Bertrand Russell – Face To Face

November 30th, 2010 5:34 pm

The internet today brought me these three Youtube clips, which show old Bertie being interviewed in 1959 (and therefore at the age of 87) on a BBC show called “Face To Face“.

I quite like his advice for people a thousand years hence.

Some poems never lose topicality

November 12th, 2010 10:38 am

And now, from the “what I’m reading while waiting patiently for ant” pile:

Every Day
by Ingeborg Bachmann

War is no longer declared,
but rather continued. The courageous
has become the everday. The hero
is absent from the battle. The weak
are moved into the firing zone.
The uniform of the day is patience,
the order of merit is the wretched star
of hope over the heart.

It is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the bombardment is silenced,
when the enemy has become invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.

It is awarded
for deserting the flag,
for bravery before a friend,
for the betrayal of shameful secrets
and the disregard
of every command.

–translated by Peter Filkins

As goes the myth…

October 12th, 2010 11:14 pm

It shouldn’t be any surprise to you that I often agree with Paul Krugman–I’m both rational and occasionally shrill.

For instance, I see a lot of sense in the compressed argument Krugman makes here, in his recent editorial:

And right now, by any rational calculation, would be an especially good time to improve the nation’s infrastructure. We have the need: our roads, our rail lines, our water and sewer systems are antiquated and increasingly inadequate. We have the resources: a million-and-a-half construction workers are sitting idle, and putting them to work would help the economy as a whole recover from its slump. And the price is right: with interest rates on federal debt at near-record lows, there has never been a better time to borrow for long-term investment.

But regardless of whether or not you agree with the notion that increased government spending is a rational response to economic slowdowns (I’m not really interested in getting into that argument… again) you have to acknowledge Krugman’s point about the mythology of America. It used to be rational to discuss America as a country that built itself amazing things–the Hoover Dam, The Eerie Canal, the interstates… Hell, every major city had things you could point at as examples of “American Know-How”. Now… well, in the rare cases where this kind of project happens at all, it’s not a shining beacon, it’s a comedy of corruption and errors. ( cough ).

And what does that mean?

So here’s how you should think about the decision to kill the tunnel: It’s a terrible thing in itself, but, beyond that, it’s a perfect symbol of how America has lost its way. By refusing to pay for essential investment, politicians are both perpetuating unemployment and sacrificing long-run growth. And why not? After all, this seems to be a winning electoral strategy. All vision of a better future seems to have been lost, replaced with a refusal to look beyond the narrowest, most shortsighted notion of self-interest.

Yeah, that’s pretty grim.

Without the myth, to pull the people together, to give drive and direction, things fall apart.

The only thing worse would be if the myth was lost, and there were people who pretended it wasn’t: demagogues who wrapped themselves in the hollow shell of the myth while taking the very actions that destroyed it. But, of course, thing aren’t that bad.


October 11, 2010 1:20 am

Sarah and I recently made our way through the first Barnaby Grimes book: Curse Of The Night Wolf. We quite enjoyed it and will probably seek out others, by the way. However, I had to do some deep background explanations on the concept of the various quack medicinal tonics of the time period, as Sarah isn’t really up on her historical snake oil salesmen. I was able to do it, with some helpful reference to Pete’s Dragon, but it took some explaining. When I saw this vintage ad for Melachol, my immediate thought was to show it to her as an illustration of the concept. Fortunately my parenting brain did kick in before I did that, and suggested to me that I might be better off not having to explain “functional impotence”, “irregularities of menstruation”, or “perverted secretions” at this time. (Actually, I’m not sure I could explain that last one.)


An eclectic bit of bookery

October 10th, 2010 11:03 pm

It’s been a while since I closed the various “book stuff” tabs, so let’s take a run through those, shall we?

