Sunday, October 28, 2007

"I met a traveler from an antique land..."

Went for a walk today with my camera. The "big bugs" are still around, even as we get ready to turn the calendars to November. This praying mantis had a certain majesty to him that made me recall a mostly-forgotten admonition from (I think) Emerson: in the lines I'm recalling, Emerson said that he would love to meet and befriend whoever could simply appreciate the beauty of nature without wanting to make it his own--that is, who could walk past the rosebush without plucking a stem, or past a praying mantis without taking its picture. Or maybe I felt like Hamlet, who can never bring himself to kill the praying Claudius.


video

Bonus points if you can name the source for this post's title (without using Google!). Here are a couple more pictures snapped during my walk today:

Google Page Rank -- Update

Yes! -- we're officially back on the map. Google was ranking Q-Majin? at 0/10 until this morning. Now we're working with a more respectable 3/10. My last blog made it up to 5/10... let's hope that doesn't happen again. That made me feel like I had to be responsible and accountable.

Friday, October 26, 2007

One More Ride on the Questionable-Science Bus

"Scientists" are at it again, now claiming that human beings will split into two races in the future -- read about it here. And yes, H.G. Wells did predict this prediction 110 years ago in his The Time Machine, as the article notes, so we're back to the same question: what is the difference between science and science-fiction these days?

Then again, this biological bifurcation does seem on the outside regions of possibility, I suppose. But is Wells' claim in 1895 any more or less authoritative than the 2007 claim by an important "scientist?"

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Parallel Universes Exist! -- Parallel Scientists, However, Disagree

Read this quickly. Remember when "Science" was distinct from "Science-fiction?" My recent post on the need for science to undergo its own reformation, to discover its own Martin Luther, seems more and more vindicated by the minute.

I'm inventing a new tag that signifies the start of a new category on this blog: "I'm-so-sure."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What Was Right About the Republican Party

This might not interest my readers all that much, but I thought I'd link to a really great article at Salon.com about how George W. Bush has ruined conservatism. Here's an excerpt:

The Bush presidency has damaged American civil society in many ways, but one of the most lasting may be its destructive effect on conservatism. Even those who do not call themselves conservatives must acknowledge the power and enduring value of core conservative beliefs: belief in individual agency and responsibility, respect for American institutions and traditions, a resolute commitment to freedom, a willingness to take principled moral stands. It is a movement that draws its inspiration from towering figures: Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Burke. It stands for caution in foreign adventures, fiscal sobriety and a profound respect for tradition.

The writer, Gary Kamiya, goes on to say, "...Or at least it used to stand for those things." The article is a very clear assessment of the damages, and even hints at the fact that eventually, perhaps even under a different banner, those values (if not the Republican Party) will find their way into public discourse once again in a serious and un-hypocritical way.

Fate and Responsibility

Fate (or "destiny") has never been a very popular concept in America. Indeed, willful action is one of a few foundational axioms of Western culture--we like to say "make it or break it," and something about making your bed and lying in it.

But I have a question about Fate that I'd like to ask if I can get my readers to acknowledge its existence as even a small part of human existence--unfortunately, the question is about whether or not accepting the term (and the phenomenon it claims to describe) is unethical.

Consider: A man--a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for five years--this man's wife has been angry with him lately because the family is barely making ends meet; they do not have enough money to put any away for retirement or even for their children's college funds. Now imagine a very tense situation, one in which the man is presented with an opportunity to gain financial freedom, but that the opportunity somehow involves his participation in drinking (say he has a business meeting in Japan at a Karaoke bar, where custom dictates: thou shalt drink!). He does it, thinking it'll be no big deal. But, breaking his sober-streak, he falls of the wagon (gets the job!), and though he has plenty of money, his marriage falls apart because he's such a bumbling drunk.

Would it be unethical for this man to say, "I accept a lot of the responsibility for what happened -- but I do want to mention that Fate arranged one hell of a trap for me. The pressure from my wife, the pressure from the businessmen, all mixed up with my own personal/historical weakness... it was too much."

