Sunday, March 27, 2011

Time Travelers Never Die

Time travel books all have to fight with the "believability" problem. If time travel works, why haven't we seen a bunch of them? The explanation this author uses is that time travelers can't "change" events. An attempt to go back and change a known past event will result in the death or displacement of the person attempting it.

However, this doesn't mean that time travelers can't have an impact on history - just that their impact has already been registered in history. (However, what happens if a time traveler decides not to perform an already past intervention? Or does it just require a Calvanistic predestination?)

Also, time travel seem to be limited. The father of the protagonist has discovered it. His research partner died in an attempted meddling, leaving only his son and friends with possession of the devices. Some asides seem to imply that the possibility of public time travel is acknowledged. However, it does not seem to have spread through society. (And the travelers don't seem to run in to others.)

Beyond the premise, the story is of two "historical voyeurs" - a version of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure played straight. This two guys love to go to historical events and hobknob with historical figures. This comes across as even less believable than the time travel. Would Ben Franklin even be able to understand their English, much less be taken aback by their dress and mannerisms? And the ancient Greeks and Renaissance Italians? Sure they have studied the classical languages and gone to costume shops, but would that really get them the full access they seek? And how many of these events really occurred as we "know them"? (To his credit, he does hint at a few things occurring on different days.)

On one spontaneous trip, he goes tens of thousands of years to the future and is enchanted to hear an orchestra playing. It seems humanity has survived the big scares of the modern days. (Though, I wonder what somebody from 30,000 years ago would think if they came to our day? Humanity as they know it may not be recognizable.)

One interesting side project they do perform is the restoration of lost Greek plays. They send them anonymously to a scholar, who disregards them, but then comes to believe they are authentic. Others, almost universally believe they are forgeries. However, when performed, they are positively received, and acknowledged as being either authentic, or the work of a great modern playwright. How would we accept new knowledge that is given to us?

The book has a few interesting points, but it is bogged down with excessive visits to historical events.

This Book is Overdue!

The author likes librarians. She finds a way to relate librarians to her social life. I'm sure she had fun writing this book, but it didn't provide much in content. Perhaps the best insight is that librarians are still useful because they are really good at using Google and commercial databases.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rome, Inc., The Rise and Fall of the First Multinational Corporation

Rome, Inc. is part business book, part history, part comedy. The author writes of ancient Rome as if it were a contemporary business. He spends a lot of time on facts and events that support his thesis, while quickly passing over ones that are not so valuable.
Rome must continually expand by using "hostile" takeovers. However, after taking over other "operations", it quickly integrates them in to corporation by offering them the "full benefits" of citizenship. After time, management gets complacent and in need of a firebrand to shake things up.
The book is no real history, though it does delve in to detail on a few historical events. It is more a comedy exercise on "how do you fit A in to B". As such, it does a moderately good job. It does suffer from tone inconsistency - at times trying to break the jocular tone with serious observations. It also suffers from excessive "name dropping" of business leaders (both real and fictional).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Saints starts with a vivid account of a "middle class" early 1800s Manchester family that is having some marital struggles. The father feels that the family is holding him back from his painting skills and walks out on them. The family then becomes transformed to lower class, with the children and mother required to work. Through their dedication and intelligence, they are able to rise back to their "proper" space. However, they encounter many struggles in the process, that start to tear the family apart. Eventually they hear a Mormon preacher, join the church, and sail to the new world (and help others to make the voyage.) However, not everyone makes the voyage. One brother has become a big industrialist and doesn't believe in the faith. He also helps his sister's husband to take his children back in an attempt to prevent her from going.

I found the descriptions of life in 19th century England to be very well done, and felt an attachment to the characters. The conversion to the Mormon faith did, however, seem a bit rushed. Though, the internal narration of the novel somewhat acknowledges it. The major outward "life-changing" and historical events are given brief coverage. Most time is spent on the inward "character-changing" events.

The second half of the novel deals primarily with life as a Mormon pioneers in Nauvoo, Illinois. Their faith is tested in numerous ways, both physical and personal. One of the key trials is the humanity of everyone. Even the prophet is a human with all the appropriate foibles of man. At the other end, some people that seem good on the outside may only be putting on a show.

Plural marriage provides the key trial for Dinah Kirkham and her friends. Much time is spent covering the internal conflicts present with living in polygamy. It is neither the great caving to lost that detractors had put in place, or a rose-colored relationship that apologists proclaim. For most people, there was a strong reluctance to abide by the principle of plural marriage, with a strong internal battle needed to adopt it.

This provides an excellent characterization of "real" Mormon pioneers. They are by no means perfect, yet many of them are trying hard. (Though there are plenty that are there for other reasons.) The Kirkham family makes great sacrifices for their faith and are rewarded with a joyous family life and a measure of posterity in the end. (However, the family they left behind also achieves significant success.) We see significant events that cause characters to grow and change. It does a great job of bringing alive the unfiltered struggles of those making great life changes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The BlackSwan: The Impact of the Highly Improbably

Black Swans are unexpected occurrences that disrupt predicted outcomes. Though seeing one-thousand white swans does not disprove the existence of black swans, a single black swan can prove their existence.

This book is filled with examples of the human tendency to think they know more than they do and fail to expect the unexpected. People tend to look at data and events that confirm their expectations rather than seeking for ones that disprove it. This is exacerbated when the losers drop out. (Thus gamblers seem to have "beginners' luck" because lucky beginners are most likely to continue.) While "rules" may provide insight, breaking the rules is required for success. In hindsight, we can often create "rules" to predict improbably events (like the rise of the internet or Microsoft.) However, rarely can we accurately predict them in the future. (And when we do, it tends to be due to dumb luck.)

