Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not Liberation

President Hamed Karzai supports a new law in the Afghanistan we're supposedly liberating:

The law regulates personal matters like marriage, divorce, inheritance and sexual relations among Afghanistan's minority Shia community. "It's about votes," Ms Karokhail added. "Karzai is in a hurry to appease the Shia because the elections are on the way." ... The most controversial parts of the law deal explicitly with sexual relations. Article 132 requires women to obey their husband's sexual demands and stipulates that a man can expect to have sex with his wife at least "once every four nights" when travelling, unless they are ill. The law also gives men preferential inheritance rights, easier access to divorce, and priority in court.
Whatever might pull Afghanistan to uphold everyone's human rights, the current approach is evidently not pulling that direction. Something fundamental needs to change in the approach, and soon.

Sacrifice This!

It's so last week by now, but as someone who pressed the meme against the Bush-Cheney junta (here and here), I feel an obligation to address the kerfuffle over the politics of sacrifice -- nicely covered here by Paul Sunstone for those who have already forgotten last week's kerfuffles.

The gist is that President Obama has been caught in the kind of "gotcha" favored by big media gas-bags like Chuck Todd and Howard Fineman for, on the one hand, criticizing the Bush administration's refusal to demand shared sacrifice for the sake of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while on the other hand, declining to demand what Todd and Fineman et. al. consider adequate shared sacrifice for the sake of the ongoing economic collapse. Todd posed the question at last week's press conference:

Why, given this new era of responsibility that you're asking for, why haven't you asked for something specific that the public should be sacrificing to participate in this economic recovery?
Media Matters runs down many of the flaws of this particular "gotcha," the most fundamental of which rest in the glaring asymmetries of the underlying crises.

As currently waged, the wars in the Middle East place enormous demands on currently-serving military and their families, while every other American is able to experience the wars as decreasingly frequent news items. Americans can opt out of even acknowledging the wars, and Bush-Cheney encouraged this insouciance. (To the extent Obama is continuing this encouragement, he is subject to the same criticism.)

Americans cannot similarly opt out of the ongoing economic crisis. Those of us not yet unemployed live with the specter of it daily. Savings accounts of all kinds and sizes are being laid waste, whole industries are rolling away like so many tumbleweeds, and even the wealthiest of us are already on the sharp end of its effects. It is most certainly not something we experience through news reports.

An equivalent demand of shared sacrifice in these two cases is ludicrous on its face; how Todd, Fineman, and others have found such an equivalence shows their detachment from reality. Were this caliber of news reporting to vanish, it would not be, nor would it be felt as, a sacrifice.

Neko Case on Spinner

In case you missed it, Neko Case was recently interviewed and featured on Spinner, which captured this very nice, if pared down, performance of the title track from Middle Cyclone:



In an effort to push back against my impulse to turn this precious, precious blog into even more of a Neko Case and/or Middle Cyclone fan site, I've taken to chipping in occasional updates, corrections, links, and other miscellany to my earlier post, Middle Cyclone, Epic. I've created a tag for that post to make it easy to find, should anyone feel the urge to find it (tag = Middle Cyclone). I plan to continue updating that post for as long as Middle Cyclone occupies such a central place in my overall musical fandom, which could be a long time. It contains multitudes, and I really love the multitudes it contains.

Blackford Contra Nisbet

I am not in the mood to add to this precious, precious blog's existing archive of anti-Nisbet vituperations, but as circumstances demand such an addition, it must be providence* that Russell Blackford has offered one that is more than adequate to the occasion. Blackford says, among other things:

You and I might not expect the NAS to take a stand on questions like that [whether any particular religions or sects make claims that are inconsistent with robust, well-corroborated scientific findings]. We might think that the compatibility of science with religion would be a matter of some legitimate controversy. If we thought like that - silly us - we might then think it inappropriate for bodies such as the NAS to adopt a position one way or the other. After all, we'd say, philosophers of religion disagree among themselves on this, as do individual scientists, so why is it appropriate for a professional body to take a stand? But we'd be wrong. Obviously the issue can be settled by sufficiently well-planned market research involving focus groups, surveys, etc. In this case, the research told the NAS that they should present material to the public that included "a prominent three page special color section that features testimonials from religious scientists, religious leaders and official church position statements, all endorsing the view that religion and evolution are compatible." Yay!

This is how to settle a philosophical debate!
Yes. Undoubtedly. Market research is, without question, the only way to settle questions of philosophy, science, aesthetics, morality, mathematics, or logic. Bien sur.

Or maybe not. Do read the whole thing.

* Mustn't it be providence? Obviously there's no way to address the question short of focus groups and other market research.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Northern Culture on the Skids

This video of a sitting member of Congress, of painfully current vintage, is getting considerable play on the internets (e.g., here, here, here). And, painful as it is to watch or acknowledge, it deserves to be widely known, since we can't hope to overcome this sort of staggeringly hidebound ignorance if we don't expose it to the light of day. Note, for what little it's worth, the complete absence of Southern drawl:



The mind reels at the follow-up questions that spring from this line of thinking, such as it is. Doesn't it follow from these same Bible-infused claims that, say, gay marriage, global terrorism, a nuclear-ready [you name the entity], the most cartoonish form of "abortion-on-demand," and so on, can't possibly do any interesting damage to anything since Rep. Shimkus's favorite god picks the date and time for all things to end?

Which brings to mind the excluded middle fallacy nested in the middle of Rep. Shimkus's impressively dense catalog of fallacies: is there, perhaps, something short of The World's Complete Ending that's worth worrying about? Anything? I say there is. I am not aware of anyone, anywhere, claiming that CO2-driven climate change threatens to bring about "the earth's end." But I think it's worth recalling, simple-minded an insight though it might be, that not all conceivable manifestations of the earth's existence are equal. An earth completely lacking an atmosphere, for example, would be really bad for those of us who currently depend on that atmosphere for breathing, and yet an atmosphere-free earth would still exist. So would an earth elevated several dozen degrees in average temperature such that all the water is vaporized. So would an earth with average temperature several dozen degrees colder such that all the water is frozen. And so on.

While I am not sure how to alter the thinking of people like Rep. Shimkus -- and make no mistake, he speaks for millions with these ridiculous musings -- I am extremely doubtful that the most recent whiny, imperious articulation of superior 'framing' by what's-his-face is sufficient.

The mind reels.

Southern Culture on the Skids

The video and audio quality is impeccable by the standards of youtube, and it's true to say I can watch this all day, provided it is the day on which I kill myself: a moment from Hee Haw:



(via Portland Mercury)

Hume's Mind, Hume's Books

Mark Vernon touches on David Hume:

Theologians, and their critics, get into the reasons 'afterwards', as it were, and also to help 'the faithful' with the important process of discernment: 'faith seeking understanding' in Anselm's famous formula. So there is an important, even vital, dialogue to be had between faith and reason. The arguments are worth having because of the way they shape faith, or the lack of it. But faith itself is prior to reason; it is the existence of faith that gets the debate about belief going in the first place.
I suppose there are two senses in which I can agree with this: first, yes, faith really does get the conversation going because it produces truth claims ("Jesus rose from the dead after three days," "Mohammed received the Koran directly from God," etc.) that may or may not hold up in the light of deeper scrutiny, hence the tensions between faith and reason. And yes, second, faith produces these truth claims in response to a basic human longing to understand our place in the universe. But to both, the answer is the same: so what? The same is true of any wild guess of any sort -- a dream, a misheard phrase, a drunken speculation, a game of word-association, a bout of paranoia, a moment of existential angst, etc.

