Leyendo - Reading...

Una serie de acotaciones al margen a medida que voy leyendo algunos libros... A series of annotations whilst reading interesting books... A collection of notes on books about science, SciFi, history, others topics... Una colección de notas sobre libros de ciencia, ciencia-ficción, historia, otros...

15 January 2017

Dennet's Breaking the Spell - Chapter Two review

Chapter 2 opens with a question: Can science study religion?

Like all opening question the answer is a yes. However Dennet as a philosopher goes into a discussion of science and it's limits and if religion falls into its domain of study.

He questions why religion has evaded scientific study. Part of the blame is in the social dynamics: no one likes to be hanging around second rate professionals, and studying religion is surrounded by an aura of "low prestige, backbiting, and dubious results that currently envelops the topic of religion" (pages 33 - 34).

Clearly organizations like Templeton do not help and maybe it is a way to put a soft fence around a good, objective and rational study of science. Also questions that are raised suspiciously between family members and friends. People just let it go, including when everybody agreed in its atheism, or prefer not to insult "cultural sensitives". Dennet puts it succinctly "since we know from the outset that many people think such research violates a taboo, or at least meddles impertinently in matters best left private, it is not surprising that few good researchers, in any discipline, want to touch the topic" (page 34). How convenient for religion in general!

Categorically Dennet states that "the question is not whether good science of religion as a natural phenomenon is possible: it is."

And he launches his next question "the question is whether we should do it" (page 34)

What could happen if something that you do as part of your group it is deemed to be unhealthy, Or wrong? Would you stop doing it right away? Which will be your first reaction? Anger, defensive outrageous cries, or just saying "this is the way it is. It always have been like this".

Dennet makes a parallelism with music. If studies reveal that music is bad, what would be your reaction? Good example as several extreme forms of religious belief, up to some extent most of the Abrahamic religions condemn music and enjoying it at all or in some degree. Also music has been studied in different disciplines including evolutionary biology. In some way it should be some biological explanation and in some cases and evolutionary basis (not all traits and behaviors should have it, they can be co-opted also). We like it or not most of our behavioral traits they have a big genetic influence, whilst culture has rocketed the Homo sapiens in a fast forward line of changes.

Most people enjoy music and believe that it is good: we go to concerts, stream it, learnt and add to the school's curricula as well.

If studies show that music is bad, will concerned parents stop playing it to their kids including when they are in the womb?

There is a range of other possibilities: music is not bad at all, but it's scientific study could destroy the speak it has on humans, rendering music as a non-sense maybe dull or boring activity. Like for a grown up kid playing with her toys could mean: the magic is gone and you do not want to play anymore.

Dennet goes strong in this: show me he evidence. "In spite of all warnings over the centuries, I have been unable to come up with a case of some valuable phenomenon that has actually been destroyed, or even seriously damaged, by scientific scrutiny" (page 45)

We can all feel relieved : music is here to stay and our understanding of it enhances our appreciation rather than destroying the enchantment. In the worst scenario those parents worrying so much about their future kids intelligence maybe they could play any music they like instead of sticking to some oil snake salesman product and kill themselves to boredom with the likes such as Baby Bach: if you like classic just go for the interpretations you most admire, if you like rock just rock&roll your babies!

Dennet continues with another taboo. So big that until just a few years ago there was no scientific research and anyone attempting it was considered a second class scientist in he best case: sex. Clearly we know much more, still we have a lot to understand but no one can say that "knowing" destroyed the pleasure of it.

Or not. Lot of research is how sex is used in power driven and abusive interactions. The more we know, the better, isn't it?

More the benefits derived by its scientific study overwhelm any wrong deduction: from a social and political and individual level. Ironically the biggest religions keep their outdated and moralistic attitudes against sex, however all the data telling the contrary. And we know that all about sex is not good, and neither is bad. And still we do not know a lot, so we keep studying it.

There are other issues about trying to stop scientific inquiry: the genius is out of the bottle, and it is very difficult bear to impossible to keep this knowledge from spreading.

