28 February 2009


The season 5 DVDs of Mythbusters all open with a Discovery channel commercial that cannot be skipped. Normally this irritates me, but it actually took me several weeks to even notice that it couldn't be skipped. The commercial is short enough, and entertaining enough, that usually I'm just happy to sing along. I've embedded a version from You Tube below the fold; it's not quite the version on the DVDs, but it's pretty close. Some bits are identical, and other bits have been swapped around. (Example: on the DVD version, the Mythbusters show up with Adam singing "I love to try stuff!" as he sets Jamie's shirt on fire. Same situation is on the embedded version, but they've got a different bit of the song.) Incidentally, there are lots of Boom-de-Yada versions on YouTube. The Star Wars one is very well done.

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27 February 2009

Random Linkage

Alligators in your backyard keep coming back? Don't despair: magnetize!

This morning I happened across an interesting blog at Discover Magazine, called Reality Base. The writer, Adam Frank, seems to be at least somewhat close to my own position on science/religion, though possibly a bit more sympathetic to religion than I am. I hadn't realized how many traditions had claimed Groundhog Day as connected to their own belief systems before reading his post on the movie. I can see the reincarnation aspect, I can see the mindfulness aspect ... I just stare at the screen and go "huh?" on the heavens/hells aspect.

Through that blog, I ran across Kira, which seems to be an organization devoted to exploring what, if anything, might be knowable but outside the reach of science. The little I've read sounds promising, with some epistemological ideas thrown in and some thought-experiments. I'm worried that it might descend into woo at some point, but so far so good.

Last up, Mind Hacks has an interesting post on the phenomenology of car crashes, and also on the brain physiology, but it's the phenomenological aspect that interests me. I've had two experiences that relate. In the first, some idiot was pulling through the parking spaces at the local Albertson's, going too fast and not watching where she was going. My old car, Louis, was nearly totaled. I remember realizing what had happened after I had already stopped the car. Then I became aware of the impact, the noise, the surprised yelp (presumably from me), but I had stopped the car before conscious awareness set in. Likewise, when I had a window blowout on the interstate, I had pulled over to the side before becoming consciously aware of what had happened. The body/mind can respond before the consciousness even knows there's anything to respond to. That's key in push-hands.

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25 February 2009

First Paper of the Semester...

...is now in a semi-final draft format. I need to read through it after a night's sleep to make sure it's coherent (particularly since "incoherency" is part of the title). It's for my political philosophy class, and I almost wound up using one of the tentatively suggested topics. Almost. I had thought about contrasting Locke and Montesquieu on the role of monarchy, but I couldn't get into the topic enough. One of the suggested topics was to contrast the views of Rousseau and Mill on the role of dispute in a democracy. I wound up arguing that an official system of censorship was incoherent in a democracy, using Montesquieu, Rousseau and Mill as sources. So my topic is very closely related to the suggested topic, but with a different primary focus.

Next paper of the semester will be an in-class "midterm experience" for existentialism; Levenson doesn't like the word "exam" or "test", and uses them only reluctantly. Thus it will be a "midterm experience" not a "midterm exam."

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24 February 2009

Urban Legends Quiz

I got ten out of ten correct on this quiz. Anyone who watches Mythbusters will have a free pass on three of them. Of the others, there were two I wasn't sure about, but my instincts turned out to be correct (details below the fold so as not to give away answers to anyone wanting to try the quiz fresh).

One was the Fig Newton question. That one seemed likely to be true, and it was. The other was the Bill Gates question, but that sounded too much like a standard chain mail forwarding scheme ... and it was.

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23 February 2009


Words begin as the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious. When everything is flowing, there is no need for words: there is only the flow. Then, something happens to disrupt the flow. Suddenly words become useful. The door won't open; the hammerhead flies off; the water glass spills. Words first describe the situation, then perhaps become useful for correcting it. Unlock the door; get a new hammer; mop up the water. In that moment of dissolution, when the flow breaks, lies the place where we first become aware that there was a flow. Words won't get us back to that flow. They act as a substitute, but so long as the words remain, there can be no flow... There's a zen koan: "Where is the one who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to speak to."

There's more... but I'm not finding a way to put it into words. It's as if words themselves are a switch between the flowing and the distinct, a red susurrus veil of electrified silk that divides words and experience. I think there's something important to be learned from that divide, but I'm not yet sure what it is... Perhaps the place where one can live with mindfulness is directly on the divide. Or perhaps I'm grasping at nothing.

