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The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 2021.
Also see the full index of books I've read.

  [Book cover]

Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

by Laurence Bergreen (Wikipedia) (pub. 2003)

  [Book cover]

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Wikipedia) (pub. 2001, 2nd edition in 2005)

I've noticed that I tend to write at length about books that raise my ire, while very good books, even those that have a profound impact on me, often go unreviewed. I live in an upside-down world, don't I?!

I'd heard of the popular Black Swan book (which some might call a "popularization" of (im)probability), but I don't foresee myself ever reading it. I picked up the author's earlier book, Fooled by Randomness, and browsed through the table of contents. The skewering of George Will in Chapter 2 jumped out at me — Will fancies himself an intellectual and could be if he were only even a little bit bright. Now, anyone who skewers George Will's pompous pretentiousness is all right with me! So I began reading Chapter 2 and read up into Chapter 9, by which time the quality and tone of the writing became too tiresome for me. Still, it is the type of book you can open up at random and dip in for a few pages of interesting reading.

Speaking of Stephen Jay Gould, which we weren't but will be, I present this passage from a Review by Howard A. Doughty of Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Seneca College Quarterly, Winter 2005, Volume 8, Number 1):

It may have been [Stephen Jay Gould's] willingness to build a sense of justice into his sense of truth or it may have been his exaltation in the face of the boundless human imagination. One way or another he gave Steve Pinker fits.

And Nick Taleb fits too! Neither of which is a bad thing.

At the end of Taleb's Chapter 5:

... For instance, Steven Jay Gould (who was accused of being more of a popularizer than a genuine scientist) found ample evidence of what he calls "genetic noise," or "negative mutations," thus incurring the wrath of some of his colleagues (he took the idea a little too far). An academic debate ensued, plotting Gould against colleagues like Dawkins who were considered by their peers as better trained in the mathematics of randomness ...

Yes, Gould had the misfortune of being a brilliant writer who wrote scientific works as well as works that conveyed the excitement, history, and basics of science to interested laypeople. Somewhat like Dawkins, I suppose. Every field has brilliant practitioners who also happen to be brilliant writers who make a point of devoting some of their efforts to educating the general public about their field. Sometimes, a field has a brilliant practitioner who is not so brilliant a writer. To my knowledge, Gould never reached for but couldn't quite grasp the word "pitting", substituting the word "plotting" instead — through two editions of the work in question.

Two paragraphs later (emphasis in the original):

Owing to the abrupt rare events, we do not live in a world where things "converge" continuously toward betterment. Nor do things in life move continuously at all. The belief in continuity was ingrained in our scientific culture until the early twentieth century. It was said that nature does not make jumps; ...

There are, at a minimum, two things that every Stephen Jay Gould fan worthy of the name knows:

  1. How to spell Stephen Jay Gould's name: "Stephen Jay Gould".
  2. About the idea of punctuated equilibria, formally proposed in a 1972 paper by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, "Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism".
The author of Fooled by Randomness seems to have missed both things.

At the very beginning of Chapter 6, Gould was demoted from "The writer and scientist" in the first edition to "The essayist and scientist" in the second edition, edited by the author. Again, the emphasis is in the original.

The essayist and scientist Steven Jay Gould (who, for a while, was my role model), was once diagnosed when he was in his forties with a deadly form of cancer of the lining of the stomach. The first piece of information he received about his odds of making it was that the median survival for the ailment is approximately eight months, information he felt akin to Isaiah's injunction to King Hezekiah to put his house in order in preparation for death.

Now, a medical diagnosis, particularly one of such severity, can motivate people to do intensive research, particularly those prolific writers like Gould who needed more time with us to complete a few book projects. The further research by Gould uncovered a very different story from the information he had initially been given; mainly that the expected (i.e., average) survival was considerably higher than eight months. It came to his notice that expected and median do not mean the same thing at all.

... This prompted Gould, who thus understood the hard way the concept of skewness, to write his heartfelt piece "The Median Is Not the Message." His point is that the concept of median used in medical research does not characterize a probability distribution ...

First of all, as I mentioned above, most people who have a role model know how to spell the role model's name. That the editor of the first edition didn't catch this is, well, sloppy editing; Taleb edited the second edition, so he probably didn't see it as a misspelling. Second, so Gould, a "prolific writer" (and who was more of a science "popularizer than a genuine scientist") was especially motivated by a need for "more time with us to complete a few" of his popular-science "book projects"? Third, because of his cancer, Gould "thus understood the hard way the concept of skewness"? Words fail me, but they didn't fail Joseph Welch when responding to Senator Joseph McCarthy's attacks on one of Welch's lawyers: "Have you no sense of decency?"

Fourth, "[i]t came to [Gould's] notice that expected and median do not mean the same thing at all"? Gould may have been a slacker compared to Richard Dawkins, "considered by [his] peers as better trained in the mathematics of randomness". (Why am I reminded of Marilyn vos Savant's Parade column about the "Let's Make a Deal!"/Monty Hall Problem?) I find it hard to believe that Gould didn't already understand the concepts of expected vs. median and skewing of a distribution. Quoting from the referenced article by Stephen Jay Gould, "The Median Isn't the Message" (Wayback Machine), published in the June 1985 issue of Discover magazine:

The problem may be briefly stated: What does "median mortality of eight months" signify in our vernacular? I suspect that most people, without training in statistics, would read such a statement as "I will probably be dead in eight months" — the very conclusion that must be avoided, since it isn't so, and since attitude matters so much.

