Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Part 2: Kuhn's Epistemology

Here's the second part of my post. These are the points that are more closely connected to the various discussions I had that motivated me to read Thomas Kuhn in the first place. I do want to reiterate that I think that his idea of paradigm- and revolution-based science history is usefully descriptive, and I mostly like it very much. I do take some exceptions here and there, however, and have some disagreements with respect to its universality. Mostly, I'm interested in challenging it against this epistemological paradigm that I've gone and developed in spite of myself.

Kuhn generally equates the current mature scientific paradigm to the stultifying stuff taught in textbooks. I have a few texts written before 1962, but those tend to be either highly specialized (not yet obviated I guess by new ways of looking at things) or else artifacts that I picked up and keep around as souvenirs instead of sources of information. Maybe things were a little different forty years ago. I mean, yes, textbooks serve to indoctrinate people into the current state of knowledge, but no, I don't think that these texts define very well what science is. To some smaller points of his, advanced book-writing isn't really frowned upon, and I also disagree somewhat that science separates itself from the larger community quite so much. There's a reputation of intellectual superiority that I think scientists vainly like to keep, but on the other hand, premier publications such as Nature and Science, really aim for general understanding of highly complicated fields. Or (I just added) go read the Feynman lectures (these clock in a couple years after Kuhn's essay). My introductory college textbooks often talked about past and current controversies, including the paradigms that stuck and the ones that didn't. The story of a gestalt switcheroo that turns a bug into a feature is an enduring favorite. The sort of triumphant narrative of toppling a progression of barriers that made Kuhn bristle? I don't know if I got that one quite as much, and when I did, it was more concerning the early discoveries. (We'll go back to classical waves, in other words, but not to a continuum of angels.) In my observation, the idea of thriving within a heady open-ended scientific crisis period is closer to the idealized self-congratulating story of many "top tier" scientists (as a colleague once liked to say) today. Even here in the dregs of applied science, "innovation" is the name of the game.

I think anyone working in a research field understands that scientific paradigms are articulated almost like a correspondence, a slow-motion argument consisting of innumerable published articles, conferences, and less-formal meetings. Underlying this communication is the normal science that Kuhn describes, but I don't think the subject matter is chosen solely to gratify a bunch of expected hypotheses. The popular sessions at a conference are the ones chasing after the sexy new field and lighting up the current controversies. Scientists, at least certain kinds of scientists, are just plain hungry for anomalies to fight about. They go looking for a crisis. And even for the bigger paradigm busters, there's plenty of room for brilliant kookery (e.g.) out there on the fringes.

Kuhn made a lot of hay about the seminal insights that John Dalton, a meteorologist, brought to the early days of chemical theory. The mode of thinking that he brought from a different discipline gave him tools to look at chemistry problems in a new way. Again, I don't know what it was like in the early 1960s, and maybe it's Kuhn that helped to begin this newer intellectual paradigm, but much like sexy research, digging around for nuggets in other fields is accepted, common, and encouraged these days. "Interdisciplinary" has become a buzzword too.

Kuhn often implies that not all paradigm changes are the same, that there's a gradation in revolutionary goodness. Roentgen did more than just articulate his paradigm when he discovered x-rays, but on the other hand, he was no Copernicus. We can scale down and down too. Every scientific experiment (or thought experiment) has a challenge and a reconciliation built into it. It's meant to test the paradigm and explain the results. Most researchers will be presented with anomalous measurements even in the course of normal science—if everything goes as expected on the first try, then you really are doing common engineering—which they might ignore, fail to notice, or suitably explain within the existing paradigm. Paradigm shift, Kuhn explains, is a consequence of this kind of normal puzzle-solving difficulty, a question of only how important and persistent the anomalies seem to the community. Kuhn also notes that one person's anomaly is another's puzzle problem, depending on what viewpoint they subscribe to. There is no bright line.