Einstein is said to have had dreams that gave him some of the ideas that led to the formulation of special relativity. But the rigorous formulation and experimental validation of special relativity is what counts about it and qualifies it as knowledge worth acting on and building on, not the originating dream.

Vernon continues:
One thing that is striking about reading Hume's philosophy is the way he tends to distance himself from the arguments he conveys. He writes dialogues or uses irony. He is perhaps suggesting that all reason is inevitably provisional. When he is read by those who are already convinced of the positions he purportedly wholeheartedly supports - namely those associated now with atheism - they therefore risk missing the point. Hume is certainly anti enthusiastic superstition, which he saw all around him. But if he's against such evangelical belief he'd also be against convinced atheism. His main goal, I'd say, is to demolish the possibility of rational certainty in matters to do with the nature and origin of things at all.
I think this mistakes one form of caution for another. Hume was writing at a time when it would have been unthinkable to come out with a full-throated articulation of atheism and hope to live a free and respectable life, so he used characters in his Dialogues to speak lines. Philo was the character that most closely approximated the voice of atheism, but even that character held back on certain points. And underscoring the delicacy of the topic in the time -- Hume died in 1776, when anticlerical and anti-monarchical revolutionary stirrings were intermingled and none too well-received in elite Britain -- Hume famously provided the Dialogues be published only posthumously. This is not to say that David Hume secretly held to "convinced atheism," whatever that's supposed to be; we can't read his mind, just his books.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Classic Poetry Aloud

Classic Poetry Aloud is a blog and podcast featuring classic poetry read aloud, hence the name, Classic Poetry Aloud. The searchable archives, which are pretty deep by now, can be found over here.

By now, it's nothing short of a cliche to say that the internet makes us stupid. As with so many cliches, there's a kernel of truth to the claim, and evidence of it is easy to find. But Poetry Read Aloud helps bear out the contrary claim, that the internet makes it more difficult than ever to be stupid and uncultured.

Torture's Achievements

Scott Horton has the essentials, and here's the upshot of what torture in the war on terrorism has achieved: false, misleading, made-up, and worthless information; resources wasted chasing the worthless information; lies to conceal the torture combined with lies to conceal its inefficacy; stepped-up hatred and violence by those already inclined to hate and harm us.

Torture doesn't produce useful intelligence, it tramples human rights, it violates the law, and it makes for extremely bad politics. On the up side, it seems to gratify the urges of people who watch 24.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Scenes from a Runner's Mental Theater

I took a nice long run in the heavy rain today and encountered a couple of situations that I'm tempted to call unique to the ebbs and flows, triumphs and tragedies, absurdities and cosmic absurdities, of running:

  • As I was running down the shoulder of a busy street (happily only a small portion of the run), the driver of a large SUV deliberately swerved to splash water on me. I was delighted! After all, what's the good of running in the rain if you're not going to get thoroughly muddied and soaked? And yet it occurred to me that the SUV driver was almost certainly acting out of malice, based on the non-runner's curious inversion of reality in which staying clean and dry is somehow preferable to getting dirty and drenched. So while I wanted to follow my impulse to throw an enthusiastic "thumbs-up!" toward the SUV, I suspected the SUV driver would interpret the gesture as a "fuck you!" -- identifying the bared digit can be difficult through a rear-view mirror, let alone in the pouring rain. It's not that I'm totally against giving that form of salute to drivers, whether malicious or not, whether piloting SUVs or not, whether deserving of it or not, but I didn't want to reinforce the SUV driver's impression that splashing runners counts as malice. He/she might stop doing it, and I don't want to be responsible for that.
  • Toward the end of the run, I decided to do some fartleks at a track attached to a nearby junior high school. There was only one other person present, a 50-something woman with her dog, and as I approached them -- they were walking while I was running, so it didn't take long -- she looked at me with all the horror of a woman facing the realization of her darkest visions of abduction, sexual slavery, murder, impalement, who knows. Granted, it's a cruel world, but this was 11ish in the morning, in the light of day, and at the risk of self-congratulation, I believe I was convincingly portraying the part of someone out for a run (i.e., wearing running clothes, engaged in the act of running) and not playing a part I would consider rapist-ish in any way. Strangest of all, she reacted with the same shock the second and third times I passed her on the track. Again, it's a vicious world featuring more than enough despicable predators, but sweet Jebus H. Rove! Sometimes a guy running at the track in broad (if cloudy) daylight is just a guy running at the track.
Ah, the mental dramas that come with running.

Saturday Sad Song Blogging

Norm Geras is compiling a treasury of songs of love and heartbreak. A sad song is a great thing, and here are a couple I would include on any such list.

Neko Case, "South Tacoma Way." The last 70 or 80 seconds of this song never fails to get me, even though I've listened to it way too many times to count. I have nothing to say about the video of this video, but the song comes through just fine:



Beth Orton, "Blood Red River." Beth Orton has a voice made for sad songs. She could probably draw tears by singing "La Cucaracha" or reading the dictionary without any special effort to make it so. This live version is, if anything, even more plaintive than the studio version:

Luther on Faith and Reason


PZ Myers posted this image of an actual church sign photographed in Arkansas. The quote is from Martin Luther -- its presence in books being the only convincing exlanation of the absence of any spelling or usage errors.

It comes from Luther's Table-Talk, a collection of venemous, longwinded, unhinged rants on a variety of subjects. The particular passage served as a prop* to Luther's view that unbaptised children go straight to eternal hellfire if they die:

The anabaptists pretend that children, not as yet having reason, ought not to receive baptism. I answer: That reason in no way contributes to faith. Nay, in that children are destitute of reason, they are all the more fit and proper recipients of baptism. For reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but - more frequently than not - struggles against the Divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. If God can communicate the Holy Ghost to grown persons, he can, a fortiori, communicate it to young children. Faith comes of the Word of God, when this is heard; little children hear that Word when they receive baptism, and therewith they receive also faith.
It's also worth pausing, albeit only briefly, over what this Father of the Reformation and Enemy of Reason had to say about Jews and women, among others. But I do recommend keeping it brief, as it's really not worth the effort.

--------------
* Don't mistake it for reason! Reason is icky!

Passing Nonsense

The UN Human Rights Council has, once again, adopted a resolution calling on member states to pass laws restraining the "defamation" of religion:

Similar resolutions have been passed by the Council since 1999 and by the General Assembly since 2005. The resolution passed with 23 in favor, 11 against, and 13 abstentions, gaining two additional votes since the last time it was adopted by the Council.
As the council is repeating itself with this foolishness, so shall I: if the council is going to resolve what it sees as a conflict between the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion, there is no obvious reason it should restrict expression rather than religion. As I put it in an earlier post,
it would be equally true to say that believing that god exists and persists in a volatile, belligerent, peevish, verge-of-wrathful mood creates the difficulty with human expression. So where's the UN resolution limiting belief in captious, petty, tyrannical deities?
The point of the reductio ad absurdum is the absurdity, and that's the nicest word for this: it is an absurd attempt to restrict human rights, all the more so for being done under the aegis of an organization established to protect those rights. It's passing shameful.

