Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Does science prove God doesn't exist?

That's what they're talking about in this roundtable discussion by Christopher Hitchens, Steven Pinker, and other notables. Naturally, the answers are all over the map.

Since I'm on quasi-hiatus, I don't have time to delve into this. I want to return to the topic in depth later.

For now, I just want to highlight a couple responses that seem right to me:

Keith Ward says:

It is almost commonplace in physics to speak of many space-times, or of this space-time as a 10- or 11-dimensional reality that dissolves into topological foam below the Planck length. This is a long way from the sensationalism of Hume and Comte, and from the older materialism that insists on locating every possible being within this space-time. Some modern physicists routinely speak of realities beyond space-time (e.g., quantum fluctuations in a vacuum from which this space-time originates). And some physicists, such as Henry Stapp, Eugene Wigner, and John von Neumann, speak of consciousness as an ultimate and irreducible element of reality, the basis of the physical as we know it, not its unanticipated by-product.

It is simply untrue that modern physics rules out the possibility of non-physical entities. And it is untrue that science has established a set of inflexible laws so tightly constraining and universally dominating that they exclude the possibility of other forms, including perhaps non-physical forms, of causal influence that we may not be able to measure or predict. It is more accurate to say that fundamental laws of nature are seen by many physicists as approximations to an open, holistic and flexible reality, as we encounter it in relatively isolated and controlled conditions. ...

It is not science that renders belief in God obsolete. It is a strictly materialist interpretation of the world that renders belief in God obsolete, and which science is taken by some people to support. But science is more ambiguous than that, and modern scientific belief in the intelligibility and mathematical beauty of nature, and in the ultimately "veiled" nature of objective reality, can reasonably be taken as suggestive of an underlying cosmic intelligence. To that extent, science may make a certain sort of belief in God highly plausible.
And Mary Midgley says:
What is now seen as a universal cold war between science and religion is, I think, really a more local clash between a particular scientistic worldview, much favored recently in the West, and most other people's worldviews at most other times.

Of course, those other views differ hugely among themselves. Some center on Godhead; some, such as Buddhism and Taoism, don't use that idea at all. But what they all do is to set human life in a context. They don't see our species as sealed in a private box that contains everything of value, but as playing its part in a much wider theatre of spiritual activity—activity that gives meaning to our own. Scientism by contrast (following suggestions from the Enlightenment), cuts that context off altogether and looks for the meaning of life in Science itself. It is this claim to a monopoly of meaning, rather than any special scientific doctrine, that makes science and religion look like competitors today. ...

Scientism ... emerged not as the conclusion of scientific argument but as a chosen element in a worldview -- a vision that attracted people by its contrast with what went before -- which is, of course, how people very often do make such decisions, even ones that they afterwards call scientific.
The point about scientific imperialism has applications beyond theology, particularly the problem of free will, which I'll get back to. If I feel like it.

Needless to say, I'd be happy to see any counterarguments to the above quotes -- feel free to suggest some in the comments.

UPDATE: I was expecting this post to be controversial, but I'm surprised that some of the commenters are taking issue with the very premise that this is a real debate. For example:
You say that a lot of people think that science is incompatible with God. I'm not so sure about that; it depends on what you mean by incompatible. I am an atheist, and all the atheists I know are very careful not to say that "science disproves God." (Again, the title of your post.)
Well, I'd have to do some more searching through the books of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and John Allen Paulos to see if they have explicitly made that specific assertion.

But here's one: there's a book by Victor Stenger, a philosophy and physics professor, called God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.

Another example, though not as explicit: Richard Dawkins's recent best-seller The God Delusion has a chapter entitled, "Why God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist." Directly under that chapter heading is a quote from Thomas Jefferson beginning, "The priests of the different religious sects dread the advance of science as witches do the advance of daylight...." Now, aside from the qualifier "almost certainly," I think it's pretty clear what he's getting at.

I've also been in numerous classroom discussions and everyday conversations in which people have expressed this view.

More broadly, there's been a recent spate of popular books attacking religious views and the belief in God. These books tend to pit God against science. I haven't sorted through all the details of which authors positively state that science entails that God does not exist, rather than coming close to saying so but hedging it a little. But the idea that science is incompatible with the existence of God is clearly out there, and it's taken seriously by a lot of people. Whatever your position is on whether God exists, I don't see the point in denying that this debate exists!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The 40 greatest grunge songs (30-26)

(Click here for the whole list.)

30. Sonic Youth - Kool Thing

Pure rock 'n' roll.

29. Beck - Loser

You might say this is hip-hop as much as it is grunge, but I'm including it because it defined the era with its self-effacing refrain. Oh, and it was the song that got me interested in music in 7th grade.

28. Temple of the Dog - Hungerstrike

What could be more perfectly grunge than Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder both singing lead in the same song?

27. Nine Inch Nails - March of the Pigs

Yeah, I know: Nine Inch Nails is "industrial," not "grunge."

But this is a special case. They took the unusual step of not using the album version of the song for the music video, but instead just shooting a live performance on a bare studio floor and using the audio from that performance. The result is as grungy as NIN gets.

7/8! 7/8! 7/8! 4/4!

26. Shudder to Think - X-French T-shirt

This band unfortunately never really made it, probably because their music was just too dissonant, too asymmetrical, too disorienting. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

I believe this song was the closest they came to mainstream success. I love the unpredictable melody and the "Hey Jude"-like song structure.

If you like this kind of thing, I highly recommend the album Pony Express Record.

>>> Go to #25-21 >>>

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gender police in Yemen

While some of us might complain about "morality police" in our own country, let's be thankful that the phrase doesn't apply as literally to us as it does to Yemen.

