Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven tells three interwoven true stories: the history of the Mormon faith, the current life of Mormon fundamentalists, and the 1984 murders of an innocent woman and her baby daughter at the hands of brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, two such fundamentalists. The implication is that the Lafferty murders were not an isolated incident, and indeed, the history and current practice of Mormonism are littered with acts of brutal violence.

Krakauer writes as if he takes the insane things that the killers and other Mormons believe at face value. It’s sort of an inside perspective, describing not what is objectively true, but what the major players believe to be true. This can be humourous when writing about, say, Dan thinking that his bowel movements are a sign from God. Krakauer doesn’t need to inject his own opinion into the descriptions; the stories are ridiculous enough in a straight telling.

That same matter-of-fact style can also be heartbreaking. Like when describing the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which Mormon militia slaughtered an entire wagon train of innocent travelers. Or when the timeline of the Lafferty murders is described in great detail, partly through Dan Lafferty’s own unrepentant words (Krakauer interviewed him directly in prison, where as far as I can tell, he still lives to this day). It’s hard to understand how any sane person could murder a baby.

Yet Krakauer argues that the Lafferties are not insane. The take-it-at-face-value writing underscores that, given what the brothers believed and their rationalizations for any setbacks, they acted rationally. At worst, he identifies Ron as having symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. The combination of the radical beliefs of Mormon fundamentalists, coupled with an extreme personality — the same sort of personality that has fueled the prophets behind all of Mormonism’s violent history — can be a dangerous mix.

This quote illustrates some of the workings of extreme religious minds:

“In one of Ron’s revelations, God had, in fact, instructed him to send his brother Mark to Nevada to wager on a horse to race to raise funds for the City of Refuge. With the Lord letting Mark know which mount to bet on, it seemed that they couldn’t lose. But they did. Afterward, Onias couldn’t resist telling the brothers ‘I told you so,’ causing relations between Ron and the prophet to deteriorate even further.”

With examples like these, on top of more serious ones, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could believe in prophets. In the history of mankind, no prophecy capable of coming true has ever come true. Ever. The bickering and splintering of the church over whose “divine” revelation is better further emphasizes that they are pure fantasy. Yet people do believe. There are over 13 million Mormons worldwide, their faith based on a prophet who, less than 200 years ago, claimed to have “translated” a book of golden plates an angel showed him in the woods, by putting a magical rock in a hat then stuffing his face in the hat. And these are the less delusional, non-fundamentalist ones.

What may disturb readers is that their own beliefs — especially other religious ones, but this applies to some atheists too — could be just as unfounded and dangerous if left unchecked. Krakauer briefly makes an explicit link with Christianity, but I think the lessons of this book are even broader. All beliefs should be questioned, as should all sources of authority – be it the voice of God, a charismatic prophet, or Richard Dawkins.

If I had to complain about one aspect of the book, it would be its overemphasis on polygamy. The polygamist relationships of both modern and historical Mormons are whipped out as if the mere mention of multiple partners should send shivers up the reader’s spine. I may write a follow-up post to this, but my opinion, in short, is that it’s not polygamy itself that is troubling. Rather, it is the irrational beliefs that are the cause of polygamy in Mormons, and the monumental abuse of women and girls that polygamy often (but not always) leads to, that should be eradicated.

Sarah lent me this book, thinking it’d be up my alley, and she was so right. It’s hard to say I “liked” it, since much of my reaction to it is jaw-dropped horror, but especially in the early chapters when both the historical background and the murder story are fresh, it is an astounding, mind-blowing read. Anyone with any interest in religious belief, true crime, or both, should pick up Under the Banner of Heaven immediately.

Reaction to Accusations of Police Brutality at the University of Western Ontario

Yesterday, a crazy person rampaged through the Social Science Centre at the University of Western Ontario – the building I would have been working in had I not been home sick – and after barricading himself in an office and threatening people, had a run-in with police. His arrest was captured on video and posted to Youtube almost immediately.

Here’s the full story at the London Free Press, and the video is below (warning: a bit disturbing).

Opinions are divided on this one. Many people think it is an example of police brutality. Others think the officers used an acceptable level of force. Here are my thoughts.

When it comes to a violent act, people often consider whether or not the person “deserved it.” This guy deserved it. He had already punched an officer and caused grief on upper floors (though it’s unclear whether he caused physical harm to anyone else) before being taken down on the first floor.

