Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pale Blue Dot Speech

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan

A wonderful collection of the Gifford lectures given by Sagan in 1985 on the subject of natural theology. The Varieties demonstrates Sagan’s depth and breadth of knowledge about science, history, religion and philosophy. Complementing Sagan’s appreciative words are beautiful photos to illustrate the wonder that surrounds is in the universe and is a good complement to Sagan’s appreciative words.

While much of the content, both cosmological and the arguments for and against God, was review for me, I enjoyed hearing his perspective and phrasings. I find it useful to be exposed to explorations of what counts as evidence and what the limitations to knowledge and truth might be.

I recommend this book for those who want to examine our place in the cosmos and are curious to know what reasons, valid or not, we might have for believing a God had a part in the creation.

Of the many interesting parts, I shall share two, the first made me laugh, the second provided a new take on prior knowledge:

(1) Sagan was discussing the likelihood of having contact with extraterrestrial life through radio telescopes and going the pessimistic route with an equation that would yield us as the only technically advanced civilization:
“So there’s nobody to talk to except ourselves, and we hardly do that very well.”

(2)“I remind you of the elementary fact that we breathe the waste products of plants and plants breathe the waste products of humans. A very intimate relationship if you think about it. And that relationship is responsible for every breath you take. We in fact depend on the plants, it turns out, a lot more than the plants depend on us.”

Payback by Margaret Atwood

This year Atwood presented the five Massey Lectures, titled Dept: Payback and the Shadow Side of Wealth; Do not expect an investigation into GDP, inflation and derivatives, but a literary, historical and creative assessment of debt. Although I (thought I) did have accurate expectations, I did find it less informative than I’d hoped, especially lecture three which I consider the weakest because it was too much a summary of literature for me and not enough novel content. Alternatively, the fifth and final lecture was the best because it used the Scrooge story to create a parable about the environment (Spirit of Earth Day Past, Present and Future) and that is a current interest.

Although mostly worthwhile and intermittently amusing, I wouldn’t say this is required reading/listening.
Check out lectures 1 (fairness, balance and reciprocity) and 5 and go from there.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Gist: Environment (culture, timing, chance) matters.
If you don’t believe this, or want a review, then skim this book to see if it is your thing. If you already do believe this, you can skip this book, but might want to read the two chapters about genius.
Basically, “we are too in awe of those who succeed and too dismissive of those who fail.” Similarly, innate ability interacts with various aspects of environment/experience to create ‘outliers.’
Brief notes on content:
Most junior hockey players are born from Jan-Mar because of selection and training advantages, that both Bill Joy and Bill Gates had unique access to computers to program for hours and hours when they were young. Similarly, the Beatles got a lucky break as well.

Gladwell also covers how parenting styles matter for schooling; pastoral versus farming societies have different cultures and this leads to different notions of violence; that plane crashes have occurred because of the cultural styles of the pilots; of the 75 richest people in history, 14 are American’s and were born within a 9 year period in the middle 1800s.

The three most interesting parts for me were (1) the brief bios of Joy and Gates; (2) the story of high IQ’d Chris Langan, contrasted with Oppenheimer; and (3) math ability is ‘really’ a function of patience, determination and greater learning. To elaborate a little, there are 180 days of schooling for Americans, while 220 for Koreans and 240 for Japanese, and that most Asian number systems are easier to pronounce and therefore easier to hold in working space memory, and finally that Asian number systems make it easier to do basic math.

It was also interesting to hear how much parenting matters, because there are other researchers (Judith Rich Harris) who believe that parenting practically doesn’t matter at all for many outcomes in a person’s life. I sort of felt this was a useful contrast to the genetically weighted view of things.

Some of the book was far too repetitive (esp. the chapter on Korean pilots) and a lot of anecdotal data is relied upon to validate his thesis. The general issue of most of this way of investigating (i.e., using patterns to explain situations) is that it gets into complicated regression equations that try to explain the variance of phenomena and would require a much greater analysis to assess the specific validity of many of his points.

That said, ‘hard work matters, but you need opportunity to succeed’ is obviously a tenable statement but I do wonder if another exploration was required.

