25 October, 2012

Review: Disgrace

Disgrace Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book. It was recommended to me by a friend who is using it as one of the books she's writing her apartheid literature thesis on. Unfortunately, I just couldn't get into it.

The main character is wholly unlikeable in my eyes. I can see that the author wanted us to sympathize at least a little with him, but every successive chapter involved him doing or saying something which made me think even less of him. Even in the later chapters, where it looks as though the author is trying to portray him as growing and becoming more morally aware, the result is just that I come to fully appreciate just how backwards his thoughts truly are, if this is what counts as moral progress for him.

Of course, the fact that I dislike a character does not mean I dislike a book; there are several books that I enjoy where every character is disliked in some fashion. But, unfortunately, my inability to sympathize with the main character defeats the purpose of this novel. I'll explain, but be aware spoilers are ahead.

Lurie, the main character of the novel, goes through a journey in this book. He starts out thinking there is nothing wrong with trying to seduce a student at the college where he works. But before you can even express disgust at how nonchalantly he treats the issue, he opts to not just seduce, but actively rape the girl. In the scene where he rapes her, his inner monologue justifies it as not being rape at all. I realize that the author is not condoning rape of this kind -- in fact, the author is trying to get people to see that rape like this is wrong later on in the book. But I can't go on this journey of moral discovery because I agree already that it is wrong, without even seeing the parallels later on that show why it is wrong.

Yet this is not what makes me dislike Lurie the most. Instead, it is his idiotic view of the world. He is atheist, yet he believes in souls and continually talks about them as though they are what is truly important. His dismissal of animals is particularly cruel, which he justifies as acceptable due to them not having souls. Even later, when he starts to feel some measure of caring for animals, he STILL considers them soulless, and cannot intellectually accept his feelings of empathy. He even expresses disdain at the thought of owing moral duties to a friend of his daughter that he only just met.

All of the above is enough for me to just not get into the novel. But it gets worse. Since Lurie is a professor that's into poetry, he throws around poetry references and distinctions between declinations of words in different languages that just go completely over my head. I can't follow at all two of the chapters in the book (what they mean or are meant to portray is completely beyond my understanding) and several of his thoughts throughout the book that refer to how English words are insufficient due to baggage are ones I actively disagree with. The baggage he thinks is there is only present because he insists on infusing every word with baggage; yet if he would only take the speaker's intent into consideration rather than the specific words they use, he wouldn't have a problem. In one scene, a person speaks who has very little understanding of English, and Lurie can't get past the words the speaker happens to choose. Why can he not realize that the baggage of the words comes from Lurie's head, and not the speaker! The speaker can't possibly know all these poetic references, and is obviously meaning something quite direct that does not rely upon the connotations that Lurie insists are there.

But perhaps the most irritating to my eye were the characters that showed some level of compassion. Lucy starts out sounding great, but turns out to be an idiot. Bev seems approachable, but then it turns out she is more into new age crap than true deep thought. I was continually disappointed by all characters, but perhaps this was Cotzee's intention. Nevertheless, even if it was done on purpose, this lack of sympathy that continued throughout the entire novel really made it where I just couldn't relate. These people are just too different.

However, the book has won several awards and is apparently well liked by many critics who know much more about this kind of literature than I do. Perhaps my problem with the book is that I just didn't follow the real narrative, which I assume was lying just beneath the surface, unseen by my ignorant eyes.

View all my reviews

23 October, 2012

My Favorite Podcasts

I subscribe to a lot of podcasts. I use podcasts to keep up with the news, learn more about the world, and expand my mind generally. As such, I've sampled and stopped listening to more podcasts than most people have even heard of. According to some of my friends, this makes me a fairly good judge of which podcasts are worth investing a bit of time in. Thus, I decided to start maintaining this list of my favorite podcasts.

Strong recommendations are in bold, and should be seriously considered. Non-bold recommendations are good enough to cause me to download and listen to every episode they release, but maybe do not quite stand out enough for me to give a full recommendation. All podcasts recommended on this page are rated five stars by me on itunes; the distinction between bold and non-bold recommendations is slight at best.

