Friday, December 30, 2005

Billionaires and Second Hand Governors

Among the candidates for the Republican nomination for Governor of New York are billionaires Donald Trump and Thomas Golisano. New York State has a history of filthy rich governors; we've had Franklin Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller.

Another candidate for governor is William Weld, who has already been governor of Massachusetts. Surely NY will not accept a second hand governor?
Permalink 3:57 PM

Another Genocide Happens and We Barely Notice

We are too preoccupied with the war in Iraq to pay much attention, but there is a continuing slaughter in Sudan:
News Report: Attacks on villagers by government-backed militia of Arab heritage have raised the spectre of genocide in Sudan’s western Darfur region. In the south, the Khartoum government and southern rebels have officially ended Africa’s longest-running war -- a 21-year civil conflict that the United Nations estimates killed two million -- but the humanitarian crisis continues to fester, with more than 5.5 million people displaced from their homes. Simmering conflict in northeastern Sudan, the Nuba mountains of south Kordofan, the Southern Blue Nile and Abyei risk destabilising the country further.
InTalking Points Memo Cafe, we see that Senators Barack Obama and Sam Brownback are trying to raise awareness in the US:

The odd couple of Barack Obama and Sam Brownback have made a valiant effort in trying to get the neglected issue of the Darfur genocide back on the table.

While all of their proposals have merit, they recognize that nothing short of a major multinational military intervention will put an end to the government-sponsored mass killings.
Permalink 3:47 PM

Dick Cheney Plays Poker

The Long Emergency

A prophet speaks (JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER writing in Rolling Stone)

Some other things about the global energy predicament are poorly understood by the public and even our leaders. This is going to be a permanent energy crisis, and these energy problems will synergize with the disruptions of climate change, epidemic disease and population overshoot to produce higher orders of trouble.

We will have to accommodate ourselves to fundamentally changed conditions.

No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it, or even a substantial fraction of it. The wonders of steady technological progress achieved through the reign of cheap oil have lulled us into a kind of Jiminy Cricket syndrome, leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough will come true. These days, even people who ought to know better are wishing ardently for a seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements...

The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our work. Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are. Anything organized on the large scale, whether it is government or a corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away. The turbulence of the Long Emergency will produce a lot of economic losers, and many of these will be members of an angry and aggrieved former middle class...

These are daunting and even dreadful prospects. The Long Emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race. We will not believe that this is happening to us, that 200 years of modernity can be brought to its knees by a world-wide power shortage. The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope -- that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on. If there is any positive side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid boredom. Years from now, when we hear singing at all, we will hear ourselves, and we will sing with our whole hearts.
Permalink 12:37 PM

Yes Explained: Rearrange your liver

Some holiday frivolity for you. I’m a big fan of Yes’s progressive-rock masterpiece Close to the Edge, but I’ll admit that I always presumed the lyrics were mostly nonsense. Not true! It turns out that every line is imbued with subtle and hermeneutically challenging messages, worthy of the closest of readings. Happily, such a reading has been provided by the Church of Yahweh (don’t ask). Here are the lyrics by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, and Chris Squire; have a crack at interpreting them yourselves before peeking at the answers.

I. The Solid Time Of Change

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace,
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace,
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar,
Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.
And assessing points to nowhere, leading ev’ry single one.
A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun,
And take away the plain in which we move,
And choose the course you’re running.
Down at the edge, round by the corner, not right away, not right away
More at Cosmic Variance (via Three Quarks Daily)

Explanations at The Church of Yahweh. It seems that they don't attempt "Hot colour melting the anger to stone..."
Permalink 12:02 PM

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Existence of Santa

Here is an insight (or self-delusion, depending on your point of view) that I had when I was a child. The hot debate among my peers was between option A: Santa Claus exists, or option B: The Christmas presents come from your parents. The third alternative that came to my mind was C: Santa exists because your parents bring him into existence. This third, slightly mystical interpretation can be explained using Hindu theology: Santa isn't actually a flesh-and-blood person, but is more like a divine spirit, and ordinary humans can become avatars of Santa. The spirit of Santa enters into the Mom or Dad, giving him or her the superhuman ability to stay up until 3:00 am wrapping presents and putting together bicycles and game tables.

From this point of view, telling children about Santa isn't so much an act of taking something away, but instead is inviting children to become part of the Santa experience. The stuff about reindeer and the North Pole is pure fabrication, as far as I know.

My opinion about God is basically similar. He exists, but only if we all work at it.
Permalink 4:25 PM

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Thinking Small

Via One Good Move, Richard Rorty reviews Saturday by Ian McEwan.

The tragedy of the modern West is that it exhausted its strength before being able to achieve its ideals. The spiritual life of secularist Westerners centered on hope for the realization of those ideals. As that hope diminishes, their life becomes smaller and meaner. Hope is restricted to little, private things—and is increasingly being replaced by fear.

