Machine Man by Max Barry

Max Barry is a master at seeing our world and distorting it to extremes in order to reflect it back to us in all of its absurdities. His previous novels, Syrup, Jennifer Government, and Company each looked at the disfunction implicit in how our society functions and, in doing so, gives us a new perspective in where we might be heading.

Machine Man is no different. When an engineer, Charles Neumann, loses his leg in an accident at work, the way he responds is very different than how most of us might in his situation. Being an engineer, he begins to improve on the prosthetics he is issued at the hospital. However, once he realizes that the new leg he has built is better — faster, stronger, and smarter — than the leg he used to have, he embarks on a journey of self-improvement the likes of which the world has never seen.

Of course, Charles is simply taking being an engineer to a completely new level, reengineering his own body. However, at some point, his bosses take notice and see other uses for what Charles is doing. What happens when Charles’ inventions are viewed not only as improvements on prosthetics but also as products to be sold, including to the military? And where does Charles’ self-improvement end? These are the basis of a plot that does more than just take us on a wild roller coaster ride, but also tries to shed light on the question of what it means to be human.

In an age in which one form of self-improvement — doping — is ubiquitous in professional sports, one can ask what happens when trying to improve on human biology is taken to the extreme. Barry offers us one glimpse of what might be. It’s a vision both thrilling and a bit disconcerting.

With Great Power…

After Peter Parker is bitten by that radioactive spider, the first lesson he learns is that “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Society is constantly having to relearn this lesson, especially as technological advances give us more and more power in new and different realms. Harnessing the power of the atom has given us both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Medical advances have allowed us to extend life, even create life such as so-called test tube babies. Genetically modified food offers great hope to help feed the world but also the dangers of Franken-food. And the internet has revolutionized how we communicate, both for good and bad.

One of the next big frontiers of science is neuroscience, the science of the human brain. By understanding how the brain works, we are understanding more about how we function, why we behave the way we do, and what differentiates each of us. We are now at the point that we can, using a brain scan, know if we are looking at the brain of a psychopath or a normal person. If you think about it, this is tremendous power. This is probably as close as we will ever come to Minority Report, being able to tell if someone is likely a criminal before they ever do anything.

Think about it. If a psychopaths brain is truly different from the rest, a brain scan will identify who is a psychopath before they do anything to harm anyone. We would know if they have the potential for becoming a psychopath. And we might even be able to do that scan when they are a child.

Given that we could, in principle, do such a scan and identify potential psychopaths long before they become psychopathic, what should we do with that power? Should we scan everyone’s brains, and closely watch those that are likely to become psychopaths? This seems a huge infringement on personal liberty, but if it prevented the type of massacre that occurred in Norway, might it be worth it?

On the flip side, if psychopaths and other sociopaths truly have a different brain structure, how much of their actions are they really responsible for? If it is all brain chemistry controlled by genetics, should we all be thankful we have normal brains? Should we try to identify these people so we can find some way to treat them so they can lead normal lives?

And, finally, consider the fact that there is a very fine line between psychopathy and genius. Studies suggest many of the top CEOs exhibit psychopathic traits. If we somehow controlled the behavior of presumed psychopaths, would we be impacting other areas of society, including business and politics?

I have lots of questions and no answers. I think these types of questions will soon confront us. And technology is advancing at a pace that is much faster than at least our political and legal systems can keep up with. We will be faced with a future where people who barely understand the implications of the science, much less the science itself, are placed in a position of trying to address these questions. I think the sooner society as a whole dwells on them, the better able we will be able to deal with them.

Stories by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

A book of good short stories is sort of like wandering the Parte Vieja of Donosti in the Basque Country and sampling pintxos from the different bars. Each one is completely different than the one before, but just as unique and exceptional. I just finished reading probably what is now my favorite collection of short stories, entitled, aptly enough, Stories. The editors, Neil Gaiman (of varied fame) and Al Sarrantonio, have pulled together an impressive group of writers to contribute to this collection. Some of the bigger names include Jodi Picoult, Chuck Palahniuk (who wrote The Fight Club), and Joyce Carol Oates.

Many of these stories have a fantasy or supernatural bent to them, but some of them are simply of ordinary people in quite unordinary situations. Some of them are simply odd, and others are quite dark. One, for example, is the story of a serial killer, from the point of view of the killer himself. Others are stories of revenge or simply stories of life. While some made bigger impressions on me than others, none of them disappointed.

I won’t go into any detail about any of the stories, as I’d prefer to let anyone who might be so inclined to discover this great collection for themselves. I will say that, while I tend to enjoy fantasy, it was the other stories that resonated more strongly for me. And the darker ones were, indeed, a bit disturbing. All, however, are highly recommended.

Feeling guilty for needing help?

We all have this image of those that depend on government assistance, stereotyped by the so-called welfare queen, who is trying to milk the system as much as possible; someone who epitomizes laziness and wants someone else to care for them.

However, a recent NY Times piece points out that all of us are depending more and more on government assistance to get by and, ironically, it is in precisely those places where opposition to government aid is greatest where dependence on that aid has grown the most. In particular, the article describes research by a professor at Dartmouth College, Dean Lacy, who has found:

Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.

Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates.

That is, the places that give more than they get tend to be Democrat, and those that get more than they give tend to be Republican. This isn’t new, it has been discussed before. It always struck me as strange. Those that rail most against taxes and big government are those that receive the most benefit. Whether this is from farm subsidies, food stamps, or whatever, the fact that the objections to government helping people come most from those getting that help strikes me as odd.

