Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
The ups and downs of English
James Harris on The ups and downs of English
Simon Gibbs on Wedding photography (4): Preparations
6000 on Bookshops as Amazon showrooms
Darren on Bookshops as Amazon showrooms
Michael Jennings on Wedding photography (2): Signs
MarkR on Feynman Diagrams on the Feynman van
MNB Achari on Google Nexus 4 photos
MNB Achari on The ups and downs of English
Robert Hale on Feynman Diagrams on the Feynman van
Most recent entries
- Big Things blocked by the trees of Southwark Park
- Wedding photography (4): Preparations
- Bookshops as Amazon showrooms
- Reflections on a strange coincidence involving an Android app and a malfunctioning bus stop sign
- Feynman Diagrams on the Feynman van
- Rothko Toast
- Wedding photography (3): Technology as sculpture
- And another posting from my smartphone
- Posted from my new smartphone
- Google Nexus 4 photos
- Wedding photography (2): Signs
- Wedding photography (1): The superbness of the weather
- A Fleet Street lunch
- So painters also used to “take” pictures
- Funniest run out ever?
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Category archive: Books
Bookshops are doomed, if my behaviour is anything to go by.
I treat them not as shops, but as showrooms. In them, I inspect potential purchases. Then I go home and see what Amazon will charge for anything I see that looks interesting.
A bookshop is not the only place for me to look for books of interest, but it is definitely one such place. The books in bookshops tend to be the more popular titles. This appeals to me for two reasons. First, popular titles tend to be quite good, and are seldom totally bad. Second, popular titles plug me into what the rest of middlebrow England is reading. I thus break out of the libertarian ghetto which I mostly inhabit when internetting. Even if a book is total rubbish, it’s still total rubbish that many are reading, and in that sense worth me reading.
When in bookshops, I used to jot down titles of interest. Now I merely take photos. Digital cameras are not just for taking pictures. They are also for taking notes.
Here are last Sunday evening’s notes, snapped in the big W. H. Smith at Victoria Station:
In each case, click on each picture to get to the Amazon spiel about it.
It may well be that, given Buy 1 Get 1 Half Price offers, one could, in this or that instance, get a better deal for this or that combination of books than one might on Amazon. But Amazon is the way to bet. You occasionally miss out on small savings with Amazon, but you quite often get larger savings, so you end up well ahead. In this case, the big Amazon bargain turned out to be the Bryson book, which cost 1p plus postage (= £2.81). All that is required is a little patience.
The most expensive of these books, even after Amazon had worked its price magic, was the one about 1216. But I still ordered that one. It sounds really interesting.
Great as the impact of Amazon has been on the new books market, I surmise that its impact on the not-so-new book market has been downright epoch-making. (That Bryson book is not so new, having been released in 2011.) Indeed, I surmise that Amazon has created a huge second hand book market where no such market previously existed.
But this too impinges on the bookshop business, because the big cost of books these days is as much reading time as reading money. If people spend time reading somewhat ancient books that they like, they have less time for the latest titles, as sold in bookshops.
A few years back, I got interested in Ian Rankin’s Rebus books. I read one, liked it a lot, and decided to read them all, in order. Why? Because, thanks to Amazon, I could. For a lot less than a fiver a go, I got Amazon to send me second hand copies of every Rebus I didn’t already have. I don’t see how I could have done this satisfactorily without Amazon.
See also: public libraries.
Also, impact of digital photography on trade, discuss. I’m thinking of how much easier it is to sell something to a stranger, by post, if you can cheaply show them a photo, or even several photos. Very cheaply. The marginal cost of digital photography is: zero. Impact of digital photography on trade: epoch-making. With books, you pretty much know what you will get. But, a frock? An item of furniture? Without even a photo, forget it. With photos, you’re in business. Which is more terrible news for shops.
As has already been reported here, I have been reading Pride and Prejudice on my Google Nexus 4 ultra-mobile computer-with-phone. And, in Chapter X of this book, I read this:
My highlighted version of that last sentence being:
“As for your Elizabeth’s picture, you must not attempt to have it taken, for what painter could do justice to those beautiful eyes?”
So, in Jane Austen time, painters “took” pictures.