Furthermore, while "paradigm" describes the full body of communication, everyone carries around an individualized understanding of it. If other fields (perhaps even the impure ones) are allowed to come in and interact, it can be a source of competing ideas. As we introduce the idea of competing paradigms, subdivided fields, when we don't let the unpopular ones quite fade away, then we might observe that all of these ideas, dead and alive, can always be compiled into a paradigm-of-paradigms that we can never approach from the outside. I don't have much to add to that, except to note that it does give an unpleasant point from which to voice disagreement, and also from which to advocate, when a paradigm can have a broad or a narrow meaning as the discussion demands.

Prior to reading, as well as throughout the text, I imagined the description of scientific paradigms as a meta-construction built around the normal operation of science. Kuhn calls out normal science as the process of hypothesizing and delivering (until the point where this process fails to deliver) expected results. The anomalies he discusses, the ones that are seen as significant enough (and timely enough, and seen by the right eyes) to demand a new way to look at things, he stresses do come out of the normal operation of science. I don't think he means his views to invalidate this established investigatory process (even if they might require us think of it differently).

I tend to think of the scientific method mostly as a flowchart, starting with observation, study or review, followed by hypothesis, tests for agreement, and conclusions based on results of the test, adding and constantly revising the body of work. I've said that I don't think of this dogmatically, and see it mostly as a general guideline. Kuhn mentions that scientists tend to proceed day-to-day without thinking very much about the rules they're following, and this is true in my experience. I agree that research is goals-biased, and certainly test methods, standards of proof, and so forth are informed by (or are) the paradigm. The scientific method might count as a rough approximation of the quotidian work ("hey, let's see if this idea works"), and even if it's an imperfect decision-making hierarchy, it gets reinforced at the higher level in the conventions of scientific reporting (the customary sections of a paper—Introduction, Experiment, Results and Discussion, Conclusions—restate it outright) and also at the level of scientific funding decisions (write a proposal, and get money to see if it works). The scientific method is a beloved part of our current science philosophy paradigm, but much more than that, it is also part of a fundamental literary one. It maps the process of investigation on to a classic story: what is our subject like, what happened to him, and how did he change.

We like to construct narratives around science, just like everything else. If that can be seen as a template for the scientific method, then can the paradigm approach be mapped that way too? Is the articulation of normal science equivalent to a background study? Is investigating the anomaly the test of normal science? Do the conclusions and revisions amount to the delivery of a revolutionary new paradigm (or the reconciliation with an old one)? Well sure, if we are willing to speak broadly enough.

There remains a need to evaluate theory with respect to observations, and when Kuhn discusses the acceptance of new theories, he addresses this in terms of scientific validation. He denies a Popperian sort of straight-up falsification (rightly I think), and also more probabilistic sorts of validation (that is, accepting things more strongly when they agree better; extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence). We might take on a new paradigm that's popular, or elegant, or simpler, or seems to promise richer articulation, or fits with the other ones, or maybe it's all just arbitrary. Kuhn speculates that what makes it science isn't necessarily the acceptance criteria, but maybe the fact that it's imagined as intellectual progress. I don't agree with that. I think what makes it science instead of something else is that it's evidence-based.

I remember a quote from my freshman physics book, paraphrasing, that in reality, electrons are neither particles nor waves, they're electrons. Kuhn eventually gets to a similar point and cites it as the resolution of a scientific revolution. I don't want to give him this one. I think that the probabilistic way of looking at things, more than Kuhn's, suggests that nature is an independent thing, and that more than one view can be held simultaneously, within some range of validity. Of course, that could be just me thinking like an engineer, bringing in a less-than-pure-science viewpoint of my own, which perhaps has more of a most-workable-understanding-given-the-data sort of culture. I prefer to couch my understanding of science as a series of known assumptions and constraining rules (maybe the same thing as a paradigm as Kuhn means it), under which some theory is known to be useful, sometimes only good-enough useful, and sometimes only preferred because it's consistent with other theory. I don't feel anyone has to take one rigid outlook to the table.

