Friday, December 21, 2018

A subway by any other name....

Here's one of the stories about Elon Musk's proposal for underground roads for autonomous electric vehicles: Musk's Hole. Looks an awful lot like a subway to me.

This whole autonomous car thing is an attempt to combine the indvidual convenience of the car with the safety of rail. From a rail passenger's point of view, a subway car is an autonomous vehicle. "Leave the driving to us", Greyhound used to say. Well, when you ride in a train, someone or something else is driving. Properly controlled and isolated from cross traffic, a railroad is a horizontal elevator (as George Kneiling said many decades ago). The first elevators were controlled by human operators. Now they are automated. There's no reason not to automate passenger rail, except our weird notion that we should all be able to come and go as we please, and damn the expense.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

"The soul of the combat soldier in his worst hour"

     Franz Schneider and Charles Gullans, trans. Last Letters from Stalingrad (1961) From the introduction by S. L. A. Marshall Brig. Gen., USAR, Ret: “The writers were German, in that hour our enemies. But who may read and not weep for them?”
     The letters went out with the last plane from Stalingrad. They were confiscated and carefully examined for clues to the morale of the troops, which was so bad that the report was never forwarded to Hitler. This selection is from copies found in Potsdam. The saddest fact is that the letters did not reach the people to whom they were sent.
     There does not seem to be a German version of this book.
     If you can find a copy of this book, read it. ****

Friday, December 07, 2018

Jingoism and myth making: An early 20th century school history of the British Empire

     John M. Wood and Aileen G. Garland. The Story of England and the Empire (1951) A textbook for middle schools, adapted by Garland for Canada. This is a revised edition, containing hints that the first edition was published sometime in the 1920s or 30s. It’s a fascinating example of school history as propaganda and myth making. The message radiates from the title on out: Britain is the most important country in the world, it has created the greatest Empire the world has ever seen, the rest of the world still depends on British values and ideals to lead it into the uplands of a bright, happy future; etc. Not to mention British manufactures, which lead the world in quality.
     It’s also a Great Man history. Almost all the important actors are men (Elizabeth I is the major exception), usually characterised as one of the greatest soldiers/kings/etc; wise, strong, just; etc. Or weak, lazy and feeble; unable to command obedience; etc. The best rulers are described as gentle and just, making good laws, and making sure the people obeyed them. Clearly, you are supposed to be grateful for having such wise, strong, gentle, and just people in charge of your life.
     What’s even more interesting is what’s missing: there are almost no specific details or stories that would illustrate what life was like. It’s almost entirely about politics and economics. Vague words like prosperity, peace, happiness, etc, abound. The writer (Mackenzie) admires power, and has no sense of what middle school children (aged 10-14) would like to know about. I’m not surprised that from the late 1950s on the “enterprise method” became popular in Canada for teaching history. It set pupils the task of finding out about the everyday lives of their ancestors, and representing them in models, pictures, and stories.
     The tone and attitude of this book persisted for at least another generation, and fomented a sentimental and stupid nostalgia for the great days of empire, which has had a malign effect on British politics, most obviously in the Brexit vote. I think the fantasy of a Great Britain motivates a minority, but it was enough to bring the Leave vote over the 50% mark.
     School history has always been a contentious issue. Its primary purpose is to tell the nation’s story so that children will develop a proper sense of citizenship. This inevitably results in exaggeration of the nation’s international role and influence, and more or less obvious myth making and jingoism. For example, although the history I was taught in Austria in the 1950s wasn’t quite as jingoistic as this book exemplifies, it was focused on Austria’s past role in geopolitics, which was considerable. It was after all the murder of the Austrian Crown Prince that triggered the first World War, an event that itself testifies to the fantasy that some Great Man who leads a Great Power can make a decisive difference.
     What popular histories have tended to ignore or downplay is the fact that we can choose only from the (always limited) options available to us. Whatever influence we do have rarely produces new options for ourselves. It’s left to those who come after us to choose from the options we have created. That's usually some variation on cleaning up a bloody mess. Historians who tell the story more objectively tend to be ignored as mere academics.
     This textbook is interesting and IMO important data for anyone who wants to understand how popular sentiment affects the options available to our leaders, leaders who are themselves of course influenced by the same sentiments that we have developed in school, and which the press and entertainment amplify, simplify, and distort. As history, the book is awful. As sociological data, it’s priceless.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Stories of love and grief by Maeve Binchy

    Maeve Binchy. The Return Journey (1998) Binchy’s usual mix of bittersweet near-sentimentality, and sharply observed foolishness and vice. She’s very good at showing how self-deception and fantasy are more likely to cause trouble than the intentional wickedness of others. Her morality is straightforward: cheaters get their comeuppance as often as not, and good folk often get unexpected opportunities for happiness. Respectability is no shield against grief. And the apparently small injuries and disappointments of ordinary lives are as significant as the failures of the famous and powerful. More so, if anything. For most of us lead ordinary lives. Binchy’s talent is compressing a lifetime’s meaning into a few scenes. She loves ironic twists and poetic justice.
    I like her stories. This is an early collection. In her later work, she’s more willing to look at the evil that indifference, selfishness, and folly can cause. ***

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Textbooks as they used to be

      Miriam Rosenthal. The French Revolution (1965) A textbook for middle school, one of a series published by Longman’s. Ah, the days of carefully written history books for all ages of children. The assumption was not only that children should know a good deal of history, but that well-written books would interest them. This book addresses the reader directly, which may feel somewhat patronising to the adult reader. But it’s a pretty complete account of the Revolution, unafraid to comment on the characters involved, and equally willing to recognise the puzzles, for example, Why and how did Robespierre change from a man who refused to be a magistrate because of the death penalty into a man who dispensed death sentences with cool indifference. The answer is interesting: Robespierre was a man who “lived in a world of words”, not of people. He was what Fromm and others have called a True Believer, a man who believed he could make the world conform to his theory of what it should be. Such people sooner or later will kill those who can’t or won’t conform.
     Many illustrations, about as well printed as was possible back then, and a number of quotations from diaries, letters, etc. The general conclusion: The French Revolution was a necessary but sadly violent phase of the journey from autocracy to democracy, from oppression to freedom, from privilege for the few to rights for all. In 1965, one could still believe that democracy and universal human rights were well established, and life across the globe would continue to improve. Worth reading both as a helpful summary of a complicated history, and as an example of the values underpinning the teaching of history in the 1960s. ***

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Anglo-Saxon Jewel Goes Missing (A Morse Mystery)

Colin Dexter. The Jewel That Was Ours (1991) The jewel is the tongue of an Anglo-Saxon bronze buckle, and will be returned by the widow of the man who bought it many years ago from a shady collector. She’s one of a busload of Americans on a tour of England. The tongue goes missing, the widow (remarried by this time) dies of a heart attack, the intended recipient (on behalf of the Ashmolean) is found in the Cherwell dead of a couple blows to the head. The usual cross-purposes and assorted sexual shenanigans interfere with the investigation.
     The story’s told in short chapters headed by more or less apt quotations. A note states that the novel is “based in part on an original storyline” supplied by Dexter to Central Television. That episode was titled The Wolvercote Tongue, and I think it’s much better than the book. Dexter indulges in his usual shticks, mostly foreboding foreshadowings and gratuitous leering. **

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

A History of Leisure

     Witold Rybczynski. Waiting for the Weekend. (1991) Where and when did the weekend habit originate? Answering this question takes Rybczynski into the history of our calendars, religious customs, and the effects of industrialisation, which severed work from leisure in a way that no other techno-cultural innovation did. That leads to the puzzle of what we mean by leisure. Chesterton famously said that leisure was the opportunity to do nothing. Nothing except sit or stroll and experience the present senses, or think about them. But idleness has always been frowned upon by the serious people who want us all to be good. So leisure has become suspect unless it’s used for serious pursuits, or for the serious pursuit of frivolities.
     As always, Rybczynski writes with grace, wears his learning lightly, and triggers both clarification of old insights and recognition of new ones. Best of all, he connects the dots. The result is another nice web of ideas and fact.
     He also encourages thought about what think we already know. One thing we know is that work is good, and idleness is bad. That making stuff is good, and using it up is bad. Both of these ideas helped create our economy of abundance and waste. Both of them will have to be abandoned if we want to survive climate change and maintain a comfortable life. We make too much, and what we can’t use up, we throw away.
     Read the book. ****

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Players Come Again, again

     Amanda Cross. The Players Come Again (1990) A reread, and just as good as the first time. Better, because I knew the solution, so the path to it was more interesting. Cross makes a case that the Minoans were an egalitarian culture, uninfected by the brutal masculinity of the Greeks, who retold the Minotaur myth to conform to their pro-patriarchal prejudices and misogyny. This has a tangential connection to the case. As always, the conversation is adult and literate. The puzzle circles round the question of who wrote Emanuel Foxx’s great modernist novel Ariadne, he himself, or his wife Gabrielle. A pleasure to read. Cross’s men aren’t very convincing, though. **½

Friday, November 23, 2018

Free Will: Real or illusion?

