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Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

December 4, 2017 2 comments

I have to start this book review with a confession: I almost missed a typo in the title. I wrote “Andy Weird” instead of “Andy Weir,” and it never even crossed my mind that “Weird” was wrong.

Artemis by Andy Weir had a lot of expectations to live up to. Weir’s first book, The Martian, was something of a sensation. It was so popular, in fact, that they made a movie based on the book that was actually pretty great. I was a huge fan of both the book and the movie, so I was looking forward to reading Artemis. So much so, in fact, that I took a trip with my fiancee to New York City to attend the official book launch, which you can read about here.

Like always, be prepared for spoilers in my review. If you don’t like spoilers, I don’t recommend reading any further.

The moon’s a mean old bitch.

Artemis is a book about a city on the moon, named Artemis, designed in painstaking detail by Weir to be as realistic as possible. One has to admire the world-building of this book, with details ranging from the way that they deal with the moon’s regolith to the way the economy works in the city. Any aspiring author would do well to read this book for the world building alone. Weir provides a masterclass in thinking about all of the small, day-to-day issues that most people wouldn’t imagine, and he puts them into the narrative with such breathtaking ease that you might be tempted to think that he didn’t work that hard at it at all.

The first few pages of the book have detailed maps of the lunar surface where the city exists, complete with the train lines that take people to the Apollo 11 landing site, the reactors, and the smelting plant. I’ve always appreciated these kinds of maps in science fiction stories. Typically, they’re present in epic high fantasy, like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. When you’re writing a book in which the setting itself is a character in the story, maps help bring the story to life, so it’s greatly appreciated and this earns the book a bunch of points.

I think the book suffers from a plot that seems tacked-on, in some instances. The conclusion and resolution aren’t entirely believable, and I have issues with the way the economy works, or could even transition at the conclusion of the story. I suppose that this is a hazard when you design the setting and build the world, and then add a plot to it later. There’s one specific place where there is a conflict between characters that comes up at a really odd time and feels extremely forced onto the story. The book is also on the short side, coming in at only 305 pages. I don’t usually say this, but given the subject of the book, as well as the intricate detail needed to really make it believable, a hundred or so more pages could have fleshed out a lot of the plot and the characters, and improved the overall quality of the book.

Another small issue that I have is Weir’s use of the interrobang. I’ve talked about this before, in my review of Dan Brown’s Inferno, but I think it bears repeating here: if you use the interrobang, use it once and no more. This is a personal issue, but I think when an author overuses the interrobang (and Weir uses it three times that I can remember, twice on the same page), it feels like the author is getting lazy. I think I would put this under a “show, don’t tell” problem in the writing.

Perhaps the biggest issue was the fact that, despite the fact that it is a really good book on the whole, some of it just seems so cliche. It’s like a hard-boiled detective noir that’s drowning in hard-boiled detective noir cliches, filled with cigar smoke and long legs and dames in red dresses and whiskey. At one point the administrator of Artemis takes out a gun (which are strictly forbidden for obvious KABOOMY reasons) and gets tricked into revealing something by that main character, Jasmine Bashara. To some extent these cliches are unavoidable because the book reads very much like a Western on the Moon. Hey–that should be a genre on its own.

The Gizmos did whatever magic shit computers do to identify each other and verify.

There is a golden rule of science fiction: don’t explain. There are hard science fiction stories where the science and technology are the raison d’etre of the story, but in most cases, people don’t care about a thorough and plausible explanation of technology in the narrative. We don’t read stories for that reason, and if they wanted to know about that, they could read a technical manual or journal.

Weir, thankfully, follows this rule closely. He uses a combination of narrative exposition and character perspective to fill in the blanks about technology, culture, and science. And that’s really the only knowledge that the reader needs to get through the story. I tend to be a picky reader, but I am perfectly fine with that, and I’ll let the author get away with not knowing how everything works as long as it is internally consistent and the plot and characters are good.

