Book Review: Life in the Universe

Life in the Universe was the assigned textbook for the astronomy class I took in the fall of 2015. The course is titled the Quest for Extraterrestrial Life, and is sometimes taught by retired astronaut Dr. Steven Hawley. Another professor taught it that semester, but I really can’t complain about that—my issues with the course mainly came from the fact that it was open-enrollment. The majority of the term covered material I already knew, and we never got to the more interesting questions. But that’s my fault for dabbling in astrobiology.

The textbook is great for this purpose, however. Bennett and Shostak don’t assume much prior knowledge of astronomy, chemistry, or biological science. The first several chapters are a crash course on the history of the field and the relevant background material. For those who want to learn more about science and don’t know where to be begin, this book might be a good introduction.

But the book does get into the minutiae of estimating the odds of alien neighbors. It looks at the habitability of the planets and major moons of the Solar System, both now and in the past, and then moves on to discuss (what was then) the state of exoplanet research.

What makes a planet habitable is a complicated question. Even on our single planet, where every organism shares the same general biochemistry, environments in which one species thrives can be instantly fatal to another. We have to constrain the search space.

Bennett and Shostak look primarily at carbon-based life using water as its solvent, i.e. life as we know it. They offer justification for this focus, but I’m not entirely convinced. It’s especially weird when contrasted with their willingness to argue that we should take an optimistic stance towards the possibility of life overcoming any given obstacle.

To be clear, lifeforms which use something other than carbon as a base-structure would have more trouble evolving. Carbon is wonderful because it can easily bond with up with other molecules, and is conveniently small. Science fiction writers sometimes swap out our biochemical components with elements from a row down on the periodic table, ignoring the fact that those elements are larger and thus less electronegative. In layman’s terms, such molecules aren’t going to form as easily and will be less stable. That’s not so good for life.

Similarly, using other solvents than water presents some issues, because water has an unusually wide liquid temperature range, even for other polar molecules. This is a product of hydrogen bonding, polarity, and molecular weight. Almost any other conceivable solvent trades off at least one of these.

The same problem repeats for all the other chemicals in our bodies. There is good reason to focus on “life as we know it”. What I find harder to justify is the assumption that life won’t encounter very many major obstacles on the path to intelligence.

First and foremost is the fact that evolution doesn’t move in a straight line. Intelligence was not an end-goal for evolution. Even once intelligence developed, there wasn’t any rule that said we should develop modern technology. That has been the general trend since the development of farming, but by no means inevitable. Suppose a second round of glaciation had hit around 8,000 BCE. Agriculture would have been abandoned, and later selection pressures might have bred the genes for intelligence out of the population. Who knows how many species that’s happened to in the history of Earth, let alone across the galaxy.

Life isn’t pursuing complexity—complexity is often a cost which requires immediate justification. Inventing a wing is easy; evolving a wing is hard, because each intermediate step needs to provide a positive benefit to the organism, too.

Second, abiogenesis. We have just one example of life developing, and we’re not entirely sure how it happened. We have a good picture of the biochemistry that was probably involved, much of which would have occurred before the first cells came into existence. We’re pretty sure it involved RNA replicators, but that’s still an unclear picture.

On Earth, life developed about a billion years after planetary formation, which is pretty early in the grand scheme of things. This suggests that life can emerge from non-life pretty easily in the conditions that existed on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago.

But how common are those conditions? What percentage of rocky planets in the habitable zone will have that sort of environment for a sufficiently long time for life to develop? What percentage of those planets will stick around long enough for complex life to evolve? Intelligent life?

This is where I found the book’s analysis lacking. It took three billion years for life on Earth to develop complexity and we still don’t entirely know why that changed so suddenly. There’s a number of possible explanations: a mass-extinction eliminating competition, planetary glaciation eliminating competition, development of eyes or teeth causing runaway competition, the evolution of aerobic organisms, the formation of the ozone layer making surface environments more habitable—the list goes on. It’s not even clear that the Cambrian Explosion was an explosion. Perhaps it’s just an artifact of an incomplete fossil record.

At least weak evidence exists, however, of complexity being a hard step along the road to intelligence. The fact that so many explanations have been suggested to me suggests that perhaps multiple factors were actually at play.

I would go so far as to postulate that an additional term should be added to the Drake Equation to account for this fact, but that post will have to wait a few months at least.

The book concludes with a discussion of the Fermi Paradox. For those who don’t know, the Fermi Paradox comes from a question asked by the famous nuclear physicist: “Where is everybody?” Considering all the evidence that Bennett and Shostak had marshalled above, why can they not point to any real examples of extra-terrestrial intelligence?

enrico fermi

Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi

Many answers are possible, which they explore in reasonable detail. Perhaps the strongest argument is that interstellar travel is extremely difficult (and we haven’t sent enough interplanetary probes to effectively assess the likelihood of non-intelligent life in our Solar System). The aliens are out there, but they won’t be coming here. Odds are that we won’t be going there, either.

These are intriguing ideas, which I’d hoped to learn a lot about. Life in the Universe is a decent introduction to them, but once again doesn’t discuss the topic in adequate depth. I would recommend it, then, as only an introductory text. There’s probably better astrobiology books out there, and I look forward to reading them.

The single most frustrating aspect of the book, however, was the authors’ expectation that readers wouldn’t take the material seriously. Almost every chapter has a dedicated section for taking pot-shots, fair or not, at some famous works of science fiction. Now there’s certainly a degree to which we must remove misconceptions before the truth can succeed, but there’s also a risk of anchoring. I’m not convinced that the trade-off was worth it.

Even in the final chapter, by which point the reader is, presumably, sufficiently credulous to believe what the relevant PhDs are saying, they’re still on the defensive, even about phenomena as real as anti-matter. It was frankly embarrassing to read, but fits pretty well with the mood of the class. One of the rewards of reaching higher-numbered courses is that everyone takes the material halfway seriously. I don’t suppose I’ll ever study astronomy at that level, but who knows. The future is long and full of possibilities.



Book Review: The Fountainhead

[This is a much more traditional review that what I usually write, so there will be considerable spoilers for The Fountainhead (and a few lesser ones for Atlas Shrugged and We The Living). Discussion of abuse and what constitutes consent. Additionally, Brandenite criticism of Rand’s writing style.]

To date, I haven’t found a good longform introduction to Objectivism, so I’m forced to recommend Atlas Shrugged for those wanting a comprehensive introduction.

That said, I found reading The Fountainhead very instructive on the finer details of what a selfish life actually looks like. Atlas Shrugged addresses those questions, but does so subtly. Many readers (including my younger self) end up overlooking them. Sometimes it’s just better to say what you mean.

The Fountainhead contrasts the life of a genuine individualist, Howard Roark, with that of several non-individualists. Roark is an architect, who worked his way through three years of college before being expelled for insubordination. He goes to work for Henry Cameron, a disgraced builder whose modernist style and blunt attitude eventually destroyed his practice.

fountainhead original cover

One of Roark’s classmates is Peter Keating, whose mother paid his tuition, in part by running the boarding house where Roark lived. Peter is vain and full-of-himself, the sort of person one might call an individualist—but Keating is a phony. Roark’s purpose in architecture is to design and construct buildings to his liking. Fame and fortune mean very little to him. Reputation will garner clients, and money allows him to stay in practice, but his ambition is entirely impersonal.

Keating has no ambition of his own. He doesn’t want to design buildings; he wants to be known as a great builder. He wants to be famous to the sake of fame and relishes every scrap of admiring attention. His only selfish goal is to marry a young girl named Katie, whom he met in school and whom he forgets about for months at a time. But spending time with her appears to be the only thing that makes him genuinely happy.

Alas, their relationship is not to be. Katie is supported by her uncle, Ellsworth Toohey, a public intellectual and “humanitarian”. Toohey steers their relationship to failure, not through outright opposition—oh no, he approves! He totally approves! Romantic love is old-fashioned, of course, but charming in its own way. And through such snide comments, sows the seeds of doubt in Keating’s vulnerable mind.

In Rand’s other books, there’s no explicit villain. Toohey is the exception: he is her idea of evil incarnate. Other antagonists are weak, incoherent. They don’t fully realize where their ideas lead. Toohey knows exactly what he’s doing. The only other possible example is Fred Kinnan, a union boss in Atlas Shrugged, but unlike Toohey, Kinnan doesn’t lead the charge.

With full intention and awareness, Toohey is trying to stunt the intellectual growth of any person with potential, for the sole purpose of gaining power over them. After years of abuse, Toohey completely destroys what small shadow of self ever existed in poor Keating. The once-famous architect lies dependent at Toohey’s feet, and listens as he hears precisely how he’s been broken.

No such person exists in reality. Rand knew this, of course—there’s no one person singlehandedly destroying the modern world, or else a Steven Mallory might succeed. But there isn’t, so one couldn’t.

Steven Mallory is a sculptor, who takes a shot at Toohey and misses. Toohey must have known what that meant, because he defended Mallory at the trial. He refuses, he says, “to be an accomplice in the manufacturing of martyrs.” A martyr would have been much more dangerous than a poor, struggling artist.

Mallory is struggling, much the same way that Roark struggles for self-sufficiency in the building industry. After Henry Cameron’s physical and financial health force him into retirement, Roark accepts Keating’s offer to work under him at the firm Francon & Heyer. Roark insists on doing purely structural work, because of his philosophical disagreements on style. But one day, a client asks Francon to do a building in Cameron’s style, and Francon suggests Roark take a stab at it. But not purely in Cameron’s style, of course—the firm has a reputation to maintain, and unflinching modernism doesn’t serve that end.

Roark refuses to compromise his artistic integrity, and gets fired. For months, he tries to find another draftsman job, eventually securing employment with the eclectic John Erik Snyte. Unlike most of the other architects in New York, Snyte has no stylistic preference: he’ll build anything, but it will be terrible. Roark was allowed to design buildings with integrity, which Snyte then remixed with features from his other draftsmen’s proposals.

That comes to a change, when Mr. Austen Heller, a notable writer, decides to build a country home. Heller had already rejected several other firms for the commission. He has a site selected and a basic notion of what he wants built, but can’t articulate exactly what he’s looking for. Snyte, desperate to get the commission, tells his draftsmen to spare no effort in getting the design right.

Roark’s design “wins”—it’s the base which Snyte adapts to make a “respectable” structure. Heller is shocked. It’s so close, he says, but not there. It’s not integrated.

Those words are a hint. Roark snatches the fancy watercolor from the stand and goes to work on it, penciling the original design over Snyte’s chimera. Snyte fires Roark, and Heller hires Roark, on the spot. Thereafter he is an independent architect. A few commissions follow, before money and public interest runs out. Roark doesn’t play the socialite’s game, which is the primary way of garnering clients. Moreover, he refuses to build in historical styles, which loses many of the trickle that comes his way.

roark building model

He’s forced to leave the business for a time, working as a manual laborer until he’s tracked down by Roger Enright, an entrepreneur who wants to build a luxury apartment building. Roark returns to New York and resumes work, gaining more impressive commissions as his name and style reach the wider public. And Ellsworth Toohey.

Toohey realizes Roark constitutes a threat to his program, and sets out to destroy him. He decides to make Roark really famous. One of Toohey’s many intellectual conquests is an old, superstitious businessman named Hopton Stoddard. Toohey needs Stoddard’s wealth to build a charity home, but Stoddard, fearing the afterlife, wants to erect an ecumenical temple instead. Toohey suddenly reverses his position—provided Roark is the architect.

Stoddard quickly agrees. Roark is skeptical, because Stoddard is the exact opposite of the sort of person he’ll get along with. But Stoddard insists that Roark build a temple to the human spirit, in his style. Roark can’t force himself to say no, even though it feels fishy.

