From the archives: September 2009

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Wednesday Book Club: The Scientist as Rebel

Wednesday, 9 September 2009 — 12:45am | Book Club, Literature, Science

This week’s selection: The Scientist as Rebel (2007) by Freeman Dyson.

In brief: This collection of book reviews, lectures, and other essays by one of the great twentieth-century physicists is an outstanding guide to his thought, most notably on the ethics of science and the nature of war. Dyson makes a persuasive case for optimism about the future of our species, provided we learn from our past.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Scientist as Rebel, keep reading below.)

Continued »

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Proposal for a Nordic quantifier

Friday, 4 September 2009 — 9:43am | Insights

A pride of lions. A flock of sheep. A litter of kittens.

A ride of valkyries.

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Informal incompleteness

Friday, 4 September 2009 — 2:28am | Literature

The Wednesday Book Club returns next week. I already have a review written, queued up, and ready to go, in no small part because my computer will be undergoing repairs in the following days.

As some of my readers have correctly surmised, the temporary hiatus of what had quickly become this journal’s main reason for being was in no small part the fault of one Dan Brown. To make a long story short, after a thousand words of complaining about trivialities in Angels & Demons like how an alleged former schoolteacher could possibly commit to saying, on paper, that lines of iambic pentameter were made of five couplets instead of five feet, I realized I had yet to issue a whit of complaint that was not redundant with the well-documented travesties of The Da Vinci Code. And this was entirely sidestepping the injuries to the English language, which the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has already bravely diagnosed in his article “Adverbs and Demons”. So I threw up my hands in despair.

This was not how things were supposed to go. From the inception of the weekly book feature, I always intended to review Dan Brown. I felt there was a need for an exhaustive treatment of how we distinguish acceptable factual liberties in fiction writing from unacceptable ones, and that there was no better way to do it than to take a fair crack at a book I hadn’t read. And to be fair, there are discussion questions unique to Angels & Demons that The Da Vinci Code does not broach. I think specifically of the many popular canards about the relationship between science and religion that the earlier novel repeats like a dead parrot. But in the end, I had better things to do.

With another Dan Brown release on the horizon, I may salvage some of what I wrote about Angels & Demons and publish it here. I do not expect this will actually happen. I would rather read good books. Very few things are so worth writing about that I would rather commit them to the site with the polish I demand of myself than read a good book. Indeed, very few things are so worth writing about that I derive more pleasure from doing it than from raiding endgame content in World of Warcraft, an activity that makes me feel infinitely more useful to society.

Consider some of the posts I have abandoned, half-written, in the intervening months:

  • A piece on journalistic ethics and disparate cultures of arts writing, following this controversial entry on the Montreal Gazette‘s informal blog.
  • An analysis of the mileage Pixar gets out of borrowing conventions from classic cinema that most of its audience hasn’t seen.
  • A critique of the shoddy bungling of artificial intelligence in the recent revival of Battlestar Galactica, and why the show is the very opposite of science fiction. (Oh, just read Abigail Nussbaum and be done with it.)
  • A treatise on what learning patterns out of standard books and following best practices does to the creative spirit in chess, World of Warcraft, and jazz.
  • A smattering of thoughts on what to do with the public awareness of theoretical computing science, inspired by Lance Fortnow’s recent article on the state of the central problem in computational complexity theory.

In the wake of more pressing commitments to come, it is unlikely that I will ever tidy these up and complete them to my satisfaction unless there is palpable demand for it. Secretly, I like it when ambitious theses go nova. You don’t see their light for what seems like a billion years.

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