The arguments are good. However, they seem to bounce around, often arguing opposite points from different angles. (I guess this is par for the course for a book on highly impactful improbabilities.) The author does tend to ramble on, making this a good target for a "condensed book." His tone also appears very condescending. While he stresses the importance of not getting too involved with minutia and our own knowledge, he comes across as perhaps too confident in his own knowledge. He tends to go too overboard in defense of randomness. While the random events may be the most influential, without some degree of predictability, there would be little chance for the serendipitous events to occur. (If we knew we would know something in the future, then we would already "know" the event happened.)

He spends some time criticizing the European/French elite intellectual establishment, then proceeds to quote various obscure intellectuals. (Perhaps he does not realize that he is more closely associated with the establishment than he thinks.)

The strongest attacks, however, are saved for economists and statisticians and their Gaussian normal distributions. While normal distributions may model many theoretical natural conditions, it has significant problems in the real world. He has much more respect for Mandelbrot's fractal analysis. Modern "portfolio theory" is heavily dependent on the Gaussian statistics and thus susceptible to uncertainties. His attacks are strong and convincing. However, he appears to go overboard. While he acknowledges that statistics can be used to managed the "closed" situations of Casinos, he doesn't acknowledge that financial markets may have some aspects of the controlled casinos. Just as a casino can hit unexpected events (such as a tiger mauling or a disgruntled former employee), the financial markets can have unexpected events occur. Does this justify throwing out the whole statistical world?

However, even this refutation comes with a caveat. Trying to assume a belief set as a package is a dangerous proposition. Why do philosophers doubt their mere existence, but trust their retirement money to portfolio theorists. Why do some doubt religion, but put faith in financial hocus pocus? In the end, he provides his own refutation. Everybody is their own black swan. They do wild unexpected things that make them who they are. Perhaps one of these crazy things is to trust economists.

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar

The title intrigued me; however, the book itself was rather lame. It attempted to draw connections between famous philosophers and jokes. It actually did succeed in explaining the premises that made some jokes funny. Philosophy? Well, there were a few names dropped. However, it seemed to be more of a venue for so so PG-13 jokes than for any great humor or enlightenment. I didn't feel very enlightened with more philosophical knowledge or significantly entertained by humor. Luckily it was short and over quickly.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A History of Ancient Greece

A History of Ancient Greece (The Modern Scholar) Course Website

This course starts with the advanced Minoan civilization living on the island of Crete. It then continues on to the Mycenians and the Trojans, before continuing to the dark ages and the more "historical" Greece. It useful in presenting this history in a concise manner with the time periods. It is interesting to contemplate the level advancement in some of the ancient civilizations and the long time periods between the falls.

The Ahtenian Greek eventually became a world power. Then they overstretched in their attack against Sparta and lost the empire. They remained the intellectual center of a large empire conquered by Alexander the Great. However, Athens was never again to gain the strength it had in its heyday. If not for luck against the Persians, they would never had achieved the influence. If not for overstretching against Sparta, they would not have lost it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Lost Gate

The story centers around some "mages" who live in our contemporary world. They are descendants of the ancient Norse gods, but now live in isolation with limited powers. The typical powers tend to be a close relation with animals or materials (thus a stone mage could mold rock in to any particular form.) They have original come via a great gate from their distant world. However, an ancient mage closed all of the gates years ago. Any mage that starts to show gate-magery is quickly put to death.

So that brings us to a teenager who discovers that he is a gate mage - and thus runs away. He hooks up with some underworld figures, later leaving them to hook up with "orphan" mages. There is also a parallel story of another gate mage who "comes out of a tree" to participate in castle intrigue in a remote kingdom. Eventually, the teenager creates a great gate, and the tree man tries to close it, only to have the teenager defeat his closure.

The underlying magic is a slight variation of the system in Card's Alvin Maker series. It gets confusing at times; however, setting the fantasy in the contemporary world makes it much more accessible.


The author presents a number of analyses on people's behavior from his work at the web research firm Hitwise. Being that it focuses on the internet, some of the observations already seem stale (Myspace?), however, it is still interesting.

One of the main premises is that more accurate data can be found by actually looking at people's web traffic behavior than by asking them questions. People are more likely to engage in cognitive dissidence when responding to surveys, giving answers that they think people want to here. Their actual web traffic, however, shows what they are really interested in.

While this can provide interesting looks in to modern social behavior, understanding it can often require filtering through noise. (An example given was predicting the results of a popular vote reality show - the most searched person would be expected to win - except when the searches appear from external sources.) There are interesting results that can be obtained from these results, however, like other tools, we still must work to ensure that we are properly analyzing and interpreting the results.

God in the Dock

This book contains a collection of various Christian essays and speeches given by C.S. Lewis. The audience and tone can vary significantly, however, on a whole they are all very well done. Many are outright defenses of diety and Christianity. Others go on to other topics, such as Christmas, vivisection and punishment.

He attacks the modern "humanitarian theory" of punishment as being unjust. With traditional punishment, the punishment is a consequence of the crime. With the humanitarian theory, punishment is put in place to either deter future crimes or as a means of curing the underlying pathological problem. With the first, perception is more important. If everyone thinks somebody is guilty, then the punishment will have the desired impact, even if the person is innocent. With the later, the punishment now becomes indeterminate, relying on the opinion and current psychological theories used by the technocrats.

He also spends plenty of time criticizing common theories of the day. A criticism of reason based on underlying psychological and physiological desires ends up falling on itself. While scientists can criticize religion for ulterior motives, scientists themselves are open to the same criticism, thereby leaving us with nothing at the end.

A common theme through most essays is that strong reason proves that reason itself is not enough and that faith is needed to fully understand the world and live a joyful life.