This anecdote is the kind of thing that would be funny if it weren't so tragic:

Call them vice and virtue vigilantes: Even as Islamic scholars and lawmakers push Yemen to create a police unit to enforce religious standards, gangs of bearded men have appeared ad hoc to police public mores.

Nader Abdul Kadoos, a 50-year-old returning student, was set upon by one such street committee last month in the southern port city of Aden, in a confrontation that received broad attention in Yemen's news media.

Kadoos's apparent offense was to stroll out of the gates of Aden University after class in a group of male and female students.

About five bearded men pounced on the students, grabbing one woman by the hand to hold her while two other female students escaped in taxis, Kadoos recounted. The men slapped some of the male students. "Is this a lover's lane?" the leader of the gang shouted, according to Kadoos.

More bearded men appeared from nowhere to upbraid the group, while some outraged passersby stopped to defend the mostly young men and women.

"Do you want us to wait until they start having sex in the street?" Kadoos recalled one of the bearded men shouting back at the crowd.
That's from an article from several weeks ago, but here's a more recent update on the situation:
Activists in Yemen say the establishment of a religious police force, under the banner of promoting virtue and curbing vice, is a war on women and their rights.

Some two thousand clerics led by Sheikh Abdulmajeed al Zindani, the hardline rector of the Islamic Al Eman University, and a number of tribal dignitaries met in Sana’a last week and announced the establishment of The Authority for Protecting Virtue and Fighting Vice....

[T]he clerics outlined a catalogue of “vices” that included: performances by female singers, alcohol, nightclubs, fashion shows, mixed-sex dancing, sending female students to study in foreign countries without companions from their families and coeducation in schools and universities.

Already vigilante groups have forced restaurants and hotels that serve alcohol or permit socialising between men and women to close.
Interesting that this is being framed as an issue of women's rights.

Do you really think this sort of life is fun for the men?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ah, look, an old man in the clouds.

What is that supposed to evoke?

Fortunately, it looks like he's going to comfort and protect us.

And he's going to gaze serenely into the distance as he summons a few graceful fighter jets.

(Via Talking Points Memo.)

UPDATE: Instapundit links to this, and adds:
"HE'S GOING TO COMFORT AND PROTECT US." Well, that's what Presidents are for these days, I guess . . . .

Metablog: brief quasi-hiatus

I'm going to take sort of a late-July-to-mid-August break as I go on a little vacation, move to my new home, get settled there, etc.

But as the heading says, it's just a quasi-hiatus. I'll still be posting, but it'll be more along the lines of a quick "Here's a good article or blog post" -- which, for various reasons, I usually avoid.

This might even lead to a new method for this blog: quickly get the posts up just to say, "Hey, look at this thing someone said," then do another post at some point in the future once I have time to add my own take on it. So far I've been operating on the rule that I don't post at all unless I have both of those components at once, which tends to make for longer, less frequent, and less timely posts.

And I'll still be counting down the grunge top 40.

So, keep checking in, but for the next few weeks, don't expect the lengthy, brilliant analyses you've come to expect here on the Jac blog. 

Walking around Marrakech

(Street photo in Marrakech, Morocco by me.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Was Maliki misquoted on Obama's Iraq withdrawal timetable?

Well, as people always say, you need to look at the whole context. So let's look at it (the two sentences in bold are the ones that have been widely quoted):

SPIEGEL: Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq?

Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we're concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

SPIEGEL: Is this an endorsement for the US presidential election in November? Does Obama, who has no military background, ultimately have a better understanding of Iraq than war hero John McCain?

Maliki: Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic. Artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems. Of course, this is by no means an election endorsement. Who they choose as their president is the Americans' business. But it's the business of Iraqis to say what they want. And that's where the people and the government are in general agreement: The tenure of the coalition troops in Iraq should be limited.
So, when you look at it in context ... is there anything inaccurate about saying that Maliki endorsed Obama's timetable for withdrawal? I don't think so. And I think this is huge.

Of course he's not endorsing Obama as a candidate overall -- he'd have no business telling us who our president should be. I don't know of anyone who's claimed otherwise. The question is whether he's endorsed Obama's Iraq policy.

If there's any wiggle room here, aside from the minimal qualifier ("with the possibility of slight changes"), I'm not seeing it. Maliki said he agrees with Obama on the 16-month timetable for withdrawal. End of story.

McCain's whole candidacy hinges on Iraq (and by extension, terrorism, national security, foreign policy, etc.). If he can't trump Obama on Iraq, it's hard to see how he can win -- assuming the voters are going to cast their votes on substantive grounds.

So how can McCain -- whose spokesman has said we would withdraw if the Iraqis asked us to -- continue to depict Obama's plan for Iraq as dangerous and defeatist?

His campaign has released a statement. But really, it's just McCain's usual spiel on why he disagrees with Obama on Iraq, with a cursory reference to Maliki thrown in. So that's not much.

He might fall back on this pseudo-clarification from Maliki's aide:
Comments al-Maliki made to the magazine were "misunderstood and mistranslated'' and were not "conveyed accurately,'' al-Dabbagh said in the statement.
That's from a story with the headline: "Maliki Doesn't Endorse Obama Troop Withdrawal Plan."

Wait -- really? Maliki didn't endorse Obama's troop withdrawal plan?

Well, there are three problems with this:

1. The pseudo-clarification was given only under pressure from the United States.

2. There's very strong evidence that there was no "mistranslation." As the New York Times has reported, the translator of the original interview was provided by Maliki himself, not the newspaper. And the Times has now done an independent translation and confirmed the accuracy of the original translation.

