30 September 2008

Secrets in Song

On the S3 teaser for Dexter, they used a song that I fell in love with on the first hearing. It has the feel of an old classic. I could imagine it coming from sometime between the '20s and '40s. But, no, it's actually pretty new. This video kept the retro-pastiche feel of the song by using black and white stills. I think it may be a video made by the artists themselves, but I'm not completely certain. I'm not sure I like the talking segment in the middle of the full song, but I've certainly encountered period songs that do something similar. Full lyrics here, and the singers are the Pierces.

I like the chorus enough to post it here:

got a secret, can you keep it?
swear this one you'll save.
better lock it in your pocket,
taking this one to the grave.
if i show you, then i know you
won't tell what i said.
because two can keep a secret
if one of them is dead.

I love the rich, deep red tones of the melody, and the crisp pronunciation of all the words. Beautifully done. (Full album here, with previews of the other songs. First impression? I like about half of them)

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28 September 2008

Dexter, Season 2

I finished watching this a while ago, actually, and just finished a second viewing today. It is more intense than the first season. In the very first episode, a team of divers looking for a sunken ship stumbles across Dexter's dumping ground, and the majority of the season is spent on the hunt for the "Bay Harbor Butcher." Dexter really hates that name, btw. He's also going through a bit of an identity crisis, partly due to what he had to do at the end of Season 1, and partly due to unpleasant things he keeps learning about his father. If you want mega spoilers and episode summaries, go here.

For a taste of the show, here's a teaser promo for Season 3; here's a cast interview with recaps of season one and hints at season two; and here's an actual Season 3 Promo.

I'll put a spoilerish discussion of my own below the fold:

A theme that has always fascinated me is one of hidden identity. Earlier, I posted on a pivotal moment, where Dexter can no longer hide from one particular character. I still consider that the best scene of the season. But the theme goes deeper than that.

As part of a cover story, Dexter winds up admitting to Rita that he has an addiction. In the context of the discussion, she assumes this means heroin, and insists that he join N.A. He waffles on his reaction to the program, but eventually thinks that he has a sponsor who can understand and help him (whether the sponsor knows the exact nature of his addiction or not). In some sense, it seems to be working...except that now Dexter finds his personal life falling apart. After re-watching the season, I would argue that Dexter wound up substituting one addiction for another, and the new addiction was much more harmful to him and the people around him ... particularly when the person to whom he became addicted didn't want to let him go.

Later, Dexter talks about the weight of the mask, and what a relief it would be to finally let it go. This would mean turning himself in as the Bay Harbor Butcher, being put in prison, and probably executed, but to be rid of all the secrets seems, for a time, worth it. He's also not sure whether it would be more selfish to keep hiding, and force someone else to pay the price for his crimes, or to turn himself in and rip apart the lives of Rita and his sister. In the end, the decision is taken from him.

The interesting thing is that Dexter sometimes acts as if he really believes that the 'monster', the 'Butcher', is his only real self, yet he acts automatically to protect people and things that only his 'mask' would care about. Wear a mask long enough, and it starts to seep through the skin. Which one is the 'real' Dexter? They both are. He may be very good at compartmentalizing, but he'll never be completely free of either of his selves, and they're never completely separate. While the monster plays, the mask keeps watch and makes sure that no incriminating evidence gets left behind. While the mask interacts with society, the monster keeps watch on those the mask cares about.

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27 September 2008

Unintentionally Cannibalistic


A few amusing gaffes in Chinese this week. We were discussing food, which is " fàn ". So to describe a particular country's food, it should be "[countryname]fàn". On the other hand, to describe a nationality, it should be "[countryname]rén. So, when you're describing what you like to eat, it's important not to confuse the two. ^/^

We had at least two people make the mistake. The one that I remember was, " Wǒ xǐnghuan chī Fǎguórén". Literally, "I like to eat French people." It should have been " Wǒ xǐnghuan chī Fǎguófàn": "I like to eat French food".

Oh, and I found a site that will convert words into the correct html pinyin if I type the word in and tell it the tone. It required adding three lines of code to the blogger style sheet, which isn't bad at all. At some point, I'll have to figure out how to get actual Chinese characters to display without converting them into picture files, but this is much better than trying to brute-force the tones in.


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25 September 2008

Ironically Susan

Your result for The Which Discworld Character Am I Test ...

