29 December 2015

December's Promise

The song for the month by Kazuyoshi Saito. It's called the Promised December.

22 December 2015

Wealth inequality and wealth of the nation

A paper by Bagchia and Svejnarb (2015) find that wealth inequality stemming from political connections shows a strong association with more negative growth for the economy as a whole. If this is true, the U.S. is in trouble.

Signal

I just watched Signal. I'm pretty open-minded when it comes to sci-fi, but this was one of those films that had a dire dearth of ideas.

19 December 2015

Flowers for Algernon

I just finished reading Flowers for Algernon. The book's an interesting read. The only part I didn't much care for was the fiasco at the academic conference. (Having attended conferences, the description struck me as much too contrived.) There have been a number of adaptations, such as a recent Japanese TV series with the same title (アルジャーノンに花束を). Watching some of the first episode, it looks like it follows the main plot line with at least a few innovations. There's also an episode (Season 12, 9th episode) of the Simpsons and a 1968 film Charly (both of which I have yet to see) based on the story.

Nothing to see here folks, they're just poor kids, after all


What's going on in Flint, Michigan, under Governor Rick Snyder's watch is absolutely criminal. This idiot should be tarred and feathered.

8 December 2015

5 December 2015

NRA


4 December 2015

A few sunbeams through the clouds


Amid the spate of tragic news, there are a few glimpses of hope here and there. We hear that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife will eventually give 99% of their Facebook shares to charitable causes. There are of course those who will (for some reason) criticize the couple on various details of how they're going about this but I find it very noble. Contrast this with people like Martin Shkreli who, after acquiring a company, raised the  price of a badly needed drug from $13.50 a tablet to $750. There's even some positive news related to the latest surge in Islamic terrorism. On the other side of the planet, Indonesia is apparently stepping forth in very vocal opposition to the Islamic narrative put forth by Daesh (ISIL). Now, if we can only get Muslims throughout the Middle East to follow suit and the  Christian right in the U.S. to do the same regarding these nuts killing people at women's health clinics.

3 December 2015

My kind of cafe

1 December 2015

24 November 2015

ISIS support in Muslim countries

A recent Pew poll shows little support for ISIS in Muslim countries. I don't know whether I should take heart from the low numbers. I'm a bit gobsmacked that around ten percent of many populations have somehow formed a favorable opinion of this group that kills virtually anyone outside their little community of psychopaths and cowed followers. Of course, the radical fringe in the U.S. and elsewhere believes all sorts of nonsense, which is all dandy if they confine their craziness to gazing at their smartphones or Internet porn all day without venturing out into meat-space to actually act on their warped world views. Watching the biographies of some of the key ISIS figures, I can't quite grok the typical jihadi narrative, these people who were, only months before, drug addicts and pimps and have suddenly seen the way and believe that become an Islamic knight in shining armor (with accompanying suicide vest) will somehow wash away all the puerile peccadilloes. I guess we humans, in the face of the immense suffering and transitory nature of life, can sometimes--in our weakest moments--grasp at anything that promises us an escape, whether it's a drug or utopian fantasy.

21 November 2015

Atheists in the U.S.

The Pew Center has an interesting report on the attributes of atheists in the U.S. Atheists tend to be young, white, liberal, Democrat, and (as one would expect) pro-science. Their numbers, albeit small, are also growing, rising from 4% to 7% between 2007 and 2014.

20 November 2015

18 November 2015

The magic megaphone

Tokyo Airport is apparently testing the Megahonyaku--a megaphone that translates Japanese into three languages (Chinese, English, and Korean).

16 November 2015

A comic plug

Existential comics is especially brilliant these days.

11 November 2015

Dennett, Pinker, and Harris on free will

Dennett, Pinker, and Sam Harris have short talks on free will.

Dennett and Pinker have some insightful clarifications of the issue. Harris is probably influenced here by Buddhist ideas about the skandhas but his ideas are hopelessly muddled as he adopts the dualism that he rails against. (You get the feeling of physical causes of mental states--a very naive view of science: psychological processes are simply an explanation of the same processes which can also be explained in terms of physical processes.) Pinker even falls into this briefly if we consider his language (his wording that psychological processes are "the product" of physical processes.)

I think a good place to begin with this question would be to start with a phenomenology of free choice. If we do that as the first step of a scientific investigation and then go on to investigate these processes with all the methodological tools are our disposal, we'd find that it makes perfectly good sense to talk about human choice, that there are physical correlates to psychological processes involving choice, that these correlates (along with the psychological processes) are bound up in cause and effect, and yet, from a phenomenological perspective, these processes are exactly what are involved when we experience choice and freedom.

Boycott Starbucks until they recognize Festivus!


4th GOP debate

Rubio memorizes his entire speech beforehand so he always sounds like an old-fashioned orator. It’s going to be hard for establishment politicians like Rubio, Bush or Kasich to get traction since the wacky “outsider” candidates (Trump, Carson, and Fiorina) are all following the conservative meme of trickle-down economics—the notion that cutting government and drastically cutting taxes (mostly to benefit the wealthy) will magically make the economy grow at remarkable rates lifting all in the economy.

There was a good exchange between Paul and Rubio when Paul attacked Rubio’s tax plan that offering tax-cuts for childcare.

The Fox News moderators point out the obvious that the tax plans would send the deficit skyward, but they should have worked harder to hold their feet to the fire. No sensible economist predicts the type of growth needed to offset the reduction tax revenues.

