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exposed brain

If you recall the last post about those who mew that science just cheapens the world around us with its math and experiments, you may remember the book used as a prime example of these attitudes, Curtis White’s The Science Delusion. I know, a sardonic riff on Dawkins, how original, right? Well, over the last month or so, White has been taking plenty of heat for his work and its thinly veiled disgust and contempt for the process of inquiry and trial and error which has taken humans to the Moon, doubled our average lifespan, and is now exploring the far reaches of the cosmos and the physical makeup of our minds. His reply so far? His critics just don’t get him or the reasons why he wrote what he wrote, claiming that pretty much everyone got everything he said so wrong, they might as well be reading a different book. That wouldn’t stick, so in his latest defensive missive to detractors, he trots out a new excuse for his nastiness; he was just kidding when he was making up nicknames for atheists and outspoken scientists of note. So come on, have a sense of humor and laugh with him as he descends into inanity. Or as he says…

But I don’t fault Feynman for playing the bongos [by referring to him as Bongoman]. I’d happily join him on rhythm guitar, and we’d snap fingers with the hepcats. I merely suggest that it is disappointing that someone who played the bongos also thought that everything about creation is explained by the spinning of atoms. I’m laughing at the incongruity.

What incongruity might that be? A scientist who understands a fundamental parts of how matter as we know it comes together and apart also likes music. So what? He should be entranced by the beat of his bongos so much so that he has an epiphany and declares that his work on how subatomic particles behave was all rubbish because, dude, this universe is like totally way too complex to really understand? Because that is what White is very strongly implying. His inability to realize that being able to explain how something works doesn’t rule out being inspired by it, or outright awed, makes his main thesis a worthless non sequtur. I understand how his browser will render a web page and can walk him though the mathematical tree of bytes that is the DOM (or Document Object Model) as it’s going to be rendered. Should I never tell him about this if I get a chance so he can just be ignorantly happy that some magic brings him web sites and refuse to believe that knowing how the web works lets you admire what it can be made to do?

Since White doesn’t understand that science is much more than providing technical notes on a natural phenomenon, he ends up arguing against learning past a point with which he’s at ease because he wants to have the freedom to wax poetic on life’s mysteries, and he’s incensed that an awful lot of people want to keep pushing past his point of willful ignorance. This is really what his message boils down to: "stop learning so much!" He’s so appalled by the notion that creative thought can be studied as a set of chemical reactions in the brain that he refuses to consider it as a viable area of research. Where the curious and the scientific ask what these chemicals are, how they react, and how did they come to be what they are and function the way the do, he just wants to run away and pretend that there’s no way those rotten eggheads can make him feel a little bit less special by figuring out how his brain works. Thankfully, few people seem interested in his love note to proud, glib obliviousness by choice, and that’s why White is so wound up. His call to discard facts and curiosity is going unanswered by far too many people for his liking…

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darwin

Generally, we tend to associate powerful theories with the people who first proposed them and say that without Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg, Turing, or all the other scientists featured in countless books as visionaries, our world wouldn’t be the same, and the knowledge we take for granted now would’ve never made it to us. Well, this is somewhat true. Change who discovered, say, germ theory and how it was proposed, and you’d have different criticisms and politics, and adoption curve by the scientific establishment of the day so the world would indeed be a different place. But when it comes to the knowledge, it would largely be similar. That’s one of the greatest things about science. Call physics "objectology" and change the variables in the formulas, and the body of work will still describe pretty much the same processes with the same mechanics because that’s just the way nature works. The differences would be in what bleeding edge ideas would dominate the debate among the experts and professionals, not the basics.

And so, a new book by historian Peter J. Bowler, argues that without Darwin, biology as we know it today would be virtually the same. Were the young naturalist thrown overboard during a storm as he traveled the world, compiling evidence for his theory, there were many scientists waiting to fill the role of evolution’s historical focal father. Wallace probably fits the bill best since it was his version of the theory that prompted Darwin to dust off his by then 20 year old manuscript. And if Wallace’s ideas failed to get any attention, the idea of natural selection was still in the air, it just needed a solid footing to really take off and fuse with genetics. If anything, argues Bowler, neo-Darwinian synthesis might have actually been expedited with Wallace because his theories had more developmental underpinnings, and would turn the field’s focus to complex genetics we’re trying to master to the forefront sooner. And of course there would’ve still been vocal creationist opposition to the idea in all forms. It’s basically a given, much like gravity and entropy.