     Sam Harris. Free Will (2012) A well done essay on the illusion of free will, argued not only from first principles (a deterministic universe), but also from neurology, psychology, and self-insight. Basically, we are what we are, and that means we do what we do. We cannot account for any kind of free choice, all attempts to do so are either infinite regress (did we choose to choose? If so, did we choose to choose to choose?); or else misapprehensions of the meaning of chance in a deterministic universe. He’s most convincing, I think, when he points out that we cannot determine what moved us to make a choice in the first place. We simply make a choice, but we cannot show that it was free. For if we are free to make any one choice, what other choice would we have made?
     It’s clear that in accepting that free will is an illusion there’s a serious question about moral responsibility, and hence culpability. Does it make moral sense to exact retributive justice if the criminal’s choice was as thoroughly determined as my choice to have strawberry jam instead of marmalade on my breakfast toast?  Harris points out that criminals are either more or less damaged, or else lack those psychological structures that prevent most of us from acting criminally. Either way, it’s basically the luck of the draw, of the confluence of genetics and environment. You can’t blame a person for developing cancer, for that too is the result of genetics and environment.
     So how to deal with criminal actions? Recognise that people can change: obesity is caused by genetic and environmental factors, but changes in behaviour may reduce it. Thus, rehabilitation should always be attempted. If that requires removing the criminal from society, then do so, for however long it takes. Also, subtle and not so subtle changes in social norms change people’s behaviour: they affect the choices people make. Example: the reduction in drinking and driving. All choices are made within a context of available choices, so we may reduce crime by making undesirable choices difficult or impossible. For example, you can’t choose to shoot someone if you don’t have a gun.
     Harris knows we can’t avoid the illusion of free will, but we can treat each other more humanely using the knowledge that free will is an illusion. He doesn’t ask or answer the more profound question of why we have that illusion. I think it’s because the illusion of the self requires it. We can’t experience ourselves as agents without it. Yet experiencing ourselves as agents is vital to our survival. Without it, we would be incapable of acting. We would merely respond. But I’m not sure exactly what I mean by that.
     An essay worth reading and rereading. It makes you think. Just what you will think depends of course on factors over which you have no control whatsoever. ****

Perfect potato-chip book

       Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander. 100 Malicious Little Mysteries (1981) A wonderful potato chip book. The stories are mostly 3 to 4 pages long, with a few outliers. Common plot twists feature poetic justice, radical shifts in point of view, or sudden recognition of a minor clue’s meaning. Each could be redone as a full-length novel, which makes this book a reference work of sorts. Most are little gems of narrative art, the whole book a master class in how to put much meaning into a very small frame. A keeper. ***

Short stories by Rankin

Ian Rankin. Beggars Banquet (2002) Collection of short stories, several of which are about Rebus. Like Rendell, Rankin enjoys imagining psychopaths. Makes for page-turning, but too many of these tales leave a bad taste, despite slatherings of poetic justice.
  And th titel omits th apostrophe. Beacsue inlcuding it would spoil the coverd esign? Probably.
  This collection would be a poor introduction to Rankin. **

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Regression to the mean: The real reason Apple shares are falling

The BBC ttoday has a story explaining why the punters are unwilling to pay high prices for Apple shares:
     1. Investors are worried about iPhone sales.
     2. Apple's high prices could leave it exposed if the economy sours.
     3. Investors aren't confident - yet - about Apple's services business.
     4. Apple reflects broader market concerns - like US-China trade tensions.

All very plausible, as is always the case when explaining why an outlier is regressing to the mean. The stock market is a complex, chaotic system. Any given indicator will "perform" better than average some of the time, but it will also perform worse than average. But on average, it will perform -- ta-da! -- on average. What else? So any excursion into well above (or below) average levels will not last. One can always find plausible reasons why the shift towards the average happened now rather than earlier or later, just as one one can find plausible reasons for the non-average performance that preceded it.

Some of those reasons may even the operative ones. But we'll never know for sure which ones triggered the shift, nor can we use those plausible reasons for predicting when or how the next major shift will occur. That's because the indicators are themselves averages. Worse, we don't have causal models of economic behaviour, we have only statistical ones. This is so even though (especially so, actually) when buyers and sellers are algorithms that weigh many different factors to arrive at a price. Human or not, the buyers and sellers include current prices and recent price changes in their calculations. That means that the price calculations are feedback loops. Hence the chaos in the system, and the inevitable regressions to the mean.

Addendum (2018-12-12): I should perhaps emphasise that explicability is not the same as predictability. Events that result from the interplay of many factors cannot be predicted.The best one can do is study past performance and calculate probabilities. Basing a choice on probabilities is always (ta-da!) a gamble. Hence th attraction of horse racing and other objects of wagers. However, once some event has occurred, one can usually point to those factors that played a major or (sometimes) decisive role. Hence "Hindsight is 20-20". And the pointlessness of trying to lay blame on agencies and people tasked with protecting us against calamities.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Dr Hu, no not the Time Lord, but a cool guy anyhow (links)

Check out Dr Hu on research into animal movement. Interviewed on CBC's Radio One Quirks and Quraks. Will be available as a podcast by the end of the day.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Turn of the Screw: Rybczynski's history of the screwdriver

   Witold Rybczynski. One Good Turn (2000) Rybczynski was asked to write an article about the most important tool of the millennium. Some research showed that pretty well all the tools expected in a good toolbox had been invented much more 1,000 years ago. Eventually, he settled on the screwdriver, and wrote the essay. But the research was incomplete. This book recounts the research.
The screw is quite old: the Greeks and Romans had it. But the screwdriver dates from some time in the 1300s. That discovery prompts Rybczynski to meditate on the nature of invention, and the effects of the machine tool. For the screw enabled the creation of the device that made it possible to mass-produce screws: the machine tool. There were lathes earlier than the screw-cutting lathe, but the quality of the work depended on the skills of their operators: they were basically devices for holding and turning the workpiece, but the operator had to control the cutting tool.
     Modern lathes simplify control of the cutting tool, but still require operator skill. The machine tool does it all. Mount the workpiece, apply power, and the tool shapes the pieces as desired. Above all, the machine tool allows us to make identical parts to almost any degree of precision. Without that, steam engines and other modern machines would be impossible to make.
     A book worth reading and rereading. Rybczynski writes with grace and economy. The book is short, but contains a lot of information and insight. ****

Saturday, November 10, 2018

An Early Sackett tale: Ride the Dark Trail

Ride the Dark Trail (1972) Some time ago, I found a stash of about a dozen books by L’Amour at the food bank’s yard sale. I sorted out the Sackett series, and began reading them. This is the 2nd one.
Logan Sackett drifts into Siwash, a town run by a greedy bully, John Flannan. Logan immediately makes enemies when he defends a young girl. He just doesn’t like the way the men in the saloon treat her. He takes her to the MT ranch, which Emily Talon is defending against Flannan’s attempts to run her off. Flannan has killed Em’s husband, and Em shot Flannan through the knees in retaliation. So it’s as much a feud as an attempted robbery.
     Turns out Em is a Sackett, so of course Logan has to stay to help her out. Eventually Em’s sons Barnabas and Milo join them, but the final showdown is between Logan, Em, and Flannan. Along the way, Logan is shot and beaten up, but he manages to survive, because he’s one of the meaner Sacketts.
     L’Amour shifts point of view a few times, but most of the story is told by Logan. Some loose ends aren’t tied up: will Logan settle down, or will he continue to drift? Read other stories in the Sackett saga to find out! The book is a page turner, despite the occasional asides into history and geography and such. There are also odd lapses in style, with Logan now and then using decidedly bookish phrasing to describe the landscape  and weather. I’m on a L’Amour binge, so my rating is probably a bit high. The title has no obvious relation to the plot, unless “dark” is taken to mean “dim, hard to see.” ***½

