Monthly Archives: April 2010

Half-baked ideas

I’m rereading Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth with my daughter and rediscovering what a delight it is. The whimsy and wordplay just get better with time, as the reader returns to the story armed with more vocabulary and experience; and its advice is as sound as ever. Here’s a favorite bit:

“We’re having a special treat today,” said the king as the delicious smells of homemade pastry filled the banquet hall. “By royal command the pastry chefs have worked all night in the half bakery to make sure that — ”

“The half bakery?” questioned Milo.

“Of course, the half bakery,” snapped the king. “Where do you think half-baked ideas come from? Now, please don’t interrupt. By royal command the pastry chefs have worked all night to — ”

“What’s a half-baked idea?” asked Milo again.

“Will you be quiet?” growled Azaz angrily; but, before he could begin again, three large serving carts were wheeled into the hall and everyone jumped up to help himself.

“They’re very tasty,” explained the Humbug, “but they don’t always agree with you. Here’s one that’s very good.” He handed it to Milo and, through the icing and nuts, Milo saw that it said, “THE EARTH IS FLAT.”

“People swallowed that one for years,” commented the Spelling Bee, “but it’s not very popular these days — d-a-y-s.” He picked up a long one that stated “THE MOON IS MADE OF GREEN CHEESE” and hungrily bit off the part that said “CHEESE.” “Now there’s a half-baked idea,” he said, smiling.

Milo looked at the great assortment of cakes, which were being eaten almost as quickly as anyone could read them. The count was munching contentedly on “IT NEVER RAINS BUT IT POURS” and the king was busy slicing one that stated “NIGHT AIR IS BAD AIR.”

“I wouldn’t eat too many of those if I were you,” advised Tock. “They may look good, but you can get terribly sick of them.”

“Don’t worry,” Milo replied; “I’ll just wrap one up for later,” and he folded his napkin around “EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR THE BEST.”

(Image via Gil Kalai’s blog)

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Death by abalone shells, cont’d.

I find it interesting that my rant on librarian stereotypes, “Better than being flayed to death with abalone shells, but still,” has, to date, received the most number of views on my blog. The title, of course, refers to Hypatia: scholar, philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, and — at least according to Carl Sagan — the last caretaker of the Library of Alexandria, whose grisly death at the hands of a Christian mob Sagan recounted in Cosmos.

Well, at long last, it appears that she’s getting her biopic, called Agora:

I’d say it’s about time; other historical figures, even ones from antiquity like Alexander the Great, haven’t had to wait quite this long for their story to make it to the silver screen.

The question of course is: will Hollywood, well, Hollywoodize it? Sagan’s account of Hypatia’s life and death, and his connecting it to the destruction of the Library and the rise of an intolerant Christianity, is an incredibly affecting story, but there are questions as to its historical accuracy, questions that may also pertain to the film. Continue reading

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Savage humanism

Adam Savage, that is. He and Jamie Hyneman, co-hosts of the urban-legend-debunking show MythBusters, have recently been awarded the Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism by the Harvard Secular Society.

His entire speech is marvelous and can be read here. A choice passage:

Prayer doesn’t work because someone out there is listening, it works because someone in here is listening. I’ve paid attention. I’ve pictured what I want to happen in my life. I’ve meditated extensively on my family, my future, my past actions and what did and didn’t work for me about them. I’ve looked hard at problems and thought hard about their solutions.

See, I order my life by the same mechanism that I use to build things. I cannot proceed to move tools around in the real world until my brain has a clear picture in it of what I’m building. The same goes for my life. I’ve tried to pay attention. I’ve tried to picture the way I want things to be, and I’ve noticed that when I had a clear picture, things often turned out the way I wanted them to.

I’ve concluded by this that someone is paying attention — I’ve concluded that it’s me. I’ve noticed that if I’m paying attention to those around me, to myself, to my surroundings, then that is the very definition of empathy. I’ve noticed that when I pay attention, I’m less selfish, I’m happier — and that the inverse holds true as well.

I think one of the defining moments of adulthood is the realization that nobody’s going to take care of you. That you have to do the heavy lifting while you’re here. And when you don’t, well, you suffer the consequences. At least I have. (And in the empirical study I’m performing about interacting with the universe, I am unfortunately the only test subject I have complete access to, so my data is, as they say, self-selected.) While nobody’s going to take care of us, it’s incumbent upon us to take care of those around us. That’s community.

And that, pretty much, is humanism.

