Sunday, October 31, 2010

Insanity Unconquered

The Rally to Restore Sanity and the Judy to its Punch, the March to Keep Fear Alive, have come and gone. Was sanity restored? Judging by projections of electoral outcomes in many close races, no. In American politics, sanity continues to be a dimming light, if not a fading memory.

In Nevada, it looks as though Sharron Angle will defeat Harry Reid:



While it's true that Harry Reid offers slightly more charisma than a typical month-old corpse, it is also true that Sharron Angle is a raving lunatic.

Speaking of unhinged extremists who are poised to represent entire states, Ken Buck in Colorado appears likely to win a six-year term in the US Senate:



Unless you're a corporation that finds rules inconvenient, or a rapist who wants the government to force your victims to bear your children, adding the likes of Buck and Angle to the Senate will be a terrible outcome.

If the US Senate gets less rather than more sane after November 2, it won't be the failure of the Stewart-Colbert rallies, of course. Voters can still step forward and defy these projections, or they can see them fulfilled (in and beyond these two western states) and prepare to live with the result.

Whatever it adds to the sanity/insanity quotient, I say it's important to call attention to crazy people who are seeking political power, and to declare them to be the threats they are. Ken Buck and Sharron Angle are extremists. They are not the only ones, nor even the most likely to take office after November 2nd.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Elitist, Moi?

I'm not sure but I think I am expected to come across as "elitist" based on this questionaire. Let's see, shall we?

1. Can you talk about "Mad Men?" Can I ever?! At times I can't talk about anything else.

2. Can you talk about the "The Sopranos?" Sure, mostly.

3. Do you know who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right?" Hell yes! It was tee-vee's Drew Carey, and he's doing as well as could be expected, or so I assume. I only ever watched that show for the yodeling hiker.

4. Have you watched an Oprah show from beginning to end? Surely. It's a common affliction.

5. Can you hold forth animatedly about yoga? By most people's idea of "animatedly," no.

5. How about pilates? No.

5. How about skiing? Gawd no.

6. Mountain biking? These "animatedly" questions are starting to confuse me. I have had a mountain bike or two, albeit shitty ones. When I was age 11, give or take a few years, they were the center of my life, though they called them "dirt bikes" back then. Since then, not so much, and in any case, I honestly do not recall if my statements about mountain bikes were "animated." Sometimes?

7. Do you know who Jimmie Johnson is? How 'bout them Cowboys!

8. Does the acronym MMA mean nothing to you? It means something other than nothing to me. I recently watched a televised replay of the bout in which the very large champion (Lesnar) came close to losing to a nearly-as-large man with a lot of tattoos (Carwin), but recovered and "choked out" his opponent in the second round. Oh, I meant to say: spoiler alert.

9. Can you talk about books endlessly? "Endlessly"? Eventually I have to pause to pee, sleep, eat, write fascinating blog posts, and so forth.

10. Have you ever read a "Left Behind" novel? No. A thousand times no.

11. How about a Harlequin romance? I did try it once, and made it almost several pages in, but no.

12. Do you take interesting vacations? Interesting compared with what? Yes, I generally find them interesting in comparison with, say, completing this quiz.

13. Do you know a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada? Nope.

14. What about an exquisite B-n-B overlooking Boothbay Harbor? Whuh?

15. Would you be caught dead in an RV? I have been in an RV. I would be caught dead in one quite easily if (a) I were dead and (b) my body were in an RV.

16. Would you be caught dead on a cruise ship? Having done it once, I can say it has its place, but it's not a thing I hope to repeat any time soon.

17. Have you ever heard of of Branson, Mo? Of course. I wish I hadn't, but I have, and not only from Ned Flanders.

18. Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club? No.

19. How about the Rotary Club? Yes. In 8th grade, the local chapter invited me to be one of the featured student speakers. It surely ranks as one of the worst attempts at public speaking ever attempted, executed, or even conceived by the creators of imaginative fiction. I still sometimes awake in cold sweats with the image of my own 14-year-old stammering through insipid patriotic boilerplate.

20. Have you lived for at least a year in a small town?  Hmm. "Small?" I'd say roughly sixteen years living in Ponca City, Oklahoma would count. If not, how about a year in Krebs (albeit schooled in McAlester at the time)? If not that, what about a year and half in Burns Flat?

21. Have you lived for a year in an urban neighborhood in which most of your neighbors did not have college degrees? I lived in the Felony Flats section of Portland for just over five years; I generally avoided contact with the neighbors, but I can say the next-door neighbors did not speak English and made at least part of their living from re-building and selling wooden pallets (the photo shown could almost pass for a snapshot of their back yard at times, though it's not splintery or disorderly enough); the neighbors two doors down were, respectively, a private security guard and an apprentice electrician (though two of the nicest and best people I've ever met); another door beyond that was a man who may or may not have owned more than one pair of pants -- which he didn't much like to wear -- and may or may not have had the power of speech. Another neighbor stands out as memorable for the fact that I learned his name and much more about him when a local TV news reporter showed up on my porch asking me to comment on his arrest for attempted child abduction. So, yea, while I wasn't given to in-depth conversations with the neighbors in those days, these indicators don't point to above-average levels of educational attainment, so I think my answer is yes to this question. And I have not even mentioned the crack house three doors in the opposite direction or the meth lab house that burned to the ground a block away.

22. Have you spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line? I've spent at least 40 years living in more or less proximity to my own immediate family, including a few lean stretches when I was still under my mom's roof. Considering just my siblings and parents, the ratio of [total person-years lived] to [person-years lived in poverty] must be comparatively low -- more than one, but not far above it.

23. Do you have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian? Dude, have you seen my Facebook friends list? With just a few exceptions, they love the Jesus!

24. Have you ever visited a factory floor? If an oil refinery counts as a "factory floor," then yes. If not, then no. (I have poked around a factory or two -- the Rogue Brewery for one, the Tillamook Cheese plant for another, but I don't think that's the idea here.)

25. Have you worked on one? Same as previous up to the "then no."

I don't much care what these answers suggest since I understand they don't arise from a politically innocent vacuum but rather serve a hackneyed talking point. I strongly suspect that a preponderance of "no" answers is meant to indicate a "cultural elitist," but "cultural elites" are just a cheap right-wing hobby horse directed at obscuring the realities of the authentic elites who wield power in this society -- rich people and large corporations.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Delicate Musical Rainbows

If you're like me in enjoying a degree of mystery in your musical lyrics -- some interpretive wiggle-room in which you can freely fit your mood swings and transitory preoccupations -- make sure not to read this Quietus review of Laetitia Sadier's excellent solo album, The Trip.

Even more so, do everything you can to avoid this NPR story on The xx, which reveals aspects of their songwriting process that I've been trying to forget.

If I had it to do over again, I would not have read those, as blameless and even interesting as they are. I would just have gone on listening.

As John Keats famously wrote:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -
Unweave a rainbow ...



More on Science and Theology

Regarding that last post about science and theology: I don't want to oversimplify the picture by suggesting that science consists of a tome of established facts that scientists devote their lives to memorizing. Science is a best understood as a verb -- a process, a method, an approach to finding and establishing dependable truths about the world -- and it departs most sharply from theology in this respect. I would be loath to oversimplify this matter when I can belabor the obvious instead -- onward!

If a challenge arises to the existing scientific paradigm, from whatever source, a peer-review process evaluates the quality of the challenge, most importantly by checking whether the new finding can be reproduced in controlled circumstances. Or, in the case of something like astrology, it considers whether there is any evidence to support the challenge, and whether it coheres logically. On this basis the challenge either succeeds or fails, and both the result and the process leading to it are open to the scrutiny of all.