That's probably a very poor demonstration--but I hope you can imagine a good one. But here's the question: when do we find it acceptable for a person to disclaim responsibility by blaming circumstance? Ever?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Executive Power: Bush, Lincoln, Captain Ahab

There was an incredibly interesting (and mostly frightening) Frontline tonight on PBS concerning executive power called Cheney's Law. It raises what I think is an overwhelming and difficult question: how powerful do we want our president to be, and what restrictions should be put on his power? If you think it's an easy question, recall that Lincoln used executive power to keep these States "United." Then again, Stalin used it to starve ten million people.

It seems simple: when executive power is increased, freedom may be decreased... and when executive power is decreased, order may be decreased. But it's not simple: how--by exactly what standards--do we decide what degree of freedom and order we want?

Do we vote?-------Or do we trust?
Pluralism?------------Monomania?
Diversity?------------------Unity?
Faction?------------------- Union?
Freedom?-----------------Order?
Economic Freedom?-----Equality?


So which side will you be on? The answer is probably "both" according to whatever circumstance presents itself. Wisdom says so. But still, if we go with that as an answer, what circumstance does justify executive power if not something like 9/11? I don't think this is as easy as "liberal" vs. "conservative." In truth, something like universal health care, which is currently a "liberal" issue, is in fact a unifying program, an ordering impulse--and though it robs us of freedom and options, some people support that move to unify. On the other hand, conservatives are rarely interested in using executive power when it comes to regulating economic activity.

I'm trying to show that everyone who ascribes to party politics these days is clinging to an untenable (or hypocritical) political philosophy. Am I succeeding?

Cioran on the Poverty of Philosophy

Found a great epigraph for this blog--will update design accordingly in near future:

We do not argue the universe; we express it. And Philosophy does not express it. --E.M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Skeptical Scientist? Isn't that an Oxymoron?

No, actually--it's not. In fact, it used to be a commonplace. But this article from The Sydney Morning Herald quotes skeptical scientist Dr. William Gray saying, of Al Gore and his disciples:

It bothers me that my fellow scientists are not speaking out against something they know is wrong... But they also know that they'd never get any grants if they spoke out. I don't care about grants.

...And he sounds like a fringe lunatic. But hold the phone, Dr. William Gray can actually afford not to care about grants. He's 78, and he already made his reputation. If I'm wrong about global warming being an alarmist appeal to our ugliest susceptibilities, fine; Science can march on its merry, uncorrupted way. But if Dr. William Gray and I turn out to be right, I want to see a list of names in clear, sans serif font, of all the "scientists" who were so persuaded that the end was near. No one has ever been foolish enough to think that politicians were noble enough to resist the temptation of the almighty dollar, but for some reason we think scientists are exempt, above it all? I honestly believe that science is suffering a kind of meltdown, observable even in the short span of time between when I was in junior high school and now, that involves the influence of money. What is needed is, strange to say, something like a scientific reformation. Someone needs to stand up and get money out of science. If Martin Luther is reincarnated and living again today, I hope he's 22, wearing a lab coat, and about to graduate... but then, I wonder if he'll be able to resist that dangling fellowship for scholars interested in global warming?

Again, if I'm wrong (we'll reconvene here in 2025, say?), I apologize--someone had to play the skeptic. But if I'm right, can we please not reinvent another apocalypse myth just to keep us all fretting?

Jasmine Green Tea and Used Furniture

...In one wing, the oxygen mask taken from the famous writer of terza rema glee while in another an infant arrives...

There's a really great post over at Heaven Tree about "fake mysteries." It's so good, there's not much left to say, but since Gawain's talking painting, I might complain about an unfortunate aesthetic approach that I've detected in some contemporary poetry (sometimes called "associative"). I guess I'll pick Dean Young as my target, but only because he's probably the best known representative of this unhappy "technique."

Gawain comments on this painting (apparently, the most famous in Venice!):

Far from being a carefully laid out puzzle, it has been assembled haphazardly and several times repainted. X-ray analysis has revealed that the armed man on the left had originally been — a naked woman, a scale of change not consistent with any conception of a thought-through, a priori worked out ideographical program. The painting’s composition was in fact an ad hoc exercise in mystification: “Let’s see, said the painter to himself, what do I put on the left? A naked woman?” He did, stepped back, and looked at it. “Nah, that don’t work. How about… how about… I know! An armed man! Let me try it… Yeah, that looks weird enough.”

Gawain calls this kind of mystification "an intellectual fake," and I strenuously agree. Read some Dean Young poetry here and here. It all certainly sounds "weird enough," but what does it mean?

