Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Falling Fruit

The captain sat next to a fountain, eating an orange. The sun shone hot over the courtyard. Flies buzzed angrily, flitting from body to body. Blood had dried in the sun, staining the white tiles.
"Sir, we have their leader."
The captain glanced up at the lieutenant.
"Have some of the men move these bodies and rinse away the mess. It stinks."

The lieutenant saluted and turned on his heel before walking away. The captain rose from his chair, wincing as his back popped. He tossed his orange rind onto a soldier's corpse. The body had started to bloat. No one seemed to mind except the flies.
He walked out through the open doors. In the dirt road that ran in front of the house, a line of soldiers stood. Between two of them hung the rebel. His clothes were dirty and ripped. His curly black hair was clotted with dirt and twigs. He looked, the captain thought, exactly like a man who had been hiding in the woods for nearly a week. The captain made a curt gesture. The men dropped the prisoner's arms and backed away to the far side of the road.

"You are the leader from the village," the Captain said. The man made no reply, staring at the ground in front of the captain's shiny black boots.

"You and your men fought bravely, but there were too many of us and you had no real supplies."
The man looked up sharply at that, as if searching the Captain's eyes for sarcasm. Seeing none, he nodded. The captain stood and looked out over the field to the village for a while. The church bell began to ring. The man picked a twig out of his hair and sat twirling it between his fingers.
The captain reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out an orange. He offered it to the man. The rebel took it. He studied it, turning it in his hands. He peeled it quickly with his dirty nails, and ate it in three big bites, seeds and all.

"Sweet," said the man.
"Are you ready?" asked the Captain.
The man nodded absently, rubbing his sticky fingers in the dirt. The captain removed his pistol from its holster and shot the man in the head. He turned and walked back toward the house. He thought he might have another orange. The trees were heavy with them, and soon the fruit would fall and splatter over the tiles.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Predictions for 2009

1. Major terrorist strike in the US (100+ killed). 
2. At least three cat 5 hurricanes. 
3. Chavez will be forced to abdicate. 
4. There will be an assassination plot against President Obama. 
5. Scientists will discover a rocky planet with evidence of water vapor/oxygen in the atmosphere. 
6. Israel will bomb facilities in Iran. 
7. Apple will introduce a tablet computer. 
8. Russia will invade one of the former Soviet republics. 
9. Scientists will develop a vaccine for HIV. 
10. HBO will greenlight the production of A Game of Thrones.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Learning to read again

I've been noticing that I read books less and less that more I have shifted to reading articles on the net. I've got a feed aggregator with hundreds of links, so I can always find something interesting to read. This wouldn't be a problem in itself, but now when I do try to read something longer than a few pages I find it hard to concentrate. To rectify this I've gone and got a library card for the first time in years. Hopefully working through a pile of books will cure this damned internet related ADD.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

PZ and the Cracker

Professor Meyers has stirred up a great deal of controversy by threatening to desecrate a communion wafer. He manages to make some valid points about the absurd and immoral lengths people are willing to go to when their personal beliefs are threatened. That said, I think this is another example of social tone-deafness amongst the "New Atheists" like Meyers.

What possible good could insulting the beliefs of a large religious group do? I think Christianity and Catholicism in particular consist of lots of silly ideas, but to the extent they don't bother me with them, I really can't get too worked up about it. To purposely seek to interfere with someone else's beliefs by mistreating the holy symbols strikes me more as pointless bullying rather than brave free speech.

Hot for Teacher

Teaching English seems like an attractive career. You get to be inside and talk about books and grammar. You get off in the summer. I'm going to talk to a professor about it on Tuesday.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Self-Help: Creative Procrastination?

One thing I've noticed myself doing is creatively putting off doing things that need to be done by reading about doing the thing in question. Why bother with drudgery of actually doing something when you can read all about how to do it better, quicker, and with more conviction?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Objective and Subjective Reality

I consider myself a scientifically minded person. After giving having a crisis of faith at the age of 18, I would have described myself as a materialist. I became interested in and studied philosophy in college. This study may have caused me to back-pedal a bit on holding materialism as a definitive metaphysical position, but I would still say my basic belief is that there is an objective reality “out there” that is independent of my or anyone else's opinion about it. I hold science in high regard and believe that it is capable of establishing the truth of statements about reality.

