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Andy Weir and the Artemis Book Launch at the USS Intrepid

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings, readers!

I have a very exciting update. This past Tuesday, my fiancee Anastasia and I took a trip to New York City. We had two main goals: belatedly celebrate our one year engagement anniversary and to meet Andy Weir, author of The Martian, at the launch event of his new book Artemis. I am happy to say that we accomplished both!

The first thing we did upon our arrival in New York was to grab a taxi and get to the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. This was where I had proposed to Anastasia last October. We wanted to visit the museum again because, let’s face it, being on an aircraft carrier is freakin’ awesome and the Space Shuttle Enterprise is always worth a visit when you’re in New York.

The special exhibit for the museum was about Drones, and I really recommend it if you find yourself in New York and have an interest in the history and possible future of drone technology. It’s not a large exhibit, but as part of the whole museum it’s a great add-on.

Here we are, looking at Drones, with Ana taking a bunch of selfies. Look at that huge white hair in my beard, just taunting me.

They had some really impressive displays in the exhibit, including the Navy’s Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH).

My hopes that with would be an awesome exhibit were not DASH-ed. *Crickets* I’m here all week.

After touring the exhibit on drones, we made our way into the Intrepid to get up to the flight deck, because why take an elevator when you can get lost in a massive ship with winding hallways and narrow stairs? The way up to the flight deck through the ship takes you past some really cool pieces, such as old gun placements.

On the flight deck. The weather was much the same as it was the day I proposed–rainy and cold. The good thing is that this time Ana remembered to bring her own jacket.

Of course, you also have to spend time appreciating the planes that the museum has on the flight deck. In the picture above you can see the A-12–the black plane–behind an F-16 Fighting Falcon. I especially like the A-12, a spy plane which is the forerunner to the SR-71 Blackbird.

I don’t like what they were designed for, but I do like the engineering and science behind them.

I think what I really like about the museum is that it just sits on the pier in the Hudson River, giving you a great view of Manhattan. To be honest, every time I go to New York my jaw still drops at just how huge the city is, so I’m pretty much amazed at any view of the city. I’m a country bumpkin.

Seriously, how can you not love this?

There’s also a storage company across the street from the pier, and it has some really clever advertisements. A lot of the attraction of the museum is the space component, which you can find in the space shuttle pavilion where they store the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

That’s some really clever marketing.

After we spent some time in the space shuttle pavilion, marveling at the Enterprise (and after Ana purchased a glow-in-the-dark “Caturn” t-shirt), we hopped in a cab and set out to visit the main branch of the New York Public Library. I had wanted to visit for some time, and we had some time to do it before the Andy Weir book launch. It’s a really special place, and if I were ever in New York City for some time I would definitely find myself in one of the reading rooms.

Afterward, we stopped at the gift shop to marvel at some of the trinkets, including these Einstein statues with little moving hands.

He knows something, doesn’t he?

Of course, we both started to get hungry. Ana was set on getting tea, so we walked a few blocks to Maison Kayser, a french Boulangerie. The food was delicious, the staff was friendly and efficient, and the setting was intimate. We hunkered down there and ate at a leisure pace.

Mmm…A french version of a club sandwich. Includes everything an American club sandwich has, plus an egg.

We arrived back at the Intrepid museum complex just as they were opening the doors to get in. Since we already had our tickets we were able to get in fairly quickly. We were ushered into an elevator to get to the flight deck strait away as the event was being held in the space shuttle pavilion. As we reached the top, and the elevator doors opened, a prerecorded voice said, “going down,” of course just an automated message played when the elevator moves. One of the people in the elevator with us said, “that’s not something you want to hear on an aircraft carrier.” Laughs were had by all.

We picked our seats by the stage where Andy would be interviewed, and Ana got a free beer from 212 Brewing Company. It was a pale ale, both hoppy and delicious. It wasn’t long before Andy arrived in the pavilion, and he was generous with his time in interacting with his fans. Ana asked him a question about The Martian, and he provided an answer that was thoughtful and not rushed. She also mentioned it was our anniversary (though he called us liars–jokingly, of course!–because it wasn’t really our anniversary).

The Belarussian, the Martian, and the Author.

After he met with the fans, he conducted a short interview for a podcast (I’m not sure which one).

I didn’t hear the interview, but I expect it was sufficiently nerdy.

I really liked the entire scene. Ana and I sat under the left wing of the Space Shuttle Enterprise, on the deck of the USS Intrepid, to listen to Andy Weir talk about his writing process, Artemis, and a host of other interesting details relating to being a writer, getting published, and the science behind the books. Two things which I really appreciated: 1) his remarks about world-building in his stories, and how it’s vital to them. In fact, he explained that Artemis started as him building the world in the novel, and then writing the story around that. 2) The fact that he described the perspective of his books as being “first-person smartass.” A man after my own heart, but also very practical; people are much more tolerant of exposition when it comes from a voice that they like. Andy has a talent for that, as he very easily slides science into the narrative without you really knowing that you’re being SCIENCED!

