Friday, October 30, 2009

Something Truly Scary

Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer

A great exploration of issues of consciousness, self-hood/identity and societal reactions to technological change. The basic plot is that in a few decades people who are going to die can pay for their consciousness to be transferred into a synthetic body. The original goes to the moon to live out its days, while the new copy lives out its life on Earth will all the rights of a person… or so it is thought until a legal battle challenges this notion of personhood. I quite appreciated thinking about issues of consciousness and the potential transference of it for the hours it took to read this book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that well written. I dislike saying it, but it does seem that the reputation Sci-fi has for having interesting plots and ideas but poorer character development and general prose was once again supported by reading this book. Now, it wasn’t terrible, but for such a well-regarded book/author, I thought it would have been a bit better in style. As usual, I guess it depends on what one is seeking. Moving on…

For those with exposure to cognitive science, especially from a philosophical point of view, you’ll probably appreciate that Sawyer mentions Libet, Searle, Penrose, Turing and even Dennett. Unfortunately, his treatment of the first three is misleading at best. Yes, it is a work of fiction, but Libet’s experiments are a bit flawed and Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment is confused at best. Further, Penrose’s notion of consciousness being in the microtubules doesn’t really jive either. Sawyer does say Dennett doesn’t believe in qualia, but I think he really should have hit the main point of Dennett’s arguments about consciousness: If you open up the brain, there is nobody home; there is no specific centre of special place within you in which consciousness resides. Consequently, if “you” are not is a specific place, you are also not in a specific time. Meaning, there is a smear of time and space in which various processes come together to enable consciousness (which really should be defined as it has multiple means). When you “experience” something, this event can have multiple inputs, edits or revisions, and different levels of access to such processes. It just might be true that there isn’t (cannot be?) a moment of consciousness.

Regardless, the book was useful because it made me more seriously think about the complexities of transferring a mind/person. I realize the process is extraordinarily complicated, that was not new, but revisiting the idea of just what is transferred and how that might work was interesting. Let’s say you can transfer your brain/mind/self – advanced technology would make a complete scan of your entire neural structures and processes and ensure that all incoming sensory stimuli was received in the same way that allows the creation of you in the world, acting on things. This mindscan would first, one assumes, be in a computer before it is placed in another brain/body. Of course, the scan (let’s assume) wouldn’t cause the original to disappear, so that means you’d have two (or more) entities with VERY similar thoughts and feelings (they would start to diverge immediately as they are now having different experiences). All of this is leading up to the confusion/intrigue I experience when I try to think of another me having similar thoughts and feelings, feelings of being unique and special, but having no access to those thoughts.
It is quite difficult to imagine someone else has your experience… or more that you could just transfer all of this and then continue in your own existence. Alternatively, if I met and socialized with a copy of my mind it would be fascinating to see how in sync we would be and after repeated encounters it might actually be easy to see how someone else could have my thoughts. But I digress…

I liked the ideas in this book and it Sawyer really did have excellent content to explore but that exploration could have been better.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Year of Words

Books completed from mid-October 2008 to mid-October 2009.
* = recommended
** = highly recommended

*Chomsky- Foucault Debate
The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us by Robyn Meredith
Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud
*Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner
*Wampeteres, Foma & Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut
Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes
Descartes in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern
Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria
**Elbow Room by Daniel C. Dennett

*Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson
**Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer
Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Payback by Margaret Atwood
*The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan
*From Poverty to Power by Oxfam (Duncan Green)
The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
Common Sense by Thomas Paine
*Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
*Gödel’s Proof by Ernest Nagel & James Newman
Flatland by A Square (Edwin Abbot)
**Genome by Matt Ridley
*Daniel Dennett by Matthew Elton
Entanglement by Amir Aczel
*Neuromancer by William Gibson
Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography by Janet Browne
*On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