Susan Sto Helit

You scored 92 intelligence, 63 morality, and 42 physical strengenth!

As Death's granddaughter (a long story, which you greatly dislike), you inherited his ultimate practicality and lack of fear. In fact, boogeymen and other childhood boggles fear YOU. Often assisted by the Death of Rats and his raven, you manage to fix the Universe inbetween working as a governness and educating the masses. The ultimate teacher.

Take The Which Discworld Character Am I Test

Why ironically? Because my first thought was "Sigh, of course. I'm Susan." Which is exactly how Susan would (likely) react. ^/^

H/T: Evolving Thoughts

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22 September 2008

Chinese Test 1

Ulgh. The phrase "my brain hurts" comes to mind... But the few characters that I couldn't remember I eventually figured out via context. There was one place where we were supposed to rearrange the characters into a coherent sentence. Well, several places, but one place where I couldn't come up with anything that satisfied me. What I finally put down would translate as "My younger brother and your younger sister are what?" It would make sense to me with "who" instead of what, or if there where a 'zuo' in there, making it a question of what they "do" (as in job), but if the characters were all there as given, then I'm just confused.

Still, I'm reasonably certain I passed it. Hang on... Okay, just making sure I hadn't gotten 'zuo's character mixed up with 'dou's. Anyway... I'm thinking that next time I'll take it on Tuesday and skip out on an office hour, as I was a bit wired from the test when I got ready to teach my stats class.

Oh, I showed my flash card set to one of the guy's in Theory of Knowledge. I used most of the cards from the set of 80, and put a single character on each one. So, at least 70 distinct characters. He was asking how many characters there were. Answer: thousands upon thousands. Then I held up the bundle of cards: "And these are the ones we've seen so far." Most of them, anyway. I left off some of the plain radicals that we haven't used as vocab yet. ^/^

UPDATE: I'm not the only one who struggled with that particular derangement of characters. A student who is only taking 101 again because 102 got cancelled thought there must be a missing word as well. And I strongly suspect it was "zuo", so that we were supposed to construct a sentence asking what the little brother and sister do. Bao Laoshi said he would look at it and see if he had, in fact, left something out.

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21 September 2008


This is the first time I've made chili using ground chicken in place of ground beef. Much better flavor and texture, imo, but ground chicken is quite a bit pricier. I suspect to get ground beef that tasted anywhere near as good would be just as pricey, as it would require extremely choice cuts.

This is also the first time I've put zucchini in chili, and had more peppers than I could actually use from my garden. I did buy one red bell pepper for it. I'm sure I planted at least one red bell pepper, but I don't have any turning red yet. Yellow, purple, and green, yes, but no red. I thought about putting some fresh basil in as well, but I wasn't sure how well the flavor would go with the chili pepper.

Sketch of the recipe: One of each kind of pepper ready in my garden, plus one red bell from the store; roughly half of a medium zucchini, chopped (not quite two cups); one sweet onion; two pounds ground chicken (1.5 might have been better, but they came in one pound packages); lots of chili pepper, my own taco spice mix, some cumin, red pepper, salt, oregano.

Soak beans overnight (or in my case, for roughly 8 hours prior to starting cooking). Boil for two hours. In the meantime, chop everything. Brown and crumble the chicken with the chopped onion and peppers. When mostly done, add taco spices and other seasonings. Add to beans. Add zucchini. Bring to a boil and let simmer for at least an hour, preferably longer.

You can use canned beans but (a) they're more expensive; (b) they add all sorts of bizarre things to them as preservatives.

As I used the last of my taco-spice mix, you can expect me to post my version of it when I dig out my recipe again. ^/^ Again, you can buy taco and chili seasoning packets, which are less expensive if you don't use the separate spices very much, but most of them are made with wheat, presumably because the gluten helps the spices stick.

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20 September 2008

Studying for Chinese

First test is Monday (or Tuesday; we take it in the language lab). What I'm finding is that I have no problem connecting the pinyin to meanings, and I have no trouble connecting the characters to meanings. My problem is connecting the characters to the pinyin. For a few characters that I've written over and over and over (like shi\, meaning "yes" or "to be"), the connections are all there. For others... Well, for others I just made myself a set of flashcards. This is not a normal technique for me, but I wanted something easy to take with me where I could encode everything. I've got characters on one side, and pinyin on the other, with meanings in a corner that I can easily cover with my thumb.

