonymous animal rights activist who has rescued or won improved conditions for millions of chickens.

    • -
    • Two early effective altruists, Julia and Jeff, who live frugally and donate more than half of their salaries to the most effective NGOs in the world. They plausibly save 100 lives a year, far more than a doctor or firefighter (even before considering replaceability).

    • -
    • A real Christian, who opened her church to the homeless (over the hostility of her flock) and donated a kidney anonymously.

    • -
    • A charismatic, outcaste social worker and jungle statesman, who created a self-sustaining leper ashram, 5000-strong, out of nothing. Also his equally hardcore descendents.

    • -
    • A Buddhist monk who created the largest suicide counselling site in Japan, stressing himself into heart disease.

    • -
    • The omni-parents of Vermont, who adopted 24 of the least cute and easy children on the lists.

    • -
    • A taciturn altruistic kidney donor.

    • -
    • A burned-out idealist.

    (I've compiled data on their nature here.*)

    MacFarquhar appears suspicious about these people, whose lives are taken over by their morals. She calls them "do-gooders" while admitting the term is dismissive.** Even the most humble and quiet do-gooder is, she thinks, making an extremely arrogant claim: that the moral intuitions of the whole species - i.e. family favouritism, supererogation, the right to ignore the suffering of strangers - are totally wrong. She leaves no-one unsuspected.
    an extreme morality as Singer's or Godwin's can seem not just oppressively demanding but actually evil, because it violates your duty to yourself. To require a person to think of himself as a tool for the general good could be seen as equivalent of kidnapping a person off the street and harvesting his organs to save three or four lives... even to ask this of yourself seems wrong, even perverted. Impartial, universal love seems the antithesis of what we value about deep human attachment.

    But these lives are victory laps: the victory of broad reason over narrow animality. MacFarquhar is more nuanced, less willing to dismiss particularism, nepotism and speciesism – which are together known as common sense. (Though I have only a mild case of the radicals: for instance, I am mostly immune to misery about the state of the world, and I help my loved ones without much guilt. I'm giving 10% now and 50% eventually, but I am such a bookish scruff that the absence of luxuries does not really cramp my life at all.)

    One part of Williams' humanist case against radical altruism has dissolved in the last decade: the idea that single-minded ethical focus must erode your connection to your community. Well, the effective altruists are growing in number and maturity; they offer a deep, global community of at least partially serious people to support and be supported by: and all with the stamp of moral consistency.

    MacFarquhar doesn't much like utilitarianism, but she is too moved and impressed with her subjects to take the standard, safe, quietist line (which her reviewers have tended to). Throughout, she presents contradictory philosophical propositions, and makes it difficult to know which she believes; she constantly uses indirect speech and deictic discussion, blurring her voice with the debate at hand. This is, I think, an impressive rhetorical strategy – an "esoteric" one. The book is addressed to common sense readers, but also to our uncertainty and faint guilt; it's dedicated to her parents, but explicitly constructed to bring us closer to the altruists:

    I took out all the physical descriptions because if you’re looking at someone’s physical appearance, you’re on the outside. Similarly quotations, which seem as though they should be the most intimate form, because they come directly from the person’s mouth. Again, in fact, the only way you hear someone speaking is if you’re outside them. So if you translate quotation into interior thought, which simply means taking away the quotation marks and saying ‘he thought’ rather than ‘he said’ – that’s a more intimate way of encountering someone.***

    So Strangers Drowning covertly brings us closer to radical altruism. Her task is not to establish their ethical premises, nor to win over new obsessives: instead, she simply shows us their sincerity and incredible effects on the world – and, better, shows the lack of evidence and interpretive charity behind their opponents' aspersions. (This goes for the Freudians, the Objectivists, and the anti "codependency" crowd.) It humanises the threatening side of ultimate goodness. She mostly avoids editorialising about the radicals. But one of her clear conclusions is that these people are not deficient, instead having something most people lack:
    What do-gooders lack is not happiness but innocence. They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on knowing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though not always) their joy is purchased with other people's joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility...

    need of the world was like death, [Julia] thought — everyone knew about it, but the thought was so annihilating that they had to push it out of consciousness or it would crush them. She understood, and yet did not understand, why other people didn't give more than they did. How did they allow themselves such permission? How could they not help?

    while also noting that, in general
    If there is a struggle between morality and life, life will win... Not always, not in every case, but life will win in the end. Sometimes a person will die for a cause; sometimes a person will give up for duty's sake the things that are to him most precious. But most of the time, the urge to live, to give to your family, to seek beauty, to act spontaneously... or to do any number of things other than helping people, is too strong to be overridden... It may be true that not everyone should be a do-gooder. But it is also true that these strange, hopeful, tough, idealistic, demanding, life-threatening, and relentless people, by their extravagant example, help keep those life-sustaining qualities alive.

    An amazing book, anyway: charged, critical, structurally ingenious, and filled with humanity – or, with this other, better thing.

    "Sedia hujan sebelum payung" (c) Zaky Arifin (2015)

    Note the absent quotation marks around MacFarquhar's report of the psychoanalysts' and Williams' positions.

    The chapter on the blitheness and cruelty of the psychoanalysts enraged me - all the more because MacFarquhar leaves their unscientific bullshit unchallenged, instead letting it mock and degrade itself. (One hopes.) So much glibness and spite:

    ANNA FREUD:Altruists are bossy, because the urge that is usually behind the fulfillment of one's own wishes is now placed behind the fulfillment of the wishes of another person. The wishes have to be fulfilled in a certain way, in the way the altruist would like to fulfill them for himself or herself. After all, the bossiness of do-gooders is proverbial...

    (My, what rigorous science.) So, here's yet another way I am fortunate to live when I do: these people have by now been mostly sidelined in polite discourse. The harm they are able to do is much reduced, and I need not spend my whole life convincing people that they are just making things up.

    * Philosophy - e.g. Peter Singer, Will MacAskill, Toby Ord, Mark Lee, Geoff Anders, Stephanie Wykstra - looms large here, in this little corner of the race; larger than organised religion. Since all of the philosophers are from Analytic departments, this gives the lie to the generalised standard criticism of academic philosophy (: that they are fatally detached from the concerns of society, dehumanised, etc).

    ** "Do-gooder" is still much better than Susan Wolf's term, "moral saint", because, as MacFarquhar notes, to call someone a saint is to nullify the challenge of their difficult actions: saints are not just 'people who do really good things'; they are (thought to be) a different sort of being. Any movement (like EA) which seeks to make radical altruism mainstream has to resist this demarcation and get people to see such a life as, first, good; then, possible for them; and then reasonable - the sort of thing that people would do if they thought about it more.

    *** MacFarquhar's account of Stephanie is misleading: she makes it seem like she has opted for ordinary amoral innocence, where the real Stephanie has taken on an incredibly high-impact job, activism for oversight of pharmaceutical clinical trial data.

    [Data #2, Values #2]

    "Optikaa" (c) Zaky Arifin (2015)</td> </tr>
    Why I Am Not a Christian (1957) by Bertrand Russell Read my great-grandfather's copy, which felt good in a way I haven't often felt. This is what traditionalists like about tradition, I suppose: long continuity making you feel large.
    The Claw of the Conciliator (The Book of the New Sun, #2) (1981) by Gene Wolfe Again excellent - a better Dune, a much better Narnia, a peer to Ulysses. Throws you off balance right from page one - there's about 50 pages of plot missing between the first and second volumes, never really recounted. Since the Book is a chronicle written much later by Severian, this is maybe to show how old the book is when the in-universe reader finds it.

    One of the great things about Severian is that he's various - he has many conflicting goals, none of which is really the master quest. He swears I think four absolute oaths to different authorities. Jonas teases him about this:
    "You want to serve Vodalus, and to go to Thrax and begin a new life in exile, and to wipe out the stain you say you have made on the honor of your guild — though I confess I don’t understand how such a thing can be stained — and to find the woman called Dorcas, and to make peace with the woman called Agia while returning something we both know of to the women called Pelerines... I trust you realize that it is possible that one or two of them may get in the way of four or five of the others.”

    "What you're saying is very true," I admitted. "I'm striving to do all those things, and although you won't credit it, I am giving all my strength and as much of my attention as can be of any benefit to all of them. Yet I have to admit things aren't going as well as they might. My divided ambitions have landed me in no better place than the shade of this tree, where I am a homeless wanderer. While you, with your single-minded pursuit of one all-powerful objective . . . look where you are."

    As the retrospective journal of a victor (and as a work of nasty, feudal science fiction) it has the same feel as Dune, only less clumsy: we know that Severian or Paul have prevailed or will, but this somehow doesn't unstring the plot.

    There is a lot of plot, a lot of one-off scenes and people. It's all earned though, through symbolism or callback or prose. Hundreds of pungent sentences ("praise the Autarch, whose urine is wine to his subjects...").

    Probably 5/5 on re-read.
    The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006) by Deirdre N. McCloskey
    I've been most things in my life: a positivist social engineer, a Joan Baez socialist, a man. Now I'm a free-market feminist, a quantitative postmodernist, a woman. I'm not ashamed of these changes of mind.

  • In one sentence: The obscured origins of the modern world and its heart, as built by the hated bourgeoisie.

  • To be read when: depressed about the modern world; locked into an ideology which doesn't people's lives better, esp. your own life; if you are like most middle-class people, vaguely self-hating.

  • It is good to be a contrarian teen. Decorous even. I was straight-edge, socialist, feminist, a poetaster, an inverse snob, and a shunner of TV.* Call this sort of thing one level up, one contrarian step past received opinion (which defaults to boozing, family-level rather than species-level communitarianism, gendering, ignoring poetry, passively respecting fine art, and watching 4 hours a day).

    However, at some point the observant contrarian will disagree with someone and find themselves unable to write them off - as they usually do - as prejudiced, anti-intellectual, or ignorant. Worst-case, they will meet a deadly meta-contrarian, someone who once held their view but stepped past it on considering some missing crucial consideration.

    (For instance: it is common sense, or at least common practice, that it's fine to not give any money to charity. One step beyond is altruism: 'we have a duty to help the wretched of the earth'. But then consider that one of the first things people who rise out of poverty do is increase their meat intake, and so to industrialise - that is, torture - their animals. If, as the scientists strongly agree we should, we take this seriously, then poverty alleviation might not be good at all! But then, consider that wild animals also suffer, millions of times more of them than even factory farmed animals, and that human industrialisation plausibly decreases this by removing habitat (...) )

    Meta-contrarianism is vital is because philosophy, politics and economics are littered with crucial consideration landmines like these, single premises that can fully transform our conception of good action.

    Our problem is not socialism or theism or atheism or conservativism: the problem is irrational, reflexive views with no connection to the balance of evidence: i.e. ideologies and not philosophies.

    Anyway: I was pretty good-hearted, but neither clear nor honest. An ideologue. McCloskey, a Christian libertarian(!) and much else besides, got to even me via our shared contempt for neoclassical macroeconomics and null-hypothesis significance testing, two things she critiqued twenty years before the Great Recession and the replication crisis.

    Then she shocked me with the meta-contrary title of this, the first volume in her epic economic history of moral development: a reclamation of a slur on the creators of this good modern world we all increasingly enjoy.

    I don't know how many iterations of contrarianism ("dialectic") I'm on; it's not important, as long as I hold my views lightly enough to do one more when the evidence demands it.

    Besides long meditations on the pagan and Christian virtues, she holds a serious discussion on Groundhog Day, Thomas Mann, and much other art, and is the best telling of the maligned, vital Great Transformation story. Triumphant and funny and trembling with erudition.

    * At the time I thought being an atheist was really contrarian, but in Britain it really isn't. (Outside an RME classroom.) The formal stats are only now showing a majority for stated nonbelief, but church attendance has been a minority practice since the early C20th.

    • Galef type:
      Data 3 - highlight patterns in the world, &
      Theory 2 - models of what makes something succeed or fail , &
      Values 1 - an explicit argument about values, &
      Style 2 - learn a style of thinking by studying the author’s approach to the world.

    Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another (2003) by Philip Ball "Being an Enquiry into the Interplay of Chance and Necessity in the Way That Human Culture, Customs, Institutions, Cooperation and Conflict Arise" (2004) by Philip Ball.

    An elegant pop treatment of the once-burgeoning physics of mass human behaviour. (Which physics follows hundreds of years of stupid and/or inhumane theories claiming the name "social physics"). A love letter to statistical mechanics:
    Most people who have encountered thermodynamics blanch at its mention, because it is an awesomely tedious discipline both to learn theoretically and to investigate experimentally. This is a shame, because it is also one of the most astonishing theories in science. Think of it: here is a field of study initiated to help nineteenth-century engineers make better engines, and it turns out to produce some of the grandest and most fundamental statements about the way the entire universe works. Thermodynamics is the science of change, and without change there is nothing to be said...

    Tools, methods and ideas developed to understand how the blind material fabric of the universe behaves are finding application in arenas for which they were never designed, and for which they might at first glance appear ridiculously inappropriate. Physics is finding its place in a science of society.

    Introduces a hundred topics from thermodynamics, economics, econophysics, game theory, and fields which don't have a name yet, including intuitive explanations of fearsome concepts like:

    • self-organized criticality
    • the 2D and 3D Ising model
    • diffusion-limited aggregation in bacteria and cities
    • Lévy-stability
    • the business cycle
    • random walks
    • superfluidity and supercooling phase transitions
    • bifurcation theory
    • traffic flow
    • Zipf's law
    • the Small world phenomenon
    • catastrophe theory
    • ...

    Unlike shiny TED-style nonfiction, he refers directly to the original scientific papers and includes small interviews with the original researchers. No equations, but beautiful diagrams relating micro with macro, too: snowflakes to traffic and bacterial colonies to cities.

    The book's reception, in the main by middlebrow, mathematically illiterate reviewers shocked me a bit: their banner conclusions were "boo! people aren't particles!!", a truism which Ball spends much of the book thinking about, and "aaar horrible people have said they've found the laws of society before!!", a truism the first fifth of the book is a history of. In their haste to protect ordinary human difference from averages, and the notion of free will from technical explanations, they flee to safe refuges like "complexity" and "reflexivity", i.e. out of science. Ball can speak for himself though:
    The notion that we could ever construct a scientific "utopia theory" [e.g. classical Marxism] is, then, doomed to absurdity. Certainly, a "physics of society" can provide nothing of the sort. One does not build an ideal world from scientifically based traffic planning, market analysis, criminology, network design, game theory, and the gamut of other ideas discussed in this book. Concepts and models drawn from physics are almost certainly going to find their way into other areas of social science, but they are not going to provide a comprehensive theory of society, nor are they going to make traditional sociology, economics, or political science redundant. The skill lies in deciding where a mechanistic, quantitative model is appropriate for describing human behavior, and where it is likely to produce nothing but a grotesque caricature. This is a skill that is still being acquired, and it is likely that there will be embarrassments along the way.

    But properly and judiciously applied, physical science can furnish some valuable tools in areas such as social, economic, and civic planning, and in international negotiation and legislation. It may help us to avoid bad decisions; if we are lucky, it will give us some foresight. If there are emergent laws of traffic, of pedestrian motions, of network topologies, of urban growth, we need to know them in order to plan effectively. Once we acknowledge the universality displayed in the physical world, it should come as no surprise that the world of human social affairs is not necessarily a tabula rasa, open to all options.

    Society is complex but that does not place it beyond our ken. As we have seen, complexity of form and organization can arise from simple underlying principles if they are followed simultaneously by a great many individuals.

    There is a real question about how deep into human behaviour the statistical approach can go. Econophysics, as a term and as a living, funded academic subfield, fizzled out shortly after this book was published. Apparently the SOC results have come in for a lot of criticism, though mostly of their overreach than the method being humanistically inapplicable or whatevs.

    Even so, I wish I had read this 5 years ago: it would have saved me lots of contortions. it taught me a huge amount anyway. (e.g. the huge moral panic, following the invention of descriptive statistics, about ever using means to describe any human characteristics, since the remarkable stability of e.g. the C17th London crime rate across decades seemed to speak of divine or diabolical insurance.) One of my top 5 books on economics, one of my top 5 books on physics.

    In one sentence: Social physics had at last begun to make exciting progress on understanding mass human behaviour.
    Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983) by Andrew Hodges
    in the early days of computing, a number of terms for the practitioners of the field of computing were suggested in the Communications of the ACM — turingineer, turologist, flow-charts-man, applied meta-mathematician, and applied epistemologist.</blockquote>
    - wiki

    In a man of his type, one never knows what his mental processes are going to do next.
    - JAK Ferns, Turing's coroner

    There have been two big films about Turing (three if you count the uselessly fictionalised Enigma (2001)). All of them are more or less dishonestly melodramatic; for instance they depict Turing's relationship with his dead love Christopher as the driver of his work on machine intelligence. And more generally they depict him as tragic. But he wasn't tragic: we were. In the 1950s we attacked a superlatively profound person, because we were certain it was the right thing to do.

    Hodges, whose book began the great public rehabilitation of Turing and served as the source for the films, bears no blame for this: it's one of the best biographies I've ever read (better even than Kanigel on Ramanujan and Issacson on Einstein).

    Begin with his achievements:

    • 1935: Mathematical statistics: An independent proof of the Central Limit Theorem.

    • 1935: Group theory: An extension to a theorem of von Neumann's.

    • 1936: Mathematical logic: One of the all-time great papers, an answer to Hilbert's halting problem and an elaboration of the incompleteness of all mathematics, and the formal statement of a single machine that can perform all computable work.

    • 1936: Computability theory: Same paper. Creator thereof.

    • 1936: Automata theory: Same paper. Creator thereof.

    • 1936: Computer engineering: Same paper. Inventor of the stored-program concept, used in all computers since 1950.

    • 1937: Group theory: Proof that general continuous groups cannot be approximated by finite groups.

    • 1938: Mathematical logic: Invention of ordinal logics, an attempt to handle incompleteness.

    • 1938: Analytic number theory: Algorithm ("Turing's method") for calculating values of the zeta-function.

    • 1938: Computer engineering and Mathematical methodology: Design of an analogue machine to approximate the zeroes of the zeta function.

    • 1939: Cryptanalysis: developed most of the logical methods used against Nazi Germany's naval cipher, Enigma. Including a new sort of indirect frequency analysis, "simultaneous scanning", search trees, an independent invention of Shannon's information entropy (as "Weight of evidence")...

    • 1940: Mechanical engineering: redesigned the Polish Bomba to handle the exponential explosion in the Enigma's state space.

    • 1941: Statistics: independent invention of sequential analysis, for "Banburismus".

    • 1940: Bayesian inference: independent reinvention of Bayes factors and the first approximation of what we would now call empirical Bayes estimation. IJ Good quite rightly calls Bayes factors, "Bayes-Turing factors". (Though it should be Laplace-Turing factors.)

    • 1942: Cryptanalysis: A hand-method for cracking the Lorenz cipher, "Turingery".

    • 1944: Crytography, audio engineering and electrical engineering: Design, proof and much of the construction of "Delilah", an electronic speech encipherment device.

    • 1945-6: Algorithmics: The discovery of the stack. A neglected but vast accomplishment. (Zuse had already implemented subroutines by then.)

    • 1945-6: Computer engineering: Design of the Automatic Computing Engine, the first complete design of a stored-program computer, including circuit diagrams, instruction set and cost estimate. (von Neumann's is incomplete.)
    • 1948: Computer music: The first computer music. Turing's handbook for the Mark I had a section on using it to produce notes, and they gave a demo for radio in 1951, also a first. Not really a synth (not real-time) and not real electronic music (produced by moving parts).

    • 1948: Linear algebra: Better ways of solving linear systems and inverting matrices.

    • 1949: Group theory: Proof that the 'word problem' is insoluable for cancellation semigroups. Computability mainstream in mathematics by then.

    • 1949: Formal verification: Paper on proving that computer programs will behave.

    • 1950: Philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence: His famous one, "Computing machinery and intelligence" is one of the top 100 set texts in philosophy, but Computable Numbers is deeper, outlining how computability places limits on what the brain can do, and how difficult it will be to redo. He sees machine learning coming very clearly.

    • 1951: Group theory: Another big result in the word problem for groups. (unpublished)
    • 1951: Chess engine: Published the first algorithm to play a full game of chess automatically.

    • 1952: Mathematical biology: a profound chemical theory of how life grows, now a textbook model of morphogenesis.

    • 1952: Number theory: Numerical evidence (computed on the Manchester Baby) for thousands of values of the zeta-function.

    • 1952: Pattern formation: Construction of the "Swift-Hohenberg" equation, 23 years before them.

    • </ul>

      Copeland estimates that breaking U-boat Enigma saved 14 million lives, a large fraction of which we can lay at Turing's feet. This puts him in the top 50 life-savers ever. But what is most amazing (and endearing) is just how unsophisticated he was.

      As at school, trivial examples of ‘eccentricity’ circulated in Bletchley circles. Near the beginning of June he would suffer from hay fever, which blinded him as he cycled to work, so he would use a gas mask to keep the pollen out, regardless of how he looked. The bicycle itself was unique, since it required the counting of revolutions until a certain bent spoke touched a certain link (rather like a cipher machine), when action would have to be taken to prevent the chain coming off. Alan had been delighted at having, as it were, deciphered the fault in the mechanism, which meant that he saved himself weeks of waiting for repairs, at a time when the bicycle had again become what it was when invented – the means of freedom. It also meant that no one else could ride it.

      He made a more explicit defence of his tea-mug (again irreplaceable, in wartime conditions) by attaching it with a combination lock to a Hut 8 radiator pipe. But it was picked, to tease him.

      Trousers held up by string, pyjama jacket under his sports coat – the stories, whether true or not, went the rounds. And now that he was in a position of authority, the nervousness of his manner was more open to comment. There was his voice, liable to stall in mid-sentence with a tense, high-pitched ‘Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah’ while he fished, his brain almost visibly labouring away, for the right expression, meanwhile preventing interruption. The word, when it came, might be an unexpected one, a homely analogy, slang expression, pun or wild scheme or rude suggestion accompanied with his machine-like laugh; bold but not with the coarseness of one who had seen it all and been disillusioned, but with the sharpness of one seeing it through strangely fresh eyes. ‘Schoolboyish’ was the only word they had for it. Once a personnel form came round the Huts, and some joker filled in for him, ‘Turing A.M. Age 21’, but others, including Joan, said it should be ‘Age 16’...

      It was demeaning, but the repetition of superficial anecdotes about his usually quite sensible solutions to life’s small challenges served the useful purpose of deflecting attention away from the more dangerous and difficult questions about what an Alan Turing might think about the world in which he lived. English ‘eccentricity’ served as a safety valve for those who doubted the general rules of society. More sensitive people at Bletchley were aware of layers of introspection and subtlety of manner that lay beneath the occasional funny stories. But perhaps he himself welcomed the chortling over his habits, which created a line of defence for himself, without a loss of integrity.

      We have words for this now ("nerd", "wonk", "aspie"), and massive institutions, and even social movements, but at the time he had to make do with "don", and hide inside academia. Again: the problem wasn't him, it was us.

      He gets called a mathematician most often, I suppose because people don't want to be anachronistic. But scroll up: his most famous work is as a logician and a systems architect, and much of the rest is statistics and algorithmics and cognitive science. He was falling between several chairs, until computer science caught up with him:

      a pure mathematician worked in a symbolic world and not with things. The machine seemed to be a contradiction... For Alan Turing personally, the machine was a symptom of something that could not be answered by mathematics alone. He was working within the central problems of classical number theory, and making a contribution to it, but this was not enough. The Turing machine, and the ordinal logics, formalising the workings of the mind; Wittgenstein’s enquiries; the electric multiplier and now this concatenation of gear wheels – they all spoke of making some connection between the abstract and the physical. It was not science, not ‘applied mathematics’, but a sort of applied logic, something that had no name.

      The philosopher-engineer. One of several moments in Hodge's book that left me dumbstruck is Turing arguing with Wittgenstein about the foundations of mathematics. (In the spring of 1939 they were both teaching courses at Cambridge called that!) Bit awkward, and in my view Alan goes easy on Ludwig. But you still couldn't make it up.

      The government employed Turing for 9 years, paying him about £6000 over the duration (£150k in today's money). In that time he produced 3 gigantically advanced systems (most of the Hut 8 system, the Delilah and the ACE design), about 10 or 20 years ahead of their time. Hodges sees this as a triumph of managerial socialism. Now, breaking naval enigma for £6k is an unbelievable deal (the savings from undestroyed shipping and cargo would be in the billions). But the government suppressed Delilah and totally screwed up the ACE project. So I'm not sure if we can cheer too much. Keynes says somewhere that
      The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all.

      This is true of Enigma, I suppose. But instructive failures are only helpful if they occur in public. (As at least the ACE report was.)

      The most annoying part of the films making up emotionally powerful unifying themes for Turing is that they are already there. (But to grasp them, you'd have to actually display what was most wonderful and important about him, his technical work, and there goes the box office.) Anyway, here's one that made me cry:
      In an end-of-term sing-song [at Sherborne, when Turing was 12], the following couplet described him:
      Turing’s fond of the football field
      For geometric problems the touch-lines yield

      ... another verse had him ‘watching the daisies grow’ during hockey... although intended as a joke against his dreamy passivity, there might have been a truth in the observation.

      [20 years later] ...One day he and Joan were lying on the Bletchley lawn looking at the daisies... Alan produced a fir cone from his pocket, on which the Fibonacci numbers could be traced rather clearly, but the same idea could also be taken to apply to the florets of the daisy flower.

      [30 years later] ...he was trying out on the computer the solution of the very difficult differential equations that arose when [one] followed the chemical theory of [plant] morphogenesis beyond the moment of budding... it also required some rather sophisticated applied mathematics, which involved the use of ‘operators’ rather as in quantum mechanics. Numerical analysis was also important... In this it was like a private atomic bomb, the computer in both cases following the development of interacting fluid waves.

      ...he also developed a purely descriptive theory of leaf-arrangement... using matrices to represent the winding of spirals of leaves or seeds round a stem or flower-head... The intention was that ultimately these two approaches would join up when he found a system of equations that would generate the Fibonacci patterns expressed by his matrices.

      ...Such observations reflected an insight gained from... [a program called] ‘Outline of Development of the Daisy’. He had quite literally been ‘watching the daisies grow’... on his universal machine.
      </td> </tr>
    Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything (2017) by Kelly Weinersmith
    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.
    A Deepness in the Sky (Zones of Thought, #2) (1999) by Vernor Vinge A beautiful portrait of pragmatism vs idealism, colonialism and collaboration, surveillance culture vs everything, the possibility of deep translation, the beauty and gaucheness of trade, and the ultimate fate of civilisations.
    Programming went back to the beginning of time. It was a little like the midden out back of his father's castle… There were programs here written five thousand years ago, before Humankind ever left Earth. The wonder of it — the horror of it… down at the very bottom of it was a little program that ran a counter. Second by second, the Qeng Ho counted from the instant that a human had first set foot on Old Earth’s moon. But if you looked at it still more closely… the starting instant was actually about fifteen million seconds later, the 0-second of one of Humankind’s first computer operating systems…

    “We should rewrite it all,” said Pham.

    “It’s been done,” said Sura.

    “It’s been tried,” corrected Bret…“You and a thousand friends would have to work for a century or so to reproduce it… And guess what—even if you did, by the time you finished, you’d have your own set of inconsistencies...”

    Vinge's great skill is in drawing out sick tragic tension for hundreds of pages, driving the reader on to ever more complex injustices, until... The smooth-talking fascist antagonists are a bit too simple, a bit Harkonnen; their mind-raping slavery, their inversion of justice by lying perfectly, their flat-toned planning of atrocities:
    "At which time, we'll feed them the story of our noble effort to limit the genocide." Ritser smiled, intrigued by the challenge. "I like it."

    You are made to wait 500 pages for a comeuppance. The "Focused", the mindwiped slaves are extremely creepy; weaponised savants (see Ada Palmer's set-sets for a less straightforward treatment of human computers).

    Pham Nuwen, the great programmer-statesman, is far more interesting here than in the first book. He stands out in a large cast of interesting characters, all laying down schemes and intrigues with at minimum 20 years until payoff (at maximum 2000 years). Not ordinary, but not unrealistic; there have been dozens like him, possessed of or by the force that drives Napoleon off his island, Washington over the river, Alexander everywhere. He is a psychopath:
    The [armed fascists] might try to chase him around in here. That would be fun; Nau's goons would find just how dangerous their tunnels had become...

    The evolutionary role of such people - both the fearless hero, Nuwen, and the bloodthirsty predator, Nau - is not handled explicitly, but Pham is held up as a paragon.

    The arachnid aliens are much better than the hivehounds of the last book: Vinge and his translator characters' anthropomorphisations (or, rather, personalisations) are successful. Though maybe I'm just biased because the Spiders are shown going through their Information Revolution rather than their Pre-Renaissance period. It shows the deep connection between lack of economic growth, lack of intellectual growth and lack of social progress. The great scientist Sherkaner is also the one to challenge his society's sexual oppression. ("Either way, the cycles were shattered forever") The "counterlurk" is the Enlightenment. It's an exquisite portrait of the great promise and risk of a technological society; you get the end of hunger and disease, you get spaceflight, but you also get nuclear standoffs.

    There are wonderful symmetries between the Spiders and humans: they each have odd, distended sleep cycles (the humans going into cryogenic suspension most of the time, the Spiders hibernating centuries until the sun reignites). There's also the Sura/Pham, Qiwi / Ezr, and Victory/Sherkaner pairings, the actual beauty of complementing another, of power couples with aims beyond their own power.

    The title looks clumsy but isn't: it refers to a very large thought, that decentralising a system is the only way to make it last; that space is not only a cold and hostile place, it is also the way to break the terrible forces that might work against mere interplanetary civilisations:
    Pham would get their localizers in return for decent medical science. Both sides would benefit enormously. Magnate Larson would live a few extra centuries. If he was lucky, the current cycle of his civilization would outlive him. But a thousand years from now, when Larson was dust, when his civilization had fallen as the planetbound inevitably did—a thousand years from now, Pham and the Qeng Ho would still be flying between the stars. And they would still have the Larson localizers...

    "If you accept the trade I'm hoping for, you will live just as many years as I. But I am Qeng Ho. I sleep decades between the stars. You Customer civilizations are ephemera to us."

    One unintentional detail: the "huds" that all the human characters depend are I think just Google Glass.

    Stayed up late to finish it. Maybe 5/5, will re-read in a while and see.


    How does it do as Serious science fiction?

    Social development: all three societies depicted are very distinct and have believable economies, genderings, . The Qeng Ho - the empire without a capital, the force without an army - are a lovely depiction of the humanistic and progressive side of trade. The Emergents are maybe a little too simple, too feudal and dastardly.

    Software development: Fantastic. Central to the plot (titanic cruft as feature), with a subtle twist on the horror of legacy systems: an entire multi-planet civilisation is shown collapsing because its software is too fucking crufty to live. (That might sound ridiculous, but I promise you I see this story in miniature everywhere at my work.) No one does it better.

    Actual Science: Lots, with a breathless romp through all of C20th physics and engineering - though there's also a magic antigrav ore.

    The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) by Erving Goffman Queering the fake/authentic binary
    The Lord of the Rings (1955) by J.R.R. Tolkien Anti-modern, stilted, and it inspired millions of pages of awful work, but hey it's grand. A glorious mess (or, a glorious mess draped over an impressive classical edifice, the linguistics.) : a devout Catholic tries to write a mythic prehistory of Earth... with its own pagan pantheon, where a cool man with a shiny gem on his face is also a giant ball of carbon dioxide.

    People don't seem to realise that it's a mess. Maybe all fiction is, when you know it intimately enough.

    Is this hate-reading? I don't think so, I wouldn't get goosebumps at this if it was:
    There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
    Infidel (2006) by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
    I told him, "I'm not coming to the [wedding he arranged for her], and all he said was, "You're not required." Legally, this was true.

    I went to Sister Aziza and said, “The [Christian] girls will not become Muslims. Their parents have taught them other religions. It isn't their fault, and I don't think it's fair that they'll burn in Hell." Sister Aziza told me I was wrong. Through me, Allah had given them a choice. If these girls rejected the true religion, then it was right that they should burn.

    Vivid and horrific. She is sewn shut as a child. Her Sunday school teacher beats her into the hospital. She is forced into marriage. She flees civil war and her family. She becomes an apostate. She makes an edgy film. The latter three are held to be crimes, the last worthy of death. But somehow the book is not a misery memoir.


    She is hard to agree with and impossible to ignore; some people solve this tension with absurd insults. Her work against sexism is thought to be negated (and then some) by her succour to racism.

    What are the arguments against her views?

    * "Her critique only applies to Somalia." (e.g.)
    Sadly not.

    * "Her critique was only valid in the 70s."
    Sadly not.

    * "Her critique only applies to Wahhabism."
    No; she grew up under non-Saudi Islamic socialism.

    * "Her writing is self-serving: she built a political career on denigrating Islam."
    Ah yes: cunning of her to be born into oppression, get chopped up and repeatedly forced into marriage; what an impressive long con. More seriously: it doesn't strike me as a good deal to accept a high probability of murder for the rest of your life, in exchange for a political seat and an academic post. Why is so hard to believe that someone willing to risk her life might mean it?

    * "She has no scholarly credentials to speak authoritatively about Islam".
    Doesn't apply to Infidel, since it is a first-person account of several different Muslim regimes. More than this: she grew up in four different Islamic societies, speaks half a dozen languages, and has spent 17 years studying it, at Harvard and places like that. This is not to say she's correct, it's just obviously untrue that she has no scholarly credentials.

    * "She is an inauthentic ethnic voice." / "Her portrayals are neo-Orientalist." / "Her portrayals are an enactment of the colonial civilizing mission discourse."
    This is only an objection if you think she's lying (or cherry-picking), and if you take correspondence to old ideas of bad people as proof of falsehood or unsayableness. Who's more authentic?

    * "Their accounts confirm dangerous stereotypes and reinforce the old-new dichotomy of the 'civilized us' versus the 'barbaric them'. In addition, they increase the pressure on Muslim and Arabs in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere." (source)
    I wouldn't have used "confirm" there, if I was making his point.

    * "Her policy prescriptions are extreme and counterproductive."
    This was true through the noughties (she called it 'fascism', called it war), but apparently she's mellowed. (Generally people aren't given a second chance on these matters.)

    * "Hirsi Ali feels she cannot be a feminist and a Muslim... [but] numerous women who espouse feminist, intellectual, Muslim and African identity [exist]." (e.g. here)
    Completely true.

    * "(Only) white men like her" / "Her fans are awful.".
    This is very twisted ad hominem (because the critic realises that they can't attack a Somali woman who has survived decades of abuse).

    Here's one of mine: To understand Ayn Rand - the cartoonish egotism, the false social theory, the needless extremity - you need to remember what she went through: the equally cartoonish, false and extreme Stalinism. (This point would outrage Rand, since it makes a victim of her, and makes her vaunted individualism just a mechanical inversion.) Maybe you could argue Hirsi Ali is like this. Even if you do, it doesn't reduce our obligation to actually argue with Rand or Hirsi Ali at all, though.


    Here's the crux of the whole thing, her discussing religion with her dad:

    "There is no coercion in Islam," my father said. "No human being has the right to punish another for not observing his religious duties. Only Allah can do that."

    It was like Quran school, but more intelligent. We even talked about martyrdom. My father said that committing suicide for Holy War was acceptable only in the time of the Prophet—and then only because the unbelievers had attacked the Prophet first. Today there could not be a Holy War, he said, because only the Prophet Muhammad could call for a Holy War.

    This was my father's Islam: a mostly nonviolent religion that was his own interpretation of the Prophet's words. It relied on one's own sense of right and wrong, at least to some degree. It was more intelligent than the Islam I had learned from the ma'alim, and it was also far more humane. Still, this version of Islam also left me with unanswered questions and a sense of injustice: Why was it that only women needed to ask permission from their husband to leave the house, and not the other way round?

    My father's Islam was also clearly an interpretation of what the Prophet said. As such, it was not legitimate. You may not interpret the will of Allah and the words of the Quran: it says so, right there in the book. There is a read-only lock. It is forbidden to pick and choose: you may only obey. The Prophet said, "I have left you with clear guidance; no one deviates from it after me, except that he shall he destroyed." A fundamentalist would tell my father, "The sentence 'Only the Prophet can call a Holy War' is not in the Quran. You're putting it in there. That is blasphemy."

    : Did you notice it? She yields the entire ground to the fundamentalists. She's a literalist! She notes, correctly, that the Quran forbids interpretation, forbids reformation, and gives up. Never mind that almost all religious people live extremely flexibly with the demands of their religion, "failing" at this and adapting that. Never mind that, contrary to the Word, there's loads of Islams, that some majority-Muslim countries have been electing women for ages, that some Muslim governments have been trying to stop FGM for a while now. We're messy, nevertheless, thank god.

    (It looks like her more recent books focus on exactly this point, though.)
    Surface Detail (Culture #9) (2010) by Iain M. Banks Meditation on consequentialism and moral progress, only more fun than that sounds. ("Consequences are everything.") Spends 300 pages setting up its thirteen protagonists into like seven plot threads. As a result, he has to repeat a lot of exposition to keep us - including, in one instance, a full page of quoted dialogue which we'd heard 50 pages back. Oddly simplistic despite its fifth-order intentionality, then.

    Surface Detail fills out some of the mechanisms and organisation of the Culture; throws his usual bucket of ideas at the plot (graphic descriptions of Hell, a first-person account of an aquatic, hair-thick species, an extended section in a Medieval convent) and keeps a good amount of tension and mental strain going. Good, full of simple dramatised philosophy.
    Seveneves (2015) by Neal Stephenson Amazing hard worldbuilding from a lunatic seed: 'what would happen if the moon just blew up?' You will stomach pages of physical exposition before scenes can occur, but it isn't superfluous. First two-thirds are psychologically convincing: you will ball your fists at the politics. (By which I mean treachery and irrationality.)

    He does railroad a couple of plot points - e.g. it is taken for granted that a psychopathic war criminal has every right to an equal share of the genetic future. And the last third's extrapolation of 5000 years of cultural creep is less formally ambitious than e.g. Cloud Atlas.

    First two-thirds 4*/5, last third 3/5.

    [Theory #1, Theory #2, Theory #4, Values #2]</li>


    How does it do as Serious science fiction?

    Social development: Lots, though the races that develop are primary-coloured and fantastical, including a fantastical war.

    Software development: A little bit, particularly Dinah's cool claytronics.

    Actual Science: Plenty, with the lone exception of the initial moonburst.
    Money for Nothing (1928) by P.G. Wodehouse Gorgeous as ever. Was snorting on the Tube over it.


    This was surprising, for 1928:
    You're a confirmed settler-down, the sort of chap that likes to roll the garden lawn and then put on his slippers and light a pipe and sit side by side with the little woman, sharing a twin set of head phones.

    But Wiki tells me this was indeed possible, for a posh progressive couple. Not sure why they'd do this instead of a gramophone - maybe it was for the radio.
    The Waste Land (1922) by T.S. Eliot What a pain to understand this must've been, before the internet. (But only if you need to feel in control all the time while reading.)
    Inadequate Equilibria: Where and How Civilizations Get Stuck (2017) by Eliezer Yudkowsky None yet
    Cracking the Coding Interview: 150 Programming Questions and Solutions (2008) by Gayle Laakmann McDowell This has zero relevance for almost everyone; and about 3 quarters of the book can be skipped by almost all of the remaining people (specifics about the big tech companies and particular language warts). Even so, it's good that it exists; it's an impressive distillation of Computer Science lore and heuristics, which thus lets smart outsiders in.

    I was dismayed to open it and find 100 pages of fluff (the curse of the ebook: book proportions not being completely obvious), but the algorithm challenges start after, don't stop, and are very good. (Don't panic: doing half of them way over-prepared me for my interview.) The non-coding 'brain teasers' are helpful if, like me, you weren't a puzzle geek in youth.

    Essential for a tiny number of people.
    Sex by Numbers: What Statistics Can Tell Us About Sexual Behaviour (Wellcome) (2015) by David Spiegelhalter Fun with a serious scientific mission. The expected titillating facts are 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.
    The Pale King (2011) by David Foster Wallace What to say?

    Fifty fragments: unintegrated, contradicting, only sometimes amazing. Themes you’d expect: self-consciousness, freedom, duty, routine - the awful effect of unconstrained self-consciousness, freedom, duty and routine - the death of American civics - ‘the horror of personal smallness and transience’ - the repugnance we feel for pure virtue - the extraordinary fires alight beneath some people. But where in Jest these were expressed through (burdened with) drug slang, pharmacology, advertising dreck, and calculus, here we get accountancy minutiae surely intended to repulse us. Yet the style is far less mannered than his finished work, which style we might call Postdoc Valleyspeak.
    The reason for this public ignorance is not secrecy. The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull.

    It is impossible to overstate the importance of this feature. Consider, from the Service’s perspective, the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex. The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help to insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting.

    Institutional tedium – the default state for developed-world adults – is profoundly important to address, a topic it will take an unusual mind to illuminate for us. But Pale King is actually not a Kafkan tale of the ever-growing horror of bureaucracy; actually he is deeply impressed and convinced of the value of the people and the work of the IRS, in large part because of its inhumane strictures, lack of glory, and unpopularity.

    "Big Q is whether IRS is to be essentially a corporate entity or a moral one." (Though if ‘corporate’ is there read merely as meaning ‘maximising’, the distinction can be misleading.)
    To me, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ and ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way… I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.

    I tried to read them as short stories rather than chapters. This half-works. Actually the entire book was intentionally fruitless – the major agonists all off-stage, everyone else just enduring.

    A couple of intentionally unconvincing first-person authorial inserts – “I, David Wallace, social security no…” – affirm the reality of the garish IRS underbelly he fabricates, put him in the scene. Fragment #8 is a horrifying Cormac McCarthy lyric, childhood psychosis. One (#22) is a hundred-page monologue, the character repetitive, rambling and conceited, but also the most developed and affecting. Of this wreckage we are given to read.
    What to say? That you’d have to love this writing to like it, that you should.
    The Plato Cult: And Other Philosophical Follies (1991) by David Stove Funny, unfair, rabid dismissal of most philosophy ever. Uses ad hominem Bulwerism openly - despite that going against his own ideal of reason - because he views a great range of people as being too mad to engage with.

    His other move is to use the positivist's wood-chipper principle a lot: 'your position is literally meaningless; you're too stupid to see this', occasionally correctly. Attacks idealists mostly, including whole chapters making fun of Goodman, Nozick, and Popper(!) - but does not spare Mill ("here doing his usual service of making mistakes very clearly") and Russell, who you'd think were his kind of men.

    The last chapter is scary and hilarious and suggests the man's basic pain, underneath his roaring pessimism. Read it at least.

    4/5. (keep it away from freshers though)
    Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1975) by Raymond Williams A list of definitions (and etymologies) of the vague, overloaded, and pompous language used in the humanities. Reading this early in my degree made me able to talk: it relaxed the paralysis that is the natural (and perhaps intended) response to their famous walls of jargon.

    If you've ever felt there was something to area studies and critical theory, but that the inferential distance was too costly to justify the effort, this is the book for you. (Or, it was thirty years ago. They'll have invented thousands more ill-defined words since then.) I imagine it would also be good for very ambitious adult English learners.

    Williams is a sarcastic, clever and friendly guide: I can't remember which top-rank word he describes as "better for it never to have been", but here's a good entry:

    'Nature' is perhaps the most complex word in the language. It is relatively easy to distinguish three areas of meaning:

    (i) the essential quantity and character of something;
    (ii) the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both;
    (iii) the material world itself, taken as including or not including human beings.

    Yet it is evident that within (ii) and (iii), though the area of reference is broadly clear, precise meanings are variable and at times even opposed. The historical development of the word through these three senses is important, but it is also significant that all three senses, and the main variations and alternatives within the two most difficult of them, are still active and widespread in contemporary usage. was (i), the essential character and quality of something. Nature is thus one of several important words, including culture, which began as descriptions of a quality or process, immediately defined by a specific reference, but later became independent nouns...

    The common phrase human nature, often crucial in important kinds of argument, can contain, without clearly demonstrating it, any of the three main senses and indeed the main variations and alternatives. There is a relatively neutral use in sense (i): that it is an essential quality and characteristic of human beings to do something (though the something that is specified may of course be controversial). But in many uses the descriptive (and hence verifiable or falsifiable) character of sense (i) is less prominent than the very different kind of statement which depends on sense (ii), the directing inherent force, or one of the variants of sense (iii), a fixed property of the material world, in this case ‘natural man’. What has also to be noticed in the relation between sense (i) and senses (ii) and (iii) is, more generally, that sense (i), by definition, is a specific singular - the nature of something, whereas senses (ii) and (iii), in almost all their uses, are abstract singulars - the nature of all things having become singular nature or Nature...

    There was then a practice of shifting use, as in Shakespeare’s Lear:

    Allow not nature more than nature needs,
    Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s ...
    one daughter / Who redeems nature from the general curse
    Which twain have brought her to.
    That nature, which contemns its origin
    Cannot be border’d certain in itself...

    It could seem wrong to inquire into the workings of an absolute monarch, or of a minister of God. But a formula was arrived at: to understand the creation was to praise the Creator, seeing absolute power through contingent works. In practice the formula became lip-service and was then forgotten. Paralleling political changes, nature was altered from an absolute to a constitutional monarch, with a new kind of emphasis on natural laws. Nature, in C18 and C19, was often in effect personified as a constitutional lawyer. The laws came from somewhere, and this was variously but often indifferently defined; most practical attention was given to interpreting and classifying the laws, making predictions from precedents, discovering or reviving forgotten statutes, and above all shaping new laws from new cases: nature not as an inherent and shaping force but as an accumulation and classification of cases.

    The complexity of the word is hardly surprising, given the fundamental importance of the processes to which it refers. But since nature is a word which carries, over a very long period, many of the major variations of human thought - often, in any particular use, only implicitly yet with powerful effect on the character of the argument - it is necessary to be especially aware of its difficulty.
    Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1) (1965) by Frank Herbert
    The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes
    – Frank Herbert
    'Didn't you learn the difference between Harkonnen and Atreides so that you could smell a Harkonnen trick by the stink they left on it. Didn't you learn that Atreides loyalty is bought with love, while the Harkonnen coin is hate?
    – also Frank Herbert

    Dune shouldn't work: there's a lot of the worst of fantasy fiction in it. The spurious black and white morality, above; cod-medieval dialogue; noble-savagery and bizarro Orientalism; its spoilers for itself (through its constant first-person precognition); and the po-faced chapter epigrams about how great the main character is... *

    But it does work. It works because of the loveable setting and its thrilling ecosystem; the sharp, rapid dialogue; its sheer, smushy pastiche of human history (American environmentalism, medieval feudalism, Arabic sheikism, and Zen martial hokum ("he is a Zensunni prophet", "to use the family atomics"); its mystical anti-Star Trek historical materialism; excellent setpieces; and because the book contains a realist reading of its own magical-heroic events. (Here's a start: Everything takes place on a world made of shroom heroin! You can't trust a thing these people say!)

    This hidden realism is clearest in the (heavy) appendices to the book - these aren't the ordinary conceited footnotes of fantasy, which assume you care about its little world as much as the author does. They're instead a rationalist palate cleanser after 600 pages of woo. A scientific, academic register erupts, mocking the internally real mysticism of the foregoing. I was even a little disappointed to find a huge glossary at the end, containing all the words I had been puzzling over. Mystery and gnosis and not-quite-getting-it suits the plot. The appendices say the book is more than its plot, and the world more than its books.

    (The big realist moment within the book is when you see that the great prophecy is just a scam, planted to manipulate people.)

    The baddies, the Harkonnens, are a bit much though: nothing they do is not repulsive. Herbert has the protagonists use mysticism and authoritarianism, while having most of the best characters resist and despise these things. There's no such tension with the main antagonists, no nominally redeeming feature. So you can feel Herbert hissing and booing the Harkonnens. Here is the first scene with the evil Baron:

    It was a relief globe of a world, partly in shadows, spinning under the impetus of a fat hand that glittered with rings... A chuckle sounded beside the globe. A basso voice rumbled out of the chuckle:
    'There it is, Piter, the biggest mantrap in all history. And the Duke's headed into its jaws. Is it not a magnificent thing that I, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, do?'

    Herbert gets away with this because Harkonnen is supposed to be over-the-top, and, more, because his world has a black and grey morality. (Do you want the genocidal decadent rapist Machiavels or the square-chinned aristocratic Machiavels?)

    The greyness of the Atreides leads to the biggest plot problem. (It's not exactly a plot hole, but it takes interpretive labour to make it make sense.): Paul's Jihad is unmotivated. Nobody wants it, including the Messiah it is carried out for. Paul even compares himself to Mega Hitler:

    'There's another emperor I want you to note in passing - a Hitler. He killed more than six million. Pretty good for those days.'
    'Killed by his legions?'
    'Not very impressive statistics, m'Lord.'
    '... at a conservative estimate, I've killed sixty-one billion, sterilised ninety planets... We'll be a hundred generations recovering from Muad'dib's jihad.'

    and it's implied that the previous tyrant, Padishah, did not do such things. This completely undermines the exciting and righteous revolution that we spent a book and a half cheering on. If unprecedented death and misery is the payoff, what is the gain of having a noble ruler?

    OK, Paul frequently speaks of not being able to stop the jihad - scrying that, if he does try and stop it, he just gets usurped and then it carries on worse. But then he shouldn't have come to power at all, and the book tacitly tells us that things would have been better if the Harkonnens succeeded and none of the last three-quarters happened.

    The way to make sense of this is to take Herbert's anti-hero line above seriously. Paul made a terrible situation worse. We're not supposed to root for him. But, Herbert knows, we can't help it, because Paul is the Underdog and Loyal and Smart and Competent and (obvs) dead handsome.


    • There's very good dialogue throughout, with some of the best lines given to an array of anonymous guards. It is good because spare in the face of a baroque religion and politics.

    • The Nietzschean philosophy of the book (that is, of Herbert, not just of the Fremen or of Paul) suggests a stronger connection between strength, suffering, and spiritual superiority than there actually is. But, even here, it would not be too hard to make a dove reading of Dune, where the actions of all ruthless parties are actually perverse.

    • Dune even has a proper dialect, not the usual mere conlangs. Vocal memes: several different characters say "Ah-h-h-h-h" in a particular way.

    • The Bene Gesserit are the best thing in the book, a cabal of galactic, psychic, eugenicist spies.

    • The books eventually turn against the Bene Gesserits' specific eugenics program, but it never lets up with hardass Darwinism (which in respectable form has been called Haidtism). Lots and lots of woo:

      The race of humans had felt its own dormancy, sensed itself grown stale and knew now only the need to experience turmoil in which the genes would mingle and the strong new mixtures survive. All humans were alive as an unconscious single organism in this moment, experiencing a kind of sexual heat that could override any barrier.

      There's a Randian seduction in the Fremen hardass ethic. As in Nietzsche: Herbert is inviting the reader to view themselves as strong, above the mob. (If you feel nothing seductive about these books - well, you've a modest soul.)

    • The second book goes into even more gritty detail: the Fremen toilets are 'reclamation stills', for instance. (I'm just impressed at the speech-act of grossing out your readers with your hero characters.)

    • I've been toying with a connection between Kynes (Dune's divine ecologist, who designs the rejuvenation of Arrakis) and the Kynde of Piers Plowman (Nature itself, or the intuitive transcendental grasp of it). I mention this mostly just to score a literary point: no-one else has noticed.

    • The Fremen, his Muslim Tuareg, are actually Thracians in complexion. Xenophanes about Thrace:
      Men create the gods in their own image; those of the Ethiopians are black and snub-nosed, those of the Thracians have blue eyes and red hair.

    • I also love his Vulcans. Rather than being the mockable and inhuman they are just whaddya know better at thinking:

      'A mentat could not function without realising he worked in infinite systems. Fixed knowledge could not surround the infinite. Everywhere could not be brought into finite perspective.'

      "Be a man and a mentat!"
      "I am a mentat and a man."

    • * On the last page you are told that the epigrams are all written out of sexual frustration, the joke on the author of them:
      'See that princess standing there, so haughty and confident. They say she has pretensions of a literary nature. Let us hope she finds solace in such things; she'll have little else.'

      Cue laughtrack, applause, credits.

    The quality dropped sharply between books: Dune is amazing, Messiah is slow but satisfying, Children of Dune is ok. Believe the hype.


    How does it do as Serious science fiction?

