Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book Review: A Clearing in the Distance

A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century
Witold Rybczynski

A pleasant, straightforward, clear biography--which, in those respects, is not unlike its subject. Rybczynski is himself an urbanist of note, and he does a good job of explaining what Olmsted did, what he was trying to achieve, and why it mattered (and continues to matter). For me, the most surprising thing is that Olmsted as a young man was one of those people who drifts from project to project, relying on a well-to-do and indulgent father; he became a landscape architect, and the designer of Central Park, more on the strength of his pleasant personality and social connections than for any tangible accomplishments to that point ... and he was in his mid-30s!

The book does have a goodly number of photographs and illustrations. It would be greatly improved if they were in color, but they do at least illustrate what Rybczynski is talking about. Still, to fully appreciate his points, I think you'd have to visit at least some of the sites.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Book Review: You Talking to Me?

You Talking to Me? The Art of Persuasion from Aristotle to Obama
Sam Leith

A witty and well-written introduction to the classical theory of rhetoric, with examples and explanations. The glossary of rhetorical terms is particularly useful.

I don't think You Talking to Me will be of enormous practical use to most readers. It's hard to envision sitting around listening to political sound bites and thinking "By Jove! That was a jolly fine zeugma!" 

It is, however, an enjoyable way of analyzing and describing how a persuasive argument should work. As usual, the people who would most benefit from reading it are the people least likely to do so; we seem, indeed, to have largely given up on the idea of "persuasion" as a part of public discourse, in favor of mere bombast--the sort of thing that's meant to sound good in short bites, so that the people who already agree with you will have something to agree with you on.

American readers should be warned that You Talking to Me? has a substantial quotient of British cultural references, some of which are quite obscure.

Anyone interested in this topic should run out and buy Gary Wills's Lincoln at Gettysburg, if you haven't read it already.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Book Review: The Upright Thinkers

The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos
Leonard Mlodinow

The Upright Thinkers purports to be a history of the key developments in how we think. In the first couple of chapters, it fully delivers. Mlodinow traces the human family tree down into early history by showing what were, or might have been, the key steps (tools, symbolic thinking, abstraction) in our changing modes of thought.

After that point, the book rather loses its focus. It becomes a well-written but not otherwise remarkable history of science, done via the biographies of Great Men (virtually no women) Of Science. It's perfectly fine, but it covers ground that I've read in at least a score of other books.

The best parts of The Upright Thinkers are the anecdotes that Mlodinow sprinkles in, recounting his talks with his father. The senior Mlodinow was not a scholar; he was a tailor--and a Holocaust survivor. His take on scientific knowledge provides an extra human dimension to the question of how we think.

Overall: a good overview for someone who's not terribly familiar with the subject. It's well-trodden turf, however.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Aldas and the Lecters

Those of you who aren't bored by now may have noticed that Sean and I have been carrying on a very interesting and enjoyable comment thread about evolution, the genetic origins of cooperative behavior, and fun stuff like that. Quoth he:
Without the ability to know the modeling, I don't think I can take this any further...
So, just to be a pill, here is a simple Excel model to think about. REMINDER: I am not in any way an expert in this subject, nor even qualified, so don't cite me in your homework.


For this model, we have a tribe of cave persons. These cave persons come in two genetic stripes: Aldas and Lecters.
  • Aldas are kind, cooperative, brave, loyal, trustworthy, altruistic, and generally the kind of people you'd like to have as neighbors. They help out other tribe members, even when it costs them. Aldas are good hunters and good providers, because they work well together and share their takings equitably.
  • Lecters are intelligent sociopathic libertarians. The Lecter creed is "every cave-person for himself". A Lecter will only help out another tribe member if he/she thinks there's something of equal or greater value for him/her in the deal. Lecters are less effective providers. However, they're clever and selfish and they know how to take advantage of the Aldas (and each other). Thus, they have a slight reproductive advantage. 
Simply put, being an Alda is much better for the tribe, but being a Lecter is a little bit better for you, personally.


The spreadsheet uses the following terms and equations.

