Archive for June, 2013

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.

Zilberman Comments on Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

June 14, 2013

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is on my to-read list (which of course grows faster than I read). David Zilberman, a professor here at UC Berkeley, has a nice comment on the economic principles which can be taken from Guns. Zilberman hails the book as ‘one of these rare classic books written during our lifetime,’ no small acclamation.

[…] Diamond’s book provides context to the recent economics of natural resources. Extraction of resources in the present without consideration of the future can be destructive. The challenge of sustainability and building institutions that allow for the resource base to survive and flourish in the long run. If we don’t plan for the future, the cost may be very high.

Allow me to paraphrase: If we don’t plan for the future, it might cost us the future!

Progress and Its Problems by Larry Laudan

June 12, 2013

From time to time, I read books on philosophy of science. A good while ago, I read Progress and Its Problems by Larry Laudan. The book has the subtitle Towards a Theory of Scientific Growth. I have had this book for a long time, but has hesitated to read it after I found Kuhn vs. Popper by Steve Fuller an unsettling read. (I actually wrote a longer review of Kuhn vs. Popper than what I posted here, but never got around to edit the last part of it properly; I guess I should, as my ‘review’ is actually just a weird sort of summary.)

Anyway, another reason for my hesitation was that I was quite frustrated with philosophy of science and did not realize it was my understanding (or depth) which frustrated me. Most who has tried to produce knowledge (to be a scientist) and tried to understand Popper and Kuhn must agree that both their theories are artificial. Laudan, however, presents a theory for scientific growth which makes good sense and agrees well with empirical (anecdotal?) knowledge of scientific development.

ProgressAndItsProblemsThe central element in Laudan’s theory is the research tradition:

[…] I propose that the rationality and progressiveness of a theory are most closely linked-not with its confirmation or its falsification-but rather with its problem solving effectiveness. I shall be arguing that there are important nonempirical, even “nonscientific” (in the usual sense), factors which have-and which should have-played a role in the rational development of science. I shall suggest, further, that most philosophers of science have mistakenly identified the nature of scientific appraisal, and thereby the primary unit of rational analysis, by focusing on the individual theory, rather than on what I call the research tradition. This study will show, moreover, that we need to distinguish between the rationality of acceptance and the rationality of pursuit if we are to make any progress at reconstructing the congitive dimensions of scientific activity [p. 5,* italics in original]

Laudan aims to shift the research focus from a search for truth (which we cannot identify anyway) to a focus on progress:

[…] the rationale for accepting or rejecting any theory is thus fundamentally based on the idea of problem-solving progress.  If one research tradition has solved more important [scientific] problems than its rivals, then accepting that tradition is rational precisely to the degree that we are aiming to “progress,” [that is], to maximize the scope of solved problems. […], the choice of one tradition over its rivals is a progressive (and thus rational) choice precisely to the extent that the chosen tradition is a better problem solver than its rivals [p. 109].

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to give a decent and comprehensive account of Laudan’s ideas, for that, I must refer you to the book. (I am not even sure a decent account of short length is probably; the book is perhaps as brief as it can be. Laudan mostly writes economically.) Some key parts that to some degree can be studied out-of-context: The discussion of anomalous problems (pp. 26-ff). On problem solving and ambiguous tests (pp. 42-ff). The deconstruction of Kuhn and Lakatos (pp. 73-ff). On the progressiveness of ad hoc modifications (p. 115). The discussion of rationality at the beginning of chapter four (pp. 121-ff) should be read by every rational scientist, and perhaps in particular economists for whom rationality has such an central, theoretical role. On scientific revolutions, and Kuhn again (pp. 133-ff). Finally, on the justification for scientific research (pp. 224-225).

Some further interesting points: The note on on why Adam Smith wrote his treatise on moral philosophy (to resolve tensions between his economic theory and the Newtonian thesis of a balance of forces in nature (endnote 10 to chapter 2, p. 230). The (long) note on Foucault (“[…] Foucault has benefited from that curious Anglo-American view that if a Frenchman talks nonsense it must rest on a profundity which is too deep for a speaker of English to comprehend[!]”) (endnote 12 to chapter 6, p. 241). Again finally, the note on sociology of knowledge is also great (endnote 29 to chapter 7, pp. 244-245). Why do so many nonfictional writers put so much of interest in small print at the back? Who started this odd tradition?

I should have written a proper review of Laudan when I had it fresh in mind. What I can say is that it reinserted a feeling of aim and purpose into my own work as a researcher (something neither Kuhn nor Popper will likely do for you). It also felt like some sort of closure, as my thirst for further insights into the philosophy of science has since dried up(?). My unread volumes on Popper and Feyerabend will likely remain unread for a while still. But, in parts Laudan only sketches out his ideas. Some day I will most likely try and follow some of the loose ends; perhaps there are some interesting problems at the end of some of them? (A [long run] better solution would of course be to befriend someone in the philosophy department, but who has the [short run] courage for that?)

