Monday, March 28, 2016

Elizabeth I: A Machiavellian Prince

     B. W. Beckingsale. Elizabeth I (1963) A well done survey of Elizabeth’s life, emphasising the political life. Early on she learned that it was dangerous to let her personal life intersect with her role as Queen, and she very nearly destroyed herself as Queen when early in her reign Dudley’s ambitions outran her affection. But for most of her reign, she was a skilled administrator and exploiter of the existing political structures. On the record, she achieved pretty well everything she wanted. She listened to her advisors, but she was not ruled by them. She was the first monarch to understand the power of public opinion, and she cultivated it, so that what she appeared to be often cloaked what she did. She died leaving behind an England more prosperous, secure and peaceful than she found it.
     I think Elizabeth was a Machiavellian Prince.  She saw her duty to maintain peace and good order and to defend against foreign incursions. She governed her realm well, relying on the love of her subjects as well as the skill and wisdom of her advisors to maintain absolute power. But that power was beginning to shift to Parliament, and none of her successors were able to act as she did. Charles I lost his head trying to do so. She was willing to do what was needed, although there were times when it was not easy: she dithered about signing Mary, Queen of Scots execution warrant, and never gave the actual order to carry it out; that was done by the bureaucrats, acting on the authority implicit in the warrant.
     We will never know how much her sense of duty to the realm cost her. Power is seductive, but I think there’s enough evidence in Elizabeth’s actions and recorded words to show that she saw power as a means to an end, not an end in itself. She was capable of great personal sympathy and friendship towards people outside the power-structures of the court. But she also maintained a strict rule over her Maids of Honour.
      Beckingsale is very good at keeping to a clear narrative, introducing asides but never letting them obscure the central plot.  In the end, we understand both the legend, which persists to this day, Elizabeth’s role in developing it, and the reality which underlay it and which it often hid. The book is one in a series that were popular post-WW2, when people aspired to an education that still aimed at the cultivated individual. It was clearly intended as supplementary reading in secondary and post-secondary schools, as well as for the “interested layman”, that semi-mythical creature that provided a ready and profitable market for the publishers. Well-done of its kind. The book is out of print. I found a copy 30-odd years ago, and it languished on Jon’s bookshelves until I read it. ***

The Style of the Century (not really)

     Bevis Hillier. The Style of the Century (2nd edition, 1998) I can’t tell the intended audience of this book. The title suggests a systematic overview, but Hillier’s narrative is personal and unbalanced. He did a study of Art Deco (he claims he coined the term), and provides a good deal of interesting information about its development and revival in the 1970s. But on the other styles, Hillier gives us what amounts to gossip. He’s not only a name-dropper, he’s incurious about anything done outside his circle. The result is finally unsatisfying. For example, he know little about cars, so the interchange between car styling and consumer design generally isn’t discussed. Most of Hillier’s examples, especially the ones he chooses to illustrate, are on the fringes of fashion and had little influence on the styles of the century.
     As a source-book of some of the more outre attempts by designers and stylists, the book has value, especially since Hillier was an active player. He curated a number of exhibitions and shows, and knew many of the artists. But as an overview of how styles developed, he’s unreliable. He ignores how and why fashion develops into style. He’s oblivious to the interesting question of why some fashions remain mere passing fads and others  define a style. The final chapter, written by Kate McIntyre is a more systematic survey of the last two decades of the 20th century. But its chief interest is the predictions that turned out to be wrong. **½

Friday, March 25, 2016

Imperial Russia 1801-1917: too slow to reform

     Michael Karpovich. Imperial Russia 1801-1917 (1932) A college text, designed for beginners. It’s bland, uses a lot of impersonal language, and avoids details such as statistics. It assumes the student has a historical atlas handy. I suppose including portraits and maps would have upped the cost.
     I learned a few things about the reforms enacted during the time period, and got some hints as to why they failed, and why they didn’t proceed more rapidly. Aside from the economic and technical obstacles to more rapid reform, the main reason was the Tsars’ inability or unwillingness to push the reforms through. Even autocrats have limited powers; they depend on public opinion and the support of the nobility.
     The author clearly sympathises with pre-Communist Russia, and softpedals the awful conditions of serfdom, or the nastiness of corruption authorised by legal entitlements. The landowning nobility paid no taxes, for example. No modern state can survive that kind of thing.
     The reformers began as little more than debating societies. Later, more widespread education and the establishment of local councils designed to administer some local matters brought more lower class people into the Reform movements. These newcomers were more interested in practical politics, and the more extreme ones advocated overthrow of the existing autocratic order. They got their wish in 1917. But autocracy didn’t die, it simply put on new clothes.
     I have two takeaways: a) autocracy is difficult to change because the privileges are too great for the autocrat and his supporters to give up easily; and b) Russians like autocrats.
     An interesting read, it filled a few gaps in my knowledge. **½

