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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rendezvous: Chapter 1

Dee grumbled to herself as she stood up to go wet some paper towels and wipe off the fresh pizza sauce that had fallen on the front of her shirt.
"Way to go, Dee," said Sam as she returned to the couch, "Embarrass us in front of the boys some more, why don't you?" Sam folded the greasy slice before carefully taking a bite, wanting to eat pizza and not her words. Deftly avoiding Dee's fate, she turned her attention back to the cartoon on the TV.
Having reduced the saucy mess to a light orange stain, Dee returned to the table with paper plates and set them next to the newly-arrived pizza boxes as the four men around the table finished rearranging their dice and character sheets.
"Crisis handled," quipped Seamus. "Now - where were we?"
"You're out in the hallway. You and Dee have been waiting on either side of the doorway, and Kevin's character is standing guard by the stairs. Cam's guy is still researching that one magical thing." Jack looked expectantly at the four of them as he absent-mindedly manipulated dice in his free hand while eating a slize of pizza and looking over the notes on his laptop, presently employed as a makeshift screen to hide his activities from the gamers at the table.
"Well," drawled Kevin, "I guess we just wait for something to happen."
"All right," said Jack. "A few minutes go by, Seamus and Dee hear muffled voices speaking behind the door. Suddenly, there's a shout and then a gunshot immediately afterward."
"OK, as soon as I hear that shout, I'd draw my nine and kick down the door," said Seamus.
"It's just a flimsy office door, so I won't make you roll for it," Jack responded.
"I'd pull out my buck knife and poke my head in the doorway when Seamus is through," added Dee. Kevin indicated that he'd stay at the stairwell and continue to keep an eye out.
"All right," began Jack, "Seamus, you see your police contact having what appears to be a seizure on the floor in the middle of the room, gun drawn. Jonas is slumped in his chair, a large bloodstain on his chest. The old man is scrambling on hands and knees to get in the corner."
Seamus considered the situation for a second and then said, "I'll go over to the old man grab him by the collar of his shirt."
"OK. Dee?"
"I'm gonna pop in the room and take a look at the cop."
"He stops convulsing as you approach, and he's got black powder in his face and on the front of his shirt." Jack paused to roll a few dice. "Also, you notice that Jonas has a small envelope in his lap."
"Can I check his pulse without touching that black shit?"
"Sure. He's dead."
"OK, then I'd just say, 'He's dead, there's black shit all over him.' Then I'll go take a look at Jonas' corpse." Dee sat back and folded her arms in a subconscious attempt to cover the stain on her shirt. She looked at Cameron, who was leaning back his chair on two legs as he read the notes Jack had prepared for him on the magical whatsit he was supposed to be investigating. He was eating pizza without even looking at it. Flawless. Dee glowered.
"I stick my gun in the old guy's face and ask him, 'What's that black stuff all over the cop?'"
"The old man looks over at the cop's corpse and says, 'Black stuff? I don't know, I'm not a doctor!'" Cameron nearly choked on his pizza. The rest of them erupted into a fit of hearty laughter.
"Oh, man," said Seamus, "I'm gonna use that for everything now! 'Where are my car keys?' I don't know, I'm not a doctor! 'Did you leave the oven on?' I don't know, I'm not a doctor! 'Why didn't you pay your bills on time?' I am NOT a DOCTOR!" Seamus' inimitable inflection on the last line led to a new round of laughs.
Somewhere in the middle of this nonsense, Sam jumped up from the couch and shouted to the group, "Holy shit! Guys, come take a look at this!"
The quintet of gamers ambled over to the TV, still chuckling to themselves over the latest development. It appeared that Breaking News had interrupted whatever late-night cartoon Sam had been watching. Flaming wreckage was visible in the background, and the screams of the injured were audible over the sound of sirens. A newscaster holding a wet cloth to his mouth rose from below the camera and began speaking.
"For those of you just tuning in, we should be on all channels now, I'm standing here in the middle of Chicago during what appears to be a coordinated-"
The Emergency Broadcast System appeared shortly. Just as "This is not a test" scrolled across the screen, the power went out in the apartment. The six figures stood frozen in the darkness. Moments later, a faint rumble was heard in the distance.
"Huh," said Dee. "S'quiet." With no power for their amps, even the terrible Monday night cover band at the bar below the apartment had stopped playing. Cameron, Kevin, and Seamus had been plagued by the barely-even-music most nights since moving in. They had only ever viewed the apartment in daylight before signing the lease, and hadn't considered the fact that theirs was a college town, complete with bar scenes that seemed almost designed to favor That Guy when he suggests a change of scenery to Drunk Girl. But now that they had peace and quiet, the silence was foreboding, every creak and groan amplified by the hardwood floors, brick walls, and empty space.
Dee startled the others as she began walking across the room. The apartment had one large main room, almost as large as a studio apartment in its own right, with three bedrooms on the street side of the building. Dee was heading for the bathroom now, a windowless room set towards the interior of the apartment. For some reason, the light switch had been placed on the outside of the room - more than once, Dee had found herself pants down in the dark when one of the boys had shut off the light. For that reason, she had stashed a cheap flashlight under the magazine rack next to the toilet.
Sweeping the beam of light across the large room, she asked, "Do you guys have any candles?" Seamus had just lit a large three-wick candle on the metal trunk they used as a coffee table, and was on his way to his room for more. Dee handed the light to Seamus as he passed. She then flicked on her plain gunmetal Zippo so she didn't have to fumble with the back door in the shadow of the candlelight, and stepped out into the cool May air for a smoke on the roof.
Sam came out to join her a few moments later with a pair of hard ciders. She walked up the grated metal steps to the rooftop and saw Dee standing casually at the very corner, staring down below. Sam leaned her hips on the railing and then smoothly swung both legs over in rapid succession, flipping her hair victoriously as Dee glanced her way at the noise. Handing Dee a cider, she looked down below and saw the throng of people slowly milling about on the street in the half-light of the slow traffic. Wandering about in various states of inebriation, groaning in disappointment both at the closing of the bars and the slow speed with which the cabs were trickling by, they looked for all the world like a mob of zombies.
Dee turned around and stepped away from the edge when she heard Seamus approaching, a six-pack of bottled cider in one hand and a smoke in the other. He was smoking the same brand of clove cigarettes as Dee. After setting down the six-pack, he cracked one open and downed half of it in one long pull. He gave an exaggerated sigh of contentment and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth before depositing his cigarette there. At six feet even, Dee could see straight over Seamus' head, but he could out-drink her any day of the week. Jack and Sam were both comparative light-weights, though, with Cameron and Kevin falling somewhere in the middle. Sensing a challenge, Dee drained the rest of her bottle and popped open another from the six-pack.
"Well, that was fuckin' weird," remarked Seamus, sitting cross-legged on the roof after glancing over the edge at the crowd beneath.
"Yeah," agreed Sam, sipping at her drink.
"Hey," said Dee, "I just thought of something. You guys have cable here. What the hell would cause there to be static on cable - don't you just go to a test screen or something when it goes out?"
"Nah," replied Seamus, "It's digital cable, it just gives an error message with a form-letter apology and contact number."
"Whatever, I don't watch TV. What could have caused it to go to static like that?"
"Dunno. Maybe some signal distortion, maybe the transmission got cut off, could have been a lot of things."
"What about the newscaster," Sam interjected. "What do you think he was trying to say?"
"Probably 'coordinated attack,'" offered Dee. "If that rumble we heard was an explosion - and judging by the the timing, what with the distance of the power station, I'd say that's likely - then maybe there's some kind of attack going on."
"Bullshit," said Seamus. "We're in Buttfuck, Illinois. Who the Hell could attack us? Fuckin' Canada?"
"I dunno," said Sam. "I mean, that would explain some stuff."
"Yes," sighed Seamus, rolling his eyes. "But so could fucking magic. I'm saying there's probably a much more plausible explanation which we're just overlooking."
Dee raised an eyebrow at him, regarding him critically. "Such as?"
"Shit," said Seamus, spitting over the edge of the roof. "Remember that rolling blackout that went from the East Coast almost to, fuckin', uhh - Pennsylvania, or some shit? Maybe something like that happened again, and something blew up over there, or whatever. I mean, it wouldn't fucking surprise me if, were something like that to happen again, the media blamed it on 'teh terrists.' And it's only, like, five and a half years since nine-eleven with nothing else scary to show for it, so why the Hell not?"
"Sure," responded Dee, "But can you imagine the backlash afterwards? If the media wasn't nailed for inciting panic, then the government would probably catch Hell for feeding that story to 'em, if that's what they did. I don't see anyone getting out of this clean, if that's the case. That would just be stupid."
"Fair enough." Seamus shrugged and dropped the butt of his cigarette into his now-empty bottle, then opened another. "So what about the backup grid," he asked after taking a swig. "Shouldn't that be up, I don't know, now-ish? There's no traffic lights or anything down there. Radio towers, other cities in the distance, everything's down."
Dee shrugged and sipped her cider. Sam finished hers and cracked open a second. Dee leaned her head back and looked up into the sky, then closed her eyes and rolled her head around on her neck.
"Fuck this noise," said Sam after a long moment. "Looks like we'll be without power for a while, so we better drink all this stuff before it goes bad." Dee raised her eyebrows and poked her tongue out at Seamus, who smiled crookedly and winked. He grabbed what remained of the six-pack, packing the empties in, and the three of them went back inside.
The rest of the night passed quite uneventfully, with the exception of uncharacteristically heavy drinking for a Monday night.