Note that I am a man of very specific tastes. I adore philosophy and I have a strong tendency toward rationalism, skepticism, and mathematical rigor. This certainly affects what I consider to be a worthwhile podcast to subscribe to. YMMV.

The Best Philosophy Podcasts

The field of philosophy is blessed to have so many exceedingly good podcasts available to choose from. Some are short bite-sized chunks while others go moderately in-depth on philosophical topics. For serious users, there are even a few excellent full course podcasts available on iTunes University; listening to such a series takes many, many hours, but it can be well worth the time investment if you're fully interested in the topic.

Short-form philosophy podcasts:
  • Philosophy Bites (itunes, blog): 15-20 minute weekly interviews of philosophers on philosophical topics by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton.
  • The 10-Minute Puzzle (itunes, site): 10 minute sporadic introductory discussions on philosophical puzzles by Federico Luzzi and Aidan McGlynn.
  • Ethics Bites (itunes, site): 15-20 minute sporadic interviews of philosophers on ethical dilemmas by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton.
  • Morality in the Real World (itunes, site): 20 minute sporadic episodes on desirism by Alonzo Fyfe and Luke Muehlhauser. Shows the thinking process of specifically explicating a theory over time, making changes along the way. (Note that desirism is not a theory I subscribe to.)
  • The Big Ideas (itunes): 10 minute sporadic mini-introductions on the main ideas in philosophy.
Medium-form philosophy podcasts:
  • The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps (itunes, blog): 20-30 minute weekly discussions on the history of philosophy by Peter Adamson.
  • Elucidations (itunessite): 25-45 minute weekly interviews of philosophers on philosophical topics by Matt Teichman and Mark Hopwood.
  • The Moral Maze (itunes, site): 45 minute weekly heated debates on practical moral issues by non-philosophers.
  • The Philosopher's Zone (itunes, site): 25 minute weekly discussions on philosophical topics by the late Alan Saunders. (A replacement host has not yet been chosen; episodes resume in 2013.)
  • The Public Philosopher (itunes, site): 45 minute sporadic talks by Michael Sandel. Includes a lot of audience participation.
  • Minerva (itunessite): 30 minute monthly episodes on major philosophical topics.
Long-form philosophy podcasts:
  • The Partially Examined Life (itunes, blog/forum): 2 hour weekly discussions on philosophical readings aimed at a moderately informed audience. Their forum includes reading groups where listeners can discuss topics more in-depth, which is perhaps the most awesome thing ever.
  • Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life (itunessite): 1 hour bi-weekly interviews on philosophical topics with Jack Russell Weinstein. The host is very good at asking great questions of guests that cut to the heart of philosophical positions.
  • Philosophy Talk (site/forum): 1 hour weekly discussion on philosophical topics with a call-in audience. Their podcast feed goes through iAmplify, which is terribly confusing and irritating, but each week's episodes are free to download if you can figure it out. Be aware that past episodes are not freely available, making this show impossible to use with philosophy discussion groups.
  • New Books in Philosophy (itunes): 1 hour biweekly interviews with authors about their newly published books on philosophy. These are easily the most dense of all podcasts listed here, as they go fairly in-depth on specific topics — but every episode is accessible to a moderately well-informed philosophical audience. Unfortunately, the audio quality is not ideal.
  • Philosophy Now (itunessite): 1 hour sporadic interviews on philosophical topics.
  • Such That Cast (itunessite): 1 hour monthly interviews with philosophers. Does not focus on specific philosophical problems, but just consists of a freeform conversation between the interviewer and interviewee. This sounds terrible, but is actually really good.

The Best News Podcasts

I don't always agree with the viewpoints expressed on the following programs, but I listen to all of them regularly. I feel it's important to expose oneself to alternate viewpoints on a regular basis as a method of keeping one's political bias in check.

