October 2004

Itzkoff, Seymour W. The Decline of Intelligence in America. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994. ISBN 0-275-95229-0.
This book had the misfortune to come out in the same year as the first edition of The Bell Curve (August 2003), and suffers by comparison. Unlike that deservedly better-known work, Itzkoff presents few statistics to support his claims that dysgenic reproduction is resulting in a decline in intelligence in the U.S. Any assertion of declining intelligence must confront the evidence for the Flynn Effect (see The Rising Curve, July 2004), which seems to indicate IQ scores are rising about 15 points per generation in a long list of countries including the U.S. The author dismisses Flynn's work in a single paragraph as irrelevant to international competition since scores of all major industrialised countries are rising at about the same rate. But if you argue that IQ is a measure of intelligence, as this book does, how can you claim intelligence is falling at the same time IQ scores are rising at a dizzying rate without providing some reason that Flynn's data should be disregarded? There's quite a bit of hand wringing about the social, educational, and industrial prowess of Japan and Germany which sounds rather dated with a decade's hindsight. The second half of the book is a curious collection of policy recommendations, which defy easy classification into a point on the usual political spectrum. Itzkoff advocates economic protectionism, school vouchers, government-led industrial policy, immigration restrictions, abolishing affirmative action, punitive taxation, government incentives for conventional families, curtailment of payments to welfare mothers and possibly mandatory contraception, penalties for companies which export well-paying jobs, and encouragement of inter-racial and -ethnic marriage. I think that if an ADA/MoveOn/NOW liberal were to read this book, their head might explode. Given the political climate in the U.S. and other Western countries, such policies had exactly zero chance of being implemented either when he recommended them in 1994 and no more today.

 Permalink

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1913] 2002. ISBN 1-404-33589-7.
The link above is to a paperback reprint of the original 1913 novel, 16th in the original Tom Swift series, which is in the public domain. I actually read this novel on my PalmOS PDA (which is also my mobile phone, so it's usually right at hand). I always like to have some light reading available which doesn't require a long attention span or intense concentration to pass the time while waiting in line at the post office or other dreary moments one can't program, and early 20th century juvenile pulp fiction on a PDA fills the bill superbly. This novel lasted about a year and a half until I finished it earlier today in the check-out line at the grocery store. The PalmOS version I read was produced as a demo from the Project Gutenberg EText of the novel. This Palm version doesn't seem to be available any more (and was inconvenient, being broken into four parts in order to fit on early PalmPilots with limited memory). For those of you who prefer an electronic edition, I've posted downloadable files of these texts in a variety of formats.

 Permalink

Cabbage, Michael and William Harwood. Comm Check…The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia. New York: Free Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-6091-0.
This is an excellent account for the general reader of the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 accident and subsequent investigation. The authors are veteran space reporters: Cabbage for the Orlando Sentinel and Harwood for CBS News. If you've already read the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report (note that supplementary volumes II through VI are now available), you won't learn anything new about the technical details of the accident and its engineering and organisational causes here, but there's interesting information about the dynamics of the investigation and the individuals involved which you won't find in the formal report. The NASA Implementation Plan for Return to Flight and Beyond mentioned on page 264 is available online.

 Permalink

Hayward, Steven F. The Real Jimmy Carter. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-090-5.
In the acknowledgements at the end, the author says one of his motivations for writing this book was to acquaint younger readers and older folks who've managed to forget with the reality of Jimmy Carter's presidency. Indeed, unless one lived through it, it's hard to appreciate how Carter's formidable intellect allowed him to quickly grasp the essentials of a situation, absorb vast amounts of detailed information, and then immediately, intuitively leap to the absolutely worst conceivable course of action. It's all here: his race-baiting 1970 campaign for governor of Georgia; the Playboy interview; “ethnic purity”; “I'll never lie to you”; the 111 page list of campaign promises; alienating the Democratic controlled House and Senate before inaugural week was over; stagflation; gas lines; the Moral Equivalent of War (MEOW); turning down the thermostat; spending Christmas with the Shah of Iran, “an island of stability in one of he more troubled areas of the world”; Nicaragua; Afghanistan; “malaise” (which he actually never said, but will be forever associated with his presidency); the cabinet massacre; kissing Brezhnev; “Carter held Hostage”, and more. There is a side-splitting account of the “killer rabbit” episode on page 155. I'd have tried to work in Billy Beer, but I guess you gotta stop somewhere. Carter's post-presidential career, hobnobbing with dictators, loose-cannon freelance diplomacy, and connections with shady middle-east financiers including BCCI, are covered along with his admirable humanitarian work with Habitat for Humanity. That this sanctimonious mountebank who The New Republic, hardly a right wing mouthpiece, called “a vain, meddling, amoral American fool” in 1995 after he expressed sympathy for Serbian ethnic cleanser Radovan Karadzic, managed to win the Nobel Peace Prize, only bears out the assessment of Carter made decades earlier by notorious bank robber Willie Sutton, “I've never seen a bigger confidence man in my life, and I've been around some of the best in the business.”