Also, I'm hoping that such a device will encourage me to get working on my leg strength and endurance in standing meditation postures. As in, give me something to distract me from my shrieking legs. When I can relax enough, I can focus on increasing the pain, and then it will be replaced by a very pleasant golden warmth, but I can't always do that, and I can't always maintain it when I do.

*sighs* I should get back to studying. No leg-work with it tonight, though: Don's back on his relax into the postures kick, so I got plenty this morning. Strangely, my legs were complaining less than Don's or Travis's in pushhands. I'm not really sure why, as I've been incredibly lazy about working on leg strength lately. All the walking I've been doing, maybe? *shrugs*

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19 September 2008


Via a series of interesting links, I discovered that John Cleese has a blog. It started with Orac, posting a youtube video that I had come across on another of his Scibling's blogs, but Orac linked to a blog of similar podcasts, and that blog linked to the Big Cleese Himself. I was going to recommend a post there, but reading through them, they're all quite entertaining. So, if you like Pythonesque humor, go. Now. Hurry. Before the internet crashes and burns. Or something.

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[Bad Joke Warning]:

Why can't you teach philosophy to horses?

Because you can't put Des Cartes before Des horse!

The fast food server asked Descartes, "Do you want fries with that?" Descartes said, "I think not," and vanished in a puff of logic.

Okay, now that those are over with, on to the actual philosopher. We have most of his Meditations in our text. It was quite an interesting read, with some of the same flavor as the readings from Augustus. It also contains an "ontological argument," i.e. an attempt to prove the existence of god starting from known principles.

I've seen various versions of such arguments dissected, but none of the dissections I remembered really seemed to get at the heart of Descartes' argument. There's an almost Platonic assumption in his thinking. Essentially, if you can think of something, then there must be something in the real world that connects to that thought. He mentions that things like unicorns and hippogriphs are mentally "constructed" from other "real" creatures. A painting of something even more fantastic would still use "real" colors. And since Descartes has a conception of an infinite being, there must really be something infinite out in the "real" world. He can also conceive of a necessarily existent being, so one must necessarily exist.

Why this necessarily existent being must be infinite, or have any other property that Descartes wants to attach to his god, isn't made clear in the sections of the Meditations in our book. This site does discuss why he would think that an omnipotent being would be a necessarily existent being:
To illustrate this point Descartes appeals to divine omnipotence. He thinks that we cannot conceive an omnipotent being except as existing. Descartes' illustration presupposes the traditional, medieval understanding of "necessary existence." When speaking of this divine attribute, he sometimes uses the term "existence" simpliciter as shorthand. But in his more careful pronouncements he always insists on the phrase "necessary and eternal existence," which resonates with tradition. Medieval, scholastic philosophers often spoke of God as the sole "necessary being," by which they meant a being who depends only on himself for his existence (a se esse). This is the notion of "aseity" or self-existence. Since such a being does not depend on anything else for its existence, he has neither a beginning nor an end, but is eternal. Returning to the discussion in the First Replies, one can see how omnipotence is linked conceptually to necessary existence in this traditional sense. An omnipotent or all-powerful being does not depend ontologically on anything (for if it did then it would not be omnipotent). It exists by its own power

Okay, so since he can conceive of an omnipotent being, one must exist and have "self-existence." It does not follow that there is no other self-existent being, nor that self-existence requires omnipotence. Even if it did, I've never found the whole 'Platonic Forms' thing remotely convincing, so "conceiving" of something has no connection to its "existence" for me. Also, I'm not convinced that I can conceive of an omnipotent being. I can imagine something very powerful, but not one with no limits whatsoever. And while I have a mental construct of a concept of "infinity," I would not say that I can genuinely imagine infinity.

But if you want more informed opinions on Descartes and ontological arguments, I found two good articles at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Descartes' Ontological Argument
Ontological Arguments

My impressions are that the author of the first one finds Descartes' argument compelling, but there is still a decent discussion of the criticisms. The second one seems to be written by someone not convinced by any of the arguments, who points out that they all rest on premises that a non-theist would automatically question, and hence not be convincing to a non-theist.

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18 September 2008

Fly-By Post

Greta Christina has posted her own review of Dexter. She analyzes it more deeply than I did, and still manages to avoid any major spoilers.

I don't watch "Dexter" as an exploration of human nature.

