22 November, 2008

What type is this blog?

Interesting...an algorithm that "analyzes" blog content and "categorizes" blog type. Here's what it came up with for this site:
INTP - The Thinkers

The logical and analytical type. They are especially attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.
That is so me!! It's just like my horoscope!

HT: Andrew Sullivan

22 October, 2008

The consequences of death-worship

P.Z. Myers links to a post on a "homeschooling" blog wherein the blog's owner, one Raani Starnes, writes:
A friend recently sent me this article about a "gay-friendly" high school. If we were living in a biblical society, homosexuality would be punishable by death so such a school would be unnecessary. Although I'm against the special accommodations, perhaps this new trend of segregation will protect straight kids from these predators. With any luck, some radical will blow up the gay school. No, I'm not condoning vigilantism--I'm merely saying that it would be poetic justice.
Charming...and this woman has four children. Pity them.

I feel some further comment is needed. As the title of this post indicates, I see this as the consequence of death-worship. This woman, and many others like her, worship anti-life, anti-humanity; in short: death. They have come to believe, through indoctrination, moral failure, or mental illness, that human beings are degraded, valueless creatures who require some sort of external salvation from their humanity. Accordingly, they reject human values, indeed, they reject their own humanity and the humanity of others. They seek to purge life of all that is human and replace it with their own, necessarily crippled values. Theirs is the morality of the slave, of the degenerate, the looter, and the corpse.

In reality, our humanity is what makes moral value possible. Only our nature as free moral agents can adequately ground value and thus a true moral system. No external agent can grant to us as an arbitrary whim any kind of real value or impose upon us any kind of moral rule. That is the morality of the slave. No real moral system can require the rejection of our human nature as a "ground rule" for existence. That is the morality of the degenerate. No free moral agent can accept as the base of its moral system that which comes from outside its own nature. That is the morality of the looter. No true moral system can reject the value of human life (and by that I don't mean a clump of cells). That is the morality of the corpse. And yet all of this is what these death-cultists would have us believe is the source of moral value. This is nothing less than moral insanity.

Theirs is a corrupt and dying belief, but in its death throes it threatens all of human society with the noxious curse of its memes. Too often those who oppose such evil have hesitated to speak out strongly against it. We call for "tolerance" and "respect", ask people to reject "bigotry" and "prejudice" but never seem to press our opponents on the base immorality of their beliefs.

I say: The time for accommodation has passed.

It is time for human beings to speak up in favor of humanity and against the purveyors of evil who would foist upon us a degenerate moral system based on slavery & death. By all rights, this rotting corpse deserves a burial. We should no longer hesitate to speak the truth as we know it: these beliefs are insane and deserving of no more respect than we would offer to the random gibberish spewed by the average resident of Bedlam. Beyond that, however, they are actually evil. We should not mince words; our opponents do not. We must counter them with reason and logic; show the confused and contradictory ground on which their beliefs stand, expose the degeneracy of their moral system, and expound the objective foundation human nature provides for a real human moral system.

To Mrs. Starnes (should she deign to read this), I want to make clear: I do not hate you. I do not hate your family. I do not wish any harm to come to you, your husband, or your children. I would guess that the link from PZ's blog has probably multiplied the traffic to your blog at least tenfold and I can only imagine the feedback you're receiving. Some hateful (and for that I offer what apologies I may), some constructive (and I hope you read those with as open a mind as may be possible), and others antagonistic (as I intended mine to be). I do not seek to engage you so much as to stand in clear opposition to you, albeit without personal rancour. I find your beliefs odious and corrupt (and I imagine you would say the same to me), but I have no feelings toward you as a person.

Update: I've noticed some of the comments on PZ's blog are suggesting that Mrs. Starnes' blog post be reported to blogger as in apparent violation of Blogger's TOS. Although I would agree that Mrs. Starnes has an absolute right to her opinion, so does Blogger, as a corporate entity, have the right to restrict the material it allows to be hosted on its servers. If Mrs. Starnes wishes to air her moral degeneracy, she's certainly welcome to do so on her own server, but if her post does in fact violate Blogger's TOS, they have every right to remove it. As of this point, the post is still up, but the coming days may prove different.

Update 10.23: As at least one reader has noticed, the original post appears to have been taken down. But in it's place (and using the same URL as the original post) is a new piece of insanity: a veritable stew of ignorance, faulty reasoning, and, coming from someone who calls himself a "pastor" and who apparently "shepherds" what can only be imagined as an unfortunate group of sheep, painfully poor biblical exegesis and understanding. If there were any such thing as "sin", this poisonous vitriol would certainly qualify.

