Sunday, April 26, 2015

Heretic

"Heretic", subtitled "Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now", is the fourth book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Richard Dawkins recommended it on twitter, and I decided I could do with something different to read.

The book is 288 pages, 8 chapters with an intro, conclusion, and an appendix that lists muslim dissidents and reformers. It is an easy read.

Ms. Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia and raised a muslim. She describes being a radical muslim as a teenager. She fled to the Netherlands to avoid an arranged marriage, was elected to parliament there, and became known as a proponent of women's rights and an opponent of Islam and FGM (female genital mutilation). She collaborated on a controversial short film on the treatment of women in Islam titled "Submission" with Theo van Gogh who was later murdered by a radical Islamist. She came to the US in 2006. She now is a fellow at the Kennedy Government School at Harvard University. I think I had previously heard of her after there had been opposition to her speaking at some university based on her being an islamophobe.

Ugh, she came to the US to work at the American Enterprise Institute, home of warmongers like John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz. And she's married to conservative Harvard historian Nial Ferguson, who was a big Romney backer and who got into it with my fav Paul Krugman. I guess her right leaning associates are not so far right as to be a problem with her support of women's rights.

I read The Koran, along with most of the world's other holy books, when I was in my mystical period, ages 21-23. It was probably my least favorite of these books. Mohammed came across as pretty much a used camel salesman from whom you would not want to buy a camel. His message was straightforward: do what I say and give me 10% and when you die you go to paradise with all the cold water you want and lots of fresh fruit; otherwise, you go to hell and have demons gnaw on your bones for all eternity. So it's easier to understand than, say, the Tao, but, no thanks, I think I'll take door #3. So I really wasn't expecting to learn much about Islam, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn several new things.


Ms. Hirsi Ali really does not come across as a vitriolic Islam hater. She seems sympathetic to muslims, but feels that Islam must be held accountable for its worst features. In the introduction, she opens with this headline template, which you have to admit, we see instantiated all too often:

On ______, a group of ______ heavily armed, black-clad men burst into a ______ in ______, opening fire and killing a total of ______ people. The attackers were filmed shouting “Allahu akbar!”

Speaking at a press conference, President ______ said: “We condemn this criminal act by extremists. Their attempt to justify their violent acts in the name of a religion of peace will not, however, succeed. We also condemn with equal force those who would use this atrocity as a pretext for Islamophobic hate crimes.”

She concludes "Islam is not a religion of peace.". I'm not sure that this is a valid statement. Kind of an apples to oranges comparison. I'll return to this later.

She breaks Muslims up into 3 groups:

  1. Medina Muslims - these are the bad ones, who strongly identify with the parts of the Koran that take place after Mohammed has moved from Mecca to Medina and become a warlord. She puts this at 3% of the Muslim population, but rising.
  2. Mecca Muslims - these are "the clear majority throughout the Muslim World", "who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence." But they have the same problem with which we see fundamentalist Christians struggle: "their religious beliefs exist in an uneasy tension with modernity."
  3. Modifying Muslims - these are the Muslims to whom she is addressing this book, to offer encouragement and support as they try to reform their faith.
She lists 5 things that she believes must be addressed for a "true Muslim Reformation":
  1. Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Qur’an, particularly those parts that were revealed in Medina;
  2. The investment in life after death instead of life before death;
  3. Sharia, the body of legislation derived from the Qur’an, the hadith, and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence;
  4. The practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law by commanding right and forbidding wrong;
  5. The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.
I like this statement of hers:
this is an optimistic book
I am always in favor of optimism in looking forward. [ I have just recently come to think that one of the things that defines conservatives is that they do not believe in a "moral arc bending towards justice". They really don't believe in progress, they haven't read Steven Pinker's book "The Better Angels of our Nature", which I blogged here. They see all of history as cyclical, for example, with the USA inevitably declining as the Roman Empire did. So anyone who identifies with optimism is OK by me. ]

I think that, based on the number of times she repeats it, this idea is central to her message:

