Science and mystery

2008/01/20 at 08:35

In his latest essay in The Christian Century, Gordon Atkinson explains why we need both science and mystery. As usual, Gordon expresses my sentiments more eloquently than I ever could:

Some people see the boundary between mystery and science as a battleground with barbed wire and trenches on either side. But I think that the place where our searching and empirical minds meet the mysteries of the world is the realm of worship and poetry. Before Adam and Eve, the world was chaos, like a vast unconscious mind with no boundaries and no definitions. The world itself hasn’t changed, but our human perspective is continually solving mysteries and creating new ones as fast as we can.
Our love of answers has always been nicely balanced against our penchant for awe and worship. Reality is both a thing to be conquered and also something to be worshiped. This is the human way.
I wonder when it was that science and religion stopped seeing each other as ancient twins of the human mind and started seeing each other as competitors. While I and others like me slog it out in the worshiping world of mystery, brother scientist is observing, collating and solving mysteries as fast as he can. I don’t want him to stop. I like the way he slays ancient gods. What I want is for us to embrace each other and walk though life together. He can solve old mysteries and I can celebrate the new ones.

Re-thinking the midlife crisis

2008/01/17 at 10:36

In an article in the International Herald Tribune, psychology professor Richard A. Friedman questions conventional wisdom about the midlife crisis. In regard to one story that he shares, he comments:

It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to see that [this woman’s] husband wanted to turn back the clock and start over. But this hardly deserves the dignity of a label like “midlife crisis.” It sounds more like a search for novelty and thrill than for self-knowledge.
In fact, the more I learned about her husband, it became clear that he had always been a self-centered guy who fretted about his lost vigor and was acutely sensitive to disappointment. This was a garden-variety case of a middle-aged narcissist grappling with the biggest insult he had ever faced: getting older.
But you have to admit that “I’m having a midlife crisis” sounds a lot better than “I’m a narcissistic jerk having a meltdown.”

Midlife is a drag, but that’s just the way it is. People sometimes look at my with mild disbelief when I say that my wants are secondary to those of my family and that my primary role at this point in my life is to provide for them (not just financially). But Dr. Friedman also cites a survey in which only a small percentage of middle aged people reported having or having had a midlife crisis.
(via Follow Me Here)

The emotional center

2008/01/01 at 08:25

Former NBC news reporter John Hockenberry offers a long commentary on why network news has failed the American public. It’s an interesting, though unsurprising, read. One of his main points:

Gone was the mission of using technology to veer out onto the edge of American understanding in order to introduce something fundamentally new into the national debate. The informational edge was perilous, it was unpredictable, and it required the news audience to be willing to learn something it did not already know. Stories from the edge were not typically reassuring about the future. In this sense they were like actual news, unpredictable flashes from the unknown. On the other hand, the coveted emotional center was reliable, it was predictable, and its story lines could be duplicated over and over. It reassured the audience by telling it what it already knew rather than challenging it to learn. This explains why TV news voices all use similar cadences, why all anchors seem to sound alike, why reporters in the field all use the identical tone of urgency no matter whether the story is about the devastating aftermath of an earthquake or someone’s lost kitty.

Ass on a platter

2007/10/15 at 14:07

As soon as Amazon’s DRM-free MP3 service was launched (see my earlier post), Yahoo! Music’s VP for product development Ian Rogers handed the music industry their collective DRM-laden ass on a platter:

But now, eight years later, Amazon’s finally done what was clearly the right solution in 1999. Music in the format that people actually want it in, with a Web-based experience that’s simple and works with any device. I bought tracks from Amazon (Kevin Drew and No Age), downloaded them, sync’d them to my new iPod Nano, and had them playing in my home audio system (Control 4) in less than five minutes. PRAISE JESUS. It only took 8 years.
8 years. How much opportunity have we lost in those 8 years? How much naivety and hubris did we have when we said, “if we build it they will come”? What did we spend? And what did we gain? We certainly didn’t gain mass user adoption or trust, two prerequisites to success on the Internet.

That’s the most heart-warming ‘Kiss my ass’ I’ve heard in a very long time.

The ‘burbs

2007/09/18 at 09:08

Our McMansionI usually hang on pretty much everything Fred Clark says on his blog, but his recent post about suburban sprawl is the exception to this rule.His thesis is pretty simple: suburban living sucks. He throws out all the usual arguments: soulless cookie-cutter homes, long commutes, poor home quality, etc.
I see where Fred is coming from. Until about age 30, I felt the exact same way. In my case, my over-simplified view of the ‘burbs was born of ignorance. I grew up in the country, and then lived as a young adult in Europe and in older Austin neighborhoods around the UT campus.
Now that I’ve lived in the ‘burbs for a decade, I see the situation differently. I’m not saying that Fred’s accusations have no merit. Rather, I think he only sees one side of the story. Let’s take the issue of poor quality suburban home construction. I hate to tell him, but that’s been a fact of life in Austin since the first ‘burb opened up over 100 years ago–the neighborhood next to UT that I lived in during college, incidentally, that’s now an expensive, desirable urban neighborhood.
Another issue that isn’t so black and white is community. The stereotype is that suburbanites don’t know their neighbors. In our case, however, I know many more neighbors here in the ‘burbs than I did in the in-town neighborhoods we lived in. To large extent, I think you get the level of community that you expect, wherever you live. We made a conscious decision to put down roots in Pflugerville. Except for work, we live our lives here: home, schools, church, etc. As a result, for instance, we can’t ever go to the grocery store without running into someone we know. That certainly doesn’t feel like the soulless, anonymous suburbs that Fred and others imagine.
I agree 100% that suburban sprawl is not a viable long-term option, primarily due to the reliance on automobiles. And yes, I’m contributing to it. But the factors that led to our living where we do are many and complex. You just can’t reduce it to a few paragraphs of screed, as Fred has done.