This strong sentiment against scientific scrutiny of human activities it is not only seen dangerous by religion advocates. It is a widespread sentiment that run in all cultures, and percolates to pop culture. I think of Mary Shelley's Frankestein to Tim Burton's Nightmare before Christmas: from trying to understand what's life to figure out Christmas. In one extreme knowing is Pandora box releasing terrible things on us, in the other is science dissecting a cherished human value and rendering it obsolete or dull. Like proving god, the burden is on the people trying to say that knowledge can be dangerous or kill core human aspects. The question to them: what's core to human nature? Do we know if do not study it?

If religion is like Santa Claus, it will be regarded as a child story. If it is like music or sex we will have a better understanding and enjoy it and benefit from it at a different level. And most important it will influence policies and costumes in our societies that could prove important for our own survival.

Dennet states at the end of the chapter the moral dilemma: what if religion is what keep us humans moral? Prevent us of wrongdoings and evil? If it's effect disappears like the Santa Claus myth, is it not a dangerous path to follow? (he elaborates from page 49 until the end of the chapter, page 53)

Dennet agan is clear about it "religion is not out-of-bonds to science, in spite of propaganda to the contrary from a variety of sources. Moreover, scientific inquiry is needed to inform out most momentous political decisions. There is risk and even pain involved, but it would be irresponsible to use that as an excuse for ignorance" (page 53)

Books and References

From the fantastic and super informative blog Probably Overthinking It by Allen Downey, take a careful read on:

11 January 2017

Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennet - On Chapter 1 and the book

Daniel Dennet writes in Breaking the Spell a compelling introduction in a very open way and trying not to preach to the (atheist) chores, or his usual readers. He aims at reaching in a honest and brave dialog the religious mind people.

"Billions of people pray for peace, and I wouldn't be surprised of most of them believe with all their hearts that he best path to follow to peace throughout the world is a path that runs through their particular religious institution (...) indeed many people think that the best hope for humankind is that we can bring together all the religions of the world in a mutually respectful conversation and ultimate agreement on how to treat each other. They may be right, but they don't know" (page 16)

The first chapter is a carefully built argument that we truly do not know what are the effects of religion. At both individual and social level.

The argument goes both ways: to the ones that we believe religion is a source of problems, to a great majority that believe humans can not go without religion.

Dennet brings the point forwards that there is an asymmetry: atheists welcome the objective examination of their views (and willing to change if found wrong), but religious people often bristle at the impertinence, lack of respect, sacrilege at the suggestion of putting their beliefs under scrutiny.  (page 17)

And I have to add that it brings suspicion to their claim the simple reason that there are different and contradictory beliefs systems worldwide! A quick check put the number in the several thousands (more than 4000). It does not help that diversity to favor the argument of one true religion (or system of belief).

To bring the religious people to a rational analysis of their beliefs, first they should explain why there are so many religions!

For Dennet the opposition to analyze religions objectively and rationally it is an spell that must be broken. He emphasizes that it must be addressed now. When now was 2006! Ten years later this statement is still un-answered and critical as ever as much and much more religious ideas are entrenched as sacred and beyond any criticism. If there is something that express the most dangerous side of religious belief (my opinion, not Dennet's) it is the level of care that atheist, non religious or brights have to go in order to have a conversation with religious people.

Religion's belief is an off-topic most of the time. Including between friends. Dennet anticipates that his book will be offensive, repulsive at the level of people abandoning it. He anticipates a roller coaster of emotions. Most of the religious people he interviewed researching for the book admitted never talked to anyone like him: an atheist a non believer.

He mentions that these topics are delicate, about embarrassing communications and whatever his efforts to treat the matter with kindness and respect, he is sure that he will outrage some readers (religious people of course).

He ask those potential readers to soldier the effort to read his book and consider carefully and rationally in which points they disagree and why.

If you think that this is exaggerated, just read the news were people gets attacked because they are blasphemous, something that spread from religious countries to secular countries.

The self censorship of many newspapers not publishing the first page of the Charlie Hedbo magazine after the hideous attack to their offices it is a clear sign of this problem.

Dennet will explore in following chapters more about how ideas (memes) that build their own ideas to protect themselves can be dangerous. Religion belief, as a meme/idea, self-protect with circles of convoluted logic. And with other ideas that reject a priori any logical analysis.

How many times an atheist is confronted with incredulity and being asked things like: you do not believe? How comes you are a good person? (and some others: http://www.alternet.org/belief/9-questions-atheists-might-find-insulting-and-answers)

Other ideas to help fence the main idea (belief on belief) are things like all religions are the same, and the basic behavior of separating people from one belief from another and particular atheists.

