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July 31, 2004
And so goes kenny
Colby Cosh's column from last week was about the Kennewick Man fiasco. Frankly I am surprised, and heartened, that the pursuit of knowledge trumped "tradition" and religion in the service of politics (at least in spirit if not as measured by bones and artifacts). If you are interested in Kennewick Man, I suggest Moira Breen's archive.
July 30, 2004
Harold and Kumar go to Krispy Kreme?
That could have been the title to the new film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle unfortunately the donut company turned down the free hour and a half plus advertisement. I bring this up for two reasons: first it is a brilliant new way to introduce advertisements, and second I find it very ironic that White Castle would allow their name to be used in this film. Let me explain;
Back in the 20's when White Castle(WC) started, hamburger meat was considered disgusting, something that only the very poor would consume. This was because of the ease of bacterial infection and the prevalence of other animals worked into the food. Cheap food stands like WC were also suspect because of the sanitary practices of the staff. So WC had to build an image. To do so they took two words; White (implying clean and wholesome) and Castle (implying strong and safe), and the stands took off. They also took great strides to build/maintain this image, making their staff and stands appear impeccably clean and cooking the food where the customers could see.
Now, in 2004, WC has associated itself with a movie that includes such "unwholesome" activities as; pot smoking, sex, and sexual perversion (just watch the trailer to see what I mean)
P.S. Please do not read anything racial in my qualifying things in the movie as "unwholesome".
Oh and in the extended entry is the secret of the village CAUTION: do not look if you do not want spoilers
Ivy's grandfather was a billionare who bought a wildlife preserve that Hurt's character moved the children into when they were newborns to save them from the violent outside world. The creatures are just the elders in costumes. The grandfather also paid to have all airflights re-routed around the preserve.
Bloody matam & display
Materialism. It is a sin great in our age, so tell us the priests the progressives. But, it is a truism that one usually would prefer to be the richest individual on a block, even if the other option was being considerably wealthier in absolute terms but low on the pecking order in relative terms. If materials were just about utility this wouldn't make much sense, but they are about status. Materialism is the proximate, and status is an the ultimate, though status is ultimately the proximate to the ultimate of sex. I thought about this as I read the following from Mullahs on the Mainframe:
This text must be set in the context of the following two facts:
The men above are violating the injunctions from on high in a community that does not normally tolerate this behavior, but they are admired and respected (according to the author). Is this an instance of irrational insanity?
I don't think so. Flagellation, self-mutiliation and mortification are recurrent motifs in human religious movements, whether that be Hindu ascetism, medieval Catholic Christianity or modern Shia Islam. One could assert that it is a recurrent psychopathology, but the description above, the respect that peculiar ascetes are accorded in Hindu culture or the power that European flagellators exercised suggests to me that we might have to redefine "irrational" or "pathological" if these behaviors fall under those umbrellas.
Like materialism, behavior like flagellation is nothing more than a status cue, those who survive great hardships with effortless aplomb are accorded respect. One could assert that this is an example of The Handicap Principle at work. It is a form of honest signalling. In the case of the Bohras, not only must an individual who goes through bloody matam have a modicum of physical fitness, he must possess psychological fortitude and perhaps the social capital to ignore the directives of the religious authorities.
It also illustrates the various tensions in complex cultural constructs. The Ismaili Bohras are impacted by the "meme" of the shahada, the profession of Muslim belief which sets them apart from non-Muslims. They are also shaped by historical forces that differentiate them from Sunnis as Shia Muslims. Additionally, the vicissitudes of holding together a top-down religious organization has resulted in periodic schisms, first from other Shia, and later from other Ismailis. In terms of their practice and doctrine, the 20th century has been characterized by a "reform" and drive toward outward conformity imposed from above upon the Bohras by their religious leadership.
But underneath all this the basic psychological forces remain resilient. The need for leveraging a religious organization into something that serves one's own self-interest is just one of those irresistable forces. The need for status overwhelmed the strictures against engaging in a forbidden practice. And those who know of the practice, despite their general adherence to the wishes and dictates of their religious superiors, could but not help feel a natural admiration. Just like political systems, or individual lives, religions are constrained by the realities of our psychology, often shaped by our past evolutionary history.
The Golden Calf was not a symbol of material greed, it was a reflection of the human urge to become as the gods, surrounded by supplicants and basking in the glory of the bracing wind on top of the mountain.
Related note: I will give a full review of Mullahs on the Mainframe in conjunction with reflections on The Sword of the Prophet: History, Theology, Impact on the World, by Srdja Trifkovic, who has penned a deliciously Islamophobic text (though the book would be better titled Rending of the Orthodox).
Update: Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status is a good introduction to an evolutionary psychological view of economic competition. Here is an excerpt from an abstract of a paper presented at The Paradoxes of Happiness in Economics conference:
The point I made above about relative status has obvious constraints, who would want to be the least destitute among the destitute? Additionally, the point above has some implications for Rawlsian liberalism and the choices that a "rational" observer might make when given a choice between various social arrangements. Libertarians have always asserted that there is no evidence that anyone should choose the "low risk" (egalitarian) social model over the "high risk" (nonegalitarian) model, and now there is some empirical support for that supposition. The attitudes expressed above also explain why role-playing video games without hierarchy are always busts (and complex role playing games become enmeshed in real world financial transactions as status is bought on ebay). It might also shed light on why people below the median income level reject the logic of free trade, though they would benefit in absolute terms (cheaper goods & services), those above the median would benefit far more, unless off course they are a subset of the working class that would lose out less than other subsets, raising their relative status.
