Monday, May 30, 2011

Bring 'em Home

"You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war." -- Albert Einstein

The best way we can honor our soldiers on Memorial Day is to bring them all home.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dear Human

This is good (click the pic to see the whole comic strip):

Tweeted by @michaelshermer. Webcomic by Zach Weiner at SMBC Comics.

Monday, May 23, 2011

There's nothing like a Guinness ...

You gotta like a man that drinks a Guinness:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

There but for the grace of God ...

Roger Ebert tweeted about this a day or so ago. It's a short film/documentary about the Salton Sea in California called The Accidental Sea:

The clip's only about 6 minutes, so take a look. Powerful stuff about the hubris with which we fuck with nature and how nature will ultimately fuck us back. Some of the scenery you will recognize if you've ever seen Into the Wild, as Chris McCandless' adventures led him to the Salton Sea for a time. I couldn't help but think of The World Without Us as well because of the manner in which the desert reclaims the land ... and quickly. One of my favorite lines from the clip:

It's easy to look at the Salton Sea and say, 'Of course it failed' ... But I look at it and think 'there but for the grace of God go the rest of us'. (paraphrasing)

And by this he means that basically anywhere we try to alter nature for our purposes, we are in danger of some push-back. We need to work in harmony as much as possible so as to mitigate these wild swings. This has been said before but it bears repeating: "Saving the planet" is really a misnomer. The planet doesn't need saved. It'll be just fine and will outlast us. We are merely a blip in its timeline. What we do need to do is make sure that we do our best to make it livable while we are here.

"... in the day after humans disappear, nature takes over and immediately begins cleaning house - our houses." -- Alan Weisman in The World Without Us

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Obi-Wan Kenobi is dead ...

Laura posted a link to this on Facebook:

Obi-Wan Kenobi Is Dead, Vader Says

It's hilarious! Be sure to read the comments as well. They're even better than the article.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Going Green Update

Short of me getting into a completely different line of work and abandoning my company, I'm going to drive a lot of miles. Undesirable, but unavoidable at least for now. So, to make the best of it, we finally got a Prius today. 90% of my driving is city driving at about 40 - 45 mph and that is in the sweet spot of a Prius. At this speed and slower, it primarily runs as an electric car and thus gets some crazy good gas mileage. Our Hyundai that we traded in (may it rest in peace ... 186,000 miles) got pretty good gas mileage, about 30 in the city. With the Prius, I'm hoping to double that. I'll report back here after a month or so with my results. One of the nice things about the Prius is the on-screen readouts that report whether you are running from the gas engine or electric, or both and what your current MPG is. It's very easy to see how your driving habits, the road conditions, and even having the A/C on can affect the gas mileage. So count on me trying some "hypermileage" techniques.

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Jeez ... I never blog. Gotta change that.

As I mentioned earlier, I just recently finished Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape.

Of the Four Horseman of "New Atheism", Harris is probably my favorite author. I've previously read his Letter to a Christian Nation, a very good book and I highly recommend it.

That book, as the title implies, is shorter and is a good introduction to Harris. The Moral Landscape is significantly more scholarly and incorporates a lot of research from Harris particular field of expertise, neuroscience, which he has a PhD in. In The Moral Landscape, Harris not only makes the compelling argument that morality can be defined scientifically but also takes on the criticism of atheists as being moral relativists. If anything, a morality that depends on the well-being of others, as his science-based morality does, is anything but. There are right and wrong answers to moral questions, completely independent of religion. For example, murder is not wrong because the Bible says it is. People would know it is wrong if there were no Bible. The Bible merely reflects many of the universal moral truths that we already know. When religion seeks to dictate morality outside of that is where it runs into problems. Now, obviously, his explanation is not as simple as mine, but that is the general gist of it.

One of the most important things I took from the book was that the morality of separate cultures is not necessarily equal and should not be respected as such. This is a valid criticism of many liberals and where the charge of moral relativism often comes from. As he says, "the moment we admit that we know anything about human well-being scientifically, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures can be absolutely wrong about it."

The "moral blindness in the name of 'tolerance'" allows "highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully ... before condemning practices like compulsory veling, genital excision, bride burning, forced marriage ..." This learned confusion is the same thing that blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa or the Danish cartoonists for the Mohammed controversy.

Other parts of the book delve into the neurological reasons for belief and why those who believe reason in a certain manner. Creationism and general Christian distrust of science can be explained by the fact that "people tend to seek evidence that confirms an hypothesis rather than evidence that refutes it. This strategy is known to produce frequent reasoning errors. Our bias toward belief may also explain the 'illusory-truth effect,' where mere exposure to a proposition, even when it was revealed to be false or attributed to an unreliable source, increases the likelihood that it will later be remembered as being true."

Why people initially pick up their beliefs is due to several factors that are "more emotional and social than strictly cognitive. Wishful thinking, self-serving bias, in-group loyalties, and frank self-deception can lead to monstrous departures from the norms of rationality. Most beliefs are evaluated against a background of other beliefs and often in the context of an ideology that a person shares with others. Consequently, people are rarely as open to revising their views as reason would seem to dictate."

People often have certain beliefs because they want to feel good or as Harris says, "to hew to a positive state of mind - to mitigate feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, or guilt ..." Because their happiness is dependent on those beliefs, any evidence that runs counter is ignored.

The ideas that he espouses here are not necessarily new, and I believe most of us already know them to be instinctively true, but he does a good job of establishing a scientific basis for studying and quantifying morality.

In my next post, I'm going to try and touch on some of the possible evolutionary reasons for belief and will also go further into Harris' criticism of noted science/religion reconciler Francis Collins.

"We have, in fact, two kinds of morality side by side; one which we preach but do not practice, and another which we practice but seldom preach." -- Bertrand Russell