What If? 2

Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

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I had a lot of fun reading this book. Learned some stuff, too. For example: "Can you use a magnifying glass and the moonlight to light a fire?"

Well, maybe a real big magnifying glass, right?

As it turns out… no, no spoilers. Read the darn book.

Long ago, I was a physics major. And Munroe's explanation of the answer is one of those symphonies of elegance that made me love physics. And also had me kicking myself for not getting that answer right away.

The book is full of humor and cartooning in the xkcd style. (Yes, this is the second book I've read this month from a web cartoonist.)


Last Modified 2024-01-14 4:31 AM EST

Troubled Blood

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Well, first of all, it's long. Very, very long: the final page number is 927. This is the fifth book in Galbraith's "Cormoran Strike" series. Previous entries were (according to Amazon) 464, 455, 497, and 656 paages. I detect a trend… Yes, the most recent Strike book is 210 pages. (For non-geeks: 1024.)

The mainline plot is pretty straightforward: 40 years previous, Dr. Margot Bamborough left her practice to meet with a friend at a pub, but never showed. And vanished without a trace. Cormoran Strike and his now-partner Robin Ellacott are hired by Margot's adult daughter to find out what happened. And they decide to take on this very very cold case. And estimate that it will take about a year to deliver results, if there are any.

And it takes a little more than that.

There is one obvious suspect: a depraved serial killer, since apprehended, who was operating in the area at the time. But Strike and Robin need to be diligent, so they investigate Margot's family, her co-workers, her acquaintances. And, since many of them have passed away in the previous decades, their family/co-workers/acquaintances get interviewed. Add in a few witnesses, who didn't see much. (Or did they?) And also the investigating cops at the time; one of those turns out to have been sucked into mental illness coupled with astrological weirdness, and his investigatory notes are an incoherent scramble of zodiac signs, satanism, and allusions to the uber-weirdo Aleister Crowley.

So there's a lot to do. But that's not all! Strike and Robin live soap-opera lives, so there's a lot more happening with his family (a dying aunt, an estranged father, a suicidal ex-fiance) and hers (an unfaithful husband who's dragging out the divorce proceedings. Illnesses and injuries occur. The Strike/Ellacott agency has other active investigations, and we learn about those, and the subcontractors assigned to do what when, and conflicts between them, and…

And there's the relationship between Strike and Robin, which is developing into … something.

Some people like this stuff. Well, judging by the success of the series, a lot of people like this stuff. I could have done without it.

That said, however, the ending is quite satisfying. (Or maybe it was just relief.)

And (by the way) this winds up a mini-reading project for me: I've read all the Wall Street Journal best mysteries of 2020. Yay! My previous reports are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Last Modified 2024-01-16 10:45 AM EST

You Must Remember This

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Well, first: I'm a pretty libertarian guy. But there should be a law against book-flap descriptions that give away a plot development from page 222 of a 299-page novel. Yes, that's nearly ¾ of the way through. What was the publisher thinking?

Caveat lector: don't read the book flap.

It's Christmastime 2014 on Maine's Mount Desert Island, and the family of elderly Miriam Caravasios has gathered at "The Whispers", a mansion built long ago with money made from Prohibition-era bootlegging. Sadly, Miriam is in the throes of dementia, and as the book opens she thinks she's being urged by her (dead) husband to do what they used to do: trek across the frozen harbor to a cabin for secret canoodling. Unfortunately, climate change has made this perilous. And Miriam breaks through the ice and drowns.

A sad state of affairs. After that, the book jumps back and forth in time. Modern parts are narrated by Delphine, Miriam's granddaughter, who's living a life without purpose, but has struck up a secret affair with Adam, Miriam's caregiver. Also in the picture are Delphine's mother Dora, Aunt Diana, and Unpleasant Drunk Uncle Richard. All have secrets and resentments.

Chapters set in the past show Miriam's life as a carefree (and privileged) child, a rebellious teen, a young wife, and… later when things turn not-so-pleasant.

But it's a mystery. Was Miriam sent to her doom by her own hallucinations? Or was she the victim of skilled manipulation? I'm somewhat proud to say I saw the answer quite a few pages before Delphine does.

I really enjoyed Ms. Rosenfield's previous book, and although this one offers a totally different tone, I liked it a lot too. I'm on board for whatever she writes in the future.


Last Modified 2024-01-14 4:31 AM EST

Those Other Qualities Listed on Our Amazon Product du Jour Might Be Good For Journalism Too

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Jeff Jacoby notes a lonely voice: Marty Baron, in dissent, rises in defense of objective journalism. Jeff's "old enough to remember" when his employer, the Boston Globe, had posted workplace signs stating "Accuracy is the Cornerstone of Our Business."

Is accuracy still the cornerstone of the news business? Or has that also been left behind?

Marty Baron, the former editor of the Globe, the Miami Herald, and, most recently, The Washington Post, was in town this month to discuss that very issue. In a lecture at Brandeis University, he announced his intention "to do something terribly unpopular in my profession these days" — namely, to defend the principle of objectivity in journalism. He described himself as belonging to a "diminishing minority" of journalists who still believe news should be reported without an ideological bias or partisan agenda, and lamented the "misguided and ultimately self-destructive direction" in which most of the media have veered.

