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“So many books, so little time”*…

Dear The Sophist, 

I own a lot of books, and nearly enough shelves to fit them. I haven’t read most of them—has anyone with a lot of books read most of them?—yet I still get impulses to buy more. Can you please tell me why it’s OK for me to buy more books? I should add that I live with a partner who doesn’t own a lot of books, but tolerates mine so far. So far.


Dear Volume Purchaser,

Books are ridiculous objects to buy, aren’t they? For the sake of spending a day or two, maybe a week, with some author’s thoughts and words, you take custody of this physical item that sticks around, and around, as more and more others accumulate along with it. You look at them, almost unseeingly, day after day; the walls of your rooms press in; you pay extra money to the movers to drag the extra weight around from one dwelling to the next, all because you read an interesting review once or a cover caught your eye in a bookstore.  

You know what else is ridiculous? The sheer impermanence of thought. The constant yet ephemeral flickering of partial understanding across the synapses in our wet and mortal brains, and the dry circuits of the junky and even more short-lived electronic ersatz brains we rely on for backup. A book is an investment against forgetting and death—a poor investment, but it beats the alternatives. It is a slippery yet real toehold on eternity,,, If you stop the flow of new books, you stop this flow of possibilities…

Too many books? Tom Scocca (@tomscocca) explains that there’s no such thing as too many books. (via the ever-illuminating Today in Tabs)

And lest one fear that the only option is to buy books, remember the Public Library…

Central Library, Kansas City (source)

* Frank Zappa


As we reorganize our shelves, we might spare a thought for someone whose works definitely deserve places of honor thereon, Octavia Estelle Butler; she died in this date in 2006. An African American woman science fiction author, she was a rarity in her field. But her primary distinction was her extraordinary talent, as manifest in novels and stories that stretch the imagination even as they explore the all-too-real truths of the human condition. She was a multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and became (in 1995) the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.

It’s measure of her insight that her work– perhaps especially her “Parable” series— is being re-discovered as painfully prescient of our current times.


“Facts alone, no matter how numerous or verifiable, do not automatically arrange themselves into an intelligible, or truthful, picture of the world. It is the task of the human mind to invent a theoretical framework to account for them.”*…

PPPL physicist Hong Qin in front of images of planetary orbits and computer code

… or maybe not. A couple of decades ago, your correspondent came across a short book that aimed to explain how we think know what we think know, Truth– a history and guide of the perplexed, by Felipe Fernández-Armesto (then, a professor of history at Oxford; now, at Notre Dame)…

According to Fernández-Armesto, people throughout history have sought to get at the truth in one or more of four basic ways. The first is through feeling. Truth is a tangible entity. The third-century B.C. Chinese sage Chuang Tzu stated, ”The universe is one.” Others described the universe as a unity of opposites. To the fifth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Heraclitus, the cosmos is a tension like that of the bow or the lyre. The notion of chaos comes along only later, together with uncomfortable concepts like infinity.

Then there is authoritarianism, ”the truth you are told.” Divinities can tell us what is wanted, if only we can discover how to hear them. The ancient Greeks believed that Apollo would speak through the mouth of an old peasant woman in a room filled with the smoke of bay leaves; traditionalist Azande in the Nilotic Sudan depend on the response of poisoned chickens. People consult sacred books, or watch for apparitions. Others look inside themselves, for truths that were imprinted in their minds before they were born or buried in their subconscious minds.

Reasoning is the third way Fernández-Armesto cites. Since knowledge attained by divination or introspection is subject to misinterpretation, eventually people return to the use of reason, which helped thinkers like Chuang Tzu and Heraclitus describe the universe. Logical analysis was used in China and Egypt long before it was discovered in Greece and in India. If the Greeks are mistakenly credited with the invention of rational thinking, it is because of the effective ways they wrote about it. Plato illustrated his dialogues with memorable myths and brilliant metaphors. Truth, as he saw it, could be discovered only by abstract reasoning, without reliance on sense perception or observation of outside phenomena. Rather, he sought to excavate it from the recesses of the mind. The word for truth in Greek, aletheia, means ”what is not forgotten.”

Plato’s pupil Aristotle developed the techniques of logical analysis that still enable us to get at the knowledge hidden within us. He examined propositions by stating possible contradictions and developed the syllogism, a method of proof based on stated premises. His methods of reasoning have influenced independent thinkers ever since. Logicians developed a system of notation, free from the associations of language, that comes close to being a kind of mathematics. The uses of pure reason have had a particular appeal to lovers of force, and have flourished in times of absolutism like the 17th and 18th centuries.

