WHAT WE DID: On our summer vacation!

MONDAY, JULY 9, 2018

Worst story ever told:
You call that a summer vacation?

It started last Wednesday morning. It ended very late Saturday night, after a hurtling, eight-hour train ride down the northeast coast.

Short though it was, it featured one relevant achievement. We read The Worst Book Ever Written, or at least its earlier parts.

We refer to Carlo Rovelli's latest submission, The Order of Time. A bit of background may be relevant at this point:

Rovelli's earlier book, Seven Brief Lessons in Physics, became a run-away best seller in 2015. At that time, we skillfully refused to take the bait.

Three years later, Rovelli was back. When a review appeared in the Washington Post's Outlook section—and with our summer vacation approaching—we decided we were willing to do what plainly had to be done.

The review was penned by Joseph Perschel, "a freelance writer and critic." As for Rovelli, he's the type of writer who, by the rules of the game, triggers mandated statements like this:
PERSCHEL (6/24/18): No one writes about the cosmos like theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. He may not be as well known in the United States as the late Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson or Alan Lightman. But in his books, “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” and “Reality Is Not What It Seems,” Rovelli explains physics with reverence and exuberance, in ways that even a book reviewer without a PhD can understand.
So simple that even a reviewer can understand it! By well-established rules of the game, reviewers must claim that they "understand" the prose of these easy-to-understand types.

Editors rush such claims into print. As he continues, the reviewer will claim, or perhaps will seem to imply, that the author's latest book is easy-to-understand too:
PERCHEL (continuing directly): In his newest work, “The Order of Time,” Rovelli shares his enthusiasm as he discusses scientifically and philosophically the “greatest remaining mystery”: the nature of time. This book, like his previous works, is translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell, and their poetic interpretation of his words, I surmise, derives strongly from the original Italian.
It isn't just easy-to-understand; it's poetic too! By the rules of the game, the reviewer will present this as an added bonus feature, not as a possible source of distraction and/or misdirection or even as a possible sign of flimflam.

Let's be fair to Perschel! In paragraph 2, he describes the three parts of Rovelli's book, none of which the reader will understand. But in paragraph 3, he adopts a minor modesty pose, advancing the familiar procedures of reviews of this type:
PERSCHEL: Some ideas in “The Order of Time” are a bit confusing and require a re-reading, but Rovelli includes only one equation in his new book, and he even apologizes for its appearance...
Some ideas in The Order of Time are a bit confusing! This is Perschel's way of saying that neither you, nor anyone you've ever met, will have the slightest idea what's being said in any part of this book, the least understandable and worst book ever sold in stores.

Not wanting to let our vacation end, we've decided to focus this week on what we did on that vacation. At several points, we boasted to a young relative that we were reading the worst book ever written. Since she was reading a book required for incoming seventh graders at her middle school, she was thereby reassured that her own book wasn't the worst.

Presumably, Rovelli's new book will also be a best-seller. Successfully approached, it gives befuddled readers a chance to apply an unusual critical question:

We call it the "At What Page" question. At what page does it become absurd to pretend that anyone has the slightest idea what is being said?

In this case, we've decided to name page 12 as the place where hope ends. For the record, Rovelli's Part 1 begins at the bottom of page 9, and a full page in his small book contains maybe 240 words.

We also thumbed Yuval Noah Harris's 2015 best-seller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Early on, Harari says the rise of human language primarily enabled us the people to engage in two highly adaptive activities—"gossip" and the invention of group "fictions."

As students of modern journalism, we had to admit that Harari seemed to be on the right track! That said, we'll discuss our summer vacation all week, with reference to this recent front-page report in the New York Times.

(Headline: ‘Shaken’ Rosenstein Felt Used by White House in Comey Firing.)

The report in question seized control of cable news on Friday, June 29. How does this connect to Rovelli? In due time, everything will be clear.

Tomorrow: Near the top of page 12!

Next week: Return of the gaps


  1. Maybe TDH should forego reading books about physics - and reviews of said books. I've read reviews about books trying to explain, say, quantum mechanics without really understanding what is being talked about. Maybe TDH and I are both dumb - but, I gather these physicists spent years learning about this, and to start with were pretty smart, at least about math. What we understand about almost everything, not just physics, is superficial at best.

    1. AC/MA - I don't read Somerby as saying that the physicists don't know what they're talking about. I think that he's saying that they can't - probably for good reason - communicate those concepts to us in everyday language, and he's criticizing the press for pretending that the explanations are able to be understood.

    2. How about I put my fist in your face?

    3. Unless you understand physics, your fist may not wind up where you intend it to go.

    4. A delightful retort, Anon 1:25, proving without doubt that you are more couthful as well as significantly smarter than that pathetic idiot Anon 1:09.

    5. Jonny, I don’t know. That’s something I do know, certainly about general relativity and quantum mechanics. But the proof of gravitational lensing through astronomical observation does help one understand the bending of space by a massive object, or objects. It’s clearly visible, and provable – and was predicted by general theory. The math behind it is certainly incomprehensible to the vast majority, but the proof is readily understandable. I guess.


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      Yes, that's $10, I didn't miss any zeros.

