The actual comment thread on the final blogpost of Hilary Putnam
...with the Oxford node investigating cognitive enhancement, the Maastricht node mood enhancement, Milano life extension, Stockholm bodily enhancement, and Bristol coordinating us..."
- fragment from Anders Sandberg
I realized that I would never be able to live in a decent relationship with the people of that country unless I could drive this book, and its politely arrogant world view, out of my head.
- obviously I had to read the book this sentence refers to,
and pay it much more heed than I otherwise would've
Spent a dreadful week preparing for a data science interview. It was dreadful because it's about memorising hundreds of difficult ideas from a few different fields: a more descriptive job title would be "Statistical programmer / machine teacher / web scraper / sysadmin / graphic designer" - so you see how this is my latest scheme to find interdisciplinary freedom outside the academy. (The headers in this crib sheet for the profession are "Predictive Modeling, Programming, Probability theory, Statistical Inference, Data Analysis, and Communication". From the outside, those topics look very samey - just a load of stats stuff, right? - but they are actually heterogeneous talents rarely found in the same braincase. Even "predictive modelling" and "(Fisherian) statistical inference" are or were socially incompatible approaches!)
I'm still far from possessing real mathematical literacy, and I'm a positively jejune systems engineer. but something must've stuck cos I'm starting in the autumn.
1/5: No. 4/5: Very good. 2/5: Meh. 4*/5: Amazing but one read will do.. 3/5: Skimmable. 5?/5: A possible 5/5. 3*/5: Mind candy. 5/5: Encore. A life companion.
- Reread: The Algebraist (2008) by Iain Banks. Satisfying mind candy. (Themes: the fate of citizens in a war between fascists; simulationism as an official state religion; a jolly solipsistic species which enjoys civil war). Too full of infodumps and too circuitous to reach his personal best (which I would say is the genre's personal best): it lacks the grander metaphysical framework of the Culture books, which handle civilization at the limit - where philosophy is at last unavoidable because practical matters have been solved and tucked away. It does have a right good baddie - a calm galactic overlord driven to be demonic and obscene for PR reasons. But the protagonist, a thoughtful manipulated academic, isn't interesting. I missed the book's grand conceit the first time I read this: the MacGuffin that drives everything is an epic, lost book called the The Algebraist, described only as being:
all about mathematics, navigation as a metaphor, duty, love, longing, honour, long voyages home... All that stuff.3*/5. (Series is 5/5.)
- Reread: Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) by Jared Diamond. Recognisably a popularisation, but it's in an under-reported field (speculative human geography) so it is still high in nourishing insight. Exciting, thoughtful, deserving of the hype.
Q: Why is it that you white people developed much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?Title's misleading: all three of those pro-colonialist environmental factors are merely proximate effects of what he argues is the ultimate cause of world inequality: domesticable crops and livestock on a continent which happens to be oriented in a way that makes its climate very similar across wide latitudes. His theory explicitly disclaims racist explanations of world history - e.g. his chapter on the conquistadors is the most harrowing account I've ever read - and he says things like
A: History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people's environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves.
When I arrived in New Guinea for the first time, it became clear to me that New Guineans are curious, questioning, talkative people with complex languages and social relationships, on the average at least as intelligent as Europeans and Americans. In New Guinea, I’m the dope who can’t do elementary things like follow an unmarked trail or light a fire in the rain.Yet the anthropologists' party line on him is just that: that he's a racist and, almost worse in that circle, a determinist. I feel perfectly fair in explaining their rancour by his skilful scientific intrusion on their ill-tended turf. (Diamond was originally an ornithologist and geneticist.)
Engaging and original as it is, his thesis faces a hard explanatory limit: agriculture has not been the limiting factor on economies for more than 200 years, and yet the Great Divergence dates from then and not earlier. Diamond could appeal to simple path-dependency: "we win now because we won then" or argue that the technological and military edge yielded land, and that land yielded the economic miracle. But the evidence (also known as Gregory Clark) certainly does not warrant crop or zoological supremacism.
Anyway I know of no better introduction to cultural evolution theory, human population genetics, the Clovis / pre-Clovis controversy, philology, New Guinean traditionalism, the origins and downsides of civilization, animal husbandry, and the ancient history of Africa.
In one sentence: See Q&A above.
4/5 (minus a half for awful references - vague, without page numbers in the text or in the source, nor footnotes).
