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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Our Corvid Overlords: A wading crow, and the theft and mimicry of crows

by John MacBeath Watkins

I saw a crow wading in the shallow water in the park by my home (yes, that's the little devil, above.) I suppose he had seen the herons doing this, and getting food, and it just didn't look that hard.

It reminded me of a phenomenon my late father noticed before I did. The crows would watch the seagulls, who hunted shellfish by the shore, then flew high enough that when they dropped them on the pavement at the park's parking lot, the shells would break and they could get at the furtive creature within.

Crows, being crows, quickly figured out that they could steal the clams and eat them before the gulls could fly down to claim their food. Gulls, not being fools, went elsewhere.

Then the fun part started. The crows had learned from the gulls that if they found a clam or mussel, they could break it on the pavement. They also knew, from having done so themselves, than any food accessed in this way would be stolen, so they tried to drop the shellfish from low enough that they could claim it before another crow could steal it.

They were hoist on their own petard. Any place you find one crow, you'll find another, equally clever, and with a similar easy attitude toward the property rights of other birds. If they dropped the shellfish from high enough for the trick to work, another crow would enjoy the food. If they dropped the clam or mussel from high enough for the shell to break, they'd never see a calorie of good from their work. And if they dropped it from low enough to quickly fly down and claim the food, it was too low to break the shells.

The crows are too clever by half, and lacking the ethics of seagulls, lack a way to exploit the clams.Gulls have been at the game for longer, and understand that theft will kill the entire enterprise. Crows, each pursuing its own interest alone, cannot quickly create a culture that can harvest clams, because they have neither learned to make it a community enterprise where the crows take turns breaking clams for others, nor have they learned to let the workers enjoy the fruits of their labors, as do gulls.

It's an avian version of the internal conflict of libertarianism. And just perhaps, it's the reason Our Corvid Overlords have not yet taken over the world.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Gas consumption falls, as the heart of Saturday night pines

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well you gassed her up
Behind the wheel
With your arm around your sweet one
In your Oldsmobile
Barrelin' down the boulevard
You're looking for the heart of Saturday night

-- Tome Waits, The Heart of Saturday Night

 Apparently, that's not what kids today are doing. Miles driven and gas consumption keep falling, usually a sign of less economic activity and less commuting, even as the economy continues to recover.

 That's from this source.

You tryin' to vote, kid?
Now, part of the answer to this puzzle is that kids today are less likely to get a driver's license than kids in my generation (which may be part of the reason the increasingly geriatric GOP wants to have voter ID laws that accept a drivers' license but not student ID.) Whereas many people my age and older grew up cruisin' and meeting each other that way (see American Graffiti,) and a later generation liked to hang out at the mall, the current generation communicates through Facebook, texting and cell phones. When they want to get together in real life, they don't have to cruise around looking for each other, they can just agree on a meeting place and go there. As a result, there is less random searching in automobiles.

Another factor is what Matthew Yglesias calls "the end of retail." Only one enclosed mall has opened in the United States since 2006, there's a website devoted to dead malls, and some big-box retailers such as Best Buy and Barnes & Noble are having a tough time competing with internet sellers. Not only are kids today not cruisin', internet sales were 15% higher last December than they were the year before. That's a rapid and radical shift in the structure of our economy.

As a result, we are beginning to adapt, more quickly than I had feared, to the realities of peak oil. When American oil production peaked around 1970, Americans lost control of the price of the product. When world oil production peaks, the Saudis will probably lose control of the price of oil. The result will be higher prices, and consumption must not merely flatten out, it must go down as production falls. Alternative fuels and electric cars are the main solutions that have been proposed, and maybe there are enough people out there driving a Prius to make a dent in consumption, but right now, it looks like the internet is the solution having the greatest impact on the problem.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Adrienne Rich dead at 82

Adrienne Rich just died.

Biography here:

Poetry and essays here:

Conservatives or partisans? Judging the Affordable Care Act

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the theories about the role of reason in human society is that it exists not to arrived at the truth, but to persuade others that you already possess it.

Which leads us to today's thought experiment: Would conservatives consider the Affordable Care Act constitutional if it had been passed by a Republican president and congress over the objections of the Democrats?