Schrödinger’s Kittens

     John Gribbin. Schrödinger’s Kittens (1995) Gribbin’s follow-up to his In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, an earlier attempt to explain quantum mechanics. Here, he begins with an overview of the weird results of experiments inspired by various interpretations of QM, and an overview of several attempts to explain the weirdness. He focusses on non-locality, as evidenced in entanglement for example. Non-locality appears to require an instantaneous exchange of information: If you determine the polarisation of one electron, the other instantly “collapses” into the complementary polarisation.
     And so on.
     I’ll note in passing that Gribbin spends a lot of time debunking the Copenhagen Interpretation (CI), which he claims requires a conscious observer. I don’t think it does, but let that pass. Either way, the CI interpretation relies on the metaphor of collapsing probability waves.
     Gribbin’s first insight, with which I agree, is that interpretations are metaphors or analogies. The question is of what? Gribbin says “Models!”, by which he means theories. And fails to see that Models is another metaphor. But he does say a couple of useful things about the relationship between theories (or models) and what they purport to explain, in particular that they are stories that we make up in order to make sense of our observations. I don’t think he emphasises enough that these stories are told in mathematics.
     His second insight follows from the fact that all experiments, and hence the theories that explain them, deal with a limited set of variables. Hence the models based on them are limited. An experiment is a deliberate reduction of degrees of freedom, aka variables. Hold as many variables as possible constant, and see what happens when you mess with the rest, preferably just one if you can manage it. You will create a model of just one aspect of reality (whatever it is). E.g., the laws of motion don’t concern themselves with the chemical properties of the objects whose motion they describe.
     So which of the many models of reality embodied in QM and its interpretations is “true”? They all are, says Gribbin, as far as they go. Which one goes farthest?
     Gribbin plumps for string theory, which was fairly new in 1995, and Cramer’s transaction interpretation, which hasn’t gained as much traction as string theory has. Cramer points out that a key equation in QM has two solutions, one of which implies that “waves” propagate backwards in time. Cramer argues that both forward and backward propagating waves are real. They cancel out, so to speak, so the experiments that reveal them show non-locality. Gribbin claims that this “myth for our time” resolves the paradoxes and weirdnesses of QM.
     Well, it made sense while I was reading it.
     Throughout his book, Gribbin, like other scientists who’ve offered interpretations of QM, talks as if theories are descriptions of reality. He does this even when he reminds us that any theory that works is true only as far as it goes. Thus the Rutherford atom works just fine in chemistry, which deals with the interactions of the electrons that surround the atom. Newton’s equations work just fine for small jaunts into space. The notion of a photon as a wave works for certain experiments, and not for others.
     By “works”, I infer that Gribbin means “predicts observations accurately to the desired degree of precision”. Gribbin neither states this concept explicitly nor examines what it might mean. I think he doesn’t think about what a model is. I’ve built models, so I’m acutely aware that a model is not a replica of its prototype. You can get close, as with a model steam locomotive that operates on steam. But its boiler will have thicker than scale-size walls because otherwise it would be too weak to hold the necessary steam pressure. Its control handles must be bigger than scale so you can work them. And so on.
     All models compromise, and in doing so they misrepresent what they model. A model is limited to the features that the modeller finds interesting and leaves out everything else. So if we declare that a theory is model, just what does that imply?
     A theory is a collection of intertwined equations that describe the possible states of some natural system and how it may change states. In this sense, a theory is a model of the system. More precisely, if it’s well enough constructed, it’s an algorithm. Input some data (say the present position and velocity of a rocket), turn the crank, and output some data (the position and velocity of the rocket a few minutes or days or weeks from now). The simple model of rocket motion ignores the effects of wind as it rises through the atmosphere, and the effects of gravity as passes by the Moon and Mars. To fix that, more complex models are devised. Divergence between calculated and observed values requires that the model be rerun with new, actually observed values. And so on.
     In short, the model supplies information. It tells us where to look for the rocket. It’s not a description of reality, but a recipe for acquiring knowledge. But it’s limited: The Newtonian model tells us about the rocket’s velocity and location, but it doesn’t tell us how the crew is doing, and whether they will survive. For that, we need a different model (and a rather more complicated one).
     A theory is about how we can know some things about some entities. It is not a description of those entities. Philosophically, it’s epistemological, not ontological.
     So also with QM. It doesn’t tell us what an electron is, or even where it will be. It only tells where it’s been, and where it might be if you look again. The probability wave isn’t a description of all possible states of the electron, it’s a description of all possible states of our knowledge, of how likely we are to know that the electron is in any given state.
     Even if you don’t go as far down the epistemological path as I’ve gone, you still don’t know what an electron is. All we know of the electron is a list of interactions, and some recipes for predicting which interactions will be observed when and where. Those recipes are amazingly accurate. Well, they amaze people who know how difficult it is to make accurate and precise observations, which includes me. I think it’s the success of QM that tempts physicists into thinking they are talking about reality. They aren’t. They’re talking about interactions, of which observation by a human is merely one more, and which I don’t believe is privileged in any way.
     Still, the book is worth a read if you have the time. It’s a good introduction to some of the wonderful strangeness of our universe. Gribbin has continued to publish his ruminations about QM and many other topics, His website
will tell you more. The Wikipedia entry includes a complete bibliography.
     Recommended, but sometimes heavy going. ***
     Minor revisions and corrections 2016-03-29 & 2016-07-13

