Saturday, December 03, 2011

Spider-Man Comes to iPad

One of my favorite modern myths is Spider-Man. Let's tick off all of the great things about Spider-Man's origin:

  1. Peter Parker starts out as a teenage science geek
  2. Peter Parker is bullied by other, more powerful kids
  3. Though he gets enhanced powers, these powers are also augmented by his own innovation (in the comic, he doesn't naturally shoot webs, but instead designs and builds "webslingers" which shoot a chemical web compound of his own creation)
  4. Upon gaining his powers, Peter responds by seeking self-satisfaction and fame
  5. Peter's self-absorption leads to the death of his Uncle Ben
  6. Peter vows to dedicate his life to the cause of justice, to serving others, as a means of atoning for his failure
  7. Peter doesn't (in general) brood over this decision, but embraces it joyously, becoming "your friendly neighborhood webslinger"

Frankly, this resonates with me far more than the origin tales of other heroes, like Superman, Batman, Captain America (who has no real moral failings), or most of the other modern comic superheroes. I am very thankful that my eldest son likes Spider-Man, because this is a hero that I can really support him modeling himself on.

So I was very pleased to find out about "The Amazing Spider-Man: An Origin Story," an interactive reading app that has recently come out for the iPhone and iPad, read by none other than Stan Lee himself. The app currently sells for $6.99. My son and I had the opportunity to go through it and he "really liked it." So did I, though my one concern was that it was done pretty fast.

The story outlined is the basic origin story, without many of the embellishments that have been added over the years. There's no Doc Ock, Lizard, or Green Goblin. No supervillains at all, in fact. It's just about Peter gaining his powers and how he got set onto the path. It can be read or you can listen to Stan Lee narrate the tale at your own pace, with activities interwoven into the narrative. So the child (presumably) reading it is able to run the accelerator that irradiates the spider, look for hidden spider symbols, and swing Spidey from building to building.

The whole thing was over in easily less than a half hour, and these activities aren't really engaging enough to keep the student "playing" for longer. If you're looking for an app that can keep the kids busy for a long drive, though, this wouldn't be that app. This is best viewed as an interactive book, not an actual game. Like a book, the child will read it, then be done and, hopefully, come back to it later to read once again.

And, along the way, they might just learn the important lesson at the heart of Peter Parker's origin:

With great power comes great responsibility.

Disclaimer: I was provided a free iPad copy of this game by Disney Publishing Worldwide Applications, for review purposes. No other compensation was provided in exchange for this review.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Two Packages in the Mail: Books and a Game

This morning, two packages showed up on my doorstep, both of which are worth some discussion.

The first was a copy of my two contributor's copies from the anthology The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy. I've discussed this collection (and my essay in it) on the blog before. When I get around to reading the other essays, I'll probably have some more to say about it.

For now, though, I'd like to talk a bit about the other package that arrived. It was a promo copy of the board game Kings of Air and Steam. I learned about this game from the GeekDad blog, which posted a lengthy review of the game.

What's strange about this is that the game isn't even released yet, and won't be for several months. Kings of Air and Steam is a steampunk-themed board game that's going through a Kickstarter crowdfunding drive right now. Tasty Minstrel Games has previously used Kickstarter to fund another game. This time, they've quickly raised enough money to definitely make the game a reality. They have a number of advanced levels which will help them make the game even more impressive, and as of the time of this writing they're about $5,000 dollars away from the first of these targets, which will allow them to add a "Mafia guys" team to the game. I'll give more details on the game and game play once I have time to, you know, play the game.

If you've never heard of Kickstarter, it's a website that allows businesses (or individuals, or organizations) to raise money on the internet. This is usually done by offering special prizes for people who help fund them at certain levels. In the case of Kings of Air and Steam, the benefits are editions of the game, sent to you ahead of the official release, at a deep discount. In this case, supporters also get their names in the rule manual as supporters, and there are some other nice benefits for higher levels of support.

I'll be reviewing the game for Black Gate magazine, probably in the next week or so, but if the game sounds like fun, you should definitely go ahead and buy your discounted copy now, because each copy purchased will help improve the game. After the "Mafia Guys" team is added, the next levels involve better quality of molded plastic miniatures. With a steampunk game, of course, you want a quality look and feel, so it'll be really nice for them to reach these higher levels, making the game more fun for everyone.

It's days like this that I realize how much fun it is to be a writer ... and to live in a world where I can devote my time to stuff like this.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Unintended Consequences: Embryonic-Americans in Mississippi

Next week, the people of Mississippi get to vote on who they think people are. No, we're not talking about a return of Jim Crowe laws, but instead to a recent measure called Initiative 26, which seeks to extend the rights of personhood to all fertilized embryos, thus creating a new class of American citizen: the Embryonic-American.

I recently learned about this issue while listening to one of the Nature magazine podcasts (one of many physics podcasts I've begun listening to lately), and they have an article up about it on their website. Over at Slate they brainstormed some strange implications of the new law, but I wanted to delve a bit more deeply into some of the unintended consequences, while The New York Times has tackled it in a more straightforward manner.

On the one hand, I have long supported this sort of move on the part of the pro-life movement. My biggest criticism of the pro-life stance is that it's so obviously inconsistent. If a fertilized embryo is truly a person, why can't pregnant women get tax deductions for embryos like they do for actual children? Why don't they count toward welfare payments of pregnant mothers? If a pregnant woman has children's life insurance through work, then shouldn't she get the life insurance if she has a miscarriage? In no way do we treat embryos and fetuses like actual children, thus undercutting the merit of their whole argument.

Of course, this new tactic creates huge problems of its own, even for those who are pro-life. In the words of Jackson, MI, fertility specialist Dr. Randall S. Hines, an advocate for Vote No on 26 (funded by Mississippians for Healthy Families), the amendment represents "biological ignorance." He goes on to say:
Once you recognize that the majority of fertilized eggs don’t become people, then you recognize how absurd this amendment is. (Source: NYT)
Specifically, the law runs the potential of drastically increasing the state's infant mortality rate and also making it illegal to practice many forms of fertility medicine, such as in vitro fertilization. In fact, it runs the risk of creating an opening for extensive government regulations of pregnant women - an almost-literal "nanny state" situation - where anything that could potentially harm an unborn fetus would be outlawed.