If a challenge arises to a given theology, what happens? The people in the theology's camp either embrace it or decline to do so. Maybe they declare the challenge a heresy worthy of death, or maybe they consider it beneath their notice, or maybe something between. Nothing is decided. At best, the theology can be said to achieve logical coherence given its starting postulates and premises, and perhaps it may claim some correspondence with the world of observable fact. For example, while muslims may not agree amongst themselves on the exact meaning of jihad, they can agree that it is required of them based on the text of the Koran. Non-muslims can likewise see that the text of the Koran rattles on about something called jihad.

In theology, this is as far as it can hope to go, and it's easy to see it's not very far. It allows for nearly anything -- this god, that god, a few gods, many gods, person-like gods, animal-like gods, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, and so on. It is consistent with some theologies to say that the entire Koran, word for word, is totally irrelevant to human affairs. Other theologies would say the same of all the texts and traditions of Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. Some theologies are consistent with the claim that Jesus was a minor itinerant preacher bearing a handful of useful moral precepts, but one whose followers mythologized far beyond proportion. Some theologies insist that all of the world's religious traditions are, when seen in the proper light, conveying the same basic insights, while others insist there is precisely one that matters. And so on.

There is no standard for deciding questions of theology apart from raw logical coherence, and not even that has been reliable as a standard (see: trinitarianism). Doing violence to those who disagree has been a well-tried method, but brutalizing and killing are not properly considered methods of epistemology.

There is such a thing as getting things wrong in science. In theology, any assertion is as good as any other. This is why, despite the wishes of Karl Giberson and others of like mind, the exertions of theologians are of no consequence. That which cannot be methodologically distinguished from bullshit is, well, bullshit.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Science and Theology. The Same?

Karl Giberson is supposing in the defense of his career-spanning Courtier's Reply. Giberson:

Let us suppose by analogy that we attached the label “science believer” to everyone who passes the standard roster of science courses in high school and affirms that, in general, they accepted what was taught in those courses. Now we have a group that is genuinely analogous to “religious believers.” Suppose now that a well-educated theologian was describing the beliefs of these “science believers,” and using the results to evaluate the credibility of science. The theologian would note that these people really were “believers.” They loved their iPhones and thought highly of the engineers and scientists who made them possible. They are excited about space travel and encountering aliens some day. When they get sick, they look to medical science for help. Sometimes they watch the Discovery Channel and they all loved Avatar.

But what would "science" look like, were it defined by these "believers"? From actual polls and other sources we know that the physics would be an incoherent mix of Aristotelian and Newtonian ideas; most of them would accept astrology and think that a “dowser” with a stick should be consulted before you drilled a well. UFOs and aliens would be accepted as real; some would report having been abducted by aliens. General Relativity, the most important theory in cosmology, would be completely unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind and the scientific proof of free will.
Uh, yea. Enough already. The rather blindingly obvious flaw in this analogy is that these hypothetical "science believers" can be said to be either right or wrong, current or deficient. If these "science believers" accepted space aliens as established scientific fact, for example, they would be wrong; and if they had a basic grasp of Newton's work but no knowledge of Einstein's, they would possess a gravely incomplete understanding of the science; and -- here's the important part -- every accredited scientific subject matter expert in the world would agree with those assessments.

Whereas basic questions like "is god one or several" and "what are the fundamental teachings of god" and "can god(s) take corporeal form" have many answers, depending on which theologian is being consulted, where, and when. Significant disagreements over fundamental questions continue to rage unresolved even within presumptively unified creeds -- Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons, though all Christian, can't decide on faith versus works, the status of priests, or the precise whereabouts of Jesus; Sunnis and Shias can't agree on the holiest sites in Islam, and so on.

These "science believers" wouldn't be able to shop around astronomy departments until they found a "sect" of professors who embraced their particular fusion of Chinese-Greco-Roman astrology; all the astronomers they encountered would say the same thing, that the alignment of stars as seen from earth at their time of birth has no influence on the course of their lives.

The most scientific experts would say is that perhaps, with further research, evidence will come to light that revises today's conclusions in the direction of the "science beliefs" that are, by today's best available understanding, wrong, provisional, merely conjectural, and so on. Notwithstanding that caveat, at any given time, there is a best available understanding in science, even as new findings continue to press at the margins.

Theology has no such limits. Theology's boundaries are formed by the opinions of the theologian speaking and nothing more.

The thrill-a-minute ideas of this post have been substantially expanded and updated.

The Insanity Defense

Danielle Bean is having none of this "restoring sanity" business since it endangers the reputation of her favorite deity. Or something. Take this, Jon Stewart!
Anti-faith personalities like Jon Stewart and Richard Dawkins might think that they have all the answers, but real believers know that only God does. And He's not invited to the mall this weekend.
Whether or not Bean's god's invitation was lost in the mail, the rally's stated purpose is to repudiate the kind of know-it-all ideologues who have come to dominate public discourse, and its success on that count will be available to the assessment of all, if not impossible to avoid as a mass spectacle.

But for now, in Bean's fevered present, the stated aim only proves that the rally's organizer is a know-it-all ideologue! The further proof, if anyone needs it, lies in two words: Richard Dawkins. Cue dramatic music.

Determined to protect insanity by enacting it, Bean has lumped Jon Stewart with Richard Dawkins on grounds she is too kind to explain. Maybe Dawkins is thinking about hosting a satirical news program? Maybe Jon Stewart is trying for an open zoology professorship at Oxford? Maybe it's both! Much as economic progress requires continuous growth, maintaining insanity requires ever-crazier, bolder, more unhinged assertions.

In fairness, Bean's comments come with a basis of sorts for linking Stewart with Dawkins -- the topic to which she has been invited to respond draws a thin, vague, tendentious line, one fitted with carefully placed scare-quotes:
This weekend, Jon Stewart is holding "a rally to restore sanity" on the mall, two months after Glenn Beck's religion-infused "Restoring Honor" rally. Beck said he was called by God to hold the rally. Now atheist groups are planning to use Stewart's event to promote "reason." [emphasis mine]
See? Unspecified, unnamed "atheist groups" are "planning to use Stewart's event" to spread, advocate, and otherwise speak favorably of this so-called scare-quote reason scare-quote stuff -- it says so right there in the discussion topic at the On Faith group blog.

Therefore, by unassailable logic and inescapable fact, Jon Stewart and Richard Dawkins are indistinguishable in their contempt for true reason, the world's believers, Glenn Beck, god, some other god, the next god over, the god headquartered catty-corner from that last one, and the unassuming decency of all. Q.E.D., bitches!

Were he truly so diabolical as Bean seems to think, Jon Stewart would have seen fit to plant a column such as hers to prove the need for his rally.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lies, Damn Lies, and This

What are the chances that any two people in a group of thirty would share a birthday? Given the 365-day years we have here on planet earth, the chances must be pretty low, right? Wrong!

Using careful calculations we encounter a counter-intuitive conclusion: in a group of 30 people, the chances that two people share a birthday is above 20-, 50- and even 60-percent. On face value, not many of us would probably think the chances that high. This shows there is actually nothing remarkable or special or spooky about two people sharing a birthday, considering that cold calculation indicates the likelihood being more than a coin-toss.
This sounds like a good way to win a free drink at a bar, as are so many sleights of hand and mind that, in the end, result from the way our perceptions go wrong. Statistics can be fun -- often they are not, frankly, but they are very useful:
Empowering ourselves with numbers might seem strange, until we recall how statistics can destroy the pretentions of charlatans or miraculous happenings. Indifferent in itself, statistics displays information anyone is welcome to assess.
Reality is too vast and interesting for us at times, so we have tools.