- The Victorians (2002) by AN Wilson. Witty and sloppy synopsis. It is neither materialist nor idealist: he locates power in people. Or, in anecdotes about people really. (Is that still materialism? Funny kind if so.) He has such a huge throbbing agenda - e.g. his caricature of Bentham, his bizarre claim that capitalism suppresses individuality, rather than being totally, totally dependent on it - but I didn't resent it because he is so patent about it and because he is funny:
If the [genetic guesses] about both Victoria and Albert are well-grounded, this means that many of the crowned heads of Europe are descended jointly from an unscrupulous Irish soldier and a German Jew. Given this, it is surprising that these families manifested so few of the talents stereotypically attributed to the Irish and the Jews; such as wit or good looks.He loves Disraeli and Albert, hates Gladstone and Palmerston. I have no idea if this is an original position. Got tired of his tone and scattergun of stories about two-thirds in. About as good as popular history that isn't data-driven can be.
Karl Marx, as so often, made an accurate observation of the political scene and drew a false inference from it.
In one sentence: This is where modernity - feminism, multiculturalism, managerialism, professionalism, mechanised warfare - originated: in little moments that happened to people who happened to write them down.
- The Hundred‑Year‑Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2009) by Jonas Jonasson. Surprisingly acerbic! The advertised Scandinavian pop silliness is present, but tamped down nicely by the Gulliver's Travels satire: a man blown around by the mad political convulsions of the past century. Key tension: the book's main target is people in the grip of political ideologies. The eponymous Allan is held up as a model exception: possessing sensible, apolitical, unfashionable grit and humour. But Allan ends up enabling atrocities: he saves Franco's life in '39! He gives Stalin the bomb! Are we supposed to conclude, against the narrator and protagonist, that political neutrality is actually a horror? Jokes were ok, this tension was good.
In one sentence: You shouldn't underestimate old people or hurt anyone over politics, lol.
- Critical Mass: 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 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...Introduces a hundred topics from thermodynamics, economics, econophysics, game theory, and fields which don't have a name yet, including intuitive explanations of such fearsome concepts as: 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 the shiny TED-style of 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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
- Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith (2012) by Richard Holloway. The emotional case for not being religious. I should like him - he is the most honourable instance of a public figure rationally changing his mind in living memory. And another thing sorely needed: a sympathetic, literate public nonbeliever. Also he quotes poetry from memory - for its sense, not in order to curry literary status. (We know this because he leaves the attribution of the poems to the endnotes.) He is adorable, basically, and quotable to boot. But there's a clunkiness here too, one I can't quite articulate.
As a boy he loved religion's melodrama and un-Scottish grandeur; he goes away to an eccentric militarist monastery, aged 14:
We were up at six-thirty for a cold shower followed by mass and breakfast. After household chores we were moved into study mode until the next visit to chapel at midday. After lunch, afternoons were given over to heavy labour, either scrubbing and shining floors or labouring for Brother Edward in the grounds... back to study at four, till bells summoned us to Evensong at six-thirty. Then dinner, more washing up and more study. The day ended at nine-thirty with Compline, then lights out... Each evening we left chapel in silence, under the spell of fading plainsong that marked the ending of the day.Fun! Rammed full of order and space, but not religion per se. He was always unorthodox: he gave communion to just anyone who walked into church, happily married off divorcees, joined the LGBT movement and even claims to have held a Catholic gay marriage in the 90s. I am childish enough to enjoy his swearing, as the Bishop said to the actress. He had no more place on a government bioethics committee than any other nice clever old man, but I don't suppose he did any harm at all.
In one sentence: Religion is pretty nice, but you must take it less seriously.
- The Data Science Handbook (2015) edited Willian Chen et al. I had been holding out hope that data science (or mining plus statistical programming, as it used to be called) could be an intellectual, rarefied place within the private sector, where the practical and the abstract are wed sweetly. It might be, but this book gives you little sense of that. Even the demonstrably brilliant (DJ Patil) talk like third-rate vice-presidents-of-munging. (You might shrug because you expected no better of computer people, but you are ill-informed: some of the great stylists of the age are programmers first of all.)
In one sentence: Data is Innovation for incentivising proactive momentum-based cultural synthesis change
- 120 Data Science Interview Questions (2015) by William Chen et al. As labelled. Well-structured and demanding though. Rather than pay the $15, you can piece together a comparably good list from Quora, StackExchange, the R community and the strange confessional-professional blogsphere (and unless you are a postdoc savant you will be doing that anyway). You will need a solid statistics background (late undergrad) or you may freak out. Software is less scary because it is more amenable to live logical reconstruction. Following this book closely meant that I overprepared for my interview quite a lot, but that's a graduate role at a big corp in the UK so YMMV.