What Is Initiative 26?
The precise wording of Initiative 26 is:
Initiative #26 would amend the Mississippi Constitution to define the word “person” or “persons”, as those terms are used in Article III of the state constitution, to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.
The word "person" or "persons" show up a few times in Article III of the Mississippi Constitution, but given that I doubt the fertilized embryos will exercise their rights to bear arms or are in danger of being convicted of treason, here are the ones that seem most relevant:
SECTION 8. All persons, resident in this state, citizens of the United States, are hereby declared citizens of the state of Mississippi.
SECTION 14. No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property except by due process of law.
So, taken at face value, it seems that the state of Mississippi is proposing that all embryos gain citizenship rights at the moment of fertilization. The obvious consequence (and motivation) for this is to make abortions illegal in Mississippi, and to legally punish pregnant women whose actions lead to miscarriages.

Now, I suppose it could be argued that abortion has already been through "due process of law" since it's been through the court system. I'm not sure on the legal definition of "due process" in this case, so don't know what the ruling would be. Either way, it certainly gives Mississippi an opening to deny reproductive rights that have traditionally been upheld by federal law.

And it might not stop at Mississippi, because the U.S. Constitution contains this in Article IV Section 2:
The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.
I'm no Constitutional scholar, but it seems to me that this implies that if you're a citizen of Mississippi, then you must be afforded the rights of citizenship in all of the states. I don't know that this'll pass judicial muster, but I'm pretty sure that someone will try to invoke this, resulting in some sort of court battle. This is basically the same tactic that liberals try to use to spread gay marriage through the Full Faith & Credit clause (Section 1 of Article IV, by the way), which is why I am opposed to such back-door routes to policy change. Those back doors can always swing both ways.

So those are the intended consequences of this legislation, but what about the unintended consequences?

Fertility Police
The first unintended consequence takes the form of the fertility doctors who are currently rising up to oppose the legislation. See, when someone goes to a fertility doctor because of trouble conceiving a baby, what often happens is that the eggs and sperm are fertilized outside the body and then implanted in the woman's uterus. The problem is that this is a costly process and not all of the fertilized eggs will survive, so they take and fertilize more eggs than they'll need, picking the most promising of the fertilized eggs for implantation.

And that means that when the process is over, there are some fertilized eggs left lying around that have to be ... dealt with.

I won't go into detail on this (you can get some good details here, although it might be biased), except to say that it's probably an unintended consequence. While some extreme pro-life activists consider this on par with abortion, I've never really run into anyone who was particularly opposed to this aspect of assisted fertilization ... at least not when they've really been asked about it. The religious right is able to whip up a lot of loud support against embryonic stem cell research, but honestly, most people don't consider this as morally objectionable as even an early-term abortion. I doubt this was the goal of whoever posed the legislation.

Still, this law would clearly prohibit such activities, because these Embryonic-Americans are now citizens of the state of Mississippi. Mississippi cannot allow their citizens to be frozen (which carries with it a chance of killing the cell, as well) or handed off to some research laboratory. Fertility doctors in the state of Mississippi would essentially have to end all in vitro fertilization activities, forcing Mississippi residents who are having trouble conceiving to travel to another state for the procedure.

Infant Mortality Explosion
As bad as the fertility thing is, there's a bigger (at least numerically) unintended consequence: Missisippi's infant mortality. If they really invoke the law, and treat fertilized embryoes as people, then the result is an astounding increase in their infant mortality:

Mississippi's infant mortality rate goes immediately from 1% to 44%!

In fact, as I'll show below, this is actually a best-case scenario, using the lowest numbers, the ones that are most favorable to Mississippi's prospects of maintaining a low infant mortality rate. These deaths come about because about 30% (or, possibly, a less-favorable 50%) of all fertilized embryos (persons, under the new law) spontaneously miscarry, largely due to genetic abnormalities that make them non-viable. In other words, the mothers' body rejects the fertilized embryo.

However, natural deaths or not, these miscarriages would now be deaths of legal people in the state of Mississippi, and they have to be accounted for. The state would certainly be legally bound to account for the more than 19,000 prenatal deaths in some way.

Now, the state's numbers probably won't actually explode like this ... because when it comes to calculating infant deaths they will, of course, do the reasonable thing and not count embryos as people!

The Numbers Behind the Explosion
For those who are interested, I'll delve into the numbers behind this. (If you aren't interested, you can scroll down to the next section.) First, let's consider a couple of noteworthy statistics (from the BabyCenter website):

  • 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, 80% in the first 12 weeks
  • 30 to 50 percent of fertilized eggs are lost before or during the process of implantation
In other words, it's a sad fact, but miscarriages are extremely common. It's tragic on a personal level, but we're largely able to ignore the ramifications of these because, legally speaking, such early-term miscarriages "don't count" ... in fact, it appears from the numbers above that many of them happen without the woman even knowing that she's pregnant.

But, under this legislation, those miscarriages are all legally people.

According to the 2010 Mississippi Infant Mortality Report, published by the Mississippi State Department of Health, there are about 10 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births, or about 1% infant mortality. (The CDC lists Mississippi as having a 10% infant mortality rate in 2005, but I can't find confirmation of that.) About 61.6% of these deaths are "neonatal," which means they take place in the first 28 days after birth, and the remaining 38.4% take place between 28 days and the first birthday.

Using 2008 data, it looks like Mississippi has about 44,943 live births per year.

If there are 44,943 live births, then assuming that there were no abortions in Mississippi (there's only one abortion clinic in the whole state, according to NYT), and using the low-end 30% estimate of spontaneous miscarriages before/during implantation (and assuming that all of the remaining 70% make it to term), then that means that the low estimate is 19,261 spontaneous miscarriages within the state of Mississippi within a given year.

Here's the math:
Total fertilized embryos: 44,943 / 70% = 64,204
Miscarried fertilized embryos: 30% of 64,204 = 19,261
Current infant deaths: 1% of 44,943 = 449
Total embryonic & infant deaths: 19,261 + 449 = 19,710
New infant mortality rate: 19,710 / 44,943 = 43.9%

Birth Control Murder
While proponents of the law no doubt are happy to oppose abortion, it's possible that this law will run afoul of more traditional birth control as well. Many forms of birth control, in addition to limiting ovulation, also cause a thinning of the walls of the uterus, meaning that if a woman does ovulate and gets pregnant, then the egg will likely never even implant in the uterus. In these cases, the birth control pill will have resulted in the death of an Embryonic-American. Every woman who is taking the pill is now in danger of accidentally committing murder.

Mississippi: Nanny State
Taken to its extreme - as this law forces the state to do - Mississippi will be forced to make unprecedented legislation to protect its Embryonic-American citizens. Smoking will be outlawed. Drinking is a bit more unclear, since some evidence indicates that modest amounts of alcohol, such as white wine, can be beneficial while pregnant, while clearly drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels isn't beneficial for anybody, embryonic or post-natal. Is jogging while pregnant good or bad?

It would seem like miscarriages would need to be documented with death certificates, and perhaps there would even need to be investigations or autopsies to determine the cause of the prenatal death. So, while dealing with the trauma of a miscarriage, these 19,000+ women who have miscarriages will also have to justify their behavior to the state government.

In all, this personhood for Embryonic-Americans is just flat-out stupid on every level except one - the blatantly political attempt to make abortions illegal. In every other way, it will be (hopefully) ignored, because the consequences of actually following this law are absurd at best and potentially catastrophic at worst.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Wisdom Talk vs. Rules Talk

I don't like rules. It's not so much that I am particularly fond of breaking rules personally. It's just that rules tend to seem rather pointless to me. They can easily take on a life of their own, with the rules perpetuating for their own sake, rather in service to the cause that they were initially created to serve. I find that just trying to make the best choices usually result in better outcomes than trying to follow an elaborate set of rules.

Well, apparently I'm in good company, because Aristotle wrote an entire book - Nicomachean Ethics - on the concept of how to be wise without being inundated in rules. His conclusion was to embrace something called "practical wisdom," and now Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe have tackled this topic in their recent book, Practical Wisdom.

Specifically, Schwarz and Sharpe describe the following traits of a person who is engaged in practical wisdom:
  1. A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims--wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving.
  2. A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
  3. A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context, and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation.
  4. A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another--to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client's (student's, patient's, friend's) needs.
  5. A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for, and to inform judgment without distorting it. He can feel, intuit, or "just know" what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated.
  6. A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling.
Schwartz has given two TED talks on the subject of how our wisdom is becoming impaired.

The biggest challenge in our modern society is that we're supplanting wisdom with elaborate sets of rule. These rules are usually initiated, I think, from a genuine attempt to make things better, but they often don't actually have that effect.

On example from the book is wildfire fighters. In the 1950's, they had four rules to keep themselves safe. Today, they have a detailed list of over 48 rules. The result of all of these extra, detailed rules is that the survival rate has actually dropped! Why? Basically, for two reasons, it seems:

  1. It's harder to keep track of all the rules, no doubt.
  2. With fewer rules, the fire fighters know that they'll have to learn from experience. The detailed list of rules diminishes their reliance on experience.
It's not that rules aren't necessary, because we can't always guarantee that people will choose to be ethical. Rules are in place to minimize damage done by those who are unwilling or unable to act ethically without detailed guidance.

For example, author Michael Lewis has described the recent economic problems worldwide as being caused by people being left alone in a dark room with a pile of money. (This is from his Daily Show interview about his new book, Boomerang.) But that's not the whole problem, either. The problem is that they were left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, and their primary concern was their own self interest, rather than to implement a wise and ethical course of action. The whole point of Lewis' book, for example, is to point out that the cultural landscape of different countries caused them to exploit this situation in different ways.

Schwartz & Sharpe, however, would argue that the ideal situation would have been to have changed the culture. Instead of creating a culture where greed and monetary benefit was the rule, a culture in which ethical considerations - practical wisdom - was key would have meant that the bankers would have brought a different set of priorities to their tasks.

They discuss several differences between the "Rules Talk" that we spend so much time using and the "Wisdom Talk" that we need to begin using:
Rules Talk asks: What are the universal principles that should guide our moral choices? Wisdom Talk asks: What are the proper aims of this activity? Do they conflict in this circumstance? How should they be interpreted or balanced? 
Rules Talk tends to be about absolutes. Wisdom Talk is context talk -- talk about nuance. 
Rules Talk sidelines, or even labels as dangerous, moral imagination and emotion. Wisdom Talk puts them at the center because they allow us to see and understand what needs to be seen and understood. 
Rules Talk ends with determining the right principle or rule to follow. Wisdom Talk ends with determining whether to follow it and how to follow it. 
Rules Talk marginalizes the importance of character traits like courage, patience, determination, self-control, and kindness. Wisdom Talk puts them at the center. 
Rules Talk urges us to consult a text or a code. Wisdom Talk urges us to learn from others who are practically wise. 
Rules Talk is taught by teachers in the classroom. Wisdom Talk is taught by mentors and coaches who are practicing alongside us.
The problem, of course, is that if you don't have rules, then there will be people who are perfectly happy to be unethical, to abuse the system.

Here, I think, the solution is not more rules, but greater transparency.

Rules would not prevent people left alone in a dark room with a pile of money from abusing their position. However, a culture that prizes wisdom together with systems that leave few dark rooms would seriously diminish the dangers of people being able to abuse their positions.

Until we have a more transparent society, though, we'd definitely have a better world if more of us began focusing on Wisdom Talk than Rules Talk.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Philosophy of the Millenium Trilogy

The anthology The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy: Everything is Fire, edited by Eric Bronson, is now available. This features a series of essays on how Stieg Larsson's internationally-bestselling Millenium trilogy explores various philosophical concepts inherent in the rich story laid out in the trilogy: gender roles, sexual morality, vengeance, rape, justice, privacy, and government corruption, just to name a few.

