Archive for November 2009

The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil

November 30, 2009

In a short time we all will merge with our computers and take over the universe in a transformation to such a strange new state of being that it is called the Singularity, named after the unknowable state of affairs inside a black hole. So Ray Kurzweil, the “Singularitarian,” believes and preaches.

Kurzweil looks at history and sees exponential change occurring over and over again. From this he concludes that this is the way that things develop in all aspects of technology–an initial slow rise, then an exponential increase, then a leveling off until a new technology comes along in a paradigm shift to start the process again. This is most familiar from Moore’s Law, which states that computer processing power doubles every 24 months. Kurzweil sees a similar exponential growth in many other areas, and provides graphs in the book to illustrate his conclusion with the examples of cellphone adoption, Internet hosts, increase in GDP, etc. If you question that last example, check the copyright page–the book was published in 2005.

Kurzweil was born in 1948 but believes that he will live to see the benefits of MNT (molecular nanotechnology) and GNR (Genetics, Nanotechnology, Robotics) to increase the human lifespan to hundreds of years. To make it that far, he follows a strict dietary regimen, which includes taking over 250 supplements a day. This is optimism concretized.

He has developed these ideas for decades now, and so has encountered many objections. Kurzweil addresses many of them in the book. They don’t stop him long. There is no patience for dystopias; we are accumulating more knowledge, more power, more technique, and this is as unstoppable as the arrow at the end of a parabola, moving upward and outward, forever.

The objections of theists fall in with all the others and have no special place for Kurzweil. There is no bitterness or scorn for those who would block his future with an immutable human nature. He is supremely confident in his vision and does not dwell on the obstacles of fundamentalists or other believers.

“Es irrt der Mensch, solong er strebt.” (“Man will stray, as long as he strives.”) There is no Gretchen in this book, or Helen of Troy, though Kurzweil’s daughter makes a brief appearance in a discussion of virtual reality. This seems fitting. Entirely lacking is any discussion of real human relationships, families, and communities and how they will adapt to the changes that he wants to bring on.

One day Kurzweil is unlikely to say, “Verweile doch, du bist so schön!” (“Remain awhile, you are so fair!”)–because that would break the spell.


Thinking in Pictures, by Temple Grandin

November 21, 2009

I read this book after seeing an interview with the author on C-SPAN’s In Depth program a few weeks ago. She describes herself as a high-functioning autistic. If you get a chance to hear her speak, you should do it. She is unusually direct and unaffected. Grandin is now a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University. The book is an unusual mix of autobiography and discussion of her work in designing structures for cattle and other livestock. She believes that her logical, unemotional way of experiencing the world, common for autistics, has helped her understand animals. If you admire the work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, she was the “Anthropologist on Mars” (her own description of herself) that gave him the title for one of his books on unusual neurological cases.

She says that she is typical of many with autism in having a hypersensitivity to touch (others have it to light or sound). This can cause the autistic person to avoid making physical contact in order not to be overwhelmed with the sensation. Yet she needed the physical contact, or near to it, so she developed a “squeeze machine,” something out of Kafka in one of his more benign tales, in which she would lie while foam-covered plywood panels held her tight. A commercial version of this machine later went to market. Grandin used this experience to come up with something similar for cattle on the way to a swim through the dip tank or to take a captive bolt in the head. She is gratified that she has found a way to make the animals’ last moments peaceful.

She does not easily understand verbal descriptions and instead thinks in pictures. Her memory is like a videotape that she can rewind and scan at leisure. She has found a career that matches her skills. She also tells some funny stories about her lack of social graces but recognizes her limitations and relates how she has worked to overcome them.

There are some chapters that don’t convince as well as others, notably one where she labels various historical figures as autistic, and another where she gives her opinions on which drugs work best on autistics. She has written several other books, which by their titles appear to go either in the autobiographical direction or the animal science direction.

The book is worthwhile to appreciate how someone with a disability actually can have some real strengths because of, not in spite of, that very disability. “If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic, I would not. Autism is part of who I am.”

Satchel, by Larry Tye

November 18, 2009

Paige got around, playing not just in the Negro Leagues, but barnstorming, too, against major leaguers such as Dizzy Dean. Paige even made it south of the border, to Venezuela, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. He clearly got a lot of joy out of the baseball life, which he played forever. When the Majors were ready to integrate, though, he was not the first choice. He was too old (about 42) and, Nye implies, too rough around the edges. Still, Paige made it into the Majors the next year, and played on several teams, including a turn for Bill Veeck, whose eye for a good show lit on Paige immediately. He even had a year with the new Atlanta Braves in 1968 as a “pitcher-coach-trainer.” Like Melchizidek, no one knew exactly how old he was. He fit the cliché of the legend in his own time. They told the stories about him calling the outfielders in and daring the batter to get a hit. He had dozens of pitches, supposedly, each one with a crazy name–Jump Ball, Long Tom, Four-Day Creeper. But all this was really just make-believe. He had rules for living that were reprinted in Reader’s Digest and elsewhere. Lye tracks them down and shows that they were largely the work of creative sportswriters.

Paige was admitted to the Hall of Fame after a controversy over whether to confine the Negro League players to a special area. It seems that there was discussion over whether the Negro League players really deserved to be classed with the Majors. Paige’s own career illustrates the difficulties in making direct comparison between the two leagues–different schedules, lack of record keeping in the Negro Leagues, etc. Such legitimate questions, however, had to yield to the importance of not creating a segregated Hall of Fame.

This was a fun book, though a bit of a mess. The author is not a sportswriter, and seems to rely too much on Paige’s own memoirs. There are tables of statistics in the back, if you like that sort of thing. After the early chapters on growing up in Mobile, the book is not well organized. The chronology shifts back and forth; by the end, it’s a collection of anecdotes. Still, everyone should know some of these stories.

Am elften elften

November 11, 2009

On the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at 11:11 a.m., the people of Munich begin their Fasching celebration. Depending on the date of Easter, and thus the date of Ash Wednesday, Fasching could be three to four months long. In counterpoise to this odd Catholic observance, a sober Day of Prayer and Repentance (Bett- und Bußtag) follows on the Wednesday eleven days before the beginning of Advent.

Prosit! Amen.