09/20/14

The Unexamined Life


“The unexamined life,” Socrates declared in his trial, “is not worth living.” His student, Plato, wrote down those words in his account of Socrates’ trial and death, in the book, Apology.*

Socrates was speaking for himself and about the value of his life as a thinking person. He was on trial in 399 BCE for impiety – questioning the gods and introducing new gods – and corrupting youth. His real “crime” was his threat to established thought: he made his followers think, to question everything, to examine their beliefs and their knowledge and determine for themselves its validity. He taught them critical thinking and analysis – a dangerous new way to look at things. It shook the foundations of his society.**

And, of course, here is where Socrates’ approach conflicts with faith. Faith requires us to stop questioning and believe. Socrates exhorted his followers to question. His detractors stood on the firmament of faith. There was bound to be a clash.

The jury found him guilty and sentenced Socrates to death. But more than two thousand years later, Socrates words remain with us, are still repeated and debated today, while the members of the jury and their arguments are long forgotten.

As Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes about Socrates, of course there were political undercurrents to his trial:

Socrates pursued this task single-mindedly, questioning people about what matters most, e.g., courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls generally. He did this regardless of whether his respondents wanted to be questioned or resisted him; and Athenian youths imitated Socrates’s questioning style, much to the annoyance of some of their elders. He had a reputation for irony, though what that means exactly is controversial; at a minimum, Socrates’s irony consisted in his saying that he knew nothing of importance and wanted to listen to others, yet keeping the upper hand in every discussion. One further aspect of Socrates’s much-touted strangeness should be mentioned: his dogged failure to align himself politically with oligarchs or democrats; rather, he had friends and enemies among both, and he supported and opposed actions of both.

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09/18/14

Is the Internet making us stupid? Or just shallow?


Click the first
In my never-ending search for some bit of knowledge one day, during a mix-and-match of search engine terms while looking for classical writers’ views on death and dying, I stumbled onto what might have been an off-kilter New Age site, OM Times, or more likely, a parody of the genre. On the page titled “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Death,” I read,

“… light rays have qualities like wisdom, kindness, compassion and intelligence. This light makes visible what is invisible on earth, the Divine nature of all things….”

Loud guffaws broke the cool silence of the house and startled the cats sleeping on the dining room table nearby. Light rays have wisdom? Intelligence? I almost snorted tea through my nose I laughed so hard. It had to be a parody.

Codswallop almost always makes me laugh. At first. Then, as I perused the site more, I got worried at how much of it there was. A lot of effort put into a parody, it seemed. Do people actually believe this stuff? Or are all the New Age websites really satirical, like the Onion, making fun of popular beliefs, superstitions and fears?

Surely some of them must be poking us in the metaphorical ribs with a wink and a nudge. It’s hard to believe they’re serious when you check the other stories on this site. With articles headlined by lines like:

  • Are Your Loved Ones Sending You A Message From Beyond?
  • 10 Signs That You Were Born a Mystic
  • Top 10 Traits to Identify an Indigo
  • Numerology: September Forecast
  • The Science of Miracles
  • The 7 Most Common Messages from Spirits
  • My Life As an Earth Angel
  • Crystals For Reiki

You have to think they’re pulling your leg. And pulling it hard. None of this stuff is real; it’s all piffle; no one can take this malarkey seriously. Miracles? Numerology? Crystals? Just look at the opening of the story titled, “Travelling to the New Earth:”

There is a place beyond the Fifth Dimension where a new vision is taking shape, where mankind is getting a proverbial ‘do-over.’ This place is called ‘the New Earth.’ It exists in a dimensional space above the fifth dimension somewhere in the sixth and seventh dimensional areas accessible by meditation and through ‘stargates’ some of which are physical and some of which are energetic. Thus, many are able to visit the New Earth in meditation.
The New Earth is a high vibrational area where we all hope to live one day. It is free of fear and conflict. I am told it is the highest expression of Heaven on Earth or Shamballa.