Fiorina gets the history of the bank-bailout right—explicitly blaming both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Trunp had a good screed on letting others police the Middle East. Fiorina and Bush both did their best to go after him. Paul’s line that it’s possible to be strong without getting involved in every civil war in the world was right on. He also accurately pointed out that America’s current batch of villains were people the U.S. formerly supported, and made the link (that's universally ignored) between high military spending and less security (due to increased federal debt).

One major gaff if the debate occurred when Trump ranted about China in the context of the latest trade pact, only to have Paul quietly point out that the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal doesn't even involve China. 

SC Democratic forum

Watching the first part of the Democratic forum in SC last night (I didn't make it to Hillary), the candidates were impressive, especially in contrast with the nuttiness of the Republican field. I always find Sanders likable in every way. Especially impressive is the fact that he's held smart positions on virtually any issue long before the position was popular. O'Malley made a number of good points and appears to have an impressive record as Maryland Governor. While comfortable in front of a camera, he comes off as a bit glib--body language that may turn off a lot of voters. Polling after the forum suggests that he didn't get as much lift from the debate as the other candidates. Of course, he's much younger so maybe the thought is that he'll run again later, having gained some national name recognition.

6 November 2015

Religious kids (especially Muslims) cast first stone

A paper that just came out in Current Biology suggests that children in nonreligious households are more altruistic and are less likely to judge wrongdoers harshly.

Summary: Prosocial behaviors are ubiquitous across societies. They emerge early in ontogeny [ 1 ] and are shaped by interactions between genes and culture [ 2, 3 ]. Over the course of middle childhood, sharing approaches equality in distribution [ 4 ]. Since 5.8 billion humans, representing 84% of the worldwide population, identify as religious [ 5 ], religion is arguably one prevalent facet of culture that influences the development and expression of prosociality. While it is generally accepted that religion contours people’s moral judgments and prosocial behavior, the relation between religiosity and morality is a contentious one. Here, we assessed altruism and third-party evaluation of scenarios depicting interpersonal harm in 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa), the religiousness of their household, and parent-reported child empathy and sensitivity to justice. Across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies. Together these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism, challenging the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior.

Looking at the paper's methodology, it isn't very convincing. There doesn't seem to be any attempt to factor out the effect of region as a moderator variable.

29 October 2015

Reflections on the 3rd Republican primary debate in CO

My reflections on the debate...

Kasich had a great night and in my opinion can be said to have won the debate. His pre-debate comments about the entire field being wacky as all hell seems to have bought him some attention.

Huckabee had one good idea about making a huge effort to cure the diseases (diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease) that run up healthcare costs. I don’t know how this fits into the conservative meme that all government is evil and that the private sector solves all problems. He dodged a particularly idiotic question about whether Trump was morally suited to govern the country. Good for him.

Christie had a good night rhetorically, coming up with some good quips—at one point, jabbing at the moderator with the line that such behavior is even considered rude in New Jersey.

Both Cruz and Rubio sound a bit studied to me, like “A” students on the high school debate team. They often cited inspiring personal stories, but had little of substance to offer. One website says that Google searches for them spiked, so maybe this just shows that I have no idea what makes Republican primary voters tick.

Fiorina had a good night, pitching a very good case for the evils of government (an idea that I don’t buy but one that will resonate well with Republicans).

Carson didn’t have much of interest to say and what he did say was uniformly unrealistic and unimaginative. I can’t believe that he won any new converts.

Trump didn’t get many of his one-liners in. He was often unfairly targeted by the moderators (probably helping to reinforce viewers’ perception of him as the non-establishment outsider.) His line that all things will be solved by increases in the size of the American economy under his leadership was infantile, as were his comments that having guns everywhere will prevent shootings. But then again, much of the Republican electorate who respond to polls appears to be infantile, so he may be saying what his supporters want to hear.

Bush did okay but his body language doesn’t work. He appears defensive and unsure of himself.

Paul, as usual, came across as the scowling adult in the room, bringing up solutions that required hard choices. I don't think the Republican voters want to elect an adult this time around.

The CNBC moderators did a poor job in questioning, trying to stir up personal attacks (which I suppose are good for ratings). The initial question (a a favorite in job interviews) asking candidates to describe a personal weakness was silly and was rightly ignored by the entire field. The candidates, for their part, focused more on the Democrats. Their caricatures of the Democratic field were shallow, bombastic, and annoying, but I guess that goes with the territory—they’re all preaching to the choir at this point.

28 October 2015

Waiting for the clowns


If Reich were moderating Republican debate...

... he'd ask the following questions:

Jeb Bush, you’ve proposed a tax plan that would give the biggest share of tax cuts (11.6 percent) to the top 1 percent, and only 2.9 percent to those in the middle. Do you think widening inequality is a problem, and how does your tax plan reverse it? 

Marco Rubio, you say you don’t want to raise the minimum wage. The minimum wage is near its historic low, adjusted for inflation. Do you believe in having a minimum wage at all? If not, do you believe in minimum safety standards, minimum health standards, and a 40-hour workweek? By the way, if you’re elected president will you work 40 hours a week or do it as a part-time job, as you’ve done the Senate?

 Donald Trump, your tax plan is even more generous to the top 1 percent than Jeb Bush’s plan, giving them 21.6 percent of the tax cuts. Do you think all young people, on reaching the age of 22, should be given a $1 million loan from their parents? 

