Friday, April 29, 2011

The Evil That Men Do Lives After Them

Though dead and buried, the former pope has moved for some reason:

The pope's coffin was taken out of a crypt under St. Peter's Basilica, the BBC reported. The wooden coffin and a vial of John Paul's blood will be displayed before the high altar in St. Peter's during the beatification Sunday.
Is it too much to ask that no one should drink the blood as part of this beautification process? Maybe.

I convey no irony when I note this was not an honorable man the Vatican is digging up and putting on display --- the evil he did lives after him:
[T]he pope failed, time and again, to take decisive action in response to clear evidence of a criminal underground in the priesthood, a subculture that sexually traumatized tens of thousands of youngsters. Despite a 1984 warning memo from the Rev. Thomas Doyle, then a canon lawyer in the Vatican Embassy in Washington, and a ninety-three-page report on the problem co-written by Doyle in 1985, which was sent to every American bishop, John Paul ordered no outreach to victims, no binding policy to rid the priesthood of deviants.
And on and on:
John Paul’s beatification may give a media boost to the Vatican, but Pope Benedict’s negligence earlier in his career has also done severe damage to the papacy; media coverage last year spotlighted how Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Benedict was then known, failed to dismiss several known abusers. How can any pope be a voice for peace, proclaim the sanctity of life and speak for human rights while giving de facto Vatican immunity to bishops and cardinals who concealed child molesters?
The world does not need it, but there shall soon be a patron saint of child rape.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Quite a Goal

Amy K. Hall sees the cosmic scales in balance:
Why did God allow evil to come into this world? Why not create everything in the state of perfection we will be in after this world comes to an end? I think the answer is that God had a goal in mind that is greater than the suffering, and that goal is the revealing of Himself to His people so that we will be able to fully express our pleasure in Him through worship, enjoying Him for an eternity. [emphasis mine]
Hall's comment was directed at the scattered bodies above, and also directed at the millions of others who experienced similar degrees of suffering under her god's gaze. It is also directed at those who did not share the same experience but had to endure the realization that their loved ones endured it. To all of those, Hall says: it's fine because my favorite god had a goal.
Likewise, to the person being sawed here, and to the uncounted more who died in comparably agonizing ways, it's fine because Amy K. Hall's god had a goal.

It's interesting how Hall can't be bothered to specify anything positive about this goal beyond asserting that it belongs to her favorite god. She is oddly confident that the prospect of a bunch of people ending up adoring god eternally counterbalances all the pain of the world, in reply to which I can only stand amazed at some people's capacity to overestimate the value of adulation and underestimate the scale of human suffering.

(via Eli Horowitz)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

KO Returns

Love him or hate him or not-sure him, Keith Olbermann will be returning to television on Monday, June 20 on the Current TV channel.

I love KO -- almost always -- and look forward to his return to the chatter box. Dear gawd I hope he doesn't inflict too much James Thurber on us -- try as I might, I'm just not a fan of his writings -- but that's barely a cavil. Watching the new Olbermann show, I expect to mutter to myself that he has taken things a bit too far a few times each week, but speaking as someone who has taken things a bit too far now and then, I cannot call this a genuine worry. The moment will have its way with all of us, but reality is, so to speak, incapable of being either created or destroyed by our tussles over it.

In my judgment KO takes the right view and in the right way far more frequently than not. I am glad to see his return.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Happy Easter, Ross D.

Ross Douthat decided to use his Easter column to say how badly he wants hell to exist -- perhaps not the choice of topics you or I would make, dear reader, but we must always recall that Douthat is occupying the chair at the New York Times formerly held by warmongering serial liar Bill Kristol, so he carries an exceptionally depraved banner:

In part, hell's weakening grip on the religious imagination is a consequence of growing pluralism. Bell's book begins with a provocative question: Are Christians required to believe that Gandhi is in hell for being Hindu? The mahatma is a distinctive case, but swap in "my Hindu/Jewish/Buddhist neighbor" for Gandhi, and you can see why many religious Americans find the idea of eternal punishment for wrong belief increasingly unpalatable.
I don't wish to prolong the suspense, so let's get right to it -- is Ghandi burning in hell this very minute and for every minute hereafter, Ross Douthat? Will all the Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, wrong-denominational Christians, and non-believers soon and forever be joining him? Douthat concludes:
Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there's a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?
I will not sketch in the path by which Douthat got from Ghandi's damnation to Tony Soprano -- you're welcome to read the whole thing if you wish to inhabit the chain of argument, such as it is. The interesting thing is in how Douthat's conclusion blithely dismisses the question that he began by raising with such apparent urgency, evidently considering the answer to be too obvious to spell out.  Of a piece with this, it is interesting how Douthat can't be bothered to forthrightly address the fate of an actual human being except to cast it in terms of a made-up character.

