Monday, December 17, 2007
In “The Planets”, Holst offers his impressions of seven planets, excluding earth and Pluto, which was undiscovered at the turn of the 20th century. While several composers were later commissioned to create a “Pluto” composition in the style of Holst, Pluto has now been decommissioned as a planet. The best known of the seven pieces is “Jupiter, though Holst’s favorite was “Saturn”. I found “Neptune” enjoyable. Supposedly, and unbelievably, it’s the first piece of music (ever?) to feature a “fade-out”.
“Uranus” is mentioned as an apparent homage to Dukas’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Dukas, it turns out, was a perfectionist, in the habit of destroying his own works. Barring a Frank Tipler-like resurrection of everything at the end of the universe, we'll never know what other works of greatness flitted in and out of existence in the space of his studio.
Dukas was a friend of Claude Debussy, another French romantic composer. It turns out that Debussy was one of the very first people in the history of the world to undergo a colostomy! Though modern colostomies are no longer a stinky affair, one wonders about poor Debussy, whose music was so ethereal. He lived another two years after the procedure.
Except in rare cases where the intestine can be attached to the anus (!), colostomies necessitate a pouch for collecting feces. Wikipedia offers a broad view of feces, including chemistry, biology, ecology, sexual kinks, hygiene, and more. One of the major stink-components, hydrogen sulfide, is chemically quite similar to water, but oh the difference another shell of electrons can make. Under “hygiene”, it is mentioned that Muslims wash their anus with water using the left hand, while Indians wash their anus with water using the left hand, which is then washed with soap and water. Shall we infer that Muslims don’t wash the left hand?!
What do “feces” have to do with “scissors”, “nanchakus”, and “dales”? They’re plural tantums! Or, more properly, pluralia tantum. These are words which only exist in the plural form! Apparently, the Swedish word “inalvor” (intestines) is also a plural tantum, despite the fact that English speakers refer to “the small intestine”.
The Swedish language can be traced back to Old Norse language. It has a heavy Germanic influence, which is one characteristic that distinguishes it from western Scandinavian languages such as Faroese, Icelandic, and Norwegian. Apparently, modern Swedish (“nusvenska”…New Swedish) has been largely shaped by some influential Swedes. Wikipedia lists “controversial writer” August Strindberg as one of these figures.
Why was Strindberg controversial? He dealt with anarchy, misogyny (in a favorable light, apparently), the hypocrisy of traditional sex roles, socialism, and more…all around 1870. I’m embarrassed to say I knew nothing of Strindberg, who has been referenced in Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander”, Mel Brook’s “The Producers, and Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”.
Carl Eldh sculpted a large Strindberg which can now be seen in Tegnerlunden Park in Stockholm. I’m curious why he would be portrayed as nude, sandaled, heavily muscled, with splayed legs. Eldh’s most famous work, however, is the equally heroic “Branting Monument”, erected in Stockholm in 1952. Branting, a social democrat, is portrayed prominently with clenched fist, with other social democrat luminaries and anonymous workers in the background. The work was bombed in 1992, leaving a hole in Branting’s belly. It would be natural to suspect political motives, but it turns out that the culprits were mere teenagers, with a history of random vandalism.
Iconoclasm is a subset of vandalism. Specifically, it refers to the destruction of religious icons. The word “iconoclast” is now taken to mean a merely unconventional individual, though originally it meant a destroyer of icons. The opposite of an iconoclast would be an iconodule. The most prominent recent example of iconoclasm is, of course, the Taliban’s destruction of the two monumental Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan.
These Buddhas were described by the Chinese monk, scholar, and traveler XuanZang in A.D. 630. They were decorated with gold and jewels at the time. After a millennium of neglect, the Taliban accelerated the process. Even with engineers, shells, and dynamite, the destruction took a month. XuanZang described a third, larger, reclining Buddha in the area, and this remains something of a mystery.
XuanZang was a devotee of the Yogacara, or “mind-only” philosophy of Buddhism. Yogacara is sometimes seen as opposed by the Madhyamikan school, which (to keep things simple), denies the inherent existence of anything at all. I recall one prominent Rinpoche stating that his philosophy is that of Madhyamika, but his actual meditation practice is that of Yogacara. My interpretation is that it’s simply more difficult to sit on your ass and wrap your consciousness around a view which doesn’t even espouse nothingness. Despite his association with Yogacara, XuanZang wrote a text called “The Non-Difference Between Yogacara and Madhyamika”.
Monday, December 3, 2007
Above is a clip from a 2007 trek in the Ganesh Himal region of Nepal. It's a fairly obscure trek...we didn't see any foreign faces for almost 2 weeks. The locals told us there were a couple of Japanese dudes a few days ahead of us on the trail.
