Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Books Read

End of the year, so time for my annual accounting of books consumed for 2015!

The 2015 Book List
  1. Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines (reread)
  2. The Martian by Andy Weir
  3. Arctic Rising by Tobias Buckell
  4. Codex Born by Jim C. Hines (reread)
  5. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey
  6. America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System by Steven Brill
  7. Out of My Later Years: The Scientist, Philosopher, and Man Portrayed Through His Own Words by Albert Einstein
  8. Unbound by Jim C. Hines
  9. Abraham Lincoln: A Presidential Life by James McPherson
  10. The Just City by Jo Walton
  11. The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi
  12. The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind by Michio Kaku
  13. Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation by Eric Kaplan
  14. Thinking About Cybersecurity: From Cyber Crime to Cyber Warfare by Prof. Paul Rosensweig (The Great Courses)
  15. On the Plurality of Worlds by David Lewis
  16. Terrorists in Love by Ken Ballen
  17. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
  18. Beyond the God Particle by Leon Lederman & Christopher Hill
  19. The Android's Dream by John Scalzi
  20. Lock In by John Scalzi
  21. Less Doing, More Living: Make Everything In Life Easier by Ari Meisel
  22. Death of a King by Tavis Smiley
  23. How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians by Quintus Tullius Cicero & Philip Freeman
  24. The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  25. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick
  26. The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick
  27. The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty by Robert P. Crease and Alfred Goldhaber
  28. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (reread)
  29. The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life - Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process by Thomas M. Sterner
  30. Animal Farm [audio dramatization] by George Orwell
  31. The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature by Timothy Ferris
  32. Gemini Cell by Myke Cole
  33. The Evolution of God by Robert Wright
  34. Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
  35. Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica
  36. Behavioral Economics: When Psychology and Economics Collide by Prof. Scott Heuttel (The Great Courses)
  37. Scientific Secrets of Self-Control by Prof. C. Nathan DeWall (The Great Courses)
  38. Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction by Philip Athans
  39. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nassar
  40. Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: A Novel by Judd Trichter
  41. The Death of Ivan Illyich by Leo Tolstoy
  42. Monster by A. Lee Martinez
  43. Heroes and Legends (The Great Courses) by Prof. Thomas Shippey
  44. Forged: Writing in the Name of God - Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are by Bart D. Ehrman
  45. The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton
  46. Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment by Tom Shachtman
  47. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  48. Leviathan Wakes by James A. Corey
  49. The Theological Origins of Modernity by Michael Allen Gillespie
  50. A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
  51. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  52. Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick
  53. The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder
  54. The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark
  55. Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer
  56. Spell or High Water by Scott Meyer
  57. Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz
  58. The Scorch Trials by James Dashner
  59. An Unwelcome Quest by Scott Meyer
  60. Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez
  61. Fable: Blood of Heroes by Jim C. Hines
  62. How Ideas Spread (The Great Courses) by Jonah Berger

  • Audiobooks: 45
  • Kindle: 10
  • Dead tree books: 10
  • Total Fiction: 25
    • Classics: 4
    • Science Fiction: 12
    • Fantasy: 14
      • Urban/Modern Fantasy: 9
      • Young Adult: 
      • Steampunk: 1
  • Non-Fiction: 37
    • Science: 17
      • Physics: 7
      • Psychology: 8
      • Biology: 1
      • Technology: 2
      • Math/Statistics: 1
    • Religion: 12
    • History: 15
    • Politics: 11
    • Education: 4
    • Economics: 6
    • Business: 2
    • Philosophy: 11
    • Humor: 1
    • Writing: 2
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 free will would fall in both Psychology and Philosophy (and possibly even Religion) categories.

Similarly, some books I read using Whispersynch-for-Voice to jump between the Amazon Kindle and Audible audiobook versions of the books, so they got double-counted in the format section. I've also included The Great Courses audios that I listen to through Though not actually books, I figure that a 10+ hour course on a subject contains about the same informational content, if not presented structurally in quite the same way as it would take in a written book.

