Category Archives: Books

Star Maker – a review

I recently/finally finished Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (Kindle Version)- a weird classic written in 1937. I found it strangely written, filled with novel ideas about a time and space traveler that wanders the cosmos, ultimately discovering everything there is to discover.

Stapledon’s worlds resemble Arthur C. Clarke in scale and detail (think really, really big). Stapledon goes way weirder, and isn’t afraid to mix physics, math, metaphysics, religion and psychology in one giant bundle. Apparently Freeman Dyson conceived of the Dyson Sphere after reading this book.

Now that I think of it is reminds me a little of Paul Wallace’s book Stars Beneath Us (a ramble on the book of Job as the really, really big picture.)

The Good:

  1. The concept – explaining the whole universe – and doing it well
  2. The progression – starting with one guy taking a walk, and ending with “The supreme moment of the cosmos”
  3. The science – all pretty accurate as far as I can tell for the time.

The Bad

  1. Transitions – they go by so fast you’ll think you missed them. The narrator goes from guy walking at night to space traveler very quickly, then off to other planets, then back to Earth. Stapledon underexplains how these things happen.
  2. Paragraph length – really, really long – an editor could have helped – sometimes they go for pages

On the whole I really liked it. Very different than anything I’ve ever read before in many ways. Here are some of the choice quotes from the book:


Further, the God whom they worshipped with the superb and heart-searching language of an earlier age was now conceived either as a just but jealous employer

In Bvalltu’s view man had climbed approximately to the same height time after time, only to be undone by some hidden consequence of his own achievement.

This slender hope the war had destroyed by setting the clock of scientific research back for a century just at the time when human nature itself was deteriorating and might never again be able to tackle so difficult a problem

But even the most spiritual life has its temptations. The extravagant fever of industrialism and intellectualism had so subtly poisoned the plant-men that when at last they rebelled against it they swung too far, falling into the snare of a vegetal life as one-sided as the old animal life had been. Little by little they gave less and less energy and time to “animal” pursuits, until at last their nights as well as their days were spent wholly as trees, and the active, exploring, manipulating, animal intelligence died in them forever.

But since the fluctuating progress of a world from bare animality to spiritual maturity takes, on the average, several thousands of millions of years, the maximum population of Utopian and fully awakened worlds occurred very late, when physically the galaxy was already somewhat past its prime.

For suddenly it was clear to me that virtue in the creator is not the same as virtue in the creature. For the creator, if he should love his creature, would be loving only a part of himself; but the creature, praising the creator, praises an infinity beyond himself. I saw that the virtue of the creature was to love and to worship, but the virtue of the creator was to create, and to be the infinite, the unrealizable and incomprehensible goal of worshipping creatures.

Meanwhile, since each rocky sphere that had once been a galaxy had been borne beyond every possible physical influence of its fellows, and there were no minds to maintain telepathic contact between them, each was in effect a wholly distinct universe. And since all change had ceased, the proper time of each barren universe had also ceased.

Thus it was that, through the succession of his creatures, the Star Maker advanced from stage to stage in the progress from infantile to mature divinity. Thus it was that in the end he became what, in the eternal view, he already was in the beginning, the ground and crown of all things.

And the Star Maker, that dark power and lucid intelligence, found in the concrete loveliness of his creature the fulfilment of desire. And in the mutual joy of the Star Maker and the ultimate cosmos was conceived, most strangely, the absolute spirit itself, in which all times are present and all being is comprised; for the spirit which was the issue of this union confronted my reeling intelligence as being at once the ground and the issue of all temporal and finite things.

The above is the Holy Ghost

But sympathy was not ultimate in the temper of the eternal spirit; contemplation was. Love was not absolute; contemplation was. And though there was love, there was also hate comprised within the spirit’s temper, for there was cruel delight in the contemplation of every horror, and glee in the downfall of the virtuous. All passions, it seemed, were comprised within the spirit’s temper; but mastered, icily gripped within the cold, clear, crystal ecstasy of contemplation.

An interesting interview on urban planning

One wouldn’t think it would be that good, but I found this interview with Alain Bertaud on EconTalk fascinating. The gist –

  • Cities are a large, people dense labor market first and foremost, whether you want them to be or not.
  • All urban planners should focus on is affordability and mobility – anything else is not doable through urban planning
  • A good metric/optimization is – can a schoolteacher afford to live within 30 minutes of her school. Optimize for that and you’re taking care of pretty much everyone.

Speaking truth into the world

One of my happier discoveries of parenting is being able to read and revisit the classic works of literature for my daughter’s bedtime stories and see the wonder of timeless stories on someone new.  A secondary source of happiness is being able to read them out loud to her – there is an altogether different enjoyment in reading aloud compared to reading silently.  I’m reminded of something in Jordan Peterson’s book, namely that the spoken word has power that the written word does not.  In the beginning there was the word, and so forth…

You Can’t Win by Jack Black – Review

I recently read the book “You Can’t Win” by Jack Black, an autobiography of a safecracker (or yegg) who lived in the late late 19th and early 20th centuries.   The timespan between them and now is long enough for everything to be very different, but recent enough for the differences to be recognizable.  It was the best book I’ve read in quite some time.

