Fiction and a Theory of Mind

I’m tremendously enjoying Lisa Zunshine’s Why we read fiction. It’s everything that I wanted The Storytelling Animal to be; a deeper level of analysis, more theory, more intellectual meat on the bone. I’m only a chapter or two in so far, but I’m already looking forward to the rest of the book.


Exploration and adventure

The Heart of the World is not the type of book I usually read. I picked it up on a whim off a friend’s shelf, in part because hard copy books are a little hard to come by around here. 

It’s a story of a remarkable adventure, and the writing isn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Ian Baker, even in his own understated retelling, sounds like an intriguing character who’s lived for years in Tibet, spent a long time studying Tibetan Buddhism, and traveled far off the beaten track. His trips centre on efforts to find a fabled waterfall, a geographic landmark that’s fascinated explorers for centuries, as well as being a fabled paradise in Tibetan Buddhism.

Ian Baker

Image from

One of the reasons I was predisposed not to like the book has to do with my own dislike for  religious experiences that defines themselves in terms of being unclear, or not conceptually comprehensible. Ian Baker is guilty in multiple cases of just flat-out abusing the words ‘quantum physics’.

Quantum physicists have long recognized that we see only a portion of the world around us. The most intellectually rigorous and accurate model of the physical universe produced by Western science, quantum physics offers a paradoxical world of shifting perspectives and possible probabilities and – like Buddhism – fully acknowledges the role of consciousness in shaping reality.

I don’t know anything about quantum physics, but I’m pretty sure you should not be abusing the term to fit your own theories without at least knowing what you’re talking about. That’s a particular point, but it represents a theme that I found annoyingly distracting throughout the book – Baker’s attempts to link his physical adventures to the religious experience, with a particularly mystical bent, that he finds in Tibetan Buddhism. I think meditation can be a remarkable experience, and it’s something I want to explore more – but Baker presents a faux wisdom, something that comes across as frustratingly vapid, and doesn’t really convey much of his own experience with meditation. He seems to flicker between believing in the existence of separate realities and the importance of the rituals he undergoes, and then back to seeing them as simply exercises that have none of the power ascribed to them by believers. 

The thing that I did enjoy about the book was the remarkable story Baker tells. Remarkable not because of how he writes (he’s mediocre, with a penchant for dreamy imagery and laden imagery, and not a real grasp on spinning a narrative), but because of what he does. He travels through some truly intriguing places, casually describes encounters that for most people would be a lifetime’s worth of stories, and has seen some amazing things. So even for the travel description, the account of the places he’s visited, the book is worth it as a light read. 

The other thing that I genuinely liked about the book is that Baker is willing to own some of his own challenges and conundrums. Writing of a Chinese expedition that was competing with his to be first to the waterfall, he writes:

Nima, our Tibetan guide from Wind Horse Adventure, informed us that Chinese Central Television was broadcasting three-minute dispatches every night documenting their progress. I could only hope that they had no awareness that our small team of three Americans was headed directly for the Five-Mile Gap. The innate lure of the missing link was undeniable, but the highly publicized Chinese expedition had become something of a dark mirror in which we caught glimpses of less noble motivations.

As someone who’s spent years studying in Tibet and Nepal, and speaks Tibetan (apparently quite well), Ian has some credentials. When he’s first told that a guide will take him to the falls, he hears:

Tsering said that until now they’d never told any outsiders, Chinese or otherwise, that there was a way down into the innermost gorge. Hamid and I had returned year after year, he said, we spoke their language, knew their ritual practices, and most of all, we had undertaken the ne-kor, or pilgrimage to Kundu Dorsempotrang. He said that the people of Pemako had accepted us now as nangpa, or Buddhist insiders. 

I appreciated that Baker grappled, at least to some extent, with his own role as an outsider. He recognised that he wasn’t discovering the falls, simply exposing them to the outside world – and he was glad when a subsequent flood made them inaccessible, hiding them from the ecotourism he feared. 

The book isn’t amazing, but it’s reasonably well written account of a truly remarkable journey.


Are coders worth it? is an excellent essay. I like that he’s honest about his own experience, and critical of it, and links it to something bigger. 

A favourite point, as part of a discussion of the comparison between CEO and coal miner salaries: 

It’s like that question my sister asked dad at dinner. There’s an answer to that question — and this is the one I remember hearing that night — that says that my dad was probably paid more than the coal miner because the skills required to be CFO of a Fortune 500 company are scarcer, and more wanted, than the skills required to be a coal miner. It’s the combination of scarcity and wantedness that drives up a salary.

And that answer seems fair, and fine, it seems to settle the question, but we’re not talking about pork belly futures, we’re talking about real people and what they do all day, and my sister, naive as she sounded, had a point, and that point is that the truly naive thing, the glib and facile thing, might be equating value with a market-clearing price.


Zombies, International Politics, and a sense of humour

I’m only a few pages into International Politics and ZombiesI’m already a fan. Mainly because the author comes across as smart, and with a sense of humour.

When Thomas Hobbes described the state of nature as one of “continuall feare, and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short,” zombies were either on his mind or outside his door.

UPDATE: And when he’s talking about neoconservatism:

Indeed, one concern would be that the initial neoconservative response to a zombie outbreak would be to invade Iraq again out of force of habit. 


Where does journalism come from?

There’s a good blog post over at the Altantic by Conor Friedersdorf, as part of a broader discussion of what’s wrong with American journalism.

But there’s an excellent point that he makes in closing, which I think is more fundamental:

Journalistic reforms can and should improve media in various ways; but some flaws are better explained by business imperatives, as well as the American mainstream’s patronage of bad journalism.

As Lindsey Tanner argued in his book Sideshow: Dumbing down democracy (the book itself was somewhat long-winded and short on substance – but I like its central point) that media and politicians are responsible for some failings, but the fundamental driver for behaviour is often what consumers and citizens do.