On Tonight’s the Night

August 1, 2014

Tonight, I will go and see Neil Young & Crazy Horse in Bergen. It is the first, and probably last, time I see Neil Young together with Crazy Horse. A strange horse that has been limping its entire life but somehow still is around. But the cowboy riding it is no less strange.

Anyway, to celebrate the event (Neil Young is one of my absolute favorite artists), I thought I pull out one of my favorite passages from Jimmy McDonough’s Neil Young biography Shakey. The passage concerns the album Tonight’s the Night, ironically enough not a Crazy Horse record, but in my view, Neil Young is Neil Young, no matter who he plays with.

The music recorded at [Studio Instrument Rentals, LA] is some of the top-drawer, big-time, hot-shit greatest rock and roll ever made. You could write a book on the bit of piano that opens Tonight’s the Night. Just an offhand, uncertain tinkling of the ivories, but so ominous, so full of dread. It sets the tone for the onslaught to come—out-of-tune singing, bum notes, mike hits and some of the best, most beautiful noise ever.

These are dispatches from the other side—sublime, stream-of-consciousness poetryset to drunken Jimmy Reed rhythms; “Speakin’ Out” is half Kahlil Gibran, half Fats Domino. “Oh tell me where the answer lies / Is it in the notebook behind you eyes?” croons Young, propelled by his chunky honky tonk piano and Lofgren’s quicksilver blues guitar. “All right, Nils, play it!”—one of the only times Young will ever invite a musician to solo on record.

The unearthly “World on a String” sports lyrics that evoke all sorts of thoughts on success, purpose and mortality, and one couplet in particular could be tattooed on Young’s heart: “It’s just a game you see me play / Only real in the way that I feel from day to day.” The doomed, resigned opening rumble of guitar tells you no happy face came up with this riff.

In the sly, soulful “Roll Another Number”—written on the spot in the studio—a well-oiled Young fumbled with the key to his ignition, then tells us he’s “a million miles away from that helicopter day” of Woodstock and goes on to mourn those who didn’t go the distance (“Though my feet aren’t on the ground / I been standin’ on the sound / Of some openhearted people goin’ down”). At once funny and profound, the music is exquisite—loose, liquid and just short of falling apart.

Perhaps the most luminous playing is by Ben Keith, whose otherworldy steel lends just the right lonesome-prairie feel to songs like “Albuquerque.” “I couldn’t belive all that weird slide in Tonight’s the Night,” said Lofgren. “All those shades of melancholy that were in us…it’s almost Middle-Eastern, like ‘Ben Keith Goes to East Cairo.’ “

“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn,” Charlie Parker once proclaimed. Young was in the thick of it. Surrounded by friends, his subconscious unhinged, he had tuned in to the cosmos. Halfway through “Mellow My Mind,” Young’s ravaged voice cracks with emotion. “I still get chills when it gets to that fuckin’ note,” said Molina. “It’s so real. I’ll tell ya, man, Neil was right there with us. He was wide open.” [Pp. 416-417, First Anchor Books ed. 2003].

Tonight's the Night

Neil Young himself:

See, Tonight’s the Night was the closest to art that I’ve come. But you really have to be detached. The whole thing was just me and it. You cna’t struggle to get there. It’s just gotta happen—a set of circumstances that make those things take place, and if the circumstances ever come together for me again to do something like that, I’ll do it [p. 433].

The feeling:

You know how it is when you’ve been up too long, the apartment’s trashed, everything is silent, the sun’s about to come up and you’re feeling like some germ stuck to a big cold rock hurtling through space—and somehow you don’t mind? Here is a record that induces that state automatically [pp. 433-434].

Estimating Endangered Species Interaction Risk with the Kalman Filter

March 22, 2014

Crossposting from the Reconhub:

AJAETogether with my co-author Stephen Stohs, I recently published an article in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. The main gist is that with rare events like endangered species interactions, the statistical information in yearly data sets is limited, and that data from several years provide better information for decision making. We provide a method that is based on the Kalman filter and that allow for observations unequally spaced  in time. The method also takes account of spatiotemporal effects. We discuss the particular case of leatherback turtle bycatch in a gillnet fishery in California and Oregon. The leatherback is an endangered species, and in order to reduce bycatch, extensive spatiotemporal closures was imposed on the fishery in 2000. Our analysis shows that the interaction risk likely was smaller than in the scenarios that motivated the closures. To discuss whether the closures were and are warranted, require further analysis, however. As we discuss in the concluding section, closures in California may lead to trade leakages such that the total effect on the leatherback turtle stock is unknown. And the value of the leatherback in the ecosystem, and the value of its mere existence, is unknown.

The abstract:

To address the tradeoff between biodiversity conservation in marine ecosystems and fishing opportunity, it is important to quantify the risk of endangered species interactions in commercial fisheries. We propose a Kalman filter suitable for rare events to estimate the endangered leatherback turtle take risk in the California drift gillnet fishery in the years 1990–2010, conditional on spatiotemporal factors that affect take rates. Results suggest interaction risk has remained stable, but with substantial variation over the spatiotemporal distribution of effort. Our methods might also apply to recreation demand analysis with rare event risk, or to applications involving irregularly spaced observations, like trade-level stock market data.

On Writing by Stephen King

September 1, 2013

Natalie Reid made me aware of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft in her academic writing class. I was reminded of it when Cal Newport reported that he re-reads On Writing every few years in order to reorient himself to the reality of becoming better at creative endavours.

KingOnWritingI force myself to take an interest in writing as writing is ultimately what I do for a living (I do a lot of other things, like programming, reading, and thinking, but in the end I always have to write it down). I hoped reading On Writing would be a useful investment.

