Monday, February 24, 2014

Island of Doctor Moreau

Island of Doctor Moreau follows the typical 19th century "found manuscript" adventure narrative. After a shipwreck, a man ends up on a mysterious island. He writes down his story. His relatives later publish it. In the time, however, the island has reverted back to its "natural" state, so we have no way of knowing if it actually happened.

Island is a "cautionary tale". However, it may caution against a number of different things. On one level it is warning against the vivisection and too much biological research. Trying to reason away from pain and suffering does not make it go away. On another level it talks about society at large. A society can quickly degenerate from a fairly advanced state to a beastial state of nature. It also warns against GMO and bioengineering (long before those become common words.) Do we know the costs of things that changes we make? Finally it warns against fragility of charasmatic leaders. If some bit of that leadership falls, the whole society can go away.

There are lots of things you can read into it. And based on Wells writing, he probably ha even more meanings. However, it is also an entertaining late-19th century pulp adventure that can simple be enjoyed.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Farewell, Summer

This was Bradbury's "farewell" novel. A bunch of boys growing up in Illinois don't want to grow up. They are waging "war" on the old people. They eventually come to the conclusion that "time" embodied by the town clock is the enemy.

The boys hang out in the ravine near their houses and participate in their "war", forsaking some junk food and eventually stealing chess pieces. One boy's grandpa eventually talks some sense into them, and they return the pieces.

The boys are gradually growing up and their "war" days are coming to an end. They decide to visit a haunted house. Most of the boys are scared. However, one boy stays and meets a girl there. She plants a kiss on him. After that, there seems to him to be an explosion of girls everywhere in the city. He later goes to talk to his main "enemy", an old bachelor. They have a nice conversation, and start to explore some of the big questions of life.

The boys also go to a display of the origins of life. They freak out when they see one display looks like a dead fetus. It then dawns on them that the previous displays may also be "human" and not jellyfish.

This was originally part of Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. However, it was cut off and published much later in life. It shows the relationship between the old and the young. Bradbury even mentions that he would love to sit back and listen to everything that the the seniors would have to say about life. The story presents a tale of "growing up." Everyone is growing. The fetus display showed initial growth. The boys are gradually maturing. Even the old man must come to terms with his life and decide to make friends. Life is about growth and change.

The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us

The Invisible Gorilla is based on the popular "gorilla" experiment. People were asked to count passes in a video of basketball players. In the middle of the video a person in a gorilla suit walks across the screen, and even stares at the screen and does a chest beating. Surprisingly, half the people that watched the video did not notice the gorilla.

The book builds on this to narrate some of the ways that our minds fool us. Many additional anecdotes are given to further illustrate the gorilla principle. A submarine captain looked out at a periscope before surfacing, however, he did not see the large Japanese fishing vessel sitting there. A cop ran right by another cop getting beaten, but claims not to have seen him. Drivers often claim not to see motorcyclists despite starting directly at them. In these cases, the people may have actually stared directly at the event in question. However, their brain never processed these "unusual" events.

There are other areas where are assumptions of memory deceive us. In criminal cases, we give a lot of credit to eye-witnesses. However, these accounts can be very inaccurate. Our brains are built to process some known stimuli. We are not accustomed to look for things we are not expecting. Even a few minutes after an unusual event, we may recall them differently. We also assume people are lying when they seem to recall things differently. However, it is often just the memory being its innacurate self. (An anecdote was given on the Bobby Knight joking incident. The two parties had very different stories of the incident. The coach had done somewhat similar things many times before and did not think much of it. It was just a minor push. The player had not experienced it before and feared for his life in the intense choking. When the video was shown, the actual story was somewhere in between. However, still agreed with their "memory")

Doctors are trained to look for particular irregularities. Part of their skill is in filtering out abnormalities that are not important. This skill can often lead them to ignore unusual irregularities (such as a guiding wire that has never been removed.)

Alas, people often think they are better at doing things than they actually are. Drivers never get in accidents and thus feel confident. They feel they are skilled enough to talk on a cell phone while driving. However, studies have shown that this is more dangerous than driving while drunk. Drivers feel confident because they can easily carry out basic driving tasks. However, in a distracted state, they are unable to respond well to unusual situations. Since these unusual situations are rare, the drivers get a false sense of security. However, incredibly bad things could when a rare event would occur. (In spite of what phone companies would like you to believe, it is the act of talking on a cell phone that is the problem, not holding a phone. Talking with a passenger does not create the same problem, in part because the passenger shares the same physical environment. They can adjust the conversation in more challenging driving conditions. They also tend to be easier to understand than somebody speaking through a phone.)