I'm comfortable saying "It doesn't mean anything," and reading better poetry, but I am a little frustrated by the popular success achieved by these kinds of, ahem, artists. I've heard enough people talk about appreciating Dean Young's poetry that I can recall a few of their keywords: "It's a tone," or "The images are vivid," or "It has something to do with sound," but the justification always seems hazy like this, always non-specific, always unconvincing and unconvinced.

And yet I'm not wholly innocent of these charges. There is something about Dali... vivid images, maybe. Haha. And maybe even this guy:


Saturday, October 13, 2007

iPod Rundown, or, What's my Culture Rating?

I'm still a little excited about that post below, but I'm willing to move on. My e-friend Richard over at The Existence Machine occasionally gives readers his "iPod rundown," and I like the genre. Here's my personal list--and I'd like to note, all of this stuff is free!:
  1. "Philosophy and Religion in the Classical Greek World," a lecture by Isabel Pafford from UC Berkeley's History 4A class.
  2. "Daily Life in the Classical Greek World: Economy and Society," Isabel Pafford.
  3. "Democracy and Empire in Classical Athens," Isabel Pafford.
  4. "The Devil and Tom Walker," a short story by Washington Irving (The Classic Tales Podcast).
  5. "Rappacini's Daughter," a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  6. "The Ambitious Guest," another by Hawthorne
  7. Beethoven's Sonata Appassionata
  8. Matt Haimovitz plays Bach, WGBH classical performance
  9. Colin Carr plays Bach, WGBH
  10. The Moscow String Quartet plays Mozart, WGBH

In conclusion, I like Isabel Pafford's lectures, I'm thrilled that I can listen to stories I have only previously been able to read, and my tastes in classical music are exceptionally unexceptional.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Q-Majin? is an Idea Buffet

Apparently (see below) nobody likes to comment on amazing symphony-like blog posts anymore. No problem. My latest symphonic masterpiece appears as a comment over at Insignificant Wranglings. Pick your poison.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A Sick Philosopher is Incurable

Today, I left my office having put in a decent day's work at school, and started heading home to do some more work--the kind that can be done at a computer. But on my way, I remembered that my wife said she'd be hanging out at a local coffee shop, so I took the long detour. I didn't even get a drink. Just stopped to smile and make sure she was feeling good.

From the coffee shop, then, I walked to the parking garage where my car was parked on the sixth floor. Between the coffee shop and the garage, I started feeling pretty good, so I decided to climb all six floors rather than take the elevator. On my way up the stairs, feeling good and not thinking about anything in particular, I started singing to myself, "Don't bring me down," by (I had to look this up) Electric Light Orchestra. I sang whichever words I knew, and hummed the rest. I opened my car door, started it up, and the radio was blasting: "You got me runnin goin out of my mind / You got me thinkin that I'm wastin my time / Don't bring me down... no no no no no..."

***

As a follow up to my previous post, and in particular to my comments on psychiatry and metaphysics, I re-read chapter 16 from Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man. If you have any interest in this topic, I really urge you to spend ten minutes reading the chapter. I first read the book five or six years ago, and it seemed to be about naivety or gullibility or susceptibility. It seemed to be about how "con-men" can take advantage of us if we aren't on guard with skepticism.

I have a different view of the book now. These days, I tend to think that Melville meant to dramatize the difficulties of "keeping the faith," or, staying "confident" -- what I recognized at an earlier time in my life as naivety. With these two different ways of reading the story in mind, consider (if you can't read the whole chapter) the following dialogue between a "sick" (read: depressed) man and a peculiar kind of healer:

The herb-doctor took a sealed paper box from his surtout pocket, and holding it towards him, said solemnly, "Turn not away. This may be the last time of health's asking. Work upon yourself; invoke confidence, though from ashes; rouse it; for your life, rouse it, and invoke it, I say."

The other trembled, was silent; and then, a little commanding himself, asked the ingredients of the medicine.

"Herbs."

"What herbs ? And the nature of them ? And the reason for giving them ?"

"It cannot be made known."

"Then I will none of you."

Sedately observant of the juiceless, joyless form before him, the herb-doctor was mute a moment, then said: -- "I give up."

"How?"

