De omnibus dubitandum
22 Jul 2010
I enjoy reading books. I buy new books nearly every week, and at any given moment I have anywhere up to five different books on my bedside locker in various stages of reading.
I have a preference for certain types of books. Science fiction, specifically. One of my favourite SF authors has always been Dan Simmons. His 4-part Hyperion saga is one of the finest works of SF to date.
Recently I picked up a copy of the 20th anniversary edition of Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons’ horror masterpiece about mind vampires. Yet after reading the new introduction Simmons wrote for it, I’m loathe to continue reading it.
You see, the introduction reminded me of the fact that Mr Simmons is actually not a particularly nice man. For starters in the introduction Simmons is guilty of a certain type of barely veiled chest-thumping that doesn’t sit well with me. I’m no fan of false modesty, but some of the phrasings in that introduction felt a little too much like arrogance and conceit.
Additionally, it reminded me of why I stopped visiting his official website years ago. One glance at the forum’s “Hot Button” category quickly reveals a certain type of right-wing nutcasery usually associated with the worst excesses of Fox News, ranging from revisionist Iraq-invasion apologetics to climate change denialism and raving anti-socialised healthcare madness.
Mr Simmons himself is an eager participant in this orgy of Glenn Beck-style paranoia and douchebaggery, especially when it comes to the topic of Islam. He’s the exact opposite of anti-Semitic – he’s plainly Islamophobic.
Now I have my own issues with Islam, primarily on civil liberties, women’s rights, and freedom of speech. But the vileness of the particular brand of Islamophobia rampant on those dansimmons.com forums is nauseating to behold, as it’s rooted purely in ignorance and hatred.
So my challenge now lies in separating the books from the author. So far I’ve received great satisfaction from reading Dan Simmons’ books, but I can’t deny that his political opinions are what I’d consider horrendously hateful and misinformed. I’m afraid my continued enjoyment of his works relies on my ability to forget about the author when I’m reading the book.
18 Mar 2010
Best article I’ve read all week. I’d say more about it but yesterday was St Patrick’s Day and I haven’t recovered yet. Read it for yourself:
“Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.”
7 Jan 2010
“For many years after the explosion of the TWA plane over Long Island (a disaster that was later found to have nothing at all to do with international religious nihilism), you could not board an aircraft without being asked whether you had packed your own bags and had them under your control at all times. These two questions are the very ones to which a would-be hijacker or bomber would honestly and logically have to answer “yes.” But answering “yes” to both was a condition of being allowed on the plane! Eventually, that heroic piece of stupidity was dropped as well. But now fresh idiocies are in store. Nothing in your lap during final approach. Do you feel safer? If you were a suicide-killer, would you feel thwarted or deterred?”
Read the full thing here: The truth about airplane security measures (Slate.com)
(Via Unreasonable Faith)
9 Dec 2009
Few things get me riled up as much as deliberate ignorance about science. Every time I hear someone promoting homeopathy, talk favorably about energy healing, or spew forth some other pseudo-scientific nonsense, I try (and often fail) to control the urge to set them right.
Ask my girlfriend. If I had to give her a penny for every time she asks me to stop yelling at the TV because of some mind-numbingly ignorant piece of ‘news’ (I’m looking at you, BBC Breakfast), she’d own substantially more than just my heart.
The reason I get so enraged at such displays of wilful ignorance is because it’s so terribly easy to check if any given scientific ‘fact’ is true. All you need is an open mind and a web browser.
But people as a whole are lazy, enjoy being ignorant, and suffer from a phenomenon known as confirmation bias that makes them focus on the few scraps of information confirming their pre-conceived notions, while ignoring the mountains of evidence that contradict their point of view.
We can’t fix this by showering people with real, verified facts coming from genuine, evidence-based science.
We can only fix this by teaching people to think rationally, clearly, and with an awareness of their own biases and limitations.
The book Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is a goldmine for sceptics. It effectively demolishes homeopathy, deconstructs nutritionists, and delivers staggering blows to the media’s horrendously flawed reporting of science news.
But it does all this almost carelessly, as an added benefit, in the course of its real goal: educating the reader in spotting the fallacies in medical science as it’s reported in the news, in advertisements, and on TV.
The real goal of the book is to teach people to think for themselves, to not allow themselves to be manipulated, and to base their decisions about medicine on valid scientific evidence.
Bad Science is a very important book. It’s so important that I think everyone should read it. Unfortunately I don’t have the resources to buy six billion copies, so I can’t send this book to everyone. But I can buy this book for the readers of this blog, as few as there are.
I’m going to give away ten copies of Bad Science. The first ten commenters on this post will get a free copy of Bad Science, paid for entirely by me.