July 29, 2004
A man for all seasons
In the comments for Mirror Museums, a post that dismissed the importance of the Creationist "threat," I rejected godless' implication that Panda's Thumb is an adjunct of the Gould-Lewontin project by pointing out that Paul R. Gross is listed as a contributor. Paul R. Gross has made contributions to the counter-attack against both the plagues of Creationism and Post Modernism!
In 1994 Gross coauthored Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science, now 10 years on he has penned Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. A regular contributor to The New Criterion, Gross has rebuked those who would slime the reputation of scientists like E. O. Wilson because of their normative quibbles with sociobiology, and displayed the courage to positively review Race: The Reality of Human Differences.
No gods but the pursuit of truth!
Just to clarify, the reason I thought the Panda's Thumb hewed the Lewontin line is because:
Glad to see that I was mistaken. By the way, I define the "Lewontin line" as the position that evolution and genetics have nothing to tell us about human behavior.
Crick no longer ticks
Francis Crick dies. Just put him under the "Great Men" heading under our links, the second Francis!
Related: Obit in The Independent.
Addendum: I received a complaint that for someone who laid the foundation for "gene expression" I'm not giving Crick his due.
I will say I enjoyed Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, though advances in neuroscience make broadsides into the "ghost in the machine" progressively more banal. Here is a timeline of Crick's life. One thing about Crick, I wish he hadn't coined the term The Central Dogma, the last word really isn't a good one to use for science! In any case, here is a graphical depiction of TCD, and a succinct verbal description. Funniest scientific dead-end in Crick's life? Probably Panspermia.
The Village prediction
I predict that "the village" is actually on a spaceship. Anyone else have thoughts?
Family garbarge & the pious mob
A month ago I put up a long post about my experiences in Bangladesh from the Hong Kong airport. Since then I haven't followed up much. Since Bangladesh is in the news now, I have decided to congeal some of my reflections into something that resembles post.
Some background facts to keep in mind. Bangladesh is home to 140 million individuals crammed into a geographical expanse about the size of New York state (or Wisconsin, or 1/3 the size of Imbler, you get the picture). This high level of crowding in well known, almost one of the stereotypical assumptions about Bangladesh, but it needs to be experienced to be truly understood.
One of the consequences of a high birthrate (at least in the past) is that many adults have somewhere on the order of 3-5 siblings. With the development of roads and the spread of automobile use among the "middle class" these extended family social networks have become extremely tight, tighter I suspect than in the past. Many families who migrated to Dhaka decades ago now keep in far closer touch with their rural roots than in the past because it is feasible to take day trips to one's ancestral village. Recall that Bangladesh is a relativey compact nation, with the vast majority of the population living within 100 miles of Dhaka.
Family is everything in Bangaldesh, a nation that is the world's most corrupt. The large families in the past, a traditional culture and the rise of modern transportation seems to have resulted in a hardening of "conservative" familial norms and a reversal of the process of cultural change and divergence between urban and rural. Bangladesh is a nation where a close relative (brother, first cousin, etc.) can arrive at your doorstep without warning and expect that you will put him up without any complaint.
On the other hand, relations with non-kin are different. There is a qualitative difference in tenor when socializating with those not of one's blood. For example, the amount of sweets that one brings to a occasion after an invitation is inversely proportional to familial closeness, that is, with kin one does not need to bring as many sweet dishes because one can expect far more tangible things from kin (boarding and lodging primarily if need be). While conversation with kin tends to focus on familial topics and gossip, especially when women are in the room, interactions with non-kin seem more forced and without a mooring, because the common kin world-view and knowledge base can not be leveraged.
In fact, the one time that I felt I was in a social situation that resembled the United States was when we visited my father's old colleagues from Dhaka University. There were individuals who were chemists and physicists, my father's old colleagues. They asked my brother what his plans were and he mentioned that he was going to attend graduate school in the fall studying physics. My father's closest non-kin best friend exclaimed, "Ah, such a beautiful topic of study." To hear such an abstract and aesthetic judgement on the sciences being expressed brought me back to my world, unmoored and unshaped by familial considerations and gossip, dictated by ideas and methods, soaked in information. Such things can not compete with gossip about family and relations, but when speaking to non-kin they have a chance because familial information commonality is sharply attenuated.
In simultaenous conjunction with the overwhelming preoccupation with kin ties there exists a total lack of devotion to the public arena. As note above, there are collegial friendships that cross the boundaries of kin, but I doubt there is ever the possibility that one would put a close friend above kin in a pinch. Many "friends" (most) seem to be first and second cousins, or somehow related to one's extended family network. Instead of atomic individuals forming social networks and exploring social space, one already has a preformed network that one is slotted into upon birth. Marriages and business relationships alter the shape of the social space that one is embedded within (that is, the extended family network), it seems difficult to truly affect unilateral change as an individual. Outside of this network exist the Others. If humans have a fixed basket of "altruism" to give (more likely, perceived altruism), and all of it is distributed amongst one's kin, it seems that altruism toward non-kin and the general society is starved.
