Chris X Edwards

So much plastic packaging! The main notable exception is the inadequate leaking paper flour bag, unchanged since waterwheels milled it.
2021-06-22 19:59
It's as easy to buy metric screws at HD/LOW as it is to buy gringo screws on AMZN. USA's idiotic units intransigence may have met its match.
2021-06-04 09:30
I have a perverse desire to mod my 3d printer by creating accessory parts using woodworking tools and materials.
2021-05-29 08:17
Software dependencies are like 3rd world street food; if you're very hungry maybe 1 is ok, but sampling every cart/stall will make you sick.
2021-05-28 05:01
Lifetime warranties end not just at your death but also the company's. With reneging (eg North Face), they're no longer interesting to me.
2021-05-21 09:25
Blah Blah

Review: Past Master

2021-06-15 18:54

Have you ever been to an art museum and you wander into to the "modern" "art" section and you see some giant work that fills you with emotion — that emotion being WTF? That happens to me a lot. Don’t get me wrong. I can appreciate weird modern artsy stuff, but I have too much appreciation and respect for classical art to write off its style, craftsmanship, and heritage as non-essential.


Of course critics of my criticism will point out that I’m probably just an uncultured philistine who is too dense to understand these rich and complex works. And that is undoubtedly true. Sometimes. But if you make art that is unapproachable by the vast majority of people, even people who quite like art, there may be room for improvement.

I heard about this book, Past Master by R. A. Lafferty, in some forum where clever people try to signal their cleverness by saying how much they like things that most people really don’t like. Or something like that. Not having heard about this book, I figured the glowing praise heaped on it combined with its apparent unusualness made it worth taking a look at.

The book is set in the year 2535, exactly 1000 years after the execution of Saint/Sir Thomas More. Well, that’s certainly a weird factoid to include, you’re thinking! The book is set on some not-Earth planet — like the kind Kirk’s Enterprise would visit — and the people there are having some kind of problem. The exact nature of the problem was kind of nebulous but there should not be any problems because the society is supposed to be a utopia.

Anyway, to solve the problem the rulers there get the great idea to go back in time and snatch up Sir Thomas More! Brilliant! No need to use time and space travel for more sensible purposes when you’ve got a 16th century lawyer in the house! Look, he was really good. Not only that, it turns out that Sir Thomas wrote the book Utopia in 1516 and coined that word itself therein. So he’s kind of an expert on utopian societies.

At first there is a little bit of plot intrigue as the elites who scheme to bring Sir Thomas in from the past reveal to the reader that they’re really just doing it for the optics. They have no intention of letting this old relic actually have any power.

Sir Thomas duly reports for duty and, uh, I think R. A. Lafferty then proceeds to drop a lot of acid. Ya. Really. And the story is just weird in a hard to read way. I was surprised that this short (190pp) book took me a couple of weeks to slog through. When I read it I often became very sleepy almost immediately. And that’s the problem with a near random level of arbitrary chaos; it’s a bit like reading the digits of a trigonometry table.

Again, maybe I’m just too dense to "get it" but… well, I didn’t.

Let’s run through my checklist.

  • Style - It was ok really. It was kind of baroque and literary, sort of like Gene Wolf, but not quite.

  • Organization - Also ok. Reasonable chapter lengths. Divided in to sections sensibly. Fine.

  • Character names - Mostly ok. Sometimes they were pretty weird but generally pronounceable for English speakers. Some examples: Proctor, Evita, Father Oddopter, Pottscamp.

  • Believable characters - Er, hard to say here. What do people, or worse, aliens really do when they’re tumbling through a drug trip? I never identified with any of the characters and just found all of their actions weird.

  • Natural dialog - No. It was stilted (perhaps deliberately) and weird. Right out of the gate you’ll be wondering how well Sir Thomas' pre-Elizabethan English holds up a millennia later; glossed over.

  • Plot complexity - I’d have to say, low. Maybe there’s a lot going on in the second half of the book. But I’ve really divulged most of the plot as near as I could discern it.

  • Plot resolution - Probably. I don’t know. The climax would be Sir Thomas maybe getting beheaded (mirroring his life on Earth) or maybe getting rescued. The text was so gloopy and distorted, I actually can’t remember the outcome despite reading it less than an hour ago! And worse — I don’t care.

  • Erudition - Good. There were probably obscure subtle references to Thomas More’s life, the House of Tudor, 16th century politics, etc. but of course I’m no expert in such things and I would miss that.

  • Gems - Very few if any for me.

  • Immersion/world building - Certainly this was a goal of the book. It definitely had a go, but everything was so weird and unpredictable, you could never know if a city was a city like you imagine when you hear that word or the intestines of some giant whale or some other incongruous thing.

  • Believable tech - This story was pretty low on the tech. Much of it was just taken as given with no explanation. The assassin robots that were very good but not too good — their inner workings never explained. The time and space travel to bring back a guy from 16th century Earth, also never fully explained.