The Ganesh Himal is sandwiched between two more popular destinations, Langtang and Manaslu. You lose a bit in terms of challenging trekking (we never got over 14,000 feet) and spectacular views, but you do get the chance to experience Tamang culture that has had very little exposure to foreigners. Some of these areas are accessible by bus...we found ourselves crossing over dirt roads on a couple of occasions, which does diminish the sensation of being utterly isolated. On the other hand, adventurous travelers could cover a lot of ground via mountain bike in this region of the Himalayas, something that would be near-impossible on the more popular treks (Annapurna, Everest, Helambu, etc.).
Opening the trekking guides, you see some very well delineated travel plans for particular regions. That's nice, but the truth is that the mountain villages are hugely interlinked via trails, and there's usually no reason you can't espy a particular location in the distant mountains, go there, and then plot a new route back to Kathmandu. It's all subject to time limitations, your trekking permit, and safety considerations, of course.
Unlike many apologists, D'Souza is careful not to trample on science. He concedes evolution and the big bang. He does seem to concede that at least some portions of the Bible are now irrelevant, or are purely metaphorical. He employs common sense, stating that every effect has a cause, and then defining "God" as the ultimate cause. His god is skilled at dodging metaphysical attacks. One does suspect, however, that D'Souza holds the usual array of inane beliefs, and is simply smart enough to avoid getting shot down.
D'Souza employs Pascal's wager in the debate. This is simply the notion that it's better to believe in God than disbelieve, because:
1) If God exists, you'll be infinitely rewarded for faith.
2) If God doesn't exist, believing in him has done little or no harm to your life.
Typically, this argument is refuted by asking, "which God?" If you place faith in the wrong God, you might well wind up in hell. Daniel Dennett refrained from summoning this argument...perhaps he just finds it boring.
In any case, those who invoke Pascal's wager do have a very specific vision of God. Those who "believe in" him get some kind of reward, while the others don't. These others may have performed any number of good works in their lives. They may have lived in constant awe at the beauty and complexity and vastness of nature. But they're shut out of the cosmic sweepstakes because they don't carry a particular set of beliefs. So, while D'Souza won't offer many overt hints as to the specific qualities of his god, his invocation of Pascal tips his hand.
In his incessant quest to appear "reasonable", D'Souza states that one can't know that God exists. One can simply believe. I find this bizarre. If God broadcasts himself on every TV and radio wavelength, in every language, as Lex Luthor has been known to do, we wouldn't believe...we'd know. And what does "believe in" mean anyway? Does it mean that I've managed to shut out every last doubt? (wouldn't that be "knowing"?) That I try my damndest to spread the meme? That I repeat a particular prayer a certain number of times? That I believe I believe?
D'Souza spent a good deal of time shouting, for no particular reason. I'd guess he's emulating some preacher who made a big impression at some point. Dennett seemed far more mellow, conciliatory, and cuddly. More sane, actually. Yet we're supposed to believe that there's some ineffable difference between these two men that will cause D'Souza to experience union with his maker, and Dennett to be eternally shut out.
Sunday, December 2, 2007
Another scienceblog that takes occasional swipes at creationists is "Respectful Insolence". A recent topic dealt with the definition of design. The accusation is that the ID crowd tosses words like "design" and "information" around without any rigorous, scientific definition of these terms. In jest, I posted the following....
You evilutionists are so smug and arrogant, thinking your opponents can't list the requirements for a definition of design
*Interchangeable parts. That's obviously a hallmark of virtually all known cases of design.
*We should see an excess of right angles, circles, squares, and the like. Structures like pistons fit with extraordinary precision in cylinders.
*Designed things have easily identified purposes. Cups are for drinking, cars are for going from place to place.
*Designed stuff is almost always labeled with patents, copyrights, logos, etc.
The joke, of course, is that while my response meets the challenge of defining design, it also tends to negate the notion that biological organisms are the results of conscious design.
Apparently, though, the ruse wasn't transparent enough. One response: Ever notice that anti-thinkers (oh, sorry, anti-evolutionists) frequently cannot even manage rudimentary grammar, orthography, or syntax? (to criticize my misspelling of "evolution").
Another response impugned my emotional stability: like ngong up there, they often seem very spiteful, angry and childish ('evilution' - doubt it's a Freudian slip, but rather an immature outburst, just like 'eat that').
These responses come from the bright sort of minds that are drawn to scienceblogs. For the folks above, I'm inclined to believe that their devotion to capital "A" Atheism, and their shark-like aggression to the faintest scent of creationism, dampens their powers of discernment. My post is knee-jerkedly seen to be a challenge to some folks' identities, not as the ruse it is.
On another occasion, I responded to a Pharyngula post regarding some truly pathetic anti-evolution e-cards: You atheists think you're so superior. I challenge you to develop an e-card of your own that is less creative than the ones you're mocking. Just try!
I was rather proud of that post. It's an odd challenge to imagine e-cards that are more mind-numbingly inane and amateurish than the ones you'll see on that site. Yet here's a response that followed: We've been challenged... by a xtian? Oh puleeze! "ken" needs to start surfing more than just the xtian and the porno sites! "ken", when you graduate from grade school to middle school, perhaps you will be old enough to comprehend what you think you know versus what you are being told to know.