[First paragraph corrected thanks to "Anonymous"]

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Oxford Comma, Being Necessary to Preserve the Quiet Dignity of People, Gods, and Ayn Rand

Jeff Weintraub cites an example illustrating the importance of the Oxford comma:

The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
If only for the manly reputations of Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall, who would love to finish out their careers without the sexually-charged hectoring of paparazzi, make sure to use Oxford commas regularly.

And yet ... and yet. The Wikipedia article on the topic demonstrates that the Oxford comma can, at times, increase rather than decrease ambiguity:
An example would be a list reading:
My mother, Ayn Rand, and God
The serial comma after Ayn Rand creates ambiguity about the writer's mother, leaving it unclear whether this is a list of three people – (1) mother, (2) Ayn Rand, (3) God – or two – (1) mother, who is Ayn Rand, (2) God.
Without a serial comma this would read:
My mother, Ayn Rand and God
– which is ambiguous only if the reader is prepared to accept the unlikely interpretation "My mother, who is both Ayn Rand and God".
What to do? Are we to slavishly deploy the Oxford comma and commit ourselves to the view that Ayn Rand and god are the same moral monster?

The careful reader of these examples will notice that the true impediment to clear writing is not the misplacement of commas but the creation of ambiguity. If our commas foster clarity, then Ayn Rand and god can keep their distinct seats in the pantheon of history's most deservedly despised misanthropes, Kris Kristofferson can resume his respectably non-wife role in the history of country music, and Robert Duvall can resume stealing movies with cameo roles.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Columbia Gorge Half Marathon 2010 - The Rainbow and the Asphalt



This rainbow appearing near Hood River, Oregon today signaled that the god of the Bible would not drown mankind -- or perhaps only that the sunlight was striking airborne water particles with a strikingly beautiful result -- during the Columbia Gorge half marathon, which I ran and completed in a time of 97:42 (7:27 min/mile pace, official).

That time is a little slower than I was hoping for, but then again, I have a pretty good excuse, or a pretty bad excuse, depending on how you look at it -- I took a fall on the asphalt shortly before the mile 12 marker. I had wisely decided to run the last four miles as fast as I could, and it so happens that on this course, the last bit of mile 11 consists of a pretty sharp downhill ending with a 90-degree turn. Just as I saw the pylon marking the point of the turn and decided, in the name of sportsmanship, to run around it rather than cut the corner with a more gradual arc -- just at the instant I formed and concluded that mini-thought and planted my left foot for the turn (or tried to), I was on the wet ground. As it was with my bike calamity of '09, there was no dramatic slowing of time, no replay-of-scenes-from-life, just a sudden realization that I was down on the hard, rain-soaked ground rather than passing over it.

It wasn't so bad. I re-removed a portion of skin from my left knee (see post-treatment photo, whose orientation has a mind of its own), and gave myself a delightful bruised area on my ribs whose own rainbow of yellows, blues, grays, and browns is still evolving, and put some minor road-rash on my hands and forearms, but it was nothing serious. I even managed to protect my sunglasses somehow, which I was carrying in my left hand at the time.

A race volunteer was nearby to assist me as I got back to my feet and collected my thoughts for a long enough pause to determine that I had not done any serious damage. Sadly, it was also long enough to let four runners I had worked very hard to pass regain the lead over me, and by the time I reached the finish, I had only re-passed two of them. To be clear, all of them did exactly as I would have done -- keep running, especially if the volunteers were addressing the situation with the clumsy runner who couldn't stay on his feet.

Whatever it says about me, I don't consider this a bad turn of events. It has re-taught me the importance of ensuring sure footing when making sharp turns on wet ground. The fall is what I will always remember about this race, and I expect those memories to be fond ones all the way through, scars and all. I honestly hope someone took some video of the tumble, as I expect it looked pretty slapstick-funny to anyone not in my shoes. From my shoes, it didn't look like much -- just a very sudden change in perspective. 

After I finished, the helpful people in the first aid tent were there to clean and bandage me up, and after that, it was only a matter of taking in the excellent post-race food and treats. This year's event was noticeably larger in number of participants, so whatever they did to promote the race was a success, and yet the organization was just as tight and the provisions just as generous.

As always, I offer my sincere gratitude to the organizers and volunteers, and I congratulate all my fellow runners.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Another Quiz!

Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers, and Larry Moran have already given their answers to this pop quiz from a creationist:

1) Why is there anything?
2) What caused the Universe?
3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?
7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
8) Why is there evil?
Those respondents didn't say much about the rules that came with the pop quiz, which I find more interesting than the quiz itself:
1) Answers can't be limited to the shortcomings of theism (e.g. 'So who caused God?'). I'm looking for an exposition of New Atheist belief, not a criticism of theist belief. Mutual criticism will come once all beliefs are on the table. If New Atheist belief can only be expressed by negation of the beliefs of others, just say so.
2) Myers' "Courtier's Reply" gambit is fine. If you think that a question is nonsense, say so.
3) No changing the subject. New questions are welcome, once the old questions are addressed.
4) The Law of Snark Conservation applies; thoughtful courteous answers get thoughtful courteous replies. [emphasis mine]
I think the part about "once all beliefs are on the table" tells us everything we need to know about the quiz. The quiz is an effort to shift the burden of proof to atheists, and in turn a concession that the burden of proof falls on those who make positive truth claims.

In that light, the real answer to all of those questions turns out to be the same answer: evidence will decide these questions if anything will. Period. Full stop.

That said, a few of these questions may be so ill-formed as to defy any definite answer -- for example, depending on the answer to #4 -- which itself may or may not be amenable to a definitive answer, and not only because it is question-begging -- questions #1 and #2 may or may not be distinct questions, and #3 and #7 could dissolve into gibberish, or into reasonably straightforward logical entailments of #4.

If, for example, only material causes can be said to exist, then the answer to #7 must be that morality is only a consequence of material (natural) causes, and this has pretty clear implications for its status as "Moral Law" -- that is, it doesn't merit the capitalized M and L, because it is, under this answer to #4, a merely contingent consequence of natural history. Morality as we experience it might well be different if our natures were different, and our natures might well be different had our distant ancestors undergone different evolutionary trajectories based on different survival pressures and different patterns of genetic mutations.

Evidence combined with reason will decide these questions if anything will. Atheists' acceptance or non-acceptance of the evidence-and-reason-driven answers will have no bearing on the determination. Nothing in any book, speech, blog post, or tweet written by any atheist will change it; no cherished starting postulate or animating ideal will overpower it; no tradition, emotional preference, or system of social capital will outmatch it. Though it breaks rule #1 to say so (or so I gather), the same holds true of theists -- their preferences, traditions, texts, ideals, and creeds don't determine what's true and what isn't.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What Matters More

I have nothing to add to the influx of penetrating insights on how we ought to react to comments like those of Juan Williams, but I have loads of insight on this:

You describe yourself as a “Christian committed to biblical truth.” To prevent the Tyler Clementis of the world from jumping off bridges, you have to become a Christian as committed to human flourishing as you are to biblical truth – to walk the hard path of Jesus, not the easier one that the Pharisees are presented as following. There are many ways to read the Bible, and plenty of Christians who follow contemporary biblical scholarship and are both passionately devoted to Christ and completely and fully inclusive of sexual minorities. The Bible supports human flourishing. Jesus supported human flourishing when he healed the man’s withered hand on the Sabbath, even though it went against some verses in the Torah. You could be a healer, Dr. Mohler, but you would have to go against some biblical verses to do it. Think about it. At the end of the day, would you rather say that you hewed to the Bible or that you saved lives?
As tempting as it is to pile on to this admittedly well-executed trolling, I will decline. This Dr. Mohler is part of the problem -- a problem in which people are suffering and dying -- no matter what the Bible says, or seems to say, or seems to mean to say, or means upon a properly nuanced reading, when seen in the proper shades of historical and literary scholarship, with or without a good-faith inclination to arrive at its best, most defensible exegesis.