The Persistence of Myths

2007/09/06 at 12:54

My aunt used to distribute a lot of urban legend emails, mostly conservative political and religious crap. And every time, I would look up the myth on, and send out a reply-to-all email explaining that this particular email is an urban legend, and pleading with people to do some minimal amount of research before forwarding on such emails to everyone you know.
Now, some researchers believe such counter-efforts may not help as much as I thought:

The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.
This phenomenon may help explain why large numbers of Americans incorrectly think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in planning the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi. While these beliefs likely arose because Bush administration officials have repeatedly tried to connect Iraq with Sept. 11, the experiments suggest that intelligence reports and other efforts to debunk this account may in fact help keep it alive.

How depressing.
Oh, and I no longer receive such emails from my aunt. I hope, though don’t really believe, that my efforts caused her to stop sending them. Most likely, she just removed me from the recipient list. I’m surprised I stayed on her list so long.

Radical Honesty

2007/09/05 at 12:10

Journalist A. J. Jacobs recently published an article in Esquire about Radical Honesty. According to the web site, Radical Honesty is “a kind of communication that is direct, complete, open and expressive. Radical Honesty means you tell the people in your life what you’ve done or plan to do, what you think, and what you feel. It’s the kind of authentic sharing that creates the possibility of love and intimacy.”
Or from the article:

[Radical Honesty’s founder Brad Blanton] says we should toss out the filters between our brains and our mouths. If you think it, say it. Confess to your boss your secret plans to start your own company. If you’re having fantasies about your wife’s sister, Blanton says to tell your wife and tell her sister. It’s the only path to authentic relationships. It’s the only way to smash through modernity’s soul-deadening alienation.

When Mr. Jacobs tried to practice radical honesty, here are some of the incidents he describes in his article. First the stepmother:

The next day, we get a visit from my wife’s dad and stepmom.
“Did you get the birthday gift I sent you?” asks her stepmom.
“Uh-huh,” I say.
She sent me a gift certificate to Saks Fifth Avenue.
“And? Did you like it?”
“Not really. I don’t like gift certificates. It’s like you’re giving me an errand to run.”
“Well, uh . . .”

And then the female business associate:

I have a business breakfast with an editor from Rachael Ray’s magazine. As we’re sitting together, I tell her that I remember what she wore the first time we met — a black shirt that revealed her shoulders in a provocative way. I say that I’d try to sleep with her if I were single. I confess to her that I just attempted (unsuccessfully) to look down her shirt during breakfast.

I regard my honesty as one of my most valued traits. In fact, some would say I already practice radical honesty! But ‘Radical Honesty’ is a step too far even for me. The incident with the business associate is the easiest to get out of the way. Even if Radical Honesty consists of “toss[ing] out the filters between our brains and our mouths,” there’s always the option of just keeping your damn mouth closed.
The interaction with Mr. Jacobs mother-in-law is a little trickier, since she directly asked him for his opinion. But her question and his response are only one small part in a larger cultural ritual that involves deciding what to give, giving it, receiving it–each step of which has ritualized responses. Mr. Jacobs abides by the conventions of the ritual until some arbitrary point, when he decides to throw convention out the window and practice Radical Honesty. I notice he didn’t mention that he offered to give the gift certificate back to his mother-in-law. It seems to me that if he really wanted to practice radical honesty, he would need to opt out of the entire cultural ritual. You can’t have it both ways.

Hey, that was my idea first!

2007/07/18 at 16:31

This article tops today. It is the same idea as the one I expressed in my previous post, just with more detail.

Save Africa!

2007/07/16 at 11:58

There’s an interesting commentary in the Washington Post that’s making the blog rounds today: “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa.” The author’s aversion to a certain type of attitude in regard to Africa reminds me of my dislike of the slogan “Save the Earth.”
I’m pretty sure life on earth will continue on in some form for millions, if not billions, more years, even if we humans manage to make the environment inhospitable for our own species.
So, I think ‘Save the Earth’ really means: help to keep the environment in a state that will continue to support human life similar to the way it currently is.” That in itself is a worthy cause, but the hubris implied in ‘Save the Earth’ really rubs me the wrong way.

Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot

2007/06/18 at 13:15

I’m a little late on posting this, but security expert Bruce Schneier tells it like it is:

Terrorism is a real threat, and one that needs to be addressed by appropriate means. But allowing ourselves to be terrorized by wannabe terrorists and unrealistic plots — and worse, allowing our essential freedoms to be lost by using them as an excuse — is wrong.

Remember, folks, terrorism is in the eye of the beholder. Don’t be scared of something that, statistically speiaking, barely even makes the list of things likely to hurt or kill you.