The Muslim world is currently engaged in a massive struggle to come to terms with the challenge of modernity.
In Chapter 1, she reviews her life story in more detail. She saw several different flavors of Islam in the various places she lived, including Saudi Arabia. Another flavor of her main idea:
Embracing violent jihad has become an all-too-common means for young Muslims to resolve the cognitive pressures of trying to lead an “authentic” Muslim life within a permissive and pluralistic Western society.
Chapter 2 asks "Why Has There Been No Muslim Reformation?" You can't get much more conservative than this:
The triumph of the Asha’ri school cemented a belief that, with the message of Muhammad, “History came to an end.”
One of the things I had not realized about Islam was its decentralized organization:
Unlike Catholicism, Islam is almost entirely decentralized. There is no pope, no College of Cardinals, nothing like the Southern Baptist Convention—no hierarchical structure, no centrally controlled system of ordination. Any man can become an imam; all it takes is a self-professed knowledge of the Qur’an and followers.
This is similar, I think, to charismatic christian sects. Here's an interesting anecdote from when Ms. Hirsi Ali was teaching a Harvard seminar.
She replied: “I haven’t done the assigned reading. I don’t need to. I already know everything.” This goes to the heart of the matter. Paradoxically, Islam is the most decentralized and yet, at the same time, the most rigid religion in the world. Everyone feels entitled to rule out free discussion.
At the end of Chapter 2, she states her action plan again, this time in positive terms. In Chapters 3-7 she examines each of her 5 reforms in detail.
Some of these changes may strike readers as too fundamental to Islamic belief to be feasible. But like the partition walls or superfluous stairways that a successful renovation removes, they can in fact be modified without causing the entire structure to collapse. Indeed, I believe these modifications will actually strengthen Islam by making it easier for Muslims to live in harmony with the modern world. It is those hell-bent on restoring it to its original state who are much more likely to lead Islam to destruction. Here again are my five theses, nailed to a virtual door:
  1. Ensure that Muhammad and the Qur’an are open to interpretation and criticism.
  2. Give priority to this life, not the afterlife.
  3. Shackle sharia and end its supremacy over secular law.
  4. End the practice of “commanding right, forbidding wrong.”
  5. Abandon the call to jihad.
Chapter 3 was interesting in its discussion of how much of 7th century Arab tribal life became part of the Koran: patriarchy, and tribal honor and shame.
“Muhammad created a new monotheism fitted to the contemporary needs of tribal society.” The effect was to perpetuate tribal norms by freezing them in place as holy writ.
Another new fact I learned deals with "abrogation". Like all (static) holy books, the Koran contains many contradictions. These are resolved by positing that the later passages "abrogate" or replace the earlier passages. Unfortunately, the later parts of the Koran, after Mohammed had fled to Medina and became a warlord, tend to be the ones that incite violence.
Thus Ibn Salama (d. 1020) argued that chapter 9, verse 5, known as ayat as-sayf, or the sword verses, abrogated some 124 of the more peaceful Meccan verses. The same applies to the verses concerning forcible conversion. As Ibrahim explains, “whereas Allah supposedly told the prophet that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ (2:256), once the messenger grew strong enough, Allah issued new revelations calling for all-out war/jihad till Islam became supreme (8:39, 9:5, 9:29, etc.).”
One of the things that Chapter 4 concludes is that Islam's emphasis on the afterlife leads to a fatalistic outlook in this life.
Allah has willed it to be this way; it is there because Allah has willed it. And if Allah has willed it, Allah will provide. It is an unbreakable ring of circular logic.

...

Though it is unfashionable to say so, Islam’s fatalism is a more plausible explanation for the Muslim world’s failure to innovate.

Chapter 5 discusses sharia law.
it is as if our priests, ministers, and rabbis were also our judges and legislators, employing their religious theology to establish legal boundaries of acceptable conduct in our daily lives.
And on top of that, you have the whole medieval flavor of the justice system: beheading, crucifixion, amputation, stoning, lashing. What can you say besides "ugh"? After Friday prayers in Saudia Arabia, "many men flock to the central squares to watch the implementation of Islamic justice". We should remember tho, that it has been less than 100 years since public executions stopped here in the USA.

Chapter 6 discusses the "command right and forbid wrong" thing. This is totally creepy, very much reminiscent of "1984" and thought crime.

It is almost always the immediate family that starts the persecution of freethinkers, of those who would ask questions or propose something new.

...

commanding right and forbidding wrong are very effective means of silencing dissent. They act as a grassroots system of religious vigilantism.

...

