Author Archive

Advance Book Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

September 21, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s no secret that I love science fiction. I haven’t reviewed many science fiction books on this blog (with the notable exception of Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, an excellent read), but I have a treat today.

I have a UAC (Uncorrected Advanced Reading Copy) of The Genius Plague by David Walton. The books official release is on October 3, 2017, and I highly suggest that you spare the $14.95 list price (though I’m sure Amazon has it cheaper) to read this book. It’s published by Pyr Science Fiction & Fantasy, an outfit that has been producing some really great work by amazing authors.

I’ll provide a much more in-depth review of the book when it is released, but for now I want to give a shorter advance review. So, first off, I want to say that Walton does an excellent job highlighting real science involved with mycology, as the book is about the spread of a fungus from the Amazon that enhances the intelligence of the people that it infects. In nature, this is seen in species of fungus like cordyceps, which Walton references without naming. Incidentally, the video game The Last of Us features zombies created by cordyceps infection in humans.

Walton obviously writes from a place of deep knowledge, and where he doesn’t have specialized knowledge, he does a fairly decent job with researching. The scientific aspects of the book are believable, as are the sections involving the NSA and Alzheimer’s. I won’t lie: by the time you get to the halfway point of the book, you’re turning pages without being aware of it. Walton has a gift for pacing and knowing how to construct a narrative such that you’re sucked into the novel and reading with increased fervor the deeper into the story you get.

He also has a talent for writing believable characters, for the most part (I’ll talk about some of the issues in the longer review). The dialogue he writes is often engaging, with such gems as “Good to know there’s someone waiting in the wings in case I turn into a fungus zombie.” I laughed out loudly at that line. Another thing that I like about the book is how cryptography plays a role in the action, and Walton does an interesting job of making that fresh.

The Genius Plague is a quick, but excellent read, and deserves a place on the shelf of any lover of science fiction literature. Tentatively, I rate if 4 out of 5 stars (for reasons which I’ll explain in my expanded review).


Book Review: Hiding in Unnatural Happiness by Devamrita Swami

September 9, 2017 Leave a comment

One day some weeks ago I was walking own South Street in Philadelphia when I was approached by this very nice young woman. She asked me if I was interested in yoga (answer: dubious), and we talked about yoga, meditation, and how they can help deal with stress. It was a fascinating discussion and I really enjoyed it. Before she continued on her way she handed me a book that I have since read and digested.

Somehow you know that you won’t be able to get the information you need from the mainstream scholastic knowledge factories and their assembly lines.

At its core, Hiding in Unnatural Happiness by Devamrita Swami is a religious tome with philosophical trappings. It makes bold metaphysical claims, and builds a case for the author’s particular beliefs system while simultaneously bashing others (most specifically materialism). Despite the author’s attempts, however, it falls short in several ways, making Hiding in Unnatural Happiness more of a polemic than a positive case for Krishna spirituality or Bhakti Yoga. I tried to approach this text with an open mind, but I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as I approached the final pages. As the above quote demonstrates, Swami was not above poisoning the well against institutions like universities, which, in my mind, gets us off to a really bad start.

The first issue with the book is that it uses a lot of ink making grandiose claims, which I think are meant to be awe-inspiring. They are, however, empty rhetoric. Personally, I was left asking what things like “enter a dimension of nonmaterial equal opportunity” (pg. X) meant, because the meaning isn’t immediately obvious. Further, throughout the text Swami uses the term “spiritual technology,” which he never defines nor, in my opinion, does he sufficiently contextualize it. A brief perusal of google shows me that the phrase “spiritual technology” has no fewer than 202,000 results, which Scientology and the “Church of Spiritual Technology” being among the top hits. I have to subtract an entire star rating from Swami for this at the start since it is central to the point of the book. Vague and ambiguous language makes it hard to understand what he’s actually talking about.

What makes the vagueness of those phrases particularly damaging is that Swami is truly a gifted author. His intelligence shines through the pages, especially when he writes such sentences as “…never seek fulfillment in matter and its kaleidoscope of impermanence and hallucinogenic assurances.” And as you progress through the book, Swami makes several insightful comments–and asks vital questions about–current events. He writes knowledgeably about ethical concerns with machines and technology, and brings up many pertinent issues with humanity’s relationship with its environment, focused on such things as global warming and deforestation.

But it’s obvious that Swami is pushing a specific philosophy, and it’s almost completely at odds with my own. Regardless of our differences, I do sense that Swami writes from a place of genuine compassion and concern, and that’s an extremely valuable perspective in a world where it’s easier to be angry and close yourself off from other people. Hate, it seems, is infectious, and we cloister into doxastic communities that reinforce our worldview to protect us from having to deal with other perspectives. And that’s why I took the time to read this book: it is very important to me combat my own epistemic closure.

Now, back to the opening quote and why it is problematic for Swami and this text. It follows a pattern that is, in my opinion, at least partially responsible for our culture’s contempt for expertise and subject matter authority. It is true that some universities have an “ivory tower” problem, and some academics do play dumb games with “gate keeping,” creating inaccessible jargon that forms the narrative currency of their ideas. However, Swami dismisses a very important part of scholastic knowledge, and reducing universities to assembly lines cheapens the gains that we’ve made with human knowledge. His education at Yale is a testament to this, and further, he wouldn’t have the vocabulary to talk about the current problems he touches on without scientific and academic discourse.

But I think it’s worse than that. I can look at the periodic table of elements and feel a very profound connection to the universe. While it might not make sense to some, to me the table shows a greater organization of the matter within the universe. It is this kind of materialism that the book, at times, rails against, and by elevating nonmaterial–or what Swami calls nonmaterial–it overlooks the brilliance of the universe one can see when one understands the interconnectedness of the matter that makes up the universe. If I look out of my window I see trees, which are held up by the rigid nature of the cellulose that forms the walls of the tree’s cells. Cellulose is comprised of the sugar glucose, connected in a specific and repeating pattern. Glucose is an important energy source for us, and is the primary energy sources for our brains.