I concede that science revolutions may not always go to the best theory (it's too early to tell when they're busy being all radical), and certainly doesn't result in the best possible one, but to say that it's a competition between existing paradigms doesn't, to me, refute very well a probabilistic validation approach. At a minimum, there's a requirement of descriptiveness that contributes to the appeal of a new paradigm.

The old understanding of the scientific method is also useful for categorizing ideas. It's good to keep in mind that a "hypothesis" is a proposal, while a "theory" is well-understood within its definition and constraints. Mostly, this serves as a helpful tool for dealing with poorly-informed blowhards.

One thing that a probabilistic validation is good for (and which I think a paradigm model deals with less effectively) is to keep down the poorly supported competing theories. It's a continuation of the point, but it deserves a special heading. It's true that all iconoclasts don't fit in within the popular paradigm. On the other hand, just because you are out there taking a chisel to everyone's favorite statues doesn't mean you're a revolutionary. Maybe you're just an asshole. It's good to have some rules of thumb here. You'd better have a damn good argument if you want to show me your perpetuum mobile.

I am most comfortable spotting paradigms outside of science, as well I might be. Politics and economics seem, to me, to be filthy with the things, and far more than with scientific study, they are unburdened by the rigors of empiricism. Why do people come to suddenly believe in Communism, in consumerism, in American party politics, in popular revolution, in abolition? These are more gestalt-style shifts, nudged on, I often like to think, by events as well as the evolution of scientific paradigms, but colored more heavily by the whimsical human imagination. The failure of old networks to address perceived social crises, suddenly perceived broadly enough, precipitates revolutions of a more political (and generally violent) sort. Kuhn touches on this at the end (it may have been his starting point), but if you've ever witnessed a debate between an American liberal and conservative, then you've seen very clearly a failure to accept the other's set of assumptions and evaluations, not to mention a rather questionable concept of progress, in addition to a craptastic analysis of data (usually worse for the person with a threatened advantage). Living in a political climate that I loathe is difficult, especially when the tools I have for analyzing it are also the ones it provides. I give the social dissenters some major props, including, and maybe especially, those who can spot the system and find a way to conscientiously object to it. I think that much of the alternative social paradigms come from literature and art (and science may owe more to these than is usually acknowledged—I liked Kuhn's point that in the Renaissance, there was little distinction between science and art). I love to see when scientific principles are applied in a more honest manner than number-crunching your way to a foregone economic conclusion from dubious assumptions, and it's governed a lot of my reading in the past few years. My minor observation is that a more evidence-based approach would do wonders for the world.

Boring! But it's out of my head.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Part 1: The Evolution of Science

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is, it would seem, a seminal book in the philosophy of science. I admit that, while I am supportive or at least open to many of Kuhn's points and find the general concept to be extremely useful, my thoughts on the subject matter have been negatively biased by a couple of very special groups of people. This first is the small handful of insufferable bastards who, in their embrace of this structure, feel that they're members of some elite clan of practical philosophers, who regard anyone laboring under an older paradigm as their inferiors, and talk past their interlocutors, as Kuhn suggests they must, as if in validation of their superior worldview. (Such indignation is obviously a very loaded interpretation of my own, but Kuhn is very sympathetic to people reasoning in the old motif, and doesn't judge them as "wrong.") This group of people resembles the sorts of college sophomores who discover Bayesian inference and then parade around like they've personally set upon a secret of the universe revealed to all but a few, instead of understanding that these models have already been worked into the existing paradigm to the extent that they've been judged collectively useful. (It's possible that subjects in epistemology attract a generally tedious and narrowly doctrinaire lot, which would actually explain a great deal about how Kuhn came to his worldview.) As for the second group of bad influences, keep in mind that Kuhn is the guy who coined the term "paradigm shift" as a description of scientific revolutions, and we know who uses that sort of language these days, the class of leaders who found similar inspiration in such philosophical classics as Who Moved My Cheese. But it's not really the fault of the thinker that his magnum opus got reduced to a chit for buzzword bingo, and it is more likely a sign of his success. Everyone knows what "paradigm shift" is. It's deeply within the paradigm.

