Nathan Hwang

Two Points of View Enter, A Better Informed Point of View Leaves

Have you noticed the typography on this blog is terrible, and wanted to let me know without hurting my feelings? Have you realized that I’m smelly, but it’s socially awkward to say so in person? Have you discovered that I’m wrong on the internet and need to go die in a fire, but can’t be arsed to find my email? Do you want to tell me I’m doing good things and wish me a wonderful day, but doing so in person is weird?

Wait no longer, because I now have a anonymous feedback form:

bit.ly/thenoviceoof-feedback

Why?

In the spirit of continual growth, I want more critical feedback. Giving criticism is usually seen as rude reminder of our fallibility, but I already know I’m failing in mysterious ways, and would like to fail less.If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but if it is broke, then I want to know as soon as possible.

One possible concern is that knowing more about yourself isn’t always a positive: learning that your leg-body ratio is perceived negatively isn’t anything you can do anything about (yet), and now lives as a negative thought niggling around in the back of your mind. However, I think this scenario is unlikely, and that learning more about myself will be a net positive.

This form is also meant to remove trivial inconveniences to giving me feedback. It’s already possible to give me anonymous feedback, whether through a throwaway email address or postcard with no return address, but it’s another step in the process. With this form, providing feedback anonymously is the default. Even if you want to provide non-anonymous feedback, this form removes the need to find my email and come up with a subject line.

Finally, cool people are doing it. Both Luke Muehlhauser and Gwern have anonymous feedback forms, and who doesn’t want to be more like them?

Usage

Keep in mind that the information you enter is as anonymous as you make it: if you tell me your email, or tell me about a specific event that only you and I know about, then the message is not anonymous. That said, I’ll make an extra effort to not to take offense to feedback coming in through this form, even if it is non-anonymous. For instance, if you tell me “You’re fat!”, I will make a great effort to not respond with “Your mom is fat!”, and instead seriously consider whether I should be dieting.

Which leads me to Crocker’s rules. I’m a little uncertain about whether asking for no-holds-barred feedback through this form is useful, but it’s a natural extension to removing trivial inconveniences. If it’s hard to figure out a polite way to tell me I’m being a fucking idiot, then drop the pretense and just give it to me straight: I want your feedback, not a limp excuse of a critical bon mot. I’ll sort it out on my end.

Hankering to give some feedback? Once more with feeling, here’s the link:

bit.ly/thenoviceoof-feedback

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Exploring Science Fiction

Don’t know if you like science fiction? Don’t know if you only like a specific subgenre of science fiction, but don’t want to wade through novels of dreck to find out what it is?

As a first step, I recommend reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Yes, an entire novel is a big time sink, but the book is built from shorter tales strung together into a larger narrative. Each tale is drawn from a different subgenre of science fiction, so you’ll get a pretty wide exposure just by reading this single book (publishers hate him!). The shared plot thread running through all these stories is also useful to make sure you finish reading all the stories in their entirety, and not just skip the ones you’re perhaps apt to abandon too quickly before you’ve let it develop.

Once you’ve read Hyperion (or don’t care about spoilers), join me after the jump.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Now that you’ve read Hyperion, I’ll point out additional books and authors that fit different aspects of each tale.

The Priest’s Tale

If you enjoyed the conflict of religion and science, A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter Miller might be up your alley. The book follows a Catholic order after a nuclear war, exploring the boundary between science and religion, and holds up remarkably well for being written in 1960.

For an interesting take on the relationship between religion and science, Peter Watts’ short story A Word for Heathens has religion symbiotically developing alongside science, but in a violent alternative history way, not in a “why can’t we all coexist” sort of way. Peter Watts’ contributions don’t stop there: if you enjoyed the, ah, biological horror aspect of the tale, then he has that covered too with his short story The Things. If you’re hooked by Watts’ blend of biological expertise and nihilism (“whenever my will to live becomes too strong, I read Peter Watts”), then might I suggest his novel Blindsight (online)?

The Soldier’s Tale

To put it mildly, there’s a fair amount of military-themed science fiction out in the wild. If you enjoyed the imagery of advanced weapons laying waste to everything, then Old Man’s War by John Scalizi is a good start. In it, green octogenarians unapologetically shoot aliens in the face on strange planets in a crowded universe. It’s a simple (if strange) core, but Scalizi dresses it up pretty well.

If you enjoyed following a competent career soldier fighting in battles across the universe, then Use of Weapons by Iain Banks is a great start. It shares some of the more thoughtful skepticism present in The Soldier’s Tale, asking in the large “for what end are we fighting?” It also doesn’t hurt that the writing quality is great: at one point, I described it as “verging on poetry”.

