2018: A Year in Books

You may have noticed that things have been pretty quiet around here these past few months. This is mostly because I made some pretty big changes which didn’t leave much time for blogging. As it stands, I’ve (obviously) put the World Systems project on hold for now, though I’d like to pick it back up again in 2019 if there’s time.

The added financial strain of having my first child together with dissatisfaction in my previous line of work and a general sense of wanting to pursue something new convinced me to apply to the Galvanize Data Science Immersive in Denver, CO. I got in, and proceeded to spend the next three months getting the absolute shit kicked out of me by the rigors of the program.

It was, without exception or caveat, the hardest and most humbling thing I’ve ever done. It was harder than working full time and doing the STEMpunk Project concurrently. It was harder than (figuratively) parachuting into Korea and learning Korean on my own, from scratch.

In the future I may write more about the experience, but for now just know that I definitely got my money’s worth in education and productive friendships with incredibly talented people, in addition to leads on more fruitful research trajectories than I could hope to get to in whatever span of years is left to me on Earth.

As I write this I’m sort of decompressing and getting ready to look for jobs in the new year, which struck me as a good time to write about the one that’s wrapping up; no doubt my millions of readers are curious as to what became of me ūüôā

Even with all of the above I managed to read 70 books, mostly in audiobook form while driving, exercising, changing diapers, or walking the dog. This is less than last year but, well, I think you can see why.

The year started with my reading the latter few titles in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, which I first picked up half my lifetime ago and which started a fateful obsession with the best form of literature: science fiction. In my view the first books are the strongest; while the six originals are all worth reading, by the time we get to God Emperor the main character is a nigh-immortal man-worm hybrid who can see into the future and who despotically rules the universe. Frankly, I find this a little hard to relate to, and there are long stretches of dialogue which struck me as vaguely like people trying to be deep on Twitter.

Don’t misunderstand me:¬†Dune¬†casts a long shadow and deserves its status as a classic in the genre which any good student of the form should read and read and read again.

Naturally with the World Systems project underway I read a lot of economics. Bob Murphy’s¬†Chaos Theory¬†was probably the most accessible, Nami Sanandaji’s¬†Debunking Utopia¬†was probably the most important for modern audiences, and¬†Mises’s¬†Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth was easily the deepest.¬†Dominick T. Armentano’s¬†Antitrust: The Case for Repeal,¬†however, deserves a mention as¬†a punchy little refutation of the mainstream view on monopolies and the government’s vital role in preventing them.

I made it through Francis Fukuyama’s¬†The Origins of Political Order and¬†Political Order and Political Decay,¬†which are excellently-researched volumes in the mold of Guns, Germs, and Steel. The basic thesis is that the rule of law, the state, and accountable government are what gave rise to the modern world, an important challenge to skeptics of any positive role for the State.

Neal Stephenson appeared twice: once along with Nicole Galland in the young-adultesque¬†D.O.D.O.¬†and once in¬†Seveneves. I recommend them both; the former was whimsical and the latter more serious, but it’s pretty hard to beat Stephenson for modern SF.

Peter Watts also appeared twice, in¬†Starfish and¬†Maelstrom, part of the¬†ő≤ehemoth¬†sequence, which I haven’t finished yet. This is standard Watts-ian fare, near-future SF which induces existential terror by plausibly illustrating a scenario in which all life is destroyed. Watts is always worth a read.

Because I have an interest in privately-funded space exploration I picked up two recent books on the topic, The Rocket Billionaires by Tim Fernholz and How to Make a Spaceship by Julian Guthrie. Both do a good job of giving us an insider perspective into the kind of borderline-insane magnitude of the ambitions and intellects of the people who are endeavoring to light up the void with the sparks of human civilization. 

I re-read the first two volumes of Vernor Vinge’s¬†Deepness¬†series (A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky)¬†as well as the closing volume (The Children of the Sky).¬†The first and second are excellent, the third would be quite good as a standalone but doesn’t quite manage the same pace and sense of vastness as its predecessors.

Because of my genuine love for campy old-fashioned SF I always try to rotate in some titles from the Golden Age; this year it was Jack Vance’s¬†The Languages of Pao¬†(a riff on Sapir-Whorf at planetary scale) plus¬†The Naked Sun¬†and¬†The End of Eternity by Asimov. The latter is widely considered to be among the best of Asimov’s fiction books, and indeed it was good.

I continued my long dialogue with Objectivism, reading¬†Philosophy: Who Needs It and Voice of Reason, both by the first lady of reason herself. I also read a volume of essays on my favorite book, Atlas Shrugged, edited by Robert Mayhew. Though I’ve been a bit skeptical of the value of literary criticism in the past, I really got a lot out of this.