It's not that I disagree with the rebuttal to Dr. Mohler. The clear truth in the statement is that human flourishing matters more than the Bible's "teachings" -- that, when human flourishing and the text of the Bible come into conflict, human flourishing should prevail, and it shouldn't be a decision to give anyone the slightest pause. Moreover, the rebuttal is right in implying that fools like Dr. Mohler are actively diminishing and spoiling the lives of people who deserve better.

This is not an argument about the Bible. It's an argument about how human beings will interact with one another. The Bible doesn't matter; the kind and quality of human interaction matter profoundly.

Might I recommend thinking through the above while watching this? I might:




(Polly the horrifying doll via Portland Mercury)

You Just Don't Get It Because You're Not Smart Enough



I made a few chippy comments about Inception soon after I finally made a viewing of it, and as the weeks have passed, my overall assessment of the film has not improved: it had significant weaknesses, and its only strengths were on the meta-level, i.e., it's nice to see a film that dares to challenge viewers' brains, it made some favorable casting choices, it's very refreshing to see a film, any film, that isn't "an existing franchise."

Now that it has undergone the South Park treatment, it appears that The Cool Thing has gone from adulating Inception to ridiculing it, but I was already ridiculing it before it was cool to do so.

As the woman in the video says, "just because an idea is overly convoluted and complex doesn't make it cool!," and I think that applies to what I've written here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Trouble with Monsters

That, by the end of another season of Mad Men, Betty Draper is a monster, is not really open to dispute: she interacts with her children only long enough to belittle or dismiss them, she acts impetuously in matters large and small, she roams through life as moody and fickle as the most spoiled child. And yet ... and yet. I hate to quote myself, but I don't hate it very much:
For me, [episode 5] marked the first time since somewhere in the mists of last season when Betty, Don's ex-wife, emerged as a sympathetic character -- deeply ironic given that she spent the episode emotionally, even physically, striking at her daughter, Sally, for offenses no worse than struggling with hormonal and family upheaval. In her conversation with Sally's new counselor, Doctor Edna (of whom we can hope to see more), we saw the way women of that era -- and not only it, alas -- perpetuated a disgust for female sexuality if only because they had no developed alternate framework in which to conceive it ... We caught a sharp, clear glimpse at the way Betty's mother must have framed a "woman's proper place" for Betty, especially the strict boundaries around sexuality; and we saw Betty pass that same pained strictures forward to her own daughter. Let us hope Dr. Edna can point the way to a broader view for both.
Sadly, Dr. Edna was not able to break through to Betty and help her.

As another observer put it:
We talk a lot, in feminist communities, about abuse. And we talk a lot about how oppression can warp your understanding of self, about how some people raised in an oppressive system will internalize that system. We talk about how people who are victims of abuse often perpetrate it. I just don’t think we were prepared to see that play itself out on Mad Men. We wanted Betty to read The Feminine Mystique and get her mind blown and rise above; or, we wanted her to stay a victim, so we could relate to her better, or at least keep feeling sorry for her. But sometimes, people just get damaged until they start damaging. Sometimes, people are lost. We hate Betty now because she’s not going to stay a victim, but the truth is, she’s also not going to be saved.
It's true that Betty is a monster, and it's also true that her qualities are traceable to the abuses and limitations to which she has been subjected. In this I liken her to the mother character in Precious, although they occupy different points along a spectrum of abusive severity. It's convenient to hate these people, but if we take the larger view -- better to call it the reality-based view -- it's clear that we're seeing how pain turns to abuse and gets passed forward. These cycles are difficult to break and all too easy to follow.

No, Dr. Edna did not succeed in breaking through Betty's layers of vanity, pride, and rage, and now she has lost Don permanently. Her new husband, Henry, is revealing himself to be a slightly moderated replay of Don -- a little more emotional stability in exchange for a little less excitement and a greater tendency to explicitly call out her unreasonable choices, foibles, and failings (albeit gently -- mostly). She now, moreover, faces the prospect of a maternal rival in the form of Don's new wife, Megan. She has removed herself from her neighbors, and she has cut ties with Carla, her steady housekeeper. 

At one point in the season, she allowed herself to say, upon Don's awkward visit to their son's second birthday party, that she has everything while he has nothing --- but whatever Don has or lacks, it's clear that she has nowhere to go. She is lost. Sometimes people are lost in real life --- it's rare to see this portrayed on television, and it's why Mad Men towers above anything else currently in production.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Weird Coin

I am happy with this result to my participation in The Euthyphro Dilemma online thingy, and why shouldn't I be? Well, then again, much depends on the meaning of "tensions":
You claimed that there are moral standards independent of God's will. This claim sits uneasily with the widely held belief that any being that counts as God must have the ability to obligate through its commands: in other words, that it is necessarily morally wrong to disobey a command given by God. This view suggests at the very least that some aspect of morality flows from God. Although there is no logical inconsistency in conceiving of a God whose commands do not obligate (see note, above, about "tensions"), it would nevertheless be a rather strange or unusual conception of God.
Well, many of my views sit uneasily with widely held beliefs, namely, all the widely held beliefs that I find to be wrong. I don't think there is a god to give commands, and I say all the conceptions of god are "strange or unusual" -- their variations lying not in degrees of strangeness but rather in degrees of the sort of familiarity that comes from constant exposure. We here in the USA (for example) see crosses and suffering Jesuses all over the place, and have since we were knee high, so it's easy to forget how grisly the imagery is, and more to the point, to forget how ridiculous the underlying narrative is.

So answering hypothetical questions about what god does, or can do, or obligates, or which way it parts its hair, is a toss of a dull, weird little coin, and tossing coins is bound to produce quirky, nonsensical results. Frankly, it's more interesting to think about what leprechauns would do. They have some personality, and the traditions concerning how they wear their hair are fixed.

Nor do I think there is any clarity to be gained from swapping out "god" and inserting "anything that counts as god." When it comes to "anything that counts as god," the sky is more or less the limit, since fabricated, made-up bullshit has no inherent limits. It has ruts that are historical accidents -- god walked here, god appeared there, god used this human as a bullhorn, god buried these etched plates in this yard in upstate New York. The most cursory survey of world-historical beliefs about god(s) demonstrates that anything goes.

More Goat News

My sister posted this image from somewhere in the wilds of Houston, Texas, where apparently a goat has gone missing. Or has it been found?

Is this meant to be the number you call if you found a goat or the one you call if you lost a goat? Maybe it's both -- a sort of lost/found goat party line.

I hope this goat is not killing anyone.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Considering Tetrapods

These dramatic unfoldings are ripped from the headlines:

  • A mountain goat -- an actual goat, not a member of the musical act -- has killed a hiker on the Olympic peninsula. I saw an Olympic marmot when I went there once, but it didn't kill anyone. Apparently human-animal relations have soured greatly since then. Terrible. It renews the question: "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod" and made sure to get the hell out its way when it charges?

