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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Reading List: Adventures in Time

MacKenzie, Andrew. Adventures in Time. London: Athlone Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0-485-82001-0.
You are taking a pleasant walk when suddenly and without apparent reason an oppressive feeling of depression grips you. Everything seems unnaturally silent, and even the vegetation seems to have taken on different colours. You observe a house you've never noticed before when walking in the area and, a few minutes later, as you proceed, the depression lifts and everything seems as before. Later you mention what you've seen to a friend, who says she is absolutely certain nothing like the building you saw exists in the vicinity. Later, you retrace your path, and although you're sure you came the same way as before, you can find no trace of the house you so vividly remember having seen. Initially you just put it down as “just one of those things”, and not wishing to be deemed one of those people who “sees things”, make no mention of it. But still, it itches in the back of your mind, and one day, at the library, you look up historical records (which you've never consulted before) and discover that two hundred years ago on the site stood a house matching the one you saw, of which no trace remains today.

What's going on here? Well, nobody really has any idea, but experiences like that just described (loosely based upon the case described on pp. 35–38), although among the rarest of those phenomena we throw into the grab-bag called “paranormal”, have been reported sufficiently frequently to have been given a name: “retrocognition”. This small (143 page) book collects a number of accounts of apparent retrocognition from the obscure to the celebrated “adventure” of Misses Moberly and Jourdain at Versailles in 1901 (to which all of chapter 4 is devoted), and reports on detailed investigations of several cases, some of which were found to be simple misperception. All of these cases are based solely upon the reports of those who experienced them (in some cases with multiple observers confirming one another's perceptions) so, as with much of anecdotal psychical research, there is no way to rule out fraud, malice, mental illness, or false memories (the latter a concern because many of these reports concern events which occurred many years earlier). Still, the credentials, reputation, and social position of the people making these reports, and the straightforward and articulate way they describe what they experienced inclines one to take them seriously, at least as to what those making the reports perceived.

The author, at the time a Vice President of the Society for Psychical Research, considers several possible explanations, normal and paranormal, for these extraordinary experiences. He quotes a number of physicists on the enigma of time and causation in physics, but never really crosses the threshold from the usual domain of ESP, hauntings, and “psychic ether” (p. 126) to consider the even weirder possibility that these observers were accurately describing (within the well-known limits of eyewitness testimony) what they actually saw. My incompletely baked general theory of paranormal phenomena (GTPP) provides (once you accept its outlandish [to some] premises) a perfectly straightforward mechanism for retrocognition. Recall that in GTPP consciousness is thought of as a “browser” which perceives spacetime as unfolding through one path in the multiverse which embodies all possibilities. GTPP posits that consciousness has a very small (probably linked to Planck's constant in some way) ability to navigate along its path in spacetime: we call people who are good at this “lucky”. But let's look at the past half-space of what I call the “life cone”. The quantum potentialities of the future, branching in all their myriad ways, are frozen in the crystalline classical block universe as they are squeezed through the throat of the light cone—as Dyson said, the future is quantum mechanical; the past is classical. But this isn't “eternalism” in the sense that the future is forever fixed and that we have an illusion of free will; it's that the future contains all possibilities, and that we have a small ability to navigate into the future branch we wish to explore. Our past is, however, fixed once it's moved into our past light and life cones.

But who's to say that consciousness, this magnificent instrument of perception we use to browse spacetime events in our immediate vicinity and at the moment of the present of our life cone, cannot also, on rare occasions, triggered by who knows what, also browse events in our past, or even on other branches of the multiverse which our own individual past did not traverse? (The latter, perhaps, explaining vivid reports of observations which subsequent investigation conclusively determined never existed in the past—on our timeline. Friar Ockham would probably put this down to hallucination or, in the argot, “seein' things”, and I don't disagree with this interpretation; it's the historically confirmed cases that make you wonder.)

This book sat on my shelf for more than a decade before I got around to reading it from cover to cover. It is now out of print, and used copies are absurdly expensive; if you're interested in such matters, the present volume is interesting, but I cannot recommend it at the price at which it's currently selling unless you've experienced such a singular event yourself and seek validation that you're not the only one who “sees things” where your consciousness seems to browse the crystalline past or paths not taken by you in the multiverse.

Posted at 23:49 Permalink

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Barack Headroom


Download MP3 audio file

Listening to Barack Obama grates on me like when my fifth grade teacher, disdaining the conventional classroom torture of mis-held chalk on the blackboard, did it with his teeth. It took me a while to figure out, and to realise why his staccato cadence reminds me of the Eighties: “Sledge Hammer” or “Square Pegs”, anybody?