Canadian and US political attitudes

     Fire and Ice (2003) Michael Adams, founder of Environics, summarises the results of three Canadian and American surveys, which suggest that Canadian and American values are diverging. At the time (and still to some extent today), it was taken for granted that Canadians were becoming more American. This book makes a persuasive case for the contrary. In particular it shows that, measured with American scales of values, Canadians are more post-modern, more liberal, more community minded, more inner-directed, etc, than Americans. In general, Canadians lie outside the range of American attitudes and values, and are off some scales entirely.
     Two things struck me about Adams’s results:
     a) The drift into what we now call Trumpism was already well-established by the early 1990s. The main difference between then and now is that the disaffected Americans who occupy the “Exclusion and Intensity” quadrant of Adams’s “maps” have begun to vote. They’ve also, I think, become more numerous and more intense.
     b) The divisiveness that has characterised America from about Ronald Reagan onwards has become more prevalent in Canada.
     Fifteen years is a long time in cultural change these days. The Millennials, who tend towards liberal values in Canada and to libertarian values in the USA, will I think become more politically active and influential. Check the Environics website for updates in Adams’s project to track cultural change. ***

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Commercial art from 30 years ago: Graphis Annual 83/84

    Walter Herdeg, ed.  Graphis Annual 83/84 (1983) Just what the title says. A survey of applied art as used in advertising, illustrations in books and periodicals, logo and trademark design, packaging, and so forth. Graphis was one of the premier magazines for commercial artists. I used to buy it from a shop across from OCAD back then, to inspire my students. What’s interesting is how dated these examples are. Commercial art is slave to fashion and fad. Which prompts the inference that fashion itself is just another form of commercial art.
     In any case, fashion and commercial art feed on each other. Both are always a step or two behind the current styles in entertainment, which in turn is behind the latest developments in the arts. There was a nicely done weekly fashion news show on TV  a few decades ago. Most of the news covered fashion shows in New York or Paris or wherever. The background music was relentlessly blandified disco. This at a time when the prevailing music styles were acid rock, reggae, and hiphop. The intended ambience was of up-to-the-minute awareness of how the cool life was lived, but the actual effect was to make fashion seem hopelessly naive and, er, old-fashioned.
     Nevertheless, the Graphis annual is worth looking through. Not only as a record of bygone visual styles and assumptions about marketing, but because commercial art surrounds us in a way that fine art does not. Commercial art has become our  habitat; fine art is confined to cathedral-like museums that we enter with hushed voices and unarticulated expectations. Yet our taste has, I think, been shaped by the commercial art that has become the seen but unnoticed visual environment. ***

Friday, October 26, 2018

Photos as Social History: New York, Sunshine and History

    Roger Whitehouse. New York: Sunshine and Shadow. (1974) New York from 1850 to 1915, in photographs. A splendid collection of photos, with informative captions, adding up to a social and economic history of the city. We forget that New York began as a scattered collection of villages and hamlets, which were absorbed into the city as it expanded northward from its beginning on Manhattan Island. The early photos show buildings surrounded by fields. The roads were surfaced with gravel and mud. The elegant streets of middle and upper middle class houses became slums when their former residents moved ever further away from the city centre.
     Study and contemplation of these photos shows, I think, why New York became the world class city that it now is: from the beginning, its residents focused not only on making money, but on using that money to invest in amenities. Modern accounting methods would not have justified ventures such as the building of the street railways, or of apartment and office blocks at a country crossroad. Some of the earliest mansions of the oligarchy were built in the middle of fields, but the streets were already laid out to accommodate the carriages and cabs and streetcars that followed the first builders.
     Reproduction of the photos is above average for the 1970s. Whitehouse has done his research. A secondhand-book sale find, given to me. A keeper. ****

Humans Survive: After Doomsday by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson. After Doomsday (1962) Not a post-atomic-holocaust novel. This time, it’s the aliens who have destroyed Earth. Sterilised it, in fact. But a handful of Earth ships that were in interstellar space have survived, and these preserve Earth’s heritage even while they hunt and eventually find Earth’s killers. Typical SF pulp from the Golden Age (1940-60s), with its plausible but hokey science of FTL travel, its motley collection of alien civilisations, its courtly love romance between hero and heroine, but unusual in its assumption of women’s equality to men (within a strictly 1950s moral framework, however).
     Anderson’s not only a skilful craftsman (the story moves along at a nice clip), he’s also wildly inventive, albeit within a rather limited understanding of sociology and biology. A sterilised Earth would no longer have any oxygen, for example, for without green plants there would be no regeneration of the oxygen that would have been bound to carbon etc when the planet burned. The aliens just aren’t alien enough: they are really just humans with funny body-plans and peculiar bio-chemistry. Of course, inventing a truly alien psychology is by definition impossible: we can imagine only variations on our own. But within these limits, Anderson’s a cut or two above the rest.
     This is a relatively early book, clearly a potboiler, but an above average example of the genre. I enjoyed reading it. **½

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Tipping Point (Gladwell 2002)

     Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point (2002) Gladwell developed the book from an article in The New Yorker, and it shows. While the whole text is interesting, longeurs do threaten to set in before the halfway mark. Extending the text to book length required adding examples, which means repetitions. I read the first four chapters over a couple of days, then took almost three weeks to finish the book.
     Gladwell examines the tipping point in a social context, and identifies the factors that trigger a “social epidemic.” His bibliography suggests that he didn’t look at chaos theory, else he would have realised that he was discussing a classic chaotic system: a network of feedback loops that can change size and state very rapidly when one or more variables reach some threshold.
     It’s a tricky business identifying those variables and thresholds. Gladwell is most interesting (to me, anyway) when he discusses how experience established some of them. For example, Hutterites have found that when a colony reaches 150, it must fission. They’ve made it a rule. Just why group size has a negative effect on how well the group fulfills its goals when it passes 150 is “not well understood”. A priori, there is no reason to suppose that communication should become compromised at this size, but that’s what happens. The group size effect is important for management theory and practice: Gladwell has a case study that examines how one company rigorously enforces the group size rule when organising project and expanding capacity.
     Gladwell is most interested in how insights into several factors can be controlled to trigger social epidemics. Marketers love the book for this reason, as the pre-title blurbs make only too clear. Group size, message “stickiness”, and the behaviours of key figures he labels connectors, mavens, and salesmen are key factors. He wrote the book before the rise of Facebook and other social platforms, which have magnified and accelerated social epidemics. For this reason alone, the book is worth reading. It certainly clarified my thinking about why and how Facebook has exacerbated tribal divisions.
     Despite its age, the book is not outdated. Recommended. ***½

Monday, September 24, 2018

Wycliffe digs into the past: Wycliffe and the Four Jacks

   Wycliffe and the Four Jacks (1985) A famous but extremely publicity-shy writer ends up dead after receiving five warning letters in the mail. Wycliffe happens to be on holiday in that part of Cornwall, so of course he has to lead the investigation. As often with Burley’s stories, the past is the key to the murder. A typically low-key Wycliffe tale, with nicely done local ambience, and enough glimpses of Wycliffe’s marriage, his collegial relationships, and local people to create a world, one that I like to live in for a few hours. I think Burley’s Wycliffe stories are undervalued. There was a TV series, too. Recommended. ***
W. J. Burley.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Bland and boring: Cat Lover's Companion

     [Project Team]. Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader: Cat Lover’s Companion (2006) The Bathroom Readers began as edgy, often rude, eclectic collections loosely related to some theme. I emphasise loosely. Fun reads, excellent potato chip books. This one lacks the edginess, doesn’t roam into “that reminds me” territory, and tells not only bland but useful stories. I found it at a Value Village, and should have left it there. *

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Three Nero Wolfe Stories.

     Rex Stout. Death Times Three (1985) Two uncollected magazine stories and an unpublished one. The usual snappy narrative by “Archie Goodwin”, Nero Wolfe in fine form, solving neatly plotted puzzles, all fairly clued, and just enough characterisation to keep us interested for the fraction of an hour’s entertainment offered by each tale. I found this at a yard sale, still in print, available from the usual sources. At 25 cents, the price I paid, a great bargain. ** to ***.