In the introduction, King reiterates one of Strunk and White‘s rules for good writing: Omit needless words. Unfortunately, I find a lot of needless words in King’s book. But he should get the benefit of the doubt; he never set out to write a book about writing in general, useful for all writers (I presume). He writes a memoir of his life as a writer, what shaped him in the early years, and how he goes about it now (or then: On Writing was published in 2000). If I were to put the blame anywhere, it would rest with Natalie Reid, who mentioned it in her class. By doing that, she effectively suggested it for those in the audience who want to push further than suffering through her lectures (I usually suffer in lectures). Perhaps I read too much into her mentioning the book, but she emphsized again and again that she could only cover so much in her lectures and that her book containted so much more. When she then, after obviously leaving out a lot of valuable material, still chose to mention King, one can only take it as a strong suggestion to read King’s book. The problem is, I find King’s book of almost no value as an academic writer (and Reid’s class was aimed at academic writing). If I were a King fan, I would certainly enjoy the biographic material and all the references to his own work, how it came to him, and how he worked with it. Also, if I had aspirations to write fiction I could perhaps benefit from King’s book. Alas, I am only an academic writer (and an amateur blogger in the dark corners of my spare time), and, again, King has little to offer.

It is strange though. After King finishes his autobiographical part about how he grew up and all that, he pretends to write a textbook about fiction writing, at least a textbook about King-fiction-writing. He is very serious (apart from the somewhat informal language), discusses one issue at the time, and, I imagine, presentes a comprehensive treatment of King-fiction-writing. But, he fails to make his part-autobiography-part-textbook usable. The book is divided into separate parts. The first part is autobiographical and consists of 38 numbered sections dispersed over approximately 100 pages. (How he conceives or puts into the thirty seven breaks is illusive to me, but not really important.) Then follows a part called What Writing Is, which is an interesting section where King discusses what he thinks writing really is (he thinks of writing as telepathy). What Writing Is consist of only one part and is only a few pages long. Next is a section called Toolbox that again consists of several numbered parts. And here is where the logic of the part-textbook breaks down. For a textbook to be useful, it should be possible to re-locate a particular section one remembers reading but cannot fully recall. But unless one writes down a content list upon the first reading, it is impossible to relocate any section without risking to skim much of the book. There isn’t even an index (nor a crude content list) in King’s book. Now, while I disagree with a lot of what King writes about writing, I find it almost provoking to read his textbookish prose when I know his book does not function as a textbook.

Cal Newport emphasizes how King went through a lot of deliberate practice; he wrote a lot, before his eventual breakthrough.  Deliberate practice is part of Newport’s recipe for success. While not directly in conflict with Newport, I find King’s metaphor for how he comes up with his stories somewhat at odds with Newport’s ideas. King considers his stories as fossils buried in the (metaphorical) ground, which he excavates and liberates through his writing. King uses the metaphor repeatedly and it seems to be fixed and clear in his mind. I forgot to mark off where (turns out I didn’t: on page 163 he writes “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.”), but I am sure King suggests somewhere that the story (the fossil) exists outside and independent of himself, like a real fossil in an unreal world. King at least hints towards the idea here:

When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it [...] is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around [p. 159*].

While I think it an odd metaphor, I also find it difficult to reconcile with the Newport-idea of deliberate practice. Perhaps you can train at metaphorical excavation; not sure how. The excavation of stories metaphor reminds me of a book by the Norwegian author Dag Solstad. The book, hardly called a novel, is called Armand V.  Footnotes to an unexcavated novel (my translation). It contains footnotes to an unwritten novel. The format of it certainly makes it a disturbing read. One of the footnotes are over fifty pages long, if memory serves me right. Whether Solstad has ever read King’s On Writing, I don’t know, but he certainly could have; Armand V. was published in 2006.

My review is already overly long, but I’d like to discuss some of King’s writing advice. On vocabulary, he writes:

[T]he basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to you mind, if it is appropriate and colorful [p. 118, his italics].

But what if it is not appropriate or, most likely, not colorful? King says little on it.

While Newport entertains the idea that practice is really what counts and that talent has relatively little to do about success, King seems to disagree, and this is part of why I find Newport’s endorsement puzzling. King puts writers into four categories (I think), from bad, through competent and good to great, and the classification is seemingly well-defined and mostly outside our control:

[M]y basic premise: if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one. If you’re good and want to be great … [forget about it] [p. 144].


Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate-four to six hours a day, every day-will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them [p. 150, his italics].

Newport would not agree, and neither to I. To become a virtuoso, for example, one has to go through hundreds if not thousands of hours of technical and repetitive training that I doubt is particularly fun before you really master it; perhaps years down the road.

Another thing I do not like about King’s textbook approach is lack of clarity. After a section where he discusses usage of different tools, symbolism in particular, he starts the next section in the following way: “The same things are true of theme” (p. 200). What things? All the things he went over in the previous section? The things he went over in the last paragraph? What if the reader had a break in the reading between the two sections such that the things discussed in the previous section are unclear in the reader’s mind? This example is but one out of many cases where King, who ought to advocate clear writing, fails to deliver the necessary clarity of a textbook.

Another example of where King fails to be clear, where he lets his creativity get the better of him, is when he discusses when you are ready to re-read the first draft of a novel:

When you come to the correct evening [...], take your manuscript out of the drawer. If it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping, you’re ready [p. 212].

But what if it doesn’t look like an alien relic? What if it looks like a pile of paper? What if it doesn’t really look like anything because it is kept in electronic form? This particular advice on when to re-read the first draft is nothing but useless. Useless. (UPDATE: I know it is just a metaphor for foreign and perhaps the advice is not completely useless, but what about omitting those needless words, King?)

Well, shame is on me. King almost died when he wrote On Writing, and to criticize him is, I am sure, next to blasphemy. He was run over by a car and wrote the second half of the book while recovering. King goes on about the accident and his recovery at length after he finishes his textbook-part of the book. I am sure no one had the heart to tell King the truth about his book after what happened, and I probably shouldn’t either. But, I am a useless and heartless you-know-what, I’m sorry.