For good measure I tossed in Jennifer Burns’s¬†Goddess of the Market,¬†the other of the two major mainstream biographies of Ayn Rand (the other is Ayn Rand and the World She Made, which I think I got to last year), and¬†Unrugged Individualism by David Kelley, which addresses the common complaint that ethical egoism rules out being nice to people.

In the same vein I finally plunged into the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind, an Objectivist philosopher who also wrote one of the most towering fantasy series in the history of the genre. Along with The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan it basically defined the ultra-long-form fantasy epic.

I’ve given¬†SoT a couple of tries and didn’t much care for it, but I finally made it far enough to realize that it’s less a story about magic and more a story about re-discovering lost technology. Such a plot device can be pretty tricky to get right, and I don’t think Goodkind did a good job in the first few books of getting me to care about his characters because it seemed they were always being rescued by some heretofore unknown power just in the knick of time.

But he matured as a writer as the series progressed, and there are places where in-text discussion of prophecy v.s. free will, life as the standard of value, the role of art in cognition, and other philosophical subjects which are both genuinely interesting and germane to the plot.

During this undertaking I took a break for both Carl Sagan’s¬†Demon-Haunted World and Thomas Sowell’s¬†Black Rednecks and White Liberals. Sagan truly is a poet in a scientist’s body, and Sowell is more incisive than almost anyone I’ve ever read in history and economics. If these two are ever widely taught in high schools, the world will be a better place.

I also finally got around to Margot Adler’s¬†Drawing Down the Moon, an anthropological study of the rise of Neopaganism and Wicca in the United States. I’ve been meaning to give this a read since Eric Raymond brought it to my attention, and it was very good.

Happy reading!


Polyprofundis: June, 2018


–“Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsory”, Anne Edwards. This lively examination of one of Great Britain’s famous modern queens at once humanizes the great lady while detailing the consequences, good and bad, of her astonishing devotion to the monarchy. She took her duty as a matriarch and symbol of continuity, power, and majesty very seriously, brooking no lapses from other members of the royal family. This is part of what made her such an effective and popular ruler. Another part was her exceptional intelligence — by all accounts she was smarter than almost everyone around her, memorizing lengthy passages of Shakespeare, taking great trouble to read literature in the original French and German, devouring volumes of Indian history and even learning basic Hindi phrases in preparation for an extended visit to British India.

This book also imparted a sense, foreign to an American such as myself, of just how important the monarchy was to the British people. The Queen’s stern countenance and unyielding steadfastness in the face of personal tragedy, world wars, and the rising tide of modernity were a source of great strength to her subjects. Edwards (the author) speculates that the Nazi bombing of Buckingham Palace during WWII was a profound tactical blunder because, in showing that even the monarchy was not immune to the catastrophes falling daily from the skies above onto the streets of London, it did more to bring the country together than almost anything else could have.

— “If Aristotle Ran General Motors”, Tom Morris. This slim volume examines business and ethics through Aristotle’s four cardinal values (Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity), making a philosophical and empirical case for cultivating each in our working lives. Excellence in business, argues Morris, rests on honestly dealing with customers and workers, on feeling that our work connects to a larger purpose and stimulates us aesthetically, and in knowing that what we do in the office is a function of who we are as a person. Though it was written at the turn of the millennium the book’s tone and style reminded me of classic self-help books like James Allen’s “As a Man Thinketh”.

Good stuff.

— “The Origins of Political Order” ^ “Political Order and Political Decay”, Francis Fukuyama. This is Fukuyama’s famous two-volume look at what drives the development of progressively more complex human societies (answer: lots of stuff) and what makes some of them function better than others (answer: also lots of stuff). Though Fukuyama has a real blind spot around free-market economics, I still gained in both broad sociological perspective and in knowledge of specific historical periods.

-“The Languages of Pao”, Jack Vance. I have a real fondness for these old-school SF paperbacks, with their endearingly-cartoonish cover art and a panoply of goofy names for what is supposed to be high technology (“hammer-beams!”, “mind-blinders!”). The underlying premise is an interesting one: in the far future the descendants of humans have colonized various worlds, one of which is the titular Pao. Aeons of peace, plenty, and certain features of their language have made the Paonese into something like docile cattle, to be milked by more bellicose neighbors and slaughtered, as required.

Royal intrigue results in the young heir to the throne being taken to the Breakness world as a kind of hostage/squire. Over the years he conceives a burning desire to return to Pao as its rightful “Panarch” to bring it into modernity. This will require deposing the current ruler, as well as introducing a language-based caste system which will match features of three new languages with the requirements of brand new classes of warriors, industrialists, and intellectuals — the likes of which have never been seen on Pao.