Does Douthat realize that consequential moral differences separate Ghandi and Tony Soprano? That one existed -- and on his account, still exists somewhere -- and was capable of the whole range of human experiences, while the other was a mildly interesting fabrication on cable tee-vee? Are we sure Douthat knows this?

If Douthat couldn't tell the difference, what changes would he need to make in his Easter Day column cheering for hell? Off hand, I don't see any.

Given this, it's strange, to say the least, that Douthat should write this in the very same column:
The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.
Or how about this: the trivializer of human lives can crawl so far up the ass of his mythology that he can't be bothered to separate reality from fiction. I think Douthat is showing what happens when a person spends so much of his life gawking at statues of men hanging on crosses that he forgets, or never got the chance to realize in the first place because the indoctrination began before he could even speak, what it means to distress, torture, and demean a human being.

The infliction of pain is not pretty, nor is it ennobling. The prospect of it extended forever is unbearably monstrous and deeply, unimaginably evil. It is nothing to hide inside decorative eggs, or coat in chocolate, and it shouldn't be allowed to darken the onset of Spring. It is witheringly, profoundly vile.

Happy Easter.

Addendum: It's probably worth noting that I am not making an argument that "hell is troubling, therefore it doesn't exist," or anything of the sort. This would be an emotive fallacy that would mirror Douthat's. I am saying, simply, that hell is incompatible with a loving god that Christians and other theists typically want to insist on; and that belief in hell -- belief in the sense of favoring it or apologizing for it -- requires a level of moral blindness that's appalling and shocking.

(via Amanda Marcotte)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Message Penetration

For abstinence-minded parents, now there are underwear that will supply their daughters with the judgment they evidently didn't convincingly instill:
[T]hese panties were created by parents to encourage their teens to remain abstinent ... these 75-percent “frisky” garments seem to be closely tied to a religious agenda. The very name of the line implies a Christian affiliation–subbing “your mother” for Jesus in the familiar WWJD.
Jesus would, I gather, put on underwear to remind himself of rules, and if in doubt, he would pull down his pants and examine those underwear. Or something.

Consequences of Marriage Equality

If you take in only one pie chart on gay marriage this year, consider taking in a second, and strongly consider this one from Pros Before Hos.

Other items that were too negligible to be represented included "existing marriages will dissolve," "our precious freedoms will be diminished," and "anything worrisome will happen, ever." 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Urgency of Layout

The image above is a screen grab from a post by Amanda Marcotte concerning an instance of a genre of attention-grabbing opinion column that attracts a coalition of the outraged and the misogynistic. Notice how the cited passage is made visually distinct by being enclosed in a box and given a yellowish background color. Here's how the same post looks in google reader:

Because of the placement of the peanut butter jar image to the left and the text to the right, the post as shown in google reader does not make clear where Marcotte's text ends and the cited text begins.

For best results, especially when citing text, align images to the center or the right.

Also, if you find yourself concluding that women lack sexual desire, reconsider. Look more closely and -- this part is important -- think beyond your own individual experiences, especially ones you happen to be upset, touchy, or angry about right now, as those can lead you to latch on to rash and faulty conclusions. Whatever the inquiry you're pursuing, the idea that women lack sexual desire is not the answer, nor is it part of the answer, because it isn't true.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Easter Bunny, Aversion to

Next to (of course) clowns, people in animal- and holiday-themed mascot suits are among the most terrifying things in the world.

Obviously, but why? Why isn't the grasping bunny or the gamboling clown as fun and lighthearted as he is badly paid to pretend to want to be? I think it is the unchanging facial expression: a creature with distorted body dimensions and garish colors who lunges at you is unsettling; such a creature who lunges at you without registering the experience on its face is an unspeakable horror.

(via Portland Mercury)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Reality of Fantasy

Agree with him or not, Jeffrey Sconce is entertaining in his dismissal of Game of Thrones and the fantasy genre in general:
Now, you might be saying, shouldn't you at least give Game of Thrones a chance? How can you pass judgment on an entire series without seeing it first?

Easy. Though we now supposedly live in a pluralistic world of egalitarian taste where everyone's pleasures are to be defended as uniquely meaningful and personally significant, I think we can still hazard to opine that certain genres are incontrovertibly terrible and that the world would probably be better off without them. "Fantasy," for example. Given the decidedly alarming trajectory of the 21st century, this is no time to retreat into a world where we hope some combination of "magic," courtly love, and benevolent nobility is going to save our sorry asses.