For me, the clearest indication of this is the attitude toward garbage. One of my relatives lives in a modern air-conditioned apartment complex. Adjacent to this relatively posh abode there exists a small collection of hovels. My cousin looks down upon these hovels from her 6th floor apartment. Below you could see the minutiae of every day life for the urban poor, rickshaw drivers and the like. Chickens dash to and fro and women wash their clothing in public.
Anywyay, after a scrumptious meal I wondered where the leavings from the food were going to be tossed. I watched as my cousin took the bucket and simply emptied into the "courtyard" of the hovels below. When I looked closer it was clear that everyone in the apartment complex was using the the courtyard as their dumping pit. To me seemed a particularly repulsive behavior, individuals who were rather affluent simply tossing their trash in the laps of those who were living in the grossest poverty. I talked to someone else who had visited Bangladesh when I came back to the United States, and they too noted that the attitude toward garbage was shocking. We both realized we had independently developed the habit of stuffing trash in our pants, so difficult was it for us to leave crap in the corner so that the servants could toss it outside somwhere "convenient."
It is peculiar that Bangladeshis will complain at the same time about the problem of the lack of public spiritedness in the company of their extended family, as the answer is sitting right before them! One of my uncles is notorious for helping out members of his family and settling his neices and nephews into good jobs and good marriages and good apartments. People talk about how the man is run ragged and has no time. But talking to my uncle I suspect that if he wasn't doing all this for his relatives, he might be doing something else for the public good, perhaps being an anti-corruption activist or getting invovled in a civic forum. As it is, he has no time for that. So focused are many Bangladeshis on the inner world of their family, their "clan," that they simply have no time for the outside world. And because the outside world is so bereft of succor, sympathy and justice, because they have left it to the basest of human wolves, they focus only on the inner circle of their family.
At least this is the general pattern. There are exceptions. One of which I will illustrate with a story.
One of my uncles is a geology professor who takes constant leave to aid in the activities of his Muslim religious order. He has a beard, his wife and daughter are in purdah, while his sons study the Koran and Hadiths. He is a true-blue fundamentalist. On the other hand, he is apolitical and generally against violence, coercion and non-consensual "persuasion." His goal is to convince Muslims to be good Muslims, and he travels Bangladesh and the world on educational excursions.
On this particular day he was on a bus. Five times a day he has to perform salat prayer, and so he would get up and do his duty to his god. Initially, he asked the bus driver to stop so he could pray without motion and be assured that he faced Mecca, but the driver refused. Soon, he realized that the driver was becoming erratic and turning the bus here and there whenever he got up to pray. My uncle complained but the driver just gave him a disgusted look. Dressed in white, in his cap and beard, my uncle stands out as one of the pious, so he often is the target of praise, respect and revulsion. This was one of the last cases.
At some point they stopped in a medium-sized town. My uncle was at a fruit stall when he saw another man dressed as he was. He made eye contact and exclaimed, "Brother!" The other man smiled and greeted him. They had never met each other, but exchanged information about their experiences in their religious order and my uncle noted the difficulties of the trip. The other man was outraged. He excused himself and came back with a dozen "brothers" of his religious order. Soon some of these left and came back with another two dozen. Somewhere south of fifty men marched to the bus, and they dressed down the bus driver for his "impious" activity. After that point the bus driver was more careful about his driving when my uncle prayed.
The point I wanted to illustrate with the story is that a non-kin network does exist in Bangladesh, a network that can mobilize and execute within 30 minutes in a totally alien part of the nation (from my uncle's vantage point). It is of course a form of Islam, and its emphasize on universal brotherhood helps to reorient from kin and kith to the world outside. The organization channels some of the altruism of humans and mobilizes them in unison in a way that is akin to an army. If my uncle was not a religious man it would seem ludicrous for him to seek out the aid of non-kin, but as it was, he had a quasi-family that extended throughout the nation that he could call upon. This serves as a potent practical incentive for some people to display piety, though the costs involved in becoming part of the Tableegh (his order) is not trivial in terms of scholarship, rituals, rules and time one needs to invest.
In a previous entry, Up to Medievalism, I argued that Bangladesh must tolerate the crass and common corruption of NGOs because they serve as the main counterweights to religious orders as far as civic institutions go. A theocratic society is unworkable if Iran is any judge, so the hard path to modernity is through development of non-familial ties via work and government. A central model where there is the national government on top is just not appropriate for Bangladesh, rather, one must create a dense local non-kin network, and that is where NGOs come in. There are no easy answers, what I depicted above is probably the result of a few stable social equilibria, so some destablizing input needs to be inserted to jar them over the hill toward modernity.
ToM, terrorism and proteanism
Abiola has been posting about the possible futility of the "swarthy Middle Eastern male" profiling strategy, noting that rationally a transnational multiracial religio-political-cult would probably simply use operatives who could evade tightly focused radar. This reminded me of the Theory of Mind cognitive adaptation, that is, modelling the minds of other individuals, taking into account deception as well as the fact that they are also accounting for deception on your part, and so forth. The almost random shifting of strategies can also be conceived of as proteanism. ToM and proteanism are pretty vanilla innate tendencies, that is, you don't have to be a genius to think or behave in a machiavellian & mercurial fashion.