  • I don't know about you, but I have a shirt and socks picked out for Wednesday, October 20:
    [P]eople will be donning purple this coming Wednesday to honor those young lives that have been taken prematurely due to hate. October 20 has been designated Spirit Day, a day in which the color purple will be worn as a reminder of the string of recent young, gay suicides.
    I wouldn't have called it "Spirit Day," but that's a small quibble. If I can show just a little solidarity, it might tell someone who needs to know it that it gets better.

  • Kevin Drum observes and wonders:
    The modern, tea party-inflected conservative movement is based on a few core principles. Global warming is a hoax. Income inequality hasn't been growing. Tax cuts don't increase the deficit. America has the best healthcare in the world. Evolution is a myth. The economy is weak because of regulatory uncertainty. Barack Obama is a socialist.

    I'm trying to think of another successful political movement in history based on so many objectively fantastical beliefs.
    I can't think of any, but then again, I'm not strongly inclined to think of any. The supply of reality-optional whiners we have is more than meeting my subjective demand.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Blue Lake 15K 2010: Not Lazy

The Blue Lake 15k road race was today, and since it is held within a few miles of my house, I feel lazy if I don't sign up for it. So I not only signed up but completed it in a time of 1:05:58 (7:05 mi/min pace, official), which turned out to be a PR for me at that distance.

It was a beautiful day for running -- clear skies, little wind, and temperatures hovering near 50 degrees (10 degrees C), and the feast they served afterwards -- chocolate milk, cola, sandwiches, hot dogs for the carnivores, all manner of cookies -- made it all the more enjoyable.

And look -- a shirt that isn't white!

As always, I thank all the good people who organized this event, and I congratulate my fellow runners.  

Friday, October 15, 2010

'Bizarre' Is One Word For It

Ed Brayton invites us to

look at the argument they're making [in the Obama administration]:
Obama's Justice Department asked U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips to stay her ruling that overturned the ban while the government prepares a formal appeal. Asking the judge for a response by Monday -- "given the urgency and gravity of the issues" -- the government said that suddenly ending the ban would be disruptive and "irreparably harm the public interest in a strong and effective military."
What a bizarre position. They've made the argument consistently that ending the DADT policy not only won't undermine the nation's interest in a strong military, but that it will support that interest all the more. Now they're arguing that if it's ended now rather than in a few months, it will do exactly what they've claimed it won't do.
More and more I get the impression that Obama is deliberately driving Democrats away from the polls in order to to place himself in a Clintonesque position of being the last brake against the insanity of the GOP. This would set him up favorably for re-election in 2012, or so the political calculus goes. Maybe.

Or maybe he is just a craven chicken-shit.

Squirrels Go Up, Squirrels Go Down

Before you decide economics reporting can't get any more incoherent, read this analysis from Rick Newman:

[M]any longer-term gains in living standards are still in place. So while the middle class is clearly under stress, millions of Americans are still much better off than they were 20 or 30 years ago.
Granted, it's not a perfect epitome of the form, but this is an instance of The Stossel*: the claim that we have microwave ovens, smart phones, abs-strengtheners, and varieties of Chinese-made footwear that would have made our forebears vomit with delight, and therefore poverty is somewhere between a relic of yesteryear and a phantasm of limp-wristed freedom-haters. According to The Stossel, anyone who frets over declining economic standards needs to stop worrying, turn on the television, focus his rage on marginal tax rates, and otherwise repent until he thinks of something to buy at the mall.
[C]ompared to 2000 levels, the low-income bracket has swelled, the middle bracket has shrunk, and the upper bracket has shrunk too, though by less. People constantly move up and down on the income scale, and everybody who left the middle bracket didn't automatically fall into the lower bracket. But the numbers make it clear that proportionately fewer people are in the middle bracket, and more people are in the lower bracket. [emphasis mine]
People skitter up and down that rascally income scale like squirrels on trees trunks at the park! Why worry? It would only trouble the squirrels to note that only one bracket grew over the period in question, and it is the low-income bracket. Some skittering is getting more common than other skittering.

Newman's sunny analysis declines to linger on that point, choosing to obscure it instead. Where again are people's economic prospects going, Rick Newman?
Upward, that's where. Here's the percentage of households with incomes over $100,000, again, adjusted for inflation:

2009: 20.1 percent

2000: 20.6 percent

1990: 15 percent

1980: 10.4 percent

1969: 7.6 percent

The biggest income change since the late '60s, in fact, hasn't been in the low- and middle-income groups. It's been a huge jump in both the percentage and the number of high-income households.
Before we were talking about 2000-2010, but that turned out to be a downer, and therefore out of step with the prevailing norms of reporting on the dismal science. Let's change the conversation in Don Draper style and marvel at the gains over 1969-2010 -- what's an extra 31 years subtracted or added here and there so long as we're trying to make readers happy? Squirrel goes up, squirrel goes down:
[M]uch of the added wealth over the last couple of decades came from women working more, which raised household incomes but also masked problems like fewer jobs and falling pay for manufacturing workers. There's also a much bigger gap between middle and high earners today than there was in the '60s and '70s, which means the wealthy are capturing a larger and perhaps unfair share of the nation's wealth.
Whatever, right? Squirrel goes down, squirrel goes up:
A middle-class revival depends on two things: A healthy and growing economy that creates more wealth for everybody, and middle earners able to capture a share of the new wealth that's at least proportionate to their size as a group. It might seem improbable, but if America's middle class is as durable as we'd like to believe, then it may already be mounting its own comeback. [emphasis mine]
It may be, right? It isn't, but one must admit it may be. Mayn't it?

So long as we keep 1969's economic numbers firmly fixed in our minds, and resolve to stare only at current numbers that stay ahead of them, we will know Everything Is Fine. What goes up must come down in gravity, squirrel climbing, and living standards.


-------------------------
* Mustache.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's a PZ Myers Fan Post!

PZ Myers is a scholar and a gentleman. Well, he's a scholar, but opinions differ about the other part. I say he's better than a gentleman: he's a thoughtful contributor to the contemporary American scene. I think I'm going to stop using the word gentleman because it brings its archaic qualities into sharp, disquieting relief.

  • This is an interesting point:
    Many of the evidences proposed rely for their power on their unexplainability by natural mechanisms. There isn't much power there: the vast majority of the phenomena that exist are not completely explained by science. For instance, I don't understand every detail of Hox gene regulation (no one does), and I don't understand all of the nuclear reactions going on inside a star (maybe someone does), and pointing at an elegantly patterned embryo or at our Sun will get me to happily admit my ignorance, but my ignorance is not evidence for a god.
    Indeed so. We don't know everything, and that applies beyond the bland, trivially true observation that any given human being doesn't know everything. Even if we were somehow to sum up the knowledge of every person, past and present, in serial fashion, there would still remain a large number of unanswered questions, unsolved puzzles, and intractable mysteries. Human ignorance doesn't count for or against the proposition that god exists -- it wasn't a cogent argument for the existence of god the month before Newton finalized his laws of motion, and it got neither stronger or weaker a month later. Yet even now, it somehow gets shunted forth as a reason to believe in god. Nonsense.
  • The point cited above came up, directly and indirectly, in PZ Myers's appearance on the most recent Point of Inquiry podcast, in which he ran argumentative circles around the tag-team of Chris Mooney and Jennifer Hecht on the question of confrontation versus accommodation. I admire Jennifer Hecht, but she would do well to re-think whether waving around the word "poetic" constitutes science-bane. More to the point, she would do well to realize that science need not be hostile to the "poetic" -- the "poetic" and science can, if done thoughtfully, be complimentary avenues to finding the truth.

