Friday, September 21, 2007

James Morrow "Towing Jehovah": CFI book club discussion

4 people attended a Center For Inquiry book group discussion of James Morrow "Towing Jehovah". 3 of them liked it, one not so much.

Unexpectedly to myself, I liked this novel very much. This book was first recommended to me by a guy in the Atheist Community of Austin. When he told me about the book's premise -- God dies, falls to Earth, and his 2-mile-long body needs to be towed -- I thought it was absurd. He said, yes, but it's very good and very funny.

I am cautious of stories based on absurd premises. Too often they are simply incoherent, as if the author thought that absurdity alone makes a story funny, or that it is a good substitution for satire. This wasn't the case with "Towing Jehovah". Even though the premise patently doesn't make sense to either atheists or believers (only a vanishingly small minority of the latter believe that God has a physical body), the plot develops completely logically, and all of the major characters behave rationally in the bizarre circumstances. When I picked it up, little did I know how much I will enjoy it.

Lots of funny ideas



But not everybody in the CFI book club thought this book was great. One reader felt that while "Towing Jehovah" had a few funny ideas, it "didn't jell". There were plenty of comical moments, like the Pope watching big screen videos of Bing Crosby; or the whole subplot with World War II re-enactors. Or the scenes that give us an appreciation of how humongous God's body was. The mechanics of attaching chains to the eardrums in order to tow the body. Or driving the Jeep into God's bellybutton. Or individual hairs thick enough to tie things to. Or being underwater and swimming into a divine ear with scuba gear. (I would say those scenes were extremely gross, and just as fascinating. Overall, this book does not shy from the gross... examines it in loving detail, even. :-) If you think an up-close scrutiny of pores the size of moon craters is repulsive, just wait to see what happens when the ship gets stuck on the shallows near the coast of an uninhabited island.)

Some characters' motivations were hard to understand



So overall, one reader thought "Towing Jehovah" had lots of interesting little ideas, but overall didn't quite jell. "In the end," he said, "I was wondering, what was it all about"? He also did not quite buy Cassie and Oliver's reasons for wanting to destroy God's body. Cassie supposedly wanted to get rid of it because, as an arch-feminist, she was afraid that a discovery of God's body by the general public would plunge the world into the new Dark Ages. This reasoning sounded somewhat flimsy to this reader. If God was dead, wouldn't it be logical to show it to the world, so that they would know they were wrong in their belief? The ironic thing is, a discovery of a dead god did not serve either Christians or atheists. The former would find out they were right before, because God really did exist, but they are wrong now; the latter would be right, but not for reasons they thought. :-)

A reader also noted that the lighthearted farcical tone of the book was inconsistent with certain tragic moments scattered throughout the book, where people die or getting seriously injured in ways that are not funny at all.

Satire equally directed towards believers and non-believers



Other people enjoyed the satire in the book. They appreciated that it was directed not just towards religion, but towards atheism in equal measure. Readers recognized some aspects of groups like CFI in the fictional Enlightenment League, and admitted that the barbs pointed at it were pretty accurate. "Despite having a lot of money, the Enlightenment League is pretty ineffective, and what they mostly do is pranks, silly stuff", a reader said.

An interesting dialogue between those groups



While this book is written from an atheist perspective, it is notable that the author does not side with militant atheists. Rather, he lets the three main characters -- the Jesuit priest, the religion-neutral captain, and the atheist Cassie -- have a conversation about God and related matters. One reader said their discussions were one of the enjoyable points of the book. "I thought the priest was interesting, reasonable, the professor. And the captain was interesting too. To me he represented the moderate middle. He wasn't willing to say the didn't believe in God, but he wasn't religious by any means. And then the atheist coming in... I liked the interplay between these 3 individuals, and the way they discussed their beliefs, and that it didn't degrade into awful fighting," she said.

Sympathetic characters and a humanist message



The protagonist, captain Van Horn, who was commissioned to tow the God's body, is probably the most sympathetic character of the book. He has his own deeply felt reasons for wanting to deliver the God's body to its final resting place in the Arctic. They originate in his unfulfilling relationship with his father, a relationship he is still trying and failing to heal. Too many works of satire have left me feeling empty, because there weren't any characters to root for, but this clearly isn't the case here: there are several characters one can easily identify with.