Unforseen consequences of this scheme, as well as the competing interests of various powerful and crafty malefactors entangle our Panarch in plots which could cost him everything, including his world and his life.

Published in the 50’s, I couldn’t help but thinking that the book’s driving premise could use a modern reboot. Surely with modern linguistics, psychology, and economics much more could be done with it. Still worth the read.

“Seveneves”, Neal Stephenson. The book begins with the explosion of the moon in the skies over Terra; a few pages later it occurs to the relevant authorities that eventually the pieces are going to rain onto the Earth and kill 99.999% of everyone on it.

After that, the action picks up a little bit.

With the possible exception of Jean L’Flambeur being shot between the eyes by the All Defector in Rajaniemi’s “The Quantum Thief” I can’t recall another work of fiction that punches the reader in the nose as soon as they open the book. In classic Stephensonian style we are treated to lengthy discussions of topics like space suit pressurization, orbital mechanics, and the fluid dynamics of tears in space. But the author of “Anathem” and “The Cryptonomicon” has never give short shrift to non-technical subjects, and so we also explore everything from the interpersonal dynamics of humans living in tin cans their entire lives to the effects of social media on human attention to the long-term consequences of humans separating into genetically distinct races.

If you liked his other work you’ll like this one; if you didn’t, then we are very different people.

“The Voice of Reason”, Ayn Rand et al. Mostly I read this because I was experimenting with ways of turning PDFs into audiobooks and I had this PDF lying around. If you’ve read other collections of Objectivist essays there won’t be any surprises here, but her meditation on the absurdity of American antitrust legislation was especially solid, Peter Schwartz’s critique of early libertarianism merits consideration, and Leonard Peikoff’s poignant, illuminating reflections on his thirty-year friendship with one of the most polarizing thinkers of the twentieth century was well worth reading.

“Debunking Utopia”, Nami Sanandaji. If you read just one book on economics this year, it should probably be this one. Sanandaji — a trained Norwegian economist sympathetic to government-sponsored programs like universal healthcare — challenges the standard Leftist talking point that the Scandinavian countries are prosperous because of their enormous public sectors.

His case can mostly be boiled down thusly: make a list of all the things you like about Norway/Denmark/Finland/Sweden. With virtually no exceptions it can be shown that those positive social features either 1) predate the establishment of socialist-democratic governments by decades or centuries; 2) also mark Scandinavian immigrants to other countries, like the U.S., which completely lack such public-sector initiatives; 3) are actively eroding the cultural basis for Scandinavian success.

“The New Jim Crow”, Michelle Alexander. A sobering look at how truly terrifying the American judicial system has become and how far outside the mandates of the Constitution we’ve wandered, with the predictable, tragic destruction of countless lives. I have not yet decided how I feel about the book’s central thesis; Alexander’s view that implicit and explicit racial prejudice was the primary motive for the war on drugs and stacks the deck against poor non-whites in ways clearly meant to be discriminatory has been challenged by the left no less than the right, and for my own part I think there are noteworthy evidentiary omissions and places where she overstates her case.

Nevertheless, I found myself unable to read about ‘Operation Pipeline’ or civil asset forfeiture without a rising sense of incandescent fury on behalf of all those crushed under the bulk of a monster whose evil and stupidity will someday be described as nothing short of breathtaking.

“Antitrust: The Case For Repeal”, Dominick T. Armentano. A leading antitrust scholar draws on more than a century of data to demonstrate that, contrary to popular opinion,a combination of legal ambiguity and arbitrary enforcement makes this law little more than a means by which firms can punish successful rivals and the government can plan the economy.


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.

The Structure of Science as a Gnostic Manifold

Part I

While reading Paul Rosenbloom’s excellent “On Computing” I feel as though I’ve glimpsed the outlines of something big.¬†

In the book Rosenbloom advances the argument that computing should be counted among the ‘Great Domains’ of science, instead of being considered a mere branch of engineering. During the course of advancing this thesis he introduces two remarkable ideas: (1) a ‘relational architecture’, describing how the Great Domains relate to one another; (2) an accompanying ‘metascience expression language’ which defines the overlap of the Physical (P), Social (S), Life (L), and Computing (C) Domains in terms of two fundamental processes: implementation and interaction.¬†

Though I’m only a few chapters in I’ve already seen that his methods for generating monadic, dyadic, and polyadic tuples of different combinations of the Great Domains could be used to create a near-comprehensive list of every area of research possible within the boundaries limned by our current scientific understanding.

