Five books: historical fiction

By historical fiction, here I don't just mean novels that are set in the past, but more specifically, accounts of actual events and people, but that are not strictly historical. While the main story is real, the author takes the liberty of imagining the details like thoughts, conversations, relationships, even some side characters. These details of course can't be known for sure but imagining them allows us to access a deeper truth. Here are some of my favorites in the genre:

  • Mémoires d'Hadrien by Marguerite Yourcenar. A brilliant imagining of the inner thoughts of the great Roman emperor. I read it a pretty young age, having found it while browsing the bookshelf out of sheer boredom. At the time I didn't really read this kind of stuff but to my surprise I ended up completely engrossed.  Much later in life, I came to appreciate stoic tradition, which makes me appreciate it even more in hindsight.
  • Léon l'Africain by Amin Maalouf.  Imaginary "auto-biography" of Ibn Battuta aka Leo Africanus. A great explorer who traveled a huge part of the Africa, Europe, and Asia, and had many incredible adventures. Everyone learns about Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus etc. But this guy should really be covered more.
  • Samarcande by Amin Maalouf. Another fantastic book by Maalouf, describes the life and times of Omar Khayyam, a great poet of the middle ages.  The city of Samarkand still exists, in present day Uzbekistan. It's fascinating to think that this place,  which we think of as so remote nowadays, was once a major world city, the equivalent of Paris or New York today.
  • Burr by Gore Vidal. The story of Aaron Burr, the second vice-president of the US, famous for having killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. I read this a long time ago, before the current Hamilton craze, and never formally studied American history in school, so  knowing more about Burr than Hamilton gives me an unusual perspective.  Very vivid description of life in the early 19th century New York. Every time I pass by  Jumel Mansion, I remember this book.
  • Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Imagine real life in the times of Buddha, how people lived and what they thought. Very wise book, historical, spiritual, took me a while to appreciate this gem.


What is "good for the environment"?

Consider two pretty obvious statements. First, living in dense cities is much more energy efficient than living in rural areas, especially in cold places where you need heating. Second if we had 1,000 cities the size of New York City, that would be all of humanity, and they would only occupy a small fraction of the earth's surface. A somewhat larger fraction would be used for producing food and extracting some resources but  the vast majority of land on earth could be devoid of humans.  Yet, for years, I've been surprised at how often people are surprised by these points. Somehow, people assume that cities are bad for nature and that living in a rustic rural cabin or hut, using wood fires for energy is more friendly toward nature. Obviously the flaw in such reasoning is that they are thinking not of humanity as it exists today or in the future, but subconsciously going back to a time when there were very few humans, and so it didn't matter if we were extremely wasteful of resources. Of course the reason there were few humans is that most of them died very quickly.  It's a  "wet streets cause rain" type of reasoning that is surprisingly prevalent.

Another bit of inanity is that many people believe using bio-fuels is "good for the environment". Indeed the US government mandates blending corn ethanol in gasoline.  This is good for corn farmers, and good for politicians who depend on them, and maybe even good if you think foreign oil is a problem.  But in fact, when compared to just using gasoline without corn ethanol,  it results in an increase in green house gas emissions, not a decrease.   Yet the belief that it's good for the environment persists.

A new book, Apocalypse Never, by Michael Shellenberger covers  these as well as many other such points, in making a very good case that the current global alarmism around climate change is doing more harm than good.  Normally, the title and the marketing of the book would have turned me off. The last thing I want is more political BS from climate change deniers.  But this book is not that at all. The author not only agrees with the conventional view that the climate is changing due to greenhouse gas emissions, but he's actually one of the pioneers in the space.  Second what actually made me notice the book in the first place was that people were trying to get it banned or de-platformed. Which naturally kind of proves the point that he's making. And it made me want to look into it. (So maybe giving it a provocative title is a good strategy after all!).  Which I don't regret.

He also does a good job debunking the idea of "extinction of humanity". Of course we won't go extinct because of global warming. Isn't it enough to say it will cause a huge problem and enormous suffering? Similarly "saving the planet" is misguided hyperbole. The planet will still exist, even if it's boiling hot or completely frozen, and certainly more CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature changes of a few degrees are no big deal on a geological timescale. So this is just misguided and confused language that is counter-productive. It's like when people scream about "genocide" whenever there's some political violence or war that is ethnically motivated.  Constantly calling everything a genocide is not helping the cause of peace.  Similarly saying that smoking a joint is exactly the same as a heroin overdose is not helping kids avoid drugs.   

If you care about solutions and the well-being of humanity, you should be more precise in your thinking. What we care about is how we live, and what we mean by "we" is critical. The book does a good job of explaining this and the underlying basic concepts, perhaps the most important of which is "energy transitions", and he generally summarizes the science and arguments pretty fairly 

Still there are a  few points where I disagree with it, three in particular.