Update 11.18: I noticed today that the entire blog has been deleted. I'm guessing that was due in whole or part to the consequences of having such disgraceful and vile opinions brought to the attention to a plethora of more or less decent people.

Do Not Eat!!

During my final year of undergraduate studies I worked as an assistant in UNCG's Financial Aid Office. At some point during that year, the office received a couple of new computers and I was placed in charge of unpacking and setting them up. As I opened one of the packages, a tiny white envelope fell to the ground. As I picked it up, I noticed bold lettering on the side: DO NOT EAT.

Of course this is probably good advice given that those little envelopes, ubiquitous to electronics packaging, contain some sort of dessicant and are likely not the sort of things humans should consume. Still, it made me wonder what kind of person is going to look at this envelope, packed in with a computer keyboard, and think, "Hey, that looks like a tasty snack!" I was so amused at the notion that I used up an entire pad of Post-It notes, writing "DO NOT EAT" on every one and sticking them to various objects in the office (desks, chairs, filing cabinets, clocks, etc). After all, if people were going around munching on strange paper containers found in electronics packaging, then they might very well start snacking on office equipment next! These people needed to be warned!

The other evening while watching television, I saw an advertisement for Guitar Hero in which an animated band plays a rock-and-roll anthem while standing on the roof and hood of a wildly speeding automobile. I'm not sure I understood the connection between the game and the image, but at any rate at the bottom of the television screen was displayed the disclaimer, "Do Not Attempt".

WTF? No, seriously...WTF?? Are there really individuals out there too stupid to realize what might happen to them if they attempt to stand on the hood of a car careening madly down the street? And if so, should we really care what might become of them? Isn't this the sort of defect that natural selection is so good at weeding out of the population and aren't we doing ourselves some sort of disservice by stepping in and preventing nature from doing its part to preserve the overall fitness of the species?

Deep breath....okay, I realize that companies that put these disclaimers on their products/advertisements are doing so out of an understandable desire to protect themselves and their shareholders from lawsuits. But therein lies the problem: what sort of jury awards damages to idiots who injured themselves while performing some stunt they saw in a cartoon or who ate an unidentifiable substance that came in an envelope that fell out of a box? I suppose the answer is: a jury comprised of the same sort of idiots.

One of the baseline assumptions of a modern democratic society is or should be that citizens are rational adults; free moral agents who are responsible for their own actions. Obviously where an individual or a group of individuals are coerced or deceived into acting against their own best interests, those responsible for the coercion or deception should be held accountable, but it seems to me that among rational, free moral agents there should be an assumption of a commonly-held grip on reality. In other words, that we all have at least a rudimentary understanding of how the world works: ice is slippery, hot liquids can burn, not everything can be eaten safely, what goes up must come down, falling can be dangerous, etc, etc. For indeed, how could a society function without such a common reality?

But what of individuals who apparently lack this level of understanding?

In the days before advanced medical technology and unscrupulous ambulance-chasing attorneys these unfortunate persons would have served as examples to the rest of us and a chance for humanity to raise its collective I.Q. Today however, they reap millions of dollars from lawsuits because they burned themselves with hot coffee while the rest of us pay higher taxes and inflated prices on goods and services to compensate them for their stupidity.

Wait a minute...um...who is the stupid one again? I think I'll go and try to shave with the paper shredder...after all, there's no sign on it that says I can't!

Image credit: Saint Gasoline

21 October, 2008

Talk about your must-see TV!

Keith Olbermann tears into Palin, Bachmann, Limbaugh, and, finally, McCain for the disgusting turn the losing Republican campaign has taken into a divisive "us vs. them" approach. As always, well worth the time to watch.

Let's not kid ourselves, though. This isn't really anything new for these people, it's merely the latest outrage. If John McCain had a shred of decency left in him, he would disavow this absurd, deeply offensive, and, indeed, anti-American tactic. Unfortunately, the likelihood of that happening is nil. Palin, Limbaugh, Bachman and their ilk may be risible fools, but they, not John McCain, are what drives the Republican party now.

This is what has become of the party of Abraham Lincoln?

HT: Pharyngula

08 October, 2008

Debate Reactions

Andrew Sullivan collects some great reactions to last night's McCain-Obama debate. My favorite? Wil Wilkinson:
Gut read. Obama owned it. This election’s over unless he murders and eats the flesh of a child on live television.
I'm not sure that it would take all that, but one thing I believe for sure: this election has been and still is Obama's to lose. Of course, I thought that was true of Gore as well...

13 August, 2008

06 August, 2008

Does Philosophy need bumper stickers?

From Victor Reppert's blog. My contribution:

My other car is a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona.

cf., what Edmund Gettier would be likely to have on his car.

Turnabout is certainly fair play...