So in a lot of ways I feel that Swami’s philosophy is closed off to a truth of the universe that can be provided by an understanding of and appreciation for the material world. In some ways this understanding can create a feeling within you that could be described as spiritual. And I think this results in the book underestimating the philosophy of materialism that includes a less concrete and more abstract view of the place of matter and how it functions in nature. No need for spiritualism here; a very similar feeling can be created merely by marveling at the splendor of the physical universe.

Certainly, withdrawing from the world has its value.

Swami talks about transformation of the self, and divides proponents into two camps: “other-worlders” and “this-worlders.” Other-worlders call to mind an old idea from antiquity called “contemptus mundi“: he writes that they have “their eyes on the prize,” and that our lives on Earth are merely a stop along the road of our existence. This world isn’t the one that matters, it’s the after-life, so the affairs of this world are ultimately unimportant.

I’m more interested in the this-worlders, and indeed, this is the school of thought that I personally identity with. He writes that this-worlders “live to embrace our existence on Earth…they plant their feet and keep their vision firmly on the ground–right here and now–in the belief that human vigor and aspiration focused on terra firma can improve life for billions of unfortunate people.” I think Carl Sagan does much more justice to the idea than Swami does:

As an atheist, a methodological empiricist, a naturalist, and largely a materialist I am a “this-worlder.” I don’t think that there is any ancient text that has the answers for the problems that we face today. I don’t think that they can offer us any wisdom that we don’t already have. I don’t believe that humanity has lost anything, and that we’re somehow lesser than we were before. It’s easy to think that there is ancient wisdom because the world changes so quickly today, and it’s incredibly hard to keep up. No matter how fast you run you can’t keep track of all of the information you’re exposed to. In fact, according to Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google,  we create more information every two days than all of humanity did up to the year 2003. In other words, every two days we create as much information as we did from the earliest history of humanity up to the year 2003. Every two days! And Schmidt said that back in 2010, and this trend has only accelerated since then.

It’s hard not to get lost in that. But I’d like to think that, rather than vainly lapping at the surface of a tempest of information, trying to keep our heads above water, we should figure out how to make use of this data to make the world a better place. Figure out what you can do to help, in your own way, to reduce suffering and make this world more livable for the people of tomorrow.

The Gita invites us to drink at the fount of sacred activism: the precise spiritual technology for truly being in the world but not of the world.

The problem with “sacred activism” (whatever that is), as Swami describes it, is that it seems to be a contradiction. How can you be in the world but not of the world? Sure, he may be speaking allegorically, but his writing in this area is dedicated to someone who is focused on some concept of spiritual transcendence. He seems to acknowledge the tension in the idea because he notes a concern about being too connected to the material existence. I have no real comment on the spirituality he’s expressing other than to note that, as far as I’m concerned, it is of no interest and certainly isn’t thoroughly evidenced.

I would say, from my perspective, that there is an undercurrent of contempt for the world in the expression above. Why wouldn’t you want to be of the world (in my mind, the term “world” means the universe). In fact, my very connectedness to the world is why I care so deeply about it. I am made of star stuff, to paraphrase Carl Sagan. The constituents of my body, and the things I have learned, exist within the universe and are inextricably a part of it. I am the universe made human, providing a way for it too look at itself. To understand itself. This isn’t, strictly speaking, an idea that comes from my philosophical positions on naturalism and materialism, but it comes from what I see to be an essential truth of our existence. The universe isn’t literally conscious and it has no motivations; however, we are, and we do. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson says it best:

But I think Swami’s way of thinking has elements of misanthropy. On page 12, he writes, “Twenty-five hundred years ago, the classic Green philosopher Socrates declared, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But the so-called ‘civilization’ that dominates the world today is confident that it has proven the wise man wrong. Commandeering the best intelligence, contemporary human society enforces the grand solution: make money and indulge your senses on a global scale–lasting peace and prosperity will somehow follow.” To me this reads like sneering contempt for society, and I find this not only insulting, but dead wrong. It’s a straw man that rests upon claims about society that he could not possibly know. Further, he doesn’t do anything to support the claim that the “civilization” that he writes about has proven Socrates wrong, or that it would even want to.

It seems, in fact, that he constructed this straw man specifically to knock down to make room for his own philosophy. On page 13, he writes, “Since we, as bodies of matter housing particles of spirit, are energies of the Supreme, our human existence has a built-in prerequisite.” First, he never defines what “particles of spirit” are, nor does he define what “energies of the Supreme” means (which is especially annoying to me because that is a use of the word energy that is atypical and does not make sense to me). It seems that what’s happening here is a reduction of humanity to make this spirituality seem bigger than it is.

Swami isn’t above cherry-picking, either. On pages 15-16, he talks about the suicide of Robin Williams, and specifically about the role unhappiness played. What Swami doesn’t mention is that Williams suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, a brain disease that gets progressively worse as Lewy bodies build in vital brain tissues. It is often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and often manifests as paranoia and cognition issues (such as forgetfulness and difficulty reasoning). Swami frames Williams’ suicide not as a matter of progressively worsening mental health as a result of abnormal protein deposits in the brain, but a matter of unhappiness. He even quotes Williams on the Letterman show where he intimates he is personally unhappy. Swami then connects that with “our failure at material enjoyment.” I suspect that he picked Williams specifically to drive home his fame and wealth, and how that didn’t provide him happiness or fulfillment.

Another such example is on page 90, where he quotes Steve Jobs about rejecting dogma and following your own path. He does this in an attempt to delegitimize a materialist understanding of the “self.” I find this tragically ironic, given that Steve Jobs died as a result of his drinking fruit juices, getting acupuncture, and visiting “spiritualists” (all forms of crackpot “alternative medicine“) instead of using science-based medicines and surgeries to treat his pancreatic cancer. The kind of pancreatic cancer that Jobs had was extremely responsive to surgery and traditional evidence-based oncology solutions in mainstream medicine, and had he not delayed seeking these legitimate, proven, and materialist treatments it is very likely he’d still be alive today. Sometimes, my friends, the status quo is good.