Rendezvous: Prologue

Quick note:  The prologue and chapter 1 are both kind of short, so I'm doing them both today.  Also, I can't figure out how to get the indentations of the first line of every paragraph - which show up both in "compose" and in "preview" - to register in the final post as more than a single space.  What the Hell?

Prologue:  End of the World

The terminal sat in perfect darkness.  No light had fallen upon it in years.  No user had touched it in centuries.
Silently, the door slid open, and at last a narrow shaft of light fell across it.  A lone figure cautiously approached, and lights illuminated the small room.  The door closed without a sound.
Bewildered, the solitary woman reached her hand out to touch the smooth surface of the terminal.  She was intrigued more than startled when it activated, entranced more than frightened as the strange characters appeared before her eyes.  She chuckled to think of herself in her tattered rags, little more than a cavewoman to all appearances, operating a piece of machinery with a level of sophistication she had never seen before.
Unsure of what to do, how to do it, or even how to set about answering those questions, she started touching things.  The colorful, ornate symbols danced smoothly before her in the air as she ever so lightly brushed them about with her fingertips.  As she worked with them, she began to guess at their meanings.  They seemed so suggestive, so intuitive, almost as if they were written to be understood by anyone who stared at them for long enough.
As she played around, she found herself growing more and more familiar with certain strings of characters.  She could almost feel the rate of growth of her understanding quicken, as she was soon able to interpret fragments of the strange writing almost at a glance.  She marvelled at this, but quickly filed it away as a curiosity for a later date.  For now, she had work to do.
Wracking her brain for the relevant dates and times, she started searching for something resembling a log, a record, anything of the kind.  Finding it, she scoured its contents - and then paused.  Was that what she thought it was?  The same fragment appeared at the end of each date, offset from the rest.  If those were the constants she believed them to be, then - oh!  And she could configure other parts, as well!  This could end up working out better than she had imagined.  And if the plan she began to formulate actually went smoothly, why, she could find herself in a very good position, indeed!
Reining in her excitement with caution, she decided that the most productive action for her to take would be to go back to the beginning and work from there.  After all, it would be easy enough to get back to her current spot, should the need arise.  She cross-referenced a few variables before inputting them, made a quick mental note of her last several days' travel so she could find her way back, and then focused her attention on correctly interpreting the symbols associated with the final command sequence.  Not only could this fix everything, this would revolutionize our understanding of the physical universe, and she would be right at the center of it!  Performing two last checks on her input out of habit, she pressed what she had determined to be the "go" button.
Her stomach lurched and she grew light-headed.
Everything started going backwards.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Rendezvous: On doing that thing I said I'd do

So in 2007, I competed in National Novel Writing Month, and won!  Not against anybody, that is; I simply crossed the "finish line" of 50,000 words between November 1st and November 30th.  The prize awarded to the winners was a free publishing, the deadline for which is coming up this April.  I didn't come up with a decent title for my book (not even a working title!) until last summer, by which time I had already completely overhauled, of all things, the setting.  This more or less made it two books.  Last summer, a Gears of War 2 trailer was released which happened to feature an excerpt from a poem which I had read in high school English during our war poetry unit.  The poem was I Have a Rendezvous with Death, by Alan Seeger:
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
This poem was one of John F. Kennedy's favorites; I like it quite a bit, myself.  I planned to title the second version of my book Breath to Breath, after a rather grievous misapprehension of that phrase.  The specific scene I have in mind is more or less a microcosm for the greater theme of the book, that the end of the world sucks - but in a "gripping page-turner" sort of way, I hope.

Being the procrastinator that I am, I have not yet gotten around to actually writing the second version (though I do have it planned in my head).  The sweet free publishing deadline is now looming close, and instead of doing the bulk of the work during Christmas vacation, I kind of have to do it all at once now.  Rather than risk failing at something awesome, I'm going to assuredly succeed at something decent, which is creating a second draft of the first version, called Rendezvous.

The tagline is, "The end of the world isn't all it's cracked up to be."

I'll be spending many of February's posts on the nineteen chapters of Rendezvous.  It's part sci-fi, part horror, with a twist of creation myth.  At any rate, this book will eventually be for sale, but for now, you can read it for free on the internet.  Hope you all enjoy it!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part five: Ring Species

What's in a name?  Taxonomists arguing over the finer points of speciation could give you an earful on this.  On a somewhat related note, I once heard a person exclaim, "When I see a monkey give birth to a man, I'll believe in evolution."  They were probably quoting or paraphrasing some famous ignoramus, and the who of the matter is merely trivial.  The point is that, for want of education, there are many who simply do not understand that modern humans did not descend from modern apes, but rather that both groups are descended from a common ancestor.

I can attest from personal experience that, for those with no education in biology past the age of eighteen (formal or informal - I mean those who do not even casually look into the subject), it can be extremely difficult to communicate this point in an intelligible and accurate manner.  We are, after all, talking about long-extinct transitional forms creating a chain going back in time and forward again down multitudinous paths to cement the cousinship of all life on the planet.  To the uninitiated and skeptical, this can be a tough concept to wrap one's mind around!  The metaphor of a growing tree, with the very tips of each twig representing extant life, can be a useful one.  But there is a real life example staring us in the face which can help drive the concept home, and that example is ring species.

Here is a general example of a ring species:  imagine three groups of animals, A, B, and C.  Animals of group A interbreed with animals of group B, and animals of group B interbreed with animals of group C - but none of the animals of group A interbreed with any of the animals of group C.  The interesting part is where we see this in living animals.

An example of this phenomenon is in the Larus gulls of the Arctic Circle.  In Europe live two species of gull, the Herring gull and the Lesser Black-backed gull.  These two groups do not interbreed, though they often perform their mating in mixed groups (that is, all together at the same time, but Herring gulls mating with Herring gulls only and Lesser Black-backed gulls mating with Lesser Black-backed gulls only).  However, the Herring gulls of the UK will interbreed with the Herring gulls of North America, which look kind of like them.  The American Herring gull will also interbreed with the Vega Herring gull of Northern Russia, which kind of looks like it.  Vega's gull interbreeds with Birula's gull, and the two also look somewhat similar to each other.  Birula's gull interbreeds with Heuglin's gull, which in turn interbreeds with the Siberian Lesser Black-backed gull, which in turn interbreeds with - did you guess it yet? - the Lesser Black-backed gull of Europe!  Here it is in graphic format:
So, to recap:  the Herring gull and Lesser Black-backed gull do not interbreed with each other, yet each interbreeds with geographic neighbors in a continuous ring which connects the non-interbreeding groups.