This novel does an excellent job of delivering a humanist message. I really like how it demonstrates the point that whether God existed or not, the civilization would be no different. In the absence of a basis for religion, society is held together by human social and moral norms, which remain the same. The ship crew's brief experiment with giving up those norms ends as a disaster to all of them, and the social order is restored by people's need to cooperate for the sake of their own survival.

Monday, September 17, 2007

eBay as a giant museum

Many words have been spilled on Web 2.0 and how it's supposed to change the world -- from Pulitzer prize-winning pundits to rank-and-file bloggers, everybody seems to have weighed in. Still I haven't read many observations as sharp or fresh as this one from William Gibson. This quote is from William Gibson's interview in Washington Post. Yes, this article is a couple of weeks old, but, as I mentioned before, I'm a leisurely blogger, not a professional one. :-)

"Google is the piece de resistance of weird [stuff] finding," he says. "One of the things I've been doing in the eBay era -- I've become a really keen observer of the rationalization of the world's attic. Every class of human artifact is being sorted and rationalized by this economically driven machine that constantly turns it over and brings it to a higher level of searchability. . . . The tentacles of that operation extend into every flea market and thrift shop and basement and attic in the world. . . .

"Every hair is being numbered -- eBay has every grain of sand. EBay is serving this very, very powerful function which nobody ever intended for it. EBay in the hands of humanity is sorting every last Dick Tracy wrist radio cereal premium sticker that ever existed. It's like some sort of vast unconscious curatorial movement. (emphasis mine -- E.)

"Every toy I had as a child that haunted me, I've been able to see on eBay. [...]

"This is new. People in really small towns can become world-class connoisseurs of something via eBay and Google. This didn't used to be possible. If you are sufficiently obsessive and diligent, you can be a little kid in some town in the backwoods of Tennessee and the world's premier info-monster about some tiny obscure area of stuff. That used to require a city. It no longer does."


The whole article can be found here.

I think I may lobby the FACT reading group coordinator to put Gibson's new book, "Spook Country" on the FACT group candidate list. Even though FACT group on the average didn't like Gibson's earlier novel, "Pattern Recognition", I am quite intrigued by Gibson's perspective.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

LoneStaRG 9

On Labor Day weekend, envious of all those cool people who were either at the WorldCon or at the Burning Man, I had to console myself by going to LoneStaRG, a Mensa regional gathering. I spent half a day there (out of 4 possible total). That was about the right amount of time. There were very few costumes at this year's LoneStaRG, and overall it just wasn't as lively as last year. But our air conditioning at home had gone out that weekend, and LoneStaRG seemed as good a place as any to go to recover from the heat.

When Mensans get together, their collective IQ sometimes takes a hit



I overheard a few funny stories at the LoneStaRG. Somebody said he received an offer for a credit card, co-branded by Mensa, with an 24.99% APR. "Whoever Mensa sold members' addresses to, clearly didn't have a good idea who they were dealing with", said the "lucky" recipient of the offer. Because you know, Mensans are way too ridiculously smart to fall for something like that. ;-)

Or are they? I got contradictory impressions of the people at the gathering. Many of them are individually as smart as advertised, and quirky enough to make you scratch your head (in a good way). But... when they get together, it sometimes looks like their collective IQ takes a hit. :-)

You get discussions where 30 people sit around and re-hash the obvious. For example, they may devote 15 minutes to stating and re-stating the idea that symbols in general, and brands specifically, serve as shortcuts for people to make decisions about the world. A symbol stands for something; hence, seeing a symbol, a person makes a rapid decision without having to analyze the phenomenon. So what else is new? Everyone is in violent agreement, and no one offers a different perspective. I don't know about all the group discussions at LoneStaRG, but this one discussion I'm thinking about was very much like this.

So, the quality of group discussions seemed less than the sum of the quality of their contributing minds. But the individual people were often funny.