In reference to John McCain's ludicrous ad attacking Obama as supposedly "just another celebrity" like Brittany Spears or Paris Hilton, Ms. Hilton has now appeared in a parody ad that rightly skewers McCain's conceit:
See more funny videos at Funny or Die

HT: Andrew Sullivan

01 July, 2008

Happy Birthday, Evolution!

On July 1st, 1858, an essay by Alfred Russell Wallace and two unpublished excerpts from a book by Charles Darwin were presented to a meeting of the Linnean Society of London. These writings, which were to be published in the Society's journal a month later as "On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; And On the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection", was the first public presentation of what has come to be known as the theory of evolution by natural selection, a foundational cornerstone of modern biology.

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of Darwin and Wallace's idea on science or on history in general. Even today it remains at the forefront of not only scientific exploration, but also in our culture; as a cause of tension between reason and faith (or rationality and irrationality, if you will).

Obviously, the theory as it was then limned and presented has not survived unaltered these one hundred and fifty years, but the spark of that genius shines brightly even now. Happy Birthday, Evolution!

30 June, 2008

Dame Emma Kirkby, Doctoris in Musica honoris causa

Cantatrix lepidissima, quae et permultos arte tua delectavisti et pulchritudinem musicae inprimis antiquae aperuisti, ego auctoritate mea et totius Vniversitatis admitto te ad gradum Doctoris in Musica honoris causa.*

With these words, the Chancellor of Oxford University conveyed upon Dame Emma Kirkby an honorary Doctorate in Music at the University's 18 June congregation.

Kirkby was made DCOBE in the Queen's birthday honors last July, and as I blogged at the time, I believed she well deserved that honor as well as this new one.

Below, I'm posting the encomium* delivered by the Oxford orator:

Is there anything that those who have read Greats at Oxford cannot do? Three years ago we honoured a man who after completing this degree turned to physics and won a Nobel Prize for it, and today we confer a doctorate on a lady who did not devote her whole time to music until she too had made this thorough study of Greek and Latin texts. In those days the vastly learned and formidable Eduard Fraenkel was teaching (or terrorising) his pupils, but she is said to have subdued him by her charm as Orpheus subdued the beasts with his lyre. At all events, in the succeeding years her art has come close to that of Orpheus himself in its power to bewitch the world. A competent critic has described her as the best singer never to have sung Verdi. The beauty of her voice is known to all; some have compared it (quite wrongly, I believe) to a boy's voice, others to a bell, and yet others to a stream of silver. But I suggest that she deserves the greater praise for adding to this God-given talent musicality, technical mastery and historical understanding.

The poets often represent goddesses as jealous and self-assertive; thus Juno in Virgil's Aeneid declares that since she cannot get her way she will raise Hell itself. So I think that there is good reason for celebrated sopranos to be called divas. This honorand is entirely different: with ample reason to boast about herself, she has always remained easy and modest. She has herself said that her recent damehood should be taken as a tribute to the virtues of stillness, clarity and ensemble rather than volume and display. She seeks harmony not only in the music itself but also among the performers; and accordingly she has earned, besides the praise of all, the affection of many.

I present an English nightingale, a tenth Muse, Carolyn Emma Kirkby, DBE, former student and Honorary Fellow of Somerville College, to be admitted to the honorary degree of Doctor of Music.

* At Oxford, the encomiums and admission are delivered in Latin and if you're interested, you can find the original as well as the translation of the Chancellor's admission at the title link...

24 June, 2008

God deals drugs...news at 11:00

Too funny!

God accused of selling cocaine.
Police said a man named God was arrested near a Tampa church for selling cocaine.

Authorities began investigating God Lucky Howard in April, and he was arrested on Saturday. Police said he sold the cocaine to undercover detectives in his neighborhood. When officers searched his home, they reported finding 22 grams more of cocaine and a scale.

Jail records show Howard was charged with several counts of drug possession and distribution, which include increased charges for being within 1,000 feet of a church, a school and public housing.

He was being held on a bond of $86,500.

04 June, 2008

Put a Little Science in Your Life!

Also found via Pharyngula, an op-ed in the New York Times by Brian Greene (U.S. Physicist) on the role science can play in giving meaning to life. It's a fantastic essay and conveys wonderfully the very real need that exists to improve science education in our schools and the overall place that science has in the daily lives of ordinary people:
The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.
This goes directly to the heart of the matter. We stand today as inheritors and beneficiaries of the Enlightenment but an increasing tide of irrationality threatens not only to slow our forward progress, but to actually move us backwards, both morally and practically. Faith-based wooly-headedness seeks to limit or quash the rights of women and minorities and distort or hinder the teaching of science in schools. Fanatics possessed by religious delusions seek to destroy the freedoms and lives of those with whom they disagree. Political partisanship and ideological motivations lead to the obfuscation, twisting, or blatant disregard of rational argument and science itself. Even many people who reject dogmatism often turn to superstition and wishful thinking like "pop" spirituality and so-called "psychics". We are swimming in a sea of nonsense and it seems like we're having more and more difficulty keeping our heads above water.

