sexta-feira, junho 28, 2019

Proust vs. Powell: "A Dance to the Music of Time, Complete Set: 1st Movement, 2nd Movement, 3rd Movement, 4th Movement" by Anthony Powell

I was lucky enough to start reading the books, each one as they were showing up from about the fourth at the British Council Library. Imagine how this added to the enjoyment as you could rush to the library to book your turn, the anticipation and I was never disappointed. Except perhaps the last one. I didn't feel he had got the comeuppance of Widmerpool quite right. That is the delight the books are so readable.

My enormous enjoyment in reading each eagerly anticipated novel was slightly diminished every time Mrs. Erdleigh "laid out the cards", or planchette quoted Karl Marx, or the mantra "The essence of the all is the godhead of the true" was intoned, or Scorpio Murtlock humiliated Widmerpool. It was interesting to speculate whether Murtlock was a satiric portrait of Aleister Crowley, but one was left wondering whether Powell actually believed in all this nonsense. Mrs. Erdleigh after all predicted Pamela Widmerpool's end. Most disconcerting. It took me decades to discover that the title of St John Clarke's (John Galsworthy, Hugh Walpole?) "Match Me Such Marvel" was a quote from John Burgon's immortal lines describing Petra-"A rose-red city half as old as time". Nothing ever reproduces or replaces the unique experience of a first reading of Proust or Powell, notwithstanding the further insights which come with later readings following on accumulated erudition touching on the life and experiences of the author, and the world and people being described.  

I must admit a real fondness for Dance and Powell's other novels and I now reread them all in one go every 10 years or so. For a college lad from Lisbon in the 70s, those well-thumbed and dog-eared Penguins - the early ones, complete with those wonderful Osbert Lancaster covers - were doors to a world I well knew would never be my own. But still it was nice to take a peek. And they are still among the many books that furnish my room, many homes later.  At the same time I really didn't like the account of his privileged sort of war. A general sees him struggling through a volume of Proust, categorises him as a linguist and, eureka, he's whisked from the front to be a liaison officer with exiled, allied nationals. I wonder how many bilingual or multilingual squaddies had to brave the bullets in battle.

“A Dance to the Music of Time” is a masterpiece - and one of the best literary experiences I have ever enjoyed. Profound, funny, dramatic, and remarkably accessible and easy to read. I read all 12 volumes in 2010. Anthony Powell is a master. Although the books can be read and enjoyed individually, and on their own terms, the real pleasure is in reading all twelve books, and enjoying a narrative that takes place over a seventy year time span. Kenneth Widmerpool is one of the most memorable characters I have ever encountered in a book.

What I find interesting is that some people find Powell's "reputation" is still in the balance. Well, to my mind, the only question is - was he a good writer, and my answer would be that there can be no doubt about that in the slightest. It is the fate of most deceased writers to go through vogues of popularity then periods of ignominy, until the cycle repeats. For very, very select few their star always shines, and out of Powell's peers Waugh and Orwell are probably the two that will remain constantly illuminated; but such lack of visibility does not somehow decrease the quality of what was produced.

I would state that Powell was the best writer in English of his time. In a 12 volume series, produced over many years, one struggles to recall a badly constructed line. His prose should be studied as someone who was an absolute master of his craft. I always thought back then as I stated that as his satire is less strident than Waugh's, that as his social commentary less visible than Orwell's, his works will date far more quickly than theirs have. It could be than in 100 years his novels are barely read, indeed it's probably likely to be the case, but then, as I say, I think we will lose sight of an exceptionally able wordsmith, whose nuanced prose deserves more attention and respect than I think it receives.

quinta-feira, junho 27, 2019

The Drumming-Burger Effect: "Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself" by David Dunning

"As the circle of knowledge grows, so does the circumference of question"

By Weird Haired Science Mothafucka (also known as Einstein)

I see it all the time!! Everywhere. Inept people who believe they are the bees’ knees. This is just liberal mumbo jumbo trying to trick me into thinking I ain't a stable genius!

I hate books like these. If Heinlein wrote dictums, so will I write my own when it comes to the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

- I’m incompetent and I know it.
- Never been bested - what's that make me.
- Leave me alone, I'm a legend in my own mind.
- Much easier to pretend to be competent than actually be competent.
- So idiots think they're smart, while smart people think they're idiots. No wonder the world looks this way.
- I thought about this often. Now I have a name for it (Dunning-Kruger Effect).
- I just always underestimate my abilities to avoid responsibility.
- I don't have pockets of incompetence. I am a pocket of incompetence.
- Incompetent people think they're amazing.
- Average people think they're not good enough.
- And competent people think that all other people are well informed just like them.
- Do I know a lot? No.
- Do I acknowledge that I'm incompetent at many things? Yes.
- Am I gonna do something about it? No.
- For the same reason that Dunning-Kruger think they're two genius to discover this, but they've only discover hot water.
- Nonsense. I am amazing!
- This is not true, you don't know me, I'm a really good driver.
- What if I'm both incompetent AND aware of it? That in itself is at least some competence since you (unlike someone with over inflated confidence) are aware of your limitations.
- Conscious incompetence.
- The thing is though, competency comes from common sense rather than intelligence.  You can have a 200 IQ, but still be incompetent if you don't have those street smarts.
- Like I did know that I am incompetent and I know I'm not amazing. I feel attacked.
- I'm just gonna take a wild guess, and say.... Denial?
- I always think I'm the absolute worst in everything. Maybe I'm not human?
- My trophy says I was less terrible then everyone else. Or does that make me the worst at being terrible?
- So the next time you think you did good at something remember that you’re probably over estimating yourself and that you’re actually terrible?
- I guess, since if you're actually good you won't think you're good, you'll know it.
- If you really are good at something remember that there is always someone who is better then you, always.
- Man this is so wrong. I know all about psychology!
- I think I'm amazing at recognizing when I'm not amazing at something. Wait...
- I am so, SO unbelievably good at knowing I'm not good at stuff.
- I’m not good at living.
- I don't have this issue, people are better than me in every aspect. I know that maybe knowing that is my only advantage.
- I've found that I'm really good at evaluating my abilities. Probably one of the best, in fact.
- I'm gonna create an operating system! 3 minutes later opens scratch 3.0.
- That doesnt applay to me; I have an above-average abelity to percive my spelling skills.
- If I feel incompetent at everything does that mean I am okay at everything?
- It is hard to be objective and not use hyperbole and superlatives, good thing I'm in the top 5%.
- I am what you call an incompetent competent.
- Those scrabble tile values are way off.
- Fish is a bad tree climber, but it swims 5 times faster than you.
- I know enuff to know that theres more stuff to know enuff of.
- Can you be immune to this? XD Because I’m f*cking bad at everything even breathing.
- I'm always so over confident and I don't know anything.
- As was reading this book thinking I’m amazing at self-evaluation...... and then it hit me.
- I would give myself an A+.
- Is there such a thing as an opposite Dunning effect? Cos I think myself incompetent at everything I do!
- My answer to most of the beginnings questions IS "no" so, ...
- I know everything; if you knew everything, you'd know that.
- It’s funny because I think extremely lowly of myself.
- Knowledge is like a flame amidst darkness, the more it grows, the more darkness you realize encompasses you (In what way? If a flame is small the circumference is very small thus leading you to think there may not be much, but as it gets bigger so does the circumference which leads to you knowing the area of darkness which encompasses you is greater than initially thought.)
- We trust you with our plans and projects, and you come back with excuses and incompetence?
- Are you kidding me?! I'm the best! (*slips off banana peel than down a flight of stairs than shoots out of a window than falls and sinks in wet concrete*) That was just an example of what you should, eh, not do. Of course I could do better than that!" (climbs stairs again. Trips and falls) "I just had to make sure you know what to not do..............."