I thought that was only photographers. There does seem, does there not?, to be something peculiarly apt about a photographer “taking” a picture. After all, you could only “take” a picture with one click of a mechanical button, as I just did of my Google Nexus 4 with my Panasonic Lumix FZ150, if the picture was in some basic sense already there for the taking, in its entirety. “Take” gets across the difference between photoing someone and painting a portrait of them, by which I mean “making” a portrait.
Perhaps this “take” usage, to describe portrait painting, declined when the painters stopped claiming to produce what we now call photographic likenesses, and, under the competitive influence of actual photography, began to “make” pictures of people, the whole point ofand the whole justification of which was that a mere camera could absolutely not “take” such pictures. Such paintings are made, not taken. To accuse a painter of “taking” a picture would be to accuse him of adding nothing.
This is a test file. I am practising typing on my new Google Nexus 4, but would prefer a keyboard. A keyboard is on order.
lt is strange not using a mouse.
Now I will attempt to transfer this file to Dawkins.
What is this new device going to be christened?
Well, what I did was copy and paste the text, rather than transfer the entire file. Worked okay. Then I did further rewriting, which is far easier on Dawkins. But, I used the Dawkins mouse. Won’t have a mouse when on the move. Michael J says I’ll get used to not using a mouse, but that doesn’t now feel true. A mouse is far more precise than a stubby finger, surely.
The main thing I’ve done with the new GN4 (there does have to be a better name than that, doesn’t there?) is re-reading Pride and Prejudice, in an e-book copy that has quite a lot of mis-scannings in it, occasionally quite confusingly. You get what you pay for, I guess, and I didn’t pay anything for it.
Last night I attended a book launch, of two books, one by Madsen Pirie, and the other by J. P. Floru.
I took lots of photos, but literally just the one came out half decently. All the rest were too blurry.
So, what was special about this one? Seriously, see if you can work it out:
That’s J. P Floru, looking up for the cameras while signing a copy of his book. There’s a clue there.
I hope to be saying more about Floru’s book at Samizdata, Real Soon Now, but I promise nothing.
Ripple: me quoting Madsen Pirie, here.
Another ripple: the ASI quoting me, here.
The ASI seems happy, despite the delay.
LATER: Madsen Pirie quoting me, here.
While I was on that Waterloo Station upper deck, I espied a couple of adverts next to each other, put out by this organisation.
Here they are together:
And here they each are separately, for you to click on to get them well and truly readable:
Okay, I accept these challenges, and will respond.
The left hand one is a variant on the theme of “a billion people can’t be wrong”. Yes they can. Why has the Qur’an remained unchanged? There are any number of reasons why that would happen, other than what they are trying to say, which is that it is all true. Because it is an object of unthinking worship, rather than of serious study? (Remember that the memorising of it is often done by people who have no idea what they are saying, merely reproducing sounds.) Because people have been too scared to challenge it? Because Islam remains stuck in the seventh century, and unthinking bigotry is built into it?
Science, which the second advert seeks to argue was pre-echoed by the Qur’an, has changed over and over again. And this is a sign of science’s intellectual seriousness and intellectual vitality. Lack of change, century after century, signifies the opposite.
As for the claim of the Qur’an to be science before science, the real theory of the big bang is but the conceptual tip of an intellectual iceberg consisting of a ton of evidence and interpretation, and it is the latter that gives science its force. Science is not merely true. It explains why it is true. It argues about whether it is true. And consequently it gets ever more true. Islam is no truer now than it was thirteen centuries ago.
The good news here is that the claim that the Qur’an is as scientific as real science is a huge concession to the acknowledged intellectual superiority of science. “We have been right all along, and science proves it!” But if they really thought that the Qur’an was the last word on everything, they wouldn’t be dragging science in to back the claim up. Science would be ignored.
But they know that they cannot now ignore science. Science is a challenge they know they have to respond to. On account of it being so much truer and so much better at getting at more truth than the unchanging and unchangeable incantations that they are stuck with.
It is now Monday afternoon, but the end of my Thursday Odyssey is hardly yet in site.
My next stop was at Gramex, where second hand classical CDs are on sale, in particular abundance during the last week or two, as it happens.
