Archive for the 'Ramblings' Category

Are conspiracy theorists creationists or are creationists conspiracy theorists?

I vote for the latter, but only because it sounds more entertaining when you put it that way. The only reason I mention it is because of this article in New York which pretty exhaustively catalogues the more popular 9/11 conspiracy theories. I have no idea whether there is any truth to any of them, and much like the whole brouhaha about the The Da Vinci Code, I’m not sure what difference it would make. I mean, would covering up Jesus’ marriage really change a rational person’s estimation of the Catholic Church’s commitment to truth and honesty? Would complicity in 9/11 change your estimation of the American government’s valuation of human life and liberty? I think one would have a better chance defending them from these charges on grounds of incompetence than benevolence, but that’s just me. I’m inclined to agree with the investment banker who says: “I can see them wishing it would happen, secretly happy it did. But on purpose? Look at the way they’ve managed Iraq. They’re boobs. They couldn’t have pulled off 9/11 without getting caught. Not possible.?

Anyway, I find the whole thing more interesting from a sociological point of view. The mindset among the conspiracy theorists is exactly like the Intelligent Design arguments we hear tossed around. In both cases, the assumption seems to be that there are only two possible theories, so any nagging inconsistencies or incompleteness in one theory is implicitly support for the other. The towers falling straight down so quickly or life getting started in the first place might be problematic for the conventional explanations, but they are not really positive evidence that God exists or that the U.S. government blew up its own buildings. Those seem more like the problems which will complicate any ultimate explanation unless one brings in some shadowy, elusive and omnipotent or near-omnipotent entities/organizations. And that’s the other characteristic they share. The idea of God or a government with essentially unlimited powers dissolves all the problems. Of course they can do this or that, because they can do anything! And our government really is God in the theology of 9/11 conspiracy theorists. I know a lot of people that think Bush is way too obsessed with God, but I don’t know anyone who actually thinks he is God (well, the conspiracy theorists don’t seem to think he’s really in charge either, but you get the rhetorical point).

Naturally I find this all very amusing (but sad), because a good number of the same people that laugh at (or, more likely, verbally abuse) religious people for refusing to accept any of the ambiguity or loose ends in evolutionary theory without interposing a Creator are using the slightest uncertainties or unresolved issues surrounding 9/11 as positive proof that the whole thing was a put-up job by the U.S. government. Maybe they are just looking to fill that need for grandiose, intricate theologies that they created when they threw out their religious upbringing. Either way, I suspect the Stonecutters did it.

p.s. Speaking of Intelligent Design and amusing ironies, these people talking about the anthropic principle makes it sound like just that, in a suitably detached academic sort of way. It must be especially galling to the atheists and “secularists” who are trying to pretend that there is a united scientific front against any sort of covert creationism that even front-line theoretical physicists are playing around with these ideas (in John Polkinghorne or Frank Tipler’s cases, not even concealing the religious implications).

p.p.s. Finally this article finally asks in print a question that I must have asked myself a thousand times when I was living in Paris: “This is the nation [France] that invented style — or the nation with the good sense to bother claiming to have invented style. The English language hasn’t even got a word for chic. So the greatest marvel of all is why the nation as a whole exhibits so little of either” (qualification: she goes on to compare English style positively with the French, which let’s just say is not exactly an opinion I share–both sides of the North Atlantic seaboard are kind of black holes are pretty moribund in terms of women’s dress in my experience).

Oops

If anyone tried to post a comment in the last couple of days that impudently vanished into the ether, I apologize. A rather determined spate of comment-spamming caused me to get somewhat overzealous in my blacklisting of potential spam comments and I accidentally blacklisted all comments. Comments should now be working again, so, if you’re not too annoyed, please do re-submit anything you may have tried to post recently.

P.S. Pro-Football-Reference‘s Doug Drinen, good buddy of J.C. and member of my former department Well, “my” to the extent that an undergrad is ever really a member of a department has a new blog. Check it out.

Links and things

It’s been a week since I put it up, so I figured I ought to give some explanation of the “Linklist” that I’ve added to the main page. I haven’t tested it in IE, but, when you hover your mouse over the logo, a dropdown list of links to various stuff around the web is supposed to appear (if it doesn’t, you can always just click the logo and be taken to another version of the list).