Civilized people must insist on freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

There's more on the council's idiocy from Norm Geras, Russell Blackford, AC Grayling, Ophelia Benson (expanding on Christopher Hitchens), and Reporters Without Borders.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Housepets: It's Them or Us

Speaking as someone who knows exactly the range of squalling sounds my two cats make when they're stepped on, this news is a bracing reminder that more is at stake than hilarious cat-in-distress sounds:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year, more than 86,000 fall injuries are caused by pets. Dogs are the biggest culprits, causing 88 percent of the injuries. Cats cause 11.7 percent of the falls, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. ... "Many of them occurred while people were walking their dog or chasing either their dog or cat," said Judy Stevens, an epidemiologist with the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
The pets will destroy us all -- it is a question of when rather than if.

I will restrict the following remarks to cats; it's an enduring mystery to me how people manage to keep housepets that chew and defecate indiscriminately, vocalize at all hours, and cannot be trusted to manage their own food intake. Dog, bird, chimp, and rabbit owners have somehow mastered this, so they obviously don't need my advice.

What's a cat owner-proprietor to do? The article offers three suggestions, each poorer than the last:
• Put your animal in another room or different area of the house before carrying groceries or heavy things into the house. This will protect both the animal and human, so the dog or cat won't knock you off balance, and you will avoid stepping on an animal while distracted.

• Keep stairs and hallways clear of clutter.

• If you get up frequently in the dark, use night-lights so your path is lighted and you can see your pet. Also consider removing the animal from the bedroom to prevent stepping on it.
No, no, and no.

The first suggestion sounds very inconvenient. I have to conduct a preliminary cat patrol before carrying my heavy things? I'm already buying the cat food, refreshing the water supply, cleaning out the cat box, and providing for medical care. These creatures are already suckling at my teat, and now I have to make extra trips to and from the garage? Not in this life.

As for the second, the same objections apply. Besides which, I will keep my own counsel with respect to the degree and kind of clutter in my stairways and hallways.

The last borders on the insulting. I have a gray cat that almost perfectly blends in with the carpet, and a black cat that blends into the darkness (visual and spiritual). I refuse to try sleeping in the kind of movie set lighting that would be necessary to illuminate these beasts in the dead of night.

What then? The key is to perfect a cat-sweeping walk in which your feet never get high enough to come down on the cat from above. Instead, any cat foolish enough to be in the way is kicked at a gentle horizontal. So long as you're moving at a moderate, indoors-appropriate pace, this kick won't do any serious harm, although I will recommend an exaggerated kicking motion for the first few weeks with your new cat, which will serve to show the cat the natural consequences of placing itself in your path.

Which brings me, at last, to the delicate question of culpability. Cats possess a definite but rudimentary moral sense. Evidence? Well, does your cat tear chunks out of the sofa while you're in the room? No, and yet the chunks go missing, and the cat hacks up bits of fabric that resemble partially digested couch fabric. Does your cat immediately jump down from the kitchen counter seemingly every time you enter the kitchen? Naturally. And yet it never seems to jump to the counter while you're watching. These illustrate the fact that the cat knows how to calcuate right and wrong, it just erroneously counts your presence/absence as relevant to the calculation. It's a common enough mistake in moral reasoning, by no means limited to cats.

The point is this: no small thanks to keen low-light vision and extremely sharp hearing, the cat knows where you are. It tracks your whereabouts at all times and with great precision. It knows how heavy and large and graceless you are because you've probably tripped over it several times, and because like every other animated object it observes, it constantly assesses whether it can successfully hunt, kill, and eat you. The cat is obliged to stay out of your way as much as vice-versa.

Totalitarians and Rumors of Totalitarians

Like many conservatives, Charles Murray is quite sure that people who don't happen to be him are ennobled by privation, strife, and misery; more to the point, that the very last thing these numberless wretches not named Charles Murray need is a helping hand, least of all one that removes even a mill from his bank account. Local control! Country first! Arbeit macht frei! Ahem.

To which John Holbo responds brilliantly:

Conservatives will object that advocacy of limited government can’t be any sort of totalitarian temptation. Small is the opposite of big. But this misses the point. At the philosophical level, the concern is not big or small. Coercion is as coercion does. The philosophical concern is about willingness to force others to accept your values for their own good. Bringing about small government, on the grounds that this will eventually induce others to accept your superior value system, is just as ‘coercive’, in the relevant sense, as bringing about big government to do that. (Forcing people not to have something they think they want is no less coercive than forcing them to have something they don’t think they want.)
In an extremely crowded and competitive field, the simple-minded equation of government with tyranny might be the single stupidest idea going, even if exhaled in the clench-jawed faux-English accent of Charles Murray. To pick just one obvious example, the women of the Swat region of Afghanistan could benefit from considerably less 'local control' about right now.

Shorter Libertarianism

Libertarianism

  • Who doesn't love fire? It's fundamental! But the ongoing arson spree is ruining lives and sewing obscene levels of waste, and it's so widespread that it simply must be the case that some of the arsonists have won over, won concessions from, or perhaps even themselves become, the firefighters. Obviously, the only sane answer to this set of problems is to reduce the scale and scope of firefighting.


'Shorter' concept lovingly borrowed from Sadly, No!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

My Favorite Pony or Porn Star? The Dilemmas Multiply


Put aside, for the moment, the difficulty of distinguishing My Favorite Pony names from Porn Star names, and the dilemmas and awkwardness that can introduce in everyday situations. We all know that can be vexing -- we have all been there.

I'm not sure how I feel about scoring 259 points over the next-highest-scoring of my Facebook friends on the "My Little Pony or Porn Star" challenge.

On the one hand, I take pride in being good at things. On the other hand, this is not on the short list of things I'd want to be good at. Should it be?

Well, as a wise man once paraphrased, we go through life with the skills we have, not with the skills we wish we had.

MST3K on Springs

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was such a simple formula that it always seemed destined to fail somehow. But no! It was consistently hilarious!



(via Portland Mercury)

Why People Passionately Hate Drug Companies

Andrew Sullivan professes to be both wounded and puzzled at public perceptions of pharmaceutical companies:

