11.30.12

“Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?”

Posted in Reviews at 17:08 by RjZ

I just finished  Robert Heinlein’s 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I was bound to like it as it’s warmly embraced by the individualists and libertarians, even winning a Prometheus Award. (Did you even know there were awards given to science fiction books that include libertarian themes?) Heinlein, for those who don’t know the so-called Dean of Science Fiction was a well respected author in a genre that isn’t always all that well respected.

Mostly, I read three kinds of books. Non-fiction books, ‘fine’ literature (or least somebody calls it literature), and science fiction. Science fiction is the cheesy entertainment stuff in my repertoire; my ‘guilty pleasure’. What I have been unable to find time for are popular, young adult series that seem to be so popular these days. I’ve not read more than a few pages of the Harry Potter series (even stopped watching the movies), the Twilight books (haven’t even seen the movies), or the Hunger Games (quite liked this movie, actually). I can often be heard wondering out loud why people bother with these books. and the response is almost always something like; it’s just entertainment and hey, it’s better than watching TV. It seems to me there is so much amazing writing out there, and reading takes so much more effort (well, for me at least) than passively watching a movie for an hour and a half that reading these simple and predictable books is a poor investment in time. And stop picking on TV; just get a streaming service already.

But, mmm, all this seems a bit hypocritical, for a guy who’s often reading sci-fi. I was forced to defend myself while reading this last book. Without having read the Potter novels or anything like them, I really can’t justify this artificial distinction I’ve made, but I can at least describe what I found special about The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Moon is a science fiction novel set during a war of independence for a lunar colony in 2075. Some writers choose a science fiction or fantasy setting to let their imaginations run free and create new worlds for us to explore, while others use these outlandish settings as allegories for a moral that could have been placed anywhere. What sets Moon apart is that Heinlein manages to deliver his message of individualism and the virtue of choice versus the sin of forced taxes and government control without letting it simply rest on an interesting, but unnecessary, infrastructure of lunar exploration. Instead, his ideas are inseparably linked and woven into this story; supported by the science and physics of the environment.

The revolutionaries in Moon share themes and ideas with any story illustrating the same conclusions, but the action could only play out as it has in this exact and rare relationship between the Earth and it’s unusually large satellite. These details, combined with the greater themes gives the novel unexpected depth, for it can be read as an adventure story of the early years of lunar independence or as a treatise of individualism and its political requirements and ramifications.

Is Moon literature? I doubt it. It already feels a bit dated, and Heinlein’s writing can easily grate on former English majors or anyone who is uncomfortable with the status of gender roles before the 70’s. Heinlein, by the way, is notoriously progressive in his views of gender roles, and sexuality. Moon is certainly no exception, but he also manages to show enough objectification and stubborn biases to make a feminist’s skin crawl. If it doesn’t put you off completely, it’s frequently humorous quirk of his writing. Without reading them, I can’t really say that Rawling’s Harry Potter novels, or any of the others, don’t share this same depth, but any book that can so successfully sneak such fascinating themes into an otherwise just-plain-fun entertaining story, complete with a riddle telling, sentient super computer, is worth recommending.

So, “Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?” “Because neither can whistle.” Not that funny, but not bad for a recently sentient super computer who had never seen a real goldfish.

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03.29.12

Time to read teen-fiction

Posted in Reviews, Society at 12:21 by RjZ

I recently read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game after a friend was surprised to discover I hadn’t yet. I borrowed the book from the library, and it was a little difficult to find there, because it was in the young adult section. Once I’d located it in the card catalog, I had to creep into a sectioned off room, passing teenagers lounging on been bags and quickly escape with my book.

I needn’t have been embarrassed. Reading teen fiction is all the rage these days—for adults. Adults were as enthralled with Harry Potter as kids. Moms gobble up the Twilight series as fast as their daughters. The Hunger Games is repeating the book turned box office phenomenon as I write this. And Ender’s Game was good. Simple, like a Hollywood movie, (there may be a connection here) but good.