* Page numbers refer to the 2010 paperback edition.

UPDATE 2: It struck me that the stories as fossils metaphor suggests that inspiration happens by divine intervention and has little to do with practice. Either the fossil is there or it isn’t. King writes nothing to suggest otherwise, at least. King does emphasize practice through extensive reading and writing, but more in order to command the technical part of writing; controlling the language, tone, perspective vocabulary–stuff covered in the textbook part of King’s book. How Newport embraces King’s book when inspiration depends on divine intervention is another thing I find difficult to understand.

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

August 27, 2013

I read The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, in George Bull’s translation to English, recently. Machiavelli changed the discourse about politics and moved European politics into the modern ear, one might say. Anthony Grafton puts it in perspective in the foreword:

machiavelli_prince_cover_smallerMachiavelli hated ‘unarmed prophets’ (profeti disarmati) [...] Yet he himself was armed only with a pen when he became the prophet of a new understanding of politics. He gave permanent, unforgettable literary form to the sharp, unforgiving vision of politics that had long been cultivated by members of the Florentine élite. At the same time, however, he made clear the limitations of that inherited vision, as well as those of the more idealistic one that had previously dominated political literature. No wonder that his portrait of the prince [...] retains its power to fascinate, to frighten and to instruct [pp. xxviii-xxix*]

Machiavelli discusses different types of states and how to rule them, with examples from contemporary Italy (late 1400’s and early 1500’s), Roman times, and the antique. Most examples are rather arcane for an unstudied bastard like me, but George Bull’s extensive notations makes it at least theoretically possible to dive into historical sources. Bull also provides a useful glossary of names; as said, many of the historical figures referred to are unknown to me and probably many, if not most, readers of today.

It is tempting to dive into some of the historical cases, as many of Machiavelli’s examples seem interesting in their own right. In part because few nations has a richer history than Italy, perhaps particularly when it comes to governmental issues, but also in terms of culture and science, for example. A particularly interesting example that Machiavelli discusses is that of Severus and his rise to become ruler of the Roman empire (see chapter XIX). Introducing the example of Severus, Machiavelli writes:

Because what Severus did was remarkable and outstanding for a new prince, I want to show briefly how well he knew how to act the part of both a fox and a lion, whose natures [...] must be imitated by a new prince [p. 63].

The prince should be both a fox and a lion! Machiavelli elaborates further on how a prince (or ruler, in current terms) need to behave:

A prince [...] must be very careful not to say a word which does not seem inspired by [five qualities]. To those seeing and hearing him, he should appear a man of compassion, a man of good faith, a man of integrity, a kind and a religious man. And there is nothing so important as to seem to have this last quality. Men in general judge by their eyes rather than by their hands; because everyone is in a position to watch, few are in a position to com in close touch with you [the prince is the intended reader, that is]. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are [p. 58].

I guess most politicians today, and most public figures for that matter, can subscribe to that last observation: Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.

In addition to discussing ideal political behavior, Machiavelli also comments on the contemporary political situation in Italy. For example, Machiavelli suggests that Italy stayed fragmented in small states and city-states after the fall of the Roman empire (Italy wasn’t united until well into the nineteenth century) because of the many weak rulers who relied too much on hired or allied troops. An interesting theory indeed, but the situation was probably a good deal more complicated.

I always have to struggle to engage in political debates; often because I quickly become confused. Now that I have read Machiavelli, I at least have a background to extrapolate political arguments from. Perhaps I will enjoy politics more in the future.

*Page numbers refer to Penguin Books paperback version, reissued with revisions, 2003.

Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson

August 21, 2013

Letters to a Young Scientist entices you with its nice cover, small format, and promising title. ‘Pulitzer Price Winner’ is emblazoned on the front, below Wilson’s name. If you don’t think twice, you may think that he got the Pulitzer for Letters. He didn’t.

letters to a young scientist mech.inddIn Letters, Wilson aims to share wisdom accumulated during a long career as a biologist. Admittedly, I am not among his intended readers, as the book is specifically aimed at scientists in the hard sciences. But, science is science, social or not, so I decided there quite likely was some good advice there for a young social scientist as well (young seems to mean younger than Wilson, and that is just about everybody; I think he is in his nineties eighties).

One of the first of Wilson’s advices is, well, essentially, follow your passion. In Wilson’s words, ‘put passion ahead of training’ (p. 25*). I find this advice interesting because over the last couple of years, I have followed Cal Newport’s blog. Cal Newport is a young professor in computer science or something thereabouts. He is also a prolific writer, and he writes about how to succeed at whatever you do. He wrote a book on it called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I read it. His ideas are particularly suited to young people with high education or much training behind them (like musicians). Cal Newport think passion is the last thing you should worry about if you want to succeed and proceed to live a remarkable life (which, presumably, is the normal course of events; I am sure Newport has a more nuanced view of this, in particular, I think he thinks finding pleasure in being on the way to success is a key element, but this is an aside). Newport has developed something reminiscent of a theory of how to go about to have success. An important part of the theory is that skills developed through meticulous training is necessary to have success. And, to get back to Wilson, Newport’s mantra that following your passion is bad advice clashes with Wilson’s advice, head on. So, who to believe? The experienced, senior, and highly successful Wilson, or the young Newport (on his way to success, I am sure)? I think Newport is right. I do not doubt that Wilson’s advice is ‘an important principle [he's] seen unfold in the careers of many successful scientists’ (p. 25), but I bet most of them took their training very seriously. If Wilson didn’t, he is probably the lucky guy. Wilson sees a lot of trees, I’m afraid, but there is no forest (his dust jacket notwithstanding). And that most successful scientist has a lot of passion for what they do is not strange at all. It gave them success, after all, and research is supposed to be important and good and I am sure most successful scientist receives a lot of such feedback, and that probably helps if the passion is not always so strong.