As modern Islamic communities have become radicalized, there is a kind of arms race of commanding right and forbidding wrong.

Chapter 7 addresses jihad. In addition to the terrorist attacks in the West as a sign of ongoing jihad, Ms. Hirsi Ali notes that there is also a "Worldwide War on Christians".
One of the most devastating manifestations of the modern era of jihad is the violent oppression of Christian minorities in Muslim-majority nations all over the world.

...

Yet any fair-minded assessment of recent events leads to the conclusion that the scale and severity of Islamophobia pales in comparison with the Christophobia evident in Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other.

There is a good discussion of what leads young westerners to become jihadists.
Ghaffar Hussein, the managing director of Quilliam, a British think tank working on combatting terrorism, notes that jihad is appealing because of its “one size fits all” set of answers to complex problems. Introspection is not required, he notes, because all blame is shifted to outside enemies and “anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.” The jihad narrative has therefore become “the default anti-establishment politics of today. It is a means of expressing solidarity and asserting a bold new identity while being a vehicle for seeking the restoration of pride and self-dignity.” In response, “mainstream Muslim commentators” — not to mention non-Muslims — have failed to articulate a positive narrative that does not simply reinforce the idea that Muslims are somehow victims. In short, Hussein’s argument is that the jihadists have the more compelling narrative.
Chapter 8 is titled "The Twilight of Tolerance". She advocates for the west and champions of western values to develop a more compelling narrative to compete with jihadism.
It [Islam] is a political religion many of whose fundamental tenets are irreconcilably inimical to our way of life.

...

I have spent more than a decade fighting for women’s and girls’ basic rights. I have never been afraid to ask difficult questions about the role of religion in that fight. As I have repeatedly said, the connection between violence and Islam is too clear to be ignored. We do no favors to Muslims when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect. We need to ask: Is the concept of holy war compatible with our ideal of religious toleration? Should it be blasphemy — punishable by death — to question the applicability of certain seventh-century doctrines to our own era? Why, when I have made these arguments, have I received so little support and so much opprobrium from the very people in the West who call themselves feminists, who call themselves liberals?

...

In the midst of all our efforts at policing, surveillance, and even military action, we in the West have not bothered to develop an effective counternarrative because from the outset we have denied that Islamic extremism is in any way related to Islam. We persist in focusing on the violence and not on the ideas that give rise to it.

...

If we continue this policy of nonintervention in the culture war, we will never extricate ourselves from the actual battlefield.

In the conclusion, Ms. Hirsi Ali frames the conflict within Islam.
Today there is a war within Islam — a war between those who wish to reform (the Modifying Muslims or the dissidents) and those who wish to turn back to the time of the Prophet (the Medina Muslims). The prize over which they fight is the hearts and minds of the largely passive Mecca Muslims.
She says that currently, the bad guys (Medina) are winning, using 4 measurements: individuals joining; media attention; resources; and coherence. On coherence:
In many ways this is the most important advantage the Medina Muslims have over the Modifier Muslims. The latter are faced with the daunting — and dangerous — task of questioning the fundamentals of their faith. All the Medina Muslims have to do is pose as its defenders.
But she does see the good guys winning eventually, yay! The section "Why the Tide Is Turning" begins:
Three factors are combining today to enable real religious reform:
  • The impact of new information technology in creating an unprecedented communication network across the Muslim world.
  • The fundamental inability of Islamists to deliver when they come to power and the impact of Western norms on Muslim immigrants are creating a new and growing constituency for a Muslim Reformation.
  • The emergence of a political constituency for religious reform emerging in key Middle Eastern states.
Together, I believe these three things will ultimately turn the tide against the Islamists, whose goal is, after all, a return to the time of the Prophet — a venture as foredoomed to failure as all attempts to reverse the direction of time’s arrow.
Her final conclusion:
The dawn of a Muslim Reformation is the right moment to remind ourselves that the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion.
Reviewers of this book think that her hope for a reformation is unlikely to be fulfilled. I think she is doing the right thing, tho, and certainly hope that some of all of her proposed reforms take hold in the decades to come.


I want to return to the statement "Islam is not a religion of peace", and discuss religion, Islamophobia, and multiculturalism.

