Saturday, August 28, 2010

Recent and future reads

Just a little update of what I've read recently and what's in my reading stack these days.

Recent reads:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Infidel - my life
I must admit that my impression of Ali wasn't too good before I read the book. She seemed too right-winged and willing to pander to the racists in Europe. My impression of her changed after reading this book though, and I now have a much better understanding of her strategy and goals. What's more, her book got me to re-evaluate my own participation in the immigrant debate in my own country.

Richard Wiseman: Quirkology - The Curious Science of Everyday Lives
Quirkology is Wiseman's introduction to studies into humanity's quirks - studies quite frequently carried out by Wiseman himself. It's a light, but fun, read.

Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
Klein's take on how ultra-capitalists have had a disastrous effect on the world, acting through shock and awe where-ever and when-ever they have the opportunity. Hyperbolic at places, it's nevertheless a real eye-opener.

Jeremy Scahill: Blackwater - The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army
Right from the title, Scahill is not afraid to call a spade a spade, and this is indeed what he does in this book, which explains how Blackwater has risen to its current position, and what it has cost the rest of the world.

Stephen Jay Gould: The Mismeasure of Man
Gould's classic takes on the entire concept of measuring human intelligence and to define peoples' intelligence by their race or gender. Originally written in 1981, my edition is the revised and expanded 1996 edition, where Gould included some essays addressing the atrocious The Bell Curve.

Christoper Hitchens: Hitch-22
My review of this book can be found here

Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson: Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts
A look into why people make mistakes, and how they justify those mistakes to themselves afterwards. It also offers some tips into how one can avoid, not mistakes, but rather the denial and self-justification afterwards.

Currently reading:

Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World
This is the European title of Bright-sided (which is more clever in my opinion). I am about 100 pages into the book, and so far I've enjoyed it.

Paul Krugman: The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008

To-read pile:

Lone Frank: Den Femte Revolution - fortællinger fra hjenens tidsalder
I believe it is the same book as Mindfield: How Brain Science is Changing Our World. I borrowed this book from a friend, so it will almost certainly be my next read.

Kristin Cashore: Fire
I enjoyed her first book Graceling, so I am looking forward to reading this.

Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
Even though I have been an avid science fiction reader since I was a kid, I've never gotten around to reading this book.

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
Been standing on my shelves for years. Time to get around to reading it.

Lyndon Baines Johnson: The Choices We Faces
Johnson's 1969 memoir of his White House years.

C.S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain
Part of "The Christian Challenge Series"

Henri Troyat: Catherine the Great

Tim Flannery: The Weather Makers
I bought it while in Australia in January, but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet.

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
Another classic I haven't read yet.

Chrisopher Wanjek: Bad Medicine - Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distance Healing to Vitamin O
I've started once on this book, but got distracted by other books I was reading at the same time.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Kurzweil, ignorant and apparently proud of it

A couple of days ago, PZ Myers wrote a piece called Ray Kurzweil does not understand the brain, in which he took on some claims that Ray Kurzweil had made about how close we were to reverse engineer the human brain. PZ's post was based upon the reporting of Kurzweil's speech at the Singularity Summit.

A few of the singularity groupies showed up in the comments to that post, and was throughout schooled by some of the commenters who actually understand biology and/or simulation and AIs.

This was all very interesting, and got some attention on the internet. Which is probably why Ray Kurzweil bothered to reply to PZs post. In the reply, Kurzweil complained about PZ basing his writing on reports from the summit, rather than being there himself (so what?), and claimed that PZ "completely mischaracterizes" his thesis.

Myers, who apparently based his second-hand comments on erroneous press reports (he wasn’t at my talk), goes on to claim that my thesis is that we will reverse-engineer the brain from the genome. This is not at all what I said in my presentation to the Singularity Summit. I explicitly said that our quest to understand the principles of operation of the brain is based on many types of studies — from detailed molecular studies of individual neurons, to scans of neural connection patterns, to studies of the function of neural clusters, and many other approaches. I did not present studying the genome as even part of the strategy for reverse-engineering the brain.

I mentioned the genome in a completely different context. I presented a number of arguments as to why the design of the brain is not as complex as some theorists have advocated. This is to respond to the notion that it would require trillions of lines of code to create a comparable system. The argument from the amount of information in the genome is one of several such arguments. It is not a proposed strategy for accomplishing reverse-engineering. It is an argument from information theory, which Myers obviously does not understand.

The amount of information in the genome (after lossless compression, which is feasible because of the massive redundancy in the genome) is about 50 million bytes (down from 800 million bytes in the uncompressed genome). It is true that the information in the genome goes through a complex route to create a brain, but the information in the genome constrains the amount of information in the brain prior to the brain’s interaction with its environment.

Two things.

1) PZ's post addressed Kurzweil's lack of understanding of the complexity of the brain. None of Kurzweil's objections addresses this. No matter whether Kurzweil believes that there are other paths to reverse engineer the brain, he still continues to claim that the genome contains all the necessary information to create the brain. PZ addresses this in a new post, Kurzweil still doesn't understand the brain.

