Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas in US less and less for Christians

Self-identified Christians, according to Gallup, are now down to just 78 percent of adults. Related to that, religious belief is losing its importance for a greater number of Americans.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Anti-depressants beat CBT on personality help

I'm not a fan or touter of Big Pharma, nor do I denigrate talk therapy.

But, it seems that SSRI antidepressants are better than cognitive therapy in lowering neuroticism and raising extraversion in depressed people. CBT helps make changes there, too, but the changes are neither as profound nor as lasting as with medication.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Dead salmon, live MRI

A salmon showed human-type emotional responses to stimuli, when its brain was subject to functional magnetic resonance image scanning.

Just one problem: the salmon was dead.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

One gesture worth 1,000words on language evolution

Chimpanzee gestural control is left-brain-centric, shedding new light on the evolution of human language, since it is also largely localized in the left hemisphere.
“The de­gree of predom­i­nance of the right hand for ges­tures is one of the most pro­nounced we have ev­er found in chim­panzees in com­par­i­son to oth­er non-com­mu­nica­tive man­u­al ac­tions. We al­ready found such man­u­al bi­ases in this spe­cies for point­ing ges­tures ex­clu­sively di­rect­ed to hu­mans. These ad­di­tion­al da­ta clearly showed that right-hand­edness for ges­tures is not spe­cif­ic­ally as­so­ci­at­ed to interac­tions with hu­mans,” William D. Hop­kins said.

Read the full story for more information.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Woman sees 'iron Jesus'

A Massachusetts woman who recently separated from her husband and had her hours cut at work says an image of Jesus Christ she sees on her iron has reassured her that “life is going to be good.”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

American religious allegiances diversify, jumble

Among the new findings of the National Opinion Research Center, Americans are in an illogical jumble:
Nonetheless, belief in God has slipped a little, and more Americans, though still believing, acknowledge some uncertainty about God’s existence. A growing number of Americans no longer identify themselves with any particular religious group. Those who do belong are less likely to say they are strong members. Regular attendance at religious services has declined, and the numbers never worshiping have increased.

Yet more Americans believe in a life after death and pray daily than in the 1970s. And to complicate things, most of these trends have had their ups and downs, leaving open the possibility of future spurts or reversals.

The NORC also claims there's only a weak correlation between science knowledge/study and irreligion:
“In sum,” the report says, “the proposition that science leads people in general and scientists in particular away from religion is only weakly supported by the available evidence.”

Problem here, though. It appears the study did NOT differentiate between Ph.D. scientists and those at a lower level. Many, many other studies have indicated Ph.D. achievement DOES correlate pretty strongly with lessened religious belief.

In other interesting findings, in post-Communist Eastern Europe, belief levels are dramatically different from country to country.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

AI, computers, minds, algorithms, evolution, Dennett

If even artificial intelligence advocates have largely abandoned the idea that AI is ultimately algorithmic, it’s time to question a lot of related assumptions, some of which I already have.

First, the human mind, then, is clearly not algorithmic. And, it’s likely even less algorithmic than a computer.

Second, being “kludged” together by evolution, it’s most surely not a black box, like a modern software program, routine, or subroutine.

Third, running off that point, contra Dan Dennett, evolution is most assuredly not algorithmic, either, as I’ve said before.

Fourth, the Turing test, as stipulated by Alan Turing himself, was NOT about whether a machine could think, but about whether a machine could simulate thinking. In other words, in modern philosophy terminology, Turing was a functionalist, as is Dennett (on this issue, at least), even as he continues to deny it.

Anyway, read the full story linked above.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A serious look at anxiety

The NYTimes mag has a long story, focused on the work of Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, of much of our current knowledge about anxiety.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Strad by other means still sounds as sweet

A modern violin, specially treated with a fungus solution, beat a Stradivarius in a blind test.

This ought to drive down violin, and violin insurance, costs.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Has ‘false memory syndrome’ been proven or not?

People like Elizabeth Loftus claim ‘repressed memories’ simply don’t exist.

Their existence is again being challenged in court.

But, Ms. Loftus isn’t totally credible on the subject.

She was knocked out of being an expert witness Scooter Libby’s trial over the Valerie Plame CIA leak.

Why? In part because Judge Reggie Walton ruled that jurors should be able to decide for themselves on the reliability of a particular person’s memory without Scooter using Loftus as an expert witness precisely to make himself look more fallible.

But, during a hearing before Walton’s ruling, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald gave Loftus a once, and twice over.

And? He “picked apart the psychologist's testimony until she acknowledged errors and misstatements in her findings.”

That included admitting that some of her own findings were unscientific. Specifically:
Fitzgerald got Loftus to acknowledge that the methodology she had used at times in her long academic career was not that scientific, that her conclusions about memory were conflicting, and that she had exaggerated a figure and a statement from her survey of D.C. jurors that favored the defense.


Now, I don’t view this as a sudden victory for touters of repressed memories. I do see it as a caveat that EVERY expert in the social sciences may be whistling in the dark at times.

We might have a way to test the idea further, and scientifically. The brain shows similar activity patterns even when details of an event can’t be recalled.

At the same time, showing how malleable memory is, a false video can affect real memory.

‘God is not dead; he never was alive in the first place’

And, with that quote, Richard Dawkins demolishes Karen Armstrong, and the title of her forthcoming book, “The Case for God.”

Armstrong dips back into the world of 2,000 years ago, a la Joseph Campbell, to talk about two ways of knowing, “mythos” and “logos.”

Well, myths aren’t another way of knowing truth. They may be another way of hiding from it, but that’s a different story.

As for today, and her claim that everybody but fundamentalists accepts evolution?

Yes, theistic evolutionists can weigh in all they want, but their theistic tinkerer is just an updated version of “the god of the gaps,” and, somewhere in their minds, if they’re reflective and honest, they know it.

That said, this review of the forthcoming “Creation” is likely typical in glossing over that bottom line, with the “no conflict between religion and evolution” statement.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Conditional-love parenting has its fallouts

Showing Dr. Phil and others, who oppose Carl Rogers’ ideas, quite wrong, studies show that conditional-love parenting produces, in essence, conditional self-esteem in children.

New info on the whys of the Y chromosome

The way it divides during cell division is a major factor in a number of sex-related syndromes and conditions.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The placebo effect strengthens

Some would-be new antidepressants can't get to market because they can't pass
clinical trials. They can't pass clinical trials because the placebo effect is
getting stronger.

No, it's not less effective drugs, and it's not just anti-Ds or anxiety drugs,
either. Non-psychotropics are having the same problem in a few instances, and
it's clear that, yes, the placebo effect is getting stronger.

And, that it varies in different parts of the U.S., and in different parts of
the world. And, that beyond just being given a pill, things like pill dosage
frequency and even COLOR of the pill are causative factors.