I find the knee-jerk hostility to private companies that take enormous risks and make products that save and improve lives to be baffling. It's a form of bigotry on the left - a loathing of the private sector and an inane notion that somehow public dollars are more virtuous than private ones.
The hostility is neither knee-jerk nor baffling, but reasonably condign and readily explained. Here are a few stabs at explaining this "bigotry," presented in no particular order:
  • Constant advertising: Pharmaceutical ads are frequent and uniquely irritating not only for the catalog-of-ships enumeration of terrifying side-effects. It's also because there is something inherently suspect about treating substances that will make the difference between sickness and health, if not life and death, as though they're a laundry detergent we've not yet had the good fortune of hearing about. "Talk to your doctor about [drug]" is a come-on that doesn't sit right. Shouldn't the doctor be coming to me with this information if indeed this drug holds promise for my health? Isn't that what he's paid so well to do? Isn't that the kind of knowledge he spent so much time and effort mastering? But no -- sick people -- or people who, by virtue of the ad, who are led to believe they may be sick -- should be self-diagnosing and suggesting treatments to doctors based on advertisements, the bulk of which are enumerations of terrifying side-effects? This is the manner in which important information about human health should flow? Really?
  • SSRI Anti-depressants (e.g., Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, etc.): These drugs (a) don't work for a great many people and yet (b) have reached a point where they're passed out with all the gravity of breath mints. It's difficult not to suspect that behind this odd conjunction of fecklessness and ubiquity lies nothing more than aggressive lobbying, marketing, and P.R.
  • Boner pills: Pooh pooh this if you like, but we are fucking sick and tired of hearing about pills designed to induce erections. It's a matter of no small delicacy, at best; and the frequency with which it is thrown before us seems far out of proportion to its seriousness in the grand scheme of public health. In turn this suggests a skewed sense of priority among the companies that hawk the boner pills.
  • Special pleading: How is it, many of us wonder, that this particular line is drawn between legal and illegal drugs? Again, it's difficult to look into this matter and find any better, more convincing explanation than the successful rent-seeking behavior of well-heeled lobbies.
  • Pricing schemes: All those billions spent on advertising, lobbying, and P.R., and yet there still has never been a decent explanation of why drugs are often dramatically more expensive in the USA than in Canada or Europe. The obvious explanation: the pharmaceutical companies are charging whatever the market will bear, and the market will bear quite a lot when it comes to questions of health/sickness or life/death. So fuck them, and fuck anyone who pretends not to understand why that would generate resentment.
  • The so-called 'Donut Hole': This is another instance in which rent-seeking by pharmaceutical companies has prevailed over the public good. An industry that wants to be given the benefit of the doubt will not do this sort of thing.
  • Gaming patents: Industries that want not to be seen as self-seeking assholes will, now and then, pass over an opportunity to game the intellectual property laws in their favor.
  • Spending priorities: Pharmaceutical companies love to flack their devotion to research, but they spend more money warping the political process, marketing, and public relations. This is a good gig so long as it is not widely known. When the word gets out, as it has done by now, it looks very bad. And it should!
For all this, there's a kernel of truth to Sullivan's plaint, namely, we need effective drugs and the research that will produce them, and we need it from all available sources. We give a damn about how and how well this particular industry functions, and we should. That's what gives rise to passion and intensity when it comes to pharmaceutical companies, and that's why their shortcomings irk more than those of the makers of soaps or soups.

Cynic's Distress


Congress has passed a law protecting huge swaths of public land:

While the bill touches every corner of the nation, its impact will be especially pronounced in Oregon. In addition to Mount Hood, the law will protect 13,700 acres of old-growth forest in Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest, 23,000 acres in southwestern Oregon's Soda Mountain region, nearly 31,000 acres of wilderness in the Badlands east of Bend, and 8,600 acres of wilderness overlooking the John Day Wild and Scenic River.
Try as I might, I can't find a convincing way to wax cynical about this. This is -- dare I say it? -- a very good thing.

Asking the Right Question Matters

Scrambling to the defense of the Vatican's most recent blast of anti-condom idiocy, Ross Douthat has gone and done the unexpected -- demanded evidence:

I think the more apposite response is to ask Rothkopf for his evidence that the Vatican's refusal to promote condom use has contributed to disease and death on a grand scale. Do religious Africans have higher infection rates than the irreligious? Do heavily-Catholic populations contract HIV in higher numbers than Muslim, Protestant, or animist populations? Are frequent mass-attenders more likely to contract the disease than infrequent churchgoers? Do graduates of Catholic schools have higher infections than their peers? Are Africans who seek treatment at Catholic hospitals more likely to pass the disease along than people who get their medicine from secular institutions?
Those are almost, but not quite, the right questions to ask in the course of gathering dispositive evidence. Almost.

Read narrowly, Douthat appears to be demanding that the Vatican's critics provide evidence of whether lay Catholics (and others within earshot of church preachments) actually behave as the church demands they behave vis-a-vis sex and condom use.

But that's not the question. The question is whether, all else held equal, a population of people given ready access to condoms, instructed in their proper use, and educated about the biomechanics of HIV transmission will develop greater or fewer cases of AIDS than a population denied ready access to condoms, not instructed in their proper use, not instructed in how condoms can inhibit HIV transmission, but given sharp warnings about how much Jesus frowns on extra-marital sex. Which of these populations will develop more cases of AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases?

As it turns out, relevant scientific evidence exists on this matter from, among other sources, the Centers for Disease Control. Meanwhile, the Church has spent the better part of the last 2,000 years trying to badger people out of having sex it doesn't sanction, and I think it's time to declare it a complete failure.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Middle Cyclone, Epic


"My love," apostrophize the first lyrics of Middle Cyclone on the first song, "This Tornado Loves You," but within 20 seconds, the persona relates having arrived at the speed of sound and left her victims "motherless, fatherless, their souls dangling from inside-out of their mouths." So much for the preliminaries, and soon she reports having cut a 65-mile-wide swath through countryside and bed sheets. Sounding weary and unsure of whether she should even bother to explain what has brought her to this point, she closes the song with "what will make you believe me?" We are in medias res, and the epic is started.

The songs that follow -- or maybe I should say books -- seem to stand outside or above psychology. Like the Iliad or Odyssey or the Aeneid, it's hard to say if Middle Cyclone denies psychology, philosophy, history, and other manifestations of the higher mind, or so fully embodies them as to make them newly transparent. As a line in the title song puts it: "It was so clear to me / that it was almost invisible."

The themes are utterly elemental: love, hate, lust, longing, rage, violence, chaos, fate, birth, death, time, the seasons. It draws the boundary between the human and the animal, erases it, and re-draws it repeatedly. It treads back and forth over other polarities: sleeping/waking, nature/civilization, love/hate, love/lust, man/woman, destruction/creation, creation/imitation, remembering/forgetting. The following is a hopelessly incomplete try at capturing some of the stronger impressions.

"The Next Time You Say 'Forever'" -- The human and the animal: "fight-or-flight alarm," after which love, loss, and violence intersect again: "The next time you say 'forever,' I will punch you in your face."

"People Got A Lotta Nerve" -- The next book in the epic, narrated by a "man-man-man-eater" references, as all good epics do, the epics that came before it -- in this instance, Neko Case's previous live album, The Tigers Have Spoken. The persona is overtly an animal now, no longer a cyclone, but still belonging to nature more than to human civilization. But this begs the question of whether there is a difference worth noticing.

"Polar Nettles" -- A man takes his dinner in bed and is, seconds later, revealed to be "fileted" on the stairs. Domesticity and death mingle, soon followed by civility and violence: "The Sistine Chapel painted with a gatling gun."

"Vengeance is Sleeping" -- Now a male persona speaks, at least in part, in a refrain of "I'm not the man you thought I was." "I was nobody. All I had was my invention." The themes of love, lust, domesticity and cage-rattling return: "If you're not dead and buried, you're most certifiably married. Oh merry!" versus "easy loves you keep like pets" versus "my love has never lived indoors." "You're the one that I still miss, and the truth is that it comes as no surprise."

"Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" -- "Don't be tempted by her favors." Whose favors? Nature's favors, but that can't be all. Clouds, faithlessness, fear. Natural and animal forces cross with romantic forces, joined by a tie of violence and discord.

"Middle Cyclone" -- The wistfulness and resignation of the epic hero: "did someone make a fool of me? For I can show them how it's done." She cannot but "ride a bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love." Spilled water, bells that "shake her deaf and dumb." She stands in the eye of the storm of her own making -- fate has set her place but she must carry forth with all disharmony in tow.

