Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Awesome advert, amazing power of ARVs.  Not mentioned in the video information but for those interested, the music is Leah Siegel's "Human".

Saturday, November 27, 2010

And now for something completely different: flying snakes

Actually, the news story is that the Pentagon is now funding research to study how snake flight works aerodynamically. As the lead researcher, Jake Socho says, "One of the things that's different about this flyer is that everything else you can think of, from birds and bats to insects to gliding squirrels to all kinds of engineered flyers, they generally have bilateral symmetry. So their left and their right is the same.... But this animal is different in that it takes its whole body and makes it into a wing and then undulates in the air. So it's not symmetrical from left to right." For complete interview: Sakes Alive! Snakes That Fly!
One day, we may be delivering bombs in some undulating flying vehicle.

Other snakes, of course, fly using more conventional means.

In Defense of the Blog

During the holidays I've been seeking reactions about this blog. Here are some things I have learned.

1. More people read the blog, at least occasionally, than write on it.
So there are some silent followers, but my main concern is to get more contributors.

2. Some are turned off by the turgidity of the writing.
While some subjects are complex and require complex analysis, I can agree, at least for myself, that this is a problem. The desire to see ourselves write, is just as much of a trap as to hear ourselves talk. We need to have the audience in mind. And editing is always a good thing.

3. The lack of time is the major reason given for why more do not contribute.
This is understandable—for everything we would like to do. Perhaps you could at least post a link to an article, video, or joke.

4. Some are not comfortable at how their writing style may be accepted.
I think I can safely say that, while you may be criticized (in a friendly way) for unclear thinking, you will not be criticized for writing style. We are all trying to improve our writing style and, believe or not, we are all uncomfortable at how our writing style may be accepted. It's why we try to get better. By the way, there have been some educators and studies that are saying that writing in college is getting better. The improvement is attributed to blogging.

5. Some are turned off by some of the subjects.
While I encourage everyone to stretch, this is the very reason that you are needed to contribute to the blog.

As I see it, the raison d'être of this blog is that there are incredibly talented and interesting (to say nothing of good looking) people in the extended family and beyond, and that sharing the variety of our thoughts and ideas in art, music, education, science, business, society, humor, anything (yes, even philosophy and religion), will make us all that much more talented and interesting. Please share something that is meaningful in your life.

And thanks to Peter for the idea, establishment and maintenance of the blog.

Friday, November 26, 2010

when secularists and fundamentalists agree -- postscript

Ahmet Yasevi was a twelfth century Turkic poet and Sufi mystic. He founded the first Turkic Sufi order and exerted considerable influence on the development of mystical orders throughout the Turkic-speaking world. His school continued to be influential for several centuries after his death. Tamerlane built an impressive mausoleum at Yasevi’s burial site some one hundred years after his death that is still a tourist destination. And, by the way, his influence can still be seen today by the fact that in 1993, the joint Kazakh-Turkish state university was named after him. So, Yasevi is not some obscure, quaint intellectual in the Muslim world.

Here is one of his discourses: “On Your Religion”:
Throughout the dervish [sufi] literature you will find us saying repeatedly that we are not concerned with your religion or even the lack of it. How can this be reconciled with the fact that believers consider themselves the elect?

Man’s refinement is the goal, and the inner teaching of all the faiths aim at this. In order to accomplish it there are always a tradition handed down by a living chain of adepts, who select candidates to whom to impart this knowledge.

Among men of all kinds this teaching has been handed down. Because of our dedication to the essence, we have, in the Dervish Path, collected those people who are less concerned about externals. … In the dogmatic religions of the Jews, the Christians, the Zoroastrians, the Hindus and literalist Islam this precious thing has been lost.

We return to this vital principle to all these religions and this is why you will see so many Jews, Christians and others among my followers. The Jew says that we are the real Jews, the Christians, Christians.
It is only when you know the Higher Factor that you will know the true situation of the present religions and of unbelief itself. And unbelief is a religion with its own form of belief.
Whatever you might think about this passage, it certainly is not a rejection of intellectual honesty, or genuine pluralism (admittedly it doesn’t say much about “gender equality” or “secular politics.”) It also does not reflect a “thoroughgoing cult of death.” And, at least for me, to place this passage in the same category as alchemy or astrology is not thinking clearly.

