Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

31 March, 2008

R.I.P. - Arthur C. Clarke (etc.)

I'm sure you've heard by now that Arthur C. Clarke has passed away. A godless heathen, he asked for a non-religious funeral.

Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral."

Amen, brother.

2001: A Space Odyssey is one of my favorite films and I loved Rendevous With Rama. It's a shame that Clarke's activity as a populizer/promoter of science wound down in the late 1980s when he was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome. His TV programs were mandatory viewing during my youth.

As long as I'm on the topic of sci-fi, I want to note that I recently found out that the remake of The Prisoner is back on track. Originally commissioned a couple years ago by Sky Television, it was dropped because the English producer apparently decided he'd had enough of the American co-producer and didn't want to drop the "quintessentially British" elements of the show. This was probably a good thing and now the show has been rescued by ITV.

LOST is on hiatus until 24 April. :( I predict that Widmore's boat is going to sink and there's just enough power left to teleport the Oceanic 6 back home from Orchid station.

Torchwood finishes the season this week and I am really behind. I've only seen the first six episodes. The return of Martha Jones was great and "Meat" got me fantasizing about doing that to a pig. (Ahem.) However, I have finished watching Ashes to Ashes. I just couldn't help myself. Best quote of the second half of the season by the Gene Genie: "I want this place cleaner than a virgin's pudendum!" Keeley Hawes is a real looker and the show makes me desperate for the 80s to NOT come back in any way, shape, or form. Second series next year.

At least series four of the new Doctor Who starts on the 5th. Here's the trailer:

Other noteworthy tidbits:

Guillermo del Toro is not quite attached to The Hobbit films and his script for an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" is still being kicked around.

I was going to write that Terry Gilliam is returning to the fantasy genre with his latest but he's never really left it. Shooting on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has resumed in the wake of Heath Ledger's death.

Lastly, the latest money maker for George Lucas comes this year. It's a CGI cartoon series called Clone Wars which begins with a feature film in theatres starting 15 August. The trailer:

|| Palmer, 8:26 PM || link || (0) comments |

Have You Seen Jack-in-the-Green?

A week ago we here in Madison exceeded 100 inches of snow for the season. Here's a photo of that snowfall:

And just when we thought the flakes were through flying, I see that there are snow showers on tap for tomorrow. Personally, I enjoyed this past winter and no doubt I'll be talking to kids all too soon about the winter of aught eight. While driving in it was not particularly fun and my back hated the shoveling, I loved all the snow because I love the color. It was so nice to have all the white instead of grey and brown. This is probably because I am a fan of the seasons and is one reason why I've never moved out of the Midwest. The thought of not having snow during the winter is preposterous to me as is seeing photos of homes in Arizona or southern California adorned with Christmas trees.

The Dulcinea said to me last week that she doesn't like spring. I found this a shame as I'm really looking forward to seeing how this vernal season plays out. With such a, shall I say, pronounced winter, the turn to spring should be all the more tantalizing. Having endured triple digit snowfall, seeing buds on trees is a marvelous sight. Friends and I are planning gardens while that refulgent orb in the sky rises ever earlier and sets later. The whole cycle of things flourishing, dying, and being covered in snow only to come to life once more is so primitive and so appealing. It is, to me, how things should be and I can't image moving out west where 60 degree temperatures and a bit of rain counts as a change of season.

However much I enjoyed the winter, its time is now gone. Peppers need planting and farmers' market need to begin so I can get fresh cheese curd on Wednesdays. And then comes summer. One of things I love about summer is the (very) occasional Saturday morning when I arise during the antelucan hours, brew a heady cup of coffee, and await the dawn. Soon enough it's seven o'clock which means Samurai Saturday on IFC. A great way to start my day.
|| Palmer, 7:33 PM || link || (1) comments |

20 March, 2008

Dark Suit and White Shirt

It's funny how a 19th century business man can shape my memories…

A couple days ago was the 4th anniversary of my father's death so it was a bit ironic to have spent that evening in the company of The Dulcinea's father and stepmother as part of a process of my girlfriend trying to establish a relationship with her estranged father. In addition, I spoke to a co-worker who was absent on Monday because he had to be at the hospital with his father who had had a heart attack, which is what killed my father. I'd meant to do a take a trip down memory lane on Tuesday by looking at some photos of my dad and whatnot but dinner precluded it. That will have to wait until this weekend but I thought of the old man today as I was reading Edwin Black's IBM and the Holocaust.

My memories were elicited when reading of John Patterson, the "ruthless and belligerent tycoon" who headed the National Cash Register Company in the late 19th century and demanded that his salesmen wear dark suits and white shirts. NCR would hire one Thomas J. Watson who would go on to Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. He brought Patterson's dress code with him to CTR. In 1924, CTR became IBM. And my old man worked for IBM for 25 years under the leadership of Watson's son, Tom, Jr.

While he retired just as the downsizing began and business casual came into existence, I remember very well my father coming home wearing a dark suit with a white shirt. (The tie had been loosened on the el ride.) I also recall well going to Bring Your Kid to Work Day. At the time, my dad was stationed at the Montgomery Ward building in downtown Chicago. Upon arrival, we walked into the computer room which was well-chilled. There were these monoliths lining the walls lit up like Christmas trees and piles of magnetic tape reels strewn about. (I don’t' have recollection of any punch cards there but we did have them at home. We used them for taking messages when someone called on our rotary phone.) Boxes of dustless rags and cans of isopropyl alcohol with the IBM logo emblazoned on them were at the ready. And there were lots of men standing around all wearing dark suits and white shirts. I think they used 3270s when communicating with the mainframes. When someone had to poke around in the guts of a system, he'd first remove his jacket and any rings before rolling up the sleeve of his shirt. Everything was very professional and IBM techs were almost a brand of their own.

Thirty years later, I am, curiously enough, a computer tech myself. However, I am wearing jeans and a bespotted maroon shirt.
|| Palmer, 4:45 PM || link || (0) comments |

Another Generation of Winter Soldiers

Private Joker: How can you shoot women or children?
Door Gunner: Easy! Ya just don't lead 'em so much! Ain't war hell?

Has anyone been watching the Winter Soldier proceedings? I've been watching them on Democracy Now.

In footage broadcast yesterday, one soldier related how his comrades used the slur "hajj" or "hajji" when referring to Iraqi civilians. He asked one of his fellow soldiers, who was an African-American, how he could use derogatory names and was told something like, "They're just haj – who cares?"