"Fever" -- Ants march across her temple, "prisoners of their destination." Lust, a spider, rejoicing feet, tapping feet, tapping canes. "I caught his words in my open mouth" -- the theme of imitation, singing the songs of another. A mention of schrapnel -- spillage from that gatling gun? "My dove is home, my breast is warm."

"Magpie to the Morning" -- Hope awakes: "don't let this fading summer pass you by." She offers songs from sounds stolen from whippoorwills and car alarms, nature and what passes for civilization.

"I'm an Animal" (even better version) -- Now it's time for the decisive battle, ready or not, equipped with proper instinct or not: "courage is roaring like the sound of the sun" versus "I'm made of mistakes." No victory on this field can ever be more than transient: "I love you this hour -- this hour today -- and heaven will smell like the airport." Motion, flight-or-fight, embracing the storm: "let's not waste our time thinking how -- I'm an animal, you're an animal too."

"Prison Girls" -- Continuing the theme of immediacy and impermanence: "My hotel room won't remember me / this dream will die by morning / this dream will not remember me." It's all a deadly serious game with arbitrary rules: "Who am I tonight?" Miles. A question of authenticity and identity: she clasps her breast, plays the part, and delivers the line -- "I love your long shadow and your gunpowder eyes" -- to the audience and to whoever is lying beside her, whoever she is tonight, in a hotel room that won't remember.

Ah, but as we learned in an earlier song/book, animals possess and prioritize memory, just as people do. Hence the Harry Nilsson cover, "Don't Forget Me," but interestingly placed and transformed. Now the persona wants to be remembered: "I think about you, let me know you think about me too" -- animalistic within the frames of this epic. "When we're older." This is not the gunpowder eyes line, nor is it her song, but she performs it. "Nothing lasts forever" rises loudest with background singers.

"The Pharaohs" -- A marriage happens indoors and yet the tornado returns. Blue is sadness, white is innocence? The things people say -- "good enough for love, good enough for me." Good enough, truly? The cage-ratting renews: her "body burned but you never came to bed / you kept me wanting like in the movies."

"Red Tide -- The suggestion of a death-like resolution: "choked in fishing lines" and smells of "dog hair on the heater." In the end, happily or not, nature wins: "the mollusks, they have won."

"Marais La Nuit" -- Like a true epic, there is no proper ending. The album closes with a half hour of pond sounds. Nature will do as it does, before, during, and after any cyclones of human or non-human passion. In an interview with Tavis Smiley, she discusses this as a sort of koan to close the album (part one, part two).

There aren't enough stars to rate this recording.

Wednesday Christian Love Blogging

Members of Westboro Baptist Church, the world's leading makers of hand-made "god hates fags" signs, continue their efforts to discredit themselves and their belief system:

The group says it will picket the funeral of Natasha Richardson, the Tony-winning actress and wife of Liam Neeson who died after a skiing accident Wednesday at the age of 45. ... the church says [Richardson] has been targeted because of her donations to AIDS research, her marriage to Liam Neeson, (it's not his first) and her involvement in theater, which the church sees as a haven for homosexuality ...
It would be interesting to hear what the Westboro Baptist troglodytes wanted Richardson to have done vis-a-vis the world of theater to combat homosexuality. What would an optimal anti-gay Christian wacko do to subvert The Gay Agenda from within its theater redoubt, if given the chance?

Scratch that. It would not be interesting at all.

Hoping to shoulder in on some of the same spirit of godly love, a different god-drunk loon has found the bright side of a deadly plane crash. The plane's owner, who lost several family members in the crash ...
reaps profits of blood money from the tens of thousands of babies that are killed through abortions performed every year at the clinics he owns. His business in the abortion industry was what enabled him to afford the private plane that was carrying his family to their week-long vacation at The Yellowstone Club, a millionaires-only ski resort.

The plane went down on Sunday, killing two of Feldkamp's daughters, two sons-in-law and five grandchildren along with the pilot and four family friends.
Sometimes the best criticism of Christianity is citing the words and deeds of Christians.

God, Truth, and Tone

The Julian Baggini piece critical of 'new atheism' -- to which Ophelia Benson has a trio of very good responses -- is not utterly pointless and empty-headed in the way that many such criticisms have been. Baggini:

[T]he real enemy is not religion as such, but any kind of system of belief that does not respect these limits on our thinking. For that reason, I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent believers, and isolate extremists. But if we demonise all religion, such coalitions of the reasonable are not possible. Instead, we are likely to see moderate religious believers join ranks with fundamentalists, the enemies of their enemy, to resist what they see as an attempt to wipe out all forms of religious belief.
There are a couple of claims being wrongly elided here. First is the claim that the 'new atheists' are posing a threat to religious belief by excluding faith as a worthwhile means of attaining truth. This claim is true. This is the very heart of the 'new atheist' work of two of the so-called horsemen, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. While the other two horsemen, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, agree with this view, it's not at dead center of the writings that have qualified them as so-called horsemen. But the salient point is that, yes, 'new atheism' is about denying that faith offers anything in the way of finding the truth.

The second claim is that new atheists want to "wipe out all forms of religious belief." This is false. People should stop saying this; this is the tendentious, self-serving alarmism of the opponents of 'new atheism.' New atheism does not seek to "wipe out" religion any more than the denial of the literal Santa Claus entails a plot to "wipe out" Christmas, or that a denial of Egyptian paganism entails a project to bulldoze the pyramids.

Beyond that, it's not immediately clear that atheists should care if this or that rhetorical tactic will tend to attract or repel religious moderates. If the candor of a Harris or a Hitchens "drives" a moderate to throw in with the fundamentalists, it's not a happy thing, but note that it's not a happy thing because of religion's obvious shortcomings. Baggini's criticism only has any force if this is so -- it concedes from the outset that there's something troubling, dangerous, flawed, or in a word, poisonous, about really-existing religious belief.

In any case, the moderate so driven -- if "driven" is even truly the mechanism at play here -- will have been so driven for very poor reasons. Since the questions at hand matter, the quality of the content should matter more than the ambiance in which the questions are presented. To whatever extent people are genuinely undecided between (say) moderate and extremist religion, they need to perk up, hitch up their big-boy and big-girl diapers, and listen carefully enough to assess the arguments and evidence. All of us need to see through and beyond "tone." We need to sort out the best available truth of the matter, not stage daily-tracking plebiscites on which side has the most accommodating, polite, sonorous, avuncular, or least sarcastic spokesmen.

Bluntly -- and this applies to all parties to the dispute -- people truly swayed by tone may not be worth swaying in the first place. Their approach to these matters is wrong-headed from the start: this applies to believers who can't seem to let go of the notion that feel-good Jesus wants them to be happy and wealthy, and it applies equally to non-believers charmed by the snarkily dismissive attractions of South Park's irreverence.

I think Norm Geras was getting at this same thing when adding partial agreement to Baggini's criticism:
To state what should be obvious, religious believers also have reasons; and even atheists, convinced as it's possible to be that the religious at some point in their thinking abandon reason, have to acknowledge the possibility that their own reason may be failing them somewhere.
We atheists definitely need to focus on the quality of the evidence and arguments, and to be prepared to make concessions where warranted. We are right to expect the same of believers. And all sides should, while remaining as civilized as possible about it, privilege candor and truth over atmospherics. We should all leave the construction of thoroughly pleasing viewpoints, characters, and worlds to the makers of fantasy films.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Keep Your Phone Directories Away, You Parasitic Assholes

I can report that this noble effort failed spectacularly, and so I am now driven to verbal abuse. In the last two weeks, I have received no less than two paper phone directories, heaped on my front porch in all their soggy, tree-wasting pointlessness.