Artemis strikes a good balance between the hard sciences that explain how the city functions and the people live in it and the plot. This is sort of Weir’s specialty, though, and it’s something that’s not easy to pull off. He did it with The Martian, and he does it with Artemis. Science drives the plot and sets the stage for the book, but it isn’t in the way of the story.

It’s the greatest little city in the worlds.

The book is a straightforward, linear narrative. The backstory is filled in with pen-pal letters between Jazz Bashara, the main character, and Kelvin, a boy (and later, man) on Earth in Kenya, who works for the Kenyan Space Corporation. Artemis, we learn, is owned by a company based in Kenya for reasons that Weir explains in the book (and it isn’t a stretch to accept it). This pen-pal method is a good way to fill in Jazz’s backstory, and as the narrative goes we learn more about her current predicament based on the things in the past that got her to where she is.

We learn, for instance, that in the recent past that Jazz was homeless and running from Artemis’ resident Sheriff, Rudy (who was, in the past, a Canadian Mountie). Through this we further learn that it is illegal to be homeless in Artemis, and if caught she would be deported to Saudi Arabia, a place of which she has no knowledge. Worse, by kicking her out of the only home she has ever known (a pretty bad punishment in and of itself for merely being homeless), she’d suffer crueler punishments because of the side-effects of moving from the low-gravity environment of the moon to the high-gravity environment of Earth. Her body is just not suited for life on Earth without serious medical issues. If you think that this system is crazy and unjust, believe me, you’re not alone.

The problem is that Artemis feels too much like a lawless town from the “Old West.” Partly this is by design, as Weir said that he based a lot of it on Caribbean resort towns. But I can’t help but think that there’s something extraordinarily nefarious about this whole enterprise. For instance, there are no age-of-consent laws on Artemis, and justice is usually distributed by way of angry mob. First, I have major issues with this because consent, and the ability to give it or to withhold it, is one of the foundational pillars of Western Law. I don’t know how Artemis could survive long without something as basic as age-of-consent laws–and we get a taste of the problems that can cause because of Jazz’s experience with an ex-boyfriend who turns out to be a pedophile (which Weir never explicitly says but which is made rather obvious).

Second, justice by mob is extremely primitive. For the entirety of Artemis, a city of 2,000 people, the only legitimate lawman as Rudy. It’s just not possible for him to properly police the entire city. And when he does, his version of justice tends to be delivered by the force of his knuckles. It’s obvious that one of the greatest foundational problems with Artemis is smuggling, and it turns out that Jazz has that particular market cornered. She smuggles flammable things into the city, which, quite obviously, is really dumb. But money is money for a person who was homeless once and at risk of being kicked of the damn moon.

Complicating matters is the fact that an organized crime syndicate is not only present in the city, but is involved in some of its more critical functions. Why? Money laundering. When I came to understand the full extent of the corruption required for them to be tolerated, and then later removed, the only note I took was “we’ve been spending most our lives living in a libertarian’s paradise.” The administrator is in on it, and what it comes down to is the compromises that must be made that comes back to bite you in the ass. Artemis is on the verge of bankruptcy (well, duh) and to save it they need to do some shady shit.

Why would a criminal organization use Artemis to launder money? It’s because the unit of currency on the moon, commonly called the slug, isn’t very highly regulated. It’s not really a currency–it’s a prepaid unit for transferring cargo from Earth to the moon, and it’s useful for trade. KSC track the balance, and acts as a bank, and transaction occur pretty much without any serious oversight. So moving slugs around and then selling them for real money is no real problem.

So are these flaws with the story? No, I think they’re partly what make the story interesting and worth reading. I was quick to grow frustrated at the way that Artemis was created and functioned, but it wasn’t because it was badly written or poorly conceived. It was because it was just too realistic. When later we see Artemis transitioning from its current incarnation of lawless capitalism to one of taxed property, ownership, and laws it feels real, organic, and natural (even if I don’t believe it would happen without a lot of civil strife and rioting). So for someone like me, who is knowledgeable about politics, policy, and philosophy, a lot of the stuff in this book made me angry. But it made me angry because it was believable. Several aspects of Artemis were unsafe, and as you’ll learn after you read it, it was a catastrophe waiting to happen. In short, it was human. And humanity often makes one frustrated and angry.

