Friday, December 26, 2008

My Year of Magical Reading:

Back at the beginning of the year, I devoted some time to the website 43 Things and created my list of 43 things. I've found several things I've done in the past, and since starting the list I've accomplished 5 of my "things" - and assuming I make it 6 more days without a cigarette, I'll have accomplished 6!

Anyway, one of my things, which I completed yesterday, was to "Read 50 Books in 2008." Early in the year, I began to get worried about my prospects, so I began counting audiobooks as well, but I actually ended up making it without audiobooks - I have read 50 actual books this year (not counting books read to my 3-year old).

My point in posting about this is not to brag, although I must admit I'm fairly proud of this accomplishment. Granted, some of the books were very short, but others were very long and complex, so I figure it basically evens out. The point of it all was to expose myself to ideas, and I did that in spades.

I'll post my general "year in review" blog in a few days, but these books - the fact that I took the time out of a busy year to expose myself to diverse topics, to just reflect on my life and the world I live in - has colored everything else. It has made a year that was rich with love also rich with wisdom.

One of the books, Making Your Dreams Come True, is of special interest ... not because it was necessarily the best book, but because it makes you really think about the purpose or your life. My "mission statement" after finishing that book was pretty clear to me:

To teach and to learn

The goal to read 50 books, which I'd come up with months before I read that book, was a reflection of the purpose of my life, and I hadn't even realized it at the time. I worked for Project SEED and strove to be a writer, eventually getting a job as the Physics Guide, based on this purpose ... and all the time, I was completely unaware of it on a conscious level. I went to a liberal arts college to learn physics and philosophy (and some math), and before that to the Indiana Academy ... even back then, I was being guided by a principle that I'd never articulated.

Below is a list of my 50 books and the 22 audiobooks that I've read this year! (The list is basically in the order I read/listened to them. * indicates an audiobook.) Feel free to e-mail me if you would like to know whether any particular book is worth reading.
  1. The Faiths of the Founding Fathers David L. Holmes
  2. Sky Horizon by David Brin
  3. Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang by Paul J. Steinhardt & Neil Turok
  4. Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
  5. Why Science? by James Trefil
  6. Multiple Streams of Income* by Robert G. Allen
  7. The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios
  8. Love + Sex with Robots by David Levy
  9. Education of an Accidental CEO* by David Novak
  10. The Writing Diet by Julia Cameron
  11. Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg
  12. Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt* by Aida Donald
  13. A Short History of Nearly Everything* by Bill Bryson
  14. A Mind at a Time* by Dr. Mel Levine
  15. The Myth of Laziness* by Dr. Mel Levine
  16. 15 Secrets Every Network Marketer Must Know by Dr. Joe Rubino & John Terhune
  17. George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty* by Bill Minutaglio
  18. Our Endangered Values* by President Jimmy Carter
  19. Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner
  20. The Appeal* by John Grisham
  21. The Gospel According to Science Fiction by Gabriel McKee
  22. The One Minute Father by Spencer Johnson, M.D.
  23. The 5 Lessons a Millionaire Taught Me by Richard Paul Evans
  24. The One Minute Millionaire by Robert G. Allen & Mark Victor Hansen
  25. FairTax: The Truth by Neal Boortz, Congressman John Linder, & Rob Woodall
  26. Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Your Own and Other People's Minds by Howard Gardner
  27. Nothing Down for the 2000's* by Robert G. Allen
  28. Gil's All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez
  29. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  30. Creating Wealth* by Robert G. Allen
  31. First, Break All the Rules* by Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman
  32. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Phil Zombardo
  33. Think and Grow Rich (21st Century Edition)* by Napoleon Hill
  34. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
  35. Rich Dad, Poor Dad* by Robert Kiyosaki
  36. Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative by Sir Ken Robinson
  37. Making Your Dreams Come True by Marcia Weider
  38. The Tower by Ricahrd Paul Evans
  39. The Spyglass by Richard Paul Evans
  40. The Call of the Wild* by Jack London
  41. Fablehaven by Brandon Mull
  42. Acres of Diamonds by Russel D. Conwell
  43. The Christmas Candle by Richard Paul Evans
  44. Swordbird by Nancy Yi Fan
  45. Creativity, Wisdom, & Trusteeship: Exploring the Role of Education edited by Anna Craft, Howard Gardner, & Guy Claxton
  46. The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It by Johnathan Zittrain
  47. Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World by Craig Keilburger & Marc Keilburger
  48. Walden* by Henry David Thoreau
  49. The Yiddish Policeman's Union* by Michael Chabon
  50. Spider Star by Mike Brotherton
  51. Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive by Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin, & Robert B. Cialdini
  52. A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit by Alan Lightman
  53. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman* by Richard P. Feynman
  54. What Do You Care What Other People Think?* by Richard P. Feynman (this is the basis of the Matthew Broderick film Infinity, which I also watched this year)
  55. The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of Science, and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin
  56. Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions by Lisa Randall
  57. Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Fabric of Reality by Brian Greene
  58. The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design by Leonard Susskind
  59. Quantum Physics & Theology: An Unexpected Kinship by John Polkinghorne
  60. Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos by Michio Kaku
  61. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln* by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  62. Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law by Peter Woit
  63. Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior* by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman
  64. The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans
  65. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School* by John Medina
  66. Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes by Alex Vilenkin
  67. A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  68. The Power of Mentoring by the McGraw-Hill Companies
  69. Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions, from Plato to String Theory and Beyond by Lawrence Krauss
  70. Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott
  71. Sphereland by Dionys Burger
  72. The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics by Leonard Susskind

Saturday, April 26, 2008

To FairTax or Not To FairTax -

A couple of years ago, I read The Fairtax Book by radio host Neal Boortz, along with John Linder, the Georgia Congressman responsible for proposing the FairTax bill. I'm still not 100% convinced in the FairTax, but I was extremely pleased to see it coming up as a serious issue within the Republican primaries thanks to Mike Huckabee, who made it a major part of his platform.

In this new book, FairTax: The Truth, they return (along with Rob Woodall, Linder's Chief of Staff) to relate further advancements in the FairTax, as well as to deal a bit more directly with some of the criticisms.

For those unfamiliar with the FairTax, the basic reasons for the FairTax are as follows:

1. The current tax code allows politicians to covertly give benefits to one group and penalize other groups by modifications to the elaborate tax code. Ultimately, all of these penalties to corporations and industries trickle down in the cost of goods and services to the individual customers.

2. The current tax code, in the form of both income tax and payroll taxes (Medicare, Social Security, etc.), provide unequal distributions of taxation. Low income earners are burdened with payroll taxes on their earned wages while wealthy individuals are able to virtually avoid payroll taxes entirely since they earn low wages, but gain vast wealth from capital gains and other non-payroll taxed methods.

3. Currently a number of individuals in America do not participate as part of the federal tax basis. Specifically, tourists, illegal immigrants, people paid "off the books," and those involved in illegal activities are able to earn incomes without being any part of the federal taxation system.

The FairTax seeks to remedy this by eliminating the IRS, along with current income, payroll, corporate, capital gains, and estate tax laws. This would be replaced by a 23% inclusive consumption tax on all goods and services sold in the United States, expanding the tax basis considerably. (A 23% inclusive sales tax means that if you buy an item for $100, you just paid $23 in sales tax.)

The portion which makes this tax feasible (not to mention progressive) is that every legal resident of the United States would register the number of people in their household annually. Based upon this number, they would obtain a prebate every month up to the poverty level. In other words, everyone would be exempt from taxation on the necessities. People at the poverty level would have zero federal taxation, while those near it would have virtually none.