I watch it as a truly astonishing narrative exercise.

The exercise: Can you make an audience care about a serial killer? Can you make them root for him? Can you make them sympathize with him, identify with him, want him to do well? Can you even make them sympathize enough with him that they want him to get what he wants... which is to kill people, and keep on killing people?

And the answer, astonishingly, is Yes.

That is probably the most fascinating aspect of the show: that it works as a show.

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17 September 2008

Augustinian Labeling

But, without any delusive representation of images or phantasms, I am most certain that I am, and that I know and delight in this. In respect of these truths, I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, What if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I am. For he who is not, cannot be deceived; and if I am deceived, by this same token I am. And since I am if I am deceived, how am I deceived in believing that I am? for it is certain that I am if I am deceived. Since, therefore, I, the person deceived, should be, even if I were deceived, certainly I am not deceived in this knowledge that I am. And, consequently, neither am I deceived in knowing that I know. For, as I know that I am, so I know this also, that I know. And when I love these two things, I add to them a certain third thing, namely, my love, which is of equal moment. For neither am I deceived in this, that I love, since in those things which I love I am not deceived; though even if these were false, it would still be true that I loved false things. For how could I justly be blamed and prohibited from loving false things, if it were false that I loved them? But, since they are true and real, who doubts that when they are loved, the love of them is itself true and real? Further, as there is no one who does not wish to be happy, so there is no one who does not wish to be. For how can he be happy, if he is nothing?


I rather like this passage, though I also find it incredibly amusing. See, as soon as he is thinking, then he is trapped in the "ego." It's only when he lets go of thought that he simply is. He has shown that 'something exists which is capable of perceiving' and identified it with his sense of self. That is an assumption.

In another work (I'll cite it tomorrow; too lazy to run and grab the book now), he used the argument that if he claims "p or not p", then he knows that that statement is true by its structure. Now, from a basic logic standpoint, I'll agree. But not from a philosophical one. A zen master might assert "both p and not p and neither p nor not p".

For instance, suppose I have an object before me, that appears to be a yellow crayon. Is it the case that either it is a yellow crayon or it isn't? No. The way to demonstrate what the object is, is to make a mark with it, not to name it. If you call it a yellow crayon, it is not. If you do not call it a yellow crayon, it is. How shall you call it?

Now suppose we put a label on it, and claim the object is a yellow crayon. What have we gained? We have put ourselves at a distance from the object. Rather than experience the object as-it-is, we label it and claim we know something about it. It is what it is: no more, no less. To understand it, the label gets in the way. Worse, it gives a false impression of permanence.

Not so long ago, the crayon was a lump of wax, some pigments, maybe some other chemicals, all sitting in separate vats. The wax might have been in petroleum form or in a beehive before that. The pigments? Buried in the ground, maybe, or bound up in a living being. The vats themselves had to be constructed from raw materials, pulled out of the earth. And the earth itself was formed from cosmic dust... All that to make a yellow crayon that may melt into a car seat before ever it is applied to its "purpose."

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15 September 2008

Happy Belated Mid-Autumn Festival

We found out today in Chinese that yesterday was zhong qiu jié (the first two should be high tone, but I can't find a character with a straight line on top of it to use to mark it). Anyway, our TA brought in a poem that he thought went nicely with it, which I found here:

With a cup of wine in my hand, I ask the blue sky.
I don't know what season it would be in the heavens on this night.
I'd like to ride the wind to fly home.
Yet I fear the crystal and jade mansions are much too high and cold for me.
Dancing with my moon-lit shadow,
It does not seem like the human world.
The moon rounds the red mansion Stoops to silk-pad doors,
Shines upon the sleepless Bearing no grudge,
Why does the moon tend to be full when people are apart?
People may have sorrow or joy, be near or far apart,
The moon may be dim or bright, wax or wane,
This has been going on since the beginning of time.
May we all be blessed with longevity Though far apart, we are still able to share the beauty of the moon together.

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14 September 2008

Teaching the Controversy

I've been reading excerpts from Sextus Empiricus for my Theory of Knowledge class (sadly I haven't found an online translation to either link to or read more from link here). Short version: People disagree about things, so there's no point in holding to any particular opinion; always withhold judgment. Apart from the obvious rejoinder of "What about withholding judgment about withholding judgment?", I think this is a good approach to thought experiments, or anything which cannot be tested empirically. At the time that it was formulated, thought-experiments were pretty much the norm. There was little, if any, concept of testability.

