Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Origin of the Platypus

It's 23:47.  It's late, and the design and coding team is exhausted, strung out on too much caffeine, and a little punchy.  Too many hours, too little food, and everyone's snapping at each other.  But the Day 4 deliverables are almost done, and everyone's looking forward to getting a little downtime before the start of a fifth, gruelling, full day.  The only consolation is, if they get everything done on time, they'll get a full day off.

Then the project lead slaps himself on the forehead.  "We forgot Australia!"  Oh, sh-.  And we were almost done.

No time to do it right.  Slap some tag-ends of code together, and give it a quick run-through to see if there are any flaws.  Do a thorough debugging? Nah, if it works, post it and fix any problems in the first patch.  But, as a bit of black humor, the design team makes everything deadly poisonous.

And so the world got the platypus.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

A Tale of Karma

In the West, we've forgotten somewhat what karma is.

The other day I was in a gas station / convenience store buying lunch.  In line was a young woman, digging in her pockets looking for spare change.  As she found each coin, she placed it on the counter, totalling them up in the end.  She was buying gas: trying to get enough gas to get home, she said.  The man standing behind her, unprompted, laid a ten dollar bill on the counter, saying, "go ahead and add this in."

I've been there before.  Hoping that the fumes will be enough to get you just far enough.  The stress and the worry is almost worse than actually running out of gas.  Not having to worry about it for another three gallons or so can only have been a relief.  An unquestionably good deed, follwing the age-old dicta, "be excellent to one another and party on, dudes!"

That's not the topic, tonight.

As is commonly used in Western pop culture, karma is the idea that if you do good things, some sense of universal justice will see to it that good things happen to you.  "What goes around, comes around," is the cliche.  More commonly in Eastern pop culture, karma sees to it that in your next life, you get what you deserve based on what you did in this one.  Bad people become dung beetles and cockroaches the next time around.  Again, universal justice.

But that's probably not what Prince Siddhartha had in mind.  Karma is the ripples in a limitless pond, the echoes that spread outward from the locusof our deeds.  The man in the gas station need not expect karma to repay him, now or in the future.  But the ripples of his kind act undoubtadly spread out and have kept spreading.  The young woman with the gas is freed from worry; perhaps she is happier.  Later, when she arrives, her positive feeling prevents her from being short or angry with the people she encounters at her destination.  They, in turn, feel better (or less worse) than they otherwise might.  And the good deed continues to ripple outwards.

The world, then, is a pond that is unguessably vast.  We don't expect our good deeds to return to us.  No universal justice, no treasures in Heaven, no coming around of what goes around.  The ripples have no reflection.  But when we are gone, then the ripples may continue to spread and expand: our legacy.  Our karma.  "The signal's loud and clear, but the transmitter's gone."*

Right speech, right action, right livelihood.

Though the stars burn out, their light shines throughout the universe.

* Assemblage 23, "Document"

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Uzbeckibeckibeckistanstan is important.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan...*

Despite what Herman Cain may believe, these places are important.  I don't blame him for not wanting to know anything about them; indeed, in the West it's hard to find decent maps of Central Eurasia.  The borders and the topography are inscrutable: rivers and mountains are foreign sounding and difficult to place.  The Oxus, the Altai, Samarkand, Karakorum, Baikal: we have no references to these, and we can't find them on a map.  This place is on the periphery of Western culture.  Central Eurasia is the homeland of barbarians and nomads, forgotten places and forgotten peoples.  It is the Other.  The important cultural events happen elsewhere. 

Or do they?  A great grassland sea extends from Budapest to Vladivostok.  Its green and amber waves wash upon five significant civilizations: Europe, China, India, Persia, Arabia.  Over these steppes and prairies wash peoples, and with those peoples ideas, memories, and goods.  Here on the edges of the legible maps of civilization you'll find Islam, Buddhism, Nestorianism, Manicheanism, Taoism, Judaism, and even the paganism of the great open sky all rubbing elbows in ways that their prophets and proselytizers never imagined.

These are the lands of the Silk Road, and of Marco Polo.  The lands of Atilla, Tamujin, and Timur the Lame.  These lands created the stirrup, the composite bow, and the curved sword.  The brought silk, paper, and gunpowder west, and gold and silver East.  The journeys of these peoples are at least as important as the travels of the Spanish and Portugese by sea in later centuries.  But these peoples are all but forgotten.

Central Asia, the "Empire of the Steppes" as Rene Grousset puts it, has always been a land on the periphery.  This is the land of the Scythians of the Greco-Roman period.  Out of the sea of grass came Atilla and his Huns, who pushed the Goths westward and southward to trigger the final fall of Rome.  This land gave us three beacheads upon the shores of Europe: the Finns, a people apart from the rest of Scandinavia;  the Hungarians, who started out as the Magyars, but couldn't shake the reputation of the earlier Huns; and the Turks, who in their turn overthrew Byzantium, nearly came to occupy Eastern Europe, played a pvitol role in European history for 900 years, and who are still important to U.S. relations to NATO and to the Middle East.

We in the West almost remeber Genghis Khan.  He and his troops we vaguely think of as murderous barbarians and thugs.  It's true that our English word 'horde' comes from the Mongolian 'ordu'.  What we don't remember is that the Khanite was the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world.  We also don't remember that the Khanite practiced religious tolerance and freedom of conscience almost unheard of in the 12th century.  We forget that Genghis Khan is remembered in much of Asia as a unifier and builder of nations.  We also forget that it was the recall of Batu in order to establish an orderly succession that freed  Hungary and Eastern Europe from Mongol rule.

It is these people against whom the Great Wall was built.  The Khitai lent their name to northern China, remembered as Polo's 'Cathay'.  It was the Manchu who made Beijing the capital of modern China and re-instituted the civil service exams.  Kublai Khan founded the Mongol dynasty of China, the forerunners to the Ming.  Before the Hollywood elite knew the Tibetans as an occupied people, they were conquerors of their plateau.  It was memory of the pax Mongolia that led to the Mughal empire of northern India.  It was the hurricane that repelled the forces of Kublai from Nippon that first bore the name kamikaze.

Because this sea of grass and sand is the buffer zone between cultures, it will play a pivotal role in the 21st century.  We in the U.S. are in the habit of seeing Afghanistan as some sort of appendage onto the Middle East, peripheral to the culture and conflicts there.  Instead, we might see it as a nearer wing of the vaster stage of Central Eurasia, a place where West meets East.

In recent years, Gitmo has been home to a population of Uighurs, people that briefly became the bane of Western newsreaders who called them instead "Chinese Muslims" because that was easier to pronounce*.  Chinese Muslims?  Chinese, perhaps, because over the years they've become Sinocized, and because a majority of them live inside the lines on the map that China has claimed.  And muslim too, because in this buffer zone of Asia, many unexpected things are true.  But do the newsreaders remember that these are the people who gave their alphabet to the Mongols, the people who served as councilors and advisers in the 'civilized' art of government to Genghis Khan, his sons, and grandsons?  That they are muslim because under the Grand Khanite, there was freedom of conscience and freedom of religion?  "The religions are like the fingers of the hand," Tamujin once said.  Not bad for a barbarian.

In the 21st century, as in the last part of the 20th and before, Asia will be defined by four great powers: Russia, the Middle East, China, and India.  The place where all of these powers touch is an ocean of grass, with amber waves of grain.  Central Eurasia is important, and we might as well learn something about it.

* Nursultan Nazarbayev, Islam Karimov, Roza Otunbayeva, Emomalii Rahmon, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow respectively serve as presidents.

** It's "Wee-goorr", by the way.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why Debates Matter

Caller of the day: [paraphrased] "I don't understand why everyone is picking on Perry for his debate performances. I know lots of people who are fine in their day-to-day work who freeze when they're taking exams or certification tests. Having problems when he's center stage doesn't mean he can't do the work of governing."

Umm... I suppose, for thirteen days in 1963, if John F. Kennedy had choked under pressure, everything would have worked out fine?

There are those saying that the GOP is having to many debates.  That debates among presidential candidates don't matter or shouldn't matter.

I disagee.  While I have a certain distrust and dislike of organized government (much as I have a dislike and distrust of organized religion), if I'm going to be stuck with a federal government, then there are certain qualities I like in a president.  Debates highlight some of them.

