Category Archives: Science

Science, history & philosophy

Napoleon’s Unlikely Career

Sociologist Randall Collins has published another fascinating essay-length post, this time on the illustrious career of Napoleon Bonaparte and the old question of talent versus luck. The single worst thing about the article is the title, Napoleon as CEO: A Career of Emotional Energy, which sounds like something written by robots to fill the space […]

Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of Rome

Edward N. Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (John Hopkins University Press 1976) is a compact (255 pages) and brilliant classic on military and diplomatic strategies from the principate to the tetrarchy. Recently Luttwak published his long-awaited companion piece, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire (Harvard University Press 2009), much delayed and […]

John Glassie on Athanasius Kircher

John Glassie’s A Man of Misconceptions (Riverhead Books 2012) is an immensely entertaining account of the life and times of Athanasius Kircher (1601/2–1680), a Jesuit scholar who escaped the Thirty Years War ravaging his native Germany to become famous throughout Europe for his prolific writing, museum of curiosities, and peculiar scientific theories. Kircher lived at […]

Sociological Eye on Revolutions

Successful revolutions provide the founding myths for the newly established order, and are accordingly glorified as the spontaneous uprising of the righteous and downtrodden against their oppressors and exploiters. Randall Collins, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, has turned his Sociological Eye on the realities behind the myths. The articles quoted below are […]

Cost Overruns in Public Projects

Today we have an entry from the “no surprise to anyone who’s ever read a newspaper” department. Underestimating Costs in Public Works Projects: Error or Lie? by Flyvbjerg, Skamris Holm & Buhl, originally published in 2002, has just been released as a free arXiv download. The authors examined 258 transportation infrastructure projects in 20 countries […]

Identifying Mobile Phone Users

Unique in the Crowd: The privacy bounds of human mobility by de Montjoye, Hidalgo, Verleysen & Blondel examines call traces for ~1.5 million mobile phone users, gathered “from April 2006 to June 2007 in a western country.” The traces recorded the nearest antenna and time whenever a voice or text message was sent or received. […]

Deception and Metaphors

Benevolent Deception in Human Computer Interaction by Eytan Adar, Desney Tan & Jaime Teevan presents the design principle of “benevolent deception” – that is, deliberately misrepresenting a computer system’s functionality to the user, but for the benefit of the user and/or developer. The paper cites many surprising (and amusing) examples of benevolent deceptions in technology, […]

Survival of the Wrongest

David H. Freedman’s ‘Survival of the wrongest’ analyzes the state of health journalism, with the conclusion indicated by the headline. He begins with various articles on obesity which The New York Times had published over the years, all written by experienced journalists and apparently backed by solid science. Nevertheless, they come up with totally different […]

Helian and H.L. Mencken

Helian Unbound is one anonymous writer’s eloquent crusade for radical skepticism. His sober scientific realism is directed against every ideology – including the fashionable ersatz religions espoused by many self-declared “skeptics” nowadays. Added to my recommended Subscriptions. In his latest post, Helian discovered a digitized archive of The American Mercury, a cultural and political magazine […]

Disputed Foundations of Quantum Mechanics

A Snapshot of Foundational Attitudes Toward Quantum Mechanics by Schlosshauer, Kofler & Zeilinger presents 33 academics – physicists, philosophers, mathematicians – attending a 2011 conference on the foundations of quantum mechanics with 16 questions on the subject. Fascinatingly, there was no complete consensus on any question. On the contrary, there was a roughly even split […]