There are many nuances to the FairTax bill, although it is only 133 pages long, so it's relatively straightforward as far as legislation goes. The books do an excellent job of illuminating the key points, as does the Americans for Fair Taxation website. Of course, all of these are propaganda in favor of the FairTax. For an alternate account, I would consider the fairly balanced Unspinning the FairTax at ... although in FairTax: The Truth, they address some of the issues brought up in this article (though not the article specifically ... just the issues in general) and, in my opinion, fairly handily deal with them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

10 Books That Changed My Life -

In the process of catching up on my BookWise training, I listened to a session in which our mentor Robert G. Allen asked "Have you ever read a book that changed your life?" The answer, for me, is a resounding yes.
* - Books indicated with an asterisk are also available through my BookWise bookstore. You can join as a Preferred Customer, completely free, and then search for books at great discounts, some as low as wholesale!

Several of these books touched me on multiple levels, triggering intellectual, professional, and spiritual paths of thought which have ultimately lead me to my current position in the world, of which I'm quite fond.

For example, Stranger in a Strange Land was the first book I read which touched on religious and spiritual themes. Even though I have, in the years since, come to believe that the spirituality Heinlein presents is fundamentally limited (not to mention chauvinistic), it still resonates with me as being the first introduction to a wider sense of spirituality beyond the strict confines of Christianity which, as a participant in American society, it is impossible to avoid.

Calculating God touches on religious themes in a very different way, but that was not its greatest impact on me. No, Calculating God was significant because it introduced me to the work of Robert J. Sawyer and ultimately lead to an opportunity to meet with him in person. He has proved to be something of a role model and mentor to me, and I have learned many lessons about the publishing industry from him. He has also helped to inspire me to continue writing in the face of difficult, disheartening times.

Books have a power to connect us to greater truths, to the deepest components of our own minds which are searching to transform into the next important phase of our lives. All of these books helped motivate and inspire me into a transformative phase of my life. What books have inspired you in this way?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Visions of a Futuristic God -

A couple of months ago, I learned about Gabriel McKee's The Gospel According to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier from the blog of my friend Robert J. Sawyer, himself something of a legend in the science fiction field whose books frequently address religious topics quite prominently. McKee has a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and maintains SF Gospel website and blog, so he clearly has the chops for the task.

While I was anticipating the book to be good, I have to admit that I was not quite anticipating the sheer scope of McKee's enterprise. Across 10 chapters and 250 pages, he covers nearly the full range of religious themes, from the institutions and rituals that comprise social religion to the innate logistics of the afterlife and apocalypse, to the very nature and purpose of belief.

Much of the book recounts specific examples from science fiction literature, film, and television ... examples which clearly illuminate the different aspects of religious experience. Some of the discussion are purely in the realm of science fiction, such as the analysis of godlike alien races, but still others go to the very heart of quintessential human experiences such as faith (or lack thereof) and the nature of free will (or lack thereof).

McKee's book is not merely a rehashing of these concepts but, in the terms of Howard Gardner's Five Minds of the Future, presents a true synthesis of them with the most fundamental questions of human existence. For example, consider this passage from the end of the chapter on faith vs. skepticism, entitled "Believing and Knowing":

"Far from being merely 'nonoverlapping magisteria' with nothing to do with one another, science and religious experience can in fact strengthen one another. In faith, the scientist can find a driving factor for exploration, a divine reason to inquire into the world's mysteries. In science, the believer can uncover the secrets of God's majesty, perhaps finding in subatomic particles or distant stars something mystical."

Though often skeptical of religious institutions and favoring rational explanations over faith-based ones, the literature of science fiction has always been deeply rooted in a search for meaning, for sense out of the seemingly chaotic universe. In this sense, it is the form of literature which most coincides with humanity's deepest spiritual foundation - looking into the heavens and asking "What is out there and what does it mean?"

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Twenty-First Century Minds -

In Five Minds for the Future, Harvard psychology Howard Gardner - creator of the "eight intelligence" theory of the mind - describes the five types of mental processes which will prove to be the most crucial in performing well in the twenty-first century.

The first mind presented by Gardner is the disciplined mind, by which he refers to the idea of learning things as a discipline instead of merely as an unconnected series of facts and tasks. Part of the reason for this, to my mind, is that information and technology change so quickly in our age that learning a specific job isn't going to be as useful as learning a discipline. For example, learning the discipline of "information technology" would prove useful, whereas learning specifically how to encode for, say, an Oracle database may have more limited use in 10 years when technologies have radically changed. The keys to this sort of mind are being diligent and focusing on improvement and continuing education throughout your lifetime. If you ever feel like you can stop learning, stop growing, then your mind is not a disciplined man.

