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This is the archive for May 2006

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Rebecca Goldstein, philosopher and novelist, has written a new book called Betraying Spinoza in which she argues that Spinoza rejects the idea of Jewish heritage as definitive of one's identity. In a written interview with Stephen Vider she says
For Spinoza, being a Jew is a problem to be solved. The continued identification of this people and their stubborn insistence on their difference has only brought woe on them, and the best way to solve this unbearable suffering that the Jews have been subjected to is to cure them of their beliefs in a difference. When he was a boy, there were stories of people who had gone back to Portugal and who were burned in the auto-da-f??an ongoing calamity, the worst calamity of the Jewish people until the Holocaust. These stories clearly made an impression. Spinoza's rationalism is a kind of answer to this tragedy, to the tragedy of all racist hatred?and the Inquisition wasn't just religious hatred but racial. It's saying that, to the extent that we're rational, none of the differences between us matter. To the extent that we're rational we actually share the same identity.

Part of our salvation?our secular salvation, as he sees it?is to deconstruct one's own identity. I believe that somehow he had indicated this even at an early stage of his philosophy, that being Jewish is not the essence of one's identity for those who are Jews; it's not ethically essential. That's a viewpoint I don't think that Judaism could tolerate?not in his time, not in ours.

There is also a podcast interview with Sara Ivry.
Nextbook: Free Radical

Friday, May 26, 2006

CNN reports from London, England:
It's a question that has baffled scientists, academics and pub bores through the ages: What came first, the chicken or the egg? Now a team made up of a geneticist, philosopher and chicken farmer claim to have found an answer. It was the egg.
The geneticist John Brookfield argued that the organism inside the egg would have had the same genetic material as the chicken that would eventually hatch from it.
Therefore, the first living thing which we could say unequivocally was a member of the species would be this first egg.... So, I would conclude that the egg came first.
The philosopher David Papineau also believes that the first chicken came from an egg, proving that chicken eggs existed before chickens.
I would argue it is a chicken egg if it has a chicken in it.... If a kangaroo laid an egg from which an ostrich hatched, that would surely be an ostrich egg, not a kangaroo egg.
Semantics? Both Brookfield and Papineau make the mistake of assuming there was either a first chicken or a first chicken egg, rather than acknowledging that there were generations of proto-chicken ancestors in populations that genetically morphed into today's chickens. The age-old question presents a false dichotomy. It's the chairman of the Great British Chicken trade, Mr. Bourns, who almost gets it right.
Eggs were around long before the first chicken arrived. Of course, they may not have been chicken eggs as we see them today, but they were eggs
Yes, there were eggs before chickens. But no first chicken egg and no first chicken. Just fowl and eggs becoming more "chickeny" over many generations until today, with a clearly identifiable species made up of genetical similar birds, when we can fairly easily discriminate individual chickens from nonchickens. - Chicken and?egg?debate unscrambled - May 26, 2006
Richard Dawkins has a nice essay on science, mystery, and religion.
The creationists' fondness for "gaps" in the fossil record is a metaphor for their love of gaps in knowledge generally. Gaps, by default, are filled by God. You don't know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don't understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don't go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God. Dear scientist, don't work on your mysteries. Bring us your mysteries for we can use them. Don't squander precious ignorance by researching it away. Ignorance is God's gift to Kansas.
I wish it were as simple as this. Dawkins is merely expressing his frustrations here and not shedding much light on the problem. Religion doesn't arise from a fondness for gaps; the god-hypothesis serves as a way to bring coherence to a complicated set of phenomena, though mystery is indeed a crucial part of the hypothesis. The real question is why do they stop short of continuing the search for complete and coherent explanations. Why remain stuck on what proves to be an inconsistent hypothesis that is noticably incongruent with the rest of what we know? Why remain so recalcitrant to experience and expriment? It's not the gaps the religious adore, it's a particular kind of gap-filler. Dennett does a much nicer job of explaning the nature and pervasive power of the god-hypothesis, mystery and religion in his book Breaking the Spell.

Read he rest of Dawkin's essay at onegoodmove: Filling the holes

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, replies to Christians. I haven't read the book yet, but I'm sure it goes something like this essay--which makes me look forward to reading it. The argument is nicely structured and cogent. How could anyone not be convinced? (Well, read Dan Dennett's recent book to find out.)
Since the publication of my first book, The End of Faith, I have received thousands of letters and e-mails from religious believers insisting that I am wrong not to believe in God. Invariably, the most unpleasant of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally believe that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. Please accept this for what it is: the testimony of a man who is in a position to observe how people behave when their faith is challenged. Many who claim to have been transformed by Christ's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While you may ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that the hatred these people feel comes directly from the Bible. How do I know this? Because the most deranged of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse.
The premise of a "mosquito" alarm to keep away children is bizarre enough. But children seem to have a near-term resourcefulness that mosquitos lack.
A high-pitched alarm which cannot be heard by adults has been hijacked by schoolchildren to create ringtones so they can get away with using phones in class.

Techno-savvy pupils have adapted the Mosquito alarm, used to drive teenage gangs away from shopping centres.

They can receive calls and texts during lessons without teachers having the faintest idea what is going on.

The alarm, which has been praised by police, is highly effective because its ultra-high sound can be heard only by youths but not by most people over 20.

Schoolchildren have recorded the sound, which they named Teen Buzz, and spread it from phone to phone via text messages and Bluetooth technology.

Now they can receive calls and texts during lessons without teachers having the faintest idea what is going on.

... The Mosquito technology is said to play on a medical phenomenon called presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss.

It is thought to begin at 20 and first affect the highest frequencies -- 18 to 20kHz....
These kids are our future. Let's hope they can outsmart us.

Pupils perform 'alarming' feat |

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Industrial Nanotech announced a new initiative to research and develop "Intelligent Coating" technologies. According to CEO Stuart Burchill,
Intelligent coatings represent the future of the coatings industry. Industrial Nanotech plans to emerge at the forefront of this new and disruptive technology which has the ability to potentially generate a substantial revenue stream for the company. Our current Nansulate line of protective coatings represents the first revolutionary improvement in coatings in decades and our Nansulate IQ line will provide an even higher level of effectiveness and become the future of coatings. Almost every object that is painted including houses, bridges, cars, trucks, tractors, manufacturing equipment and pipelines can eventually benefit from this advanced technology.
What might this intelligent coating--or nano-paint--do for us? Imagine a painted surface that repairs itself when scratched or marred, or that changes color to indicate fatigued structures or to highlight previous damage and repair. Pipelines and industrial facilities could be obvious locations that would benefit from these enhanced inspction techniques.

Industrial Nanotech Announces 'Intelligent Coating' R&D Initiative
The caption reads: "Lens flare caused by a spotlight forms a circle around U.S. President George W. Bush as he speaks at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky May 19, 2006. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque" The lens flare is not a light bulb going off in Bush's brain. Personally I think it looks like a thought balloon yet to be filled with something. He's been insulated from new or alternative ideas all along, as the photo might also seem to illustrate. I know we didn't hear any new ideas in the NKU speech. The gist of the speech was that America needs to remain competitive in a changing global economy. Sounds good. Competitive at any cost? We are constantly reminding our global neighbors that preemptive military aggression is never off the table. Note that a good bit of the speech was dedicated to justifying our continued aggression in Iraq. I wish he would spend more time thinking about and talking about increased support for math and science education, which received less attention though billed as the thrust of the talk.

H/T to Pendagon

Monday, May 22, 2006

This piece of lunacy slipped by me last week.
New federal guidelines ask all females capable of conceiving a baby to treat themselves -- and to be treated by the health care system -- as pre-pregnant, regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant anytime soon.
There is so much to say about this--and so little time--, I'm not sure where to begin. First, I would remind the CDC that males are pre-impregnators and deserve a diet of their own. Our job is to provide healthy sperm--and lots of it. Impotence effects one in ten males; male infertility is involved in 40% of all infertile couples. No more briefs instead of boxers, give up smoking and drinking, and no mountain biking.

Second, not only is this a quiet nod to the anti-choice folks, but--framed as it is-- this strikes me as tied to an implicit social darwinist agenda that treats women as essentlially reproductive machines whose ultimate value is wrapped up in bearing children. Reproduction is certainly a biological function of the normal human organism (both male and female), but it needn't be definitive of female personhood specifically or human value generally. While it is a significant part of evolutionary change that populations maintain a certain successful reproduction rate, that is not a requirement for every individual in the population. Many human beings (men and women) are successful in other endeavors and certainly valuable individuals even though they may be infertile or have decided not to have children.

Now the CDC hasn't said that women are to be thought of as essentially baby-makers. But why introduce the "pre-pregnant" label and invite the characterization? Why not come out with health advice for women (and men) insofar as they are pre-astronauts, pre-Senators, pre-farmers, and pre-teachers? Why not address the specific concerns of women (and men) who are planning to have children?

Forever Pregnant

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Center for Naturalism, a non-profit educational organization, is up and running.
The Center for Naturalism seeks to increase public awareness of scientific naturalism and its many implications for personal and social well-being. We encourage the dissemination of a naturalistic world view as an alternative to theism, supernatural beliefs, new age philosophies, and other varieties of dualism. Through its educational activities and initiatives, the CFN promotes a positive, constructive naturalism, supports progressive social change, and in collaboration with other secular groups, helps to build a community of naturalists. will be a resources for papers and other information.

The Center for Naturalism
David Guston is preparing to ordinary people together through a series of ditizen forums to discuss the effects of nanotechnology.
It's not the experts telling us what we should do and how we should live, but it's the citizens themselves querying the experts: how is it that you intend to help us live the way we want to live?
Guston is a Political Science professor and Director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University.

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