Not only does the writer fail to see the sarcasm of my post, but he seems to be inciting the herd to react to my "challenge". Grab the pitchforks!
Run over to YouTube and search for "atheism". In addition to refutations of atheism, and some very erudite endorsements of it, you'll see plenty of snot-nosed teenage boys who seem to think that disavowing religion is primarily an exercise in machismo.
One final example. Daniel Dennett and Dinesh D'Souza recently debated on the subject of God's existence. Atheist blogs were rife with posts proclaiming D'Souza to be a moron. That's not what I saw at all. Given the absurdity of his position (the existence of an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, supernatural Christian God to the exclusion of all others), I thought he did a fine job. He managed to put student questioners on the defensive in some rapid-fire give and take sessions. He rarely stumbled in his speech. Meanwhile, Dennett missed some rather glaring opportunities to go for the jugular (easy to say, of course, when you're not in the spotlight). And he mumbled a lot.
I must say, an identity based largely on the rejection of God(s) is a rather pathetic one. Be an atheist, take an occasional swipe at creationist ninnies. That's fine. But supplement that identity with...something else. And lighten up a bit in the name of maintaining a bit of rational, scientific objectivity!
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
As you can see, the Thai government requires that all cigarette packs carry a bit more than the usual words of warning. Specifically, 50% of the pack must carry an image, selected by the health ministry. Initially, there were six images, but that has expanded a bit.
Put them all in a case and sell the collection at Jatujak market, next to the pinned rhinoceros beetles and walking sticks! A truly unique gift, though it appears that China and New Zealand are considering similar regulations.
Questions arise. Are the images correlated with the flavors (e.g. American blend vs. "rich, distinctively smooth")? Can we assume that all images appear with equal frequency? After all, brown M&M's occur 30% of the time, far more frequently than blue, orange, and green. I'd swear the bottommost man-on-respirator pic appears with greater-than-chance frequency in the gutters of Bangkok. Do consumers actually prefer/reject certain images?
There's no need for translation on most of these packs. That, in fact, is one purpose of the images...illiterate folks can still get the message. One image, however, deserves an explanation. It's the one showing one hand sprinkling water over another. That's actually part of a Thai Buddhist funeral ceremony, and the rightmost hand is supposed to be that of a corpse.
I'll try to post the entire collection.
Friday, November 16, 2007
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Many of the arguments against God would strike ordinary Thai Buddhists as irrelevant to their religion. At best, a Thai might read the book and find himself all the more convinced that Christianity, as my friend Suvit says, is an "unreasonable" religion...hardly a good reason to spend 400 baht for the soft cover. The Thai Buddhists I've known have never shown any antipathy toward evolution or physics. An old universe is no big deal when you measure time in kalpas . Some might even claim Buddhism bends over backwards to befriend science, knowing that its competitors are at odds with science.
Flipping through the pages, you've got the 747 that spontaneously assembles in a junkyard. Irrelevant to Buddhism. Proofs of the existence of God via Aquinas. Irrelevant. Irreducible complexity. Irrelevant. The book seems largely a critique of Abrahamic religion, but Dawkins usually omits "Abrahamic". This has got to be irritating to thoughtful Buddhists, Hindus, etc.
It's hardly a large chunk of my identity, but it would be fair to call me an atheist. I'm part of the choir that Dawkins is accused of preaching to. Atheists are known to be independent thinkers, even compulsive contrarians. Dawkins likens organizing atheists to herding cats. In this spirit, let me take a few more swipes at "The God Delusion".
*Of all Dawkins' arguments against God's existence, his favorite seems to be the idea that God must be hugely complex, and therefore must have simpler origins. When creationists argue that the events of evolution are improbable, they're merely begging the question, since God is the most improbable entity of all. Dawkins doesn't, however, dismiss the possibility of aliens that are so advanced as to appear God-like in their powers. He doesn't even dismiss a matrix-like scenario, where our universe might be a mere computer simulation, overseen by a snot-nosed teenaged geek-God.
Dawkins points out, reasonably enough, that such Gods would be the results of evolutionary processes. Is this really important? The geek-God would still be, for all intents and purposes, omniscient and omnipotent. He could intervene and answer prayers. He could get pissy and conjure a hurricane to punish homosexuals. He could change the laws of physics after an argument with his mother (who complains that he should step out of his room every now and then). He could demand praise, and punish those who fail to offer it with an eternity in hell. All this...but his powers are supposed to be diminished because he did, after all, have his own evolutionary roots.
The geek-God is a bit absurd. The point: does it really matter so much whether the God-figure is evolved or not, complex or utterly simple? When God, 5 kilometers tall, bearded and robed, surrounded by a retinue of cherubs, starts stomping on your cities and demanding prostrations, do you confront him with the notion that he is "merely" evolved?
