Category Archives: Book reviews

Recent Readings

This is more of a “status” post than a topical one.  My time for “thinking” has become spread out over a broad space of activities, with a particular focus on my astronomy hobby and the course I’m running for children, as well as a significant increase in the level of thought devoted to my occupation.  This has reduced the intensity with which I’ve been pursuing big-picture thinking; I’ve fallen into a sort-of autopilot mode.  This phase will end, but for now my stimulus remains the material I’m reading.

My current “large” reading project is the fourth volume of Durant’s History of Civilization – “The Age of Faith”.  I’m finding this particular volume to be really slow going, in part because my reading time has shrunk a bit, but that in turn is in part because this reading is, well, boring.  What is of some interest (and may become a more complete topic later on) is the history and core philosophy of Islam.  This isn’t new information for me, but in the current world context it is more relevant now than the last time I exposed myself to this history (in some other work).  My interest this time around centers on these themes:

  1. Islam in its original form nominally supported a laissez-faire economy – what caused this to change?
  2. What caused the fall of the “golden age” of Islam, when most of what we know of the classical world was retained only through the translation of works by the Islamic society?  Just when the Islamic world was beginning to make an impact on scientific thought, the progress ceased.

In parallel with this reading, I’ve started reading e-books once again.  The recent acquisition (Christmas) of an ITouch ensures that I’ll be doing quite a bit more with e-books in the short term, as the Kindle reader is SO much more useable than Microsoft Reader on the Dell Axim (which is still a fine PDA, just becoming dated and starting to fail).  In the past month, I’ve read Billy Budd (Melville), All Around the Moon (Verne), Journey to Other Worlds (Astor), and currently Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar (Verne).

Each of these contained surprises.  Billy Budd remains a great timeless story of the balance between ethics and military discipline.  An exceptional English merchant sailor is impressed into naval service, runs afoul of an evil officer of the Navy who dislikes him because of his exceptional character, and ends up killing the officer with a single blow when the officer accuses him of assisting in plotting a non-existant mutiny.  At a time following a recent mutiny elsewhere in the Navy, the military law is strictly enforced, which makes striking an officer (no less killing him) a capital offense, regardless of cause or circumstance.  The required sentence is carried out.  Is this an ethical outcome? I believe the answer to be unclear.

Jules Verne has always been a fascinatingly confusing author, and these two works just add to that confusion.  “All Around the Moon” was published some 5 years after the more famous work “From the Earth to the Moon”.  In the earlier work, preparations for a launch of a spacecraft, using a ballistic cannon, are completed after a lengthy development of technology and inter-personal politics (note that I have NOT read this earlier book).  Apparently, at the very end of “From the Earth to the Moon”, the launch occurs successfully, but nothing is said about the fate of the voyage.  “All Around the Moon” recounts the voyage itself.  This is a fascinatingly boring book – Verne takes the story as a stage on which to narrate at exhausting length on the physics of spaceflight.  He is amazingly accurate on many of the topics that he covers, especially because he is completely mistaken about some of the fundamental physics involved.  He uses a ballistic approach to achieving escape velocity, even makes approximately the correct calculation, but has the occupants of the spacecraft continually experiencing the force of gravity, holding their feet to the floor toward the Earth until they reach a “neutral point”, then flipping over to have the base of the craft, and the gravitational force, pointed toward the Moon.  Very surprising that he did not understand that during ballistic flight one always experiences “free fall” (weightlessness).  To make the story even less appealing, the spacecraft misses the Moon due to the gravitational influence of a “comet”, and winds up in the Pacific Ocean after circumnavigating the Moon.

In Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar, we get the “other” Verne.  This is an adventure story, along the lines of “20000 Leagues Under the Sea”, while “All Around the Moon” is in line with “Around the World in 80 Days”, which I recall to be another fascinatingly boring book.  But Verne’s adventure stories are truly excellent, and Strogoff is a wonderful book to read.  A combination of a predictable plot outline – Strogoff needs to travel from Moscow to Irkust as quickly and quietly as possible, and we know this within the first 5 pages – and a good dose of mystery and suspense – there is a Tartar rebellion that threatens the Czar’s brother in Irkust, and the rebel leader is traveling in disguise – add together intricately to keep the reader glued to the story (or in my case, the screen).