The full story is here.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Online science has old science ethics

At least in medicine. The percentage of ghostwriting is as bad in Public Library of Science, held up as a model of open, collaborative online science publishing, as it is in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

This ultimate farce - life

Inspired by a friend of mine mentioning "the ultimate farce" on an e-mail group, I got the poetic juices flowing, with those five syllables being the right length for a line of haiku. And, extended haiku is one of my favorite poetic styles, so here goes:

This ultimate farce
Indeed full of sound and fury
Signifies nothing.

A loud, vacuous
Sound and fury of breaking wind;
Cosmic flatulence.

Fart away yourselves;
Become attuned to this world —
Flaccid reality.

Others will not laugh
At your reverberation
Of the cosmic joke?

They have imprisoned
Their child selves in joylessness
And so they suffer.

If we cannot laugh
At the cosmic joke, we will
Cry ’til stone cold dead.

— September 9, 2009

Monday, August 31, 2009

It ain’t just men who are serial monogamists

In the latest blow, of many, to Pop Evolutionary Psychology, it turns out that some women marry multiple husbands serially. That’s in societies with fairly equitable power distribution.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The little boxes of life

Thinking about moving, going to a new job, but within the same career path, my post on David Brooks’ new column about America’s “advantages” over other Western countries having its price, and, lo and behold, an e-mail from a friend sums this up well. From that e-mail …

Not my poem, but the song that used to intro the HBO series “Weeds.” Malvina Reynolds wrote it in 1962:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,1
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

YouTube link here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

More doubt on Francis Collins as NIH chief

Francis Collins, President Obama’s nomination to head the National Institutes of Health, has already drawn skepticism NOT for being religious, but for being an evangelical Protestant of, if not conservative, no more than moderate stances on some metaphysical issues.

Now, he’s riffing Steve Gould and the non-conflicting magisteria idea to claim no conflict between science and religion. That said, he puts morals explicitly in the religious magisterium.

Now, throwing out the excesses of Pop Evolutionary Psychology, true ev psych and related fields like ethology have shed light on the evolutionary development not just of individual morals, but of a moral system, i.e., ethics.

Michael Gerson tries this explainer:
For Collins, modern science and Christianity are not competing answers to the same question; they are ways of thinking about two very different sets of questions, both of which should be taken seriously.

Not true in several ways. As noted above, they still today, as they have in the past, often think about the same questions. With strongly different answers. With scientific answers subject to empirical scientific research.

The “two magisteria” is just an updated, schmaltzy version of the “god of the gaps” idea.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Celebrity deaths, nostalgia, fallacious reasoning

The old folk saying about “it happens in threes” often gets applied to celebrity deaths. Well, today it’s true. After Ed McMahon’s death earlier this week, then Farah Fawcett’s expected passing
and Michael Jackson’s surprise death is the third.

All three mean something.

First, with Farrah, I’m the right age that she was pin-up material when I was in junior high school. And Charlie’s Angels was definitely watchable.

Michael Jackson? Thriller broke out when I was in college; that part of Jackson, before he plunged into the drained shallow end of the pool of weirdness, means nostalgia.

So, too, does Ed. Nostalgia for the “simpler time” of America, the time of my parents more than myself.

At the same time, per my own self and people like Bob Carroll at Skeptic’s Dictionary, the “this happens in threes” is nothing more than an illustration of the bulls-eye fallacy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

World’s earliest known flute found

Beyond the age a 35,000-year-old treasure, this find in Germany raises other questions of music and human development.

For example, I’ve always figured a flute of some sort was the world’s first wind instrument, and probably the world’s first tuned instrument, followed by the first oboe-like instrument when a papyrus flute, softened enough by saliva at the top, because a double-reed wind instrument.

But, there is another instrument, and other aspects to music besides pitch.

Like rhythm.

This raises the question of what the first musical instrument man invented was. Drums are still likeliest, but rocks, logs, or bones as rhythm instruments are indistinguishable from rocks, logs or bones in and of themselves.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Neither Islam NOR Xianity NOR Judaism is ‘religion of peace’

Andrew Sullivan, whose internal and geo-politics must be called neo-Sulllivan, got that one wrong in his Iran live-blogging round-up.

Point is, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, all three are neither “religions of war” or “religions of peace.”

Beyond finding admonitions to both war and peace in the Quran, we can do the same in the other two world religions.

The Tanakh has Isaiah talking about “bending swords into plowshares,” but another prophet later talks about “bending plowshares into swords.” Per a quote by Jesus, the temple is allegedly a “house for all nations,” but, earlier, King Saul is told to till all the Amalekites — men, women, children and even livestock.

In the Christian New Testament, Jesus, in one Gospel, tells Peter to put his sword away at the Garden of Gethsemane, after he cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest. But, earlier in that same account, he asked his disciples how many swords they had.

Elsewhere, he tells his listeners, “I came not to bring peace but division.”

And, as Islam had its jihad, Christianity had its crusades and ancient Israel had its Ha’Aretz Yisrael.

Bottom line?

They simply are religions, the youngest of them 1,500 years old, all coming from tribalist roots whose values systems almost make Pop Evolutionary Psychology sound true.

And they, and their Kool-Aid drinkers, label them as “religions of peace” as needed for external public relations, while not-insignificant minorities in all three push the “religions of war” side externally against the other two, or internally about their own “crusades” for “religious corporate communications,” also as needed.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Single gene-depression link refuted

The original 2003 study claiming a single gene had a lot of responsibility for depression has been iffy for some time, now, but further research says it definitely doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

On the “popular front” level, what does this mean?

Well, several popular Americanisms (some of them not just pop-level but held by a certain segment of scientists) get the kibosh.

1. A hypermechanistic, technological view of medicine, with quick fixes either here today or just around the corner.
2. Something that’s already been on the ropes over other issues, the one-gene, one-behavior theory, gets another good, swift kick. (That’s at the scientific as well as pop level.)
3. A simplistic view of life in general held by most Americans hand in hand with American exceptionalism. There are no easy solutions to most mental health issues, and, perhaps that’s why, in the U.S., depression is on the rise.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Very inspiring classical music news

In very inspiring news from the classical music world, a blind pianist has, for the first time ever, a blind pianist has won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, arguably the world's top such event.

That said, contrary to WRR-FM blogger and former Fort Worth Star-Telegram classical critic Matt Erickson, Dallas Morning News classical critic Scott Cantrell has, for the first time ever, “lost” me, claiming co-winner Nobuyuki Tsujii might not have won if he weren’t blind.

But, the Cliburn is about potential, too, as the judges see that, and Scott knows that. And, novelty, as Scott put it, may play to the good in the long run.