Stories too good to be true



Like the guy who figured out a unique way to bring his shoes into a third world country. You see, he found it impossible to buy shoes in his size (13) in that country. No stores had them. He brought some footwear from the US, but when it wore out, he was left in a quandary. He could ask his friends in the US to send him shoes, but then he would have to pay exorbitant tarifs imposed on foreign goods. So he asked friends to mail him two separate packages containing a single shoe each. His host country's customs officers didn't know what to make of a package containing a single shoe, so they let him have it without imposing a tariff. Whether that's believable or not, I can't tell... It sounds a bit too much like one of those apocryphal tales of out-of-the-box thinking, that management books are rife with. ;-)

Don Baker's talk on Universal Darwinism



One of the more interesting things at the LoneStaRG was ACA's own Don Baker's presentation "Universal Darwinism: How Computer Science has Validated the Theory of Evolution". It can be summed up in a few sentences thus. Computer simulations can help to study evolution, which is hard to study otherwise, because it occurs very slowly in nature. The benefit flows both ways: the principles of evolution applied to computer science have lead to creation of a class of algorithms called genetic algorithms. The PowerPoint slides of Don's presentation can be found here. I have to admit, I've already heard or read most of the points mentioned in his talk (as is more and more often the case with public science lectures I go to... is that a downside of ed-joo-ma-cating myself, or what? :-)), but it was neat to see them summed up all in one place. The most interesting part of the talk were examples of designs that genetic algorithms have come up with, such as this and this. As Don noted, some of those designs seem really non-intuitive; they don't look like anything a human designer could have come up with but their superiority was confirmed in real-world tests.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Odds are stacked against myth debunkers

Here is an interesting article I've read recently. It has depressing implications for Center Of Inquiry and I guess everyone who would like to see the world thinking more rationally.

Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach

Some highlights from the article:

The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.

[...]

The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain's subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.


But silently ignoring the lies isn't any better, the article says:

So is silence the best way to deal with myths? Unfortunately, the answer to that question also seems to be no.

Another recent study found that when accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true, said Peter Kim, an organizational psychologist at the University of Southern California. He published his study in the Journal of Applied Psychology.


The article ends with this pessimistic conclusion:

Myth-busters, in other words, have the odds against them.


It really makes you wonder if humanity is doomed to live in perpetual ignorance (and I know a lot of people would answer with a resounding "yes"! ;-() How did people ever stop believing, for example, that whispering incantations or casting an evil glance on someone can cause a person to fall ill? Actually, it may be too optimistic to say people stopped believing it. :-) There are plenty of people who still do, even these days. But at least the majority doesn't... I would hope. Or, OK, at least the majority doesn't think it's a valid reason to accuse someone of casting spells and burn them at a stake. So how did the humankind ever moved beyond these superstitions? Well, this question runs central to a James Morrow novel "The Last Witchfinder". The novel is about one woman's lifelong quest to banish not just the trials and executions of witches, but the very notion of witchery. We discussed this book in the FACT book club, and it lead to some interesting philosophical debates. I will post the report of the discussion in the next few weeks.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Authors and the fans who love them: maybe a little too much: an ArmadilloCon 2007 panel

This is my last post from this year's ArmadilloCon. The topic is a problem many of us wish we had. :-)

Authors and the fans who love them: maybe a little too much

Description in the program book: Ever wonder why your favorite author looks a little scared when they see you? The panelists will talk about the tale-tell signs of a stalker and tell amusing stories about what has happened to them in the past. (For instance, did they call you at home during a baseball game?)

Since the stories told on this panel were a bit personal in nature, the panelists' names were omitted. The stories weren't so much about real stalking anyway, as about weird encounters between writers and their fans.

Tips on how to properly stalk a writer



Unconventional gestures of admiration



A writer who lied to a priest



Guests Of Honor with unusual demands



The whole article can be found on my web site.

By the way, one of these authors said the most persistent stalkers are writing students. "The first line of a panel on writing in conventions is populated by intense looking young men with laptops, and after the panel they'll follow you around wherever you go." I would fit that profile very well, except for not being a man (or, ahem, young :-)) because I do often sit in a front row with a laptop and type away furiously. But I swear I had not followed anyone around at any convention. :-)