A Most Incomprehensible Thing; Peter Collier; 2012; Incomprehensible Books; 333 pgs, bibliography, index
This is the best book on General Relativity (GR) that I have read. It took me four tries to get all the way through it. Each time it got a little easier. Normally, I would describe the contents of the book in notes form so that I could review the book again later. I cannot do that here for several reasons. There is a lot of math. You need special software to typeset math. You cannot begin to understand GR without it. But I cannot even write down his famous equation (it is actually quite short, only 9 characters long, with proper assumptions), or any of the mathematical statements because they are hip deep Greek letters, superscripts, subscripts, indexes, tensors and mathematical operators.
For the record, I got through 2nd year university mathematics before switching to computer science. I thought myself quite good at math in high school (# 2 in the school, as I recall), but that is a far cry from the mathematics needed for GR. You must be familiar with basic calculus to get very far in this book.
The mathematics of GR is called "differential geometry" and it is based on tensors. Tensors were difficult for Einstein, so I do not feel bad that I find them hard too. A tensor is a lot like a matrix. Matrices can be added and multiplied etc much like ordinary numbers. A matrix is a tensor if after any valid tensor operations or transformations, a certain calculated value derived from the tensor always remains unchanged. That value can be thought of as the "distance" between two points… also called "the metric". Part of what Einstein did is formulate several possible metrics that conform to his GR principle.
Here is what GR says: Space tells matter how to go; Matter tells space how to bend. That is it really.
We live in a flat Euclidian world. We can carve up our world using a simple coordinate system to locate things in time and space, and we use Pythagoras' famous equation for the metric. We need to add one more space term because we live in a three dimensional world, and another for time, but it works exactly the same as original 2D Pythagorean formula we all learned in high school. You will often see the time coordinate multiplied by "c", the speed of light, but that is just an artifact of a units choice. If you measure speed as a fraction of "c", the "c" disappears.
GR is extremely difficult mathematically. Finding general solutions to Einstein's equation is damn near impossible. But if simplifying assumptions can be built into the metric, things get easier. The metric in GR is the goal in many ways. The most famous one is called the Schwarzschild Metric. It describes a non-spinning, chargeless, mass in empty space. It was used to derive some of the more interesting aspects of GR, such a gravitational red shift and gravitational bending of light.
It is worth mentioning just how important one idea is to GR. This is Einstein's "happiest moment"… the realization that the Equivalence Principle must be true. Stated simply, it says there is no experiment that can be performed that can distinguish between a uniform gravity field, and uniform acceleration. One of the main reasons it took so long for the formulation of relativity is that we, walking about on the Earth, are accelerating. That is, we are not in an "inertial frame of reference", which is one that that moves at a constant velocity (i.e.: no acceleration). If we could observe everything from such a vantage, the basic laws of motion would have been blindingly obvious. From an inertial frame of reference, a hit baseball travels in a straight line forever. The fact that our frame of reference is accelerating turns it into a parabola and makes it hit the Earth.
We live in a very nearly uniform gravity field. It is not uniform, even for an ideal Earth (perfectly spherical and of uniform density), because the forces of gravity diverge a tiny bit (resulting in tides). If you drop a ball, it falls to the ground at 32 ft/sec/sec. If you are way out in space in a space ship that is accelerating at 1 G exactly, and you drop a ball, the exact same thing will happen. And there is no way (in physics) to tell the difference. This simple realization is one of the core assumptions upon which GR us built.
Mercury's perihelion (closest approach to the sun) precesses. That is, it moves very slowly, taking 225,000 years to get back to its original point. The fact that they could make these fine measurements around 1900 is astounding. Most of that precession can be explained by Newtonian calculations of the tugs of the other planets. But not all. A tiny bit was left over, and Einstein said that relativity could account for the it. This was verified. This is incredible accuracy. A second of arc is the width of a penny at 2.36 kilometers! What was at issue was 43 seconds of arc per century! And that is exactly what GR predicted.
Eddington famously went to the island if Principe in 1919 and did measurements of star positions very close to the sun during a total solar eclipse. They were deflected by the mass of the sun (which Newton would not have predicted). Space around the sun was bent, as predicted by Einstein.
I made a lot of written notes as I worked, and reworked, my way through this book. I will use them when I tackle it one more time in 5 years or so.
One does not have to be able to follow all of the math in this book. God knows I did not. But it is possible to see the math from a slightly higher perspective and understand that "this bit of the formula accounts for this, and that bit for that", etc.
Fun fact: We all know Einstein's most famous equation E=MC2 that "popped out" of Special Relativity, Namely energy equals mass times the speed of light squared (a very large number). Apparently, the derivation of this famous equation involved many pages of calculations (i.e., equation manipulation). And just when it all seemed like it was going nowhere, all the various terms canceled each other out, leaving the one equation we all recognize.
I really enjoy digging into this type of "origin, workings, and fate of the universe" physics. It is like looking the god of Spinoza right I the eye, and as close to the Rapture as I will ever get.
Mysteries and Secrets Revealed; Loren Pankratz; 2021; Prometheus Books; 325 pgs, notes, huge bibliography, index
I wrote The God Con some years ago. A central premise of the book is that organized religion is indistinguishable from a con. I argued that our early ancestors quickly discovered that you could say almost anything, and as long as you say it right, perhaps with a little "magic" thrown in, you will be believed. Belief morphs quickly into power. This book starts with the Oracle at Delphi, which is a case in point. It was a con.
