Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Leaves beneath the ice of Walden Pond. Photo by Flickr user Bemep, CC BY-NC 2.0

Leaves beneath the ice of Walden Pond. Photo by Flickr user Bemep, CC BY-NC 2.0

I usually review pulp science fiction books, science books, even the occasional graphic novel, so a review of a classic like Walden may seem a bit out of place here. But I do try to read a little of everything including the classics and Walden has been on my reading list for a long time. The edition I chose is Walden and Other Writings, 2000, Modern Library Paperback Edition; partly because I also wanted to read Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience, which is in this volume, but also because I like the cover art depicting a winter scene near Walden Pond. I admit, I’ve bought more than one book based solely on the cover art.

I had vaguely thought that Walden was a work of philosophy resulting from Thoreau spending time alone pondering Life, The Universe, and Everything. It’s really nothing like that. It’s much more modern than I expected. Imagine reading a blog by someone who decides to give up television, WiFi, social media, modern technology and civilization in general as an experiment. Imagine this person finds some land by a lake and determines to live a DIY existence. They build their own tiny house from available materials, they eat only what they can find or grow, and make their own clothes. And they write weekly updates on their progress as they do all this. That’s basically what’s going on in Walden. It’s a DIY book mixed with some appreciation of nature.

Thoreau doesn’t completely leave the world behind. He walks to town periodically to give lectures, his writings are published, he has frequent visitors. A lot of the townsfolk think he’s a bit odd and keep their distance but he interacts with a wide range of other eccentric characters: hunters in the woods, fishermen on the pond, rail workers from the railroad that passes near his tiny house, transients who wander through. When he can, he invites these random people into his house and questions them about the nature of the human race and civilization. The bravest strangers even taste some of the weird foods Thoreau subsists on.

Some chapters are strictly DIY stuff like lists of materials used in building his tiny house and their costs. Or what he eats and how he obtains it. Other chapters are observations about nature – what animals he runs into, the sensory experience of the pond and woods in the different seasons. And there actually is a little bit of philosophy hidden away here and there; do humans really need to eat meat or would we be better off if we were all vegetarians? Should we be more self reliant? Why do we waste so much time and energy making money for things like clothes and homes that we could make ourselves much more simply?

The book is laid out chronologically by seasons and takes the reader through the first year at Walden Pond. The first few chapters are the most interesting as they contain the parameters of his experiment and most of the details on how he builds his shelter and gathers his supplies. Later chapters tend to be his observations of nature once things have settled into a routine. Amusingly, the descriptive part of the book ends after the first year with the sentence, “Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it.” The book, while interesting and sometimes profound, is not a page-turner and you’re probably be as glad as I was that he decides not to chronicle his second year as well.

Thoreau doesn’t think everyone should give up on civilization and live as he did at Walden, of course. He clearly thinks of his two year adventure there as nothing more than an experiment to see what the minimum lifestyle could consist of. Just like modern writers who give up The Internet or some other modern convenience for a year, Thoreau fully intends to return to civilization when his experiment is done. Despite finding it a slow read and difficult to slog through at times, particularly in the second half, I still recommend it. There are more than enough interesting and enjoyable bits to make up for it.

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells might be subtitled “Mr. Barnstaple takes a holiday” as that’s a pretty good summary of the basic plot. This 1922 book is partially intended as a Utopian novel and follows the usual convention of having an average, modern human transported into a Utopian world to represent the reader as he uncovers the workings and nature of Utopia. As might be expected of Wells, he goes the extra step to give the novel a science fiction wrapper and in the process, establishes not one but several new genres of science fiction. Just as all time travel novels trace their heritage back to Well’s book, The Time Machine, all parallel universe, multiverse, para-time, cross-time, and alternate history novels descend from Men Like Gods.

Let’s get the plot out of the way first as that’s the least interesting aspect of the book. Mr. Barnstaple is a down-trodden enlightenment liberal who writes for a leftist newspaper. He’s given up hope of changing the world. He’s depressed, hates his job, is annoyed by his family. He determines a solo holiday is the only thing that will save his sanity and sets out for no where in particular in the Yellow Peril, his little two seater car. Coming around a curve in the countryside, he and two other vehicles are suddenly swept out of this world and find themselves in a strange land near the smoking wreckage of a scientific experiment gone wrong. They soon meet some inhabitants of this new world and find it’s similar to Earth but a thousand years in the future. Needing a name for the place, they decide to refer to it as, wait for it, Utopia!

As Barnstaple learns about the amazing world, he realizes it embodies all the ideals he believes in. The others in his party, being more conservative, particularly a narrow minded priest, see the world as degenerate. They make nothing of the peace, prosperity and happiness all around them. Instead they see people who don’t wear enough clothing, don’t have religion, aren’t capitalists, and offend in numerous other ways. With the exception of Barnstaple, the Earthlings soon hatch an ill-conceived plot to take some Utopians hostage, thinking they can use that as a spring board to world-domination and remake Utopia in the image of Earth. I won’t give away too much but there’s never any doubt Barnstaple will survive the goings-on and soon enough is sent back to Earth all the wiser and now with a renewed sense of hope that Earth can someday become like Utopia if we all work hard at improving things.

What sets the book apart from other Utopian novels and gives it an honored place in the annals of science fiction is the first description of the multiverse, the first hint that multiple universes could be “parallel” to and even duplicates of our own; in this case only time-shifted some thousand years. Utopia is in a universe that is essentially an alternate time line of Earth’s universe. The book also postulates that while some universes are nearly identical, others may be wildly different. It’s also the first description of a technological method of cross-timeline travel between parallel universes. As if that’s not enough, there’s a description towards the end of the Utopian’s plans to leave their planet and explore the stars using space travel technology that allows them to bypass normal spatial distances by taking a shortcut; it’s essentially an early description of hyperspace, subspace, warp drive or something along those lines. And for his last trick, Wells explains away the ability of the Earthlings to communicate with the Utopians (who obviously are unlikely to speak English) by explaining that they evolved telepathic abilities. They speak using their minds and we hear them in whatever language we naturally understand, provided we know a word that fits the concept they’re thinking to us.

Here’s the actual description of the multiverse:

Serpentine proceeded to explain that just as it would be possible for any number of practically two-dimensional universes to lie side by side, like sheets of paper, in three dimensional space, so in the many dimensional space about which the ill equipped human mind is still slowly and painfully acquiring knowledge, it is possible for an enumerable quantity of practically three dimensional universes to lie, as it were, side by side and to undergo a roughly parallel movement through time.

Travel between parallel universes is accomplished using a machine that takes a cube-shaped chunk of the universe you’re in and “rotates” it through a higher dimension, causing it to come into contact with some nearby universe. The first test of the technology works but the machine explodes killing the operators. By the end of the book, the machine is not only rebuilt but improved, made portable and, as an added bonus, can even control which Universe it connects with, conveniently allowing Barnstaple to be sent home. Interestingly, because Barnstaple arrived accidentally in a moving car and the Utopians wish to return him the same way, they set up an arrangement reminiscent of Back to the Future in which Barnstaple must drive along a segment of roadway, hitting a trip wire strung across the road, triggering the cross-time machine at precisely the right instant to transport his moving car.

Wells makes a variety of political observations about the failings of our own world including his complaints with the capitalism, Marxism, and socialism of his day. He describes an economic system in which each Utopian citizen lives a government-funded life up to the completion of a very elaborate and detailed education, after which they must choose a path in life that contributes to the world’s economy. They can choose to do anything they like, ranging from a required minimum that allows them to spend most of their life goofing off, to pursuing any career or endeavor, even acquiring wealth and using it as they choose. The Utopians lack any formal government or rulers. Much of the world operates on the “do-ocracy” principle common in hackerspaces. If you see something in the world that needs improvement, it’s up to you to do it, organize the doing of it, or pay someone to do it. At one point Crystal, a Utopian student who befriends Barnstaple, explains that society is based on The Five Principles of Liberty:

