Monday, August 30, 2010


On NPR, a story asks the musical question "Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?" The work of psychologist Jesse Bering is profiled--Dr. Bering has written extensively on the intuitive conceptions (mainly in children) of various supernatural beliefs, like invisible observers, gods, and the mental capacities of dead entities. He speaks of religious belief as an epiphenomenon, that there is an abstract belief in intentional agency that gives rise to, rather than springs from, religious thought.

I am hoping that he has been the victim of quote-mining, but with such a pithy quote I rather doubt it:
Bering has a credo, a truth he says he's learned after years of studying this stuff.

"I've always said that I don't believe in God, but I don't really believe in atheists either," Bering says. "Everybody experiences the illusion that God — or some type of supernatural agent — is watching them or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private everyday moral lives."
He certainly seems to have found this in his research. It does not match my own experience (although it did when I was younger), and I have certainly read of other atheists who claim it does not match theirs. But Bering has an explanation for that:
In fact, Bering says that believing that supernatural beings are watching you is so basic to being human that even committed atheists regularly have moments where their minds turn in a supernatural direction, as his did in the wake of his mother's death.

"They experience it but they reject it," Bering says. "Sort of override or stomp on their immediate intuition. But that's not to say that they don't experience it. We all have the same basic brain. And our brains have evolved to work in a particular way."
Ah. He felt something shortly after his mother died (the wind chimes tinkled, and he felt it was a message from his mother--he does not say he believed this, but rather that he felt it, which is a meaningful distinction), and thinks we all must feel the same?

"I don't believe in atheists", the man said with a smile
"See, everyone believes in God, but some are in denial"
It must have been convenient, though, as anyone can see--
Just throw away the data points with which you disagree!
I'd like to try this method--goodness knows what I will find--
The greatest boon to science in the course of humankind!
There's guaranteed significance! The dumbest will look smart!
We can find the things we're looking for, and know before we start!
No more "plus or minus" error bars, uncertainty, or doubt;
When data disagree with you, you simply throw them out!
"I don't believe in atheists"--it's really rather dim.
If that's his methodology, I don't believe in him!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Intensive Care

The patients here are silent. Their machines
Speak for them, in rhythmic beeps and colored lines,
And numbers--lots of numbers. Which one means
He is getting better? Or worse? What are the signs
We should attend to? I choose to watch the heart
Monitor; for now, it is holding steady, if fast.
They've chilled his blood, in hopes his brain will start
To heal itself, but now two days have passed;
It's time to warm him up. We hope for the best
And wait, and watch the numbers, and pace, and cry.
The doctor's face confirms--we've failed this test.
There is no doubt; my brother soon will die.
We know, today, his heart will slow and stop,
And as we watch... the numbers start to drop.

This was intended (still is, I suppose) to be just one of a series of sonnets, observations from the hospital. The different populations within the hospital were fascinating to watch, even in such horrible circumstances as we were in. The families of patients, both new and long-term; the doctors and nurses--"heroic" does not come close; the new parents; the cops and paramedics bringing in the victims of accidents and shootings; the janitorial staff, who appear to have seen everything all too often; the clergy, impotence masquerading as importance.

But, perhaps understandably, these are not easy things to write. I'm not a poet; I'm a commenter in verse. It is the exception, rather than the rule, when I write about something that touches me personally. Hell, I could make the argument that the restriction of verse is just another way of distancing myself from a topic. It has to rhyme, after all

Anyway. I'm not happy with it, but here it is, for now. I plan to revisit (in verse, that is) this hospital, but I couldn't begin to say when that will be.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Don't Be Dick. Or Stan.

There was a man whose name was Dick;
Don’t ever be like him.
His tone was rude; his tongue was quick;
You’d never call him prim;
He always called a spade a spade—
Unvarnished was his truth—
To argue, he was unafraid,
And had been since his youth.

Opponents claimed that Dick was mean
(Of course, he did not care;
Just one more chance to vent his spleen,
To argue, and to swear)
They came up with a special plan
As smooth as it was slick
They started to dismiss the man
And blamed it all on Dick.

There also was another guy
I think his name was Stan
Who had it in his mind to try
And be a nicer man;
He argued smartly; argued well,
So cogently and brightly
And always (so the stories tell)
He argued so politely!

But those with whom he argued saw
In Stan, a different sort;
A Stan they’d mostly made of straw
To pick apart, for sport
They knew that Stanley disagreed—
Politeness didn’t stick—
The disagreement’s all they need
To label him a Dick.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Pharyngulate The Blood Bank!

