Thoughts on The Dark Tower Movie

On and after the release of the film, The Dark Tower, many discussions were had at /r/TheDarkTower and other places where Constant Readers gather to talk about all things DT. People said things like:

“It wasn’t that bad.” or

“It was like the books in name only, or it featured characters from the books only commonly named.” or

“Next cycle/ Sequel to the books/ it’s OK that they took liberties.”

I want to answer this last one, because it’s not OK. Taking liberties is one thing, but I hope to show here that the liberties taken were aimed at simplifying the story and making it more palatable for an ignorant audience. I’m going to do so by looking at the three main characters.

I get that they might have wanted to do something different, tell the story of Roland and Walter from the next cycle, but after watching the movie, I have some problems with that. Let’s take the filmmakers at face value. Why is it that many, if not every, choice that they make can be seen most easily as transparent attempts to make the story and characters more two dimensional and therefore more accessible?

Jake

Jake is probably the best example. Book Jake is a private school kid with two living parents and a housekeeper. His private school teaches him to ask to go to the bathroom by saying that he needs to take a moment so as not to be vulgar. He’s a WASP, at least publicly. At home, he cherishes his relationship with his housekeeper as he feels he can be his real self with her. She affectionately calls him Bama. His first trip to Midworld happens when he dies on Earth. He gets killed by the aptly named Jack Mort, a killer who has interactions with other characters later on. Jake wakes up in Midworld at the Way Station, meets the Gunslinger, rolls with him until the mines where they meet and run from the Slow Mutants, then Roland has to make a decision where he can save Jake or finally catch the Man in Black. Jake sees that Roland must achieve his quest goal and tells him, in the most chilling line of dialog in the entire series, “Go then, there are other worlds than these.”

Later, we find out Jake is alive in a different timeline on Keystone Earth. He did not die in the accident arranged by Mort, but he starts having visions. No, moviegoer, the visions are of his life in Midworld. He begins having this dual experience and it really fucks with him. He experiences his “death” in Midworld and then has visions of the house in Dutch Hill. This is like two books later, and Roland and some other characters in Midworld play a part in bringing him over. The Dutch Hill house demon depicted in the film was pretty accurate except that it didn’t have a recognizable face. The control panel, portal, and Jake’s seemingly effortless dispatching of the demon are all departures from the books, an easy to recognize shorthand for the incredibly complicated mythos about Doors between various worlds. I almost get why they do it like this in the film. Seriously, they talk about it a lot, especially in the later books, but I don’t feel that there’s a coherent “system” that can explain it. IIRC, at one point in the books they literally don’t know what’s going to happen when they use a doorway and there’s a rather large chance that they’ll end up in some In-Betweeny kind of Nowhere space, dead for all purposes. To sum up, the portal system is complicated as fuck in the books, but the movie just simplifies the whole thing to move the plot along.

I’ve only just scratched the surface about Jake, and I may have gotten a few things wrong, but look at how he differs from movie Jake. Movie Jake is a cookie cutter “troubled kid” character, complete with Dead Dad, Step Dad That He Doesn’t Really Trust, and Visions That Are Easily Dismissed because he’s a Troubled Kid. We as the audience don’t need to know much beyond, “his dad died.” We know his visions are “real” and we root for him for this reason.

His character traits are bland and uninspired. There’s nothing new here. They don’t tell us new things about the nature of a grieving child, here it’s just used as a convenient device to advance the plot. Fighting the kid over his sketchbook, which leads to the Psycho Kids Camp people, feels contrived.

The Man in Black

The Man in Black’s relationship with Roland goes back to Roland’s childhood, when he was the court magician in Gilead, going by the name Marten Broadcloak. He bones Roland’s mom and makes sure Roland finds out. This prompts Roland to take his Gunslinger Trial at the age of 14, which is very early. He attempts to murder Roland’s father through treachery, but fails. Finally, he slips the net after Roland’s father orders his capture.

