Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Idiocracies to Come

Nils August Andreson has stumbled upon the blindingly obvious:

In good universities across the nation, students flee the Republican Party. And the better the universities, it seems, the more drastic the trend ... Under Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, Republicans championed science and knowledge. But over the past 30 years, national Republicans have formed an intensifying alliance with religious conservatives more skeptical of science and knowledge. I don’t know whether discarding evolution goes against common sense; but I’m pretty sure it goes against most Ivy League-educated senses ... To advance this alliance, national Republicans have derided elite universities as dangerous and hostile places ... In the age of Fox News and the Tea Party, the cultural war has heated up, and the anti-academic and anti-science rhetoric has intensified.
It's a grim picture, but only if you have a good-faith interest in the future of the USA as a creative, vibrant, cultured, productive, and free society. If, on the other hand, you just want movement conservatives to gain and hold political power, there's nothing worrying here at all. In fact, movement conservatives can participate in a virtuous-for-them circle in which driving down educational standards and funding, alongside a ceaseless vilification of learning, creates larger pools of voting dupes, er, motivated FoxNews patriots, who in turn elect more raving, nonsensical, pro-stupid politicians, who in turn perpetuate the Yankee Taliban's culture war against book-reading, curious-minded "elites." And so it spirals ever tighter and lower until we can no longer perceive that Idiocracy was, in its time, a parody -- and not only because fewer and fewer people can operate a DVD player.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Near Miss

I suppose I have some semblance of standing to address the latest terrorism scare since it was focused not only on my home city, but on a portion of it, Pioneer Courthouse Square, that I frequent on an almost daily basis. In that spirit, I offer these observations:

- It's not crazy to be driven to a rage by the profusion of street urchins who clog the square with their bootless cries for spare change, though targeting the Christmas Tree ceremony for this reason is the sort of mistake an out-of-towner would make because this ceremony is one of a handful of times when annoying goth-fashioned mendicants are crowded out of the square. I don't mean to say it would have been a good idea to bomb out the square; it would have been a heinous thing to do at any time, no matter the demographic stripe of the victims.

- Portland has a Somali community? And so does Corvallis? Who knew?

- Let's lip-synch the whining: where are the moderate Muslims to condemn this attack? They're right here. They're also right here:

- It's worth observing that this Somali immigrant managed -- almost, that is -- to attack us "here" even though he had plenty of targets to attack "over there." Moreover, note that he originally came to the FBI's attention (they say) because he contacted terrorist types located in Pakistan, who evidently found it possible to contemplate attacks on targets "here" even though they have plenty of targets "over there."

- It's also worthwhile and fair to notice that there is no ongoing US occupation of Somalia to inspire or instigate the malice underlying this attempted attack.

- I hope it doesn't mean that for future MAX rides, all routes of which converge on the square, we will not have to be frisked, groped, fondled, or imaged in striking anatomical detail. 

I am glad no attack happened. I hope the deserved skepticism of the FBI will subside -- because their account turns out to be truthful, not because of successful PR push -- as ably expressed by Glenn Greenwald:

It may very well be that the FBI successfully and within legal limits arrested a dangerous criminal intent on carrying out a serious Terrorist plot that would have killed many innocent people, in which case they deserve praise.  Court-approved surveillance and use of undercover agents to infiltrate terrorist plots are legitimate tactics when used in accordance with the law.

But it may also just as easily be the case that the FBI -- as they've done many times in the past -- found some very young, impressionable, disaffected, hapless, aimless, inept loner; created a plot it then persuaded/manipulated/entrapped him to join, essentially turning him into a Terrorist; and then patted itself on the back once it arrested him for having thwarted a "Terrorist plot" which, from start to finish, was entirely the FBI's own concoction.
The hope is that justice has been done and the truth served.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Seattle Marathon 2010 - Some Miles Longer Than Others

I ran and completed today's Seattle Marathon in a time of 3:29:06 (7:59 min/mi pace, official) -- a little slower than last year, but on this day, over this course, the best 26.2 consecutive miles I was able to put together.

The thing I want to remember from this race is my level of effort over the last several miles, during which I determined I would just forget everything and run as hard as possible even though I was achy, weary, and not obsessed with any particular goal. These miles are well captured -- or not -- in these graphics from the runpix people:

On the one hand, I passed more than passed me by an almost perfect 3:1 ratio, so this suggests I was making good time. On the other hand, the time was the time, the distance was the distance, and it turns out I was crawling along at a 9+ min/mi pace, which is a leisurely, almost-but-not-quite running speed under normal circumstances.

Lesson re-learned -- that perceptions tend to warp, and should be taken at a steep discount, during those last long miles of a marathon.

I've noted before that marathons are difficult, and today was difficult. The event's tight organization and generous volunteers made it as easy as such a thing could be. I thank all the volunteers and congratulate all my fellow finishers.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Inside a Nostril Lacking Wi-Fi

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful to those -- all of them people or cats, none of them deities -- who make my rising from bed in the morning more than a sketchy gamble. If they don't know who they are, the fault is mine.

A better version of me would also mention the very giving snake in this photograph, but I am what I am, and the snake shall have to locate his/her reward down another of life's winding nostrils.

For a day or three, I will be away from this precious, precious blog -- most hours, perhaps all of them -- doing what one does on days such as these, and maybe even a little of what one should do.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Credulous Cretins Create Crappy Cinema

They're calling this film Christmas with a Capital C, which is all but begging us to think of other words that sometimes begin with a capital C:

Clueless Crock? Conniving Concoction? Cheesy Contrivance? Cheap, Contemptible Con?