Even the charges of evolution inspiring eugenics and the horrors of the Holocaust would’ve still persisted because the people who were ultimately responsible for them were looking for any kind of excuse to reshape humanity to their liking. Considering that their understanding of selection was pitiful and their knowledge of hereditary mechanisms was non-existent, they weren’t exactly interested in the science. They just wanted a patina of facts to hide their bigotry and racism, and anything that sounded like it could be bastardized into serving their goal was used. Hundreds of years before them, religion was used to justify mistreatment of minority groups throughout much of the Western world, be it selective accusatory clauses from the Old Testament, or invoking the loathsome Deicide Doctrine to defend systematic segregation and prosecution of Jews. In fact, much of the legendary Witch’s Hammer reads like the furious ranting of a misogynist who would easily show up any self-appointed Men’s Rights Activist on the web, the 15 century male version of Andrea Dworkin. Would Kramer have abused evolution to fuel his misogyny? Absolutely.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that Darwin’s accomplishments were trivial or that Galileo was simply stealing from Eratosthenes, or that the re-invention of the steam engine was no big deal. There was a good deal of research, work, and insight involved in doing what they did and being the first to have your work recognized and adopted so widely is still a feat. It doesn’t matter that others could’ve done it too because how nature works will always be there for someone to come along and discover. What matters is that they seized the moment and advanced our civilization, giving us new fields to explore. But Bowler’s exercise also proves an important point. Science is ultimately about the facts. The data comes first, the theory to explain why the data is this way is second, and the people who put it all together come third. And while visionaries deserve all their accolades, they are not completely indispensable At worst, their absence from history would’ve delayed a discovery. Nature didn’t uniquely open up to them to grant them insight Anyone can discover something new and fascinating, and sometimes something that can change the way we think about the entire universe. And that’s what makes science such a terrific endeavor.

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reserve note

When writing Shadow Nation, those whom I asked for creative advice pretty much assumed that any story set a thousand years in the future or more has to have Earth with either a one world government or as a dystopia ruled by the principle of might makes right. You can probably see why. Virtually every piece of science fiction set in the far future defaults to one or the other, and were you inclined to conspiracy theories, you could even say that it’s almost as if the one world elites are brainwashing us into thinking that it’s either a one world government or Mad Max style chaos in the badlands in our eventual future. But realistically, a global government just makes it easier to tell stories that play out on a cosmic scale. Accounting for how 206 sovereign nations and territories will react to alien invasions or first contact would make for an interesting novel but it would also be a very tedious piece of work to execute and easy to over-complicate.

So taking the easy way out, I went with the one world government, but I wanted to do something different with the required backstory. Utopian unification as in Star Trek and consolidating world wars were both out of the question. What does that leave as a reason for nations to unite under one banner? Money. You see, states as we know them are a relatively modern invention born in the middle of the 1600s, and aided by difficulty in communicating across vast distances and the expense and logistical effort of traveling across continents. Shared history and culture would’ve also cemented the nation state. But even today, cultures cross over oceans and communication via the web is bringing people closer together, especially when they have something to trade in an age of virtual commerce and vast logistical hubs and efficient transport. There are still major differences between some cultures that will be hard to reconcile, but regional blocks are growing more and more homogeneous, especially if they start opening borders and free trade zones.

Following through, a regional trading block with free trade should also allow workers to choose jobs they can fill no matter where they live. An engineer in Taiwan should be able to get a job in India or Mongolia if that’s where the demand exceeds the supply. It’s the only way to make free trade and globalization really fair: to demolish protectionism for both goods and jobs. But after a few decades, if not centuries, of this, cultures are more homogenized and so is the population. A group of people that freely lives anywhere throughout the region, using the same money barely even needs borders and separate governments. They would need local government offices for efficient administration of public services, true. But for all intents and purposes, they’re living in one huge nation. And since the borders are now all but irrelevant, may as well save money and get rid of them because they’ll only slow down how quickly goods travel while customs agencies could be put to better use in logistical hubs. Just like that, a dozen or so countries unite.