‘Young Adult’ fiction doesn’t exist

Educated adults are so captivated by vampires and wizards may simply be down to a good story, well written and direct, in such a way as is all but required to capture the attention of our distracted society. A good book is worth reading. The age group of its intended audience is irrelevant. This has always been true, evidence by the wide range of books transforming with time from children’s story, to literature. Pity the highbrow who hasn’t found time for Lord of the Rings, and Watership Down, not to mention other ‘children’s books‘ like The Adventures of Tom Sawer оr <еm>Catcher in the Rye.

Reading bad teen fiction is no better than reading bad adult fiction. Perhaps what we’re really seeing here is a confirmation bias. it’s not that adults are reading so many teen novels, but rather that good books, with riveting stories are popular and book publishers are following the money and marketing them as teen novels because it’s effective. Of course plenty of teen books are published that no self-respecting adult is reading. Fortunately, we simply don’t hear much about them.

Or, people are stupid and lazy

Or maybe, while a young adult can be forgiven for not appreciating the complexity of character and story that a jaded adult requires to interest a more developed intellect; any adult still stuck in this over-simplified block-buster story telling must be stunted in some way. We can all be happy that, in spite of the vast array of entertainment options available to the modern citizen, that some of us still enjoy the rich, decidedly non-passive pleasure of reading. Reading requires you to engage your brain in a way that even interactive video games still do not achieve. But if the only reading anyone does is carefully conceived by talented authors to tell a story without the use of “big words” or nagging gray area details of the real world, aren’t they missing out?

Perhaps, in response to the overwhelming detail and information flux in our lives, we retreat to the stories where there’s no guessing at deeper levels of meaning. In that case, pity the lowbrow who hasn’t made the effort to decipher Shakespear’s and Chaucer’s olde English, or waded through David Foster Wallace and Henry Miller with no idea what plot was even supposed to be yet still so satisfyingly enveloped in their vivid, evocative language.

Brain candy causes cavities

I teased a friend recently for her excitement about The Hunger Games film opening. Another intelligent adult caught up by the sweet allure of brain candy? Then I read some reviews of the film and book, which I had all too quickly judged on its young adult label alone. I haven’t read it, but, like Ender’s Game, it sounds pretty good, no matter who it was written for.

I retracted my reproach, but I am still concerned. Not because The Hunger Games or Harry Potter aren’t excellent stories, well told, or because we should all be reading great literature all the time, whatever that is. Instead, I’m worried that exactly because our lives are filled with so much distraction, so little time may be left over for those activities that require more effort to yield their rarefied rewards.

It’s ridiculous to judge how erudite is your seat mate on a brief airplane ride and from single choice of reading material, but if we’re all really as busy as we claim to be, couldn’t we have the wisdom to prune and curate our entertainment enough that we’re not only entertained but perhaps improved from the experience? Every book need not to be literature, nor every movie an important documentary, but I think folks would have much more to talk about on Facebook if at least some of them were.

Highbrow or lowbrow? Speak out proud in your defense in the comments.

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02.01.12

What if they didn’t care?

Posted in Reviews at 13:00 by RjZ

What if they didn’t care is the question Arkady and Boris Strugatsky ask in their short, then Soviet, science fiction novel Roadside Picnic. Here is a world responding to the after-effects of an alien visitation where the aliens haven’t even bothered to say hello. It seems they’ve left behind plenty of inscrutable evidence of their time here including a dizzying array of artifacts and lasting effects, which, like their visit, seem indifferent to humans. As many of the items found have a positive effect on their human discoverers as are dangerous to them. Their landing sites are to us, how squirrels and grasshoppers experience a roadside picnic by humans. Our trash and trampling of the ground leave effects, some positive, some tragic, and all without any apparent rhyme or reason to the bewildered little beings.

The novel is detached, told primarily from the point of view of small-time players who raid the mysterious visitation zones to profit from valuable artifacts. It’s clear that the visitation has change the world, but the story shows just how little it has changed in the people who live here. As humans struggle to understand just what a visitation from an alien power means, why they came, what they did here, and what these technologies mean to us; the majority of us just want to live our lives and maybe even make enough money to take care of ourselves and our families. The big story is in the little details and the meanness of people whose characters have changed in inverse proportion to the impact of the visitation.