"You are sick, and a philosopher."

"No, no; -- not the last."

"But, to demand the ingredient, with the reason for giving, is the mark of a philosopher; just as the consequence is the penalty of a fool. A sick philosopher is incurable."

"Why?"

"Because he has no confidence."

"How does that make him incurable?"

"Because either he spurns his powder, or, if he take it, it proves a blank cartridge, though the same given to a rustic in like extremity, would act like a charm. I am no materialist; but the mind so acts upon the body, that if the one have no confidence, neither has the other."

Again, the sick man appeared not unmoved. He seemed to be thinking what in candid truth could be said to all this. At length, "You talk of confidence. How comes it that when brought low himself, the herb-doctor, who was most confident to prescribe in other cases, proves least confident to prescribe in his own; having small confidence in himself for himself?"

"But he has confidence in the brother he calls in. And that he does so, is no reproach to him, since he knows that when the body is prostrated, the mind is not erect. Yes, in this hour the herb-doctor does distrust himself, but not his art."

The sick man's knowledge did not warrant him to gainsay this. But he seemed not grieved at it; glad to be confuted in a way tending towards his wish.

"Then you give me hope ?" his sunken eye turned up.

"Hope is proportioned to confidence. How much confidence you give me, so much hope do I give you."

So I suppose the big question I want to pose is whether or not this "herb-doctor" is a huckster or something else. And if it's utterly clear to you that he is a huckster/con-man, don't feel bad. I've read him that way before -- in fact, I think that would be most people's reading.

But what if there is something to the idea that placebo effect is majorly significant? What if what we really want is for a person with authority (in cases like these, we Westerners turn to "doctors" or "psychiatrists"; elsewhere it would be the village shaman) to tell us to take a pill or drink something, and for that authority figure to tell us it will be okay.

Especially with psychological sickness, I am inclined to believe this is almost possible: that if you are "a rustic" (caution: there are more rustics who think they aren't rustics than rustics who know they are rustics!) you will go to your doctor, describe your symptoms and trust (have confidence!) that what he prescribes will fix you. If, on the other hand, you happen to be a philosopher, you will demand to know how and why what he gives you will fix you... and if you be this latter, your chances for recovery or improvement are minimal.

Well, nobody considers himself or herself a bumpkin or a rustic -- and yet just how much faith do we put into our little pills? Into our health foods? Into other prescriptions? Shall we call this faith "confidence," or "naivety?" What if (drumroll, please!).... what if it is only the confidence, not the pill, that does the fixing? (play dramatic thunder peal)

***

That would be an utterly confusing and difficult thing to know. At first. But then one day you'd be walking along humming a song in your head and you'd get into your car and the song (an unlikely song, certainly!) would be playing on the radio... and you'd wonder if it might have been your confidence that triggered the whole thing. You'll wonder if you had just the pill you were looking for all along.

The wonderful thing about the Melvillian dialogue and about life in America in 2007 is that these pills give us such an undemanding opportunity to engage our faith. In this view, this herb-doctor and our contemporary psychiatrists are huge assets. When no pep-talk and no binging or purging can cure us of our mind sickness, these authority figures cannot promise us anything, but they can extend their hands with a smile and a pill, they can look confident themselves, and they give us every opportunity to demonstrate our faith. All we have to do is unscrew a child-proof cap twice a day.

See also. Question: is a mustard seed bigger or smaller than my cholesterol pills?

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

On Pseudo-Dialogue

Here are some things I've wanted to write about but think it best to avoid because I'm going on the job market and, despite clamourous rhetoric to the contrary, academia doesn't always welcome certain perspectives as much as others:
  • Libertarian value theory
  • Freedom of thought, culture, and the culture of "Race"
  • Heroism and war
  • The new (post 1980ish) disciplines in the Humanities
  • Metaphysics and psychiatry
  • Hypersensitivity and the word "awareness"
  • E.M. Cioran, fascism, and the problems of democracy
  • Ethics, hypocrisy, personal culpability
  • The myth of progress and the year 1800 C.E.
  • Jesus and modernism
  • National funding and the corruption of science
  • The threat of Russia
  • "Identity addicts"
  • Fear of faction in 1850, now

So -- those topics'll have to wait until after I get tenure. Unless someone wants to engage me in doublespeak in the comments section.