Sunday, April 17th, 2011

The Power of MythThe Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is my first first-person experience with Campbell. And I find it an incredibly frustrating book.

There are parts that are wonderful: when Campbell takes a few moments to tell some of the myths that have been floating around for years. Or when he compares the motifs in multiple myths from different cultures in different parts of the world. Campbell was clearly a master story-teller, and even in just a couple of sentences, he really makes these ancient stories come alive.

Similarly, the comparisons really help draw me in to the idea of a single world-wide culture of humanity. As a sci-fi fan, this is hardly a foreign idea; but a shared mythology really drives home the point that all human beings share some really fundamental experiences.

Where Campbell starts to lose me is when he insists that these shared experiences (birth, adolescence, death, the physical act of eating something that used to be alive, etc.) are indicative of some Mystery that underwrites the universe. Here he becomes less historian or anthropologist and more of a mystic. By using the word "transcendence" a lot, he seems to think that it doesn’t matter that there’s no evidence or reason to think that this Mystery is real and not merely a by-product of our own brains firing in a pattern fixed by millions of years of evolution.

As a rationalist or realist or materialist or skeptic or whatever label you find on me, I find this sort of spiritualism pointless and silly. Beyond that, I think that focusing on this fanciful mystery so heavily can really lead to serious problems with living. At one point, Campbell says something to the effect of "But you can’t try to make life better. This is all there is. You have to learn to accept it." But that’s absurdly untrue. Thanks to people who refused to learn to accept it, we’ve built democracies that are more-or-less egalitarian (and thousands of times better for the average citizen than the brutal civilizations that gave us some of these myths). Thanks to people who refused to learn to accept life, we’ve developed communications technologies that allow mothers to not have to give up their children to distance in quite the same way that they had to before. We’ve developed medicine that give people more time than ever with their loved ones (including Campbell himself who was in his eighties when this conversation took place). And, it’s entirely possible that we’ll defeat death one day. Not in the mythical way that Campbell celebrates death leading to rebirth of a new generation. But actually making it so that death just doesn’t happen anymore (at least, not death of old age: that’s the first goal and it seems perfectly attainable in the next couple of centuries).

Think of that.

And none of this could ever happen if people took Campbell’s advice of taking nature-as-it-is as the the only good way of the world. This approach made perfect sense to tribal hunter-gathers a thousand year’s ago. I think it’s possible that, as a species, we’ve moved past that just a little. While nature is red in tooth and claw, maybe we can do a little better than that.

Campbell also commits one of my major pet peeves. At one point, he says something to the effect of "scientists don’t know what a particle. Is it a wave? Is it a thing? They don’t know!". From this, he concludes that there must be a magic energy field in the universe which gives everything life. Or something. It’s "transcendent" so he doesn’t feel that he has to be specific.

This perversion of science really annoys me. Aside from getting the particle physics wrong (it’s not that we "don’t know". It’s that the duality is actually what’s going on. Or something. I’m also not a physicist so I won’t pretend to have a real understanding of any of this!), he also really fails to understand the point of science. Scientists (and, through them, our entire civilization) is trying to understand the innermost workings of the universe. You can never do that if, when you find a question you don’t know the answer to, you give up and say "Magic!".

The saddest thing is that this book has far more bad spiritualism than it does good history. Hence my low rating. Ultimately, I think the myths of our past have more to teach us about who we were and we are. Campbell thinks they also teach us what we should be. I find that notion to be abhorrent: we can be so much better than we are or were; and if we’re going to settle for that, then we may as well give up. There’s no more point to us.

Since the book is so much of this, I can’t love it or even like it. Fortunately, there’s enough in here that I do like (in bits and pieces), that I’m still looking forward to reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I understand that this is more historical and factual. Also, Campbell wrote it when he was much younger. So I’m hoping that the religious and spiritual life he made developed later in life won’t pervade it so much.

