What We Have Read 2

The Black Swan
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Humans have difficulty thinking accurately and rationally about highly improbable events that have large impact. The “Black Swan” paradox refers to the paradox of probability induction, where observing each new white swans increases the probability of the statement “All swans are white” being true, until one travels to Australia and sees the first black swan, which completely changes the probability estimate thereafter. The author rails against modelling systems as bell curve probability distribution when not appropriate, and recommends a fractal Mandelbrot probability distribution. He describes a “ludic fallacy” (ludus, Latin for games). In a casino we can compute the odds, but in most real-life situations the rules are unknown, the odds are not computable.

Black swan events changes the rules. After 9/11, we suddenly estimate probabilities of terror differently. Long-Term Capital Management went bust in 98, with founding partners Merton and Scholes, nearly brought down the financial system, although Modern Portfolio Theory wasn’t killed.

The author warns that globalization gives the illusion of stability, but interlocking financial and manufacturing networks make Black Swan events have world-wide consequences. An earthquake in Taiwan might wipe out a key plant for manufacturing a plastic essential for electronics packaging, affecting far more companies world-wide than in a less connected system.

The book describes two countries of the mind, Mediocristan and Extremistan. Many key situations do not fit bell curve: winner-take-all tournaments, including high-tech industry competition, warfare. In the publishing industry a small number of writers make the bulk of sales. A few actors make incredible wealth, partially from luck, while most cannot earn a living.

Professor Taleb seems to make profitable investments by taking advantage of highly improbable events, without explaining explicit details of this strategy. In Chapter 13 he suggests a barbell strategy of highly safe investments such as T-bills, along with some investments in highly speculative beneficial white swans. Alternately, he suggests insurance against large losses in a portfolio, but it is not clear how to obtain such insurance at a price to still make a profit.

Why Beauty is Truth
Ian Stewart

Traces the development and application of Group Theory, in familiar format for popular math books of concentrating on one mathematician per chapter, with plenty of biographical information. Colorful life of scoundrel Cardano, sickly Abel, revolutionary (in more than one way) Galois, Hamilton, Lie, Einstein, the quantum theorists, Wigner, Witten, and more. The book finishes in triumph, when exceptional Lie groups appear in Superstring theory. Beautiful.

Covers a lot of the ground in “The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved” by Mario Livio, but plenty of differing material with the application to quantum mechanics, so please read both.

Omar Khayyam’s geometric solution of cubics was new to me, as well as some modern physics applications of group theory.

The Children of Hurin
JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

After the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, Morgoth captures and curses the warrior Hurin. The curse extends to his progeny and those around them, primarily Hurin’s son Turin. From community to community Turin travels, battling Orcs, eventually gaining the notice of Morgoth and his dragon Glaurung and triggering an invasion. The community is shattered, Turin flees, and the cycle begins anew.

The book focuses on Turin, powerful, noble, headstrong, and his life struggle under the curse placed upon his family. The curse is almost a main character in this tale, operating subtly, such as causing Turin’s best friend’s betrothed to fall in love with Turin instead. Murphy’s Law distilled.

The ending is memorable high tragedy, Shakespearean, with double-reverses, revealed identities, suicides.

It Can’t Happen Here
Sinclair Lewis

Describes how America could become a fascist state in 1936– similar to an alternative history of spec fic writers today. The narrative is largely from the point of view of Doremus Jessup, small town newspaper publisher. Berzelius Windrip, ably assisted by Rove-like Lee Sarason, defeats Roosevelt and becomes President, and immediately begins consolidating power. An organization of “brown-shirts” is recognized with government authority, an unnecessary war is declared, and soon Congress is controlled and the Supreme Court co-opted, the press taken. Liberals like Doremus try to alert the public, but are too slow to action, and initially ineffective against the Sarason propaganda machine. Doremus must face the dangers of insurrection against tyranny, with danger to family and friends.

Today a president might use more subtle means than Windrip’s initial overt power grab. A leader might use the power of a political party and media propaganda to sway voters to give up rights voluntarily in the face of an external threat. With a powerful party in control of Congress, one gets control of the Supreme Court, and rule of law can subverted.