* Why would anyone go to war for an absence of belief? (pg 316)
Dawkins rails against religion in the preceding sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, and finishes Chapter 7 by hailing the virtue of all absence of belief. Dawkins is pulling a bit of sleight of hand in omitting "religious" before "belief". And then, if we're referring only to religious belief, it's perfectly imaginable that an atheist could go to war over some silly racial beliefs (Hitler?), or in the belief that he is hastening inevitable evolution by culling certain weak individuals, or in the belief that his particular political system should be spread. What's more, a hawkish atheist might instigate war against a religious society if he feels those religious memes are particularly insidious to his own way of life. Here, you're forcibly defending your right to non-belief. Christopher Hitchens seems a bit inclined in this direction.
Dawkins points out that while certain historical nasties may have been atheists, their atheism wasn't necessarily the cause of their unpleasantness. What's more, it's fairly easy to cite cases where religiosity absolutely was the cause of unpleasantness. Atheism would seem to have the moral upper hand here. However, it's just a matter of time before some loony atheist mass murderer or dictator emerges, citing a liberation from absolute morals as his incitation. Given such an event, atheists would be left saying, "he wasn't a real atheist"...this sort of logic is, at best, unforceful. At worst, it's an outright fallacy.
One might even imagine a nutjob Christian committing a heinous crime, purposely getting caught, and then claiming that atheism was his inspiration. Admittedly, this is an unlikely scenario...message boards are rife with posters claiming "I used to believe in atheism" or "I used to be an evolutionist", who are quickly revealed to know nothing of either subject. These folks are lousy at faking atheism.
Atheists, however, are often rather effective at faking religiosity. In many cases, they've been forced to feign piety simply because they don't want their heads to be separated from the bodies. Any number of outwardly religious despots may have been closet atheists. And who is to say that non-belief in absolute morality wasn't a factor in their crimes?
My point here: atheists should be careful about this claim that evil never flows from atheism. A more accurate thought might be, "atheism that emerges from careful inspection of religious belief rarely causes unpleasantness in this world." Not a good sound bite. Any number of street criminals are atheists in the sense that they aren't believers in any particular religion. But I doubt many of them have seriously examined questions of religion and morality.
Dawkins isn't nearly as extreme as Hitchens in this area. Though Stalin himself was an atheist, Hitchens will tell you that Stalinism was prepped by centuries of authoritarian Christianity. Such a view lets atheism off the hook for just about any crimes imaginable, at least for the next few centuries.
* Dawkins argues against the brainwashing of children into the dogma of a particular religion. It would be better to educate them as to all the possibilities, and let them make up their own minds when they're mature enough. Dawkins, of course, provides horrifying and extreme examples of such brainwashing. But there are very liberal believers who argue that it's flat out immoral to raise a child without a grounding in morality. Atheists then counter that morality doesn't need religion. Practically speaking, though, most folks see morality as being grounded in religion.
Though he doesn't state it outright, Chapter 9 intimates that Dawkins wouldn't be entirely unsympathetic to a government that actually stepped in and prevented childhood religious indoctrination. Imagine, then, the difficulties that would arise as an earnest, religious, not particularly well-educated couple struggle to raise a child properly. Like it or not, morality is inseparable from religion in their own minds...how could they possibly provide a moral foundation without a religious one?
My own intuition is that Dawkins would do better to continue to grind away at the silly dogmas that infest the minds of adults who may become parents, than to hope that religious folks might allow their children to explore a menagerie of belief systems before "deciding", or to hope that legislation might be enacted that prevents childhood religious brainwashing.
1) Very little of TGD applies to Buddhists. Hindus too, I assume. So Dawkins should make it clear when he's really referring to Abrahamic religion.
2) If there's a Creator, he must have evolved. So what?
3) There are plenty of ways atheists can screw up the world. Give them a fair chance first.
4) Fact is, a moral foundation and religious upbringing are inseperable for many folks. Let's chill out on the notion that a bit of religious indoctrination is akin to child abuse.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Here's a Thai dish called "Sok Lek". Actually, it would more properly be called an Isan (northeastern Thai) specialty, as urbane Bangkokians usually disavow this sort of cuisine. Basically, it's pig guts, spices, and blood, eaten raw. You can boil up the guts if you're wimpy.
Seriously, Westerners are certainly playing culinary Russian roulette when they ingest this sort of stuff. If you do, don't skimp on the spices and cheap Thai whiskey...they're your last defense against parasites.
While Sok Lek is a bit of a turn-off for city dwellers, the eating of blood isn't. Kill a pig, drain the blood into a pan, and quickly add a tad of fish sauce or vinegar to make the liquid congeal. You can dice the end product up like tofu and sell it at the market. In fact, if you ignore the red/brown color, congealed blood has a texture and bland flavor that is similar to tofu's. You'd serve it up in some spicy curry or soup to add variety to the mix.