The BBC is making a big fuss of LPs just now. Fair enough. LPs had a huge influence on the music being created at the time. Pop music was transformed, for a while, by the album, as was Pop Art, the album cover being a new arena for graphic fun and games of all kinds. Remember all those concept albums?
I just about do, but for me, Pop etc. was a parallel universe. I never disliked it, in fact I admired and admire it very much, and I like occasional pop tracks hugely. Pop is hugely better than recent “classical”, classical being basically a museum now. But despite all that, then as now, I still preferred and prefer classical, and for all but a few vinyl-obsessed classicists, the LP was never more than a means of reproduction, a window to look out at the classical garden, and a very ropey one at that what with all the clicks and scratches, particularly during your favourite bits. Classical music was a going concern long before recordings of any kind existed, and classical LP graphics never amounted to much more than pictures of the musicians, fancy ye-olde typography and/or kitschy chocolate box type landscapes. So when classical LPs were replaced by classical CDs, little was lost and a universe of distraction-free clarity was gained. CDs, certainly classical CDs, after a brief interlude of euphoric demand-driven bonanza profits, quickly got cheaper than LPs if you knew anything about how to buy them, on account of them being so much cheaper to make and distribute.
At first, people thought CDs would eventually disintegrate, but actually what was disintegrating was the CD players. CDs last for ever, provided you are minimally careful. Certainly mine all have, the only problem CDs being the ones that were scratched when I bought them. Crucial to the cheapness of CDs is that you can buy them second hand with reasonable confidence. On Amazon, sellers are terrified of a bad rating, and in shops, you can search out scratches for yourself. Often a shop will let you buy and try, and return if it is too much of a mess. Often what looks like a mess plays just fine. (The trick is to realise that scratches often don’t matter, provided they point towards the middle, as it were. The ones that go with the groove, sideways, because they seriously interrupt the one stream of digital stuff, are the killers.)
So for me, classical CDs were love at first sound. I keep wondering if I may soon stop buying them, but the sort I continue to buy, second-hand at Gramex or (more recently) from Amazon, continue to drift downwards in price.
Here is what I bought at Gramex on Thursday:
I paid only eight quid for those. And the one on the left is a double, which I have been looking for cheap for quite a while. Look for them on Amazon, here and here, and you discover (today anyway) that you would have to pay more like thirty quid for those. Plus, there is no postage to pay if you buy them in Gramex, like there is with Amazon. The cheaper the stuff you like to buy, the more that matters.
Which, along with the exercise I get from going there, is why I keep returning to Gramex. Boss Roger Hewland knows exactly what he is doing. He knows all about Amazon, and regularly checks prices there so as to go below them. He buys big collections for about one quid per CD, often within a minute of looking at them. He then piles them high, sells them cheap, and turns over his stock fast. He knows that getting four quid for something he sells in two days is a better deal for him than getting a tenner, but a month later. And he charges more like one quid for less desirable CDs, just to get rid of them and to make it worthwhile for his regulars to keep on visiting.
More and more regular shops won’t or can’t think like this, and in the face of online selling are just folding their tents, to be replaced by gift shops, restaurants and coffee shops. The latter two being what I did next.
First I went to Marie’s Thai Restaurant, a minute away along Lower Marsh from Gramex, and had my regular chicken and cashoo nuts with rice and a glass of orange juice, and then killed some more time in a Cafe Nero, while continuing to read about Tamerlane, in a book I recently bought for four quid in a remainder shop. He was born. He deceived. He tortured. He slaughtered. He conquered. He died. His vast empire immediately fell apart amidst further slaughter. What a pointless monster. Read about all that and tell me there’s no such thing as progress.
Coffee shops do puzzle me a bit, though. How to do they pay their rent? The morning and lunchtime rushes I suppose, which I avoid.
So far, for me, one of the most impressive or a great many impressive things to be found in Steven Pinkers new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is his description of The Enlightenment. (I mentioned this huge volume, in passing, in my latest Samizdata posting, and at greater length in an earlier posting.)
So. The Enlightenment. This is a word I have heard all my life. But what did it, does it, mean? It is assumed that all educated people know what The Enlightenment means, and that it was and is a noble and fine thing, and why it was and is a noble and fine thing. But why, exactly? I guess that, until now, I was not educated.
