October 2005

Sloane, Eric. The Cracker Barrel. Mineola, NY: Dover, [1967] 2005. ISBN 0-486-44101-6.
In the 1960s, artist and antiquarian Eric Sloane wrote a syndicated column of which many of the best are collected in this volume. This is an excellent book for browsing in random order in the odd moment, but like the contents of the eponymous barrel, it's hard to stop after just one, so you may devour the whole thing at one sitting. Hey, at least it isn't fattening!

The column format allowed Sloane to address a variety of topics which didn't permit book-length treatment. There are gems here about word origins, what was good and not so good about “the good old days”, tools and techniques (the “variable wrench” is pure genius), art and the business of being an artist, and much more. Each column is illustrated with one of Sloane's marvelous line drawings. Praise be to Dover for putting this classic back into print where it belongs.

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Foden, Giles. Mimi and Toutou Go Forth. London: Penguin, 2004. ISBN 0-141-00984-5.
Only a perfect idiot would undertake to transport two forty foot mahogany motorboats from London to Cape Town and then onward to Lake Tanganyika by ship, rail, steam tractor, and teams of oxen, there to challenge German dominance of the lake during World War I by attempting to sink a ship three times the length and seven times the displacement of the fragile craft. Fortunately, the Admiralty found just the man in Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simpson, in 1915 the oldest Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, his ascent through the ranks having been retarded due to his proclivity for sinking British ships. Spicer-Simpson was an inveterate raconteur of tall tales and insufferable know-it-all (on the ship bound for South Africa he was heard lecturing the Astronomer Royal of Cape Town on the southern constellations), and was eccentric in about as many ways as can be packed into a single human frame. Still, he and his motley team, despite innumerable misadventures (many self-inflicted), got the job done, sinking the ship they were sent to and capturing another German vessel, the first German warship ever captured by the Royal Navy. Afterward, Spicer-Simpson rather blotted his copybook by declining to engage first a German fort and then a warship both later found to have been “armed” only with wooden dummy guns. His exploits caused him to be worshipped as a god by the Holo-holo tribe, who fashioned clay effigies of him, but rather less impressed the Admiralty who, despite awarding him the DSO, re-assigned him upon his return to the routine desk job he had before the adventure. HMS Mimi and Toutou were the boats under Spicer-Simpson's command, soon joined by the captured German ship which was rechristened HMS Fifi. The events described herein (very loosely) inspired C.S.Forester's 1935 novel The African Queen and the 1951 Bogart/Hepburn film.

A U.S. edition is now available, titled Mimi and Toutou's Big Adventure, but at present only in hardcover. A U.S. paperback is scheduled for March, 2006.

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Radosh, Ronald and Allis Radosh. Red Star over Hollywood. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-893554-96-1.
The Hollywood blacklist has become one of the most mythic elements of the mid-20th century Red scare. Like most myths, especially those involving tinseltown, it has been re-scripted into a struggle of good (falsely-accused artists defending free speech) versus evil (paranoid witch hunters bent on censorship) at the expense of a large part of the detail and complexity of the actual events. In this book, drawing upon contemporary sources, recently released documents from the FBI and House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and interviews with surviving participants in the events, the authors patiently assemble the story of what really happened, which is substantially different than the stories retailed by partisans of the respective sides. The evolution of those who joined the Communist Party out of idealism, were repelled by its totalitarian attempts to control their creative work and/or the cynicism of its support for the 1939–1941 Nazi/Soviet pact, yet who risked their careers to save those of others by refusing to name other Party members, is evocatively sketched, along with the agenda of HUAC, which FBI documents now reveal actually had lists of party members before the hearings began, and were thus grandstanding to gain publicity and intimidate the studios into firing those who would not deny Communist affiliations. History isn't as tidy as myth: the accusers were perfectly correct in claiming that a substantial number of prominent Hollywood figures were members of the Communist Party, and the accused were perfectly correct in their claim that apart from a few egregious exceptions, Soviet and pro-communist propaganda was not inserted into Hollywood films. A mystery about one of those exceptions, the 1943 Warner Brothers film Mission to Moscow, which defended the Moscow show trials, is cleared up here. I've always wondered why, since many of the Red-baiting films of the 1950s are cult classics, this exemplar of the ideological inverse (released, after all, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were allies in World War II) has never made it to video. Well, apparently those who currently own the rights are sufficiently embarrassed by it that apart from one of the rare prints being run on television, the only place you can see it is at the film library of the Museum of Modern Art in New York or in the archive of the University of Wisconsin. Ronald Radosh is author of Commies (July 2001) and co-author of The Rosenberg File (August 2002).