What I can’t understand is how one author can have created both of these streams of work – and honestly, how monstrousities like Around the World in 80 Days can be considered great works.  I understand that Verne’s publisher (Hetzel) had a great influence on his writing, but both All Around the Moon (as well as the earlier part of that story) and Strogoff were published by Hetzel, so this is not the explanation.

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William Gilbert: On the Lodestone

I recently read William Gilbert’s renaissance masterpiece “On the Lodestone”, and found his work to be extremely intriguing.  Gilbert lived at the dawn of the scientific era, from 1544-1603, predating Francis Bacon – originator of the modern scientific method – by about 20 years.  He is considered by some to be the father of electromagnetism, and indeed is the first to use the term “electricity” in describing what we now know as static electricity (the primary source of static electricity in Gilbert’s experience was amber; the Greek word for amber is elektron). 

Gilbert is a staunch defender of the experimental basis for Truth – at least most of the time.  He attacks earlier writings concerning magnetism as simple repetitions of prior writings which generally are based in nonsensical assertions, which could be easily discounted if anyone bothered to acquire a magnet and observe its behavior.  In the sixteenth century, the primary source of magnetism was the naturally occuring mineral magnetite (ferrous-ferric oxide), or lodestone.  It should be understood that the best (purest) lodestones are barely capable of lifting iron objects of their own weight – very unlike modern “magnets” which generally can lift objects much heavier than themselves, particularly in the case of rare earth magnets which can lift several thousand times their own weight.

Gilbert attacks many myths about the magnet – that coating a lodestone with garlic oil removes the magnetism; that a diamond placed near a lodestone similarly destroys its power; that electrical attraction and magnetism are the same force.  In each case he makes strong derogatory statements about earlier authors who never even saw, let alone tested, a lodestone.  Gilbert proceeds to build a set of facts and observations of his own, each supported by experiment.  Many of his observations I had never considered before (as a trained physicist).  For example:

  • To determine the north and south poles of a magnet, allow the magnet to rotate freely in Earth’s magnetic field.  Mark the end that points to geologic north as the south pole, and the end that points south the north pole.  Which of course makes perfect sense, since opposing poles attract.
  • Apply a magnet’s pole to the center an iron bar, thereby magnetizing the bar.  If you use the north pole of the magnet, this will create north poles at both ends of the bar.   If the bar is curved into a C shape, there will be a repelling force between the cusps of the C.
  • Cut a magnet in half, holding one piece firmly. The cut ends will immediately repel each other, causing the free magnet to rotate rapidly to bring the opposite end to face the cut end.  This implies a continual stress present in  the material near the poles of any magnet.

Gilbert uses spherical lodestones, which he calls “terrellas” for “little Earths” for many of his demonstrations.  Using a device of his invention, the “versorium” – basically a compass needle mounted on a very free-turning point – he maps out the magnetic field lines of the terrella, and demonstrates their equivalence to the directions in which a compass points as it travels over the Earth.  Furthermore, he demonstrates the equivalence of the “dip” of the versorium at high “latitudes” on the terrella with the corresponding subtle dip of an accurate three-dimensional compass observed by navigators as they sail in higher latitudes.  The dip is caused again by the attraction of the pole, which is both north and “under” the compass increasingly as we reach higher latitudes.

There is a wealth of additional experimental and empirical information Gilbert conveys in this work, about not only magnetism, but static electricity as well – I am only remembering the highlights as I write this, some 3 months after finishing it.  And so Gilbert would appear to be a solid hero of scientific reasoning, living at the very end of the middle ages, and opening the door to the coming scientific revolution.  And, as far as the material above, this is certainly the case.

The first inkling we have that Gilbert may not be consistent in his scientific thinking is when he begins describing the relationship between the lodestone and the Earth.  He accurately shows that iron ore and lodestone are related – the one is attracted to the other; the iron can take on weak magnetic properties after exposure to lodestone.  But then he makes a large leap – which just happens to be true – in asserting that the Earth is mostly made from magnetic materials (iron and lodestone), and that what we experience on the surface – bodies of water, various soils, mountains and canyons – are but aberrations of the Earth that exist only on the relatively small surface in comparison to the bulk of the planet.  He, of course, has no experimental evidence for this claim (our experimental evidence came hundreds of years later in mapping how earthquake tremors penetrate the planet).