  • Imagination/creativity - It’s easy to credit this kind of story with a lot of imagination, but really a computer can write stories that make no sense and are filled with random elements. Here, I’ll show you what I mean: "Corolla sabotaged the treaty, dispensed with stashing the immigrating dullards. Laurel’s internment’s antics catalyzed the Delphic nicknacks." That came from choosing words at random from my spelling dictionary. That is how much imagination and creativity this book had for me.

$ shuf /usr/share/dict/words | head

I usually don’t review books that I find lacking but this one was nominated for both a Nebula and a Hugo award. In some ways, I’m really reviewing those accolades. Maybe another kind of reader would appreciate the drug trip incoherence of Lafferty’s writing but I need a more cogent and clever plot.

I’ll end with a fiction writing tip: Never ever have a character remark on how unbelievable the fantastic situation is. This is like having characters in a movie, or especially a stage play, yawn. The example that reminded me is from p141.

"It is beyond belief that this world should be true," he said again to himself.



2021-06-09 10:08

One of this week’s projects was to make a cover for my basement sump. When I moved into my house I was pretty nervous about the whole idea of a sump — what if the power goes out or there is a malfunction? And I was especially nervous about the one installed — it looked ancient, decrepit, and, in the style of my entire house, like it was installed by a very clever trained animal.

I had some plumber guys come in and put in a working main shutoff valve (!) and a new sump system with a functioning check valve (!). This new system also included a water powered secondary pump with a separate drain system which is designed to operate in the absence of electricity.

This work meant that the old sump cover no longer fit and I’ve lived with an uncovered pit of water in the corner of my basement since then. That was less than ideal so it was time to fix it.

Some time in the past I ordered a piece of furniture and was delighted to find it packed in a giant sheet of solid 3" thick expanded polystyrene foam. Like a kid, I honestly thought the foam packing was as cool as the contents. Anyway, there was some debate in my household about whether we should keep it. A debate I have finally resolved!

With my table saw blade at 45 degrees, with about 26 cuts, I was able to make a kind of acoustic foam shape by moving the fence 3" every cut.


Here is the old sump cover which no longer fits. I used it as a template to trace the sump circumference.


I used a long razor knife to cut it to shape.


Then I cut a board into three pieces and custom fit them. I painted them with the same marine paint I used in this project. Here I’m laying them out with the foam.


This allowed me to cut the foam just right. I was careful to vacuum up all those little pieces.


I used hot glue to attach the foam to the wood.


And here’s the final result!


I also couldn’t stand looking the terrible job the plumbers did with the cable routings. Yes, that’s more my specialty than theirs — now fixed. There is actually a 1/4" gap in the front for water to enter in the event of flooding. And if the sump fills up for some strange reason, the foam will lift the boards off like a dock. Hopefully covering this small open well will help reduce the humidity in my basement. And the whole point of the foam is to greatly reduce the noise when the thing kicks on in the middle of the night.

Review: The Enigma Of Reason

2021-06-08 10:29

I’ve been interested in this book by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber for a while and with the library doing business again, I got my chance.

The book concerns the human faculty of reason. What is it? How does it work? What evolutionary context produced it? Etc.

It turns out that these are tricky questions. Most people tend to think of reason as the goal of thinking or something like that. It’s necessarily vague. There is a linguistic quirk in that reasoning (in English and some other languages) seems to produce reasons, justifications for causes. Normally people have the impression that they think about something using reason and then from that cogitation, produce reasons (to do or not do something, to support something or to withhold support, etc.) But this book is covering the interesting hypothesis that: reasons appear in your mind first, and reason is a faculty marshaled post hoc only to justify the reasons.

There are many good, uh, reasons to believe this is in fact what is going on. It turns out that there are many glaring problems with the idea that "reason cleverly computes answers", which the book calls the "intellectualist" model. As a poignant example, I thought that the following quote was an interesting way to frame the problem: (p21) "This very lack of agreement among specialists [on reason!] who, one hopes, are all good reasoners, is particularly ironic: sophisticated reasoning on reasoning does not come near providing a consensual understanding of reasoning itself."

Why would our minds do this weird thing? The hypothesis is that reason is a communication strategy to help secure cooperation in social situations. Reasoning is a way to get other people in your clan to feel the same way as you do.

The title of the section starting on p123 is a good micro summary of the book’s entire premise Reasons Are For Social Consumption.

And that’s mostly it. You can stop here and just ponder that for the rest of your life. If you really find the topic fascinating, I’ve pulled out excerpts that I found particularly interesting. If you’re still intrigued by the notion after reading them all, I do recommend the book!

I thought of computer programming when I read this: "As they become more complex, reasoning tasks rapidly become forbiddingly difficult and performance collapses." (p26)

I also thought about programming reading this: "It takes patience and training for a painter to see a color on the canvas as it is rather than as how it will be perceived by others in the context of the whole picture. Similarly, it takes patience and training for a student of logic to consider only the logical terms in a premise and to ignore contextual information and background knowledge that might at first blush be relevant. … Should those of us who do not aspire to become painters or logicians feel we are missing something important for not sharing their cognitive skills? Actually, no." (p33) This also reminds me of the minds of lawyers.