In January, two grandees of the news industry — Leonard Downie, one of Baron's predecessors as editor of The Washington Post, and Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News — issued a report titled "Beyond Objectivity," which they compiled after interviewing scores of "news leaders, journalists, and other experts." On the first page, Downie and Heyward, who now teach at Arizona State University, describe objectivity in journalism as "outmoded." On the last page, they call it "a journalistic concept that has lost its relevance." On page after page in between, they quote editors, reporters, and journalism professors who say much the same thing.

Well, that certainly explains a lot. Since Jeff is strongly implying the Globe might find objectivity "outmoded" as well, this is a pretty brave stance.

(I should note that all of the newspapers that employed Baron were widely viewed as left-slanted during his tenure. Apparently, he thinks they've gotten worse.)

Briefly noted:

  • Well, good for WIRED author Thor Benson, who has the guts to point out The Uniquely American Future of US Authoritarianism.

    The US Republican Party has become increasingly authoritarian and extreme in recent years, and it doesn’t seem likely to moderate that in the foreseeable future. Despite performing poorly in the 2022 midterms after running many candidates the public saw as too extreme, the GOP has decided to elevate and empower far-right lawmakers like representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz.

    In Florida, books have been removed from school shelves as governor Ron DeSantis tries to reshape the public education system in his own image. Republican lawmakers around the US have passed abortion bans that put pregnant women’s lives in danger. The rights of transgender people are under attack throughout the country.

    I am not a fan of authoritarianism. I like neither Gaetz nor Greene. But Benson seems to be willfully blind to left-side authoritarianism. Were the brownshirts shouting down Judge Kyle Duncan actually closet Republicans? Are the folks busy rewriting books by Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, and (now) Agatha Christie part of the vast right-wing conspiracy?

    Don't even get me started on Covid authoritarianism, gun control, tobacco, …

  • … and, for that matter, dietary choices, as described by John Hinderaker: Beware of Liberals Bearing Bugs.

    When I tell people that liberals are working on substituting insects for meat, they often think I am imagining things. But it is true. The beachhead is “flour.” You can dry insects, turn them into powder, and put the powder into foods. This is actually starting to become common. Thus, from Italy, “Italy bans insect flour from its pasta despite the eco buzz.”

    I'm not quite as panicky about eating bugs, since I enoy lobster every so often. And if you see a red-colored product in your kitchen, check it for carmine, cochineal extract, or natural red 4,

    But, yes, food nannyism, backed by the iron fist of government, has long been a lefty domain…

  • … and, for that matter, DEI bureaucrats at institutions of higher education. Their function must not be questions, lest ye be burned at the stake! Jennifer Kabbany reports A debate on DEI will be held at MIT. The university’s DEI deans refuse to participate..

    A debate on diversity, equity and inclusion is scheduled to soon take place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    An esteemed panel of scholars will tackle the question: “Should academic DEI programs be abolished?”

    One group of individuals who will not be defending DEI at the upcoming event is the phalanx of highly paid diversity, equity and inclusion deans at MIT.

    They were asked. They declined.

    Apparently, these doyennes of diversity were all of the same opinion; they were unwilling to defend the vital importance of their phony baloney jobs. Once again, the relevant movie clip:

  • And should you be wondering if you have free will or not, Michael Huemer has A Proof of Free Will. That should settle the matter.

    The intuitive idea goes back to Epicurus (as I discovered long after I’d thought of the argument):

    “The man who says that all things come to pass by necessity cannot criticize one who denies that all things come to pass by necessity: for he admits that this too happens of necessity.”

    J.R. Lucas argued similarly:

    “Determinism … cannot be true, because if it was, we should not take the determinists’ arguments as being really arguments, but as being only conditioned reflexes. Their statements should not be regarded as really claiming to be true, but only as seeking to cause us to respond in some way desired by them.”

    The intuitive idea is that determinism is self-defeating when you apply it to beliefs about the subject of free will and determinism itself. Per Epicurus, it implies that you can’t criticize anyone for believing in free will, nor (presumably) can you say that anyone should believe determinism. In its most common (physicalistic) forms, per Lucas, determinism implies that good reasons play no role in explaining why one believes determinism itself. So the determinist couldn’t hold that he himself knows determinism to be true. (My interpretation/modification of Lucas.)

    My idea was related to these. It was that in thinking about any issue, one always presupposes certain norms governing belief. E.g., that you should avoid falsehood, or that you should base beliefs on evidence. But any such norm, I think, is incompatible with the truth of determinism. So if you think determinism is true, you’re in an inherently self-defeating position: You’re committed to rejecting norms that you are implicitly presupposing.

    I think he has something there.

    I've always wondered about the folks who argue against free will. As I'm sure I've said before: doesn't the mere fact they are "arguing" presuppose that listeners are free to consider the argument, weigh the evidence presented, and either accept or reject the conclusion?

    And you'd think they'd be able to come up with an argument I would have to accept, because I would have, literally, no choice.


Last Modified 2024-01-14 4:31 AM EST