However, his entire thesis for the work is to explain magnetism, not merely describe its effects and laws.  And this is where he turns shockingly away from reason.  The magnet is aligning itself to the Soul of the Earth – so he asserts without demonstration.  Further, the Earth is a living Being, and this Soul is not a literary euphemism – it is asserted to be real.   After building up a large assortment of truly impressive scientifically-verified facts, and teasing the reader along the way, indicating that his studies have lead to a determination of the true Nature of the lodestone, he quite suddenly moves from demonstration to dogmatic assertion.  In addition to the Earth as a living entity, he goes on to assert that all celestial bodies are alive, each with its own Soul, and that each will exert a force on the material from which it is made, just as the Earth exerts a force on lodestone and iron.  He winds up this strange path through the irrational with an appeal to astrology – that these same forces affect the development of humans born under the various stars and constellations.  If it weren’t so tragic, it would almost be comical.

Gilbert is a fascinating example of an intellectual genius caught between two radically different philosophical worlds, with one foot planted in each.

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Notes on Some Science Fiction

I recently decided to go back in time and re-read some science fiction that I enjoyed as a teenager.   The author of interest is Jerry Pournelle.  In my teens, I read a couple of the books he co-authored with Larry Niven: The Mote in God’s Eye, Lucifer’s Hammer (comet hits Earth, setting off a nuclear war), and then some of his own work in the collection of short stories High Justice.  I also did some time with Niven’s Ringworld series.  The general genre of these authors is “hard science fiction”, meaning that they make more than a passing attempt to build realism into their science fiction, relying on a reasonable knowledge of physics.  

Pournelle has degrees in statistics, systems engineering, and PhDs in political science and psychology.  He also served in the US Army during the Korean War, worked for major defense contractors including Boeing, the Aerospace Corporation, and Rockwell.  In his spare time he was the campaign manager for Barry Goldwater in his run for Congressman.  He also wrote a long-running column for Byte magazine called “Chaos Manor”.

Pournelle’s politics are roughly Libertarian, though to be honest, I am only getting this from the recent re-reading of High Justice and The Mote in God’s Eye, and some familiarity with what he has written in Chaos Manor.   I chose to read these two books because I had “heard somewhere” that they were related.  In actual fact, the two works are created within the same fictional “universe”, but occur over 1000 years apart, and there is almost no real connection between them which is obvious (or at all useful) in reading the books.

High Justice is a very interesting collection of short stories set in the near future.  Published in 1974, the target time period for these stories is near 2000.  The setting is grim on Earth.  The United States has all but collapsed into a socialist hell.  Large corporations have fled the US and operate virtually independently from any government.  In effect, they are becoming alternate governments.  Some of the environmental catastrophes that are widely “expected” have occurred – oil is unavailable, solar power is the solution, water in the SouthWest has become a dominant problem (solved by a combination of desalination technology, and the more brute-force technology of carving off huge icebergs from the polar regions and transporting them to arid regions), the ocean floor is being mined for precious materials, and we’re communicating with dolphins. 

Ok, not all of this is particularly rational, but some of the political philosophy involved is entertaining.  The culmination of the short stories (all moderately inter-related) is the departure of the principals of the largest corporations to colonize the solar system, specifically to escape from the political disaster which has occured all over the Earth.

The Mote in God’s Eye is a very different story.  This chronicles Man’s first contact (after 1000s of years, the rise and fall of a massive human interstellar Empire, followed by a lengthy Dark Age when colonies were basically surviving on their own with limited or no interstellar trade, and then a slow Renaissance, during which the story is set) with an alien species.  The “Moties” are very bizarrely evolved creatures.  Bodies are asymmetrical, all species look very, very similar, and are separated by level of intelligence, and then by skill within the sentient species.  There are worker Moties, Mediator Moties, Master Moties, Farmer Moties, little semi-intelligent monkey-like Moties, and Warrior Moties.  Each class is super-specialized to its skill, and co-dependent on the other species.  This is the result of a very old civilization (10’s of thousands of years of civilization) surviving within a single solar system, with one very big biological problem – they must breed to live.  Failing to reproduce results in early death.  And infanticide is culturally forbidden.  Population pressure repeatedly leads to massive warfare, followed by a complete technological collapse, and the “cycle” repeats.  With this cycle well-known by the Moties, they have created safeguards to slow down the frequency of the cycles, but they generally recognize the inevitability of war followed by collapse.

