What Is Real?

The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics

[Amazon Link]

When I was a mere lad, I was a physics major, which involved taking a few quantum mechanics courses. And from them I learned that at the quantum level, things get weird. It's difficult to pin things down; the mere act of trying to pin things down causes those things to behave differently than they would otherwise.

But (somehow) things remain sane at the macroscopic level. Why is that? Shouldn't they be weird all the way? At what point, precisely, do they stop being weird?

What I learned was the standard "Copenhagen Interpretation" (CI), cooked up at the very beginning of the quantum era by folks like Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Which has had great success in explaining things and allowing the design of multiple goodies in our technological wonderland. But over the years, a (relative) few people have had problems with the CI, even starting with Einstein.

Briefly, the CI says: solve Schrödinger's equation, get a probability distribution, and that's about the best you can do. For example, instead of little ball-like electrons orbiting around an atomic nucleus like beads on wires (as seen in The Big Bang Theory), all you get is a probability cloud: chances are good the electon's here, not very good over there, nearly zero over here.

But the naysayers say: wait a minute. What's really going on? The CI says that's, essentially, a meaningless question; there's no way to know. And yet, there have been efforts over the years to "do better". This book champions the naysayers, essentially arguing that (despite its successes) the CI is the Danish Emperor With No Clothes. The author, Adam Becker, deftly outlines the history, biographies of the various characters involved, and some experiments that folks do that favor alternate interpretations over CI.

So, interesting book. Could have done without the authorial cheerleading. Wherever possible, the motives and psyches of the CI adherents are impugned. (Example: within the space of four pages, Becker tells us three times that Heisenberg was concerned that his theoretical efforts would be "eclipsed" by those of Schrödinger. OK, Adam, we get it. Maybe buy a thesaurus for your next book.)

The main objection to the CI seems to be aesthetic; those of an anti-CI bent really don't want to think like that, preferring to think in terms of electrons really being shiny little balls. Becker argues forcefully that way, but has a hard time getting over the plain fact that the CI works just fine: it comports with experiment, sets the basis for fruitful research. Yes, the future could unseat it, but it will have to be on stronger grounds than provided here.

Blood of Amber

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Number 7 of 10 in my attempt to read Roger Zelazny's Amber series. I think this may have been new ground for me—I know I petered out at some point when the books were originally published. Spoilers follow:

Anyway, Merlin has been imprisoned in a crystalline cavern by Luke, a longtime friend on Shadow Earth, only recently revealed to have ulterior motives, and hostile knowledge of Amber. Many adventures unfold, as Merlin manages to escape, thanks to a dimwitted duo happening by his jail. Things get complicated as Merlin travels through Shadow: old familiar places like Amber and Earth, but also new sites like the Keep of the Four Worlds, a handy crossroards that (unfortunately) is under siege, and controlled by unfriendly forces anyway.

A number of new characters (or are they new?), shifting alliances, and a usual display of spectacular magic. The climax finds Merlin (once again) seemingly trapped, but in a world that will be familiar to Lewis Carroll fans.


A Brief History of Humankind

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I had high hopes for this book, based on … I'm not sure what, exactly. The author, Yuval Noah Harari, is a history prof at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The subtitle, "A Brief History of Humankind", led me to think it might be a… well, a history book, hopefully full of "big ideas", a genre I'm kind of a sucker for. In addition, it's glitzy, with many color illustrations.

But as it turns out the subtitle is misleading. Yes, there's some history here. But …

The book is organized around four "revolutions". The first, the "Cognitive Revolution", occurred around 70K years back, when Homo Sapiens developed "imagination". This caused our ancestors to develop language, culture, and migrate out of East Africa to (eventually) the four corners of the earth.

Second revolution was "Agricultural", the transformation from hunter/gatherer societies to farming, about 10K years ago. Harari notes that this was, in many ways, a downgrade in terms of diet, life expectancy, and freedom. (Agricultural societies arguably needed "protection", and agricultural products were easy sources of protection money, often euphemized as "taxes".)