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John Stuart Mill - On Liberty

I haven't read the whole book yet, but I can certainly recommend the second chapter, which is his discussion of freedom of thought and ideas. I like it well enough that I could practically blockquote the whole thing (and taking smaller quotes got my quoteslist up to 999), but I'll content myself with three paragraphs, and I'd highly recommend the whole thing to everyone. This is probably the most cogent defense of free speech and press that I've ever read. (excerpts below the fold due to length)

When we consider either the history of opinion, or the ordinary conduct of human life, to what is it to be ascribed that the one and the other are no worse than they are? Not certainly to the inherent force of the human understanding; for, on any matter not self-evident, there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it, for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative; for the majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify. Why is it, then, that there is on the whole a preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct? If there really is this preponderance--which there must be, unless human affairs are, and have always been, in an almost desperate state--it is owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man, either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter--he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.

It is not too much to require that what the wisest of mankind, those who are best entitled to trust their own judgment, find necessary to warrant their relying on it, should be submitted to by that miscellaneous collection of a few wise and many foolish individuals, called the public. The most intolerant of churches, the Roman Catholic Church, even at the canonization of a saint, admits, and listens patiently to, a "devil's advocate." The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honors, until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed. If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth, as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it.

Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being "pushed to an extreme;" not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.

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22 February 2009

Twilight Poem

It's poetry Sunday at Daylight Atheism. The poem this time has some good thoughts and imagery, but at first I didn't care for what I took to be a lack of texture. Now that I re-read it, I realize that the texture is that of a whispering desert night, and I like it much better with that realization. Two short excerpts below:

The sea of sage-brush, breaking against the purple hills far away.
And white alkali-flats, which shimmer in the mirage as beautiful blue lakes, constantly retreating.
The mirage paints upon the sky, rivers with cool, willowy banks;
You can almost hear the lapping of the water,
But they flee mockingly, leaving the thirsty to perish.
The Desert cares no more for the death of the tribes than for the death of the armies of black crawling crickets.
Silence. Invincible. Impregnable. Compelling the soul to stand forth to be questioned.
Dazzling in the sun, whiter than snow, I see the bones
Of those who have existed as I now exist. The bones are here; where are they who lived?

~Charles Erskine Scott Wood

Those last four lines come eerily close to thoughts I have been having recently. Yet I remain unconvinced that the physical world is all that there is. I don't know what else there is, nor if that "else" is reachable by human beings. Three things stop me from drawing the curtain over the possibility. (1) A voice I heard after my Great Grandma's death. Not a clear voice, just a barest whisper. It came once and never again. I certainly could have imagined it, or it could have been an odd conjunction of real sounds that somehow combined into my name. But I remain uncertain. (2) More recently, the sight of my grandma's body. I saw it, and knew instantly that "she" was not there. Whatsoever she had been was no longer in that body. Mayhap it simply vanishes at death, yet... *shrugs* (3) The I-Ching. It is very strange to feel you're having a conversation with a book, yet that is what the I-Ching provides me. Perhaps the conversation is only with my own subconscious interpretations of the words ... yet I remain uncertain.

None of those instances are meant to convince anyone else, only to lay out the basis for my own thinking. I have no firm conclusion either direction, except, perhaps, calling out anyone who claims certainty as a charlatan. All things return to That-Which-Is... do any of them return in a form recognizable to those from whom they have departed, or even recognizable to whatever is left of their "selves"? That I cannot answer. But in my more relaxed moments, I cannot help but think, "To die would be an awfully big adventure." (~Peter Pan, Hook) (Note: it's not an adventure I have any wish to rush into, in case I just worried anyone. But it is interesting to wonder why those who claim to know what lies beyond also have no wish to rush there...)

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20 February 2009

Thoughts on the Tao of Dao

Over at the Useless Tree, there are some very good posts discussing the nature of the Tao (Dao) and the I-Ching (Yijing):

Is Dao the Sum of All De?
Teaching the Yi Jing (I Ching)

Asking "What is Dao?" is not particularly useful. There's no conceptual answer that encompasses all that Dao is. And even putting a name to it (Dao) changes the nature of what it is. Since I've been reading Heidegger, I was somewhat tempted to identify Dao with "the nature of being," but Dao is also the nature of nonbeing. Dao is everything and in everything, and Dao is nothing and in Nothing.

A contrast with the traditional Abrahamic god might be useful... Usually, this god is described as "omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient." Dao is not omnibenevolent. It just is; that's all. All things, both good* and bad*, meet in Dao. Omnipotence is no match for the power of doing nothing, which belongs to Dao. As for omniscience... what is there to know? Does the river need to know the law of gravity that pulls it down to the valley? Dao allows, where a god must forcibly "create." Dao notices and is aware of, where a god must "know". In Dao, there is no good* or evil*, as all things are One, where a god must separate and distinguish.