Interestingly enough, it is extremist in the sense that it totally rejects dogmatism or literalism and opts, instead, for the idea of human refinement. I seriously doubt that Hitchens, Harris or Dawkins has ever read anything by Yasevi, or even knows he existed. And yet, he's an important Islamic writer and religious leader.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, in discussing the whole issue of Islam bashing, makes this point about prejudice: “prejudice, by its very nature, makes broad leaps in logic. Prejudice is not wrong because it is uncivil, impolite or unsympathetic. It is wrong because it is weak thinking.” Mostly, I’m against weak thinking.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

when secularists and fundamentalists agree

Is it just me, or have the rational secularists ended up sounding just like fundamentalist God-speaks-to-me nutjobs? The following are a collection of statements made by various individuals. Here’s the challenge. Match each statement with its author. Your choices are: Sam Harris, Pat Robertson, Jerry Vines (former President of the Southern Baptist Convention), Richard Dawkins, Michelle Malkin, Christopher Hitchens, Oliver North, Jerry Falwell and Ann Coulter. This is not a strict matching test. Several of these individuals authored more than one statement. And no cheating by using Google!

In any event, have fun with it. Answers will be posted at some future date in a comment.

1. The views held by the Muslim jihadis who want to destroy us are not marginal views held only by a minority of “Islamic fascists.”

2. There is no such thing as an Islamic moderate.

3. It is time we recognized—and obliged the Muslim world to recognize—that “Muslim extremism” is not extreme among Muslims. Mainstream Islam itself represents an extremist rejection of intellectual honesty, gender equality, secular politics and genuine pluralism.

4. And to say that these terrorists distort Islam, they're carrying out Islam.

5. The young men whom you call "radicalised Britons" and "extremists" are just honest Muslims who take their scriptures seriously.

6. We are not at war with terrorism, we are at war with Islam.

7. The views held by the Muslim jihadis who want to destroy us are not marginal views held only by a minority of “Islamic fascists.”

8. Islamic belief, however simply or modestly it may be stated, is an extreme position to begin with.

9. Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.

10. Adolph Hitler was bad, but what the Muslims want to do to the Jews is worse.

11. Who ever heard of such a bloody, bloody, brutal type of religion? But that’s what [Islam] is. It is not a religion of peace.

12. We should invade their [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders… .

13. [I]t's time we recognize what we are dealing with....the goal of Islam, ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not, is world domination. …

14. Of course, [Muhammad is] not a prophet, he's an epileptic plagiarist.

15. I think Muhammad was a terrorist.

16. This man [Muhammad] was an absolute wild-eyed fanatic, he was a robber and a brigand.

17. Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives, the last one of which was a 9-year-old girl.

18. There is no such thing as Islamophobia.

My thoughts are these. Perhaps the insane fundamentalists aren’t as insane as we thought. Perhaps the rational secularists aren’t as rational as they fancy themselves. Or perhaps, when a society decides to vilify a people, the temptation to join in the mass feeding frenzy becomes too great for anyone of any party to resist.

And, as an addendum, none of these individuals seem to have any knowledge of President Obama’s former home and recent travel destination, Indonesia. Here we have the country with the largest Muslim population in the world of over 200 million. It is also a democracy, which Freedom House places in the “free” category, with a ranking identical to India’s (3rd most populous Muslim country in the world). Indonesia has a long history of religious tolerance and guarantees religious freedom in its constitution. Its parliament has a higher proportion of women members than the American House and Senate. See Indonesia’s Democratic Islam.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Pilot Secrets

Pilot Secrets-

“Here’s a news flash: We’re not sitting in the cockpit listening to the ball game. Sometimes we can ask the controllers to go to their break room to check the score. But when I fly to Pittsburgh on a Sunday afternoon, the passengers send the flight attendants up at least ten times to ask us the Steelers score.” -Commercial pilot, Charlotte, North Carolina

“People always ask, ‘What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?’ I tell them it was a van ride from the Los Angeles airport to the hotel, and I’m not kidding.” -Jack Stephan

“There’s no such thing as a water landing. It’s called crashing into the ocean.” -Pilot, South Carolina

Monday, November 8, 2010

November 2010

In Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael “account[s] it high time to get to sea as soon as I can,” “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” For those of us living in the northeast, we know of what Ishmael speaks. At this time of year, the days grow short; the sun hangs low in the sky; the flowers wither; the rains chill us, the earth changes from green to gray: the entire landscape seems to fade.