Straight news:
  • Democracy Now! (itunes video or audio, site/blog): 1 hour daily news program that gives proper air time to voices on the far left. Amy Goodman often raises issues most news sources do not.
  • NPR News Summary (itunes): 5 minute daily morning news summary. This is easily the best source of headlines each day.
  • NPR Story of the Day (itunes): 3-10 minute daily stories on various topics. The best story of the day is usually interesting, though you never know what it will be about in advance.
  • C-SPAN Podcast of the Week (itunes): 1 hour broadcast of the best event that week on C-SPAN. Topics vary widely but are always worth the download.
  • C-SPAN Newsmakers (itunes): 30 minute interviews with people currently in mainstream political news stories.
  • Frontline (itunes): This is perhaps the best in-depth news reporting available today. They consistently put out great investigative news stories.
(I should also mention The Daily Show and The Colbert Report here, although neither is available as a podcast. Links are to rss EZTV feeds. See my follow-up post on my favorite television shows for more information.)

Financial news:
  • Planet Money (itunes, blog): 15-30 minute biweekly financial stories. Episodes can be funny, insightful, alarming, or all of the above. Worth a listen even if you don't like financial news in general.
  • Marketplace (itunes, blog): 30 minutes daily financial news. Fairly in-depth information for those interested in financial topics. Not worth a listen if you aren't into financial news.
  • Marketplace Morning Report (itunes): 7 minute daily morning financial news summary.
  • Motley Fool Money (itunes): 45 minutes weekly discussion of stocks.
Sunday Morning Talk Shows:
  • This Week (itunes): 45 minutes weekly political discussion with George Stephanopoulos. They're consistently late on putting these out, but the content is worth it.
  • Fox News Sunday (itunes): 45 minutes weekly political discussion with Chris Wallace. Despite Fox's deserved reputation for lying, Wallace does an almost respectable job of asking tough questions to those on the right.
  • Meet the Press (itunes): 45 minutes weekly political discussion with David Gregory. They're consistently late on publishing each episode, and past episodes are not available for download.
  • State of the Union (itunes): 45 minutes weekly political discussion with Candy Crowley.
Note that I do not approve of the Face the Nation podcast and cannot recommend that anyone subscribe to it. Each episode is one hour long, with a full third of it being nothing but commercials. Of the 40 minutes of content, some 5-10 minutes is wasted on sports commentary rather than political discussion. Listening to this show might be worthwhile if you watch it live on tv, but in podcast form, it is completely unbearable.

The Best Science Podcasts

I adore science. If you do, too, then you'll enjoy these excellent podcasts.
  • Freakonomics (itunes): 30-45 minute weekly episodes on unusual economic topics. Some 5-minute weekly mini-segments are also in this feed.
  • Radiolab (itunes): 1 hour weekly episodes on science and culture.
  • Science Friday Video (itunes): 5 minute weekly videos on a science topic. While I don't make time to listen to the hour long radio show regularly, their five minute videos are well worth watching.
  • Nova scienceNOW (itunes): 5 minute sporadic videos on a science topic.
  • StarTalk (itunes): 1 hour sporadic episodes on comedic takes of science topics with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Uses a lot of comedy.
  • Social Science Bites (itunes): 15-20 minute weekly interviews of social scientists on topics by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton.
  • 60 Second Earth (itunes): 1 minute weekly mini-episodes on earth science topics by Scientific American.
  • Minute Physics (itunes): 1-5 minute weekly mini-episodes on physics topics.
  • Brain Science Podcast (itunes): 1 hour monthly interviews on recent discoveries in neuroscience and how they relate to our philosophy of mind. These can get pretty technical at times.