    Social development: Done pretty well, despite appearances. Dune is a wild repudiation of Whig history, that our technology and our society must progress, and progress together. "Feudalism with energy weapons" as Heath says, half in contempt.

    Software development: No.

    Actual Science: No.
    A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (1998) by Bill Bryson I don’t rate him – his matey adjectival register and cutesy knowledge get on my nerves – but this is great. Dead funny throughout, free of bluster, and passionate about marginal researches (the fate of the hemlock tree in Northeast America, the punctuated history of very long US roads).

    I read this aloud and it worked very well. Even my townie girlfriend wants to go hiking now.
    Does Foreign Aid Really Work? (2007) by Roger C. Riddell At least when I was writing about aid, this was the best book on the balance of evidence. Bottom line is that almost all non-health C20th aid was wasted (and the food aid portion often harmful, since it distorted the local economy), but things have been getting a lot better since 2005.

    Only not five stars because it doesn't integrate the evidence into a full quantitative model or meta-analysis.
    A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (2003) by Richard Dawkins Essay collection from his long heyday. His letter to his 10yo daughter is maybe the clearest statement of sceptical empiricism ever, though it also displays the blithe wonkishness that alienates most people:
    Suppose I told you that your dog was dead. You’d be very upset, and you’d probably say, ‘Are you sure? How do you know? How did it happen?’ Now suppose I answered: ‘I don’t actually know that Pepe is dead. I have no evidence. I just have this funny feeling deep inside me that he is dead.’ You’d be pretty cross with me for scaring you, because you’d know that an inside ‘feeling’ on its own is not a good reason for believing that a whippet is dead. You need evidence. We all have inside feelings from time to time, and sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don’t. Anyway, different people have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right? The only way to be sure that a dog is dead is to see him dead, or hear that his heart has stopped; or be told by somebody who has seen or heard some real evidence that he is dead.

    People sometimes say that you must believe in your deep feelings inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

    Aaag he used to be so wise and grand, giving out words to live by. (He remains brave and clear, but you don't necessarily want to look through this windows anymore.)
    Selected Poems, 1954-1992 (1996) by George Mackay Brown
    Distrust and death but never self-pity; drowning and drama but wise. Of one place’s Vikings, fish, and pain – like Under Milk Wood without the japery and authorial distance. Seal Market is amazing; the Hamnavoe poems are so good I feel I’ve been there (which means I don’t have to go).

    Brown seems stuck writing about the Middle Ages – “what are these red things like tatties? (apples)”– but then, the Middle Ages lasted right through to the 1960s, on Orkney.

    And since “a circle has no beginning or end. The symbol holds: people in AD 2000 are essentially the same as the stone-breakers of 3000 BC.
    Writing Home (1994) by Alan Bennett None yet
    Dril Official "Mr. Ten Years" Anniversary Collection (2018) by Dril It's difficult to explain ok. What looks like tasteless idiocy - or, not much better, tastelessly ironic tasteless idiocy - is actually a new, hilarious literary style. I hate Twitter, but use it for this.

    'dril' is a self-aware idiot, a boastful masochist, a fanboy, a shill, a disgusting but hapless man. He graduated high school in 2005 but also has grandchildren. He can't spell very well but he breaks out ten-dollar words quite often. That is: he is Everyman, online.

    He thinks he's a social critic but he's also an open shill (and this is not unheard of). His mix of self-regard and incompetence is done better than Ignatius in Confederacy of Dunces.

    You can get a sense of what people see in him through all the surprisingly apt applications: the prolific tagging of completely different philosophers, US presidents, Romans, Christian denominations.

    Missing from this book is the nastier strand of the project, where he resurrects ten-year-old tweets by real accounts with impressively stupid names which accidentally share the aesthetic. (He mostly targets inactive accounts, though.)

    It's weird to pay for a book which is both free and dreadful (and lacks some good roughhousing). But everything here is weird.
    Little Wolf's Book Of Badness (Book & Tape) (1995) by Ian Whybrow None yet
    In the Beginning...Was the Command Line (1999) by Neal Stephenson
    The basic tenet of multiculturalism is that people need to stop judging each other—to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing) that this is right and that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing ugly and another thing beautiful… The problem is that once you have done away with the ability to make judgments as to right and wrong, true and false, etc., there’s no real culture left. All that remains is clog dancing and macramé. The ability to make judgments, to believe things, is the entire point of having a culture. I think this is why guys with machine guns sometimes pop up in places like Luxor and begin pumping bullets into Westerners.

    Classic, cynical cultural history of popular computing. A noob-friendly guide to breaking free: a love letter to GNU: “Linux… are making tanks… Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free… It is the fate of manufactured goods to slowly and gently depreciate as they get old and have to compete against more modern products. But it is the fate of operating systems to become free.

    If you’re like me (human?), you need metaphors and binary distinctions to get abstract stuff, and Stephenson has them coming out of his ears, which sometimes leads to a stone-tablet patronising tone*.
    Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces.”)

    An amazing writer, though: he finds program comments "like the terse mutterings of pilots wrestling with the controls of damaged airplanes." In tech, 15 years is a full geological era and a half*, so some of his insights have taken on a sepia hue (e.g. “is [Microsoft] addicted to OS sales in the same way as Apple is to selling hardware? Keep in mind that Apple's ability to monopolize its own hardware supply was once cited, by learned observers, as a great advantage over Microsoft. At the time, it seemed to place them in a much stronger position. In the end, it nearly killed them, and may kill them yet... When things started to go south for Apple, they should have ported their OS to cheap PC hardware. But they didn't. Instead, they tried to make the most of their brilliant hardware, adding new features and expanding the product line. But this only had the effect of making their OS more dependent on these special hardware features, which made it worse for them in the end. ”). But astonishingly, most have not – and how many other tech articles from the 90s are still worth a single minute of your time?

    Free! here

    * He uses this very metaphor in this short essay.
    CLOSURE (2013) by Why The Lucky Stiff [Downloadable here and only here.]

    This is a wilfully glitchy, difficult, intense bundle of handwritten sketches about unspecifiable loss, faltering ambition, unchecked and uncaught exceptions. Why he doesn't program any more. It is autobiographical but most of it is probably not literally true.

    The 95 stories, each brutally truncated:


    Along with Gwern and Perlis, _why is one of our developer-artists. Art about code. So this is conceptualism that I don't immediately despise.

    (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.)

    We get dead-format nostalgia, memery, a handwritten stretch of Ruby, and reflections on feeling inferior to Franz Kafka, of all people.

    _why has a unique voice. That is a banal thing to say, but it is true here as I suspect it is not elsewhere. There are only two technical passages, one litany of relief from enterprise development, and one entire module in handwriting.

    There is torment. Keep up the names: he is the Simon Weil, the Tristram Shandy of web development, the DFW of running out of ritalin. Unquiet introversion.

    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.)

    Here are his self-hating notes in the margin of his beautiful, kind comment on Shymalan's The Happening:

    Perhaps the greatest pain of talking about art is how shallow it is compared to the actual experience of watching movie/song/etc... previously I had criticized the kinds of small talk discussions, particularly discussions about music, because they revolved around "Did you like this? Have you heard that?" and never went anywhere beyond that...

    Those pointless discussions that had always left me feeling empty, never able to talk about the beauty of music itself adequately, just the names and the styles... But why would anyone want to have a meaningful discussion all the time?

    In a way I feel that's the point of being candid. To expose how shameful I am.

    Wilfully awkward, marginal, analogue. He calls himself the Professor, as an insult.
    The PDF is of images, not text: you cannot copy anything without putting in the effort. Old misaligned book scans, dumb Gorey cartoon jokes, an itemized grocery bill, astute literary notes on Kafka, Ishiguro, Gaiman. He lives now with extreme thrift and extreme technophobia, slamming down his friend's phone when she browses it during conversation. He makes seawater bread instead of web apps.

    The harsh jump-cut absurdism between the sketches is not genuine - they are all linked. Not sure what by, but I say so.

    I must strictly require you that, if you are to continue reading and go with me on this sally, that you resist from looking up anything to do with the book SACRED CLOWNS. This is paramount. I know the urge must be incredible to go out with your smartphones and to find out if the book is real, but I must INSIST that you just let it be. I don't know if it's possible for you to exercise that kind of self-restraint in this modern age, but you must. Of all the things I could ask of you, this seems so small and simple. Can you do this for me?

    (I did resist, but it was actually hard to.)

    I usually don't rate merely formal experiment, intentional awkwardness. But the warmth of his great first book and the constant self-deprecation and plaintive concrete detail make it easy.

    "What's your name?"
    "I won't say"
    "It's just a name, mate! Doesn't mean anything to hide it!
    "It doesn't mean anything to say it!" I yelled

    Someone is squatting his old site. I wonder if it's _why; if the banal entrepreneurial positivity on it is him continuing CLOSURE. Since the book refuses to end; this is the last page:

    4/5 but only if you care already.
    Algorithmics: The Spirit of Computing (1987) by David Harel A thing of beauty: an attempt at a work of computer science that doesn’t date. It's general abstract introductory matter. The field is hugely consequential: different algorithms for the same task can differ in performance by a factor of trillions.

    Bible quotations book-end each chapter and give this a frisson of something other.
    Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation (2015) by Laboria Cuboniks None yet
    The Mating Season (Jeeves, #9) (1949) by P.G. Wodehouse
    “Still,” I said, feeling that it was worth trying, “it’s part of the great web, what?”

    “Great web?”

    “One of Marcus Aurelius’s cracks. He said: Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of
    the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web. ”

    From the brusque manner in which he damned and blasted Marcus Aurelius, I gathered that, just as had happened when Jeeves sprang it on me, the gag had failed to bring balm. I hadn't had much hope that it would. I doubt, as a matter of fact, if Marcus Aurelius’s material is ever the stuff to give the troops at a moment when they have just stubbed their toe on the brick of Fate. You want to wait till the agony has abated.



    Wooster's taboo: None; using a port decanter as a conductor's baton while standing on a chair bellowing hunting doggerel.
    Triangle: Wooster - the Bassett - Gussie - Corky - Esmond - Gertrude - Catsmeat - Queenie - Dobbs.*
    Subplot: Arresting a dog, kidnapping, converting an atheist.
    Aunt: Agatha and five others
    Antagonist: Dame Daphne Winkworth, the Bassett, Agatha
    Expedient: treble impersonation, comedic Irish crosstalk, luring a schoolboy with a starlet, coshing a cop to convert him to Christianity.

    * It is vital to have an odd number of people in the love 'triangle', so that they can all be paired off at the end, sparing Wooster.
    Ethel and Ernest (1999) by Raymond Briggs None yet
    The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (2001) by William Easterly Extremely important and readable empirical summary of the (C20th) failure of directed "development" aid (that is, capital aimed at a self-sustaining anti-poverty outcome).
    Against Method (1975) by Paul Karl Feyerabend A common misconception is that this book disses scientists. It doesn't; it tells philosophers of science that they've failed and should go home.

    Has an "Analytical Index", a table of contents which contains the principal argument. This should be mandatory in nonfiction.
    Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (Faber Library) (1970) by Ted Hughes Metal af. Good after a breakup.
    Master of Reality (2008) by John Darnielle Crushing, beautiful portrait of teenage alienation, institutionalisation, and 'Sabbath, from an author uniquely placed to deal with these things (as an ex-desperate-teen, ex-psychiatric-nurse, metal fan, America's greatest lyricist of neurosis). Heavy.

    It doesn't matter if you've never heard or never liked Sabbath. This explains it regardless, and might unlock it. His best prose (though his lyrics 1995-2004 are his best words).

    (From dear James)
    At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) by Flann O'Brien Postmodernism is completely fine if it's as fun as this.
    Studies in the Way of Words (1989) by Paul Grice None yet
    The Habit of Art (2009) by Alan Bennett None yet
    Previous Convictions: Assignments From Here and There (2006) by A.A. Gill What an excuse of a man he can be, but what a writer he always is. The piece on golf is characteristic - hilarious, fluid, razor-bladed.

    The basic problem with him: his horror of golf would be better spent on actually horrific things (e.g. his own aestheticised violence). To be fair the second half’s travel pieces spend exactly that: from being right inamidst hallucinatory police brutality in Haiti, to the Africa pieces which buck stereotypes and complacency. He has vast sensitivity or sensibility, but he pairs it with a kind of generalisation (e.g. “begging is a consequence of opportunity, not poverty”) and off-piste counter-PC phrasemaking, as if to shock us out of respecting him.

    He uses his friend Jeremy Clarkson brilliantly – as stooge, dim counterpoint to Gill’s own professed post-masculine, pro-gay, pro-grey, pro-oppressed enlightenment. But then Gill reports all these uber-macho exploits and self-conscious leering at women. What compels him to be so indirect about being progressive? It’s that he wants to be both LAD and liberal intellectual, and but needs the approval of neither side.
    How I Escaped My Certain Fate (2010) by Stewart Lee A comedian and an artist - with some of the bloat and near-repulsive belligerence that entails
    If you've not seen me before, right, a lot of what I do, er, it's not jokes as such, it can just be funny kind of ideas or little, er, weird turns of phrase like that, yeah? So, 'owner-operator of an enchanted beanstalk', yeah? And that's a giant, isn't it, a giant... So all I’m saying, if you’ve not seen me before, yeah, is the jokes are there, they're there, but some of you, you might have to raise your game
    Book has tons of general merit: it’s about trying to be artful in a genre where populism is a condition of being recognised as a practitioner at all. And Lee just has his shit worked out, is by turns harshly enlightening and plaintively endearing.
    Basically there’s a whole generation of people who’ve confused political correctness with health and safety regulation. ‘It’s gone mad. They saying I can’t have an electric fire in the bath any more, Stew, in case queers see it.’

    I even love his intellectual flab: the Wire mag chat, ignoble snarking, and attempt at epic free verse. I trust him – but you can’t trust him. (Recent shows are founded on outrageous lies, satirising spin/smear cultures in our media and government and employers and friends.) Hard to know who the joke-explaining footnotes are for – since his fans already get it, and no-one else’s going to read this. That said, if you don’t like him or don’t know about him, please read this. For instance, he explains that onstage he 'portrays a smug wanker’.
    How to Do Things with Words (1955) by J.L. Austin None yet
    The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) by Thorstein Veblen None yet
    Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) by Isaiah Berlin None yet
    North (1975) by Seamus Heaney None yet
    Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (2011) by David Bellos Good strident stuff, wrestling against the prevailing pessimistic dogmas of English lit and ling. (e.g. "We can never fully understand each other as individuals or cultures." "Truth is just power.")

    This is a poppy treatment of his own work, but still manages to pack in a lot of brilliant (original?) theory, a refutation of Sapir-Whorf in four pages, and lots of charming stats about the state of world languages today. I imagine he's a great teacher.

    (From dear James)
    Two Dogmas of Empiricism () by Willard Van Orman Quine None yet
    A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works (1994) by Baruch Spinoza Hard to imagine now how shocking this was in 1664 ("God is not a person; there is no free will; tolerance is the only rational politics").

    Trying to understand Spinoza without Curley's notes (which are about twice as long as the primary material) is a decade's work.
    Twilight of the Idols (1888) by Friedrich Nietzsche In one sentence: the cleverest troll in history tries to say 400 things at once.

    The easiest way into him. He is among the most misunderstood people ever, and his prose, so contradictory and esoteric, sarcastic and pompous, is a large reason for this, though second to his C20th mistreatment.

    Hollingdale's translation is best, though I plan to crawl through the original at some point.

    • Galef type:

      Theory 2 & 3 - models of what makes something succeed or fail, & a problem statement
      Values 1 - make an explicit argument about values.

    On Denoting () by Bertrand Russell None yet
    The Problems of Philosophy (1912) by Bertrand Russell None yet
    The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth about Morality and What to Do About it (2002) by Joshua D. Greene The first PhD I ever read: a witty and authoritative piece of meta-ethics. He surveys every large approach to morals using strong naturalism as a criterion, and concludes that anti-realist utilitarianism is the least unsatisfying option.

    I suppose this is only worth reading if you are both very convinced of naturalism and radically unsure about what constitutes goodness; otherwise you should just study practical ethics already.

    Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction (1998) by John Heil None yet
    The Complete Maus (1980) by Art Spiegelman None yet
    The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg None yet
    Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991) by David Simon Character study of twenty vengeful people and the awful, indispensable institution they serve and constitute. The detectives are intelligent and hilarious, but have to navigate two extreme and depressing environments: the streets and City Hall, violence and politics.

    Simon was embedded with them, and completely effaces himself, makes this novelistic. We get a glorious outsider view, see things the detectives don't:
    [The detective] glides past the lockup without looking inside, and so doesn't see the final, unmistakable expression on Robert Frazier's face. Pure murderous hate.

    He gives a complete chapter to most of the detectives, tracking them through a couple of sordid weeks. They are all distinctive, sharp in different ways, but this approach means it stretches on.

    Also a study of the incredibly poor incentives the bureaucracy gives the detectives: they're rewarded for arrests, not convictions, and individually penalised for open homicides. I don't want to think about what this did to their false arrest rate.
    A case in which the pathologist's finding is being pended is not, to the police department, a murder. And if it isn't a murder, it doesn't go up on the board. And if it isn't up on the board, it doesn't really exist.

    No weight was given to the difficulty of the case - whether witnesses remained at the scene, whether physical evidence existed, whether the weapon was found. All this killed inter-squad cooperation, and led to infighting over dumb luck of the draw.
    In human terms, the scene at 3002 McElderry Street was a massacre; in the statistical terms of urban homicide work, it was the stuff from which a detective fashions dreams.

    (No other crime counted in the stats, despite Homicide also covering accidental deaths and suicides. This was an incentive to frame things as e.g. suicide if at all possible.)
    the chance of actually being convicted of a crime after being identified by authorities is about 60 percent. And if you factor in those unsolved homicides, the chance of being cuaght and convicted for taking a life in Baltimore is just over 40 percent [in 1988].

    You might conclude - falsely - that internal stats are worse than nothing - but only stats as bad as these are. A classic of informal institutional economics.

    The nationwide murder 'clearance rate' (arrest rate) was 70%. Amazing that it was this high, in that comparatively low-surveillance, low-social-trust place.
    The [squad's] clearance rate - murders closed by arrest - is now 36 percent and falling, a... threat to [Lieutenant] Gary D’Addario’s tenure. The board that gave His Eminence reason for concern six weeks ago has continued to fill with open murders, and it is on D’Addario’s side of the wall that the names are writ in red. Of the twenty-five homicides handled by Dee’s three squads, only five are down; whereas Stanton’s shift has cleared ten of sixteen...

    There is no point in explaining that three fifths of D’Addario’s homicides happen to be drug-related, just as seven of those solved by Stanton’s shift are domestics or other arguments... It is the unrepentant worship of statistics that forms the true orthodoxy of any modern police department.

    More incentive analysis, on police shootings and the shameful closing of ranks:
    In the United States, only a cop has the right to kill as an act of personal deliberation and action. To that end, Scotty McCown and three thousand other men and women were sent out on the streets of Baltimore with .38-caliber Smith&Wessons, for which they received several weeks of academy firearms training augmented by one trip to the police firing range every year. Coupled with an individual officer’s judgement, that is deemed expertise enough to make the right decision every time.

    It is a lie. It is a lie the police department tolerates because to do otherwise would shatter the myth of infallibility on which rests its authority for lethal force. And it is a lie that the public demands, because to do otherwise would expose a terrifying ambiguity. The false certainty, the myth of perfection, on which our culture feeds…

    There's so much careful and sympathetic detail about the job (and no deep portrait of any suspects), that Simon risks partisanship - writing "copaganda", as internet radicals call it. Anyone who's seen The Wire knows this isn't a problem. (He has solidarity with the rank and file, and contempt for the suits.)
    for the black, inner-city neighborhoods of Baltimore, the city's finest were for generations merely another plague to endure: poverty, ignorance, despair, police.

    Speaking of which: This is not at all made redundant by The Wire - the show has an entire pathos-pathetic angle (the anti-authority cop) missing here, and this is more focussed on the law side.

    Their humour is fantastically sick.
    the application of criteria such as comfort and amusement to the autopsy room is ample proof of a homicide man's peculiar and sustaining psychology. But for the detectives, the most appalling visions have always demanded the greatest detachment...

    Someone on Hacker News was up on their high horse about the black humour of medics recently. This strikes me as perfectly backwards. I would much prefer a doctor (or a detective) with a nasty sense of humour: it suggests emotional detachment, so they're more likely to think clearly; and it certainly has a cathartic and bonding role, improving their health and teamwork. This idiotically literal, first-order model of psychology (as if people were so easy to program!) is everywhere, for instance all discourse about fake news, porn, and violent computer games.

    The section about the idiocy and arbitrariness of juries is sickening and I recommend that you don't read it if you want to continue thinking well of your society.
    The operant logic of a Baltimore city jury is as fantastical a process as any other of our universe’s mysteries. This one is innocent because he seemed so polite and well spoken on the stand, that one because there were no fingerprints on the weapon to corroborate the testimony of four witnesses. And this one over here is telling the truth when he says he was beaten into a confession; we know that, of course, because why else would anyone willingly confess to a crime if he wasn’t beaten?

    The other eight jurors offered little opinion except to say they would vote for whatever was agreed upon... It was the Memorial Day weekend. They wanted to go home...
    "What brought you all around to first-degree?" he asks.
    "I wasn't going to budge and that other woman, the one in the back row, she wasn't going to change her mind either. She was for first-degree from the very beginning, too. After a while, everyone wanted to go home, I guess."

    The book has aged badly in one way: Simon completely falls for two entrenched bits of pseudoscience, the polygraph and profiling. But many people still believe in these things, and anyway it's a rare lapse of scepticism, for him.

    I think this is the first 'true crime' book I've read. Don't know if this is the pinnacle of the genre, then, or if the genre's better than literary people think.
    Collected Poems (1985) by Norman MacCaig None yet
    Collected Poems I, 1909-1939 (1951) by William Carlos Williams None yet
    The Information (1995) by Martin Amis Scalding and fantastical send-up of novelists and readers. About a nasty little man made insane by being low status - or, rather, by his friend becoming high status. He's completely destroyed by valuing position so much, by his crab mind:
    Richard, who would not mind being poor if no one was rich, who would not mind looking rough if no one looked smooth, who would not mind being old if no one was young.

    This is all the worse because he has taste and good ideas, between his maudlin self-pity and terrible ideas:
    It would be a book accounting for the decline of the status and virtue of literary protagonists. First gods, then demigods, then kings, then great warriors, great lovers,then burghers and merchants and vicars and doctors and lawyers. Then social realism: you. Then irony: me. Then maniacs and murderers, tramps, mobs, rabble, flotsam, vermin.

    Literature describes a descent... Literature, for a while, can be about us... about writers. But that won't last long. How do we burst clear of all this?

    Richard's complete, painful self-absorption shows that literary envy, male rivalry, and the fear of death are similar if not the same: childish rage when you can't get what you want.

    Amis keeps interrupting Richard (himself) to talk about outer space, the fate of stars, the rounding error that we are: Amis undercuts pathetic irony with ultimate meaning, which is the reverse of the usual trick. I think this author insertion is why people call it 'postmodern', though of course it's an ancient trick and Amis doesn't share their mean ideology. There's also self-reference:
    What was Richard? He was a revenger, in what was probably intended to be a comedy.

    Or maybe it's because Richard is a bland modernist (which here means: no fun) and Amis is taken not to be. Richard has violent thoughts and a violent worldview but is not violent, he fails to be violent; and Amis contains that container.

    There are unannounced focal shifts every couple pages, three of which focalisations sound very similar to each other (whether psycho Steve, revenger Richard, misanthrope Martin).

    This, surely, is how we account for the darkness and the helpless melancholy of twentieth-century literature. These writers, these dreamers and seekers, stood huddled like shivering foundlings on the cliffs of a strange new world: one with no servants in it.

    It's not just about books; the underworld of 90s Britain also gets it:

    the criminal resembles the artist in his pretensions, his incompetence, and his self-pity.

    You have to go a very long way - through tell of murdered children, celebrated suicides, denied misogyny, embraced misandry, deep duplicity - to get the merest possibility of redemption and getting over yourself. (And even that subverted: The season of comedy... Decorum will be observed.) The middle drags terribly. It's worth it.


    * The titular Information is hard truths, avoided thoughts, intimations of inadequacy and mortality.

    The information is advertising a symposium of pain. Pains of all faiths and all denominations... It is ordinary and everyday. On the beach the waves do it ceaselessly, gathering mass and body, climbing until they break and are then resummoned into generality with a sound like breath sucked in between the teeth.

    Weakness will get you where you are weakest. Weakness will be strong and bold, and make for your weak spot. If in the head, then in the head. If in the heart, then in the heart. If in the loins, then in the loins... The information is nothing. Nothing: the answer is so many of our questions. What will happen to me when I die? What is death anyway? Is there anything I can do about that? Of what does the universe primarily consist? What is the measure of our influence within it? What is our span, in cosmic time?

    * Richard's friend is called Gwyn (Welsh for blessed).
    * His book 'Untitled' is so serious that it causes its readers physical harm, like a petty version of the samizdat in Infinite Jest.
    * Amis is more like Gwyn than Richard in career terms (got an unprecedented £500k advance for this) but is obviously temperamentally more like Richard.
    * The more literary a work, the less it says plainly: the fewer hints you get. That is, *puzzles* are part of the essence of literariness. The bad reading of this is that it's all about showing off: how clever and sphinxish the author is, how clever and oedipal the reader, how able to delay gratification (or go without it) each is. Amis' books are quite puzzley, Richard's very much so, Gwyn's not a jot.
    * This line works as a diss on New Labour:
    It often seemed to him, moving in the circles he moved in and reading what he read, that everyone in England was Labour except the government.

    even though the book was written in 1994, before New Labour. A joke which survives inversion!
    * Presented without comment.
    A Question of Attribution () by Alan Bennett None yet
    An Englishman Abroad (2001) by Alan Bennett None yet
    Untold Stories (2001) by Alan Bennett None yet
    The History Boys (2004) by Alan Bennett None yet
    Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 (2000) by Douglas Wolk I was trying to get a handle on all of pop music - pop, that is, in the broad sense that anything that couldn't get played in a fancy concert hall is pop, that anything newer than Gershwin is pop. I spent years on this endeavour, eventually reaching the Scaruffian fringes: everything at least heard of, every landmark clung to by fingertips. I'm not sure why I did it.

    Or, I know but it isn't pretty: The people who know most about music are the ones who need it most: need it as a pretext to wear headphones and not talk to people, need it as vicarious catharsis for things felt but never said, need it as a gigantic arena for countercultural status, where if you only put in a thousand hours of skronk and dischord, then you're a thousand hours ahead of someone.

    Reading Lester Bangs on the Comedian Harmonists (!), included here, remains one of the most powerful moments in my entire reading life. The unsurpassing joy of discovery, of crossing cultures, of fandom.
    Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag (1994) by Henry Rollins Chronicle of violence, censorship via nightstick, nervous breakdowns, mental illness, ridiculously hard work, and poverty - most of it welcomed in.

    Rollins was a literally Romantic introvert in an unbelievably macho environment. (You might find this hard to believe if you watch the above videos but it's true.) He got better: he's now a strange sort of public intellectual, Iggy Pop with more pretensions, political snark, and appetite for extremity.

    Get in the Van is overwrought and self-absorbed and self-defeating. It is great. Bukowski with a 100W amp, Palahniuk if Palahniuk was in any sense real, a Russian Soul in California.

    (Read Punk Planet's oral history of Black Flag for counterclaims to half of this book. For once I don't mind what's true.)
    Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 (2001) by Michael Azerrad Unsurpassed writing about a tiny but hyperinfluential moment in unpopular music. One of the few writers I've seen give the Minutemen their due as the greatest flowering of global punk.
    The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book (1995) by Bill Watterson Elevates its medium.
    The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun, #1) (1980) by Gene Wolfe Wonderful. Rivals Earthsea as the wisest and subtlest Fantasy, for people who don't like Fantasy. Fast-moving, full of ironies, antimonies, and ambivalent symbolism - the kind which doesn't hit you over the head (I'm thinking of Gandalf changing colour hmmmmmm).

    There's a dozen memorable characters in 300pp (Gurloes, Thecla, Agilus, Agia, Talos, Ultan, Inire, Eata, Baldanders, the man himself), even though many appear for just one scene. And there's a very unobtrusive frame narrative which deepens and undermines things.

    And under all that: the beautiful post-post-apocalyptic layer: New Sun is actually science fiction, about what happens when the great project, Progress, collapses; what happens after thousands of years of decay.
    those who dig for their livelihood say there is no land anywhere in which they can trench without turning up shards of the past. No matter where the spade turns the soil, it uncovers broken pavements and corroded metal; and scholars write that the kind of sand that artists call polychrome (because flecks of every colour are mixed with its whiteness) is actually not sand at all, but the glass of the past, now pounded by aeons of tumbling in the clamorous sea.</i>

    It is Clarkean: The book is unconcerned whether strange events are due to obscure high technology, psychological trickery, or bonafide supernatural force.

    Because Wolfe is a bit difficult, it's not too incongruous to bring up Grand Narrative now: sure, the French theorists were wrong to suggest that such ideas are dead in our time (or bad, if alive) but they certainly could die, and Wolfe explores what that'd be like. Nessus has no master idea - not even god, not even family, not even order. (Or maybe it's class again.)
    "Severian. Name for me the seven principles of governance."
    A foreboding grew on me; I sensed that if I did not reply, some tragedy would occur. At last I began weakly, "Anarchy . . ."
    "That is not governance, but the lack of it. I taught you that it precedes all governance. Now list the seven sorts."
    "Attachment to the person of the monarch. Attachment to the bloodline or other sequence of succession. Attachment to the royal state. Attachment to a code legitimizing the governing state. Attachment to the law only. Attachment to a greater or lesser board of electors, as framers of the law. Attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them and numerous other elements, largely ideal."
    "Tolerable. Of these, which is the earlier form, and which the highest?"
    "The development is in the order given, Master," I said. "But I do not rrecall that you ever asked us before which was highest."
    Master Malrubius leaned forward, his eyes burning brighter than the coals of the fire. "Which is the highest, Severian?"
    "The last, Master?"
    "You mean attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal?"
    "Yes, Master."
    "Of what kind, Severian, is your own attachment to the Divine Entity?"
    I said nothing. It may have been that I was thinking; but if so, my mind was too much filled with sleep to be conscious of its thought. Instead, I became profoundly aware of my physical surroundings. The sky above my face in all its grandeur seemed to have been made solely for my benefit, and to be presented for my inspection now. I lay upon the ground as upon a woman, and the very air that surrounded me seemed a thing as admirable as crystal and as fluid as wine.
    "Answer me, Severian."
    "The first, if I have any."
    "To the person of the monarch?"
    "Yes, because there is no succession."

    (Dune occupies the same SFF feudalist netherland as this, but is much clumsier, occasionally contemptible.)

    How do you write a truly immoral sympathetic character? (In this case, the most immoral: who does the worst thing you can do.) I think the answer is simple: detail. Make it first-person and simply show the ordinary range of interests, foibles, enculturation, passions. The reader does the rest. (Compare Lolita, Private Memoirs of a Justified Sinner, Wasp Factory, Crime and Punishment...)
    Gurloes was one of the most complex men I have known, because he was a complex man trying to be simple. Not a simple, but a complex man's idea of simplicity. Just as a courtier forms himself into something brilliant and involved, midway between a dancing master and a diplomacist, with a touch of assassin if needed, so Master Gurloes had shaped himself to be the dull creature a pursuivant or bailiff expected to see when he summoned the head of our guild, and that is the only thing a real torturer cannot be. The strain showed; though every part of Gurloes was as it should have been, none of the parts fit... He ate too much and too seldom, read when he thought no one knew of it, and visited certain of our clients, including one on the third level, to talk of things none of us eaves-dropping in the corridor outside could understand. His eyes were refulgent, brighter than any woman's.

    Severian is completely cold-blooded about violence while still being notably heroic and sentimental. (Ok he doesn't actually torture anyone.)
    By the use of the language of sorrow I had for the time being obliterated my sorrow - so powerful is the charm of words, which for us reduces to manageable entities all the passions that would otherwise madden and destroy...

    The heroism is natural and plausible, because he dooms himself in the middle of the book, so everything that happens is a bonus to him, so he takes bandits and duels and unlikely undertakings in his stride, which is an enviable attitude.

    One of many lovely details: all the Latin is subtly wrong: 'terminus est' taken to be 'this is the line of division' rather than 'this is the end'; 'felicibus brevis, miseris hora longa', 'Men wait long for happiness'. But most of the rest of the jargon is historically accurate: 'hydrargyrum' for mercury, 'hipparch' for cavalier, 'archon' for lord, 'carnifex' for butcher, 'matross' for junior soldier, etc.

    The second half, the quest with Agia and Dorcas, reminds me of 'Before Sunrise', of all things: glittering words exchanged by the young and instantly intimate. The writing is so fine and uncliched that it pulls off unreconstructed romance in the midst of post-apocalyptic feudalism. In general, the feudal trappings justify Wolfe's ornate prose well. Severian often says things that are wise to us, and the things which aren't make sense in brutal context:
    the pattern of our guild is repeated mindlessly (like the repetitions of Father Inire's mirrors in the House Absolute) in the societies of every trade, so that they are all of them torturers, just as we. His quarry stands to the hunter as our clients to us; those who buy to the tradesman; the enemies of the Commonwealth to the soldier; the governed to the governors; men to women. All love that which they destroy.

    Nietzsche on the wheel:
    Weak people believe what is forced on them. Strong people what they wish to believe, forcing that to be real. What is the Autarch but a man who believes himself Autarch and makes others believe by the strength of it.

    Probably 5/5 on re-read.

    PS: I can't decide if this or Fall of Hyperion has the lower quality-of-book : awfulness-of-cover ratio.</td> </tr>
    23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism (2010) by Ha-Joon Chang Chatty, thoughtful introduction to some hard truths of economic development. Not actually anti-capitalist, except in the mild sense that we all should be (that is, critical of market failure, cronyism, corporate welfare and socialised risk, regulatory capture, negative-sum nationalism, casino capital, ...).

    The soundest and most important of the 23 points is the surprising fact that no currently-developed economy ever managed to industrialise without initially using trade barriers. (This is covered better in Chang's Kicking Away the Ladder, with its extensive details of postwar South Korea's shocking illiberalism: for instance, importing hi-tech goods was a serious crime for decades.) This wasn't well-known even in the Development circles I was moving in.

    The other propositions, I can't remember well enough to endorse or deny, but it left a vague good impression.
    The Pleasures of the Damned: Selected Poems 1951-1993 (2007) by Charles Bukowski An anti-social phallocrat waves his pen in the wee small hours – yet often achieves beauty. This is a Best-of, but actually not his best. Still a very good way in.

    Bukowski is Springsteen after Rosalita, Mary, Janey, Sandy, Trudy and the rest either moved town forever to get away from him or died.
    The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle, #4) (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin None yet
    Never Mind (1992) by Edward St. Aubyn Tense, effortless, funny, devastating. A single day among the melting upper-class, building up to a dinner party - but eliding the contempt we might feel with pathos and pain and humour.

    The dialogue is consistently impressive. Victor is the most convincing philosopher character I've seen - neurotic, analytic, too in his head to be harmful. Patrick's model of the world is slightly too sophisticated model for a five-year-old, but the scene in which he's introduced is the most convincing childlike prose:
    Patrick walked towards the well. In his hand he carried a grey plastic sword with a gold handle, and swished it at the pink flowers of the valerian plants that grew out of the terrace wall. When there was a snail on one of the fennel stems, he sliced his sword down the stalk and made it fall off. If he killed a snail he had to stamp on it quickly and then run away, because it went all squishy like blowing your nose. Then he would go back and have a look at the broken brown shell stuck in the soft grey flesh, and would wish he hadn’t done it. It wasn’t fair to squash the snails after it rained because they came out to play, bathing in the pools under the dripping leaves and stretching out their horns. When he touched their horns they darted back and his hand darted back as well. For snails he was like a grown-up.

    And the venomous, purely perverse relationship of his parents produces gasping lines like
    At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.

    I stumble over David, the charming psychopath rampant. It is too hard to understand intentional evil, even when snobbery, tough love parenting and simple rage are proffered as explanations. I had a petite mort at the end. Really fantastic.

    In one sitting.
    Hogfather (Discworld, #20; Death, #4) (1996) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    The Last Continent (Discworld, #22; Rincewind #6) (1998) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    My Man Jeeves (Jeeves, #1) (1919) by P.G. Wodehouse The first Jeeves collection, including several stories told by a proto-Wooster called "Reggie Pepper". PG's prose is slightly less glowing and divine at this early juncture, but it still makes me smile on every fourth page.
    The Nice and the Good (1968) by Iris Murdoch A joy, a dirge, and so sincere I cried. Both a tame London murder mystery and a sliding-doors comedy of manners in Dorset, the two plots dreaming each other, running laminar. These mere genres are electrified by Murdoch's ethics and filled up with her wit. Like Greene, she is the apotheosis of trash conventions. I feel I am a better person afterward, or at least a better fool. The following derives its power from 200 pages of buildup suddenly letting loose, but it might give you an idea:

    Jealousy is the most natural to us of the really wicked passions... It must be resisted with every honest cunning and with deliberate generous thoughts, however abstract and empty these may seem in comparison with that wicked strength. Think about the virtue that you need and call it generosity, magnanimity, charity. You are young, Jessica, and you are very delightful – may I just take your hand, so? – and the world is not spoilt for you yet. There is no merit, Jessica, in a faithfulness which is poison to you and captivity to him. You have nothing to gain here except by losing. You wish to act out your love, to give it body, but there is only one act left to you that is truly loving and that is to let him go, gently and without resentment.
    Put all your, energy into that and you will win from the world of the spirit a grace which you cannot now even dream of. For there is grace, Jessica, there are principalities and powers, there is unknown good which flies magnetically toward the good we know. And suppose that you had found what you were looking for, my dear child? Would you not have been led on from jealousy through deceit into cruelty? Human frailty forms a system, Jessica, and faults in the past have their endlessly spreading network of results. We are not good people, Jessica, and we shall always be involved in that great network, you and I. All we can do is constantly to notice when we begin to act badly, to check ourselves, to go back, to coax our weakness and inspire our strength, to call upon the names of virtues of which we know perhaps only the names. We are not good people, and the best we can hope for is to be gentle, to forgive each other and to forgive the past...

    An essay on the benefits and limits of polyamory; on the trials of self-conscious virtue; an extended gag about virtue's unlikeability. I love the appalling drawling fops Octavian and Kate, I love the notably indistinct Fivey, and I clutch Ducane to myself like a home-knitted scarf against strong winter wind. So pure!
    Thief of Time (Discworld, #26; Death, #5) (2001) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    The Metamorphosis (1915) by Franz Kafka Hard to believe, but I missed the obvious metaphor when I read it first, as a teenager.

    The selection I have also contains the lovely sanguine piece 'The Aeroplanes at Brescia', the first in a series of travel vignettes he planned to write and sell. I don't suppose it would be as interesting without the tragic backdrop of Kafka, without it representing such a different route through history, that fucking scumbag, history.
    Interesting Times (Discworld, #17; Rincewind #5) (1994) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    Men at Arms (Discworld, #15; City Watch #2) (1993) by Terry Pratchett S’ok. Identity politics and gun control – so, a very American British fantasy. Works: my audience squealed in horror at the right places, the deaths of fond characters.

    (Read aloud)
    Thud! (Discworld, #34; City Watch #7) (2005) by Terry Pratchett See here for my theory of Discworld international development.
    The Fifth Elephant (Discworld, #24; City Watch, #5) (1999) by Terry Pratchett About oil, conservatism, the Inscrutable Balkans. The most literary of his excellent police books: telecomms as model and amplifier of emotional and cultural ties; contact with otherness as cause and defining feature of modernity.

    Less grandiosely, he trots out his satisfying werewolf point again: in actual fact, the creature inbetween human and wolf is not a terrifying lunatic chimera but a dog.
    Mother's Milk (2005) by Edward St. Aubyn None yet
    The Twits (1980) by Roald Dahl None yet
    Matter (Culture, #8) (2008) by Iain M. Banks This entry's mostly set on a C17th world, the rest given over to barely interesting galactic politics. The Culture novels feel free to wave away technological plot devices with talk of "energy grid!" or "nanotech!", but Banks shows off hard-scifi cred here, giving a few lovely, moving images based on meteorology and astrophysics.  On the current-affairs blogosphere:
    A rapidly expanding but almost entirely vapid cloud of comment, analysis, speculation and exploitation...Welcome to the future, she thought, surveying the wordage and tat. All our tragedies and triumphs, our lives and deaths,our shames and joys are just stuffing for your emptiness.

    Ending is good and brutal, made me stop and infer for ten mins afterward. So, yeah, Banks has been playing the same "ooh, neo-colonialism", "ooh, consequences", "ooh, angst in utopia" note for a while. But hey it's a good note.

    Esio Trot (1990) by Roald Dahl None yet
    Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away (2014) by Rebecca Goldstein It is very hard to say anything new about Plato. Except, of course it isn't, because he spoke in the most general possible terms, and the world continues to do unprecedented things and so allow for new commentary and new applications of Plato. It will always be possible to say something new about Plato because, until the heat death draws near, it will be possible to say something new about the world, and criticism should relate the old but general with the new and unanalysed.

    This was really deep fun: Goldstein debunks a great deal about him via close-reading (e.g.: that Plato's book, Πολιτεία, has no etymological or structural relation to modern republics). Some very moving chapters, too, particularly the neuroscientist dialogue: she renders this man we know almost nothing personal about as polite, curious and modest, willing to suspend judgment on e.g. our popular democracy. The titular chapter is best, involving the philosopher wrestling with one imperfect implementation of his epistemocracy, the data-mining Silicon Valley engineer:
    "You're telling me that the purpose of all of this knowledge is merely to make money? Greed is driving the great search engine for knowledge? This bewilders me... How can those who possess all knowledge, which must include the knowledge of the life most worth living, be interested in using knowledge only for the insignificant aim of making money?"
         "Plato, I said, I think you have a somewhat exalted view of Google and the nerds who work here."
         "Nerds?" he said. "Another word I do not know."

         Well, again I was in a somewhat awkward position, since I didn't want to offend Plato, who struck me, despite his eye contact and excellent manners, as a nerd par excellence. So I fell back on something I'd once heard... that the word was originally "knurd", which is "drunk" spelled backwards, and was used for students who would rather study than party.
         "And the people who work here at Google are all nerds?"
         "I would say each and every one." I smiled at him.
         He smiled and looked around the café as if he had died and gone to philosophers' heaven.
         "My chosen term for nerd", he said, "is philosopher-king".
    Goldstein's move for each chapter is to draw out an inconsistency in Plato that later became a persistent philosophical dichotomy; the chapters are all classical dialogues, actually trialogues at least. Also she makes us note how little explanation of modern culture Plato would actually need to be able to deploy his existing arguments. Witty and persuasive. (You'd think I'd need no persuading of the eternal value of philosophy, and nor do I, but I'd no intention of studying Plato properly before this.)

    In one sentence: Plato wanders contemporary America, Chromebook tucked under his arm, looking to understand the few ways we are radically different.
    Carry On, Jeeves (Jeeves, #3) (1925) by P.G. Wodehouse None yet
    Witches Abroad (Discworld, #12; Witches #3) (1991) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    The Crow Road (1992) by Iain Banks Had an enormous impact on me the first time (I was 16), but very little the 2nd (I was 23).
    Witch Wood (1927) by John Buchan Ornate and surprisingly subtle picture of the Scots Borders during the Reformation. Mystery novel without a detective. Went into this with unfair scepticism but was impressed by his making boring theological debates dramatic, and by his unsentimental nature prose. I also learned lots of words.
    Lanark (1981) by Alasdair Gray None yet
    The Squashed Philosophers (2005) by Glyn Lloyd-Hughes Excellent way in for a teenager. Almost primary sources; someone else simulating you if you had the attention span to find the highlights.
    Cujo (1981) by Stephen King None yet
    The Truth (Discworld, #25; Industrial Revolution, #2) (2000) by Terry Pratchett The Disc grew modern, gaining a media (The Truth), sanitation (also The Truth), soft-power politics (Jingo!, Thud!), and institutionalised sport (Unseen Academicals), to add to its latter-day civilian police (Men at Arms), telecoms (Fifth Elephant, and steam power (Raising Steam).

    The most literary thing about the Discworld books is this modernisation, from magic to steampunk. This happens comically rapidly – Colour of Magic, the first book, is standard non-chronistic High Fantasy, so, set circa circa 1200CE. Snuff takes place not twenty-five discursive years later – yet the central city is clearly Victorian. And that’s not including the burgeoning intercontinental fax network.

    Technology is given its due, but not to the neglect of the institutional side. Disc modernity began with the despot Vetinari’s marketisation of crime, moves through ethnic diversity reforms and open-door immigration, and marches on and on. UA, the sport one, is solid, poignant. He doesn’t often let his wizards get earnest and truly develop – by this stage, magic is comic relief, no longer the determining power or symbol of the Disc.

    Snuff is dark and politically worthy, but not his best. He’s been reusing jokes in recent books, and I refuse to speculate on the cause.
    The Power and the Glory (1940) by Graham Greene Funny I don't find Greene's themes obnoxious, compared to say Waugh.
    Changing Places (1975) by David Lodge None yet
    Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (Charlie Bucket, #2) (1972) by Roald Dahl None yet
    The Other Wind (Earthsea Cycle, #6) (2001) by Ursula K. Le Guin None yet
    Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (Jeeves, #11) (1954) by P.G. Wodehouse Taboo: Moustache.
    Triangle: Cheesewright - Florence Craye - Gorringe - Wooster
    Subplot: Selling 'Milady's Boudoir'
    Aunt: Dahlia
    Antagonist: Cheesewright
    Expedient: Accidental balcony romance, accidental theft, several Jeeves specials.
    Lords and Ladies (Discworld, #14; Witches #4) (1992) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    Roadside Picnic (1972) by Arkady Strugatsky Good stuff! Earthy, economic sci-fi; aliens visit, ignore us entirely, and soon leave, leaving behind only transcendent junk and horror-film phenomena from their little picnic. Prose is lovely and plain, translated brilliantly by the mathematician Olena Bormashenko (we get “scabby”, “sham”, “mange”).

    The ordinary, crude protagonist Red is scrabbling illegally to provide for his mutant family (the Strugatskys use cash and cash pressure amazingly, grounding the whole cosmic fantasy in commerce, crime, exploitation). Every time Red gets cash, he throws it away – in someone’s face as an insult, in someone’s face as a distraction to evade capture, or just away.

    No explanations except bureaucratic filler; no salvation, just dumb defiance. A really nice original touch is that Red interprets the body language of his friends in extreme detail – a scratched nose means, to him, “Whoah, Red, be careful how rough you play with the new kid”.

    Also notable for being a Soviet novel set in mid-west America, evoked very, very well. And the Russian Soul under their dismal economics rings out without catching in the barrel:
    </td> </tr>
    The BFG (1982) by Roald Dahl None yet
    Some Hope (1994) by Edward St. Aubyn None yet
    A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought, #1) (1992) 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.
    Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison Scathing about all social strata
    Farewell, My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler Relentlessly idiomatic. Hollow like a bell. Marlowe is not presented as feeling anything except incessant fatigue and occasional lust. The prose is fast and somehow innocent though surrounded by darkness:

    The eighty-five cent dinner tasted like a discarded mail bag and was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he would slug me for a quarter, cut my throat for six bits, and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete for a dollar and a half, plus sales tax.

    A hand I could have sat in came out of the dimness and took hold of my shoulder and squashed it to a pulp. Then the hand moved me through the doors and casually lifted me up a step. The large face looked at me. A deep soft voice said to me, quietly:
    "Smokes in here, huh? Tie that for me, pal."
    It was dark in there. It was quiet. From up above came vague sounds of humanity, but we were alone on the stairs. The big man stared at me solemnly and went on wrecking my shoulder with his hand.
    "A dinge," he said. "I just thrown him out. You seen me throw him out?"

    Sure, Noir is cliche now, but we should try to stop Seinfeld effects from undermining original work. And I think he really was original.
    You could get to like that face a lot. Glamoured up blondes were a dime a dozen, but that was a face that would wear. I smiled at it.

    Give him enough time and pay him enough money and he'll cure anything from a jaded husband to a grasshopper plague. He would be an expert in frustrated love affairs, women who slept alone and didn't like it, wandering boys and girls who didn't write home, sell the property now or hold it for another year, will this part hurt me with my public or make me seem more versatile? Men would sneak in on him too, big strong guys that roared like lions around their offices and were all cold mush under their vests. But mostly it would be women, fat women that panted and thin women that burned, old women that dreamed and young women that thought they might have Electra complexes, women of all sizes, shapes and ages, but with one thing in common—money. No Thursdays at the County Hospital for Mr. Jules Amthor.

    "You lied to me."
    "It was a pleasure."
    He was silent a moment, as if deciding something. "We'll let that pass," he said. "I've seen her. She came in and told me her story. She's the daughter of a man I knew and respected, as it happens... Well, that's all. Remember what I told you last night. Don't try getting ideas about this case. All we want from you is silence. Otherwise—"
    He paused. I yawned into the mouthpiece.
    "I heard that," he snapped. "Perhaps you think I'm not in a position to make that stick. I am. One false move out of you and you'll be locked up as a material witness."
    "You mean the papers are not to get the case?"
    "They'll get the murder—but they won't know what's behind it."
    "Neither do you," I said.
    "I've warned you twice now," he said. "The third time is out."
    "You're doing a lot of talking," I said, "for a guy that holds cards."
    I got the phone hung in my face for that

    Learned a lot of words, had a lot of fun. Power in simplicity.

    I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance. I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.
    Permutation City (Subjective Cosmology #2) (1994) by Greg Egan The best-written info-dump ever. Egan's predictions for the near-future are looking really good 25 years on: the dominance of cloud computing, the digital-nomad life, spam filters, molecular-chem composer VR ... Still some amusing bits of course, e.g. "He was using more computing power than Fujitsu."

    Reading about the legal expert-system she has free access to, I itched for the future to arrive.

    There are a few logical holes in the plot which Egan helpfully erratas here.
    Nice Work (1988) by David Lodge None yet
    The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath None yet
    Medea. Stimmen (1996) by Christa Wolf None yet
    The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick None yet
    Use of Weapons (Culture, #3) (1990) by Iain M. Banks The protagonist is cartoonish, full of piratical energy, but saved from a boring super-soldier effect by pathos of the Bad Lieutenant variety. Banks was always quite open about how didactic the sci-fi novels were; they are saved by his sheer inventiveness and the grand psychological realism amidst the technological fantasy.

    : What do humans have to offer, after the singularity? What skills are scarce? Banks' answer is: "a lack of scruples; excessive force; the ability to not care." We should be so lucky.

    This scene had a large effect on me as a child:
    'Of course I don't have to do this,' one middle-aged man said, carefully cleaning the table with a damp cloth. He put the cloth in a little pouch, sat down beside him. "But look; this table's clean.'
         He agreed that the table was clean.

         "Usually,' the man said. "I work on alien -- no offence -- alien religions; Directional Emphasis In Religious Observance; that's my specialty ... like when temples or graves or prayers always have to face in a certain direction; that sort of thing? Well, I catalogue, evaluate, compare; I come up with theories and argue with colleagues, here and elsewhere. But ... the job's never finished; always new examples, and even the old ones get re-evaluated, and new people come along with new ideas about what you thought was settled ... but,' he slapped the table, "when you clean a table you clean a table. You feel you've done something. It's an achievement."

         "But in the end, it's still cleaning a table."
         "And therefore does not really signify on the cosmic scale of events?' the man suggested.
    He smiled in response to the man's grin, "Well, yes.'
    'But then what does signify? My other work? Is that really important, either?'
    I could try composing wonderful musical works, or day-long entertainment epics, but what would that do? Give people pleasure? My wiping this table gives me pleasure. And people come to a clean table, which gives them pleasure. And anyway" - the man laughed - "people die; stars die; universes die. What is any achievement, however great it was, once time itself is dead? Of course, if all I did was wipe tables, then of course it would seem a mean and despicable waste of my huge intellectual potential. But because I choose to do it, it gives me pleasure. And," the man said with a smile, "it's a good way of meeting people."