In his long essay, Thomas Kuhn proffers a historical interpretation of scientific progress. It is not so much a cumulative process, he argues, so much as it is an evolutionary one, where governing paradigms (the dominant way of looking at the world, that is, the set of theories, methods, tools, analogies, governing assumptions, and evidentiary standards) progress under a process that he calls "normal science" (meaning, predictive experimentation with reasonable expectation of success under the paradigm), until this process reveals sufficient anomalies, until it leads to enough doubtful interpretation to generate a crisis in the field under which new, competing paradigms can be generated and normalized. Some of his favorite examples of scientific revolutions of this sort are Newtonian mechanics (adios, Aristotle), Lavoisier's discovery of oxygen (farewell, phlogiston) and Copernicus' description of celestial motion (toodles, Ptolemy). Current (or recent) fields in sufficient crisis to regard no paradigm as quite satisfactory may include celestial mechanics at sufficiently large scales (dark what-now?) or the continued challenge of understanding gravity in similar terms as the other forces on perhaps smaller scales (how many dimensions again?).

And I should say that basically, I agree with the Kuhn's general outline, but then again, I'm not particularly dogmatic about this sort of thing (and I'm not sure it's wise to be) despite having some strong convictions here and there. The thing is, if Kuhn did indeed help to establish a new paradigm, then I'm already 40 years into it, and it tempers my analysis a great deal, as Kuhn tells me it must. (I am always suspicious of philosophies that use this sort of self-updating definitional argument to protect themselves from criticism. If I could perceive any sense of humor in there, I'd suspect Kuhn was getting a laugh out of it.) I wonder, for example, how a community can be so wed to any set of theories, so closed to alternatives, that it discards them in all available circumstances. But see, I would say that in the post-Kuhn paradigm. Anyway, I apologize for what is shaping up to be an exceedingly long post. For those who are already bored, consider the above the "book review" and go click on one of the many better blogs along the sidebar. I'm going to proceed to outline a number of specific thoughts and criticisms, that I collected while reading the book. Many of these simmered in my brain through much of the book, some of them even before I cracked it, some have been percolating for years now. Toward the end, Kuhn actually got to a good bunch of the things I've been thinking. While that all makes me look smart in my own mind, it doesn’t make me look as sharp in front of you people. To compensate, I have linked myself gratuitously, like a true schmuck.

For my own long essay, since this thing bloated up so much, and since I can only steal time in small increments, I'm going to split it into two parts. This first part includes some of the points that I could tie to an evolutionary paradigm. The second does more to rate the structure of scientific revolutions against my other thoughts on epistemology.

Kuhn's system of changing paradigms looks a lot like an evolutionary model, specifically, the stasis-and-change sorts of dynamics advanced by Stephen Jay Gould. In that, the species is better considered the evolutionary entity as opposed to the organism, locked in (that is, prevented from variation) by reproduction. A great deal of genetic intermingling helps average things out. In that sense, a species is much like a scientific paradigm, preserved by the prolific but sadly figurative intercourse of individual scientists. The sudden speciation that Gould sees is not so different from the scientific revolution that is advocated here, and is probably similarly brought on by crisis, by sudden new requirements for fitness, that tends to produce an adequacy of performance from the genetic tools at hand. Much as we like to attribute the contributions of scientist-individuals, it may be more accurate in terms of science history to think about paradigm-individuals, even while recognizing the genius (and the sometimes big brass balls) of outstanding human practitioners. Kuhn spends an entire section on discovery and attribution, noting that it's the guy who converts it to a new paradigm who tends to get the credit more than the one who found it (who is often the foil in the story), and that it's impossible really to see any aspect as the solo effort. A skim of Punctuated Equilibrium confirms that Gould definitely did see this parallel with scientific paradigms, and it informed his work. Kuhn gets half a dozen cites.