I suppose I’ll just have to find out.

book review Comments Closed

Hirohito and the Making of Modern JapanHirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s horribly embarrassing for me to say it, but the only thing that I can think of to say about this book is that it is very, very, very dense.

I don’t use that word as a pejorative (though, of course, I also don’t mean it for a compliment). I’m not a high school student terrified of a thick book. Similarly, I’m also not an intellectual who can devour rich works of non-fiction in an afternoon. Instead, I use the word in a purely descriptive sense. This book is dense: it’s filled with meticulously researched facts written in a dry and scholarly style. Dates, names, events, and quotations fill every page. It’s a lot to absorb, and many (if not most) paragraphs required me to read them a few times to really get a feel for what was happening. Which is to say that it took me far longer to read than I would have expected from a book that’s under 700 pages. Again, I don’t consider this a negative: it’s purely an observation. And given how much work I had to put into reading it (keeping the Japanese names straight in my head required far more mental effort than I’m proud to admit), it tends to stand out in my mind when I think about this book.

That said, the book is very good and I’m glad that I put in that work. As a traditionally-educated American*, I don’t know much about Japanese history. After reading this book, I still don’t know much about Japanese history; but I do know a little bit more about the narrow time period of the Shōwa reign. Among other things, I’ve never really had a good handle on why Japan chose to enter the second World War. I’ve never thought to ask how Asian nations (with histories far longer than the American one I’m so used to) relate to each other. And after the War, what were US-Japanese relations like from the Japanese side? While I certainly don’t have all the answers for this (I’ve only read one book on it!), I think I have a bit more context for these ideas. Why, just today, I was able to have an intelligent conversation about what it means for modern-day Americans to honor the patriotism of Zero pilots and how Japan’s constitutional monarchy developed (and differs from the British system I’m more familiar with).

Sure, I haven’t devoted my life to studying these topics. And sure, I’m probably more wrong than I’m right about a lot of it. But, I think I have a broader context for understanding these things now than I did before. And, considering how one of "these things" is a war that completely redefined global politics into our current times, having a bit more context isn’t a bad thing at all.

The book itself is well-written (though dry in a scholarly way). It’s not a particularly easy read, but I think it rewards the effort one spends to read it. I have read at least one paper critiquing Bix’s methods and conclusions. So I don’t know that this work will definitely stand the test of time as historical consensus develops on the issues that Bix tackles. But it won the Pulitzer. That has to stand for something, right?

In the end, this isn’t a "must-read" book like some others that I’ve reviewed here. It’s hard work and it covers a narrow slice of history that may not be interesting to everyone. But if you are interested in Japan or a small slice of Eastern history meeting Western (or if you just want to read a good non-fiction book), I’d definitely recommend it. At the very least, I enjoyed it.

*Read: poorly-educated American

book review Comments Closed
Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

We’re a modern digital couple custom made for the new millennium (we met on twitter for crying out loud!). So, together, we have a lot of data. And, of course, hard drives are never really big enough. It’s a problem.

Our current solution involves a big 2TB external drive (aka BIG DRIVE) connected to Bran’s iMac (which itself is plugged in to the network via Cat5 instead of my own MBP’s WiFi connection). This drive is shared out on the network so we can access it from everywhere else in the house. Also connected to the iMac is a 4-disk Drobo. We back up BIG DRIVE to the Drobo using the excellent SuperDuper!.* This has served us well for a while now, though it has the normal problems: All these drives and storage robots were expensive. It all sucks down way too much power. The Drobo connects via USB while BIG DRIVE uses Firewire, so it causes a bit of port contention on Bran’s iMac. (Fortunately, Brans’ TimeMachine drive is also Firewire, so we can daisy chain it through BIG DRIVE. It works surprisingly well.)

And now, finally, after about a year, BIG DRIVE is starting to fill up. It’s not imminent (there’s still about 150GB free), but it’s definitely something to consider. I’m not sure what to do. All of the options I’ve come up with are bad or slightly-less-bad-but-really-expensive.