If there must be a commander in chief, let's have one that can think on his feet.  "Nonsense!" some would say.  "Presidents have advisers who provide information and suggest possible courses of action.  All the president has to do is read speeches and make decisions."  There's more to it, I think.  Executives have to learn information, filter it, and make decisions.  While taking information in quickly, they have to be able to filter it.  Rats have to be smelled, biases detected, fallicies unmasked, groupthink disassembled, context gleaned and examined.  This process is best done against a background of a diverse education.  A chief executive who knows where Cyprus is, who knows what the issue is with South Osseta, and who knows who the president of 'uzbeckiceckiceckistanstan' is is better prepared to catch errors, find biases, and detect smoke being blown in his direction than someone who is limping along, leaning on their advisors.

A good debate will highlight that.  It will demonstrate who can think on their feet and who is relying on canned responses.  A debate will show who actually has numbers and facts ready to hand, and who can't go off script.  It will illustrate who has actually opinions on things and who is following a party platform.

Debates matter.  They separate the minds at work from the cardboard cutouts.  And in the case of Michelle Bachman, debates highlight who is bats*** crazy.

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The Kids are Newbs

Let me start off by saying, I like a lot of John Cheese's stuff, and his latest piece for is no exception: "5 Ways We Ruined the Occupy Wall Street Generation."

But I'm not convinced of some of his conclusions.

We've slowly killed off most of the activities where kids get together with other kids and have fun (and in the process, learn how to interact).
 There is a pattern since the mid-Nineties undervaluing online interaction.  Ultimately, it seems to stem from a late twentieth century stereotype of the computer nerd, socially crippled, who interacts solely with dumb machines.  Like all stereotypes, the picture is incomplete.*

The point being, interacting with other people is interacting with people, even if a machine or a network serves as a medium.  When people interact, there are rules governing that interaction; the rules appear emergently, and are one of the foundations of culture.  Follow the rules, and one is rewarded with social success.  Violate the rules and reward is withheld.

Growing up is a process of acculturating the young.  Children learn the rules of their culture, usually in a controlled environment that cushions somewhat their failures and attempts to make clear the lessons to be learned.  Interacting with other children is a step in that process; children learn how to deal with one another, and carry those skills on to their adult lives.

That process still occurs in electronically-mediated environments, like Facebook, Twitter, online Foums, chat channels, Youtube comments sections, or X-Box live.  Children (and adults!) are logging on and interacting with each other.  In the process, they are learning the cultural rules.  Indeed, many such venues have adults who, by virtue of social status if not administrative powers, find themselves able to reinforce successful social interactions and negatively reinforce unsuccessful ones.  Online culture is still culture.

Indeed, there are dark corners of the internet where adult supervision is less-enforced, like /b/.  In places such as these, savvy children, adolescents and young adults get to create their own rules.  Remarkably, a social order of sorts does come into being.  It may not parallel mainstream culture, but a social order does exist.  In the process, children and adolescents do learn social skills and social savvy: much of my social interactions as an adolescent occurred in the local BBS culture.  In a sense, many of my social skills were learned in that environment.

Cheese is correct: kids need minimally supervised fora in which to interact, learn social skills, and have fun.  But the digital computing revolution hasn't necessarily killed that off.  Instead, a local process has simply become more globally distributed.

This last is important.  Networked communications and global trade have made the world smaller.  An American in the 21st century will need to be prepared to deal with people from outside their own local communities: people who may not speak (or type) English well, who have different cultural assumptions, who have a different body of intellectual and artistic references.  Interacting online gives children and teens a chance to learn to deal with a multicultural world.  And that's worth learning.

* In the mainframe and terminal era, and before widespread telecommuting, computer users would frequently occupy labs with one another.  As often occurs with people in close proximity, a culture formed, with it's own conventions rules, and slang.  Many of those cultural and conversational conventions carried over to electronically mediated interactions.  Over time, hackers generated their own culture:

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Religious Messages

A pastor friend of mine once promised me, "I will pray for [her] and for you."

I'm a lifelong skeptic and lapsed atheist.  I'm almost certain there's no man in the sky who answers prayers.   There are those militant atheists who would find it hypocritical of me to let it pass.

But I did.

Even though I am not a Christian, I was touched.

Because what he said to me is not "I'm going to inflict a religious ritual upon you without your consent."

What he told me was, "I care about you, and I would like to help.  I am going to do that which I believe is the most powerful, most personal, most compassionate thing I know to do."

And in that translation is everything.

So, my fellow skeptics and atheists, instead of being offended by religious messages and symbolism, let's try to look beyond the shallow meaning of those messages and find the intent of the message.  The humanity in all of the god-talk.

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Monday, October 31, 2011

Climate Change

A reader has asked me to take on climate change.  I've been ruminating on how to approach the topic.  I'm not a climatologist in any sense, so there's not much that I can speak on about the science.  Not that I've let a lack of academic credentials bother me before.

But I think the primary issue I have is that I don't care.  Despite being an avowed leftist who attempts to think in terms of global systems, I don't care about global climate change.  There's not much I know about it.

Here's what I do know:

The Caspian Sea is shrinking.  This isn't purely academic, either.  The Soviet Union stored radioactive materials on an island there, where they'd be safely out of the way.  That island is now a peninsula.  It's not just now accessible from the mainland, it is the mainland.

Lake Chad is roughly half the size it was when it was first charted by Europeans.  The lake anchors the freshwater cycle of a great deal of West Africa.

The Sahara and Gobi deserts are growing.  The American West is getting drier.  Ranchers, farmers, and cities are squabbling over water levels in the Colorado River that drop year after year.  It's entirely possible that the West is coming out of a wetness peak unmatched for the last 40,000 years.

The Tigris and Euphrates valleys used to be a framing area so rich that it anchored the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent.  It's now largely desert and salt marsh.  North Africa was once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.  It's now losing ground to an ever-growing desert.

The storied snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro are nearly gone.  Glacier National Park is losing its glaciers.  Continent long cracks are appearing in Antarctic ice shelves.  The Arctic summer is increasingly ice free.

Mean sea levels in Bangladesh and Micronesia keep rising.  By the 22nd century, both of those nations may perish from the face of the Earth.

All of this is local climate change.  Some is the result of warming, others the result of desertification. Is any relevant to the debate on "global warming"?  Maybe not.

But when you add up a lot of local climate change, don't you get a global climate change?

Let's talk a little bit about the carbon cycle.  No, not this oneThis one.  Here are the basics:

Plants grow.  Through a little miracle chemical called chlorophyll, they're able to absorb solar radiation and use that power to convert CO2 and H2O into various sugars.  This process releases O2 into the atmosphere.  Animals come along and eat plants and inhale O2, converting the starches in the plants back into CO2 and H2O and producing metabolic energy.

When everything is working properly, the two processes are more or less in balance.  Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, carbon dioxide leaves the atmosphere.  Life, literally, goes on.

The problem is, that oxygen really doesn't care for being alone.  It's a little kinky that way.  Sure, those two oxygen atoms don't mind being in a relationship together, but if they can grab a carbon atom and pull it on in, they'd be much happier that way.  Many current theories of planetary evolution suggest that terrestrial planets like the Earth tend to have atmospheres comprised largely of carbon dioxide and nitrogen.  It's a popular choice, just look at Venus and Mars.  

Earth is special.  Earth gets to have free oxygen.  By all rights, we should have a bunch of carbon in our air, much like our sister-planet, Venus.  But we don't.  That carbon is squirreled away somewhere.  Where'd it go?  Thank the plants (and their tiny friends, the cyano-bacteria).

It's true, animals eat plants, and so liberate carbon back into the atmosphere.  But not nearly as much as could be there, because a great deal of carbon is fixed into plant matter.  It's in the trees.  It's in the soil.  It's in the limestone.  And since trees enjoyed a several million year long success story on the planet, a lot of the carbon that was formerly trees is in the ground: coal.

Animals have been helping, to be sure.  Sometimes they die without giving up all of their carbons.  Sometimes, when animals and other non-tree sludge dies, it gets trapped underground.  It becomes oil.

Picture the Earth 100,000 years ago.  Tons of formerly atmospheric carbon is underground as coal and oil.  Tons more is built into wood and other plant matter on the surface.  Other carbon is moving through the ecosystem: air to plant to animal to air.  Everything is, to quote a recent decade, groovy.  There's a sense of balance.  Sure the pendulum swings from one extreme to another, from too much carbon in the air to too little.  But there are plans in place, too much free oxygen and you get more animals and more active animals.  Forest fires release carbon into the air.  Too much carbon, and plants grow faster.  Animals become lethargic and die off.  The pendulum swings back.

