Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Years Eve Tab Dump!

So I can start the year with a clean browser. So here goes, in no particular order:

Tim Kreider argues that Kim Stanley Robinson is our best political novelist:
Robinson argues that, now that climate change has become a matter of life and death for the species, it’s time for scientists to abandon their scrupulous neutrality and enter into the messy arena of politics. Essentially, Robinson attempts to apply scientific thinking to politics, approaching it less like pure physics, in which one infallible equation / ideology explains and answers everything, than like engineering—a process of what F.D.R. once called “bold, persistent experimentation,” finding out what works and combining successful elements to synthesize something new. He scavenges ideas from the American Constitution, the Swiss confederacy, “the guild socialism of Great Britain, Yugoslavian worker management, Mondragon ownership, Kerala land tenure, and so on” to construct his utopias. The major platform planks these methods lead him to in his books are:
  • common stewardship—not ownership—of the land, water, and air
  • an economic system based on ecological reality
  • divesting central governments of most of their power and diffusing it among local communities
  • the basics of existence, like health care, removed from the cruelties of the free market
  • the application of democratic principles like self-determination and equality in the workplace—which, in practice, means small co-ops instead of vast, hierarchical, exploitative corporations—and,
  • a reverence for the natural world codified into law.
Depending on your own politics, this may sound like millennia-overdue common sense or a bong-fuelled 3 A.M. wish list, but there’s no arguing that to implement it in the real world circa 2013 would be, literally, revolutionary. My own bet would be that either your grandchildren are going to be living by some of these precepts, or else they won’t be living at all.
Cayte Bosler, in an examination of the benefits of awe, quotes Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota explaining the concept:
"The experience of awe is one where you are temporarily off-kilter in terms of your understanding of the world," explains Vohs. "People mostly walk around with a sense of knowing what is going on in the world. They have hypotheses about the way people behave and what might happen; those are pretty air-tight. It is hard to get people to shake from those because that’s just how the brain works. We are always walking around trying to confirm the things we already think. When you are in a state of awe, it puts you off balance and as a consequence, we think people might be ready to learn new things and have some of their assumptions questioned."
What’s really fascinating is that with this shift in understanding comes a profound shift in how we as a society are deciding to respond. There will be no shrugging of the shoulders and tossing around the word “hard-wired” to rationalize women disappointing male expectations of passionate monogamous sex. Instead, as Daniel Bergner writes [in the New York Times], a ton of money is being spent on developing a drug women can take to restore their desire for their husbands. The drug, called Lybrido, is in clinical trials now with the hope of writing an FDA application by the end of the year.…
When people believed that boredom with monogamy was a male trait for women to endure, interest in fixing it was pretty low. Now that we understand boredom with monogamy to be a female trait for men to endure, it’s suddenly a Problem—with possible solutions. Though frustrating, this is ultimately probably a good thing. Since most of us want to be monogamous, it’s about time we took seriously the need to keep it interesting.
The video for Boards of Canada's "Reach for the Dead" off of their amazing (seriously, go buy it right now) Tomorrow's Harvest.

Jack Gilbert's great response to the question "What, other than yourself, is the subject of your poems?"
Those I love. Being. Living my life without being diverted into things that people so often get diverted into. Being alive is so extraordinary I don’t know why people limit it to riches, pride, security—all of those things life is built on. People miss so much because they want money and comfort and pride, a house and a job to pay for the house. And they have to get a car. You can’t see anything from a car. It’s moving too fast. People take vacations. That’s their reward—the vacation. Why not the life? Vacations are second-rate. People deprive themselves of so much of their lives—until it’s too late. Though I understand that often you don’t have a choice.
David Atkins, writing at Hullabaloo, analyzes some of the current libertarian thinking out there about technological advances are leading us and comes to a different conclusion. 
The history of middle class societies that lose their footing in an age of mass inequality and labor destabilization suggests that a more progressive social contract will emerge under the threat of revolution. The other, only slightly less likely possibility is a fascist regime that attempts to lay all the blame on "The Other". A slow, comfortable descent into class-based Social Darwinism seems less likely than either option, though it's certainly possible.
But these are indeed the questions we will be compelled to answer. The fact that we will have to confront this decision one way or another makes it hard to take seriously the massive fights over, say, Obamacare. In 15 years a natural unemployment rate of 15% accompanied by unimaginable devastation due to climate change will necessitate the sorts of programs, solutions and political turmoil that will render most of today's arguments utterly obsolete.
The future will belong to those who prepare public policy for that eventuality, and who work to put politicians in power who are ready to enact that policy when the time comes, and when the demographics of the nation have altered enough to make it possible.
Whatever happens, the libertarian fairy dreams of men like Tyler Cowen must not be allowed to become realities.
Brain Pickings has an excellent "best of the year" post. From that, I found this amazing analysis of how we experience time, mainly based on Claudia Hammond's book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. You really have to read the whole thing, but here's part of the conclusion:
We will never have total control over this extraordinary dimension. Time will warp and confuse and baffle and entertain however much we learn about its capacities. But the more we learn, the more we can shape it to our will and destiny. We can slow it down or speed it up. We can hold on to the past more securely and predict the future more accurately. Mental time-travel is one of the greatest gifts of the mind. It makes us human, and it makes us special.
The Indian supreme court is debating if it should allow compulsory yoga in its secular schools. This could be problematic because, as Mark Movsesian explains:
In traditional understanding, yoga is itself a religious act. The postures themselves lead the practitioner to God, whether the practitioner intends this or not. In traditional understanding, in other words, one can’t separate the religious and secular aspects of yoga and one really shouldn't try. Indeed, some American Hindus object to the way our popular culture treats yoga as a designer gym routine. Much as many American Christians seek to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” the Hindu American Foundation has mounted a campaign to “Take Back Yoga” for the faith.
Personally, while there's an element of spiritualism in most yoga practice that I find interesting, i'm a dilettante in this respect. I certainly don't find the poses in and of themselves to have a higher meaning - to me, it's more the breath and combining that with the poses (i.e., finding a meaningful rhythm of breath and movement) than anything. Plus, as my relative Adam pointed out, there are so many different types of yoga out there it's impossible to lay judgement on the whole field of movements.