Finally, he quote-mines Stephen Hawking, who he quotes on page 90 as saying that “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.” He does this to lead into a bit where he asked audiences how many feel “comfortable with that bleak materialistic proclamation of their identity.” Obviously many don’t feel comfort. It’s not hard to see that this is poisoning the well against materialism, and is in fact fallacious. The quote by Hawking is taken out of context from an interview he gave with Ken Campbell in 1995, for episode three of the show Reality on the Rocks, entitled “Beyond Our Ken.” The entire interview is embedded below, and I very highly suggest you watch it to get the full scope of Hawking’s statements.

So what Hawking actually said was, “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit. That would be like saying that you would disappear if I closed my eyes.” Hawking was talking about human beings in relation to the vast scope and majesty of the universe, essentially reminding us that, hey, we gotta keep our egos in check. We’re small beings living on a small planet in a massive universe. We don’t know everything, we can’t know everything, and nobody has all the answers and anyone who says that they do is lying to you. The best we can do is to create predictive models of the universe that conform to the evidence we collect through scientific endeavor (a central tenet of Hawking’s model-dependent realism). We are not the center of the universe, and the universe was not created for us. To think otherwise is to be massively egotistical and narcissistic.

In Hawking’s interview, he specifically inveighs against relying on common sense. This is also a treatise against relying on emotional responses to ideas to come to conclusions about the nature of our existence and the universe. Swami takes a quote from Hawking out of context in an attempt to manipulate us to have a negative emotional response against Hawking and the idea he’s espousing, priming us to accept his spiritualism without him having to do any of the hard legwork to actually support that spiritualism. Swami’s rhetoric is exposed as empty.

There are many more such problematic issues throughout the book, but to list and explain their wrongness would make this long review drag on unbearably. Suffice it to say that Swami makes many outstanding and strong claims, but provides no support for them. In other instances he poisons the well against materialism, technology, or science further than he had in my above examples. Needless to say, I am unimpressed and consider it to be intellectually dishonest.

Let’s dance amidst our tears.

It’s pretty evident by now that I’m growing increasingly hostile to Swami’s treatment of materialism and the sciences (specifically, what our scientific discoveries entail about the universe). It’s a common aphorism within the community of science proponents that, as time goes on, science pushes into the domains that were once the realms of philosophy or theology. This includes such topics as the origins of life, the workings of the mind, and the creation of the universe. To argue against scientific models of these ideas requires first grappling with the data, the math, and experiments that gave birth to the models. Second, one must then provide a framework to build upon their own idea, and then, to convince a materialist or methodological empiricist, provide evidence and a framework to test the soundness of the claims. Most of the time people are happy to take the first step in some minor way, usually by attacking straw men of the models (often based on honest misunderstandings of the models). It’s rare to see someone get to the second step, which is why evolution and big bang cosmology still reign supreme. What stands out most in my mind is how Intelligent Design proponents try to tear down evolution, and then act as if their naive arguments automatically make ID an acceptable alternative. Even if they could disprove evolution (and they haven’t), it would not make ID any more valid (and it isn’t valid at all) without doing the legwork to support it with data, logic, and a model to make predictions.

So what does this have to do with Swami? On page 92, he writes with respect to a “material body” coexisting with a “nonmaterial self” that “We would have to face up to a universe that buzzes with both physical and nonphysical energies. To committed materialists, that acquiescence would be not only outlandishly spooky but also totally revolting.” Of course, the first question I have is what is nonphysical energy? Swami never answers this or even pretends to provide context. I think he just takes it as a given, based on his spiritual texts. I’m sure there’s some meaning that he accepts, but my second question would be how can we demonstrate the existence of nonphysical energy? It’s one thing to claim it, it’s another thing to demonstrate it.

And that gets us to my next response: as a materialist, I would not find this spooky or revolting. It would be, to me, simply a puzzle of logic and reason that scientific methodology would help us solve. You start by asking questions (what is nonphysical energy, how can we know it exists, does it react to physical energies, and if so, how? Can we detect it? If not, how can we meaningfully say that it exists?), and then you formulate potential answers and predictions. Next you design experiments to see if those answers and predictions are valid, and if they are you confirm the results. If not, you go back to the drawing board and design new experiments or come up with new explanations. If the data checks out across several reproduced experiments, you formulate a model that provisionally explains the phenomenon. The fact is that if I accepted the idea of nonphysical energy, I would want to know more about it. I wouldn’t cower from it for find it revolting.

Swami’s writing on this gets more problematic. He contends, “…let’s grant that it might be creepy to entertain the idea that a material reality coexists with a nonmaterial reality…How spooky and miraculous is it to posit that from inanimate matter arises the strange stuff known as conscious awareness? Have you seen it? Can you demonstrate it in a laboratory? Operating from the confines of a typically restricted perspective, we would have to say that if this one is spooky, the other one is spooky, too.” This is an equivocation between two different things through the use of the word “spooky”: material explanations for the emergence of the human mind, and nonmaterial (read: spiritual or theistic) explanations for same. The reason to do this is to try to put both concepts on even ground, so the likelihood of either explanations being correct seems similar.

The problem is that the likelihoods are not similar. They’re not even in the same order of magnitude in similarity. He wants to establish doubt about material explanations by asking if we’ve seen consciousness, or if it can be demonstrated in a lab. Swami does this because his preferred explanation actually has this flaw. But to answer his questions: yes we can see it, and yes we can demonstrate it in a lab. We can see consciousness the same way we can see wind or the magnetic field. We see how it interacts with the world around us. The material explanation needs merely a substrate for the consciousness and the ability to see how it interacts with the rest of the physical world. Since we have the brain (the substrate), and since humans have such interactions, we can then start to explore how it works in a laboratory setting–we can start to see it like holding a magnet by metal shavings. fMRI scans of the brain can show what parts of the brain are activated when we act, or what parts are activated when we respond to stimuli. Through repeated tests and experiments, we can correlate brain activity with action or stimuli and begin to make causal claims about them.

It comes down to the basic biology of the brain. There are some 86 billion to 100 billion neurons in the human brain, and up to 100 trillion connections between them, called synapses. The shape of the brain also influences its function, one example that confirms the old saw in biology that “function follows form.” We have several examples in the history of psychology that demonstrates that personality is directly related to the brain. The most famous of them is that of Phineas Gage, who underwent a complete personality change after suffering severe traumatic brain injury. But beyond that are split-brain patients, who really put to the test the brain/mind connection.