And this is exactly why science is so important. Science can illuminate a road out of this mess: Reason. The scientific method is our only reliable source of knowledge of the external world and as Greene notes, it can help us give context and meaning to our lives. Where dogma and superstition fail, science triumphs.

Derren Brown: The so-called Messiah

Found via Pharyngula: a (what appears to be) BBC show featuring Derren Brown (a British magician/illusionist) in which he travels to the U.S. and presents himself to several "experts" in the world of supernatural/paranormal phenomena as one of their own in the hopes of gaining their "endorsement" of his alleged "abilities". In other words, he fools them into thinking that the tricks he performs are actual paranormal/supernatural phenomena. An excellent example of skepticism in action! See YouTube for all eight episodes.

13 May, 2008

Religion of peace?

I just recently finished reading Infidel, the autobiography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I can't recommend it highly enough. The story of this amazing, courageous woman is a compelling read (for those not familiar with her, you can read more here or at her website).

In her book, Ali makes reference to the oft-heard claim that Islam is a "religion of peace" and takes some issue with that claim by pointing to information in the Quran and elsewhere that seem to belie it. Of course, it's often difficult to separate religious from cultural influences, especially when they appear to be so closely bound together as in most Islamic countries, but her arguments are interesting.

But what does it really mean to say "Islam is a religion of peace?" Do proponents of this claim mean to argue that Muslims are peaceful people, or that the religion itself is about peace or has peace as one of its primary doctrines? The former would seem to be trivially true, at least for the great majority of Muslims, but I don't think that really captures what people seem to mean when they argue that "Islam is a religion of peace". They seem to be saying that the religion itself is "peaceful" or that it is concerned in some way with peace. But it seems to me that this is no more possibly true of Islam than it is for any other religion. Because religions aren't at all concerned with peace...they're concerned with Truth.

Now I'm sure you can find passages in any given holy book(s) that talk about loving one's neighbor, but that says nothing about the ultimate concern of the faith, merely what the religion's founder(s) believe should be an outgrowth or a result of its practice. But this is often in direct opposition, or at least to some non-trivial extent contrary, to the central concern of any religion which is always Truth: what, at base, is existence really all about?

The striving for Truth seems to be deeply rooted in the human condition. We all want our worldviews to rest on a secure foundation and you can't get more secure than ultimate, absolute truth (what I characterize as Truth) and all religions claim to have it (this happens to be one reason why I believe religion are and have been so popular throughout human history).

But Truth is, by its nature, exclusive. Though all religions claim to have it, there is only one Truth and to the extent that religious truths conflict, only one (at most) can be correct. So religion is in turn by its nature, divisive. It divides us into "Right" and "Wrong". And the great majority of religions postulate terrible consequences for being "Wrong". Christian & Muslim doctrine condemns the "Wrong" to eternal torment. Buddhist & Hindu doctrines hold that the "Wrong" will suffer eternally via a cycle of rebirths. And so on and so on. According to these faiths, it's of the most extreme, eternal, and thus ultimate importance that one be Right, not peaceful. Of course, there are many passages in their holy books that can be interpreted as saying that peace flows from being Right, but it's still the case that the ultimate concern is not peace, but being Right.

The concern with being Right isn't exclusive to religion, of course. As I noted I believe it's human nature to be concerned with Truth. But this concern for being Right, be it religious or not, has directly led to some of the most horrible atrocities every perpetrated by Man upon himself. The Inquisition, the Reformation, the Terror (French revolution), pogroms and the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, etc, etc.

Its obviously not just religion that leads to such things, but religions, being ultimately concerned with Truth and separating the Rights from the Wrongs, are fertile breeding grounds for just this very sort of behavior. And thus it is that any claims made of the form (X is a religion of peace) should be taken with a grain of salt. Religion simply isn't about peace and its natural results are often opposed to it.

16 April, 2008

Optical Allusions

Some time ago, I received for Xmas a couple of comic books graphic novels by Jay Hosler, a biologist AND cartoonist(interesting combination, no?). Clan Apis tells the story of the life of a honeybee, providing information on bee behavior along the way (Hosler's primary research involves bees). The Sandwalk Adventures conveys Darwin's theory of evolution using Darwin himself and a curious follicle mite who resides in his eyebrow. They are fascinating reading for adults and would make a delightful introduction to science for pre-teens.

Anyway, via Pharyngula I learn that Hosler is working on a new book, Optical Allusions, which will be
a science comic book funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The aim of this work is to develop and test a chapter of a non-majors biology text book in comic form. This particular chapter will contain 9-10 short stories focusing on different aspects of eye biology and evolution. The stories are linked by a common protagonist, Wrinkles the Wonder Brain, and his ongoing quest to find his employers' lost eyeball.

Hosler offers the following graphic as the rationale behind this project:

PZ has some additional details at Pharyngula and an excerpt, in pdf form, can be found here (you can also read excerpts from his other comics by following links from his main page). If this work is anything like his others, it will be a triumph as well.

15 April, 2008

"Expelled!" exposed...

Bleeaagh. The Discovery Institute's latest mishmash of lies & half-lies (otherwise known as "Expelled!") is soon to be released into U.S. theaters where the ignorant, gullible, downright stupid, and dishonest will no doubt lap it up. To counter this appalling paean to lunacy, the National Center for Science Education has put up a counter website to expose the fraud at the heart of the film as well as the falsehoods it promotes. If you have a blog or Facebook/MySpace page, please consider linking to the site to promote truth and science.

Link: Expelled

The Ascent of Man

I've said before that I don't want this blog to become a YouTube showcase, but I find so much really neat stuff there. This clip is from the 1973 TV series The Ascent of Man. Hosted by Jacob Bronowski, the series was designed to promote science (in a manner similar to Carl Sagan's Cosmos series). Here Bronowski is defending the idea of scientific knowledge as opposed to doctrine and dogma. He does so from the grounds of the Auschwitz concentration camp where members of his own family perished during the Holocaust. His argument is both eloquent and timeless and the presentation riveting.

25 March, 2008

Where have I been?

Not here, that's for sure. But I have been having some interesting interactions around the blogosphere:

A discussion with philosopher Victor Reppert on moral issues involved in teaching the doctrine of hell to children.

A discussion with philosopher/scientist Massimo Pigliucci on the difference between libertarians and those who claim libertarian ideals and yet look for every opportunity to suckle at the government teat.

I would say that this is a great example of the positive ability of the internet (and the blogosphere in particular) to allow interactions between all sorts of individuals in ways that were simply not possible before. Both of these gentleman are distinguished academics with lists of scholarly published works. One certainly might interact with them through the particular universities at which they teach, but absent that it's most unlikely that someone removed from that arena would likely have the opportunity to do so.

It gives me great hope for the future of our collective intellectual life that thinkers like Drs. Reppert and Pigliucci have blogs and are willing to take comments and hold discussions with interested individuals. It sort of puts me in mind of the old "Penny University" coffeehouses in London during the eighteenth century. Except instead of a round table and a penny cup of coffee, we have computer terminals over the internet in every country in the world and a cup of home-brew (or perhaps Starbucks). But the net effect is the same: people from diverse backgrounds and cultures are interacting; meeting one another and exchanging ideas. Even if the conversation isn't always polite, it's often stimulating. And as in London where individuals often left these "Penny Universities" smarter or better informed than when they arrived (or so thought Montesquieu), the same hopefully might be said of our newer, technologically-enhanced version.

19 March, 2008

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

Famed scientist, science fiction author, and legendary technology prognosticator Sir Arthur C. Clarke has died at his home in Sri Lanka aged 91.

Clarke's status as a science fiction icon was cemented when his 1948 short story "The Sentinel" was adapted for the silver screen as Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey". He went on to write literally hundreds of short stories, novels, and essays, many of which deal with similar "cosmic" themes.

As a scientist, he was involved in early work in radio and radar and a 1945 paper described a space-based communication network very similar to today's geosynchronous satellites. In acknowledgment of his prediction, the orbit of these satellites is now known as the "Clarke Belt". He has also written extensively about space and space travel, anticipating such ideas as alien probes, possibilities for faster-than-light travel, and space elevators. He was made CBE in 1989 and knighted in 2001. He is also well known for formulating what has become known as "Clarke's law": Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Clarke has long been one of my very favorite writers of what's known as "hard" Science Fiction. That is, SF in which there is actual science, no matter how speculative, involved. Novels like "Rendezvous for Rama", "Childhood's End", and "The Songs of Distant Earth" will remain among some of the best SF every produced. He was also a distinguished member of the British Humanist Association and a laureate of the Academy of Humanism. I knew that he was getting on in years, but somehow that doesn't make the loss any easier. Goodbye old friend...

Links: BBC Obituary

17 March, 2008

Giuseppe di Stefano, 1921-2008

Once again, a great singer has died and somehow I don't find out about it until much later...