Carly Fiorina, you have lashed out against ‘crony capitalism.’ Does the fact that Hewlett-Packard under your tenure increased its spending on lobbying and political campaigns, and that your own campaign is underwritten by some of the biggest corporations and banks in America, make you a crony capitalist? 

Chris Christie, as governor of New Jersey you’ve presided over a state economy that has recovered only 62% of the jobs lost in the recession while the rest of the country has regained 132%. New Jersey is also 46th out of 50 states in growth. Will you be as bad for the U.S. economy as you’ve been for New Jersey? 

Rand Paul, you’ve proposed a “flat” tax, which would lower the tax rates paid by the wealthy and increase the tax rates paid by lower-income Americans. The one deduction you’d keep is the home mortgage interest deduction, three-quarters of whose benefits go to those earning over $100,000. How exactly will your plan reverse inequality? 

Ted Cruz, you want to abolish the IRS. How would you collect taxes? 

Ben Carson, you have said ‘we live in a Gestapo age,’ that the United States has become ‘very much like Nazi Germany,’ that Hitler couldn’t have accomplish his goals ‘if the people had been armed,’ and that Planned Parenthood is ‘like Nazi Germany.’ What does Nazi Germany have to do with how you’d fix the U.S. economy?

27 October 2015

Stuck in Love

I just saw this movie. The premise (that there's an entire family of highly successful writers) is a bit of a stretch, but the acting is good and the film's watchable. Mike Smith's comment at Rotten Tomatoes reflects the consensus of most viewers:

"A little heavy-handed at times, “Stuck in Love” is saved from the maudlin pile by its stellar cast."

18 October 2015

Innate tendencies toward irrational religious beliefs and the U.S. cultural wars

Paul Bloom, in his lecture titled There's Nothing Special About Religion, makes some interesting points about belief. He talks about studies showing that both children and adults are influenced by pre-programmed systems of understanding related to animism, creationism and dualism. He also talks about how people employ a strategy of "double deference"--which is say that most of us rely on experts regarding both the content of our beliefs and the details. In abstract form, this argument could be interpreted as confirmation of the popular notion that science and religion aren't different--they're just a set of beliefs ("choices", as if were). Bloom doesn't actually agree with this, noting that science involves a very different process that isn't found in religion.

The talk is interesting in the way it illuminates some of the dark corner of America's current cultural wars. I just rewatched the documentary The Revisionaries about the right-wing attempt (mostly successful) to rewrite Texan textbooks so that they're anti-evolution and pro-right in terms of their political slant. One canard used by the right-wingers on the committee was to say that the K-12 students should be encouraged to question the theory of evolution. As one scientist at the hearings pointed out, students at this level would have absolutely no way to carry out a scientific line of inquiry to question the theory. The insistence on this language calling for skepticism was simply a Trojan horse. (One wonders how the pro-Christian right would feel if the standards had instead explicitly said, "Students will be taught to question their religious beliefs.")

If I had a hand in creating the standards, I'd add something along the lines of the following: "By going through some examples, students will gain an appreciation of the rigor of scientific inquiry and will appreciate the importance of considering the current scientific consensus as the default position (which is always open to revision) in rational discussions." To take just one example, our consideration of political policies regarding the environment should assume that the consensus regarding global warming is (until proven otherwise) correct. As for the sensitivities of religious people, I really feel that the tension is inevitable. Religions do make statements about the world that can be shown, using scientific methods, to be false. Ultimately, we're left with a choice: to do, as the Taliban and ISIS have done, and simply ban science, or to allow our children to learn about science, aware (at some level) that this education may have the effect of eroding religious superstitions.

Holes

I just finished reading Holes by Louis Sachar. The language in the book is surprisingly simple, a very unadorned style that's perhaps designed to channel the personality of  the main character--a young poorly-educated teen.

14 October 2015

Democratic debate

Listening to the Democratic debate, I'm struck by how little pandering to petty issues and populist ignorance there was, relative to the Republican debates. Watching Bernie Sanders and Lincoln Chafee, one's struck immediately by a sense of dignity. A lot of Anderson Cooper's questions were asinine. To the candidates' credit, they often refused to go along with some of the silly lines of questioning he put forth. All of the candidates were clearly very knowledgeable--capable of talking about issues in considerable detail. Watching McCarthy unravel in the last few weeks (I honestly had no idea what he was talking about each time he opened his mouth), it's a breath of fresh to hear people actually debate and discuss real issues.

13 October 2015

Talking about the mind

Some great psychology talks...

Daniel Kahneman talks about how our reasons tend to follow (rather than support) our beliefs.

Dan Gilbert talks about happiness, saying that marriage (happy marriage) and divorce (in the case of bad marriages) makes us happier, how money buys happiness (but decreasingly so after around 40 to 70 grand), and how having kids makes us less happy.

Though not nearly as good, I also watched a BBC documentary on narcissism.

30 September 2015

26 September 2015

Boyhood

I watched Boyhood last night. The film's great innovation is the use of the same child actor (shown on the right in the picture) as the actor ages over a period of 12 years. Critics almost universally loved the film. Personally, I enjoyed many of those parts featuring Ethan Hawke and some of the later parts showing the boy--"Mason Evans"--as a teen. That said, I'd have to agree with one of the film's few detractors (Kenneth Turan at the LA Times) who said of the film that the "animating idea is more interesting than its actual satisfactions." People praised the realism of the film, but for me too much realism makes me feel a bit cheated. I get reality 24/7. In films, we don't really need to see people doing trivial activities. On the other hand, I'd highly recommend the film for those who want insights into American culture. I think it does a great job of depicting what childhood is often like in the U.S.