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Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near. New York: Viking, 2005. ISBN 0-670-03384-7.
What happens if Moore's Law—the annual doubling of computing power at constant cost—just keeps on going? In this book, inventor, entrepreneur, and futurist Ray Kurzweil extrapolates the long-term faster than exponential growth (the exponent is itself growing exponentially) in computing power to the point where the computational capacity of the human brain is available for about US$1000 (around 2020, he estimates), reverse engineering and emulation of human brain structure permits machine intelligence indistinguishable from that of humans as defined by the Turing test (around 2030), and the subsequent (and he believes inevitable) runaway growth in artificial intelligence leading to a technological singularity around 2045 when US$1000 will purchase computing power comparable to that of all presently-existing human brains and the new intelligence created in that single year will be a billion times greater than that of the entire intellectual heritage of human civilisation prior to that date. He argues that the inhabitants of this brave new world, having transcended biological computation in favour of nanotechnological substrates “trillions of trillions of times more capable” will remain human, having preserved their essential identity and evolutionary heritage across this leap to Godlike intellectual powers. Then what? One might as well have asked an ant to speculate on what newly-evolved hominids would end up accomplishing, as the gap between ourselves and these super cyborgs (some of the precursors of which the author argues are alive today) is probably greater than between arthropod and anthropoid.

Throughout this tour de force of boundless technological optimism, one is impressed by the author's adamantine intellectual integrity. This is not an advocacy document—in fact, Kurzweil's view is that the events he envisions are essentially inevitable given the technological, economic, and moral (curing disease and alleviating suffering) dynamics driving them. Potential roadblocks are discussed candidly, along with the existential risks posed by the genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) revolutions which will set the stage for the singularity. A chapter is devoted to responding to critics of various aspects of the argument, in which opposing views are treated with respect.

I'm not going to expound further in great detail. I suspect a majority of people who read these comments will, in all likelihood, read the book themselves (if they haven't already) and make up their own minds about it. If you are at all interested in the evolution of technology in this century and its consequences for the humans who are creating it, this is certainly a book you should read. The balance of these remarks discuss various matters which came to mind as I read the book; they may not make much sense unless you've read it (You are going to read it, aren't you?), but may highlight things to reflect upon as you do.

