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Archive for July 2010



G.O.D. Is Great

I am reading Andy Ross’s new book with pleasure & instruction.  It’s better put together than Mindworlds & has less the feel of a core dump.  (That expression dates me as an old mainframe-head … but then, so’s Andy.)  The binary numbering of sections is a bit hokey, and there’s some Popular Mechanics gee-whizzery here & there, but on the whole a good read with a pleasing density of interesting ideas.

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Stephen Prothero has a piece up, Hinduism’s caste problem, out in the open. Prothero points out that religionists often use logical constructs to play word games which reinforce their in-group. Caste is not a problem with Hinduism per se, but is a cultural problem. The treatment of women is not a problem with Islam per se, but a cultural problem. The history of European anti-semitism was not an issue of religious conflict per se, but a detail of history.


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The conservative tendency

A blog which some readers may find of interest, Conservative tendency. The most recent post is a bit of a pedantic muddle:

I had a friend who was raised in China in the 1970s (the daughter of a general, in fact), and she was in a deep sense a conservative, though she was not interested in Western politics. She was educated in Confucian values and classical Chinese literature by her maternal grandmother, who had been a concubine, and yet she was also deeply affected by Maoist Communist ideas.

The point I’m making is that I know there is no simple left/right dichotomy. I am interested in how people think and form their values, and, if I tend to identify with “one side” of politics, I am not totally sure of my position and I remain respectful towards and sometimes fascinated by those with views very different from my own.

I say pedantic muddle as a compliment. When it comes to political discussion it is easy enough to find plain and precise assertiveness, distilling a complex subject down to a potent pith in an unselfconscious manner. A rarer find is that of the humility to admit that the task at hand may be more than one’s tool are fit for.

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Atheists may lack essence

Just listened o Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, on a podcast (mp3). He notes that the chain of possession of items impacts how much pleasure we gain out of ownership, or at least our attachment to them. As an example, it is not unknown for people to be attached to the clothes and other personal items of a loved one who has passed away. The attachment may not derive from any sensory empirical rationale; rather, it is knowing the chain of possession and a sentiment that an essence of the loved one has been imparted (yes, I know that clothes may sometimes retain distinctive scents, but discount those details. The example holds true for objects such as pens which retain no sensory trace).

The strength of this sentiment varies from person to person. Bloom observes that there are individuals who have no sentimental attachment to objects at all. That is, individuals for whom objects are simply means to a bundle of ends, pure utility. So long as the bundle of elements remains invariant objects can be substituted at will. Bloom contends two demographic variables seem to common among this set of individuals who lack any sentiment toward objects:

1) Overwhelmingly male

2) Invariably atheist

(note that this does not entail that most males or atheists are circumscribed by this set!)





Glenn Beck’s faith

I thought I had mistakenly tuned in to one of Southern California’s Christian radio stations last week when I heard a talk show host first issue the usual right-wing boilerplate about Obama allying with the U.S.’s enemies, and then follow-up with the pronouncement that the only hope for the country in the age of Obama was faith.  ‘We need to fall on bended knee before something larger than ourselves,’ the host said.  ‘America is God’s chosen country and everything we have comes from God.’ 

So began my first exposure to Glenn Beck, who recently started broadcasting on KRLA in Los Angeles.  I have to admit that when he is not breaking new ground in anti-Obama paranoia and demonization, he is quite engaging, having mastered that flawlessly-timed banter with his in-studio assistants that Laura Ingraham pioneered.   He seems to be ratcheting up the aggressive religion quotient on right-wing talk radio, even beyond the hostile, in-your-face “one nation under GOD [dammit!!!]” with which Mark Levin concludes his broadcasts or the more cheerfully triumphant “The greatest nation on God’s green earth” with which Michael Medved punctuates his broadcasts. (more…)

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Riot power, contd.

As word spread throughout Oakland around 2:30 p.m. that a verdict had been reached in the Johannes Mehserle murder trial, the downtown streets suddenly flooded with workers rushing out of their workplaces to go home.
The normally placid lanes were clogged, people hurried along the sidewalk, and there was an almost electric air of worried anticipation. BART trains streaming in and out of downtown were jammed, and nearby Interstates 880 and 980 filled as if it were already commute hour.
At the downtown federal building, announcements were made over loudspeakers to tell everyone to go home. At many of the big businesses throughout the area, internal e-mails and other notices went out advising the same.