The Man in Black appears in many of King’s works, including Eyes of The Dragon, The Stand, The Gunslinger, and other books. In The Gunslinger, He brings a man back from death, not by waving a hand, but by doing a ritual and covering him in spit (gross). In The Stand, he’s regarded as more of a Messiah than a commander. He has the ability to compel action by ordering it. When characters do outmaneuver him, it’s due to their ability to find holes in his mind control by doing things he didn’t explicitly prohibit. In one of these cases, the “good guy” character jumps out the window rather than answering his question, because he didn’t say she couldn’t do so, but only kept her from attacking him. In this way, he’s shown to have some foresight, but it’s not perfect. When he does experience these losses, he’s shown to react severely with his followers, at times handing down ruthless punishments.

That said, I have to say movie Man in Black kind of resembles The Stand’s Man in Black, there known as Randall Flagg or simply, “the walkin’ dude,” among other names. Somehow, I didn’t like the way it played onscreen. Often, the cruelty appeared nonsensical. He stoops over a dying man, taunts him about the afterlife not being a thing, then tells him to burn, effectively putting him out of his misery. He cruelly punishes an underling by burning her face, after having an earlier conversation about selecting the right face, implying that the face isn’t really hers. This kind of undermines the cruelty of it, except that it’s a pretty face and now it’s burnt. The best example of Man in Black as cruel master is when he orders a pair to kill one another after talking to them about their failing to capture Jake. This scene put me in mind of Kilgrave from Jessica Jones and it really worked because we understood that those two were going to fight to the death whether they wanted to or not – and how terrible is that – but more than that, we understood how important this kid was to McConaughey’s character.

The Man in Black character certainly is unnecessarily cruel and vain as he’s shown in the film, but I can’t help but feel there could’ve been a better way to show these traits. Here, it seems that he’s just evil cuz evil, and that’s not very compelling. I would have done fewer, or only one, instance of malice properly set up as that would have more impact. If done right, you may surprise viewers at how unhinged he truly is. Instead, we get a flat, one note character. Why does he have such a hardon for Roland? Why does Roland resist his “magics”? Why do the townspeople go from being suspicious, to helping Roland and Jake, to fighting and dying for them, all while Roland admits that he’s not a Gunslinger? Why is Susan Delgado a Named Character in this film?

Roland

I’ve avoided talking about Roland until now for a few reasons. First, I want to make it clear that my distaste of this film does in no way stem from the casting of Idris Elba. He’s great, and he gives real presence and depth to a pretty thinly written character.

For example, let’s look at the film version of the backstory between Roland and Walter, particularly how Walter kills Roland’s father. The scene in the woods (very foggy woods that could have easily been a soundstage), with the two Deschain men (and no other supporting cast), and the showdown with the Man in Black (no fight choreo, hardly any dialog, almost no CGI) seems like something out of Cheap Filmmaking 101. Nothing wrong with getting value for budget, in fact I love to see films look better than their budget would suggest. But here it looks calculatedly cheap. Maybe this is because I know what the conflict between the Man in Black and the Deschains really entails, and I think it wouldn’t take that much more time or money to tell that story, or at least hint at it, and leave the details to be explored in a future movie. Here they lay their cards on the table for once and for all, “This is how Steven Deschain died.” Doing it this way, they’re painted into a corner. Again, it’s not that they’re deviating from the books, but how they deviate. They do it in a trite, safe, cheaply made little scene that doesn’t involve any complicated story threads that might confuse the rubes.

Conclusion

In short, the film made the safest, most obvious, least interesting choices that it could, almost to the letter. Where their choices were not safe or obvious, they seemed to go nowhere. Deviations are all explained away by saying, “It’s a sequel, next turn of the Wheel, etc.” These character and story choices were then executed competently, but at a somewhat fast pace, often rushing into the next setpiece before we fully understand what’s happening. I imagine there’s a longer cut of this film that develops the characters more, letting later dramatic moments feel much more earned.

