Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Books Read

End of the year, so time for my annual accounting. Here are the books I read in 2013.

The Book List
  1. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
  2. Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There by Professor Richard Wiseman
  3. Edge of the Universe: A Voyage to the Cosmic Horizon and Beyond by Paul Halpern
  4. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- But Some Don't by Nate Silver
  5. The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics by Leonard Susskind and George Hrabovsky
  6. War of the Worldviews: Where Science and Spirituality Meet -- and Do Not by Leonard Mlodinow and Deepak Chopra
  7. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
  8. Save Our Science by Anissa Ramirez
  9. Existence by David Brin
  10. Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer
  11. Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin
  12. Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines
  13. The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level (In Real Life) by Chris Hardwick
  14. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich
  15. America Again: Re-discovering the Greatness We Never Weren't by Stephen Colbert
  16. Bones of the Old Ones by Howard Andrew Jones
  17. The Gospel of Falling Down: The Beauty of Failure, in an Age of Success by Mark Townsend
  18. The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose
  19. Happy This Year!: The Secret to Getting Happy Once and For All by Will Bowen
  20. Eternal Life: A New Vision by Bishop John Shelby Spong
  21. Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
  22. Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole
  23. Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking by D.Q. McInerny
  24. Popper by Frederic Raphael
  25. Logic: A Brief Insight by Graham Priest
  26. Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain by Werner R. Loewenstein
  27. What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell
  28. Writing Fantasy Heroes edited by Jason M. Waltz
  29. Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  30. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence by Ray Kurzweil
  31. Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton
  32. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
  33. Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole
  34. Redshirts by John Scalzi
  35. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  36. Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge edited by Max Brockman
  37. The Companions by R.A. Salvatore
  38. The Godborn by Paul S. Kemp
  39. The Case for God by Karen Armstrong
  40. Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson
  41. What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel
  42. Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman
  43. Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein by Mario Livio
  44. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
  45. Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson
  46. Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez & Gary S. Stager
  47. Still Foolin' 'Em by Billy Crystal
  48. The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics by David Harriman and Leonard Peikoff
  49. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
  50. What's Next: Dispatches from the Future of Science edited by Max Brockman
  51. Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn
  52. Codex Born by Jim Hines
  53. Meditations on Mystery: Science, Paradox, and Contemplative Spirituality by George W. Wolfe
  54. Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

  • Audiobooks: 22
  • Kindle: 18
    • Kindle Singles (mini-books/solo essays): 1
    • Kindle Lending Library: 5
  • Dead tree books: 14
  • Total Fiction: 15
    • Science Fiction: 4
    • Fantasy: 11
      • Urban/Modern Fantasy: 4
      • Traditional Fantasy: 4
      • Sword & Sorcery: 2
      • Young Adult: 1
      • Steampunk: 0
  • Non-Fiction: 39
    • Science: 17
      • Physics: 9
      • Psychology: 8
      • Biology: 5
      • Technology: 4
      • Math/Statistics: 3
    • Religion: 11
    • History: 5
    • Politics: 4
    • Education: 2
    • Economics: 4
    • Business: 2
    • Philosophy: 10
    • Humor: 4
    • Writing: 1
These numbers don't quite match up, because some books cover multiple areas, and so I've included them in all relevant categories. So, for example, a book on the psychological foundations of religious belief (of which I read a few this year) would fall in both Psychology and Religion categories.

The History

And for anyone who is interested in looking into the past to see some of my previous book lists...
Prior to 2008, I didn't keep a precise record, so they aren't listed anywhere.

Friday, August 30, 2013

A Child's Ontological(ish) Argument for God's Existence

It's the metal detectors.
He contains all things,
so they just go crazy when he enters the building.
This is where my mind drifts when I'm driving home from dropping my son off at school:

Peanut butter is the best thing ever.
God is the best thing ever.
Therefore, God is peanut butter.
Peanut butter exists.
Therefore, God exists.