Never one to pass up an opportunity to encourage sober moral reflection and instill guilt, the Catholic Church has singled out bleak November as a time to ponder the last things, namely death and judgment. The month begins with the All Saints Day and All Souls Day – in Mexico All Souls is the Day of the Dead -- and ends with the Feast of Christ the King. Apparently, there is no separation of powers doctrine in the celestial sphere and part of Christ's job as king involves some day bringing his judgment upon the world. “For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire.” Matthew 3:10.

Meanwhile, our pastor, who is Vietnamese, uses the month of November to push Mahayana Buddhist principles of filial piety and ancestor veneration. He tells us that during November we should remember and honor deceased family members. We put their names in a basket placed within a small shrine at the front of the church. Perhaps the bonds and obligations of family are so strong that they withstand even death. It may be no accident that Thanksgiving, the American celebration of the family and filial piety, also falls in November.

Anyway in recognition of this time of year, I give you the Squirrel Nut Zippers (I apologize for the credits at the end of this, but it was the best live version I could find. And don ‘t worry, they don't cut the song short.)

Fundamental Religion Promotes Evolution

I thought you could appreciate the humor (from Ars Technica).

Evolution driven by religion, at least in fish: The religion in this case is a pre-Columbian ritual that takes place annually in Mexico, where participants go to a cave and place a toxin in the water to harvest some of the fish that live there. The ceremony has now been going on for long enough that the fish at the site of the ritual have evolved increased resistance to the toxin compared to those living elsewhere in the same cave. Presumably, if this continues long enough, the ritual may come to an end simply because the fish no longer feel any effects of the toxin.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Groucho Marx and the Tea Party

The view from Spain. Oscar Celador-Angón, senior lecturer of legal and social studies at the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid, writes in the daily Público, as summarized by The Week.

The rise of the Tea Party in the U.S. is baffling to Europeans, said Oscar Celador. The American economy is suffering a severe crisis that, “because of the limited protection offered by the American welfare state,” hits the working class hardest. Yet the phenomenon of this campaign season is a political movement, “driven by important personalities of the Republican Party,” that advocates lower taxes, less government, “and the disappearance of essential services like health care, pensions, and public education.” If these people take over the government, the U.S. could return to the dark ages that Europe has put behind it, in which only the wealthy have access to decent health care or university education, and elderly people beg in the streets.

What’s “truly peculiar” is that the deficit created by Obama is much lower than that created by Bush—and much of Obama’s spending was simply to repair the collapse of the financial system caused by the “uncontrolled capitalism” of the Bush era. To understand U.S. politics, we can only look to Groucho Marx, who said, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” Of course, he was joking. The Tea Partiers are not.

On the McRib and Boredom

Alex Salk (via Sullivan), on the philiosophical ramifications of the return of the McRib:

"Everything that doesn't taste like crap is full of stuff that is in some way or another bad for you. You are going to die no matter what. Eat whatever you want. The oft-repeated Keynesian maxim that "in the long run we are all dead" is well and good, but it ignores that fact that for a long time we are all alive. For, like, AGES. Think about how long today has been, and it's not even five yet! Yes, life is a beautiful valuable thing and there are so many joys along the way and etc., but let's admit that 90% of it is suffering, misery, pain, standing in line behind some idiot who can't figure out how that he doesn't have enough money in his balance to withdraw the amount of cash he keeps asking for from the ATM, heartbreak, defeat and "Seinfeld" reruns. A couple of eggs, or a McRib, or excellent Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey sipped outdoors on a crisp day while you smoke a cigarette: if these things are going to shave a few years off the time you would otherwise spend drumming your fingers on the counter as you wait for the laggard at the Duane Reade to ring up your single-item purchase, so be it. You're actually getting the better end of the deal."

He's a little hyperbolic, but I do like Salk's rationale for enjoying the small things-- not because you are going to die soon, but because life feels pretty excruciatingly long for most of us, most of the time (except, of course, when reflecting back on it).

I had a conversation the other day with some high-school friends at dinner, and of course conversation drifted to high school experiences. Despite us all having grown up together, our memories contained shockingly huge gaps. I mean entire weeks and months-- even years-- just gone. I had trouble recalling 99 percent of junior high. Ali literally couldn't remember what she used to in the few hours between the end of class and the beginning of lacrosse practice. She didn't watch TV, and she didn't have internet. So what did she do?? Hours and hours have gone totally, completely, irreversibly blank. And it's easy to see why: most of life consists of routines that don't much change from day to day. We can go on auto-pilot for most of it.