There are other areas where people's intuition often leads them down the wrong path. People will often prefer a confident person over somebody with more expertise (but less confidence.) People are less likely to trust a doctor who consults a reference book - even though this is likely to improve their level of care. (People even tend to trust a doctor in a lab coat more than one without.) People also often falsely link causation with temporal relation. Signs of autism typically start to be manifest at the same age when children get measles vaccinations. This lead many to assume that vaccinations caused autism. (Even though there was not even a significant correlation between the two.) People can also employ selective memory, associating a particular substance or activity with improved well being (even ignoring cases of improved well-being without the "cure").

Laws can be especially prone to bad "intuition." (For example, we get hands-free cell-phone laws because it "seems" obvious that the act of holding a phone to one's ears is what makes driving while phoning bad. It seems that driving while talking is not a problem, even though it is. Some laws are often seen as beneficial if the desired results are produced. However, the results may have been produced otherwise. On the Simpsons, Springfield had no bear sightings after an expensive bear patrol was put in place. However, they wouldn't have had them if one wasn't in place.)

Memories themselves can be inaccurate. We may honestly conflate different memories from the pass. We could even honestly adopt other people's memories as our own without even realizing it. Even "flashbulb memories" (such as "Where were you on 9/11) change over time. We may think we remember something accurately, but if we write it down at long intervals, we may find different memories. Our mind tends to be selective in what it remembers. In one experiment, somebody stopped subjects for directions. Some workers then walked with a large object between the subject and the direction-asker. While this was occurring, the asker was replaced with a different person. Most subjects kept right on going without realizing there was a change.

People also tend to look for the miracle cure or the easy solution. However, this can lead to a failure to ask why. One study showed a relationship between listening to mozart and increased cognitive ability. The press ran with this, and companies sprouted up, even providing classical music to babies in the womb. However, the studies were done only with adults, without even any thought given to infants. Furthermore, other studies showed that listening to popular musical helped as well or better than classical music. It wasn't so much the music as the active relaxation. But alas, that is not as popular as a "quick fix."

There are many examples given of cases where intuition fails. People tend to overestimate their mental abilities and their memory. At times, this intuition apparently leads to success, further giving confidence in the ability. However, it can also lead to massive failure. The book stresses the importance of controlled experiments as the gold standard for accurate results. It does not dismiss intuition outright. It can at times be a useful tool. Instead it stresses the importance of knowing the limitations. Miracle cures are a rarity. What works for one company may not work for another. By acknowledging our weaknesses, we can minimize risk and use our intuition for our maximum benefit.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Faust Part 2

In Faust Part 1, Goethe stuck pretty closely to the Faust legend. In Part 2, he goes off the deep end.

The story delves heavily into Greek mythology. Faust even gains Helen of Troy. The language (even in translation) shows a great, well thought out complexity. I could see it as an elaborate science fiction movie driven by powerful music and impressive imagery. However, even there, I probably would not have a clue as to what was happening.

The librivox recording has generally well done vocals. However, the "choruses" are horrid. It seems obvious that the different members recorded their lines separately. When combined, the different speeds of speech make it quite difficult to understand the words. However, even when I did understand most of the other words, I had trouble understanding the story. Faust 2 is supposedly a very difficult work in its native German. An English translation does not make it easier.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Eighth-Grade History Class Visits the Hebrew Home for the Aging

Harry Turtledove's short story is available online at TOR:

I had previously read one of Turtledove's novels and was not impressed. However, this short story was quite well done.

We get the account of an eighth-grade class that visits Anne Berkowitz in a retirement home. Anne was a Jew living in the Netherlands during World War II. We hear her account of the atrocities of the time and how they made it through. As the story unfolds, we gradually realize that this is Anne Frank. However, in this history she lived. After the war ended she destroyed her diary so she wouldn't have to relive some of the memories. However, the students can hear her first hand accounts.

The story does a good job of gradually unfolding the story, letting the reader realize on their own who this "Anne" is. It raises some interesting questions. Anne Frank died in a concentration camp. However, she is well known today because of her diary. However, if she had lived, she would have likely lived a very anonymous life as an unknown holocaust survivor.


People of the world have transformed into gluttons. They are getting fatter and finding themselves more and more in debt. (Part of this may be due to centuries of "scarcity" that have left man hard-wired to accumulate everything he can.) This seems like an individual problem, right?

Well, in Boomerang, Michael Lewis shows that the same problems appear in government. He rights in a fast paced anecdotal narrative style that helps bring home the issue he "accidentally" discovered. Governments themselves are over-leveraging themselves. They are using debt to provide an increasing numbers of services This leaves them susceptible to massive failures.