A linklog is something I’ve played around with before but was never entirely satisfied with how it worked. Since, these days, I usually don’t have time to write posts but still occasionally come across interesting links that I would like to share, this seems like a reasonable compromise.

It’s implemented entirely in CSS (with some Javascript only to fix the fact that IE doesn’t fully implement all of CSS) patterned after A List Apart’s Suckerfish Dropdowns. I wanted a dropdown because I wanted to add some daily links to the main page without cluttering the thing (let’s just say we’ve been down that road before); since that’s impossible, the next best thing would seem to be to make it cluttered only when you want it to be. And CSS over JavaScript (the usual way to implement dropdowns) is obvious, since JavaScript is evil. → Since I’m doing some housekeeping anyway, I should point out that the Tools and Photographs pages have been updated recently and there’s now a crude site zeitgeist at the bottom of the main page.

I’m actually somewhat proud of the background image (which is a modified photo of the blackboard in my office) and the button (which has a virtually-invisible Hopf link in the background), but I’m not entirely sure I’m happy with this particular implementation. One problem is that I can’t seem to get the background image under 180 KB without sacrificing its subtle transparency (which I’d rather not), which sucks for anybody still (horrors!) on dialup. Also, grey is relatively unobtrusive, which I want, but also sorta, well, grey and boring. So if you have any suggestions for how to make it look better, let me know.

Anyway, as for the implementation of the links themselves, they’re collected using Spurl, which is one of the myriad social bookmarking sites out there. Well, that’s not entirely true; I’ve got my Spurl account set up to forward everything along to del.icio.us (another social bookmarking site). Then I’m republishing the RSS feed to my del.icio.us account using the feedList plugin for WordPress.

Why all the contortions? Because it actually makes everything really easy. Rather than having to fire up ecto (or, God forbid, WordPress’s editor) every time I want to post a link (which is what I did the last time I tried this linklog experiment), I just hit the “Spurl!” button on my toolbar whenever I read something interesting, fill in category and tags and write a short description, and the rest is automatic. And scraping an RSS feed is better than going the JavaScript route because, again, JavaScript is evil.

So why am I scraping the del.icio.us feed rather than the Spurl feed? That gets into the heart of the distinctions between Spurl and del.icio.us. They’re both nice tools, but they do different things well. Spurl allows both descriptions and automatically-included snips and maintains links in rigid categories, which makes for better posting. Plus, it saves a copy of all my links, which allows full-text search and eliminates linkrot problems. All of these things make it the much better choice if you ever want to go back and actually find and read some link you came across six months ago. del.icio.us, on the other hand, takes the “social” part of “social bookmarking” much more seriously: del.icio.us makes it extremely easy to see who else made note of the links that you did (which is a great way of finding other interesting links), allows much more flexible bundling of tags and produces far more customizable means of republishing. So, even though I’m essentially posting the same links to both places and both Spurl and del.icio.us serve nominally the same purpose, I’m actually using them in quite different and complementary ways.

And yes, I know these things have been around for a while. Hell, I’ve had a Furl account for almost two years. But, by itself, del.icio.us is pretty limited and it wasn’t until recently that I discovered Spurl (which implements all the good things about Furl and some extras besides).

Anyway, speaking of innovation (to the extent that the above comprises innovation) and the linklist, I would like to draw your attention to one link I posted there yesterday: the OnMac.net Wiki, which gives extraordinarily detailed (given that the technique was only made public in the last week) instructions for installing Windows XP on one of the new Intel-based Macs. Let’s just say that, for me, this is practically a dream come true. I’ve been a Mac user and owner for close to seven years and love the dependability of Apple’s hardware and the usefulness of (most of) their software.

In fact, the only complaint I have is that some software just doesn’t run on OS X and emulators generally aren’t worth the trouble (though Q looks interesting if they ever add more features). And I’m not talking about games; I’m thinking more along the lines of device drivers, file uploaders and various cutting-edge apps. So a dual-boot Mac/Windows machine would be excellent (Linux stuff I can, generally speaking, do in OSX’s terminal or Darwin’s X11 environment). I’ll definitely be looking into a MacBook (though hopefully they’ll have come up with a less committee-ized name by then) when they get the second or third generation rolling.