1st off, I think "not a religion of peace" is basically an invalid statement. Religions are amongst the most complex memeplexes ever created with in human mindspace, containing 10s of 1000s of memes or more. Most religions probably have verbiage that comes on both sides of any issue, for example, war vs peace. So I think that basically, the nature of religions is that anything you can say about them is both true and false. So why bother?

I sometimes have a much darker read on the Jehovah-based religions. At times it seems to me that the main social use of these religions has been to convince individuals that it is OK to engage in mass murder. To quote physicist Steven Weinberg, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." So maybe instead, saying any religion is violent is indeed true.

I think that these memeplexes evolve over time. Islam is, what 600 years younger than Christianity? I think that, in general, the younger a religion is, the more virulent a mind virus it is. As time passes, the other memes in our minds create defenses against the religious memes. Hopefully, as with Ms. Hirsi Ali's prognosis of victory, our immense information infrastructure will speed this memetic immunization.

So, is Ms. Hirsi Ali Islamophobic? I don't think so. But I think that those attacking her show that something very unfortunate has happened in liberal / progressive thinking. I think that all progressive thinkers support immigrants and welcome them to our countries, unlike conservatives, who seem to have forgotten that all of us are descended from immigrants. But supporting immigrants does not mean that they get a blank check, in the name of multiculturalism, to import all the customs of their native countries. They are of course free to practice their religion, but, it must be subject to the civil laws of their new land. So allowing sharia law in muslim immigrant enclaves is a definite "hell no".

One thing on which I totally agree with Ms. Hirsi Ali is that Islam's treatment of women is abhorrent. The Koran doesn't even talk about women in heaven, just men. Multiculturalism is one thing, but, if your culture treats women, or anyone for that matter, as 2nd class citizens, then your culture is inferior and unacceptable.

I see Middle Eastern immigrant females wearing head coverings when I'm in the grocery store or otherwise out and about. I find it offensive, like seeing a slave wearing chains. But should it be banned, as I think France has done in its schools? I had forgotten how when I was a kid attending Catholic school and going to mass every morning, females were absolutely required to wear head coverings to church. And, per this article with which The Google provided me, the 1917 Catholic Canon Law not only required head covering, but also required males and females to be separated in church, just like most muslims and conservative Jews still do. And this was in place until 1983.

So how upset do we get over these backwards practices? I think that a lot of these issues will go like language does for immigrants. The 1st generation largely speaks their old language at home; the 2nd generation speaks both languages; the 3rd generation just speaks English. So if this generation of Islamic American females doesn't quietly quit going veiled, I would hope the next generation will. Still, it's hard to watch females relegating themselves to being 2nd class citizens.

I'll conclude with one of my many failed memes. Here's an image of the prophet Mohammed, which I drew and tweeted after "Je suis Charlie":

||:-<
I thought that this was a meme worth spreading - how to break sharia law in 5 characters - but, it seemed to get no traction whatsoever. On the plus side, I haven't received any death threats, so, phew!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Music In - New

OK, finally the new stuff.
  • Buddy Emmons With Lenny Breau, "Minors Allowed", 1978. When I posted pedal steel guitarist Buddy Emmons fabulous version of "Wichita Linesman" to Facebook, the most excellent young guitarist Jeff Adams mentioned that the cover of this album was in the visuals. He was a big fan of Lenny Breau, so I got the album. A little too jazzy for my taste. 3 stars.
  • War on Drugs, "Lost In The Dream". This group had gotten some buzz and been recommended to me. I didn't like it that much. Fairly listenable, but nothing really catchy. 3 stars.
  • Belle & Sebastian, "Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance". As always, very listenable, but I don't think as strong as their previous effort. 3 stars.
  • Estelle. "True Romance". I discovered Estelle on my 1st business trip to London. Nice BritPop. I really like that she doesn't oversing. 3 stars.
That brings us to the start of March. 8 new albums since then, still processing, but we'll get to those pretty soon, I promise.

Oh, here's the Buddy Emmons "Wichita Linesman". I don't get tired of listening to this. I have this "Suite Steel" album, BTW. All the best pedal steel players of 1970. I think I'll rip that one out of order.

