Review: The Way We Die Now

The Way We Die Now is not the best book I’ve read this year but it may be the most important. In Seamus O’Mahony’s opinion, modern society has forgotten how to deal with death. There are many reasons for this, the collapse of religious belief, the demolition of the extended family, the triumph of the scientific and rational worldview, even our delusions of curing death “real soon now” contribute to our collective denial. Yet death persists. Death remains absolute, sovereign, implacable, terrifying, “majestic and cruel.” Even if we realize our singularity fantasies and greatly extend life death will never be banished. Even the gods die! We must face death, but must we turn it into a carnival of “medical excess?”

I have seen medical excess. My mother was diagnosed with Stage IV Glioblastoma: a form of brain cancer that is so deadly it’s been nicknamed the terminator. Actually, the terminator is flattered by the comparison. Some survived their encounter with fictional terminators. Nobody survives stage IV Glioblastoma: “there is no stage V.” When I heard mom’s diagnosis I looked for actuarial survival statistics. Credible statistics for common fatal diseases are harder to track down than you might expect. I eventually found a paper that cast survival times in a useful form. Median survival was less than three months for younger and healthier patients than my mother. She died about two months after her diagnosis – right on statistical schedule. The universe does not make personal exemptions.

Her death was inevitable, but the expensive, futile, painful and isolating medical gauntlet she endured was not. She just wanted to go home, perhaps to “turn her head to the wall,” perhaps to binge on The Big Bang Theory – she still enjoyed a few silly shows. It doesn’t matter what the dying choose to do with their remaining hours, but it sure as hell matters that we honor their choices and the Way We Die Now makes a compelling case that we are failing “to be brave.” I know I acquiesced to the medial default for my mother; I still feel I should have fought harder for what she wanted.

According to O’Mahony, the medical default is full intervention even when it’s pointless and wasteful. He also notes that doctors are in a no-win situation. If they suggest doing nothing they’re accused of euthanizing patients. If they go full interventionist Rambo they’re inflicting needless suffering and profiting from the dying. Both extremes often end up in court, as if we could fix death with more litigation. Obviously, something in the middle is the best course and O’Mahony argues that doctors should not set the middle course.

Our infantile society needs to grow up and face death like adults. Nothing makes our magical thinking about death clearer than Somerset Maugham’s1 observations about a “dog’s death.” Maugham hoped he was lucky enough to die a dog’s death! A dog’s death is meant to be a horrible thing but is it really worse than human medical excess? When it comes to sick animals we are clear-headed and compassionate. We don’t subject them to futile treatments, we make them comfortable and take away their pain. I once had a cat that came down with pancreatitis. She wasted away on the top of our fridge until one day we took her to the vet. Her death was calm and without terror. My cat had a better death than my mother. I suspect many pets die with greater dignity than their owners. This is fundamentally wrong and we all know it.

There are no easy answers; it sucks to be mortal. We can’t say until we face it ourselves how we should die so how can we dictate to others? I only hope that when my time comes I have it within me to follow the one bit of advice O’Mahony offers that may apply to all us – “be brave.’


  1. The Way We Die Now relates many stories about “celebrity” deaths.

The Collapsing Empire: Goodreads Review

The Collapsing Empire (CE) is a breezy fun to read space opera. Because I rate books on Goodreads mostly on how much I enjoyed them I gave CE a solid four. If you’re looking for a few hours away from planet moron (Earth) CE is worth the time. While I enjoyed CE it’s unlikely I will be following this series as it unfolds in however many books the author and his publisher manage to flog in the future. I’ve reached the point in my life where entertainment is no longer sufficient. I demand new ideas and different ways of looking at things from what I read. By this standard CE barely rates a one.

The only moderately new notion here is that of “The Flow.” The Flow is CE’s magic element. It’s the story element that enables a human interstellar civilization. The Flow plays the same role in CE that the ocean does in Moby Dick. The ocean is not considered a character in Moby Dick but try imagining the novel without it! Remove The Flow from CE and you are left with stock characters, stock court politics, stock predictable disputes, and a tiny little universe that, trust me, feels more stunted than a night spent under a clear dark sky looking at real stars.