They said, of PZ Myers, "why, the man has got no heart!
He's the bastard son of Satan, don't you know?"
Now it's off to Minneapolis, to crack his ribs apart
And determine if the situation's so.

He's a man who deals in evidence, a man who deals in facts
Why, he's writing all about it in his book!
When the doctors said they didn't like the way his ticker acts,
He'd be first to tell them, "hey, let's take a look!"

If you'd like to say a prayer for him, just hang your head in shame,
That's a waste of time, complete and utter loss!
But to really make a difference (you can do it in his name)
I'll give blood, at the American Red Cross!

Comment, originally here.

So... why not a PZ Myers Blood Drive? I know it's not an actual poll, but to pharyngulate the blood bank would be a very worthwhile cause. I personally think this week would be an excellent one for such a call to action... and that way, cracking open PZ's chest can be good, not just for him, but for many others across the country and perhaps across the world!

Memes and Sexual Selection

In natural selection, there are special sorts of features
Which are sexually dimorphic, and selected for as such—
Like the plumage of a peacock, or the buttocks of a mandrill
Or some other bits, impressive in their sight, or smell, or touch
If some arbitrary feature signals reproductive fitness
Evolution may be focused on that feature for a while
The result? Exaggeration of a reproductive signal
Just a part of evolution, but it really has a style!
Imitation and intelligence are (sometimes) found in humans
In proportions far outstripping our survival needs, it seems
In our search for reproduction, we’ve developed all of culture—
For the species known as humankind, our peacock’s tail is memes

In the New York Times "Opinionator", Sue Blackmore replicates her TED talk on memes and temes:
All around us information seems to be multiplying at an ever increasing pace. New books are published, new designs for toasters and i-gadgets appear, new music is composed or synthesized and, perhaps above all, new content is uploaded into cyberspace. This is rather strange. We know that matter and energy cannot increase but apparently information can.

It is perhaps rather obvious to attribute this to the evolutionary algorithm or Darwinian process, as I will do, but I wish to emphasize one part of this process — copying. The reason information can increase like this is that, if the necessary raw materials are available, copying creates more information. Of course it is not new information, but if the copies vary (which they will if only by virtue of copying errors), and if not all variants survive to be copied again (which is inevitable given limited resources), then we have the complete three-step process of natural selection (Dennett, 1995). From here novel designs and truly new information emerge. None of this can happen without copying.
The really attentive reader might remember that I posted Blackmore's TED talk on this topic last year, after seeing Daniel Dennett give a very similar talk on Darwin Day. There is much replication in the world of memes. Some repackagings are, as is to be expected, more successful than others at replicating.

I myself wonder how much of it can be stuffed back into its original box; that is, might it be the case that memetic evolution is not a new type whatsoever, but just one particular result of natural selection? The peacock's tail is much more than it needs to be--so is the human brain, and human behavior, and imitation and culture. But... Darwin wrote about sexual selection; features that are related to reproduction are, evolutionarily speaking, on the fast track for selection. Even the worst (in my subjective but correct opinion) bands somehow seem to attract groupies; the ability to write an earworm of a song clearly has reproductive consequences. Kissinger (eww...) said that "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac". You don't have to be Freud to see that the stuff that advances culture gets you laid.

Which does not, come to think of it, explain the existence of pseudonymous poets. Where is the payoff?

Back to the drawing board.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Government Endorsed Prayer?

Our government, it understands
That prayerful laying on of hands
And bugging God with vain demands
Can make the sick feel well
Examined with a skeptic’s mind,
The study was not well designed
Not single-, much less double-blind
There’s nothing it can tell.

The Templeton foundation tried
To use religion as their guide—
To show that prayer, when it’s applied
Directly, really works
And now this bit of woo-ish blight
Is published on the “Health News” site—
Our government, endorsing shite—
Encouraging the jerks.

If each objecting thinker sent
A note expressing discontent
(With reasons), might the site repent
The error of their ways?
If modern thinkers shine their lights
On ancient superstitious rites,
We'll trade the ancient dark-age nights
For more enlightened days!

