Thursday, March 30, 2006

Documentaries: Chomsky, Zinn & Dawkins

(you can find them all in the torrent world)
Rebel Without a Pause - Great little doc. A good intro to Chomsky as a person and many of his thoughts, cut into brief segments so the content isn't too dense. At 90 minutes, I would recommend this to those with no Chomsky exposure and would like to have an idea who he is. Go see it.

Manufacturing Consent - Chomsky documentary based on the book by the same name. Almost 3 hours, but worth every minute. It details important happenings in US foreign policy and how national power structures operate. Go see it.

You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train - A biography of and introduction to the life of historian Howard Zinn. Much useful information about human rights movements over the years. The doc also has a wonderful line: If you don't know history, it's like you were born yesterday. Go see it.

The Root of All Evil? - It was okay. I can't highly recommend it because it could have been a lot better. If you have zero exposure to Dawkins, it might give you some perspective, but there are better intros (his book The Selfish Gene). On the other hand, the second part was pretty good. It detailed some interesting interactions/happenings with religious fundamentalists. So, go see the second part.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Good Night, And Good Luck

After watching the film a couple weeks ago, I was going to do a post recommending the film Good Night, And Good Luck, as well as link to a perspicacious and prescient speech by Edward R. Murrow. Obviously, I never got around to it. Happily Matt Good felt similarly, so you can read his post.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Lords of War

The world's biggest arms suppliers are the
U.S., U.K., Russia, France and China.

They are also the five permanent members
of the U.N. Security Council.

The Singularity is getting closer....

Nanomanufacturing in mylifetime(?) (better quality, but smaller and it has to load)

E = mc^2 (where the c stands for cool or creepy depending on your perspective)

If you haven't had a chance, just glance at these headlines.
Better yet, read some of the stories.

I Like (Borat)

Borat Homepage.
Borat Videos.
Borat Soundboard.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Is Britney Spears starting to look like Tony Clifton?

Maybe if she let her mustache grow?

Flippin' Out

I always find stuff like this impressive and entertaining.

Theoretical Distribution

No one gets icing until everyone has cake.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Embrace alcoholism under the guise of Irish nationalism

Happy St. Patrick's Day!!!


The McLellan family [who live in Minnesota] had written to Canadian senators to say they cancelled a vacation in Canada because of the [seal] hunt, which they called "horrible" and "inhumane," Montreal's La Presse reports.

In her response, Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette said that what she finds horrible is "the daily massacre of innocent people in Iraq, the execution of prisoners – mainly blacks – in American prisons, the massive sale of handguns to Americans, the destabilization of the entire world by the American government's aggressive foreign policy, etc."
(full story)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Law of Equality

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to beg in the streets, steal bread, or sleep under a bridge.
- Anatole France

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Acceptable Distance

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible to see each other whole against the sky.
- Rainer Maria

While I don't quite agree with this quotation in gist or overall word choice, some part of me likes the way it sounds. As well, alternative views are worth ponderation.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Breaking The Spell

It is relatively easy to take a firm stance and not care about subsequent social divisiveness, while much harder to attempt understanding of the complexity of an issue, what is known and unknown, and discuss one's viewpoint in a manner that allows for, and stimulates, further discussion among rational people. Thus, Dennett uses caution in his investigation and does not propose to have all the answers, but he suggests some useful ways of thinking about how to get them (if it possible). Dennett realizes that there are good spells and bad spells, and at this moment it is hard to tell which one religion might be. There are two main spells discussed: (a) the 'don't even think about questioning religion' spell and (b) the belief in religion itself. As it is unknown whether religion is good or bad, the first spell must be broken. As for maintaining or rejecting the second spell, that is what we should try to figure out.

Using his broad, yet deep, knowledge about philosophy and biology, Dennett describes how traits that are more likely to be possessed by religious people could have arisen in our evolutionary past, as well as other aspects of ritual, belief, belief in belief and morality without religion. Do not expect a fully developed theory, but do anticipate a fully developed analysis of what kinds of theories currently exist and what kinds of theories we would likely want to pursue.

As a way of engaging the religious, I found two of Dennett's arguments particularly cogent:
(1) If your God has personally told you how the world is and how we should act, please tell the rest of us because He has not done that (yet) to the rest of us. Of course, realize that the rest of us will want rational arguments and evidence to be convinced; a request that is only fair considering what is at stake. (and if the reasons you have are truly good ones, every rational person shall join you soon.)
(2) Even if it is true that your God is the 'right one,' aren't you at all curious that so many people (billions!) have it wrong? Doesn't it make sense to study other religions, why other followers follow them and why they are so sure they have it right. (If you truly do not care, then you have already removed yourself from a global dialogue.)

It is difficult to argue with one of Dennett's final suggestions: to increase awareness and education of all religions. Such an occurrence would allow for greater understanding of cultural practices, underlying factors in geopolitical situations, and might allow for useful inter-religious comparisons.