The problem with the Pyrrhic ideal of withholding judgment is that some things are decidable, if you accept "consistency with physical evidence" as a minimum criterion. Note that consistency does not mean "able to come up with a ridiculously convoluted explanation to accommodate the physical evidence, so convoluted that the explanation itself is inconsistent with other physical evidence." But if we must "teach the controversy," why not begin with Intelligent Falling? After all, put to the exact same "standards" as, say, evolution, gravity also fails. (HT: Exploring Our Matrix) And, of course, no one would be able to refute these arguments in a court of law.

Meanwhile, there's that pesky theory of parentism that nearly everyone seems to take for granted...

Oh, you mean that just because an alternate explanation exists, however ludicrous, does not mean that we should teach it? Blast. There goes my "Alchemical underpinnings of astrology on a flat earth" course.


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13 September 2008


I cannot understand an attitude that postpones any and all fulfillment to some ill-defined point in the future. I cannot comprehend how someone can find comfort at the idea of this ill-defined fulfillment while suffering in the ‘now’. And I find it pathetic that people grasp so much for this unguaranteed future that they lose track of the here and now. Everything that I have could vanish in an instant. Everything. Why would I grasp after the future, knowing that there is no certainty in it?

There was a brief span of time where I “tried on” Christianity again, years after I’d stopped considering myself a Christian. The why doesn’t matter, though I suspect there’s one reader here who might be able to guess at it. It felt like trying to crawl back into a small, dark box after being exposed to the light of day. Seriously. I stopped almost instantly. I couldn’t find anything of value there. When I read Plato’s allegory of the cave, I empathized with the character who escaped and tried to return.

Since that time, I have encountered variants of Christian thought that I would deem worthwhile. They might best be described as “mystical Christianity.” I find myself agreeing with many of their sentiments, yet I cannot see the point in redefining Christian symbols to mean something that few self-identifying Christians would even recognize. I’d rather start fresh, and look at the world itself, rather than try to cram an entire world into a small dank box. Maybe the hope is that, eventually, the box will rupture and allow the light of day to shine on all within.

But the one thing that really bothers me about mainstream Christianity is that there is no real sense of the here and now as having any worth. It’s all about the future. My taiji instructor likes to say “The past is a beggar; the future is a thief.” People throw away their present lives on the hope of some ill-defined better future. It’s one thing to prepare for the future. It’s quite another to fritter away the present. But that’s what I see people doing, and a notion of some divine paradise in the hereafter only encourages them.

So in this moment, contemplate what you have, what you need, what you are. Think about the things you wish you had done and didn’t, and check which of them you could be doing now. Be aware of what the future is likely to hold, and prepare, but be ready for it to change in an instant. Know that everything you have now could be erased in an eyeblink, and the world would go on. Know that no matter how much pain you feel, the world will still be going on as if nothing had happened. When you know that, and live accordingly, then you have something.

Living life on the assumption of a guaranteed future is the most meaningless life I can imagine. In fact, it’s no life at all. Living on the edge between past and future, and really experiencing it, requires letting go of those future expectations. The world may or may not be exactly the same tomorrow as it was today. My life may or may not be the same. If I can be aware of the change and flow with it, then I am really living. All else is illusion.

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This season, I've determined that my problem allergens are juniper and grass. Before I had the cats, I could get through without antihistamine aid, and I think my hyper-acidity only made the whole thing worse this summer. Zyrtec is the only antihistamine that has actually worked for me, so I'm grateful. That said, quitting it is not much fun.

I have a comparatively mild case of what seems to be allergic dermatitis, primarily in my feet. This seems to be a common response to people going off of zyrtec. In my case, I've had these symptoms off and on from before taking Zyrtec, they've just never been this severe.

The itching started three days after I took the last pill. To test whether it was "Zyrtec withdrawal," I tried taking another Zyrtec. Near-instant relief. Three days later, the itching came again. It's worst when I lie down; I rarely notice it during the day. This time, I've made it almost five days, and I'm hoping not to need another Zyrtec until allergens flare up again. Junipers usually start producing pollen again in October, for instance. Probably if my reactions were as severe as some described at the links above, I would give it a miss, but the itching isn't constant and I've found a few products that provide relief:

*Benadryl Spray. I can't take Benadryl internally, as it mucks up my breathing, but the spray is good for controlling small, severe spots of itchiness. According to the link, taking alternate antihistamines internally also tends to prolong the withdrawal period, though. I'm hoping that external application will not.
*Lotions containing menthol and/or camphor.