    As did this, before I studied formal philosophy and received a resounding confirmation of it:
         “Aw, come on; argue, dammit.”     
    “I don’t believe in argument,” he said, looking out into the darkness.     
    “You don’t?” Erens said, genuinely surprised. “Shit, and I thought I was the cynical one.”     
    “It’s not cynicism,” he said flatly. “I just think people overvalue argument because they like to hear themselves talk.”     
    “Oh well, thank you.”     
    “It’s comforting, I suppose.” He watched the stars wheel, like absurdly slow shells seen at night: rising, peaking, falling...(And reminded himself that the stars too would explode, perhaps, one day.) “Most people are not prepared to have their minds changed,” he said. “And I think they know in their hearts that other people are just the same, and one of the reasons people become angry when they argue is that they realize just that, as they trot out their excuses.”     
    “Excuses, eh?"     
    "Yes, excuses," he said, with what Erens thought might just have been a trace of bitterness. "I strongly suspect the things people believe in are usually just what they instinctively feel is right; the excuses, the justifications, the things you're supposed to argue about, come later. They're the least important part of the belief. That's why you can destroy them, win an argument, prove the other person wrong, and still they believe what they did in the first place." He looked at Erens. "You've attacked the wrong thing.”

    But this was also before I got into technical pursuits which lend us hope that the above grim realism can be defeated by self-awareness, quantification, and epistemic care. Sometimes.
    The Player of Games (Culture, #2) (1988) by Iain M. Banks None yet
    Wyrd Sisters (Discworld, #6; Witches #2) (1988) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1) (1968) by Ursula K. Le Guin None yet
    The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1) (1995) by Philip Pullman None yet
    The Hobbit or There and Back Again (1937) by J.R.R. Tolkien None yet
    The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, #2) (1997) by Philip Pullman None yet
    Tehanu (Earthsea Cycle, #4) (1990) by Ursula K. Le Guin None yet
    Small World (1984) by David Lodge None yet
    A Widow for One Year (1998) by John Irving None yet
    Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. None yet
    Feet of Clay (Discworld, #19; City Watch, #3) (1996) by Terry Pratchett Another monarchist plot, another wonderful slice of Vimes. This instalment, one of his increasingly cinematic plots, pivots on the enduringly poignant trope of the Golem, the put-upon automata given life by holy words. Their persecution doesn’t quite map to any one political issue, a point in favour really– they echo slavery, class struggle, and A.I. Pratchett also stretches to get a big bad pun into every scene, with mixed but gladdening results.

    (Read aloud)
    Monstrous Regiment (Discworld, #31; Industrial Revolution, #3) (2003) by Terry Pratchett He really could pluck anything out of the superficially cliched, superficially zany world he built. Here, Balkanization, first wave feminism and two dozen good characters summoned up and put down.
    Night Watch (Discworld, #29; City Watch, #6) (2002) by Terry Pratchett Perhaps his darkest book (though he never was just about puns and japes – consider the extent of extinction and futility in Strata). All about the Night, as in inherent human brutality and in being metaphysically lost. Remarkable for being about being the police in a police state. Cried my eyes out at the climax the first time, a decade ago.
    Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970) by Roald Dahl None yet
    The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus None yet
    Sourcery (Discworld, #5; Rincewind #3) (1988) by Terry Pratchett Rincewind starts to become an actual character rather than a reaction shot.
    The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster In one sentence: An invitation to reason by way of reified puns and embodied binaries.

    • Galef type:

      Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something, &

      Style 3 - tickle your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker.

    The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1) (1954) by J.R.R. Tolkien None yet
    The Campus Trilogy (1993) by David Lodge

    • Changing Places (1978). Beautiful 60s farce, mocking the zany side while accepting the force of the hippy challenge to all sorts of things, lastingly sexism. The jokes rely heavily on the difference in vitality and affluence between 60s Britain and California – one grey and without central heating, the other soaked in optimism, sex and cute subversions.

    • Small World (1984). Even better, more romantic and full of risky narrative moves – regular cinematic cuts, 40 characters in two dozen Richard-Curtis conjunctions, a character commenting on his narrative role, a cod-Japanese passage without articles... Generous and barbed and fun. 4*/5.

    • Nice Work (1988). I suppose what I like most about Lodge is his marriage of (and subversion of) highfalutin Theory with daft romcom conventions. This last one’s grimmer – based more on the mutual misunderstanding and vices of literary theory and industry. Thatcher’s jaws lurk in the background. Also race. Robyn, his feminist protagonist is good and 3D, principled and struggling with the contradictions of the radical academic (their privileged position in a system they abhor, ‘revolutionary’ abstractions, the attack on logocentric realism leading to detachment from lived life where things happen). Robyn’s attitude to love inspired this great satire.


    Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell Features befitting a great book: stunning detail, well-historicised prose, engaging characters, intricate narrative structure, embrace of multiple genres. But it's too clean, somehow.

    Though it depicts predation by the worst of us; though its dystopia is one Pop-Hegel extrapolation from our current world-system, it's not as challenging as it thinks it is.

    It consists of ten sudden narrative shifts, moving back and fore four or five centuries. These sections are connected by each having a 'reader' (the opening sea journal is read by the second narrator, the Romantic composer, whose letters are obsessed over by the journalist, whose memoir is seen by the hack editor, whose tale is seen in an ancient film by the saintly clone, who is remembered as a god in the post-apocalypse story that is as far forward as we see. (They are also connected by a reincarnation overlay - but, apart from giving brutal history more chances to be brutal to the same people, I don't really get it.)

    The bit with the composer, Frobisher, is my favourite: he transcends his cheeky bohemian archetype and becomes horribly tragic despite his pig-headedness and camp pretension.

    The last line, returning to the original Victorian narrator, is a good summary of the book's wounded, pessimistic collectivism:
    He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’
    Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

    So: Enjoyable and ambitious, unsatisfying.
    Mort (Discworld, #4; Death, #1) (1987) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    All the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy, #1) (1992) 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?
    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.

    Cosmopolis (2003) by Don DeLillo None yet
    The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (1981) by Douglas R. Hofstadter Wonderful: giant concepts conveyed through excerpts of great fiction.
    Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives) (2005) by Christopher Hitchens Short critical portrait of a grand hypocrite.
    where Locke had spoken of "life, liberty, and property" as natural rights, Jefferson famously wrote "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"... given the advantageous social position occupied by the delegates at Philadelphia, it is very striking indeed that [this] should have taken precedence over property.

    I was worried that Hitchens might have gone soft over his adopted land but it's full of this kind of thing:
    A bad conscience, evidenced by slovenly and contradictory argument, is apparent in almost every paragraph of his discourse on [slavery].

    as well as his humourlessness, adultery, self-service, self-pity, horrendous partisanship, and, surprisingly, bloody ruthlessness. Jefferson:

    what signify a few lives lost in a century or two? the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. it is it's natural manure.

    (He was pro-Jacobin for a terribly long time.)


    Try and judge him fairly. How did his actions (not his words lol) compare to the prevailing spirit?:

    * Democracy: Well above average, even revolutionary US average.
    * Slaves: Hard to say. Inherited 200. Freed only 7. Tried to write a condemnation of slavery into the Declaration. Wrote a bill banning slavery in new states, narrowly lost the vote. "Even as he yearned to get rid of them, he refused to let them go"
    * Native Americans: Average, bad.
    * Freedom of speech: Average. Had paid shills in the gutter press throughout his career, and prosecuted enemy journalists for Sedition.
    * Freedom of religion: Well above average.
    * Women: Average, bad.
    * Working-class: Above average in intention, protecting the "plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry". Pretty populist, constantly ranting about bankers and tipping the political balance away from cities.

    The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.

    His fear of a freedmen uprising apparently paralysed him. The conventional wisdom around 1800 was that you couldn't just free the slaves, you'd also have to deport them (to e.g. Sierra Leone like the British) to prevent them taking their rightful vengeance on the planters. His turning on the Haitians for similar reasons is one of the saddest and dumbest moments in a life of compromise.

    Whatever view one takes of Burke's deepening pessimism and dogmatic adherence to the virtues of Church and King, the fact is that after the summer of 1791 the Jacobins did their best to prove him right.

    Deleted scene from the Declaration of Independence:
    [King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.

    And Hitchen's final exceptionalist thought:
    The French Revolution destroyed itself in Jefferson's own lifetime. More modern revolutions have destroyed themselves and others. If the American Revolution, with its... gradual enfranchisement of those excluded or worse at its founding, has often betrayed itself at home and abroad, it nevertheless remains the only revolution that still retains any power to inspire."
    A Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form (2009) by Paul Lockhart
    if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.

    Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, “we need higher standards.” The schools say, “we need more money and equipment.” Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “math class is stupid and boring,” and they're right...

    [Excerpt free here]
    The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (2007) by Paul Collier None yet
    A Season in Hell (1873) by Arthur Rimbaud Trembling / thrashing.
    Kuhn vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science (2003) by Steve Fuller None yet
    Dubliners (1914) by James Joyce None yet
    Step Aside, Pops (Hark! A Vagrant, #2) (2015) by Kate Beaton So silly but also so sensible.

    Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose (1993) by Adrienne Rich Poems are better than the prose, early better than late, but all are pretty good.
    Be proud, when you have set
    The final spoke of flame
    In that prismatic wheel,
    And nothing’s left this day
    Except to see the sun
    Shine on the false and the true,
    And know that Africa
    Will yield you more to do.

    She has a bad habit, common in critical theory, of confusing possible nasty interpretations of texts with the author's intention or with reality, and so dismissing the work. But, along with Greer, Dworkin, Young, and Sontag I don't think I'll stop reading her, no matter how much I disagree.
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Charlie Bucket, #1) (1964) by Roald Dahl None yet
    The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe None yet
    Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (2005) by Simon Reynolds

    Playlist here.

    An exhaustive essay on art and/versus pop, politics and/versus aesthetics, intellect and/versus passion, and on how seriously music should, in general, be taken. He reads post-punk as far wider than the sombre anti-rock art-school thing people usually take it to be - so he includes Human League and ABC as post-punks with emphasis on the post:

    To varying degrees, all these groups grasped the importance of image, its power to seduce and motivate. And they all coated their music in a patina of commercial gloss, some of them pursuing a strategy of entryism, while others simply revelled in sonic luxury for the sheer glam thrill of it; it's simply inaccurate to portray New Pop, as some histories of the period have, as a 'like punk never happened' scenario. Almost all of the groups had some connection to punk...

    New Pop was about making the best of the inevitable - synths and drum machines, video, the return of glamour. Colour, dance, fun and style were sanctioned as both strategically necessary (the terms of entry into pop) and pleasurable (now acceptable, with the rejection of post-punk's guilt-racked puritanism).

    His scope is total: everything's here (except for oi, hardcore, Ramonescore - i.e. the people who failed to make it past punk). Reynolds divides the genre/period in three broad camps:

    1. modernists (PiL, Cab Vol, No Wave, industrial, SST prog-punk),

    2. *
    3. post-pop (New Pop, electro, mutant disco, synth)

    4. *
    5. retro-eclectics (two-tone, Goth, neo-mods).

    He gives chapters to the Other Places of lC20th popular music: whether Akron (Devo, Pere Ubu), Leeds (Gang of Four, Mekons), Sheffield (Cabaret Voltaire, Human League), Edinburgh (Fire Engines, Josef K, Associates). There is a covert critique of punk (that is, the messianic punks) throughout the book:

    Elsewhere, The Heartbreakers' stodge of refried Chuck Berry was barely more advanced than British pub rock; Dr Feelgood on an IV drip of smack rather than lager...

    While the committed activists spouted the textbook party line, a more diffuse left-wing academic culture existed based on a sort of ideological pick 'n' mix: a trendy-lefty autodidactism fuelled by second-hand paperbacks and beginner's guides to Gramsci, Lukacs, and Althusser , garnished with Situationism...

    Blending often-incompatible systems of thought, the resulting hodge-podge lacked rigour from the stern standpoint of academics and ideologues alike. But in rock music, a little rigour is rather bracing and galvanising. In the grand tradition of British art-rock, theory helped them achieve the sort of conceptual breakthroughs that more organically evolving groups never reach.

    Instead, his favourites are the gorgeous misfits-among-misfits, who managed to be neither modernist nor entryist nor shill: Talking Heads, Meat Puppets, Associates, Japan. Crucially, he is charitable to all the tributaries: chart-hungry post-pop, politically-rabid modernism and the interminable ugliness of Throbbing Gristle, Whitehouse and No Wave: this makes Rip It Up real history rather than hagiography, and so much more than I or anyone has managed.

    He has more critical acumen than any of the mooks in the brainy bands; more love than the fey melodists. I have lived in the post-punk woods - too jaded and too hopeful to be a punk - for getting on a decade, and I thought myself a connoisseur: until now I was not.
    Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character (1985) by Richard P. Feynman None yet
    Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past (2010) by Simon Reynolds Omnivorous, unifying, funny.
    Monogamy (1996) by Adam Phillips In one sentence: Harsh, circuitous, critical aphorisms on the greatest secular religion.

    To be read : At the start of every new relationship; when your contempt of psychotherapy boils over and needs correction.

    I guess he’s a bit overfond of knowing paradox (“Seduction, the happy invention of need”; “The problem of a marriage is that it can never be called an affair”) – and of course aphorisms have to compress away the qualifications that would make them fairer, and so easier to take in large doses.
    Infidelity is such a problem because we take monogamy for granted; we treat it as the norm. Perhaps we should take infidelity for granted, assume it with unharassed ease. Then we would be able to think about monogamy.

    There are no relationships without conflict. If psychoanalysis has a value, maybe one of its values is just that it abides by the idea that there is always going to be conflict… in a way the book holds out for the value of conflict [being to let] the diverse voices inside of oneself speak.

    But it’s non-partisan (not anti-monogamy, not anti-polyamory) and original and funny and wise and I still haven’t absorbed the finer points.

    • Galef type:

      Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something, &
      Style 3 - tickle your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker.
    • </td> </tr>
    Women's Poetry of the 1930s: A Critical Anthology (1995) by Jane Dowson Raising up great obscure things is one of the main points of having academics around. However, half the poets in this actually refused to be segregated in their lifetime (that is, refused to be anthologised as women, or at all). Dowson is candid about this, and half the book is just suggestive little biographies as a result.

    She is shackled to the humanities' chaste, hyper-qualified prose ("I have tried to illustrate that through their interrogations of national and international affairs, their preoccupations with cultural politics and their experiments with language and form... rejects the language of centrality and dominance...") and their fear of judgment / love of equivocation ("If consensus over a 'good poem' is neither desirable nor possible, then value is largely determined by context..."), it's not exactly hateful.

    Whether through Dowson's bias or the necessities of the time, these poets are even more independent than their male counterparts. Of those selected, Stevie Smith and Edith Sitwell are already fully reclaimed as the canonical boss ladies they are. Two big oversights of mine: Naomi Mitchison and Sylvia Townshend Warner. Mitchison is amazing - wise when wounded, droll and passionate, politicised but never journalistic: check out "To Some Young Communists", "Woman Alone", "Old Love and New Love". Warner is both blunt and metaphysical. (Others are just passable. Vita Sackville-West's are surprisingly poor, in fact. Highlights: "Beauty the Lover's Gift?" (bitter objectification); "Pastoral" (Manly Hopkins after empire). "A Woman Knitting" (the infinite in the finite); "Song of the Virtuous Female Spider" (satirising pious motherhood clichés); "The Sick Assailant" (rare for the time: male violence focus); "On August the Thirteenth" (on abruptness, gentle impotence of human pretensions).

    The Rorty Reader (2010) by Christopher J. Voparil Encompassing and uplifting. I've been in love with the idea of Rorty for years. (He is: the renegade Analytic, the outrageous unifier, the literary soul, the pessimistic utopian, the great puncturer, and the bravest postmodernist by far - because he just comes out and says it, bites the bizarre bullets.)

    Here he is illuminating about philosophy of mind, poetry, foundationalism, the public/private divide, feminism, America, MacKinnon, Derrida, Davidson, and Dewey (obvs), among lots of other things. One can usually taste meanness in postmodern writing - stemming, I suppose, from our sense of being undermined by it - but never in Rorty. He is utterly clear, original and sometimes funny, and yet the realest postmodernist of all.

    Not sure what I'd think of it these days.
    Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media (2008) by Nick Davies Calm hatchet job on what I will call mainstream media - but don’t thereby imagine me in a tin hat. I was on a news diet anyway (though this doesn’t mean disengaged), so this told me what I’d already nastily assumed: commercial ownership of outlets means vast staff cuts and over-milked productivity; which mean no time to research or check facts; which means “churnalism”, the frantic-lazy reproduction of PR and State material, and worse, their interpretations. (88% of all UK stories are now based on press releases. This trend includes the Guardian (50%) and Times (59%).)

    His model of the origin of hysteric snowball stories like the Millennium Bug or Diana’s death is brilliant and convincing, disparaging conspiracy-theory suspicions

    1. Uncertainty exists.
    2. An expert sexes up the dangers to increase popular impact.
    3. Impact stirs commerce, who exaggerate for gain.
    4. Exaggeration is absorbed by cranks (cultists, columnists), who begin to scream.)

    Economise, kowtow, slink, hegemonise, neutralise, service, decontextualise, validate, exaggerate and conform: the rules of production. Was balling my fists through most of this.

    Essential for people in Britain.
    The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World (2008) by Tim Harford Celebration of the universality / imperialism of economics (the application of the field’s hard-nosed acquisitory rational choice theory to more and more human phenomena - crime, romance, addiction, corporate pay, and The Ascent of Man). Harford is better than Levitt - to whom the books owes its format, cheek and some of the original research - because he’s less amused about the unflattering and anti-humanist results people have uncovered.

    Some of the research is astonishing – and contentious (I have in mind the 2005 paper that purported to show significant shifts in [expressed] sexuality as the AIDS epidemic peaked, in proportion to how well people personally knew sufferers, “cost of AIDS”.) In any case, Harford writes extremely clearly about technical things, and the research can’t be ignored, because it suggests routes for generalised policy (rather than cynical rules to apply to all individual cases).

    Extra point for his lovely immanent-performative ontology of maths: he claims cricket players and economic actors are doing maths unconsciously when they catch a ball or opt for an optimum (third-order differentials). This implies that sunflowers are mathematicians -  that all the world is not merely describable with maths, but acts as maths, is maths. I don’t believe this, but isn’t it lovely?
    Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings (2009) by John N. Gray Hard to read - not for his prose, which is luminous and droll, but because he disagrees with almost everything almost everyone holds dear (whether reason, science, or organised social movements are your tool for improving the world). Tory anti-speciesism, anti-Enlightenment anti-cruelty(??)

    These span his career, satirising Marxists and Neocons, eulogising Santayana and explaining why communism sucks and doesn’t work, and why liberalism is cute but doesn’t work. (I paraphrase somewhat.) This leaves only Stoicism and resistance to dangerous meddlers as the ‘good’ life.

    Lucid, unclassifiable, horrific.
    The Meaning of Recognition (2005) by Clive James Funny polticial and cultural digs (his series on the 2005 UK general election is acid and insightful). I needed to read someone who doesn’t believe that everything personal is political tbf. (Larkin is a great poet and was a terrible man – why is this so difficult for people to accept? Is it just the halo effect?)

    His long essay on Isaiah Berlin is fantastic and contentious, and his retorts to the professional philosophers who come at him about it devastating, inspiring.
    Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009) by Barbara Demick

    Horrible portrait of a deluded and brutalised country. You’ve probably already imagined the political religion, the incompetence and manipulation of the cadres: here are some of the only first-person accounts. The dozen defectors she interviews agree on enough to lend some confidence.

    She repeats entire sentences verbatim at various parts of the book, and runs out of ways to reflect somberly on collective madness and individual caprice (fair enough). It’s hard to see a country in which 10% of the population die of state-caused starvation ever rising up. No
    A Chinese Anthology: A Collection Of Chinese Folktales And Fables (1973) by Raymond van Over Bunch of parables and fairytales taken from three millenia. Fun, and Other to me. Van Over has a thing for Pu Songling, the vernacular master of the form shunned by the mandarin system because of his colloquial and ornamental style. I’m not sure I learned much, but it beats Aesop.
    The Social Construction of What? (1999) by Ian Hacking Balanced analysis of this usually partisan matter. Hacking is the first scientific constructionist to not irritate me. He concludes that, at least in science, social construction happens and can't just be dismissed by appeal to the Context of Justification. This is more plausible because (where, with e.g. Bruno Latour it isn't clear) he has clearly properly studied the science he covers.

    The section where he tries to navigate the trade-off between realism's history of oppression, and relativism's potential for totalitarian abuse is touching. (He concludes that he just is "of the wrong generation" to get behind radical constructionisms!)

    The first section - just a huge long disambiguation of all the different things people mean when they say something is socially constructed - is 5/5 please read it. Required reading for anyone who wants to use, or dismiss, the concept.
    Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind (2008) by Gary F. Marcus Funny and humane work of evolutionary psychology. Like Thinking, Fast and Slow but he tries to explain the many cognitive biases in terms of evolutionary adaptations.

    Relies on classic (old) behavioural experiments. So, not sure if this holds up better than Kahneman under the replication crisis assault.
    We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews (2001) by Daniel Sinker My teenage heroes, some of them teenaged at the time. Uniquely in punk, PP showed the muddiness of the ideology in things; the genuinely thoughtful people here interviewed share a tendency to blur party lines.

    There are radicals talking radically in the usual manner (Chomsky, Biafra) but also practitioners of social good (the Central Ohio Abortion Access Fund and the remarkable Voices in the Wilderness), iconoclasts of iconoclasm (Hanna, Mackaye) and even a few apolitical ethical-egoist libertines (Albini, Frank Kozik) who are common in punk, but rare in its commentary.

    Sinker’s super-earnest intro text inserts all the right misgivings about Chumbawumba’s entryism or Kozik’s blithe first-generation patriotism; he somehow retains his beautiful faith in ‘Punk’ (as empowering civil-disobedient grass-roots social justice) in the face of vast variation in actual punks.

    My own attempt at the social meaning of punk gave up on seeing it as one thing (or even as generally good things) entirely. What are we to judge a social phenomenon by? Its majority expression? Its noblest exemplars? Its effects? (Which in punk’s case, let’s not flatter ourselves, were aesthetic rather than straightforwardly political: there is now slight freedom in clothing and hair colour in the workplaces of the land; there is now a standard pretence to deviance in all youth movements (e.g. pop music)...)

    Sinker’s judgment is strong (cf. writing the oral history of Black Flag, with each member contradicting each other!), but his prose is wearing.

    This is the real thing though: one type of inspirational, anti-inspirational person, in their own words.
    American Supernatural Tales (2007) by S.T. Joshi I usually find horror fiction sort of pathetic, but this cherry-picking of two centuries is varied, trend-setting, often golden. Hawthorne, Poe, Bloch, Matheson, Oates. I have no patience for Lovecraft and his legion.

    The phases: High Gothic to Pulp to magic realism to splatterpunk, blessedly omitting the most recent and hypersuccessful form, urban fantasy / paranormal romance. Henry James’ prose is every bit as clotted and unpronounceable as reputed. High point (apart from Poe’s ‘House of Usher’ – a hellhound in a fluffy corset) is probs Theodore Klein’s ‘The Events at Poroth Farm’, a queer sleepy beast with its own internal supernatural anthology and unnerving sidelong glances.

    (Read aloud)
    Moranthology (2012) by Caitlin Moran Gleeful and rarely zany. I don’t laugh at books much, but snorted all the way through this on a long megabus. The middle section on class and gender is light and uncliched and makes her fall from grace among pious people all the sadder. We need people who can talk about these things without sounding like an appalling prig.

    What the Hell Are You Doing?: The Essential David Shrigley (2010) by David Shrigley Hilarious, abject, shoddy. Magical realism if magic were shit and made you look an idiot. Voices from the last bus and the dawn of time, from dank cells and strip-lit service stations. Against institutional art and other pretences, and against indifference, and against no fun.
    So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015) by Jon Ronson Investigation of what angry people are doing to jokers and liars and fools, generally on the internet, generally on political grounds. We send them death threats, we photoshop them into animal porn, we doxx them, we get them fired. If Ronson's shock and remorse at being part of this could spread, the most distinctive depressing part of modern life would evaporate.

    There is only one representative of the online shamers here (besides Ronson, who is reformed). You realise quickly that she is not especially hateful: she's just dim – she still thinks shaming is great, even after suffering it horribly and losing her job as a result of her own aggressive humourlessness and insensitivity. In her interview with Ronson, she shows no signs of empathy or learning. It is a tragic example of how addling identity can be.

    One essential passage - the payload inamongst Ronson's ordinariness and self-deprecation: a human-rights lawyer points out the emotional power of noncriminal acts:
    “Let me ask you three questions,” he said. “And then you’ll see it my way. Question One: What’s the worst thing that you have ever done to someone? It’s okay. You don’t have to confess it out loud. Question Two: What’s the worst criminal act that has ever been committed against you? Question Three: Which of the two was the most damaging for the victim?”

    The worst criminal act that has ever been committed against me was burglary. How damaging was it? Hardly damaging at all. I felt theoretically violated at the idea of a stranger wandering through my house. But I got the insurance money. I was mugged one time. I was eighteen. The man who mugged me was an alcoholic. He saw me coming out of a supermarket. “Give me your alcohol,” he yelled. He punched me in the face, grabbed my groceries, and ran away. There wasn’t any alcohol in my bag. I was upset for a few weeks, but it passed.

    And what was the worst thing I had ever done to someone? It was a terrible thing. It was devastating for them. It wasn’t against the law.

    Clive’s point was that the criminal justice system is supposed to repair harm, but most prisoners — young, black — have been incarcerated for acts far less emotionally damaging than the injuries we noncriminals perpetrate upon one another all the time — bad husbands, bad wives, ruthless bosses, bullies, bankers.

    (It has been claimed that this phase of internet social justice is on its way out - that the tactic is now to "call in"- that is, to correct an offender, but also to appeal to the offender's humanity, to try to bridge the gap. We can hope this will gain traction (3 years and counting...). In the meantime a roaring subculture has been founded upon the glorification of bad behaviour and utterly unpersuasive flames.)

    Ronson's possible solutions to finding yourself shamed: you can 1) refuse to feel bad (or at least refuse to show them you're bleeding), own the thing they're trying to shame you for, like Max Mosley. This only works sometimes. 2) You can hide from the internet, try to SEO the affair down to Google page 3, where no-one goes, like someone it would be counterproductive to name. 3) You can start over, asking for forgiveness like Jonah Lehrer. (There is none; the internet is not interested in you improving your behaviour.)

    [Theory #3, Values #1]</li>
    American Hippopotamus (2013) by Jon Mooallem American Hippopotamus</i></b>. Blasted through this nonfiction novella with great delight; so much astonishing Victorian detail, so much damn fun. The story of two hardcore spies, American and Boer, who ranged over the eC20th, blowing things up and meeting presidents and dissing Churchill’s fitness level and mining by hand as an anti-fascist action and striking oil and maybe killing lords – who campaigned together to bring an invasive species in to eat another invasive species and introduce a new meat animal to America. Duquesne to Burnham:
    To my friendly enemy, the greatest scout in the world, whose
    eyes were the vision of an empire. I craved the honour of killing him,
    but failing that, I extend my heartiest admiration.

    So damn fun, and, in the last instance, also deep. Mooallem reproaches us for having clicked on American Hippopotamus to make fun of the men. But:
    Rather than diversify and expand our stock of animals, we developed ways to raise more of the same animals in more places. Gradually, that process led to the factory farms and mass-confinement operations we have today—a mammoth industry whose everyday practices and waste products are linked to all kinds of dystopian mayhem, from the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to a spate of spontaneous abortions in Indiana, to something called blue baby syndrome, in which infants actually turn blue after drinking formula mixed with tap water that’s been polluted by runoff from nearby feedlots. That same runoff also sloshes down the Mississippi River to its mouth, pooling into one of the world’s biggest aquatic dead zones, seven or eight thousand square miles large at times...

    These aren’t problems that America created so much as ones we’ve watched happen — consequences of our having ducked other, earlier problems by rigging together relatively unambitious solutions that seemed safe enough. We answered the Meat Question. But there were more meat questions ahead.

    Simple, thoughtful, astonishingly well-written.
    The Inimitable Jeeves (Jeeves, #2) (1923) by P.G. Wodehouse Musical, uplifting, and still so, so funny. Each story draws on a very small pool of the exact same jokes (Jeeves hates a new piece of Wooster's wardrobe; little old lady Aunt Agatha is completely inexorable; shit gambling on unconventional sports, headgear is misappropriated, monsters are slain) and only four supporting characters (Pals, Uncles/Fathers-in-law, Aunts/Fiancees, Trade). But they only gain from the repetition somehow.

    Even here, in Wodehouse's smiling, sun-dappled imperial nest, there are echoes from reality: for instance The War as well as the spiky and still-reigning art it set alight:
    I suppose every chappie in the world has black periods in his life to which he can’t look back without the smouldering eye and the silent shudder. Some coves, if you can judge by the novels you read nowadays, have them practically all the time...

    "Were you in the First World War, Jeeves?"
    "I dabbled in it to a certain extent, m’lord."

    "I'm lonely, Jeeves."
    "You have a great many friends, sir."
    "What's the good of friends?"
    "Emerson," I reminded him, "says a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature, sir."
    "Well you can tell Emerson from me next time you see him he's an ass."
    "Very good, sir."

    So frivolous it loops back round to profound.


    Wooster's taboo:
    Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (2012) by Ben Goldacre Or - his preferred book title - The Information Architecture of Medicine has Several Interesting Flaws, Many of Which Inflict Avoidable Harm on Patients, But All of Which are Amenable to Cost-Effective Change, Were There to be Adequate Public and Political Will. An empirically rigorous angry manifesto!

    Here are all of the book's theses in one paragraph, which is another thing I love nonfiction writers doing:
    Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion.

    In their forty years of practice after leaving medical school, doctors hear about what works ad hoc, from sales reps, colleagues and journals. But those colleagues can be in the pay of drug companies – often undisclosed – and the journals are, too. And so are the patient groups. And finally, academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure. Sometimes whole academic journals are owned outright by one drug company. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all. These are ongoing problems, and although people have claimed to fix many of them, for the most part they have failed; so all of these programs persist, but worse than ever, because now people can pretend that everything is fine after all.

    [Low external validity] can make a trial completely irrelevant to real-world populations, yet it is absolutely routine in research, which is conducted on tight budgets, to tight schedules, for fast results, by people who don’t mind if their results are irrelevant to real-world clinical questions. This is a quiet, dismal scandal. There’s no dramatic newspaper headline, and no single killer drug: just a slow and unnecessary pollution of almost the entire evidence base in medicine.

    Exactly as fair to pharma as it deserves and no more ("there is no medicine without medicines"). Business gimps sometimes use the term "thought leader", meaning powerful, original thinker (they usually use it spuriously). Goldacre actually is one. Please at least join AllTrials.

    Chuck Klosterman on Media and Culture: A Collection of Previously Published Essays (2010) by Chuck Klosterman Exciting raids on petty tyrannies. Of: contemporary sexuality, cereal adverts, the implications of the 00s pirate craze, questions in general, the Unabomber’s good point. Klosterman’s not going to get away without comparison to DFW – but he’s really good in his own way too. He’s a more relaxed, atheoretical Wallace, with pop music (rather than Art writing) at his core, and technology (rather than general Irony) as the source of his worries about us all.

    This slices through the reflexivity that causes modern confusions, while being mischievously reflexive himself (at one point he tells us that he once lied to an interviewer who had correctly identified Klosterman’s mouthpiece in one of his novels; Klosterman denied that he shared the character’s view in order to preserve a cheap narrative uncertainty for readers of the interview – but, of course, admitting that here undoes that cheap save for we third-order readers).

    Applied instance:
    We assume that commercials are not just informing us about purchasable products, because that would be crude and ineffective. We’re smarter than that. But that understanding makes us more vulnerable. We’ve become the ideal audience for advertising—consumers who intellectually magnify commercials in order to make them more trenchant and clever than they actually are. Our fluency with the language and motives of the advertiser induces us to create new, better meanings for whatever they show us. We do most of the work for them.

    Two quibbles: there is (what I take to be) a lack of ideological care you’d expect of pieces written for Esquire magazine. He doesn’t resolve (as I think DFW mostly does) the tension between a) affirming low culture’s power and unique charms against bullshit classist disparagement, and b) despising its crudest, most conservative common denominators.

    Went through it in an hour.
    The Selfish Gene (1976) by Richard Dawkins None yet
    The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001) by Christopher Hitchens No indictment: an indictment on all of us.
    The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (2004) by Richard Dawkins Loads of lovely examples and vivid analogies. The sidebar on races is surprisingly careful and illuminating - that portion of the phenomenon that's genetic is more straightforward than I’d thought, in my Arts student way.

    (Though his placid definitiveness about the social interpretation is obvs controversial as hell. He’s a strict philosophical eliminativist, implying that the harm resulting from reifying race totally outweighs all gains from positive discrimination. This is unclear to say the least.)

    I hadn’t heard of the ‘two-fold cost’ of sex before, super-interesting.

    Not as snarky as you’d expect, and full of alternative perspectives so long as they’re other evolutionists’ perspectives.

    Mao's Great Famine: The History Of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (2010) by Frank Dikötter Deadpan documentation of the most awe-inspiring and culpable misrule ever. (I don’t mean to weigh Mao’s 40 million counts of negligent manslaughter and 5m conspiracies-to-murder against e.g. the 12 millions of more intentional monsters; the exercise seems childish, past some asymptote of human suffering.) The Party took their land and animals, melted their pans and hoes, killed billions of birds and 40% of the trees in China, starved them until they sold their children, and them starved them some more. At the same time they exported 30 million tons of grain, mostly for guns.

    Historians are impressive for their readiness to sift through so much irrelevant tonnage – and so much that is boring even when relevant – just so as to be careful and good.

    Mao comes across as a self-deceiving sociopath; Zhou as a decent man nevertheless permitting atrocities. Heavier than The Black Book, than Primo Levi.
    Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001) by Lydia Davis
    We feel an affinity with a certain thinker because we agree with him; or because he shows us what we were already thinking; or because he shows us in a more articulate form what we were already thinking; or because he shows us what we were on the point of thinking; or what we would have thought much later if we hadn't read it now; or what we would have been likely to think but never would have thought if we hadn't read it now; or what we would have liked to think but never would have thought if we hadn't read it now.

    Went on my guard when I heard that the title story was one sentence long – speaking, as such conceits do, of holy-urinal superstitious art – but this is actually a standout, a series of droll, exacting capsules and nutshells.

    A typical piece is one page long and part gag, part compulsive meditation, part confession of petty vice. Once you get over her diffident, terse non-being, it is fun stuff. The long piece on jury duty is best, its length and repetitious babble a symmetry of the trial.
    Why Moral Theory is Boring and Corrupt () by Anonymous by the Unknown Anti-ethicist.

    to say that love is what motivates most of us who are neither complete bastards nor distracted by secondary concerns such as “what other people will think” – to say this is not to say anything very neat or tidy. But that too is as it should be.

    Full review here
    Even As We Speak: New Essays 1993-2001 (2001) by Clive James The last twenty years see James taking a turn from light entertainment to the history of totalitarianism. He then brings it into everything, everything else, dragging Hitler and Stalin around like the stations of the cross.

    His long excoriation of Daniel Goldhagen is angry, entertaining, and an education in itself. (The question the two men are at odds over is, “How could civilised, literate, assimilative Germany Do Such Things?” Goldhagen says: 'because they – all Germans – were eliminationists just itching for an excuse'. James’ answer instead puts due weight on the simplest explanation: 'they did it because a single word of dissent meant death, for any of them'.)

    James is a bit obsessed by his chosen field – Hitler references turn up in his sunny, giddy Sydney Olympics pieces! Then there’s an ornately maudlin account of his acquaintance with Diana Spenser. (I spent a little while trying to pigeonhole his politics recently – this non-republican, anti-Marxist, pro-American-culture hobnobber – and decided it is wrong to call him right-wing. “Democracy is really valuable only for what it prevents…”)

    Funny, profound in places, but his late themes had solidified already and are covered better in A Point of View and Cultural Amnesia.

    • Galef type:
      Data 3 - highlights patterns in the world
      Values 1 - an explicit argument about values .

    An Encyclopaedia of Myself (2014) by Jonathan Meades
    Abuser, Sexual
    Access to the Unknown
    Anal Penetration
    Ayleswade Road...

    The best documentarian and architecture critic in Britain - also "the best amateur chef in the world" (cf. Marco Pierre-White) - writes about his childhood in a brutal panoptic manner. His unsentimentality about himself, his mother, his horrible uncles, is startling, even speaking as a fan of his sarky and acid programmes. It's not exactly linear: there are several odd repetitions and filling-ins, mimicking the meandering of memory. Still, Meades' prose makes them worthwhile twice over:

    When, after they had both died, I sold my parents' house, I got rid of a cupboardful of toys which had collected decades' dust, and a bookcase of Eagle annuals, Tiger annuals, Buffalo Bill annuals and so on. I picked through tins of broken pens and perished erasers. I excitedly anticipated the past to come rushing back. Each of these rusty, tarnished pieces of metal or plastic is, surely, a potential madeleine, a mnemonic of some bright day in 1959. They were, however, doggedly mute.

    It took time in that house whose purpose was finished to realise that this was a pitiful and self-pitying exercise: I was trying to freeze myself, to transport myself back to the land of lost content which had, actually, been no such thing. I was trying to do to myself what parents do to their children.

    No girls meant no calm solicitude, no sweet fragrance of talc and cleanliness, but, rahter, the soilpipe smell of almost a hundred shrieking, blubbing, chucking, grubby, boisterous, energetic, savage, merciless small boys... Kissing was of course sissy. In the Cathedral School's swimming-pool changing hut, a riot of asbestos, just-prepubescent boys boxed with their penises in friendly companionabiity and competitive violence: he who drew blood won. They aptly dignified this as 'cockfighting', insouciantly associating covert pugilism with the hedgerow gamblers' sport conducted between roofless brick cowsheds where flames from pyres of palettes relieve the ruined farmyard's midden chill and lend ceremony to the bucolic rite.

    Some fleshpot, Southampton: the Port Said of the Solent. A poor whore has only to sit in a window in Derby Road, and a major police operation will be launched. All the coppers who've been on Cottage Patrol squeeze out from beneath the rafter to race a mile east from the Common. Their route takes them past Great Aunt Doll's chaotic bungalow where there were peals of dirty laughter and sweet sherry and sweet Marsala, and a room heated to eighty degrees and fish and chips for a dozen in an enamel bowl, and gossip and ribbing and silly stories, and gaspers, and will someone let the dog out else he's going to wee on the couch, and Jonathan you better go with him if you want a widdle cos Eric's been and done a big one...

    I had emerged [from Sunday School] a materialist. It was, equally, the first time I had walked out of anything, that I had had the nerve to walk out. Thus was a lifelong habit initiated. Cinemas, jobs, sexual relationships, exams, opportunities, marriages, commitments, professional partnerships, schools, theatrical performances (a specialty), parties, expeditions, dinners, homes, prior arrangements - I've walked out of them all, often.

    The whole book is anomalous - it is sustained emotional recollection by a professed enemy of nostalgia:
    Nostalgia is not simply a yearning for a lost home, a yearning which can never be satisfied by revisiting that home, which could only be satisfied by becoming once more the child who inhabited that home, at that time. It is also primitive, pre-rational, pre-learning. It quashes developed taste, aesthetic preference, learnt refinements. It insists that the chance associations of infancy are more obstinately enduring than the chosen positions of our subsequent sentience. It tells us that we are lifers in a mnemonic prison from which there is no reprieve.

    But then the man's an anomaly: a razorish rationalist, a scathing positivist about the arts, who has devoted his life to them. (They were accompanied by their arty and - it follows - entirely artless friends.)

    His childhood was not like other children's in Fifties Britain. (I'm comparing his to Bennett, Hitchens, wrongly also Clive James.) His parents quietly rewarded his not conforming, and he ate Afghan curry throughout (his father was stationed in Iraq and brought back a tonne of spices). He grew up surrounded by clergy and the weapons scientists of the Downs:

    I pictured the Red Menace - a cannibalistic giant whose face was impasted with human gristle and blood; bullnecked mass murderers weighed down by medals; cloud seeding; barbed wire; secret policemen; evil scientists; informers; torturers; factories as big as cities; insanitary collective farms; starvation; deportations. 'You're going to Siberia!' was a playground taunt of the Fifties.

    (He really likes the biological warfare men, in maybe the biggest piece of contrarianism in this large contrary book.)

    The book stops when he's only 17 - but there are so, so many deaths in it. Maybe 70, counting the drowned calf; my total by that age was 3. Let's say he delights in the contrast with today, not in the deaths themselves.

    For all they spoke of death, I might have believed we live perpetually, growing ever more crooked, more and more dried up, more rasping, more fearful. (I obviously didn't know that it was death's proximity that caused the eyes of the very old to communicate unimaginable terror.) ...The names of the dead were dropped from conversation, as one might drop that of a disloyal friend. Death seemed to be a kind of disgrace... The rare times they were remembered, it was with irked brusqueness.

    It is very easy to put him in a bad light; he makes it easy for you, because he is always absolutely emphatic, usually vitriolic, and often wrong. (The things he's wrong about include vegetarians, anti-racism overall*, arguably human rights.**)
    Where would we be without monotheism, fasts, judicial impartiality, the eucharist, sincerity, pork's proscription, Allah's ninety-nine names and seventy-two virgins, weather forecasts, life plans, political visions, conjugated magpies, circumcision, sacred cows, the power of prayer, insurance policies, gurus' prescriptions, the common good, astrology? Where indeed? But those are the big lies.

    Picturing the equine Princess Royal is a sure way of inhibiting orgasm and prolonging enjoyment, so long as one doesn't picture her for too long and so risk flaccidity.

    stoical meiosis was normal in a generation which denied itself deep immersion in feeling, had not learned to wallow in empathy, understood an outpouring to be the discharge of cloacal sewage. The lexicon of demonstrative care had yet to be coined; the people's absurd princess had yet to be born; the mistakenly unaborted Blair had yet to perfect the catch of tremulous sincerity in his voice.

    my mother had assured me that the old testament was risible tosh. And so it is. So, of course, are all 'holy' books. But risible tosh can be persuasive.

    The desert landscape [in Iraq] is relentlessly grim. There was indigenous hostility to contend with. The Arab world was broadly sympathetic to the Axis powers. (The Nazis' successors are not the lost causists of the BNP, NPD and Vlaams Belang but the totalitarian Islamist post-Khomeini terror states... The Arab armies included Bosnian Muslim veterans of the Handzar SS brigades... The entire sentimental Arabist package, the tradition of the fawning British buggerocracy - Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence, St John Philby, Glubb Pasha, Wilfred Thesiger and countless other aristocratic eccentrics - had become la pensee unique of the army's higher strata. It was also (not that its adherents acknowledged it) effete, misogynistic, irrational, anti-urban, Luddite and gullible.

    Antiquarian pillage is hardly scholarly and far from scientific, but its perpetrators were not culpable of the misanthropic relativism which grants rights to ancient amphorae and entitlements to yokes' remnants. Nor did they conceive of history in terms of movements, big ideas and sweeping theses. Their empiricism militated against generalisation.

    The tyranny of minorities had caused the atomisation of England. The damage is repairable - by state terror or mob rule. But since the state's treasonable clerks are the very cause of the embuggerance we can be sure that it will do nothing. And a mob needs a leader to bring its hatred to the boil, foment its venom, drive it on. It needs the Duke of Edinburgh. Much as he might wish it he won't be around.

    Consider that last one: it is natural to read in it a fascist glee - but it isn't that at all. It is rather the dread of inevitable deadlock and looming contradictions. There's no relish, only misplaced fear. But you need to have read his contempt of fascists (and of Philip) and his fear of totalitarianism before, for it to sound like that.

    Why isn't the cannibal internet calling him out? Because he is in the grey zone of non-celebrity? Because he is too old to shame? Because he isn't on Twitter? Anyway: He is neither a bigot (offensive because hateful and ignorant), nor a clickbait troll (intentionally, insincerely offensive), nor an aged victim of social drift (obliviously offensive): he has not defaulted to these opinions; he was never much tied to his time's prevailing prejudices, whether it's Fifties' conformism and class obsession or Noughties PC and pomo. His antipathies are reasoned and he refuses to pander. Compare this passage to e.g. what Yiannopoulos was finally banished for:
    The formula states that adults are wicked predators, children are innocent prey. In the hierarchy of abuse, paedophilia (which may be literally that, liking children) is demonised, fetishised. It has giddily attained equal status with race crime... Homo faber. Isn't he just? Man has devised multitudinous forms of child abuse which are not sexual. Their immeasurable consequences may, however, be just as grave as those of sexual abuse.

    Child soldier, child slave, child labourer, child miner, child skiv, child beggar, child bloody from scrounging in the shambles.

    The book is highly abridged (only up to cram school) and still a bit too long. Before reading this you should first watch any 10 of these films.

    * If you insist on challenging the worst e.g. woke, trivial internet activism, you have to say that's what you're against: Meades is being uncharacteristically imprecise, and decimating sympathy as a result. "Against (actually-existing) anti-racism" is not the same as "pro-racism", but people will read you that way unless you give them explicit reason not to. (And even then.)

    ** Rights are only good if they produce good outcomes; lots of people all over the world think in terms of imperatives and absolutes and it is almost futile to argue about it; thus rights can be a useful fiction. Meades again spits on "rights" in general without laying out this or any other philosophical objection, without showing us what he's for and so allowing people to not think the worst.
    New Year Letter (1941) by W.H. Auden 800 heroic couplets written off the cuff for a friend. Pompous, showy, and forced: I love his idiocies, I love his verse footnotes, which are as long as the original poem again and arraying all his beetling, piecemeal research into his age at least: cell biology, crank psychoanalysis, early sociology, Nietzsche, Nietzsche, all the arts and sciences nominally in his pocket. Anyway half of the idiocy is forced on him by the genre, epic verse, which always sounds damn silly to me (not that I mind silliness in my high art, but I do mind people being silly and not admitting it):

    Tonight a scrambling decade ends,
    And strangers, enemies and friends
    Stand once more puzzled underneath
    The signpost on the barren heath
    Where the rough mountain track divides...

    A weary Asia out of sight
    Is tugging gently at the night,
    Uncovering a restless race;
    Clocks shoo the childhood from its face,
    And accurate machines begin
    To concentrate its adults in
    A narrow day to exercise
    Their gifts in some cramped enterprise.
    How few pretend to like it: O,
    Three quarters of these people know
    Instinctively what ought to be
    The nature of society
    And how they'd live there if they could.
    If it were easy to be good,
    And cheap, and plain as evil, how
    We all would be its members now...

    How grandly would our virtues bloom
    In a more conscionable dust
    Where Freedom dwells because it must,
    Necessity because it can,
    And men confederate in Man.

    But wishes are not horses, this
    Annus is not mirabilis;
    Day breaks upon the world we know
    Of war and wastefulness and woe...

    The New Year brings an earth afraid,
    Democracy a ready-made
    And noisy tradesman's slogan, and
    The poor betrayed into the hand

    Of lackeys with ideas, and truth
    Whipped by their elders out of youth,
    The peaceful fainting in their tracks
    With martyrs' tombstones on their backs,
    And culture on all fours to greet A butch and criminal elite,
    While in the vale of silly sheep
    Rheumatic old patricians weep...

    One critic, screwing up all his strength, called Auden's bad style, which NYL is supposed to be an instance of, "snide bright jargon", which is a perfect compliment! (if you don't view limpid repetition of what every other sensitive outsider has said before you as poetry's point.) I've not read it alone on New Year's Eve like you ought to, but I will.
    For the Motherboard: The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám () by Vanessa Hodgkinson Gaudy and hectic word-associations, with only tenuous formal or thematic links to the actual Rubáiyát, presenting itself as a translation but fizzing with verve of its own. A nerd culture devotional.

    (Vine was a video fragment website; Wine is an excellent Windows emulator.)

    Teeming with clumsy nerdy ephemera, but I think it will be worth reading in 10 years. Let's see. Works much better aloud.

    Free! here: ‘The’ ‘“Rubaiyyat’” of ‘Omar Khayyam’</b></i>
    Collected Poems (1962) by Federico García Lorca 2007: I used to love people for getting shot.
    Occasional Poets () by Richard Adams Poems from people not known as poets, yielding a equal mix of dedicatories, doggerel, and diamond. Their styles are mostly preserved, epitomised: the big grim novelists (Lessing, Coetzee, Fowles, Murdoch, Golding) write enormous grit-tooth verse;
    Heads bowed down or thrown
    Backward open-eyed
    Here and there are dark
    With terrible deaf pictures.
    Sounds rise up and vanish
    Into a pitted dome.
    It continues to rain.
    The acoustics being imperfect some people fidget.

    Something which is pure is come
    To a high magnetic field.
    Cry out as it passes on When shall we be healed?

    Raymond Briggs, a quiet, brutal elegy; David Lodge, some good meta jokes; animal bits from Jan Morris and Stella Gibbons; Wodehouse, two wonderful gossipy hyperboles. Adams manages to pick out the only Naomi Mitchison poems I don’t like. A lot of unbridled sentiment, e.g. Arnold Wesker depressing his children, Francis King's lies spiralling down, Enoch Powell lying awake listening to his wife's asthma; the writers aren't expecting the irony-making pressures of publication, or the obsessive polishing of any work that will be identified with them. So it's free indeed. Until Adams.
    The Black Halo: The Complete English Stories 1977-98 (2001) by Iain Crichton Smith Best Scottish poet writes good Scottish stories about, mostly, terrible Scottish pragmatists. Steady observational tragedy, and quiet outcast statures. Recurring structure: a staid, professional male narrator tells us his profession on page 1 and admits a whole puckle of flaws. Recurring people: the censorious, crabbit islander who was not always so; the passionate and creative woman slowly eroded by island gossip, monotony, stasis; her husband, who knows this happened because of him.

    Most striking are ‘The Scream’, ‘What to do About Ralph?’, ‘The Spy’, and ‘The Exorcism’ – but particularly the latter, because I recognised the worst of myself in both the little bastard obsessed with Kierkegaard and the small-souled lecturer who saves him:
    I looked at him for a long time knowing that the agony was over… [But] how could I be sure that my own harmonious jealous biography had not been superimposed upon his life, as one writing upon another, in that wood where the birds sang with such sweetness defending their territory?

    Much more than clever.
    The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (1975) by Frederick P. Brooks Jr. How big teams make things. How awesome tech feels on the inside:
    Too many interests, too many exciting opportunities for learning, research, and thought. What a marvellous predicament! Not only is the end not in sight, the pace is not slackening. We have many future joys.

    The oldest thing by far on my computing syllabus and nearly the most stylish.* This anniversary edition has a chapter which is just the whole book boiled down to its propositions and whether or not they stood up twenty years later, which is a thing that other non-fiction could gravely benefit from. (You sometimes see the like of this in honest philosophy books, included as ‘analytical index’ or ‘prolegomenon’ or ‘exordium’.) Brooks is not merely exoteric, not just an IBM mook; suitably acerbic and suitably enthusiastic.

    The open secret of programming is that it is actually a whole barrel of fun, just one that baffles, bores or scares outsiders:
    The craft of programming gratifies creative longings built deep within us and delights sensibilities we have in common with all men, providing five kinds of joys:
    • The joy of making things;
    • The joy of making things that are useful to other people;
    • The fascination of fashioning puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts;
    • The joy of always learning, of a nonrepeating task;
    • The delight of working in a medium so tractable — pure thought-stuff — which nevertheless exists, moves, and works in a way that word-objects do not.

    (NB: The Christian God rears up at unexpected intervals – and at one point Brooks recommends openly patriarchal programming teams - on the model of “God’s plan for marriage”. But this lone wacko note doesn't get in the way.)

    * (I set myself Shannon, Wang, Knuth.)
    The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays (2002) by Hilary Putnam Remarkable meta-ethics, which establishes itself in large part by undermining neoclassical economics. Important quibble: The title evokes sexy French relativism – e.g. there is no fact of the matter, il n’y a pas de hors-texte – whereas his actual thesis is that only the strictest, stupidest partition between facts and values collapsed. (A distinction is the mild statement that A is not the same thing as B – whereas a dichotomy is the strict logical exclusion of two things: ‘if something is A, it is a priori not B’.) A pedantic quibble: god he is fond of italics.

    Anyway. It collapsed, but still lives on in other fields, decades after the fall of the positivism that was the only thing motivating it. Book is: a scathing modern history of the distinction, a Pragmatic reconstruction, a love letter to Amartya Sen. Putnam blames the philosophical dichotomy for the failures of economics, and from there for real suffering.