The shuttle itself is actually much bigger than the picture would suggest. (I tried to rewrite this statement several times and failed to make it not suggestive.)

Finally, after the talk was over, we got in line to get our books autographed.

According to Ana, I’m a pushover.

Andy, as always, we friendly and gracious. He even remembered us from earlier, and wished us a happy anniversary. Ana showed him her beat-up copy of The Martian, which, as she readily explains, she took to the top of a volcano in Hawaii to read. Apparently it provided a really neat setting for the book and provided a certain level of immersion in it. Andy, of course, said he loved books that were “well-loved,” while pretending to crack the spine of my book which was in pristine shape (I am…obsessive about keeping my books in good condition). I jokingly said, “that’s a good way to get the table flipped over,” which he laughed at, providing me no small relief because it could have been received wrong.

It was a very great anniversary, and I can’t imagine that I would ever do something as nerdy and fantastic as this with anyone other than Ana. I look forward to the many more geeky adventures with her, the woman I first met in a science fiction literature class.

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On Lectures

November 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I’m listening to a lecture on Frankenstein at the Rosenbach Library. It’s an interesting enough lecture, with some really interesting facts and ideas, but I’m starting to realize that I’ve not really been ythat open to the lecture format of learning since I left the University of Michigan.

Part of that is because the lectures that I attend now are those that I find interest in, not because I’m looking for a good grade or working toward a degree. I like more interactive methods of learning, which is probably why I did better in science class than I did in literature classes. Strange, then, that I chose o get a degree in English and not in science.

And this makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with me. It’s true that I’m fascinated with the context and conteent of the lecture, but I’m incredibly bored. I suppose part of it is that it feels like I have little expertise on the life of Mary Shelley and not much to contribute.

I’d like to think of myself as a life-long learner–someone who has a voracious apetite for knowledge. But my mind wanders. I can’t summon the energy to maintain a constant focus on the speaker. I looked at my phone, I day-dreamed. I brought a notebook to takes notes in, but before long I close it because I had nothing to write.

Am I losing my edge? Am I losing my drive to learn? I really hope not. Much of my identity is tied up in the idea that I’ll always have an open mind–that I’ll always take in new perspectives and learn new things. And yet, here I am, writing this and splitting my attention.

Maybe I’be just head all of this before? This topic–of Frankenstein–is not new to me. I’ve studied it before, and talked about it at length. I’ve even had arguments wwith Ana about it. That’s got to be it, right?

Book Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

October 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings, readers!

As promised, this is going to be my longer review of David Walton‘s new book The Genius Plague, just released on October 3rd. My previous review was a short advance preview of the book that covered the basics and recommend it to readers of science fiction and general audiences, with 4 out of 5 stars. I had the privilege to meet Walton at the science fiction conference in Washington, D.C., Escape Velocity, in August. He’s a kind, interesting person with a deep well of knowledge, and he’s very generous with his time. I look forward to seeing him at the upcoming PhilCon conference this weekend.

As you’ll see in this review, I have since decided to upgrade the book to 5 out of 5 stars, based on a more thorough examination of my notes, as well as thinking more on what the book actually does.

A note on the text before I get into the review: I read from an Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy, so I likely do not have the final version of the novel. It is expected that there will be certain kinds of errors in the manuscript, and that’s okay. This review will take that into account and focus on the content of the story, the writing style, and other technical aspects that wouldn’t really be effected by the particular edition of the book I read.

This is a long review because I think there’s a lot to unpack in this novel. I’ve left a lot of stuff out for the sake of actually getting a finished review out in time for PhilCon, and I may write more about my thoughts later.

As always, there will be spoilers in this review. Consider yourself warned! If you’d still like to read on, click “Read More” right below.

Read more…

Advance Book Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

September 21, 2017 1 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.

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.

Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 2 (“The Year of the Rat”)

February 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings, folks!

To start my review of Invisible Planets I’ll be delving into Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat” and exploring the story in detail. To be frank, the story unfolded in a way that both surprised and stunned me, and I hope that, should you read this entire review, you’ll understand why. I get the feeling that this wasn’t just because of my admitted ignorance of Chinese culture, or the limits of trying to interpret this story from the perspective of a Westerner. The narrative is suggestive of a greater ignorance, in fact, not just on the part of the reader, but of the characters’ own confusion at the developments in the plot.

For this review, we’ll be looking at the human element of the story, since that seems to be what’s front and center; more specifically, the relationship between humanity and the themes of the story (economics, maturing, and technology, for instance).

This will be a long review, closing on about 5,500 words, examining several different elements of the story that I think are worth noting. It will also serve as a quick analysis of some aspects of the story from my perspective. Many of these thoughts are preliminary, and if you have any ideas you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

To avoid potential spoilers for people who would rather read the story first (and there will be spoilers aplenty as the entire story is discussed in detail), the rest of the review can be read by clicking the “Read More” link below.

Read more…