*If these labels even exist, one has already fallen away from Dao. To call Dao "good" is either meaningless or an insult, and quite possibly both. When all things flow as One, there can be no good or bad, but only being. When the flow stops, when it breaks, that is where good and evil can arise. At least, that's my limited understanding of it.

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Heroes, Gothic Shadows version

Strange dream last night. Part of it was based on a game I played last week, Shadows Over Camelot, but the characters were more like the characters on Heroes than Arthurian knights. We lost the first round badly due to the Traitor; like Shadows Over Camelot, one person could randomly be assigned as the Traitor at the beginning of each round. The Traitor I'll call Madden (no names in the dream, but he was a creepy old guy who reminded me of Madden in one of Charles de Lind's books); if you picture him something like Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, that would be roughly right.

Unlike Heroes, people's powers didn't come out automatically ... or else came out horribly wrong. Madden was the only one who already knew how to use his power, and thus made a particularly troublesome Traitor. He supposedly showed Peter (looked like Peter in Heroes) how to make a "Seeing Eye" which would allow him to take over someone's mind, as Peter's power would allow him to make use of this. Naturally, Madden messed up one important detail in making it, so Peter was powerless, but didn't find out until it was too late. Madden's own Seeing Eye worked just fine ... mostly he seemed to enjoy using it to make people say things that they normally wouldn't.

The first round ended too quickly for most of us to learn anything at all about our powers. In the second round (essentially, a restart), we kept our memories of the little we did learn, and it didn't take long to determine that Madden wasn't the traitor this time, though Peter still wouldn't trust him, and wound up taking apart Madden's Seeing Eye to figure out how to get his own working. I was looking for the equipment I needed to get my power working (cutlery, mainly; no clue what I was going to do with it), and being followed around by a floating hag of a spirit who wouldn't shut up, but I must have succeeded in ignoring her as I can't remember anything that she said. While I was distracted by an oddly shaped knife (Imagine a mold for making very flowery tortilla salad bowls. Cut off one or two of the flowery folds and stick them on a knife handle. That was the knife.), and I think she must have then turned into a rather large, floaty, tarantula, with maybe an 8 inch body and 22 inch span total including the legs. The tarantula began attacking some random person, but I still hadn't found a decent knife. Someone else stepped in to get the tarantula off with his bare hands (looked like one of my 123 students).

That was about the point where I woke up, but there are a few other random details from Round 2 that I can remember. When we were in Madden's room, we found a sort of piano bench, but it wasn't rectangular. It was as if someone had tried to construct a perspective rectangle into a bench to make it look larger (so it was much narrower at one end than at the other). A whole bunch of cats kept gathering around the bench. Someone opened it (maybe me), and it was stuffed full of dead, almost mummified, rats, birds, mice, etc. The cats were quite happy about this ... I just wanted the thing closed again, and managed to slam it shut. This was yet another reason none of us wanted to trust Madden even if he wasn't the Traitor this time around.

Though I think I did get a glimpse of who the Traitor for that round was. He looked like Chris Sarandon (think Fright Night, not Princess Bride), and could apparently fly (or float, depending on how you look at it). During the quick glimpse I got, he seemed to be turning one of the other players into a green-skinned zombie.

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19 February 2009

Thoughts on Locke

Our first primary source for political philosophy was John Locke's Second Treatise of Government. It was both fascinating and frustrating: fascinating in that I got to see some of the first inklings of the ideas that helped to form the United States; frustrating in that the justifications Locke uses for his ideas are problematic at best, and quite possibly incoherent. That was especially frustrating when I found myself agreeing with his conclusions, but still knowing that there was no real foundation under them.

Locke starts by talking about the "State of Nature." Most political philosophers of the same time period seem to have been very interested in how humans first came together to form societies governed by laws, and refer to the prior time as a "State of Nature." Locke's take on it is fairly unique. It rests on an assumption that there would have been plenty of resources to go around in the State of Nature, and thus little competition for them, and little reason to squabble for them. It would only be as population increased sufficiently to start consuming the resources (particularly land) that conflicts would arise. However, even in the absence of any sort of human governance, these conflicts would still be regulated by "Natural Law." Short version: In the State of Nature, every person has a right to defend his own life and/or body and/or property against attack, and every person has a right to punish anyone who attempts to attack anyone else's life/body/property. There's more to it, but those are the key points. Oh, and the reason for this Natural Law is that "God" granted humans life, and it is going against "God" to attack his creations.

First problem: all available evidence indicates that, with a few exceptions when people moved into new continents, there has always been a scarcity of resources, so there would always have been conflicts over resources. Hobbes' version of the State of Nature did assume scarcity of resources, and was much, much more violent than Locke's.

