The Ashtray

(Or the Man Who Denied Reality)

[Amazon Link]

Back in the day, specifically my college days, I read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. In fact, it's one of the few books from that era that I still have on my shelves (I just looked: yeah, there it is).

You see, Caltech insisted that even us physics geeks had to take one course per term in non-stem fields: history, English, econ, … or philosophy. And even though I didn't (still don't) have the type of brain suited to deep thinking about questions that people have been thinking about for millennia without getting answers, I said: sure, I'll take that philosophy of science course.

So I read Kuhn, and I was far more impressed by his argument than I should have been.

Which was, loosely speaking: during normal, non-revolutionary periods, scientists operate within the dominant paradigm relevant to their research field. For example, Ptolemaic astronomers observed the heavens and hammered their findings into the Ptolemaic geocentric cosmos. With difficulty, of course, but, hey, science is not easy.

But along comes a revolutionary theory with a new paradigm, like Copernicus's, that does a better job of describing reality. (Although the theories, Kuhn said, were 'incommensurable'; you couldn't really refute or support one via appeals to the other.) Then we have a paradigm shift, adherents to the old theory either adapt or die, and the new paradigm establishes its dominance, usually without literal trips to the guillotine.

About the same time I was inordinately impressed by Kuhn, a grad student named Errol Morris was at Princeton, enrolled in the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, which Kuhn headed. They did not get on. According to Morris, Kuhn was a petty chain-smoking tyrant, forbidding him from attending lectures from other competing philosophers. And things culminated in Kuhn (allegedly) throwing this book's butt-filled titular object at Morris's head during a particularly heated "philosophical" discussion.

So Morris went on to become a famous documentary filmmaker instead of an obscure philosopher. But he still retained an interest, and (I think it's fair to say) kind of a grudge, and this book, safely published two decades after Kuhn's death.

It's a full-throated attack on the Kuhnian viewpoint, which Morris contends is a hopeless denial of human ability to apprehend reality and truth, crushed as we are by the weight of our dominant paradigms, only on occasion to escape, just to be recrushed by the next paradigm we just shifted to. Morris makes his philosophical case for (instead) the pursuit of truth "through reason, through observation, through investigation, through thought, through science".

Morris is a political leftie, and his book is kind of interesting also as a sidelight onto just how radically left academia was back then. He interviews the late Hilary Putnam, once a proud member of the Maoist Progressive Labor Party while a Harvard prof. And Noam Chomsky. And he tells of his arrest while blocking the entrances to the Institute for Defense Analysis near Princeton back in 1972. Et cetera.

If that were all, this book would be pretty grim and tedious. But there's a lot of humor too, some pop culture references. Since he's a filmmaker, Morris knows his flicks: there are long asides discussing particular aspects of Citizen Kane and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Numerous footnotes, not quite at the volume preferred by David Foster Wallace, but close. (One of the footnotes mentions Morris's fondness for, yes, David Foster Wallace.) And there are lots of offbeat illustrations, about one per page. My personal favorite:

Jean Léon Gerome 1896 La Vérité sortant du puits.JPG

By Jean-Léon Gérôme - Sergey Prokopenko, Public Domain, Link

We don't often do naked ladies here at Pun Salad, but it's art, so it's OK. That's "Truth Coming Out of Her Well". She's pissed.

I've seen a number of reviews that suggest Morris may be overstating his case in his eagerness to trash all things Kuhnian. I am (see what I said about my brain up there) not one to judge. But this is a relentlessly entertaining book, especially if you skim over all the philosophical navel-gazing.

Stubborn Attachments

A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals

[Amazon Link]

A short book, a mere $9.99 for the Kindle version at Amazon, and there's a nice feature: the author, Tyler Cowen, pledges to donate the receipts from the book to "Yonas", an Ethiopian tour guide he befriended during a visit. That was enough for me to cough up for the Kindle version instead of raiding the UNH library.

Tyler's pitch is for making economic growth, constrained by a healthy respect for individual liberty, our primary social goal. There are a few asterisks on that: he's really talking about the growth of "Wealth Plus", which factors in the values of sustainability, environmental quality, and leisure. Given that, though, he notes that the difference between (say) sustained 1% annual growth vs. 3% may seem trivial over the course of a year: $100 becomes $101 instead of $103. But after 100 years, it's $270 vs. $1921. (Assuming I can still do the math correctly.) Can you really deny your ancestors the benefit of that additional wealth?