  1. Privacy – All individual personal facts are private between the citizen and the public organization to which he entrusts them, and can be used only for his convenience and with his sanction (and anonymously for statistical purposes only)
  2. Free Movement – A citizen, subject to discharge of his public obligations, may go without permission or explanation to any part of the planet.
  3. Unlimited Knowledge – All that is known, except individual personal facts about living people, is on record and easily available to everyone. Nothing may be kept from a citizen nor misrepresented to him.
  4. Lying is the Blackest Crime – Where there are lies there cannot be freedom. Facts may not be suppressed nor stated inexactly
  5. Free Discussion and Criticism – Any citizen is free to criticize and discuss anything in the whole universe provided he tells no lies either directly or indirectly. A citizen may discuss respectfully or disrespectfully, with any intent, however subversive. A citizen may express ideas in any literary or artistic form desired.

Before Barnstaple leaves, he makes one appeal to stay, speaking to a wise, old Utopian who explains that he must go back and that Earth will eventually follow the same course of history to become Utopian in its own time. He warns Barnstaple against attempting premature contact between the two universes until Earth has gotten its house in order:

What could Utopians do with the men of Earth? … You would be too numerous for us to teach … Your stupidities would get in our way, your quarrels and jealousies and traditions, your flags and religions, and all your embodied spites and suppressions, would hamper us in everything we should want to do. We should be impatient with you, unjust and overbearing. You are too like us for us to be patient with your failures … We might end by exterminating you.

Given the way their economy works, it’s fairly clear that it would fall apart pretty quickly if flooded with citizens who have the typical nature of modern humans. In the end, Men like Gods presents a Utopia that needs better humans to be workable, but at least it recognizes that, a fact that sets it above much of the Utopian literature that preceded it.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes


Jaynes’ book atop books by a few authors who were influenced by his theory.

Julian Jaynes’ book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is one of those books that just about everyone reads sooner or later. Jaynes is an example of the rare author who could write a scientific treatise that was both ground-breaking and readily readable by the general public. His book was published in 1976 and presented what has to be the most controversial theory ever in the fields of consciousness and religion. Despite the theory seeming completely outlandish at first glance, the book presents testable predictions all along the way. Many modern researchers believe Jaynes’ theory to be partially or completely wrong but there’s no question it has pushed research toward a better understanding of consciousness and religion. Daniel Dennett, who notes Jaynes was probably wrong at least about some particulars like the importance of hallucinations, still thinks his main thesis could be correct. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins commented that Jaynes theory is “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former but I’m hedging my bets.” In addition to scientists, Jaynes’ theory also inspired two generations of science fiction authors from Philip K. Dick to Neal Stephenson (who based parts of Snow Crash on Jaynes’ theory). David Bowie acknowledges being influenced by this book during his work with Brian Eno on Low and has included the book on his list of 100 Must Read Books.

Julian Jaynes was an American psychologist interested in the origins of consciousness, which he defined roughly as what a modern cognitive scientist or philosopher would call meta-cognition – the awareness of our own thoughts or the ability to think about our own thoughts. In his early research, he specialized in animal ethology (the study of animal’s behavior, communications, and emotions). He began to focus on understanding how consciousness evolved in early humans and studied historical texts and anthropological evidence for clues. This led to his now famous theory that humans initially developed a bicameral mind and that modern consciousness was the result of a breakdown of the two parts.

Bicameral in this case is a metaphor, the word normally describes a type of government consisting of two independent houses. Jaynes came to believe that, as recently as 10,000 years ago, the human brain lacked both consciousness and the strong lateral connection via the corpus callosum that it has today. The two halves of the brain operated more independently but were able to communicate via verbal hallucinations. Humans at this time would have already evolved basic linguistic capabilities, but without the complex metaphors and self-referential aspects of modern language. People behaved in what we would describe today as a ‘zombie-like” way. They would have lacked the ability to reflect on or guide their own thoughts. In times of extreme stress or facing novel situations, the right side of their brain would communicate advice or commands to the left via auditory hallucinations that the person experienced as “hearing a voice”.

