Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Long Strange Trip: The Song So Far (Q2)

As we come to the end of the another quarter-year, I see that it is again a year filled with drama--mainly professional and academic drama.

And so, I keep on truckin'.

I can't tell what will happen day-to-day:

But, I'm keeping it all together.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Book of Love

Family fun: We write our own book.
My middle child turned six years old this week. She's a very bright and sweet girl, self-assured and quiet. Like me, she's a homebody and an introvert. I have looked  closely at her this week. Her growing up fills me with more emotion than I think I can handle.

I get nearly as emotional concerning my two other children, but our relationships are different. The older girl is, by virtue of being first-born, the one whose growing up is most comfortable for me. As she grows, so do I: it's like we are on an adventure together. My boy, now four, is a wonder because of his autism. Although he's the baby of the family, I think of him as a little man and see his growth as just filling into what I know he will be.

Then there's the wife. She and I are getting older. We feel middle age coming on. Our lives are not monotonous or boring, but rather stable and muted. This is good. In her, I still see the girl who used to link arms with me when we walk, the girl who got a certain twinkle in her eye whenever she saw a baby. She's come a long way in managing her depression and setting herself up for a transition from stay-at-home mom to working woman. She's as beautiful as ever.

I've become all meh on religion. There's too much God and Jesus stuff in the house, but I have more important matters to think about than the biblical blah-blah. I know everyone in the family but me is a believer and a Christian, but I won't be surprised if the religiosity slowly tones down to nothing in the coming years. My presence in the house must pose questions everyone has either to ignore or face:
  • Why isn't there any evidence in favor of God's existence?
  • Why don't facts about the world/universe lend themselves to God as an explanation?
  • Why is there no good evidence of miracles?
  • Why is there no good evidence of the extraordinary events concerning Jesus, such as his birth, miracles, and resurrection?
  • Why do the so-called proofs of God's existence and the apologies for Jewish and Christian doctrines fail to complete what ought to be clear slam-dunks?
Besides, all the "God loves you" and "Jesus wants you to bleh" stuff butts up against the reality of Christian doctrine: You are a sinner who better beg for forgiveness. The more polite expression of the doctrine is that humanity is fallen and needs grace to be reconciled, but my formulation is no less accurate and may be the truer representation of attitude.

In short, I have the luxury of being meh about religion. Eventually, everyone will have a WTF moment on this. If anyone cares to share the WTF with me, I'll be ready to listen.

    Wednesday, June 20, 2012

    Why I Love Jazz and Why You Should Too

    The first jazz album I really liked was Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. "Blue Rondo a la Turk," the opening number, sold me. It was exciting, playful, shifting, artsy, adventurous, smart, swinging, and crisp. Like the album, that tune was a picture in sound: group sound, yet individual sound, too.

    The balance of group and individual, of vision and sound, is what makes jazz special. The group plays together, yet each one has a unique, foundational role. Each musician listens to the others, responds to them and lifts them. Any one may also have a turn (or more) to step out as an individual and explore the boundaries of song, sound, and group cohesion.

    As a listener, I traveled these boundaries with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, Evan Parker, and other innovators of the avant garde and free jazz movements. Their music was not always my favorite, but I heard beauty there. I heard effort. I heard space. I heard myself waiting for the next step.

    When I was a teenager, I gravitated to the big, classical guys: Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Errol Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Dexter Gordon. Their cassette tapes would go into my alarm clock, and they would play me to sleep. To me, theirs was Kerouac's night music, the music for those of us who wanted more...more night.

    Of all, the piano players were my favorites. I collected a ton of Keith Jarrett, whose solo concert album from Bremen and Lausanne changed me profoundly. How a man walked out and played and went on the way Jarrett did was amazing. So many of the pianists also moved me, and they continue to do so: Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Bobo Stenson, Marilyn Crispell, Irene Schweitzer, Paul Bley, Horace Silver, Vijay Iyer, Esbjorn Svensson, Ethan Iverson, Michel Petrucciani, Marcin Wasilewski, Hiromi, Brad Mehldau, and many others. All of these musicians are superb alone, yet they also mesh in group contexts.

    Jazz, to me, has never been about sitting to receive a work of art delivered by musicians. Instead, it is about witnessing and maybe even being part of a process. In ensemble settings, the players communicate with one another. They don't just play the number or present it. They don't just imitate the song as it is on an album. They don't give a packaged product. No, jazz musicians build a song. They pass it amongst themselves like a beach ball in the bleachers, but seriously enough. They dialogue. They converse. They elaborate. They customize.

    I love jazz because nothing else is so creative and diverse. I love jazz because it is what it is, and it lets me be what I am. Other music, which I love too, is not the same as jazz. Rock is image, ideology, and performance. Classical is architecture. Blues is real. Hip Hop is a relentless beat that can become anything from a heart to a gun to a sob to a confrontation. Disco is escape. Funk is wild and fun. Folk is private.

    But jazz is democratic. It's not a spectator sport for either the player or the listener. Indeed, the listener is a player in a way that simply is not so for other musics. In my opinion.

    I love jazz for the democracy, for the opinions it offers, and for opinions like mine it allows. If you don't love jazz, you don't love participation.

    But if you want to hear and be heard, you must love jazz.

    (For Eric Jackson, whose weeknight radio program on WGBH Boston has recently been scaled back.)

    The Plan Is Launched


    This past weekend, I was elected to the Executive Board of my local parent-teacher organization. The group supports enrichment programs for students, runs events to encourage parental involvement, and keep lines of communication going between parents and teachers.

    I am grateful for the chance to be a voice for quality educational programs and standards. As the parent of an autistic child, I will represent many more who want the system to reach out to their children too. Finally, the participation and networking will help me gain local notoriety as I work toward future involvement in the town's school committee and board of selectmen.

    Tuesday, June 19, 2012

    Hasidic Pedophiles and Pederasts. Yep, It Can Happen Here.

    Hey rabbi, check out the sexy boy in the third row.
    Crimes against children by adults who claim to live the word of God are not new. Many religions have demons, and the ultra-Orthodox Jews are no exception. Most deny it could happen in their midst. Child rape and molestation don’t fit their pious image.
    "The (ultra-Orthodox) Jews are no exception." That's the point. And by understanding that point, abuse of children and minors can be stopped everywhere.

    On the CNN pages, the following part of the story is the most interesting:
    The Hasidim in Brooklyn are a powerful voting block. That’s why District Attorney Charles Hynes is accused by victims’ rights advocates of going easy on alleged Hasidic child molesters and rapists. He’s been elected six times, and is accused of appeasing the rabbis in order to get their support and keep his position.

    Hynes strongly denies the allegations. In 2009, he established a program and a hotline to help victims called Kol Tzedek (“Voice of Justice” in Hebrew). But critics are outraged because he refuses to disclose the names of the men arrested through the initiative. The Jewish Daily Forward’s request for the records filed under the state’s Freedom of Information Law was denied.

    Hynes claims that revealing the names of the suspects could lead to the community identifying the victims and intimidating them. That decision raises concerns about the rights of the public, the legality of shielding the men, and the DA’s motives.

    Tuchman asked Hynes how he reconciles instituting a policy for the Hassidim, but no other groups, like the Roman Catholic Church. He says because “there’s never been any intimidation by priests.”

    In a May 16 op-ed, Hynes wrote:
    Since the inception of Kol Tzedek, we have made 95 arrests; 53 cases have been adjudicated, with a conviction rate of 72%.

    I stand by these numbers.

    The statistics show how absurd it is to suggest that we cover up, downplay or in any way “give a break” to sex offenders in the Orthodox Jewish community. Like any other defendants, they are often arrested in public by the police, and their court appearances are open and available to the public as part of the public record. I welcome scrutiny of these cases.

    The suggestion that I have ever condoned the practice of first seeking a rabbi’s advice before an Orthodox Jewish community member reports sexual abuse is a distortion of my record. I have never suggested that someone seeking the advice of a rabbi is then relieved of the obligation of reporting sexual abuse to the appropriate authorities.
    While some may persist in protecting the community ahead of justice for the young victims, there are signs of progress. On June 10, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews held a meeting in Crown Heights to talk about combating child sex abuse. Hynes was on the panel. Some rabbinic leaders have said anyone with knowledge of abuse should go to the police and do not need to talk first with a rabbi. It will take the courage of the victims and the compassion of the community to make lasting change.
    Hynes ought to disclose names of people arrested through Kol Tzedek because ultra-Orthodox Jews are no exception. What's more, the interests of a single community do not outweigh justice for our society's most vulnerable.