    The word “cruel”... has a normative and indeed, ethical use. If one asks me what sort of person my child’s teacher is, and I say "he is very cruel," I have both criticized him as a teacher and…as a man. I do not have to add, "he is not a good teacher" or "he is not a good man." I cannot simply... say, "he is a very cruel person and a good man," and be understood. Yet "cruel" can also be used purely descriptively, as when a historian writes that a certain monarch was exceptionally cruel, or that the cruelties of the regime provoked a number of rebellions. "Cruel" simply ignores the supposed fact/value dichotomy and cheerfully allows itself to be used sometimes for a normative purpose and sometimes as a descriptive term. (Indeed, the same is true of the term "crime.")

    Some claims: Factual and evaluative statements are necessarily entangled, since; Facts are ascertained as such only by the application of epistemic values: "coherence, plausibility, reasonableness, simplicity, and elegance... if these epistemic values do enable us to correctly describe the world... that is something we see through the lenses of those very values."; i.e. facts are thick too; i.e. he has been made to "rethinking the whole dogma (the last dogma of empiricism?) that facts are objective and values are subjective". Of course, coupled to his ditching foundationalism, this leads him a long way down the Rortyan road - 'science is just another social practice' yada yada - but he tries to salvage a sort of pragmatic objectivity for science. Dunno if he's winning, but I loved the race.
    Human Chain (2010) by Seamus Heaney As ever, it’s of hands, eels, parents, wakes, digging, kennings, regret, the RUC, Cuchulain, and Caesar. Fully half are in memoriams. You have to be brave or famous to write this plainly. Plainness can be mistaken for absence of technique – ‘here, I could do that’ – but here it is very, very obvious that I could not. Feel your tongue:
    It’s winter at the seaside where they’ve gone
    For the wedding meal. And I am at the table,
    Uninvited, ineluctable.
    A skirl of gulls. A smell of cooking fish.
    Plump dormant silver. Stranded silence. Tears.
    Their bibbed waitress unlids a clinking dish.
    And leaves them to it, under chandeliers.
    And to all the anniversaries of this
    They are not ever going to observe
    Or mention even in the years to come.
    And now the man who drove them here will drive
    Them back, and by evening we’ll be home.

    Best are ‘A Herbal’, ‘Chanson d’Aventure’, ‘Miracle’, ‘Loughanure’, and ‘Route 110’, an odyssey about buying a second-hand copy of the Aeneid and then trying to go home.
    A Mathematician's Apology (1940) by G.H. Hardy None yet
    Non-Materialist Physicalism: An experimentally testable conjecture () by David Pearce None yet
    Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (2013) by Daniel C. Dennett A self-help book! in the form of a set of tricks and tools for good non-routine cognition. But it's utterly personable and scientifically charged, and a defence of naturalist semantics, mind, 'free' will, and philosophy itself, to boot. He's so much more subtle than he's given credit for; for instance, a large theme here is the central role of imagination in science and the other potent sorts of thought. I confess that I simply can't conceive of some of his positions (e.g. 'qualia' being illusions); but one of the book's burning points is that this may be a failing of my person and not his philosophy.

    Also a meta-philosophy:
    By working with scientists I get a rich diet of fascinating and problematic facts to think about, but by staying a philosopher without a lab or a research grant, I get to think about all the theories and experiments and never have to do the dishes.

    A good library has all the good books. A great library has all the books. If you really want to understand a great philosopher, you have to spend some time looking at the less great contemporaries and predecessors that are left in the shadows of the masters.

    Every book of his I read increases my respect. (Though note Galen Strawson's rebuke to Dennett's narrativist theory of identity, 4* here.)
    Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism (2009) by Joseph Heath None yet
    The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg (2008) by Robert P. Crease Droll, scientifically proficient, philosophically superconductive. The cast is standard – ‘Pythagoras’, Newton, Euler, Boltzmann, Maxwell, Einstein, Heisenberg – but his treatment’s lucid and alive to the art and philosophy of the things.

    (Get this: “special use of language, often over the heads of untrained readers, that seeks to express truths concisely & with precision, that allows us to understand otherwise inaccessible things, changing our experience in the process” – equations, or poems?)

    Thermodynamics is best, casting physicists as Shakespearean (there were four suicides in the twelve of them). Crease wants science to have cultural presence, since at the moment it has authority, cultural reputation without real presence. He suggests that “science criticism” is the way to get this - not in the sense of know-nothing postmodernists attacking instrumentalist hegemony (Holmes on Cochrane), but as in the work of engaged human bridges between practitioners and audience.

    Every art has a surfeit of such critics. Pop-science comes close, but it’s more often cheerleading and radical simplification than artful play on precedents, implications and meaning. Well, here’s at least one example. (See also the Edge and 3QuarksDaily people.)
    Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China (1987) by Colin Thubron

    Arhat statues surfing at Qiongzhu Temple, (c) Li Guangxiu (c.1890)

    A stunning travel book in the best aristocratic tradition of wandering about talking to people and expecting monasteries to put you up unannounced. But it's as much moral as geographic or historical. China had only just opened up to foreigners, again; the Cultural Revolution, just 15 years past, looms large. A lost generation. In fact the book is obsessed with the difficult question, "How could they do that to themselves?", a focus which makes it excellent, informal long-form journalism as much as gentleman's what-ho travel narrative.
    The man went on: 'We found a porter who had been reading novels with a love interest. I don't mean porn. Just a personal story. This was decadent. We beat him unconscious, and burnt the books. Then he died.'
    I looked at him in astonishment, mesmerised, for some reason, by his immaculately pressed trousers. Once the armour of social constraint had been stripped from him, the person inside had been exposed as a baby: conscienceless. Was that China, I wondered, or just him? In any case, where was that feeling of pity which Mencius said was common to all men?

    The question isn't as simply answered as it is for Hitler's Germany (answer: "Because the merest dissent by any German meant death") nor even as it is for Stalinist Russia (since the unbelievable violence of the Holodomor and gulags was meted out by a comparatively small number of people). Millions of educated Red Guards brutalised millions of untrendy people without much central control at all (indeed, they often revolted against and scared the shit out of the PLA and the apparatchiks).

    Thubron's important points include: that the Party cadres are nothing more than the latest garb of the long, long line of elite mandarins. So the poor Laobaixing got all the downside of an absolutist bureaucracy plus all the incompetence and terror caused by people who think that violent unending revolution is desirable. Another large theme is the appalling state of women: The patriarchy there was without even the paltry sweetener of chivalry - married off at 14 if not murdered as infants; old women sitting in the aisles of busses while young men lounge, etc, etc.

    Many of the people he meets (mostly lower-middle-class) were (are?) unbelievably obsessed with class, even after forty years of 'communist' rule; the brief, cursory glorification of the nongmin bounced back as soon as the big sticks went away. He calculates the cost of things - TVs, train tickets, hotel whiskies - in that most decent of measures, fractions of an average worker's monthly wage.

    There is, already in 1987, an ambitious, irreverent, apolitical youth which any graduate of a Western university will now recognise readily.** The modern Modern China - Deng's China - is visible here, just. Thubron watches the future radiating out from the city:
    Under the enormous vault of the station hall there resounds the tramp of a newly mobilised peasantry. I have seen them before all over the city: families arrived to buy or trade, sleeping under bridges or in shop porches with cap over their eyes. Now they step on to the escalators as gingerly as Western eight-year-olds, laden with rope-trussed boxes, newly bought televisions, chickens in hampers, radios, bags spilling out fruit and biscuits - bearing El Dorado back to the village. They overflow the waiting-rooms and camp against every wall behind their baggage palisades, snoring open-mouthed through the din with the detachment of Brueghel swineherds, their children in their arms.

    His wit, compassionate anger, gravitas, and grasp of the detail of how messily old collides with new: all recall my favourite critic, Jonathan Meades. (Though Meades is a bit too refined to be easily imagined sleeping fifth-class amidst spit and melon rind, or buying a barn owl in a meat market just to set it free.)

    He reports much local bullshit, sarcastically (e.g. Northerners' notion that 'moral integrity' decreases as you go south). This makes it sometimes difficult to know which reportage he endorses: thus, a couple of outlandish claims are possibly deadpan jokes (e.g. only '100' cars on mainland China in 1987?? Human flesh on sale in Canton?

    Unsurprisingly, the book received a dab of cursory post-colonial critique.* This is unsurprising because he is interested in testing stereotypes out - in particular, finding out if innate cruelty enabled the Cultural Revolution; it is thus not unfair to imagine the book as a Eurocentric hatchet job. But this dismissive cynicism is only possible before you've heard his frank encounters with a hundred vivid, intelligent, and mournful locals, seen his solid grasp of the history of the dynasties and of 'pedantic and kindly' Confucianism. (Which is the best description of it I've ever seen.)

    Those interviews are novelistic - impossibly sincere, compressed, tragic, poetic - and far beyond anything I could elicit as a foreigner, in my summer there. But you believe him even so. Anyway he doesn't pretend to have answered his burning question:
    'This sort of thing isn't peculiar to my country,' the priest said: he might have been thought-reading. 'Look at Germany, Russia. Of course, those countries are not old civilisations like ours, but still...'

    Of course. I was wading into an ocean. He was listening patiently, but I could not assemble any coherent thoughts. I wanted to explain that it was not the presence of cruelty which surprised me, but some imbalance between obedience and mercy, the collapse of domestic compassion in the face of official demand, the refinements of tortures practiced against teachers and friends, the denunciation of parents - but I stumbled into inarticulacy. I was juggling only with my own values, not with theirs. I knew nothing.

    I oughtn't skimp on the book's adventure-story side just because it happens to be a beautiful and humane psychological portrait; the prose is persistently gorgeous, the sights are dryly and comprehensively evoked, and Thubron presents himself as a very fine comic character to boot. My favourite China book.

    * Anti-Eurocentrism used to minimise totalitarian genocide can be found in the critical discussion of Thubron here, the snob passage around the dismaying line: "In Thurbron's mind, the Cultural Revolution reached the epitome of atrocities in terms of intensity and scope..." (emphasis mine). That author also takes the prize for most dishonest truncation of the week, since Thubron's monologue goes on to display an odd cultural sensitivity in the face of cultural horror (see "This sort of thing", above).

    ** There must be a better word for 'occidentaphile' than that itself.
    Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (1995) by Richard Webster What a fucking book! Title is apt and cleverer than it looks: this is not just a comprehensive catalogue of the errors and lies Freud told throughout his career - some of them criminally negligent and emotionally abusive - but also a psychological explanation of why he made them. (Roughly: Lust for fame, cocaine, and a misplaced fervour in a particular numerological sort of neurology.)

    Full discussion forthcoming, after re-read.
    Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray (2018) by Sabine Hossenfelder A look at high-energy particle physics* in its present nightmare (of deep inconsistency and vastly expensive new data). Her thesis is that the problem is sociological and aesthetic: in the absence of new data sources, we form cliques and regroup around incompatible, unempirical beauty intuitions.
    it leads me to conjecture that the laws of nature are beautiful because physicists constantly tell each other those laws are beautiful.
    experimentalists working with a detector developed to catch neutrinos reported on the first “interesting bounds on galactic cold dark matter and on light bosons emitted from the sun.” In plain English, “interesting bounds” means they didn’t find anything. Various other neutrino experiments at the time also obtained interesting bounds.

    Her prescription is that we should stop limiting the field so heavily with naturalness or geometric naturalness or symmetry or unification or anti-fine-tuning intuitions, which collectively she (following her field) calls "beauty". Since Physical beauty is quite distinct from natural-language "beauty", I think it'd be better if we left those five components under a different name.

    Filled with interviews with some of the cleverest, deepest physicists of our time (Arkani-Harked, Wilczek, Weinberg, Lisi, Polchinski) and the several bandwagons they lead, blind, in different directions. Hossenfelder herself is funny, self-critical, scrupulously clear: the kind of curmudgeonly, unbiddable empiricist we always need.
    “You ask, why do people still work on it?” Nima [Arkani-Harked] continues. “It’s in fact very funny. As I said, the best people had a pretty good idea what was going on—they were not sitting on their hands waiting for gluinos to pour out of the LHC. They also had a pretty level reaction to the data.”

    But not one of those “best people” spoke up and called bullshit on the widely circulated story that the LHC had a good chance of seeing supersymmetry or dark matter particles. I’m not sure which I find worse, scientists who believe in arguments from beauty or scientists who deliberately mislead the public about prospects of costly experiments.

    Nima continues: “The people who were sure it would be there are now positive it’s not there. There are people now who speak about being depressed or worried or scared. It drives me nuts. It’s ludicrously narcissistic. Who the fuck cares about you and your little life? Other than you yourself, of course.”

    He isn’t speaking about me, but he might as well be, I think. Maybe I’m just here to find an excuse for leaving academia because I’m disillusioned, unable to stay motivated through all the null results. And what an amazing excuse I have come up with—blaming a scientific community for misusing the scientific method.

    On the plane back to Frankfurt, bereft of Nima’s enthusiasm, I understand why he has become so influential. In contrast to me, he believes in what he does.

    That sweet bitterness is telling; Hossenfelder is the broke-down hard-boiled P.I. of particle physics.

    I shouldn’t be here, I should be at my desk, reading a paper, drafting a proposal, or at least writing a referee report. I shouldn’t psychoanalyze a community that neither needs nor wants therapy.

    I hook onto the Wi-Fi. After a week of nonstop travel, my inbox is filling with urgent messages. There are two unhappy editors complaining about overdue reports, a journalist asking for comment, a student asking for advice. A form to be signed, a meeting to be rescheduled, two phone calls to be made, a conference invitation that needs to be politely declined. A collaborator returns the draft of a grant proposal for revision.

    I remember reading biographies of last century’s heroes, picturing theoretical physicists as people puffing pipes in leather armchairs while thinking big thoughts.</i>

    Her exposition is impressively clear, covering the whole standard model (and quantum mechanics, and much of modern cosmology) in plain diagrams and terse language. (Though, as usual with pop science, one can't really spot where the simplifications are misleading unless you're already an insider.)

    The heavies are in general very open and undogmatic about the state of things (they can afford to be, what with tenure). Weinberg:
    I don’t know how much elementary particle physics can improve over what we have now. I just don’t know. I think it’s important to try and continue to do experiments, to continue to build large facilities… But where it will end up I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t just stop where it is now. Because I don’t find this entirely satisfying…

    I don’t take seriously any negative conclusion that the fact that the LHC hasn’t seen anything beyond the standard model shows that there isn’t anything that will solve the naturalness problem… Supersymmetry hasn’t been ruled out because it’s too vague about what it predicts.

    (There's a nice bit where Weinberg hears a new philosophical/historical theory of physics - that the revolutions always involve overthrowing an old aesthetic principle - and is immediately nerd-sniped and charmed by it. Also Wilczek:
    According to McAllister, scientists don’t throw out everything during a revolution; they only throw out their conception of beauty. So whenever there is a revolution in science, they have to come up with a new idea of beauty. He lists some examples for this: the steady state universe, quantum mechanics, et cetera.
    “If that was true,” I go on, “it would tell me that getting stuck on the ideas of beauty from the past is exactly the wrong thing to do.”
    “Yes, right,” Frank says. “It’s normally a good guiding principle. But occasionally you have to introduce something new. In each of these examples you find, though, that the new ideas are beautiful too.”
    “But people only found that new beauty after data forced them to look at it,” I point out. “And I’m worried we might not be able to get there. Because we are stuck on this old idea of beauty that we use to construct theories and to propose experiments to test them.”
    “You might be right."</i>

    She even seeks out the ugliest theories, like Xiao-Gang Wen's string-net condensation, trying to find her own aesthetic limits:
    I am skeptical, but I tell myself to be more open-minded. Isn’t this what I was looking for, something off the well-trodden path? Is it really any weirder to believe everything is made of qubits than of strings or loops or some 248-dimensional representation of a giant Lie algebra?

    How patently absurd it must appear to someone who last had contact with physics in eleventh grade that people get paid for ideas like that. But then, I think, people also get paid for throwing balls through hoops.

    This bit understates a real problem (it implies we don't use Solomonoff induction out of pique rather than incomputability):
    A way to objectively quantify simplicity is by computational complexity, which is measured by the length of a computer program that executes a calculation. Computational complexity is in principle quantifiable for any theory that can be converted into computer code, which includes the type of theories we currently use in physics. We are not computers, however, and computational complexity is therefore not a measure we actually use. The human idea of simplicity is instead very much based on ease of applicability, which is closely tied to our ability to grasp an idea, hold it in mind, and push it around until a paper falls out.

    Better than The Trouble with Physics which I also liked (though he was narrower and less balanced about string theory). Maybe 5/5 if I reread it. Her blog is extremely worthwhile and more technical and thus less untrue.

    * OK, "high-energy particle physicists and also Grand Unified Theorists of whatever stripe including some cosmologists". But it is wrong to say that "physics" tout court has a crisis, nor indeed does Hossenfelder say this. (She didn't choose her own subtitle.)</td> </tr>
    Awakenings (1973) by Oliver Sacks An oppressive book or a book about the maximal oppression. It is a dozen case studies of profoundly frozen people: contorted, whispering, impassive for decades - at best. It describes one of the most poignant real events I think I've ever heard of: the medical reversal of effective, affective death - and but only a temporary reversal. Sacks really hadn't developed his style by this point: I quite liked the technical medical report feel, but it both highly technical and highly melodramatic: there is much of infinitudes of the soul, titratabilities, and perseveratably festinative resipiscences in it. Also a nice subtle stylistic note: he breaks apart dead metaphors to revive them (e.g. "wild life", "death bed").

    Also lacking is his later grand balancing of romance with reason.* For instance, he falls right off the edge on pp.97, seeing numbers as enemies of people:

    I suddenly realised the infinite nature, the qualitative infinity of the phenomenon... One speaks of infinite anguishes, poignancies, desires, and joys - and one does so naturally, with no sense of paradox - i.e. one conceives of them in a metaphysical sense. But Parkinsonism - wasn't this categorically different? Was it not a simple, mechanical disorder of function - something essentially finite, something which could be measured in the divisions of a suitable scale? ... When I saw Hester, I suddenly realised that all I had thought about the finite, ponderable, numerable nature of Parkinsonism was nonsense. I suddenly realized, at this moment, that Parkisonism could in no sense be seen as a thing which increased or decreased by finite increments... that it was anumerical; that from its first, infinitesimal intimation it could proceed by an infinite multitude of infinitesimal increments to an infinite, and then more infinite, and still more infinite, degree of severity... [Footnote twenty years later] I see it as requiring models or concepts which had not been created in the 1960s, in particular those of chaos and nonlinear dynamics.

    We rationalize, we dissimilate, we pretend: we pretend that modern medicine is a rational science, all facts, no nonsense, and just what it seems. But we have only to tap its glossy veneer for it to split wide open, and reveal to us its roots and foundations, its old dark heart of metaphysics, mysticism, magic, and myth. Medicine is the oldest of the arts, and the oldest of the sciences: would one not expect it to spring from the deepest knowledge and feelings we have?

    It's a repetitive book for a maximally repetitive disease. The wonder and personalising detail he lavishes on each case aren't enough to get me past the surprising uniformity of the bizarre symptoms and the hell of it all. Just as well I'm not a doctor.

    * Call it the classical vs the romantic (as does Pirsig), Erklaerung oder Verstehen (as in Dilthey, Weber), the outside view v the inside view (Kahneman), or Logos v Mythos (as twere in ancient Greece).
    Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words (2015) by Randall Munroe So wonderful; technical diagrams big and small, annotated with only the 1000 ("ten hundred") most common words. (This is as often poetic as it is clumsy; Munroe renders a nuclear bomb a "machine for burning cities".)
    Rain (2009) by Don Paterson Wonderful: sincere, grotesque, solemn and shrugging; both elemental and goofy. Rhymes are delivered straight. Going by the ambient temperature and the coverage of light, Paterson lives very near to outer space.

    so for all that we are one machine
    ploughing through the sea and gale
    I know your impulse and design
    no better than the keel the sail

    A unique, dry view of family life here; sneaking downstairs so as not to disturb them with your inexplicable angst.
    There's even a painfully goofy evocation of the mating call of the Wire magazine reader:

    Though I should confess that at times I find your habit of maxxing
    the range with those bat-scaring frequencies ring-modulated
    sine-bursts and the more distressing psychoacoustic properties
    of phase inversion in the sub-bass frequencies somewhat taxing
    you are nonetheless beautiful as the mighty Boards
    themselves in your shameless organicising of the code.

    Which is best read as a scherzo. Half of it's written for a dead friend or in homage to lesser-known world poets; I rarely get poems like that. I don't know why I'm cavilling; this is the best collection I've read since... the last Don Paterson. Sentimental by his standards but bruising by poetry in general's. Teetering upright.
    Selected Poems (2011) by Jaan Kaplinski A very broad swathe from Estonia's most stately rustic. He keeps a high eyrie but has a fatherly musk as well. It's a chilly nest though - occasionally anti-human:
    It gets cold in the evening. The sky clears.
    The wind dies out, and the smoke
    rises straight up. The flowering maple
    no longer buzzes. A carp
    plops in the pond. An owl hoots twice
    in its nest in the ash tree.
    The children are asleep. On the stairs,
    a long row of shoes and rubber boots.
    It happened near Viljandi: an imbecile boy
    poured gasoline on the neighbour's three-year-old
    and set him on fire. I ran for milk.
    You could see the yellow maple from far off
    between the birches and the spruce. The evening star
    was shining above the storehouse. The boy survived,
    probably maimed for life. The night will bring frost.
    Plentiful dew.

    He gets called a particularly European (a particularly Unionised) poet, and this is true enough: Kant's rationalist cool and Smith's pragmatism really are pedal notes in him. But there are snippets of nine languages in this mid-sized selection, including Sanskrit and Japanese (the ukiyo-e/mono-no-aware rhythms of which he owes a great deal to) and a poke of originals in pragmatic, wriggling English. That is, he's really a globalist. His own Estonian ("serious, greyish") is of course not remotely Indo-European, instead fluting and crashing, riverine, out of the Urals. (It would be silly to say that his work's bleak because some people he is descended from came from Siberia, but if I were a marketer rather than a gadfly it would be a good hook.) Let's complicate matters with two other sides, the paternal domestic and the wide-eyed enquirer:

    Lines do not perhaps exist; there are only points.
    Just as there are no constellations, only stars
    which we combine into water-carriers, fish, rams,
    virgins, scorpions and ourselves…
    Constellations, contours, profiles,
    outlines, ground plans, principles, reasons,
    ulterior motives and consequences…
    A solitary birch holds onto its last leaves by the woodshed.
    Or the leaves hold onto the birch.
    Or there is someone holds onto both,
    a child holding his father's and mother's hands at once.
    I am sorry for them – the child, the leaves
    the father, the birch and the mother.
    But I do not know, really, for whom: if the birch exists,
    if there are only points. I do not want the winter.
    But I do not know whether the winter really exists. There are only points.
    There are only molecules and atoms, which increasingly slowly,
    which is roughly the same as saying: warms disperses
    throughout space. Both the child's hands were cold.
    Night is coming - light is roughly the same as warmth.
    Light scatters in the empty room. New thoughts
    come so seldom. Your hand is warm. So is the night.
    The poem is ready. If the poem exists at all:
    there are only points. It is dark.

    This wonderful latter aside (and anti-poetry though he is) I do not like him constantly bringing up poetry; the poems where he does are often po-faced and contentless. But he is a master and it's his business what he chooses to cool by just gazing at it.
    Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

    (c) 'Accidental Fish', 2013

    "Nothing convinces us of our capacity to make choices — nothing sustains our illusion of freedom — more than our ability to regularise our behaviour. nothing is more capable of destroying our interest and our pleasure in what we do.

    If it is the predictable that stupifies us and the unpredictable that terrorises us, what should we do? If we are always caught between risk and resignation, between confidence and catastrophe, how can we decide what to do next?

    — Adam Phillips

    My problem is what my mother kept telling me: I'm too messianic in my views.


    The most ambitious and messy book in his idiosyncratic four-volume work of evolutionary epistemology, the 'Incerto'. (It is Fooled By Randomness, Black Swan, Bed of Procrustes, and yonder.) The former three books are largely critical, hacking away at theory-blindness, model error, and the many kinds of people he sees as possessing unearned status (economists, journalists, consultants, business-book writers): this is the upswing, a chaotic attempt to give general positive advice in a world that dooms general positive advice.

    Every other page has something worth hearing, for its iconoclasm, or a Latin gobbet, or catty anecdote, if not something globally and evidently true. I think he is right about 30% of the time, which is among the highest credences I have for anyone. I only think I am 35% right, for instance.* But a core point of his system is that his approach should work even given our huge and partially intractable ignorance.

    The core point, repeated a hundred times for various domains:

    In real life, many systems deteriorate without an irregular supply of
    stressors (non-fatal negative events), and actually benefit from them by constructively overreacting. By robbing such 'antifragile' systems of stressors, modern approaches to managing
    them do damage in the guise of helping out.**

    This observation leads to his grand theory of everything: every system is either fragile (damaged by volatility), robust (resistant to damage from volatility), or antifragile. This isn't a trivial distinction, because each has formal properties that allow us to change arrangements to, firstly, prevent explosions, and then to gain from chance volatility.

    Biology is definitely one of these antifragile systems***; his case that, absent gross financialisation, the global economy would be one is convincing too; and the idea's at least plausible when applied to the cultivation of virtue or existential strength in a single person. The danger with this - an indissoluble danger because there can be no general strategy to avoid it - is that in welcoming constructive stress we'll miss the point at which the welcomed dose turns destructive (where fasting starts to atrophy, where training becomes masochism, where critique becomes pogrom, where sink-or-swim encouragement turns abuse).

    * This claim is remarkable for both its extreme vagueness and apparent arrogance. Here is a post to handle the former fact. And the latter:

    It might strike you as beyond arrogant to assume that you just so happen to be the most reliable inference device in the world, but that doesn't (have to) follow from my claim above, which results from the trivial thought “I believe my own beliefs most”, instead.

    (Consider the converse: if I came to view anyone as more reliable than me, the rational thing to do would be to incorporate their truer views (and, better, their methods) until I again thought of myself as at least their equal. So, either one believes the superficially arrogant position “I believe my beliefs most” – or else one must believe that one is incapable of adapting enough to superior methods when faced with them, or else one must believe that one cannot know which methods are best. So the above assumption is more about having a high opinion of rational adjustment than impossible egotism, I think.

    Good news! We can now calibrate ourselves, at least for the most sensational and available predictions using this cool thing.^

    Finally!: The fully-unpacked, properly defensible assumption might be something more like: “I am the agent that I know to be most transparently reliable or unreliable; I assume I’m adjusting properly to better methods; as such I have at least equal confidence in my own belief set, compared to the best known alternative agent's.”)

    ^ You might wonder if this argument suggests that I should have 100% confidence in my beliefs. No; even if I was the best inferrer, I would suffer uncertainty because of the opacity of my errors: that is, I know I'm often not right but don't know exactly whereabouts I'm not right. Also from the unsystematic internal PredictionBook every non-psychopath has ("wisdom is knowing you'll be an idiot in the future"). And another source of uncertainty is down to the unknowable (like what stocks will crash next week).

    I do worry that, whatever my particular self-credence estimate is, the whole approach is subtly wrong somewhere – since "40%" gives the impression that I think of myself as a worse guide to the world than dumb chance^^ – but I think it works. Particularly if much of the missing 60% is made of safe scepticism rather than errors.

    ^^ For binary event spaces – but, really, how many of those are there in real life?

    ** He credits the formal basis of all this to Jensen's inequality, in a chapter which might be the clearest expression of the idea there is.

    *** (In particular species-level evolution, but also organism-level health.)


    Some pigeonholes you might think to put all this in:

    • Conservative? Yes; but a good-hearted Burkean (“Antifragility implies that the old is superior to the new… What survives must be good at serving some purpose that time can see but our eyes and logical faculties can’t capture…”). Most people are conservative over some things (e.g. the natural world; we just happen to call that conservationism instead). Also approves of any high technology that removes anything he views as a disease of civilisation, like these things were supposed to be. So, in general, conservative only in the sense that existential risk people are.*

    • *
    • Economic conservatism. Only sort of; he's a trader, and would have speculation free to flow provided that deposit banks were nationalised first, and prioritises deficit reduction in a way we associate with conservatives but which e.g. Sweden pulled off without any lasting social justice sting. More formally he is against centralisation on both moral and technical grounds; that is likely a principle with some conservative effects, justified, in theory, by its keeping us alive. (Life-critical politics.)

    • Laissez faire? No: he recommends radical change to e.g. science funding, but no decrease. Big fan of Switzerland’s government, read into that what you will. He sees “optionality”, an originally financial concept, as the solution to fragility risks and the key to success in every domain there is. This isn’t at all as economistic as it sounds; the sacred and the humane somehow fit perfectly into his core rationalist agenda, persistence through change.

    • *
    • Social conservatism? No sign; no discussion of discrimination. Some people think such abstention is oppressive, but they are probably wrong.

    • *
    • Social Darwinist? Nah.

    • *
    • Bioconservative? Absolutely; he describes himself as the ‘diametric’ opposite of Ray Kurzweil, and he’s in full uproar over the global risk posed by synthetic biology (and recently fleshed out this horror in highly rigorous terms).

    • *
    • Anti-intellectual? Not at all! Only anti-academia, and they still do not represent the whole of quality intellectual life. Hates irresponsible ‘canned methods of inference’ too (statistical significance, etc).

    • *
    • Lacrimist? (That is, does he glorify suffering?) Not quite. He certainly views comfort as vitiating. His opposition to transhumanism is too quick and doesn't take the moral challenge of a world of pained beings seriously enough, for me.

    • *
    • Macho? Hm. Well, nature has made certain challenging actions optimal. Amusing proto-paleo attitude, too:
      I, for my part, resist eating fruits not found in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean (I use “I” here in order to show that I am not narrowly generalizing to the rest of humanity). I avoid any fruit that does not have an ancient Greek or Hebrew name, such as mangoes, papayas, even oranges. Oranges seem to be the postmedieval equivalent of candy; they did not exist in the ancient Mediterranean.

    * His work fits the x-risk paradigm very well, but he developed his edifice in complete isolation from them, and has an uncompromising scepticism about expected value that might not make cross-overs all that fruitful.


    How original is the core point, really?

    Well, who cares? His claim is that he had to invent the word 'antifragile', not the idea. He says, idiosyncratically, that Seneca and Nietzsche had the nub of the idea, and Jensen the formal essence; Darwin certainly did too. "Resilience engineering" and in computing, 'defensive programming' (b. 1998) and 'self-healing systems' (b. 2001) are at least on the same track, though not getting beyond a lively sort of robustness. But I doubt that most systems can become antifragile - e.g. it's hard to imagine an antifragile jet engine (one that harvests bird strikes for fuel, or soot cleaning)? So maybe it's only the grand generalisation to all design that's new.


    Gripes: His footnotes are collected by theme rather than linked to his claims directly, which makes it so difficult to follow up his sources that his credibility suffers. He namedrops, which is not the same as showing his working. I would really like to see his backing for his cool claims (about e.g. an irregular sleep pattern as a good thing, or things like ‘I suspect that thermal comfort ages people’), but it’s hidden away and often one-study. (Again: apparently one-study, since his working is not easily on show.)

    He has a surprisingly high opinion of Steve Jobs – who I view as a grand example of an empty suit: there are 9 references to Jobs’ hokey shark-wisdom, (where Gigerenzer and Mandelbrot get 8, Jensen gets 7, Marx 7). Does Jobs really count as a ‘practitioner’ with ‘skin in the game’? Eh.

    His homebrew jargon starts to drag – some sentences are wholly composed of his neologisms plus a barrel of articles and prepositions. (I used the glossary early and often.) Repetitive: tells what he’ll tell you, tells you he’s told you. Some passages really suffer from his wholesale hostility to copy-editing; there are some flatly bad sentences here. And he namedrops a lot, more than fair attribution of ideas – there are several passages that are just lists of people he likes (e.g. p.257-8).

    I don't see that it's worthwhile to criticise his arrogant style; it's what animates his points, and he never uses it on weak targets.

    Lastly, he sometimes makes of a system’s persistence the highest good. (Where its persistence is to be contrasted with mere stability.) This is in tension with his wonderful emphasis on artistic and quasi-sacred values elsewhere in the book.

    But it talks about everything, is historically wide-eyed, relentlessly rational, and often funny. And the method-worldview-style it suggests might stop life crushing us utterly.
    The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964) by Anthony Thwaite I feel able to say it at last: haiku is pathological, a genre absolutely limited to the engraving of flat single images. And single (or paired) verbal images of nature do nothing for me; it is relation and juxtaposition and story and reductios and original presentation that give images life. The haiku leaves almost no room for these. (This is not about length; the senryu retains wonderful possibilities, because they are animated by satire rather than po-faced nature-worship. Jokes can stand alone.)

    This book cannot be blamed for being half haiku, because that mechanical law ruled Japanese poetry for thousands of years and this is first of all a historical selection. Lots more to see.

    Currently I am only fond of the ancient gnostic hermits and the droll postwar internationalists (no multi-culturalists here). Many of the others emote at us too directly - the likes of "Oh how // I miss my wife // out here // on the border wall" - which brittle superficiality fails Wei Tai's test and mine. In general their ancients have dated much better than ours, perhaps because they grokked ironic minimalism a thousand years before us.

    The emperors and shoguns all write poetry, are still all required to profess about the land that they perch upon. Meiji:
    In newspapers, all seethe doings of the world,which lead nowhere.Better never written!

    Amen. I liked Yamanoue Okura, Yakamochi, the Kokinshū, Ki Tsurayuki, Tsuboi Shigeji, Kaneko Mitsuhara, Takahashi Mutsuo. I absolutely do not have sufficient knowledge to stop there. Skip Bownas' enormous Preface too, you don't need it.

    In one sentence: 無.
    Herzog on Herzog (2003) by Paul Cronin Luminary. Herzog is a contrived and dour and absurd man, and yet charming and sincere. Here is him describing one 6 month block of his youth:

    I ended up penniless and was pushed around from place to place for weeks until finally I was picked up on a country road by the Franklin family. The mother had six children between seventeen and twenty-seven, her husband had died and there was a ninety-three-year-old grandmother. I owe them so much, this wonderful, crazy family who put me up in an attic... Of course I needed to earn some money, so I started to work on a project that was part of a series of films for NASA. That I made films for NASA always appears on those five-line biographies, and even if it is somehow true, it is completely irrelevant. I did have access to certain restricted areas and was able to talk to many of the scientists, but just before I was about to start work on the film they ran a security check...

    It was evident I was about to be expelled from the country... so I took a rusty old Volkswagen and went to New York during a very bitter winter. I lived in the car for some time, even though its floor as rusted right through and I had a cast on my leg at the time because I had broken it quite badly after jumping out of a window... at night, when it gets cold, say at 3 or 4 a.m., the homeless of New York - who live almost like Neanderthal men - come and gather together on some empty, utterly desolate street and stand over fires they have kindled in the metal rubbish bins without speaking a word. Eventually I just cut the whole cast off with a pair of poultry shears and fled across the border into

    His whole life is lived with this undemonstrative fervour.

    The interviewer is completely uninspired: he just works his way stolidly through Herzog's back catalogue, with no insight into anything much ("Precautions Against Fanatics was your first colour film, a bizarre comedy set at a racetrack where various individuals feel it necessary to protect the animals from local 'fanatics'. Any comments?"); we are fortunate that Herzog is self-stimulating and full of himself. I'll just let him show you how good he is:

    I have never been one of those who cares about happiness. Happiness is a strange notion. I am just not made for it. It has never been a goal of mine; I do not think in those terms. It seems to be a goal
    in life for many people, but I have no goals in life.

    I am someone who takes everything very literally... I am like a Bavarian bullfrog just squatting there, brooding. I have never been capable of discussing art with people. I just cannot cope with irony. The French love to play with their words and to master French is to be a master of irony. Technically, I am able to speak the language - I know the words and verbs - but will do so only when I am really forced to.

    I was forbidden to use fireworks. I told the army major that it was essential for the film. 'You'll be arrested,' he said. 'Then arrest me,' I said, 'but know that I will not be unarmed tomorrow. And the first man who touches me will drop down dead with me.' The next day there were fifty policemen and soldiers standing watching me work, plus a few thousand people from the town who wanted to see the fireworks. Of course, I was not armed, but how were they to know? Nobody complained or said anything. So through all these incidents I learned very quickly that this was the very nature of filmmaking.</i>

    Everything he makes is worth your time (even Dinotasia is so bad it's good).</td> </tr>
    The State of the Art (Culture, #4) (1991) by Iain M. Banks None yet
    The Dispossessed (Hainish Cycle, #6) (1974) by Ursula K. Le Guin Pompous. Lots of tragic ellipsis. A rare misstep of style, even though the world and its issues are still great, and the progress of a great mind burgeoning amongst strict collectivism is done well. It reads like a debut novel or a draft - good but rough. I suppose I will hail her versatility anyway.

    Her characteristic ambiguity and fairness are still here though. The sexist, rankist, capitalist ("propertarian") Urrasites are still inventive, tasteful, and ambitious; the anarchist, egalitarian, promiscuous Odonians are still given to egotism, tribalism and petty brutality. They can be relied on, like all of us to tolerate anything except the outgroup:

    'You can only crush [ideas] by ignoring them. By refusing to think — refusing to change. And that's precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you where he can, and where he can't, he prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. Right? In other words he has power over you. Where does he get it from?

    Not from vested authority, there isn't any. Not from intellectual excellence, he hasn't any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion! That's the power structure he's part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules Odonian society by stifling the individual mind.'

    Shevek leaned his hands on the window sill, looking through the dim reflections on the pane into the darkness outside. He said at last 'Crazy talk, Dap.'

    'No, brother, I’m sane. What drives people crazy is trying to live outside reality. Reality is terrible. It can kill you. Given time, it certainly will kill you. But it’s the lies that make you want to kill yourself.'

    Shevek turned around to face him. 'But you can’t seriously talk of a government, here!'

    'Tomar’s Definition: ‘Government: the legal use of power to maintain and extend power.’ Replace ‘legal’ with ‘customary’... Shev, did you ever think that what the analogic mode calls ‘disease,’ social disaffection, discontent, alienation, that this might analogically also be called pain – what you meant when you talked about pain, suffering? And that, like pain, it serves a function in the organism?... I speak of spiritual suffering! Of people seeing their talent, their work, their lives wasted. Of good minds submitting to stupid ones. Of strength and courage strangled by envy, greed for power, fear of change. Change is freedom, change is life – is anything more basic to Odonian thought than that? But nothing changes any more! ... On Urras they have government by the minority. Here we have government by the majority. But it is government!'

    I don't think her Anarres economy would work even as well as it is depicted as doing, but she has at least thought about it (admits that there would need to be a centralised computer, admits all kinds of shortages). This is not polemic, then; it just doesn't manage her usual grace when dealing with huge dilemmas. A great book by anyone else.
    The Compass Rose (1982) by Ursula K. Le Guin None yet
    The View from the Ground (1988) by Martha Gellhorn My favourite reporter; a great, compulsive, austere, compassionate writer. Better than Fermor when happy, better than Orwell when irate. I am always interested in what she has to say about literally anything: this edition covers her peacetime reporting, which is to say her poverty-and-rubble-reconstruction reporting: Great Depression Deep South; the arts in Communist Poland; the difficult path to democracy in Spain; Thatcher and the miners (...) She ranges over the whole sad half-century, bringing her maternal, judgmental, sardonic history to bear on what could otherwise have been ordinary journalism. Chastises communists and capitalists, liars, mercenaries and torturers of whatever justification. Never mentions her gender; she never let anyone stop her for any reason, let alone that.

    Her natural, common-sense compassion and fairness only cracks when it comes to Palestine; she contorts herself terribly in the face of shocking Nasserian anti-Semitism. It's not a whitewash; she talks to dozens of Palestinians in Jordan and Gaza, covers the Irgun and the bulldozers. But she is totally defensive about the Balfour Declaration and the Six Day War; is unusually eager to show up the many fibs of the Palestinian refugees (: confirmation bias); and excludes their self-determination alone among the nations of the earth:
    Arafat has had enough protection money from the oil Arabs to finance the education of two generations of young Palestinians, a chance to rise beyond the poverty of the camps into a good self-reliant life. Instead he has recruited two generations for training only in the use of guns and plastique, and insisted on a futile goal: Palestine for the Palestinians...

    If I had been twenty years younger, I would have got myself to Vietnam somehow and joined the Vietcong, though handicapped by my height. Not much use for digging tunnels. Vietnam for the Vietnamese. Afghanistan for the Afghans. El Salvador for the Salvadorans. Nicaragua for the Nicaraguans. The inherent right of all peoples to self-determination. If they need civil war to determine how they shall be governed, that is their business and nobody else's.

    How many deep inconsistencies are we allowed, before we stop being great? I don't know exactly, but more than one.
    Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1978) 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.
    Keeping On Keeping On (2016) by Alan Bennett Diaries in the lee of becoming actually famous. I love him dearly and bolted all 700pp in a couple of days. General sense of him reaping decades of quiet acclaim: he bumps into well-wishers and heavy-hitters (Stoppard, Dench, MacKellen) every week or so.

    One of the reasons I love him is that I had a very similar adolescence to his. He remains reserved, kind though grumpy:
    Being in love unhappily singled you out, I thought, it drafted you into an aristocracy. It was more than just a badge of being gay but rather an ordeal you were called upon to undergo if only to transcend it and reach a sublimity denied to other mortals.

    In the evening to the New York Public Library where I am to be made a Library Lion... There are half a dozen of us being lionised and we are lined up and photographed and made much of before going upstairs to a magnificent supper, getting home thoroughly knackered around 11. How people lead a social life is beyond me.

    I clung far too long to the notion that shyness was a virtue and not, as I came too late to see, a bore.

    He still feels outside of things, for all his reminiscences of dinner with Harold Wilson or Liz Taylor perching on his knee. On winning a Tony for Best Play aged 72:
    I am thrust blinking on to a stage facing a battery of lights while questions come out of the darkness, the best of which is: ‘Do you think this award will kick-start your career?'

    Talks so much about 50s Yorkshire. (People in general seem to think about their childhoods more than I do. (or just writers?)) I suppose he is taken to be a twee writer for this nostalgia, along with his cuddly speaking voice. But he simply isn't twee - he is the author of several of the finest nihilist soliloquoys in English literature. You may know the ignorance of people by their use of this stereotype.

    He is touchingly agitated by British politics, in the exact way I used to be. His protests are unprogrammatic, based simply on the meanness or indignity or cowardice of the policy at hand, whether it's a Labour or Tory hand;

    I wanted a Labour government so that I could stop thinking about politics, knowing that the nation’s affairs were in the hands of a party which, even if it was often foolish, was at least well-intentioned. Now we have another decade of the self-interested and the self-seeking, ready to sell off what’s left of our liberal institutions and loot the rest to their own advantage. It’s not a government of the nation but a government of half the nation, a true legacy of Mrs Thatcher...

    I’ve always thought that this was a pretty fair description of that blend of backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism which does duty for my political views. I am an old modernian... [Over the past 30 years] one has only had to stand still to become a radical.

    With the fading of the old loud left, and the abject failure of the sneering theoretical sort, unpretentious justice of this sort might motivate people, even/especially opportunist Brexiters. So to the defence of public libraries, the unprecedented conviction of policemen who murder, the provision of good to all.

    [Data #1, Values #3, Thinking #3]
    The Science of Discworld (The Science of Discworld, #1) (1999) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (2013) by Shaun Usher Wonderful
    Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. 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.

    Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin: An Anthology (2014) by Alan Bennett Hardy, Housman, Auden, Betjeman, Larkin, MacNeice: all men who tended to emphasise the tragic. (You think Betjeman didn't, but you might be confusing his writing, full of loss and pettiness, with his foppy, daffy TV persona.)

    Wonderful, this - parallel poems and commentaries - covering the famous gobbets dutifully, but also picking excerpts which rarely come to light. The commentary is more clipped and sardonic than you might expect from Bennett, if you know him only by reputation / caricature.

    The cover shown above is much more beautiful than the cover I had.
    Making Malcolm: The Myth And Meaning Of Malcolm X (1995) by Michael Eric Dyson Because we have gotten better, old radicals often seem less radical over time. The pragmatic hedonism and secular calm of Epicurus was once fanatically detested, but is now a standard worldview (it's roughly that of the happy scientist); at one time Spinoza’s Ethics (determinism, Nature as deity, religious and political tolerance) was the wildest thing ever said in the history of the Christian world; Montesquieu’s disgust at aristocratic brutality, gross luxury and torture are commonplaces; Paine’s raging insistence on human rights and total secularism are very successful (in Europe at least); and anyone who disagrees with duBois’ or MLK’s aims is foolish or virulent.

    Malcolm X has not yet been incorporated in this way - but, reading his less ranty stuff (not the early “TOO BLACK, TOO STRONG” variety) you wonder why. Might have been his influential homophobia, but that’s hardly stopped other thinkers. (This suggests it's because we have a false, caricature of him in mind, one that believes in whites-as-devils and Fanonian purifying violence.)

    Dyson does not skimp on his downsides, and tackles the thorniest idea in identity politics: that experience is absolute, and so understanding a group’s ideas and values requires group membership – that ideas have colour as people do.
    The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (1996) by Joseph E. LeDoux Maybe a bit dated, but thoughtful and historical enough to pull through.

    His big contention’s that conscious feelings are red herrings: most emotional activity is demonstrably unconscious (though not in a Freudian way). So we should see emotions as products of several separate bodily-response systems: “the word ‘emotion’ does not refer to any thing the mind or brain really has or does”.

    Getting there takes a lot of careful conceptual work, debunking old artefacts (“the limbic system”), probing the line between cognition and emotion, evolved emotional setups and enculturated expressions of them. Rather than reporting his theories as settled, he lets us in to the history, experimental setups, and argue for his theory choices. He’s well-versed in the philosophy (he cites Rorty!), is a master of fear (research), and I feel smarter coming out of it.
    Both Flesh and Not: Essays (2012) by David Foster Wallace Bravura essays from all over the cultural instant he encompassed and abruptly let go (1988-2007).

    They are I suppose dregs, but DFW’s dregs are better than the decade-projects of others. You can’t help seeing foreshadows of Infinite Jest: he touches on 1) the obsessive, commercial, and religious aspects of pro tennis, 2) the obstacles to good prose about or involving maths, 3) self-conscious engagement with pop (for how else can we understand a world constituted by and obsessed with pop?), 4) ‘interpretation-directing’ books (like Jest), and above all 5) on the need to build after waves of high-entropy postmodernism, to work past its crucial (but bewildering) negativities.

    It was ‘obvious’ to him that ordinary late-capitalist life is ‘at best empty and at worst evil’. But he was extraordinary; panoptic, judicious and sensationally beautiful, and that wasn’t enough either.
    Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005) by David Foster Wallace Ah, ah. Postmodern and prescriptivist, enthusiastically wise, Wallace was the one, as loveable as intellectual, as iconoclastic as judicious. He’s a model of finding meaning in places beyond sanctioned loci (like Dostoevsky and 9/11, which he also finds meaning in): in for example an old sincere conservative, in tennis, and arthropods.

    Not that he ‘found’ meaning: he generated it, erupting bittersweet priority over parts of the world held to be artless or empty. Theoretically rococo and colloquially concentrated. Our loss is marked.

    It’s disappointing that ‘Consider the Lobster’, his more or less honest analysis of vegetarianism, founders and shrinks from responsibility. (In short, the piece says “they feel: so why do we do this?”. But he asks: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental?” without actually discounting the latter weaselly ad hominem aspersion.)

    Tensions: he insisted on 'democratic' clarity and yet wrote wilfully distracting pieces. But he’s one of the ones.
    Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2001) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb I had skipped this, assuming I received the full contrarian worldview from Black Swan and Bed of Procrustes. But it’s a different beast, more playful and modest, with less of his latter-day overstatement and invalid ad hominems.

    As anti-disciplinary provocateur and writer of empirical art he is unbeaten (I rank him with Nietzsche for delightful arrogance and hard-ass enculturation.) Still, these ideas (from cognitive science and applied statistics) are hard: one needs several runs at them. Taleb is a great introduction, then Kahneman and Gigerenzer for the calm conservative estimate.
    A Point of View (2011) by Clive James In one sentence: Sometimes age actually does allow for wisdom to accumulate.
    To be read when: whenever.

    I came to liberalism late, after radical teens. By the time I found James, I was withering sick from years of people and books attacking the modern world, spending all their time reducing absolutely everything in life to its politics.

    (Larkin is a great poet and was a terrible man, easy as that – but this tension is unbearable to some, who throw out his great work and try to shame those who don't.)

    Clive James is the consummate droll liberal railing against both wings of partisans: he’s against celebrity culture, Ostalgie, and anti-American critical-theoretical cuteness, but also ‘clash of civilisation’ nonsense, socially destructive austerity and conservatism in the arts.

    What others get out of Wodehouse or Rowling, I get from this grumpy old Australian’s stoic nonfiction. I had my notebook handy the whole way through, sieving out gold gobbets of late style.

    His essays are a space beyond the culture war, where the personal is not usually political. He is one of the greatest living stylists, would deserve study for that alone.

    His long essay on Isaiah Berlin is fantastic and contentious, and his retorts to the professional philosophers who come at him about it are devastating, inspiring.

    Unlike say Geoff Dyer, to whom he is similar, James doesn't have academic standing. So his work is at risk of fading away, without their dull but chronic oxygen.

    Some Thoughts on the Common Toad (1947) by George Orwell So lucid. 'Killing an Elephant' is, surprisingly, the most powerful animal rights essay I've read in years.

    I think he'd struggle to get his essay on Dali published these days, maybe not even in the Spectator: we aren't able to think of art in these moral terms any more:

    [Dali's autobiography] is a book that stinks. If it were possible for a book to give a physical stink off its pages, this one would — a thought that might please Dali, who before wooing his future wife for the first time rubbed himself all over with an ointment made of goat's dung boiled up in fish glue. But against this has to be set the fact that Dali is a draughtsman of very exceptional gifts. He is also, to judge by the minuteness and the sureness of his drawings, a very hard worker. He is an exhibitionist and a careerist, but he is not a fraud. He has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings. And these two sets of facts, taken together, raise a question which for lack of any basis of agreement seldom gets a real discussion.

    The point is that you have here a direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency; and even — since some of Dali's pictures would tend to poison the imagination like a pornographic postcard — on life itself. What Dali has done and what he has imagined is debatable, but in his outlook, his character, the bedrock decency of a human being does not exist. He is as anti-social as a flea. Clearly, such people are undesirable, and a society in which they can flourish has something wrong with it.

    Now, if you showed this book, with its illustrations, to Lord Elton, to Mr. Alfred Noyes, to The Times leader writers who exult over the ‘eclipse of the highbrow’ — in fact, to any ‘sensible’ art-hating English person — it is easy to imagine what kind of response you would get. They would flatly refuse to see any merit in Dali whatever. Such people are not only unable to admit that what is morally degraded can be жsthetically right, but their real demand of every artist is that he shall pat them on the back and tell them that thought is unnecessary. And they can be especially dangerous at a time like the present, when the Ministry of Information and the British Council put power into their hands. For their impulse is not only to crush every new talent as it appears, but to castrate the past as well. Witness the renewed highbrow-baiting that is now going on in this country and America, with its outcry not only against Joyce, Proust and Lawrence, but even against T. S. Eliot.

    But if you talk to the kind of person who can see Dali's merits, the response that you get is not as a rule very much better. If you say that Dali, though a brilliant draughtsman, is a dirty little scoundrel, you are looked upon as a savage. If you say that you don't like rotting corpses, and that people who do like rotting corpses are mentally diseased, it is assumed that you lack the жsthetic sense. Since ‘Mannequin rotting in a taxicab’ is a good composition. And between these two fallacies there is no middle position, but we seldom hear much about it. On the one side Kulturbolschevismus: on the other (though the phrase itself is out of fashion) ‘Art for Art's sake.’ Obscenity is a very difficult question to discuss honestly. People are too frightened either of seeming to be shocked or of seeming not to be shocked, to be able to define the relationship between art and morals.

    suppose that you have nothing in you except your egoism and a dexterity that goes no higher than the elbow; suppose that your real gift is for a detailed, academic, representational style of drawing, your real métier to be an illustrator of scientific textbooks. How then do you become Napoleon? There is always one escape: into wickedness. Always do the thing that will shock and wound people. At five, throw a little boy off a bridge, strike an old doctor across the face with a whip and break his spectacles — or, at any rate, dream about doing such things. Twenty years later, gouge the eyes out of dead donkeys with a pair of scissors. Along those lines you can always feel yourself original. And after all, it pays! ... If you threw dead donkeys at people, they threw money back.
    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. He's 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.
    The Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin I read the Illustrated Edition (2008) put together by David Quammen, which is very beautiful. Filled with sketches, portraits, maps and suggestive remarks from the diaries. Particularly good if, like me, you've struggled with the plaintext.