My essay, "Hacker's Republic: Information Junkies in a Free Society," explores the ethics of hacking and how to balance freedom, responsibility, and privacy in the modern technological age. An abbreviated version of the essay was printed in The Philosophers' Magazine issue #54 under the title "Hacker's Ethics," so it should give some sense of the flavor of the full piece.

In the essay, I make the argument that WikiLeaks founder and faceman Julian Assange possesses a lot of the same core traits as the series' protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, and that these traits are intimately tied into why both have become hackers.

But these traits are no longer limited to an eclectic "hacker class" of individuals. It turns out that society as a whole has begun to adopt these ethics, in a trend toward openness on all fronts. Young people have very different ideas about ownership, privacy, and cooperation than past generations, and the interaction of these norms lie at the heart of the Millenium trilogy ... as well as at the heart of the modern, real-world controversies of the behavior of WikiLeaks.

The essay pulls thoughts from several sources, most significantly Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy and David Brin's The Transparent Society, as well as news reports related to WikiLeaks and Assange. Below are links to the original trilogy of books, as well as to the Swedish film version. An American film adaptation of the first book is set to hit theaters on December 21.

Friday, October 14, 2011

In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night, No Birthday Shall Escape My Sight

Today is the release date of the Green Lantern film DVD ... and also my 35th birthday. I am now officially old enough to run for President. Live in fear, America! (For anyone interested, I do have an wish list.)

While I realize the film may not have quite captured the attention of fans as much as it could, I'll take the opportunity of this DVD release to remind everyone that Green Lantern & Philosophy: No Evil Shall Escape This Book is available as part of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. Once again, I'm fortunate enough to have an appearance in it. I love reading these sorts of books, so am equally pleased to get involved with them when they're based on subject matter that I enjoy.

This time my essay is the closing piece, which I'm interpreting as a good thing. Editors likely want the best essays at either the beginning or the end. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

The essay, "Magic and Science in the Green Lantern Mythos: Clarke's Laws, the Starheart, and Emotional Energy," focuses on the role of science in the Green Lantern storyline ... or, more specifically, the lack of it. Though the Guardians of the Universe (the creators of the Green Lantern Corps and their fancy power rings) are depicted as having accumulated all known scientific knowledge in the universe, they don't actually function at all like scientists, but instead act like a secretive cabal of mystics or gnostics. I also spend a fair amount of time discussing the Starheart, which is the semi-sentient magical energy that the Guardians gathered up and "contained" in the early days of the universe, and which form the basis of the powers for Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott.

It was fun to write the article and to use this great setting to highlight some of the key concepts in science.

So, even if you hated the move, I still recommend that you check out the book.

Related Articles:

And, of course, you could also buy the Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital copy of the film, if you're into that sort of thing:

Monday, October 10, 2011

Two Great YA Trilogies Continue: Goliath and Crossed released

Over the last couple of years, I've found myself reading a lot of young adult fiction ... and you know what, it's pretty darn good stuff. This is odd, because since the 6th grade I've really been reading mostly adult fiction. As a kid, I focused on things like Asimov, Niven, Clarke, Bova, Heinlein (not the kid's stuff), and so on, and it was only later that I went back to read some of the classic young adult literature.

This fall there'll be the release of two new books which continue established series that I've quite enjoyed. Here they are!

Steampunk World War

The third book of Scott Westerfeld's fascinating steampunk/biopunk alternate World War I young adult trilogy (that's a mouthful) is now out. I discussed the first and second books, Leviathan and Behemoth, back at the beginning of the year, so I'm definitely looking forward to how things come to a resolution in Goliath.

Can't Dictate Love

I'm also looking forward to Crossed, the second book in Ally Condie's Matched trilogy (which began, understandably enough, with Matched). This book is set in a dystopian future where marriages are arranged by the state, focusing on Cassia, who falls in love with someone that she's not "supposed" to. (As revealed in the first book, things are a bit more complex than that, but you get the idea.) The book ended with her separated from her love and in this sequel we get to see what happens. The first book was very low on action, but I think there's a good chance that this book will have more action, because the first book left off with Cassia leaving the safety of the city. What was great about the first book is that it could have been a very simplistic romance triangle and it quickly became clear that the author wasn't going that simple route, but was instead going to delve into some real worldbuilding and social analysis. I can't wait to see what happens!

Crossed will be released on Nov. 1.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Independent Thoughts on the Last Republican Debate

Primary debates are very interesting for someone who doesn't care what party someone is, because they're specifically geared to pull at the emotions of those who are already in one regions of the political landscape. The recent Presidential debate had a lot of expected moments, but some unexpected ones, and some which I think can be used as springboards for more genuinely understanding the politics behind this little experiment we call America.

Note: I'm pulling any quotes below from this CNN transcript of the event, and I've read the debate fact-checking on both Politifact and, as well as from the ever-entertaining and very-right-leaning conversation taking place on Facebook's General Election 2012 group. Also, I've only found one place that contains the whole CNN/Tea Party Express debate, although it's broken up into a lot of smaller videos.

There'll be another debate tonight - Thursday, September 22, at 9:00 pm ET - run by FoxNews/Google. You can view it streaming online live at this link at 9:00 pm ET. This one will feature the libertarian Gary Johnson, governor of New Mexico, who is a social liberal, fiscal conservative, and seems far saner than Ron Paul. We'll see.

Now, on to my thoughts and commentary on the last debate:

1. The HPV Issue

One issue that's gotten a lot of press was the fact that Rick Perry, as governor of Texas, signed an executive order requiring that girls in the state get a vaccine against the Human Paploma Virus (HPV), which is a sexually-transmitted virus that has been linked to certain forms of cervical cancer. There is voluminous scientific evidence that HPV is very wide-spread, occurring as often as in 50% of sexually-active adults. In other words, if you have sex, there's a very good chance that you'll be exposed to HPV.