Kuhn also acknowledges the evolutionary analog somewhere late in his essay. He asserts, like Gould does with respect to genetic evolution, that it's fallacious to look at scientific progress as some sort of achievement, reaching toward some pinnacle which generally includes us, right now or soon. But in biological evolution, old species don't necessarily go away. The growth of ecological diversity of course depends on the destruction rate of species as well as their creation. Is this the case for scientific history as well? Kuhn thinks that old paradigms need to die in order to generate the new versions. I disagree with that generality.

So, did Gould's idea of punctuated equilibrium scuttle the origin of species? I think (and Kuhn would agree) that it asked and answered a different question. It used additional knowledge about the fossil record and a greater body of data about living species, it starts to touch on contemporary genetics (although I think Darwin might have readily grasped many of these logical extensions), and more importantly, it utilizes an intellectual tradition that had already thoroughly assimilated Darwin. But does it necessarily abandon the old man? Punctuated equilibrium rejects gradualism, but it doesn't (at least as far as I remember) present an alternative paradigm for species change. It observes that groups separated from mixing their genes with the rest of the species might be more likely to undergo a Darwinian selection. Which sounds more like a modification than a revolution. Kuhn presents some different cases where this has been closer to the historical process too, but his argument is that it's still a necessary reversal. He states that this idea of theory expansion is (like gradualism in biological evolution) one that the intellectual heirs to a paradigm tend to prefer, or which can appear less disruptive to scientists outside the field. His example for this is that when Roentgen advanced the understanding of x-rays, it wasn't quite so illogical to people studying electromagnetism—just a modification to what they already knew—but to chemical physicists it added some unsettling angles to chemistry, and they needed to think about their field in a new way as a consequence.

And maybe it's a better case that Einstein did strike Newton down to his very fundamentals, and the inarguably broader way of looking at the universe may have ended up including Newton, but could no longer pretend to think on his terms even if they liked his math. I don't know if there's cutting-edge research in classical mechanics, but it sure as hell survives in engineering, which I don't commit so readily as Kuhn to the rabble hovering below even normal science. (I mean, ask Buckminster Fuller.) Getting closer to modernity, statistical thermodynamics didn't quite kill off the classical version either. Even knowing that there's an information basis to thermodynamic quantities, it doesn't change a great deal of the classical understanding—or the usefulness of the classical understanding—heat is still thought of as something that flows phenomenologically with intrinsic states helpfully washed out. Neglecting the ability to predict every possible state of every damn particle in the universe, choosing the appropriate granularity is always necessary for science as well as engineering. Electrical fluid models are in Kuhn's bozo bin too, but a great deal of that analysis still works pretty damn well with the same ancient (by technological terms) differential equations, and you wouldn't have invented the transistor—an engineering-style paradigm-cracker right there—without soaking in that lowly level of (semi-)classical understanding.

I could go on. The basis of the modern understanding of chemistry is damn near entirely about the quantum behavior of electrons, and yet in teaching the paradigm, plenty of more primitive versions are held on to quite happily, and are used. For example, you don't need to get past Lewis's science to get to the plastics revolution of the 1940s. In optics, articulation of Fresnel's and Maxwell's paradigms remain on the cutting edge without invoking a single corpuscle. Now, Kuhn's answer to this is probably that by judging usefulness I'm talking mere engineering, which is not the same as the pure science revolutions he intends, but I don't agree with that. To my mind, these researchers are still busy as hell articulating the old paradigms. (Kuhn would further contend that the old paradigm didn't include an acknowledgement of a newer one, so no dice. That's a semantic purity argument that I maybe can't win.) For another example, I've spent the last couple of years researching metamaterials, possibly a small revolution on the order of Roentgen's, in that it expands (or claims to expand—a lot of scientific revolution these days is in the marketing, as hinted at in the introduction) the ideas of what materials are, and what properties they are allowed to attain. And yet it can be, and usually is, explained completely in terms of classical wave mechanics.