The story telling is as cryptic as the zones themselves. It’s sometimes difficult to understand exactly what it going on with the characters, their interactions or motivations, but the result is a spacious story with room for our own imaginations that is rare for American science fiction. The brother’s Strugatsky are incredibly inventive; describing a dizzying array of otherworldly phenomena (check out Wikipedia’s list of artifacts|spoiler alert), without ever resorting to so much exposition. Where most sci-fi writers revel in descriptions of their creations, Roadside Picnic treats the reader much like the aliens have in the story. They have left clues behind for us to figure out, but moved on whether we understand them or not.

You’d think that not caring about the readers would be a good reason to dislike the book. I discovered Roadside Picnic after learning that it was the foundation for Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. Tarkovksy is far more interested in his art, his mise en scene, than either the audience or his very loose interpretation of the book. The viewer barely has any idea that there even was an alien visitation in his version of the story. Yet, in both versions, success comes from resisting the urge to describe every detai, instead, creating a space and leaving room for our minds to philosophize, solve puzzles, and fill in the gaps of why and how, just as the characters in the story have been forced to do. Read the story and see what you fill it with.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s book Roadside Picnic is available online to read in pdf form. Grab a copy and then you can tell me my review is way off.

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12.07.11

Travel gear reviews: wash me often?

Posted in Reviews, Travel at 9:00 by RjZ

I, um, lost my old waterproof, breathable shell. I left it on the back of a chair in a restaurant in Germany and when I returned a few hours later, there was no sign of it and no one had turned it in. It had always worked well, but even if I claim I’m a gear aficionado, I am also a bargain hunter who is often swayed more by how good a deal something is than whether it’s the perfect piece of gear. That last jacket was a two-and-a-half layer (a bit more on that later) waterproof from Mountain Hardware called Conduit. It always worked great, but I had bought the jacket at clearance for half off (remember, waterproof, breathable shells can cost upwards of $300, so half off is a load of money) and it had these weird, narrow, sleeves meant to stay out of the way when climbing. Wear a bulky fleece (or maybe even a primaloft jacket) underneath and you could feel like you couldn’t move your arms. So, actually, finding a new one wasn’t really a bad thing.

Apparently, I haven’t learned my lesson, because the jacket I wound up with was chosen at least as much thanks to its close-out clearance price as it was because it met my criteria. I wanted a tough shell, not too heavy, helmet-sized hood, and pockets above a backpack waste belt. I didn’t want anything else, including all the crazy features and ideas that some pieces of gear which seem to have been designed more by clever marketers than people who actually use the gear.

This jacket’s big change, though, was e-vent waterproof breathable fabric. Start looking for a shell and you’ll quickly see Gore-Tex and then dozens of other materials. Gore-Tex subdivides into a high-end XCR and a less breathable, much lighter Packlite. Most of the rest are so-called 2-layer (or 2 ½ layer) which bond some form of poly-urethane to some nylon. E-vent is a 3-layer material that’s been around for some time (I have a pair of boots from more than five years ago with an e-vent logo on them) but only recently started showing up in shells. They claim it’s so breathable that jackets don’t need pit-zips and it breaths even when completely dry (apparently Gore-Tex isn’t breathable until some of your sweat or the world’s humidity have wetted the fabric).

It rained, either a lot or little, so often in Tierra del Fuego, that I never left the hotel without the jacket on. It got plenty of testing. Short review, I was always dry and remarkably comfortable no matter what. How folks climbed Cerro Torre and Mt. Fitz Roy without this stuff I will never know.

The real cool part about this new jacket though, came after I’d returned home. Right on the jacket there is a label that asks “wash me often.” The instructions go on to suggest you iron the jacket (on the lowest steam setting, sure, but that’s scary hot for a nylon jacket, isn’t it?) to restore the water repellent finish. Now that’s just crazy talk. Justified or not, I’ve always been terrified of washing Gore-Tex, let alone ironing it, for fear that it would destroy the water repellency of the garment, or more likely, melt it.

I’ve actually had the jacket a little while and it’s been keeping the water for while, but drops of H-two-O certainly were not beading up and rolling off the surface. I nervously pushed the heat up on the iron until only the barest puffs of steam came out and then, thinking this was going to be a costly experiment, started ironing the jacket. Once done, a quick test under the shower and lo and behold, water off an e-vent wearing duck’s back—it’s good as new! Turns out it wasn’t so bad to lose my old jacket, but I hope the guy in Germany wearing my jacket get’s his arms stuck in the tight sleeves.

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12.06.11

Travel gear reviews: the seventies are back

Posted in Reviews, Travel at 9:00 by RjZ

In the 70’s, kids in California would wear these nylon ski-jackets during our ‘freezing’ winters. I mean, hey, there would be frost on the cars and it might even get sort of near freezing sometimes! Those jackets were striped in bold earth-tones and stuffed with primaloft, a synthetic down-like material. They were fine for a sixth grader in southern California, but not usually considered “gear” for the modern hiker.

As most folks with some outdoor experience know, layering is key. You need to be able to adjust what wear based on activity and weather and having a variety of layers makes for an adaptable set of clothes; ready for everything without carrying multiple different jackets. I’ve always gone with the classic: a water proof shell + a fleece mid-layer for warmth. On previous trips, though, I noticed a problem. My fleece just isn’t warm enough. A fleece jacket works great hiking around in the Colorado mountains. It fits under the wind- and water-proof shell, and you can unzip it if things get too warm. Traveling is different than hiking though. More often than not, you’re not in such a rush to get anywhere, maybe even trying to avoid working up a sweat at all (that next shower might not be convenient tonight). Unfortunately, though, all my tried and true hiking gear which has held up to minus 20 grad snowshoeing doesn’t actually keep me warm when all I’m doing is strolling around and taking pictures.

Of course, I could just get a thicker fleece, but now we start to bump into another travel constraint: bulk. On this recent trip to Patagonia, I expected to be cold in the southernmost city on the planet, Ushuaia and hot in late spring Buenos Aires. I’d have to pack that bulky fleece into my tiny backpack for half of the trip. Another alternative is a down jacket. Nothing beats down for warmth and packability, and, in fact, a down sweater would have fit the bill perfectly on this trip, so if you already have one of these, you can quit reading. Probably.

It doesn’t rain much in Colorado and things dryquickly, but one concern I had about in the maritime climate of Ushuaia was that once down gets wet, it doesn’t work at all. If I leave the rain shell in the hotel room and my mid-layer got wet, I’d be out of luck. Primaloft, on the other hand, continues to provide some (clammy) warmth even wet.

I went with a light primaloft nylon jacket not terribly different than the one I had in sixth grade except minus the strips and earth tones, to repkace a bulkier, warmer fleece and I couldn’t be happier. The jacket actually looks pretty good (or at least not like much of anything at all) and packs to almost nothing during the day if you need it only for a chilly evening without stopping back at the hostel. It’s windproof and it still weighs much less than my windstopper fleece. About my only concern was that maybe this jacket, with its lightweight nylon shell, won’t stand up to much abuse. That’s true for your fancy down sweater too, and at least these new primaloft jackets are much cheaper down if you do rip it. The only real problem I had was that, thin, light, and packable as it was, the thing was actually a bit too warm!

On my trip, the threat of rain was always more severe than I predicted, so I never actually left my rain shell back in the room. The shell protects the jacket beneath, but would do the same if it were down. I gave up the absolute best in packability and weight of down, but primaloft has successfully replaced my fleece for travel, and even for cold weather hiking and backpacking. I hope it can stand up to all the extra use it’s going to get.

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12.05.11

Travel gear reviews: smelly parts

Posted in Reviews, Travel at 12:10 by RjZ

I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a gear whore. I’m too cheap to constantly buy every new piece of outdoor clothing or backpack, but I do give a lot of thought to the gear I travel with. The trip to Patagonia offered up some new challenges, so I thought I’d provide a review of how well some things worked and others didn’t.

Everyone will have different demands on what they bring with them, and how well something is judged to have performed is obviously dependant on our expectations. For years I’ve aspired to pack very light but these days I’ve added a few more requirements. For example, I’ve decided that just because I am a hostel living traveler doesn’t mean I have to look like a hippie the whole time. No one doubts I’m a tourist (the big camera and ever present book bag are dead giveaways) but, as handy has hiking boots and zip-off pants are, I now try to look like a normal human when visiting a museum or going out for a bite to eat. The goal then, is to travel light, with little extra anything, and somehow actually be able to look half normal sometimes.