22 September 2015

Carson and Fiorina will probably keep rising as Trump falls

Some recent analysis of Trump voters by David Brady, a polling expert, suggests that Trump has nowhere to go except down whereas Carson and Fiorina stand to benefit as the Republican race drags on. Jeb Bush's failure to do better in spite of all the early cash still surprises me. Brady's concluding points:

First, that most of his support comes from voters already following the race and not from newly inspired voters.
Second, his campaign drew from both the front-runners and the second-tier candidates and hurt Senator Cruz among the front-runners and Governor Perry among the second-tier candidates the most.
Third, his support comes from across the full range of Republican identifiers, but is slightly higher among those who are less well educated, earn less than $50,000 and are slightly older.
Fourth, tea party respondents were for Trump at slightly lower levels than the totals for Cruz and Fiorina, but higher than for the rest of the field.
Fifth, his candidacy has a large downside in that, of the entire field, he has by far the most unfavorables and he is not the second choice of very many Republicans; thus, he cannot expect to see a leap forward as other candidates drop out.
Carson first and then probably Fiorina look to gain the most as other candidates drop out of the race.

Is this the best the Republicans have?

 Jeb Bush and Rubio (perhaps as VP?) and perhaps Rand Paul (who's far too low in the polls at this point) were the Republicans best chance. I can't imagine the current cast of Republican front-running clowns as having even a sliver of a chance in the general election. The Republican Party, even after publicly ruminating on the need to leave xenophobia and racism behind, still consider this populist hatred to be the only trump card left in their weak hand. For me, of course, this is all great news. Now, if Hillary would just slip so that Sanders could take the Democratic ticket, we could have an interesting election. I'd imagine the Koch brothers and their like-minded brethren would be calling up hit-man at that point, but I still fantasize.

16 September 2015

Reflections on the CNN Republican debate

Rand Paul is the only candidate with a rational view on foreign interventions. Most of the others sound like they haven’t learned anything from recent history and would simply create an even greater morass in the Middle East. Paul’s stance on marijuana legalization was also a breath of fresh air.

In terms of content, Jeb Bush takes some moderate and reasonable views but his faltering speech made him look weak—an unpardonable sin in the testosterone-driven Republican primary.

Mike Huckabee is still running to be the ayatollah of the U.S.

Marco Rubio came across as the whining kid at the back of the class. He was clearly having a bad night.

Ben Carson, when given the opportunity to attack Trump’s position on vaccines, went out of his way to get him off the hook. (This may be a tactical decision. His campaign may consider their odds better if Trump can keep the well-funded candidates like Bush and Walker down in the polls.) Although Carson's views are outlandish, his calm and dignified manner are appealing.

Ted Cruz is a very sharp speaker (albeit, with consistently idiotic views). We should elect him as the national debate instructor.

Donald Trump looked like he was just trying to not make a major gaff. Chris Christie and John Kasich were very forgettable. I was concerned at several points that Carly Fiorina would suddenly break into a karaoke version of America the Beautiful and then get led off stage by the ushers.

All the candidates response on which woman to put on the ten dollar bill was very telling. Half the audience could think of no woman besides their wife or mother. Fiorina--the only female contender--couldn't think of a single woman! The Republican Party still clearly suffers from a view of women that comes right out of a 1950s Leave It to Beaver episode.

12 September 2015

On Writing and The Bell Jar

This last month, I finished reading Stephen King's book On Writing and Plath's novel The Bell Jar. Both were great books. Regarding the former, I didn't have the sense that King had great insights into his own writing processes: he started writing at a young age, so many of the processes are probably unconscious at this point. One thing that surprised me was that the processes tended to be bottom-up instead of top-down. For most of his works, he claims to begin with a situation, allowing the plot and theme to crystallize as he writes. The autobiographical sections of the book were actually more interesting. Plath's book was often depressing, but it did have some good insights into the experience of an intelligent and independent (albeit, chronically depressed) woman during the 50s.

12 August 2015

The Bookseller of Kabul

I just finished reading The Bookseller of Kabul, a biography of an Afghan family that was produced as a work of fiction. It's a well-written rather depressing account of life in Afghanistan. The story of the book and author are interesting. The author donated $300,000 of her royalties to helping Afghan educational and health initiatives. She was later sued by a member of the family (who's seeking asylum) for defamation. The suit was originally successful but was later overturned on appeal.

11 August 2015

10 August 2015

The Secret Life of Bees: The movie

Having read the book, I watched the movie The Secret Life of Bees last night. The movie actually follows the book very closely, deviating only in the part where Zach gets arrested. (In the movie, it's because Zach and Lily sat together in a movie theater instead of sitting separately in the black and white sections of the theater. In the book, Zach is arrested simply because he refuses to tell the police that his friend [who had been provoked] threw a bottle, hitting a man.) Another minor difference--actually important to the plot--was that in the book, Lily runs up to her dad at the end as he's leaving and asks him if she really shot her mother as a toddler. Her father confirms that she did (putting a bit of a damper on the fairy tale ending.) For some reason, the movie omits this. The acting's good, and I felt like the second part of the movie was very well done.