The Best Skepticism Podcasts

The skeptic community has a lot of podcasts out there, but unfortunately the quality is a bit lacking in many of them.
  • You Are Not So Smart (itunes): 1 hour monthly interviews on rationality. This is one of the best skeptic podcasts currently being made. Far too many skeptic podcasts are aimed at dealing with absolutely ridiculous claims like bigfoot, ghosts, or homeopathy; but the YANSS podcast deals with dubious claims that even established skeptics may still fall for.
  • Consequence (itunes): 30-45 minutes biweekly interviews with people harmed by pseudoscientific claims. These are first-hand accounts of the harm caused by belief in false things.
  • For Good Reason (itunes): 45 minutes sporadic interviews on skeptical issues.
  • Skeptic's Guide to the Universe (itunes): 1 hour weekly episodes on skeptical issues.
  • Reasonable Doubt (itunes): 1.5 hour bi-weekly episodes on roundtable discussion of atheism and skepticism.
  • Rationally Speaking (itunes): 1 hour bi-weekly episodes on rationality.
  • Reality Check (itunes): 1 hour weekly roundtable discussion on skeptical issues.
  • Point of Inquiry (itunes): 45 minute weekly interviews with scientists on skeptical issues.
  • The Randi Show (itunes): 5-10 short conversations with James Randi.
  • Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot (itunes): 1 hour sporadic interviews with Christians and atheists on the divide between the two.
In any list of the "best" skeptic podcasts, there must be at least some mention of Skeptoid and Skepticality, due to their wide popularity among skeptics. Neither has made my list.

Skeptoid focuses on stories about false claims. It feels like a podcast that tells ghost stories and little more. Meanwhile, Skepticality has some great segments at the beginning of each episode, but the main part of the podcast is just terrible. I really dislike the main host. His voice is not appropriate for radio, and his interview style is more hurtful than helpful in learning about guests' positions. Not as important (but notable enough to mention) is the very, very, very bad theme song. Seriously, Skepticality has perhaps the worst theme song of any popular podcast I've ever heard.

The Best History Podcasts

I wasn't very interested in history as a child; I was more of a science and math person. That's why these podcasts are so very exciting to me — my prior lack of knowledge in the field means I always learn something new in every episode. Your experience might be different if you're already well versed in these topics.
  • The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps (itunesblog): 20-30 minute weekly discussions on the history of philosophy by Peter Adamson. Perhaps it's unfair that I've listed this podcast twice in two different categories, but it's just that good.
  • In Our Time (itunessite): 20-30 minute weekly episodes on the history of ideas by Melvyn Bragg.
  • The History of Rome (itunes): 30 minute episodes on the complete story of the Roman empire from beginning to end. This podcast series is complete, with no newly published episodes.
  • The History of Byzantium (itunes): 30 minute weekly podcasts on the history of the Byzantine empire. This series starts where the History of Rome podcasts ends; I strongly recommend listening to the History of Rome series first.
  • A Brief History of Mathematics (itunes): 15 minute short introductions on the history of mathematics. Series is complete with no new episodes.

Other Podcasts I Enjoy

Not everything I listen to is easily categorized, but I still recommend them just as strongly.
  • This American Life (itunes): 1 hour weekly episodes on various topics. If you only subscribe to one podcast recommended on this page, let it be this one.
  • Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (itunes): 25 minute weekly audiobook episodes of Eliezer Yudkowski's fanfiction epic. I know the idea of fanfiction may sound silly at first, but this will blow your mind.
  • The Dice Tower (itunes): Hour long weekly episodes on board game reviews.
  • Ludology (itunes): Hour long weekly episodes on board game design.
  • Smiley and West (itunes): 1 hour weekly episodes on political and other issues with Cornel West and Tavis Smiley. Gives a far left viewpoint.
  • State of the Game (itunes): 2.5-3 hour sporadic episodes on issues in the StarCraft 2 professional gaming community.
  • This Week in Tech (itunes): 1.5-2 hour weekly episodes on technology news with Leo Laporte.
  • Oyez Project Arguments (itunes): 1-4 hour sporadic recordings of Supreme Court oral arguments. Link is to 2012 term; Oyez creates a new podcast feed for every year for some reason.
  • Facing the Singularity (itunes): 5-10 minute episodic lecture on what taking the singularity seriously means. Podcast series is complete with no new episodes.
  • Reith Lectures (itunes): 5 single hour long yearly lectures by significant cultural figures.
  • Flack Check (youtube): 1 minute daily episodes showcasing the lies politicians tell with an element of humor. Link is to youtube because their itunes feed is not out yet.

