March 29, 2004

A tale of a theism scorned--continued!

Posted by Curt at 07:15 PM in Geek Talk | permalink | 25 comments

This continuation of the earlier discussion of the merits of atheism will no doubt attract the interest of only the most devoted pedants, but the epistemological issues run so deep here that they have already exhausted many minds and millions of words through the course of history, so another couple may not be overly gregarious here. First, I should like to thank The Serpent for pointing out an error in my definition of solipsism in the comment box to my previous entry on this subject. I defined the solipsist as a sort of empirical agnostic, unsure of the existence of the outside world and believing that such knowledge is probably unattainable.

In fact, as was pointed out to me, this is not the commonly accepted definition of solipsism, which is, according to the OED, the “view that self is the only object of real knowledge or the only thing really existent.” So one can see that the first definition, that “self is the only object of real knowledge,” is essentially comparable to my definition, but the second definition, that oneself is “the only thing really existent,” goes rather beyond it.

However, I have always felt that the movement from acceptance of the first proposition, that “self is the only object of real knowledge,” or in other words that the existence of the outside world cannot be verified, to belief in the second, that self is “the only thing really existent,” is just as logically unjustified as the atheistic movement from acceptance of the idea that the existence of God cannot be ascertained to the belief that God does not exist. Consequently, I have tended to take the first definition as my personal definition of solipsism, which fairly well describes my own personal feelings, and reject the second. However, I am aware that this is somewhat idiosyncratic and confusing for those who associate solipisism with the second definition; my apologies for any confusion created.

However, even this “agnostic” form of solipsism is subject to the criticism that I insinuated before, that it would seem to be debilitating and anti-useful if on the basis of it, qua the most rigorous standards of reason, one affected to refuse to accept the existence of anything in the external world. Now of course one might ask why even after reaching this point one would be prevented from accepting the existence of the external world.

The reason is that the the vey essence of reason, in my opinion, is the principle of refusing to accept that which cannot be established absolutely as true. Now, I accept Descartes’ argument that only the existence of our own thoughts can be absolutely estabished to be true (well, actually only the existence of my thoughts). The existence of the external world, on the other hand, cannot be. As I have said before, I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that one should only accept that which has been absolutely established as true, but if one one wishes to do so, then one, to the best of my knowledge, cannot accept the existence of the external world either on the merits of our perceptions or based on the existence of our thoughts.

One could perhaps accept the existence of the world provisionally if some other self-evident certain belief justified it; Descartes, for example, offers the existence of God, who would not deceive us as to the existence of the outside world, as this justifying belief, but his argument for the existence of God is much less convincing than his argument for the existence of mind. In any case, the immediate point, in any case, is that the existence of the external world cannot be justified on the basis of our perceptions, and the ultimate point is that if atheists wish to apply this rigourous standard of verification to justify their denial of the existence of God, for the sake of consistency they should also apply that standard to the external world and deny its existence.

Since I do not know anyone who has managed to exist for 10 minutes without accepting at some level the existence of the outside world, the verification principle, reason, does not seem to be a sufficient criterion for accepting or rejecting the most fundamental concepts of our existence. Now it could be opposed to this that while it is obviously necessary to accept the existence of the world in order to continue living, belief in the existence of God is not critical to our lives and so we can uphold our intellectual integrity in denying its existence in a way that we cannot with the outside world.

But this type of argument actually just proves my point, because here this distinction is not a logical one, but simply a matter of priorities. We find it necessary to accept the existence of food, for example, so we do; God’s existence is not necessary, so we do not accept it. Therefore, we can see that the real basis for belief is not rational, impersonal, but rather subjective and personal, which I do not necessarily consider an intellectual tragedy, but simply the way things in reality are and always have been. If we accept that the ultimate criterion of our beliefs is our subjective, personal needs, then we can perhaps more directly address those needs and even maybe attain a measure of happiness, at any rate more so than if we persist in adhering to abstract, illusory paradigms.

EDIT Bad link to fake e-mail address removed by shonk

Europe gets a head start

Posted by shonk at 10:35 AM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

Something I never realized until I was talking to Petya today: Europe starts Daylight Saving Time a week before the States do. I’m guessing that means there are a lot of people, like myself, very confused today.

Future-proofing selling waves

Posted by shonk at 01:53 AM in Blogging | permalink | comment

After thinking about it for a long time, knowing I should but dreading the process, I finally went ahead and future-proofed my URLs, which is #5 on Gina’s list of nine ways to make your website better. As it turned out, it went more smoothly than I had hoped (of course, the bugs won’t start popping up until tomorrow, but as of right now it looks pretty good).

Anyway, for those that don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, basically I wanted to make sure that web addresses of the various posts, archives, etc. on this site would look more like this:

than like this:

See, in the first we avoid two key issues. The first is the use of a file extension, in this case .html. Now, the file extension is fine, so long as I never want to change the format of the pages on this site. But if I decide I want to make .php pages instead, all of a sudden everybody’s links to my pages are broken. Changing to .php is unlikely, but what if, some day in the future, something newer and spiffier comes out? That’s why it’s called “future-proofing”.

The second issue is that in the second example above, the URL refers to some internal identification scheme. Which is usually a big no-no anyway, but is especially bad since, due to this, exporting and then importing your entries can “break every link to every entry(Movable Type’s non-permanent permalinks). On the other hand, in the new schema, not only is this not a problem, but the entry URL actually tells anybody that looks at it something about its contents: specifically, in the example above, that the entry was written on March 29, 2004, and that it probably has something to do with the words “future proof”. That way, even if somehow that link gets broken, it gives the reader something pretty helpful to plug into the search engine, whereas a six-digit string of numbers doesn’t mean anything to anybody.

So, it’s a good idea. Okay, but how do we do it? Well, I sure as hell wasn’t going to figure it out on my own, so I combined two different sets of instructions from around the web. The bulk of what I did is contained in Már Örlygsson’s “Howto: Future-proof URLs in Movable Type”. Then, I used a nifty plugin, Short title, and Dave Dribin’s suggestions to be able to customize the URLs by way of the “Keywords” field.

Anyway, hopefully it all works. If there are any problems, please let me know.

UPDATE Needless to say, I spoke too soon. Got a 500 error somewhere in the midst of sending Trackback pings. No idea what the problem is, but I’ll work on it tomorrow.

March 27, 2004

Religious polemics? To the hatchet-mobile!

Posted by Curt at 02:26 PM in Ramblings | permalink | 9 comments

My brother’s opinion on the merits of a statistical argument for atheism pretty much suffices; the argument is wholly without merit and ought to be a source of embarassment for those who employ it. It is almost as bad as the “scientific” or “historical” proofs of atheism which try to use biology, physics, the archaeological record, etc. to prove that the events of scripture could not have occured as described. This is clearly missing the point, even though I do not for a minute go in for the weak-kneed religious defense that all the scriptural stories are actually metaphorical and are not to be taken literally. That is clearly hogwash: these were the explanatory stories about the world for entire cultures through many epochs, and it is only since the truth of scriptures have come under questioning scrutiny that their adherents have begun using this argument for the, shall we call it, poetic merits of scripture. Nevertheless, proving the ridiculousness of certain points of scripture does not bring us any closer to the proposition that God does not exist, any more than a belief that God does exist requires one to accept each one of those dogmatic points of scripture.

In any case, both the statistical and “scientific” arguments are equally based on the deplorable literalism which also characterizes religious fundamentalism, which is to say that they take the words of the sacred books to be the most important issue, rather than the status of the wider theological question, a point that I tried to make as an addendum to my fulminating about “The Passion.” One other point, which is somewhat implicit both in what I have just written and in my brother’s response to the statistical argument, is that atheists do not simply, as the e-mailer claims, “question a claim,” presumably that God exists; if they did, they would be like my brother and I, agnostics. Instead, the posit a counter-claim, “God does not exist,” which is no more logically defensible than the converse and possibly ethically less so. In fact, the very statistical argument which the e-mailer so confidently predicts will validate his atheism would actually indicate that atheism is almost certainly wrong, because whatever particular sect people adhere to, the vast, vast majority of humanity believes in the existence of some sort of God/deity/supreme being/whatever, while only a small number are actually atheists. So the dilemma for the atheist who wants to use the statistical argument is that it is either a) invalid or b) valid, but actually indicates that atheism is wrong. Obviously I think that the argument is crap, so it should simply be dropped, but the difference (all too often forgotten by atheists) between belief in the existence of God and adherence to a particular sect at least deserves notice. Further, almost every one of the skeptical arguments regarding the existence of God (i.e. humans are not equipped to know the truth of the matter, etc.) apply equally well to the atheistic counter-proposition, as far as I know.

Of course, in defense of both theists and atheists, the existence of God is a question upon which it is difficult to remain neutral, regardless of whether it is a matter upon which one can have any rational insight or knowledge. Further, as anyone who reads Hume knows well, if one really really applies the principal of empirical skepticism rigourously, only accepting that which logically obtains from experience, well, the result is solipsism, because one can not really know or prove the existence of anything except one’s own thoughts (and maybe not even those, grazie a Freud). And Hume seems to suggest that it is inevitable that we accept the existence of the outside world despite ultimately having no rational grounds for doing so; one could even suggest further that if the employment of reason exclusively truly results in solipsism, and gives no grounds to know anything except one’s thoughts, than reason is perhaps not always the best means of evaluating the objects of the world. It may be that way with theism, too: one may not be able to justify belief in the existence of God logically, but that does not in itself prove that logic is the supreme criterion for judgment on the issue, hence does not prove that faith is necessarily a bad criterion for belief. Since most people who listen to people like Richard Dawkins nod and smile and go on merrily believing in God, I can only suspect that this is a common subconsious line of thought (although, pace Tolstoy, that does not necessarily argue for the merits of this way of thinking either). And in any case, even if atheism really were a skeptical view, like agnosticism, one cannot be skeptical about everything. Even we agnostics are dogmatic in our own way: we are like the truth-seekers in Nietzsche who subject every idea and belief to scrutiny except the existence and value of the truth, which passes as an a priori value.

