Friday, March 30, 2012

The Mind as an Armed Camp

"There are two kinds of people in the world; those who divide the world into two kinds of people and…." I think we do this because we will do almost anything to avoid thinking, really thinking. Currently the treatment of liberals (or Democrats) and conservatives (or Republicans) is not just tied to differences on an issue, or differences in political thinking, but as some characteristic of human life, and has grown to epidemic proportions. Here is, in my humble opinion, a very lucid article on the simplemindedness and harmfulness of such a position.

Voltaire recommends playing Mega Millions

In 1728, the finance minister to French King Louis XV declared by royal decree a new lottery to promote Parisian municipal bonds. Only bond holders were allowed to purchase tickets for the state run lottery.

The lottery went on for two years, when Voltaire noticed that the French government had accidentally created a lottery where the prize money was significantly larger than the cost of all the tickets. Voltaire along with his friend Charles-Marie de La Condamine and others formed a syndicate and bought all the tickets they could. They won over 1 million francs. While Voltaire was from a wealthy family, his lottery winnings made him extraordinarily wealthy.

Normally, U.S. state lotteries are the worst possible return on investment one can make, with less than 50¢ returned on each dollar paid. That is why only the poor and the elderly play. But with today's Mega Millions jackpot of possibly up to $640,000,000, the lottery becomes just like the one in 18th century France.

Your chance of winning is less than 1 in 175 million, so you are about 8,000 times more likely to be murdered and about 20,000 times more likely to die in a car crash. However, if you survive, even with the take-home lump sum amount being considerably less, and income taxes reducing the amount further, you still have an expected return of more than the $1 purchase price.

Like Voltaire, gather some friends and buy all the numbers possible. You will be a big winner…perhaps!

The problem comes if a couple other people share the winning number with you. Then it would have been wiser not to play at all.

Comings and Goings

Myk and Sue will be arriving in Pittsburgh Friday for a weekend stay at Peter & Lisa's house. Mother has replenished her supply of scotch for the occasion.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Jesus the Existentialist

It's Lent, and I'm sure everyone was wondering when my dense theological treatise would make its appearance. Well, wonder no more.

* * *

Professor Robert Solomon introduces his home “Great Course” on existentialism with these words:
The message of existentialism, unlike that of many more obscure and academic philosophical movements, is about as simple as can be. It is that every one of us, as an individual, is responsible—responsible for what we do, responsible for who we are, responsible for the way we face and deal with the world, responsible, ultimately, for the way the world is. It is, in a very short phrase, the philosophy of “no excuses!” Life may be difficult; circumstances may be impossible. There may be obstacles, not least of which are our own personalities, characters, emotions, and limited means or intelligence. But, nevertheless, we are responsible.
Solomon’s characterization of existentialism relies mostly on the language and thinking of Jean Paul Sartre. But Sartre – as brilliant as he might be – was not the first to come up with a philosophy of “no excuses.” Long before Sartre, Jesus also took a dim view of excuses – particularly the excuse that one is relieved of responsibility as long as he follows the rules.

Theologian Rudolf Bultmann has summed up the message of Jesus as: “a great protest against Jewish legalism [emphasis in original] – i.e. against a form of piety which regards the will of God as expressed in the written Law and in the Tradition which interprets it, a piety which endeavors to win God’s favor by the toil of minutely fulfilling the Law’s stipulations.” We hear this protest when Jesus accuses the teachers of the law – the scribes – of having “shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.” Matthew 23:13. As we shall see, the target of this protest is not some deficiency in the Jewish law but, rather, the very notion that one could fulfill God’s will by meeting formal legal requirements.

Jesus makes his message clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Multiple times he quotes Mosaic laws (“you have heard it said”), and then follows each quotation with the phrase, “But I say unto you. ...” In all these passages the decisive requirement is the same: the action Jesus demands does not stop with the adherence to some rule, nor can it be measured in a way to determine compliance. And so, not only will murder subject you to judgment, but so will being angry with anyone. Likewise, not only is committing adultery wrong but so is looking at a woman lustfully (we call this today “sexual objectification”). And being wronged by another does not relieve you of any obligation to that person; instead, one should turn the other cheek. It is not enough just to love friends; you must also love your enemies. See Matthew 5:21-48.