 Permalink

Bell, John S. Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1987] 1993. ISBN 0-521-52338-9.
This volume collects most of Bell's papers on the foundations and interpretation of quantum mechanics including, of course, his discovery of “Bell's inequality”, which showed that no local hidden variable theory can reproduce the statistical results of quantum mechanics, setting the stage for the experimental confirmation by Aspect and others of the fundamental non-locality of quantum physics. Bell's interest in the pilot wave theories of de Broglie and Bohm is reflected in a number of papers, and Bell's exposition of these theories is clearer and more concise than anything I've read by Bohm or Hiley. He goes on to show the strong similarities between the pilot wave approach and the “many world interpretation” of Everett and de Witt. An extra added treat is chapter 9, where Bell derives special relativity entirely from Maxwell's equations and the Bohr atom, along the lines of Fitzgerald, Larmor, Lorentz, and Poincaré, arriving at the principle of relativity (which Einstein took as a hypothesis) from the previously known laws of physics.

 Permalink

Schott, Ben. Schott's Original Miscellany. London: Bloomsbury, 2002. ISBN 1-58234-349-7.
At last—a readily available source one can cite for the definition of the unit “millihelen” (p. 152)!

 Permalink

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. ISBN 0-679-72610-1.
The French Revolution is so universally used as a metaphor in social and political writing that it's refreshing to come across a straight narrative history of what actually happened. The French Revolution is a huge, sprawling story, and this is a big, heavy book about it—more than nine hundred pages, with an enormous cast of characters—in large part because each successive set of new bosses cut off the heads of their predecessors. Schama stresses the continuity of many of the aspects of the Revolution with changes already underway in the latter decades of the ancien régime—Louis XVI comes across as kind of Enlightenment Gorbachev—attempting to reform a bankrupt system from the top and setting in motion forces which couldn't be controlled. Also striking is how many of the most extreme revolutionaries were well-off before the Revolution and, in particular, the large number of lawyers in their ranks. Far from viewing the Terror as an aberration, Schama argues that from the very start, the summer of 1789, “violence was the motor of the Revolution”. With the benefit of two centuries of hindsight, you almost want to reach back across the years, shake these guys by the shoulders, and say “Can't you see where you're going with this?” But then you realise: this was all happening for the very first time—they had no idea of the inevitable outcome of their idealism! In a mere four years, they invented the entire malevolent machinery of the modern, murderous, totalitarian nation-state, and all with the best intentions, informed by the persuasively posed yet relentlessly wrong reasoning of Rousseau. Those who have since repeated the experiment, with the example of the French Revolution before them as a warning, have no such excuse.

 Permalink

Djavann, Chahdortt. Que pense Allah de l'Europe?. Paris: Gallimard, 2004. ISBN 2-07-077202-0.
The author came of age in revolutionary Iran. After ten years living in Paris, she sees the conflict over the Islamic veil in French society as one in which those she calls “islamists” use the words of the West in ways which mean one thing to westerners and something entirely different to partisans of their own cause. She argues what while freedom of religion is a Western value which cannot be compromised, neither should it be manipulated to subvert the social liberty which is equally a contribution of the West to civilisation. Europe, she believes, is particularly vulnerable to infiltration by those who do not share its values but can employ its traditions and institutions to subvert them. This is not a book length treatment, but rather an essay of 55 pages. For a less personally impassioned but more in-depth view of the situation across the Channel, see Le Londonistan (July 2003).

 Permalink

Lewis, Michael. Moneyball. New York: W. W. Norton, [2003] 2004. ISBN 0-393-32481-8.
Everybody knows there's no faster or more reliable way to make a lot of money than to identify an inefficiency in a market and arbitrage it. (If you didn't know that, consider it free advice and worth everything you paid for it!) Modern financial markets are Hellishly efficient. Millions of players armed with real-time transaction data, massive computing and database resources for data mining, and more math, physics, and economics Ph.D.s than a dozen Ivy League campuses are continuously looking for the slightest discrepancy between price and value, which more or less guarantees that even when one is discovered, it won't last for more than a moment, and that by the time you hear about it, it'll be long gone. It's much easier to find opportunities in slower moving, less intensely scrutinised fields where conventional wisdom and lack of imagination can blind those in the market to lucrative inefficiencies. For example, in the 1980s generic personal computers and graphics adaptors became comparable in performance to special purpose computer aided design (CAD) workstations ten times or more as costly. This created a situation where the entire value-added in CAD was software, not hardware—all the hardware development, manufacturing, and support costs of the existing vendors were simply an inefficiency which cost their customers dearly. Folks who recognised this inefficiency and moved to exploit the opportunity it created were well rewarded, even while their products were still being ridiculed or ignored by “serious vendors”. Opportunities like this don't come around very often, and there's a lot of luck involved in being in the right place at the right time with the skills and resources at hand to exploit one when you do spot it.

