I tattooed the name of my wife on my chest a few years ago and since my son was born I wanted to make his name permanent on my skin too. Since I already had black sleeves covering my arms I wanted to try something new. Scarification is a form of body modification where one cuts into skin with the goal of leaving a scar with a design. I chose to write Dante in capital letters, a few millimeters thick, with a handwritten typeface. So, over the course of an hour my friend at Heavenly Ink cut into my chest with two precision scalpels. The feeling of being cut on purpose was very unique and the first straight incision was almost painless because I was so amped. Scarification definitely hurts more than getting tattooed but it was really exciting overall and an experience I won’t forget. It’s almost impossible to predict how a scar will turn out like just by looking at a wound but I’m very happy with the result so far, and this particular scar will hold a very special meaning to me in the future.
November 27th, I remember telling my wife that I was so happy she had experienced such a smooth pregnancy with no morning sickness, an well maintained physique, and an uplifting ardour. That afternoon when she felt her first clear contraction we both looked in each others eyes and understood what was about to happen. I suggested that we watch some anime on the TV to help time pass and that I’d pause to hold her hand trough the contractions. Around 10 in the evening they came once every three minutes and we decided to head for the hospital. On our way out to the car she had another contraction and fell into my arms. As thick flakes from the year’s first snowstorm fell on us, I held her close and could only console her by closing my eyes and breathing together. At that moment I felt a tremendous protective instinct swell over me and a surge of adrenaline sharpened my senses.
My driving was purposeful but collected. While highway lights reflected off the icy weather they showed Danwei concentrating on every contraction. When we arrived at the hospital, an initial checkup showed that Danwei was nearly ready to give birth and would probably begin very soon. The midwife suggested that Danwei should try breathing nitrous oxide as it would take the edge off any pain she felt, which she accepted. I stood by Danwei, held her hand, petted her hair, massaged her back, hugged her, and breathed together with her for the next two hours. When the water broke we knew it was really close.
The baby we had never met, never seen, but taken care of for nine months was on its way. Danwei set aside the nitrous gas as it made her a bit dizzy and unable to focus entirely. For three hours, without the help of anesthetics, she exerted herself physically and mentally unlike anything she had ever done before, resulting in a feral force emerging from within her which ended the exhausting experience at 4:18 in the morning on November 28th 2012. My successor and fountainhead of endless inspiration, Dante Luciani, was born.
On that day, I was given one more thing: a new love for my wife. I have good companions, colleagues, family members, and more, but I only have one friend in this world, and that is Danwei. On the way to the hospital, when she fell into my arms and a wave of pain washed over her face, I remember as she gasped for breath that I couldn’t ever let go. I couldn’t let anything happen to her. Everything shrunk so far away and became small because she is all I have, and without her there is nothing left. I love Danwei so much that a hundred lifetimes together will not weary me of one more kiss from her.
That is what becoming a father has been for me.
When wondering about the nature of our universe, people too often ask why, as opposed to how. Why are ants so selfless? Why are we divided into male and female? Why do we exist? The problem with asking why is that it imbues a sense of sentient intent on part of the subject, which is most often not pertinent, nor helpful in answering such questions. In biology it can be especially difficult to avoid thinking in those terms seeing as how one of the most striking properties of life is its apparent purposiveness. So, how exactly do we come to be so “determined”, if you will?
“The Selfish Gene” was written in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in order to explain in layman’s words the mechanisms behind a gene-centered view of evolution, as opposed to an organism-centered view. While a number of topics are covered, a large portion of the book is dedicated to exemplifying how evolutionarily stable strategies (ESS) function. In essence an ESS is a strategy that, if adopted by a population of individuals, cannot be invaded by individuals with another strategy. Again, the word strategy conjures up thoughts of conscious choice, whereas in reality it is merely a trait that proves to be evolutionarily advantageous in a given environment. That is to say, advantageous to the gene itself, not necessarily the individual organism. A gene which says, “Body, if you are very much smaller than your litter-mates, give up the struggle and die”, could be successful in the gene pool, because it has a fifty per cent chance of being in the body of each sibling saved. Altruism towards members of the same species and especially next of kin is not easily explained through group selection, but is easily modeled using a gene-centric perspective. Especially interesting to me was a section discussing why social insects go kamikaze in order to protect the colony. It turns out that in most super-organism societies, individuals are actually sterile clones of each other!
Though the biology-related material in the book was new and interesting to me, I almost equally enjoyed the callous and scientific language used when discussing potentially loaded subjects. Perhaps it was not the intention of professor Dawkins to come across that way but I appreciated the philosophical undertones the texts carried with them nonetheless. The book contains delightful analogies such as comparing our bodies to disposable vessels or space-ships carrying our genes around. I rather like the thought of comparing my body to an advanced space-ship… The author also introduces the term meme as a unit of human culture that propagates itself through the ether of our collective consciousness. A meme for “belief in god” might only have evolved at all simply because it was advantageous to itself, much like a normal gene evolving in nature.