All of which is to say, it looks like a good movie to enjoy as part of a binge-drinking game. Every time someone croaks out a half-truth about the legalities of church-state separation, take a drink. I recommend making sure someone is there to dial emergency services or, better yet, cut everyone off before alcohol poisoning sets in.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reality Wins

Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage, Echidne, and Eli Horowitz have already given their spit-takes on Pope Ratzinger's sudden, if heavily qualified, embrace of condom use, but for me, it just renews the usual question of why Pope Ratzinger, any other pope, The Church, condoms, sex, and sexual morality belong together -- even putting all of that in the same paragraph seems wrong.

After all, in the normal course of things, we don't turn to a secretive counsel of prudish, art-hording, gown-wearing, jewel-encrusted, child-raping secretive death cult fiends. When the question is whether or how to use contraception -- an intimate matter, surely -- it seems outright perverse to do so.

Given its long and steadfast commitment to prioritizing the stopping of condoms over the halting of AIDS, I had been this close to accepting The Church's teachings on this matter. I'm glad I gave it another weekend, and it goes to show that the church might just change its collective mind if you wait long enough.

So if you find the Church warring with your corner of reality, give it a day or two. If it still hasn't adjusted in your direction, wait a little more. Here's the important part: while you're waiting, investigate the matter from other perspectives -- subject matter experts is a good start -- and try for a reality-based answer.

Pew Hates America

The people at Pew Research are at it again -- shaming Americans with our splendid ignorance of what's going on in the world. I found the quiz mostly easy, though as you can see, I did miss one of the questions. I'll just say I'm surprised it turned out to be wrong; the incorrect answer I gave is one that cuts against my own American left-liberal instincts (if you will), so I am pleased, in a way, to be proven right in those instincts, but in a deeper, truer, sense, I am appalled at the truth of the matter.

If I read the chart correctly, 58% of American respondents received a failing grade of  five or fewer correct answers out of twelve. While a handful of these questions did give me pause, I can't come up with a list of seven that moderately aware, not-living-in-cave American adults should have gotten wrong.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

In Which I Pledge Never to Doubt PJ Harvey Again

Sometimes I just don't understand my inner music fan. While I have owned and cherished copies of Dry, Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love, and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea for ages, it was only this past week that I finally got around to picking up a copy of PJ Harvey's Uh Huh Her. Half a song later I formed the question that launched this scintillating blog post: what the fuck was I waiting for?

This is a live performance of "The Letter" from Uh Huh Her:

All of which reminds me, why don't I already own Is This Desire? and White Chalk?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Well Done, Lane Two

The too-melodramatic-by-half textual and musical accompaniment arguably detracts from the message:

Having passed the spectacle through all the irony filters, I can say it shows the courage of an athlete accepting a challenge and doing her best in it.

Well done, runner in lane two. Very well done.

Poem of the Day: "Asides on the Oboe"

This poem ponders the most improbable of things -- the man who has had the time to think enough. The Boucher that Stevens mentions is likely this one.

Wallace Stevens, "Asides on the Oboe"

The prologues are over. It is a question, now,
Of final belief. So, say that final belief
Must be in a fiction. It is time to choose.


That obsolete fiction of the wide river in
An empty land; the gods that Boucher killed;
And the metal heroes that time granulates -
The philosophers' man alone still walks in dew,
Still by the sea-side mutters milky lines
Concerning an immaculate imagery.
If you say on the hautboy man is not enough,
Can never stand as a god, is ever wrong
In the end, however naked, tall, there is still
The impossible possible philosophers' man,
The man who has had the time to think enough,
The central man, the human globe, responsive
As a mirror with a voice, the man of glass,
Who in a million diamonds sums us up.


He is the transparence of the place in which
He is and in his poems we find peace.
He sets this peddler's pie and cries in summer,
The glass man, cold and numbered, dewily cries,
"Thou art not August unless I make thee so."
Clandestine steps upon imagined stairs
Climb through the night, because his cuckoos call.


One year, death and war prevented the jasmine scent
And the jasmine islands were bloody martyrdoms.
How was it then with the central man? Did we
Find peace? We found the sum of men. We found,
If we found the central evil, the central good.
We buried the fallen without jasmine crowns.
There was nothing he did not suffer, no; nor we.

It was not as if the jasmine ever returned.
But we and the diamond globe at last were one.
We had always been partly one. It was as we came
To see him, that we were wholly one, as we heard
Him chanting for those buried in their blood,
In the jasmine haunted forests, that we knew
The glass man, without external reference.

Friday, November 19, 2010

GOP = Tea

It's still oddly common to hear the Tea Party characterized as a libertarian movement, but libertarians are not the same as Republicans, whereas the Tea Party differs materially from Republicans on exactly nothing, as I explored a few months ago. The pig-headed denial of climate science is a more recent illustration.

Each of the victorious Tea Party Senators -- Pat Toomey, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, and Mike Lee -- support criminalizing abortion,oppose legalizing same-sex marriage, and otherwise march in lockstep along with the usual far-right culture war preoccupations. Tea Party electoral losers like Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, and that not-a-witch who tried for Senate in Delaware are, if anything, even more at home with religious right lunacy and correspondingly less at home with actual libertarian thinking (such as it is).

Even the GOP's house organ can't gin up any convincing differences between Tea Partiers and garden-variety Republicans, so they focus on rhetoric:

Tea Partiers want to balance the budget, end runaway government spending, including pet projects for lawmakers known as "pork," and stop the tax hikes.