In their interaction with Man, they hide the existance of their Warrior class, along with any other indication that they have had large scale warfare in their past.  They also hide their big biological secret – that they must breed to survive, and that they will not kill their children.  At the very end of the story, Man discovers this hidden fact, and proceeds to blockade them within their system, to prevent them from spreading throughout the Empire, and ultimately overwhelming Man through population growth.

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Fall Reading

I’ve gone through a period of reading some rather poorly-chosen books. After completing Toland’s biography of Hitler – a book I first read in high school during my first fascination with the second world war – I turned back to what I hoped would be philosophical reading. I first read Aristotle’s Rhetoric. This I found to be “Aristotelean” in the sense of there being an overall logical approach to the subject, but certainly not inspirational, nor particularly enlightening.

From there, I decided to read Francis Bacon’s Essays, including New Atlantis. It is hard to imagine that the same thinker who is credited with describing the scientific method, and is believed by some to have been the actual Shakespeare, could have written such drivel. At best, the essays are completely uninteresting. The few that have any meaningful content are overwhelmed with a very negative religious message. Perhaps the clearest statement of this religious message is his essay on Ambition, which is described essentially as a sin. Now I’d be willing to write off these essays – which are among his first published works – as coming from a young thinker. However, New Atlantis – written some 30 years later near the end of his career – is only marginally better in its message, although notably it is only a fragment of an unfinished allegory (and I can’t understand why it is considered an important work at all).

Following this unfortunate choice, I picked up a book on “the philosophy of science” that (as with most of the books I read) I found at a library book sale. This is a collection of essays by various un-famous authors writing in the 1940s and 1950s. To my dismay, I found that the center point of all of the essays I read in this book was how Relativity and Quantum Mechanics should change our viewpoint on the metaphysics of the world around us. I didn’t get far into this before stopping and putting it away.

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Notes on recent reading

I interrupted my chain of thought on the philosophy of mathematics by reading some published material on that topic. I had “told myself” that I should avoid doing this, in the interest of keeping my thoughts fresh and free of any confusion that could come from reading other possible interpretations which may be based on unsound principles. Nonetheless, I proceeded to order a few books through the public library, based only upon titles, and ignorant of who the authors were.

I wound up with three books, of which I bothered reading only one – The Philosophy of Mathematics, by Stephan Korner, published in 1960. I’ve read a string of books now which all suffer from a common problem – incredibly poor writing style – and this one just added to the sequence. Although it is possible that I am finding the subject just too complicated to understand, Korner’s writing seems a torture of partially and poorly defined words and phrases. I’ll also admit to reading this book far too quickly, not taking notes, and being deeply bored by the experience. Through this haze, he presents three major schools of thought on the nature of Mathematics: Logicism, Formal Systems Theory, and Intuitionism.

The Logicists (Frege, Russell, Whitehead, Quine) seek to derive Mathematics from the fundamental rules of Logic. This school is a direct derivative of the rebirth of rationalism after Kant. Mathematics is a product solely of the mind, and bears no relationship to Reality. Mathematical truth is a synthetic a-priori truth: existing in a realm beyond experience, but created by the human mind. Not surprisingly, this attempt is seen to fail.

Formal systems theory is the attempt to consider Mathematics as a language of symbols, and to use this language representation and a set of transformation rules (the rules of Logic) to attempt to show the completeness or incompleteness of a set of axioms. This approach culminates in Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which shows, for the specific field of Number Theory, that given any assumed set of axioms, one can construct a “true” statement relative to those axioms which cannot be proven starting from those axioms and using the transformation rules. This esoteric proof is then generalized (foggily) to apply to all of Mathematics, and indeed, to all of Logic. Basically, this approach to understanding Mathematics results in the conclusion that mathematical truth is by its nature incomplete, and therefore of questionable application.

