Archive for April, 2011

Everybody wants to be the King

Posted in Politics and Society with tags on April, 2011 by melendwyr

I decided to brush up on my Machiavelli, which I hadn’t read for more than a decade, so I picked up a translation of his On Principalities, which we now recognize as The Prince. Good Ol’ Nick was much as I remembered him, but a few things leapt out at me, presumably because of my changed perspective.

One which caught my eye involved the balance of power between nobles and common folk (and how a prince should minuet through the particular minefield of their interactions) in which he argues essentially that the nobility desired to oppress and control the commoners and they wanted primarily to be free of oppression.

Except this isn’t really true. I immediately thought of the Puritans, who as the comic put it, “left for America in search of greater religious repression than was available in Europe at the time”. The humor is underlined by the quip’s being literally true: they wanted various governments to enforce their religious precepts on their community and were incensed when they refused.

In Machiavelli’s time, there were relatively few factions people could belong to within a political entity. Things have changed. To what degree can the success or failure of a society be linked to the number of factions the ‘common people’ divide themselves into?

Kick the truth and shatter it

Posted in Things You Should Read with tags , , , on April, 2011 by melendwyr

From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s program (again, brought to my attention by Entitled to an Opinion) “All in the Mind” from April 9th, 2011. (Instead of this being something you should read, it’s something you should listen to, but the categorization is the same as for text.)

This program concerns the nature of violence and murder. A psychologist on the program – in its opening moments, immediately after the interviewer’s setup – had the following to say:

Violence itself is a form of communcation. It’s a way of sending a message, and it does that through symbolic means, damaging the body.

There are certain words that, over the course of my adventures through the incoherent and generally idiotic realm of human discourse, I have learned are signals – warning flags – that alert me to examine their user’s arguments carefully. They don’t necessarily mean that the arguments or the person making them are foolish, fad-driven nonsense nuggets. The correlation between their use and idiocy are striking, though. To rephrase a famous saying: Whenever I hear the word ‘symbolic’, I take the safety off my Browning.

Generally, when humans damage the bodies of other humans through uncontrolled or poorly-controlled violence, it’s not a form of ‘communication’. It’s done because they want to damage the bodies of the humans in question, probably unto death, because they want them to be injured and/or dead.

The cigar might have certain associational linkages, but people smoke them because they’re cigars, regardless of whatever ‘symbolic’ value someone might perceive them has having. It is so easy to generate at-will an association between any two arbitrary things – especially if you’re not picky about the nature of the association – that arguments based on asserted symbolic value are virtually always fallacious. This was one of the big problems with Freudian psychology, which was based heavily on authorities telling people that their behavior was a symbolic restatement of various basic drives people were asserted to have – the arguments could encompass anything, and thus explained nothing.

The topic is worthy of a post in itself, but to return to the subject at hand: it’s a bad, bad sign when someone begins an argument by saying something as straightforward and uncomplicated as murder is engaged in for symbolic reasons.

Purple and Green: The Macro

Posted in Politics and Society with tags on April, 2011 by melendwyr

Link to mupetblast/Dain’s Entitled to an Opinion post:

Egalitarianism in most cases is not based on a real wish for all people to be equal in social and economic condition. It is rather the stratagem of those who wish to advance their own social and economic status at the expense of others whose status is higher. Rather than working to advance themselves within the extant structure of civil society, they seek to alter political arrangements so as to cast down those whom they envy and despise, and to exalt themselves in their stead. Marxism is an ideology designed to order for this purpose.

It’s worth noting that Karl Marx was a pretty complete failure: economically, socially, and interpersonally. Of his seven children, only three survived to adulthood. Marx came from an middle-class background, and fell about as far as it was possible to fall in his world without dying as a result. I’m reasonably confident he felt he was inherently entitled to more than he received, and I suspect he was constitutionally incapable of even considering the possibility that he was to blame for his status and state. The result?

Well, you know the rest. Perhaps. Have you ever actually read Marx’s works? I have – and they are every bit as absurd as his most scathing critics have suggested.

Dresden Codak vs. Eliezer Yudkowsky?

Posted in Comics with tags , , on April, 2011 by melendwyr

See the latest update of Dresden Codak ( #9 of the Dark Science series). Does anything about it seem… familiar… to you?

As per request, a link has been added to the comic in question.

Picking Battles

Posted in Politics and Society, Science! with tags , , , on April, 2011 by melendwyr

From Ian Sample’s Guardian interview with Sir Martin Rees, who lately was awarded the Templeton Prize:

IS: What do you make of the approach to science and religion issues taken by Richard Dawkins and those of his ilk?

MR: I won’t comment on him, but I’m not allergic to religion. I would say two things. One is that I think all of us are concerned about fanaticism and fundamentalism and we need all the allies we can muster against it. And I would see Rowan Williams et al as being on our side. I admire them more than want to rubbish them. Another point is if you are teaching Muslim sixth formers in a school and you tell them they can’t have their God and Darwin, there is a risk they will choose their God and be lost to science. So those are two respects where I would disagree with the emphasis of the professional atheists, as it were.

My questions: if they would choose religious belief over evidence and reasoned argument, aren’t they already lost to science? What benefit accrues to science if people who would make such a choice believe it not to be necessary? Particularly as analysis quickly reveals that to be nonsense – the fork is very real and cannot be honestly avoided.

‘Piss Christ’ Destroyed

Posted in Politics and Society with tags , , on April, 2011 by melendwyr

See Guardian article here.

Thoughts: 1) What a stupid piece of ‘art’. 2) What a stupid museum for showcasing such a stupid piece of ‘art’. 3) The protesters and vandals aren’t much better.

As far as I can determine, it wasn’t even a government-funded gallery. A privately-owned picture, shown in a private gallery, open to the public – and people protest it? Not wanting your tax dollars funding art you find objectionable or unaesthetic I can understand, but I see no reason those hundreds of people should have been concerned about the situation as it stood. What business is it of theirs?

It’s especially stupid because the photograph in question can presumably be recreated with its negative. Unlike a painting or most sculptures, photos are usually so easy to replace that destroying them is meaningless… except that the museum is going to continue to display the damaged photo, “to show what barbarians can do”. Arguably the vandalized ‘art’ is even more valuable in a monetary sense, and a case can be made that it possesses more artistic value now than before!

Does Resurrection Contradict Science?

Posted in Science! with tags , , on April, 2011 by melendwyr

This is the remarkable question asked at Why Evolution Is True, in response to an unusual column at the Huffington Post.

I won’t get into the idiocy of Matt J. Rossano arguments. It’s too depressing.

I will simply point out a very important, elementary, yet often overlooked fact about our attempt to explain the universe:

Before we try to generate an explanation for something, we need to make sure it’s actually happened.

Being able to explain anything – regardless of whether it actually happens – is a profound sign that our model of the universe is wrong, and wrong in a fundamental way that cannot be repaired. We can’t make predictions, because predictions require ruling out one class of possibilities in favor of another. And it follows from this that always being able to come up with an ‘explanation’ means we can never actually say anything meaningful about reality and how it works. If we can fit anything into our model, especially lies and errors, it’s not good for much. Except pulling the wool over the eyes of gullible people, of course, possibly including ourselves. But if we’re not interested in that? Forget about it.

Can we demonstrate that any given person came back from a three-day period of metabolic inactivity, at normal temperature, after considerable decay? (Bodies decay rapidly in hot regions, which is why the traditional burial practices were and continue to be emphatic about disposing of corpses soon after death.) ‘Death’ isn’t so meaningful – it’s usually meant to indicate the point at which a person cannot be revived, and so the standards for evaluating it have changed as knowledge and technology altered the conditions which a person could endure and still be made functional. But decay?

There is no need to abolish all our standards in order to account for a counterfactual.