While Republicans aren't opposed to those demands, they have come under fire for running up the deficit when they were in power, including the $700 billion Medicare prescription drug benefit that wasn't paid for and initiating the bailout of Wall Street and the auto industry after the 2008 economic collapse. [emphasis mine]
This implies, or seems to try to imply, that Republicans are constrained by their own actions from railing against "big government" and wailing for ever more tax cuts, but of course nothing is more common than for a Republican to bleat about the same "excessive spending" and "runaway deficits" they advocate when in front of select audiences.

The Tea Party is a temporary placekeeper for Republicans who want to seem to pretend to be independent of the Republican party. Now that many of them are in office, they will do exactly what Republicans always do -- increase deficits while whining about deficits.

The Tea Party is the GOP. The GOP is the Tea Party. They're the same.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I Like Sportsmanship. I Hate White Pants.

Fellow sports fans, have you ever dreamed of adding one of the most tedious propensities of World Cup soccer to a sport you are always already on the verge of despising for its own hidebound, unsporting shortcomings? Your dream has already come true:

Lest anyone accuse me of being a homer, I am barely even a fair weather fan of the Oregon Ducks. I only find them useful as a means of needling fans of the Washington Huskies and Oregon State Beavers, and these teams, in turn, serve the same purpose against fans of the Ducks. And the Washington State Cougars too? Sure. Yes, I think they are still participants in the Pac-10 sports leagues. We'd know if they weren't, right?

Good. Pale gold is one of the team colors.
I mostly root for uniforms, and in this connection, I must object to the abominable curse of white pants that has now reached the Washington Huskies.

Bad!Bad white pants bad!

Well, When You Put It That Way ...

Sam Harris characterizes Christianity as a creed holding, among other things, that an

invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on Mother's knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truths ever revealed about the cosmos. [The Moral Landscape, p. 168]
Zing! If you think that sounds contemptuous, it has nothing on the e-mails Richard Dawkins receives:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How the Courtiers Reply

I offer an important emendation to yesterday's scintillating post on Cathy Lynn Grossman's glass-is-half full approach to interpreting the Biblical texts during the holidays. At the risk of enraging antifoundationalist literary scholars the world over, I note that the Bible actually provides its own hermeneutic in Deuteronomy 4:2:

Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
That's the florid King James version; the New International version is even clearer:
Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.
Thus sayeth the writer who gave us Deuteronomy. I'm inclined to say it was just a guy or group of guys who wrote it, but that's only to say I am not a believer; the Cathy Lynn Grossmans of the world are committed to the view that the Bible is no mere work of people but the authorized word of a great sky-beast who did all the prime moving and renders all the final judgments.

The upshot is that the AHA and Phred Phelps are right to quote the Bible to understand what its chief protagonist is all about. They are not obliged -- nor, I would think, inclined -- to pull anything out of Cathy Lynn Grossman's wish basket and present that as "authentic" or "real" Judeo-Christianity. (There go those scare-quotes again.) The same holds true of other wish baskets that are proposed all too regularly, e.g., Karen Armstrong, the Midgley, Reza Aslan, the Eagleton, the Fish, and others.

Truly the Bible god's court counts many courtiers -- too many.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

It's Safer Inside the Scare-Quotes

In her occasional scratchings for USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman is emerging as a leading light of missing the point (Cf.). Presently she has turned her tomato-sharp acumen to an American Humanist Association (AHA) advertising campaign she finds disagreeable:

[D]itching the thoughtful-alternative concept approach for an in-your-face aggressive one just in time for Hanukkah and Christmas may be less a call to "reason" than the kind of irrational annoyance of a Westboro Baptist Church demonstration.
I just want to pause the quotation briefly to admire the use of scare-quotes around the word reason -- always a canny rhetorical move -- so much so that I may well start perceiving the word as naked-looking without them.Grossman continues:
Those are the ones where the followers of Fred Phelps' twisted version Christianity march around the funerals for war veterans saying their deaths are God's retribution for society's acceptance of homosexuals. The distance between a hateful message from Phelps that "God is your enemy" isn't so far from saying God is hateful, is it?
Here I have to cede one, or maybe a half, to Grossman: when the AHA quotes a ghastly passage from Hosea, and when Phred Phelps cites a ghastly passage Leviticus, they're substantiating broadly compatible claims that the god of the Bible is a vindictive monster, one prepared to inflict profound suffering and death for what, in the eyes of reason, er, "reason," would seem to be minor transgressions.

Granted, it could be that the infants dashed against the stones in Hosea were, in a more complete version of the text now lost, described as having orchestrated dog-fighting rings, authorized torture, carried out some other filthy god's despicable commands, shielded child-rapists from legal accountability, or some such -- I'm just saying it's possible, or perhaps I should say "possible."

Even as Christmas and Hanukkah approach, the text of the Bible says what it says, and some of it holds large swaths of humankind in profound contempt. If Cathy Lynn Grossman's enjoyment of the holidays depends on a version of Christianity -- or maybe I should say "Judeo-Christianity" -- that freely purges its scriptures of all but the happy-talk, then it confirms that she should continue putting "reason" inside the scare-quotes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Actual Impropriety

This piece on Slate.com well enough exemplifies the chatter concerning MSNBC's recent suspension of Keith Olbermann:

Keith Olbermann is back on MSNBC, but anger over l'affaire Olbermann has not yet subsided, the Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz reports, and it's coming from his colleagues. The MSNBC anchor was booted off the air without pay after Politico revealed that he had donated to the campaigns of three Democratic candidates, a violation of what Olbermann called an "inconsistently applied" network rule. While he returned to TV after three days, Kurtz writes that the scuffle exposed deeper fractures between the Countdown frontman and MSNBC staffers, who describe the incident with phrases like "scorched-earth policy" and "totally narcissistic response."
The diligent reader who follows the bouncing gossip ball from Slate to Daily Beast to Howard Kurtz to unnamed colleagues to Politico to unnamed staffers (and back through a few times) learns that -- get this -- a television personality may be narcissistic, and may be in conflict with his corporate overlords. The information age is vindicated!

