Tagged: b.f. skinner

The past is past: Six months of reading, six seconds to obliteration


I recently read John Lanchester’s review of three books about our social media dystopia, after which I reserved all three titles under consideration at my local library. Link here is paywalled, unless you cough up an email addy.

Books I’ve read or mostly read in recent months:

“Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying,” by Wolfgang Langewiesche. It’s a classic text about flying single-engine planes, published in 1944 and still relevant, still in print today. I purchased my copy, and I expect to keep it close at hand through my flying career.

“Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson,” by William Langewiesche. Yep, today’s foremost flying writer is Wolfgang’s son. “Fly by Wire,” is Langewiesche’s oddly downbeat insta-book about Chesley Sullenberger and the plane he ditched into the frigid Hudson. Why downbeat? Well, Langwiesche repeatedly characterizes the airline pilot occupation as a dying field. Less pay, less cossetted working conditions, and planes that are increasingly “fly-by-wire” and correspondingly idiot-proof.

“Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight,” by William Langewiesche again. An older title, it’s a collection of his essays on flying that I purchased at least a decade ago and read at that time. Holds up well on a re-read, although I’m a little put off but the generally jaded tone of his writing. I don’t expect “Gee whiz, I’m flying,” but a little more wonder and joy wouldn’t be amiss. Even his longest piece, “Inside an Angry Sky,” in which he and others do some seriously insane storm-chasing, his sangfroid seems more like boredom than courage. I’m being too harsh, I’m sure. Elsewhere in the book, his dissection of aviation catastrophes in India and Florida are gripping and authoritative, and his take on the blue-collar pressure-cooker of air traffic control is also persuasive–if now fairly outdated.

“Walden Two,” by B.F. Skinner. The roots of the ’60s counterculture perhaps can be found in this speculative “novel” of 1948.

“The Right Stuff,” by Tom Wolfe. The Mercury astronaut crew: John Glenn, Alan Shepherd, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom, and Deke Slayton. But the baddest flyboy didn’t go into space, and that guy was Chuck Yeager. He’s still alive–at this writing, he’s 94.

“Say Again, Please: Guide to Radio Communications,” by Bob Gardner. The standby reference for pilots learning radio procedure. It’s actually a little less good than advertised, less comprehensive and orderly than I’d expected.

“The Complacent Class” The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream,” by Tyler Cowen. This latest book by the prolific pop economist Tyler Cowen. He’s a force of nature, intimidatingly well-read. But he speed-reads, it seems, and his written output shows signs of being speed-written after some speed-thinking. There’s some provocative arguments in the book, such that we’ve become so satiated with our devices, our amusements, our good-enough jobs, that we’re not taking risks anymore. But it’s all a bit breezy and too-quickly written, I think. At the end, 200 pages into this thin book, he announces in bold type, like a professor underlining his thesis as class ends, the following:

The “biggest story of the last fifteen years, both nationally and globally, is the growing likelihood that a cyclical model of history will be a better predictor than a model of ongoing progress.

A lot of today’s stories, while significant in their own right, can be understood properly only in terms of that larger risk. Or if ou wish to use the language of financial economics, the possibility of cyclical patterns in history is right now the single biggest source of systemic, undiversifiable risk.

Cyclical patterns? While I was sitting here typing, this happened: