Sunday, July 27, 2008

Nietzsche in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern

It seems that Nietzsche was almost as arrogant as Wittgenstein (see below), but was ‘crazy’ in a different way (and they both had no friends). Strathern describes Nietzsche’s writing as aphoristic and unsystematic. When it is added that he also didn’t support most (any?) of his ideas with evidence, I can more clearly recognize why I dislike his writing style.

Despite his many useful contributions, his notion of “eternal recurrence” makes little sense, the “will to power” still begs the question, and even the “uberman” isn’t exactly what I would hope it to be.

So, once again, Nietzsche – not so pietzsche.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Wittgenstein in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern

Wittgenstein was brilliant, astoundingly arrogant, completely focused on logic, denied the validity of experience and/or metaphysics and most likely suffered from at least one psychological disorder. Apparently, Wittgenstein would work without a break all day and then spend all evening in a hot bath contemplating suicide.

Believing in Logic above all else, he tried to use that to show that things must conform to logic or that they couldn’t really be discussed; and also that because even his reasoning is flawed, philosophy is also flawed, so why bother.

I quite disagree with most of Wittgenstein's beliefs, but this work was useful because I now know that and interesting because I learned of the impact his beliefs.

Aristotle and an Aardvark Go To Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein

A good, cute little book. It succeeds because it makes the teaching of philosophical fallacies (formal and informal) accessible though use of humour and political speaking points. Highly recommended for those who want to learn more, but are fearful of dry writing and content.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Daily Show and Philosophy vy Jason Holt (Ed.)

I enjoyed this book, but not as much as thought I would. There are interesting essays about media analysis and the philosophical relevance of various parts of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. The main problem with the book is that many of the essays were not sufficiently different from the others; this was especially true in the first half. So, while worthwhile overall, I would recommend only reading parts of the first half of the book.

Useful or not, the work did reinforce my belief that Stewart & Colbert are the current high point of intellectual satire.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil

A truly fantastic(al) book that is astounding in both depth, breadth and predictions regarding increasing computational power. The book discusses numerous possible ways of increasing computing power and that leads to coverage of quantum computation, using DNA strands to perform operations, microtubules and using different atoms and molecules and just so many other areas related to computation, hardware and artificial intelligence. It really is quite fascinating (although the technical parts are a bit dry).

The book is fantastical because it describes the impact of the Singularity (when computers have greater processing power than human brains) and an era of nanotechnology dramatically changes nearly everything about how we live. Imagine being a million times smarter; Imagine not having a heart, but using nanobots to circulate the oxygen and nutrients; imagine being able to exist as a pattern of information that can continue in various substrates (only one of which is a physical body); and try to imagine using the Sun as a powerful computer.

So, yes, many seemingly unbelievable predications are made. The process is supposed to start in the 2030s and things will have changed dramatically by the 2050s. I quite like this hypothesis because (hopefully) I’ll actually be able to see if it comes true.

What a fascinating world it would be…

The book is also great because it contains a huge collection of interesting quotations from a diverse range of authors. I thought it was especially interesting to ponder the notion that the last invention we’ll ever have to make is a machine smarter than ourselves.

The two excerpts below don’t do the book justice, but I thought there were interesting enough to share:
“Information is not knowledge. The world is awash in information; it is the role of intelligence to find and act on the salient patterns… Thus intelligence selectively destroys information to create knowledge.”
(Pg. 372)

“The half-life of a microtubule (a protein filament that provides the structure of a neuron) is about ten minutes. The actin filaments in dendrites are replaced about every forty seconds. The proteins that power the synapses are replaced about every hour.”
(Pg. 383)

(and yet you ‘remain’ the ‘same.’)

Common Dreams

I should really check out Common Dreams more often. I thought these worthwhile (at least read the first one)

What is war good for?

Khadr and Harper

News shmews?

Yes, this happens.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Waste of Time (MG)

A very worthwhile post by MG.
An excerpt:
"We are not at war with a religion, only a fool would presume as much, only a fool who hasn’t the wherewithal to actually educate themselves would sit easy on the conclusion that we are currently engaged in a world wide struggle against several billion people that ‘hate us for our freedoms’. Generalizations and fear are terrorism’s most profound productions. That being the case, it would seem that we have been terrorized by voices amongst us as equally as by those zealots that adhere to an entirely warped and politicized religious ideology. There are examples aplenty stretching back through time that provide context with regards to how easy it is to scare the weak minded into the belief that what they fear is actually greater than what it is. That said; many have done a fantastic job of insuring that ignorance remains commonplace so that such distractions can continue to convolute reason. That is not to say that threats do not exist, only that we are just as much a threat to our own way of life than any exterior threat. And those that perpetuate that fear are, in the end, no better than those they condemn, even if violence isn’t their primary tool. Intolerance and ignorance have killed far more people through their complacency in our collective history than any single cabal of individuals. Because without that complacency, their evils would never have succeeded in the first place."