And at this point we must ask: what does Swami have that puts his nonmaterial explanation on equal footing? I content he has nothing, and indeed, he offers nothing in the book to elucidate this. What do I benefit from adding a mysterious and as yet unexplained layer to my model of how the mind emerges from the vastly complex chemical, electrical, and structural interactions of the brain? Further, how does Swami demonstrate that his particular version of this layer is preferable to other competing ones from other spiritualists or religions? I don’t know because he doesn’t offer an explanation.

There are two final points I want to make before I conclude this review. The first is that Swami often speaks of intuition and common sense, which are definitely valuable in their respective domains of human activity. But what he doesn’t do is talk about how each of these can be unreliable pathways of finding the truth-value of claims and models. Two examples spring to mind: 1) adaptive bias, which essentially argues that our brains have evolved to be prone to types of cognitive errors that aid survival, but can also create faulty models of reality because thinking rationally or truthfully is not favored and 2) optical illusions, such as the following graphic, in which A and B are the same color, but when we look at them in context that appear to be different shades of grey.

The second is that, referring back to his quote-mine of Hawking, he writes that “The Materialistic theory that conscious awareness arises from chemical scum is a fantastical claim, dogmatically religious. If you can be open to that, then why not consider Krishna’s contrary contention, founded upon common sense?” First, he misrepresents his own quote-mine because that is clearly not what he quoted earlier, and it changes the meaning of his original quote. It’s also telling that he uses the emotionally manipulative language “chemical scum” to make this point, which allows him to then say that it’s “fantastical” and “dogmatically religious.” Yet, when you read the text in full, he never actually justifies this claim to any significant extent. He relies, in fact, on incredulity and appeals to common sense based on poisoning the well, misrepresentation, quote-mining, selective exclusion of contrary facts, and slights-of-hand to put materialism and nonmaterialism on equal footing. It’s vitally important that he manipulates readers to see material explanations as fantastic and dogmatically religious, because his claims are themselves fantastic and dogmatically religious–they’re based on his religious beliefs and spirituality.

So where does this leave me? I had gone in with the expectation of being treated to a religious text, steeped in eastern philosophy and the Krishna belief system. And I got that. What I didn’t expect was the long list of problems that were included, some of which I detailed above. Ultimately, they combined to make the book an unimpressive affair, with intellectual dishonesty and fallacious reasoning strewn throughout. I did learn things about the religious beliefs of the author, and to be sure, he speaks from a place of concern, compassion, and deeply-held spirituality. However, I am not able to overlook the various and fatal flaws of the book. My skepticism is not assuaged, but justified.

For that reason I give Hiding in Unnatural Happiness 1 out of 5 stars, and do not recommend it to a general audience.

Navel Gazing About Learning to Use Public Transportation

September 7, 2017 Leave a comment

So yesterday I used SEPTA for the first time. Route 40, starting at the corner of Lombard and 9th, disembarking the bus at 36th in West Philadelphia. I found myself outside of University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman Quadrangle.

In Michigan I didn’t live in a place that made public transportation practical. I got everywhere by by driving myself around. I have used public transportation in other cities: Chicago, New York, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. But I’ve never used it before in the city in which I live.

It’s seems like there’s some kind of unwritten rule about traveling on buses and on the subway. Don’t talk, don’t make eye contact. That could be me. Back home, in the Midwest, everyone was unbearably friendly. Meet someone on the street? Say hi. Maybe even give them a high five. All in good fun, right? I find the silence and public transportation introversion weird, especially because Anastasia says that Americans tend to be loud and garrulous.

It’s a small thing, but I think that this is a big step for me. Getting around without a car is actually a learning experience. Case in point: after dinner at Landmark Americana (in which I ate a scrumptious chicken dish), Anastasia and I had to get back home in the rain. Okay, so we took the Market Street subway line, the entrance of which was a short walk from the entrance of the restaurant.  We took the train to the 8th and Market Street stop, but to get home required a bit of a hike.

If I had my car I could have just driven from West Philadelphia to Queen Village, and then to our place in Bella Vista. And now that I think about it, I totally got the geography of the city wrong. Queen Village is past Bella Vista, where we live, when coming from West Philadelphia. Typically, Anastasia and I stroll over to Penn’s Landing, which is on the eastern side of the city. The gallery below are a few snapshots I took on a trip to the Delaware River.

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And this touches on why, for me, public transportation and walking is better than driving with a car. I am learning the layout of the city, the bus routes, and the boundaries of the neighborhoods in a way that I couldn’t if I were merely following the disembodied voice of my GPS. I am learning how to live in a city, and the learning curve is steeper than I thought. I wonder if there will ever come a time when living here becomes “ho-hum,” and I get so used to it that it fails to impress.

On Mass Effect: Andromeda and BioWare’s Abandonment of its Fans

August 19, 2017 Leave a comment

I haven’t written about video games in a while, but I simply can’t let this go without comment. First of all, I quite enjoyed Mass Effect: Andromeda. The game isn’t without issue, and though none of the glitches that I encountered were game-breaking, they were distracting and hilarious. Obviously BioWare dropped the ball with Andromeda, and it’s not hard to see where they jumped from one concept to another, leaving ends untied and stories hanging in the air.

I did expect, apart from standard after-release game patching, to get some story-based DLC to expand the story of the Pathfinder and the universe of Mass Effect: Andromeda. There were mysteries left unanswered, stories left unfinished, and it was obvious that the original plan was to offer such DLC to tie things up and set the stage for a sequel. Mass Effect, after all, has established that as a pattern and I think the games are good enough to justify such extravagance.

But what we got was BioWare throwing in the towel and pushing their best franchise over a cliff and wiping their hands of it. They received sharp, and rather deserved, criticism for their release bungling. And they should have taken their lumps, taken their ratings, and taken the backlash and used all of that to redouble their efforts to make the game better. That’s how much potential that I think the game has.

On the Mass Effect website, the Mass Effect: Andromeda Team released a statement called “Update from the Studio.” In it, they confirm that they are not releasing any story-based DLC, and will instead focus on the APEX missions, as well as novels and comics.

Let’s look at the salient points of the letter.

