18 December 2016

Phil Gatensby

This guy has some wisdom.

9 December 2016

Dio mia

28 November 2016

24 November 2016

21 October 2016

17 October 2016

Maher on Trump

Bill Maher's always got insights. His comments are right on.

11 October 2016

Slogans 2016

19 September 2016

Sam Harris flops

I recently read the first half of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. Harris begins with the interesting argument that science (viewed broadly) can provide the basis for determining human values. This would seem to make sense. As Harris points out, "ought to" statements can easily be converted to "is" statements. Instead of saying people shouldn't lie (which sounds like a purely moral statement), we can, after all, make a more scientific statement to the effect that lying compromises our psychological well-being or leads to societal problems. And to his credit, Harris makes the important point that values don't imply that there is one way to live life or organize a society. As he says, there are various "peaks" and "valleys" in the moral landscape, but the existence of multiple ways to the good life (or the opposite) does not preclude the possibility that science can help us determine the path toward greater well-being.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't provide a systematic treatment of the topic and instead meanders through various trite discussions about religion and philosophy that aren't very insightful. I was particularly disappointed with the section denying free will. Harris evidently believes that mental states are caused by physical events--a strange notion given his academic background. Any scientist worth her or his mettle would state that the physical and mental are two levels of explanation of the same events. The argument denying free will has always struck me as particularly inane. It's the classical example of a philosopher taking common concepts (choice and responsibility) and defining them in an odd way and then applying the contorted definition back to our everyday understanding. Freedom, after all, is an experience. Whether my free acts happen to be inscribed upon matter and displayed across time in a coherent manner does nothing at all to change the nature of the acts or my experience of them. If we shift to an explanation about ion channels and neural cells firing, we will, of course, find no homunculus in charge, just as we won't see neural cells being activated if we talk with a psychiatric patient sitting on a couch. But Harris is simply muddying the conceptual waters here.

I normally would finish a book that entertains such an interesting premise, but I found it to be so silly and mundane that I couldn't force myself to get through it. I can't believe this made the NY Times Bestseller list and received an endorsement from Steven Pinker on the top of the cover.

11 August 2016


IQ and prejudice

A recent study by Brandt and Crawford shows different tendencies regarding prejudice and IQ.

Abstract: Previous research finds that lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice. We test two unresolved questions about this association using a heterogeneous set of target groups and data from a representative sample of the United States (N = 5,914). First, we test “who are the targets of prejudice?” We replicate prior negative associations between cognitive ability and prejudice for groups who are perceived as liberal, unconventional, and having lower levels of choice over group membership. We find the opposite (i.e., positive associations), however, for groups perceived as conservative, conventional, and having higher levels of choice over group membership. Second, we test “who shows intergroup bias?” and find that people with both relatively higher and lower levels of cognitive ability show approximately equal levels of intergroup bias but toward different sets of groups.

Is it prejudice to have poor impressions of people who are making a choice? (Do my negative feelings about ISIS, for example, count as "prejudice"?) Anyway, the study's results are interesting and may explain why Trump maintains a very loyal (albeit, insufficient) group of followers that appear impervious to logical argument.

28 July 2016

Two conventions, two lies

Some people were unimpressed by Michelle Obama's speech at the DNC. The two conventions are based on easily refutable lies. No, the biggest threat to the U.S. isn't ISIS and crime rates are by no means at historical highs. And no, the economic situation (for most people) hasn't been getting better. We do need change but not in the direction of Fascism. We're now left with a choice: which set of lies do we prefer?

22 July 2016

Kafka on the Shore

Today, I finished Murakami's Kafka on the Shore (海辺のカフカ). I enjoyed this more than some of this other novels. The book's chapters skip back and  forth between two story lines that are ultimately connected (albeit, tenuously).

21 July 2016

Made Kane's comment on the Melania plagiarism controversy...

