The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

  1. The Difference EngineI have waited a long time to read this book. I’ve also waited about a month since I finished reading it before writing this post. This book is a lot. It is considered the seminal work of the steampunk genre. In it, Gibson and Sterling present a world where Babbage found wide success with his Analytical Engine and ushered in the computer revolution in the early 1800s.

Babbage Analytical Engine

Babbage invented this device, the Analytical Engine in 1837. It was the first Turing-complete digital computer, a century before that phrase would even be invented. In reality, Babbage had very poor success because of a number of factors. If he had been more successful with his invention, the computer revolution might have happened over a century sooner. This book tells the story of a world where that is the case; a dark and messy early-industrial world of steam and gears and engines.

Behind the main story, another story progresses in the shadows. It sort of follows Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and the scale problem of computation attempting to describe itself. This idea isn’t really resolved in the story, but it is overcome by the end of the book, if not in specific terms. The idea is that no system of language or mathematics can completely describe itself. People are trying to develop smarter and faster machines which are self-aware, but the problem of imperfect and incomplete mathematics and language becomes a barrier to further development. This problem is also modeled in several parallel social conflicts in the story.

This is a very complex and involved narrative. It will take a lot of future reflection and re-reading to really come to terms with what it’s trying to accomplish and to understand the meaning behind this multilayered work.

Woken Furies by Richard K Morgan

This book has a lot of content and a lot of moving parts. The story is very complex. I had to read it three times before I felt like I really understood the story.

The production of the audio book is completely different from the first two books. I had to take a break before I started this one. It was too distracting right after finishing the first two books. I REALLY hate when production companies change readers between audio books. Expanse in particular was really terrible. This one ended up being good once I had a break from it. I think I might even like it more than the production of the first two books.

This book does a really amazing job of exploring the ideas of revolutionary politics and religion and the problems and strengths with each. There are some really cool examples. The analysis is extremely sociological. As a sociologist, I really appreciate the perspective of the author and the way he explores these important topics.

In particular there are some really cool ideas around the problem of producing condensing symbols to unite disparate factions during revolutions.

There is also some interesting exploration of the problem of interfacing with future alien computer systems and the artificial intelligences that could be created by extremely different types of conscious life.

This might be my new favorite book. I highly recommend it. :]

Discussion of Conscious with Sam Harris and Annaka Harris

In this episode of his podcast, Sam Harris interviews his wife Annaka about her new book, Conscious. This book explores the current state of the art of our knowledge about the nature and purpose of consciousness.

In this interview, they go over three main “interesting” questions she poses in the book, and the answers she gives to these questions.

  • How could any amount of non-conscious stuff become conscious in certain arrangements?
  • Is there anything we can observe from the outside which proves conclusively that something/someone is conscious?
    • Locked-in
    • Robots
    • People we see in dreams who don’t even exist
  • What is consciousness for/ what does it do?

Mirror

You can also check out the book itself by clicking on it below. I am planning to set up a book club around this in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Conscious by Annaka Harris

Lying by Sam Harris

Lying by Sam Harris makes the argument for radical honesty. This is an interested book which is very different from his previous books, but connects to them on the theme of reasonable and rational discussion of their topics.

Religion, he seems to imply, can only exist in a world where people are comfortable lying to themselves and others. His actual argument in this book is simply that we should be honest, and that it’s always better to be honest.

Lying by Sam Harris

Letter To A Christian Nation by Sam Harris

Letter To A Christian Nation is a very direct critique of Christianity from the perspective of rational Americans. He attacks head on the basis of Christianity and its many arguments, as well as the argument that it is a good thing for anyone.

Letter To A Christian Nation by Sam HarrisThere are many very excellent arguments in this book which I am already using and will continue to use. This is a book that any atheist or humanist should read.

The End of Faith by Sam Harris

The End of Faith was Sam Harris’ first book. He published it while he was still a graduate student. This book is an excellent indictment of Christianity in America and the many externalities it perpetrates on the world.