A more striking example is in the Ensatina salamanders of Western North America.  In the mountains surrounding the Central Valley of California, the Ensatina accomplishes in one state what the Larus gulls do all around the Arctic Circle.  Some nineteen species of salamander live in areas forming a vague loop around the Central Valley, and at the Southern end, near Mexico, this loop is "clipped" (as the Arctic loop above is "clipped" in Europe).  To the West lives the Monterey Ensatina, Ensatina eschscholtzii eschscholtzii; to the East, the Large-blotched Salamander, Ensatina eschscholtzii klauberi.  Hearkening back to our earlier, general example, the Monterey Ensatina is our "A" species, and the Large-blotched Salamander our "C."  All the other seventeen species of Ensatina living around the loop are "B" species:  capable of interbreeding with each other, as well as with A & C.

Interbreeding (more precisely, the ability by interbreeding to produce viable offspring) is often held to be the gold standard of taxonomic distinction:  if you interbreed, you're probably the same species; if you don't, you're definitely not the same species.  One would think that such a binary, cut-and-dry system would be foolproof, but Mother Nature is as cunning as she is complicated.  Ring species, by their very existence, present a nigh-insoluble paradox to this view - if A & B are the same species, and B & C are the same species, then A & C should be the same species; yet A & C do not interbreed, and so by our definition of "species," it would appear that we cannot resolve our inconsistent desires to at once classify B with each of A and C, but also separate A and C from each other taxonomically.

There is, of course, a third option:  the idea of distinct "species" is fundamentally illusory, and our taxonomy (while useful) is merely a language of convenience.  This, as it turns out, is the case!  In The Ancestor's Tale, Richard Dawkins explains these examples and points out just exactly how instrumental they can be to understanding how speciation naturally occurs:
Ring species like the salamanders and the gulls are only showing us in the spatial dimension something that must always happen in the time dimension. Suppose we humans, and the chimpanzees, were a ring species. It could have happened: a ring perhaps moving up one side of the Rift Valley, and down the other side, with two completely separate species coexisting at the southern end of the ring, but an unbroken continuum of interbreeding all the way up and back round the other side. If this were true, what would it do to our attitudes to other species? To apparent discontinuities generally? (pg. 303)
In the terms of our general example, some B species could be considered a distant common ancestor to extant species A and C - when no B species is present, A and C appear to be distinct (and for good reason).  But when we see B alongside A and C, the line separating the two becomes fuzzier as their kinship is thrust into our faces.  Alternatively, A could be the ancestral species, B the transitional forms, and C the extant species.  At no point does A "turn into" C; rather, it goes through various B stages before arriving, smoothly, at C (which in turn is merely a transitional form "on the way to" D, E, F, and so on).  The time scales involved in such transformations, though, are typically on the order of hundreds of thousands of years, and as such are difficult to point to conclusively.  Well, it's easier with bacteria, but that opens a whole 'nother can of bees.

Later, Doctor Dawkins lays bare the philosophical underpinnings of such problems as they relate to modern taxonomy (and here I thought the philosophy was my job!):
Ernst Mayr, distinguished elder statesman of twentieth-century evolution, has blamed the delusion of discontinuity - under its philosophical name of Essentialism - as the main reason why evolutionary understanding came so late in human history. Plato, whose philosophy can be seen as the inspiration for Essentialism, believed that actual things are imperfect versions of an ideal archetype of their kind. Hanging somewhere in ideal space is an essential, perfect rabbit, which bears the same relation to a real rabbit as a mathematician's perfect circle bears to a circle drawn in the dust. To this day many people are deeply imbued with the idea that sheep are sheep and goats are goats, and no species can ever give rise to another because to do so they'd have to change their 'essence'.
There is no such thing as essence.
No evolutionist thinks that modern species change into other modern species. Cats don't turn into dogs or vice versa. Rather, cats and dogs have evolved from a common ancestor, who lived tens of millions of years ago. If only all the intermediates were still alive, attempting to separate cats from dogs would be a doomed enterprise, as it is with the salamanders and the gulls. Far from being a question of ideal essences, separating cats from dogs turns out to be possible only because of the lucky (from the point of view of the essentialist) fact that the intermediates happen to be dead. Plato might find it ironic to learn that it is actually an imperfection - the sporadic ill-fortune of death - that makes the separation of any one species from another possible. (pg. 308)
Dawkins refers to this "essentialist" viewpoint as part of "the tyranny of the discontinuous mind."  Discontinuity is necessary in order to make classification coherent in the first place (which is good, as classification is often useful), but it is often the case that such discontinuities aren't actually present - at least, not at the levels our minds are evolutionarily prepared to deal with.  Under the thumb of a discontinuous mind, it is easy to see why the fiction of a six-thousand-years-past Creation of the world and all its "distinct" species is so damned attractive to so many:  it fits into our tiny, tiny brains, with all their genetically programmed instincts.  The reality of the situation, though - that speciation is due only to extinction, and all the world is kin - is far subtler, far grander, and far more interesting than any fiction ever dreamt by humankind.

Monday, January 26, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part four: Spancill Hill

The story of Spancill Hill is a genuine Irish-American legend, concerning a song written by a man named Michael Considine. I came across this interesting bit of history and/or folklore while looking up the lyrics to the song Fairmount Hill by the Dropkick Murphys.

As the Wikipedia page can tell you, Michael Considine came to the USA from the Cross of Spancilhill, Ireland in 1870, at about the age of twenty. After working in Boston for two years, Considine moved to California, and died shortly thereafter. Before he died, though, he wrote a poem called "Spancilhill," and sent it to his six-year-old nephew John for safekeeping.

Here is the poem:
Last night as I lay dreaming, of the pleasant days gone by,
My mind being bent on rambling and to Erin's Isle I did fly.
I stepped on board a vision and sailed out with a will,
'Till I gladly came to anchor at the Cross of Spancilhill.

Enchanted by the novelty, delighted with the scenes,
Where in my early childhood, I often times have been.
I thought I heard a murmur, I think I hear it still,
'Tis that little stream of water at the Cross of Spancilhill.

And to amuse my fancy, I lay upon the ground,
Where all my school companions, in crowds assembled 'round.
Some have grown to manhood, while more their graves did fill,
Oh I thought we were all young again, at the Cross of Spancilhill.

It being on a Sabbath morning, I thought I heard a bell,
O'er hills and vallies sounded, in notes that seemed to tell,
That Father Dan was coming, his duty to fulfill,
At the parish church of Clooney, just one mile from Spancilhill.

And when our duty did commence, we all knelt down in prayer,
In hopes for to be ready, to climb the Golden Stair.
And when back home returning, we danced with right good will,
To Martin Moilens music, at the Cross of Spancilhill.

It being on the twenty third of June, the day before the fair,
Sure Erin's sons and daughters, they all assembled there.
The young, the old, the stout and the bold, they came to sport and kill,
What a curious combination, at the Fair of Spancilhill.

I went into my old home, as every stone can tell,
The old boreen was just the same, and the apple tree over the well,
I miss my sister Ellen, my brothers Pat and Bill,
Sure I only met my strange faces at my home in Spancilhill.

I called to see my neighbors, to hear what they might say,
The old were getting feeble, and the young ones turning grey.
I met with tailor Quigley, he's as brave as ever still,
Sure he always made my breeches when I lived in Spancilhill.

I paid a flying visit, to my first and only love,
She's as pure as any lilly, and as gentle as a dove.
She threw her arms around me, saying Mike I love you still,
She is Mack the Rangers daughter, the Pride of Spancilhill.