Now, I have always considered the debate over HPV to be fairly silly, the ramblings of anti-government puritans who fear that children will become sexually active if told their risk of getting cervical cancer in 30 years is diminished ... but Rick Santorum (of all people) framed it in a way that I think actually has some legal, constitutional, and even logical merit:
Why do we inoculate people with vaccines in public schools? Because we're afraid of those diseases being communicable between people at school. And therefore, to protect the rest of the people at school, we have vaccinations to protect those children.  
Unless Texas has a very progressive way of communicating diseases in their school by way of their curriculum, then there is no government purpose served for having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government. This is big government run amok. It is bad policy, and it should not have been done. 
The legal justification for mandating innoculation is not to protect that one person, but to protect all of the other people who will get sick if they're exposed to that person's illness. As such, a State does not have the right to implement it. Michelle Bachmann echoed this idea:
... to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong. That should never be done. It's a violation of a liberty interest.
Now, the overall trend of these attacks is on the idea that Perry implemented this as an executive order, which means it never came up for debate in the legislature, and was more of a decree than an actual law... however, as the next point point brings up, even legislation can be dictatorial.

2. When States Attack 

In attacking Romney's "Romneycare" plan (the Massachusetts plan which provided the framework for much of Obamacare, implemented when Romney was a governor of Massachusetts), Michelle Bachmann took a hard line against the government's right to mandate that citizens buy health insurance:
... no state has the constitutional right to force a person as a condition of citizenship to buy a product or service against their will. It's unconstitutional...  (APPLAUSE) ... whether it's the state government or whether it's the federal government
So, here we have two things that the state can mandate which Michelle Bachmann seems to believe are fundamentally against individual liberty. Both Romney and Perry have suggested that they are states' rights issues, and were good for their states, but that similar plans on a national level are unconstitutional, because the Tenth Amendment leaves all rights not expressly granted in the Constitution with the states.

Here is my question:
Based on a strict reading, does the Constitution allow the federal government to strike down an unjust state law?
Obviously, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has done this many times - especially in the last century and a half - but this is always a fundamental dividing line between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats feel SCOTUS should have this power, Republicans typically do not. When the court legislates in this manner, the justices are dismissively called "activist judges."

But what if a state implemented an unjust law, then would those who vote it down still be "activist judges?" If SCOTUS overturned Massachusetts' health insurance mandate, would they be violating their Constitutional limitations or defending the liberty of a people who are being oppressed by their state government?

Of course, this question could also be asked about slavery, executions, Jim Crow laws, treatment of women, homosexuals, the mentally handicapped, and other legislation that some states have considered fine and others consider oppressive in some way.

I'd love a Constitutional purist/states' rights advocate to explain what I'm missing on this one and what, if any, role the federal government has to play in such a scenario.

3. Romney & Capital Gains

This was the one aspect of the debate which I found swayed me toward a candidate instead of away from them. Here is Romney's response to a question about a flat tax rate:
The idea of a national sales tax or a consumption tax has a lot to go for it. One, it would make us more competitive globally, as we send products around the world, because under the provisions of the World Trade Organization, you can reimburse that to an exporter. We can't reimburse our taxes right now. It also would level the playing field in the country, making sure everybody is paying some part of their fair share. But the way the fair tax has been structured, it has a real problem and that is it lowers the burden on the very highest income folks and the very lowest and raises it on middle income people. And the people who have been hurt most by the Obama-economy are the middle class.

Back in 2008, I spoke fairly highly of the Fair Tax, which was a flat tax bill that had some enthusiastic support among conservative commentators such as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. I liked that the Fair Tax removed all tax burden from the poor, and the notion of taxing consumption rather than income seems just philosophically like a more egalitarian approach.

Until, as Romney points out, you actually run the numbers. What you find really happens is that the tax burden on the poor and the wealthy tend to drop heavily, but the middle class is saddled with a huge tax burden. (I also personally question the validity of many of the economic assumptions behind the Fair Tax, especially in light of the bang-up job economists have done managing the economy over the last decade.)

Romney continues with a proposal that intrigues me:
And so my plan is to take the middle class individuals and dramatically reduce their taxes by the following measure. And that is for middle income Americans, no tax on interest, dividends or capital gains.
If this was handled right, I think this might be a really good tax reform proposal. It depends on how you are dividing "middle income Americans." The benefit is obviously that it will allow low and middle income Americans to keep more money, and this seems like a good way to give a tax break.

However, if Romney extends this exemption too high, then it becomes yet another tax break for the wealthy, and one which they don't need. Capital gains tax rates are not huge. As Warren Buffett said in an interview last month, current capital gains taxes are great for the wealthy.
Well, I think -- what really gives the low rates to the very rich like me is the -- is the low tax on dividends and capital gains.  If you take these rich people what the IRS singles out, from 1992, they’ve almost had a tenfold increase in capital gains.  They’ve had a tenfold increase almost in dividends.  And those -- those are taxed at 15 percent and there’s no payroll tax on it.  Now, the payroll tax accounts for almost as much revenue to the government as the income tax.  It’s close -- $800 billion plus on payroll taxes last year; about $900 billion on income taxes.  That’s where the money comes from in Washington.
The argument in favor of reducing these rates, even among the wealthy, is often that they'll encourage investment, but Buffett sort of refutes that argument based on his experience:
I’ve worked with capital gains rates of 39.9 percent and 36 percent and 25 percent, I have yet to hear one person say to me, "If I call you in the middle of the night Charlie and I say Charlie I’ve got this hot investment idea."  Your reaction is not to say "No matter what the tax rate, forget it, I’m going back to sleep because the capital gains rates are too high."  No, what you’re going to do is you’re going to say, "Tell me the name, quick, Warren, before you change your mind."  And you know, I have never had one person decline to invest with me. 
Okay, I do question that last sentence as perhaps a bit of hyperbole, or maybe he meant "decline to invest with me [because of the capital gains tax]". Still, overall I think this is probably very true. My guess would be that during Mitt Romney's years in the private sector, the capital gains tax was never a cause for someone to avoid investing in one of his businesses, either.

Buffet does a great job of laying out the distinction in how these tax rates get distributed, based on the way your money comes to you:
If you make money with money, you get taxed ... at very low rates; 15 percent dividends in capital gains.  No payroll tax.  If you make money with muscle or hard work or sweat of your brow, you get taxed at rates that move on up.  And most of the people, the middle-class gets taxed at rates of either 15 percent or 25 percent on their income tax, but then they get really hit hard on the payroll tax and that’s what brings the rates in our office up to an average of 36 percent if you leave me out.
Middle income earners, of course, can still "make money with money," in which case they'd get hit with both the payroll tax AND the capital gains tax. If you're talking about someone making a low 3-figure salary, perhaps married, with kids and a mortgage, that could be crippling. So I think reducing the capital gains - in a way that's either got a cap on the amount excluded or has an exemption tied to income - has a lot to go for it.

And, honestly, it strikes me as a common sense plan that could be consistent with both liberal and conservative values, depending on how it were implemented. It's a shame that the government's not going to do anything useful until after the election, or maybe we could get this passed.

4. Herman Cain's Regulatory Reform

I really like Herman Cain. He's a businessman and so says what he thinks. He's the idea guy. And his ideas usually are interesting and make some sense ... until you think about them for 10 seconds.

In the last debate, he said, when responding to how he would handle energy exploration:
I would put together a regulatory reduction commission for every agency starting with the EPA. This regulatory reduction commission -- one of my guiding principles is if you want to solve a problem go to the source closest to the problem. So the people that I would appoint to that commission will be people who have been abused by the EPA. That would be the commission that would straighten out the regulatory burden.
On the surface, this sounds rather sane ... again, until you think about it for five seconds. His "guiding principle" is "if you want to solve a problem go to the source closest to the problem." So, who does he go to in order to solve EPA regulation problems? "People who have been abused by the EPA."

In other words, the group in charge of re-defining EPA regulations would be the people that the EPA has designated as having had the worst track-record of following EPA regulation.

It seems like Cain basically believes that the EPA just shouldn't do it's job, which is fine ... but he's going to use this strategy to "put together a regulatory reduction commission for every agency."

Who is going to be on the regulatory reduction commission for the Pentagon? The people who have been abused by the Pentagon? Does this mean terrorists will be on the commission?

Will criminals be reviewing Justice Department regulations?

Like I said ... his plans sound good, until you take a few seconds to think them through.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

This September 11, Reject the Enemy Meme

A year ago, I posted the following message on Facebook and my 40 Days of Giving blog:
I have no enemies. There are people out there who want me, or those I love, dead for some abstract reason, but such a person is not my enemy. I wish them no ill. I have no deeper desire than that they find something in their life that brings them pure love, joy, and peace. I wish for them - as I wish for my sons, dearest friends, and myself - nothing but the best that the world has to offer.
That was how I commemorated the ninth anniversary of September 11, and I think it well sums up the sentiments I'm feeling come this anniversary.

The world makes more sense if we can draw lines between ourselves and others, and declare the people on the other side of that line the enemy. They are bad and we are good. We are heroes and they are villains.

I call this the "enemy meme" - the idea that these lines have real meaning, and that this "enemy" designation has some sort of real value, that it somehow helps make the world a better or safer place. (In fairness, after September 11, even I fell victim to embracing the "enemy meme" for several years.)

In the realm of politics, the "enemy meme" is especially prevalent, and we're such a politically charged society that it's hard to avoid it. Consider the recent case with union leader Jimmy Hoffa Jr. calling Republicans "Sons of Bitches" and invoking militant terminology, about becoming an army in support of the Democrats. In this vivid scenario, the Republicans are the enemy, and the union forces are the heroic army.

Does such talk really help anybody, including the people making them?

I don't think so. These attempts to dehumanize others, to build a wall, never lead to any sort of reconciliation or healing. When they are invoked, though, I don't think that reconciliation or healing is the goal. I suspect that Jimmy Hoffa Jr., when he spoke those lines, cared little about healing the economic problems of the country. I suspect that when militant terminology was invoked by Republican candidates in the 2010 midterms, those candidates were more concerned with winning than with reconciliation or healing.

I think such efforts are fundamentally misguided, and here's why:
Life isn't a zero-sum game. You don't win by making the other guys lose. You win by figuring out a way to make even more people come out ahead.

Back to September 11 and the War on Terror. Consider that the fighting has resulted in the death of 30,000 Pakistani civilians, upward of 4,000 Afghanistan civilians, upward of 98,000 Iraqi civilians, as well as the death of nearly 6,000 American soldiers (in both Afghanistan and Iraq). That's over 138,000 deaths of people who were in no way connected to the 9/11 attacks, and the overall impact, when taking into account the wounded, is far above that. Even if you question the methodology used (perhaps "civilian" includes non-uniformed enemy combatants or something), even scaled back to just 25% of that count, you'd still get 34,500 deaths!

Think about it again:
It would have taken nearly 12 to 46 successful September-11-scale attacks to equal the total innocent death toll of the response to September 11.
Now, I am not arguing that we shouldn't have taken out the Taliban or Osama bin Laden, and certainly that we shouldn't act in our nation's security interests. I'm just pointing out that, by the numbers, the war following September 11 has been much more devastating than the event itself.

While the attacks on September 11 were tragic, the response - the loss of life, and also the growth of hatred and animosity - has been just as tragic, if not more so. When we think of 9/11, it's our obligation to those who died to think of all of the victims, not just the ones who died that day.

The most profound stories of healing and overcoming the tragedy, I find, are the ones about the people who refuse to accept the "enemy meme" that so many of us are so ready to embrace:

Consider the two 9/11 widows - both pregnant at the time of the 2001 attacks - who began a charity, Beyond the 11th, to help Afghanistan widows, as chronicled in the documentary Beyond Belief (also available for streaming through Netflix or purchase through Amazon and other retailers). They have recognized that their healing lies in serving the victims on the other side of the tragedy.

Or the mother of a 9/11 victim who has established a friendship with the mother of one of the convicted 9/11 co-conspirators. They describe their friendship - an active symbol of the most profound forgiveness imaginable - in the TED video embedded below.