But just imagine what you could do in a field mired in tradition, superstition, ignorance, meaningless numbers, a self-perpetuating old boy network, and gross disparities between spending and performance…Major League Baseball, say? Starting in the 1970s and 80s, Bill James and a slowly growing group of statistically knowledgeable and scientifically minded baseball fanatics—outsiders all—began to look beyond conventional statistics and box scores and study what really determines how many runs a team will score and how many games it will win. Their results turned conventional wisdom completely on its head and that, combined with the clubbiness of professional baseball, caused their work to be utterly ignored until Billy Beane became general manager of the Oakland A's in 1997. Beane and his statistics wizard Paul DePodesta were faced with the challenge of building a winning team with a budget for player salaries right at the bottom of the league—they had less to spend on the entire roster than some teams spent on three or four superstar free agents. I've always been fond of the phrase “management by lack of alternatives”, and that's the situation Beane faced. He took on board the wisdom of the fan statisticians and built upon it, to numerically estimate the value in runs—the ultimate currency of baseball—of individual players, and compare that to the cost of acquiring them. He quickly discovered the market in professional baseball players was grossly inefficient—teams were paying millions for players with statistics which contributed little or nothing to runs scored and games won, while players with the numbers that really mattered were languishing in the minors, available for a song.

The Oakland A's are short for “Athletics”, but under Beane it might as well have been “Arbitrageurs”—trading overvalued stars for cash, draft picks, and undervalued unknowns spotted by the statistical model. Conventional scouting went out the window; the A's roster was full of people who didn't look like baseball players but fit the mathematical profile. Further, Beane changed the way the game was played—if the numbers said stolen bases and sacrifice bunts were a net loss in runs long-term, then the A's didn't do them. The sportswriters and other teams thought it was crazy, but it won ball games: an amazing 103 in 2002 with a total payroll of less than US$42 million. In most other markets or businesses competitors would be tripping over one another to copy the methods which produced such results, but so hidebound and inbred is baseball that so far only two other teams have adopted the Oakland way of winning. Writing on the opening day of the 2004 World Series, is is interesting to observe than one of those two is the Boston Red Sox. I must observe, however, amongst rooting for the scientific method and high fives for budget discipline and number crunching, that the ultimate product of professional baseball is not runs scored, nor games, pennants, or World Series won, but rather entertainment and the revenue it generates from fans, directly or indirectly. One wonders whether this new style of MBAseball run from the front office will ultimately be as enjoyable as the intuitive, risk-taking, seat of the pants game contested from the dugout by a Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, or Earl Weaver. This superbly written, fascinating book is by the author of the almost indescribably excellent Liar's Poker. The 2004 paperback edition contains an Afterword recounting the “religious war” the original 2003 hardcover ignited. Again, this is a book recommended by an anonymous visitor with the recommendation form—thanks, Joe!

 Permalink

Jacobs, Jane. Dark Age Ahead. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-6232-2.
The reaction of a reader who chooses this book solely based on its title or the dust-jacket blurb is quite likely to be, “Huh?” The first chapter vividly evokes the squalor and mass cultural amnesia which followed the fall of Western Rome, the collapse of the Chinese global exploration and trade in the Ming dynasty, and the extinction of indigenous cultures in North America and elsewhere. Then, suddenly, we find ourselves talking about urban traffic planning, the merits of trolley buses vs. light rail systems, Toronto metropolitan government, accounting scandals, revenue sharing with municipalities, and a host of other issues which, however important, few would rank as high on the list of probable causes of an incipient dark age. These are issues near and dear to the author, who has been writing about them ever since her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jacobs was born in 1916 and wrote this book at the age of 87). If you're unfamiliar with her earlier work, the extensive discussion of “city import replacement” in the present volume will go right over your head as she never defines it here. Further, she uses the word “neoconservative” at variance with its usual meaning in the U.S. and Europe. It's only on page 113 (of 175 pages of main text) that we discover this is a uniquely Canadian definition. Fine, she's been a resident of Toronto since 1969, but this book is published in New York and addressed to an audience of “North Americans” (another Canadian usage), so it's unnecessarily confusing. I find little in this book to disagree with, but as a discussion of the genuine risks which face Western civilisation, it's superficial and largely irrelevant.

 Permalink

O'Neill, John E. and Jerome L. Corsi. Unfit for Command. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-017-4.

 Permalink