Friday, December 30, 2011

The Power of Ideas

Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.

-Grant Morrison

Quote of the Day

“Should we trust models or observations?” In reply we note that if we had observations of the future, we obviously would trust them more than models, but unfortunately observations of the future are not available at this time.
-Knutson and Tuleya, Journal of Climate, 2005

List of Best of Lists 2011

A non-exhaustive, highly idiosyncratic list that will be expanded as new lists are encountered:
  1. Best of The Morning News
  2. Top 10 Longreads
  3. Marginal Revolution's most popular posts
  4. Kirkus Review's best books
  5. Tom Eisenmann's favorite posts on running startups
  6. Mark Morford's favorite albums
  7. lesswrong's rationality quotes
  8. The Jon Swift Memorial Roundup of best blog posts
  9. Everything is Miscellaneous' Top Ten Top Ten Top Ten Lists

The Year in Reading 2011

Since 2006, I've been keeping a list of all the books I've read. I don't know whether I want to keep doing this, as it makes me feel like I'm reading less rather than more, trying to finish books that might just as well be left aside, and leaving aside critical books that really ought to be read immediately. The quality of reading takes a backseat to the quantity. Meh.

On the other hand, it's great to look back on the list itself for surprises and reminders. Can it really be that I hadn't read Patrick Rothfuss's Name of the Wind and Wise Man's Fear or Helen DeWitt's amazing book The Last Samurai until this year? (If you haven't read these yet, go get them.) Other highly recommended fiction includes Lev Grossman's The Magician King, Eleanor Henderson's Ten Thousand Saints, and Neal Stephenson's Reamde.

This was also the year when I read Tim Ferriss's two books, and tried a lot of the self-help methods described in The Four Hour Body. Most of his recommendations still sound like hucksterism but actually work, as opposed to most books on similar topics, which sound reasonable but turn out to be bushwah. Also, Ferriss makes you want to get up and do something about your life. Other excellent books that made me want to get up and move were The Chairs are Where the People Go by Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti, a book about a man who teaches people how to play charades and how to get your neighbor's bar to be quiet, or something like that; and Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, on how to stop procrastinating (become a professional) and start writing.

Speaking of procrastination and other low-level personality issues, and also speaking of writing, check out Alice Flaherty (The Midnight Disease), Kay Redfield Jamison (Touched by Fire, Exuberance), and John Gartner (The Hypomanic Edge) on how hypomania, temporal lobe epilepsy, and other disorders made writers, scientists and entrepreneurs a bit more of what they are, and will make you wish you were a tiny bit mad. For the film version of this, go see Limitless. Grant Morrison's Supergods is a hypomanic book as well.

Other notable books on economics, psychology and entrepreneurship: James Gleick The Information, Daniel Kahneman Thinking Fast and Slow, which may well be the most important book of the year, Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants, Steven Johnson's The Innovator's Cookbook.

Four tremendous books on people: Edmund DeWaal The Hare with Amber Eyes, Alexander Theroux The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, which I haven't seen in anyone else's Best Of list, but which quite frankly belongs on everyone's, and Derek Jarman's diaries from the end of his life: Smiling in Slow Motion. If you want to read someone's thoughts on living and loving while dying, all in lapidary prose and great good humor, this one is the book for you.

Kelly Link & Gavin Grant

Two very good interviews with Small Beer Press's Kelly Link & Gavin Grant have surfaced lately: one from 2010 on some of Kelly's writing methods that she's adopted from other writers (ask your subconscious for ideas, put in things you like from other stories, write a lot of first sentences and select the best), and the other from author Alma Katsu (endpaper notes) with both Grant and Kelly about how to run a small press ("odd-shaped books" that others won't publish, but that match your taste are a good bet [if you've got good taste].)

I really like the list of things to put in stories: "fraught family dynamics", "people who make things", "electrical outages". The fifty first lines idea reminds me of the pottery class described by Malcolm Gladwell where the professor grades by the number of pots made, rather than the quality, and ends up with better results.

I also think that Small Beer is one of the most interesting publishers in America, both from the standpoint of the many great books they've brought onto the market, but also in their overall business model as an indie publisher. They produce quite a lot for their size, seem to be profitable, and have a good reputation with both customers and authors.