Melania’s speech was revealing; 
In her push to make Donald appealing, 
She stole lines from Michelle 
About values. 
Oh well, 
This confirms that both Trumps value stealing.

19 July 2016


13 July 2016

The Opium War

I recently finished The Opium War by Julia Lovell. It isn't great writing--there are places where it's easy to get lost as the flow of the narrative isn't always smooth. But it has some fascinating stories. This period of Chinese history when China confronts aggressive Western powers always fascinates me. And there's always a mystery in my mind as to why China failed to prepare better for (and react to) the encounter. Reading this book and listening to related university lectures (viewed on YouTube), I sense that the notion that China was simply a hidebound bureaucracy, while containing some truth, is a bit simplistic. One aspect of Qing China that is discussed to some extent in the book is the extent to which China was divided in many ways between Manchurian elites (with their special military units) and the majority Han Chinese. Another factor seems to be the Chinese government's inability to respond rapidly to situations and to confirm information.

8 July 2016

A wealthy state headed off the fiscal cliff

Alaska is a microcosm of all that's wrong with U.S. politics, particularly the Republican Party.

4 July 2016

Guizhou telescope

China's apparently finishing its construction of the world's largest radio telescope. The Time article where this is mentioned says something about China searching for alien life and then mentions pulsars in the body of the article. I wish they'd elaborate. I find the search for alien life to be worthwhile and fascinating. I'd be interested in knowing if China would actually fund something along those lines. If so, they have my imprimatur.

30 June 2016

Clinton's VP pick

There are rumors that Hillary's considering Al Franken or Elizabeth Warren as a VP pick. My guess is that this is intentionally misinformation, an attempt to make Hillary appear more at ease with the more liberal wing of the party. I think it's highly unlikely that the VP pick will be from the left side of the party or will be a woman. My guess is that it's more likely to be a man with some sort of military-related credentials.

27 May 2016

Alzheimer's: Is amyloid-β peptide the real culprit?

An interesting new perspective on Alzheimer's has just been put forth. The following is the abstract from a recent 2016 paper:

A protein called Aβ is thought to cause neuronal death in Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Aβ forms insoluble aggregates in the brains of patients with AD, which are a hallmark of the disease. Aβ and its propensity for aggregation are widely viewed as intrinsically abnormal. However, in new work, Kumar et al. show that Aβ is a natural antibiotic that protects the brain from infection. Most surprisingly, Aβ aggregates trap and imprison bacterial pathogens. It remains unclear whether Aβ is fighting a real or falsely perceived infection in AD. However, in any case, these findings identify inflammatory pathways as potential new drug targets for treating AD.

9 May 2016

Another Country

I just finished reading Baldwin's 1962 novel Another Country. The story explores a number of previously taboo themes (inter-racial and bisexual love, especially). It shows clear signs of having been written over a long period of time. Some parts of the novel--including the initial and final sections--are terribly written, whereas a few of the later sections are quite brilliant. The writer makes the surprising move of killing off the main character in the beginning of the story. On the other hand, the tendency of virtually all the novel's men, who are for the most part initially described as heterosexual, to suddenly jump into each other's beds is farcical to say the least. (This would be great fodder for a Saturday Night Live skit.) The editor who accepted the manuscript deserves some of the blame. Baldwin was famous at this point, but the editor really should  have sent the draft back for major revisions. Entire sections and plot lines should have been cut.

15 April 2016


I just finished Benjamin Constant's book Adolphe. As this is an older work (1816), I thought it might feel very dated, but the descriptions of the psychological torment associated with the thin line between infatuation and love is right on. I highly recommend this.

5 April 2016

My Skype nightmare

Skype recently deleted my account. When I asked why, they claim I've violated their agreement. However, they refuse to say how. (I'm totally mystified by all this since I only use Skype to call family and friends.) I have a significant amount of money in my Skype account, which they apparently plan on keeping without providing a refund. Needless to say, I'm very pissed off about the whole thing. Making matters worse, it's simply impossible to get anyone on the phone or a chat who has authorization to do anything. For all of you who use Skype, I'd think twice about giving them any money. There are much better (and cheaper) services available, such as Google Hangouts.