*Kinds of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
*Wall and Piece by Banksy
*Watchmen by Alan Moore (writer), Dave Gibbons (artist), and John Higgins (colourist)
**The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer
**Wired for War by P.W. Singer
*The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery
Lush Life by Richard Price
Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong
**The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
*Feeling Pain and Being in Pain by Nikola Grahek
Issac Newton by James Gleick
Outcast by José Latour
**Critical Thinking by William Hughes
*Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
*Saviors and Survivors by Mahmood Mamdani
*The Lesser Evil by Michael Ignatieff
WWW: Wake by Robert Sawyer
Truth: A Guide by Simon Blackburn

*The End of Overeating by David Kessler
**Bonk by Mary Roach
Intimacy by Jean-Paul Sartre
*Stiff by Mary Roach
Carpe Diem by Harry Mount
The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci
The Great Crash of 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith
The Mind of the Market by Michael Shermer
*American Raj by Eric Margolis
*Afghanistan and Canada by Lucia Kowaluk and Stephen Staples (Eds.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Afghanistan and Canada by Lucia Kowaluk and Stephen Staples (Eds.)

Why are we in Afghanistan? Why is any country? (Try to think of an answer before you read this review.)
This was a good book to have read because it was very informative about various important issues regarding Canada’s engagement with Afghanistan, but also because it offers a glimpse into anger and frustration about the war held by the left community. The book is a collection of over 20 different articles and essays about Canada and Afghanistan. They provide analysis of history, context, gender, energy, current engagement, cost, and future possibilities. The book, on the whole, argues for an end to military activity and seeks a negotiated settlement. While a fine collection overall, there were some editing errors (typos and such) and many times I thought particular articles could have been better structured or written, so I do wonder about inclusion and exclusion (That's not to say that there weren't some fine, well-researched pieces).
I had read and thought about the Afghanistan issue in the beginning of 2007, but subsequently I have not paid much attention to it. I never really thought of Afghanistan as ‘the good war’ (compared to Iraq) and thought it had some sketchy beginnings as well as costs to human lives and Canada’s reputation (by being aligned with the US). After reading The Unexpected War, I came to believe that Canada just sort of stumbled into Afghanistan, mainly to satisfy perceived concerns of the US as we didn’t take part in Iraq or missile defence. I think part of the reason I left the issue was due to a statement by Alexander Neve (Secretary-General of Amnesty International Canada). When he visited Kingston to speak I had a chance to address him. I said something like, “I used to think Canada should be out of Afghanistan and into Darfur, but considering Afghanistan is one of the worst places to live and people are suffering there similar to Darfur, it seems to make less sense to give up on any expertise, knowledge and connections we’ve acquired and established by shifting to another region of which we are unfamiliar. What do you think?” He basically said that he agreed and that the situations are comparable. Consequently, I chose to defer to the AI man who knows much more than I do and thought, “Well, good enough for Neve, good enough for me.” Now, the above mentioned should not indicate that Neve thought it was great for Canada to be in Afghanistan or that there weren’t problems, but that within the context of the two countries/regions and the complications that go along with international relations and military/humanitarian action, it wasn’t as if there was a big upside to shifting out of Afghanistan and going into Darfur.

Anyway, along comes a book launch by the Rideau Institute about Afghanistan and Canada and I thought it was time to re-engage the topic. (The people and their entertaining actions at the book launch could be a whole other entry). I purchased the book and that is what I shall discuss more below.