2) I cannot begin to fathom the ignorance necessary to write "prior to the brain’s interaction with its environment."

Not only did Kurzweil write this, but he even underlined it.

Simply put, there is no brain prior to its interaction with its environment. The very development of the brain happens with continuous interaction with the environment - not only that, the development is highly dependent on the environment.

In other words, Kurzweil not only demonstrates a simplistic understanding of the brain (and indeed all biology), but he actually demonstrates an abyssal ignorance of these subjects.

And we are supposed to take him seriously? I don't think so.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Originally uploaded by Kristjan Wager
I visited the dentist this morning to get a tooth fixed. Apparently the anesthesia somehow got into a blood vessel, and the whole left side of my face swell up as a result.

Trust me, it's a rather scary experience to suddenly have your left eye swollen shut while someone is fixing one of your teeth.

I took the picture a few hours later, so it's not as bad as just after the visit to the dentist.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Book review: Hitch-22

Christopher Hitchens is a man it is easy to find likable or to despite, depending upon whether you agree with him or not.

On the matter of religion, I agree with Hitchens. On the matter of politics, and especially the Iraq War, I really, really disagree with him. Still, overall, I find him likable, and his memoir, Hitch-22, has not changed this, though it has vividly demonstrated some of Hitchens' blind spots to me (but more on that later).

As mentioned, Hitch-22 is Hitchens' memoir, covering his life from his childhood and youth through to present time. Not all of Hitchens' life is given equal coverage - much of the book is devoted to his childhood, and to his college years and his start as a book reviewer and journalist. There is also some focus on recent years, with only brief forays into the intermediate years.

The book gives an interesting insight into the mind of a man who has crossed pretty close to the entire political spectrum, leaving many former friends behind as enemies, and who has never been afraid to speak out and stand by his principles, no matter how unpopular. And make no mistake, even though Hitchens has crossed the politcal spectrum, it doesn't mean that he doesn't, largely, stand by his earlier convictions, as the following quote demonstrates.

I had expected the newly elected Labour government to withhold British support for this foul war [Vietnam] (and the amazingly coarse and thuggish-looking American president who was prosecuting it), and when this expectation was disappointed I began, along with many, many of my contemporaries to experience a furious disillusionment with "conventional" politics. A bit young to be so cynical and so superior, you may think. My reply is that you should fucking well have been there, and felt it for yourself.

Hitchens movement across the political spectrum was, in other words, not because of a change of heart on his former convictions. Rather it was as a result of Hitchens growing disagreement with his then-political allies on issues such as intervention in the former Yugoslavia and, later, the threat of Islamic Fascism, as Hitchens coined it.

Hitch-22 is well written, as one could expect from Hitchens, but it is surprisingly uneven - there are several times where chapters gets sidetracked, and never really get back on track. It also suffers from Hitchens focus on the famous people he used to, and to some degree still, hang out with (this flaw reminded me of Robert Graves' Goodbye to all that!, which suffers from the same problem).

And then there is of course the matter of Hitchens' pig-headedness on the Iraq War.

OK, that might sound harsh, but let me try to explain.

Hitchens was an early supporter for the war on Iraq. He was that well before 9/11, and for reasons unrelated to the Bush Administration's first reasons for going into Iraq. Hitchens thought that Saddam Hussein was an evil monster who had to be stopped.

Agree or disagree with him, at least it makes sense, given the premise.

In Hitch-22, Hitchens spend some time going into his reasons for his support, and the spends time attacking the left for their stance against the war.

Well, I am not particularly left-winged (by European standards I am quite right-winged), and unlike those people that Hitchens criticize, I am not a dove or pacifist - I frequently back military interventions (like ex-Yugoslavia), and I even think that invading Afghanistan was appropriate under the circumstances. But I was, and still am, against the Iraq War. The reasons for this are where Hitchens appears to have a blind spot.

When the Iraq War was being sold to the general population, it was being sold under false premises. Not only did the Bush Administration, and the coalition partners, link Saddam Hussein with Al Quaeda without evidence, they also lied blatantly, and repeatedly, about things such as WMD (which, contrary to Hitchens' claims in the book, hasn't been found). This was obvious to many of us back then, and that was the reason why I opposed, and still oppose, the war - the lies demonstrated, to me, that there were no justifiable reasons for the war. Had there been any such, there would have been no need to lie.

What Hitchens doesn't seem to take into consideration, is that the Iraq War wasn't fought for the reasons Hitchens wanted it fought. This means that people might object to the other reasons, rather than his reasons. But this should probably not surprise us, as Hitchens seems unaware that the conspiracy to get the US into war with Iraq, that many people has mentioned, is not Hitchens and his ideological allies on this subject (though one of them, Ahmad Chalaby, did play an important role), but rather the much more influential Project for the New American Century.

Having gotten this out of my system, I should probably say that despite the books flaws, and the blind spots it displays, it is still very much worth a read. The parts on Iraq is only a small part of the book, and other parts of the book easily makes up for this - especially Hitchens' description of his mother and her suicide is very powerful and moving writing.

So, all in all, Hitch-22 is a book which annoys and impress, but most importantly, makes you think. Much like its author.

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