3. The wording of Maliki's aide's statement is revealing. Ben Smith at Politico explains:
It's almost a convention of politics that when a politician says he was misquoted, but doesn't detail the misquote or offer an alternative, he's really saying he wishes he hadn't said what he did, or that he needs to issue a pro-forma denial to please someone.

The Iraqi Prime Minister's vague denial seems to fall in that category. The fact that it arrived to the American press via CENTCOM, seems to support that. It came, as Mike Allen notes, 18 hours later, and at 1:30 a.m. Eastern, a little late for Sunday papers; his staff also seems, Der Spiegel reports, not to have contested Iraqi reporting of the quote, even in the "government-affiliated" Iraqi press.

The notion this was a misquote also bumps up against Der Spiegel's standing by its reporting, and providing a long, detailed transcript.
This is a standard ploy for when you have to put on a show of disagreeing with someone, but you know there's nothing you can really say.

You need to say something. But you can't really say anything. So you figure out a way to say something without saying anything.

As a rule of thumb (which has plenty of exceptions), the test of someone's credibility is their ability to give convincing details to back up their general assertions. If someone who disagrees with you says, "That's not accurate!" but never gets around to specifying what exactly is inaccurate, that's a good sign that you can safely omit the "not" from their sentence.

It's similar to the many critics of Justice Clarence Thomas who don't know much about his work but want to vent their disgust with him. So what do they say? "He's not smart enough." "His opinions aren't well-written." It's very easy to make assertions like those, which are so vague as to defy being disproved. How can you prove that something is "well-written"?

It also reminds me of the custom of criminal defendants always making a pro forma "not guilty" plea at the beginning of a case. If you think that means the defendant isn't guilty, you're crazy.

Anyway, back to the campaign. I'm still waiting to see if McCain can explain his way out of this.

It's clear that McCain and his surrogates are going to hammer away at one argument: we wouldn't even be in this situation if it hadn't been for the surge! McCain was for the surge, and Obama was against it! Ha!

Well, is the election going to be about the past? Or is it going to be about the way forward?

If the election is going to be about the positions on Iraq that McCain and Obama have taken in the past ... then I can think of another decision I'd like the voters to focus on.

My hunch is that a "prominent Republican strategist who occasionally provides advice to the McCain campaign" was correctly analyzing the situation when he said, in response to Maliki's statement:
"We're fucked."

UPDATE: Jaltcoh gives you tomorrow's MSM analysis, today! The day after I posted the above, Eugene Robinson writes in the Washington Post:
Here's my schematic of the changed landscape. For years, the best argument available to supporters of George W. Bush's stay-the-course policy has been that we have to look forward. Critics of the war were engaged in useless arguments about the past, they said. The important thing wasn't to argue about whether the administration misled the nation into war, or to point out that Iraq hadn't quite become the Jeffersonian democracy that the hawks had promised. No one could change the past, however unfortunate it might be. The important thing was to look ahead and engineer the best possible outcome.

The important change is that now the look-forward argument is on the side of Obama and the advocates of setting a timetable for withdrawal. After all, that's what the U.S.-backed Iraqi government wants -- in fact, it's what the Iraqi government demands. Suddenly, it's the stay-the-course crowd that insists on fighting a battle that has already been consigned to the past. Obama and the Iraqis are looking to the future. The question isn't whether U.S. troops leave. It's how soon and how fast.

Someone might want to mention these developments to John McCain.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The 40 greatest grunge songs (35-31)

It's Friday, which means another 5 songs from the grunge top 40.

(Click here for the whole list.)

A quick disclaimer, since the definitional boundaries of the list have drawn comment from around the blogosphere:

As I said last week, my goal is not to spend two months just providing a dictionary definition of the word "grunge." If anyone wants to make a list like that, more power to you — send me your blog post and we can compare our lists! (Church of Rationality has already accepted the challenge! Except instead of staying with "grunge" and narrowing the definition, he's taken the opposite route: switching from "grunge" to "alternative" and expanding the timeline.)

I'm trying to collect songs that fit in that general style (and time period) but that stretched the boundaries of grunge and milked it for all it was worth. If they stretch the boundaries past the breaking point so it's a whole other genre that you wouldn't even call "grunge," then ... cool!

But more important than any of that, the "grunge" premise wasn't intended to open up an academic debate on the proper use of the term (which could hardly be more antithetical to the whole idea of grunge) — it's just an excuse for me to make a list of music I like. If you like the songs too, then mission accomplished.

On that note, here's this week's installment:

35. Dig - Believe

This is how it's done: young people who are really adamant about something or other, with five chords and two great hooks.

34. Superchunk - Hyper Enough

The intro to this video is an all-too-accurate reminder of a thousand band practices. No envelopes being pushed here, just a great guitar lead and tons of energy.

33. Belly - Feed the Tree

Here's a twist: a song without a wall of distorted guitars. Clean grunge!

32. My Bloody Valentine - Only Shallow

I think this is the earliest song on the list. I've made a point of staying within the '90s. You could start looking for "seminal" grunge songs from the '80s, and then pretty soon you're listing tracks from the Velvet Underground and the White Album. This is from 1990 — ancient.

You have to give them credit for pretty much inventing the Smashing Pumpkins. Compare this song to the next one, "Rocket," which came out a few years later. (Of course, you'll notice I rated the Pumpkins higher than MBV. Originality isn't everything!)

31. The Smashing Pumpkins - Rocket

Guitar-fuzz ecstasy with a video about childhood that always gives me goosebumps.