Modafinil Follies

In which I play the part of a laboratory rat who once believed his human keepers were benefactors but discovers otherwise:

On July 22, the European Medicines Agency recommended restricting the use of modafinil. Doctors and patients should be advised to use the drug only for the treatment of narcolepsy and all other indications should be withdrawn from market authorization, the press release said.

In addition to the brand name, Provigil, marketed by Cephalon in the US, modafinil is also sold as Alertec, Modalert, Modavigil, Modiodal, Provake, and Vigil.

A review by the Agency’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP), began in May 2009, because of safety concerns relating to psychiatric disorders, such as suicidal thoughts, depression, and psychotic episodes, and life threatening skin reactions, as well as significant off-label use and potential for abuse.
Oh, so that explains my suicidal thoughts, depression, assorted psychotic episodes, and life-threatening skin reactions -- it's because I have been prescribed modafinil to treat my narcolepsy. Neat!

I was not aware of the life-threatening skin reactions, but rest assured I am hyper-alert for them now. I believe I feel one coming on .... now.

An unsettling thought: what explains the instances of all of the above that predate my use of modafinil?

A second unsettling thought: if modafinil can create new psychological problems and make your skin kill you, why would it still be a good prescription for narcolepsy? Narcolepsy is a hindrance, sometimes a living nightmare (quite literally), but it's better than being killed by your skin.

I should thank my lucky asteroid(s) that when I am declared insane and thrown in a padded room, bespeckled with life-threatening skin conditions, that it was all done for a good cause: it came to pass for the sake of an aggressive marketing push.

Also, since modafinil doesn't particularly, you know, work, not even in the obscene horse-doses I've been prescribed, I'm going to go take a brief nap now. I would like to think I will be better able to deal with this after that. I would like to think a lot of things.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Just Moralized Self-Interest

Richard Beck concludes a discussion of No Country for Old Men and theodicy as follows:

[W]e recognize Sheriff Bell and Carla Jean as virtuous people. And we recognize Chigurh as evil. The failed theodicy of No Country makes those recognitions possible. By contrast, the "virtue" within, let's say, a Disney movie, is just moralized self-interest. With a guaranteed "happy ever after" we have the perfect theodicy, a world where virtue lawfully produces happiness. And all we can see in this "best of all possible worlds" (and Disney delivers on this score) is Homo economicus, self-interest disguised as virtue. Nothing in this sort of world is heroic or admirable. But virtue in No Country is the real deal, it's the workaday heroism of doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do.
I think there's something to this, but of course, I'm a filthy atheist. It's not clear why a Christian such as Beck would find comfort in this conclusion since it implies expressly states that placing trust in a cosmos that's assumed to have a just ending -- like, say, the Christian cosmos -- is reduced to "self-interest disguised as virtue."

It has long struck me as a problem that Christians seem to want people to behave in the light of an eternity in either heaven or hell. If you're counting on the threat of punishment to keep people from brutalizing one another, you're really just counting on people to fear they will get caught if they do, in fact, brutalize others. Every maximum security prison is filled with people who did not fear punishment enough to keep them benevolent. Indeed, all human history is replete with the mangled bodies left by people who managed to convince themselves they'd elude the wrath they incur by their deeds. Rewards and punishments have their place, but moral decision making that deserves to be so-called comes from another source.

(via Eli Horowitz)

I Am Not Piper Stockton and I Approve This Message

Suppose proponents of Amazon.com's Kindle didn't exist -- would it be necessary to invent them? I say no, but opinions differ:

And then there was this comment from Piper Stockton: “I like reading and at the beginning I did miss a bit on the feeling of reading books. But now I love to hold the Kindle, the e-ink seems to work very well, it is really like reading books…”

All of the messages came in within minutes of each other, although they all cited different authors, gave different email addresses, and came from different IP addresses. But there was one notable thing beyond their similarity: they all cited the same url.

Who knows why someone would go through such a laborious effort and then flag their fakery for me like that. More important is the evidence this provides that Amazon, as I have suspected all along, either fosters or more likely employs astroturfers — that is, people to conduct a fake grass-roots campaign in support of the company and its products and tactics.
"Piper Stockton" sounds like a complete tool, and Amazon.com are sounding like complete assholes in this.

I have no opinion on the Kindle and similar gadgets apart from a vague unease speckled with mild dislike. Books don't require batteries, bios updates, a wired infrastructure, or any kind of electrical power. They can be bartered, traded, and given away easily. I like books; books work. Kindles and other e-readers strike me as just another technology upgrade treadmill we're all being urgently asked to start running on, for the sake of benefits that seem pretty meager, as seen in such dubious transitions as the vinyl-cassette-CD-?? music format, the color TV-flat screen-HD-3D tee-vee miasma, the VCR-DVD-Blu-Ray nightmare, and so on. I despise treadmills even when they go well -- I enjoy my gigantic HD television as much as the next money-wasting moron, but really, do I need to see January Jones or Christina Hendricks in any more visual clarity? I think something should be left to their spouses and/or current flings.

If I might wax nostalgic for a moment -- I do so only with the proviso that none of this part counts as a genuine argument -- they have a look, feel, and smell that's all their own, and once made, they exist in a form that's far from imperishable but harder to destroy than hitting a delete key somewhere.

Sure, e-readers have their place, and maybe I'll come to appreciate them one day. Even if so, I feel confident in saying they're nothing to lie and scheme over.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mad Men, Sung

I hadn't bothered to wonder if the Mad Men theme song could be accompanied by lyrics, but not surprisingly, it can be. Nicely! This performance was done in real time, just as shown and seen in this video --- it's not Neko Case, but it's impressive nonetheless:



(via Portland Mercury)

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Rhetorical Scared Straight

It is generous of Cathy Lynn Grossman to walk us through the hazards of posing thoughtless rhetorical questions:

[Jerry] Coyne argues we must clear vision from the fog of belief and religious structures that nourish communities of faith. No common awe for the dazzling sunrise here. He loathes gray areas (i.e. fog) and insists on the black-and-white view that religion is a force for the awful, unlike science's force for the good.

Does your gray matter -- i.e. your brain --see more shading to all this?
The most fundamental hazard of the rhetorical question is that it will be answered outside its own critical frame. Here, the correct answer to Grossman's question is yes, and on two counts, but they do not affirm what she seems to have in mind. To wit:

(1) Yes, Cathy Lynn Grossman, we can see "more shading" if we read Jerry Coyne's column rather than your tendentiously cropped bastardization of it.

(2) Yes, Cathy Lynn Grossman, we can see "more shading" to the matters at hand than the two alternatives you've given between, weirdly, "common awe for the dazzling sunrise" and cold, bloodless science. One of those shades, the one Coyne was emphasizing, concerns the truth of the natural world and the method by which it can be established and separated from guesses. It is perfectly compatible with dazzling, awesome sunrises.
Mt. Hood sunrise, 2/2008
Not that anyone asked me, but appreciating some of the science behind, say, atmospheric refraction and discrete dipole approximation subtracts nothing from the amazing qualities of sunrises, but rather adds to it substantially. Whereas imputing it to a cosmic visual effects studio is, well, to flatten it into just another lame contrivance. It is precisely akin to watching the vistas of planet Pandora on the big screen and knowing that, however interesting the appearance, it's just James Cameron trying to sell tickets or win an Oscar.