In an interesting Tor series exploring the sources that led Gary Gygax to create Dungons and Dragons, an article on HP Lovecraft contained a good summation of the author's appeal:
Lovecraft seems less like a storyteller and more like a historian or an archeologist of the cosmically terrible. He’s in touch with forces beyond our reckoning and he’s conveying that truth to us. That’s the game he’s playing as a writer, but he’s damn good at it.
Words can't express the experience of watching this. Ah, celebrity singers:

Thanks for reading! See you next year.

Book Review: Issac Asimov's "Foundation"

Foundation, the first novel in Issac Asimov’s famous Foundation series, speculates how to use a scientific sociology (here called “psychohistory”) to predict (and control) future events. As with most of Asimov’s writing, the prose is frequently leaden, but this is secondary to the ideas and plot. Indeed, the whole fun of this book is seeing how Hari Seldon’s plans to reduce a coming “galactic dark age” from 30 millenniums down to one plays out on an epic scale. And it is fun seeing Seldon's original hints and insinuations come to fruition, even if I didn't find it as engaging during my second reading. Still, I've read a fair amount of epic “space operas” since Foundation and very few of them stack up to the original. Recommended.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book"

A fun, fairy-tale like YA novel, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is filled with magic, both literally and figuratively: many scenes are constructed such that you truly experience as sense of wonder. Magical books are a cliché, yes, but reading TGB reminded me of the books I loved as a kid, and how the world seemed new and filled with opportunity afterwards. What is magic if not that?

Not surprisingly given its title, the book starts with a murder. A boy’s parents are killed, and the only thing that saves the boy is being adopted by the ghosts and specters of the local graveyard. They raise him as one of their own, and his ongoing education is a fun take on the myths and history of these supernatural creatures.  (It's apparently loosely based on Kipling's The Jungle Book.) In particular, Silas, a vampire that takes the boy – now named Nobody Owens – under his care, is wonderfully depicted in how his fatherly nature and vampiric nature conflict and complement each other. My only criticism is that the story can occasionally feel a bit too pat, but that's probably the result of the genre more than anything, and certainly a minuscule price to pay for this little gem of a book.

Cross Posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Friday, December 20, 2013

Book Review: Margaret Atwood's "MaddAddam"

Ever since I stumbled across an old paperback of Cat’s Eye, I've loved reading Margaret Atwood. Everything that I've read has been well constructed, thought-provoking, and highly entertaining. So I'm a bit surprised to have to report that MaddAddam - the final entry in her Oryx and Crake dystopia - is not the slam dunk I expected it to be.

Don't get me wrong: Parts have the propulsive narrative and interesting ideas that made the previous two books in this trilogy – Oryx and Crake (the best!) and The Year of the Flood - so compelling. But I’d be lying if I didn't say that I thought the characterization of the female characters – especially Toby, such a strong woman in TYotF – to be weak and inconsistent compared to their previous lives. Hell, Toby spends a good part of this book pining for or wallowing in jealousy for a man! In addition, parts of this book are - sadly - boring. This may be to the fact that she's revisiting scenes we've seen before in previous books, but also it's due to her framing devices, in which events are depicted at a distance. This is especially problematic with the climax of the novel, which is told as an afterthought and thus so removed from real-time action that it feels like a dream, and makes its repercussions (which were also blatantly foreshadowed beforehand) seem unreal.

This doesn't mean that the book isn't worth your time! On the contrary, any time spent in Atwood’s O&C world is worth it. It's a place where humanity has come to a horrible end through the efforts of the titular biologists who both design an ideal human being (the “Crakers”) and also unleash the apocalyptic virus via a designer vitality drug. There are so many fascinating and scarily prescient ideas here that exploring them is half the fun. MaddAddam in particular really gets rolling when she starts exploring Zeb’s story, the fascinating tale of this preacher's son who ends up intertwined in the lives of all of the main characters in what lead to the end of humanity.

Overall, though, what I found most interesting about MaddAddam was it's strange combination of hope and rebirth to what had been a relentlessly grim series. (The previous books read like The Road as written by Kurt Vonnegut.) The main arc of this third book is humanity’s efforts to rebuild and reestablish itself, perhaps most importantly with how to define its relationship with the Crakers and the other GMO beings (especially the pigoons: a pig with implanted human stem cells who escaped from their organ-harvesting fate and how are one of the most intelligent post-apocalyptic species).  And while I read the end of the book to be a delightfully snarky and ambivalent take on where all this might end up, overall MaddAddam is an interesting (if uneven) take on what happens the day after the world ends.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Only an Hour

In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much - how little - is within our power

Emily Dickenson