Friday, October 29, 2010

Spiral Jetty


"Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow."  - Oscar Wilde

Nazi Self-Doubt from Mitchell and Webb

Enoch and Schroeder on Moral Realism

Video diavlog with David Enoch and Mark Schroeder.  From PhilosophyTV:
"Enoch and Schroeder are moral realists of different kinds: Schroeder defends a form of naturalist reductionism, while Enoch defends a form of Moorean non-naturalism. In this conversation, they compare their two brands of realism, discuss their shared opposition to error theories and expressivism, and address a few of the standard objections to realism. Then (at 53:40) they reveal their answers to a question that should be disturbing to any realist: If it turns out that realism is false, what would you believe instead?"

Thursday, October 28, 2010


"To my embarrassment I was born in bed with a lady."  - Wilson Mizner

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Spike Trains All the Way


“There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.”  - Daniel Dennett

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fry. Pedantry, with Words

Stephen Fry chides grammatical reactionaries:

Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography - Language from Matthew Rogers on Vimeo.

Data is Nonpartisan intellectual dishonesty is in full relief when opposition to and denial of a particular branch of science lists heavily to one political party.


Virginia Heffernan on collective highlighting.  In the NYT:
What to make, then, of the latest kind of display copy — italics added right in books, postpublication, by readers, in a kind of wiki-italicization project? These are the so-called “popular highlights” that now show up in Kindle e-books. Marked by a dotted underscore that indicates that other Kindle users have found the passages significant, popular highlights constitute crowd-sourced literary criticism. Readers, on the spot and yet collaboratively, make meaning of what they’re reading. The effect is odd — even for those of us who see literature as something readers determine incrementally and collectively.
Click on the popular-highlight passages and you will discover exactly how many Kindle readers have singled them out. “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort,” for example, was evidently highlighted 1,626 times (as of this writing) in “Eat, Pray, Love,” by Elizabeth Gilbert. In Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone,” 1,547 Kindle users cottoned to “Life, too, is like that. You live it forward, but understand it backward.”
Sounds about right. But many writers don’t write aphoristically, and many readers don’t read for aphorisms. In a popularly highlighted world, we all may begin to. The dotted line, like the distinctive hue or underscore that signals a word is clickable on the Web, may be a new kind of punctuation that affects contemporary style.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Jerry Coyne laments the press' track-record on epigenetics:
This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered journalistic hype about epigenetics: last March there was a dire puff-piece in the Guardian asserting that epigenetics was the death knell of Darwinism.  I went after it, arguing that while epigenetics was a novel and important new phenomenon in genetics and development, it wasn’t poised to completely revise our view of evolution for three reasons.
First, epigenetically inherited changes in DNA and protein, like methylated bits of DNA, ultimately rest on “normal” mutations in DNA that affect those changes. Things get methylated because the nucleotide bases in DNA code for that methylation.  How can “nongenetic” changes in DNA reside in the DNA? Here’s one way.  There are genes whose DNA sequence tells them to do this: “put methyl groups on another bit of DNA if you detect that you’re in the body of a male.  Don’t do that if you’re in the body of a female.”  Males and females would thus have the same DNA code, but it would be used differently depending on the DNA’s “environment”—for example, different hormone titers in males vs. females.  The two sexes would then have produce different types of modified DNA even though their primary DNA sequences were identical.  These modifications usually last only one generation, and then are reset when the DNA finds itself in a new body that could be of a different sex.
Second, as I just noted, in nearly all cases the epigenetic modifications are not inherited past one or two generations, so they can’t serve as lasting templates for evolutionary change.  Insofar as those changes are important in evolution, they must ultimately reside in the primary nucleotide sequence of DNA, the genetic material.
Finally, those who tout the importance of epigenetics in evolution, most notably Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, keep trotting out the same handful of tired examples, like changes in toadflax and mouse coat color, that are inherited only temporarily and have nothing to do with evolution.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. "  - Saul Bellow


Jillian Rayfield in TPM:
Have you ever seen a half-monkey, half-person? No? Well neither has Glenn Beck, which is how he knows evolution doesn't exist.
On his radio show today, Beck wondered how many people in the country believe in evolution, and said he doesn't: "I don't think we came from monkeys. I think that's ridiculous. I haven't seen a half-monkey, half-person yet."
"If I get to the other side and God's like, 'You know what, yep, you were a monkey once,' I'll be shocked, but I'll be cool with it," he said. 
Beck's book cover,  apparently unconcerned with irony.