But then a buncha' monkeys come to a startling conclusion: "fire good."  Homo erectus tames fire, becomes adept at using it, lighting it, carrying it around.  Trees start to fall; carbon fixed in wood is liberated back to the air.  The monkeys start to have other bright ideas.  Trees are felled to build things.  Forests are cleared to create cropland.  Logs are feed to the flames.  Sure, a lot of the wood stays intact, keeping carbon out of the air, but with the loss of each tree is a loss of carrying capacity.  That tree will no longer scrub carbon from the air.  Whole continents are cleared of forests.  Easter is deforested to roll old statues around.  Minorca builds the Spanish treasure fleets.  The Black Forest feeds German industry.  Haiti kills its trees and wrecks its whole ecology and thus its economy.

Sure, a lot of trees give way to other plants.  But crops don't fix carbon: they grow and then are eaten.  Crops are essentially carbon neutral.  Grasses and grains aren't the carbon sinks the old forests were.

Then the monkeys get another bright idea: dig the carbon out of the ground.  Light it on fire.  Release it back into the air.  "What inspires in us this madness, that our existence should be defined / by a light that we can't see."   The plants do their best, but by now they're outnumbered.  The trees are dying.  Their maritime allies, the algae and cyanobacteria and other oceanic plant has been poisoned; many by the carbon drilled from the ground and allowed to spill across the sea by clumsy monkeys.  "We torch the Earth until it bleeds, rain ashes from the skies, just to make a light no one can see."

So the carbon climbs again into the sky...

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011


To be added to the neo-logisms page:

Public school girls' disease (PSGD): The sad pathology of our culture wherein young women are trained to hide their intelligence, creativity, and critical thinking skills for the illusion that boys will like them that way.  While many cases can be cured by exposure to higher education, too many bright minds are lost each year.  We need to act now to stop the spread of this disease.

And any young men reading this?  Smart girls are sexy.  Learn this now.

(and smart girls in lab coats?  Very sexy.)

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Monday, October 10, 2011

The Philosophical Journey pt.1

"A ship in the harbor is safe.  But that's not what ships were built for."

Religious faith, political ideology, artistic school, all these are safe harbors.  They protect from the elements: error, uncertainty, and a hurricane of questions.  Food is plentiful, there are warm drinks and warmer company.  But ships are not built to stay in harbor.  Ships are vehicles of exploration, of trade, and if necessary, of war.  A ship in the harbor is safe, but that's not what ships were built for.

The ship of our philosophy was meant to leave port.  To brave the stormy and restless seas.  It's not easy: the food is short, the work long, the rum is always gone.  At any moment we could founder and be lost without a trace.  A ship in the harbor is safe, but that's not what ships were built for.

So our ship of philosophy sets forth on the wine dark sea.  We jorney from port to port, dropping anchor.  We trade our goods: thoughts and ideas, questions and concepts.  Some ports become centers of trade, the destination of hundereds of ships.  Goods flow in and out.  Other ports are samll, but vital sources of rare jewels and precious stuffs.  But no matter how rich the port, how safe the harbor, the ship sails on.  A ship in the harbor is safe, but that's not what ships were built for.

From time to time, we are buffeted by storms, great gales that blow us from our course.  From time to time, we find ourselves in uncharted waters, espying new headlands.  Sometimes we even set out for these unknown quarters of the Earth, seeking new vistas and hoping to uncover new territory and perhaps even a wealth of new ideas.  But even here we do not tarry.  A ship in the harbor is safe, but that's not what ships were built for.

"Tonight we light the fires, we call our ships to port.  Tonight we walk on water, and tomorrow we'll be gone."

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On the Religious Faith and the Free Spirit

Uzzah spake, saying: "A ship in the harbour is safe from the storm.  But that is not what ships were built for."

'God'? What do you Mean by 'God?

The Christian says, “God exists, and he loves me.” The atheist says, “God does not exist.” The pantheist says, “all that is, is God.”

The philosopher says, “What do you mean by 'god'?” and “what do you mean by 'exists'?”

So what is 'God'?

I believe in unicorns.  They are magical, horse-like creatures possessing a single horn in the middle of their foreheads.  Their touch heals all disease, and they can only be tamed by the virtuous and the virginal.  The term 'unicorn' exists, it is well defined.  Presented with a phenomenon, I can instantly make the choice and say, “this is not a unicorn,” although I have never seen one.  Unicorns exist; they are conspicuous by their absence.

Professor von Meeces.
Sitting next to me right now is Professor von Meeces.   He loves meeces to pieces.   Professor von Meeces is a cat.   He is a phenomenon, a signifier as the semioticians say, that corresponds to the sign 'cat'.  He has pointy ears, a fuzzy tail, and dainty cat feet.  He enjoys wandering the neighborhood at night, ear scritchies, and taking extended tongue baths (which is his current activity, as my hands are otherwise engaged in typing).  He is white with grey splotches on his head, body, and tail.

But Professor von Meeces is not 'cat'.  He is a four-dimensional representation of the symbolic archetype 'cat'.  'Cat' is the intensional defenition; P vM is a member of the extension.  He is a member of the set of all cats: {..., Professor von Meeces, ...} whose sign is 'cat'.  'Cat' exists, because Professor von Meeces is one; he is a cat.   He is also bored, and leaving to find something fun to do.

'Justice' is a sign, and intensional definition.   As such, it must describe an exstensionally defined set.  There must be phenomena that are justice.   But as Sir Terry reminds us, we may grind the universe as finely as we may, and we will not find one particle, one molecule, one atom of justice.   So although the sign 'justice' exists, finding it is necessarily difficult.   We must decide from moment to moment if any given phenomenon is in the extensional defenition of 'justice'.

So what of God? Or perhaps, to say, what of 'God'?   God is a sign that points to phenomena, like 'unicorn', 'cat', or 'justice'.  But 'God' is tricky to define, perhaps trickier than 'justice', 'cat', or even 'unicorn'.

John of the epistles says that “God is love”.  So perhaps by the principle of transitive equality, we can sat that 'love is God'?  Upon further investigation, we find that people use 'god' to mean many different things, at different times.  So much is godlike, or perhaps indulging in an archaism, godly.  God is mercy, but also justice.  God is peace, but is also righteousness.   'God' is a semantic variable, it points not to a set of phenomena, to a set of signifiers, but to a different set of signs.  'God' means different things to different people at different times in different places.

And so the philosopher asks, “What do you mean by 'God'?”

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

WEIRD people and psychology

One issue that comes to mind is how does the scientific study of psychology affect the population itself? The practice of a the rigorous, ahistorical, scientific study of animal behavior (at least as modern psychology understands itself) presumes or requires the studying population to have adopted certain behaviors and attitudes: an understanding of inductive logic, the mathematics of statistics, the concept of quasi-objective study, and so on. The historical discipline of scientific research psychology has emerged from the WEIRD societies, and is practiced by non-WEIRD societies (like China, India, or Japan, perhaps) only to the extent that those societies may have adopted some features of the WEIRD societies. That is to say, for the WEIRD psychologists accept the work of non-WEIRD psychologists only to the extent that the non-WEIRD psychologists behave like WEIRD psychologists (especially with regards to concepts like rigour, validity, statistical correleation, strong vs. weak evidence, focus on quantifiable or measurable values, and so on.)

The problem extends to WEIRD psychologists examining members of non-WEIRD populations. Non-WEIRD participants must be able to understand instructions, understand the concept of participating in a psychological study, and so on. The latter here is significant; the findings of the Nuremberg tribunals (themselves a WEIRD social institution) require that all human participants in medical studies (usually considered to include psychological studies) must provide informed consent, which assumes an ability to understand what they are expected to do, what might be done to them, and what effects the study may have.

So it may be an inherent limitation of scientific psychology as it is practiced in the WEIRD societies that it can only study WEIRD individuals or individuals with WEIRD-like features.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

If Relationships Came with Miranda Warnings

(This has been sitting in drafts folder awhile)

You have been detained on suspicion of being in a relationship.  Specific charges may be pressed against you later; you are not entitled to know what they are.  You do not have the right to be silent.  Anything you say or do at any time may be held against you.  Any breath you take, facial expression, or eye movement will be used against you.  Should you elect to remain silent in order to avoid self-incrimination, you will be summarily condemned as being emotionally distant, bottling up, and not communicating.