The plan calls for a statue, and Roark choses Mallory to sculpt it. They’ve never met before, and Roark has a difficult time getting ahold of him. It turns out that Mallory admires Roark’s buildings, and doesn’t want to spoil them by meeting the man. Artists always disappoint him, Mallory explains, because they never live up to their works.

Of course, Roark does live up to his buildings, but Mallory provides another interesting foil. Roark goes through life without being hurt by the world’s senselessness, but Mallory is hurt by it. Mallory is a weak and sympathetic Randian protagonist, perhaps akin to Eddie Willers in Atlas Shrugged.

Nathaniel Branden commented on Roark’s character as such:

In preparation for this presentation, I re-read the opening chapter of The Fountainhead. It really is a great book. I noticed something in the first chapter I never noticed before. Consider these facts: The hero has just been expelled from school, he is the victim of injustice, he is misunderstood by virtually everyone, and he himself tends to find other people puzzling and incomprehensible. He is alone; he has no friends. There is no one with whom he can share his inner life or values. So far, with the possible exception of being expelled from school, this could be a fairly accurate description of the state of the overwhelming majority of adolescents. There is one big difference: Howard Roark gives no indication of being bothered by any of it. He is serenely happy within himself. For average teenagers, this condition is agony. They read The Fountainhead and see this condition, not as a problem to be solved, but as a condition they must learn to be happy about — as Roark is. All done without drugs! What a wish-fulfillment that would be! What a dream come true! Don’t bother learning to understand anyone. Don’t bother working at making yourself better understood. Don’t try to see whether you can close the gap of your alienation from others, at least from some others, just struggle for Roark’s serenity — which Rand never tells you how to achieve. This is an example of how The Fountainhead could be at once a source of great inspiration and a source of great guilt, for all those who do not know how to reach Roark’s state.

Mallory doesn’t display the same easy bliss, even down to the drugs (he’s pretty drunk when Roark finally tracks him down). I maintain that minor characters make Rand’s work, yet Branden is making a very important criticism. The Fountainhead leaves out a lot of the instructions, beyond “find someone who’s happy and rational who can give you emotional support”. That’s not exactly easy for the sort of person who’ll identify with Objectivism to begin with.

Steven Mallory is an excellent character, and it’s sad that he doesn’t get more time on-page, but the fact is that the story is still Roark’s. Too bad Ayn Rand didn’t ghostwrite fan fiction. I’d read the hell out of that.

Where were we? Oh right, the Hopton Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit. Roark wants to include a statue, a disrobed woman, as its centerpiece. He leaves the choice of model up to Mallory, but makes a suggestion: Dominique Francon.

(I knew I was temporizing for a reason.)

Dominique Francon is an editorialist at the same newspaper which employs Ellsworth Toohey, the New York Banner, and is also the only daughter of Guy Francon, Keating’s boss. Mr. Francon owns a granite quarry in Connecticut, where Roark ends up working for several months before the Enright House is constructed.

During that same summer, Dominique takes a vacation from the paper at her family’s house on the same premises. One day she decides to go down and look at the quarry, because the men will be suffering down there and she has a thing for that. Among the various men at work is Roark, with whom she exchanges Meaningful Glances™ and a few words.

dominique francon quarry

Seen here: a Meaningful Glance™

She comes up with a pretext to invite him to her house for some manual labor (replacing a tile she’d scratched for that very purpose). Roark agrees, states that the tile clearly isn’t damaged, breaks it properly, removes it, and has the appropriate replacement ordered. When it arrives, he sends one of his coworkers to install it. Dominique confronts Roark about this, and he replies that surely it didn’t matter which of her father’s manual laborers did the work.

At this point, it’s time for that discussion of consent I warned you about above.

Roark comes to Dominique’s house the next night and has very rough sex with her. Dominique later describes this as rape, though Ayn Rand insisted that, if their first time was rape, it was “rape by engraved invitation” and condemned the crime outside of fiction.

In the context of the novel, however, both characters are blessed by authorial omniscience. Dominique wanted to sleep with Roark, and he knew it. Meaningful Glances™ may be sufficient to communicate consent in books, but certainly aren’t in the real world. I think Ayn Rand would have readily acknowledge that, but most of her critics wouldn’t acknowledge that she’d acknowledge that.

Roger Enright calls Roark back to New York almost immediately thereafter, which complicates how their relationship might develop. Dominique is clearly conflicted. She considers leaving her job at the newspaper, but decides against it, because quitting would be too easy. She only knows Roark by the nickname “Red”, and figures she’s unlikely to ever encounter him again.

That isn’t the case.

When images of the Enright House reach print, Dominique admires them, but refuses to write about the building. She tells Toohey that “[a] man who can conceive a thing as beautiful as this should never allow it to be erected” and that writing about it “would be repeating the crime.”

Roark, meanwhile, is rebuilding his practice. In addition to the Enright House, he’s approached with another offer. Austin Heller insists that Roark come with him to a party hosted by Kiki Holcombe, the wife of the Ralston Holcombe, the president of the Architect’s Guild of America. Attending her party would help secure the commission, because the man in question is the socialite type. Roark doesn’t plan to go, but changes his mind upon hearing Dominique will be there.

Heller introduces them and they carry on a very polite conversation, even after Heller is pulled away. Once the conversation ends, Dominique and Toohey both watch him intently, but with opposing purposes.

The public doesn’t realize that. Both excoriate Roark in print, Dominique loudly and Toohey quietly. Or at least, it looks that way. Dominique’s articles appear, at first glance, like insults to Roark’s buildings, but a closer reading shows that they’re actually insulting the surrounding city, because the city isn’t good enough for the buildings.

To the public eye, Dominique Francon has a feud with Howard Roark. She actively seeks out his clients and tries to dissuade them, usually convincing them to hire Peter Keating. Then, on those nights when she’s taken away a commission, she goes to sleep with Howard Roark.

Objectivist scholars can probably express this more clearly, but the general idea here is that Dominique loves Roark and all the things he represents, but doesn’t believe they can exist in the real world, so does her best to destroy them quickly and thoroughly. Rand doesn’t agree with this supposition, but it certainly makes for an interesting relationship dynamic.

No one knows that Dominique is Roark’s mistress, and it shocks everyone when she agrees to pose for the Stoddard Temple statue.

Roark, Mallory, and Dominique spend a pleasant year working on the temple and statue, with additionally company from Mike, an electrician whom Roark has been friends with since he worked for Francon & Heyer. Mike manages to work on almost every structure Roark builds and helped get him the job in the granite quarry.

Things come to a sudden end when Hopton Stoddard arrives in New York after his year-long vacation. He had visited dozens of religious monuments around the world, and expected something similarly dramatic. What he found was, well, exactly what it said on the tin—not a monument to God or spirits, but to mankind. Roark’s Hopton Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit is not at all what he was expecting, and Toohey easily manipulates Stoddard into suing.

The prosecution calls dozens of witnesses, with Dominique as their pièce de résistance. She makes one of her typical ambiguous statements, which defends Roark while sounding like an attack.

Roark calls no witnesses and asks no questions. When the time comes, he lays out ten photographs of the Stoddard Temple and says, “[t]he defense rests.” Unsurprisingly, this does not win the case.

Dominque feels terrible about her role in the trial, but also treats it as sort of a victory condition. (This isn’t an entirely incorrect conclusion: Roark builds nothing in New York for the next several years; his firm survives on commissions elsewhere.) She intentionally gets herself fired from the newspaper and offers to marry Peter Keating. She hates Keating and sees this as a form of punishment, but endeavors to be a dutiful society wife. Unfortunately, though, he had finally promised to marry Katie that same day. Keating’s desire for social approval thus destroys his last chance for real happiness.

Katie goes on to be the director of children’s occupational therapy at the Hopton Stoddard Home for Subnormal Children.

Less than two years later, Keating finds himself dreadfully unhappy. His standing as an architect is diminishing without Dominique’s activism, and the Great Depression arrived just in time to make things that much worse. His marriage is equally unhappy—Dominique has managed to suppress her entire personality, and in a stunning turn of events it’s better to have a person for your spouse than a cardboard cutout. Even sex with her, which he’d once wanted, brings no pleasure. Dominique was once unresponsive to his advances, then disgusted after meeting Roark, and then quickly returns to complete indifference after their marriage.

Ellsworth Toohey is aware of all this, naturally, and has a terrible idea. Enter Gail Wynand, the megalomaniacal owner of the New York Banner.

Wynand has a reputation for impulsiveness and a temper, but is a skilled business executive. His papers lead all sorts of crusades in print, and his real estate empire spreads across the country. He clawed his way up from a street gang in Hell’s Kitchen to be one of the most powerful people in New York.

Wynand is in his fifties. He’s never been married and doesn’t keep lovers very long. Everything about his life is public—even his penthouse apartment has glass walls. (He tells his mistresses that they’re fornicating in the view of six million people.) His only private pleasure is an art gallery he keeps on the floor below. No visitors are allowed, and no one would dare take the risk of suggesting an addition.

Gail Wynand Raymond Massey

I thought Gail Wynand’s actor looked familiar. It’s Raymond Massey, who played Oswald Cabal in Things to Come.

Stoneridge is the latest addition to Wynand’s real estate empire. An architect hasn’t been chosen, and dozens are literally begging for the opportunity as the Depression starves the profession. Wynand refuses to listen to their pleas—he probably enjoys the feeling of power and control. Ellsworth Toohey meets with his employer and tries to get Keating the commission, but realizes that Wynand isn’t interested. Instead, he suggests Gail meet with Mrs. Peter Keating. Wynand still isn’t interested. Toohey tells him that he’ll be sending a package to Wynand’s apartment which might change his mind.

Wynand completely forgets about the exchange, that night, as he deals with sudden suicidal thoughts. We’re given a complete run-down of his life as he decides whether to end it. Then, wandering his penthouse, he notices Toohey’s package. It’s quite a bit larger than expected, too big to be simple blackmail. He opens it, then calls Toohey and tells him to come over, very late at night.

The package was Steven Mallory’s statue of Dominique, which Toohey obtained during the renovation of the Stoddard Temple.

Wynand is skeptical, and cares more about the artist than the model. The artist is great, he insists, because there’s no way a real woman is that beautiful. The statue and a number of Mallory’s other works will soon enter his private collection. But he agrees to meet with Mrs. Peter Keating.

Toohey arranges the meeting, interrupting a conversation where Peter almost comes to terms with his decades of self-abnegation. It’s not to be—Toohey is too vicious for personal development to last. Keating agrees to let Dominique take a two-month cruise with Wynand, in exchange for Stoneridge.

Gail and Dominique return after a week. Keating will get Stoneridge, but Wynand has decided that he wants to marry Dominique. She is perfectly willing to agree, and Keating begrudgingly allows it. He ultimately cares more about his public prestige than any impersonal principle like fidelity.

Dominque heads to Reno. On the way she visits Howard Roark, who’s building a department store in Ohio. She asks Roark to abandon architecture, she won’t go to Wynand, and they’ll live a quiet life in a quiet town. Roark refuses: she wouldn’t love him if it wasn’t for his integrity and moral stature, embodied in physical buildings. Roark qua Roark is an architect. She found him attractive in the quarry, but she couldn’t love him till she knew he built the Enright House.

I think this elides the possibility of expressing one’s creativity through different outlets, but the general point stands. One of the major themes of The Fountainhead is that we should pursue our happiness no matter how shitty the rest of the world choses to be. After overcoming the serene indifference of her youth, Dominique’s whole struggle is to not hate the rest of the world for existing around Roark.

This is probably a good time to bring up the fact that Rand didn’t really write symbolic female characters. At least, main characters. Minor female characters are frequently symbolic, but the same is true for minor male characters. Dominique was conceived as a “woman for a man like Howard Roark”, but her journey is significant in its own right. I suspect there may have been a few autobiographical details there, though We The Living probably has more.