Let me explain: ‘pure computing’ consists of any overlap of computing with itself (C + C), and subsumes such areas as computational complexity and algorithmic efficiency analysis. ‘Mixed computing’ would be the combination of computing with any of the other great domains: computer hardware would be Computing (C) + Physical (P), a simulation of predator/prey population dynamics would be Life (L) + Computing (C), computer security and AI would be Social (S) + Computing (C), genetics/physics simulations would be Physical (P) + Computing (C), brain-computer interaction would be Computing (C) + Social (S) + Physical (P), and so forth.¬†

A simple program could make a list of every possible permutation of C + P + S + L (including standalones like ‘P’ and pure overlaps like ‘P + P’), and you might be able to spot gaps in the current edifice of scientific research — there might be certain kinds of C + L + S research that isn’t being done anywhere, for example. With this in hand you could begin to map all the research being done in, say, Boulder CO onto the resulting structure, with extensive notes on which labs are doing what research and for whom.

(Bear in mind that I still haven’t gotten to the parts where he really elucidates his metascience expression language or the relational architecture, so these ideas are very preliminary.)¬†

Part II

This alone would prove enlightening, but its effectiveness would be compounded enormously by the addition of an ‘autodidact’s toolkit’ of primitive concepts which, when learned together, open up the greatest possible regions of the¬†gnostic¬†manifold [1]. In a post¬†generative science¬†guy-who-knows-literally-everything Eric Raymond briefly explores this idea. In a nutshell, the concepts from some sciences can be used in many more endeavors than the concepts from other sciences. As beautiful as it is, concepts from astronomy are mostly only useful in astronomy. Concepts from evolutionary biology, however, have found use in cognitive psychology, economics, memetics, and tons of other places. So maybe a person interested in science could begin their study by mastering a handful of concepts from across the sciences which are generative enough to make almost any other concept more understandable.¬†

Eric and I have been in talks for several years now to design and build a course for exactly this purpose. Someday when my funds and his schedule are in sync we are going to get this done. 

This relates to the ideas from section I because a mastery of the autodidact’s toolkit would allow one to dip into an arbitrary point in the¬†gnostic¬†manifold and feel confident that they could learn the material relatively quickly. Imagine being able to look at research being done at a major university and then get up to speed in a month because it’s just variations on concepts 3 – 6 from the toolkit [2].

But I think we can go even further. Based on discussions of¬†hyperuniformity and the unusual places it appears¬†I began to wonder whether or not there might be special branches of mathematics from systems theory, chaos theory, and possibly information theory which might not act as bridges between some of the concepts from the autodidact’s toolkit. The linked article discusses how a certain kind of pattern crops up in places as far away as the distribution of cones in avian retina and the formations of certain kinds of unusual crystalline solids.

My question is: if you had a map of the¬†gnostic¬†manifold, you’d mastered the autodidact’s toolkit, and you understood the relevant math, might you not have been able to hop into a research gap, spend a month or two¬†looking¬†for¬†hyperuniformity, learn about quasicrystals in 1/3rd of the time anyone else would’ve required, and then glimpsed the pattern ahead of the competition? If so you could’ve had a startup in place to exploit the new knowledge by the time the first research papers were coming out.¬†

Part III

Organizing, representing, gathering, and communicating this wealth of knowledge would be much easier with an ‘acquisition infrastructure’. Here I’m imagining a still-theoretical integration of the best mnemonics systems, a supercharged version of Anki, whatever the best knowledge map software is, matlab/mathematica (or open-source alternatives like octave), all running on a supercomputer with insane amounts of both memory and storage.

Furthermore, I want to develop the concept of a ‘drexler audit’, the baby version of which is advanced by Eric Drexler in¬†how to understand everything. The basic idea there is rather than try to understand the details of a given field you instead use a series of object- and meta-level questions to get a firm grasp on what the goals of the field are, what obstacles stand in the way of those goals, and what gaps remain in the knowledge required to move forward.¬†

This absolutely does not count as expert-level knowledge but it does give you the kind of overview which can prove useful in future exploration and investment.

With a map of the¬†gnostic¬†manifold you could choose some fields on which to perform a drexler audit and others to explore deeply with the combination of systems math and the autodidact toolkit. With a breakdown of the who/what/where/why of the research community in a given region you’d be in a position to bring the right minds together to solve whatever tractable problems may exist to give a field a jumpstart. And if you understood the¬†economics of scientific research¬†and the basics of investing the resulting machinery might, with a bit of luck, start coughing up wads of money while doing enormous amounts of good.¬†

(Of course it could also crash and burn, but so could SpaceX — nothing great is accomplished without a healthy dose of risk)

Part IV

I’ve said all of the above because it points to a tremendous opportunity: an amalgamation of Y-Combinator, Berkshire Hathaway, TED, and Slate Star Codex. If it works out the way I think it might, whoever manages the beast could make Elon Musk look like a lazy, sharecropping half-wit.¬†

The STEMpunk Project helped lay the foundation for the research required. If I can make the necessary contacts and get the funds together, I’d like to flesh this out in the next five years.


