Tag Archives: science

Bruce Sterling’s ‘The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things’

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This long essay from probably the most acutely insightful futurists of maybe even a couple of generations is completely a steal at $4. Get it on Amazon, like, fucking yesterday.

So the Internet of Things is not a coup d’état, it’s not Orwellian totalitarianism at work. However, it’s definitely about power, and also wealth and fame. Making your refrigerator talk to your toaster is a senseless trick that any competent hacker can achieve today for twenty bucks. It is trivial, but the Internet of Things is epic. It will entail a struggle — not for the Internet of Things, or against it — but inside, as it both grows and fails.

Review: ‘The Happy Atheist’, by PZ Myers

The Happy AtheistThe Happy Atheist by P.Z. Myers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

While it admittedly sounds harsher than I really intend, what I want to say about this book is that I don’t have much to say at all, because neither does PZ Myers. By this I don’t mean at all that he is unintelligent or inarticulate in his criticisms and observations; he is obviously both of these things and has a relatively commensurate following in the skeptical community. Arguably worse, this book largely commits the cardinal sin that the late and indelible Christopher Hitchens warned against above all others: this book is boring. ‘Chapter’ (edited blog post) after ‘chapter’, the same metaphor kept struggling to take shape in my mind — something about low-hanging fruit that wasn’t quite right, but more something along the lines of PZ Meyers wandering alone in the fruit orchard that has been picked clean. He’s not looking for a new orchard, or planting new trees, so to speak.

Every single criticism here is well worn, every argument is an argument rehashed, every snarky aside not only a second act but a second act that can’t live up to the first. I honestly cannot locate one point raised here that is either original or at least an entertaining and engaging re-interaction with a point familiar to Myers’ audience. Anyone remotely familiar with the work of the New Atheists will feel, probably, both bored and shorted, page by page. Missing both depth and any rich rhetorical work, it just feels like a hollow collection of prose. Revisit Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, Krauss, Stenger, et al, and feel assured you’ll find the same ground and find it better guided. It’s not that Myers is wrong or bearing any great argumentative faults, and I’d argue if he were it’d actually make for a more worthwhile book. But it seems that Myers shies away from anything but the most superficial and cozily familiar ground, doesn’t seem to want to step more than a couple feet into the more challenging terrain. His writing and personality have never struck me as terribly lazy or insecure, so I’m at a loss to explain this. I’d like to see someone of Myers’ intellect and at least affected confidence put more skin in the game and dig a little deeper. It’s certainly telling that I am about as deep in his targeted audience as one could be and I couldn’t force myself to finish the last 1/4 of the book out of sheer disinterest.

‘The Happy Atheist’ is like a third-rate cover band; loving the original only makes you all the more disappointed, and you wish the frontman would apply himself a bit more.

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Review: ‘Finding Kansas’, by Aaron Likens

Finding Kansas: Decoding the Enigma of Asperger's SyndromeFinding Kansas: Decoding the Enigma of Asperger’s Syndrome by Aaron Likens
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A very accessibly-written account and it maintains a certain charm for a necessarily personal tale by way of never failing to feel very genuine in the emotions expressed.

The foundation of my disappointment in the book, however, is that it’s largely dull and at least to this reader, lacking in the echelon and depth of insight attributed to it in its introduction and publisher’s praise. Accessible writing need not be amateurish–this isn’t to say the book is badly written per se, but it’s indeed a collection of informal, personal essays and it never lets you forget that. Small yet frequent stylistic tics toward the insecure and repetitive statement become increasingly taxing as the book wears on.

But I’d be ready to forgive the mediocre writing if the book paid off in its chief promise: to ‘unlock’ what it is to experience AS/ASD to those outside of the condition. To me it simply failed in this regard, with a notable exception I’m more than happy to mention.

First, I’m ready to admit my own bias here–from my own life experience and what I’ve passingly read about autism / AS / ASD, it looks to genuinely be one of the most over-diagnosed conditions on offer, rivaling ADD. A very recent report in America shows the diagnosis rate skyrocketing due, in the opinion of several citations in the report, to an ever-broadening scope of diagnostic criteria–to the degree that within roughly the next two years, the diagnostic criteria is being overhauled. Considering over-diagnosis and the boringly, emphatically annoying American tendency to both seek out labels and uniqueness (particularly by parents for their children) and the way in which diagnosis of such conditions can be tempting explanations for various idiosyncrasies–i.e., shortcuts to understanding and empathy without doing the heavy lifting or worrying something more troubling is at work–so much of this grows tiresome. Thinking on the notion that normalcy in most regards is a myth, don’t we all fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, almost all of us well short of the ‘healthy’ extreme? If so, what’s to truly unlock? Is it so mysterious?