(In Atlas Shrugged the woman is primarily real, and the man is primarily a symbol, but that’s a deeper analysis than my review got into.)

Ultimately, Dominique goes to Reno, and returns to New York. Gail had wanted a private ceremony, but she insists making it a public event. Their marriage and its consummation have to wait another week as things are organized. The story is given two sentences in the society pages of the Wynand papers.

They enjoy a long honeymoon in Gail’s penthouse, which now features an enclosed bedroom. He doesn’t want to share Dominique with the world—one of the first legitimately selfish decisions of his life. After a few years, he decides he wants to build a country home, essentially to take Dominique out of the city entirely.

He chooses Howard Roark as the architect.

Wynand papers were the loudest voices in the crusade against the Stoddard Temple. Gail simply forgot about this—it was several years past and he was not particularly attached to the paper’s editorial policy. The Banner may appear to lead public opinion, but in practice follows. Near the day of his retirement, Henry Cameron cursed the perverse phenomena that allow the Wynand papers to exist and continue existing. He didn’t know what to call it. Howard Roark does: second-hand living.

Gail Wynand has lived his entire life as a second-hander. His marriage to Dominique is the exception. He chooses Roark to build a home for them, because he saw a number of Roark’s other buildings, and liked them. That same pattern kept Roark afloat following the Temple case, even allowing him to expand his practice.

Two years before, he had been building Monadnock Valley, an affordable resort in Pennsylvania. Roark got the commission, because the owners were pulling a fraud. They sold 200% of the stock and wanted the resort to fail. But their plan is what failed, because Roark designed something so good it succeeded without an advertising budget. Monadnock Valley was the perfect place for an individual or family to take a quiet vacation, away from other people, on a middle-class budget.

Before the news could even break, however, Roark was finally called back to build in New York. A luxury hotel project off Central Park had faltered before the Stoddard Trial, but finally the finances and ownership had been sorted out, so construction resumed. The pace of work picks up, despite the Depression, and in 1936 he moves his offices to the top floor of the Cord Building, the first skyscraper he built.

Roark intends to refuse Gail’s commission, but changes his mind soon after the interview begins. Gail understands Roark’s approach and style. For his house, he wants exactly what Roark is able to provide.

After Roark leaves, Gail goes through the paper’s archives. He reads everything the Banner ever wrote about Howard Roark. A few days later, visiting the site, he confesses this to Roark, who doesn’t really care.

But Wynand has a dark secret, of sorts. A nasty habit. He likes to find men of integrity, and break them. It helps him feel better about having so little virtue of his own. By this point in the book, he’s already told Dominique that the man he can’t break will destroy him.

At their next meeting, Wynand seems like a different man. He makes Roark an offer: build the house as designed, and from then on work in the traditional styles that Roark hates—or refuse, and Wynand will see that Roark never works again.

Roark agrees, quickly sketches a Colonial parody of the Wynand house, and asks if that’s what he wanted. Gail involuntarily says “Good God, no!” and that’s pretty much the end of that.

This is not so much foreshadowing as laying out the ending to see who will notice. I’ll admit: the first time I read The Fountainhead, I didn’t, but that was a long time ago. Maybe older readers will catch that on the initial pass.

In either case, Roark becomes Gail’s friend. He’s a frequent guest at the penthouse, and then later, the country home. Dominique is frustrated, but they maintain a completely professional persona with each other. Meanwhile, the Wynand papers start to plug Howard Roark. Gail forbids Toohey to write about Roark in his column, and regularly thinks of Roark to get through the day. Among other things, he has a photograph taken from the paper enlarged and placed on his office wall.

fountainhead gaetano cover

60th Anniversary cover by Nick Gaetano.

Roark’s practice is better than ever, but Peter Keating’s career is still waning. After Lucius N. Heyer died (more-or-less at Keating’s hands), Peter was promoted to a full partner in the firm. Then Guy Francon retired, so Francon & Keating became Keating & Dumont (he brought up the head draftsman, because that’s just what’s done). But business is bad. He’s not the it-boy anymore, and Toohey has started championing a pair on younger architects: Gus Webb and Gordon L. Prescott. The firm is rapidly contracting.

His last real hope is the contract to build Cortlandt Homes, a federal housing project in Queens. He doesn’t have much hope of getting it, but the government hasn’t been able to find an architect who can meet their exacting specifications. Keating goes to Toohey and begs for the option. Toohey tentatively agrees: if he can design it, it’s his.

Keating takes the requirements and spends many hours working on the problem. He’s forced to admit the truth: he can’t. He doesn’t admit defeat. He calls Howard Roark.

We’ve seen Keating do this before. His first house for Francon & Heyer was essentially designed by Roark. His most famous building, which won a competition for the “most beautiful building in the world”, had a floorplan devised by Roark. In conversation about Cortlandt, Keating mentions that Roark helped with a lot of Peter’s assignments at school.

Why does Roark, who cares so much about integrity, help Peter cheat? That answer is simple: these are buildings, and Roark can save them. Keating will cover them with all sorts of terrible, unnecessary ornamentation, because that’s the fashion, but the design, floorplan, and function are all massively improved. Dark, contorted hallways become straight passages, space for entire rooms appears on the blueprints. None of this business with bedroom windows facing the superfluous columns of the façade, the sort of thing Keating once made himself ignore.

Roark doesn’t ignore them, because his goal isn’t to impress. Roark tells Keating that, sure, he could talk about the desperate need for affordable housing in New York’s middle class (a conversation which would only sound strange today because NIMBYism has priced out the middle class from the big cities). He could talk about their struggles and the misfortunes of the future tenants.

But that isn’t why he takes the job. Roark agrees to build Cortlandt and let Keating take the credit, because he’ll love the challenge.

He completes Cortlandt, makes it work in-budget and with lower rents than initially anticipated. This works, in part because he rejects many of the paradigms that hamstrung earlier attempts. Tenants are given privacy and expense isn’t wasted on communal spaces. There’s schools and a YMCA nearby, which should provide adequate opportunities for socialization and exercise.

Roark makes no attempt to disguise his handiwork, but most people are perfectly willing to believe Keating & Dumont designed Cortlandt. Gail and Dominique see right through it.

The flow of this review may seem interrupted here, but that’s simply because I’m forced to leave a few things out if I’m not to completely spoil the pleasure of reading. Let’s skip ahead a few pages to a particularly sad scene: when Peter runs into Katie on the street.

Keating is spending less time in the office, slipping over to Roark’s apartment each evening to get the latest sketches for the project. Roark is, perhaps, the only person who ever treated Peter as fully human. From the second chapter, when the two are alone, we see a side of Keating which is never apparent when he has an audience. Only in solitude can he be authentic, and only in solitude can he realize the extent of his own failure.

He reveals to Roark something he’d be hiding from everyone. He’s been dabbling in painting again—Peter wanted to be a painter, all along, but was pressured into architecture by his “doting” mother. But it’s largely too late. Painting isn’t a joy for him, he’s not good at it, it’s not even a relief from suffering. But during the weekend hours when he escapes to a shack in the country he feels vaguely happy.

This is how Roark discovers pity, and what a vile feeling it really is. He never felt this for anyone; not Henry Cameron, not Steven Mallory. Those people had hope and worth and demanded respect. Keating’s attempts at painting, don’t. To uphold pity as a virtue necessarily implies suffering and destruction, neither of which an individualist can accept. Roark hates it and all it implies.

And then Peter runs into Katie. His other aborted ambition appears before him before, and it’s the same sort of ghost. Katie is now a social worker, on assignment to New York from Washington, D.C. He tries to carry on a conversation with her, but it’s largely hopeless. There’s no person left to converse with.

I bring this scene up, most notably, because one of the more frequently quote passages from the book deserves to be read in full:

“Katie . . . for six years . . . I thought about how I’d ask for your forgiveness some day. And now I have the chance, but I won’t ask it. It seems . . . it seems beside the point. I know it’s horrible to say that, but that’s how it seems to me. It was the worst thing I ever did in my life—but not because I hurt you. I did hurt you, Katie, and maybe more than you know yourself. But that’s not my worst guilt . . . Katie, I wanted to marry you. It was the only thing I ever really wanted. And that’s the sin that can’t be forgiven—that I hadn’t done what I wanted. It feels so dirty and pointless and monstrous, as one feels about insanity, because there’s no sense to it, no dignity, nothing but pain—and wasted pain. . . . Katie, why do they always teach us that it’s easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It’s the hardest thing in the world—to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage. I mean, what we really want. As I wanted to marry you. Not as I want to sleep with some woman or get drunk or get my name in the papers. Those things—they’re not even desires—they’re things people do to escape from desires—because it’s such a big responsibility, really to want something.”

Katie says that’s ugly and selfish. It’s certainly selfish, but it isn’t ugly. Ugliness isn’t an inherent trait of the world, nor is beauty. They only exist in the context of minds. Only by having a self can beauty mean anything at all.

Roark’s contribution to the Cortlandt project done, he leaves with Gail on a winter cruise. Keating will handle the construction while they’re away. The Wynand papers have been throwing work his way, and Gail finally realizes that Roark needs a vacation.

During their cruise, Roark spends a lot of time thinking. Gail has forbidden him from discussion of architecture, which proves to be no problem. There’s more abstract problems to be dealt with. Among them, is the philosophy of the second-hander.

The second-hander, Roark explains, derives all of his self-esteem from others’ perceptions of him. Peter Keating is brought up as the example, but I’m sure the reader can think of someone in their own life who knows themselves to be lacking on some measure, but tries to ignore the problem because they think that others are oblivious to it. Maybe you can even remember doing the same thing yourself.

Second-handers don’t make evaluations of their own. Their concern is what other people think, what other people feel, what other people expect. None of their ambitions are self-focused. They may want to be admired or noticed or liked—but by other people.

Now there may be selfish ends to that, like finding a lover or getting attention for your business. Similarly, there are plenty of selfish reasons for making money, Roark concedes, like traveling or study or simply enjoying luxury. But making money for the sake of status is worse than silly, it’s destructive. Trying to show off implies a self-assessment so low that you need to appeal outside your own mind for validation.

(Please don’t take this as an attack on those suffering from depression or mental illness. I’ve been there, I know how the mind can lie to itself. I will venture, however, that this irrationality ‘in the water supply’ doesn’t make combatting mental illness any easier.)

You can’t really reason with a second-hander, because there’s no ego to reason with. You have to change the minds of all their friends, and most of their minds haven’t an ego, either. Steven Mallory likens this to a brainless monster destroying the world. Henry Cameron could only point at the New York Banner. Gail is realizing his role in this and tries redeem it by plugging Howard Roark in print. For once, he feels genuinely proud of the newspaper.

When they return to New York, they see second-handing in the flesh.

Cortlandt Homes has been mutilated by bureaucrats, making dozens of needless changes to suit their preconceptions. Gus Webb and Gordon L. Prescott, who couldn’t create Cortlandt themselves, are brought on as “associate designers”. Their changes cost money, forcing further disruptions to keep the project in budget. (This is one reason public projects are always so expensive.)

Keating tried to fight them, but one man can’t argue with Mallory’s monster. It has no ears to hear, no eyes to see, no brains to think. It can only devour and destroy.

Keating goes to see Roark after he gets back from the cruise. Roark listens to him and apologizes for giving him more than he could handle, over all the years. Roark promises that, whatever he does, Peter won’t be his target.

Instead, two weeks later, long before the construction project is complete, he dynamites the site of Cortlandt Homes. He remains at the scene and allows himself to be arrested.

Gail Wynand is furious, and gets a judge out of bed so he can pay Roark’s bail before morning. To make matters worse, Roark enlisted Dominique’s help in ensuring that Cortlandt’s night watchman was out of the blast range. Dominique did a good job of making herself look hurt by the blast, too good, and spends several weeks in the hospital.

