If you love Karen Joy Fowler's books (and you should, because she is a spectacular science fiction writer who has also written some thoroughly mainstream bestsellers), you'll know that there are two Fowlers: there's the mysterious, subtle Fowler of Sarah Canary, a nearly indescribable masterpiece; and there's the accessible, funny, sweet Fowler of The Jane Austen Book Club. But in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, her first novel since 2008, she fuses these two things into a novel that is simultaneously a high-speed antic and an absolutely essential meditation on nothing less than what it means to be a good person.
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BBC Radio 4 has kicked off a new season of the amazing science show The Infinite Monkey Cage, and the second episode of the series is a wonderful panel discussion on consciousness called Through the Doors of Perception. This episode is greatly enhanced by the presence of Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, Lost Girls, From Hell, and many other standout comics. Moore's contributions on the relationship of art and magic to consciousness are the most interesting parts of the show -- though the whole thing is fascinating (Download the MP3).
(Image: Alan Moore, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from mbiddulph's photostream)
Today's XKCD strip, Reassuring, wittily illustrates Kevin Kelly's Seven Stages of Robot Replacement, which start with "1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do" and heads toward "5. OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do."
Be sure you go to the original for the tooltip punchline.
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Alice Bell has a really interesting and challenging essay up that the Guardian talking about apparent contradictions where people tout themselves as being on the side of science with one issue (say, climate change) and are skeptical and not-terribly-accepting of science with other issues (say, GMOs). It's not really something you can boil down to simple hypocrisy
, though, Bell says. To do that, you have to ignore the very basic fact that evidence-based decision-making has to take into account more than just scientific data. Instead, economics, social values, legal considerations, and all sorts of other non-science things have to be considered alongside the science. — Maggie
Shane Nickerson's "11 things it took me 42 years to learn" is damned good advice:
5. Stop comparing your life to others.
Your life has nothing to do with theirs. You imagine their world to be perfect, but it never is. Find your own happiness, be happy for others successes, and fight that envy. It will tear you up and make you hard to be around. Dump your cynicicm, while you’re at it. It’s cheap and simple.
6. Go where life blows you.
So to speak. Let that gentle pushing and pulling you feel each day guide you towards where you belong. Say yes to new things. Be open to exciting experience. Try new foods. Travel. Don’t just hate stuff because it’s easier. Maybe you’d love eel. Or urchin. Or the Insane Clown Posse. You don’t know.
7. Measure your failures as cautiously as you measure your successes.
So you failed. Okay. In the same way you are modest about your successes, be modest about your failures. Don’t linger in them. Think of all the hard learning you did while you worked so hard on something that sucked. Valuable knowledge. That’s how it goes sometimes. On to the next one.
11 things it took me 42 years to learn
(via Wil Wheaton)
Margaret Pabst Battin is a philosopher and right-to-die activist who firmly believes that the concepts of autonomy and mercy demand that we, as a society, allow the sick, the old, and the infirm to decide, for themselves, how and when and where they will die. In 2008, her husband, Brooke Hopkins, barely survived a bicycle accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down, on a pacemaker, and frequently sick. At The New York Times Magazine
, Robin Henig tells the moving, beautiful, and sad story of a couple struggling
in real life with questions that had, previously, been mostly theoretical. At the heart of it is a big, messy question: What happens if you do, sometimes, really want to die ... but the people who love you aren't ready to let go just yet? — Maggie
What a treat! The BBC Radio 4 science show The Infinite Monkey Cage
has started its new season, and the first episode is a corker, asking whether a strawberry is dead, and what is death, anyway? Podcast feed
Here's a great video pondering the objective reality of mathematics, and running down all the different schools of thought on where mathematical truth comes from -- does it exist outside of systems of codification by intelligent beings, as an eternal part of the universe; or is it something that we invent through codification?
Is Math a Feature of the Universe or a Feature of Human Creation? | Idea Channel | PBS
So, here's a new writing nightmare. What do you do if, after your book is published, and the reviews start to come in, it slowly dawns on you that you've accidentally written the wrong book ... a book which you would not actually agree with?
That's how I felt after interviewing Curtis White, author of The Science Delusion — a book that has been widely reviewed as containing some good points, buried under a lot of angry rants and straw men. According to White, however, those reviews have all completely missed what he was trying to do and trying to say.
All the invective? White thought he was just being funny and satirical, like Jonathan Swift. The over-generalizing about what all scientists believe and what the culture of science is like? He thought it was clear that he just meant the subset of scientists who don't think there's any value other than entertainment in art, that philosophy is dead, and that culture has no affect on how we interpret science or what we do with it. The weird, pseudo-Deism? He thought he was explaining that science is part of culture, that the questions being asked and the way answers are interpreted are culturally bound and and we have to take that into account. The humanities triumphalism and points where he totally dismisses science and acts like he doesn't understand why somebody would find meaning in being curious about how the mind works? Not what he meant at all, apparently. He just wants to make the case for us needing both science and the humanities to properly understand the world. And White is deeply confused about why reviews of his book keep getting all of this wrong.
I recently had a chance to interview White — both live and in some email follow-up after the live event — and I've come to the conclusion that I can't properly review this book without including that information. There's just too big a gap, from my perspective, between how the book reads and what White wanted you to take away from it.