Finally, there is sense perception. Unlike his teacher, Plato, and many of Plato’s followers, Aristotle realized that pure logic had its limits. He began with study of the natural world and used evidence gained from experience or experimentation to support his arguments. Ever since, as Fernández-Armesto puts it, science and sense have kept time together, like voices in a duet that sing different tunes. The combination of theoretical and practical gave Western thinkers an edge over purer reasoning schemes in India and China.

The scientific revolution began when European thinkers broke free from religious authoritarianism and stopped regarding this earth as the center of the universe. They used mathematics along with experimentation and reasoning and developed mechanical tools like the telescope. Fernández-Armesto’s favorite example of their empirical spirit is the grueling Arctic expedition in 1736 in which the French scientist Pierre Moreau de Maupertuis determined (rightly) that the earth was not round like a ball but rather an oblate spheroid…


One of Fernández-Armesto most basic points is that our capacity to apprehend “the truth”– to “know”– has developed throughout history. And history’s not over. So, your correspondent wondered, mightn’t there emerge a fifth source of truth, one rooted in the assessment of vast, ever-more-complete data maps of reality– a fifth way of knowing?

Well, those days may be upon us…

A novel computer algorithm, or set of rules, that accurately predicts the orbits of planets in the solar system could be adapted to better predict and control the behavior of the plasma that fuels fusion facilities designed to harvest on Earth the fusion energy that powers the sun and stars.

he algorithm, devised by a scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), applies machine learning, the form of artificial intelligence (AI) that learns from experience, to develop the predictions. “Usually in physics, you make observations, create a theory based on those observations, and then use that theory to predict new observations,” said PPPL physicist Hong Qin, author of a paper detailing the concept in Scientific Reports. “What I’m doing is replacing this process with a type of black box that can produce accurate predictions without using a traditional theory or law.”

Qin (pronounced Chin) created a computer program into which he fed data from past observations of the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and the dwarf planet Ceres. This program, along with an additional program known as a ‘serving algorithm,’ then made accurate predictions of the orbits of other planets in the solar system without using Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation. “Essentially, I bypassed all the fundamental ingredients of physics. I go directly from data to data,” Qin said. “There is no law of physics in the middle.”

The process also appears in philosophical thought experiments like John Searle’s Chinese Room. In that scenario, a person who did not know Chinese could nevertheless ‘translate’ a Chinese sentence into English or any other language by using a set of instructions, or rules, that would substitute for understanding. The thought experiment raises questions about what, at root, it means to understand anything at all, and whether understanding implies that something else is happening in the mind besides following rules.

Qin was inspired in part by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s philosophical thought experiment that the universe is a computer simulation. If that were true, then fundamental physical laws should reveal that the universe consists of individual chunks of space-time, like pixels in a video game. “If we live in a simulation, our world has to be discrete,” Qin said. The black box technique Qin devised does not require that physicists believe the simulation conjecture literally, though it builds on this idea to create a program that makes accurate physical predictions.

This process opens up questions about the nature of science itself. Don’t scientists want to develop physics theories that explain the world, instead of simply amassing data? Aren’t theories fundamental to physics and necessary to explain and understand phenomena?

“I would argue that the ultimate goal of any scientist is prediction,” Qin said. “You might not necessarily need a law. For example, if I can perfectly predict a planetary orbit, I don’t need to know Newton’s laws of gravitation and motion. You could argue that by doing so you would understand less than if you knew Newton’s laws. In a sense, that is correct. But from a practical point of view, making accurate predictions is not doing anything less.”

Machine learning could also open up possibilities for more research. “It significantly broadens the scope of problems that you can tackle because all you need to get going is data,” [Qin’s collaborator Eric] Palmerduca said…

But then, as Edwin Hubble observed, “observations always involve theory,” theory that’s implicit in the particulars and the structure of the data being collected and fed to the AI. So, perhaps this is less a new way of knowing, than a new way of enhancing Fernández-Armesto’s third way– reason– as it became the scientific method…

The technique could also lead to the development of a traditional physical theory. “While in some sense this method precludes the need of such a theory, it can also be viewed as a path toward one,” Palmerduca said. “When you’re trying to deduce a theory, you’d like to have as much data at your disposal as possible. If you’re given some data, you can use machine learning to fill in gaps in that data or otherwise expand the data set.”

In either case: “New machine learning theory raises questions about nature of science.”