As today, humans tended to build up models in their mind of people who are important in their social interactions, parents, tribal leaders, and the like. Jaynes believed the models existed in the part of the mind generating the hallucinations and that the voices often came to be perceived as originating from these people, even if they were not present; even if they were dead. Without the ability to introspect, people simply accepted the voices at face value and assumed they represented some kind of external reality. This predictably gave rise to the earliest religious beliefs: ancestor worship, divinity of kings, belief in an afterlife. It also served as an important social organizing structure that allowed early community groups to form.

This process worked well until about the 2000 BC, when civilizations were going through a periodic collapse. At this time, the growing population was leading to more frequent interactions between disparate groups of humans, resulting in a failure of the bicameral hallucination mechanism as a method of social coordination. If everyone in your group hears the same voices in their head, things work fine. If three or four groups suddenly start living together and everyone is hearing different voices in their heads telling them conflicting things, civilization doesn’t function smoothly anymore.

The result was a gradual breakdown in the bicameral structure of the brain due to the changed environment which gave a huge advantage to individuals whose brains had more direct communication between the two sides via the corpus callosum. This allowed metaphoric language and consciousness to co-evolve, gradually leading to humans who could think about their own thoughts and had the words to describe it. This would also be the origin of the idea of free will, at least in the modern sense. Prior to this time a person did what their brain directed but without any awareness or insight into the process. So, effectively, modern consciousness is a by-product of cultural and linguistic evolution.

The bicameral breakdown leads to the gradual decline of the right brain area that generated verbal hallucinations. Everyone remembered a time when people could hear the “gods” but only a few remain who can still hear their voices. Those people are sometimes elevated to the positions of priest, shamans, oracles or they are seen as insane, eventually classed as schizophrenics.

The whole thing sounds fantastically crazy at first, right? Jaynes says as much throughout the book. But, like any good scientist, he has worked out a series of testable predictions based on the theory in a variety of fields ranging from history to human physiology. Modern researchers have continued to test his theories and, so far, many of his predictions have been dead on. For example, he predicted the existence of an area in the right hemisphere of the brain capable of generating linguistic, auditory hallucinations that is now vestigial and usually dormant. We now know the right hemisphere contains a vestigial area that corresponds to the Broca/Wernicke area in the left brain. This is the part of the left hemisphere responsible for the production of language. He further predicted this vestigial area would be active in schizophrenics who hear auditory hallucinations. Today, with fMRI scanning and other modern techniques, this has been confirmed too. And the hallucinations these patients experience are often in the form of authority figures (parents, leaders, gods) admonishing or commanding them.

Jaynes did an extensive survey of early literature starting with the earliest known writings and progressing through later more well-known documents like Homer and the early writings of the Bible. He analyzes to what extent the authors or the subjects seem to be self-aware and notes a gradual progression through history of both self-awareness and evolution of language to describe self-awareness. The writers of the biblical Old Testament or the Odyssey, for example, show no evidence at all of being self aware, in contrast to authors of the New Testament or later Greek writings. This is complicated by works that have been re-written and changed by later authors, like some books of the Bible or the Epic of Gilgamesh. In these cases, he tries to tease apart what’s original and what was added later.

He suggests that traces of bicameralism might still be found not just in schizophrenia but in many aspects of modern religion (e.g. those occasional people who still hear voices or experience “possession”) or even in the common childhood experience of having invisible friends (some children experience actual auditory hallucinations of their imaginary friends speaking to them).

Some modern researchers discount the need for the physical changes in the corpus callosum and believe the linguistic evolution of metaphor alone may be enough to bear out the changes Jaynes’ theory describes. There is now a huge body of literature surrounding the Bicameral Mind theory; lengthy articles defending or attacking aspects of it. There are also now several variant theories. Lain McGilchrist has proposed not a breakdown in a bicameral mind but a separation and reversal in the two hemispheres of the brain. Michael Gazzaniga, a pyschobiologist has done extensive experimental work in the area of hemisphere specialization and has proposed a theory similar to Jaynes’.