This song has a beautiful production that couldn't possibly be captured on YouTube, so make sure to get out your copy of Siamese Dream, turn up the volume, and give it a listen.

I shall be free!

I highly recommend the Smashing Pumpkins music video collection on DVD — each song includes the official video + an alternate version + commentary by band members and others.

>>> Go to #30-26 >>>

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Does it matter if McCain is email illiterate?

Yesterday I talked about whether John McCain's aging brain will make him too old to be president, but the buzz right now is around the fact that he doesn't know how to use a computer.

I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, it seems like a clear negative for the same reason that the former President Bush's supposed unfamiliarity with a supermarket scanner was a negative. In fact, it's much worse for a couple reasons: (1) The Bush/scanner story wasn't really fair to Bush. He was apparently humoring some grocers who were demonstrating a new-and-improved scanner at a technology exhibit. The basis of the McCain/computer story is several straightforward admissions by McCain himself, so you can't really say it's unfair. (2) Computers and the internet are approximately a zillion times more important than supermarket scanners.

On the other hand, to the extent that it's a negative at all, most voters will see it as a very slight negative. In 2000, one of the most biggest raps against Bush was his verbal slip-ups. (This was largely a proxy for intelligence, but the media was reluctant to make that point head-on because "intelligence" is so subjective and difficult to prove.) Do you think that really hurt Bush? Or did it help him by focusing people's attention on an extremely minor shortcoming instead of the major ones? It was also easy for the candidate and his surrogates to laugh it off and segue into "what the American people really care about."

And it was easy for us voters to engage in the sloppy reasoning that "If that's the worst they can say about him, he can't be all bad!"

But I think Jonathan Chait has a key point about why McCain's computer illiteracy, and particularly his email illiteracy, might actually matter:

I wonder if it's actually possible to be an effective president today without being able to access email or the internet. McCain's entire staff surely uses email to communicate virtually everything with each other. If McCain is never in the electronic loop, how is he supposed to manage that staff? All those stories about the chaotic nature of his campaign -- "a swirl of competing spheres of influence, clusters of friends, consultants and media advisers who represent a matrix of clashing ambitions and festering feuds" -- actually make a lot more sense if you factor in McCain's total lack of emailing skill.
Here's the problem: "out of the loop in his own organizational structure" is unlikely to have the kind of resonance with the public as something like "flip-flopper" or "lefty."

But it seems pretty important. Someone who does a bad job at seeing the big picture of what everyone on his staff is saying, and who's faced with "a swirl of competing spheres of influence," might want to cut the Gordian knot by selecting a few advisors to fall back on. Isn't this more likely if the president isn't communicating with people by email?

Of course, even if McCain isn't able to sit down at a computer and email people, he could theoretically get around this by having incoming messages printed out for him to read, and dictating his outgoing messages. That's better than nothing, but it just doesn't seem good enough. If you have to miss an important meeting, it's nice to be able to read the minutes, but you really missed out by not being in the thick of things -- an active participant instead of a passive observer after the fact.

It used to be common to criticize email for taking us away from real life. But that cliche has become a moot point. For better or for worse, email is real life now, and it's only going to become more and more ubiquitous.

Back to the point about the connection between email illiteracy and loyalty. (I don't necessarily consider "loyalty" a positive term.) If I'm right about that, then that raises another question: Do we want a president who latches onto a few especially trusted advisors and gets his information heavily filtered through them? Didn't we invade Iraq because Bush was faced with an unwieldy ideological civil war within his administration and felt the need to use "loyalty" to a few of the more hawkish figures as a shortcut to avoid sifting through the details himself?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What's happening to McCain's brain?

This article from Slate gives a detailed look at what's likely to happen to John McCain's brain over the next 8 years. (It's based on general trends for anyone his age, not on anything about McCain as an individual.)

It's not all bad — there's some good and some bad. For example:

• Bad: cognitive function is believed to peak around age 50 and declines after that.

• Good: "a greater appreciation for ambiguity."

• Could go either way: old people "are easily distracted," but "that inability to filter information efficiently often means they can take in more information."

But there's no question that it matters. The article points out the obvious fact that "a 72-year-old's brain is different from that of a 46-year-old."

The author of that article has an interesting theory about how McCain's aging brain could explain his ill-advised response to the American who asked him about the prospect that we'll be in Iraq for 50 years: "Maybe 100! That'd be fine with me."

Should we even be talking about this? Of course. The idea that we need to hold back from discussing McCain's age is ludicrous.

There are plenty of situations in life when the polite, proper thing to do is to avoid mentioning someone's age. But this isn't one of those situations. He's trying to become the most powerful person in the world! If you're an American citizen, you have a responsibility to participate in deciding whether he gets the job or not. It's not only acceptable to talk about the pros and cons of his old age; we'd be abdicating our civic duties if we didn't.

I'm in my 20s; I wouldn't want someone my age to be president, which can't happen since it'd be unconstitutional. The Constitution has only an age minimum, not an age maximum . . . but the "35 years old" rule still recognizes the idea that age can be a test of someone's fitness to be president. Just because the Constitution doesn't have a rule about who's too old to be president doesn't mean you, the voter, can't have such a rule.

If he wins, McCain will start out as a 72-year-old president, and he'll be an 80-year-old president if he's successful enough to serve a full two terms. (He considered making a one-term pledge but decided against it.)

And if it's true that the presidency has a dramatic aging effect, he might end up seeming even older than 80 by the end.

Do we want our president to be that old? That's a crucial question for Americans to answer. As with many things in life, it might be "not nice" to talk about, but we cannot simply decline to think about it.

(Photo of McCain from World Economic Forum.)