Below godless posted about whites marching in penitence for the sin of slavery. Many issues can be illuminated here. In the comments sections I reacted with a sarcastic quip where I basically implied that some whites believe themselves to be such morally exalted folk that they take upon their shoulders a sort of "white man's burden" of shame that they would never expect from conventionally barbarous darkies. I think this is a relevant point, but it's not the only issue.
Steve Sailer asserts that this sort of behavior is a way for a certain class of whites, generally educated professionals, to strike a moralistic pose that distinguishes them from working class whites who lack such cultivated sensitivities. It in other words, public remorse for some vague ancestral crime is a form of display that signals one's social status, intellectual capacity and general spiritual development.
But to be more specific, I will give two examples:
Several months ago I was IMing Aziz Poonwalla about his religious group, the Daudi Bohras, and I inquired about their origins. The traditional theory is that they were generally converted from Vaishya castes, that is, traders. We chatted a bit about genetic evidence which indicates the close affinity of Indian Muslims with various Hindu communities and what not. Offhand, Aziz mentioned that progressive/liberal Bohras asserted that some of their community's more regressive tendencies were the legacies of their Brahmin origins. I found this an interesting observation.
I believe the "progressives" have simultaneously struck a pose of moral righteousness & appealed to innate human snobbery. They know that they are sinners, that their community needs to reform and they have the self-awareness to acknowledge this, and, they have also highlighted their own "prestigous" ancestry. Of course, as righteous liberal Muslims, they shouldn't be proud of Brahmin ancestry because they believe in egalitarianism. But I think the other factor is also at work, as conversations with people espousing this sort of puffy righteousness often elicit inordinate repetition of ostensibly "shameful" "facts" (yes, I know your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a evil tyrant of some dung hill!).
Let me now give a second example. In high school I had a friend named "Karen." Unlike 90% of the students in my high school she was a liberal. In A.P. History one day we were talking about slavery, and as a normal American of our age, she did not speak of the practice positively. But, she mentioned offhand that her ancestors were from the South and they might have owned slaves, as if it was a source of shame. Well, at any given time 80% of white Southerners did not own slaves, though over the decades a family might have owned a slave at some time. Where did I get the 80% number? We had been talking about it 15 minutes before. Karen still suggested that perhaps her ancestors had owned slaves anyway, even though she had no knowledge they did, and in other circumstances had implied that her forebears were "white trash" fleeing economic deprivation in the late 19th century when they arrived in Imbler. But someone whose ancestors owned slaves is someone whose ancestors were at the top of the social pyramid, and I think that is what was at work in that particular case. As a guilty-white-liberal she displayed sufficient shame and regret about slavery to contrast herself with the general student body, but additionally, she also associated herself with the herrenvolk of ages past, a "natural" inclination which most humans give vent to.
Anyway, boasting about ancestors is dumb, seeing as how we're all descended from "winners." Slavery sucked, and reflection on the abomination is important. Nevertheless, I find ostentatious displays of remorse unseemly, because they seem to do far more for those expressing remorse than the memories of those who were wronged in the past.
July 28, 2004
The expanding SAT test prep industry
CNN reports that the Princeton, N.J. SAT test-prep company, Peterson, is going to expand it's services passed just academics, to include;
the choice of pre-exam meal, the hue of their clothes, the music they hear on the drive to the test.
It is not going to do it through actual experimentation and observation, but through hiring specialized consultants;
Some of the research is already under way. A nutritionist has developed guidelines for a long-term diet heavy on vitamin B6, plus folate, to help build red blood cells that carry oxygen to the brain and vitamin C to help the body cope with stress. A pasta dinner the night before is suggested, as is avoiding candy and caffeine...Tunsky, famous in the fashion world for helping clients figure out the next hot color, on a wardrobe project. A fitness expert will demonstrate stretches and exercises at a guidance counselors convention this fall, and a mobile laboratory will visit high schools to advise students on what scents, colors and sounds might work best for them.
And to those that this is just a silly industry trying to expand their services so they can justify a higher price (ergo a higher profit), check this out;
Franklin Chang, a guidance counselor at Lane Technical College Prep High School in Chicago, said that, for better or worse, students do worry about these things.
Interesting how desperate some students are becoming in trying to squeeze out the last 10-20 points out of the test.
Amish in the city
Here's a new series premiering tonight on UPN, about five teenagers (three boys and two girls) undergoing the Amish tradition of rumspringa. While this is just another drop in the reality show fad that won't seem to die, some republican lawmakers are very upset about the whole thing, calling it 'exploitation'. These lawmakers also attacked an idea to bring an Appalachian family to Beverly Hills for a year thought up by CBS.
At the heart of both these shows is a difference in vision between the Blue-state professional and the Red-state resident. The Blue-stater sees mocking a 'non-ethinic' (e.g. white), rural minority as OK and even desirable, while the Red-stater see it as just another example of the sneering contempt that the Blue-staters hold for 'fly-over country'.