This same point is made elsewhere in the Gospels. In Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the publican, the Pharisee who follows the law to the letter – “I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess” – is not accounted righteous. The publican who simply prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner” – accepting responsibility – is considered virtuous. Luke 18:10-14. The same is true for the servant who does only what he is told. “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” Luke 17:10.

When a young man tells Jesus that he has kept all the commandments, and then asks him “what am I still lacking,” Jesus responds, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Matthew 19:20-21. For Jesus, there is no resting on one’s laurels.

Finally, the greatest commandment, love of God and neighbor, offers no standard or guideline for behavior from which one could measure compliance. The directive to love obviously does not inform us about what in particular we ought to do or ought not to do. Rather, love is open-ended. Oliver in the musical sings, “I’d do anything for you, dear, anything.” Love knows no bounds.

One could look always back over a certain period and determine fairly conclusively whether he or she had told a lie or not, or stolen something or committed murder. It is a much more uncertain matter to determine whether one has fully loved his neighbor.

Here is the principal concern behind Jesus’ protest against the law: simply keeping the commandments does not relieve us of responsibility for our actions. Jesus separates obedience to God’s will from compliance with the legal requirements of an earth-bound authority. He does not set up a better law in opposition to the existing law; he opposes the view that the fulfillment of the law – any law – amounts to obedience to the will of God. For God demands the whole person and not merely specific acts from a person.

For Jesus, because God’s will cannot be confined within specific rules of behavior, it can never be ascertained beforehand; rather, obedience to God’s will is the responsible act made at the particular moment. This notion of obedience is ultimately more demanding than legalism, but it also frees us from any formal authority and from the judgment of religious leaders whose profession it is to explain this authority. Jesus’ opposition to the moral judgment of the self-righteous is expressed in his statement, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” Matthew 11:30, and most likely accounts for the harsh criticism he reserves for the guardians of the law, the scribes and Pharisees (who he variously calls blind guides, fools, hypocrites, brood of vipers, whited sepulchers and murderers). In contrast to Jesus’ easy burden is the weight of the judgment of the Pharisees: “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” Matthew 23:4.

Instead, for Jesus, morality depends on the judgment of the individual actor and only he and not the law is ultimately responsible. We alone have the burden to determine how we should behave: “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” Luke 12:57

Jesus does not allow the fulfillment of any law to get people off the hook. He calls upon people to accept full responsibility for all that they do. Sartre echoes this sentiment in his contention that we are condemned to be free. For both Sartre and Jesus, the Nuremberg defense – I was only following orders – does not wash.

And so, it is not hard to imagine Jesus nodding in agreement with Sartre: “We are alone, with no excuses. That is the idea I shall try to convey when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet, in other respects is free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Bach's incredible comeback over Ravel

For many years I have exclusively listened to public or "listener supported" radio. I think middle school children, who must sit for hours each day listening to lectures on appositive phrases and the properties of a rhombus, are the only ones able to listen to commercial radio. For whatever reason I've been listening to more classical music lately. Unfortunately, while public radio is commercial free, we still are subjected to "membership drives" in order to pay the bills.

Still, there is some imagination in public radio. Currently, Pittsburgh's classical radio station, WQED, is doing fund raising by sponsoring March Mania.
32 composers are facing off against each other and who advances is determined by you! If you want a particular composer to advance, simply make a pledge to support that composer. The one with the most money pledged in each match up advances to the next round. Ultimately, the Final 4 composers will face off against each other until a winner is determined!
While I was listening, Bach pulled off a stunning comeback over Ravel. I thought the whole scheme was quite clever, imaginative, and I got to listen to some good music to boot. Then, while writing this, I went to WQED's web site and saw the pitiful results. You couldn't even get into the office pool with the amounts being pledged. (Not that I have called in, but then again, I didn't join the office pool either.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Moral Question of the Return of the Jedi

In A Novice's Guide to"The Hunger Games", Amy Davidson suggests that the central theme in "The Hunger Games" is the moral question of what cost are we willing to pay in innocent lives to achieve justice, or at least a better future. As Davidson points out, this was also the central moral dilemma, however unacknowledged, in "The Return of the Jedi."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

and that's just our solar system...