Well, maybe. There's a possible counterargument: would you rather have $100 today or $100 next year? Obviously, today, amirite? Time value of money. So future-money is worth less than today-money. Doesn't that say we should be optimizing the here-and-now rather than the hazy future? Tyler makes a meticulous argument that it's not relevant; carrying things to their logical conclusions quickly run afoul of common-sense morality. (Similar arguments apply to running the thought experiments backwards in time; a $100 wrong done to someone in the past rapidly grows to vast sums today. Again, common-sense morality rejects the conclusion.)

Finally, how do we incorporate uncertainty into the mix? How can we take any actions today that will (almost certainly) have unforeseen consequences in the near or far future?

Tyler's book is a fine example of mixing philosophical and economic arguments. I was probably not as skeptical as I should have been; when it comes to arguments for prosperity, responsibility, and rights, those arguments are pretty much pushing on an open door.

Sentinel

The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty

[Amazon Link]

I was persuaded to read this by a good review in the WSJ back in November. Somewhat surprisingly, the University Near Here actually bought a copy—no Interlibrary Loan required!

Unfortunately, it was both longer and less interesting than I thought it would be. I crawled through it, painfully, at about 20 pages/day, just sneaking it into my 2018 reading. The author, Francesca Lidia Viano, is from Italy, a young academic now working at Institute for New Economic Thinking.

The book explores the "origin story" of Lady Liberty; its opening metaphor invokes an extremely unexpected parallel: the Trojan Horse. No, the statue didn't make its appearance on Bedloe's Island with a covert cargo of French troops inside. Other than the statue being hollow, the physical metaphor doesn't apply. But Viano argues that the statue's ideological DNA contains a lot of unexpected strands. These are illuminated by the (extremely) detailed biography of the artist, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, and his associates. He was French, in the 19th century, a time of a lot of philosophical/artistic/political/international craziness. The folks who bankrolled much of the statue seemed to have messages to send: against British imperialism, for French colonialism, for free trade, against slavery, a healthy component of Saint-Simonism, Freemasonry, … (Ironically, today the main symbolism, thanks to that Emma Lazarus poem, seems to be immigration. That was a late addition.)

I could put up with a lot of that, but 500 pages? Eek!

I would have liked a little more detail on the statue's engineering. In fact, the description of the statue's construction and assembly is crowded into the book's final pages.

Vox Populi

The Perils and Promises of Populism

[Amazon Link]

This book came out last year mostly in response to the election of Donald Trump and the success in the UK of "Brexit", both events surprising conventional wisdom, and deemed by some to be a rejuvenation of "populism". It's a collection of ten "trenchant" (it says here) essays on that topic in response, all originally published in the New Criterion. Most of the writers are familiar to those of us who bathe in conservative journalism: George H. Nash, Barry Strauss, Daniel Hannan, Fred Siegel, James Piereson, Andrew C. McCarthy, Roger Scruton, Victor Davis Hanson, Conrad Black, and Roger Kimball (who also edited). There's a small component of blind-men-describing-an-elephant here, each describing different, sometimes contradictory, populist features. And considerable overlap too: more than one writer cites the famous anti-populist quotes from Obama ("bitter clingers!") and Hillary ("deplorables"!). But each essay is worthwhile reading. Most deal with modern-day American and British politics. But one goes back to H.L. Mencken (not a populist by any measure). And another delves into the ancient origins of the movement, in the Roman efforts of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (and his gory end).

For better or worse, "populism" is nowhere near as well-defined as (say) libertarianism. Trump is arguably a populist, but so is Bernie Sanders. Sharrod Brown (I'm told) wears the label proudly, while deriding "phony populism" in others, e.g., Trump.

But (as near as I can tell), populism has its good stuff and bad.

Good: after all, democracies are inherently populist: the "people" rule, at least in theory, and indirectly. Lincoln's memorable Gettysburg phrasing about "government of the people, by the people, for the people" is inherently populist. To the extent that populists object to being dictated to by a small elite, they're not wrong to do so. (The Brexit vote was, at least in part, a reaction against being ruled by unelected European Union commissioners, who meet in secret, and can't be unseated by voters.)

But also bad: populist sentiment has no limiting principles. Actually, it doesn't seem to have any concrete guiding principles at all. So its cloak is easily taken on by demagogues who love to seduce the masses with tales of the system being "rigged against them". It's us-versus-them, pal, and if you're not with us, you're probably in the employ of the Koch brothers.

Among other things, I learned I am definitely not a populist.

Double Star

[Amazon Link]

Continuing my rereading-Heinlein project… Double Star won the Best SF Novel Hugo for 1956. It's Heinlein at his best. And (frankly) after wading through the ponderous (but excellent) 700+ page In the First Circle, I was in the mood for something easier and lighter.