What makes Pinker’s exposition of the ideas behind The Enlightenment so excellent is that he explains how the scientific project at the heart of The Enlightenment was joined at the hip to a new moral vision of mankind. This was not merely a couple of vaguely benevolent quests, for scientific truth on the one hand, and for moral excellence on the other. For, as Pinker asks, why did the quest for scientific truth necessarily imply a quest for moral improvement (as we now regard it), for greater “humanity” in our treatment of other humans? Pinker answers this question.
I found that picture of Pinker here.
Whenever I scan in a great gob of verbiage from a book into this blog, I warn readers that the posting may disappear without warning, in the event of the slightest objection from the author, or from the publisher, or from anyone else connected with upholding the intellectual property in question. There is no way that me reproducing this relatively tiny fragment of Pinker’s huge book will damage its sales, quite the reverse. But, if those charged with overseeing such things inform me that, in their view, a line has been crossed by this posting, a line they consider worth defending, this excerpt (from Chapter 4, “The Humanitarian Revolution”, pp. 216-221 of my Penguin paper edition) will immediately vanish.
In other words, if, having read the above, you decide that you will be wanting to read what follows, best to do that now.
Bringing people and ideas together, of course, does not determine how those ideas will evolve. The rise of the Republic of Letters and the cosmopolitan city cannot, by themselves, explain why a humanitarian ethics arose in the 18th century, rather than ever-more-ingenious rationales for torture, slavery, despotism, and war.
My own view is that the two developments really are linked. When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases - given that they were doing their biology properly, and given that DNA really does have four bases, in the long run they could hardly have discovered anything else - we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics. With enough scrutiny by disinterested, rational, and informed thinkers, these practices cannot be justified indefinitely. The universe of ideas, in which one idea entails others, is itself an exogenous force, and once a community of thinkers enters that universe, they will be forced in certain directions regardless of their material surroundings. I think this process of moral discovery was a significant cause of the Humanitarian Revolution.
I am prepared to take this line of explanation a step further. The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism. (It is also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well.) Here is a potted account of this philosophy - a rough but more or less coherent composite of the views of these Enlightenment thinkers.
It begins with skepticism. The history of human folly, and our own susceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that men and women are fallible. One therefore ought to seek good reasons believing something. Faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty - all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.
Is there anything we can be certain of? Descartes gave as good an answer as any: our own consciousness. I know that I am conscious, by the very fact of wondering what I can know, and I can also know that my consciousness comprises several kinds of experience. These include the perception of an external world and of other people, and various pleasures and pains, both sensual (such as food, comfort, and sex) and spiritual (such as love, knowledge, and an appreciation of beauty).
We are also committed to reason. If we are asking a question, evaluating possible answers, and trying to persuade others of the value of those answers, then we are reasoning, and therefore have tacitly signed on to the validity of reason. We are also committed to whatever conclusions follow from the careful application of reason, such as the theorems of mathematics and logic.
Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it. The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science. The progress of science, with its dazzling success at explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge - not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.
The indispensability of reason does not imply that individual people are always rational or are unswayed by passion and illusion. It only means that people are capable of reason, and that a community of people who choose to perfect this faculty and to exercise it openly and fairly can collectively reason their way to sounder conclusions in the long run. As Lincoln observed, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
Among the beliefs about the world of which we can be highly confident is that other people are conscious in the same way that we are. Other people are made of the same stuff, seek the same kinds of goals, and react with external signs of pleasure and pain to the kinds of events that cause pain and pleasure in each of us.
By the same reasoning, we can infer that people who are different from us in many superficial ways - their gender, their race, their culture - are like us in fundamental ways. As Shakespeare’s Shylock asks:
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
The commonality of basic human responses across cultures has profound implications. One is that there is a universal human nature. It encompasses our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and our common vulnerability to folly (not least the desire for revenge). Human nature may be studied, just as anything else in the world may be. And our decisions on how to organize our lives can take the facts of human nature into account - including the discounting of our own intuitions when a scientific understanding casts them in doubt.