Breaking the Spell is a reasoned, patient and intelligent examination of (the ways of theorizing about) religion as a natural phenomenon. As the topic is extremely important and this is Dennett's most accessible work, I highly recommend you read it.
Go go go! :)

Friday, March 10, 2006

Cost of Smoking & Camouflage

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Sachs on Colbert

Sachs discusses the end of poverty.
Click, scroll down and click Jeffrey Sachs.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

International Women's Day

I don't know if you know any women or ever met one, but wouldn't it great if half the world was represented as such and treated like the other half?


Muppet Matrix

Well done, well done.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Oxfam Canada


Oxfam Canada's Vision is that people together can create a fair world, free of poverty and injustice. A fair world respects the basic rights of all human beings to:
  • earn a decent living to support themselves and their families
  • enjoy basic education and health care
  • get help in life-threatening disasters
  • speak out for their rights
  • be treated as equal.

Oxfam Canada builds lasting solutions to global poverty and injustice. We work with allies in Canada and around the world to change the policies and practices that perpetuate human suffering. We support organizations in poor communities overseas in their struggle to secure basic rights. Oxfam's advocacy and campaigns for just policies are rooted in the knowledge and experience gained in that struggle.

Sounds good to me. You?
(wiki is here)

The Decline and Fall of Zeus?

"The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrates, as equally useful."
- p.25, Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Chomsky's 9-11

9-11 is a collection of interviews "conducted with Noam Chomsky by a variety of interviewers during the first month following the attacks" of 9-11. As the book is informative, short (~120pages) and cheap, I suggest you go read it or buy it. If you seek greater detail I would recommend Hegemony or Surivival, but 9-11 is useful precisely because it has similar information and is less intimidating in both depth and bredth. It is critical to be exposed to other viewpoints or sources of information, especially when other parts of the world hold them as true. As Chomksy said, writing to the editior during the process, "These facts have been completely removed from history. One has to practically scream them from the rooftops."
(for all the picky people, obviously the facts were not 'completely' removed or he couldn't discuss it, but he means in terms of popular knowledge of what has historically occurred.As well, there are much better ways to transmit information than from rooftops)

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Don't know much about geography...

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Mismeasure of Man (& Intelligence Thoughts)

Order is Heaven's first law; and, this confessed,
Some are, and must be, greater than the rest.

-Alexander Pope, Essay on Man (1733)

Gould's 1981 classic work (revised and expanded in 1996) is an attempt to describe the history of intelligence testing and how those (spurious) results have been used to justify social inequalities. On that point, I think he succeeded admirably. The book is superbly written, highly informative and thorough. A little dry at some points, but such is the trade-off for necessary details. I found it both saddening and sickening to read about the terribly bad science that occurred in the 1800s and 1900s that was used to 'demonstrate' that various groups were inferior. All too often conclusions were decided upon and the facts manipulated to reach them. Sometimes this process was conscious, other times unconscious, but at most times general logical flaws dominated the discipline of mental testing.
Gould's main point is that the notion of a real, unchanging and heritable intelligence factor is flawed. He is not saying that some people are not smarter than others, nor is he saying that there are not genetic factors involved in what is/becomes a person's intelligence. These concessions were made numerous times and yet many people seem to have misunderstood Gould's stance. This was evident to me after reading some of the reviews on of The Mismeasure of Man. Many people seem to think Gould is implying something he is not. I guess such things occur with faulty inferential mechanisms.

The other main issue of the book concerns the reification of intelligence. To reify is make something real that was/is abstract. IQ, as a single number, is an aggregate of many types of mental tests that are trying to assess different aspects of intelligence. Consequently, when many measures are reduced to one measure, some information has to be lost. Many people think IQ is a tangible thing, but it is actually a measure derived from a statistical process that treats it as abstract. Additionally, depending on how one interprets the statistics, a different output may be generated. This is nothing new to some and very new to most.
As a result of this new information, you might say, "Okay, so IQ is a bit of a flawed concept, at least how it is popularly understood. But... aren't some people smarter than others?" Here is where I'll diverge from the book review and just share some thoughts (which are related to the book).

The quotation with which this post begins is one that I took from The Mismeasure of Man (p.62) and I would say I agree with the second line. Of course, 'greater' does not necessarily mean smarter, but for my purposes it could mean almost any adjective. As long as there are differences in the genetic composition AND in environment of organisms (humans, too!) then there will be differences in the greatness ('blankness') of people. Pretty simple concept, pretty hard to refute. (If you have a refutation, please share it.) So then, there must be people smarter than others, right? Sure. I agree... but wait, what do you mean by 'smarter' and what does that mean for how you treat people? Addressing the second issue first, people should be treated with compassion and appropriate respect. For the most part, this means treating people as equal even when they are not. Though the notion of equality is much more complicated when examined in detail, it works quite well on a general level and I think it can presently be left at that.