  • I came to this by the Lord Dunsany connection, but I don’t think you need to be on that page at all to enjoy H. E. Gowers’ HASCHISCH HALLUCINATIONS, posted over at the blog of master-designer-and-artist-of-the-eldritch John Coulthart.
  • I’ve been enjoying Charlie Stross‘ series of posts on books he will not write. All of them have been interesting, and several have made me a bit sad I won’t get to read the books, but this one is the most interesting of the bunch, d’apres moi.
  • I don’t normally enjoy reading reviews in any sense except that of building anticipation for some of the works reviewed, but I positively enjoyed reading Ellen Spitz’s review of the Grimm Reader on its own merits. Look at this prose:

    Not quite like ancient myths, which use nymphs and satyrs to explain recurring natural phenomena; nor like fables, whose timeless moral lessons are parlayed through the escapades of animal characters; nor like legends, which exude the pungent aromas of one particular locale and its history, fairy tales are stories spun into gold at the wooden wheel of a miller’s daughter: stories made to summon wonder, horror, enchantment—and not necessarily anything more. Uncanny in the purest sense of the word, which is to say, both bizarre and familiar at once, they are meant to be told, not read, and they truly possess an inexhaustible power. Children hold on tight, turn pale, close their eyes, and beg for more.

  • Last week I probably read two dozen posts or articles discussing the recent death of literary agent Ralph M. Vicinanza, who was apparently the agent to a good portion of the true luminaries of the F/SF world. Many were touching, but none quite so much as Walter Jon Williams’. It’s not long, but it’s kind of what I imagine an agent who was good at his job, and also a decent human being, would want to see written.
  • On a much more upbeat note, THERE’S A NEW BORDERLANDS BOOK! I have no idea how this will sell generally, the original being very much a product of its time, but it doesn’t have to sell to me cold–I’m pretty deeply invested in my memories of the earlier books. I’ll be curious to see if the setting has stayed where it was, culturally speaking, or if it’s moved with the intervening years into something that’s more on the border of now.
  • I’ve mentioned before that one of the exceptions to my “not really enjoying reviews for themselves” thing is Jo Walton’s body of work writing reviews at I always enjoy these, partly because they are well written and partly (I suspect) because Jo’s tastes seem to align closely with my own. Consequently I was delighted to see her take on Lisa Goldstein’s first adult novel: The Dream Years. Man, I loved that book–I came to it a bit later, when Goldstein had a decent backlist, and after reading The Dream Years I tore through them all (even the pseudonymous ones). I might have mentioned that before. Check out the review, then if it tickles your fancy at all check out the book–it’s great. Hell, I’m excited right now thinking about the fact that she (finally) has a new book coming out soon.
  • While we’re speaking of Jo’s reviews, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that she’s doing a book-by-book reread of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. I love those things–I think I last mentioned them in a general writeup of good historical fiction. So far I’ve only seen a specific writeup on the first book, but in addition to the fun of reading the writeup, it also pointed me here, where I can see detailed maps of all the sailing in each of the books. Man I love the Internet sometimes.
  • Sometimes when you read a story, you can just tell that the author is “not losing a bet” (maybe with himself).
  • Another favourite author here at Homo Sum is Hal Duncan, perhaps as much for his blog as for his fiction. Papaveria Press has just put out a tiny-but-lovely edition of his Lucifer Cantos–which same poems are available free to read on the web, but without the same physical object appeal of course. The photos online look lovely, and I’ve snatched up a copy. I just can’t resist Lucifer, apparently.

..and that’s not even half the book stuff windows, but it’s enough for tonight.

October 9, 2010 2:56 pm

Why yes, I do believe I will be showing my daughter the cool videos from AuroraMax. Nice to see (a tiny, tiny slice of) my tax dollars at work for something cool.


Up there with Obi Wan

October 9th, 2010 8:28 am

I was recently pointed at an article in the Telegraph about how Druidry has just been recognized as a religion in the UK.

The article ran with headline “Druidry recognised as religion in Britain for first time” and subhead “Druidry has been recognised as an official religion in Britain for the first time, thousands of years after its adherents first worshipped in the country” and the text of the article starts out like this:

The Druid Network has been given charitable status by the Charity Commission for England and Wales, the quango that decides what counts as a genuine faith as well as regulating fundraising bodies.