And, finally, consider another TED video, this one by the Muslim Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of the Islamic-based comic book The 99, which features 99 heroes from around the world, each of whom has a different power based on 99 virtues that the Koran states are inherent in the nature of Allah. (At least that's my understanding of the religious connection to the series, based on Al-Mutawa's 2010 TED talk.) From within the Muslim community, he is attempting to speak out against the view of "us" against "them" to propose a profound message of unity and peace, of cooperation, toward a brighter future. He refuses to acknowledge the "enemy" role with which the militant fanatics in the Muslim world attempt to brand the non-Muslim world.

The enemy isn't a religion, or even men who want to kill us for whatever reason. The true enemy is the hatred that makes them want to kill us. Yes, of course, we must defend ourselves against those who would act on that hatred, but it is the hatred that we must figure out how to abolish.

I believe that the only true enemy is the ideology of hatred, no matter what tradition it is rooted in.

This September 11, I hope you agree.

And, if you don't, you still aren't my enemy (though I suspect that your ideology may be), and I still wish you nothing but the most profound happiness in life. I believe it can only be found in loving others - all others - as much as you possibly can ... and then doing it a little bit more.

Give it a try for a time and I am certain you'll be surprised with how good it feels.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Being Literal, In the Figurative Sense

Years ago, a dear friend of mine described one of his pet peeves:

people who use the word "literally" incorrectly

Specifically, I recall him describing a prolonged conversation with a Taco Bell employee who complained that his car was "literally" a piece of shit and would not understand that, while his car might be very junky, it was not possible for it to be "literally a piece of shit" and also to be a car. It had to be either one or the other. (Or, I suppose, a piece of shit shaped like a car.)

Ever since then, I've caught myself becoming frustrated when I hear the word "literally" used incorrectly, when the word "figuratively" is what is intended.

Well, little did I know that there's a name for it, as outlined by Steven Pinker in his book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Here's the relevant passage, where he's discussing people who gain:
... entry into the club called AWFUL - Americans Who Figuratively Use "Literally." The charter member was Rabbi Baruch Korff, a defender of Richard Nixon during his Watergate ordeal, who at one point protested, "The American press has literally emasculated President Nixon."
Another fun one that I heard recently was on PBS' Frontline episode "The Warning," about the woman who in the late 1990s sounded the alarm about the housing finance crisis. Here's a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Susskind, describing the situation in which this woman found herself when going up against Alan Greenspan and others on this issue:
... she is literally in the crossfire of an amazing number of bullets.
Unless Greenspan is a lot more cutthroat than described in the documentary, this is certainly not "literally" true. But if this sort of statement can be made by a Pulitzer-winner, there's hope for the rest of us!

Such fun little tangents are frequent in Pinker's book, which presents the over-arching argument that language provides us with a window into fundamental human nature. Along the way, however, he addresses a lot of linguistic peculiarities, including the origin of swearing, one of the more fun chapters (especially listening to it in audiobook version).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Behemoth - World War Steampunk

Scott Westerfeld has created a brilliant steampunk alternate history, where forces wielding darwinian monsters clash with mechanical monstrosities, in his new trilogy, which started with the 2009 release of Leviathan and continues with the 2010 book Behemoth. This trilogy has some valuable lessons about history, class structure, gender roles, biology, and mechanics. And, like Westerfeld's previous Uglies trilogy, it's a ripping good yarn ... although it takes a bit of build-up to reach that point.

It Starts with Leviathan

First, the backstory:
In the real world, there was this big war around the beginning of the last century which they called The Great War, but which we now call World War I. It began with the assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand, on June 28, 1914, but there were a lot of secret treaties and things that played into the mix. Also assassinated on that date (though I didn't know it until reading Leviathan) was Ferdinand's wife, Sophie Chotek, who was not nearly as noble as the Archduke. They left behind three children.
That is pretty much where reality is left behind, because in this version of the story there is only one child, Aleksandar. After his parents are assassinated, he is secreted away in a giant war machine by his father's closest friends and allies, because it turns out that the Germans orchestrated the assassination of the Archduke in order to have an excuse for war. They want to put Aleksandar under house arrest and probably kill him. For reasons which are not clear until toward the end of Leviathan, it is vitally important that Aleksandar not be captured or killed, because he actually has the potential to end the war. I won't give it away, because it's a clever plot twist.

Meanwhile, there is a tangential story about a girl named Deryn who is impersonating a boy in order to join the British Air Service. She is stationed aboard a genetically-engineered living airship, the Leviathan, the largest airship in the BAS. The Leviathan sets sail to take part in the new war that's breaking out.

The most annoying thing about the first book is that it takes so long for these two divergent plot threads to connect together. Alek is running all over Austria-Hungary trapped in a tin can with legs while Deryn is riding around on a flying whale. War is imminent, shots have been fired, but neither seems in a position to really do much about it until the very end, when the two plot threads do come together.

Fortunately, the second book more than makes up for any frustrations in the first one ... but first, a side note on the setting.
Original novel artwork.
New artwork from paperback edition
is shown below.

Nature vs. Machine

As you may have noticed, I've dropped some phrases like "giant war machine" and "genetically-engineered living airship" as if they made sense, when obviously such things didn't exist in 1914. As Westerfeld explains in the "Afterward" to Leviathan, the first armored fighting machines (i.e. tanks) didn't actually enter the war until 1916. The versions in Leviathan don't run on treads, though, they're giant mechanical constructs that walk on two or more legs. Their aptitude at creating these mechanical creatures have resulted in the people of Germany and Austria-Hungary to become known as the Clankers.

The people of Britain, on the other hand, are Darwinists, who weave the "threads of life" (in other words, DNA) to create living machines, such as "message lizards" which can follow complicated commands and deliver a precise verbal message. The machines are not intelligent, not self-aware, but they are useful.

And they are also, to the Clankers, unholy abominations. The separation between the Darwinists and the Clankers is fundamentally a religious and spiritual one. The Darwinists view themselves as utilizing the scientific powers of nature in a noble way, while the Clankers think they're subverting the order of the natural world and defying God.