At any rate, it should be an interesting show to watch.
Update from Scott
Related note from Razib: Here's an earlier post on the Amish from me. By the way, I lived in Western Pennsylvania in "Amish country" for a year when I was a kid, and I can attest that conservative church-going Republicans mocked the "Dutchies" too (the area I lived in was mostly Republican). I do think there's a Blue-state and Red-state difference as Scott has noted. On a side-anecdote, I have a friend who is married to a guy from a Quaker background. Her family is Jewish & New York in origin, and I remember laughing once when her sister mentioned something about her boyfriend being "Amish." I think it's rather funny how "ignorance" about the ways of other cultures can be a human universal, though reminding progressive cosmopolitans that the Amish grow organic food & are pacifists might reorient sympathies....
There has been a lot of talk about John Kerry's conflict with the Church over his position on abortion. Interestingly, one thing to note about the Catholic Church in the United States is that its positions (as communicated through the bishops) are often the diametric opposite of libertarians, that is, socially conservative and fiscally liberal. I will grant this is automatically an oversimplification, but the seamless garment philosophy espoused by many within the Catholic Church does not often map well into the public arena, just like principled libertarian tends not be well represented. After all, how many politicians do you know who oppose both abortion and the death penalty?
Nevertheless, in light of my skepticism of intuiting social policy from religious texts, I found in interesting that in the book Why Sex Matters, page 175, the author shows a table that indicates a strong bias for seminarians to come from large families and a mild bias toward lower socioeconomic status. Regardless of what the text says, it seems plausible that the reality that most clerics come from less affluent and economically more marginal circumstances than their congregants seems like it would be a relevant detail in coloring their idea of what good policy would be if they ascended up the clessiastical ladder.
I'm going to be taking a cross-country trip soon, from West coast to East, and I'm curious about good camp sites and eateries and other such things along the way. Below I've sketched out some general points we'll be stopping off at, any tips would be helpful....
Spokane to Missoula (via Northern Idaho).
What the best campgrounds in the Missoula area? Without RVs? Here's a list I'm looking at. Any good food in Missoula?
Doubt we'll stop in North Dakota, but what good campgrounds are there in the North Woods and the northern coast of Wisconsin? Any towns with really good food?
I hear the Upper Peninsula is just a big wilderness. Any pointers?
July 27, 2004
It's an eye thang
A month ago I posted an entry titled Balancing selection in color blindness?, here are two follow up articles, Variation in Color Vision Genes May Have Helped Humans See the Fruit for the Trees in The Scientific American and Why women see many shades of red from the BBC. The paper, as noted previously, will be published in the September issue of The American Journal of Human Genetics.
It turns out that the southern, blonde pop-tart has not only converted to Judaism (to the horror of her southern baptist parents) but also is planning a Kabbalah wedding. This is very strange, I could imagine leftist singer madonna dabbling in this new age version of Judaism, but Brittany? Again this reminds me of the Family Guy ep where Peter tries to get his moronic son converted to Judaism to have the advantages of a higher income.
Creationism strikes me as the most innocent of the popular unscientific beliefs. Unlike, say, the current fact of human biodiversity, evolutionary events a million years old have no significant implications in politics or daily life. Thus creationists get to take a stand for their pet belief that costs them almost nothing in terms of cognitive dissonance. If creationists were opposed to the scientific mindset in general, they'd be refusing to get their children innoculated or sticking forks in electrical outlets. Instead, they have their own mirror-universe science--complete with museums.
See, for example, this recent puff piece on the ICR's Museum of Creation and Earth History in Santee, California. There's also a Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas, another one under construction in Petersburg, Kentucky, and even a mobile museum.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what's deconstruction?
Razib adds: Please see my comment in Haloscan...if we are going to lecture people on facing hard truths, I don't think poo-pooing what are supposed to be easy truths sets a good example.
Jemima responds: Yes, there is some collateral damage caused by creationism (of whatever variety), but its impact on other human beings is minor compared to, say, deaths from malaria caused by misinformation about DDT. Nor is creationism as dangerous to the true believer himself as misinformation about vaccination. It's not a hard truth in my book unless it has significant implications in the real world, and Homo erectus dancing on the head of a pin does not.
Razib responds to the response: Hm...I had several friends in high school ask me "why people aren't evolving now." Since evolution had never happened in the past (in their mind), it couldn't happen in the present or future. This is nonsense in light of the reality of selection sweeps as well as the possibility of relaxed selection leading to a "mutational meltdown" (W.D. Hamilton worried about this, it's not all quackery). Evolution is happening now. In theory many Creationists accept microevolution, but in practice their problems with macroevolution work their way down the chain.
Evolution is not just paleontology, it has relevance today! For example: imagine a scenario where an individual undergoes gene therapy where the source of the exogenous genetic material is non-human (I have a friend who is thinking about writing a book about this sort of thing in the future). Of course, the Religious Right and Luddite Left will cry abomination! But, if you understand evolution, you know that:
1) Tthe boundary between species is more fluid than commonly thought.
Creationists who live in a static universe of absolute "kinds" with extinction and creation only by godly fiat are going to be difficult to calm down by pointing out this reality. They simply don't buy the science, the Good Book has all the answers.