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      When researchers landed on its login screen through Windows RDP, they found two more user accounts, which were "associated with two companies specializing in airport security; one in security and building automation, the other in camera surveillance and video analytics."

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  2. "Harari says the rise of human language primarily enabled us the people to engage in two highly adaptive activities—"gossip" and the invention of group "fictions."

    The invention of group fictions might be better stated as the transmission of agreed upon meanings associated with words. Words have reference, they signify previously agreed meanings, mutual understandings. If they did not, there would be no communicative function to language, only expression but no reception, no conveyance of information.

    What is intended and what is received are never entirely the same. Words regularize, gloss, smooth over small differences so that the meanings intended are roughly the same as what is received, never identical.

    There are numerous reference philosophers who have discussed this, my favorite among them Hilary Putnam.

    Narrative structure and conceptual meaning combine to produce these so-called "group fictions". Narrative structure is necessary to enable memory and to help organize information, usually temporally, in our minds. These are not only normal but necessary aspects of communication and also retention of information via mental representation. People who do not have this cannot communicate and cannot remember using language, only graphically.

    Somerby, for some reason, considers these aspects of normal thinking and language to be flaws or faults or weaknesses in human thinking. They are not, but he continually chides us for them. Nor are these any more or less prominent in our society, our culture, nor on the left more than the right. This is how people's minds work. Period. These are not human failings.

    Gossip has been condemned by religion and moralizers, but it too serves a necessary function in human communities, is omnipresent in time and place and helps people more than it hurts. The role of gossip is a recent understanding, an example of social science superseding folk wisdom.

    Somerby spends a lot of time pretending to understand physics and no time at all exploring social science or cognitive science or anything relevant to how human beings function. He wastes a great deal of time here saying ridiculous things that he wouldn't say if he read more broadly. It is frustrating that he doesn't read his comments section and thus keeps repeating the same mistakes over and over. I enjoyed the past week off and may not continue with this blog if he is going to spend the next week using mistaken ideas about physics as an analogy to some political report that is now more than a week old.

    Please move on Somerby and please use your vacations to read something you know little about, instead of flogging those who try to explain physics to novices.

    1. Shove your idiot textbook up your ass faggot.

    2. Pretty obvious that's what you use your books for.

  3. Jonathan Chait asks what every howler and howlerette wants to know:

    Will Mr Trump be meeting with his counterpart or his handler?


    1. IMHO Mueller has almost exonerated Trump of collusion with Russia. That's because after a year and half of investigation by highly capable enemies of Trump, no evidence has been produced proving collusion. Now, for all I know, Mueller may come out with such evidence next week or next year. But, the significant amount of time makes me fairly confident that Mueller doesn't have such evidence and won't ever have it. (Sadly, many committed enemies of Trump, including my sister, don't need evidence to believe that Trump illegally colluded with Russia.)

    2. if it's what you say I love it

    3. Conservatives waving away Donald Junior's statement, and the evidence the President is compromised by a foreign power is the least surprising thing to happen in my lifetime. I knew it the moment they called me a "traitor" for marching against the Iraq War.

      With Conservatives, every accusation is a confession.

    4. David, if Mr Trump is innocent and Mueller is exonerating him, attacks on Mueller and the investigation are wrong, and Mr Trump should be eager to talk to Mueller's investigators.

    5. David,
      Weren't you once confident accusations of Republican control of the EPA, would allow the pollution of our land, air, and water for corporate profits were just hyperbole?

    6. To paraphrase James Brown, "Say it loud! Liberals were right about Conservatives all along!"

    7. Weren't you once confident accusations of Republican control of the EPA, would allow the pollution of our land, air, and water for corporate profits were just hyperbole?

      I am still confident that it's just hyperbole. Can you point to any specific change in EPA regulation that will allow the pollution of air, land or water? I bet you can't.

      Now the regulation of CO2 was always based on bogus reasoning. CO2 is not a pollutant, as that word is commonly understood. And, the potential reduction in the % of atmospheric CO2 from EPA regs would be a a meaningless, trivial amount. But every business and every individual emits some CO2. Allowing the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions would mean allowing them to regulate every person and every business.

      P.S. over-regulation hurts corporate profits, but it also hurts workers, particularly minority workers.

    8. Little Donny Chickenshit, the lying sack of shit Coward will never answer Mueller's questions, and little DinC, the lying sack of shit treasonous bastard warped old John Bircher is here to let him know that that's just fine and dandy with him.

    9. Caesar -- cute comment. If Trump is interviewed by Mueller, there is the risk that he might make some loose statement, as he commonly does. He might later be prosecuted for such a statement. Or, that statement might be taken as evidence of a crime such as obstruction of justice. These risks would not exist if the prosecutor were acting in good faith.

    10. Poor widdle Donny whiney chichenshit. He can't risk talking to the mean prosecutor cause he might lie "as he commonly does". Bwahahahahaha!!!!!