This is true for even the most interesting, engaged people. I remember having to stop reading Kafka's diaries, because his entries were invariably about his dreading office work and domestic chores. Victor Klemperer's journals of his experiences as a Jew in Germany in WW2-- in which he recounts some of the most harrowing, suspense-filled experiences I've ever read-- are similarly bracketed by detailed descriptions of everyday tedium: repairing his constantly broken-down car, walking long distances to pick up food, entire mornings spent washing the dishes, leaving him too exhausted to write. Even in terror, boredom.

Strangely enough, these existential boredoms have become more and more reassuring to me. This understanding suddenly relieves a lot of undue pressure-- on what I think is a quixotic attempt at being "happy", on not beating myself up for being bored, understanding this is a universal experience of the human condition.

So what's the best way to mitigate these vast stretches of boredom?

Bertrand Russell, in an essay entitled "Useless Knowledge" (unfortunately I couldn't find a copy on the internet, but you can read it in "In Praise of Idleness"), makes the claim that a curious, contemplative, and ironic mind helps one avoid feelings of solipsistic rage when confronted with indignities like long lines or inattentive bureaucrats. He recommends a general curiosity, saying that even the most trivial knowledge can make life more enjoyable:

"Curious learning not only makes unpleasant things less pleasant, but also makes pleasant things more pleasant. I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of the Han dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kanisaka introduced them into India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era; that the word "apricot" is derived from the same Latin source as the word "precocious" because the apricot ripens early; and that the A as the beginning was added by mistake , owing to a false etymology. All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter."

So carpe diem everyone! Because life is mostly dull.

Stand by Me

Perhaps some day, history will record that America's greatest contribution to the world was its music.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Inability to Criticize Religion and Beliefs

Reading the great comments between Myk and James on anti-Muslim rhetoric versus criticism of a person's faith and belief reminded me of a Sunny in Philadelphia episode (stay with me), "Mac fights Gay Marriage".

Mac (with the motives not of a traditional fundamentalist) tries to argue with a Black man and his wife (wife is a man who underwent a sex change) by quoting the Bible, "Leviticus 18:22, 24 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind, it is abomination. Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things"

The black husband response, "Exodus 21:20-21 When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property."

Instead of trying to find support for gay marriage in the Bible, the husband showed the ridiculousness of using the Bible to dictate the laws of today's society.

As touch on earlier in the comments, you can respect an individual but also be critical of their opinions and beliefs. Religious beliefs, unlike other facets of a person's life tends to skirt those criticism. Which brings me to my point, the International Journal of Cardiology published a new paper, "The heart and cardiovascular system in the Qur’an and Hadeeth" illustrates the importance of being critical of religion. It took ~5 days for the article to be published in a peer review respected Journal versus the normal 7-9 months of review (idiot editor and board I guess). The article is religious propaganda that has no place in a scientific Journal and is destructive to the scientific process. People are free to believe whatever they want but by not allowing others the ability to be critical of religious beliefs opens the door to things like this pseudoscience article.

I am allowed to be critical of the Twilight Series turning Vampires (coolest creatures of the night) into lame angsty 100 years olds, but when I call the Koran dumb for writing that menstrual blood is impure or using a 2,000 Bible to shut down stem cell research idiotic or the Jewish practice of mutilating children's genitals archaic/barbaric people say I am intolerant of culture and anti-(insert religion). The problem with the lack of critical view on religious texts and beliefs is that religion is prevalent throughout society, shaping policies on medical treatments, used to justify wars, dictating rights of people. That is what Bill Maher touched on, religion is scary because every religion has bat shit crazy tenets that are being used to create legislation, shape government etc. but we can't be critical of those tenets without being labeled culturally insensitive.

I think I rehashed the comments, just in a less eloquent manner.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

I never got the joke until now.