I know, I know. I nearly laughed myself into a fit when I read that. There must be an app for creating winky New Age stories out there that lets you mix all the buzz words and goofy ideas together and come out with something that can be published here. This stuff makes Harry Potter read like a documentary.

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09/9/14

Our gawker culture


Gizmodo imageSuddenly the Net lit up with headlines news: celebrity nude photos leaked! Videos too! Facebook timelines were replete with media stories. Shock. Horror. Voyeurism. Click, click, click the viewers racked up the view count as they raced to the sites just in case they actually showed something. A little flesh to feed our insatiable desire to gawk.

Meanwhile psychopaths in ISIS continue to harvest human lives and slaughter journalists, Syria continues its brutal civil war, drought threatens the American southwest, climate change ravages the planet, Russia sends soldiers to undermine Ukraine and shoot down civilian airliners, pesticides continue to wipe out bee populations, Scotland’s referendum on separation looms, Ebola claims more lives in Africa, Al Queda expands its terror network in Asia, the Taliban continue their murder spree in Afghanistan…

All ignored while we look for photos of naked “celebrities.” Who needs to worry about terrorism, poverty, hunger, disease, who needs to ponder solutions to the world’s ills when we can look at tits and ass. And famous tits and ass at that.

Many web sites scrambled to share them as quickly as possible before threats of legal action forced their removal. And if not posting them, they posted links to the sites that did. The (recently updated) headline on Gawker reads, “J-Law, Kate Upton Nudes Leak: Web Explodes Over Hacked Celeb Pics.” and continues:

The list of celebrities whose nudes are supposedly in this cache includes Jennifer Lawrence, Avril Lavigne, Kate Upton, Lea Michele, and McKayla Maroney, and several of them—the photos, not the celebs—have begun to show up on various message boards across the internet.

What does this say about the society we’re created, that we are more drawn to a cheesecake than big, important, world-changing issues? (another Gawker story notes these photos have been circulating for a while in file-sharing sites…)

Our brave new online culture allows us to become a nation of anonymous peepers and stalkers. Gawkers who pursue the titillating, the trivial and the salacious; we consume the gossip and rumour eagerly. We revel in conspiracies and wild allegations, while rejecting facts, data and common sense. The highly-popular Gawker site, with its salacious gossip and celebrity trivia, is the perfect embodiment of our shallowness: it is the supermarket tabloid on steroids.

Who needs truth when you can have rumour and innuendo? Ah, haven’t we learned that in local politics already…

But why isn’t anyone asking: what were there nude pictures doing online in the first place?

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08/21/14

Great books: the academic view


Great BooksIn the mid-1990s, journalist David Denby took on a personal challenge to return to Columbia University for a year to take two courses, both focused on reading the “great books” of the Western canon. The results and his observations – along with an entertaining bit of biography about his journey – is told in Great Books (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

I was interested in Denby’s narrative primarily because, in looking through the table of contents, I noticed he commented on Machiavelli and Montaigne – two of my favourite writers. That made me want to read what he says about them, and about others, so of course I purchased the book.

But of course, the book is about a lot more than those two: it covers a wide range of Western writing from Homer to Virginia Woolf. The actual reading list covers almost four full pages at the beginning of the book. It is not a collection of great English writing – the original languages include ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish and one sample of Russian (an essay by Lenin). All, of course, in an English translation.

Surprisingly, there are no works by or excerpts from the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. No Latin American, Chinese or African writers, either. But there is a significant difference between a list compiled for reading during a single academic year and a comprehensive list of great books meant to convey the breadth of culture, learning and civilization.

Also, the list is specifically a Western canon, not a world canon.

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07/23/14

Those Crazy Creationists


Alien JesusI know, I know, it’s the proverbial fish in a barrel when you critique creationists. They are just so easy to mock. But how can you help yourself when someone like Ken Ham opens his mouth in public? The media just love to pounce all over him. He must take his lessons in PR from Ann Coulter. And like with Ann, the controversy probably helps sell his books.

