Saturday, August 30, 2008

Mismanagement and grief (unhappy anniversary)

This blog got its start three years ago, mostly in reaction to the Katrina diaster. Looks like history is quite predictably repeating itself. Oh well, good luck to the people in affected areas, you will need it. At least you know what to expect from your government.

As I remarked on another blog:
Nothing like a few floating corpses to spice up convention coverage. Of course, if Americans didn’t have the attention span of meth-addicted chickens, we’d remember them from three years ago.

And as Auden remarked on September 1, 1939:
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed them all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

A blogoversary is an excuse to go back and read the archives and look for common themes and try to figure out just what the hell this blog is about and whether it is worth pursuing:

  • atheism, naturalism, philosophy in general

  • politics

  • economics, libertarianism

  • doom, boom, futurism

  • social networks, netarchy, solidarity, coordination, collective action

  • media, the web, googlectualism, infoglut, attention management

  • technology, coding, hacks, standards, knowledge representation

  • right-wing loons

I'm sure these all have something to do with one another, other than occupying space in my disorderly brain.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Power has made reality its bitch

This is one of the better openings to a speech I've come across:

Words in a Time of War

Taking the Measure of the First Rhetoric-Major President
By Mark Danner

[Note: This commencement address was given to graduates of the Department of Rhetoric at Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, on May 10, 2007]

When my assistant greeted me, a number of weeks ago, with the news that I had been invited to deliver the commencement address to the Department of Rhetoric, I thought it was a bad joke. There is a sense, I'm afraid, that being invited to deliver The Speech to students of Rhetoric is akin to being asked out for a romantic evening by a porn star: Whatever prospect you might have of pleasure is inevitably dampened by performance anxiety -- the suspicion that your efforts, however enthusiastic, will inevitably be judged according to stern professional standards. A daunting prospect.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ubiquitious PubMed

Ubiquity is a way-cool Firefox plugin that enables all sorts of client-side mashups, and is easily extendable.

Here's my 10-minute effort to add PubMed search. When I have more time I'll try to add a preview.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Priest Off!

Since I am apparently obsessed with bashing the Catholic Church, I can't resist posting this very funny video:

From Crackle: Priest Off!

h/t to Evolving Thoughts, where I am having yet another unsatisfactory argument, this time taking a relatively pro-religion position. Scienceblogs seems quite dominated by simpleminded atheism, even among philosophers who ought to be capable of a little more nuance.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Word pair of the day

irenology (peace studies)
in contrast to:
polemology (conflict studies)

(thanks to Wikipedia).

Peace studies looks pretty fuzzy-minded at first glance, but on the other hand, these guys seem to come out of that area and are the only writings I've found that are close to my own view:

As conflict escalates, new, more militant leadership often develops. Leaders who fear that they will be replaced by challengers will not want to be seen as weak or submissive. As a result, they will often refuse to admit that any past actions were mistaken and are likely to grow in militancy and become more "hardline."[51] Furthermore, conflicts that already involve contentious activity are likely to fall into the hands of militants who have strong negative attitudes and tend to use extreme tactics.[52] In many instances, these leaders seek to ritualize the conflict and exhibit a complete lack of interest in resolution.[53] All of this contributes to conflict escalation.

Oh well, I knew this couldn't be a completely original idea...that's the problem with Google, it's always too easy to find prior art.

World War III 2.0

Ooh, goody, sabre-rattling with Russia! Grand alliances, evil empires forward siting of nuclear missles! If the 80s are coming back, maybe the Talking Heads will get back together. Actually the current situation seems to blend elements of WWs III and I, as we'll see.

I find it somewhat disturbing when I read a Pat Buchanan piece (esp. when it's at Lew Rockwell's site) and find myself nodding at his sagacity. But even better on the war in Georgia is Billmon, who has quietly returned to blogging after a long hiatus. Both writers point out how the US had a hand in stirring up this shit. Among the many nuggets in Billmon's piece is the revelation that Congress had passed something called the "NATO Freedom Consolidation Act", which enables the US to treat Ukraine and Georgia as full-fledged NATO allies in all but name. Might this make the Russians a little antsy? Apparently so. Who could have known?

Hardnosed realists at Stratfor point out that this minor war simply serves as a signal of a shift in the balance of power that has already occured.