    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.
    The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007) by Alex Ross None yet
    McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope (2000) by David Foster Wallace None yet
    A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (1997) by David Foster Wallace None yet
    The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (2008) by Daniel M. Haybron None yet
    The Marxists (1962) by C. Wright Mills None yet
    The Way Things Are (-55) by Lucretius None yet
    Fooled By Randomness & The Black Swan: Two Books In One (2008) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb None yet
    Extending Ourselves: Computational Science, Empiricism, and Scientific Method (2004) by Paul Humphreys None yet

    3/5: Net likeable. 50th percentile.

    The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (1995) by Neal Stephenson Amazed that this is from 1995; its concerns feel very current - too current. The nations of the world collapse from cryptocurrency destroying the tax base; they are replaced with voluntary ideological associations, including trads ("neo-Victorians" and techno-Confucians) who are shown thriving where others suffer civil war, state failure, and ordinary poverty and abuse. Everyone has fancy nanotechnology, which solves absolute poverty and allows massive structures to be built of solid diamond.

    That's all in the background, where the foreground is a theory of education and rebellion, of social degeneration and regeneration. The leader of the Victorians designs the best educational game ever, a 12-year-long adventure game with live narration. He does this because there's a shortage of subversion and rebellion in his society, and he wants to train his granddaughter to be independent. (He also says the neo-Vickys have an associated shortage of great artists, but to put it mildly this is not something the originals suffered.)

    In particular, Stephenson was a bit obsessed with moral relativism in the 90s; he harps on the superiority of realism, or communitarianism, or status regulation, or sincerity, or something, in most of his books. Superficially, his concern matches one annoying strain of internet writing of the last few years - the clickbait strawmaneering of the Petersons and the Lindsays. But French Theory fell in the meantime, outside of a few academic subcultures with little influence, so Stephenson can be right while these guys are wrong. An excess of scepticism and irony - a deficit of shaming and judgment - does not strike me as the first problem with the mores of 2020.

    Stephenson saves most of the nice bits of the book for the Vickys, and his attempt to recover what was good about the original Victorians (their energy, inventiveness, duty, taste) ignores a lot of what was bad about them. (Though he actively endorses their hypocrisy about sex, he would have to think again about their betraying their Christian universalism with retributive justice and imperialism.)

    "when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices," Finkle-McGraw said. "It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others--after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?...

    "Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others' shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done... Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy."

    "That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code," Major Napier said, working it through, "does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code."
    "Of course not," Finkle-McGraw said. "It's perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct."

    Having "Victorian" characters means he gets to have fun with his dialogue; there are dozens of words I've never seen before in this, and several children crafting exquisitely balanced subordinate clauses.

    About a third too long, and that's with him completely truncating the excellent Judge Fang plotline. As always, he is incapable of writing a good ending. Maybe 4 stars on re-read.
    Uzumaki: Deluxe Edition (2000) by Junji Ito I'm not into horror or surrealism, and I'm only just learning the visual vocabulary of manga, but this is well-executed. Placenta fungi, pregnant zombies, horny hurricanes, gangs using tornados for vandalism, humans becoming fair game, all that. But these garish wonders are secondary to the grossness and power of Ito's atmosphere.

    The protagonist Mikie is frustratingly passive and ineffectual - she waits for 10 distinct monstrous things to happen before running away - but this is a classic shortcoming / genre requirement and I don't know how I'd write a powerful horror protagonist myself. The boyfriend, Shuichi, understands everything right from the start, unlike her, and yet he is no better.

    There's a few beautiful colour pages, all in pastels, but it makes the rest look incomplete. The price of a weekly medium.

    So, a masterpiece in an alien language.
    Hearts in the Hard Ground (2020) by G.V. Anderson Managed to unnerve me despite the extreme domesticity.

    The big problem with stories about haunted houses is why anyone would ever stay in them after the first bad night. The stories require a stupefied lack of agency to get through their second acts. So too here, but it isn't very irksome. The other big problem is the lack of empirical spirit from the protagonists - can we finish philosophy of mind by enlisting the ghosts? There's a little bit of that here, but mostly just the old emotional haunting.
    How Quini the Squid Misplaced His Klobučar (2020) by Rich Larson None yet
    Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs () by Peter Andreas None yet
    The Prefect (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency, #1) (2007) by Alastair Reynolds Great fun!

    Reynolds describes an Archipelago epistocracy - that is, a loose collection of thousands of city-states with their own weird constitutions (voluntary fascisms, upload city, voluntary coma land, luxury Running Man land), with federal votes weighted by your past performance at predicting / causing good changes. The only federal crimes are voting related: messing with the central vote, denying their citizens the vote. (They don't seem to enforce the other thing you'd need to make this minimally acceptable: iron exit rights.)

    Reynolds is clearly also having fun here, where I found Revelation Space exhaustingly grim and sepia.

    I particularly loved his entire society of professional superforecasters / high-quality futarchist voting bloc, who make their living off lobbyists and being bellwethers and spend most of their time buggering about with hobbies. (You are ejected if your calibration drops below 50% better than normal people.)

    He husbands his twists, and keeps almost all characters in the dark (including the antagonists) all the time. It also takes the horror of exponentials seriously; machine intelligence's scalability is the worst thing about it, and here we get two great scary instances.

    One downside is that it feels like book #3 in a series; maybe one infodump too few or something.
    The Magos (Eisenhorn #4) (2018) by Dan Abnett None yet
    Ravenor: The Omnibus (Ravenor #1-3) (2009) by Dan Abnett Abnett is so much better than he has to be. Poverty and corruption before gibbering legions and building-sized guns. (Though he also does the latter.)
    Analyzing the Analyzers: An Introspective Survey of Data Scientists and Their Work (2013) by Harlan Harris I never expect these fluffy little business pamphlets to contain anything worthwhile, but I've referred to this one a few times. Imagine getting some data before you pontificate about data!

    The list of the skills involved is the best I've ever seen, if misleadingly intimidating.
    The Rebel Sell (2004) by Joseph Heath None yet
    A Man Without a Country (2005) by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. None yet
    Bring Up the Bodies (2012) by Hilary Mantel More of the same witty early moderns: modern speech atop medieval action. (Anachronistically witty, sceptical?) Mantel manages to make all the tiresome court manoeuvring interesting just by having it pass through Cromwell, her sensitive, competent monster.

    Halfway through, Cromwell turns from rational underdog to corrupt totalitarian. Or, halfway through you realise that this turn has happened, that this aspect was there. He kills his enemies based on hearsay and jokes, zero physical and eyewitness evidence. Mantel manages this fall in a smooth and inevitable way. I complain about current legal systems a lot, but at least their errors are not this unjust and merely political.

    When Gregory says, 'Are they guilty?' he means, 'Did they do it?' But when [Thomas] says, 'Are they guilty?' he means, 'Did the court find them so?' The lawyer's world is entire unto itself, the human pared away. It was a triumph, in a small way, to unknot the entanglement of thighs and tongues, to take that mass of heaving flesh and smooth it on to white paper: as the body, after the climax, lies back on white linen. He has seen beautiful indictments, not a word wasted.

    “Nothing makes you falter,” Wyatt says. He says it with a reluctant admiration that is close to dread. But he, Cromwell, thinks, I did falter but no one knows it, reports have not gone abroad. Wyatt did not see me walk away from Weston’s interrogation. Wyatt did not see me when Anne asked me what I believed in my heart.

    He rests his eyes on the prisoner, he takes his seat. He says softly, “I think I have been training all my years for this. I have served an apprenticeship to myself.” His whole career has been an education in hypocrisy.

    Lots of artistic licence, to patch over the huge gaps in the historical record (as Mantel admits in the postscript). Cromwell is sympathetic here, even with all the blood and lies - you notice his evil only after effort. But this is just the same treatment that Thomas More has enjoyed for a hundred years, in several beautiful retcons. And the worst of the blood and the torture came after both of them.

    Maybe 4 stars later
    The Design and Implementation of Probabilistic Programming Languages () by Noah D. Goodman An executable mini-textbook in the modern mould. Not the introduction I was after, but really really clever and general.
    The Children of the Sky (Zones of Thought, #3) (2011) by Vernor Vinge Vinge is without peer at two things:

    * Producing childlike rage at unfairness, stringing out one piece of treachery for 400 pages and keeping the heat going. Even where it is obvious that a betrayal will take place, he still manages to make me tense and outraged over it.
    * Emphasising how important software is to the future. A revolt occurs partially because of the elites resenting the loss of their fancy interfaces, refusing to dirty their hands with low-level programming.

    The book feels very incomplete, even setting aside the cliffhanger; we see Timor's burgeoning hacking skills, but are shown none of their fruit. We see Geri tortured but not why, or why Tycoon was fine with it. We see Nevil's despotism take root but don't see any of his comeuppance. Some of this might show up in the much delayed sequel idk.
    Culture, Society and Sexuality: A Reader (1998) by Richard G. Parker Can't remember anything about it except John d'Emilio's "Capitalism and Gay Identity", which blew my mind. He argues that capitalism was a necessary condition for the emancipation of gay people, since its associated urbanisation, weakening of family ties, mass anonymity, and the autonomy of wages(!) let gay people explore, gather, and build a movement, the first time since antiquity.

    Maybe this doesn't sound so wild to you, but as a 20yo Marxist this lifted the top right off my head.
    Less Is More Please (1992) by Barry Humphries Good mix of innocence and retrospective meanness. Like me, his childhood appears to him as a series of fixations (licking the cake mixer, staring at a cement mixer, hushed discussion of lead poisoning from a pencil stab). Would probably be 4* in full.
    Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution (2000) by Steven Poole None yet
    Rumpole and the younger generation (1978) by John Mortimer None yet
    The Innocents Abroad (1869) by Mark Twain None yet
    The Break Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (1977) by Tom Nairn Took 40 years but give this man a cigar
    Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism (1975) by Peter K. Unger Extremely well-written, and full of big giant thoughts and grand flourishes. But the whole thing feels like a joke at my expense.

    (Did he write it as a reductio of this sort of philosophy? I wouldn't put it past him.)
    On Religion (Thinking in Action) (2001) by John D. Caputo A central example of the zaniness and arbitrariness of a certain kind of Theory. But it's not as easy as it looks - I tried to imitate the irreverent, intertextual style in my Levinas course and got the biggest rebuke of my academic life. Caputo had to work for 30 years and put up with some truly awful people, to write like this. Fun, unserious, deadly serious.
    Simply Logical: Intelligent Reasoning by Example (1994) by Peter Flach Quite deep - the other, overgrown and overshadowed half of AI. Part II is a very nice introduction to classical search, though in Prolog, which will be enough to scare away most readers.

    Computational logic is the result of say half a dozen geniuses seizing a field from the philosophers and shaking remarkable things out of it.* It is also not very relevant for 90% of AI researchers today, though the extremely prolific and lively Programming Language Theory and theorem-provers people have inherited some of it and shake out remarkable things. As such, maybe most of this is unlikely to help you.

    The site they built around this book makes Prolog as easy as as it's going to get.

    Free and fully executable here.

    * Putnam and Robinson were philosophers, and the point stands.
    Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900) by Henri Bergson None yet
    永遠を旅する者 ロストオデッセイ 千年の夢 (2007) by Kiyoshi Shigematsu The clunky videogame 'Lost Odyssey' contains 33 incredibly good short stories, which you just optionally bump into in the course of your standard 50-hour murder-looting spree. They are understated, sentimental, and literary where the main plot is cliched, badly written (translated?) and garish.

    I don't know whether reading them alone would have the same effect as this contrast, but they are free in English here.
    Perfect Rigour: A Genius And The Mathematical Breakthrough Of The Century (2009) by Masha Gessen Not so much a biography: instead a study of recent Russian anti-Semitism, the viciousness of Soviet academia, and but also the wonderful alternative subculture that lived uneasily within it. This subculture hid inside the superhuman apolitical dreamland, mathematics.* It could only exist because of the sacrifices of famous and decent men, Kolmogorov and Aleksandrov. Their selective maths schools seem to have been the only nice places to be in the entire empire, for any intellectual with a taste for actual discourse, or for the truth.

    (Reasons it can't be so much a biography: the subject refused to talk to her, does things that are very hard to explain, and doesn't go out much.)

    The teacher Ryzhik's story about the evil entrance exam he sat is so, so sad:
    “Coffins” were questions specially designed for the Jewish applicants... rejection was administered in a peculiarly sadistic way... if [Jews] succeeded in answering correctly the two or three questions on the ticket, then, alone in the room with the examiners, they would be casually issued an extra question... a problem not merely complex but unsolvable. The examiners would then nail the cover of the coffin shut: the Jewish applicant had failed the exam...

    "They did not even manage to find a problem I couldn't solve; I sat for three hours after the exam was over, I solved them all, and still they failed me. I was just a boy. I went home and cried."

    Gessen is well-placed to write this - she was a maths nerd in Soviet Russia around the same time. As far as I can tell (which isn't very far) her grasp of the maths (one chapter for the crown jewel) is fit for purpose. But Gessen is out to bust Perelman's reputation for hyper-individualism; so she focusses on the devoted teachers and functionaries that pulled strings to get an abrasive Jew into the heart of Soviet academia, and his incredible luck in starting graduate study just as Glasnost happened.

    She wants to highlight the poverty of his character - his antisocial withdrawal, his complete and intentional ignorance of politics, his naivete, his savantism. It doesn't work. Yes, he's rigid; maybe he is composed of a curiosity, a competitiveness, an ethics, and nothing else (no vanity, humour, romance, charisma, empathy, theory of mind, tolerance, compromise, doubt).

    So what? Why does everyone need to be rounded? Does she sneer at athletes, the other people with lives this seemingly contorted and simple? David Foster Wallace managed to get over himself, on this note:

    The restrictions on [pro tennis player's] life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and sense of himself have allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art – something few of us get to be. They've allowed him to visit and test parts of his psychic reserves most of us do not even know for sure we have (courage, playing with violent nausea, not choking, et cetera).

    Joyce is, in other words, a complete man, though in a grotesquely limited way.

    Gessen is, to be frank, quite cruel: she never passes up an opportunity to mention appearances - that that athletic boy of 1970 is "now an overweight and balding computer scientist", that the house of a man caring for his wife with late-stage dementia is "a messy place, lived in awkwardly" and he himself "similarly unkempt"; that Perelman didn't change his underwear or clip his nails as a teen. This is the shallow side of the New Yorker style on show - or else the malign side of Russian honesty. Either way fuck it. (Though Perelman would probably approve.)

    [Perelman] sounded his voice only if a solution required his intervention; looked forward to Sundays, sighing happily and saying that he could "finally solve some problems in peace"; and, if asked, patiently explained any math issue to any of his classmates though apparently utterly unable to conceive of anyone not comprehending such a simple thing. His classmates repaid him with kindness: they recalled his civility and his mathematics, and none ever mentioned to me that he walked around with his shoelaces undone...

    The great mystery, which Gessen understandably can't touch, is why after 36 years of focus he suddenly stopped doing the only thing he'd ever done. How could he? How can that much momentum be shed? What does such a man do next?

    Subtract a star if you don't care about maths or if you can't abide people being mean to nerds (as both the old apparatchiks and Gessen were).


    * One of the oddest things about Perelman, because it maybe explains him turning down a million quid and the highest honours the world can bestow, is that he'd disagree with that sentence: maths, the least animal and least irrational thing we have, is too political for him. There was a little bit of nasty jostling at the time of the announcement - but nothing compared to any other science, let alone any government. Maybe the bubble everyone set up for him was bad for him, because it robbed him of perspective and so made the mild case of fuckery seem like a complete invalidation of mathematical culture. But maybe a rigorous rule-based mind would always explode eventually even given a scale to measure instances of bias.
    Man Who Loved Only Numbers: Erdos (1998) by Paul Hoffman
    "What would you say to Jesus if you saw him on the street?"
    Erdős said he'd ask Jesus if the Continuum Hypothesis was true. "And there would be three possible answers for Jesus," Erdős said. "He could say, 'Godel and Cohen already taught you everything which is to be known about it.' The second answer would be, 'Yes, there is an answer but unfortunately your brain isn't sufficiently developed yet to know the answer.' And Jesus could give a third answer: 'The Father, the Holy Ghost, and I have been thinking about that long before creation, but we haven't yet come to a conclusion.'</i>

    A life of a saint. Not in the sense of a moral paragon - though he was very kind when he wasn't being stubborn - but in the sense of a man devoted to, possessed by one thing, a high and rare thing that sets him some way beyond society. No money, no fixed abode, no lovers, no children, no religion. 80% of his family eaten by Nazi Germany. And yet a glorious, constructive, hilarious life. A champion moocher, eternal couchsurfer, generous and ascetic, witty and worldly. We are lucky to have had him.
    I [Hoffman] slept where he slept and stayed up nineteen hours a day, watching him prove and conjecture. I felt silly not being able, at the age of thirty, to keep up with a sickly looking seventy-three-year-old man. I suppose I could have shared his pills, but the only stimulant I took was caffeine.

    He abhorred discussions of sex as much as he disliked the act itself... In the late 1940s, during the Chinese civil war, Erdős took part in a food drive for the Communist Chinese. "I remember walking into a big room in Los Angeles, at UCLA, I think," said Vazsonyi, "and there was Erdős and all these people making packages of food. Some mischief-makers who knew of his disgust at naked women offered to make a $100 donation if he'd go with them to a burlesque show." To their astonishment, he immediately took them up on the offer. Afterwards, when they forked over the $100, he revealed the secret of his victory: "See! I tricked you, you trivial beings! I took off my glasses and did not see a thing!"</i>

    Unlike Perelman, the other late-C20th-century mathematical saint, Erdős had a wicked sense of fun and style. Like him, Erdős let himself be completely dependent on others for housing and logistics, and demanded much of them.
    he expected his hosts to lodge him, feed him, and do his laundry, along with anything else he needed, as well as arrange for him to get to his next destination.

    Erdos started developing his private language... referring to Communists as people "on the long wave-length," because in the electromagnetic spectrum the red waves were long. He said that Horthy supporters and other Fascist sympathizers were "on the short wavelength." That's also when he started calling children and other small things "epsilons," grandchildren "epsilons squared," alcohol "poison," music "noise," and women "bosses," an inversion of what Hungarian women often called their husbands. "Give me an epsilon of poison," Erdos would say when he wanted a sip of wine. "Wine, women, and song" became "Poison, bosses, and noise."

    He then had a huge argument with the surgeon about why, since only one eye was being deadened [during his cornea transplant], he couldn't read a mathematics journal with the other, good eye. The surgeon made a series of frantic calls to the Memphis math department. "Can you send a mathematician over here at once so that Erdos can talk math during surgery?" The department obliged, and the operation went smoothly.

    Unfortunately only half of this is anecdotes about Erdős, the rest being the usual potted-history of quirky mathematicians (Archimedes the oblivious, Fermat the executioner, Gauss the crabbed, Hardy the dry eccentric, Ramanujan the sublime, Wiles the Stakhanovite) with the usual stories. I skimmed these bits to get more of the good stuff.</td> </tr>
    Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (2012) by Philip Ball

    —why is the sea salty?
    —have animals souls, or intelligence?
    —has opinion its foundation in the animate body?
    —why do human beings not have horns?
    —how is it that sound in its passage makes its way through any obstacle whatever?
    —how is it that joy can be the cause of tears?
    —why are the fingers of unequal length?
    —why, if you have intercourse with a woman after she has lain with a leper, will you catch the disease while she will escape?
    —what reason is there for the universality of death?
    —why do we need food so frequently, or at all?
    —why are the living afraid of the bodies of the dead?
    —how is the globe supported in the middle of the air?
    —why does the inflow of the rivers not increase the bulk of the ocean?
    —why, if a vessel be full and its lower part open, does water not issue from it unless the upper lid be first removed?
    —when one atom is moved, are all moved? (since whatever is in a state of motion moves something else, thus setting up infinite motion.)
    —why do winds travel along the earth's surface and not in an upward direction?
    —why does a sort of perpetual shadow brood over the moon?
    —granted that the stars are alive, on what food do they live?
    —ought we regard the cosmos as an inanimate body, a living thing, or a god?

    — Adelard of Bath (c.1120)

    Another history of the origins of science: our long trek to GWAS, livermorium, and CERN via astrology, natural magic, alchemy, Neoplatonism, herbalism, occultism, and philosophy. So, superficially, the book is just about an especially fruity context of discovery. But this period holds two of the most important lessons in history: 1) science grew out of work by people who diverge wildly from the modern idea and practice of science, whose variously false frameworks led to the Royal Society and e.g. the Newtonian triumph. (And from there to contemporary, professional, university science.) So wrong people can still make progress if their errors are uncorrelated with the prevailing errors. And, 2) a small number of the most powerful people in Britain - the Lord Chancellor, the king's physicians, the chaplain of the young Elector Palatine and bishop of Chester, London's great architect, Privy Councillors * - successfully pushed a massive philosophical change, and thereby contributed to most of our greatest achievements: smallpox eradication, Sputnik and Voyager, the Green Revolution, and the unmanageably broad boons of computing are partly theirs.

    The received view of all this is one-dimensional: you have superstitious, pompous cretins at one end and rational, experimental moderns at the other.

    But really you need five axes before you get a basic understanding of the great, great revolution that began in the C16th - before you can see how science differs from every other community:

    • Supernaturalism vs Naturalism. Did they explain things solely in terms of natural causes? (Absentee Gods only.)

    • Apriori vs Aposteriori. Did they view actual observation as decisive and indispensable? **

    • Qualitative vs Quantitative. Did they make measurements? Did they model the data? Did they use standard units?

    • Holism vs Reductionism. Did they analyse things into their constituent features? Did they explain phenomena in terms of ?

    • Infallibilism vs Fallibilism. Did they allow for the possibility of error? Did they view uncertain knowledge as still worthwhile? ***

    • ****

    So I'm modelling science as naturalist, fallibilist, quantitative empiricism with pretensions to openness. I've categorised the early scientists mentioned in Curiosity according to this: you can see the data with additional justifications here. (Ball doesn't state this model, but it floats around in his debunkings and "well actually"s.)

    All of the pieces of science are very ancient - we had mathematics and data collection well before the Ten Commandments, naturalism before Buddha and Confucius, reductionism before the Peloponnesian War at least one controlled trial centuries before Christ, fallibilism likewise. Everything was ready BCE; we can see indirect evidence of this in the astonishing works of Ancient Greek engineers, mostly unmatched for 1000 years until y'know.

    So the question is not "was Bacon the most original blah blah?": he wasn't, particularly when you remember Alhazen's Baconian method, developed in the C11th. But we need an explanation for how we messed it up so badly. The received view, which is all I have at the moment, is that the fall of Rome, Christian anti-intellectualism and, later, the enshrining of Aristotelian mistakes was enough to destroy and suppress the ideas. I want deeper explanations though. (For instance, what did we do to the economy?)

    A fun regression on this data would be to see how my scienciness measure correlates with the importance of the person's work. It would not be that highly proportional, in this time period.


    Back to the book eh! Book structure is lots of little chapters on fairly disjointed topics: early modern ideas of space travel, universal language, pumps, etc. Chapter on "cabinets of curiosity" is great though: suddenly their dull zany blare makes sense and I want to build one:

    this was more than a case of 'look what I've got'. The power with which Wunderkammern were imbued was... in that they created their own complete microcosm: a representation of the world in miniature... By possessing this microcosm the collector-prince was not just symbolising but also in a sense exercising his mastery of the world. The cabinet acted as a kind of mental laboratory within which the relationships between things could be contemplated via a process that shared elements of both experimentation and Gnostic revelation.

    Ball doesn't like us calling the Scientific Revolution a revolution, and I agree: the revolution didn't consist in the theories of Bacon or Newton: it consists in the diffusion of the worldview into all subjects and all inquiry. It transformed society and gave us marvels, but it hasn't finished happening. The general will, or default state, is still strongly unscientific. (The largest and most grievous holdout, larger even than the enduring hold of fideist religion, is our tribal politics and our largely nonempirical government policy.)

    Ball expends a lot of time on a history of wonder vs curiosity vs dispassionate robot inquiry. People hated all of these things for various reasons, up until the Renaissance when curiosity became acceptable on what are now classic economic grounds, or in line with the Italian cult of the virtuoso - someone who's so bloody brilliant that you have to just let him get on with it.

    I always like Ball's drawling prose and catty editorialising. (For instance, Margaret Cavendish - the darling of arts academics who latch on to the only woman in sight in this period - gets a round dissing by Ball, as an anti-experiment idiot, a vitalist, and a misogynist.) Stimulating as always.

    * Bacon has some claim to being the most influential philosopher ever, in terms of counterfactual effect on history. (Rather than number of bloody citations!) No-one with his social standing was resisting the Aristotelian consensus in 1620; his prototype scientific method is a century ahead of its time. (Yes, ibn al-Haytham's was 7 centuries ahead of its time, but to limited avail.)

    ** This one is hard to refer to, because we now find it incredibly easy to understand why "go and look" works as a general route to knowledge; Medieval thought rejected this on the basis of things like the problem of induction.

    The cliched way to refer to the split between those who want to start with the apriori and those who want to start with data is "Rationalism" vs "Empiricism". But these words confuse people: the two of them are also used in a C17th debate about psychology, to do with the nature of mental content.

    More: it can't be a dichotomy, since many of the greatest rationalists (Descartes, Leibniz) were experimentalists too, doing what we now call empirical work. Three meanings of rationalism, and three words for them:
    • 'Rationalism1': Belief in innate ideas. Call it 'Continental Rationalism'. Descartes and Leibniz but not Dawkins and Shermer.

    • 'Rationalism2': Belief in the supremacy of apriori knowledge over empirical knowledge. Call it 'apriorism'. Aristotle was apriorist, as was Descartes.

    • 'Rationalism3': Belief that everything should be subject to reason and evidence. Includes Descartes and Leibniz and Dawkins and Shermer. Contemporary rationalists are highly if not radically empiricist.

    I use Alberto Vanzo's criteria for deciding if someone was enough of an experimentalist:
    let us consider four typical features of early modern experimental philosophers:

    • </i>self-descriptions: experimental philosophers typically called themselves such. At the very least, they professed their sympathy towards experimental philosophy.</li>
    • </i>friends and foes: experimental philosophers saw themselves as part of a tradition whose “patriarch” was Bacon and whose sworn enemy was Cartesian natural philosophy.</li>
    • </i>method: experimental philosophers put forward a two-stage model of natural philosophical inquiry: first, collect data by means of experiments and observations; second, build theories on the basis of them. In general, experimental philosophers emphasized the a posteriori origins of our knowledge of nature and they were wary of a priori reasonings.</li>
    • </i>rhetoric: in the jargon of experimental philosophers, the terms “experiments” and “observations” are good, “hypotheses” and “speculations” are bad. They were often described as fictions, romances, or castles in the air.

    • </ul>
      This is unusually inclusive: the famous Rationalist Leibniz counts as experimental under this rubric. But a stronger definition of aposteriorist - like "refuses to use purely analytic reasoning", or even "spent most of their time running experiments and analysing data" would exclude many contemporary scientists. Sticking with Vanzo for now.

      *** Hard to imagine a fallibilist apriorist: perhaps Lakatos. (Some say Leibniz was, in practice.) I actually have met a methodist infallibilist apriorist, but I won't meet another.

      **** I had included "openness" in the model -

      • Obscurantism vs Openness. Did they write in the vernacular? Did they publish for a wide readership? Did they spurn Noble Lies? Did they encourage replications with and data sharing? Did they build scholarly networks?

      - but I admit this is just wishful/normative thinking: modern academic science fails at this. Whether with its low-status replications, unreadable prose, paywalls on most research (tax-funded or no), pathetically low levels of data sharing, or the prevalence of noble lies... But it's definitely a core aspiration now: the greedy impulse behind hermeticism is blatantly unscientific, if not actually shunned by actual scientists. First, lip service...

      Things can be science without being published, obviously: consider the invention of public key cryptography by a GCHQ wonk, classified for 25 years - or even the secret infrastructure and algorithmics of high-frequency trading.

      ^ Obviously these five factors aren't the end of the matter either. But I reckon it catches a decent amount of the variance in the term "scientist". Others e.g.

      • Particularism vs Consilience. Did they believe that the scientific method could explain every phenomenon?

      • Realism vs Instrumentalism. Most scientists are realists about best current theories

      • Theism vs Nontheism

      I had included non-theism in the core of modern science - and so it is, in the form of strong naturalism. Scientists, on the other hand, differ from this, globally. This is partially because humans are so compartmentalised and can hold severe contradictions indefinitely. But, clearly, atheism is not an essential part of the modern method. But causal closure and (at most) a private faith are.</td> </tr>
    The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (1997) by John Henry Incredibly brief tour of the main issues raised by the Scientific Revolution. IIRC he walks the line well between the first inklings of the context of justification and the sheer STS-friendly weirdness of the context of discovery.

    The unexpected decoupling of the scientific revolution from the industrial revolution (two centuries apart!) is one of the most important facts I have ever learned.

    [maybe 4 stars, I can't remember]
    The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) by Jonathan Haidt Descriptively true (moral psychology is indeed more diverse than most philosophy or art recognises, and it is difficult to understand most of the world without recognising this). But not normatively.
    The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (2004) by John M. Barry Rousing history of one of the worst things that has ever happened: the 1918 outbreak of H1N1 flu. It focusses particularly on the great scientists who tried to fight it, none of whom I'd ever heard of. Also a meditation on epistemology, the modern mind, & the redemptive meaning of science for beasts like us.

    Barry senses that the headline result - one-third of the entire world infected, with 25-100 million dead - doesn't get enough of a rise from us. The numbers are numbing. So he couches it in modern shocking terms:
    It killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century.

    Or ten thousand 9/11s. It's worth belabouring this, because we have a weird habit of paying far more attention to human threats than natural ones, even when natural ones are far worse. (Witness our terrorism prevention budgets compared to our infectious disease control budgets, when the latter is a thousand times more lethal.)

    So: The 1918 flu was worse than the entire First World War: 40+ million died of flu compared with 17 million dead from war; 500 million lives damaged by flu vs 41 million lives by war. 3% of everyone alive died of flu, including about 8% of young adults(!).

    Except it's hard to separate the War and the pandemic. The virus was spread everywhere by unprecedented numbers of troops, and by the massive supply convoys it induced, and by the War's other human displacements. We don't know how many of the pneumonia deaths only occurred because of the logistical degradation, poverty and pestilence of wartime. There are terrible nonlinearities involved in overcrowding and global movement of troops. But add millions at least to the overall death toll caused by WWI.

    The book is in the epic mode, all the way through. (That's not a straightforward compliment.) I liked it, but I understand if it's a bit American for you:

    Man might be defined as “modern” largely to the extent that he attempts to control nature. In this relationship with nature, modern humanity has generally been the aggressor, and a daring one at that, altering the flow of rivers, building upon geological faults, and, today, even engineering the genes of existing species. Nature has generally been languid in its response, although contentious once aroused and occasionally displaying a flair for violence.

    By 1918 humankind was fully modern, and fully scientific, but too busy fighting itself to aggress against nature. Nature, however, chooses its own moments. It chose this moment to aggress against man, and it did not do so prodding languidly. For the first time, modern humanity, a humanity practicing the modern scientific method, would confront nature in its fullest rage.

    There's a long prelude describing how terrible medicine was up to the 20th Century. Medicine was "the withered arm of science". Therapeutic nihilism (that is, "we can't really do anything") was the only rational view, replacing millenia of Galenic woo.

    Stengel reviewed dozens of ideas advanced in medical journals. Gargles of various disinfectants. Drugs. Immune sera. Typhoid vaccine. Diphtheria antitoxin. But Stengel’s message was simple: This doesn’t work. That doesn’t work. Nothing worked... Nothing they were doing worked.

    Problem is, this rational scepticism created a powerful vacuum: humans need to believe something can heal, and the gap was filled with worse. Some confabulated gremlins from this time haunt us still: homeopathy, chiropractic, naturopathy, Christian Science, and (though Barry doesn't include them) the organic farming movement and psychoanalysis.

    Few people come off well. Even among the scientists, we get a horrible example of perverse priors and premature updating: an enormous proportion of all scientific resources were devoted to fighting the wrong pathogen, due to a bad guess by an extremely eminent researcher.

    Because so much of the state was occupied in war, in places there was wholesale social collapse:
    In Philadelphia meanwhile fear came and stayed. Death could come from anyone, anytime. People moved away from others on the sidewalk, avoided conversation; if they did speak, they turned their faces away to avoid the other person’s breathing.

    The impossibility of getting help compounded the isolation. 850 Philadelphia doctors and more nurses were away in the military. More than that number were sick. Philadelphia General Hospital had 126 nurses. Despite all precautions, despite wearing surgical masks and gowns, eight doctors and fifty-four nurses—43 percent of the staff—themselves required hospitalization. Ten nurses at this single hospital died. The Board of Health pleaded for help from retired nurses and doctors if they remembered “even a little” of their profession.

    When a nurse or doctor or policeman did actually come, they wore their ghostly surgical masks, and people fled them. In every home where someone was ill, people wondered if the person would die. And someone was ill in every home...

    Starr went to Emergency Hospital #2 at Eighteenth and Cherry Streets. He did have help, if it could be called that, from an elderly physician who had not practiced in years and who brought Starr into touch with the worst of heroic medicine. Starr wouldn’t forget that, the ancient arts of purging, of venesection, the ancient art of opening a patient’s vein. But for the most part he and the other students elsewhere were on their own, with little help even from nurses, who were so desperately needed that in each of ten emergency hospitals supplied by the Red Cross only a single qualified nurse was available to oversee whatever women came as volunteers. And often the volunteers reported for their duty once and, from either fear or exhaustion, did not come again.

    Nearly 1/4 of all the patients in his hospital died each day. Starr would go home, and when he returned the next day, he would find that between one-quarter and one-fifth of the patients in the hospital had died, replaced by new ones... Virtually all of them, along with their friends and relatives, were terrified that, no matter how mild the symptoms seemed at first, within them moved an alien force, a seething, spreading infection, a live thing with a will that was taking over their bodies — and could be killing them...
    The city was frozen with fear, frozen into stillness. Starr lived 12 miles from the hospital. The streets were silent on his drive home, silent. They were so silent he took to counting the cars he saw. One night he saw no cars at all. He thought, “The life of the city had almost stopped.”

    Everyone can read the collapse of official power in Philadelphia as supporting their politics. Anarchists can point to the benevolent spontaneous order that arose after the corrupt local government failed to act; libertarians can point out that this spontaneous order was all funded by the richest Philadelphians; statists can point out that, without actually-authoritative co-ordination, the effort eventually failed, because people defected against each other, in fear.
    The corpses had backed up at undertakers’, filling every area of these establishments and pressing up into living quarters; in hospital morgues overflowing into corridors; in the city morgue overflowing into the street. And they had backed up in homes. They lay on porches, in closets, in corners of the floor, on beds. Children would sneak away from adults to stare at them, to touch them; a wife would lie next to a dead husband, unwilling to move him or leave him. The corpses, reminders of death and bringers of terror or grief, lay under ice at Indian-summer temperatures. Their presence was constant, a horror demoralizing the city; a horror that could not be escaped. Finally the city tried to catch up to them.

    The police wore their ghostly surgical masks, and people fled them, but the masks had no effect on the viruses and by mid-October thirty-three policemen had died, with many more to follow...
    More coffins came by rail, guarded by men with guns.

    "There is, therefore, but one response possible from us: Force! force to the utmost, force without stint or limit, the righteous and triumphant force which shall make right the law of the world and cast every selfish dominion down in the dust. "
    - Woodrow Wilson addressing one of his money-lending mobs.

    Wilson tends to be viewed pretty positively, just because he won. ("at last the world knows America as the savior of the world!") But he perverted an entire state and nation to do so, ignored the terrible suffering of his own damn population for years, and refused a conditional peace with Austria in August and with the Kaiser's new parliament in September. (This meant 30-70 extra days of war, which, if this period was as lethal as the rest of the war, means up to 800,000 completely unnecessary deaths, not to mention the continuing waste of resources during the worst epidemic ever). Wilson did great evil, was not much different from the Kaiser, the election aside.

    the military suctioned more and more nurses and physicians into cantonments, aboard ships, into France, until it had extracted nearly all the best young physicians. Medical care for civilians deteriorated rapidly. The doctors who remained in civilian life were largely either incompetent young ones or those over forty-five years of age, the vast majority of whom had been trained in the old ways of medicine.

    Barry's middle chapters are a frightening portrait of how rabidly un-American the US was in 1918. The laws were bad enough - for instance the ban on criticising the government. But then there's the unofficial "patriotic duties", punishable by beatings. State-sponsored atavism.

    By the summer of 1918, however, Wilson had injected the government into every facet of national life and had created great bureaucratic engines to focus all the nation’s attention and intent on the war.

    He had created a Food Administration to control and distribute food, a Fuel Administration to ration coal and gasoline, a War Industries Board to oversee the entire economy. He had taken all but physical control over the railroads and had created a federally sponsored river barge line that brought commerce back to life on the Mississippi River, a commerce that had been killed by competition from those railroads. He had built many dozens of military installations, each of which held at least tens of thousands of soldiers or sailors. He had created industries that made America’s shipyards teem with hundreds of thousands of laborers launching hundreds of ships, dug new coal mines to produce coal for the factories that weaned America’s military from British and French weapons and munitions—for, unlike in World War II, America was no arsenal of democracy.

    He had created a vast propaganda machine, an internal spy network, a bond-selling apparatus... He had even succeeded in stifling speech, in the summer of 1918 arresting and imprisoning — some for prison terms longer than ten years —not just radical labor leaders and editors of German-language newspapers but powerful men, even a congressman.

    He had injected the government into American life in ways unlike any other in the nation’s history. And the final extension of federal power had come only in the spring of 1918, after the first wave of influenza had begun jumping from camp to camp, when the government expanded the draft from males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty to those between the ages of eighteen and forty-five. Only on May 23, 1918, had Provost Marshal Enoch Crowder, who oversaw the draft, issued his “work or fight” order, stating that anyone not employed in an essential industry would be drafted...

    Crowder bragged about doing “in a day what the Prussian autocracy had been spending nearly fifty years to perfect..."

    In mid-August, as the lethal wave of the epidemic was gathering itself, Austria had already inquired about peace terms, an inquiry that Wilson rebuffed utterly. And as the epidemic was gathering full momentum, peace was only weeks away. Bulgaria had signed an armistice on September 29. On September 30, Kaiser Wilhelm had granted parliamentary government to the German nation; that same day Ludendorff had warned his government that Germany must extend peace feelers or disaster—immediate disaster—would follow. German diplomats sent out those feelers. Wilson ignored them. The Central Powers, Germany and her allies, were simultaneously breaking off one from one another and disintegrating internally as well. In the first week of October, Austria and Germany separately sent peace feelers to the Allies, and on October 7, Austria delivered a diplomatic note to Wilson formally seeking peace on any terms Wilson chose. Ten days later — days of battle and deaths — the Austrian note remained unanswered.

    Earlier Wilson had spoken of a “peace without victory,” believing only such a peace could last. But now he gave no indication that the war would soon be over. Although a rumor that the war had ended sent thrills through the nation, Wilson quickly renounced it. Nor would he relent. He was not now fighting to the death; he was fighting only to kill...

    If Wilson and his government would not be turned from his end even by the prospect of peace, they would hardly be turned by a virus. And the reluctance, inability, or outright refusal of the American government to shift targets would contribute to the killing. Wilson took no public note of the disease, and the thrust of the government was not diverted. The relief effort for influenza victims would find no assistance in the Food Administration or the Fuel Administration or the Railroad Administration. From neither the White House nor any other senior administration post would there come any leadership, any attempt to set priorities, any attempt to coordinate activities, any attempt to deliver resources.

    ...the military would give no help to civilians. Instead it would draw further upon civilian resources. The same day that Welch had stepped out of the autopsy room at Devens and called Gorgas’s office, his warning had been relayed to the army chief of staff, urging that all transfers be frozen unless absolutely necessary and that under no circumstances transfers from infected camps be made... Gorgas’s superiors ignored the warning. There was no interruption of movement between camps whatsoever; not until weeks later, with the camps paralyzed and, literally, tens of thousands of soldiers dead or dying, did the army make any adjustments.

    Because the disease was everywhere, ravaging the entire species (and beyond), the book can't cover everything. Very little is said about non-Americans, i.e about 98% of the death and chaos. This is partly because there just isn't a lot of evidence about them, despite their influenza immunity and medical care being even worse. (This is why the top estimates reach 100m deaths, three times the median estimate.) Here is a passage about just a tiny number of them, in the north:
    In Alaska, whites protected themselves. Sentries guarded all trails, and every person entering the city was quarantined for five days. Eskimos had no such luck. A senior Red Cross official warned that without “immediate medical assistance the race” could become “extinct.”...

    The navy provided the collier USS Brutus to carry a relief expedition... They found terrible things. One doctor visited ten tiny villages and found “three wiped out entirely; others average 85% deaths… Survivors generally children… probably 25% frozen to death before help arrived.”

    The virus probably did not kill all of them directly. But it struck so suddenly it left no one well enough to care for any others, no one to get food, no one to get water. And those who could have survived, surrounded by bodies, bodies of people they loved, might well have preferred to go where their family had gone, might well have wanted to no longer be alone... Two hundred sixty-six people had lived in Okak, and many dogs, dogs nearly wild. When the virus came, it struck so hard so fast people could not care for themselves or feed the dogs. The dogs grew hungry, crazed with hunger, devoured each other, then wildly smashed through windows and doors, and fed... In all of Labrador, at least one-third the total population died.

    Barry commits at least one big error: he's horrified by the medical schools of the time having "no standards for admission":
    In research and education especially, American medicine lagged far behind [European medicine]... At least one hundred US medical schools would accept any man willing to pay tuition... and only a single medical school required its student to have a college degree... the Johns Hopkins itself, not student fees, paid [its] faculty salaries, and it required medical students to have not only a college degree but fluency in French and German and a background of science courses.

    But his enthusiasm for Johns Hopkins introducing the college degree requirement is misplaced. Contemporary US doctors (who all have 3 years of pre-med, or even more college, before they start medical training) are probably no better clinicians than undergraduate doctors in other countries, and are far further in debt. This requirement is probably one reason the American system is so fucked.

    I suppose Barry is just confusing the open admissions situation with the schools' appallingly low graduation standards, which is certainly one reason eC20th medicine sucked. (Many doctors had never looked down a microscope, never used a stethoscope on a patient, never seen a dissection.)

    PS: Mostly unimportant corrections by a virologist here. Reply to these from Barry here.
    Zeitgeber (2019) by Greg Egan Sweet and straightforward by his standards.
    Criticism and Truth (1966) by Roland Barthes Oh, a French literary figure writing against clarity? Do tell.

    (This is unfair, it's a good faith argument which I cannot remember any single premise of, 10 years on. Bet you it includes "Whose clarity? Whence it's classification?" though.)
    Single-Bit Error () by Ken Liu Cute stuff, fan fiction for Chiang's "Hell is the Absence of God". The programmer spending his evenings reading poems at open mics, really living, is a cliche I haven't seen before (if you see what I mean).

    Programmers are not really numbers people,” Tyler said. “We are words people. The numbers people work in hardware.”

    Very earnest, slightly flat.
    Ultimate Rock-Paper-Scissors () by Inukorosuke Great fun, like a Rube Goldberg machine. (Inevitability and surprise.)

    The clairvoyant vs the telepath in particular is a near epistemic logic puzzle.
    Peter Watts Is An Angry Sentient Tumor: Revenge Fantasies and Essays (2019) by Peter Watts
    Eleven years after the birth of the most neurologically remarkable, philosophically mind-blowing, transhumanistically-relevant being on the planet, we have nothing but pop-sci puff pieces and squishy documentaries to show for it. Are we really supposed to believe that in over a decade no one has done the studies, collected the data, gained any insights about literal brain-to-brain communication, beyond these fuzzy generalities? I for one don’t buy that for a second. These neuroscientists smiling at us from the screen—Douglas Cochrane, Juliette Hukin—they know what they’ve got. Maybe they’ve discovered something so horrific about the nature of Humanity that they’re afraid to reveal it, for fear of outrage and widespread panic. That would be cool.

    Blogposts from a thoughtful doomer. Name a hot button, anything, and he will elevate it to the scariest thing in the world: internet surveillance, zoonotic viruses, climate change, Trump, the security detail around the G8. Bloody-minded sympathy, Left nihilism, boundless sensawunda, viscera instead of prose - and but deep unreliability when he gets on a subject besides marine biology. He is vulnerable to anything cool or fucked up. I like him a lot, but I'm worried if I find myself agreeing with him, since he so often misleads himself.
    If I am indeed fated to sink into this pit of surveillance capitalism with the rest of you, I’d just as soon limit my fantasies about eating the rich to a venue that doesn’t shut you down the moment some community-standards algo thinks it sees an exposed nipple in a jpeg.

    Everything he does is excessive. Of course, this makes for good aesthetics and bad epistemics.

    Like Charlie Stross, Watts reads horrifying things into the news, informed by the toxic half of history but also by a nebulous paranoia which leads them astray. (Representative sample from Stross: "[media incentive] has been weaponized, in conjunction with data mining of the piles of personal information social networks try to get us to disclose (in the pursuit of advertising bucks), to deliver toxic propaganda straight into the eyeballs of the most vulnerable — with consequences that are threaten to undermine the legitimacy of democratic governmance on a global scale.". Watts:
    Bureaucratic and political organisms are like any other kind; they exist primarily to perpetuate themselves at the expense of other systems. You cannot convince such an organism to act against its own short-term interests... It’s not really news, but we seem to be living in a soft dictatorship. The only choices we’re allowed to make are those which make no real difference... On a purely selfish level I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life, happier than I deserve. Of course it won’t last. I do not expect to die peacefully, and I do not expect to die in any jurisdiction with a stable infrastructure. At least I don’t have to worry about the world I’m leaving behind for my children; I got sterilized in 1991.

    The two biggest fumbles here are his posts on Daryl Bem and high-functioning hydrocephalic people. It is no shame to fall for either: these are highly respectable academic hoaxes, and Bem's methods were exactly as valid as the average psychology paper of the early C21st. Watts' mistake isn't to insist that ESP is real, but to leap to the defence of the weird just because it is weird, to the point where he rejects Hume's maxim ("Laplace's principle"), a basic incontrovertible theorem of Bayesian inference.
    these results, whatever you thought of them, were at least as solid as those used to justify the release of new drugs to the consumer market. I liked that. It set things in perspective, although in hindsight, it probably said more about the abysmal state of Pharma regulation... I’m perfectly copacetic with the premise that psychology is broken. But if the field is really in such disrepair, why is it that none of those myriad less-rigorous papers acted as a wake-up call? Why snooze through so many decades of hack analysis only to pick on a paper which, by your own admission, is better than most?

    The question, here in the second decade of the 21st Century, is: what constitutes an “extraordinary claim”? A hundred years ago it would have been extraordinary to claim that a cat could be simultaneously dead and alive; fifty years ago it would have been extraordinary to claim that life existed above the boiling point of water, kilometers deep in the earth’s crust. Twenty years ago it was extraordinary to suggest that the universe was not only expanding but that the rate of expansion was accelerating. Today, physics concedes the theoretical possibility of time travel

    Another big miss is his emphasis on adaptive sociopathy as the cause of our problems, rather than say global coordination problems. He is also completely off the deep end on climate change as existential risk, sneering at anyone who disagrees, no matter how well-informed.
    there’s no denying that pretty much every problem in the biosphere hails from a common cause. Climate change, pollution, habitat loss, the emptying of biodiversity from land sea and air, an extinction rate unparalleled since the last asteroid and the transformation of our homeworld into a planet of weeds—all our fault, of course. There are simply too many of us. Over seven billion already, and we still can’t keep it in our pants.

    Notice the pattern: faced with an apparent dilemma, he happily chucks the strongest, most basic principles to maintain his paranoia (the principles "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" or here "it is good for people to have children if they want, good lives have worth").

    This bias would be entirely fine if he only admitted error later, about his predicted Trump race riots for instance.
    The real danger isn’t so much Trump himself, but the fact that his victory has unleashed and empowered an army of bigoted assholes down at street level. That’s what’s gonna do the most brutal damage.

    Most posts are entertaining but betray one-way critical thinking: for some reason he can barely see the other half of the world, that we are winning in all kinds of ways.

    Lots of learned and fun film reviews here: I relax, since criticism need have no truth-value. He likes 'Arrival' more than 'Story of Your Life', which fits: the film is bombastic, paranoid, politicised, unsubtle.
    When you can buy the whole damn store and the street it sits on with pocket change; when you can buy the home of the asshole who just disrespected you and have it bulldozed; when you can use your influence to get that person fired in the blink of an eye and turn her social media life into a living hell—the fact that you don’t do any of those things does not mean that you’ve been oppressed. It means you’ve been merciful to someone you could just as easily squash like a bug... Marvel’s mutants are something like that. We’re dealing, after all, with people who can summon storm systems with their minds and melt steel with their eyes. Xavier can not only read any mind on the planet, he can freeze time, for fucksake. These have got to be the worst case-studies in oppression you could imagine.

    it still seems a bit knee-jerky to complain about depictions of objectification in a movie explicitly designed to explore the ramifications of objectification. (You could always fall back on Foz Meadows’ rejoinder that “Depiction isn’t endorsement, but it is perpetuation”, so long as you’re the kind of person who’s willing to believe that Schindler’s List perpetuates anti-Semitism and The Handmaid’s Tale perpetuates misogyny.)

    Watts reacts with caution and indignation to any police presence, even a compassionate visit to the homeless man sleeping in his garden. It would crude to explain away Watts' style and worldview by reference to his unusually bad luck: his flesh-eating disease, his inexplicable beatdown and prosecution by border cops, his publishing travails, his scientific and romantic flops.

    Disclaimer: I'm probably only so down on him because I got so excited by Blindsight and its promise of actual science fiction by an actual scientist. He is certainly well above-average rigour for a political blogger, and well above-average imagination for anyone. Plus a star if you're in it for the ride, the anecdotes, and not for reliable info.
    Painless (2019) by Rich Larson Violent, weird, great.
    Introduction to Natural Language Processing () by Jacob Eisenstein Extremely mixed. First chapter is great, a nice high-level summary of the difficult history of getting computers to understand us, and the many fields and field factions involved. (Linguistics is a deep science that in large part taught CS how to do theory, but certain of its dogmas - against probabilities, against machine learning - ended up holding it back for decades.)

    But chapters 2-5 are bad: weird notation, and almost no diagrams for lots of natively geometric ideas. That said, fig 3.3. is a great essence of backprop. I switched to Jurafsky afterward.

    [Free here]
    Titanicus (Sabbat Worlds) (2008) by Dan Abnett Top shelf mind candy. There are several sides to 40k: the original indie English lulz, the corporate grimdark edginess which misses the irony, and then what the few real writers make of it. (Ian Watson and Abnett are two I know about.)

    The first 150 pages here have no giant robots, only the quiet apprehensive horror of a war economy, war emotions. Lovers parted by conscription, blocks of lives traded for nothing, the belligerent joy of a public which hasn't lost its first battle yet. Then you get plenty of omnipotent bots, a conspiracy, and two parties in desperate retreat.

    I like the Mechanicus because, unlike the rest of their society they are half-rational, occasionally have to confront the pervasive superstition and noble lies.

    Several times you get a unique twist on PTSD, from old men who spent decades inhabiting a war machine:
    Zink hobbled over to his hut at the best full stride his old legs could manage. He took out the worn step ladder that he used for pruning the boughs of the ploin trees, and carried it back to the west wall. This execution took the best part of half an hour, and Zink had to stop and catch his breath twice. More than twice, he forgot what he was about and began to carry the ladder back to the hut. When he reached the wall, he came about, two points, low stride, west rotation, and dragged the ladder into the wet flowerbeds.

    I struggle a bit with the psychology of the wicked Satanic enemy. Even in thoughtful authors like Abnett their motivations and strategies are too predictably vicious, too unsustainable - they've invaded this planet, fine, but then they blow up half the cities in it. So what's the point of invading?
    The archenemy, in his long experience, often ignored
    tactical logic or strategic merit, but this was an odd choice even by the archenemy’s perverse standards.