Friday, September 14, 2018


     Simon Winchester. Krakatoa (2003) Another yard sale find. This book became a best-seller on publication, and made Winchester something of a media personality. He’s written a few more books since then. If they are all at least as good as this one, they’re worth reading. It’s a discursive multi-layered history not only of the volcano’s eruption (and destruction) on August 27, 1883, but of geology and vulcanology. It wasn’t until the early 1960s, when plate tectonics (first adumbrated by Alfred Wegener) was elucidated, that the mechanism of the eruption was understood. Confession: I grew up when Wegener’s theory was still characterised as pseudo-science, and I felt vaguely embarrassed for feeling there might be something to it. A salutary reminder, in hindsight, that it’s not easy to tell the difference between crackpot and incomplete theories.
     Winchester’s talent is creating a large and detailed story combining many narratives. If that occasionally creates longeurs, that’s a low price to pay for finally understanding how it all hangs together. The book is still in print, and used copies are available from all the usual sources. Recommended. Look for Winchester videos on Youtube. *** See also The Professor and the Madman.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

1930s German Taste: A book of photos taken with a Rollei

     Walther Heering. Le Livre D’or du Rolleiflex. (1936) Paul Franck and Reinhold Heidecke teamed up in 1920 to produce optical stereo cameras. They used their experience to design and make the Rolleiflex, a twin-lens reflex camera that earned a well-deserved reputation for technical excellence and reliability. Its design was copied by several other makers, including Yashica: my father bought one of those at a Rexall drugstore in Edmonton, and eventually passed it on to me. I still have it. The technical problem with any medium or large format camera is to ensure corner to corner focus. Before computers enabled the design of lenses with complicated surfaces, lens makers had to rely on experience and skill. Plus a good dollop of intuition. Franck and Heidecke succeeded brilliantly.
     So in1935 Dr Walther Heering sent out a request to users of the Rollei to send in their best photos, and this PR book was the result. Published in German, English, and French, it includes an historical essay by Heering, a list of contributors and technical details of exposure and film, and 180 rotogravured plates. The printing quality is excellent. The photos themselves, not so much. Grouped by subject, they are technically very good: excellent exposure, development, and printing. The book is clearly aimed at photographers, both amateur and professional, people who took picture making seriously. This collection of “excellent pictures” was intended to inspire would-be photographers, to show the reader how to make pictures “in his or her own way” with a Rolleiflex.
     How well did Dr Heering succeed? If he intended to challenge photographers to extend their practice, he failed. If he intended to confirm them in their comfort zone, he succeeded. The photos tend to the sentimental, banal, pleasantly platitudinous. Yet this was the time of the photo-essay and reportage of LIFE and Picture Post. In the USA, the Farm Security Administration hired photographers to record the effects of the Depression. Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand, Adams, Cartier Bresson, Man Ray and many others had shown what could be done with photography. They used the camera to extend seeing, to enlarge one’s visual understanding of the world.
     None of the images in this book prompt one to reconsider what one is looking at. They are nice pictures, presenting a world of nice people doing nice things. The selection holds to the notion that art should show beautiful and interesting things, not that art should make things look beautiful and interesting.
     As a collection of photos, average; as documentation of German taste in the 1930s, useful. **

Thursday, September 06, 2018

A Comic Alphabet for 19th century children

     Amelia Frances Howard Gibbon. An Illustrated Comic Alphabet (Designed 1859. Published 1966). Howard Gibbon was a teacher who designed this alphabet to help her charges learn their letters. The manuscript was donated to the Osborne and Lillian H. Smith Collection of the Toronto Public Library, who arranged publication by Oxford University Press. It’s a charming alphabet, firmly in the style of children’s book illustration of the mid 19th century.
     It illustrates a well-known rhyme, “A is for Archer, who shot at a Frog....” Except for the ones explicitly named as women, the figures are all boys about 10 years old, dressed up in suitable costumes, standing or performing in equally suitable landscapes. The text is beautifully rendered in a fanciful typeface, with the initial letters coloured red. Well done. I wonder why Howard Gibbon did not publish her manuscript.
     She has an interesting history. Granddaughter of the 11th duke of Norfolk, and a cousin of Edward Gibbon (author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), she emigrated to Canada with her widowed mother. This book’s endnote has more details. The book was published by and for the Friends of the Osborne Collection. I was a member for a few years in the 1970s. The Friends have issued reprints of several classic children’s books in the collection. I don’t know if they’ve published other manuscripts. This book rates ****.

From Quebec City to St Anne de Beaupre: QRL&P Co.

     Thomas Grumley. Quebec Light & Power Company: Montmorency Division (2006) Published by the Bytown Railway Society, well known for its albums of historical photos. As a photo-album, this book is pretty good. It seems that the Montmorency Division didn’t attract many photographers until it reached the end of its life. Most of the photos date from the 1951-1954 period when it was under CN ownership, and the selection is somewhat repetitive. The last scheduled passenger train traversed the line on March 15, 1959.
     As expected, photo reproduction is excellent. The captions are informative, and a couple of short essays summarise the line’s history. But there’s no map, and curious omission, since most readers will have at best a hazy mental image of Quebec City and its environs. A good read for the fan, adequate for the amateur historian. ** PS: An online search failed to produce a map. Bah!

Monday, September 03, 2018

Twelve Railroads to Inspire Model Railroading

     [No editor credited] Railroads You Can Model (2002) Kalmbach’s Model Railroader for some years had a regular “Railroad You Can Model” feature. These were collected into two previous books, and finally a dozen were republished in this collection.
     As the foreword points out (twice), these track plans are guides. With a couple or three exceptions, they aren’t meant to be built as drawn. They show how to adapt the information about the prototype into a workable design with enough detail to begin building. Two of the chapters show how the pieces that represent towns and yards could be placed around a room and spliced them together with additional track. (Such pieces are now called “Layout Design Elements”, or LDEs). The larger plans are merely one possible arrangement of LDEs, and as such are a good guide to layout design.
     Most of the plans are for large rooms, single garage or half-basement size. A couple are 5x9 feet, slightly larger than the traditional 4x8 foot starter layout. For most readers, the book will have as much interest as a collection of histories (The Ma & Pa, McCloud River RR, G&MO, NY&O, etc) as a collection of track plans. **½

Young Widow Learns to Cope: Lolly Winton's Good Grief

     Lolly Winton. Good Grief (2004) I bought this book at the Food Bank Permanent Floating Yard Sale. The first two or three pages got me. I put it aside for later reading, and now, about a year later, I’ve read it. Was it worth the wait? Yes, in many ways. Its presentation of the effects of grief trigger recognition in anyone who’s lost someone close.
     Sophie Stanton has lost her husband to cancer. She can barely cope. After appearing at work in her robe and pink bunny slippers, she takes a break. Eventually, she sells the house and moves to Oregon to be closer to her friend, who’s lost a husband to another woman. It’s here that the story begins to feel constructed rather than imagined. Sophie needs someone to distract her from her grief. H’m, let’s see, a new romantic interest? Check, a handsome actor, but there will be a few bumps on that road. Someone to care for? Check, a Little Sister, but ditto. An unexpected discovery of a new interest? Check, Sophie likes baking, which presents a Business Opportunity! So everything ends happily, and somewhat too easily.
     Winton writes well, she gives Sophie a convincing inner voice. She’s especially good at the wry or mordant one-liner, which make Sophie a complicated and flawed self-appraiser. She knows she’s wallowing in self-pity, but she also knows she can’t really do much about that. It’s the occasional external shock (such as being moved from table service to the kitchen) that nudges her towards recovery from her depression.
     It’s the other characters that don’t quite work: we see them entirely through Sophie’s reactions to them, and Sophie is more interested in her own responses to them than in their stories. She asks them hardly any questions. So they are barely more than brightly coloured cutouts.
     Worth reading? Yes, if you’re looking for something that will pass the time agreeably but won’t be too demanding. It will I think help those who are still working through their grief. **½

Monday, August 27, 2018

A Brief History of English

A recent exchange one Usenet about some vagaries of English prompted me to gather my understanding of its history into a short essay. It's highly simplified, but the outlines of the history are accurate enough.

The history of English has two main themes: the words (lexicon) come from many sources, while the grammar is fundamentally a simplified Germanic one, marked by an almost complete absence of grammatical gender.