But now there’s a problem. We have our united blocks all trading with each other, each with their own government, but they can’t just switch to a single currency and take their unification to the final level. Depending on where they are on the planet, these trading blocks would have major discrepancies in their resources and strengths. A single global currency would hobble some of these blocks while boosting others based on which block drives the policy by using its GDP. The better solution would be to allow each block to keep their currencies which arose after the entire territory was fine-tuned into the production and extraction pipelines needed for optimal economic gain. Just like today, these currencies could be traded on an open market and there would need to be international laws covering the trades and exchanges. And don’t forget that there have to be rules allowing for the mobility of workers between trading blocks as well. Now you need some sort of centralized group to manage it all, a council that would take the trading blocks’ concerns, propose new laws, and settle disputes and issues that might arise, like a WTO/IMF hybrid.

This gives us our final narrative step and leads to the book’s International Council. Not really a government as we know one, it’s more of a COO for the planet’s sprawling trading hubs housing more and more people, and growing in size for the sake of efficiency and vertical integration for countless products and services. Layers of government offices are flattened and going from a local office to a global agency takes no time at all while the impact these agencies have is much more powerful because they don’t have to pass through a bureaucratic maze since red tape will slow down trade, costing jobs and inciting popular fury at the polls. Regulation is direct and an offense doesn’t have to be reported through many layers of oversight, it can be dealt with by a local office or swiftly punished by the global government. The International Council wouldn’t set many agendas, it would merely fund competitions for new big ideas and by judged by how well it keeps the economy ticking and help companies crank out new inventions. And when it comes to alien contact, everyone would know exactly where to turn to make the necessary decisions…

[ illustration by K. J. Garbutt ]

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shadow seal

After years of on again, off again rewrites, edits, and revisions, Shadow Nation is now available as an ebook for Kindle devices on Amazon.com as promised yesterday. Not only does it have aliens, cyborgs, massive space battles, conspiracies, and a draft of the first part still not all that far from the new version available for your review (one, two, three), but it’s also just $3.99 per flexible, lend-able, copy you can read on any device that supports Kindle apps. And I’ll throw the references to the Cthluhu mythos, the dark Lovecraftian undertones, and the transhumanist riff on politics as a bonus. Ever since part one made it online, I’ve been getting requests to publish more of the book or finally release it so after a long and hard battle with InDesign and Kindle’s publishing preview tools, I’m happy to be putting the book out there for everyone interested in a good, old fashioned space opera with a couple of modern twists.

Our story officially begins in the year 3507 when Earth is visited by alien insectoids scouting the planet’s defenses for the massive fleet that brought them there. As the Earth’s military prepares for a fight it knows it can’t win, the planet is rescued in the nick of time by an immensely powerful and enigmatic civilization that calls itself the Shadow Nation. But oddly enough, the Nation isn’t just aware of humanity, it’s populated by humans who though experiments with alien technology became space faring cyborgs once in the service of the galaxy’s dominant species. Now, they’re on the verge of war with the former benefactors and Earth is caught in the crossfire. And as the Nation introduces itself to humans, questions begin to arise. How exactly did the cyborgs got to their lofty perch in the galaxy? Why were they chosen? Why are their creators so anxious to go to war with them? And finally, why is the Nation suddenly so interested in Earth?