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12 September 2008

Dexter, Season 2, Pivotal Moment

I haven't finished all the episodes yet, but one scene in Ep. 9, Resistance is Futile, just blew me away. I put it below the fold since it's a fairly major spoiler. Admittedly, anyone with Showtime who's interested has already seen it, but as far as I know they'll still be showing it on network tv this fall. Which makes me curious as to how they plan to edit it... Lila, well, has no concept of body-shyness. She's not in the pivotal scene, however.

So, in Season 2, they found Dexter's body cache and named him the "Bay Harbor Butcher." In Ep. 8, Doakes found Dexter's trophy case of blood slides, but wasn't in a position to do much about it, having been suspended. So he tracks Dexter down on his own, and finds him attempting to dispose of a body. Yes, it's a tense scene, but there was something about it that just struck me.

Doakes is holding a gun on Dexter. Dexter knows he's been found out, but also knows that no one but Doakes knows about it. And the mask drops. The real Dexter is out in the open. And I seem to be the only fan who could watch that scene over and over again, since I'm not seeing it on YouTube so far. I can't describe it and do it justice.

It occurs to me that I've always had a fondness for the scene where the murderous villain no longer needs to hide, though in this case he's a murderous semi-hero. I like to see the masks drop, see the killer be who and what he really is. I like it when the real essence of the person comes out into the open. Even in a story where the one in the mask was truly the villain, I root for him in that scene, even if I despise him everywhere else. No more hiding. All the secrets laid bare. That, for me, is always the most fulfilling moment in a story, whether it be a movie, a book, or a television show. That's when I know it's about to get really good. ^/^

Ah, it is on YouTube, but as part of a longer clip. The scene I'm describing starts at about 6:30. Er, language and violence warning, and, of course, S2 spoilers.

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11 September 2008


Is your life really so pathetic that you have no hope for anything other than Heaven? Does your life -- the actual life that you're living right now -- have so little joy and meaning that you can't imagine any hope without the promise that, when it's finally all over, you'll get to have another, better, permanent life at the end of it?

~Greta Christina

Few things destroy the meaning in this life more quickly than the assumption that it is nothing more than a 'primer' or a 'proving ground' for the next. That's not always why people 'hope' for an afterlife (see Comforting Fictions), but it's quite possibly the worst reason to do so. It means you've given up on this life. Now that is what I'd call 'hopeless,' in the sense that Greta Christina is using the term.

I like the overall sentiment of the post, though below the fold you’ll find out that I’m not a big fan of the idea of ‘hope’. Perhaps I understand it as the Greeks did. Greta has a more, well, hopeful approach to it. One more quote from her below the fold:

Atheism doesn't just offer the regular sort of everyday hope, the hope for achievement and health and happiness and a better world. Atheism offers, as Cindy's friend put it, the hope that we have the power within us to make things better. Not the hope that we might be able to convince some moody, capricious, punitive, easily- ticked- off God to make things better for us if we walk on the eggshells just right. It offers the hope that no such God exists... and therefore we don't have to worry about what he thinks or what he's going to do. And that we therefore don't have to listen to religious leaders and teachers who tell us at every step that we're bad people, that we're powerless to make ourselves better, that all the power we think we have actually belongs to someone else.

My least favorite thing about most religions is that they strip people of their gods-given power and dignity. If reclaiming that constitutes ‘hope,’ then in that sense hope is a positive thing. The problem is that, generally, hope more often leads to futility and inaction than it does to empowerment. That is, when we describe something as a ‘hope,’ we most often mean that it is out of our reach, out of our power to do anything about. There’s nothing we ourselves can do about it. But because we’re attached to this ‘hope,’ we can’t let go and allow events to take their course.

There is a freedom in the understanding that events are going to unfold, whether we like them or not. There is a power in knowing that we can choose to take action, to attempt to affect those events. What does hope add to that except frustration if our attempt fails? Worse, the hope may continue past its sell-by date, long past the time when there was any realistic chance of its fulfillment. Then it truly becomes poison.