You do not have the right to an attorney.  Your partner will be serving as prosecutor, judge, and executioner.  Should you attempt to mount a defense, it will be construed as evidence of your guilt.  You may elect to confess, plead guilty, and throw yourself upon the mercy of the court; doing so may increase the severity of your sentence.

The recollection and imagination of the court will be the only record kept.  Anything you might have been imagined to say or do will be entered into evidence against you.  You may attempt to indicate any mitigating factors; doing so will be used against you.  Any positive behaviors on your part, now or in the past, will be used against you.

Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?  Doesn't matter; you're guilty anyway.

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Rereading "Beyond Good and Evil"

We sail right over morality, we crush, we destroy perhaps the remains of our own morality by daring to make our voyage there -- but what matter are we!  Never yet did a profounder world of insight reveal itself to daring travelers and adventurers...
By redefining the origin of morality as arising from psycho-social responses to needs (needs of the individual, the tribe, and the species), and through those needs to the evolutionary causes that create them, we move "beyond good and evil".

...and the psychologist who thus "makes a sacrifice" -- it is not the sacrifizio dell' intelletto, on the contrary! -- will at least be entitled to demand in return that psychology shall be recognized again as the queen of the sciences, for whose service and preparation the other sciences exist.  For psychology is now again the path to the fundamental problems.

Nietzsche here suffers somewhat from a lack of vocabulary.  The reference here is not simply to psychology as it is conceived in the modern world, that is as the science of animal behavior (accepting as we do that humans, as always, are laughing apes).  In the words of philosophical idealism, "nothing exists but the mind and it's objects."  To a post-Nietzschean subjecticivist, "all experience of reality is mediated by the process of perception."  The vocabulary of semiotics might assert "Reality presents itself to the mind as an ongoing narrative.  Standing between the individual and the objects in reality signified are the mind and the signs it grasps and manipulates."  Psychology, here to Nietzsche, refers to the study of the mind, and thus includes the study of logic, of semiotics, of perception, of linguistics, of ontology, of neurology, and of the philosophy of science: that is, the mind and its objects.

More than that, the field of psychology itself has sown the seeds Nietzsche has planted here and elsewhere.  Neo-Freudian and Maslowian accounts of behavior assume that animals (laughing apes!) have needs they must satisfy.  However, there are usually barriers, obstacles, and constraints to overcome.  The problem-solving processes present in opportunistic, scavenging omnivores (laughing apes!) exist to overcome those obstacles, avoid those barriers, and chart a path within those constraints (which might be physical or social) in order to fulfill or satisfy those needs (Neo-Freudian translations: the ego finding ways to satisfy the desires of the id).

All of the elaborate games we laughing apes play, including philosophy, society, morality, logic, mathematics, language, and even the sciences and the engineering and technology that unfold from them are simply a way to meet the elaborate web of needs and satisfy the tangled skein of motive.  Ergo, in a sense, the physical and life sciences are obedient to psychology and social psychology.

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Meyers-Briggs science

After all, you know well enough that it cannot be of any consequence if you of all people are proved right; you know that no philosopher so far has been proved right, and that there might be a more laudable truthfulness in every little question mark that you place after your special words and favorite doctorines (and occasionally after yourselves) than in all the solemn gestures and trumps before accusers and law courts.
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Uzzah spoke, saying: "My hoplites of Socrates, do not find for yourselves a hill to die defending, lest your sacrifice should prove hollow and empty.  Instead, find yourselves a hill to take.  Should your victory prove once again hollow, find yourselves another hill.  When called upon to defend yourselves, follow the practice of the Grand Khan, fade into the steppes, and defend nothing.  Simply wait until your opponents dig their trenches, and then gird yourselves for a new attack!

If, in the end, you find that you attack yourselves, so much the better!

It's said by some acolytes of the Meyers-Briggs that the most successful scientist and mathematician is the INTJ, for they will find an idea, defend it for their own, and strive to make it true.  What then of the poor, benighted INTP, who attacks truths in pursuit of an idea?"

Welcome to the Hell of never being sure.

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Monday, September 5, 2011

An Appeal

Unsuprising to many, Google keeps stats on blogs her at  I like to look in on them from time to time.  I find myself curious about the search terms some of you use to find my humble offerings.  What is it that you were looking for that you wound up here at Et In Arcadia Ego?  Did you find anything interesting or of use?  No one is under any obligation to leave a comment here, of course, but if what you've found here tickles you somehow, feel free to leave me an email telling me what it was you found here, and why you were looking for it.


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My Disbelief Fell Off the Suspension Hook

I just finished the 2009 film "The Fourth Kind".  The film is a supernatural UFO horror film, told in a mockumentary style that attempts to interleave dramatizations with 'found footage'.  Attempts are made to convince the viewer that these are actual events, with authentic footage.  This is not unheard of with horror films; the 'based on a true story' claim has been around since at least "The Amityville Horror" and "The Texas Chainsaw massacre, with the "found footage" technique becoming prominent with "The Evil Dead" and "The Blair Witch Project".

However, it's difficult to establish suspension of disbelief here, because it's apparent that the film's creators only have a cursory understanding of modern psychology and psychotherapy.

To wit:

#1: People under hypnosis don't move around very much. Violent movements will bring a person out of a hypnotic state.  Hypnosis is a form of mental relaxation, inconsistent with physical activity.

#2: Hypnosis does not enhance memory; but hypnosis does encourage confabulation.

#3: If reports of waking up and seeing an owl occurs repeatedly, the response is to ask the patient to keep a pad of paper and pen to record their observations during bouts of insomnia, not hypnotize them the next day and ask them what they remember.

#4: Hypnosis is an altered mental state brought about by relaxation and calm.  Hypnotized people, even ones recalling traumatic events, typically do not experience significant levels of anxiety.  This is part of how hypnosis can be used in the treatment of phobias and other anxiety disorders.

#5: Hypnotised people do not typically experience physiological transients like retching or gargling. If you wouldn't do it dreaming or daydreaming, you won't do it under hypnosis.  A hypnotised person may choke, retch, burp, etc. as a response to a physical stimulus occuring in their physical body, unrelated to hypnosis, but that is not what is being depicted here.

#6: The main character initially positions herself as a psychologist engaged on a research project. Fun fact: despite what "Bones" tells you, psychologists are in fact scientists. Psychology is the science and study of behavior. Behavior that is observed, measurable, quantifiable. As a science, psychology operates on an empirical basis of fact. There is really no need for to psychologists to keep telling each other to focus on the facts. That's like MDs telling each other to focus on the symptoms.

#7: It's implausible for hypnotized patients to contort themselves severely enough to damage themselves.  It may be physiologically possible, under exposure to significant stress and adrenaline or in the course of a seizure, to contract a muscle group powerfully enough to cause damage to the underlying connective tissue, but such a state is incompatible with a hypnotic one (well, I suppose it would be possible for someone with a seizure disorder to experience one while in a hypnotic state, but that would be a readily identifiable medical phenomenon).

#8: Speaking languages one does not know, levitating, and electronic disruption of recording devices are unlikely to happen during clinical hypnosis.

#9: Unrelated to psychology, the depiction of Sumerian language and culture is off.  In a very narrow sense, Sumerian is "the oldest historical language", but only if one accepts that the defenition of "historical" includes "written down".  Sumerian is indeed the oldest known written language, but is not the oldest language of h. sapiens sapiens.  It is curious in that it is unrelated linguistically to any other known languages, but that is usually explained by the prevalence and dominance of the Semetic tongues in the area after the fall of the Sumerian culture.  Sumerian is not the "holy grail" of dead languages, except perhaps to historical linguists and historians focusing on the Near East.  Other researchers might be more interested in proto-Indo-European, proto-Dravidian, Mayan, or Minoan.

Of course, midway through the movie, the story comes completely off the rails...  some how hypnosis summons the ultras(1), who then can communicate with or through the hypnotised patient in real time.  The ultras here are inconsistent in their behavior - sometimes they float people through the roof (tidily repairing the damage behind them), other times they open doors and walk in.  They apparently can communicate telepathically, but also speak out loud for the benefit of everyone in the room.  The ultras here speak Sumerian, a language that a backwater psychologist in Nome, Alaska can somehow identify.  While adding Sumerian is a nice touch, implying that the ultras have been visiting us for a while (and Sumerian mythology has some interesting star god aspects to it), there's little reason to expect any given group of ultras to speak a human language.  It's also odd that the ultras speak a human language unchanged after 6,000 years, this is contrary to all theories of language change.  Also, why would telepathic ultras speak a dead language to humans who can't understand it?  Why not modern English?