And so all things in moderation: skepticism and belief are really twin poles of abstraction. One cannot be entirely skeptical any more than one can believe whole-heartedly, I don’t think. I suspect that the most fervent devout catches himself possessed by doubts about his central points of belief just as often as the avowed skeptic catches himself in the course of his day passing uncritically through the world, but if the devout is healthy-minded he will not flagellate himself for these doubts but will welcome the chance to reassess his beliefs and either return to them strengthened in conviction or abandon them, counting himself fortunate for being rid of his illusions, just as the self-honest skeptic will realize that to apply his skepticism universally and constantly is not only an impossibility, but a misery, the misery of uncertainty and unrest about everything. I think we all have to learn to live with the persistence of the unexamined belief just as we do the gnawing doubt that surrounds even the things which seem most certain to us.

Tsarist Russia, caught on film

Posted by shonk at 02:27 AM in Art | permalink | 6 comments

More proof that if you’re not hitting up the metablog or feedroll for updates, you’re missing out: John Venlet links to a recent post at Gene Expressions which, in turn, points to this amazing gallery of color photographs from Tsarist Russia (arranged in several categories listed at the top of the linked page, or in this complete list). Everything about these photographs is stunning, not least of which is the fact that they’re almost 100 years old. I think we tend, at least subconsciously, to think of the world before color photography as being fundamentally black-and-white, even though we know, intellectually, that it wasn’t; these photographs shatter that paradigm. Seriously, check them out.

Statistics prove that God is dead

Posted by shonk at 02:00 AM in Science | permalink | 6 comments

A while ago Elliot posted a rather scornful entry criticizing Richard Dawkins; while Elliot got a little carried away with the name-calling, I think he made some valid criticisms of Dawkins. Eventually, someone came across it on Google, fired off an email, Elliot cc’d the exchange to a high school friend in grad school, Neil and I got involved and the emailer responded. From that latest email:

There are lots of compelling reasons to reject or dismiss religious claims. I am not someone who comes to the discussion with no knowledge: I am an anthropologist, a student of comparative religion, and someone who has read every major religious text and many minor ones. To me, the best and really the only necessary argument against religion IS ALL THE DIFFERENT RELIGIONS. You are a Christian; great. But most people in the world are not. They have their own religions, that they believe just as fervently as you do yours, and that they “argue” for and find “evidence” for. But if yours is true, theirs are false. But if theirs are true, yours is false. A simple thought experiment: say there are 100 religions in the world. Each has an equal chance of being “true.” That means that each has a 1% chance of being true. That means that each has a 99% chance of being false. A recent study counted 33,000 sects JUST OF CHRISTIANITY. They must differ enough on some points to be different churches or denominations. So, the chances of any one sect “getting it right” is 0.003%. The chances of being wrong, whatever you believe, are at least 99.997%. Or, if there is no god at all, then 100%.
So you see, we atheists do not even need an argument! We bear no burden of proof, since we make no claims; we only question a claim—a claim with no good evidence for it and the odds stacked IMMENSELY against it. Evil schmevil, the point is that a theist believes against all odds.

So, statistically, we’ve proven that God is dead? I suspect even Nietzsche is rolling over in his grave at that.

Elliot promises a response, but I say: what’s the point in responding? Just because most religions are wrong on one count or another doesn’t mean they’re all wrong about everything. If one wants to argue religion based on demographics, one could just as easily point out that all religions share their rejection of materialism, meaning that the overwhelming majority of people and belief systems reject materialism. Hence, if we grant each worldview an equal probability of being “right”, then materialist atheism has a very, very tiny chance indeed of being correct.

I’ve addressed this whole argument from demographics thing before simply by noting that 20 million people can, indeed, be wrong. Although the approach is slightly different this time around, the basic cause remains the same: most people, even highly intelligent people, don’t understand numbers very well, especially in a statistical context. If we reduce an issue, be it buying a car or adopting a belief system, to a simple binary choice, then we’re going to get impressive statistics supporting both sides of the argument. Chevy may advertise that 20 million Americans bought the Lumina, but they conveniently fail to mention that this implies that 260 million Americans didn’t buy a Lumina. Similarly, an atheist can say “there’s 30,000 religions, so the probability that any one is right is, like, 0.003%”, but he usually fails to mention that this implies there are at least 30,001 different belief systems, including atheism, so he, too, only has a 0.003% chance of being right.

Another example of where a lack of quantitative literacy, to use Lynn Steen’s term, creates severe misconceptions arises in the context of the book I was re-reading today, Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac. In it, the protagonist/quasi-eco-terrorist/resident asshole, Sangamon Taylor, rails at several points about major polluters using the analogy of “an eyedropper-full of ‘compounds’ going into a railway tank car of pure water” to explain parts per million of pollutants for the TV cameras. Taylor goes off on a banana-peel-on-a-football-field rap, but he could also have countered by noting that one part per million of some noxious pollutant with a molar mass similar to that of water would mean 3 x 10^16, or 30 quadrillion, molecules of that pollutant in each and every drop of water in that tank car. In the chapter on asbestos in his excellent book A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos points out this counter-argument is also misleading, but the point is that there are scary-sounding statistics supporting pretty much any perspective you like.

Paulos has been trying his best to teach people a bit of basic mathematical literacy over the years, with books like A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper and Innumeracy, but I think it’s fair to say that there are still plenty of people who are easily manipulated by the use of statistics. It’s hard to disagree with Paulos and the likes of Steen et al. in Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy when they argue that “numeracy” or “quantitative literacy” is more important than ever in a society such as ours (even though the ideological slant in Quantitative Literacy is a bit grating).

Anyway, the point is that statistics can be misleading and deceptive even in instances where they are applicable. Getting back to the religion question, however, the larger point is that statistics aren’t even relevant to begin with. All they do is obscure the debate. If there is or isn’t a God, it really doesn’t matter how many people believe in him/her/it. To draw another analogy, just because the majority of people throughout the bulk of human history found slavery acceptable doesn’t mean they were right; by the same token, the fact that the majority of people throughout history were wrong about slavery doesn’t mean they were wrong about loving their children or any number of other beliefs they had. “Right” and “wrong”, if we stipulate that such things exist in the first place, aren’t subject to a vote.

March 26, 2004

Aye, Comrade, loading Slide 2...

Posted by Curt at 07:17 PM in Uncategorized Current Events | permalink | 3 comments

Sigh. And, once again, two of my favorite peeves: PowerPoint and arguments about the Establishment Clause.

March 24, 2004

Another aesthetic dogma

Posted by Curt at 09:45 PM in Art | permalink | 4 comments

The usually level-headed “New Yorker” throws out this little paen to Woody Guthrie, and in the course of emphazing the proletarianism and and anti-establishmentarianism of this clearly exceptional musician works itself up to this coda:

“popular music is ripe for something new. Whatever comes will surely be something that challenges the complacency of the mainstream; something from disreputable sources; something critical of the status quo, harsh, simple, seemingly anti-musical, and doable without formal training—that is to say, something much in the vein of what Woody Guthrie did. “

I don’t know if this is really the spirit in which Guthrie composed his music, but it is certainly a fairly dominant dogma in music today, though ironically the “anti-musical” music which seeks to “challenge the complacency of the mainstream,” far from coming from “disreputable sources” generally embodies the establishment itself, as if the Hollywood music industry, indie hipsters and theorists have colluded in an unholy conspiracy to favor anything but tradition-cogniscent, formally structured, beautiful music—in other words, I have little doubt that Herbert von Karajan would be virtually a pariah figure in the musical world today.

An interesting counterpoint to this article is another new article about the increasing legitimacy of film score music as a thriving branch of the classical tradition. The author portrays the film score composers in Hollywood during the 1930’s and ’40s as being almost as much refugees from European conservatories as from the war, because their adherence to tonality and to a certain operatic style of composition had become seen as hopelessly outdated in post-Shönberg Europe. But, the implication is, audiences instinctively responded to this Romantic, tonal music in a way that they did not to the music of Schönberg, Webern, et al., whose actual music is relatively obscure despite their extreme prominence as musical personalities.

My interest in this matter extends beyond music proper, although music is a particularly good art in which to examine the various aesthetic issues and debates in question here. This is because music, as Nietzsche realized, is a particularly pure art form, very little subject to extraneous intellectual considerations or to esoteric analysis. This is to say that while one can possibly explain one’s liking for a book or a painting by various philosophical, sociological, or even religious means, music resists those sorts of explanations. Ultimately, there is nothing articulate about music, nor is it a representative art, so our feelings about it are largely instinctual. For example, try asking even a musicologist why a minor key sounds sadder or more tragic than a major key, and I suspect that the question will prove virtually impossible to answer. It just does. Even tonal relationships themselves are simply founded, ultimately, on the datum that the tones which compose them simply sound harmonious together. But it is indisputable that some sounds evoke certain moods or reactions, and others do not. In that sense, music would seem to be a rather pure aesthetic experience.