As a final note: I’d advise the author to refrain from dispensing his opinions about real-world politics. Nothing ruins a book faster than conflating actual authors with their fictional characters. Many years ago I was on the verge of reading Anne Rice’s vampire books but then I had the good luck to see an interview of Anne Rice going on about how her characters were her lovers. She wasn’t being metaphorical; the woman is nuts. I decided right on the spot that it was unlikely such a delusional nitwit was worthy of my sustained attention. Authors labor under an unspoken Fight Club rule. “The first rule of fiction writing is: stay the Hell out of your fiction writing!”

How Dante Can Save Your Life: Review

dantesavelifeDante’s Commedia may save your life, but I wouldn’t bet on this book doing the same. How Dante can Save Your Life is both interesting, annoying, and ultimately disappointing. If I had stopped in the middle of this book I would have rated it higher. It certainly started out well but, what can only be described as the author’s whining, slowly degraded my view.

The seriously religious do not perceive reliable approximations of reality. They are drifting with their phantoms, looking for things that cannot be rationally demonstrated to exist. Though I admire the discipline and restraint many intelligent religious people exhibit it’s simply impossible to take their cherished beliefs seriously. Those of us that demand verifiable reasons for accepting propositions will never accede to the belief that the purpose of life is to return to God. The author repeatedly returns to this theme as he reads Dante and shares his own life.

The author, Rod Dreher, and his family endured serious grief. The best part of this book is his retelling of his sister’s death from cancer in her forties and her community’s outpouring of love and support. I don’t think the author would disagree that his sister’s death, and the book he wrote about it, greatly contributed to his career as a writer.

It was at this point the author had a crisis that lead to Dante. Cemeteries are for the living not the dead, as is myth. Dante created an extravagant and great myth and like all great classics his epic poem has much to offer readers in any age. The author uses it as a type of self-help book to work through his family problems.

His problems are common. Many of us have seen loved family members die horribly, many of us have suffered crippling injuries, many of us have distressing careers, and many of us have family members that are struggling with themselves and us. Yet some of us are tough enough to see life as a random clash of blameless atoms and that whining will not fix anything.

In Dante’s view, this is the great sin of pride that unchecked leads to Hell. Lucky for us Hell and Heaven are myths. Art, however great, is not reality.

Pandora’s Star: a Grand Sprawling Entertainment

pandoras-starIn my fevered youth I was an avid fan of science fiction but as I crossed the Rubicon of middle age I read less and less of the genre. For years I preferred nonfiction: mostly science with a smattering of history and biography. Then, about five years ago, I started reading science fiction again.

What kept me away? Most of the authors of my youth had died: Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Anderson, Herbert and Dick – all gone! I had to find new – to me – authors. I knew and loved Neal Stephenson, the author of Cryptonomicon, Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Anathem, but after four or five thousand pages of Neal it was time to move on. My first post Stephenson, new to me, author was Iain M. Banks.

Banks specialized in what’s often called alien infested space opera. His universes are overflowing with life. Aliens are everywhere, inhabiting niches that most biologists would poo-poo as impossible. I prefer more empty and serene universes but Banks’ books like The Algebraist, Surface Detail, and Consider Phelbas whet my appetite for his crowded milieus. I was looking forward to following Banks for years but it wasn’t to be. Iain M. Banks died of cancer, at the ridiculously premature age of 59, leaving fans all over the word wanting. There is no greater outrage than mortality!

After Banks’ death I looked around for other operatic authors; it didn’t take me long to find Peter F. Hamilton and Pandora’s Star. Pandora’s Star is a huge, highly entertaining, example of what I call restrained science fiction.

