Books, and stuff I wrote elsewhere, in December 2014

Decent books finished in December:

Why the West Rules—For Now was quite interesting. I may have to return to this one later for some detailed analysis. Also see the 200+ page supplementary material PDF, which I guess was later expanded into a book.

I also read much of the nonfiction section of The David Foster Wallace Reader. It is excellent writing in many ways, but it’s not the kind of excellent writing I like. I prefer nonfiction writing closer to the “classic style” advocated by Thomas & Turner and Pinker. DFW’s style is, for me, too focused on clever language and clever constructions. I prefer writing that gets out of the way so that I can focus my attention on the subject matter rather than on the way it’s being explained. I guess a DFW essay is nonfiction for people who like reading artsy fiction like James Joyce, which isn’t me.

Carr’s The Glass Cage confirmed my suspicion that I wouldn’t like Carr’s thinking much, e.g. this passage on Facebook: “Zuckerberg celebrates [Facebook’s features] as ‘frictionless sharing’… But there’s something repugnant about applying the bureaucratic ideals of speed, productivity, and standardization to our relations with others. The most meaningful bonds aren’t forged through transactions in a marketplace or other routinized exchanges of data. People aren’t nodes on a network grid. The bonds require trust and courtesy and sacrifice, all of which, at least to a technocrat’s mind, are sources of inefficiency and inconvenience.”

The Beginning of Infinity is David Deutsch’s account of his own philosophy of science. The basic claims seem to be that (1) moral and social progress comes from knowledge, (2) knowledge comes from good scientific explanations, and (3) good scientific explanations are those which fit the facts and are hard to vary. On (1) I think he neglects genuine information hazards on the one hand, and non-knowledge sources of social progress on the other. I think (2) leaves out other kinds of knowledge, like knowing a strong trend in data without having any theory of it. And as for (3), I can’t tell if he’s rejecting the standard Bayesian account of scientific explanation (Howson & Urbach 2005; Yudkowsky 2005), or if he just likes to emphasize the part of that which awards more points for models/predictions with hard-to-vary parameters. If he’s rejecting the Bayesian account, he doesn’t say why. There are also lots of long, rambling, often wrong tangents about memes and AI and other topics, e.g. this: “Most advocates of the Singularity believe that, soon after the AI breakthrough, superhuman minds will be constructed and that then, as Vinge put it, ‘the human era will be over.’ But my discussion of the universality of human minds rules out that possibility. Since humans are already universal explainers and constructors, they can already transcend their parochial origins, so there can be no such thing as a superhuman mind as such.”

I gave up on Life’s Ratchet. It seems pretty good, actually, but it had too much technical information for me to follow in audiobook form.

Stuff I wrote elsewhere in December:

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