Third revolution: unification. Various far-flung empires sprang up, absorbing previously-independent cultures into their overweening grasp. Harari refrains (mostly) from moral judgmentalism here, noting that this revolution, as the others he details, was more or less inevitable.

Finally: the scientific revolution, only a few hundred years old, in which we live today, and for the foreseeable future.

All that's fine, I suppose. But I was expecting more facts and stories from a self-described "history" book. Instead, I got a lot of pontificating about the Meaning Of It All. I found Harari's "big ideas" to be simplistic, delivered with smugness. For example, he takes apart the most famous sentence in the Declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

The first paragraph of Harari's "translation into biological terms":

According to the science of biology, people were not 'created'. They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be ‘equal’. The idea of equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation. The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, and is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that carry with them different chances of survival. ‘Created equal’ should therefore be translated into ‘evolved differently’.

And so on. We are more or less invited to chuckle at the efforts of Jefferson et al. Har, them guys back then sure were stupid.

Harari's reductionism tears down a lot of the "myths" surrounding us. He's not shy about dragging in his own myths, however. (Don't get him started about poor treatment of farm animals!)

It's not all bad. Harari is on-target when he notes the silliness of arguments about "cultural appropriation": when Culture A steals things from Culture B, it's almost always something Culture B had previously grabbed from Cultures C, D, E, … And his discussion of possible futures for Homo Sapiens is pretty interesting.

All in all, I'm in agreement with the WSJ review by Charles C. Mann:

There’s a whiff of dorm-room bull sessions about the author’s stimulating but often unsourced assertions. Or perhaps I should use a more contemporary simile: “Sapiens” reminded me occasionally of a discussions on Reddit, where users sound off about supposed iron laws of history. This book is what these Reddit threads would be like if they were written not by adolescent autodidacts but by learned academics with impish senses of humor.

I previously had put Harari's second book, Homo Deus on my to-be-read list. After reading Sapiens, I took it off. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Riding the Rap

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Continuing the project of reading Elmore Leonard's Raylan Givens-related works. This one was written in 1995.

The troubled bookie from Pronto, Harry Arno, is in even deeper trouble here. He has sent his enforcer, Bobby Deo, to collect on bad bets from dissolute pothead Chip Ganz. Unfortunately, Bobby and Chip, together with Chip's associate, Louis Lewis, decide instead to take Harry hostage, planning on extorting the millions Harry has stashed in the Bahamas.

Raylan, in the meantime, has been canoodling with Harry's sometime-girlfriend, Joyce. When Harry goes missing, Joyce worries, which causes Raylan's fugitive-seeking instincts to kick in. And it's not long before he zeroes in on the bad guys.

Fans of the Justified series will notice some similarities between this novel and the Season One episode "Fixer". Although many details differ, even down to character names. Most of this is probably due to the series having the rights to some, but not all, of Elmore Leonard's oeuvre. Another example: a lady psychic, "Reverend Dawn" plays a key role in this book, and she's awfully similar to the show's Season 4 character Eve Munro. And a Crowe family member has a small cameo at the beginning of the book.

A fun read, as expected. Leonard is as interested in the bad guys as he is the good guys. And (as we've seen before) the bad guys are violent, dishonest, volatile, and generally poor candidates to sustain their criminal plotting.

The Consciousness Instinct

Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind

[Amazon Link]

Although the author, Michael S. Gazzaniga, is new to me, he's actually a well-known neuroscientist and author of a number of other popularizing books on brainy topics. As usual, I can't quite remember why I put this on my things-to-read list, but it's one of those "big question" topics I'm interested in, in my usual dilettantish mode. Professor Gazzaniga is currently at UCSB, but he's been all over. (Thanks to the University Near Here's library, who scored the book from Dartmouth. Keeping them on their toes this summer.)