Gail sees right through the supposed alibi, but nevertheless offers Roark all possible help with his impending trial. Among other things, he commits the paper’s editorial policy to Roark’s defense. Circulation begins to fall. Protests are organized. Public opposition to the Banner reaches new heights.

Ellsworth Toohey decides to pay Peter Keating a visit.

Keating doesn’t participate in the mass furor. He writes a short article stating that he believes Roark is innocent, refused to talk to the press, and locks himself away in his room.

Toohey is let in, and almost immediately drops all pretense. He goads Keating, daring him to fight back physically, explaining exactly what he intends to do to Roark. Toohey knows Keating couldn’t have designed Cortlandt and wants to extract a confession. Keating resists for awhile, but after so many years of Toohey manipulations there’s very little resistance left. So close to obtaining some sort of redemption, he lets it slip through his hands. He hands over the contract he signed with Roark and then sits on the floor, listening, as Toohey states, in loving detail, his social and political goals: power over unthinking masses.

(Monologuing like that isn’t realistic, but it makes a hell of a story.)

Armed with evidence, Toohey writes about the case in his column. Wynand had explicitly forbidden him from doing so, and fires Toohey immediately. The union of Wynand employees, which Toohey had been putting together for years, walks out on strike. Quite a few non-members join them.

The strike wears on for two months. Readers and advertisers jump ship as Gail tries to keep the newspaper solvent. He rarely leaves the office. Dominique joins him after a few week. For the duration of their marriage he’d tried to keep her away from the Banner—some Mrs. Wynand-Papers—but he immediately gives her back her previous job. She becomes one of his few dependable employees. Most of the good ones quit, the remainder tend to be exhausted, and the new people he can hire are the lowest sort of riff-raff who can write.

It’s a losing battle. The newspaper’s assets and Wynand’s own fortune are running like water. But the strike was never about editorial policy. It was about Wynand’s soul.

For years, Gail Wynand had sold his soul to whoever would buy it. Selling your soul is easy, Roark told Peter Keating. Keeping your soul is much harder. Wynand wasn’t born a second-hander, but became one anyway. The newspaper was his life, but never represented his convictions. Before marrying Dominique, he had very few convictions to represent.

Defending Howard Roark against the mob was his attempt to absolve the decades of terrible actions behind him. It fails. The newspaper will either have to reverse policy, or accept financial failure. The board confronts Wynand with an ultimatum. Give in to the union’s demands, or close the paper. He accepts.

The scene after Wynand concedes is perhaps the saddest passage in all of Rand’s writing. Wandering the city at dusk, Gail contemplates the numerous decisions that led to the failure of his newspaper and its ultimate betrayal of his only friend. He sees bums on the street and recognizes his own soul. He sees trash and the merchandise of a pawn shop. “Hello, Gail Wynand,” he says.

He buys an evening copy of the Banner from a newsstand, and reads the editorial he didn’t write explaining the end of the strike. Later, he comes across an abandoned copy, with a shoe-print over Howard Roark’s face. He sees that he unleashed the proletarians to destroy greatness, that they were powerless without his cooperation. He looks around and realizes fully how much he has done to prevent his own happiness.

Kira bleeding on the snow, Eddie Willers sobbing as he tries to restart the Comet—I don’t think they stack up. They did their best and failed. Gail Wynand is the most tragic Randian character, because he could have, but didn’t.

Gail Wynand wasn’t born a second-hander.

Roark tries to contact Gail, to offer some sort of absolution to his friend, but Gail refuses to see him. He stays in New York and doesn’t visit Dominique in the country. He’s trying to wait it out.

Dominique is done waiting. Roark is spending the summer at Monadnock Valley, awaiting his trial. Dominique drives from Connecticut to join him there. The morning after she arrives, she calls the police to report the “theft” of an imaginary piece of jewelry that Roark supposedly gave to her, of trivial value to a multi-millionaire’s wife. It’s a one-bedroom house, she’s wearing Roark’s pajamas—it’s imminently clear where she slept the previous night. The story hits the papers immediately.

The Banner runs it, as news. Gail says nothing in particular, but allows his lawyer to initiate divorce proceedings. His most loyal assistant at the paper uses it to spin a story that Dominique forced Wynand to defend Roark in print, that he was somehow the victim.

Gail goes to see Dominique at their country house, where he calmly asks her about the details of her relationship with Roark. Dominique becomes frustrated:

He turned to leave.

“God damn you!” she cried. “If you can take it like this, you had no right to become what you became!”

“That’s why I’m taking it.”

He walked out the room. He closed the door softly.

The story builds circulation, as Dominique expected it would. It was her final attempt to help him. Wynand’s public reputation improves. And soon thereafter, Roark goes to trial.

Just as in the Stoddard Trial, Roark sits alone at the defense table. He takes no legal counsel, but he’s planning a different strategy this time.

His supporters sit together in a small cluster. Gail Wynand does not join them; he sits alone. Guy Francon, finally reconciled with his daughter, does. The prosecutor’s opening statement is interspersed with description of the room and the celebrities within it. Roark has chosen a tough jury—professionals, tradesmen, factory workers. The prosecution happily agreed.

The first day of testimony is largely factual: police, the night watchman, project superintendent, building inspectors. The next day opens with Peter Keating called to the stand. Keating mechanically explains that Roark designed Cortlandt. It’s not nearly as exciting as everyone expected. Keating’s testimony concludes the prosecution’s arguments.

Roark rises to the stand. He calls no witnesses, but instead explains the philosophical issues involved. He explains that he was willing to design Cortlandt for no reason beyond seeing it constructed, but it was not constructed in the manner he had been promised. The government got what it needed from him, but he was not given the payment he had expected. Productive, first-handed thinkers should rightfully be paid for their work, not enslaved by nonproductive second-handers. Dynamiting Cortlandt was Roark’s way of protecting that right, whether the law acknowledges it or not.

The full speech is worth reading, but is unfortunately too long to quote here. A compressed version was featured in the 1949 film adaptation, which is reasonably authoritative: Ayn Rand wrote the screenplay. I would strongly recommend watching it.

The jury leaves to deliberate. The audience expects a long recess. Before Roark can even be escorted from the courtroom, the jury returns. Roark is told to stand and face the jury. Gail Wynand stands, too. The foreman delivers the verdict: not guilty. Roark looks to Wynand. Gail turns and leaves the courtroom.

Cortlandt gets a happy ending: Roger Enright buys the site and hires Roark to construct the project as planned. But for Gail Wynand, not so much. His divorce is granted, and then the labor board rules in favor of Ellsworth Toohey. The Banner must reinstate him at his job.

Wynand informs Toohey that he expects him to come to work immediately. Toohey arrives and pretends to work, all while Wynand watches him from the office door. Toohey thinks the situation is absurd: one doesn’t start to work at nine p.m., on command.

The presses stop. Ellsworth Toohey is out of a job. Wynand is closing the Banner. It might seem like a dramatic way to win a fight, but really it’s so much more than that. The newspaper was his life for decades, but it was built on a rotten foundation. Roark’s trial was the last court of appeals. Roark won and the Banner lost. Closing the paper was the thematically logical choice.

It’s the personally logical choice, too. Gail has lost his wife and his one true friend. He’s lost all influence and self-esteem. It’s not unlikely that he’s lost the will to live. (In the screenplay, his suicide is made explicit.) He’s beginning to settle accounts.

A few months later he calls Roark to his office for the last time. All trace of intimacy is gone. He impersonally explains that he’s ready to begin a project they had previously discussed, the construction of a skyscraper in Hell’s Kitchen. The Wynand Building is to be the tallest building in New York and contain all of the remaining aspects of his media empire in the city. A large portion of his properties will be liquidated, so price is no object.

Roark’s philosophy of architecture was, in essence, to build monuments to the lives of his clients, and that is precisely what the Wynand Building was intended to be:

“I told you once that this building was to be a monument to my life. There is nothing left to commemorate now. The Wynand Building will have nothing—except what you give it.”

He rose to his feet, indicating that the interview was ended. Roark got up and inclined his head in parting. He held his head down a moment longer than a formal bow required.

At the door he stopped and turned. Wynand stood behind his desk without moving. They looked at each other.

Wynand said:

“Build it as a monument to that spirit which is yours . . . and could have been mine.”

In the final scene of the novel, Dominique goes to visit Roark at the site of the Wynand Building, looking around the city as she rides the construction elevator up to the roof. She and Roark have gotten what they wanted, as have, presumably, their friends. Wynand hasn’t, of course, but his story was intentionally tragic. Ellsworth Toohey hasn’t be entirely vanquished, but following a clear statement of values, Rand likely expects the clash of believe systems to be concluded forth-with.


Or maybe not? In Roark’s speech, he describes collectivism taking over Europe. In the era he’s speaking, that would refer to both Communism and the various forms of Fascism. But The Fountainhead was published in 1943. Victory in World War II was by no means guaranteed, though America’s entry into the war certainly tilted the scales towards the liberal democracies. The conflict with communism lasted for another decade after Rand’s death.

The Fountainhead is a statement of values, but a largely-incomplete one. Almost immediately after publication, fans started demanding a nonfiction account of Rand’s philosophy. One such conversation provided the inspiration for Atlas Shrugged, which explored a lot of ideas in more detail. But Atlas Shrugged is even longer than The Fountainhead, so the latter tends to be the choice for casual readers. They frequently come away with a much more Nietzschean view than intended.

Rand attempts to combat this and other misconceptions in the 1968 introduction, but I don’t think it’s succeeded in that. A lot of people don’t read introductions, and a lot of those who do don’t read them closely. Minor edits to the text might have done a better job—swapping out “religious” for “moral” in Roark’s speech, and replacing almost every instance of “egotist” with “egoist”. There’s a big difference between the two. Roughly speaking, egotists sacrifice others to self, while egoists sacrifice no one to nobody. This is the crux of Objectivist individualism.

To get a clearer picture of Objectivism, including why it is so appealing to certain people, you really need to read both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The latter describes why an individualist society would be desirable and the alternatives—not. It contains the themes of how to live as an upright individual, but that question is complicated. The Fountainhead details the many ways in which persons can destroy their own happiness in the name of iffy ideals.

Branden is correct, though, in claiming that both miss their mark. Rand’s fiction gestures in the direction of how to live a life without pain or fear or guilt while nevertheless causing a great deal of all three. These books should not be read uncritically. Contextually appropriate tactics will only lead to frustration and distress if applied generally. Unfortunately, Rand never succeeded in fully translating her philosophy to a language accessible and practicable to the weak and disadvantaged individuals who would benefit from it most.

This is not an essay about that particular topic. Allow me to state only one implication explicitly: by neglecting the neglected, an Objectivist is ceding that entire class of persons to other ideologies. This is perhaps not the best tactic if you want to create a productive, happy, and free society. I’m interested to see how well other writers in the Objectivist movement handle the issue as I continue to explore the wider literature.

However, my primary interest in The Fountainhead instead comes from the idea of second-handing. This is the critical bit that is easy to miss in Atlas Shrugged. Rational self-esteem cannot come from an outside assessment. Just look at the term! Esteem in other’s opinion is necessarily not self-esteem. Now one may ask a trusted individual for evidence on the question, but ultimately you need to track the chain of evaluation back to one’s own mind (if one wants to have any real confidence in their assessment). Rationality necessarily is an internal process.

On a related note: Objectivists take the terms selfish and selfless literally. A truly selfless person wouldn’t be much a person at all. Thankfully, humans do a poor job living up the altruists’ ideal!

The Fountainhead is hardly a universal antidote for selflessness, or even the best introduction to rational selfishness, but it does have the advantage of being an interesting story to read. For that reason, I might recommend it to those who want to learn more about egoism and can read with an open and inquisitive mind. I wouldn’t recommend it to a motivated skeptic. Anthem might be better, or another book I haven’t read at all. The Fountainhead should then be read after another book gets the basic point across.