Crime is down, again.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory by Edward J. Larson

An interesting description of the idea of evolution that created two main thoughts: (1) It is fascinating what was discovered when, meaning that if I was born in a different time (or a different country in the present for that matter), I wouldn’t know as much as I do; and (2) People were so wrong! So many great thinkers just had too many (often religious) blinkers.

An Imperfect Offering by James Orbinski & Triage

(Note: about four paragraphs below, I provide a very meaningful excerpt from the book. If you intend on reading the book, I suggest you not read the excerpt)

An Imperfect Offering is a moving description of humanitarianism told through the narrative of James Orbinski’s life experiences. The book covers his initial research in Rwanda in the late 80s while training to be a doctor and then his work with MSF in Somalia, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Zaire, and briefly, North Korea, Kosovo and the Sudan. The work serves as both an illumination of what humanitarianism is, as well as the forces that inhibit its efficacy, both local and geopolitical.

An Imperfect Offering was compelling, disturbing and very informative. It should usefully challenge one’s beliefs about the world in which we live and our behaviours within it. Orbinski’s memoir is highly readable in terms of presentation, a feature that is all the more important considering the difficulty of the subject matter.
Go read this book.

After learning about some of the lives people have (had), it makes me think that nothing bad has every happened to me.

I shall also briefly mention that I saw the documentary Triage: Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma at the NFB several days ago. It was also very moving and educational; the latter even more so for me as I now had places and faces to go along with what I had read in the book. (The doc was filmed last year while he was writing An Imperfect Offering.) Most can spare the 88 minutes more than the time necessary to read his book, so try to see the documentary. Regardless, go watch this film.

(This excerpt is one of the most impactful in the entire book - from pages 226-227)

We were overwhelmed. The dead could not be moved fast enough. The wounded could not easily be carried over the dead bodies to the ER, the operating room or the wards.

I was on my knees on the dirt road beside a patient who lay on a tarp slowly bleeding to death from multiple lacerations. I started and IV line and pushed fluids into her. I examined her carefully, identifying slow bleeders on her head, torso and legs. I quickly tied them off with sutures as I went. Her body trembled. She was conscious and afraid.

A nurse called me to go to the next patient. “Maintenant! Tout de suite, Docteur!” The woman moaned and winced as I stitched. And then her hand reached to tough my forearm. I looked up to her face from the small bleeding artery I was sticking on her chest. She looked at me, and only then did I understand what had happened to her.

She was slightly older than middle aged. She had been raped. Semen mixed with blood clung to her thighs. She had been attacked with machetes, her entire body systematically mutilated. Her ears had been cut off. Her face had been so carefully disfigured that a pattern was obvious in the slashes. Both Achilles tendons had been cut. Both breasts had been sliced off. Her attackers didn’t want to kill her; they wanted her to bleed to death. They knew just how much to cut to make her bleed slowly. She lay on the road, a 1 taped to her forehead, and now we were looking at each other.

“Je m’excuse, je m’excuse,” I said, apologizing for the pain my pinching forceps gave her. She blinked once, slowly, to let a wave of pain pass. She held my forearm. I felt a wave of nausea as I looked again at the pattern someone had cut in her face. I turned from her and vomited for the first and only time during the genocide.

She waited as I spit out what was left of the bile in my mouth. Then she touched my forearm again. I looked into her brown eyes. “Ummera.” I wasn’t sure if she was saying it to herself, but then she continued. “Ummera-sha.” Sha, I thought, it means friend. She was speaking to me. “Ummera, ummera-sha,” she repeated. I tied the bleeding arteries where her breasts had been. The nurses were calling again, “Docteur, le prochain, le prochain! Vite, Docteur!”

The woman was one among many, among hundreds. She knew there were so many more. Again she reached to touch my forearm. She didn’t hold it this time. She nodded, looking at me. “Allez, Allez… Ummera, ummera-sha,” she said in a slow whisper. “Go, go. Courage, courage, my friend.” It was the clearest voice I have ever heard.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

China 'is fuelling war in Darfur'

BBC report here.
I guess the Chinese are trying to be like the French in Rwanda (or the Americans in...)

oh, and, of course.

Friday, July 11, 2008

David Sedaris is a nice man

A friend and I went to a reading/book signing last night. He said he would sign everyone's book, no matter what. Further, he would spend a few minutes chatting with each person. It left quite the good impression. I'm also amused that when I think about this post, especially the title, I have his voice/cadence in my head.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Hero Destroyed

This article reminds those who support military action to take into account all the costs of such endeavors.
From the Soldier's mother: "He wasn't Joseph any more. Joseph never came home."

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

This collection of 22 autobiographical essays is entertaining, humourous and interesting. Compared to his recent When You Are Engulfed in Flames, I'd have to say I enjoyed Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim more, likely because the stories were a bit more personal as well as brought me greater amusement.