In the meantime, Earth’s most influential politicians, Howard Grey and Andrew Newman, involve the Nation’s top commander and his team into a political battle that will determine the future of the planet. As humans begin trading with the Nation’s companies, Newman starts to worry that the mysterious empire might have some rather sinister plans for the Earth while Grey becomes hell bent on using the Nation to secure an epic legacy for himself as he gets ready to retire and cash in on all his political capital. The only thing they manage to agree on is to send two special agents to live with the Nation and find out what makes it tick. And what these agents discover is beyond anything either either Grey or Newman could ever imagine: a web of lies, secrets and bad blood which can only be untangled if either the Nation’s cyborgs or their creators fall. And since a defeat means near-certain extinction, the stakes are very, very high…

So take a look at the Kindle sample, feel free to persue the previews (although chapter three underwent some extensive resivion in the final version), check out the Shadow Nation wiki, give the book a try, and share your thoughts here and on Amazon. If you like this blog’s main topics and takes on alien contact, transhumanism, and futurism, I don’t think you’ll be dissapointed in what you’ll find. And for the price of a fancy coffee, doesn’t it seem worth the risk?

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illuminati agent

When not crying and shilling for gold coins as some sort of super-currency which will be the only thing between certain death and survival in an economic collapse, Glenn Beck decided to write a book forecasting our dark future under the U.N.-led New World Order. Ok, not so much write a book as buy the rights to put his name on a conspiracy potboiler in which humanity has been all but decimated to protect the environment. People are imprisoned in featureless dwellings, kids are taken away form them in birth, they’re fed the equivalent of food pellets, and basically live a life that’s better described as an existence. It’s like peering into the brain of the black helicopter crowd, digging up every single nightmare they’ve ever had and making a crude Jackson Pollock painting out of them. Despite being treated as fiction, it’s very clearly supposed to be a warning about the impact of Agenda 21 when it’s implemented and used to rule the world.

Yes, here we go again with the hysterical fear of a toothless U.N. policy paper which, as noted a few times already, is just a list of suggestions that actually promotes free market capitalism and poses the issue of sustainability as an economic concern for healthy international trade. Yes, it calls for better human rights enforcement, women’s rights, and other liberal development ideas, but it’s mechanism for making sure its guidelines are implemented is to ask really nicely if some of the world’s nations would be so kind to try to implement them. This is why the Agenda 21 and black helicopter cloud insist on looking for moles in the government to stealthily force the U.S. to comply with the document. There’s no way that the U.N. can force anyone to follow it, no taxes it could levy, no military it could deploy, and no amount of money it can use as a bribe. But to find someone willing to take Agenda 21 as the blueprint for global governance is difficult at best.

If there are no consequences for not following along, you have to construct elaborate theories and layer upon layer upon layer of paranoia and backwards leaps of logic to create a cabal of sinister New World Order servants who want to destroy their nations from inside out and do the sorts of things that appear nowhere in the document that’s supposed to be their manifesto. But at the end of the day all they have is a long list of fears and allegations that have no basis in the real world and are backed up with out of context quotes, outright lies, and the ramblings of very popular talk show hosts who see a New World Order plot in everything from the mildew in their showers to a blizzard in January. Their fans, terrified of governments and chained by their own constantly fed and reinforced fears, have locked themselves in echo chambers in which they’re planning for life after the U.N.-led apocalypse, reciting the same mantras until you can hear the hoarseness in their voice through their comments on news sites.

Calls for urban planners to consider their cities’ environmental footprints as they design cities of the future — something already done by those asking for parks, playgrounds, and lakes that will welcome manageable wildlife — are taken as an Illuminati mandate for genocide and seizures of any private property that doesn’t fall within a secret spec sheet. Statements about the need for governments to root our corruption that hobbles economic development and hurts billions, very much the sort of stuff that most people often agree with as a good idea, become warnings to the world’s governments to follow the U.N.’s script or be dismantled by their secret agents. Really, when you take such a bristling attitude to toothless, vague, well-meaning suggestions and insist on twisting them into explicit threats by malevolent forces, you’re just looking for reasons to fear someone or to get angry, much like your counterparts on the far left. All so Glenn Beck can sell you some gold and Alex Jones can sell you another book or “survival kit…”

