Chesterton, Gilbert K. Heretics. London: John Lane, [1905] 1914. ISBN 0-7661-7476-X.
In this collection of essays, the ever-quotable Chesterton takes issue with prominent contemporaries (including Kipling, G.B. Shaw, and H.G. Wells) and dogma (the cults of progress, science, simple living, among others less remembered almost a century later). There is so much insight and brilliant writing here it's hard to single out a few examples. My favourites include his dismantling of cultural anthropology and folklore in chapter 11, the insight in chapter 16 that elevating science above morality leads inevitably to oligarchy and rule by experts, and the observation in chapter 17, writing of Whistler, that what is called the “artistic temperament” is a property of second-rate artists. The link above is to a 2003 Kessinger Publishing facsimile reprint of the 1914 twelfth edition. The reprint is on letter-size pages, much larger than the original, with each page blown up to fit; consequently, the type is almost annoyingly large. A free electronic edition is available.

September 2004 Permalink

Churchill, Winston S. Thoughts and Adventures. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, [1932] 2009. ISBN 978-1-935191-46-9.
Among the many accomplishments of Churchill's long and eventful life, it is easy to forget that in the years between the wars he made his living primarily as a writer, with a prolific output of books, magazine articles, and newspaper columns. It was in this period of his life that he achieved the singular mastery of the English language which would serve him and Britain so well during World War II and which would be recognised by the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

This collection of Churchill's short nonfiction was originally published in 1932 and is now available in a new edition, edited and with extensive annotations by James W. Muller. Muller provides abundant footnotes describing people, events, and locations which would have been familiar to Churchill's contemporary audience but which readers today might find obscure. Extensive end notes detail the publication history of each of the essays collected here, and document textual differences among the editions. Did you know that one of Churchill's principal markets across the Atlantic in the 1920s was Cosmopolitan?

This is simply a delicious collection of writing. Here we have Churchill recounting his adventures and misadventures in the air, a gun battle with anarchists on the streets of London, life in the trenches after he left the government and served on the front in World War I, his view of the partition of Ireland, and much more. Some of the essays are light, such as his take on political cartoons or his discovery of painting as a passion and pastime, but even these contain beautiful prose and profound insights. Then there is Churchill the prophet of human conflict to come. In “Shall We All Commit Suicide?”, he writes (p. 264):

Then there are Explosives. Have we reached the end? Has Science turned its last page on them? May there not be methods of using explosive energy incomparably more intense than anything heretofore discovered? Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings—nay, to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke? Could not explosives of even the existing type be guided automatically in flying machines by wireless or other rays, without a human pilot, in ceaseless procession upon a hostile city, arsenal, camp, or dockyard?

Bear in mind that this was published in 1924. In 1931, looking “Fifty Years Hence”, he envisions (p. 290):

Wireless telephones and television, following naturally upon their present path of development, would enable their owner to connect up with any room similarly installed, and hear and take part in the conversation as well as if he put his head through the window. The congregation of men in cities would become superfluous. It would rarely be necessary to call in person on any but the most intimate friends, but if so, excessively rapid means of communication would be at hand. There would be no more object in living in the same city with one's neighbour than there is to-day in living with him in the same house. The cities and the countryside would become indistinguishable. Every home would have its garden and its glade.

It's best while enjoying this magnificent collection not to dwell on whether there is a single living politician of comparable stature who thinks so profoundly on so broad a spectrum of topics, or who can expound upon them to a popular audience in such pellucid prose.

June 2011 Permalink

Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. ISBN 0-374-52221-9.

January 2004 Permalink

Dyson, Freeman J. The Scientist as Rebel. New York: New York Review Books, 2006. ISBN 1-59017-216-7.
Freeman Dyson is one of the most consistently original thinkers of our time. This book, a collection of his writings between 1964 and 2006, amply demonstrates the breadth and depth of his imagination. Twelve long book reviews from The New York Review of Books allow Dyson, after doing his duty to the book and author, to depart on his own exploration of the subject matter. One of these reviews, of Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, is where Dyson first asked whether it was possible, using any apparatus permitted by the laws of physics and the properties of our universe, to ever detect a single graviton and, if not, whether quantum gravity has any physical meaning. It was this remark which led to the Rothman and Boughn paper, “Can Gravitons be Detected?” in which is proposed what may be the most outrageous scientific apparatus ever suggested.

