Review: “Three Parts Dead”

Just finished “Three Parts Dead“, a fantasy novel by Max Gladstone. In it, witches and wizards are known as ‘craftspeople’ and resemble lawyers more than anything from the Hobbit. Gods are known to contract out their divine might to trading caravans or create the magical equivalent of shell corporations so they can ferry magic to other gods without their congregations knowing.

Kos Everburning, the patron deity of Alt Coulumb, is dead. Tara Abernathy, disgraced craftswoman-in-training, is selected by a representative of a top Craft firm to aid in the investigation. All is not as it seems, however, as the clues surrounding God’s death begin to point more and more to deicide…

The metaphors here are rather obvious — in our own world high finance functions as a type of powerful and dangerous magic that few, if any, really understand. Gladstone confirms that this was deliberate in an interview I read but can’t track down right now.

I’ve never encountered a fantasy book like this one before. It was well crafted and original, and I definitely plan on looking into the rest of the series.

Peripatesis: Narrow And General AI, Maximus ‘The Delayer’ Avoids Battle With Hannibal.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Bostrom, N. Superintelligence, p 1-22

The book’s far-ranging introduction spends most of its time taking a high-altitude look at the history and state-of-the-art of AI. After its founding the field was beset by boom periods of high investment and optimism followed by ‘winters’ during which funding disappeared and AI research fell out of favor. Behind the scenes, however, the actual nitty-gritty of AI development continued, resulting in more sophisticated expert systems, better neural nets, and numerous problems of the ‘computers will never do X’ variety being solved.

While surveying some of the astonishing successes of modern AI Bostrom introduces the distinction between a ‘narrow AI’, one with extremely high performance in a single domain like chess playing, and ‘general AI’, software able to reason across a wide variety of domains like humans can. No matter how impressive Watson or Deep Blue might be, they are only able to outperform humans in very limited ways; the real interest lies in machines that are as good or better than humans in lots of different ways.

Chapter 1 ends with a discussion of three different surveys taken of the opinions of AI experts. One survey was on when the experts thought human-level AI would be developed, one was on how long it would take human-level machines to become superintelligent, and another was on the overall impact of superintelligent AIs. It is notoriously difficult to predict when and what progress will be made in AI and so expert opinions were, predictably, all over the place. But the results do hint that the problem of AI safety is worth thinking seriously about.

Goldsworthy, A. The Fall of Carthage, p. 190-196

In the face of several crushing defeats the Roman government elected a dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus, who would spend his six-month term carefully avoiding engagements with Hannibal, a passivity for which he received the nickname ‘the delayer’. This strategy, while causing much consternation among war-hungry Roman aristocrats, later came to be seen as Rome’s salvation, giving her time to recover from the defeats at Trebia and Trasimene.

Hannibal spent this period criss-crossing the Appennines, pillaging and looting freely. During one particularly crafty maneuver, he managed to move through a pass blocked by Fabius’ army by first tying wooden branches to the horns of oxen and then lighting the branches on fire, sending them into the pass first. The Roman troops occupying the pass believed the Carthaginian army was on the move and so descended to engage. In the resulting confusion Hannibal managed to slip the main column of his army through to the other side, carrying with them the spoils of war gathered over the previous weeks.

Peripatesis: Spiritual Authority, Slaughter At Lake Trasimene.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Harris, S. Waking Up, p. 119-206

Harris begins the chapter on meditation with a whirlwind tour through evidence for its effectiveness that will by now be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention — smaller amygdalae, more cortical thickness, changes in the structure of the corpus callosum and hippocampus, more empathy, less anxiety over pain, an increased ability to self-regulate attention and emotion, etc. Even though there is a subset of meditators who’s life gets worse as a result of their practice, this is not the case for most of us.

He then discusses two possible approaches to spiritual inquiry: gradual and immediate. Some schools of thought are predicated on the idea that one must slowly come to realize that consciousness is intrinsically free of the self, and others claim that this can be done directly. Harris reveals his preference for immediacy by repeatedly stating that egoless awareness is right on the surface and that many practices are simply a means of overlooking this insight, but acknowledges that most people are so profoundly lost in thought that they must be taught to see this truth one breath at a time.