The Sagan Diary
John Scalzi

Part of the Old Man’s War world, but not what one would expect: this is a diary of the inner thoughts of character Jane Sagan, musing on topics such as Fear and Killing and Love. Poetical or lyrical at times, informing the complex inner life of a principal character.

This short story was written as a result of a fund-raising effort for a library endowment: Scalzi announced if the bidding for an item got to $5k he would write a short story for the winning bidder, and a publisher took him up on the offer.

The Higher Power of Lucky (Newbery Medal winner)
Susan Patron

Lucky, 10, fledgling naturalist, lives in Hard Pan, a small quirky California desert community, where most people are eligible for government cheese. She likes to eavesdrop on 12-step meetings held at the Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center. How can a community of 43 have so many different 12-step programs? Listening has caused Lucky to think about her higher power. Lucky’s friends are Lincoln, knot expert, and Miles, five-year-old cookie moocher, proud reader of one book: “Are You My Mother”. Lucky’s guardian is Brigitte, first wife of her absent father, who dropped everything and flew from France to take care of her when L’s mom died. Brigitte knows exotic things like using parsley not just for decoration. B tries hard and cherishes Lucky, but she doesn’t quite fit Hard Pan, and Lucky fears she might leave someday. Find out how Lucky finds her own higher power, with an especially touching ending.

This book was banned from some libraries because the word “scrotum” appears on the first page. Irony: Patron lives, breathes, and works at the Los Angeles Public Library.

The Last Colony
John Scalzi

John Perry and Jane Sagan, mustered out of the Colonial Defense Forces, are leaders of the new colony Roanoke, which becomes the target of a mysterious coalition of alien worlds called the Conclave. They are pawns in a struggle between the secretive Colonial Union and powerful Conclave, and must be clever pawns indeed to survive in this new world.

Peter Watts

An alien ship is approaching the solar system with deception and stealth, and an unusual team is assembled to meet them on the Theseus. Sarasti is homo sapiens vampiris, a resurrected subspecies, an extremely intelligent and ruthless predator, always several steps ahead of regular homo sapiens. Bates is a linguist with multiple personalities. Szpindel is a xeno-biologist with direct brain interface to equipment. Siri Keeton, the principal character, underwent a radical hemispherectomy as a child, and as a result has no innate empathy. He has had to build a model of human interaction as a substitute, and as a result is able to read body language and is hard to deceive, and has role of “jargonaut”, commissar, or observer, reporting the team’s actions back to Earth. How the team deals with the alien challenges the reader’s conception of consciousness and mind.

Sweeter Side of R. Crumb
R. Crumb

A collection of some of the “nicer” sketches of Crumb, as chosen by wife Aline. My faves are the first three illustrations, as well as the old buildings in France. Curiously, several banjos appear.

The Fall of Rome
Bryan Ward-Perkins

A trend of some historians in America and certain countries of Europe is to describe the fall of Rome as a Late Antiquity period, 500 to 800, as a soft landing, not the dramatic fall of a civilization in previous histories. Against this background the author discusses the archeological evidence, presenting graphs of pottery distribution over time, coins minted over time, average height of cattle, settlement density surveys graphed over time, and more. Acknowledging confounding influences such as back-to-the-earth trends of building with thatch and wood instead of tile and stone, possible reduced materialism, the author still makes the case for a sudden drastic decline of economic activity, reduced trade range, sudden decrease of population. To a non-expert he appears to politely and thoroughly demolish the Late Antiquity revisionism.

The graphs and illustrations are most valuable. Although the writer considers a number of reasons for the fall of Rome, he is not able to present much data on the political aspect of the fall.

Jo Walton

The story begins as an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery during a weekend gathering in British country estate Farthing House, set in an alternate history where England negotiated peace with Hitler. Later we are surprised with an entirely plausible case-history on how a democracy moves into fascism. Bloody brilliant read.

1 thought on “What We Have Read 2”

Leave a Comment