The Science of Coffee
Awesome site for those readers with an interest in science and a passion for coffee. Has everything you could possibly want to know about coffee; history, chemistry, roasting guides, and of course brewing recommendations. One thing though that I disagree with, it states that the best method of coffee brewing is the press, I still believe in the drip method.
Cafestol and kahweol. Odds are you’ve never heard of these two substances, which are found in the oils in ground coffee. And, as long as you drink instant or filtered drip coffee (which most home coffee machines make and most restaurants and coffee houses serve), odds are they’re not raising your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol or your triglycerides.
Canadian Gov't Challenges Church Sanctuary
I can't imagine that with the current immigration policies, or lack of them, that the US gov't would ever violate a church's right to grant sanctuary to illegal immigrants. I'm sure we'll be following the Canadian initiative to see how it plays out.
Only once have the civil authorities forced their way into a church to seize a protected person -- in March of this year, when Quebec City police pushed past the minister of St-Pierre United Church to arrest Algerian refugee claimant Mohamed Cherfi. Mr. Cherfi, whose offences were to have failed to report a change of address and to have been involved in a demonstration against human-rights violations in Algeria, was immediately turned over to the United States for likely removal to Algeria.
When Bloc Québécois MP Serge Cardin urged then-immigration-minister Denis Coderre last October to implement an appeal mechanism, and mentioned a refugee-claimant family who had been living for three months in a Quebec church, Mr. Coderre replied, "I do not negotiate in churches or with churches. . . . We on this side of the floor do not condone civil disobedience."
Being & Counting
Say you have a friend, he tosses some marbles on a table in front of you and asks you how many you see. He does this twice. The first time, he throws four marbles, and the second time he throws nineteen marbles.
How long does it take you to "count" the marbles? In the first case, I assume everyone will see four marbles, and blurt out the number. What about the second case? I can imagine someone who tries to size up quintets as well as a possible final remainder less than five, and then they do the mental calculation in their head and come up with the final figure. Or, someone else may just count up by ones. Another individual may look for triplets. Another person may simply estimate and be satisfied with whatever they come up with.
My general point in the first case is that the cognitive process is instinctive, a lightning fast mental evaluation, as if we automatically know four of a kind when we see it. In the second case, there are a host of pathways to the end point, because the answer must be arrived by a process, or a system. Not only is the outside signature of the behavior very different (the response time does not increase linearly with the number of marbles), one assumes that the neural activity would be different.
But in both instances, you're "counting," right?
Sometimes I wonder if a lot of "philosophy" isn't just attempting to translate into language things we "know" instinctively rather than systematically, that is, trying to make our animal nature fit into human shaped boxes, attempting to communicate the universal (perhaps we can never communicate some innate concepts because we all share them, ergo, language was not necessary to convey this information because it was not novel) . Instead of a treatise like Being and Time Martin Heidegger might have been better off writing songs (my opinion, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations is just common sense on crack). Much of the counter-intuitional jibberish that comes out of "higher" religions also might be the result of the tendency for our systematic brain to attempt to capture, dissect and reduce instinctive elements of our nature (that is, religion doesn't attempt to explain the outer universe, but the inner universe). Since regular transparent language doesn't map well onto the "deep truths," gibberish does the trick, as it's a much more entertaining dance around the hole, rather than just standing there and admitting that we can't fathom the depths of the well.
July 26, 2004
Obscuring the text
In The science of the text (see below) a reader correctly observes that: "The Quran is the word of God, and that's why Muslims believe in it 100%" I have pointed this out before to suggest that there are axiomatic problems with deviating too much from the text of the Koran. But note this from Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras (page 18):
God always leaves a loophole because the human mind can not comprehend his ways and his words, but humans must jump through the opening. The majority Sunnis (unlike the Daudi Bohras and to a lesser extent other Shia) emphasize the Koran and the Hadiths as axioms that guide their thinking, superseding the judgements of their religious superiors (at least de jure). But, I could imagine a scenario where textual liberals emphasize the Koran's opacity over its transparency as a nodd toward the greatness of God, attempting to leverage the righteous piety of conservatives toward the ends of flexibility.
Addendum: Imagine Islam is a person. I think some of the comments below indicate attribution error, that is, ascribing to the individual essential characteristics based on behaviors when said behaviors are dictated more by situational factors. So...in response to Luke why many Muslims don't tend to take a more non-medieval attitude toward interpretation of their central text, well, it's because most Muslim nations exist in a state of quasi-civilized barbarism (and many Muslim immigrants come from societies where barbarism is normative). That is simply their current situation, which may constraint "The West" in its response to various aggressions and insults, but one should not presume that the present is a perfect back-reflection of the future.
For example, would an American who lived in Philadelphia in in 1680 predict that 300 hundred years in the future Virginia, and the Southern colonies in general, rather than Puritan Massachusetts would be the hot-bed of Protestant revivalism? One must be cautious about behaving as if the future has already been determined. Hate the sinner, not the sin!