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Freight Cars of the 40s and 50s

     Jeff Wilson. Freight Cars of the 40s and 50s (2015) Kalmbach has a long history of publishing railway history and reference books. This is the latest iteration of its histories of North American freight cars. It doesn’t pretend to be complete, but it is comprehensive. It deals with freight car technology, then with the different types. The illustrations are all high quality. Wilson has compiled statistics by type and year, a useful guide for the modeller/operator who wants a representative collection on his layout. An good read for anyone interested in railways or technology generally, as well as modellers. ***

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Econ 101: Cost, price, and value

We often use the terms cost, price, and value interchangeably. Economists try to differentiate them. The comments below follow are a distillation and summary of other people’s ideas as I have come to understand them. I want to give them a precise content. I believe that most of us have a very poor notions of these concepts, and these poor notions are a major factor in creating the economic messes that we suffer from. We base our choices on our ideas. Ideas have consequences.

Framework: “The economy” consists of the systems we use to provide ourselves with the goods and services we need and desire. One can define the concept so that it applies to all animals, in the sense that the effort expended by the individual or the group or the hive must yield sufficient food to enable successful reproduction.

Observation: All human economies are trading systems. Regardless of how they are organised in detail, they all feature rules for exchanging goods and labour. All cultures strive for fair distribution of what we need and want. “Fair” varies somewhat between cultures, but all on the one hand promote fair exchange, and on the other hand punish cheating. All strive for equitable distribution of goods, and what inequality exists is justified by appeals to ideas about worth and social roles. Too much inequality creates social stresses that sooner or later cause political strife. In all cultures, economic and political power are intertwined.

Cost: The quantity of resources needed to make something or to provide some service. At the level of the economy, that is of trade, “cost” is some combination of energy (including human labour) and materials. Cost includes waste disposal, which ranges from waste as new resource (eg, gardening), to a variable fraction of the input cost, to waste as the largest component of cost (eg, nuclear power plants). Technology affects cost, because technological improvement is driven by a desire to reduce costs.

Price: The measure of cost. In a monetised economy it is stated in a currency, such as dollars. Through most of human history, economies were not monetised, trading was done without the convenience of pricing goods and services. Non-monetised pricing survived for a long time. When I was a boy, the cost of travel was measured in time, even when it was paid-for transport.

Archaeological evidence suggests that currency began as a system of IOUs sometime around 4,000 BCE. Clay seals were used to identify goods owed in an incomplete transaction, and clay tags were used to record taxes owing. It’s easy to speculate that the next step was for such seals to become objects of trade themselves. The final step would be inventing some abstract measure of price, such a gold. But the early history of money is not well understood.

Value: The measure of the buyer’s need or desire. In a monetised economy, value, like price, is stated in a currency. If a buyer assesses a price as equal to or less than the value, there will be an incentive to buy. The “law of supply and demand” is about value, not cost.

Trade is asymmetrical. For the seller the goods have a lower value than for the buyer. Needs and desires are mediated and modified by cultural variables such as obligations and status. Cost is also a factor; the desire to reduce the work of making something for oneself will raise the value of ready-made goods.


Measurement of Costs: Ultimately, since the production of raw materials requires energy, all cost reduces to energy. This observation implies that cost reduces to physics. In principle, it would be possible to state the cost entirely in terms of energy. “Carbon footprint”, usually stated as tonnes of CO2, is an attempt to state cost in fundamental terms. Since some quantity of CO2 represents a fixed quantity of energy, it’s a proxy for energy. It’s a complicated calculation, and inevitably incomplete and more or less uncertain. But it has the virtue of getting us thinking about cost in material terms.