Jaynes is an engaging and interesting author and, whether his theory eventually proves to be crazy or profound, you’ll find the book a great read. If you have any interest in philosophy, religion, consciousness, cognition, evolution, anthropology, literature, history, or any of a dozen other topics, you’ll love the book. It makes you think about things you would never have imagined otherwise.

Shadow Show

Shadow Show

Shadow Show

Shadow Show, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, describes itself as “All-new stories in celebration of Ray Bradbury”. I’ve been a fan of Bradbury’s fiction most of my life. Friends from my high school days may remember me sitting under the bleachers during Pep Rallies reading “R is for Rocket” or wandering the hallways with a copy of “Fahrenheit 451”. I most liked his early work; stories like Frost and Fire or The City. They blended conventional science fiction with Bradbury’s unique style which approached magical realism. I felt his later writing lost a lot by abandoning the science fiction aspect and focusing exclusively on the magical realism. In any case, I heard about this book and imagined it might contain Bradbury-like stories that recaptured the feel of his early work. Alas, this is not the case.

For the most part, the stories in the book aren’t really at all like Bradbury stories. At least, I’d never confuse any of them with the real thing. Most had supernatural or horror themes and lacked the connection to science fiction. They’re simply from authors who were, in one way or another, inspired by Bradbury. They’re not bad stories. Some are enjoyable and may appeal to Bradbury fans, if only to find out how other writers were inspired by him.

There were a few exceptions, however; stories that are intended to provoke memories of Bradbury or his stories in one way or another. The best of these, at least for me, was Children of the Bedtime Machine by Robert McCammon. This story made the book worthwhile for me and was a real celebration of Bradbury in multiple ways. First, it was a story I could imagine Bradbury writing; second, it combined science fiction with a Bradburyesque magical realism, and lastly, Bradbury’s writing actually plays a part in the story’s plot. It’s the story of a woman living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland; the result of climate change and global war. There’s little plant or animal life left, and little hope for the future. The woman’s only joy in life is a trunk full of old books that she reads to herself. During a visit to a trading post in a nearby town, she’s given a useless machine from the dead past. The combination of a Ray Bradbury book and a machine designed for insomniacs leads to a new hope for a dying world.

If you can pick up the book inexpensively, it’s worth it just for that one story. Or perhaps you’ll enjoy the other stories more than I did. Authors include Harlan Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Alice Hoffman, Kelly Link, and others.

Road Trip to the Future

Ed Emshmiller cover art from the 1962 edition of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Planet Savers”

Susan and I make the drive to work together at least three days a week. Lately we’ve been listening to audio books for fun. We started out with the 1973 BBC radio dramatization of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. It’s available at no-cost (not free as in free-speech, however, it’s still under a proprietary license). The audio has not held up well and we found some parts of it wholly unintelligible. Fortunately, having read it a few times, I knew it so well I could fill in the missing bits for Susan from memory.

From there we moved on to a more modern audio book, Graphic Audio’s full scale dramatization of Texas author Elizabeth Moon’s series, Vatta’s War. It’s a series of five books with a total audio running time of 57 hours, so it kept us entertained for a quite a while. The series is hard science fiction and all the more enjoyable because Elizabeth Moon has a military background and has put a good deal of thought into the strategies which might evolve when managing large space battles with the limits of light speed communications. How, for example, do you deal with multi-minute light lag that would affect not only communications but sensor data? Once a space battle is started, how do you keep track of the expanding spheres of debris that create navigational hazards as dangerous as enemy weapons?

Also, bonus points for being the first science fiction book I can recall with mention of a Shiner Bock beer. The audio quality of the Graphic Audio production was excellent and it’s a complex production with multiple actors voicing the characters as well as sound effects and music. I highly recommend either the audiobook or printed versions of the Vatta’s War series.