I’m a David Hume fanboy and he doesn’t disappoint on this topic which the book quotes him on. Disagreeing with Descartes who believed that "animals don’t think", Hume says (p51), "Animals, therefore, are not guided in these inferences by reasoning: Neither are children: Neither are the generality of mankind, in their ordinary actions and conclusions: Neither are philosophers themselves, who in all the active parts of life, are, in the main, the same with the vulgar… Nature must have provided some other principle, of more ready, and more general use and application; nor can an operation of such immense consequence in life, as that of inferring effects from causes, be trusted to the uncertain process of reasoning and argumentation." If you cant take his word for it on that topic, well, you’ll be hard to convince. The book really is a massive exploration of this idea elaborated by Hume and others.

The book seems to try to push one of my long time assertions into the mainstream: that our minds are composed of multiple cognitive actors. On page 74, "In psychology, the mind had long been viewed as a unitary general intelligence with an integrated memory, and connected to the world through various sensory and motor organs. Today, evidence and arguments from neuroscience, developmental psychology, and evolutionary psychology has favored a view of the mind as an articulation of a much greater variety of autonomous mechanisms."

An interesting discussion of how humans have a special need to "mind read". "We attribute mental representations to one another all the time. We are often aware of what people around us think, and even what they think we think. Such thoughts about the thoughts of others come to us quite naturally." (p94) Indeed. As I read this I found it to be a glaring deficiency in all AI research I’m familiar with. Only the crudest recommendation engines exist and they can only seem impressive because the task is so amazingly complex, not because they come close to human levels of competence. The book notes that human infants can correctly assess what people are thinking even when the subject whom they are thinking about has been deceived and thinking something clearly incorrect. Another very interesting cognitive challenge that I thought would be extremely difficult for extant AI agents was (p112) to ask it to justify its beliefs — even if it was wrong. It turns out humans are extremely good at this — being wrong hardly seems to impair us!

This made me think of medical doctors. And certain "news" channels. "Our intuitions about good and bad explanations are not the same as our intuitions about the things explained. … Our intuitions about explanations exploit properties such as cogency, generality, or coherence that are properties of the explanations themselves and not of the things explained." (p103)

This very sensible point defending the thesis caught my attention. "When you argue, you do not stop using language in the normal way, nor does you audience refrain from interpreting your statements using the same pragmatic capacities they use all the time. In argumentation, ordinary forms of expression and interpretation are not overridden by alleged rules of reasoning that might be compared to rules of arithmetic. Rules of arithmetic are taught and are not contested. There is no agreement, on the other hand, on the content and very existence of rules of reasoning. What is sometimes taught as rules of reasoning is either elementary logic or questionable advice for would-be good thinking or good argumentation (such as lists of fallacies to avoid, which are themselves fallacious)." (p164) I immediately thought of programming where this is sometimes not true — there are correct rules of doing it right and doing it wrong. There may be an objective right answer. But where the goal is less constrained, even programming can be quite intuitive and artistic. Engineering in general also shares this; its unnatural but necessary communication style seems unpleasant for some people while reassuring and comfortable to others. On p220 engineers are cited specifically as the kind of people for whom argumentation — which becomes practically synonymous with reasoning — can produce effective results. In the example given, Engineer A argues for a suspension bridge and Engineer B argues for a cantilever bridge; by both trying to show the advantages of their strategy, the optimal strategy can plausibly be highlighted. Among engineers, this does happen. Less so for normal people. Engineers must be less sensitive to others boldly contradicting the validity of their thinking. Unlike, say, a lawyer who expects arguments from well defined adversaries, an engineer must be constantly ready for this from within their own team.

On p206 the book brings up the weird case of Nobel laureate Linus Pauling who was clearly a genius and clearly good at "reasoning". However, he also went a bit mad using his prodigious capacity to argue effectively to make a strong case that vitamin C is some kind of weird panacea that could do things it probably can’t such as cure cancer. It’s a reminder that the smartest people are not above the all too human risk of being wrong; they differ by being especially good at convincing everybody else to be wrong too.

A book that cites Hume is on the right track in my opinion but when Karl Popper is brought in to illuminate things, I am already on board. Here’s the book reminding us what proper "science" is according to Popper, who, in my opinion, is correct: "Scientists produce theories that are at risk of being falsified. They improve their theories by looking for falsifying evidence, by rejecting falsified theories, and by holding only to theories that have withstood repeated attempts at falsifying them." (p211) It always amazed me how many "scientists" I encountered at university research institutions who did not have a clue about this assertion.

The book’s main premise is nicely encapsulated on p235, "The fact that people are good at evaluating others' reasons is the nail in the coffin of the intellectualist approach. It means that people have the ability to reason objectively, rejecting weak arguments and accepting strong ones, but that they do not use these skills on the reasons they produce." When people produce reasons, they are biased towards their own objectives; they have a relatively poor ability to conceive of proper criticism of their own reasons. The reasons people can reliably produce proper unbiased criticism of, are those of other people. It’s a good sign for that theory that I’m having a hard time coming up with much a criticism of that idea!