8 August 2015

7 August 2015

Republican debate: The questions that went unasked

Bernie Sanders had a good summary of the debates, saying that it was essentially all about (1) tax breaks for the rich, (2) more people losing health insurance, and (3) more talk about war."  Thinking back on it, what was really remarkable was the questions not being asked. Where were the questions about income inequality, the cost of education, and so on? Instead of letting candidates drone on about the evils of healthcare, why didn't the moderators ask them how, in concrete terms, they planned to achieve the low cost and high (generally universal) access to healthcare found in most other advanced economies?

Thoughts on the first Republican debate

Having watched the first part of the Republican debate, I'm underwhelmed. A couple of observations:

1. I can see why Trump's appealing to many people. It is a breath of fresh air to simply hear someone depart from the tired old Republican talking points. His comments on donating to numerous politicians as a way to buy favors were very candid--not something anyone else on the stage would want to dwell on. The Fox News moderators appeared openly hostile to him, particularly on those points where he diverged from the typical Republican line. His prophecy of immediate gloom and doom gets a bit old. Of course, I don't think he believes any of it. My gut feeling is that he's a very intelligent person with much more moderate views on many issues, trying to run in a party that he doesn't really agree with.

2. Bush and Rubio come across as quite reasonable in terms of their style. Since most people vote for people based on immediate impressions--primarily their looks--this is important.

3. Kasich comes across as a very likable person, expressing concern for the downtrodden--not a traditional Republican sentiment. I don't think he stands a chance in a Republican primary since there's a sizable group of the party faithful that's mesmerized by an image of the president as a middle-aged version of Rambo on steroids--an American bare-chested counterpart to Putin.

4. Walker, Huckabee and Carson come across as very fanatical in some of their positions. (Carson, at least, has a very calm and appealing speaking style.) I'm surprised that Walker has such major financial backing. I can't imagine him doing well in the general election.

5. Except for Bush and Rubio, none of the group look like they'd have a sliver of a chance in the general election. Hillary, for her campaign ads, could simply play clips of their statements during the debate and Republican primary campaigning, statements that are out of line with most people in the country at this point.


6 August 2015

We who kiss are the odd ones.

This surprises me. A recent academic article "Is the romantic-sexual kiss a near human universal?" concludes that kissing is found in less than half of the cultures they sampled.


[ABSTRACT]

Scholars from a wide range of human social and behavioral sciences have become interested in the romantic–sexual kiss. This research, and its public dissemination, often includes statements about the ubiquity of kissing, particularly romantic–sexual kissing, across cultures. Yet, to date there is no evidence to support or reject this claim. Employing standard cross-cultural methods, this research report is the first attempt to use a large sample set (eHRAF World Cultures, SCCS, and a selective ethnographer survey) to document the presence or absence of the romantic–sexual kiss (n = 168 cultures). We defined romantic–sexual kissing as lip-to-lip contact that may or may not be prolonged. Despite frequent depictions of kissing in a wide range of material culture, we found no evidence that the romantic–sexual kiss is a human universal or even a near universal. The romantic–sexual kiss was present in a minority of cultures sampled (46%). Moreover, there is a strong correlation between the frequency of the romantic–sexual kiss and a society's relative social complexity: the more socially complex the culture, the higher frequency of romantic–sexual kissing.

4 August 2015

The Secret Life of Bees

I recently read The Secret Life of Bees. It occurs to me that I read far too little fiction. I was further reminded of this fact when I looked at some poetry that I translated over two decades ago from Korean. Going through my English versions of the poems, I felt like I was rediscovering a lost part of myself.

30 July 2015

M.I.C.


25 July 2015

Thanks to NRA, mentally ill can still legally purchase weapons

This headline says it all: a stark reminder of what happens when you let the gun lobby determine gun laws:

Lafayette Shooter Purchased Gun Legally Despite History of Mental Illness


6 July 2015

U.S. 5-2 over Japan

I normally don't take any interest in sports, so this is probably a first on this blog. Congrats to the women's soccer team that just won the World Cup (5-2) against Japan, playing on artificial turf (which is like playing on a rug basically--absolutely brutal).

22 June 2015

Fasting for health

A recent 2015 paper in Cell Biology suggests that a temporary (five-day) low-calorie diet (around 700 to 1100 calories) can mimic the effects of fasting and bring dramatic improvements in what are essentially the various major modern diseases. I think it's worth a try at some point in the near future. Similar benefits have also been found in studies on yeast and mice.

11 June 2015

DakhaBrakha

What a great original sound! What are your thoughts?

23 May 2015

Getting a little chart-happy, are we?

I had to laugh watching the Rachel Maddow Show today. They showed a chart with a single number. Is there something about a chart that helps us understand what 17% means? I really hope that isn't the case.

22 May 2015

The yesterday party


20 May 2015

The compassionate war on drugs

Hillary Clinton has been bringing up the issue of treatment for drug addicts. As Rachel Maddow noted in her show, this is interesting since the topic has been buried by all the typical media noise. The Huffington Post (typically, a fairly mediocre news site) happens to have an excellent article on addiction arguing that the leading cause of addiction is actually social isolation. The original article's long, but I leave you the following excerpt that discusses a policy experiment conducted in Portugal:

There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world -- and so leave behind their addictions. This isn't theoretical. It is happening. I have seen it. Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1 percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them -- to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.

One example I learned about was a group of addicts who were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other's care.

The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I'll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country's top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass -- and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal's example.