The story is first-person narrated by near-future actor Lawrence Smith (aka "Lorenzo Smythe" or "The Great Lorenzo"). Down on his luck, he's approached in a seedy bar by space pilot Dak Broadbent, who offers him a small job: could he take the place of a guy who needs to appear in public, but unfortunately is temporarily unavailable…. Lorenzo is dubious, but takes the job.

But soon discovers that the gig is (literally) more than he bargained for: he's not impersonating any random schmoe, but famed politician John Joseph Bonforte.

On Mars.

And Bonforte is not just unavailable, he's been kidnapped by powerful people who are trying to monkeywrench his negotiations with the inscrutable native Martians. And they aren't above using further violence to spoil Lorenzo's performance.

Anyway, there's a lot of action, and Heinlein does a great job of narrating Lorenzo's character arc from the inside. The basic idea isn't exactly fresh, but I still had a good time. The ending is unexpectedly moving; Heinlein did that more than a few times to me.

In the First Circle

[Amazon Link]

As a good young conservative, I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle at some point in the late 60's/early 70's. As it turns out, that was a version that Solzhenitsyn himself censored in hopes that it could get published in the Soviet Union. That didn't happen, but it did make it out to the West. But it wasn't the story he really wanted to tell.

This slightly-retitled version is the restored original, with some revisions. I was prompted to buy it when it was selected by Russ Roberts for the EconTalk Book Club. And, although this wasn't part of my decision, we also just celebrated the 100th anniversary of Solzhenitsyn's birth. Due to that, there's been a lot of other recent web content relevant to the book and its author. See, for example:

The book is set in the final few days of 1949, mostly around the inhabitants Marfino sharashka, a special prison on the outskirts of Moscow where technically-skilled prisoners are imported from the far reaches of Gulag Archipelago to work on projects for the state. It's relatively endurable, but it is the "First Circle" of Hell (see Dante), where the prisoners ("zeks") are always under the explicit threat of being returned to the Gulag if they fail to cooperate.

Most notably: in the first chapter, a disillusioned diplomat, Volodin, has been informed of an upcoming transfer of US atomic bomb secrets to a Soviet agent. He doesn't want to see that technology in the hands of Stalin, so he makes a desperate call from a public phone booth to the US embassy in Moscow. Unfortunately, the call is being monitored, taped, and nearly immediately terminated by Soviet security.

So the technical problem is dumped on the zeks of Marfino: here's the tape, here are the suspects, can you match up the voice to the guy we should arrest?

Well, we kind of know how things turned out: the Soviets got the A-bomb (although they already tested it by the timeframe of the book). And the world got a lot more dangerous.

The novel is told from a number of perspectives: Volodin's, the zeks', the families, and even Joe Stalin's. (You will not be shocked, I hope: Solzhenitsyn's take on Stalin is devastatingly bleak.)

Somewhat surprisingly, the book contains a lot more humor than I remembered. It's very dark, bitter, sarcastic humor, but nonetheless. There's an episode where Eleanor Roosevelt is duped by a Potemkin-village prison; another where a van transporting prisoners off to the Gulag, disguised as a food delivery truck, fools a rosy-eyed reporter for Libération, a fellow-travelling French newspaper.

Here's a description of how one hapless prisoner, Ivan Feofanovich Dyrsin, wound up at the sharashka:

His original conviction was itself an absurdity. He had been jailed early in the war for "anti-Soviet agitation," denounced by neighbors who coveted his apartment (and subsequently obtained it). It became clear that he had engaged in no such agitation—ah, but he might have done so, since he listened to German radio. He had in fact never listened to German radio—but he might have done so, since he had an illegal German radio in the house. In fact, he had no such radio—but he might very well have had one, since he was a radio engineer, and information received led to the discovery of a box containing two valves [vacuum tubes] in his apartment

It's not an easy book to read: 741 very dense pages, dozens of characters. And there's the normal problem with Russian literature: each character has a variety of patronymic names, good luck keeping them straight. (There's a cast of characters at the beginning of this edition, and you might want to bookmark it.)

The Complacent Class

The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream

[Amazon Link]

A pretty good book from Tyler Cowen bemoaning the decreasing dynamism in America, and (worse) that the people who should care about it, don't. A book actually owned by the University Near Here, and (finally) the faculty member who had it out (due date 4/19/2019) returned it early.