After this, I don’t have much hope for this property being adapted well, at least not for the foreseeable future. How long does it take for the collective pop culture audience to forget an adaptation? How long between Spiderman 3 and Amazing Spiderman 1? I like to make fun of the youth of today, for the extraordinary short shelf life of popular things. Take the recent fidget spinner craze. Kids had never heard of these things, then they heard of them and everyone wanted one. Then, just as quick, the cool kids decided that they weren’t cool anymore and started making fun of them and the kids that are still enjoying them. It’s not like this kind of thing hasn’t been going on for a while, but it seems to be happening much faster these days. I think it’s because of internet culture, everything being so connected. It’s a weird time to be young, for sure, but that’s a topic for another time. Anyway, with the cultural turnaround time so fast, maybe it’ll only be a few years before we get a reboot. Maybe that TV show will take some notes from this disaster, and be something Constant Readers and casuals alike can enjoy.

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Europe: A History by Norman Davies, Part One

So I’ve been wanting to develop the reading habit more, so I cracked a book that’s been sitting for a while on my shelf. Norman Davies’ Europe: A History is my first attempt at reading one of these kinds of books live. I’ve listened to a couple books by Diamond and Niall Ferguson’s Civilization, but reading live takes a different level of effort. Audiobooks only require your time. For me, it’s driving time. Every day, one commute at a time, I whittle away at the book. The only things that can keep me from it is the odd phone call or just not feeling like hitting the button.

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In one volume, Davies attempts to tell the massive story of European history. He starts with a lengthy introduction of how to even go about it. As someone new to history books, I found this useful. The different framing methods and other authors who have attempted to put it all in one book. Another section of the introduction that I enjoyed most because I’d never thought of it: where does Europe end and Asia begin? Where’s the northern border?  The fluctuating European border theory gave me a chuckle. It was the first hint of the wry academic humor that shows up from time to time in the book. It has the benefit of being unexpected while not being out of character. It’s the sort of thing that you might miss if you tuned out during that paragraph. Finally, to round out the intro, Davies lays out how the book is going to go: The further forward in time we go, the slower we proceed. In other words, the closer we get to the present, the more information will be covered about each time period. Which makes sense if you consider the sources available through history. Sure, there are outliers, but on average, the earlier you get, the less primary sources there are, the less archaeology there is, the less detail there is to write about.

The first chapter gives a geographical foundation, setting the scene as it were. The Mediterranean, the mountains, the rivers, all have a hand in shaping the way people lived on the landmass. Davies doesn’t go so far as to invoke environmental determinism here, but attention is paid to how the various geographical features could be exploited. There was a section on the steppes, the plains in the far Eastern edge of what could be called Europe or could be verging into Asia. In that section, there is a poem shared, displaying the love the forbears of modern Ukraine have for the land:

When I die, make me a grave

High on an ancient mound,

In my own beloved Ukraine,

In the steppeland without bound,

Whence one sees the endless breadth of the wheatfields

And the steep banks of Dnipro’s shore,

Where one may sense the surging

River’s stentorian roar.

Make my grave there – and arise,

Sundering your chains.

Bless your freedom with the blood

Of foemen’s evil veins!

Then in that great family,

A family new and free,

Do not forget. But with good intent

Speak quietly of me.

The mention of the steppes always makes me think of the film Taras BulbaYul Brynner gives an unforgettable performance as a Cossack of the steppes, and he struggles to raise his sons in a changing world. The line at the end is frozen in my memory: “I loved him, like I loved the steppes.” That value of identifying oneself so strongly with the land is throughout the film, and it resonates in the piece above. The author is given as Taras Schevchenko, which confirmed the connection I made with the film. I need to watch that film again.

Image result for taras bulba

There’s a whole lot to this book. I imagine I’m going to do several installments in this series. I haven’t done a series on here before, so we’ll see how it goes.

We Might Be in Trouble

So there I was, reading about the horrors faced by real people in Aleppo, and the life or death consequences being dealt by decisionmakers from various nations, when in the lower right corner of the screen, a headline about the Jags being called for a rare penalty tried to wrest my attention away. For a moment, it worked. I moused over to see what the rest of the headline said at least. A penalty that hadn’t been called in 18 years! Doesn’t that sound interesting?