If you’re interested specifically in military science fiction that features sex with sharp objects, then I can’t help you. Sorry.

The Poet’s Tale

If you wanted to read more about the sort of decadent society the Hegemony embodies, the Culture series also by Iain Banks certainly describes a civilization, The Culture, that many would describe as hedonistic. Most of the novels in that universe focus on the interactions between the Culture and other civilizations, simply because that’s where the interesting conflict happens: people having a good time building planetary megastructures doesn’t make for a compelling story. However, one does pick up the structure of the Culture simply by watching the shadow it casts in each story. A good place to start is The Player of Games, which along with being a compelling story is also unusual with how long it lingers on normal life within the Culture.

However, if you are instead interested in a critique of the sort of shallow society created by the Hegemony of Man, the classic Brave New World should have you covered. A reviewer sums the book up fairly well: “Orwell [Author of 1984] feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”.

Otherwise, as one might expect of science fiction, there aren’t that many works that focus on the artistic. If you don’t mind exploring a single short story, Zima Blue from Alastair Reynold‘s Zima Blue and Other Stories collection might fit: it chronicles the rise and fall of an artist in the far future who is, in a way, searching for their muse. The other stories in the collection are more traditional Reynold, which I’ll touch on later.

I also apologize if you were looking forward to more recommendations of works with protagonists possessing vulgar nine word vocabularies.

The Scholar’s Tale

Tragic time travel stories? Unfortunately, I haven’t read much romantically imbued science fiction. My best guess is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I haven’t read it, but it certainly seems to use Time as a tragic weapon which separates the people that love each other, even if it relies on eros instead of storge as in the Scholar’s Tale.

The Detective’s Tale

Ah, this tale is pure, uncut, grade-A cyberpunk. I swear that Dan Simmons was giggling to himself while writing it, just like I imagine Neal Stephenson giggling while writing Snow Crash. Both are over the top, serve up plenty of action in physical and virtual realms, and feature gritty dystopias. Be warned that Snow Crash can be too over the top for some people’s suspension of disbelief: in this case, you might want to try Neuromancer (below) instead.

More serious in tone is Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, which skews away from shiny cyberspace adventures and towards the hard-boiled noir detective side of The Detective’s Tale. It doesn’t drift too far from a cyberspace adventure, though: this detective has been downloaded into a spare body and told by an immortal to solve his murder a few days earlier. To top it all, it’s set in a San Francisco that’s dystopian enough that it ought to have rain constantly.

You might also be interested in the archetypal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer by William Gibson. I mean, it single handedly popularized the term “cyberspace” for crying out loud, and the Detective’s Tale lifts an amazing amount of virtual imagery from this book. And it’s not a “tell people you’ve read it to look cultured” sort of book: it is a legitimately good story. Where Snow Crash is over the top,Neuromancer is understated, feeling like a lived in world with believable characters. Sure, some parts of the book are cliché, but only because it spawned the literary cyberpunk genre, inspired landmark films like The Matrix, and played a part in creating the real world cyberspace we live with.

The Consul’s Tale

This is easy: a military flavored love story separating lovers with the gulf of relativity? The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is the obvious choice: two lovers are drafted into an interstellar war, but the need to travel at relativistic speeds means they will age at different rates, and may never see each other again.

If you enjoyed the slow burn of revenge, then Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie might fit your bill. Someone tried to kill the protagonist, and now she’s out for blood years later. Did I mention the protagonist is a sentient warship? The plotting can get tied up in the flashback narrative structure, but it was still fairly compelling.

The setting of a environmental sanctuary might have intrigued you: if you’re interested in hearing more about the interplay between ecology and man, the classic Dune by Frank Herbert has been hailed as “the first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale”. More than that, though, it’s one of the best selling science fiction novels, and like A Canticle for Leibowitz holds up well for being written in 1965. Highly recommended.

Other

Not all flavors of science fiction are covered in Hyperion’s tales, just a good selection of them. Here are some additional books I enjoy that didn’t fit above.

Accelerando (online) by Charlie Stross used to be my favorite book: I opened the book here in the present, then seemingly fast forwarded through 100 years of human progress, and it was so cool. The second time, I realized it was actually a horror story. If you were intrigued by Hyperion‘s inscrutable TechnoCore, or wanted something set closer to the near future, then this book might work out for you.

Alastair Reynolds does awesome scale very, very well, and his book House of Suns is an especially good example. This applies to both time and space: 200,000 years pass while the protagonists circumvent the Milky Way against a backdrop of rising and falling civilizations. “Epic” as a description would not be remiss here, and would apply equally well to many of his other books. Be aware that Reynolds sometimes violates the “show, don’t tell” rule, but he’s usually telling a story so grand that I don’t care.