I have often also argued that out ancestors were just as clever as we are. When to comes to messing with people's heads, they were probably better at it than psychics are today because their audience was much less sophisticated. I would have cited this book heavily had it been available when I wrote mine.
Loren Pankratz was a member of the BC Skeptics. He knows many of the people I admire, including Barry Beyerstein, Ray Hyman, Jerry Andrus and others. He was a past president of the Oregon Magic Society and he is a psychologist, so he is well equipped to address how old tricks were used in the old days, from the Oracle at Delphi to the Fox sisters in the 19th century. He has over 9,000 books in his basement library, and it shows in the enormous bibliography that the book contains!
If you are curious how some magic tricks work, you will not be disappointed. As a magician himself, he only reveals as much as is necessary to make the point.
One of the bits of magic (aka technology) 2,000 years ago was a speaking tube. You ask a question, and an answer seems to come from out of nowhere. It was actually a person in a different room speaking into a tube that directs the sounds into the targets earshot.
The Shrine of Bacchus was a 2,000 year old model that moved, spewed wine and spoke. It was driven by a complex set of weights, pulleys and gears. We would yawn at it today, and call it cheap animatronics. But a look inside would convince you someone spent a great deal of time working it all out.
The book's chapters are chronological. Each discusses an aspect of trickery combined with greed and power. One such con was astrology, where weasel words were invented. E.g.: Do not say "You will get X", rather say "You might get X". A noted clear thinker, Cardano, in the 1500s, said "I was born in a rare century which has come to know the whole world." He was both right and really, really wrong.
The RCC (Roman Catholic Church) plays a big role in the history of science (which they hated) and trickery (which they embraced). Galileo was famously imprisoned, and Giordano Bruno was burnt alive, for simply stating ideas. A good many of the middle chapters of the book deal with the demise if Aristotle's ideas, the evolution of scientific philosophy, and the clash between it and religion.
The first clairvoyant con artist was a guy named Didier. He spawned a whole industry of mentalism hucksters, including the Fox sisters which is where my knowledge begins (I have been reading The Skeptical Inquirer for 35 years and the Fox sisters are often raised). The Fox sisters used a number of techniques to create "rapping by the spirits". Pankrantz peels these cons apart with ease. Didier often used the "shyness effect" as an excuse when he failed. The idea is that nearby negative thoughts or energy will keep the spirits from their appointed rounds. Isn't that convenient.
As it turns out, women were more likely to become mediums. Why? Because they had an advantage. They were women, and no self respecting man of the day would admit that some female could be so clever as to pull one over on them. That was one argument for why it had to be spirits. The other was the oft repeated, and always regretted, line that appears often in various forms in history. Here is an example that referred to the "psychic" Palladino:
"… the manifestations … were clearly beyond the possibilities of any conceivable form of conjuring…"
To borrow from the Princess Bride, I don't think he knows what "conceivable" means. This kind of colossal arrogance is what keeps psychics in business.
Most of these hucksters were unable to fool scientists, such as Faraday, or trained magicians such as Robert-Houdin, and Eric Weiss (aka Houdini). Common techniques including the "down-the-nose-peek" when performing blind-folded, and code systems were used between assistant and performer for the "what am I holding" form of mentalism. The codes used were often very clever, and gave the impression of, once again, spirits.
Two chapters deal with hypnosis, which was all the rage in the 1800s.
This book is a tour through the ages as magic and con artistry evolve. The same cons used hundreds of years ago are alive and well today. Do not underestimate the cleverness of these charlatans, past or present, nor the lengths they will go to, get your money.
The book is not as long as it appears at first glance due to the length of the notes and bibliography sections. It would have benefited from a slightly larger font too (or I am just getting old).
This is a must-have book for all people of a skeptical bent.
Michael Lewis's books are never dull, and often very eye-opening. This one is no exception. This is not his best work, but still worth a look.
The book lacks an index. In today's world, one could index a book of this size in a few days. There is no excuse for not having one.
But that is a minor quibble.
Lewis' books are interesting narratives wrapped around important issues. This book is about health care and epidemics. The players are a number of really smart people surrounded by gutless, bureaucratic pencil pushers. It is difficult to summarize the story and I will not try.
Charity Dean is one of the good guys (gals, actually). Smart and insightful. Ditto Carter Mecher. They both had the courage of their convictions and were able to think outside the box.
One thing that the book makes clear from simulations and history is this: Shutting down schools is imperative in an epidemic! The CDC was against it for political reasons. We are still arguing over that today.
The book's bad buys are politicians and the CDC. The CDC is now headed by a political appointee. That is bad. When Trump hired John Bolton as a security advisor, the first thing that dim bulb did was to dismantle the epidemic threat team. When Americans were repatriated from Wuhan, the CDC declined to even test them (because they were "prisoner's"), despite the fact that they all wanted to be tested. Politicians (i.e.: Mike Pence) forbade anyone from saying anything that might alarm the public… even if it was true and important for their survival.
"Just in time manufacturing" is a broad term for using computers to anticipate demand and save money. The down side of this is that there is no depth to the system because inventories were kept at minimum levels. In other words, spikes in demand will break it. And that is what happened.
There are two ways to fight an epidemic. One is vaccination and a charge toward herd immunity. The other is to contact trace and stamp out each occurrence... a labor intensive exercise. The latter technique was used to stamp out small pox world-wide. There are now genomic tests that can rapidly identify which variant of COVID a person has. Because COVID changes over time (at a useful pace… not too fast, not too slow), testing can determine not only what you have, but also from whom you got it. The US government, and Canada's too, ignored this route. The correct thing to do is both.