I was not, of course, overjoyed, but I didn't read the statement in this vernacular way either. My technical training enjoined a different perspective on "eight months median mortality." The point is a subtle one, but profound — for it embodies the distinctive way of thinking in my own field of evolutionary biology and natural history.

Unrelated to Taleb's book, Gould expanded on this article in Chapter 4 of Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, adding a useful reminder to everyone about "positive attitude"s to illness:

... A hot topic of late, expressed most notably in Bernie Siegel's best-selling books, has emphasized the role of positive attitude in combating such serious diseases as cancer. From the depths of my skeptical and rationalist soul, I ask the Lord to protect me from California touchie-feeliedom. I must, nonetheless, express my concurrence with Siegel's important theme, though I hasten to express two vital caveats. First, I harbor no mystical notions about the potential value of mental calm and tenacity. We do not know the reasons, but I am confident that explanations will fall within the purview of scientific accessibility (and will probably center on how the biochemistry of thought and emotion feed back upon the immune system). Second, we must stand resolutely against an unintended cruelty of the "positive attitude" movement — insidious slippage into a rhetoric of blame for those who cannot overcome their personal despair and call up positivity from some internal depth. We build our personalities laboriously and through many years, and we cannot order fundamental changes just because we might value their utility: no button reading "positive attitude" protrudes from our hearts, and no finger can coerce positivity into immediate action by a single and painless pressing. How dare we blame someone for the long-standing constitution of their tendencies and temperament if, in an uninvited and unwelcome episode of life, another persona might have coped better? If a man dies of cancer in fear and despair, then cry for his pain and celebrate his life. The other man, who fought like hell and laughed to the end, but also died, may have had an easier time in his final months, but took his leave with no more humanity.

(The late Dr. Sherwin Nuland spoke of the same problem — albeit a bit more concisely! — in his 1994 book, How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter.)

I can't end this review without presenting this poster announcing the event of the millennia (that's plural, by the way): a caged death-match between Steve "The Punctuator" Gould and Richard "The Ultimate Gene" Dawkins, whose outcome would once and for all settle the differences between them and between the larger communities behind them. From the Annals of Improbable Research, Vol. 6, No. 5 (September/October 2000):

[Gould vs. Dawkins poster]

(Click to see a larger, more readable version of the poster.)

Finally, as I said in the beginning, Taleb's book is the type of book you can open up at random and dip in for a few pages of interesting reading.

  [Book cover]

Flower and Weed, and Other Tales

by Mary E. Braddon (1835-1915) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1884)

Flower and Weed is a novella; the "other tales" include a short story, "Thou Art the Man", which intrigued me because it was apparently published 10 years before and bears no resemblance to Braddon's 1894 novel of the same name, Thou Art the Man! The compilation consists of the following stories:

The only mention I've been able to find of "Thou Art the Man", the short story, was in the biographical entry for Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Andrew Maunder's 2007 The Facts on File Companion to the British Short Story:

... In "Thou Art the Man," from Flower and Weed, a suspicious theatergoer turns amateur sleuth ...   Spoiler Alert!   (Google Books)


Word of the book: mallow - I had never given any thought to the word "marshmallow" until I encountered the word "mallow" in "Thou Art the Man":

The sun was sinking as he came through the last meadow to the river side. The light was crimson behind the long line of rush, and mallow, and wild entanglement of weeds that edged the stream.
It was a plant by the side of the river, i.e., a "marsh mallow"! According to Wikipedia, "The [modern-day] sugar confection is inspired by a [4,000-year-old] historical medicinal confection made from Althaea officinalis, the marsh-mallow plant."

If you don't mind reading the book from scanned images, you can try the copy at the Internet Archive (see the next paragraph); however, the text version of the book (OCR from the images) is hopelessly mixed up. Project Gutenberg doesn't have the book. So, I found a complete set of Mary E. Braddon's works (in both EPUB and Kindle formats) at Delphi Classics. Her works are available in a whole-file edition or a "Parts Edition". The whole-file edition is a single, 10,000-page eBook containing all her novels and short stories; this edition would probably kill my eReader! The "Parts Edition" breaks the novels up into separate eBooks and the short stories into their published volumes, 28 eBooks in all. For an extra dollar, I got the "Elite Parts Edition", which includes the whole-file edition and the 28 eBooks, for only $5.99. (I opened up the whole-file edition exactly once to see how many pages it has.) Delphi's Flower and Weed, and Other Tales is also an OCR version converted from images of the text, but I haven't seen any typos yet.

Internet Archive's Open Library: Flower and Weed, and Other Tales

  [Book cover]

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

by Elizabeth Kolbert (Wikipedia) (pub. 2014)


  [Book cover]

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

by Elizabeth Kolbert (Wikipedia) (pub. 2021)


Alex Measday  /  E-mail