If you need one more argument, here a short story:

With names and relationships edited, for the reasons stated above (!)

This is the story of two friends: one is very religious, or comes from a very religious family; the other the family does not care about the topic and they do not have any religious affiliation: nones. [Dennet will go on his book more about the topic if children should be indoctrinated with their parent's religion]. The religious kid is sent every summer to a camp in UK. A religious based summer camp. They invited the other kid and the family said "yes, go if you want".

The 2 kids had a great week, and the activities were super well organized. The people were professional and know what they were doing, and they were super nice.

Most of the activities are what you expect from a summer camp in the outdoors: hiking, games, songs, organizing the camp, etc. And the 2 kids had a fantastic time together.

Being a religious based camp of course there is religion: only 5% of the activities were about talking on religion  (christian based Church of England). Several questions our daughter asked to us about that. And this little gem.

One day in the summer camp, they talked about hell, and that people that do not believe go to hell automatically [express application form I would say]. The religious friend concerned about her non-religious friend asked to the nice people that if she prays every night for her best friends to not go to hell, that will prevent them for going to hell? And they answered "No, no way. They will go to Hell regardless".

How can you do that to a kid??? The non-religious kid had no issue (yes, hell is as real as Santa Claus and the North Pole for her, which is true), but her friend: she believes, she has best friends that are not believers in her particular religion, they will go to hell, that she thinks is a real place, and praying to her loving-good god, will not save her best friends. How you can psychologically torture a kid with that?

If you do not see the slippery slope down to violence at the very end...

If you have never felt like talking about religion was problematic means that you are religious. As an atheist you know that you have to be sensitive and not talk about it, including in open societies. Or, not ironically, you are member of the main religion in your country. If you are a minority again you know that you cannot touch those topics.

Dennet wishes that religious people reading his book "will learn something and then may be able to teach us all something " (page 22).

A great and optimistic thought. It gets downsized when from personal experience that not even with a close and very religious friend you can touch these topics without risking your friendship.

In page 23 he makes this point painfully clear "They think that they should be closed-minded when it comes to certain topics. They know that they share the planet with others who disagree with them, but they don't want to enter into dialogue with those others. They want to discredit, suppress, or even kill those others".Strong disclaimers for the first pages of a book!"So what, then, is the point of religion?" ask Dennet at the end of the chapter 1.

Books and references:

28 April 2016

Where are your Amazon Listmania lists?

Amazon Listmania List are gone already for a long time. I cannot evaluate how many people complained about it however it could be an interesting research project: are really cloud based companies listening to their customers? Of course that if you search for "Amazon Listmania list how to find" you'll get quite a lot of hits, but you cannot extrapolate that Amazon is not "listening" to its customers and have good reasons to deprecate the feature (a.k.a: how can Amazon can increase their revenue by putting its efforts in another more valuable feature?).

You can have several readings, economical and political, of previous paragraph but it is not the idea of this post.

Back on track: here a nice way to find yours (or other user's), and here another one.

I went back to mine and I realized last time that I have when I told a colleague at work "hum there is a good book about that, let me find it". In the moment I could not remind the title, I did a search and not getting the expected results, but I remembered that I have that book as an item in one of my lists. Finally I found it thanks to an old email in gmail with the link to them!

First things Firsts!
Here is the link to my Amazon Listmania Lists! (If you like a book, buy it from my link - Thanks in advance!).

Nice Lists, eh? However if you want to follow the links they did not work! (see entry below, now they work)
[Until March 2016 the links were not working, now, April 2016, they are working again - planning to write another entry on how to find the updated link to your lists - but like many other things in the cloud, Amazon finally updated the links in the "front" page and now you can follow the link to the Lists: Listmania's are back! Or partially: they are frozen: you cannot create new ones, or update your existing ones. New feature is Wish Lists]
This blog entry that should have taken 30 minutes to write finally ended in 1-2 hours of looking around how to recover the lists! Below the correct links to the full view lists.