But moving on from there, even in Locke's more plentiful State of Nature, enough conflicts would arise that people would find it advantageous to band together somehow, and form a compact for mutual aid and protection, i.e. a "Social Contract" ... which leads to the second problem: all available evidence indicates that humans have always lived in social groups. Even our ape ancestors lived in social groups. Any social group will need to have rules of some kind, which might eventually rise to the status of laws. Third problem: even if isolated humans came together and made a compact for their mutual aid and protection, it's not clear that the compact would be binding on their descendants.

Locke does try to deal with this. He says that children are not bound by the Social Contract until they come of age. In particular, if they accept an inheritance of property within an area bound by the Social Contract, they must tacitly accept the contract in order to accept that inheritance. If they wish to go against the contract, they must forfeit the inheritance. There's a bit of muddling about what happens to children who come of age and do not inherit anything immediately, or else I missed something. Others have argued that accepting the benefits of living in a regulated society amounts to tacit acceptance of its Social Contract ... as if one always had an option to just leave and go some place free of any such contract. Hume refuted that one fairly soundly. The vast majority of people have no means to leave, and no familiarity with customs outside their native land, and so do not really have a choice about staying. Also, there aren't too many places left on earth where it's possible to be free of every country's jurisdiction. There may not be any nowadays.

And that's the fatal flaw with any sort of voluntary Social Contract Theory. Only the ones who found the society seem to have any genuine choice about whether to accept the contract or not. Anyone born into the society later simply inherits the results, whether he/she likes it or not. Immigrants may be made to jump through certain hoops to indicate acceptance of the existing contract, and in Locke's view it seems this should make them more loyal to their newfound state than to their old ... yet the opposite is usually the case. Since much of Locke's case rests on the voluntary nature of his Social Contract, this is a rather significant problem.

I think the idea of an implied contract between government and governed might be salvageable (and maybe it will be in our later readings), with the idea that people can withhold their consent should the government be out of hand, but not if the idea rests on them knowingly and voluntarily accepting the contract in the first place. The voluntary nature of the contract would have to rest on the government, then, not the governed. To be allowed to govern, one enters into a contract with the governed, and if one breaks it, then the governed can withdraw their consent. I think that is workable ... except, perhaps, in hereditary governments, where people get born into their position with no more choice than the citizens born into the state.

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Lucid Response to Inanity

Academic debate on controversial topics is fine, but those topics need to have a basis in reality. I would not invite a creationist to a debate on campus for the same reason that I would not invite an alchemist, a flat-earther, an astrologer, a psychic, or a Holocaust revisionist. These ideas have no scientific support, and that is why they have all been discarded by credible scholars. Creationism is in the same category.

Instead of spending time on public debates, why aren't members of your institute publishing their ideas in prominent peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Nature, or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences? If you want to be taken seriously by scientists and scholars, this is where you need to publish. Academic publishing is an intellectual free market, where ideas that have credible empirical support are carefully and thoroughly explored. Nothing could possibly be more exciting and electrifying to biology than scientific disproof of evolutionary theory or scientific proof of the existence of a god. That would be Nobel Prize winning work, and it would be eagerly published by any of the prominent mainstream journals.

~Nick Gotelli (as posted at Pharyngula)

This is part of Gotelli's response to a request by the Disco Institute for a debate. The biggest problem with the conspiracy/brainwashing/suppression claims is that most scientists love to overturn existing "dogma." They live for it. Show them some credible evidence, and they'll be all over it. Show them bible verses and claims debunked many times over, and, well, you get letters like this one. Everyone really should read the whole thing.

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16 February 2009

So this is why her books still sell...

Today's SkinHorse was almost certainly a blatant rip at the Anita Blake books (minor adult implications in the comic), and this comment explains a lot:

*snrk* Yeah, definitely a Hamilton reference there. We have a drinking game going around my book club. Every time she puts out a new book, we go in, open to a random chapter, and then take a number of drinks equal to the awkwardly described sex acts found therein.

Haven't made it out sober yet. :p

~Liquid Communism

This comment (and others) should be archived here.

I did finally wind up buying the last Anita Blake book when it came out in paperback, and it's been sitting gathering dust ever since. I just can't seem to find a sufficiently depraved mood to sit down and wade through it. A drinking game might make it more enjoyable ... except that I'd have to take up drinking, and I'm unlikely to find a sufficiently depraved mood for that, either.

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15 February 2009

Being and Time: Hints of Zen

Much to my surprise, I'm actually enjoying reading Being and Time. It's not an easy read, but not as insanely difficult as I'd expected. Of course, my expectations came largely from the copied pages of Heidegger that we were given in the Tragedies class, which made no sense whatsoever lacking the context of the rest of the book. This is a big part of why I've been reading from the beginning, rather than just reading the numbered sections that Levenson suggests. What I find most interesting, and even somewhat bizarre, is the undercurrent of zen that seems to run through the work.