The general ideas that were raised in the book are that the war in Afghanistan is illegal and illegitimate and is a poor approach to help the Afghan people. The war is/was illegal because it was a violation of international law to attack a state for holding a non-state actor who may have been responsible for the 9/11 attacks. It is true that bin Laden was a guest of the Taliban and was therefore in Afghanistan during 9/11, but when asked to turn him over, the Taliban asked for evidence that bin Laden actually committed the crime. Further, the 9/11 attacks were committed mainly be Saudis and it was planned in Germany. Additionally, notions of honour play a big role in Afghanistan and to evict a guest would be a severe transgression. That said, it seems that the Taliban was willing to turn bin Laden over to an international court or another state, just not the US. Of course, this wasn’t good enough for the US, so it decided to invade. It also invoked part of the NATO agreement (treating itself as an attacked country and therefore requiring the engagement of other signatories) and therefore Canada was compelled to enter the fray.
The war was illegitimate because it wasn’t sanctioned by the UN security council, and when part of the military operations were sanctioned after the fact, the book argues that this was illegitimate because the Security Council failed to fulfill their own mandate to prevent war (as the war in Afghanistan was unnecessary).
As you can imagine, these are very interesting, complex and controversial issues to discuss. Similarly, so is the idea that the main reason for the invasion was so the US could have a military presence in the region (which is important as Russia, China and India increase in power) and have access to energy reserves. I certainly don’t think the US invaded Afghanistan to help the women who are suffering terribly (they didn’t seem to care in the 1980s when the Mujahidin were in power, nor when the Taliban took over), but I’d need a bit more hard evidence regarding the point that it was that breakdown of talks between Unocol (a US company represented by Karzai) and the Taliban to have a pipeline out of Turkmenistan several months prior to 9/11 that was one of the main reasons. Under this view, the argument would be something like: the US wants a(n increased) military presence in the region and after 9/11 they ‘had’ to attack someone, why not Afghanistan which would then allow such a presence and access to energy reserves (and then a closer eye could be kept on Iran). True? I’m not sure, but it is certainly plausible.

The book did a good job of providing some facts and figures about the cost of the war: Canada is spending over $2,600,000 a day (about $2000/minute) on the war in Afghanistan to extend its mission to 2011. [Note: that amount comes from the article in which Steven Staples did a good job of breaking down the various costs, including those that would occur anyway and those that are in addition to regular costs, as well as costs associated with CIDA and Veterans Affairs - I chose to only give the associated increased cost due to the war. If one went with total overall costs, the number would be closer to over $11,000,000/day.)
Is this the best use of your tax money?
Additionally, there is the human cost, with Canada losing more soldiers in Afghanistan than in all its UN peacekeeping operations in over 60 years. Of course, UN peacekeeping missions usually do not lead to death and involve different personal compared to the combat mission in Afghanistan, so one could question the validity of the comparison.
Realizing that international obligations often force the spending of such resources, such figures still do raise the issue of opportunity cost – should all of the various resources going towards Afghanistan be spent elsewhere?
Afghanistan and Canada also provided useful information regarding Afghan women and the brutality they have continually experience. Historically, things weren’t so bad going back 100 years and the progressive movements that were attempted to give women rights and powers in the 1920s and 30s, but then it becomes mixed after about the 1970s. Things were terrible under the Mujahidin and the infighting that occurred after the Soviets left (1990s). While certain aspects of life (i.e., rape and being terrorized) greatly decreased when the Taliban came into power (mid-1990s), the Taliban imposed such severe restrictions on their lives, that it was hardly any better. One of the few female Afghan MPs said that things are no better now then they were 10 years ago – a truly saddening statement. In addition, I learned (obviously in retrospect, I just hadn’t thought about it much) that women of different socio-economic statuses were affected differently. What were freedoms for some in the cities did not translate into the rural areas (nor was it desired). The march for women’s rights must be seen as an internal movement and it must move slowly with various actors on board – pretty much the opposite of what the international community is doing at large.
I mentioned previously that notions of honour are very important in Afghanistan, especially in the Pashtun areas where there is Pashtunwali, a code of practice followed by the Pashtun people which includes such things as hospitality and sanctuary. A Pashtun woman, upon hearing that there was homelessness in Montreal, was shocked, wondering how we could let this happen. When I first read this I too was suprised, but from the other direction. I thought about how we so often judge another culture and many think they are 'backward' and here we step over people who are sick, troubled and cold while they never would. Upon further reflection, I don't know how much this extends to those who are complete outsiders and if a Pashtun would think they would be threatened, would they still provide sanctuary? (I mentioned above that the case with bin Laden seems to indicated many probably still would.)
There is much more to say and many thoughts I still have to consider, but I’ll end with an analogy provided by Michael Neumann (page 29) about the war in Afghanistan. He does say it is “inexact” but I think his parallel is quite powerful. Further, I found it appealing as the psychologist in me appreciated his description of conflicting ideas.

