‘What Have You Been Reading?’

One of the first delightful surprises I had while living in Korea was learning that the Korean equivalent of ‘what’s up?’ is ‘밥 먹었어요?’, which translates to either ‘have you eaten?’ or ‘have you had any rice?’. It’s been decades since the tiger economies went hungry, but this linguistic fossil remains from an age when the most important thing you could know about a person’s well being was whether or not they’d had food that day.

Perhaps instead of ‘how’s it going?’ we should start conversations with ‘what have you been reading?’ or ‘what are you learning?’. This would bias interactions toward focusing on the efforts a person is making to improve the scope and precision of their knowledge. Because a person will eventually have to give an account of their gnostic enterprises they might be more motivated to have an interesting reply. That means more reading, more learning, and more conversations about reading and learning.

After that we start implementing the John Waters’ strategy of not sleeping with people who don’t have books in their homes. If a person has time to bone but not to read then maybe a little celibacy will afford them the opportunity to right the unconscionable inversion of their priorities.

Popova Tuples

When I encounter writers who are unusually compelling I try to understand the qualities that make them so. Usually this is very difficult, stemming from a nebulous conjunction of factors like ‘style’ and ‘structure’ which make them especially clear and memorable. Sam Harris, Eric Raymond, Tom Woods, and Paul Graham all fit into this category.

In the case of Maria Popova the answer is at least partly obvious: she makes exquisite use of what I’m going to call ‘Popova Tuples’, these charming little word pairs which are nearly always alliterative and cause her writing to shimmer like jewels glimpsed on the shores of a distant river.

A philosopher isn’t ‘good’, he is ‘lucid and luminous’. Advice isn’t ‘germane’, it’s ‘timely and timeless’.

This can be extended to whole phrases, such as a personal non-Popova favorite: ‘Nobody owns you, nobody owes you’. (I thought this was from Ayn Rand but couldn’t turn up an attribution.)

If used properly these might be a way of utilizing the concept of ‘pebble forms’. Try to coin the sorts of ringing phrases which will eventually replace the full scope of your ideas, because no matter what you do that’s what’s going to eventually happen. At least this way you can exercise more control over the process and mitigate the resulting loss of comprehension.

Is History a Science?

People twist themselves into knots on the question of whether or not history is a science. I’m not prepared to defend the claim that history is *always* a science, but it certainly can be.

As we all know arguably the most important defining feature of a science is that it is ‘falsifiable’ — it makes predictions about future sensory states which could in principle turn out to be wrong.

One major source of confusion here is that history makes what we might call ‘retrodictions’, i.e. predictions about events that happened in the past. This seems vaguely screwy, somehow.

But the fact that arrowheads or artifacts are thousands of years old shouldn’t concern the historian-scientist anymore than the fact that the light hitting a telescope is millions of years old should concern an astronomer-scientist.

The predictions yielded by a historical theory constrain *future* sensory states in a falsifiable way. If you subscribe to the idea that humans crossed Beringia 20,000 years ago, you should never, in the future, find an arrowhead older than that. If you do, your theory is falsified.

So history passes as least one of the more significant tests by which we separate science from non-science

Kanizsa Inferences

A while back a friend of mine was advancing the controversial thesis that Darwinian social dynamics necessitated religiosity (or something like that).

His essay was structured in such a way that there were several fallacious inferences kind of… implied, but not actually stated anywhere.

I think we need a term for this kind of thing, and I have a proposal:

‘Kanisza Inference’.

Kanisza figures are those ghostly shapes which the brain can’t help but see because of how some other shapes are arranged:



Knowing about Kanisza inferences might help in crafting more lucid arguments and avoiding pointless tangents (though of course nothing can prevent the deliberately dishonest from misinterpreting your ideas.)

A Bookish Review of 2017

Counting books I’m currently in the middle of I have read 75 books this year.

A few of these are children’s books in Russian and German so if we subtract those out it’s ~70.

This includes three trilogies (Ramez Naam’s ‘Nexus’, Hannu Rajaniemi’s ‘Jean Le Flambeur’, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars’), and one pentagy (George R. R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’).

Six titles were from the ‘Very Short Introduction’ series (Postmodernism, Logic, Mathematics, Relativity, Plants, Stem Cells) which, despite their lilliputian profiles on the bookshelf do pack a lot of punch.

I got through several textbooks, of which the most difficult was “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach”. This was also the most difficult book overall, though Bob Murphy’s “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and New Deal” was a definite contender, as it is a complete statement of the Austrian view on the origins of the great depression.

Jeffrey Biles’s “Mages Must Fall” was the only title written by a personal friend: an athletic little fantasy book which stood up admirably to some of the other titanic volumes in the list.

My science fiction reading was mostly standard fare: Robert Heinlein (“Farmers in the Sky”), Neal Stephenson (“Anathem”, “King of the Vagabonds”, “Snow Crash”, “Cryptonomicon”). But I also deliberately made a point to engage with authors with whom I was unfamiliar, like Ben Bova (“As On A Darkling Plain”) and James Blish (“Titans’ Daughter”).

Ayn Rand made five appearances: I read three of her four fiction works (“The Fountainhead”, “Atlas Shrugged”, “Anthem”) and the compelling defence of her economics called “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”, which also featured a cameo essay by future Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Anne C. Heller’s biography of her did a great job of neutrally exploring the brilliant, profoundly controversial figure.

In economics I also read Murray Rothbard (“For a New Liberty”), Alex Epstein (“The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels”), F.A. Hayek (“The Fatal Conceit”), and Thomas Sowell (“Intellectuals In Society”), this last of which might’ve been my favorite. Besides this I also read a history of the Austrian School and a towering, 1000-page biography of Ludwig Von Mises which did a lot to flesh out my view of the man.

There were two pop business books (“Abundance”, “Bold”) by Peter Diamandis and Stephen Koettler which I liked more than I thought I would, and Winnifred Gallagher’s “Rapt” was a pop psychology book that easily bests anything put out by Malcolm Gladwell.

I had hoped to make it to 100, to include works in Korean/Spanish/French, and to have gotten in another textbook or two, but considering that I also published my own book (“The STEMpunk Project”) and had a baby, this isn’t too bad.