Final Notes

Obviously, I consume a lot of content. When you add to this list the other media I regularly consume like television shows and movies, it becomes obvious that I spend a LOT of time on consumption in general. While this may make me good as a judge of comparing different media types for others to better know what they should spend their scarce time upon, it does highlight the sheer percentage of time I dedicate to items that most people think is (mostly) a waste of time.

Honestly, I do not mind others making this judgment. It's a judgment I sometimes think I agree with. But, overall, I'm fairly happy with my current level of consumption. While I might change these habits in the future, I would require an equal level of intellectual stimulation on a broad range of topics to really make up for the content I now consume everyday. I might be committed to the cause of optimal philanthropy, but focusing on only one area is just not something that I ever think I could do while maintaining my current levels of happiness. That's why I fully expect to continue to consume such a large amount of content like this on a regular basis.

Edit: Commenters have brought two additional philosophy podcasts to my attention: Public Ethics Radio and The Thirst. I've yet to listen to them, but they appear interesting.

16 October, 2012

Why Ada Lovelace Day is Important

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, where writers across the blogosphere celebrate women in the STEM fields. For the uninitiated, Ada Lovelace is the world's first computer programmer. (She literally wrote the first algorithm intended to be used on Charles Babbage's analytical engine.)

On Ada Lovelace day, bloggers generally write about a woman in the field of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. It's relevant because even today, in 2012, we have far, far too few female STEM professionals. I'm not sure if the reason has anything to do with people thinking women can't succeed as well in these fields, but if so, it makes sense to celebrate feminist scientists on at least one day each year. And today is that day.

However, I wanted to do something a little different this year. Instead of telling the story of someone significant in one of these fields today, I'd like to share the results of a study that was published only a few short months ago: Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman).

This study is perhaps the most depressing study on sexism in science academia I have ever read. It is so distressing that upon first encountering it, I thought that it was surely wrong, and that a quick glance through their methodology would show why their findings were wrong. But, after careful consideration, I have to admit that this study is completely legit. I couldn't find even a single flaw in their approach.

As Scientific American reports, this study has conclusively proven that significant gender bias exists in science academia. They used a double-blind randomized controlled experiment -- and when I say, controlled, I mean controlled. They even made sure that the names used (John & Jennifer) were pretested as equivalent in likeability and recognizability. They covered every conceivable base. And the results are horrifying.

They created a single fake resume/application that was good enough to warrant a hire, but not so good as to necessitate it (as established in a prestudy). They then sent this application to 127 science faculty as though it were real. (After the study was done, they went back and asked these people if they suspected it was fake; none did.) The 127 faculty chosen had demographics corresponding to both the averages for the selected departments and faculty at all United States research-intensive institutions, meeting the criteria for generalizability even from nonrandom samples. Not only was their sample representative of the underlying population, but they specifically chose 127 as the optimal sample size needed to detect effects without biasing results toward obtaining signi´Čücance.

These 127 science faculty judged the applications on competence, hireability, and whether they would offer to mentor the applicant. Males were significantly preferred over females on all metrics. Furthermore, the faculty were asked to estimate what salary would be appropriate for the successful applicant. Males were offered far higher salaries.

The sexism in today's science academia is real. While this doesn't mean that science faculty are overtly sexist, nor even consciously sexist, there is a distinct significant privilege that exists for male newcomers to science academia.

So today, on Ada Lovelace Day, when you read stories of female success stories in science across the web, realize just how hard it was for those standouts to achieve what they did. Even in today's world, being female in science is tough.

EDIT: After writing this article, commenters pointed out problems with the graphs used. In particular, satt pointed out that the use of dynamite plots here is possibly misleading, and unnecessarily obfuscates the actual data points at best.

Unfortunately, the charts were taken directly from the original paper, and so I do not have access to the actual data needed to create better plots for this article review. I have e-mailed the lead author, Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, to see if they have any violin plots with better axes that they could use to alleviate these concerns.

14 October, 2012

Maximizing Our Power

Each year, I try to write a post for Blog Action Day that gets to the heart of the topic. This year is no different.

The theme this time around is The Power of We, and most people are discussing just how much power we collectively have toward accomplishing social good. However, I want to focus on something that most altruists seem to ignore: the massive potential power that we miss out on when donating to the wrong causes.