Ultimately, the movie reveals itself to be entirely a work of fiction.
(1) We here at Et In Arcadia Ego prefer to follow John Keel and use the term ultra-terrestrial when describing a certain class of phenomena., and any putative non-human participants therein.  Doing so tends to highlight certain commonalities regarding events recorded in many different places and times.  Ultra-terrestrial events tend to occur at night, in sparesly inhabited areas.

Experiencers tend to be in or approaching an altered state of consciousness, usually one related to relaxation: sleep, highway hypnosis, flying at night over nondescript terrain, or engaged in a mindless repetitive activity (repetition relaxation).  Frequently physical exertion is at a minimum (engaging the relation between physical immobility and mental relaxation).

From a distance, the manifest themselves as lights, less often as sounds.  Movement through the sky is not uncommon, but such movement is distinctly non-newtonian.  It defys normal intuitions regarding inertia or gravity.  Circular swirling is not uncommon.

Upon entering the circumfrance of the phenomenon, a number of psychological effects occur.  There is a distortion of the perception of the passage of time.  Often, some form of paralysis or partial paralysis occurs (the known phenomenon of sleep paralysis is similar).  Auditory, visual, and olfactory hallucinations may occur.  Kinesthetic and balance may be affected, contributing to a feeling of flying, floating, or falling.  Anxiety ensues, which may be induced by the experience or as a reaction to it; this may lead to feelings of fear, terror, or paranoia.  Many experiencers report 'eerie' feelings, which may be the result of feeling anxiety with no readily identifiable cause.

Interestingly, the visual and auditory hallucinations experienced are resonant with the internal imagery of the experiencer.  Freudian or Jungian imagery predominates in accordance with the cultural and emotional worldview of the experiencer: 20th century Americans tend to report 'encounters with extra-terrestrials', while Christians might recount meeting devils or angels.  Prechristian peoples may have myths about the 'little people', the 'Elfreich'*, 'will'o'wisps' and similar.  Often, the anxieties of the experiencer will become manifest: psycho-sexual encounters and so on.  Barney Hill for instance reported his abductors as grey aliens wearing Nazi uniforms, something not unlikely to occur in the unconscious mind of a black man married to a white woman in the post WWII U.S. South.

Using the term ultra-terrestrial allows the recognition of the similarities of a number of cases, from faerie abductions in the British Isles, to witches Sabbats in colonial New England, to Incubi/Succubi events of Medieval Christendom.

* Origin of the English term 'eldritch'.


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Saturday, September 3, 2011

An Open Letter... the man who wanted me to teach him how to defend himself.
Everything I said to you was true. There is little I could teach you in two hours at a nightclub that would adequetly prepare you for your situation. I don't know the four fingered palm walking death punch. In a professional career, there has never once been a manuver or technique that worked out like I had planned it. Nothing works as it is taught in a dojo or gym. If I had tried to teach you an armlock or a kick or proper knee technique, it would likely not have had the result you wanted.
I told you that your best defense was probably to walk away. Keep fifteen feet between you and your opponent, and you'll probably be all right. The goal of a fight, as I told, you, is to endevour to ensure that your opponent cannot hurt you. If he cannot come close to you, you will have won. Or, as Abraham Lincoln is reported as having have said, “I should prefer to defeat my enemy by making him my friend.” Use that. Talk your way out of it. Find a compromise that you can both live with. Is whatever triggered the fight worth shedding blood over? Is it worth dying over? Is it worth killing over?
If it is, then you are in a much darker place. I asked you how commited you were to this; you told me that you were, that you'd do anything. Are you willing to go that far? Are you willing to decide that a fight is inevitable, and so to win at all costs? Would you strike first? From behind? With a weapon? Are you willing to set aside all concept of 'fair play' to get what you want? Can you set aside human restraint? Could you take the eye? Could you stand to feel bone shatter beneath your hands? Could you rip out another thinking being's jugular? With your teeth, if you must? Are you so driven by your demons that your only desire becomes to rip out a man's liver so he can watch you eat it before he dies?
I offered to refer you to some of the local schools that I think well of, but you told me you didn't want to live like a monk. All of the best fighters I know and have known do. Fighting is no simple matter, nowhere near as simple as it looks. To be ready to fight at a moment's notice means commiting your life, your mind, and your soul to it. Combat is the ultimate game, the ultimate contest. Strength, speed , coordination, endurance, stamina, toughness, balance, finesse, you will need all of these. You can't afford to sacrifice any, and you will have to strive to improve them all as much as you can find within you to do. You'll have to become a person who welcomes exercising in 90 degree heat, someone willing to do leg exercises until you feel like you can't stand up. You have to be willing to work through fatigue, through pain, and through injury.
Once you are here, you can begin to learn to fight. You can learn techniques and manuevers, not with an eye to executing them well, but to understanding how they're supposed to work. From here, you may begin integrating an understanding of how your body moves, and what you can do with it. Many things will begin to make sense: “When the enemy expands, I contract. When the enemy contracts I expand.” At that point perhaps I can teach you what little I know; how to move in straight lines to reach your goals, how to push opposition out of your way, I liken fighting to playing chess: develop your weapons, use them to take apart your opponent. Flow around opposition, turn your defense into an attack and your attack into defense. Drive at your enemy before he believes it's possible.
To the extent that you dedicate yourself to learning to fight, you will be darkening your soul. “He who strives with monsters must take care not to become a monster; know that when you gaze into the abyss, it also gazes into you.” Are you ready for that? Be prepared to lose everything you hold dear on one bad night. You must be willing to let go. One who fights to keep something is vulnerable; attachment becomes a weakness. Your destiny will be to end up a red smear across a stretch of pavement somewhere; you will have to content yourself with the question, “did I die well?” Your blood, your life must be meaningless to you; your question is “how many of the bastards can I take with me.” Your concern will not be to live through the night, it must be “will what I hold dearer than myself be safe?” Choosing this path will not take you to Heaven, but your consolation in Hell must be that you gave your all for what you believed in; that, because of you, others may in their own time reach a Heaven of their own.
There are dogs who grow up to be constant companions, loving and friendly. Then there are dogs trained to rip the throat out of anyone making a false move. Short of a very undeerstanding show of friendship and faith, the latter are put down if they live past their prime. The choice before you is the same one Achilles made: a long life in comfort and obscurity, or a quick death on the fields of Illium. The choice is yours. Do you still want me to try to teach you to fight?


A relevant quote:

Somewhere out there is someone who had loving parents, watched clouds on a summer's day, fell in love, lost a friend, is kind to small animals, and knows how to say "please" and "thank you," and yet somehow the two of you are going to end up in a dirty little room with one knife between you and you are going to have to kill that human being.

It's a terrible thing.  Not just because he's come to the same realization and wants to survive just as much as you do, meaning he's going to try to puncture your internal organs to set off a cascading trauma effect that ends with you voiding your bowels, dying alone and removed from everything you've ever loved.  No, it's a terrible thing because somewhere along the way you could have made a different choice.  You could have avoided that knife, that room, and maybe even found some kind of common ground between the two of you.  Or at least, you might have divvied up some territory and left each other alone.  That would have been a lot smarter, wouldn't it?  Even dogs are smart enough to do that. Now you're staring into the eyes of a fellow human and in a couple of minutes one of you is going to be vomiting blood to the rhythm of a fading heartbeat.  The survivor is going to remember this night for the rest of his life.
Can you do that?  Do you want to do that? Don't mistake suicidal ideation for courage, or a frustrated sense of purpose for commitment.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Amanda Morgan Principle

Drawn from Dickson's "Lost Dorsai":

"In fact, there isn't any such thing as a solution that could be made in time, isn't that right?"

"No, absolutely wrong.  If we could stop the clock at exactly this second and take some months to study the situation, we'd undoubtedly find not one, but several solutions that would abort the attack of the regemints in the time we've got to work with.  What you lack isn't time in which to act, since that's merely something specified for the solution.  What you lack is time in which to discover the solution that will work in the time there is to act."


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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Everything I Needed to Know in Life...

... I learned from cyberpunk fiction:

1) Information once introduced to a database or network is never removed.

2) When people have a world of information at their fingertips, one can hide signal among the noise. If they never look for you, they won't find you.