Wilson devotes most of his letters to recount success stories from his long life in science. Wilson has studied ants more than anything (and anyone, one gets the impression). Ants are interesting, but do not always feel very relevant to the overarching idea (advising young scientists to succeed). It is not always straight forward to understand what Wilson tries to say. He has a letter with the heading What is Science?, for example, where his answer to his own question leaves something to be desired. In the same letter, he poses What, then, in broadest terms is the scientific method? and again fails to provide a satisfactory answer. In Wilson’s view, a scientific problem leads, after much investigation and in the best of cases, to a scientific fact. He does not find it necessary to make the young scientist aware that there exist an entire literature on philosophy of science that any budding, young scientist should become at least somewhat familiar with and that discusses whether the idea of a scientific fact is indeed well-defined. And, most investigations into scientific problems lead to few answers and more, but perhaps deeper, problems.

A source of the ground strength of science are the connections made not only variously within physics, chemistry, and biology, but also among these primary disciplines. A very large question remains in science and philosophy. It is as follows: Can this consilience-connections made between widely separated bodies of knowledge-be extended to the social sciences and humanities, including even the creative arts? I think it can, and further I believe that the attempt to make such linkages will be a key part of intellectual life in the remainder of the twenty-first century [pp. 62-63].

That is a good advice from Wilson, I think, but already largely taken up in the existing or emerging structure of science, where interdisciplinary work is everywhere pursued and encouraged.

The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and only later works like a bookkeeper [p. 74].

Another meaningful advice, but I think the ideal scientist finds the ideal balance. The creativity necessary to move science (forward, presumably), and the bookkeeping need both to be kept up throughout and cannot be separated into disconnected modes.

Wilson’s narrow world view, which I think makes much of his advice of little value, manifests itself in the following passage, under the title Science as Universal Knowledge:

There is only one way to understand the universe and all within it, however imperfectly, and that is through science. You are likely to respond, Not true, there are also the social sciences and humanities. I know that, of course, I’ve heard it a hundred times, and I’ve always listened carefully. But how different at their foundations are the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities? The social sciences are converging generation by generation of scholars with biology, by sharing methods and ideas, and thereby conceding more and more to the realities of the ultimately biological nature of our species. [...] Yet however much the humanities enrich our lives, however definitively they defend what it means to be human, they also limit thought to that which is human, and in this one important sense they are trapped within a box [pp. 169 - 170].

And with that, he rambles into speculations about extraterrestrial intelligence. But what to take away? If your passion lies with a social science, you should become a biologist as that is where everything ends up in the end, anyway? I don’t think so (I don’t even think passion should matter). Wilson only stretches the meaning of biology, and that is of little use. He may be right that one day, human knowledge may be much more integrated as an entire body of knowledge rather than a number of separate disciplines with a few links in between. But that is really not all that relevant. What we should be thinking, is that all scientific activity sorts under science. To think of different scientific activities in a hierarchical manner is of little value.

Wilson has already proposed a biologically based theory of human behavior; human sociobiology. It caused a lot of upheaval at the time, and understandably so given statements like the following, by Wilson:

In hunter-gatherer societies, men hunt and women stay at home. This strong bias persist in most agricultural and industrial societies and, on that ground alone, appears to have a genetic origin. [...] My own guess is that the genetic bias is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and most egalitarian of future societies. [...] Even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science [quoted from S. J. Gould's An Urchin in the Storm, p. 29, Wilson originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine, October 12, 1975].

Stephen Jay Gould has written extensively on human sociobiology. Much of it appears in his An Urchin in the Storm. Among his conclusions are that human sociobiology is founded on a flawed mathematical and theoretical basis, that its empirical content is failing. For anyone interested, I can recommend Gould’s review (pp. 107-ff in Urchin) of Wilson’s popular work Promethean Fire, where Gould attacks, among other things, Wilson’s belief in reductionism.

I am not sure how to round up my review of Wilson’s Letters. As a young (social) scientist myself, I cannot say I learned a lot from it; nothing I had not heard from before. As someone not overly interested in ants (although I do find social behavior among animals and insects interesting), I found Wilson’s accounts of his many worldly and scientific adventures way over the top. And Wilson’s constant glorification of his own career and his own choices are nothing but annoying. My conclusions is Don’t read Wilson’s Letters.

* Page numbers refer to the first edition, 2013.

A Researcher’s Staff

August 15, 2013

The choosing of [collaborators] is a matter of no little importance for a [researcher]; and their worth depends on the sagacity of the [researcher] himself. The first opinion that is formed of a [researcher's] intelligence is based on the quality of the men he has around him. When they are competent and loyal he can always be considered wise, because he has been able to recognize their competence and to keep them loyal. But when they are otherwise, the [researcher] is always open to adverse criticism; because his first mistake has been in the choice of his [collaborators]. [...] There are three kinds of intelligence: one kind understands things for itself, the second appreciates what others can understand, the third understands neither for itself nor through others. The first kind is excellent, the second good, and the third kind useless [paraphrased from George Bull's translation of The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, chapter XXII].