I entered a dispute quite recently with the father of a good friend of mine, a Russian expatriate who, I assume, came to jazz fairly late in life but had nonetheless become quite a devotee, particularly of some of the avant-garde luminaries in the last flowering decade before it became fairly obscure, musicians like Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor. I contended that while I could very well appreciate, if not understand, the staggering complexity of, say, Taylor’s music, I frankly did not enjoy it, and certainly not the experience of listening to it for an hour. He asked how it was that I could prefer the more “primitive,” almost reactionary music of contemporary jazzmen like Oscar Peterson and Teddy Wilson. Well, what was I to say? The choice, I think, cannot entirely be justified on intellectual grounds alone. Taylor’s playing is certainly more “revolutionary,” if that word means anything anymore, perhaps more “important” than Peterson’s; it sets out to challenge and eradicate all received musical structural relationships, and largely succeeds in this. However, I think the lack of this element counts as a mark in favor of the listenability of Peterson, and its presence makes Taylor’s music extremely difficult to sustain exposure to.

And so I return to my original point. Certain musical structures, just like components of any art, evoke and correspond to certain emotions or moods, to pleasure, or sadness, or happiness. One can call it the tonal science or whatever else, those correspondences between note and feeling that the opera composers particularly labored so to perfect, but the fact is that they exist. Musicians like Taylor or Schönberg who ignore this or construct emotional correspondences so idiosyncratic that no one else can relate to them are unsuccessful, in my opinion, and certainly unenjoyable, even if their intellectual ideas are brilliant.

By no means do I wish to sound the mandarin note like the deplorable critics, the modern-day Mortimer Adlers, who insist that we return to hide-bound traditions, to Renaissance-style representational paintings and Victorian novels. That is useless, the sort of acontextual nostalgia which ironically, in my opinion, largely characterized the supposedly anti-traditional music of the ’60s, especially the folk and blues revivals, with their attendant ideological baggage, to largely catastrophic consequences. Out went the beautiful, innovative and yet popular music of real jazz giants like Nat King Cole and in came hack blues imitators like the Rolling Stones. No, rather my ideal is something like what someone, it might have been Joel Carmichael, said about Tolstoy: “he wrote as if nothing had ever been written before. Or rather, as if he had read everything, but none of it was important.” This is where the greatest art originates: not forcing oneself to adhere to tradition, but not forcing oneself to rebel from it either. One carries out a duel with life, rather than one’s predecessors. Tolstoy had a transcendent simplicity, and it is this simplicity, not complexity, which in my opinion made him such a vast writer. He did not reject the typical and yet exceptional fare of life like love and death, as an avant-gardist might do, but he did not regard it in a clichéd, received manner either. He simply treated it all with simple, fresh eyes, as if there were only four or five important things in the world, endlessly repeating, always present, and so his writing gets right to the very heart of things, without simmering in complex solipsism or battling the anxiety of influence. This is how art is ultimately measured, I imagine, by us all: not by its complexity, or its novelty, or its technical mastery, but by its resonance, which when deep is pure and simple, as complex as necessary but no more so.

Unwanted sexual advances and creating a phallic mythos

Posted by shonk at 12:42 AM in Feminism | permalink | 1 comment

Laura Kipnis asks a very interesting question: “Are onetime ‘unwanted advances’ really a feminist issue?” With Naomi Wolf’s recent revelations about Harold Bloom’s advances some twenty years ago as a starting point, Kipnis wonders whether some context isn’t being dropped from this sort of story:

Is something being left out of the story, though? Do the recipients not wield just a tiny bit of power in such situations—the power to reject and humiliate the advancer, at the very least? And these days, given the moral high ground the accusers seem to occupy, there’s another form of power to consider: the power of public disgrace—available even when the accuser’s motives are ambiguous.

Certainly Wolf’s belated response to Bloom’s conduct is restricted to a single note: outrage at how it disempowered and demeaned her. But why was this strikingly unattractive but very intelligent man’s desire to get in her pants so demeaning? Did she, perhaps, accord him more power in her mind than he deserved? Kipnis certainly seems to think so:

One of the interesting contradictions of Wolf-and-Jones-style feminism is its apparent thralldom to the phallic mythos it’s also so deeply offended by. Wolf describes becoming “sick with excitement” when Bloom agreed to read her poetry. Why? Exactly because he was a charismatic and famous guy, because she wanted his approval, and wanted to be found attractive (as she relates in a thinly fictionalized account of the episode in her memoir Promiscuities). And let’s face it: The sexual privilege that accrues to Important Men accrues for exactly this reason.

Kipnis strays from this theme a bit, but I think it’s a very interesting question. One that, admittedly, I’m not completely qualified to answer. In fact, part of my reason for posting this is to try to peer-pressure Petya into responding, since she’s thought a lot more about these issues than I have.

Anyway, as for my opinion, I don’t think it’s at all improbable that, in devoting so much time and effort to denouncements of “masculine power” and the “male-dominated power structure”, some feminists have actually accorded more power to the men than the men actually have. After all, it’s one thing to have to deal with guys that are jerks, or to recognize that men tend to have better jobs and more choices than women; it’s quite another to stipulate that society is inherently masculine or that some secret male conspiracy has seized control of the world and will never relinquish it. The first scenario is one that invites action, awareness and constructive work for a positive change, whereas the second engenders fatalism, cynicism and defeatism. After all, if the men have rigged the world so that women will always be subjugated, what’s the use in fighting it?

To bring it back to Kipnis’ assertion and Wolf, if you’ve been inculcated with the notion that males have an almost mythical power for shaping and determining the world, isn’t it pretty natural to be in thrall of that power and that myth, to turn to it for validation? After all, humans seem to be innately drawn to the mythical, to that which, rightly or wrongly, they perceive as having abilities and powers beyond their own. And note that a myth need not be associated with something good or benevolent: the comic-book supervillian is as much myth as the comic-book superhero. And, come to think of it, the supervillian usually gets more women than the superhero.

My point is, I don’t think it unlikely that some feminists have, by way of their ideology, made myths of men and male power by mentally granting them more influence than they deserve and that this mythology has made those women more vulnerable to precisely that which they fight. It is, of course, not my intent to paint all feminists with this brush, as many certainly don’t fall into this category, but nor would it be reasonable to confine this analysis (assuming it’s correct, of course), to feminists alone. One would expect minority activists, environmentalists, libertarians, communists, anarchists and pretty much every other primarily single-issue dissenting group to be susceptible to the same sort of thing.

(Link courtesy John Venlet)

March 23, 2004

Chomsky backs "Bush-lite"

Posted by shonk at 11:51 PM in Politics | permalink | 18 comments

I don’t know how I missed this one. “Chomsky backs ‘Bush-lite’ Kerry”:

Noam Chomsky, the political theorist and leftwing guru, yesterday gave his reluctant endorsement to the Democratic party’s presidential contender, John Kerry, calling him “Bush-lite”, but a “fraction” better than his rival.

Stuff like this always makes me laugh. Chomsky the purported “anarchist” is throwing his support behind the big State-loving, incredibly wealthy, Skull & Bones member John Kerry. Which is just sort of pathetic in and of itself, but the fact that Chomsky is aware of the contradiction and yet still does it is what makes it funny. To me, Chomsky is a virtually infinite source of humor because he’s one of the most intellectually dishonest people I’ve ever come across. My God, one would think a linguist of all people would have a little more faith in spontaneous order, but I admit it’s a subtle connection, so I don’t hold it against him. What I do resent are tidbits like this:

He reserved his especial venom for the Bush administration’s plans for the health sector: “The people around Bush are deeply committed to dismantling the achievements of popular struggle through the past century no matter what the cost to the general population.”

Now, I’m no cheerleader for any Bush administration policies, but I know enough about Chomsky to know that his proposed alternative is about 100 times worse than anything Bush’s people could dream up (after all, no matter what one thinks of the guy’s politics, he’s undoubtedly smarter than anybody in the Bush administration). After all, what Chomsky (again, remember, he calls himself an “anarchist”) wants is “universal”, state-provided healthcare on a level even Hillary Clinton wouldn’t dream of. Of course the irony of it all is that Chomsky is deliberately ignoring the number 1 lesson to be learned from the last century’s politics: big, invasive, controlling states are bad. This is a classic Chomsky moment of intellectual dishonesty.

Now, you may be saying to yourself “Wait a minute, state-provided healthcare may mean bigger government, but it doesn’t necessarily mean more invasive or more controlling government. Why, with the proper guidelines, privacy policies, …” NO! You’ve got it all wrong. When my health care is state-provided, my health becomes a direct interest to the state and the people who pay for it, the general public. And when my health is a direct interest to the state and the general public, my lifestyle decisions become public policy. My decision to eat a third slice of pizza, drink a beer after dinner, smoke a cigarette, eat the mushrooms or write a weblog post instead of going for a jog is no longer my decision. That decision lies in the realm of public debate, public interest and state involvement. Don’t believe it? Well consider this: if I make the “wrong” decision, what is the end result when health care is exclusively state-provided? The end result is that I have wasted taxpayer money, that the hard-working citizens, already overburdened by taxes, are forced to subsidize my unhealthy, self-destructive and possibly downright reckless or dangerous behavior. If you don’t think the bureaucrats and the taxpayers will have an interest in that, you haven’t been paying attention. And trust me, when my lifestyle choices become a matter of public policy, the state will have every justification for forcing me to make the “right” choices. And this is exactly what Chomsky, the “anarchist”, would like to see.

Come to think of it, this isn’t funny at all.

Privacy in the news

Posted by shonk at 11:03 PM in Politics | permalink | comment

From Wired, two recent articles related to privacy issues. One, “Privacy Maven Now Works for Feds”, talks about how Lisa Dean, Washington liaison for the estimable Electronic Frontier Foundation, has a new job with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Dean was the one who was calling for Congressional intervention in the TSA’s controversial CAPPS-II passenger profiling and cross-indexing program. Instead of doing anything particularly useful (like, oh, say, stopping the damn thing), it looks like Dean will be writing a “strong”, “broad” and “fair” privacy policy for CAPPS-II, there’s no doubt in my mind that, when push comes to shove, that privacy policy will be little more than window dressing (see also the Tenth Amendment). The real question is this: will Dean become a scapegoat in the privacy community, or will she be considered a hero for her compromising ways? Of course, I have the same questions about whoever takes the Department of Homeland Security’s newest job.