... Most insulting of all, however, is the affront "fantasy" makes to fantasy itself. How sad that "fantasy"--a protean and theoretically limitless domain--should be so rigidly codified around such a ridiculously childish set of conventions: kings, queens, knights, jousts, quests, faithful hounds, noble steeds, etc. It's as if "comedy" could never advance beyond variations on the banana-peel gag.
I say variations on the banana peel gag can make for pretty compelling comedy -- the shit dollar, for example -- so following a tired convention is not necessarily a failure. I think I am trying to say I am willing to give Game of Thrones a chance to prove it can be the shit dollar of fantasy dramatizations.

One explanation for the durability of the 'fantasy' genre is that drama involves conflict among intimates, that conflict becomes more interesting when it comes with violence and, naturally, an uncertain outcome. With these in mind, modern-day violence tends to be flat and boring. Watching someone shoot someone else with an AK-47 is dull; they don't even have to be in earshot of each other. Move to a realm of swords, spears, clubs, axes, and maces -- especially maces -- and voila! Suddenly someone is chopping off an arm or collapsing a rib cage and it is all-caps awesome.

It makes most sense to transfer all of this to the past, where people really fought hand to hand; but for those who can't resist the urge to insert made-up elements, or can't be bothered to represent actual historical events, fantasy is the way to go. It doesn't have to go to an imagined past, of course. George Lucas tried transferring some of these conventions to a futuristic setting, and the results were fair to middling to shit-dollar without the dollar. Similarly, Gene Roddenberry constructed a futuristic world in which, for some reason, galaxy-traversing spacecraft fought battles using the terminology and techniques borrowed from 17th and 18th-century galleons. Had either of them done otherwise, it might have been nothing but laser beams flying back and forth, which would be no more believable and far more tedious.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

You Are An Operating Cost

Suppose they gave an economic system and nobody came because they couldn't even get hired to serve hors d'oeuvres?
The paper [The Wall Street Journal] surveyed employment data by some of the nation’s largest corporations — General Electric, Caterpillar, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Chevron, Cisco, Intel, Stanley Works, Merck, United Technologies, and Oracle — and found that they cut their workforces by 2.9 million people over the last decade while hiring 2.4 million people overseas.
In a great many instances companies are doing exactly the same things but at a cheaper per-hour rate for labor:
Another question asked of the executives found that the top reason for companies to outsource was to “reduce operating costs” (46 percent of respondents). Only 12 percent of respondents said their reason for outsourcing was “access to world class capabilities.” This means companies are outsourcing to save themselves money, not make better products.
Even where people aren't just allocated, arbitraged, and moved around like toner cartridges -- even if the outsourcing results in the use of better, more durable toner cartridges -- the fact that US companies can so freely go overseas to find "world-class capabilities" entails less and less incentive to see those capabilities developed here. If Americans are terrible at math, science, writing, social studies, and everything else, so what? We don't need any of that, and we don't need schools, to put the Chinese-made junk on a credit card.

It's hard to know what to call this social compact in which corporations are persons and people are fungible onlookers.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Records and Rules

The good news? Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai ran the fastest recorded marathon ever -- two hours, three minutes, and two seconds -- in today's Boston Marathon. The bad news?

The time is not considered a world record ... because the Boston course is not sanctioned as being record-eligible by the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s world governing body.

I.A.A.F. rules state that marathon records must be set on what is considered a loop course instead of a point-to-point course, meaning that the starting and finish lines cannot be farther apart than 50 percent of the race distance, or 13.1 miles. The Boston course starts in Hopkinton, Mass., 26.2 miles from the finish.

Times in races on point-to-point courses, even difficult rolling ones like Boston’s, can be significantly affected by a tail wind, which was the case Monday, when the wind was blowing 15 to 20 miles per hour.
... the overall decrease in elevation from the start to the finish cannot exceed one meter per kilometer, which comes out to about 138 feet. The Boston course drops about 470 feet.
The one time I had the privilege to run that course, it certainly didn't feel like a net elevation drop. World record or not, today saw an astounding performance --- staggering, astonishing, amazing, incredible -- and those barely approach it. Well done, Geoffrey Mutai. Records will be records, but this accomplishment stands well apart.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Bridge to Brews 2011 - No Clouds

Today I ran the Bridge to Brews 10k in 44:14 minutes (7:08 minutes/mile pace, official), a good enough result given that I've been sick with a persistent cold and that I prepared for today's race by putting in a punishing 14-miler yesterday. Neither reader should be too quick to dismiss the suggestion that that is a brag nested inside an excuse.