That all said, co-winner Haochen Zhang of China is clearly the real deal.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Monday, June 01, 2009

OAKENTREE ALPENGLOW

Near sunset, during a walk,
The summer-ripened oak trees stood tall and proud,
And golden at top, like mountains
Bathed in end-of-day alpenglow.
No montane heights in flatland Texas
But those in the recesses of memory,
As the sight of warm-glowing treetops
Brought to mind images of Montana and Alberta
Vacation memories of glacial-carved peaks
Embracing, caressing, the near-twilight summer aura
As another long, well-laden day
Faded golden, then orange, then salmon.
Then back to today’s Texas oaken-glow,
As reverie faded to reality
And I focused on a walk
With an alpen-spring in my steps.

– May 31, 2009

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Atheism no guarantee of rationality or critical thinking

And, presumably by an anti-abortion fanatic. Tiller, the Wichita, Kan., doctor known for being the only one in the state to provide late-term abortions was killed at his church Sunday; a suspect has been arrested.

At the often-lively blog of evolutionary biologist and atheist P.Z. Myers, his thread on the murder earlier today of late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller offers yet more proof of that fact.

I’ve seen false dilemmas, unexcluded middles, ad hominem arguments, simply unsupported arguments, non sequiturs and more there in just an hour’s time.

I’ve blogged before about “village idiot atheism,” the type of atheism that lives only to poke a finger in the eye of theists whenever it can, and this is a prime example.

Strange Gods and Holbach are two of the most offending posters there

Strange Gods that any opposition to atheism must be supernatural is guaranteed not to win support. He then makes that as a specific allegation against Nat Hentoff, an openly proclaimed atheist.

Holbach (like his namesake French baron), has such a virulent, even vicious, anti-religion stance it hugely warps his thinking. (Holbach refused to accept religiously-themed classical music as worth listening to.)

In this thread, he claims that any opposition to abortion (no caveats) must either be emotion or religion. There’s both your unexcluded middle and your false dilemma. He then defines religion itself as ultimately being a form of religion, showing he’s never read Wittgenstein. (He, Strange Gods, and one or two others like to be Humpty-Dumpty with language.)

I’m surprised a few of the commenters there haven’t said it’s no surprise Tiller was shot, if he insisted on still being a Christian himself.

In short, as I’ve blogged before, there’s atheism, and there’s village idiot atheism.

Dr. George Tiller killed – Hate crime? Terrorism?

And, presumably by an anti-abortion fanatic. Tiller, the Wichita, Kan., doctor known for being the only one in the state to provide late-term abortions was killed at his church Sunday; a suspect has been arrested.

Especially if that suspect was a member of a group like Operation Rescue, or worse, but to some degree even if he is a lone operator, the two rhetorical question words in this post’s header do have at least some degree of truth.

If he IS affiliated with a group like Operation Rescue, the state of Kansas had BETTER use RICO powers in the trial.

Meanwhile, at the often-lively blog of evolutionary biologist and atheist P.Z. Myers, the thread on this subject offers yet more proof that atheism, sadly, is no guarantee of either logical or critical reasoning skills.

And, the nutbarrery of claiming that any opposition to atheism must be supernatural is guaranteed not to win support.

I’m surprised a few of the commenters there (Strange Gods, for one) haven’t said it’s no surprise Tiller was shot, if he insisted on still being a Christian himself. SG and others, such as Holbach (like his namesake French baron), have such a virulent, even vicious, anti-religion stance it hugely warps their thinking. (Holbach refused to accept religiously-themed classical music as worth listening to.)

In short, as I’ve blogged before, there’s atheism, and there’s village idiot atheism.

WAXING SCIENCE, WANING RELIGION

The slimmest clarion of new crescent moon
Strives against being horizonally swallowed
By a modern, urbanized mix
Of haze, smog, high-rise skyline and near-solstice summer sunset.
A totem of a more simplistic time
(Whether simple or not)
When times were measured by moons
Along with sacrifices and other aspects of worship
As the stench of old, dried, burnt blood
Coated stones, steles, tabernacles and temples;
Nasty, brutish, short and simplistic, even if not simple.
Nor bygone.
Yet today several million lobster loathers,
And a billion followers of an illiterate itinerant peddler,
Mark their calendars by that same crescent,
While well more than a billion adherents
Of a dead rebel Jew they cluelessly deify
Mark his death by that same lunar orb.
What would Earth by like without that Moon?
No science of Galileo and Apollo landings,
But no madness of Middle Eastern myths.

— May 31, 2009

Sunday, May 24, 2009

When poets attack

Wow, backdoor e-mails over sexual harassment charges and more in the contest to be elected Britain’s top poet. Never get in an argument with someone who prints sonnets by the barrelful, eh?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Praying mom convicted of daughter’s homicide

Leilani Neumann knew her daughter had child-onset diabetes.

So, when Madeline went into a diabetic coma, she did what?

She kept praying, that’s what. Only after Madeline stopped breathing, did Leilani and her prayer partners call 911.

The state of Wisconsin rightly charged her with something much more serious than “child endangerment.” And, yesterday, needing just four hours’ deliberation, a jury agreed, finding her guilty of second-degree reckless homicide.

Contra her attorney and her stepfather, Leilani Neumann is a religious extremist, with beliefs countered by reported words of Jesus himself.

Her husband, Dale, goes to trial on the same charge in July; no word on when Leilani gets sentenced.

Assuming her husband is also convicted, I hope the state of Wisconsin also has the smarts to fight her stepfather (and mother?) becoming the custodian of her three still-living children.

Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who have need of a doctor, but the sick.” (Luke 5:31 and parallels.) He clearly was endorsing the idea for proper medical care.

I hope other states, with similar cases, have district attorneys who get serious about filing serious charges.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Biggest NFL drug problem

It’s called alcohol, just as it is in society in general. The NFL is working with Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

Of course, MADD in recent years has done what about any national advocacy group of large and growing size does. To raise additional funds from the public, it’s expanded its range. In MADD’s case, that means getting close to becoming neo-prohibitionist.

And, the NFL ain’t gonna do that. As the story notes, in 2005, Coors paid the league $500 million to remain the NFL’s official beer through 2010. That alone would pay the salary of 100 Donté Stallworths over that time.

I recommend instead that the NFL work with a non-12 step recovery organization called Lifering Secular Recovery.

Monday, May 18, 2009

THE COLORADO PLATEAU AT 30,000 FEET

Red rock hardpan
Sliced and slashed by canyons innumerate,
Dissected while desiccate —
A pulsing, beating, sun-engorged and throbbing
Red rock expanse,
Seen from six miles up.
Home to vacations, hikes and escapes,
Is far more sterile and lifeless in appearance,
Than when booted feet
Threading trails through cryptobiotic soil
Tread circular routes to nowhere, everywhere,
And all points in between,
Then back to nowhere again.

