Kindle 2

Amazon has just announced the long-awaited Kindle 2, and the first thing I did this morning was to order one:

I’m particularly looking forward to the “text to speech” capability. As I’ve mentioned before, my mother is blind, and she really misses being able to read as much as she used to. (Yes, I know that the, RNIB and other agencies are helpful, but the majority of important books never make it to audio.) So I’m hoping that the text-to-speech on the Kindle 2 will be usable by an unsighted person. ((If not, I’ll have to bug the developers for an SDK….)) If all goes well, I’ll load up a Kindle 2 with books ((Things like recent history, nuclear proliferation, politics, and disarmament.)) and take it over to Oxford.
Meanwhile, I’m going to have to wait another 18 days to receive mine. “Thinner than an iPhone.” Be still, my beating heart. Tick, tick, tick…
UPDATE: Check out this piece by Andrew Sullivan, quoting John Siracusa at Ars Technica. Money quote:

Take all of your arguments against the inevitability of e-books and substitute the word “horse” for “book” and the word “car” for “e-book.” Here are a few examples to whet your appetite for the (really) inevitable debate in the discussion section at the end of this article.
“Books will never go away.” True! Horses have not gone away either.
“Books have advantages over e-books that will never be overcome.” True! Horses can travel over rough terrain that no car can navigate. Paved roads don’t go everywhere, nor should they.
“Books provide sensory/sentimental/sensual experiences that e-books can’t match.” True! Cars just can’t match the experience of caring for and riding a horse: the smells, the textures, the sensations, the companionship with another living being.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Did you ride a horse to work today? I didn’t. I’m sure plenty of people swore they would never ride in or operate a “horseless carriage”—and they never did! And then they died.

Religion and science: it's about epistemology

Every so often an article comes along which triggers a firestorm of debate, and the latest is by Jerry Coyne in The New Republic. He reviews two new books by Giberson and Miller, each of which tries to defend the thesis that science and religion are wholly compatible. Coyne disagrees, fundamentally.

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer. There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it.

Coyne’s essay provoked a series of responses over at the Edge. These included Lisa Randall’s cognitively dissonant experience:

By sheer coincidence the day I read this Edge question, a charming young actor sat next to me on my plane to LA and without any prompting answered it for me.[…] Prior to his acting career he had studied molecular biology and after graduating coordinated science teaching for three middle schools in an urban school system. He described how along with his acting career he would ultimately like to build on his training to start schools worldwide where students can get good science training.
But he himself believes in Man descending from Adam as opposed to ascending from apes. I didn’t get how someone trained as a biologist could not believe in evolution. He explained how he could learn the science and understand the logic but that it is simply how Man puts things together. In his mind that’s just not the way it is.

I was going to respond in my own words, but then I read Timothy Sandefur’s excellent piece which said everything that I would want to say, and more. Here is his excellent refutation of Ken Miller’s response in Edge:

Then there is Miller himself, who insists once more on his right to have his reason and eat it too. “What science does require is methodological naturalism,” he writes. But why does it require that? That commitment is not an arbitrary postulate—it is an epistemological position, imposed on us by the nature of knowledge and of reality. Miller recognizes this when he acknowledges that “[w]e live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the way nature works.” But of course he then flies to a higher strain—by assuming, without any evidence, that there is some other kind of world in which we also live (a world which, if it is immaterial, by definition has no interaction with our own and would therefore be inaccessible to our knowledge). He, arbitrarily and without foundation, asserts that there is some other world, which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts can be known by some other method—a method which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts is religious knowledge. These are three separate assertions about reality which he is willing to endorse not only without reasons, but without even acknowledging the need for reasons. And this he amazingly calls “honest and open empiricism”!


There’s a fascinating new “thriller of ideas” out called “Daemon”, and on Friday I got the chance to hear the author, Daniel Suarez, speaking about it. I had previously reviewed the book at Amazon, but after discussing things with the author I updated my review. Here’s what I wrote:

80% great (and there’s a reason for that)
If you’re a gamer, or a geek, or simply fascinated (or scared!) about what networked technology is doing to society and business, this book is for you. Or at least the first 80% is; the last 20% may or may not be. Daniel Suarez has constructed a tight, l33t cutting-edge techno-thriller with a premise that’s hard to disagree with: we are now so dependent on technology that the consequences of its manipulation are almost limitless. Control information, and you control money, and then people. Philosophers and the religious reject the possibility of artificial intelligence and claim that computers will never duplicate human experience; they overlook the fact that for many a good-enough simulation is better than a messy reality, and few people really care to tell them apart anyway.
Suarez leads us into his world step by step, using plausible extensions of familiar technologies: cell phones, GPS, intruder detection system, videogames, WiFi, RFID badges. Individually the changes have been previsioned by TV shows or Wired magazine; collectively they have a plausible and sobering power. We remember Ferris Bueller changing his school grades all those years ago, and it’s “trivially obvious” that it would be easy to engineer the release from prison of an otherwise unremarkable criminal. And after watching “Masters of the Universe” destroying prestigious financial companies with a few keystrokes, we accept that a modern corporation could be blackmailed and co-opted over the Internet.
The first 80% of the book is excellent: exciting, terrifying, inexorable, and mind-stretching. There’s a collection of satisfyingly-complex characters, good and bad, and Suarez orchestrates them very nicely. And we keep reading, because we want to know: how will it all turn out? Will the bad guys transform society into a Matrix-like shell, or will the contingency and serendipity of reality disrupt the best laid plans of cyber-mice and undead men?
I’m not going to provide any spoilers. What I will say is that I was disappointed with the resolution that Suarez chose. It’s hard to tell if it was the way he always intended things to unfold, or whether he simply couldn’t figure out a good ending and took the easy way out.
So a five star book with a two star ending. I’ll give it four, because I did enjoy most of it.
UPDATE: A couple of days ago, Daniel Suarez came to Amazon to talk about “Daemon”, and I asked him about the “resolution” issue. Originally the novel was much longer – well over 1,000 pages – and it was rejected by one publisher after another. So Suarez chopped it into two parts, and self-published the first half as “Daemon”. It was slow to take off, but eventually a number of tech-savvy pundits got wind of it and started a buzz, which led to it being picked up by the publishers Dutton (part of the Penguin empire).
So what I interpreted as the “resolution” of the story is, in fact, “climax”. To follow Freytag’s classic analysis, “Daemon” is all “rising action”: we have merely reached the apex of the “pyramid”, and will have to wait for the second half of the story before we get to the resolution and dénouement.
And when will that be? Well, Dutton wants to follow the standard tempo of hardcover and paperback publication, so Suarez has plenty of time for polishing the sequel. Shucks.

If all that “rising action” stuff is Greek to you, check out the Wikipedia article on Freytag’s model of dramatic structure.

So buy it already! And then be patient until, oh, probably some time in 2010 for “Freedom”….