Monday, April 30

Christopher Hitchens on atheism

Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins, concerning "punctuated evolution" and the unfilled gaps in post-Darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication... We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul. We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful... We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room. We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse. We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true—that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.

Most important of all, perhaps, we infidels do not need any machinery of reinforcement. We are those who Blaise Pascal took into account when he wrote to the one who says, "I am so made that I cannot believe."

There is no need for us to gather every day, or every seven days, or on any high and auspicious day, to proclaim our rectitude or to grovel and wallow in our unworthiness. We atheists do not require any priests, or any hierarchy above them, to police our doctrine. Sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us, as are relics and the worship of any images or objects.... To us no spot on earth is or could be "holier" than another: to the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage, or the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth or beauty. Some of these excursions to the bookshelf or the lunch or the gallery will obviously, if they are serious, bring us into contact with belief and believers, from the great devotional painters and composers to the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman. These mighty scholars may have written many evil things or many foolish things, and been laughably ignorant of the germ theory of disease or the place of the terrestrial globe in the solar system, let alone the universe, and this is the plain reason why there are no more of them today, and why there will be no more of them tomorrow. Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them. We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness.

Friday, April 20

Tastes like chicken

Ancient collagen—the main protein component of bone—has been extracted from the remains of a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex, according to two new reports....

In addition, both studies found similarities between the dino sample and the bone collagen of chickens, providing molecular support for the hypothesis that modern birds are descended from dinosaurs.

Monday, April 9

Other ways of communication

Frinstance
Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.
Then there's the use of color, texture & even bioluminescence among cephalopods.

Gluten & sugar

[American farmers] may be the world's largest exporter of wheat, shipping 1 billion bushels to other countries in last year's growing season. Yet we export relatively little wheat gluten. To extract the gluten from wheat, you have to separate it from the starch, by repeatedly washing and kneading wheat flour. But only four U.S. companies go through this process; last year, they produced roughly 100 million pounds of wheat gluten, about 20 percent of the domestic demand.

Almost two-thirds of the more than 400 million pounds we imported came from European Union countries. That's because the Europeans use wheat starch to make sweeteners, which leaves them with a lot of extra gluten. The United States, on the other hand, relies on corn for sweeteners—thus the high-fructose corn syrup in our sodas. Add in Europe's wheat subsidies, and EU nations can sell their wheat gluten for a low price. U.S. wheat-gluten-makers say EU prices are sometimes below American production costs.
Then again, sugar prices are artificially high.

Sunday, April 8

Americans lack the patience to succeed in Iraq

"The time scale to succeed is years," said John J. Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary, while "the time scale for tolerance here [in Washington] is 12 months for Democrats and 18 months for Republicans."
Just like they lacked in Vietnam.
The most that can happen by mid-summer, say senior officers in Iraq, is that the U.S. military might begin to know whether the new approach is working or failing.

...Also, officers say, major questions remain about the sustainability of any positive momentum. Military operations can buy time but cannot solve the basic problem in Iraq: the growing threat of a civil war. The U.S. government keeps pushing for reconciliation, but there are few signs of movement toward that goal. "Nothing is going to work until the parties are ready to compromise, and I don't see any indicators yet that they are," said A. Heather Coyne, who has worked in Iraq both as a military reservist and as a civilian. "Until then, any effect of the surge will be temporary."

Thursday, April 5

Wednesday, April 4

It sounds like science fiction, alright

According to a study by Kevin Lafferty,
"The geographic variation in the latent prevalence of Toxoplasma gondii may explain a substantial proportion of human population differences we see in cultural aspects that relate to ego, money, material possessions, work, and rules."

Although this sounds like science fiction, it is a logical outcome of how natural selection leads to effective strategies for parasites to get from host to host, said Lafferty. Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite of cats, both domestic and wild. Although modern humans are a dead-end host for the parasite, Toxoplasma appears to manipulate human personality by the same adaptations that normally help it complete its life cycle. The typical journey of the parasite involves a cat and its prey, starting as eggs shed in an infected cat's feces, inadvertently eaten by a warm-blooded animal, such as a rat. The infected rat's behavior alters so that it becomes more active, less cautious, and more likely to be eaten by a cat, where the parasite completes its life cycle. Many other warm-blooded vertebrates may be infected by this pathogen, including marine mammals: a study begun in 2001 discovered that Toxoplasma gondii had caused 8 percent of stranded-sea-otter deaths in California between 1967 and 1989, the sea otters likely acquiring the parasite from cat feces that had been washed to sea (see Sound Waves article, Parasites as Indicators of Coastal-Ecosystem Health). In humans, the parasite commonly causes mild flu-like symptoms, after which it tends to remain in a dormant state in the brain and other tissues.