Various philosophical traditions have cast doubt on both the objective nature of reality and more specifically on the ability of science to escape the trap of politics and petty human biases. These traditions go too far in their skepticism in many cases. There is, however, an area in which I think they reveal a weakness in my own thinking as I have held it in the past.

I still believe that there are facts we can know with a great degree of certainty, like the boiling point of water. However, when it comes to questions of people and what they are capable of, I think that it makes sense to speak of subjective reality. Simply stated, believing that you are capable of doing something will make it true. One of the most obvious examples of this I can think of is lifting weights at the gym. If you are in sort of a blah mood, you might max out at say 10 reps. But on another day if you are in a great mood you might rip off 15 reps without even realizing it. Your attitude determined your capability.

Now obviously, this isn't positive thinking bending reality on the scale of Neo flying or stopping bullets in the Matrix. I guess I still believe there is a spoon, damn it. What I'm talking about is realizing what dynamic, amazing things we humans are. I think there is a tendency for people with a very logical and scientific viewpoint to forget this. They say things like “people are X”, or “I can't do that because I'm Y.” They treat human beings as if they were predictable, idealized billiard balls in a physics problem.

Of course, this sort of thinking is so pernicious because it is precisely the sort of thinking that creates its own reality for the person that believes it. Psychology reveals that people have a natural bias to confirm their own beliefs while ignoring evidence that casts doubts on those beliefs. This is a perfectly natural and healthy thing. You wouldn't have time to do anything else in your life if you were constantly having to re-evaluate all of your beliefs. The dark side of this is that it can create a feedback loop around negative beliefs like “people are lazy” or “I can't do math”, causing to continuously notice evidence that strengthen those beliefs while ignoring indications that they actually aren't objectively true, and are in fact actively harmful to ourselves and others.

So while the empirical method of science works, we as individuals tend not to be very good empiricists. It takes an active awareness of your beliefs and your own biases to ensure that the things you believe have a solid basis in reality. This isn't just a high minded appeal to positive thinking or combating bias. Very basic matters of quality of life like happiness are directly linked to the beliefs you hold, and the actions(or inactions) those beliefs engender.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Paranoid Style in American Science

Daniel Engber has a series of articles over at slate examining the manufacturing of doubt in the public's mind as a means of undermining science in order to push an agenda. This is something I've begun to notice myself and it does have some scary implications. Human normally have biases to note information that confirms our pre-existing notions and to disregard things that threaten those same notions. With the web, you can pretty much guarantee that there is a community out there that shares your particular quirky beliefs about the world, and there is a real threat of cocooning yourself within such a community to the detriment of your objectivity.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004


Does anyone really have reasons for believing the things they do? It seems like whenever I get into an argument with someone, they are just regurgitating things they have heard at some time or another. This leads to a scary thought: What if I am simply doing the same?

I got into a debate after a philosophy club meeting. The guy had presented a paper that essentially was a conservative catholic critique of Sartre and a variety of existentialist thinkers. Essentially his argument boiled down to the idea that his access to God served as the ultimate foundation of knowledge. In our debate I argued that there are some things I cannot help but believe as true. One thing led to another and I realized that my attempt to rely on a Cogito type argument for knowledge failed.

Anyway after that I mulled over the whole thing in my head at work. I work in a factory, so I have more or less 24 hours of strait thinking time a week even if I am completely brain dead the rest of the time. I settled on the idea that everyone has an epistimmic problem to get around. If you try to find the basis for anything you believe, following the trail far enough back you will end up with something that you cannot know for sure. It seems like I do know things somehow, and that we humans manage to get along enough that it seems there must really be some sort of real knowledge.

This leads me to believe (ha ha) that some sort of pragmatic approach is how this works. I believe stuff that more or less hangs together in a coherent way. I guess this relates back to the original fear I mentioned. I will be inclined to believe something if it more or less fits in with what I already believe. This seems to mean I have to be really careful about simply accepting things that agree nicely with prior beliefs.

So maybe the upshot to all of this is that I have accepted some sort of responsibility for what I believe.