Reading the Aleppo article, important as it is, took some willpower. When I finally really got some momentum going, it was quite interesting. I was nearing the end of the admittedly short article when the Jags clickbait link intervened. I am not a Jags fan, in fact I hardly care about the NFL at all. So why does that story draw my attention, threatening to tear me away from what I know is a much more important story?

I like to think of myself as bookish. Maybe I’m less of a deep reader than I think I am. Even so, I fancy myself above average for my age group when it comes to reading for, how shall I say, not exactly pleasure. Eat your vegetables type reading. Like a news story about Aleppo rather than an Onion News in Brief or a YouTube comments section.

So if I’m above average, even slightly above average for my demo, what does that say about all the other people out there who don’t even start reading the Aleppo story, who log on and go straight to /r/dankmemes? People my age vote. People at my age occupy offices at various levels of government, and make decisions that can affect people in big ways.

Blind Perception: Into Darkness

I blindfolded myself one Sunday morning, and spent 6 hours in darkness. During that time, I did many activities around my house that were interesting and enjoyable in new ways. My son was a big help, getting things for me and spotting things that I didn’t think of. He also walked me around the neighborhood, a really fun experience. The questions that I want to address are about ultimate reality, mind body dualism and consciousness.

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“Blind Sandwich”, a sketch of the tuna sandwich that I made while blindfolded.

Ultimate Reality and The Cave

When I close my eyes, the world doesn’t go away. All the things that were there before are more or less there still. I can know that they’re there because I can reach out and touch the things. I can hear them if they make sound that I can hear, and so on. In other words, I have other sources of information that can tell me about the world. There are many things in my sighted life that I do simply by feel, without looking. Typing this sentence is easy once I place my fingers on the home row keys. In fact, keyboards have bumps on the F and J keys to help people find the home row without looking, so the whole process is independent of sight. One rather funny thing about being without sight is that I move much slower and think that everything is much closer than it is. Here’s an example. The couch is about two regular steps away from the nearest wall. In feeling my way to the couch for the first time, I took no less than five blind feeling steps, most of the way convinced that I missed the couch completely and was about to run into something with sharp corners. None of the dimensions of the couch, the wall, or the floor of my house changed appreciably when I put on the blindfold, so why did it seem so much further? My estimation of how fast and how far I am going is way off, it seems. Of course, later on in the experiment I felt more confident in my movements and found myself doing this less.

I can see things now. Or I think I can see things now. What I understand from science is that I’m actually seeing photons bouncing off of the objects rather than the objects themselves. If that’s true, then am I experiencing anything? I mean, how close is my experience of a thing or a person if I am merely seeing them, if sight is only light interacting with objects and being captured by my eye? The same could be said for any of the senses. If there is an ultimate reality that is beyond what we can access with our senses, how can we access it when senses are literally the only ways for information to come in?

These questions about reality as experienced via the senses are likely unsolvable and mostly just something to think about, but I am reminded of another question about ultimate reality. According to Plato’s allegory of the cave, there is a reality that we are seeing and experiencing and thinking that this is it. Really that is just shadows dancing in smoke on the cave walls. Through some kind of awakening process we are meant to discover the illusory nature of the cave and choose to step into the light and live in the real world. This sounds wonderful and is certainly something to strive for if we are to have fulfilling lives. There is a problem, however. In the metaphor, one either is or isn’t free. It’s binary. In real life, the process of waking up is better seen as a continuum. How can one know when they have truly stepped out of the cave and seen the sun? How can someone know that they have gone from merely waking up to being awake? To really know the answer would require some access to ultimate reality, which, as I determined above, is not possible. So the waking up process must be continual. There will never be a point where one can say, “there, I’ve woken up now, everything will be clear to me from now on.” The process of cultivating awareness leads to more awareness and it becomes a positive feedback loop, albeit a neverending one.