For something maximally thoughtful, Anathem also by Neal Stephenson is a good bet. Plenty of the other books I recommended have interesting ideas embedded in them, but none of them quite measure up to a book about secular academic monks that have spent millennia sitting in monasteries and thinking. And not to worry, there’s enough action sprinkled in to keep the plot going. However, be warned that Stephenson also sprinkles in made up words for common objects we would call by other names, which can turn some people off.

Conclusion

I hope that this guide has gotten you started with your science fiction future. Happy reading!

Thanks to Hans Hyttinen for reading early drafts of this!

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Awareness, Awareness, Everywhere (but no one sought to think)

Epistemic status: contains wild speculation

I.

Plato said “know thyself” 2500 years ago, so why is everyone still trying to sell me on self-awareness?

More specifically, many contemporary self-help books seem to focus on some aspect of self-awareness and offer their own spin on it. Even books from fairly different traditions give me pause with how often I hear echos of the same introspection program. As examples, I’ll walk through books from therapeutic, meditative, and relationship backgrounds.

The first book is Feeling Good, perhaps the definitive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) book for popular audiences. One of the roots of this dense and long book is a simple technique: using a page with two columns, hold a conversation with yourself, and examine your assumptions and their consequences plainly in the sharp light of a white page. After doing so, you are better able to talk back to unwarranted negative thoughts on the fly. There are other instruments described within the book, but this one is the most referenced, and it is simply introspection made concrete.

Next is Search Inside Yourself, about westernized meditation rooted in Buddhist tradition. The core idea is that by practicing focused attention within meditation, you increase your attentional skill in general. A heightened attention then leads to a sharper resolution of your internal landscape (why am I feeling this way?), or allows your self assessment to be more accurate (can I confront the quality of my public speaking?). The book also details benefits derived from simply practicing attention, like lengthening the time between a negative trigger and a negative response, allowing a more reasoned response (I believe this concept is colloquially known as “check yo’self before you wreck yo’self”).

Lastly is Nonviolent Communication (NVC), possibly the most self-help-like out of these three, as well as the most ad hoc and unusual. The author presents a style of communication which rejects demands as moral coercion (violent: you must do this, or you are a bad person) and instead embraces requests as respectful of your conversational partner’s agency (nonviolent: this is what I need and why, can you do this for me?). A prerequisite to this, though, is being aware that one’s sense of self can be separated from the way one is feeling, and then wresting responsibility for modulating one’s feelings away from pure circumstance. For example, “I am angry” is incomplete: why are you angry? Is the anger useful, or do you just let yourself get angry each time you have to go to the DMV? Should you take steps to exit this temporary angry state? This reminds me of the call to keep your identity small, throwing emotions that most people think of as uncontrollable out of the inner sanctum of the self.

II.

Each of these traditions has been around for a while: CBT merged from separate cognitive and behavioral therapy traditions in the 1980s, mindfulness meditation in the western world really started to take off with Jon Kabat-Zinn also in the 1980s (around when Wherever You Go, There You Are was published), and NVC had been under development by Marshall Rosenberg since the 1960s. All of these traditions have been around for 30 years, and they all contain a basic common goal to increase self-awareness. And yet, my layman’s gut feeling says that this idea’s societal penetration is still low. For instance, no one publishes self-help books about how to tie shoelaces; since there are tons of self-help books about self-awareness, it appears lots of people think the world could use more self-awareness.

This is somewhat surprising to me, because the practice of self-awareness does seem to be a great trait to have in the modern world, where on top of not being able to control the weather, one can’t control the global economy or whether the newspaper will publish upsetting news today. Having a more accurate view of your limitations or what perturbs you should be strictly better than not. Why aren’t any of these practices boringly mainstream yet?

I have three thoughts about why these ideas might not be as widespread as it seems they should.

The first is the usual civilizational inadequacy argument, that we’re still barely qualified monkeys: at the first point we could put together a civilization, we did it. Sure, we built skyscrapers on savannas, but it’s easy to imagine that having built-in deep introspection hardware wasn’t adaptive before civilization was stable enough to emphasize the internal over the external. Being angry at Ugg helped when in a club fight with him, but getting angry at terrible driver #17729387 won’t help maneuvering in the boardroom later that afternoon. The Stone Age mind doesn’t know that we’re closer to the boardroom, though, so we’re stuck with higher cognitive costs to access and manipulate our inner state.