This was eerily reminiscent of what happened to Will Williams, a Vietnam veteran whose story you can read about in the book Long Shadows: Veterans' Paths to Peace. One of the things that changed Williams' mind about his role in Vietnam was how he, like many of his fellow G.I.s, referred to civilians there as "gooks". He felt that he was dishing out the exact same racist crap that was inflicted on him back home in the States. Very little about war seems to change through the years.

I would refer readers to Chris Hedges' excellent War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning for a lengthier discussion on how racial and ethnic slurs dehumanize an "other" and help inure people to the idea of murdering their neighbors. But for a short course, you can listen to the Winter Soldier testimony and hear tales of innocent women & children being murdered by our boys. When I listened to them, I found it perversely refreshing because I am tired of hearing about waterboarding as if that were the greatest crime being perpetrated in our Iraqi venture. We've been waterboarding at least since 1898 when Filipino insurgents were given the "water cure" and I have the feeling that there are many people in this country who think that stopping the practice would somehow give a patina of moral probity to what's happening in Iraq. Instead, the situation is totally fugazi and morally questionable, at best. Even if all torture were to cease, our soldiers would still find themselves in horrible situations requiring split second reactions with regards to people with whom they cannot communicate. The end of waterboarding would not mean an end to old women bringing our soldiers food getting shot nor an end to order to shoot any car painted a certain way. (The paint job in question being the standard one for taxis.)

I've written previously about Chelsea Clinton's deplorable comment made while here in Madison in which she sought to absolve her mother of moral culpability for the deaths of Iraqi civilians by saying that clairvoyance would have been needed to foresee the horrors of the past few years. Wherever you send soldiers to wage war, civilians will surely suffer. (You don't even need to have them engaged in combat – just ask an Okinawan.) The stories of the Winter Soldiers heard recently on Democracy Now are the same as those given by the Winter Soldiers back in 1971. Only the locale and slurs have changed.

In addition to soldier's tales, I also heard the testimony of the parents of one veteran who had committed suicide. That someone suffering from PTSD kills himself is bad enough but that the VA refused to help him made the story even more appalling. The VA would not treat the pain until the guy stopped drinking but he was drinking to dull the pain and so one of our own was caught in what proved to be a lethal catch-22. While no system is perfect, the VA is, from what I've read, overwhelmed with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Waiting lists of people seeking care have ballooned and the situation is exasperated by red tape. If we had the will, we could certainly do better.

And let us not forget that Obama, Clinton, and McCain would all have us in Iraq for the foreseeable future even after withdrawl. Smaller numbers and different roles, perhaps, but none of them is willing to repudiate Bush's imperial policies in full.
|| Palmer, 4:41 PM || link || (0) comments |

18 March, 2008

Say Witamy to Spring

Sunday was the Polish Heritage Club's spring festival. It's a bit of a prelude to Easter with colored eggs and cattails along with music, food, and company.

The girl above is trying on Wianki or a wreath of flowers worn on the head. While I don't know every use for Wianki in Polish culture, I have read that residents of Krakow throw them into the Vistula River on St. John's Night (a.k.a. – Midsummer's Eve).

Here we have Pisanki (painted eggs) being made as well as the finished product:

The woman is heating a stylus thingy which consists of a very small funnel which is stuck in a whole at one end of the thingy. You heat it and then dip it in wax so that some of it melts and enters the funnel. From there you trace your design on the egg before dyeing it.

Next we have a family huddled around a table with opportunities for kids to color in pictures of all things Polish.

There was a lot of food to be had and I found myself playing cashier for much of the time. There was Kielbasa, sauerkraut, pierogi, and tons of baked goods including these Paczki, which are jelly doughnuts.

Paczki are consumed en masse just prior to Lent. From what I can tell, Polish-Americans generally celebrate Paczki Day on the day before Ash Wednesday (a.k.a. - Fat Tuesday) while Poles observe it is on the Thursday before as do more traditionally-minded Polish-Americans.

There was also accordion music courtesy of Sergei Belkin:

I believe he is from Ukraine, but don't quote me on that. While his English isn't great, he sure knows his way around a squeeze box.

Since I was out front this year, I wasn't able to partake in the Polish beer in back. However, I did get a chance to meet Szymon Wozniczka again, he of the Polish Film Festival here in Madison as well as Alderman Michael Schumacher. And this is really what the Spring Festival is about, in my opinion. Beyond food and buying stuff, it's about getting together and socializing.

Speaking of Poles and films, don’t forget that Pora umierac (Time to Die) will be playing at the Wisconsin Film Festival next month. Here's a trailer:

|| Palmer, 1:34 PM || link || (0) comments |

A Computer Geek Reads Blogs

Yesterday I finished reading John Allen Paulos' A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. It's a follow-up, of sorts to his Innumeracy which I read earlier this year. In it, Paulos looks at the various sections of the newspaper and takes on the validity of various techniques that are commonly used by reporters. Among other things, he examines how statistics can be emphasized for maximum effect (do you say that 1 in 100,000 people suffer from a certain disease or that there are 2,500 cases nationwide?) and to never underestimate the power of chance. But mostly it is a call for people to engage in critical thinking by asking the right question about what they read.

I thought about Paulos' admonitions as I read Paul Soglin's latest blog entry called "Wisconsin Curdles California Cheese Contest". In it, Soglin emphasizes quality over quantity when it comes to cheese. California, he notes, has more cows and makes more cheese than does Wisconsin but we Cheeseheads make better cheese, in Soglin's opinion. For evidence he offers the results of the 2008 World Championship Cheese Contest in which "Badger State cheese makers came [sic] took first place in 27 of the 77 categories" while California had but a single first place winner.

True enough, but before we start gloating and making qualitative pronouncements, let's ask how many cheese makers from California entered the contest. As Paulos might note, you can turn things around. To wit: Wisconsin took first place in 35% of the categories in which Badger state cheese makers entered. If California cheese makers had only entered product in one category, then California bloggers could tout a 1.000 batting average for their state. Now, while more than one California cheese maker entered the contest in more than one category, there were very, very few of them in the contest. By contrast Wisconsin had several. Go look for yourself. Believe me when I say that I'm pro-Sconnie cheese but we're going to have wait for another contest which features more cheese from the West Coast before we can declare ours "objectively" better.

But if you still want to rake on California, how about starting by noting that only one California cheese maker submitted a sample for the Monterey Jack category and that variety was invented over there. And they lost on top of that.**

**If you're going to mention that California lost the Monterey Jack competition, make sure you hide the fact that Wisconsin lost in the Colby category. (Colby was invented in Colby, WI.)
|| Palmer, 12:06 PM || link || (0) comments |

The Root of All Evil Today

This past weekend I caught Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz on BookTV. They are co-authors of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict and their presentation was very interesting, if more than a bit depressing. During the first half or so they gave their figures and explained how they arrived at them. Blimes told a story behind one statistic which I want to relate here.