The question itself makes sense, because the basic form of the Act was proposed by conservatives, notably the Heritage Foundation, and supported by Republican legislators from the time Hillarycare was proposed by the Clinton Administration in 1993 until it was adopted by President Obama during his run for office in 2008. Many supported the mandate from at least the time of Stuart Butler's 1989 Heritage Foundation speech in favor of it.

During those 15-20 years, the idea of reforming American health insurance markets instead of going to a single-payer, "Medicare for everyone," system, had enough currency among conservatives, that the amoral, ambitious Mitt Romney thought he could advance his hopes of capturing the White House on the Republican ticket by getting the state of Massachusetts to adopt this reform while he was governor of that state.

But Republicans made a strategic decision early on that they would oppose anything Obama wished to accomplish in order to deny him any accomplishments. In this, they were following the strategy of the Republican congress that faced Clinton's health insurance reforms down, defeated him and won a signal victory in the 1994 mid term election.

And it worked about as well in that regard. The Affordable Care Act passed, became an issue in the 2010 mid term election, and that election was a signal victory for Republicans, who promised to repeal the Act and replace it with their own proposal.


The problem is that Obama and the Democrats have already passed the market-based reform the Republicans had been pushing for at close to 20 years. Having rejected their own idea and labeled it "socialism," Republicans are fresh out of ideas.

And having spent the last 30 years or more trying to make the Supreme Court an arm of the Republican Party, they seem likely to see the most reliable partisans on the court -- Justices Alito, Thomas and Scalia -- reject the ideas that the party that put them in power used to support.

The swing votes seem to be Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Antony Kennedy. One of the reasons Republicans do not look back fondly on the presidency of George H. W. Bush is that David Souter, his appointee to the Supreme Court, tended to follow precedent instead of current Republican orthodoxy.

Antonin Scalia, a Reagan appointee, seems to have no such problem. In fact, it seems unlikely that any of the three most reliably "conservative" judges will find in favor of the law.

But I have to wonder how they would be inclined to look at the problem if the politics were different. Just as "conservatives" on the court were happy to get involved in state law in the Bush vs Gore suit over the Florida recount, while Souter and the justices appointed by Democrats came out in favor of the states' rights view of that matter, I find it hard to believe that principle, rather than politics, is guiding jurisprudence on this issue.

That being the case, why do we continue to call these judges "conservative," rather than partisan?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Advancing one funeral at a time, unless we can learn to change

by John MacBeath Watkins

Via Matthew Yglesias:
"Truth never triumphs—its opponents just die out," said Max Planck, "science advances one funeral at a time."
Yglesias mentions it in terms of the Macro wars -- the conflict between those who think Keynes has been disproved (the "freshwater" school of economics, led by the University of Chicago) and those who think recent events have vindicated him (the "saltwater" school which includes departments at places like Princeton.)

There is a book behind the chair in which I'm writing this titled The Rise and Fall of Keynesian Economics: an Investigation of Its Contribution to Capitalist Development. It was published in 1985, a time when both conservatives and Marxists thought the liberal attempt to salvage capitalism was dead. (Both approved, the conservatives because they were offended by the notion that capitalism is imperfect, the Marxists because they did not want capitalism saved. Ironically, both had contempt for liberals because liberals tried to ameliorate the effects of capitalism.)

Now the New Keynesians, who have incorporated some of the ideas of the monetarists into their thinking, consider Keynes' ideas resurgent, in part because they have been more useful in producing accurate predictions of what would happen in our current economic crisis.

But it happens throughout the culture. There is a wide gap between how older people and younger people regard religion, gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and many other issues. I find this tremendously encouraging, because young folks today are moving in the direction of my own beliefs.

Conservatives find it threatening, because young people are moving away from their beliefs. In the end, few people change their minds after a certain age. It happens -- some find God, some find their stock portfolios more important as they age -- but few find Ayn Rand or Karl Marx after their 20s.