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman

Although I am pleased to have finished this work, it was a none too exciting read and was kind of boring at parts actually. I read it because I wanted to have a better understanding of “Friedman economics,” such as the notion that any governmental action reduces freedom, and thus my mission was accomplished.

Considering the book starts with a list of things Friedman wishes were so, and number 8 was that banks should not be regulated at all, it was harder to keep an open mind to the possible validity of his ideas.
Additionally, the statement “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself” didn’t endear him much to me as it sounds far too much like Colbert’s satirical retort after any minor disagreement: “Why do you hate freedom?”

I did like his coverage of inequality, as well as that of coverage of Marx’s famous dictum and that capital is a result of past labour (but I think there could be more to it).

I thought it was very interesting that he stated that most, if not all, abilities could be seen as due to chance (if you have determination, you had genes which gave you a predisposition to such behaviour); this is mainly because I think the primary flaw that many people have when discussing notions of equality and responsibility, is that they tend believe that people are very much self-made instead of dependent upon history, circumstances and luck. More generally, if there is a limited ability to choose, and you just lucked out, should you really get all your money? People think you earned it, but did you really?

The personal primary utility of this work was that I gained a greater understanding of Friedman’s work and an ability to place it in a historical economic context (i.e., (roughly) the Great depression leading to an acceptance of Keynes in the 30s and then Friedman’s reaction to Keynes/welfare state in the 60s/70s and now a backlash to that reaction considering the meltdown). On to Keynes and Galbraith and...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer

Read this book. It is important, accessible and a quick read.
While many books are about IF climate change is occurring and an examination of the science, Dyer accepts THAT climate change is happening due to human activity and then explores the geopolitical ramifications of increased warming in the coming decades. It is often only a rise of 2 degrees Celsius that Dyer examines and the even that small amount has large ramifications. Further, the book reminded me of the useful analogy of comparing the rise in temp to one’s body temperature instead of room temperature to have others greater understand the fine balance in which we find ourselves. Climate Wars presents fictional, but plausible, scenarios that are startling: A nuclear war between India and Pakistan over water, the U.S. fully closing its Southern border in 2029 and using automated machine guns and landmines to prevent crossings, Russia and China engaging in a huge regional conflict, mass immigration that would dissolve the EU, mass starvation, countries like Britain and Japan closing themselves off from the world with nuclear weapons, and not being able to import food at any price (because there just isn’t any to go around).
I do realize that he and the many others could be wrong, but if one has to make decisions based on the best available evidence and we are definitely in a situation where the costs of doing nothing exceed the costs of action, then we must act. Additionally, aside from a brief reference in the introduction to the possible prominence of artificial intelligence in the 2020s, Dyer does not discuss the greater technological revolution that may happen, even if only to dismiss it. This is a weakness as I am starting to believe that any book that attempts to predict the future must include technological advancement (and now climate change).

Dyer does discuss some of the science (biofuels, carbon capture… etc), provides a thoughtful discussion of geo-engineering possibilities and the moral hazard associated with them – if we believe technology can fix it, we won’t try as hard to reduce emissions. His coverage of how the breadbaskets of the world are vulnerable if the heating and evaporation of tropical waters changes was very informative, as was his discussion of the oceans becoming filled with, and then releasing hydrogen sulphide if currents don’t mix things up.
Dyer does present a dire future, which would be easier to dismiss if his discussion of why political action won’t be taken wasn’t so cogent (and stated with sadness). Yet, he is quick to remind, there is still time for us to figure this out if we start acting immediately with solutions and technologies that can already help reduce our carbon emissions.

So, do you plan to watch the world burn?

[More personally, I found this work of fact-based forecasting very useful, mainly because the issue of climate change had left my consciousness (as it seems to have done with the public). Previously, I have read books on climate change and environmental impacts, presented on papers about carbon taxation versus cap and trade systems, what Canada’s emission are and what it needs to do, the viability of hydrogen, the validity of nuclear power and biofuels and wind power, and even thought about mass immigration and starvation… and yet I feel this book really internalized the issue for me.
Sidestepping a longer discussion regarding what it means to know something (i.e., is initial comprehension sufficient? What about recall? And how long into the future? Perhaps the ability to teach another?) this book has created a greater ‘degree of knowing’ for me and reactivated my previous knowledge about climate change. I think the main reason was that his fictional scenarios very detailed compared to previous, vague hypothetical situations and that made the whole issue of climate change more real. Finally, the repetition of figures helped me retain the fact that the atmosphere has 387 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide, it rises at 3 ppm each year, that we don’t want it going over 400 ppm and we really don’t want it going over 450 ppm (which is what the environmental community is using as its target).
Consequently, Climate Wars was a very worthwhile read.]