Steve Snyder
May 17, 2009

Sunday, May 17, 2009

THE TRUE ORIGINAL SIN

Eat, sleep, defecate.
If you’re lucky, have a little fornicate.
In times between, do a little work
For a little bit of money
To afford the food to eat,
And the place to sleep,
And a spot to defecate the food you eat,
And a room for a lucky little fornicate.
Maybe develop some hobbies, and interests,
Work harder, make some money for “fun.”
If you fornicate long enough and often enough,
And luckily, or unluckily, enough,
Have some kids.
Work harder to earn money for them.
Lather, rinse, and repeast.
As your hair gets gray, your face wrinkles, and your muscles sag,
While rich people with more and better shampoo try to hide this,
Life moves on.
Then, one day, go to a poetic “sleep eternal,”
Even though there’s no “you” to know it’s “eternal.”
Finally, the true original sin, the curse of consciousness,
Is removed.

Steve Snyder
May 17, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Monkey do bad, monkey do different

Monkeys, not even non-human primates, can learn from their mistakes.

Time to further adjust the bar on learning and other issues that do NOT differentiate H. sapiens from “mere animals.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

George Vaillant 42 years later

George Vaillant, a psychology professor at Harvard, inherited what was then the Grant Project. Under Vaillant’s hands, it became the largest- and longest-ever longitudinal study of human psychology.

Atlantic Monthly has an update on Vaillant’s work after 42 years.

Although not planned as such, the survey has many invaluable spinoffs, including seeing how manic-depressive or bipolar illness was eventually distinguished from schizophrenia, the state of development in psychology in general, information on human happiness and its whys, and more.

The more includes it becoming an invaluable longitudinal source on drug and alcohol addiction and recovery.

Apropos of that and other things, the Atlantic story has a couple of good rhetorical questions:
Can the good life be accounted for with a set of rules? Can we even say who has a “good life” in any broad way?

Probably not, unless, riffing on Thomas Szasz, we rely on groupthink societal definitions of what the “good life” is. Or, what “happiness” is, for that matter.

That said, Vaillant himself developed some intriguing findings about “positive” emotions:
In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

I will vouch for that indeed.

Of course, so could Vaillant.

He got married three times, and after six years with Wife No. 3, went back to Wife No. 2.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

An autism gene! ? ! ?

No, there’s not just one, or even close to it, but the discovery of the first autism genetic link is huge, huge, huge!

First, even though it’s only common to about 15 percent of purported autism cases, it will improve diagnosis. That includes lessening MISdiagnosis.

And that, with today’s autism hysteria, is far and away from a small issue.

As I’ve blogged before, it’s quite possible a change in psychiatry’s bible, the DSM, basically “invented” Asperger’s syndrome, by changing “schizoid disorder of childhood” in DSM-III to Asperger’s in DSM-IV. Then, if Asperger’s has been “updiagnosed” to autism, especially by alt/pseudomedical practitioners seeking to sell a cure, there’s part, at least of your “autism” explosion. Finding this gene, if it holds up, and even more, if others are found, will combat such things.

Second, speaking of autism hysteria, an autism gene shoves conspiracy mongering, anti-medicine inanity, etc., right in the face of the anti-vaccine crowd.

Third, as the mutation affects nerve synapses, it would seem to be the “right,” explanatorily speaking, kind of mutation.

Now, that all said, this genetic mutation is not at all exclusive to people with autism.

And, this may be a blind alley. I’m thinking this could be a primo example of why medical research needs to tighten the incredible looseness of its p-values. No, not to the same as physics. Of course not. But, even a p-value of 3 percent, instead of 5 percent, would exclude semi-bad medical research while being highly unlikely to delay any lifesaving findings.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Atheist visibility increases

Even to the point that Dallas’ own Metroplex Atheists gets profiled as part of National Journal’s cover story (PDF).

It’s part of a trend of such stories, as the New York Times also exemplifies.

Key to atheists, agnostics, antitheists and other secular humanists raising our activism profile is a new umbrella coalition of secular humanist groups, Secular Coalition of America.

As the National Journal story notes, it's the rise of New Atheists like Chris Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett contributing to this surge, not just in the U.S., but other English-speaking countries, too.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

'Village idiot atheism' rears its head

Or at least seems to, at P.Z. Myers' Pharyngula blog.

"Holbach" is an artistic philistine who dismisses the artistic value of anything created for religious reasons.

"Eddie," though I'm not sure he's an atheist, appears to have some sort of academic-PC-"liberalism" viewing religion as "oppression," perhaps aided by either a tinfoil hat or a brain fried on drugs at some point.

Neither of them is that logical in reasoning and both make hugely empirically unjustified assumptions to boot. All while not reading all the comments of people responding to them, i.e., mine.

More on "Holbach." He assumes that, because I mentioned having a divinity degree, I'm a theist. He never asked whether he wasn't making an unwarranted assumption. He's apparently never heard of people not using professional degrees, or within ministers-turned-atheists, the likes of a John Loftus writing a book about it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

When theists settle a will with an antitheist

When my dad died four years ago, most of his cash money had already been moved into CDs on which we his kids, or grandkids, were the primary names and his the secondary. No problems at all.

And, there wasn’t too much fighting over most of Dad’s possessions.

That said, Dad also had a couple of insurance annuities that had not yet matured when he died. One did, late last year.

My No. 2 brother, who was/is Dad’s estate executor, thought it would be a good idea to send this money to charity.

OK so far.

To India. OK indeed. A developing nation.

To an orphanage and school. Sure.

A Lutheran one, from the denomination in which we all grew up.

Well, yes, dad had supported it himself for years, but.. he’s dead.

Find a secular Indian orphanage.

But, I think my sister is the only one of the four siblings who really “accepts” my antitheism. And, I didn’t want to make waves. The story of my life, oftentimes.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

America inching toward secular openness; so?

We certainly have a long ways to go, but the 16 percent of Americans who self-identify as irreligious certainly sounds good, right?

Well, not necessarily. While it may mean a decline in power of fundamentalist Christianity, it doesn’t necessarily mean a decline in ignorance, especially ignorance of scientific matters.

Many of those “irreligious” also self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Some would be quasi-Christian unitarians. (I avoid the capital “U” because many of them would not agree with the denomination’s social stances.) Even more are likely New Agers of some sort, not known for scientific-type critical reasoning skills by any means.

So, those of us who do support critical thinking shouldn’t yet read too much into the idea of a “post-Christian America.” That country could be even more populated than ours is today by psychics, ghost talkers, alt-med practitioners and worse.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Paul, Passover, Jesus, Gnosticism

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul gives us the first extant written account of the Lord’s Supper.

He starts with the well-known phrase, “On the night our Lord Jesus was betrayed…”

But, “betrayed” may well not be the right translation.

Many Greek verbs have three voices — the active and passive ones we know in English, and a “middle” voice, a sort of reflexive voice.

Now, the Greek verb αποδιδωμι looks the same in middle and passive voice. But, it has different meanings.

In the passive, it does mean “betray.” But, in the middle, it normally means “hand over,” as in hand over someone to authorities. A similar meaning is “hand up.”

Critical New Testament scholarship believe this is what Paul means. He never, in the epistles he clearly wrote, talks about a Passion Plot, a Roman arrest, or the melodramatic literary angle of a turncoat named Judas.

That gets us to the first “pseudo-Paul.” In addition to it being quite certain that Paul never wrote the “Pastoral Epistles” of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus, which weren’t written until the end of the first century CE, or even early in the second, an earlier pseudo-Paul (or two) is believed to have written Colossians and Ephesians. Relations between these two books are unclear, but both likely were written no later than 30 years after Paul’s genuine books, by someone closer to the Pauline mileau than the Pastoralist of another 20-40 years later.

Well, both Colossians and Ephesians discuss what can certainly be called “esoterica,” whether they are talking about issues that can clearly be labeled Gnostic or not.

In Colossians 2:20, “Paul” tells his readers, “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world….” The word in Greek, στοιχειον, is a word with plenty of use in Gnosticism, although it has plenty of pre-Gnostic use as well. As an “elemental principle,” it can be understood as a stage to be overcome by the Gnostic initiate’s battle to return to the All.

So, tying Colossians and 1 Corinthans, did Paul mean that Jesus was actually “handed up” to the “elemental powers”? In other words rather than the soteriology of the Pastoral Epistles, themselves connected with similar soteriology stances of dying-and-rising eastern Mediterranean savior gods, was Paul instead talking about Jesus as a sacrifice to Gnostic powers?

It seems likely. Mystery religions, after all, we know had their own mystery-fellowship dinners, from which it is believed Paul borrowed ideas that he fused into Passover concepts to produce his “Last Supper.”

If that’s the case, the genuine Paul was more a proto-Gnostic than later followers, let alone conservative Christians today, might want to accept.

Also, if that’s the case, pseudo-Paul of Colossians either didn’t understand the genuine article that well, or else thought that others’ interpretation of him had gone too far, or else did understand him well and deliberately reinterpreted him.

How, then, did we get to Mark, the first gospeller, creating the "betrayal" story?

A combination of misreading Paul plus creative reading of the Old Testament, namely something like Psalm 69:22-28, and Psalm 109:6-12.

Peter allegedly took these verses that way in Acts 1.

In Gnostic and semi-Gnostic Christianity, the idea of Judas as Jesus' twin, as in Judas Thomas (Aramaic for "twin") certainly added to Gnosticizing takes on the idea of Jesus' betrayal.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

A reply to 'Invictus'

Am I indeed the captain of my soul?
I find it hard to believe that is so.
Translating the individual “I”
To the global core of humanity
I think that it’s well-nigh impossible.
The individual human psyche,
Convoluted and self-referential,
Means the “I” is not quite that simple.
As for that “master” subroutine inside,
The one that supposedly masters “I”?
The king always faces peasant revolts.
If not that, a master can go haywire.
And, when that happens, then who masters it?
– April 2, 2009

INVICTUS, by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bible study – Jesus was anti-capitalist

OK, in a previous Bible study, I said Jesus was clearly a socialist, not a capitalist.

But, Luke 16 takes it further; middle management gets the green light to cheat the “owners of the means of production.” Verses 1-9 have the details:
1Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2So he called him in and asked him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.'

3"The manager said to himself, 'What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I'm not strong enough to dig, and I'm ashamed to beg— 4I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.'

5"So he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'

6" 'Eight hundred gallons[a] of olive oil,' he replied.
"The manager told him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.'

7"Then he asked the second, 'And how much do you owe?'
" 'A thousand bushels[b] of wheat,' he replied.
"He told him, 'Take your bill and make it eight hundred.'

8"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

But then (assuming there was an actual Jesus and these were, approximately, his actual words, some “law and order” editor, now called “Luke,” has to go spoil the whole parable, in verses 10-15:
10"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?

13"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."

14The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.

Sorry, but Jesus the anti-capitalist didn’t say that at all.

Instead, let’s say you’re working for EDS as a middle manager. You electronically pencil-whip a bunch of doctors’ and clinics’ Medicare billings. In exchange, you get free plastic surgery for life, including a new boob job for that blonde bimbo you’re cheating on your wife with.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Brains pushing the envelope

Not some particular brains, but all brains. Our dura matter operates “on the edge of chaos, new studies show. And the results have some interesting self-organizational fallout.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Music IS the universal language

Turns out sub-Saharan Africans can pick out the likely emotional state reflected by particular items of Western music, even people who may never have heard such music on a radio before.

That said:
1. The study is small;
2. I’m not sure of the p-value;
3. I’m pretty sure that they weren’t asked to listen to Schoenberg or even more avant-garde items.

Bible study – Jesus was a SOCIALIST! (I think)J

No, don’t let the success theologians, or the fundamentalists and others who are willfully wedded at the hip to the GOP, tell you Jesus is a capitalist.

Beyond the fact that capitalism as we know it today didn’t exist 2,000 years ago, the bible clearly shows us Jesus is a socialist. Or even a communist, for doorknob’s sake!

Matthew 20:1-16 clearly shows that:
1"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3"About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' 5So they went.

"He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'

7" 'Because no one has hired us,' they answered.
"He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'

8"When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'

9"The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'

13"But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'

16"So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

While Jesus doesn’t use Marx’s phrase, it’s arguable that Jesus had some version of “each according to his needs” in mind.

On the other hand, it’s arguable that he was an unregulated Gilded Age capitalist. If he says he has the right to pay whatever he wants, he obviously doesn’t believe in a minimum wage. By rebuking one of the early workers, he clearly doesn’t believe in unionism.

By hiring day laborers in the marketplace, he probably does believe in exploiting labor. Would probably have been OK with unrestricted illegal immigration by the Nabatean Arabs into Roman Palestine.

It’s certainly NOT arguable, though, in reference to the success theologians, that trying to make modern economic arguments and justifications from the bible is almost as inane as trying to do that by ID/creationism.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Religion-based abstinence-only sex-ed fails in Texas – my take

From my March 12 newspaper column:

If politics and religion are the two verboten conversation topics, then, on an editorial page, perhaps “sex education” is the third rail. But, I’m going to go ahead and grab it with both hands and, I hope, provoke some thought.

What brought this to mind is a two-year study, sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network and done by two health education professors from Texas State University, released late last month.

In a nutshell, the study documents the many failures of abstinence-only sex education in Texas public schools.

When male students are worried about getting cervical cancer and the state hasn’t dented one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, it’s obvious what’s being taught now isn’t working.

Among the findings?

First, about 98 percent of public school students get abstinence-only sex education. For most of these students, talk about sexual abstinence itself may be the only sex education they get inside schools. Second, more than 80 percent of school districts receive no formal recommendations on sex education from state-mandated local advisory councils.

Third, information presented beyond “just say no” is often just wrong. Here in the Metroplex, Hurst-Euless-Bedford’s eighth-grade curriculum claims condoms have only about an 80 percent reliability rate. Actual fact? They’re about 97-98 percent reliable. HEB officials claim they don’t know where they got their info, but it’s hard for me not to agree with the Texas Freedom Network some scare tactics started this.

Another alleged “fact” that is wrong? Many schools’ sex education programs still claim that HIV can be transmitted through sweat or tears. Nope. Various curricula also get information about the prevention of transmitting other sexually-related diseases incorrect.
Fourth is the attempted inculcation of particular values, some of which seem to be grounded in Christianity, or even particular versions of Christianity.

For example, the report says one abstinence-only program used in 53 school districts says women need “financial support,” while men need “domestic support.” Sounds kind of sexist to me, and based on what many people might call a “Religious Right” interpretation of male-female relationships.

That said, let me go beyond TFN’s study to take a broader look at teen sexuality.
First, premarital teenage sexual activity wasn’t something invented in the late 20th century.
In Victorian Scotland, where people normally got married in their late teens, one-third of brides were pregnant on their wedding day.

The deal here is not so much that modern American teens have become that much more sexual, nor that the “liberal media” is the prime mover of any such increase in teen sexuality. (And the degree it is to blame, the not-so-liberal Fox TV network is the most salacious of the four broadcast TV networks.)

The deal is that the average age of marriage in the United States today is 25 or so, not the 18 or less it was in 1870s Scotland. In that country and era, nobody went to college, almost nobody graduated high school and most youth didn’t even go to high school. You hit 14 or so and went to a farm, sheep ranch, fishing boat or factory.

Our world today is different, and we need to prevent the social wreckage of unplanned pregnancies, while dealing with the same male and female physiology as 1870s Scots did.
While it might not be impossible for youth, adolescents, etc. going well into adulthood, to put their hormonal jets on hold an additional seven years, it ain’t realistic from where I sit to expect that, and from where many other Americans sit.

That said, it’s often explicitly religious beliefs, explicitly Christian beliefs, that are the cornerstone of public-school abstinence-only sex education in our state.

The study found many Texas classrooms inject religious instruction and Bible study into sex education programs.

“Hardly a page can be found that does not include multiple references to Bible verses, invocation of Christian principles, even attempts to proselytize students with the Christian plan of salvation,” the report says of a curriculum called Wonderful Days, used by three school districts in the Fort Worth area.

Along with the Texas Freedom Network, I also have a problem with the Bible as part of sexual education curriculum.

There’s obvious First Amendment issues here – after all, what would conservative Christians say if sex education lessons were taught from the Quran in our high schools, and male students were told that, if they stayed on the straight and narrow this life, instead of seeing Jesus in the next one, that they would see – and “enjoy” – 70 virgins, instead?

As for conservative Christians who would argue “the majority rules,” many of our Founding Fathers explicitly worried about “the tyranny of the majority.”

Besides, in the Old Testament half of the Christian Bible, we have:

1. A lover talking about his beloved’s breasts, and euphemistically about other body parts, in the Song of Songs. (Think “belly.”)

2. Ruth having pre-marital gleaning fields blanket bingo with Boaz. (Exposing someone’s “feet” is an idiom used more than once in the Old Testament).

3. A Levite (think “deacon” today) openly traveling with his mistress in Judges.

Even if you don’t want the Quran and 70 virgins in your child’s public school sex education, if you’re a Protestant, would you want your child told not only that abstinence is right but modern forms of birth control are wrong?

If parents want to teach a biblically-based abstinence-only sex education at home, fire away. Neither I nor the Texas Freedom Network is going to come knocking on your door. And, if school districts want to teach religion-free scientific thoughts on abstinence as part of sexual education, while also teaching high schoolers basic facts they need to know if they’re going to be sexually active, I’m fine with that.

Abstinence as an option, even the first choice? Sure. Abstinence only? No.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Josephus made up the Essenes

So says Israeli scholar Rachel Elior, who teaches Jewish mysticism at Hebrew University.

Then, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Zadokites, after a rupture in the priesthood, whether before or after the Maccabean revolt.

The Zadokite idea isn’t that revolutionary; a lot of modern scholars of that era postulate some rupture, with a set of “puritan” priests separating themselves from temple worship. And, many of those scholars agree that most scrolls probably weren’t written at Qumran, contra James Charlesworth’s mention of “inkpots” in the story.

That said, Elior’s claim that the Zadokite split was while the Seleucids still controlled Palestine IS less of a consensus view; other scholars who postulate such a rupture put it after the Maccabees’ success, and some of their later priests became more corrupt. And, yet others say the DSS relate to an early Christian split, with followers of Jesus’ brother James writing about Paul as the “man of lies.”

But, I’ve not seen Elior’s main point pushed forward before, that Josephus invented the Essenes as a counterweight to anti-Semitism.

Read the full story for details of her theory, including how she explains references to Essenes by Pliny, Philo, etc.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dreams mean – what you want and expect them to

That’s the bottom-line answer from the latest social science research into the field.

We may still not know WHY we dream, but as to what dreams mean?

Well, the research tells us our actual emotional state, beliefs, biases, etc. lead us to determine in advance of any “interpretation” which dreams we consider important and/or true, and which ones we don’t.

Anyway, this is the final nail in the coffin of Freudian, pseudo-Freudian and Jungian dream interpretation.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Why Schroedinger was wrong about his cat

Simple statistical mechanics.

He stacks the deck from his Hindu infatuation with his “superposition of eigenstates.”

NOTHING is being “superimposed.” It’s all classical statistical mechanics, from the way I see it.

And, there is no such thing as an “eigenstate” involved.

Let me up the ante on Schroedinger.

Put a cat in a closed box.

Restrain it, because I’m using guillotines, in the plural, rather than poison gas, in the singular.

Give me three radioactive elements with half-lives of X, 2X and 4X.

Give me three guillotines, attached to the cat’s tail, a paw, and its neck respectively.

At X, you have 50 percent chance the cat has lost its tail, 25 percent it has lost its paw and 12.5 percent chance it is dead.

At 2X, probabilities are 75, 50 and 25 percent, respectively.

At 4X, they’re 87.5, 75 and 50 percent.

NO “superposition of eigenstates.” I hope this thought experiment makes the whole idea look ludicrous.

When the lid is lifted of the box, ALL we are doing is checking which of the probabilities is the actuality. Nothing else is being done. The quantum events have happened independently of any observer.

What if a neo-Schroedinger says, lifting the box is itself an observation.

Well, first of all, that’s a “Newtonian” level observation, not a quantum-level one. Unless you try to nano-scale shrink box, cat and guillotines.

Second, I’ll accept the challenge and one-up it.

Give me radioactive element No. 4 with half-life of 8X. It controls a circuit that raises the lid on the box.

OK.

At 8X, we have 93.75 percent chance the cat has no tail, 87.5 that it’s lost a paw, 75 percent that it’s dead, and …

A 50 percent chance that we can see inside the box to determine these probabilities.

Again, all statistical probabilities.

In fact, like the turtles of Schroedinger’s beloved Hinduism, it’s statistics all the way down.

Am I arguing there’s nothing “mysterious,” – as long as you append scare quotes – about quantum mechanics? No, of course not. The two-slit experiment with light rays is proof enough of that.

I AM arguing, though, that quantum mechanics is NOT “metaphysically mysterious.” Or anything on those lines.

I am suggesting that Erwin Schroedinger bears a certain amount of the blame for the rise of today’s Deepak Chopras of the world.

And, albeit for different reasons than Einstein, while I don’t believe that some “naïve realism” interpretation of quantum mechanics will win out, should the Holy Grain of a UFT ever be achieved, I do think there will be something more quasi-realistic than the consensus of today.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Female sex desire NOT so different from male

Turns out that on this, as on other sexuality issues, whether to come off as “good girls” or whatever, women may be, either consciously or unconsciously, be lying a lot more than they would like to admit.

Per a female-adapted version of the plethysmograph, women, like men, show plenty of visually-aroused sexual desire. It’s all part of a long story on “what do women want,” how more women and not just men are getting engaged in the scientific study of female sexuality, findings like the above and more.

As a sidebar note, if a story like this doesn’t put “paid” to some of the gender-based stupid — and sexist — claims of Pop Evolutionary Psychology, then I’m a female bonobo’s uncle. (Read the story for the joke.)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Outcasts to society

OUTCASTS TO SOCIETY

(As inspired by e-mails from Glo)

No crime adheres to being a loner or not fitting in,
No more than in having a case of “everyday blues.”
There is no crime, none at all
To have a highly individualized human nature
Even if part of that is not organic
But a deliberate, driven reaction to outside conventions;
That too is laudable.

Society, in all its groups and assemblies,
Needs also its critics and challengers
To lift upraised hands against the lemming-like yea-sayers
And tell them why they should stop.

Society needs its loners, too;
Those who soberly drop out
From elements of the 300-million-strong social rat race
That either their ideals or their psychology simply cannot accept.

This modern world needs its emotional critics, too,
Who will feel however they will, and not as society says,
Being Hamlets in the face of a din of Pollyannas,
True to their own emotional selves.

As soon as I finish finding out who I am,
I will find my place more firmly in this countercurrent,
And more confidently measure myself
Less and less in dollar signs, job descriptions, or relationship life.
In the meantime, a semi-reasonable facsimile of me
Will continue to do what seems to be a semi-true-to-life job
Of marching to his own drum.

— March 1, 2009

Outcasts in the name of gOd

The Hindus took racism
Against natives of darker hue
And made it a religious crime.
Their four-tiered socio-religious totem pole
Had the grunts of manual labor at the bottom,
But, left without even a pole to pose on
Were, and still are today,
The shittiest workers of Indian society,
Pun intended –
Out-castes.
Untouchables in their alleged contamination,
Calling them harijan, or the lOrd’s children
As a Gandhian absolution
Is no absolution for a stain, a blot,
On the very core of Hindu thought.

God told Saul, “Kill the Amalekites!”
And not just the adults, but the seven children
That went along with each adult family,
And not just the children,
But the seven livestock the adults had
For each of their children.
No Amalekites would be allowed to go to St. Ives,
Or Hebron, or Shechem, or Shiloh,
As the world’s first recorded Holocaust
Was perpetuated by Jews and not against them.

In the American South, in the land of cotton,
Old bible passages were not forgotten
But were twisted, to look away from the evil
Of black slavery in Dixie land.
No, no, worse than that;
Twisted to justify slavery as a redeeming,
Christianizing uplift,
For alleged children of Canaan,
Smitten by the curse of Ham.
People who wished they had not been born in Dixie
Were told it was for their own good,
And in fulfillment of the word of gOd.
Oh, ye cursed of Ham!

No wonder that Sunday morning
Is still the most segregated hour in America;
No wonder that Indian outcastes
Have their own political party;
No wonder that right-wing Israeli Jews
Talk of an Arab-rein Eretz Yisrael.
The real wonder is that blacks didn’t become atheists
Long before the Nation of Islam,
Or that the Dalits, oppressed outcastes, aren’t all Buddhist, or Christian,
Or that some Arabs still participate in Israeli political life.

Were a god actually to exist, he would be mocked by his own alleged words.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Poetic thoughts while waiting for Joan Baez (extended play)

I wrote the following poem while waiting to meet a friend of mine who had tickets for Joan Baez’s Dallas concert Feb.24. This is an “extended play” of an earlier version.

Halfway sellout
Real liberals of another era
Trying to recapture
Cash-on-demand nostalgia
For the price of admission.
I don’t sign every petition
And I don’t avoid Wal-Mart every day of the year.
But, if I asked you,
Mr. ’60s – and Mr. ’90s corner office – were good to me,
What all is in your IRA?
Or your company’s 401,
Or if you ever tried to get it to divest
Some of the stocks you suspect it might have,
What would you say?
I don’t have a corner office.
Or a 401(k).
Or an IRA.
But, as much as possible,
I still own my own brand.

Old man, take a look at my life,
You could be like I am.
When did you trade your life identity
For your job identity?
You and your fellow yuppies,
The not-yet-digested piglet
Stuck in the gullet of the American python.
Oh, yes, you played with greed
After you quit playing with grass,
And greed swallowed you,
Far more than the grass ever did.

No, old man, on second thought,
DON’T take a look at my life.
Indirectly, you’re already screwing it up enough,
Trying to turn the Me Generation
Into the Me Millennium.

Old man, get away from me.
I don’t want to be like you are.

Poetic thoughts while waiting for Joan Baez

I wrote the following poem while waiting to meet a friend of mine who had tickets for Joan Baez’s Dallas concert.

Halfway sellout
Real liberals of another era
Trying to recapture
Cash-on-demand nostalgia
For the price of admission.
I don’t sign every petition
And I don’t avoid Wal-Mart every day of the year.
But, if I asked you,
Mr. ’60s – and Mr. ’90s corner office – were good to me,
What all is in your IRA?
Or your company’s 401,
Or if you ever tried to get it to divest
Some of the stocks you suspect it might have,
What would you say?
I don’t have a corner office.
Or a 401(k).
Or an IRA.
But, as much as possible,
I still own my own brand.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Seeking entry to Middle-Earth

My senior year in high school, I was surely battling some unrecognized depression. My dad was in graduate school; his divinity school had those “mushroom lights” around most of the sidewalks on campus.

Anyway, I had already read “Lord of the Rings” once, and was re-reading it. It prompted me to try to call out to Earendil one night while walking by the mushroom lights, as described by this extended-haiku poem.