Our lives are shaped in other ways as well, with the patterns of our social interaction and ways of using technology shaping our lives, in part. That's an area where I have little in common with younger people, because I've always been, in my view, on the trailing edge of technology. I resisted getting a cell phone for a very long time, for example. Although as a college student I played some video games, I never developed much of a taste for them, and don't play them now. I don't tweet or text.

And yet, when I took the Pew quiz to see how much I differed from the generation known as millenials, that is, those who came of age around the year 2000, I scored 41. The average baby boomer scores 11. The average gen X person scores 33 and the average millenial scores 73 on the test.

How do millenials fail to be exactly like me? (That's a joke, son.) They are more likely to have a tattoo, a piercing somewhere other than their ear, to play video games, have only a cell phone, not read a daily newspaper, and send text messages.

How are they more like me than my own generation? They are more likely to think mixed-race marriage is a good thing, to not consider a high-paying profession important, to be liberal, to not consider living a religious life important, and to not watch television.

In short, while millenials tend to be digital natives and I remain a digital alien, social attitudes in this country are moving in the direction of my own attitudes. This means that as my own cohort dies off, the world will become more like me, which gives me an interesting perspective on death.

Any creature that reproduces sexually dies. Creatures that reproduce by dividing, like bacteria, might be said to live forever. As Richard Dawkins pointed our in his popular book, The Selfish Gene, genes are self-replicating information. In the strange, symbolic world of human thought, there are self-replicating strings of information as well, which Dawkins christened "memes."

If human beings lived forever, the rapidly-changing world of bacteria and viruses would have enough time to fashion perfect attacks on them, which is why large creatures don't live forever. My theory is that the more environmental shocks an organism is likely to face, the more important it is that its population be able to rapidly recover -- meaning greater fertility is more important than longer life spans.

We now live in an age when the  world of information has a rapidly changing environment. Ideally, we would learn to change our minds and adapt to the flood of new memes over the course of our life spans. But the hybrid construct of our biological and ideological minds seems to take too firm a shape for us to adapt quickly in this way.

Instead, we seem to adapt through generations. In our youths, we learn language, social structure, ideas and archetypes, and invent the meaning of our lives. That meaning remains when we are gone, incorporated in the minds of those who remember us, ghosts in the machinery of culture and thought. But we do not remain: New generations must invent the meanings of their own lives, using the tools we have left them, just as we used the tools left to us.

And so, society changes, just as science changes, one funeral at a time, unless we can find ways to adapt more quickly in the course of our own lives.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mckinley and Bryan, Romney and Obama: The gilded age and the tsunami of money

by John MacBeath Watkins

Seth Masket posted a chart a while back that shows that the most expensive election, relative to GDP at the time, was the 1896 election between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. How much of an outlier was it? Check out his chart:

I doubt this year's election will rival 1896 as a percentage of GDP, but I do think the Citizens United decision, coupled with the financial industry perceiving itself as threatened, will produce a campaign setting some modern records for expenditure.

In 1896, about 60 cents of every $1,000 spent in this country was spent on the presidential election.

According to Masket, the Republicans outspent the Democrats 5-1 because Bryan, famous for his "Cross of Gold" speech, was on the side of the debtors and opposed to the interests of the financial sector.

McKinley's victory was transformational, a realigning election that secured for the Republican Party a coalition that gave it the bulk of the electoral victories from the end of the Long Depression until the Great Depression. McKinley's coalition consisted of businessmen, some of the better off farmers, and skilled workers. Bryan's coalition of the outsiders was backed primarily by poorer farmers in the South and the mountain West.

Bryan proposed printing money backed by silver, which would enable a large increase in the money supply, creating inflation and improving the situation of debtors at the expense of creditors. But the creditors had all the cash.

Mark Hanna, a wealthy businessman from Ohio, managed McKinley's campaign and raised unprecedented amounts of cash from bankers and corporations, much of which financed various speakers (including Theodore Roosevelt) touring the country on McKinley's behalf.

Bryan lost, but his coalition formed the backbone of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's voters. And Roosevelt broke the power of the elites who had amassed huge fortunes in the late 19th and early 20th century while the money accumulated at the top of the income scale and those below were left behind.