While I await the inevitable success of vituperating against SBC Communications, Verizon Communications, BellSouth, Dex, Yellow Book USA, and the rest of these nauseating parasites, I shall add my name to this petition and encourage you to do likewise. Some background:

There are over 7,000 different titles of Yellow Pages ... For example, this year in Southern California, it is possible that a person could have over 10 Yellow Pages directories dropped on their doorstep from 10 different publishers. It is also noteworthy that with a distribution of 540 million, there are more directories dropped than the entire population of North America. This industry practice is called "saturation distribution."
Here is a link directly to the petition. Maybe this one will work better than the last one.

And while I'm on the topic of vile corporate parasites and their foul deeds, today marks the 20-year anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill. National Geographic has more ghastly photographs from that disaster.

(via Portland Mercury)

Cadbury Egg Smashings of Note

This is too spectacular not to post -- a blogger has certain responsibilities. Look what thoughts can do:



(via Normblog)

Deaths to Wish For

I am reliably informed that each of us must die, and that being so, there's something to be said for doing it in an interesting fashion:

Muhamad Anwar, 32, bled to death on his way to hospital after being mauled by [Komodo dragons] at Loh Sriaya, in eastern Indonesia's Komodo National Park, the park's general manager Fransiskus Harum told CNN.

"The fisherman was inside the park when he went looking for sugar-apples. The area was forbidden for people to enter as there are a lot of wild dragons," Harum said.
I don't mean to say I would wish it on anyone, but I have to admire the simplicity -- the utter, untroubled naturalness -- of being mauled to death by gigantic lizards. Death by shark, big cat, wolf, or bear hits the same romantic note, one notably missed by, say, death by peanut allergy or death by shoddily-manufactured dialysis machine.

"I was gathering sugar-apples when the lizards struck" -- yes. That dialogue belongs to a well-ended life.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Will You Be Someone's Stunt-Butt?


Have you ever dreamed of serving as Timothy Hutton's stunt-butt but never knew how to get started? If you live in the Portland area, an opportunity has been tossed into your very lap:

Rutabaga Background Casting, a division of Lana Veenker Casting, is currently seeking stand-ins for the series regulars on "Leverage." Stand-ins will be used for 15 episodes and will start working daily very soon in Portland, Oregon, continuing through the beginning of September.
In fact, the call is for convincing stunt-butts for all of the improbably beautiful people shown in the image above. I could possibly pull off the first guy on the left, Christian Kane -- I have that arms-crossed smirk down cold, so much so that I wonder if he stole it from me -- but I'd either have to grow my hair out dramatically or wear a wig, two things I hate more than not realizing my dream of being someone's stunt-butt.

You may suspect that this post mostly serves as an excuse to use the phrase stunt-butt. That suspicion would not be completely baseless.

A couple of other brief mentionables about the magic of moving pictures:
  • The Film Talk is addressing whether there is a Best Film Ever Made, and if so, what it is. Of course there is! The best film ever made is, of course, L'Avventura, La Dolce Vita, Winter Light, The Proposition, Magnolia, Branagh's Hamlet, Olivier's Hamlet, Groundhog Day, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Dr. Strangelove, Better Off Dead, The Return of the King, and several others.
  • It is not The Best Film Ever Made as assessed in terms of the quality of its screenplay, acting, direction, or what have you, but it does tell the story of arguably the greatest runner in recorded history, Haile Gebrselassie. I speak of Endurance, and if nothing else, it serves to remind most of us how small and trivial our hardships are. Whatever its cinematic shortcomings -- and I fear I am unfairly exaggerating them here, rest assured I have seen far worse -- it is a vast treasury of inspiration for runnners and non-runners alike.

Math, Science, and Beauty

Continuing cavil-with-3QD day here on this precious, precious blog, this assertion came along with an interesting discussion of foreseeable advances in computer-based mathematical proofs:

There’s general consensus that really genius-level mathematics is beautiful—purely and uncorruptedly beautiful, the way colored light is, or angels. More particularly, it’s regarded as beautiful in a way that science is not. With a few exceptions—Einstein’s theories of relativity, string theory, maybe Newton and Darwin—no matter how much science impresses people, it rarely moves them aesthetically. Science and mathematics stand in roughly the same relation as journalism and fiction—the latter in each set being more admired because it gives us the sense of having moved in a wholly different realm of being.
I would be the last to deny the elegance of mathematics -- even if we had nothing more than Euclid's demonstrations, math's contributions to beauty would be forever assured -- but I am not ready to concede that its most beautiful examples occupy "a wholly different realm of being" from those of the best science.

And I am less moved than baffled by the math-as-fiction, science-as-journalism analogy. I would prefer to compare math with lyric poetry and science with narrative fiction; or math as abstract painting and science as portraiture or scenery. In sculpture, math would be the Henry Moore to science's Rodin; within poetry, math might be Emily Dickinson to science's Shakespeare. I don't think much of these analogies, but I prefer them to math-as-fiction versus science-as-journalism.

All of which goes to show that in questions of beauty, opinions differ.

Morality and Sentiments

I think this fine write-up of ongoing research on the relationship between the emotions and morality is on the right track:

Whatever role one believes emotions should play in moral judgment, new research demonstrates that the influence of these low-level passions is profound. In fact, a study published in Science earlier this month suggests that many moral judgments are mediated by the same emotional mechanism that is activated by rotten leftovers and dirty socks.

“We started from this funny phenomenon where people will describe…moral offenses as ‘disgusting’…and we were wondering whether that actually means that people are feeling disgust,” explains Hanah Chapman, a graduate student in Psychology at the University of Toronto and the study’s lead author. “In its basic form [disgust] has to do with food and eating and really concrete things. So it was surprising to us that it might be involved in something as abstract as moral codes.”
The specific way I find it to be on track lies in key words like research and study, which signal that people are actively testing these hypotheses rather than philosophizing about them.

Which is to say: it seems to me the way we will ever establish anything counting as knowledge about morality -- what moral claims are, how morals originate, how moral claims (or meta-moral claims) can be grounded, etc. -- is via the scientific method. Speculative philosophy can generate and feed hypotheses into this process but cannot alone resolve anything.

Read the whole thing.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Conservatism, Twaddle, and the Child-Like

Andrew Sullivan quotes Stewart Lundy for the latest bit of nebulous twaddle on the nature of conservatism:

Conservatism is “formless” like water: it takes the shape of its conditions, but always remains the same. This is why Russell Kirk calls conservatism the “negation of ideology” in The Politics of Prudence. It is precisely the formlessness of conservatism which gives it its vitality. Left alone, the spirit of conservatism is essentially what T.S. Eliot calls the “stillness between two waves of the sea” in “Little Gidding” of his Four Quartets. Conservatism is both like water and the stillness between the waves—the waves are not the water acting, but being acted upon; stillness is the default state of conservatism ...
Surely. Conservatism is all that and a bag of chips and a double-scoop ice cream, including an adorable fuzzy puppy to finish off anything dropped on the floor. In the face of this insipid onanism, John Cole is roughly as impressed as I am:
I am so sick and tired of these “esoteric” discussions about the flawless, formless, and timeless beauty of conservatism. It is utter nonsense. We got unchecked “conservatism” the past eight years, and instead of water, it felt more like urine, as they pissed all over us. Conservatism brought us an expanded surveillance state, intervention into a man’s marriage, unchecked budgets, war of aggression, torture, a rejection and mockery of both science and the rule of law, the unchecked executive branch, and on and on and on. The conservative standard bearers are now Sarah Palin and Eric Cantor and Rush Limbaugh and Joe the Plumber.
For those of us who have been trying to forget it, this serves as a reminder that Joe the Plumber continues to exist and to be taken seriously in the circles of really-existing conservatism:



Notwithstanding the mention of "a condition of complete simplicity" in the closing lines of Eliot's "Little Gidding," anyone who reads the poem and is reminded of Joe the Plumber or Sarah Palin is, at best, succumbing to a very fundamental confusion.