Indebted to Atwood?

This year's massey lectures (Atwood on debt) are available on the CBC website or to download through iTunes for free until Dec. 19th

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Monday, December 15, 2008

"So what if the guy threw a shoe at me?"

Watch this video.
Obviously this situation isn't truly funny as the man was expressing frustration and anger about the violence his country has experienced from the U.S. invasion, but how it played it out did make me laugh.
1) Look at Bush's reaction (which was pretty good) after the first shoe. His face seems to indicate he almost wants the challenge and knows this person will soon suffer.
2) The phrase "So what if the guy threw a shoe at me?" is probably the funniest line I'll hear today.
3) Honestly, who throws a shoe?
(I used to use that catch phrase often, which makes the repetition of something similar very amusing)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson

“The water you drink each day was delivered to Earth in part by comets more than 4 billion years ago.”

Of course, there have been many chemical intermediaries and reactions that have taken place since then, but the fact that pretty much all of the Earth had its components fully stocked (save minor continual accretion) 4 billion years ago is fascinating.

It is such gems of information that occur frequently in Death by Black Hole, a collection of 44 essays originally published in Natural History magazine. Although much of it was review, I quite enjoyed the accessible writing, interesting information and diverse subject matter.

A brief tour of what I read about and learned:

  • The nature of Science.
  • It can take a million years for ‘sunlight’ to go from the centre of the sun to the outer layer (because it keeps colliding with things) even though it only takes 8.3 minutes to get from the surface of the Sun to us.
  • The sun isn’t yellow!
  • How the colour in photos of cosmological objects is created.
  • What can be learned about time and space from just putting a stick in the mud.
  • Various orbital distances/heights.
  • How the electromagnetic spectrum is used to analyze the universe (i.e., imagine you could ‘see’ radio waves or infrared or microwaves).
  • The history of discovery and how knowledge has been increasing over time.
  • Relativity (little bit).
  • Plasma (electrons).
  • Our Milky Way Galaxy will have a collision with the Andromeda galaxy in 7 billion years (but the Sun will engulf the Earth in 5 billion, so don’t worry).
  • We are stardust (and where the elements came from).
  • That the neutron only discovered in 1932, after quantum mechanics.
  • Electromagnetic pollution.
  • Life in the universe (could have isolated planets flung out of their solar system).
  • Asteroid impacts.
  • The first few minutes of our universe.
  • Out radio bubble extends 100 light-years (but might not be as pervasive as some think).
  • Science and religion.

I was pleased with this great variety, but I do wish he had provided essays on (a) the light-cone and our limitations of knowing; (b) similarly, just how is something 10 billion light-years away in an infinite universe in which both everything and nothing is the centre?; and perhaps more on how most of the theories of astrophysics are filled and supported by dense math compared to overt observation.

Elbow Room by Daniel C. Dennett

(This was a re-read for me and though I’ve previously posted some comments and excerpts in four entries, I hadn’t quite done a decent review.)

Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting is a near exemplar of intellectual investigation. I say this because Dennett is honest and communicative about his project, consistent throughout, thoroughly analytical and provides practical advice regarding the problem or future complications one might encounter. Even if one does not agree with Dennett, as long as he is read carefully, his stance is clear and can be challenged at various points. Ending on a prescriptive note regarding free will debates was refreshing and I wish more authors/books did the same. Of course, it is not a flawless work as greater elucidation would have been appreciated in several sections.

Basically, Dennett offers a compatibilist argument, that free will is compatible with a universe in which everything is determined, and it probably one of the best ones you’ll read. The more I progressed through the book, the utility of the title as a representation of the book’s contents seemed more and more apt.