Physics dictates it tastes like shit.

One of the real strengths of the book is how it weaves exposition and detail into the story as if it were natural conversation or narration. The above quote pertains to Jasmine explaining the process of creating warm drinks, like tea or coffee, on Artemis. Through her very strong voice, she explains coffee, oxygen, pressure, boiling points, and the process of making coffee in a low pressure environment. Because the air pressure in Artemis is about 20% of Earth’s pressure, the boiling point in Artemis is 61 degrees Celsius. That’s as hot as drinks can be on Artemis, so they seem cold to most people.

This is the pattern that follows most, if not all, of the technical and scientific explanations in the book. For instance, Jasmine talks about gunk, the foodstuff most commonly consumed on the mood and made of flavored algae grown in vats in her characteristic smart ass voice. She also managed to make process of smelting to get aluminum and oxygen from the resources on the moon interesting.

Crashing your pressure vessel into things is bad. It can lead to unscheduled dying.

This book wouldn’t be what it is without the distinct voice of the main character, Jasmine Bashara, or Jazz. It’s not accurate to say that she’s merely the Arabic, female Mark Watney; she’s more than that because Watney was concerned with saving himself, whereas transitions from saving herself to saving Artemis. I think it’s also worth giving Weir credit for making Jazz Arabic, and her father Muslim. This leads to some interesting interactions between her father and herself, as well as certain explorations of the needs of her father’s religious beliefs while not on Earth. More than that, it was just nice to see an Arabic woman with a Muslim father cast as heroes in a story for once.

I do have a few criticisms of Jazz, and they’re relatively minor compared to the many great things about her character (which I hope you’ll find out for yourself when you read the book). The first is that, while I understand Jazz to be a rogue with a heart of gold, she seems to be hypersexualized. It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why I feel this way, and it’s even more difficult to describe what, exactly, my problem is with this aspect of her character. However, I think that it creates some awkward moments in the book that I’m not sure add to the experience in a positive way. On the other hand, the hangup could be mine and mine alone, and I accept that. The book is very intimate because it rings so true with the voice of the main character. We get a very close and intimate view of her mind and the things that she thinks. Sex is naturally a part of that experience.

The second criticism that I have is that there are a few times where Jazz seems to be a bit of a Mary Sue. There’s a part where she learned some very advanced and complicated electronics in an evening, and I just do not find that believable. We’re to understand that she’s an exceptionally smart and talented individual, which is fine. But I think that a lot of the things that she does are things that she doesn’t seem to have any relevant experience with. There are specific places where her talent and ability make a lot of sense, such as the scenes in which she welds–there’s a history there with her father. But that electronics thing seems to come out of nowhere and, without it, some of the later events couldn’t really happen.

How dare you call me lazy? I’d come up with a scathing retort, but meh, I’m just not motivated.

In the final analysis, Artemis is a great book with some minor flaws. Those flaws do not detract from the experience of reading and enjoying the book. It is not, however, The Martian. It’s an entirely different beast, and any comparison with his former work isn’t really fair. It’s not as good as The Martian, but I think it was trying to do something different and I think it largely succeeded. The Martian will be recognized as a classic of science fiction, and rightly so. Artemis may not be, but it is a great novel, with great characters, and amazing world building. It definitely deserves a place in the modern canon of science fiction greats.

With that in mind, I rate the book 4 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of The Martian, fans of science fiction, and fans of caper stories. A general audience will also enjoy this book.

 

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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.

In Which Anastasia Writes A Review

January 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Dearest readers,

I just wanted to take some time to share this review from my fiance Anastasia on the play “Informed Consent” by Zoe Laufer.