In trying to calculate the cost of caring for veterans, she set out to determine the number of soldiers who were wounded in Iraq. Along the way she discovered a peculiarity in the way the Department of Defense lists deaths and the number of wounded. Going by info on the DoD webpage available to the public, she found that the total number of deaths was a "genuine" total. That is, if a soldier lost his or her life in the country, they were put in the death column. But as Blimes found out, the wounded are a different matter. If a soldier is wounded in combat, his or her death goes into one tally while being wounded outside of combat puts you into another one. Using numbers obtained from the DoD website which, again, is publicly accessible, she summed both wounded counts.

Blimes tells us that, a short time later, she received a call from the Undersecretary of Defense or some such figure who demanded to know how she obtained her statistics on wounded soldiers. She explained that the figures were obtained from the DoD website. The gentleman on the other end of the phone demanded that she fax a copy of the webpage to her. When Blimes offered to e-mail the URL, she was rebuked and told that his e-mail address is classified. So she printed out the relevant webpages and faxed them to him. It wasn't long before the DoD website was retooled so that the data that Blimes had so easily obtained was dispersed. She explained that it was all there but it was much more difficult to get to as more webpages had to be parsed.

This tale was both funny and sad. Sad that the DoD was deliberately obfuscating the depth of the tragedy of the war in Iraq and funny that a DoD official can't be bothered to look at his own organization's webpage or find an underling to do so.

Part of their presentation dealt with how the war affects the economy. It was noted that money spent on the war isn't spent on infrastructure or education and that this is the first war to be paid for almost exclusively by borrowing money from foreign countries. Spiglitz also talked about how Americans are deeply in debt, having borrowed money from the equity in their homes, and are generally not saving. (Savings rates are at their lowest since The Great Depression.) This reminded me of a cover story in a recent issue of In These Times called "Killer Credit" in which I learned that "Americans own almost 700 million credit cards and hold $915 billion in consumer debt, with the average borrower owing more than $9,000".

I have one credit card which I'm trying to pay off as soon as I can. My resolution for 2008 was to rid myself of debt. Not all of it, but I resolved to pay off my credit card and my car loan by the summer with my Visa being the first as it has the highest interest rate. I've been plugging away at it the past two and a half months and have gotten it down to the size where I can drown it in the bathtub, to borrow a phrase. In fact, I hope to be able to drown it today after a quick trip to my credit union.

When that rebate check from the Feds comes, it will be used to finish paying off my car or will be tucked away. How about you? Are you going to cash the check and go on an economically stimulating buying spree?
|| Palmer, 11:07 AM || link || (0) comments |

14 March, 2008

We Lost One of Our Own

Yesterday I wondered aloud why flags were at half-staff. Arch Stanton directed me towards Gov. Jimmy Doyle's Executive Order #242 for the explanation.

Staff Sgt. Christopher Frost of Waukesha died on 3 March along with seven members of the Iraqi Air Force when their Mi-17 helicopter crashed in a dust storm in Bayji. Here's a picture of him from the Air Force:

He was 24.

A list of all the men & women our state has lost to war can be found here.
|| Palmer, 12:56 PM || link || (0) comments |

Lady Cards Unable to Pull It Off

I see that the Lady Cards lost in the semi-finals to Flambeau 57-40. Bummer. :(
|| Palmer, 12:37 PM || link || (0) comments |

The Cheese Stands Alone

I blame Ed. While I had been intending on hitting the final day of the 2008 World Championship Cheese Contest in the late morning but opted to go with Ed who couldn't go until noon. When we arrived, we found that clean-up was in its last stage. D'oh! So I have no exciting photos of the champion being crowned. However, it was a Swiss gruyere that took home the gold this year. And I believe this is it:

You can check out the full results here.

Although I was disappointed to have missed the cheese finals, Ed did make a call yesterday and I will be getting a press pass for the 2008 Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors Convention and Product Show. This means that I will be dangerously close to a couple dozen different varieties of bacon. I may even take in an educational program like "Armchair Plant Tour – Sailer's Meat Processing, Inc." or "The New Role of Nitrate as a Health Food".
|| Palmer, 6:08 AM || link || (0) comments |

13 March, 2008

New Book By Chris Hedges

A day or two ago I posted a review of Chris Hedges' book American Fascists. Today Salon has an interview with Mr. Hedges in which discusses his latest book, I Don't Believe In Atheists. Being an atheist and a fan of Mr. Hedges' writing, I am looking forward to reading it.

In the interview, Hedges says that his latest work and American Fascists are "connected projects" in that they examine opposite extremes of the same spectrum. He argues that the so-called "New Atheists", but especially Hitchens and Harris, promote a morally neutral secularism which is simultaneously a kind of fundamentalism, one which elevates reason to a status of superiority. Their views are merely the mirror image of Christian fundamentalists.

I found myself both agreeing with things he said at one moment and then shuddering at others. Take this bit:

For example, they believe that the human species is marching forward, that there is an advancement toward some kind of collective moral progress -- that we are moving towards, if not a Utopian, certainly a better, more perfected human society.

You know, there is nothing in human nature or in human history that points to the idea that we are moving anywhere.

A commenter at Salon captured my gut reaction by saying, "You mean ending slavery, giving women the vote, and endorsing gay marriage are not all 'some kind of moral progress'?" Is it fundamentalist of me to think that my society is better in some regard than those who do not allow women to go out in public without being accompanied by a man? On another level, is it fundamentalist of me to think progress was made when people (Bill Maher excepted) recognized that diseases arise from bacteria, viruses, and germs instead of evil spirits? I think Hedges overstates things when he uses words like "utopia" and "perfected". The people he rails against all acknowledge that religion isn't going to go away. Indeed, the New Atheists all agree that comparative religion should be taught in schools. Furthermore, they all realize that, even if religion were to disappear, jealousy, xenophobia, hatred, and other darker elements of our nature aren't going to.

Hedges says that Sam Harris "doesn't know anything about religion or the Middle East". This seems to be a fairer criticism than the accusation that Harris promotes torture. (You can read Harris' views on torture here.) I hope that Hedges pursues this idea in the book because I've found that the best criticism of Harris comes from Scott Atran, a godless professor of anthropology and psychology and I think that Hedges would pursue a similar line of reasoning.