As I was reading on the way home ( a letter from a minister to his young son.), I discovered that I had never understood a joke that I had been repeating (and many of you may have been repeating) for a good part of my life. In keeping with the long-winded tenor of many items on this blog, instead of directly revealing the joke and the real meaning, I thought I would quote from the letter:

"I had an interesting talk this morning with Mr. Schmidt, T's father [T is the son's best friend.] It seems he overheard some inappropriate language. I'd overheard it, too, in fact, since it has been the favorite joke between the two of you for the last week. I'll admit I didn't see the need to object. We said the same thing when we were children and emerged unscathed, I believe. One of you asks, in a naive and fluting voice, AB, CD goldfish? And the other replies in the deepest voice he can muster, a voice full of worldliness and scorn, L, MNO goldfish! And then outrageous and extravagant laughter. (It is the L, need I say, that has disturbed Mr. Schmidt.) The young man was very earnest, and I had a terrible time keeping a straight face. I said gravely that, in my experience, it is better not to attempt too strict an isolation of children, that prohibition loses its force if it is invoked too generally. He finally deferred to my white hair and my vocation, though he did ask me twice if I was Unitarian. I told Boughton about this [a fellow minister], and he said 'I have ong fet that etter ought to be excuded from the aphabet.' "

Win a Canon EOS 7D

This is mostly for Pete H. but anyone who knows science and film production might be interested. Ars' readership has some pretty adept scientists, but I think something with cystic fibrosis would have a head start.

Prop 19

So, prop 19 did not pass here in California, which, as I'm sure most of you are aware, would have the legalized marijuana. And though it's hardly a cause as worthy as health care or education reform, the argument surrounding marijuana legalization is pretty effective in determining one's political temperature. (A relatively reliable test to find out if a Tea Partier really believes that more government=worse government is to ask whether or not they support government restrictions on weed).

I was surprised to discover the wide distribution of support for Prop 19, the loudest advocates of course being the libertarians-- Reason and the CATO Institute (who've been advocating the loudest, and longest), as well as the expected progressive voices: Huffington Post, Salon, etc. But support also came from "conservative publications such as The Economist and National Review, prominent Republicans such as former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a growing portion of the Tea Party movement, and even Fox News personality Glenn Beck. (Beck has said he favors marijuana legalization, although he has been typically schizophrenic on Prop. 19.)"

Which brings me to the main point of this article, which claims that the media is not, as is commonly asserted, liberal:
"It's telling that the loudest voices opposing pot legalization are coming from the mainstream media, politicians, and law enforcement. The three have a lot in common. Indeed, the Prop. 19 split illustrates how conservative critics of the mainstream media have it all wrong. The media—or at least the editorial boards at the country's major newspapers—don't suffer from liberal bias; they suffer from statism. While conservatives emphasize order and property, liberals emphasize equality, and libertarians emphasize individual rights, newspaper editorial boards are biased toward power and authority, automatically turning to politicians for solutions to every perceived problem."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

For Philosophers Only, Part III

Now that we're all in agreement about those who act through virtue, I thought I would focus on the other side of Hegel's chapter "Virtue and the Way of the World" in "Phenomenology of Spirit"—those who act through self-interest.

I urge you to read the Bernstein article again, but basically "for Hegel, the idea of unconditioned rational self-interest — of, say, acting solely on the motive of making a maximal profit — simply mistakes what human action is or could be, and is thus rationally unintelligible." "Hegel narrates how each formation of self and world collapses because of a mismatch between self-conception and how that self conceives of the larger world." Thus, It is practically impossible to act completely in one's own self interest.

The purveyors of credit default swaps forgot that making a profit involves advancing the growth of capital. "Every account of the financial crisis points to a terrifying series of structures that all have the same character: the profit-driven actions of the financial sector became increasingly detached from their function of supporting and advancing the growth of capital." Obviously it wasn't in their self-interest to collapse the the game of capitalism.

Similarly, I wonder if the spamming of negative political ads is in the self interest of politicians. Apart from the dubious effectiveness of such ads, as shown by a number of studies (however it is tough to isolate negative political ads from the rest of the 'noise' of the campaign, much of it made by the press reacting to those same ads), the long term effect is fueling the idea that government and the political process do not work. Witness the growing cynicism and the Tea Party, which runs a candidate who believes government, by it's nature, is ineffective, a curious stance for a politician. Are the illusory self interests of politicians going to destroy democracy in the U.S. as we know it (and themselves along with it)? or is this just normal grumbling?

Personally, I would love to see how effective an ad would be which praised the opposition, citing him as committed, hard working, and efficient, but, unfortunately, working on the wrong policies.

Oh, and I forgot my original intention for this post…Vote early and often!