    Monday, June 11, 2012

    Magical Thinking: Sometimes You Just Gotta Believe

    This past weekend, I chilled out on the couch with my kids. We watched a program re-telling "Jack and the Beanstalk." In this version, Jack receives the magic beans from a roadside vendor. The vendor advises that the beans only work if you believe in magic. The tale's hero, of course, believes in magic.

    The "you gotta believe" idea--what I call the magical thinking trope--appears a lot in kids' movies and shows. When a story uses magical thinking, the character who doesn't believe or who is skeptical always gets shown up by the power of belief. For instance, the heroine who knows in her heart there is a "diamond castle" that can be called into existence by singing a song--she will prevail. In another program, the skeptical character will eventually be forced to admit that there are powers beyond rational and scientific explanation.

    I don't see the point of putting magical thinking out on TV like this. Maybe it has something to do with an ideal of childhood--a time when magic seemed real and wonder abounded. But I think the producers have it wrong. Look at most any Bugs Bunny cartoon, universally smarter and funnier than today's kiddie pablum. In these animated shorts, humor comes from the fun of being able to violate reality. In the classic Bugs joke, he defies the law of gravity, but then notes he never studied law.

    Bugs cartoons play with magical thinking; they never take it seriously, and never promote it as a life value.

    The magical thinking of today's kiddie media comes with an ugly downside, too. When you tell the little darlings that magic is real you also tell them monsters are real. They have to accept both. The world of fairies and demigods by necessity includes sorcery and demons. The world of Jesus is the world of Satan. The world of the faithful is the world of infidels. You open their hearts to both wonder and terror; you cannot shut out the scary.

    In contrast, a world without magic is a world where power comes from the mind, the will, the body, the community, the resources, and the technology. Who manages these is best positioned to influence the world. There are no magic spells in this world, only knowledge and power. There are no hidden helpers, only one's friends and one's network. There are no gods to please, only a society to contribute to. There are no devils to resist, only bullies.

    There is both wonder and terror in this world, too. There is scary. The difference is that we are part of it all. In the magical world, the dram of good an evil happens on some other plane, hidden from us except for the magic that brings it out.

    There's no need for magical thinking. We can have fantasy movies without bolstering general superstition. We can dramatize positivity without advocating miracle-dependence. We can promote imagination and creativity without endorsing irrationality.

    Reality may be scarier than fictional monsters, at least at times and for some people. But reality is certainly far better than magic.

    Sunday, June 10, 2012

    Summer Reading

    Among my goals for the summertime is to read and finish several books. In no particular order, here are the ones I most want to tackle:
    1. How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clay Christensen et al. A book on principles of success in business, ethics, and life from a highly regarded Harvard Business School lecturer.
    2. The Art of Strategy by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff. Game Theory in real life.
    3. Britain BC by Francis Pryor. An expert surveys what we know about ancient Britain and Ireland.
    4. Sublime Dreams of Living Machines by Minsoo Kang. A scholarly account of the automaton in the Western imagination.
    5. The Information by James Gleick. The story of Information Theory.
    6. Good and Real by Gary Drescher. Reconciling a mechanical view of the world with observations and issues in physics, ethics, and more. 
    7. The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole by Brian McHale. A former instructor of mine on postmodernist long poems.
    8. Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory. King Arthur's life, court, and death.
    9. Paterson by William Carlos Williams. A book-length poem on Paterson, New Jersey.
    10. Retrieving the Ancients: An Introduction to Greek Philosophy by David Roochnik. More than just Plato and Aristotle.

    Thursday, June 07, 2012

    Memo to Intelligent Design Creationists: Get Straight on the Machine Analogies

    This seems to represent IDC. Not sure why. Photo credit: La Douleur Exquise.
    Intelligent Design Creationists can be terribly inconsistent. Here is one recent piece from Uncommon Descent where the IDCs believe the human mind and brain are NOT like computer software and hardware:
    Are Mind and Brain Really Software and Hardware?