Speaking of Amendments and window-dressing (this time the Fourth and Fifth), the “Supremes Weigh In on ID Debate” - specifically, the case of a Nevada man, Larry “Dudley” Hiibel, who was convicted of resisting arrest for refusing to give his name or show ID in an encounter with police. The Nevada attorney general gives the expected argument that “identifying yourself is a neutral act”. The obvious next question:

But if that is allowed, several justices asked, what will be next? A fingerprint? Telephone number? E-mail address? What about a national identification card?

Of course, the issue isn’t really the name per se, it’s what databases like CAPPS-II will associate with that name, and everybody knows it. As Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says:

A name is now no longer a simple identifier; it is the key to a vast, cross-referenced system of public and private databases, which lay bare the most intimate features of an individual’s life.

An argument between a man and his daughter in a pickup on the side of a rural road isn’t probable cause for arrest, but an argument between a convicted felon and his daughter or an Iranian national and his daughter in the same pickup might well be. Hell, even peace-loving nuns get red-flagged by the computers.

Of course, the apologists see nothing wrong with requiring names, IDs, whatever. After all, as Justice Scalia said in the hearings, “I cannot imagine any responsible citizen would have objected to giving the name.” That’s right, you’re at best an irresponsible citizen and probably a terrorist sympathizer or liberal pantywaist wit something to hide if you have some concerns about letting your name be run through the federal database just because some rural cop got bored with radar-gunning traffic and drinking coffee. After all, it’s not like the computers ever make mistakes or anything.

More Shock Troops

Posted by shonk at 09:27 PM in What the Fuck? | permalink | comment

Davezilla wants to know what’s up with all the camo :

Have you noticed lately that girls are wearing camo everything? Is this part of the war on terrorism? Shock the Iraqis with hot pink minis? Or are the girls trying to blend in with cartoon characters and drag queens? Someone please enlighten me.

I think he was right with the first idea. Me, I figure it’s all part of a larger scheme to create a second wave of shock troops. You know, for when the first shock wears off.

Cool Stuff

Posted by shonk at 09:19 PM in Art , Blogging | permalink | comment

Technorati has a new look and new features. Check it out.

Also, check out The Untitled Project. Makes you think about your surroundings a bit. (Props to Jason Kottke for the link)

March 22, 2004

More lessons learned

Posted by shonk at 11:15 AM in Bulgaria | permalink | comment

Updating the list as I think of new ones:

  • 6’7” guys (that’s 2.01m for you metric types) with pale complexions are never mistaken for Bulgarian natives.
  • There’s always at least one journalist in Club 703. I’m pretty sure it’s company policy.
  • There’s nothing quite so forlorn as a Lada buried in snow, with only a crazy guy in the back of the pickup down the street to keep it company.

March 21, 2004

PowerPoint sucks!

Posted by shonk at 05:14 PM in Ramblings | permalink | 3 comments

While in Bulgaria, I attended a public discussion on new media. Since I don’t speak Bulgarian, I had plenty of time to think about the style of the presentations; specifically, what I see as being the deficiencies of the standard PowerPoint presentation.

I have to admit, my ruminations were spurred by Petya, who turned to me early in the first presentation and whispered “I hate PowerPoint presentations”. I had never really thought about it, but I tend to agree. In his article “PowerPoint is Evil” (be sure to click the link, for the hilarious image, if nothing else), Edward Tufte spells out some reasons why:

In a business setting, a PowerPoint slide typically shows 40 words, which is about eight seconds’ worth of silent reading material. With so little information per slide, many, many slides are needed. Audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another. When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships. Visual reasoning usually works more effectively when relevant information is shown side by side. Often, the more intense the detail, the greater the clarity and understanding. This is especially so for statistical data, where the fundamental analytical act is to make comparisons.

A rather vivid illustration of Tufte’s point is that PowerPoint helped cause the Columbia catastrophe (unfortunately, only an abstract is still available for free).

Back to the public discussion in Sofia for some more examples: a couple of the presenters used PowerPoint (or, in the case of one, AutoPilot) to relatively good effect, but several exhibited the classic defects of substandard PowerPoint presentations: an emphasis on design over content, letting the medium dictate the message, presenting spurious graphics irrelevant to the presentation, etc. My God, a couple of the presentations had literally dozens of screenshots of the same website, which the speaker methodically clicked through in a rather unfortunate attempt to highlight the features of that site. And let’s not even get into the presenter who didn’t even know how to use PowerPoint, or the fact that all but two of the speakers showed their slides in edit mode rather than as a full-screen presentation.

Of course, as The Bofe Blog points out, PowerPoint can be used effectively, but, like Flash intros, I’d have to say the failures outnumber the successes by a pretty large margin.

If you must use PowerPoint, at least keep in mind the following advice from The Bofe Blog:

Visual aids should only be used when they are needed. This sounds like common sense, but you would be surprised how many MS Clipart-ridden presentations with clunky animations are being presented in the world of Higher Education. PowerPoint’s interface makes it very easy to get caught up in the aesthetics of your presentation (theme, clipart, etc) without focusing on the content.

Tufte generalizes this principle:

At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play -very loud, very slow, and very simple.

The practical conclusions are clear. PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience.

So, okay, maybe PowerPoint doesn’t suck, but let’s not try to use it beyond the scope of its capabalities.

March 20, 2004

CSS Buttons

Posted by shonk at 11:47 PM in Blogging | permalink | 5 comments

I’ve spent entirely too much time over the last two days making the buttons for my RSS feeds, GeoURL and W3C validation that are now visible to the left and right (at least if you’re viewing this post on the main page). I think they’ve turned out pretty well, considering that they’re pure CSS buttons. Props to Mike Golding for the original inspiration, kryogenix for the basic implementation (link courtesy Jesse Lawrence) and Chris Pirillo for a nifty trick that made the CSS less overwhelming. Hopefully my blatant theft of their designs won’t get me in trouble. These examples are scaled up a bit because the text in my center column is larger than the text in my side columns:

Anyway, here’s the basic CSS that I used:

 .sidebutton {
 border: 1px solid #333;
 margin: 2px 0 0 3px;
 margin: 0 0 3px 10px;padding: 0;
 font-family: verdana, arial, sans-serif;
 font-size: 1.0em;
 .sidebutton a:link, .sidebutton a:visited, .sidebutton a:active {
 display: block;
  text-decoration: none;
 color: #fff;
 border: 1px solid white;
.sidebutton strong {
 font-weight: normal;
 padding: 1px 3px 1px 3px;

.sidebutton em {
 font-style: normal;
 font-weight: normal;
 padding: 2px 0px 2px 0px; color: #fff;

 .rssbutton { background: #999;}
 .rssbutton strong { background:#f60; }
 .rssbutton em { color: white; }
 .rssbutton a:hover { background: #000; }

 .geobutton { background: #999; }
 .geobutton strong { background:#093; font-weight:bold; font-style:italic;}
 .geobutton em { color: white; }

 .w3cbutton { background: #fc6; }
 .w3cbutton strong { background: #fff; color: #069; }
 .w3cbutton em { color: black !important; }

From there, it’s simply a matter of inserting the appropriate HTML into the main index. This is the code for my RSS 1.0 Full Text button:

<div class="sidebutton rssbutton">
href="" title="RSS 1.0 full-text syndication">
<em>1.0 Full Text</em></a> </div>

For the GeoURL button, I use class="sidebutton geobutton" and for the W3C button I use class="sidebutton w3cbutton" (and, obviously, modify the text appropriately). And that’s it. Lots of trial-and-error on the front end, but now any new buttons I want to make are a snap (at most I might have to make a new CSS sub-class, but, on the plus side, I won’t need to link to an external image or worry about making one if it doesn’t exist yet).

Now, let’s all hope I recover my sanity before I have to do some actual work tomorrow.

March 19, 2004

Some thoughts on logic

Posted by shonk at 11:57 AM in Geek Talk | permalink | 3 comments

Over at mock savvy, Neil begins his investigation of logic with an attempt to categorize exactly what logic is:

By nature, logic tends to escape exact definition; it is, vaguely put, the study of thought; and while one of the most intrinsic qualities of humanity, it does not lend itself to an intuitive characterization. This definition of logic, “the study of thought,” is equivalent to “thought about thought,” and although circular and nondescript, it is not wildly insufficient, as the reader by this point in his or her life has undoubtedly experienced the phenomenon of thought. For the purpose at hand, this simple definition provides an initial locus for the investigation of logic: the qualification of human thought.

I have to admit, I don’t particularly like this definition of logic. Neil is saying that “logic” is functionally equivalent to “metathought”. Maybe I should hold back from jumping into the fray until he fleshes the idea out a little further, but I’m not at all convinced, at this point, that metathought is necessarily logical. When I think about my thoughts, I can just as easily find myself being reflective, nostalgic, arational and even irrational as logical. For example, if I think about my thoughts and beliefs from my high school years, I often do so with a mixture of fascination and contempt. I don’t necessarily subject my thoughts from those days to a rigorous analysis, though often, of course, I do.

My point is this: as I see it, logic is a mode of thought that can be applied to virtually any subject matter, rather than a particular category of thought that can only be applied to particular subjects (other thoughts, in Neil’s contstruction). In fact, I would go further and say that logic, in the rigorous sense, is an idealized mode of thought, a structural goal which we often strive for, but, as an ideal, one which we cannot consistently achieve. In this sense, logic is strikingly similar to art; with art, too, we aspire to an artistic way of thinking, but, as even the greatest artists could probably tell you, we fall short of that ideal more often than we succeed.