Related: Abiola extends my thoughts. Let me note, what I refer is "gelding" is partly self-delusion. For example, the Christians of today likely think those of the past were misguided to insist on coerced conversion of heathens and wedding of violence to the faith. I personally don't know or care if any of this really follows from Christianity, but I'm glad that most Christians (in the West at least) adhere to this new Truth rather than the old one.
Gesturing toward consilience
In the comments section of the recent post on the evolution of language Michael Farris states:
I've stumbled upon the "gesture => vocalization" theory before. I find it interesting that Michael thinks that this theory is not "provable," for if the gesture => vocalization hypothesis is correct it seems likely that their will be a neurological footprint in the hardware of the brain that we could detect.
The reason I have some hope that these hypotheses might be testable in some sense is that similar ideas have been bounced around in the simpler field of the study of numeracy. In The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, Stanislas Dehaene tells of how some cognitive scientists suggested mental counting was an abstraction of the ticking off of fingers. Years later neuroscientists discovered that some individuals who had suffered brain damage no longer had the ability to manipulate their fingers also lost the ability to count!
The moral of the story is that hypotheses might seem pie-in-the-sky when one is viewing the situation from within one discipline, but future synthesis of knowledge with other fields might change that perception in unpredictable ways. While evolutionary anthropologists theorize about language in the context of ultimate ends, and cognitive scientists posit mental models and paradigms that explain the proximate phenomena, neuroscientists will map and explore the very physical structure of the brain itself, where both evolution and modular concepts will be tested and explicated.
Addendum: To my mind, all language theories must grapple with FOXP2, this locus is implicated in vocalization in birds as well, and the fact that it has mutated considerably in humans in comparison to how conserved it is in other mammal lineages is very suspicious.
This has got to be a joke
A report on Yahoo that the Democratic National Convention does not have enough toilets for the media. Cited reporter, Jim Drinkard. Gotta be a joke.
Genetic Experiments and Milla Jovovich
Milla Jovovich, the Russian actress of Fifth Element fame, is starring in not one but three separate films about experiments gone awry creating either "vampires" or "zombies"; Resident evil, Resident evil 2, and Ultraviolet. Quick question for all readers, when was the last time you saw science or scientists in movies as the only answer to an overwhelming evil?
The science of the text
Internet Infidels has a piece up titled 'Predicting Modern Science: Epicurus vs. Mohammed'. A debate between those who argue that the Koran predicts many of the discoveries of modern science and those who reject this assertion serves as the background. When I was a child the book The Bible, the Qu'ran and Science: The Holy Scriptures Examined in the Light of Modern Knowledge was making the rounds. I happened to read it and found it to be a most unconvincing text, teasing from scripture bizarre interpretations that dovetailed with modern physiology or cosmology (it was kind of like a more sexually preoccupied version of something like The Fingerprint of God).
In my personal experience Muslims tend to take the evidentiary tack quite a bit more often than Christians. Partly this is the result of the special place that the Koran has in Muslim thought, its sacrality and almost magical properties imbue it with an aura of literality that might imply in the minds of some that the sum of all knowledge must be found in the text. Another problem is that in some ways Islam has been less impressed by the bracing impact of modern secularism, ergo, some Muslims seem to assume that unbelief is due to either obstinance or ignorance, rather than its own merits.
The piece above makes the case that the Hellenistic philosopher Epicurus' predictions, or more properly fantastical hypotheses vaguely informed by reason and empirical evidence, are more congruent with the state of modern scientific knowledge than the Koran (I do believe that Epicurus' reductionistic materialism helped make his guesses more predictive than if he was of a mystical 'holistic' bent, in that in the latter case I wonder if his hypotheses would have been clear enough to be tested in the context of modern science in the first place). A plain reading of the evidence will likely point to this direction to most non-Muslims, while many Muslims will remain skeptical, which goes to show that arguments from evidence serve to buttress the faith of believers rather than convert anyone through force of reason or empiricism. The author's point, that if you look at any obscure text you can glean predictive power is instructive, The Bible Code and God and the Astronomers are both books that exploited human preconceptions and dispositions, people wanted to see certain patterns, they saw them and never bothered to consider contradictory patterns that might nullify the force behind their conclusion.
I recall what a friend of mine once told me: when someone is cured of cancer, praise be to God, and when someone dies a slow death, to hell with modern medicine!
Not just one letter
When I was a kid all the books on Iran & Iraq would note that the difference between the two nations wasn't just a letter. Kind of funny now that the American government is wondering about Iran's role in looking the other way as Al Qaeda crossed its territory. Randall has a long post ruminating over the Iran situation. I don't spend many cycles thinking about international policy or reading much about it, and frankly I find the likes of Hanson & Ledeen as predictive as the columnists over at ESPN, but the latter are more entertaining. But let's compare Iraq and Iran for a moment....'
Yes, I've rounded and simplified (putting Azeris into the 'Turkic' category like Iraq's Turkoman). Both countries dispaly 'ethnic diversity.' But there is a difference, Iran is basically a Shia nation. I emphasize the term nation, because as everyone is now aware, Iraq is a quasi-nation. Now, Iran is no France or Germany, and the 'ethnic differences' between the various groups are not clear cut & fluid. But Azeris (most of the 'Turkic' element in Iran) have a big stake in the country, and the Safavid dynasty which made Iran a Shia nation in the 16th century was Turkic in origin, not Persian. Like Turkey, Iran was not cobbled together by European powers, rather, its nationhood was given more focus by the expansion of Western powers.