Korner’s exposition of Intuitionism I found to be almost entirely opaque. This approach is strongly empirical, and requires of every truth that it be inherently provable, and constructable. This leads to the denial of the law of the excluded middle: A or not A, as to prove the existence of a thing, it is not sufficient, according to the Intuitionist, to prove the impossibility of its non-existence. All existence proofs are required to lead to a construction of an example. I cannot claim to understand intuitionism – once the excluded middle was denied, I decided to spend my time elsewhere.

All three of the schools Korner describes are derived from Kant’s disastrous epistemology, as Korner correctly indicates. The author describes each school, and then offers his criticism, ending the work by proposing some philosophical framework of his own. My interest diminished rapidly after the introductory chapters, in which he discusses Kant with obvious reverence.

The other books I picked up included a set of lectures on mathematics by Wittenstein – after reading up on Wittenstein a bit, and discovering he was a self-contradicting linguist, I abandoned all hope of getting anything out of his impossible to read lectures.

The final book is more modern (1990s), entitled “What is Mathematics Really?” by Reuben Hersh. I have not opened this book, but Hersh apparently presents his “humanism” theory of mathematics, in which Mathematics is primarily a social activity which resists a firm definition. “Mathematics is what Mathematicians do.” How insightful. Reviews indicate that the presentation is very poorly constructed, that the history he presents is inaccurate, and his arguments range in quality from silly to questionable. I believe I’ll return this one to the library unopened.

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Philosophy of Mathematics – Introduction

Some recent reading has lead me back to considering the philosophical problems of Mathematics. To arrive at a clear and proper understanding of mathematical principles, it is necessaryto build all mathematical constructs from abstraction of entities occuring in reality. The historical introduction of many (perhaps most) mathematical devices and techniques has been driven by their pragmatic utility in addressing problems in the existing framework of mathematics. Failure to tie these new constructs to a basis in reality (physical reality, or abstraction fromphysical reality), results in an incomplete understanding of the meaning of these constructs. This can lead to inappropriate application of the constructs to model phenomena, which in turn can undermine the validity of theory based upon the arbitrary application of the mathematics. Even if thescience used in developing and verifyinga theoryuses a valid method,if the mathematics used to describe the theory is based in floating abstraction, the theory remains vulnerable to misinterpretation and misapplication.

My inspiration for pursuing an investigation toward properly rooting fundamental mathematics derives from a small number of sources. I have previously read through the final two of a series of articles (published in TIA in the late 90’s through 2001) by Ron Pisaturo in which criticisms similar to those I’ve described above are presented, with a handful of specific examples. Meanwhile, I am currently reading The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose, which is a lengthy text seeking to present the major elements of modern physics to the general reader through emphasizing the underlying mathematics. At the moment, I’ve completed only about 120 pages, but it is already clear that Penrose’s philosophy of mathematics is otherworldly – he describes a Platonic realm which contains the ideals of mathematics, and presents a rather confusing, but not revolutionary, set of relationships between the human mind, the physical world, and this Platonic realm. This alone was enough to indicate that Penrose is personally comfortable with working with floating abstractions, but his repeated description of the “magic” of complexnumbers makes this much clearer.

This is not to say that the book is without merit – in fact, for the purpose of understanding how the philosophical errors of modern physics stem from the philosophical errors of the underlying mathematics, the book may be ideal. And beyond this purpose, I chose the book(without knowing its content) to attempt to come closer to at least being conversant in elements of modern physics. [For those reading this without knowing me personally, I shouldmention that I have undergraduate degrees in both physics and mathematics, so these topics are not – or at least should not – be alien territory for me]. As to whether Penrose accomplishes his goal of making the mathematics of modern physics approachable for the general public, I highly, highly doubt that a reader without at least an engineering degree is going to be able to make it through the first 100 pages without becoming intensely confused. And these 100 pages are only scratching the surface of the math he covers. A full critique of Penrose’s book will come later.