Ex-officio makes a line of travel underwear billed as a revolution. They claim 40 countries, one pair of underwear, or something like that. The idea is that these packable, wicking, odor preventing garments are so easy to wash in the sink every night that you go your whole trip with just two pair. I went with three pair. They do pack small, so three wasn’t much more than two of my usual, but fact is, washing and drying clothes isn’t always as convenient as their advertising claims it is. Sometimes you’re on a night train, to a city you stay in for one night with a shared bathroom, and then on another night train to your next hostel. That’s three nights and no convenient place to wash and dry—I don’t care how easy they are to launder, you’re gonna be wearing your clothes longer than you might have hoped or planned.

The ex-officio are very comfortable and they are, indeed, incredibly easy to wash and fast to dry. The problem: um, they stink. And they make you stink. I found myself feeling like a needed a thorough showering of the manly parts even after a few hours of wearing. A whiff of the undergarments after even one day assured me that they would absolutely require washing TONIGHT, and I’d have to switch to a new pair before even going out for an evening meal. Clothes that make you have to shower more often (in places where showering extra may be particularly inconvenient) don’t seem like a good idea to me. Great underwear for home use, but I doubt I’ll be taking them along on another trip.

Stay tuned, I packed a lot of different gear for Patagonia and tried a few new things, several more reviews to come!

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11.29.11

Sci-fi jazz artist

Posted in Reviews at 18:13 by RjZ

I’ve got these three books, a trilogy, on my bookshelf. I read the first one before I knew it was a trilogy at all and picked up the other two later when I spotted them at a used book store, but it’s taken a few more years to get around reading even the second in the Gaen Trilogy by John Varley. The first one Titan describes a rotating satellite circling Saturn that is so large that it supports a wide range of life and eco-systems all created by the satellite itself which, as far as the inhabitants are concerned is a god.

The second, Wizard, fills in a great deal of back story about that diety and slowly reveals more her (its?) motivation and details the lives of the creatures she’s created.

I guess I have to read the third one (Demon) now. I didn’t love Titan but I’d already read Steel Beach by Varley and it was good enough that I gave it a pass. The Gaen Trilogy does well something that many science fiction and fantasy aspire to do. I call it the Tolkien-quality. What Tolkien did with Lord of the Rings was create a complete world. There’s a complete and consistent back-story to all of the complex relationships of characters and races in the Tolkien’s books that makes for a rich, and even if foreign, very complete world. Ursula Le Guin is another author who can create such complete universes. Varley has done so as well, and for that, it seems, his trilogy is much loved.

Where Titan was an interesting invitation into this intricate new world, I still found Varley’s detailed descriptions of the mating behavior of the Titanides, complete with complext tables of arrows and Titanide genetics to be at best, a distraction. Wizard was fine, and I didn’t mind reading it so much, but I felt like I was listening to bad jazz. A friend of mine once explained that the real genius of improvisation is that the musician knows so much about music and his instrument that when he chooses to play an unexpected, even off-key note, it still fits. It’s onlyu from complete mastery, that just noodling around really becomes jazz. Music is often made from a very clever repetition long enough to create a memory and then breaking it off, just when we think we already know the next note, to create interest.

Unfortunately, Varley suffers from the problem of inexperienced jazz musicians noodling noisily at your local Guitar Center and writers of many a television sci-fi series. If you break all the rules, nobody knows what they should have expected in the first place. I can hear the Varley fans screaming at me already. Hear me out first. The problem with Gaea, a goddess, is that she can, and does, do anything she wants. She creates creatures at her whim and watches how other creatures interract with them. If there are no rules for her, or the Gaen universe to abide by, then, where’s the fun in the unexpected riff to come from? Why are we given so much detail, if none of it really matters and all the rules can change at any second?

Varley is a victim of his own cleverness. He is so capable of creating rich characters and creatures that he does so without limit or restrain. His fingers are nimble, but without restrain, his jazz comes off as mere noodling.