In fact, this similarity between logic and art is one that has been extensively commented on by a lot of brilliant people. The most famous example I can think of is G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology. As W.W. Sawyer says :

Hardy is very anxious to show that the value of mathematics lies in its beauty, not in its practical consequences. Real mathematics is that “which has permanent aesthetic value”.

In other words, Hardy is saying that, although advances in mathematics have helped spawn orbital mechanics, computers and countless other advances, those applications do not justify the study of mathematics in and of itself. Rather, mathematics is justified by its beauty, by its aesthetic appeal. This may seem a bit strange to those who cannot or will not appreciate the full beauty of mathematics, but I would just note that Hardy’s justification is one that we take for granted in the case of art. That is, although art may be used to advance political causes (propaganda), to introduce people to new products and experiences (advertising) or to make a gathering more comfortable (background music), we don’t justify art on these practical terms. We view art as valuable and worthy of our attention and our effort because it is beautiful.

With those similarities in mind, I think my definition of logic, as an idealized mode of thought, makes some sense. This, perhaps, roughens some of the lustre of logic, as it does not grant logic the more generalized position of being “thought about thought” or metathought, but I think it’s clear that thoughts about thought can be artistic as easily as they can be logical.

One other important consideration is the following: if logic is, as Neil suggests, the “qualification of human thought”, then what is the “qualification of logic”? That is to ask, is logic capable of qualifying itself? Certainly not completely so, but perhaps incompletely? I guess I would have to argue that it is not. I admit this is a bit more epistemological than I like to get, but I’m not at all convinced that we can achieve a rich understanding of logic and logical thought entirely through logic. I think a broader, perhaps intuitive, context is necessary in order to understand both the power of logic and its limitations. I touched on this issue, albeit obliquely, in my critique of Austrian economics, but I have to admit that I’m not really ready yet to fully flesh the topic out. Nonetheless, I think it’s something to think about.

That all having been said, I’m really glad Neil is doing this and am looking forward to his development.


Posted by shonk at 01:12 AM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

For whatever reason, this used-up matchbook I found in the street today is both strange and wonderful:

is what you're smoking LEGAL?

March 18, 2004

Uncommon Sense

Posted by shonk at 10:13 PM in Economics , Politics | permalink | 1 comment

It’s been a banner day on the blogosphere. Two highlights:

  • Over at the Dynamist Blog, Virginia Postrel states concisely a point that Curt, and to a lesser extent myself, has been making for a while:

    True liberation makes the personal apolitical.

    (Link via Catallarchy)

  • No Treason’s newest writer, Joshua Holmes, states the obvious: “Outsourcing rules.” But he’s not talking about outsourcing to India; he’s talking about the biggest single form of outsourcing of the last 200 years: industrialization.

    Indeed, what is the difference between replacing jobs with machines and replacing them with Indians? In both cases Americans lose their jobs. In both cases it’s done to cut costs. In both cases the price lowers. Surely, those who blog and comment on the Internet wouldn’t want to give up their electric lights - replacing tallow and wax makers, cars - replacing horse breeders and buggy whip makers, running water - replacing drawing and purifying it yourself, or any other modern convenience, even though these conveniences replace jobs. Why are they so upset when foreigners replace Americans?

    I would only point out that many of the same people who get exercised about offshoring also get exercised about the mechanization of labor. Which isn’t to say that consistency equals correctness.

Keep an eye on these...

Posted by shonk at 09:40 PM in Science , Sports | permalink | comment

  • blog maverick — Mark Cuban, the controversial and always entertaining owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has started a weblog. Cuban isn’t afraid to name names or speak his mind and I enjoy how he likes sticking it to reporters. Yesterday he was talking to reporters while on the Stairmaster about his latest fine from the league and told them that, instead of answering their questions directly, he would address them on his blog:

    The satisfaction of knowing that each will have to explain to their editors what a blog is — and argue for who knows how long about whether or not is an attributable source — crept over me and that jaunt on the gauntlet flew by.

    As Eric McErlain points out, “[t]his is great news — both for journalists and sports blogs.”

  • An investigation into logic — Over at mock savvy, Neil is starting a series of posts that will do precisely what the title suggests:

    The motive for this embarkation is self-interest; for me, the most effective way to elucidate the many discrete questions that arise during the course of a study is to simply envisage them in some prosaic form, provide possible answers along the way, and hopefully ending up with some quasi-satisfactory results.

    I, for one, am looking forward to it, as Neil has already shown a good deal of insight into the values and pitfalls of formal systems.

The "reasonable men" get their day again

Posted by Curt at 02:35 PM in Literature | permalink | comment

A few weeks ago I posted about Theodore Dalrymple’s creation of the term “pre-ideological” to describe Stefan Zweig and, I suppose, a common breed of writer and artist in the days before the higher and lower spheres of culture become inextricably tangled up with each other. I thought at the time that this was just a whim of an unrependent conservative of the old guard, but if Christopher Hitchens, ex-radical and current neo-conservative of whom I am generally no supporter either in style or beliefs, is out to offer a tribute to Edmund Burke, well then, we may be at the beginning of a movement of some sort.

As much as Burke is generally considered a political philosopher, his views in my opinion virtually embody the idea of pre-ideological. This is fairly evident in his commitment to tradition and particularly to his idea of a continuity uniting past, present and future generations, which does not seem to have a deliberate, logical foundation in his arguments, but should not necessarily be considered unreasonable on that account. Burke seems to consider tradition to be a value in and of itself, and far be it from me to disagree with that, particularly as in my observation nostalgia seems to be almost a true universal, certainly more universal than idealism. Perhaps it is because we always perceive the present through the eyes of the past, so that even our idealism is often tinged with nostalgia. As Leopardi says, “Our happiness always lies in the past.”

In any event, Burke’s views seem to be a much more reasonable defense of tradition than most others I have encountered. I have always, for example, found something pleasant about the air of grandeur and culture surrounding certain elements of the church, despite by no means being of any creed myself. I find Burke’s tacit explanation of this bizarre attachment, that these traditions acquire a value simply by virtue of their perpetuation, much more satisfying and true than the orthodox religious explanation that their value is based upon the absolute truth of scripture, which I dismiss (pending further evidence and experience). It may be distressing to some (even to myself) that people find meaning and value in things simply by virtue of their existence and perpetuation, but it seems to be true, and those wishing to register complaints had better take them up with whatever shaped our natures. This is not to say that nostalgia or tradition are most valuable; there are often higher imperatives, as I would be the first to concede; then again, Burke felt that way too. He was one of the strongest opponents of slavery and of colonialism, for example, despite the undeniable body of tradition surrounding both practices, because there were higher imperatives mitigating against them. On the other hand, he was not going to be beaten along into approving of the French Revolution, no matter how much slave-liberty rhetoric was bandied about.

The central point seems to be that it is often necessary to break with tradition when there is something greater or better at stake, but nothing except destruction can come of challenging traditions simply because they are latent. Perhaps it would be best to follow Descartes’ description of his own working method for challenging his own beliefs so as to arrive at true, valid principles: “as I had from that time begun to hold my own opinions for nought because I wished to subject them all to examination, I was convinced that I could not do better than follow in the meantime the opinions of the most judicious…expediency seemed to dictate that I should regulate my practice comformably to the opinions of those with whom I should have to live.”

In short, many of us may not find church and crown so valuable or sacrosanct as Burke, nor so worthy of preservation. But Burke seems to me in the end to have been a reasonable man, one of the few generous and humble enough that I could imagine saying, as George Eliot did, “our neighbors are often better than we believe them.” Therefore, if we cannot at least acknowledge a spark of wisdom in his belief that no society should be built from the ground up, than we are a long way from a world which is tolerant enough to be liveable for all of humanity.

March 17, 2004

Ranting about Sewanee

Posted by shonk at 10:56 PM in Ramblings | permalink | 8 comments

I hate to keep flogging the Sewanee horse, but this was too good to pass up: Virtuosity Online is shocked and appalled that the Sewanee Purple had some sexual content. For those that don’t know, the Sewanee Purple is the official student newspaper at Sewanee, which is the Episcopal Church’s only university.

Now, I haven’t seen the offending issue (since it’s not available online; more on that in a minute), but, although it sounds rather tasteless, the “evil” sexual content sounds pretty tame by the standards of college newspapers (a picture of someone putting a condom on a banana and so forth). However, the level of lewdness really isn’t my concern: rather, the folks at Virtuosity need to realize that, although the paper receives funding from the school, it doesn’t represent official university policy, it is not reflect the policies of the Board of Trustees and its content does not represent the opinions of anybody other than the people that write for it. Given that Sewanee has plenty of non-Episcopalians and even non-Christians both as students and on the faculty, I see no reason why anybody should expect the student newspaper to toe the orthodox party line.

Furthermore, so far as I can tell, contraception does not run contrary to Anglican dogma, so I’m not even sure what party line Virtuosity is toeing here. In fact, “The Voice of Global Orthodox Anglicans”, as Virtuosity apparently styles itself, has got some bigger fish to fry, if you ask me. The old saw that “wherever there are four Episcopalians you’ll always find a fifth” has plenty of truth to it in my experience and the number of country club Episcopalians I’ve met in my life is pretty staggering.