Well, I finally twigged to why! It's um-um-um Obama reminding of me of Ma-ma-ma-Max Headroom! There is precisely the same delivery, and the sense that what you're hearing is a bunch of prerecorded audio clips spliced together on the fly by some not very competent civil servants at Minitrue. I have taken the liberty of re-mixing the audio from Obama's press conference of 2009-07-22 to produce a “content-free edition”—I have extracted and concatenated all of the verbal tics, clichés, and temporising locutions so you can digest the essence of Obama's rhetoric without enduring all of the prevarications and preposterous populist pap which they served to cement.

You can almost see the heavily spliced tape run past the head as you listen to this (or to the original). “Um—um—um…”.

Posted at 22:49 Permalink

Friday, July 24, 2009

Puzzle: Rare Events in Baseball

Yesterday, Mark Buehrle of the Chicago White Sox pitched a perfect game as his team shut out the Tampa Bay Rays 5–0. In a perfect game, no batter reaches base by any means whatsoever: base hit, base on balls, error, or hit by the pitch. All 27 batters of the losing team are retired in order. So difficult is this to accomplish that it has only occurred 18 times in the history of Major League Baseball, and 16 times since 1900 (the first two perfect games occurred five days apart in June 1880, but were played under substantially different rules than those of the modern game).

Nonetheless, there are at least two circumstances in baseball which have happened on even fewer occasions in Major League play. Name them.

Posted at 19:42 Permalink

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Reading List: Publicani

Maymin, Zak. Publicani. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4382-2123-6.
I bought this book based on its being mentioned on a weblog as being a mix of Atlas Shrugged and “Harrison Bergeron”, and the mostly positive reviews on Amazon. Since both of those very different stories contributed powerfully to my present worldview, I was intrigued at what a synthesis of them might be like, so I decided to give this very short (just 218 pages in the print edition) novel a read.

Jerry Pournelle has written that aspiring novelists need to write at least a million words and throw them away before truly mastering their craft. I know nothing of the present author, but I suspect he hasn't yet reached that megaword milestone. There is promise here, and some compelling scenes and dialogue, but there is also the tendency to try to do too much in too few pages, and a chaotic sense of timing where you're never sure how much time has elapsed between events and how so much could occur on one timeline while another seems barely to have advanced. This is a story which could have been much better with the attention of an experienced editor, but in our outsourced, just-in-time, disintermediated economy, evidently didn't receive it, and hence the result is ultimately disappointing.

The potential of this story is great: a metaphorical exploration of the modern redistributive coercive state through a dystopia in which the “excess intelligence” of those favoured by birth is redistributed to the government elites most in need of it for “the good of society”. (Because, as has always been the case, politicians tend to be underendowed when it comes to intelligence.) Those subjected to the “redistribution” of their intelligence rebel, claiming “I own myself”—the single most liberating statement a free human can hurl against the enslaving state. And the acute reader comes to see how any redistribution is ultimately a forced taking of the mind, body, or labour of one person for the benefit of another who did not earn it: compassion at the point of a gun—the signature of the the modern state.

Unfortunately, this crystal clear message is largely lost among all of the other stuff the author tries to cram in. There's Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, an Essene secret society, the Russian Mafia, parapsychology, miraculous intervention, and guns with something called a “safety clip”, which I've never encountered on any of the myriad of guns I've discharged downrange.

The basic premise of intelligence being some kind of neural energy fluid one can suck from one brain and transfer to another is kind of silly, but I'd have been willing to accept it as a metaphor for sucking out the life of the mind from the creators to benefit not the consumers (it's never that way), but rather the rulers and looters. And if this book had done that, I'd have considered it a worthy addition to the literature of liberty. But, puh–leez, don't drop in a paragraph like:

Suddenly, a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses descended from the sky. Sarah was driving. Urim and Thummim were shining on her breastplate of judgment.

Look, I've been backed into corners in stories myself on many occasions, and every time the fiery chariot option appears the best way out, I've found it best to get a good night's sleep and have another go at it on the morrow. Perhaps you have to write and discard a million words before achieving that perspective.