The book presents case studies of some of the biggest government economic collapses. They seem to have occurred for a number of different reasons, though all seem to come back to the "money for nothing."

The graft bubble: Greece collapsed under a huge volume of debt. It has a huge public sector that is significantly overpaid. People in the private sector (and in general for that matter) feel it is their civic duty to cheat on taxes. Thus income is low, while expenses are ridiculously high. The public sector tends to be very inefficient. (An anecdote is that it would be cheaper to just pay for everybody's taxi fare than to run the Greek railroad.) Workers can also retire early. Is it a wonder this system lasted as long as it did?

The banking bubble: Iceland had a different type of failure. The country was for the most part well run. However, the Icelandic people discovered investment banking. The banking sector sprouted overnight and led to a run up of the currency. People discovered that they could borrow foreign currency and thus get things for cheap as the Icelandic crown appreciated against the foreign currency. Alas, the run up was built on a large number of not-well-researched investments in the banking sector. When the banks collapsed, they brought down the currency with it.

The property bubble: Ireland also had a banking collapse. However, there banks were primarily investing in development of Irish real estate. The loans were given out liberally. Real Estate prices were skyrocketing upwards. Jobs were plentiful and people felt rich. Then they realized that supply outstripped demand. Everything dried up at once. The government stepped in to bailout the banks. And the country continued to inch along.

He also provides cases in the United States. Vallejo California declared bankruptcy. The salaries of police and fireman overwhelmed the budget. (While the workers probably appreciated the generous pay, they also felt disillusioned with the union for taking things to extreme. They would almost rather see a stable city with more officers at slightly less pay.)

Vellejo's problems are symptomatic of California and the United States. Arnold Schwarzenegger was voted in as governor with a mandate to fix California's mess. However, his proposals floundered in the legislature. When he put them directly to the people, they were voted down again. People love getting as many services as possible, but don't want to pay for them. Thus, they have an income tax that depends heavily on high taxes on the very rich. (If the hollywood movie stars and silicon valley billionaires decide to take a hike, the state is pretty much dead.) Employee pensions consume a huge amount of the budget. Generous welfare policies are in place. The state has even been required to spend huge amounts of money to improve the condition of the prisons. (The same prisons where prison guards can make an easy fortune.)

The strange budgeting leaves cities like San Jose with brand new libraries - but no money for books or staff.

The United States itself seems to be living on borrowed time. The government is dysfunctional and debt is piling up. New benefits are being added, but the revenue to support them are lagging. Should the government collapse, a lot of the world economy will go down with it. Could we be in the stage before the new dark ages?

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Quest: The Historian's Search for Jesus and Muhammad

These lectures attempt to access the historical facts about two most well known religious figures in the world. While many religious teachings are known, very little is known of their actual lives.

He speaks extemporaneously, with only a page of notes. (This makes for a much better listening experience than a professor that simply reads his notes.) He sprinkles in interesting tidbits. (Muhammad is a common name in the Islamic world. However, Jesus is only common in Spain - probably in response to the common usage of Muhammad by the Muslim occupiers.)

He also is important to differentiate between Faith and History. Faith supplies answers. History asks questions (though not necessarily the same ones answered by faith.)

The lectures focus entirely on the history. The big miracles are left for faith. (Historians simply can't explain them.) The attempt is made to put these figures in their religious context. It is somewhat easier to study the roots of Christianity because he lived in a more literate society with additional contemporary accounts available. Less is known about Mohammad's society, in part because it was less literate and more nomadic. The Arab academic and political culture is also different, making detailed studies of the Koran more difficult to carry out. Academic study of the works is also often carried out be people with some degree of vested interest (usually as adherents to the faith, but sometimes as opponents.)

We have no surviving texts written by either Jesus or Mohammad. However, we do have sacred records written by their followers, as well as additional accounts. Historians seek to analyze the source and veracity of these. There records were written by men and can be reasonably evaluated from the scholarly perspective. Scholars also attempt to identify original source from which our current sources have been derived. (For instance, both Matthew and Luke appear to derive work from a common set of "sayings of Jesus". Scholars believe this was an original source available at the day that we no longer have.) An attempt is made to find the original and to identify motives for creations of the current text that we have.

In the end, we get a better understanding of the climate in which these two major religions sprouted. However, there are still a number of questions related to the early history and canonization of scripture. Scholarship can make some highly educated guesses. However, the lack of ancient details available still leaves many holes in obtaining a true understanding. Much is still left to faith.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Voice from the Edge, Vol. 2: Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral

The stories in this collection range from "hard" science fiction, to mob revenge tales. He takes some interesting twists on common speculative fiction topics.