The rare chance to experience running the top level of Portland's Fremont Bridge, let alone on a blissfully sunny spring day, was alone worth the price of admission, but even if weren't, the Onno t-shirt made of organic cotton and bamboo fabric would more than suffice. This shirt is absurdly soft. If you like t-shirts, or want to like t-shirts, find a way to get one of these bamboo-cotton shirts (yes, I am a tool; no, Onno did not pay me to say any of this).

As is normally the case with Terrapin Events, the race's organization was outstanding, and made possible by the best volunteers we could hope to get for such an occasion. Every step of the way we knew exactly where to go and where not to, and the brief false start with the first wave was, I am sure, the fault of the participants. We had a pleasant elevated-pace stroll down the boulevard for fifty yards or so, but were called back to try again, and no one came to harm.

As always, I congratulate all the runners who joined me, and I appreciate the excellent work and contributions of the volunteers, sponsors -- one especially stands out -- and organizers.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Introversion: Not for the Talkative

Interestingly enough, or so I will suggest, I have again been revealed as an INFP on the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is the same result I received the last time I took the assessment and the time before that in a bleak, little-known, rarely-mentioned, barely-worth-mentioning era that predates this precious, precious blog.

The takeway, or so I will suggest, is that as an INFP I am this sort of person:
INFPs focus much of their energy on an inner world dominated by intense feeling and deeply held ethics. They seek an external life that is in keeping with these values. Loyal to the people and causes important to them, INFPs can quickly spot opportunities to implement their ideals. They are curious to understand those around them, and so are accepting and flexible except when their values are threatened.
I can attest to all of that, especially the part I went to the trouble to bold toward the end: I'll smile through damnnear anything, but once someone crosses a line of one of my values, I will strike like a very untalkative cobra, and keep striking until long after some non-INFP would recognize that the threat has gone cold dead. It's the way I roll, or more exactly, the way I play-act as a snake who has been pushed too far.

As the image at the top hints, introversion was my most pronounced preference on the four-part scale, with the others (Intuitive, Feeling, and Perceiving) scoring somewhere the 'moderate' range. While I pegged the meter on the Introversion scale, I note that this scale is clearly calibrated for amateurs of introversion. I think a scale needs to go to something more like 500 or 800 or 1000 to properly measure my introversion.

This goes out to anyone reading this who happens to inhabit my personal circles: look here for the explanation for why I never stop by to chat, and will never stop by to chat even if we both live to 150 and have thousands of things in common. I don't chat. I have been know to go entire 8-hour workdays without speaking a single word to another human being -- actually, I wouldn't even say it's rare -- and when it happens, I am perfectly serene throughout. In fact, I hope my next workday is such a day, and the day after that. I really do. I am not kidding. It's not because I don't like you or my co-workers. It's not because I don't like people or the robotic simulations sent to test me. It's not because I am rude or arrogant, though I am (of course) rude and arrogant. It's not you, it's me -- no, it's nothing to give a name to, it's just the way things are.

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but Jonathan Rauch's "Caring For Your Introvert" is essential reading for all introverts and even more so for all the world's non-introverts, who will, I hope, some day seek the help they need -- or face the consequences.

Insipid Opponents, Value of

Further to my previous post about Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape and some of the criticisms of it: nothing in what I have said is to discount the problems with Harris's book. As I have expressed at least once before, I think Harris could have made substantially the same argument by stipulating "the well-being of conscious creatures is a first-order moral priority" rather than laboring to convert it to a factual statement. It's not even as though stipulating it implies no arguments can be made for it and against alternatives -- not all postulates stand up equally under reasoned scrutiny, and I think "the well-being of conscience creatures is a first-order moral priority" stands up rather well.

I would be interested to hear the counter-arguments to it -- likely appalled, but interested.

My basic view of The Moral Landscape is that while it is an imperfect book, it is not enough to say it is somehow belaboring the obvious; it should be borne in mind that there are exceedingly widely-held views that don't discount the well-being of conscious creatures but do, explicitly or implicitly, rank it behind the whimsy and putative authority of a god. The idea that human well-being is secondary -- to a god's mood swings or anything else -- must be called out and closely interrogated, and Harris's book serves that end. As Nietszsche remarked,

The value of insipid opponents -- At times one remains faithful to a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid.

Headaches and Broken Legs

Ophelia Benson is unswayed by Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape:

Harris spends most of the book hammering home the point that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures, which means he spends far too little time considering the difficult questions that arise even if everyone agrees on that. He also frequently treats those questions as easily settled, for instance when he says, “I think there is little doubt that most of what matters to the average person – like fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality – will be integral to our creating a thriving global civilization and, therefore, to the greater well-being of humanity”.