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

August 14, 2013

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, provides a brief and popular account of the science and politics of climate change. Chapter 2, for example, is the best popular account of the greenhouse effect I have seen (and far better than any unpopular account I am aware of). It is also very well written. (Kolbert has, for example, written extensively for the New Yorker, which has high standards; Field Notes are in fact based upon pieces once written for it.) An excerpt I enjoyed in particular demonstrates the point:

KolbertFieldNotesNo nation takes a keener interest in climate change, at least on a per-capita basis, than Iceland. More than 10 percent of the country is covered by glaciers, the largest of which, Vatnajökull, streches over thirty-two hundred square miles. Dureing the so-called Little Ice Age, which began in Europe some five hundred years ago and ended some three hundred and fifty years later, the advance of the glaciers caused widespread misery. Contemporary records tell of farms being buried under the ice-“Frost and cold torment people,” a pastor in eastern Iceland named Olafur Einarsson wrote-and in particularly severe years, shipping, too, seems to have ceased, because the island remained icebound even in summer. In the mid-eighteenth century, it has been estimated, nearly a third of the country’s population died of starvation or associated cold-related ills. For Icelanders, many of whom can trace their geneaology back a thousand years, this is considered to be almost recent history [p. 59, paperback edition, 2009].

An interesting strain of the science on climate change that I am not much familiar with, but which Kolbert emphasizes, is the study of how ancient civilizations were disturbed by climatic changes (or long-term variations in weather patterns). Peter deMenocal, a paleoclimatologist Kolbert interviews put it like this:

The thing they [the ancient civilizations] couldn’t prepare for was the same thing that we won’t prepare for, because in their case they didn’t know about it and because in our case the political system can’t listen to it. And that is that the climate system has much greater things in store for us than we think [p. 117].

Kolbert’s discussion of the politics of climate change is interesting, but centers mostly around the inability of the US to step forward on the global policy scene, and how the conservative forces are to blame. While the rest of Kolbert’s book certainly can serve to educate the public on the danger of climate change, I am not convinced that her treatment of the politics can be perceived as neutral enough (in the lack of a better phrase) to have much political influence. (But then, the book has been out for years already, and someone more on top of things than I probably knows already.)

Another thing I find interesting is that Kolbert cites science which suggest that current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (400 parts per million) represent danger. Forget about the two degrees target, in other words. On the other hand, Kolbert cites research that conclude that we already possess technologies and knowledge to solve the climate problem. The catch, of course, is that involved costs makes it practically (politically) impossible to solve the climate problem with the existing technologies. Kolbert concludes:

It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing [p. 189].

I guess, and hope, Kolbert is already on the reading list of all and any politician (interested in climate change or not), of all concerned citizens, of all social scientists that work on related issues, well, as many as possible should read Field Notes. Its brevity, accessibility, and sharp focus makes it a potential game changer.

What is Science?

August 4, 2013

What is this grand enterprise called science that has lit up heaven and earth and empowered humanity? It is organized, testable knowledge of the real world, of everything around us as well as ourselves, as opposed to the endlessly varied beliefs people hold from myth and superstition. It is the combination of physical and mental operations that have become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations dedicated to the most effective way ever conceived of acquiring factual knowledge [E. O. Wilson, 2013, Letters to a Young Scientist, p. 55].

I find myself reading the latest book by Edward O. Wilson; Letters to a Young Scientist. In a weak moment, I picked it up at an airport. Too late did I realize Wilson is the father of human sociobiology although I recently read harsh criticism, offered by Stephen Jay Gould, of the entire discipline. If I had remembered when I came across Wilson’s Letters, I might not have bought it and wouldn’t have found myself disliking the book now. His explanation of what science is, for example, is not very precise or all-encompassing, and not particularly helpful to the young scientist. Anyway, Wilson has been a researcher for some six decades and I hope some of the lessons he offers will be helpful. (I realize I am not among the readers Wilson had in mind, being a social scientist. But it doesn’t really matter. Science, social or not, is a social enterprise, and all science builds upon the same, philosophical foundation and requires much of the same type of motivation and drive to pursue.)

Gaimanesque Droplets of Truth

August 3, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is the best book I’ve read in quite a while. Gaiman’s understanding of what it means to be human runs so deep. His stories are sprinkled with small droplets of truth. (I know, truth is a difficult concept, but it feels like truth, it really does.)

She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age [7!]. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

I would not be surprised if Gaiman receives the Nobel Prize for The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And the story has movie written all over it, although movies based upon books has a tendency to disappoint when one has already read the book. (And watching the movie first usually ruins any chance of experiencing the book afterwards.)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Wild Pronouns

July 24, 2013

Under the heading Pronouns: The Slightest Slip is Fatal, Jacques Barzun writes:

We now enter the dangerous wilderness of Pronouns. It is the duty of pronouns to be not wild but tamed, that is, tied down; yet their natural tendency is toward the jungle. At the same time, no decent prose is possible without the solid links afforded by pronouns with the right connections. [...] Every pronoun necessarily has an antecedent. Which person or thing in the sentence that antecedent is must be immediately clear to the reader [p. 75, Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, 1985, italics in the original].

Later, Barzun calls pronouns ‘the greatest difficulty in the writing of English prose,’ and that which is the most difficult pronoun to tame. I agree that pronouns are difficult, but in the end they are only a part of writing clearly and with style. In my opinion, clarity and style are the greatest difficulties in writing English prose (and perhaps in any language).

And while we’re talking of style, ‘it is’ is bad style according to Natalie Reid. The sequence ‘to be not wild but tamed’ also seems graceless. Better perhaps is ‘The duty of pronouns is to be tamed and not wild.’

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An Urchin in the Storm by Stephen Jay Gould

July 18, 2013

An Urchin in the Storm by Stephen Jay Gould is a collection of book reviews, mostly written for the The New York Review of Books. Few book reviews standsthe test of time, but Gould does not write ordinary book reviews. Instead, he discusses issues of broader scope, with the book under review as a point of departure and to some extent as a sparring partner.