16 May 2015

Why college costs are rising

This was taken from a recent opinion piece that appeared in the NY Times:

 Interestingly, increased spending has not been going into the pockets of the typical professor. Salaries of full-time faculty members are, on average, barely higher than they were in 1970. Moreover, while 45 years ago 78 percent of college and university professors were full time, today half of postsecondary faculty members are lower-paid part-time employees, meaning that the average salaries of the people who do the teaching in American higher education are actually quite a bit lower than they were in 1970. By contrast, a major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions. Even more strikingly, an analysis by a professor at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, found that, while the total number of full-time faculty members in the C.S.U. system grew from 11,614 to 12,019 between 1975 and 2008, the total number of administrators grew from 3,800 to 12,183 — a 221 percent increase. The rapid increase in college enrollment can be defended by intellectually respectable arguments. Even the explosion in administrative personnel is, at least in theory, defensible. On the other hand, there are no valid arguments to support the recent trend toward seven-figure salaries for high-ranking university administrators, unless one considers evidence-free assertions about “the market” to be intellectually rigorous. What cannot be defended, however, is the claim that tuition has risen because public funding for higher education has been cut. Despite its ubiquity, this claim flies directly in the face of the facts.

12 May 2015

When all is lost, bet the house!

In this recent game (I'm white), I'm playing terribly but continue to sacrifice in the faint hope of an opportunity. Then, two minor pieces down, I hit upon a nice four-move mating combination. Notice how black's piece advantage is temporarily of no consequence since the black bishop and rook are locked up and out of the game.
1. d4 f5 2. c4 b6 3. Nc3 Bb7 4. Qc2 e6 5. e4 g6 6. Bd3 Bg7 7. Nge2 Ne7 8. O-O
O-O 9. Bg5 h6 10. Bd2 e5 11. d5 f4 12. f3 d6 13. g3 g5 14. gxf4 gxf4 15. Kh1
Nd7 16. Rg1 Kh8 17. Nxf4 exf4 18. Rxg7 Kxg7 19. Rg1+ Kh8 20. Ne2 Ne5 21. Nxf4
Nxf3 22. Rg3 Ne5 23. Ne6 Qe8 24. Bxh6 Rf3 25. Bg7+ Kh7 26. Qg2 Qh5 27. Be2
Rxg3 28. Qxg3 Qxe2 29. Qh3+ Kg8 30. Qh8+ Kf7 31. Ng5+ Kg6 32. Qh6#

11 May 2015

Enjoying eternity with all those unimplanted eggs

Valerie Taraco, on Salon, ponders on heaven, concluding it would be quite hell-like if it existed as described in the Bible. One of her more amusing musings concerns the demographics of the saved:
Ninety-eight percent of Heaven’s occupants are embryos and toddlers. Human reproduction is designed as a big funnel. Most fertilized eggs die before implanting, followed by embryos and fetuses that self-abort, followed by babies and then little kids. A serious but startling statistical analysis by researcher Greg S. Paul suggests that if we include the “unborn,” more than 98 percent of Heaven’s inhabitants, some 350 billion, would be those who died before maturing to the point that they could voluntarily “accept the gift of salvation.” The vast majority of the heavenly host would be moral automatons or robots, meaning they never had moral autonomy and never chose to be there. Christian believers, ironically, would be a 1 to 2 percent minority even if all 30,000-plus denominations of believers actually made it in.
The theological implications are huge. Christian theologians typically explain evil by arguing that this was the best of all possible worlds, the only way to create free will and to develop moral virtues (like courage, compassion, forgiveness and so forth), to make us more Christ-like and prepare us for Heaven. But if we run the numbers, it appears that God didn’t need the whole free will—sin—redemption thing to fill his paradise with perfect beings because no suffering, evil, or moral freedom is actually required as a prelude to glory.
The ratio of adults to embryos has social implications as well. Pastoral counselors sometimes tell a women she will get to apologize in Heaven to the fetus she aborted, which will be a fully developed person there. As a psychologist, I don’t know what this means, because the brain and mind, our individuality and identity—our personhood—develop only via experience. Imagine if 98 percent of the “people” around you had never made a decision or felt sorrow or experienced anything akin to an adult conversationThe company of Mr. Robertson starts sounding not so bad.

7 May 2015

Alberta swerves left

Canadian politics doesn't usually make the news in the U.S., but the startling shift in Alberta toward the NDP is going to have repercussions further south, especially when it comes to the Keystone pipeline. Personally, since the U.S. is close to being the top producer of oil in the world, America's purported need to import even more oil eludes me. And now with all the oil trains exploding this year (there's been about one major catastrophe per month so far), it'll be interesting to see if the pipeline's financial backers can keep up the propaganda blitz.

6 May 2015

28 April 2015

David Simon: My country is a horror show.

David Simon, the creator of that excellent series The Wire, has a very insightful piece on the trend toward "two Americas"--a must read in light of the latest riots in Baltimore.

25 April 2015

Pro-family? Support atheism!

A 2014 study by Glass and Levchak in the American Journal of Sociology shows that conservative protestants (and, surprisingly, people who live around them) are more likely to divorce. After accounting for factors such as poverty, violence, and southern culture (which tend to go together), the researchers conclude that it's the culture of promoting younger marriages and childbirth that largely explains the result. This map (which is kind of hard to read) shows the tendency of the Christianity and divorce to clump together (the dark blue-green squares).


This map could be juxtaposed with a series of maps I discussed a couple years ago in this post.