In fact, if they’re looking to stick their noses somewhere it might actually do some good, here’s a suggestion for those orthodox Anglicans: why don’t you express some outrage that enthusiastic, highly-educated and -motivated young people with experience in church-oriented social work are being actively discouraged from attending seminary while borderline alcoholic thirty-somethings who have yet to mature past the undergraduate worldview receive scholarships to attend seminary? Why don’t you express some outrage that many of the seminary students at Sewanee have a reputation as lushes? Why don’t you express some outrage that deans of your seminaries are (or at least have been in the recent past) sexually harassing female seminary students (one of which happened to be married to a member of the College of Arts and Sciences faculty)? You ever stopped to consider that maybe the reason the students at Sewanee are publishing sexually provocative articles in the student newspaper is because their religious role models have been either massive hypocrites or totally incompetent?

Okay, that’s not really the reason the student newspaper has sexual content. The real reason is that college students are obsessed by sex—always have been, always will be (which is to say that they’re just like everybody else). But if the church is looking to reign in the libidos of the young and the restless, it seems to me the place to start would be with the drunk and disorderly elements of the current and future clergy, who are, after all, the ones in charge of transmitting the church’s message to the laiety.

That all having been said, the Sewanee Purple usually deserves any and all criticism levelled at it. Quite simply, the paper is a joke and every student who wasn’t on the editorial staff knew it while I was at Sewanee (and I suspect things haven’t changed very much in the last year). As such, it’s both fitting and relieving that the Purple is not available online (well, it was available briefly in the Spring of ‘01, but hasn’t been updated since).

Of course, that really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given the rather curious approach Sewanee takes to technology. Despite trumpeting the incoming students the availability of high-speed internet in every dorm room and the wonders of the Academic Technology Center, the university’s bandwidth is notoriously inconsistent and insufficient, the ATC’s “lounge” is, in my opinion, unacceptably deficient in the “available computers” department, software upgrades are virtually unheard of (as of July neither OS X nor Windows XP was running on any public computers) and, as of last year, a student could neither check his grades, order a transcript, nor register for classes online. Even IRC doesn’t work properly on the University’s network.

I mean, I love the Sewanee and all, but get with the times, people!

And now, back to our regularly-scheduled programming…

You think up a suitably insulting title for this one

Posted by Curt at 07:12 PM in Politics | permalink | 1 comment

Oh, Jesus. So now one of the anti-gay marriage Congressional reps. wants to give Congress veto power over Supreme Court decisions. As has already been pointed out, this act would of course not have any bearing on federal “activist judges” or on state supreme courts and in any case, not being a constitutional amendment would, ironically enough, be immediately struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, but this sort of idiocy dumbfounds me. Trying to push this sort of thing through on the principal of giving the opinion of the majority more weight against “judicial activism” just demonstrates fully why the courts are intended to be outside the purvew of majority opinion. As much as I deplore the political emasculation of people outside of poltical circles in this country, the only thing worse is having every personal liberty subject to the whims of the majority. One Tory during the American Revolution characterized the difference between monarchy and democracy as the difference between one tyrant 3,000 miles away or 3,000 tyrants 2 miles away. Anyway, if Congress wants to correct the imbalance of power between the branches of government, perhaps it should stop rubber-stamping proposals from the executive branch like war powers resolutions and fiscally catastrophic Medicare bills rather than trying to end judicial review.

Sewanee weblogs

Posted by shonk at 12:26 AM in Blogging | permalink | 1 comment

Inspired by JC’s call for Sewanee bloggers, I’m trying to compile a complete list of Sewanee weblogs which will be permanently linked in the left sidebar. Obviously such a list can never really be complete, but if you know of any Sewanee weblogs not on the list linked above, please leave a comment there. I will occassionally update the list and hope it will serve as a useful resource for the small (but hopefully growing) Sewanee blogging contingent.

March 15, 2004

The Frontierist

Posted by shonk at 06:36 PM in Blogging | permalink | 3 comments

My friend George Potter has a new weblog, The Frontierist, which is definitely recommended reading and has been added both to the links and the feedroll. His castigation of NASA is a must-read:

It is not in NASA’s interest to make space exploitation seem commercially viable or (more importantly) easier than was thought. Like all statist beuracracies, NASA is mostly worried about it’s monopoly and it’s budget. They much prefer the image of bloodless scientific drones steering robots, underfunded and ‘doing the best they can’.

Abolish NASA!

Also added to the links today was shoaf’s Real Reactionary, which is another good, new weblog.

Lessons learned

Posted by shonk at 04:49 PM in Bulgaria | permalink | 7 comments

Lessons learned in Bulgaria:

  • You are guaranteed to hear the following phrases several times an hour:
    1. Така (Taka) - The all-purpose word. Means “so” or “like” or “thus” or “O.K.” or any number of other things. I’m not sure Bulgarians even know what it means.

    2. Моля (Molya) - Alternatively “please”, “you’re welcome” and “come again?”

    3. След Малко (Sled Malko) - “In a moment”

    4. Супер (Super) - Means exactly what you would expect

    5. Аиде (Eide) - “Come on” or “let’s go”

    6. Добре (Dobre) - “Good” or “O.K.”
  • Lane markings on the road are entirely optional.
  • The sidewalk is a perfectly reasonable place to park.
  • Ukrainians have a reputation as the Jersey girls of Eastern Europe.
  • Tight black pants are appropriate garb for any female, no matter her body type.
  • You can get a bowl of soup, an appetizer, an entree, a Coke, a pint of beer and bread for dinner at the neighborhood restaurant and pay less than five dollars.
  • Unfortunately, the Bulgarian word for bread, Хляб (roughly “hlyab”), is impossible for a native English-speaker to pronounce. And Petya will laugh at you every time you try.
  • It doesn’t qualify as a meal if it doesn’t have feta in it.
  • “Something’s Gotta Give” apparently means “Impossibly Yours” in Bulgarian.
  • Virtually every Bulgarian under the age of 30 speaks English…but many are too embarrassed to speak it to you.
  • Lemons should never be put in a martini.
  • Радио FM Плюс (Radio FM Plus) really, really needs some new theme music.
  • The Sofia metro is much, much cleaner than the Philadelphia metro.
  • Just because a Change Bureau posts the official exchange rate doesn’t mean they will actually change your money at that rate.
  • Sofia is very beautiful when it snows…so long as the snow doesn’t start melting.
  • In Bulgaria, the head nod and the head shake have exactly opposite meanings of what they do in the US. This is extremely confusing, even when you’re aware of it.
  • You can’t learn Bulgarian in one night. No matter how much vodka you drink.
  • I want to go back. Soon.

UPDATE More lessons learned

More Pictures

Posted by shonk at 04:43 PM in Bulgaria | permalink | comment

My latest photos from Bulgaria are now available. This set of pictures is more social and less “touristy” than the last set…possibly because I was more social and less touristy on this trip than the last one.

Botevgrad from above

March 14, 2004

I'm Baaack

Posted by shonk at 11:58 PM in Bulgaria | permalink | 3 comments

Well, it was an adventure, what with cancelled flights, missed trains, wildly inconsistent sleep patterns, theft and even some togas, but I’m back from Bulgaria. Pictures are coming soon, but in the meantime, props to Curt for some excellent posts this past week. Thanks to Elenko, Sergey, Martin, Siebell, Veni, Petr, “other” Sergey, Bogdana, Doriana and all the rest for showing me a good time. It goes without saying that the biggest thanks go to Petya — for everything.

For those of you that read her weblog (and if you don’t, you should) but haven’t read the guestbook in a while, you should know that Petya’s laptop was stolen this past Wednesday night/Thursday morning from her office, so there may be some downtime before she’s up and running again. Needless to say, not a good way to start a Thursday morning.

I just got home and already I want to go back.

March 13, 2004

An artistic credo

Posted by Curt at 07:13 PM in Literature | permalink | comment

On being asked for a War Poem

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

—W.B. Yeats

March 11, 2004

Back-handed optimism, grace ā academe

Posted by Curt at 04:11 PM in What the Fuck? | permalink | comment

Well, according to this professor of sociology, our great political problem today is that people are becoming increasingly “disengaged” from politics and seem more interested in carrying out “voyages of self-discovery” than in imposing their beliefs and ideals on everyone else. He even seems legitimately upset that: “Today the question of who you vote for is seen as barely significant, and self-identity is viewed far more in terms of individuals’ lifestyles, cultural habits and personal experiences.” Wow, astounding. Perhaps my pessimism about the future is misplaced. I have always thought that a distinguishing feature of sociological writing is its tendency to establish totally arbitrary value-dichotomies and then to adopt a bizarrely impassioned attitude towards them, but all I can say is, with problems like these, who needs benefits?

March 10, 2004

Nostalgia as political agenda

Posted by Curt at 03:28 PM in Literature | permalink | comment

I suppose this article goes together with this one in message and tone, but I am still at a loss as to how the student protesters of ‘68 were any less infantile or fantastical than the fantasy-geeks of today. In fact the comparison seems to indicate the opposite, and I would go even further to claim that, personally, day-dreaming about Middle-Earth gives me much pleasure and refreshment of the soul than obsessing about the hypertrophed social bromides of the ‘68 generation.

March 09, 2004

The poisonous embrace of ethics

Posted by Curt at 02:24 PM in Science | permalink | 2 comments

While it may be true that I expend too many words in this blog attacking various targets right and left, without method or organization, I still sometimes feel that I don’t have enough time to challenge the legitimacy of all the heathen idols that I would like to. For example: “bioethicists.” I don’t think that this server has enough storage capacity for me to answer the question of why “bioethicists” even exist or why we should (or shouldn’t) listen to a damn thing they say, so this might be one case in which it would behoove me to move straight to specifics rather than, as is my wont, lingering among abstract first principles. Here is an excellent Glenn Reynolds posting, with numerous links, on the pseudo-controversy surrounding the “stacking” of the President’s Council on Bioethics, the body which has made quite an international name for itself in the last couple of years with its recommendations on stem-cell research, among other things. Well, who knows whether Bush or any of his minions would have been greatly influenced by this committee no matter what they recommended, but the point is that it provided a veneer of scientific and ethical legitimacy to the ban on stem-cell research and any other laws on bioengineering that the president chooses to propose, so its motives warrant examination.