I can’t praise MythBusters enough for everything it’s doing to promote a skeptical mindset. I hope it inspires its viewers to apply this kind of thinking not just to weird urban legends and unexamined truisms of conventional wisdom, but to larger and more pervasive social beliefs as well. The show has certainly proven it can be ambitious: Savage, Hyneman and company have taken on the conspiracy theory that the Moon landing was a hoax — setting up elaborate experiments and enlisting the aid of better-equipped scientists to prove the conspiracy claims false. Would they have the guts to take on religion? Continue reading

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Science is real

Here’s science journalist Michael Specter on denialism:

We’ve lost faith in institutions, in authority, and sometimes in science itself, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t have. You can just say a few names and people will understand. Chernobyl, Bhopal, the Challenger, Vioxx, weapons of mass destruction, hanging chads. I mean, you know, you can choose your list. There are questions and problems with the people we used to believe were always right. So be skeptical. Ask questions, demand proof, demand evidence. Don’t take anything for granted. But here’s the thing: When you get proof, you need to accept the proof, and we’re not that good at doing that.

In other words:

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Best environmental anthem ever

From Tim Minchin, my favorite Australian pianist-singer-songwriter-atheist-comedian. Update: Here’s a better-filmed live version.

Another great live performance here.

And the slicked-up music-video version here.

Happy Earth Day!

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Wisdom and foolishness

Our daughter’s sensei is poetry in motion. He tumbles and kicks, gives way and stands unmovable, turns his opponents’ power against themselves, flashes his fists at the speed of thought. He exhibits absolute control of the kinetic forces within and around him: an exaltation of what a body and mind at one can do.

His students gather round him, little ninjas with awe and ambition in their eyes, as he dispenses unimpeachable wisdom: Obstacles are often only so in your mind. Don’t defeat yourself before you even make the attempt. Tell yourself you can, and you will — or at least feel no shame in failure, having tried your best. Girls can do anything boys can do. “I am a perfect child, in a perfect place, in a perfect time.” (Perhaps not “perfect” literally, not in so many ways — the perfect is the enemy of the good, after all — but these are effective confidence-boosters, a way of centering yourself, of reminding yourself of your own power and possibilities.)

But later, in casual conversation, he tells me about the significance of certain numbers in his particular spirituality, and how 2012 will be a mystical time of transformation, and how the planets are lining up to change human consciousness forever, and how we’re already seeing this in how much more aware and mature children are today than during our own childhoods. These are not new discoveries, he assures me; this is timeless knowledge, as old as humanity, and we are just reawakening ourselves to its truth.

Um… okay.

We are all, I suppose, a mix of the rational and the irrational. What an uphill battle reason has fought, and continues to fight: not just historically, not just between discrete groups of the enlightened and the benighted, but here and now — and within ourselves.

(Photo credit: Tomasz Niepsuj, via MINORITYmaN)

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Can science answer moral questions? cont’d.

Here’s PZ Myers’s take on the issue:

Can science provide a morality to change the world?


Science merely describes what is, not what should be, and it also takes a rather universal view: science as science takes no sides on matters relevant to a particular species, and would not say that an ape is more important than a mouse is more important than a rock. Don’t ask science to tell you what to do when making some fine-grained moral decision, because that is not what science is good at.

What science is, is a policeman of the truth. What it’s very good at is telling you when a moral decision is being made badly, in opposition to the facts. If you try to claim that homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural, science can provide you a long list of animals that practice homosexuality freely, naturally, and with no ill consequences. If you try to claim that abortion is bad because it has horrible physiological consequences to pregnant women, science will provide you with the evidence that it does no such thing, and also that childbirth is far more physiologically debilitating.


However, I would suggest that science would also concede that we as a species ought to support a particular moral philosophy, not because it is objectively superior, but because it is subjectively the proper emphasis of humanity…and that philosophy is humanism. In the same way, of course, we’d also suggest that cephalopods would ideally follow the precepts of cephalopodism.

So don’t look to science for a moral philosophy: look to humanism. Humanism says that we should strive to maximize the long-term welfare and happiness of humans; that we should look to ourselves, not to imaginary beings in the sky or to the imperatives written down in old books, to aspire to something better, something more coherent and successful at promoting our existence on the planet.


How will we motivate people, and with what moral paradigm to change the world?

As I’ve said repeatedly, science doesn’t provide a morality. What it does provide, and what I optimistically and subjectively think will motivate people, is that it provides rigor and a path to the truth of the world. I know, I could be cynical and suggest that what people really want is delusions, distractions, and reassurances to help them hide away from reality — but what I’ve noticed is that people who accept reality seem to be better able to deal with it, and are often happier and more content. And further, they are better prepared to change the actual world, rather than burying themselves deeper in their fantasies.

In the comments, Myers adds that he’s intrigued but not entirely convinced by Sam Harris’s argument that science can provide a moral framework; he’ll wait to read Harris’s forthcoming book (which I look forward to as well). But he does see science as, at the very least, a matchless tool for helping us arrive at better moral answers. Interesting that he puts the emphasis on humanism as the ideal moral philosophy. I don’t disagree, but after having read Tim Ferris’s exploration of the intimate connection between science and liberal values, I’m willing to seriously entertain the idea that the social and intellectual conditions demanded by scientific inquiry foster many of the principles that humanists cherish. Or am I confusing the chicken and the egg? Food for thought.

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