seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy


Thoughts on books and book reviews

The Mote in God's Gripping Hand

The last time I read a science fiction book, I was climbing up Kilimanjaro and had few opportunities. It was The Wreck of the River of Stars, with a strong focus on slow-moving character development, that I probably would have put down if I were not scaling a mountain with frequent rests at high altitude. I was glad I read it, but it really lacked the excitement that I enjoyed in books by Heinlein, for instance.

Following several recommendations from technology geeks I find insightful (including Jerry Pournelle, one of the authors), I picked up The Mote in God's Eye and then quickly read its sequel, The Gripping Hand, by Larry Niven and Pournelle. Fascinating reading.

These are older sci-fi books, ones that expected the U.S. versus U.S.S.R. standoff would continue long into the future, when man left the Earth. The books are set long in the future, when interstellar travel is practical but humans have not yet discovered alien life. And boom, they do. The twist is that the aliens are much older, and better at just about everything, than humans but had not developed interstellar travel (the human invention of the interstellar drive was an accident - something I have no trouble believing).

I was captivated by the books but hard core science-focused science fiction readers should beware because these are not Stephen Baxter or Greg Bear books. The focus is more on sociology and a good story line. I'm not actually sure that Pournelle has any science credentials, though he clearly has a strong mind for technology. In listening to him speak, his understanding of how science works is quite weak.

I thought both books were well worth reading but I seem to remember daddYman being ho-hum about them, so take it for what it is worth. I had never considered such a plot line and it hooked me from the start (well, after 40-50 pages anyway... I always struggle to follow characters in the beginning of a book).

In Praise Of Doubt

When I saw the title of this book, I was immediately intrigued - In Praise of Doubt. A recent episode of the Diane Rehm show featured the author and I was impressed with the way he approached issues (although he made a mistake in a claim against Pelosi - she didn't call opponents of health care reform unamerican as some charged; she said those who are disrupting town hall meetings are unamerican). You can download the mp3 of that interview here [50 minutes].

Down Under in a Sunburned Country

If you haven't read Bill Bryson, you are missing out. I've read a few of his books and own more. I recently picked up "Down Under," a travel book wherein Bryson travels to and all around Australia. Shortly after finishing, I realized it was the same book as In a Sunburned Country - a book I also owned. I guess Sunburned Country is just the American version and the former was the British version.

Though highly entertaining, I found it somewhat bitterseet in that he had far more time and a larger budget than I could ever imagine having. And I'm not sure what I would cut out after reading his descriptions.

'But don't worry,' she continued, 'Most snakes don't want to hurt you. If you're out in the bush and a snake comes along, just stop dead and let it slide over your shoes.'

This, I decided, was the least-likely-to-be-followed advice I had ever been given.

Bryson strikes a great balance between history, tourist attractions, non-tourist sorta attractions, and making fun of tourists (mostly American). Then he just makes great observations:

I've never quite understood why tourists from the more prosperous end of the market are so drawn to wine-growing areas. They wouldn't, presumably, want to go and see cotton before it became Gap slacks or caviar being gutted from sturgeon, but give them a backdrop of vines and they appear to think they have found heaven.

Having started this book not knowing much about Australia (he actually makes a strong case that no one knows much about Australia), I finished it deciding I'll have to find a way to travel there, if to do nothing more than visit the Tree Top Walk.

I've enjoyed a number of his other books - in particular, Mother Tongue (a history of the english language) and the famous A Walk in the Woods (about the Appalachian Trail), perhaps his most popular.

In Dubious Battle - Steinbeck

Organizing is hell. That it is less harsh today than 100 years ago does little to change the fact that organizing workers today remains incredibly difficult. Those who do it sacrifice much to help workers get a fair share of what they produce - to give them more control over their workplace (organizing solely for a raise is seldom a worthwhile endeavor).

Years ago, I worked with organizers, most often from HERE (a union generally representing hotel and restaurant employees) and UFCW (food and commercial workers) and I have a great respect for what they go through just to get some employers to abide by the law, let alone gain advantages for the workers that are fair and yet not required by law. They work long hours at low pay, and rarely get the praise they deserve for improving the status of workers across the country.

A note for those of you who don't know your labor history - if you don't know how long it took and how many died in the struggle for a 40 hour day, an end to child labor, and for a minimum wage, you should learn. Some people actually think employers willingly bestowed these prizes on workers - this ignorance insults the memories of some of the most important people in the history of this country.