Now, Mitt Romney seems to be showing that he has the backing of the business and finance communities, and the ability to outspend his rivals by large margins, just as McKinley did. Like McKinley, he represents the interests of the wealthy, and is financed by them.

But President Obama is neither William Jennings Bryan nor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His coalition is in the cities instead of the countryside, and his strength is on the coasts and in the North -- essentially, McKinley's territory. Like FDR, his former classmates that went into finance may view him as a class traitor, but while FDR said "I welcome their hatred," Obama will understand them, and calmly attempt to reason (as one might expect of our first Vulcan president.)

The Citizens United decision makes a rerun of the spending splurge by business interests possible. We may see a tsunami of money directed at preserving our new gilded age, with its inequity and its powerful financiers.

But Obama has shown himself a formidable campaigner, and all the likely Republican nominees have weaknesses. History never repeats itself, but the shouts and murmurs of old conflicts echo down the years.

Will we hear an echo of FDR's 1936 Madison Square speech? Here's part of it:

"For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.

For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace -- business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred."
FDR was a great orator who could make people feel. President Obama is a great orator who can make people think. I guess we'll see if that works as well.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The missing memory palace: Publishing in the twilight of the printed word continued

by John MacBeath Watkins

The first cyberpunk novel I read was Count Zero, the second in a William Gibson trilogy that established the sub-genre. In it, hackers didn't need to be terribly literate, because they navigated a world of virtual reality, breaking into data fortresses with the aid of programs that allowed them to do it as if entering a physical place.

But while many credit Gibson with anticipating the internet, the world of the internet isn't like that at all. It has no geography. As Mark Changizi points out in this Psychology Today essay, what we do on the web is more like beaming ourselves to the surface of a planet than like walking through a memory palace.

As Changizi points out, this applies as well to e-books.:
And not only is the web not spatial or navigable, but the new reading experiences within documents have lost their spatial sense as well. Html and variants used in e-books shift their location relative to other text depending on font and window size. Need to jump to that part of the book where they discussed cliff jumping? You will get no help from the local topography, but you can beam yourself directly there via a within-document text search.
Easy access to books means we no longer engage in the method of loci, the construction of memory palaces, in any formal sense. In fact, books do this for us. We navigate them spatially, and remember our knowledge by the landmarks of the location in the text block, the illustrations near that bit of data, and the position of the paragraph on the page.

A library becomes a geography of knowledge, and below the level of the library, the book, and below the level of the book, the chapter, and below the level of the chapter, the paragraph, and below the level of the paragraph, the sentence. Each is a visual clue to the geography of knowledge, allowing us to use the tools of the hunter-gatherer mind to locate tasty bits of knowledge.

Stripped of the geography provided by printed books, knowledge becomes harder to retain, Time's Maia Szalavitz found.

I received a Kindle for my birthday, and enjoying “light reading,” in addition to the dense science I read for work, I immediately loaded it with mysteries by my favorite authors. But I soon found that I had difficulty recalling the names of characters from chapter to chapter. At first, I attributed the lapses to a scary reality of getting older — but then I discovered that I didn’t have this problem when I read paperbacks.
When I discussed my quirky recall with friends and colleagues, I found out I wasn’t the only one who suffered from “e-book moments.” Online, I discovered that Google’s Larry Page himself had concerns about research showing that on-screen reading is measurably slower than reading on paper.
And yet, this does not seem to be inherent in the nature of the medium. William Gibson's cyberpunk novels might point the way, be even more so, the method of loci would seem to. Of course, e-readers will have to be more powerful to handle the graphics to give e-books a memory palace for the information they contain, but that seems like an obtainable goal. After all, a memory palace is a kind of virtual reality created in the mind. We must learn to replicate it in e-books, or e-textbooks are not a good option:

Szalavitz again:

Kate Garland, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England, is one of the few scientists who has studied this question and reviewed the data. She found that when the exact same material is presented in both media, there is no measurable difference in student performance.
However, there are some subtle distinctions that favor print, which may matter in the long run. In one study involving psychology students, the medium did seem to matter. “We bombarded poor psychology students with economics that they didn’t know,” she says. Two differences emerged. First, more repetition was required with computer reading to impart the same information.
Second, the book readers seemed to digest the material more fully. Garland explains that when you recall something, you either “know” it and it just “comes to you” — without necessarily consciously recalling the context in which you learned it — or you “remember” it by cuing yourself about that context and then arriving at the answer. “Knowing” is better because you can recall the important facts faster and seemingly effortlessly.
“What we found was that people on paper started to ‘know’ the material more quickly over the passage of time,” says Garland. “It took longer and [required] more repeated testing to get into that knowing state [with the computer reading, but] eventually the people who did it on the computer caught up with the people who [were reading] on paper.”