The Italian tenor Giuseppe di Stefano died on March 03, aged 86. Di Stefano was one of the great tenors of the "pre-Pavarotti" era. In fact, Pavarotti became well known after he stepped in for an ailing di Stefano at Covent Garden in 1963 (in what would become one of his most famous roles: Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme). He's not as well known as Pavarotti or Domingo partially due to his relatively early retirement (in the mid 1960's) due to, well, "vocal fatigue" pretty much describes it (due at least in part to his choice of roles that were really too heavy for his lyric tenor voice). He'll be remembered for inspiring Maria Callas' ill-considered decision to come out of retirement for a final concert tour (in the mid 1970s). The tour was ultimately to end early as in reality neither singer was capable of sustaining it. Still, his portrayals of Donizetti and Bellini roles, like Nemorino (in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore) will remain as some one of the greatest performances in opera history.

BBC Obituary
NPR Obituary (with additional pictures and links to recordings)

13 March, 2008

The Geometry of Music

When I was an undergraduate in college, many of my non-music-major acquaintances and friends used to tease me with jibes about the alleged low academic status of my chosen discipline. "You're getting class credits for singing?? You take classes on how to pronounce words?? Man, I wish I was a music major...that must be easy!"

Of course, I explained that in addition to the music courses, I also had to matriculate and succeed in non-music academic courses, but such protestations fell on deaf ears. Music? Come on, that's just easy!

Oh, yeah?
Exactly how one [musical] style relates to another, however, has remained a mystery--except over one brief stretch of musical history. That, says Princeton University composer Dmitri Tymoczko, "is why, no matter where you go to school, you learn almost exclusively about classical music from about 1700 to 1900. It's kind of ridiculous."

But Tymoczko may have changed all that. Borrowing some of the mathematics that string theorists invented to plumb the secrets of the physical universe, he has found a way to represent the universe of all possible musical chords in graphic form. "He's not the first to try," says Yale music theorist Richard Cohn. "But he's the first to come up with a compelling answer."

Tymoczko's answer, which led last summer to the first paper on music theory ever published in the journal Science, is that the cosmos of chords consists of weird, multidimensional spaces, known as orbifolds, that turn back on themselves with a twist, like the Möbius strips math teachers love to trot out to prove to students that a two-dimensional figure can have only one side. Indeed, the simplest chords, which consist of just two notes, live on an actual Möbius strip. Three-note chords reside in spaces that look like prisms--except that opposing faces connect to each other. And more complex chords inhabit spaces that are as hard to visualize as the multidimensional universes of string theory.

Here's the abstract from the paper itself:
A musical chord can be represented as a point in a geometrical space called an orbifold. Line segments represent mappings from the notes of one chord to those of another. Composers in a wide range of styles have exploited the non-Euclidean geometry of these spaces, typically by using short line segments between structurally similar chords. Such line segments exist only when chords are nearly symmetrical under translation, reflection, or permutation. Paradigmatically consonant and dissonant chords possess different near-symmetries and suggest different musical uses.

The entire paper is extremely interesting (to those with a penchant for music theory). You can read it at the above link. Additional materials can be found at Dmitri Tymoczko's Princeton webpage.

Take that academia!

11 March, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

Okay, I have to confess: I enjoy martial arts movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Fearless, Hero, House of Flying Daggers,etc. I'll even occasionally watch the ones that come on late at night and feature such awful acting and even worse voice dubbing. I'm not sure why I enjoy them. I am something of an asiatophile, but I suspect it's more to do with the action as I enjoy the Westernized versions of such films as well (Blade, The Matrix, Underworld, etc).

So I'm pleased to see a new movie coming out April 18 that features both Jet Li and Jackie Chan, two of the biggest names in the more common branch of the genre (what we see in the West): The Forbidden Kingdom. The plot involves an American student Jason Tripitakas* (Michael Angarano) looking for bootleg Kung-fu DVDs in Chinatown. Instead he finds an ancient weapon belonging to a great sage and warrior, the "Monkey King" (Jet Li). Through the power of this talisman he is sent back in time to ancient China where he finds that he must free the Monkey King who has been imprisoned by the evil Jade War Lord (Collin Chou). In this quest he is joined by the Kung-fu master Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) and Silent Monk (also played by Jet Li as either a different character of the Monkey King in disguise; not sure which) who will together teach Jason the true secret of Kung-fu so that he can defeat Jade War Lord and find his way home.

Okay, sounds a little hokey...well, maybe more than a little hokey. But still, Jackie Chan AND Jet Li? I mean, c'mon!

Anyway, the trailer looks good. You can watch at the film's website or on YouTube.

*Little bit of interesting trivia: the American student's last name, Tripitakas, is a play on the name of the Buddhist scripture, the Tripitaka (also known as the Pāli canon).

07 March, 2008


A religious war has broken out on YouTube. Proponents of two conflicting ideologies are engaging in video battles of words and images by which they hope to utterly destroy their opponents and secure victory for their own worldview.

Sound familiar? It should. It's an old, old story. A person or group claims knowledge of some Great Truth (tm) that by definition excludes or subsumes all other truths while some other person or group denies said Great Truth in favor of another, Greater Truth (tm) that, again by defintion, excludes or subsumes the Great Truth and all other truths. And the war is on. Judaism, Christiantiy, Islam, Buddhism...the names vary, but the story is all too familiar. In the case of the ongoing YouTube war, the stakes are far higher and the disagreement far older and more contentious. I speak, of course, of the relative superiority of cake or pie...

FrisbeesANDflipflops* fired the opening salvo in this video, wherein she expounded the superior qualities of cake and denigrated pie. Ostensibly her video was a response to a declaration of Pie faith she noticed on eddiegoombah's profile. Of course, Eddie didn't take lying down this attack on his beliefs and responded with an attack of his own. And from there the war has escalated.

Now I personally have no skin in this game. I have perhaps a slight preference for cake, but pie can be equally satisfying. But I would like to point out to both sides that while they each believe themselves to have valid points to make in the Great Debate, both are equally misguided. For you see the valuable qualities that both claim for the respective objects of their worship are but dim reflections of the ultimate confectionery glory that is Chocolate!

As a confectionery syncretist, I hold that all good comestible qualities are subsumed and brought to full perfection in the transcendent reality that is Chocolate. The Cakeist or Crustian may believe he or she have found the Ultimate Truth, but in reality they are peering through a glass darkly.

All glory be unto Thee O great and wondrous Cacao!

* Interested readers should check out her other YouTube videos. She's an intelligent and articulate young woman.

06 March, 2008

Funny O' The Day

Wow, it's been awhile since I've posted...just too busy in Real Life (tm). I'll try to get back to more regular posting, but in the meantime, please enjoy the following YouTube videos.

The first is Eddie Izzard's classic routine on the cafeteria in the Death Star (yes, from Star Wars).

The second is the same routine, only this time animated with Legos! How can you not love Lego animation?

30 January, 2008

Happy (Belated) Birthday Tom!

Like Chris, I meant to post on this yesterday, but time just got away from me.

Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The American Crisis pamphlets, was born January 29, 1737. His writings were instrumental in rousing the inhabitants of the British colonies in North America to take up the cause of liberty, declare themselves independent, and engage in the greatest experiment in democracy and freedom the world has yet seen. His reputation as a Founding Father has been unduly stained by controversy connected with his monumental indictment of Christianity (The Age of Reason) and today not a single monument to his memory exists in Washington, DC a city whose government he had as much a place in creating as Benjamin Franklin or John Adams.

In a similar post, Ed Brayton quotes from The American Crisis I:
These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
This is eloquence; this is rhetoric at its very best. How stark the contrast between these moving words, poetic in their composition, and the speeches and writings of today's political figures!

Paine stands as one of the paramount figures of not only the American revolution, but also of the Enlightenment in general. It's a genuine shame that he's not better known than he is.

Additional information can be found at the Thomas Paine National Historical Association website.

24 January, 2008

Amusing Diversion...

Who would win in a battle between God and Muhammad? Between Buddha and Jesus? Well, now you can find out! Try out Faith Fighter and you get to choose your deity and duke it out with other contenders for the title of Supreme Being!

HT: Pharyngula

The Ineluctable End of Collectivism

In his provocative and closely-argued book, The Road to Serfdom, Austrian economist Friederich Hayek lays out and defends his thesis that the logical and unavoidable end of collectivist economic systems is totalitarianism. This is so, in a nutshell, because such systems require centralized economic planning which, if it is to be effective, will require the acquisition by the State of more and more power over the lives of individuals until eventually liberty is extinguished.

While it is certainly true that there has yet to exist a State whose economic and political infrastructure aligns perfectly with Communist ideology, we can certainly see enough of the results of existing collectivist states to, at the very least, lead us to wonder if perhaps Hayek was on to something after all?

Welcome to North Korea
is a documentary which won an International Emmy award in 2001 and which shows a, for the most part, unexpurgated view of what life in the North is like under the rule of Kim Jong Il, the current "leader for life". The video is rather long (about 50 minutes), but well worth watching for a reminder of how precious is liberty and why our Constitution and Bill of Rights must be defended from enemies both without and within...