Granted, Olbermann violated MSNBC's policy against having left-liberal opinions and donating money to political candidates, but I must say the peace of my nightly rest does not depend on the observance of this policy among MSNBC's presenters. I would be more interested to know if someone could credibly connect flawed reporting by Olbermann with these donations. Did he distort, mislead, conceal? That would be a disservice to the audience, but notwithstanding the weird tendency speak of "impropriety and the appearance of impropriety" as though they're equals or near equals, I am far more interested in actual impropriety. (Yes, even in instances such as this one.)

Addressing the different but related case of Stewart, Colbert, Sanity, et. al. vs. Maddow, Maher, Olbermann, et. al., Amanda Marcotte has captured it perfectly:
To hear Jon Stewart talk about it, the main problem with Fox News is that they’re conservative and that they’re passionate about it. This is not what’s wrong with Fox News. A conservative news outlet that still practiced real journalism wouldn’t be a problem like Fox is. The problem with Fox is that they promote misinformation at a breath-taking clip. Any given moment during the day, you can turn it on and whatever they’re saying is probably dishonest on some level, or even an open lie. They set out to confuse instead of enlighten. They want the average viewer to be more, not less, ignorant for watching them.
Fox is a problem and an unfunny joke on journalism because it spreads lies, distortions, and half-truths, not because of "bias." With or without any appearance of impropriety, it actively subverts reality.

Alone Among Crimefighters

When Lassie sniffs the boomerang, well, you know what that means. I don't know what it means, but judging from the illustration, it means that Lassie is doing what, among crime-fighting icons, Lassie alone can pull off -- she(?) can shift quietly to the background of the scene, here represented by the partial cropping of her(?) image, while the humans carry out their dastardly plots. To them, she(?) is just a dog sniffing at butts, drinking puddle water, drinking toilet water, chewing on shoes, carrying fleas, barking at cars, but Lassie knows and we know it's all a ruse.

In truth, she(?) is absorbing every word and will eventually convey it to her human keeper using gestures we would normally take to mean something like "I want to go outside" or "I have already peed on the rug, so if I don't look like I'm begging to go out, it will somehow look worse when the pee is discovered." Her(?) human keepers will understand it as a detailed account of what's gone wrong and where to go to set it right.

The sniffed boomerang, the tilt of the hat, and the short pants suggest this tale is unfolding on a soundstage meant to be Australia -- obviously a soundstage, for does anyone take that background seriously? -- because everyone there carries a boomerang at all times and dresses in that way. It might be a legal requirement, but by now, these habits are so deeply ingrained in the people that the legal requirement is superfluous.

Last and not least, that Lassie is sniffing the end of that boomerang with such interest can only mean it was recently inserted, well ... you have a rough idea of the range of possible places. It hardly needs saying that this relates to the dastardly deeds about to be foiled by her(?) intrepid ways.

(Image of "Lassie Sniffs the Boomerang" from the post titled "Lassie Sniffs the Boomerang" on Ludic Despair)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Being Falsely Attuned

Ophelia Benson has spotlighted an instance in which an official in the Catholic Church blithely concedes that among the world's "Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Vertues, Powers,"* of consequence, "we deal with angels and demons" alongside, you know, some that demonstrably exist. I found this bit especially interesting:

[H]e said that there could eventually be a rising demand for exorcism because of the influx of Hispanic and African Catholics to the United States. People from those cultures, he said, are more attuned to the experience of the supernatural.
Why, a sensible person might ask, would such correlations hold true (if they do)? It's odd enough to think the demons disproportionately target nominal Catholics -- at very least it's an assertion that needs some supporting argumentation and evidence -- but odder still that under The Church's system of changeless verities, those "attuned to the experience of the supernatural" tend to get entangled with demons more frequently.

At the risk of rank heresy, I would say that any correlation between attunement to the supernatural and rates of possession in a population can be explained by everyday selection bias. That is, people prone to such memes as "demons possess people regularly" will tend to interpret emotional and physical problems as instances of otherworldly interventions that The Church, rather than counselors, therapists, psychologists, doctors, or others versed in aspects of reality, are best positioned to address.

I welcome newcomers from places where idiotic typologies and antiquated folklore control interpretations of reality. I hope they will embrace the reality-based view of the world in which the USA, at its best, embraces, and drop the bullshit that rode along in their baggage.

* Milton would vomit with rage if at the slightest association with his work and popery. It sucks to be you, John Milton!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Casting Call

I couldn't bring myself to use the image of Tom and Spike
included in this unsettling gallery.
If Sam Harris is moral realism's bulldog, then Jonathan Haidt is Tom the cat in the episode featured on page 87 of The Moral Landscape:
Haidt asks us to ponder mysteries of the following sort:
[I]f morality is about how we treat each other, then why did so many ancient texts devote so much space to rules about menstruation, who can eat what, and who can have sex with whom? [link]
Interesting question. Are these the same ancient texts that view slavery as morally unproblematic? ... Or, following Haidt's logic, why not ask, "if physics is just a system of laws that explains the structure of the universe in terms of mass and energy, why do so many ancient texts devote so much space to immaterial influences and miraculous acts of God?" Why indeed.