Some paradigms do die complete deaths, deemed too unfit for any niche. No scientist worth her salt really believes in phlogiston anymore, for example, and I very nearly reject Kuhn's idea that there were some ideas that the spooky substance was better at describing. I don't reject that there were questions more readily suggested by phlogiston theory, but (no doubt my paradigm talkin' here) I don't think it raises many interesting ones. If those ideas remained worth knowing (because we do have engineering now to make science do tricks), then chemical theory has found an alternate way of getting there. But even down there among the truly obsolete, people do seem to return to the same sorts of assumptions when confronted with a scientific crisis: maybe things interact with an invisible permeating substance; that fudge factor might amount to something; categories of things have intrinsic properties; stuff is made out of tiny essences.

Kuhn frequently cites a pre-paradigm period in which science, when practiced, was very nearly limited to the investigations of a single scientist. There just was not enough community to keep up a good correspondence, nor a tradition of communication that might reach that critical mass of feedback from your peers. But it's not as though there were only ever two modes at play.

It's interesting to look at the governing social paradigms that were involved with science. Study has moved splotchily through various settings: philosophical schools, monasteries, gentlemanly pastimes, universities, patronage, structural civic funding (with, no doubt, plenty of throwbacks to pre-paradigmatic practice along the way). There have been periods of a pure research ideal, periods burdened by philosophical and logical traditions, the weight of authority, or theological conformity, periods strangled by applied military research. Even Kuhn here is evidently male- and certainly Eurocentric, not to mention oblivious to the science still done under older paradigms, which rather limits his own point of view.

Kuhn makes a dramatic attempt to generalize the whole post-paradigm period, but my question now is whether history has been consistent enough in that time to generalize. Connecting to the evolutionary point, is there instead a larger trajectory of paradigm development? (A meta-meta-structure? Sheesh.) Maybe there really is progress, but much like the biological sort, it increases diversity more than it increases in some absolute measure of awesomeness. Science gets bigger as new paradigms evolve, especially if the old ones tend to stick around in some fashion. I'm inclined to look at the sheer amount of our usefully accurate (or paradigmatically fit) descriptive power as a less-arbitrary measure of going foward intellectually. As science has developed, the general move has been to describe more things. If there's an absolute yardstick for progress, it's that science now covers way more ground with fewer self-contradictions. It does too go somewhere.

Enough for now. I'll try and post the rest of this monster tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Review: Spook Country by William Gibson

Perhaps, dear reader, you can help me to find the right metaphorical space here. I keep wanting to go with cooking--it had good ingredients, but didn't bake quite long enough; mixed nicely but the souffle fell; something along those lines--but that doesn't seem appropriate for a story about spycraft and secret lives and subterfuge. Maybe it was as artlessly manipulated as a CIA-sponsored foreign election? No, see, that kind of awareness needs to stay on the outskirts. It's not a bad novel, doesn't invite the word "bungled," and it's not, despite the forces that have developed and honed these various characters, about a great evil. Or rather, it's not about a great menacing evil, or [spoilers!] better still to say that it's more about the nonviolent side effects of a great evil, a colorful spinoff of a violent interventionist American foreign policy. And while the note is lightly played, Gibson doesn't let pass the nasty spookery that enabled the plot in the first place, and more than I recall with other of his novels, he shows a glimpse of the amoral ways that incredible wealth can drive the social inequities that so many of his characters have found themselves looking at from the underside. Spook Country probably owes more to spy novels than it does to actual espionage: I'm thinking of the incredibly high level of competence on display, the strange international and parallel-world existence of the characters, and this whole business of respected opponents clambering through the spook world for no net gain and with amazing budgets. As such, Gibson does bring an interesting, and I think by genre terms, unconventional humanity to these sorts of characters and a gratifyingly weird dynamic to their actions,* and he pens a quick observational wit in some places (but a couple of infelicitous phrases stuck out in others, and the barrage of brand names that Gibson likes to use is generally annoying). Not bad stuff here at all, and the problem is mostly that it needed a little more elaboration. How about "underplotted?" I knew I'd find a metaphor eventually.