10 April 2015

Interstellar

I finally got around to watching Interstellar. Since I like most sci-fi (except simplistic human vs. aliens cowboys in space sorts of flix), I found it entertaining. That said, the whole thing was a bit underwhelming. Couldn't they pay a starving students from an astrology department somewhere to come up with a more feasible premise (or perhaps better--simply omit the pseudo-scientific explanations altogether)? Since the film took us to alien planets, it would also be nice to see something more exotic than a couple giants waves and snow covered rocks.

25 March 2015

Luna and Hong An


Hit the Road Jack played on a Korean Gayageum

10 March 2015

LSD appears to reduce suicide risk

After being told for years about the psychological risks of LSD, new research suggests that it may actually reduce the risk of suicide. You gotta love science.

5 March 2015

Chai Jing documentary


I'm glad to see that someone in China is getting the word out. The whole point of economic development is to improve people's lives. It makes no sense if people end up sick and afraid to leave their apartments.

27 February 2015

Americans for criminalizing Congress

Andy Borowitz gets this right...

By a huge majority, Americans support laws legalizing marijuana and criminalizing Congress, according to a poll released on Thursday. While the poll reflects a relaxation of attitudes about recreational pot use, it also suggests that many Americans now view membership in Congress as a problem ravaging the nation. Harland Dorrinson, an activist who has spent years mobilizing support for the criminalization of Congress, said that “this poll reinforces what many of us have been saying for a long time: Congress destroys lives.” “I’ve seen productive members of society get involved with Congress and completely lose the will to work,” he said. “They just sit there, totally numb and out of touch with reality.” He noted that the once prevalent view that membership in Congress was “harmless” is now being discredited. “If you look at what happens to someone’s brain after ten, twenty, or even thirty years in Congress, it’s devastating,” he said. “There is severe impairment.” Additionally, he warned that Congress is a “gateway elective office” that leads many to try running for President.

24 February 2015

Vito Barbieri

This was apparently the only guy who slept through his high school sex-ed class:

 Republican State Representative Vito Barbieri from the state of Idaho apparently believes that a woman's vagina has some sort of direct passageway to her stomach. (How else could the woman's poo come out?) This rather impressive display of anatomical ignorance came during an Idaho House State Affairs Committee hearing where the members heard testimony on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine. Vito asked Dr. Julie Madsen, who was testifying against the bill, if women could simply swallow a camera so that doctors could perform remote gynecological exams. Madsen had to explain that "swallowed pills do not end up in the vagina."

If the Republic Party ever dissolves, comics around the world will fill the streets in protest.

Apostacy

Saudi Arabia has given the death sentence to a Saudi who openly renounced his Muslim faith.


18 February 2015

17 February 2015

Sean Carroll on the fine tuning arguments

Sean Carroll has a good rebuttal of the "fine tuning" argument for God's existence. Personally, I'm not entirely convinced that there's even anything that needs to be explained. Since the "tuning" being discussed is purely metaphorical, I don't know that it makes sense to wonder why physical laws happens to be the way they are. If someone knows of a good philosophical treaty that sheds light on the validity of the question, please tell me. One thing Carroll does well here is to discuss theism as a theory, explicitly stating what we'd expect to see (and clearly don't see) if theism were true.

Costs of healthcare around the world


10 February 2015

Objectives and realities

Excerpt from a recent article by James Fallows in The Atlantic:

Yet repeatedly this force [= the U.S. military] has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.

Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Their many other tactical victories, from overthrowing Saddam Hussein to allying with Sunni tribal leaders to mounting a “surge” in Iraq, demonstrated great bravery and skill. But they brought no lasting stability to, nor advance of U.S. interests in, that part of the world. When ISIS troops overran much of Iraq last year, the forces that laid down their weapons and fled before them were members of the same Iraqi national army that U.S. advisers had so expensively yet ineffectively trained for more than five years.

8 February 2015

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

I finally got around to watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and thoroughly enjoyed it. Ben Stiller is always great in comedies. I think my favorite part was when Walter was being arrested at the airport. (The picture above is from an unrelated scene of Walter and his sister.) The first half of the movie has numerous excursions into Walter's very active imagination.

4 February 2015

Some like it hot

Some recent studies (2014 and 2015) by Byrnes and Hayes suggest that love for spicy food (cayenne pepper) is associated with sensation seeking (love of exploring, etc.) and sensitivity to rewards (planning how to get rewards). This certainly hits the mark in my case. I've always love spicy food to excess and have also always pursued novel experiences.

30 January 2015

What you don't know can't hurt you?

What in the world is going on?

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan is increasingly classifying information about the Afghan military and police that had previously been released, an “unprecedented” decision that keeps it from the American public, according to a new watchdog report. The Office of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has singled out Army Gen. John Campbell in Afghanistan. The decision leaves the watchdog office, led by John Sopko, unable to publicly report “on most of the U.S. taxpayer-funded efforts to build, train, equip and sustain” the Afghan National Security Forces, SIGAR said.

27 January 2015

Education: quality, costs, and inequality

Badtux has an excellent post discussing the K-12 system in the U.S. in terms of quality and costs. While I suggest going to the source and reading the post in its entirety, the following three paragraphs (from the end of the post) are particularly worthy of reflection:

 Which brings to a head the real problem with US education: inequality. In the nations that perform best on the test, nations like Finland and Japan, you do not see impoverished kids going to school in schools with no equipment, leaky roofs, and 40 year old books while their teachers get poverty-level salaries, while a few miles away rich kids go to gleaming schools with the best equipment, new books, and high teacher salaries to attract the best teachers. They make a point of giving every student access to the same quality of education regardless of family background or geographical location. A passing acquaintance is currently teaching English in a rural area in Japan. She rotates between three different schools teaching English to elementary school children. She is in awe of the facilities these children have. All the best equipment, gleaming facilities, swimming pools, the works. And this is a rural area generally considered backwards in Japan. 