Mind Body Dualism

Towards the end of my sojourn into darkness, I went for a walk around my complex. I had my 12 year old son to guide me. During the trip, there was a bit of disconnect between which way I thought I was going and which way I was going and I required several corrections by my son. Still I had an idea in my head about where I was, and I tried to keep up by asking him to give me a running commentary on where we were, did we pass the mailbox, etc. By the end of the walk, I got to a point where I didn’t really know where I was. This sensing matching or not matching reality got me thinking about mind body dualism. It seems that my mind, the thing trying to calculate how far I had gone and whatnot was not just involved in the movement, that it was part of it, inseparable. In reaching and feeling for things, I found myself bent over, even scouring the floor with my hands “looking” for a slipper. My mind was reaching out with every sense organ that it could, somewhat desperately in those moments, with a feeling like a novice swimmer coming up to catch a breath.

After the walk, my son’s friend came over and he asked if he could go outside. Feeling very confident in my blind abilities, I told him to go. I decided to practice yoga. I did some sun salutations. I had a difficult time balancing and at one point, it felt difficult to breathe. I almost tore off my blindfold so that I could breathe better, even though the mask was not restricting my breathing at all.

Penn Jillette, reflecting on being on The Celebrity Apprentice in a Big Think video, said that willpower was this tangible, finite resource that he felt being strained every minute on camera. He said that by having to filter everything during filming, other areas which people exercise willpower to overcome were free to take over. Chocolate? Sure, I’ll eat all of it. Another glass of wine? Just leave the bottle. It’s as though all the willpower is used up in one area and there was none left over to guard against this other thing. This thought occurred to me, of finite willpower being stretched too far from one challenge leaving it powerless to overcome a different urge, in this case that momentary desire to remove the blindfold.

In these experiences, I cannot get around how the physical state of my body directly affects my mental and emotional state. This fact forces me to reject mind body dualism.

Consciousness

If “mind” is the result of the physical brain/body and nothing more, then that must address my views on consciousness as well. The view of panpsychism, where consciousness is a state exhibited by matter arranged in a certain way, makes sense to me. I see it as a continuum that allows for, shall we say, differently evolved nervous systems to have a kind of consciousness. Flies have hundreds of thousands of brain cells, for example, but I doubt that anyone would argue that the experience of being a fly is anything like the consciousness we experience.

I also found the view of Daniel Dennett on this topic to be interesting; the Hard Problem is a fiction because the phenomenon of experience is an illusion. At least that’s my brief synopsis of his position, click the link for his TED talk on it. I think this phenomenon, the “what it’s like to be me” is just the sum of the inputs to the brain being processed, moment to moment. We string them together and invent stories to go with them and create feedback loops and obey the inputs in the way that we are programmed to do. It follows that I don’t think Free Will is a thing either, but that’s another story.

To answer Chalmers’ thought experiment: What would it be like to have a human automaton? I say the question is flawed for the reasons I mention above. It’s a kind of sum-greater-than-parts kind of thing, the feeling of Being.

This view, I will admit, leaves a great deal unanswered. The feeling of being stared at and the plant mind reading are both phenomena that appear well supported, but not explained as of yet. I am keeping an open mind with regard to Remote Viewing, but so far it hasn’t convinced me. It seems to have a good amount of confirmation bias and vague, very charitable interpretation. Also, the fact that proponents say that skilled practitioners are correct with “greater than chance” frequency raises a yellow flag. How should one go about calculating the odds of something like this? I am still open to learn more about this, I have videos in my Youtube queue and everything. These things are exciting as it means that there are more questions in the world, and I’ve long felt that questions are better than answers. There is much more to these phenomena and it will be interesting to see what can be discovered.

I’m listening to an audiobook by David Brooks right now, called The Social Animal. I’ve only just started it, but so far it follows a couple as they meet, date, fall in love, get married, and have a child. It tells this story by way of subconscious or unconscious emotional reactions and a little evolutionary background on this. There’s also a section about how emotions help with decision making, “coloring” certain choices a certain way to push us toward one choice and away from another. There is a case study mentioned at this part. A man suffered a brain injury that made him unable to feel emotions in the same way as people normally do. This, the doctor believed, made him unable to make decisions competently, an observation also based on his long string of poor life decisions.