However, we, as a civilized society, and especially our police officers, should need better reasons for violence than whether or not someone deserved it. Judging someone as worthy of punishment is an emotional decision, and not a rational one. In my humble opinion, violence should only be carried out when it is the only possible way to bring about a greater good (e.g., preventing further violence). “Deserving it” has nothing to do with whether or not the violent act would be effective in accomplishing the actor’s goal.

I prefer to avoid having strong opinions unless I am fully informed about a situation. With many issues, I think it is more useful to identify the questions that would need to be answered in order to have an informed opinion, rather than immediately forming one based on gut reactions to incomplete information.

In this case, the crucial question is this: after the six police officers had the man on the ground, could they have subdued him without kneeing him, punching him, and beating him with a baton? Or were these actions motivated purely by a sense of “he deserved it”?

I genuinely don’t know. It is quite possible that the only way to get handcuffs on a strong, struggling, possibly insane man is to weaken him with pain, and this is reflected in police training and proper procedure. It’s also possible that the actions were motivated purely by the darker side of human emotion.

And I understand that. It’s quite possible this dangerous man passed by my office yesterday; I feel that dark desire to see him harmed and locked up, for what he did and could have done to me and people I care about. He deserved to be hurt. But if we want the world to be a better, more humane place, we need to resist these gut reactions and look at violence purely with cool-head rationality.

Fighting Sexism With Sexism in the Horror Genre?

The British Fantasy Society has recently taken criticism because their new collection of 16 interviews with horror authors failed to include any women. It’s pointed out that there are “a lot” of women who write horror, and of course, Mary Shelley’s name comes up.

On the surface it does appear to be blatant sexism. But I think it’s important here, as with many gender issues, to look deeper and make sure we’re not accusing people of sexism based on premises that are themselves fundamentally sexist.

What proportion of horror writers are female? And of those, what proportion are among the best in their field? This list of the top 20 horror writers of all time does not include any women. Maybe its author is himself biased, but there is no question that serious horror (i.e., not Twilight) is a male-dominated community.

Let’s estimate that, say, one out of every ten serious horror writers are female. And let’s say that, for this controversial interview anthology, its creators had to randomly pick from all of the horror authors worthy of inclusion based on their writing alone (i.e., not their gender). The probability of, by chance, picking 16 male authors, then, is (.90)^16 = .185, or 18.5%.

So not a great chance, but still a chance. In the lingo of science, if lack of sexism were the null hypothesis, this wouldn’t be enough to reject it (i.e., prove sexism). My numbers could be off, but I predict my point is valid: even if no sexism were operating and authors were picked from a pool based on merit alone, there is a non-negligible chance that the collection would include zero females.

One could argue that a woman author should have been sought out for inclusion just to represent her gender in the community. But this is itself a sexist premise. It is proposing that a woman should have been given special privilege based on her gender alone, rather than her merit as an author. It’s the same principle behind affirmative action, and in my humble opinion, horribly misguided. It should be self-evident that the key to eliminating sexism is not more sexism.

What is the key? That is a complex question, but I think it needs to start at the bottom. We can’t force the top of any merit-based honour to comprise 50% of each gender. What we can do is make sure there are no obstacles for women on the road to the top, and that safe passage there is based on merit alone. Even more importantly, we can encourage more women to get on that road in the first place if they want to. Even then, there is no guarantee of a 50/50 split – it’s quite possible that horror simply appeals to men more than women because of some genuine difference between the genders – but any women that do hop on board shouldn’t face any sexist roadblocks.

It’s possible that some sexism occurred in this interview collection (either consciously or unconsciously), but there is not enough evidence to convince me either way. I am convinced that writers should be judged based on their writing rather than their gender, and that knee-jerk accusations of sexism need to be carefully examined lest we make the problem even worse.

The Emotion of WTF

WTF should be an emotion. There isn’t yet a single word for the sense of seeing something that totally boggles the mind; it’s related to confusion, but not the same thing. Confusion is aversive, while WTF leads to LOLs and a state of blissful unawareness of what’s going on. It’s more like confusion feeding into a jolt of happy surprise.

The Dadaists and surrealists didn’t quite have a name for it either, but they certainly understood WTF. While they wrapped their work up in a philosophical movement and reaction to existing art, it would never have caught on if people didn’t have an inborn love for the non-sequitur.

Many artists get their inspiration from dreams, and dreams illustrate that we all have nightly encounters with WTF. When left to their own devices, our brains rejoice in the random. We’re built to like it, and I suspect this serves an evolutionary purpose. Love for the outlandishly mysterious is part of the same drive that allowed early humans to figure out why the clashing rocks and the sparks and the fire always went together. It’s the same stuff that fuels science today.