Varley’s created this fascinating universe where characters must live under the whims of a capricious goddess and we readers are left as confused as they are as to what will happen next, let alone why. And all that would be fine, if, actions eventually were shown to be worth our while. Why did we have to learn all those details about Titanide reproduction? What value did it have in the story? How are Robin and Chris actually important at the end of the day? I know, I know, all will be explained in Demon but I don’t think it’s very considerate of the reader to divide one book into two and make him buy the second half separately.

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08.08.11

Am I a lunatic, liar, or lord?

Posted in Reviews, Society at 15:56 by RjZ

My nascent critical thinking skills were given wings by my Psych 101 professor, and, perhaps, ever since then, my readiness to question every claim has probably annoyed so many people into encouraging me to read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. It’s about time I got around to it.

The collection of invited essays were delivered originally over BBC radio at the close of World War II. They were intended, according to the forward by Lewis, as “the best service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors…to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” In other words, Lewis hopes to educate unbelievers not only as to what Christians in general, not a particular sect, but nearly all all Christians, believe and to defend that belief.

That Lewis, author of the famous Chronicles of Narnia is a great writer is well displayed here. What is more surprising, is that such a wise man, who certainly defends a deeply traditional, highly challenging, and yet dearly sympathetic view of what Christians believe (and how they ought to act as a result), can also be such a muddy thinker when it comes to logic.

I find it hard to believe that his real goal could be to defend what Christians believe. He spends less than a fifth of the book establishing a case for God, and the remainder proceeds without the slightest notion that his case is the least bit controversial. I can see many an agnostic screaming: wait just a second here! His primary claim is that God must exist since we humans seem to innately know the difference between right and wrong. It is difficult to explain the innateness of morals without some a priori notion of their origin, but the absence of an explanation is harldy evidence for a separate claim. Does that fact that we do not completely understand the function of the deadly AIDS virus also amount to a proof of the existence of God? (Some might say so, but such arguments are doomed to confine God as a “God of the gaps,” existing only as long as science has failed to explain our gaps in understanding. Surely that is not their desire.)

Lewis’ summation of his argument that Jesus is the Son of God goes like this:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

I am making no claims about Jesus being the Son of God, or Buddha showing us the one true path to enlightenment. Instead, I humbly ask: to whom is this a compelling argument? Put another way, Lewis claims that anyone who both gave us so much valuable and useful moral advice, but also claimed to be the Son of God, must, in fact, be the Son of God, or else he is crazy.

Really? That’s it? Perhaps Jesus was crazy! (There’s some blasphemy for you.) Perhaps, he was misguided; he sincerely thought he was the Son of God. Maybe he never said such things; bible historians are still trying to work that out as different translations can be read with different understandings of this ancient book. If he’s not crazy, what about others with similarly compelling stories like Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha)? The problem here, in addition to the obvious idea that most of us wouldn’t be equally swayed by such divine claims from another mere human (Kim Jong-Il makes divine claims as do many of the leaders of personality cults) is that we are offered what philosophy calls, the fallacy of false choice. We are not obligated to choose only from the answers presented. There may be other alternatives which require a great deal less explanation (and might yet yield a loving, peaceful worldview).

Lewis employs this tool frequently throughout the book. Later in the chapter “The Great Sin” he tells us a “proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” “The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object.”

Now, if you believe in an infinite all powerful God, then I can certainly understand a feeling of insignificance when compared to Him. However, is it also impossible for a person to be both proud of accomplishments, quite apart from competing with the accomplishments of others? Even a dutifully religious man could, it seems to me, acknowledge his feeble success using the great gifts he has received from God, without either giving up on his journey towards God or looking down on the achievements of others. Those who have reached less may, for all one knows (and is willing to judge!), have been given a different set of gifts from God. Those who have been more successful might well be seen as inspiration and worthy of aspirations. If my only possible choice is to forget myself altogether, or worse, agree “I am small, dirty object,” then perhaps I don’t even want to live in world created by Lewis’ God. Fortunately, this too is a false choice. Those with pride must not necessarily look down upon others or dare to compare themselves with God. Even a religious man might be able to manage being proud of his accomplishments while still rendering all to the Lord.