The second mind presented is the synthesizing mind, which is adept at drawing diverse information together in a cohesive manner. A synthesizing mind is selective and capable of drawing out the salient details of a topic, presenting them in any of a variety of forms: narrative, taxonomies, lists, rules, aphorisms, concepts, metaphors, images, themes, wordless embodiments (i.e. artistic metaphors, perhaps), theories, etc.

The creative mind extends the knowledge gained and puts a new spin on it, introduces some unique element to the mix that makes it different upon output than it was upon input. Gardner points out, however, that a creative mind that produces no output, that never puts these ideas into the "field" to "make judgements of quality and acceptability" is ultimately a wasted creative mind.

The next couple diverge, in that instead of talking about how a mind deals with information they relate to how minds interact with other minds. The respectful mind is about how to respond to differences among individuals and groups in a sympathetic and constructive manner. These differences will only grow in the future and ultimately we will all have to learn how best to deal with a wide range of diversity in all aspects of our life, even in aspects where the most progressive of us would prefer that things stay the same.

The final mind is the ethical mind, which goes a bit beyond being respectful and begins to deal with the individual's role as a good citizen in general. While the respectful mind focuses on individual interactions, the ethical mind focuses on interactions between an individual and the diverse roles that we assume in society - family roles, work roles, community roles, etc.

This one, of all of the minds presented, is the one that I'm least convinced of. Sure, it's great to be a good citizen and perform "good work" (one of Gardner's buzz phrases), but is this really inherent crucial in the same way the other sorts of minds are? Perhaps it is, though ... and perhaps I'll find out why when I read one of his other books, Good Work.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Fascism & Liberalism: Strange Bedfellows? -

The last month has been hectic, in ways that will shortly become apparent from changes to the site (as if the very re-emergence of the site over the last month hasn't been enough change!), I read Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism (again, motivated by Goldberg's appearance on The Daily Show). I was a bit disappointed in Stewart on this one, because he really didn't let Goldberg explain the premise of the book and pointedly ignored some fairly reasonable comments. He was talking at Goldberg, instead of to him. I was disappointed ... but I definitely wanted to read that book.

In Liberal Fascism, Goldberg makes the thesis that current liberalism dates back to the "progressive movement" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Okay, no particular problem there. We expect such a historical tradition, right?

But then he proceeds to explain how the progressive movement was actually linked to Italian fascism (which is clearly distinct from Nazism, as he points out). In fact, as Goldberg points out, scholars can't even agree what the term fascist means. But whatever it means, it was not the evil that it has been portrayed in the years since. Italy, until it essentially lost sovereignty to Germany, actually protected Jews from persecution.

His whole point is that liberals are, in general, way too "liberal" about throwing around the word fascist to describe anything they disagree with, all the while not really having any understanding of what the word means. In fact, most liberals would be truly disgusted by some of the actions championed by "progressives" of the past, ranging from eugenics to clear support of corporate interests over individual liberty.

Goldberg is not attacking all liberals as being fascists. Oh, he doesn't like liberal politics, but that's not really his goal here. Instead, he's providing a thoughtful analysis of the historical evolution of liberal policies, and linking current liberal policy initiatives to their historical antecedents.

Perhaps one of the most entertaining aspects of the book, for me, was a very minor little side comment regarding World War I. It seems that, during this time, sauerkraut became temporarily referred to as "Liberty Cabbage" since America was at war with Germany. Granted, we were never at war with France, but it still bears similarities to the silliness regarding recent "Freedom Fries."