It guarantees the modern group, set up in 2003, valuable tax breaks but also grants the ancient religion equal status to more mainstream denominations.

So there seem to be two things there: some kind of formal recognition of “Druidry” as a religion, and then specific granting of some tax benefits to a particular small (250 people) organization under the aegis of this newly recognized religion.

That’s lovely and all–I mean if the Jedi are recognized in the UK1, it’s probably OK to let the white-robed Stonehenge types be recognized as well.

But… it is kind of sad that the article (and all the other ones I could Google on the story) just seem to take on faith that Druidry as practiced by these people (and the other few thousand who claim it) bears some connection to the “ancient religion” who’s adherents first worshipped “thousands of years” ago. Because that part is bunk. Modern Druidry is a made-up thing based on some (later proved incorrect) Romantic ideas about what the old school druids were.

Here’s the British Museum‘s comment, but you can find a ton of confirmation with a bit of research:

Modern Druids have no direct connection to the Druids of the Iron Age. Many of our popular ideas about the Druids are based on the misunderstandings and misconceptions of scholars 200 years ago. These ideas have been superceded by later study and discoveries. In particular, there is no link between the Iron Age Druids and the people who built and worshipped at Stonehenge, Wiltshire. This ancient monument was part of a religion that ended before the Iron Age began.

Good on the Druid Network for getting their religion recognized–I consider it as valid as all the others2–but boo to the “journalists” who would rather write the lovely sounding “thousands of years” headings than actually, you know, inform people. While the practices and beliefs of modern day Druids may well be commendable it would be a shame if getting this recognition just reinforced in the general public the faulty idea that there are directly connected historical roots to those practices and beliefs.

  1. Yes, I know that what the Charity Commission recognizes and what’s on the Census are two different things, but let me have the joke, OK?(back)
  2. Which, if you’ve been paying attention, you will know isn’t actually saying much.(back)

October 8, 2010 6:19 pm

Now that I have learned of it, I will be desperately searching for appropriate places to work the phrase “if-by-whiskey” or “if-by-whiskey fallacy” into my everyday communications. Also, the canonical example of it is pretty great. (And apparently old men in Mississippi don’t mind having a nip in the morning.)


The Great Red Eye

October 8th, 2010 10:24 am

The Red Spot of Jupiter, scaled down image

One the great myths–in the sense of “stories we tell ourselves to understand the world”, not in the sense of “lie to be disproven”–of the Internet is how connectivity and open access to data enables all kinds of things to happen.

One of the great myths of science is that sharing data allows for the pool of knowledge to continue to grow–one of the few true commons that we still have.

And that image you see above is a nice illustration of both of those myths. It a scaled down version of a new image of Jupiter’s Red Spot that was created by an Icelandic amateur, working from Voyager image data.

Yes, I said Voyager–images that have been available for 30+ years, and now that access to them is relatively easy, interested people can work with them and produce things like this image. An image which is arguably better than any we’ve ever had before.

The picture up top is a little 400px thumbnail that blows up to an 800px version, but the actual image is… rather larger.

Details are of the creation of the image, and some other related images, can be found at the Planetary Society blog.

He should have talked to Kubrick

October 7th, 2010 8:49 pm

I have just lost a couple of hours to a suicide note. And I barely dipped my toe in.

Here’s the background on the young man who killed himself after spending a huge amount of time preparing a 1900+ page suicide note that works out a philosophical justification for suicide based on a kind of existential nihilism.

But if the 1,905-page suicide note he left is to be believed — a work he spent five years honing and that his family and others received in a posthumous e-mail after his suicide last Saturday morning on Yom Kippur — Heisman took his life as part of a philosophical exploration he called “an experiment in nihilism.’’