July 25, 2004
A different kind of "jock"
I haven't kept close track of the NFL since for the past 4-5 years, but I was surprised a few years ago to notice that Robert Smith of the Vikings had retired. He gained 5.2 years per carry his last year. So what happened? I guessed he did the math, at 28 he was already past his prime as a running back, and he would probably face a precipitous drop off in productivity. Ask Eddie George what it's like to be a great post-30 year old running back. But Smith was still at his peak, it didn't make sense. Well, here is a story about Smith and his new book. Snips below:
PC suppresses speech, ideas and now genetic choice
Imagine going throught he process of genetic screening in preparation for an IVF procedure and a test for deafness is purposely withheld from your because the advocates for the deaf hold the position that deafness is not a disability.
Meet Karen Coveler the mother of a newly born deaf child and a doctoral candidate in genetics at the time of her pregnancy.
Harry Ostrer, director of the human genetics program at New York University Medical Center, suggested in a scientific journal article six years ago that a routine screening test for the gene might be appropriate - particularly for Ashkenazi Jews, because 80 percent to 90 percent of inherited deafness in their children is caused by mutations in the gene. But Dr. Ostrer said that almost no one offered it, including the genetic counselors he supervises, because of opposition from advocates for the deaf who argued that deafness was not a disease.
So here, just like the German legislators I blogged about a few days ago, we have physicians purposely setting themselves up as knowing what's best for their patients despite the fact that the patients are most likely self-selecting and voluntarily subjecting themselves to genetic tests in order to lessen the chance of passing dibilitating conditions onto their new-born children. The doctor's conscience is assuaged and the parents, and the child, have to live with an avoidable medical condition.
Is there no limit to this type of paternalism? Is the nanny-state mentality so ingrained that it is impossible for such people to concieve of patients and citizens making informed decisions that are appropriate for their life's circumstances and goals?
Reality TV + Genetics = New Frontier
What are the acceptable boundaries for the premise of a reality TV show? How much do newly pushed boundaries in TV standards influence the acceptance in society of the underlying TV concept. Judge for yourself.
The TV executives who brought us live sex on Big Brother are planning an even more depraved reality show - in which 1,000 men compete to father a child who is then created live in a laboratory. In Make Me A Mum, a woman will take fertility drugs to produce eggs which will then be harvested under anaesthetic, with one egg selected.
The Genetic Wild, Wild, East
While we in the West are debating the use of stem-cells in research and pondering the ethics of Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis, the Chinese research effort is moving in unexpected directions.
Nine Japanese with damaged spinal cords underwent cell transplants in China with cells taken from aborted fetuses, Japan Spinal Cord Foundation officials said Thursday. The transplants were conducted by Huang Hongyun, a doctor at the Capital Medical College Hospital in Beijing, in the hopes that the paralyzed patients will regain some movement, the foundation said.
Another theory of language
An anthropologist is now proposing that language arose as a way to pacify and reassure babies during our evolutionary past. Human infants are particularly underdveloped and mothers would need to put them down to get about their daily activities, and talking was a way to keep them calm. The implication here is that since language was a response to coping with bipedal locomotion & big brains, it might be a far more ancient feature of humanity (broadly defined as hominids) than the "Great Leap" of the past 100,000 years (bipedal locomotion is millions of years old, while the human brain has increased in size gradually rather than in one leap). I don't find the argument persuasive in that I can't see why syntax and complex lexicons needed to arise to reassure babies. Anyway, if mother-infant interaction is so important, it seems kind of weird that 'papa' might be the most ancient of words.
Addendum: I should add that there are very different paradigms that explain the utility of language. For example, most people tend to accept the thesis that language exists to facilitate the communication of information of practical import (eg; "The mammoth is there!"). But, a fast rising rival is the "gossip" theory, that is, language is a grooming substitute, so its relevance is less direct environmental fitness than social fitness. Geoffrey Miller takes this to its logical extreme and basically suggests that language is a tool men use to impress and seduce women, improving their reproductive/sexual fitness (in addition to sexual selective takes on the gossip theory, that is, that gossip serves to communicate social status, ergo, genetic fitness).
Wi-fi by state
Planning a cross-country trip, and I just noticed that Jiwire has fewer wi-fi hotspots listed in Michigan than Imbler. Now, that doesn't totally surprise me even taking into account the population differential (10 million vs. 3.5). But, out of curiousity I did the following: took the population of the state, divided it by the number of wi-fi spots listed in Jiwire (so, I got the number of people per hotspot), and then divided these numbers by the lowest value (so 1 would be the "state" with the fewest people per hotspot).
Anyway, I put "state" in quotations because Washington D.C. came out on top. Here are the top five (the second value is the raw ratio while the third is the relative measure):
DC 3912 1
KY 52793 13.49
West Virginia is pretty wack. But, I believe it was also the last state to get a Starbucks. Below is the full list. Excel file with all data (and a chart) here (though really, take 30 minutes and you can get it from the Census and Jiwire too!).
DC 3912 1