[1] See this related idea.

[2]¬†Of course I’m likely underplaying the difficulty here. Brian Ziman, perhaps the most technically accomplished person I know, has pushed back on my optimism at this point. My view is that even if it proves orders of magnitude more difficult to construct I think the Gnostic Manifold is a framework worth fleshing out.

‘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 ‘Žį• Ž®ĻžóąžĖīžöĒ?’, 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.

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.


Explaining Things To Your Grandmother

Einstein supposedly once said that you don’t really understand a thing until you can explain it to your grandmother. While I think we can all agree that Einstein was reasonably bright this advice, in its unexpanded form, is fairly stupid.

It encourages people to digest shallow metaphors, maybe memorize a factoid or two from Wikipedia, and then confidently expound upon a subject about which they know literally nothing. I’m sure Einstein wasn’t trying to encourage that sort of behavior, but that’s what’s happened.

What this advice¬†really means is that you should have run the fingers of your mind over the 3-dimensional shape of a concepts so much that you have an intimate acquaintance with its lines and edges. You aren’t just trafficking in facile analogies but can generate a whole host of images, anecdotes, and explanations at will, tailoring them on the spot to better connect with the knowledge already contained in your interlocutor’s head. If they have spotty knowledge of the subject you can skip over those places and drop down in any part of the map that’s still a blank.

Making quantum physics comprehensible to grandmother will not be the same as making it comprehensible to a graduate student in psychology. The grad student¬†might be smarter than grandma, or might not, but that isn’t the only issue. Grandma has a radically different way of understanding the world, a whole host of concepts, intuitions, and biases which can help or hurt comprehension, depending on the context.

She might even surprise you and turn out to remember a good amount of that discrete mathematics class she took 600 years ago.

When you can take the shape of quantum physics in your hands, move it around to expose different faces, change the angle of your explanatory light so that it casts different kinds of shadows onto different kinds of surfaces, illustrate concepts with hand-rolled improvised expositions — with the end result being that your grandmother comes away with a reasonably intuitive grasp of this science,¬†then you understand it.

A Science Podcast?

I had an idea for a podcast the other day exploring plausible, radical alternatives to accepted scientific theories which are carefully supported by available evidence.

For example, Julian Jaynes famously argued that the ancient Greeks were not conscious in the way that you and I are. Instead, they were more like automatons occupying one part of the human brain, with dictats coming from gods which occupied the other part. Eventually developments in language led to a unifying of human consciousness and the rise of modern humans.

….which sounds completely ridiculous, right? But Jaynes spends 500 pages very carefully building his case with evidence from linguistics, exegesis, history, and art. I remember reading his book and thinking “welp, this is a lot harder to dismiss than I first thought.”

I also recently encountered the ‘deep, hot biosphere’ hypothesis by Thomas Gold, which contends that the conventional story of fossil fuels coming from organic matter slowly crushed over long periods of time is nonsense. Instead, there is a vast subterranean biosphere comprising microbes which are somehow or another manufacturing oil as a byproduct of their metabolism.

…which sounds completely ridiculous, right? But in reviews of the book I’ve consistently come across statements like “well, if it were anybody else making this claim we’d just laugh. But coming from a scientist like Thomas Gold…?”


Clearly there is a real danger here of crossing over into pseudoscience. So maybe I could do episodes of the demarcation problem with Massimo Pigliucci and “On Bullshit” with Harry Frankfurt, combined with giving ample room to skeptics who want to poke holes in the supporting arguments.

And I would try to avoid this crossing by only speaking to real, serious intellectuals. I have no interest in Deepak Chopra, for example, but I might talk to Daryl Bem.

In addition to bicamerality and the deep hot biosphere, some other interesting ideas include:

  • Homotopy theory in mathematics;
  • Paraconsistent logic (w/ my brilliant logician friend¬†Erik Istre);
  • Superintelligent AI: fact or fiction?;
  • the Tau v.s. Pi debate;
  • Bayesianism v.s. Frequentism;
  • the Inca Quipu as an actual, functional language;
  • Morphic Resonance with Rupert Sheldrake;
  • Was English a pidgin language?

For fun maybe I could do an episode on fan theories in Star Wars, GoT, and similar franchises.

Is that something you nerds would be interested in?