August 31, 2017

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, August 2017

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste. Also, I have no qualifications to opine on studies of international political economy, cryptocurrency, or the history and validity of European studies of the Islamic world.

Thomas Oatley, A Political Economy of American Hegemony: Buildups, Booms, and Busts
There is an interesting idea here, which can be briefly summarized. The US government normally bumbles along at more or less the same level of military spending, because different leaders have different ideas about how dangerous the world is, and they're more or less in equilibrium. Occasionally, something shifts (almost) everyone to thinking the world is a more dangerous place, and the US responds by, among other things, wanting to spend more on its military. Because another perpetual divide in US politics is about the level of taxation, and the appropriate level of welfare spending, simply raising taxes, or cutting spending, would be a politically difficult move. Fortunately (?), the US government has the alternative open to it of just borrowing the money, at low interests and in its own currency. This is because of (1) the US's century-long record of paying its debts (and not inflating them away), (2) the unmatched size and depth of the American capital markets, and (3) the unique position of US financial markets in global capital flows (which Oatley documents with some interesting network analyses). Of course, borrowing enough money to fund a superpower's military will have an impact on even the biggest markets, in particular triggering financial booms. Booms are, of course, unsustainable in the long run, so crashes follow.
Thus Oatley's theory. It hangs together, and is certainly plausible. I don't find Oatley's case for it entirely convincing, however. As a modern quantitative social scientist, Oatley runs a lot of regressions to provide evidence in support of it, but as a time-series statistician I see very little value to those exercises. Leaving aside all causal-identification issues, the problem is that the regressions treat each year as an independent data point, but of course what happened in 1969 is strongly correlated with what had happened in 1968 and what would happen in 1970, and so on. (Cf.) The independent units of analysis for Oatley's theory, if such exist, aren't years, but rather US military expansions. There have, by Oatley's own account, been only four of these in the post-war era (Korea, Vietnam, Reagan, and Afghanistan-Iraq). Three of these were debt financed and accompanied by financial booms and busts. (The exception was the tax-financed Korean war.) Three matching cases is not-unpersuasive, but it's just three. So I am left feeling that Oatley's ideas make sense, but have yet to be severely tested, and I don't quite see how they could be. §
Simon Spurrier, Conor Boyle and Giulia Brusco, Hook Jaw
Christa Faust, Andrea Camerini and Chris Wahl, Peepland
Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress, vol. 1
Comic book mind candy, respectively predator porn, a crime thriller about porn and the other seedy underbellies of 1980s New York, and an alternate-history fantasy. Hook Jaw may be less enthralling for those of you who (inexplicably) fail to share my repelled fascination with sharks. Monstress is probably the only one of enduring artistic merit, despite (or because of) being 94-proof orientalism (in one of the [at least] three senses which in Said used that word). (Sequel.)
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
Beautiful writing, and a story I found gripping, even though I am completely indifferent to opera.
Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men (1930)
As I may have mentioned here before, my parents kept their science fiction novels on a very low shelf, so they were some of the first grown-up books I read. Stapledon (in the Penguin reprint with the striking cover) was something I encountered when I was nine or ten, and it left a permanent imprint.
This is, in short, the future history of humanity, from the end of the First World War, through the rest of the career of us First Men, to the imminent extinction of the last human species, the Eighteenth Men, who live on Neptune, one of whom is the narrator-historian. (The Eighteenth Men, like the Fifth Men who were the last terrestrial species, can project their minds back in time, to observe events through the eyes of earlier creatures.) In between there are multiple world-spanning civilizations, relapses into barbarism, near-extinctions both through human folly and mere bad luck, the evolution of new human species, the engineering of new human species, alien invasions (with humans as both invaded and invaders), relapses into animality, and a lot of philosophizing about transience, tragedy and transcendence. It's a very far from perfect book, but it's also one I'm very glad I read.
Re-reading after a lapse of more than thirty years, I am struck by a number of things.
  • World histories usually deploy a roughly logarithmic compression of the past, so that tens of thousands of years of pre-history occupy as much space as millennia of early civilizations, centuries of Romans or Han empires, and decades of the modern world. Stapledon's future history extends over the next two billion years, and reverses this compression, so that longer and longer epochs pass in the same number of pages. I am pretty sure this was deliberate. (I haven't checked, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was pretty exactly logarithmic.)
  • The depiction of the Americanized world-civilization that the First Men establish (Chapter 4, section 4, "The Culture of the First World State") leaves me wondering whether Stapledon, who seems to have been Very British, understood us at all --- or understood us only too well. (This applies particularly to the paragraph beginning "In the days of the nations", which my memory had mercifully suppressed.)
  • A propos of that, it is striking that the creation of a world-state with an Americanized culture is supposed to happen "some three hundred and eighty terrestrial years after the European War", i.e., the first world war. We seem pretty far along that path already. In general, while Stapledon, unlike many later and lesser science fiction writers, actually has a sense of history and of historical change, he has us First Men change very, very slowly, remarkably so given the record of recent centuries. He imagines that atomic power is possible, along with genetic engineering and space travel, but puts them all very, very far away --- centuries for atomic power, and millions of years (!) for genetics and interplanetary exploration. This is the only example I can think of where a pioneering science fiction writer was too pessimistic about space travel.
  • Stapledon's ideas about evolution seem bizarre. I don't know enough about educated public opinion in 1920s Britain to say if they were peculiarly bizarre. (After all, the modern synthesis of genetics and natural selection was just coming into being.) Suffice it to say that these parts have not aged well.