Not all nonprofits are equally good at effecting positive change. The differential in outcomes created between two random charities is likely several orders of magnitude. This is why it is so important to analyze which charitable cause is more capable of turning your donated dollar into additional social good. Thankfully, there are a few organizations that do this analyzation work for you.

GiveWell does an extraordinary job of ranking highly effective charities by how confident we can be that donating to them will result in good outcomes. Unfortunately, it only does well with ranking certain types of charities; specifically, it only ranks those charities that are already known to be highly effective (they do a good job of distinguishing #1 from #2, but not #10 from #11, if you're interested in knowing that kind of thing), and when a charitable need is not served well by any particular charity, it fails to give recommendations for that field, even if the (bad) charities in that field might result in higher potential gains. (The field of existential risk, for example, has no recommended charities.) Further, it focuses on being able to match small incremental gains with additional funding and so misses out on identifying larger gains accomplished that can't be verified step-wise. In other words, GiveWell places a high priority on knowing that their recommendation is accurate, and refuses to recommend charities which potentially are effective but which have so far not been proven as such.

For all these qualifiers, GiveWell ends up doing extremely well at what it means to do. Although it is missing out on some potential giving opportunities which might be more effective, you can always feel confident that if GiveWell recommends a charity, then that means there is reason for very high confidence that donating to them will accomplish serious social good.

An alternative to GiveWell's recommendation is Giving What We Can. Unlike GiveWell, which attempts to provide highly effective donation choices in a variety of fields (on the assumption that donors are more likely to give to projects which perform well in a field they're interested in), Giving What We Can has much more of a bottom line approach. GWWC breaks things down to the bare utilons and determines a sheer top recommendations list, so that donors can truly maximize good overall rather than in a specific field.

Lastly, there are two major fields where GiveWell does not give out recommendations, yet these fields might be some of the most effective ways of achieving good through donations. The first is existential risk, which GiveWell is currently working on; the second is animal welfare, which GiveWell explicitly stays away from. While no organization is currently fit to be rated highly in terms of existential risk, charities which focus on taking the moral status of animals seriously can be examined through Effective Animal Activism. While they do not rank animal charities against human-focused ones, they do a good job of determining which animal welfare oriented charities accomplish the most good per dollar donated.

Analyzing the effectiveness of nonprofits is not easy; there is far more subtlety involved than you might at first think. This is why I highly recommend going to one of the above sites before making any large giving decisions. If we want to maximize the power of we, we first must maximize the amount of good we accomplish with each dollar we donate.

11 October, 2012

An Absentee Father

[Edit on February 2018: Although the content of this entry remains true, I mostly regret writing the post today. Not all true things need to be published publicly, and I regret what I’ve said in this post. For a better understanding of how I feel with regard to my daughter, see my February 2018 post, A Favor Owed.]

In a few short months, it will be my biological daughter's fourteenth birthday.

Already, she is at the age I was when I first started making mistakes that had significant impact on my life. When I was 13, as she is now, I was expelled from the top boarding school in the state of Alabama. It was a stupid mistake; having girls in one's dorm was against the rules, and I disobeyed the rule multiple times, even after getting suspended for breaking it previously. To me, the prospect of sex was just too much more important than whether I would be expelled. Obviously, it was a dumb decision, but I felt I was making the rational choice at the time.

So it occurs to me that she is now at that age when some of her actions might have drastic effects on her future. I sincerely wish her well on these first few important decisions. I'm not too worried, though, as I'm confident that her mother will have raised her well enough to do better than chance.

I say this even though I have not seen either my biological daughter or her mother for thirteen years. I know nothing of their life, nor how things have gone. I have not attempted contact with them, nor they with me. It's justified in their case, as I was a particularly poor teenage father and they were much better off without me. But I've had more than a few people say that even if they are justified in not attempting to see me, I am not similarly justified in not even attempting to maintain any kind of parental relationship, however tenuous it might be.