The article doesn’t give much insight into why this is the case. It does allude to the fact that maybe some of those receiving benefits are somehow ashamed of that and would rather that it not be so easy to get government assistance. That is, they’d almost rather be forced to take a harder road where they are more self-reliant. That the government helps them is almost a failing on their part, which by extension is a failing of the government.

I guess I don’t quite understand fully. Maybe it is related to the so-called American dream which provides us with the comforting notion that if we just work hard enough, we will have that nice suburban house with the white picket fence and the 2.3 children in an idyllic neighborhood. The reality, in my opinion, is not so clean. There is no way our system can support all of us attaining that ideal; as I’ve written about before, it seems to me that a large number of us have to fail in achieving that dream in order for our system to function. We need people at the bottom of the ladder to perform those jobs that the majority of us don’t want to do.

So, is it a failure to attain that dream, a failure of being self-sufficient and thus needing government help the reason for this contradiction in people taking government resources but at the same time wanting to cut them? Do they feel guilty for having to take them? Do they resent having to, in some sense, rely upon those that are willing to pay more taxes to support them? Do they resent that they even have the option, that government isn’t forcing them to struggle heroically in face of adversity, in the fashion that so much of American mythology is based?

I guess, in the end, I don’t have an explanation and I really don’t understand this dichotomy. If we do end up electing politicians who do cut the safety net, it is those very people who want it cut that will be hurt the most. Ironically, it is those that support having the safety net that can best deal with it being cut. Not much of politics seems rational to me, and this particular issue epitomizes, for me, the irrationality of politics in America.

Homemade Christmas

In recent years, my wife and I have tried to reduce the commercial aspect of the holidays by making at least some of the gifts for family ourselves. Given that I’ve been trying to get into woodworking a little bit, much of what we’ve made has been made from wood.

This year, our gifts for our siblings and parents were a family effort. Inspired by a coat rack that Lisa’s grandfather had made, we made hat racks (the hooks aren’t maybe as strong as on the original model). I borrowed a router from a friend and got the wood from another friend who had some scrap pieces just the right size lying around. This was the first time I’d used a router. I did it free-hand, which made it just a little more difficult to keep everything level and straight, but I think in the end they turned out well.  I used a different routing bit and/or different routing depths for each of the pieces.

We then had our daughter write out everyone’s names in her unique 3-year-old script and I then wood-burned everyone’s names into the wood. For each family, we gave each family member a different hook, with their name burned above their hook.  For the grandparents, we put each grandparent’s name and then the names of all of their grandchildren (fortunately, our parents didn’t have as many kids as our grandparents, as we would have needed literally 6 foot long hat racks).  Lisa finished them by varnishing them. We got the hooks at the local hardware store, going for a rustic look. The final products were not the most sophisticated things in the world, but I think they turned out nice. When we were at my parents’ house for Christmas, I hung up their rack, which fit perfectly behind their door.  Now all of the grandkids have a place to hang their stuff when they visit amuma and txitxi!

For all of the cousins and friends, we made more marker holders. A year or so ago, inspired by an image I’d seen on some blog, I made a marker holder that Lisa then painted to look like a ladybug. This year, we made 6 more, a camel, a snail, a bee, a spider, a turtle, and a bug. Lisa did a great job taking almost abstract lines cut into the wood with a Dremel tool and making them marvelous little creatures. The spider, in particular, I really liked, with all of it’s eyes doing all different things (this spider only has 6 eyes; while more than 97% of spiders have 8 eyes, there are a few that have 6). Our daughter uses her ladybug all the time, as it makes it super-convenient for her to have her markers out in a way where she can easily grab the color she wants. I hope the other kids get as much use out of theirs.

For Lisa, I made a trivet. This was a bit trickier than the hat racks, as I made a relatively complex shape that incorporates our names.  I used a sort of square font that I’ve played with since I was in grade school, using it in the past for various doodles and such. This seemed a perfect project to use it as I wanted a shape that was pretty solid and interconnected so that it would support a pot or pan. The lines between the letters were Dremeled out while the lines defining the interior of each letter were first Dremeled and then wood burned.  The outside was routed. In the end, while it jumps out at me, I’m not sure the letters are very clear to someone who didn’t actually make the thing. I guess my initial piece of wood was not very flat as it doesn’t sit completely flat on the table. And the wood varnish I used maybe isn’t the best for very hot things (some pots have stuck to the varnish). Some things to think about next time.

The last project was for our daughter. A couple of years back, while visiting Lisa’s parents, Lisa’s dad showed me how to use his lathe. Just playing around, I’d made a few little figures representing Lisa, me, and our daughter. This year, we expanded her little wooden family, with figures of grandparents, all of the cousins, and even a snow man and Santa Claus!  There is still more family to do — we are debating whether to continue the expansion to her aunts and uncles — but I think at the very least I have to do a little wooden frog at some point. Lisa did a wonderful job painting these, giving them character and making the resemblance to their real-life counterpart very close. On the back of each one is that person’s name, so our daughter also has a way of learning how to spell everyone’s name.

We’ve been sort of waiting until the last minute to get these done. The hat racks were literally finished just days before the last shipping day. But, it is nice to make something, rather than buy some piece of plastic. Maybe we aren’t doing our part to support the economy (though the wood and other supplies do add up). But, I also think our economy needs a new basis besides just buying things.

Not sure what we will do next year. I slowly keep expanding our shop, which gives me more flexibility in what to try to make. But my skills are still pretty novice and time is a factor. However, we’ve also turned to wood crafts for the party favors for our daughter’s upcoming birthday. More on that later.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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