Is there anyone in the relevant “community” disturbed that his fellow “community members” produce such an effect—only partly irrational—on society?

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I Can’t Help Thinking . . .

Just catching up here…

To the best of my knowledge — which isn’t saying much: I’m not well-read in philosophy — I am in a minority of one on the subject of free will.

The discussion is always: do we have it, or don’t we?

My considered view is that some of us have it while the rest don’t.  Like perfect pitch.

I’m pretty sure I don’t have free will; but I’ve encountered people who I’m pretty sure do have it.

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Riot power

I was in San Francisco last week researching an article; the most striking feature of my trip was the extent to which the San Francisco Police Department is consumed, to the point of an almost paralyzing obsession, with the possible outbreak of riots, should a jury fail to convict a Bay Area transit officer of murder for shooting an unarmed black male on an Oakland subway platform on New Year’s 2009.  We are all familiar with the phrase: “City X is bracing for ‘disturbances,’” but it’s another thing to observe what this “bracing” actually means in practice: the constant nervous updates by phone and blackberry about defense motions and judicial rulings; the conference calls; the pleas from business owners for suggestions on how to protect their employees, customers, and property—pleas that were more than justified given the damage already inflicted in Oakland by several riots following the January 1, 2009 subway shooting.  The department’s preparations for similar outbreaks in San Francisco following the “wrong” verdict were the prelude to almost all conversations I had with a San Francisco law enforcement official; at every turn, I was warned that my meetings with commanders and officers could be cancelled at a moment’s notice, once the jury reached its decision.  (more…)

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Horoscopes. Why?

Via Andrew Sullivan, here’s an interesting piece on why people fall for horoscopes. The need to find patterns (and thus ‘meaning’) is nothing new, but I was intrigued by this:

The tendency to believe vague statements designed to appeal to just about anyone is called the Forer Effect, and psychologists point to this phenomenon to explain why people fall for pseudoscience like biorhythms, iridology and phrenology or mysticism like astrology, numerology and tarot cards. The Forer Effect is part of larger phenomenon psychologists refer to as subjective validation, which is a fancy way of saying you are far more vulnerable to suggestion when the subject of the conversation is you…Those who claim the powers of divination hijack these natural human tendencies. They know they can depend on you to use subjective validation in the moment and confirmation bias afterward. They expect you will see yourself in a mirror of a thousand faces, and then later on you see only the things which validate that reflection.
The natural human tendencies to seek order in chaos and believe in generalities both get enhanced when the information supposedly pertains to you, when it is personal.


Read the whole thing.



Obituary of the Year

One of my life’s minor pleasures is a daily trip to the obituary pages. And there’s usually no better place to turn to for this than the Daily Telegraph. This ripping yarn proves just why. It tells the tale of Amedeo Guillet, an Italian soldier and diplomat, who died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 101.

Here’s an extract:

Early in 1941, following outstanding successes in the Western Desert, the British invasion of Mussolini’s East African empire seemed to be going like clockwork. But at daybreak on January 21, 250 horsemen erupted through the morning mist at Keru, cut through the 4/11th Sikhs, flanked the armoured cars of Skinner’s Horse and then galloped straight towards British brigade headquarters and the 25-pound artillery of the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry.

Red Italian grenades – “like cricket balls” – exploded among the defenders, several of whom were cut down by swords. There were frantic cries of “Tank alert!”, and guns that had been pointing towards Italian fortifications were swivelled to face the new enemy. At a distance of 25 yards they fired, cutting swathes through the galloping horses but also causing mayhem as the shells exploded amid the Sikhs and Skinner’s Horse.

After a few more seconds the horsemen disappeared into the network of wadis that criss-crossed the Sudan-Eritrean lowlands.

It was not quite the last cavalry charge in history – the unmechanised Savoia Cavalry regiment charged the Soviets at Izbushensky on the Don in August 1942. But it was the last one faced by the British Army, with many soldiers declaring it the most frightening and extraordinary episode of the Second World War.


The charge, you will have guessed by now, was led by Guillet.

 Read the whole thing. Really. Just towards the end, we find this paragraph, written with the characteristically sly edge that makes The Telegraph’s obituaries the delight that they so often are:

He celebrated his 100th birthday in Rome in February last year at the army officers’ club in the Palazzo Barberini, where the royal march was played and friends gathered from Ireland, the Middle East and India – as well as those members of the Italian royal family still on speaking terms with each other.


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