“The big justification for The Mission is that we are fighting, as the fantile phrase goes, the Bad Guys, the Taliban. There’s something criminally dishonest about this. Here’s an inexact parallel which tries to get at what’s wrong.
Suppose the Taliban are bad like TB, not cancer – you lead an awful life, but usually you live. Now suppose there’s TB in your town. I come to believe that TB is a scourge of your society, and fighting TB should be your number one priority. I could eliminate TB in your town by providing 100mg of a certain drug to each inhabitant, but I have no intention of allocating resources on that scale. So, on the cheap, I provide 10mg of the drug per person. This may bring some temporary relief; it may even cure a very few exceptionally healthy people, but of course what it won’t do is eliminate TB, and those helped are likely to get it again, later. I use this distribution of drugs to justify my military occupation of your town. I kill inhabitants who oppose my TB program, on the grounds that they’re an obstacle to curing your society.
The contemptible wrongness of my actions is elusive. I have no bad intentions or motives; I’ve violated no inviolable principles. But there is something repugnantly shoddy about my good intentions. It’s not that I’m trying to do something bad. It’s that I’m not really trying to do something good, only pretending to do so. I pretend, first of all, to myself. I’ve embarked on an enterprise that I know will have terrible costs to others, and which will achieve nothing. This looks a bit like the sort of gamble we just have to take from time to time. But it isn’t a gamble, because I know my strategy will fail. I choose to ignore this, and pretend my efforts are serious. In short I’m trying to hold two obviously clashing beliefs. One is that after much struggle I will succeed; the other is that I’ve invested much too little in the ‘struggle’ to succeed. I don’t want to relinquish either of them. Academics call this cognitive dissonance.
Willful myopia helps us manage these clashing beliefs. We see our killings of Afghan civilians as a series of mistakes, of setbacks, and so they are. But we know these mistakes will continue to happen, and we refuse even to estimate their eventual, total cost to the Afghan people. Instead, we go about our noble sacrifice."

Why are we in Afghanistan? Why is any country?
Do you have answers that satisfy your notions of truth and justice?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Reality Check #59

American Raj by Eric Margolis

This was a great book to have read but was not quite itself a great book. My peculiar statement derives from the fact that I found the book very informative and accessible but there were no references, some of the writing was poor and there were several typos.
Margolis, who has been bouncing around the Middle East in one way or another for over 20 years, argues that Americans are attempting to follow in the footsteps of the British Raj when they were the dominant empire, but the Americans are focussed on the Middle East. The book is great because Margolis provides about 30 pages each on the Palestinian issue, Osama bin Laden, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon and about 15-20 pages on Chechnya and the Balkans. These primers wonderfully provide some historical perspective, a brief analysis of who the players are and why they hate each other, and what might result in future struggles. Considering there was genocide in Chechnya and I previously wouldn’t have been able to find it on a map, the book was useful in that regard if no other. But, let me not be too dismissive, the book was very useful in that it helped me understand antagonism towards the West (much was review) and American Raj also ends with prescriptions for resolution (or making the best out of a bad situation) for the issues of the Occupied territories, Iraq, Afghanistan and Western and Middle Eastern hostility towards one another.
Key message: Many Muslims do hate the West (but not entirely as the situation is pretty grey when the most loathed country is also the one people want to move to), but it is more that they hate their governments who mistreat them.
I also finally encoded the basic difference between Shia and Sunni (who make up 85% of Muslims) – the former follow imams while the latter believe there shouldn’t be an intermediary between the believer and God.
American Raj usefully reminded me of how events are linked and how backlash and blowback could almost be predicted. For example, in the early 1950s, Iran was going to nationalize its oil industry but the Brits didn’t like this. In conjunction with the US and others, they overthrew the government and put the Shah in place. Eventually, in 1979, there was a revolution as the people disliked this and then the Ayatollah was the main power player. The US didn’t like this so, during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) the supplied Iraq with intelligence that helped them fight the Iranians. During this tumultuous period, the US convinced the Saudis that it would be useful to have a US military presence in Saudi Arabia to protect the oil (for both the Saudis and the US), so they put 5,000 troops there. Osama bin Laden, who was well respected for rejecting the lavish lifestyle of his family and fighting against Muslim oppression by the communists, would later say that the US presence in Saudi Arabia was one of the reasons for 9-11. (Additionally, supposedly, Osama bin Laden only claimed credit for Al-Queda in 2004, if at all, although he did applaud the attack.
Osama bin Laden also said that one cannot defeat America militarily, but you can attack their economy. The key would be to engage the Americans in a series of protracted wars that would harm their economy… it’s like Cheney et al. were following his playbook.