The most obvious way this shows up is in Heidegger's insistence that an object's function is more primary to its being than the mass which makes up the object. For instance, a hammer is not truly a hammer until one hammers with it. More to the point, we don't experience it as a hammer until we hammer with it. The object simply being present in awareness is termed "presence-at-hand" (zuhanden) and awareness that the object may be put to use is termed "ready-to-hand" (vorhanden).

Heidegger rejects "presence-at-hand" as having much of use to tell us about the nature of Being, particularly the nature of Being Human (Dasein). One is already at one remove from the object if it is merely "present-at-hand". Similarly, in zen thought (and other places), words put us at one remove from the object. As soon as we've named it, we've lost touch with what it really is. There's a beautiful zen koan that relates the idea. I'll summarize it as I remember it:

The head of a monastery needed to choose his replacement, so he gathered together all the monks of the monastery and placed a pitcher of water before them. "Who can tell me what this is without naming it?" he asked. The monk that most expected to be chosen hesitantly said, "It cannot be called a shoe." The head cook scoffed at this and pushed the pitcher over with his foot. The head of the monastery smiled. "Ah, that's the one."

(For a more detailed, and slightly different, version, click here)

Another point that came up in class ties Heidegger's thought to Taoism as well. The idea is that we don't always notice "readiness-to-hand" until it fails us. The lead of the pencil breaks; the hammer-head flies off; we can't find a pencil sharpener for the pencil or nails for the hammer. We're more likely notice the readiness-to-hand just as it disappears on us. That is, we realize that everything was functioning smoothly as one entity ... until something goes wrong and dissolves that unity. Then we notice the unity as an absence. What was one has become many.

As it turns out, Heidegger has an essay about a (probably fictional) dialogue he had with a Japanese sage. It was published later than Being and Time, and I'd be curious to see what it says. However, I have not yet tracked down a copy. As I have not seen it online, I can only presume that it's still under copyright (or at least that any English translations of it are).

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14 February 2009

Technically, a Holiday

Happy Crass Commercialization of Romantic Obsession Day!

Or, in the immortal words of Charles Emerson Winchester, III: "Valentine's Day? Delightful. They can all meet in a garage in Chicago." (M*A*S*H ~Season 7, Ep. 26)

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The phrase, "The technobabble is strong with this one" popped into my head at lunch today, and I decided I had to illustrate it. Not being much of an artist, this involved a lot of copying and pasting.
Interrogation Room
Darth Vader
Wesley Crusher
The frame around the implied one-way mirror was a Printmaster-Gold graphic, as was the text bubble.

And, yes, I know that I'm mixing two entirely different series together. That's part of what amuses me about it, and I tried to grab at least some technobabble from both to mix into Wesley's protest.

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13 February 2009

Happy Belated Darwin Day

I had planned to post something yesterday ... but I was functioning on about three-quarters of a cylinder and needed to sleep more than I needed to blog. So I'll just point out some very good posts and steal one quote from Darwin:

But astronomers do not state that God directs the course of each comet & planet. -- The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make natural selection entirely superfluous, & indeed takes [the] whole case of appearance of new species out of the range of science. ... I wonder whether Herschel would say that you ought always to give the higher providential Law, & declare that God had ordered all certain changes of level that certain mountains should arise. -- I must think that such views of Asa Gray & Herschel merely show that the subject in their minds is in Comte's theological stage of science [the first of three stages in the development of knowledge].

~Darwin, found at Thoughts in a Haystack

Also check out Exploring Our Matrix and Think Buddha.

Incidentally, I keep getting messages that I've flagged blogs as having objectionable content ... and I have not. Also, none of the options for unflagging the blogs is showing up. So apologies to anyone who gets a message their blog was flagged ... when I find a way to undo it, I will. My best guess is that the little monkey that lives in my computer got bored and started clicking on things.

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Signs of Tiredness

I'd just gotten home yesterday afternoon and was removing my boots. Pouncer came over to watch.

Me: See, I've got external paws that I can take off! Don't you wish you did?!
Pouncer: Mrow?

Pouncer also gave me one of his looks that I tend to interpret as confused or puzzled. Can't say that I blame him.

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11 February 2009

Snow in the Garden

Some very good pictures resulted from a snowy day at the Japanese Garden in Portland. Click on the link to see more.

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09 February 2009

Meditation Benefits

They Call Him James' post on a study showing that zen meditation could help with pain control inspired me to look for other recent studies relating to meditation. I found more than I expected to.

Here's the article James linked to: Zen Meditation Alleviates Pain, but there are plenty more.