Our most recent audio book is a LibriVox production of The Planet Savers, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s first Darkover novel, which seems to have passed into the public domain already despite being published in 1958. This audio book is truly free (both as in “free beer” and as in “free speech”). It’s a reasonably high quality production but more primitive than the Graphic Audio productions. It’s just a simple recording of someone reading the book.

If anyone else has an audio book recommendation, comments are welcome.

Common as Air

Benjamin Franklin open sourced an array of Leyden jars and named it a "battery"

One of many inventions Benjamin Franklin open sourced, an array of Leyden jars he named a “battery”


 
Having just received several new books as Christmas gifts, I’m reminded that books I’ve already finished are growing into a pile and crying out for reviews in my blog. There’s never enough time to review them all but one that I’ve been intending to write about all year is Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership by Lewis Hyde. It’s a wonderfully written book about the history of the commons and property rights.

As a software developer who releases my work under the GNU GPL, a free software license, I’ve been on the receiving end of many a rant on these subjects. My contributions to a freely accessible cultural commons of creatives works, I’m told, is communism and will lead to the eventual downfall of the one true system of property ownership as expressed by God in modern copyright and patent law. I don’t take such rants seriously anymore but when I found a book offering an in depth look at how our modern laws came to be and what the founding fathers actually said about these things; well, I could hardly pass it up!

Hyde starts out with a brief survey of ideas on property rights from cultures all over the world. He then looks at the origins of modern western thought. It turns out, of course, that the founding fathers believed quite strongly that free access to ideas was critical to democratic self-governance and free enterprise. This comes as no surprise to those in the free software and open source communities, who have rediscovered many of the same principles, including the importance of creating a “commonwealth of knowledge”.

Hyde’s story crosses paths with the free software community once or twice along the way. It also crosses paths with the supreme court, Donald Rumsfeld, John Adams, Sonny Bono, John Locke, Noah Webster, and a host of other familiar people. It’s the story of how we slowly traded the long term benefits of a commonwealth of knowledge for the enticing profits promised by “intellectual property”. The story makes great reading as history even if you’re not terribly interested in property rights. You’ll read dozens of interesting historical anecdotes you may not have heard before. For example, there’s the story of Benjamin Franklin’s founding of what sounds like the first hackerspace. He and other interested amateurs in Philadelphia put some money together, got some space, and started doing weird things with electricity. They created a crowd-sourced procedure for collecting and dispersing information about electrical experiments and open sourced the results, like an array of Leyden jars he named a “battery”. No doubt my right-wing friends would consider Franklin a liberal hippy with communist leanings. A modern “intellectual property” lawyer would consider him a “pirate”; indeed, Hyde titled the chapter “Benjamin Franklin, Founding Pirate”.

Once Hyde gets to the end of the history, he ponders what can be done to protect what’s left of the commons and even restore it for future generations. He offers three examples of real-world attempts at fixing the problem. The most familiar and successful of the examples is Richard Stallman and the GNU General Public License. The software commons created by Stallman and the GPL is responsible for at least some of the software running on nearly every computing device in the world today from the largest supercomputer to the phone or tablet on which you’re reading this blog. Hyde notes also the example of folk singer Pete Seeger, who worked with other folk singers to protect a piece of music called “We Shall Overcome” using the earliest known example of the “claim and release” idea later used in the GPL for software and, more specifically, in the Creative Commons licenses for art and musical works. It worked as a method of freeing information in a system that forces everything to be “owned”. The final example is the attempt at keeping scientific information free that was made through a formal declaration by the scientists working on the Human Genome Project.

What all three of Hyde’s examples have in common is that they were devised not by the government but by individuals working on their own or in groups to protect the freedom of ideas FROM the system enforced by the government. There are vast amounts of money and effort focused on the government by business to create more and stricter “intellectual property” laws (because they are very, very profitable for the few companies that hold the “property”). His examples give us some hope that, even if we the people can’t match the financial and lobbying resources of the corporate world, we can still outsmart them and protect the freedom of our ideas.