My Most Important Dictum: "We're dumber than we think we are."

quarta-feira, junho 26, 2019

Kantian Physics: "Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space" by Lisa Randall

I’m going to do a review a la Randall.

Many further searches for the Higgs Boson have been performed and the evidence has gotten stronger and stronger since 2012. At one of the ICHEP conferences I read about at that time, analyses "rediscovering" the Higgs Boson in the new dataset were presented. The accumulated evidence for the 125 GeV Higgs was very strong, and there was no real chance that it would fade away (the chance would be extremely small). In contrast, the accumulated evidence for this hypothetical particle was much lighter than the evidence for the Higgs now is. (Though, in hindsight it appears that the early Higgs announcement might have jumped the gun a little bit, because it seems like the signal from the real Higgs boson was boosted by a statistical fluctuation in the initial data which is not exactly the same Randall states in this 2012 book).

I would like to see an end to the misleading idea that the Higgs field (or its boson) "gives" mass to particles. The Higgs field is not sticky and it does not slow particles down, and it loans energy more so than giving it. I think a better analogy might be two teachers walking through a daycare center--one popular and one unpopular. The popular teacher walks at the same velocity as the unpopular teacher but toddlers hopping on and off the popular teacher putting such teacher into a higher energy state AND increasing that teacher's inertia (resistance to acceleration) compared to the unpopular teacher who walks through unaffected. Since energy is equivalent to mass, the "mass" of the popular teacher has increased. Assume the daycare is so full of indistinguishable toddlers in indefinite energy states that the total background energy of the daycare does not change in a measurable way as one toddler or another jumps on or off the popular teacher. They come from and disappear back into the "daycare condensate". I'm sure one could do a better job in describing the toddlers in a weird choreographed single state as a better analogy for a condensate, but I'm not sure that aids the visualization.

Probably, in relation to the reported disappointment, the broad label of "physicists" should be replaced either by "particle physicists" or "physicists with a vested interest". In particular, those who have worked hard on the beautiful idea of supersymmetry, and haven't given up in the light of many years of negative results (including no proton decay), are seeing their field reduced from physics to mathematics - at least until the next breakthrough in observational particle physics comes along. Funding and the field will decline, at least for now.

At least they were fighting a good fight, with potential physical relevance, so there is no disgrace in their disappointment (and it must be remembered that the LHC data is certainly not disappointing per se - the LHC team should be rightly ecstatic about having nailed the Higgs!). In contrast, string theorists have only been doing mathematics for a couple of decades now, sitting well outside the physics spectrum. There is still plenty of good particle physics data coming in via astronomy, and hopefully from cosmic rays in the future, so the broader field is not yet moribund :-) (But particle physics probably is as this books amply demonstrates).

The physical properties of a telescope or particle accelerator determine a priori all physical realities observable through them. So when an instrument of observation does not offer anything new, it means that he has reached the limits of his own powers of penetration into the mysteries of nature. Physics is not an encyclopaedic science, which only observe and classify objects in nature, but is a hermeneutics of nature, i.e., an art to interrogate and interpret the responses of nature. Physical objects do not exist in and of itself, but they are created by our own faculty of imagination. Kant said that, two hundred years ago. So if we want to see something new, we must first imagine a different kind of existence and then another way of looking at things.

I'd say the excitement has, and the media emphasis should, begin to shift to astrophysics where things actually have been and actually are being discovered: dark matter, LIGO's gravitational waves and the possibility of primordial black hole dark matter, an estimated 6,000 fast radio bursts per day from unknown sources, and plenty of discoveries in the gamma ray part of the spectrum. Why are we so obsessed with particles? Maybe strict reductionism has been leading us down a dead-end rabbit hole. Maybe it is time to come up for air and see the light.

