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There is only one reality (and we cannot demand consistency from any other)

I bought The Shadow of the Torturer when it came out in paperback, I guess in response to a positive review. I found it kinda difficult to read, but I wanted to know what would happen next, so I bought volumes 2, 3, and 4 when they came out too. By the time I was done with the whole series, I was actually enjoying it, and I went back to the beginning and read the whole thing. I reread the whole series a couple more times. Also read Forlesen (quoted here) and a bunch of other great stories, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to read any of his other novels all the way to the end. Then a bunch of years ago I read an interesting book about The Book of the New Sun which answered various mysteries to me, and I was motivated to read The Urth of the New Sun, which tied up some loose ends. I was absorbed by the Urth of the New Sun while I was reading it, but once it was over I was unsatisfied. And I think I know the problem: the book was enforcing a level of coherence that is just not possible with fiction.

Lots of writers create memorable fiction within self-contained worlds: Anne Tyler, Scott Turow, John Le Carre, J. R. R. Tolkien, Jane Austen, etc etc etc. These worlds seem real—-but you can’t stare at them too closely, or you’ll reach the resolution limit and everything starts to pixellate. The world of The Book of the New Sun was amazing, hinting at mysterious depths, but it fell apart upon under pressure. Best to let some things just be implied. It was wise of Turow, Le Carre, etc., to not push it so far.

And this reminded me of my argument that in the best alternative histories, the real world is what’s ultimately real.

And this in turn connects to statistical model building, and the idea that if we get enough data, we will be able to refute any model or any series of models (recall Cantor’s corner).

22 Comments

  1. Adede says:

    Reminds me of the geologist who wrote an article criticizing the map in Lord of the Rings. Like, this book has orcs, elves, tall omg trees and a magic ring, but yeah, those mountain ranges are an unrealistic shape, let’s complain about that.

  2. Ben says:

    My mom got me a couple Iain Banks books for Christmas. I read the first one (Consider Phlebas) and really didn’t like it. Beginning rocked and by the end I was just skimming to get it done.

    Then I read the Wikipedia article and I see the bit. I read another book in the series and it rocked, but I’m pretty sure that’s just cause I kinda get what’s going on now. It feels kinda dirty to only know how to enjoy the books from the Wikipedia article (shouldn’t something good just be good?).

    Anyway I think I own an audiobook of Shadow of the Torturer but got nowhere in it. And this reminds me of that.

    Also, I remember watching Fawlty Towers before and like cringing cause all the bad stuff that happens to Basil. But then after watching it a while it’s great — how’s he gonna screw up next let’s goooo.

  3. JimV says:

    All of Gene Wolfe’s novels are mysterious and hard to follow but the characters are so great I love them anyway. Plus often things start to make more sense in them as you learn more, which is kind of the way reality works too. Some bad, heart-breaking things happen which as a youngster I would have hated, but now I kind of view novels which don’t do that as cheats. Above all I get the sense he knows what he is doing even if I don’t. For a first-time reader I might recommend the Latro series (“Soldier In The Mist”), set in Greco-Roman times, rather than those set in the future.

    Novels whose “worlds” are supposed to be the same as ours have a much easier job of world-creating so it seems unfair to me to judge them as better world-creators. Although all good novelists have great imaginations, of course.

  4. Alex C. says:

    Sometime maybe you could write a blog post about your productivity secrets. I’m amazed (and jealous) that you’re able to read multi-volume book series (and then re-read them), while also teaching classes, writing textbooks and academic papers, maintaining this blog, giving guest lectures, consulting for industry, creating election-forecast models, and doing god-knows-what-else you do. It’s impressive (and humbling), to say the least.

    • A reader says:

      This would be nice.

    • Andrew says:

      Alex:

      I’d feel awkward writing a whole post on this because it seems like bragging. Not that I have any aversion to bragging—I do it all the time—but that’s the point: I do it all the time already so maybe not a good idea to do even more of it.

      But I’ll respond right here in the comments, as this is actually an issue I’ve been thinking about recently.

      I can think of a few reasons for my high productivity:

      1. I’ve lived a long time. For example, I read the Book of the New Sun around 35 years ago and you’re giving me credit for that right now.

      2. I’ve never had any chronic medical conditions, and the caregiving I’ve done has been fun, not burdensome. That’s a huge deal. Sometimes I get a cold, and then for a week I cannot really focus at all. It would destroy my productivity as well as my quality of life if I were sick for a whole year or longer.

      3. Similarly with economic conditions: I’ve always been comfortable, never had zero in the bank or had to work an unpleasant job, never had to seek a new job during a recession, never lived in a country where there was massive political or economic instability.