And of course Jim Kunstler jumps in with a word about how its going to bring our financial system crashing down. If he keeps on saying that eventually he'll be right.

Chris Floyd muses that the US deliberately encouraged Georgia to attack, essentially hoping for a Russian reaction that would enable more sabre-rattling at home, giving a boost to warriors in US politics, notably John McCain:

However, at this point, it is still unlikely that Butt-Thumper and the gang will actually take a pop at the Russians. But they don't have to, not right now. The racheting up of tensions, the resurrection of the mega-profitable Cold War tropes, and the convenient burial of the huge, fetid mountain of Bush Regime crime -- torture, aggression, corruption, tyranny -- by a juiced-up media with a new conflict to play with: all of these will serve the militarists very nicely, thank you.

I have no problems at all believing that the motivation and will to do something like this exists; but I have some doubts about whether the current administration is capable of being that strategically devious.

What's the other side saying? Here's Michael Gerson, a reliable gauge of offical neocon opinion (h/t IOZ):

The worst option would be to excuse Russia by blaming ourselves. NATO expansion did not cause Russian belligerence. The desire to be part of NATO in liberated Europe was fueled, in part, by a justified fear of Russian belligerence. ....
Georgia has been foolish. But Russia's crude overreach has had one good effect -- revealing the courage of others. Poland has quickly upgraded its relations with America, even under nuclear threat from Russia. Ukraine has been defiant, even though Russia still makes claims on Crimea. These nations have recent memories of Russian national "pride." And their courage should provoke our own.

Oh yeah. There's battle lines being drawn / And no one's right, if everybody's wrong.

More Gerson:

Again and again in European history, there has been a temptation to sacrifice the freedom of small countries to the interests of great powers. And it generally hasn't worked out very well, for them or for us.

Oh yes, and pulling small countries under the blanket of great power alliances in an atmosphere of saber-rattling has worked out so wonderfully in the past.

Well, this at least returns this post to one of the consistent themes of this blog, which is the dynamics of militarization and polarization. Militarists everywhere create the justifications for militarism everywhere else. We can see it happening here. McCain the militarist ought to be sending Saakashvili and Putin muffin baskets, at the very least.

The reality of this dynamic is perfectly obvious to me at this point, maybe because I've been obsessing about this idea for years. What's less obvious is how much the players in these games are aware of the dynamics versus how much they are simply being pushed around by them. Do militarists genuinely want war? I suppose they do. If it's what you are good at, it's what you want. Firemen would be bored and depressed without fires, and so they occasionally go and create some. Similarly warfighters must needs be warmakers, shit-stirrers, conflict-amplifiers. Like the fireman-arsonists, they probably don't mean for things to get out of hand, but they always do.

[[update: Jim Henley caught a Wall Street Journal article that highlights the financial aspect, which is of course a hugely important driver of all this:

Russia's attack on Georgia has become an unexpected source of support for big U.S. weapons programs, including flashy fighter jets and high-tech destroyers, that have had to battle for funding this year because they appear obsolete for today's conflicts with insurgent opponents...

Some Wall Street stock analysts early on saw the invasion as reason to make bullish calls on the defense sector. A report from JSA Research in Newport, R.I., earlier in the week called the invasion "a bell-ringer for defense stocks."...

Now, the Russian situation makes the debate over the equipping of the U.S. military a front-burner issue. "The threat always drives procurement," said a defense-industry official. "It doesn't matter what party is in office."

Ah, well. All my nattering about dynamics and I'm ignoring the most important driver of all, namely money.]]

Friday, August 15, 2008

Social construction is not arbitrary

In a rather stupid discussion on tggp's blog I managed to articulate a point about social construction that I have not previously seen made in any reasonable and concise form, so I'm pulling the thought out and expanding on it here, for the edification of the world.

The point I was trying to make is that while many things are socially constructed, that doesn't imply that they are 100% arbitrary. We make the world but we do not make it just as we please. Whatever is constructed must conform to the structure of physical reality and of human cognition. So, for instance, while religion is a paradigmatic example of a socially constructed system, with different cultures having very different religions, they all have some broad similarities based on the cognitive and cultural role of religion (eg, to use one of Boyer's examples, all religions posit supernatural agents that care about human action -- there is no religion that has indifferent supernatural beings).

When it comes to the social construction of science, there is a great deal more confusion, which I'm not going to clear up in a blog post. Without going into the details, suffice it to say that even the most radical of constructionists of science (like Bruno Latour) don't believe that scientists can just make science anything they want to.

The subject of the original discussion was the ontological status of mental illness, which seems like a great example -- it's clearly a socially constructed category, since what counts as a mental illness varies greatly over time (homosexuality used to be, now it's not, for instance). Yet it's also quite clear that in at least some forms of mental illness there is something objectively physical going wrong, although we don't know what it is. So our categories for them, as detailed in the DSM-IV, are quite obviously made up but also reflect something going on in reality. People like Thomas Szasz argue that it's entirely made up and therefore illegitimate, but anyone who has had to deal with a genuinely disturbed person is not likely to buy into his view.

Anyway, here's the interesting parts of the earlier discussion, initiated and provoked by the sort of rampaging halfwit-convinced-of-their-own-genius that one finds on the internet.


Do you believe agents of the Party can fly around the room if they so will?


Saying something is socially constructed does not meant that it is wholly arbitrary. This is a common confusion.

The quote about “agents of the Party” is funny and telling. You assume that society is some oppressive outside force. It isn’t. You’re soaking in it. You make it and it makes you.

And, to back off a little bit — not everything is a social construct. Reality is what it is (an instantiation of the Schrödinger equation, let’s say). Some concepts are biologically innate (color, objects, up vs down). But everything interesting that we talk about is a sociocultural construct. Not arbitrary, because it all rests on the other layers, but highly malleable and subject to all sorts of primate politics

This produced some sputtering insults from melendwyr that I won't bother to reproduce. Me again:

Let’s see. You said that social construction implies that people can fly at will. I pointed out that that is not, in general, what social constructionists believe. To repeat, Saying something is socially constructed does not meant that it is wholly arbitrary. You haven’t produced anything that supports your position over mine.

...There should be no doubt that some things are socially constructed. Institutions like the US Government or Microsoft are built out of people’s social practices, and obviously could be constructed differently than they are — but not arbitrarily (it would be hard, for instance, to have a government with sovereignty over left-handed people rather than over a particular geographic area).

To take a more challenging example, take Newton’s laws of motion. Are these social constructs? Well, sort of — that’s why we attribute them to Newton, and he himself admitted to standing on the shoulders of giants who presumably were also part of society. Also, the fact that we call them “laws” — an implied and imperfect metaphor based on human law is significant, as is the fact that they are an imperfect approximation to the actual regularities of the physical world. But, that doesn’t mean that Newton pulled them out of his ass, or that he could have just as easily come up with an inverse-linear or inverse-cube law of gravity.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Job titles I envy, #2 in a series

Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

This job title is currently held by Pascal Boyer, whose book Religion Explained I have been recommending for a couple of years now, and who I occasionally mention here.

Here's slides and audio (iTunes required I think) of a talk Boyer gave on at a Transhumanism conference sponsored by the Templeton Foundation (!), called "Considering the evolved mind: Constraints on transhumanism".

And here's a pretty good Jonathan Miller interview with Boyer.

And some papers here, as well as the introduction to a special issue on the relationship of brain and self that looks very interesting.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Unitarian Jihad

This has been around awhile, but it's new to me and amusing:

Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States. We are Unitarian Jihad. There is only God, unless there is more than one God. The vote of our God subcommittee is 10-8 in favor of one God, with two abstentions. Brother Flaming Sword of Moderation noted the possibility of there being no God at all, and his objection was noted with love by the secretary.

Of course, Mencius Moldbug thinks that the Unitarians already rule the world. Which would explain why peace, harmony, tolerance, and rationality are so widespread.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

No sect owns child molestation

My regular reader Michael was giving me grief about my alleged anti-Catholic prejudices, based on my mentioning priestly pedophilia and not casting a similar eye on my own faith, such as it is. The answer to this ridiculous criticism is that I am not particularly anti-Catholic, I am anti-authoritarian, and the Catholic Church simply happens to be one of the oldest and most powerful authoritarian institutions in the world. The pedophile stuff is really just a typical example of the inevitable abuse of authority.

I believe I also said something to the effect that there is no strong central authority in Judaism, which is rougly true, although various branches of Judaism have governance structures which are more or less authoritarian. And as you would expect, the more authoritarian branches have the same sort of problems. I can't say I am a bit surprised by this.