In one sentence: If you were given five minutes to work out in detail what others spent 5 years building, how would you split this answer into its partial fraction expansion?
?/5. Invaluable, for a tiny number of people.
- Hitch-22 (2009) by Christopher Hitchens. Stylish and consequential. He spread word of the most terrible injustices of his day; was arrested by several authoritarian regimes; he wrote three original, important books (on Teresa, Kissinger and Orwell); he had a lot of fun. That's a good life. Why, then, are we so uneasy? Because of his changing his mind so forcefully about revolution? About America? Because his direct, tactless opposition to conservative Islam sounds vaguely similar to that of contemporary racists? Because he found Thatcher sexy?
He raised my estimation of the British 'International Socialists' (i.e. Trots) of the 1960s by a giant interval: though nearly powerless and outnumbered on all sides, they really did resist both the US and Soviet empires and the humourlessness and cultishness of their peers, and post-modern, Foucaultian passivity, and really did manage to help in undramatic ways (fundraising, letter-writing, war tourism). Bravura.
On some points Hitchens didn't change at all; the Left did:
[In 1968] people began to intone the words “The Personal Is Political”. The instant that I first heard this deadly expression, I knew as one does from the utterance of any sinister bullshit that it was very bad news. From now on, it would be enough to a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or erotic “preference”, to qualify as a revolutionary. In order to begin a speech or ask a question from the floor, all that would be necessary by way of preface would be the words, “Speaking as a…” Then could follow any self-loving description. I will have to say this for the old “hard” Left: we earned our claim to speak and intervene by right of experience and sacrifice and work. It would never have done for any of us to stand up and say that our sex or sexuality or pigmentation of disability were qualifications in themselves. There are many ways of dating the moment where the Left lost or – I would prefer to say – discarded its moral advantage, but this was the first time I was to see the sell-out so cheaply.But never mind that. Lots of gossip, lots of travel writing, lots of quotation from the heart, lots of interesting digressions about the old New Left, nationalisms, Jewishness - have you ever heard of the Haskalah? - and two massive eulogies to his dear friends James Fenton and Martin Amis. Everything he said and did from the age of about 18 proceeded from a fully-developed worldview: sarcastic, elevated, British post-Marxist intellectuality.
the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwah... was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression... To re-state the premise of the argument again: the theocratic head of a foreign despotism offers money in his own name in order to suborn the murder of a civilian citizen of another country, for the offense of writing a work of fiction. No more root-and-branch challenge to the values of the Enlightenment (on the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille) or to the First Amendment to the Constitution, could be imagined.
I had become accustomed to the pseudo-Left new style, whereby if your opponent thought he had identified your lowest possible motive, he was quite certain that he had isolated the only real one. This vulgar method, which is now the norm and the standard in much non-Left journalism as well, is designed to have the effect of making any noisy moron into a master analyst.
Today I want to puke when I hear the word 'radical' applied so slothfully and stupidly to Islamist murderers; the most plainly reactionary people in the world.
He becomes the Hitchens you know - the drawling, boozy pal of neocons, more Dawkins than Dawkins is ("Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of 'the flock'.") - late on in life and even later in the book, so even if you refuse to forgive him his shocking, but internally consistent transformations, it doesn't warp the weft. Beautiful despite crudeness; very modern in several clashing senses.
In one sentence: The establishment's awful, until you get well in it.
- Plato at the Googleplex (2014) by Rebecca Newberger 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 highly 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?"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.)
"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".
In one sentence: Plato wanders contemporary America, Chromebook tucked under his arm, looking to understand the few ways we are radically different.
- The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) by Ruth Benedict. War anthropology! That is, anthropology conducted by the opposite side of a total war, for predictive military purposes of the highest consequence. She was of course robbed of the moral superiority of field work by an ocean and a bunch of tanks and whatnot, so this is all based on expat interviews and extremely secondary sources. I'm still struggling to overcome my deep suspicion of cultural anthropology; thus I was actively drawn to Benedict by this hatchet job, by a modern relativist anthropologist.