Monday, July 14, 2008

More reality

WARNING: Completely abstract blog post.

So, last week I wrote this blog post about confronting reality.

As it happened, the photographer of the tomato photo that I used in the post, Don LaVange, showed up in the comments and offered this critique:

The difficulty I have with your stated goal "The way I look at things, one of your very most important goals should always be to accurately perceive reality." is how futile, and therefore wrongheaded, such pursuit is. I see reality as infinitely deep, perceptions always varying depending on the context of the looking.

Maybe it's true that I attempt to perceive "reality", but if I try to frame that reality linguistically I think I'm always going to come up short, and so will we all.
When I wrote the post, I was thinking: "People are either not going to like this because they disagree with it, or they're not going to like it because they think it's too forehead-slappingly obvious to be worth pointing out." As between those two possibilities, I'm happy if the response was the former.

As I understand the last point in that comment, it's basically: how can we succeed in perceiving / confronting / dealing with reality ... if we can't even do such a simple thing as defining it in words?

Well, first of all, I've said before that I don't see language as an inevitable precondition of thought:
Yes, language can be essential to thought, but language can also box in thought. (I'm inclined to agree with the thought-precedes-language side of the debate outlined at that link.)

Just because we might lack the words to describe something doesn't mean we're not able to think about it. Does it?

I would go even further: just because we can't think about something doesn't mean it's not important!

Now, obviously, if there's something we can't think about at all, then there's nothing we can do about it. End of discussion (literally!).

But let's say there's something that we can go a good way forward in thinking about, but unfortunately always hit a brick wall at some point. If that's the case, then it really seems like we should say: hey, that's better than nothing! As Voltaire said, "The best is the enemy of the good." The fact that we're probably not going to settle on a comprehensive, uncontroversial answer to something like, say, "What is the good life?" is not a reason to avoid doing the best we can to approach a correct answer. After all, that question is complex and multifarious enough that even a highly incomplete answer would still be ... you know, pretty good!

It doesn't need to be that lofty, of course. It could be any specific decision you make in your life -- what house to buy, or what drink to order at a cafe. If you haven't looked closely at the house to check for defects, that's not perceiving reality. If you believe that "dark" coffee is more heavily caffeinated than "light" coffee, when actually light coffee has an infinitesimally greater amount of caffeine, that's not perceiving reality.

My point being: just because we're talking about a weighty-sounding philosophical concept, "reality," doesn't mean the solution needs to be a philosophical one. You have all these discrete perceptions, decisions, and experiences, and maybe from all those trillions of little things, there emerges some abstraction we can call "reality" (and others we can call "fantasy," "deception," etc.). But if that's the way it happens, does that mean that it's vital to grasp that emerging abstraction? Couldn't it be just as worthwhile to grasp enough of the discrete little things?

In short, I think it might valid to say that "reality" is the basic standard against which our beliefs and actions should be judged, even if we'd be hard-pressed to articulate a satisfying definition of the word.

Let's get back to LaVange's point that reality is "infinitely deep, perceptions always varying depending on the context of the looking." Of course, "perceptions" are not the same thing as "reality." He's not saying otherwise, though -- he's not saying there is no objective reality. He's just saying we'll never know what it is.

Now, maybe I would agree with that. But does that mean I also need to agree with the conclusion that it's not worthwhile to pursue knowledge of reality because doing so is bound to be futile?

No, because again, "the best is the enemy of the good." "The best" is: total knowledge of the real world. I'm happy to admit we'll probably never attain that.

But to throw up our hands at that point? That would be shunning "the good" -- namely ... getting reality as much as we can, and doing as much as we can to fix the problems with it.

Will it be an unmitigated success? No. Will we understand everything? No. Will it be totally satisfying? No.

So what's the point? Well, I don't think I can answer that without being blatantly circular: the point is it's what's real. There are some things you're just stuck with. We're stuck with reality. There's no way out.

Whether you believe it was created by God or blind physical forces or anything else doesn't really seem to matter. We'll never agree on those things -- that debate may very well be pointless. But we should be able to agree that the real world is what's here, now, right in front of us, and that that's really important.

That itself doesn't really get you anywhere and might not be any fantastic insight. So why am I talking about it? Because it's the starting point for whatever comes next -- in your thoughts, or your life. And if it's not the starting point ... well, then I think that's a serious problem.


1. How I've made peace with skeptical epistemology. (That discussion starts a few paragraphs into the post.)

2. Fortuitously, Church of Rationality just had a post yesterday on "the essence of life." See that post for an extremely condensed, 2-point distillation of life. Point 1 in particular is closely related to this post.

3. Althouse: "Time to participate in reality. It's beautiful too."


For the record, this is my 50th blog post. Now I just have to do that many posts, again, and I can have some kind of gala celebration.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The 40 greatest grunge songs (40-36)

For the next couple months of Music Friday, I bring you...

The 40 greatest grunge songs of all time! Please try to contain your excitement!

[UPDATE: Click here for the whole list.]

People always say the music that's popular when you're an adolescent makes the biggest impression on you. I think that's overstated -- a lot of people who were born in the early '80s (like me) seem at least as heavily influenced by music from the '60s as they are by music from the '90s or '00s. But there's something to the theory.

For better or worse, the grunge rock of the '90s inevitably shaped me as a guitarist. That's the teenage me with my Les Paul up there. And this was my life in high school:


With that out of the way, let's get to the list.

Whenever you see one of these "top [#] _______s of all time" lists in the MSM, they purport to be objective, but you can tell they've imposed a bunch of arbitrary restrictions. As a blogger, I have no need to be objective and can admit that this list is a mix of my own taste, quasi-objective judgments, and arbitrary restrictions.