Reasoning is traditionally thought of as what the book calls an "intellectualist" process where clever rational logical thinking produces correct answers that guide your actions and feelings. However, "Not only does reasoning fail to fix mistaken intuitions, as [the intellectualist] approach claims it should, but it makes people sure that they are right, whether they are right or wrong, and stick to their beliefs for no good reason. Historical examples attest that these are no minor quirks magnified by clever experiments, but real phenomena with tragic consequences." (p244)

Page 250 has some interesting thoughts on how our natural faculty for reason may now be bent into strange contortions well beyond the evolutionary service it provided. The analogy is how our ability to look at and quickly discern small shapes was always there for a variety of good effects, but today we have this crazy thing called literacy that to other animals (like your dog) must seem bonkers. Our reasoning faculty is really being stretched with things like STEM.

The book is full of interesting psychology studies. One described on p252 demonstrates what I call the "Mitch McConnel Effect". They gave people a questionnaire and then through some clever sleight of hand immediately changed the people’s answers to be the opposite of what the subjects had actually selected. "Fewer than half the participants noticed that something was wrong with the new answers. The majority went on justifying positions contrary to those they had professed a few minutes earlier, especially if their opinions weren’t too strong to start with."

This important summary elaborates on these studies (p255): "Here’s the common thread in all these results: in each case, reason drives participants toward the decision that is easier to justify." Note that easier to justify is not at all correct. The critical point here is that with two competing theories with no other distinguishing merit, a person is more likely to believe in the theory that they feel will be easier to convince other people is true. That’s a subtle but important insight.

"Our reasons for acting the way we do shouldn’t just be good reasons; they should be reasons that are easily recognized as good. … Trying to look rational, even at the price of some practical irrationality, may be the most rational thing to do." (p257) Reminds me of enterprise thinking, e.g. "no one ever got fired for buying [the ordinary brand]".

"Children’s reasoning shares two basic features of adult reasoning: myside bias and low evaluation criteria for one’s own reasons." I read that and mentally recast it as, "Adult reasoning is frighteningly similar to the reasoning of children." (p292)

Page 301 mentions a 2001 article by Jonathan Haidt called "The Emotional Dog And Its Rational Tail"; it is paywalled, but here is a readable version. However the title is enough to perfectly capture the entire essence of the book. This book could be reasonably described as a thorough vindication of the article’s premise — a surprising hypothesis not at all falsified!

Page 318 notes a study that showed scientists to be as biased (in this experimental context, perhaps not generally) as a group of ministers. "His observations showed that scientists reason to write off inconvenient results. When an experiment has a disappointing outcome, researchers do not reason impartially, questioning their initial hypothesis and trying to come up with a new one. Instead, they are satisfied with weak arguments rescuing the initial hypothesis…"

Discussing where reasoning is good and not so good, "We are as good at recognizing biases in others as we are bad at acknowledging our own. Perhaps this explains why many people can both hold onto an intellectualist position (for themselves and some kindred spirits) and firmly believe that reason is biased and lazy (particularly in individuals who disagree with them)." (p330)

There it is. Once you hear this simple idea, if you’re like me, it makes immediate sense and you start to see the world in a new way. When you’re alone, you pretty much do what you feel like you should do; it’s only around other people that you put together a "logical" case for why you’re behaving that way. By understanding that reasoning is a communication and coordination strategy I think effort applied towards it can be organized to better satisfy the real goal. But if you disagree, well, I guess I need more work on my communication strategy!

Review: Open Borders

2021-05-07 23:24

I’ve been interested in Bryan Caplan’s Open Borders: The Science And Ethics Of Immigration since I first heard about it. Caplan is also the author of The Case Against Education (my review). As you can see, this guy delights in tipping over sacred cows. Do not simply write this guy off as a nutter, however. Bryan Caplan is a smart, creative thinker who has thought about these issues a lot more than you likely have.

Open Borders is an easy to read book because despite the author admitting, "Marketing’s not my specialty to be honest," (p193) that is contradicted by the very canny use of a format my library categorizes as an "Adult Graphic Novel". The artist, Zach Weinersmith, does a superb job of illustrating the graphic part in a clear but pleasant and non-threatening way. His normal comic, SMBC, is pretty good.

I liked this book’s message. Of course I’m already on board. Caplan didn’t need to convince me. I’ve long believed that oppressive immigration controls will be viewed by future generations like slavery is by ours. Chapter one is titled "Global Apartheid" and that is exactly what immigration controls are. I’m old enough to remember when the Berlin Wall caused consternation to "free" people. I don’t see any conceptual difference between that wall and the wall at the bottom of San Diego County — some oppressive (to those directly involved) government wants to limit some people’s freedom to cross some line. From Mexico’s point of view they’ve trapped people in disadvantageous economic circumstances without having to pay for the wall. The people involved will have the exact same attitude about a wall whether crossing one in 1980s Germany or the Sonoran Desert in the 21st century.