Surprises in the book

  • There was a coherent alternate criminal society – the criminal element really did seem to all know each other – much more than I would have expected anyway.  The “underworld” seems to be an accurate name
  • Criminals really did have separate names for everything, i.e. yegg, pegging, “On the square”
  • Crime was very widespread – people did not mix criminal and straight jobs
  • Criminals specialized to a surprising degree
  • Beggars were highly valued by other criminals (as they saw everything that happened in a city)
  • Opium use was quite widespread – apparently the author maintained an active drug habit while in (American) prison with no difficulty whatsoever
  • Prisons were not overcrowded
  • Canadian prisons where somewhat more officially brutal (with lashings!) but there was no unofficial brutality – and extremely well run – I imagine both the criminal and taxpayer would prefer the Canadian system of the time to the American
  • The “silent” system and single cells seemed to  solve the prisoner on prisoner violence problem
  • The age at which parents sent children to be on their own is surprisingly low – 14 seemed to be quite common
  • The bonds between parent and child seemed to be much less than now
  • The author was sentenced to 2 years and 30 lashes in his Canadian prison stint – 15 on the way in, and 15 on the way out.  Good behavior would have the authorities go easy on him with the final lashes
  • Jail sentences were less than expected
  • People regarded the notion of identity very differently – There were no permanent records, no widespread photography, no fingerprints, no nothing.  Basically you were who you said you were unless someone said different.  And you could move 50 miles away and never run into anyone you had ever met
  • Many, many more

Let’s Kill Hitler

I recently thought of a new book idea, science fiction no less – to wit:

Many people have often talked about going back in time to the 1920s to kill Hitler – this one comes to mind.  The time traveler always goes back in time before Hitler has committed any crimes.  People see the willingness to murder an (at the time) innocent person in cold blood as a sign of virtue, or resolve, or whatever.

Say this time machine exists.  Say also that time travel results in a reboot of history at the moment of travel.

Suppose WWII never happened, but time travel did – say you have someone totally wanting to commit cold blooded murder, but wants to do it in the past to escape capture.  Say that person goes back in time, commits many murders, but does not make it back to the time machine in time and gets caught.  Say that person goes on a killing spree of historical proportions, but of course no one gets that he is a time traveler from the future.  The state executes the serial killer Adolph Hitler.  History Reboots.

Say that in the future you have some other person who wants to kill someone, evade capture, and have it be somewhat moral.  Aha!  Let’s go back in time and kill a serial killer, but before they’ve done anything (when it will be easier).  This person goes back in time to kill Hitler, starts talking to him – discovers how much they have in common and the two commit many murders together as the best of friends.  History Reboots.

Say that happens again – and again (with many reboots).  With increased numbers, what started as a lone killer, turns into a friendship, turns into a gang, which turns into a political party, which turns into a mass movement as all of the future world’s psychopaths travel to 1920s Germany.  Their deep interest in murder morphs into Naziism (as something they can all agree to).  With each new member they get stronger, and draw ever more people to come nip them in the bud.

Not really sure how it ends, probably in something pacifistic, perhaps with a paean to salesmanship.

Review of Average is Over by Tyler Cowen

Last night I finished Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over – and much like his earlier work, The Great Stagnation  – it has changed my thinking a good bit.

The root theory is that most (all?) of the coming economic advancement in the future will come from the pairing of people and smart machines, and that the future will be consumed by either making and enhancing those machines, working with the machines in new ways, or managing/motivating/services the previous two groups.    One corollary of this is that our current troubles (income inequality/political polarization, etc) are side effects of the technological shift, not of culture and not of politics (though demographics does play a role).

I either agree with, or was convinced by almost all of the arguments in the book, save the few below.

  1. Cowen has the theory that the bottom end of the income distribution (which will grow more fixed over time) will compensate for loss of income by moving to lower cost states and areas.  I.E.  a marginally employable person (i.e. high school dropout with minor criminal record say) will realize that it’s easier to move to Oklahoma or North Dakota and be marginally employed than to stay in New York and be marginally employed.  That part I agree with, but there is another force in play – namely that as income drops the social network, family, friends, etc become much more important, prompting more trade and barter.  Basically there is a trade off between the measurable wealth/income (paid in dollars) and the non-measurable income/wealth (personal and family connections, favors, barter, etc)  See the fascinating Gang Leader For a Day for more info.  A drop in measurable income might prompt a surge in investment in personal/social networks, which I imagine are more location dependent; freezing people in place (it’s hard to move everyone you know to the same state).
  2. Cowen defines technological advancement mostly in terms of machine learning, and seems to underweigh recent hardware developments.  The internet of things conceivably gets rid of  many more manual labor jobs than I think Cowen might think (go SkyNet!) – see the Adafruit blog for more examples.

Fifth Generation Warfare sighted in the wild!

Check out this interview on bloggingheads with the author of The Family, which is a book about a loose network of self dealing Christians in high placed.

From the interview (I haven’t read the book yet) it seems to match all of the definitions of 5GW (loose as they may be), and it’s been around since the 30s as well.

Thoughts from my fellow war nerds, which is to say Soob and Slog?