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In his book, The Science Delusion, Curtis White criticizes scientists for throwing around the term "beautiful" without really asking what, exactly, makes science beautiful ... or what beauty even means in the context of science. I got to interview White last night, and will be posting the audio from that interview soon. But this is one of the points in the book that I thought was rather unfair. How did White know that this isn't something scientists have thought about? He never really said.
So, I turned to Twitter, asking scientists, science writers, and science fans about what made science beautiful to them. I got a really nice variety of answers and wanted to share some of my favorites — you can read them in this Storify.
Image: VISTA's infrared view of the Orion Nebula, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from esoastronomy's photostream
The Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine has a really interesting essay they've published in full online. It's written by Anna Petroni, a 77-year-old California woman who recently decided against undergoing surgery on her ankles and knees to correct recurrent foot abscesses and arthritis. It's a short, simple piece — just Petroni recounting the story about why she made the decision she made — but serves as a jumping-off point, I think, for several different important discussions about the way we do medicine and the way we make medical decisions.
A couple of things particularly stood out to me. First is the relationships we have with doctors, especially specialists whom we see once or twice and who don't know us very well. Petroni's story suggests that bedside manner is about more than just making somebody feel nice — it can also affect their overall health if the doctor makes decisions related only to their specialty without taking into account the patient's whole story. The second thing I think is really important here is the idea of there often not really being one right answer when it comes to medical decisions. Doctors can say, "we can do this" or "we can fix that", but there's a responsibility on the patient (one we're not usually prepared for or coached through) to decide whether the trade-offs of intervention outweigh the side-effects. And those decisions can vary widely from patient to patient.
I guess I was so shocked when the orthopedist told me I needed to have 4 surgical procedures, I didn't even think about the fact that he did not ask about my cardiac history. But I sure did afterward. I only went in to have my tendons checked. He did not ask how I felt about anything. He just told me what needed to be done.
About a month later, I received a call from the receptionist who asked if I had decided on a date for surgery. I said that I had decided not to go ahead with it. When I feel I can no longer tolerate walking without tendon surgery, I will reconsider my options. Until then, I want to live the best I can with what mobility I have.
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Image: 20090312 - Clint - foot x-ray - left ("good" foot), a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (2.0) image from clintjcl's photostream
There doesn't have to be a pre-ordained meaning to the universe in order for it to mean something. That's one of the fun things about being human — we get to make meaning for ourselves. With that in mind, please read this lovely essay by Brian Switek about finding wonder and joy in the oft-denigrated idea of being "just" a product of time and chance
. — Maggie
Here's a 40-minute video in which Tom Stuart gives a talk summarizing one of the chapters from him new book Understanding Computation, describing the halting state problem and how it relates to bugs, Turing machines, Turing completeness, computability, malware checking for various mobile app stores, and related subjects. The Halting State problem -- which relates to the impossibility of knowing what a program will do with all possible inputs -- is one of the most important and hardest-to-understand ideas in computer science, and Stuart does a fantastic job with it here. You don't need to be a master programmer or a computer science buff to get it, and even if you only absorb 50 percent of it, it's so engagingly presented, and so blazingly relevant to life in the 21st century, that you won't regret it.
At Scottish Ruby Conference 2013 I gave a talk called Impossible Programs, adapted from chapter 8 of Understanding Computation. It’s a talk about programs that are impossible to write in Ruby — it covers undecidability, the halting problem and Rice’s theorem, explained in plain English and illustrated with Ruby code. The slides are available
Another great ramble from the always-fascinating Venkatesh Rao entitled "The Dead-Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal," considers several explanations for our species' curiosity, and asks whether our weird, ubiquitous artificial life-forms (corporations) share this trait, and why:
Alone among the curious animals (though this seems like a conceit that more research might invalidate), we seem to be curious about clearly useless things. Or at least, things that have no obvious and immediate use. Humans seem to frequently poke at things that yield returns, if at all, only generations later. And often in ways unsuspected by those who do the poking.
We stare at the stars, we peer through microscopes, we climb mountains and we dive to the ocean floor.
This behavior, so natural to humans, is incomprehensible to human organizations. So things like space programs or other pure curiosity driven efforts have to be justified by politicians on the basis of “will improve life here on earth through the discovery of new materials and advances in medicine.” This is probably the mother of all idiotic fictions. Fortunately, we don’t seem to require our institutional fictions to be credible. Merely sufficient to stop conversations we don’t want to have.
There is an interesting symmetry here. Organizations naturally try to avoid pain — the pain of business model obsolescence or national decline for instance – through institutionalized “curiosity.” They find joy-seeking unnatural and in need of justification (hence the paradoxical notions of “efficient” innovation with high “yield” or “impact” and the relentless war on waste).
This has even been turned into a depressingly banal formula for innovation: what pain are you seeking to relieve?
For humans the reverse is true. Curiosity driven by pain-aversion is unnatural, but curiosity driven by joy-seeking is natural and requires no further explanation. Efficiency is the last thing on our minds when we are being curious. The concept does not even apply: efficiency pre-supposes a goal. Waste is pain in the efficient pursuit of goals.
The Dead-Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal
Hidden in the tooltip for today's XKCD, a piece of important existential philosophy:
A human is a system for converting dust billions of years ago into dust billions of years from now via a roundabout process which involves checking email a lot.