We must celebrate the random. Bathe ourselves in nonsense. WTF.

Some more pictures from the internet’s leading source of WTF, Picture is Unrelated:

 

Secondhand Transmission from a Distant World

Everyone is an alien to someone.

I’m in my late 20s. To anyone under the age of 18 today, I’m from a world they have never been to, and never will. A world we call the 1980s. It was inhabited by creatures with big curly hair that listened to cheesy pop music and grazed on Pixy Stix and Lik-M-Aid Fun Dip (aka sand you can eat). I grew up there; I have vivid memories of the world around me and the formative first experiences I had in it. But anyone under 18, they can only dream of such things.

See, this isn’t even the packaging I remember, but it’s all I could find on the internet. That old Lik-M-Aid packaging, it’s lost to time; it only exists in my memory of that alien world (and maybe partially rotted in an old box in someone’s basement).

Space aliens are separated from us by distance; we are separated from other people by time. But really, time is just the distance between two things that happen in the same place.

Which, of course, means that anyone older than me is an alien too. If a little grey man stepped out of a flying saucer that carried him from a planet I could never visit, I’d be treating him like a sort of god, asking him every question I could think of. Maybe our own greying human elders should be treated with the same respect and reverence.

This isn’t limited to time. The subjective experience of any one person can’t, by definition, be experienced by other people. To anyone else, it’s an alien sensation that can only be indirectly and imperfectly expressed. But even second-hand transmissions from the alien landscape of another person’s mind should be fascinating. Indeed, it’s what makes conversation with someone new so great. It’s what gives mass expressions of one’s consciousness – art, music, poetry, writing, whatever – their magic. SETI is cool ‘n everything, but Earth’s own idiosyncratic aliens are just as fascinating.

LHC

I love Google’s title image for today:

It’s a nice mix of recognizing an extremely important scientific accomplishment with just a pinch of end-of-the-world paranoia.

The truth is that the world has about the same chance of ending today as it did yesterday. But I think the dimwitted people protesting the large hadron collider aren’t all bad. It’s seriously nice to be reminded that the world could end at any moment. All of human history is just a brief blip in time on a cosmic scale; it could end right now and the universe would barely notice. But the thing is, in a universe with a past almost completely devoid of our existence, and a future that could very easily be the same, all we’ve got are our short little lives here in the present.

The fact that the universe is vast, cold, and uncaring does not make our lives meaningless. It’s the opposite; it shows that we are the exception rather than the rule, so we damn well better take advantage of this fleeting gift and make our lives mean something. It also makes it all the more incredible that we are on our way to understanding this vast, cold, and uncaring universe with technology like the LHC. Even if it did end human existence, at least we went out trying to understand our place in the universe. And with a good excuse to have sex.

(xkcd rules)

Arthur C. Clarke, RIP


Arthur C. Clarke died today (*). The man was a genius. I’ve only recently started reading his books, but his impact has been felt throughout my life. Nearly every piece of science fiction created since the 50s owes something to Clarke. More directly, seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey as a kid, even though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, probably had quite the impact on me. It’s a testament to human curiosity about life’s most perplexing questions, and the fact that there is more to life than this earthly existence, with no need to invoke the supernatural to appreciate it. Perhaps this was part of what sparked my interest in science.

Speaking of which, anybody interested in science should take note of Clarke’s laws of prediction:

  • 1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  • 2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • 3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

There’s a lot to take out of those three little statements. But I think the main message is one of hope rather than cynicism. What seems impossible may very well be possible; what we consider magic today may be within our reach tomorrow.

Even though it’s impossible, let’s hope Clarke is now a glowing fetus looking down on us from a bubble floating in space. Float in peace, Arthur C. Clarke.

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* Actually, he died tomorrow, since he was in Sri Lanka, where it’s already Wednesday.

Book Review: The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil

The singularity refers to a time, sometime in the future, when machines become more intelligent than biological humans, and technology begins to improve rapidly as a result. The Singularity is Near is Ray Kurzweil’s attempt to justify his belief that the singularity is coming sooner than most people think, and what consequences it will have.

Oh, what consequences.

Kurzweil envisions a future where almost nothing is impossible. Human-machine hybrids live forever in a world with very few problems, playing and engaging in intellectual pursuits in any virtual reality environment they can imagine. This isn’t your typical flying-car future. What use are flying cars when anybody can instantly obtain any information, or experience any location, just by thinking about it? It sounds like science fiction, but Kurzweil convincingly argues that it is not fiction at all.