Sadly the book's only ok, very nicely written but falsely general. She introduces the key terms of the toxic wartime Inazo-Satsuma-Shówa ideology, but mislabels this particular modernist system as "the Japanese worldview". Even so, in the one truly essential passage, Benedict lays out (and later tries to ameliorate) a popular reified caricature of the Japanese: as morbid, conformist, and paradoxical:
the Japanese have been described in the most fantastic series of ‘...but also's’ ever used for any nation of the world. When a serious observer is writing about peoples other than the Japanese and says they are unprecedentedly polite, he is not likely to add, ‘But also insolent and overbearing.’ When he says people of some nation are incomparably rigid in their behaviour, he does not add, 'But they also adapt themselves readily to extreme innovations'. When he says a people are submissive, he does not explain too that they are not easily amenable to control from above... When he says they act mostly out of concern for others' opinions, he does not then go on to tell that they have a truly terrifying conscience... When he writes a book on a nation with a popular cult of aestheticism which gives high honor to actors and to artists and lavishes art upon the cultivation of chrysanthemums, that book does not ordinarily have to be supplemented by another which is devoted to the cult of the sword and the top prestige of the warrior... All these contradictions, however, are the warp and woof of books on Japan. They are true. Both the sword and the chrysanthemum are a part of the picture. The Japanese are to the highest degree, both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways.People say she made this worse, but you can't claim that she didn't know something was up with the Western concepts used. There's an intriguing suggestion that the book is actually a satire (Geertz: "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is no more a prettied-up science-without-tears policy tract than [Gulliver's Travels] is a children's book."). But she actually was attached to military intelligence at the time and actually interviewed Japanese-American internees, and I find I don't much care either way.
In one sentence: The above passage with a question mark on it.
- The Donald Richie Reader (2001) by Donald Richie, ed. someone else so that's ok. The greatest gaijin? Famous for introducing Japan's incredible cinema to the West, but actually fewer than half of his thoughts are anything to do with that. Richie has an eC20th directness about describing other peoples - think Martha Gellhorn or Kipling - their pure skin, their atrocity-enabling 'innocence', their circuitousness and tribalism - which directness causes a frisson in the present climate. (It is now sometimes inappropriate, sometimes oppressive to emphasise differences so.)
I cannot imagine Plato thriving here, with all his absolutes (“the truth,” “the beauty”)... Maybe that is why Japan is so backward (by comparison) in some areas: philosophy, diagnosis. And perhaps why it is so forward in others.Similar to Hitchens in its consistent, adventurous aestheticism, though with much quieter prose; however, neither has that certain Alastair Reid transcendence. Minus a half for seriously ugly layout and typography, but I will seek out his real books.
From the celebrated farting-contest scroll and the early illustrated He Gassen (The Fart Battle), up to such recent representations as the delightful farting games in Ozu Yazujiro's Ohayo, Japan's culture is filled with vivid examples... Farting is certainly included in the nature of man:
Just here, I think, is the difference in attitude between Japan and the West. That a thing is is sufficient to warrant its notice, even celebration. The hypocrisy of the idealistic has not until recently infected Japan.
"And what is it you all
Are laughing at, may I ask?"
The retired master's fart.
Four or five people
By the horse farting
The long ferry ride.
:In both cultures the fart is funny but only in Japan is its humanity acknowledged. This entails a full acceptance of the human state. There is even a rubric for such matters, the ningen-kusai ("smelling of humanity") and within it the hé (屁) takes an honorable place.
What do I want to be when I grow up? An attractive role would be that of the bunjin. He is the Japanese scholar who wrote and painted in the Chinese style, a literatus, something of a poetaster - a pose popular in the 18th century. I, however, would be a later version, someone out of the end of the Meiji, who would pen elegant prose and work up flower arrangements from dried grasses and then encourage spiders to make webs and render it all natural. For him, art is a moral force and he cannot imagine life without it. He is also the kind of casual artist who, after a day's work is done, descends into his pleasure park and dallies.
In one sentence: Ah, so innocent, so subtle, so far away from Ohio.
- The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (600BCE - 2000CE) ed. Geoffrey Bownas. I feel able to say it at last: the haiku is a pathological genre, absolutely limited to the pretentious engraving of flat single images. A single verbal image does nothing for me; it is relation and juxtaposition and story and reductios and original presentation that give images life. And 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 its 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 - "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:
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 newspapers, all see
the doings of the world,
which lead nowhere.
Better never written!
In one sentence: 無.