3) Encrypt everything.

4) Make sure you're sharing only what you mean to share.

5) View all digital connections with distrust.

6) Become comfortable with alternate identities, anonymity, and cash.

7) Communities are distributed.

8) The future is portable.  Geography matters less.

9) Identity is fluid and malleable.

10) Concepts like beauty, history, truth, and morality are community derived, not monolithic or ahistoric.

11) One will have to adapt to changing technology, and adapt changing technology.

12) People must be self-governing.


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The Ongoing Nym Wars.

A decent article, but missing some points, I think.

For one, the ability to publish anonymously is tremendously important for scientists. I know, I know, science is supposed to be an open process, where due credit is claimed and given, where if one believes in one's research, one should be glad to put one's name on it. But there remains to problems: money and ideology.

In science, it is important to go wherever the results lead. One does not publish results that are wrong, nor withhold them because they are unwanted. However, if one is doing work in highly contested fields, like climate change, or environmental chemistry, or drug biochemistry, there is tremendous pressure to come up with the right results: those that the powers that be would like to see. In such cases, the availability of anonymity is crucial. Sometimes, only through anonymity can one publish results that go against the current conceptual grain without fear of reprisal.

But what about accreditation? Surely, one's results don't mean anything unless one can prove one's background, education, degrees, and credibility, right? Astonishingly, no. A well written scientific paper will describe the experimental set up in excrutiating detail. Every step, from experiment construction, insturmentation and apparatus, gathering of data, analysis, and presentation ought to be detailed and explained. At that point, it really shouldn't matter so much if one holds multiple Ivy doctorates or just a lazy day in the back yard. Results are results, and any critique with the experimental or observational set up can happen on that basis.
It is not just scientists who benefit from access to anonymity, either. There are those of us whose professional and personal lives are somewhat distinct. When I am at work, I attempt to behave in a calm, professional manner. I keep my opinions reserved to myself, especially where they may be at odds with those of my superiors, clients, and customers. But, being human, and Irish, and a philosopher by habit, I do have opinions. Sometimes I am driven to express them, but it would be infeasible for me to do so in a forum where they can be traced and attached to my professional persona.

On a regular basis these days, we are cautioned about not posting anything to a social media site that we might be embarrassed about later. And this is of course, true. But judicious use of anonymity allows for a certain amount of discretion to be exercised. Avoiding publication of photos, or unique identifying information allows a certain separation that is invaluable in the modern world.

Curse Google+ then, for their insistence on "real names" for their profiles. As if their machinery and machinations were capable of deciding on what is a real name at what is not. There are those individuals, some bearing a nom de electronique years in the making, that are forgoing participation in avoidance of being "outed".*
There is a certain arrogance in learning a person's name; a forced intimacy. We assumke that knowing a person, knowing their position in life, their state and status is the same as knowing their inner life. Yet the two are not always connected. Readers of Et In Arcadia Ego know much more about me than they might learn from my given name. Really, knowing my official persona is a masquerade of intimacy. Those who stumble upon me here, or at my new social networking account, or on any of the various online fora I frequent would do better to read my words and ponder them than to ask what my "real name" is. Even better, let's engage in a conversation, and we'll know each other better than a number of given names could say.
At a deeper level, pseudonyms are an inherent human need. We adopt various personae to mediate our interactions with the world. We choose, from moment to moment, which persona is to be shared with which others. For many, there are certain aspects of personality, or history, or intellectual life that are not to be shared with all comers. We pick and choose which to conceal and which to reveal, and it is not for any to force an unwelcome intimacy.

Each of us is unfathomable, we contain multitudes. The masks we choose to wear, and the roles we choose to play are how we converse with the world. To attempt to know someone by penetrating their persona is unthinkable, like attempting to know the entire night sky all at once.

*Incidentally, I recommend a revolt. Rather than allowing google+ to delete our profiles, I nominate that all of us unwilling to give up our anonymity adopt the pseudonym "Nicholas Bourbaki".


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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thus Uzzah spoke

Uzzah spoke, saying, "Ask not a philosopher any question, for he shall respond simply, saying ' I don't know. Maybe? It's complicated. What did you mean by that?' "
"To recognize untruth as a condition of life -- that certainly [or certainty?] means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil."

Not just beyond good and evil, my friend Zarathustra. Behind good and evil, as the best love of Aristotle was behind the physics.
If life becomes uncertain and full of doubt, where then do we place science? If even scientific truth is simply a mask for doubt, what then? Science becomes untethered, free to float upon the currents. But the wind that drives it is our invisible friend, philosophy.

"Philosophy makes science its bitch."


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Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Really Bad Idea

For years, we've had various psuedo-reformers making a lot of noise about getting the corruption out of Washington, D.C. A lot of the focus has been on somehow getting into the system with a wire brush and scrubbing all of the money out. Unfortunately, the late Citizens United case has made that difficult, ruling as it did that corporate donors are permitted to give unlimited funds to influence campaigns.

We say we want campaigns to be about issues, not money. We say that political donations are akin to bribery and influence peddling. We try to outlaw quid pro quo arrangements, forbid mixing a candidate's personal and campaign funds. We limit the contributions that can be made to candidates, but allow "issue ads" to be funded, as if there were some sort of difference. It's said that a member of the U.S. house of representatives must raise $10,000 per week just to run for re-election. Money in politics is like water on the sidewalk, it always finds a way in.

Meanwhile, the primary process is gearing up for the 2012 coronation. President Obama is unchallenged on the Democratic side, but right now, there are twelve or twenty G.O.P. candidates each trying t get some sort of edge. As I write this, we're just out of the grand, meaningless Iowa straw poll, but any actual meaningful electoral activities are still months away.

The media, not having much to report on, is indulging itself in polls and statistics. We're told, week by week, day by day, sometimes hour by hour what representative samples of the populace think about the candidates. Pundits try to capture vague metrics for concepts like "support" and "momentum". And one of the metrics they like to track is money: who has raised how much how fast.

It's an important measure of political support. People like what a candidate is saying, so they send money. Big donors want stuff, so they back the candidate who best promises to give it to them. "If you can't drink their booze, take their money, and then vote against them, you don't belong in politics." they say. The money is important: money is speech, we're told. The money pays for ads, and appearances, and hotel rooms and airplanes and everything the candidate needs to get elected. The more money a candidate has raised, the more people like him.

Meanwhile, everyone complains about taxes. No matter what bracket you're in, taxes are too high. Or they're not high enough for somebody else. The government spends more than it takes in, and is drowning in red ink. One of the most divisive issues is the nature of government itself. How big should it be? Can we reduce the size of it by starving off the funding? Everyone seems to agree that deficits are a bad thing, but no one seems to know how to deal with them. Many people want smaller government, as long as their particular sacred cows aren't gored. "Get your government hands off my medicare!" or "If we cut defense and homeland security, terrorists will kill us all!"

So here's a really bad idea. Instead of trying to get money out of politics, let's let it all in. Instead of scrounging in budgets and tax plans for money, let's go to where the money already is. Let's merge the government budget process with the campaign finance process. Let's let candidates solicit unlimited money from anyone they want: people, corporations, unions, foreign nationals, other governments, anybody. But that's it. No taxes, no other revenue. What money a candidate has in the war chest at the end of the election cycle goes into the general fund.

The more a candidate spends on getting elected, the less he'll have available for kickbacks at the end of the cycle. No more contributing money to the guy who will cut your taxes or forge loopholes for you, because it'll be the same thing. Spend your money on the guy who will use it the way you want, not on the guy who will cut you the biggest deal once he's in office. The more popular a candidate is, the more money he'll get to play with to implement his policies. We'll all finally get the government we pay for.

How about it?


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Saturday, August 20, 2011

In the Works

Coming up here at "Et in Arcadia Ego"

More analysis of "Ten Reasons Why Evolution is Wrong"

Six ways that the Patriot movement thinks and sounds like a bunch of Marxists.

and more...

Real Soon Now.


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Rules for Reactionaries

There's been a lot of electrons molested in the conservative and patriot press lately about Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. President Obama has cited the man and his work as one of his inspirations both in his career and on his campaign trail. Conservatives are predictably up in arms about it, as if it were somehow out of bonds to talk about successful strategies for community organization, but accusing liberals collectively of treason is fine.