A decent start to understand the labor history of this country may actually be a work of fiction - John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle (which you should buy from (Amazon is great but independent bookstores are better for the community). Those intimidated because of being forced to read Steinbeck in High School should reconsider - this is a fairly short book and is apparently President Obama's favorite book by Steinbeck.

The book is about organizing the agriculture workers in California way back in the day. Each of these quotes comes from dialogue - starting with an insight into why organizing workers was so important:

"Did you ever work at a job where, when you got enough skill to get a raise in pay, you were fired and a new man put in? Did you ever work in a place where they talked about loyalty to the firm, and loyalty meant spying on the people around you?"

As to those who would argue that humans are too individualistic to work together, one might answer "There is power in a union."

"Men always like to work together. There's a hunger in men to work together. Do you know that ten men can lift nearly twelve times as big a load as one man can? It only takes a little spark to get them going. Most of the time they're suspicious, because every time someone gets 'em working in a group the profit of their work is taken away from them; but wait till they get working for themselves."

The final quote is something that can be applied to almost every power struggle in the history of humankind. London is the name of one of the main characters. The men they are organizing may well starve - their families may be malnourished because the owners of the orchards had all the power in the arrangement. 100 years ago, when people went on strike, some might get killed quickly in a streetfight and others might watch their children go days without food during the ordeal. These were serious struggles.

"They say we play dirty, work underground. Did you ever think, London? We've got no guns. If anything happens to us, we don't get in the newspapers. But if anything happens to the other side, Jesus, they smear it in ink. We've got no money, and no weapons, so we've got to use our heads, London. See that? It's like a man with a club fighting a squad with machine-guns. The only way he can do it is to sneak up and smack the gunners from behind. Maybe that isn't fair, but hell, London, this isn't any athletic contest. There aren't any rules a hungry man has to follow."

According to Wikipedia, when writing about the book, Steinbeck said this - something that I sometimes want to shout at pompous folks who are more horrified by a fucking expletive than the daily outrages faced by the underclass in our cities.

The what is usually called vulgar. I have worked along with working stiffs and I have rarely heard a sentence that had not some bit of profanity in it. And in books I am sick of the noble working man talking very like a junior college professor. [The novel] is not controversial enough to draw the support of either the labor or the capital side although either may draw controversial conclusions from it, I suppose


The Internet, far from being a mere free-porn distribution engine, allows "mass collaboration." As more and more people come online, each person is better able to find others that share niche skills. In your community, you may be one of 5 or 10 that is interested in, say open source content management system programing (like drupal, the software that runs this site). But on the Internet, you can associate with thousands of people that share that.

Pehaps the defining book describing how this technological innovation impacts culture and business is Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams.

It is a slightly dated book for those of us living the tecnica vida loca, but should still be interesting for those who don't live and breathe on tech sites and philosophical treatises on technology.

As people are better able to associate and work with others who share their specialty, they are able to make unexpected breakthoughs - from esoteric scientific knowledge to the mass sorting of photos of flickr. Oh - and almost all of this is only possible because of itself. Mass collaboration created the infrastructure on which the Internet runs - from the operating systems (linux) to the server software (apache) to the databases (MySQL and Postgres) to the scripting languages (PHP and Perl) all of which are combined into the "LAMP" stack.

The implications are stunning - for instance, Scorecard allows you to learn about pollution in your community. Laws require businesses to report on pollution they emit. Historically, that would go to a government agency that would or would not do anything about it. Now the government agency puts out data feeds that are incomprensible to most people. But groups formed to deal with just this information created software to automatically categorize and update these government feeds, making it more presentable to anyone who wants to easily access the information. And no, on some sites, people can actually upload their own data to contribute to the site, making the data more accurate.

The book is filled with examples like this and will be a good read for those who have not yet grasped how everything is changing in a "The World is Flat" kinda way.

Chuck Palahniuk Playboy Interview

Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and a number of other books that I have enjoyed, was the subject of the May 2009 Playboy interview. This may be my favorite Playboy interview. Highlights from Palahniuk's interview is here, along with the opportunity to purchase it.

Seeing is Believing after Hundreds of Years

Jerry A. Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True (a book on my wish list), wrote a stunning review of two books relating to evolution and the struggle Christians have in coming to terms with it. The February 4, 2009, The New Republic ran "Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail."