Three chapters of Dyson's 1984 book Weapons and Hope (now out of print) appear here, along with other essays, forewords to books, and speeches on topics as varied as history, poetry, great scientists, war and peace, colonising the galaxy comet by comet, nanotechnology, biological engineering, the post-human future, religion, the paranormal, and more. Dyson's views on religion will send the Dawkins crowd around the bend, and his open-minded attitude toward the paranormal (in particular, chapter 27) will similarly derange dogmatic sceptics (he even recommends Rupert Sheldrake's Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home). Chapters written some time ago are accompanied by postscripts updating them to 2006.

This is a collection of gems with nary a clinker in the lot. Anybody who rejoices in visionary thinking and superb writing will find much of both. The chapters are almost completely independent of one another and can be read in any order, so you can open the book at random and be sure to delight in what you find.

June 2007 Permalink

Hitchens, Christopher. A Long Short War. New York: Plume, 2003. ISBN 0-452-28498-8.

August 2003 Permalink

Marasco, Joe. The Software Development Edge. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2005. ISBN 0-321-32131-6.
I read this book in manuscript form when it was provisionally titled The Psychology of Software Development.

December 2004 Permalink

Mencken, H. L. The Vintage Mencken. New York: Vintage, [1955] 1990. ISBN 978-0-679-72895-5.
Perhaps only once in a generation is born a person with the gift of seeing things precisely as they are, without any prejudice or filter of ideology, doctrine, or preconceived notions, who also has the talent to rise to a position from which this “fair witness” viewpoint can be effectively communicated to a wide audience. In this category, one thinks immediately of George Orwell and, more recently and not yet as celebrated as he deserves to be, Karl Hess, but without doubt one of the greatest exemplars of these observers of their world to have lived in the 20th century was H[enry] L[ouis] Mencken, the “Sage of Baltimore” and one of the greatest libertarian, sceptic, and satirical writers of his time, as well as a scholar of the English language as used in the United States.

This book, originally published during Mencken's life (although he lived until 1956, he ceased writing after suffering a stroke in 1948 which, despite his recovering substantially, left him unable to compose text), collects his work, mostly drawn from essays and newspaper columns across his writing career. We get reminiscences of the Baltimore of his youth, reportage of the convention that nominated Franklin Roosevelt, a celebration of Grover Cleveland, an obituary of Coolidge, a taking down of Lincoln the dictator, a report from the Progressive convention which nominated Henry Wallace for president in 1948, and his final column defending those who defied a segregation law to stage an interracial tennis tournament in Baltimore in 1948.

Many of the articles are abridged, perhaps in the interest of eliding contemporary references which modern readers may find obscure. This collection provides an excellent taste of Mencken across his career and will probably leave you hungry for more. Fortunately, most of his œuvre remains in print. In the contemporary media cornucopia and endless blogosphere we have, every day, many times the number of words available to read as Mencken wrote in his career. But who is the heir to Mencken in seeing the folly behind the noise of ephemeral headlines and stands the test of time when read almost a century later?

October 2013 Permalink

Pournelle, Jerry. A Step Farther Out. Studio City, CA: Chaos Manor Press, [1979, 1994] 2011. ASIN B004XTKFWW.
This book is a collection of essays originally published in Galaxy magazine between 1974 and 1978. They were originally collected into a book published in 1979, which was republished in 1994 with a new preface and notes from the author. This electronic edition includes all the material from the 1994 book plus a new preface which places the essays in the context of their time and the contemporary world.

I suspect that many readers of these remarks may be inclined to exclaim “Whatever possessed you to read a bunch of thirty-year-old columns from a science fiction magazine which itself disappeared from the scene in 1980?” I reply, “Because the wisdom in these explorations of science, technology, and the human prospect is just as relevant today as it was when I first read them in the original book, and taken together they limn the lost three decades of technological progress which have so blighted our lives.” Pournelle not only envisioned what was possible as humanity expanded its horizons from the Earth to become a spacefaring species drawing upon the resources of the solar system which dwarf those about which the “only one Earth” crowd fret, he also foresaw the constraint which would prevent us from today living in a perfectly achievable world, starting from the 1970s, with fusion, space power satellites, ocean thermal energy conversion, and innovative sources of natural gas providing energy; a robust private space infrastructure with low cost transport to Earth orbit; settlements on the Moon and Mars; exploration of the asteroids with an aim to exploit their resources; and compounded growth of technology which would not only permit human survival but “survival with style”—not only for those in the developed countries, but for all the ten billion who will inhabit this planet by the middle of the present century.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, Pournelle nails that as well. Recall whilst reading the following paragraph that it was written in 1978.