I’d like to conclude by paraphrasing a clever part of the book which was cross-discipline:
When we say things such as, “Deep Blue doesn’t really think when it plays chess because it can only do what it’s programmers have told it to do” we might as well be saying, “Humans can’t really think because we can only do what our genes have programmed us to do”.
The main reason I read this book was to add some classic fiction works to my often dry and topical reading list. Also the title of the book sounded cool. What was not cool was the story, which summed up in one sentence amounts to: A man steers his steam-ship deep into the dark jungle of Congo and contemplates the black darkness of society and the even darker darkness inside every person’s heart. There was so much darkness in this book, I get sleepy just thinking about it.
While the novel is lauded as a seminal work of English literature, I can’t say that I was terribly impressed with its analysis of human nature. Seldom do works known primarily for their aesthetics also have truly didactic properties. The narrative is set up as a story within a story where a man named Marlow recounts an adventure he had in the jungle where his mission was to kidnap an ivory trader named Mr. Kurtz and bring him back to society. During this journey, Marlow spends an awful lot of time dwelling on the darkness lurking beneath the civilized exteriors of individuals he meets along the way. This notion is also explored from the opposite side, when the normally savage and cultureless Africans display traits which Marlow empathizes with. At the end of the book, our protagonist finds the legendary Mr. Kurtz but in an ailing and frail state. The grandiose ivory trader dies in his sleep but not before whispering something epic like, “The horror! The horror!” After this Marlow has nothing to do but return back to Europe and give Kurtz’s few possessions to a woman that cries for a couple of pages. The End.
For a book supposedly focused on evil and darkness, I was expecting more content on the actual motivations behind people committing heinous and unspeakable acts but, alas, there was no such thing. I have a feeling that Joseph Conrad simply wrote a book about a cool adventure he had while visiting Africa and literary intellectuals have dissected it into psychological mumbo jumbo.
While browsing an old bookstore, my wife stumbled upon this gem and knew instantly that it would be a fit for me. I typically find it very enjoyable to read stories that describe the pop-culture of ancient times, especially when it’s evident that humans have not changed much in the past few thousand years. This particular book, originally titled Philogelos, describes a particular aspect of our species that seems to have permeated the ages. That’s because for all intents and purposes, it is the oldest joke book in existence!
This collection of humorous quips is attributed to two fourth-century wise cracks named Hierocles and Philagrios. Though the Romans had ruled the whole known world for a thousand years, our (presumably) drunken duo were unmistakably Greek. Apparently the Greeks expressed themselves quite literally in common speech, and found verbal contradictions or alternative connotations to be tremendously funny. Understandably, this particular style of humor does not always stand the test of time very well. At first glance, we would probably dismiss a large number of jokes as youthful slapstick, whereas our forefathers would be cracking up merely at their notion. It is actually quite common for old books to be laced with humor that we are completely oblivious to because the local inside-jokes are lost in time. What we still have with us today though, are the subjects of all these jokes: idiots, foreigners, smart-asses, and fat people.
Hairdresser: How shall I cut your hair sir? Client: In silence please.
Though Gottlob Frege might not be a popular or mainstream thinker, he laid down the foundation for one of the most important philosophical movements in history, namely, analytic philosophy. While Aristotle’s logic couldn’t even represent trivial inferences in Euclidean geometry, Frege’s work lead to the formalization of Russel’s Principia Mathematica, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and Tarski’s theory of truth.
Frege wrote Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik in 1884 with the intent of laying down an a priori analytic-based treatise on what we refer to as numbers. We now know in retrospect that logicism as a singular way to reduce all of mathematics to pure logic did not survive the test of time. However, its rigorous formalism did.
Using words to describe mathematics certainly is difficult. Saying that the number 1 is a thing is like defining a definite article in terms of its indefinite article. In Grundlagen, Frege defines numbers as objects that assert something about a concept. What does this mean? In daily speech, we usually use numbers much in the same way we use adjectives: “I see five ants” or “I see red ants”. While both properties may be regarded as objective, the difference is that every ant is red, but not every ant is five. Numbers are not properties of the ants themselves. This becomes more apparent when we convert the sentence to, “The number of ants I see is five”, where the word five is used as a singular term rather than adjectivally. The number five then belongs to a concept of ant that I see. So what is a natural number?
Frege defines ‘the number that belongs to a concept Φ’ as the extension of ‘equal to the concept Ψ’. Equality is defined as: a mutual univocal correlation of the extensions of concept terms. Zero, in turn, would be the concept of being non self-identical. Another way of expressing zero would be as the extension of a concept that has no objects falling under it. I’m not entirely certain if Frege was unaware of it or if we all simply have misunderstood his ideas, but to understand the notion of univocal (one-to-one) correlation, we must first define the natural number 1. Did he intend it to be a circular argument? A bit disappointing but not fatal to his legacy.