If you were pretty happy about your job, home, educational opportunities for you and your kids, and America in general, Tyler's book should be like a big slap in the face with a wet fish. Not only shouldn't you be happy; it's that your happiness is actually a major part of the problem. Tyler thinks we should be a little more on edge.

Chapter by chapter, he picks at the troubling currents in American society. We are a lot less mobile, tending to stick in our communities when we could (theoretically) do better elsewhere. And those communities are increasingly segregated, not just on racial characteristics, but also by economic status, education, class, etc. Our companies are increasingly staid, investing less in R&D, content with maintaining the status quo, lacking innovation, stifling competition. (Even companies like Apple; when was the last time they came out with an actually revolutionary product? The IPhone, over a decade ago?)

Some social innovations have improved matching in all areas of life; music sites, for example, will provide you with an effectively infinite supply of music you are nearly guaranteed to like. Which is wonderful, but will you ever discover anything new?

And of course, pot is nearly totally legal. Talk about guaranteed complacency.

It's an adage that something that can't go on forever, won't. And (true enough) the decline in American dynamism has to stop at some point. Will we like the results when it all hashes out? Probably not, but at least we won't be complacent about it.

The Big Picture

On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

[Amazon Link]

With just over a month to go, it's safe to say this book will easily make my top ten list for 2018 non-fiction. The author, Sean Carroll, is on the research physics faculty at Caltech (but don't hold that against him). When he writes about physics, you can pretty much take it to the bank: he may be dumbing it down a bit, but he's not leading you astray.

His goal here is to apply the insights of science to (see the title) the "big questions". He describes his approach as "poetic naturalism" (a philosophical realm apparently inhabited by one adherent, Sean Carroll, but that's okay). The "naturalism" part is meant to eschew philosophical explanations that appeal to anything beyond the physical world of atoms and forces, as described by what Carroll calls the "Core Theory", a mostly-complete description of how everything is made up of bosons, fermions, and the sorta-well-known interactions between them. Carroll asserts, and I don't doubt it, that our observations do not reveal anything in everyday macroscopic reality that can't be explained, at bottom, by the Core Theory. (It's known to break down in extreme situations, and may not describe possible forces or particles that might be found in the future, but Carroll explains that such caveats are irrelevant to our common experience.)

So: no supernatural beings, no eternal souls, no ESP, no magic, no no Nanette.

Except Carroll does something extraordinary here: he doesn't dismiss various forms of supernaturalism out of hand: he engages the best arguments for them, takes them seriously, argues against them fairly and convincingly, without a whiff of condescension or arrogance.

He's also extremely honest about what he (by which I mean, science) doesn't know, at least not yet. And also honestly admits that nothing is certain. For example: we can't prove that the world, and the observable universe, wasn't created 6000 years ago, with all its galaxies and fossils. Or for that matter, created fifteen minutes ago, including you and all your phony memories. Or that we aren't brains in a vat, or part of a large computer simulation, or….

But that's not the way to bet. Carroll takes a uniquely Bayesian view to such issues, calling the probabilities Bayes described as "credences": we don't hold any beliefs with 100% certainty, but we might have a 99.999…% credence. String out as many 9s as you feel comfortable with.

So that's naturalism. What's the "poetic" part? It tells us that there's "more than one way to talk about the world". Specifically (page 20):

  1. There are many ways of talking about the world.
  2. All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.
  3. Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.

A good example of Carroll's approach is found in his (again, relentlessly fair) discussion of "free will", a bugaboo of mine.

There's a sense in which you do have free will. There's also a sense in which you don't. Which sense is the "right" one is an issue you're welcome to decide for yourself (if you think you have the ability to make decisions).

Heh. Carroll can't deny that, reduced to basics, there's nothing magical going on in our bodies beyond the deterministic (or, with quantum mechanics, probabilistic) interactions between atoms, microscopically manifested as firing neurons, biochemical pathways, proteins yanking on each other, etc., everything working itself up to me typing away at this keyboard.

But, Carroll notes, that's not a lot of help when you look into your closet in the morning and try to decide which shirt to wear. Try saying: "Well, I'll just stand here and let the atoms in my body do whatever they were deterministically going to do anyway."

Wait as long as you need to before you're convinced that that the atoms in your body aren't gonna get that shirt-picking job done for you. Or go to work bare-chested. Your call.

But that's just one example, the book really is the "Big Picture", covering most of the contentious questions of existence. If at times it seems that Carroll's discussion is at the level of late night college dorm room arguments, well… that's pretty much the level beyond which many philosophical discussions have failed to progress in centuries.