      4. I don’t like to be alone—so I collaborate a lot—but find social interactions difficult, so this gives me lots of time to spend working.

      5. Synergy. This is another big one. I enjoy reading books, and I think all this reading makes me a better writer. I work up an example to demonstrate some principle in class, and I use that in my next book. When I come to a hard problem at work, sometimes I go around it but often I confront it directly, leading to research progress.

      6. Ambition. I like when people say how wonderful I am; this motivates me to perform in front of people.

      7. Goals. There’s stuff I want to figure out. I take some credit for this: in college I thought a lot about what I wanted to do next, and I chose statistics because I found statistics problems to be interesting and important. Then in graduate school I thought about my future and I consciously decided not to make professional success my goal. Statistics was a small field, I was well situated, and it was clear that my fellow students and I would all become leaders in the field in a few years, if we chose to do so (and most of us made that choice). Aiming for worldly success would be an empty goal, so I consciously decided to figure out not just where I wanted to be, but what I wanted to be doing, and how I could contribute usefully to the world.

      6. Finding the right form. I don’t spend my time trying to write papers for the tabloids or the top 5 econ journals or whatever other hoops there are to jump through. Great work is published in these forms, and I have lots of respect for much of the work published there. But if I were to try to publish my work in that form, it would require a lot of unpleasant work that would be pretty much orthogonal to my research and communication goals. Blogging and book writing and publishing in a mix of journals works better for my style. Part of this is luck that blogging exists, but I think if I’d been doing this fifty years ago I just would’ve written lots of books.

      7. Efficiency. One reason I set up this blog is that I was writing people long emails. Instead I post to blog and many people can read. In the old days I used to write lots of letters and postcards to my friends. That was fun for them, also good for me, but now I’m more likely to post such thoughts. Lots of people do this; that’s social media.

      8. Minimizing other effort. When I give outside lectures, I used to make slides, but then I found myself putting fewer and fewer words on each slide, then using fewer and fewer slides, until now I don’t use slides at all. When I give a slideless talk I prepare with notes, but I need less and less notes to get this to work, and often I just show up and wing it. I guess the result is not as good a talk as it could be . . . but it’s not my duty each time to give the best possible talk. If I give a good talk that engages people, that’s enough. I think I can contribute more by writing books and articles and blogs and speaking on what comes to mind, rather than to put hours preparing each talk and then having less time for everything else. Similarly when a journal sends me an article to review, I’ll typically review it in about 15 minutes. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this: the review is short, and the editors can use it as they see fit. Different reviewers have different styes, and that’s fine.

      9. Doing what I want to do (within reason). Here I am reading and responding to blog comments! I enjoy the interaction, and it’s helpful to push and explore. I get benefit from this too: useful feedback.

      10. Hmmmm, what else. Consulting for industry: I don’t really need the money, but it’s fun to get paid, also there’s something satisfying about working on a problem where people are motivated to come up with a solution, also I think/hope that the statistical lessons we learn from urgent problems in industry can be applicable to slower-moving domains in science and policy. Creating election-forecast models: My collabs did most of the work on this, also this is another example of synergy, as it allowed me also to advise a graduate student.

      But productivity is always at the other end of the rainbow. Several years ago, I read a biography of Mark Twain, and it seems that he was continually coming up with schemes to increase his productivity. And he was already a productive guy!

  5. Z says:

    “hinting at mysterious depths” is so important to creating a sense of reality because that’s how the real world always feels. If it’s possible to understand a fictional world too well it no longer feels real.

    I just reread Dune recently and found that I enjoyed that hinting at mysterious depths feeling throughout, but then things get explained a little too much at the end and the illusion falls apart a bit. Robert Altman movies are also great a giving that mysterious depths feeling by cluttering the margins with strange idiosyncratic behavior.

  6. Dave C. says:

    I will take this opportunity to put in a plug for Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”

  7. Matt Skaggs says:

    The Cantor’s corner argument is cute, a mathematical derivation of the popular saying that “all models are wrong.”

    It’s not right though. I can build a model of tic-tac-toe outcomes, and tweak it to perfection so that I never lose another game. Not an infinite set. The model is never wrong.

  8. mpledger says:

    Can you give an example in Jane Austen of this pixilation?

  9. Jukka says:

    At the moment, I vote for Vonnegut.

    We could continue Andrew’s note about reality a little further. I am thinking about the Finnish philosopher Ilkka Niiniluoto and his concept of scientific realism. Accordingly, and to simpliy (a lot), science is an attempt to give a truthlike description of mind-independent reality.

    I kind of like the above definition. But what statisticians et al. think about the concept of “truthlike”?

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