Regardless of that, it’s still one of my favorites to read. And maybe the selfish pleasure of reading a good book is all it really takes.

fountainhead centennial cover

On the Implications of Nonlinearity and Chaos

I picked up James Gleick’s book Chaos on the recommendation of a friend, mistakenly expecting to learn about physics. The cover misled me, conjuring visions of subatomic particles and string theory. There is physics in Chaos, and physicists playing major roles, but really it’s a book about mathematics. Specifically, nonlinear mathematics.


Nonlinear can mean different things depending on the context. For Chaos, we’re concerned with differential equations. Differential equations relate a variable and that variable’s derivative. For example:

\frac{dx}{dt} = x(t) + C_1

Nonlinear differential equations entangle the variable and its derivatives in the same term. A simple nonlinear equation would be:

x\frac{dx}{dt} = x(t) + C_2

This equation is relatively benign. C_2 is a constant, so we can separate the equation and rearrange it to a solvable form. We’re thrown this sort of thing in the first two weeks of diff eq, before moving onto harder problems.

Most conceivable differential equations are nonlinear. Certain nonlinear forms are solvable, such as the equation above. But the vast majority are not1.

This is a bit of a problem for us humans, because the universe essentially runs on differential equations. Scientists of all disciplines spent decades mistakenly assuming that unpredictable systems actually oscillated around unseen equilibria. Enough systems really do that that it wasn’t an unreasonable hypothesis—but it turns out that most of them don’t.

As the Twentieth Century progressed, things began to change. Mechanical calculators and digital computers finally let men run the numbers fast enough to see that, no, the systems weren’t doing what they’d previously thought. Edward Lorenz’s meteorological simulations are the canonical example, but biology researchers studying population changes, electrical engineers building signal processing systems, and physicists trying to get a handle on fluid mechanics discovered related phenomena around the same time.

Researchers found patterns in the noise. Lorenz discovered his attractors2. Mitchell Feigenbaum noticed period-doubling bifurcation. Benoit Mandelbrot did . . . honestly what didn’t Mandelbrot do? A quartet of physics grad students at UC Santa Cruz calling themselves the Dynamical Systems Collective (among other names) did a lot of the work, flushing out what became chaos theory and bringing it forward for publication.

Chaos started showing up everywhere. The Dynamical Systems Collective occasionally sat down in a public place and just looked for the nearest pattern of nonlinear behavior, what we now call strange attractors. Was it the dripping faucet in the coffeehouse kitchen? Even massively simplified models of dripping water are nonlinear. Was it that flag blowing in the breeze? One of the members even argued that the needle on his car’s speedometer bounced in a nonlinear fashion.

Once you notice the pattern, you’ll see nonlinear dynamics constantly. It’s easy to quell your curiosity about the world when you think everything has nice, simple governing equations. Some algebraic expression or trigonometric function, with a linear differential equation at worst. And surely that won’t be more than second order!

No. Chaotic systems are all around us. The electrons bouncing through your Ethernet cable behave nonlinearly. Do you know someone with an irregular heartbeat? That’s a nonlinear pattern. Medicine was slow to embrace chaos theory, but the human body is a massively nonlinear system.

Let me intimate that clearly: biological systems tend to be very nonlinear. They cannot be predicted with anything approaching the certainly of simple mechanical systems. And remember, there is no general solution for a simple three body problem.

No equation or set of equations can predict the location of just three lousy planets, approximated as point masses. We’ve known this since the 1880s, but it’s still beginning to sink in to the consciousness of modern civilization. Numerical integration can do wonders, but eventually the system necessarily becomes unpredictable. Only special arrangements can be described as “stable”. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that the solar system did not form in its current configuration. This arrangement may be an equilibrium reached only after major disruptions, possibly including the ejection of multiple planets to interstellar space.

Now, try developing a semi-functional model of the human brain, neurotransmitters and all. I’ll wait.

When you begin to really think about these things, it can become truly terrifying. The size and degree of our ignorance is difficult to communicate. Engineering and science are considered hard when everything is linearized and simplified to death—the real deal makes that look nearly trivial. Economics and culture are probably even more complex3. After all, molecules don’t have minds of their own.

My biggest criticism of Chaos would probably be that the book doesn’t spend enough time emphasizing this point. There’s a lot of great factual information, but the full implications are barely sketched out. Equations are few and far between—but Mr. Gleick deserves a lot of credit for including equations at all! So despite that flaw, I would very highly recommend Chaos as an introduction to the higher mathematics which makes the world such an interesting place to live.


1Even the solvable ones can be real beasts. I still have this monstrosity bookmarked from an analytical homework problem. They told us not to attempt solving it ourselves, and I can see why.

2I took differential equations multiple times, and Lorenz Attractors were the only nonlinear form we discussed in any real detail, and even that avoided calculations.

3Yet, so far as I can tell, the sociology program at my school requires nothing more than the bare minimum in mathematics. Most of the serious work ends up getting published in econ journals.

Book Review: Space Cadet

[Content Note: Intentionally exacting ethics, extensive quotation, casual discussion of nuclear warfare. Considerable spoilers for Space Cadet, but not in the way that you’d think.]


I’m probably going to regret trying to review Space Cadet because Heinlein is always about morality and writing about morality always frustrates me no end.

To be clear, it’s not morality that frustrates me, but writing about it, because I don’t have the time to dash off a three hundred page introduction to whatever idea it is that I’m trying to communicate. Learning to think in aesthetics was probably a mistake, because then you have to concretize and suddenly see that you’ve leapt over all the supporting framework.

If this seems a little dramatic for a slim YA novel, well, this book can be read on multiple levels. My initial reading, back in elementary school, mostly just took away the science fiction story of Matt Dodson joining the Patrol and his subsequent adventures as a cadet traveling the solar system.

Matt is a convenient character for this sort of story, because he has almost no defining features. He was raised in Iowa, North American Union, Terra. He struggles in mathematics but ultimately succeeds, enjoys playing space polo, studied Basic but not tensor calculus in high school, makes several friends and an enemy. Note that those friends have more features than him: “Tex” Jarman has a personality as big as his home state, Oscar from Venus tells us all about the Venerian culture and customs, Pete from Ganymede has an emotional episode of homesickness. Even the hate sink has a better-defined backstory. We’re intended to step easily into Matt’s shoes.

Heinlein, meanwhile, self-inserts into the various Patrol officers mentoring the young men as they attend Annapolis in space. The Patrol is not just a military organization, or a research organization, or a humanitarian organization. It’s all of these and more. Crafting boys into the sort of supermen who can keep the peace between the various nations of Terra and the inhabitants of Mars and Venus is no mean feat.

The first half of the novel is a standard Bildungsroman on the making of a spaceman. Consider this passage, during Matt’s orientation aboard the P.R.S. Randolph in geosynchronous orbit, where each cadet begins his education. Lieutenant Wong, Matt’s mentor, is explaining a cadet’s curriculum:

“Everything that can possibly be studied under hypno[sis] you will have to learn that way in order to leave time for the really important subjects.”

Matt nodded. “I see. Like astrogation.”

“No, no no! Not astrogation. A ten-year-old child could learn to pilot a spaceship if he had the talent for mathematics. That is kindergarten stuff, Dodson. The arts of space and warfare are the least part of your education. I know, from your tests, that you can soak up the math and physical sciences and technologies. Much more important is the world around you, the planets and their inhabitants—extraterrestrial biology, history, cultures, psychology, law and institutions, treaties and conventions, planetary ecologies, system ecology, interplanetary economics, applications of extraterritorialism, comparative religious customs, law of space, to mention a few.”

Matt was looking bug-eyed. “My gosh! How long does it take to learn all those things?”

“You’ll still be studying the day you retire. But even those subjects are not your education; they are simply the raw materials. Your real job is to learn how to think—and that means you must study several other subjects: epistemology, scientific methodology, semantics, structures of languages, patterns of ethics and morals, varieties of logics, motivational psychology, and so on. This school is based on the idea that a man who can think correctly will automatically behave morally—or what we call ‘morally.’ What is moral behavior for a Patrolman, Matt? You are called Matt, aren’t you? By your friends?”

“Yes, sir. Moral behavior for a Patrolman . . .”

“Yes, yes. Go on.”

“Well, I guess it means to do your duty, live up to your oath, that sort of thing.”

“Why should you?”

Matt kept quiet and looked stubborn.

“Why should you, when it may get you some messy way of dying? Never mind. Our prime purpose here is to see to it that you learn how your own mind works. If the result is a man who fits into the purposes of the Patrol because his own mind, when he knows how to use it, works that way—then fine! He is commissioned. If not, the we have to let him go.”

Matt remained silent until Wong finally said, “What’s eating on you, kid? Spill it.”

“Well—look here, sir. I’m perfectly willing to work hard to get my commission. But you make it sound like something beyond my control. First I have to study a lot of things I’ve never heard of. Then, when it’s all over, somebody decides my mind doesn’t work right. It seems to me that what this job calls for is a superman.”

“Like me.” Wong chuckled and flexed his arms. “Maybe so, Matt, but there aren’t any supermen, so we’ll have to do the best we can with young squirts like you. Come, now, let’s make up the list of spools you’ll need.”

Thus begins Matt’s theoretical education as a Patrolman. The process isn’t easy for him, and he struggles. That aspect of the story is far more relatable to me now that when I read this book as a kid, because I’ve been there. Honestly, if I could make 2013!me read a particular book, I’d probably ask myself to reread Space Cadet. It might just have bent the trajectory of my life a different direction.

Matt, too, struggles with trajectories—he’s so frustrated by the coursework in astrogation that he asks Lieutenant Wong for a transfer to the space marines. Wong refuses, saying that Matt is too far removed from the appropriate mindset:

“People tend to fall into three psychological types, all differently motivated. There is the type, motivated by economic factors, money . . . and there is the type motivated by ‘face,’ or pride. This type is a spender, fighter, boaster, lover, sportsman, gambler; he has a will to power and an itch for glory. And there is the professional type, which claims to follow a code of ethics rather than simply seeking money or glory—priests and ministers, teachers, scientists, medical men, some artists and writers. The idea is that such a man believes that he is devoting his life to some purpose more important than his individual self.

[. . .]

“The Patrol is meant to be made up exclusively of the professional type. In the space marines, every single man jack, from the generals to the privates, is or should be the sort who lives by pride and glory.”

“Oh . . .”

Wong waited for it to sink in. “You can see it in the very uniforms; the Patrol wears the plainest of uniforms, the marines wear the gaudiest possible. In the Patrol all emphasis is on the oath, the responsibility to humanity. In the space marines the emphasis is on pride in their corps and its glorious history, loyalty to comrades, the ancient virtues of the soldier. I am not disparaging the marine when I say that he does not care a tinker’s damn for the political institutions of the Solar System; he cares only for his organization.

“But it’s not your style, Matt. I know more about you than you do yourself, because I have studied the results of your psychological tests. You will never make a marine.”

Rejected by Lieutenant Wong, Matt returns to astrogation, planning secretly to not return from his first leave.

The next chapter opens waiting for the rocket back to P.R.S. Randolph, wondering just when he changed his mind. The narrative alternates between the rocket flight and Matt’s vacation, illustrating the ways in which he is no longer a civilian:

Great-aunt Dora was the current family matriarch. She had been a very active woman, busy with church and social work. Now she was bed-fast and had been for three years. Matt called on her because his family obviously expected it. “She often complains to me that you don’t write to her, Matt, and—”

“But, Mother, I don’t have time to write to everyone!”

“Yes, yes, but she’s proud of you, Matt. She’ll want to ask you a thousand questions about everything. Be sure to wear your uniform—she’ll expect it.”

Aunt Dora had not asked a thousand questions; she had asked just one—why had he waited so long to come see her? Thereafter Matt found himself being informed, in detail, of the shortcomings of the new pastor, the marriage chances of several female relatives and connections, and the states of health of several older women, many of them unknown to him, including the details of operations and post-operative developments.