Some time ago, I listened to the audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. It’s a book about thinking and the processes involved in that. It’s a fascinating book. It talks about an art appraiser having a “hunch” that a piece was fake a split second after seeing it that turned out to be true, though it was a very good fake and fooled several others. There were many other cases discussed in the book, but this one served as a jumping off for a discussion of intuition and how people can just “know” something without having any idea how to articulate how they know. The unexplained phenomena above remind me of this book and this part in particular.

In Closing

I don’t have all the answers. I can hardly claim to have any answers if I’m being honest. Being blind gave me some extra hardships, but it also opened me up to finding new ways to solve problems and use my spatial memory more. I decided to do a sketch, which I never do, and I rather enjoyed doing it.

The Waterboy and Ken Miller: Compartmentalization or No?

In my son’s continuing education of comedy movies from when I was younger, I watched The Waterboy with him. I had long relegated it to the “Adam Sandler after his prime” era of movies when I noticed one day that there seemed to be a great deal of love for the movie among people I worked with. This love is expressed most often by referencing or quoting the movie at appropriate times.

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There are a ton of not-great movies that somehow have massive quoteability: Joe Dirt is probably the top of that list, since it is a steaming pile of a film, yet people (yours truly included) will quote that movie ad nauseam under marginally acceptable circumstances. Zoolander is another one. Bad movie, love to hear it quoted. Dodgeball, Old School, Wedding Crashers and certain Will Ferrell movies (Talledega Nights, Anchorman, Step Brothers) fit this category as well, but they are too recent in my book; we just got over quoting these movies when they were “new”, and it will be another 5 or 6 years before we start quoting them again out of nostalgia.

Somehow, without my notice or approval, people have started quoting Adam Sandler’s less funny late 90s/ early 00s movies such as The Waterboy, Little Nicky, Big Daddy, Mr. Deeds, et cetera, et fucking cetera. As I said before, I have long regarded these as inferior product, mostly because I know the greatness that Sandler has been able to achieve in Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. I didn’t really get it until I realized what was happening: their fondness of those movies is a function of their initial experiences with those movies, just as my love of Sandler’s early works is a reflection of my experience of watching them as a fifteen year old. It is a side effect of working with younger people I suppose. Nothing wrong with a good Little Nicky quote if the situation fits, however I may question your taste in movies, and rightly so.

Anyway, The Waterboy. Was watching it with my son and noticed something that didn’t make sense. Bobby Boucher knows science when it comes to water purification, but thinks that alligators are ornery because “they got all them teeth but no toothbrush.” He knows almost nothing else of modern science, but we see him boiling water to kill germs, displaying a knowledge of germ theory completely out of sync with his lifestyle. The movie explains this by saying Boucher’s father died because of dehydration or impurities in his water supply, inspiring young Bobby to learn everything he could about hydration technology and water purification. This makes enough sense in the context of the movie, but after thinking about it for much longer than anyone should, I can’t help but wonder why it is that Boucher can know so little of the rest of the world, and so much comparatively about water, and doesn’t it ever lead to moments of cognitive dissonance?

Compartmentalization

The answer is a concept known as compartmentalization. This is where people think differently about different things. One standard applies for one topic, but a different standard applies for something else.

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The first time I heard about this concept was in reference to Dr. Ken Miller. He’s an evolutionary biologist who is also a devout Christian. He was a key expert witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial which outlawed teaching Creationism in schools and further defined Intelligent Design as a form of Creationism. In his book, Finding Darwin’s GodDr. Miller explains how his faith and his understanding of science are not in conflict. Far from it, Miller claims that his understanding of science and his faith complement one another. Here’s the blurb from the site that I think sums up the book:

To creationists, an acceptance of evolution cannot coexist with belief in a created world. Not only are the creationists wrong, argues a professor of biology who is also a Christian, they deny the possibility of human beings created free to choose right from wrong. Darwin’s theories, he says, can actually deepen our belief in a Creator.

To make his case, Miller spends the first several chapters explaining why evolution is true. Having read books by Coyne and Dawkins on the same subject, I was really impressed to see the variety of citations that can be made. This should be very instructive to people who doubt evolution. If there were only one experiment that keeps being cited that refuted a certain Creationist or Intelligent Design claim, you might see that as kind of a weak refutation. The fact is that there are tons and tons of papers and studies that not only refute general claims, but specifically address details of arguments against evolution.