I think this article is a must read for just about anyone. Those who think there is any doubt regarding the truth of evolution should take the 10-15 minutes this article will take to read. Those who have accepted it as fact should also check it out because it is a really good examination of why many religious people have not been able to accept it.

That said, I think the premise of the review is 100% wrong. More on that toward the end of my review of the review...

First, I don't want to spend a lot of time on this point, but it is why I have recommended the Evolution on Trial documentary and why I look forward to reading Why Evolution is True. The point is that there is no doubt, life on Earth evolves and humans come from a common ancestor with much of that life.

Delving quickly into so-called Intelligent Design thought, the biggest "duh" moment of the review is the obviousness of how Intelligent Design both fails and requires the more controversial creationism to hold together.

One of Miller's keenest insights is that ID involves not just design but also supernatural creation. After all, the designer has to do more than just envision new creatures; he must also place them on Earth. And if that is not creationism (a label that IDers loudly reject), I do not know what is.

Nonetheless, these (un)Intelligent Design people try to dispute evolution by claiming there are gaps and that some parts of cells are too complex to have evolved. Hogwash. Scientists have explained how the complex functions evolved.

In a devastating dismantling of ID, he [Miller in Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul] takes the "scientific" claims of ID seriously and follows them to their illogical conclusion. In clear and lively prose, Miller shows that complex biochemical pathways are cobbled together from primitive precursor proteins that once had other functions but were co-opted for new uses.

Further, the fact that we humans eat and breathe through the same hole in our head is evidence for either incredibly stupid design (choke on anything lately?) or a single digestive pipe in sea creatures that evolved into a dual purpose to allow us to live on land.

But there are gaps that defy our understanding this year. Does that mean that we are incapable of discovering a materialistic (meaning non-magical) explanation? This is the logical extension of what so many religions seem to argue.

the view that if we do not yet comprehend a phenomenon completely, we must throw up our hands, stop our research, and praise the Lord. For scientists, that is a prescription for the end of science, for perpetual ignorance.

But the larger point of the review is that science and religion are incompatible. Which I dispute.

I will agree that science and religion serve different purposes.

We do not have "faith" in Darwinism in the same way that others have faith in God, nor do we see Darwin as an unimpeachable authority like Pope Benedict XVI or the Ayatollah Khamenei. Indeed, since 1859 a fair number of Darwin's ideas have been disproven. Like all sciences, evolution differs from religion because it constantly tests its assumptions, and discards the ones that prove false.

Further, though there is mutual antagonism from some quarters against the other, scientists are considerably less likely to blindly follow their beliefs. Though Michelle did not enjoy this part as much, I loved the section where Coyne examines the ways in which scientists could be provided with evidence of divine intervention in our lives:

There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life...

But these phenomena do not manifest themselves. On the flip side, scientists and atheists sometimes argue that if religions would just stop believing in things like resurrection or a God that answers prayers (I was going to also suggest virgin birth, but we do know of several species that can do this now) then they would not be incompatible with science.

One can believe that God created immutable laws of physics and does not intervene and there is nothing science can say about that. Coyne rightly points out that this is not compatible with most religions because they make empirical claims about the world - many of which have been disproved (history of the Earth, for instance). To say that religion is compatible with science if it just stops making such claims is disengenuous. Therefore, religion is not compatible with science (though science is compatible with some religions).

But.......this is where I disagree and go all "liberal arts" on Coyne.

No one takes a truly literal reading of the Bible. Some are more literal than others, believing in Noah's Ark or that we should literally stone adulterers to death (though we are all fortunate they are fewer in number than those who merely use the Bible to justify their annoyance at the "gay lifestyle"). Throughout history, the commmon understanding of what is allegorical and what is literal has changed (resulting in frequent disagreement among the myriad groups who use "The" Holy Bible as their defining text).

Some things have been conveniently glossed over - such as passages justifying slavery or infanticide. At one point, the church absolutely refused to believe that the Earth was not the center of the universe or that the Earth revolved around the sun. If this heresy could be seamlessly integrated into the Bible, which continued to put us at the center of "His" domain, then evolution and future scientific discoveries may yet be integrated into religion without a fundamental change in faith.

There are other aspects of religious belief that may incorporate evolution. God's image - maybe we are all made in God's image: Single backbone for most species, symmetry in nearly all life, there are many unifying characteristics of life that should allow those who want to believe we are made in God's image to keep believing it. That humans are solely made in God's image will likely have to be left with the center of the universe beliefs as a historical relic.