One restriction is that for the sake of variety, I'm going to generally have just one song per band, with a few choice exceptions.

And then there's the question of what "counts." My basic definition of grunge is music that was made mostly in the '90s, drawing on the early punk and heavy metal of the '70s-'80s as far as dynamics and tone quality (namely, loud and distorted), but drawing more on the songwriting of the '60s. There's usually a loose, lazy, "Anyone could play this" vibe, and there are rarely any instruments other than guitar, bass, drums, and vocals.

Some of these songs will fit those criteria better than others. Another feature of grunge is an "I don't really care" attitude, so it would be un-grunge-like of me to worry too much about the labels. Anyway, I'm more interested in music that pushes against the confines of a genre than music that politely stays within them.

[UPDATE: Case in point: a commenter complains that this list isn't "strict grunge." Strict grunge? Isn't that an oxymoron?]

Huge thanks to the people who answered my question on AskMetafilter in preparation for this list.

Here we go... This week, the first 5 of the top 40:

40. The Flaming Lips - Turn It On

Sheer grungy joy in a laundromat, without a trace of angst.

When you ain't got no relation to all those other stations...

39. Tool - Sober

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, this is about as dead-serious as rock music gets. I have no idea what they're so upset about, but they rock. And wow, what a video!

38. Daisy Chainsaw - Love your Money

Obligatory novelty song.

37. Dinosaur Jr. - Feel the Pain

Deceptively simple. Great use of tempo changes. Remember the World Trade Center!


36. Bush - Everything Zen

I always thought the unfortunately named Bush was a pale imitation of Pearl Jam. But "Everything Zen" endures.

Soon after I first saw this video on MTV's 120 Minutes, I went and saw them play one of the most exciting shows I've ever seen: a band right on the cusp of their commercial breakthrough, but just obscure enough to be playing a small, intimate club in Madison, Wisconsin (the Paramount, which, like the band, no longer exists).


(Photos of me by my mom, Ann Althouse.)

UPDATE: My mom links and reminisces.

>>> Go to #35-31 >>>

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Get reality

WARNING: Question-begging blog post ahead.

Lis, with whom about 50 other Americans and I lived together in London, which felt at times like an alternate reality, says:

In writing, or in any art, reality inspires. Yet, as a reader and a writer, I strive to avoid reality through my readings and pieces of writing. I embrace the absurd while staying away from anything that may tether me to reality. This fear of reality is recognized by many who write. Nabokov skillfully convinces readers that his reality is placidly absurd; Humbert Humbert is sane and a sympathetic protagonist. Gabe Hudson writes of a war hero surviving six holes in the head while his daughter’s soul harbors herself in him. Kafka’s apes speak and humans turn into responsible bugs in his stories. Likewise, poetry reeks of the absurd. The idea of comparing two dissimilar things to illustrate a relationship is absurd.

Yet, when faced with how to define the absurd — I simply trip over “unique and original”. But after minutes of contemplating this on the treadmill, I come to T.S. Eliot’s “Mankind cannot bear much reality.” I want the absurd to be something we do not encounter everyday or something in which we fear an encounter. I want the miraculously illogic of the world to prevail in pieces of writing. I want the wildly unreasonable to work itself into the lines and the characters of each piece I read. I, myself, cannot bear much reality, but ironically, reality is what inspires the absurdity in writings.
This is the exact opposite of how I see the world!

That's probably why I have such a negligible understanding of poetry. [UPDATE: More thoughts on not appreciating poetry, etc.]

The way I look at things, one of your very most important goals should always be to accurately perceive reality. That sounds so obvious and boring that it's tempting to think it can't be a particularly worthy goal, that surely it would be more worthwhile and exciting to transform, dress up, or escape reality somehow.

But I actually think that simply confronting the real world as it stands is a complicated, important, and challenging enough endeavor that nothing additional is needed to justify devoting your life to it. And the idea that the unadorned real world isn't exciting enough ... well, that would be a pretty depressing outlook on life if you really stuck to it.

If I had to attribute a single "theme" to this blog, I'd say it's this:

We need to look at reality, and see it for what it transparently is.

Being uninterested in looking reality in the face will cause you to worry about things that aren't really problems, and ignore the real problems.

But what about art? That always involves transcending reality. You're not saying you're anti-art, are you? Well, no, of course I'm not against all art, but it all depends: art can bring you closer or take you further away. If a war movie accurately shows the brutality of war to viewers who've never seen war in person, that's bringing people closer to reality --> good. When the movie Fahrenheit 9/11 depicted pre-2003 Iraq as a place full of happy children galavanting around in playgrounds until the US came in and messed everything up, that was taking people further from reality --> bad.

Non-literal art such as instrumental music might be a more awkward fit in that framework. But I do think it fits in there somewhere ... if you believe, as I do, that music's function is to channel emotions. And those, of course, are perfectly real. (Oh, and, yeah, can of worms. I could certainly get a whole week's worth of blogging out of the music/emotions point, but that will have to wait.)

Maybe in the distant future, we'll have enough of the world understood and under control that we won't need to devote so much energy to figuring out what's true and what's false, what's real and what's not. But so far, humanity's track record at staying firmly tethered to reality has not exactly been an unadulterated success.

(Photo by Don LaVange.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Chameleon tricks

1. Republicans to Republicans: just try to be something -- anything -- besides Republicans!

2. Barack Obama's logo seems to be in the middle of a months-long morph into the presidential seal.

3. An octopus can disguise itself as 15 other animals. See a few of them in this YouTube clip. (Via this Slate article about how smart octopuses are.)