 Yet you go to rural areas here in the United States and you see schools that are as impoverished as the ghetto, with decaying buildings and outdated textbooks and little lab and computer equipment and teachers who are paid poverty wages. Why do the Japanese perform so well on the PISA compared to the United States? The fact that virtually all Japanese students have access to good education, as versus here in the United States where your income determines where you live and thus your access to good education, has as much to do with it as the famous Japanese studiousness. 

 Inequality. It’s the biggest problem with the U.S. educational system, yet it is the problem that nobody seems to talk about. Why is that, I wonder? Could it be that our elites want there to be hoards of poorly educated children who grow up into poorly educated adults who spout Faux News talking points as if they were absolute truth handed down from the Great Penguin above? Naw, couldn’t be that, could it? Could it?

25 January 2015

Creating value

23 January 2015

Talk radio


22 January 2015

Reflections on honesty

I really laughed when I saw this. There's actually a kernel of truth here--honesty is difficult and for there to be honesty, there has to be a willingness to encounter unpleasant truths. So my little atheist prayer this morning is: may I have the courage to speak the truth and (just as importantly) the courage to listen to uncomfortable truths.

21 January 2015

OOOOR-gun

16 January 2015

15 January 2015

Blasphemy of the day


Faithophobic reflections on Charlie Hebdo

Suzanne Moore has an excellent article on the Charlie Hebdo issue in the Guardian. Here are a couple excerpts I thought were right on:

. . .
Equally disturbing is this talk of blasphemy. Jesus H Christ, remind me what year this is. At one end of the spectrum we have talk of blasphemy, then at the other a kind of liberal anxiety about bad manners – as if showing images was akin to bringing the wrong wine to a dinner party. To all of this, I must say I am pretty gobsmacked. There is a kind of faux respect floating around that I do not trust at all. For it is fearful. Last week I asked for us to continue in our disrespect and I meant it. Why must I have respect for religions that have little respect for me? That seek to curtail the rights of women? That find me unclean? I am not just talking about Islam here, but pretty much all religion. So there is some equal opportunity offence for you. Faithophobia. Add it to the list of my crimes.
. . .
There is no right never to be offended. Images are removed quietly sometimes. The artist Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is withdrawn from Associated Press images. This photograph had already been attacked in France after demonstrations by Christians and the far right. Actually, I am offended daily by images of women reduced to body parts but I do not incite violence. So, please, let’s not talk about the fundamentalism of those of us who believe in free speech. Rather like feminism, we would actually like it to start.

14 January 2015

L'enfant Plaza accident



On Jan. 12, the DC Metro had a mishap near L'Enfant Plaza. The tunnel (and eventually the trains as well) filled up with smoke, causing extensive smoke-inhalation injuries and one death. The metro personnel dropped the ball in this case, leaving people on the train (apparently with no information) for much longer than was necessary. This doesn't surprise me. My experience in the DC Metro was that it was a very third-world sort of affair (no offense intended to third world train operators). Trains would stop running on a fairly regular basis; giant rats ran around everywhere; and large segments of the ceiling were falling. Visually, it's unnecessarily ugly with a sort of grey stained wall sort of theme. (The one exception is Union Station, which is beautiful and a great place to hang out.)

13 January 2015

The revolting masses

12 January 2015

Silver Linings Playbook

I just finished watching the romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook. I'd definitely recommend this one. I can never figure out what makes a comedy work--it's something very subtle. The chemistry is just right in this one.

8 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo killings

Yesterday (January 7th) at least two gunmen opened fire at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, killing at least 12 and wounding 11, four of them seriously. The staff cartoonists Charb, Cabu, Honoré, Tignous, and Wolinski, along with economist Bernard Maris and two police officers standing guard at the magazine, were all killed.

Fortunately, there's been some Muslim response in the West denouncing the killings. One of my pet-peeves when I go through people's reactions (both anti-violence Muslims and non-Muslim westerners) is that there's this sense that we have to see "both sides," so we get statements beginning with phrases such as, "While I don't condone the cartoons" and so on. And then there's the occasional reference to Western colonialism or Christian savagery in the Middle Ages and so on. What nonsense! Some killers walked into a building and murdered some innocent people. End of story. The killers need to be found and punished. Anyone who lent them financial support should also be punished, and those who support them ideologically (even indirectly) should be found guilty in the court of public opinion.

I liked the response over at Badtux: "On a more expansive level, if the only way to defend your beliefs is violence, then you need to take a long hard look at your beliefs, because there’s something wrong with them. Violence that is not in self-defense is the last resort of evil, and if your belief requires violence, then your belief is evil. Period."

As discussed by Juan Cole (and Carl over at The Reaction), this incident (along with all acts of terrorism) should be seen in perspective. There are few terrorists in the world. The reason terrorists use terrorism is because they're a minuscule sliver of the population who want to appear more powerful than they are. To treat them as if they're a serious movement is to play into the hands of their propaganda.

1 January 2015

Give me that old time atheism...

... it's good enough for me.