Lions for Lambs

I highly recommend this poignant film about terrorism, security, social justice and engagement. A rarity in movies for mass audiences, Lions for Lambs actually provided depth and various perspectives on complicated issues.
I would also recommend Charlie Wilson's War and Rendition, but I believe Lions for Lambs was superior to both of them.
Go watch it.

Monday, July 07, 2008

G8 Domination - Africa vs. Rising Costs?

BBC Headline: Rising costs dominate G8 summit

CBC Headline: Africa dominates early G8 talks

Hmmm, which is it? Well, both articles are referring to events that haven't fully happened yet, but are on the agenda for the day. Obviously, the issues are not exclusive (Africa has rising costs as anywhere else), but the point was to illustrate ways of framing an article.; Headlines are important because most don't read the full article.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

It's Not News, It's Fark by Drew Curtis

A useful and accessible examination and critique of the reporting patterns of Mass Media. Excellent for the lay-person that is curious about challenging what they read in the news.

Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut

A great work replete with classic Vonnegut witticisms, satire and emotionally powerful parables. Go read it.

Example: During the depression black people were heard to say, "Things are so bad, white folks have to raise their own kids."

And after he asked his son what is the point of life: "We're here to get through this thing, whatever it is."

Brain Droppings and When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops by George Carlin

Brain Droppings
Initially I was put off because his ideological bent is almost the opposite of mine (He seems to be somewhere between nihilism and apathy).

Lots of swearing, his coverage of ‘stuff’ was very entertaining (I would normally have added ‘insightful,’ but I do wonder what his purpose is in pointing out absurdities if he doesn’t care about changing anything, perhaps just to make money? Normally, I'd assume a comedian is jsut kidding, but he was pretty definitive.)

His coverage news biases and the first human sacrifice was pretty good and funny; the history stuff was only okay.
Carlin also provided interesting and amusing coverage of various words/phrases and etymology while resisting their common usage (ex: irony, sour grapes, forte, kudos, cop out, and various superfluous modifiers, wrong place/time, bat out of hell, elected dog catcher, oldest trick in the book, unidentified person, pin drop, )

Two for the road:
-If a painting forgery is good enough to fool experts, why is the original worth so much?
-Beethoven was so deaf, he thought he was a painter. (hiyoooooo)

When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?
Shorter, amusing but less funny than Brain Droppings with many similar themes. He actually contradicts some of his pedantry as he decries common usage of words, but also refutes secondary dictionary definitions. *That’s even worse than me:P

When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris

An intermittently humourous, mostly entertaining collection of essays concerning banal adventures in Sedaris’ life which contain numerous interesting, sometimes poignant observations and descriptions of personal feelings to which many will relate.

Musicophilia by Oliver Sachs

An informative and interesting tour through the world of neuroscience case-studies focusing on musical issues. For those with greater background knowledge, it will still be informative (i.e., oh, I remember that) and interesting, but less so.

As with many neuroscience/psychology, Musicophilia highlights how our abilities depend upon the proper functioning of our brain – a useful reminder because it is so easy to forget.

One of the overall messages was described by the author in chapter 7:
“…that what one calls musicality comprises a great range of skills and receptivities, from the most elementary perceptions of pitch and tempo, to the highest aspects of musical intelligence and sensibility, and that, in principle, all of these are dissociable, one from another...”

Violent Globalisms by Cornelia Beyer

A useful international relations work examining US foreign policy and its relation to terrorism (and the reverberations of aggression).

“[T]he United States acts the way it does because it embraces a Realist understanding of the conflict itself. Terrorism is not understood as a crime (as for example the EU understands it), but as war. This refers to a general understanding of the setting as one of anarchy. In anarchy there can be no crime that could be legally punished and thus dealt with within a structured framework. Within anarchy any aggression is war and the defence against it can only be the same.”
(p. 108)

Beyer also provides a brief and useful analysis of game theory’s prisoner dilemma as it relates to two countries trying to choose between violence or cooperation. Once one country chooses violence, successful strategies (tit-for-tat) indicate you should respond in kind, and thus there is counter-violence. The following is quoted but edited for understanding: Under purely rational conditions, this counter-violence would be answered with cooperation from the initial aggressor to get back to the most efficient way of interaction: cooperation (as cooperation is the most successful strategy for both parties). However, if the actor who has started to use violence, interprets the violent response as an action and not as a response, then he will in turn react with violence and the circle of violence is started. Endless repetitions of violent interaction follow. The only logical end to this circle of violence would be that the actor who has started violence would abstain from responding to counter-violence.

The last line is key, both because of its logic and its practical unattainability.

Plato in 90 minutes by Paul Strathern

Great little primer on Plato with information on his life, ideas and historical context of both.
'Plato' was actually his stage name when he was a wrestler.