As you can see, things are very interesting but complicated. This book (plus another I just started on Afghanistan) has made me definitely think that the war will never be won. The Russians had 2-6 times as many troops (including Afghan recruits) and they did not succeed. They did bleed themselves dry while they killed 1-2 million Afghans. To think that this war ravaged country was losing 100,000 fighters a year and in the end they outlasted them. Do we really think they won’t just wait us out?
And yet Afghans suffer, so what is to be done? It does seem like the militarization of engagement should end or be diminished as much as possible that still allows humanitarian work and there should be a negotiated settlement, which would include the Taliban. I'm still exploring, but that seems to be best option in this mess which costs the Canadian taxpayer $2,700,000 a day.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Reality Check #57

The Reality Check #57: Free Will/Determinism + Interview with Evan Bernstein + Baby Booms/Blackouts

I happily got to cover the topic of Naturalism and the implications for free will but there were some audio problems so the sound quality could be better.

The Mind of the Market by Michael Shermer

A good introduction to evolutionary and decision psychology but with mostly unnecessary content about economics.
Shermer attempts to draw parallels between the natural process of evolution and the invisible hand of the free market, but the book works much better without the few analogizing attempts. Additionally, although the book is full of interesting and important ideas, there was not much of a coherent narrative and many of the ideas aren’t new.
Consequently, this would probably make a good first book for someone wanting to explore the topics of evolution, social psychology or behavioural economics, but will seem like a segmented review to those already exposed.
I did appreciate how Mind of the Market repeatedly stressed that we are also cooperative apes along with having selfish tendencies. Although Dawkins had an important point to make in his book The Selfish Gene (i.e., evolutionary fitness will trump everything else, so the genes that are most successful at propagating will do so, irrelevant of whether they make people play nice), too often the idea is misunderstood and people end up thinking evolution is synonymous with selfishness or besting competitors. It is true that we are built with dispositions to favour the survival of ourselves and our relatives, but we are also endowed with the ability to trust and cooperate with members of a larger community.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Great Crash of 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith

An informative but mostly uninteresting account of the great crash of 1929. Of course, it really depends what one is seeking. I think I wanted more overview and analysis of the events that are thought to have caused 1929, the repercussions and to gain insight into patterns that might occur in the market (and human psychology surrounding it). 1929 did do this, but you need only read the first 10-15% and the final 20% if that’s what you want.

I did learn that although many newspapers were caught up on the speculation bubble, the NY Times was not. It warned of collapse and tried to warn people. Many advocating a position antithetical to infinitely increasing returns were castigated for their warnings.

Additionally, some things don’t change. Overpaid bankers believing they aren’t overpaid and those within the industry helping their friends to become rich or not getting caught.

A good excerpt: "The striking thing about the stock market speculation of 1929, the not the massiveness of participation, but the way it became central to the culture."

Finally, Galbraith does a good job of discussing why things might have turned out and how the Depression was related to the crash. One of the interesting points was that, due the large income disparity, much of the economy’s growth was related to luxury spending by the rich. Consequently, when they started to lose money, the whole economy suffered the reverberations.
A good book for those really interested in the topic. If less curious, read the beginning and the end while skimming the middle.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


It's now been one year since I have moved to Ottawa. Many significant events have occurred, but for the moment I'll only mention that I just found out the podcast to which I contributed is downloaded by over 1000 people. :D
Not a bad year.