This proof, of course, can be adapted for your favorite food of choice.

Side note: If your favorite food is spaghetti, this also serves to prove the necessary existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Ender's Empathy

With the film coming out in November, it's the season for Ender's Game promotional material ... including Wiley publishing's Ender's Game and Philosophy: The Logic Gate is Down (Amazon, B&N). Since Ender's Game is one of my favorite novels from my teenage years, it was especially a privilege to tackle some of the themes in the book as an adult. My essay in the collection has the following title:

"The Enemy's Gate is Down: 
Perspective, Empathy, and Game Theory" 

As the title indicates, my main goal in the essay is to discuss how one's perspective on a conflict determines how one responds to it.

For example, game theory requires the participants to be able to understand their opponents motivations and possible outcomes, so that they can rationally determine what the "enemy" is going to do. In Ender's Game, this manifests through Ender's empathy, wherein he often seems to be able to intuitively grasp on a very deep level what his opponents want and need. As Ender says:
In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.
In the essay, also I put forth the idea that Ender really faces four different types of conflicts within the book, which I classify as follows:
  1. Military
  2. Leadership
  3. Vendettas
  4. Rebellion
Re-reading the book as an adult, I now see that much of Card's brilliance in crafting the story is how these different conflicts play off each other. This all relates back to Graff's upon Ender's arrival at Battle School:
There’s only one thing that will make them stop hating you. And that’s being so good at what you do that they can’t ignore you. I told them you were the best. Now you damn well better be.
Ender's only way of overcoming his isolation is through victories in leadership and military battles. However, Ender's military successes also serve to escalate the vendetta conflicts. When Ender finally "resolves" the vendettas, his conflict turns into a rebellion against the school authorities, which prompts his final battle room battle.

None of Ender's victories come without an escalation in one of the other areas.

And then, of course, I do have a bit of a discussion of game theory itself and how it relates to the situations described in the book. I touched on some of these similar general themes in my essay for The Hunger Games and Philosophy, which I discussed here. Both stories feature protagonists who are in no-win situations, playing games that they don't want to play anymore ... and their final response is, in many ways, similar: to ignore the rules of the game. It is only in abandoning the construct of the game that they are able to truly find victory (although, for both Katniss and Ender, this victory carries a hefty cost).

Ender's Game and Philosophy touches on a lot of deep themes which are inherent in Ender's, from the morality of warfare to the ethical responsibilities of caring for children to global geopolitical manipulation. If you enjoyed the book and want to learn more about these and other themes, then check it out.

And if you are concerned about the moral consequences of buying this book, I guess I should say this: this is an unofficial collection of essays and, as such, no proceeds from sales of the book go to Orson Scott Card. Just in case you're boycotting.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Geek & Sundry Vlog Challenge #2: Battery Licking Fun

Around noon today, I hit 1,000 votes on the Geek & Sundry vlog contest. My science vlog is still around 20th place out of 30 (actually, out of 29, looks like).

(At least) once a day!
(Plus, you can watch the video at that link, too.)

Ten of the vloggers will get spots on the Geek & Sundry vlogger channel line-up. I spent most of the first week of the contest in 27th place, but have had a good rally since Monday, when I put a proposal out there that if we reached 1,000 votes by midnight on Friday, July 19 - that's today - then I'd record, sing, edit, and post a music video of me performing the 1980's classic "She Blinded Me With Science."

Music video coming

My initial thought upon reaching 1,000 votes was to try to record the video tonight and get it up over the weekend, in an attempt to drive more voting with a little bit of viral buzz. But, honestly, I'd like to do a good job with it and not rush things, plus give myself enough time that I can get some friends to show up in the video if they'd like. So the video will be coming ... hopefully early next week. I'm hoping to film over the weekend and have it finished up on Monday, but I'm not willing to commit to it, since I will be trying to use some video editing techniques that are new to me.