The second idea is that the results of these interventions are subtle. No one notices when you prevent yourself from punching someone. People barely pick up on when you are more happy than usual. Even improved relationships are not flashy (Happy families are all alike…). It’s not clear to others that these are winning strategies, especially across tribal borders: the staid businessman looks at the yogi preaching transcendental joy, and figures he’s just on drugs. Combined with high starting costs (learning to sit still, unlearning years of conversational habits) means there are plenty of hurdles for a someone to move from “never heard of it” to “interested enough to try”.

Thirdly, these ideas are still fringe ideas within society (remember, society is relatively fixed). Sure, lots of people do CBT, but only in therapeutic contexts, and if you’re not mentally debilitated, why would you use an instrument designed for therapy? You’re not mentally unstable, are you? Mindfulness meditation still has trappings of eastern spiritualism on it, which helps and hinders it (“oh, it’s eastern mysticism!” versus “oh, it’s eastern mysticism.”), not to mention the main religion in the US being allergic to anything that doesn’t wave a bible around[1]. Finally, NVC is just plain weird (“what do you mean, I can’t tell my kid he has to do his homework?”).

So is there $20 lying on the societal ground in the form of easy-to-implement self-awareness practices, or is it really $20 with a 2 ton glass block on top of it? It definitely works for some people, or disparate traditions wouldn’t have bothered writing books about it, but it remains to be seen whether it’s constrained to those people, or if it’s simply a subtle effect and it needs time to diffuse through society.

Finally, I’ve saved the most important question for last: if we do manage to spread self-awareness practices throughout society, what will our self-help books be about then?

Many thanks to Cecilia Schudel for reading early drafts of this post!

[1] This analysis is restricted to the US, but it just so happens that most of Asia is conversant with meditation, so it’s not just a fringe idea there, and yet they’re not significantly happier. Why? This is especially speculative, but the self-awareness payload might still be fringe, in the same way that the US is nominally a Christian nation, and yet there are still homeless people. Yes, this is a version of the No True Buddhist.

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Starship Claus

I.

Today, I’ll be talking about Starship Troopers. Wait, don’t leave yet! I don’t mean the campy film adaptation or the poorly animated TV show, but instead I’ll be talking about the relatively philosophical book. You might still want to leave because the book might be philosophical in, ah, undesirable ways, but I’ll only be talking about a small part of the book. In between a discussion of how best to kill alien aggressors and an aside about how nice it was to have women around while not killing aliens, there’s a little vignette about a planet. By this point in the book, it has already been established that Peter Ward could shove his Rare Earth theory up a Great Filter, so planets with biospheres are everywhere, and of course the astronomical environment would impact how each biosphere would be shaped:

… after that we orbited at Sanctuary… [The planet is] like Earth, but retarded… It is a planet as near like Earth as two planets can be… With all these advantages it barely got away from the starting gate. You see, it’s short on mutations; it does not enjoy Earth’s high level of natural radiation… [N]ative life forms on Sanctuary just haven’t had a decent chance to evolve and aren’t fit to compete [with life transplanted from Earth].

Heinlein then goes on to rhapsodize about how adverse effects like radiation sometimes contribute to better outcomes in the end: no one enjoys getting cancer, but if it means that our Terran wheat can brush aside alien ferns or that we can nuke would-be alien imperialistic oppressors while they’re still learning to bang rocks together, then maybe the price is worth it. Taking a step further, Heinlein toys with the idea of deliberately inducing adversity in the form of radiation on the planet Sanctuary as a way to make sure that the humans that have moved in don’t end up stagnating, and then being less able to compete on a galactic scale thousands of years down the road.

The core message of competition is the sort of thing a schlocky Ayn Randian protagonist might espouse, or a native philosophy of that embodiment of the cold war arms race, the paranoid Dr. Strangelove (Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!). However, when I read Starship Troopers for the first time in high school it was exactly what I needed to hear. I had just started emerging from marinating in the theological abnegation of the self to better serve Jesus, but after accepting that competition between humans might lead to a more effective stand against alien invaders (other science fiction may have played a role here), one thinks about where else competition might be applicable. Of course, changing your mind solely based on fiction is a bad idea because fiction is not tied to any real world consequences. In this case, though, this story gave me a push in the right direction when I was already headed towards finding that I had agency and could carve my own path through the world. For better or worse, humans are built around stories, and this vignette served as an easy to remember reminder that things might be tough as I grew out, but a little adversity now could pay off later. Plus, there’s science behind it! What could go wrong?

II.