Fish on Howl

I have had my differences with Stanley Fish in the space of this precious, precious blog -- here, here, and here for instance -- but his discussion of Howl, the film about Allen Ginsberg's trial and his famous poem that gave rise to it, demonstrates why I have not dropped his blog from my RSS reader. Fish:
Because the trial’s analyses of specific lines and passages interrupt (or are interrupted by) the movie-long declaiming of the poem, we have a chance to hear the same lines and passages twice and even three times, and, as a result, we experience the effect of deepening understanding that is produced by the classroom teacher who circles and surrounds a poem with information, references and multiple points of view. ... After a movie you usually want to talk about the actors or the direction or the cinema-photography, but when you leave this movie what you want to do is go directly to a bookstore and buy a copy of “Howl” so that you can do some literary interpreting yourself; and then you want to go back and see the movie again (as I did) in the hope that this time you have something of your own to offer. See you there.
After a post by Stanley Fish, I often want to refudiate* what he wrote, but not this time. This makes me want to re-read the poem, it makes me want to watch the film, and it even brings me back to my former romance with literary criticism.

That's a pretty good haul for a blog post. Thank you, Professor Fish. Let's never fight again.


-----
* It is a real word. Also: I can see Russia from my front porch.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Scriptures Demoted

Nicholas Kristof has created a quiz that exposes unflattering passages from all the leading brands of revealed faith -- Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. What is the point of his little quiz?

[T]he point of this little quiz is that religion is more complicated than it sometimes seems, and that we should be wary of rushing to inflammatory conclusions about any faith, especially based on cherry-picking texts. The most crucial element is perhaps not what is in our scriptures, but what is in our hearts.
To agree that "what is in our hearts" is more important than "what is in our scriptures" requires the demotion of "scriptures" to the status of mere books, at which point it becomes severely misleading to label the books with the word "scripture."

By definition, a "scripture" is not just another book; it is a very special book. A "scripture" is a book attributed to god -- perhaps by way of an earthly stenographer or authorized spokesman -- so to demote it to mere book is to negate the role of the god in its raison d'etre, conception, and more exactly, its authority.

To rank "what is in our hearts" above "what is in our [putative] scriptures" is to deny the salience of god in setting priorities. It sounds like a very good idea to me -- I've already done it. I have no idea why it would make sense to a practicing Muslim, Christian, Jew, or other theist.

Podcasts Meme

Some internets memes are made, some are born (I assume), and some are thrust upon you. I hereby thrust the 'meme' rubric upon SolarJinx's recent post listing his favorite podcasts, and continue the meme by listing my own favorites, in no particular order:

  • Reasonable Doubts (http://feeds.feedburner.com/reasonabledoubts/Msxh) - A philosopher, a psychologist, and a mythologist walk into a podcast ... it sounds like the setup for a joke you'll forget in 20 seconds, but no joke -- they do an excellent job covering topics of interest and relevance to the 'freethought community.'
  • Point of Inquiry (http://pointofinquiry.libsyn.com/rss) - This is more hit-or-miss since DJ Grothe gave way to the current rotating host format, but it's still a great resource for hearing from interesting thinkers in science, humanism, atheism, and skepticism.
  • Fresh Air (http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast.php?id=13) - I don't download every episode, but Terry Gross is a gifted interviewer.
  • The Film Talk (http://filmtalk.libsyn.com/rss)- Sometimes I agree with their take on films, sometimes I don't, but I always appreciate how they give serious attention to films of all kinds, not just critical darlings, and I enjoy the give-and-take of the co-hosts' friendship.
  • Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo's Film Reviews (http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/fivelive/kermode/rss.xml) - They provide everything I wrote about The Film Talk in Britishized form, though they do tend, now and then, to loll around in films that are not likely ever to leave England.
  • This American Life (http://feeds.thisamericanlife.org/talpodcast) - Many times I've entered this podcast expecting to be bored by the subject matter, only to find it compelling. Other times I expect it to be compelling before I hear it, and it turns out to be more compelling than I expected.
  • Radiolab (http://feeds.wnyc.org/radiolab) - Scientific topics presented with inquisitiveness, humility, and plenty of charm. 
  • The Skeptics Guide (http://www.theskepticsguide.org/feed/rss.aspx?feed=SGU) - Collectively, the presenters know enough to know when to be skeptical.
  • Philosophy Bites (http://www.philosophybites.libsyn.com/rss) - Conversations with working philosophers.
I subscribe to various other podcasts, but none that consistently deliver something I'm driven to download.

What about you? If you're reading this and find it worthwhile, consider yourself "tagged" in the meme.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Portland Marathon 2010: I Feel Your Rain

The Portland Marathon starts promptly at 7am tomorrow, and this is the forecast for the 97204. I wish I could say the forecast is likely to be wrong, but while I can say that, it's actually likely to be right. Today has been much the same.

There lies a modicum of hope. Today I put in an ~18-miler under almost identical weather, and it wasn't bad. The water kept me cool, and I drank a little as it rolled down my face. After a while I gave up on avoiding puddles and just started stomping in the deepest part of them, just like a little kid. It was fun! Really!

Whatever happens, remember that the stuff falling from the sky is nothing but water, and water is completely non-toxic. That there is a close correlation between exposure to water and cancer is only an illustration of the principle that correlation does not imply causality. People have been drawn to water for centuries, it is used in thousands of recipes, and tomorrow, volunteers will be handing you cups of it at various points along the course. Water is your friend.

As friendships often are, it is complicated. I can attest there will be chafing, so if you have BodyGlide or something like it, use it liberally. Swipe the whole bar over your body, and I recommend putting an extra few layers on the tenderest parts (you fill in the blank) -- this is the day you bought it for.

Whatever difficulties the weather brings can only add to the glory you achieve. Falling rain is nothing but the sensation of weakness leaving your body.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Stereolab Lives?

In a sense, Stereolab will never die so long as there are people who appreciate the music. In a stricter, truer sense, Stereolab disbanded in 2009, only to announce the November 2010 release of a new studio album, Not Music, consisting of songs written and recorded at the same time as 2008's Chemical Chords.

Meanwhile, a more-than-fair approximation of the band's sound has survived through lead singer Laetitia Sadier's recent solo album, The Trip, as well as collaborations with Atlas Sound and surely beyond.

And then Sadier complicated this neat, tidy picture:
"The new LP is the second part, or as I describe it, the ‘night side’ of our last LP, Chemical Chords,” Sadier says. “The band haven't split up officially, but Andy [Ramsay], our drummer, quit at the end of the last tour. If and when Tim [Gane] is ready to write some new Lab material, then we might take it to the studio once again."
People who like their bands to be either unambiguously alive or dead will not like this sort of thing. Those people are making unreasonable demands, and they should be shunned.

In other news of deathless music, John Lennon would have been 70 today.

Running and Death (Or Whatever)

Weirdly (or whatever), my thoughts often turn to death while I am running -- but in a good way. When things become crushingly difficult, one of my internal mantras goes something like "I am running for those who can't," and frequently I have in mind my mother and grandmother, who are dead, not just out of shape, injured, ill, or lazy. I like to think I am repaying them in some way by taking my still-working physicality to its natural limits, whatever those precise limits are in that moment.

To be clear, I do not believe mom and granny are "up there" to feel the appreciating and track my minute/mile pace -- if there's an afterlife, they're "down there" if they're anywhere, where by now each would have raised the general level of mayhem -- but the mantra's motivational charge does not depend on their listening in.