    An enemy who was so haphazard, divided, unstrategic would struggle to threaten a whole organised empire. They could just be terrorists, or value suffering itself, or just be damaging infrastructure for the wider conflict. But this is a flat worldview, one you can't do anything with except backdrop the nobility of your own characters. Which is one reason there's not a lot of literature in this canon. Abnett compensates well as usual, with flawed and distinctive protagonists, rigorous fantasy logistics and tactics, nice setpieces, plenty of humanising nonmilitary detail, and good satisfying betrayals.
    turn push | turn pull (2012) by Kit Fryatt
    every grain atom & drop in its entirety is protected by copyright

    [poems about poems] need to be about something else too

    Cryptic but eh come on, search engines exist now.
    The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts (1953) by Arthur Miller None yet
    Back-green Odyssey () by Alastair Mackie
    We spoke o girds, scuds, quines, bleedy doctors…
    I’m richt glad the auld words still come back
    like migrant swallas, black shears o the gloamin.
    Marx we hadna heard o, only the Marx brithers.
    This was oor grunwork, the hard pan o oor lives.
    A sma bit street that hirpled doun a brae.
    Whitever roads I took since then I
    began wi workin fowk in granite tenements.
    Aa the lave was superstructure.

    A sincere internationalist in an indecipherable local dialect, like many Scots poets. Allusions to Mallarmé and Valéry, Pushkin and Eurydice, in a voice they'd only stare at.
    Double Eagle (Sabbat Worlds #1) (2004) by Dan Abnett None yet
    Machine Learning: The Art and Science of Algorithms That Make Sense of Data (2012) by Peter Flach Short, friendly, smooth, repetitive. First ML book where I didn't feel dumb.
    The Bed of Procrustes (2010) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb None yet
    The Inquisition War (The Inquisition War #1-3) (2004) by Ian Watson The most interesting piece in Games Workshop's vast, clanking archives. It isn't canon: Watson does too much in this, messes with the profitable stasis of the last years of the 41st millennium too much. The nearest thing to Illuminatus! or Snow Crash.
    The Economics Anti-Textbook: A Critical Thinker's Guide to Microeconomics (2010) by Roderick Hill Useful counterweight to the many lies-to-children told in proper undergraduate textbooks. And it is often useful to be reminded of the ideological nonsense that surrounds even mathematised fields.

    But, read on its own, this won't tell you the power and generality of some economic results and risks confirmation bias. (In my teenage case it licenced my not bothering to do the maths, not allowing my own ideological nonsense to be shaken - but I don't expect you to be so vicious.)
    The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon - The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World (2001) by Steven L. Kent None yet
    Spark: The Definitive Guide: Big Data Processing Made Simple () by Bill Chambers It's fine, covers everything shallowly. The API changes so frequently that you probably need this book: 95% of the Google hits for a given Spark feature are now either wrong or suboptimal.
    How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems (2019) by Randall Munroe Oddly unaffecting - I loved What If?, and this follows a very similar formula, but it's flatter somehow, the understatement less funny, the maths less astonishing.

    The few chapters where he starts with a ridiculous naive approach (e.g. ski by dragging a train of liquid nitrogen which you spray in your path) and then iterates until he gets to the existing technology (roller skates) are satisfying. Chris Hadfield's nerd-chic understatement is funny, but that's probably just because of who he is.

    Still a vector for mathematical modelling, but eh.
    Against a Dark Background (1993) by Iain M. Banks One of his darkest; darker than the one with a real hell. Stuffed full of plot, rammed full of details - a dozen cities on three planets, each with their own economic or cultural or religious setup. There's: a huge war over economic policy; a primitivist misotheist theocracy; a bunch of murderous millenarians; a group of solipsist mercenaries who each think they're the only person in the world; a World Tree ecology; a giant raft city; a talking deus ex machina; two world conspiracies; a man raised from birth to be the perfect revolutionary leader; the fall of a trillionaire dynasty; terrible, maximally vicious sibling rivalry; a beautiful android city full of likeable people being competent and deep. The protagonists pull off about a dozen missions in varied landscapes with various goals. But it's all just sketched, since the 12 worlds he builds are vying for the same 700 pages.
    We are a race prone to monsters, and when we produce one we worship it. What kind of world, what translation of good could come from all that's happened here?

    And I didn't like any of the protagonists; they're all a glib kind of hedonist. The leader, Sharrow, is tacitly remorseful about the many terrible things she does, but at no point does she stop doing them.
    People were always sorry... The sorrow never stopped them; it just made them feel better. And so the sorrow never stopped.

    The dastardly ubermensch Big Bad only appears in the last 5% of the book.
    Killing Geis with a bullet she wouldn't have if she were more responsible is one way to justify her attitude I guess.
    In killing Geis, Sharrow saves the World Court, or anyway the Court/Rebel States status quo. The ending doesn't resolve anything, fine, but I was amazed that we didn't have her recovering the Gun. It's one thing to leave ambiguity about what's next, but it's not really clear what Sharrow's options are. She lost her crew, killed her family (including the son), is no longer hunted by the Huhsz, gets Feril boxed for a century, has a prosecution coming, and doesn't give a fuck about anything. But she has a cool motorbike.
    Bank's scifi is unusually emotionally fraught, focussed on inner life. Sharrow vs Breyguhn is very tragic and quite believable, for all that it makes me dismiss Sharrow as an impulsive heartless fool.

    * The Huhsz, the millenarians, are actually quite marginal, despite the first 200 pages setting them up to be central.
    * Odd portrait of a very advanced (10000 year old), fairly stable capitalism. They manage to ban things (like bioweapons), and manage to prosecute trillionaires.
    * Feril goes straight in the all-time gallery of Wise Cinnamon-bun AIs we don't deserve. (Along with Lt Cmd Data, Constable Dorfl, TARS, Iron Giant, GCU Grey Area, Wall-E).
    * I didn't buy the superior ancient tech thing, here. Golter has a mostly-functional academic and state apparatus, and is able to do many things we can't; it's implausible that they wouldn't manage to reverse-engineer things over thousands of years
    * Nice echoing of the Solipsists in Sharrow at the end:
    The blood pumped and coursed within her, and with each beat the whole edifice seemed to quake and pulse and shiver, as though for all its mountainous solidity the Sea House was merely a projection, something held in the power of her blood-quickened eyes.

    * The Lazy Guns sound exactly like Culture tech, quasi-sentient to boot. But their presence in this remote "orphan" system is odd, and it doesn't fit to have the Culture either dump or lose such weapons.

    Banks is less subtle than I thought he was, as a teen. Good if you prefer worlds to characters.
    The Wish List (2000) by Eoin Colfer None yet
    Delta-V (2019) by Daniel Suarez Hopeful and precise. Surprisingly moving, in the second half anyway. The prose is flat, economical, and repetitive (for instance, every time the characters do pre-emptive oxygen saturation before a spacewalk, Suarez tells you so), but if you like space or engineering detail you'll be fine. It's billed as (very) hard scifi, but there was actually less physics and more economics in it than I was expecting (and still too much kinematic exposition for most readers, I guess). It's "hard" in the sense that every technology in this already exists in some form, if only prototype or protoprototype, that every celestial body mentioned exists in that location, that the energy budget of the crew is taken seriously - "gravity wells are for suckers" - that their (even safety-critical) software has many terrible bugs. (Though I thought this was implausible:
    The flight suits were meant only for short, emergency EVAs, but without access to the ship's network, the clam suits' high-tech helmets were inert.
    Why not completely local processing? Why not use the lo-tech visor instead?

    The most moving part was Nicole's euthanasia scene, though the anguish of Goff's stupid robots and extortion is also quite big. Some of the most important things in the world rely on sacrifice, and really we should be more moved by the death of an asteroid miner than that of a soldier in a typical war. One is driving the species forward, one is crab-wrestling in a bucket.

    Why is space so moving? Well there's the stated reason, via Hawking:

    With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics, and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious.

    But does this argument from reduction of existential risk go through? Probably not - most x-risk is due to us, not volcanoes or asteroids or gamma bursts, and we should expect this kind of risk to reduce only modestly in a multiplanetary setting, since the act of colonisation carries the risk source, us, with it; and there are much cheaper and more developed ways of preventing extinction, like arms control and AI research. And we're (even) more likely to have large conflicts when the cultural distances, between planetary civilisations, are so much larger.

    So what? Is it our genes, new-pastures wanderlust? The sheer scale?

    There's a lot of ostentation in the book, unnecessary mentions of Zegna suits and fancy watches and whatnot (perhaps intended to make us suspicious of the investors and lawyers who wear them - but we already have them admitting that they are motivated by egomania and envy). The billionaire at the heart of the plot is a suitable mix of inspirational, reckless, authoritarian, noble, ignoble.

    Props to Suarez for using SpaceEngine and Kerbal to model the precise trajectory of his crew, though many extra points would have accrued had he open-sourced the run, for the purposes of scientific hermeneutics. Also for his bibliography and dissing Mars colonisation.

    Suarez' claim that a single asteroid trip could make a trillion dollars is contradicted in the Weinersmith's pop book, where they emphasise the legal headaches, and that the profits are conditional on a huge increase in human space activity (otherwise not much demand for your LEO wares). This is all I know, and it's not very strong evidence either way.


    How does it do as Serious science fiction?

    Social development: None. One thing which doesn't happen much IRL is the financial and literal suicide mission by a billionaire for the purposes of driving humanity forward, but this is just ordinary audacity scaled up. I like the extrapolation of Luxembourg's space industry, the ultimate colonial underwriting. The secret construction of a spaceship in HEO is implausible at the moment but might not be in a few decades.

    Software development: Yes! The mission is almost lost several times due to software problems, and Ade is the most critical crewmember because of his top monkeypatching and hacking skills (hacking in both senses).

    Actual science: Yes. The gravity ship is actually basic physics, just incredibly hard and expensive engineering (Joyce drops something like $45bn on the project, which sounds about right). The economic argument about moving and constructing everything outside of gravity wells seems incontrovertible to me.
    What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) by Raymond Carver I'm surprised to find Carver relying on punchlines - last-line narrative puns - in most of these stories. There is: a lot of rambling, a lot of meanness (breakups, fights, conversations that would be much healthier if they were honest fights), and then a transcendent or transcendently degraded last line. It would almost be not worth reading if you lost all the last lines. Here's what I mean by a pun - from 'The Calm':
    But today I was thinking of that place, of Crescent City, and of how I was trying out a new life there with my wife, and how, in the barber's chair that morning, I had made up my mind to go. I was thinking today about the calm I felt when I closed my eyes and let the barber's fingers move through my hair, the sweetness of those fingers, the hair already starting to grow.
    I expected him to care for his wretches.

    The one from the wife's perspective, 'So Much Water So Close To Home' is the only standout. Completely menacing with almost no action, no flash. Good portraits of the oafish, as opposed to the rapey, as opposed to the long-suffering. I can't decide if the last line is acquiescence or perversity.

    The title story is surprisingly slight, a 16-page Symposium with oddly inarticulate, repetitive drinkers. (One has ~10 years of college education, and but he's the most primitive.) You could put this down to naturalism and forget it entirely, but for its two great lines. (The story is, then, a fine thing for the protagonist of Birdman to stage - self-defeating, opaque, not as deep as it wants.)

    Stories like these live or die on dialogue, and there's neither enough heft or polish in their chat for me. I always get Chandler and Carver mixed up (yeah, I know) - but if I didn't, I'd go for Chandler every time. The lowness of Chandler is Gothic, stylised, and somehow less general.

    Plus one star for SMWSCTH.
    For the Emperor (Ciaphas Cain #1) (2003) by Sandy Mitchell None yet
    Learning Spark (2013) by Mark Hamstra None yet
    Eisenhorn (Eisenhorn #1-3) (2004) by Dan Abnett Abnett is extremely good at what he does. This has less action than his best though.
    Dawn of the Dumb: Dispatches from the Idiotic Frontline (2007) by Charlie Brooker None yet
    Screen Burn (2004) by Charlie Brooker None yet
    Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahneman A surprising victim of the replication crisis. Only about 10% of the claims have been struck down, but that's a bad attrition rate for just 5 years.

    Effects strongly promoted in this that have so far been strongly questioned by failed replication:

    - The Florida effect (words connotating old age make you walk slower)
    - Money priming (thinking about money makes you selfish)
    - Cognitive disfluency and its purported system 2 benefits
    - Ego depletion
    - Hungry judges certainly don't give harsher sentences by two-standard-deviations.
    - And anti-hot-hand views.

    (I don't know what the general attrition rate of claims in nonfiction is, though. Another reason to disfavour books from immature sciences.)

    It is a great book, wise and practical. It is just hard to tell what parts of it will not decay.
    Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) by Richard M. Rorty Couldn't judge, will try again.
    Supernova in the East I- (Hardcore History, #62-) (2018) by Dan Carlin None yet
    Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers (1997) by Jan Gullberg Disarming, unpretentious, funny, deep.
    On the Pleasure of Hating (1826) by William Hazlitt Toty brace of magazine pieces in which he philosophises bare-knuckle fights, juggling, and yes petty hatred. He’s cute, what with his italicised phrases that are now clichés (“blue ruin”), his enthusiasm for enthusiasm, his mid-sentence verse quotations, his Latinate insults (“O procul, este profani”), and enthusiastic woe. is reaction to seeing someone juggle four balls at once:
    It makes me ashamed of myself. I ask what there is I can do as well as this? Nothing. What have I been doing all my life? … What abortions are these Essays! How little is made out, and that little how ill! Yet they are the best I can do.

    The essay that’s from is about juggling and the concept Greatness and the character of a dear dead sportsman friend – and all this in 20 pages. Big man, only sometimes clotted in the seven-clause sentences of his age.
    Governing the World: The Rise and Fall of an Idea, 1815 to the Present (2012) by Mark Mazower Casually brilliant and oddly fond history of the UN et al.

    Practical cosmopolitanism - the promotion of any supranational structure at all - was for a long long time a view held only by strange people indeed - visionaries and ranters and scifi writers - until it was suddenly in the works, laboured over by full secretariats with big bucks.

    Mazower puzzles over why the US and Britain put so much into these structures, when the previous world order suited them fine. Answer? "Camouflage."
    The Adoption Papers (1991) by Jackie Kay Strong, po-faced verse portrait of her own birth and adoption, in three voices. Really lovely details throughout – her mother hiding all her Communist décor for first meeting the birth mother; Kay kissing her poster of Angela Davis goodnight, a traumatic, funny dismissal of the idea that your real mother has to be your birth mother
    (“After mammy telt me she wisna my real mammy I wis scared to death she wis gonna melt…”).

    Meeting her bio-mum much later, Kay’s disillusionment is subtly and truly done: “the blood does not bind confusion” (mop it up, like carbon dioxide). It becomes apparent that Kay has just created the birth mother character – her mouth filled with vivid Plathian violence and articulate confusion not born out by the real woman. If so, more the better.

    See also ‘I try my absolute best’, a perfect snapshot of misguided C20th hippy despair at agrichemicals.
    Inventing the Enemy: Essays (2011) by Umberto Eco Calm, panoptic and ennobling. (Funniest clause all month: “thus Lenin was a neo-Thomist – without of course realising it.”)

    There’s good sad Realism under his playful semiotic historicism: only lazy academic cliques prevent people seeing that the critical realist & the pomo skylark can coexist. So it’s a surprise but not a shock to see him use basically Johnson’s defence against relativism.

    Eco chides the Church with its own history! The title essay is composed of quotations from virulent historical racists / misogynists / puritans: it's hard to read.

    He walks the difficult line between being maximally clear & slightly banal (thus he says things like “Fire is a metaphor for many impulses…”, but also:
    Trying to understand other people means destroying the stereotype without denying or ignoring the otherness.
    ). Whose side is he on? The text’s!
    Computational Logic and Human Thinking (2011) by Robert Kowalski Nice mission: to teach computer logic to humans to help them think. (Returning logic to its normative roots.) But Kowalski immediately strays from this to also try to build "a comprehensive, logic-based theory of human intelligence". By aiming at both pragmatic self-help and grand, metaphysical, qualitative psychology, it's too ambitious - or rather, appropriately ambitious but using the wrong tools.

    (The right tools are unknown but probably include decision theory, statistics, distributed representations, the Bayesian or predictive brain - none of which Kowalski foregrounds. He talks about inferring causes - without using Causal Inference; about doing abduction - without probabilities; about production systems - without the more mature Predictive Processing calculus.)

    Kowalski praises a few bad theories, like Fodor's version of language of thought, and Gardner's multiple intelligences. (And Cyc isn't marked as a failure.) But also good theories: dual-process psychology, Sperber's relevance theory.

    The best bit is where he links cognitive biases to naive logical rules
    The computational interpretation [of dual process theory] is that, when an agent is deliberative, its behaviour is controlled by a high-level program, which manipulates symbols that have meaningful interpretations in the environment. But when the agent is intuitive, its behaviour is generated by a low-level program or physical device...

    The logical interpretation of dual process theories is that, when an agent is deliberative, its behaviour is generated by reasoning with high-level goals and beliefs. When the agent is intuitive, its behaviour is determined by low-level input–output associations, even if these associations can also be represented in logical form.

    It's also a friendly introduction to more recent logics. Perhaps too friendly - if you think that formal symbols always make things harder to think about, I recommend comparing learning logic from this vs a good semiformal text like Tomassi. The bloat of English compared to symbols is about 20x, and the overheads are impossible to miss.

    It is at least what I hoped it would be: a very clear introduction to good old "GOFAI" in all its rigour, grandiosity and narrowness. (There are maybe 600 definitions in this.) I wanted a logician's (or logic programmer's) view on AI, and I got it (from the technical appendices). CL is impressive and authoritative on a small number of tasks, but it's just not generally promising, and hasn't been for a long time. This 2011 book read like a time capsule from the 1970s, before Prolog and Cyc had soured, before the Winter. (I should clarify that inductive logic programming is a live research programme - I'm going to work on it myself - but only in combination with the ruling statistical methods.) I actually don't understand how he can think that this approach is the answer - is it unkind to put it down to decades of sunk cost?

    I also thought it might be a more rigorous version of Algorithms to Live By, and I suppose it is, but at the cost of its practicality.
    Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson Fun, highly dated in ways that I find charming rather than vitiating (e.g. he has to explain to us what a hard disk is). His depiction of software, that ineliminable agent of our present and our future, is still better than 95% of scifi and 99.9% of lit-fic.

    The plot is so clunky and over-the-top that Stephenson needs to actually embody all the necessary exposition in the form of a scholar personal assistant (which I would give bags of cash to have).

    I fail to see what's satirical about it; certainly I know Stephenson doesn't believe that Sumerian is a neurolinguistic virus - but author disbelief is not sufficient for satire. Is he satirising Julian Jaynes? Cyberpunk? Hacker supremacism? If so, he failed because Snow Crash is a vivid and sympathetic instance of these things.
    Information: The New Language of Science (2003) by Hans Christian Von Baeyer Elementary philosophy of science focussing on Wheeler's "Really Big Questions" about the foundations of physics, in particular the 'digital physics'. (The Questions are ‘How come existence?’, ‘Why the quantum?’, ‘It from bit?’, ‘What makes meaning?’)

    Which wasn't what I was expecting from an out-of-print hardback tome by a serious physicist - particularly with that grand title - but still: nice. In fact it's hard to imagine anyone writing out these first steps any friendlier (ok, maybe Ben Orlin). Its technical work feels effortless; think Schroedinger's What is Life? (which von Baeyer actually corrects, in passing).

    I needed a book on the method / meta-field surrounding mathematical "information", because it has surrounded me: it threatens to encompass science. Just as "energy" eventually became a unifying pillar of all the natural sciences, information has infiltrated that same salient:

    Energy <-> Entropy <-> Information.

    And then into other sciences: vB hints that we should see bits as money as ML-performance as Fisher information as VNM utility, which would seize about half of theoretical science.

    Info theory is a core part of a mathematico-philosophical witch's brew: computability, decision theory, computational complexity, Bayesian statistics, digital physics, quantum computing. Which together take big steps towards the naturalisation of logic - or, more, of maths - or more, of thought. (And is information larger than thought?) And/or the dematerialisation of physics?

    von Baeyer builds it all up, so we get Clausius (1852) for thermodynamics, Boltzmann (1877) for entropy (inverse info) as a proper physical object, Shannon (1930) for classical info theory, Solomonoff (1960) for algorithmic complexity, Landauer for the shocking physics of computation (1961), Bekenstein (1971) and Hawking for black hole theory (crucial experiments for it-from-bit), Deutsch (1985) for how quantum computing could work. And Wheeler setting the whole new agenda. (I call it new because it hasn't made it into undergraduate philosophy, or physics, or statistics, or ordinary computer science, yet.)

    The philosophy is very well done. I really liked his physicist's optimism about reflective equilibrium between science and folk physics:
    Information, too, has been defined operationally. Unfortunately, this technical, bottom-up definition is very restricted, and hitherto bears little resemblence to any of the common, top-down definitions. Eventually the two definitions should converge, but that hasn't happened yet. When it does, we will finally know what information is.

    It impresses me to find a pop science book that has aged this well, over 16 years. It's sad that that's impressive - obviously I'm not reading enough physics and maths. Von Baeyer maybe leans too hard on the physics-is-solid heuristic; he ends up being uncritical about some extremely late-breaking and radical work: the heterodox classical theory of Kahre (2002) and Zeilinger's (1999) grand quietist explanation for QM's weirdness (neither of which I've heard much about since).
    Zeilinger's principle... furnishes an answer to Wheeler's famous question "Why the quantum?" Why does nature seems granular, discontinuous, quantized into discrete chunks like sand..? The answer is that while we have no idea how the world is really arranged, and shouldn't even ask, we do know that knowledge of the world is information: and since information is naturally quantized into bits, the world also appears quantized. If it didn't, we wouldn't be able to understand it. It's both as simple and as profound as that.

    A second prediction of QM that is explained... is the randomness of the outcomes of some measurements... if the single bit of information in an elementary system is revealed, then there is no more information left over to answer additional experimental questions... so other independent measurements must have random answers.

    Each chapter takes an idea ("heat and entropy", "logarithms and message space", "qubits", "Morse and optimality") and builds it up with little informal proofs and thought experiments. This is nice, but because it has to do everything from scratch it's more of a grab-bag than an argument, and certainly not a "language of science" by the end. For instance, he stops short of one key philosophical outcome of all this technical talk, which is that there are two types of explanations, even though he covers all the ideas you'd need:

    1) information compressions (e.g. General relativity explains the force on all of the infinite points in spacetime in one unbelievably terse tensor equation. We can often count the bits used by theories like this, and so solve theory selection!)

    2) simplified algorithms, faster ways to reason about the world (e.g. much of computer science)

    As you can tell from the number of question marks in this review, I found this stimulating but not conclusive. But it would be foolish to expect a pop book to answer the Really Big Questions, and von Baeyer's reminds us frequently that the current answers he presents are unfinished. So this is step one of a currently unbounded algorithm. Minus a half for not quite taking things as far as they can go.


    Misc notes

    * This would be a pretty good primer for Map and Territory or Quantum Computing Since Democritus, if those assume too much for you.

    * Lots of literary illustrations of scientific ideas - Calvino, Wittgenstein, Borges - but it didn't feel forced to me. I suppose it might actually reduce the friendliness, for some readers.

    * Is this true?:
    The most important role of noise, however, is as the preserver of our sanity. Without noise, the measurement or observation of a single quantity would requite an infinite memory and an infinite amount of time - it would overload all our circuits. Neither science nor consciousness could exist... noise is a thick blanket of snow which softens the contours into large, rounded mounds we can perceive and sort out without being overwhelmed.

    We evolved lots of ways to ignore information. Why would this not happen again? A photosensitive patch arises in that noiseless world; since it is an analogue processor it simply trims off the infinite information by default when it runs out of molecules or reactions(?)

    * He calls the Bayesian interpretation of probability "the rational approach" which suits me but let's imagine that's a mistranslation of his meaning "the mental approach", "the personalist approach".

    * Gleick handles the social history and applications with unsurpassed skill, but I wanted the mind-bending crunchy side, natural information, digital physics, information as everything.

    * "Information is flow of form"

    * Solomonoff induction is intractable, another word for practically useless. Does this change the philosophical significance of the above brew? I don't think so - "Here is a way to work everything out; you can almost never use it" is a pretty plausible way for philosophy to end tbf. Does it change its scientific significance? Yes, absolutely - we have to seek approximations of the forbidden ideal or else it has none.

    * What's fundamental, thermodynamics or information? Neither?

    * Yet another way that info theory eats the life of the mind is the deeply practical "value of information", a way of deciding whether to bother with an experiment (q.v. the master, Gwern).
    Cryptonomicon (1999) by Neal Stephenson An enormous collection of novels - a spy thriller, and a military farce, and a comparative history (of Showa Japan, Churchill Britain, Roosevelt America, the pre- and post-Marcos Philippines), and an oral history of computing, and a modern legal psychodrama, and a family saga of three large dynasties. And a divisive book:

    1) It is extremely focussed on men and masculine mindset - guts and brutality, mathematical facility, mind-numbing horniness, how shit works, emotional impermeability, pride in being a stereotype. (Scroll down to see reviews reacting in highly exaggerated ways to this fact, with either horror or delight.)
    Men who believe that they are accomplishing something by speaking speak in a different way from men who believe that speaking is a waste of time... there might be a third category... [Waterhouse] speaks, not as a way of telling you a bunch of stuff he's already figured out, but as a way of making up a bunch of new shit as he goes along. And he always seems to be hoping that you'll join in. Which no one ever does.

    On the wonder and absurdity of social etiquette:
    The room contains a few dozen living human bodies, each one a big sack of guts and fluids so highly compressed that it will squirt for a few yards when pierced. Each one is built around an armature of 206 bones connected to each other by notoriously fault-prone joints that are given to obnoxious creaking, grinding, and popping noises when they are in other than pristine condition. This structure is draped with throbbing steak, inflated with clenching air sacks, and pierced by a Gordian sewer filled with burbling acid and compressed gas and asquirt with vile enzymes and solvents produced by many dark, gamy nuggets of genetically programmed meat strung along its length. Slugs of dissolving food are forced down this sloppy labyrinth by serialized convulsions, decaying into gas, liquid, and solid matter which must all be regularly vented to the outside world lest the owner go toxic and drop dead. Spherical, gel-packed cameras swivel in mucus greased ball joints. Infinite phalanxes of cilia beat back invading particles, encapsulate them in goo for later disposal. In each body a centrally located muscle flails away at an eternal, circulating torrent of pressurized gravy. And yet, despite all of this, not one of those bodies makes a single sound during the sultan's speech.

    Half of this is an accurate portrayal of 40s gender politics, half a defensive reaction to contemporary blank-slateism. I don't think it's a malign kind of masculinity, though there are only a couple of female characters who don't have at least peripheral or inverted sexiness - if you can't handle that I'd avoid it. A good point to bail out would be the bit where Waterhouse models the effect of masturbation vs sex on his cognition as a periodic timeseries. I'm very hard to offend, but the constant use of "females" got to me, by page 400.
    Randy stares directly into the eyes of the female customs official and says, "The Internet." Totally factitious understanding dawns on the woman’s face, and her eyes ping bosswards. The boss, still deeply absorbed in an article about the next generation of high-speed routers, shoves out his lower lip and nods, like every other nineties American male who senses that knowing this stuff is now as intrinsic to maleness as changing flat tires was to Dad. "I hear that’s really exciting now," the woman says in a completely different tone of voice, and begins scooping Randy’s stuff together into a big pile so that he can repack it. Suddenly the spell is broken, Randy is a member in good standing of American society again, having cheerfully endured this process of being ritually goosed by the Government.

    2) It is also a partisan in the Arts vs STEM "culture war". (In fact Stephenson is often dismissive of all academia - "grad students existed not to learn things but to relieve the tenured faculty members of tiresome burdens such as educating people and doing research".) One of the most important scenes in the book shows a lone techie clashing with a self-appointed jury of stereotypically appalling critical theorists: they speak nonsense about an objective matter, he correctly calls them on it, they cover him in ad hominem bulverism until he gives in. It's not without nuance: his champion in the fight Randy is later shown sulking and reliving it and admitting his own pettiness:
    “I strenuously object to being labeled and pigeonholed and stereotyped as a technocrat,” Randy said, deliberately using oppressed-person’s language maybe in an attempt to turn their weapons against them but more likely (he thinks, lying in bed at three A.M. in the Manila Hotel) out of an uncontrollable urge to be a prick.

    3) There are a lot of coincidences, much more than the novelistic baseline. Characters meet Atanasoff and Turing and Reagan and MacArthur. (A Nazi submarine captain makes a sneering reference to a bureaucratic nightmare being something out of "that Jew Kafka". I thought this was an absurd anachronism, but looking into it, the Nazi could easily have read him, but could not have made the reference to a Brit and expected it to stick. English translation of Das Schloss in 1930 but it didn't take off until after the war.) This is cute/trite on its own, but I find it helpful to imagine Stephenson looking down at history, selecting a particularly interesting sub-graph from the population

    4) There are lots of info-dumps. Large sections of this are indistiguishable from nonfiction. ("This pause is called the horizontal retrace interval. Another one will occur...") People seem to hate this, but it is fine since it's done through aspie characters who absolutely do talk like that.

    5) It has a lot of pulpy Feats, fuck-yeah setpieces which fiction this good usually foregoes. Tropical headhunters; escape from a collapsing mineshaft; cryptocurrency in the 90s; tactical blackface; drinking and lolling with your Nazi captors; etc.
    It would be an idyllic tropical paradise of not for the malaria, the insects, the constant diarrhea and resulting hemorrhoids, and the fact that the people are dirty and smell bad and deat each other and use human heads for decoration.


    It's easy to miss the uniting theme, and thus call it "not a novel" or whatever, because it only unmasks on p.791. It is Ares v Athena, rage v cunning, politics v engineering, normies v geeks, law v ethics, conflict v mistake, local maxima v the search for the global. This overloaded binary is embodied in Andrew v Randy, the Dentist v Avi, Rudy v Göring, All of Japan v Dengo.

    Now, it suits me to have litigious bastards and culture-warriors be the inheritors of Ares, of mindless destruction. But it would be silly to think that the stakes are comparable between the plot strands: it's WWII vs the Struggles of Some Cool Crypto Entrepreneurs. But Stephenson is obviously not equating them, and might be pointing out that stakes are now in general lower, even when you're up against contemporary gangsters.

    Another giant theme is the emergence of one new masculinity, beyond the taciturn physical hero: the geek. This is the "third category" above. (Is this really that new? Isn't it just the Scholar?)


    Misc notes

    * Waterhouse seems to be taking Bill Tutte's space in history and seizing it for America but ok.

    * Bobby Shaftoe is the noblest junkie character I've ever seen - ingenious in his pursuit of morphine, but slightly more keen on Marine honour than on it.

    * I was not expecting Stephenson to use converting to Christianity as the symbol for Dengo leaving sick ultranationalism behind. Compassion and liberalism are far larger and better than the Christian launchpad they happened to use, after all.

    * Relatedly there's his preference for cute family-values Christianity over postmodern critical theory:
    To translate it into UNIX system administration terms (Randy’s fundamental metaphor for just about everything), the post-modern, politically correct atheists were like people who had suddenly found themselves in charge of a big and unfathomably complex computer system (viz, society) with no documentation or instructions of any kind, and so whose only way to keep the thing running was to invent and enforce certain rules with a kind of neo-Puritanical rigor, because they were at a loss to deal with any deviations from what they saw as the norm. Whereas people who were wired into a church were like UNIX system administrators who, while they might not understand everything, at least had some documentation, some FAQs and How-tos and README files, providing some guidance on what to do when things got out of whack.

    * Some surprisingly deft notes on kink and the exogenous/preconscious nature of sexuality, in the bit where they're spying on Tom Howard.

    * This line accurately portrays the mindset of certain wizard types like Turing:
    It is exciting to discover electrons and figure out the equations that govern their movement; it is boring to use those principles to design electric can openers.

    though it is discreditable and nongeneralisable to hold.

    * I learned a lot of words.

    * There are dozens and dozens of depictions of Japanese war crimes before we get any note paid to the horrendous suffering of the Japanese troops. But after that it is suitably even-handed in its tragedy. One of the saddest sentences I've ever read: "They are strafing the survivors".

    * Root is a tech determinist about the war - the Allies won because their tech was better, end-of. I seriously doubt historians would go with this.

    * I struggle to fit Root into the world. His death and reappearance is the only magical element in the entire thing (coincidences aside), and clashes with the main bloody theme. I am toying with the idea that Root is a collective name like James Bond, but I suppose it'll just be some switcheroo bullshit.


    There's a lot wrong with it - it's about twice as long as it needs to be, the gender stuff is overdone, it is intentionally annoying to its outgroup, succumbing to 'conflict theory', and none of its antagonists (Loeb, the Dentist, Wing, Crocodile) are fleshed out despite him having 900 pages of opportunities for fleshing them - but it's grand, clever, full of ideas, funny, full of great setpieces, and foresaw a couple of things about our decade.
    From Subsistence to Exchange and Other Essays (New Forum Books) (2000) by P.T. Bauer Conservative critique of foreign aid, but without contempt or narrow particularism. Emphasised cultural barriers and institutional weakness as a lone voice during the hegemony of Rostow's capital-only fairytale.
    SCP: Foundation Tomes () by Various Good example of the most distinctive literary trend of the day: web serial fiction / wiki fiction. Also of the shortcomings of same: the committee fragmentariness and unmanageable hugeness. (I cut this short at page 1000. And this is only one of three giant ebooks of the whole wiki. Phew.)

    That's the medium. Its genre is post-pulp post-Lovecraft urban fantasy-horror - the most popular genre? (Aside from old stalwarts, trash romance and MFA lit.) And style's the uncommon pseudoacademic register of Lovecraft's original pulp.

    Its achievement is to dispense with characterisation and rely entirely on atmosphere and startling concepts. There's no protagonist and only hints of antagonists (besides the thousands of SCP objects themselves).

    The Foundation is ludicrously powerful - they've global jurisdiction over law enforcement, run hundreds of fatal human experiments, retain a vast staff and holdings. In order for this to work as horror, they need equally elevated foes - and so they do: they're always being infiltrated, manipulated, stolen from, exsanguinated or bombed. The Foundation commits many atrocities (contrast Delta Green, Dresden Files, Agents of Shield, the X-Files, which are much more anti-authority).

    It has all the ordinary kinds of horror - monsters, disease, body horror, mind-rape, invisible forces, alien geometries - but also the greater, rare horror of exponentiation, of facing a foe with the potential to suddenly explode beyond all containment and never stop growing. Another distinctive bit is its meta horror: objects which know the rules of the story and about other objects.

    I recommend reading this with the images disabled. They're a labour of love, I know, but the imagination is easier to scare than the eye. Good queasy fun.
    The Foundations of Arithmetic: A Logico-Mathematical Enquiry into the Concept of Number (1884) by Gottlob Frege Bloody weird to slap a star rating on this, but there you go, welcome to where nothing is not rateable.
    Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, and the Economics of Growth and Prosperity (2007) by William J. Baumol Thoughtful and lucid nontechnical essays on the very different structures hiding behind the vague anticoncept 'capitalism'. The title alone beats most leftists and rightists, who tend to tacitly deny the existence of good or bad capitalisms, respectively. (Where by good we mean "good for growth and eliminating poverty".) The authors go further of course, with four ideal types:

    * state-guided capitalism (China, 60s Japan, Singapore)
    * big-firm capitalism (South Korea, Japan, France, North Carolina)
    * entrepreneurial capitalism - high growth from small companies doing actually new things, high distribution of gains - (Ireland, UK, California)
    * oligarchic capitalism - low growth, low distribution of gains - (Russia, Italy, sometimes South Korea)

    They tie these to specific policies, often lacking in these kinds of books. They also accept that what's "good" economic policy depends on your existing base (cf. Ha-Joon Chang's argument for trade barriers for pre-industrial countries). Most of the book is about the conditions and effects of entrepreneurship, but they also find big firms actually necessary ("the best form of capitalism is a blend of entrepreneurial and big-firm"), well before Tyler Cowen.

    Decent paean to the moral importance of growth too:
    slow growth, especially when coupled with widening inequality, can provide an environment that breeds distrust and often hate. It is not an accident that some of the worst periods of intolerance to African Americans and immigrants in United States history (the late 1800s, the 1930s, 1970s) occurred during periods of slow or negative growth. The worst-case example of this was, of course, the rise of Nazism...

    Michael Mandel: 'Such technology-driven growth is essential if we are not to drown in our own problems... Without breakthroughs in medical science, it won't be possible to supply the healthh care to a generation of aging Americans without bankrupting the young. Without breakthroughs in energy production, it won't be possible to bring Third World economies up to industrialised living standards without badly damaging the environment...' </blockquote>
    If annual growth of        In 100 years average
    labor productivity is        earnings will have risen

    2%                                           620%
    3%                                             1820%

    Good book for anyone who thinks they hate economics, or economists, or neoclassical economics, or growth itself. Certainly much more readable and fair than Piketty's mega-bestseller. (For very adversarial people, better to start with Filthy Lucre, which analyses good and bad forms of competition.)</td> </tr>
    Learn Python the Hard Way (2010) by Zed A. Shaw None yet
    What is the Last Question? () by John Brockman List of 284 questions - some of them kind of daffy or parochial ("will we ever be able to predict earthquakes?", "What would comprise the most precise sonic representation of the history of life?"), some of them profound, about half of them interminably nerdsniped by this thing called consciousness, exactly 12 of them about what I'd answer. ("Will AI make the Luddites right?", "Is it possible to control a system capable of evolving?", "What can humanity do right now that will make the biggest difference over the next billion years?", "Can an increasingly powerful species survive the actions of it's most extreme individuals?")

    A few of them are answered already (to my satisfaction), e.g. "Why are people seldom persuaded by clear evidence and rational argument?", "Is love really all you need?", "Are feelings computable?", "Why do even the most educated people today feel that their grip on what they can truly know is weaker than ever before?", "Was agriculture a wrong turn?". But then the list is an accurate picture of how compartmentalised and undiffused much of the greatest knowledge is among intellectuals.

    (But the prompt is not "what's the most important question?" nor "what question do we most need answered?" so ignore my judging.)

    Too broad for PhDs, often too broad for entire careers, but inspiring and sharpening anyway.
    The Unreality of Time (1908) by J.M.E. McTaggart None yet
    Unknown Armies (1999) by Greg Stolze Something witty and shocking and literary, in the urban fantasy genre? Yes: this RPG does the same secretly-magical subculture-glorifying thing as the rest of the 90s, but does it better. The genre might be better described as political horror - the same kind of logical extrapolation of conspiracy theories and occult 'wisdom' as Unsong.
    Everybody hears things on the street. Some of them might even be true. Like these:
    Every single president of the United States has had a glass eye. The same glass eye.
    Planes do not actually fly. It is a very elaborate hoax created because the general public does not understand or trust quantum teleportation.
    Those games kids play—“step on a crack” and all that— are actually rituals that do stuff, but you’ve really got to believe in them. Kids believe in them, but don’t know what the rituals really do. That’s why kids can survive...
    There is a cabal operating in fast food restaurants who want to take over the world by drugging the most popular fast food with powerful magical drugs.
    The internet is one big engine. The faster the information flows, the more power it generates. If anyone could find out how to harness this power they could rule the world.
    Brendan Behan’s pint glass sits behind the bar in a Dublin pub. Any who drink from it have words flow from them, but at what price?
    Nearly every nursery rhyme originated as teaching tools for magicians. You don’t even want to know the magickal meaning of “Three Blind Mice.”
    There’s a tape floating around containing a ritual to produce a soundtrack to the caster’s life. The intention was to never again miss anything suspicious or ignore a romantic moment. At the end there is only a long, eerie note—and then static.
    There’s a sandwich shop in Atlanta where, if you order the special, along with a hot beverage, they include a small slip of paper telling you the date of your death. Most people just throw it away or eat it by accident.
    There’s a kid in Little Rock, Arkansas who gains magical power from boredom.
    The final scores of every year’s Superbowl are part of an ever-changing numerology formula that can start and stop wars.
    Butane lighters with occult symbology contain listening devices in the bases. The company putting them out is trying to spy into the occult underground with these devices.
    Aliens from Proxima Centauri have been living among us now for years, but in the last few months they’ve all started leaving.

    The core mechanic is that there's always a catch: you have to sacrifice to gain magic. In particular, social deviance brings power. Each character has an obsession - the booze mage gets charges from drinking rare liquors, the wealth mage from squandering money, the skater mage from risky stunts, the porn mage from..., the self-harm mage from... This isn't trivial: to get the serious charges you have to permanently change your character. The spells in the book are just suggestions, the characters mostly have to make them up. And this is reflected in the fluff: being edgy isn't a pose, it directly drives your alienation from society and mere reality. You go mad even if you win.

    The back story is huge and silly (moves from control of the Street, to the World, to the Cosmos) but also excellent for long campaigns. This thread on a random dead forum is a key part of the book.

    Totally perfect for teens. haven't read it since but I will.
    Milkman (2018) by Anna Burns Unlikeable, admirable portrait of a diseased society, the disease signified by unbearable harassment of one of its young members. The book's unlikeable because it's realistic. In Burns' telling, 70s Ulster feels like ISIS in miniature, a taste of Maoist China: the complete infection of private life by horrible politics, slander, cruelty, and doom. The disease radiates out from the death squads and Gestapo fuckery of the "traditionalists" and the delusional gangster sociopathy, the kangaroo courts - the lash for women, and six-packs for men - of the "renouncers".

    Decades of fear and vengeance bring out our worst, give psychopaths a foothold:
    To the [IRA] groupies too, it wasn't so much these men should be fighters for the cause as that they should be the particular individuals wielding substantial power and influence in the areas, They didn't have to be paramilitaries, didn't even have to be illegal, could have been anyone. It so happened though, that in the set-up of the time, in each of those totalitarian enclaves, it was the male paramilitaries who, more than anyone, ruled over the areas with final say...

    He had to be leader, Number One, making her in turn Number One Attachment.

    The sickest part of the book is the way that gossip feeds on itself, floats free of reality - her ordinary stalker accuses Maybe-girlfriend of "aggravated harassment"; she's seen "with" [being harrassed by] a Big Man, so she becomes tainted/anointed with his aweing disrespectability; later, after he threatens to kill her boyfriend, the grapevine instead has it that she'd "tried to evade retribution for cheating on him with a car mechanic". A rape of social standing, of identity.

    Burns gives out great lines, poetic heft, to everyone, even vicious people like Ma and Milkman.
    Why can’t you take on board you’re not wanted, that your advances are not to be accepted, that it’s thanks but no thanks? You mean nothing to us, we don’t even think of you and another thing, you can’t just act with impunity, carrying on as if it didn’thappen, as if you didn’t start this, as if you didn’t stir things up. You’re a cat – that’s right, you heard us, a cat – a double cat! We don’t think you’re up to the level of even being a cat. But don’t you push us so far because this is aggravated harassment

    Maybe-girlfriend's own register is a little tiring, bright and arch and digressive (but not enough to keep the the pall of her surroundings lifted). It might be an attempt to balance out the setting with comically out-of-place lyricism, but if so it works strangely:
    'But understand, daughter,’ went on ma, ‘I'm not saying my rear cannot now fit in the chair because the chair's become too tight for it. It can still fit in. It’s just that now it encompasses a certain amount of extra inches or fractions of inches to which it has never acclimatised and which in the old days didn’t used to be.'
    'I knew now, of course, what she was driving at, though unsure still how to respond.... My response therefore, should be comparable to her own words, should be of like tone and weight in order to acknowledge and to respect her older status, even her originality indelineating the depth of her rear condition in relation to the chair she was speaking of.

    The Community hates the depressed and the upbeat ("shiny"), the chaste and the promiscuous, the deviation:
    And that was the trouble with the shiny people. Take a whole group of individuals who weren’t shiny, maybe a whole community, a whole nation, or maybe just a statelet immersed long-term on the physical and energetic planes in the dark mental energies; conditioned too, through years of personal and communal suffering, to be overladen with heaviness and grief and fear and anger – well, these people could not, not at the drop of a hat, be open to any bright shining button of a person stepping into their environment and shining upon them just like that...

    As for the environment, that too, would object, backing up the pessimism of its people, which was what happened where I lived where the whole place always seemed to be in the dark. It was as if the electric lights were turned off, always turned off, even though dusk was over so they should have been turned on yet nobody was turning them on and nobody noticed either, they weren’t on...

    So shiny was bad, and 'too sad' was bad, and 'too joyous' was bad, which meant you had to go around not being anything; also not thinking, least not at top level, which was why everybody kept their private thoughts safe and sound in the recesses underneath.

    I quite liked the purely-functional names - "maybe-boyfriend", "third-brother-in-law", "longest friend from primary school", "Somebody McSomebody", though I see it's not a popular methodology on here. I think "Milkman" is the only proper name in it.

    She belabours a good metaphor (the sunset from the front cover): even the colour of a beautiful sunset is an ideological matter, for these locals. They've a particular cached thought - "the sky is blue" - and refuse to let a fancy intellectual (a spirited French teacher) make them notice that the sky is currently anything but blue. Blatant wilful error in the face of decisive evidence, maintained to express one's identity: welcome to the species.

    Reviewers call it funny, which it isn't really until Chapter Seven, until Milkman is gone and the Carry On-Tarantino part can kick off. There's this:
    Before Milkman, they had shot a binman, twobusdrivers, a road sweeper, a real milkman who was our milkman, then another person whodidn’t have any blue-collar or service-industry connections – all in mistake for Milkman. Thenthey shot Milkman. Then they played down the mistaken shootings while playing up theintended shooting, as if it had been Milkman and only Milkman they had shot all along.

    "You’re a female. He’s a male. You’re my sister-in-law and I don’t care how many of his family got murdered, he’s a bastard and would’ve been a bastard even if they hadn’t got murdered." They hadn’t got murdered. Only four had got murdered. The other two had been a suicide and an accidental death.

    Very tiring but worthy overall.
    Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    Going Solo (Roald Dahl's Autobiography, #2) (1986) by Roald Dahl None yet
    Learn Python 3 The Hard Way () by Zed A. Shaw Much, much more my style - opinionated, joined-up, irreverent - though not my speed ("this book gives you the mental tools and attitude you need to go through most Python books and actually learn something"). Shaw is a beautiful mind in a slightly unhinged shell:
    Which programming language you learn and use doesn't matter. Do not get sucked into the religion surrounding programming languages as that will only blind you to their true purpose of being your tool for doing interesting things.

    Programming as an intellectual activity is the only art form that allows you to create interactive art. You can create projects that other people can play with, and you can talk to them indirectly. No other art form is quite this interactive. Movies flow to the audience in one direction. Paintings do not move. Code goes both ways.

    Programming as a profession is only moderately interesting. It can be a good job, but you could make about the same money and be happier running a fast food joint. You're much better off using code as your secret weapon in another profession. People who can code in the world of technology companies are a dime a dozen and get no respect. People who can code in biology, medicine, government, sociology, physics, history, and mathematics are respected and can do amazing things to advance those disciplines.

    A good way to spend an hour after a year away.

    Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott Likeable but not readable. I prefer the Dot and the Line or GEB
    The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman None yet
    The Sandman: Endless Nights (The Sandman) (2003) by Neil Gaiman None yet
    Reaper Man (Discworld, #11; Death, #2) (1991) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    Complicity (1993) by Iain Banks None yet
    Bad News (Patrick Melrose, #2) (1992) by Edward St. Aubyn None yet
    Notes from a Small Island (1995) by Bill Bryson None yet
    Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (2006) by David Benatar Intense, original, contrarian - doing exactly what philosophy should do - but unpersuasive.
    The Gervais Principle: The Complete Series, with a Bonus Essay on Office Space (Ribbonfarm Roughs) (2013) by Venkatesh G. Rao A fun, nasty, bitchy taxonomy of social class / psychological theory of the firm; a mishmash of economics, psychoanalysis and literary criticism; a series of massive blogposts apologising for being a book.

    It splits employed people into three classes with terrible names - Leaders ("Sociopaths"), Loyalists ("Clueless"), Workers ("Losers") - and throws a massive amount of fictional evidence at each. That's obviously a formal hierarchy, Leaders > Loyalists > Workers, but Rao's first big left turn is to impose a second contradictory ordering on the 3 classes in developmental psychology terms: Clueless < Losers < Sociopaths. I like his subdivision of Losers into: Minimum-effort rationally-disengaged; Overperformers; future Sociopaths. It looks nasty, and Rao is uninterested in making it seem moral or immoral, but if this is how the leaders actually think, Rao is doing us (the 99%) a service.

    Is this system justified and true? No. Rao writes the best clickbait in the world, what he calls "insight porn". It is the verbal equivalent of the noise an F1 engine makes on a 200m straight. The class theory in this would make for a great literary theory, a blueprint for future Office Spaces. Myers-Briggs is marginally better than the dumb view of people as more or less defective versions of one character. So too is this better than "bosses/workers" cod Marxism.

    (He could have massively increased his audience and reduced unwanted connotations by renaming "Losers" to "Workers"
    the Loser — really not a loser at all if you think about it — pays his dues, does not ask for much, and finds meaning in his life elsewhere

    He has a weird relationship with the amoral elites - he often says things like

    In the big games of life, those involving the Darwinian dimensions of sex, money or power, we don’t get to define the rules. And it is only those games that can create social value.

    putting destiny and ultimate value in their hands. And he clearly thinks of himself as a post-reality-shock enlightened figure. And yet he rags on the inauthenticity, nihilism, cruelty, hollowness of his 'Sociopaths'.

    There are dozens of acute, contentious, boggling passages like

    For high-empathy people, all this is natural. By participating in collective feeling in groups of any size, and reacting to basic attraction/aversion drives, you can actually safely navigate all the complexity by instinct.
    Not only can you do this, you will actually feel good doing this. This feeling is called happiness. I don’t have time to go into this, but happiness is entirely a social phenomenon, and there’s plenty of evidence that the best way (and from my reading, the only way) to get happy is to get sociable. Non-social feelings that seem like happiness turn out, upon further examination, to be distinct emotions like contentment, equanimity or hedonistic pleasure

    the level of abstraction that we are concerned with, all theories of developmental psychology – Freud’s, Piaget’s, Erikson’s, Maslow’s – say roughly the same thing about arrested development: you are born Clueless and clue up in fits and starts. Bits of you get stuck and left behind at different points, and eventually you exhaust your capacity for real change and stall (though you may retain an illusion that you are on a path of “lifelong growth and learning,” itself a pattern of arrested development)

    I can imagine a teenager reading this and becoming absolutely insufferable. But much great writing can lend spurious superiority to fools - for instance Nietzsche.

    [Free! here]
    Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture (2003) by David Kushner Kinda amateurish prose, everything "classic" and "legendary" in the same sentence.

    It's saved by the singular, remarkable character Carmack. Neuroatypical, ascetic, principled, focussed to the point of dissociation. He slept on the floor for months, despite being rich, because he didn't see the need for comfort. An excellent example of what someone profoundly creative can do, if they also love work. (: All the glories of the species.)

    Romero is less interesting, because he is a fairly ordinary tech startup founder (with a sicker sense of humour and less self-suppression), mendacious and loud. "To the outside world, Romero was id." He may have invented gaming smack talk, by screaming at people in LAN tournaments. If you've never been on Xbox Live, you probably haven't had a 9 year-old child scream that you're a faggot and a noob. The child is channeling Romero.

    I concede that there would have been no Doom Moment without Romero's hyping it - that together these two men form one functioning human being.

    Kushner occasionally adds value, e.g. when he notes that id were to gaming what technical metal was to music: the marriage of virtuosity with extreme content, "high technology and gruesome gameplay". To see how important skill is in selling a dark aesthetic, compare the Learjet-level success of fancy metal with the parochial subsistence of hardcore punk.

    He also sees an entire type very clearly: the alpha nerd, with all his lofty contempt, Ferraris, workaholism, disloyalty, pranks, energy. This is much more common in life than in media.

    Repetitive though; skim.
    More Heat Than Light: Economics as Social Physics: Physics as Nature's Economics (1989) by Philip Mirowski I struggled with this a lot (probably equally due to his prose as my lack of maths) but Mirowski is always very exciting. (Whether excitingness is the best virtue for an historian or social theorist, if it's at the expense of other virtues, is another question.)
    Waking Up: Searching for Spirituality Without Religion (2014) by Sam Harris
    Most people who believe they are meditating are just thinking with their eyes closed.