Anastasia’s take on the play is much more critical than others, and I find myself largely in agreement with her criticisms. The issues raised in “Informed Consent” are complicated and require careful and subtle understanding. To heighten the drama, it seems to me that complexity is substituted for one-dimensional conflicts that simplify and obscure, rather than elucidate, the problem.

The scientist has motivations that make her obsession with the research much more personal than what happened in real life, and I believe that this skews the conversation that the play tries to create against the scientific research aspect. Like other plays Anastasia has reviewed, such as Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem,” it seems that the drive to create a compelling narrative for the heart overtakes the story for the brain. Complex ethical and philosophical issues can be explored in theater, but “Informed Consent” and “The Hard Problem” do the topics that they cover a disservice and, therefore, their audiences.

Make no mistake: I certainly believe that we should have these kinds of difficult conversations, especially the one that “Informed Consent” tries, but fails, to elucidate. But narratives can be a dangerous way to approach them, and these two plays show why. Ascribing emotional, personal motivations to the researcher undercuts the argument in favor of scientific research while doing nothing to really advance our understanding of the ethics involved between the Native American tribe and the researchers.

In case you’re wondering, in large part I sympathize with the Havasupai Tribe’s concerns and I think that the University and the researchers erred and acted somewhat unethically. But I do not believe that automatically makes the scientific questions raised and the answered found ethically wrong, or morally wrong. My hope is that, in the future, researchers will tread carefully and ensure that they do have consent for the kinds of genetic studies that they want to perform.

I also hope that if someone writes a play about future ethical issues in scientific endeavors they will not distill the side of science into a character with made-up questionable and personal motivations that were not present in the real events that seem to poison the well for science and scientific investigations.

StarTalk Radio and Scientific Ignorance

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

I’ve long been a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, and see him as my generation’s Carl Sagan. I think it’s important to have affable people who can communicate scientific ideas and philosophy clearly and an in a friendly manner, especially now that our society is so steeped in anti-science sentiments or largely ignorant of science. Recent headlines, for instance, talk about how 80% of Americans are supportive of efforts to make labeling food containing DNA mandatory.

Sure, there are problems with that study and it should be taken with a grain of salt. But I think it’s part of a larger dialogue going on now about things like genetically modified organisms and medicine. I don’t want to go into the GMO debate right now (suffice it to say I generally and vocally support them–but don’t confuse this with support for companies like Monsanto or personal ignorance about the dangers of modern agriculture from monocultures to fertilizer runoff), and as for the uptick in, say, people sympathizing with homeopathy, I refer you to this news story about a recent study.

I don’t really blame people for ignorance, but I do not suffer it. It’s not that hard to get facts and learn new things with things like the internet (which, to be fair, can also be used to learn absurd and wrong things, like the bone-headed notion that vaccines are bad). So, in the spirit of trying to enlighten people, I want to talk a bit about StarTalk Radio.

Tyson hosts this show (with frequent guest hosts like Bill Nye), and it’s generally both entertaining and enlightening. Topics range from questions about gravity to discussions about technology. One of the better shows is “StarTalk Live: I, Robot” (Part 1, Part 2). Tyson, comedians, and robotics experts discuss the current state of robotics and where it might go in the years to come. It’s certainly not a topic that should be ignored, even by laypeople. Whether we like it or not (I’m looking at you, Luddites) robots and, possibly, superhuman intelligence, will be a part of human society. If we’re smart about how we approach it, we can do amazing things like this:

If we’re not so smart, we could do things like this:

StarTalk has conversations that are worth having, while educating and entertaining you. I really recommend listening to it, even if you don’t know that much about science or technology. Both of these topics should be priorities for a civilization that depends on them, as ours does.

In the future I hope to write more about robots, from ethics about them to their legal status. With the increasing possibility of superhuman intelligences, how we handle synthetic intelligence (and whether or not it constitutes life) will be of increasing importance in the coming years.

The Geek-in-Chief Does Science!

June 1, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve got to be honest, dear readers. I love science, and I love experimenting. I had one of those cool whacky chemistry sets as a kid that allowed you to make all kinds of foamy, slimy concoctions and I had (have, actually) a telescope and a microscope.