Francis Bello


As we experiment with epistemology, we might send carefully-observed and calculated birthday greetings to Georg Joachim de Porris (better known by his professional name, Rheticus; he was born on this date in 1514. A mathematician, astronomer, cartographer, navigational-instrument maker, medical practitioner, and teacher, he was well-known in his day for his stature in all of those fields. But he is surely best-remembered as the sole pupil of Copernicus, whose work he championed– most impactfully, facilitating the publication of his master’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres)… and informing the most famous work by yesterday’s birthday boy, Galileo.


“Taxonomy is described sometimes as a science and sometimes as an art, but really it’s a battleground”*…

Dorothy Porter in 1939, at her desk in the Carnegie Library at Howard University.

In a 1995 interview with Linton Weeks of the Washington Post, the Howard University librarian, collector, and self-described “bibliomaniac” Dorothy Porter (1905–95) reflected on the focus of her 43-year career: “The only rewarding thing for me is to bring to light information that no one knows. What’s the point of rehashing the same old thing?” For Porter, this mission involved not only collecting and preserving a wide range of materials related to the global Black experience, but also addressing how these works demanded new and specific qualitative and quantitative approaches in order to collect, assess, and catalog them…

As Thomas C. Battle writes in a 1988 essay on the history of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, the breadth of the two collections showed the Howard librarians that “no American library had a suitable classification scheme for Black materials.” An “initial development of a satisfactory classification scheme,” writes Battle, was first undertaken by four women on the staff of the Howard University Library: Lula V. Allen, Edith Brown, Lula E. Conner, and Rosa C. Hershaw. The idea was to prioritize the scholarly and intellectual significance and coherence of materials that had been marginalized by Eurocentric conceptions of knowledge and knowledge production. These women paved the way for Dorothy Porter’s new system, which departed from the prevailing catalog classifications in important ways.

All of the libraries that Porter consulted for guidance relied on the Dewey Decimal Classification. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. In many “white libraries,” she continued, “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.”

Consequently, instead of using the Dewey system, Porter classified works by genre and author to highlight the foundational role of Black people in all subject areas, which she identified as art, anthropology, communications, demography, economics, education, geography, history, health, international relations, linguistics, literature, medicine, music, political science, sociology, sports, and religion.

This Africana approach to cataloging was very much in line with the priorities of the Harlem Renaissance, as described by Howard University professor Alain Locke in his period-defining essay of 1925, “Enter the New Negro.” Heralding the death of the “Old Negro” as an object of study and a problem for whites to manage, Locke proclaimed, “It is time to scrap the fictions, garret the bogeys and settle down to a realistic facing of facts.” Scholarship from a Black perspective, Locke argued, would combat racist stereotypes and false narratives while celebrating the advent of Black self-representation in art and politics. Porter’s classification system challenged racism where it was produced by centering work by and about Black people within scholarly conversations around the world.

How Dorothy Porter assembled and organized a premier Africana research collection– and helped change academia: “Cataloging Black Knowledge.”

See also “African American Print Culture.”

* Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything


As we contemplate cataloguing, we might recall that it was on this date in 1909 that a group including W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary White Ovington, Moorfield Storey, and Ida B. Wells formed the NAACP— The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People– an interracial organization dedicated to advancing justice for African Americans. 112 years later, its work continues.


“Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”*…

A bonfire burned on Berlin’s most important thoroughfare, Unter den Linden, just opposite the Friedrich Wilhelm University on May 10, 1933. Watched by a cheering crowd of almost 40,000, a group of students marched toward the flames, carrying the bust of the Jewish intellectual Magnus Hirschfeld, and threw it atop thousands of seized books by other “un-German” writers. Rows of young men in Nazi uniforms gave the Heil Hitler salute, while similar scenes took place in 90 other locations across Germany. The bonfires were a warning sign of the attack on knowledge about to be unleashed by the Nazi regime; more than 100 million books may have been destroyed during the Holocaust.

“There is no political power without power over the archive,” the French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote in his classic work Archive Fever. Authoritarian rulers have long understood the truth of this statement. But what does it mean in the Digital Age?

To many, libraries seem less important than ever—everything’s online, isn’t it? Yet control of knowledge remains a key battleground in the fight for democracy. At the outset of the Trump presidency in January 2017, his adviser Kellyanne Conway was claiming “alternate facts.” By the end of his presidency, after years of dishonesty, Trump sought to reverse his electoral loss with a “firehose of falsehood” strategy, persisting with the obfuscation even after a mob of supporters stormed the Capitol.

Protecting democracies against “alternate facts” means capturing the truth as well as statements that deny it, so that open societies have reference points to trust and rely on. For over three millennia, librarians and archivists have developed systems, methodologies, techniques and an ethos for preservation to ensure that knowledge persists. Their focus on facts underpins integrity in public decision-making; enables a sense of place in our communities; and ensures diversity of ideas, opinions and memory.