    Forces of digestion and metabolism are at work within me that are utterly beyond my perception or control. Most of my internal organs may as well not exist for all I know of them directly, and yet I can be reasonably certain that I have them, arranged much as any medical textbook would suggest. The taste of the coffee, my satisfaction at its flavor, the feeling of the warm cup in my hand—while these are immediate facts with which I am acquainted, they reach back into a dark wilderness of facts that I will never come to know.

    ... Where am I, that I have such a poor view of things? And what sort of thing am I that both my outside and my inside are so obscure? ...Am I inside my skull? Let’s say yes for the moment, because we are quickly running out of places to look for me. Where inside my skull might I be? And if I’m up there in my head, how is the rest of me

    Surprisingly humble and sincere. Some readers feel tricked - feel that Harris is smuggling in science under soft, false pretences. This isn't fair; he has done this stuff for decades, visited lamas in Tibet, put in the work. It's implausible that he would do so much insincerely; whatever his other failings, he is actually trying to bridge the two kinds of seekers.* (That said, this book design is a masterpiece of camouflage. Look at the soft colours, the sunny logo, the sans-serif purity, the unthreatening subtitle. Compare his other books!)

    However: consider all the things people mean by "spirituality":
    1. subjective knowledge of ultimate / immaterial reality
    1b. gaining supernatural abilities as a result
    2. one's deep moral or existential values
    3. personal growth
    4. feeling of awe-inspiring beauty
    5. introspection; close contact with one's own "inner dimension"
    6. "the ability to step a little back from your emotions and thoughts, observe them as they are without getting swept up in them, and then evaluating them critically"
    7. sense of love towards (all) others
    8. the quest to see the ego and the self as illusory

    With so much popular support - with so much baggage - it's not possible to throw out the word or concept; instead we have to try and reform it. This is Harris' mission - though in fact he focusses almost exclusively on (5) -> (8), the standard Buddhist therapy of not being hurt by distraction, bad luck, frustrated desires.

    He rejects (1) straightforwardly, in favour of psychologising the whole practice. Paraphrased: 'Instead of making you experience Reality, meditation lets you experience your mind; instead of strengthening your insubstantial soul, you're strengthening your mind.' This is a healthy kind of reconstruction in my view, but it certainly leads him to make controversial claims like "The deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self". Metaphysically profligate readers will have no fun here. (But they knew that already.)

    How can a scientist (or at least a pro-science talking head) boost a practice with the aim of rejecting thought? The trick is to distinguish thinking / experiencing (which are after all the locus of all value, and of decisions and creativity) from identifying with the stream of your thoughts, from being carried away, from being endlessly distracted.


    Does this stuff work? It probably does for stress reduction - at least like taking a nap does, or a valium, or sitting still and breathing deeply for a bit. And on the other end, it is definitely not the source of supernatural brain-juice-drinking power. So the truth is somewhere between these two limits, and we drift, deciding whether to spend time on it.

    I'm an unpromising practitioner. For instance, this is kind of my jam. It's not the indescribability that bothers me - after all, any knowledge-how is indescribable (or rather describable only with millions of parameters). You can accept e.g. Hume or Parfit's reasoning - you can have the propositional knowledge, can know that "there is no self beyond my bundle of experiences". Meditation is supposed to be the know-how of nonessentialism, the skill of actually paying attention to the implications of this System-2 judgment.

    But being 'nonconceptual' means no language, no premises, no reason, no jokes, no connection, no comparison, using none of my strengths, leaving none of my spoor. This is a great loss to me.

    I don't know that I do suffer as a result of identifying with my thoughts; I don't think that dissatisfaction lurks in every sensation I ever experience or also my whole life in retrospect. But the old claim, similar to Marxist or feminist 'false consciousness', is that I am too owned to realise I'm being owned:

    "beginning meditators... report after days or weeks of intensive practice that their attention is carried away by thought every few seconds. This is actually progress. It takes a certain degree of concentration to even notice how distracted you are."

    Freedom from desire sounds much like death to me, for all that Harris and others argue that it can somehow coexist with passion against the suffering of others, with striving to be a better person, with chipping in to the Great Project of discovery, compassion, optimisation. Luckily the two projects - really feeling that you are not your thoughts, not a homunculus behind your eyes having them; vs not wanting things because wanting leads to disappointment - seem to be separable.

    A consolation: there's a sense in which meditation, introspection and phenomenology are highly, maximally empirical - they involve very close attention and analysis of the raw data. It just happens that the raw data (the sense-data) are irreplicable, private, closed, and so not directly a matter for science. Empiricism before science, consciousness without self. And I like this.

    Mindfulness is billed as not just cool and true but useful -
    No doubt many distinct mechanisms are involved - the regulation of attention and behaviour, increased body awareness, inhibition of negative emotions, reframing of experience, changes in your view of the 'self', and so forth - and each of these will have their own neurophysiological basis."

    Well, I do love self-regulation!

    The following argument isn't explicitly stated by Harris, but I find it helpful as an existence-proof for the usefulness of nonessentialism:
    1. We are happy and perform well when we're in 'flow' states.
    2. Flow states involve "losing" yourself in a task, in a concrete, unhesitating sequence of perceptions and actions.
    3. Therefore losing yourself can be good and helpful.


    1. We do not directly apprehend the external world; we know it through sense-data plus massive computational modelling tricks in the brain.
    2. We know that the brain computes the wrong thing sometimes. (Cognitive biases, optical illusions, top-down processing, hallucinations.)
    3. So, if such a thing is possible, it could be helpful to attend to sense-data more closely, to rule out automatic-brain errors.

    While I don't have a very clear philosophy of mind, I know I'm not a direct realist or substance dualist or identity essentialist, so I've no simple philosophical objections to breaking down the Self, either. Allons-y.


    Even if I accept that mindfulness is a source of value, there's presumably still a tradeoff against clearer, quicker, more public sources: doing science or kindnesses or pleasures. 10 days spent in myself is 10 days not learning, not exercising, not enjoying, not helping, not meeting, in solitary. (And even on the contemplative axis it competes with Stoicism, with yoga, with writing, with psychedelics.)

    How much work will it be? Some contemplatives freely admit that the cost is very high: some contemplatives are not just salesmen. I met someone who claimed to be capital-e-enlightened. (He was otherwise articulate and modest.) He said it took 6 years' work, at many hours a week. I asked him if he could say how valuable it is in other terms - 'What else has been as good?' He said: a decade of intense psychotherapy, or two philosophy degrees. (One ancient text teases us by setting 'seven years' as the required period, but in true troll-Buddhist style it then slowly walks back this helpful definite statement.)


    On that note: I was looking forward to writing a gotcha paradox here, but Harris (and thousands of years of arhats and yogis) pre-empted me:

    ...the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self -[but] to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one's apparent bondage in each moment.

    One [solution] is to simply ignore the paradox and adopt various techniques of meditation in the hope that a breakthrough will occur. Some people appear to succeed at this, but many fail... Goal-oriented modes of practice have the virtue of being easily taught, because a person can begin them without having had any fundamental insight...

    ...The other traditional response is... to concede that all efforts are doomed, because the urge to attain self-transcedence or any other mystical experience is a symptom of the very disease we want to cure. There is nothing to do but give up the search.

    I'm not actually worried by this, because I suspect the full-Buddhist anti-striving thing is unnecessary and... undesirable.


    Why should an evolved creature have the power to inspect its own sense-data? If we are constantly distracting ourselves with reified thoughts, what evolutionary role did this play? At the top of this review is Harris' droll diss about people deluding themselves into thinking they are meditating - but how can we know that we, or anyone, is not deluded? (Brain scans of inhibited medial PFCs are interesting but merely suggestive.)


    Most of the above isn't directly from Harris, I'm riffing off better rationalist reconstructions of this ancient one-weird-trick. (I actually don't know if this is any good, cos I don't know the area. Seems fine.)

    * Much of their anger is about his chapter warning of the history of abuse by gurus and yogis and so on. But like it or not this is a public service.
    Moab is My Washpot (1997) by Stephen Fry There are worse teen idols to have, than Fry, Dawkins, Graffin, Rollins, Goldacre, Bangs, Gould, Earls, Pratchett, Banks.
    The Ode Less Travelled: A guide to writing poetry (2005) by Stephen Fry Better for learning to read poetry than write it. I think I read this three times, obsessed as I was with an art that would let me talk, talk clearly and obscurely, give me weight or the semblance of weight.
    How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors (1987) by Estelle M. Phillips
    some social science students who have read Kuhn’s work on ‘paradigm shifts’ in the history of natural science (science students have normally not heard of him) say rather indignantly: ‘Oh, do you mean a PhD has to be just doing normal science?’ And indeed we do mean that... It is the basic useful activity of scientists and scholars, and PhD students should be pleased to make a contribution to it. You can leave the paradigm shifts for after your PhD...

    Liked it - it has a quiet rigour and schoolmistressy focus I wasn't expecting - but my god you have to skim. Many sentences could lose two-thirds of the words without losing any meaning; probably no-one exists for whom every chapter is relevant. But they make skimming easy by listing recommended actions in a box at the start of each chapter.

    There's a thoughtful chapter on psychological mechanisms to watch out for.
    ( e.g. Enthusiasm -> overambition -> failure -> frustration -> no energy;
    Specialisation -> isolation -> no stimulation -> no energy;
    Learning -> independence -> shorter cycles -> faster learning -> fuzzies and progress.
    Boredom -> Boredom -> Boredom. )
    The many quotations from current PhD students are nice, showing the range of characters and concomitant problems you face, allowing you to tailor the advice a bit.

    They confess that any general book on the matter is necessarily incomplete, since each field has its own defining skills, styles, and norms, often unwritten or badly written.

    Call the reigning institutionalised, credentialist way of allocating epistemic value schoolism. This book is a particularly blithe example
    It is only by understanding the need for precision and having the ability to apply yourself in a disciplined way that you will eventually get to the point where you have the right to follow up interesting leads and explore a series of ideas that arise out of the work in hand. We suggest that, for the moment, this should be after your doctorate.

    (To be fair they also instruct you to think for yourself, to manage your supervisor, etc.)

    The "non-traditional students" chapter is interesting, if only for the separate sections for male and female students which have almost the same advice. ("1. Join or establish a [gender]’ peer support group. 2. Discuss with your supervisors any problems in the male/female aspect of the student–supervisor relationship...") Neat but kind of disingenuous.

    Questions and answers I (loosely) got from this:

    * What needs to be done? -> It's your first job to find out
    * What do I need to know to do it? -> field-specific; watch and learn.
    * What are the standards? -> Read theses. List the craft practices of a good researcher.
    * Who should my advisor be? -> Kind, active researcher, interested in your thing, low flight risk
    * What counts as original enough? -> Read theses to find out, take the delta
    * What counts as large enough? -> "an increment"
    * How do I not get scooped? -> Don't worry about it. The important thing is to notice you have been.
    * How do I not freeze up on seeing the fractal connectedness of all things? -> notice it, make a note, then return to your breath.
    * What about my mental health? -> Exercise, take breaks and talk to fellow experts
    * How do I not feel isolated? -> communicate more and better. Stay excited, people like it.
    * What if I fuck up? -> Practice and get feedback! use no technique for the first time in your thesis. Do throwaways, etudes.
    * Why should they listen to you? -> because you've nailed everything down and added a cherry
    Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation (2010) by Stuart Kelly Good fun. Scott has suffered one of the sharpest declines in literary reputation ever, from being the toast of Europe and Goethe's idol to being a joke (and a nice railway station).

    Besides concocting the tartan myth for a royal pageant and anthologising Scots folk heroes, he was himself quite a novelistic man, for instance that time he worked himself to death to pay off his debts.
    The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (2013) by Brad Stone Less critical than I was expecting, still good. The trouble with evaluating leaders (this goes for modern scientists as much as corporate founders) is that they are able to take so much credit for the work of those they hire / train. Even so, Bezos had a lot of ideas - we know this because some failures are attributed to him, putting an upper bound at least on the file-drawer problem of Amazon's creativity. (Stone seems pretty good at tracking down the real inventors. And he literally dug through Bezos' garbage in search of details.) And he is a hyperactive micromanager, pulling conference call screens off the walls, ramming through his pet projects over any amount of opposition:
    Almost alone, Bezos believed fervently in Prime, closely tracking sign-ups each day and intervening every timr the retail group dropped its promotions from the home page.

    The management style is/was macho, with an uneasy mix of flat objectivity (if you show the maths of your idea works, you are likely to get serious consideration) and imperial whim (like making everyone write meeting notes in full prose - which is based on no science in particular).
    Bezos treats workers like expendable resources without taking into account their contributions to the company. That in turn allows him to coldly allocate capital and manpower and make hyperrational business decisions where another executive might let personal relationships intrude. But they also acknowledge that Bezos is primarily consumed with improving the company's performance and customer service...

    Some of Stone's anecdotes about this or that mid-level exec are neither funny nor illustrative, and make this feel like a reference text. I suppose there should be one.

    With them so dominant now, it's easy to forget the stock crashing to $10, or Amazon being seriously threatened by a single Lehman analyst, or all the many failures like Auctions or zShops or And that they really were another garage operation that took over the world.

    Stone does push back a bit - the "two-pizza team" idea gets uncritically celebrated in business, but Stone says that the actual teams hate it. I'm fascinated by Bezos making each team come up with their own objective function - but apparently this is also hated, on "digging our own grave" grounds. (Isn't any quantified performance metric hated?)

    Then there's the context switch that makes the billions seem small: since he was a child, Bezos seems to honestly see himself as shepherding humanity into space, with Amazon a means to that end.

    Not enough coverage of just how weird Amazon is, in terms of shareholder quiescence, the astonishing amount of cheap capital it hoovers up, its terrible reputation among 90s and 00s analyst as a "nonprofit scam". It was almost never profitable for 20 straight years, but people kept throwing money into the bubble... which has stopped being a bubble (because of AWS, not really retail). The tiny tax burden that people decry should start growing, and antitrust attention too.

    No attention to what we should expect of Amazon's effect on literature and ideas, given the mass die-off of local bookshops and the weakening of gatekeeper publishers. (I don't know what the effect is either, but if I wrote a book about them I hope I would have a go.)

    Skimmed a bit, e.g. 2004, the Zappos chapter,
    Extremes () by Duncan Needham Good, oddly poppy proceedings from an academic conference. A BBC war correspondent and a cross-ocean rower, and Nassim Taleb. Some of them are extremely mathsy, some of them cite Stephen Covey and Carl Jung as authorities on the human condition.

    The Taleb talk is a peach, the first big idea I've seen from him in years, "the tableau of fat tails": all distributions can be split qualitatively by their potential for extremes using a couple of parameters (fig 4). This unifies . (He attributes some of it to a risk academic called Embrechts, idk.)

    An expensive diverse magazine, then.
    Economic Philosophy (1962) by Joan Robinson
    The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.

    (That looks glib, but in context - a Keynesian socialist critique - it's not. It's an inconvenient fact in that framework, and as such it's a clue to the grand trajectory we are all unequally traversing under this doubly-maligned mixed system.)

    A relative insider being pessimistic about economics' prospects of ever becoming a Science. This coupling of economy to metaphysical matters suited me at the time. But there has been an empirical turn in economics (though decades after this), and I no longer look for a binary Science/Nonscience judgment. (After all, even particle physics is ridden with cognitive bias.) Instead there are only differing concentrations of objectivity / naturalism / quantification / successful prediction / insensitivity to speaker prestige / empiricism.
    Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (1929) by Ivor A. Richards One of the only pieces of literary theory I made it through, in two years of university English. Good solid helpful stuff, not capital-t-Theory.
    Why Most Things Fail (2005) by Paul Ormerod Clever stuff from one of the Great Recession predictors. Think I'll reread it eventually.
    The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (2001) by Mark Lilla
    Jaspers: “How can such an uncultivated man like Adolf Hitler govern Germany?

    Heidegger: “Culture doesn’t matter. Just look at his marvelous hands.

    Denunciation of the terrible politics of some academic darlings (Heidegger, Foucault, Benjamin, Carl Schmitt). The common theme is that their philosophies so radically distorted their perception, that their interventions in politics were inevitably harmful.

    Lilla tries to make the edginess and procrustean attitudes of these men reflect badly on all philosophy, or philosophers in civil society. This doesn't work - think of Smith's influence, or Mill's, or Russell's, or Bentham's - though it might be true of a certain kind of Continental, the kind incentivised to say novel things regardless of their truth or consequences, I don't know.

    Possibly I reacted so strongly because this was the first dissent against these great nasty obscurantists I'd seen; other writing by Lilla hasn't impressed me, and though the targets of this book are bipartisan, his agenda is too plain.

    Good old Jaspers comes out very well from all this, anyway, an Obi-wan figure:
    I beseech you! if ever we shared philosophical impulses, take responsibility for your gifts! Place it in the service of reason, or of the reality of human worth & possibilities, instead of in the service of magic!
    Escalator (2006) by Michael Gardiner Racism, the specific overwhelming of the modern city ("hyper-reality"), economic and family pressure, handled subtly and desperately.
    Eloquent JavaScript: A Modern Introduction to Programming (2010) by Marijn Haverbeke Verbose, thoughtful and extremely well-implemented. On the "normal" side of a growing tradition of artful tech textbooks – Why’s Poignant Guide to Ruby, Learn You a Haskell, Land of Lisp. Hides the specific things you need to know about JS – its mad liberal syntax, semicolon insertion, functors, – among a My First Programming. But no harm in seeing what one knows already.

    Fantastic for noobs. [Here]
    On Being a Data Skeptic (2013) by Cathy O'Neil Extremely sane and salutary; along with MacAskill and Gates, this was one of the books I felt worth schematising, to hold its insights close; bullet list forthcoming. She appears to have taken a (book-selling?) pessimistic turn in the years since (but I haven't read that one yet).
    The Ig Nobel Prizes (2002) by Marc Abrahams Sublimely silly: my favourite piece of modern art. The joke is the same each time – informality in formal contexts – but like modern art it’s the framing makes them. The titles alone:

    Williams & Newell (1993) ‘Salmonella Excretion in Joy-riding Pigs’;
    Wyatt McNaughton (1993) ‘The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow’;
    Watanabe & Sakamoto (1995) “Pigeons’ Discrimination of Paintings by Monet & Picasso”;
    Solodi (1996) “Farting as a Defence against Unspeakable Dread”...

    Along with RetractionWatch and LessWrong and Andrew Gelman, this was one of my ways into actual science from pop science.
    The Wasp Factory (1984) by Iain Banks None yet
    Wolf in White Van (2014) by John Darnielle None yet
    Maskerade (Discworld, #18; Witches #5) (1995) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    Fortress Besieged (1947) by Qian Zhongshu
    “I talked to Bertie about his marriages and divorces once,” Shenming said. “He said that there’s a saying in English that marriage is like a gilded birdcage. The birds outside want to get in, and the birds inside want to get out, he said, so divorce leads to marriage and marriage leads to divorce and there’s never any end to it.”

    “There’s a saying like that in France, too,” Miss Su said. “Only there it’s about a
    forteresse assiégée — a fortress under siege. The people outside want to storm in, and the people inside are desperate to get out.”

    Two books: one farce (A Confederacy of Dunces meets the Campus Trilogy - which would be the highest praise, if those books didn't have contradictory goals and tones), one soft Bovary tragedy. Internationalist (most characters speak another language), if only for comic effect.

    The main character, Fang Hongjian ("Grand Drippy Square" or maybe "Local Big Soak"), is a pompous fraud who slowly realises that all of his fellow intellectuals are the same. Forced to adlib a speech on what he learned about the West during his long (bogus) studies there, he comes up with:
    there are only two items from the West which have been lasting in Chinese society. One is opium, and the other is syphilis. These are what the Ming dynasty assimilated of Western civilization.

    The Japanese invade midway through but are just a nuisance to Fang, who is much more vexed by his parents messing with his marriage.

    People complain about the translation, but they've done that with three different translations, so maybe the stodginess is in the original too, and its air of cosmopolitan, Wodehousian lightness is just air.
    Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier (2011) by Edward L. Glaeser
    Engrossing optimistic catalogue of the counter-intuitions that urban economics provides us: “poverty can mean a city’s doing well, since the poor wouldn’t stay, otherwise”, “cities are greener and more democratic (smaller houses, less travel, scale utilities)”, “zoning laws ensure prices are too high, apartments too small, congestion, sprawl, slums and corruption”, “people are less unhappy and less suicidal in cities”.

    Glaeser’s aims are larger than simple Gladwellian gee-whizzing: he’s out to get a prevailing anti-city mood (e.g. Blake, Rousseau, Thoreau, hippies). Explains why art is urban, why we didn’t have good ideas before settlements, the origins of the restaurant (in a crap Parisian health-food place), the skyscraper, and the global bank Chase Manhattan (in a scam defrauding money meant for NY’s first public water supply). Valuing the devalued, staying within evidential warrant, and honest about the achievements of public agencies.
    Going Postal (Discworld, #33; Moist von Lipwig, #1) (2004) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy (2017) by Tim Harford Harford is among the best pop science writers. There are shout-outs to Nick Bostrom and other luminaries in this. Harford has a slightly tragic consciousness of backlash and double-effect of some of these (e.g. tetra-ethyl lead).

    So easy to read I forgot I had.
    Darwin's Watch (The Science of Discworld, #3) (2005) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    Wings (Bromeliad Trilogy, #3) (1990) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry None yet
    Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest (1992) by Stephen E. Ambrose Was obsessed with this when I was small, probably because of the swears and gore.
    The Rough Guide to Classical Music (1998) by Rough Guides Rough it til you make it
    An Introduction to Mathematical Economics: Methods and Applications () by G.C. Archibald, Richard G. Lipsey None yet
    Epistemic Analysis: A Coherence Theory of Knowledge (1984) by Paul Ziff
    I know that there is no [demiurge], but what if I were wrong? I am not, but I could be, but I am not, though I may be.

    A wall has been built, and it is being built; we think it will continue to be built. No one knows exactly who started the wall, though many have helped. Nor does anyone know how far it reaches: it seems to go on and on forever. We think the builders are our principals.

    The wall is to protect us from the invasion. Wall soldiers man the wall. Whenever a soldier is overcome by an invader, he must be replaced by a stronger soldier, & we are forever sending replacements. We have even sent soldiers to man the wall in the distant provinces. No one knows how strong the enemy forces are there. We need as many soldiers as we can get, but we want only those who are strong enough to repel an invader. It is possible that there is a man strong enough to repel an invader. We know if a man isn't strong enough if he is overcome by an invader. But if he is not, we don't know whether it is because he is strong enough, or good fortune has kept stronger invaders away.

    We have found a section of the wall where the invaders are too strong for anyone weaker than K. So we know that no man weaker than K will do there. For the time being we risk it: we judge that K is strong enough. Perhaps someday K may have to be replaced. Yes, we know that.
    Meanwhile we stare at the long reaches of the wall and wonder.

    I no longer find coherentism even the kind of thing that would constitute an answer to the question "what is knowledge? / what is justification?". But this is so beautiful.
    Island (1962) by Aldous Huxley His last book: a half-rational vehicle for his late contrarian mystical worldview; in fact it reads as his making amends for the vivid bioconservative paranoia of Brave New World. It certainly handles the same themes, simply inverted in their consequences: we see drugs as enablers of enlightenment; a much healthier view of suffering, as a pointless trap; a surprisingly pragmatic view of genetic engineering; and a very balanced view of civilisation and economic development.

    So: he constructs a Taoist-Hindu-Buddhist utopia which mostly avoids primitivism and annoying mysticism for a sustainable East plus West non-industrial modernity. It's not my idea of paradise, but other people's utopias usually aren't. Moreover, it is a doomed utopia nestled in nasty 1950s international political economy. The animating enemy of Island is not the authoritarian consequences of technology, but what Scott Alexander calls Moloch: the forces of self-fulfilling inevitability and destructive competition.

    Protagonist is a mirror of John the Savage: an open-minded liar and shill, a fallen outsider who manages to undermine the utopia he infiltrates. Huxley himself is the model for him: in fact we can see Will's journey from cynical aestheticism to materialist spirituality as autobiography in allegory. The mystic character, Rani, is amazing: an enraging theosophical flake. This reflects well on Huxley's own weirdness: the Rani is as far from traditional organised religion as Huxley is from her.

    Given the times and his project, lots of Huxley's worldview have become clichés: e.g. “you forget to pay attention to what's happening. And that's the same as not being here and now ”. The prose is arch and syrupy but I like it. (BNW is saddled by the air of a smug jeremiad. Island is every bit as didactic but nowhere near as smug.) It's chock-full of bad poetry though. I love his use of reported speech to denote characters he disrespects: this saves him the bother of writing it and us the bother of reading and makes a conspiracy of us and Huxley:

    \tHe turned to Will and treated him to a long and flowery farewell.

    In polysyllables, Mr Bahu hedged diplomatically. On the one hand, yes; but on the other hand, no. From one point of view, white; but from a different angle, distinctly black.</blockquote>

    Pala's structure is cool but not at all radical enough to solve what is wrong with us, I think – technology is controlled very carefully and considered one of the 'dozens' of fronts to aid people on. (Hypnotherapy and tantra are given way more credit than they deserve, for instance.) Is “one-third” of suffering intrinsic? I look forward to science seeing if that is the case. I elect Huxley into the hall of fame of people who make a very popular error and later recant to no acclaim. (Niels Bohr (and his memetically dominant false model), Frank Jackson, André Gide, Bertrand Russell, ...)

    * Can we call a novel mistaken? As a whole, not in some particular claim of a character. No. 'Misguided', or ideologically harmful, maybe.</td> </tr>
    The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins I'm a fourth-generation nonbeliever, in wishy-washy-secular Britain; really not sure why I got so caught up in New Atheism. Felt dead good to rebel against a weakened enemy with no recourse, I guess.

    I can't remember much false in this, though these days I'd quibble with his argument against agnosticism ("we can't get conclusive evidence against the existence of gods, but the probability is low enough that in any other domain we'd have warrant for full disbelief; and 'atheism' is just this very-low-probability-assignment"). This is an argument against the word 'agnosticism' and is pointless except in PR terms.
    The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don't (2012) by Nate Silver None yet
    Philosophy and Computing: An Introduction (1996) by Luciano Floridi Whistle-stop hyperbole in the way of Continentals, but grounded by technical knowledge and uncliched. (Owing to its techno-optimism: it is uncliched to be a philosopher optimistic about tech.)
    The history of modern thought has been characterised by an increasing gap between mind and reality. It is a process of epistemic detachment which has been irresistible ever since it began, and quite inevitably so. Knowledge develops as mind’s answer to the presence of the non-mental. It is the means whereby the subject establishes a minimal distance, and emancipates itself, from the object. The rise of dualism and the escalating interaction between traditional knowledge, as an object, and innovative knowledge, as a further reaction to it, has led to the emergence of a new world.

    Notice the skilled and non-fatuous use of phenomenological blah! Chapter 2, his fast and very formal discussion of Boole, Gödel and Turing, took me about half a week. The tiny concluding chapter – in which he locates computers in the history of human freedom, as Hephaestean handmaids – makes me giddy. Slightly dated where it talks PC specs, and he loves a goofy neologism (“egology”, “corporeal membranes”), but grand, sceptical, grand, supervenient.

    (His ‘Informational Nature of Personal Identity’ and ‘Turing’s Three Lessons’ are better.)

    Children of Time (Children of Time, #1) (2015) by Adrian Tchaikovsky Initially, this looked like a Brin rip-off, or a Vinge rip-off, or even a Pratchett rip-off. And the prose is just serviceable. Title sucks too.

    But it blooms: the long evolutionary pathway it follows - from a spider jeeust 'thinking' that pack hunting might be a good idea, to a full manned space program - is excellent. The alternative technological route is the great bit - what would industry look like without fossil fuel, a mechanised society without metal? - and the protagonist spiders who find the route are easy to empathise with.

    Ants are used as robots, factories, laboratories, and eventually as CPUs:
    There are hundreds of tamed ant colonies within Great Nest, not counting those in the surrounds that undertake the day-to-day business of producing food, clearing ground or fending off incursions of wild species. Each colony has been carefully trained, by subtle manipulation of punishment, reward and chemical stimulus, to perform a specific service, giving the great minds access to a curious kind of difference engine.

    {over-literal bull-shit}
    (Tchaikovsky overstates massively the potential of ants as a processing channel, though - witness the giant leap in practicality from ~1cm mechanical relays to (even the crappiest) fully-electronic vacuum-tube. Nothing so slow and large as an ant colony could carry out much logic-gate work without taking much longer than a human-level worker and anyway accumulating huge errors.)
    \{/over-literal bull-shit}

    (Their bioengineering stuff is actually more realistic than Vinge's spiders' breakneck 50-year sprint through the C20th and C21st centuries, even if you include the Uplifting virus. This is because Vinge's telling is deterministic - they discover all the same stuff as us, in mostly the same order - and their culture a cartoon of ours.)

    His other successful theme is incomprehension: females not understanding male liberation, spiders not understanding how a depressed solitary human could be sentient, Kern not understanding anything. (Mostly the spider gender politics are boring, just bizarro patriarchy with a cannibal twist.)

    The main antagonist, the mad hubristic scientist starts off dull and strawish (why did it take 300 years for her to ask what rough genus the spiders were?) but the moment she stops that stuff and reaches across the species barrier is quite beautiful.

    Also, Tchaikovsky often drops out of the Spiders' worldview mid-sentence to telegraph what you, a human, should be thinking of all this (an example is the use of "curious" in the passage above).

    The humans are less interesting, fairly stock generation-shippers. There is this inversion, that the scholar of dead languages is Key Crew, plot-critical all the time:
    To study and laud those antique psychopaths during the Earth's last toxic days had seemed bad taste. Nobody liked a classicist.

    Anyway worthwhile, momentarily dazzling.


    How does it do as Serious science fiction?

    Social development: Lots. The spiders' matriarchal anarchism is shown with realistic downsides. The ark ship humans go through several revolutions and regressions.

    Software development: Some, but all pretty high-level. Thousands of years of uptime for some systems, with only hints at how to keep it going. Some nice linguistic archaeology.

    Actual Science: Mostly evo bio, little bit of computer science and crypto maybe.
    Zero to One: Notes on Start Ups, or How to Build the Future (2014) by Peter Thiel What we hate about business books is their clichés, their fawning, their Panglossian grin, their being completely invalid because they don't consider survivorship bias, and their prose. This one avoids all these things and is radical in an unconventional way.*

    It's hard to know what to think of Thiel. He's easy to demonise - much easier than his loudmouth peer Musk. For instance, he's anti-college, anti-affirmative-action, anti-Clinton - and even openly anti-competition! (And a vampire!)

    But I've been impressed with his clarity and sense of proportion in interviews, and nowhere here did I find the Girardian anti-humanist conservatism that Gawker, Vulture, Vox, (...) made me expect.

    For instance, this spiel moves me every time I hear it - the billions of hours we steal from children every year:
    We teach every young person the same subjects in the same ways, irrespective of individual talents and preferences. Students who don’t learn best by sitting at a desk are made to feel somehow inferior, while children who excel on conventional measures like tests and assignments end up defining their identities in terms of this weirdly contrived academic parallel reality.

    And it gets worse as students ascend to higher levels of the tournament. Elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them. Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking. For the privilege of bring turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

    and similarly plaintive and humane bits:
    Why work with a group of people who don’t even like each other? Many seem to think it’s a sacrifice necessary for making money. But taking a merely professional view of the workplace, in which free agents check in and out on a transactional basis, is worse than cold: it’s not even rational. Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long-term future together. If you can’t count durable relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well—even in purely financial terms.

    He is simply not simple. There are four positive references to Marx, four to Zuckerberg; two to Shakespeare, two to Bezos. He is a revisionist, then, intolerable to one side and oddly scathing about the other. (The chapter which translates Google's public rhetoric is not complimentary, for instance.) His niche seems to be the repugnant but true. So, like Taleb without the bluster and boasting. Which feels bizarre, like I'm in a different timeline where Taleb is actually aiming to not alienate a mass audience.

    He says true things about things I know about: the history of economic thought (Walras did indeed lift the formalism of general equilibrium from physics) and the deadened air of contemporary Political Philosophy. His contribution to Trump's campaign was risible and maybe a defection against the world - but notice that even this lapse speaks to his ability to find unexpected truths - FiveThirtyEight gave an 80% chance of a Clinton win at that point. So maybe his analysis and helpful checklist for startups are true too.

    It's a shame few critics of capitalism will read this - for he is one, in his way:
    Americans mythologize competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines. Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition, all profits get competed away. The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.

    (Of actually-existing capitalism I mean.)

    How on earth can you argue that monopolies give more social utility than high competition? First, distinguish three kinds: 1) criminal saboteurs and antitrustees (Apple); 2) government-licenced pets (US car dealers, the East India Companies); and 3) "creative monopolies" who gain their massive market share by doing something much, much better than everyone else. Obviously only the latter is good for society.

    I was recently rushing to the airport, and pulled the quickest route (via underground via train via foot) from Google Maps. On the way, I noticed a sign in the Tube and realised that actually a different line was a much shorter route. So I walked 10 mins to that line, to find, of course, that it was suspended all weekend and, consequently, that Google is better at my life than I am. This is what he means.

    He goes further and says that the spare resources and vision of a creative monopoly is the source of innovation and so

    Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.

    The model is structurally the same as the old one about the Agrarian revolution: farms meant that for the first time, not everyone had to work full-time on food production, which let them specialise in other roles (war, gods, justice, lore) and eventually - slowly - invent new things.

    Even so, I thought of an alternative road to dynamism, given perfect competition and so no profits: competition leads to low prices, which leads to savings, which are pooled into investment funds, which give entrepreneurs the same kind of space (and potentially the long view) that profits do.

    Other people would not use the word "monopoly", trying to manage the connotations, trying to persuade us by smoothing things over. This is not Thiel's strategy.

    One chapter argues that "Success is not just luck", mostly on the back of the existence of serially successful entrepreneurs (it is plausible that once could be luck, and plausible that one success brings massive funding, deserved or not. It isn't plausible that someone could dumbly blunder into 3 billion-dollar executions, even given the easy ride for the second and third). It pains me slightly to admit the latter, because it tints my otherwise complete loathing of Steve Jobs.


    Misc notes

    * He notes that the term "developed nations" is a sign of our lack of ambition, of a premature, smug, quasi-willed halt.

    * The dot-com boom was even crazier than you thought:
    A South Korean firm wired us $5 million without first negotiating a deal or signing any documents. When I tried to return the money, they wouldn't tell me where to send it.

    * It is not yet clear whether killing Gawker was good or bad. Either way, like his Trump donation, you must acknowledge the sheer gall and direction.

    * One should do a Straussian (between-the-lines) reading of anyone smart, conservative and public, because there will be a lot that's unsayable. I don't care to.
    The few who knew what could be learned,
    Foolish enough to put their whole heart on show,
    reveal their feelings to the crowd below?
    These we have always crucified and burned.

    * Actually hold on. The man's a transhumanist, an anti-school radical, a funder of one of our only large-scale experiments in urban planning or libertarianism, a rationalist. Why do we call him a conservative?


    Short, original, modest, and he credits his ghostwriter on the cover. Minus one point because it makes 200 large claims in 200 pages and has no citations for anything.

    * Thinking about it, it's not so much that he avoids cliche, as that the erudite context defangs them.
    "Zero to One" sounds like the usual kind of motivational crap, except that it's actually a good illustration of his maxim of creative monopoly ("0 -> 1 is much, much better than 1 -> n"). And the subtitle "How to build the future" is not figurative and not petty: he cites Bostrom's trajectories about the ultimate fate of the universe - and is only focussed on technology because that's what will get us past the Rise and Fall trap, the stagnation trap and the extinction trap.
    Statistics: A Very Short Introduction (2008) by David J. Hand Was looking for a qualitative introduction to convey something of the excitement and philosophical importance - the art of discovering anything which isn't bleedin' obvious! nor knowable apriori! This has bits of that ("Statistics is applied philosophy of science"; "it is the technology for handling uncertainty") but is still too dry to recommend as a first exposure.

    He diagnoses the worst parts of university teaching: hand calculations, canned inference, and the (exhausting, interminable) bag-of-tools approach, rather than computers and The Framework. But the latter have steep learning curves. I think the biggest thing missing is simple tailoring of datasets: let them pick something they care about to study, to learn how to study on.

    Lots of ML methods covered, without a single mention of the phrase "machine learning". This is fair enough if you consider how much of (enterprise) ML hype is just rebranded 40 year old stats.

    Hand notes the origins of the field - as State-istics, i.e. as the beginning of bureaucracy and surveillance. But he doesn't feel the tension of this fact: that it helped to transform us, for good and ill, into legible people.

    One dodgy idea: he claims that numbers offer a more direct apprehension of reality than words, that they're realer. But this isn't why they're better: they're better because they're more sensitive - it's at least possible for them to track any size change in the world, while words are mostly stuck to medium-sized dry goods - and because they are easier to spot errors in.
    Python Programming for the Absolute Beginner (2003) by Michael Dawson Gifted this when I was a teen. Wish I'd paid more attention, would've saved me about 5 years.
    Surprisingly Down to Earth, and Very Funny: My Autobiography () by Limmy Auto theft, fanny fright, incompetent but dogged self-harm, raving and tripping as self-medication, dole stupor, bail skipping, the death drive, pretend machismo, pretend homosexuality, alcoholism, Flash animation, BBC showrunner. Not very funny but very entertaining. (His shows are funny.)

    I could have guessed that he'd had a life like this from his characters; so much authentic idiocy, lunacy, awkwardness, pretension, and pettiness. Surprised that Dee-Dee is based on his own trippy blankness; Limmy's so sharp these days.

    He crosses into the middle class through IT, anxious about looking like the 'wee ned guy' in the office. And then into Design (a colony of the Art world, where a rough background's a bonus), and then to TV comedy, and then to streaming, where rawness and obliquity and patter means dollas. It's a nice story.

    It's about being strange in a normal, subclinical* way: intrusive thoughts, groundless anxiety, reduced affect display, auditory hallucination, mild paranoia, misanthropy, hysteroid dysphoria.
    I must sound like a fuckin robot tae you. But it's just the way I'm wired. I never felt sad about my mum dying.

    I always wondered if I was schizophrenic... Maybe just an overactive imagination. My mind likes to come up wi lots of thoughts and ideas, whether or no they're useful or make sense. I think that sort of thing can make you mental, depending on how severe it is and what kind of environment you're in. Fortunately I managed to find a place to put my kind of mind to good use.

    The deep function of laughter is apparently that it allows play / boundary learning / questioning social norms. So to be a comedian, you have be a step past your society. (I doubt funniness is linear in weirdness though.) And Limmy is obviously out there. He regularly tweets about how much he misses drinking (which I've never seen an alcoholic do), and satirises the now-daily flamewars of the shouting classes by taking absurd and alternating stances on every issue (...) .

    I know several people with the same mix of terrible impulses and good intentions, charisma and anti-social solitude: folk whose adolescence lasted twenty years. They're the funniest people I know, by far. I don't know how class comes into it, but they're all working-class. Maybe middle-class people as strange as them direct it inward, rather than outward as comedy or violence. (They're also all Scots but that's a selection effect, I hope.)

    Audiobook's worth it - the prose is very plain and his accent's strong but clear. Fans only, but you should be a fan.


    * There are also dozens of suicidal episodes though.
    All Flesh Must Be Eaten (2003) by Al Bruno None yet
    What A Mess (1977) by Frank Muir None yet
    Economic Development (1993) by Michael P. Todaro The first piece of economics I remember actually understanding, probably because it got under my guard by being undeniably, obviously about matters of life and death, hope and justice, and what's around the corner, and how maths can help.

    (Specifically Todaro's own model of urban migration.)
    A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) by John Kennedy Toole
    '...I doubt very seriously whether anyone will hire me.'
    'What do you mean, babe? You a fine boy with a good education.'
    'Employers sense in me a denial of their values.' He rolled over onto his back. 'They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century I loathe.

    "Have you read widely in Boethius?"
    "Who? Oh, heavens no. I never even read newspapers."
    "Then you must begin a reading program immediately so that you may understand the crises of our age," Ignatius said solemnly. "Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians, too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books."

    Funny, loving portrait of Arts grad pretension / wilful ineffectuality, and of New Orleans. (Ignatius is a dogmatic Boethian, but the pattern repeats in neo-Aristotelians, neo-Thomists, ecocriticism, technocriticism, Heideggerians...)

    Ignatius is a perfect tragicomic figure, managing to be both physically and intellectually parochial (he never leaves Norleans) and but eloquent and ridiculously overconfident. But it's about twice as long as it should be.
    Ender's Game (Ender's Saga, #1) (1985) by Orson Scott Card Bit with Demosthenes and Locke was memorable (two children pulling the strings of the world media, less implausible than the aliens in this).
    What's Left? (2007) by Nick Cohen This hurt.
    Science Made Stupid: How to Discomprehend the World Around Us (1985) by Tom Weller

    Once... the comman man had no hope of mastering the arcane complexities of the secrets of science. Years of study in musty classrooms were prerequisite to obtaining even a dim, incoherent knowledge of science.
    Today all that has changed: a dim, incoherent knowledge of science is available to anyone.

    The decline of modern physics began with the particle accelerator. The accelerator is a device that turns your taxes into a small beam of subatomic particles.

    Couple of solid jokes and lots of great drawings. Some of its shtick was later redone by Brass Eye and Look Around You, but that is no real objection.
    Evolving Ourselves (2015) by Juan Enriquez Broad-minded venture capitalists seek to update Darwinism in the light of new human capabilities. 100 tiny chapters on some facet of modern genetics and modern genomes and epigenomes and microbiomes... They're infectiously excited, but it's a bit light, sugary.
    The Eternity Code (Artemis Fowl, #3) (2003) by Eoin Colfer None yet
    Artemis Fowl (Artemis Fowl, #1) (2001) by Eoin Colfer None yet
    Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding None yet
    Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson "Don't try."
    Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine (2013) by Paul A. Offit Heinous illusions leech £200bn off the world’s vulnerables, annually. The problems of CAM have been covered with more originality and verve by Goldacre / Singh & Ernst, but Offit covers its history, as well as some newer meta-analyses (2005: n=136,000 finds increased mortality from dosing vitamin E. 2008: Cochrane (n=230,000) concludes multivits correlate weakly with increase in cancer and heart disease risk, further confirmed in 2011).

    But you can’t hear these ideas too often: there’s no such thing as conventional or alternative medicine (only stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t); everything is chemicals; origin is irrelevant to chemistry; too much of a good thing is lethal; the natural is not always or generally good.

    Offit is too quick to jump from the conclusive weak-magnitude evidence against multivitamins (particularly overdosing vitamins A, C, and E) to his attack on all supplementation. For instance: some two-thirds of the world is deficient in vitamin D; few people get enough magnesium through their food; and it’s uncontroversial that vegans should supplement B12. But we’re not really in conflict, because he’d change his mind if he looked at the evidence, and we each accept that (publically-funded) science will out the truth.

    Prose 2/5, ideas 4/5.

    (I read this under an edition called Killing Us Softly.)
    Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School (2009) by Eveline Chao Actually I was - but only because my lăoshī was a saucy linguistics grad who warned me not to practice the tricky phoneme or on the street, or ever to shout “3-8!”.

    Anyway this is funny and valuable for understanding the place’s (otherwise inaccessible) working-class or web or queer registers – and for generally not seeming like a prig.

    So: language is fossilised sociology; Chao excavates what would take us decades. She begins with slurs of all sorts, but doesn’t list any homophobia – claiming it isn’t a well-rooted hatred there (…). There’s loads and loads of ableism, though. Gets more serious as it goes, with whole chapters on gay culture and web ‘activism’ (恶搞 is ‘evildoings’, lulz). This turns up details like the infallibly hilarious “potato queen”. I also loved her decoding the ancient innuendoes: 云雨 (clouds and rain), 鱼水之欢 (the fish and the water, happy together), 余桃 (sharing peaches), or “playing the bamboo flute” or “bamboo harmonica”.

    (BTW, the title term is 牛屄 – ‘Cow-cunt’ – and means “Awesome!”. It is generally not included in mainstream Hanzi keyboard programs.)
    Pro Git (2009) by Scott Chacon Neal Stephenson once hyperbolised the situation in OS choice as follows:

    Linux is right next door and is not a business at all. It's a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set up in a field and organized by consensus. The people who live there are making tanks. These are not old-fashioned, cast-iron Soviet tanks; these are more like the M1 tanks of the U.S. Army, made of space-age materials and jammed with sophisticated technology from one end to the other. But they are better than Army tanks. They've been modified in such a way that they never, ever break down, are light and maneuverable enough to use on ordinary streets, and use no more fuel than a subcompact car. These tanks are being cranked out, on the spot, at a terrific pace, and a vast number of them are lined up along the edge of the road with keys in the ignition. Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free.

    This is overstated; Debian and Ubuntu, the chief consumer descendents, are as buggy as any other. But the very same people built Git, and it is a battle-tank. Fast, unbreakable and life-saving. Why hasn't it taken over the world, outside of tech industry? 1) most people don't need non-linear incremental backups; 2) the learning curve is bloody steep even for techies.

    Entities that you need to know about to use Git without absurdity: the files, the working tree, the index, many local repositories, many remote repositories, 'remotes' (pointers to remote repositories), commits, treeishes (pointers to commits), branches, a stash

    This book covers so much of the internal detail, the gotchas, the customisability, and comparisons with other source-control systems that it was adopted as canonical docs by the official working group. Skip sections at will, but do have a go.

    [Free here]
    The Data Science Handbook () by Field Cady Was looking for an intro text for my academic mates who aren't techie mates: this turned out to be it.

    Covers all the important boring stuff (file formats, coding practices) and a bit of the flashy stuff (CNNs, Keras) and was written specifically to drag maths PhDs into basic competence.

    Not to be confused with this puffery.
    The Elements of Data Analytic Style (2015) by Jeff Leek Pleasant, readable, sensible. This bit's good, tells you exactly how most social science is limited (it stops at inferential, and sometimes manages to mess even that up):

    Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969) by Ronald Blythe None yet
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) by Mark Haddon Likeable!
    Wankers () by Christian Robshaw Fun, thoughtful, especially for music nerds.
    “Look, bollocks! Pixies seem to be an act that, while little appreciated within their own lifetime, have retrospectively come to be seen as one of the greats, and while, in that respect, they can be compared to The Velvet Underground or even Joy Division, where they differ from the latter two acts is that, in spite of all that obfuscating acclaim, they never actually produced a full LP of unskippable tracks.” – good going Sooty actually, you can be so eloquent! – [much more]

    – “and don’t get me started on the Nirvana connection, which, by the way, I mean... you go ‘Yeah, they influenced Nirvana’ – who were a better band! And anyway, Kurt used to give props to all of his indie contemporaries, so I don’t see where’s the great re-evaluation of Flipper or The Melvins...

    Look, it doesn’t matter, because that’s actually my point. When you’re really into music, you get into it, and you end up having these weird appreciations, like Kurt had – you might end up thinking that what to everyone else is a forgotten one-hit wonder deserves consideration with the rest of the greats. And you might look at the Pixies and decide they’re one of the greats, too, but when you come at it just having heard that they are great, then you’re not into it, and you don’t end up with a real love, just an appreciation. It’s why a fan of, you know, Mudhoney or...Pearl Jam’s going to be more passionate, because they’ve got something to prove. You haven’t got anything to prove, because you’ve never come to it that way.” – this is actually going really well. If I wrap up soon, I might actually win this one – “Look, if you’re going to sit there with your uncontroversial opinions where you just say that the same bands Q Magazine says are great, are, then you just look like a total...” – alright Sooty, go out on a high note here, and you’ll be invincible – “massive twat.” – fuck – “just a twat. Probably a twat with loads of unopened Pixies CDs on the shelf.”

    There is some masturbation but it's a minor theme. Nor is the title writing off the characters as actively unpleasant - they're at worst a little pretentious. I think it's as in onanism, narcissism, not thinking of your effect on others. Pleasing yourself. There's no explicit moral though: it neither condemns pleasing yourself nor reclaims it as a real ethics. You get the reflection that sneaking away from your hookup is a bad way to ensure seeing them again.

    High Fidelity is the obvious comparator, but Sooty is less dysfunctional, more optimistic, much less dependent on true love to save him. St Aubyn is the preferred comparator - of the inability to really control oneself, of moral luck and lack of luck.

    DOUGAL:\tWhy did you shoot the horse?
    SOOTY:\t\t[She] made me. I don’t know why. I’ve never even been on a horse.
    DOUGAL:\tJust shot one, and that’s it.
    SOOTY:\t\tYeah. I guess she thought ‘cause I’m a man, I suppose.
    DOUGAL:\tThat seems a bit sexist.
    SOOTY:\t\tMaybe it is.
    DOUGAL:\tBetter not tell Berkeley, though, if you think it’s sexism. You don’t want him accusing you of cultural Marxism.

    Lots of true London colour - Pret as inescapable, unthreatening, premium-mediocre locus; the fossil Club culture; the agglomeration, in this absurdly expensive place, of poorly-paid, ambiguously Cultural people from all over.
    Introducing Speech and Language Processing (2005) by John Coleman None yet
    Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem (1997) by Simon Singh Good. Lucid in many places ("any logic which relies on a conjecture is conjecture"). Does well in using plain language to communicate some of the exciting complexity and dismaying complication of higher maths (but not as well as Kanigel on Ramanujan).
    The Best Software Writing I: Selected and Introduced by Joel Spolsky (2005) by Joel Spolsky Odd beast: a time capsule where half the items are of purely historical interest, and half are general and extremely wise arguments that are still not acted upon today. He had planned them to be annual collections, but they didn't happen, so this looks to represent more than one year's best.
    Recent enough to tell us something about the internet, though with lots of anachronism. But it's more at the lexical level - "weblog", "Sociable media" - than the semantic.

    Found (eminent media researcher) danah boyd ludicrous: she calls developers autistic, and calls people with several online identities multiple-personality disordered (a person is one person. So all their activities have to be one person!) Disappointing, typical social theory. She aggressively pushes a horrendous risky single-sign-in for all sites based on these shitty polemics and nothing else.

    Contains helpful principles which will not age:, e.g. "if you can't understand the spec for a new technology, don't worry: nobody else will understand it either, and the technology won't be that important".

    The Quest for Artificial Intelligence: A History of Ideas and Achievements (2009) by Nils J. Nilsson A sweet informal history of AI research from a Stanford doyen. In places it is actually 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]
    The First Computers: History and Architectures (2000) by Raul Rojas Papers from an obscure and high-calibre conference: the presenters include an inventor of ALGOL, Turing's assistant on the ACE...

    Lots of details you can't find elsewhere - like the first ever fully-electronic computer (Hoelzer's unknown 50 Jahre Analog Computer).

    4/5, only if you are into this corner of the world.
    Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) by Thomas Piketty Was very impressed by this first time round, but the subsequent scholarly pushback convinces me it's too flawed to endorse without including this list of corrections:

    * Magness: Piketty's data don't account for bias in income tax reporting. This undermines his claim that inequality is now as bad as it was in the early 1900s: when tax codes change dramatically, as they did through the pre-war period and in 1986, the data become unrepresentative (without adjustment). After adjustment, it looks like inequality fell much less in the postwar boom and has risen much less, post-80s.
    * Rognlie and Bonnet et al: Piketty calculated the increase in capital share wrong, it's a lot lower; price appreciation (benefiting the rich) is not general, instead driven by housing. This mostly benefits single-home-owners, who use their capital by living in it, and so aren't 'rentiers'; thus Piketty is mostly wrong about the rise of rentier capitalism. Also, housing shortages are often political rather than fundamental, which again undermines the big anti-capital policy implication.
    * Furman and Orszag: Piketty's explanation for extreme income disparities (: large increases in corporate-executive bargaining power) isn't right; instead only a small group of monopolistic tech firms ("superstars") display this.
    * Acemoglu and Robinson: The evidence is mostly strongly against his three fundamental laws of capitalism. Most importantly, the elasticity of substitution of capital for labour is less than one; therefore, Piketty's main mechanism for explaining inequality cannot be true.
    * McCloskey: lots of errors.

    Piketty's core claims:

    1. the capital share of national income has risen (at the expense of labour share).
    2. r > g; wealth generally grows faster than economic output.
    3. whenever r > g, inequality will rise because capital gets concentrated in fewer hands.
    3b. r (the return to capital) won't change much in response to a decline in growth rate, because the elasticity of substitution between capital and labor is high.
    4. The capital-output ratio will be worse in the future.
    5. Therefore large wealth tax now, or both capitalism and democracy will die.