Perhaps this can be changed by adopting the technique of medieval scholars and cyberpunk novelists, turning books into a geography of imagination. A geographical user interface?

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word: 

The politics of porn

by John MacBeath Watkins

Now, this is interesting:
Eight of the top 10 pornography consuming states gave their electoral votes to John McCain in last year's presidential election – Florida and Hawaii were the exceptions. While six out of the lowest 10 favoured Barack Obama.
And here's a causal link I should have guessed at:
Residents of 27 states that passed laws banning gay marriages boasted 11% more porn subscribers than states that don't explicitly restrict gay marriage.
Repressed much? Maybe if they can just beat up more homos, they'll stop having those erotic dreams. At least they aren't downloading while in church:
 Church-goers bought less online porn on Sundays – a 1% increase in a postal code's religious attendance was associated with a 0.1% drop in subscriptions that day. However, expenditures on other days of the week brought them in line with the rest of the country, Edelman finds.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

You people are not fooling anyone, you know

by Jamie Lutton

 I have been watching and listening to the anti-gay marriage agitators on the radio, in print, and on the Internet.
Oh, does it remind me of what my mother told me about the Civil Rights movement in the 1950's and 1960's. 

 I have got but one, brief comment about the ''movement''.  Ever since I was knocked down and kicked by a group of kids in school, who screamed "DYKE! DYKE!" at me, I have been curiously interested in civil rights for gays and lesbians.
Look, you anti-gay marriage people aren't fooling anybody. You are bigots, and you were in that crowd, in spirit.

When kids are bullied today, they are called FAGS or DYKES. This is the 'n' word of the last 60 years for everybody else.  And how the children speak, the adults think.

When you are against people who you don't even know or will ever know getting married, you have a bigger problem, as far as I can tell, than a gay or lesbian ever will. It is called hatred, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

By the way, I am straight, but I will always remember and honor the terrified fat girl I was, with thick glasses and the inability to avoid my tormenters.

Perhaps I will not reach any of you in this limited forum, but I know  what you really are, and I am not alone. You are not fooling anybody, you know.

Monday, March 12, 2012

On Killing, Panjwai, and the nature of war

by John MacBeath Watkins

An army sergeant posted to Panwai, Afghanistan, is alleged to be responsible for a rampage killing 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children.

He is a father of two, whose stateside base was Joint Base Lewis-McChord, not far from where I live. McChord Air Force Base, not then joined to Fort Lewis, was the last place my late father was stationed at before he retired.

Lately, Fort Lewis-McChord has been in the news for a couple reasons -- one, the trial for the infamous "kill team" murderers who, stationed in Afghanistan from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, decided to kill innocent civilians who they were supposed to be protecting. The other reason was the scandal of Madigan Army Hospital, located on the base, changing the post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis on about 300 soldiers, blocking them from getting treatment.

I mention that because of this:

The Army staff sergeant who allegedly went on a rampage and killed 16 Afghans as they slept in their homes had a traumatic brain injury at one point and had problems at home after his last deployment, officials told ABC News.
But the soldier, who is based at Fort Lewis in Washington, was considered fit for combat duty and deployed to Afghanistan in December, officials said.

It was also the home base for Iraq war veteran Benjamin Colton Barnes, who allegedly killed a ranger at Mount Ranier National Park before dying of hypothermia while being sought be the police, and had been the base for "Beltway Sniper" John Allen Muhammad, who killed 10 people in the vicinity of Washington D.C. and was executed in 2009.