Chapter 5 goes into some depth discussing the problem of spiritual authority. It simply isn’t possible to fake being an expert martial artist or physicist in the same way one can fake being a contemplative adept, which creates vast possibilities for anyone charismatic and psycopathic enough to attempt to do so.  What’s more, it is also possible for gurus of various stripes to simultaneously be in possession of genuine spiritual insights and enormous character flaws. It would seem that there is little anyone can do with respect to spiritual authorities but to tread lightly, and to listen if that little inner voice says this isn’t right.

In the conclusion Harris reiterates that one of the great challenges of secularism is to erect a framework for understanding, cultivating, and interpreting spiritual experiences. There is a depth, he goes on to say, in the simple act of noticing what it’s like to be you, because you are one of the most subtle and complex features of reality yet to be discovered.

Goldsworthy, A. The Fall of Carthage, p 181-190. 

After an uneventful winter Hannibal knew something had to be done to keep the pressure on Rome and procure additional food supplies for his army.  Pushing deeper into Roman territory would satisfy both and Italian geography afforded him but two options: advance to the East of the Appenine mountains, or advance to the West of them.

Hannibal elected to cross the Appenines and proceed down the Western half of Italy. He deliberately bypassed the Roman army, under the leadership of the newly-elected consul Caius Flaminius, and ravaged the countryside to provoke them. The Carthaginian army camped at lake Trasimene, in an area where the road passed between the lake on one side and some hills on the other. The Romans made camp nearby, and under the cover of darkness on June 20th Hannibal silently moved his army into the foothills, setting an ambush. When the Roman army, possibly in one long column because of the terrain, advanced towards the enemy camp the Carthaginians sprang their trap and won a decisive victory. Consul Flaminius was killed in the battle.

To make matters worse, 4000 cavalry had been sent ahead of the army commanded by the other newly-elected consul, Cnaeus Servilius Geminus; Hannibal managed to find out about their approach before they found out about his victory, and one of his subordinates was able to conduct a surprise attack that devastated that force as well.

Religious People Are Wrong (And So Are Most Atheists).

I believe that there is a mistake being made on both sides of the theism/atheism debate, one that is made as often in the former camp as in the latter. It is the idea that if the experiences people have when engaged in religious or spiritual practices of one sort or another don’t actually connect them to a divine reality, then the experiences aren’t worth seeking.

Among theists this mistake can manifest as a vehement defense of even the most absurd aspects of religion. When a person finds a state of perfect bliss and contentment after hours spent praying to Jesus, it’s easy to understand how she might interpret this as evidence of the divinity of Christ and the truth of Christian doctrine.

In light of this it’s also easy to understand how a conversation between a theist and an atheist can so rapidly spiral into histrionics, if the atheist believes her objections are a matter of logic and the theist is hearing a full-frontal assault on the most valuable experience she has ever had.

But given how many truths aren’t directly, subjectively accessible, we should be very careful in drawing conclusions from spiritual experiences, no matter how profound. And because practitioners of different religions report near-identical experiences despite engaging in wildly different rituals and praying to different gods, we should suspect that something deeper is happening here; perhaps successful contemplatives and mystics, even the non-religious ones, are tapping into states of mind that are human-universal.

Among atheists this mistake can manifests as a categorical dismissal of anything labeled ‘transcendent’, ‘mystical’, or ‘spiritual’. I can sympathize, as I too have come to realize that almost everyone who fecklessly sprinkles such words throughout conversations is peddling bullshit. But, when one carefully slices away the myth which inevitably gathers around mystics, what is left behind is empirical. An experiment is being proposed: if you train your mind using technique x, you can have experience y.

Here is the solution as I see it: remember that spiritual experiences stand on their own feet. Whether or not you had them while meditating in an isolated temple in mist-shrouded mountains or during a raucous neopagan ritual by firelight, your experiences, as experiences, are real and valuable. And they remain valuable even if you realize that you live in a godless universe.

It is atheists, particularly those with an interest in the future, who must be the most careful here. If we let lunatics like Deepak Chopra be the gatekeepers of the numinous, if we claim that the sacred isn’t real when millions of human beings know that it is, we’ll never build a secular world worth living in.