Goldberg's book didn't actually change my stance on a single issue, thankfully, but it did open my eyes to some of the historical roots, and possible dangers of extremism, that are inherent in the viewpoints I do hold. I think it's an insightful book, for both liberals and conservatives ... so long as they're willing to actually explore the ideas of the book instead of just embracing their own ideologies.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Electronic Love? -

Lately, a lot of my book choices have come from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. One of these books was David Levy's Love + Sex With Robots. The book is an intriguing analysis and ultimately one which I cannot fault, in general. Basically, Levy argues that the upcoming advances in robotic technologies will result in a certain subset of the population falling in love with robots and having sex with them. It may seem like something out of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer or Battlestar Galactica, but Levy believes that the technology is quickly reaching the stage where it will be a reality.

Levy begins by laying out the research into the various reasons why people fall in love. This can be broken down into ten basic reasons:

  • Similarity
  • Desirable characteristics
  • Reciprocal liking
  • Social influences
  • Filling needs
  • Arousal/Unusualness
  • Specific cues
  • Readiness for entering a relationship
  • Being alone w/ object of love
  • Mystery
A quick look at these reasons will make it clear that the majority of them could, in theory, be applied to sufficiently advanced robots. A sophisticated robot could be designed to have any combination of physical traits, to have a personality which matches your own, to portray a reciprocity of emotion, etc. In fact, the largest hurdle is probably the "social influences," but such things change over time and by 2060 or so, who knows what social influences will be at work.

He goes on to discuss situations in which individuals love non-humans ... specifically, the emotional attachment formed with their pets. He also proceeds to discuss the wide range of ways in which people form emotional attachments to electronic devices, and of course love over the internet.

Here's an example of how serious these emotional attachments have already become: The Tamagotchi is a little "virtual pet" from Japan in the shape of a small, flattened egg which contains a video screen. On the video screen is your pet, and through the pushing of buttons you feed it, take it for walks, pet it, etc. If you fail to care for your Tamagotchi, it can actually wither away and die, which is a very sad experience. So sad, in fact, that orthodox Hebrews wanted to care for the Tamagotchi on Saturday, their Sabbath, when they are not even allowed to turn on and off light switches! The sole work that is allowed on Saturday is work in order to sustain a living soul.

So there had to actually be a ruling, from high-ups in the rabbinical organization of orthodox Judaism, about whether or not a Tamagotchi had a living soul!

Their conclusion is (hopefully) obvious, but still, it demonstrates the power of emotional attachments to these electronic beings. Just as you would feed your cat or dog on the Sabbath, many felt that you should equally be able to sustain the "life" of your Tamagotchi. And we know that some people care more for their cat or dog than they do for any other people. Now, imagine that they had a robot who could laugh at their jokes, express wonder at their intellect, and be impressed by the size of their ... well, you get the idea.

Some people, of course, would never allow themselves to see past the illusion, but with all of these factors laid out, it becomes clear that there would certainly be a subset of the population that would very likely fall in love with a robot. The robot would, of course, not love them back, but it would give the illusion that it does ... and maybe that's enough for some people.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Changes Afoot -

Well, though I've let this blog sit defunct for nearly two years, I have not forgotten it. My work as the Guide to Physics has taken up much of that time, as has falling in love and various other matters.

For those who have not heard, I have gotten engaged to my girlfriend of one year, Amber. We are anticipating a wedding in the fall, though still waiting for details to be hashed out, largely related to financial matters. I for one am looking forward tremendously to the marriage ... not quite so much to the wedding itself.

She's quite supportive of my various interests, especially my writing. She's a fan, in other words. Not necessarily a fan of science fiction in general, but a fan of my stuff. This is a plus, in my book, as it indicates that she has excellent taste and obvious refinement. Remember, therefore, that if you want to be cool, you'll read my stuff and like it! You may begin with "Diminished Capacity," which is available at the Abyss & Apex website, or the About Physics site, as your fancy suits you.

For those not interested in science fiction or physics, but still wanting to be cool, I have the entire Philosopher's Stone site and a bit of a MySpace page. In short, I'm all over this crazy World Wide Web like white on rice, my friends! Beware. Be very ware.

So check out the site, check out my writing, and see if anything I say is of any significance. Frequently, probably not. But every once in a while ... very rarely ... I may hit upon some nugget of eternal truth. And I, for one, wouldn't want to miss that!