He also says, "I think a lot of their popularity stems from a legitimate anger on the part of a lot of Americans toward the intolerance and chauvinism of the radical religious right in this country." I agree and would add that 9/11 also helped create an environment where the New Atheists have achieved popularity. But I think it would be a mistake to say that New Atheism is merely a fad. While there's no Utopia of Reason to come, they can have an effect on public discourse and create an environment where non-believers are more comfortable coming out of the godless closet.

Should be an interesting read.

**EDIT** - after posting this I read PZ Myers' take on an essay Hedges wrote about his new book. Wow! Hedges is way off base and out in la-la land with this one. Sounds like he spent a lot of time building a straw man to me. What a waste.
|| Palmer, 12:30 PM || link || (0) comments |

Flags at Half-Staff?

Why are the flags at Monona Terrace at half-staff? Anyone know?
|| Palmer, 8:52 AM || link || (2) comments |

Here Come the Fairer Cardinals

I noted earlier this week that the boys basketball team from my high school up north won the WIAA Division 4 crown. (That would be the Eleva-Strum Cardinals.) Well, the girls team is doing well this year too and they're in the semi-finals. The smackdown against Flambeau is tomorrow morning at 10:45. A full schedule for the tourney can be found here.

As a friend from high school noted of the boys team, it's funny how many of the players are the kids of people with whom we went to school.

I would also note that the boys coach, Rich Roginski, was named AP Coach of the Year on Monday. Congratulations go out to my former teacher who taught me all about health. It was through him (and pornography) that I learned about the birds and the bees and how to avoid chlamydia. Thnaks again, Mr. Roginski.
|| Palmer, 7:51 AM || link || (0) comments |

12 March, 2008

Blessed Are the Cheesemakers

Day 2 of the World Championship Cheese Contest went well for me. (My account of day 1 is here.) For the time I was there, it was gouda and more gouda.

At the back of the room by the windows the trophies basked in the glow of the sun.

An adjacent table had a pair of gentlemen laboring over a wheel of one of my favorite cheeses, gorgonzola. Mmm…

Man! Those blue veins looked mighty fine! One of the judges noticed me standing there drooling on my camera and he brought the wheel over to me for a close-up.

Oh mama!

At a nearby table judges were working on Pepper Flavored "American" Style Cheese.

I was offered a sample of the next cheese they judged. It had more than a little bite to it. While I enjoyed the heat, another judge who was also tasting it remarked that the heat was overpowering. Fair enough. You don't really eat it for the cheese flavor. Instead the cheese acts as a vehicle for the pepper.

Traipsing down the aisle, I came across a couple judges having a wee problem with some aged gouda, but they eventually overcame it.

Did I mention there was also a country ton of parmesan just waiting to be tasted?

I kept thinking about it as I was getting hungry. So my imagination took over and I fantasized about a big plate of spaghetti with cheesy garlic bread…mmm…This led me to stop over at the sampling table. My wish for some bleu from yesterday came true and I was greeted a plate of chunks from Black River.

Just look at that puppy! It must have been fairly fresh as it didn't crumble. I can assure you I had my share of the stuff.

I finished my time at the contest by watching these guys do their thing on a wheel of gouda.

I asked the gentleman whose hands you see above what he was feeling for. He explained that he was checking out the texture and making sure it wasn’t grainy and checking out how flexible it was. Truth be told, it seemed like all of the judges were exceptionally friendly and willing to take questions from us. And they came from all over the world. There was Shigenobu Murayama from the Cheese & Wine Academy in Tokyo and Kobus Mulder from the Agri Expo in Western Cape, South Africa plus Mark Johnson, a local boy who works at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research here in Madison. So, if you go, don't be afraid to approach the judges and ask questions. The ones with whom I spoke were all very nice and very willing to help those of us less well-informed on cheese standards understand what makes a quality cheese. Plus, as I noted above, they hand out samples as there's a lot of cheese to be had. Here's the temporary holding space:

The finals are tomorrow and I'm hoping there will be commentators there doing the play-by-play as there was in 2006 along with the guys holding up the big blocks of cheese over their heads as they are introduced. This gives the proceedings that whole thrill-of-victory-and-agony-of-defeat thing going for it.
|| Palmer, 5:20 PM || link || (0) comments |

An Adventure in Consciousness Raising With Richard Dawkins

Last night The Dulcinea and I went to the Union to see and hear Richard Dawkins speak as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series. While I brought my camera, I was unable to get a photo so I went out and found one on the Internet.

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist by trade and holds the Charles Simonyi Professorship in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. He is also, like me, a godless heathen. His speech yesterday saw him wearing all of these hats simultaneously.

Although I've read a lot by Dawkins, seen many interviews, and one of his television series, I found the prospect of seeing him in-person exciting. As The D and I were walking upstairs to find a place in line, I looked up only to find Prof. Dawkins walking down them towards me followed by a coterie of students who I presume they were members of the secular student organization. I chuckled to myself because the sight rather reminded me of a scene from Brazil with the boss hurrying through the halls with his minions in tow.

We ended up with pretty decent seats. After a brief wait, UW prof Sean Carroll gave his introduction. At one point, he asked audience members to raise their hands if they'd ever read one of Dawkins' books and it appeared that a substantial number of folks had their arm in the air. It was going to be a very friendly audience.

With the pleasantries over, Dawkins came onstage and began with a plea for patience as his laptop was being unfriendly. This was quickly resolved, however. I don't have my notes from the lecture before me so I can't give much of a blow-by-blow account. Instead, let me talk about what happened at the end of it.

The D said that she wanted to ask him about what happens after religion is gone. At least I think that's what she was keen on knowing. I was a bit confused by what she was saying but I believe the gist of her interest was this: Religion satisfies certain needs common to all people. So if you remove religion, how will these needs be met? Perhaps she'll comment here and correct me, but I think this was the crux of her inquiry.

I could only respond that this was beyond the purview of Dawkins' lecture and, to the best of my knowledge, not addressed in his book The God Delusion. (I haven't read it. I did vow to forego the hardcover in favor of the paperback unless he came to Madison to speak. Lo and behold, I found a paperback for cheap a couple weeks ago and purchased it.) Instead there were three main elements to his speech last night.

Firstly there was his argument that there was no evidence for the existence of supernatural deities generally and Yahweh specifically. He noted that children tend to assume the religion of their parents and also invoked Bertrand Russell's teapot as reasons for disbelief.

The Teleological argument for God's existence or the Argument from Design was next. It allowed Dawkins to transition to the second main element of his presentation – explaining evolution.

Evolution via natural selection is a process which started some 4 billion years ago. This is a massive span of time and its size is not always appreciated. Change occurred gradually. Small steps accumulated over the aeons to produce complex organisms. (Luckily there didn't appear to be any Stephen Jay Gould fans in the audience as no one brought up punctuated equilibrium.) It is here that Dawkins really shined. He is, after all, an evolutionary biologist renowned for his ability to communicate science to the public. No doubt many people in the room understood this, but explaining just what evolution is and how it works is desperately needed even at the college level. It was old hat for any biology students in the audience but liberal arts majors can use all the science they can get. Perhaps things have changed since my days as a student at the UW but at the time there were no safeguards in place to ensure that aspiring liberal artists understood what is probably the most important concept in biology.

The final crucial element that I want to mention is best encapsulated by Dawkins' refrain of "consciousness raising". The D's question about people in a post-religious society remains unanswered and the reason for this is probably best understood by consciousness raising. What Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, John Allen Paulos, and others do with their books is not to prescribe behaviors or give outlines for living in a post-religious society; instead what they're doing is trying to change common discourse with regards to religion. They seek to remove the taboos around discussion of religion so that belief in supernatural deities is not given a pass and not granted legitimacy merely by virtue of existing. For them (and me) religious belief is not a privileged position and such beliefs should be subject to the same scrutiny as economic theory, politics, etc. Being offended is not an excuse to be shielded.

Part of this consciousness raising effort involves the labeling of children. Dawkins pointed out that it is acceptable to label 4 year old children by the religion of their parents, e.g. – a Christian child or a Muslim child. This, he said, is ridiculous (and tantamount to child abuse, in his eyes) because children do not understand what it means to be a Christian or what Christianity entails. Only religion gets this kind of pass, he argued. After all, we don’t call kids Keynesian children or Hayekian children.

Again, I think the objective of the so-called "New Atheists" is not to delineate a framework for a post-religious society. They are, to varying degrees, out to push the virtue of critical thinking, to explain evolution, and to change our discourse so that religion is stripped of its privileges and the taboo of offending the religious is removed.

As I told The D last night, none of the New Atheists believe that religion is going to be eradicated like small pox. No matter how incisive your reasoning and how much evidence piles up, there will be religious people. But part of the consciousness raising aspect is the promotion of secularism, i.e. – keeping religion in the private realm. It is impossible to get rid of belief in Yahweh but that doesn't mean we cannot, for instance, keep Intelligent Design out of biology classes.
|| Palmer, 11:00 AM || link || (0) comments |

A Whole Lotta Tastin' Goin' On

Cheesemakers and turophiles were to be found at the Monona Terrace Convention Center yesterday for the first day of the 2008 World Championship Cheese Contest.

I stopped down there during my lunch break yesterday to see what was happening and to eat some samples. In addition, I was hoping to be able to cheer on Wisconsonian as the gold has gone to feriners the past 20 years. The last time a Cheesehead was crowned World Champion was in 1988 and the title was given to one Dale Olson. What I found when I walked in was a lot of people in white lab coats tasting cheese and dealing with huge rounds & blocks of Swiss. And a few of them sounded like they were speaking German.

So exactly do you cut a block of cheese the size of small city? You get your buddy and one of these contraptions:

Slap that block on the tabletop and then bring the arm with the wire down. It's then ready for judging.

But it wasn't all about leviathan blocks of Swiss when I was there. Along the windows were smaller tables with judges checking out a variety of other kinds of cheeses including Queso Fresco, soft goat's milk cheese, fresh mozzarella, and others. Here you have a couple guys judging Colby, which was invented right here in Wisconsin. (Colby is a bit east of Eau Claire.)

Here's a shot of a core sample being taken which would be smelled and tasted:

And here are a couple photos of some of the tools of the trade that are used once those behemoths have been pared down a bit:

At one of the tables a couple gentlemen were judging string cheeses, one of which you can see here.

This is an Armenian string cheese, though I am unsure if it was from Armenia or made by a cheesemaker elsewhere in the Armenian style. One of the judges asked another what kind of seasoning the black dots were which sent the latter scurrying for information. I didn't find out what it was while there but Wikipedia states that it is "black seed" or Nigella sativa.

Before I forget – yes, there were free samples. There was a cheddar, a brie, a provolone, and a Swiss which was, I believe, an emmentaler. I liked them all but was surprised by the provolone. Being a cheese philistine, I am used to a very bland odorless white cheese. This stuff, however, had a nice aroma and did more to my palate than just let it know there was something on my tongue. Mild, to be sure, but there was good flavor to be had as well.

I'll be heading back today and am hoping that there will be Danish blues or Roquefort to sample.

For a more informed look at yesterday's events, check out Jeanne Carpenter's post up at Cheese Underground.
|| Palmer, 9:21 AM || link || (0) comments |

American Fascists and the Limits of Tolerance

In general, I'm not much of a horror reader but I recently finished one of the scariest books I've ever read - American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges.

If you live in Madison and want o get a glimpse of some American fascists, just tune into cable channel 353, the Trinity Broadcasting Network. (Charter lumps the station into the Faith and Values View, as if only the religious have purview over values.) You may see Paul Crouch, a TBN big whig, hosting a program. If you're lucky, you may hear him say something similar to what he said on 7 November 1997:

"If you have been healed or saved or blessed through TBN and
have not contributed to [the] station, you are robbing God and will lose your reward in heaven."

And so to the person who wrote a critical letter to Isthmus which had bemoaned the introduction of several new channels (including TBN) to the Faith and Values View, I have to ask: is this the kind of shit you approve of? Telling people to send money or The Man In the Sky Who Doesn't Like Shellfish will turn his back on you is the Christian message you think those big bad secular meanies at Isthmus ought to be ashamed of demeaning?

Hedges attended seminary but eschewed the monastic life in favor of being an intrepid reporter which led him to witness, among other things, the worst humanity has to offer. I don't envy him for what he saw in El Salvador in the 1980s or in Bosnia & Kosovo the following decade but am glad that he wrote War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning which examines the human psyche in wartime. I recommend this book to any and everyone. But since, I'm in a pissy mood, I want to especially recommend it to Chelsea Clinton.

She was here in Madison last month stumping for her mother. Someone asked the younger Ms. Clinton if her mother felt remorse for having voted for a war which has claimed the lives of countless Iraqi civilians. Her reply was: "She cast a vote based on the best available evidence. Perhaps you had clairvoyance then, and that’s extraordinary." It was reprehensible for a young woman of extraordinary privilege to be so snide and to ignore what history tells us – civilians always die in war. It doesn't take clairvoyance to know that, when armies do what armies do, innocents are slaughtered. And to just blithely ignore this by attempting to be witty is inexcusable. To make matters worse, most of the press clippings I read about this fawned over her for supposed cleverness when they should have been chastising her for being callous.

Returning to the matter at hand, Hedges' book is about those members of what he calls "a radical Christian movement" – dominionism. Dominionists are like evangelicals but worse. The movement's name comes from the book of Genesis wherein Yahweh gives mankind "dominion" over creation. Although small in number, they control numerous television networks, such as TBN above, and a couple thousand radio stations. They are intent on seizing power in America and radically reshaping the country in a Christian image of their devising.

Hedges asserts that the leaders of this movement prey on the more impoverished among us and cultivate a culture of despair which makes followers especially receptive to their message. The working class has been devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs while the rise of exurbs has served to dislocate individuals from communities. Many of the observations in this section of the book parallel what Thomas Frank wrote in What's the Matter With Kansas but there is a crucial difference to be had. Whereas Frank saw a paradox in working class Middle America voting against their interests (i.e. – Republican), Hedges sees no such contradiction. Instead he differentiates between economic interest, which is what Frank referred to, and other/moral interests. It is the latter which many people invoke when supporting Republicans.

What Hedges argues is that many people who are struggling in this country attach themselves to dominionist leaders because of a message. The message is one of certainty in uncertain times and a promise of better things to come. The movement's leaders also ably creates an Other with which followers can easily contrast themselves and thusly demonize – homosexuals, non-believers, secular humanists, et al. There are many quotes in the book which go beyond, say, homophobia, and are just pure expressions of visceral hatred of gay people. Dominionists are drawn together and told that they are "pure" and under siege by those they seek to demonize. Their speech is couched in terms of war with every disagreement a battle and constant calls to take up arms.

The end goal of dominionists is to make America a Christian nation where those outside the group are persecuted. Eschatology is of paramount importance for them as they also have the goal of ushering in The Rapture, which Hedges notes, is not in the Bible. Yes, the Left Behind series is not pure fiction to them. They submit that the Anti-Christ will rule Europe and that their Christian America will fight him during a tribulation, after which they'll go to heaven and be with Yahweh.

Hedges is very adroit at showing how the beliefs and attitudes of the dominionist movement parallel those of other fascists such as the Nazis. There's the same simplified view of binary opposition – us vs. them, we are pure vs. they who stained, and so on. While the views above are certainly repulsive and scary in themselves, they are all the more horrific considering the vast media empires like TBN that espouse them. Speaking of the Christian Right generally, Rev. Dr. Mel White says of his former associates:

They've won the Congress and the presidency, and they're about to win the courts because of their Congress and the president. They've won state houses across the country and precincts everywhere by the political process. So they have done what we didn't do. They have a system to throw democracy out the window.

While Hedges doesn't lay out a detailed plan of action to counter the Christian Right and the dominionists, he does have some admonishments. The most important of them is for liberals to become intolerant of intolerance.

Most liberals, the movement has figured out, will stand complacently to be sheared like sheep, attempting to open dialogues and reaching out to those who spit venom in their faces.

Debate with the radical Christian Right is useless. We cannot reach this movement. It does not want a dialogue. It is a movement based on emotion and cares nothing for rational thought and discussion. It is not mollified because John Kerry prays or Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school. Naive attempts to reach out to the movement, to assure them that we, too, are Christian or we, too, care about moral values, are doomed. This movement is bent on our destruction. The attempts by many liberals to make peace would be humorous if the stakes were not so deadly. These dominionists hate the liberal, enlightened world formed by the Constitution, a world they blame for the debacle of their lives. They have one goal—its destruction.

This, I think, is the great lesson of American Fascists. Democrats and liberal Christians need to stop trying to promote this idea that they and the Christian Right all believe in the same deity and can be one big happy Christian family despite their differences. If you support American democracy, there can be no common ground, no negotiating with those intent on destroying it. The CR must be denounced always and not reconciled with; they must be met with opposition at every turn instead of attempts to be brought into the fold. Hedges does not think that the CR are necessarily the Nazis; rather he thinks that another terrorist attack or some such social upheaval is necessary for them to advance. The tendrils of the CR would then be able to extend further into our culture of despair and find new recruits. Hedges says that, in such extreme situations, we must be prepared to counter these American fascists with violence, if necessary.

The thought of having to put down a CR insurrection is not a pleasant thought. I suspect that many of my readers are liberal-minded who find the thought of violence disturbing and find the idea that we ought not try to compromise with the CR in the spirit of a free & open society very discomforting. To drive home Hedges admonishments, I will include another quote from the book. Here, he talks about his ethics professor from divinity school, Dr. James Luther Adams. Adams was in Germany in 1935-36.

He saw in the Christian Right, long before we did, disturbing similarities with the German Christian Church and the Nazi Party, similarities, he said that would, in the event of prolonged social instability, catastrophe or national crisis, see American fascists, under the guise of Christianity, rise to dismantle the open society. He despaired of liberals, who he said, as in Nazi Germany,
mouthed empty platitudes about dialogue and inclusiveness that made them ineffectual and impotent. Liberals, he said, did not understand the power and allure of evil or the cold reality of how the world worked.

It is time for liberals to stop being tolerant of those who are intolerant of open society and who would seek to impose their homophobic, racist, eschatological madness on the rest of us.

Here's an interview with Chris Hedges from the CBC show The Hour.

|| Palmer, 8:30 AM || link || (0) comments |

11 March, 2008

Cards Are the Champions

My old high school, Eleva-Strum Central, took the Division 4 boys basketball championship. Congratulations to the team and Coach Roginski. I am told he's still coach, anyway. I hope those notes I left in the margins of my textbooks are serving you well on the academic side.

Speaking of which, how is the E-S Quiz Bowl team doing? I think I still have video of us on channel 8 out of La Crosse when we beat Eau Claire Regis. It was just like The Young Ones episode when they were on University Challenge but without Motorhead.
|| Palmer, 10:17 AM || link || (4) comments |

Sometimes More Is More and Other Reasons I Should Stop Reading The Cap Times

Why do I refer to Madison's afternoon paper as "The Crap Times"? Well, here's a couple reasons.

Firstly there's this story which was under the "Headlines" section today: "12-year-old shoots 9-year-old sister; ice to blame". A kid slips and accidentally shoots his sister in the leg with a BB gun and this is a "headline" for TCT. I am now fearful that the impending online-only version of the paper will have a whole section devoted to childhood accidents. I just can't wait until next month when I can get my fix of "Little Jimmy scrapes cheek; ice to blame" and "10-year-old girl twists ankle at ballet practice" stories.