  • Switching off the simulation. Page 404 raises a somewhat arcane risk I've pondered at some length. Suppose our entire universe is a simulation run on some super-intelligent being's computer. (What's the purpose of the universe? It's a science fair project!) What should we do to avoid having the simulation turned off, which would be bad? Presumably, the most likely reason to stop the simulation is that it's become boring. Going through a technological singularity, either from the inside or from the outside looking in, certainly doesn't sound boring, so Kurzweil argues that working toward the singularity protects us, if we be simulated, from having our plug pulled. Well, maybe, but suppose the explosion in computing power accessible to the simulated beings (us) at the singularity exceeds that available to run the simulation? (This is plausible, since post-singularity computing rapidly approaches its ultimate physical limits.) Then one imagines some super-kid running top to figure out what's slowing down the First Superbeing Shooter game he's running and killing the CPU hog process. There are also things we can do which might increase the risk of the simulation's being switched off. Consider, as I've proposed, precision fundamental physics experiments aimed at detecting round-off errors in the simulation (manifested, for example, as small violations of conservation laws). Once the beings in the simulation twig to the fact that they're in a simulation and that their reality is no more accurate than double precision floating point, what's the point to letting it run?
  • Fifty bits per atom? In the description of the computational capacity of a rock (p. 131), the calculation assumes that 100 bits of memory can be encoded in each atom of a disordered medium. I don't get it; even reliably storing a single bit per atom is difficult to envision. Using the “precise position, spin, and quantum state” of a large ensemble of atoms as mentioned on p. 134 seems highly dubious.
  • Luddites. The risk from anti-technology backlash is discussed in some detail. (“Ned Ludd” himself joins in some of the trans-temporal dialogues.) One can imagine the next generation of anti-globalist demonstrators taking to the streets to protest the “evil corporations conspiring to make us all rich and immortal”.
  • Fundamentalism. Another risk is posed by fundamentalism, not so much of the religious variety, but rather fundamentalist humanists who perceive the migration of humans to non-biological substrates (at first by augmentation, later by uploading) as repellent to their biological conception of humanity. One is inclined, along with the author, simply to wait until these folks get old enough to need a hip replacement, pacemaker, or cerebral implant to reverse a degenerative disease to motivate them to recalibrate their definition of “purely biological”. Still, I'm far from the first to observe that Singularitarianism (chapter 7) itself has some things in common with religious fundamentalism. In particular, it requires faith in rationality (which, as Karl Popper observed, cannot be rationally justified), and that the intentions of super-intelligent beings, as Godlike in their powers compared to humans as we are to Saccharomyces cerevisiae, will be benign and that they will receive us into eternal life and bliss. Haven't I heard this somewhere before? The main difference is that the Singularitarian doesn't just aspire to Heaven, but to Godhood Itself. One downside of this may be that God gets quite irate.
  • Vanity. I usually try to avoid the “Washington read” (picking up a book and flipping immediately to the index to see if I'm in it), but I happened to notice in passing I made this one, for a minor citation in footnote 47 to chapter 2.
  • Spindle cells. The material about “spindle cells” on pp. 191–194 is absolutely fascinating. These are very large, deeply and widely interconnected neurons which are found only in humans and a few great apes. Humans have about 80,000 spindle cells, while gorillas have 16,000, bonobos 2,100 and chimpanzees 1,800. If you're intrigued by what makes humans human, this looks like a promising place to start.
  • Speculative physics. The author shares my interest in physics verging on the fringe, and, turning the pages of this book, we come across such topics as possible ways to exceed the speed of light, black hole ultimate computers, stable wormholes and closed timelike curves (a.k.a. time machines), baby universes, cold fusion, and more. Now, none of these things is in any way relevant to nor necessary for the advent of the singularity, which requires only well-understood mainstream physics. The speculative topics enter primarily in discussions of the ultimate limits on a post-singularity civilisation and the implications for the destiny of intelligence in the universe. In a way they may distract from the argument, since a reader might be inclined to dismiss the singularity as yet another woolly speculation, which it isn't.
  • Source citations. The end notes contain many citations of articles in Wired, which I consider an entertainment medium rather than a reliable source of technological information. There are also references to articles in Wikipedia, where any idiot can modify anything any time they feel like it. I would not consider any information from these sources reliable unless independently verified from more scholarly publications.
  • “You apes wanna live forever?” Kurzweil doesn't just anticipate the singularity, he hopes to personally experience it, to which end (p. 211) he ingests “250 supplements (pills) a day and … a half-dozen intravenous therapies each week”. Setting aside the shots, just envision two hundred and fifty pills each and every day! That's 1,750 pills a week or, if you're awake sixteen hours a day, an average of more than 15 pills per waking hour, or one pill about every four minutes (one presumes they are swallowed in batches, not spaced out, which would make for a somewhat odd social life). Between the year 2000 and the estimated arrival of human-level artificial intelligence in 2030, he will swallow in excess of two and a half million pills, which makes one wonder what the probability of choking to death on any individual pill might be. He remarks, “Although my program may seem extreme, it is actually conservative—and optimal (based on my current knowledge).” Well, okay, but I'd worry about a “strategy for preventing heart disease [which] is to adopt ten different heart-disease-prevention therapies that attack each of the known risk factors” running into unanticipated interactions, given how everything in biology tends to connect to everything else. There is little discussion of the alternative approach to immortality with which many nanotechnologists of the mambo chicken persuasion are enamoured, which involves severing the heads of recently deceased individuals and freezing them in liquid nitrogen in sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life.