By contrast, recent cases of “book-burning” remind us of how ominous the destruction of information is. During the Bosnian War, the mass murder of humans went alongside the destruction of libraries and archives. Serb forces targeted the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina with incendiary shells in August 1992, while forces raided provincial archives across the country to destroy records of land ownership as a means of eradicating the official memory of where Muslims had lived. Millions of books and documents in libraries and archives all over Bosnia and Kosovo were destroyed in the ethnic conflicts of the former Yugoslavia—attacks that became part of the charge sheets at the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia.

Officials in South Africa’s apartheid regime destroyed documents on a massive scale too. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hampered by this; in its final report, it devoted an entire section to the destruction of records. “The story of apartheid is, amongst other things, the story of the systematic elimination of thousands of voices that should have been part of the nation’s memory,” it said. “The tragedy is that the former government deliberately and systematically destroyed a huge body of state records and documentation in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and thereby sanitize the history of oppressive rule.”

In Iraq, after the American-led coalition invaded in 2003, U.S. forces moved many of the key state records to the United States, where some, such as the archives of the Ba’ath Party, remained until recently. Just as the eradication of records can presage violence, the recent return of these documents can, I hope, form part of a process of national “truth and reconciliation” in Iraq.

Librarians today are not the stereotype of tweed-wearing introverts obsessed with enforcing silence. They are skilled professionals, often with subject-domain specialisms, adept at navigating physical and digital forms of knowledge–trained in project management and budgetary controls, and well-versed in deploying new technologies to support the public in identifying bogus online information, while using digitization to preserve fragile documents.

Digital technology lends itself to extraordinary archival projects, as in the work of the organization Mnemonic, whose Syrian Archive contains millions of online records about the civil war, alongside a Yemeni Archive and a Sudanese Archive, providing historians, journalists and international criminal lawyers the information to understand these conflicts. Other archival projects online include the Xinjiang Victims Database, which aims to document the Chinese campaign against the Uyghurs and other indigenous groups in northwest China.

As for institutional libraries and archives, they are highly trusted by the public—yet are experiencing declining levels of funding. This is happening when knowledge is increasingly held in digital form, controlled not by public institutions but by tech companies. How can we protect society from the “power over the archive” exercised by private corporations? Greater regulation should sit alongside a new role for libraries as citizens’ data sanctuaries, accountable to the public, and funded by a tax on tech-industry profits.

Looking back at the Nazi book-burnings in 1933, this low moment for human truth had lesser-known responses that should not be forgotten. Exactly a year later, on May 10, 1934, the Deutsche Freiheitsbibliothek (German Freedom Library, also known as the German Library of Burnt Books) opened in Paris, founded by German-Jewish writer Alfred Kantorowicz, with support from writers and intellectuals such as André Gide, Bertrand Russell and Heinrich Mann. Rapidly, it collected more than 20,000 volumes—not just the books that had been targeted for burning in Germany but also copies of key Nazi texts, in order to help understand the emerging regime.

The Brooklyn Jewish Center in New York established an American Library of Nazi-Banned Books in December 1934, with noted intellectuals on its advisory board, including Albert Einstein and Upton Sinclair. The library proclaimed itself a means of preserving and promoting Jewish culture at a time of renewed oppression.

If we are to heed George Orwell’s warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four—“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth”—then we must ensure that libraries and archives have the resources and public support to serve as our guardians of knowledge.

Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden (@richove), author of the essential (and gripping) Burning the Books- A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge, explains why rampant dishonesty reminds us that we must preserve documents. Even– indeed, especially– in the Digital Age, archivists are crucial: “Facts in Flames.

Your correspondent supports institutional archives like Richard’s (Oxford’s Bodleian Library), the Harvard Libraries, and The New York Public Library; and the digital archive that’s the mother of them all, the remarkable Internet Archive. You might consider contributing to them or to the archives of your choice.

And, of course, we should all support our public libraries, which democratize access to information and knowledge and build community in ways that are critical to a healthy society and to constructive civil discourse.

* George Orwell, 1984


As we prioritize preservation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that fiery hot molasses poured into the streets of Boston, killing 21 people and injuring scores of others– the Great Boston Molasses Flood:

The United States Industrial Alcohol building was located on Commercial Street near North End Park in Boston. It was close to lunch time on January 15 and Boston was experiencing some unseasonably warm weather as workers were loading freight-train cars within the large building. Next to the workers was a 58-foot-high tank filled with 2.5 million gallons of crude molasses.