And what story is on the main page right now with title in big font? "Will global warming affect Packers' success?" The article cites a statistic which says that "cold weather teams won more than 65 percent of their home games played from November through January against warm weather teams from 1998 through 2005". After spending a few paragraphs discussing this phenomenon and the potential impact of global warming on the Packers, it is conceded that such discussion is "a lighthearted way" to tackle (ahem) a serious issue. I don't have a problem with this way of introducing the topic despite it eschewing the inverted pyramid format that aspiring journalists are taught. (My girlfriend is taking a journalism class and I have thumbed through her textbook.) But can the serious bit get more space? Can the lighthearted stuff get a paragraph or two before we give over the bulk of the article to the real issue? When the piece's author finally does, here's what we get:

Kohler has little hope for action by the state Legislature this week -- the final week of the legislative session -- on a bill aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The bill was approved by a Senate environmental committee but has not been taken up by the corresponding Assembly committee, and an attempt by Democrats to bring up the bill on the floor of the Assembly failed.

Carrie Lynch, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, said it is unlikely -- given the state's current budget problems -- that this bill, which would add state employees, will move forward.

I am glad all of this info was included but too much was left out. What have I learned about the bill? 1) It aims to limit greenhouse gas emissions and 2) it would require the state to hire more people. That's it. For an issue that can have "serious effects" for "environment, economy and public health" (including potential poor Packer performance), Ms. Weier seems quite disinterested in giving her readers much information. Why would additional people have to be hired? By what means would this bill, should it become law, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases? Why did the Assembly committee fail to take it up? Who was responsible for ensuring that the bill was not brought to the floor of the Assembly?

So, if you're not going to give us the courtesy of explaining any of the details of the bill, can you please provide a link to it? If you don't want to help us understand, please, at the very least, provide links so that we have tools so that we can do the work ourselves.
|| Palmer, 10:01 AM || link || (2) comments |

It's the Singer, Not the Song

Eric Sofge speaks ill of the dead today up at Slate in a piece called "Orc Holocaust" in which he excoriates Dungeons & Dragons and its recently deceased co-creator, Gary Gygax. His main problem is that D&D is hack'n'slash while other systems allow for more creativity.

What's wrong with Dungeons & Dragons? It plays like a video game. A good role-playing game provides the framework for a unique kind of narrative, a collaborative thought experiment crossed with improvisational theater. But D&D, particularly the first edition that Gygax co-wrote in 1975, makes this sort of creative play an afterthought.

His criticism continues in this vein and he asserts that the only way for a D&D character to grow or mature is to gain more experience points and the sole way to do this is to kill.

It is certainly true that the formative years of D&D were dominated by dungeon crawls. That is, your characters meet at a tavern, get hired to do or find something, and then head over to a dungeon to start a-killin'. But to say in 2008 that early versions of the game, especially the very first from 1975, were really bad is disingenuous to say the least. The intervening 33 years things have seen lots of change. In fact, things changed so much that people are making retro Dungeon Crawl Classics or adventures that are just like the kind that Sofge bitches about and that dominated play back in the day. If you miss Keep on the Borderlands and its ilk, you are now saved.

But it's also the case that players and DMs have also done their own thing, rules be damned. Sofge slags on D&D for its propensity to limit the imagination of players but this never stopped us from having gay characters despite there being no mention of it in the rule books; to the best of my knowledge, rules delineating how being drunk affects a character do not exist yet taverns and inns offering mead are everywhere in D&D campaigns. Lack of direction from the rules never stopped us from having inebriated alter egos. We were drawn to RPGs because we wanted to flex our imaginations and we didn't need everything spelled out in the most minute detail in the rules because we could imagine things for ourselves and jury rig the rules to conform.

Besides, what's wrong with hack'n'slash? My friend Pete loves those kinds of adventures and, as D&D has progressed, it has made battle much more interesting and fun. Pete was a Marine and developing stratagems for neutralizing the enemy is something he enjoys. Today's D&D rules have more weapons, more fighting styles, and more maneuvers which makes combat much more exciting. One's imagination does not hide away in a closet just because your character marches into battle.

I know people that love D&D and continue to play it. I also know other folks who used it as a gateway RPG to GURPS or ICE and/or to other non-medieval fantasy systems, e.g. – Call of Cthulhu. Gamers choose a system based on personal preference. Today most, if not all, RPGs are D20 systems so that is no longer a consideration for most in selecting a system. Some folks like the detail afforded by GURPS vs. D&D, for instance. Regardless of the game, all players agree that any RPG session will be more fun if you have a good DM/GM. Sofge's problem is that he mistakes rules for destiny. I do not have thorough knowledge of every incarnation of the D&D rules concerning experience points, but DMs have been giving them out for things not elucidated in rules for years. Getting an XP bonus for playing a character well is not something exclusive to GURPS as Sofge maintains. The framework that Gygax helped create has always been just that and to say that all D&D players can do is slaughter is patently absurd.

I agree with Safge in that role playing is best when the result is a fun, intriguing narrative in which everyone takes part. But accomplishing that goal is the responsibility of the players and the DM, not of the rules.
|| Palmer, 9:11 AM || link || (0) comments |

09 March, 2008

Deep Forbidden Lake

The Dulcinea and I spent some time yesterday morning out at Law Park on Lake Monona...

|| Palmer, 1:25 PM || link || (0) comments |

08 March, 2008

The Stories So Far

Susan Jacoby is going around saying that America is in an age of unreason – a time when ignorance rules the roost. One of the things she harps on is that studies show that we are reading less. Well, I have to admit that here in 2008, I've been doing my share of reading. While I've meant to write more about my reading habits the past couple months, I have not done so. So here's a brief overview of the books I've digested so far this year.

I have already written about Matt Rothschild's You Have No Rights and my blathering can be found here.

Being a big Monty Python fan, Jones' book was a no-brainer. It's a collection of columns that he wrote for various UK newspapers in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. He takes Bush & Blair on for waging war against a concept and does so with great sarcasm and humor. Since these pieces were directed at an English audience, there are times when I was a bit confused because of my ignorance of the structure of the UK's government and the personae of various figures. Still, it worked very well as a critique of the motivation for the war and the rhetoric of the justification.

Christopher Hitchens' slim volume gives the case for Hank Kissinger as war criminal. Most of the incidents elaborating upon here are familiar to folks who are knowledgeable with America's foreign policy - the bombing of Cambodia, the overthrow of Salvador Allende, and the Greek dictatorship – but I'm sure there are loads of people who are ignorant of our complicity in these horrors. It is incredibly sad to read the charges here. Just imagine how things would be different if the peace talks of 1968 had been successful. Hitchens make a good case for Kissinger sabotaging the process. As I said, it's a fairly short book but it made me want to read more about the figure I grew up seeing parodied on SNL.

Another book by a local. John Allen Paulos spent part of his youth in Milwaukee before coming here to attend school at the UW. He is now a professor of mathematics at Temple University. Paulos is like the Carl Sagan of mathematics as he writes for a lay audience. Innumeracy is like illiteracy but with numbers instead of letters.

He lays out a case for the importance of math and shows how it is useful in everyday life beyond balancing one's checkbook. It helps develop one's critical thinking skills which, in turn, allows one to cut through the statistics that are blithely thrown out by the media. Paulos laments the perverse pleasure people take in their mathematical ignorance and says, "Of course, some people have more talent than others in mathematics, just as some write better than others, but we don't advise students to forget their English and literature courses if they're not planning to be journalists or novelists." The reader is shown how an unfamiliarity with large numbers and probability leads to irrational fear of being the victim of some heinous random event. We also learn about coincidence as well, the ignorance of which serves as the foundation of belief in pseudoscience. There is math here but the reader is not burdened with equations. Instead he approaches the topic with stories that serve as examples, some of which are culled from real life.

This is an excellent book and essential reading for getting beyond the numerical soundbites which are all-too common in today's media.

I first read Benjamin Barber's Strong Democracy in college and it's taken me nearly 14 years to read something else by him. But I did it. The book is about the spread of American consumer capitalism and its attendant culture (McWorld) and those who would oppose it (Jihad). Note, "jihad" here does not directly refer to anything related to Islam. Despite being nearly 12 years old, many of the arguments within still ring true.

Barber laments McWorld where we are nothing more than consumers of private goods with transnational corporations branding everything they can while trying to post the greatest gains in the shortest time by aiming straight for the lowest common denominator. Freedom means having choices – consumer choices. We may have options when it comes to buying a car but precious few in the public transportation (a.k.a. – social choices). Denizens of McWorld have many ways of constructing private lives but many fewer for creating social lives. As globalization spreads, there are those in opposition and, Barber tells us, they are notable for their tribalism. They are xenophobic and very resistant to change of any stripe.

Barber is at his beset when he sticks with documenting the changes. The early chapters detail the spread of American brand names, the movement of labor, and where mineral & energy resources are located around the globe. And I personally agree with him when he laments how city streets around the world are beginning to look the same dotted as they are with McDonald's, KFCs, and Pepsi signs.

The problem I have is when he leaves the world of statistics and moves to the level of the individual. He starts lumping people strictly into McWorld or Jihad and doesn't allow for an intermediary state. In one chapter, Barber notes that many Parisians travel outside of the city to rural areas to spend weekends in the country. He leaps into their psyches and claims they do this to "escape French modernity". Then, straying as far away from facts and figures as he can, he opines that these weekend travelers destroy "the rural landscape they wish to honor, just as their ex-urban occupation of quiet farm villages infects these hamlets with a corrosive cosmopolitanism." Moreover, they "cannot do for more than a long weekend without the twin fixes of twentieth-century consumerism and twenty-first-century technology". In other words, there is no respite from McWorld because it is like herpes – you can't shake it.

This is a good example of what I find wrong with the book. Everyone is a member of one tribe or the other and so is either a McWorld drone who swallows global consumerism hook, line, and sinker or you are a backwards, xenophobic country bumpkin who may also have bellicose tendencies. Instead I think that people are more likely to find ways to mediate the two extremes. If you're reading this, I'll bet that, like me, you are neither a credit card bearing automaton nor a backwoods Luddite railing against anything that came about after 1900. Barber is too black and white whereas I think each of our lives is grey. Barber spends a lot of ink bashing the notion that people are merely consumers preoccupied with purchasing goods as well as promoting the idea that we also like to pursue non-commercial ventures such as friends, love, religion, charity work, et al yet he always characterizes people as being at one extreme or another instead of seeing them as pursuing multiple interests and adopting different roles. Eating fast food and shopping at a big box store doesn't render one incapable of finding joy and meaning from things that money cannot buy.

Lastly we have Nature via Nurture which I just finished yesterday. It was an utterly fascinating book which argues against both the blank slate idea as well as natavism, or that everything about us is programmed in our genes. Ridley begins with an imaginary photograph of 12 hairy men, each of which has contributed to the debate about the roles of nature and nurture in determining our make-up. Each chapter begins at some point in the past and examines the ideas of these 12 men. He explains how the ideas came about, how they developed, and how they fit into the puzzle.

In addition to the history lesson, I learned (again) that nearly a quarter of the human genome consists of genes bestowed upon us by retroviruses in our past. Although genes are, at their most basic level, merely recipes for proteins, they are amazing. Ridley does a great job of exploding the idea that there is a single gene for everything. Too many people I've encountered think this way. For them, the idea that something has a genetic basis or component means that there is a single gene which causes the phenomenon and this is far from the truth. Sure, there are single-gene diseases but most maladies have much more complicated causes and the section on schizophrenia is worth the price of admission alone.

Not having a strong biology background, I found some of the tales here enthralling. For instance, there was the paragraph on how tadpole eyes become frog eyes with a gene activating so that ephrin B is created and this protein directs the growth of axons from the retina to the part of the brain that deals with sight. Another interesting bit was the examination of the KAL-1 gene in the development of Kallmann syndrome which leaves the victim with no sense of smell and small gonads. There's a lot of important nasal action that needs to happen in the womb.

There were even a couple pages devoted to researchers who did work right here in Madison. First there was Harry Harlow who placed baby monkeys in cages with a wire "mother" equipped with a bottle of milk and a cloth "mother" not offering food. He found that, while they suckled at the wire model, the baby monkeys spent most of their time with the cloth model. These results and others struck a blow to B.F. Skinner and his behaviorist notion that children only love their mothers because the latter supply food. In 1980 Susan Mineka also did some experiments here at the UW. She showed that monkeys could be taught to fear snakes but not flowers. Ridley concludes, "It shows that there is a degree of instinct in learning, just as imprinting shows that there is a degree of learning in instinct."

Aside from the material itself, Ridley's writing is to be commended. The science is explained well for the lay reader and he tells a good tale. I liked how he mixed history of science with his subject and injected the personalities of various scientists into the stew. In addition, the book shows the best and worst of science as an enterprise at work. On the bad side, we see certain people take their knowledge in this area and align themselves with eugenics. On the good side, science moves forward with established theories being tossed to the wayside as more evidence comes to light.

A highly recommended read.
|| Palmer, 4:06 PM || link || (0) comments |