And what good does this wall do? Americans tend to see the (southern) border wall as a way to keep poor people from "stealing" "our" … Our what? What exactly? Our stuff? Our land? Our fair women’s virtue? What?

The big one you hear most often is: They’re stealing our jaaaahhwbuzz! When I go to Home Depot and buy a 2x4 am I stealing their lumber? Yet when a poor bracero goes to Home Depot to buy some dollars (with his labor), suddenly he’s "stealing" someone’s job. Nobody worries about the lumber store that was charging double Home Depot’s prices nor feels I’m "stealing" from those guys by shopping at the inexpensive place. It’s like Americans really aren’t all that into capitalism and free markets.

Caplan is an economist and though a lot of his calculations seem a bit difficult to believe, he is at least doing some math and not just having a feeling about it. By Caplan’s reckoning, the blanket embargo on the trade of labor is throwing away gazillions of dollars in lost opportunity. My eyes glaze over with such big numbers, but roughly, he believes that we’re talking about between 50% and 150% of global productivity that could be magically generated by removing labor market friction. In other words if the world’s output was 100 units of good stuff, without restrictive borders, the world good stuff output would be between 150 and 250 units. Everyone would effectively get a massive boost in standard of living.

Are these projections of massive economic improvement realistic? Well, it certainly leaves the clear impression that global productivity won’t tumble into a dark age because some foreign people are ready and allowed to work hard for your dollars.

An open labor market is sometimes considered overly idealistic, but I think of Japan’s Sakoku period from 1639-1853 when that country closed its ports to all commerce and interaction with all foreigners. That was overly idealistic. Maybe a feudal Japan frozen in time was nice for some Japanese for a while, but eventually they lagged severely behind in pretty much everything but anachronistic handicrafts. I see globalization, and especially the internet, like Perry’s steamships that are pretty much not going to take no for an answer.

Yes, there will be some losers. Let’s consider an example. Let’s say you’re an American welder. You can make great money working on American "defense" projects. You can make decent money working in America’s protected borders. But those illegal humans are stealing welding jobs! And if they’re allowed to just enter without restrictions, they’ll take all those difficult, dangerous jobs. But think about the alternative. The current situation protects some small number of native born welders. But that protection isn’t attractive in the world’s marketplace. That protection now limits those welders to "defense" projects and products that absolutely positively can not be economically shipped from China. Do you think that most welded joints in the USA today were welded by American welders? So American welding is already impoverished. What I don’t think people realize is that along with all that welding work that went to China, the USA also lost all the manufacturing engineers, factory management personnel, and other manufacturing ecosystem players.

So rather than feel sorry for American welders, I’m feeling more sorry for the manufacturing engineers and white collar staff whose jobs already are trivial to outsource anywhere. They must actually compete properly in the world market and these artificial borders are not really helping welding work stay in the USA. But in a deeper sense, they’re just adding big transaction costs to everything. I cringe to buy a vise or anvil that had to be shipped from China; something obviously stupid is going on there. Smarter would be for the Chinese to use Chinese anvils, and Americans to use American anvils. Artificial labor market barriers are all that prevent a sensible arrangement.

Consider the current fears about America’s military industrial complex being overly reliant on Chinese imports. In my opinion, this is a very real concern. That problem has exactly one solution — open borders. Why are there so many engineers designing hardware in Taiwan? Not because they’re better at it than their American professors, but because they have an electronics industry there. They have an electronics industry because their labor market contains more free market realism than in the USA. Bringing the cheap people here really solves a lot of problems for both the USA and the cheap people.

From Caplan’s perspective, opening borders is the right thing to do, but he admits that if you really, really must unfairly exploit other people, do it here! You can tax immigrants until they pay some UBI for all displaced native workers. Better than hiring people to shoot them at the border!

The economics seem like a slam dunk to me, and as I understand it, to 99% of economists. But some people believe this is not about the money. To some it seems reasonable to throw away trillions to protect some precious nebulous cultural identity. Whatever that is. Well I can tell you what that is in the USA — it is that immigrants built America. That is the true American ethos. To say immigrants are generally bad is an obscene misrepresentation of the facts.

Here is a depraved lunatic rejecting America’s heritage — specifically the mechanism by which America was made great:

"[Mexico] are sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists."

I guess the tepid unconvincing counterargument to open borders is that sometimes immigrants do have children who are shitheads — I’m looking at you Mary Anne MacLeod. In fact, anti-immigrant sentiment among immigrants is pretty messed up and probably should not ever be taken too seriously. It blows my mind to hear Americans who are not descended directly from the original indigenous population complain about immigrants. Pissing off hypocrites is a great reason to open borders.