This change is the topic of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, One of the characters—Theo, the eighteen-year-old son of Henry Perowne, the middle-aged neurosurgeon who is the novel’s protagonist—says to his father,

When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in—you know, a girl I’ve just met, or this song we are doing with Chas, or snowboarding next month, then it looks great. So this is going to be my motto—think small.
Permalink 4:59 PM

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Bizarre News: Woman Accuses Letterman of Using Code Words

Attorneys for television talk show host David Letterman want a judge to quash a restraining order granted to a Santa Fe woman [Colleen Nestler] who contends the celebrity used code words to show that he wanted to marry her and train her as his co-host...

Nestler's application for a restraining order was accompanied by a six-page typed letter in which she said Letterman used code words, gestures and "eye expressions" to convey his desires for her...

She said he asked her to be his wife during a televised "teaser" for his show by saying, "Marry me, Oprah." Her letter said Oprah was the first of many code names for her, and that the coded vocabulary increased and changed with time.
Permalink 1:33 PM

Women Seize Power in Croatian Village

From Ananova news service (I never heard of it before, either), via Feministing:
Women in a Croatian village have seized power from their lazy menfolk in local elections.

After their success, the women of Lozisca on the island of Brac vowed "to let the men back into our beds, but never back into politics".

They won all seven seats on the local council after deciding they were sick of seeing the village men doing nothing for the community.

Merica Bogdan, one of the seven women who was elected to serve on the local council, told local media: "The time has come for women to rule.

"We were not satisfied with the work the men did for the community and we launched a campaign to take political power and do something good for Lozisca.

"Men will never have power here again. We have agreed to let our men be in our beds, but never in politics again."

She added that despite having a tiny budget to work with the all-female council had already arranged for a municipal cleaning service, put up and decorated a Christmas tree in the village square and begun a project to repair the spire on the village church.

Lozisca male residents have admitted the women's work has been impressive since their election.

Tonko Valerijev, whose wife Helena is the newly-elected head of the local council, said: "They are a lot more persistent in their work than their predecessors. Frankly, they're doing a great job."
Thanks a lot, Tonko, you Benedict Arnold. You're just being a suckup.
Permalink 12:51 PM

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Capital Punishment: The Big Four

Britain's Tony Blair points out that 97% of the executions in the world are conducted by four nations: (1) China, (2) Vietnam, (3) Iran, and (4) The United States. Is that really a club we want to be a member of?
Permalink 4:58 PM

Imitation and Intelligence

Many people have the intuition that imitation is a primitive type of learning: Small children learn by imitating adults and other children, but more sophisticated learners try to intuit the goals behind another's actions, and are not so slavishly dedicated to reproducing actions exactly. Recent studies comparing the learning styles of chimpanzees and humans, however, show that it is the humans who faithfully imitate actions without understanding, while it is the chimpanzees who focus on the goals.

The different styles of learning come up in cases where it is possible to "see" that certain steps are irrelevant to achieving a desired goal. As described in the New York Times Science Times
Dr. Horner and Dr. Whiten described the way they showed young chimps how to retrieve food from a box.

The box was painted black and had a door on one side and a bolt running across the top. The food was hidden in a tube behind the door. When they showed the chimpanzees how to retrieve the food, the researchers added some unnecessary steps. Before they opened the door, they pulled back the bolt and tapped the top of the box with a stick. Only after they had pushed the bolt back in place did they finally open the door and fish out the food.

Because the chimps could not see inside, they could not tell that the extra steps were unnecessary. As a result, when the chimps were given the box, two-thirds faithfully imitated the scientists to retrieve the food.

The team then used a box with transparent walls and found a strikingly different result. Those chimps could see that the scientists were wasting their time sliding the bolt and tapping the top. None followed suit. They all went straight for the door.

The researchers turned to humans. They showed the transparent box to 16 children from a Scottish nursery school. After putting a sticker in the box, they showed the children how to retrieve it. They included the unnecessary bolt pulling and box tapping.

Derek Lyons, a graduate student at Yale, has continued research along these lines, and confirmed the initial conclusions: Chimpanzees avoid steps that are clearly unnecessary, but children imitate even pointless steps. He conjectures that as human tool-making and tool-using skills became more sophisticated, the strategy of intuiting the reasons behind the actions of tool-makers and tool-users became less and less successful. The humans instead learned to follow the strategy, "Do it this way, because that's the way it's done".

I always had a terrible time learning by imitation. I always wanted to know why I was doing something. I preferred to think this was a more "sophisticated" approach, but perhaps I'm only being more chimpanzee-like than my fellow humans.
Permalink 10:00 AM

Friday, December 02, 2005

Greenspan: Now He Thinks Deficits are Bad

In YahooNews!:
Good short-term prospects for the U.S. economy should not distract from huge looming fiscal strains that pose "significant" economic risks, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said on Friday in a renewed warning on budget deficits.

The departing U.S. central bank chief said while U.S. spending on defense and homeland security will not stay at the current pace forever, "our budget position will substantially worsen in the coming years unless major deficit-reducing actions are taken."
Why is this guy considered to be such a paragon of fiscal wisdom? Greenspan endorsed Bush's huge taxcuts for the wealthy, which are directly responsible for our continuing budget shortfalls.

Don't just take my word that Greenspan is a thug, here's someone else making the same point in Dollars and Sense.
Permalink 11:42 AM