    The above research finds that the first is true in some places (in the UK, the US and Canada?), but each of the middle three is questionable. (4) could happen but we're not given much reason to think it inevitable. Summary: Piketty's data collection and descriptive work is mostly good, his analysis and modelling is flawed enough to undo his policy recommendations (5).


    The resentful econ undergrad in me thrilled to see Piketty saying this:
    To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in. There is one great advantage of being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.

    He's keen to emphasise his ideological hygiene, that he's a real-deal empiricist. Weighed down by overstatement of its own achievement (“the fundamental laws of capitalism”).

    With a few more diagrams and boxed definitions, this would make an excellent intro macro textbook, gentle and empirically obsessive as it is. Lot of redundancy - whoa-there steady-now summary paragraphs every few pages - but I suppose that's what you need to do if you aim to be understood by policymakers.
    Seven Languages in Seven Weeks (2010) by Bruce A. Tate Very approachable, but the exercises are repetitive. (My reading group stopped at Prolog, too irritated to go on.)

    Useful for searching through some very different languages, if you're new or aren't sure what you're looking for.
    Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (2016) by Cathy O'Neil Important and flawed. It is very hard to think clearly about these things (witness the many inconsistent uses of the term "bias" in the field) but O'Neil goes some way toward this. She is more balanced than average, recognising that algorithms can be an improvement over human bias and pettiness (she praises FICO scores as the liberating thing it was, moving money from those bank managers liked to reliable people of any stripe).

    Following recent convention, she calls the decision systems 'algorithms'. But it isn't the inaccurate abstract program that does the harm, but the credulous lack of validation. Programs only do harm when they are allowed to make or guide decisions.

    See also "recommender systems", "info filtering systems", "decision-making systems", "credit scoring".

    Her framework is useful. When is a system dangerous?:


    Is the subject aware they are being modelled?
    Is the subject aware of the model's outputs?
    Is the subject aware of the model's predictors and weights?
    Is the data the model uses open?
    Is it dynamic - does it update on its failed predictions?


    Does the model make decisions about many thousands of people?
    Is the model famous enough to change incentives in its domain?
    Does the model cause vicious feedback loops?
    Does the model assign high-variance population estimates to individuals?


    Does the model work against the subject's interests?
    If yes, does the model do so in the social interest?
    Is the model fully automated, i.e. does it make decisions as well as predictions?
    Does the model take into account things it shouldn't?
    Do its false positives do harm? Do its true positives?
    Is the harm of a false positive symmetric with the good of a true positive?

    [Data #2, Theory #1, Theory #3, Values #1]</li>
    Doing Data Science (2013) by Rachel Schutt The first third is: Talking About Data Science. But that's good; two careful, socially conscious techies talking is nice, and you would never get the dozens of handy heuristics in this from a usual STEM textbook. Crunchier than it looks - half the value is in the dull-looking, unannotated code samples at the end of each chapter, and isn't spelled out. Pedagogy!

    It is galling, then, that the data for chapters 6 and 8 has already link-rotted away. And half of the cool startups who came to talk to the class are dead and forgotten already.

    Only worth it if you can find the data.

    [Thinking #1, Theory 5 #2]</li>
    Thrilling Cities (1963) 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.
    Thin Air (2018) by Richard K. Morgan Mind candy. Blasted through it in two sittings.

    People persist in calling Morgan's writing noir, but it's too free and fulfilled to be noir - his protagonists get laid all the time, his protagonists swear, his protagonists dish out a great deal more than they get. Morgan makes cyberpunk look subtle. But it's cool stuff and I've read everything he's written, even though half of it reuses the same kind of super-protagonist, the same kind of dialogue, the same kind of gimmick weapons, the same kind of grimdark Chomskyan geopolitics (arespolitics). But the prose is mostly fast and smart enough to carry it off, again.


    * Codeflies, artificial mosquitoes as delivery mechanism for compulsory updates to implants. Hellish.
    * Placenames on Mars: Bradbury City, Musk Plaza, Hayek Street.
    Basic Statistics: Understanding Conventional Methods and Modern Insights (2009) by Rand R. Wilcox None yet
    Evolution as a Religion (Routledge Classics) (1985) by Mary Midgley The title gives an extremely misleading idea; you'd think it was a standard ignorant tu quoque work of romantic theism. But it isn't.

    Instead she traces how easy it is for scientists (including acknowledged lucid greats like Wilson, Tegmark) to slip into philosophy and end up committing howlers.
    Rendezvous with Rama (Rama, #1) (1973) by Arthur C. Clarke Didn't get it, but I was quite young.
    Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by Gabriel García Márquez Less soppy than I expected. Ending is great.
    Bully for Brontosaurus (1991) by Stephen Jay Gould This meant a lot to me as a teen. Just one bit: the essay "Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples" - with its shocking claim that only 30% of women orgasm from "PIV" intercourse - scandalised me. (He bases this on the notably shoddy work of Kinsey and Hite, but it may be worse than that.) The main point of that piece - using the pleasure-poor design of the two genitalia to attack a straw man view he calls "hyperadaptationism" - had less effect on me, luckily.

    There are odd synopses of each essay here.

    (I give general reasons to distrust Gould here.)
    David Hockney: A Bigger Picture (2012) by Marco Livingstone Superficially superficial, wholly lovable, highly postmodern. This whole retrospective is on his recent distinctive work in the Yorkshire woods.

    The words are less annoying than usual for coffee-table-badge books. Keep looking til you like it.
    Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History (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.</i>

    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.</i>

    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. </i>

    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. The Leonardo and Columbus esays are 4/5.</li>
    </td> </tr>
    Little Wolf's Diary of Daring Deeds (1996) by Ian Whybrow None yet
    The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, #1) (1979) by Douglas Adams None yet
    Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau The philosophy is fine, and was plenty nutritious for me, as a teenager: "Think hard, go your own way, don't hurt animals." The nature worship is a red herring, though.
    Chaos: Making a New Science (1987) by James Gleick Romantic, dramatic, 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.

    Borne on what 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.
    Stumbling on Happiness (2006) by Daniel Todd Gilbert Warning: Probably hasn't borne the replication crisis well.
    Learning PHP, MySQL, and JavaScript: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Dynamic Websites (2009) by Robin Nixon Half of the internet runs on PHP, a language which was not initially intended to be used for actual programs. This article, PHP: A Fractal of Bad Design</i></b>, a long list of design criticisms and roaring frustration, is how I learned the language in the first place. It is indispensable, rigorous, and wise. I had to look up not a few terms in it, because I am not a computer scientist at all, but a sneaky back-stairs conversion boy.

    All inquiry is hard; this might be because the mind was not initially intended to be used for real, permanent inquiry. But an often overlooked fact is that people are looking out for you; that is what half of all books are. In the tech world they cry lookout! a click away. If you care.


    I didn't read tech books during my first year, instead just blundering on with the step debugger and StackOverflow. This was a serious mistake, not least because my brain is geared towards book-learning and depth-first top-down imposition of order. This is excellent for people starting from 0, but too slow for anyone with much practical experience.
    The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald None yet
    The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010) by Siddhartha Mukherjee
    Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
    Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
    As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
    Death lies dead.


    Quite lyrical but exhausting. All the way from Galen to personal oncogenetics.

    The section on pre-anesthesia radical surgery was truly nauseating. A horrendous macho fad:
    Haagensen wrote in 1956: 'it is my duty to carry out as radical an operation as the... anatomy permits.'

    The radical mastectomy had... edged into the “ultraradical,” an extraordinarily morbid, disfiguring procedure in which surgeons removed the breast, the pectoral muscles, the axillary nodes, the chest wall, and occasionally the ribs, parts of the sternum, the clavicle, and the lymph nodes inside the chest.

    Breast cancer, [Halsted] claimed, spun out from the breast into the lymph nodes under the arm, then cartwheeled mirthlessly through the blood into the liver, lungs, and bones. A surgeon’s job was to arrest that centrifugal spread by cutting every piece of it out of the body, as if to catch and break the wheel in midspin. This meant treating early breast cancer aggressively and definitively. The more a surgeon cut, the more he cured.

    The sheer amount of money and genius thrown at cancer - with merely gradual returns - is not really considered in terms of its opportunity cost, by Mukherjee of anyone - what diseases might we have cured with those hundreds of billions? What giant, clever prevention studies run? But never mind: cancer won the PR war (against apathy, against political indifference, against more cost-effective causes) very early on, with the chemo pioneer Farber and his use of Jimmy
    The campaign against cancer, Farber learned, was much like a political campaign: it needed icons, mascots, images, slogans—the strategies of advertising as much as the tools of science. For any illness to rise to political prominence, it needed to be marketed, just as a political campaign needed marketing. A disease needed to be transformed politically before it could be transformed scientifically.

    and later with the powerful patient blocs.

    Not sure who would benefit from reading this closely; there's too much detail. Maybe med school freshers?
    Critique of Pure Reason (1781) by Immanuel Kant Actually only read the "Transcendental Analytic", only about 1/8th of the whole. Enough.

    Difficult, flashy apodixis. His arguments are gappy; prose awful; goals anyway radically different from mine (he wanted certainty, exhaustiveness, the establishment of free will at any metaphysical cost: a.k.a. your submission).

    I don't doubt that there's enough subtlety and complexity to spend a career reading him. I just doubt there's world enough and time for me to return for the rest.
    Big Java: Late Objects (1991) by Cay S. Horstmann Relatively friendly intro to the 1000 working concepts of OOP. Java is not the place to start programming but universities love it so this book is a coping strategy.
    Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (2013) by Melissa Mohr Cool blast through three-and-a-bit millennia of talk of Christ’s bowels and fucking shit. She distinguishes between ‘obscenities’ and ‘oaths’ (the first takes profane subjects, the second sacred) and then between the proper and the vain oath (e.g. “Bejasus! Godammit! Hell’s teeth!”).

    Adding the generalisation that ‘we swear about what we care about’, she can use known changes in the expressive power of swearwords to cleverly trace the movement of taboos across cultures and over time. (Very broadly: power went from Shit’s precedence to Holy and now back and with more political terms.) Rome’s nasty little sexuality is seen to be the model of a lot of our crap associations; in the Middle Ages vain oaths were criminal while scholars and physicians used ‘cunt’ in textbooks without heat.

    In our time, racial slurs (very young as slurs – only around WWII for their worst malevolence) have taken the biscuit from sex, excrement and God - which you can see as encouraging (if that means we now care about the targets of racial language) - or depressing (if that means we now care more about Race, dividing lines for their own sake).

    Mohr is full of fact without being trivial; she lets graffiti, court records, and primary quotation damn the damnable – e.g. DH Lawrence’s holy cock-mysticism, the spume of Twitter bigots.
    Intermediate Microeconomics: A Modern Approach (1987) by Hal R. Varian This kicked my arse; it was way above my mathematical level when I first encountered it.
    The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) by Judith Kerr None yet
    The Princess Bride (1973) by William Goldman None yet
    Daft Wee Stories (2015) by Limmy
    Happily twisted, fine. His Twitter is a better, million-word performance piece.
    Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974) by P.G. Wodehouse A bad Wodehouse but better than most books.

    This late (1974), the dischord and ugliness of the real world encroaches a bit:
    I think at this juncture I may have looked askance at him a bit. I hadn't realized that that was what he was, and it rather shocked me, because I'm not any too keen on Communists.

    "And I am a man who likes nice things. I want to branch out."
    "A Mayfair flat?"
    "Champagne with every meal?"
    "Those too."
    "Leaving something over, of course, to slip to the hard-up proletariat? You'd like them to have what you don't need."
    "There won't be anything I don't need."

    It was a little difficult to know what to say. I had never talked things over with a Communist before, and it came as something of a shock to find that he wasn't so fond of the hard-up proletariat as I had supposed.

    Dahlia on fixing a horserace:
    There are too many people around with scruples and high principles and all that sort of guff. You can't do the simplest thing without somebody jumping on the back of your neck because you've offended against his blasted code of ethics.


    Wooster's taboo: None?
    Triangle: Wooster - Vanessa - Orlo
    Subplot: Spots, the forgetful Major, the local derby.
    Aunt: Dahlia.
    Antagonist: Cook, Orlo, the Major.
    Expedient: catnapping, imprisoning someone in a painting and bedsheet, buying life insurance from an insurer who wants to kill you.
    When the Wind Blows (1982) by Raymond Briggs None yet
    The Man of Feeling (1771) by Henry MacKenzie I suppose I should dislike it because it's a precursor of Romanticism, that eventually destructive and retrograde movement. But it's also a precursor to Dickens, to David Mitchell, to Rebecca Sugar, so leave it alone.
    What Is This Thing Called Science? (1976) by Alan F. Chalmers None yet
    On Sense and Reference () by Gottlob Frege None yet
    Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (1637) by René Descartes Descartes teaches lots of things, but the most relevant is the terrible power of motivated reasoning to pervert someone - even if the reasoner is hugely intelligent.

    But not only. Catherine Wilson forced me to think of Descartes as more than a strong mathematician, incomplete scientist, bigoted apriorist and shoddy Analytic. Not least, she wrote this, maybe the brassiest passage I've ever seen in an academic journal:
    if Descartes had written a Preface to the Meditations that was truthful, faithful to his firmest convictions, and philosophically consistent, the relevant section would have gone something like this:

    I cannot demonstrate the immortality of the human soul, and probably no philosopher can. Immortality is not logically impossible, but it wouldn’t be what you are probably imagining it to be either. Perception, like sensation and emotion, is a registering by our minds of occurrences in our nerves and brain. If our minds endure after death, therefore, as far as the philosopher can tell, they will feel neither pain, nor pleasure, for they will no longerform a composite with our bodies. We will no longer see colours, touch objects, and hear sounds. We will not remember events ofour past lives. We will be numb and inert. Animals will be, as both Aristotle and Lucretius thought, nothing after death, and wehumans will be almost nothing - at most capable of imageless thought and intellectual memory. Of course, we can hope for more than this. Perhaps our bodies will be resurrected and reattached to our minds, so that we are restored to awareness of a world. But this is a matter of faith and cannot be philosophically demonstrated, whereas more important truths such as the excellence of our minds and bodies can be philosophically demonstrated.

    Be that as it may, we are not mere animals. Our language and rationality indicate that we are specially favoured by God. As to whether animals are conscious, I do not know. I avoid speculative philosophy. But everyone can appreciate that animalscannot carry on a conversation, and I seriously doubt that animals reason, for I can show how their behaviour is mediated by the brain to which their sensory organs report, without ascribing reasoning to them.

    The Fathers of the Church were wrong to scorn the human body asa source of moral corruption and to suggest that it is a shell that we will happily cast off. We use the cerebral representations it forms for purposes as exalted as mathematics, and if we could not understand and trust proofs about the triangle, how should we understand and feel confident about proofs about invisible objects such as God?...Admire God, who has given you a world to study, as well as to experience, and a mind equipped with language and reasoning powers, but leave off worrying about eternal rewards and punishments.

    Of course Descartes could not have published such a Preface, not in France and not under his own name. Yet it was to communicate this very different message that he offered, without his heart being in the task, to prove the immortality of the soul.

    Charitable to say the least, but that's what we owe the very distant.
    Death in Venice (1911) by Thomas Mann None yet
    Metaphysics: A Guide and Anthology (2004) by Tim Crane None yet
    Aesthetics (1997) by Susan Feagin None yet
    Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction (2000) by Alex Rosenberg None yet
    A Sentimental Journey (1768) by Laurence Sterne None yet
    The Grass Is Singing (1950) by Doris Lessing None yet
    Things Fall Apart (The African Trilogy, #1) (1958) by Chinua Achebe You don't see the opinion "tribal feudalism was bad, colonialism was worse" much. Nor here.
    Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad None yet
    A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings (1843) by Charles Dickens On reading the passage about the allegorical children Ignorance and Want, the lecturer broke down in tears.
    Logic (1999) by Paul Tomassi Friendly, quirky, but the topic is much better taught with a computer. (Speaking from hard experience)
    A History of Rock Music: 1951-2000 (2003) by Piero Scaruffi A dizzying parade of names, about three-quarters of which I'd never heard of. Completely idiosyncratic - for instance he doesn't rate the Beatles at all - but absolutely consistent and catholic.

    One of his principles: He maintains an art vs pop distinction I don't agree with anymore:
    fundamentally, being an art musician is a different kind of job... than the job of popular entertainer. The art musician is pursuing a research program that will be appreciated mainly by his peers and by the “critics” (functioning as historians of music), not by the public... The goal of an art musician is, first and foremost, to do what s/he feels is important...

    Art music knows no stylistic boundaries: the division in classical, jazz, rock, hip hop and so forth still makes sense for commercial music (it basically identifies the sales channel) but ever less sense for art music whose production, distribution and appreciation methods are roughly the same, regardless of whether the musician studied in a Conservatory, practiced in a loft or recorded at home with a laptop.

    He is willing to forgive incompetence, contempt and if only there is a cup of originality in it.

    This is really a stand-in for his website, which is an astonishing, rambling, deep testament to him, on history, neuroscience, AI, poetry, politics and whatever. I hope I leave behind something nearly as towering and distinctive.
    High Fidelity (1995) by Nick Hornby Loved it at the time, probably because I was Rob, as a teenager (emotionally incompetent, hooded by vivid insecurity, monomanaical about music).
    Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1) (1987) by Iain M. Banks Not the place to start. Prose is a bit flat, the plot a bit neat (now you are in space. now you have a ship).

    But it also has the most focussed treatment of the key tension of the series: what does the Absolute Liberal do with their enemies? What about people who don't want freedom, tolerance, management, intervention, rational subalterity?
    Naming and Necessity (1980) by Saul A. Kripke None yet
    Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction (1999) by William G. Lycan You have to know philosophy of language to get modern philosophy, but you don't have to like it.
    The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness (2008) by Mark Rowlands I think this was the first work I read from the (large) genre "Disgruntled philosopher of life uses book to vent about the analytics and say some wise stuff". There is also a very cute animal who is not a metaphor.
    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) by Muriel Spark None yet
    Analytic Philosophy: The History of an Illusion (2007) by Aaron Preston As a student I was much vexed by analytic philosophy. This was partially sour grapes (because I didn't know enough maths to keep up with some of it), but also partially fair: it isn't what it says it is. Roughly: modern, modest, science-friendly clarification.)

    Preston's polemic is that analytic philosophy isn't real and never was, in the sense that it isn't actually a school, a set of views, or even a methodology. (Instead it's a Anglophone social clique.) The nominally distinctive part of it was, according to Preston, the linguistic thesis: that "philosophy is wholly or largely a matter of linguistic analysis." While some analytics in the canon did think this, most don't and never did. This is dodgy.

    John Wisdom is quoted saying that what analytics have in common is their seeking "new insight into old truths". Amazingly, that seems about right, and in the plainest possible terms.

    Exciting but excessive.
    Holes (Holes, #1) (1998) by Louis Sachar None yet
    Heretics: Adventures With The Enemies Of Science (2013) by Will Storr Irritating but righteous. Not quite what it looks like: another Ronson-Theroux journalist, accosting another set of tragicomic kooks).

    OK, it is that, but it's also a grim reflection on how confusing and muddy the world is, on the universality of extreme bias - plus dollops of Storr's personal traumas and peccadilloes. (Half the book is his confessing to childhood theft, psychosis, academic failure, and petty vendettas.) Rather than getting to the bottom of ESP, or morgellons, or homeopathy, or past-life regression, Storr tries to understand the character of the people who believe and disbelieve in them.

    Besides confronting unusual beliefs without (as much) prejudice, The Heretics is about coming to terms with the fact that we are all riddled with deep obstacles to objectivity: ingroupism and confirmation bias; representation realism; emotional reasoning; the terrifyingly unreliable reconstructive nature of memory; the sad nonidentity of intelligence and rationality; evolutionarily adaptive delusions of superiority and agency. These are illustrated by interviews with a creationist, Sheldrake, Irving, Ramdev, Monckton, the Morgellons victims*, and even Randi.

    Stories work against truth. They operate with the machinery of prejudice and distortion. Their purpose is not fact but propaganda. The scientific method is the tool that humans have developed to break the dominion of the narrative. It has been designed specifically to dissolve anecdote, to strip out emotion and leave only unpolluted data. It is a new kind of language, a modern sorcery, and it has gifted our species incredible powers. We can eradicate plagues, extend our lives by decades, build rockets and fly through space. But we can hardly be surprised if some feel an instinctive hostility towards it, for it is fundamentally inhuman.

    Storr is seriously out of his depth on the science: he is always at least second-hand from the evidence (when interviewing researchers), and often third-hand (most of his citations are pop science books), and so several chapters suffer from journalism's classic problem, false balance. The reason this isn't a call to shut the book is because he doesn't spare himself, states this repeatedly - and this is in fact the theme of his book: that almost all of us are unable to infer the truth about a shocking diversity of things.*

    For instance, not just the past-life cranks, but also the Skeptics he encounters are out of their depth, and deserve the calling-out they get from him. No one can think they're past the need for doubt.

    I am surprised, for a start, that so few of these disciples of empirical evidence seem to be familiar with the scientific literature on the subject that impassions them so. I am suspicious, too, about the real source of their rage. If they are motivated, as they frequently insist, by altruistic concern over the dangers of supernatural belief, why don't they obsess over jihadist Muslims, homophobic Christians or racist Jewish settlers? Why this focus on stage psychics, ghosthunters and alt-med hippies?

    During our conversation, I asked Randi if he has ever, in his life, changed his position on anything due to an examination of the evidence. After a long silence, he said, 'That's a good question. I have had a few surprises along the way that got my attention rather sharply.'
      'What were these?' I asked.
    He thought again, for some time. 'Oh, some magic trick that I decided on the modus operandi.'...
    'So you’ve never been wrong about anything significant?'
    'In regard to the Skeptical movement and my work...' There was another stretched and chewing pause. He conferred with his partner, to see if he had any ideas. 'No. Nothing occurs to me at the moment.'

    That's not how memory works though, is it?

    Even given his unusual humility, Storr is too literal-minded and prosecutorial ("I have been looking for evidence that James Randi is a liar"). Storr is disillusioned with particular Skeptics, and reacts by throwing out scepticism:
    For many Skeptics, evidence-based truth has been sacralised. It has caused them to become irrational in their judgements of the motives of those with whom they do not agree...
    This monoculture we would have, if the hard rationalists had their way, would be a deathly thing. So bring on the psychics, bring on the alien abductees, bring on the two John Lennons – bring on a hundred of them. Christians or no, there will be tribalism. Televangelists or no, there will be scoundrels. It is not religion or fake mystics that create these problems, it is being human. Where there is illegality or racial hatred, call the police. Where there is psychosis, call Professor Richard Bentall. Where there is misinformation, bring learning. But where there is just ordinary madness, we should celebrate. Eccentricity is our gift to one another. It is the riches of our species. To be mistaken is not a sin. Wrongness is a human right.

    And when Randi corrects himself in the course of a sentence ("I didn't go to grade school at all, I went to the first few grades of grade school"), Storr leaps on this as a serious contradiction rather than just the patchy nature of speech. Sure, he talks about his emotional bias against scepticism - but he still leaves in this idiot journo behaviour, the uncharitable coaxing out of flaws.

    These chapters were a good ethnography of 'traditional' (nontechnical) rationality. But Storr doesn't know about the other kind (which both foregrounds and copes with all the cognitive biases he is so struck and scarred by), and so his conclusion about rationalism is completely awry.**

    The title is fitting in a few ways: Storr sees these people as persecuted underdogs (he likes many of the quacks and fringeists, and so focusses on the arrogance and bias of the - however correct - mainstream figures dealing with them); and they certainly have the holy madness of people who cry out despite knowing they will be ostracised.
    Over the last few months, John E Mack has become a kind of hero to me. Despite his earlier caution, he ended up believing in amazing things: intergalactic space travel and terrifying encounters in alien craft that travelled seamlessly through nonphysical dimensions. And when his bosses tried to silence him, he hired a lawyer. He fought back against the dean and his dreary minions. He battled hard in the name of craziness...

    David Irving is interesting in this regard: he does not act like a fraud (e.g. he sues people for libel, even though this brings intensive scrutiny of his research), but rather a sort of compulsive masochist-contrarian. Stranger still, his (beloved) family were all solid anti-Nazi soldiers in WWII. (Storr contorts himself to explain Irving's identification with Hitler as due to their sharing an admiration of the British forces (...))

    Storr's awful experience on a Vipassana retreat is a vivid example of the Buddhist dark night of the soul. We don't know what fraction of people suffer terribly from meditation, but despite its cuddly image, there's surely large overlap with the 8% of people who are clinically depressive and/or anxious.

    The chapter on psi does not represent the state of evidence properly - perhaps because one of his proof-readers was Professor Daryl Bloody Bem. ***

    The ending is stirring but tilts over into relativism:
    The Skeptic tells the story of Randi the hero; the psychic of Randi the devil. We all make these unconscious plot decisions...

    We are all creatures of illusion. We are made out of stories. From the heretics to the Skeptics, we are all lost in our own secret worlds.

    But the question is to what degree! And the degree of lostness, of inverse rationality, varies by many orders of whatever magnitude you wish to pick.

    Storr's disquiet at the sheer power of cognitive bias, and the systematic failures of yes/no science (that is: statistical significance rather than effect size estimation) is well and good. (Gelman:
    I think ‘the probability that a model or a hypothesis is true’ is generally a meaningless statement except as noted in certain narrow albeit important examples.
    And his humane approach is certainly bound to be more compelling to mystics and flakes than e.g. deGrasse Tyson's smug dismissals. But Storr is scared of grey, of the fact that doubt is only reducible and not eliminable. This is because he doesn't know anything about our most beautiful weapons: probabilism, Bayesian inference, Analysis.

    I recommend Elephant in the Brain or Rationality from A to Z instead as an approach to the vital, dreadful side of cognition (including advice on avoiding being a fake, partial, traditional sceptic); they have less angst and false equivalences, and were written by people who understand the balance of evidence.

    Actually that's too strong; I am frustrated with Storr because he is so similar to me, except he doesn't grasp that the technical is the path out of (many) biases. There's a lot wrong with it and you should probably read it, and how often can one say that?

    * Storr is right that skeptics can lack compassion. The "Morgellons" people are victims regardless of what their etiology turns out to be (mental illness, nerve disorders, tropical rat mites, or yes malicious sentient fibres). At minimum, they are victims of bad fortune plus rigid and actually unscientific medical practices. The Lesswrong style of rationalist has less of this problem IMO (more emotional literacy; a more Californian culture).

    ** Storr:
    I am concerned that I have overstated my argument. In my haste to write my own coherent story, I have barely acknowledged the obvious truth that minds do sometimes change. People find faith and they lose it. Mystics become Skeptics. Politicians cross the floor. I wonder why this happens. Is it when the reality of what is actually happening in our lives overpowers the myth that we make of themselves? Are we simply pursuing ever more glorious hero missions?...

    This is an imperfect system, as it relies on many secondary sources. Moreover, I do not declare myself to be free of the biases that afflict any writer, and I'm certainly not immune to making mistakes. If any errors are noted, or if new findings supersede claims made in the text, I would be very grateful to receive notification via, so future editions can be corrected.

    *** Important caveat to the headline of that linked article from Gelman:

    The only thing I don’t like about Engber’s article is its title, “Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real. Which means science is broken.” I understand that “Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real” is kind of a joke, but to me this is a bit too close to the original reporting on Bem, back in 2011, where people kept saying that Bem’s study was high quality, state-of-the-art psychology, etc. Actually, Bem’s study was crap. It’s every much as bad as the famously bad papers on beauty and sex ratio, ovulation on voting, elderly-related words and slow walking, etc.

    And “science” is not broken. Crappy science is broken. Good science is fine. If “science” is defined as bad articles published in PPNAS—himmicanes, air rage, ages ending in 9, etc.—then, sure, science is broken. But if science is defined as the real stuff, then, no, it’s not broken at all.
    Our Dumb World: The Onion's Atlas of the Planet Earth (2007) by The Onion None yet
    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3) (1999) by J.K. Rowling None yet
    Kafka's Dick (1986) by Alan Bennett None yet
    People (2012) by Alan Bennett None yet
    Smut (2011) by Alan Bennett None yet
    The Lady in the Van (1999) by Alan Bennett None yet
    Bob Dylan Chronicles: Volume 1 (2004) by Bob Dylan Impressive, melodious and laborious plagiarism.
    The Fall of Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos #2) (1990) by Dan Simmons Not a sequel: the third act of the first book. A strange mix of very clever and kind of ridiculous. The camp Gothic tone intensifies, piling mystery on the mystical, but eventually resolves in an unexpectedly rosy and metaphysical cadence. But you have to get through 450 pages of sand, impalings, twists, people writing poetry furiously as a walking knife guts them, etc. I'm not sure if it was worth it, but it certainly was Grand.

    Ridiculous and Clarke-magic-based sci-fi like Dune, grim and spiked like Blindsight (though turned completely upside down at the end: Watts is a deadly serious treatment of epiphenomenalism and illusionism; Simmons' universe is extremely idealist/dualist), maybe the most extreme I've seen outside of medieval Christians or the hippies.)

    Questions which get answered, usually 500 pages in:
    * Why is the Shrike such an inefficient avenger?
    * Why is John Keats being foregrounded 900 years later as a paragon of humanity? By robots?
    * Why are deep ecologists so keen on space?
    * What's so bad about the Hegemony?
    * Why is there literally no detail about the Ousters?
    * Why does Severn keep napping a dozen times a day? (Maybe it's the TB.)
    * Why make a copy of Earth? Why preserve it empty?

    A reconstructed cyborg Keats is the embodiment of the Human Spirit, able to affect the world (and the plot) as a ghost.

    Its appetite for mysticism is surprising. The only super-AI shown in any real detail speaks in koans, and is not especially impressive.
    The people who triumph in the end are odd: it's the deep ecologists and kibbutzim and Catholics - the ancient, normalised death cults - who thrive when modernity is withdrawn. The Ousters (and Simmons) equivocate between the Core plotting to murder everyone alive and the Core making everyone too comfortable to innovate and explore space. Which are not really morally equivalent when you think about it.

    This is especially odd since the rest of the ending extols our creativity and scepticism and courage, i.e. the Enlightenment.

    The ending is both too neat - all the loose ends tied up, several revivals, the baddies gone without a fight, the missing element in the Grand Unified Theory is the Human Spirit - and surprisingly harsh all the millions dead, and the saviour who rightly killed them torn apart by the mob.

    Too long and slow to recommend to everyone, but rich and novel for people who can get past that.


    How does it do as Serious science fiction?

    Social development: Some, this time. The Ousters are eventually shown as rad anarchists with wings and stuff.

    Software development: No.

    Actual Science: Not really.
    Da Capo Best Music Writing 2005 (2005) by J.T. LeRoy None yet
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    The Colonel (Firefall, #1.5) (2014) by Peter Watts Not long enough for Watts' highly inventive, highly depressive details to overwhelm you.
    Feersum Endjinn (1994) by Iain M. Banks Half the characters in this are ghosts, and one of the less-noted things about ghost stories is that they are wildly optimistic: they tend to show justice prevailing. Yes, fine, the ghost's revenge is a gory, creepy, retributive justice, and a bit late, but it's still the victim's triumph.

    The sumtym narayter Bascule makes or breaks the book. He's a good character - Molesworth on the Web - but I couldn't stand his phonetically told sections when I read this as a teen, and you'll see the reviews below focus on him despite him being only about a quarter of the focalisation. Bad spelling (cognitive dysfunction) is rare in sci-fi - let alone in SF titles - because the authors are trying to be taken seriously to make up for the genre fiction status? - and I've gotten over it since. Maybe better as audiobook.

    The characters are squatting their own civ. What lives on (after a relatively gentle apocalypse) is more self-conscious, historically conscious than that in Book of the New Sun. Not ruined, just forgotten, off the wavefront, using the space elevator as a house. The cyberspace is pretty good (better than Hyperion or Snow Crash or Neuromancer because less neat).
    The mist was the world was the data corpus was the Crypto-sphere was the history of the world was the future of the world was the guardian of un-done things was the summation of intel­ligent purpose was chaos was pure thought was the untouched was the utterly corrupted was the end and the beginning was the exiled and the resiled, was the creature and the machine was the life and the inanimate was the evil and the good was the hate and the love was the compassion and the indifference was everything and nothing and nothing and nothing.

    One virtuoso passage, on the species' trajectory after a nebula occludes the sun:
    so humanity left the surface of the world to the ice, wind and snow, and sheltered, reduced and impoverished, within the stony depths of the planet's skin, finally coming to resemble nothing more than parasites in the cooling pelt of some huge dying animal.

    With it it took all its knowledge of the universe and all the memories of its achievements and all the coded information defining the animals and plants that had survived the vicissitudes of time and evolution and - especially - the pressure of the human species' own until then remorseless rise.

    Those buried citadels became whole small worlds of refugee communities and spawned still smaller worlds as new machines took over the job of maintaining the levels of the crypt, until gradually more and more of what was in any sense humanity came to reside not simply in the created world of its tunnels, caverns and shafts but within those worlds in the generated realities produced by its computers...

    Still, what was left of humanity persisted, retreating further from the open oven of the surface until it became trapped between it and the heat of the planet's own molten sub-surface. It was then that the species finally gave up the struggle to remain in macrohuman form, pulling back fully into a virtual environment and resorted to storing its ancient biochemical inheritance as information only, in the hope that one day such fragile concoctions of water and minerals could exist again upon the face of the Earth.

    Its time from then was long as people reckoned it from that point, short as they would have before. The sun's photosphere continued to expand until it swallowed Venus, and Earth did not survive much longer; the last humans on Earth perished together in a crumbling machine core as its cooling circuits failed, the half-finished life-boat spaceship they had been attempting to construct already melted to a hollow husk beside them.

    He suffered with each child abandoned to the snow; with every old man or woman left - too exhausted to shiver any more - under piles of ice-hard rags; with all the people swept away by the howling, fire-storm winds; with each consciousness extinguished - its ordered information reduced to random meaninglessness - by the increasing heat.

    And he woke from such dreams sometimes wondering whether all that he was being shown could possibly be true, and on other occasions so convinced that it had been real that he would have faithfully believed what he had seen was the inescapable future, rather than some mere possibility, projection or warning.

    * Climaxes about 2/3 through. I suppose that's okay, it's not a three-act play.
    * Bascule is hooked into the king's brain surveillance network, but regularly escapes the king's secret police.
    * Banks shows the crypt people having Em accelerated cognition (about 1000x), but without Ems dominating the economy and society. (Actually, no human besides the military, scientists and secret police are heard of doing any real work, so maybe this is the case in the background.)
    * It's set on Earth, which is odd for Banks, but this fact isn't used much. Some of us stayed behind.
    * There are several virtual worlds in this (the bird crypt, the transport map, the interrogation allegories, the deep crypt with its garden) but they're insufficiently different from each other and base reality (all have a kind of fairytale logic, all have mythical beasts stalking around).
    * None of the sheer stakes, grandeur, and philosophical tension of the Culture books.
    * Fun but a mere sketch.
    The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories (2018) by Jay Rubin All the classic contradictions - kawaii and banality, sullen obesiance and batshit intensity, mono no aware and sexual frustration.

    There are five great stories (“Hell Screen”, 'Sanshirō', “American Hijiki”, “Pink”, “Mr. English”) and 10 or so enjoyable squibs (out of around 40). There aren't many great sentences, but greatness doesn't strictly need em.
    spinning slowly all in unison, and Naomi found herself joining them, looking up into the sky just as she had before, but this time she felt she was falling, and...perhaps... they could go back to before they'd twisted their bodies in wicked prayer and find some other way to free themselves from a world become a living hell, and so she vowed that once they'd wound the world back a full nineteen years, they would take it in their hands again and make it theirs at last; on and on she spun, every revolution a prayer in reverse.

    Conspicuous by its absence is Shōwa fascism* - there are no positive or negative references, nor (modern German-style) defensive rightful disownment. The war is there, the terrible firestorms, the terrible hunger; but nothing of the cult (a death cult, king cult, Prussia cult, and race cult) that caused them. There is a little bit of Edo totalitarianism (a lord having a maiden burned alive to render a painting of hell more realistic) at least.

    That said, one of the great achievements of 'American Hijiki' is to show how resentment and insularity can come from other sources than hibakusha trauma or psychotic Imperial pique.
    no Japanese can understand it, probably, if he's not my age. No Japanese who can have an ordinary conversation with an American, who can go to America and have Americans all around him without going crazy, who can see an American enter his field of vision and feel no need to brace himself, who can speak English without embarrassment, who condemns Americans, who applauds Americans, no Japanese like this can understand... what I have is an incurable disease, the Great American Allergy.

    The allure and/or horror of Western things (booze, books, bodies) features in maybe half of these. It is very common for the stories to end on an inconclusive, ambiguous, middle-distance-staring notes.

    I continue to see little in Mishima's lascivious, sadistic honour, though I suppose I should thus admire the portrayal of an alien outlook, which might well have overtaken the liberal-ironic-rationalist one. But Akutagawa does that better. In general I didn't see much correlation between eminence and quality (though this judgment is from behind that thick screen, translation).

    Only one piece, 'Same as Always' (about harming your child) stands for Japan's powerful, distinctive kind of horror.

    The Hiroshima piece is surprisingly flat, journalistic. I've cried at exhibits about the bombs before, so it ain't me.

    I liked Murakami's introduction, where he admits hostility to, and ignorance of, modern Japanese fiction:
    for a long while I was convinced that, with a few exceptions, early modern and contemporary Japanese literature was simply boring. There were many reasons for this, but foremost among them may be that the novels and stories we were assigned to read in school were pretty bad. My “I-novel allergy” was also quite strong back then (these days, to be sure, it has become less intense), and since you can’t hope either to make your way through or to understand modern Japanese literature if you’re going to avoid its constitutional predisposition to producing “I novels,” I made a conscious effort while young to avoid getting anywhere near Japanese literature.

    though both of his included stories are kind of dull, unaffecting.


    * In a sense, Imperial Japan was too fascist to be fascist, since "fascism" was a filthy European idea.



    • “Hell Screen” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
    • 'Sanshirō' by Natsume Sōseki
    • “American Hijiki” by Akiyuki Nosaka
    • “Pink” by Tomoyuki Hoshino
    • “Mr. English” by Keita Genji

    • “In the Box” by Taeko Kōno
    • “Remaining Flowers” by Kenji Nakagami
    • “Hiyoriyama” by Kazumi Saeki
    • “Closet LLB” by Kōji Uno
    • “The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga” by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki
    • “Filling Up with Sugar” by Yūten Sawanishi
    • “The Silver Fifty-sen Pieces” by Yasunari Kawabata
    • “The Tale of the House of Physics” by Yōko Ogawa
    • “Hiroshima, City of Doom” by Yōko Ōta
    • “Shoulder-Top Secretary” by Shin'ichi Hoshi
    • “Cambridge Circus" by Motoyuki Shibata
    • “Peaches” by Abe Akira
    • “UFO in Kushiro” by Haruki Murakami

    Below the cut:

    • “Unforgettable People” by Doppo Kunikida
    • “The Last Testament of Okitsu Yagoemon” by Ōgai Mori
    • “The Great Earthquake” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
    • “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima
    • “Same as Always” by Yūya Satō
    • “Bee Honey” by Banana Yoshimoto
    • “Dreams of Love, Etc.” by Mieko Kawakami
    • “The Smile of a Mountain Witch” by Minako Ohba
    • “A Bond for Two Lifetimes—Gleanings” by Fumiko Enchi
    • “Planting” by Aoko Matsuda
    • “Flames” by Yūko Tsushima
    • “The 1963/1982 Girl from Ipanema” by Haruki Murakami
    • “Factory Town” by Minoru Betsuyaku
    • “Insects” by Yūichi Seirai
    • “Kudan” by Hyakken Uchida
    • “Behind the Prison” by Kafū Nagai
    Ring for Jeeves (Jeeves, #10) (1953) by P.G. Wodehouse Quite different from the prewar entries; much more focus on American foibles (there's a Bob Hope joke!) and there's an element of self-parody / Flanderisation. (e.g. Jeeves responds to highly surprising events by "twitching three hairs of his right eyebrow". It was a screenplay by someone else originally, which might explain its relative lack of subplots and higher-order intentionality.
    "Faute de what?"
    "Mieux, m'lord. A French expression. We should say 'For want of anything better.'"
    "What asses these Frenchmen are. Why can't they talk English?"
    "They are possibly more to be pitied than censured, m'lord. Early upbringing no doubt has a lot to do with it."

    It's surely not coincidence that Jeeves' master in this is named Rowcester (pronounced "Rooster").
    “Mr Wooster is attending a school which does not permit its student body to employ gentlemen’s personal gentlemen.”
    “A school?”
    “An institution designed to teach the aristocracy to fend for itself, m’lord. Mr. Wooster feels that it is prudent to build for the future, in case the social revolution should set in with even greater severity. Mr Wooster... I can hardly mention this without some display of emotion... is actually learning to darn his own socks.”


    Rowcester's taboo: mauve pyjamas
    Triangle: Jill - Bill - Rosalinda - Biggar.
    Subplot: The Derby, Biggar's romantic code, .
    Aunt: none! Rory has the same role.
    Antagonist: None really, but briefly Captain Biggar the White Hunter and Chief Constable Wyvern.
    Expedient: invented ghosts, a ginger moustache and eyepatch, dancing so hard your partner's jewellery falls off.
    A Briefer History of Time (1988) by Stephen Hawking None yet
    The Annotated Collected Poems (2008) by Edward Thomas None yet
    Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1) (1989) by Dan Simmons Starts terribly, with a brooding protagonist playing a grand piano outside in a storm. Also, despite being set in 3200CE or whatever, it makes dozens of of leaden references to the culture of C20th Earth.

    But the structure (6 tales from 7 travellers, cf. Chaucer) and the sheer variety of styles and themes soon kicks in and drags you through a delicious cyber-goth intrigue. The poet character is annoying, but he’s meant to be. (The key problem of metafiction: to write a great poet character, you really have to be a great poet yourself. Nabokov was, but even he dodged the issue by making Pale Fire about a flawed poet.)

    At one point it implies that Keats’ poems were retrocaused by schemes of time-travelling AIs, which is a thing I must admire.
    Waltz With Bashir: A Lebanon War Story (2008) by Ari Folman Comic of the crushing film about the Lebanon war. Starkly honest and bipartisan. It suits lobbyists for us to forget the large part of the population that are anti-settler.

    Even better on the unreliability of memory, self-service.
    Making Money (Discworld, #36; Moist Von Lipwig, #2) (2007) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2) (1970) by Ursula K. Le Guin None yet
    Desperate Characters (1970) by Paula Fox Good portentous realism.
    Wife: "Oh, never mind what I say."
    Husband: "I don't and I can't."

    Fox draws intense, evil significance out of ordinary irritations (a cat bite, a smashed window, a feud at work) - as we do when at our lowest. It's dark without being Gothic; apocalyptic without melodrama; heartbroken without self-pity. On a hospital waiting room:
    It was a dead hole, smelling of synthetic leather and disinfectant, both of which odors seemed to emanate from the torn scratched material of the seats that lined the three walls. It smelled of the tobacco ashes which had flooded the two standing metal ashtrays. On the chromium lip of one, a cigar butt gleamed wetly like a chewed piece of beef. There was the smell of peanut shells and of the waxy candy wrappers that littered the floor, the smell of old newspapers, dry, inky, smothering and faintly like a urinal, the smell of sweat from armpits and groins and backs and faces, pouring out and drying up in the lifeless air, the smell of clothes... a bouquet of animal being, flowing out, drying up, but leaving a peculiar and ineradicable odor of despair in the room as though chemistry was transformed into spirit, an ascension of a kind...

    The quiet, careful way that every character is sketched in their paranoia is convincing, and unnerving. Sure, it's about upper-middle class people's pain, but that's still pain. The least tractable kind, in fact.
    Lullaby (2002) by Chuck Palahniuk None yet
    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) by Hunter S. Thompson Tremendous prose and fantastic drawings, but at the end of it all he wasn't saying much.
    End of an Old Song (1995) by J.D. Scott Good, nasty coming of age of some Borders boys: one diffident and Carawayan, one coiled and voracious. The narrator's sole distinguishing quality is eloquence about his friend, and for once this device is not taken for granted – people remark on his skill at describing and paeaning Alastair.

    Scott reuses certain idiosyncratic, ear-worm words – “illimitable”, “aviary” as an adjective for a woman – to good effect.
    “She’s English.” I said. Alastair made a Scotch noise in the back of his throat.

    Annoyed at the conclusion – it’s an Oxfordian twist that I resent. But the details make it – rationing, the Scotch cringe, the good and miserable wages of sin.
    Dune Messiah (Dune #2) (1969) by Frank Herbert None yet
    Children of Dune (Dune Chronicles #3) (1976) by Frank Herbert None yet
    The Witches (1983) by Roald Dahl None yet
    Canal Dreams (1989) by Iain Banks None yet
    The Bridge (1986) by Iain Banks Inventive, echoes of the Culture in places, but still grounded
    Carpe Jugulum (Discworld #23; Witches #6) (1998) by Terry Pratchett None yet
    The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus None yet
    Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke None yet
    The Demolished Man (1953) by Alfred Bester None yet
    J (2014) by Howard Jacobson Picked this up looking for a laugh, so my god. Of sordid, heartbroken, soft totalitarianism. The ineliminable danger of being different, and the specific danger for one difference in particular. A companion piece to The Book of Dave, underneath Britain's (and humanity's) downside.

    : Britain insulates itself against a self-inflicted atrocity by pushing away history and strongly banning modernist or pessimist ideas and people. So many despicable characters, like the art professor who defines everything by how little it reflects darkness or human brutality, 'primitivism' and 'degeneracy' (the irony being that this attitude, of art as mere grinning decoration, is itself a backslide from modernism, however empty and stupid much conceptual art is).
    There was something uncanny about her, the seriousness with which she took her work, her obduracy, the size of her vocabulary, the lack of bounce in her hair, the flat shoes she wore, her failure often to get a joke, her way of overdoing sympathy as as though understanding beat snogging.

    The book (if not Jacobson) has a terrifying attitude towards bigotry: that it's never going away because it based on the deep need of exclusive identity, that bad marriages and ethnic atrocities appeal to something much deeper and more formal than what happens to have been socialised into us. 'Necessary Opposites', as he puts it:
    '...Identity is nothing but illusion.'
    'If it's all illusion, why has it caused so much misery?'
    'Only when we have a different state to strive against do we have reason to strive at all. And different people the same. I am me because I am not her, or you. If we were all red earthworms there'd be no point in life. Identity is just the name we give to making ourselves distinct.'
    'So you're saying it's irrelevant what our identities really are? As long as we assume one and fight against someone else's.'
    'I'd say so, yes. Pretty much.'
    'Isn't that a bit arbitrary?'
    'Perhaps. But isn't everything? There's no design.'

    It starts slow, give it 50 pages to worm its way.
    Moving Pictures (Discworld, #10; Industrial Revolution, #1) (1990) by Terry Pratchett Bit messy, not yet the masterful pastiche of Maskerade, Soul Music, Night Watch.

    It is called the first book of Pratchett's 'Industrial Revolution' series. But that really came much earlier: Equal Rites (book 3) or, better, Sourcery which is the beginning of the Disc's disenchantment, and so of Vetinari's market reforms.
    The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler A pinnacle of style. He lays it out and winds it up within about 90 pages, then drawls out a subplot over the last 40. One reason it's still so fresh is the understatement. The "fuck"s are all em-dashed out, and basically everybody is constantly dry and laconic with each other, Marlowe most of all of course. In fact it's notable when one character is inarticulate ("Carol Lundgren, the boy killer with the limited vocabulary...")
    "Sit down next to him," Brady snapped. "Hold it on him low down, away from the door..."
    She came over and sat next to me on the davenport and pointed the gun at my leg artery. I didn't like the jerky look in her eyes.

    ("Leg artery")

    It wears noir's obligatory cynicism lightly:
    "I'm a copper," he said, "a plain ordinary copper. Reasonably honest. As honest as you could expect a man to be in a world where it's out of style."

    Being a copper I like to see the law win. I'd like to see the flashy well-dressed mugs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred guys that got knocked over on their first caper and never had a break since. [But] We just don't run our country that way.

    Constantly balances concision and winning detail, e.g:
    "Ohls growled and turned to me, his eyebrows bristling. «You're on the air, Marlowe. Give it to him."
    I gave it to him.
    I left out two things, not knowing just why, at the moment, I left out one of them. I left out Carmen's visit to Brody's apartment and Eddie Mars' visit to Geiger's in the afternoon. I told the rest of it just as it happened.
    Cronjager never took his eyes off my face and no expression of any kind crossed his as I talked. At the end of it he was perfectly silent for a long minute. Wilde was silent, sipping his coffee, puffing gently at his dappled cigar. Ohls stared at one of his thumbs.
    Cronjager leaned slowly back in his chair and crossed one ankle over his knee and rubbed the ankle bone with his thin nervous hand.

    Its homophobia is what dates it, with very contemporaneous nonsensical stuff like:
    I still held the automatic more or less pointed at him, but he swung on me just the same. It caught me flush on the chin. I backstepped fast enough to keep from falling, but I took plenty of the punch. It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.
    Sophie's World (1991) by Jostein Gaarder Ponderous and meta, sure, but it's also romantic about thinking and I'll forgive a lot for a drop of that. It is a long version of this beautiful idea of Gödel's:
    Engaging in philosophy is salutary in any case, even when no positive results emerge from it (and I remain perplexed). It has the effect that 'the colors brighten', that is, reality appears more clearly as such.

    This bit was moving:
    Actually we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference beween us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick.
    The City & the City (2009) by China Miéville Heavy-handed metaphysical mystery (: there is another world - economic world, national world - visible but the vision suppressed). His usual incandescence is present, but under a shade: the prose is conventional, with spectacular Miévillian words like ‘topolganger’ (an identical-but-Other place) popping up only twice a chapter, rather than twice a page. Similarly scarce are his characteristic use of detail – protagonist Borlu is in an open relationship with a woman identified only as an economic historian.

    Hints of The Matrix’s ontological sensationalism and noir’s worn-out idioms, but it works because Mieville’s good enough (with ontology, but also generally) to redeem clichés. tC&tC twists repeatedly without losing credibility; the Cities’ omnimalevolent atmospheres make great noir. There’s even a rooftop showdown. An unfair consequence of extreme talent is that your ‘merely’ interesting, well-constructed books are marked down, judged by ghostly expectations.
    Singularity Sky (Eschaton, #1) (2003) by Charles Stross First 100 pages are very uninspiring but then we get a classic Strossian rant-vista

    A year or so later, the polite cosmologist had been murdered by Algerian religious fundamentalists who thought his account of the universe a blasphemy against the words of the prophet Yusuf Smith as inscribed on his tablets of gold...

    Somewhere along the line she, too, had changed. She’d spent decades— the best part of her second life —fighting nuclear proliferation. Starting out as a dreadlocked direct-action activist, chaining herself to fences, secure in the naive youthful belief that no harm could befall her. Later, she figured out that the way to do it was wearing a smart suit, with mercenary soldiers and the threat of canceled insurance policies backing up her quiet voice. Still prickly and direct, but less of a knee-jerk nonconformist, she’d learned to work the system for maximum effect. The hydra seemed halfway under control, bombings down to only one every couple of years, when Bertil had summoned her to Geneva and offered her a new job. Then she’d wished she’d paid more attention to the cosmologist—for the Algerian Latter-Day Saints had been very thorough in their suppression of the Tiplerite heresy-but it was too late, and in any event, the minutiae of the Standing Committee’s investigations into chronological and probabilistic warfare beckoned...

    She’d done her share of shooting, too, or at least directing the machinery of preemptive vengeance, wiping out more than one cell of atomic-empowered fanatics—whether central-Asian independence fighters, freelance meres with a bomb too many in their basement, or on one notable occasion, radical pro-lifers willing to go to any lengths to protect the unborn child. Idealism couldn’t coexist with so many other people’s ideals, betrayed in their execution by the tools they’d chosen. She’d walked through Manchester three days after the Inter-City Firm’s final kickoff, before the rain had swept the sad mounds of cinders and bone from the blasted streets.

    Fun, but not nearly as mind-bending as his or Egan or Vinge's best.

    Every few months Stross lets rip apocalyptic prophecy on his blog. Anyone else, and I'd probably stop reading. It's not that I think he's right, it's that his chains of thought are the kind of thing which are sometimes right.
    The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (Discworld, #28) (2001)