Second Challenge

In the meantime, to keep everyone motivated, I have a second offer to put out there:  If my votes reach 1,500 by the end of the contest on Monday (1:00 pm Eastern/10:00 am Pacific) then ...

I will film a video of me licking a 9-volt battery. 

If anyone's concerned that this is dangerous ... it is, but only a very little bit. I got the idea for this one from Gever Tulley's 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).

So stay motivated. Keep voting. Spread the word. If you do, then I promise ... I will do something stupid and mildly discomforting.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Geek & Sundry Vlog Contest Update

Things are going great on the Geek & Sundry vlog contest.

Okay, not so much great as ... much better than a few days ago. I've gone from 27th place in the rankings to 23rd, and am only two spots behind the other science vlog on the list! If we keep up the momentum we're gaining, and possibly get some more exposure, then great!

For background, I have a science vlog that is in the running as a finalist for inclusion on the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel as a regularly recurring slot in their schedule. Twice a month science vlogs! Very awesome.

Want to help? Vote here!

The Last Few Days ... And How You Can Help Humiliate Me

What contributed to the recent rally? I think I had a fairly good showing on the Potential Vlogger Hangouts #6 video (linked below) that I participated in on Sunday afternoon, but ...

Honestly, I watched the 5 Potential Vlogger Hangouts before mine, and pretty much everybody was awesome. I think there were maybe a couple of people who probably didn't gain a lot of supporters, but I've gotta admit that I was really hoping for some people to just really suck and lose all support, and none of them did. Even on subjects that I personally didn't find interesting, I tended to find the contestants very personable, compelling, and likable ... which just makes it all the more difficult to root for their downfall.

Anyway, here's the potential vlogger hangout that I was in, along with Nik & Mike of "Based On" and the video game fashion girl Amanda:

In this Hangout, we were asked for a theme song. I chose "She Blinded Me With Science." So on Monday morning, I was trying to think of a way to spur on a rally over the last week of voting ... and here's what I came up with:

I pledged that if I had 1,000 votes by midnight on July 19, I would record, sing, edit, and post a music video of "She Blinded Me With Science."

And as of right now, we are making progress toward hitting that goal, and I'm pretty sure the promise to humiliate myself has had a lot to do with this.

More Humiliation Needed?

I also just discovered that the voting is going to be extended beyond Friday, over the weekend (and possibly into Monday ... still awaiting clarification on that).

So, here's the question ... does anyone have any tips on techniques that I can implement in an attempt to rally even more votes over the next 5 or so days? Bribes that I can offer? Blackmail I can implement? Anything?

If we hit 1,000 by midnight on July 19 - and we may be on track for that target - then what should come next? My inclination is to offer some other tantalizing reward if we reach 2,000 votes by midnight on Friday.

Any suggestions? The floor is yours!

Monday, July 01, 2013

Vlogging Success at Geek & Sundry

Today, I received an e-mail telling me that my audition video for the Geek & Sundry vlog channel has been selected to be among the 30 vlogs that move on to the second round of voting. My theme for a vlog was ... Science!

But my aim isn't to do cool science experiments, because - while cool - there's absolutely no shortage of such demonstrations on the internet (and they require a lot of clean-up). Instead, my focus is on the overall culture of science, the way scientific discoveries build on each other, why scientists work the way they do, and so on. Here's my initial audition video!

And, despite not making it into the top 30 in votes, apparently I caught the eye of the channel's founder, Miss Felicia Day herself, because she commented favorably on my YouTube page, and the channel decided to move me forward. I suspect it as the back-up support of Albeart Einstein, sitting there behind me in the video.

Anyway, I'm now working on a second video. I have some ideas, but do you have any suggestions about topics that I should cover? If so, leave a comment, as I'd love to add it to my list of topics to cover.

The second round will begin on July 10 at 10:00 am Pacific/1:00 pm Eastern, along with 29 other candidates. You will be able to vote each day from July 10 through July 19 at midnight Pacific.