Music In - Vinyl

On to the vinyl I ripped. This is going in alpha order.
  • pearls before swine, "balaklava", 1968. Ahh, late 60s psychedelic music. So much bad stuff. I think my old bandmate, sax player Barry Levine, liked this. 2 stars.
  • The Beach Boys, "Pet Sounds, 1966. I had 5 Beach Boys albums. This is I think heading into their best stuff. 3 stars, 4 stars for "Wouldn't It Be Nice", "God Only Knows", "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times", and "Caroline, No".
  • The Beach Boys, "Sunflower", 1970. 6 4 stars, 6 3 stars.
  • The Beach Boys, "Surf's Up". My favorite of these albums. 4 stars.
  • The Beach Boys, "Carl and The Passions - 'So Tough'", 1972. I think an attempt to be somewhat retro, 3 stars.
  • The Beach Boys, "Holland", 1973. An oddish, hippy theme song "California Saga". 3 stars, 4 stars for "Sail on Sailor".
  • Beacon Street Union, "The Eyes of the Beacon Street Union", 1968. Oof. A Boston psychedelic band. 2 stars.
  • George Benson, "The George Benson Collection", 1981. Great stuff. 3 stars, 4 stars for "This Masquerade", "Love Ballad" (which I have worked up, transposed down 3 frets), "Nature Boy", "Breezin'", and "The Greatest Love of All".
Really looking forward to The Byrds and Moby Grape.

Music In - CD

Holy moley, have I been slacking! No "music in" since November. I think it's because I ripped and processed a bunch of my youngest daughter's CDs, and ripped and processed a bunch of my old vinyl and didn't want to slog through blogging all of them. OK, brace up!

So, 1st let's go over the CDs. Ha ha, what was my youngest daughter listening to in the 90s and 00s?

  • Janet Jackson, "All For You", 2001. Some good songs and some annoying talking. 3 stars, 2 for talking.
  • Pete Yorn, "Music For The Morning After", 2001. I liked his recent album with Scarlett Johansson. No real standout tunes here. 3 stars.
  • Tristan Prettyman, "Twenty Three", 2005. Nice chick pop. 3 stars.
  • Ugly Casanova, "Sharpen Your Teeth", 2002. Decent alternative music, seems like I remembered a track or 2. 3 stars.
  • Digital Underground, "Sex Packets, 1990. Hip Hop, featuring the smash hit "The Humpty Dance". 2 stars.
  • Alanis Morissette, "Jagged Little Pill", 1995. These were some way edgy songs when they came out. I thought some of them might make it to 4 stars, but, nope, after a few listens, really didn't want to particularly hear again. 3 stars.
  • Destiny's Child, eponymous, 1998. A nice girls group. 3 stars.
  • Eels, "Beautiful Freak", 1996. Nice alternative including the hit "Novocaine For The Soul". 3 stars.
  • Varsity Blues soundtrack, 1999. A bit too brash for me at this point. 2 stars.
  • The Birdcage soundtrack, 1996. Mmmmm, I got nothing. 2 stars.
  • Armageddon soundtrack, 1998. Heavily Aerosmith orientied, I've never been much of a fan. 2 stars.
  • Dangerous Minds soundtrack, 1995. Rap and hip hop, including the hit "Gangsta's Paradise". 2 stars.
  • Empire Records soundtrack, 1995. The best of the soundtracks here. "Til I Hear It From You" by Gin Blossoms is a nice tune. 3 stars.
  • Titanic soundtrack, 1997. Heroic orchestral w Irish overtones. 2 stars.
So, nothing really "Wow that was great, so glad to rediscover it".

Monday, April 06, 2015

Ancillary Sword

I used to bike past a place called Irish Acres in Nonesuch, KY. I say "used to bike" because whether you come into Nonesuch from the south, north, or east, you have to bike some bad hills. So I quit going there for a couple of years. I went once last year, I don't know if I'll try it this year.

Anyway, Irish Acres is an antiques place with a restaurant, and I thought my wife would enjoy a drive thru the beautiful Woodford County countryside to see it.

So we get there and look around. Furniture, knick-knacks out the wazoo, and of course a huge Christmas section. There were a couple of dozen customers browsing - I spotted only 1 Y chromosome besides mine.

We had a nice lunch at the restaurant, named The Glitz. It was decorated with huge garlands of 6 inch sparkly glass globe lights, in a variety of pastel colors. Kind of like Christmas on steroids.

As we were leaving, my wife summed up the experience succinctly: "This is what a world run by women would look like."