While Grundlagen leaves out definitions for complex numbers, imaginary numbers, infinitesimals, and more, it sets the bar on other important matters. I particularly enjoyed Frege’s long digressions on psychologism which he strongly disliked. The inductive proofs that fancy calculus mathematicians pulled out of their hats seemed to irritate him especially. I would recommend this book to someone that is interested in mathematical philosophy and history, but doesn’t want too much actual mathematics.
Besides simply being lengthy, this book was a formidably difficult read — unless it was utter nonsense, in which case it was laughably easy. I can’t really decide which because the language was used in such an obscure way that it was extremely difficult to follow the lengthy lines of reasoning and maintain whether or not they were actually consistent. The book is further clouded by the gratuitous use of home-made words which already sound odd in German, “Zuhandenheit”, but even more so in English, “Ready-to-Hand”. Perhaps this is done on purpose, as the author is fond of the hermeneutic circle and feels this is the only way to approach the main topic of the book: What is the true nature of Being?
Being and Time, which is considered one of the premier philosophical works of the 20th century, was written my Martin Heidegger to address a question which he felt had been overlooked in philosophy. He believed that while most philosophers had been chiefly concerned which things that exist, they’d never given a satisfactory definition of what it actually means to exist. The fact that Being seems self-evident to us is exemplified by how easily it is overlooked in quotes such as “I think, therefore I am”. Even the question “what is being?” contains a form of Being in it. While Martin had originally planned on addressing the whole issue in six parts spread out over two books, he was only given time to finish two parts before having to prepare the material for publication. In these two parts he discusses three subjects, namely the meaning of Being, a being called Dasein, and Temporality.
In Martin’s ontological structure, the meaning of Being is grasping how something becomes intelligible, which necessarily precedes things like propositions or science, and may be viewed as a destruction of traditional meta-physics. Since there is no way to access Being other than via beings themselves the next step is asking a being about its own Being. The one chosen to answer these questions is Dasein. By quantifying a set of characteristics that a being interested in its own existence might have, such as angst and care, Martin reaches the prerequisite of those characteristics which is temporality, because Dasein is mortal. To truly grasp the meaning of his own Being, Dasein must first authentically embrace the fact that it will die. The book ends with questions concerning the nature of temporality itself which were supposed to be answered in the continuation of his project.
I picked up this Times Bestseller at an airport pocket-book store while waiting for a connecting flight. Normally I stay away from shelves with a “bestseller” sign since they only contain banal things like stories about teenage vampires falling in love or never-before-told secrets on how to get rich fast / be happy / loose weight. This book however, had a title which was hard for me to resist. I was skeptical at first because on the cover it stood “understanding philosophy through jokes”, which made me wonder how much philosophy such a small book could contain. I picked it up, flipped to a page in the middle, and started laughing at the jokes. As I paid for the orange paperback I thought, “One bestseller can’t hurt…”
This amusing book explains the most famous ideas in philosophy using comical anecdotes, and one thing it does very well is transition from philosophy to humor in a seamless and unstrained manner. In fact, philosophy seems to lend itself perfectly to humor since the subjects it often discusses are meant to flip reality, define morals, and single out (often uncomfortable) truths of life. Here are some short gags.
Empiricism, or what data can we trust:
Morty comes home to find his wife and his best-friend, Lou, together in bed.
Just as Morty is about to open his mouth, Lou jumps out of the bed and says,
“Before you say anything, old pal, what are you going to believe, me or your eyes?”
Heidegger’s existentialist anxiety:
A customer in a restaurant asks, “How do you prepare your chickens?”
The cook answers, “Oh, nothing special really. We just tell them they’re gonna die”
In 1884 an English schoolmaster penned a groundbreaking novella called Flatland. The book’s protagonist and narrator is a square living on a vast two-dimensional plane inhabited by a plethora of geometric shapes. As Mr. Square walks the reader through what life in his dimension is like, it’s easy to be fascinated with how foreign their universe seems when viewed from the “inside”. For instance, to us a square is easily distinguishable from a circle, but to a Flatlander both look like straight lines. In fact, to a Flatlander, everything looks like a straight line! One evening, the square was visited by a being with extraordinary powers. The guest appeared straight out of nowhere and was at first as small as a point, but grew quickly into a magnificent circle. When the awe-struck square demanded to to be told what he was looking at, the mysterious being obliged by introducing himself as: The Sphere.