2 stars for the particle physics math in the book. 0 stars for the rest.

segunda-feira, junho 24, 2019

Haystack Man: “‘Salem’s Lot” by Stephen King

I disagree with the simple "make them repulsive and yucky" argument. Vampires can be scariest when they deal in ambivalence and paranoia. Repulsiveness just turns them into straightforward monsters where you know where you stand and what you're supposed to run away from. Ok, monsters and running-away can be scary too. But I think the human/monster, desire/disgust, fear/curiosity type ambivalences are where the vampire figure really comes into its own. But you need to make those contrasts really bite, not like those drippy Twilight emos. The vampires in "True Blood" are agreeably scary. They can be nice, they can be refined, they can even be love-lorn -- but they are still powerful, unhuman, and capable of great harm. The vampires in "Being Human" are similarly portrayed, and so they work. Vampires go through phases. Before Stoker they were walking corpses driven by the need for blood, and Stoker humanised them and we all know what happened over the next 130 years. And it's not like Meyer was the first person to make cuddly vampires: “The Count from Sesame Street”, Count “Ducula” and the terrible 80s TV show The Littlest Vampire… do I need to say more? We don't need King to tell us how to make them scary again, it'll happen on their own, they're too much of a use trope not to. Besides, I don't mind vampires being nice to look at if they're also capable of murdering you and not really giving a shit. The vampires in “True Blood” are sufficiently violent and amoral, but unfortunately people often associate the series with Twilight because it's become popular at the same sort of time. The two couldn't really be much further apart. The literary (as opposed to folkloric) vampire has been fatally attractive since Polidori's Lord Ruthven (based on Byron), Gautier's Clarimonde, and Lefanu's Carmilla. At least Mitch in Being Human holds up the Byronic and dangerous tradition. While also being cute and funny, he's capable of picnicing on a train-carriage of commuters, when on a Bonnie-and-Clyde vengeance kick with the deliciously naughty Daisy. Vampires are inevitably sexy: they're all about oral fixation, eros-thanatos complexes, a neat twist on Transubstantiation, and often an effective Queer metaphor. Meyer's attempt to recruit them for her 'no sex before marriage' Mor(m)on family values is utterly misguided…Vampires also should be able to move around in daylight, but weaker. The disintegration in sunlight was invented to show off the special effects in Nosferatu. (They don't sparkle, either!)
I suppose it would be nice to get back to really traditional vampires, but zombies have filled that niche so I think we're stuck with pretty vampires. I'm not going to complain about it though ;)

I remember having read somewhere Sam Mendes was planning to do a movie based on the Garth Ennis epic, "Preacher". One of the main characters in it is the vampire Cassidy, and King would recognize him instantly as an Irish correlation of "The Walking Dude". He's charming and gleefully amoral, one of the best characters around. One of the most hilarious parts of Ennis' story is when Cassidy encounters some Anne Rice type vampires in New Orleans. Cassidy is unimpressed with pale, swooning poets who want to be vampires, and ends up giving them lessons in what vampirism is really all about. Not for the faint hearted.

“‘Salem’s Lot” is one of the biggies for me. “'Salem's Lot”, “Revival”, and “The Stand” are the King novels that I have read over and over, for pure pleasure. I don’t much like other early ones, like “The Shining” and “The Dead Zone” and “Night Shift”; they just don't quite work for me in the same way. His later work is also spotty--I haven't even read all of it--but “Bag of Bones” was probably the best of the bunch. When I'm looking for a common denominator of my two favourites, what I see most clearly is that I love it when King assembles a team, a gang of friends, who work together to battle the forces of evil. I really enjoy the way that King depicts how friendships can form and grow and be solidified, and how different pairs of friends in a larger gang of pals typically have their own individual dynamics.

“'Salem's Lot” has a central pivot point in Ben Mears, but part of the joy of “The Stand” and “IT” is that the gangs of friends are even more balanced. Yes, Stu is probably the central pivot of “The Stand”, just as Stuttering Bill is probably at the center of “IT”--but the rest of the friendship circles in each of those novels are given the texture and time to also be legitimate leading characters. I've always been a Haystack man, for example, when reading “IT”, in part since I never was a chubby kid. “'Salem's Lot” also establishes the King formula of the slow build, followed by a long and intense action phase; it works because the build-up gives the reader the time to know the characters and the setting, and to develop some relationships and fondness and context, which gives action sequences and scares weight and consequence. Also, the pay-off for King is long and involved--it isn't like a two hundred page build-up followed by forty pages of excitement--he rewards the readers' patience for the first half of a novel by making the entire second half action-packed, as he does in “'Salem's Lot” (and in “IT” and “The Stand” the action-packed segments are even heftier).

domingo, junho 23, 2019

A Lesson in Idiocy: "A Noiva do Tradutor" by João Reis

Top-notch Portuguese novel. Reis’ novel spoke to me on several disparate levels. And what a joy it was to read something worthwhile in Portuguese again...So many modernist crap being published in Portuguese lately...

I think today's junk food literature wrings the "human" out of humanity. We evolved the latest theories say because of a complex brain that allowed us to remember "state" information about our social relationships and hold ourselves and each other responsible for what we have done. Now we have thousands of things to remember in our worlds, and there is no time to think deeply on anything unless one is exposed to and guided through models of how to be a human being and read novels. Those models are not coming from ads and the noise of TV engineered to grab our eyeballs and prey on our minds. You do not end up with full deep human beings in a world like we are rushing towards. When the full import of this reveals itself to you it will turn your stomach - and it kind of explains the "after the apocalypse" movie where the human people in your life are in a perpetual war against the zombie hordes. This is exactly what we do not need at this stage in human history. God help up ..

The best thing I ever read about the love of books is Walter Benjamin's 'Unpacking My Library', how the colour, shape and smell of them meant so much to him and fed his imagination, without even reading them. I think we have a very black and white view of what joy is when it exists on a bit of a spectrum and is no less joyful or meaningful for being quiet. I have a lot of quietly joyful moments in my life and few hugely joyful ones. If I was to take away the elements that make up my quiet joys I would have a miserable existence. João Reis' novel is all about quiet joy and gratitude. It's not grandiose. The process is symbolic. We each can reach into a deeper part of ourselves and latch onto the small things that make us happy at any time. João Reis is showing us that sorting socks might also also a path to that joyful part.