The best part is that, if he’s right, almost everyone reading this can experience this future in their lifetime. This book should be prescribed to suicide-prone people. With a Utopian future just a few years off, why end it now?

Some would probably argue that Kurzweil is too hopeful. He does seem a little, uh, off at times. The dude is on a radical diet involving dozens of drugs and food restrictions, just so his aging body can last long enough to see the singularity he so believes in. And how many times do we need to be reminded that in the future, you can become the opposite gender and have sex with whoever, or whatever, you want? That’s cool if you’re into it, but in a world with almost no limits, I think most people will come up with even more interesting stuff to do with their time. And although he argues each point well, if he’s wrong about even one – for example, one fundamental limit on technology is reached, or one catastrophic world-altering event sets us back – all his predictions could fall apart.

Still, even a small chance that he’s right should give us all an enthusiastic hope for the future. Reading this book (and its shorter predecessor, The Age of Spiritual Machines) made me happy to be alive in today’s world; I don’t think I could give a book any higher a recommendation than that.

P.S. I wrote more about this book at this post. Yes, it took me more than 6 months to read it. In fact, it probably took me over a year. It’s damn thick. But although it does have boring bits, it’s worth the time investment.

Book Review: The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, Book 1), by Phillip Pullman


The Golden Compass is actually called Northern Lights in every place except North America. I guess the publishers thought that kids would get confused, because they would not know what lights could possibly be doing in the north. Never mind that the book never refers to the titular object as a compass; that’s not confusing at all, no.

It’s like how the first Harry Potter was renamed “Sorcerer’s Stone” from “Philosopher’s Stone” in the United States (but luckily not here). Because, publishers must think, kids are dumb; they wouldn’t want to read a book about philosophy! Never mind that the idea of a philosopher’s stone has been around for centuries. Just rename it and kids won’t have to learn anything new.

With that out of the way: While I’ve just referred to The Golden Compass as a kid’s book, it’s really not. Not any more than Lord of the Rings is a kid’s book. It may have talking animals and magic, but there is also disturbing violence and very adult themes. There are polar bears in this book that will chew your face right off.

It’s also no secret that Pullman is a raging atheist, but while it shows in the novel in subtle ways (incorporation of deep scientific principles, and participation of the Church in certain questionable activities), he never beats the reader over the head with it. It’s more atheistic by omission; there is no fuzzy feel-good God-is-watching-over-us and the-lion-is-Jesus message. Not that there aren’t feel-good moments, because Pullman creates characters that you’ll actually care about, who interact in very human (or human-like) and touching ways.

Overall, The Golden Compass is a dark, touching, epic fantasy novel that is just chock full of giant killer polar bears. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to the forthcoming movie (though it looks to have been pussified quite a bit, leaving out the disturbing parts. boo.), and to the other two books in the trilogy.

Am I a Materialist?

Sometimes I wonder whether I, or any real scientist, can be considered a “materialist” any more. That is, do I really think that matter – chunks of solid ‘stuff’ – is all there is? Here is a quote from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion which may help clarify (or further confuse) the issue:

We have this tendency to think that only solid, material “things” are “really” things at all. “Waves” of electromagnetic fluctuation in a vacuum seem “unreal”. Victorians thought that waves had to be waves “in” some material medium. No such medium was known, so they invented one and named it the luminiferous ether. But we find “real” matter comfortable to our understanding only because our ancestors evolved to survive in Middle World, where matter is a useful construct.

Now, perhaps my definition of “matter” here is too limited. Surely matter is more than the solid chunks our brains are programmed to understand, and must also include things like photons and gravity. Even then, though, there are weird exceptions that are certainly real but can hardly be said to fit into the label of “material”. For example, quantum entanglement allows two distant photons to be related to each other in a predictable way. But is the nonlocal connection between them really “material”? What about concepts like “memes” – cultural ideas that are passed from person to person? They are real things, which have effects on the material world of our brains and behaviour, and exist in material manifestations, but what about the meme itself? A pattern of information – an idea – can take material form, but is not itself material, is it?

We can broaden our definition of material to include anything that affects or interacts with the observable world. But then how are we any different than dualists, who say that there is an immaterial “soul” which affects (perhaps through the pineal gland), but is not really part of, the material brain?

I dunno. Now I’ve confused myself. Maybe it’s best to leave labels like “materialist” out of science and let the evidence lead us wherever it goes, whether it fits our previous definiton of “material” or not.