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Jonah Lehrer writes about popular neuroscience. He’s not a scientist and he did have a moment in which he penned a bizarre article about science moving too slowly for his tastes, but he certainly knows how to read scientific studies and support his arguments with vast tracts of peer reviewed information, which is generally the key to being a good science writer. But not everyone was impressed with his last effort in describing how creativity works in the human mind. Psychologist Christopher Chabris decided to pound on his book so much so that Lehrer felt compelled to defend himself and triggered a growling back and forth on the web. Usually, if you write a bad book, you’ll just have to live with it and defending said bad book could make you look rather badly to the public at large, but the problem is that Lehrer didn’t write a bad book. Because the book is about his area of expertise, Chabris feels that it’s his duty to be nitpicky and demanding, and takes his critiques to a completely unreasonable point. Had he written the book, it seems that for every page describing the finding of any particular study there would be no less than ten pages of caveats, questions, critiques, and gotchas, and another five devoted to summarizing every replication effort and how it did. Sounds like a fun read, huh?

Really, I absolutely get it, much of our knowledge about the human mind and how it works it provisional and a best guess from data that’s still only scratching the surface of what there is to discover. Hell, we’re still talking about why we sleep and wondering whether it supports neural scaling, a fascinating phenomenon described in detail by the Neuroskeptic in his guest post for a major pop sci magazine, and one that seems to have an interesting implication or two for AI researchers out there focused on artificial neural networks. Having done a few research projects in the AI realm you really develop an appreciation for the sheer amount of things we do not understand yet see in front of our eyes every day. But at the same time, we do know a good deal and we’re making strides towards finding out much, much more. Interesting work is done every day to unlock the brain’s mysteries, work with very practical applications in medicine, life extension, and social sciences. To either just overlook fascinating or eye-catching ideas because they’re provisional, or drown them out by going on and on about replication and supporting and detracting literature, makes for an absolutely unreadable story for those who are just interested in getting an overall idea of how the mind seems to work. We’re not trying to train new neuroscientists with popular science books and blog posts, we’re just trying to educate the curious.

I know, I know, I can also be a really nitpicky buzz kill, especially when it comes to the Singularity crowd, but all my ridicule is directed at egregious and fundamental mistakes and misunderstandings rather than trying with all my might to turn a mass publication into a proper scientific dissertation. Have you ever read a dissertation or a thesis? They’re usually peppered with enough jargon, diagrams, figures, tables, and schematics to send the heads of anyone who is not a grad student or a post-doc in the field spinning since they’re not written for a popular tome but for trained experts in the subject area. It’s bizarre that Chabris is applying a graduate school standard to a popular work and obsessing over any minor point he finds in Lehrer’s book, demanding pages upon pages of exhaustive summaries of replication efforts. After all, do readers need to know how many other scientists conducted similar research and came up with similar results or about every disagreement over an extremely technical point or statistical significance of a particular observed effect between five teams? No, not at all. All they need to know is how the experiment was done, what the results were, what those results mean, and whether this is a departure from what we thought we knew before and if so by how much. That’s already a lot of information to process for a curious layperson. Drowning them in minutia simply annoys them.

Usually this is when some scientists cough, sputter, and say "what do you mean ‘minutia?’ I’ve spent much of my life studying all this ‘minutia’ and wrote paper after paper about it! Of course it’s important!" And it is. To the other experts who study related minutia and combine their work into a comprehensive picture of the field. Just to use what I know as an example, there are computer scientists who devote all their time to the ins and outs of parallel processing, studying the best and most efficient algorithms for allocating tasks, spawning threads, and synchronizing the results. For extremely complex tasks, I will read their work to figure out if I can get away with using a specialized parallel processing library or if I have to write extra code to tweak my threads to boost performance, or dynamically figure out when sequential execution is faster or if my system will really need to parallelize. You, as a user, don’t need to know or care about any of that. All you need to know is that we’re able to take multiple requests form you and do them side by side to get the information back to you faster so you’re aware that you can ask your IT team whether they could speed up a slow enterprise application that way. This process of keeping complex information irrelevant to you behind the scenes even has a computing principle named after it: encapsulation. This is basically what science writers do. They encapsulate the science. Want to learn more? You can always take a college class or two and see where that leads you…