(And, from what I see, selling books is really what Ken is all about. But that’s not the point of this post.)*

Ken’s latest foray into looniness – a territory he has already explored well and thoroughly – came in reports of his demand for NASA to end the space program searching for signs of alien life because all aliens are going to Hell.

Well, that’s not exactly what he said. But he implied it when he wrote,

“…any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation… You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation. One day, the whole universe will be judged by fire, and there will be a new heavens and earth… An understanding of the gospel makes it clear that salvation through Christ is only for the Adamic race—human beings who are all descendants of Adam.”

The theological argument might be a tad complex for an audience decreasingly schooled in complex ideas and critical thinking, and increasingly schooled in wardrobe malfunctions and nipple slips as “newsworthy” content, so the media boiled it down to a rather simplistic idea. I mean, after all, if you’re saved, you go to heaven, right? So logically in the Christian cosmos where do you go if you’re not saved? Right: hell.

No, Ham didn’t use those exact words, but it’s not hard to get the inference from what he did say. (and he’s almost mild compared to some of his fellow religionists – some Christians  won’t even admit other Christians into their heaven if they aren’t of the same denomination! I suppose it’s not terribly crowded up there, and the line-up for an espresso will be short…)

Aliens, therefore, are all doomed, just as much as any Earthy sinners (not to mention those of other religions or denominations), because Jesus couldn’t save them. Why not? Because Jesus was the saviour for this world only, not other worlds. So any ETs are doomed. Q.E.D.

Well, that is if there are aliens. Ham doesn’t actually believe in them – in fact he doesn’t believe in ANY sort of life outside this planet – and roundly criticized NASA for, as he sees it, wasting millions of dollars in a futile search for non-existent alien life. According to the HuffPost:

…Ham, president and CEO of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., said we probably are alone. He wrote “earth was specially created,” and the entire hunt for extraterrestrials is “really driven by man’s rebellion against God in a desperate attempt to supposedly prove evolution!”

Gosh, our desperate attempt to prove a scientific fact. We’re all damned. Just like ET. Well, maybe not Ham and his fellow creationists, I presume.

To be fair, Ken made a video after his original post, this time encouraging NASA to continue its search (i.e. continue to waste money) because it would prove creationists right by not finding extraterrestrial life:

You have to chuckle over the prop. Looking for aliens in the midday sun using a hobbyist telescope. Cute.

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07/21/14

Chemtrails: yet more conspiracy claptrap


Clueless wingnutsA bit of simple math was used to debunk the chemtrail nonsense conspiracy recently. Over at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s website there’s a great piece explaining why there simply aren’t enough pilots, planes or chemicals for the chemtrail silliness to be true:

A typical crop duster might use seven ounces of agent diluted in seven gallons of water to cover one acre of land. Chemtrail “people dusters” would use a similar concentration to cover the entire United States, just to be safe. For 2.38 billion acres of land, the pilots would then need—for just one week of spraying—120 billion gallons of these cryptic chemicals. That’s around the same volume as is transported in all the world’s oil tankers in one year. And such an incredible amount of agent would need an incredible number of planes. Considering that a large air freighter like a Boeing 747 can carry around 250,000 pounds of cargo, at the very least, the government would need to schedule four million 747 flights to spread their chemicals each week—eighteen times more flights per day than in the entire US.

Unless a plane could make multiple runs per day, a true chemtrail conspiracy would need 2,700 times as many 747s as have ever been constructed.

And the article continues deconstructing the numbers and shredding the conspiracy. As have so many clear-headed writers in the recent past, all of whom are ignored by the True Believers in this, the nuttiest of  notions.

I wonder if the woman holding the sign in the photo above realizes her tautology. Yes, anyone who is “aware of” (i.e. believes in) chemtrails will be sickened the same way medieval people were infected with disease by believing in demons and fairies as their cause. Belief doesn’t define truth nor does believing in an untruth make it a truth, no matter how many wingnuts believe it.

Despite all the science and the math, despite the explanations, despite careful and considered debunking by people who have experience, education, doctorates and degrees, and basic common sense, chemtrail conspiracists continue their madcap race to prove facts, science and logic don’t matter on the internet. On the internet what matters is being able to have your say, no matter how stupid, pointless or wrong. And to say it more stridently than the level-headed, reasonable folks.