I thought I stooped to kiss her, as I did in days of yore,
Says she Mike you're only joking, as you often were before,
The cock crew on the roost again, he crew both loud and shrill,
And I awoke in California, far far from Spancilhill.

But when my vision faded, the tears came in my eyes,
In hope to see that dear old spot, some day before I die.
May the Joyous King of Angels, His Choicest Blessings spill,
On that Glorious spot of Nature, the Cross of Spancilhill.
The really interesting thing about this poem, though, is how it came to pass that we can read the original version today. After Considine's death, a popular but inaccurate version of the song took root in the area. From the Wikipedia page:
In the late 1930s or early '40s, Robbie McMahon, a local folk singer and composer, during an Irish traditional music session in Spancil Hill, was in a neighbour's house with some friends singing when someone suggested singing "Spancillhill". The woman of the house, Moira Keane, left the room and when she came back said, "If ye are going to sing that song ye might as well sing it right" and she gave Robbie the original song.

Some time later at another session in the parish Robbie was asked to sing "Spancilhill" when a gruff voice in the corner growled out "Don't sing that song". When asked "Why not?" the voice barked back " 'Cos ye don't know it."

Robbie, however insisted he did and launched into the version he'd gotten from Moira Keane. After singing a few lines Robbie noticed the gruff man sitting up and paying attention. As Robbie progressed with the song the gruff man foostered more and more with his cap and became agitated. When the song ended, the gruff voice in the corner demanded "Where did ya get that song?". The gruff old man seemed both perturbed and pleased.

Moira Keane was the gruff man's aunt and the gruff man was 76 year old John Considine, who had kept his uncle Mike's song safe for 70 years.
This is the sort of thing that's really hard to verify.  However, I think it's still a rather interesting story, true or not.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Let's play "Slippery Slope!" (Determinism & Justice edition)

It is often objected that determinism makes justice incoherent, or renders morality impotent, or some other such claim resulting in the practical concern that, "If determinism is the case, then a criminal justice system makes no sense." It's worded differently, depending on who's saying it, but this is ultimately the conclusion of their arguments and - I suspect - a major grievance against determinism.

For any who don't know, determinism (Easy Mode, Hard Mode) is the idea that the entire Universe - humanity included - is on causal rails. As a consequence, there can be no such thing as free will - as compelling an illusion as it is, it is still merely an illusion. The three positions surrounding the issue of free will can all be derived from an inconsistent triad (an inconsistent triad is a set of three common-sense propositions which can't all be true), viz:
1. People have free will.
2. Causality regulates the entire Universe.
3. If people have free will, they must somehow defy causality (i.e. "1 and 2 cannot both be true").
If one rejects 1, then one is a determinist; if one rejects 2, then one is a libertarian (philosophical libertarianism is distinct from political libertarianism); if one rejects 3, then one is a compatibilist. It bears mentioning that compatibilism is at least a little bit silly, because it typically involves redefining "free will" such that 3 is manifestly false; as a consequence, the libertarian's meaning of "free will" is not preserved, and so the libertarian's meaning of 1 is covertly rejected. In other words, compatibilists are determinists in disguise who want to preserve the phrase "free will" in the common parlance, robbed of its philosophical force.

At any rate, the problem of moral responsibility is at least respectable on its face: it doesn't really make sense to blame or punish someone for something if they were unable to do otherwise, and determinism definitely holds that "for any action that a person has taken, that person was unable to do otherwise." That's a consequence of being on causal rails. However, as I intend to show, determinism not only fails to make moral responsibility incoherent, it actually encourages a more humane theory of justice when properly understood.

So, without further ado, let's play Slippery Slope!

Our first order of business shall be to lay out some starting premises:
A) Justice, essentially, is the idea of "people getting what they deserve."
B) Generally, justice is desirable - we want people to get what they deserve.
C) There is such a thing as "causality."
D) Because of C, we can talk coherently about causal sequences (or "causal chains").
E) Because of D, we can meaningfully distinguish between types of causes (e.g. "sole causes" vs. "partial causes," "immediate causes" vs. "root causes," etc.).
F) There are also chains of moral responsibility - no matter your ethical system, if there is moral responsibility at all, it must follow some kind of chain, from the moral status of the event back to whatever it is that is morally responsible for that event.
G) Moral chains and causal chains are not identical, but moral chains must overlap causal chains.
H) Corollary to G is its converse: there can be no chain of moral responsibility where no chain of causal responsibility exists (in other words, one is not morally responsible for that which one does nothing to cause).
I) Determinism at least seems to take the edge off of justice.
The particular phrasing of the above is not designed for precision, but rather to foster agreement. For instance, A is not exhaustive - justice may mean "rewarding good and punishing evil," but these rewards and punishments are deserved - so, no matter the details of your theory of justice, I think that we all (myself and you, the General Reader), can agree that the "core" or "essence" of justice is "people getting what they deserve," while exactly what is deserved may remain at issue for another discussion.

So far, we all ought to be able to agree that justice is a desirable thing, it needs chains of moral responsibility upon which to operate, and these moral chains have to "stick to" causal chains which can get complicated. Given that, let us imagine that Bert hypnotizes Ernie, and as a result of this hypnosis, Ernie becomes a serial murderer; Ernie's first victim is Big Bird. Big Bird's murder is a morally bad act, to be sure, and we can see that Ernie is the immediate cause of it (well, the method of murder is technically the immediate cause, but whatever). But, since we understand that Ernie only murdered Big Bird because Bert hypnotized him into becoming a murderer, we can see that the causal chain extends through Ernie back to Bert. I think we can all agree that the moral chain also goes back to Bert, but in order to do so, it must go through Ernie.

This puts Ernie in an interesting position: neither the causal nor the moral chain has its source in Ernie, yet Ernie committed the murder itself and is thus inextricably involved. And, per my stipulations, Ernie will kill again unless we do something about the causal antecedents which precipitated Ernie's actions. In short, and obviously, Ernie's hypnosis should be cured - we don't want him to keep running around killing people, do we? Moreover, I think Ernie deserves to have his hypnosis cured, which makes curing him a just action. While it is too late by far to give Big Bird what he deserves, we can still do justice to Ernie by curing his hypnosis. Obviously, something needs to be done about Bert and his hypnotic method as well, since the creation of murderers tends to be detrimental to society.

Let's leave Bert aside for the moment. The situation we're looking at is thus: Ernie engaged in a problem behavior, even though the problem behavior was out of his control, and in order to do justice to Ernie, we are proposing to address the cause of the problem behavior so that it will no longer be a problem. Furthermore, we are also proposing to take broader actions to prevent the same cause of Ernie's problem behavior from causing similar problem behaviors in others, even though such problem behaviors would not ultimately be the fault of those who fell victim to this cause. This is humane, good, and just.

This is also a deterministic model of justice. Anyone who proposed that Ernie must be punished rather than merely cured would reveal himself for a sadist, since punishing Ernie is not necessary to solve the problem at hand. If, as in the real world, it turned out that we could only (or even most likely) prevent problem behaviors in Ernie by punishing him, then punishment would be an option on the table - but our focus should be on solving the problem, not on administering punishment. And so, in the real world, our justice system ought to be focused primarily on solving the problems that cause people to harm others. Punishment certainly can facilitate this, and so ought not to be rejected out of hand, but it also should not be pursued as if it is good by itself, or even necessary for justice to occur. Those who would advocate punishment when it is not necessary are, consequently, asking for unnecessary harm to come to an individual - seemingly for its own sake. And wishing harm upon others for no good reason is a well-respected definition of sadism, which most certainly is not justice.

There's even a snappy common-sense angle to take on this. Empathy is a good thing, as it inspires people to treat others how they would like to be treated themselves. Those who think it is OK to harm others must clearly have a problem with their empathy (those who harm others solely out of ignorance merely need to be educated). This means that there's something wrong with them, that their "moral sense" is somehow inadequate at the moment. So - and here's the snappy part - if these people have something wrong with them, how is harming them supposed to improve things?