The author is in love with his novel. I can see that. I saw the whole story as a kind of landscape that I walked through going along with the translator. I never saw the whole landscape at once, but how I wandered through it wasn't of paramount importance; I just enjoyed his (and my) walk. There was a sense of puzzle pieces dropping into place as I went, and by hook or by crook eventually I did see the whole picture. I suppose what I'm saying is that it didn't strike me as the sort of book that requires a linear approach to stream-of-consciousness. This is not Saramago, this is not Tabucchi. This is my first João Reis' novel and it won't my last. "A Noiva do Tradutor" (it's also available as an English edition: "The Translator's Bride", which I intend to read as well. Why? I inhabit the translations differently, even if I feel I know the book inside out which in this case I don’t. I'm sure I'll really love them both independently and differently.)

"A Noiva do Tradutor" is a lesson in idiocy, and in how language evolves with us. Stream-of-consciousness may be a bit of a loaded word to use for the phenomenon of static content being increasingly replaced by dynamic content generation in this day and age of fast food novels but you get the point. Books like these give me great hope, hope that one day we might actually learn something or enough to stop collectively being so stupid, and so easily manipulated by politicians and marketeers ;-0) I’ve got books everywhere - on shelves, floors, tables, chairs (in fact, on every surface and in every room imaginable) in my home. Many of the books have been read and I either hoped to read them again or cherish them for what they are. Many are non-fiction and represent my interests. Some are just beautiful to look through and give me joy. As a child I grew to cherish the written word and there is nothing more satisfying than surrendering myself to a compelling story and a book I am unable to put down even to eat or sleep."A Noiva do Tradutor” belongs to that category. 

sábado, junho 22, 2019

Paul of Tarsus: "The New Testament: A Student's Introduction" by Stephen L. Harris

I'd agree with some learned people that Paul's writings were elaborated in the sense that some of the so-called letters of Paul are fakes, and of course, there were plenty of tall tales told about him in, e.g. "The Acts of Paul and Silas". But it becomes very hard to explain why Christians wrote fake letters of Paul, and why they told tall tales about him if he hadn't existed and done some pretty impressive things to begin with (impressive to the early Christians, that is). People who defend this are not familiar with the history of Christianity outside the Roman Empire. When we, Portuguese, came as the first Europeans to Malabar Coast (present day Kerala State) in India, they found an ancient community of Christians who had had nothing to do with Rome or Roman Catholicism. So some people’s theory that the quick wider geographical spread of Christianity was from Rome alone, defies historical testimony which shows otherwise. The Portuguese were the first European explorers of the East. The Portuguese came to Malabar Coast (present day Kerala) in 1500. The ancient Christian community there were under the Patriarch of Babylon and claimed to be evangelized by Apostle Thomas. Thus they had been Christians from the Apostolic era, at the same time Apostle Paul was preaching in Rome and elsewhere.

Put it another way, if we say that Jesus was invented by Paul, but then Paul was invented by Ignatius of Antioch, we are likely to end up saying that Ignatius of Antioch was invented by Athanasius. ROTFL!

Why is Paul accorded such respect by the Christian Church? This can be explained, I think, by the version of Christianity that ultimately emerged triumphant from the petri-dish of different opinions that constituted the Church in the pre-Constantinian era. As I argue elsewhere, the key figure is probably Marcion, a theologian who wanted to bin the entire Old Testament as the work of an inferior deity, and who enshrined Paul as the authentic interpreter of Christian truth. This so alarmed other Christian leaders that - to simplify a complicated story - it prompted them to canonise what is now the Christian Bible - keeping the Old Testament, but also doing as Marcion had done, and enshrining Paul's letters as the key guide to Christian doctrine.

What about the historicity of Paul? No serious scholars of whom I aware doubt this. At least seven of the biblical epistles are universally accepted as having been written by him - and it is also pretty universally accepted that the oldest of them can be dated to within twenty years of the crucifixion. This, by the standards of ancient historiography, is pretty remarkable - the foundational texts of most religions are much, much later than the events they purport to describe. The Pentateuch, for instance, was written hundreds of years after the supposed events of the Exodus; the earliest surviving life of Muhammad almost two centuries after his death; even the Gospels whole decades after the life of Jesus. But with Paul's letters, you are within touching distance of Jesus. Have a look at 1 Corinthians 15.1-9 - this seems to me irrefutable evidence that already, by the time Paul wrote his letter, there was a settled Christian tradition about the resurrection. Which is not, of course, to say that the resurrection actually took place. Whether it did or not is a matter of faith, not of history. But what seems to me very important to bear in mind is that St Paul, even though he is in the Bible, is no less a product of the world of the 1st century AD Roman empire than, say, Caligula or Nero - and the context of history, I think, does indeed provide a way of understanding what it was about him that was so startling and so revolutionary.

You have this guy, Paul, who goes around persuading people to join this new movement, Christianity. After he has set up a Christian church in a town, he keeps in touch by sending letters. So, these churches only exist because some people in the town liked what he had to say, the message that inspired them to become Christians was the message that Paul preached. So of course the preserve his letters, which thus became the first Christian scriptures - authoritative written statements about the Christian message. From their perspective, if Paul had Christianity wrong, what would be the point in being a Christian?

Of course, we know that there were people in the Church who did think that Paul had got things wrong, and they looked to the church in Jerusalem for leadership. However, Jerusalem was destroyed and, over time, the version of Christianity associated with churches that accepted the authority of Paul's letters became the dominant one. Indeed, there was so much reverence for Paul's letters that, as Harris notes, some people created fake letters of Paul. Since many people were persuaded by these fakes, they were included in the New Testament.

One reason it is easy to idealize Jesus is that we have no documents written by him. So whenever anyone encounters something said by Jesus that they don't like, they can always say "Well, how do we know he said that? It sounds like the sort of thing someone would have made up." This is why studying the historical Jesus is hard work, and often reveals more about the scholar, book reviewer, or book blogger than it does about Jesus. On the other hand, knowledge of the context in which Jesus lived means that the scholars do have more grounds to go on than "I like that, so Jesus said it." They can ask whether it is plausible that a 1st Century Jew would have said such words and, if so, what he would have meant.