Much of the book felt this way to me. With some jarring exceptions (I’m getting there, I promise) the vast majority of this book felt exceedingly normal to me. An intelligent kid that feels more comfortable talking to adults than this peers, is socially awkward, gets bored by mundane teenage jobs, and has trouble getting over his first loves. There’s no rich, unique, compelling, insightful, nuanced experience here at all. If you want to sell a compelling book using such commonplace material, you’d better be leaning heavily on some other aspect of the writing to be very charged, and Likens doesn’t pass either, here.

All of this is coming around to the point that I’m not saying nor have I ever thought autism / et al. to be a myth — over-diagnosed doesn’t mean the condition isn’t legitimately expressed in some patients. I think AS is a very real and very excruciatingly strange experience to behold, and I absolutely believe Likens himself is a very genuine victim to it. The depth of the lack of empathy Likens expresses seems staggering at its most acute, and I wish he had whatever we might say is missing from the writing here to explore that depth in a more profound and vivid manner. He does hit on such elements, but only in passing. His discourse on the way ‘first’ may work in ASDs to frame future impressions and encounters was interesting, and the reaction of professionals and ASD sufferers to this concept might prove illuminating, I’d be glad if it did considering the way this portion of the book stands out in relation to the rest.

We also cannot forget the titular theme of the book, which is Likens’ own exploration of the comfort zone he discovered for himself early on in life in the form of observing and taking part in auto racing. There doesn’t seem to be terribly much here that is revelatory to the ASD experience at large, but it remains an intriguing area to experience by proxy. Likens does some fulfilling work here exploring the very tangible ways that systems of closure and restriction work to liberate himself and many others on the autism spectrum. It indeed seems to speak to the root mechanic of the disorder which is, simply and broadly considered, being overwhelmed by choice in complex situations. No surprise that social situations are almost always emphasized in regards to AS, as the nuanced and complex variables of human interaction have always been one of the fundamental mazes of the human experience. I enjoyed Likens’ discussion of the ways in which game systems work incredibly well in this regard.

Overall, there are aspects of this book that undeniably shed light on the very intimate struggles of the true ASD experience, but these moments felt disappointingly like diamonds in the rough. A stern editor’s touch, I feel, would’ve slimmed the present material (and associated stylistic crutches, most notably the constant, needless repetition) far enough back to demand a more complicated contemplation on some of the book’s more intriguing moments. It promises to unlock the door but only offers a glimpse through the keyhole.

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Review: ‘Free Will’, by Sam Harris

Free WillFree Will by Sam Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Following in typical Sam-Harris fashion, ‘Free Will’ is a brilliant, concise treatise on the illusory nature of what he carefully regards as the popular conception of human free will. This is a necessary and meaningful distinction that Harris correctly never tires of making, considering some of the philosophical quagmire on offer if one struggles too long and mightily (and, Harris deftly but humbly shows, needlessly).

One can safely lay down the accolades I have above but also not risk pressing the point to say this long essay (or mini-book? I’ve yet to settle on what exactly to call these non-fiction novellas) is brilliantly concise, which is to say Harris manages a pared-down articulation that includes impressive and pointed arguments against his own position–something he’s never been gun-shy about–and manages to rebut them with what always felt like, at least to this reader, a respectful and appropriate amount of consideration while still avoiding the trappings of quicksand.

Harris is also found to be keeping the emphasis chiefly on what holding his position dictates in a broad, complex, contentious arena of moral, intellectual, and biological quandaries. Harris’ background as a neuroscientist is truly the gem of this essay; his insights specifically about the dual mechanism of the conscious and unconscious mind gave me frequent moments of pause and were occasionally nothing less than staggering. Harris illustrates that scientific proof as well as the evidence available to any honest, introspective person can reveal how beholden we are to our unconscious, which is to say to factors that are of course ‘us’ in any reasonable sense yet remain completely outside of our control. He shows that while we are able to some extent to control the frameworks and factors fed into both sides of our mind, the impact and result of those variables on what bubbles up from our unconscious–resulting in the apparently ‘free’ realm of choices available to us consciously–is, occasionally, frighteningly narrow. How free are we in the most mundane of choices? How free are we in a storm of the most important?

Without ever succumbing to the pitfalls of guru-esque language or a right-back-where-we-started conclusion, Harris explores how limited we really are, particularly in a culture that so values individualism and freedom, and how the constraints that are realized after shrugging off the illusion of true free will can be legitimately liberating.

Philosophers of many stripes will probably be able to satisfy themselves and easy fall-backs in the cradle of determinism, but Harris shows here that missing the broader conception of free will–missing the bigger picture–is an unnecessary and fruitless step in this particular discourse. More compelling (and, I feel, obviously, more legitimate at this stage) are the new questions this grasp of an illusory free will present: what does this conception then mean for an individual’s sense of self, feelings of one’s desires and goals, one’s failures and successes? what does this conception mean for an American culture and justice system with often crudely-guised emphases on retribution rather than rehabilitation and protection of the innocent?

The questions go on, and once again I feel satisfied that Harris has not concluded this bit of discourse with a restful, self-satisfied arrogance or closure–he’s offering more questions than he’s claimed to have answered, and that’s always a good choice.

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