First, there were the prehistoric peoples, who as far as we know left no traces in the English language. Then there were the Britons, a motley crew of miscellaneous Celtic tribes. These were conquered by the Romans, whose language had some influence on the Celtic dialects, mostly in place names. They built forts and roads, and romanised the indigenous people. Many place names date back to the Roman occupation, for example London (from londinium), and names ending in -chester, -cester, or -caster (from L. castellum).

From about 450 AD, several northwest European peoples invaded the Island. The first ones were the Angles and Saxons, followed by the Danes and the Norwegians. The Anglo-Saxons brought their languages with them, and adopted or adapted some names and words from the Celts they displaced or enslaved. For example “car” (originally from Latin), the Avon, Salisbury (Salis- from Celtic Sorvio, a personal name), and many other placenames in southwestern England. The Danish and Norwegian invasions affected the northen and eastern Anglo-Saxon dialects, which are still distinct from the southern and midland dialects that became the language of the court. Anglo-Saxon was written is a jumble of dialects that are mutually intelligible enough that they form a language.

In 1066, William the Bastard of Normandy conquered England and brought Norman French with him as the language of government and trade. Over the next couple of centuries, the existing Anglo-Saxon dialects and Norman French blended into what we now think of as Middle English. By 1400, it was not only a practical language but a literary one: Geoffroy Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales in his Middle English, London-centric dialect. It became the source of modern English, which in vocabulary is basically Anglo-Saxon with a thick overlay of French, and a grammar regularised and simplified as Anglo-Saxon and Norman French speakers mashed up their languages into a mutually intelligible creole. Hence cow, bull, cattle for the animals, beef for their meat. Anglo-Saxon houses and fields made up French real property. French and English shared a common plural ending -s, which became the near-universal way of making plural nouns.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Latin and Greek words were adopted into the vernacular all over Europe. In English, that produced “church”, “bishop” and “bible”, for example. During the Renaissance, English, like other European languages, absorbed many more Latin and Greek words. By the later Middle Ages, scholars had fallen into the habit of using Latin and Greek terms when writing in their local languages, and still do so today.

In 1473, Caxton brought printing to England. During the 1400s and early 1500s, Middle English was evolving into Early Modern English. Printers wanted standard spelling (and to some extent also standard vocabulary) to widen the market for their books. Thus, English spelling became standardised at a time when its pronunciation changed rapidly. The result is the most inconsistent spelling system in the world: each of the main streams of language that make up the Modern English lexicon has its own spelling system.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Floods and misleading clues: Babes in the Wood (Ruth Rendell).

Ruth Rendell. Babes in the Wood (2002) Rain, rain, and more rain. Rising floodwaters cover roads, bridges, and Wexford’s lawn. Two missing children and their minder are presumed drowned. But Wexford doesn’t think so. A leisurely telling of a tangled tale leads to a plausibly tangled solution. Rendell is really more interested in psychology than in police procedure. We get some more about Wexford’s family. Burden is little more than a well-dressed sounding board for Wexford’s musings. A good read for the fans, but not up to Rendell’s past standards. **

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A long way round to the truth: Shake Hands Forever (Ruth Rendell)

Ruth Rendell. Shake Hands Forever (1975) Mrs Hathall, an unpleasant mother-in-law, arrives at her son Robert’s carefully cleaned and polished home, and finds her daughter-in-law Angela dead on her bed. Robert’s reactions are oddly muted, which convinces Wexford he did it. It takes a year, and his nephew Howard’s help, for Wexford’s suspicions to be justified, with a twist that only the most alert reader is likely to suss before Wexford does. Burden for once is skeptical of Wexford’s theory, and does nothing to help.
     Well done, with Rendell’s usual psychological insights. Since we believe with Wexford that Robert is guilty, the story deals with how Wexford solves the puzzle. A good read for any Wexford fan, but not the best introduction to Wexford and Burden. **½

Friday, August 17, 2018

Everything Connects: The Knowledge Web (James Burke)

     James Burke. The Knowledge Web (1999) Many years ago, when students complained that the stuff they had to learn was useless, I pontificated: “There’s no such thing as useless knowledge. At the very least, some fact will connect two other facts. You just don’t know which ones, until you do it.”
     James Burke’s books and TV programs inspired this insight, and this one demonstrates another fact about knowledge: it’s all connected, somehow. It could be two people who know each other. It could be a problem to which someone else’s published insight provides a clue. It could be an idle question about some oddity. It could be deliberate speculation about possible answers. It could be knowledge brought into an apparently unrelated field. It could be – well, you get the idea.
     The book also attempts to use a kind of hyperlink. Every now and then, numbers in the margin direct you to another reference to the same person or fact. You don’t have to read the book one page after another. The links lead through the web by another path.
     Nowadays, we can click our way from one link to another. And with all such links, you depend on some other person recognising the connection and inserting the links. Most such links these days are designed to lead you to another product to buy.
     Burke’s TV series Connections of 1976 predates the world wide web. This book builds on the insights and methods presented in that series and the book based on it, The Day the Universe Changed. Worth reading just for the fun of recognising how the bits and pieces of history link up. Good index and bibliography make this a reference book as well. ***

Monday, August 06, 2018

The body's afterlife: Stiff by Mary Roach

     Mary Roach. Stiff (2003) Roach writes about the afterlife of cadavers, from providing organs for transplant to testing the effects of bullets to giving medical students understanding of human anatomy to uses you would never have thought of yourself. She writes well, has a nice sense of humour, and demonstrates a good deal less squeamishness than most of her readers. Highly recommended. ****

Friday, August 03, 2018

More about Rina Lazarus and Peter Decker: Milk and Honey

     Faye Kellerman. Milk and Honey (1990) Number three in the Rina Lazarus-Peter Decker saga. Driving home late at night, Decker catches a glimpse of something. U-turns, drives back, sees nothing, stops and walks, finds a toddler on a front-lawn swing. The woman in the house says the girl is not hers, so Decker takes her down to the station and starts the process of finding her family. That leads to four murders, a dysfunctional family, and miscellaneous cross-currents and subplots. In addition, Decker’s old army buddy has been accused of rape and violence. Rina returns from New York, where she’s been for six months as she and Peter try to confirm their love. Peter continues his talmudic studies. The resolution includes more backstory about Peter’s Vietnam war service.
     Well written, with good use of dialogue to advance story and reveal character. Weak on ambience: Kellerman doesn’t spend much time on city- or landscape. We do feel the weather, though, it’s hot. A bit heavy on gore. Nevertheless, I liked the book. **½

Monday, July 30, 2018

Fay Weldon on Jane Austen, writing, reading, and life.

     Fay Weldon. Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen (1985). An epistolary novel, in which Weldon gives advice about reading, writing, and life, and expatiates on how they intertwine and react on each other.
Alice is at university, doesn’t like Pride and Prejudice, and is writing a novel. Will she take Aunt Fay’s advice? Will Aunt Fay mend her relationship with her sister and brother-in-law? Will Alice finish her novel? Read the book and find out. It’s worth reading for many reasons, chief of which is Aunt Fay, whose company and opinions are exhilarating. Is she a version of Fay Weldon? Probably, but as Aunt Fay says, there is the truth of real life and the truth of fiction. Recommended, worth searching for. ****

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Kinsey finds more family: W is for Wasted

     Sue Grafton. W is for Wasted (2013). Two apparently unrelated deaths, one a murder, eventually tie up each other’s loose ends. Kinsey’s investigations garner her some relatives on her father’s side. Homeless people are a problem. Kinsey’s love life stutters, maybe in the next book (the last one Grafton wrote) there’ll be some kind of resolution.
     So the backstories move along a few steps, Kinsey discovers she likes cats afer all. Grafton has to use 3rd person interludes to move one of the plots along, and the reader knows all the guilt and innocence before Kinsey does. A long novel, more of a character study than a mystery. The plot focusses on how Kinsey discovers what the reader already knows. Grafton’s interest has shifted from solving crimes to understanding them and their effects. ***

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Money and Nature: Lapham's Quarterly