What amuses me is the swath of tea-baggers, pseudo-libertarians, and Johnny (Tremaine)-come-lately patriots up in arms about it. Where have you guys been? You like to proclaim yourselves the heirs of grass-roots political activism, but you'll completely ignore a reasonable work on the subject. Seriously, do you guys not realize how much like Marxists, Wobblies, and Progressives (the early 20th century kind) the lot of you already sound like to me? Why throw out a book that speaks to the very tactics you claim to be promoting?

Really, is there that much of a difference between Saul Alinsky and Judith McGeary? That much of a difference between Ian Freeman and Jerry Rubin? Is there a meaningful distinction between Ron Paul's Revolution for Liberty, and the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey? Stop reading self-righteous, self-absorbed tracts on libertarian economics and maybe look into the works of the people who have preceded you. Ever wonder, in the midst of all of your self-righteous, unthinking condemnation of communism, why Marxist-Leninism was the single most successful revolutionary ideology of the 20th century, with a message that spread from industrialized Germany to developing Russia to the agrarian economies of East Asia and South America? Stop burning books and try reading them.


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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Evolution and Morality

"I believe in evolution. I don't believe in morality. It's survival of the fittest... if I see something I want, I take it until something bigger than me comes along."

Nice try, sir. Bravo! Very Hobbesian... "the life of a man in the state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short."

Except that evolution doesn't work like that. More importantly, natural selection doesn't work like that. For one thing, natural selection simply isn't interested in the survival of the individual, except insofar as the survival of the individual helps promote the continuation of the species. This has a couple of important consequences (yes, we'll get to morality in a bit).

Sexual reproduction has long shown to be a strong strategy for the continuation of species. Sexual reproduction induces variation, which allows a species to better fill more niches in the environment, adapt to changes in the environment, or to reinforce and preserve advantageous variations that have already been expressed. Reproduction is a good thing, evolutionarily speaking, and so is sex.

But sex (at least for mammals, reptiles, and avians) requires more than one member of a species to get together. A lone male by himself cannot reproduce, neither can a lone female. They have to find a way to find each other and co-exist for a bit for sex to happen. "So why can't one of them, the male perhaps, just take what he wants?" Good question, seems reasonable. A little of the ol' rape makes the world go 'round. The truth is, though, that outside of some communities of Republicans, most females are capable of fighting back. They can claw, they can bite, they can run, they can hide. And while making the male overcome a few obstacles can be good for the species, there's a limit. If the female becomes too hurt, too tired, or otherwise unable to give birth to offspring (fertilized eggs for reptiles and avians, live offspring for mammals), then there's no continuation of that genetic line.

So it helps if the female wants it, at least a little. Maybe not all the time, maybe not with any particular male, but for most species of reptiles, birds, and mammals have to be able to co-exist with another member of their species long enough to make a love connection. They have to be able to do the nasty without it getting too nasty. So sex isn't all taking; there's some giving going on there as well.

But of course, that's not where morality really comes in. Because natural selection throws our amoral believer in "evolution" for another loop. That new twist is co-operation. Animals of the same species working together for their mutual benefit and the survival of their species.

Crows form murders, wolves form packs, cats form prides. Even herbivores get into the action, with herds and flocks. Apes, bless their anthropomorphic hearts, band together in troops. Humans build clans and tribes. In each case, evolution has provided each group of animals with some rules for getting along. Share food. Don't arbitrarily get in fights with other members of your pack, pride, or troop. Participate in group food gathering or hunting. Share child rearing duties. Establish a co-ordinated strategy for group defense. Maybe establish some vague system for who gets to reproduce with whom.

And it works. Individuals who follow the group's rules get to enjoy the benefits of group membership. Individuals get their needs met, and the group and the species goes on when individuals die. We know these systems work, because we see them work. Our theories of evolution tell us that if co-operation weren't a viable strategy, then any species that tried it would die out. And yet they haven't. Co-operative groups are all over the animal world. Each group has rules that their members follow.

The natural origins of morality.


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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Pick Up Lines in the Wikipedia Age

So, I was reading about cheetahs the other day. Apparently, they have a hard time breeding in captivity. You see, when a female cheetah goes into heat, she'll attract one or two willing males. Then she'll take off running. The males will chase her; this chase can last for two or three days, and cover over a hundred miles sometimes. Until finally, one of the males catches her and has his way with her.

That being said...

Start running.


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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Socratic Humor

Freshman philosophy professors will sometimes discuss 'Socratic irony'. They'll maintain that Socrates would start discussions with people, asking them questions and arguing with their answers. According to these professors, who are only repeating what their elders taught them when they were freshmen, Socrates would pretend to be ignorant and ask questions in order to goad his opponents into trapping themselves into a contradiction. The irony here is supposed to be that good ol' Soc would only be pretending to be ignorant in order to expose the flaws in the thinking of those around him.

Freshman philosophy professors are known for their lack of imagination, and their absolute certainty in their lack.

Reading the dialogues of Plato, especially if you can get your hands on un-bowdlerized versions is revealing. The whole point of philosophy is skepticism - doubt. The constant gnawing away at what you think you know until you discover once again that you don't know anything you thought you did.

Let's not fool ourselves either. I'm not talking about poor bewildered Descartes, pretending in his Meditations and his Discourse on Method to forget everything he thinks he knows so he can start over from the beginning and rediscover everything he was trying to prove in the first place.

Reading through the Symposium, the Phaedrus, and even the Republic, we don't find a simple Socrates determined that he knew better and that he'd show everybody else how wrong they were. We find a lost soul, a man who thinks he might have a clever idea, but who is tormented by the Hell of never bieng sure. He begins dialouges with the others not necessarily with the sole goal of leading them into contradiction, but as a man haunted by the hope that someone else might hold the key to the certainty he's never had. When it comes Socrates's time to hold forth, one reads the air of a man who - if only to himself - adds a question mark to the end of every phrase and every sentence.

But alas, Socrates is truly the wisest of the Greeks, who knows that he knows nothing. Searching as he is for a mind that can set him onto the path towards certainty, he meets only those whose certainty rings hollow. They do not know that they do not know. So he mocks them. Throughout the Apology, he mocks them. Socratic sarcasm, directed at those whose false certainty leads them to judge his uncertainty as blasphemous and unworthy.

But this is not all of the humor of Socrates. The Symposium, a discourse on the nature of beauty itself begins with the participants praising and comparing the relative charms and f***ability of the young men about them, like construction workers on lunch break at a college campus. These are not ivory-tower dwelling ascetics divining the nature of virtue; these are randy guys at a strip club or bar talking dirty. The Republic begins with Soc and friends coming back from a parade, discussing when the last time each took a turn in the sack.

In the other dialouges, we see Soc on the street, battling it out like some casting-call reject from West Side Story. This is not a proud academic. This is a guy looking for truth by chatting up column fluters and midwives, artisans and workmen. Sure, from time to time he'll rub elbows with tyrants, kings, and demogouges, but he'll talk Love, Virtue, or Justice with anybody who'll show up. He's not waiting for someone to holdup a sign, saying "it's philosophy time now, so everybody put on your thinking caps." For Socrates, any time is a good time for philosophy.

So the next time someone starts babbling nonsense to you on the bus, just remember: that may be ol' Socrates, keepin' it real.


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Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Fire of Language, the Light of Words

Hom hum. Another scientific paper; another scientific paper written by someone who was too dedicated to Science! to pay attention to liberal arts classes. "...and this will show", "this shows....", "has shown..." Show, show show, show, show, show... like a demonstrative but plodding metronome.

Writing, even technical writing, doesn't have to be like this. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug," observed Mark Twain. It's possible to sit down and write like a workman reaching for familiar tools; but it's also possible to write like J. S. Bach expanding three notes into an etude that dances through a universe of possibilities.

Why not, every once in a while, stop showing us things? There are alternatives.

"from this it is obvious that..." Mathematicians and logicians love this one. You'll usually see it signaling the most inscrutable step of the argument or proof. There's an implicit challenge inherent in "it's obvious that..." It's obvious to the writer, obviously; why isn't it obvious to you, dear reader? Are you some sort of mouth-breathing cretin who can't follow the simplest of steps? If it's obvious, obviously the writer is correct. Sit down and learn something, schmuck.

Then there's a Latin duo. Latin's a lovely language; sometimes when you've got a nice concrete word, you can throw any number of prepositions on it as prefixes to create a wealth of new, abstract words. One example is 'planus' meaning a level plain. 'Ex' is 'from' or 'of' or 'out of'. 'Ex+planus' = explain. To explain a thing is to take it from a clear, level plain where everyone can see it. 'Planus' is also where English gains 'plan'. 'Explain' means to unfurl, to smooth out; as if unrolling blueprints or an agenda onto a table so as to take ideas from it.