Maybe the best example of the point that I am fishing my way towards is best demonstrated by this example that Reynolds links to, which ostensibly has nothing to do with bioethics, namely the feelings of the head of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, on the subject of eating in public. Well, fine, here is the relevant paragraph:

“Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone —a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.

I fear I may by this remark lose the sympathy of many reader, people who will condescendingly regard as quaint or even priggish the view that eating in the street is for dogs. Modern America’s rising tide of informality has already washed out many long-standing traditions — their reasons long before forgotten — that served well to regulate the boundary between public and private; and in many quarters complete shamelessness is treated as proof of genuine liberation from the allegedly arbitrary constraints of manners. To cite one small example: yawning with uncovered mouth. Not just the uneducated rustic but children of the cultural elite are now regularly seen yawning openly in public (not so much brazenly or forgetfully as indifferently and “naturally”), unaware that it is an embarrassment to human self-command to be caught in the grip of involuntary bodily movements (like sneezing, belching, and hiccuping and even the involuntary bodily display of embarrassment itself, blushing). But eating on the street — even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat — displays in fact precisely such lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. Hunger must be sated now; it cannot wait. Though the walking street eater still moves in the direction of his vision, he shows himself as a being led by his appetites. Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. Eating on the run does not even allow the human way of enjoying one’s food, for it is more like simple fueling; it is hard to savor or even to know what one is eating when the main point is to hurriedly fill the belly, now running on empty. This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if WE feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.”

I’m not sure that this view is “quaint,” but it is certainly “priggish” as well as petty-minded to an almost incredible degree (relevant Bill Hicks quote: “I smoke. If this bothers anyone, I recommend you look around the world in which we live, and shut your fucking mouth”) but that is only partly the reason I think it sheds light on the tone of the bioethics debate. Notice how he phrases his condemnation of eating in public. He does not say: “I don’t eat in public because I feel it shows a mawkish lack of self-control,” but rather: “This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if WE feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.” Granted, he does not say that there ought to be a law against eating in public, but he does say that it “ought to be kept from public view” much as, I suppose, vagrants are “kept from public view.” So Kass dislikes eating in public because he is disgusted by the fact that people feel so “liberated” that they can do whatever they like with no self-restraint, but Kass himself feels that people have so little ability to control themselves that they ought to be restrained from behaving as they see fit, even if those actions, like eating in public, have absolutely no effect on anyone around them (except, evidently, for Kass and those like him, who are “offended”). I leave it for you to judge who has more respect for individual self-sufficiency and self-control. I think this may shed a little bit of light on Kass’ mentality, and as arguably the most powerful “bioethicist” in the country, it seems somewhat relevant, especially if he is at all representative of bioethicists today, or even of the members of the President’s Council on Bioethics (who are all selected by him). And actually, that example, it seems to me, is a surprisingly exact corollary, minus the alleged ethical and religious issues involved, to the abortion debate itself, in which the views of those who insist on the ultimate control of the individual over themselves and all that is within their body are opposed to those who believe that, evidently, each person’s cycles of self-maintenance and reproduction are within the public weal to control. It is interesting that Kass, once again, this ostensible champion of “self-control,” should on this issue, as well, have so little regard for the determinative capacity of the individual.

I don’t know when life can be definitively established to “begin” among the unborn, but I do know that up until almost the moment of birth they are not self-sufficient life forms, any more than is a liver or a leg, and I am not sure that it can be consistently argued that fetusus, which have not biological independence nor self-sufficiency, are fully the moral equals of living humans, while animals, which have, are not. But in any case, while I have been trying to focus on the specific issue at hand to avoid blanket condemnations of “bioethics,” now I find that it seems less relevant to me whether the PCB is actually stacked with pro-lifers, or even that there is a ban on stem-cell research, than what it means that there is such a thing as the “President’s Council on Bioethics” at all. Presumably such a thing could only have arisen from the assumption that ethical considerations should shape public policy, which, as I have said before, is not only a common intellecutual error, but a deliberate falsehood and manipulation propogated to grant the law a moral legitimacy that it has no claim to. As for the field of “bioethics” itself, I can understand the need to fully grasp the actual scientific issues and concepts involved in a particular question in order to make moral decisions about it, which obviously most people outside of the scientific community do not, but at the same time I am equally inclined to imagine that the scientists doing the research in question, who presumably do, probably have as well-developed a moral intuition as the average citizen or “bioethicist,” and so I would guess that he or she would be able to assess the ethical validity of what they are doing just as well as a no doubt highly educated “bioethicist” (unless of course you believe that professors of ethics, by dint of their study of ethics, are actually more capable of making virtuous moral choices than everyone else). So maybe I have arrived at a more general condemnation of “bioethics” after all: it strikes me as a bit presumptuous to claim not only that special academic qualification is required to understand scientific research, which is defensible, but that it is also required to make moral decisions, which is not (I am aware that this criticism could be equally well-applied to ethicists in general, but I feel that ethics by itself has less of a forbidding air of erudition surrounding it than “bioethics,” and hence is less in need of iconoclasm; most people, by virtue of their moral intuition, would probably feel more confident to challenge Kant than they would Leon Kass).

On globalization

Posted by shonk at 06:14 AM in Bulgaria , Economics | permalink | 4 comments

In the comments to JC’s recent post on globalization, Eliot gets riled up:

My sense is that globalization will lead to annihilation of cultures, natural destruction, and to large corporations becoming de facto governments.

Now, first off, this critique seems a bit strange coming from the user of a camera made in Malaysia, but, given my present circumstances as a traveller, I have a bone to pick with this contention. Now, as I’ve recently, if tangentially, noted, globalization can indeed have a negative impact on culture, but it’s impact can also be exceedingly positive. As an example, I’ll merely point out that, by way of some pictures I’ve taken, readers of this blog have been exposed to a bit of Bulgarian culture that they otherwise might never have had any awareness of. Given that I’m an American who flew to Bulgaria on a German airline, took the pictures with a camera made in Malaysia and powered by Japanes batteries manufactured in China, edited them on an American-designed computer made in Taiwan whose operating system is largely based on the work of the international open source community and presented them in an open-source photo gallery whose authors appear to include an Indian and a Frenchman, I’d say this cultural experience was heavily assisted by various aspects of that international bogeyman we call “globalization”. This, of course, serves as but a single example.

All of this is not to say that globalization has a unilaterally positive effect on culture; rather I merely want to point out that the various markets, products and services that fall under the globalization rubric have made it possible for people other than the extraordinarily wealthy to experience other cultures, either directly, as I am doing right now, or indirectly, through photographs, music and video. In other words, globalization greatly expands our cultural choices. What we do with those choices is not the fault of globalization, which is not, after all, a volitional actor. Rather, if we make choices that lead to “annihilation of culture” then I would argue that the fault lies with us for making those choices, rather than with globalization, which ultimately is just a facilitator for our choices.

(I’m proud to note that with this post I’ve just sent JC his first-ever Trackback ping. Welcome to the club, JC!)

EDIT Fixed a wrongful attribution

March 07, 2004

Why I am not an anarchist

Posted by Curt at 05:46 PM in Ramblings | permalink | 4 comments

Among the many benefits of writing a weblog (other than Google celebrity) is the opportunity for spontaneous exchanges of views, with people whom one did not seek out and who come of their own accord to start stimulating discussions about various matters. One of the more prevalent views I notice expressed by many people who read this site (and by my co-author and brother, as well) is a fairly pronounced and seemingly genuine anti-governmental sentiment (as opposed to anti-governmentalism of the “I hate payng taxes but I’ll be damned if I give up my social security checks” variety), which seems to span a somewhat murky spectrum from simple libertarianism all the way to full-fledged anarchism (for those of you well-versed in the distinctions among these various terms I apologize for my inexact usage, but it will become apparent that these differences do not greatly affect my purpose). I too share a decidly skeptical view of the machinations of power, as well as the quasi-perverse desire to destroy the idealistic illusions surrounding hierarchical power structures, like democracy for example, in order to expose the veritable oppressiveness that really characterizes them. For all that, I simply cannot move all the way over into some sort of positive political counter-philosophy, like anarchism or something of the sort.

The problem, it seems to me, is not the ideal of a world without hierarchical power structures, where the powerful do not institutionally oppress everyone else. A fine idea that (and almost a universal among political philosophers, by the way), but the problem is in the relative applicability to human society of such an idea. Specifically, anarchistic philosophies (in all their many incarnations and varieties) seem to proceed on the assumption that humans can exist in a state in which the powerful do not bind the weak to them in order to exploit them, and in this way in my opinion runs into the same problem that plagues Rousseau’s conception of “free” primitive man. Rousseau seemed to believe that humans are (or at least were at some point) basically solitary, misanthropic beings (like Rousseau himself, or myself for that matter) who could avoid oppressive social structure simply by steering clear of each other. However, all the evidence of human societies in any era seems to indicate the converse, namely that humans are fundamentally social, and simply cannot help forming hierarchical structures for the most part. This conclusion is open to dispute, of course, but I suspect anyone wishing to take it up will have a long search through the archaeological record before they uncover anything of use to them.