Early in development, we decided to focus Mass Effect: Andromeda’s story on the Pathfinder, the exploration of the Andromeda galaxy, and the conflict with the Archon. The game was designed to further expand on the Pathfinder’s journey through this new galaxy with story-based APEX multiplayer missions and we will continue to tell stories in the Andromeda Galaxy through our upcoming comics and novels, including the fate of the quarian ark.

I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that this did not include story-based DLC. Surely they planned on a single-player mission to find the quarian ark, and to solve the mystery of the death of Jien Garson, the leader of the Andromeda Initiative. The stories are just too big and full of game potential for these things to be left twisting in the wind as BioWare airs out its other dirty laundry.

Further, the APEX multiplayer is a poor way to expand the story as, in my opinion, it’s not actually that enjoyable. This is a personal bias as I don’t really like multiplayer aspects of the Mass Effect games, because its strength lies in its narrative and how you interact with the game. This, to me, seems like BioWare just hand-waving away their abandonment of the game and their fans.

It’s also telling that they want to shift from exploring huge in-game issues with comics and novels, which is largely a departure from their previous games, comics, and novels. Sure, you could get the comics to supplement the narrative if you cared, but they were not necessary to enjoy and understand the narrative in the game. If they ever do produce a Mass Effect 5, and if it is a continuation of this story arc, it’s possible that there will be large chunks of the narrative that will only be accessible through the comics and games, not to mention the crappy APEX missions. This negatively impacts the experience of the narrative.

It’s also significant, I think, that they’re putting more resources into the most baldly monetized aspect of the game than any other. Of course, that’s where their priorities really are–pay for a game, then pay more in the multiplayer to get better weapons and characters so you can effectively fight against other players who spend more money.

Our last update, 1.10, was the final update for Mass Effect: Andromeda. There are no planned future patches for single-player or in-game story content.

I take this as an admission that they’re done fixing glitches and that they’ve given up developing the story in the game. They dissolved the Montreal studio and merged it with EA, so that might be a part of why they’re giving the fans the middle finger. The Mass Effect property was moved back to Edmonton, so it’s unlikely that the series is done for good.

So Mass Effect: Andromeda is, for all intents and purposes, essentially dead on a developmental level.

We appreciate all the millions of people who came with us to the Andromeda galaxy. We hope to see you again in the Mass Effect universe.

Well, they sure aren’t acting like it. Seriously, I hope to see them devote the time and care that a game and narrative like Mass Effect deserves.  Their treatment of Andromeda, and it’s rushed and bungled development, should be a lesson on what to avoid the next time they decide to pick up the series.

It’s very highly unlikely that I’ll spend any money on the APEX missions, the comics, or the novels. I just don’t care anymore. If they don’t want to put any energy into further developing the game, then they’ll get nothing more from me for it.

I honestly figured that BioWare learned their lesson after their disastrous response to critics of the end of Mass Effect 3: don’t anger your fans or abandon them. To some extent, they fixed that with the extended ending DLC and definitely with their Citadel DLC. And that’s what they could have done here with Andromeda. The story has potential, and the characters are, generally, rich and interesting. But they decided, instead, to throw them away.

Thanks for nothing, BioWare.

Book Review: A People’s History of the United States 1492-2001 by Howard Zinn

August 17, 2017 Leave a comment

After all, the lies did serve to keep something from somebody, and the somebody was us.

History, as the old saw goes, is written by the victors. It is inexorably a subjective enterprise, based on perspectives and biases the authors of history cannot completely shake. In an effort on my part to get a more complete view of American history, as well as to question some of my own perceptions and notions, I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

The book covers American history from 1492 to 2001, discussing important events and developments as you might expect, but it eschews the practice of following the “great and powerful” and instead focuses on the poor, the oppressed, and the average. Or, to be short, everyone from the slave to the proletarian. This perspective is refreshing, and it causes one to read the text critically and to question it. Zinn welcomes such a reading, and offers sources and citations to back up many of his claims.

He constructs a new narrative of American history with this book, and paints a stark picture of manipulation, control, and loathing of the people from those in power. Do not, however, think that this book is anti-American. Such a conclusion of its content is both a disservice to the study of history and to an honest appraisal of America’s legacy. I believe, rather, that it is loyal to the enlightenment liberal philosophy that the United States is founded on and is on display in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. While this challenging of traditional historical narratives is good and welcome, the book isn’t without its own problems.

Zinn himself acknowledges his own bias, but he also admits that he is not troubled by that because he sees his work as a counterbalance to other narratives, which are as biased or more biased. This impressed me, because authors don’t often admit that they’ve crafted a narrative with a specific agenda in mind. To be sure, I disagree with a number of Zinn’s conclusions. However, his vital work proposes something radical:  what about the people we don’t hear about? What about the voices that history doesn’t amplify? What about the soldiers, the farmers, the settlers, or the slaves?

A People’s History of the United States is a lengthy book with many themes, far more than I could possibly hope to cover in one short review. I would like to focus on three specific areas: the people, resistance, and power.

The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between the rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless ‘reforms’ that changed little.

I could rattle off a list of modern problems related to prison and analyze each one: for-profit prisons with inmate quotas, the school-to-prison pipeline, judges found guilty of taking bribes for sending young Americans to these for-profit prisons, the lack of public defenders for poor defendants, accusations of modern slavery in forced prison labor that is a billion dollar industry, and the so-called “affluenza” and the differences in treatment between the haves and have-nots that the Ethan Couch case brought to the public’s attention.

What we see today are but links in the long chain of injustices. The prisons, as Zinn writes, are microcosms of the American system for many people. Poverty is a trap, and clawing out of it grows increasingly difficult. The divide between the wealthy and the rest of us grows, posing a threat to our government. Many people are aware of the recent study that attempted to demonstrate that the US is an oligarchy, not a democracy. Corruption, control, and manipulation (for instance, false news implanted to muddy the waters of vital current issues and facts) are things we deal with day-to-day. Zinn’s book weaves issues like this into a narrative that starts before this country’s founding to the present, where the threads are still being tied.