Regarding a personal God that is involved in our lives, this is nothing that science could ever prove or disprove so long as people are willing to believe that there is some larger plan that we are not meant to grasp. This is fundamentally an idea that science could never prove or disprove because science does not deal with something that is explicitly not understandable.

Maybe it is just "new" science is incompatible with religion. If you give religion a few hundred years (clearly 150 is not enough...) it will mostly stop disputing well settled scientific facts. This is why few currently preach that the sun revolves around us or that lightning bolts are hurled by a vengeful (and slutty) God. And why most Christians today look on in horror at those who refuse to give modern medicine to their children, preferring instead to pray for health.

There is always hope (perhaps faith?) that we can stop wasting time arguing about things that we can know (evolution, climate change) and get on to the debates over what to do about them (where science is somewhat less helpful - and yes, I'm talking about climate change as I don't think anyone is seriously arguing we should put our efforts into using evolution to spur an X-men race of witty people).

Saturn's Children Review

daddYman lent me a copy of Charles Stross' Saturn's Children: A Space Opera - the first book I have read by him. The book was intended to reflect both Asimov and Heinlein's influences and it succeeds. I greatly enjoyed reading it, mostly due to the really interesting future world that Stross created.

Many science fiction books feature a future filled with autonomous robots but Saturn's Children really takes a unique twist on this - as told through the mind of a femmebot after humans have gone extinct.

I did not think the story was overly interesting (it was a complicated whodunnit type mystery) but the interactions among the beings in the future was gripping. I read it mostly for the philosophy behind it, and would recommend it on that basis. A picked a short passage that I really enjoyed - the observation that a slave society damages everyone, not just the slaves.

Slave societies -- nor merely societies that permit the institution of slavery, but cultures that run on it--tend to be static. The slave-owning elite are fearful of how their own servants and increasingly devote their energy to rejecting any threat of change. Meanwhile, the underclass isn't allowed to innovate and has no interest in trying to improve things in general, rather than in their own personal lot.

Too many people do not understand how something like slavery is bad for everyone, not just the downstrodden. Similarly, I believe that a society which justifies torture (especially when based on the ridiculous scenario of an episode of 24) demeans and hurts everyone by putting a lower value on life and the ideals that were enshrined in our founding documents (and occasionaly refound throughout our history).

There is also an interesting robo-capitalism which I enjoyed thinking about as I read and the ways that game theory is more interesting when sortof autonomous robots are running everything.

Raggin on Gladwell

I found Isaac Chotiner's rough review of Gladwell's recent Outliers book [The New Republic Feb 4, 2009] to be fascinating. I really enjoyed reading The Tipping Point - mining it for good ideas rather than putting a lot of faith behind every idea.

Gladwell's book Blink seemed totally boring to me and though I picked a copy up for $2 at Half Price Books, I never got around to reading it and probably won't.

As for Outliers: The Story of Success, I think I probably won't get to it either. The case studies in it will probably be interesting but the overall lesson seems to be that practice makes you better at stuff. Apparently he comes to the conclusion that 10,000 hours is the key to genius but I think Chotiner's review is spot on in criticizing this rule.

In the meantime, one of the key points of the Tipping Point - dealing with the "Broken Window" theory - has been verified by some recent research in historic Lowell, Mass (know your labor history, people!).

Researchers, working with police, identified 34 crime hot spots. In half of them, authorities set to work - clearing trash from the sidewalks, fixing street lights, and sending loiterers scurrying. Abandoned buildings were secured, businesses forced to meet code, and more arrests made for misdemeanors. Mental health services and homeless aid referrals expanded.

In the remaining hot spots, normal policing and services continued.

Then researchers from Harvard and Suffolk University sat back and watched, meticulously recording criminal incidents in each of the hot spots.

Read the story for the results.

True Enough - Preparing to Survive a Post-Fact Society

How is it that millions of Americans are convinced that the Bush Administration - a group of people so thoroughly incompetent that it appears they could not successfully carry out even the most minute task - executed, or at least abetted, the most devastating terrorist attack against the United States? The 9/11 'Truthers' have, in part, convinced themselves by fixating on a single photograph while ignoring thousands that contradict it.

This is one of the symptoms of what Farhad Manjoo calls our Post-Fact Society in his book "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society." The book explores the fascinating question that drove me back to grad school - How is it that in the age of Google, when we have unprecedented access to information, that people are more misinformed than ever?