(Although they need to get in shape,
There is one fact we can't escape:
It's government. Expect red tape.
Proceed, of course, with care.
But if they claim, in their defense,
That study gave us evidence?
No higher thought, nor common sense—
They haven't got a prayer!)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

America The Beautiful, Redux

First, the real deal:

*wipes away tear*

Of course, we have a new plague of patriots across the nation, who have taken what should have been the non-story of the hour and turned it into a new crusade; in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for instance, the issue is not whether a new Islamic Center is "in the shadow of Ground Zero"--it clearly is not--but whether Muslims should be allowed to build at all, anywhere:
The leader of the opposition has tried stopping construction with environmental and traffic concerns. But most of the people rallying against the mosque, like Ben Fletcher, have a different argument.

"We're Christians and this religion represents people that are against Christians. That's something we need to look at, you know, because you're going to have a lot of trouble down the line," Fletcher says.

He says he does not know exactly what trouble looks like, but he and others worry about terrorist links and Muslims wanting to impose Shariah (Islamic law).
Sounds like a threat to me.

Sorry, Ray, but we need to update that song.

O beautiful for Christian views
Conjoining church and state
We’ll saturate the evening news
With ignorance and hate!
America! America!
Thy faithful know thy might!
Where all are free, so long as we
Are Christian, male and white!

O beautiful for city skies
With gleaming steeples filled
Where freedom’s golden eagle flies
And Muslims fear to build!
America! America!
How great will be thy loss!
Thy honored flag is now a gag,
Thy symbol now a cross!

O beautiful for idiot's words
Intended to divide
The people seen as brainless herds
With anger as their guide!
America! America!
Thy passions take control
The will of some shall overcome
The nation as a whole

I suppose, perhaps, we need one more verse. An optimistic one.

O beautiful for founders' sight
With every power checked
'Gainst roiling mob or leader's might
We dissidence protect!
America! America!
Cacophonous and loud!
From diff'rence, make a bold mosaic
Of which we may be proud!

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Real Insult

As citizens contemplate choices, their voices
Are amplified, rather than muffled or stayed;
The myriad pathways where freedom may lead ‘em
Are part of the country our forefathers made
I’ve thought that the loud disagreement we see, meant
That Freedom of Speech was just doing its work—
I’d argue it’s our constitution’s solution:
We give you the freedom to show you’re a jerk.

The Moslem Community Center now enters
The media spotlight, for better or worse;
Opponents all claim that Ground Zero’s where heroes
Must not be insulted—to hell with the First.
Despite the amendment’s protections, elections
Are one of the times when majority rules:
It’s easy to track politicians’ positions—
They gather more votes when they pander to fools.

In the same sense that politicians show their disdain for the flag by using it as a cheap prop (remember the spat over Obama's [lack of] flag lapel pin?), the short-term demands of collecting votes has politicians scrambling to trample on the First Amendment. I'd write more, but I've got more important things to do. I will say this, though--I don't know which I find more depressing, the alleged political leaders spouting one opinion or another on the news, or the hundreds of comments addressed to the online news stories or blogs, parroting the worst of the worst of these talking heads.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mr. and Mr. Newt

I can't believe no one has written this song yet, but a quick google for the line from the chorus suggests no one has. Now, if I can only get Roy Zimmerman to sing it, all would be right in the world.


I’ve been watching the news from California
Where an activist judge had his say
And conservative pundits now warn ya
You’ll only be safe if you’re gay
They talk to the networks and papers
And they speak of the dangers and harms
Then they swoon, with a case of the vapors
With their trophy wives clutching their arms

“They’re changing the meaning of marriage
The bonds that we used to hold dear
From a heterosexual pair-age
To a union a little more queer
A marriage is sacred and holy
Or at least, it has been so for me;
And perhaps a divorce, as a matter of course,
For to marry wife two or wife three”


I’ve been watching the queers at the courthouse
Where they pose for the cameras, and kiss
And although I’m not gay, there is one man today
Who I’d join in connubial bliss:

Oh, I wanna marry Newt Gingrich—
He’s perfection in only one man
I wanna marry Newt Gingrich,
So I’m thanking the courts that I can!

Cos Newt is an expert on marriage
A commitment “till death do us part”
He’s so smart, and so cute; he’s my teddy-bear Newt
And I love him with all of my heart

Oh, I wanna marry Newt Gingrich—
The conservative man I adore
I wanna marry Newt Gingrich,
And love him as “spouse number four”!

We’ll walk down the aisle together
On that wonderful, magical day
We’ll be “Mister and Mister”, and maybe Newt’s sister
Could give her big brother away

Oh, I wanna marry Newt Gingrich—
What a wonderful, marvelous thing!
I wanna marry Newt Gingrich,
I’ll be wearing Newt Gingrich’s ring!

