Monday, December 17, 2007

Stream of Wikipedia-ness

Not being a connoisseur of classical music, I had thought “The Planets” was written by Mahler. Far from it. Mahler was quite the devoted Christian, while the actual composer, Gustav Holst, was heavily influenced by Hinduism and astrology. Imagine the wondrous works of art that would never have transpired without…….astrology.

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

The Ganesh Himal

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.

D'Souza and Pascal's Wager

In my previous post, I praised Dinesh D'Souza's debating skills. He defends the existence of an invisible entity about as well as anyone could hope to. Nevertheless...

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

Capital "A" Atheism is a wonderful diversion for rational-minded folks. Something like 70 different scientists have individual blogs over there. Besides blogging on cutting-edge research implications, there are plenty of forays into history, politics, philosophy, and religion. In fact, "Pharyngula", the most popular blog over there, devotes more time ridiculing creationists and "intelligent design" proponents than actually talking about science. That's fine with me...the result is often very entertaining.

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.

Eat that!

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!