The topics I went through them are more or less:
  • Science fiction
  • Biology and Darwinism
  •  Some Business

Science Fiction
There are several lists for science-fiction. The original idea came from a friend’s question: “I need to buy a present. What about a science fiction book? What would you recommend?”. These lists try to answer that question based on other questions:
  • Recommendations to first readers of SF: as a fan reader of science fiction since 8 years old (starting with Jules Verne 20000 and then Asimov robot and foundation stories, I have to think hard about these. When I “started" reading other books and I went back to some of my must-read science fiction books... Hum, depending on who is the intended recipient of the book, it can backfire the good intention! So I did my best here.
  • SF Ironic and Humor: if these selection will make you laugh or your day happier certainly depends on you, but Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker is certainly funny (I strongly recommend the audio version read by Stephen Fry)
  • Intro to SF - Cyberpunk: a whole category which the "classic" is Gibson's Neuromancer. I loved when young, hated later. I admit he made mainstream several ideas, however you will not find his books here (though I love the phrase "burning chrome” taken from homonymous Gibon’s book). Which books are here? Two Neal Stephenson's, and I strongly recommend Snow Crash and Diamond Age, both really! And John Varley's Steel Beach. This author is a pearl: with an style reminiscent of Heinlein, and exploring the most fringes topics. Not in the list, but if I could update it I would add The Persistence of Vision: amazing, get you to think, short stories... (I highly recommend Overdrawn at the Memory Bank
  • Intro to SF - Classic and Hard SF: you cannot say that you have read sci-fi if you cannot tell the arguments of any book from the master trio: Asimov-Clarke-Heinlein. If started late, liked the other books, and keep going on sci-fi you have to pick one of any from this list
  • Intro to SF - Exploring the Inner Space: and here came the sixties and the 70's, flower power, new age, self help and the last season of Mad Men... These are the books of that time. There was a change on the narrator and a clear improvement on creating "real" characters: the argument was secondary... Or not? Sturgeon, Dick, LeGuin and Alfred Bester... What if our species was hermaphrodite and naturally we could change sex - like many other species of animals, common in reptiles and fishes?
  • Intro to SF - Adventure: yeah also there are space ships, lasers, and mouse and cat races. Not for any reason there is a whole genre of movies called Space Opera. Some good entertainment here for sunny sunsets at the beach
  • Intro to SF - Politics: sci-fi for me was always about setting up some hypothesis and then exploring the consequences. Some authors worked around "today" conceptions, made an outrageous claim and then make you think. Only one way to run economic policies?  Here they are those strange thoughts. I always defended the idea that reading sci-fi as a topic in school will help to create more open and tolerant societies. War? Colonize Mars? Economics and the master piece on politics Dune (before Game of Thrones, and so actual today)
  • Intro to SF - Fantasy: no, Harry Potter is not sci-fi, and I think no one will disagree. However they share a fundamental characteristic: even if magic is magic they are internally coherent and consistent. This list is a summary of these books that are consistent, do not invoke super natural entities, however they are not based on "science" (the irony is that hyperdrive engines, positronic robots, psicohistory, warp drive, teletransporters are not science... Hard to tell, out of scope of this blog). And Borges? Yes, his Fictions is a masterpiece of SF! Written before that label was created.

Biology and Darwinism
  • Anti-Creationism: based on today sensitivities I should change the name. But I can't , Amazon unsupported that feature. However let's be clear: this is a precise title. Period. Evolution is True, and anything differently is an attack on good science and good education. Understanding Evolution is hard and deniers have became sophisticated. However most of the attacks are based on creationist's ignorance (and yours and mine), miss-readings or miss-understandings and finally plain lies. If you do not want to get stumped on the basic attacks (why there is no mid animal cross of a duck and a crocodile), to some a little bit more subtle (entropy, information theory, complexity), this list will help you find the reference, why they are wrong and how to answer back (if you want or need)
  • Darwin Basic - Origins: Biology and the Origin of Species is an interesting question, … not for you? so this list is not for you, fine. But if you are in the group that like these type of questions, nothing better to understand Evolution. Best place to start is Darwin itself. And other books more modern that include the latest advances, and others that help to “see” what Darwin figured out.
  • Darwin’s Dangerous and Outrageous Books: if you are not aware that one of the biggest and longest lasting impacts on our way to see ourselves, changes in other areas like philosophy or psychology, economics, ethics, etc come from Darwin’s insights and following the logical conclusion, where have you been? or reading? Here a good list of books to get you started!