  • Replacement rate is the number of children each tribesperson generates who (a) survive, and (b) share his genetic signature. A replacement rate of 1 indicates perfect population stability. By assumption, Lecters have a slightly higher replacement rate than Aldas, because they don't risk their genes or waste their resources on helping others. 
  • Carrying capacity is the number of tribespersons each adult can support by hunting, gathering, macrame, performance art, etc. A carrying capacity of 1 indicates that each individual can support one person. By assumption, Aldas have a much higher carrying capacity, because they look out for each other and cooperate effectively.
  • Each generation is a single row in the spreadsheet. For simplicity, I use a total-replacement model: at each generation, all the adults die off and are replaced by their surviving children.
  • The number of Aldas born in each generation is the Alda replacement rate × the number of Alda parents, and similarly for the Lecters.
  • Not all of these children may survive (sorry). The number of survivors is the sum of # of Alda adults × Alda carrying capacity + # of Lecter adults × Lecter carrying capacity.
  • Die-off of children is distributed evenly between Aldas and Lecters. (Aldas may cooperate better to care for their children, but Lecters are heartlessly efficient in protecting their individual genetic progeny.) That is, if 70 out of 100 children are Aldas, and 30 children die because of insufficient carrying capacity, 21 of them (70%) are Aldas and 9 (30%) are Lecters.


I started with these values:

Alda Lecter
Replacement rate 1.5 1.6
Carrying capacity 2 0.9

Note that the Lecter carrying capacity is actually less than 1. That is, Lecters are so quarrelsome and inefficient that they can't even support their own numbers. Thus, Lecters must have Aldas around them to survive. The Lecter reproductive advantage is comparatively small.

With an inital population of 50 Aldas and 50 Lecters, the first few generations look like this:

Generation Aldas Lecters Tribe Size % Lecter
1 50 50 100 50%
2 70 75 145 52%
3 97 111 208 53%
4 133 161 294 55%
5 179 232 410 56%
6 238 328 566 58%
7 312 459 771 60%
(Calculation columns omitted for clarity.)

After only 7 generations, the tribe is much larger, but it's 60% Lecter. Looking at further generations, the Lecter advantage only grows:

18 2524 7561 10086 75%
23 3946 16324 20271 81%
37 3750 38284 42033 91%

Generation 37 is the high point of the tribe's success, in terms of sheer numbers. After this, the number of conniving, squabbling, backstabbing, selfish Lecters is so large that the tribe can't sustain itself. But the fraction of Lecters keeps growing, even as the tribe shrinks ...

45 1980 33883 35864 94%
55 617 20128 20745 97%
65 151 9367 9517 98%

The last of the Aldas dies off at generation 101. The tribe goes extinct at generation 162.


This is obviously a very naive and hyper-simplified model, with many gross assumptions. Perhaps the most glaring one is that infant mortality is distributed randomly between Alda and Lecter children. 

Nonetheless, it does illustrate--no more than that--the paradox that population geneticists grapple with. 
  • One the one hand, if a given trait is even slightly advantageous within a group, then it can be expected to come to dominate that group even if it makes the group as a whole weaker
  • On the other hand, real-world hunter-gatherers are much more like the Aldas. Even among "civilized" folk, we don't see sociopaths dominating society anywhere in the world (except in YouTube comments).
Playing around with the parameters changes the shapes of the curves but doesn't change the basic outcome: as long as they have a higher replacement rate, Lecters dominate. If the Lecter carrying capacity is set to 1, the population eventually stabilizes (at 100% Lecter) and neither grows nor shrinks. If the Lecter carrying capacity is > 1, the population grows without limit, although the growth rate flattens out once the Aldas are gone.

Also, the Alda/Lecter imagery is irrelevant to the basic math, so don't get hung up on this particular concept. It doesn't matter if the trait distinguishes between cooperative and selfish individuals, or if it's something else--height, or extra fingers, or trombone-playing ability. (For example: in this tribe the trombone is considered super duper sexy, and therefore the trombonists get a lot of sweet lovin'; but all the noise attracts saber-toothed carnivorous music critics, so some people get randomly eaten.) Any time you get a trait that's good for its owner, but bad for its group, this model can be used.