... A majority of Americans believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of the ancient world. Many millions of Americans also believe that a principal cause of cancer is "repressed anger." Happily, we do not allow these opinions to anchor us when it comes time to have serious discussions about history and oncology. It seems abundantly clear that many people are simply wrong about morality -- just as many people are wrong about physics, biology, history, and everything else worth understanding.
It's a nice bite out of Haidt's claim, such as it is, but it's not quite a kill. Moral questions may be in principle amenable to scientific investigation (in the broadest, most cross-disciplinary sense), but this only implies that somewhere, in some corner of structured inquiry, there lurks an answer.

Many of Peter Singer's conclusions about animal welfare, which begin by placing a high moral priority on consciousness and suffering, can be seen as examples of practical successes in science-grounded morals. If Singer and Harris are right, it follows that people are simply wrong to blithely accept the eating of animals, as wrong as they would be if they denied plate tectonics or evolution. At the same time, this is a free society, and this extends rather fundamentally to questions of food intake.

If all questions of value reduce to science, and if science is not a democracy, then what follows for politics and personal autonomy seems obvious. If they are considerably more restricted than we presently take them to be, then that's the sober fact of the matter, but it's not a happy-sounding conclusion.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ought We to Dismiss the Is/Ought Problem?

Now muddling my way through Sam Harris's new book, The Moral Landscape, I find myself wondering why its argument necessarily has anything to do with the is/ought problem that was first articulated by David Hume. Here's Anthony Appiah:

Harris means to deny a thought often ascribed to David Hume, according to which there is a clear conceptual distinction between facts and values. Facts are susceptible of rational investigation; values, supposedly, not. But according to Harris, values, too, can be uncovered by science — the right values being ones that promote well-being. “Just as it is possible for individuals and groups to be wrong about how best to maintain their physical health,” he writes, “it is possible for them to be wrong about how to maximize their personal and social well-being.”
Curiously, not only critics but Harris himself is convinced he cannot sustain the argument without bridging the is/ought gap. Philosopher Simon Blackburn broached it in last week's Science Friday broadcast, and Harris's forceful reply reflects the stance he takes over and over in the book:
[Blackburn]: It's the gap between what is the case - that is, the nature of the environment we live in, the world we inhabit - and the policies that we ought to pursue in dealing with it, and in accommodating ourselves to it and to each other.
[Host]: Let's talk a bit about that. Sam Harris, you write in your book: Science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want and therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.
[Sam Harris]: Yeah. Yeah, well, I think this gap between is and ought, or between facts and values, is imaginary. I think it's a myth. And we need not take it seriously. [emphasis mine]
Odd. Harris's argument need not convert the is/ought gap to unserious myth; it needs only to adopt a moral postulate -- a value judgment, if you must, one issued in approximately the same spirit as "we hold these truths to be self-evident." He does exactly this, but rather than leaning on its self-evidence alone, he issues various arguments for it, starting with these:
Let us begin with the fact of consciousness: I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings… whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature… Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is – it would seem, by definition – the least interesting thing in the universe. ... All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that science is the basis of human values and morality is not an arbitrary starting point. ... My further claim is that the concept of "well-being" captures all that we can intelligibly value. And "morality" – whatever people's associates with this term happen to be – really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures.
In his review, Appiah suggests truth as an alternate starting point for value, but that (it seems to me) begs the question of how truth would count without any conscious creature to notice it. True and false have nothing to do with, and no discernible effect on, a lifeless galaxy featuring the comings and goings of stars.

I suspect I am missing something, but it strikes me that Harris is beginning with a more or less defensible value judgment -- that the well-being of conscious creatures is the highest moral priority. Thereon he proceeds to the rather banal claim that the methods of science can, in principle if not always in practice, tell us whether any given congeries of thoughts and actions will get closer to or more distant from achieving that well-being.

Notwithstanding some of the criticism of the book, Harris is not claiming to have all of these scientifically-derived insights and facts in hand, ready for spoon-feeding to the reader.

Whatever the book's qualities or shortcomings, its entanglement in the is/ought problem seems a non-issue. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Theology Affirmed

If you listen carefully to N.T. Wright's presentation in this video (via Eli), you will gain a profound affirmation of the possibilities of theology, and what's more, you will come to understand whether and when to read the text of the Bible literally and when not to:

To review: the words of the Bible conform to their everyday, plain meanings except when they don't. And long, dedicated study in theology yields an uncanny ability to say when the literal meaning holds and when it doesn't. I think maybe a little bell goes off in your head when you're meant to shift from literal to non-literal, and it's more of a buzzing sound when you're meant to go back to literal from non-literal, but not having ascended the heights of the theological field, I offer that as the speculation of an outsider.

Musings Affirmed

On the authority of acclaimed physicist Lawrence Krauss, who participated in last Friday's NPR roundtable on science and morals, I can affirm that my recent musings on persuasion were completely and totally accurate.

Krauss advocated the following approach to situations in which the audience is not receptive to -- perhaps I should say not mulcible in the light of -- scientific evidence that contradicts their beliefs:

Confront them directly with their own misconceptions – lead them to an internal contradiction so that they discover [the mistake] for themselves. That’s ultimately the only way to teach about the world.*
Sometimes the close friend or trusted colleague who succeeds at persuasion turns out to be one of the participants in the internal mental roundtable.

* Granted, it's possible that Krauss did not have my blog post freshly in mind as he spoke these words, which come in around minute 42 of the podcast version.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sagan Day 2010

Today is Carl Sagan Day, marking what would have been his 76th birthday had Jesus and/or Mohammed not snuffed out his life in 1996 for his many transgressions against the one true faith(s).