At the end of his note, a dense, scholarly work with 1,433 footnotes, a 20-page bibliography, and more than 1,700 references to God and 200 references to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Heisman sums up his experiment:

“Every word, every thought, and every emotion come back to one core problem: life is meaningless,’’ he wrote. “The experiment in nihilism is to seek out and expose every illusion and every myth, wherever it may lead, no matter what, even if it kills us.’’

(lots more at the article)

Towards the end of the note, it’s author expresses things quite concisely:

After systematically interpreting my emotions are material processes for at least a year and a half, the cause of life simply lost its cogency.

There are a couple of standard reactions when a very smart person really internalizes that life is inherently meaningless. One is a hard turn to religion. Another is to find it incredibly funny. Yet another is to develop a kind of “that just means I have to bring my own meaning to it’ philosophy. Sadly, being kind of broken by it is not terrifically uncommon for people who don’t tend to one of the other paths.

Being kind of broken in a way that leads to preparing a couple of thousand pages of treatise explaining your conclusions and then following through on them–without engaging with another person1–is, however, terrifically uncommon.

And it’s uncommon in a way that kind of fascinates me. If I’m not careful I’m going to end up first reading that whole thing, and then trying to rebut it. (A similar thing happened to me with Dick’s Exegesis, and I’m not interested in going down that kind of rabbit hole again.) I’ve already spent too much time reading his expression of the argument that technological nihilism is God, and that the Singularity might be a way to sidestep the “equality problem” of all choices being equally meaningless.

You can read the note, or download it in PDF form, from here (and I do think it’s terrifically weird that the newspaper story mentions the website, but doesn’t cite it.)

  1. A living person, in an interactive engagement, I mean. It’s clear from the note that he was engaging with the ideas of a lot of people through the history of philosophy.(back)

As a “face man”, I find this comforting

October 7th, 2010 8:13 am

Face boxes and body boxes

So, did you see that recent paper in Evolution and Human Behaviour1 about the different ways that men and women evaluate attractiveness in potential long- and short- term partners? You’d remember the title: “More than just a pretty face“.

If you didn’t, or don’t want to follow the link, here’s the abstract:

Studies of physical attractiveness have long emphasized the constituent features that make faces and bodies attractive, such as symmetry, skin texture, and waist-to-hip ratio. Few studies, however, have examined the reproductively relevant cues conveyed by faces and bodies as whole units. Based on the premise that fertility cues are more readily assessed from a woman’s body than her face, the present study tested the hypothesis that men evaluating a potential short-term mate would give higher priority to information gleaned from her body, relative to her face, than men evaluating a potential long-term mate. Male and female participants (N375) were instructed to consider dating an opposite sex individual, whose face was occluded by a “face box’ and whose body was occluded by a “body box,’ as a short-term or long- term mate. With the instruction that only one box could be removed to make their decision about their willingness to engage in the designated relationship with the occluded individual, significantly more men assigned to the short-term, compared to the long-term, mating condition removed the body box. Women’s face versus body information choice, in contrast, was unaffected by the temporal dimension of the mating condition. These results suggest that men, but not women, have a condition-dependent adaptive proclivity to prioritize facial cues in long-term mating contexts, but shift their priorities toward bodily cues in short-term mating contexts.

While I’m not terribly surprised to find that men behave like dogs when explicitly looking for a one-night stand, I am comforted to see that most humans gravitate to the face when selecting with the longer term in mind. This means I am not as unusual as I sometimes feel when people2 discuss their “breast man”/”ass man” status. Of course I’m probably still a bit of an outlier with respect to the weight I give to hair when judging attractiveness.

Anyway, while the results are interesting, I’m skeptical that they say anything about evolution necessarily, and I’d explain why, but Newsweek has already done that work for me:

The study may provide new insight into people’s romantic preferences today, but critics say the findings may tell us more about Western values than about human biology—which may often be the case with research that attempts to assign evolutionary motives to modern behavior. Indeed, the study looked only at 375 college students on one campus, the University of Texas at Austin. Massimo Pigliucci, an evolutionary biologist and philosopher at Lehman College of the City University of New York, says that further research across cultures and time would be needed to make a compelling case for evolution’s role in the results. Moreover, Pigliucci suspects that some cultural forces are at work. “We live in a society where it’s OK for a man to look at a body, but for a woman it’s considered a little beneath her to be interested in physical appearance,” he says. “I would be surprised if that were true in a culture where there are no TV ads and where people go around naked on a regular basis.”