It can get a bit ridiculous, though. I've heard Thai sports commentators make the following remarks:
"White people are too hot-tempered" (explaining why a Chinese guy beat a "farang" in a ping-pong match).
"That player looks like a man" (at a women's volleyball match).
"That's the first time Mike Tyson was beaten by a white man" (the FIRST thing that came out of the commentator's mouth after Tyson threw in the towel in his most recent match).
Imagine the uproar if you heard this stuff on American TV.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
If you'd like to see a slideshow of more pics from the Ganesh Himal, a rather offbeat trekking destination in Nepal, click here
In the future, I'll upload some video clips of the trek, which do a good job of explaining this little adventure without additional prose.
This particular shot might be the best of the lot, though. Those two girls are carrying chiseled rocks, used for roofing. There's a sense of desolation, though you'd probably catch the distant reverberation of a mallet if you were there.
You can bowl a game for as little as 30 baht (about $.75), depending on where you go. The most expensive I've seen is about 120 baht, at Major Bowl, where they've got the black lights and a DJ (and crummy lane conditions!).
The differences? Well, the Thais seem less restricted by concepts of the "correct" way to bowl. There aren't so many really great Thai bowlers, so there's nobody to really mimic. No reference points. Thus you can go to a lane and see an amazing variety of styles, and I'm not just talking about newcomers. My favorite is the guy at Columbia Bowl (Rangsit) who goes through these Tai-Chi moves as part of his follow-through...he releases the ball and finishes in something like a flamingo position after another couple seconds of gyrations.
You'll see plenty of backspins here. There's that "helicopter" style that started in Taiwan...it can actually be effective, as much as I hate to say it. You see lofters, who might do better if they took up shot-putting. There are fairly experienced bowlers who have concluded that a "brooklyn" shot is a more efficient way to strike. And of course, the teenage boys, who would rather generate a radical curve than a high score...they place their arm in a corkscrew formation and "unwind" as they approach the foul line.
There's a coach at Ramkhamhaeng who actually trains his bowlers to come to a near full-stop at the foul line, raise the ball to a perfectly vertical position over their heads (their backs are roughly parallel to the floor), and only then begin the downswing...you can see his students ("casualties" might be a better word, as I've yet to see one of these guys come anywhere near winning a competition) all over Bangkok. Word is, that coach was actually a decent bowler himself, and his style was quite conventional.
In the States, bowling is often thought of as a working class sport. Quite different in Thailand...a good ball costs about a month's wage for an average Thai, and a couple games could easily be a day's wage. You go to the lanes to be seen and socialize. You'll see a lot of very well-dressed (with the exception of the shoes, of course) women who toss the ball, turn around and giggle without bothering to see whether the ball actually hits the pins.
Of course, the issue of broken fingernails prevents a certain percentage of women from playing at all.
I recall bowling at Rangsit next to this Thai guy who proudly told me he had already thrown 27 games that day...with his wife holding the baby all the while.
Sometimes the whole extended family shows up. That happened today...about 12 family members, most of whom didn't bowl, on two lanes. There's the stroller and the toddler. The pregnant woman wandering around the facility in the altered state that pregnant women find themselves in. Constant flashing of the camera. Abundant applause for strikes and spares. They brought their own food in plastic containers.
Gambling is another issue. We're not talking about little wagers between bowlers...we're talking about guys who supplement their income by eyeballing the lanes for splits, and then offering odds to the bowlers. On a league night at RCA or Ramkhamhaeng, there might be 6 or 7 of these vultures on the prowl. You don't even need to verbally communicate with them to place a bet...the odds on a particular split are usually the same for everybody, so you just hold up your fingers and tell them how many baht you'll wager.
Being a logical sort of guy, I'd never place a bet with these gamblers...if they didn't profit, you wouldn't see them at the lanes. They know what they're doing, despite their easygoing demeanor and big smiles. Personally, I can't stand them...they got quite nasty when a former member of my team (a gambling addict, admittedly) fell into debt with them. He dropped off my team and I haven't seen him for several years now. You might consider calling the police to clean these guys off the lanes (after all, gambling is illegal)...problem is, a lot of these guys ARE the police.
One word that isn't frequently associated with Thais is "competitive". They've got this game called "nine-pin strike" where (if I'm not mistaken...I only played once) a one-pin leave counts as a strike, so it's fairly easy to walk away from a competition with a 300 score and a few thousand baht...a high skill level isn't essential. In the leagues, handicaps are quite high, so even the crappiest of teams can win on a given night. In my own 18 team league, the members of the team that finished SIXTH all receive trophies. AND there's a "booby prize" for finishing second to last. AND, since no team is allowed to win more than one prize, there are still trophies remaining for high game, high game handicap, high series, and high series handicap. Virtually everyone walks away from awards night with a goody in their hands.
*Has anyone bowled a 300 without anyone else ever knowing?
*What is the simplest sentence that has never been spoken? The smallest integer? The smallest integer that has never been used in a computer calculation?