Quote of the Day

"But this is not the Wild West!"
          —Barbara Standard, whose son, unarmed, was killed after he threw a rock at a truck

True, but Barbara Standard does not appreciate the irony. The Wild West, at least the mythical one being invoked, required both participants be armed. As we have learned from movies and TV, if someone threatens you, the law of the Wild West allows you to "stand your ground" and kill them in a 'fair' gunfight. The modern "stand your ground" law requires no such honor.

Here is paragraph 3 of the Florida law:
A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
Barbara Standard's son, Scott, was unarmed. He threw a rock at the truck of someone with whom he had a long rivalry. The shooter claimed he was threatened and justified to shoot him under Florida's "stand your ground" law. The judge agreed.

George Zimmerman also claims he is protected by the law in the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin.
And the former Florida governor, Jeb Bush, who signed the bill into law in 2005 and supported its passage, said Saturday he did not think it should protect Zimmerman, who shot the unarmed teen after trailing him as Trayvon walked to the home of a family friend living in the same gated community as Zimmerman.

“Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back,” Bush said while speaking at the University of Texas in Arlington. 
But the law as written in Florida and at least 20 other states does not require a person to retreat to prevent a possible altercation; and it does not address the question of whether it is OK to chase down someone who has been perceived as a threat. In fact, last Wednesday, a Florida judge threw out the second-degree murder case against a man who chased a burglar more than a block and stabbed him to death. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beth Bloom cited "stand your ground," the Miami Herald reported

Thursday, March 22, 2012

For René

In the René Peter & Lisa household, there is a rotary dial phone. However, when René goes to college, it's possible that she could even be more hip.

Play Something

Never too proud to pirate the latest internet craze, here is my version of Draw Something. To be honest I've never played nor even seen the app/game, so my apologies to any purest Draw Something fans.

This game is a form of hangman. You guess a letter and I will add it to all the appropriate blanks if it appears in the word(s). See the bottom of the picture for the number of words and letters. The drawing is the clue…well, maybe only for (elder) Steve. (I hope it doesn't turn out to be in the same vein as (elder) Peter's Botticelli's games.) Anyway, make your letter guesses. Each day I will add something more to the drawing. Feel free to guess the whole answer anytime.

Day 4 (last day):

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Last Sunday's Reading

Last Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, was Laetare Sunday. Laetare translates from the Latin to "rejoice," and the Sunday is seen as a time to relax the Lenten observances a little -- sort of a chance to come up for air before the final push to Easter.

Anyway, our psalm for the Sunday service was Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon
we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.

On the aspens of that land
we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked of us
the lyrics of our songs,
And our despoilers urged us to be joyous:
"Sing for us the songs of Zion!"

How could we sing a song of the Lord
in a foreign land?

It's great poetry, and, of course, I couldn't help but think of the reggae song. That got me checking things out, however, and it turns out that there is a last verse to the psalm that nobody ever says:

Desolate Daughter Babylon, you shall be destroyed,
blessed the one who pays you back what you have done us!
Blessed the one who seizes your children
and smashes them against the rock.

They always cut out the best parts.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Trolling and loling in the pixelated world of high tech and low humor

Over the weekend Apple sold a record 9 trillion pixels. That's over 1,200 pixels for every man, woman, and child living on earth.

Apparently, Facebook is good for something after all…well, or bad for something, depending on your point of view. Unfortunately for college students and others planning nefarious activities, the chance of getting caught in the act, and the revealing picture getting posted on Facebook, has cut into serious fun during Spring Break.

The tech world continues to trudge down the rapacious path of patent absurdity. Veria Holdings has sued Samsung and RIM for patent infringement. They hold a patent for creating smiley faces and other emoticons from a menu. To keep me out of the court room, just assume everything I write has an implied ;-) after it. (that was hand typed)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

From Asbury Park to the Promised Land

The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia has opened a new exhibit, "From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen," which is running now through September 3. What Springsteen has to do with the United States Constitution I'm not entirely sure. But ever since Philadelphia's own, Ed Sciaky, discovered Bruce in the early 70's, the city looks on him as their adopted son and figures out ways to show it.

In any event, in coordination with the exhibit, WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania's public radio station, is taking nominations for the top five Springsteen songs of all time. On July 4th, WXPN will play back the top 88 songs as voted (88.5 being its radio frequency). All voters will be automatically entered to win an iPad2 loaded with all of Springsteen’s studio albums.