Posted at 00:19 Permalink

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Reading List: Driving Like Crazy

O'Rourke, P. J. Driving Like Crazy. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8021-1883-7.
Sex, drugs, fast cars, crazed drivers, vehicular mayhem spanning the globe from Manhattan to Kyrgyzstan, and vehicles to die for (or in) ranging from Fangio's 1939 Chevrolet racer to a six-wheel-drive Soviet Zil truck—what's not to like! Humorist and eternally young speed demon P. J. O'Rourke recounts the adventures of his reckless youth and (mostly) wreckless present from the perspective of someone who once owned a 1960 MGA (disclaimer: I once owned a 1966 MGB I named “Crunderthush”—Keith Laumer fans will understand why) and, decades later, actually, seriously contemplated buying a minivan (got better).

This collection of O'Rourke's automotive journalism has been extensively edited to remove irrelevant details and place each piece in context. His retrospective on the classic National Lampoon piece (included here) whose title is a bit too edgy for our family audience is worth the price of purchase all by itself. Ever wanted to drive across the Indian subcontinent flat-out? The account here will help you avoid that particular resolution of your mid-life crisis. (Hint: think “end of life crisis”—Whoa!)

You don't need to be a gearhead to enjoy this book. O'Rourke isn't remotely a gearhead himself: he just likes to drive fast on insane roads in marvellous machinery, and even if your own preference is to experience such joys vicariously, there are plenty of white knuckle road trips and great flatbeds full of laughs in this delightful read.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

Posted at 01:05 Permalink

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Reading List: The Face of Battle

Keegan. John. The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin, 1976. ISBN 978-0-14-004897-1.
As the author, a distinguished military historian, observes in the extended introduction, the topic of much of military history is battles, but only rarely do historians delve into the experience of battle itself—instead they treat the chaotic and sanguinary events on the battlefield as a kind of choreography or chess game, with commanders moving pieces on a board. But what do those pieces, living human beings in the killing zone, actually endure in battle? What motivates them to advance in the face of the enemy or, on the other hand, turn and run away? What do they see and hear? What wounds do they suffer, and what are their most common cause, and how are the wounded treated during and after the battle? How do the various military specialities: infantry, cavalry, artillery, and armour, combat one another, and how can they be used together to achieve victory?

To answer these questions, the author examines three epic battles of their respective ages: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the first day of the Somme Offensive. Each battle is described in painstaking detail, not from that of the commanders, but the combatants on the field. Modern analysis of the weapons employed and the injuries they inflict is used to reconstruct the casualties suffered and their consequences for the victims. Although spanning almost five centuries, all of these battles took place in northwest Europe between European armies, and allow holding cultural influences constant (although, of course, evolving over time) as expansion of state authority and technology increased the size and lethality of the battlefield by orders of magnitude. (Henry's entire army at Agincourt numbered less than 6,000 and suffered 112 deaths during the battle, while on the first day of the Somme, British forces alone lost 57,470 men, with 19,240 killed.)

The experiences of some combatants in these set piece battles are so alien to normal human life that it is difficult to imagine how they were endured. Consider the Inniskilling Regiment, which arrived at Waterloo after the battle was already underway. Ordered by Wellington to occupy a position in the line, they stood there in static formation for four hours, while receiving cannon fire from French artillery several hundred yards away. During those hours, 450 of the regiment's 750 officers and men were killed and wounded, including 17 of the 18 officers. The same regiment, a century later, suffered devastating losses in a futile assault on the first day of the Somme.

Battles are decided when the intolerable becomes truly unendurable, and armies dissolve into the crowds from which they were formed. The author examines this threshold in various circumstances, and what happens when it is crossed and cohesion is lost. In a concluding chapter he explores how modern mechanised warfare (recall that when this book was published the threat of a Soviet thrust into Western Europe with tanks and tactical nuclear weapons was taken with deadly seriousness by NATO strategists) may have so isolated the combatants from one another and subjected them to such a level of lethality that armies might disintegrate within days of the outbreak of hostilities. Fortunately, we never got to see whether this was correct, and hopefully we never will.

I read the Kindle edition using the iPhone Kindle application. It appears to have been created by OCR scanning a printed copy of the book and passing it through a spelling checker, but with no further editing. Unsurprisingly, the errors one is accustomed to in scanned documents abound. The word “modern”, for example, appears more than dozen times as “modem”. Now I suppose cybercommand does engage in “modem warfare”, but this is not what the author means to say. The Kindle edition costs only a dollar less than the paperback print edition, and such slapdash production values are unworthy of a publisher with the reputation of Penguin.

Posted at 15:03 Permalink

Monday, July 6, 2009

From 1963: Nuclear Battery Advertisement from Analog

Remember when “atomic” was cool?