The story trails three separate groups of characters in a more or less evenly shuffled series of very short chapters. The book suffers that the first, and primary, subplot is the weakest. Former rock star and now freelance journalist Hollis Henry is assigned to write about an interesting new cultural scene. Quickly, she's pushed toward shady characters that enable some of the "geohacking" technology the artists use, by equally mysterious benefactors and employers. Locative art (not sure how real an item it is), which uses computer viewers to paint in artistic comments onto real-world space, is a compelling way to imagine annotated reality creeping into the mainstream, and I liked how Gibson nabs a cultural element as an introduction. It's a stretch, however, to elevate the idea of geolocation (which I'm pretty sure that I was doing on my Blackberry, if not in 2007, then at least in2008) to the status of a terrifying cautionary tale about technology (and naming its practitioner after the transcendent beauty of some numerical integration package is dorky enough to make me to feel a little embarrassed). As a character, Hollis occasionally borders on interesting when her post-celebrity life is poked very hard, although mostly that's just provided for color. She is surprisingly quick to commit to dubious conspiracies, and while she doesn't much trust her benefactor, she expresses, to my mind, too little journalistic curiosity as to how this advertising giant, who doesn't appear to ever do any marketing, or anything at at all beyond setting up clients in obscenely wealthy trappings as he whispers hints to them from the shadows, has achieved this amazing commercial status. Hubertus Bigend's (that's his name) dangerous curiosity and Hollis's selective caution would have made for great television characters in the sort of fun drama that moves along faster than the viewer can spot the holes, but you get the feeling that the aspirations of Spook Country are a little higher than fridge logic. (I think the reader is meant to know that Bigend's marketing is the viral sort that also wasn't very convincing in Gibson's last novel, Pattern Recognition, and he may even be a crossover character. I no longer remember.)

The other two plot threads, showcasing life among the perpetually shadowy, were more fun and stocked with more compelling people. In one, young Tito (last name unknown) lives a quiet life but for his involvement in the family spy business, an unquestioned custom that has been steeped in Cold War era espionage and a little Caribbean magic culture just for fun. It's taken a few tolls on Tito (he lost his father, and the flight from Cuba was hard on his mother), but he comes off as a fundamentally nice, sincere kid, despite making such an impermanent footprint on the world, and despite his Bruce Lee level kung fu skills and James Bond level spycraft. It sounds like it should be cornball, but he's interesting and well done. Chasing Tito are Brown and Milgrim, the former a dickhead cop type, and the latter a translator of intercepted texts (how do you spell LOL in Russian, using an English key set?) who he's conscripted and kept in line with a managed drug addiction. This section is told entirely from Milgrim's point of view, and this is entertaining too, presenting a druggie's almost entertaining difficulty with resolve, childlike defiance and mental escapes. Milgrim's decency, humanity, and intelligence come through too, even though he's such a collossal fuckup.

Between Milgrim's benzedrine-inspired hallucinations, Tito's spirit riders, and the machine-produced ghosts that Hollis was reporting on, there was plenty of room here for thematic explorations of the title, but most of that is unfortunately left to the reader. Similarly, explaining the book's worth of mysterious motivations in a final unifying sequence is a fine way to put together a story, and I can imagine that Gibson thought one about the lives of the world's shadow operators naturally fit this sort of structure. But in this case, putting it off to the end delayed engagement with the characters. I don't think the story would have been any worse if the the good spooks and bad spooks were identified much earlier. That the authoritarian prick ended up as the bad guy is clear enough from his character, and is completely unsurprising to anyone who remembers cyberpunk. Or any kind of punk. (Writing Tito's people as good guys, against the war racket, inspired by example and loyalty, cautious of other people, is a bigger stretch considering the arena in which they had to develop those kinds of skills.) To be fair to my earlier description of Hubertus Bigend, he is seen doing a little actual business at the end of the novel too, and that may have been intended as part of the revelation, but man, the climactic twists weren't so mind-blowing that they couldn't have been added earlier as badly needed background.

*but I'll say, if you want to go here, go read Tim Powers' Declare .