*In the course of your life, how many large invertebrates have crawled over your slumbering body?
*How many kilometers was the longest chain reaction of howling dogs in history?
*When was the last time that someone, in earnest, called a tobacco shop and inquired about the availability of Prince Albert in a can?
*How many movies have been made in which a vehicle runs through a vegetable stand? What is the ratio of car chases that do and don't involve a vegetable stand?
*In the history of humanity, how many folks have died by getting lost in a cave?
* What was the sequence of events that the luckiest ant in history encountered as it sojourned from one side of a busy street to the other?
*What percentage of the world's population turns on a TV within 1 minute of returning home?
*Of all the humans on earth, which individual has the greatest proclivity towards standing in the way?
*What is the most trivial recorded event that occurred on Feb 12, 1848?
*How can I block Kim Kardashian-related news on Yahoo? (I tried googling this, to no avail...perhaps the answer can be found after 81,000 irrelevant entries)
*Which human most meticulously details his/her life on Facebook?
Saturday, November 10, 2007
Richard Dawkins has supposedly remarked that of all the arguments for the existence of a designer deity, the "fine-tuning" argument is most intriguing. According to some percentage of physicists, there's a very narrow range of physical constants that allow for life in the universe. If you take these physicists at their word (not everyone does), you're forced to either conclude we're here as the result of a hugely improbable coincidence, or there's some god-figure tweaking the controls.
Douglas Adams took on the debate. He imagines a puddle snuggled into a pothole, waking up and concluding that the universe was designed for puddles, since the fit is so marvelous. This is obviously an egocentric and deluded puddle, but it's a bit difficult for me to summarize exactly what Adams was trying to say. Adam's puddle seems to be pointing out that it's a fallacy to ever look at our existence and conclude that it was improbable.
But it does seem that some physicists, who don't show any signs of holding a god-proving agenda, believe that it is possible to ascertain that our universe is indeed an improbable one. That's not "improbable" in the silly sense of drawing 5 cards and then marveling at the odds that you drew that particular hand. It's "improbable" in the sense that the hand you drew is
one of just a few that could support life.
If we assume that our universe is indeed exceedingly improbable, does that point to a cosmic designer? You could also ask the same for replicators or consciousness or any other hurdle along the road to humanity. If we find that replicators are exceedingly difficult to design after 1,000 years of trying, what should we think? What if SETI never hears anything whilst probing the heavens? In my view, such scenarios don't improve the odds for a god-figure. Not much, anyway.
Why? Well, let's assume that our universe is indeed improbable. There are then two kinds of universes that are possible. One is the incredibly coincidental one in which conscious life arises (and inevitably marvels at the improbability of existence). The other one is a lifeless, chaotic universe, incapable of supporting simple molecular bonds or any kind of complexity at all. But the mindless plasma in such a chaotic universe never gets the opportunity to consider the ordinariness of its situation. The things that are capable of pondering existence only arise in improbable universes.
So, if you have a near-infinite number of universes, you're bound to get some conscious life every now and then. But what will that conscious life do? It will do physics and calculate that the universe is improbable and must therefore be designed. The conclusion of improbability would be correct, but the conclusion of design would be incorrect.
There's no argument for a creator if multiple universes are allowed. However, let's assume that 1) our universe is indeed improbable and 2) it's the only one that has ever been. What should we then think? I'm not sure.
It should be pointed out, again, that not all physicists have decided that life can only arise in a very small fraction of possible universes. Victor Stenger argues that a large fraction of configurations of the constants of physics still allow for life. But then he goes on to make the case for multiple universes, saying that they don't violate Occam's razor (as creationists have argued). So he seems to be covering both bases, saying that life is not improbable, but even if it is there's no incentive to lean toward a creator. Nothing wrong with covering both bases.
You could almost turn the fine-tuning argument on its ass and use it to argue for the existence of multiple universes. Like this:
1) There's no Cosmic Designer (see Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al for thousands of pages devoted to this topic).
2) The universe is improbable.
Therefore, there must be multiple universes.
If you like the above, check out a small slideshow of images originating from the interior of Bangkok taxis, click here .
For those unfamiliar with Thailand, these sculptures, images, relics, flowers, etc., are near-ubiquitous in Thai vehicles. Ordinary Thais place them inside their cars, but the taxi drivers are known to lay them on thick, sometimes utilizing every square centimeter of the dashboard. In one case in the slide show, you'll see a rear-view mirror rendered near-useless by the images attached. If a taxi lacks these "pra", it's probably rented, or the driver is a Muslim.
Thus far, the pics are the simple result of having a camera onhand when a driver has particularly nice "pra". Then I photoshop them. I've considered running out to, say, Mor Chit bus station, where you might find 2,000 taxis in queue in the morning, and snapping pics in production-line style. Maybe something would be lost in the process. Maybe not.
I have a theory: the more "pra" in the taxi, the more reckless the driver. These images, after all, are supposed to have protective qualities. One famous monk, however, has remarked that the Buddha exits the vehicle at speeds over 80 km/hour.