Suddenly, the bolts holding the bottom of the tank exploded, shooting out like bullets, and the hot molasses rushed out. An eight-foot-high wave of molasses swept away the freight cars and caved in the building’s doors and windows. The few workers in the building’s cellar had no chance as the liquid poured down and overwhelmed them.

The huge quantity of molasses then flowed into the street outside. It literally knocked over the local firehouse and then pushed over the support beams for the elevated train line. The hot and sticky substance then drowned and burned five workers at the Public Works Department. In all, 21 people and dozens of horses were killed in the flood. It took weeks to clean the molasses from the streets of Boston.

This disaster also produced an epic court battle, as more than 100 lawsuits were filed against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. After a six-year-investigation that involved 3,000 witnesses and 45,000 pages of testimony, a special auditor finally determined that the company was at fault because the tank used had not been strong enough to hold the molasses. Nearly $1 million [over $15.5 million in today’s dollars] was paid in settlement of the claims…


“We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good”*…




If one takes Donald Trump and his administration to embody modern conservatism, it is easy to see in their response to the coronavirus pandemic the right’s final divorce from science and expertise. There was the case of Rick Bright, the Health and Human Services scientist who claims that the Trump administration retaliated against him when he objected to the administration’s rapid push to distribute anti-malaria drugs that were largely untested for treating coronavirus patients. There are reports that the president for months ignored his own intelligence experts’ warnings that the virus threatened our shores. There was the ongoing drama over whether Trump would fire Anthony Fauci, who has headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. And there was the president’s daily passion play—the White House press briefings where he’d stand next to scientists who grimaced as he speculated that the death toll was exaggerated and that sunlight inside the body might kill the virus.

The White House’s sorry Covid-19 track record has sparked a chorus of dissent recently distilled by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, who argues that the crisis displays conservatives’ long-standing “antipathy to science,” owing to “populist distrust of experts, religious rejection of information that undermines biblical literalism and efforts by giant corporations to evade regulation.” But this narrative is too pat. While something is plainly amiss in the relationship of the Trumpian right to science, it is hardly as principled as the religious objections of, say, creationists opposing evolutionary theory. Neither is it straightforwardly hostile.

What’s more curious about the response by the president and his allies to the virus is rather their embrace of scientific expertise of a sort…

The story of the crisis is not quite that of scientists who knew the answers and one political party that just wouldn’t listen to them. Rather, it is a story of fracture—of conflict and confusion, of experts earning mistrust, of each side cultivating its own class of experts to own the other’s. It is also a perverse story of how a group of self-styled truth-telling outsiders turned science’s mythology against its institutions, warping it from a tool to fight the virus into a tool to attack the establishment.

How did we get here?…

Ari Schulman (@AriSchulman) explains how a new class of outsider experts is exploiting institutional failures and destabilizing knowledge: “The Coronavirus and the Right’s Scientific Counterrevolution.”

TotH to Byrne Hobart, who notes (in his nifty newsletter, The Diff):

… this essay obviously takes a side, but it tries to be fair to the side it disagrees with. Which means there are two Straussian readings: maybe it’s an essay about how science is on one side in an American political context, and the other side only makes vague gestures towards empiricism. Alternatively, it could be an essay on how science never answers political questions, but politics corrupts science. (Why doesn’t science answer political questions? Because you can’t build a coalition out of stating the obvious, but you can build one from denying it—if your beliefs are crazy, you can spot members of the ingroup. So most scientific questions are irrelevant to politics, and when they’re relevant, politics wins by default in the short term, even if it loses long-term. To build a coherent and healthy ingroup, you need beliefs that are crazy but don’t lead to bad decisions.)

Pair with another of Hobart’s suggestions: “On Cultures That Build” (and the reasons why, the author argues. the U.S. is not one).

* Carl Sagan


As we commit to learning, we might note that today is the birthday of not one but two extraordinary mathematicians:  Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646; variants on his date of birth are due to calendar changes), the German  philosopher, scientist, mathematician, diplomat, librarian, lawyer, co-inventor, with Newton, of The Calculus, and “hero” (well, one hero) of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy…  and  Alan Turing (1912), British mathematician, computer science pioneer (inventor of the Turing Machine, creator of “the Turing Test” and inspiration for “The Turing Prize”), and cryptographer (leading member of the team that cracked the Enigma code during WWII).

Go figure…

Turing (source: Univ. of Birmingham)

Giambattista Vico was also born on this date in 1668.  A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers.  Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science, though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically”). While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).



Written by LW

June 23, 2020 at 1:01 am

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