Some quibbles:

  • Carroll has a chapter on the "is-ought" dichotomy, and the impossibility of jumping between them. But (see above) his poetic-naturalism tenets use ought-words like "good" and "best" without (as near as I can tell) strong justification. "Good", by what standard, and why should I buy that standard and not some other?

  • I sometimes worry about the power of language to mislead us down false paths in search of Truth. This is especially applicable in purporting to answer the Big Questions; are human-invented grunts and their squiggly representations on the page really the best tools to do that? Especially when we know languages are replete with ambiguity and imprecision?

    I mean, every logical fallacy ever committed was committed with language.

  • Probably related: Carroll assumes the universe is completely understandable by human minds. But what if it's not?

    I've said this before, but: I have a dog.

    A very smart dog.

    But I won't try to teach him calculus. It's pretty clear that would be a waste of time. He wouldn't understand.

    And (worse) my dog wouldn't even understand that he's failing to understand. He would be unaware that he's missing fundamental pieces of knowledge.

    Human brains are (generously) only about 20 times bigger than dog brains. Is that big enough to completely understand reality?

    I'm not sure about that. And I'd say "It's something to think about", except I'm not sure that we have adequate brain power to even do that.

But (all in all) I highly recommend this book if the topics seem interesting to you at all. The book is full of insight and wit, very accessible to (say) a bright high schooler or STEM-capable undergrad. (Grad-level stuff is relegated to an appendix.)

Sign of Chaos

[Amazon Link]

As I'm sure I may have previously mentioned: I own the one-volume compendium of Roger Zelazny's ten Amber novels, The Great Book of Amber. It's nice to have one big doorstop of a book instead of having to keep track of ten various hardcovers and paperbacks, but I keep getting reminded of how slapdash the "Great" book was.

Case in point, on the back cover, the eighth book's title is "Signs of Chaos." Guys, that's wrong. It's just one sign.

As the book opens, our second-half protagonist, Merlin, has been lured by sorta-antagonist Luke into a Lewis Carroll situation, with Humpty, the Cheshire Cat, a Bandersnatch (variety: frumious), etc. It's a trap, but (eventually) Merlin escapes, leaving Luke behind, on to work out the ongoing mystery of who's threatening to do what to the merry land of Amber.

And he does that for a while, about 135 pages in fact. That's the problem with reading these books so far apart, especially at my age: one tends to forget who's who and what's going on. ("Vielle? Who is Vielle, again?") Anyway, there's a stunning revelation about the true identity of Merlin's antagonist "Mask", and a cliffhanger for the next book.

Anyway: now only two left to go.

Glory Road

[Amazon Link]

I read this back in the 1960s, on my initial round of Heinlein-devouring. That was a school library book, and I remember being kind of shocked that the Omaha Public Schools would think this sort of filth was suitable for young eyes. (Didn't stop me from reading it though.)

The pic/Amazon product link over there on the right is the same edition I now own. Apparently set me back a cool $2.50 back in 1984 or so; it has languished unread on my paperback shelves until now. One of the reasons for my Heinlein-rereading project, now with a mere 31 books remaining.

The narrator is Evelyn Cyril "Oscar" Gordon; as the book opens, he is rattling around Europe after an unpleasant hitch fighting an unnamed war for the US Army. While on a clothing-very-optional island off the French Riviera, he gapes at a stunning unclothed woman, who tells him he's beautiful.

Intrigued by a classified ad that promises adventure, he's surprised that the offer is made by the very same woman! He signs up for a perilous, complicated quest for the "Egg of the Phoenix". They, with her grumpy assistant Rufo, set out on their universe-hopping exploits.

What follows: magic, swordplay, fisticuffs, culture clashes, all incredibly dangerous. Plenty of PG-13 talk about sex, where 20th Century American mores are derided as hopelessly out of step with the rest of the universe. There are a lot of winking references to other fantasies: Tolkien, Carroll, Baum, and probably many others I didn't pick up.

This is literally fantasy, both in the usual sense, and also in the adolescent wish-fulfillment sense. What male American teenager doesn't want to take off on a wacky adventure with a gorgeous babe who routinely sheds her clothes?

That said, there are a few pages here, where Oscar is in battle with the guardian of the Egg of the Phoenix, I think are among the best passages of Heinlein I've read.

Here's an odd thing: once the Egg is retrieved, you've still got about 30% of the book left to go. This is filled with… not a lot of things actually happening. A lot of dialogue, a lot of monologue. It's not awful—it's Heinlein, after all—but I'm not sure that was a good call. Nobody asked me.


Last Modified 2019-01-16 4:53 AM EST