Sometimes, you see these images interspersed with stuffed animals, bobble-heads, cartoon figures (ultraman, snoopy, Yosemite Sam, Disney characters, etc.). Westerners might see an adjacent Mickey Mouse as a defilement, but Thais don't think that way.
Thai Teens Talk Thamma I
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Thai Teens Talk Thamma II
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Thai Teens Talk Thamma III
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There's a debate amongst certain eggheads about whether Buddhism is a religion or not. It's a philosophy, not a religion, some (college freshmen, mostly) say. This is not a debate amongst the vast majority of Thais, however…it's a religion. It's "sasana poot", Buddhist religion. You'd be a fool to witness pilgrims circumambulating Mt. Kailash on their knees (!) and then conclude Buddhism is a mere philosophy.
There's also the question of whether Buddhism falls into the category of monotheism, polytheism, atheism, or agnosticism. You'll see that the teenagers don't hesitate to say "atheism". Some Western intellectuals argue that "polytheism" would be a better description of Buddhism, since these folks typically do hold a hefty array of supernatural beliefs in angels, ghosts, gods, and demons. These intellectuals, however, are hugely biased by their upbringing in a Christian culture. Here's what I mean: Abrahamic religion is very exclusive. God is jealous. So you don't see Christians or Muslims who entertain two or three other supernatural belief systems. The assumption is then made that ALL religions are equally exclusive. But Buddhism doesn't claim to encompass all of reality, and leaves plenty of room for streams of Hinduism (e.g. the ubiquitous spirit houses of Thailand, and the lingams you see here and there), animism, Chinese folk religion, ancestor worship, etc. However, the Thais are quick to identify what is and isn't Buddhism…it's not at all as if these beliefs are unidentifiably jumbled into a single belief-stream that might as well be called "Buddhism".
Listening to the teenagers, it's pretty obvious that "Buddha is the God of Buddhism" is a bit weak. You've got to look at Buddhism on its own terms, instead of trying to squeeze it into an Abrahamic reference frame.
There's the notion that every religion has some sort of creation story. There might even be an innate need to formulate some sort of mythology of origins. That's false. OK, if you dug deep enough in the tantras or sutras or commentaries thereof, you might find something. If such a story exists, though, Thais don't seem indoctrinated in it. They tell you to look at science if you want a story of origins.
Karma is essential to these Thais. There are Western intellectuals who see it as mere baggage left over from Buddhism's Hindu origins, but that seems lame. The teenagers are quick to answer that Karma is not governed by some overlord who doles out punishment and reward…it's more like a natural law. One student even claims that "semati" (meditation) is really not important compared to Karma.
There's another Western intellectual view of Karma, that it applies to the whole of humanity. If I commit a violent crime, all of humanity suffers, and the resulting tears and lessons ripple down through generations, and this is supposed to be the deeper meaning of reincarnation. To me, this view is just schmeered onto Buddhism to make it seem more logical and less supernatural, however…it's not something ordinary Thais speak of.
Some teenagers also claim that the ultimate decider of good/bad Karma is the holder of Karma himself (you). The question then is: if I killed you in the belief that I was doing good, would that result in good Karma? The answer seems to be: deep down inside, everyone knows when a wrong has been committed.
If I worked harder, I could probably shoot some holes in these beliefs about Karma (what exactly are the physical mechanisms that lead from a breakage of a vow to reincarnation as a street dog?). But again, shooting holes in Bangkok Buddhism isn't my goal. I just want to show you what ordinary Buddhists believe, and don't believe.
Some Westerners and a few Asians as well, think they can identify "real Buddhism". They think they can intuitively recognize the essential features, and toss out the cultural garbage. This is arrogant, I think. If you're a scientist, and your task is to find "real Buddhism", is it really correct to toss out the views of 99.99% of folks born into Buddhism? Another problem is that all these "intuitive Buddhists" inevitably wind up with conflicting notions of Buddhism.
On the other hand, a good chunk of Buddhism relates to the experience of meditation. You might compare it to Christian prayer, but face it: Buddhists have gobs more background in practicing myriad forms of meditation than Christians. To the extent that it's a skill like football or piano playing, the elites who are particularly skilled in this department may well have some important words on the subject of "true Buddhism". If I want to know about "true soccer", it makes sense to confer with an elite instead of a schmuck on the street. Again, the Abrahamic baggage can confound: meditators are simply engaging in superstition and wishful thinking, so meditation isn't analogous as a "talent". But you've got to be clueless to think like that. So I'm not ready to go to the extreme of tossing the elites out the window when searching for "true Buddhism". At the very least, their words should be given a little extra weight.