Past problems are being reignited as dark forces gather in American cities, spewing dangerous philosophies of violence and racial supremacy. Voting rights are under attack and being rolled back, sometimes with implicit racial motivations. It’s impossible to read Zinn’s book and not connect it to current events, and consume it from our present perspective. And I think that this is one of his goals: he wants us to understand the living history of the country, and connect the events of the past to the struggles of today.

As part of that, Zinn writes on how voting and access to the ballot were methods of control, in some way. It’s hard to argue against his case, the basic premise of which is that it channels energy that might be spent in a more active resistance toward the act of voting and the process of elections. Sure, there is power there and we do get remarkable outcomes, such as the election of Barack Obama to the Office of the President of the United States. However, that power has limits: purging of voter rolls, gerrymandered districts that water-down the power of certain voting cohorts in favor of one political party, etc. A common theme throughout his book is that more active resistance–marching, picketing, strikes, unionizing–result in greater change.

…their condition would not be changed by law, but by protest, organization, resistance, the creation of their own culture, their own literature, the building of links with people…”

At it’s heart, A People’s History of the United States is about how the faceless people of history banded together to affect change. It wasn’t through legal means, like courts, though that may have codified things later (like this legislature, it’s reactionary). It also didn’t occur through legislation or voting. The name of the game was protest, resistance, and creating common cause among forward-thinking and decent people. People are stronger together than they are individually, and this was exemplified by the gains made by organized labor, civil rights groups, and others in the face of overwhelming power.

The Civil Rights movement won important victories in courts, legislatures, and through the ballot box, but those victories wouldn’t have been possible about the whirlwind of pressure that the movement brought to bear. I suspect that Zinn would write similarly of the LGBT movement for marriage equality and civil rights protections. Protests, marches, and sit-ins were the most visible aspects of advancing the agenda, but underlying that was a culture, literature, and an active community that supported the people within it.

Those in power were not so much at the forefront of the great events of American history so much as captured by them. We know of Lincoln’s reticence to free the slaves, but the inexorable pressures of his time forced his hand. You’re left to wonder just how much outside pressure–such as those brought by oppressed peoples–forced the action of other leaders, and how less progress we might have made if it weren’t for the people who made the necessary sacrifices to change things.

We owe Saddam a favor. He saved us from the peace dividend.

Another theme that you see repeated throughout the book is this idea that those in power have a kind of loathing for the common man. And it’s not hard to see such loathing when it comes or our spending priorities or the ways in which we abuse people. You don’t have to reach far into the past for such examples: abuses at the Standing Rock protests and Jim Crow spring to mind. But when you do look farther back you see the Trail of Tears and you see chattel slavery. Zinn approaches these subjects unflinchingly, and doesn’t try to apologize of downplay the long term harm of these policies.

The quote above refers specifically to the concept of the peace dividend, a supposed increase in domestic spending as a result of cuts to defense spending that was originally to occur after the end of the cold war. There’s an argument as to whether or not it happened, but if you look at defense spending after the collapse of the Soviet Union compared with defense spending in the mid-1990’s and even today, you see a sharp increase.

And to keep that spending intact while simultaneously lowering taxes, we cut domestic spending. We slash welfare, healthcare assistance, important services, and infrastructure spending. Our roads and bridges are crumbling to nothing while private defense contractors rake in record profits. Even with all of that, politicians campaign on increasing defense and military spending. Zinn points out that this has been a pattern in our domestic policy for decades, and the most vulnerable among us suffer.

Just recently, a story was published on the website Mother Jones, detailing how one hundred thousand students in New York City public schools were homeless. That’s 100,000 kids. How can a country as wealthy as the United States–a country that spends more than any other country on bombs, bullets, guns, and gigantic $18 billion aircraft carriers–allow that many kids in a single city to be homeless?

And indeed, the books paints a portrait of a country suffering from such economic disparity for almost as long as its founding. But it’s not all criticism and doom-and-gloom. Zinn also writes about the rich cultures produced by common struggle, and writes that our history of pushing forward, no matter what, gives us hope for the future. And that’s an important message to hear, especially after recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This review wasn’t a true book review so much as it was my own thoughts about how this book relates to current events. Like I said before, I think this is one of Zinn’s goals. It’s a well-research, well-cited book that weaves a complicated narrative of history from the perspective of those not in power. I would ask that if you do read it, you approach it with an open mind, and to try to question your own notions about American history.

I give the book 5 out of 5, and acknowledge its flaws while recognizing its status as a vital must-read for any fan of history.

If You Ever Need Anything…

August 7, 2017 Leave a comment

About a year ago I found an old phone of mine. A black Blackberry Style, the last flip phone I ever owned and one which I reluctantly traded-in for an accursed iPhone 5c. The blasted thing had to be replaced a few months after I got it because the battery shuffled off it’s mortal cathode and expanded, destroying its guts. I still use the replacement 5c that Apple sent, which is itself starting to fail now.

Anyway, a micro SD card occupied the slot for the Blackberry’s memory card, and it contained pictures and files that I thought lost. Among them I had stored a profoundly important message from my mother, sent to me in a vulnerable time. I received it shortly after I had returned to the University of Michigan after I had taken a medical leave, and I hadn’t yet regained firm footing.

The message itself boasts naught but silliness; it had a picture of a dog, morphed by the magic of digital jiggery-pokery to appear as if it could speak. A robotic voice translated the text of my mother’s message to speech: “Hi there, Joshua. I love you, honey. I’m always here for you. If you ever need anything I’m always here.” I downloaded the file onto the phone’s micro SD card and kept it with me for as long as I possessed the phone.

I lost track of it sometimes after the bedeviling iPhone replaced it, and I made peace with that loss. My grandfather likes to collect old electronics, so it may have found its place betwixt a vintage Motorola Digital Personal Communicator (aka, the Post-Reagan Grey Brick) and some forlorn rotary telephone. Strangely enough, I found it in its original packaging, wedged between a box for a Canon SLR tripod and a stack of old magazines in the computer room closet.

I essentially tore open the box, hoping to find the phone and micro SD card inside, like some mediocre pirate treasure. To my great relief, and no small amount of astonishment, I discovered both. I pulled the micro SD card from the phone, set it into an adapter, and plugged it into my XPS M1330. I crossed my fingers and uttered a chant to whichever passing deity cared to notice, hoping that the tired, worn computer would recognize the card.