It’s a race to the bottom. Who will get there first: New World Order conspiractists, 9/11 conspiracists, reptoid consipracists, Bigfoot conspiracists, anti-vaccine conspiracists… and with them run the believers in the Illuminati, angels, ghosts, creationism, flat Earth, geocentric universe, homeopathy, reptilians, Atlantis, Lemuria, UFOs? The Net is laden with such claptrap. The tin-foil-hat brigade on the march, defending people from reason.

Why do people need to believe in this stuff? Superstition and gullibility can’t account for all the believers. Nor all those folk who get hoodwinked into tagging along with the bandwagons. In part it’s because the technology of social media allows those bandwagons to roll easily along without the annoying hindrance of science, common sense or critical thinking.

Eric Hoffer wrote in his book, Reflections on the Human Condition,(1973):

One wonders whether a generation that demands instant satisfaction of all its needs and instant solution of the world’s problems will produce anything of lasting value. Such a generation, even when equipped with the most modern technology, will be essentially primitive – it will stand in awe of nature, and submit to the tutelage of medicine men.

Saner and better-educated people than I have debunked this nonsense many times in the past, and will continue to do so, but unfortunately they are outnumbered by the very vocal, very loud wingnuts who help spread this mind-eating crap. So buckle in and read the rest.

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06/26/14

The Death of Handwriting?


I almost cried in pleasure when I watched this video; the handwriting is so beautiful. Apparently some viewers have, as Jesus Diaz writes. On Gizmodo he says that it’s:

…a video that caused many to discover autonomous sensory meridian response, a perceptual phenomenon that gives a pleasing tingling sensation. Some said they got it watching people writing. Well, put your headphones on, because this is the mother of all calligraphy ASMR videos.

Okay, maybe it is for me because I was raised with handwriting and still delight in it. Penmanship was taught in school at least for a few years when I was there. In fact, I was in Grade 9 penmanship class when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination was broadcast over the school’s PA system. It’s one reason I can still recall taking penmanship, although I think it was the last year of it for me.

Penmanship taught more than just basic cursive: it skirted the boundaries of calligraphy, trying to teach resistant and recalcitrant students how to craft beauty out of our splotchy letters scratched from ink with clumsy fingers. Control, frugality, grace; things adolescents seldom have in quantity. But somehow, some of it stuck, and even though I lack the grace of the calligrapher in the video, I can still thrill in making those swoops, the lines, to hear the scrape of the nib on the paper.

True, I fail in great part because my gel-point and ballpoint pens haven’t the aesthetic pleasantry of a real ink-and-nib pen.

Diaz also informs us:

It’s a demonstration of a fountain pen—a Namiki Falcon customized by nibmeister John Mottishaw—with crystal clear video and sound, writing with various inks (if you’re curious: Iroshizuku Tsuki-yo, Iroshizuku Yama Budo, Noodler’s Black, Noodler’s Apache Sunset) on Bristol board and Leuchtturm1917 dot grid notebook paper.

I don’t know about you, but even the sight of a well-crafted fountain pen makes my heart beat a little faster. And paper? I’ve been known to loiter in art and stationary shops, fondling the sheets in notebooks, searching for that perfect feel, the ultimate sensation of paper on fingertips that through some osmotic process will encourage me to pick up a pen and dip it in the inkwell.*

Details aside, I find the act of writing itself fulfilling – and watching a master calligrapher at his art even more so, like watching a ballet or listening to a symphony being performed live. And it reminds me that in handwriting there is an enormous cultural heritage we should never lose – can never lose without losing something of ourselves.

But if some muddle-headed educators and some dizzy-wth-digital trustees have their way, our whole culture may suffer from enforced dysgraphia – which Wikipedia tell us is a

…deficiency in the ability to write, primarily in terms of handwriting, but also in terms of coherence.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that the death of handwriting would be to culture what the death of bees will be to agriculture.
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