There are obvious parallels here with modern concepts of technological progress, genetic manipulation, bioethics, and spirituality, but they don't get belabored in the book and I certainly don't intend to belabor them here. I'll get into the sequel, after the official book trailer (which you may, of course, feel free to skip).

On to Behemoth

The first book ends with Deryn and Aleksandar both on board the Leviathan. (To find out how that happens, you'll have to read the book.) Alek knows, however, that he's technically an enemy, since he's an Austrian nobleman. The British need him (again, you'll have to read to find out why), but he's soon to outlive his usefulness, at which point he will be either sent back to England or at least be locked in a brig somewhere until the war is over.

The Leviathan heads to Istanbul (not Constantinople) to extend a peace offering to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. See, Winston Churchill has commandeered a ship that was grown for the Ottomans, and they're not too happy about it. They have already paid for it, after all. (This is based on a real event, although in the real world it was a warship and not a genetic creation.)

Seeing his chance, Alek makes a break for it. In Istanbul, he is forced to really decide how he wants to approach this war, what side he wants to be on, and whether or not he's in a position to make a real difference. He also reveals all of his secrets to Deryn ... who is still keeping one rather large secret from him, in the form of her gender (and her romantic interest in him).

All of the groundwork that Westerfeld spent establishing the character relationships in the first book pays off in this the sequel. When I finished the first book, I honestly wasn't completely certain what I felt about it. It was good, but not phenomenal as a stand-alone effort. It established a rich world, full of potential, but I knew that the success of the trilogy hinged on the second book knocking things out of the park.

Behemoth takes this potential and leverages it into a wild ride through a dynamic world that contains both war beasts and combat machines, including strange devices like a Tesla cannon! It more than eliminates the doubts I had after completing the first book.

Honestly, after reading Behemoth my only complaint is that this is still being promoted as a trilogy, and I don't see how he can resolve everything in just one more book. Things just started getting good and I, for one, would like to see the concept drawn out a bit, the world explored in more depth. My vote would be for about 5 books.

(You don't want to stretch these things out too far, else you fall into the trap of Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series, which started in 1987, has 6 books out, and still isn't done.)


This is a rich series in fully-realized alternate history setting. It can be appreciated on a number of levels, and I personally think that this trilogy would be perfect to structure some sort of inter-disciplinary enrichment around. Students could read the trilogy, then have discussions about the historical and social aspects of the novels, as well as the literary ones. It's rare when a trilogy can spark discussions about the bioethical considerations in genetic manipulation and the morality of warfare at the same time.

Or, of course, you could just read the book and enjoy it, without going in for all of the subtext.

You could ... but why would you really want to?

Monday, January 03, 2011

2010 Reading List

As always, I like to recap the year in the form of the books that I've read, which often provide some indication of how my year is going and how my thinking has been transformed over the year. I read 21 books and also listened to 39 audiobooks, for a resounding 60 books consumed.

  1. Life After Death: The Evidence by Dinesh D'Souza (audiobook)
  2. The Third Jesus by Deepak Chopra (audiobook)
  3. Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (audiobook)
  4. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown (audiobook)
  5. Excuses Begone by Dr. Wayne Dyer (audiobook)
  6. The Biology of Belief by Bruce H. Lipton, Ph.D. (audiobook)
  7. The Secrets of an Inspirational (In-Spirit) Life by Dr. Wayne Dyer (audiobook)
  8. The Generosity Factor by Ken Blanchard & S. Truett Cathy (audiobook)
  9. Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World by Bill Clinton (audiobook)
  10. The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness edited by Dacher Keltner, Jeremy Adam Scott, and Jason Marsh
  11. The New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle (audiobook)
  12. Thank You Power: Making the Science of Gratitude Work for You by Deborah Norville (audiobook)
  13. The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (audiobook)
  14. God Has a Dream by Desmund Tutu (audiobook)
  15. The Power of Giving: How Giving Back Enriches Us All by Azim Jamal & Harvey McKinnon
  16. How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein
  17. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (audiobook)
  18. Pretties by Scott Westerfeld (audiobook)
  19. The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness by Stephen R. Covey (audiobook)
  20. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner
  21. Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr (audiobook)
  22. Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot by Julian Dibbell (audiobook)
  23. Specials by Scott Westerfield (audiobook)
  24. From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll
  25. WWW: Watch by Robert J. Sawyer
  26. Extras by Scott Westerfeld (audiobook)
  27. The Power of Serving Others: You Can Start Where You Are by Gary Morsch and Dean Nelson
  28. Ink Exchange by Melissa Marr (audiobook)
  29. Fragile Eternity by Melissa Marr (audiobook)
  30. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (audiobook)
  31. The Magicians by Lev Grossman (audiobook)
  32. Identity Theft and Other Stories by Robert J. Sawyer
  33. The Shadow Effect by Deepak Chopra, Debbie Ford, and Marianne Williamson (audiobook)
  34. New Rules for the New Economy by Kevin Kelly
  35. Philanthrocapitalism by Matthew Bishop & Michael Green
  36. Singularity Sky by Charles Stross (audiobook)
  37. The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal
  38. Mendela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage by Richard Stengel (audiobook)
  39. Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross (audiobook)
  40. 29 Gifts by Camille Walker
  41. Spook: The Science of the Afterlife by Mary Roach (audiobook)
  42. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  43. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
  44. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Next by Stieg Larsson (audiobook)
  45. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (audiobook)
  46. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  47. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach (audiobook)
  48. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow (audiobook)
  49. The Mermaid's Madness by Jim C. Hines
  50. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (audiobook)
  51. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever edited by Christopher Hitchens (audiobook)
  52. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't by Stephen Prothero (audiobook)
  53. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed by Sean Williams (abridged audiobook)
  54. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II by Sean Williams (audiobook)
  55. Keeper of Dreams by Orson Scott Card
  56. Clementine by Cherie Priest
  57. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  58. Matched by Ally Condie
  59. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  60. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris (audiobook)