Compassion Meditation May Improve Physical And Emotional Responses To Psychological Stress

No differences were seen between students randomized to compassion meditation and the control group, but within the meditation group there was a strong relationship between the time spent practicing meditation and reductions in inflammation and emotional distress in response to the stressor.

Mindfulness Meditation Slows Progression Of HIV
Participants in the eight-week group showed no loss of CD4 T cells, indicating that mindfulness meditation training can buffer declines. In contrast, the control group showed significant declines in CD4 T cells from pre-study to post-study. Such declines are a characteristic hallmark of HIV progression.

Meditation Can Lower Blood Pressure
"Adding Transcendental Medication is about equivalent to adding a second antihypertension agent to one's current regimen only safer and less troublesome," Anderson said.

Zen Training Speeds The Mind's Return After Distraction
After interruption, experienced meditators were able to bring activity in most regions of the default network back to baseline faster than non-meditators.

Compassion Meditation Changes The Brain
The scans revealed significant activity in the insula - a region near the frontal portion of the brain that plays a key role in bodily representations of emotion - when the long-term meditators were generating compassion and were exposed to emotional vocalizations. The strength of insula activation was also associated with the intensity of the meditation as assessed by the participants.

Mix Of Taiji, Cognitive Therapy And Support Groups Benefits Those With Dementia
Participants in the program benefited in a variety of ways. After 20 weeks, those in the treatment group improved in several measures of physical function, including balance and lower leg strength, while those in the comparison group did not. There were also positive cognitive and psychological effects, Burgener said.

Cognitive Training Can Alter Biochemistry Of The Brain (not directly related to meditation, but some meditation could arguably be considered 'cognitive training')
Professor Klingberg and his colleagues have previously shown that the working memory can be improved with a few weeks' intensive training. Through a collaborative project conducted under the Stockholm Brain Institute, the researchers have now taken a step further and monitored the brain using Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans), and have confirmed that intensive brain training leads to a change in the number of dopamine D1 receptors in the cortex.

Selflessness -- Core Of All Major World Religions -- Has Neuropsychological Connection (Note:I don't care for the wording in some places in this article, but it's still an interesting finding)
“This research also addresses questions regarding the impact of neurologic versus cultural factors on spiritual experience,” Johnstone said. “The ability to connect with things beyond the self, such as transcendent experiences, seems to occur for people who minimize right parietal functioning. This can be attained through cultural practices, such as intense meditation or prayer or because of a brain injury that impairs the functioning of the right parietal lobe. Either way, our study suggests that ‘selflessness’ is a neuropsychological foundation of spiritual experiences.”

Admittedly, some of these focused on very specific meditation techniques, but there's still a pretty clear message that meditation, in any form, is likely to be beneficial to a person's health.

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08 February 2009

GF: Kinnikinick Frozen Waffles

Yet another gluten-free item I found at Wealth of Health in Idaho Falls. And they are very, very good. I've had two other varieties of GF frozen waffle, and the best I can say for them was that they were edible with a good texture and mildly pleasant taste. There are two varieties available on Kinnikinnick's web-site. I seem to have the "cinnamon brown sugar" version, so I can't say for sure that the original version is good, but I suspect that it is. So if anyone's been missing their "eggo's", these are a very good alternative.

FYI: There are six waffles in a package, and I found that I needed to leave them in the toaster oven longer than the package said.

GF Tips Index

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07 February 2009

A Difficult Operation

I assisted with an organ transplant today. My mom semi-inherited an organ from a friend of hers at her church, and so we moved it, took her old organ out of her house, and put the "new" organ in its place. That makes it sound much simpler than it was. Moving organs through narrow doors with little turning room is not simple. However, neither is it interesting enough to describe in minute detail, except to note that it's important to work out correct orientation before tipping the things on end.

Oh, "semi-inherited" because the friend is not dead, but he suffered a massive stroke and, at best, is going to have to live in some sort of assisted living facility. I didn't know him very well, but he was a nice, elderly gentleman with a real passion for music. We might have been done an hour sooner had he been less passionate, as the family was trying to get rid of as much stuff as possible and my mom was more than happy to poke through looking for more bits of his music collection. She already has boxes of her own stuff she's never gone through, so I'm not sure where she plans to put all this stuff... Not my problem, I guess.

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Cloud City?

o'er thick fog
—cut off from earth—
mountains float

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06 February 2009


air purifier
sounds just like the heating vent
at grandma’s old house

i remember the
rush of warm air and the
smell of sausages

It was so strange... I was going through a series of yoga stretches and just flashed on this memory of sitting in front of the heating vent at Grandma and Grandad's house in Akron. Grandad was still alive, sitting in his chair in the corner. Sausage was cooking in the kitchen, as it usually was. I could picture almost everything that was in the house and, stranger, smell it. Not just the sausage. There was a warm, inviting smell that seemed to belong to the house itself. Part sausage, part Grandad's old spice, part...I don't know what.