(Incidentally, I think Apple’s made the smart move in not trying to prevent people from dual-booting Windows from their Macs: this development will only encourage more people to buy Macs. If Microsoft is smart, they’ll do the same, since that’s the only way they’ll get any money out of me or a lot of other people like me. Not that I have any particular animus for Microsoft, but, though I’m as aware of the shortcomings of both OSX and Linux as anybody this side of drunkenbatman, seven years without the blue screen of death or any major hardware or software failures coupled with seven years of long-distance troubleshooting for my PC-owning parents has ensured that I’ll never voluntarily go back to a Windows-only lifestyle)

Las Vegas? Ah, too many kids

A suprisingly intelligent debate between Francis Fukuyama and Bernard-Henri Lévy. Lévy is I suppose what passes for a “pro-American” European intellectual, that is someone who generally likes the influence American culture and policy has on the world, but doesn’t seem to care too much for the reality of American society on its home turf. Which is what their randomly sparring about Las Vegas is about in my mind. Fukuyama sort of gets trapped defending Las Vegas as an expression of the American frontier model, the freedom that allows people to conjure up a metropolis of opportunity and entertainment out of thin air. The obvious riposte, which Lévy dutifully provides, is that the fruit of opportunity and freedom is pretty meager, if this is what it is. But this is actually a larger problem for Lévy and idealists of his ilk. They like the idea of America as some huge liberating force wandering around the world unshackling people from the oppression of tyrannical governments and so forth. But what do people do when they have been liberated, when they have money, leisure and a relative amount of freedom? The go vacation in Las Vegas. So what’s so great about freedom? I might turn that around by asking, what’s so bad about Vegas? And might I suggest that if one is particularly appalled by Las Vegas it might be time to start revising one’s expectations of the human race? I don’t buy into the idea that it is uniquely representative of the country, or even that most people go there. I’ve never been, nor have most of my family or friends. But by the same token, what people do there is not exactly unique to America. Try Amsterdam, or Thailand.

So Lévy looks at America and sees it in a positive light in a negative sense, so to speak. He sees how it has nullified totalitarianism in various parts of the world, has alleviated misery, but he doesn’t seem to think people live in all that great of a way here. The result is a kind of disconnect which I think is one of the almost inevitable pitfalls of observing a foreign culture. The temptation is to see it as a counter-point to one’s own, but not as its own discrete reality. One thinks: “if we could only graft this this and this characteristic onto our own civilization, it would be super.” But then it is easy to forget that maybe certain of those positive qualities are intimately connected to less desirable traits. Many Americans for example think it’s great how much more present history is in European culture than in American, and how much more versed in it people tend to be. But doesn’t that often go hand in hand with the “blood, soil, roots” mentality that Fukuyama and Lévy both condemn as xenophobic? Or, to take another example, I love the poetry and mysticism which seem endemic to Russian culture, but am I thinking about living there long-term? Mightn’t that lack of practicality which is such a refreshing change for an American actually be a bigger problem? So maybe there is more and more a melding of cultures in the world, but one cannot simply cherry-pick attributes–at the root of it all are certain fundamental relationships between the individual and the collective which order all of these secondary traits.

Inferiority complex time

It’s an interesting time to a member of the Fairview High School class of ’99 right now. Actually, to be more precise, it’s an interesting time to be a member of the aforementioned class who also played baseball in high school. Two of my former teammates have been making headlines recently; one is in the final 12 of American Idol (haven’t watched the show myself, but apparently he’s a little grating, which, admittedly, isn’t a total surprise), while the other was just eliminated from the World Baseball Classic (playing for Canada, oddly enough, even though he’s also played for Team USA).

This, needless to say, is one of the reasons high school reunions are bad news.

The herd of well-dressed lemmings

This article about wiretapping is worthwhile, if only for the point it makes at the end about how Europeans both mistrust corporations and trust governments much more than Americans. As cultural generalizations go, in my experience that is pretty much true, and I admit that it is perhaps the one aspect of European culture that most baffles me. Most Europeans really seem to regard their governments as fair, impartial arbiters removed from the tawdry self-interest of corporations and individuals, rather than just another participant in the competition for resources, and the one that is uniquely enshrined with coercive powers in a society to boot. I don’t think I will ever understand the fear of corporations, who may be pretty ruthless but, in the end, cannot force one to do anything (except by means of governmental corruption), whereas the entity that can lock up anyone at any time is trusted. But it’s impossible to understand European social views without taking into account this difference in outlook and values.