Update, 6/15: I was curious to see what happened if we change the assumption that deaths are equally likely among the Alda and Lecter children. I introduced a setting for the presumed Alda advantage. An Alda advantage of 0.8, for example, indicates that only 80% as many Alda children die, with the balance being Lecters.

Somewhat to my surprise, this does change the shape of the curve.

  • With an Alda advantage of 0.8, the fraction of Lecters in the population stabilizes at about 65%, around generation 67+, and the tribe doesn't die out. 
  • With an Alda advantage of 0.9, the tribe does begin dying out, and the Lecter % keeps going up, but it's much slower than in the base case. 
  • With an Alda advantage of 0.2, the initial 50/50 balance is unchanged. At this level, 89% of all child deaths are Lecters. So an Alda advantage of 0.2 is necessary to offset the effect of the Lecters' higher replacement rate of 1.6.

Book Review/Essay: Rendez-vous With Art and the Rationalist Temperament

Rendez-vous With Art
Philippe de Montebello, Martin Gayford

A couple of men who really, really love Art go to museums and talk about what they see. Much dialogue ensues.

For me, Rendez-vous With Art is as much a sociological investigation as an artistic one. Now, I'm not a total philistine. I sometimes visit art museums voluntarily. I myself have committed acts of art, and even been paid for them. There are painters I admire greatly (Vermeer, Hopper) and painters I despise (Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein).

But I do not--I probably cannot--feel about art the way de Montebello and Gayford feel about Art.

I've never stood before a painting and felt ravished. I've never had the feeling that "this must be the best painting ever".

Perhaps this is another divide between the Romantic and the Enlightenment temperaments. For example, at one point, Philippe de Montebello says:
There are may things to enjoy and ravish the eye in the works of Caravaggio's finest followers, but the image that will remain engraved in your memory, the picture that has shaken you, changed you, and that you will not forget, will be by Caravaggio.
To which I immediately think: really? Have double-blind studies been done? If so, who was the control group, and what was the level of statistical significance achieved? And ... are you certain that that would be your reaction if you didn't know which picture was a genuine Caravaggio? 

I would be willing to bet a moderate amount of money that the answer to the last question is no, by the way. Many studies have shown that people, including wine experts, can't tell the difference in blind testing between cheap wines and expensive ones--but when you tell them a wine is more expensive (even if it's not!) they enjoy it more.

Here's another example. De Montebello looks at this Assyrian relief (which, by the way, I agree is marvelous):
(Image hosted at the Ancient History Encyclopedia)

His reaction:
The king is impassive, invincible ... The king has to be represented in a hieratic, predetermined and specific way ...
My reaction: drawing people in lifelike action poses is hard (I know by personal experience). I bet it's a lot harder when you're working stone with early-Iron-Age tools. Maybe the king looks stiff because the artist had hit the limits of his skill.

Perhaps these kinds of reactions are why I--like other engineers of my acquaintance--often prefer illustration to art. The distinction is artificial, and relatively recent, but I think it's a useful one. (I've done both.) Art, as it's currently understood, is an interior and subjective experience, and as such it's exceedingly vulnerable to group-think and critical faddism. Illustration is intended to give a clear, evocative picture. The ideal illustration is one that can be enjoyed by anyone, and will get a fairly consistent response across most viewers.

N. C. Wyeth, for example, was an illustrator, particularly beloved for his adventure book paintings. His wonderful pirate illustrations literally created the iconic "pirate look":

This is a terrific illustration. It's all surface--what you see is what it is--but what a wonderful surface it is!

His son Andrew Wyeth was an artist. His most famous painting is Christina's World:
(Image hosted by the Museum of Modern Art)

Christina's World is intended as art. It leaves everything to the imagination of the viewer. We're free to project ourselves into the picture and react individually.

