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. 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 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 a 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 can 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 make undesirable choices difficult or impossible. 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. Plot twists featuring poetic justice, radical shifts in point of view, or sudden recognition of a minor clue’s meaning are common. Each could be redone as a full-length novel. 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. **

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

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

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 probabilitie 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 immediatley 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. ***