First, in a section on the "Tragedy of the commons", a paper and concept with which I'm intimately familiar, he  seems to imply that the "tragedy" in the paper is uncontrolled breeding of humans, which is inaccurate. But the "tragedy" is that when shared pasture land (aka commons) is not properly managed to align incentives, that leads to over-grazing and destruction of the shared resource. The real legacy of that classic paper is about mechanism design, pricing, property rights etc. But Schellenberger seems to reduce this classic insight to just the Malthusian aspect. This is a rather small technicality and doesn't change the main point he's making so I can give it a pass.

The second one is a much more serious problem. In discussing solar power he says "the achievable power density of a solar farm" is "up to" 50 watts/m2 (p. 188). But the solar constant is 1.37kw/m2 and the maximum solar energy on the surface of the earth is about 1,000 watts/m2. So he's assuming solar conversion achieves 5% efficiency at best. But this is not true, as we can see from this chart, we're at about 20-30% now and gaining about ten percentage points per decade, as I've written about before.  So his take is really unduly pessimistic about the future of  solar power.

Third, he makes a really good case for nuclear power for electricity generation. But he fails to address what to me is the strongest argument against it. Chernobyl and Fukushima are "supposed" to happen once every few hundreds of years.  But if we do a Bayesian update on those priors, the probabilities are much worse than advertised. Or to put it more simply: How come no nuclear power plant can get private insurance? If the risks are as low and manageable as he and other advocates claim, then one should be able to get free market insurance for it. But that has never happened.  I used to be pro-nuclear power, but I've become more skeptical over the years. And despite devoting a lot of the book to it, Schellenberger didn't quite convince me.

Overall, this is a good book, it helps the reader think of many of the questions in a more holistic way, and paints a coherent big picture of environmental humanism. Recommended reading.


Proof of royal blood

I have royal blood. I'm a direct descendant of one of the great kings in the history of the world. I am sure of it. Pretty cool eh? 

Which one, you ask? Well, ahem, I just mean I'm mathematically almost sure I am a descendant of a great king. And so are you.  

Here's the proof. First, like everyone, (except clones if there are any)  I have 2 biological parents, 4 grandparents, ...,  2^n direct ancestors n generations back. This is not an estimate, it is a precise fact. Second, I am not a descendent of extra-terrestrials, so I must have human ancestors on earth who were around at all points in human history. Now  let's take say n=30. That would be about 1000 years ago.  That means I have 2^30 that is about 1 billion ancestors that existed then. Woah. But the world population was only a few hundred million. So how is that possible? How can you fill a billion positions on my family tree, which, remember *must* exist, when there are only a few hundred million humans in existence. Obviously it's because the same person must fill multiple slots. If there was 100M people  let's say, then each one on average must appear 10 times. Of course, some get more than average and some get less. It's like a lottery. And the odds of each person on earth getting many slots in my tree are directly related to how many children, grandchildren etc they had. Obviously most kings have more descendants than the average person by far. Not only do they have more kids, their kids are more likely to survive and so on. Therefore in that lottery if the average human appears ten times then the average king who existed 1000 years ago must appear way more than 10 times. Therefore I have lots of kings at n=30.  Now if we keep going, as n gets larger, each king gets exponentially growing number of lottery tickets to win places in the tree. If you add it all up, the probability that I have at least one great king approaches 100%. QED.

P.S. I first read a version of this argument in a magazine article years ago, I think it was Harper's or something, will try to find it and give credit.

P.P.S. The picture is of King David (I love how it looks like "Dawit" but I think it actually says "Davidus"), from the Nine Worthies in the Palazzo Trinci, Italy, circa 1410.


Pray for me: bossa nova Bob

Deep in the second hour of "The Bedroom Tapes", there is a song called "Pray for me". Today for the first time I listened to a cleaned up version. Though the quality is still terrible, genius shines through. The Jazz guitar ending is ... So sweet and unexpected.   I play it again, and realize it's all jazzy, bossa nova. Wow. World's colliding.  After all. these. years. Yet another dimension of Bob ... A gem within a gem within a gem.


A few years ago, I stumbled upon the amazing "Bedroom Tapes". This morning I was thinking about police brutality, injustice and so on, as one is wont to do these days, and I remembered the song "Jailbreaker" from those tapes:

The jury found me guilty
But I found them guilty too
I'm a Jailbreaker, hotstepper

As they take him to the gallows, an old priest says to him:

Son, I know you haven't  done wrong,
What a pity the things of today,
good got to suffer for the bad
But the townspeople were singing: he's a Jailbreaker

Powerful stuff. Jesus going to the cross. Where are these images coming from? I realize the images playing in my mind are from  "The Master and Margarita".... I've been rereading it over the last few months.

But then Bob goes on:

Old priest get out of the way
You don't know what I've had 
Watch this,  I'm a Jailbreaker
You can call me a hotstepper
Babylon get nervous, 
They know we've got to tear it apart