The US did less genomic testing than any other advanced country in the world.
It is estimated that the Mango Mussolini is responsible for roughly 200,000 US deaths.
Snowden is a Yale University professor of Medical History. This is a big book. Five hundred pages with a small font and tight leading. It consists of 22 chapters, in chronological order, each basically dealing with a different disease and/or time period. Each chapter can be read stand-alone as a short essay.
Each essay discusses the disease; how it is transmitted; how it was dealt with, how effective those actions were; and its impact on history. I am a slow reader. The fact that this book held my interest from page one to page five hundred is telling. Even a brief summary of each chapter would make this a long document.
The book was published just before the COVID pandemic really got going. It is impossible to read it and not compare the actions of today with those of previous generations fighting other diseases.
The main diseases discussed include the black plague, small pox, yellow fever, dysentery, typhus, cholera, TB, malaria, polio, HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola.
Do you know what a bubo is? Neither did I. A bubo is a swelling and hardening of a lymph node, and it is the root word of Bubonic Plague.
It is not possible to sum up such a large volume in just a few words. So I will cherry pick a few notables.
In the beginning, there were the Humors. There were four because back then they liked that number. Four cardinal points, four winds, four seasons so… four humors. "Balancing the humors" gave us bloodletting. A really stupid idea.
Like most diseases, the Bubonic plague had multiple variants… some worse than others. The rat borne flea was the vector, but not all fleas, nor all rats, were equal. The etiology of the plague is complex, which explains why it took so long to understand it. As most people know, shipping carried the rats and fleas from port to port, creating pandemics. The locals would grasp at and blame anything and anyone that they thought might be involved… like Jews for example.
A recurring theme through history is religion sticking its nose in where it did not belong. From blaming Jews in the 1300s to burial practices used in the Ebola outbreak. Ignorance and religion made the problems much worse.
Smallpox has been eradicated. But in the past it was feared and weaponized. The reason we were able to get rid of smallpox is because it has no animal hosts in which to hide. Edward Jenner used a similar disease, cowpox , to create a vaccine-- the first in history. Smallpox is extremely nasty, and yet the objections to the vaccine then (government over reach, religion, and science denial) are the same as they are today.
In an odd turn of history, yellow fever led to the liberation of slaves on Hispaniola. It so decimated the population that fresh "unbroken" slaves had to be imported all the time. Soon, these uppity new slaves had the upper hand and the island became independent.
Disease has had huge influences on politics and war. When Napoleon drove to take Moscow, he was beaten by several factors, including typhus and dysentery.
In the 1700s, medicine started to make large advances toward the modern world. The French School was born. TB (aka consumption) was one of its targets. TB created its own fashion trend: Rail skinny women, with a grey/white pallor was the rage.
TB and cholera led to sanitation (and the Sanitary Report) that gave us modern sewers and clean streets. Cholera is passed in large part from human feces to human mouths. Staying clean became important.
In the 1800s, Louise Pasteur pushed the germ theory of disease. It was mocked by many until he developed a vaccine for anthrax, saving France from the economic ruin of their sheep and cattle dying by the thousands. Pasteur also created treatments for rabies and invented pasteurization, which saved countless lives.
With the microscope came lab medicine. Bacteria like TB could be seen under the microscope, allowing for accurate diagnosis and an interruption to the transmission chain. It also led to anti-bacterials like streptomycin.
Malaria has probably killed more than any other disease. This is because it has been around longer than any other. This make the mosquito the worst killer in history. Malaria and Yellow Fever are both mosquito borne.
Polio has proved hard to get rid of. But we are close. If we can eradicate it, it will be the second, and probably the last, disease to be thus dispatched.
The book closes with AIDS and Ebola. AIDS is mostly transmitted by heterosexual contact, not homosexual contact.
A recurring theme in the book is that disease generally hits the poor much harder than others. Genetics also play a role. For centuries, and to this day, the disadvantaged are blamed and most impacted by disease, while those less at risk turned their collective backs.
All in all, a fascinating read. My only regret is that much of it will disappear from my brain because diseases and their etiologies are very complex. Most diseases come in various strains, as we are finding out with COVID. And stupid people who avoid vaccines are part of that problem. They increase the number cases and thus the opportunity for mutations to develop.
A pox on them all.
There were three memorable bridges during WWII: 1) Pegasus Bridge, just off the D-Day beaches, which was taken by the first men to land at Normandy. It got its name from the patches worn by the soldiers who took it; 2) The bridge at Arnham, known better as "a bridge too far"; 3) The Bridge at Remagen. The three bridges were featured in the movies The Longest Day; A Bridge too Far; and The Bridge at Remagen.
In war, if you are the attacking force, you want bridges down as they are used to supply the enemies with material. But as you approach these bridges, you want them up so you can use them and they can supply you. For the defenders in retreat, bridges are blown as soon as they are crossed to slow the enemy down and choke their supply lines. Finding a major intact bridge in the heat of modern battle is rare indeed.
That all seems simple enough, but timing is everything. Hitler, ever the paranoid, insisted that bridges be blown… but only with explicit written orders from above. This created a problem, as these two requirements can be in conflict in the fog of war. Blow the bridge too soon, or without orders, and you get shot . Don’t blow the bridge in time, and you get shot. Middle tier officers were keenly aware of this at Remagen.
You may wonder about the title of the book. The actual name of the structure was the Leddendorf Railroad Bridge. To get to it from the west, you travel through the town of Remagen. Upon crossing the bridge, you are in the smaller town of Erpel. The tracks on the east side of the Rhine immediately enter an east-bound tunnel under a large cliff face that overlooks Erpel.