As for the first issue, what would be the best way to define 'smart?' Knowledge of the world? (working-space)Memory? Processing speed? Absract/conceptual reasoning? Symbol recognition? Mathematical abilities? Well, IQ tests currently use all of those aspects to assess someone's 'intelligence quotient.' There are subscales in each area and these are aggregated to produce an IQ. Of course, if one only has one number, it is impossible to determine whether a person is comparably good in the quantitative and verbal sections, or if performance in one section is much better than in the other. Why not keep the subscales? I don't actually know, but I think it is because often the subscales are comparable, and there become many numbers to work with. (Anyone have any data to share?)

Is IQ useful to measure what people care about? We've all met smart people that say or do stupid things (at a frequency just as great as 'average' people). As the previous sentence contradicts itself, we could ask how is this possible. Simply, the tests don't measure everything. They don't measure understanding of one's self or the world, they don't measure personality traits or temperaments, nor do they measure kindness.

Here is where you have to ask yourself what do you care about? What would you measure? How would you measure it?

I think a measure of something like 'decision competency' would be much more useful. Outcomes in the person's life would be used as a measure of how well they make decisions they value. Well, isn't that what many people automatically thing when they think of 'smart?' That is an empirical question, but my guess is that it is.

As tempted as I am to measure people's intelligence as the degree to which they believe and act in accordance with my philosophical beliefs, I know that just won't do. Yet, I do think kindness or some measure of empathy might be more useful for the world (that I want) than IQ.
But why must we choose? Test them all! There is some sense to this as it would provide a more complete profile of a person and would allow for correlations between tests to be discovered. There is some nonsense though, in that most often people are not fully assessed just for fun, but with specific goals in mind. Additionally, I believe it has already been shown that empathy and IQ are not highly related. Decision competency is in its infancy, but I see worth there.

The Ante-, pen-, ultimate topic(s) to be discussed:(1) Whether races differ in intellect. This topic involves discussions about what race is, how to measure that, and comparing the variance (within groups to between groups is a no-no) and other comparisons... but the short answer is 'no'. Not that I know of. The other issue is the trade-off between accurate description and interpretation. Say it is discovered that white people (on average) have lower IQs than black people (on average). Will this information be used compassionately to help white people in school or used to justify social discrimination and prejudice? In a way it is not a fair example, because the reverse 'fact' has been found so many times in the past that now white people have most of the power so they need very little 'help' (comparably). I'm attempting to highlight that the world is complex and that extra reflection shall hardly ever be retrospectively viewed as superfluous.

(2) Domain specifc 'intelligence.' This is a very important issue, an occurrence that is obvious to many but hard for me to fully grasp. I say 'fully grasp' meaning that the fact would shift my 'natural' way of thinking by total incorporation and result in a new automatic default when interpreting the world. When I hear a great writer that does not speak well, or learn that a graceful athlete is clumsy off the field or that someone that cares deeply about and works to help people in need has a terrible personal life, it causes me cognitive dissonance. How can some people be so competent at one thing, but not at another? The obvious answer might be that I am examining two different situations and the perceived underlying similarity is nonexistent. I would say this is true part of the time because it is also true that different (but highly similar) situations provoke different responses (abilities) in the same person. That is just how it goes.

(3) Consistency/self-awareness as intelligence. Personally, a useful measure of intelligence is one that would that would assess the degree to which an individual is aware of the choices they make, the actions they perform and how those relate to other executed choices and behaviours. This would tap into working-space memory and the ability to make connections across (seemingly) disparate domains to assess consistency. Why is consistency important (to me)? I don't like hypocrisy. I don't know (m)any that do. Given resources and processing time, people can be useful detectors of those that do not play fair, but they seem to be able to ignore or dismiss their own violations of fairness in very similar situations. It would seem only those forced to recognize their inconsistency do so and only then some of the time.

Of a world with 6 billion humans, it must be recognized that the similarities among their 6 billion goal-structures are limited.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Autistic Basketball Player

Bush Sr.'s a jerk

While the title might not be new info for some, the reasoning behind it was new to me despite being very old.
(Taken from here, by Madalyn O'Hair, emphasis added by me)

When George Bush was campaigning for the presidency, as incumbent vice president, one of his stops was in Chicago, Illinois, on August 27, 1987. At O'Hare Airport he held a formal outdoor news conference. There Robert I. Sherman, a reporter for the American Atheist news journal, fully accredited by the state of Illinois and by invitation a participating member of the press corps covering the national candidates had the following exchange with then Vice President Bush.

Sherman: What will you do to win the votes of the Americans who are atheists?

Bush: I guess I'm pretty weak in the atheist community. Faith in god is important to me.

Sherman: Surely you recognize the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists?

Bush: No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.

(Well, at least he didn't have much influence in politics since that quotation. *cries*)