The Role of Government, among many others, is to price externalities. There are three methods of doing this: regulate the storage and disposal of waste; collect fees for raw materials; and vary taxes on goods. Both producers and consumers resist these methods, but without them goods will be underpriced, which will distort the market.

Prices, Markets, Profits, and Sustainability: In an ideal market, price would be an accurate representation of cost. In practice, that doesn’t happen. The main reason is the cost of externalities, which are defined as unpriced costs. Hence the producer does not pay them, and they are not included in the price of the product. Another reason is the misconception about the role of profit. When inputs are priced, the seller must sell at a higher price than he paid. The difference, raw profit, pays for his input, often termed “added value”. Profit pays for the continued operation of the business, that is, his and his employees’ livelihoods, operation and maintenance of the plant, research and development, and future capital costs. In a share-holder owned company, profit also pays the shareholders a return on their investment.

The Temptation is to demand a greater profit than is needed to pay for continued operation of the business or a reasonable interest to the share holders. So on the one hand, omitting the cost of externalities underprices some goods, which leads to choices that distort the consumer market. On the other hand, excess profit overprices some goods and so sequesters capital, which distorts the capital market. Either way, the economy as a whole fails to operate correctly, and in the long run it will fail to provide a sustainable basis for human life.


Improbable Research (link)

    The Ig-Nobel prizes are awarded by the Improbable Research people, whose web presence is here. If you like the truth that is stranger than fiction, that's a great place to visit.

Monday, March 21, 2016

HO Railroad That Grows

     Linn Westcott. HO Railroad That Grows (2nd ed, 1972) First published as a series of articles in Model Trains, the book is a nostalgia trip. The hobby has changed enormously since then, but the spectacular technical changes are I think less important than the changes in philosophy. Beginners now learn that they should define their interests, and then consider how a given layout design may meet them. Are they model builders? Train watchers? Operators? Do they want prototypical accuracy, or an invented world? What are their craft skills? And so on. They also have many more resources in local clubs or groups of modellers who welcome newbies and help them avoid mistakes.
      The book leads the reader from an oval (carefully constructed so that future changes entail the least possible effort) to a complicated spaghetti-bowl of a layout on which two trains can be operated through a town, a tunnel, over several bridges, and around two reversing loops so that a train can go round and round clockwise, and then counter clockwise, and then clockwise again. A couple of industrial sidings offer switching, but there’s no discussion of how to operate train.
      Westcott’s strength is his  conversational step-by-step instruction. He  explains why some things are done with the future in mind. He warns about possible glitches, and suggests alternatives. He covers every aspect of layout building. Builders were invited to submit photos of their versions The book includes three of them, sadly not of high enough quality to allow study of the owners’ interpretations of Westcott’s advice.
      This book was a game changer, I think. It made the building of a layout less daunting: at every step,  it would look finished. It inculcated the sense that a layout could be rebuilt any time in any way you liked. More recent books about Model Railroader’s project layouts include a chapter on operations. That’s the only lack here. Even if one will never build this particular layout, the book is worth reading. It’s short, clear, and could well inspire one to start. Out of print, but used copies may be found here and there. **½

Friday, March 11, 2016

Ig Nobel Prizes

     Marc Abrahams. The Ig Nobel Prizes 2 (2005) Another find at the PYS. Abrahams founded the Ig Nobel Prizes with the help of small group of like-minded people, all apparently connected to the Annals of Improbable Research, which you can find at here.
     The ceremony takes place at Harvard. Many of the awards are for real research, some of it done as a hobby, some of it done merely because it could be done, some done for reasons that remain obscure. The Ig Nobel Committee has also given Igs to groups that claim improbable results, such as the CEOs of several tobacco companies, who testified to Congress that nicotine was not addictive. The ceremony includes the making and launching of paper airplanes by the audience, and their return by the people on the stage. There is usually an entertainment, often an opera written to celebrate one of the Igs.
     Most recipients are happy to come and receive their prizes, and most participate in Ig Nobel tours in various parts of the world. The list of prizes records the unquenchable spirit of inquiry, for the most part, and the willingness to obfuscate and mislead for the rest. Abrahams displays a dry wit, but is scrupulously fair in narrating who did and who did not attend, and why (if known). It’s noteworthy that every If Nobel ceremony so far has enjoyed the assistance of Nobel Laureates.
     There’s Canadian Content: Troy Hurtubise of North Bay, Ontario, worked on a bear-proof suit, taking it up to the Mark VII model. He is the only Ig Nobel winner of two Igs.
     An excellent and entertaining reference book. Recommended. ***