In his arguments, Miller takes on Creationist claims first, then devotes a chapter to Intelligent Design. He goes after ID theorist Michael Behe specifically, which is fitting since Behe was sort of Miller’s opposite number in the Kitzmiller trial.

In the final chapter Miller outlines his position on faith and science, the central point of the book. I was impressed with the sincerity and the thoughtfulness of his position here. While I remain an atheist, I appreciate Miller’s approach. If there were more believers with his take on it, I would be just fine with that.

I recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of science, or grappling with the whole religion v. science thing. If you are a Creationist, Intelligent Design fan, or you believe in Teach The Controversy, this book will educate you and give you something to think about. The way Miller explains his faith should be very instructive to those who feel that their faith forbids them to accept evolution.

If there’s one criticism I could level at Dr. Miller’s work, it’s that it seems like a long build up to The Thing The Book Is About. If maybe the tagline of the book mentioned that it was also, in a big way, about the truth of evolution and debunking of Creationist and Intelligent Design arguments, it might be a little better. It may be the scenic route, but an enjoyable journey nonetheless.

What Was I Saying? Oh Yeah, Compartmentalization

In the end, I don’t think Dr. Miller is a legitimate example of compartmentalization. Many science advocates feel strongly that guys like Miller – that is, serious scientists that have religious beliefs – must compartmentalize to make sense of the world. After reading Finding Darwin’s God, I have to say I don’t think that’s the way it is. However, based on what we can know about Bobby Boucher, he makes an excellent example of compartmentalization.

Currently Reading: Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World

I started reading this book two days ago, when I found myself with an hour to kill at lunch and nothing else to do. I went to the base library, looking for something that would fit in my cargo pocket. I was considering Vonnegut, there was a small Vonnegut book that I had not read that would easily fit. Then I thought of non-fiction, and reflected that since I had been reading The Dark Tower series, my non-fiction reading had kind of dropped off, with promises to re-commence after concluding that series.

So I found this book. I picked it up and started reading it in the library aisle, as you do, and found an easy, comforting prose conveying a tale of a boy becoming entranced by the wonders of science. I am referring to the preface, where a young Sagan sees marvelous scientific achievements at the 1939 World’s Fair. More about that later. The quote, “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” appears early in the book. I can’t remember if it’s in the preface or chapter 1, but it succinctly summarizes what I see as the foundational principle of Sagan’s work as a science communicator. I have not finished the book, but so far Sagan as a writer shows a sincere desire to share the wonders of science.

It is sometimes said that when you are reading, you are in conversation with the mind of the writer. This book gives that impression immediately. Sagan invites the reader to encounter his views, and wants, more than anything it seems, to infect the reader with the same awe and reverence for the natural world and respect for the scientific method that marked his life.

The Friendly Scientist

The refreshing thing that I’m finding in this book, mainly what led me to post on it, was the tone. Sagan doesn’t resort to polemics, at least not on the scale of a New Atheist. Sagan focuses his criticism on pseudoscience such as alien abduction theorists, crystal believers, cryptozoologists et al. He doesn’t shy away from putting the screws to religion, but the way he does it just seems nicer. Maybe it is the time in which the book came out, 1996, you couldn’t get away with bashing religion, even if that may include nothing more than listing true historical facts of religious believers and organizations.

I am reminded that Carl Sagan was, and remains, an educator. As such, I get the feeling that he has a great deal of experience talking people gently out of unfalsifiable beliefs whatever form they take. He does mention that in the book, particularly a long conversation with a limo driver at the beginning of the first chapter.

Quotes

There are some real gems in this book. I’ve not yet read halfway, but I feel strongly about what I’ve read so far so I wanted to post about it. Here are a few:

All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have. -Albert Einstein
Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. -Hippocrates

From the author:
If it were widely understood that claims to knowledge require adequate evidence before they can be accepted, there would be no room for pseudoscience.
Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise.

