Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


Notes on a few books

October 27, 2006

Should of course write this more often, but the “untimely” part of the name is part of my inherent nature.
Recent reads:
Henning Mankell,
One Step Behind

Swedish detective series about Inspector Kurt Wallander. Mankell brings to his novels the starkness and reality so well known to anyone who has seen a Ingmar Bergman movie, or read the delightful novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. This books lives up to the series and says much more about people than it does about this particular murderer.

Steve Wozniak and Gina Smith,
iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s autobiography. Woz’s stories have always been a source of entertainment and inspiration. He lives up to his extraordinary image in this wonderful retelling of his life. If you have ever used an Apple, read this book. If not, read this book and then go buy one (you can have both a windows and mac!).

James Lee Burke,
Pegasus Descending: A Dave Robicheaux Novel

Burke’s latest installment in the Dave Robicheaux detective series. Burke is a very good writer and this is an apt example. Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell are vivid characters who live in the zone between law and disorder in New Iberia, Louisiana. There is a bit of hurricane in these guys.

Laurie R. King,
The Art of Detection

King is the author of two distinct detective series: San Francisco’s Kate Martinelli and London’s Sherlock and Mary Holmes. Here she somewhat combines the two as Martinelli investigates the death of an obsessed Holmes fan. It is always fun to read how she weaves the historical fictional Holmes with the current fictional one. We miss Mary, but not so much that it prevents enjoying the story.

The Arbinger Institute,
The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict

The follow-up to Leadership and Self-Deception steps back in time to explain where fictional leader Lou Herbert found the basic principles of that first book. This is simply a great book. The issues discussed here, whether cast as family crisis (second) or business management style (first), are fundamental to humanity. These books should be read widely. One can only hope they would be understood widely.

Les Claypool,
South of the Pumphouse

Bass player and Primus leader Claypool has long had an interest in fishing and other, stranger, things. Here he combines some of both in his first novel. It may not win a book award, but it is damn funny. I have long enjoyed his music and look forward to reading his next book.

Andrew Vaschss,
Mask Market (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

The latest installment in Vaschss’ Burke series. We visit familiar landscapes and people, but are never disappointed in either. If you have never read one of these books, you owe it to yourself to jump in. While I recommend starting at the beginning and reading them all, I have always been impressed by the fact that you could read any of them and not miss a beat. I have never figured out how he can set the scene each time so completely without boring his regular readers—we are never bored here! Burke is a criminal as well as a hero, and we accept and delight in both.

Michael Connelly,
Echo Park (Harry Bosch)

By now you may have noticed that I tend to read both many mystery novels and the latest ones by a large group of authors. Add Connelly to that list. The detective here is
Harry Bosch of Los Angeles. In the last two installments Bosch has been back with the LAPD working on what television calls “Cold Cases” and in what the LAPD calls the Open-Unsolved Unit. Either way it is just plain good stuff. As a bonus we are reminded in the book about the release of recently discovered recording of Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. If I was to say it was maybe better than Connelly’s book, I think he would understand and forgive me. It is still a very good book.

Dick Francis,
Under Orders

This is the first book Francis has written since the death of his wife some six years ago. Thankfully his family encouraged him to write again. The return of Sid Halley, familiar to all Francis fans, is worth the wait. The world of horse racing in England probably cannot live up to the tales Francis has spun, but this book lives up to them. Halley has had the honor or repeat manifestations and the latest if not the greatest stands tall as a tribute to its author’s life and imagination. Thank you Mr. Francis.

Gordon S. Wood,
The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

I actually listened to this book. Wood wrote the book on the American Revolution in 1969. I read it in pursuit of my degree. Here we get a wonderful explication of a very complex man. Wood explains how and why a man born in Massachusetts needed to “become” and American. It is a very interesting story and book.



July 31, 2006

I recently finished reading Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife. Very nice book. It reminded me that mathematics is indeed a language, and as such must be seen not as the truth—but “a lie we agree to recite to each other.” One would never say that English or French were “true,” but we make this mistake with math. There are proofs after all! Well I am no more impressed with them than I was in high school when I first learned them. This probably was not what Seife intended, but such is the lot of the author. It is a book well worth reading, and probably you will not come to my conclusions after reading it. By the way, it also struck me that the most “real” numbers are the irrational ones: pi, the golden ratio, etc.: numbers that don’t really every end!