On a lighter note, PZ objects to people being overly pedantic. Do I need to mention that I reacted to the question at hand in what he would consider an overly pedantic fashion? Nah, that’s probably obvious from the rest of this post. `/^ Actually, my initial reaction to the question was to wonder what idiot had phrased it that way.

Oh, what was the question? “Do you believe in the Big Bang?” Er, dimension mismatch error much?

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07 September 2008

Chinese (Mandarin)

In some ways, Chinese is much simpler than English. The majority of common words are monosyllabic. There's no verb conjugation. There's no such thing as "spelling" as we tend to think of it. I'm wondering, now, how one deals with tense in the language, if there's no conjugation. My best guess is that there's a "tense marker" rather like the two question markers: ne (nuh) & ma. For the sentences we've played with, you form the sentence exactly as usual, then add 'ne' or 'ma' onto the end to turn it into a question. Presumably there are rules about when you use which one, but we haven't seen those yet.

As I was walking back from class, I found myself wondering why that construction felt familiar. Then I heard it in my head. "This is way to hotel, no?" "You sell souvenirs here, yes?" The construction exists in English, but is used almost exclusively by non-native speakers, probably adapting a common construction from their own language. But in Chinese that seems to be the only way to ask a question. There's no switching of verb order or tense to turn something into a question. Like we'd say "Do you sell souvenirs here?" or a German might use the order, "Sell you souvenirs here?"

It's rather nice to have the class four times a week. I find myself missing it over the weekend, which may be why Japanese goes MT-ThF, so that the longest gap is a two-day one. Comparing notes with Travis (who is practicing for Japanese so he can get back into it next semester) finds that while Japanese doesn't have tones, it does have "voices," with varying levels of formality. Saying something in a different voice may entirely change the construction of the sentence. Apparently in most classes, they teach the most formal voice, as that one is unlikely to offend anyone they may encounter. I'm not sure yet, but I suspect I prefer dealing with tones and simply constructed sentences to dealing with voices that change the sentence construction. ^/^ Oh, Japanese also has multiple writing systems, one of which essentially mirrors Chinese characters. One new writing system is plenty at the moment. `/^

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06 September 2008


Between 'new' episodes of Dexter and a very entertaining taiji session (with a bonus trip to Barnes and Noble), I'm feeling much better. Also, I got to push hands with Travis today, for the first time in my memory, and he's at a good level for me to work with. Soft enough, and skilled enough, to be able to push me out now and then. Okay, I pushed him out a bit more often than he pushed me out, but he's quite good for being out of taiji for several years.

I haven't quite figured out why I find Dexter, a show about a serial killer who targets other serial killers, soothing...

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05 September 2008

Tulips, Blood and Teeth

I planted tulips this afternoon! And daffodils, and crocus, and hyacinth. I found some deep, deep purple tulip bulbs at Fred Meyer, and some yellow ones with red highlights, and some purple hyacinth, bought those, and also planted the bulbs I bought last fall but never planted. Yeah, I know: probably too late for those. But I'll give 'em a chance anyway. The cats liked that I was outside so much, since that meant they got to be outside, too, but they didn't care for the rototiller for some strange reason.

Then at Wal-Mart, I finally found Dexter, Season 2. I thought it was supposed to come out in August, but I've been checking and this was the first time I saw it in a store. At any rate, those discs should keep me occupied for a while.

As for the teeth...

My mom IM'd me last night to tell me she needed help with a dental problem. Based on prior experience, I assumed this meant she needed to be driven someplace for an appointment. After several mutually confounding exchanges, I figured out she wanted me to do something or other to her "flippers" (insertable teeth to cover the gaps in her mouth until she gets the permanents put in). Which was weird, but okay. Turned out that she was having her picture taken this afternoon, and wanted the front-most gap covered, but with the posts in (the metal things that they'll later screw the new teeth onto), the flippers didn't fit any more.

She had me cut the tooth of interest off of the thing, and then we needed to get the excess material off of it. Mom wanted to cut it off with a paring knife. I knew from experience* that was a bad idea, but I remembered that Grandma had a sander down in the store room, and I was pretty sure it was still there. It was. That got all the excess off, then Mom used the paring knife to cut a groove where the post was. Turned out to be futile, as she couldn't find a way to get the tooth to stay in place. I suggested denture glue, but she didn't want to buy a $5.00 tube of it when she'd only use it once. *shrugs*

*Not with teeth of any sort. In college, I didn't have a nutcracker, but I had bought some hazelnuts still in the shell. Opening them with a paring knife sort of worked...until the knife slipped. I still have a scar on my left index finger from it.