Sure, he left his first wife on her deathbed
And he left “Mrs. Two” for “Miss Three”
But with Newt on my arm, I say, “fourth time’s a charm!”
He’ll be happier married to me!

Yes, I wanna marry Newt Gingrich—
He’s perfection in only one man
I wanna marry Newt Gingrich,
So I’m thanking the courts that I can!

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Bradley Manning

Bradley was a different sort—
He did not play a contact sport;
He did not bow his head and pray,
As schoolmates did, to start the day;
He did not, though they found him odd
Recite the pledge with “under god”;
Or do his homework, if he thought
It asked him stuff it hadn’t ought
(As when his teachers vainly took
Their lessons from their Holy Book—
Let’s all forget that they were wrong;
Why couldn’t Bradley get along?)
His Army tags said “Humanist”,
And so I think you get the gist:
He’s godless, headstrong, smart and gay…
All reasons he’s locked up today.

I am not going to pretend to know enough about the case to take a strong stand on the big picture. Bradley Manning has been called a hero and a traitor, a man who should be set free, a man who should be hanged "from the same platform as Saddam was". His actions have been laudable, or deplorable, depending on whom you ask.

But his recent actions are not the focus of today's New York Times article. In the latest addition to a long tradition of armchair psychoanalysis (and yes, I am well aware that professional psychoanalysis is hell and gone from a worthwhile picture of someone's motives), the NYT's Ginger Thompson focuses on the details of his private life, implying that in hindsight we can see what a different sort of man Manning was...
At school, Bradley Manning was clearly different from most of his peers. He preferred hacking computer games rather than playing them, former neighbors said. And they said he seemed opinionated beyond his years about politics, religion, and even about keeping religion out of politics.

In his Bible Belt hometown that he once mockingly wrote in an e-mail had “more pews than people,” Private Manning refused to recite the parts of the Pledge of Allegiance that referred to God or do homework assignments that involved the Scriptures. And if a teacher challenged his views, former classmates said, he was quick to push back.
No one in my family recites the "under god" bit. The courts have said it's just hunky-dory by them. Why is this an issue? And school assignments that involved the scriptures? I suspect that the courts would side with Manning on this one as well. The article could have focused on the oppressive environment Manning found himself in, but (there's a reason they call it the Fundamental Attribution Error) instead they choose to point the finger at the odd (I almost wrote "queer") kid who stands up for his First Amendment rights.
Friends said Private Manning found the atmosphere here to be everything the Army was not: openly accepting of his geeky side, his liberal political opinions, his relationship with Mr. Watkins and his ambition to do something that would get attention.

Although hacking has come to mean a lot of different things, at its core, those who do it say, is the philosophy that information should be free and accessible to all. And Private Manning had access to some of the most secret information on the planet.

Meanwhile, his military career was anything but stellar. He had been reprimanded twice, including once for assaulting an officer. He wrote in e-mails that he felt “regularly ignored” by his superiors “except when I had something essential, then it was back to ‘Bring me coffee, then sweep the floor.’ ”

And it seems the more isolated he felt in the military — he wore custom dog tags that said “Humanist,” and friends said he kept a toy fairy wand on his desk in Iraq — the more he clung to his hacker friends.
Ah... a Humanist? That bastard! (Perhaps the author should have looked into how unusual "custom dog tags" actually are.)

Oddly enough, I am tempted to look into Ginger Thompson's formative years, to see what sort of personal inadequacies must have inevitably led to writing an article like this.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Boy, Were They Steamed!

Turn the heat up even hotter
Hot enough to boil water
Sitting in a sauna, a competitive event?
Which of them will last the longest?
Who will show their will the strongest?
(Injury or death, of course, was not the main intent!)
The Russian and his Finnish rival,
Thoughts on winning, not survival,
Both collapsed, the doctors said, a vivid shade of red—
The Finn, I’m certain, felt defeated,
Taken out and quickly treated—
Worse to be the Russian, though, cos Vladimir is dead.

The BBC and others report that the World Sauna Championships have gone horribly wrong. Their task was to endure 110 C (230F) for as long as they could (water being added to the stones every half minute to keep it brutally steamy). After roughly 6 minutes, both men were pulled out and taken to hospital, suffering from burns. Vladimir Ladyzhensky, the Russian finalist, died.

Apparently there were plenty of paramedics on hand, and all athletes had been thoroughly examined by their doctors prior to competition. I can't blame either the organizers or the participants. Sometimes, it seems, death happens, and there is no use pointing fingers.