All I ask you to do is when you receive the book to read it, and then lend it out to someone who you think will benefit from reading it. Spread the word.
2 Jul 2009
There’s a big huffle going on right now in the blogosphere, centered around Chris Anderson’s Free book. Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point fame has skilfully dissected Anderson’s argument in a rather scathing review of Anderson’s book. Gladwell does a fine job of undermining Anderson’s case, but one could argue that Gladwell has cherry-picked from the book in order to deliver the most devastating blow possible.
But then none other than Seth Godin throws himself into the arena with a blogpost entitled ”Malcolm is wrong”. This pro-Free rant doesn’t actually counter any of Gladwell’s arguments, but it has sure succeeded in throwing massive amounts of combustible liquids on what until now was little more than a smouldering exchange of views.
This vendetta-of-ideas between kindred minds has even sparked a Squidoo page listing many meaningful, and less meaningful, diatribes on the topic that are appearing on the web.
Personally I understand and agree with arguments from both sides of the debate, though I’m slightly more inclined towards Anderson’s point of view – if only because Gladwell seems to be defending the side of professional journalism and paid newspaper subscriptions. This is an outdated business model that, like the music industry, has been made obsolete by technological advances yet seems unwilling to accept its inevitable fate.
Printed newspapers will likely become extinct, replaced by e-reader subscriptions and/or free content supported by advertising and/or premium paid content. Amazon won’t be able to demand ridiculous prices for newspaper content forever as the market for ebook readers grows and the devices become more feature-rich and less expensive.
In the end, whether it turns out to be Free or just Less Expensive, businesses will die, new businesses will emerge, and hopefully customers will benefit.
18 Jun 2009
Or, simplified, 4 authors that really suck. Why only four, you ask? Because I’m picky when it comes to my reading material, and I tend to avoid vacuous crap, and these really are the worst of the worst. Putting Charlie Stross on this list somehow felt disingenuous.
4. Dan Brown
Because stealing someone else’s good idea and then writing a dumbed down, poorly constructed, plotholes-the-size-of-Jupiter-filled novel about it makes you a Really Bad Writer. Somehow managing to repeat this feat increases your level of stupidity exponentially.
3. Ayn Rand
Before I took up Atlas Shrugged I never had the questionable privilege of being exposed to such extreme narcissistic excrement deluged forth by an obviously delusional schizophrenic entertaining a rather distorted view on the world. Anyone quoting Ayn Rand at me (which surprisingly is often accompanied by a certain sense of intellectual smugness, utterly misplaced as that is as taking Ayn Rand serious is on a par with eating mule dung) deserves to be punched in the face and subsequently forced to retake their basic level economics class.
2. The misogynistic Bronze Age dudes that wrote the Bible/Koran/Torah
Conceiving of a villain possessed of such a vast range of antisocial and psychotic tendencies (homicidal, fratricidal, infanticidal, egomaniac, megalomaniac, jealous, vindictive, racist, petty, cruel, sado-masochistic, malevolent, and genocidal, to name but a few) as God possesses in any of these works, is an act of sheer genius – in a work of pure fiction. However, casting him as the Good Guy and taking this demented shit seriously enough to build your life around it, is just fucking stupid.
1. Adolf Hitler
Yes, technically he’s an author. Mein Kampf, you know. If I need to explain to you why this retarded fuckstick is #1 on my list of Incurably Bad Writers, you have bigger problems.
26 Mar 2009
Many of this year’s Hugo Award nominees have opted to publish their stories for free online, usually under Creative Commons licenses. I think this is a spectacularly good idea, as it gives us fans more opportunities to partake of these literary gems.
Here’s one such a gem: Evil Robot Monkey. It’s short, but its emotional impact on me was significant. An excerpt:
Sliding his hands over the clay, Sly relished the moisture oozing around his fingers. The clay matted down the hair on the back of his hands making them look almost human. He turned the potter’s wheel with his prehensile feet as he shaped the vase. Pinching the clay between his fingers he lifted the wall of the vase, spinning it higher.
Someone banged on the window of his pen. Sly jumped and then screamed as the vase collapsed under its own weight. He spun and hurled it at the picture window like feces. The clay spattered against the Plexiglas, sliding down the window.
In the courtyard beyond the glass, a group of school kids leapt back, laughing. One of them swung his arms aping Sly crudely. Sly bared his teeth, knowing these people would take it as a grin, but he meant it as a threat. Swinging down from his stool, he crossed his room in three long strides and pressed his dirty hand against the window. Still grinning, he wrote SSA. Outside, the letters would be reversed.
(Via Boing Boing)