The other implication of our psychological commonality is that however much people differ, there can be, in principle, a meeting of the minds. I can appeal to your reason and try to persuade you, applying standards of logic and evidence that both of us are committed to by the very fact that we are both reasoning beings.
The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me - to get off my foot, or not to stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from drowning - then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours if I want you to take me seriously (say, by retaining my right to stand on your foot, or to stab you, or to let your children drown). I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.
You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children when they get into trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded our surpluses while they rotted, let each other’s children drown, and feuded incessantly. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one where we both are unselfish.
Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions, and also in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal.
From the factual knowledge that there is a universal human nature, and the moral principle that no person has grounds for privileging his or her interests over others’, we can deduce a great deal about how we ought to run our affairs. A government is a good thing to have, because in a state of anarchy people’s self-interest, self-deception, and fear of these shortcomings in others would lead to constant strife. People are better off abjuring violence, if everyone else agrees to do so, and vesting authority in a disinterested third party. But since that third party will consist of human beings, not angels, their power must be checked by the power of other people, to force them to govern with the consent of the governed. They may not use violence against their citizens beyond the minimum necessary to prevent greater violence. And they should foster arrangements that allow people to flourish from cooperation and voluntary exchange.
This line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied. I experience pleasures and pains, and pursue goals in service of them, so I cannot reasonably deny the right of other sentient agents to do the same.
If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment, and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it. Though not necessarily atheistic (it is compatible with a deism in which God is identified with the nature of the universe), Enlightenment humanism makes no use of scripture, Jesus, ritual, religious law, divine purpose, immortal souls, an afterlife, a messianic age, or a God who responds to individual people. It sweeps aside many secular sources of value as well, if they cannot be shown to be necessary for the enhancement of human flourishing. These include the prestige of the nation, race, or class; fetishized virtues such as manliness, dignity, heroism, glory, and honor; and other mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, and struggles.
I would argue that Enlightenment humanism, whether invoked explicitly or implicitly, underlay the diverse humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. The philosophy was explicitly invoked in the design of the first liberal democracies, most transparently in the ‘self-evident truths’ in the American Declaration of Independence. Later it would spread to other parts of the world, blended with humanistic arguments that had arisen independently in those civilizations. And as we shall see in chapter 7, it regained momentum during the Rights Revolutions of the present era.
James Hamilton on self help and class
A review of Detlev Schlichter’s new book (multiplied by 4)
76 operas and a monument in the wrong place for Hermann the German
Emmanuel Todd’s latest book - in English
Science can relax about the harm done to it by Climategate
After the wedding
Pictures of Detlev Schlichter
The bike behind the theatre
Let us now trash infamous men
Julian Assange drove Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s cat Herr Schmitt crazy
I can now copy and paste from .pdf files
Bouncing bombs and spinning cricket balls
An amazon reviewer defends Alex Ross
Alex Ross on Hollywood film scores
English will not last for ever shock
Mmmmm … bookshelves!
At the launch of Alchemists of Loss
Sleeping rough and reading an SF classic
As strong and sweet as the free market itself
God is not One
Molly Norris was just kidding!
You know where you are with a book - usually
Talking about The Hockey Stick Illusion with Bishop Hill
Unravelling the puzzle – and making it into a movie
Trying to become an adequate interviewer of promising libertarians
Frank McLynn: “Counterfactual history is the essence of history …”
Under a hundred copies
Our shortening atten … ooh look!
What a difference a g makes
France falls in love with Hugh Laurie
“Vivid characters, devious plotting and buckets of gore …”
MBA - necessary but insufficient
The Rand revival - and some thoughts about Rand’s failure to understand architectural tradition
And here is a real quotation
Quota quotes from Wodehouse
On autobiographical ruthlessness
Thoughts concerning FDR’s warmongering nature
Not the book I want to read right now - maybe later
Switching from dumb bombing to smart bombing
“I’ll build it with explosive bolts connecting the wings to the fuselage …”
If the Jews have been running the world they haven’t been doing it very successfully
A poetic Hornby
An impulse posting about procrastination
You must enjoy reading!
Theodore Dalrymple on the menace of honest public officials and much else besides
Bookcase staircase many books electric book manybooks.net