I kept thinking of this as I was reading "Ancillary Sword", by Ann Leckie. This is the sequel to "Ancillary Justice", which I posted about here, and which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards last year. I was somewhat surprised by that. It was an interesting novel, with human beings with brain implants slaved to a ship AI ("ancillaries"). There is a single human empire whose ruler for the last 3000 years shares her intelligence across multiple bodies, with old ones dying and new ones being added. So some interesting concepts. But I think it got the most buzz from its odd treatment of gender. Everyone is a "she", but some of them have penises.

Ms. Leckie writes well. The novel is a quick read. But, the plot is not advanced much at all from the 1st novel. Like maybe 3 plot events, tops. Meanwhile, there is much discussion of antique tea sets (which kept reminding me of my wife's comment at Irish Acres), and some teenage crushes. There's a little bit of a social justice theme, but I kept thinking of what someone once tweeted about "Dune": that space operas usually involve some form of fascist government.

This novel is nominated for a Hugo award. I find that harder to understand than I did for the 1st novel - the 1st novel raised several interesting concepts, the 2nd one breaks no new ground. I really didn't notice the gender thing much. But still, I'm afraid that my lack of enthusiasm for this novel is somehow sexist.

I am a huge fan of Ursula K. LeGuin and Octavia Butler, and read many other female SF authors. I really don't care what sex a SF author is. I raised 3 daughters to kick ass and take names. But my intuition is that some kind of feminist issue seems to be driving the popularity of this book. I am 1000% in favor of all forms of feminist progress, but, I feel like I'm missing something here. Maybe I'm just an white old fart after all.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

The Turnip Princess

I picked up the trade paper version of "Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales" at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. In the 1850s, Franz Xaver von Schonwerth collected hundred of folk tales in northern Bavaria. These sat in boxes until they were rediscovered in a German city archive a few years ago. This volume is over 70 of these stories, cleaned up and translated to English. Several variations on Cinderella, Thumbelina, and others. Many are completely off the walls, many are bloody, several are crude. As one of the prefaces says, it's all about action, "what happens next".

I have made a habit of reading fairy and folk tales of all cultures over the years. I bought this as a real book in thoughts of passing it on to my granddaughter. But I don't think these would hold her attention. And increasingly, I really question the wisdom of exposing young children, particularly females, to the traditional fairy tale genre. Like the Disney "princesses" thing, which drives me crazy, I don't think these are good life lessons for raising modern females. Finding your prince and "living happily ever after" I would characterize as a way less than optimal life strategy for a modern female.

So this book won't be going to my granddaughter. Maybe when she's grown if she becomes a folk tale aficionado, she can have it with the rest of my collection.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Whither Economics?

Looking for a path through the darkness, I read 2 Wikipedia articles: "History of economic thought" and "Schools of economic thought". The former was a lot more informative than the latter. I think I know most of the players now.

I think that next I will read "Value and Capital", by J.R. Hicks, 1939. It is subtitled "An Inquiry Into Some Fundamental Principles of Economic Theory". He formulated the IS-LM model (Inventment/Savings - Liquidity Preference/Money Supply), which seems to still be highly regarded, particularly by Krugman.

There were some good online posts with people actually starting to talk about an economy of plenty. On Twitter, the tag is #postscarcityutopia, which is a better, since "economy" implies scarcity, and I'm interested in what happens when things really aren't scarce. Here's one titled "Why Not Utopia?" from the New York Times. Here's the venerable Robert Reich talking about it an abstract sense in a post titled "The “iEverything” and the Redistributional Imperative".

There's also a few people - Martin Ford (‏@MFordFuture) has a book "Rise of the Robots" coming out in May - who are being somewhat alarmist about increased automation, like this article, titled "Robots are leaving the factory floor and heading for your desk – and your job". I try to inject a more positive outlook and #postscarcityutopia thinking into these discussions.

I had mentioned before a story by Bruce Sterling (@bruces) that showed an interesting post-scarcity future. I asked him by Twitter what it was, and he was kind enough to answer. The story was "The Beautiful and The Sublime". It was published in 1986 and set in 2070. Hard to believe that was almost 30 years ago. I reread it, the message still rings true. I really think we should be there decades before 2070. It is available in the "The Year's Best Science Fiction 4th Annual Collection" and in the Sterling short story collection "Crystal Express". I had a copy of the latter in the basement bookshelves, yay!