Restraint is what separates science fiction from fantasy. Fantasy tolerates an anything goes mishmash of logical inconsistencies. Literature has a term for this: Deus ex machina. Modern fantasy is a veritable high-tech Deux ex machina factory churning out beta-male vampires that take implausible romantic interests in their food, prepubescent wizards jerking off in boarding school, (Oh it happened), fireproof maximum babes with pet dragons, and armies of oxymoronic brain-dead brain eating zombies. Only scripture piles on more logical nonsense than fantasy.

I enjoy fantasy as much as the next nerd but it’s not science fiction. Proper restrained science fiction admits a small number of “magic suppositions” but otherwise rigorously adheres to what we know about physical reality. You need some damn science in your science fiction people. The universe of Pandora’s Star presumes a few impossibilities; it assumes wormholes and faster than light (FTL) travel. FTL is a standard plot enabling device. Civilizations spanning thousands of light years simply cannot exist, on human time scales, without it. Pandora’s Star makes three more “impossible” assumptions which I will not divulge because ruining good books should be a capital crime. Aside from these allowed departures from reality the universe of Pandora’s Star sticks to scientific bricks and unfolds with lovely consistency.

Most science fiction writers make impossible assumptions but great ones take them in unexpected directions. Consider wormholes. Wormholes have been a staple of science fiction forever. Three, not entirely restrained, TV series had contemporary soldiers marching through them every week for years. They’ve popped up in every two-bit tale that needed quick point A to B plumbing. Wormholes are a cliché and their presence often signals unimaginative hackery. If you’re going to confront me with wormholes you better damn well show me something new or I’m outta your lame book. The opening chapter of Pandora’s Star is one of the most humorous and imaginative use of wormholes in science fiction. A few pages later Hamilton sends trains through wormholes. It’s Sheldon Cooper’s wet dream: trains in space. I had to smile and keep on reading. Pandora’s Star is a big book, almost one thousand pages, but like all great sprawling books it’s too damn short. Fortunately, there’s a second book, Judas Unchained,  that keeps the story rolling. I haven’t had this much fun with a science fiction since Dune. It’s that good.

 

Review: Finding Vivian Maier

I suffer from SLAM (Spouse that Likes Art-house Movies).  I’m sure you’re familiar with this common affliction. It strikes when you want to see Spider-Man 2 but, because you dearly love your spouse, you settle on some “uplifting work of art” that can only be seen in a cramped, look around the pretentious fathead ahead in front of you, dingy art-house cinema. SLAM suffers get a break in St. Louis; there are only two art-house cinemas and their usual yard-sale like fare is dull even by art-house standards. But, as any yard-sale addict will tell you, there are diamonds in the debris and Finding Vivian Maier is a gem.

vivian-maier-small

Vivian Maier 1956. Vivian enjoyed self-portraits and mirrors. This is not vanity. All photographers fall prey to self-reflections. I am certainly guilty.

Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about a great street photographer, Vivian Maier (1926 –2009) that you have probably never heard of. I had never heard of her and I’m a keen amateur photographer with a nagging interest in the history and technology of photography. I’ve read all three of Ansel Adams classic camera books, plowed through many giant histories of photography, and endured as many Photoshop and image restoration tomes as I can stomach.  I’m not an artist; I’m a technisté! A technisté is someone who has technical artistic skills but is not phony enough to be an artiste. Vivian Maier is an anti-technisté. She’s a true photographic artist that showed astonishingly low levels of interest in the craft and technology of photography.

Her story, as one lady in the film noted, is more interesting than her work. Nobody had heard of Vivian before 2007. She isn’t mentioned in giant histories of photography published before 2007 so it’s not surprising I missed her. She worked most of her life as a nanny. She didn’t hang around with other photographers and she apparently never made a serious effort to show her photographs. Even stranger, she rarely printed her pictures and shot thousands of frames that she never developed. She must have been content to look at her negatives if even that. This astounds me!  I cannot tell if I have a good shot until I “develop” it.  For most of her long life she snapped away in the background and it’s likely that her astonishing body of work would have vanished if John Maloof hadn’t bought a lot of her negatives at an auction in 2007.