With Paul though, it is different. There are conservatives who insist that all the letters in the New Testament ascribed to Paul were written by him. But most scholars can agree which letters were definitely written by Paul, which were definitely not by him, and that leaves a few in dispute. Any good introduction to the New Testament - e.g. Stephen L. Harris "The New Testament: A Student's Introduction" will give you a guide as to which is which. So, the chances are that one reason why our picture of Paul is more attractive than our picture of Jesus is simply that it is we’ve got a thing for snake-oil priests (warts and all). We have Jesus as remembered by his followers, but Paul in his own words, FAKES AND ALL. Paul was a salesman, selling his religion that had almost nothing to do with the life of Jesus and his teachings. It was cobbled together from a range of Gnostic, Greek and pagan faiths, and his goal was to make it as Un-Jewish as possible. Hence his so-called inclusiveness. Did I need to say more? ROTFL!

sexta-feira, junho 21, 2019

Cleverish: "The Problems of Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell

Brilliant, but in the sense of clever. I never have a sense of depth when reading Russell. Life's deeper questions were actually not questions at all, so let us get on with our lives. No wonder that D. H. Lawrence and Wittgenstein accused Russell of living a life of merely superficiality. There was an Edwardian air about Russell to the end of his long life, that if only the world listened to an enlightened gentleman like himself, all its problems would be solved. That the world's problems might be deeper than that (read any of the contemporary critiques of civilization - Left or Right, secular or religious - written during the same decades), seemed to have escaped him. I imagine Russell meeting the likes of Hobbes or Pascal or Machiavelli (those who saw through human vanity) and saying:

"Dear fellow, I think I find a flaw in your reasoning." I suppose an ugly truth about human nature would not count as a truth at all for Russell.

Wittgenstein thought highly of Kierkegaard, and Spengler suited his Austrian end-of-empire view after World War I. I do like Russell's view of Marxism: a religion with a chosen people, a holy book and a prophet, which likewise he could not believe.

Enough of Philosophy! Now I'll put my Soothsayer hat on. I'm going to make a prediction. There will be wars in the future. There will be corruption. There will be a market crash. There will be crimes of passion. There will be moments of selfless bravery. X Factor will always be rubbish. I am not a Supreme Being, but the predictions above are startlingly accurate. If we can agree that humans are predictable and will cause these events to happen then isn't this just a psychological exercise designed to seek out those who think they are mavericks? This is just a question of specifics-how predictable are humans? I've already predicted a bunch of stuff, it's the detail of where/when where I fall down. But I've still made predictions based on human nature and Simon Cowell. Is that so hard?

It reminds me of that joke:

"Would you sleep with me for £10 million?"
"Would you sleep with me for a fiver."
"Hell no, what kind of person do you think I am?!"
"I've already ascertained the kind of person that you are, now I'm just trying to determine the degree."


quinta-feira, junho 20, 2019

Slugging It Out: "Recursion" by Blake Crouch

The cat shat on the mat!

Sometimes I get enamoured of a novel's premise and love it so much that all the (obvious) problems with it get suppressed and/or ignored. Then you wake up in the morning and that sickly wave of shame just washes right over you. Did that ever happen to you?

This book made me feel like "WTF". I don't understand how anyone could miss its repetition, incredible lack of imagery, feebleness and awfully stereotypical and dull writing. It made me cringe. I went in expecting something enjoyably pulpy, not great literature, but this just insults my meager intelligence. The book's basic idea is a carbon copy of several of Phil Dick's novels. Better to read Günter Grass translated into English but with the verbs still at the end German style...

But what of the kind that wins a literary prize, sells thousands and readers think it's good because the story keeps them hooked. The best reading group I went to was run by a retired university professor who was able to reveal the trite and formulaic in many an award winning Booker novel. Our eyes were opened and when read against truly good works we saw what he meant. Book reviews used to help the reader to judge a good book but now they all seem to be written by authors with the same publisher and so are usually glowing summaries of the story (or by your run-of-the-mill book reviewers). Critical analysis no longer comes into it, the aim is to sell as many books as possible, be it rubbish or not.

Good writing is one of those things that's hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. I see it as well wrought words, with qualities like comprehension, clarity and impact, elegance, taste and understatement. The content of good writing can be in itself absurd or rubbish. 98% of 'bad' writing can be salvaged by a crash course in A-level language. Some people I consider to be "bad writers" have made a fortune. What do I know?

Done the horseshoe many times (I know; I'm a pretentious mugwump...). I enjoy the whole walk. I’m not sure I would bother slogging up if it was just for the view from the top even if the view up there could be worth viewing.

quarta-feira, junho 19, 2019

*nix: "Geek and Hacker Stories: Code, Culture and Storytelling from the Technosphere" by Brian Alleyne

"Beginning in 1983, when I was 16/17, I took both formal and informal training in programming and information technology. After that start, I had periods when I flirted with becoming an application developer—but these were never quite serious, and by the time I was thinking seriously about a programming career in the later 1980s, I had already been drawn towards sociology. I was then, and remain, a kind of geek—the computer technology enthusiast—a rarer creature in the 1980s than in the early twenty-first century. Back then, the ‘computer guy’ (always referred to as male, though I remember working with quite a few female computer specialists) was recognized as highly knowledgeable and skilled. I made a decent living as a part-time programmer and computer literacy tutor, earning enough to support myself while I attended university as a full-time undergraduate in sociology."

In “Geek and Hacker Stories Code, Culture and Storytelling From the Technosphere” by Brian Alleyne

"As I write this, it is now more than 30 years since first I stared at green glowing alphanumeric characters on a computer monitor, back to 1983 when I learned word processing with WordStar and got my first BASIC programs to work. Now I stare at high-resolution screens with rich displays that mimic a glossy magazine, and my smartphone has more memory than the washing machine-sized IBM minicomputer on which I worked as a system operator in my first proper job; that was in 1984. What has not changed is my sense of wonder at personal computing. I am a computer geek."