I am trailing off. Let me rather conclude with a sobering economic comment on research funding from Laudan’s epilogue:

Far too much scientific research today is devoted to problems which are as cognitively trivial as they are socially irrelevant. If the “pure” scientist is to deserve the generous support presently being lavished on him [Laudan might be thinking of English college professors here], he must be able to show that his problems are genuinely significant ones and that his program of research is sufficiently progressive to be worth gambling our precious and limited resources on it [p. 225].

* Page numbers refer to the 1978 paperback edition.

Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012

June 9, 2013

I think anyone in a creative trade could take some advice from, and even enjoy, Neil Gaiman:

Hattip: Neil Gaiman’s Journal

An Inquiry Into The Human Prospect by Robert L. Heilbroner

June 1, 2013

The Giannini Library at UC Berkeley discarded a pile of books, and I picked up Heilbroner’s An Inquiry Into The Human Prospect. The book is old (1974; books discarded from libraries usually are), and much of the discussion feels dated. Other parts are still relevant. But, let me take it from the top.

AnInquiryIntoTheHumanProspectOn the first page, Heilbroner asks Is there hope for man? Heilbroner then lists three large problems which together makes his question pertinent: population growth, the spread of nuclear weapons, and environmental problems (including resource depletion, pollution, and climate change). All three problems are to different degrees still relevant today. Both population growth and environmental problems still pose threats on global scales. They are also, I think, largely viewed as connected. We still worry about nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, but the Armageddon-like prospect of nuclear war is not upon us like it must have been during the cold war.

Heilbroner is a careful writer, and before he plunges into his analysis, he discusses its validity:

The problem caused by the intrusion of subjective values into its inquiries has always troubled social science, which has struggled, without too much success, to attain the presumed “value free” objectivity of the natural sciences. Alas, this ambition fails into account that the position of the social science investigator differs sharply from that of the observer of the natural world. The latter may stage his reputation as he regards the stars through his telescope or the cells through his microscope, but he is not himself morally embedded in the field he scrutinizes. By contrast, the social investigator is inextricably bound up with the objects of his scrutiny, as a member of a group, a class, a society, a nation, bringing him with feelings of animus or defensiveness to the phenomena he observes. In a word, his position in society-not only his material position but his moral position-is implicated in and often jeopardized by the act of investigation, and it is not surprising, therefore, that we find behind the great bulk of social science arguments that serve to justify the existential position of the social scientist [pp. 22-23*].

Heilbroner moves on to point out that while the moral position of the analyst (himself) has potential implications for his analysis, the moral position of the reader has implications for how to comprehend the analysis. In the end, Heilbroner finds that his conclusions about the human prospect do not accord with his own preferences and interests.

Parts of the book is not as relevant today as it was when it was written. For example, a lengthy discussion of whether a socialist or capitalist society is better able to take on the challenges Heilbroner has identified is today only of academic interest. That the discussion builds upon the work of Freud and his followers makes it arcane in my eyes, but I am relatively short-sighted. An interesting remark, though, on the necessity of regarding the political aspect:

We live in an age in which the very capacity for socio-economic analysis marks us off from the past. We read with amusement or shock the historical prognoses of the classical historians or political philosophers, into which socio-economic dynamics do not enter at all ( for the very good reason that the relevant social systems had not yet evolved) and in which, instead, we find purely political predictions , usually of dynastic rise and fall, and so forth. But however more “scientific” our socio-economic method may seem by comparison, its omission of a political dimension is nonetheless crippling, even fatal, for a comprehension of the human prospect [p. 100].

In the following discussion, Heilbroner asserts that the nation-state must be ‘considered as the embodiment of purely political, as well as socio-economic, behavioral forces’ (p. 112). I am not sure I fully understand Heilbroner here, but his assertion made me think about all the different historical configurations of the map of Europe. Does his assertion have implications for observed political behavior when political borders change? Would it be possible to empirically test his assertion in some sense?

The problem of time discounting is much debated in the current climate change debate. Heilbroner puts it clear:

[The] devaluation of the future is generally considered to be an entirely rational response to the uncertainties of life. But if we apply this same calculus of “reason” to the human prospect, we face the horrendous possibility that humanity may react to the approach of environmental danger by indulging in a vast fling while it is still possible-a fling entirely justified by the estimation of present enjoyments over future ones. On what private, “rational” considerations, after all, should we make sacrifices now to ease the lot of generations whom we will never live to see [pp. 114 – 115]?

Heilbroner finds it difficult to believe the ‘contemporary industrial man’ is willing to make the necessary sacrifices (p. 115). While I have not discussed all parts of the analysis, much of it is as I said not so relevant today as it undoubtedly was in 1974, it is nonetheless clear that Heilbroner finds little support for a positive view on the future:

[W]ith the full spectacle of the human prospect before us, the spirit quails and the will falters. We find ourselves pressed to the very limit of our personal capacities, not alone in summoning up the courage to look squarely at the dimensions of the impending predicament, but in finding words that can offer some plausible relief in a situation so bleak [p. 136].

In fact, the only consolation Heilbroner can offer, is that the idea of Atlas, the Greek god which figures on the cover of the book and who bears ‘with endless perseverance the weight of the heavens in his hands’, springs from elements within us (pp. 143 – 144).

*Page numbers refer to the 1974 edition (paperback).