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Bus Warfare

Probably everyone's heard about the atheist bus campaign, the one running ads on buses like:

There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake.

You Can Be Good Without God

was deemed too offensive. They wouldn't run the ad unless it was "toned down". *stares at the ad in puzzlement*

Predictably, the ads that did run caused histrionics among some folk, and some retaliatory ad campaigns, also on buses. I find it laughable that some have described the atheist campaigns as bigoted when ads depicting nonbelievers burning in hellfire (some of which inspired the original) are allowed and do not get criticized.

As for the web, there are many inviting commenters to come up with their own bus-ad slogans: The Friendly Atheist, Faith and Theology both have some interesting ones. My favorite, though, has to be from Think Buddha:

Neither an entity nor a nonentity
Moves in any of the three ways.
So motion, bus
and route are nonexistent.

But I have to wonder, why all the fuss over adverts in the first place? Are Christians really so insecure that an ad on the side of the bus will cause them to question their deepest beliefs? Or is this yet another example of attempted thought-control? These represent just about the mildest expressions of disbelief possible, and yet are attacked as "militant" and "offensive". Why? I suspect the answer is simple. The religious are used to having their viewpoint privileged in society, and are suddenly losing some of that privilege. I say, it's about time we put everyone on equal footing. And here's my contribution to the signage:
God is and is not. So be and not be, and be and let be.

I doubt I'll win anything for that, but that's the type of sign I'd like to see up.

Oh, there's also at least one streetcar campaign.

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05 February 2009


In political philosophy, a rather interesting distinction came up today. It's one that, at some level, I had recognized, but I'd never seen it put into words before. It's the distinction between "freedom to" and "freedom from."

"Freedom to" is often described as "positive freedom," yet it is the more problematic of the two. Jean Jacques Rousseau devised a (theoretical) societal system full of "freedom to" but lacking in "freedom from." Citizens had the freedom to vote, and the freedom to follow the laws, and the freedom to follow the required civil religion, but had no freedom from interference by the government in every aspect of life. There could be no dissent from the "general will," decided by consensus during voting. Once the general will was known, citizens were free to follow the general will, but not free to express dissent in any fashion.

"Freedom from", similarly, is described as "negative freedom," yet, of the two, it is to be preferred in most cases. It is more difficult to restrict freedom in the very granting of it using "freedom from." Examples:

One can be free from governmental restrictions on religion ... or one can be free to join the Christian church of one's choice. One can be free from governmental restrictions on marriage ... or one can be free to marry someone of the opposite gender. One can be free from restrictions about which schools and university one can attend ... or one can be free to attend a school to be designated by some authority. Note how the granting of freedom in the "to" construction is so easily used to restrict it at the same time.

All of the "freedom from" phrases can be reworded as "freedom to", with no significant change in meaning. "Free to join any church, or abstain from church." "Free to marry the person of one's own choosing without interference." "Free to attend any school." But how would we reconstruct the above "freedom to" phrases as "freedom from"? It's a bit convoluted, but here are my attempts: "Freedom from tolerating non-Christian creeds and attitudes." "Freedom from respecting another's choice to marry someone who offends my church's antiquated sensibilities." "Freedom from tolerating certain classes of individuals at my university." Notice how much more obvious the bigotry becomes with this phrasing?

Thus I have now become very suspicious of "freedom to." When in doubt, try to turn it into "freedom from," and see if the freedom really applies to everyone.

Incidentally, we don't actually have a party in the U.S. that's rooted in "freedom from." The Democrats tend to advocate "freedom from" on the social front, but not on the economic front, while the Republicans are just the opposite. Good or bad? I think an entire system based solely on "freedom from" would collapse fairly quickly; some restrictions on freedom are required for society even to function, imo. Yet, a bit more "freedom from" might do both sides good.

EDIT: I can think of one place where using "to" might be better. "Freedom to express one's opinions" vs. "Freedom from exposure to dissenting opinions." But that seems to be an exception to the general pattern. And the first, while awkward, can be worded as "Freedom from interference with expressing one's opinions." The second...is problematic to express as a "freedom to." Maybe, "Freedom to disallow dissenting opinions"? There are probably other exceptions, but this one occurred to me about five minutes after posting.