The voting matters a lot more in the next round, so keep watching for when the link becomes available for the votes. Thanks!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Join Us at the Hero Round Table!

This November, I have the pleasure of running a breakout session at the first ever Hero Round Table, a conference on heroism, which will be in central Michigan on November 9 & 10, 2013. It will feature some huge names in the field of psychology, anti-bullying, education, and others that spend their time.

The breakout session I've proposed is on "Starting a Hero Fund," where I take many of the ideas I've developed as part of my 40 Days of Giving project and will give tips and ideas on how to incorporate philanthropic giving into one's life on a regular basis ... and, to my surprise, I even made it into the promo video!

If you have a desire to learn more about heroism and to be involved in the discussions about how we can work on being heroic individuals in our daily lives, I urge you to attend the conference.

Of course, if you can't, then there are still ways you can working on your heroism:

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Heterosexist Agenda

Source: Flickr (Creative Commons)
I have really grown to hate the term "homophobe," because it just really doesn't seem particularly descriptive of many people it's applied to. For one thing, just because a person opposes gay marriage doesn't necessarily mean that they're afraid of gay people. When you apply that term to someone, you can't actually know whether or not it's true.

Whether it's true or not, it's very easy to deflect, with the classic response, "Hey, I don't fear people, so I can't be a homophobe." While this seems like a highly suspect claim from someone claiming that a homosexual lifestyle is an abomination that will send them to hell, since we don't know whether or not they're experiencing fear, we can never really know if the homophobe label is or is not accurate in that particular case.

For that reason, I've begun to find the term "heterosexist" a lot more appropriate. 
A heterosexist is someone who believes that heterosexual/opposite-sex relationships are inherently superior and/or more deserving of legal recognition/protection than homosexual/same-sex relationships.
Heterosexism is a clearer description of the ideology that these people hold (whether or not they are actually homophobic on top of this). And, if this label is applied to someone, they really can't deny it ... unless, of course, they aren't heterosexist. Denying one's heterosexism requires saying, "No, I don't believe that heterosexual relationships are superior to homosexual ones" ... at which point, the heterosexist argument falls apart.

So I suggest that people begin using the term heterosexist instead of homophobe. If the debate over whether a "civil union" is equivalent to a "marriage" has taught us anything, it's that words have a very real meaning, and calling something by its true name is a worthy endeavor.

Related Article:

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Philosophical Christian: Understanding Easter as Survival of Love

Buddy Christ icon from Kevin Smith's film Dogma
Despite having been raised Christian and celebrating Easter throughout my youth, I'll confess that this holiday never made any sense whatsoever to me. Christmas makes sense. You don't have to believe in the Virgin Birth as a literal event to understand the wonder inherent in the story of the nativity for those who believe it.

My Easter Confusion

Easter is an entirely different animal. Sure, the Resurrection is clearly a miraculous thing worthy of celebration ... but just two days before that is Good Friday, which celebrates the Crucifixion, and you really can't decouple the two. In the traditional Christian view of these events, it's actually the Crucifixion - the blood sacrifice of the son of God - which is the big deal, with the Resurrection being "merely" the event that happens to highlight how important the Crucifixion was.

The result is an Easter weekend (and a religious view) that has always vexed me. See, I don't personally hold with human sacrifice (or animal sacrifice, for that matter). It just seems to me a very poor way for a benevolent deity to structure the universe. "In order to appease me, you've got to kill" is not exactly a starting point that resonates with me. I've never understood how anyone would be comfortable with the central role of this brutal murder in a spirituality of salvation.

This view only makes sense to me in one of two cases:

  1. God was powerless to forgive sins without a blood sacrifice of his son.
  2. God could have forgiven sin without the blood sacrifice, but demanded it anyway.