     Lewis Lapham, ed. Lapham’s Quarterly: Vol.1:2 “About Money” & Vol.1:3 “Book of Nature” (2008) The excerpts about money are in roughly historical order. They form a summary of the developing understanding of money, as well as a sometimes entertaining account of what can go wrong when people mistake money for wealth. Money is either the elixir of life or the worst invention of humankind.
     The earliest ideas ascribed intrinsic value to money: a gold coin had some objective value simply because it was gold. That idea began to unravel when the Spaniards brought tons of the stuff from South America and promptly triggered almost ruinous inflation. The latest ideas about money emphasise that it’s information: Almost all money these days exists as electronic data about some account balance. Money is a system of abstract IOUs. Instead of an IOU for, say, 10 bushels of wheat, we have an IOU for, say, $50. That $50 could be used to buy 10 bushels of wheat Or 8 measures of oil. Or a cask or two of wine. Or whatever.
     There are several accounts of bubbles, eg, the Dutch tulip mania of the 1600s. Ponzi schemes and other frauds also appear. These debacles occur because people want money. They see the bubbling trade in tulips as a means of amassing money. They see the fraudster’s con as a means of amassing money. Since both bubbles and frauds depend on credit for their initial success, they debase the value of money: they are one of the drivers of inflation.
     There’s more, but I won’t enlarge further. See my other posts aboiut money for further comments.
     Lapham claims he doesn’t understand the concept of  “The Book of Nature”. This collection belies the claim. It records the full range of human responses to the natural world, from denial that we are part of it (we “have dominion” over it, after all) to acceptance that we wholly depend on it (but on current evidence are destroying it). These two responses are present in the earliest myths. For example, Genesis records that God made Adam from the dust of the ground. That make humans part of the natural order. It also records that God gave humankind dominion over the every living thing. That puts humans above and outside the natural order. Or so the standard interpretation goes. More recent theology argues that “dominion” means stewardship. We rule the Earth on behalf of the Creator.
     Lapham’s quarterly collections add up to a history of the ideas that govern our choices. They show that our ancestors expressed every current notion about how the world works and how we should live. ****

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Perception: Colours

Fragment of a conversation in a newsgroup. The book did not figure inthe conversation. I think it supports my stance that colour is in the brain.

  I was once asked "How many colors are there?". A difficult question,   which many people can't answer, they've confused "how many colors" with   "how many WORDS for colors". 2^24 (16,777,216) is a better answer than that.

 I agree with 2^24, that seems to be as much as the eye can distinguish.

 Which doesn't mean that reality is so limited. Note that some animals see better than humans, which isn't relevant either.

There's a difference between colours as measured by a spectrometer and colours as perceived by a human. Eg, there is no such colour as "brown" in the spectrum. Or "pink". Or "grey". Or etc.

The 2^24 number of colours is the combinations of colour data used to display colours on a screen. Whether there are actually that many colours displayable on a given screen is another issue: screens vary quite a bit in quality, though much less nowadays than they did in the Olden Days. And whether a human can distinguish them all is another issue. And whether they can replicate natural colours in all weathers is another issue again. As anyone who's tried to make a photo "look right" knows.

As for "see better", that's not a clear concept either.

When it comes to perception, the only thing we can objectively measure or observe is what colour (or other sensory) differences the animal can distinguish. While it's true that bees can distinguish ultraviolet wavelengths, that doesn't mean they "see better". They see well enough for their survival, and that's what counts.

Or take frogs. Judging by their behaviour, they can't see fly-sized blobs unless those blobs move. I surmise that's similar to human peripheral vision, which is much better at distinguishing moving blobs of light than still ones.

Bottom line: what's "out there" isn't what we think it is.

The cost of idling the car


"... In fact, one of the most powerful arguments in favour of reduced idling is an economic one.
For the average vehicle with a 3-litre engine, every 10 minutes of idling costs 300 millilitres
(over 1 cup) in wasted fuel – and one half of a litre (over 2 cups) if your vehicle has a 5-litre
engine. Unnecessary idling wastes fuel – and wasted fuel is wasted money...."

My Mitsubishi Outlander has a 3l V6 engine which requires high-octane fuel. So at 1.60/litre (more or less), 10 minutes of idling costs about 50 cents, or approximately a nickel a minute.

Or $3.00 per hour.


Footnote: On hot days, at our local mall parking lot, I often see people sitting in their cars with the windows rolled up, the engine and air-conditioing running. Even on days when a nice breeze blowing through open windows would keep the car cool. I think this indicates that fuel s too cheap.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Grafton: V is for Vengeance. Shoplifting and murder.

     Sue Grafton.  V is for Vengeance (2011) Kinsey spots a shoplifter, turns her in. The perp’s confederate almost runs down Kinsey in the parking garage. From there the plots gets complicated, what with an organised shop-lifting business, a dysfunctional crime family, bent cops, and damaged people. Justice, of a sort, is done, and some perps will face a judge. As usual, Kinsey faces death and incurs injuries, but there’s less gore than usual.
     Grafton’s plot requires several chapters of 3rd person narration. She handles these well. I get the impression she feels more than a little constrained by Kinsey’s 1st person POV. The book is bigger than most of Grafton’s work, but it still feels unfinished. Grafton has always leaned towards a combination of social comedy and romance. The crime plots are just a rack to hang the clothes on.
     A pretty good read, but this time around I didn’t feel compelled to keep on reading, and there were stretches of a few days when I didn’t pick up the book. **½

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Artificial Intelligence (AI): A series of notes

“If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck” (Ancient wisdom)

Unless it’s a model of a duck.

Artificial Intelligence is model building – we want autonomous machines, but the best we can do is build models of autonomous machines.

Eg, an artificial ant could be made to behave like an ant in many ways, but not as an ant in an anthill, or capable of making more ants.

It’s probably possible to make an artificial ant that behaves like an ant in anthill. We may even be able to make an artificial ant that can reproduce in some way.

However, “behave like an ant” is not well defined. There are too many behaviours, and some are obviously easier to mimic than others. Nevertheless, it will soon be possible to make an ant-size robot that can navigate like an ant, climb vertical surfaces like an ant, etc.

But it will always be a model of ant, and therefore its behaviour will in some respect will not be antlike, and in other respects will be a bad imitation of ant behaviour. That’s simply the nature of models. Models are mixtures of emulation and imitation.

Intelligence is even less well-defined than “ant behaviour”. We can mimic some intelligent behaviours, eg, sorting, learning correlations, recognising patterns, and so on, which are useful to augment human tasks such as diagnosis of a fault or illness, or finding the data we want. If a task is well enough defined, we can build a machine to do it.

But that’s the problem: “Intelligence” is simply not well enough defined. My notion of it is the ability to apply and adapt existing knowledge and insight to unanticipated problems. Every term in that definition is fuzzy and vague. Anyhow, some people (including me) would argue it’s more of a definition of creativity than intelligence.

Is consciousness part of  “intelligence”? Many people would say it is. A machine that merely solves problems isn’t intelligent, it’s just an algorithm. It’s not enough to know how to do long division, you have to be able to recognise when and why you should do it. An intelligent entity then would be able to apply the rules of the algorithm to another problem. This claim entails that intelligence can abstract rules and patterns, and recognise them in different contexts.

“Understanding” is another component of intelligence. Isn’t it? Well, it does have something to do with learning: an intelligent person is one who can make sense of new explanations. “I don’t get it” at one extreme means “I haven’t figured it out yet”, at the other it means “I can’t figure it out”. The latter is a measure of intelligence.

And that’s just three attempts to make sense of “intelligence”. We’re long way from knowing exactly what we mean by “artificial intelligence”. Far enough that we may not even recognise it when we see it.

The recent development of “deep learning” artificially intelligent neural nets crystallises the problem. It’s already clear that we can evaluate the results of their operations, but we can’t figure out how they do it. What’s more, they have come up with solutions that humans have not only not produced, but have trouble recognising as viable solutions. For example, some AIs are better then humans at recognising cancerous tissue.

If we accept “intelligence” as a label for problem-solving abilities, then consciousness is not required. That makes the neural-net AIs more than a little spooky.

Accidentals and Essentials: Experience and Reality

Observation and Theory, Experience and
Imagination: What’s Real and What Isn’t

We experience things and processes, events and spaces, times and moments, extended sequences of events, and so on. We may name (or label) any such experience, and having done so, we tend to think of it as a unified experience, whatever its extent in space and time. Naming is the first step to theory, the precondition of explanation.