I’m glad I’ve never had that experience with my older relatives, though when Dad talks about his coworkers….

Yes, maybe that was it—it might have been the visit to Aunt Dora that convinced him that he was not ready to resign and remain in Des Moines. It could not have been Marianne.

Marianne was the girl who had made him promise to write regularly—and, in fact, he had, more regularly than she. But he had let her know that he was coming home and she had organized a picnic to welcome him back. It had been jolly. Matt had renewed old acquaintances and had enjoyed a certain amount of hero worship from the girls present. There had been a young man there, three or four years older than Matt, who seemed unattached. Gradually it dawned on Matt that Marianne treated the newcomer as her property.

It had not worried him. Marianne was the sort of girl who never would get clearly fixed in her mind the distinction between a planet and a star. He had not noticed this before, but it and similar matters had come up on the one date he had had alone with her.

And she had referred to his uniform as “cute.”

He began to understand, from Marianne, why most Patrol officers do not marry until their mid-thirties, after retirement.

This passage, and several like it, were why I decided to reread Space Cadet after all these years. The disconnect between specialist and layman grows too large and it becomes impossible to talk meaningfully about your work. So far, I’ve managed to keep Mom and Dad up to speed, but we’ll see how long that lasts.

Matt is in a much worse state, trying to describe missile maintenance to his parents, who neither understand orbital mechanics, nucleonics, nor the political motivations of the Patrol.

Nuclear weapons are kept in polar orbits, he explains, so that the entire planet is covered by the Patrol’s watchful eye. They are regularly serviced by ships—physically caught by a cadet, disarmed, and reeled in for inspection and repositioning. Matt casual mentions that J-3 will be passing over Des Moines in a few minutes, which gives his mother a fit of anxiety. “What if it should fall?” she demands.

Objects in orbit don’t fall, of course, as Matt explains—they would have to instantaneously lose 7,800 m/s of velocity to drop straight down. If the Patrol needed to nuke Des Moines that night, they would use a missile requiring a more moderate change of trajectory, like I-2 or H-1.

This doesn’t comfort her.

Matt’s father tries to argue that the Patrol would never bomb the North American Union, because the majority of Patrol officers are from North America. Matt refuses to commit, insisting later that the Patrol absolutely would. But he has doubts.

For the first few weeks after leave, Matt was too busy to fret. He had to get back into the treadmill, with more studying to do and less time to do it in. He was on the watch list for cadet officer of the watch now, and had more laboratory periods in electronics and nucleonics as well. Besides this he shared with the other oldsters the responsibility for bringing up the youngster cadets. Before leave his evenings had usually been free for study, now he coached youngsters in astrogation three nights a week.

He was beginning to think that he would have to give up space polo, when he found himself elected captain of [the deck’s] team. Then he was busier than ever. He hardly thought about abstract problems until his next session with Lieutenant Wong.

“Good afternoon,” his coach greeted him. “How’s your class in astrogation?”

“Oh, that—It seems funny to be teaching it instead of flunking it.”

“That’s why you’re stuck with it—you still remember what it was that used to stump you and why. How about atomics?”

“Well . . . I suppose I’ll get by, but I’ll never be an Einstein.”

“I’d be amazed if you were. How are you getting along otherwise?” Wong waited.

“All right, I guess. Do you know, Mr. Wong—when I went on leave I didn’t intend to come back.”

“I’d rather thought so. That space-marines notion was just your way of dodging around, trying to avoid your real problem.”

“Oh. Say, Mr. Wong—tell me straight. Are you a regular Patrol officer, or a psychiatrist?”

Wong almost grinned. “I’m a regular Patrol officer, Matt, but I’ve had the special training required for this job.”

“Uh, I see. What was it I was running away from?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Tell me about your leave, then. We’ve got all afternoon.”

“Yes, sir.” Matt meandered along, telling as much as he could remember. “So you see,” he concluded, “it was a lot of little things. I was home—but I was a stranger. We didn’t talk the same language.”

Wong chuckled. “I’m not laughing at you,” he apologized. “It isn’t funny. We all go through it—the discovery that there’s no way to go back. It’s part of growing up—but with spacemen it’s an especially acute and savage process.”

Matt nodded. “I’d already gotten that through my thick head. Whatever happens I won’t go back—not to stay. I might go into the merchant service, but I’ll stay in space.”

“You’re not likely to flunk out at this stage, Matt.”

“Maybe not, but I don’t know yet that the Patrol is the place for me. That’s what bothers me.”

“Well . . . can you tell me about it?”

Matt tried. He related the conversation with his father and his mother that had gotten them all upset. “It’s this: if it comes to a showdown, I’m expected to bomb my own hometown. I’m not sure it’s in me to do it. Maybe I don’t belong here.”

“Not likely to come up, Matt. Your father was right there.”

“That’s not the point. If a Patrol officer is loyal to his oath only when it’s no skin off his own nose, the whole system breaks down.”

Wong waited before replying. “If the prospect of bombing your own town, your own family, didn’t worry you, I’d have you out of this ship within the hour—you’d be an utterly dangerous man. The Patrol doesn’t expect a man to have godlike perfection. Since men are imperfect, the Patrol works on the principle of calculated risk. The chance of a threat to the System coming from your own hometown in your lifetime is slight; the chance that you might be called upon to carry out the attack is equally slight…But if you did hit the jackpot, your commanding officer would probably lock you up in your room rather than take a chance on you.”

Matt still looked troubled. “Not satisfied?” Wong went on. “Matt, you are suffering from a disease of youth—you expect moral problems to have nice, neat, black-and-white answers. Suppose you relax and let me worry about whether or not you have what it takes. Oh, some day you’ll be caught in a squeeze with no one around to tell you the right answer. But I have to decide whether or not you can get the right answer when the problem comes along—and I don’t even know what your problem will be! How would you like to be in my boots?”

Matt grinned sheepishly. “I wouldn’t like it.

From thereon out, it’s a fairly standard science fiction story. If the last hundred page feel like an entirely different novel, well, the earlier drafts went in a rather different direction. In the final version, however, Matt is assigned to a ship, continuing his education while on search-and-assist in the asteroid belt, before being sent to Venus. There, Matt, Tex, and Oscar find themselves stranded, their commanding officer incapacitated, and must keep the peace with the local Venerians while rescuing themselves—exactly the sort of experience Lieutenant Wong was preparing Matt for. If only all college guidance counselors had the time and training to take such interest in their students’ psychological development!

What draws me to Space Cadet again after so many years is that it is not just a fun adventure in space (though that certainly doesn’t hurt). It’s a vision of how to live as human beings.

This story was written immediately after the war, copyright 1948. The specter of fascism still hung over the western world, that Russia would be our geopolitical enemy for next forty years was still largely unthinkable.

Heinlein was looking ahead to a world of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. Remember, Uncle Joe still didn’t have the bomb—if we’d acted quickly, the entire planet could have been a democracy (or a dictatorship). Even before America entered the war, Heinlein was thinking about the threat that nuclear weapons posed to world peace and world freedom.

In various forms, the Patrol was his fictional attempt to answer this problem. A quasi-military organization, with unlimited funds and unlimited firepower at its disposal, and each officer committed to the safety of every nation but his own. Lieutenant Wong is no accident: the Patrol’s multicultural character is made clear throughout the book. In a classic Heinlein twist, only after the boys are stranded on Venus do we learn that one of their commanders was of African descent.

(Those who mistakenly believe Sixth Column accurately represent Heinlein’s views on race should consider that he wrote this, for kids, at the same time.)

A decade before the beatniks, we’re told to stand up tall and proud in the shadow of the mushroom cloud and conduct ourselves as men.

Let’s do the responsible thing here and quote from William Patterson’s biography:

An incident witnessed on a family outing in Swope Park in 1912 stayed with [Heinlein] for the rest of his life. He would take it out of memory and turn it over in his mind again and again, examining it with wonder:

A young couple was walking along a set of railroad tracks that cut through the park in those days when the woman got her heel caught in a switch—a nuisance, until they heard a train whistle approaching at speed. Another younger man—the newspapers later said he was a tramp—stopped to help them get free. As the train bore down on them, the husband and the tramp struggled to get the woman free and were struck, all of them. The wife and the tramp were killed instantly, the husband seriously injured.

Why did he do it? Not the husband, who was, after all, simply (simply!) doing his duty by his wife—but the tramp, who had no personal stake in their welfare and could have jumped aside, even at the last minute, to save himself. Why did he do it? wondered little Bobby and then Adolescent Bobby—and so, repeatedly, did Midshipman Bob and politician Bob and adult Robert, understanding a bit more, a bit differently, every time he looked at it.

An artist works in images and articulates images even when he can’t necessarily articulate the meaning. This incident became a core image for [Heinlein], one that showed him in a way beyond words what it means to be a human being. At the end he still could not articulate it. All he could say about it was: “This is how a man dies. This is how a man lives!” And that was enough.

This is what I love about Space Cadet, what I love about the Patrol, and what I love about Heinlein.

Maybe thinking with aesthetics isn’t so bad after all.

Book Review: The Signal and the Noise

Supposedly Nate Silver’s credibility took a major hit last November, which will no doubt discourage many potential readers of his book. This interpretation is wrong, but palatable, because the sorts of commentators who would come to such conclusions shouldn’t be trusted with it. This book is about how to be more intelligent when making predictions and be wrong less often. Such an attitude is not common—most “predictions” are political pot-shots or, as discussed previously, avaricious attempts to put the cart before the horse.

Let’s begin with a discussion of a few major tips. Most of these things should be taught in high school civics (how can you responsibly vote without a concept of base rates?!), but aren’t. Perhaps the most important thing is to limit the number of predictions made, so you can easily come back and score them. Calibration is recommended—nine out of ten predictions made with 90% confidence should come true.

Political pundits are terrible about these sorts of things. Meteorologists are actually great at it. Now your local weatherman is regularly wrong, but the National Weather Service makes almost perfectly calibrated forecasts1. This is, in part, because their models are under constant refinement, always seeking more accuracy. And it pays off: NWS predictions have improved drastically over the last few decades, due to improved models, more data collection, and faster computers. But more on that later.

Local meteorologists, on the other hand, are incentivized to make outlandish forecasts which drive viewership (and erode trust in their profession). One might see this as evidence that public entities make better predictions than private ones, but we quickly see that that is no panacea when we turn to seismology and epidemiology.

Part of the problem, in those fields, is that government and university researchers are under considerable pressure from their employers to develop new models which will enable them to predict disasters. This is a reasonable enough desire, but a desire alone does not a solution make. We can quite easily make statistical statements about approximately how frequently certain locations will experience earthquakes, for instance. But attempts beyond a simple logarithmic regression have so far been fruitless, not just failing to predict major earthquakes but specifically prediction that some of the most destructive earthquakes in recent memory would not occur.

Silver’s primary case study in this comes from the planning for Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. When engineers were designing it in the 1960s, it was necessary to extrapolate what sort of earthquake loads it might need to withstand. Fortunately, the sample size of the largest earthquakes is necessarily low. Unfortunately, there was a small dogleg in the data, an oh-so-tempting suggestion that the frequency of extremely large earthquakes was exceedingly low. The standard Gutenberg-Richter model suggests that a 9.0-magnitude earthquake would occur in the area about once every 300 years; the engineers’ adaptation suggested every 13,000. They constructed fantastical rationalizations for their model and a power station able to withstand 8.6. In March of 2011 a 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit the coast of Japan and triggered a tsunami. The rest, as they say, is history.

The problem in seismology comes from overfitting. It is easy, in the absence of hard knowledge, to underestimate the amount of noise in a dataset and end up constructing a model which predicts random outliers. Those data points don’t represent the underlying reality; rather, they are caused by influences outside the particular thing you’re wishing to study (including the imprecision of your instruments).

