Rosio Pavoris a blog

In Praise of Idleness

In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand RussellIt feels like this book took too long to finish. It’s only 161 pages, but when I was reading it it felt like it dragged on forever, though I guess it only took a few hours altogether.
It’s not even because it wasn’t interesting. The writing style is just very dry (or perhaps just old-fashioned) and it takes a bit to get into the right mindset.

In Praise of Idleness is a collection of fifteen short essays by Bertrand Russell, purportedly on the topic of idleness. In them, Russell explains his vision of society, essentially. He talks about what he sees as fundamental dysfunctions in the way the world works, and how to fix it.
He talks about economics, politics, history, education, mortality, &c.

All of these essays were written during the Interbellum, at a time when many people in Britain were apparently defending Fascism as a viable way of doing things, so he spends some space to explaining what he sees as the problems with that (and Communism) as well.
While they’re all very interesting as far as understanding the mindset of people between the two World Wars goes, most of them are of very limited use today. Much of what he says is immediately obvious to anyone today, and some of his predictions have just fallen flat entirely.

Russell is a socialist as well (and he’s very careful to distinguish that from Communism, as it should be), but his vision of socialism suffers greatly from the biases of his time. Almost none of his Case of Socialism can reasonably be said to still be relevant today, except to provide a convenient straw man to its opponents.

Still, the whole thing is a pretty interesting read, for historical context if nothing else, and I’d recommend it. Only knowledge of the past can help us avoid repeating it.

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The Emperor’s New Mind

The Emperor's New Mind, by Roger PenroseThis book took far longer to finish than it should have. This is in large part due to the silly conclusion Penrose tries to reach, which just makes my brain bleed.
The thesis of the book is simply this:

    Consciousness is not deterministic, therefore the brain works by the grace of God through quantum.

It starts promisingly enough, with an explanation of Turing machines, computability, and the Turing test. Having explained these concepts, Penrose then tries to argue that the brain is, in fact, not a deterministic Turing machine.
Central to this claim seem to be the Chinese Room experiment and similar thought experiments (which I’ll grant can be difficult to grasp properly), and various minor things like “flashes of insight” (which clearly can’t be explained deterministically!) and whatnot.

Fortunately, he quickly abandons this line of reasoning and starts talking about mathematics and quantum physics for a few hundred pages. I’m not sure why he does this, since neither has any relevance to the subject at hand, but I’m not complaining.
He tries to return to the brain in the final chapters, but he just makes an ass of himself in the process.

Penrose doesn’t understand psychology, physiology, fetal development, evolution or natural selection (at some points coming perilously close to endorsing ID), the (often counter-intuitive) capabilities of actual computers, or cognitive science, but he tries to venture into each of these fields to make his point and fails spectacularly.
His whole point is essentially a giant, infuriatingly dense argument from incredulity and personal pride (the human brain can’t be a deterministic Turing machine, that would make it too common!), and his attempts to involve quantum physics are more reminiscent of Deepak fucking Chopra than of a theoretical physicist of Penrose’s stature.

Now, does this make The Emperor’s New Mind a bad book? Well, yes. Let me rephrase.
Does this mean The Emperor’s New Mind isn’t worth reading? Absolutely not.

Like I said, most of the book is just seemingly irrelevant stuff about mathematics and quantum physics, and it really is quite interesting. It’s worth keeping in mind that Penrose isn’t just some random woo artist, but an accomplished mathematician and actually a rather competent theoretical physicist.
He talks about Turing, fractals (including the Mandelbrot set), Penrose tilings, the history of physics, and plenty of fascinating concepts in theoretical physics ranging from well-known to rather obscure. If you’re willing to gloss over his forays into cognitive science and AI, and maybe skip the last chapter entirely, it’s actually a very good read.

As far as philosophy of the mind goes, though, I’d just leave that to people like Daniel Dennett.

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The Nothing That Is

The Nothing That IsI read too quickly. The Nothing That Is, by Robert Kaplan, is about the history of zero.

Most of the book is, obviously, about the concept of zero in mathematics. It starts with the Sumerians, who came up with the concept, and then goes back and forth between the Greeks and the Indians, to figure out who came up with the symbol for it, and at which point it went from a type of punctuation to an actual number.
He pauses briefly on the Mayans and their psychopathic obsessions regarding zero and its significance in their calendar, and then moves on to Western Europe. It took a ridiculous amount of time for zero to be accepted as an actual number, apparently.

Like Barrow’s Book of Infinity, Kaplan has to talk about religion and theology a lot because of the nature of the subject matter, but unlike Barrow, he manages to remain neutral about it; not the faux neutrality that affords theology the same kind of credibility reality-based philosophies deserve, but actual neutrality, examining where the march of zero was slowed down because of it, and where it was accelerated.

Near the end, he tries to move away from mathematics and into physics, but it doesn’t really work. He tries to crowbar the concept into a number of places where it doesn’t belong, and is quickly reduced to weak philosophising.
There’s a chapter on the psychological implications of zero that’s really just painful to read as well.

Still, those are only a small part of the book, and the vast majority of it is extremely interesting and very well-written. Somewhere along the way he manages to talk about every mathematical concept twelve years of education tried to address, and explain it in a way that made considerably more sense than anything our teachers ever tried to tell us.

If you’re at all interested in history or mathematics (but aren’t an expert mathematician, probably), you’ll enjoy this book. Buy it.