The Americans did not expect to find an intact bridge. Prior to their arrival, they did their level best to destroy the Luddendorf Bridge, and after their arrival, they tried to save it. The Americans were expert at building pontoon bridges, but they had a draw back. They were designed to carry Sherman tanks which had a very narrow wheel base. The Pershing tank had just arrived on scene, but its much wider wheel base could not be easily accommodated. A real bridge would be a godsend.
On paper, the bridge was reasonably well defended. But Germany was scraping the bottom of the barrel and the bridge only had 41 able men to defend it. Hitler youth and old men where there, as well as Eastern "volunteers" (slave laborers). This raised the total to about 500. The local population knew the score. They simply wanted to survive the next month or two. Desertions among the ranks were common.
The bridge had been prepared for demolition. Demolition wires ran down a steel conduit to the various bridge weak spots. Back up fuses were also in place. But no explosives! They had not arrived yet. As alluded to, a different nearby bridge had recently been destroyed too soon, and the man responsible was shot. All of the officers were well aware of the risks to them personally. This was exacerbated by a hopelessly complex and overlapping command structure. In other words, no one knew who was in true authority. When the explosives did arrive, they got 300 kilos instead of 600, and the explosives were industrial grade… considerably weaker than military grade.
When 2nd Lt. Timmermann saw that the bridge was intact, he could hardly believe it. They wasted no time in attacking. As they approached the bridge, a huge explosion created a large crater immediately in front of the west end of the bridge. This was intended as a tank trap. Artillery launched pozit shells at the bridge, and Pershings fired at the east end. "Pozit" was the name given to one of Americans secret weapons: ground proximity radar shells. The shells had a small radar device in them that caused them to explode at a set distance above the ground. These shells were incredibly effective at killing exposed enemies when they were introduced at the Battle of the Bulge. They allowed the Americans to clear the bridge of unsheltered defenders without destroying it.
The Germans knew they had little time. They had quickly prepared the bridge to blow, and they gave the order. The button was pressed and… nothing! A lucky tank shell had cut the conduit. However, the back up fuse was still in place, and through a hail of American fire, the Germans managed to set it off. The bridge disappeared inside the huge dust cloud created by the explosion. When the dust settled, it was still there! The weaker explosives failed to do the job. The Americans wasted no time in crossing the bridge on March 7th, 1945. Timmerman was the first officer was cross the Rhine.
The east end of the bridge was secured. Pershing tanks, with bulldozer blades attached, filled in the west end tank trap, and the Americans poured across. The Germans mounted several counter attacks, but were unable to dislodge the Americans. The German chain of command was all but broken.
Hitler, as always, tried to take personal control. He fired von Rundtstedt, which was not a good idea. He had V2s fired at the bridge, without effect. The German Luftwaffe expended its last trying to destroy the bridge. On March 17, the bridge, battered and beaten, simply collapsed, killing 20 or so combat engineers. The traffic load, constant explosions, demolition damage etc was finally too much for it.
That was when the Germans got busy doing what they were really good at: shooting people. A drumhead court was set up, led by one fanatical NAZI, to find and punish the guilty. Many officers were "tried" in only a few minutes, marched out the door, and shot. Bratge, the German officer who was primarily in charge of the defense of the bridge was sentenced to die too, but the Germans were too busy killing other folks, and he survived the war.
The bridge at Remagen materially hastened the outcome of the war. As a consequence of it falling into American hands, 300,000 Germans were captured in the Ruhr valley. Timmermann and many other received the Distinguished Service Cross, the highest award the army could give and second only to the Medal of Honor. Unit citations were also awarded.
The book lacks an index, which is a pity. The writing is clear, precise, and unbiased. These stories are really about men in battle: the bonds between them, the way decisions were made, the heroic deeds performed by individuals, and, of course, the loss of young men to enemy action.
If you have seen the movie The Longest Day, and remember it, then you aware of part of the story of Pegasus Bridge. It was a critical bridge assigned to the British to capture.
A word about names: The hero and leader of the Company is John Howard, played by Richard Todd in the movie. The attacking British crew included a chap named Todd Sweeny (his parents had a sense of humor), and another whose last name was Sweeny. Both were called Todd. And another fellow was named Pine Coffin!
The D-Day targets for Howard and his men were actually two bridges. The Orne River and the Caen Canal run parallel to each other at this point, flowing roughly north to south, with the D Day beaches to the east. Benouville Bridge crossed the canal to the west. The Ranville Bridge crossed the Orne river to the east. There were about 500 meters apart. The aim was to land three gliders next to each bridge (six in total), take them intact, and hold until relived. It was to be the first action of D-Day starting at midnight on the morning of the 6th of June. The bridges were almost certainly wired for demolition. These bridges would be critical in getting men and material off the beaches and inland,
Howard's glider hit the dirt only 50 meters from the Benouville bridge. The first soldiers to touch D-Day dirt were actually the glider pilots. They were both pitched through the glider windows and knocked unconscious. The other gliders also landed successfully, but a little further away. The first soldier to fire a round on D-Day was Howard himself. The whole company was known as D Company. They each sported a patch displaying Bellerophon astride Pegasus, the winged horse. The Benouville Bridge was renamed after the war to Pegasus Bridge and Howard had a street named after him in Benouville.