Mere Christianity is straightforward and beautifully written. His arguments are seductive, which goes a long way to explain why those who are already inclined to believe would be so enamored with them, but they are hardly compelling. While I can certainly hope that many who have read this work will endeavor to lead a life for which he has powerfully championed (his Mere Christianity seems to me, for the most part, an admirable lifestyle, or as Bill Maher says: “Most Christians don’t act very Christ-like“). But you’d have to be either a liar or a lunatic to expect that his thinly supported arguments should do anything to change the views of those “outside the house” of God.

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06.27.11

Because German so pedantic is?

Posted in Reviews, Society, Travel at 13:18 by RjZ

That’s a literal word-for-word translation of what sounds like yoda-speak, but is actually German: Why are Germans so law-abiding? Because the German language is so pedantic. Warum sind deutscher so gesetztreu? Weil deutsch so pedantisch ist.

I’ve long nursed the idea that the language we speak may influence the way we are. Ever since learning German, a language with well defined rules and a pedantic grammar, at least when compared to my mother tongue, English, I began to compare the strict ideas of the language with the German people and culture and wonder if there was some sort of connection. The German language, fraught with instructions for how to organize each word in a sentence and what endings to attach to them in a host of different situations could easily be explained by the rule following nature of the people who speak it. If that’s not true, I reasoned, then it could just as likely be the other way around—an organized and law-abiding people could have evolved and selected characteristics of their spoken language to fit their lifestyles.

Just as when I was just starting college and read a survey of philosophy and discovered all those clever, barely formed, ideas rolling around in my head weren’t so original after all. (Was this a compliment or an insult to my ego, I wondered? Am I unable to come up with an original idea, or am I on par with Hume for contemplating similar ideas all on my own? With the benefit of hindsight, I think the former is much more likely to be true….) Here again, the idea is not new at all, and indeed, it’s quite a popular one: the concept was popularized by Benjamin Whorf and goes under the name Whorfian Hypothesis, or more explanatorily, Linguistic Determinism and was “a staple of courses on language through the early 1970s” according to Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought.

You’ve all heard a popular example of this idea in the old saw that Eskimos have over 40, or was it thousands (!),of words for snow. Of course, a culture so surrounded by the stuff would somehow gain a greater understanding of the subtle details, and naturally, their language would reflect this. Alas, this urban legend has long been debunked (which is to say nothing about the number of people who may still believe it to be true). English, for example, actually has dozens of words for snow: sleet, slush, powder flurries, hardpack, and sometimes, when there’s too much of it in your driveway, white shit, to name a few.

The problem with my thinly proved claim about the German language, that like the people, it has less flexibility than other languages is that it’s really only an observation thanks to my difficulty learning the language’s many rules. Where German has some strict requirements for where the verbs go in a sentence, the rest of the words can float around the sentence in a way that would make an English speaking poet green with envy. Mess around with English word order and meaning is changed dramatically. Dog bites man vs. man bites dog is the classic example. In German you can move things willy nilly achieving emphasis without resorting to typography or emoticons : – o (That would be Den Mann bißt der Hund vs. Der Man bißt den Hund.) Indeed, in many languages that require declension which signifies by prefixes or suffixes (or something else) which word is the subject or object, for example, instead of relying on strict word order as English does.

The German language is likely only pedantic from the foreign language student’s point of view. If it really were, would it be fault of the culture? Or did it shape the culture? The question is more challenging to answer, since even in African countries where German was exported, the German culture was exported along with it, which doesn’t necessarily imply a causal link.

But I’m not alone in guessing at this link between language and culture. In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell gives us an explanation of why Chinese speakers might be better at math, claiming it has something to do with the headstart children are given because of the logical naming of numbers. In English, Russian, French, German, and others, numbers are pretty messed up. Eleven, twelve, thirteen…then more logically, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen..which is kind of like 7 + 10, 8 + 10, 9 + 10. Of course, then we get to twenty, twenty-one, and it’s 20 + 1, 20 + 2. French is notorious for requiring arithmetic just to count with numbers such as 4 times 20 plus 2 for 82. Meanwhile, Chinese, Gladwell tells us, is pleasantly logical 1, 2, 3,…10, 1 x 10 + 1, 1 x 10 + 2, 2 x 10 + 3… and so forth. Gladwell points to research that Chinese boys and girls actually learn to count to much higher numbers much sooner than their English speaking counterparts.