Breathtakingly stupid as this common creationist 'logic' is, it's worse for not even referencing apes, but rather hybrid monkeys.  Perhaps Beck should check with Christine O'Donnell to see if she has any secret information about half-monkey half-humans?

Science and Faith in the Black Community

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."  - Philip K. Dick

Monday, October 18, 2010


"What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist."
"Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself."  - Salman Rushdie

Lack of Belief

by QualiaSoup

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Ahmadi's response is to focus criticism at the film rather than at the stoning.  Still worse is the precautionary cowardice.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


"If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."  - Carl Sagan

Friday, October 15, 2010

Physicalist Anti-Reductionism vs. Reductionism

A conversation in the vein stemming from the Stuart Kauffman videos (and article) that I posted previously  -  Kauffman is barrels more fun to listen to, but this is a good conversation on whether emergent non-reducible factors act importantly within our universe - or, if not, whether the physical anti-reductionist is merely reacting to epistemic limitations within the science of physics (and not the actual physics of which the science of physics is descriptive).  Here for the downloadable podcast.

And another Kauffman talk, this one from TSN:

Thursday, October 14, 2010


"The murals in restaurants are on par with the food in museums."  - Peter De Vries

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Two Cultures, Ctd

Stuart Kauffman advocates a science and art based "sacred" that doesn't invoke supernaturalism in any way. He also wants to use the 'God' word to mean reality, or everything (the universe) that just 'is.'

If Kauffman defines (or rather redefines) God in that way, then of course such a God can be said, tautologically, to exist, though I don't see where the tactic gets him. To billions, the word already has a concretized meaning. Kauffman may see that as an advantage, a structure upon which a naturalistic cosmicview could be more easily built, but it seems to me the word is irreversibly infected with supernaturalism - even if in some deistic or teleological sort of way.

Update:  Here is a Kauffman talk in which he fully accepts the above criticism, and says it's entirely possible that it is a mistake to use a religious vocabulary in furtherance of naturalism - he has left the question open. The CFI talk is a rigorous exercise in thought from a brilliant man.

Monday, October 11, 2010


"The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."  - Oscar Wilde

The Two Cultures, Ctd

It would be really interesting to see Daniel Dennett's respond to Stuart Kauffman's recent essay "Science and Poetry,"  in which Kauffman suggests the mind is not algorithmic, and that our need for and use of metaphor supports a view of the mind as non-algorithmic, operating partially within the 'Poised Realm' of open quantum systems.
On the dominant view of the mind, the mind is a Turing machine. A Turing machine is utterly definite. Given a position of the reading head, the symbols on the tape, the rules in the machine for moving or not moving on the tape, erasing symbols on the tape depending upon the definite discrete state of the head, and moving to a new state among the discrete states of the head, the Turing machine is an abstraction of Descartes’ animal body as a machine, clockwork in the visions of his day. Our minds are algorithmic.  Artificial Intelligence is the offspring of this view. On it, science itself is an algorithmic activity needing no metaphor, the signal case of the fully definite, the
mind is nude of rich non-computable allusions, notwithstanding the very interesting connectionist strand in AI.
But is the mind algorithmic?  I think not, and think we need poetry to unite the Two Cultures and rediscover our deeper humanity.
Without presumption, I don't see how the 'need for' or use of metaphor evidences a non-algorithmic mind. Operating on the assumption that quantum effects affect cognition, which is by no means certain, there is, to my limited knowledge, no contradiction in an algorithmic process which incorporates structural randomness. Perhaps metaphor operates in the mind, and in understanding science, as a catalyst, increasing competence (computance?) which before the development of metaphor would have been vastly harder to attain.

Within cells, for instance, enzymes act as catalysts, greatly speeding up the specific reactions that need to take place for the cell to survive. Reactions within the cell would still occur without enzymes, but since cellular compounds are so weakly reactive to each other in the absence of enzymes, reaction would happen so infrequently as to be insignificant.

Perhaps metaphor is the enzyme of higher-cognition. In other words, metaphorical capacity functions as useful - even indispensable - software for our computers.

