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Never let the truth get in the way of a good story

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story

David Loeff's musings on books and other topics

Review
4.5 Stars
Help I'm a cop
Burmese Days - George Orwell

 

"It's a drag being a cop" ~ Frank Zappa, "Help, I'm a rock"

 

George Orwell was brainwashed. This happened in Myanmar (formerly Burma) during his five years as a policeman. He was brainwashed by the pukka sahibs’ code. The code of imperialist occupiers. The code of colonial hypocrisy. A code similar to the one currently protested by the BLM movement.

 

The protagonist of "Burmese Days" is not a policeman. However, John Flory has seen through the code and now belongs nowhere--not in Burma, nor back in England.

 

"It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code.

 

In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to right of you, Pink’un to left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus’, and you admit, dutifully, that they are greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honourable, hardly even any sincerity. For, au fond, what do you care if the Indian Empire is a despotism, if Indians are bullied and exploited? You only care because the right of free speech is denied you. You are a creature of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus."

 

John Flory's story isn't a pleasant one. It's a story of a conflicted man wanting, but unable, to do the right thing. I wonder how many good cops feel this way, wanting to improve society but hampered by their coworkers. At any rate, it's a good read. This essay about Orwell and BLM is another good read.

Review
0 Stars
Altered Traits

I read many dull research papers in school. Since then I’ve concluded that research oriented psychologists can’t write, while therapy oriented psychologists don’t understand science. I’ve changed my view. Authors, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, are both able researchers and writers.

 

This is great. I’ve read far too much well done research that doesn’t say much and far too much self-help psychology that cherry picks science.

 

The authors spent decades studying meditation, and are honest enough to say where their research was poorly designed or flawed. They began their research in the 1970s before tools such as fMRI and SPECT became available and learned a lot over their years.

 

Books about science and fiction by Steig Larrson can be repetitive. That’s necessary sometimes. While reading this book, expect repetition. It’s worth it: this is the definitive book on meditation research.

 

The authors discuss research into three types of meditation, “focusing on breathing; generating loving kindness; and monitoring thoughts without getting swept away by them.” Each of the three meditations can cause mental changes, some brief and some lasting. While breath or mantra meditators requires multiple sessions before change can be noticed, loving kindness meditation brings results after only a single session.

 

Temporary changes, while interesting, are not the same as altered traits. These require years of meditation. Yogis who’ve spent decades practicing the third type of meditation have yielded astonishing findings. “Gamma, the very fastest brain wave occurs during moments when differing brain regions fire in harmony, like moments of insight when different elements of a mental puzzle ‘click’ together.” Gamma wave activity lasts only a fifth of a second for most people, but some yogis can generate gamma waves for minutes at a time, even in their sleep. I’d love to know what’s on their minds. Guess I should meditate more.

 

Review
4.5 Stars
Inconclusive
Galileo's Error - Philip Goff

Galileo determined that the natural world can be measured with math. Certain qualities, however, are unmeasurable because they are derived from the soul rather than from nature. Sensory qualities like “yellow” can’t be measured like size, weight, or movement. Aside from unmeasurable sensory qualities and similar information, Galileo’s method describes nature quite well. But the method creates an error: “Galileo’s error was to commit us to a theory of nature which entailed that consciousness was essentially and inevitably mysterious. In other words, Galileo created the problem of consciousness.”

 

It took a while to notice the problem. It didn’t trouble René Descartes at all that Galileo’s method couldn’t address unmeasurable qualities. For Descartes, matter was one thing while mind was another. While a bodily action might follow a mental intention, both body and mind, being distinct, can exist without the other.

 

Today Descartes’ dualism has fallen out of fashion. Materialists argue that it’s the brain that generates consciousness, nothing more. Some, such as Daniel Dennett, argue that consciousness is a brain-generated illusion.

 

Goff describes several arguments that refute the materialist view of consciousness. Of these, I’m most convinced by David Chalmers’s argument that materialism fails to address the “Hard Question of Consciousness.” Connecting the brain with its outward actions answers easy questions. Such examination can never explain why we experience life as we do. Nobody questions their own experience, but materialists encounter Galileo’s soul derived qualities when they attempt to explain it.