A reasonable European view of religion?–alackaday!

I have criticized Frank Furedi in the past quite a bit, so I was quite happily surprised at what a penetrating analysis of the anti-religious hysteria in Britain and the States he has written, especially since he is, as far as I can tell, one of the old European leftists of the ambiguously socialist variety. I think he gets it exactly right in the following passage:

“Until recently, cultural expressions of religious faith were simply considered old-fashioned and gauche. But over the past decade, scorn has turned into bigotry and hatred…This trend for blaming the rise of theocracy on ordinary folks’ apparent penchant for simplistic black-and-white solutions shifts the focus from the elite’s failure to promote and uphold a positive vision of the future on to the alleged political illiteracy of the masses. That is why discussions of so-called fundamentalist movements often contain an implicit condemnation of the people who support them – and why the alleged creations of fundamentalist culture are implicitly condemned as immoral. It is the insecurity of the Anglo-American cultural elites about their own values and moral vision of the world that encourages their frenzied attacks on religion. There is a powerful element of bad faith here: many leftists and liberals denounce those who appeal to moral values as being inferior, but they are also envious of them…In the confused cultural elite’s fears of a powerful religious right winning over the masses, we can see a good example of bad faith worrying about real faith.”

There are so many perceptive elements here. It’s certainly true that there seems to be a growing intolerance in certain circles simply of people having religious beliefs, apart from how or even if they act upon them. And I have to imagine that it is in fact based on the persistence and strength, so baffling to leftists (Marxism is after all “dialectical materialism”), of a religious-based mindset that is not ostensibly based on material concerns. One hears constantly the frustrated complaint that this mindset “makes people vote against their own economic and social interests.” And so one sees a dramatic shift in attitude. The leftists who used to rant supposedly in favor of the poor, oppressed working-class, having seen that that working-class, even when given the choice, rejects their platform, turns on it for being stupid, fanatical and duped by the manipulation of superstition. And of course they attack the propagators of religion for having supposedly brain-washed the masses to ignore their best interests. And I would add another element: the zealously anti-religious, at least those mentioned in the article, frequently tack away from a direct argument as to the merits of the core beliefs of religion, atheism, etc. Instead, they focus on auxiliary, less controversial issues like the supposed intolerance or fanaticism of the religious. Well, let’s face it, believing you’re right and those who disagree with you are wrong is inherently intolerant at some level, and in that respect there is no difference between, say, creationists and Darwinists. The secularists set up this bugaboo without acknowledging that everyone acts in defense of and to further their own beliefs. What it comes right down to is what beliefs you choose to adopt. I feel that there is a sort of uncomfortable awareness that if you get right down to, say, two naked propositions: “God exists” and “There is no God,” one does not really seem more inherently logical than the other, both seem like equally irrational (or rational) assumptions. But if you can cut the theists off at the base by condemning them for “intolerance,” then you don’t have to grapple with their actual beliefs, or, more importantly, the fact that your own are, at root, also just based on arbitrary assumptions.

Furedi makes one other excellent point. After reading most of the article, I was dreading the typical leftist idea that, having seen the power of religion, one should try to harness it even if one puts no credence in it, the attitude embodied by the London think-tanker who says “the liberal, secular left has somehow to find ways of supplying citizens with emotional and metaphysical comforts even when it does not itself believe in such things.” But as Furedi correctly points out, this is a totally cynical ploy, and hypocritical too in that it would involve leftists in the manipulation of religious beliefs in the the same way they accuse the conservatives of doing. He seems to imply that one ought to perhaps re-evaluate the strength and validity of one’s own beliefs rather than simply trying to manipulate others’. As for myself, I find it more empowering both on the indvidual and general level to provisionally accept the materialistic scientific view because it seems to make it easier to understand, to predict and ultimately control our environment when one assumes that everything is a manipulable object devoid of supernatural forces beyond our control. But this is not an ontological but merely an instrumental belief, and hence not based on the belief that it is true, but only that it is most useful. In one sense this is kind of a meaningless distinction, but the difference is one of emphasis and value; from my point of view the most important thing is that people adopt whatever beliefs most allow them to improve their own living conditions. The metaphysical beliefs are only valuable insofar as they support this project; they have no value in and of themselves. It seems to me that the really committed theists, atheists, etc. have the values of these reversed–our personal lives ought to be put at the service of these big beliefs rather than vice versa.