The book debunks a lot of myths about how immigrants behave. For example, naturalized Americans have a fifth of the incarceration rate of native born Americans. It really infuriates me to hear slanderous nonsense from parochial ignoramuses targeted at Hispanics in particular. I lived in California (and TX and FL) for a long time and Spanish speakers are, in my experience, polite, friendly, honest, and extremely hard working. The best honest reason most Americans could muster to keep them out is that Mexican laborers completely embarrass the native population’s laziness.


Caplan notes, "What’s special about Hispanics in places like California isn’t that they don’t learn English, but that they retain fluent [bilingual] Spanish for one extra generation." (p99) I attribute this to the fact that Mexicans seem to me to be much more family oriented than other Americans — something completely contrary to the idiotic stereotypes xenophobes have of them (and themselves).

The book talks a lot about what tech company HR people would call a "bad culture fit". It pragmatically singles out Islam fundies and tries to address the fear of their badness. I totally agree that they are odious but I can’t see how they are any more so than the democracy thwarting, anti-anti-fascist, trigger-happy, native fundies. I am less craven than the average America and so is Caplan — he states my exact position clearly: "Islamism barely scares me because I think westernization is quietly winning…" He goes on to say, "And will win faster if people stuck in closed societies can freely vote with their feet." (p151) If any culture wants to have a soft power culture war with rationalism, science, technology, human rights, justice, tolerance, First Amendment secularism, and freedom, please, Bring It On. The sooner we take the field, the sooner their righteous gods can send corrective lightning bolts to smite our apostasy… Or… Their 9th century thinking will quickly erode in the face of modernity. According to rumor, video games (including, ironically, Counter-Strike), Disney films, and Pr0n were all found in Bin Laden’s compound. I am satisfied with the odds here.

One superb rhetorical point Caplan makes is to just consider the US position on Canadian immigrants. Can anyone even mumble any kind of weird justification for keeping them out? Too much hockey? Curling? Justin Bieber? What could justify this? The answer is absolutely nothing! Once you acknowledge that, you start to realize that there may be some serious flaws in the USA’s attitudes toward immigration.

Caplan knows there are going to be some problems. But that is acceptable since there already are a lot of problems with the current system. His answer is what he calls "keyhole solutions", which are more targeted remedies instead of a blanket suppression of people’s ability to improve their lives by moving.

But some of his specifics hint that this will not be easy to sort out. Like the adorable suggestion on page 144 that immigrants should be required to pay, ONE THoUSanD DolLArS!!!


Bwahhwhaahhah. It’s like Caplan doesn’t realize that immigrants already are paying much more than that (I personally did anyway).

On page 147 he suggests charging foreigners a premium for education. As someone who used to work in a factory minting PhDs for people to hang up in their offices in China and Europe, this strikes me as a simple trade tariff. It’s rather poor reasoning to suggest that the students are not paying a massive premium already when they come here and work elite jobs for a fraction of their worth as what I call "grad student slaves".

If you penalize immigrants with uneven taxation as proposed on page 148, you’ll just get the same situation as what you have now - a black market in labor.

I find that anti-immigration sentiment is anti-correlated with exposure to foreigners. The book strongly hints at the same thing.


The main objection I can think of to opening the doors in a way that will encourage billions of people to all move to richer countries is that you will risk bringing billions of people up to American levels of environmental depravity. I understand that "keeping poor people poor" is a questionable way to fight global warming, pollution, deforestation, etc, but I’m not convinced that rich people are leading lives that can safely be led by all. Maybe the influx of people would generate some better thinking than rich countries have been able to muster so far. We could probably lower our carbon footprint by bringing slavery back too, but that’s a bad idea. For the same reason, global apartheid must also be a bad idea.

Here’s a good idea: explicitly scale immigration restrictions to environmental problems. This is fair and no different from, say, fishing limits. It’s a better policy to be free to fish but not destroy the fishing grounds, than to just ban fishing. By making immigration freedom a valid principle to take for granted but limiting people based on environmental capacity, you’d get a lot more enthusiasm poured into solutions for saving our planet.

Am I optimistic that any of this will ever happen? Not in my lifetime. The USA has a lot of ignorance, parochialism, meanness, hypocrisy, and irrationality. "Doing the right thing" for its own sake is not high on the American todo list. And even doing the right thing for obvious profit is not especially popular if it involves weird people with weird names wearing weird hats from far away. But good for Caplan for sticking his neck out to advocate for the right thing. The least I can do is stick my neck out by writing something like this that agrees with him. Let Americans judge us harshly — history will not.

Review: Guitar Zero

2021-05-06 22:40

The library is sort of open! Yay! Yesterday I read "Guitar Zero:The New Musician And The Science Of Learning" by Gary Marcus.

There is a lot of random musing (e.g. p162). A lot of random name dropping (e.g. also p162). It was like an outline wasn’t written before hand. Or maybe this whole book should have been a magazine article or blog post. Ah, here is a version of this book that is an article — less than 3000 words. That I could recommend to people interested in the topic.