More: I don't remember whether I have already posted this interview with Link called "All Books are Weird"from Weird Fiction Review.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Incense Game

Now there is a perfume I’m working on that’s inspired by The Tale of Genji that will be made from extremely rare ingredients. It will be fabulously expensive because they’re incredibly hard to get. Much of it has to do with the Japanese ritual of burning incense. There are two words for it: one’s the ritual of burning incense and the other is a game where incense is burned and people are asked either to identify or they’ll burn various things and try to combine a smoke that’s really beautiful. Or people will talk about poetry or literature or what the smell the smoke inspires in them. That was very popular at the time that The Tale of Genji was written.

-Christopher Brosius
about his perfume "In the Library"

Winter is Coming

(via rcs)

Hello, Old Sexy!

She's wearing a TARDIS.
(via f-yeah Grant Morrison)

Monday, December 26, 2011

DJ Earworm - United State of Pop 2011 (World Go Boom)

Mashup king DJ Earworm presents the year of pop music, compressed, remixed and summarized.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Links for Later 12-21-11

  1. The Power of Living in Truth: a Vaclav Havel appreciation
  2. Mark Thoma: The Economic Divide Makes Everyone Poorer
  3. Adam Savage on SOPA/PIPA
  4. Al Jazeera on Bradley Manning
  5. How hard does James Franco work at Yale?
  6. Neal Pollack knew Christopher Hitchens better than you
  7. More on the Egyptian library fire
  8. Yet more

1% Feeling Put-Upon

Max Abelson reports some solipsistic quotes from members of the 1% who are quite unhappy with their lot in life. Income inequality will do that to a person, especially at the top. The more you make, the more insecure you are that you're going to be able to keep making it--your income volatility goes through the roof, and small changes in your relative ranking have big impacts on how well you do.

Nassim Taleb's fragility of the power law hits hard no matter where you sit. Joshua Brown (Reformed Broker) sees this other side of inequality. Being smart about investing (or anything) is no longer any guarantee of success. The market will eat your lunch.

This common problem of the rich and poor under conditions of high inequality is an idea I'll be working with over the coming year.

Egyptian Scientific Institute Burns Down

In a bizarre modern reinactment of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the Egyptian Army and police fired on protestors who attempted to rescue some of the 198,000 volumes contained at Egypt's largest library as the library building burned down. Other protestors had previously thorwn Molotov cocktails onto the neighboring Shura Council building.

Photo: unknown, citation wanted.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Very Calvin & Hobbes Christmas

"We miss you, Bill." Jim Frohmmeyer and Teague Chrystie discuss the snowman recreation process here.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Looking Toward 2012

I really don't like that my choices in the upcoming election will be between one candidate who will betray the things I believe in, civil liberties, progressive taxation, etc., etc., etc., and a crazy person from the other side (take your pick) who will be even worse.

on the Caver in Chief

also: This.

Links for Later 12-16-11

  1. A sampling of Japanese kamon (family crests)
  2. A selection of Christopher Hitchens articles and talks from The Browser
  3. Slate's collection of Hitchens articles
  4. Hitchens' Mark Daily memorial article
  5. A short Kelly Link interview
  6. SOPA markup delayed indefinitely
  7. SOPA only supported by astroturfers and industry flacks?
  8. Bradley Manning pre-trial hearing begins
  9. Gingrich proposes abolishing Article III of Constitution to save America from having judges

RIP Christopher Hitchens

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Links for Later 12-11-11

  1. Kay Nielsen's fairy tale illustrations are beautiful
  2. Basquiat's hair 
  3. Charlie Hoehn on working for free to work the way you need to
  4. Growing frankincense
  5. Update on the Bradley Manning trial: military objects to 38 of 48 proposed witnesses, tries to select "embedded" journalists. Who's running the prosecution of this thing, Vladimir Putin?
  6. "Full Unconcealed Panic"
  7. SOPA and Protect IP Act explained again
  8. LAPD acts illegally against Occupy LA