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How about we take a break from robots and future alien empires for a day to talk about something a lot closer to home for most of us? Is it just me or is every time a new book/movie combination gets really popular, there are constant cries of it ripping off a previous novel/short story/comic book, and so on and so forth? Today, the most popular creative franchise is the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy, the premise of which I’m not going to recap because I’m assuming you don’t live under an alien rock. Considering that the first book and film spend a great deal of their time detailing how teenagers hunt and kill each other on TV for the entertainment of their callous rulers, the story could’ve easily veered off into grotesquely disturbing darkness, so the fact that it didn’t and makes for an interesting read and movie-going experience, is already a big accomplishment. But ah, you hear the fanboys cry, the Hunger Games is merely warmed over Battle Royale, the Japanese tale of students kidnapped by the military, shipped to an abandoned island, and forced to hunt each other until only one is left alive for the deranged officer running the experiment to collect. But is it really? And does it really matter?

Besides having teenagers forced to hunt and kill each other, the premises and details of each story are wildly, wildly different. The students in Battle Royale find themselves unwittingly selected to fight in secret and using everything short of machine guns with winners of past contests periodically finding themselves being thrown back in the mix. The tributes of the Hunger Games are randomly selected in a ritual "reaping" and the event is treated as a pageant, with sponsors and the media gambling on their tributes of choice and trying to affect the outcome for the best ratings, using past winners as mentors who now live in wealth and luxury after escaping a bloody demise. Yes, the basic idea is the same but the context and narrative are executed very differently for different audiences and for different resolutions. And if you search all the stories that have ever been written in the last few decades, you’ll find The Running Man which introduces the concept of televised murder for ratings and cover-ups for sinister political aims. Because we found a plot point in common, the Hunger Games must have been a ripoff of both Battle Royale and The Running Man, right? Well no, it’s still its own story and there’s only so many generic story templates one can even use to create a work of fiction. By the criteria by which the fans of Battle Royale call plagiarism, all but the first handful of stories written in ancient times are ripoffs.

Any sufficiently advanced English class dealing with narrative fiction will teach you that writing a story is not an exercise in trying to find what’s never been done before, but using a combination of elements already there to put together a basic flow and mix them up to create conflicts to resolve or secrets to discover. H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories are often cited as being both very disturbing and very original but he was actually following fairly classic New England, Puritan tales of forbidden, evil, nebulous things lurking in dark forests and unexplored, hidden caves since time immemorial just waiting to kill or haunt whoever discovers them, the same folk tales that gave us the myth of the Jersey Devil. Lovecraft’s contribution to this 200 year old style of storytelling was a dash of aliens. Demons of yore and supposedly nefarious pagan cults became alien monstrosities using the humans who worshipped them like tools and which cared little about their followers’ fates. Suddenly, there is a new toolkit for telling horror stories, new shapes the monsters can take, more bizarre back stories they can be given, new situations set up and explored. Linking them back to popular legends of the day about the fates of lost continents like Mu and Atlantis, and mysteriously vanishing civilizations like the Hyperboreans, opened up even more ways the story could go. Had Lovecraft poured over Puritan myths, found that they shared a few elements with his prose and threw away his drafts, we wouldn’t have the sci-fi horror genre we do today.

Now, if you’re really interested in the literary theory behind this, Campbell’s monomyth is an interesting place to start, though it very heavily relies on classical sources and fantasy scenarios, primarily because Campbell’s specialty was mythology. It perfectly captures the narrative structure of Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit and Frodo from Lord of the Rings, as well as that of Harry Potter, Rincewind of the Discworld series, and even Neo of the Matrix with the roles of gods and magic played by machines and neuron-machine interfaces. And it’s not really difficult to imagine a streamlined modern version for today’s sci-fi and dystopian futurism. Again, we also see how existing structures are refined to create new types of stories. The Hobbit was written when computers as we know them were just mathematical equations and uses magic to ferry Bilbo to defeat the dragon and find the one ring to rule them all, returning to The Shire victorious. Neo’s success in getting the machines to stay a planned culling of Zion is framed entirely through the use of technology Tolkien would never see. In both tales a clueless antihero becomes a champion but how this happens and their goals are radically different. So just because two stories share the same basic elements, don’t rush to cry plagiarism. They’re simply an evolution of an archetypical narrative and if you find these stories interesting and fun to read, that’s all that matters.