With so many pages to fill, the book does not seem clear in what it is trying to impress upon the reader. For example, from the dust jacket, "Guitar Zero debunks the popular theory of an innate musical instinct while simultaneously challenging the idea that talent is only a myth." So "it’s complicated", eh? I think we all pretty much knew that.

One of my favorite books ever is David Huron’s Sweet Anticipation which is noted in the references and explicitly on p133. But that book was not at all muddled in its thinking. Marcus writes on p137, "If I had to sum up human music for intergalactic travelers in a single concise phrase, it might be, "Repetition, with variation". Which is very close to nonsensical. It’s like he missed Huron’s main point (about expectations being important). If you’re interested in unravelling the mysterious nature of why music is what it is, I would very much still recommend Huron and not this book.

The author says, "Becoming musical has brought balance to my life." (p198) Uh huh. And then he went on to obsess over the topic to the point of writing a book about it. That kind of "balanced" tips over washing machines.

I think the fundamental question that this book promises to explore is, "Can old farts learn new tricks?"

There is stuff like this, "My own reading of the literature is that our memory skills slowly decline from the mid-twenties onward…" (p92) (Note that this is about the level of fancy scholarship in the book - a fancy scholar tells you what he imagines after reading a lot of other fancy scholars.) The issue I have with that particular line of thinking is this — is it correct to say my memory is worse than a younger person who can more easily remember new things that I already know? Since we’re just having feelings about these topics, my feeling on this exact matter, which I do think gets to the heart of the book’s central question, is that one’s memory is like a tank of gas under pressure. You can, in theory, always add more to it, but you better have a strong tank and the pressure will exacerbate any leaks. The major defect of the analogy is that it is actually quite difficult and mysterious to deliberately forget things. If I could purge advertising jingles from the 1970s, I’d be speaking Mandarin tomorrow and I’d certainly be able to memorize all guitar scales handily.

One of the big themes seems to be that "…there’s no evidence that learning late is an absolute deal breaker." (p94) I felt like this pandered to middle-aged guitar wannabes, perhaps what the author himself wants to hear. But this is like saying, cigarette smoking doesn’t kill everybody. The book is coy about giving us the truth about just how bad it really is.

The author signs up for some kind of rock music summer camp for kids and one of the activities is to play in a band with them. The book presents this as a gimmick, to muddle towards answers to its questions. But I instantly realized that this was an especially good idea. As an old man who has played a lot of on-line games with a crew of kids, I can attest to the fact that they are astonishingly good at a lot of things — but not everything. Why am I better than the average middle schooler when it comes to Minecraft industrial engineering? Well, I do have a university degree in it. Etc. Multi-generational activities are a tragically lost art leaving us all poorer.

I was puzzled to read (p100) "…Jimmy Page [didn’t start music] until he was an adolescent…" That didn’t sound quite right to me because I’ve seen Page performing on the BBC at age 13. But who knows - Wikipedia says he was largely self-taught and young Page himself says he is taking lessons. Whatever. The bigger point is that using this kind of anecdotal evidence, one could start to think that musical success is related to skiffle in some weird way.

The book meta-reports, "[A big research study] discovered that nearly half of the variation in how well schoolchildren played musical instruments could be predicted three years in advance, on the basis of talent alone (as measured by musical aptitude tests that examined factors such as tonal and rhythmic imagery.)" (p104) I wondered how many extraordinary creative talents would slip through the cracks if a test was used to (somewhat reasonably) dissuade "bad" musicians from wasting their time. And as an exercise for the reader imagine this as a kind of intelligence test and then consider a person’s other, uh, "demographic" details. (Like those who were not sent to Stalin’s Gulags, I have no opinion and do not ever think about such things. Moving on.)

The book did its best to debunk the very misleading myth that musicianship is generally attractive to mates. I know women who would rather inhale all the fumes from my guitars burning than hear me play one. "People don’t indulge in the arts because it is good for their genes; they do it despite their genes." (p112) True enough.

On page 164 we get to a critical music issue that I think the author has made a major mistake with. "Probably the least important skill among popular musicians is the ability to read sheet music… Many of the world’s musical traditions exist entirely without musical notation…"

Let’s start with the fact that most of the world’s musical traditions have probably existed without written notation. And are probably extinct.

The way I see it, "popular musicians" don’t need to go through the trouble of written music literacy because they are popular. They have natural talent and charisma and from those assets, some resulting success and encouragement. Why bother?

For people like me, talent is mostly present only in a rich fantasy inner monologue. For me to touch a guitar elicits the same scorn as driving a monster truck would. No, this is going to be a much higher mountain for me than for "popular musicians". That extra difficulty is exactly how much more I need to seriously consider developing some music reading skills.

Fortunately, I did just read a book about music and not for the first time. Clearly my talents and passions are not utterly incompatible with literacy technologies.

