[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
Hey everyone, welcome to autumn on the top half o’ the orb and spring on the bottom. For your pleasure and edification, another curation of long-form pieces that pleased and edified this semi-retired person, one or two of which might boost your morale in these trying times. Featured: Tolkien as lexicographer, Wikipedia vs Fox News, John le Carré, and cheesy music from my youth.
Let’s start with useful news on the vexed climate-catastrophe front: Empirically grounded technology forecasts and the energy transition. Out-take: “…we find that compared to continuing with a fossil fuel-based system, a rapid green energy transition is likely to result in trillions of net savings.” We global-warming-activists have really missed a trick in not presenting it, from day one, as a major business opportunity.
But those are just numbers and abstractions. The physical reality is complex and subtle and terrifying. You get a deep sense for it in The Alaskan wilderness reveals the past and the future, from The Economist.
I was fascinated by The Thorny Problem of Keeping the Internet’s Time, in which no less than the New Yorker features NTP, the protocol and software by which any computer connected to the Internet knows the right time to within a tiny fraction of a second off what the best atomic clocks say. What’s interesting here isn’t NTP itself, but the people who’ve built and run it, and most of all, the way the world of geekery is presented in a prestigious publication addressed at intelligent non-technical people.
I send money to the New Yorker every month and it’s not because occasionally they glance at my profession, it’s because of things like The Egg Men, which is about the people who make your breakfast in Vegas. Really, you want to read this.
I will freely admit to having felt somewhat dislocated by the recent death of Her Majesty, a shiny distant presence as long as I’ve lived. Also I find myself entirely unenchanted with my nation’s nominal head of state being a “King”. In related news, check out On maintaining monarchical succession by the estimable Eleanor Janega, who has appeared before in this space. Her narrative starts in the 1300s (ever heard of Charles IV?) then then moves right along to September 2022. As I said at the top, entertaining and edifying stuff.
I don’t seem to be able to stay away from Popular Physics and one reason is the work of Sabine Hossenfelder, who keeps publishing things that are too juicy not to link to. Here’s a double dose: No one in physics dares say so, but the race to invent new particles is pointless in the Guardian and I’ve said it all before but here we go again, on her blog. The latter gets interestingly into Science culture, in particular the part of it that’s mad at Dr H about writing things like the Guardian piece, which accuses the particle-physics community being expensively off the rails.
Returning readers know my fanboy focus on the Dark Matter problem, best summarized as “The math says it should be there but we can’t find it, so are we looking in the wrong place or do we need different math?” I keep looking at the “MOND” (different gravity math) alternative to the “ΛCDM” (it’s there, keep looking) “standard” model of cosmology. I freely confess that, first of all, I lack the education and smarts on which to base any opinion of my own and second, that MOND appeals to me because I like plucky underdogs. But in fact a large majority of actual professional Physicists still think the Dark Matter is there and that we’ll find it eventually.
In particular, two of my intellectual heroes, Katie Mack and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, have both recently made it clear that they’re with the majority on this one, so maybe I should dial back that plucky-underdog thing. In particular I recommend Ms Mack’s We've made a map of dark matter but still don't know what it is, and that's okay. Listen to a professional, not me.
J.R.R. Tolkien is having a zeitgeist surge these days, thanks to the Rings of Power series, which I watched the season finale of earlier this evening. I’m glad they made it, but it could sure stand to move faster. Anyhow, this isn’t about that, it’s about Tolkien’s use of certain English words. Turns out J.R.R. was once employed as an OED sub-editor and if you don’t know what “OED” stands for, you probably won’t be that stimulated by Wan, dim, and pale: the OED and Tolkien from 2016. If you do know about and admire the OED, this will probably be pure brain candy. Disclosure: I know the author, former former OED co-chief-editor Ed Weiner, with whom I have occasionally shared adult beverages and other good times. Just an extra-nice human being.
The OED is a large text, and I guess that’s a bit of a weak segue into another flavor of brain candy: How do you arrange for large chunks of text to occupy smaller areas of computer memory and network bandwidth? Large Text Compression Benchmark digs way into that issue and has numbers: The benchmark winner was a surprise to me.