2.1 The things we experience are bundles of sensory inputs. They may be relatively simple bundles, such as the ones that we label “apple”; or complex, hierarchically layered bundles, such as “song”; or more complex networks of experiences such as “fair play”; and so on. But all experiences which we perceive or apprehend as having some kind of unity in space and time can be reduced to a bundle of sensations.

2.2 The “unity in space and time” seems to be a given. Neuro-psychological research indicates that it’s a product of the brain’s processing of sensory inputs. Comparing human and other animals’ perceptions clarifies that insight: a frog responds to a fly-sized object such as a raisin only when it moves. But when it moves, the frog will try to catch and eat it, even when it’s a raisin.

3.1 We learn in grammar class that nouns name essentials (apple, kitten, rainstorm, triangle) while adjectives name accidentals (red, soft, greasy, warm, loud, sharp, salty, etc). The trick seems to be to recognise what makes an apple an apple and not a kitten; and what features of an apple can vary without destroying its appleness. But these distinctions are illusory, since any description of the essence of an apple is merely a list of accidentals, its so-called properties. Botanical classification makes that quite clear. We may infer that “apple” is a the minimal collection of accidentals that differentiates it from pear, cherry, raspberry, peach, mango, .... Note that the properties overlap: it’s the differences between the lists that differentiate the fruits.

3.2 We can also differentiate objects by abstract qualities, such animate/inanimate, food/non-food, etc. Anthropologists have discovered that there are no universal classification systems. While there is little doubt that we perceive objects as more or less stable collections of sensations, that does not entail that we classify them that way. Apparently humans have a penchant for believing that whatever they name is real. So when we name some aspect of human behaviour as “just”, we start collecting the properties of Justice, and arguing with other people about which of these aspects are accidental or essential. Thus the white wig and black robe of a British judge are accidentals. But is the British Common Law a better system for arriving at just judgments than the European Roman Law? Any argument pro or con will rely on explicit and implict assumptions about the essence of Justice.
4.1 The brain combines sensory inputs into experiences. Some of these combinations are built-in, so much so that the brain organises different sensory inputs into the correct temporal sequence even though the processing time of the inputs varies so much that the results are in not in the correct sequence. When the brain fails to produce the correct image of the reality mediated by senses, its possessor is more or less deluded. If he knows it, he may well be more disturbed by that knowledge than by the failure to parse reality correctly.

4.2 Some of these combinations are inherently incorrect: we call them “illusions”, and the essential (;-)) point is that knowing we perceive an illusion does not cancel it. Nor does the fact that we have acquired  many, perhaps most, of these illusory parsings during the development of the visual cortex after birth.

A Comment on Ayn Rand

(A repost with some amendments)

 Ayn Rand and her followers worship money. But her notions on money are such a muddled mix of insight and delusion that it's hard to know where to begin a rational critique. From the Ayn Rand lexicon (

     Money is the tool of men who have reached a high level of productivity and a long-range control over their lives. Money is not merely a tool of exchange: much more importantly, it is a tool of saving, which permits delayed consumption and buys time for future production. To fulfill this requirement, money has to be some material commodity which is imperishable, rare, homogeneous, easily stored, not subject to wide fluctuations of value, and always in demand among those you trade with. This leads you to the decision to use gold as money. Gold money is a tangible value in itself and a token of wealth actually produced. When you accept a gold coin in payment for your goods, you actually deliver the goods to the buyer; the transaction is as safe as simple barter. When you store your savings in the form of gold coins, they represent the goods which you have actually produced and which have gone to buy time for other producers, who will keep the productive process going, so that you’ll be able to trade your coins for goods any time you wish.

    As soon as she leaves the standard definitions of money (means of exchange, store of value/savings), her key points drift into nonsense. One of these misleading notions is that gold has “tangible value”. Gold has no intrinsic value; its value as money is only and exactly what people believe it is. The Conquistadores could not understand how the value of gold among the Inca and other South American peoples could be so low. They looted the gold, took it home to Spain, and promptly caused ruinous inflation. It was only when Spain used its gold for external trading that it could be used as capital. So much for the intrinsic value of gold.

     The notion that money somehow buys time for future production misses the point. "Delayed consumption" is possible only when there is a surplus of goods or productive capacity. Money cannot create a surplus, nor is it needed to ensure that any surplus will be used. Humans have invented many ways of saving surpluses without money. What’s needed to create a surplus is a technology that multiplies the effect of human work, such as agriculture. What’s needed to delay its consumption is a system of values and customs that will ensure the surplus (such as grain) will be stored for later use and trade. Neither of these require money.

     Fact is, even today much trade is done without money. The basic rule of all trade is "mutual obligation". The members of families and social circles trade goods and services because sharing is one of the obligations of these social groups. They keep pretty close track of their trades, too. Exact matches aren’t required, but everyone is expected to share their goods and provide services as best they can.

     And like practically everybody, Rand misquotes St. Paul’s comment on money. Later in the article, she says, So you think that money is the root of all evil? . . .  Have you ever asked what is the root of money?

     St. Paul actually wrote, The love of money is the root of all evil. Look it up!

    Money is a way of making trade with strangers possible, and thereby creating mutual dependence. A very useful invention. Eg, just try to calculate how many people have been involved in producing a 98 cent ball point pen and making it available to you. It’s made of several kinds of plastics and metals, which had to be mined, refined, processed, and shaped. The pen had to be packaged, warehoused, transported, and shelved. Even in a small town where you know most people, you aren’t necessarily a close friend of the shop owners and staff, but they serve you all the same.

     A stranger is someone to whom you owe nothing, and vice versa. This makes interaction between strangers dangerous. Hence, all societies have had to invent ways of making at least temporary mutual obligation possible. Think of "guest right", for example. You not only have the right to stay among your hosts, they have an obligation to protect you. A pretty good deal; you’d better have some good stuff to trade with them.

     So why do all those strangers work to produce and deliver a cheap pen to you? Because money makes it not only possible to trade with people you will never see, it makes it easy to do so.

     Nowadays, money trades are used to measure economic activity. They’re totalled in the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, a number of such incomplete, gappy data that it causes pernicious delusions. The worst of these is the belief that an ever-rising GDP means we’re getting richer. Yet every time there’s major storm destruction, there’s a spike in GDP in the following months and years as the damage is repaired. I don’t think having to repair storm damage is making us richer. Besides, even in our highly monetised economy, about 1/3rd of economic activity does not involve money. In pre-money times, that was 100%.

     There is one value to the GDP: it can tell you how much of your spending eventually ends up in various pockets. Eg, in Canada, we spend about 10% of our GDP on healthcare. Every time we spend a dollar, a dime wends it way to the healthcare providers. Some of it gets there via taxes, some via insurance payouts, some via personal spending. So we could describe our GDP in terms of these three types of spending, but then we wouldn’t know what exactly the taxes, insurance payouts, and personal spending bought. What the GDP means all depends on how you analyse it. And that means that people with different axes to grind will analyse it differently.

     Basic rule about money: Money and wealth flow in opposite directions. This should be obvious, but most people tend to think that more money means more wealth. Money is only potential wealth, a point Rand doesn’t get quite right either, although her notion of money as buying time for future production comes close. But anyone who’s lived through extreme inflation, or has absorbed the stories of the people who did, knows that money isn’t wealth.

     I think everybody needs a good introductory survey course in anthropology, to learn about all the ways humans have organised the production and distribution of goods and services. It might cure one of the notion that our current economic arrangements are somehow natural or god-given. For over 95% of our existence as a culture-creating species, we humans have had no money. Yet humans managed to produce the goods and provide the services they needed. It’s true that money, because it accelerated trade, and more importantly enabled trade with strangers, accelerated the creation of wealth. But trade, and its beneficial effects on wealth creation and cultural exchange, existed long before money.

     2013-03-11 / 2014-05-23 / 2015-11-07 / 2018-07-03 / 2019-10-15

Friday, June 29, 2018

A Grammar checker.

I’ve just tried Grammatik, a grammar checker built into WordPerfect. To say it’s bad is an understatement. The only actual error it flagged was a typo. All the other errors showed that Grammatik could not parse sentences correctly, and so mistook verbs for nouns and nouns for verbs; demanded modifiers where none were needed; confused proper names with common nouns; didn’t recognise objects; and on and on and on.

One example: “A voice from on high spoke:...” Grammatik said it should read “A voice from a high spoke...”