And it can take awhile to realize that this is the case, if the model is partially correct or if the particular outlier doesn’t appear frequently. An example would be the model developed by Professor David Bowman at California State University-Fullerton in the mid-2000s, which identified high-risk areas, some of which then experienced earthquakes. But the model also indicated that an area which soon thereafter experienced an 8.5 was particularly low-risk. Dr. Bowman had the humility to retire the model and admit to its faults. Many predictors aren’t so honest.

On the other hand, we see overly cautious models. For instance, in January of 1976, Private David Lewis of the US Army died at Fort Dix of H1N1, the same flu virus which caused the Spanish Influenza of 1918. The flu always occurs at military bases in January, after soldiers have been spread across the country for Christmas and New Year’s. The Spanish Influenza had also first cropped up at a military base, and this unexpected reappearance terrified the Center for Disease Control. Many feared an even worse epidemic. President Ford asked Congress to authorize a massive vaccination program at public expense, which passed overwhelmingly.

The epidemic never materialized. No other cases of H1N1 were confirmed anywhere in the country and the normal flu strain which did appear was less intense than usual. We still have no idea how Private Lewis contracted the deadly disease.

Alarmism, however, broke public confidence in government predictions generally and on vaccines particularly. The vaccination rate fell precipitously in the following years, opening the way to more epidemics later on.

Traditionally, this category of error was known as crying wolf. Modern writers have forgotten it and have to be reminded to not do that. Journalists and politicians make dozens if not hundreds of “predictions” each year, few if any of which are scored, in no small part because most of them turn out wrong or even incoherent.

Sadly, the pursuit of truth and popularity are uncorrelated at best. As Mr. Silver has learned, striving for accuracy and against premature conclusions is a great way to get yourself berated2. Forecasting is not the field for those seeking societal validation. If that’s your goal, skipping this book is far better than trying to balance its lessons and the public’s whim.

But let’s suppose you do want to be right. If you do, then this book can help you in that quest, though it is hardly a comprehensive text. You’ll need to study statistics, history, economics, decision theory, differential equations, and plenty more. Forecasting could be an education in its own right (though regrettably is not). The layman, however, can improve vastly by just touching on these subjects.

First and foremost is an understanding of probability, specifically Bayesian statistics. Silver has the courage to show us actual equations, which is more than can be said for many science writers. Do read this chapter.

Steal an example from another book, suppose two taxi companies operate in a particular region, based on color. Blue Taxi has a larger market share. If you think you see a Green Taxi, there’s a small chance that it’s really Blue and you’re mistaken (and a smaller chance if you see Blue, it’s really Green). The market share is the base rate, and you should adjust up or down based on the reasons you might feel uncertain. For instance, if the lighting is poor and you’re far away, your confidence should be lower that if you’re close by at mid-day. Try thinking up a few confounders of your own.

To better develop your Bayesian probability estimate of a given scenario, you need to assess what information you possess and what information you don’t possess. These will be your Known Knowns and Known Unknowns. The final category is Unknown Unknowns, the thing you aren’t aware are even a problem. A big part of rationality is trying to consider previously ignored dangers and trying to mitigate risk from the unforeseen.

This is much easier to do ex post facto. By that point, the signal you need to consider stands out against hundreds you can neglect. Beforehand, though, it’s difficult to determine which is the most important. Often, you’re not even measuring the relevant quantity directly but rather secondary and tertiary effects. Positive interference can create a signal where none exists. Negative interference can reduce clear trends to background noise. There’s a reason signal processing pays so well for electrical engineers.

The applications range from predicting terrorist attacks to not losing your shirt gambling. An entire chapter discusses the Poker Bubble and how stupid players make the game profitable for the much smaller pool of cautious ones. In addition to discussing the mechanics and economics of the gambling, I got a decent explanation of how poker is played. Certainly interesting.

Another chapter tells the story of how Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov. Entire books have been written on the subject, but Silver gives a good overview of the final tournament and what makes computers so powerful in the first place.

Computers aren’t actually very smart. Their strength comes from solving linear equations very, very quickly. They don’t make the kinds of arithmetic mistakes which humans make, especially when the iterations run into the millions. Chess is a linear game, however, so it was really a matter of time until algorithms could beat humans. There’s certainly a larger layer of complexity and strategy than many simpler games, but it doesn’t take a particularly unique intelligence to look ahead and avoid making mistakes in the heat of the moment.

Furthermore, the stating position of chess is always the same. This is not the case for many other linear systems, let alone nonlinear ones. Nonlinear systems exhibit extreme sensitivity to initial conditions; the weather a classical example. The chapter on meteorology discusses this in detail—we have very good models of how the atmosphere behaves, but because we don’t know every property at every location, we’re stuck making inferences about the air in-between sampling points. Add to this finite computing power, and the NWS can only (only!) predict large-scale weather systems with extreme accuracy a few days ahead.

With more sampling points, more computing capacity, or more time, we could get better predictions, but all of these factors play off one another. This dilemma arises throughout prediction. More research will allow for more accurate results but delays your publication data. (This assumes that the data you need is even available: frequently, it isn’t3.)

Producing useful predictions is not about having the best data or the most computing power (though they certainly help). It is primarily about constraining your anticipation to what the evidence actually implies. Nate Silver lays out several techniques for pursuing this goal, with examples. It’s a good introduction for us laymen; experienced statisticians will probably find little they didn’t already know.

I would not recommend this book, however, unless you’re willing to do the work. Prediction is a difficult skill to master, and those without the humility to accept their inexperience can get into a lot of trouble. Should you want to test your abilities, try doing calibrated predictions and see how accurate you are. Julia Galef has a number of mostly harmless suggestions for trying this out.

If you are serious, however, The Signal and the Noise offers a quality primer on several important rationality techniques, and a good deal of information about a variety of other topics. I found it an enjoyable read and hope Nate Silver writes more books in the future.


1Major aggregators like the Weather Channel and AccuWeather tend to take the NWS predictions and paste an additional layer of modelling on top of it, for better or for worse.

2In the week before the 2016 election, several liberal commentators accused Mr. Silver of throwing the nation into unwarranted fear for only having Hillary Clinton’s odds of winning at ~70%. As it turns out, his model was one of the most balanced of mainstream predictions, yet everyone then acted as if he had reason to be ashamed for getting it wrong.

3The data may be concealed in confidential documents, nominally available but out of sight, or sitting right under your nose. Most often, however, it’s hiding in the noise. Economic forecasts suffer from this last problem. There’s econometric data everywhere, but basically no one has found more than rudimentary ways to make predictions with it. Perverse incentives complicate matters for private sector analysts, who often then ignore the few semi-reliable indicators we’ve got.

Book Review: Ignition!

Subtitled “An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants”, Ignition! is John D. Clark’s personal account of working with rocket fuels from 1949 until his retirement in 1970.

Dr. Clark is introduced to us by Isaac Asimov. Clark was roommates with L. Sprague de Camp during his undergrad years at Caltech, and wrote a pair of science fiction stories before deciding the market wasn’t for him, though he remained active in the community. Dr. Asimov met him during the war, when he came to work with de Camp and Heinlein at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.

John Clark, like Asimov, was a chemist, working on the problem of chemical rockets for the majority of his career. He writes this book, he tells us, both “for the interested layman” and for:

[T]he professional engineer in the rocket business. For I have discovered that he is frequently abysmally ignorant of the history of his own profession, and, unless forcibly restrained, is almost certain to do something which, as we learned fifteen years ago, is not only stupid but is likely to result in catastrophe.

For the layman, he attempts (and, I think, succeeds) at writing in a manner which is nevertheless very accessible. The sections with heavy technical content can be skimmed over without losing too much of the overall picture, though a little background knowledge certainly helps. I’m not sure you could use this book as a reference without a basic understanding of engineering thermodynamics, but if you haven’t studied that what business do you have designing rocket engines?

Unfortunately, Dr. Clark gives relatively little in the way of citations or suggestions for further reading. This is both an artifact of the era—when technical reports and journal articles were essentially inaccessible to the general public if your local library didn’t have a copy—and a consequence of the fact that much of the source material was at the time still officially classified. At several points the discussion is cut short because he’s not at liberty to discuss the matter. He acknowledges these difficulties and makes not pretense of this being an authoritative textbook.

On a related note, the content is heavily focused on the research done in America and the United Kingdom, with a chapter devoted to what information came out of the Soviet Union in later years. Due to the date of publication, this book does not cover modern developments (though the final chapter makes a series of predictions I might come back and grade).

Nor does Clark address solid propellants or hybrid combinations in any significant detail, which is slightly disappointing given my current studies, but would have made for a much longer and more complicated read. Not that I would have particularly minded; Dr. Clark is an engaging storyteller, frequently giving us various background information on the scientists and organizations trying to develop early rockets, first for abstract research, later for the military, and finally for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

These anecdotes keep the reading fun even through the most tedious of minutiae on monoprops and halogen fuels. Clark frequently (if unpredictably) goes into detail on the chemistry of a particular propellant and how the molecules interact with one another. Such interludes eventually rekindled my interest in chemistry as a subject, which is fortunate since I need another credit hour of it to graduate. Hopefully some of the material I learn this summer will be relevant to aerospace propulsion work.

Overall, I found this to be a good introduction to rocket fuels and the history of that field. While useful for beginners such as myself and as a refresher, it probably shouldn’t be treated as any sort of reference guide or definitive citation.

ignition back cover

An engraving by Dr. Clark’s wife, Inga Pratt, presented to NARTS in 1959.

Hopefully one day Ignition! will be in print again, but for now most of us are stuck reading it from PDFs found online. Hard copies went for hundreds of dollars before the likes of Elon Musk and Scott Manley began publicly praising the book.

Book Review: How to Live on Mars

I first read this book in high school, flushed on newly-found philosophy and bristling with plans for life as a commercial astronaut. SpaceX was just ramping up their ISS resupply program; Bigelow Aerospace was planning to launch another module before 2014. The possibilities seemed limitless.

That’s not the world we ended up living in. Astronauts haven’t launched from the United States in over five years. Virgin Galactic experienced LCOV during a 2014 test flight and put space tourism plans on hold while fixing the spacecraft’s control system. The biggest leaps forward has been landing Falcon 9 first stages, but it’s only in the last week that a used stage flew again. Falcon Heavy  still hasn’t been tested flown.

As such, the overall mood of Zubrin’s book feels….overconfident. Misplaced. Premature.

Our narrator is a congenial Martian colonist, giving us the down-low on what it takes to survive on Mars. It’s quite easy, he informs us, provided your follow his advice.

From choosing the correct transfer method to how to start a family, Zubrin (the Martian, not the 20th century astronautical engineer) walks us through the steps of becoming an economic and social success on the red planet. While many of the specifics are tailored to a fictional future history, the basic science is strictly factual.

It ranges from the mundane to the transcendental. At the more everyday end of things, we learn how to make plastics and almost every other raw material from the Martian soil and atmosphere. Through this avatar, Dr. Zubrin is making the case that living on Mars is entirely feasible. Steel and cement for construction, oxygen for breathing, nitrates for food—it’s all there. A few things would be a challenge (fictional Zubrin recommends stealing rocket parts as the best way to obtain aluminum), but the low-gravity environment greatly reduces the difficulty imposed by all sorts of engineering projects.

On the other end of the scale, we’re explained the general process of terraforming Mars into a habitable planet (and how to profit off it in the meantime). Now quite a few of these suggestions rely on a fairly specific potential architecture for the project, but the technical information holds.

This future history is amusing, though evokes a more cynical reaction from me after the last few years. I’m less optimistic about the odds of us reaching Mars before 2040, and less skeptical of NASA’s ability to get things done. To me, the issue seems to be less one of organizational competence and more of insufficient dedication at the highest levels (mostly Congress). While I’d like to believe that the private sector can fill that gap, it seems increasingly unlikely that they can achieve those ends at a plausible cost as the march of 21st century politics continues.