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Today, I found out that Christopher Hitchens, the iconic unapologetic atheist who often wrote with an acid pen and had a fearless dedication to questioning everything around him, indiscriminately skewering sacred cows in his search for truth, has passed on at the age of 62. He was a one of a kind of writer and debater, and it’s a very fortunate happenstance that those of us who read his work got the chance to enjoy his sharp wit while he was still around. Since humans are ultimately mortals and one day, somehow, somewhere, all of us will have to face death, the only immortal thing we can leave behind is a legacy and Hitchens’ consists of his countless columns, multiple books, and millions upon millions of arguments, critiques, witticisms, and opinions which try to challenge the reader’s beliefs at every turn, the work of a very rich lifetime which will doubtlessly be read, enjoyed, and debated for many generations to come. And for a writer, I can think of no better legacy…

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Despite being gone for a while, I’m sure that my now returning readers remember how often I used to pick on post-modernism whenever its ghost arose in the woo that is biocentrism, the fluffy haunt of many wannabe wise sages at the Huffington Post who decided that science is a tool of child abuse and oppression, that all that truly matters in the universe is their own perception of it, and that because they can summon terminology used in quantum mechanics, they proved that they’re immortal souls drifting between vast cosmic realms of their own design. Sure all that seems rather ridiculous, you may say, but surely, you can’t judge all of post- modernism solely by what you see from Deepak Chopra and his disciples, can you? If post-modernism truly is an exercise in packaging intellectual vacuity as profound insights into the universe, couldn’t you present an example or two not found on woo-friendly sites? The answer is yes, yes I could. In fact, allow me to present a phrase that I earnestly believe to be one of the most imbecilic things ever written down not in jest…

The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, [Luce Irigaray] attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings which leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids… From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. Turbulent flow cannot be solved because conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.

That quote is a summation of a thesis by a Belgian feminist philosopher positing that the laws of physics are sexist, containing references promoting the subjugation of women, using the odd dynamics laid out above as her key argument. If you’re feeling a sudden pain in your eyes and your brain began to violently scream in your skull as you read this, I certainly understand and please accept my apologies, though I did warn you. It’s right there on par with the barking mad ravings of William H. Depperman, but at least Depperman has the excuse of not being entirely sane while Irigaray is presumably somewhat in her right mind, even if one could make an entirely valid point by questioning whether this is the case. How did this little gem make it to light? Actually, it’s one of the highlights of Richard Dawkins’ delightful review of Fashionable Nonsense, a book by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont which put trendy, primarily French, post-modernist babble under factual scrutiny. As you’re probably well aware, the Alan Sokal in question is the scientist responsible for the eponymous hoax in which he submitted a paper he himself described as utter bullshit peppered with popular post-modernist buzzwords to see if it would be published or if the sages of post-modernism would catch on to his trick. They didn’t.

Just to torture you a little more, let’s go back to the quote for a moment. Irigaray essentially posits that science can’t deal with turbulent fluid dynamics, apparently having never heard of Navier-Stokes equations, and then goes on to say that any problems with quantitative analyses of turbulent flows aren’t due to the fact that highly dynamic systems require millions upon millions of calculations to fully quantify over even a few seconds, but because scientists have penises, see everything as just a bunch of penises in action, and think that vaginas are scary. And here is the profound musing of our Belgian philosophical feminist without a shred of the typical obtuse pseudo-eloquence with which post-modernists lard their attempts at arguments, laid out exposing its bare and unabashed insipidity like the proverbial turd in a punchbowl. But it would be fine if this was just one isolated incident, or even one in a hand full. Every field has examples of poorly thought out or even downright ridiculous ideas. However, she is considered to be an accomplished academic and given numerous awards and honorary doctorates for her contributions to literature and feminist thought. What should have gotten a big roar of laughter and a prompt dismissal was accepted as an incisive analysis of gender studies.