Sagan's The Dragons of Eden was the first "serious" book I ever read -- well, if I read one before that, it failed to stick in the memory -- and I was drawn to it on the strength of Cosmos, which remains one of the two or three best things ever to appear on the televisions.

"The Cosmic Calendar" made a showing in both The Dragons of Eden and the Cosmos series, and stands as just one of dozens of enchanting and staggering popularizations of science for which Sagan will be long remembered:

Being Mulcible

I have adopted the antiquated, vanishing, soon forgotten word mulcible, which, according to the vast annals of the googles, has no meaning. According to the Save the Words project, it means the ability to be appeased, or used to mean that before English speakers, in a collective tiff, decided to stop using it.

No longer! Not on my watch, anyway. My adoption of the word binds me to make use of it in everyday conversation, emails, Tweets, Facebook statuses, and, of course, to weave it in to fantastic blog posts such as this one.

We should all endeavor to try to be more mulcible, but for my part, it will have to pause while I complain a little more. The web site for Save the Words is way too interactive --- sounds play, flash imagery floats hither and yon, screen elements float all over the damn place. It's enough to try the patience of even the most forgiving, tractable, and mulcible of us.

Broken Halls

Because the world needed it, this the fine Broken Bells song "Ghost Inside" as performed by circa 1981 Hall and Oates. If it doesn't make your life better by midnight tonight, wait longer:

Can this said to be an improvement on Hall and Oates? I've got your improvements on Hall and Oates right here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Monday Phantasm Blogging: Apolitical Science

Due apologies for the lengthy quote, but David Roberts is making important points here that all would do well to embrace as elementary postulates of politics:

One problem is that the people pleading for a depoliticization of science tend to be characterological centrists (CCs). A CC is, by temperament, attached to his/her self-image as an independent thinker, thoughtful and nuanced, seeing both sides of the argument, not part of any team or "side," disgusted by unthinking partisans. CCs are strongly inclined to see political problems in terms of "extremes on both sides" polarizing and dumbing down the debate. The sweet light of reason and virtue, according to CCs, lies between the sides, or rather in new, "post-partisan" options that transcend the tired conventional debates.

... Politics, however, isn't like that, "marketplace of ideas" fantasies aside. It's not about determining who's right, or who's cleverest; it's about determining the distribution of society's resources, privileges, and responsibilities. It's about power.

The reality of contemporary American energy politics is awkward for CCs. The fact is that the Republican Party has become, for all intents and purposes, the political arm of the fossil-fuel status quo. The entrenched energy powers-that-be have marshaled the right's current vulgar anti-intellectualism in support of their continued privilege; to put it more bluntly, they have been and still are paying people on the right to lie about science and dupe the conservative base.

I'm not talking about climate sensitivities or hurricane frequency or sea-level projections or other areas of active scientific disputation. I'm talking about whether human beings are driving changes in the climate. That question is simply not in serious dispute in the relevant scientific disciplines. It has been confirmed by multiple lines of evidence, empirical and model-based, over many years. Curry and virtually every other credible climate scientist would no doubt agree. Yet Republicans have now made rejection of that root scientific consensus a litmus test, in keeping with their decades-long assault on America's institutions. Virtually every Republican candidate for Congress has denied the most rudimentary facts about climate change.
It's way past time to stop pretending there are "two sides" to climate science standing in delicate, staid equipoise. It's not like that. There is a side that wants to address its reality in some responsible fashion, and a side that brazenly lies in the service of perpetuating the status quo. Full stop.

Happy talk won't change it, nor will denial, nor will professorial fray-eschewing, nor will "framing." Matt Yglesias elaborates:
A different way of putting it would be à la Trotsky’s quip that you may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you. It’s possible to have meaningful dialogue about an issue on a technical “non-political” level if and only if the political system isn’t interested in the question.
The political system is deeply interested in carbon-intensive energy, and one of the sides has no qualms about distorting and obscuring the truth. Scientific experts can join the fight or see it lost.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Voting and Thinking

When the voters of Oklahoma bravely protected the state's judiciary from Sharia law and international law, it's possible -- I'm just saying it's possible -- that they didn't think it through carefully:

Last year, radical right-wing politicians in Oklahoma passed the Ten Commandments Monument Display Act ... The bill authors noted that “the Ten Commandments found in the Bible, Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, are an important component of the moral foundation of the laws and legal system of the United States of America and of the State of Oklahoma.” ...
"Many of us who understand the law are scratching our heads this morning, laughing so we don’t cry,” he said. “I would like to see Oklahoma politicians explain if this means that the courts can no longer consider the Ten Commandments. Isn’t that a precept of another culture and another nation? The result of this is that judges aren’t going to know when and how they can look at sources of American law that were international law in origin.”
It's true -- Charlton Heston's portrayal notwithstanding, Moses was not an American, much less an Oklahoman, and the laws ascribed to Moses's chance encounter with a bush originate far from these shores.

You would think the very fact of Sharia law in places like Saudi Arabia, Taliban-dominated sectors of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and elsewhere would demonstrate the importance of keeping religious law separate from civic law. It would do precisely that, but it would require a little thinking to make the connection. Voting majorities of Oklahomans don't go for the thinking, so here we are, and it will be both distressing and hilarious -- mostly hilarious -- to watch the state's polity wallow in this self-made muckhole.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Pigliucci Crosses Disciplines

On the latest Point of Inquiry podcast, Massimo Pigliucci showed up to discuss the demarcation problem -- an issue in the philosophy of science -- but actually spent the entire time discussing aspects of the sociology and psychology of science.