A deterministic model of justice, as we have seen, naturally encourages a more humane criminal justice system, and exposes the sadism in retributive justice for what it is. Retributive justice should only be used when necessary, and should not be relished, but does not conflict with a deterministic worldview (visible retributive justice can still generate perfectly deterministic deterrence, for example). There is no inherent conflict, therefore, between determinism and justice, so the apparent problem mentioned above in I turns out to be illusory.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thoughts on Obama's inauguration

As I listened to the prayers of Robinson and Warren, I mentally translated them into Humanist terms to try and remove my own internal bias against religious language (it tends to embitter my palate whenever I hear it). Having done that, I must say that I thought they were both good prayers.  That is, I still didn't like that they were requests for supernatural aid, but I would consider it a good thing if what these men asked for was granted.  Robinson's seemed a bit more pessimistic - by which I mean realistic and somber, but focusing on the demands required to meet our troubles - while Warren's seemed a bit more upbeat - by which I mean that he kind of glossed over some stuff, but also asked for some good things to overcome the negative things he acknowledged.  This may have been because Warren is a bit more hopped up on God-smack than Robinson.  I think that they are both messages which can do our country some good, but I still long to hear a Humanist prayer that places responsibility for these requests squarely where it belongs: on the shoulders of all Americans.

And then there was Obama's speech.  I enjoyed it:  it was a message of hope and change, but also constructive admonition and forward-thinking pragmatism.  He was inclusive, optimistic, and realistic.  If you haven't seen it for yourself, I strongly recommend giving it a listen (or a read):
OK, down to brass tacks:  there were a few "flubs," to use the technical term, but it was by and large a well-written and well-delivered speech.  My complaints largely stem from my training as a logician, so take them for what they're worth.  His opening, thanking Bush for his "service to our nation," stuck in my craw - but whatever, he got his digs in later.  Also, his comment about remaining "faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents" lacks a critical component:  the good parts of their ideals and writings are what we should be looking to, not simply those things themselves (for they are flawed).  Again, a relatively minor quibble over a too-inclusive remark - although, on reflection, perhaps it is better to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.  He also glosses entirely over the treatment of the Native Americans in a brief overview of our nation's history, which irks me in an unexpected way - I'm actually not sure what to think of this omission (it is among many), and reasons for both sides are still rattling around in my head.  Aside from that, his comments waxed a bit purple at times, but such is to be expected at momentous occasions, I suppose.

For the most part, though, his speech was down-to-Earth and true to the best in all of us.  At multiple points, he took time to elaborate on what he could have glossed over to leave room for applause, and these elaborations carry with them what I hope shall become the distinguishing mark of President Obama's coming years.  By points:
  • After his opening remarks, Obama dives right into the problems facing our nation, specifically the economy.  He does not oversimplify by placing the blame on a single factor, as many are wont to do, but acknowledges that our problems are a result not only of people but of our culture.  He also warns against letting despair get the best of us.
  • In rebuking the petulance of divisive politics, he also recognizes our youth as a nation, and calls for us to grow up.  He also mentions that this will be hard work, not always glamorous, but still necessary.
  • Here's where Obama's rhetoric starts striking a chord with me:  in six words, "endured the lash of the whip," he at once acknowledges that slavery is a terrible stain on our nation's history, and does honor to those who were subjected to it for their role in making what is good in that same nation.  This is one of those little elaborations I was talking about earlier that kind of made it for me.
  • Obama also speaks out against the Bush administration, though not overtly, with language designed to be forward-looking rather than backward:  "Our time of standing pat... has surely passed," "We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America," "We will restore science to its rightful place," "A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous," "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," "Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please," and so on.  Seriously, I hope we prosecute this guy, complaints of witch-hunts be damned.  This ought to be handled in the USA, to show that our laws are laws and not just pretty words - but even if we don't do anything about it, it looks like the UN will.
  • On Countdown this evening, Gwen Ifill said, "[It is] clear in that speech yesterday, clear in everything he said, [that] expectations should be low about what he can get done."  I don't know where she gets this from, when Obama actually said, "Now there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.  Their memories are short.  For they have forgotten what this country has already done..."  He goes on to outline in very general fashion how many of the problems facing our nation can, in principle, be tackled - he acknowledges that the work will be hard, but calls for us to do the hard work.  Not a revolutionary idea in itself, but a far cry from Ifill's low expectations.
  • In preaching unity, the President was also admirably inclusive.  The cliche salute of our diversity was immediately followed up by, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers."  He stated a hope "that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve."  And talk about reaching across party lines:  "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."  How's them preconditions?

And then there's this asshole:
I'm speaking, of course, of the winner of Mr. Olbermann's dubious prize, who for some reason thinks that a misstep in ritual, a garbled phrase in a ceremony of all things, somehow detracts from the legitimacy of the event which that ritual merely symbolizes.  The stupid, it burns!

All in all, though, a grand day, and reason enough for a Tuesday Night Party (several, by my count).  President Obama's words have bought him a pair of awfully big shoes - I don't want to get too carried away with myself here, but still, I think some hope is justified.  Time will tell whether he follows through on this or not, so we'll see how it goes.  And, I must mention, it is immensely satisfying to finally speak of Ex-President Bush.  Just take a deep breath and think about that.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Call Ripley! Christians and sex

So I was catching up on Savage Love the other day, and I came across this little jewel: Dan Savage, in honor of Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, is trying to get "saddleback" defined in common parlance as a sex term inimical to said church.

I voted for number 5:
"Saddlebacking" should be the term for the phenomenon of Christian teens engaging in unprotected anal sex in order to preserve their virginities. "After attending the Purity Ball, Heather and Bill saddlebacked all night because she's saving herself for marriage." Please, please adopt this definition!
Colorful as some of the others are, I think that 5 strikes the perfect balance of irony and user-friendliness.

Reading through the archives, though, I was struck by a rather curious fact. A pair of facts, really: 1) Abstinence-only education has led to teenagers thinking that anal sex is not sex and has no risk of STDs, and 2) Gay teens, in an effort to prove how straight they are to their peers, are impregnating one another in record numbers.  (Both issues discussed in the DTMFA-a-Thon.)

So, just to recap the effects of Christian prudishness: gay kids are having straight sex, and straight Christians are sodomizing each other. Clearly, not teaching kids about "bad things" stops them from doing those "bad things." Actually, in that light, maybe it's not so surprising that Christian methods are proving counterproductive to their goals, after all.

I feel a great swell of sympathy for the gay kids who feel the need to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they're not who they are. They're forcing themselves through acts which ought to bring with them the very height of human pleasure as some kind of twisted penance for being different from their peers - a penance which they should never feel the need to pay in the first place. Not only that, the children they bring into this world as a product of these unloved acts are... well... no, I can't say that they're all unwanted, and perhaps some of them will be loved dearly and raised well - but most of them are likely to wind up unwanted, in a dysfunctional house, in orphanages, or in foster homes.

As for the Christians, this is further evidence that abstinence-only education both does not work and is tantamount to criminal neglect. The idea of "virginity" is a primitive notion in the first place, predicated as it is on the genetically advantageous desire for a male to hedge against the risk of raising an unrelated child. We're beyond this, scientifically speaking, and ought to be beyond this, culturally speaking. "Never having had sex" is just not a virtue, plain and simple, and we as a people need to recognize this! Furthermore, the legalistic idea that anal sex somehow "preserves virginity" (by which Christians can only mean "leaves the hymen intact") is asinine.

Truly, these children are suffering for the wrongdoings of their forebears. This is the second time today that I've referenced the Bible, but I think it's appropriate here.

Finally, on a lighter note, Dan's remark on the logical consequences of this view (that anal sex "preserves virginity") is fucking priceless: "I've been preserving the shit out of my boyfriend's virginity for 14 years now." Fucking.  Priceless.

Poison for your Brain: divisive superstitions

While attempting to find news coverage of Gene Robinson's Sunday speech, and failing to do so, I came across a video cleverly disguised as NPR coverage. Have a look for yourself:

I listened with intense interest as I wrote in another tab, and was caught off-guard when the music kicked in. I went back into the tab and was stunned to see one of the most divisive messages I've seen in a while. Apparently, the author of this nasty little nugget of demagoguery thinks that inclusion is the work of Satan.

It should be remembered that, despite the shrieks and howls of protest issued forth by the likes of Bill Donohue and this other asshole, Rick Warren managed to find something nice to say last Wednesday about Obama's choice to invite Robinson to give a prayer at the inauguration kickoff this past Sunday. Perhaps it was only due to his being shoved into the public light that he felt compelled to say anything at all, let alone something nice, but I still think that's something. Looking around, Warren seems to be standing out among his peers as calling for unity when so many others are still preaching division.

A quote comes to mind: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Abraham Lincoln said that; so does the Bible.

Today is the inauguration; I am working and donating plasma afterward, so I'll have to catch up later on the internets.  I can't wait!

Sunday, January 18, 2009


When it was announced that Rick Warren was going to be speaking at Obama's invocation, I was puzzled. I didn't really know who Rick Warren was, but the more I found out, the less I liked and more puzzled I became. When I saw how much flak Warren was taking in the media, though, I got an idea. I didn't really put much stock in the idea, it was kind of a longshot, but it was still there.

Later on, when the most-cited quote of Warren's website was struck from public view, Warren took more heat. My idea got a little stronger.

A week ago, when it was announced that Gene Robinson, an openly gay Episcopalian Bishop, was also going to be speaking during the inaugural events, the idea got a bit stronger. Some scoffed at Team Obama's announcement that Robinson's presence had been planned for a long time (Robinson has been an Obama supporter for a while now), but I am not so skeptical.  Before I get into this, please don't mistake my meaning:  I too am disappointed by the Warren pick, and I'm not discarding out-of-hand that Obama & co. may have been merely trying to appease the Reds; I just think that an invocation speech is a fairly minor thing to give and that another explanation is available.

Obama, in building his cabinet, has been trying to construct a bona-fide Team of Rivals, a la Abraham Lincoln, in which both parties are forced to make concessions to each other to get things done, but more gets done as a result. Obama has, predictably, taken flak for this as well. Sam Donaldson said in his defense, "Better to have them inside the tent peeing out, than outside the tent peeing in." Jon Stewart, in keeping with The Daily Show's mission to poke fun at whoever's in charge, had a few choice words to say about that.

This type of reaction is to be expected, I think. It's a well-known fact that you can't please all the people all the time, but decisions like this seem like they'll displease most of the people, most of the time. Fortunately for Obama, public opinion is not the same as efficacy - for all the brow-beating he has received and will receive, the results ought to be the gauge of his success. But for that, we have to wait and see, and he'll have to bear the weight of public disagreement in the meantime.

But we've seen one result already: Rick Warren was shamed into removing anti-gay verbiage from his website. Obama's a politician, he's used to this sort of thing and can take it; not so much with Warren - this is a self-appointed shepherd who is accustomed to being surrounded by a sycophantic flock. Warren didn't have to remove the quote, nobody asked him to do so, and nobody applauded him for it afterward because nobody who had a problem with it in the first place believes he's had a change of heart.  Having no pressure to take that course of action, and unable to justify it with an external reward he did not receive, Warren is psychologically pushed to own more of this decision as "the right thing to do." This is not an about-face - but it's a step towards tolerance, which is a step in the right direction.

With Robinson now in attendance, Warren is again in an interesting position:  it's too late to reject the invitation to speak - that would have been a viable option, had the two been announced together, or had Robinson been announced soon afterward - but he can't refrain from comment.  Warren is in another position where, no matter what he does, he's likely to take shit from all sides.  And now, look what Warren had to say last week on the Robinson pick (for comparison, this is what Bill Donohue thought about it, and there is no shortage of bile from the peanut gallery).  I think this bears special notice:  amid the cacophony of his own party, Warren is giving a vote of confidence.  Now, this again is not a change of heart, but it is another step in the right direction.  What I'm saying is, it's a long way from "homosexuality is like incest & pedophilia" to "it's good that a gay bishop has been included."

Here's the thing:  both Warren and Robinson are polarizing religious figures.  As much as those on the left are insulted by Warren's presence, those on the right are insulted seemingly as much by Robinson's.  I, for one, wish that Robinson were giving the speech on the 20th, and that Warren were left out entirely.  I think that, for all the mutual insult borne between the two camps for their ideas and their very existence, we're all still Americans and we still have a country to run.  Obama seems to be acting on the principle that, in a lot of cases, it can be more important to get along than to get your way - maybe this wasn't the best way to go about it, or maybe the inauguration isn't the type of event to include, but with all the "shame on you's" and "how dare you's" and "he doesn't belong here's" coming from both sides... maybe this is the kind of thing we need?

Reality Check/Pseudo-Update:  OK, I've been saving this post up for a couple days, and I really ought to include some of the recent developments and other factors that perhaps weigh more heavily in the analyses of others.  For instance, while Warren is getting the "prime-time" spot, Robinson was given a speech on the Lincoln Memorial yesterday.  Yeah, I didn't see it on the news, either.  Now, sure, maybe you were busy - I was playing Sins of a Solar Empire with my roommate - but not to worry!  It appears that yesterday's events just weren't covered.  Yeah.  That's right.  You can get the text of Robinson's speech here, but I did searches on msnbc, CNN, Google, YouTube, even Fox, and I couldn't find one single bit of coverage of the events themselves yesterday.  So yeah, if you saw some coverage, please let me know and I'll be sure to include it.  Though this could have been some kind of clusterfuck communication error, it sure looks like malicious planning.  Argh.

Genuine Update x4:  First, NPR covered the kickoff (I heard from a coworker), but did not actually include Robinson's opening prayer.  Second, Team Obama is apologizing for Robinson's lack of coverage, and plans to make up for it by showing a recording tomorrow.  Third, I added some comparison quotes to Warren's above (thanks to Pam's House Blend).  Fourth, I found a video of Robinson's prayer:

Saturday, January 17, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part 3: Suckers of the Deep

I thought they were mere suction cups yesterday. But the suckers of squid and octopi are actually more complex than that, and much more interesting for it. I was originally planning on writing this entry on squid suckers alone (spoiler: I saw the neat picture at the bottom, which inspired this whole post), but in doing some comparative research for talking points, I found a lot more on octopus suckers than I had bargained for, and so I'm going to talk about that as well.

We'll start with the basics: octopus suckers. These do function based on suction alone (well, OK, suction and friction), but they are by no means mere suction cups! The image below is a scanning electron micrograph of an octopus' sucker:
The black line at bottom-right is a scale bar, representing 1mm. The mechanism of the sucker is actually driven by three distinct muscle groups which must work together to increase the volume inside the cup of the sucker, decreasing the pressure inside and thereby causing outside water pressure to create adhesion. Once more, proof that you don't need to understand pressure differentials to be able to use them (hooray for the blind watchmaker!). Additionally, that rough texture you see on the inside is due to what are called "denticles," a fancy way of saying "tiny bumps," which increase friction and prevent the suction cup from sliding around. The octopus' strenuous, on-the-go lifestyle is very stressful to these denticles, and so the sucker linings must be shed occasionally. Put a bunch of these together on a limb, and you have the octopus' ubiquitous tool: simple in concept, but executed to a very complex degree. Octopi use their suckers for an enormous number of tasks, and they are correspondingly dextrous, even capable of bending at the rim to grip items smaller than the sucker itself!

Forget those microscopic hairs you saw in the movie; forget the pseudoscience of "manipulating inter-molecular attraction;" this is how Spider-Man clings to walls. That spider must have been infused with octopus DNA in addition to being irradiated!