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Comforting Fictions

There are few things more insidious than "hope." We think of it as a positive attribute, in the main, but that does not hold up under examination. For every person who allows futile hope to pull them through a rough patch, there are probably ten others who keep pushing on to their detriment.

It's especially insidious in the face of insufficient information. Take notions of the afterlife. Primarily, I think, they are less about comforting people in the face of their own death and more about comforting survivors after a loss. I find myself in the position of inventing a comforting fiction to keep myself from going mad and spending every moment in an almost certainly useless search.

It is extremely unlikely that Jacques is alive. I have checked and rechecked at the pound, called for him throughout my neighborhood, and kept my eyes open on the walk between home and campus. Nothing. If I allow myself to dwell on that near-certainty, I am overcome with guilt for failing to protect him. If I take a step back and allow the slim possibility that he got lost and was taken in by someone else, I can function. Regardless of how unlikely it is, allowing a small irrational part of my mind to accept that fiction keeps me, to a rough approximation, sane. Without a body to bury, it is not an impossible fiction, but it is still nothing more than an invented story.

As for an afterlife, that is an even more elaborate fiction. I find traditional notions of it completely ridiculous and at odds with the supposedly "real world". But their purpose is not to make sense. It is not even so much to comfort. The purpose, I now think, is to allow them to move on. Keep the comforting fiction at the back of the mind so that they can function in their daily lives. Problems come when they forget that it is nothing more than a comforting fiction. I am not claiming that an afterlife is impossible: just that it has exactly as much evidence as I have for thinking that Jacques could still be alive.

*This post was originally title "Futility" until I noticed that my last post on a similar topic was also titled that. Consistency, eh?

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03 September 2008

Strange Warning Labels


From a set of cheap plastic plates I got at Fred Meyer. The bottom two lines are fairly standard, but I've never seen a "no boiling water" warning on tableware before.

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02 September 2008

Dare I call it "Palin-gate"?

There are thousands, if not millions, of more informed people discussing McCain's choice for VP. I just want to add one data point. My mom considers herself a staunch conservative (she is on financial matters; she's quite liberal on social matters, though I think she'd be horrified if I pointed that out to her. NO! NOT THE L-WORD!). She doesn't like Obama, apparently because she's bought into the "not experienced enough" rhetoric. Due to McCain's choice of running mate, she has said that she "might as well stay home."

For a broader view, here's a survey of general reactions. Summary: hardcore democrats and republicans mostly unmoved; independents less likely to vote McCain. And here is a plausible extrapolation as to how the decision was made.

From my perspective, it looks like a publicity stunt cum temper tantrum gone bad. Publicity stunt in the timing and the "Who?!??" reaction it generated. Temper tantrum in that McCain was told he couldn't go with his first choices without alienating "the base." Presumably he went with a woman in hopes of getting disappointed Hillary-fans to vote for him...which means he must not think much of Hillary supporters, since Palin stands for nearly the opposite. At this stage, I can't imagine the choice gaining him more votes than it loses, but stranger things have happened in elections.

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01 September 2008

Bones, Rocks and Stars

I've been interested in this book since seeing it mentioned on Pharyngula, maybe two years back now. I finally ordered a copy about a month ago. In part, it was very very good. Clearly written, engaging style, good information. However, I thought it was too brief in its treatment of technical matters. I would have liked to see a bit more detail, particularly on radiometric dating, calibration thereof, and other doublechecks (such as the magnetic reversals recorded in the ocean floor). Turney sort of handwaves that these exist, but doesn't go into many specifics beyond one single example handpicked for each chapter. The examples are good, but insufficient.

Basically, each chapter focuses on one technique used to date objects or events, goes through one major example of applying the technique, handwaves some generalities, and moves on. I realize that the book is intended for a lay audience, but would putting a few technical details in place of the handwaving really turn anyone off of reading it? Particularly if he clearly put in a Technical Stuff header before each section, to warn people who aren't interested to skip ahead?

So I recommend the book as a bare bones introduction (no pun intended), and as a good read, but not as a stopping point if the topic genuinely interests you. There is a "further reading" list for each chapter. I might work my way through and see which ones are easily available on the topics most in need of shoring up.

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