Take a look at Dawkins’ review, really. There you’ll find example after example of nonsense being dressed up and paraded around as deep and fundamental insight into the inner workings of the universe, freely mixing a myriad of unrelated concepts into a grab bag or absurdity which sounds extremely well refined and educated until someone familiar with a few of the terms takes a look and is flabbergasted by the inanity therein. That’s the secret of Deepak Chopra and all the woo-meisters who follow in his footsteps. They sound educated and they use real, recognizable, highly technical scientific and mathematical jargon, which fools laypeople paying for the privilege of reading their books and hearing them talk into thinking that they’re really on to something or have a legitimate point they can’t quite grasp because they’re not experts. But when you look just a little closer and do a little digging, you find that the terms they used have been bastardized and made to fit in ways which defy all facts and logic. If I had written arguments like this during my studies, my professors would most likely grab all the papers I had submitted, arrange them in a thick tome, and throw them into the nearest trash can, deeming them unfit even for recycling. And I would’ve thanked them for it. But then again, that is probably just the kind of thing a post-modernist would expect one of those penisy STEM majors to say…

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Former tech executives tend to come up with the oddest projects, especially Microsoft’s. Whether it’s funding channels devoted to computers and video games, paying for SETI’s radio telescope array, retooling schools, or vaccinating the developing world to eradicate diseases, the former chiefs and bosses of the tech titan are used to thinking big. And this could be why Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s ex-CTO, bought a warehouse where he hopes to change the way we think about food. Forget boiling pasta and tasting it to see whether it’s done and poking your steak to gauge its readiness. In Myhrvold’s kitchen, food is cooked in ultrasonic baths, ultra- high pressure homogenizers, autoclaves, and other contraptions you’d expect to find in a government lab. I’m thinking that even Iron Chef producers would be blown away by the kind of advanced chemistry that goes into food preparation at that warehouse. It seems like you need a PhD just to make grilled cheese their way.

But believe it or not, you can learn how to cook like a scientist with Modernist Cuisine, the almost 2,500 page, five volume book cataloguing the lab’s techniques in exhaustive detail which will be available at a store near you and online for only $625. Hey, if you want to cook like a scientific gourmet, it’s going to cost you. And that’s not to mention the cost of whatever equipment you may need to execute French onion soup via an industrial, surgical tool sterilizing autoclave, or roast chicken in a programmable oven. Though if you have the cash and the passion, it seems that this approach to the culinary arts will appeal to the perfectionist in us all, using an exact system where nothing is "added to taste" and every cooking time is specified down to the second, then evaluated with precision thermometers to make sure it’s properly done and ready to serve. Of course, this is only for the gourmet experimenters who’d probably be ready to open a five star eatery after making their way though this five book education in culinary arts and sciences. Or even start thinking of a competitor to a show about to make it’s way to what used to be the Sci-Fi Channel, the Quantum Kitchen, geared towards aspiring chefs who always thought that being a scientist would be pretty cool too.

Hold on though, I can almost hear some people asking, where’s the natural, wholesome goodness and soul in this slowly rising merger of cold, hard science and cooking? What’s with all the emulsifiers and immersion circulators invading kitchens? And come to think of it, what’s with the timers, gages, and cooking labs? What was wrong with good, old, traditional homemade cooking? I would think that how you feel about chemistry in the kitchen in the form of Modernist Cuisine and its future iterations depends on how many warm fuzzies you assign to cooking in general. Many of us have a mindset in which kitchens and science don’t go together and place cooking into the artistic category while keeping science firmly in the analytical realm. But when you’re in the middle of making a sauce or cooking a roast, or trying to impart flavors with different seasonings, all sorts of chemical reactions are taking place, reactions that could be optimized and manipulated to get the most out of your ingredients. And if you can do that with a few high tech tools, why not? You can rebel at the notion that your food doesn’t come straight from a farm and is as pure as it can be, or you can celebrate that you can buy something at the grocery store and using science, turn it into something spectacular…

[ photo illustration by Modernist Cuisine ]

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