So much for specific difficulties. The more general problem is one that all ideologies share, more or less, which is their ultimate feebleness. I don’t mean intellectual feebleness, but rather historical feebleness: again, as far as history is my guide, ideologies rarely provide anything more than the pretext for the mechanisms of power. Remember, almost all the various sorts of socialism, including Marx’s, although communalistc rather than individualistic, originally conceived of governments eventually being dissolved into voluntary associations of long-minded men. And yet lo and behold, when such an ideology was ostensibly implemented on a nation-wide scale for the first time, in Russia, the ambitious power-seekers among the revolutionaries simply used Marxist/socialist ideology as a Trojan horse under the cover of which to re-fashion the tsarist state, albeit with themselves, naturally, in power, spouting the rhetoric of “liberty” and “equality.” Of course, this is not an intellectual argument against any particular ideology, but simply my rather apolitical conclusion that political ideologies rarely serve as more than the figureheads, the clowns, which co-opt the periodic explosions of discontent and angst among the people at large so as to allow the movements of power to continue on exactly as they always and always will. Hence, any ideological ideal of change seems to me as generally no more than a pernicious illusion which seduces us into the belief that we are involved with, and partly responsible for, our current condition.

In light of all this, my earlier comment that I find the idea of a state-less, non-hierarchical world pleasant is perhaps somewhat misleading. As a “vision of heaven,” or something of the sort, I find it pleasant enough, but its real-life correlaries somewhat less so. As I have said before, places such as Somalia and Afghanistan should be evidence enough that violence, brutality and oppression can subsist just as well in conditions of state-less anarchy as in highly centralized bureaucratic states, if not more so. I am sure that proponents of anarchism would reject these cases as illegitimate examples of their theory in practice, but one ought perhaps nonetheless ponder whether the economic and cultural benefits we enjoy in this politically emasculating society do not to some degree depend on the stability and order created by that very political trivializing of the individual. As for myself, who knows what is the most superior mode of living, either personally or collectively, but at the least I do know that I detest politics and those who participate in it, even those who do so ostensibly in the service of an ideology that seeks to put an end to it, and it seems far preferable to me to withdraw from such participation on a personal level than to seek to effect some change on the world-historical level, as is the practice of those ego-maniacal scourges of the earth, the idealists.

p.s. Food for thought: it occurs to me that HTML works very well as a conceptual example in support of an argument for Berkeley’s idealism, but I don’t quite have the energy to explain my reasoning at the moment to those for whom the connection isn’t evident.

March 05, 2004

And God is proved to exist!-and hence doesn't

Posted by Curt at 07:36 PM in Science | permalink | comment

Science has often been called “the new religion,” but this latest scientific misadventure is what I believe would in economics be termed rent-seeking behavior in spiritual matters.

It's been interesting...

Posted by shonk at 02:34 AM in Bulgaria , Ramblings | permalink | comment

It’s been an interesting week for me personally and it’s about to get a whole lot more interesting. I’m leaving for Bulgaria this morning (of course, what with trains, plane connections, layovers, etc. I won’t actually get there until Saturday afternoon). It looks like I may have a little bit more free time than I did the last time I went over, but I still probably won’t post very much, if at all. Hopefully Curt will drop in a few times, but odds are you won’t see me around here for about a week. Have a great week everybody.

March 03, 2004

Why skepticism is good

Posted by shonk at 01:52 AM in Uncategorized Current Events | permalink | 3 comments

Getting linked at a furious pace around the blogosphere (getting Slashdotted helps) is an article at Alex Jones’ site claiming that the new twenty has an RFID tag in it. At first glance, the article was alarming to me, but my skepticism quickly overtook my alarm. The EU is planning to put RFIDs in the Euro, but, even though they’ve tried to keep it relatively quiet, it’s gotten a fair amount of publicity. So it seems unlikely that the US Treasury Dept. could slip this one by. Also, it’s a little suspicious that these people microwaved $1000 worth of twenties right off the bat, instead of nuking just one to see what would happen first.

Far be it from me, though, to dismiss an easily testable contention without trying it myself. I’ve got a couple of new twenties in my wallet, so I pulled them out and had a look. Nothing visible embedded under Jackson’s right eye in either one. Now, RFIDs can be small, but even the smallest are at least as big as a grain of sand, which should be visible when the bill is held up to the light. I did an extensive inspection of the new twenty when it first came out, and didn’t see anything that could have been construed as an RFID then, either. Still, there’s no reason not to try microwaving, even though I already had one major mishap in the kitchen today. So I microwaved both twenties on high for a minute, which is more than enough time to fry the electronics in an RFID. The result: nothing.

Now, I’m not claiming that these people’s twenties didn’t catch on fire, but it seems to me, based on all of the above, that there are no RFIDs in the new twenty. More likely is that a piece of metal got adhered to one of them and caught fire in the microwave; since the twenties were stacked, this would cause all of the twenties to be burned in approximately the same place.

In other words, while it’s not a bad idea to get concerned about RFIDs, I’m pretty sure they’re not in the new twenty.

For more on RFIDs in general, check out the CASPIAN RFID FAQ (enough caps for you?)

March 02, 2004

Shameless Self-Promotion

Posted by shonk at 10:37 PM in Politics | permalink | 6 comments

Check out my article “Legality is not Morality”. I wrote it about a year and a half ago, but just got around to submitting it yesterday. Commentary is, of course, welcomed.

Gaining some perspective

Posted by shonk at 01:27 AM in Blogging | permalink | 3 comments

For anyone who runs their own weblog, I can’t recommend enough going back and reading your archives from time to time. For example, just now I was looking for writing inspiration by randomly reading old posts of mine and came across this gem that I posted on only the second day of this site’s existence. From that same day, and somewhat more disturbing, is my suggestion for the military; there’s no telling where the inspiration for that came from.

Looking back at these old posts, I’m comforted to realize that my lack of focus here isn’t a recent phenomenon. I didn’t really have an agenda when I started this thing and I still don’t.

One thing I have learned from the experience so far is that there’s a lot of truth in what Brian Micklethwait says: If you want to learn about it blog about it. Even though this site certainly doesn’t generate much traffic, there’s still a strong incentive to try to document assertions, to make coherent arguments and to have at least a grain of originality thrown in (not that there aren’t exceptions to the documentation and coherence standards).

The other thing about writing and maintaining a weblog is that it forces you to learn a bit about how the web works. Even if you use a user-friendly CMS like Movable Type, as I do, you still have to learn about stylesheets, scripts, RSS, etc. if you want your presentation to reflect your personality. Adding non-standard features, be they minimalist syndication feeds, feedrolls, customized error messages, correct typography or a photo gallery, probably doesn’t require any real coding, but you’re sure to learn something both from the process of finding the right code and from figuring out how to implement the damn thing on your system, which never quite behaves the way the README says it will.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that one of the things I like best about the whole blogging experience is that you can’t help but learn quite a bit from it.

And no, I have no idea where this all came from. Sometimes you just start writing and hang on for the ride.

March 01, 2004

Your fingers are so sexy...

Posted by shonk at 02:44 AM in Sex | permalink | comment

Want to know how promiscuous your girlfriend is? Measure her fingers :

A McMaster University evolutionary psychologist has found the length ratio of a woman’s ring to index finger points to her sexual behaviour — from fantasies to the number of partners she might have.

(Link courtesy ibergus)

Dying Languages

Posted by shonk at 02:34 AM in Language | permalink | 6 comments

Interesting article by Jack Hitt in the New York Times Magazine today about dead and dying languages. I have to admit that I’m somewhat conflicted on the whole “save the dying languages” program. On one hand, it is a shame that entire languages and the unique cultural elements that they both reflect and reinforce are dying. As noted in the article:

To general linguists, the dismissive position is just deliberate ignorance. But they also argue that the utilitarian case is too narrow. In peril is not just knowledge but also the importance of diversity and the beauty of grammar. They will tell you that every language has its own unique theology and philosophy buried in its very sinews. For example, because of the Kawesqar’s nomadic past, they rarely use the future tense; given the contingency of moving constantly by canoe, it was all but unnecessary. The past tense, however, has fine gradations. You can say, “A bird flew by.” And by the use of different tenses, you can mean a few seconds ago, a few days ago, a time so long ago that you were not the original observer of the bird (but you know the observer yourself) and, finally, a mythological past, a tense the Kawesqar use to suggest that the story is so old that it no longer possesses fresh descriptive truth but rather that other truth which emerges from stories that retain their narrative power despite constant repetition.

On the other hand, I question the motivation of linguists and government officials that pursue these “conservation projects”; encouraging groups to preserve their traditional languages seems like a good way of ensuring that they are never able to engage in the economy or broader society. Of course, I don’t think academic or government conservation projects are going to do a damn bit of good, anyway. Like Hitt says:

The other paradox of this gathering twilight is that while the grown-ups are having their arguments about what we should and shouldn’t do — and after the linguists have compiled their dictionaries and put together their grammars — the future of all these resurrections will depend on teenagers.

Given the popularity of anti-globalization politics among teenagers, one would think language revival would be trendy these days, since preferring Kawesqar to English would seem to be the ultimate “Fuck You” to the global marketplace. Of course, the anti-globalizationists are primarily white kids with cell phones while third world workers wish they could get some more globalization, so I guess it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that learning dying languages hasn’t quite attained the Chomsky/Biafra level of hipness.

On a side note, I’ve actually met and spoken with Hitt, who is a fellow Sewanee alumnus. I enjoyed his book Off the Road, which is a lively account of walking the Road to Santiago, but it might not be as interesting for someone who has never walked the road himself (Lee Hoinacki’s El Camino is another good book about the Road to Santiago, but is more religious and less “fun” than Hitt’s, if that sort of thing bothers you; Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water is in a similar vein to Hitt’s book, though though it is about an entirely different walk).