Now, Joint Base Lewis-McChord is a huge base, and some of the people stationed there are bound to commit crimes, so I'm a little skeptical of the notion that the problem is that Lewis-McChord is uniquely dysfunctional. Far more likely, its relationship to these troubled individuals and their atrocities is related to the military in general.

As we discussed in this post, there was a time when only a few soldiers were really shooting at the enemy. The problem is addressed at length in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's brilliant book, On Killing.

He recounts that Army historian S.L.A. Marshall, who interviewed troops after some of the major battles in World War II, discovered that only 15-20 percent of the soldiers were actually shooting at the enemy.

The army, horrified by this discovery, started working on changing the way it trained soldiers, so that instead of shooting at round, stationary targets, man-shaped targets popped up and they shot those. It's not so different from the form of video games called the first-person shooter, so many recruits now come to the army partially trained.

This change in training was so successful that by Viet Nam, something like 90 percent of the soldiers were shooting at the enemy.

But I have to wonder, did disinhibiting soldiers about killing contribute to the My Lai massacre? And does this training actually win wars?

In Viet Nam, we waged war as if it were a form of pest control (yep, mam, you've got Viet Cong in your attic. We'll set some traps and get rid of them for you, should be gone in a few weeks.)

But war isn't pest control, and killing the enemy is not the object of war, it is only a means to an end. And when you kill the wrong people, it is a means that may make the end impossible. After all, if war were pest control, the industrialized slaughter of soldiers in World War I would have resulted in a quick resolution to the conflict, because soldiers were dying at a record pace.

War is a political conflict with a political end. As Carl von Clausewitz noted, war is "an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will." Does killing people's children make them more inclined to do your will?

And what is the relationship between this focus on killing and atrocities such as the one in Panjwai?

Grossman, in On Killing, recounts the advice of a World War I German veteran to his nephew going into the army in World War II: Do your duty and then surrender to the first American you meet.

Being the force to which people are willing to surrender seems more likely to shorten wars than being the force that kills more people. It is a lesson we've been slow to learn, with tragic results.

Of course, as an Air Force brat, my life has been touched by the military. My father served in B-17s in World War II, at a time when the attrition rate among heavy bomber crewmen who finished a 30-mission tour, as my father did, was 70 percent. He served in Korea as well, but when he served in Viet Nam, he chose to leave bombers, where he had achieved rank and distinction, and fly in military air transports.

He would probably have been safer dropping bombs from 50,000 feet than he was flying into places like Khe Shan and A Shau. But as Grossman pointed out in On Killing, the psychological stress of war is greatest not when soldiers are in danger, but when they must kill another human being. Dad, of course, had never played a fist-person shooter, and probably would have been appalled by them. After all, he belonged to the Greatest Generation -- the one where only 15-20 percent of the soldiers could bring themselves to shoot at the enemy.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

On the disenchantment of the world

by John MacBeath Watkins

I was 15 years old when we visited my uncle Dick Hall, then a Seventh Day Adventist missionary in Sarawak. We went with him to a Dyak longhouse. He was upset, not at the skulls that lined the rafters -- they all looked pretty old, and these people had not engaged in headhunting since World War II -- but at a newly-carved image in front of the longhouse.

He hoped to convert these people to the One True Religion, while Muslim and Catholic missionaries hoped to convert them to their One True Religion, but this particular longhouse was proving to be a bit of a challenge. Here they were, making a brand-new graven image for the religion they already had, for the spirits they already knew.

I have great respect for my uncle, a man of firm faith who has worked hard to make peoples' lives better. Much of the work he's done, such as feeding people in Sudan and building schools for girls in Yemen, have not been directed at spreading his faith at all, because although you don't get to heaven for good works, in his view, the fact that you are saved by faith is no excuse not to do good works. For people like the Dyaks, missionaries are some of the best intentioned people from the world outside their own with whom they have contact.

As we discussed in this post, when we entered into the strange and wonderful world of symbolic thought, we entered an enchanted world. Everything seemed to have a real existence and a symbolic existence. The woods had tree nymphs, the brooks had water sprites, the transit of the sun was the journey of a god, people had stories, poems and legends instead of history. The world seemed populated with graceful ghosts and terrifying monsters with an existence beyond the world of our bodies.