In 1963, Analog was a large format monthly magazine, part slick and part pulp, with a cover price of 50 cents. Its eclectic readership and contents attracted some curious advertisements, such as this one from Leesona Moos Laboratories for aerospace devices self-powered by Krypton 85 nuclear batteries. How many Analog readers in 1963 assumed that in a couple of years there'd be nuclear flashlight batteries for sale at the hardware store? This one certainly did.

Posted at 20:36 Permalink

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Reading List: The Hyperinflation Survival Guide

Swanson, Gerald. The Hyperinflation Survival Guide. Lake Oswego, OR: Eric Englund, 1989. ISBN 978-0-9741180-1-7.
In the 1980s, Harry E. Figgie, founder of Figgie International, became concerned that the then-unprecedented deficits, national debt, and trade imbalance might lead to recurrence of inflation, eventual spiralling into catastrophic hyperinflation (defined in 1956 by economist Phillip Cagan as a 50% or more average rise in prices per month, equivalent to an annual inflation rate of 12,875% or above). While there are a number of books on how individuals and investors can best protect themselves during an inflationary episode, Figgie found almost no guidance for business owners and managers for strategies to enable their enterprises to survive and make the best of the chaotic situation which hyperinflation creates.

To remedy this lacuna, Figgie assembled a three person team headed by the author, an economist at the University of Arizona, and dispatched them to South America, where on four visits over two years, they interviewed eighty business leaders and managers, bankers, and accounting professionals in Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil, all of which were in the grip of calamitous inflation at the time, to discover how they managed to survive and cope with the challenge of prices which changed on a daily or even more frequent basis. This short book (or long pamphlet—it's less than 100 pages all-up) is the result.

The inflation which Figgie feared for the 1990s did not come to pass, but the wisdom Swanson and his colleagues collect here is applicable to any epoch of runaway inflation, wherever in the world and whenever it may eventuate. With money creation and debt today surpassing anything in the human experience, and the world's reserve currency being supported only by the willingness of other nations to lend to the United States, one certainly cannot rule out hyperinflation as a possible consequence when all of this paper money works its way through the economy and starts to bid up prices. Consequently, any business owner would be well advised to invest the modest time it takes to read this book and ponder how the advice herein, not based upon academic theorising but rather the actual experience of managers in countries suffering hyperinflation and whose enterprises managed to survive it, could be applied to the circumstances of their own business.

If you didn't live through, or have forgotten, the relatively mild (by these standards) inflation of the 1970s, this book drives home how fundamentally corrupting inflation is. Inflation is, after all, nothing other than the corruption by a national government of the currency it issues, and this corruption sullies everybody who transacts in that currency. Long term business planning goes out the window: “long term” comes to mean a week or two and “short term” today. Sound business practices such as minimising inventory and just in time manufacturing become suicidal when inventory appreciates more rapidly than money placed at interest. Management controls and the chain of command evaporate as purchasing managers must be delegated the authority to make verbal deals on the spot, paid in cash, to obtain the supplies the company needs at prices that won't bankrupt it. If wage and price controls are imposed by the government (as they always are, despite forty centuries of evidence they never work), more and more management resources must be diverted to gaming the system to retain workforce and sell products at a profitable price. Previously mundane areas of the business: purchasing and treasury, become central to the firm's survival, and speculation in raw materials and financial assets may become more profitable than the actual operations of the company. Finally (and the book dances around this a bit without ever saying it quite so baldly as I shall here), there's the flat-out corruption when the only option a business has to keep its doors open and its workers employed may be to buy or sell on the black market, evade wage and price controls by off-the-books transactions, and greasing the skids of government agencies with bulging envelopes of rapidly depreciating currency passed under the table to their functionaries.

Any senior manager, from the owner of a small business to the CEO of a multinational, who deems hyperinflation a possible outcome of the current financial turbulence, would be well advised to read this book. Although published twenty years ago, the pathology of inflation is perennial, and none of the advice is dated in any way. Indeed, as businesses have downsized, outsourced, and become more dependent upon suppliers around the globe, they are increasingly vulnerable to inflation of their home country currency. I'll wager almost every CEO who spends the time to read this book will spend the money to buy copies for all of his direct reports.

When this book was originally published by Figgie International, permission to republish any part or the entire book was granted to anybody as long as the original attribution was retained. If you look around on the Web, you'll find several copies of this book in various formats, none of which I'd consider ideal, but which at least permit you to sample the contents before ordering a print edition.

Posted at 22:09 Permalink