  • A key turning point is when the civilization of the Fifth Men will become so developed that their sheer cultivation increases the gravitational pull of the Earth, dragging the Moon out of its orbit and causing it to eventually crash into the Earth, forcing humanity to emigrate to Venus. (I am not making this up.) I would really, really like to know if there was some background to this, if only in Stapledon's personal metaphysics.
  • An inter-textual note: the Fifth and the Eighteenth Men will share the ability to project their minds back in time, experiencing past events through the minds of earlier creatures. Both species will use this ability to "figure out the life stories of extinct types, such as the brontosaurus, the hippopotamus, the chimpanzee, the Englishman, the American", and generally to try to reconstruct and preserve the history of sentient life. (Hence this history, recounted by a Last Man.) I will be extremely surprised if Lovecraft had not read this book very attentively before writing "The Shadow Out of Time".
Paolo Legrenzi and Carlo Umiltà, Neuromania: On the Limits of Brain Science
I agree whole-heartedly with the main idea of this book: in a lot of studies where "neuro-" is a prefix to an existing discipline, it adds nothing. Such value as they have is either from analyzing behavior or psychology, which would proceed in exactly the same way to the same conclusions if we thought with our kidneys rather than our brains. Seeing that certain brain regions get detectably activated during certain kinds of thought says remarkably little, at least at our current crude levels of measurement, and poor understanding of how the brain works. (If we see the same brain region active when thinking about cheese as when thinking about cocaine, does that mean that cheese is as addictive as cocaine, or that both of them are perceived as pleasurable, or even that both of them are being categorized as "stuff I can't possibly consume while in this noisy, claustrophobic machine"?) So the success of such enterprises, at least as hucksterism, owes a lot to the Skolnick effect, and what I can only call a superstitious attitude towards the brain.
That said, this book does not go much beyond just asserting these points, repeatedly. It is, admittedly, a short book (144 small pages, with generous margins and spacing), but I went into it expecting something a bit more than a well-written magazine editorial. I was disappointed. §
David Gerard, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain: Bitcoin, Blockchain, Ethereum and Smart Contracts
This is the only worthwhile popular book on the subject. It provides explanations of the essential technicalities which are both clear and correct. It is also relentlessly negative and mocking, which is appropriate.
Having way to share a system of files, which lets one track the history of changes and makes it hard to alter anything without evidence, is a good idea; the software which makes this easy enough for millions of people to use is called "git". (Gerard is the only writer for a popular audience I've seen to make this point explicitly.) Everything else in Bitcoin and the blockchain is pretty much a bad idea, either because it's inspired by bad, crank ideas about money, or because it won't scale, or because it completely fails to address the actual problems of trust and verification it's supposed to solve. (These are not mutually exclusive categories of folly.) What people want from their record-keeping systems, whether they are tracking financial transactions or (supposedly) guaranteeing the organic purity of their marijuana brownies, is that all the records which people (or automated instruments) create are valid and accurate reflections of (selected aspects of) reality. What blockchain systems, like git, can promise is that once the records are made, it's hard to fiddle with the records without leaving a trace. The entire bezzle fits inside that gap. (A demonstration, which deserves to become famous.) The one partial exception is when saying something really does make it happen --- when the computerized representation is what we want to keep records on. This is true for software source code and other forms of writing, which is why version-control systems are useful, and it can even be true for banking and money (which is why people who have their bitcoins stolen are permanently out of luck). But for just about everything else, which isn't a pure computer performance*, blockchains do nothing to solve the real issue.
As for smart contracts, I am astonished that this ever seemed like a good idea to anyone who had programmed something more complicated than "Hello World". There is a great deal of schadenfreude to be had from the immediate, embarrassing and very costly failures of attempts to implement it, and Gerard, quite properly, indulges in this.
Unusually for a (basically) self-published book, this got noticed in the New York Review of Books. Unfortunately, the reviewer was a novelist who's a bitcoin enthusiast, and so just noted Gerard's skepticism, without describing, let alone rebutting, his arguments and evidence. §
(Thanks to the reader who alerted me to this book.)
Update, 13 February 2019: This piece by Gerard, while using current events as a hook, summarizes a lot of the argument.
*: I think the issue arises even for things which are purely performative, so long as they're not pure computer performances. E.g., not just anyone can pronounce a couple married, or divorced, so there would be the issue of whether such a declaration had really been issued by someone with the authority to make it. (Cryptographic signatures only solve this problem, if you think nobody ever loses their private keys, or gets them hacked, which of course happens all the time when there's money or other value at stake.) ^
Daniel Martin Varisco, Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid
This is a respectful, but ultimately very damaging, criticism of Said's Orientalism, informed by a comprehensive study of reviews of the book, subsequent critiques, polemics, etc., as well as revisiting many of the texts Said examined. It is probably incomprehensible if you haven't at least forgotten Said's book. If you do have that knowledge, though, I strongly recommend it. It is a great example of trying to extract the valid, rational and salutary parts of a ambiguous, equivocal, and exaggerated work of brilliance. §
(I might warn, though, that Varisco is a somewhat irritating writer. I don't know if I grew more annoyed by his over-use of the "if x is the y of z, then a is the b of c" form; his wordiness; or his very, very bad puns, which begin with his subtitle.)
Elliott Kay, No Medal for Secrets
Mind candy science fiction. This is a side-story to Kay's main series, and probably not too comprehensible without it.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Commit a Social Science; The Beloved Republic; The Dismal Science; The Continuing Crises; Islam; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Commonwealth of Letters; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Writing for Antiquity Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Psychoceramica

Posted at August 31, 2017 23:59 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth