24/10/2009

QI: Hope you have a lot of time on your hands

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:42 am

If you’re anything like me at all – in that you enjoy watching very smart people being very smart (and hilarious) – you won’t be able to watch just one episode of QI. Stephen Fry hosts a comic quiz show, where the points are for being interesting rather than correct.

This particular episode has the dream cast of Bill Bailey, Dara O’Briain, Phil Jupitus and Alan Davies:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoIh2kF1v5k

They occasionally swear or go for the crude joke as well as the erudite one, so be warned if that sort of thing offends… otherwise, enjoy!

22/10/2009

I’m with Spong

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:54 am

Bishop John Shelby Spong has given up arguing with Christians about homosexuality. It’s a position I’ve been at for a while, but he writes it so much more eloquently:

http://secure.agoramedia.com/spong/34674.asp

21/10/2009

What contains twice as much liquid water as earth’s oceans?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:50 am

…and not only that, the water contains enough oxygen for living things!

Jupiter’s Moon Europa Has Enough Oxygen For Life

Incredibly exciting news for those of us who wonder whether there might be life anywhere else in the universe… there seems to be a pretty excellent chance there might be some on Europa.

It’d definitely be ‘life, Jim, but not as we know it’, though, being, as it is, much much further from the Sun than we are, and under a couple of kilometers of solid ice…

20/10/2009

The Bush legacy festers on

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:10 am

Glenn Greenwald on David Rohde and why Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay will continue to haunt America for some time yet:

David Rohde on the “why do they hate us?” question

Note, too, the vast gap between how Americans perceive of their actions (mere “aberrations”) and how so much of the rest of the world perceives of it, especially those in the targeted regions. So much of this disparity is explained by a basic lack of empathy: imagine if every American spent just a day contemplating how they’d react if some foreign army from a Muslim nation invaded and bombed the U.S., occupied the country for the next several years with 60,000 soldiers, killed tens of thousands of citizens here, set up secret prisons where they disappeared Americans for years without charges or even contact with the outside world, imposed sanctions that blockaded food and medicine and killed countless children, invaded and ransacked our homes at will, abducted Americans and shipped them halfway around the world to island-prisons, instituted a worldwide torture regime, armed their allies for attacks on other Western nations, and threatened still other invasions.

The evidence gets just a little more overwhelming…

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:23 am

Of course, it still won’t convince those who are impossible to convince, but anyway:

Arctic lake evidence of record warming since 1950

18/10/2009

A kinda birthday

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:15 am

The first post on this blog is for the 18th of October, 2004. I think I may have lost 100 or so posts in a crash, so the real anniversary of the blog is a little earlier, but in terms of what’s archived here, this blog is 5 years old today.

14/10/2009

Three Haiku about the fly in my room last night

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:36 am

Tried to improve it each time… and ended up being kept awake by the poetry (such as it is) after the fly was gone…

Lonely fly wanders
My room as sleep beckons me
Chemical death solves

Lonely fly wanders
In my room as sleep beckons
Pyrethrum’s blessing

Irritating buzz
Pyrethrum’s benediction
Sleep bought at death’s price

One of these has amazing processing power…

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:44 am

…and the other is a Cray Supercomputer:
Bravus and Cray

(just jokes)

Photo credit: ChrisH

13/10/2009

Juan Cole on why Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:35 am

http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2009/10/11/nobel_cole/

As usual, he has good and intelligent, well-informed things to say.

What causes loss of religious faith?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:18 am

Someone in a forum discussion had made the claim that the loss of religious faith in Western Europe was caused by belief in evolution. Certainly there’s a correlation there, but we know what they say about that and causality, don’t we boys and girls?

So I went looking. Sacred and secular: religion and politics worldwide (2004) by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart says:

This book develops a revised version of secularization theory that emphasizes the extent to which people have a sense of existential security – that is, the feeling that survival is secure enough that it can be taken for granted. We build on key elements of traditional sociological accounts while revising others. We believe that the importance of religiosity persists most strongly among vulnerable populations, especially those living in poorer nations, facing personal survival-threatening risks. We argue that feelings of vulnerability to physical, societal and personal risks are a key factor driving religiosity and we demonstrate that the process of secularization – a systematic erosion of religious practices, values and beliefs – has occurred most clearly among the most prosperous social sectors living in affluent and secure post-industrial nations. (pp. 4-5).