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Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Le ciel lui tombe sur la tête. Paris: Albert René, 2005. ISBN 2-86497-170-4.
Credit me with some restraint—I waited ten whole days after volume 33 of the Astérix saga appeared before devouring it in one sitting. If it isn't sufficiently obvious from the author's remark at the end of the album, note that planet “Tadsylwien” is an anagram of “Walt Disney”. The diffuse reflection of the countryside in the spherical spaceship on p. 8 is magnificently done.

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Paul, Pamela. Pornified. New York: Times Books, 2005. ISBN 0-8050-7745-6.
If you've been on the receiving end of Internet junk mail as I've been until I discovered a few technical tricks (here and here) which, along with Annoyance Filter, have essentially eliminated spam from my mailbox, you're probably aware that the popular culture of the Internet is, to a substantial extent, about pornography and that this marvelous global packet switching medium is largely a means for delivering pornography both to those who seek it and those who find it, unsolicited, in their electronic mailboxes or popping up on their screens.

This is an integral part of the explosive growth of pornography along with the emergence of new media. In 1973, there were fewer than a thousand pornographic movie theatres in the U.S. (p 54). Building on the first exponential growth curve driven by home video, the Internet is bringing pornography to everybody connected and reducing the cost asymptotically to zero. On “peer to peer” networks such as Kazaa, 73% of all movie searches are for pornography and 24% of image searches are for child pornography (p. 60).

It's one thing to talk about free speech, but another to ask what the consequences might be of this explosion of consumption of material which is largely directed at men, and which not only objectifies but increasingly, as the standard of “edginess” ratchets upward, degrades women and supplants the complexity of adult human relationships with the fantasy instant gratification of “adult entertainment”.

Mark Schwartz, clinical director of the Masters and Johnson Clinic in St. Louis, hardly a puritanical institution, says (p. 142) “Pornography is having a dramatic effect on relationships at many different levels and in many different ways—and nobody outside the sexual behavior field and the psychiatric community is talking about it.” This book, by Time magazine contributor Pamela Paul, talks about it, interviewing both professionals surveying the landscape and individuals affected in various ways by the wave of pornography sweeping over developed countries connected to the Internet. Paul quotes Judith Coché, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and has 25 years experience in therapy practice as saying (p. 180), “We have an epidemic on our hands. The growth of pornography and its impact on young people is really, really dangerous. And the most dangerous part is that we don't even realize what's happening.”

Ironically, part of this is due to the overwhelming evidence of the pernicious consequences of excessive consumption of pornography and its tendency to progress into addictive behaviour from the Zillman and Bryant studies and others, which have made academic ethics committees reluctant to approve follow-up studies involving human subjects (p. 90). Would you vote, based on the evidence in hand, for a double blind study of the effects of tobacco or heroin on previously unexposed subjects?

In effect, with the technologically-mediated collapse of the social strictures against pornography, we've embarked upon a huge, entirely unplanned, social and cultural experiment unprecedented in human history. This book will make people on both sides of the debate question their assumptions; the author, while clearly appalled by the effects of pornography on many of the people she interviews, is forthright in her opposition to censorship. Even if you have no interest in pornography nor strong opinions for or against it, there's little doubt that the ever-growing intrusiveness and deviance of pornography on the Internet will be a “wedge issue” in the coming battle over the secure Internet, so the message of this book, unwelcome as it may be, should be something which everybody interested in preserving both our open society and the fragile culture which sustains it ponders at some length.

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