In “Geek and Hacker Stories Code, Culture and Storytelling From the Technosphere” by Brian Alleyne

The last quote above could be applied to me…Has there been a better time to be a nerd/geek than now? Or is it all about the 80s? Well that's the headlines at least. And if you can read between the headlines, it's pretty simple. These two statements contradict each other. If "there's never been a better time to be a nerd", then that means that being a nerd used to be a much shittier experience than it is today. And that means that being a nerd/geek most definitely is a thing. As somebody who actually knows what the 80s and 90s were like, it wasn't a pleasant experience to be a nerd in those days. People simply assumed that your opinions didn't count. People wished you were more "normal". People just assumed that you deserved all the stick you were getting.  There will always be one faction who insists that the oppressive system must be called to account, versus the other faction who thinks that you should man up and solve real world problems instead of whining about it. There will always be one faction who thinks that you should make peace with the system and another who thinks the world should meet you on your own terms and if they can't, well fuck them. There will always be people who, if you complain about being an oppressed race, they'll tell you that women have it worse. If you complain about being a woman, they'll tell you that being gay is worse, and if you complain about being gay, they'll tell you that being a minority race is worse. Fact of the matter is that identity politics - whether about race or religion or gender or sexual orientation or being a nerd/geek - will have plenty in common with each other.

Being deeply interested in science and math is just as much of a choice as going to a cosplay convention, no? Having an aptitude for those things may not be, but none of us are obliged to focus only on things we have an aptitude for and ignore everything we don't. Alleyne’s book reminded me that as a kid I used to misspell words on purpose so as to get out of participating in the spelling competition, probably because I'd been skipped a grade ahead and didn't want to be seen as a nerd. It's not something I'd urge anyone else to do and my mother would've been furious had she known, but it was a choice I made. Incidentally I Also did the same when I went to do the conscription exams (physical and theoretical) when I was called up (I was still in college and I wanted to finish it before I went there to do my duty to my country). You may actually not be aware that there are cultures out there who see nerdiness/geekiness as a neutral or maybe even good thing. If you want to know why Western schoolchildren do badly in school compared to people from other developed countries, for me the chief culprit is the problematic relationship with its nerds. This equation of nerdiness/geekiness with cultural undesirability is already a large form of hostility.

To me there are two problems in society that arise from this: first is that a lot of human potential is wasted when people are discouraged by their peers to push themselves to do the nerdy thing and pick one or two fields to excel at. And the second problem is that the cultural contempt for nerds is paid back with interest when the nerds grow up and get to run the world, and decide that the rest of humanity who treated them that way in high school would be better off with minimum wage jobs for the rest of their lives.

Did I "reflexively" not decide for myself, that I didn't want to be seen as a nerd at school? Nope. It was something I thought about over an extended period of time later on - who I was, who I wanted to be, and who might be my allies. I had possibly an unusual opportunity to give this thought because my school took an experimental approach, combining 2 grades in one classroom in an effort to minimize disruption for kids who needed to repeat a year, and for those of us who might skip a year ahead. I was given the chance to skip 2 years ahead and my parents (wisely I think) decided that it would have been too awkward socially, since my birthday is in the summer and I was already younger than most of my classmates. I wouldn't go so far as to say I was savvy or mature in my thought process at that age, but all of us make an endless series of choices as to who we are and want to be. I was strangely far less sensitive about reading voraciously than spelling well, and had to be taken aside by the librarian and told to stop entering reading-related competitions so as to give other kids a chance.

I agree that nerdiness/geekiness can be a good thing, but pressure to be an academic success can be overbearing too, sometimes beyond all reason. I think much smaller classes would go a long way towards reducing bullying, and towards helping schools help students work out what their strengths and weaknesses are, but it's an expensive way to operate.

On the bright side, there were large rooms that were full of techie stuff to "play with". You more or less just got on with what you wanted, within reason. If you wanted to do something interesting then you wrote a bubble sort program in C and a data formatting program in Basic (my parents bought me a ZX Spectrum) or you built your own BBS server (as I did back in the day). Plus we had the Fairchild Channel F, Atari 2600, APF-MP1000, Magnavox Odyssey 2, etc., Love and Rockets, X-Mal Deutschland, etc., and that was just the gaming and music sections. In films we still had Aliens, Predator, and Star Wars before they got fucked up by accountants and toy manufacturers. It was a great time to be a nerd/geek.

NB: Nerd & geek are not synonyms. Ed Milliband is a nerd, Bill Gates is a geek. They may have both been picked on at school for being 'different', but it's a different kind of 'different'. And as someone once (almost) said, "The geek shall inherit the earth".  Geek is always tech related, nerd is more comic books and dungeons & dragons. There are obviously many geeks into nerdy stuff, and many nerds that are into tech stuff. But I (a total geek) hated most of the nerdy stuff (still do). I've a degree in Computer Engineering, and have spent all my first working years since graduating working as a *nix and Oracle, and SAP R/3 sysadmin before moving on to the nasty world of consulting and corporate greed. Being a sysadmin I couldn't give a shit whether trendy cocks thought being geeky was "chic" or not. I've Been There, Done that, wrote my T-Shirt 16 Years Ago. And, no, you can't buy the T-Shirt any more. Tough shit, trendies. Besides, geeks don't wear geek t-shirts. They wear a t-shirt that declares their favourite Linux distro, or plain t-shirt that badly need ironing (T-shirts need ironing? News to me; my t-shirt today says "I DON’T NEED GOOGLE.  MY WIFE KNOWS EVERYTHING".

terça-feira, junho 18, 2019

April 1st: "Fall, or Dodge in Hell" by Neal Stephenson

Is it April 1st already? Or is this one of the worst attempts at writing serious SF!? When I was doing UNIX for a living, I fondly remember a running joke that went like this.

Unix erotica? Here are some examples of inputs and responses from the Unix C Shell:

%^How did the sex change^ operation go?
Modifier failed.
%make love
Make: Don't know how to make love. Stop.
%sleep with me
bad character
%man: why did you get a divorce?
man:: Too many arguments.
%blow: No such job.