Though he cites the 'framing problem' of artificial intelligence, whereby robots have difficulty performing creative problem solving due to an inability - in practice - to know which information is most relevant without external human input, Kauffman doesn't venture as to why the 'framing problem' is not in principle algorithmically solvent.

Then there's this: "we need poetry to unite the Two Cultures and rediscover our deeper humanity."

I'm a little surprised to see Kauffman succumb to romantic nostalgia of some humanity lost - again, lost is what it must be if it has to be rediscovered. It isn't that way. Though the arts' and the sciences' perceived separation has for a long time greatly irritated me, I hardly think the emergence of this division could be described as having subtracted from any sum-total our 'humanity.'  To the contrary, the scientific revolution and logical positivism, greatly augments our humanity and epistemic heft as a species.

Of course art and science don't require that they be of each other. Art should however be more informed by science for its crowning achievement, an uniquely human endeavor that has revealed the most profound beauty of our true context. Science is often poetic; there is no reason the corollary should be understood as discrepant.

While I share the brilliant Kauffman's desire for d├ętente, bridging C.P. Snow's "two cultures," - which to aid in some small way is for myself a great ambition - doesn't entail uniting them. Rather, when the border is demilitarized, when these two powers acknowledge their overlap and encourage collaboration - art that is of science and science that is of art can inform and augment us further.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Friday, October 8, 2010


"In politics, absurdity is not a handicap."  - Napoleon Bonaparte

A Profile of Denial

Cordula Meyer bulldozes the wall of obfuscation engineered by disproportionately-funded climate-science denialists, and details their history and cherished tactics:
Whether it was the hole in the ozone layer, acid rain or climate change, Singer always had something critical to say, and he always knew better than the experts in their respective fields. But in doing so he strayed far away from the disciplines in which he himself was trained. For example, his testimony aided the tobacco lobby in its battle with health policy experts....
Whatever the issue, Singer and his cohorts have always used the same basic argument: that the scientific community is still in disagreement and that scientists don't have enough information. For instance, they say that genetics could be responsible for the cancers of people exposed to secondhand smoke, volcanoes for the hole in the ozone layer and the sun for climate change...
In 1993, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published what was then the most comprehensive study on the effects of tobacco smoke on health, which stated that exposure to secondhand smoke was responsible for about 3,000 deaths a year in the United States. Singer promptly called it "junk science." He warned that the EPA scientists were secretly pursuing a communist agenda. "If we do not carefully delineate the government's role in regulating ... dangers, there is essentially no limit to how much government can ultimately control our lives," Singer wrote.
Reacting to the EPA study, the Philip Morris tobacco company spearheaded the establishment of "The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition" (TASSC). Its goal was to raise doubts about the risks of passive smoking and climate change, and its message was to be targeted at journalists -- but only those with regional newspapers. Its express goal was "to avoid cynical reporters from major media."
Singer, Marshall Institute founder Fred Seitz and Patrick Michaels, who is now one of the best known climate change skeptics, were all advisers to TASSC.
More in Der Spiegel.

1st Deficient

You know you're a redneck if... you think you can get away with banning "inmates from having any reading material other than the Bible."


Hitch in VF:
In her famous essay on Hollywood, Pauline Kael described it as a place where you could die of encouragement. That may still be true of Tinseltown; in Tumortown you sometimes feel that you may expire from sheer advice. A lot of it comes free and unsolicited. I must, without delay, begin ingesting the granulated essence of the peach pit (or is it the apricot?), a sovereign remedy known to ancient civilizations but now covered up by greedy modern doctors. Another correspondent urges heaping doses of testosterone supplements, perhaps as a morale booster. Or I must find ways of opening certain chakras and putting myself in an appropriately receptive mental state. Macrobiotic or vegan diets will be all I require for nourishment during this experience. And don’t laugh at poor old Mr. Angstrom above: somebody has written to me from a famous university to suggest that I have myself cryonically or cryogenically frozen against the day when the magic bullet, or whatever it is, has been devised. (When I failed to reply to this, I got a second missive, suggesting that I freeze at least my brain so that its cortex could be appreciated by posterity. Well, I mean to say, gosh, thanks awfully.) As against all that, I did get a kind note from a Cheyenne-Arapaho friend of mine, saying that everyone she knew who had resorted to tribal remedies had died almost immediately, and suggesting that if I was offered any Native American medicines I should “move as fast as possible in the opposite direction.” Some advice can actually be taken.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Beethoven, Sonata op 27 # 2 Mov 3 - Valentina Lisitsa

"Recording in Beethovensaal, Hannover Germany, Dec 2009. Wilhelm Kempff recorded Beethoven cycle in the very same hall."