Neither of these creates a view of God that I find particularly appealing (although I much prefer 1 to 2), and certainly neither meshes well with the traditional Christian view of God.

A Revised Metaphysics of Easter

But this Easter, I instead heard a new interpretation which actually resonated with me. Attending my Christian Church, which emphasizes a "metaphysical" reading of the Bible over a literal one, the Crucifixion is viewed instead as a the attempt to kill Christ, who represents a perfectly loving being. Christ's Resurrection, therefore, is the bold declaration that, despite all appearances, love cannot die.

This, to me, has profound implications. This creates a view of the Easter weekend events which allow for me to look at them as something other than an indictment of God as a malevolent force. Instead of the Crucifixion being a blood sacrifice demanded as atonement for sin (the traditional Christian view), the Crucifixion can be interpreted as an event that Jesus chose to do to get the attention of those around him, to shake them out of their pre-conceived notions about what was important.

Nor, for that matter, is my minister the only guy teaching this view of Easter. Over on Patheos, there's a post discussing the Easter season (who knew it was a whole season? 50 days of Easter?), and the words he use are in line with the metaphysical interpretation that I heard on Sunday:
Easter invites us to imagine a world without fear. It invites us to imagine what our world would look like if violence and retribution were indeed signs of weakness rather than strength and might makes right. It invites us to imagine that violence and death and the Powers that Be do not have the last word. It invites us to imagine the transformative, mountain-moving power of nonviolence and grace, of faith, hope and love. 
In fact, Easter proclaims that this is true. Easter proclaims this is the reality of the world God has created, and that this had indeed always been the reality in which we live. God has always been calling to us, through prophets and sages of the past, to live as if love, not hate and violence, were the forces that matter most in the world. Easter isn’t true because Jesus was resurrected. Easter is true because it has always been true that God loves us, because it has always been true that God hasn’t been interested in controlling the world with war, violence and oppression like the Powers that Be, but in transforming it with love and the giving away of power. 
Easter invites us to start living, and living fully, and living fully for others rather than living for ourselves, for security, for our small portion of domination of others in the midst of our own oppression. 
Easter is costly.
Easter asks us not to perform penance, but to practice hope. 
This is a view of the Easter events that I can respect. The focus on the literal historical nature of the Crucifixion and Resurrection creates all sorts of metaphysical, logical, and moral problems for me, but ignoring the literal events and focusing exclusively on the message of hope, that works for me.

Friday, February 15, 2013

What does the internet think ... and does it matter?

Thanks to the science fiction author John Scalzi, I stumbled upon an intriguing website called "What Does the Internet Think?" The site uses some methodology (who knows what) it comes up with a rating of the percentage of positive and negative postings on a topic across the internet. I couldn't pass up the chance to see what sort of fun data I could get out of this. For now, I'll post the information with very little commentary, but may follow up in the future.

Let's start by considering some broad subjects:

Where does the internet find truth and meaning?

It's probably not at all surprising that the internet skews toward the science-loving end of the spectrum, at least at the broadest level. I'm kind of surprised at the level of negativity about religion, to be honest. 

I would like to be heartened by the overflow of positive regard for skepticism, but it occurs to me that whatever methodology they're using probably cannot sort out the context of positive or negative statements ... so if a post is saying that it supports science, but then puts forward a concept like intelligent design as being scientific, it would likely count as a pro-science posting, even though it's really contradicting and undermining scientific inquiry and findings. Similarly, someone who supports being skeptical of evolution or skeptical of global warming would probably count toward being positive toward skepticism, even if their approach to the facts is fundamentally dogmatic, authoritarian, and revisionary instead of supporting principles of skeptical inquiry.

Which leads us to the next question ...

Does the internet prefer evolution or creationism?

The thing I find most interesting about this is that while there's a lot of indifference about creationism, there's virtually no indifference about evolution. This runs counter to my own experience. I know several people who are religious but are fairly indifferent about whether or not evolution is the physical mechanism of creation. In other words, they're religious but believe that God started evolution. But I know very few people on either side of the debate that are indifferent about creationism. 