His task here is (obviously, from the title) to explain how we, you and I, can possibly be "conscious", when all that's going on inside us is chemistry, and also some electricity. There's an initial discussion of the history of speculation on the topic, going all the way back to Aristotle, on up through Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, James, and the like. Gazzaniga, fortunately, is comfortable with the philosophical arguments. But he nicely mixes in current research (including his own) in cognitive psychology and neurophysiology.

Way back in the 1960s he worked with Roger Sperry at Caltech, on the famous split-brain experiments. It turns out (as with so many things) that sometimes the easiest way to discover interesting things about how the brain works, is to look at what happens when it's not working that well: when, through injury or disease, some parts are malfunctioning, or not working at all.

His interesting observation: even in cases of severe brain damage, one's consciousness still functions. Sometimes far different than normal, but never really absent. This indicates that it's a property more or less distributed throughout the brain, not localized to any one area.

Gazzaniga finds it useful to think of the brain as having a (conceptually) layered architecture. Since I'm a computer ex-geek, I naturally analogized this to the OSI stack model, with high-level (application) layers, medium-level (e.g. driver) levels, and low-level (e.g. hardware) layers. Each layer doesn't have to "know" anything about the functionality of the layers below and above; there just has to be some sort of communication protocol.

Another important concept is modularity: brain-parts that do some sort of well-defined task; these can also have internal layers. Again, the key points are independence, and relative ignorance.

Interestingly, the book then veers into insights provided by quantum mechanics, which brought me back to my physics-major days. Gazzaniga analogizes the wave/particle duality of elementary particles, and the correspondence principle to life itself. Well, I'm not sure whether this is meant to be an analogy, or if he's saying that there's something quantum-like causing brain consciousness. Anyway, intriguing.

All this goes to argue (as you probably guessed from the title) is that consciousness is an instinct, like fear, hunger, lust, etc. Yeah, maybe.

I expected there to be some more stuff about "free will" in this book, as it seems (to me anyhow) to be tied together with consciousness. But I see he has another book on that specific topic. So I might check that out someday.

The Late Show

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In this book, Michael Connelly introduces a new character: Detective Renée Ballard. (It says this right on the front cover.) It's a page turner, but feels a little padded. 405 pages, could have easily been cut back to 300. But I suppose that's what Connelly's book contract demanded he churn out.

The book's title refers to Renée's work shift: the early A.M. hours. That's where she was stuck after losing a sexual harassment complaint against her one-time superior, Lt. Olivas. Which loss was incurred due to betrayal by her partner, Det. Chastain. She's professionally moribund.

But there's always cop stuff to do in LA. Three cases: (1) an elderly lady reports a stolen credit card; (2) a transvestite hooker gets badly beaten up and left for dead; and (3, the biggie) a mass shooting at a crowded Hollywood dance club. Renée is dragged into the latter while at the hospital checking on the nearly-dead hooker; one of the victims is brought there in the (futile) attempt to save her life.

Renée exhibits, unsurprisingly, a Bosch-like devotion to dig out the perpetrators in all these cases. Up to and including investigatory behavior that would get her shitcanned if the department found out about it. She seldom sleeps, loves to paddleboard in the Pacific, has a rescue dog, and (small spoiler) finds herself in mortal peril on one occasion. (It's not a spoiler, since this book is "introducing" her character, to observe that she escapes and prevails.)

Not that it matters, but there's a weird (but amusing) interplay here: one of the club murder victims is an innocent employee, a waitress looking to break into acting. One of her credits is "Girl in Bar" on the TV show "Bosch". Oh yeah, Renée thinks, that's the show based on the exploits of that now-retired detective.

So yes, I'm reading a fiction book where TV shows have fictionalized versions of its already-fictional characters. But there is a Bosch TV show in our "real" world…

Connelly does this on occasion. It's funny, but it also makes my head hurt. Is this the sort of thing Jorge Luis Borges did?