GouldGould (1941-2002) was a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science, and his wide arsenal of knowledge shines through. He discusses an array of issues with great wit and a rational, down-to-earth attitude. For example, in a harsh treatment of a book on human sociobiology, he swiftly (and rationally) deals with potential complaints about non-objectivity:

As a severe critic of human sociobiology from its inception, I clearly am not an impartial observer. Yet surely the equation of bland nonpartisanship with objectivity – a silly notion fostered by the worst traditions of television news reporting – must be rejected. We may scrutinize a known critic more carefully, but ultimately we must judge his arguments, not his autobiography [p. 29].*

I think many researchers have perverted ideas about so-called objectivity. In most cases, and particularly in the social sciences, objectivity can only be an Utopian idea that should be left behind sooner rather than later. Researchers are subjects and their rhetoric should reflect their subjectivity. And while I am onto rhetorics, I would like to quote Gould on the role of the narrative:

[The narrative style is storytelling in the grandest mode.] Narrative has fallen from fashion; even historians are supposed to ape the stereotype of physics [the prototype objective science, by the way] and be quantitative, or cliometric. Fine in its place, but not as a fetish. Narrative remains an art and science of the highest order, but of different form [p. 90].

And Gould keeps returning to what essentially is a discussion of scientific method:

Creative science is always a mixture of facts and ideas. Great thinkers are not those who can free their minds from cultural baggage and think or observe objectively (for such a thing is impossible), but people who use their milieu creatively rather than as a constraint – as Darwin did in translating Adam Smith’s economics into nature as the principle of natural selection, and as Hutton did in using the principle of finals causes to construct a cyclical view of the world.
Such a conception of science not only validates the study of history and the role of intellect – both subtly downgraded if objective observation is the source of all good science. It also puts science into culture and subverts the argument – advanced by creationists and other modern Yahoos, but sometimes unconsciously abetted by scientists – that science seeks to impose a new moral order from without [p. 103].

And again:

AnUrchinInTheStormAfter all, isn’t science supposed to be a cool, passionless, absolutely objective exploration of an external reality? [...] But we scientists are no different from anyone else. We are passionate human beings, enmeshed in a web of personal and social circumstances. Our field [biology here, but the discussion is universal to all sciences, also the social ones] does recognize canons of procedure designed to give nature the long shot of asserting herself in the face of such biases, but unless scientists understand their hopes and engage in vigorous self-scrutiny, they will not be able to sort unacknowledged preference from nature’s weak and imperfect message [pp. 149-150].

Self-scrutiny! That is what it takes. That is also, unfortunately, what they did not teach in grad-school. The message I take from Gould here is that one cannot discount ones personal and social circumstances in a regression (or in other scientific methods), but that does not mean that our personal views and social situation will not interfere with how we read the results. As he wrote earlier, we cannot, simply cannot, think or observe objectively. As scientists, we are not objects, we are subjects.

Gould defends the narrative style as a scientific method (see quote above), perhaps surprising given his expert fields, but not so surprising as he also did work on the history of science. More surprising, to me at least, was his positive discussion of the dialectical approach, but Gould makes eminent sense out of it. As I work in a social science, his parallel between biological and social interaction was particularly delightful (pp. 153-154).

In a final quote, Gould leaves no doubt about the strong link between scientific knowledge and the social setting:

[A]n important theme advanced by contemporary historians of science against the myth of objectivity and inexorable scientific progress: science is socially embedded; its theories are not simple deductions from observed facts of nature, but a complex mixture of social ideology (often unconsciously expressed) and empirical constraint. This theme is liberating for science; it embodies the human side of our enterprise and depicts us as passionate creatures struggling with limited tools to understand a complex reality, not as robots programmed to convert objective information into immutable truth [p. 230].

I learned a lot from reading An Urchin in the Storm; Gould has so much to teach us (me), like what makes for an interesting book review (see p. 10), about biased reporting in science (p. 37), Darwin and evolution (pp. 59, 204-205), the social element in scientific knowledge (p. 84), the on-off history of the Atlantic (p. 96), the problems with IQ (pp, 132-ff), heritability (p. 147), his view of his own deductive powers (p. 165), the extinct solitaire (pp. 187-188), the governance of academic institutions (pp. 194-195), and a really great Gunnar Myrdal quote (p. 216). (I should have quoted all the sections I refer to here, but it wouldn’t make sense. Perhaps in a later post.) The variety of topics combined with Gould’s honest and witful approach makes Urchin a pleasant and interesting read. As my quotations amply demonstrates, a recurring theme is the scientific method and its social element, and anyone interested, and all scientists, should lend an ear (or rather, an eye) to Gould.

UPDATE: An odd thing about Gould’s reviews is that I was left satisfied without any wish to track down the books themselves and read them myself. Not a single one. Perhaps some of the biographies could be interesting, but none of the books Gould reviewed are now on my Amazon wish list (which is how I keep track of books I want to read). What are on my wish list, however, is another of Gould’s books and a detective novel by Dorothy Sayers which was mentioned by Gould. The point should be discounted somewhat because the Urchin is a rather old collection of reviews, but I am still surprised. So, Gould wrote essayic book reviews, but not reviews which generated much interest in the books themselves. Not even the books he liked.

*Page numbers refer to the 1988 paperback edition.

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Notes on an Academic Writing Class

July 10, 2013

While I visited UC Berkeley, I took the opportunity to follow a writing class aimed at visiting researchers. Natalie Reid, who has written Getting Published in International Journals: Writing Strategies for European Social Scientists, gave four lectures on the basics of punctuation, editing (your own text) and revising, organization and how to structure arguments, and a curious topic she called journal analysis. In her lectures, Reid drew on her experience as a professional editor and writer and supplied illustrative examples and instructive stories of writing gone good and bad.  And she made no mistake reminding us of her book throughout the course.

Ever since I entered academics, I have entertained an interest in good writing. I found Reid’s lectures a useful reminder of all those small things important but that is easily forgotten in the heat of the writing. Below, I have transcribed some of my notes from the lectures (in the order they appear in my notebook). Some are important, some are good, some I disagree with, and some are just great quotes.