In the beginning, the square could not fathom a dimension which rose “out of” his space. It would have to be an infinitely small dimension he decreed. Well, the sphere explained, for Flatlanders it might seem that way, but to us, the third dimension is infinitely big. Still not convinced, the square asked which direction the third dimension was in. Not knowing what words to use, the sphere could only explain that it points orthogonally from the square’s insides! Realizing that words would not suffice to explain the true nature of flatland, the sphere tore the protagonist out of his universe and took him on an extraordinary journey into the 3rd dimension, pushing the limits of his imagination.
The second half of this volume is a sequel called Sphereland where the square’s grandson continues exploring intriguing spatial concepts. The main characters inadvertently discovered non-Euclidean geometry when they found that the sum of angles on very large triangles amounted to more than 180 degrees. After working their grey matter for a long time they postulated that Flatland might be bent in an unseen direction. This turned out to be the case as Flatland was in fact stretched out along the surface of a giant sphere.
A fun thing for me to do while reading the book, was try to imagine the equivalent of what the square was experiencing except in our dimension. Which direction is the fourth dimension pointing in? I suppose, just like for the square, it points out orthogonally from our own insides but in a direction that we can’t see. What happens when we move around in this new direction? If flipping a Flatlander results in him being “reversed”, then flipping a right-shoe 180 degrees in the fourth dimension should result in a left-shoe. Consequently, if a person were spun the same way, the individual would feel unaltered but everything from books to cars would be backward. A fourth dimensional being could do things like remove objects from boxes without opening them, and untie knots without touching the ends of the rope. And maybe our world, just like Flatland, is folded into a 4th dimensional sphere so that if we had a big enough telescope, we could see ourselves from behind.
While reading Flatland, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the inhabitants who could only “see” straight lines in every direction, but upon further reflection, the same limitation applies to us. We can only see a thin two-dimensional surface in every direction, and just like Flatlanders, we have to infer the thickness of a solid. When I see another person standing a bit away, I can’t be one hundred percent certain that they are not just a very well made cardboard cut-out. A fourth-dimensional being however, could see all of a person, including his insides and must view our human existence as infinitely mundane. What would the eye-ball of such a being look like!? I suppose that if our iris is a concave plane in the back of our eye, the iris of a 4D being would have to be a solid, except curved in the 4th dimension. Pretty spaced out!
As one might guess from the title, this book offers a critique of religion and a particularly scathing one at that. Unfortunately, I don’t feel at liberty to delve into the specific topics covered in the different chapters, and an anecdote used early on in the book explains why. During a panel debate, Hitchens was asked to imagine himself in a strange city with the evening coming on and a large group of men steadily approaching. He was then asked whether he would feel more or less safe if he were to learn that the approaching men were returning from a prayer meeting. Hitchens answered that he had found himself in precisely that situation when visiting Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, Baghdad, and many other cities. In most cases, it was proper to fear for ones life.
What irks me is that even well-meaning criticism on a topic relating to religion risks being viewed as being disrespectful. This is because people divide their values and beliefs into two categories: one based on reason, and the other on faith which is not subject to questioning. While secular ideas can always grow and improve, religious ones are written in stone. If religion were a private phenomenon, like having an “invisible friend”, it would be one thing, but it permeates our relationships, schools, medicine, governments, militaries and much more.
As little as one hundred years ago, the majority of the world’s religious leaders quoted holy scriptures in support of slavery. Today they are actively preventing vaccination of the horrible child maiming disease polio. Their condemnation of contraceptive use is certainly not helping the eradication of AIDS either, and if the HIV virus is god’s punishment for homosexuality then it seems heavily biased toward the male variety. One of the most fantastic and promising forms of medical research, that of embryonic stem-cells, is also being hampered by religious activists. Throughout history, from Aristotle, to Galileo, to Darwin, the castigation of science by religious leaders has been relentless.
Hitchen’s book not only discusses how religion ruins entire countries, but also how it can poison the individual. Holy books dictate what we may eat, whom we may love, how to treat our bodies, and even how to cut the body parts of babies. Were it not for the fact that these customs were religious, most would consider them disgusting. Walking on eggshells an entire lifetime might be possible if these sacred laws were limited to sinful physical actions, but that’s never where it ends. We are imposed with a particularly horrible form of dictatorship, namely one where thought crimes are forbidden. To say you’re not allowed to steal your neighbor’s wife is one thing, but if you even think that you would like to have one of your neighbor’s possessions, you’re on a path to eternal damnation. This type of restriction on reasoning exists by force in all religions, otherwise their dogma would not be able to persist. What is most unfortunate is that children are inoculated with these beliefs before they reach the age of reason, though perhaps that is the entire point.
Many evil things have been done in the name of god, and many good people are believers. Still, their good actions do not require the existence of an omnipotent being to be justified. When forced into a corner, people of religious conviction default to saying that if god does not exist, all evil is permissible. Perhaps though, what they’re really saying, is that to them all evil would be permissible.