4. Albanian women in their 70s and 80s talk about living their whole adult lives as men in order to provide for their families in the absence of male heads of household.

They've never had sex-change operations, but they've played the part. And they're all virgins to this day, apparently because there would have been no socially accepted way for them to have a sex life.

One of these women says the masquerade would no longer be necessary because of the gender equality that now exists in rural Albania:

"Back then, it was better to be a man because before a woman and an animal were considered the same thing.... Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman."
Think about that: rural Albania. An incredibly remote, conservative area of the world. If even they have been transformed by gender equality, can we really doubt that feminism has basically won the argument, if not eliminated every last vestige of misogyny?

Of course, due to the pessimistic attitude of many so-called progressives, it will instead be spun the opposite way: America isn't even as good as Albania!

And you know, even the idea that women used to be worse off than men in Albania might not be so obvious. After all, why was there a big problem with absent male heads of household? Because so many men were dying -- in war, feuds, and who knows what else.

Now, maybe it's just harder to think about them because it's easier to take account of the person who's talking to you face-to-face than someone you can't see.

But doesn't the tendency of men to die through acts of violence count as yet another disadvantage of being a man (for my list)? Or should we not take that into account because ... that's just what men do?

(Chameleon photo by Jeff Kleber.)

UPDATE: In the comments: "Aw, that chameleon looks like Larry King."

Follow-up IM:
you know how i have a feed of
the latest comments in the sidebar?
the top one right now is: "Aw, that
chameleon looks like Larry King."
ha ha

just made me LOL
that's me of course you know

i know
and don't you agree?


as if Larry King is really adorable
if you think of him as an animal
he becomes cute

Friday, July 4, 2008

Keep America weird

Happy 4th of July!

Here are some of the more patriotic photos I've taken over the years...

1. An American barbershop in Austin, Texas.

Mission Beauty Shop

American barber's pole

2. An American fire hydrant and lamppost in Brooklyn.

On the way to see Of Montreal

On the way to see Of Montreal

3. An American display case in a charming thrift store called the Rainbow Shoppe in Portage, Wisconsin. (If by some chance you're ever in Portage, make sure to stop by this place. The owner has lots of stories to tell about her eclectic collection of stuff.)

Secondhand store in Portage, Wisconsin

Thursday, July 3, 2008

McCain recoils

This is an odd moment from the campaign trail (via DailyKos):

McCain became visibly angry when I asked him to explain how his Vietnam experience prepared him for the Presidency.
"Please," he said, recoiling back in his seat in distaste at the very question.
Two of McCain's allies who were there with him, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, had to jump in and cover for him.
McCain then collected himself and apologized for his initial reaction.

"I kind of reacted the way I did because I have a reluctance to talk about my experiences," he said....
Based on that article, it doesn't seem that McCain ever did answer the reporter's question, though Graham made the obvious point that his experience as a POW has informed his position on torture (or at least one of his positions).

So let's get this straight.

When Gen. Wesley Clark says McCain's experience being captured at war isn't a "qualification to be president," that's way over the line. Unacceptable.

But when a reporter asks McCain to explain how his military service is a qualification to be president -- that's over the line too!

Also, is it true that McCain is "reluctant to talk about" his heroism in Vietnam? I don't know. But he hasn't been reluctant to say "I'm John McCain and I approve this message" in an ad showing footage of him as a POW, intercut with a closeup of McCain with the word "hero" emblazoned on his forehead. (Here's a similar example.)

No matter what your opinion is of Barack Obama, I think you have to give him this: he'd never approve an ad that was based on highlighting a specific argument for why he's qualified to be president, but then later try to shut down any rational discussion of that precise point.

For all the talk of Obama as too slick and superficial and not having enough substance, I'm starting to think that McCain is the candidate who has to be carefully choreographed and shielded from spontaneous debate over his qualifications.

We should give McCain huge points for character based on his enormous sacrifice for his country in the Vietnam War. But it's fair to point out that this is not the same thing as leadership ability.

And it's fair to question what's going on with his recoiling.

* * *
UPDATE: My mom links to this post and says this in response to my point that Obama wouldn't try to shut down debate over his qualifications the way McCain did:
I think there are some things that Barack Obama has tried to place beyond debate, such as the things his wife has said in political speeches on his behalf.
Well, I agree he's clearly tried to shield his wife's comments from rational scrutiny: "Lay off my wife!"

But that isn't a counterexample to what I said. I said that Obama wouldn't put his imprimatur on an argument about his qualifications to be president and then turn around and tell people not to engage with that argument. I'm not aware of any instance of Obama doing that.

What you'd need to point to is something like: Michelle argues that Barack's experience as a community organizer is a qualification for being president ... but then Barack castigates people for asking him how his experience as a community organizer has prepared him to be president! Or Michelle points out that he actually has an impressive legislative record ... but then Barack lashes out at people who ask him whether he really does have a strong legislative record!

But, of course, that hasn't happened.

The only example I'm aware of where Barack tried to say that criticizing Michelle is off limits had to do with an extemporaneous remark she made about her own emotions (feeling proud of her country), not a rational argument that her husband would make a good president.

OK, maybe her comments were written out beforehand, but even so, I don't see any reason to assume that Barack Obama personally vets all his wife's speeches. At least Obama is probably rightly thinking to himself, "Gee, it's too bad that my wife made an ill-advised statement, but it doesn't really have much to do with my campaign, so I wish they'd stop hounding me about it."