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Six (Not-So-)Easy Pieces

Six Easy Pieces
Six Not-So-Easy Pieces

I just finished Six Not-So-Easy Pieces. Together with Six Easy Pieces, it’s a much abridged version of the Feynman Lectures on Physics, by, of course, Richard Feynman.
I finished Six Easy Pieces weeks ago, but since it and the sequel add up to less than a third of a typical book, size-wise (about 140 pages each), I decided to review them together. I just got side-tracked for a bit.

Six Easy Pieces is actually the exact same book as The Character of Physical Law (which I reviewed earlier), just with the chapters moved around a bit and some bits reworded.
It’s much more recent than Character, but I thought it was a bit less coherent. Still, quite good.

Six Not-So-Easy Pieces takes most of the concepts introduced in Six Easy Pieces a step further, and introduces some relevant equations.

The first chapter introduces vectors as if it’s some super-advanced new concept (which it may well have been at the time, though I would hope that anyone who’s gone through highschool now would know what they are), and talks about how they apply to Newton.
The second returns to the various symmetries in physical laws, and delves deeper into what they mean. It also talks more in-depth about the various laws of conservation (momentum, energy, angular momentum, charge, baryons, and leptons).
The final four chapters are about special relativity and what it means, exactly. He gets a few jabs at philosophers in on the side, because he wouldn’t be Feynman if he didn’t.

While it does require some background in mathematics, it’s actually pretty easy to follow. It may be a bit too advanced for the casual reader, but anyone with an interest in physics should be able to pick it up quite readily.

At various points he hints at the limitations of the various theories and areas where our knowledge is still very much on shaky ground, or missing altogether. Given that these lectures were given in the 1960s, I’d be very interested in seeing another book, perhaps, that revisits the not-so-easy pieces and tells us what progress has been made.

Either way, they’re very interesting, and make for a surprisingly light read, given the subject matter. As a layperson, it’s kind of hard to know which bits, if any, are completely outdated, and the mathematics can be hard to follow, but it’s still very much worth reading. I certainly learned a few things.
(I never really understood the equivalence principle as well as I wanted to. Now I do.)

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The Infinite Book

The Infinite Book, by John D. BarrowI managed to finish a book before buying new ones!
The Infinite Book, by John D. Barrow, tries to explain the concept of infinity in several fields, and talks about how it has historically been regarded.

The first half of the book deals with infinity in mathematics. It starts with the obvious — Zeno’s paradoxes — and works its way through the history of mathematics all the way up to Georg Cantor and his infinite sets (א is a neat symbol), taking care to introduce complicated concepts in a way anyone could understand.

The second half deals with infinity in physics: infinite density, temperature, &c. in singularities, the infinity of space and time, and the infinity of the multiverse. It touches on things like the Big Bang (obviously), whether or not the universe will continue to expand forever, time travel, &c.
All of it is at least moderately interesting, though it does get repetitive.

The final chapter tries to philosophise a bit about what life would be like if we could live forever, in a stoner stream-of-consciousness kind of way. Barrow may be a good mathematician and theoretical physicist (though if he is, the scope of this book didn’t exactly allow him to show it off), but he’s no great philosopher.

But other than that, it was a pretty decent book. It made for easy reading, but it doesn’t treat readers like idiots, which is a hard balance to find. I certainly learned a few things.

One thing that did bother me, though: he touches on theology rather more than I thought was needed (though some mention is obviously going to be necessary, given the subject matter and the historical context), and he seemed to be extremely careful not to comment on its inanities.
Dunno. Maybe I’m more sensitive to that sort of thing than most. Still, since Barrow apparently won the Templeton Prize in 2006, I don’t think it’s just in my head.

One thing that did amuse me, though: at one point, he points out how advances in science and a deeper understanding of the world around us meant that the concept of God retreated further and further over the course of history, being confined to things science could not yet explain, time and time again.
The punchline? John D. Barrow is a deist.

Anyway. If you’re willing to ignore all that, it really isn’t a bad book. I’ll probably buy more of his books at some point, at least.

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A Briefer History of Time

I just finished A Briefer History of Time, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. It’s a 2005 revisit of the famous A Brief History of Time. In it, Hawking briefly explains things like black holes, quantum physics, string theory, and the origin of the universe, in terms anyone could understand. And I do mean anyone.
I can understand how a book written in 1988 could need an update, but I’m not entirely sure why it needed to be made more accessible. Over 9 million people bought the first book, so clearly the public thought it was accessible enough.

I never read the original (I’ve been meaning to forever, but I just never got around to it); as such, I’m not sure exactly how simplistic it presented things, but I really hope it wasn’t nearly as bad as this one. I’ve never been a big fan of the lie-to-children approach to education past middle school, and that’s exactly the approach the book takes.
Yes, relativity and quantum physics are difficult subjects, and small steps are required to explain them to laypersons, but ye gods, there is such a thing as too much.

Having said that, it’s a great introductory book to physics for children in 7th or 8th grade, but I was really disappointed by the fact that Hawking doesn’t even hint at some of the controversies that made him infamous, such as the black hole information paradox.
Still, even as an adult, if it’s been a few decades since you’ve had Physics, and you’ve forgotten all about Einstein, and you want to relearn but aren’t willing to think at all, it should be a pretty good read. I’d still recommend the original, though.

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