Books


Flickr

Found this amazing Flickr user, Deborah Chen, through a random search: was looking for “bionic bunny”, stumbled on some of her photos. Great photos, excellent composition, interesting colors, beautiful models (photographer herself included, of course). Just about the only gripe I have with her work (aside from wishing I could do something similar) is that sometimes the 1970’s-coloring is overdone. Here’s an example of where I think it’s appropriate, Argonaut, and here’s one where I think the photo was fine without the effect, Castro.

PostSecret for 9/13/2009

stay_smallerI wish I was there for my cat.

mousepoop_smallerAlright! Good for you!

Get Fuzzy

The brilliance that is Get Fuzzy is sometimes hard to describe to the non-believers. Below is a comic that shouldn’t need much explanation. Sunday edition comics are large, so click for the full image.

295013.full_part

Random thought

There is no such thing as “life”. If we’re looking for anything in this universe, it should be beauty. Possibly more on this topic later.

Fin

Well, anyway, enough internet for this morning, laundry’s done, I can finally go get some dim sum and read.

Currently listening to: Gomez, “Bring It On: 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition”.

Currently reading: “The Dreaming Void”, by Peter F. Hamilton

This week at work is a bit hectic: all of my bugs have to be fixed by Friday/Monday. (It’s technically supposed to be Friday, but if I get them in my Monday then all’s good.) So that brings us to a bit of a dilemma. For the past half a year or so I haven’t been working on weekends. At all. Yeah, a huge achievement, considering that before that, for the past two years, I’ve been at work every single weekend.

So, here’s the dilemma: this weekend I’ve got scheduled a writing session, a fair amount of Lego Batman, the new Mass Effect expansion pack, the new Batman game, programming my ray tracer (of course). A packed weekend to be sure. But then, if I don’t get my bugs finished off by Friday, that means that all the plans go right out the window. Sigh.

More on the individual things I’ve got planned for the weekend:

  • An ex-coworker is organizing a writing session. For some of us it’s about planning for the next NaNoWriMo, for me it’s about just practicing writing short stories.
  • I’ve been playing Lego Batman for the past two weeks and it’s really a lot of fun, even for a silly kid’s game. And for a silly kid’s game, there are some interesting puzzles in the game. It’s taking a while to get everything there.
    lego-batman
  • A new expansion has been released for Mass Effect. It’s only 5$, so I don’t expect to spend a lot of time on it, but it’ll still be something new to experience. Can’t wait!
    mass_effect
  • The new Batman game, Arkham Asylum, is really quite amazing. I tried out the demo just an hour ago and I’m very impressed. From the looks of it, there’s a large amount of stealth – sneaking up on unsuspecting enemies and ambushing them while hanging upside down – as well as pure kick-ass fighting.
    batman-arkham-asylum
  • I’ve been doing quite a bit of coding on my ray tracer application, and this weekend should be no different: I’m trying to optimize the application so it’s viable to add interesting effects and construct complex scenes. ATM, it takes anywhere between 4 and 35 minutes to render a single pig (3D pig-shaped object consisting of 7,000 polygons). That’s way too damn slow, even considering that the rendering is occurring on a dinky old laptop and in managed code. So I’m implementing some accelerators, like k-d trees, lazy initialization and caching some frequently-accessed data.
    computer-ray-tracing

If only I could squeeze in a few other things, like dim sum, reading (haven’t been reading for a while now), getting mildly drunk, watching a movie, watching a movie while getting mildly drunk, etc. Ah, wishful thinking. Ooh, maybe Labor Day weekend. 🙂

Big Lebowski

Just finished “Year’s Best SF9”, an anthology of sci-fi short stories. I think this is my second non-Niven short story collection, and I’ve gotta say: “meh”. Some of the stories there are really outstanding, while others… Not to sound too full of myself, but I think I could write better. (And I’m trying, too.)

The best story of the bunch was Rick Moody’s “The Albertine Notes”. It is a wonderful mind-fuck, not unlike some of Philip K. Dick’s work. I kept expecting the story to end at a dozen different points, all with that classic “well, that’s all, the world is still fucked, and now the hero is screwed as well, ain’t life grand?” conclusion, but the ending just kept moving further away. Give it a go, though be prepared to not understand some of the story. That’s the point, really.