Herman, shlemiel extraordinaire

     Jim Unger. The Second Herman Treasury (1980) Herman is shlemiel, a sad sack, the target of fate’s indignities, with enough sly wit to triumph over the occasional assault on his comfort. Like Gary Larson, Unger takes everyday situations a logical step or two beyond common sense to an absurdly real place.
     Eg, two hikers laden with huge backpack: “We forgot the food” says one. Diner to waiter, holding a lobster meal: “Take that back to the cook. It’s already eaten half the french fries.” Wife to husband sitting at table, his head charred and smoking: “The recipe says a pinch of spice. I thought it said pound”.  Man to wife: “I just bought this pack of batteries, and it says Batteries not included.” Teller to would-be bank robber: “Read it yourself. Its says, Dozen eggs, bread, milk, chocolate chip cookies.”
     Found it at the Permanent Yard Sale (PYS), paid a loonie, worth much more. ***

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Brooklyn (2015)

      Brooklyn (2015) [D: John Crowley. Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domnhall Gleeson.] Eilis Lacey goes to America at the cost and urging of her sister Rose. There, she suffers from home-sickness and loneliness, then meets Tony Fiorello, a nice lad whom she marries the day before she returns to Ireland for a friend’s wedding. She almost decides to stay, but she goes back home to Brooklyn.
     The movie’s a romance with more edge than one might expect. The plot is cliche-ridden, most of the characters stereotypes, the dialogue straightforward and sometimes trite. Nevertheless, the movie works. It does so because it takes itself just seriously enough that we engage with the characters and believe Eilis as a young woman who must decide between yielding to her yearning for Ireland and her desire for her new life in America. The story’s about how the new country becomes home, and the old country a place to visit. Its mood and ambience, the willingness to look at (but not dwell on) pain and darkness, the insistence on hope, these remind me of a Maeve Binchy novel.
     Acting, photography, narrative pace are very good. Occasionally, the movie teeters on the edge of sentimentality, but its central theme, that one’s happiness has a price that other people must also pay, is one worth remembering. The music is occasionally intrusive. It’s almost two hours long, but felt shorter. A good evening’s entertainment, but probably not to everyone’s taste. **½

Criminal Sisters

    Marilyn Wallace, ed. Sisters in Crime 4 (1991) A collection, as you might guess. The stories for the most part rely on plot twists and shaggy-dog style denouements. A few examine the psychology of killers, but most focus on the puzzles, with little mercy or empathy shown for the perps, or even the victims. Several muse on the difference between law and justice. The mood ranges from the flip to the creepy dark. The ones that feature series characters rely on the reader’s knowledge. All are well-written, nicely done entertainments, worth a read if short mysteries are to your taste. Several of the authors, e.g. Grafton and McCrumb, still produce reliably well-done mysteries. I found the book on the used-book shelves of the local permanent yard-sale, worth more than the quarter I paid for it. The inside covers show portraits of all the writers, it's nice to have faces for names. ** to ***

Wednesday, March 02, 2016


      Lapham’s Quarterly VIII/4: Fashion Lewis Lapham, sometime editor of Harper’s, has persuaded a number of friends to finance his eponymous periodical. Each issue offers text and pictures about a single topic. I subscribe to it, and dip into my copies from time to time. This one I read all the way through, perhaps because I had aspirations to dandyism at one time (which competing interests and lack of money fortunately prevented me from realising). Or perhaps because the collection of writings and images, spanning some 3000 years, prove that clothing, understood as adornment of the body, is a species-defining trait.
     All human societies have customs and conventions defining what adornments may be worn by whom and on what occasions. Textiles have enabled us to indulge and elaborate this urge to remake ourselves as we imagine ourselves. Religionists have objected on many different grounds, but they all boil down to the same one: we use our clothing and other  adornments to create an image of ourselves as we wish to be seen and respected. Self-image is the essence of individuality. Religion always attempts to reduce the role of self-image because the more we measure our worth in terms we define ourselves, the less we heed the strictures of the religionists.
     So it should be no surprise that fashion, which is the purest mode of appearance as self-image, should everywhere be both followed and derided, if not worse. As usual, Lapham and his staff have assembled what amounts to materials for a course of study. That it is also vastly entertaining ensures that the sympathetic or curious reader will be well educated. Highly recommended. ****