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An Old Kind of Science

In my current thrashing about within AI and computational science topics, I returned once again to consider Wolfram’s New Kind of Science material. In brief review, Steve Wolfram has spent the better part of his life fascinated with computational complexity arising from simple algorithms. Initially working from cellular automata systems, Wolfram has built up an impressive set of equivalent computational systems all exhibiting the same fundamental patterns of behavior. These patterns are classified into four types – Type 1 systems evolve into static conditions; Type 2 evolve into periodic patterns; type 3 become “chaotic”; Type 4 evolve into the most interesting behaviour that is best described as “complex” or structured randomness. After spending many years studying a vast variety of simple systems, Wolfram published an enormous treatise, “A New Kind of Science”, back in 2002 to describe his findings.

I had been following Wolfram and the general field of complexity, and in particular automata, off and on throughout my post-college years. When I heard of this new work, I couldn’t wait to receive a copy (a Christmas present from my wife, if I recall correctly). I devoured the book upon receiving it, and was thoroughly…. shocked and disappointed! Here was not a revolutionary theory explaining computational complexity. Instead, Wolfram had produced an overwhelmingly conceited presentation of example after example of complexity arising from simple systems, but with nothing to offer in the way of theory. Indeed, in his opening remarks, he describes his “new kind of science” as that which doesn’t fit the traditional dogma of science requiring hypothesis and proof, and the build up of mathematical explanatory theory. Rather, this seems to be “science by example”. Although intriguing examples are presented, he offers no hope of creating a method by which to discover which simple machines are good at representing a given phenomenon. The applied use of this “science” instantly becomes highly questionable. Wolfram seems to favor brute force searching for machine rules which are of interest.

He is wrong in describing his form of “science” as new. Rather, he should have used the term “primitive”. Wolfram’s study (and those of his followers) is reminiscent of early observational astronomy. When I read through the vast number of examples, presentations of “interesting” observations, displays of aesthetically pleasing patterns, and hear this described as “science”, I am reminded of Tyco Brahe cataloging the exact positions of points of light in the firmament. Even in modern astronomy, there is this role of the passive observer who catalogs observation after observation.

About a month ago, I was driving my family home from the movies, and I observed a fireball. My wife doubted what we had seen, but from my previous experience I was sure it was a fireball. A couple of days later, I happened upon the American Meteor Society (, and actually filled out a fireball observation report. Sure enough, within a few days I received an email indicating that three other observations corroborated my sighting. Although this was a “fun” exercise, what purpose is served by the AMS? They simply catalog observations. Meteors are just about fully understood, and certainly no set of amateur sightings is going to advance the state of our knowledge of meteors.

Returning to Wolfram’s field, what I see here is a very primitive set of observations. From both reading his enormous book, and looking through the discussion forums he has sponsored (, I see very little interest in the creation of an explanatory or predictive theory for computational complexity. I see a fascination with examples, I see an overblown interest in aesthetics (which are truly meaningless, as they are purely a function of the presentation of the data generated by these systems), and just about no interest in applications of the field of knowledge to address real world problems. What I see, in essence, is an amazingly powerful failure.

Despite my grim assessment of Wolfram’s approach to the field of study he has (primarily) defined, I still believe it is a fundamental key to understanding much of the world that surrounds us.

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Thoughts on Neural Networks

I’m nearing the completion of On Intelligence, past the point where the author stops presenting his sketch of a theory of intelligence, and moves into the land of speculation. He has answered the question “what is consciousness” in a rather straight-forward manner (it is the experience of being intelligent), but has not yet tackled the question of free will.

Listening to this book has lead me back to reading articles from the rather large collection of journals I have on the topic of computational intelligence. The journals are IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks, on Evolutionary Computation, and on Fuzzy Logic. The papers in the first two journals (I have not actually read any of the Fuzzy Logic journal to date) are mostly very narrow investigations of esoteric topics in their fields. A neural network applied to this problem needed to be modified from its traditional form in such and such a manner, and either solves, or sort of solves the problem. Other papers are taxonomies of algorithms or computational structures all falling under the same heading – and the author adds some little twist to the last category he describes. These are the papers that can usually be skipped without missing anything essential – and they are all written by grad students, with some professor listed as one of the authors.

Occasionally, there is a massive article that introduces some fundamentally new concept. But (so far) even those fundamental concepts are not so fundamental as to significantly advance the field. Even rarer are articles that seek a border between theory and reality, or the rarest of all – theory and philosophy. They are in there, but they are tough to spot.

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