[…] Merely continue as we are now: innovative technology discouraged by taxes, environmental impact statements, reports, lawsuits, commission hearings, delays, delays, delays; space research not carried out, never officially abandoned but delayed, stretched-out, budgets cut and work confined to the studies without hardware; solving the energy crisis by conservation, with fusion research cut to the bone and beyond, continued at level-of-effort but never to a practical reactor; fission plants never officially banned, but no provision made for waste disposal or storage so that no new plants are built and the operating plants slowly are phased out; riots at nuclear power plant construction sites; legal hearings, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers…

Can you not imagine the dream being lost? Can you not imagine the nation slowly learning to “do without”, making “Smaller is Better” the national slogan, fussing over insulating attics and devoting attention to windmills; production falling, standards of living falling, until one day we discover the investments needed to go to space would be truly costly, would require cuts in essentials like food —

A world slowly settling into satisfaction with less, until there are no resources to invest in That Buck Rogers Stuff?

I can imagine that.

As can we all, as now we are living it. And yet, and yet…. One consequence of the Three Lost Decades is that the technological vision and optimistic roadmap of the future presented in these essays is just as relevant to our predicament today as when they were originally published, simply because with a few exceptions we haven't done a thing to achieve them. Indeed, today we have fewer resources with which to pursue them, having squandered our patrimony on consumption, armies of rent-seekers, and placed generations yet unborn in debt to fund our avarice. But for those who look beyond the noise of the headlines and the platitudes of politicians whose time horizon is limited to the next election, here is a roadmap for a true step farther out, in which the problems we perceive as intractable are not “managed” or “coped with”, but rather solved, just as free people have always done when unconstrained to apply their intellect, passion, and resources toward making their fortunes and, incidentally, creating wealth for all.

This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above, under the given ASIN. The ISBN of the original 1979 paperback edition is 978-0-441-78584-1. The formatting in the Kindle edition is imperfect, but entirely readable. As is often the case with Kindle documents, “images and tables hardest hit”: some of the tables take a bit of head-scratching to figure out, as the Kindle (or at least the iPad application which I use) particularly mangles multi-column tables. (I mean, what's with that, anyway? LaTeX got this perfectly right thirty years ago, and in a manner even beginners could use; and this was pure public domain software anybody could adopt. Sigh—three lost decades….) Formatting quibbles aside, I'm as glad I bought and read this book as I was when I first bought it and read it all those years ago. If you want to experience not just what the future could have been, then, but what it can be, now, here is an excellent place to start.

The author's Web site is an essential resource for those interested in these big ideas, grand ambitions, and the destiny of humankind and its descendents.

June 2012 Permalink

Preston, Richard. Panic in Level 4. New York: Random House, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8129-7560-4.
The New Yorker is one of the few remaining markets for long-form reportage of specialised topics directed at an intelligent general audience, and Richard Preston is one of the preeminent practitioners of that craft working today. This book collects six essays originally published in that magazine along with a new introduction as long as some of the chapters which describes the title incident in which the author found himself standing space-suit to protein coat of a potentially unknown hæmorrhagic fever virus in a U.S. Army hot lab. He also provides tips on his style of in-depth, close and personal journalism (which he likens to “climb[ing] into the soup”), which aspiring writers may find enlightening.

In subsequent chapters we encounter the Chudnovsky brothers, émigré number theorists from the Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), who built a supercomputer in their New York apartment from mail-order components to search for structure in the digits of π, and later used their mathematical prowess and computing resources to digitally “stitch” together and thereby make a backup copy of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries; the mercurial Craig Venter in the midst of the genome war in the 1990s; arborists and entomologists tracing the destruction of the great hemlock forests of the eastern U.S. by invasive parasites; and heroic medical personnel treating the victims of an Ebola outbreak in unspeakable conditions in Africa.

The last, and most disturbing chapter (don't read it if you're planning to go to sleep soon or, for that matter, sleep well anytime in the next few days) describes Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a rare genetic disease caused by a single nucleotide mutation in the HPRT1 gene located on the X chromosome. Those affected (almost all males, since females have two X chromosomes and will exhibit symptoms only if both contain the mutation) exhibit behaviour which, phenomenologically, can be equally well described by possession by a demon which compels them at random times to self-destructive behaviour as by biochemistry and brain function. Sufferers chew their lips and tongues, often destroying them entirely, and find their hands seemingly acting with a will of their own to attack their faces, either with fingers or any tool at hand. They often bite off flesh from their hands or entire fingers, sometimes seemingly in an attempt to stop them from inflicting further damage. Patients with the syndrome can appear normal, fully engaged with the world and other individuals, and intelligent, and yet when “possessed”, capable of callous cruelty, both physical and emotional, toward those close to them.

