Books

I found this idea fascinating.

I was thinking recently, one day we might run out of new images. Let’s take the current standard for high quality images, 1080p hi def video. It’s surprising to realize that that frame contains a finite number of possible images. I thought it would be interesting to figure out just how many, so I wrote a little Python expression to do the math. The total number of pixels is 1920 horizontally x 1080 vertically = 2,073,600 pixels. There are 256 possible intensities of red, green and blue for each pixel, so that’s 2563 = 16,777,216 possible colors. To figure out how many possible images there are, we need to raise the second number to the power of the first, so 16,777,2162,073,600 = 1.5 * 1014,981,180 possible images. That’s a pretty big number – it’s almost fifteen million digits long. Printing it in 10 point Monaco would take over 2,700 pages of paper. Scientists estimate that there are 1080 atoms in the observable universe – a tiny number in comparison.

However big it may be, the fact that the number is finite is a surprising thing to realize. It means that every possible image has a unique ID number.

Given enough time this machine will display every possible picture within this array of 64 x 64 black & white pixels.

What makes this interesting is that among those pictures will be those of all your ancestors and descendents, the first words of every book that will ever be written. The true digital face of God.

It brought to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s brilliant short story The Nine Billion Names of God.

“This is a project on which we have been working for the last three centuries — since the lamasery was founded, in fact. It is somewhat alien to your way of thought, so I hope you will listen with an open mind while I explain it.”

“Naturally.”

“It is really quite simple. We have been compiling a list which shall contain all the possible names of God.”

“We have reason to believe,” continued the lama imperturbably, “that all such names can be written with not more than nine letters in an alphabet we have devised.”

“And you have been doing this for three centuries?”

“Yes. We expected it would take us about fifteen thousand years to complete the task.”

It’s all in there, every possible image.  There’s an image of me sitting in front of my computer just as I am right now.  And there’s an image of my Great, Great, . . ., Great Grandfather hefting up the megaliths at Stone Henge.  And there’s an image of my Great, Great, . . ., Great Grandson basking on the beach under the alien sun of Fhloston Paradise.  Even if it didn’t, or doesn’t, happen.

Don’t worry too much though.  At a TV frame rate of 30 images per second, even the super low resolution 64 x 64 black and white version would take 359,676,102,360,200,472,965,684,305,166 years to watch from beginning to end.

Again, Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false.  . . .  And immortality makes this other difference, which, by the by, has a connection with the difference between totalitarianism and democracy.  If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual.  But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of the state or civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.

— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 74-75

America is a land of wonders, in which everything is in constant motion and every change seems an improvement. The idea of novelty is there indissolubly connected with the idea of amelioration. No natural boundary seems to be set to the efforts of man; and in his eyes what is not yet done is only what he has not yet attempted to do.

This perpetual change which goes on in the United States, these frequent vicissitudes of fortune, these unforeseen fluctuations in private and public wealth, serve to keep the minds of the people in a perpetual feverish agitation, which admirably invigorates their exertions and keeps them, so to speak, above the ordinary level of humanity. The whole life of an American is passed like a game of chance, a revolutionary crisis, or a battle. As the same causes are continually in operation throughout the country, they ultimately impart an irresistible impulse to the national character.

I’m hoping that this doesn’t just become a book review page, but . . .

Neal Stephenson is fast becoming one of my favorite authors.  He manages to seamlessly blend the hard science fiction elements into a complex social and political context.  Unfortunately, The Diamond Age misses the witty, grin-inducing bobsled ride of Snow Crash without capturing the depth and grace of Anathem.  A big dollop of seemingly unnecessary prurience did nothing to improve my opinion.  So far, my least favorite Stephenson novel, but enjoyable and engaging none the less.

Stephenson also coined the term Anglosphere in this book.  A concept I have had something to say about on occasion.

I just finished reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  I read it all in one sitting, finishing about 5 am this morning.  To sum it up in one word — Compelling.  I wouldn’t call it a good book.  This post-apocalyptic tale is stark, despairing, and terrible (in the sense of  “great and terrible”), and I couldn’t put it down.

It isn’t for everyone — but the prose is masterful, and I will not get the images out of my head for a long time.

JustKidding, a friend, reader and frequent commentator on this site was recently asked, in another forum, to provide a list of Libertarian readings that might help someone get an idea of what Libertarians are all about.  He was kind enough to forward his response to me, and I think it is well worth repeating here.  I have included links for those works that are available on line.