For Vivian the act of capture sufficed and what wonderful captures they are. Her work is being exhibited around the world. I will certainly be looking out for the next show coming my way. You can see some of her pictures here and, for those of you that care, Finding Vivian Maier is much better than Spider-Man 2.

Marcus Aurelius tunes my RSS Feeds

emperors-handbookThe Emperor’s Handbook is a new translation of Marcus Aurelius’ classic The Meditations. Marcus Aurelius was a second century Roman emperor and stoic philosopher. You probably know him as the old guy (Richard Harris) that chose Maximus (Russell Crowe) as his successor in Gladiator.  Marcus is counted among the “five good Roman emperors” [1] and his Meditations has been hailed as the single best book ever written by a major ruler. Nowadays every semi-literate hack that’s held office dumps memoirs. The more vacuous excrete before holding office! While political autobiography is usually the vilest form of pornography and begs the question; is book burning all bad?  There are exceptions and The Meditations is a magnificent example.

The Emperors Handbook is a sequence of short notes. Some are sentences like:

Not knowing what other people are thinking is not the cause of much human misery, but failing to understand the workings of one’s own mind is bound to lead to unhappiness

How shameful and absurd it is for the spirit to surrender when the body is able to fight on!

What is useless for the hive is of no use to bee.

Others take a page or two. It’s not clear that Marcus intended to “publish” his notes and this may partly account for their frank and honest elegance. I don’t read ancient Greek, the language Marcus used to compose his notes, so I cannot judge his original style but the Hicks brother’s English translation is an absolute delight.  I often found myself rereading passages aloud to fully savior Marcus’s phrases; they ring like poetry and tell like prose.  This guy would crush modern Internet trolls!

The most striking thing about Marcus’s passages is their stark modernity. If you ignore the allusions to multiple gods and references to 2nd century contemporaries many of Marcus’s 1,800 year old notes might have been composed yesterday. The following would not be out-of-place in the preamble of any modern mathematical logic text.

Reason and logic are governed by their own laws and employ their own methods. They launch themselves at will, and they head straight for their target. This is why we call actions that seem to us reasonable and logical “right,” because they are right on target.

Of course the real measure of any work is: does it change the way you think and act? A lot of Marcus’s stoic advice will be hard for us. He repeatedly stresses the importance of playing your part in the greater scheme of things. In his view the universe is either meaningless atoms smashing together or it’s arranged by providence. If the first case holds then we should play our part because we are social beings and need the cooperation and support of others to fully prosper. If the second holds then we should strive to find our designated purpose and execute it to the best of our abilities. Either way we should do our duty without whining.  A stoic man’s “got to do what a man’s got to do.”

I’m more of a skeptic than Marcus, and I have the benefit of 1,800 more years of history and science to drawn on, so until there is overwhelming, ultra-hard, fully repeatable, and independently verified scientific evidence to the contrary, it’s almost certain that life is meaningless and random! The “atoms” that smash together in the 21st century have a richer taxonomy than their hypothetical 2nd century antecedents but they are just as meaningless. The notion that we have a duty or purpose is ludicrous. We are, as Richard Dawkins wrote in the Selfish Gene long ago, robots evolved to propagate genes. And, as many have noted, it’s not clear that “intelligent robots” are ideal for gene propagation: bacteria and ants are doing a better job. I cannot accept the unsubstantiated notion of duty so I will not play my alleged part. The greater scheme will have to manage without me.

Though I reject “duty” I still find much of use in The Meditations. Of great value is Marcus’s long view.

Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus and to a lesser degree Scipio and Cato, and yes, even Augustus, Hadrian and Antoninus are less spoken of now than they were in their own days. For all things fade away, become the stuff of legend, and are soon buried by oblivion. Mind you, this is true only for those who blazed once like bright stars in the firmament, but for the rest, as soon a few clods of earth cover their corpses, they are “out of sight, out of mind.”

