Sunday, November 27, 2016

Mixed Galaxies: Altered Starscape by Ian Douglas

I have mixed feelings about Altered Starscape by Ian Douglas.  While there are a lot of cool ideas, none of them came together in a satisfactory way for me.

The Good Bits 

I picked this up because the basic premise sounded cool: due to traveling near a super massive black hole, a group of humans are thrown four billion years into the future, a time when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are merging.  There are galactic civilizations, vast megastructures (aka "Big Dumb Objects"), god-like artificial intelligences, post-humans adapted for life in space, and much more that I don't want to spoil.  All of that is pretty cool.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Giving Thanks for Philosophy, Science Fiction, Good People

Today is Thanksgiving here in the United States.  Last year I discussed the weirdness of Macy's commandment: "Believe."  I also said that I was thankful for my regrets.  I'm not sure I have anything quite so clever to say this year, but I've been reflecting on being thankful for three things: philosophy, science fiction, and the people in my life.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Interrogating Ideas: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others includes several excellent stories/novelettes/novellas (including "Story of Your Life," which is the basis for the film Arrival).  In addition to the good ones, a few more are okay, and there's one I didn't care for.

Ted Chiang is the opposite of prolific, having only published about a dozen works of short fiction in the last 25 years, but he's one of the best when it comes to using science fiction and fantasy to interrogate ideas.  There are nice little notes on each story in the back of the book in which Chiang tells you which ideas inspired the stories (sometimes it's surprising).  It's no wonder his work is a top pick for Eric Schwitzgebel's list of philosophers' favorite science fiction.

Here's a bit on each work in this collection...

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Disgust and Hope: Thoughts on the 2016 US Presidential Election

Last week Donald Trump won the US Presidential election.  Here are some of my thoughts on the election.
  1. It seems that this election is at least partly about race and gender.  There are a lot of angry white people in America.  The channeling of racial resentment in the Tea Party and Birthers was just the start.  Note that neither I nor anybody else is saying that all Trump supporters are openly racist, card-carrying members of the KKK.  It should be noted that the KKK does support Trump and racists of all stripes from old school anti-semites to the Alt-Right heard his dog-whistles loud and clear whether Trump meant it that way or not.  But for most people I think it’s subtler than that, ranging from a kind of vague resentment to a passive acceptance of what Trump says because it doesn’t affect you.  And I see no wisdom in denying the role that misogyny played in forming the decades-old suspicion-mongering narrative about Hillary Clinton and in giving a bloviating man with no experience so much leeway against a candidate who, for all the issues with her candidacy, was one of the most qualified candidates in history.  It’s not just about race and gender, but to outright deny that these were factors is silly.  Perhaps all of this is a reaction to the changing social landscape of America.  As the slogan says: “When you’re accustomed to privilege equality feels like oppression.” 
  2. This election is also about many people’s loss of faith in American institutions and establishment politics as well as a rejection of elitism.  Many people perceive that their government, economy, and cultural institutions no longer serve people like them.  I suspect this perception is partly reasonable given the extent of income inequality and deep cultural issues.  I grew up in the Midwest and live in the South; snobby coastal elitism pisses me off, too. However, I think parts of this perception are worth criticizing.  For instance, it’s strange that some white people blame those who had absolutely nothing to do with creating our political and economic structures: your average rich white guy like Donald Trump has personally caused more working people to suffer than the average Muslim immigrant or working class African American. It’s also odd to believe that anyone with expertise is automatically a self-serving elitist or that those with no expertise have any desire or ability to help you. I’m not sure I entirely understand this perception that America no longer works for some people or how it fits into the larger Culture Wars. I’m even less sure that I have any idea what to do about it, and I doubt that anyone else does, either.  I wish people would listen to each other and think through these issues in a respectful yet critical way.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

About Time: A Review of Arrival

I’ve been looking forward to this movie for months as the antidote to 2016’s largely disappointing summer movie season. Up until a few days ago I was also looking forward to seeing Arrival as a way to relax after having narrowly avoiding a Trump administration.  Looking backwards I’m happy to report that the first of these aspirations has been fully realized. The second … not so much.

I’ll have more to say about the election in another post, but for now let’s focus on a movie that I suspect might come to occupy a place on my list of all time favorite philosophical science fiction films.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Voting as Grading/Politics Round Up

Me, voting early!

With the seemingly-interminable 2016 US Presidential election (hopefully) terminating in just a few days on Tuesday, November 8, I thought I’d get in one more political post that includes one last point and some meta-blogging in the form of a round up of some of the political posts that have appeared on this blog in the last year and a half.

Voting as Grading Papers: An Analogy

Let’s say you're a teacher, and you get two papers.  

Donald’s paper is written in red 14-point triple spaced comic sans, follows none of the directions of the assignment, consists almost entirely of bigoted rants, incorrectly cites mainly conspiracy theory or white supremacist websites, includes a footnote in which he brags about sexual assault, and contains numerous spelling and grammatical errors.  

Hillary’s paper follows all the directions of the assignment, consists mostly of rational arguments – some of which you agree with, some of which you do not, contains a few strained metaphors and lame jokes to make it seem more relatable, cites all sources although it puts a few important things in the footnotes, and contains a few minor spelling and grammatical errors.  

Which paper do you grade more highly?  That’s who you should vote for.

Examined Worlds Politics Round-Up

The annoying thing about politics is that everyone thinks they’re right.  Including me.  Still, I try to be less annoying by not insisting that you agree that I’m right.  I honestly think the world would be a better place if we were more aware of our fallibility.  But of course I could be wrong.

Anyway, here's some of what I think about this election and politics more generally.  Agree or disagree as you will.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Buddhas and Presidential Candidates: Conventional and Ultimate Truth in Politics

The Dalai Lama and US President Barack Obama

One of the odder things in the last year of American politics has been the relative popularity of ideas long considered to lurk on the fringes.  One of the main candidates in the Democratic Presidential primary openly called himself a socialist and advocated for single-payer universal healthcare.  The Republican nominee has accepted outré conspiracy theories, is supported by the KKK, attacked the family of an American soldier killed in combat, failed to release his tax returns, and is on record bragging about committing sexual assault (this is a condensed list of his political oddities).  The Libertarian candidate has, until recently, been polling higher than third party candidates usually do.  Even the most mainstream candidate, Democrat Hillary Clinton, has been facing unprecedented legal scrutiny as well as general suspicion and hostility based on little to no evidence of wrongdoing.

In US Presidential elections in recent memory, any of this would have flown in the face of conventional political wisdom.  To be clear, it still does, which is why it's so strange (and, in the case of Trump, a deeply troubling emboldening of bigotry).  But still, something weird is going on.  To understand it, I think it might help to take a philosophical detour to the Buddhist conception of the two truths.