However, given the extremely low hits on which "Creationism" is based, probably not much should be made of comparing these graphs. The "evolution" graph itself is, I think, telling enough on its own.

To put some of these values in context, though, we should look at a few baseline moral concepts, to see how they rate on the internet:

What does the internet think about morality?

I will let the above conclusion speak for itself ... for now. It's worthy of another post at another time.

On a morality-related note, though ...

What does the internet think of religion?

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all rank positively ... but check out atheism & Buddhism! Amazingly polarized results on these religious viewpoints. Again, I'll let the results speak for themselves, although I'm sure I'll come back to this in another post sometime.

For comparison, though:

So atheists are viewed basically as negatively as their doctrine ... but both Christians and Muslims are (fairly or unfairly) viewed negatively by the internet, despite the fact that their religions themselves are viewed positively.

And, finally, a grain of salt:

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Open Letter to the Boy Scouts of America

Photo from Instructables
I sent the following e-mail to the Boy Scouts of America last week, when they announced that they were reconsidering the ban on homosexuals in the organization. They have since delayed the decision until their National Annual Meeting in May. I don't expect this message to change anyone's view on the issue, of course, but it is the view of someone who profoundly respects the Boy Scouts of America and their values, and so I hope is a viewpoint that is taken into consideration during the deliberations:

Subject: Eagle Scout & father supporting inclusive scouting

Dear Boy Scouts of America,

I am writing to you today to offer my thoughts on your upcoming Feb. 6 vote regarding lifting the national ban on homosexuals serving in Scouts. As an Eagle Scout and a father, the current discriminatory practices of the Boy Scouts of America - specifically the bans on homosexuals and atheists - has been deeply troubling to me. This stance has always affected me strongly, because my father is a homosexual. My parents divorced when I was young and my father lived in a nearby town, so for much of my formative years the primary male influences in my life were the Scouting leadership. My father, a teacher with a distinguished career of educating and mentoring young people, was not allowed to take part in this extremely influential part of my life. I couldn't even invite him to come on the occasional trip.

I fully support the BSA's efforts to protect youth in their care from harm, but open homosexuals are not threats in this area. Molesters and predators are not open about their sexual preferences, they use secrecy as a means of preying on victims. An open homosexual who is leading a Scout troop would have an even stronger vested interest in making sure that nothing happens to any of the youths under his charge. And the idea that lesbian mothers are *any* threat to male youths is absolutely ludicrous on every level.

As someone with family members and close friends who are homosexuals, I have wrestled with the decision of how to proceed in relation to Scouting now that I am a father. My wife and I have discussed it frequently. Our son is in Cub Scouts, which was a very difficult choice for us. I have seriously considered returning my Eagle Scout badge in protest. We both, however, strongly believe in the core values that Scouting represents. We believe that the organization is an absolute benefit to youth.

We also feel, however, that one of the values which Scouting needs to embrace more fully is inclusiveness, which I feel is implicit in virtues of Helpfulness, Friendliness, Courteousness, Kindness, and Bravery (and, for many religions at least, Reverence). We want to be involved in leadership roles within the Scouting organization, but cannot in good conscience do this if we would be forced to enforce exclusionary policies to which we object.

The values that are offered by Scouting are critically important to the youth of our nation. Children of gay and lesbian couples, as well as gay youth themselves, deserve equal access to this organization. There may be difficulties and challenges in handling the logistics of such an inclusion in a way that is equitable to everyone, but if Scouting is to continue to thrive and to maintain its position as an organization that represents American values, it must change this policy. Otherwise, it will wither away as an archaic reflection of antiquated prejudices ... and rightly so.

I urge you to make the right decision for the future of the Boy Scouts of America ... and if you do, know that my family and I will be proud to be associated with this organization.