Almost halfway into the book he does suddenly admit the difficulty – “population ethics is a notorious engine of paradox, and no one, to my knowledge, has come up with a way of assessing collective well-being that conserves all of our intuitions”. He then quotes Patricia Churchland saying, “no one has the slightest idea how to compare the mild headache of five million against the broken legs of two…” Quite so, and this acknowledgement should have come much earlier and been woven into the discussion throughout. Because it isn’t, the first part of the argument seems much too quick and effortless. If it were that simple, the reader keeps thinking, why wouldn’t everyone just do it?
It's a fair criticism as far as it goes, but the exact same criticism applies with equal force to the moralities that claim to be founded on divine fiat: virtually all monotheists insist their god requires love, charity, and justice for all people, and yet we observe enormous gaps between the nobility of the precepts and how believers really behave everywhere we look. Christians recite the Sermon on the Mount on Sunday before liquidating others' livelihoods, paying themselves bonuses, and cheering wars by Monday morning. Muslims proclaim the infinite mercy of their god before and after decapitating people for offending him.

Harris spends most of the book hammering away at understanding morality in terms of the well-being of conscious creatures because the main alternative, divine command, is considerably more deficient -- it too doesn't give any prima facie guidance on deciding between the "mild headaches of five million against the broken legs of two," and any deeper adjudication would require precisely what we have persistently lacked, the explicit clarifications of the true god(s). Human beings have been arguing over god's "real" directives for all of recorded history and have yet to receive a definitive bulletin from the beyond the clouds. For every question there are countless answers even within creeds -- e.g., Catholics versus Lutherans versus Southern Baptists versus Christian Scientists versus Mormons versus literally thousands of other sects. Crossing the creed boundaries and adding more gods and systems only multiplies these difficulties.

Whatever its shortcomings, Harris's proposal lacks this problem. The impact of choices on the well-being of conscious creatures is, in principle and frequently in practice, subject to empirical investigation. This is a far better place to start to get answers summing up to anything worthy of being called a moral system.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Yes Men - Mimicking the Change We Want to See

Oh how I do love the Yes Men, and not only because one of them was a classmate of mine. Recently they punked a well-known corporate tax parasite with a fake news release that was picked up by several national publications. It read, in part:

Fairfield, CT, 13th April, 2011– GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt has informed the Obama administration that the company will be gifting its entire 2010 tax refund, worth $3.2 Billion, to the US Treasury on April 18, Tax Day, and will furthermore adopt a host of new policies that secure its position as a leader in corporate social responsibility.

“We want the public to know that we’ve heard them, and that we know many Americans are going through tough times,” said GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. “GE will therefore give our 2010 tax refund back to the public and allow the public to decide how to spend it.”

Immelt acknowledged no wrongdoing. “All seven of our foreign tax havens are entirely legal,” Immelt noted. “But Americans have made it clear that they deplore laws that enable tax avoidance. While we owe it to our shareholders to use every legal loophole to maximize returns – we also owe something to the American people. We didn’t write the laws that let us legally avoid paying taxes. Congress did. But we benefit from those laws, and now we’d like to share those benefits. We are proud to be giving something back to America, and we are proud to set an example for all industry to follow.”
The actual management of GE has no such commitment to social responsibility so defined, and instead can be counted on to continue expending no small part of shareholder resources on gaining favors from Congress. Glibertarians use the term "rent-seeking" for this form of special pleading, before going on to explain that it isn't worth discussing as a distortion of the economy or a threat to justice unless relatively poor people or institutions happen to be trying it.

While some of the original reporting on GE's tax avoidance was overblown, the truth remains unclear, and even this too-balanced-by-half report from ProPublica implies that GE is doing quite well by its rent-seeking (emphasis mine):
After repeated conversations with GE -- remember, we've been working on this story too -- we can finally give you reasonably definitive answers.

The company says that it's not getting any refund for 2010 -- validating Outslay's analysis. Its 2010 tax situation? "We expect to have a small U.S. income tax liability for 2010," GE chief spokesman Gary Sheffer told us. How big is small? GE declined to say. The number is unlikely to ever be disclosed unless GE goes public with it, or is forced to do so.
I prefer the candor and message of the Yes Men as spokesmen for GE.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Digressions on a Pamphlet

It's not your fault, Will.
I came home today to find that someone -- I'm thinking a Christian of some stripe or other -- left a pamphlet at my front door. "JESUS TAKES AWAY the SIN of the WORLD" its cover proclaims beside an illustration either of Jesus himself, the bearded fellow to whom the phrase is being attributed, or Robin Williams's character from Good Will Hunting. It might be more fitting to call that the lower portion of a hair-helmet rather than a mere beard, but I digress.