I was a nerd of the best kind: I loved to explore the natural world and I had an unbounded curiosity. Sadly, my life didn’t really allow me to revel in that for very long as other concerns ate most of my attention as I got older. This is why I’m so happy that President Barack Obama hosts an annual science fair at the White House, demonstrating the capabilities of curious young scientists and engineers.

Kid: “You put a hole in the ceiling!” Obama: “Aww, you’re in trouble. I’m tellin’ Michelle.”

President Obama used the 2014 Science Fair to extoll the roles of girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and  Math) fields. According to an article by Kristin Lee at whitehouse.gov, entitled “Girls Rule at 2014 White House Science Fair,” the Obama Administration will “…host a series of ‘role model roundtables’ between girls and female STEM leaders…”

I think that this is very encouraging news. We need to get more people, especially people like women who aren’t as well represented in these fields as they could be, interested in science and math. The White House Science Fair allows some of the brightest and best to showcase their discoveries, innovations, and love of science, math, and engineering. These young people will be the people who build tomorrow’s world, and many of them could make discoveries that change the course of human history.

Alan Boyle, in an article at NBC News, noted that Obama announced more education initiatives, including an expansion of the AmeriCorps STEM program, new mentoring programs, and a series of interactive online lessons.

Boyle quotes Obama:

“As a society, we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least as much as we do Super Bowl winners because super-star biologists and engineers and rocket scientists and robot builders, they don’t always get the attention that they deserve, but they’re what’s going to transform our society,” he said. “They’re the folks who are going to come up with cures for diseases, and new sources of energy and help us build healthier and more successful societies.”

I hope that the next president keeps the White House Science Fair, and continues to encourage children to pursue careers in the STEM fields. I imagine that if I had that kind of encouragement when I was young I would have stayed involved in the sciences.

So here’s to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Let’s continue to encourage younger generations to pursue lives of the mind to the benefit of all humanity.

The following is a video of the White House Science Fair:

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty-Four: Xenobiology

April 28, 2014 1 comment

I had a busy day so I just wanted to briefly touch on an idea I had to write a book on alien biology and anatomy as if it were a real book.

This idea first occurred to me when I was thinking of a realistic physiological explanation as to the green color of Spock’s blood. I want to write a kind of Grey’s Anatomy for aliens.

Anyway, that’s all I have tonight. Thanks for reading!

A-to-Z Challenge day Twenty-One: Universe from Nothing?

April 24, 2014 2 comments

Hello, dear readers! For a while now I’ve wanted to share some deep science videos but haven’t gotten around to it. The letter “U” for the A-to-Z blogging challenge has allowed me to under the shaky premise that the word universe begins with the same letter.

The first video is by Lawrence Krauss, in which he talks with Richard Dawkins. It is entitled “Something from Nothing” and it’s an interesting dialogue about science, cosmology, and other things.

The second video has eminent physicist and cosmologist Sean Carroll on the topic of existence, and why it exists. It’s a very interesting video, though it’s a bit heavy.

So, what do I think about all of this? To be honest, I don’t really know. I think these leading thinkers offer interesting ideas and I’m willing to cast my lot in with them for now. Was the big bang the first big bang, or one in an infinite series? Who knows! There are people with very strong opinions on this one way or another, but I think that they’re unwarranted based on what we know and what it is possible for us to know.

For instance, are actual infinities impossible? I’m not so sure you could ever claim they are with certainty, outside of metaphysical arguments. I largely haven’t found this arguments convincing simply because they’re often excluding them from possibility (mathematicians often hold that they do exist, like in set theory, where you can have an infinite set of whole numbers) because they can’t imagine something existing that is actually infinite. Well, there are more reasons then that, to be fair. But in the end, can they be sure? No.

Anyway, I don’t really have time to write at length about the universe right now, even if I would like to. I hope you enjoy these videos in the meantime.