The End of Faith by Sam HarrisI think if I had read this book twenty years ago, it would have had a dramatic impact on my intellectual journey. As it stands, I already agree with essentially every point he makes. Still, it was a good read that will help me to consider deeper rebuttals of Christianity and its arguments.

Understanding Humans In The Wild with Sam Harris

There are two huge takeaways for me from this podcast interview. The first is Slot Rattling. The guest is Adam Grant, a organizational psychologist and professor from Wharton. He talks about Slot Rattling as a psychological phenomena which explains a person’s behavior when they identify themselves at a certain undesirable point on a spectrum of a given trait. The reaction is to initially jump all the way to the extreme opposite on that trait. But that isn’t quite right either. The person then tries to find the perfect spot on the spectrum which they are comfortable with. The lesson to take from this example is that there is no correct spot. And by considering other dimensions such as flexibility, we may find that we are sometimes in different spots on that spectrum.

The example that jumped out at me was straight-identified guys who want to do things outside of that identity. They often jump to hyper-masculinity as a defense mechanism which Freud would call reaction formation. Then they move away from the extreme by looking for acceptable alternatives that can fit within their narrative. Freud would call this sublimation.  Overall, this is a super interesting concept which I will refer to, often.

The second thing that jumped out at me was Cognitive Appraisal as a useful tool for mitigating anxiety. Anxiety is the anticipation of future discomfort. It comes with a heightened state of arousal in the Reticular Formation. The thing is that the Reticular Formation which moderates arousal is separate from the Amygdala which moderates emotion. The Amygdala is part of the default mode network and subject to executive function. We can choose to change emotions, if less easily the accompanying state of arousal. Grant suggests redirection your attention away from focusing on the anticipation of possible future discomfort to the anticipation of possible future success or pleasure. This seems like a really great idea which I will try to practice.

 

 

Tiamat’s Wrath by James S A Corey

The most recent book in The Expanse series is easily one of the best so far. The last couple books have felt a little flat, and felt like they were setting up the next one. This one is what they were setting up. It’s full of action and has an ending. Many of the major arcs see significant development. Many story lines are tied up by the end. It’s a very satisfying read.

You can get the audio book for free here or by asking me for a copy.

Tiamat's Wrath by James S. A. Corey

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

I first heard about this book in a presentation given to my social justice class by another student. Then I heard about it through a book club which many of my friends attended.

You can get the audio book for free here or ask me for a copy personally.

White FragilityThis book does a great job of exploring many important concepts surrounding white fragility. As a sociologist, I have often wondered how to best articulate some of the things which DiAngelo explores in this book. Reading this book gave me many new tools for exploring these important concepts, not just from a critical perspective but also from a normative one. This book gives many hints for how to be a better white person.

Critically, almost all of these concepts translate to any system of oppression to one degree or another.  All systems of oppression work the same way. So any privileged group within a given power dynamic will demonstrate some or all of these fragility behaviors. I think of this as a key lesson from this book.

Since reading it, I have already recommended it to many people who are looking to learn how to better articulate many of these concepts. I have also observed many non-sociologists who read this book making very eloquent and well articulated sociological arguments using this book as a foundation.

I think this book is one of the best and most important things to happen within the field of sociology with regard to white people.

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

The Magician’s Land is the third and final book in the Magician’s Series. It follows The Magicians and The Magician King.  This book neatly ties up the loose ends left by the other two books. It takes us to a whole new level of magic and power, and it ends the series on a consonant tone which leaves you feeling a sense of completion.

You can get the audio book for free here or ask me for a copy personally. Personally, I usually prefer audio books. This one has a great reader who does the story justice.

The Magicians LandThere is a great deal in the show which is not in any of the books, and most of this book is not in the show. Maybe some of it will come later?

Overall, the Magician King is definitely the best book in the series, while this one is a close second. Definitely worth the read!