Continued elsewhere

I've decided to abandon this blog in favor of a newer, more experimental hypertext form of writing. Come over and see the new place.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Web 2.0 Apocalypse

Well, GMail has been down for hours now, and large parts of the global brain are feeling lobotomized, including me. When I first started using GMail, I set up my mail so the stream went to both GMail and a POP server, so I could still get my mail onto a nice standard local thick client reader. I stopped that after awhile, it was too much work to maintain separate copies. I sure hope nobody's dropped a bomb on Google. Going down is one thing, going down for >4 hours is something else. Oh well, they don't call it a beta for nothing.

There's something to be said for the old-fashioned model, including the ability to read mail in the subway. I use a thick-client RSS reader (the excellent SharpReader) and enjoy its ability to store the stuff I want to read locally.

[update: still down at the normal place, it works if you use the https: version of the service. Wonder how long it's going to take people to figure that out? Took me the better part of a workday.]

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Academic Units with Mildly Amusing Names, #2 in a Series

The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, School of Medicine, Case Western Reserve University. I only want to gently mock these folks, because they actually seem to be pursuing some interesting topics (ie, how you get from kin selection to group selection to seemingly un-genetically-motivated acts of altruism).

Unlimited Love means love for all humanity without exception. Participation in this love inspires inner peace, abiding kindness and service. People of "Unlimited Love" deeply affirm and serve all humanity without exception. Participation in this love is the pinnacle of spirituality, inspiring inner peace, abiding kindness and effective action in the world. This love is expressed in a number of ways, including empathy and understanding, generosity and unselfishness, compassion and care, altruism and self-sacrifice, celebration and joy, and forgiveness and justice. In all of these expressions, unlimited love acknowledges the absolutely full significance of every human being that, because of egoism or hatred, we otherwise acknowledge only for ourselves or those closest to us.

How do we understand Unlimited Love?

Just as we investigate the force of gravity or the energy of the atom, we can scientifically examine the power of unlimited love in human moral and spiritual experience. Even though thousands of books have been written about this love, they have focused on the history of theological and philosophical ideas without considering scientific research. How can we better understand unlimited love in a way that brings together evolution, genetics, human development, neurology, social science, and positive psychology with great religious thought and practice, and with the moral vision of a common humanity to which all great spiritual traditions give rise?

This mess seems very tightly linked to the Templeton Foundation. I dunno, maybe there is something there but the name makes it way too woo-woo for me and I suspect for most people. Why "unlimited"? Wouldn't it be better to start out by understanding limited love, which maybe you could measure somehow? But that wouldn't be pushing the right theological buttons I suppose.

#1 in the series may be found here.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Bad math award

From the SF Chronicle:

On the back of each Mega Millions ticket is a suggestion to "play responsibly," but on the front are numbers, and Tuesday at 8 p.m. a combination of those digits is expected to be worth $355 million..."I realize I don't have a chance, but nobody's got a chance. So the way I look at it, I have a 50-50 chance -- either I win it or someone else wins it," reasoned Barrie Green, 60, after buying a single ticket Monday afternoon at the Merritt Restaurant and Bakery near his home in Oakland.

I like that "reasoned".

"Good luck, sir," said cashier Weida Han, who chose not to explain to Green that his odds of winning -- and being able to quit his job driving cars to auctions -- are 1 in 175,711,536.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Five minutes ahead of the zeitgeist again

The NYT Magazine had a piece on the evolution and adaptivity of religion yesterday, featuring Scott Atran and David Wilson. Honestly, I didn't know about it when I was writing my previous post. Here's part of the conclusion:
What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe. Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world... The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism higher than the values of spiritualism.

This is sort of like the argument I've been making, on naturalism mailing lists and elsewhere. Atheism, while more or less true, is too cognitively expensive to really be a foundational philosophy, at least on a mass scale. I think some of the rigidity of hardline atheists is a reflection of this -- they need to be very aggressive in order to maintain their belief against not only the external believers, but against their own repressed tendencies towards belief.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Long Con

The title of this post owes a hat-tip/finger-wag to David Mamet, who popularized this term-of-art in movies such as House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner. The long con is an elaborately set up confidence game, where an entire false world is set up, the mark is pulled in slowly, and eventually stripped of his assets. Mamet delights in telling stories involving con men, which makes it rather ironic that he's just published a very bad book, aimed at "apostate Jews", urging them to rejoin their tribe's 4000 year old collective game.

Religion is one of the oldest games in the book, and the interesting question for me is just what is the nature of it? Obviously it has elements of a con game played by memes on minds, and/or by priests on the laity. But is it a pure con, simply a parasitical trick that sponges off of honest human cognition and society? Or is it a vital symbiont, something that was indispensible in forming human civilization?

The militant atheists (Dawkins, PZ Myers) tend to be those who view religion as wholly parastical, but that's always seemed much too simplistic to me. Religion might have its roots in trickery but that trickery enabled the creation of civilization, which depends on the ability to extract surplus value to support classes of people who aren't engaged in a subsistence economy. While I'm no fan of priests, pharohs, popes, or aristocrats, I don't think we'd have a technological civilization without them. (Of course, whether we still need them is a separate question).

One difference between religion and a traditional con game is that the con never stops, there's no sting, no blow-off. The relationship is long-term, even unto death. A religion gloms onto a society, enables the creation of a priestly class, but hopefully doesn't choke the life out of it. If things go well, it makes that society grow and thrive.

To further mix metaphors, you can compare religions to infectious agents. Some are virulent and destructive, like Ebola. Death cults are like this, they do tremendous damage but are inherently short-lived. Other religions (Abrahamic monotheism) seem to have a more beneficial relationship with their hosts, actually increasing their fitness for the most part. Those are the ones that resemble long (actually infinite) cons. Keep the mark on the string and tithe them slowly.

[This post was inspired by a long discussion on the adaptivity of religion at Pharyngula, taking off from this interesting talk by Robert Sapolsky. Sapolsky was talking about the relationship of religous tendencies and adaptive forms of mental illness, but I seem to have veered into a rather different area.]

[Update: as if on cue, just after I posted this reddit coughed up this story about a family of pastors in Canada who are living high on the hog while their congregation scrapes together pennies to do charity work. Ho-hum, I'm surprised it's considered news. Under my above typology, if a church gets too greedy and gets in the news by skimming too much off the congregation, they are moving from symbiote to parasite status, and the news media are trying to be the immune system...]