It invites me to a gathering this Sunday that will explore how Jesus accomplishes this feat, and as if the cover weren't enough to entice me to drop all my Southie friends and join up with whatever they're offering, the inside of the pamphlet clarifies:
John the Baptizer stated that Jesus "takes away the sin of the world." (John 1:29) This drew attention to Jesus' role in saving obedient mankind.
"This drew attention to ...?" Who wrote this, first-year journalism students? It's also interesting to see that it's limiting Jesus's salvation powers to obedient people, which is surely a boon to those who wouldn't want to be saved by anyone who willingly saves disobedient ingrates. It does tend to overturn the cover's bold claim by suggesting that people are saved only when they follow orders, but if they follow orders in a manner that gets them saved, aren't they ipso facto without sin? If anyone is saving anyone, it sounds as though people are saving themselves. Or to put it another way about sin: "people call those imperfections, but no, that's the good stuff."

But I digress again; back to the pamphlet: the cover's helmet-headed gentleman is revealed to be either Jesus or John the Baptizer, which is good because I'm starting to run out of Good Will Hunting references, since I can't really think of a seamless way to mention how weird-looking Minnie Driver is or come up with a decent allusion to solving the whole thing on a chalkboard while I'm supposed to be emptying the garbage.

Sigh. The best part of my day is coming home, and, for about ten seconds, I think maybe no one has left any religious propaganda wedged in my doorway. (Cf.)

This blog post does not have a message, but if it had one, it might be to encourage you to see Good Will Hunting if you haven't already. It's a pretty good movie. Along with Matt Damon, Robin Williams, and Minnie Driver, it also features Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, and Stellan Starsgard, who is the real-life father of the guy who plays handsome vampire Eric on True Blood, a tee-vee series I can't justify watching and can't stop watching.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Thoughts on the Slobstopper

Not that I'm against the Slobstopper -- for purposes of this blog post, I'm no monster -- but let's play this happy scenario forward. Jackass pours most of his caffeinated drink down what would have been his shirt-front if not for the shining grace of the Slobstopper. The attractive woman walking by steals a look and sees that he's the kind of guy she wasn't even aware she was looking for -- a guy in a huge bib stained with coffee. She saunters over to the car to chat, notices the puddle of coffee pooled in his lap, and -- well, let's linger there for a moment: she hopes it is only coffee she sees pooled in his lap. So another love-match is formed at the edge of the parking lot? The heart wants what it wants, indeed.

The second chapter of the video is more confusing. A mother opens her minivan to accept a young woman dressed for playing soccer. Maybe it's a mother picking up her daughter from practice, or maybe it's the opening minutes of a House episode before someone conks out and starts flopping in presentation of a medical mystery that Dr. House alone can solve -- both seem plausible enough. I want to know why the girl refuses to let go of the soccer ball. Is obsessive clutching of the ball her rare medical disorder? I also want to know what prompts the woman to sigh and put on the Slobstopper bib. What alarms her so much about that tiny carton of Sunny-D the girl has picked up and taken unopened to the back seat? Is she aware that it's nearly impossible to open those things with both hands, and utterly impossible while clutching a soccer ball? Or has the minivan driver, perhaps, seen through time and known that they're only a moment away from rear-ending a tanker truck filled with melted cheese?

(via Portland Mercury)

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Borgias - The Draw

The risk of a program like The Borgias, Showtime's new drama, is that it will promise intrigue, violence, and lechery, but will only deliver people flouncing around in period costumes doing and saying nothing more shocking than we could have seen on some piece of crap like Men of a Certain Grey Anatomy, CSI: Cougar Town, or Housewives of Special Victims Unit.

Having seen the first two episodes, I am happy to report that The Borgias delivers on its promise. These people are deeply, deeply vicious, and by that I mean the show breezes to and quickly past the fact that the Pope has multiple children and onto more interesting material: that the rulers of Naples let their dead enemies decompose in a Last Supper pose in a dining hall set aside for the purpose; quick lessons on the garotte, flagellation, and the ritual of validating the Pope's manhood; and the casual dispatching of servants and bystanders for the smallest of reasons.