Quote of the Day

The Socratic method, of which the Platonic dialogues are the chief example, is unsurpassed as a discipline for correcting the errors, and clearing up the confusions incident to the intellectus sibi permissus, the understanding which has made up all its bundles of associations under the guidance of popular phraseology. The close, searching elenchus by which the man of vague generalities is constrained either to express his meaning to himself in definite terms, or to confess that he does not know what he is talking about; the perpetual testing of all general statements by particular instances; the siege in from which is laid to the meaning of large abstract terms, by fixing upon some still larger class-name which includes that and more, and dividing down to the thing sought -- marking out its limits and definition by a series of accurately drawn distinctions between it and each of the cognate objects which are successively parted off from it -- all this, as an education for precise thinking, is inestimable, and all this, even at that age, took such hold of me that it became part of my own mind. I have felt ever since that the title of Platonist belongs by far better right to those who have been nourished in, and have endeavoured to practise Plato's mode of investigation, than to those who are distinguished only by the adoption of certain dogmatical conclusions, drawn mostly from the least intelligible of his works, and which the character of his mind and writings makes it uncertain whether he himself regarded as anything more than poetic fancies, or philosophic conjectures.    
-JS Mill

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Your Christmas Shopping List

"Eye removal kit, daddy butter, caramel yak, Fancy Boy lip glitter"
Wonderfully silly--I laughed until I cried. Still, I think the pre-made toast could be a big seller.
(via boingboing)

Friday, December 02, 2011

Foster the People - Helena Beat

Just passed the 2000th post on this blog since moving to the new platform. I know you're as thrilled about this as I am.

A Modest Proposal

Any member of Congress who votes to lock up American citizens without charges or trial should themselves be locked up without charges or trial under the terms of the law, as they are clearly terrorists intending to subvert the American way of life.

By extension: any member of Congress who votes for any prima facie unconstitutional measure should be immediately subjected to the penalties for such a measure.

Links for Later

  1. What Tim Tebow can't do
  2. Cutbacks demolishing the New York Public Library
  3. Lunch with Stewart Lee
  4. Any member of Congress who votes to lock up American citizens without charges or trial should themselves be locked up without charges or trial
  5. Time for me to fly
  6. SOPA compromise in the wings?
  7. Matt Damon talks about
  8. Lululemon lives to regret those stupid John Galt bags
  9. Automating your startup with Wicked Start
  10. Your smartphone is tracking your every move. Lawsuits pending
  11. Military spending multiplier < Domestic spending multiplier
  12. Mohawk Movember with Kellan Lutz

Asset Diversification Fail

Since 2000, according to a Morgan Stanley review, excess return of hedge funds (alpha) has dropped from 16% to -1%, while correlation of hedge funds with stock indices has gone from ~0.5 to ~0.9 (from moderately to highly correlated). In other words, except for global macro funds, hedge funds are no longer beating index funds, and in fact are no longer really hedging much of anything.

We always used to joke that "hedge fund" wasn't really a separate class of assets, but just a marketing strategy that allowed managers to extract 2 and 20 from their customers. With numbers like these, those extracting days are numbered.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Utilitarianism Revisited

This new Sam Harris interview of Daniel Kahneman about Thinking Fast and Slow has a high density of good material for such a short sample. All of it is worth reading. Of particular interest is the impact of "the experiencing self and the remembering self" on conceptions of utility and the good life.

Some conceptions of the good life take the Aristotelian view to the extreme of denying altogether the relevance of subjective well-being. For those who do not want to go that far, the distinction between experienced happiness and life satisfaction raises serious problems. In particular, there appears to be little hope for any unitary concept of subjective well-being. I used to hold a unitary view, in which I proposed that only experienced happiness matters, and that life satisfaction is a fallible estimate of true happiness. I eventually concluded that this view is not tenable, for one simple reason: people seem to be much more concerned with the satisfaction of their goals than with the achievement of experienced happiness. A definition of subjective well-being that ignores people’s goals is not tenable. On the other hand, an exclusive focus on satisfaction is not tenable either. If two people are equally satisfied (or unsatisfied) with their lives but one of them is almost always smiling happily and the other is mostly miserable, will we ignore that in assessing their well-being?
I love this. It gets at the root of a very long argument in a new way by looking at the texture of thought and consciousness. The Thinking book (and Kahneman's body of research) is full of exactly this sort of insight, and is one of the few books I've read on the subject that treats with decision-making and strategy while avoiding beginners mistakes in understanding general psychology. One of the best books of the year.