McCain, on the other hand, has no excuse for distancing himself from a core argument for his candidacy that was set forth in one of his own ads, followed by the explicit statement: "I'm John McCain, and I approve this message."

(Of course, the real reason McCain supporters shouldn't trash Michelle Obama for her comment about being proud of her country for the first time is that McCain has said the same thing.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Vignette of an unmade argument

Got a call from my dad:

"I have this idea that I want you to blog."
He explained the concept, but I told him it just doesn't fit with what I want to blog about. Though it might seem like I'm willing to blog about any topic (music, politics, society, philosophy), I actually have a very heavy filter. I'm not interested in blogging most of the things I'm interested in.

So I asked him:
"Why don't you blog it?"

"No, I don't blog anymore."

"But you do have a blog. So start it up again now with a post about this."

"No, I wouldn't want to even if I were still blogging."

"Well, why not?"

"This is something I'd like to see someone make a reasoned argument about. I haven't been interested in making a reasoned argument in 30 years."
That got me thinking... In the past, I've often felt that you have to wait till you're pretty old before you have all the vast experience and wisdom necessary to write anything that's really worth reading. Oh, sure, you might come up with some nice little ideas here and there in the meantime, but it's more of a prelude to the really mature thoughts you'll think in the future. But maybe it's the opposite. Maybe I need to make sure I get my thoughts out into the world before it's too late.

That reminds me of an interchange between a couple friends of mine, back when we were teenagers. We were driving around at night and thinking about going somewhere -- I don't remember where.
P____: Well, we better get going. It's now or never!

S____: Heh... We're so young -- it's usually all about: "We have our whole lives ahead of us!"

P____: I love that not only did you pick up on the subtle humor, but you're also willing to analyze it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Clarification on "How to write a New York Times article to make it seem like women work harder than men"

WARNING: This is a boring, dry post to refine one of the points I made from my previous post. You should read that post before, or even instead of, reading this one.

A couple of commenters questioned an assertion I made about Lisa Belkin's New York Times article on the distribution of labor in marriages. So I want to clear this up.

Here's what I wrote in that blog post:

Why are we told the specific number of hours of housework, but not the specific number of hours worked at the workplace? Without that information, it's impossible to know how big a disparity (if any) there is.
One commenter said:
Actually the article does gives those stats, but they don't support the author's premise that men aren't pulling their weight.

"The most recent figures from the University of Wisconsin’s National Survey of Families and Households show that the average wife does 31 hours of housework a week while the average husband does 14 — a ratio of slightly more than two to one."

"Patterson found that while heterosexual fathers work an average of 47 hours for pay each week and heterosexual mothers work 24, the average for lesbian mothers, both biological and nonbiological, is about 35."

If you believe the stats, weekly, heterosexual men spend a combined 61 hours on house work and their paying job. Heterosexual women spend 55 hours a week, between the two.
The next commenter (who hadn't seen the above comment, since it hadn't appeared on the blog yet) made the same point:
The article did actually contain data on how much each partner works outside the home. On average, 47 hours for dads, 24 hours for moms. The author spun this to show that moms have to make more career sacrifices. I took it to instead show that on average, dads work 61 hours (47 outside, 14 at home), while moms work 55 hours (24 outside, 31 at home). Seems pretty equitable to me.
So, was I wrong? Did the article actually give the relevant data?

Well, I'll admit my language wasn't quite precise enough because I had glossed over that statistic.

But no, the article does not give the relevant data. Belkin does not cite a single study to show that women bear a greater work burden than their husbands.

Okay, now here are the details:

The statistic about employment hours worked by men (47 per week) vs. women (24 per week) is from a different study than the studies she relies on to argue that there's a housework disparity. So it's not commensurable with the data supporting the main thesis of the article. Finding out that men work an average of 47 hours and women work an average of 24 still does not tell you the crucial missing piece of information: how much total work is done by men vs. women?

You'd need to have a single study that first gave you the distributions of total hours worked each week, and then broke it down by employment vs. housework. It's just not good enough to say, "Well, there's one study about the housework disparity, and then we have some other random statistic from a different study about how much people work at the office." I have no idea what kinds of different methodologies the two studies used, which completely throws off any meaningful comparison of the data (especially since both studies presumably rely on self-reporting).

Also, if you were writing an article on how much work is done by husbands vs. wives, where would you put the crucial data about how many hours they work at their jobs? Would you put that information...
(A) near the beginning of the article, along with the main discussion of the statistics on the difference between how much housework is done by wives and husbands, or

(B) at the bottom of page 9 out of 10, near the end of a special discussion of gay households?
I don't know about you, but I would have chosen (A).

The author chose (B).

It's nice to include data on gay households as well as straight ones ... but you know, if you write an extremely long article on marriage, and you tack on a short section at the end that's specifically about gay relationships, it's probably not going to get read by a lot of people. Most readers are going to be more interested in learning about straight marriages than gay relationships, because most readers are straight.

In other words, Belkin buried this piece of information about as deep into the article as possible.

Of course, if you do want to graft the "47 hours/24 hours" statistic onto the other study as a way of figuring out whether there really is a disparity, you'll seem to undermine the author's thesis. That is, it will end up looking like men actually work a bit more than women. As the two commenters quoted above point out, if you combine housework and employment, you get a total of 61 hours worked by men (47 employment + 14 housework) and 55 hours worked by women (24 employment + 31 housework).

But again, I don't consider that a valid statistic, since it's jumbling up different methodologies. There's no way to know how that might skew the comparison one way or another.

The basic point from my original post still stands: when you dig down into the article, Belkin is just not giving us the info we'd need to make a judgment of whether there's any real gender disparity as far as the work done by married couples.