While there's something to be said for the qualities of simplicity, humility, and that which is most basic and precious, it does not follow that every instance of willful simple-mindedness is a good. The veneration of home, family, and enduring things can originate from a child-like stance, and can be perfectly laudable; lying on the couch bellowing for more candy can also come from a child-like pose, and it is not laudable.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bad Art, Unknown to Thee


Shame on me for not finding the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) earlier:

The pieces in the MOBA collection range from the work of talented artists that have gone awry to works of exuberant, although crude, execution by artists barely in control of the brush. What they all have in common is a special quality that sets them apart in one way or another from the merely incompetent.
Featured above is a work in acrylic on canvas titled, straightforwardly enough, "In the Cat's Mouth."

View more from the online gallery.

Saturday Not-So-Deep Thought Blogging

Quoting myself:

To an extremely close first approximation, health is better than sickness because flourishing is better than struggling and life is better than death. A complete, functional, somewhere in the big bell-curve-middle human body and brain are the best kinds to have.
Though I typed that upwards of an hour ago, I still believe it.

A Lotta Nerve, Animated

Neko Case has released a video for "People Got a Lotta Nerve" that doesn't make much sense except to track Middle Cyclone's broad theme of animals versus humans. Here it is:



She performed the same song on a recent appearance on Jay Leno.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The R-Word

Sigh. I believe this makes it official -- a slur has been placed on the forbidden side of the line. So says a spokesperson of the Special Olympics:

March 31 is being billed a "national day of awareness," a call to Americans to recognize and rethink their use of the word "retard," or as the organization would prefer, the "R-word."

"Most people don't think of this word as hate speech, but that's exactly what it feels like to millions of people with intellectual disabilities, their families and friends," a statement about the campaign reads. "This word is just as cruel and offensive as any other slur."
I say it's a shame. I see how it would function as a slur if applied to someone with an actual form of "intellectual disability" (I was about to say "mental retardation"), but I don't like the idea of dropping it from the inventory of available words to castigate people who deserve it.

The word goes back a long way, being yet another English word borrowed directly from French, which modified it from Latin. From the start, it has meant "cause to move more slowly or operate at a slower rate," which is an elegant descriptor of people who should be thinking more sharply* than they are observed to be doing.

All well and good, but I recognize that questions of usage decorum are finished when someone resorts to dictionary meanings and etymologies. And the person who cites the dictionary has lost. Henceforth the r-word is perilous -- at best, an invitation to be diverted to the appropriateness of the r-word itself.

Sigh.

------------
* Speaking of sharply, we can still use dull, right? And what about slow?

Inside Every Satirist, A Crying Child

Will Wilkinson does not care much for Jon Stewart:

Here’s what I said about Stewart way back in 2004 after his Crossfire soapboxing:
You know what? I’m just gonna say it: I’m bored bored bored of John Stewart. The Crossfire thing was the final straw, the shark jumping. He’s permanently tainted, and from here on out we can only look forward to the long slide into “Remember when that guy was funny.” Sanctimony is death to satire. The last thing I need is the fake news guy thinking he’s King Shit protector of the public interest. Yes, Tucker Carlson is a dick. But we all have eyes. Damn, John. You used to be cool.
My feelings haven’t much changed. The long slide has taken rather longer than I expected, however. At least there’s Colbert!

(Yes, I know it’s ‘Jon’.)
If I might indulge a little mind-reading, the accusation of sanctimony is a rather thin veil laid over the fact that Wilkinson finds Stewart's left-liberal opinions disagreeable. Fair enough. Wilkinson is not required to nod along with Stewart's left-liberal view of the world, and in fairness, it's hard to laugh at satire with which one disagrees.

Which brings us to Wilkinson's claim that "sanctimony is death to satire." This walks a very fine line, does it not? Think of Swift or Twain, or the best episodes of M*A*S*H, South Park and The Simpsons. Or think of Stephen Colbert savaging Beltway journalists a few years back. The line between these efforts and earnest, shrieking sanctimony is extremely thin -- as it needs to be, or we're just in the realm of insult comedy rather than satire. It's one thing to ridicule folly, and quite another to attack on behalf of a superior, if tacit, alternative. The latter is satire, and good satire if the satirist successfully conceals the whining, overearnest child within behind a more knowing and aggressive presentation. If this act of concealment fails, then yes, sanctimony can detract from the satire.

It is worth noting also that Jon Stewart has never been the funniest thing about The Daily Show (nor was Craig Killborn before him). The segments with the correspondents have always made the show what it was, whereas Stewart's bits and monologues vary, and his interviews are often downright painful.

Watch some of it. You'll laugh.

Some of the Blind Watchmaker's Best Work

Bats are endlessly amazing. Biologist Carl Zimmer:

Bats evolved about 50 million years ago from squirrel-like ancestors. They probably made their first forays into the air as gliders. Like living gliders, they used flaps of skin to increase their surface area, letting them glide further. Their hands evolved long spindly fingers that were joined by membranes. Some early bat fossils suggest that they may have shifted from gliding to alternating between gliding and bursts of fluttering. Eventually bats evolved sustained powered flight.
It can be easy to forget that bats are much more like mice than birds, so rather than having bird-like wings, bats have mouse-like hands -- hands not so unlike our own, really -- that have elongated and been joined with fleshy webbing, which gives them much tighter control over their wings than birds have:
... bat flight is just too complex for simple labels, like upstroke and downstroke. The shoulder of a bat starts rotating upwards before the wrist, which move up before the fingers. The fingers on each hand don’t move in sync with each other. A joint on the left wing is often out of sync with the corresponding joint on the right wing.
The following is just one of the videos of bats in motion at The Loom. Fantastic!


Bat on flower from Carl Zimmer on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Outrage & Its Symbolism

Here's some needful perspective on the bonuses-for-boneheads miasma from Matt Yglesias:

The AIG bonuses are largely irrelevant to the recovery issue, and while important as a social justice matter they’re primarily of symbolic social justice importance. It’s good that people are outraged by this—it’s outrageous! And it’s good that in response to the outrage the government is now working to correct the problem. That’s the media-political-outrage cycle at its best. But it’s not healthy to just go ’round and ’round in circles over this issue endlessly. If 18 months from now the economy’s still shrinking and unemployment’s at 15 percent, nobody’s going to feel particularly happy about the fact that we stuck it to some scumbags from AIG back in early ‘09.
It is outrageous, but it's also a single tree in a large forest.