Let’s do some politics. I would argue that Laurie Penny is perhaps the world’s leading launcher (in English at least), of razor-sharp and funny polemics directed at those who deserve what they get. In the current British Conservative Party she has been handed an extremely soft target, and I can’t imagine anyone with even a basic understanding of the UK scene not laughing with pure pleasure at some of the chunks of bleeding flesh she rips out in Front row at the slow death of the Tory party.
It’s personal and political, with an exquisite and ruthless sensitivity to British issues of class. Oh my goodness gracious. Never get Ms Penny mad at you. I can’t resist a couple of out-takes:
“… I was expecting Tories … And I don’t mean ordinary people who happen, for reasons that presumably make sense to them, to vote conservative. I mean professional Tories. People in the club. The difference does matter, because part of the way the scam works is by getting the rest of us to believe that there isn’t one, that somehow we are all spiritually akin to the enforcement wing of the British class system. But the Tory party is no longer a safe bet for anyone who either wants to work in government or wants their government to work. That means that the only people left on the flaming deck of this clown ship are some luckless political grifters who were too slow to make it to the lifeboats – or sheer raving ideologues.”
“The leader’s speech, when it comes, is like watching someone commit ritual suicide with a cake fork on live television.”
Let’s stay politically attuned while while we consider Wikipedia’s Fox News Problem. A strongly-enforced Wikipedia rule is that you can’t put anything in without citation from a reliable source. So the problem is: What exactly is a “reliable source”? Is Fox News one of those? Since Wikipedia has become central to the gathering and dissemination of humanity’s knowledge, this is a very important subject.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a figure to reckon with and much has been written about her, deservedly. AOC's Fight for the Future, in GQ, probably won’t deepen your understanding of her political program that much, but you’ll get to know her better, and she’s interesting. But the reason I’m linking here is that GQ means fashion photography, and the pictures here are beyond fabulous. It helps that AOC is easy on the eyes and has first-rate fashion sense.
In the 5½ years I spent as an Amazon employee I learned a whole lot about how to manage an organization. Bypassing the issue of whether you approve of Amazon, or think we ought to take the ship up and nuke the site from orbit, or both, there is no doubt that it is a well-managed company. I thought maybe the the most important management tool I learned was the Amazon Six-Pager. These documents usually take the form of a “PR/FAQ”. If you want to learn about those, I recommend Putting Amazon’s PR/FAQ to Practice.
Oh, hey, I haven’t touched on music yet. This instalment is entirely music for old people, like me. I was grazing on YouTube live-concert videos when some quirk of the algorithm led me to Supertramp - Live in London / 1977. At one point I shared a student house with multiple Supertramp fans; it was never really my kind of music but I enjoyed their composition and orchestration. Anyone whose musical memory reaches back to the Seventies will remember some of these tunes with a smile.
Back just before Covid I wrote up how much I’d enjoyed Nick Mason’s “Saucerful of Secrets” tour; Nick is Pink Floyd’s drummer and this tour covers the pre-Dark Side Floyd canon which is a lot of very fine music. Anyhow, at the concert I attended, when they were about to play Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, Nick cracked a joke about this guy he played a lot with who was a wonderful songwriter but hogged the gong, but on this tour Nick gets to play the gong. Well, check out Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets “Set The Controls” Beacon Theater, NY w/Roger Waters (4-18-2019); Nick tells a variation on the joke where he talks about this wonderful songwriter who was a really great gong player, then Roger Waters strolls on stage, sings Set the Controls very nicely and yes, takes fiendish glee in hammering the hell out of the big gong. It’s a fine performance! Yes, I know Roger Waters is a troll, but if I refused to listen to music produced by unpleasant people it’d make me very sad.
Here’s a treasure: The Unbearable Peace, by John le Carré, in Granta. I have no idea when it was published, but it has a postscript by le Carré dated 1991. It’s a sad, beautiful story about a Swiss soldier you never heard of who became a spy for the Soviet Russians.
Let’s finish up by visiting Stewart Brand, one of the most interesting people in the world. “Life Goes On” With Stewart Brand is just an interview in which he talks about what he’s worked on and what he thinks about. I think reading it left me a little wiser.