The German garrison was run by von Luck of the 21st Panzer Division. It consisted, in part, of soldiers who were essentially slave soldiers: Poles and Russians and such, poorly trained, ill-disciplined, and disinclined to get shot at. The bridge was indeed wired, but the explosives had not been put in place. The soldiers on guard that night were caught napping. Both bridges were taken in fairly short order.
Then the soldiers had to wait, both for paratrooper reinforcements to arrive, and for the inevitable counter attack by the Germans. The big fear was of the tanks stationed in nearby Caen. A counter attack did come and was repelled. But the main tanks never came because Hitler was famously snoozing and no one had the guts to wake him. Von Luck could not act without Hitler's OK.
The airborne troopers did arrive… late and under-manned. Many troopers got lost in the surrounding woods. It was the sound of combat that actually lead them to their target.
As per the movie, Lord Lovet came off the British beaches and headed straight for the bridges to relieve Howard, and they did so in style, with bagpipes playing.
The rest, as they say is history. Caen was a stubborn target. The allies struggled on the beaches for much longer than planned. The town of Benouville was the first to be liberated. The owners of a local inn were the first to greet their liberators. They hosted get-togethers for the vets for decades after the battle.
This book was based on interviews with the people who were there. It is a fairly quick and enjoyable read. Some good guys were killed, but for the most part, the story is one of valor, dedication and victory.
The following paragraph was written prior to my reading the book. I have not changed it subsequent to reading it.
I could not wait to get my hands on this book. It attempts to shed light on one of the most profound of questions: Why are we so smart? In other words, how does our brain perform its minor miracles… how does intelligence work? How do we think? How can we glance at a just hit baseball, turn away from it and start running, and then turn back to it to catch the ball right where we thought it would be? How does the brain manage a hurricane of sensory inputs and not go nuts. That is the easy stuff. How can we write a sentence like this… that is a bit trickier. I wonder about illusions like the Necker cube and how it flits back and forth between two possible interpretations. We shall see…
This book comes with three sections. The first discusses our brain and a new framework for understanding it. The second describes machine intelligence and where it might go. And the third speaks about the very long range future of the human race. The first section is the best. The third borders on science fiction.
The author has been doing brain research for many years, He started the Palm computing company. In trying to understand the brain, he and his fellow researchers write software simulations on how they think the brain actually functions. As a result, many of the analogies and metaphors used are familiar to me as a programmer. I too have spent much pondering some of the questions they deal with, albeit without the requisite understanding of current brain research need to confirm or deny my musings.
The book focuses on the neocortex. All mammals have them, but ours is the largest. Stretched out flat, it is about the size of a large tea towel, and only a few millimeters thick. Under a microscope, the neocortex looks the same everywhere. This implies a lot. The neocortex does many things ("sees" vision, interprets sounds, "feels" our bodies, composes sonnets etc), but it does them all with the same architecture of neurons. Or, in other words, it contains a single construct that is used over and over to solve every problem. Another basic premise introduced by the book is "movement". Almost all our understanding involves "moving" (i.e.: moving your eyes allows vision to construct a three dimensional model of our environment; moving a finger can tell us if the ball we are holding is a cue ball or a golf ball; and moving our attention from one view of the world to another allows us to test hypotheses). Another premise is "prediction", the idea being that predicting what will happen next is critical to thinking and surviving. The unit, used everywhere in the neocortex, is the Cortical Column. A column is about a millimeter square, and 2.5 millimeters deep, all the way through the neocortex. There are about 150,000 cortical columns, stacked side by side, in your neocortex. Knowledge is stored in the connections between neurons. Pattern matching is a big part of our thinking processes.
The big discoveries of his work are: The neocortex learns a predictive model of the world; predictions occur via potentials inside neurons; and that the secret of the cortical column is Reference Frames. Reference Frames (RFs) are like maps. The brain creates them, and expands on them all of the time. RFs are attached to objects and ideas. If you pick up a cricket ball for the first time, you will immediately create a new RF attached to it, and you will start to populate that RF with information about cricket balls. That RF will include connections to other RFs. Some RFs are temporary, like what you had for breakfast 3 days ago, and others are elaborate, such as the RF that represents your home's interior. This makes perfect sense to me as a programmer. An RF is the brain's basic thinking unit. RFs are associated with cortical columns. One column can contain many RFs.
All knowledge is stored relative to RFs. RFs are used to model everything. Inherent in the models is the idea of movement and location. Thinking is a form of movement through RFs. Recursion, a common feature of software, is inherent in RFs. Recursion is the idea of self-similarity. A twig is very similar to a branch which contains many twigs. A branch which contains many twigs, is very similar to a tree limb. A tree limb, which has many branches, is very similar to a tree. That is recursion. It is a classic way of breaking a problem down into smaller pieces.
To twist an old philosophical question/answer: What is our brain? It is a collection of RFs that contain other RFs. What are RFs made of? It is RFs all the way down.
Neurons get information from other neurons. As these connections are made, a neuron's electrical potential grows until a threshold is reached and it fires. The author describes neuron potentials as a kind of voting system.
What if you have two RFs that are quite different, but both equally explain the picture you are looking at (i.e.: the vote is a tie), like the Necker Cube? You can only see the cube using one RF or the other. We can switch back and forth at will. But we cannot see it as both at the same time.
I found this portion of the book very exciting to read, especially as a software developer. It is the sort of thing I would have loved to work on, but when I left school we were still talking about sorting algorithms, and a meg of memory cost 10 million adjusted dollars.