When you get beyond the symptoms and the tragic yet engaging stories of those afflicted with the disease with whom the author became friends, there is much to ponder in what all of this means for free will and human identity. We are talking about what amounts to a single typo in a genetic blueprint of three billion letters which causes the most profound consequences imaginable for the individual who carries it and perceives it as an evil demon living within their mind. How many other aspects of what we think of as our identity, whether for good or ill, are actually expressions of our genetic programming? To what extent is this true of our species as a whole? What will we make of ourselves once we have the ability to manipulate our genome at will? Sweet dreams….

Apart from the two chapters on the Chudnovskys, which have some cross references, you can read the chapters in any order.

July 2011 Permalink

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.

October 2005 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-59403-086-3.
One of the most pernicious calumnies directed at black intellectuals in the United States is that they are “not authentic”—that by speaking standard English, assimilating into the predominant culture, and seeing learning and hard work as the way to get ahead, they have somehow abandoned their roots in the ghetto culture. In the title essay in this collection, Thomas Sowell demonstrates persuasively that this so-called “black culture” owes its origins, in fact, not to anything blacks brought with them from Africa or developed in times of slavery, but rather to a white culture which immigrants to the American South from marginal rural regions of Britain imported and perpetuated long after it had died out in the mother country. Members of this culture were called “rednecks” and “crackers” in Britain long before they arrived in America, and they proceeded to install this dysfunctional culture in much of the rural South. Blacks arriving from Africa, stripped of their own culture, were immersed into this milieu, and predictably absorbed the central values and characteristics of the white redneck culture, right down to patterns of speech which can be traced back to the Scotland, Wales, and Ulster of the 17th century. Interestingly, free blacks in the North never adopted this culture, and were often well integrated into the community until the massive northward migration of redneck blacks (and whites) from the South spawned racial prejudice against all blacks. While only 1/3 of U.S. whites lived in the South, 90% of blacks did, and hence the redneck culture which was strongly diluted as southern whites came to the northern cities, was transplanted whole as blacks arrived in the north and were concentrated in ghetto communities.

What makes this more than an anthropological and historical footnote is, that as Sowell describes, the redneck culture does not work very well—travellers in the areas of Britain it once dominated and in the early American South described the gratuitous violence, indolence, disdain for learning, and a host of other characteristics still manifest in the ghetto culture today. This culture is alien to the blacks who it mostly now afflicts, and is nothing to be proud of. Scotland, for example, largely eradicated the redneck culture, and became known for learning and enterprise; it is this example, Sowell suggests, that blacks could profitably follow, rather than clinging to a bogus culture which was in fact brought to the U.S. by those who enslaved their ancestors.

Although the title essay is the most controversial and will doubtless generate the bulk of commentary, it is in fact only 62 pages in this book of 372 pages. The other essays discuss the experience of “middleman minorities” such as the Jews, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Lebanese in Africa, overseas Chinese, etc.; the actual global history of slavery, as a phenomenon in which people of all races, continents, and cultures have been both slaves and slaveowners; the history of ethnic German communities around the globe and whether the Nazi era was rooted in the German culture or an aberration; and forgotten success stories in black education in the century prior to the civil rights struggles of the mid 20th century. The book concludes with a chapter on how contemporary “visions” and agendas can warp the perception of history, discarding facts which don't fit and obscuring lessons from the past which can be vital in deciding what works and what doesn't in the real world. As with much of Sowell's work, there are extensive end notes (more than 60 pages, with 289 notes on the title essay alone) which contain substantial “meat” along with source citations; they're well worth reading over after the essays.

July 2005 Permalink

Thompson, Hunter S. Kingdom of Fear. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. ISBN 0-684-87323-0.
Autodesk old-timers who recall the IPO era will find the story recounted on pages 153–157 amusing, particularly those also present at the first encounter.

March 2003 Permalink

Weinberg, Steven. Facing Up. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-674-01120-1.
This is a collection of non-technical essays written between 1985 and 2000 by Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg. Many discuss the “science wars”—the assault by postmodern academics on the claim that modern science is discovering objective truth (well, duh), but many other topics are explored, including string theory, Zionism, Alan Sokal's hoax at the expense of the unwitting (and witless) editors of Social Text, Thomas Kuhn's views on scientific revolutions, science and religion, and the comparative analysis of utopias. Weinberg applies a few basic principles to most things he discusses—I counted six separate defences of reductionism in modern science, most couched in precisely the same terms. You may find this book more enjoyable a chapter at a time over an extended period rather than in one big cover-to-cover gulp.

January 2005 Permalink