I'm well aware that this is a legitimate complaint. To many people, an absent father is not only strongly negative, but downright heartless. "Any relationship," they claim, "will be better than absolute silence. Surely you must at least make it known that you care, even if your daughter does not return the sentiment."

Yet this argument does not move me at all. I really was a terrible father (I seriously doubt I'd be any better of a father today, unless I adopted a child that was already partially grown). I honestly believe that the policy of no contact resulted in the best effects overall for all involved. I feel no regret nor shame at not being a real father. I regret many of my actions from that phase of my life, but not that I stayed absent. I'm not only comfortable with not being there -- I'm proud of the decision.

But this does not satisfy some critics. "You sound so cold when you say these things. You continually call her your "biological" child, rather than just your daughter. Don't you even feel a thread of responsibility? How can you live without even thinking of her?"

For many years, this objection really confused me. It has always seemed to me that my feelings on the matter are not cold, but instead quite reasonable. I am not her real father; a real father is someone who is there for a child: someone who takes care of, teaches, and helps them. That's not me. It never has been. I was, at most, a biological donor. I still wish her well; I want her life to be good and for her to experience good things in this world. But I'd say the same for the child of my neighbor, or the child that crosses the street on their way to the bus. I do not feel any special feelings for her -- furthermore, if I did, I can't help but to think that would be creepy. What right would I have to have special feelings for a thirteen year old child I do not even know? It honestly confuses me how others don't automatically see that such feelings would be genuinely creepy.

But, as the years have passed, I've come to understand a little more of what these critics are trying to convey. To them, the passing on of genetic material is somehow a sacred act, and there exists a duty for those who pass on such material to become a parent figure in the life of that child. It's still a terribly silly notion to my mind, but at least I'm starting to get why so many disparate people have made the same complaint.

To this, I can only say that my lack of special feelings does not mean I have negative feelings. If, for some reason, Adrianah Celes Herboso (or Guyer or whatever name she now goes by) wanted to contact me or otherwise have some kind of relationship, however trivial, I would not automatically be opposed to it. Even though I do not believe the passing of genetic material is important (far more important are the actual parents that do the work of raising a child), I can understand why she might not feel the same way. If that's the case, then I'd be willing to see if a positive relationship could be maintained. Not because I feel a special bond, but because if she felt it was important, then what reason would I have to dissuade her from it?

So, I will continue to not attempt contact of any kind, nor would I have any particular wish for her to initiate contact with me. But, if for some reason she does anyway, I would do my best to be a positive influence. Especially now that she's at an age where her reason might be tested in situations that could seriously impact her future life.

09 October, 2012

My Sense of Ethics

Perhaps the most interesting conversation I have when meeting new people is when they start to ask me about my ethical views. It generally comes up pretty early on when I meet people, as so many of the things that set me apart have a basis in my morality. I don't do this on purpose; it just naturally turns out this way.

I'm vegetarian (largely vegan), so if they happen to see me when I'm eating or otherwise ordering food, this is an early entry point into the ethics discussion. But far more often are the oft-asked questions: "what do you do?" or "what are you into?", both of which go straight into a description of optimal philanthropy. In either case, it isn't long before they start asking me why I speak so strangely when it comes to ethical issues.

If you haven't had the ethics conversation with me in person (or if you knew me before I fully fleshed out my views), then it would help to explain what I'm talking about. A typical exchange might go something like this:

New acquaintance: "So what kind of stuff are you into?"

Eric: "My main interest at the moment is in optimal philanthropy. I strongly prefer a world where charitable contributions get distributed rationally, so I do what I can to try and help determine which organizations have aims that make sense."

New acquaintance: "Oh, I get it. So you're into figuring out which charities are better than others. I've heard of that."

Eric: "I wouldn't put it exactly like that, but yes, I think you have the basic idea."

New acquaintance: "How would you put it?"

Eric: "I just wouldn't use the word 'better'; that's all. I mean, obviously some charities are indeed better at accomplishing their goals, but that doesn't make them better in the moral sense of the word."

New acquaintance: "Surely if they're better at accomplishing Good, then they're better morally speaking."

Eric: "For moral realists, yes; but I'm not a moral realist."