Not that it matters either, but I often "cast" book characters in my mind while reading. Initially, I envisioned Renée as being played by Stephanie Beatriz, who plays Rosa Diaz on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine". That would be fine, but as the 405 pages of the book went by, I kept seeing her as … don't laugh … Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

OK, you can laugh. Mrs. Salad did.

The Man Who Sold the Moon

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Another book down on the Heinlein to-be-read stack. Which leaves, uh, 34 to go.

This is another collection of short stories, plus the titular novella. They are placed early in Heinlein's "Future History", where he details a number of imagined near-future technological breakthroughs.

Some verge on fantasy. "Life-Line" is the sad story of Dr. Pinero, who invents a gadget that allows people to know their precise date of death. This irritates Big Insurance. Obvious, when you think about it. Does Pinero know the consequences of that? (Answer: yes he does, because he used the machine on himself.)

"Let There Be Light" is the story of two inventors (a guy and a girl) who invent—easily!—a device to efficiently convert sunlight into electricity. Again, Big Business tries to shut 'em down. Solution: release their technology to the world for free!

"The Roads Must Roll" is a tale of a totally impractical transportation technology: people are transported from place to place on gigantic high-speed conveyor belts. (This is all described in detail, except for a realistic estimate of the energy needed to power the contraption.) But an evildoer in thrall to a lunatic economic/political ideology threatens to put a monkey wrench into the whole works! There may have been an actual monkey wrench involved, I may have missed that detail. Fortunately, heroism saves the day.

"Blowups Happen" was originally written in 1940, but the version here has obviously added post-WW2 detail. It's about peaceful nuclear energy, but the implementation is unimaginably dangerous: one little slipup could unleash a nuclear explosion! Yeah, RAH didn't know much about nuclear engineering back then. Anyway, the solution: launch the reactor into space!

Which works fine for a while, but in "The Man Who Sold the Moon", it's resulted in disaster. Oh well. Tycoon Elon Musk D. D. Harriman wants to go there, and the story covers his convoluted efforts, via semi-shady business practices, to build and launch the first manned mission to Luna. Alas (spoiler) he is denied what he really wants, to set foot on the Moon himself.

All the above stories feature the usual Heinleinisms: everyone smokes. (Techies have their cigarettes, businessmen cigars.) The dialogue is snappy and smart-ass, right out of 1940s movies. Technical issues that in the real world take years and decades to iron out are solved in hours and days.

Which brings me to "Requiem". Which is (to my eye, anyhow) a beautiful gem of a short story. It's about the dying Harriman wangling his lifelong dream. I remember it brought tears to my young eyes when I first read it back in the 1960s. Didn't quite do the same fifty years later, but it's still an Astounding Story. (Notably, it was originally published before the story "The Man Who Sold the Moon".

Consumer note: I bought the Kindle version because of its relative cheapatude, plus which it included Orphans of the Sky at no extra charge. But the cheapness shows in the formatting: specifically, the scene-break visual clues in the printed versions are missing, it's just one paragraph after another.

Stone Cold

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The 2014 copyright on this book tells me I'm a mere 4 years behind on my C.J. Box reading. I'll catch up before I die. I hope.

It's a Joe Pickett book, with a strong appearance from plays-by-his-own-rules Nate Romanowski. Nate has fallen in with an (um) interesting gig: he's seemingly on assignment as a freelance vigilante, bringing rough justice to bad people the ordinary system hasn't been able to punish.

Meanwhile, Joe is up in the mountains with Dave "Comic Relief" Farkus, trying to retrieve a Wyoming Game and Fish pickup left stranded near a mountaintop in a previous book. When, out of the blue, he's called in to meet with colorful Wyoming Governor Rulon. (He's the kind of governor you wish your state had.) Joe's back on secret-agent duty, looking to investigate some weird, possibly nefarious, goings on in remote (and fortunately fictional) Medicine Hat County. Specifically, there's this guy, Wolfgang Templeton, that might be up to no good.

