Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich

This is an excellent overview of how positive thinking without a firm grounding in reality can have negative and even disastrous consequences. Ehrenreich discusses how she was ostracized for not adopting a positive attitude during her battle with cancer. We learn that having a positive outcome appears to have no effect on mortality time lines. The patient might feel better, but will not live longer. From there, there is a history of how American’s love of positivity came to be, a sharp criticism of The Secret, the business world and its motivational speakers that are spewing so much emptiness, the problems with religions and positive, and then a critique of the positive psychology movement. Ehrenreich isn’t anti-happiness or against positivity, just the kind that doesn’t have a grounding in the facts of the world and the real consequences of actions. For those interested in a popular examination of the positivity movement in the United States, this book will bear happy fruit. Personally, I found it mostly superfluous save the examination of the positive psychology movement.
Consequently, partially recommended?

Hopes and Prospects by Noam Chomsky

This excellent series of lectures, essays and articles explore events in the Americas that, although recent, are presented through an analysis of history and power. For those who have never read Chomsky, this wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Noam's usual topical suspects are here: Power, imperialism, hypocrisy/different standards for 'them,' what is printed in the news vs. what actually happens, Vietnam, aggression, American public opinion vs. elite opinion, NPT, Israel, siege of Gaza, nature of democracy promotion, Iraq, torture memos, Obama's support of the corporate elite, Latin American struggles (e.g., the first 9-11 in Chile), Haiti and so much more.
I cannot deny that much of the content is disheartening but such is the price for being aware of injustice. It is hard to refute the phrase "if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."
Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Love and Sex with Robots by David Levy

For those of you who think that people will not eventually have love and have sex with robots, you should read this book. For those of you who already think that people have sex with robots and will continue to do so and love them, you can probably skim this book.
The first part of the book examines why humans love at all and then provides arguments to persuade that we will also do this with robots. A similar approach is taken to the second part, which deals with sex. In the love section, examples of how people become attached to electronic objects and toys, as well as the affection and anthropomorphizing of animals, are mentioned frequently. In the more interesting sex section, the reader gets a history of sex toys, their various uses and how artificial sex technologies are only increasing in sophistication and realism. The most surprising thing I learned was that there are escort services in Japan and Korea that use dolls instead of humans. And that information is now 4 years old! It is also fascinating to think of how homosexual acts (and oral sex) are accepted by the state as part of a marriage in the same places where years ago would have been crimes punishable by death. The long view can certainly assuage pessimism on occasion, a tactic further validated by absurdity of the state of Virgina only removing a law prohibiting relations between unmarried, heterosexual couples in 2005!
Barring economic collapse or an inability to extend computing technologies beyond the current transistor system that will be exhausted in 8-10 years, I think robots and nanotechnology will create incredible experiences, hopefully more wonderful than terrible, in the following decades for those privileged enough to have access. In an otherwise worthwhile overview, Levy fails to give sufficient attention to the potentially dramatic implications of human-robot romantic and sexual relations.* For example, what will happen to communities and families if members of the human race no longer need to impress, engage or compromise with other members for their relationship needs? To be fair, in the conclusion he does raise many interesting questions/concerns (e.g., should the age of consent for sex with a robot be the same as it is for a person? Will sex with a robot within a marriage be constructive or destructive? Can a human rape a sexbot?).
Levy might also win for having the most interesting sentence I've read in a book this year: "Think back for a moment to Net Michelle's orgasmic experience, created by Thrillhammer via teledildonic interface."
In summation, people will love and have sex with robots. This book will convince or elaborate, depending on your current state of agreement.
*Think of the Futurama episode if you’ve seen it! If not, you really should watch this clip 

Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction by A.C. Grayling

If you are seeking a primer on Wittgenstein, you probably cannot do much better than this work. In 140 pages, Grayling provides a brief biography, an analysis of Wittgenstein’s early work (the Tractatus), an analysis of his later work (mainly the Philosophical Investigations), and then a look at Wittgenstein’s influence. This book did exactly what I had hoped it would do: provide an understanding of what Wittgenstein argued and if it made sense. In fact, Grayling did this so well that I no longer feel compelled to read any Wittgenstein as it seems like I disagree with the main themes of his work, as well as the fact that the ideas weren’t always presented clearly (and that Wittgenstein disagreed with his early work makes the Tractatus even less intriguing).*
Wittgenstein’s main concern is with language and how our use of language leads to philosophical problems. He has/had some quirky ideas about what could be discussed and some assertions that just have be agreed with intuitively or not at all.  Finally, although impactful, Wittgenstein’s influence does seem to be overrated.
Although this overview is not all that is the case, it is highly recommended.
*As I have not read the primary sources I am choosing to place some trust in Grayling even though I know it is one philosopher’s opinion.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

What would you do if a you had the power to kill others with a thought?  That is one of the various themes explored by Palahniuk in Lullaby. Typical of Chuck's style, the plot moves quickly, characters are quirky but not deeply developed, absurd situations abound and social commentary is strewn about like enticing trash. Although the content was a bit morbid, as usual, I found it to be a light read, as usual. Decent but I liked Choke better.
Palahniuk fans will enjoy it, but it is a bit of a departure in that it is more of a murder mystery than just a life imploding.

African History: A Very Short Introduction by John Parker and Richard Rathbone

This was a decent overview of African history but it is just as much as a brief examination of the validity of doing history about Africa. In fact, the process of history and how histories are compiled was a large chunk of the work. Useful to be reminded of the diversity of Africa, its peoples, languages and geography, while considering if "Africa" even makes sense as a descriptor beyond a continent.
The book discusses complications of primary sources, the slave trade and colonialism. It was useful to be reminded how those in power often have more in common with each other than other lines of demarcation.
A good start for those interested in the topic.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body by Kim Toffoletti

(Unfinished @ ~ 30%)
This book wasn’t what I thought it would be, or perhaps it is better to say it isn’t what I had hoped it would be. I thought it would explore how new technologies are leading to different types of humans and ways of being in the world, and how that would relate to feminism and popular culture. I thought it would probably look a lot at enhancement as it relates to beauty and perhaps even robots as surrogates for sexual desire. I was wrong as evident by this sentence:
“Although this book takes as its starting point images of the posthuman – representations that depict the fusion of the organic and the informational – its primary concern is with posthuman images." (p.31)
Further, the work, admittedly more academic in nature, seemed to use the stereotypical post-modern language style that I do not find appealing. There seem to be useful points within the book, but I was frequently frustrated by how things were phrased. For example, “We find that the ambiguity arising from technologies that collapse the distinctions between nature and artifice, mind and body, organism and machine, offers the potential for new forms of subjectivity beyond oppositional frameworks.”
I think I agree with that statement, as I dislike dichotomies because they are usually false, and I do not see much validity in essentialism. Consequently, evaluating how things come together, how we categorize and what that means for our experiences is fine with me.
Alternatively, I was hostile to some stances taken on the nature of science (a biased, male enterprise that isn’t objective) and found it very odd that some authors argue that women are associated more with “the body,” “nature,” and “irrationality.” Exactly the type of absurd statements that I hear about second hand but don’t usually read. I will admit science is mainly done by men and it isn’t as objective as it would like to be… but it is more than any other area of study.
So… given that the content and style were not jiving, I took a loss. Perhaps a more patient, future Darren will revisit this work. Present Darren cannot recommend it.

Marx’s Das Kapital – A Biography by Francis Wheen

This superb little book is exactly what the title indicates – the gestation, birth and afterlife of Kapital. Of course, to tell such a story Wheen usefully contextualizes both ideas and personal circumstances. We learn of Marx’s vast knowledge base and literary explorations, his continued health problems and mostly dismal living conditions. The book is well-written and the audio version I experienced was well-spoken. On more than one occasion I thought, “What an excellent phrasing!” and other content was dryly humourous as well. Wheen seems balanced in his assessment and even in his pointed critiques of Marx and others.
Highly recommended for those with an interest in the topic.