And this is where the vast majority of people will try to find a polite way of ending the conversation.

My moral anti-realism stance has caused countless numbers of otherwise rational competent people to think I'm nuts. To many educated (but not philosophical) people, moral anti-realism is just code for nihilism. Hell, even among anti-realist philosophers, the specter of nihilism informs many of their arguments. (Mackie, Blackburn, Timmons, Joyce, and even Rawls all endorse moral anti-realism while doing their damnedest to be dishonest about it, just to stay as far away from nihilism as they can.) So I guess it's understandable if the average new acquaintance I make will also make the same mistake.

Review: Robots and Empire

Robots and Empire Robots and Empire by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The action really starts to heat up in this entrant to Asimov's epic series of scifi novels. Daneel Olivaw and Giskard Reventlov make up one of the most interesting teams you'll find in any scifi story. This is one of my favorites in the Robot series, and is definitely worth an extra slow read.

If you're new to Asimov, don't start reading here! Start at the beginning of his Robot series; otherwise, you'll regret reading them out of order.

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08 October, 2012

Review: The Sword of Good

The Sword of Good The Sword of Good by Eliezer Yudkowsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fantasy enthusiast from our world is transported to a world of fantasy, wielding the Sword of Good. Dolf the wizard and Selena the pirate join him on his quest to confront the Lord of Dark.

More cannot be said without giving away the storyline, but rest assured that this is an excellent read for any fan of the fantasy trope.

I most definitely recommend this short story.

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06 October, 2012

Review: Three Worlds Collide

Three Worlds Collide Three Worlds Collide by Eliezer Yudkowsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short story describes a spaceship of humans in the future who make first contact with not one, but two intelligent alien races. The result involves spirited debate as each of the three realize they all have very different views on which moral facts are true.

If you have a group of friends interested in metaethics, I strongly recommend you try printing out hard copies of this short story in sections, and read the story together in person. Each successive section will give you a lot to talk about, and there are few enough sections of short lengths that it will only take around 2.5 hours to read through every section with plenty of conversation between each.

Those not as interested in metaethics will still get something out of the story, though they might not rate it as highly as I have.

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05 October, 2012

Review: Tau Zero

Tau Zero Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fifty colonists embark on a ten year subjective voyage at relativistic speed to a new world, but tragedy strikes unexpectedly, and the crew must deal with the consequences. What follows is an amazing story of emotion, suspense, and scientific action. Poul Anderson does a superb job both with developing the character relations and pushing the crew through a remarkable (yet plausible*) plot. This cook is a bellweather of the hard science fiction genre, and should be on the to-read list of any true hard scifi fan.

Now that I've given my five star recommendation, if you haven't read the book yet, stop reading this review here. Spoilers are ahead.

While this book is definitely some of the hardest of the hard science fiction that there is, it follows through scientific theories that have since been disproved. As most science enthusiasts today know, the universe is not an oscillation type; due to dark energy, the universe will instead expand forever, making the premise of the final chapters of the book an implausible solution. Interestingly, Bussard drives (or something similar to it) in our distant future might potentially be used to try and extend how long we can last before heat death eventually takes over. In such end times, using technology to amass mass (if you'll excuse the lame pun) will be necessary if we ever plan on creating new stars out of the void.

Second, I feel conflicted on how Anderson dealt with the relationships among the crew. I'm not saying it wasn't somewhat realistic, but with only 50 members, a polyamorous lifestyle should have really been assumed from the start. Granted, Anderson arrived there eventually once it was realized that they could expect no further colonists to come along, but it bothered me early on in the story that they did not arrive to such a conclusion earlier. I suppose in Anderson's future world, polyamory is as looked down upon as it was in the time this book was first written.

Third, the final moments of this novel seemed a bit rushed for me. Refusal of kingship, mandate to make this part of the universe human-centric, and a switch to polyamory were all introduced in a matter of paragraphs, followed only by an abrupt ending. While I realize that there's not much story left that can be told while remaining truly hard scifi, I nevertheless felt sad at realizing the story would not continue. But perhaps I am too enamored with long-running series.

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