We get the clear sense the debauchery and machinations are only beginning, and notwithstanding what I might have implied here, they serve the story being told. For my part, before I can begin to care about historical accuracy and deviations from it, I have to be drawn into the drama, and the drawing in is well underway.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Gear Explained

Have you ever wondered how a differential gear works? I haven't either. In fact, I'm not sure I had a clear idea that such a thing as a differential gear existed before watching this fantastic and informative video narrated by ubiquitous 1950s narrator man.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Origin of Good

Over at Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne has invited readers to take up Sam Harris's question:

If you think the criterion of well being is not a good one for morality, give me an example of an act that we’d all consider moral that unquestionably decreases well being.
If I were to quibble, I could imagine a case where I see a golf ball hurling toward a small child and choose to block its path with my arm, knowing it could injure my arm and destroy my most expensive watch. This would decrease my well-being, leave the child's situation unchanged, alter the lie of the golfer's drive to the detriment of the competition, and yet it would still be the morally right thing to do. Clearly this is only a quibble; the good in it still lies in its effect on human well-being even though everyone in the scenario either goes down or stays constant in well-being.

In the comments to Coyne's post, Ophelia Benson takes an more substantial crack at it:
morality has to do, for one thing, with looking beyond the local. It’s quite possible to be a lovely person locally while still being the cause of misery elsewhere in the world ... morality isn’t just “well-being”; it’s about conflicts between and among kinds of well-being and above all about distribution of well-being.
True enough, but Harris addresses this objection more than once in The Moral Landscape when he talks about the inevitability of multiple equivalent peaks on the moral landscape, but remains fixed in defining those peaks in terms of well-being. Whether science can reveal the One Right Moral Answer for Everyone in All Cases is (a) unlikely in practice and (b) beside the point (p.190):
Whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? Judging from recent events, it wouldn't appear so. Perhaps a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that there are better and worse ways to structure an economy? Would any educated person consider it a form of bigotry to criticize another society's response to a banking crisis? Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catrastrophe must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where we stand in the most important questions in human life.
The well-being of conscious creatures is intended as a ground of morality that's better than the leading brand, i.e., the morality that is grounded in the revealed commands of a god. It's better because it's intuitively appealing, grounded in reality (including but not limited to knowable human experience), and, in a great many cases, amenable to scientific analysis.

There's a danger to over-thinking Harris's question. It serves to bring out the contrast between what Harris wants to call authentic morality and many ersatz moralities. Widely-accepted divine command moralities call for the killing of homosexuals, adulterers, disobedient children, non-believers, "witches," and people found working on the Sabbath. Harris simply wants to say this approach to morality is profoundly wrong because it is grounded in something other than the well-being of those subject to it.

Sam Harris recently debated William Lane Craig on the question "Does Good Come from God?" I have not yet had the chance to watch the video, but I hope to do so soon.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Gay Homos

possibly gay
Those of us who have, from time to time, snickered at the word Homo in the names of species in the Homo genus, such as Homo sapiens, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo erectus have been vindicated:
Researchers from the Czech Archaeological Society made an interesting discovery outside of Prague: The 5,000-year-old remains of a caveman were buried in an unusual manner. First, the male body was lying on its left side and its head was facing east. Second, the body was buried with domestic jugs and an egg-shaped pot.

Why is this odd? Time reports the way the body was buried might mean the man was gay, because the burial is consistent with the way women were buried. The bodies of men faced west and they were buried with hammers, flint knives and weapons.
We were right to snicker because it's possible some of the earlier members of our genus were also gay. We were, of course, wrong to snicker because there's nothing to snicker about -- being gay is nothing more than a way of being human, or to put it in a way that embraces this new finding, being gay is just a way of being a Homo.

This is consistent with my expectation that science will sooner or later demonstrate the biological basis of homosexuality among humans -- which may or may not turn out to match the biological basis of homosexuality among other animals -- at which time it will make no more sense than it does now to discriminate, mistreat, or demean gay people.

Discrimination against gay people -- formal and informal, institutional and interpersonal, small and large, implicit and explicit -- should stop yesterday. Now, and for a span of time that may indeed exceed the span of time when our species has existed on earth, homosexuality has been a range along the continuum of natural human sexuality, and nothing to decry, dislike, or worry about.

While there are still too many people who refuse to acknowledge this, I remind anyone reading this who happens to be gay that it gets better -- really, it does, and it will get better for you.

Peeing the Bed Tonight

The passionate intensity with which The Kelly Family sings that they're not going to urinate in the bed tonight makes me think they're going to urinate in the bed tonight, and with great force, possibly repeatedly:

Is it too much to ask that the Kelly Family will be urinating multiple beds tonight? I don't want to think they're the sort of family that shares a single bed, but the more I watch the video, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced they're all going to be urinating in the same bed tonight.

Dear internets: please never explain the Kelly Family. I don't know who they are or why they exist or why they're singing of urinating in beds. I don't want to know -- I want to inhabit the perversely exquisite mystery of it. It makes me feel alive.