Evidence for subtle long-term effects on an individual's personality reported by researchers in the Czech Republic inspired Lafferty to explore whether a shift in the average, or aggregate, personality of a population might occur where Toxoplasma has infected a higher proportion of individuals. Infection with Toxoplasma varies considerably from one population to another; in some countries it is very rare, while in others nearly all adults are infected. To test his hypothesis, Lafferty used published data on cultural dimension and aggregate personality for countries where there were also published data on the prevalence of Toxoplasma antibodies in women of childbearing age. ...

The results of previous work suggested that Toxoplasma could affect specific elements of human culture. Toxoplasma is associated with different, often opposite behavioral changes in men and women, but both genders exhibit guilt proneness (a form of neuroticism). Lafferty's analysis found that countries with high Toxoplasma prevalence had a higher aggregate neuroticism score, and Western nations with high prevalence also scored higher in the "neurotic" cultural dimensions of "masculine" sex roles and uncertainty avoidance.

But what are the differences? According to Induction of changes in human behaviour by the parasitic protozoan Toxoplasma gondii, (using Contributions and Limitations of Cattell's Sixteen Personality Factor Model to parse the jargon) for men "low superego strength" (expedient, nonconforming, disregards rules, self indulgent), "protension" (vigilant, suspicious, skeptical, distrustful, oppositional), "guilt proneness" (apprehensive, self doubting, worried, guilt prone, insecure, worrying, self blaming ), and "group dependency" (group-oriented, affiliative, a joiner and follower dependent) were positively influenced in infected subjects. For women the prevailing factors were "affectothymia" (warm, outgoing, attentive to others, kindly, easy going, participating, likes people), "alaxia" (trusting, unsuspecting, accepting, unconditional, easy), and "self-sufficiency" (self-reliant, solitary, resourceful, individualistic, self sufficient).

So, not only can having a cat affect one's personality, but it affects men & women differently.
  • The men become less trusting and the women more so.
  • The men became more group dependent but the women less so.
So there is something behind the stereotype of the crazy cat lady.

Or
Infected men, suggests one new study, tend to become more aggressive, scruffy, antisocial and are less attractive. Women, on the other hand, appear to exhibit the “sex kitten” effect, becoming less trustworthy, more desirable, fun- loving and possibly more promiscuous.

Google Pinyin

For typing in Chinese. The instructions are all in Chinese, now.

A waste of time and effort

Moving Daylight Saving Time forward by three weeks was apparently a waste of time and effort.

Tuesday, April 3

Dream on

[Campaign finance reformers] think that with enough restrictions and regulations, with enough benevolent overseers and fair-minded enforcers, they can stifle the corrupting influences in Washington.

This is naïve. Corruption and power go hand in hand; or, as Lord Acton famously warned, power corrupts — and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The increasing amounts of money spent on Washington are a direct reflection of the increasing amounts of power we've given Washington to auction off.

...

There really is no area of our lives too mundane or trivial for action from Washington. When the addition, subtraction or alteration of a single word in a federal regulation can shift millions of dollars around the economy, or when a law like the Prescription Drug Benefit can sway billions, is it any wonder so many people are willing to spend so much money to get a government to their liking?

...

That money is all flowing to the D.C. area by virtue of the enormous and growing influence of the federal government. It's parasitic wealth, not created wealth.

It's defense and homeland security contracts, a glut of high-paid federal workers and high-paid lobbyists sent to Washington to secure a slice of the pie for their clients.

Campaign finance reform, then, is the clichéd band-aid on the sucking chest wound. With so much at stake, money will always find its way to the people who wield the power — if not over the table, then under it.