The squid's sucker is a wicked claw next to the octopus' delicate hand. Squid actually have several different kinds of suckers, different ones on the arms than on the tentacles (the eight arms are short, thick, and suckered all over their inner surfaces; the two tentacles are longer, slimmer, and only suckered at the ends). Here is an arm sucker from a North Atlantic squid:
Note that the inner surface is more tooth-like than that of the octopus - those tiny, chitinous teeth are downright gummy when compared to the suckers on the tentacles, though:
These things are downright vicious! Squid use those fang-like circles not only to grip, but to actively latch onto their prey. Note the scale, and how tiny these little guys are: that "┬Ám" symbol you see means we're talking about microns, or thousandths of a millimeter. And here's how densely they're packed:
The largest species of squid are known to fight off the whales that try to eat them (edited; I had it backwards before). Here is a picture of some battle-scarred whale skin. Pretty brutal, huh?

So yeah, I hope you'll never look at calamari the same way again. In fact, I hope you'll feel even cooler for eating such a frighteningly finely-tuned animal. And just in case you're not scared yet, check this out:
The above image is one of the Honorable Mentions from the National Science Foundation's 2007 Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge. You should check out the rest, they're downright groovy!

Sources and additional links:
NSF S&E Visualization Challenge: Seriously, I could do a 101 Interesting Things entry on anything in there!
The Structure and Adhesive Mechanism of Octopus Suckers: This is a bona-fide, Serious Business journal article, and it's pretty accessible (depending upon your vocabulary).
North Atlantic Squid: Sucker Structure and North Pacific Squid: Sucker Structure: The first is where I got the squid micrographs from, the second has similar (and similarly interesting) photos, and both have side-by-side shots for direct size comparison.
Treasures (Museum Victoria): Hooray for online exhibits!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Biblical-Grade Science

A few months ago, I was heartened to see that a bus ad campaign was gearing up in London. All over the city, buses and tube trains bear the cheerul humanist message, "There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." It's a positive and succinct message, expressing both position and purpose, straightforward and elegant in its simplicity. The campaign has spread throughout the UK, and looks to be going strong, adding in posters bearing quotes from notable freethinkers.  Joining in the fun are the necessarily seasonal DC bus campaign - timely, but short-lived - and FreeThoughtAction's wonderful billboards springing up all over the nation.

Now, I can understand that there are those who wish to remain unaware that there are some who disagree with their position - by which I mean that I am aware these people exist. I don't understand their position on this issue, to be honest, but the only angle from which this can be seen to assault their sensibilities is by preventing them from maintaining their insularity.  And honestly, if they work at it a little, this is still no obstacle to that. Besides, it's no less appropriate than those billboards that went up a few years back saying things like, "Don't make me come down there. -God."

But here's an interesting twist: some guy is trying to get the signs removed by the Advertising Standards Authority on the grounds that they make an unsubstantiated claim.  OK, OK, stop laughing, take a deep breath, and read that again - Stephen Green, a Christian protestor, wants atheistic bus signs out of the public forum because he thinks that "There probably is no god"is an unsubstantiated claim.  This whole scene can be summed up in one simple line of dialogue:
Pot: [to Kettle] You are black.
I am reminded of Pat Condell's quip that there ought not to be a separation between Church and State, so that all organized religions could be sued into the ground for making advertising claims they can't back up, and promising a product they can never deliver.

What's more, according to many expert opinions, the total lack of evidence for a divine creator, coupled with our lack of an explanatory need for such, does in fact make disbelief the most reasonable option (i.e. the most likely to be true) - this is why religious people need to have faith in the first place, because reason does not get them there, reason takes them somewhere else. So he's not only a probable hypocrite, but factually incorrect as well.

However, there is one fly in the ointment: I can recall no single experiment in any journal that has ever attempted to verify the existence of a god. Not one. This gives me an idea, and you have three guesses as to what it is!

That's right: I want to perform such an experiment. With grant money and everything! I realize that this would be a stunt, through and through, and I make no bones about that. But I think it warrants doing just the same, because then we can have it on the books that we checked for God with science and came up empty. "But that's preposterous, you can't test God," comes the reply. Not so, says I - check out the way-ahead-of-its-time experiment conducted by the prophet Elijah. Also, remember the apostle Thomas? You know, the guy who hung out with Jesus during his life on Earth and supposedly witnessed the man's miracles firsthand - the same guy who, upon hearing of the resurrection from his friends, said, "Meh, I'll believe it when I see it." (I'm paraphrasing.) I think we live in a world of doubting Thomases, and we can't be blamed for having the same "I'll believe it when I see it" standard for belief as the apostle himself.

This would be an excellent opportunity for God to capitalize on, should we be able to verify his existence experimentally, and there's no reason for religious opposition. We've got Biblical precedent, we're trying to find God (I mean, if he actually exists, I certainly want to know about it!), and we're following the examples of no less august figures than a prophet and an apostle. What's not to love?

Mainly, though, I have to say I would love the spectacle. I wonder how people would react, and I wonder how these reactions would compare with my imagination of them. I would love to go on TV and actually discuss the matter with people who were offended by the idea (like making Bill O'Reilly explode while maintaining perfect composure myself). I think my case is pretty ironclad, and I would get to say things like, "Oh, come on, I'm just a scientist. People can believe the results or not, as they choose, just like they could before." Man, this would be so much fun!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Lenient Policy

In his book, Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini writes about many of the tricks used by what he calls "compliance professionals" to get their marks to accede to their demands.  He details the use of six such "weapons of influence" using case studies and real life examples to explain the psychology behind them, as well as how to protect yourself against them (and how not to become overzealous in doing so, as many of these principles are generally helpful to us).

Look, it's a great book, and an interesting read, but I'm not here to sell books.  I'm here to talk about prisons.  Cialdini writes, in "Commitment and Consistency,"
During the Korean War, many captured American soldiers found themselves in prisoner-of-war (POW) camps run by the Chinese Communists. It became clear early in the conflict that the Chinese treated captives quite differently than did their allies, the North Koreans, who favored savagery and harsh punishment to gain compliance. Specifically avoiding the appearance of brutality, the Red Chinese engaged in what they termed their "lenient policy," which was in reality a concerted and sophisticated psychological assault on their captives. After the war, American psychologists questioned the returning prisoners intensively to determine what had occurred. The intensive psychological investigation took place, in part, because of the unsettling success of some aspects of the Chinese program. For example, the Chinese were very effective in getting Americans to inform on one another, in striking contrast to the behavior of American POWs in World War II.
Cialdini goes on to describe how the Chinese would "start small and build," deftly planting a tiny seed in the minds of their captives and letting their own internal psychological pressures do most of the work.  Reluctant as I am to quote ad nauseum, Cialdini describes the process rather succinctly:
...prisoners were frequently asked to make statements so mildly anti-American or pro-Communist as to seem inconsequential ("The United States is not perfect." "In a Communist country, unemployment is not a problem."). But once these minor requests were complied with, the men found themselves pushed to submit to related yet more substantive requests. A man who had just agreed with his Chinese interrogator that the United States is not perfect might then be asked to indicate some of the ways in which he thought this was the case. Once he had so explained himself, he might be asked to make a list of these "problems with America" and to sign his name to it. Later he might be asked to read his list in a discussion group with other prisoners. "After all, it's what you really believe, isn't it?" Still later he might be asked to write an essay expanding on his list and discussing these problems in greater detail.
The Chinese might then use his name and his essay in an anti-American radio broadcast beamed not only to the entire camp, but to other POW camps in North Korea, as well as to American forces in South Korea. Suddenly he would find himself a "collaborator," having given aid to the enemy.
It's really rather insidious, when you think about it:  between these almost casual conversations, discussion groups, and essay contests - yes, essay contests! - it sounds almost like a retreat.  I mean, except for the squalor and inability to leave and all that.  I'm not at all trying to trivialize the prison experience of these POWs, my point is that the program to which they were subjected had zero violence and got great results.  One of the best parts is that it was cheap, too:  in the aforementioned essay contests, trivial prizes were handed out.  A pack of cigarettes, or some fresh fruit.  This was entirely deliberate, because too-tempting prizes could allow the contestants to rationalize their writing as "for the prize."  But when the prizes are trivial, the contestants are forced to own more of their decision to write what they write.

On top of that, the winning essays weren't always the most pro-Chinese, pro-Communist, or anti-American ones submitted; often, winning essays were selected apparently for sincerity, making only minor concessions to the Chinese while still being largely pro-American.  These minor concessions would then be built upon with those individual writers, who would likely be softened upon winning a contest with a pro-American essay, and a message was sent that the contest was one of merit and not of lip service.  This way, prisoners could not submit just any old dreck that exalted the ideology of their captors, thereby insulating themselves from influence.

The principle upon which this whole operation hinged was to subtly get the prisoner to change his own self-image.  Once that is done, internal pull towards consistency will do the rest.  The trick is to hide from the captive that this is the objective, and to create an environment that facilitates and encourages desired behaviors circumstantial to the final goal, but all pushing together directly towards it by slowly changing an inner mindset.  Indoctrination, in a word.

Rhetorically speaking, this is fighting dirty, but what cannot be denied is its efficacy.  Torture assaults both the body and the mind, but pits the victim's loyalty against the captor's brutality.  The lenient policy is another kind of battle of wills, one that does not attack the ideological fortress outright, but corrodes it from within.  Please do not mistake my words - I do not mean to insinuate that this is worse than torture, and far from it.  What I mean is that this sort of technique is far more effective than torture, despite (perhaps because of) its subtlety.

I guess the question now is:  why does anyone torture any more?  I mean, the only thing that torturing gets you is the sadistic glee of causing pain to the Other.

Oh, wait.

Monday, January 12, 2009

114 to 1: a follow-up, and a look ahead

Back on my Playskool blog, I had a few choice words to say about Blagojevich's corruption charges - most clustering around the idea that it is monstrous to withhold money from sick children because some guy won't give you a kick-back.  Black-and-white, clear-as-day, no-two-ways-about-it monstrous.  I still feel that way, even after cooling off for a bit.  I don't care how "typical" or "normal" or "common" this type of behavior may be - to me, that kind of "just politics" attitude just goes to show how many monsters there are in the world.

To paraphrase a professor of mine, "When the world sucks, morality is hard.  Boo-hoo."  And when being good is hard, being bad is understandable - but still blameworthy.  The Illinois House seemed to recognize this on Friday when they voted 114 to 1 to impeach Rod Blagojevich.  The end is a ways off yet, so I'm not busting out any champagne.  We'll see where this goes.

Citizen Roland Burris is now Senator Designate Roland Burris, and Rachael Maddow asks whether his successful appointment means that "Governor F-Bomb" has won.  I don't think so:  he wins if he walks, he loses if he's convicted.  At least, I'm pretty sure that's how our justice game works.  At worst, appointing Burris could be a shrewd move calculated to win an acquittal; at best, it was a graceful step down to prevent a costly special election.  I honestly doubt that either of those is the case, though; actually, I may even be wrong about the worst/best case analysis, as this is complicated stuff.  I'm still torn, though - elections cost money, but I think it's worth it, but the rest of the state may disagree, but what about this Burris guy?  What's a satisficer to do?

At any rate, I am unambiguously happy that we are discussing how best to move forward, while subjecting the guy who left us with this mess to due process.  Y'know, kind of like how President-Elect Obama ought to be treating Bush in a week.  Obama said in an interview that:
"...I don't believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. And part of my job is to make sure that for example at the CIA, you've got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don't want them to suddenly feel like they've got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders..."
False dichotomy, guy. Two counts.  First, we can do right going forward while seeing to it that those who did wrong in the past pay for their crimes.  I believe that this is somewhat central to our justice system.  Second, to investigate even the "little guys" at the CIA for wrongdoing is not necessarily to invite paranoia, and in fact should do the opposite - we need to illustrate that standing up against wrongdoing such as this will not be punished and that said wrongdoing shall not be ignored.  Show me a guy who engaged in torture with a clear conscience, and I'll show you a guy who should not be in the CIA - and if someone is engaging in torture under orders instead of reporting the guy responsible, that person should be looking over their shoulder, because they did something wrong.  I don't see what's so hard to understand about this.

I'm thinking of doing a 101 Interesting Things entry on Chinese prisons during the Korean war.  Case studies on that kind of thing ought to be required reading for anyone who still buys into the medieval notion of torture.  At any rate, I have to give Obama his due out:  it may be that he's playing it close to the vest, on the off-chance that Bush will go for even more last-minute shenanigans and pardon himself and everyone he knows and everyone they know for everything they ever did.  But more likely is that this is a cynical ploy to win support from the GOP.

Y'know, there's a difference between reaching across party lines and making concessions to evil, except in one case:  when there actually is a party of evil.  Whether that distinction applies in this case is, sadly, up to the Reds.  I guess we'll see how things go.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part 2: Pain Asymbolia

Pain asymbolia is a neurological condition resulting from brain damage that causes the victim to lose the affective quality of pain while still experiencing the stimulus as pain.  In other words, the qualia of pain is lost.  This condition can be brought about intentionally by performing an operation upon the insula, a treatment sometimes used for patients with chronic pain.

Sense perception and qualia can be very strange to our common-sense notions at times.  Much is made of the "redness of red" when speaking of qualia, but a better example is available:  that of taste.  It can be conceptually difficult for one to distinguish the ideas of a perception of wavelength x of light and the qualia of redness, even though one may be well-versed in the operations of the eye's rods and cones and the brain's optical processing mechanisms.  Taste is a better example because the taste buds react based on the shape of a molecule and the mind produces the qualia of sweet, or sour, or whatever.  But pain asymbolia forces a further distinction:  not only that a painful stimulus creates a sensation in the mind, but also that the sensory experience is itself distinct from the qualia of pain.

Adam "Ebonmuse" Lee (of Ebon Musings and Daylight Atheism fame) writes, in "A Ghost in the Machine," pain asymbolia is distinct from pain insensitivity and other related disorders, in that:
"Patients with this condition lose no sensory perception - they can tell the difference between heat, cold, touch, and various other sensations - but what they seem to lose is the emotional response to pain (Feinberg 2001, p. 4). ... After the operation, they are invariably much more cheerful, and say things such as, 'The pain is the same, but I feel much better now' (Damasio 1994, p. 266). What have these people lost if not their 'pain' qualia?"
From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on pain, one of the common ideas about pain is that "pain experiences are essentially painful, awful, abhorrent, so that it is a logical impossibility to have an affectively neutral pain experience."  Pain asymbolia would seem to directly undercut that, in line though it is with our common-sense notions of what pain is like.  It could be that the "awful" component of pain is a purely emotional response tied to a particular set of stimuli, and this is corroborated by the fact that the role of the insula is related to emotions.  However, it seems a bit strange on first blush to suggest that the "painful" aspect of pain is not a direct result of the damage caused by the physical stimulus (patients with pain asymbolia show no difficulty in sensing this part, as it is handled by the somatic sensory cortex), but an entirely emotional response generated by a different part of the brain.

Furthermore, the SEP article also points out that the dissociation caused by pain asymbolia is distinct even from similar dissociations that can arise in lobotomy patients or people on morphine.  These latter groups still respond to momentary pains (e.g. small cuts or pinpricks), but those with pain asymbolia do not.  It appears that just as involuntary reflexes (originating from the spine) are reactions to stimuli that do not involve any conscious processing at all, so too is the qualia of pain a separate process, even though common experience would suggest the opposite.  How interesting!