After convincing himself that he can (lazily IMO) skip reading music, the author lists the four things that really must be coordinated: "…the notes the musician hears, the notes the musician wants to play, the location of those notes on the instrument, and the physical actions… to play the right notes" (p167). But what a massive oversimplification to presume "the notes the musician wants to play"! This is like saying a painter doesn’t need a model, but later acknowledging how important "the lines the painter wants to paint" are. Just because some brilliant painters can imagine something and then produce compelling artwork does not mean that drawing from reference material is not a critical skill for the overwhelming majority of even genius artists and all lesser ones.

I feel like my guitar dexterity is about as good as it’s going to get and it’s serviceable (e.g. I’d be nervous to trade with Black Sabbath guitarist Tommy Iommi who is missing a piece of one of his fingers). My enthusiasm is decent and while my natural talent is not in the top 1%, I do feel like it’s in the top 50% (of humans, not guitar players). But then what? What do I do now to not just strum the same meandering chords that Marcus is proud to have learned? My answer is to start working on the massive catalog of music that was carefully written down so that even dolts like me could have a shot at playing something interesting.

Of course reading music is not easy. Sight reading a prima vista, especially so. And here is where the book disappointed me the most. How should a rank novice go about learning music (reading, playing, theory, the lot)? To me it’s glaringly obvious.

Computers. Computers. Computers. Computers. Computers. Computers. Computers. Computers. Computers. Computers. Computers. Computers.

The author doesn’t quite see the abject tragedy of Guitar Hero. That stunted game taught a generation of people to sight read fake notation and play it on a fake guitar. Sooo close but totally useless. On pages 197-199 he talks about Guitar Hero and Rock Band as if they were similar. They are not. They are only similar in the same way that flapping your arms, and flying a hang glider both crudely approximate what birds do — the latter is profoundly more interesting. While Guitar Hero is painfully pointed at a dead end, Rock Band is a different story altogether. In that "game" the guitar fretboard layout of the "Pro" controllers is quite real. This is what my Rock Band 3 MadCatz Fender Mustang Guitar Controller looks like.


This has essentially all the same notes as a real guitar. Yes, classical guitar snobs proficient since childhood will have no use for this. But for people like me and this book’s author, a piece of hardware like this should be a godsend. As I recall I paid less than $150 for the thing new back in about 2010. Here’s my review of it.

Or how about this actual Fender Squier Pro Rock Band 3 Guitar/Controller - note the gaming buttons on this real guitar.


That was only $280 and a full MIDI guitar — in the words of this reviewer, "a pretty damn good guitar for the money". This video is a good introduction to what was possible with the hardware over ten years ago.

The critical concept here is that with both of these devices, a computer can know what you’re playing. Exactly. And, with infinite patience and accuracy that no human teacher can dream of matching, it can provide perfect objective feedback on exactly what you’re doing wrong.

The tragedy of the Rock Band 3 game is that it taught you to read a fake notation (inset in the previous photo), useless outside of the game.


Even if you got good, as I (aka mallyvox) was clearly prepared to do, it doesn’t translate to reading any other kind of music. What an unbelievable shame! By the way, I also bought the Rocksmith game which has a proprietary MIDI-like adaptor for normal guitars (the reason I built a guitar!). I was hoping it did a better job at teaching real music skills but it had the same problem: a fake charting notation that was even worse than RB3’s.

But the hardware for having computers really help you learn was quite ready for action over a decade ago. This is exactly what people like me and the author of this book really needed.

How am I so certain of this? Back in 1992 I learned to play the piano in a few months — yes, that’s right, from nothing to playing the piano from sheet music. I did this in complete isolation using the Miracle Piano Teaching System.


This amazing system was absolute genius and confirmed what I imagined should be possible even in those ancient times. To get instant, constant, perfect feedback 100% of the time you practice is incredibly powerful. Even my mother who was then in the author’s demographic gave it a try and she agreed that it was deserving of its name — despite living decades in a house with a piano, with this computer-based teaching system, it was a miracle that she could finally begin to play one. My mother and I have forgotten nearly everything about playing the piano, but for a time we were more competent reading grand staff sheet music and playing it on a complex instrument than the author of this book.

If you’re a middle aged "guitar zero", all the equipment you need to painlessly learn how to read the vast corpus of written music is readily available. I have owned all of the necessary hardware for over a decade. What is missing is software.

As much as I personally would rather not be the person who writes this software, I’ve waited long enough and am not seeing much choice. Every few years I see if anyone has a decent system, and so far have seen nothing I like. These are my requirements for such software.

  • Interface with a real 6 string guitar-like device with 15 or more frets.

  • Monitor the playing of displayed sheet music, and provide instant feedback on any errors.

    • An untimed mode where you can take your time just to learn the note placement.

    • A timed mode with a beat (and optional metronome) where playing the right note at the wrong time (e.g. late) is also flagged as an error.

  • The ability to set the tempo in timed mode.

  • Allow custom music to be added to the system.

That really does not seem like a lot to ask. I actually did some work on this project earlier in the year. It’s easy to procrastinate though because I keep hoping that someone else will beat me to it and make a sane obvious computerized system that helps teach guitar sight reading. Until that happens I may not be a guitar "zero", but I, like the author of the book, am definitely less than one.


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