Campaign finance reform also carries with it the curious characteristic of "solving" government corruption by giving the government more power to silence the people who are critical of it.

Spending limits also tend to favor incumbents, who have natural advantages over their challengers (which is why despite that the public generally loathes Congress, congressmen get re-elected at a clip of 90 to 95 percent).

You could make a good case that laws like McCain-Feingold actually encourage corruption in that they make it harder to unseat incumbents. Serving term after term after term with little danger of losing re-election tends to make politicians rather powerful and unaccountable. And more power coupled with less accountability makes them more corruptible.

The solution to the corruption in Washington, then, isn't more restrictions on political speech. It's to shrink the federal government. The government can't sell power and influence it doesn't have.

Take power out of the Beltway and the money interest groups spend to bid on it will go away, too.

Foucault's foolishness

Foucault's stance on Iran was marked by a rejection of the scepticism that characterised his stance on Western institutions of power. Instead Foucault adopted a heady and misguided optimism that embraced theocracy because of its sheer "difference" rather than its ability to govern equitably and respect human rights. The discussion of Foucault's encounter with Iran is also important because it presents how post-modern philosophical estimations of the 'other' have evolved out of what is judged by Westerners to be most authentic about the 'other' - in this case the most exotic and most different aspects of Islam. [Danny Postel's Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism] deftly deconstructs how judging the "other" through the ethnocentric lens of Western philosophical ideas and political imperatives is to blame for the geopolitical messes that define contemporary world politics. Opposition to neo-conservative agendas and military intervention should not mean ignorance of local forces fighting oppression from a different source. The result of the configuration that Postel exposes is that engagement with struggles for liberty and the rule of law has been duplicitously cast in 'all or nothing' terms. Involvement is equivocated with supporting the neo-conservative zeal of the Bush administration and opposition is understood as the knowing ignorance and lack of support for those who may fight a different but equally repressive enemy.
That's Rafia Zakaria speaking. Good for her.

A definition of discourse

In the postmodern vocabulary, [discourse] means the web of assumptions that collect around a cultural fact, with heavy emphasis on notions that have been unmasked as naïve and ridiculous by French theorists [such as] Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean Baudrillard...
That's from Joan Acocella's The Typing Life review of a dumb book which also answers
the hypothetical question “If you put a bunch of monkeys in front of typewriters, how long would it take them to compose the works of Shakespeare?” This question originated as part of the theory of probability, and it has been tested. According to Wershler-Henry, the world record for Shakespeare-reinvention belongs to the virtual monkeys supervised by Dan Oliver, of Scottsdale, Arizona. On August 4, 2004, after the group had worked for 42,162,500,000 billion billion monkey years, one of Oliver’s monkeys typed, “VALENTINE. Cease toIdor:eFLP0FRjWK78aXzVOwm)-‘;8.t . . .,” the first nineteen characters of which can be found in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Runner-up teams have produced eighteen characters from “Timon of Athens,” seventeen from “Troilus and Cressida,” and sixteen from “Richard II.” Did these monkeys get federal funding?

Monday, April 2

The entitlement mentality

The rich are being taxed at ever-higher levels, while more workers at the bottom of the income ladder are paying no taxes at all. As for spending, resources flowing to those at the bottom far outstrip those flowing to those at the top.

Far from 'favoring the rich,' as many believe, our tax code is massively redistributionist, sending literally trillions of dollars into low-income homes and far less into wealthy homes. This may be good or bad, depending on your point of view, but the fact is it's happening. And those who argue that recent tax cuts 'benefit the rich' ignore the reality.

...

No one minds helping the truly needy. But as with welfare in the pre-1996 reform era, reliance on government can become a habit — imposing huge costs on our national economy.

Worse, a 'what's in it for me?' attitude seems increasingly the norm. Once a nation of stoic, self-reliant individualists, America now seems full of people who think other taxpayers owe them something. They see the 'system' as a giant cow to be milked — and damn the cow.

This is backed up by polling data. In a 1994 Pew poll, 57% agreed with the statement 'Government should care for those who can't care for themselves.' Today, it's 69%.

It's sad enough when a nation punishes its most productive citizens and rewards the least productive. But the real shame is that there are so many myths about taxes and poverty we can't even have an honest discussion about it.