The second section of the book is about machine intelligence. I will not say too much about this. The major conclusions are these: We have a primitive old part of our brain. It handles things like breathing and walking, and is the source of our basic drives: hunger, sex etc. There is no reason to create a old brain in order to create an intelligent computer. It will be possible, perhaps in near future (30 years?), to create a self-aware, intelligent machine. Self-awareness, it is argued, is just our perception of our attentions over time. Scientists like Hawking feared the intelligent machine. Jeff Hawkins argues that we have little to fear since these machines would lack our more primitive drives. In other words, an intelligent machine would not care about its own survival, at least not like we do. Skynet is unlikely, and we can build in safeties as we go along.
The idea of uploading a human intelligence into a computer is largely dismissed. Our brains are built around a body and the old brain. It is not clear that a human intelligence could function without them. In other words, they might be able to upload your intelligence, but you probably would not like the result. If it can be done without destroying the original brain, interesting questions arise, like who is the real you?
The idea of linking a human brain to a computer is considerably more likely to come to fruition. This is a very active area of research.
The final section discusses the much bigger question of humanities ultimate future. We cannot last forever as a species. What will we, and what can we, leave behind? Hawkin's answer is "Our knowledge". This section is very speculative, but I think the basic premise is correct… namely we are (or were) what we know. If we want to last forever, we should find away to make out knowledge last forever. (Here, "forever" means for a very long time, like billions of years… not literally forever.)
This is the most insightful popular book on the human brain written to date. We are our brains. It is helpful to know how it (i.e.: you) works. I cannot recommend it enough. It is very thought provoking. In fact, I think I whipped up a few dozen new RFs just now, scribbling about it. The book has a forward by Richard Dawkins that is just as effusive. Most of my thoughts (see the preamble paragraph above) were addressed.
While not mentioned in the book, it seems to me that the idea of RFs is at the core of humor. The best jokes lead you towards one RF, only to provide a new piece of data (we call this the punch line) that snaps you to another RF in a surprising, unpredicted, and hopefully amusing, way.
This book is not for everyone. The etymology of words can be a little dry. This book is about dirty words. What used to be called "profanity", meaning an insult to god. When I was young, the bad words were "god", "Jesus", "hell", and "damn". The others, like "fuck" and "shit", were out there too, and it was understood without explanation that they were also really bad. Bad words were changing. Most of the profane curses of my youth are now in common usage.
I recall with some amusement when the networks changed the rules. They would routinely bleep the phrase "god damn it" to "god bleep it", but then one day it switched and they bleeped it thus "bleep damn it". To me, this just underscored the arbitrariness of it all.
I was an atheist from a very early age, and any swearing that was profane (an insult to god) kind of baffled me. I always wondered why, since god did not seem to care. My parents used to swear in Danish, so they got a free ride.
The point is, when I was very young, it was the profane that was at issue. The central theme of the book is the evolution of swear words. The profane then yielded to the "dirty", neatly summed up by George Carlin's "Seven Deadly Words You Can Never Say on Television", namely: shit, fuck, piss, cunt, motherfucker, cocksucker and tits. Basically, words related to bodily acts or bits, from sex to elimination.
But even these words, except for one, have become so ubiquitous that they have lost their edge. Now, you can hear every one of them on late night TV or on any streamed service. Back then (in the early 70s), if you wanted to hear uncensored material, LPs were your only choice.
Today, the new bad words are those that connote hate and single out a group of people. The big ones are "faggot" and, of course, "nigger".
The book is full of interesting evolutions of phrases and words. For example, "gadzooks" comes from "god's hooks", the nails used to pin up Jesus. "Odds bodkins" comes from "god's body", "Cor blimey" is from "god blind me", and so on.
I was amused by the grammatical rules for inserting "fucking" into another word (e.g. Fan-fucking-tastic). The rule is that "fucking" must appear between two accented units (it works with "incredible", but not with "interesting") . BTW: "Fuck" does not come from "Fornication Under the Consent of the King". "Cunt" may have come from "coney" meaning "rabbit". Very similar to "pussy", no? The actual origins of "cunt" are unknown, but it was in very common use not too long ago. Today, it stands out, with "nigger" as dangerous words to use. It is the queen of curse words. This is likely due to the fact that it is female-specific, and to our culture's growing awareness that women have been given the shit-end of the stick for, well…, ever. The last thing they really need is another burden.
There has been a lot of language evolution in my life time, and it is interesting to speculate on how it will change in the future. "Nigger" is discussed at length. The author is black, so he can do that. It is interesting to note that "nigga", when used appropriately, lacks the evil connotations of the hateful word "nigger". It may well become acceptable, in the future, for blacks and whites. I suspect that language is changing faster now than ever in the past due to the enormous access we all have to varying uses and users through the internet and uncensored entertainment.
The following are my thoughts: The euphemism "N-word" is one of the dumbest things I can recall. You hear "N-word", but you think "nigger". How has this helped? People have been fired for using the word just once, and in appropriate context. For example, in many US states, a teacher cannot say "One hundred and fifty years ago, in the Southern United States, the word 'nigger' was in common use." without risking termination. That is stupid. I do not have a problem with the current off-limits nature of the word, especially for whites. But it is just a word.
All of your favorites are discussed at some length. A few I have not mentioned are "ass", "dyke", "pussy", and "bitch". "Tits" did not make the list. I miss George.
The book lacks an index. This is annoying. With computers, you can index a book in a day. Two if you want a reasonably good one.
I learned a lot from this book, perhaps more than any other, at least about the human side of the fighting. I recommend it. Ambrose is a World War II historian. I recall seeing him interviewed in the excellent series The World at War, narrated by Laurence Olivier. He died young at the age of 66.