A ELBERETH GITHONIEL

Earendil, hear;
A Elbereth Githoniel;
Elrond, set me free.

So said a young teen,
Depressed and seeking escape —
Frodo’s Middle Earth.

But nothing happened;
No transmogrification;
Mushroom lights stayed fixed.

Homeward back I trudged
Depressed and distressed yet more
With no one to hear.

Is this all Fourth Age?
Elbereth availed me not —
I still lack magic.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln-Darwin bicentennial musical selections

For Lincoln, the obvious selection is Aaron Copeland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”

For Darwin? Why, Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals,” of course. Complete with the movement on fossils.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Rome brings back plenary indulgences

That sound you just heard was Martin Luther storming in his grave. The Roman Catholic Church, learning a bit from the father of the Reformation, forbade paying for indulgences after the Council of Trent, then, as this story on their revival notes, “decoupled” them from mainstream Catholic life as part of Vatican II.

As for the claim you can’t buy them?

Well… you can get them charitable contributions. And, the Catholic Church is a legal charity, is it not?

Say Joe the Catholic (whether a plumber in Ohio or not) worships, not just in a parish, but his bishopric’s cathedral seat. And, let’s say the bishop, perhaps to commemorate 20 years of holding the position, decides the cathedral needs a new — marble, let’s say — baptismal font.

Let’s say his membership includes a 74-year-old rogue, divorced and remarried outside the church, divorced again, and now “living in sin,” as the saying once was. He’s only a C&E Mass attender, and let’s say our bishop is actually conservative enough to bar him from the Eucharist to boot.

But… that marble baptismal font keeps calling in the back of his mind.

Well, who better to get plenary indulgence for his long life than our three-times loveable (at least) “rogue,” if his charitable contribution just happens to add up to the value of a marble baptismal font?

But, no, you can’t “pay” for them.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

BOULDER PARK PICNIC TABLE

Some reflections from hiking in a Dallas park:
















Broken down and weather beaten,
Agéd, silent picnic table
Gladed inside multi-level
Understory, has seen it all.

Sit and think and ponder do I,
Bounded within parkland nature.
Would that picnic table would speak.
That, though, will not happen for me.

Answers? I must find them inside
Broken planking only watches
Ebbs and flows of live; it acts not.
So, then, knows not sorrow, anguish.

I, though, well know painful moments
Drift and doubt and struggle bitter.
Answers? Mine all must have actions.
Drift is the most painful of all.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Human brain not built for theistic evolution

Boy, this Live Science post just jumped out at me.

Using an fMRI to measure brain responses, and using either “gOd” or “science” as a priming word for subjects who first read information about the Big Bang, at the cosmology level, or “primal soup” at the Earth level, psychologist Jesse Preston of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her colleague Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago found statistical signs that people who know the basics of both cannot hold on to both the naturalistic focus of science and the transcendent metaphysic of theism at the same time:
“We can only believe in one explanation at a time,” Preston told LiveScience. “So although people can report explicitly, ‘Look, I’ve been a Christian all my life, and yes, I also believe in science and I am a practicing chemist,’ the question is, are these people really reconciling belief in God and science, or are they just believing in one thing at a time?”

But, the researcher’s thesis is being questioned.

In shades of Steven Jay Gould, Hampshire College science historian Salman Hameed says the conclusions depend on the “conflict” view of science and religion, vs. Gould’s non-oppositional magisteria or similar.

But, what Hameed overlooks is that among PhD scientists, especially top-tier post-doc PhDs, Gould’s two-domains theory is ignored even more than it is dismissed. Ditto among modern philosophers of science and non-science philosophers who aren’t explicit theists.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Sage Grouse mourns Arne Naess

“Sage Grouse” is an alternative moniker suggested for me in a blog-posting exchange on High Country News, a nature-and-environment pun on “Socratic Gadfly.

Anyway, Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, the creator of the idea of “deep ecology,” is is dead at 96.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Pinker – Nature-nurture debate over, but on MY terms!

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has a long interview in the New York Times Magazine. An extended comment of his on page 2 jumped out at me:
The most prominent finding of behavioral genetics has been summarized by the psychologist Eric Turkheimer: “The nature-nurture debate is over. . . . All human behavioral traits are heritable.” By this he meant that a substantial fraction of the variation among individuals within a culture can be linked to variation in their genes. Whether you measure intelligence or personality, religiosity or political orientation, television watching or cigarette smoking, the outcome is the same. Identical twins (who share all their genes) are more similar than fraternal twins (who share half their genes that vary among people). Biological siblings (who share half those genes too) are more similar than adopted siblings (who share no more genes than do strangers). And identical twins separated at birth and raised in different adoptive homes (who share their genes but not their environments) are uncannily similar.

I have several problems with this.

First, knowing a bit about addictive behavior, I know that predisposition to cigarette smoking or alcoholic drinking does NOT have “substantial fraction” due to heritability.

Second, on behaviors like that, people like Pinker have never even made an effort to sort out familiar social influence.

Third, the “uncannily similar” comes off as being nothing more than a door-slamming phrase, i.e., “How can you be scientific if you question it”?

Well, with twins, I question it on several grounds.

First, identical twins themselves differ on when after fertilization the twinning event occurred:
• Do they have separate amniotic sacs and placentas?
• Share a sac but with different placentas?
• Share even placentas?

All of the above are of course environmental and not genetic effects, but Pinker conveniently ignores that.

Second, are identical twins “uncannily similar”? Not necessarily. Again, Pinker refers us to no research; he just throws out a statement to us and demands we accept it as gospel truth.

’Tis true, Pinker does qualify both his own comments, and those of Turkheimer, with some more general versions of what I just noted, on the next webpage. But, to me, the carts was enough before the horse, and emphasized enough more, to tell me where Pinker falls.

And, on page 5, Pinker shows we still have far to go in our understanding of the how and of the specific genes of genetic heritability.

Height is widely acknowledged, due to the information from statistical correlation, as being the single most heritable human trait. But, as Pinker notes, in 2007 a genomewide scan of nearly 16,000 people turned up a dozen height-related genes. However, these genes collectively accounted for just 2 percent of the height variation; plus, a person who had most of the genes was barely an inch taller, on average, than the general population.

And, I haven’t even gotten to Pinker’s biggest flop, or deliberate oversight.

It’s becoming ever more clear that what has to this point been called “junk DNA” isn’t; rather, some of it may code for frequency of expression of a gene, or control what genes interact together and when, etc. And, though still looked askance by some geneticists precisely for what it hints at, Stanley Prusiner’s work on prions, along with other research, shows that the heritability pathway may not be a one-way street at the cellular level.

Pinker starts to wrap up his take on the science of personal genomics with this:
At the same time, there is nothing like perusing your genetic data to drive home its limitations as a source of insight into yourself.

Too bad, he doesn’t realize, or refuses to accept, the limitations of genetic data today go far beyond that.