Dennett believes that we have free will but it is to be understood as the result of mechanistic processes (in a likely determined world). As usual, he challenges popular intuition pumps and attempts to replace them with some of his own. I appreciated his distinction between determinism and fatalism, the former is that things just end up causally happening a certain way, while the latter indicates purposefulness and intentional organization. Additionally, deliberation, even in a determined universe, does matter, as it is part of the process that causes things to happen. It was interesting to think about this personally, regarding the inner thoughts I have, and how those relate to belief and action outcomes. Further, even if determinism is true, people do still avoid things and can prevent things, but not the actual future, just those things and events that are anticipated. Lastly, people do have opportunities if things/situations appear as opportunities to them (I understand how this could be dissatisfying to some).

I see the validity of his technique and I find his dissection of the free will issue/problem appropriate. Yet, I think I still disagree with terminology. Let us say that we can deliberate, that we can prevent, that we can avoid, that we have opportunities to us, but let us not call it free will. Dennett repeatedly acknowledges that the idea of a Kantian will, idealized or exempt from the causal fabric of the universe, is obviously a fiction and is unattainable. Consequently, he argues for a variety that we should want (which is pretty much what we have). I say keep the argument for wanting what we have, but let go of the term ‘free will’ for I think it is too connotatively loaded and unnecessarily complicates discussions about choice and responsibility. Dennett feels a similar notion of triage regarding the term ‘qualia,’ among others, but he prefers to persist with the term free will (as he more explicitly acknowledges in Freedom Evolves, p.224-225 ).

I guess that choice is his.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

I enjoyed this book. It provided a nice overview of the current and future geopolitical scene surrounding the rise of China and India and the relative decline of American power. Zakaria provides interesting information throughout (China’s consumption stats and India’s bureaucracy), but nothing too extraordinary. Where his coverage differs from others is in his more sophisticated analysis of the educational systems of the US, China and India, and how the US has a superior one that will enable it to remain productive/innovative for decades. I also appreciated his analysis of China trying to manage its rise as peaceful and that they do not appear to seek an expansive foreign policy.

It will be interesting to see how things turn out in the coming decades.
(As I listened to the audio book, I should also mention that I liked the sound of his voice - which could have had an influence on my judgment)

Descartes in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern

A concise and informative biographical tour of the life of Descartes mixed with a little bit of his philosophical thoughts. I appreciate these books because it humanizes the great minds, provides a basic historical context, and offers some insight (actual or inferred) about how they might have come up with the ideas they did.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jon Stewart covers Canada

The Daily Show - December 8, 2008 - Clip 1 of 4

Hilarious and a glimpse of what could be. Sigh...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Beautiful Wanderers

Venus and Jupiter are the two bright objects (aside from the moon) in the South-Western sky for the next three weeks or so. Venus is the brighter of the two. Additionally, Mercury will join them near the new year, but will be much closer to the horizon.
Have a look and ponder your place in the solar system.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes

This short work was educational, but only from a meta-analytic/historical point of view. It showcases how someone very smart (Rene) who has a good question (what do I know for certain) and a good approach (open everything to doubt, start with the very basics and try to work his way up), could still manage to come to very weak conclusions (mainly though poor reasoning). Descartes main error is separating the mind from the body and he continually underestimates the power and influence of the senses (although I did appreciate that at the very end he does (partly) acknowledge the fallibility of being human). Further, even giving him some of his flawed premises, he is only intermittently consistent and often ends up somewhat assuming conclusions and then justifying premises.

A paraphrased example: As God is understood to be infinite and supremely powerful, and the more one thinks about it, these traits could not have arisen from within yourself, so they must be outside of yourself, and then you must conclude God necessarily exists.

That is one among many of arguments where I was left thinking, “How did he keep getting it so wrong?” Such are the powerful influences of culture and cognitive biases.

Finally, to think it was written about 370 years ago and that his work has impacted numerous people and belief systems through time is kind of mind-blowing; that some still use similar bad arguments like his is mind-saddening.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Wampeteres, Foma & Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut

This book is a great little compilation of speeches, articles/reviews, a few short stories and lengthy interview. I probably appreciated the interview and a few of the speeches the most as they allowed for a greater understanding of just what he might believe and how he might give a talk. I know Vonnegut tends to the pessimistic view of life, and his skepticism and cynicism are all too often valid, but the perspective presented in some of those talks was more severe and negative than I would have anticipated.