I am the pinboy
I am your pinboy
(The Fugs, "Crystal Liason")
Nov 4, 2007: I bowled my second 300 today. It was probably one of the least celebrated 300's in history. Two folks, looking to be father and daughter, ate food and watched. Nearby bowlers and the ball boys didn't notice. Later, Tum, the manager, appeared on the scene. When I quit bowling, I assumed that someone had informed him of my little achievement. That was purely egocentric, however, since he expressed surprise when I strutted into the pro shop like a peacock. I asked about my 100 free games, but he said, "so sorry...that promotion just ended". Could I have one free game? He laughed. I asked if I could have the scoresheet that recorded the 300, but it looks like they just had the secretary type something up. They say they'll put my name on the "Wall of Fame". I'll believe it when I see it.
For those of you looking for clues as to the intangibles that go into a 300, let me tell you what I did before and during the game. I woke up and drank coffee. I listened to the "Skeptics Guide to the Universe" podcast. I had a hot chocolate and a vitamin. I went to the fitness club and burned 1070 calories, at least according to the readout on the stair machine. I didn't have breakfast or lunch. At the bowling alley, I quickly established myself as an asshole, switching lanes because some inexperienced adjacent bowlers violated etiquette in a number of ways. These violations included stepping up to bowl when I was already on the approach, and worst of all, walking through my territory (the seats, the computer) to get to the ball racks!
OK, let me change the sardonic tone for a second, because there were a few take-away lessons today. Most of the preceding games were fairly mediocre...a 124 was included in the mix, and it wasn't for lack of effort. Problem was, the lanes were bloody dry, and the ball was hooking out of control. When teenage Thais ask me about bowling, they never ask how to get a good score. They want to know how to hook the ball. There's really no convincing them that the big, sexy hook can be counterproductive, at least for a beginner. You gain a tad of striking power, but lose virtually all your accuracy when you contort your arm like a damn corkscrew. I had the opposite problem today...my throws were curvaceous and sexy, but I wanted dowdy and frigid.
Given the bad scores, I was just about ready to give up. I considered throwing a house ball, just to retrieve some fun from the experience. For whatever reason, though, I decided to stop cleaning the ball with the towel. I always wipe the ball with the towel! But this attitude of "giving up" had me ready to do something unusual. If you're reading this, and you don't know much about bowling, you should know that dry (un-oily) lanes make the ball curve more. Every time your ball rolls down the lane, you remove even more oil from the lane, and the lane becomes drier. If you don't like this dryness, it makes sense to avoid removing the oil from the ball.
Anyway, the towel decision seems to have been a good one. Normally, I wipe the ball without any conscious thought, out of pure force of habit, so I just tossed that towel far out of reach. I "threw in the towel"! The ball traveled down the lane much more predictably, and none of those 12 strikes could be considered lucky. I got a bit nervous around the 8th frame, but experience came in handy: I know quite well that the first thing that suffers when you're nervous is the "lift" you put on the ball...your fingers might lose their stiffness, the ball rotates more slowly, and you hit the pocket too lightly.
Despite the nervousness, I was also able to retain my nerdiness...I really wanted to know what animation appears on the monitor when you get your 11th strike. Last time I tossed a 300, I got lost in the excitement and didn't notice.
1) Several possibilities, including a smiling, bungee-jumping bowling ball .
2) The ball splits into two and lands a strike on two lanes.
3) A turkey, of course.
4) A baseball field.
5) The Olympic rings.
6) A six pack of beer.
7) Something about angels.
8) A pool table.
9) Something about rollercoasters.
10) I forget.
11) Something about speed boats traversing buoys!!!
Then there's some sort of fireworks animation when you get the 300.
Don't anybody interpret the above as boasting. It's a lot easier to toss a 300 than it used to be, given high-tech balls and lane conditions that are tailored to provide ordinary folks with high scores (it's good for business). At the bowling alley I usually visit, 12 perfect games have been bowled this year. Supposedly, something like 40,000 perfect games are bowled worldwide every year, up from 5,000 per year in the age of rubber balls. Roughly speaking, one might guess that 1,000,000 perfect games have been thrown in the course of history.
In the taxi, I recall thinking about tossing a 300. We now have proof that anticipating a 300 is not an insurmountable curse.
As further evidence of my nerdhood, a score in the 290's wouldn't have bothered me too much. Why? Cuz I've never done that. It would be pleasing to add a 29N to my bag of scores. I've done 28N, 27N, all the way down to 2N. Hell, I threw a 7N a couple years ago with every intention of bowling a 2NN. Even as a child, I probably never threw a 1N or just plain N, but it wouldn't be difficult to hop over to the alley and add those scores to the collection.
In fact, when you consider the historical rarity of certain scores, 292 is certainly the absolute most difficult score in bowling. There's only one way to do it...you bowl 11 strikes and then knock down 2 pins. If you already had 11 strikes in a row, and intended to throw a 291, all you've got to do is knock down the 7 pin or 10 pin. But it's very difficult to intentionally knock down just 2 out of 10 pins. Try it!
There's actually a discussion of this topic here. Apparently, there are some 291's on record. But nobody has heard of a 292.