Dimensions in history

July 10, 2006

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Have been thinking lately about the idea of dimensions in history. Not in the sense of textbook titles, but in the sense of up, down, etc. Of course time, often cited as the fourth dimension of physics (correctly I believe), is of primary importance to history. Is it a single dimension in history? Probably, though geologic time seems very different from solar time, which is different from evolutionary time.  There is in physics some discussion of math that requires multiple dimensions, but they don’t seem to have much imagination in counting them. They seem to imply they must be physical dimensions that are twisted in some way and I don’t know why. If time is a dimension, why not other similar types of things: gravity?, particles?, waves?, life? We know there are multiple historical forces: groups, individuals, politics, etc. All these interact and create (bend?) time and space. Interesting things to ponder. Don’t need to be too tied to the “reality” of the physics example, but it helps frame the discussion.


Patterns and History

July 8, 2006

History is all about patterns and as such reflects the human mind—as does mathematics etc. The usefulness of the patterns is almost more important than their truth. Validity and usefulness are branches of the same limb: validity being the shorter limb. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that they are types of branches (with validity still being a shorter type of branch). We can then add one of my favorite ideas: Staughton Lynd’s view that history is the search for forgotten alternatives (in this case forgotten branches). The branch analogy is further served by its connection with the iterative properties of chaos. Here we have both branches and patterns within the context of non-linear reality, both very good things from my viewpoint. (originally published on 6/3/06 1:06pm)


Memory and History

July 8, 2006

Have been reading Eric Kandel’s wonderful book, In Search of Memory. I have often wondered why historians seem to have very little interest in memory. They rely heavily on it as source material, but don’t seem interested in understanding how it works. Very short sighted and possibly a sign that they are actually afraid of knowing the answers.

Kandel writes a wonderful combination of history of science, personal reflections and just plain science. I wish more authors would follow this example, though it probably helps if you are as interesting as Kandel. There is indeed an important place for this knowledge in historical writing. We must understand the fundamental science of memory before we accept memories as evidence. (originally published on 5/29/06 9:15pm)


History: Art or Science?

July 8, 2006

Back in graduate school, sometime just after the Stone Age, one of the interesting questions of the day was whether history was an art or science. I always thought it was posed in a rather silly way. Generally to ask the question, one must have a limited knowledge of both art and science. There is way too much art in science, and of course quite a bit of science in art. It falls into David Hackett Fischer’s “fallacy of false dichotomous questions.” The problem is in thinking these are the only two options, and that they are mutually exclusive. Of course, in truth the question is not intended for serious discussion: it is a political discussion. Historians want to associate themselves with science, while maintaining artistic license.  (Originally published on on 5/19/06 12:07pm)

History cannot be a science simply because we cannot repeat any of the “experiments” of historical action. We do posit theories similar to scientists, but time and action have already passed when we do this. While it may be popular to say that history repeats itself, this isn’t correct. There are patterns in history that are very similar over time, but this is not to say they are the same. Conditions and actors are completely different. The human mind actively attempts to deal with reality as patterns; this is both a positive and negative reality of our attempt to know. Dilthey preferred the term “understanding [verstehen]” rather than knowledge, but even there the limits are clear. Our understanding is limited by our tendency toward pattern recognition. To begin to be scientific, historians would need to be as active in disproving their theories as much as proving them. The key to great science is this active pursuit of disproof. I see no such desire in historians.

History as an art is a friendlier place to live, but still a bit of a fib. Art is of course very inclusive. Abstract artists produce just the same art as the so called realists. Rare is the historian that does not abhor any notion that “fiction” has any place in history. This is less a criticism of the efforts of novelists to write history as an attempt to hide just how much of history is indeed fiction. Nowhere is it more accurate to say the truths (of history) are simply lies we agree to recite to each other. The argument ought to be over clarity and transparency of our understanding, not its form.


Free Will and the New Scientist

July 8, 2006

The most recent issue of New Scientist details some recent new theories in physics. Unfortunately, this new theory is cast in the context of the question of whether “Free Will” exists. The theory is quite interesting in that it attempts to address some of the difficulties of quantum theory. Gerard t’ Hooft of Utrecht University has approached the problem in a way that avoids dealing with particles or waves and instead deals with “states” that have energy. These states according to his model behave “according to deterministic laws.” In step mathmaticians John Conway and Simon Kochen who declare that if this is true there is no such thing as free will. Since they like free will they say he is wrong. Wow, what nonsense! Clearly they know nothing about free will, don’t seem to understand theoretical physics and methinks ignore some math. One must always be careful when combining discipines to be careful about language. “Deterministic” might well mean something quite different in physics, math, history, or philosophy. Yet more proof that truths are but lies that we agree to recite to each other. I am open to reciting t’ Hooft, but not Conway and Kochen. If you are going to apply math to free will you would be better off using chaos theory. (Originally published 5/10/06, 3:34PM on