 

Goff explores one possibility that might save dualism. It involves quantum physics. By far the strangest aspect of quantum mechanics is that observation seems to make a difference to how the universe behaves.” If an observation is necessary, what else but a mind could perform that function?

 

The argument is complicated and involves Schrödinger’s imaginary cat. The cat does just fine when nobody is looking. It’s both alive and dead. But once an observation is made the cat becomes either living or dead. Weird as it sounds, physics has yet to solve this contradiction.

 

Goff does not defend dualism for long. Instead he moves on to panpsychism, a view that holds that consciousness is somehow an inherent quality of nature. The problem with panpsychism however is that it fails to provide a mechanism for how the simple consciousness of, say, atomic particles, combine to create the complex consciousness of a human being.

 

Every approach to philosophy of mind has problems, Goff explains. However he believes that panpsychism offers the best explanatory approach. While his arguments are inconclusive his explanations are clear and readable. That’s good. Philosophical arguments can be tough for non-philosophers to digest. I have only one criticism. In explaining how the observation problem in physics might save dualism, Goff misses an opportunity to investigate how the observation problem might strengthen the argument for panpsychism.

 

Goff’s book is a good introduction to philosophy of mind. Annaka Harris provides another good introduction in her book “Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind.” Despite its shorter length, her book covers the same territory and throws in meditation as well. I won’t say more now about her book now but hope to provide a more complete review later.

 

Law and order trumps black lives matter

Wrong premise. How can you have law and order when there's racial injustice?

Image
Who we are
Who we are

We are men. We know pain,

Which we freely acknowledge,

Yet we don’t complain.

 

It isn’t the pain that aggrieves.

It’s the unfairness that comes

From those who deceive us.

 

Hypocrites all, they try to fool us

With improvised news,

With which they would school us.

 

They haven’t an ethos they would defend

Unless it’s that destiny decrees they hold the hill,

Even if that means crushing those below.

 

Winners keep losers poor and in debt.

And as they drown push them deeper

until they sputter, “I can’t breathe.”

 

Winners need losers in order to win.

So brainwash some. Impoverish many.

Murder a few. But never admit.

You’re no better than they.

 

Why are they protesting?

I

Is our ship of state off course, or sinking? Here's one opinion:

 

"The core story of U.S. politics over the past four decades is that wealthy elites weaponized white racism to gain political power, which they used to pursue policies that enriched the already wealthy at workers’ expense." ~ Paul Krugman, New York Times, June 1, 2020

Don't tell Mr. Bezos
1,001 Lightyears Entertainments - David Loeff

Tired of browsing the public domain for free books? I'm not. I recently downloaded an early Rex Stout. But if you're looking for something a bit more contemporary and don't feel like paying for it, try this book of short stories. It's free during the pandemic. Currently it's free on Smashwords. In a few days it will be free from Apple and B&N. Only, please don't let Amazon know it's free or that fat monopoly will unlist it.

I read the news today. Oh, boy.

 

There’s been plenty to read in the news lately. I’d like to tell you about it, but I won’t. Several years ago I wrote a piece about how to adapt future social policy to meet Americans’ future needs. Although I did an adequate job, I subsequently decided that in the future I’d stick to what I know best.

 

Regardless, two headlines in the Washington Post caught my eye this morning. The first said that the White House plans on recommending that everyone wear face masks. The second stated that during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic masks failed to slow that virus. The moral here is that one should try to stay well informed. This well-respected newspaper was banned from the White House last fall. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which news is legitimate and which is fake.

 

When V. O. Diedlaff (her name has the same letters as mine) released her slim paperback in 2018, her intention was to address income inequality. “No one cares that the new tax act benefits billionaires and corporations instead of Americans living from paycheck to paycheck,” she told me recently. “Maybe now they will.”

 

“Isn’t income inequality a minor side effect of Capitalism?” I asked. “Isn’t there an ‘invisible hand’ that balances everything out?”

 

“What little truth that idea once held is long gone. The wealthy invoke the ‘invisible hand’ to avoid regulations on themselves while legislating ways of keeping the poor from prospering.”

 

“Is your book still free?”