That said, it's useful to unpack the symbolism and notice what has so captured the public imagination as to merit continuous, breathless, front-page news coverage and commentary. I state only the obvious when I say it speaks to the brute fact of material inequality, an inequality that seems ever more permanent and self-perpetuating. It speaks to a diminishment of work and workers -- making things, improving things, creating tangible value -- and a valorization of manipulation and schemers -- running confidence games, gambling by another name, converting piles of money to larger piles of money. It speaks to a sense of unease over declining prospects. It speaks to what John Edwards and others have called "the two Americas," one a sweaty treadmill sprint to nowhere, the other a pleasant stroll through a lavish resort. Of course, this could as well be seen as "the two worlds" depending on where you sit.

Part of the long view that Yglesias did not bring out is the justificatory framework (to use an ungainly phrase). Many of us are old enough to remember being hectored, day in and day out, on the evils of communism and how they contrasted with the glories of capitalism. Every person should be grateful that the Soviet system is broken and dead, but the moment we face and the future we behold does not speak well of what buried it. If the schemers at AIG -- and CitiBank, Lehman Brothers, Enron, and the rest -- point to the character of the really-existing alternative to really-existing communism, the day's outrage may represent, most significantly, a longing for an alternative to the alternative. And I am not naive enough to believe that alternative is likely to take a benign form.

No Double Standards: 'Beggars Can't Be Grifters' Edition

I might be more inclined to listen to mammonite warblings on the taintless virtue of private enterprise and meritocracy after the Invisible Hand wipes away the likes of this, from a close reading of the AIG bonus contracts we just paid:

These bonuses are payable regardless of performance and are calculated at 100 percent of 2007 compensation for all employees except senior management, who receive 75 percent of 2007 compensation. The amount is payable unless they are fired with good cause, resign without good reason or fail to meet performance standards. For those hoping that these employees could now be fired, “good cause” is defined in the agreement as a very high standard.
Among other right-libertarian fancies, caterwauling over auto workers' pay and 'merit pay for teachers' will be, perhaps, worth considering if and when we have merit pay for private-sector millionaire mendicants. But not one second before.

Decriminalizing the Gay

There has been another victory for reality-informed justice:

The Obama administration announced today that it will endorse a French-sponsored U.N. General Assembly declaration calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality, reversing a decision by the Bush administration last December to withhold U.S. support ... The December 18 U.N. General Assembly declaration ... condemns rights abuses against gays and urges states to pass laws to ensure that "sexual orientation or gender identity" can "not be the basis for criminal penalties, in particular executions, arrests or detention."
Such a measure was necessary because in the most god-drunk corners of the world, homosexuality remains a crime subject to grave punishment:
[H]omosexuality is still outlawed by more than 85 countries and that it is punishable by death in several Islamic states, including Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen ... The gender and sexual orientation discrimination declaration was sharply criticized by Islamic countries, which assert that it would promote sexual behavior that is considered socially unacceptable. The Vatican also denounced the declaration. [emphasis mine]
The holy books are wrong again: homosexuality is not a transgression, but a way of being human. This declaration is an excellent step toward that reality -- may as few people as possible suffer while we wait for all the corners of the world to realize it.

The Philosophy Ceiling

I like philosophy as much as the next guy, assuming the next guy is not an actual philosopher, in which case I top out well short of him. The problem of induction provides a clear enough case in point. An actual philosopher, Chris Hallquist, sets up the problem by summarizing its most famous formulation:

David Hume, possibly the most famous empiricist ever (though he’s got competition from John Locke), thought that because empiricism is true, induction can’t be justified, and since induction can’t be justified, we can’t know things like “the sun rises every day,” and the therefore we can’t know things like “the sun will rise tomorrow.” Other philosophers, such as Laurence Bonjour, have reversed the argument: if empiricism were true we couldn’t know that the sun will rise tomorrow, but plainly we can know this, so empiricism is false. ...

Hume put it this way: “all inferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past.” This is no conceptual truth, since we can conceive of the future bearing no resemblance to the past. But it can’t be known by experience, either: “It is impossible that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future; since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance.” To prove “this resemblance” by experience, then would be circular reasoning.
It's possible to see this problem as a genuine one so long as the emphasis is laid in the right places -- we do not know the future will resemble the past.

Fair enough, but here enters the topping out: I don't need to know the future will resemble the past. If my view of the future has to be narrowly construed as supposition rather than knowledge, I can live with that. I actually think it's a reliable inference, sturdier than mere assertion, based on the sheer volume of observational data behind it -- we have, as a species, charted day after day and instance after instance in which the sun rises in the morning, the billiards balls move when struck in certain ways, the tides ebb and flow, touching fire causes pain, and so on.

Hume himself resolved the matter with what amounts to a rolling of the eyes and a shrugging of the shoulders, as summarized on wikipedia:
Rather than unproductive radical skepticism about everything, Hume said that he was actually advocating a practical skepticism based on common sense, wherein the inevitability of induction is accepted. Someone who insists on reason for certainty might, for instance, starve to death, as they would not infer the benefits of food based on previous observations of nutrition.
After that, as I picture it, he blew out the candle in his dank little room and went outside for a few rounds of ultimate frisbee, or the equivalent for 18th century Scotland, homoerotic swordplay and binge drinking. I can relate.

An Honor

I am honored to be the latest recipient of the Sun Mountain Award from Paul Sunstone of the very fine Café Philos blog.

Thank you for the honor and for the many kind words, Paul!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Survey of Lethal Lies, Dinosaur Feathers, and Grammar

Miscellany:

  • I've added a 'random post' applet on the right-hand side of this precious, precious blog's layout. It throws forth a random post from the vast archives of this precious, precious blog. Huzzah truth in advertising! (applet source)
  • Why is zero a plural noun in English, i.e., why do we say We have zero dogs rather than We have zero dog? This explores the question in a seemingly convincing way. I think a commenter to the post gave the best answer to the question, albeit in the form of a sentence fragment, which strikes me as bad form on a post addressing grammar: "Always dangerous to assume natural languages work logically."
  • It turns out that dinosaurs were sprouting feather-like structures well before previously known, or so reports Science News. The mind reels at the sheer number of dinosaur books that need to be re-illustrated.
  • The infallible Mr. Ratzinger has taken a bravely stupid stand against condom use; perhaps no one better expressed the proper response to this than PZ Myers: "Claiming that condoms increase the problem is disinformation and outright quackery — it's a lie that will kill people." Well, surely Ophelia Benson deserves a share of the prize for best rebuke.

AIG Bonuses? No.

No, it's not the most important problem in the land, but it does matter: here is a petition to stop the AIG bonuses.

Hey Australia! Please Ban Me!

Read this as slowly and carefully as you like, but it says what it says, and seemingly from a reputable source:

The Australian communications regulator says it will fine people who hyperlink to sites on its blacklist, which has been further expanded to include several pages on the anonymous whistleblower site Wikileaks ... ACMA's blacklist does not have a significant impact on web browsing by Australians today but sites contained on it will be blocked for everyone if the Federal Government implements its mandatory internet filtering censorship scheme.
The government of Australia has developed a blacklist of web sites it doesn't like, and threatens to fine people who link to them. And maybe it will outright "filter" these sites if the fines do not succeeed. It's 2009, right? I mean, I would expect banned hyperlinks if this were still the 1500s. Back then, you couldn't blog about your own belly-button without someone calling a magistrate or bishop.

This is insane. But it is also the knocking of opportunity at the door. What do I need to do to get this precious, precious blog on Australia's banned web sites list?