There are many wonderful parts and amusing opinions provided. A nice collection for Vonnegut fans (and the interview would serve as a good intro to who he is).

Interview with Playboy Excerpt (where he was able to ‘revise his stupidity’ and state what he should have said, not what he really said):
Playboy: In some of your books – especially The Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse-Five – there’s a serious notion that all moments in time exist simultaneously, which implies that the future can’t be changed by an act of will in the present. How does a desire to improve things fit with that?

Vonnegut: You understand, of course, that everything I say is horseshit.

Playboy: Of course.

Vonnegut: Well, we do live our lives simultaneously. That’s a fact. You are here as a child and as an old man. I recently visited a woman who has Hodgkin’s disease. She has somewhere between a few months and a couple years to live, and she told me that she was living her life simultaneously now, living all the moments of it.

Playboy: It seems paradoxical.

Vonnegut: That’s because what I’ve just said to you is horseshit. But it’s a useful, comforting sort of horseshit, you see?

Friday, December 05, 2008

It's not like it's brain science...

Noam Chomsky - “What Next? The Elections, the Economy, and the World”

From Democracy Now (a wonderful resource of resources)

How to Talk to Girls

The Toronto Star had a very amusing article about a 9 y.o. who has written a book that gives advice about how to talk to girls. I think it is amusing for several reasons, the primary one being that he is 9!

The other main reason is that his advice is nearly functionally equivalent to what people 3-6 times his age say and they have supposedly been thinking about these issues and/or much more 'life experience.' Perhaps those who need such advice just need to think a bit more about what they can deduce and infer from their own life experiences and write down some more personally oriented tips.

"Go for a talkative girl if you are shy. Then you only have to say one sentence, and she will do the rest of the talking."

"If you like a girl, comb your hair and don’t wear sweats."

"Girls win most of the arguments and have most of the power. If you know that now, things might be easier."

(and my fav)
Alec, in Manhattan this week with his mom and publicist, says his favourite piece of advice in the book works for much more than dating.
Life is hard, move on.
"It doesn't just apply to girls – it can apply to everything. Like, if you fall down the stairs – life is hard, move on."

Monday, December 01, 2008

Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner

Concisely, meh. The book consists of a description of five minds Gardner believes we will need for the future (The Disciplined mind; Synthesizing mind; Creating mind; Respectful mind; and Ethical mind). Although his quintet is based on some research, the coverage seemed intuitive and based on common sense. Additionally, I didn’t find that there was much I could actually take away and use in my life. People should be more Disciplined and Ethical... okay, good idea *shrug*.

I think this book would be best for educators or managers who actually shape or select the types of minds/people in their environment. I also thought that some of the most important parts – critical windows in youth for increasing acceptance and tolerance – should have received even greater attention.

World AIDS Day

Why does it matter?

AIDS is top killer of 15-44 year-olds in Asia
AIDS has become the top killer of American men aged 25 to 44
AIDS set to become top three killer worldwide
Oxfam Article
South Africa:
South Africans held a 15 minute silence today to observe world AIDS day and to remember the victims of the disease. South Africa has the highest number of people with AIDS in the world and 5.5 million South Africans have AIDS or are HIV positive. Shortly before the silence began, Health Minister Barbara Hogan called on men to get tested, "we encourage all men, I repeat all men, to test themselves for HIV to protect themselves and the people they love".
South Africa has long been criticised by the international community for its position on HIV/ AIDS. Former President Thabo Mbeki denied the link between HIV and AIDS and former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang maintained that it could be treated with beetroot, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil. A recent study by Harvard's School of Public Health said Mr Mbeki's 1999 decision to declare a number of available HIV/AIDS drugs toxic and dangerous led to 330,000 deaths.
The government's attitude has changed dramatically since the ruling African National Congress ousted Mr Mbeki in September and AIDS activists have welcomed Ms Hogan's appointment.