One story is about an alien ship lands in time square. We learn about it through the point of few of a Carny who is trying to think of ways to make a buck. He thinks this is the greatest thing, and uses his connections to get close. Eventually, the aliens start to put on a regular "performance." He sells snacks, provides comfortable seating and produces programs. He does everything people need to feel "comfortable" with the performance. In the twist at the end, the aliens cease to become starving artists.

One story has a mafiosa extract revenge for his sister's death by drawing blood on his enemy then letting rats have him. Ugghh. That does not sound comfortable.

We also get Atlantis being under the sea and being Mars, but not the Mars that we know. Sure. Sounds like an interesting conjecture, but stretches things just a wee too much.

A few stories get some commentary. Alas, these were some of my least favorite stories.

There is some good writing here, spanning a few different genres. However, it does get a little dark, and never quite becomes "great".

The Future of Us

A girl (Emma) in 1996 gets a new computer. Josh, her next-door neighbor friend brings over an AOL CD and they go on the internet. However, instead of the AOL of that day, they end up seeing her facebook page - 15 years in the future. Every small thing they do can impact their future.

In spite of all the changes she makes, Emma still finds herself in rotten relationships in the future. She attempts to "change" her life to avoid one loser husband or situation, but then simply ends up with another one that is bad in a different way.

Josh, on the other hand, is shown to be married to one of the super-hot girls at school who was thought to be way out of his league. His changes seem to change some of the details of their life together (number of kids, vacation spots, etc.) However, they seem to remain together. With this knowledge in the background, he actually speaks up to defend her in one of their classes. This leads to them actually going out together.

I was hoping that Josh would actually stay with his "future bride". It would make a great story of a boy overcoming his feelings of inferiority to reach his dream situation. The prodding of the future event helps him to accomplish what he may have otherwise thought was impossible.

However, this is a teen book, more likely targeted towards the female audience. So, Josh has to end up with Emma at the end. Sigh. Sappy and not quite as interesting. However, this doesn't happen until the very end. Skip the last chapter and you can picture this better type of ending.

The ending we get is Emma realizing that she must live in the day, rather than trying to needlessly try to optimize some imagined future. The depressed her of the future eventually exits facebook altogether, leaving the her of the present to go on with her life. Some of their friends bring Josh and Emma together to have fun. They realize that they are really meant for each other. (The end of their "relationship" 6 months ago was a mistake. They have had the friendship thing down since grade school. The relationship thing will work out with some more work.)

The concept reminds me of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. If you know a little about the future, that may give you the strength to do what you need to do to make it happen. The book also did a nice job of capturing the spirit of the mid 90s and contrasting that with today. It was a fun read, in spite of the sappy ending.

Monday, February 03, 2014

The People's Dynasty: Culture and Society in Modern China

Professor Shepard does a great job of helping us understand the China of today. We does a great job of explaining the seeming paradox of rampant commercialization of a communist country. Digging below the surface, it is not that great of a paradox after all. Chinese are free to do pretty much everything they want - as long as they don't criticize the government. The one party structure is also not that different than the government in other Asian countries. Singapore has achieved huge economic success under a benevolent dictator. Japan developed under a one-party leadership. The one party system in China is not all that different.

The discussion of tourism in China helped to understand what I have seen there. Most tourist sites are filled with tour buses and many tour groups. Even the "nature" sites are overdeveloped, with many amenities and people. This is explained as a desire to visit important sites of cultural importance. The site is the important in its historical context. It is experienced collectively rather than individually.

It was also interesting to learn about the "other side" of China. In daily life, I've mostly seen the urban middle class. However, in the train station, I noticed another side of China. These included more of the lower classes and migrants. I can now see better how these classes are more severely impacted by change. The promise of communism and cradle to grave protections and benefits would have been a better situation than the hustle and bustle they are currently in. The previous peasant way of life was swept out from under there feet with a lot of hard work in its place. The high speed rail system simply makes it more expensive for them to travel back home. (As opposed to providing an alternative to flying for the middle classes.)

Another interesting discussion was on the difference between a post-car and pre-car society. The story was told of an American teacher in China who complemented the Chinese for riding their bikes everywhere in all kinds of weather. The students' response was that they didn't have an option. (A mere 25 years ago, cars were few and far between in China.) They would much rather be like in America where they didn't have to. Fast forward a few decades and cars and traffic jams are everywhere in China's big cities. The government is trying to encourage people to not drive so much. They are also undergoing massive efforts to build out subways, high speed rail and other transportation systems. I have known people in China who switched from driving to work to taking public transit - with one of the primary rationales being to increase health (by walking to stops, instead of driving everywhere.) China may really well be learning from the case of the US, and encouraging the switch to post-car society before the auto culture gets too firmly in place.