There are, of course, the obvious choices like "Born to Run" (once described by Jim as the most perfect rock song ever recorded), "Rosalita," "Jungleland and "Thunder Road." I have a few other favorites which are lesser known: "New York City Serenade" (She's afraid them tracks are gonna slow her down), "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City", "Wild Billy's Circus Story" (oh, God save the human cannonball) and "Point Blank."

So, what are the other ones I've missed? Springsteen favorites, anyone?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mental Health Break -- Walk Like an Egyptian

It's the 80's: girl bands, big hair, spandex, mindless lyrics and ... walking like an Egyptian.

In the “While much is too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange to have happened” department, this song made a brief resurgence as one of the revolutionary anthems during the occupation of Tahrir Square.

Justice is blind (and hard of hearing)

Frank M. Fazio is suing Apple in California federal court for "intentional misrepresentation." Siri does not do what he asks.
He gives the example of using the virtual assistant as a navigational aid, saying that when asked for directions to a certain location, "Siri either did not understand what Plaintiff was asking, or, after a very long wait time, responded with the wrong answer.”
Such action was not shown in Apple ads.

Reportedly, Siri wanted to counter sue but the judge couldn't understand her.

This is called a 1st world problem.

There's a rumor it's just a publicity stunt by Apple.

Fazio is also upset that he hasn't run into any beautiful girls yet after trying a new deodorant.

Talking of TED…

TED has introduced a new program called TED Ed: Lessons worth sharing. What do you think?
(For starters, try out the 2nd "Playing with Language" video called "Stories: Legacies of who we are" or the first Awesome Nature one called, "The cockroach beatbox".)

Fair and unbiased

I can only watch TV news for as long as I can watch Petticoat Junction or Jerry Springer. Even worse is local news with the quotidian (use it 3 times and it's yours) fire and animal story. Here's another viral video which explains better the value of local news.

(Sorry about the ad…well, I guess the whole video is an ad masquerading as news.)

Friday, March 9, 2012

God Hates Gravity

A couple of prophets disclaiming profits at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
Now it's personal!

These guys wanted to make a "God Hates Gays" sign but had left over paint.

Actually, their well designed game was more performance art than protest. If anything, they were protesting against games which act as marketing schemes designed to continually suck more money out of the button pushing player.

Some thought it was the only fun participants had at the conference. However, these days one must be careful, since the mere mention of God generally brings out the worst in all kinds of people.

If the iPad really were a magical device

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The B.S. Report

A few things on this video:

I discovered this video by looking up the source of Jim's "Smacketology" image. It turns out to be from a website called Grantland, editied by ESPN's most popular sportswriter, Bill Simmons. I guess that I should know Simmons, but I don't (not until just recently). You learn something new everyday.

But, having watched the video, I can see why the guy is popular. He's incredibly entertaining, and is somehow able to engage in conversation with the leader of the free world, as if he's some guy down at the gym.

Obama himself is pretty engaging. Which of the Republican candidates could be so savvy about sports and speak about them so intelligently?

This is but the first of several videos. To watch them all tune to
B.S. Report: Barack Obama

And Simmons does get around to asking the Smacketology question of Obama. When asked who is the greatest Wire character of all time, the Commander in Chief didn't hesitate: "It's gotta be Omar, right? I mean, that guy is unbelievable, right?"

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Required iPad Article

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has ruled that every web site must post an article on the new iPad from Apple so here is our compliance article.

Virtually every rumor came true today with the unveiling of the new iPad. From retina display to new processor to quad core graphics to 5 megapixel camera to HD video recording to LTE to blah, blah, blah. Unfortunately, once again it does not diaper the baby, so we have the inexorable doom reviews. This one, however, unintentionally takes the cake, stating that Apple is doomed because 1) Apple uses "Resolutionary" on their web site, 2) Tim Cook left his shirt tails out, and 3) the new iPad is called "the new iPad". The best (and most honest) review was here

This site predicted the whole phenomenon two years ago.  