Side Note: the embedded video is hosted at YouTube, but you can find a downloadable copy at Archive.org, which is a veritable treasure-trove of public domain music, videos (including full-length movies!), and other assorted materials.

HT: Positive Liberty

Parody of a Loon

If you haven't seen Tom Cruise's Scientology spiel by now...under what rock have you been hiding? But just in case you've only recently crawled out, here's a link to the rather disturbing, albeit humorous (in a schadenfreude-istic sort of way), train-wreck of a video. It's engendered much discussion on the inter-tubes over the last week or so, but the take on it I much preferred was this one by actor Jerry Connell:

I think I was probably one of about five people who thought Joe's Apartment was actually kind of funny, but I've got a new respect for O'Connell now...

21 January, 2008


We live in amazing universe filled with astonishing and wonderful things. The last minute or so of this video is incredible evidence of the creative power of evolution.

16 January, 2008

How NOT to defend the Moral Argument

A comment at Debunking Christianity calls our attention to an article by William Hawthorne wherein he makes the following statement:
My view is that objective moral properties exist and that they would be unexpected, and indeed inexplicable, in a world in which atheism (or more precisely, naturalism) is true.
It's likely that's the view of many theists. I have certainly seen similar sentiments expressed by theists on blogs and in debates. But is it true? And even more to the point, isn't such an argument self-defeating?

In order to get around Euthyphro (and indeed to have any chance of alleged moral facts being "objective"), theists will seek to ground moral facts in God's nature. That is to say, to ground it in characteristics or essence that is NOT subject to God's whim or will.

Fair enough (and it seems to me that this is the only possible successful answer to Euthyphro's dilemma). However, in what way is this functionally different than a non-theist's claim that moral facts are grounded in the nature of existence? I.e., in brute fact (that's just the way things are)? The question "why is God as He is?" is functionally the same as "Why is existence as it is?" Moral facts grounded in the nature of existence would therefore seem to be ontologically equivalent to those grounded in the nature of God.

What therefore could serve as any relevant difference between "God" and "existence" that could satisfy Hawthorne's condition such that the existence of moral facts would be "unexpected" and "inexplicable" if God were NOT to exist? The only difference appears to be will or intent, yet that is specifically what we must rule out if we want moral facts to be objective. So doesn't it seem self-defeating to argue that "objective" moral facts only make sense if they're the product of will or intent, thus rendering them non-objective?

(Also posted as a comment at DC)

No Fair!!

According to Arno Widmann, Julia Fischer (a professor of violin at Frankfurt's Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Tanz) performed at a New Year's concert in Frankfurt in which she played Saint-Saëns Third Violin Concerto on the first half and the Grieg A-minor Piano Concerto on the second half! These are both rather difficult pieces of music, even for the professional and by all accounts, Prof. Fischer acquitted herself admirably. In fact, again according to Widmann, both performances were dazzling.

I can actually fumble my way through a Mozart or Haydn concerto and I've even played through the Beethoven First (appallingly, I assure you), but the Grieg is too much for my stupid fingers (although I could play parts of it with my younger, less arthritic hands) and yet here is a woman who, having mastered one instrument to the point of teaching others how to play it, takes on another and triumphs yet again. Oh to have even a portion of her "excess" talent!

HT: MPR's Classical Notes

15 January, 2008

Funny O' The Day

It's an interesting attempt...

...but I still think Huckabee's campaign is doomed.

P.S. I love Sinfest!

14 January, 2008

The Great Question

Great thinkers through the ages have pondered the many mysteries of life. Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? Does God exist? What is the capital of Assyria? But none of these questions have come close to the ultimate question of our time: What if the Beatles were Irish?

09 January, 2008

Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1928-2007

I'm not sure how I missed this, but the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, often called "the father of electronic music" died suddenly at his home in Kurten on 5 December.

While I'm not a big fan of electronic music, it is impossible to deny or overestimate the impact of Stockhausen's work on the music of the 20th century. He began composing in the 1950s, studying under such luminaries as Frank Martin, Darius Milhaud, and Olivier Messiaen. With such teachers, it seems to me almost predestined that he would produce something completely novel. His composition Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-56) has been called the first electronic masterpiece and over the next forty years Stockhausen's output continued to be innovative and influential. At the time of his death, he was looking forward to a complete production later this year of Licht, a monumental cycle of seven operas dealing with "traits associated in various historical traditions with each weekday" (according to Wikipedia).

Stockhausen was the creator of an organization founded to advance his creative ideals which will carry on the work he began almost 60 years ago. Alex Ross discusses the composer and his impact here. One of Stockhausen's students attended the memorial service in Kurten and provides some thoughts here.