That pretty much sums up my approach to the Obama administration. Marcus also has sound advice on Internet filtering.

Bear in mind that the measure of a man is the worth of the things he cares about.

If you find something predictable and shrill do a quick calculation. Does the signal justify enduring the noise?  I went through my long list of Feedly RSS feeds and deleted two prominent sources of noise:  The Raw Story and Breitbart. These sites are loud practitioners of look at this idiot journalism. One side is predictably far left-wing and the other is predictably far right-wing. Occasionally they cough up something worth a look but usually their articles, and attending moronic troll infested commentary, is a complete waste of time. Is such drivel worthy of my gaze? Applying Marcus’s rule I had to cut them loose. Thank you Marcus for pruning my RSS feeds.

[1] Most Roman emperors were brutal corrupt monsters.

What’s the opposite of Transcendence?

johnny-depp-transcendenceSerious science fiction is a demanding cinematic genre; that’s why you see so little of it!  Most of what passes for science fiction is out-and-out comic fantasy. In the last year only three marginally serious science fiction films made it to wide release:  Catching Fire, Divergent and Transcendence.  Sadly, they’re all pretty awful and Transcendence is the biggest letdown of the three. Here’s why.

Transcendence is another riff on real AI.  Even though we live in a world of talking cell phones and computer Jeopardy champions a sizeable cohort of AI deniers claim machines will never think.  The best answer I’ve heard to this came from a young woman who noted that, “I am a machine and I think.”  Well I am thinking machine too and until there are serious scientific or mathematical arguments demonstrating that minds cannot, even in principle, be simulated by computations, assuming intelligence is algorithmic remains our best working hypothesis. Transcendence gets all this right. None of the characters in Transcendence go on about whether real AI is possible. Even the fearful anti-AI faction takes it as a given; it’s what they are afraid of.

If intelligence is algorithmic then it follows that we are nothing more than programs trapped in messy hardware. Separating hardware and software is one of the glories of our age.  We take it for granted that if we change the software we change the machine. The other day I killed off my old WinXP laptop and then resurrected it as a Mint Linux device. The hardware is the same but the machine is very different. We cannot do this with brains — yet.  The software that makes you, you, is regrettably entwined with the hardware that runs you. Nature has evolved better intellectual property protection than a division of parasitic IP lawyers. One of the great challenges of our age is breaking down nature’s intellectual property protection and reading out the software in brains. Transcendence also gets all this right. The best part of the film involves uploading a dying Will Caster, (Johnny Depp), into a bank of quantum computers. [1]

Up until Will goes live on his quantum cores Transcendence is a fine film. I kept pinching myself thinking: they’re not screwing it up or dumbing it down. This might be great.  Then my hopes were crushed. Before Will went all quantum supercomputery he gave a TED’ish talk pointing out that when real AI arrives it will have more raw intellectual capacity than all human brains combined.  When transcendent beings emerge in stories the plot often goes straight to pot. This is not a new artistic problem. It’s so common in science fiction that I even have a name for it: the superior being problem.

Depicting superior beings poses fundamental problems for feeble brained naked ape authors. Look at what a moron God is in the first few books of the Bible. Scores of fine science fiction novels have been trashed by trying to imagine what truly superior beings would think and do. The only approach that works is oblique. You can suggest the workings of superior minds. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a classic example of doing this right, but for reasons that escape me, many authors take on the inner life of superior minds only to show their own rather mediocre ones. Transcendence didn’t even make an honest effort to deal with the superior being problem: what a disappointment. Instead of enjoying new ideas I spent the rest of Transcendence wondering why our transcendent protagonist was such a dolt. Not really the transcendent experience I was looking for.

[1] The jury is out on the feasibility of practical quantum computers. If quantum computers can be made to work they will solve certain classes of problems faster than conventional machines but, and this is a big but, they will not expand the notion of what’s computable. It’s rather amazing that what’s computable has not expanded since Turning’s great theorems of the 1930’s.