Final Word (for now)

This book is incredible. I’m really enjoying it, and can’t wait to continue getting to know Carl Sagan.

I am Malala, or, What’s a Girl Gotta do to Get a Peace Prize?

malala

I had heard of this story about a year ago, then I kind of forgot about it. Then I saw her on The Daily Show, and I remembered the story and watched with some awe as she recounted buildup to the attack on her and how she resolved that to respond to violence with violence made one no better than her oppressors. That sentiment, like Malala, is brave and beautiful.

The book starts off describing what sounds like a somewhat privileged teenage girl now living in England. It quickly retreats from there to a history of Pakistan, cruising through ancient times and slowing to an andante to delve into the tumultuous twentieth century of that nation, specifically the Swat Valley. Her family history is explained in some detail, and here the book reveals what it is really about: the lifelong quest of Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, to teach young people.

In reading this book, one hopes to learn of one girl’s story. Along the way, they sneak a bunch of history and geopolitics in there, which ultimately needs to be in there to understand the situation they are in. The only way a first world person like myself can understand the situation is to look at how it developed, which is clearly what they were trying to do. By they of course, I am referring to the ghostwriter and publisher and probably also Malala herself and not judging her at all for having a ghostwriter when writing a book at the age of sixteen. But I digress.

Ziauddin Yousafzai is the driving force behind Malala’s mission, in other words, if Ziauddin had not so infected his daughter with the desire to learn, we would not have the Malala Fund, or this book, or possibly the level of awareness of the plight of Swat. I certainly didn’t know there was a place called Swat. Ziauddin had a vision of teaching boys and girls without being controlled by religious interests. To put it simply, he wanted, still wants, young people to learn for the sake of learning.

As a history of Pakistan in general and Swat in specific, the book delivers to a person unfamiliar with the history there. It is fascinating to see these areas that get talked about on the news, where everything is summed up in a thirty second soundbite, and realize that there are so many factors at play there. When we hear the soundbite, it is natural to react by assuming that there would be a simple solution and to scoff that why don’t they just do that? While a hypothetical solution may sound simple, it may not be. For example, a solution that involves a majority of the people changing their opinion on an issue important to them, is about as far from simple as you could hope to get once you understand how they came to have that opinion.

While I’m dancing around it, I can’t avoid the fact that the issue in Swat, and many other places, is Islam. The terribly oppressive conditions in Pakistan and Swat are because of the Taliban and their theocratic stranglehold on the people and culture. The adherence to Islam is the cause and justification for terrorizing the people. The casual observer would ask why don’t they just treat their people better. The answer of course is that they are basing their policies on religious principles. Islam is so thoroughly ingrained in the region and its people that Malala herself doesn’t place blame on the religious dogma which, when followed faithfully, led to her getting shot in the face. I was looking to see if she would say something about the religion whose adherents are dead set against everything she stands for, but she never did. She even said things in the book that confirmed her faith. The Taliban, for the most part, would gladly die rather than give up their convictions. But again, I oversimplify the issue. How many different things would have to happen, culturally, politically, to the region, for things to turn around? Infrastructure, communications, government protection of rights, and a hundred other things would need to be worked out and implemented for things to change in Swat. The beginning, it would seem, is putting these kinds of atrocities on blast and calling attention to them. Malala has succeeded in that respect.

The main attraction of the book is the story of Malala getting attacked by the Taliban and shot in the face. The beginning of the book is the movie preview, you get the premise and some details. Later, the life narrative catches up with that incident and the reader is treated to the full length feature, complete with dramatic last minute diplomacy among doctors and embassies and a separation that you are not sure will end in a reunification until it does.

Overall a very interesting, passionate book that forces us people of the developed world to look at how cush we have it here. It also sheds light on the complex circumstances surrounding allegedly simple cases of human suffering, not that complexity excuses suffering, but lets us know the scope of the problem. More than anything, it is a call to action. There is real injustice being committed in this wonderful modern world, and there is no reason to be OK with it. Humans have a right to education, to take that away or to inhibit that right is wrong, regardless of justification. Once again, that’s the Malala Fund.