Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bloom: Essentialism Rules Pleasure and Value

The Ravages of Chinese "Medicine"

Image Credit: Rodger Bosch / AFP - Getty Images
I have been to Aquila and met these individual rhinos. Two of the three mutilated were so hacked-up that they didn't survive. And this was done for a substance the ingestion of which has the curative value of biting your fingernails.
 
Poachers attacked three of the six rhino on the Aquila Game Reserve, killing one outright and injuring this one badly. This rhino bull was tranquilised by poachers, who then sawed off his primary horn, and began cutting the smaller one, but were apparently disturbed and left. The critically injured male is one of the latest victims in South Africa's rhino bloodbath, which is surging on privately owned reserves as criminal syndicates target easier prey for the Asian black market.
Rhino horn is used in traditional Asian medicine to cure a range of ailments from fever to cancer, and sells for more than cocaine despite having no scientific medicinal value.
And from Aquila:
After finding the second rhino, we sent all rangers and security staff in game vehicles, on quad bikes and horseback to search for the one rhino that had not been accounted for. Knowing that the poachers had used drugs that would kill the rhino instead of bullets that could be heard by anti poaching teams, time was of the essence and no expense was spared… two helicopters and a light aircraft from Cape Town were brought in to search Aquila’s 7500 hectare conservancy. The rhino was spotted from the air by the owner Searl Derman, from his friend, Enzo Kuun’s helicopter of Cape Town Helicopters. On landing they discovered a blood bath and a rhino with his face literally hatched off with pangas and machetes proving that there were two active teams attacking the Aquila rhinos, one using a chain saw, the other using pangas and machetes to dehorn the rhino.

Dying without ever having experienced great music...

Amidst the entertaining spanking of Gov. Rick Perry, Richard Dawkins describes the power of the universal acid:
What any theory of life needs to explain is functional complexity. Complexity can be measured as statistical improbability, and living things are statistically improbable in a very particular direction: the direction of functional efficiency. The body of a bird is not just a prodigiously complicated machine, with its trillions of cells - each one in itself a marvel of miniaturized complexity - all conspiring together to make muscle or bone, kidney or brain. Its interlocking parts also conspire to make it good for something - in the case of most birds, good for flying. An aero-engineer is struck dumb with admiration for the bird as flying machine: its feathered flight-surfaces and ailerons sensitively adjusted in real time by the on-board computer which is the brain; the breast muscles, which are the engines, the ligaments, tendons and lightweight bony struts all exactly suited to the task. And the whole machine is immensely improbable in the sense that, if you randomly shook up the parts over and over again, never in a million years would they fall into the right shape to fly like a swallow, soar like a vulture, or ride the oceanic up-draughts like a wandering albatross. Any theory of life has to explain how the laws of physics can give rise to a complex flying machine like a bird or a bat or a pterosaur, a complex swimming machine like a tarpon or a dolphin, a complex burrowing machine like a mole, a complex climbing machine like a monkey, or a complex thinking machine like a person.
Darwin explained all of this with one brilliantly simple idea - natural selection, driving gradual evolution over immensities of geological time. His is a good theory because of the huge ratio of what it explains (all the complexity of life) divided by what it needs to assume (simply the nonrandom survival of hereditary information through many generations). The rival theory to explain the functional complexity of life - creationism - is about as bad a theory as has ever been proposed. What it postulates (an intelligent designer) is even more complex, even more statistically improbable than what it explains. In fact it is such a bad theory it doesn’t deserve to be called a theory at all, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be taught alongside evolution in science classes.
The simplicity of Darwin’s idea, then, is a virtue for three reasons. First, and most important, it is the signature of its immense power as a theory, when compared with the mass of disparate facts that it explains - everything about life including our own existence. Second, it makes it easy for children to understand (in addition to the obvious virtue of being true!), which means that it could be taught in the early years of school. And finally, it makes it extremely beautiful, one of the most beautiful ideas anyone ever had as well as arguably the most powerful. To die in ignorance of its elegance, and power to explain our own existence, is a tragic loss, comparable to dying without ever having experienced great music, great literature, or a beautiful sunset.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

QFTD

"But [Assange] also unsettles her, telling her without fear she can become a “megalomaniac” like him. She says in her book “I couldn’t have felt less comfortable alone in that room with him”, and most strikingly, reveals that he asked her to be his Mary Magdalene and 'bathe his feet at the cross'." - Dina Rickman, interviewing Heather Brooke for the Huffington Post.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Postmodernism is Dead?

I wish. But, despite its title, the way this article is written suggests not. Still, there is some descriptive sense here:
Unlike, say, the Enlightenment or Romanticism, postmodernism (even as a word) summons up the movement it intends to overturn. In this way, postmodernism might be seen as the delayed germination of an older seed, planted by artists like Marcel Duchamp, during modernism’s high noon of the 1920s and 1930s. (Seen in this light, the start-date that the V&A offers for postmodernism—1970—is quite late.) 
Thus, if modernists like Picasso and Cézanne focused on design, hierarchy, mastery, the one-off, then postmodernists, such as Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, were concerned with collage, chance, anarchy, repetition. If modernists such as Virginia Woolf relished depth and metaphysics, then postmodernists such as Martin Amis favoured surface and irony. As for composers, modernists like Béla Bartók were hieratic and formalist, and postmodernists, like John Adams, were playful and interested in deconstructing. In other words, modernism preferred connoisseurship, tended to be European and dealt in universals. Postmodernism preferred commodity and America, and embraced as many circumstances as the world contained. 
In the beginning, postmodernism was not merely ironical, merely gesture, some kind of clever sham, a hotchpotch for the sake of it. It became these things later in lesser works by lesser artists: Michael Nyman, Takashi Murakami, Tracey Emin and Jonathan Safran Foer. Rather, in the beginning artists, philosophers, linguists, writers and musicians were bound up in a movement of great force that sought to break with the past, and which did so with great energy. A new and radical permissiveness was the result. Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilise the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty. 
Above all, it was a way of thinking and making that sought to strip privilege from any one ethos and to deny the consensus of taste. Like all the big ideas, it was an artistic tendency that grew to take on social and political significance. As Ihab Hassan, the Egyptian-American philosopher, has said, there moved through this (our) period “a vast will to un-making, affecting the body politic, the body cognitive, the erotic body, the individual psyche, the entire realm of discourse in the west.”
The pendulum swings. Enter the postmodern Tea-Party.

Robots and the Illusion of Free Will

Judea Pearl, director of the Cognitive Systems Laboratory at UCLA, talks with Roger Bingham. Pearl is, incidentally, the father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Is Bibi Anti-Israel?"

Whatever happened to the "indefensibility" of the 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps? Isn't this the first rational question to ask Netanyahu in response to this news? Adam Serwer wonders, too.