"An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support."  - John Buchan

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Wrong Kind of Help


"An intelligence test sometimes shows a man how smart he would have been not to have taken it."  - Laurence J. Peter

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tell Me it Isn't Racism

Go on, try. 

Brought to you by the "real American folk" that are the West Virginia Conservative Foundation.  BTW, Rehall is a lifelong Christian - not that it matters or that you'd come to know it from watching this filth.


"I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow."  - Woodrow Wilson

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Welcome to the (Almost) 21st Century

L.A. Times PolitiCal:
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes Proposition 19, which would legalize the recreational use of marijuana, but he offered a consolation Thursday by signing a bill that would downgrade possession of an ounce or less from a misdemeanor to an infraction.
SB 1449 was written by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who said it will keep marijuana-related cases from going to court-clogging jury trials, although the penalty would remain a fine of up to $100 but no jail time.


"So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence."  - Bertrand Russel

Friday, October 1, 2010


"Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices, but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence and fulfills the duty to express the results of his thought in clear form."  - Albert Einstein

Cordoba Redux

Image:  bobster855 on Flickr 
My reaction follows.  Robert B. Talisse and Scott F. Aikin at 3QD write:
We, the authors, are atheists.  Some will no doubt hold that since atheists abhor religion in all its forms, consistency demands that they oppose the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (which in fact is neither a mosque nor at ground zero).  The thought is that atheists must oppose the building of any new building devoted to religious observance.  But this view about what atheists must believe is false. Abhorrence of religion does not entail abhorrence of the freedom to practice religion.  Atheists indeed affirm freedom of conscience, even though they oppose the views to which many are led by their consciences.
We atheists are particularly well placed to speak to public matters concerning religious tolerance.  As we have no religion of our own, atheists are especially well practiced at tolerating religion.  More importantly, atheists are also keenly attuned to the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience for a democratic society.  And the controversy over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque is a clash over these very principles. Our view is that those who oppose the Mosque have abandoned fundamental principles at the core of the form of constitutional democracy originated by the United States.
This is exactly right.  In response to my previous post suggesting that Muslims might be well served by praying at ground zero in protest, I was met with some bafflement.  "Since you, an atheist, think that prayer is ineffectual and a total waste of time, how could you promote that anyone should perform it?" and so on.  My response to that type of question has been that I also think walking in a circle while waving about a piece of cardboard is a waste of time, unless in doing so one is effectively protesting a meaningful issue.  I would of course prefer that people not waste their time in prayer, but as such a preference is unlikely to be granted in the near future, Muslims might as well help show the stupidity of arbitrary no-Islamy-stuff-going-on zones by doing it there instead of elsewhere.

The sacrifice of pluralism on the Tea-Party altar is the (by now) old chestnut "of course, they have the legal right to build it, but that's not to say they should build it."  This 'argument' does not persuade me of anything except that the person saying it paints all Muslims with the brush of terror, or else that they hold the condescending and cynical belief that we should act as if such a libel was acceptable merely to placate a public insufficiently equipped to understand why doing so is irrational and wrong.

(when applicable, we should also note the sacrifice of true conservatism on the very same altar, for not everyone has been content to cede the right to build - N.Y. Gub. candidate Paladino promises, in a recent political ad, the laughable scheme of using eminent domain to stop construction of the center.)

Imagine an inexact but edifying analogue set in the 1960's:

"Sure, as a black boy you have the right to study here, but since nobody wants you here, and since there was violence committed near the school nine years ago by some other blacks, it would really be a slap in the face if you were to attend here.  We support your right to attend an integrated school system, we just would appreciate it if you would do it somewhere else and respect that this area should remain white, for emotional reasons of course... you understand, don't you?"

Quickly, Pat Churchland