Again and again he moved from the philosophy to phrases like "but that's not how scientists actually work." For example, he illustrated his argument against Popperian falsifiability by mentioning the SETI project and the Drake Equation -- these are, he said, scientific endeavors that are not falsifiable. By that he means to say that SETI, informed in part by the Drake Equation, seems prepared to continue its search for extraterrestrial life indefinitely, no matter how many weeks, months, and years pass without finding any.

The Drake Equation is an inference that's meant to give some broad boundaries to the probability of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Though its input parameters are subject to some dispute, it yields testable claims about reality with any set of parameters. When Carl Sagan walked us through it on one of the episodes of Cosmos, he arrived at the answer of ten. On this version of the equation, there are either ten or not-ten instances of intelligent alien life.

The difficulty of testing this inference -- or any other specific inference drawn, in whole or in part, from the Drake Equation -- owes to the prosaic fact that outer space is huge and human beings have only begun exploring it. Our galaxy alone is 100,000 light years in diameter and another 1,000 light years in thickness. If SETI keeps looking for alien life next month despite a November yielding no newly-discovered little green men, it is not because they have moved the philosophical goalposts, but because, as a matter of contingent sociological-historical fact, they have only the tools they have, and the tools they have are paltry when set against the scale of the search.

With or without any version of the Drake Equation, it is a muddle to use the SETI project as a stand-in for science. We wouldn't look at sad old men walking along a beach hunting for coins with metal detectors and think "science epitomized!" SETI is a more advanced, more expensive, more sophisticated, higher-stakes version of that. The search for a cure for breast cancer lies somewhere between these.

These are searches, and searching for things is only one of the practices of science. All of them are informed by scientific knowledge and aided by current technology, and each is stuck in a particular historical moment and its limitations (political, economic, psychological, technological, historical, social, and so on). The way they're carried out in day-to-day practical terms has little bearing on the philosophy of science -- little bearing, that is, on the "pure" questions with which philosophy deals -- and a philosopher of science, as Pigliucci is, should clarify this rather than muddle it.

Standards and Effects

Declares a guy with street affectations in this video, "we have got to have a standard, otherwise everyone in our society will be affected":

The legalization of gay marriage is, of course, the foul specter that will affect "everyone in our society" -- somehow. True to the pro-inequality position, the guy with the street affectations and the other speakers in the video don't bother listing the effects, let alone specifying why we should care about the effects, let alone detailing an argument (philosophical, political, sociological, or other) that links the suggested cause with the unnamed effects.

I gather they're bad effects, but are they unjust effects? Oppressive effects? Painful effects? Will our hair fall out, our skin get blotchy? Will our cats fill their litter boxes more frequently? Will Christmas move to an every-other-year schedule? Will more college football programs adopt a garish shade of turf, as they have done in Boise?

With respect to the African-Americans given speaking parts in the video, they mention their offense at comparisons between gay people and racial minorities. They had me at "offense" -- this is not about offensiveness. It is about legal equality -- it is about whether everyone, or only some, may participate in the same obligations and rights under the law, or whether the law will demarcate in-groups and out-groups based on unjust prejudices. Whether people take pride, offense, or some other emotional stake in the achievement of equality is of no final importance, though it does explain why people take notice and get involved in the first place.

Since the guy said we need a standard, here's a standard: free, autonomous people associate, bond, and join together pursuant to their visions of happiness, limited only by the demand not to harm or restrict others in the enjoyment of their pursuit.

Friday, November 5, 2010

When Pretenses Die

This is what powerful entities do to signal they're dropping the slightest pretense of caring about legitimacy:

Earlier today, MSNBC declared that it would be suspending progressive host Keith Olbermann because he violated NBC’s ethics rules by donating to three Democratic candidates for Congress. As many bloggers have noted, conservative MSNBC host Joe Scarborough has donated to Republican candidates for Congress while promoting the same candidate on air, but has never been disciplined. Moreover, Gawker notes that MSNBC has been exempt from the formal NBC ethics rules for years. It is still a mystery why MSNBC selectively applied NBC’s ethics rules to Olbermann. However, it important to realize that MSNBC has undergone a fundamental change in leadership in the last two months.
First you get the money, then you get the power, and then you do any goddamn thing you please.

It might be a little too dot-connecting to correlate this brazen thuggery with Tuesday's election results, but even if so, this turn of events demonstrates the importance of proceeding as though elections have consequences -- by which I pointedly mean even those elections that the GOP didn't sweep, such as the ones we had in 2008 and 2006.

To wit: sitting on the net neutrality bill for the last two years hoping for the noble spirit of compromise to settle over the Senate has been exactly as effective as voting it down. That is, it has been equally effective in changing the law; in terms of clarifying and dramatizing the political stakes, it has been markedly less effective than demanding an actual floor debate and an up-or-down vote.

This goes beyond Keith Olbermann and beyond net neutrality. With the new Congress, the bill is thoroughly dead, as are even more consequential bills on immigration, climate change, labor organizing, campaign finance, and many more.

Comcast/NBC/GE and their ilk are ever freer to follow their whimsy, and we are invited to pay to watch.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

These Things Do Not Go Together

I note the following as a service to all seven of my readers, those reading today and those reading it as a form of punishment in the e-prisons of the future. Should you decide to be born to American parents in early November, don't take an interest in politics and hew to a left-liberal viewpoint. It makes for fucking depressing birthdays year after year, with only enough exceptions thrown in to keep enough hope alive enough to be painfully crushed.

To summarize, do not combine the following:

  1. Get born in early November.
  2. Be an American.
  3. Hold left-liberal political convictions.
  4. Keep an interest in politics.
As a politically-minded American writing this on my birthday, and as someone whose mental transcripts Glenn Greenwald uncannily gathers, edits, and expresses, I speak from direct experience.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What's New in Mob Hits

As I watched the first several episodes of the new HBO series Boardwalk Empire -- spoiler alerts herein! -- I had my doubts.