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Bone Clocks

"The Bone Clocks" is the latest novel by David Mitchell. It is a very enjoyable read. Mitchell, who is English, I think is one of those authors who transcends the sci-fi genre. He seems like a Real Author - but, given that I read almost no fiction but science fiction, because there are more new ideas in a decent sci-fi novel than in anything mainstream, that doesn't mean that much to me. But he's not one of those mainstream authors who think they are going to be daring and write sci-fi and write it pretty crapulously.

The story spans 60 years, and is told in 6 segments by 6 different narrators. The main story is one of immortals who achieve their immortality by eating the soul of a psychic every quarter, opposed by a group of what are basically bodhisattvas, who after death regain their consciousness in a new body, normally near death such that its old inhabitant has vacated it. Plus the bodhisattva types have bodhisattva-like magical powers, yay!

[I always told my kids, if you do decide you want to be religious, go for Mahayana Buddhism and bodhisattva status. Bodhisattvas can fly, walk through fire, walk through walls, deflect arrows, be in multiple places at the same time, etc, - and choose your reincarnations! What's not to like?]

But this main story is left in the background for probably 2/3 of the book, while we follow different narratives in each of the segments. One character spans all 6 segments, but in some she plays a very minor role.

Meanwhile, the side stories are all engaging. Mitchell has a nice touch with meta-fu - like one of the narrators who is an author who swore never to write a book with an author as a protagonist, only to have his comeback novel have an author as a protagonist. (I so saw this author as being played in a movie by Bill Nighy, although he was 10-20 years younger than Nighy.) Another side character is a war correspondent, who very poignantly relates how the US invasion destroyed Iraq and the texture of the lives of its inhabitants.

Halfway through this book I rewatched "Cloud Atlas", based on one of Mitchell's earlier novels. It also has 6 main threads, loosely interconnected, with overtones of reincarnation. I had been meaning to do the rewatch - it is a complex movie - and I enjoyed it more the 2nd time, when I knew I needed to make more of an effort to keep the threads straight. Surprisingly - she generally doesn't do rewatches - my wife rewatched it with me and she enjoyed it too.

I'm tempted to read "Cloud Atlas" but it will probably be much later - too much else on the stack. I may try some of Mitchell's other novels tho. "The Bone Clocks" was definitely a worthwhile read.

Addendum: I went to mark this as read in my eBook reader and noticed I had put it in the fantasy shelf rather than sci-fi. A little of both, I guess.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Pump Six and Other Stories

I had already declared Paolo Bacigalupi, together with Cory Doctorow, to be The Bards of the Revolution. "Pump Six and Other Stories" establishes Paolo as the Bard of Coming Environmental Disaster as well. Many of the stories deal with some form of future environmental disaster.

He is best known for his memes of bioengineered plagues which force the use of proprietary crops in a post-oil world controlled by Monsanto and their IP police("The Calorie Man", "Yellow Card Man"). Now we also get:

  • Life in a completely dried-up, drought-stricken SW US ("The Tamarisk Hunter").
  • A future where toxins in the environment have made the population morons or worse ("Pump Six").
  • Or where toxins in the environment have severely disrupted human reproduction ("Small Offerings"). The fact that reproductive systems and young organisms are the most susceptible to environmental degradation and stress is one of the most chilling of the many chilling conclusions of "This Changes Everything".
  • Or, creepiest of all, where the world is a completely toxic sludge dump with its ecosystems mostly gone, but we have, through genetic engineering and nanotechnology, adapted ourselves to thrive in this environment ("The People of Sand and Slag").
We also have a couple of other flavors of dystopia:
  • A horrible cautionary tale of where runaway inequality could take us ("The Fluted Girl").
  • A world of mostly immortals with a few people who still want to breed ilicitly ("Pop Squad").
The other 2 stories in the collection, "Pocketful of Dharma" and "The Pasho" are a bit further afield in their subject matter.

This is a great collection, a very quick read. A few of the stories, tho, really kind of hit my "this is disgusting" button - but rightfully so. I wonder sometimes what it will take to wake the sleeping (or online) millennial giant, maybe "this is disgusting" is a dash of what we need.