People who think that Saddam Hussein (or George Bush, for that matter) planned 9/11 are less ignorant than misinformed. Ignorance suggests a lack of information; but these people are convinced that they know the truth. To be ignorant, they would have to not know. That they "know" something which is not true suggests we should specifically call the phenomenon misinformation rather than ignorance.

When I entered grad school, I had the naive idea that with so much information everywhere, the best (by which I meant accurate) information should have risen to the top. How foolish of me! In this marketplace of excess information, people are more interested in the information that fits with what they already believe. I have written previously, at some length about this subject.

Manjoo surveys some of the scientific studies on this, showing that people go out of their way to find information that agrees with their current beliefs and similarly actively try to avoid information that may conflict with their existing views. Writing that, I wonder how many read it and think "duh." Nonetheless, the studies in the area are fascinating.

But Manjoo applies this to a number of recent national political controversies and disagreements. The most fascinating one for me was the 2004 Presidential election in Ohio - because it touched some of my unexamined beliefs. I had read a number of pieces over the years that convincingly argued that Kerry would have won Ohio absent some cynical manipulations by Ohio public officials. I believed that the small number of voting machines in the urban districts had a massive influence on the outcome. However, I also raised some doubts following an article in Mother Jones that challenged fraud allegations.

Turns out I was not hearing (or finding) the whole story. Robert Kennnedy wrote a Rolling Stone article detailing the problems with the Ohio election but relied upon the analysis of amateurs whose work had been strongly refuted by experts in the field. This raises perhaps the biggest problem - sometimes experts all agree wrongly on something and need to be challenged by others from outside the field. But mostly not. So how do we distinguish between the two situations?

I'm not sure. And to be honest, I don't think Majoo really lives up to his title which suggests that we will learn how to live in this Post-Fact Society. I think he teaches us how to recognize that we are in a Post-Fact Society but not really what to do about it. Recognizing it is probably only the first step. After that, I cannot help but remember a friend from college who had the following bumpersticker on the back of his VW bus: "If you haven't changed your mind recently, how can you be sure you still have it?"

In so many areas of modern knowledge, we will remain dependent on experts. Nearly all of those who claim evolution is garbage do not actually know what evolution is. They think they know - because they have picked their experts ... and many of their experts do not themselves understand evolution (many - not all). This was conclusively demonstrated at the Dover, Pennsylvania, trial on so-called Intelligent Design (which I wrote about here).

The good news is that people actually want to be informed. This is the most interesting proposition of the book - people are always pulled in multiple directions. I want to eat ice cream every day but I also want to be healthy and fit. I don't want to pollute more than necessary but the car is more convenient that the bus. I want to be informed but my brain would prefer to do it by listening to a single perspective with which I am nearly guaranteed to agree.

Manjoo notes that when SALT II was being discussed during the Carter Administration, the public had strong opinions about it though very few could actually name who was involved with the Treaty or what it would actually do. It is distressing to see people take a stand on issues that they clearly do not understand, but what is the alternative? Are we to come up with a poll exam in lieu of poll taxes?

I must conclude that living in a free society is not a free proposition. Freedom is indeed not free - though serving in the military is hardly the sole way one may defend freedom. If we are to maintain our freedom, we must inform ourselves as citizens. This is one of the costs (just as the ability to do it is a benefit). And right now, I think that means forcing ourselves to examine the arguments of those we know that we disagree with. And we must find ways of discussing politics with those we may disagree with - in part because if only a few of us inform ourselves, we will be continued to be outvoted by the many who get their opinions from the most recent radio host to fill their ears with talking-points faxed over by a cynical political party bent on putting the needs of the rich ahead of the country.

One of the best motivations for learning more about an issue is looking like a fool who cannot defend what you have stated. I have said many things I cannot defend, and when someone backs me into a corner where I look foolish, you can bet I'll examine that issue in greater depth rather than merely turning to insults and writing off the person who cornered me (though I do find doing both to be rewarding).

Many of us have long practiced the maxim of "Question Authority" (I actually now prefer "Interrogate Authority with Enhanced Techniques). It is time to question the experts with which we agree. It takes more work - but freedom isn't free. This is not something we can fix merely be resolving to be better citizens any more than global warming will be solved by a few people changing their lightbulbs. Schools absolutely must teach media literacy and the foolishness of relying upon a single ideological viewpoint for information.

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