The point (or whatever) is this: they're gone, but I am alive and in my present state thanks in no small part to them, and since I have some inkling of how their lives went, and of what they went through to give me this moment, I show my gratitude by striving forward and not giving in. I am, even in the midst of difficulty and pain, very much alive.

Apropos running and death (or whatever), I write this only a brief while after stopping by the 2010 Portland Marathon's vendor exposition, at which I invested in some Zensah shin compression sleeves exactly like the ones pictured here.* I'm hoping that by mentioning them and linking to them, they'll send me several more pairs of their sleeves.

(via The Majesty of Being)


-------
* While my skin is approximately as pallid as the skin shown, my feet don't look like that.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Come, Let Us Plumb the Shallows

I am embarrassed on behalf of the neighbor who keeps this unspeakably hideous wall lamp tacked precariously beside his garage door, out in the wide open where people are at risk of seeing it when passing by. Even if he bothered to clear away the dirt and cob webs, it would only more vividly reveal the compact fluorescent light bulb, which, whatever its qualities, was never intended to be seen.

Past the bulb and the filth, look at the shape of the thing. What is that faux bronze housing meant to invoke? A stately old castle? The gates to a quaint manor? I can assure you the neighbor's house is not otherwise styled after European aristocracy-- insofar as it has a recognizable style, and based on its middle-1970s build date, it's an Eichler design or a knock-off of one.

And no, this wall lamp is not a postmodern thing. There aren't enough ironic scare quotes in the world to cause this lamp to bracket away, comment on, or "problematize" anything. This is just an ugly, slapdash mess. 

... Or so I assume my neighbor would write if he had a blog -- he doesn't, right? I'd know if he did, right? -- and bothered to take a careful look at my wall lamps.

The consolation, such as it is, lies in the many ugly wall lamps I've lately noticed on my neighbors' houses. For purposes of this blog post, I am too kind to post any photos.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

To be great is to be misunderstood

Matt Yglesias gamely tries to explain terribly written great books:

I actually think this is a pretty general problem with “great books,” for reasons that are explained in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions which is, itself, a great book that suffers from the very same problem. Obviously part of the issue is simply that there’s no guarantee that conceptual innovators will be good writers. But the deeper Kuhnian issue is that great game-changing thinkers end up altering the conceptual terrain in a way that renders their original works obsolete-sounding and confusing. Meanwhile, a whole discipline grows up in the shadow of the great book and its practitioners develop a nice clear reconstruction of the framework.
I rather think Kuhn was an admirably lucid writer given his subject matter, but opinions vary, and ready examples abound. Take Hans Gadamer:
A person trying to understand something will not resign himself from the start to relying on his own accidental fore-meanings, ignoring as consistently and stubbornly as possible the actual meaning of the text until latter becomes so persistently audible that it breaks through what the interpreter imagines it to be. Rather, a person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something. That is what a hermeneutically trained consciousness must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s alterity. But this kind of sensitivity involved neither ‘neutrality’ with respect to content nor the extinction of one’s self, but the foregounding and appropriation of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices. The important things is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert is own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.
That's not even an especially dense passage -- it rolls along pretty smoothly until "alterity," which isn't among the twelve words most frequently overheard on mass transit, and the two sentences following it are the kind that demand a slower pace of reading.

When encountering a difficult book, the important things is to be aware of one's own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert is own truth against one's own fore-meanings. Only then can one come to a considered judgment on whether it has been worth the time and effort to slow down and take it in.

That Sinking Feeling

This is the kind of thing that's elevating hope's audaciousness to new heights:

In documents released Wednesday, the national oil spill commission reveals that in late April or early May the White House budget office denied a request from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make public the worst-case discharge from the blown-out well.

BP estimated the worse scenario to be a leak of 2.5 million gallons per day. The government, meanwhile, was telling the public the well was releasing 210,000 gallons per day - a figure that later grew closer to BP's figure.
Because it has become fashionable to wax Naderesque and claim Barack Obama was just another cookie-cutter corporatist shill from the start, one whose lofty rhetoric functioned as Rorschach blots in which his too-hopeful supporters divined progressive commitments that didn't truly exist, I quote the president -- and mind you, these words came after he was sworn in, and therefore past the need of any such ruse:
[P]romoting science isn't just about providing resources - it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient - especially when it's inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda - and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology ... To ensure ... that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions. That is how we will harness the power of science to achieve our goals -- to preserve our environment and protect our national security ... [emphasis mine]
It's funny -- funny in a 'let's slash our wrists and see who can bleed out first' kind of way -- how he explicitly connected the goal of "preserving the environment" with the practice of scientific integrity, right there in the statement in which he was issuing a promise he evidently had no genuine intention to keep. Bonus funny, and in the same way: the subtle allusion to Al Gore in the two emphatic uses of "inconvenient."

For all this, it's true to say the Republicans are worse, and elections involve choices between concrete alternatives. Concrete tends to sink everything it's attached to.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Narcoleptic British Drivers

Much it grieves my heart to think what man has made of man:

[H]ealth officials in Finland announced they were suspending the [anti-H1N1 flu] vaccination programme there following reports of narcolepsy in people who had received the jab ... Narcolepsy is a rare condition and its causes are unknown ... Once diagnosed with the condition, which is long-term and has no cure, people are not allowed to drive.
Now that's a shock -- British narcoleptics are not allowed to drive? If I were British, I'd be worried about all the unlicensed narcoleptics darting along the roadways, nodding off or trying not to, their dangers trebled by the odd tendency to drive on the left side of the street. It's a wonder anyone is alive there.

Only because it settles this medical question definitively, I note that I developed narcolepsy long before I had ever heard of the swine flu, let alone the vaccine for it, and therefore it is not the cause.

I am glad to have helped.

Just When You Thought It Was Orange

I am with John Carter Wood, who is with Anne Applebaum on this one:
Speaking as an American who lives in Europe, I feel it is incumbent upon me to describe what people like me do when we hear warnings like the one issued on Sunday by the U.S. State Department and cited above: We do nothing.

We do nothing, first and foremost, because there is nothing we can do. Unless the State Department gets specific—e.g., "don't go to the Eiffel Tower tomorrow"—information at that level of generality is completely meaningless.
I am not physically with John and Anne -- I still live in America for whatever reason -- but where it counts, on the scale of subjective alarm over these terror threats and rumors of terror threats, I am with them, and I think nearly everyone else is too. Even right here in the USA, we too do nothing upon hearing these "warnings."

Sure, it's a big country, so there are undoubtedly exceptions, but people have long since tuned out the changing shades of the Fearfulness Rainbow and the stream of dire-sounding threats that go along with it. They barely register as background noise by now, and as John points out (via Andrew), they almost never translate into practical, concrete steps to be taken. Hence they come across as little more than an instruction to attenuate one's fear, and as I mentioned in a recent post, significant emotional states such as fear, love, loyalty, and revulsion don't respond to verbal commands, nor to color changes.

John:
I also understand that governments are in a kind of damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't position on this issue ....
No doubt they see it that way, but I am firmly in the damned if you do camp. Flashing the rainbow and announcing that hints of menace are afoot, somewhere in a continent, only discredit the announcer.

That's not to say there has been no effort made to prepare the public for what might come -- we are advised to keep an emergency preparedness kit and an emergency plan. These are sensible measures.

Fear and safety are colorless. Whether they are odorless is the subject of another post on another day.