Panama Papers

The appearance of the Panama Papers is providing welcome limelight on the illegal practices of the wealthy and well-connected. Hopefully, it'll go beyond that, educating the public about the infrastructure of our plutocracy. As just one "nugget" (with presumably many more to come), Rachel Maddow today mentioned that the Panama firm had knowingly laundered money from a famous 1983 British gold heist.

18 March 2016

Joe Wang

This is dated but kind of fun.

6 March 2016

5 March 2016

If job interviewees told the truth...

Clash of Republican con artists

Krugman has a great article that succinctly sums up the craziness of the Republican field.

4 March 2016

March 3rd Republican debate

Watching the March Republican debate, I was amazed at how vulgar the debates have become. We're literally down to conversations normally relegated to a corner of the junior high school men's locker room. The debate was disastrous for Trump. At one point, Fox News cornered him when they pulled up some numbers demonstrating that his claim that he'd magically balance the budget simply by eliminating waste was pure nonsense. (This is the perennial canard of the Republican right--this idea that fixing the budget will somehow be painless.) Of course, Fox News could have done the same for the entire Republican field who are spouting the same ideas with their disastrous track record over the last couple decades.

25 February 2016

Illinois Republicans go after single moms

When I first came across this, I'd assumed it was from the Onion, but apparently it's real. Illinois Republicans have proposed a law that wouldn't give birth certificates to children of single mothers who can't (or won't) name the father of the child.

HB6064Synopsis As Introduced
Amends the Vital Records Act. Removes a provision concerning use of the biological father's name on the birth certificate if not married to the biological mother. Provides that if the unmarried mother cannot or refuses to name the child's father, either a father must be conclusively established by DNA evidence or, within 30 days after birth, another family member who will financially provide for the child must be named, in court, on the birth certificate. Provides that absent DNA evidence or a family member's name, a birth certificate will not be issued and the mother will be ineligible for financial aid from the State for support of the child. Provides an exception for artificially inseminated mothers. Amends the Illinois Public Aid Code. Provides that a family that does not comply with the Vital Records Act provision concerning birth certificates of unmarried mothers shall be ineligible for aid for support of the child. Effective immediately.

Have any of these Republican geniuses considered the fact that lacking a birth certificate might be a major problem for the child. Of course, it's insanely unjust for the mother as well. Laurel Dickman discusses just one very realistic scenario in which this might be problematic...

...say I had a one night stand – oy, you can say that QUITE A FEW TIMES, if you get my drift… There have been a couple of times where after a few drinks and a night of flirting, last names were simply not a priority. I may have wanted to see that person again, I may not have, but that choice was not always mine to make. Several weeks later, as my period is a couple of days late, I play the “what if game” and wonder if I should have an abortion or have Mr. I’ll Call You’s baby. The same portion of the government that would demonize me for having an abortion would be punishing me (and my theoretical child) for not being able to track down the father if I had it.

It's also conceivable that the guy gave the girl a false name or the girl couldn't recall the spelling. Beyond these details, we must ask why so many of the Republican proposals are designed to shame, blame and humiliate the poor or socially disadvantaged. Don't single mothers have enough on the their hands already? Why are the righteous right's posses so silent when the miscreants are members of the affluent classes?

19 February 2016

A turning point for Sanders?

A national Fox News poll done several days back has Sanders up by 3% over Clinton.

16 February 2016

The girlfriend

My girlfriend invited me over. As I walked in, I found her unbelievably sexy sister alone in the house. The sister sauntered up to me and whispered in my ear, "I have feelings for you. Shall we have sex?" I immediately turned around and walked through the front door and out to my car where, to my surprise, I found my girlfriend standing with a sly smile. She hugged me and declared, "You've won my trust!" Moral of the story--always keep condoms in the car.