I wondered what it would offer that we hadn't seen a dozen times in The Godfather trilogy, The Wire, Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America, Reservoir Dogs, The Untouchables, The Sopranos, Casino, Gangs of New York, Pulp Fiction, Scarface, Eastern Promises, Road to Perdition, or any of the many other well-made dramatizations of organized crime.

I mean, I am an inveterate fan of the sub-genre, but what twist has not already been done and re-done?

And then this scene came along:

It is hideous and exquisite at the same time. I knew what would happen and yet I had no idea. In hindsight, I should have seen it coming, even more than the sap who ends the scene tipped awkwardly back in his chair, but it hit me as suddenly and as sharply as anything in the sub-genre ever has. It tipped me back in my own chair.

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in -- now I'm a fan.

Bricking It

Oregon very narrowly missed electing this guy -- #22 for the New Jersey Nets at the time this video was taken -- as our governor. Check out the free throw form, such as it is:

Chris Dudley has done some very decent things for charity, he's very tall, and he likes money and people who make lots of it, but beyond that, I more or less lost the thread of why he was running for governor.

I am glad he did not, and even gladder that John Kitzhaber is back in Salem. I like his authentic cowboy looks because he doesn't join them with cowboy affectations -- he makes no secret that he's a medical doctor who wears shit-kickers from time to time.

One thing more is clear from yesterday's elections: a great number of voters raised their hands and shook them vigorously as if to say, "If a natural disaster strikes where I live, do not send government aid. If you send me a Social Security check, I'll rip it up, and dammit, if an insurance company can make more money by denying life-saving health procedures, then so be it!" Or in other words:

Leaders of the new Republican majority emerged emboldened on Wednesday, promising to slash the size of government and setting their sights on repealing President Obama's signature health-care overhaul.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Grunting

The votes are still being counted as of this writing, but it's clear that US voters have issued a loud, passionate, inarticulate grunt. I don't follow the chain of reasoning that goes from "the economy is terrible" to "let's elect people who promise to expand corporate lawlessness," but voters are under no obligation to make sense to me.

A few highlights, such as they are:

  • Good riddance, Blanche Lincoln. On the one hand, her occupying space that might have been occupied by a Democrat was doing little more than draining the party label of meaning, so she must be sad to let go. On the other hand, her lucrative lobbying career has begun in earnest!
  • The always-thoughtful voters of Oklahoma have rejected, denounced, thwarted, and trounced the imposition of sharia law. Just in time, too!
  • Under the leadership of the totally not-batshit-insane likes of Kentucky's Rand Paul and Florida's Marco Rubio, the federal budget will soon be in balance. If the federal budget is not in balance by, say, June 2011, wait longer.
  • Tonight marks the start of a two-year frenzy of subpoenas from the new GOP leadership in the House, each inquest as tedious and dishonest as the last. I predict we will be pining for the comparatively sane days of the Lewinsky Era. The coming non-stop carnival of accusations, innuendo, fishing expeditions, and perjury traps will be the answer to President Obama's "looking forward" posture toward his predecessor's assorted crimes and abuses. Turning the other cheek is for losers!
  • Democrats -- many of them, anyway -- will conclude that this election result means they need to embrace corporate lawlessness, austerity for the non-wealthy, "family values" blather, and all the rest. Every single Republican will agree.
The voters have grunted. I don't know what they want. It's not what I want.

Monday, November 1, 2010

With Elvira's Invitation

I don't know what we were thinking -- we the members of Homo sapiens walking the earth at the time this advertisement was produced. I can't help feeling somehow responsible for it.

Most obviously, we should have seen that any above-average eighth grader could have crapped a better way to cut through paper-based CASE methods than whatever LBMS was trying to sell here.

I say that without any clear idea of what a paper-based CASE method is or was, or why its paper form should be cut through, or what LBMS did or tried to do in the marketplace (if there was, indeed, a marketplace). For all this I feel supremely confident in my assertions concerning LBMS's likely contributions to the cutting through and the paper-based CASE methods and such.

Also: Elvira? What was that ever about? I report with no slight shame that when asked this past Saturday, I was able to identify a grocery clerk's costume as that of Elvira -- it just takes some black clothes, too much facial makeup, showy boobs, and eureka! Elvira is invoked, for whatever good it ever did anyone.

Where the Compass Points

Michael Gerson used to write speeches for George W. Bush, and it's clear he hasn't lost his flair for stuttering nonsense:

Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother? If there are no moral lines except the ones we draw ourselves, why not draw and redraw them in places most favorable to our interests? Hitchens parries these concerns instead of answering them: Since all moral rules have exceptions and complications, he said, all moral choices are relative. Peter Hitchens [Christopher's Christian brother] responded, effectively, that any journey becomes difficult when a compass points differently at different times.
Indeed so. If the history of Christianity were marked by factionalism, sectarianism, purges, heresies, and fractious, violent disputes, then Christopher Hitchens might have a counterpoint to make to his brother's point about uncertain compasses.

Alas, no. Peter Hitchens and Michael Gerson know that Christianity locked down its important claims in its first hours, and has stood fixed for these 2,000+ years, completely innocent of the internecine strife that tends to roil the productions of mere people. Today and always, it points its followers along a single, clear, fixed line.

It would be rude, I think, for Christopher to note that the line in question points to endlessly varied shades and shapes of pompous bullshit and to little more.

(via Normblog; image via skoop on flickr)