 

“Yes, on Smashwords and B&N and elsewhere.”

Oh, really?
Galileo's Error - Philip Goff

(reading progress half-way point)

Somewhat past the half-way point now, this book is becoming fascinating. I’ve read four thought experiments and am ready to tackle panpsychism, whatever that is. I expect I’ll find out in the last hundred pages. Panpsychism wasn’t discussed in his undergraduate philosophy classes, Philip Goff tells us. Learning of panpsychism rekindled the author's interest in philosophy. With renewed interest he began graduate studies. No surprise here. Dualism clashes with everything scientific, while extreme Materialism considers consciousness to be an illusion.

What reignited Goff’s interest in philosophy was his discovery of “Analysis of Matter” published in 1927 by Bertrand Russell. The astronomer, Arthur Eddington immediately embraced the book. Sadly, Russell’s ideas lay dormant after World War II. Goff is helping to revive them.

 

“Pointer readings” is how Eddington described scientific knowledge. Science never defines the intrinsic nature of anything. Instead, it only reveals “causal relationships” and “physical constituents.” Such a tool can never describe consciousness or any non-material object. A broader tool is needed. And here begins the panpsychism argument.

Oops
Galileo's Error - Philip Goff

(currently reading -- one third read)

 

Consciousness sounds simple, yet it’s not. Where does it come from? What does it consist of? Answering the first question, most say that the brain creates consciousness. But then they fail to explain how this occurs.

 

Galileo was a brilliant thinker. He gave us modern science by showing how math could be used to describe physical reality. However, he excluded unmeasurable qualities such as an object’s color. Qualities such as “yellow” are gleaned from the soul rather than derived from the mundane. Galileo’s error was in excluding unmeasurable qualities from his description of reality. Materialism.

 

Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” By this he meant just having a body proved nothing. Only thinking mattered. In Descartes’ world there’s no connection between mind and body. Dualism.

 

A third possibility exists. Panpsychism. But that’s for a future chapter.

Review
4.5 Stars
The right idea at the wrong time
The War on Normal People: The Truth About America's Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future - Andrew Yang

When I read this book a few years back I didn't figure Yang would make good on his threat to run for president. I like the man, the way he interviews, his sense of humor, etc. However that doesn't make him right. Don't get me wrong, Yang gets it right that technology threatens jobs. But Yang is too early. At the moment we're running at close to full employment so what's the point of giving everyone a Universal Basic Income (UBI)?

This will change and Yang's ideas will be relevant again and there's plenty in this book to make it worth reading. I think Yang's solution is too limited and a broader one is needed. I'd make the argument for the broader solution, but it's best I stick to basics and urge others to understand the problem by reading this book.

It ain't all that simple

As a self-published writer with thousands of downloads (at least of free eBooks), I'm somewhat disappointed that I'm still not a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Perhaps I never will be. The SFWA has no place for self-published authors.


I made the decision to self-published because I believed my projects were either too short, or not in a saleable format, i.e. short story rather than novel format. Every decision has its price. There's more than one way to be a writer -- some pay well but aren't glamourous. Becoming a popular fiction author is glamorous, but not simple, and very unlikely to pay well. Nonetheless, if one is sufficiently self-deluded one can pursue a glamorous career as an author of popular fiction. Only, don't quit your day job.

Review
4.5 Stars
New Arabian Nights
New Arabian Nights - Robert Louis Stevenson

The "Arabian Nights" first appeared during the 10th century before evolving into its final form during the 14th. It’s said that this lengthy work is the greatest expression of fiction from the Islamic Golden Age, an age which arose during the reign of Baghdad caliph, Harun al-Rashid who ruled from 786 until 809. This golden age ended when Mongols overtook Baghdad in 1258. Harun al-Rashid had been dead several centuries by the time he was fictionalized as a ruler who intervenes anonymously in the lives of his subjects.

