Showing posts from 2023

Book Review: Anaximander By Carlo Rovelli

  I first encountered Anaximander in a course I took in Ancient Greek philosophy, and I didn’t have the sense to be impressed.  Only four brief lines of his work survive, and to me they were utterly mysterious: All things originate from one another, and vanish into one another according to necessity; they give to each other justice and recompense for injustice in conformity with the order of Time. Rovelli, Carlo. Anaximander (p. 79). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Neither my textbook nor my professor pointed out that these rather mysterious lines contain a profound idea – the notion of natural law, the idea that the phenomena of nature are due not to the whims of this god or that, but the operation in time of natural laws, or necessity. This was a profound innovation.   All previous explanations of rain, storms, thunder, lightning and other phenomena seem to have attributed them to the actions of gods and spirits.   Anaximander’s idea thus began a long war between th

The End Times: ChatGPT

If you haven't  sampled ChatGPT yet, I recommend it.  Deep neural networks and the new technology of transformers are producing a technological revolution that is likely the biggest one yet.  ChatGPT and its relatives can write you a sonnet, a coherent summary of the role of sheaves in algebraic geometry, or a computer program in Python or other languages.  A related technology can produce plausible images of persons, monsters, or imaginary landscapes based on a few words of prompting text.  Yet another can take a minute or so of anyone's speech to produce hard to distinguish speech in the speaker's voice. Would you like to hear the Silmarillion as if read by J. R. R. Tolkien?  It can probably be done.  

Book Review: Annals of a Former World By John McPhee

  A former English major decides to take some trips down Interstate 80 in the company of geologists.  I 80 runs from Teaneck, New Jersey, to San Francisco, a journey of 2901 miles.  Annals is a title borrowed from one of the founding documents of geology, by James Hutton: “ To a naturalist nothing is indifferent; the humble moss that creeps upon the stone is equally interesting as the lofty pine which so beautifully adorns the valley or the mountain: but to a naturalist who is reading in the face of rocks the annals of a former world, the mossy covering which obstructs his view, and renders undistinguishable the different species of stone, is no less than a serious subject of regret.” McPhee, John. Annals of the Former World (p. 77). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. Science is always a detective story, but in geology it finds its purest form. McPhee’s book is about the stories those rocks reveal and the geologists who read and tell them.   The interstate system, with it

Inequality and Designated Victims

Hunter-Gatherer societies tend to be egalitarian.  Civilizations and agricultural societies generally, tend to be hierarchical.  Why so? One possibility is that the greater productivity and fertility of agricultural societies means that they are always bumping up against the Malthusian bound, the maximum population the land and technology can support.  Peter Turchin has explored this idea in his books, including War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires . He documents how Europe has suffered a repetitive cycle of depopulating wars, followed by peace and a rapid expansion of population until individual farmers have been forced to ever smaller farms or more marginal farmland until the society has become broadly impoverished, at which point widespread wars break out as adventurers and the desperate seek more land at the expense of others. These wars depopulate both losers and winners. Of course the other horsemen of the apocalypse who also do their part. But I want to focus on a