So, basically, keep ‘em poor and insecure and belief increases, make ‘em richer and more secure and it wanes. Hence the resurgence of religion in the former Soviet Union and post-communist Eastern Europe where the people are struggling, and its decline in prosperous and socially secure Western Europe and Scandinavia (and Australia, for that matter). The US is an interesting case, but it’s large and diverse enough that these patterns play out within the country: the prosperous and more secure California and Northeast regions are more secular, the poorer and less secure heartland and South more religious.

12/10/2009

Walking the Dinosaur

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:00 pm

Now, just because it’s hilarious, Hugh Dennis walks like a dinosaur:

“I Just Know That Something Good Is Gonna Happen”

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:05 am

That line from Kate Bush’s very excellent “Cloudbusting” keeps playing in my head today:

(You may recall it was recycled in Utah Saints’ also-fun “Something Good”):

So, I guess I hope that this is my spidey-sense tingling, not just a false alarm. ;)

11/10/2009

A little more on the nature of God

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:05 pm

I was also thinking today that the model of ‘God’ I described here could potential deal with the atheist self-description of ‘believer in one fewer gods’1 if I add the additional feature that every human-described god throughout history is a human projection onto the ‘screen’ of that infinite God. In other words, this is not one god among many gods, this is the Platonic ideal of Godhood, of which all other gods are mere reflections on the cave wall.

This is by way of being a mental exercise rather than a serious claim.

  1. That is, many atheists say “Well, I believe in zero gods, you believe in one, out of the hundreds or thousands named in all human cultures across all of history. You are an atheist of all the others except the one you believe in: I simply believe in one fewer gods than you.”

6/10/2009

David Brin on the scary direction taken by US conservatives

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:31 am

Science fiction novelist David Brin gets his rant on: http://open.salon.com/blog/david_brin/2009/10/03/a_rant_about_stupidity_and_the_coming_civil_war

4/10/2009

Politeness

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:04 am

As I may have mentioned before, for my sins or out of masochism I’ve been discussing creationism and evolution at www.EducateTruth.com over the past couple of weeks. I’ve made every effort to be polite and civil, and though I’m sure I’ve failed sometimes, on the whole I’ve been perceived by others as being civil. Most of my interlocutors have been far from it. Someone took them to task for their abuse, and one guy responded with:

Thank you for calling me uncivil. Civility is an overrated virtue. It is what scoundrels appeal for when they are about to be unmasked.

Quite a few posts then ensued, including dueling Bible quotations, in which these guys supported their uncivility as truth-telling. I tried to point out the difference between tone and content, and suggest that it’s possible to disagree strongly with someone without attacking them, but the upshot seemed to be that politeness is seen as weakness and appeasement, while being as rude as possible is somehow virtuous.

I’ve encountered the phenomenon before among creationists and Christians who are very sure they’re right, and that therefore their opponents are not only wrong but active agents of Satan who must be opposed and resisted with all force. But it’s not confined to them: some of my atheist friends also see appeasement of any form of religion as weakness and feel the only appropriate response to religion and religious people is ridicule. Anything else wouldn’t be honest…

So, throw into the mix these excellent quotes from Andre Comte-Sponville (thanks to Glenn Weare for these, too!):

“Politeness is the first virtue, and the origin of all the others. It is also the poorest, the most superficial, and the most debatable of the virtues, and possibly something other than a virtue as well.”

“Politeness thus rescues morality from circular causality (without politeness, we would have to be virtuous in order to become virtuous) by creating the conditions necessary for its emergence and even to some extent, its flourishing. The difference between someone who is perfectly polite and someone who is respectful, kindly and modest are infinitesimal; we end up resembling what we imitate, and politeness imperceptibly leads – or can lead – to morality… Every parent knows this; it’s called bringing up one’s children.”

I think perhaps the key to the whole issue of politeness lies in this fragment: “The difference between someone who is perfectly polite and someone who is respectful, kindly and modest are infinitesimal; we end up resembling what we imitate”.

There are a couple of ways of thinking about manners. One is as a code of things to be done or not done in particular situations. In that sense it’s like a book of rules (and perhaps also a social marker, a means to ‘pass’ in ‘polite society’). The other, though, is as the outworking of consideration for others in daily life. Everyone likes to hear ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, to not have people gross them out by speaking with their mouth full, to have their person and (to a lesser extent) their opinion treated with respect, even when there’s disagreement, and so on. As Comte-Sponville notes, someone with impeccable manners does a very good impression of someone who cares about those around them.