Computers and IT
These lists are the most outdated, but still some books hold. Computer Science is science and a new mobile app is not going to change that.  But take them with care and with a look at the last edition date!
  • Datawarehouses: still a lot of ROLAP, MOLAP, OLAP, etc. There are some firsts here, with basic concepts that are still valid. I will include some of them, or their concepts in any BI 101 university course, or if you are mentoring a young team of developers, architects, software engineers or analysts. Yeah, I know, the latest cool and tip of the wave theories and developments are not here (big data, map reduction, columnar databases, and free schema models are not here: it needs an update)
  • A Tour About Ciphers: this list is not outdated, unless of course you are a real expert on this field. If you like history and some basic clues on cryptography: all books here hold the line. Latest developments you should go into latest web blogs or sites. The theory/foundations/algorithms hold still… (not there yet, but if some math genius find a way to get around NP problems, adn factor “quickly” prime numbers a lot of this will be as “history”)
  • Data Mining Books: like the data warehouse list take it with care, looking at the Edition dates. Some good concepts also, that I would include as an starter (and to read exercise) in a college course...

  • Bizz Books: I will keep few here. Not sure, but if there is something that its volatility is closer to food diets, are biz books… Next list on Economics. However I would like to rescue one title (the culprit of me writing all these): “Information Rules”. I didn't read lately, but it was not a fashionable book, if I remember well. Worth trying...
  • CRM Essentials: same as previous. Gurues, in any field, have the same transcendence than transcendental guru's… Is there any book I will read again? Yes, there are few, however no book here and any other I know/heard about explain why after 20 years of talking of CRM and the customer at the center of everything, still is a hot topic!

Gmail tip - now an Evernote tip
In the research hours I need I finally ended using several tools:
  • Google searches for you, however searching for your Amazon name + listmania + lists + “the name of a list”, does not bring back your lists, even paging up to the 5 page, then jumping in 2, 3, 4 until you are in page 15+
  • But Google brought several other entries of people that experience same frustration
  • Finally the best was to recover the link was searching Google’s style in my Gmail account: it happened that years ago I sent the links to this or the other friend: great! (the link finally didn’t worked, but it was an start)
  • And today I’m using more and more Evernote, and nothing better after recovering the good links of all my lists to Clip those pages to my Evernote!

08 March 2016

Que ha estado pasando???

El ultimo post es de Junio 22 del 2013!!!

Volviendo a escribir algo el 8 de marzo del 2016! Es una falta imperdonable! Excusas? Claro hay un montón, nada mejor que procastinar, y editar y editar una nota a publicar, y escribir borradores de otras notas y decirse: "hum, aun no esta bien, dejemoslo para la próxima semana...". Otra buena excusa es que lo urgente no deja tiempo para lo importante (es importante actualizar este blog??? no es importante el trabajo???), o que el monkey estuvo a full (entre trabajo urgente y otra entrega urgente).

Lo cierto es que toda la estantería mental se me vino abajo, o el "semblante" para actualizar este blog regularmente se me cayo. Mudarse de nuevo de pais, tener un trabajo a full, tratar de aprender otro idioma y volver a viajar como loco claramente no ayuda, pero hay otros que lo logran, porque uno no? (para mas información aquí las pruebas: las 2 notas linkeadas en el párrafo anterior: "Why Procastinators Procastinate?" & "The Procastination Matrix").

Yéndome por las ramas, este blog debería ser acerca de lo que leo, y pareciese que deje de leer. No, pero las estadísticas de mis lecturas que me interesa seguir bajaron. Aquí el segundo grupo de pruebas:

Y otro mas, desde el punto de vista de paginas leídas:

Una caída a pico. Sin embargo debido a mi trabajo leo mas que nunca, 3 veces cada rotacion al sol un montón de paginas mas, pero pondrían ustedes como estadística de leído los Release Notes de un produto de software?

Termine el 2015 y el 2016 arremetiendo contra Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined", que suma para mi estadística del 2016: excelente y estimulante libro.

Varios libros de Pinker libros que merecen varias entradas en el blog... procastinando para mas adelante.

Como nota final, cambio y actualización de widgets: de Shelfari a GoodReads (luego del anuncio de la terminación de Shelfari).

Hasta la próxima entrada!