The problem is that Heinlein’s science is full of shit. It doesn’t smell too bad: Starship Troopers was published only 6 years after the structure of DNA was discovered, a more innocent time when one could posit group selection as a plausible evolutionary mechanism, and science fiction (especially space opera, of which Starship Troopers is a prime example) is gloriously full of scientifically implausible things. Putting aside these mitigating factors, mutations (much less evolution) don’t scale with radiation in a simple manner. Terran life forms have enough error-correcting machinery to repair damage from normal levels of radiation. In a biosphere with consistently low radiation, the blind idiot god that is evolution would draw down metabolically expensive and unneeded error-correction processes. With the competing pressures to downsize metabolic expenses against the need to maintain genetic fidelity, one could imagine ending up with a similar rate of mutation regardless of radiation level. Of course, this should all be taken with a huge chunk of salt, given that I am not a biologist, much less a molecular biologist or geneticist. Despite my novice status, it feels like this model is a more nuanced view with the benefit of advances in biology that have trickled down to my level over the last 50 years. In the end, irradiating things to improve them belongs to superhero comics, not a viable social program.

So I used Heinlein’s vignette as a go-to example of growth under adversity, and learning more about science showed that this example was not, in fact, something that should have been taken seriously. Now you know why I am a cynical old man. Well, not that cynical: it’s more of the restrained sort of cynicism that kids pick up after finding out Santa Claus was the fabrication of a society-wide conspiracy. I mean, it’s only the first time the world at large is forcing them to recognize that the world is full of incorrect and malicious data and that authority figures will manipulate them for a few moments of amusement, which sounds terrible when you put it like that. Yet most children aren’t scarred for life, possibly because Christmas becomes a reverse cargo cult: the presents still come even after you stop leaving the cookies out. Similarly, after I discovered Heinlein did not appropriately caveat his foray into societal biology, I didn’t suddenly retreat to a monastery, forsaking all competitive impulses. By that point I had moved past needing justifications to get on the self improvement train, and was already headed to Awesome Abilitiesville (estimates for arrival in Abilitiesville range from 10 to 1000 years). It turned out to be just one of the transitional myths I told myself in order to make sense of the world around me, discardable when I didn’t need it any longer.

We’ve had an object lesson (about radiation) and a meta-lesson (about resilience), but what about a meta-meta-lesson? Well, I think it was important learning how to be wrong without having it be a catastrophe. While the aforementioned Santa Claus scenario is a nice socially mandated first lesson in skepticism, it’s not like many people remember the event or regard it as anything more than childish antics. My brush with Heinlein had more of the marks of skepticism cowpox, being something I could remember and reflect on, as well as striking a threat balance between trivial and existential. The trivial is occupied by things closer to “Is this piece of news during April Fools true?”, and the serious is more like challenging a self-image as a scientist by pointing out the theory of everything you are really excited about has easy to find crippling flaws. I went on to get a degree in physics, but in the aftermath of that blow to my scientific self-image, I couldn’t seriously think about the mistake or derive Feynman-like smell tests, because, well, it was too embarrassing to reason about. Between the ignorable trivial mistakes and the painful existential errors, it was helpful to have a Goldilocks failure in a load bearing belief that I could use to inure myself to being wrong.

Then the question becomes “how do we inoculate more people with skepticism cowpox?” The obvious answer is “Don’t try, because trying to engineer society has a high prior for screwing up”, or “Holy shit, guys, people are complicated!” But what if we ignored common sense and protestations to the contrary, and tried anyways? Well, one might try to emulate the apocryphal professor that deliberately introduced increasingly small errors in his lectures, but that’s labor intensive and I’m not a professor. Perhaps we just need lots of popular but subtly incorrect science fiction…

(Thanks to Tim Czech and Hans Hyttinen for reading drafts of this!)

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In Memoriam

Two weeks ago, a friend died, half a world away.

When I was young, death lurked over the horizon, the ramparts of an encroaching hurricane. It took distant and ancient relatives, strangers the news decided to take note of. It took the victims of shootings, and then when I knew better, the victims of car accidents. Then death was the footfall of distant artillery, walking ever closer. It took famous people I held in regard, a friend’s mother, a coworker I barely knew, a cousin I wasn’t close to. Now, the fetid scent of death lurks in the darkness, crawling closer, and it’s taken a friend I lived with, broke bread with, and had conversations with into the night.

Now I know a little better when the sun should have dimmed, know a little better the drive behind the Great Common Task. I have a feeling I’ll learn this more and more fully over the years, and that it will always be at increasingly high prices. Donating against the causes of death won’t measure up, but if we don’t exact a price on death in turn, then how will it learn to leave us be?

So goodbye, Adam, and thank you for everything. I only wish you could have seen this world we would have built…

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