I think his point is that the first version of manners, above, can (but does not inevitably) lead to the second. “We become what we imitate”: if we act as though we care about others, some of us end up actually caring about others. The ground is prepared. I’ve talked here before about parenting, and about how this process can be helped along by making the moral foundations of politeness explicit for children: by explaining why, in terms of others’ needs and interests, a particular ‘rule’ of courtesy makes sense.

I’ve also talked here before about Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, and it would be that theory I’d rely on to argue that the ‘book of rules’ approach to politeness is morally inferior to the ‘concern for others’ approach. But it’s possible to go deeper: a concern for others can be motivated by enlightened self-interest (good manners can get me into a better job), by a social contract (if I’m polite to others, they’ll be polite to me) or by a genuine altruistic belief that others are owed respect (for their person if not their beliefs or actions) simply by virtue of being human.

Understanding the underlying moral foundation of politeness is also valuable because it allows better decisions to be made. When a value is known for what it is, it’s possible to make value decisions, to prioritise one value over another intentionally and explicitly… whereas with a book of rules, the only decision available is to obey or break the rule.

I guess one area in which this is useful is the value of politeness (or civility) versus the value of honesty. Is it more important to tell the truth or to be polite? There’s no absolute answer that is correct for all situations: someone who is unable to tell the ‘white lie’ in response to the ‘does my butt look big in this?’ question is in for a world of hurt! But recognising that neither politeness nor a rigid honesty is an absolute position, but rather that both are relative values that can be weighed against one another by their consequences (and this in itself requires a broader moral sense than simple self-interest), leads to better decisions.

That is to say, on both honesty and politeness, knowing something about what they’re for – the underlying moral (ack, that’s a whole other argument, but look to Kohlberg for at least a way in) force of them – we can apply them much better than if we are using a rigid book of rules for a game we don’t really understand.

I think I’d promised elsewhere to look at ‘political correctness’ briefly as well. Hopefully the application is fairly clear already: when ‘political correctness’ is actually the use of inclusive language to avoid implicitly excluding some members of society from speech, then I believe that has value. It’s a shock these days to read books from the 70s where all the pronouns are masculine, and I do think we’re better off with language that includes everyone. I do think we’re better off without the contention by an early religious leader in my church that there’ll be no racism in heaven – because everyone will be white. And so on. But of course, like everything, inclusive language can be captured by small minds and turned into a rule book that is then used in their petty political games. Understanding the underlying purpose is the antidote to that, I’d argue.

3/10/2009

A change of style

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:37 pm

Those who’ve been reading here for a long time have seen this theme before. Just felt like it was time for a change… Feedback welcome of course.

Ardipithecus: Of Fangs and Families

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:23 am

Here’s an excellent article from science writer Carl Zimmer about the publication this week in Science of a lot of findings about ardipithecus ramidus, a hominid creature found in the fossil record and believed to be about 4.4 million years old.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2009/10/01/ardipithecus-we-meet-at-last/

There’s lots of interesting stuff in the article, and I commend it to you (and thank Glenn Weare for pointing it out to me), but I was particularly struck by the paragraph on ‘Nice guys with small teeth’.

Ardipithecus males had small canine teeth, similar to those of the females… as occurs in humans. Other ape species, like baboons, have very large canines in the males, believed to be part of fighting for dominance and mating rights within the troop. The fact that ardipithecus has small canines on males suggests family arrangements more like those in humans, with males cooperating with females to raise the young. There’s far too little evidence to assume this meant mostly monogamous marriages, but it does mean a kind of social development very early indeed in hominid evolution.

One other interesting finding in the article – or at least suggestion – is that rather than humans being descended from chimpanzees (we aren’t), chimpanzees may in fact be an off-shoot from the line that produced humans. (Which basically just takes us back to a ‘common ape-like ancestor’, but has chimps splitting off the line later rather than earlier.)

I guess another side point is that I often get the argument from creationists (including Sue!) “what are the odds of the first male human to evolve and the first female human to evolve both evolving at the same time and then getting together to mate to produce more humans?” It makes me roll my eyes, so it probably makes real evolutionary biologists’ heads explode! It’s based on a heap of false assumptions about how evolution happens. But these results show that our hominid ancestors were not only mating but bringing up children together, long before they were human…

1/10/2009

It’s official – I’m working 18.556% too hard!

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:15 am

Our Faculty has a new-fangled ‘workload calculator’ system that is meant to ensure that everyone does their fair share of work. Which is a good idea. The goal is that each person will work a total of 1800 points worth of work, made up of teaching, research and service, each year.

My points this year? 2134. ;)