Good fortune smiled upon me as the computer recognized the card, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, the XPS had to ruin the moment and demand what in Hades it should do with the card. “Duh. Open it, you caliginous pile of replacement parts,” I said, perhaps a skosh more vicious than the laptop deserved. In fairness, it did call to mind the Ship of Theseus. I may have melted the motherboard once.

I downloaded the files onto my laptop and sorted through them, like I discovered an ancient archive. Old pictures of erstwhile friends and of my cousin during her toddler years. Pictures I had taken during my time at the University of Michigan and around Ann Arbor. Snapshots of a trip to Chicago and Ohio. I hadn’t realized that I had lost so much, and that loss swept over me like a wave. Old emotions boiled and churned, bubbling to the surface.

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I wonder why we hang on to those feelings, those long, dark winters within ourselves. The pictures inspired rumination of my mistakes, meditations on what I might have done differently, and regret over those that I had lost over the years. Happy memories, buried beneath the rubble of past false steps, only deepened the paroxysms. I stand in awe of a picture’s power to conjure our most powerful emotions, based on the movement of infinitesimal electrons and the translation of patterns of 0’s and 1’s into small squares of color arranged in very specific patterns. These two concepts don’t seem related in the slightest, yet when I see the arrangement of those squares into recognizable images the emotion is triggered.

That tangent illustrates an important truth: our minds, like the pictures we keep, are snapshots of the past. Neurons and chemical composition, not binary, store them. Our minds, however, often fail to accurately capture strands of past events. Emotions, evocative of everything from turmoil to peace, color our memories and bias us. We don’t truly get an exact rendering of reality, but a caricature of it. Pictures represent a paradox in that they both elucidate our memories and cloud them; we see a part of the whole and fill gaps with fiction or guesses.

When I found the file that my mother sent me I downloaded it. I didn’t have any media players capable of properly opening the extension, .32G. They could playback the video, but without sound. I decided to store the file in three locations (I love data redundancy, and you should too) and decided to put off finding a codec or a media player that could handle it. The file, stored in binary, resided in three hard drives, existing but simultaneously not existing. In my mind, pushed aside. In the drives, 0’s and 1’s that bore little relation to my memory of the content of the file.

It stayed in that limbo of existence and nonexistence until last night. I flipped through some old files and found it there and felt a mighty urge to see it. “If you ever need anything…” It lived in my mind, just on the edge of hearing. So I took to the internet, laid some waste with my superior google-fu, and installed VLC media player.

I pressed play and listened to the message spoken by a silly dog. My back straightened and I felt more resilient, as if it had staunched the flood of bad memories. I didn’t ruminate or obsess. The words galvanized me; inspired me to find a better context in which to put these old feelings and recollections. The memories were linked to a depression that had once gripped me very tightly, and that message was a bulwark against it.

I love you too, mom.

Moving to Philadelphia

August 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Despite almost two months of exploration, Philadelphia remains enigmatic. I didn’t really have a clear idea as to what I was expecting when I moved here from Lansing, Michigan in early June, but the city does have a storied reputation. Certain persons familiar with the culture warned me that my special brand of Midwestern charm wouldn’t play well in the land of cheesesteaks and cracked copper bells. This proved to be true in part, but I think that’s just a consequence of large cities with a lot of people (assholes) living closely together.

It’s a city that, in many respects, stands outside of time even as new buildings rise in the skyline. A visit to the Independence National Historic Park is a trip to the past. You’re greeted by actors in period garb who speak in a language fitting the time, and you’re treated to fairly awe-inspiring artifacts of American history. The charm of Revolutionary America is juxtaposed against a modern metropolis, but as you learn more about the city you see the facade slowly drop. If the “historic” buildings weren’t rebuilt based on the originals, they languished for many years in various states of disrepair. And, sadly, this aura permeates the city in one form or another.

I don’t mean to be too critical. I have really enjoyed living in Philadelphia so far, and compared to where I came from in Michigan there’s always something to do or to see. The fact is, however, that Philadelphia is also trapped by time. From the rows of houses that are over a hundred years old to the disrepair of the roads and sidewalks, the city needs a fresh coat of paint. Beyond modernizing some of the older parts of the city, I don’t know what that means. I think that the city would lose much of its character if it were to bulldoze older buildings to rebuild. However, it would be nice not to trip and hurt yourself because the bricks on the sidewalk jut out at odd angles.

The actual move here was a comedy of errors, built on a foundation of inexperience and some bad luck. My fiancee, Anastasia, who is finishing her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, provided the main motivation to transplant myself. Prior to this move I had never lived in a city as big as Philadelphia, and had never moved beyond the borders of Michigan.

In the past I had thought about moving. Lansing felt stifling, and though it is the capital city of Michigan, it doesn’t have that much going for it. Back in the day, before Michigan lost much of its car manufacturing base, Lansing was home to many General Motors plants and factories. Several other factories that supported the automobile industry also flourished, and the rails that now sit rusty and unused transported materials through the city and the state. Maybe it’s just time playing tricks on me, but the promise of Lansing seems a relic of the past. It felt so much bigger and alive when I was a child growing up there. If anything symbolizes Lansing now, the corrupt state legislature that finds its home there wins the prize. The legislative body’s infamy brings us such fine examples of healthy democratic debate as the time that they censored a female State Representative for saying the word “vagina” during a women’s health discussion.

Obviously, I needed something more. I didn’t really get the kick in the pants I needed until April of 2016, when I was diagnosed with nonrheumatic mitral valve stenosis. Initially I shrugged my shoulders and threw it into my collection of heart conditions. In late 2016, after suffering from bouts of tachycardia, hypertension, and fairly severe chest pain I started taking the beta-blocker metoprolol. All of this is to say that a black hole spaghettified any doubt or reservations I had about leaving.

Last October I took a trip with Anastasia to New York City, where I proposed next to the USS Intrepid. We had thrown around the idea for a while. I asked her before we took the trip, and I told her about my plan to give her a suitable amount of time to ponder her answer before I presented the ring and asked. Tethering your life to another’s is a huge decision, obviously, and I wouldn’t want anyone to make it on the fly in a situation where they’re put in the spotlight.