Bottom-line: "Fall, or Dodge in Hell" is a hotchpotch like UNIX is. But it's a bad hotchpotch...Neal, Neal, were you on drugs a la Phil Dick?? I can imagine Stephenson pitching this book to some publishers and discussing it… I once pitched a dissertation in college called "Terrorism Studies". I wanted to go with "Media depictions of counter-terror operations". I was told that I couldn't spend a year just watching Steven Seagal movies. Which was a bit unfair, because "Under Siege" was not on my list… Was Stephenson doing multitasking activities as he wrote this crap of a book? Maybe watching some Chuck Norris on the side? Perhaps watching Chuck Norris fried his brain and none of the publishers noticed it after reading the galley proof? One of the worse things I've ever read, SF or not. I couldn’t make head or tails of it. My fault surely.

segunda-feira, junho 17, 2019

Lacking in SFional Meat: "Finder" by Suzanne Palmer

One of the biggest problems with SF is that from the 30s to the 70s the ideas are almost always better than the writing. The drive to fill the pulp magazines meant that an awful lot got accepted into print that would have not have been allowed in any other genre, except maybe cowboy stories. Even Detective fiction managed to keep respectability despite the crime pulp boom. Couple this with all the schlocky, cheap films like “It Conquered The World”, etc. and Saturday matinee serials like Flash Gordon, and the genre becomes one that true authors don't want to be associated with, regardless of books like Dune, etc., or fluctuate between rejection and acceptance (of selected works at least) - like Vonnegut, Pynchon, both generations of Amis. Often a good indicator of gratification versus more challenging entertainment is the attitude towards change. I like genre fiction that embraces the inevitability of transformation - not suggesting that all change should be enthusiastically welcomed for its own sake, but recognising that change will happen, and can be managed to some extent. What I don't like is fiction about restoring an old order or a natural order, as seems to be the case with a lot of fantasy (and, to be fair, probably a fair amount of space opera too). In reality there are no golden ages, there is no natural order; there is only power and negotiation and moral debate - and the future is not going to resemble the past. Should SF do more than giving us a good time This kind of question when applied to SF conjures up for me some somberly dressed parson with a cane intent on making sure your art only Serves God - or an ideologue with an AK-47 ensuring it only Serves The Party. No. There is a place for candy (or fruits), and a place for meat and potatoes (or whatever your preferred protein source). We must trust readers to balance their diets with select servings from all the food groups, not stand over them demanding political correctness in their choices. This trust must be extended to writers like Finder by Suzanne Palmer as well. If I want to write a mindless sitcom or a feel-good SF novel I should have that right. Come to think of it, the truth of that hinges on better. Not everyone agrees on what is better. Some may focus on the style of a story, the paint strokes and chiaroscuro and such. Some may focus on the substance conveyed by the style, the painted seen THROUGH the window of the painting. Different lenses are useful for different things, but no lens deserves to be celebrated if it is covered with scratches, cracks and mud. Finder is a good entertainment novel. I really don't see that entertaining doing more than that is an either or proposition. Have you never read a novel that was both entertaining and insightful or thought provoking and whatever A YouTube video of a kitten falling over is purely entertaining? In a novel of say 100K words if an author can't do more than merely entertain then I have to wonder what the point of writing it is. "Finder", in my view, seems to try to bridge the gap between grand scale wars or space operas, clashes of good vs evil, and enormous journeys of revelation, and a lot of the literary fiction today that is focused on the minutiae of daily life, beauty in microcosm, the power of a single word or action or seemingly minor deed. I repeat, surely it's not too much to ask for someone to bridge this gap - for the benefit of both genres, SF and Mundane Fiction. Palmer tries hard but she is not successful. I needed something with more meat on the novel's SFional bones...

SF = Speculative Fiction.

domingo, junho 16, 2019

Ryugu: "Delta-V" by Daniel Suarez

“We will only be able to make deep space viable for humanity when the math makes sense, and at the moment, we’re still working that problem.”

In “Delta-V” by Daniel Suarez

I'm not sure I completely understood the economic argument for mining asteroids but the way I understand it, it goes something like this...

Take platinum as an example - currently very rare on Earth. If you can bring back platinum from space and sell it on Earth at a competitive price then it could be lucrative. However the price for this sort of resource varies a lot in response to supply and demand. The act of bringing back just a little bit more platinum has the effect of drastically lowering the price until it is no longer economically feasible to do so. Except, once established, this industry should be self-sustaining. The infrastructure, raw materials and energy needed is all made "up there". A bit like the internet in one respect, the cost of physically hosting (just the web hosting part) a company like Amazon on the web is negligible. That's (one of the reasons) they are able to be so profitable. For an interstellar mining company like Catalyst, even if they are only making a tiny profit on everything they bring back, their overheads should be so small as to be effectively nil. The startup cost for them though would be (ahem) astronomical. This can be recouped though by selling rare resources at a high price at the beginning while they are still "rare".

The same is true of all minerals. They are valuable because they are rare. If I go and get a lump of Nickle the size of Texas and land it on well let’s say Texas... then the price of nickel doesn't just drop by 5 or 10 % the Price of nickel drops to 5 or 10% of its original price so now I just lost 95% of my proposed profit. Beyond that however there comes a point where i just can't sell the nickle at all because all the people who need nickle have bags full of the stuff and nothing to do with it. So massive expense to exploit a large resource leads to a complex economic outcome and so doesn't look viable as a business model.

Having said that, in ten or twenty years there will be thousands of Portuguese bouncing around on't asteroids. No doubt there will also be space police to break up strikes and then a Socialist government to shut the mines down. Washington will say that pirates are taking over space tankers, or whole asteroids with French Tricolors will be swarmed by Galactic Al Qaeda. We'll be told we still need super nukes, and the Portuguese armed forces will be depleted more than uranium. We will have a couple of space drones which we rent from Uncle Sam who will be installing good killer lasers while warning us of nasty Chinese ones. And yes, Justin Bieber will be US president and insist on singing at his own inauguration...