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Quotes of the Day

"'The Rush Limbaugh Show' is the top-rated radio show in the country, reaching an estimated 15 million listeners on nearly 600 stations."
     —ABC News

“83 Percent of All Statistics are Made Up on the Spot.”
     —Dr. Tim Ball, Canada Free Press, August 31, 2009

“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.”
     —Saki (H.H Munro)

In progress still

In Progress is still in progress with no curbs on what it is or will be. One thing I hoped it would be is a place where we could learn about the diverse expertise that its readers would share. Ted's post on the non-link between autism and vaccines fits this perfectly. I'm still waiting for young Steve's post on the working conditions at Foxconn in China and Patrick's post on the sex life of bonobos in the Congo. Why haven't they appeared?

So I apologize for simply making some links, but I found this curiously hilarious. Here is the familiar View From Your Window Contest from the Dish, which in this case is almost a parody of itself, followed by an irresistibly funny parody.

Wire Madness

Now that the brackets have been released, what is with Lester Freamon receiving only a #5 seed?…or 'Bubbles' with a #7? It also shows the ludicrousness of preseason predictions, as McNaulty only receives a #3 seed, and that was probably a gift.

Monday, March 5, 2012

End to the autism/vaccine debate?

If the vaccine/autism controversy has taught us one thing, it's that once science messes up (in this case, the journal Lancet publishing the conclusions of a poorly conducted study) it is difficult to retract damning conclusions even when subsequent scientific inquiry shows the original science was completely bogus. Even as subsequent studies continue to show there is no link at all between vaccines and autism, and the study has been withdrawn from the journal in an unprecedented move, it continues to be extremely difficult to eradicate the belief among the public that there is some correlation.

I understand it becomes more difficult to make decisions about vaccines when science seems to be at odds with itself (especially when children impacted by a parent's decision), but it begins to make little rational sense to deny children vaccines when the negative study has been proven incorrect an EVERY OTHER study has shown there is no link between vaccines and autism. Of course, if at any point multiple studies do show that childhood vaccines are related to autism, I will change my tune, but until then, I am going to go with science over pseudo-science, even if I end up disagreeing with Jenny McCarthy.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pirates' major improvement

The Pittsburgh Pirates lost their first Grapefruit game against Toronto Blue Jays 7-1. This presaged nothing, of course, but was appropriate. Whenever the Pirates lose it is appropriate. Today they play their first game at home at McKechnie Field. However, this season the Pirates greatly improved in one area.

From 2006 to 2011 Pirate games were broadcast on WPGB. This was anathema to a tradition with KDKA going back to 1955 and the station which broadcast the first baseball game ever on radio in 1921 (Pirates-Phillies). This year KDKA-FM becomes the flagship station broadcasting the Pirates' games again. This means that tuning in early or on the wrong day means you won't have to listen to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Michael Savage. This can only make the Pirates and their fans better.

The only down side is the radio station is called KDKA-FM 93.7 The Fan. Hopefully, 'The Fan' isn't a swing and a miss.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Campus Greens Recycle Flash Mob

The Campus Greens is the student environmental group at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. The following film was edited by Ellen. Most of all, it got her on the HWS website -- one more life goal achieved.

In the Where's Waldo department, see if you can spot her in the video.

Ethics and Aesthetics

"Ethics and Aesthetics are one"
     —Ludwig Wittgenstein

"Because the poet traffics in mimesis, ungoverned by reason, appealing to the irrational part of the soul, this makes it right for us to proceed to lay hold of him and set him down as the counterpart of the painter, for he resembles him in that his creations are inferior in respect of reality, and the fact that his appeal is to the inferior part of the soul and not to the best part is another point of resemblance. And so we may at last say that we should be justified in not admitting him into a well-ordered state, because he stimulates and fosters this element in the soul, and by strengthening it tends to destroy the rational part, just as when in a state one puts bad men in power and turns the city over to them and ruins the better sort."
      —Plato (To be fair, Plato did consider music as a higher form of art than poetry or painting.)

Ethics and aesthetics constitute a profound unity
     —José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema in 1975

Thursday, March 1, 2012

TED, but mostly E

The jury is still out on whether TED Talks are
  1. "ideas worth spreading"
  2. Oprah II - inspirational couch
  3. circus performing scientists
  4. primetime infomercials
T.E.D., after all, does stand for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. This first one fits all three spectacularly, but the purpose may be that we need more than that to have a purpose.

This one, again, has all three with a purpose of the "E" part of TED.