The book starts at D-Day, June 6, 1944, and ends May the 8th 1945 (VE Day).
Before I tuck into my summary, a note for my Danish relatives. Denmark was overrun very early in the war. The Danes were ultimately "liberated" by Montgomery. I used quotes around the word because the Germans marched out of Denmark on their own steam. Why was Monty diverted away from Berlin and the main action? Because at the Yalta Conference, the fate of most European states was decided… most, but not all. Excepted, among others, were Austria and Denmark. These countries were essentially up for grabs. Had the allies not entered Denmark, the Russians would have. Denmark would have been behind the iron curtain and the future for all the Danes, including my family, would have been much worse. I certainly would not be living the good life as a Canadian. Monty was a dick, but he was a useful dick.
As the title of the book implies, it is about the experiences of the common (mostly American) soldier and their fight to win and to survive. The book also examines the experiences of the German soldier, as well as nurses, medics, pilots and other front line troops. I am awed by what these young men had to put up with. Weeks between hot meals or showers. Living in a foxhole dug out of frozen earth, cold and miserable, afraid of the slightest little escaping flash of light that might make the artillery rain down on then. Very few men made it from D-Day to VE day intact. Many units would suffer more 250% casualties! This can happen because replacements were constantly arriving from the States. By the time of the Battle of the Bulge, a rookie would arrive, dig in, and fight. If he was still alive in a week, he was a combat veteran who had to teach newer rookies how to not get killed. If you ever see anyone smoke a cigarette with the filter pointing out of the fingers, and the lit end near the palm of the hand, they were probably in combat at some time. Battle fatigue (also called "shell shock") was common and basically a new phenomenon. In prior conflicts, you would generally be dead before you fell victim to shell shock. We call it PTSD today.
By D-Day, the allies controlled the skies over Europe. The P47 Thunderbolt was a fighter/bomber that was to slow to act as a front line fighter. Instead, P47s did close ground support and pin point bombing. They typically carried a rack of missiles that could easily take out a Tiger tank. The Germans hated them. They referred to them as Jabos: taken from "Jager", which means hunter in German; and "Bomber". Piper Cubs (small, two seater, single engine airplanes) roamed the field of battle, giving accurate intel on the enemy's positions. Woe betide the German on the ground who shot at a Piper Cub. Within minutes of doing so, the area would be saturated with allied artillery. Unfortunately, the Piper Cubs did not see the build up prior to the Battle of the Bulge.
The French hedgerows were a major issue for the allies. Arial photos were taken from directly overhead, masking the issues created by the hedgerows. The Germans were well prepared for the allies. A common tactic was to let a tank rumble out into a hedgerow field. It would soak up small arms fire and retreat. And then mortars would rain down on the now revealed allied locations. It took many weeks for the allies to formulate new tactics and modify Sherman tanks to break through the hedgerows.
The Sherman was an excellent tank. Rugged, reliable and fixable in the field. This was not so for the more powerful German tanks. And the allies had many, many more tanks than the Germans. The (American designed!) T-34 Russian tank was perhaps the best tank of the war. German tanks and artillery fired far more dud rounds than did other armies, largely because the slave laborers who made them had mastered the art of sabotaging them without being detected.
The book then follows the order of battle from D-Day, through the Falaise pocket where many Germans were trapped, and towards the Siegfried Line. The Siegfried line ran the western border of Germany. Pill boxes, dragon's teeth (large concrete blocks used to block tanks), and pre-sited artillery made for tough going for the allies.
The Battle of the Bulge was the most costly battle ever fought by the Americans (I think Gettysburg was the second most costly). The winter was bitterly cold, and troops spent days in fox holes trying to stay warm and avoid trench foot. Famously, the Germans parachuted some 500 American-savvy spies lead by Otto Skorzeny in behind the US lines. The tactic paid off big time. They sewed confusion wherever the went, messing with signs and directing traffic in the wrong direction. Each GI carried an ID card in addition to his dog tags. The title on the card read "Not a Pass -- for Indentification (sic) Only". The ever perfectionist German forgers corrected the typo! One German spy was lined up against a wall and shot when a smart MP noticed the error (or rather, the lack of it). Another trick the Americans used was to ask a possible spy what his shirt size was. In America, shirt sizes were measured in inches, not centimeters. Many Germans either forgot the difference or were too slow trying to do the math in their heads. And again, they were lined up against a wall and shot.
The Battle of the Bulge finished as soon as the weather broke and the Jabos had clear targets. But it was still a long fight just to get to the German border. The Americans learned that captured US flier POWs were treat better if they were officers rather than enlisted men. As a result, the Air Force promoted all its enlisted fliers to sergeants.
Only one deserter, Pvt Eddie Slovick, went through the entire court martial process in the US Army. He was shot. Most deserters were just put back on the line. For comparison, the Nazis shot 50,000 deserters in the ETO (European Theater of Operations).
Black soldiers were treated very badly. For example, German POWs got better treatment than wounded black veterans, especially in the southern US. They could use the whites only fountain; sit in the whites only area of the local theaters; and enter whites only stores.
In January, 1945, Montgomery sent a letter to Eisenhower basically saying that Ike was doing a poor job, and that he should be given overall command of all ETO forces on the ground. Eisenhower wasted no time in putting Monty in his place. His reply had obvious implications: Shut up; the US is the driving force; and he was in charge. This was not the first time Monty tried a major power grab. The fact is, Monty was not good at his job. When things went well, it was all about him, and when they went south, it was someone else's fault. Operation Market Garden, his plan, was a straight up disaster. Monty decided to toe the line and follow orders.