Peripatesis: Suffering And The Self, Hannibal v. Longus In Northern Italy.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Harris, S. Waking Up, p. 1-118:

Sam Harris opens his book on secular spirituality by discussing his early experiments in contemplative practice, and sets the context for the discussion by clearing away some troublesome underbrush.

It’s become fashionable to view all religions as variations on an underlying theme, and the intellectual edifices of the worlds religions do look the same, in the sense that forests look the same when viewed at high altitudes from the passenger seat of a supersonic jet. If one parachutes out of the jet, however, the requirements for survival vary greatly depending on whether the forest they land in is of the deciduous, evergreen, or tropical rainforest variety.

But there is a sense in which the experiences people have in the context of religious practice really are universal. Better still, when lifted from the philosophical ruins in which they’re normally found, these experiences can be viewed as the empirical, verifiable outcome of certain ways of paying attention.

Mindfulness is probably the most widely known attention-based practice here in the West. It doesn’t require the adoption of any religious beliefs, it only requires that you learn to experience each moment simply and directly, without being lost in a never-ending cascade of discursive thought. This is a deceptively simple set of instructions. Harris claims, however, that if one learns to do so, one can find a kind of happiness that is available regardless of what direction one’s life is going. This is the point of spirituality.

But spiritual practices also furnish an indispensable set of tools for studying consciousness. No one can rule out the possibility that we’ll some day develop information-theoretic or neuroscientific concepts that allow us to speak of mind and matter as one thing, but that day is not today. We are stuck simply poking brains and asking subjects what is happening between their ears, and those with the ability to make fine-grained introspective distinctions will be able to provide better first-person data.

In chapter 2 Harris discusses a fascinating implication of the split-brain phenomenon that hadn’t occurred to me before: it’s possible that a functionally normal human brain harbors multiple centers of consciousness. It’s already known that when a person is put to sleep to have their corpus callosum cut, (at least) two people wake up. Further, there is reason to believe that an intact corpus callosum is insufficient to integrate all the information occurring in both hemispheres.  This raises the possibility that each of us is walking around with a first-person point of view, and one or more silent intelligences inhabiting the circuitry of our brain.

Harris gets down to what is really his primary philosophical objective in chapter 3: painting a bull’s eye on the sense of self.

As a matter of subjective experience most people feel like they are a ghostly presence hovering behind their eyes, in possession of a body but not identical to it, watching a stream of consciousness but distinct from it. Harris believes this to not only be incorrect, but to be one of the largest tributaries of human suffering.

If I understand Harris’s arguments, he is claiming that the illusion of the self persists because most of us spend so much of our lives buffeted by hurricanes of discursive thinking, inner monologues, memories, speculation, and emotion that we never stop to inspect it. Once one develops the contemplative tools necessary to actually begin looking for the self, it disappears in much the same way many optical illusions do when examined closely.

With this disappearance comes recognition of the impermanence of the states of mind through which we cartwheel from one moment to the next, and it then becomes possible to glimpse an ego-less consciousness prior to and between the arrival of thoughts. Navigating to this space is profoundly restful because one can cease, however briefly, to be a slave to the chatter of their minds.

Goldstein, A., The Fall of Carthage, p. 173-181.

Caught unawares by the appearance of Hannibal in northern Italy after he executed his famous crossing of the Alps in 218 BC, the Roman senate ordered the return of one of the consuls, Sempronius Longus, who joined forces with Scipio just a few miles from Hannibal’s camp. Hannibal, suspicious that the Gallic tribes in the area might be courting the Romans, sent parties to loot and plunder the Galls, who then did request Roman help. Roman velites engaged Hannibal’s raiding parties, and the ensuing skirmish would have erupted into a full-scale conflict but for Hannibal’s brilliant leadership and unwillingness to fight unprepared.

Both Longus and Hannibal had good reasons for wanting to force an engagement, but it was Hannibal who emerged victorious when the leaders finally squared off at the battle of Trebia, this despite the fact that a large chunk of Roman legionnaires managed to punch through the Carthagenian lines late into the day.