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On Re-Usable Water Bottles

In the past, I would buy a six-pack of a conveniently sized brand of disposable water bottles, use the bottles either until they wore out or until I got sick, and then recycle them and get new ones. I'd keep the bottle tops and boil them before reusing them, so that at least the mouthpiece would always be clean. But I finally noticed something when this semester began. I was feeling just fine the week before. Through the first week of classes, I gradually got to feeling worse and worse. And I realized that this always happened when classes started; it wasn't just a one-time thing that I happened to catch a cold the first week. I always felt rotten once classes started back up, and I didn't think it was psychosomatic. I'd been getting a bit stir-crazy, in fact, and was somewhat relieved that it was time to go back to work.

So, the only thing I could think of that I knew had changed, besides classes starting up, was that I had begun drinking out of those old, intended-for-one-use, water bottles. I wasn't sure that was the problem, but it seemed like a plausible candidate. On Thursday of the second week of classes, I stopped over at Ace Hardware (which has an extensive collection of hiking/fishing/hunting gear, as well as the more usual hardware) and picked out two Camelbak water bottles, much like this one, and started using them instead. Within two days, I was feeling much better.

I picked the Camelbak bottles because they had a wide enough mouth to be washable, they were labeled BPA-free, and they had a mouthpiece that could be used without unscrewing anything. I expected to find them tolerable, and miss the disposable bottles I was used to. Nope. I like them much better. Besides allowing them to be washed, the wider mouths mean that I can put ice cubes into the bottles, and actually have cold water for more than just my first class. Plus I can refill them with ice and water at any drink kiosk, so I don't have to take as many water bottles to get me through a day. In the long run, they should also save me money, not to mention reduce my plastic consumption. Even though I recycled the other bottles, it still seemed like a waste.

So, strangely, bottles-intended-for-one-use don't work so well when used repeatedly over a long period of time. Now, if there were a way to get in and wash them, they'd probably be okay... as is, I think I'll stick with these that are intended to be re-used.

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04 February 2009

More on Heidegger

We started discussing Heidegger in class today, and spent close to half the time pondering what his connection to Naziism might mean. Levenson's take on it is that the tragedy of Heidegger is that he misread and misapplied his own philosophy, since Being and Time indicates that every person is an entire world (in some sense), and so destroying a person is destroying an entire world.

I'm not sure about that conclusion, as every so often I got the impression there was something ominous buried deeply under the words in Being and Time, but I've only made it through the introduction and the first two chapters thusfar. Levenson also indicated that Heidegger's later work contained some softening, and, perhaps, "rectification", which suggests to me that his earlier work was not quite ... right, yet.

I'm not ready yet to write about Heidegger's ideas, but here's what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on Existentialism has to say about Heidegger's politics:

Heidegger suggests that it was this concept of historicality that underwrote his own concrete political engagement during the period of National Socialism in Germany. Disgusted with the political situation in Weimar Germany and characterizing it as especially irresolute or inauthentic, Heidegger looked upon Hitler's movement as a way of recalling the German people back to their “ownmost” possibility—i.e., a way for Germany to constitute itself authentically as an alternative to the political models of Russia and the United States. Heidegger's choice to intervene in university politics at this time was thus both a choice of himself—in which he chose his hero: Plato's “philosopher-king” (see Arendt 1978)—and a choice for his “generation.” Much is controversial about Heidegger's engagement for National Socialism (not least whether he drew the appropriate consequences from his own concept of authenticity), but it provides a clear example of a kind of existential politics that depends on an ability to “tell time”—that is, to sense the imperatives of one's factic historical situation. Heidegger later became very suspicious of this sort of existential politics. Indeed, for the idea of authenticity as resolute commitment he substituted the idea of a “letting-be” (Gelassenheit) and for engagement the stance of “waiting.” He came to believe that the problems that face us (notably, the dominance of technological ways of thinking) have roots that lie deeper than can be addressed through politics directly. He thus famously denied that democracy was sufficient to deal with the political crisis posed by technology, asserting that “only a god can save us” (Heidegger 1981:55, 57). But even here, in keeping with the existential notion of historicity, Heidegger's recommendations turn on a reading of history, of the meaning of our time. (S.E.P. Existentialism)

Sartre, too, took the call to authenticity as a call to political action, for whatever that's worth. He, however, did not manage to join a group that gained any lasting notoriety.

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02 February 2009

Happy Rockchuck Day!

I was looking for things to post for Groundhog Day, and started looking at the pictures... and suddenly noticed that groundhogs look an awful lot like rockchucks. So I did a quick search, and, lo and behold, that's yet another name for rockchucks/woodchucks/marmots. Here is a quick reference.

And apparently Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, but another predicting groundhog in Georgia did not. I couldn't find any local references about whether any rockchucks 'round these parts saw their shadows, but I think we had our early spring in January (for about a week) then winter kicked back in. ^/^

So, Rise and Shine, Campers! Don't forget your booties 'cause it's cold out there today!

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