I don’t know if the other wordprocessors have equally bad grammar checkers. I suspect so. Avoid them, they will thoroughly mislead you.

BTW, Grammatik flagged eight errors in this short screed.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Oliver Sacks: The River of Consciousness

     Oliver Sacks. The River of  Consciousness (2017) Posthumous collection of essays assembled from notes and edited from drafts. As the title suggests, Sacks is thinking about consciousness, the hard problem of philosophy and neurology. In one essay he wonders if consciousness is a discontinuous sequence of moments.
    Vision seems to be discontinuous he says, citing experiments measuring the response times to changes in the visual field. I think it's obvious that vision is discontinuous: the light-sensitiva molecules in the retinal cells decay when struck by light, and must be rebuilt in order to decay again. This process takes about 1/10th of a second. Then the nerve signals generated must be processed so that the human can see. This can take longer than a 1/10th of a second, since objects must be recognised, etc. The fastest conscious reaction times to an expected visual stimulus is about 1/6th of a second in children and teenagers, and double or triple that in adults. Responses to unexpected visual stimuli take much longer. Thus the visual contents of consciousness are constructed from perceptions that take a sizeable time to assemble. the same applies to the other senses. The unbroken stream of consciousness is an illusion. It can be a dangerous one, since what feels like an instantaneous reaction takes at least half a second. At highway speeds a car travels about 14 metres in 1/2 a second.
     Sacks also has interesting observations of the subjective passage of time. His patients vary enormously in the rate at which they process sensory information, and that processing relates to the feeling of time passing. He tells of taking photographs several  minutes apart of one of his post-encephalitic patients, then binding the prints into a flip-book, and seeing the patient slowly lift his arm. Conversely, some of his patients entered a high-speed phase, and reported that they found the world around them moving unbearably slowly.
     The book feels unfinished. Most of the essays consist of extended notes. Sacks didn’t have time to rewrite for continuity, style and clarity, and this sometimes shows in a banal or cliche phrase. However, for any fan this is an essential book. For the general reader it serves as a very good introduction to some of the conundrums of consciousness and mind. ***½
     Correction 2018-11-10: At highway speeds of about 100km/h, a car travels about 14 metres in 1/2 a second.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

If you want ot be a writer: Stephen King On Writing

     Stephen King. On Writing (2000). Subtitled “A Memoir of the Craft”. I’m not a fan of Stephen King, not because he’s a bad writer, but because horror fantasy doesn’t move me. I read some of his short stories way back when, and thought they were well done.
     King writes both about the nuts’n’bolts (grammar and style, narrative pace, character, etc) and his own experience as a writer. The book is worth reading for both. If you need some guidance to improve your writing and work habits, read this book. If you need some inspiration and emotional support because you’re not sure you can hack the writing life, read this book. You will improve your mastery of the craft, and you may discover your writing groove. Or you may discover that you’re not a writer after all. Either way, the book is worth reading.
     More take-aways: Writing is a compulsion, it’s what you have to do to maintain your sense of self.
     Reading a lot is essential to your development as a writer.
     A story is out there, like a fossil to be discovered. Writing it is uncovering the fossil.
     Interesting for any Stephen King fan, and for anyone who's curious about the writing life. ****

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

What did your lfe mean? The Five People You Meet in Heaven (Mitch Albom)

     Mitch Albom. The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003) Albom made his name with Tuesdays With Morrie, which was made into a successful movie. I’ve seen the movie, it teeters just this side of sentimentality.
     This book (also made into a movie) teeters over, which is a pity, since it’s a lovely idea: Eddie, the hero, dies while saving a little girl when a gondola on an amusement park ride falls. The story tells of how in the afterlife he meets five people who affected his life in ways he didn’t fully understand or didn’t know. He needs to discover how his life made sense and had a purpose before he can live in his own corner of heaven.
     Eddie had a harsh upbringing, went to war, came home a changed man, and didn’t have the children he and his wife wanted. He ends up working in maintenance in the Ruby Pier Amusement Park, a job his father held, and which he thinks marks him as a failure. The five people he meets show him otherwise.
     Albom writes well, if occasionally too consciously ironic, and with sometimes too much authorial commentary. If the book causes the reader to reflect on how minor and major incidents shaped his own life, it will have succeeded. As a story about a likeable man who finally understands his own value, it’s well-done. Read it. ***

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Graham Greene's last book: The Last Word

     Graham Greene. The Last Word and Other Stories (1990) In the title story, an old man with a fractured memory and a broken body lives alone in a one-room flat. We gather that some major social and political change has occurred. Eventually, the old man is summoned to see the General, whose predecessor brought about the revolution. The General is curious to see this relic from the bygone age, the last Pope. He offers the old man food and wine before killing him. The old man thanks him for sending him home, and accepts the wine. His last words as he drinks from it are Corpus domini nostri.... The General does not understand the words, but as he squeezes the trigger, there flashes through his mind the anxious thought that perhaps what the old man believed might be true.
     Typically Greene in its mix of thriller, politics, and religion. The other stories offer much the same mix, demonstrating that Green understood the psychology of power and politics as few other writers have done. Worth reading, if somewhat depressing in its unrelieved pessimism about the secularisation of modern life. Greene died about a year after publication. ** to ****

Monday, May 28, 2018

Vintage SF: Blood & Burning by Budrys

     Algis J. Budrys. Blood & Burning (1978) Budrys’s imagination is as off the wall as Philip K. Dick’s, and as dark, too. Three samples:  In Be Merry, the Klarri have crash-landed their lifeboats on Earth. Humans and Klarri mutually infect each other. One small enclave in New Jersey has found a grim method of healing themselves using Klarr blood.
     In All for Love, an impossibly huge spaceship has landed on Earth, apparently in distress. It casually destroys human civilisation, treating humans as pests. The hero manages to make his way to one of the support legs and damage it. The story focuses on the human cost of attempting an impossible task.
     In A Scraping of the Bones, extreme overcrowding leads to murder for extra space in the hive-like apartment blocks.
     Well imagined, well-written, with a tad too much of the formulaic to be a match for P. K. Dick, but still recommended, if you can find copy. ***

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Movies I've watched recently

Mrs Henderson Presents, Pygmalion (1983), Black Panther, Indian Horse. Check the page Movie Reviews I.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Lapham's Quarterly V1, #1: States of War

     Lewis Lapham, ed. Lapham’s Quarterly: Vol. 1, #1: States of War (2008) Lewis Lapham, erstwhile editor of Harper’s, has been collecting snippets from here and there for years. Starting in 2008, he has issued themed collections of them, the first one about War, because that was the time of the 2nd Gulf War, perpetrated by G W Bush Jr. It’s a fascinating, depressing read.
     War is as old as civilisation. The anthropological consensus is that war and agriculture were invented at the same time, because agriculture created the surplus wealth that made cities possible. But the new technology entailed a new polity, that of the centralised state, which the had to defend itself against other centralised states. Hence war, which required ever larger zones of influence, and so led to empire. Barbarians outside the empire of course coveted its riches, which meant more war. Ecological catastrophes (droughts, multi-year crop failures, plagues) disrupted the more or less stable empires, which meant more war. The leftover pieces of the empires reassembled themselves into new empires. New ecological catastrophes began the cycle all over again.
     And so it went and goes. We now have weapons that will cause the same kind of disruptions that ecological disasters cause, so it’s toss-up which will get us first.
     As I said, it’s a depressing read but worth it. The selections range from more or less scholarly disquisitions through advice on the art of war, to chronicles, reportage and personal witness. You can buy past issues from Lapham’s Quarterly, or you may find a current issue at a better bookstore. ****

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Nesters vs cattle baron: Louis L’Amour. The Mountain Valley War

      Louis L’Amour. The Mountain Valley War (1978) Drifting gunfighter Kilkenny, alias Trent, throws in his lot with some Hatfields and other farmers who’ve claimed good land in the foothills. Local cattle baron King Bill Hale doesn’t like it. Miscellaneous gun battles and fist fights ensue. Nita, an old flame, and a couple of old vendettas complicate the plot, but of course Kilkenny wins, and settles down with Nita to raise cattle and kids. Some philosophical musings about justice and law, the futility of guns and the necessity of government, indicate that L’Amour’s was maturing out of his simplistic libertarianism. Well-done single point of view, plausible plotting. One of L’Amour’s better books.**½