 

Robert Louis Stevenson created a more modern version of Harun al-Rashid in his Prince Florizel of Bohemia. The prince appears in stories set in France and England, and told in a mystery/espionage tone. The tale of the Suicide Club begins two cycles of stories involving the prince. After those stories, Stevenson addresses other characters and themes. In one story a scholarly scoundrel eaks out his living during the Middle Ages,

 

“The poet was a rag of a man, dark, little, and lean, with hollow cheeks and thin black locks. He carried his four-and- twenty years with feverish animation. Greed had made folds about his eyes, evil smiles had puckered his mouth. The wolf and pig struggled together in his face. It was an eloquent, sharp, ugly, earthly countenance. His hands were small and prehensile, with fingers knotted like a cord;”

 

While the story cycles featuring Prince Florizel resemble the mystery/espionage genre, the collection overall is genre free — or perhaps hinting of genre without being confined by it. The stories also hint of fairytale like the original Arabian Nights, yet they’re too well filled-in to qualify as fairytales. Still, like fairytales, they tug at the corners of reality enough to matter. Each story finds an unexpected destination, yet one that evolves naturally from what comes before.

Review
4 Stars
What's that awful smell?
The Gilded Age - Mark Twain, Charles Dudley Warner

Can conditions in the United States get any worse? Donald Trump has never achieved as high as a 45 percent approval rating, while except during the first days of his presidency, his disapproval rating has remained above 50 percent .

 

 Whatever your politics, numbers don’t lie. Too many are displeased. Something stinks in Washington. During the early 1870s, two writers also suffered offended nostrils and together wrote a novel about it. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner called their era the Gilded Age. That’s gilded, not golden. Their era lacked the solidity of deep values, having instead only a golden coating upon an unworthy foundation.

 

The book begins before the Civil War but largely details the years that follow. Historically this period marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and some of the book’s characters are among its unwitting victims. This period saw massive capital investment in railroads and machinery as well as massive displacement of small business men and landholders. While the book’s events occur at the beginning of the age, its title lent its name to the era itself.

 

There are parallels here to our own age. At its height, the Gilded Age brought about massive income inequality. Some grew enormously wealthy while masses of others suffered in dire poverty. Since the 1980s our own society has moved in this direction as well. While the incomes of the top ten percent have stayed even with the living costs, those of the bottom 89 percent have not. The incomes of the wealthiest among us have soared, yet unlike Icarus, they show no signs of falling toward Earth. The technology sector with its high salaries distributed among relatively few workers echoes the effect of industrialization, though some writers fear that this time workers won’t eventually share its benefits after robots and AI eliminate their jobs.

 

The book touches upon industrialization as several of its characters seek speculative wealth from a new railroad line. However the bulk of the action takes place in Washington DC. Laura and her brother, George Washington Hawkins, as well as the ever optimistic and ever impoverished, Colonel Beriah Sellers, enjoy the patronage of the pious Senator Dilworthy. Since the book contains much satire, the reader is not overly surprised when Laura approaches the good senator in his study as he reads from an upside down Bible.

 

Washington in 1873, just like today, is a place where corruption prospers. Unlike that of today, however, the corruption is almost quaintly innocent. This book was the first novel from two authors who would subsequently write a good few more. It’s not their best. That said, it’s not that bad. Twain at his worst is better than most and Warner also writes well. However, the work doesn’t flow as well as what one would expect from authors with email and modern equipment. I’m glad I read it though. Along with satire it packs plenty of drama and provides a taste of what life was like in earlier days.

Review
5 Stars
If it moves ... and what doesn't?
Zoom: How Everything Moves: From Atoms and Galaxies to Blizzards and Bees - Bob Berman

Motion is considered in all its aspects in this readable book for non-scientists. You'll know a good deal more after reading this, and more still if you read it again in a few years. 

Review
5 Stars
What you don’t know could hurt you

The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality

Kindle version available now. Hardback available November 3, 2017

 

In recent years income inequality has soared to levels not seen since the stock market crashed in 1929. In January this year, Oxfam reported that eight individuals owned as much as half the world’s population. A number of books address the problem of extreme inequality, but this one is a bit different. This one focuses on sources of inequality arising from places where others haven’t thought to look. As it examines rent-seeking it finds examples in four areas: finance, intellectual property, occupational licensing and land use. Heretofore I considered three of those areas economically neutral, if not benign. Now I know why they are not. And that’s something the general public should know as well. Highly recommended reading.