(via Brad)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

One More Theology

It could be that the Courtier's Reply is an instance of "Gnu lexicon along with about a dozen other usages designed to evade" matters of substance, or to put that in rough stream-of-consciousness terms, one of many

... gimmicks atheists made up and they are passed off as pseudo official sounding quasi logical tactics that in actuality mean nothing.
It could be that the Courtier's Reply is that, but as it happens, it isn't.

Think of it this way. Very intelligent people have devoted decades of their lives to the elaboration of Hindu, Sufi, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and Muslim theologies, among many others. Do Christians think they spent that time pursuing the truth?

The Courtier's Reply does not beg any question -- it purposely raises the question that theology takes as a starting postulate. It questions the validity of that postulate. It demands of the courtier that he back up and show his work before continuing to expound.

If god exists, then theology matters a great deal. If god does not exist, then it's difficult to see why theology can ever matter. Without a foundation in reality, it amounts to a mere mental exertion, nothing more than a piling of assertions on assertions, drawing just-so inferences, and tinkering with logical entailments.

Life is short, truth is elusive, and both are valuable. What is the right amount of time and energy to devote to, say, the extent of Vishnu's agency in the world? Or to what the angel Moroni really meant to tell Joseph Smith to think about plural marriage or the fate of the posthumously baptised? I say the brief time required to observe that there's no good reason to believe Vishnu exists or that Joseph Smith transcribed anything except his imagination covers it quite adequately. Billions of Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, Muslims, and even some Hindus and Mormons would agree, even as they disagree sharply on so many other questions within and beyond theology.

Mental exercises have their place -- arguably they contribute to a sharpening of the mind that can aid the resolution of actual problems later on -- but they are not instances of truth-seeking. Everyone agrees with that when it comes to most of the theology that people have ever devised. Atheists differ from believers only in that they extend this assessment to one more theology.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Colossus of Poles

At the risk of begging the question of why you'd ever think about it, I'll observe that if you think about it, there must be a world's largest Jesus statue. It turns out that it is now under construction in Poland:
Anyone wondering whether modern day Poland is still a fervently Catholic country should head to the Tesco in Swiebodzin, near the German border. There, on the rocky hill opposite the supermarket, is the newest, most audacious religious icon in all of Europe, if not the world: a 33-metre high, rather crudely carved statue of Jesus ...
Note the presence of another begged question -- does anyone actually wonder if Poland remains under the thrall of The Church? I had assumed there's still some lingering enthusiasm for The Church in Poland for at least a few more years, or as long as anyone outside Poland remembers that we had a Polish Pope before the present one took over.

I hesitate to say the enormous and costly statue is a total waste since it's possible that someone could attach a few wind turbines to his mighty arms and derive clean energy from the colossus. Or if not that, it is now firmly established that the people of the area aren't troubled by landscape-dominating eyesores, so it's presumptively fine to go ahead and put up some wind turbines and/or solar collector panels. What I am suggesting is that, somehow, this enormous Polish Jesus is a net gain for renewable power.

It goes to show that some people look at a costly, pointless, hideous blight on the horizon and ask "why?" I do not. I look upon it and imagine a less carbon-emitting Poland.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Scraping Bottom

In a way, RJ Hoffmann's latest scrape at the barrel makes life easy (quoting Hoffmann via B and W):

As to [PZ] Myers, despite the development of a blasphemy fan club and admiration for the cowardly use of free expression rights in the safe haven of Morris, Minnesota, the only serious “threat” came from Catholic League president Bill Donahue.
The incoherence and pettiness is a marvel in its way, and this doesn't even cover the part where he proposed that Pastor Terry Jones is guilty of murder for having angered Muslim radicals. Jones, a confirmed idiot and known provocateur, burned a copy of the Koran; the Muslims in question killed a dozen UN workers in response. One harmed some paper, the other took the lives of twelve human beings who, by the way, had nothing to do with Jones's stunt. Hoffmann thinks Jones is the culpable party in this situation.

Hoffman has made it easy not so much for the god-drunk fanatics he is coddling but for the rest of us, who can plainly see the quality of his judgment and happily eschew his support.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Necanicum

Seaside, Oregon is located at the particular spot where the Necanicum River flows into the Pacific. Small and little known though it is, it is lovely:

Here is the view from the same position, looking over the river westward to the sea:

Laetitia Sadier's "By the Sea" has no apparent connection to Seaside or to the Necanicum River, but things of beauty require no explanation.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Signing a job offer on April Fools Day is a good thing, right? I mean, what could go wrong? Yes? HELLO? #CricketSoundsNotReassuring