Mining asteroids on the fly likely will have to wait until space travel has matured a great deal from where it is now. However, that isn't the way I think it should or most likely will be done. The best way to mine an asteroid, and the safest way to do so, is to capture it first and place it in a Lagrange point between the Earth and the Moon. Then you can mine it at your leisure. Better still, if you mine it from the center out, you can use the non-valuable stuff to build a habitat within it. An asteroid 1 kilometer long by .5 kilometer wide would give a volume of ~452M cubic meters if you left a 50 meter shell. Even if you cut that in half to account for walls and floors, that's a lot of room. Capturing an asteroid would entail meeting it near its closest approach with a swarm of engines to brake and stabilize it. Once maneuvered to its parking spot, mine shafts could be sunk to the most profitable appearing interior sections to begin the process of hollowing it out for pressurized working and living spaces that would eventually connect. At some point the asteroid could be spun to create artificial gravity. To give an idea of how much room there would be, think of it this way: within a volume of 250,000,000 cubic meters, you can fit 500,000 spaces 10mX10mX5m. That's plenty of room for hydroponic farms, living space, factories, hangars, hotels, etc. Ship 3D printers up to make the parts for bigger 3D printers to make tools, equipment and other necessities on site. It occurs to me that shafts could be sunk as a cone, wide at the top, narrow at the bottom, say a meter to a millimeter, with mirrored insides to focus sunlight into heating/welding beams for industrial purposes to hold costs down...beyond the initial construction costs, you get free energy, roughly 1K Watts focused in a 1mm beam per tube. Movable mirrors could harness several tubes at once for however much was necessary. Basically, you get a super-sized space station that costs peanuts to build, one that would serve as a base, manufacturing, and launch point for Mars and other solar system expeditions, as well as a research platform (a massive telescope linked with orbital or ground-based scopes should give a nice 3D view of solar system objects), and waystation to a lunar colony. Obviously, from capture to completion you are looking at a generational project, something like 20-30 years from start to finish, perhaps quicker by half with luck and focus.

If you are a hard-SF fan you’ll love this one. It’s got everything. It’s got some shortcomings, but as I read it I went back in time to my own childhood…Not enough character development? Bah! This reminds me of what Martin Amis wrote somewhere in the 60s:

"Science Fiction's no good", they bellow 'til we're deaf. "But this looks good", "Then it's not SF!" It was ever thus. If you love SF-as-it-used-to-be read this one. You won’t regret it. Everyone is guilty of literary snobbery even if self-consciously. Try to avoid it at all costs.

Bottom-line: The cost of bringing Fe, Al, Au into space could be much higher than using the what is already off planet and processing it there. Near zero atmosphere and gravity is difficult to create on earth, but in space it is not so hard, as you can imagine.  Ultra-high-vacuum system for wafer manufacture are expensive and limit what can be made. A multi-layer chip made cheaply on planet? Forget it. "Cold welding" on Earth? On planet production of tech items will be as far from slide-rules and abacuses as compared to today. As to transportation costs, drop by parachute, the finished product in the ocean or in an unpopulated area. I do get the point that to initially build a self-sustaining space factory would be very expensive, but once one is built, the resources to build a second one are already there and a few hundred thousand factories and mineral processing facilities later...I’m not sure whether the technique Suarez was an isotope separator, based on the mass spectrograph principle. In space you have energy in abundance, and you need to produce structural components from what you find. Matter is few in space and you want to use all of it and separate elements or even their isotopes to obtain what you want. Also, the technique could be crucial to fully separate reactor waste from a molten-salt breeder reactor. This is the method to start using not just the fissible part of the heavy elements, but the fertile as well. So starting on earth in the energy development, the separator technique can be put into space to help building the first extraterrestrial living space near earth, in the Trojans or on the lunar surface. So one can experiment and build sustainability in space before further venturing into the solar system out of direct emergency help from earth. So to imports... Maybe most important - no one on Earth will finance asteroid mining or any other industry in space that doesn't quickly return a profit on Earth. Yes, NASA or some similar agency might do some small scale stuff, but the funds (and materials) to develop real industrial infrastructure in space will have to come from space. We will build the first habitats to support those industries, not the other way around. After that there's a tipping point, when population and industry are large enough, and then most space resources will be utilized in space. (That's when we can start talking about orbital cities and megastructures.) Eventually the relatively small Earth population and economy will be an unimportant part of human civilization, but the seed money will have to come from Earth, and it will have to turn a steady profit for Earth investors. Without running the numbers, I have to tentatively agree that getting ice-derived fuels and water from near-earth orbital objects would likely be cheaper than hefting it from earth in the long run - especially if we find out that some of those objects are dust-covered ice chunks that don't melt due to their thermomechanics.  Imagine bringing into Lagrange or HEO a chunk of ice containing more water than all the Apollo and Orbiter program launch exhaust combined…How would we actually use asteroid material in space? We have to smelt it and purify it, and on earth that means melting it in a big pot, inject other elements like oxygen, molybdenum, carbon, and chromium, and drain it out of the bottom (to avoid slag). And then it is forged and machined it into parts. In space we could easily run out of alloying and doping elements. How would metalworking and machining in space work, especially given that it aims to produce spacecraft, mining, and smelting machines, and fusion reactors, which all require strong, temperature resistant, lightweight alloys? Merlin 1-D rocket nozzles are made of niobium. Fusion reactors require superconductors like yttrium-barium-copper-oxide, machining requires super-hard materials like diamond, aluminum production uses consumable carbon electrodes. Hall-effect thrusters require a boron-nitride anode. Are we expected to get all this stuff from transmutation if we can't get it directly from asteroids? And even then transmuting elements produces a heterogeneous mix of isotopes that probably more difficult to separate than asteroid ore and would require other consumables like concentrated nitric acid. Suarez uses the age old technique of chemical vapor deposition (CVD) as a decisive plot device in his novel, which is not something new and it was also a nice touch, meaning Suarez did his homework. I hope you made it this far in reading this quasi-review of sorts...

NB: Ryugu = water dragon