      The first intimations that Trump might harbor a dark secret originated among America’s European allies, which, being situated closer to Russia, have had more experience fending off its nefarious encroachments. In 2015, Western European intelligence agencies began picking up evidence of communications between the Russian government and people in Donald Trump’s orbit. In April 2016, one of the Baltic states shared with then–CIA director John Brennan an audio recording of Russians discussing funneling money to the Trump campaign. In the summer of 2016, Robert Hannigan, head of the U.K. intelligence agency GCHQ, flew to Washington to brief Brennan on intercepted communications between the Trump campaign and Russia.



    11. mm - this is one I feel strongly about, despite your snark. Scooter Libby didn't release the name of Valerie Plame. As far as anyone knows, he had nothing to hide. He was convicted of perjury for saying he didn't remember something. Given the huge number of meetings he would have attended, I found it perfectly plausible that he might not remember. But, a prosecutor convinced a jury that he was lying "beyond a reasonable doubt".

    12. Thanks for reminding us of another example of Republican treason, Comrade DinC.

      Libby was convicted of four felony counts of perjury, lying to investigators and obstruction of justice. By a fucking jury. Charged by a Republican prosecutor.

      You have no fucking idea whether Libby really "didn't remember".

      Libby went on trial in early 2007. In the courtroom, Fitzgerald noted that Libby’s defense was implausible. He had completely forgotten that Cheney had told him Plame was a CIA officer and thought he had heard it from Russert for the first time? A parade of witnesses from the Bush-Cheney administration testified that they, too, had talked about Plame and her CIA connection with Libby prior to the conversation he had with Russert. (Onetime White House press secretary Ari Fleischer only cooperated with Fitzgerald’s investigation once he was granted immunity.)

      For his part, Russert testified that it was an “impossibility” for him to have told Libby anything about Wilson’s wife, for he knew nothing of her CIA tie until Novak’s column appeared. In his closing argument, Fitzgerald declared, “There is a cloud on the vice president…That cloud remains because this defendant obstructed justice.” This was his way of saying that Libby had lied to cover for Cheney. Libby “stole the truth from the judicial system,” Fitzgerald told the jury.

      The jury found Libby guilty on four counts. Afterward, on the courthouse steps, Fitzgerald declared that Libby, with his lies, had attempted to block the leak investigation from reaching Cheney. “Sometimes when people tell the truth, clouds disappear,” he added. “Sometimes they don’t.”

      The record was clear. Libby concocted a phony story to defend the false statements he had made to FBI agents to thwart their investigation into the Bush White House’s role in the Plame leak.

      Once again, your team put party ahead of country by literally outing a CIA agent, and he became a fucking hero to you.

      You have no fucking idea, Comrade. The jury heard the evidence and convicted.

      Your little Donny Chickenshit will never testify because he's a lying sack of shit Coward and a traitor.

    13. "over-regulation hurts corporate profits"

      So does paying labor, so at least on that score (as opposed to your phony concern about workers, especially minority-workers) you are consistent.

  4. Forget Physics, Bob can't even understand that:
    Trump is a liar and a thief.
    And Putin's bitch.

    1. No filthy equations needed.

    2. "over-regulation hurts corporate profits"

      So does paying labor, so at least on that score (as opposed to your concern about workers, especially minority-workers) you are consistent.

  5. "No people are uninteresting.
    Their fate is like the chronicle of planets."

    There may be as many planets as there are people on earth. So, this may be literally true, not a comparison between something considered unimportant and something more important as the poet may have intended.

    If we cannot reach another planet and cannot know much about it, what importance can it have to us? I consider individual people much more important, the closer to me the more important, due to the greater likelihood of their behavior affecting me in some way.

    I've never understood the fascination some people have for the cosmos when it is nothing more than decoration of the sky with no influence whatsoever on people living on earth. I wouldn't say "who cares?" since all knowledge is somewhat interesting, but why the fascination? And why is physics given such a privileged status on campuses like MIT and among the sciences, when it has less influence on people's lives than any other (remembering that engineering, not physics, builds airplanes and bridges). Somerby's worship of physics has always struck me as a kind of elitism, and a typically male one at that. A physicist once threw me out of his girlfriend's house because I suggested that Einstein's wife may have helped him in his work. What is it with guys and the hero-worship of physics and physicists?

    1. Good point. Even worse, physics is being misused by non experts like William Lane Craig to con people into the notion that there is scientific support for the existence of a god.

      That said, some physicists are involved in helpful things like environmental science. Unfortunately their good work is being undone by the current administration.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Someone has never heard of asteroids, one of which impacted our planet and caused one of the Great Extinctions. You’re right, that’s ho-hum stuff. Better to just stare at the decorations in the sky, and tuck any wonder you might have away into some dusty corner of your mind.


  6. Try getting anything but confusion from this NY Times article on risk adjustment payments to health insurers.

    Health Insurers Warn of Market Turmoil as Trump Suspends Billions in Payments

  7. Somerby pooh-poohed the press headlines that the government has lost many of the children it separated from immigrant parents. He thought that was an exaggeration. Yesterday it was reported that 20% of the toddlers had missing parents. Today we have this from the ACLU:


    Somerby was wrong. Will he be a mensch and admit it? I won't hold my breath.

    1. Please, hold your breath.

    2. Somerby is often wrong, and often double downs when he is wrong. It is all part of the charm of this website.

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