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 running record of the books that I read.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Science and the Big Bang Theory: Richard Feynman's van

The Feynman family with the family van.
From its first joke, CBS' The Big Bang Theory has proven adept at mixing humor and science. Many of the science jokes hinge on comprehending the subtleties of quantum physics in the Shrodinger's cat thought experiment (or making a self-aware lack of comprehension), but some are not about scientific concepts themselves, but jokes that focus on the culture of science.

For example, in a previous episode, Sheldon took Amy to a book signing by noted theoretical physicist and author Brian Greene, specifically so that he could heckle Greene for attempting to demystify string theory in a language accessible to the common, non-scientist reader. Science communicators and scientists ranging from Nobel Laureate George Smoot to Bill Nye to Stephen Hawking have made cameo appearances on the show.

In the handful of episodes this season, the direct scientific references have been slim, but there's been one notable scientific cameo. Not by a scientist, though, but by his family van.

Since Leonard and Penny eloped in the last season finale/premiere, the guys hadn't gotten a chance to throw Leonard a bachelor party. To make up for it, they decide to drive down to Mexico (abducting Sheldon to bring him along, although one has to wonder why they would ruin their weekend in this fashion and not just leave him behind). And the vehicle they use for their bachelor party road trip was a van that had belonged to Richard Feynman.

Richard Feynman was the famed CalTech physicist, filling the gap of popular face of physics between the eras of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. He worked on the Manhattan Project, was one of the key figures in developing quantum electrodynamics (for which he received the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics), inspired the fields of nanotechnology and quantum computing, and famously demonstrated the likely reason for the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster with a glass of ice water. Feynman had a big personality, as well, and is as well known for the strange stories about him as for his physics. He became known as a safe cracker at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and played bongo drums at strip clubs, to name just a couple of his unusual hobbies.

And his van is, to my knowledge, the only real vehicle that has been repeatedly mentioned in physics books. (The Enterprise and the Batmobile probably have been referenced.)

Though not explained in the episode, Feynman's van is famous in physics circles because of the curious squiggly markings on the outside of the vehicle. These look random, but they're actually diagrams used in physics to describe the quantum interactions of particles. They are, to the physics community at large, called "Feynman diagrams." Though he displayed uncharacteristic humility in avoiding calling them by this name, he was very proud of their creation, as they were a key tool in comprehending the quantum electrodynamics interactions that he had defined mathematically. He was so proud, in fact, that he detailed his van with these Feynman diagrams.

The van was restored recently, and the show note at the end of the episode does indicate that it was actually Feynman's van that was used in the episode, not a replica ... a scientific cultural icon that became part of a popular culture icon. (Despite the events of the episode, we are assured that the real van survives intact.)

Episode 9.3: The Bachelor Party Corrosion
Air date: October 5, 2015

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Religious Beliefs of Corporate Persons

I still think the Catholics should go with this
more-inspiring sigil for the modern age.
Back in 2012, well before it occurred to me that a corporation could be said to have religious beliefs, I commented on the idea of "corporate personhood."  I focused on this idea at length in that post, but recent events have made it worth looking at again.

Indiana RFRA and Corporations

In the 2010 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court decided that these corporate entities had the ability for unlimited, unregulated political speech, which can also be made behind a mask of secrecy about the funding sources. And in the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, it was made clear that, at least for "closely-held corporations," they also had religious liberties.

This was recently codified into law in my home state of Indiana, as part of the controversial Indiana state-level version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which resulted in widespread concerns about discrimination of LGBT members. I happen to agree that the original wording of the law would have given some additional support for this sort of discrimination (which is already legal in Indiana, actually, due to no anti-discrimination protections for LGBT groups).