People didn't travel much, and each locale developed its own belief system. As wealth and technology grew, and larger empires spread across the land, these different belief systems came into contact with each other.

For the most part, this was not a problem. When a conquering empire encountered a new god, they added it to the pantheon, preserving the peace between people by accommodating all beliefs. This didn't always work; the Punic wars were too bitter, the destruction of Carthage too complete, for the Romans to adopt Baal.

But Romans adopted the Mithraic mysteries, which may have originated in Anatolia. They accommodated most of the gods they encountered. This all changed with the spread of Christianity, which denied the existence of gods other than the Christian god.

Much of the progress of Christianity has been a story of the suppression of "superstition," and "magic," that is, beliefs in a world of small spirits that are not a part of Christianity. One might even see it as part of a continuum from belief in all the world being made of independent spirits to a denial of the existence of most of the spiritual world Christians encountered. The obvious next step is to deny the existence of the entire spiritual world, so perhaps atheism was made possible by monotheism.

 Francisco Goya, le Sabbat des sorcières.
This represents an increasing rationalism. Instead of all the world being animated by spirits who were independent actors, first they joined in a pantheon ruled over by a leader of the gods, then the chaos of the many gods with different motivations was replaced with one presumably rational actor.

The trees no longer had the spirits of nymphs, the brooks babbled only of one spirit, and the world was claimed to be a more rational place. It was a step toward rationality replacing the poetry and myth that had explained the world.

As an animal, humans have a giant brain, and are better at solving problems. That brain also remains plastic longer than in other animals, allowing them to be shaped by what they learn for a longer period. But language made a completely different kind of use for the mind possible, created a world of symbol and culture that could shape our minds in ways no other primate could.

That symbolic world seemed magic, allowing things to exist that did not appear in our senses but only in our minds. We could create narratives of things that had never happened, even narratives of things that could never happen, in the mundane world of our bodies. Language, and the symbolic thought it gave rise to, enchanted the world, or if you like, gave us an understanding of the enchanted world of spirits.

But while symbols and myths could give our world a beauty and coherence it lacked without them, reason offers us control of that world. Monotheism denied the existence of most of the spiritual world, and in claiming all the world was ruled by one god who is a rational actor, claimed that the world was a more rational place.

Atheists claim that the world is entirely rational, ruled by no spiritual beings. Theirs is a completely disenchanted world.

The question is, how disenchanted do we wish to become? Modernism, that most rational of movements, gave us the glass curtain skyscraper, the mechanized war with its industrialized killing, and political movements claiming to be based entirely on reason, such as Communism. How's that working out for us?

In the post-modern world, we have returned to ornaments on our architecture, a nostalgia for the time of legends in fantasy literature, and a sort of anti-rational movement both in Evangelical Christianity and New Age thinking.

Evidently, there is something in humanity that demands some enchantment in the world.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self e

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hank the Cat, attack ad

Of course, I don't live in Virginia, and can't vote for Hank, but can this country really not stand up to this kind of attack ad?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Obama knows the score

by John MacBeath Watkins

Most bloggers have focused on how human President Obama appears in this video, but what impressed me is his depth of knowledge and ease of conversation on the topic.

"Talking a good game" is usually used as a pejorative, and it is when people are talking about their own game, but in guy culture there's a thing called "knowing the score." If you're watching a game and there's no scoreboard, only a person who knows the game and pays attention will know the score. It's a demonstration of fitness on a mental level that gains you status.

Mitt Romney knows people who own NASCAR teams. Barack Obama knows the score.

Peak oil, 19th century edition

by John MacBeath Watkins

Of course, part of this is about the increasing wages for American sailors, and part of the story is the Civil War, but part of it is about the limited number of whales. Unlike petroleum, whale oil relies on a theoretically renewable resource, but if you kill off too much breading stock, the resource stops renewing. So part of the story is about the tragedy of the commons.

And of course, coal oil and petroleum came along and provided affordable fuel to replace the whale oil at a propitious time. What other source of fuel will replace petroleum?