A big fat mistake

It's a sign of how bad things have turned out when Jeb asks his brother for help.
In the last debate, Trump pulled no punches:

"Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake. ... George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East."

That this statement would be, in the least, controversial shows how far the Republican right has sunk into self-deception.

14 February 2016

13 February 2016

Mann's article on peak oil

Although published some months back, Thomas Mann's Orion Magazine article "Peak Oil Fantasy" is definitely worth a read. (The discussion in the comments is also worth perusing.) I have previously watched End of Suburbia and read a number of articles on the topic but have become very disenchanted with the Peak Oil movement's failure to make accurate predictions.

12 February 2016

All hell broke loose

Richard Engel has a book out about his time in the Middle East. I usually detest American reporters, but I have a great fondness for Engel. Every time he's question on something, he gives a very reasonable and insightful response. The Kirkus review concludes with the following: "An intriguing journalistic memoir built around a lucid, alarming overview of where the Middle East has been and where it is heading."  Has anyone read this? Any thoughts?

10 February 2016

Some are more equal than others in NH

After crushing Hillary in New Hampshire, Sanders will end up with fewer delegates from the state. If there's still anyone around who naively believes that there isn't an establishment--a long-entrenched set of wealthy kingmakers--they need look no further. The fact that Sanders still appears viable even after the Democratic Party limited the debates and then hid them on the worse days--all the time constantly harping on the so-called quixotic nature of his campaign--goes to show the strength of his grassroots support.

29 January 2016

28 January 2016

Juxtaposing ideology and reality

Kristen Schaal

Schaal's an interesting comedian. Definitely worth seeing.

23 January 2016

Driving out the satanic game of chess

I hope ISIS and Saudi Arabia don't get into a competition over who can come up with the most barbaric ideas and cruel behavior.

NY Times: Saudi Arabia’s top cleric has declared the playing of chess “forbidden,” calling it a waste of time and money that creates hatred between players. In a fatwa, or religious decree, issued in response to a question from a caller to a Saudi television show, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh said that the game was “the work of Satan,” like alcohol and gambling...

This comes on the heels (a fitting metaphor if there ever was one) of the kingdom's sentencing a Palestinian poet to death on a trumped up charge of apostasy after he posted a video of religious police lashing a man in public.

19 January 2016

Selective memory

Rachel Maddow the other night had a good piece on the various versions of Reagan that the Republicans have chosen to remember and on how few of these have any link to the Reagan of history. Completely swept under the rug in the Republic psyche is the entire Iran-Contra scandal. By all accounts, Reagan was a lousy president. Even with scoundrels like Nixon, we can warmly remember his bold detente with China and aspects of his environmental policy. With Reagan, on the other hand, about all we can say is that he only shares some of the blame since he clearly had no idea what was going on half the time. This is Reagan's own words from p. 458 of Reagan: A Life in Letters:

During the course of our secret discussions, I authorized the transfer of small amounts of defensive weapons and spare parts for defensive systems in Iran. My purpose was to convince Tehran that our negotiators were acting on my authority, to send a signal that the United States was prepared to replace animosity with a new relationship...[I]t is in our national interest to watch for changes within Iran that might offer hope for an improved relationship... Our interests are clearly served by opening a dialogue with Iran...

And all of this willingness to talk and make peace just years after Iran held U.S. hostages. Reagan comes across as such a softy in contrast to our current cast of Republican manly men who will (we are told) magically bend the wills of the evil untermenschen throughout the globe who dare to oppose God-given American authority.