  • English is not a language, but a language group, for example with differences between US English and British English. Reid repeated this message endlessly. Some of the repetition could with advantage have been traded for some important details on these differences, of which Reid said very little.
  • ‘Writing is thought made visible.’ (Famous quote, but I failed to take note of who said or wrote it.) Implication: Clear writing cannot arise from unclear thinking. McCloskey discusses the point at some length somewhere (in her Rhetorics, I think), and goes on to maintain that writing is thinking and thinking is writing. McCloskey’s point is that they are not unconnected processes and that they must and should happen in parallel.
  • A definition of Rhetoric: Organisation and strategies speakers and writers use to affect their audience. (And it is a two-way street: the audience affects the rhetoric.)
  • The reader should not have to think (by themselves), only absorb and consider.
  • Good academic writing (in the Anglo-Saxon tradition or whatever) follows Aristotelian logic.
  • Reid advanced the following advice for how to structure an article (or argument): Tell the reader what you are going to tell him; tell him; tell him what you told him. McCloskey (one of my rhetorical heroes, as my hypothetical readers may know) argues against such unnecessary repetition and I agree with McCloskey (see her Economical Writing if you think you disagree).
  • Rewrite.
  • Murphy’s Law will strike: If there is any chance the reader can misunderstand, he will.
  • A good sentence is clear on first reading.
  • We suffer from tunnel vision when we write. (We only see our meaning, not what we are actually writing; we should try and revise with a cool eye.)
  • Less is More: Make every word tell (see Strunk & White’s Elements of Style). Shorten structure words (like due to the fact that; in view of the above; in the course of).
  • Avoid too long sentences: You should be able to read a sentence out loud in one breath.
  • Avoid the common ‘previous literature’ (of course it is previous, what else?).
  • ‘It is’ and ‘there is’ is bad writing. (I find this advice hard to follow, by the way. What am I supposed to write instead when I want to make the reader aware of the existence of whatever?)
  • One of my favorites: Sound like an expert (reduce hedging).
  • Editing for clarity: avoid ambiguity; use the active voice, check modifiers, use parallel structure; check punctuation.
  • The solution to vagueness is (often?) repetition.
  • Use not ‘this’ and ‘these’ by themselves; attach the appropriate noun.
  • Only use ‘it’ when there is only one word it can refer to.
  • ‘Which’ and ‘that’ can only refer to the word immediately before them. Further, ‘that’ (with no comma) for essential information; ‘which’ (with comma) for nonessential information.
  • ‘Good writing is speech written down and then cleaned up’ (a Reid-quote, I presume).
  • Avoid the passive voice. It requires more words, it obfuscates the order of things and adds mental strain, and it is boring.
  • Watch modifiers. (This advice is also hard to follow as modifiers pop up all the time and seldom with a red flag.)
  • My notes on Reid’s lecturing on organisation and arguing in Aristotelian logic are unfortunately insufficient to be valuable.
  • Conclusions (the final part of an article) should derive solely and logically from the body of the article; no new arguments are to be introduced. If the journal in question has discussion and conclusions in the same section, conclusions are to come first and discussion second.
  • The abstract is the last thing to be written.
  • Outline, outline, outline. Reid laid out a strategy for outlining: 1. Write down the purpose statement in one sentence. 2. Write a (vertical) list of all things that goes into the article. No second-guessing: brain storm. 3. Do the entries on the list serve the purpose in step 1? Be critical, make everything fit the purpose. 4. Sort the list into  different sections. 5. Sort each section into a logical order. 6. Sort sections. (I actually tried this, but realized I did not know everything that was going into my paper. Not from the top of my head, at least. Step 2 has to be a deep exercise if Reid’s strategy is to be useful, I think.)
  • Revision: Is the language correct? Is stuff in the appropriate section? Do the argument support the conclusion? Boring or confusing? Counter all possible objections. Use an editor (a self-serving advice on Reid’s part, of course, but still not a bad advice). Follow journal guidelines.
  • Some advice on writing resubmission letters: Do not assume the editor remembers anything. ‘Echo’ comments before replies such that the editor do not have to check back to his original letter (in general, make the editor’s job as easy as possible). Use respectful language (can be trickier than one might think when one ain’t a native speaker).
  • On paragraph length: Language influences paragraph length. The British has a peculiar habit of writing long and short paragraphs in imperfect alternation. The Americans want their paragraphs to be no more than ten to twelve lines of type. But a journal may have its own ideas about paragraph length. McCloskey’s advice is that the paragraph is the unit of thought (or something); one idea (or perhaps argument) per paragraph. Some of my arguments certainly require more than twelve lines of type, but I am of course a rather poor writer.
  • Reid spent quite a lot of time on what she called journal analysis and implicated that serious scholars habitually spend considerable time on journal analysis every time they are about to submit something. Journal analysis helps you decide on where to submit work, and how to decrease the chance of rejection. Journal analysis covers several pages in my notebook, but I am not convinced of its usefulness. The process suggested by Reid would take too much time, in particular as much of the process is far removed from the actual writing.
  • Suggested literature (popped up at different times throughout the course): Dictionary of Concise Writing (Rob. Hartwell Fiske; vocabula.com). Ayn Rand’s book on writing. On Writing Well by Zinsser. Stephen King’s book on writing.

Gould on Biased Reporting in Science

July 5, 2013

At Bookish, a used book store in Berkeley, I picked up Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collection An Urchin in the Storm. In an essay on the fundamental problems with human sociobiology, a discipline that tries to explain social behavior with Darwinian selection, Gould has an interesting comment on the problem with biased reporting in science.