Here’s a quick listing of the stories and my impressions, along with a simple school-style rating:

  • Amnesty – Didn’t like it, the whole story happened during a job interview. C.
  • Birth Days – Not bad. The delivery was OK, most of the “plot” was non-essential and the final conclusion didn’t seem to be really based on science. B+.
  • The Waters of Meribah – Eh. “Science” (according to tree-hugging hippies) taken to an extreme, combined with a strange property of the universe (something like that mystic quantum BS) that results in a monster. C+.
  • Ej-Es – Much non-sense and an attempt at tugging on some emotional strings. Not a bad delivery, but not much else to say about it. B-.
  • Four Short Novels – Good stuff, even if the final moral of the story is sappy. A-.
  • Rogue Farm – Interesting story, though a bit more more exposition would have helped. Which is of course true of most of Stross’ work, so this is nothin unexpected. A-.
  • The Violet’s Embryo’s – The story, like a typical mind-fuck, starts off incomprehensibly and goes from there. It’s actually quite good, but the beginning just bugged the hell out of me. All these strange names and concepts being introduced in every sentence, and none of them explained. Argh. A-.
  • Coyote at the End of History – A classical Native American story mixed with sci-fi. I’m not such a great fan of mythology, and Native American mythology is no exception, so this story didn’t do much for me. B.
  • In Fading Suns and Dying Moons – Cute story and an ironic ending, so classic sci-fi short story. A.
  • Castaway – Strange and unmemorable. B-.
  • The Hydrogen Wall – Great concept, not bad execution. The only beef I have with the story is that two plot points are so damn similar to a short story I wrote a few weeks ago. It’s a strange coincidence that’s in no way related to the actual story, but still weird. A-.
  • The Day We Went Through the Transition – An imaginative take on the concept of Time Cops. One of the better stories of the set. A.
  • Nimby and the Dimension Hoppers – Too short, but really enchanting. A.
  • Night of Time – Spends a lot of time on the inconsequential while merely skimming over the main point, that of an ancient intelligence. Still, a wonderful gem. A-.
  • A Night on the Barbary Coast – Immense potential, great setting, curious characters, horrible resolution. B+.
  • Annuity Clinic – Quite an emotional story, though lacking in pretty much all other aspects. B.
  • The Madwoman of Shuttlefield – Leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Has no real point or conclusion. B-.
  • Bread and Bombs – Might have had a curious point, if the story wasn’t told through the eyes of a kid. B.
  • The Great Game – Eww. Utter crap. An anti-war story that idolizes war. All the characters are (or become) pro-war. C-.
  • The Albertine Notes – Like I said before, a great mind-fuck. A+.

There. No one failed. Good times.

It’s been a week since I’ve posted. In that week I finished reading “The Selfish Gene” and managed to get pissed off at a tree-hugging hippy. Those two are connected, and they are probably what caused me to stop blogging for a bit. I didn’t want to revisit the points of that argument, so I stayed off the internet for the last few days. Mostly that time has been spent reading “The Ring” by Stephen Baxter, playing games, coding and of course working.

What got me pissed off? The argument didn’t happen on this blog, so I won’t be continuing it here.

And that’s a problem. I can’t seem to move on to other and better things, like actually reviewing the book, until I can counter those arguments. Well, let’s try and see where we get. If you see this post and it’s not a violent rant against a certain hippy, then I’ve been able to push emotion aside (at least for an hour) to write a – hopefully – objective review.

 

“The Selfish Gene” is a mind-altering work, turning on the side my notion of life, evolution and the birds and bees. That last point is, incidentally, not a euphemism. I really did learn quite a lot about both birds and bees, as these were often-used examples.

The book is largely scientific and confines itself to presenting and supporting a theory. The book doesn’t attempt to advocate a specific morality based on this theory, and neither does it attempt to push specific applications of the theory. (Except once, at the very start, where Dawkins jokingly suggests that by pushing the age of reproduction it is theoretically possible to breed immortality into humanity.)

The idea that Dawkins presents is that of evolution from a gene’s (selfish) viewpoint. Nothing more than that. Of course, once this idea is presented, that life is not about survival of the organism but the survival of a gene, ten chapters are spent on providing supporting evidence and explaining how, for instance, altruistic behaviors can still be explained by the theory.

Concepts are presented from the viewpoint of the gene and in probabilities of the gene’s own survival. Gone is the idea that actions benefitting a single organism are the most beneficial and thus ones that are “picked” by evolution. We must now concentrate on how the actions of an organism benefit other organisms that carry the same genes. This viewpoint, for instance, succeeds in explaining the seemingly altruistic behavior of bees, when they sacrifice their own lives for the good of the hive. “Classic” theory of evolution may have had a hard time with this, but we now know that when a bee sacrifices itself, it is for the good of its sisters, who are genetically-identical to the “suicidal” bee. In this sense, the behavior of the social insects like bees and ants seems quite straight-forward.