At the pump in Flint

18 January 2016

Reflections on the January 2016 Democratic Debate

Watching the debate, I get the feeling that there's an effort by NBC to favor Hillary. For example, they've selected clips that show Hillary in a positive light and show Sanders in a negative light during each of the breaks. Along similar lines, the Democratic Party has also done its best to limit Sanders' exposure by limiting debates and putting them all at bad times. Sanders did a great job of pointing out the key problem plague U.S. politics: money. Hillary threw out a bunch of red herrings. Her attack on Sanders' position on healthcare is especially idiotic, something about "throwing out Obamacare" in a move to single payer. As if changes to a government-run system would somehow eliminate the benefits of our current system. O'Malley isn't a contender so his current run is really more for gaining name recognition for future runs. With this in mind, he's doing very well. He appears to have some a decent record in office and puts forth some interesting proposals.

15 January 2016

The January 14th Republican debate

I just watched the January 14th Republican debate. Most of the candidates had a fairly good night. Rubio struck me as a bit shrill. Bush bested his previous performances (not hard to do). Cruz, always the polished orator, was as kooky as ever. Carson's solution to everything seems to be to talk to experts (which is actually very sensible but not the most exciting campaign blurb). The constant attacks on the Democrats (a favorite fallback strategy of Christie) got old since no Democrats were there to reply. Kasich, as always, seemed like the adult in the room--not that it'll help him with the rank and file. The Fox moderators did a fair job except toward the end of the debate when they started asking leading questions (with the desired response clearly embedded in the question's wording).

14 January 2016

Time Out of Mind

I just finished watching Time Out of Mind, starring Richard Gere as a homeless man. I love many of Gere's films and this one gets credit for its very gritty and realistic portrayal of homelessness. Unfortunately, the film isn't very entertaining. And perhaps that's why it seems so realistic. Homelessness itself, after all, isn't very entertaining. Visually, the film also chooses realism over appeal. With a few exceptions, the scenes tend to be shot in trash-filled streets and homeless shelters. If anyone is hoping for a Disneyesque film of bum makes good and all's well that ends well, this isn't the film for you.

Atavistic elephantine responses

Atheism 2.0

Alain de Botton has a very "spot-on" albeit scattered Ted talk about the need to incorporate elements associated with religion into our atheist lives.

12 January 2016

In tribute

"Who would wear the jackboot most vigorously"

It's interesting to note that the two leading Republican candidates (with Cruz clearly ranking as the most admired) are also the most vicious and callous. This is from a recent NY Times op-ed by David Brooks:

Cruz manufactures an atmosphere of menace in which there is no room for compassion, for moderation, for anything but dismantling and counterattack. And that is what he offers. Cruz’s programmatic agenda, to the extent that it exists in his speeches, is to destroy things: destroy the I.R.S., crush the “jackals” of the E.P.A., end funding for Planned Parenthood, reverse Obama’s executive orders, make the desert glow in Syria, destroy the Iran nuclear accord. Some of these positions I agree with, but the lack of any positive emphasis, any hint of reform conservatism, any aid for the working class, or even any humane gesture toward cooperation is striking. Ted Cruz is a champion college debater where success is determined by garnering points either defending or challenging a proposition. Ted Cruz didn’t come up with this hard, combative and gladiatorial campaign approach in isolation. He’s always demonstrated a tendency to bend his position — whether immigration or trade — to what suits him politically. This approach works because in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges court decision on same-sex marriage, many evangelicals feel they are being turned into pariahs in their own nation. Cruz exploits and exaggerates that fear. But he reacts to Obergefell in exactly the alienating and combative manner that is destined to further marginalize evangelicals, that is guaranteed to bring out fear-driven reactions and not the movement’s highest ideals. The best conservatism balances support for free markets with a Judeo-Christian spirit of charity, compassion and solidarity. Cruz replaces this spirit with Spartan belligerence. He sows bitterness, influences his followers to lose all sense of proportion and teaches them to answer hate with hate. This Trump-Cruz conservatism looks more like tribal, blood and soil European conservatism than the pluralistic American kind. Cruz manufactures an atmosphere of menace in which there is no room for compassion, for moderation, for anything but dismantling and counterattack. And that is what he offers.

10 January 2016

To be happy, think of your death

This is well-written and probably right on. Something I must try.

8 January 2016

Happy New Year!