Keep a low profile, Joe is advised. Stick with your cover story, just observe what's going on. And, oh yeah, the last guy sent up there died in an "accidental fire".

Needless to say, Joe doesn't keep a low profile. And finds himself in deep doo-doo. Fortunately, Joe has learned a lot about survival among desperate people over the years.

Meanwhile, Joe's daughter, Sheridan, is an RA at her University of Wyoming dorm. And one of the students in her charge is exhibiting strange behavior. As if his high school yearbook picture had "Most Likely to Be a Mass Shooter" caption. That's also suspenseful.

World Gone By

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This is book three in Dennis Lehane's gripping saga of the Coughlin family. Previous two books looked at here and here. While the first book was deeply grounded in historical settings, especially in Boston, the second book was less so, and the third book just about not at all. There are some real-life folks showing up, notably Meyer Lansky and other gangsters. But this is basically a Godfather-like tale of organized crime and its rotting effect on one of its participants.

Specifically, that participant is Joe Coughlin. The time is 1943, years after the bloody finale of the second book, Joe has settled into a semi-respectable life in Ybor City, Florida. He's a good dad to his beloved and precocious son, Tomas. (Mom is, well, out of the picture — did I mention the bloody finale of the previous book?) He spends his days doing civic and charitable work. Never mind that a good part of his wealth and income relies on illicit activity and corruption.

But Joe gets credible word that there has been a hit taken out on him. Justifiably concerned, his detective work takes him through the decadent highs and very sordid lows of Florida Gulf Coast culture.

And, oh yeah: he starts seeing a ghost. Eek!

Will he come out of this OK? Will there be a fourth book in the series someday? No spoilers here.

Lehane is a gifted writer, and I had a fine time.

Who We Are and How We Got Here

Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

[Amazon Link]

Another "big questions" book provided by Dimond Library at the University Near Here. The author, David Reich, is down at Harvard Medical School, but don't hold that against him. He's a leading researcher in the field of "Ancient DNA", a field that's blossomed over the past few years. Basically: you dig up people from past millennia, extract some reasonably intact genetic material, feed it into some hairy industrial biochemical processors, feed the data output by that into some high-strength computational algorithms, and out comes information concerning just where your Dead Guy fits into humanity's family tree.

But one of Reich's lessons is that a "family tree" is not a particularly accurate metaphor for how the various offshoots of humanity developed through history. Instead, it's more like a latticework: the DNA shows that ancient humans were surprisingly mobile and also, um, familiar with the other folks they ran across.

And they weren't particular in their familiarity, either. As a result, one of Reich's specific findings is that today's non-African people have a significant amount of Neanderthal DNA lurking in their chromosomes. (Added hundreds of mediocre stand-up comics: "… which will not come as a surprise to my wife.")

So just in a relative eyeblink, DNA research has provided new insights into our ancestry. Reich explores not only the Neanderthal stuff, but also how DNA reveals more about how and when people got to their "native" lands; it's far from the simple stories you and I heard about in school. Chapter by chapter, he looks at Europeans, Native Americans, Africans, Australians, Asians.

It's not without controversy, and (for me) that's a little more interesting than the dry recitation of research results. You may have heard that some Native Americans are reluctant to let researchers analyze those ancient American bones found at burial sites. They claim ancestry; the major problem with that claim is that research indicates that, almost certainly, the "native" people buried at a site 10K years ago are not related to the "native" people living there today.

Later chapters dig (inevitably) into deeper controversies of "racism". Reich dissociates himself from extreme thoughts on both sides: the notions that race is a mere "social construct" can't be supported by DNA research. Nor that racial differences are restricted to superficial matters of skin color and gross physiognomy.

He also distances himself from any controversial claims on what may be termed "the other side". Specifically, he dislikes folks like Nicholas Wade (whose book I looked at back in 2014). Reich was one of the signatories of this anti-Wade letter back then.

Frankly, I think he protests overmuch.