Friday, January 29, 2016

Book Review: Pacific

Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers
Simon Winchester
History, geography, science

It's a big subtitle for a big subject. Not just big as in having many aspects, but big as in physically enormous. Simon Winchester's opening chapter beautifully captures the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, as well as exploring the challenge of taking it on as a subject. He ends up, in fact, admitting defeat; the book is a series of snapshot chapters, picking up in 1950.

My first reaction was that it was pretty peculiar to read a history of the Pacific that only tangentially mentions the whole 1941-1945 unpleasantness. Then I started getting into this rather free-associative set of essays. And then, gradually, something more fundamental started nagging at me. The scattershot content of Pacific gives Simon Winchester the leeway to write about whatever aspects interest him. All of his interests are, in fact, interesting; but they're not equally intelligently treated.

Specifically, he has an attitude problem.

Simon Winchester lives in western Massachusetts. I know very well that there's a kind of attitudinal monoculture out there (it's something in the water). The monoculture simply takes it for granted that, of course, all Right-Thinking People will come to the book with the Correct and Enlightened Viewpoint. In the Correct and Enlightened Viewpoint, certain things are automatically and unthinkingly categorized, with no possibility of nuance:

  • War is Bad.
  • Colonialism is Bad.
  • Anything nuclear and/or industrial is Very Bad.
  • Ecology is Good.
  • Anything that can be described as indigenous, traditional, or native is Good.
  • Science is Good when it's happy peaceful enlightened science, but Bad when it's mean and imperialistic science.
And so on. It's less the attitudes that bother me per se than the meta-attitude: if you don't share Simon Winchester's views on Good and Bad, it seems to say, you have no business reading the book.

Perhaps I'm over-reacting. The sophomoric philosophizing occupies a minority of a very large and often very engaging work. I especially enjoyed the chapters on geology, meteorology, and surfing. I just wish that, if he wants to provide cultural commentary, Winchester would do so with the same thoughtful and perceptive reporting that he brings to more factual matters. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Book Review: Superforecasting

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction
Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner
Cognitive science

I think there's about a 60-65% chance that I'd be a pretty good forecaster. I read widely, I'm comfortable with numbers (though not a mathematician), I'm good at thinking probabilistically, I try to be skeptical towards my preconceptions, my day job involves breaking big problems into tractable sub-problems, and I'm a fox rather than a hedgehog ("the fox knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing"). On the other hand, I'm possibly a tiny bit intellectually arrogant--making me too slow to consult other people's views--and I'm probably not as good at self-criticism as I think I am.


That, in a nutshell, is the format that Philip Tetlock presents and defends in this book. Tetlock is known for having demonstrated that the views of experts and pundits are laregely worthless--indeed, the more certainty a pundit expresses, the less accurate his predictions are. In Superforecasting, he take the contrary tack. rather than focus on what makes bad forecasts, he analyzes on the truly astonishing ability of some people to make really good forecasts. And by "really good" here I mean "better than professionals, better than think tanks, and better than computer models."

This is fascinating stuff, and the book is very well written. As usual, the people who should read it are the people who are least likely to do so, or to believe it if they do. Also as usual, I reserve some degree of judgment on the basis of statistics; Tetlock addresses the notion that some degree of luck is involved, but without mathematical detail. That aside, I highly recommend this book. Whether you're interested in why so much decision-making in bad, or want practical ways to improve your own forecasting, Superforecasting is something of a revelation.

Update, February 13: Here's a good short article by Tetlock.

The bible of the growing literature in this area is Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. A similarly-titled book from 2008, Super Crunchers, deals with algorithmic prediction; it's less deep, but an interesting companion piece--particularly in light of recent research that suggests that human-computer partnerships do better than either does alone.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Book Review: Riot Most Uncouth

Riot Most Uncouth: A Lord Byron Mystery
Daniel Friedman
Mystery

There have, in recent years, been far too many mysteries featuring historical characters as detectives. The subgenre has honorable antecedents, including Lillian de la Torre's "Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector" series, but the current trend--detectivizing everyone from Jane Austen to Eleanor Roosevelt--is generally mere gimmickry.

So why did I pick this up? Partly because I'd recently been talking about Tim Powers's The Stress of Her Regard. Partly because the incongruity of the idea of a Romantic Poet Detective appealed to me. And partly because badly I needed reading material.

Rather to my surprise, I sort of enjoyed Riot Most Uncouth. It deliberately inverts the philosophical underpinnings of the traditional detective story, but in so doing it manages to be a little bit thought-provoking. It's surprisingly true to its protagonist and its (admittedly unlikely) premise.

It's that Enlightenment-vs.-Romanticism thing going on again. The classical mystery is an Enlightenment artifact. That is, it's grounded in the beliefs that:

  • There is an objective truth.
  • It can be discovered by human reason.
  • Collecting measurable, observable facts is of value in that endeavor. 
  • Doing so matters.
Romanticism tends to deny all of those things. In the Romantic sensibility, human reactions are important. Dead facts are not. 

The inversion shows up in several ways. The characters discuss it in the course of the book, for one thing. The plot itself is an over-the-top Grand Guignol--I lost track of how many murders were actually committed. Nor are these Christiesque I-say-let's-poison-rich-uncle-Alfred-before-he-changes-his-will murders. The phrase "buckets of blood" is not metaphorical here.

More fundamentally, the book's ending is itself ambiguous. There's an apparent solution to the crimes, but the twist is that two other solutions are also presented--both consistent with the facts. One of them is a self-interested (and successful) ploy by the protagonist, thus calling into question the value of "truth". The other is explicitly non-rational, but it explains some things that the "real" solution doesn't ... and it makes sense to Byron himself.

Some philosophers, such as Isaiah Berlin, refer to a "Counter-Enlightenment". By that language, Riot Most Uncouth is sort of a Counter-Mystery. I don't know that I'll necessarily leap upon the inevitable sequels with cries of joy, but it's an unusual and even arresting piece of work.


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Year in the Life of Thinking About Stuff

Posts: 99
Books reviewed: 82
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Overall: I'm mildly disappointed that I didn't read more, that I didn't read more broadly, that I didn't write more essays, and that I couldn't drum up much interest even among my relatives. So it goes.