One thing he’ll probably have gotten right: the decay of terrestrial society into atomized, post-modern nihilism. I hope he’ll be proven wrong but there’s no strong signals to suggest that that trend is slowing.

On the whole, though, an optimistic book about the capacity for human ingenuity to conquer new frontiers and expand our understanding of the universe. Those interested in the project of space colonization, but unsure where to begin learning about, would be well advised to start with How to Live on Mars.


Book Review: Your Inner Fish

This book is not what I expected, but quite pleasurable to read nonetheless. Your Inner Fish does not detail the ichthyologic nature of the human body. Rather, it explores how fish moved onto land, where many now-ubiquitous adaptations came from, and how scientists figured it out.

Dr. Shubin begins with the story we all came to hear: how his team of paleontologists discovered Tiktaalik Roseae. This ancient, shallow-water fish  Tiktaalik is an important transitional fossil because it was one of the first discovered with rudimentary hands. Biologists comparing the limbs of species noticed pattern in the limbs of land animals as far back as the mid-1800s. This patter held only for land-adapted species—reptiles, amphibians, mammals (including aquatic mammals that returned to the seas).

For a long time, it was believed that fish don’t exhibit this pattern. Then lungfish were discovered: living fossils which exemplify, in some ways, the transition from ocean to land. As their name implies, they possess basic lungs, and, interestingly, the beginnings of limbs.

Tiktaalik was an improvement on the lungfish. It had a flat head, for swimming in shallow water, and fin bones that show the beginning of a wrist. Together, we see why fins evolved into arms: shallow water fish needed to do pushups. In their fish-eat-fish world, the ability to push oneself through extra-shallow patches was likely a critical advantage.

Let me tell you, exercising seems a lot less mundane when you consider that your lungfish ancestors did it to survive. That’s what your arms evolved to do. It’s only more recently we found further applications for them.

Throughout this book, Shubin is trying to explain how scientists managed to figure out our evolutionary history. He has perhaps a unique perspective to explain this process, as a paleontologist turned anatomy professor. Knowing what came before helps explain the ways in which earlier species were contorted to become the ones we see today.

Comparative anatomy and the fossil record tell us a lot about how modern species came to be. But genetics also offers considerable insight. Looking at the differences between genomes can tell us a lot about how recently certain categories of features evolved. In many cases, we can take genes from mice or fish and insert them into the DNA of invertebrates like fruit flies and get the same result. Such experiments are strong evidence that features like body plans and eyes evolved a really long time ago.

To be clear, there’s a lot of uncertainty which can probably never be resolved. We can prod algae in tanks to evolve the beginnings of multicellular bonding, but we have no idea if that particular direction is the one that our forerunners took.

Nevertheless, Your Inner Fish gives a good overview of how bacteria became bugs and fish, and how those bugs and fish became the bugs, fish, and people alive today. I certainly came away with an improved picture of how weird our bodies are and their many imperfections, though far from the whole picture. My curious is fairly sated, however—I’ve no plans to read the kinds of human anatomy texts I would need to really appreciate the magnitude of making men from microbes.

All told, I’d recommend Your Inner Fish as an entertaining and informative read about how human beings came to be. Neil Shubin has packed a lot of interesting scientific research into it, and with the exception of an example about hypothetical clown people in the final chapter, does a pretty good job of explaining it clearly. Definitely worth your time if the history of life on Earth intrigues you.


Book Review: All The Birds In The Sky

[Note: I read this book on the recommendation of my now ex-girlfriend, and I can confidently say that that affected my reaction to the novel. Consider that as you will.]

I have mixed feelings about this one.

On the positive side, the writing is pretty good. I was sufficiently engaged to keep reading, even when I wanted to sit down the characters and lecture them about their life choices. For the most part, the plot was coherent and didn’t tend to lose me.

But those characters. My opinion of them turned negative in the first few chapters and never really recovered. Once the plot got rolling my feelings ended up relatively neutral, which is….less than one would hope for, given such explicit protagonists. The building action felt kind of drawn out, so this non-negative period was somewhat protracted.

One could justify such extended exposition in the service of extensive worldbuilding, but we don’t really get that. I spent a good part of the book wondering about the details of the disasters unfolding out-of-frame and the magical world Patricia disappeared into. We get a pseudo-explanation of the latter in the final chapter, but the resolution felt pretty forced and didn’t clear up very many loose ends. The denouement was about two pages.

Maybe there’s going to be a sequel that explores these things further. The book only came out this year, so who knows.

However, this frustration helped me realize something about myself: the reason I can’t write fiction is that I’m far more interested in building up a world than any story that could be set within it. Maybe I should team up with a plotmeister who wants to break into sci-fi. Contact me if you’re interested.

At this point it should be clear, dear reader, that I’m not exactly qualified to comment on the writing of science fiction novels, but in the spirit of the characters, I’m going to offer some recommendations anyway.

Firstly, if major plot issues could be resolved by better communication between the characters, it’s nice to give readers a reason why the characters aren’t having those much-needed conversations. Yes, it is possible that no one thinks to ask. But our protagonists are a genius and a literal witch (whose main character flaw is caring too much). I have questions if nothing else. Like, maybe I’m unusually inquisitive but Laurence seemed strangely accepting that actual for-real magic has suddenly appeared in his life.

Speaking of magic, there was a weird theme of techies-can’t-into-ethics running through the book which doesn’t really make sense in context (the book, or the real world). At one point, Patricia is chastising Laurence’s worldview for thinking that saving humanity is more important than saving the entire biosphere, a mere stretch goal for the story’s counterfactual SpaceX.

Patricia, you can talk to animals. You can heal HIV with a single touch. You can cut deals with space-time itself. Ordinary humans are playing an entirely different game.

This gets back into the communication thing. Convinced a team of mad scientists prodigious engineers are about to destroy the world? Have you tried talking to them about the risks involved?

Not that tech-types are liable to destroy the world, seeing as they’re some of the only people I’m aware of with any serious interest in solving morality, out of concerns that an artificial intelligence needs a coherent ethical system before we turn it on. Nick Bostrom calls this problem philosophy with a deadline. You can dismiss this claim if you want, I can’t stop you, but when one of the characters is an AI, then it’s, well, weird.

To be fair, it was awakened to consciousness and gets a lot of early training from Patricia, so talking to witches might be a good AI safety strategy. Shame MIRI can’t try that.

What was I talking about? Oh, right, YA near-future apocalyptic meets urban fantasy novel. Does it count as Young Adult when there’s a moderately explicit sex scene? I don’t remember if they covered that at WorldCon.

My final recommendation has to do with character development. Namely, if you go through great lengths to make a villain sympathetic, do give them some sort of redemption arc. We’re given a front-row seat to a cold-blooded assassin developing a conscience in the halls of an unsettlingly exaggerated portrayal of middle-school misery, and then—anti-climax. His scheme is foiled and his later appearances show few signs of further development. He’s still harking on the same MacGuffin, which we haven’t exactly forgotten about. So I’m not really sure what he’s doing here.

And it’s not that Anders is just bad at character re-introduction, because she does a pretty good job with several other reintroductions between sections. So I’m not sure what’s going on with him in particular. Perhaps it’s a touch of genre-bending realism.

So is All the Birds in the Sky worth recommending to the young adult reader in your life? As with so many things in life, that depends. Looking for some light entertainment? Go for it. Want a thought-provoking novel? There are better books out there. Expecting a well-developed science fantasy world? You might be disappointed.


Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel

For many years, I did not expect to like this book.

Jared Diamond has something of a reputation for primitivism—arguing that hunter-gatherer societies are actually better off than our own. I found this position abhorrent as an Objectivist and wanted to hear nothing of it.

Then, around a year ago, educational YouTuber C.G.P. Grey made a pair of videos* summarizing certain aspects of Diamond’s book. The theory, as presented there, made a lot of sense and piqued my interest. A few months later I purchased a copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel from my local Half Price Books and eventually got around to reading it.

It turned out to be really good.

First of all, Diamond’s position on agricultural civilization is much more considered than many give him credit for. In the course of his anthropological research he’s spent many months living with modern hunter-gatherer societies, experiencing that sort of existence first-hand. Diamond says that his “own impression, from having divided my life between United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessing of civilization are mixed.” He goes on to discuss the various benefits that extremely low-tech societies realize: better family ties, richer social life, and considerably more free time.

His argument, then, is less that industrial civilization is necessarily bad, so much as that it comes with trade-offs. These trade-offs were far more salient for pre-Renaissance agricultural societies, for whom producing enough food to survive took nearly all available resources, and which were subsequently ravaged by war, disease, and famine on a level which pre-agricultural peoples almost never experienced.

But if the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is so great, why didn’t it stick around? The answer is simple enough: agricultural societies out-competed them. Farming allows a much larger population to subsist on the same land, and additionally allows for the development of professions—specialists not directly involved with food production. With a few exceptions, agricultural societies assimilated, displaced, outbred, or simply exterminated their less advanced neighbors.

So why did certain agricultural societies get an upper hand on the others? This is the real question of Diamond’s book.

His answer comes down to one word: geography. The orientation of the continents, the climate at various locations, and similar factors dictated what early humans had available to work with. The Americas and Africa, on their North-South axes, were at a significant disadvantage compared to Eurasia’s East-West axis. Plants and animals spread over a much wider area, increasing the odds that a human population would have the opportunity to domesticate them.

Thus the Americas and Africa ended up with a much slower diffusion of agriculture. (Australia had it even worse.) While industrial civilization might have developed there, it would have been much later. Eurasian colonization cut such trajectories short.

Diamond rejects the notion that certain peoples’ inherent superiority was the fundamental driver of historical progress. Over the course of millennia, cultural and genetic mutation would have been sufficient to make such factors irrelevant. Societies which disregard the advantages of any particular technology don’t tend to stick around very long. Thus human cultures tend to be near the full potential set by their geographic conditions.

We can observe this through natural experiments, the colonization of Polynesia in the last 2,000 years being a prime example. Austronesians, expanding out of Formosa, landed on nearly every Pacific island, and settled pretty much any scrap of land that can support human populations. These ranged from proto-empires in Hawaii and Fiji, to hunter-gatherers on the cold southern Chathams, which were conquered by New Zealand Maoris wielding European firearms in 1835. It also includes tiny Anuta, which despite a population of less than 200 realized an extremely high population density through advanced agriculture.

In a similar manner, Diamond explores the development of African, American Australian, Chinese, and European cultures in the context of geographic determinism. Of particular note is the impact of states on technology. China, a single political unit, abandoned oceanic exploration due to internal factionalism, and never expended the capital costs necessary to resume. Europe, alternatively, was never truly unified, and so never stopped exploration altogether.

Several chapters are devoted specifically to literacy, technology, and political theory. I think a few of my libertarian friends would find them quite interesting, particularly those concerned with what a stateless society might look like. Also noteworthy are the discussions of cultures which had and lost technology—writing being one example, Roman concrete being another. This obviously does not read as a conservative book, but the more intellectual breed of rightists will find something worth considering in Part Three.

Altogether, I found Diamond’s theory intelligent and well-argued. He does not pretend that it’s perfect. His epilogue is an exhortation for more serious study—history as a science, as he call it. Nearly thirty pages are devoted to suggested further readings. Find a coy, apply a light dose of skepticism, and enjoy.


*The first of these is Americapox: The Missing Plague, which discusses why European diseases were so devastating to Native Americans, but not vice versa. The second is Zebras vs Horses: Animal Domestication, which digs deeper into the causes at play. Disease is only one of the proximate factors Diamond discusses, and I’ve mostly chosen to omit it from my review because Grey explains far better than I could.