Here are some books that I would recommend.  They are not all the most scintillating books, but they will get you started:

1.  An easy start to learning about libertarian philosophy (or classical liberalism, as it is also called) is to read almost anything by Frederic Bastiat, a nineteenth century philosopher.  He is generally concise and easy to understand, something not all philosophers can say.
a. The Law
b. What is seen and what is unseen
c. The petition of the candlestick makers

2.  One thing that most libertarians believe is that the use of government force is inherently immoral, and that in only a few cases is that immoral quality outweighed by the near-universality of the benefits (some level of national defense and law enforcement, for example).  However, most libertarians also believe that, even if it weren’t immoral for government to use force to do “good things,” it is impossible for the government to coordinate the resources necessary for it to do what it claims to want to do.
a. I, Pencil, Leonard Read (discusses the enormous amount of info needed to make a simple pencil)
b. The Use of Knowledge in Society, by Fredrich Hayek (this is a little more complicated reading than I, Pencil, but addresses the same principles in a much more powerful fashion)

3.  The environment is one area where people usually assume that the government has to step in or we humans will destroy everything, but humans are possibly not that destructive, and government can also be devastating to the environment.
a. Free Market Environmentalism, by Terry Anderson
b. The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Bjorn Lumborg

4.  There is a lot written about the natural inclination of government towards being bought off by interest groups (economists call it rent-seeking), but much of it is pretty complicated.  Here is one that isn’t:
a. Beyond Politics, by William Mitchell and Randy Simmons

5.  There are some libertarian books that are just a fun read
a. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein (a sci-fi book about a moon colony – very good)
b. Fair Play, by Steven Landsburg (non-fiction, but written by an economist who writes in a very easily understood and entertaining way)

6.  Finally, if you like these books, and want something a little more in-depth and complicated, try:
a. The Road to Serfdom, by Fredrich Hayek
b. The Fatal Conceit, by Fredrich Hayek
c. The Mystery of Capital, by Hernando de Soto

I hope that helps!

In One Man Caravan, Robert Edison Fulton, Jr., heir to the Mack Truck fortune, recounts his rather spontaneous round-the-world motorcycle journey, undertaken solo in 1932-33 on a Douglas twin.  Fulton’s narrative is insightful and relevant, while maintaining the eclectic, rambling flavor of a good travelogue and generally avoiding the monotony of a bad one.  I would definitely recommend it.

Fulton’s journey takes him through lands very much in our minds today, recovering in a Baghdad hospital, camping with the British Army in Waziristan, and trekking into a hostile Afghanistan.

On Afghanistan (pp. 169-70):

When the star of Afghanistan first rose on my horizon, little did I realize what a large and truly important part it has played in world affairs.  Even as the present name implies, the country is the “place of the Afghan.”  Wild nomadic tribes made it their stamping ground at the dawn of history, each stamping on the other, fighting for existence.
Alexander of Macedonia; Timur, the lame Tartar of Smarkand; Mahmud of Ghazni; Nadir Shah, the Persian–all came and saw and conquered; exacting a vague submission from the Afghans.  But the tribes bowed down only until the current conqueror’s death.  Then they would be free again until the next conqueror came along.  They knew no law in their allegiance, and became masters at straddling the proverbial fence.

I think we can add Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States to the list.

From a discussion with a bazaari in Baghdad (p. 74):

“No, but I have been to England,” he explained.  “I have read much about America.  A very fine land.”
. . .
“Someday, someday we too shall have a country like yours, but we have far to go; very far, many centuries.  Things move slowly with us here in the East.  We have our customs and formalities and, do not misunderstand me, our ideas of what is right and wrong are very different from yours.”

I also think Fulton’s description of pre World War II Japan is important.  On many occasions, I have commented about the Bush administration’s arrogance in thinking that we would be able to wipe the Iraqi slate clean and build a functioning liberal democracy from nothing, especially given our track record at nation building.  Inevitably, someone mentions Japan as an example of success.  But, Fulton’s account of Japan shows the fallacy of this argument.  Pre-war Japan seems nothing like the Iraq of then or now.

On Japanese infrastructure (p. 260):

On other roads, other muscles had ached, but the roads of Japan, from Nagasaki to Tokyo, were a dream and for one who had spent many months on practically no roads at all, Japan was a bit of heaven’s highway.  Dirt or paved, they were well-marked and kept in tip-top condition.

On the press (p. 264):

“Where did you learn all this?” I asked.
“We read it in our newspaper!”  They were surpised that I did not know.  The Japanese, even more so than the Americans, are a nation of newspaper readers, their principle papers having a daily circulation running into the millions.

Fulton’s account of Japan is an anecdotal travelogue, not an intelligence briefing or a policy whitepaper, but he shows us a picture of a society and culture far removed from Sadam’s Iraq.

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