The most straightforward thing to do will be to buy another 2TB external drive, BIG DRIVE 2, and hook it up to the iMac. I can replace the smaller drives in the Drobo with some 2TB ones (only one of the 4 drives is a 2TB right now) and make sure that SuperDuper! knows how to back both drives up to the Drobo. There are obvious problems with this: It will be YET ANOTHER external drive hooked up to the iMac. We’ll have two drives and will have to come up with some way to know which files are on which drive. And I’ll probably have to figure out some way to do the backups to drive images since SuperDuper! is a whole-drive sort of deal. I’m not thrilled with this.

A similar option involves buying the second external hard drive and software RAIDing (RAID 0 or JBOD, probably) them together via OS X. This has the same port problem as the other; but since the drives would appear as a single volume, it would mitigate the complex backup issue as well as the “where are my files” issue? On the other hand, software RAID over USB or Firewire seems like it could end badly. I’m not much of a sysadmin, and I’m not sure that I’m smart enough to really handle this correctly. But that’s what the Drobo backup is for, right?

A third option would involve buying a Mac Mini and doing either of the first two options with it instead of Bran’s iMac. This would partially mitigate the port issue (at least from Bran’s perspective). And it would double as an HTPC if we hooked it up to the TV downstairs. But it involves buying an entirely new computer (as well as some new drives). So it’s a pretty expensive option while still maintaining most of the drawbacks of the previous ideas. Of course, since the problem isn’t imminent, we could buy the Mini now and buy the drives later, spreading the cost out a bit. And I have wanted a Mini hooked up to the TV for a while. So, with all the drawbacks, this is a surprisingly attractive option.

A fourth option is similar to the third, but involves cobbling together a Linux computer from Newegg. We could get something with room for lots of drive bays so the primary storage could end up being more internal than external. This has significant advantages (I’ve had a lot of drives mysteriously unmount (during copy operations!), sometimes requiring a full reboot in order to get them to mount again. I don’t really trust it.). We would probably still back this up to the Drobo. Similarly to my third option, this requires buying an entirely new computer. It would also require me to build a computer which I haven’t done since high school (when I started using laptops) and then figure out how to administer a Linux system. I’m comfortable as a Unix (or Linux) user. I’m not sure about administering a home server. I’m not really sure that this one is worth the headaches, but going with Linux (or BSD) could give me some advantages (like ZFS? I’d have to do lots of research) that using OS X might not have. At the same time, this seems to require a lot of work and study on my part. So I can’t see going this way without some really compelling reasons.

Another option we’ve explored is buying a Drobo-like device. This thing from Netgear has been well reviewed. And that’s an older device. I’m sure better ones are available now. This could also be pretty expensive; and after my experiences with the Drobo, I’m a little gunshy to drop that much cash on it. One reason I went with the Drobo originally is that it seems to handle varying drive sizes better than some of its competition (like this thing from Netgear); but maybe that’s not really an issue in practice? I’m also concerned about maxing out the storage.

Right now, the 2TB SATA drive seems to be where the industry has settled (though 3TB drives are finally available). What happens when I’ve filled all the drive bays with 3TB drives and still need more space? I buy another one and suddenly have two giant drives? This is starting to look like a generalization of option 1. Of course, all the other options have similar issues. I really wish I could plug a bunch of these different things together and have them all recognized as a single volume. I suppose software RAID + external drives helps with that. But, by that point, there are so many abstractions going on that I would be terrified of data loss.

So what do we do? Save up our pennies and build a SAN in the house? Live with dozens of external drives? Buy some fancy widget that will promise (and then fail) to solve all of our storage needs?

I might need some help on this one.

* Originally, we just had the Drobo and were relying on the Drobo’s internal mirroring for “safety”. Soon, the Drobo convinced me that the Drobo itself isn’t an entirely reliable device (one of the drives failed but the Drobo took months to tell me which one, during which it was in an unprotected state) which caused us to move to our current solution.