In one self serving press release, Monty tried to paint a picture of the British coming to the rescue of the Americans during the Battle of the Bulge, and his brilliant strategies that made it happen. In fact, the opposite was true, and the Americans were outraged. Monty was a glory seeker extraordinaire, and a political albatross.
The Germans were in a fighting retreat after the Rhine was crossed. In one hamlet, a burgher, who knew what American fire power was likely to do to his town, pleaded with a German officer to move his troops to a town that was already in ruins. He was so persistent that the officer asked where he lived. He pointed out his home. The officer ordered a mortar crew to set up next to his house, launch five fast rounds at the Americans, and scoot. Ten minutes later, the burgher's home was a smoking ruin.
After crossing the Rhine, the progress towards the heart of Germany escalated. The fate of European countries was settled at Yalta. Patton and others wanted to drive to Berlin, but that was left to the Russians who desperately wanted the glory. If the Russians had been smart, they would have surrounded the city with artillery and pounded it until everyone gave up. Instead, they charged in and suffered a terrible toll in soldier's lives. As previously noted, some countries were not marked for the East or the West at Yalta. Denmark was one of them. If the Russians had surrounded Berlin, they could have proceeded west and north and "liberated" Denmark.
After the war, some GIs were exchanging stories. An artillery crew recounted a funny story about how they had once been asked to target and destroy a haystack, which they did. Fifty three years later they met the man who had order the strike. He had seen the haystack move from a Piper Cub. He informed the artillery crew that they had, in fact, killed a disguised Panther tank.
Generally speaking, in Europe, and especially Germany , the Americans were well received. This cannot be said for the Soviet troops. The Americans showed up with smiles and chocolate bars. The Russians were more into rape and revenge.
This is one of the best books about man's greatest war to date. It is a well written and intimate look at the experiences of US soldiers. We owe the soldiers from all the powers that fought Germany a debt that cannot be repaid.
Unholy Trinity: The Vatican, the NAZIs and the Swiss Banks; Mark Aarons, John Loftus; 1991 (rev. 1998); St Martins Griffen; Biblio, notes, index
This is a hard book to read. So much so, I got about 1/2 through and then skipped to the conclusions at the end. It is hard to read because there are so many players and groups involved, from Nazis, war criminals, priests, and spies to shady countries and groups like Germany, Croatia, the OSS, the GKB, and so on. The peoples names are hard to follow as well, in part because there are a lot of them and most have Eastern European names.
The Ratlines got a lot of criminals out of Germany to various countries, especially Argentina, but including Australia, Canada, the US and Britain.
The whole of post-WWII Europe was a mess. Everyone, almost, wanted to see the bad guys get theirs. But who were the bad guys? The Vatican was cozy with the Nazis because they hated the commies and so did the Vatican. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" seemed to rule many decisions. Take the Gallacian SS, for example. It was composed largely of Ukrainians who hated Stalin (see the book Bloodlands). They wanted to fight for Ukraine and fight against Stalin. Some ended up fighting the allies, and not Stalin. Ukraine was part of the USSR. If you sent these SS men home, they would be killed by the Russians. They were essentially freedom fighters from their point of view. But many were also war criminals. How to deal with them? War and religion breed strange bedfellows.
This happened all the time. The British played everyone, and like the Americans after the war, would cut deals with criminals if it served their national interests. The Brits new how to keep their secrets, and they still do. Much of their machinations are still under lock and key.
In the end, I skipped to the "conclusions" chapters. Everyone was bad, so who were the worst guys?
The Vatican: the worst of the worst. Up to their eyeballs in the slime and ooze. They got thousands of criminal refugees out of Europe for money. It was very much a for profit organization and the Nazis refugees had a lot of money. They hated the commies and would tolerate almost anything as long as it was against them. Ironically, the Soviets had moles throughout the Ratline operations. Father Dragonovic was the Pope's master smuggler, who eventually disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. By contrast, the god-loving Pope Pius XII with all his power, managed to save exactly zero Jewish refugees.
Austria: Pretty bad, and wading up to their hips. They gave us a known criminal who went on the head the UN: Kurt Waldheim.
Italy: They sanctioned the Ratlines and gave them political cover. Knee deep in the muck.
France and the US: Complicit in many ways. E.g.: Werner von Braun put a man on the moon. He was also a Nazi war criminal. Knee Deep.
Britain: Up to their armpits. Worst after the Vatican/Holy See. Britain had been playing at European politics so long, they had lost their moral compass. They are still sitting on secrets that would embarrass the hell out of them to this day.
The Swiss Banks: Hand in hand with the Vatican. So also up to their eyeballs in the muck.
The Holy See: There is not much separating the Holy See from the Vatican itself. They are guilty of: Crimes against Peace (cooperated with anyone who was against the commies, including the Nazis); Obstruction of Justice (hiding Nazis); Receiving Stolen Goods (theirs was a for profit business); and Abuse of Diplomatic Privileges (forging documents, etc). The Pope et al knew exactly what they were doing, and they knew it was wrong by any measure.
It is hard to understand why that piss-ant religious hole in the wall and haven for child molesters and Nazi war criminals, called the Vatican, is recognized as a country by anyone after all their crimes. Churches are generally not supposed to dabble in politics, but it is the Vatican's full time preoccupation.
This book tires to tell a story that is frighteningly complex and intertwined. It is hard to follow for those reasons. A good book to have on the book shelf, but a very hard read.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.