In comparing the Indiana and federal RFRA statutes, one difference that stands out is Section 7.3. In this section it seems that the Indiana law specifically sets very broad definitions of what sorts of organizations/institutions may make claims of having religious freedoms burdened, broader than the "closely-held corporation" rule from the Hobby Lobby decision:
(3) A partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company, an unincorporated association, or another entity that:
(A) may sue and be sued; and 
(B) exercises practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by: 
(i) an individual; or 
(ii) the individuals; 
who have control and substantial ownership of the entity, regardless of whether the entity is organized and operated for profit or nonprofit purposes.
The question this leaves open is whether courts interpret the above wording as applying only to closely-held corporations, as the Supreme Court ruled for the federal RFRA under the Hobby Lobby case. Nothing in the wording above indicates to me any such limitation as being an inherent part of the law, so I think corporations can at least argue that the limitation doesn't apply. If a publicly-traded entity is owned 51% by people who want to invoke a claim under RFRA, it would seem like it should be allowed under this wording. A non-closely-held corporation that wants to exercise these sorts of religious interests is free to, at least, make the argument that they should be able to under the Indiana RFRA, in a way that they couldn't under the federal RFRA.

This is followed up by the other major difference between this legislation and others, which is Section 9:
Sec. 9. A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding. If the relevant governmental entity is not a party to the proceeding, the governmental entity has an unconditional right to intervene in order to respond to the person’s invocation of this chapter.
It seems that when applying the federal RFRA, there has been dissent within the courts about whether protected religious liberty can be claimed in a private dispute between individuals or not. The clear and unquestioned intended goal of RFRA was to provide defense of religious activity from government regulation, from what I can tell. Its use of the phrase "and obtain appropriate relief against a government" can be interpreted as restricting its claims to those of the government, or of including the government among those relief can be sought from. Different circuits have ruled different ways in this.

The wording of the Indiana law under Section 9 makes it explicitly clear that protections of religious liberty can be invoked in disputes between private individuals ... which, in conjunction with Section 7.3, would seem to mean that corporations can invoke religious liberty defenses in completely private disputes.

Against Corporate Personhood

This attribution is false, but I like the quote
and don't feel like changing the graphic.
Here's how I, as a small business owner of a sole proprietorship that operates without corporate protections and have looked into whether I need those protections, view the way a corporation functions:
A corporation is an entity that is used to perform an act on behalf of an individual or individuals, in a way that isolates the individual from harm. Should an individual attempt to use a corporation to perform an act, retribution strikes the corporation rather than the individual. The corporation may be terminated only by bankruptcy or willful dissolution, but is otherwise immortal. Even if terminated in this way, it may pass its essential essence along to another entity which, in most particulars, may function as essentially identical to the original entity in service of the owner. The person behind the corporation is unharmed, except by the inconvenience of having to create a new entity.
Gamers and fantasy readers will recognize this:
It is a construct of some kind, possibly a necromancer's undead minion, a golem, a wizard's homoculous, or some other kind of summoned/crafted proxy creature. In Shadowrun, it would be Rigger's robotic drone (or a corporation, since they have those in Shadowrun too).
So, essentially, we now have immortal non-human entities with the ability to amass wealth for unlimited political speech and able to invoke religious beliefs in disputes with other people and corporations.

I do not think this is a good outcome.

Because, simply put, corporations are not people.

The corporation does not, as a corporation, possess the ability to have a religious belief or conviction, it can only express the religious beliefs and convictions of the owners. Any claim to religious liberty, and the ability to exercise religious liberty, is only as a second-hand consequence of the rights held by the individual who runs the corporation. Those rights are protected for the individual, and may be protected as expressed through a corporation, but the corporate entity itself does not possess those rights.

There may be many perfectly valid reasons for supporting the broad freedom of corporations to serve as the means of expressing personal liberties held by their owners, but corporate personhood is not among them.

You'll hear all kind of people quoting nonsense about how corporations are people, but this diminishes the richness and complexity of what it means to be a person. It is offensive in every way, and as a rhetorical tool needs to end.