Few observers outside science (and not nearly enough researchers inside) recognize the severe effects of biased reporting. The problem is particularly acute, almost perverse, when scientists construct experiments to test for an expected effect. Confirmations are joyfully reported; negative results are usually begrudgingly admitted. But null results-the failure to find any effect in any direction-are usually viewed as an experiment gone awry. Meticulous scientists may report such results, but they disappear forthwith from the secondary literature (and are almost never reported in the press). Most scientists probably don’t publish such results at all-who has the time to write up ambiguous and unexciting data? And besides, they rationalize, maybe next week we’ll have time to do the experiment again and get better results. I call such nonreporting perverse because we cannot gauge its depth and extent. Therefore, we do not know the proper relative frequency of most effects-a monumental problem in sciences of natural history, where nearly all theoretical claims are arguments about relative frequencies, not statements about exclusivity [p. 37, 1988 paperback edition].

Incidentally, I just work through a referee report that asked for more motivation for a model complication which did not affect the main results much. I cannot help but suspect that if the complication had lead to larger effects, the referee would be less inclined to ask for further motivation. The irony: The referee agrees that the complication is novel and leads to a more realistic model, however slightly.

In introducing sociobiology, Gould mentions Kuhn. I sense a sarcastic tone in the final remark.

Thomas Kuhn’s seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, affected working scientists as deeply as it moved those scholars who scrutinize what we do. Before Kuhn, most scientists followed the place-a-stone-in-the-bright-temple-of-knowledge tradition, and would have told you that they hoped, above all, to lay many of the bricks, perhaps even set the keystone, of truth’s temple-the additive or meliorist [the doctrine that the world tends to become better or may be made better by human effort, definition from dictionary.com] model of scientific progress. Now most scientists of vision hope to foment revolution. [...] We are therefore awash in revolutions, most self-proclaimed [p. 27].

Comic of the Day

June 20, 2013


Sounds about right.

Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby

June 17, 2013

My visit to UC Berkeley is ending this week and I am supposed to work, but algebraic manipulations are boring and blogging is (somewhat more) fun. After the dead serious Inquiry Into the Human Prospect by Heilbroner, I almost by accident, and in desperation, picked up Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby. Shakespeare Wrote for Money is a collection of columns Hornby has written for the American magazine Believer. In the column, he writes about books he has read the last month. He also writes about books he has abandoned and books he hasn’t read. And he writes as much about reading as about what he has been reading and everything is quite enjoyable. Hornby is a funny guy, and that he is English and lives in London while writing for an American audience makes for several funny comments upon the many differences between the two countries.

HornbyShakespeareShakespeare is also disturbing. I like to think of myself as a reader, but alongside Hornby’s average of more than a book per week I look like an analphabet. And as if not my to-read list was long from before, it is longer now, as I find myself tempted to read most, if not all, of the books Hornby writes of. Some are:

  • Field Notes from a Catastrophe – Elizabeth Kolbert (This was on my list from before, should have read it long ago but still on my Amazon wish-list.)
  • Imperium – Robert Harris (A novel about Cicero, of all things. Sounds like a good read, but I will likely read Cicero’s De Oratore first. That is the plan, anyway.)
  • Fun Home – Alison Bechdel
  • Light Years – James Salter (Was also on my list from before, higher up now, perhaps in part because Hornby reports that he only buys the book, but not that he reads it.)
  • Essays – George Orwell (Well, I once bought his collected novels and have still only read Animal Farm, but I have recently taken to read essay collections rather than proper books.)
  • 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare – James Shapiro (“The only thing you have to care about to love this book is why and how things get written.” How can I not want to read 1599?)
  • In My Father’s House – Miranda Seymore
  • On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan
  • Coming Through Slaughter – Michael Ondaatje

About Coming Through Slaughter, Hornby describes a situation I recognize myself in:

I had been having some trouble with the whole idea of fiction, trouble that seemed in some way connected with my recent landmark birthday [Hornby just turned 50; I am not there yet, but still am still bothered]; it seemed to my that a lot of novels were, to be blunt, made up, and could teach me little about the world. Life suddenly seemed so short that I needed facts, and I needed them fast. I picked up Coming Through Slaughter in the spirit of kill or cure, and I was cured-I have only read fiction since I finished it.  [...] It seems to me as though anybody who has doubts about the value of fiction should read this book: it leaves you with the sort of ache that nonfiction can never provide, and provides an intensity and glow that are the unique product of a singular imagination laying its gauze over the brilliant light of the world. Ondaatje writes about [jazz] music wonderfully well: you couldn’t ask for anyone better to describe the sound of the crack that must happen when one form is being bent too far out of shape in an attempt to form something else. [...] I am still thinking about this novel, remembering the heat it threw off, weeks after finishing it. [...] [H]urrah for fiction! Down with facts! Facts are for the dull, and the straight, and the old! You’ll never find out anything about the world through facts! [That was what I was afraid of when I decided life was too short for fiction. I found my cure in Neil Gaiman. Neil releases a new book next week, by the way, and I have, in the heat of the moment, ordered a signed copy. And I who thought I didn't bother about such things anymore.]

Getting back to my list of books now added to my to-read list:

  • Skellig – David Almond (At some point voted the third greatest children’s book of the last seventy years.)
  • Sharp Teeth – Toby Barlow (A novel about werewolves in Los Angeles, written in blank verse!)
  • Tom’s Midnight Garden – Philippa Pearce (Made Hornby cry!)
  • Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences – Lawrence Weschler

Reading all of that will probably kill me, but it is there on my to-read list at least, and if I ever get to half of it I’ll by quite happy about it. It is fun and interesting to read about other’s reading. I am, however, ambivalent about it, as I feel in trouble with my own reading. I read to slowly (or rather, I do not spend enough time reading, but life has so much else to spend time on, like work, kids, music, love), and my to-read list grows way too fast. Another problem, which Hornby also seems to have, is that I tend not to read books from my to-read list, but rather whatever comes along.


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