Nowadays illustration is considered rather coarse and lowbrow; "fine" art gets all the respect. Perhaps I'm limited by my Enlightenment-oriented, engineering-trained mind, but I can't help thinking that this attitude sells the illustrators short. To show a thing clearly, and show it in a way that it's not only beautiful but becomes more real than the reality, is no small matter.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Meaning of Life, Part II

In re: one of my recent reviews, my faithful correspondent Sean asked: 
For those of us not in the know, what are the models of group evolution you mention?
The answer turned out to be too long for a reply, so here it is. DISCLAIMER: I am a complete amateur in this area, so take this synopsis for what it's worth.

Conventional evolution--the "Darwinian Synthesis"--notes that the gene, rather than the individual, is the unit of selection. That is, evolution operates by killing off some genes and replicating others. The organism is simply the vehicle.

However, biologists have long argued about the evolution of certain traits that don't seem to favor the reproductive success--and, hence, the genes--of the individuals who have them. The classic conundrum is altruism. If you jump into a raging river to save a drowning person, you are much more likely to die than if you watch dispassionately from the shore. Yet altruism is a human universal, and has been observed in other species as well. Why have not those genes been eliminated?

One simple answer is group selection. The naive version goes like this: Yes, your genes will perish. But your tribe is stronger because you are willing to do this. Your tribe will cooperate more, save each others' lives, and therefore outcompete other, less-altruistic tribes. This model imagines natural selection operating at the levels of groups: better-adapted groups thrive, worse-adapted groups don't.

This is intuitive. The problem is that the math doesn't seem to support it. The benefit to the group has to be implausibly huge, and the risk tiny, for these genes to survive. The reason is that you're directly competing with people within your group, and compared to them, you, Mr. Altruist, are a total loser. As in, you are dead, rendering your further reproductive success highly doubtful

A somewhat different explanation, which came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, is called kin selection, or inclusive selection. Kin selection says, basically, that altruism is disguised selfishness. Your genes are willing to risk themselves to the extent that the victim in the river may have some of those same genes. Thus, most people are very altruistic towards their children; somewhat altruistic towards near relatives; slightly altruistic to distant relatives; and very little altruistic towards complete strangers.

Kin selection is now the orthodoxy among biologists. It has some math to back it up, and some examples that fit the observed data. Edward Wilson himself was originally a prominent supporter.

More recently he's broken with the Church, and has been appropriately vilified therefor. His current argument is that there is a more subtle form of group selection that does meet the mathematical tests, while the math behind kin selection is flawed. 

Boiling it down, my understanding of his position is that, just as you can model an individual as a carrier of heteregeneous genes, you can model a group the same way. The unit of selection is still the gene--but if you're talking about a gene that's dispersed through the group, it may make sense to talk about the group collectively "having" some genetic trait.

In a social species, for example, a gene that promotes a feeling of social cohesion may be an individual reproductive advantage; individuals that have it will cooperate to outcompete individuals who don't. At the point where the "cooperation" gene is dispersed through the group, you can sensibly model natural selection at higher levels than the individual.

Obviously, you should not rely on a dilettante engineer for your biology homework. I don't know enough about the subject to have an opinion one way or the other, although it does seem to me that both Wilson and his opponents--especially Richard Dawkins--are behaving somewhat childishly. Here is what seems to me to be an in-depth "middle-ground" position, if you're curious.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Book Review: Moriarty

Anthony Horowitz

A few years ago, Anthony Horowitz--the creator of the outstanding TV series Foyle's War, among other credits--wrote a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. It was, let's say, partially successful: better as a mystery than as Holmesiana.

With Moriarty, Horowitz dodges that bullet. He puts the story within Holmes's continuity, but without Holmes himself. The result is pretty good. It's not perfect: there's some clunky prose, and some of the dialog shows a bit of a tin ear for voice (surprising in a screenwriter, but there it is). However, it has an abundance of the two really important virtues for this sort of popular fiction:

  1. Excellent pacing.
  2. A genuinely surprising denouement.
I've seen other books that have played around with some of the same ideas--John Garner did it in the 1970s--but Moriarty is a very respectable addition to their number.