I wonder what kind of experiment you could do to distinguish evolutionary preferences among sexes from socially programed ones?

  1. I fixed the spelling for them there.(back)
  2. men(back)

October 6, 2010 11:12 pm

Speaking of governmental douche baggery, don’t think that my lack of constant complaint about Harper and almost EVERY DECISION he makes means I’m not constantly enraged–I’m just deep in outrage fatigue at this point. Everywhere I turn there are utterly reprehensible decisions. Sending Canadian citizens to serve time in US prisons for things that aren’t crimes in Canada, refusing to do anything to help Canadian citizens threatened with death or torture in other countries, pushing terrible copyright legislation, pretty much everything about the G20 handling, indefensibly stupid action on the census (oh, and Tony, if one citizen’s complaints are enough to change government policy, well, I’ve got a LOOONG list for you), Lysenkoist interference with science, and… well the list goes on. Can we kick these bums out yet?


What the hell, Obama?

October 6th, 2010 10:59 pm

If you’ve read here over the last year, you’ll know that I’ve pretty much lost all hope that Obama is going to fix things–I’m willing to live with “won’t make it worse”, and clearly he was a better choice than the alternative, but I am labouring under no illusion now that he’s going to actually undo all the evils of the previous administration.

But it still kind of breaks my heart when he not just fails to fix a problem, but actually goes out and does wrong.

Let me quote:

At this point, I didn’t believe it was possible, but the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record.  In response to the lawsuit filed by Anwar Awlaki’s father asking a court to enjoin the President from assassinating his son, a U.S. citizen, without any due process, the administration late last night, according to The Washington Post, filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit without hearing the merits of the claims.  That’s not surprising:  both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly insisted that their secret conduct is legal but nonetheless urge courts not to even rule on its legality.  But what’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”:  in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.

This is particularly egregious because Obama is a smart guy, so he doesn’t get the Bush-pass of “he doesn’t understand the ramifications”–hell, dude was a professor of constitutional law: he SHOULD KNOW BETTER. If anyone should understand “checks and balances” and the limits of government power… (Not to mention the specific constitutional issues around the requirement for treason to be proven via due process, and that nobody gets killed without it–see Greenwald’s article.)

I also find this argument especially bitterly ironic in light of Obama’s stated position on transparency.

Let me quote Glen again:

If the President has the power to order American citizens killed with no due process, and to do so in such complete secrecy that no courts can even review his decisions, then what doesn’t he have the power to do?

I’m just disgusted. With Obama. With the advisors who are telling him this is the right way to go. With the people who support it. With anyone who doesn’t understand just what allowing this means about a society.

It’s Really Not Plausible

October 4th, 2010 11:14 pm

I find it highly unlikely that something this cute could share a significant portion of genes with me.

Too Cute At The Zoo

(Of course, if you talk with her for a while, and find out that she’s full to the brim with the good crazy, then you might start to believe she’s actually my kid, all appearances to the contrary…)

Suprising Exactly No One

September 28th, 2010 11:51 pm

Guess what the newly released Census data shows?

U.S. income inequality at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. The U.S. also has the greatest disparity among Western industrialized nations.

There’s more at the article, like this:

The top-earning 20 percent of Americans — those making more than $100,000 each year — received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line

I kind of like the quick analysis at InvestmentWatchBlog. I want to quote all three paragraphs, but since that’s the whole post it might seem sketchy. I’ll just grab the ending:

Who wins? No one in the long-run, but in the short-run, certain wealth individuals benefit significantly on both ends of the equation.

This might explain why Harper wants to neuter our census–it’s harder to maintain ideological fictions when the hard data shows exactly what the actual, not ideological, results of your policies are.