p.s. I think Furedi is right that religious fundamentalism, far from taking over, has been considerably marginalized, even in America. As he points out, the Intelligent Design equation of Darwinism+God to start the process is, in a sense, an enormous concession to science, certainly a long way from strict creationism. After all, it may be unwarranted from a scientific point of view, but since natural selection has nothing to say about how the whole process got started in the first place, it’s not necessarily any worse than any other speculation about ultimate origins. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that many of those propounding Intelligent Design themselves believe it sincerely, and I suspect that should they ever come to control school curriculae we would be back to purely scripturally-based dogmas soon enough.

The ends are the means

It seems to me that we are past the age where we can simply accept ethical principles by reference to some authority. One must justify them by the results we see of them around us in this world. It would be false to label this philosophy as ends-justify-the-means, because that is simply an obstinate and narrow-minded choice to ignore the actual results of one’s actions, as opposed to the intended result. In any case, I think the most legitimate criterion by which to judge an action is the totality of its consequences. I am highly skeptical of “slippery slope” arguments. They may have some legitimacy in cases where doing something will have a very likely affect on someone else’s behavior that (after committing the initial act) will be largely outside of one’s own control. But in cases like judicial decisions, where the same person or people will be in charge of both the current and future cases, it seems like a pretty ludicrous attempt to disqualify actions which are legitimate in their own right. It is applying a heavy-handed disregard for particular circumstances in favor of monolithic patterns. I mean, if one case should be decided a particular way but different circumstances mean a similar but not identical case should be handled another way, are we not sophisticated enough to deal with them as two different cases rather than be childishly beholden to rigid models?

Something for the Francophiles

sunset from the Eiffel TowerWay back in May, I went to France to visit Curt and see the sights. We ended up taking a bunch of pictures, but I didn’t get around to sorting/resizing them until last weekend. Anyway, they’re now available for your viewing enjoyment in the photo gallery. There are pictures from Giverny, Normandy, Mont Saint Michel, Chambord, Chartres and Paris. Check ’em out (as always, there’s a permanent link from the photographs page).

Man weißt nicht noch, was ist Toleranz

Many Germans seem very proud of how civilized their country has supposedly become, but I have a hard time imagining a debate like this one being conducted earnestly in America without both sides getting laughed out of the room. One side advances the notion that all religions ought to be tolerated without being persecuted as if this were a controversial point, then the other argues the contrary position as if this were taking a stand for womens’ rights. And yet both sides muck up the most elementary of distinctions, namely that between religion and religious practice. Being a Muslim, whatever that means, doesn’t have anything to do with womens’ rights, because religions are beliefs, and beliefs are ideas. Ideas are different from practices. Practices may naturally entail from certain beliefs, but having a belief and practicing a custom are by no means the same thing. Why is it so hard to tolerate belief-systems of any stripe while still enforcing a unitary ethical code upon actions? Probably belief-systems that entail kiling everyone the believer doesn’t like are more prone to lead to ethical transgressions than ones that don’t (and I’m not saying that Islam does, I’m only speaking hypothetically), but let’s face it, at certain times, for instance when stuck in traffic or trying to get to my high-school locker, I’ve had the urge to wipe large numbers of my fellow men, but that doesn’t mean I should be prosecuted for the thought.

Actually, it doesn’t really matter if you accept that distinction or not, because my tolerance only extends as far as those things that I don’t actually believe to be wrong. If Islam is just a belief-system, I’m tolerant of it. If it absolutely requires its believers to beat women and blow up infidels, well then I’m no longer tolerant of it. So it comes out the same in the end. But I’d still rather that actions be viewed as actions rather than just as expressions of religious belief–helps to put the emphasis back on human agency. At any rate, Europe has always had a hard time taking a nuanced attitude towards religion one way or the other. For the last hundred years France for example has been a rigidly secular state, banning religious symbols and expression in all public domain, and now some of the political conservatives are talking about swinging back the other way by subsidizing churches, synagogues and mosques. I suppose it has not occured to anyone to just tolerate religion where it arises rather than officially supporting it or trying to eradicate it.