'Plicare' means to fold or to braid. 'Ex+plicare' is to take something taken out of a fold, as if taking it from a pocket. Explicate is our English derivative. If a thing has many folds, many wrinkles, and is hard to understand, then we have many folds together. 'Cum' = 'with', 'cum' + 'plicare' is to be with folds; to make a thing complicated. If we fold something many times, we will have done 'multi' [many] + 'plicare' = 'multiplication'. But that's okay. Once those folds are taken out, and the thing is unfolded, we'll have 'a' [without] + 'plicare' = 'aplicare'... an application. The folded thing becomes of use.

Elucidate. This one's on the rise, as it ought to be. From 'lucid': clear, simple; ultimately from the Latin 'lux': light. You, dear reader, have been stumbling in a murky darkness, but I, the writer, will elucidate what you have not understood. The fogs will part, light will shine through, and you will see clearly. "I once was lost, but now am found / was blind but now I see." 'Lucid', related through 'lux' to an old friend of ours, the Light Bringer, Lucifer. He, who in myth, brought to humanity knowledge: the knowledge of good and evil. 'Lucifer', also an archaic English word for a match: a dull wooden thing that, with friction, spontaneously brings forth fire and light

Speaking of fire and light, we also find illuminate. From the Latin 'lumina', meaning 'glow'. In the dark days after the fall of Rome, the light of knowledge was lost to the Western world. Those preservers of the heritage of Augustine, the Clunaic and Benedictine monks tended the banked embers of Western thought. And to accompany the black and red words scribed so carefully upon yellowed pages, they added pictures. Pictures of startling color, elaboration, and clarity. They called these drawings illuminations.

Later, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin would write a new doctorine for mystical Freemasonry and neo-Gnosticism. To describe the surge of knowledge granted to the initiate, he chose 'illumination'. Following his lead, Adam Weishaupt would choose to name his organization - dedicated at first to clarity of thought and an eschewing of clouded superstition - the Ancient Illuminated Seers of Bavaria. They would go on to influence Mozart, and would be some of the first patrons of Beethoven as he brought new light to Western music.

Speaking of pretty pictures, we come to illustrate. From the Romance 'illustare': to draw, but drawing from the Latin 'illus': this + 'lustare': to shine up, to polish, to brighten. To illustrate something is to allow light to reflect and define.

Well written scientific papers don't have to sink under their own gravity. Instead, they can float with levity, as a tissue of language dancing over the fire of words. Don't show me anything anymore, c'mon baby, light my fire.


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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Koans of Doubt

"The wisest of all the Hellenes is Socrates."
-the Pythia of Delphi

"If I am acclaimed the wisest of the Hellenes, it must be because I alone know that I know nothing."
"Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation..."
-René Descartes
" 'I became incredulous. Or I regretted having been credulous. I began to doubt.' "

" 'Fool! Only the true initiate knows that he does not know!' "
-Umberto Eco
"To defend everything is to defend nothing."
-Frederick the Great
"Those who are filled with emptiness
Need not fear tigers and rhinos in the wilds,
Nor wear armour and shields in battle;
The rhinoceros finds no place in them for its horn,
The tiger no place for its claw,
The soldier no place for a weapon,
For death finds no place in them."
-Lao Tzu
"Like faith needs a doubt, like a freeway out."
Take up the armor of Socrates, my friends.
-Uzzah the Ox-cart driver


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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Germans can't do comedy?

Normally, I prefer to avoid dumping links and running, but I literally fell on the floor at this. Not for everyone, but if you've ever had to read Kant, Kierkegaard, or Heidegger (but not Nietzsche. Nietzsche is actually quite funny, but puns don't translate well...)

Stars at 3:01 -


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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Some modern koans

"A second of reflection can take you to the moon
The slightest hesitation can bring you down in flames
A single spark of passion can change a man forever
A moment in a lifetime is all it takes to break him"
Covenant, "Call the Ships to Port"
"The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes. All else is theory."
"I am naked, I have nothing left
my bones are picked clean
and riddled with regret
nothing can touch me
I've nothing left to take
for I am naked
but I can never break"
Assemblage 23, "Naked"
"Nothing can stop me now
'cause I don't care anymore"
Nine Inch Nails "Piggy"
"Loose hold
just let it go
give in
give up
abandon yourself to the flow"
C-Tec "Flowing"
"What's reality compared to me?"
Project Pitchfork "Timekiller"


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Monday, July 4, 2011

Obscure Mathematical Jokes

So, I ordered some books off Amazon that I'd been wanting for a while. One of them was a work by Kurt Goedel. It shipped separately, in a thin envelope. When I opened it, I worried that it might be incomplete.
I was invited to an exhibition of Mandlebrot-style fractal art the other day, but decided not to go. Once you've seen part of it, you've seen it all.
All syllogisms have three parts. Therefore this is not a syllogism,
There are three sets of people in this universe of discourse. Those that ascribe to the law of the excluded middle and those who do not.
How can you tell if a poem was written by a yardstick? Not quite a meter, but always three feet per line.
Two electrons were driving in the country when they were pulled over by a state trooper. The trooper walked up to the car and asked the electron driving, "Do you know how fast you were going?"

"Sure," said the electron.

"Great," sighed the other, "now we're lost."
 So I said, "Hey baby, you've got nice ogives,"

She slapped me, and said, "Don't talk about my fornication in public."
"Finite Simple Group (of Order Two)"
by the Klein Four


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I like to see you smile

If I were prone to bad poetry
and giving in to tired cliche
I would say that one of your smiles
could light the city
for a thousand nights and a night
Good thing, then
that I'm not prone to bad poetry
Especially in free verse.


When joy comes upon her,
her smile flashes into light
Like Columbia at dawn
Or Trinity in desert night.


The most incredible thing
is the animation of her face,
the depth of her eyes,
the purity of her expression.
Enough to wipe my mind
of anything I might say.

When she sardonically pretends to think
to highlight the irony of the world
her mouth turns into a pout
that shatters my breath.
Sweet agony.

But it is her smile,
like a glimpse of salvation.
It begins quietly, a small turning up.
Sweeter anticipation. 

A staring into an endless horizon
a promise of hope
the breath of 'fiat' in 'fiat lux'.

Then the anticipation breaks.
And all that is... light.


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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Uzzah and Zarathustra

"The Buddha, in his wisdom, said 'all life is suffering.' Nietzsche, in his determination, said, 'bring it.' "
And Uzzah spake, saying:

"Poor, poor Zarathustra.; Zarathustra, my dearest friend, the breather of my breath. You were a warrior of truth,a hoplite for Socrates, but your flesh fed only the vultures while your blood seeped into the ground. Despair not, my friend and worthy mentor, though you do not know it, the trees that have grown in your soil have borne your fruit, all unknowing the mettle of the dirt from which they have sprung. In those trees roost songbirds who sing sweetly to one another, and the chuckling crows who leave your woods to go seek the spirits of the newly fallen. They are your worthy heirs, whether you know it or not.

My friend, my friend, where you spoke of the natural history of morals, they now sing of 'pro-survivall' and 'contra-survival' behaviors. Where once you prophesied eating lunch in the ashes, they sing now of a 'heirarchy of needs'.

Where now is your reformulation of values? The vultures fed upon that, my friend, and knew it not. Now there exists only an mocking squaking, "Zarathustra valued nothing! Zarathustra spoke of the death of God with glee! Zarathustra was a nihilist and a gloomy man!" My friend, you waked in shadows, but always with a joyous heart. Uzzah knows your heart, and the secret hope you bore. A hope so bright that you dared not look at it. The vultures did not get that, not even when they feasted on your heart. Uzzah knows, and Uzzah will carry the flame for you, Uzzah who goes to feed the crows.

When nothing is important, everything can be.

"Was ist ist. Was nicht ist moeglich." - Blixa Bargeld.

When the universe has no meaning, each of us is free to make our own.

There is no plan , only a spontaneous reordering of things.

“To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The universe itself has no meaning. Our role in it is to create those things that were not here before us and will not be here again when we are gone. Beauty, truth, justice, love, honor, glory...
"Wir kennen uns fuer lange, der Pheonix und ich. Ich lehrte... damit zu mit mir spricht." - Blixa Bargeld


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