I read this with glee; more evidence for Linguistic Determinism I thought. Not sure where my brain checked out though. This is, at best, a correlation for which there may be other causal relationships. Under this argument, we can easily presume that, while Chinese mathematicians are happy, Chinese poets are at least as envious of Germans as the English ones are, they have to learn over 10,000 symbols before they can even get started.

All of this assumes that language is the tool with which our brain thinks. It certainly feels that way. Language is, intuitively, our first clue to what we’re thinking about. I wonder what Steven Pinker would say to Gladwell about the Chinese math claim (he certainly isn’t impressed with Mr. Gladwell’s other claims). In Pinker’s book The Stuff of Thought he cites research by Dahaene and Spelke on bi-lingual speakers being asked to do math problems in their different tongues. While the participants do resort to their preferred language to do calculations, likely due to the mnemonics they’ve learned to perform them, (six times six equals thirty-six, six times seven equals forty-two…) there was no slowdown regardless of which language the question was asked in to estimate results. Estimating is, the kind of built-in math that our brains are capable of. Another study even showed subjects with damaged brains who could no longer speak or understand sentences, and yet were still able to compute math phrases “such as 50 – [(4 + 7) x 4].”

It’s time I laid my stereotypes about Germans not at the feet of language, but at my own laziness. Linguistic Determinism is simply incapable explaining the evidence of language use and acquisition, even if it does make for compelling conversation and fascinating discussions with fellow travelers.

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12.25.08

Read me a book

Posted in Reviews at 17:50 by RjZ

While I haven’t been keeping up with book reviews lately, it doesn’t mean I’ve given up reading. People are still handing me books to read and I am slogging through them. Recently, for the first time, I had a book read to me. I received a trial audiobook from Audible.com and decided to give it a try.

I was immediately faced with a dilemma: how to choose. One of the advantages of reading books that people let me borrow is that my choices are dramatically limited. I choose faster in restaurants, too, now that I don’t eat meat, since there’s simply fewer things on the menu. Audible, meanwhile has thousands of titles to choose from and seeing their website I’d suddenly forgot all the books I’d heard about and hoped to borrow some day soon.

One did pop up pretty quickly, so I decided to listen to Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Dr. Diamond is a credited as an evolutionary biologist and teaches geography at UCLA, but, above all, this book promised to address a question I think about quite a bit. Why are the artifacts one group of people so much more advanced than the artifacts of another. During my recent trip to Peru many tourists were amazed by the fantastic rock masonry of the Inca. I too was impressed, but, let’s face it, the people who built the beautiful Machupicchu around 1460 CE hadn’t yet discovered the wheel. Europeans had been building gothic cathedrals for a few centuries and were moving on to the renaissance  around this time, and Gutenberg invented the printing press.

I recommend Machupicchu to anyone, but not necessarily because of the heavy stone that was moved around. Egyptians were built the even more impressive pyramids only 4500 years previous. Seeing these monuments, and even the people living in one place or another, I have often wondered why one society lives one way and another seems to require cars and laptops. The short answer is that it has nothing to do with the relative intelligence of one group of people over another, and much more to do with the luck of location and the geography of the land around them. It’s easier to trade ideas and advance when you live near other societies, and it’s equally easy to get by without even the wheel if you’re able to feed your people and no one else comes along to kill you.

The book was excellent and has filled me with new stories and new insights. I highly recommend it to anyone who travels the world where you can experience Diamond’s observations first hand. As far as having it read to me? It certainly is easier than reading it yourself. The reader had excellent diction and, in retrospect, it’s quite the impressive achievement to read the entire volume out loud. The production values were top notch and it was as if the reader never even had to take a breadth. The experience, on the iPhone was satisfactory enough; the media player remembered where I was each time I stopped and I could easily read while driving; a feat I otherwise can’t recommend.

In the end, though, I didn’t remain an Audible member. Reading is a simple pleasure. When the pilot says to turn off all electronic devices, the book can remain open. When I get in a car to go somewhere I put down the book, saving it for a quieter, more focused time. It’s convenient to listen to an audiobook supported by hundreds of dollars of technology, but it’s not as simple as just opening a book. And simple is how it shall remain for me. Unless someone wants to lend me another audiobook.

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