Polyprofundis: May, 2018

“Polyprofundis” is a made-up word meaning roughly “a series of profundae”. It’s just a fancy way of briefly summarizing books I’ve read. 

–“Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth”, Ludwig Von Mises. This book-length essay, published in the beginning of the 20th century, was and is among the strongest critiques of socialism ever written. Mises forcefully argues that any form of public ownership of the means of production necessarily renders economic calculation completely impossible.

–“The End of Eternity”, Isaac Asimov. Widely considered to be Asimov’s best novel, “Eternity” follows Andrew Harlan’s rise as one of the cadre responsible for standing in “Eternity”, a manufactured space outside of time, and engineering events on Earth to prevent dreadful outcomes like nuclear wars. Harlan falls in love with the mysterious Noys Lambent, who will eventually prove to be the key to a mystery stretching back through the centuries to the establishment of Eternity — and to a possible way of saving the human race.

–“The Industries of the Future”, Alec Ross. As Hilary Clinton’s secretary of innovation, mr. Ross has had a front-row view of some of the most exciting technologies in development. This fast-paced book details what he’s learned while offering speculation on the possible social and political consequences of the rise of genomics, artificial intelligence, robotics, and cryptocurrency.

–“The Children of the Sky”, Vernor Vinge. While “Children” is perfectly decent science fiction it is also the culmination of a trilogy who’s first two books (“A Fire Upon the Deep” and “A Deepness in the Sky”) are legendary, and suffers for this comparison. It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy it so much as it felt kind of tedious, with none of the galaxy-wide action that made the previous installments so breathtaking. After patiently walking us through extensive political maneuverings among two separate races stuck on a world together, the book just sort of ends without resolving the major issue that drove book one and has been lurking in the background of book three.

–“What It’s Like To Be A Dog”, Gregory Berns. For whatever reason, before Gregory Berns it never occurred to anyone to train dogs or other animals to sit still in MRI machines while performing tasks. Dr. Berns does so, and discovers all sorts of fascinating information about the inner lives of man’s best friend (along with sea lions, dolphins, and the extinct thylakine). As is indicated by the title Dr. Berns does not shy away from related questions in phenomenology and consciousness, doing a quite adequate job of making the case that similarities in brain structures imply similarity in experience.

–“The Lucifer Principle”, Howard Bloom. Like “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Bloom’s weighty tome makes a startling claim (‘the description of human societies as superorganisms is not just metaphorical, and history is driven in large part by competition between different superorganisms) and then exhaustively adduces evidence in support of this claim. The scholarship was uneven at times, and there are profound epistemological questions implied by his thesis which are left aside, but overall an aggressively-interesting bit of work with enormous ramifications.

–“The Master Algorithm”, Pedro Domingos. Renowned machine learning expert Domingos discusses the ‘five tribes of machine learning’ and each tribes master algorithm — the symbolists with inverse deduction, the connectionists with backpropagation, the evolutionists with genetic algorithms, the bayesians with bayesian inference, and the analogizers with support vector machines. The strengths and weaknesses of each are detailed, and the book culminates with the authors own candidate for a ‘master algorithm’, ‘markov logic networks’. As engaging as it was accessible, my only complaint is Domingos’s perfunctory treatment of concerns around AI safety and his blithe dismissal of same.

–“Philosophy: Who Needs It”, Ayn Rand. I’d been putting off reading this book for a while because I assumed I’d know most of what it says. I was wrong. Featuring all of the clarity, wit, and razor-sharp analysis for which she remains famous, Rand’s book also features two delightful chapters which make the book worth reading all by themselves: an analysis of the epistemological themes of William Gibson’s dramatization of the story of Hellen Keller, “The Miracle Worker”, which is the most compelling defense of the idea that knowledge and language are grounded in percepts that I’ve ever encountered; and a unrelenting, merciless skewering of a famous B.F. Skinner book which would make Ramsey Snow uncomfortable.

–“Foundations of Western Civilization, Part II”, Robert Bucholz. This lengthy (48-lecture) treatment of Western Civilization culminates in an impassioned and beautiful plea for each of us to become worthy of Europe’s heritage by adopting, defending, and extending the tenets which made the West so magnificent.

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