My proposal did not go as planned for two reasons: 1) New York City was soggy (as can be seen in the picture on the left) and 2) I do not like to do things in front of other people (which is strange for someone who ran for public office and used to perform stand-up comedy). My plan to propose on the flight deck was scrapped on account of the proposal-hating precipitation. I altered the plan to propose in the Star Trek Academy Experience in honor of our nature as irredeemable geeks. Sadly other people had the impudence to explore the Academy.

So I proposed next to the Intrepid at twilight, under the faint orange glow of light emanating from posts on the pier. I removed a ring box from my pocked with the Starfleet Insignia on the top, and as I opened it I asked “Engage?” The ring I presented was in the shape of the Starship Enterprise. Yes, the weather and the annoying people sharing the museum with us rued the day they tried to foil my plans.

At this point I didn’t have any solid plans about moving to Philadelphia, despite the engagement and the newfound bond I shared with Anastasia. At first we kept the whole enterprise hidden in fear that people would disapprove (I also kept the engagement hidden from everyone but my mother and Anastasia for the same reason, which proved to be entirely unnecessary). As future husband and wife, we conspired together to make the move to the City of Brotherly Love happen sometime within the next year.

Now we’re skipping ahead to early June to avoid boring you with tedious issues. I had given my boss a month’s advance notice of my departure, said my good-byes, and packed most of my junk. I made the trip with my mother and her boyfriend, and despite what I thought was a sufficient plan the trip was plagued with problems from the start. A few days before, I had paid a mechanic to change my oil and serpentine belt and take a look at the engine. Pretty responsible, right?

Wrong. I apparently forgot to ask them to rotate the tires and look at the brakes. Oh, how this would come back to haunt me. Most of the trip was uneventful. Pennsylvania’s splendor suitably impressed me, sure, but it’s a long trip from Lansing, through Ohio, and across the entire state of Pennsylvania. Somewhere outside of Harrisburg I heard a mysterious whine issuing from the front left area of my car. Great, I thought. It’s either the brake or a bearing. I had a definitive answer when the whine turned into a grind just an hour away from Philadelphia. At this point I grew anxious and hoped, vainly, we could get the car to my house before the rotor took any damage.

We had entered Philadelphia, and were a mere half a mile away from my house, but luck was not on my side. Right by Independence Hall the car lurched to a stop as the wheel locked up. A sound not unlike the wail of a moose with laryngitis emanated from the car, attracting the attention of several pedestrians. The stop and go traffic of the city, and the ensuing use of the brakes, had led to the gouging of the rotor. We resolved to drive the car to the house, whether or not it wanted to, and it did not want to go. I had to drive it around the city for a few days while I googled mechanics to have it repaired, and apart from the shrieking protests of the brake grinding against the rotor, the car suffered no additional harm. Total damage: about $735 to have the rotors, brake pads, and calipers replaced.

We manged to get the car fixed before we had to get to a wedding near Boston. Our route took us through New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and finally Massachusetts and we suffered no incident. Anastasia and I both enjoyed the wedding, a version of a traditional Hindu ceremony, in which we witnessed the joining of a very close friend of mine from the University of Michigan, Nidhi Shrivastava, with her long-time boyfriend. We stayed over night and gorged on delicious Indian food.

Our path back to Philadelphia copied the route there fairly closely, but in reverse. Somewhere in New York, Anastasia’s Google Maps app took it upon itself to decide that because the New Jersey Turnpike had a four minute delay, we would need to reroute to bypass it. Anastasia said at the time, “this route takes us closer to New York City than I’d like,” but we essentially shrugged our shoulders and continued to drive. I’m sure that my astute readers can tell where this is going. As we ventured further into New York traffic started to get thicker and slow down. A sign caught my attention: we had entered the Bronx.


I turned to Anastasia and I said, “We’re in the Bronx. Why are we in the Bronx?” She looked at the cursed Google Maps app. The damn thing had noted that small delay on the turnpike and decided, “Hey, you know what would be a gas? Let’s route these innocent Midwesterners through the Bronx and Manhattan. That won’t be terrifying at all.”

I dreaded the idea of driving through Manhattan. I fretted as I drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic, next to a guy in some late-90’s convertible who loved his expletives. But Anastasia threw me a lifeline: I only had to drive along 9A by Hudson Heights, get onto the George Washington Bridge, and cross over the Hudson River and into New Jersey. How hard could that be? I need only to go through a small northern chunk of Manhattan, not anywhere near the rage–inducing streets of the island proper.

Let me tell you something, dear reader. I have a head that has more white hair than my youth might suggest. That short drive through that sliver of Manhattan easily added more salt to my pepper. Two problems plagued me, the first of which involved the colossal number cars on the road in an unfamiliar place. I had only been to Manhattan once before, and I certainly hadn’t driven through its hellish avenues. The second problem revolved around my lack of aggressiveness, and I barely made it into the lane I needed for the lower level of the bridge.

I found my spine as I wound the loop to get on the bridge and imposed myself between two cars with what might be construed as a lack of politeness, but definitely comfortably below the threshold for malice aforethought. We crossed Martha with the skyline of Manhattan to our left and New Jersey in front of us, my impolitic maneuvering soon forgotten. Dear reader, I made a promise to myself and to my 2002 Pontiac Bonneville: never again.

I drove easier on the New Jerkey (oops, that totally wasn’t intentional, I swear) Turnpike, and along the way we spotted a Lamborghini. I’d like to say that I was an adult, possessed of a mature outlook on life. But that would be a lie. I pretended to race the Lamborghini, and cheered myself when I pulled into the lead. So now I can say that I raced a Lamborghini with a fifteen year-old Pontiac and won. It’s my personal fish story. “The Lamborghini was thiiiiiiis fast,” I’ll say, waving my hand from left to right as fast as possible. I come from a long line of people who love their fish stories.

Shortly after our hair-raising drive back home from Boston, Anastasia and I took a trip to Long Beach Island, which I wrote about here. The next great adventure, my first trip to Paris, will be documented in a future installment.

For now, I want to thank you for reading my blog. I welcome any feedback in the comments, or by email at