The the book I read was the 30th anniversary edition, so it included an extra chapter that serves as a tantilizing preview of Dawkins other work, “The Extended Phenotype”. I wish I got my dad this version of the book instead of the first edition hard-cover. But I digress. The concept of the last chapter and of the latter book is that a gene’s influence, its phenotype (according to Wikipedia, an organism’s “observable characteristic or trait”), extends beyond the physical body that the gene happens to be inhabiting at the moment. This can be seen in the instances of parasites that affect the host’s behavior to their own purposes. One of the more striking conclusion this leads to is that the parasite and the host can evolve to work together so well that at some point they may end up being a single organism, without any signs of the old parasitic relationship. Of course, it is not argued that this will happen during the course of a (combined) lifetime, but rather over successive generations of parasites and hosts.

Overall, this book was an eye-opener, both to a “new” (originally published in 1976) approach to evolution, as well as the sad reality that not nearly enough people have read the book yet. Anyway, that’s my own take on it.

An instant classic, “The Selfish Gene” earns high praise from me (which is, of course, not saying much).

Individuals who have too many children are penalized, not because the whole population goes extinct, but simply because fewer of their children survive. Genes for having too many children are just not passed on to the next generation in large numbers, because few of the children bearing these genes reach adulthood. What has happened in modern civilized man is that family sizes are no longer limited by the finite resources that the individual parents can provide. If a husband and wife have more children than they can feed, the state, which means the rest of the population, simply steps in and keeps the surplus children alive and healthy. There is, in fact, nothing to stop a couple with no material resources at all having and rearing precisely as many children as the woman can physically bear. But the welfare state is a very unnatural thing. In nature, parents who have more children than they can support do not have many grandchildren, and their genes are not passed on to future generations. There is no need for altruistic restraint in the birth-rate, because there is no welfare state in nature. Any gene for overindulgence is promptly punished: the children containing that gene starve. Since we humans do not want to return to the old selfish ways where we let the children of too-large families starve to death, we have abolished the family as a unit of economic self-sufficiency, and substituted the state. But the privilege of guaranteed support for children should not be abused.

Contraception is sometimes attacked as ‘unnatural’. So it is, very unnatural. The trouble is, so is the welfare state. I think that most of us believe the welfare state is highly desirable. But you cannot have an unnatural welfare state, unless you also have unnatural birth-control, otherwise the end result will be misery even greater than that which obtains in nature. The welfare state is perhaps the greatest altruistic system the animal kingdom has ever known. But any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it. Individual humans who have more children than they are capable of rearing are probably too ignorant in most cases to be accused of conscious malevolent exploitation. Powerful institutions and leaders who deliberately encourage them to do so seem to me less free from suspicion.

The Selfish Gene, Chapter 7, Family Planning, pages 1117-118

In many species a mother can be more sure of her young than a father can. The mother lays the visible, tangible egg, or bears the child. She has a good chance of knowing for certain the bearers of her own genes. The poor father is much more vulnerable to deception. It is therefore to be expected that fathers will put less effort than mother into caring for young.

Similarly, maternal grandmothers can be more sure of their grandchildren than paternal grandmothers can, and might be expected to show more altruism than paternal grandmothers. This is because they can be sure of their daughter’s children, but their son may have been cuckolded.

Indeed in a society with a high degree of marital infidelity, maternal uncles should be more altruistic than ‘fathers’ since they have more grounds of confidence in their relatedness to the child. They know that the child’s mother is at least their half-sister. The ‘legal’ father knows nothing.

The Selfish Gene, Chapter 6, Genemanship, page 106

 

[Wynne-Edwards] suggested that individual animals deliberately and altruistically reduce their birth rates for the good of the group as a whole.

We have probably all seen examples of the startling calculations that can be used to bring [unchecked population growth] home. For instance, the present population of Latin America [as of 1976] is around 300 million, and already many of them are under-nourished. But if the population continued to increase at present rate, it would take less than 500 years to reach the point where the people, packed in a standing position, formed a solid human carpet over the whole are of the continent. This is so, even if we assume them to be very skinny — a not unrealistic assumption. In 1,000 years from now they would be standing on each other’s sholders more than a million deep. By 2,000 years, the mountain of people, travelling outwards at the speed of light, would have reached the edge of the known universe.

The Selfish Gene, Chapter 7, Family planning, pages 110-111

Hmm, so I guess the question of space travel will be answered by the Duggar’s of the world. Well, at least now we know what their contribution to humanity will be.

The third part of this extended post is really not necessary. I just felt weird having only two parts to the extended post. So this will be almost unrelated to the rest. Here (and by which I mean “after the jump”), I’ll write a bit about the work of Neal Stephenson.

And here’s that jump.

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