    Or is that an analogy that just doesn’t really work?

    Recently, we were looking at “Another reason the human mind is not like a computer” (Vishwanathan Anand) , and someone reminded us of an older article, by Ari N. Schulman, “Why Minds Are Not Like Computers” (The New Atlantis, Winter 2009),
    People who believe that the mind can be replicated on a computer tend to explain the mind in terms of a computer. When theorizing about the mind, especially to outsiders but also to one another, defenders of artificial intelligence (AI) often rely on computational concepts. They regularly describe the mind and brain as the “software and hardware” of thinking, the mind as a “pattern” and the brain as a “substrate,” senses as “inputs” and behaviors as “outputs,” neurons as “processing units” and synapses as “circuitry,” to give just a few common examples.
    Those who employ this analogy tend to do so with casual presumption. They rarely justify it by reference to the actual workings of computers, and they misuse and abuse terms that have clear and established definitions in computer science—established not merely because they are well understood, but because they in fact are products of human engineering. An examination of what this usage means and whether it is correct reveals a great deal about the history and present state of artificial intelligence research. And it highlights the aspirations of some of the luminaries of AI—researchers, writers, and advocates for whom the metaphor of mind-as-machine is dogma rather than discipline.
    Yet, not very long before, the same people declared the following to be correct and awesome--because it says cells are robots:
    “Cell” Contest Judged

    The winner is niwrad with this (slightly edited) gem:

    “A ‘cell’ is a bio-cybernetic chemical automaton able to self-replicate, self-organize, and perform metabolic functions by means of nano-level molecular machines controlled by internal digital software stored in information rich polymers.”

    Niwrad, has been contacted and when he provides an address his prize will be shipped out.

    Thank you to all of the participants.

    UD Editors
    To sum up: Cells are very complicated nano-automata; minds-brains are not computers.

    The fact that IDCs do no science have none supporting them is a problem, but an equally grave problem is that they don't have a formal, consistent heuristic.

    Wednesday, June 06, 2012

    20 Questions for Religious Believers

    Warning: These questions may induce deep reflection and a search for hard evidence:
    1. Why is the physical universe so unimaginably large?
    2. Why would God desire to create embodied moral agents, as opposed to disembodied minds (such as souls, spirits, or ghosts)? Why is the human mind dependent on the physical brain?
    3. Did Australopithecus have a soul? What about homo habilis? Homo erectus? Neanderthals? Why or why not? (HT: Keith Parsons)
    4. How do souls interact with physical matter? Do you have any answer that is not tantamount to "I don't know?" (HT: Keith Parsons)
    5. Why would God use biological evolution as a method for creation? Do you have any answer that is independent of the scientific evidence for evolution?
    6. Why are pain and pleasure so connected to the biological goals of survival and reproduction, but morally random? For example, why do sentient beings, including animals which are not moral agents, experience pain or pleasure that we do not know to be biologically useful?
    7. Why do only a fraction of living things, including the majority of sentient beings, thrive? In other words, why do very few living things have an adequate supply of food and water, are able to reproduce, avoid predators, and remain healthy? Why do an even smaller fraction of organisms thrive for most of their lives? Why do almost no organisms thrive for all of their lives? 
    8. Why is there social evil, i.e., instances of pain or suffering that results from the game-theoretic interactions of many individuals? 
    9. Why does God allow horrific suffering (and relatively little glorious pleasure)?
    10. Why does horrific suffering often destroy a person, at least psychologically, and prevent them from growing morally, spiritually, and intellectually?
    11. Why is there nonculpable (reasonable) nonbelief in God? Why are there former believers, i.e., people who, from the perspective of theism, were on the right path when they lost belief? Why are there lifelong seekers? Why are there converts to nontheistic religions and especially nonresistant believers who arrive as a result of honest inquiry at nontheistic experiences and beliefs? Why are there isolated nontheists, i.e., people who have never so much as had the idea of God?
    12. Why do some believers feel there is evidence for God's existence on which they may rely, but in which God is not felt as directly present to her experience, and may indeed feel absent?
    13. Why are there such striking geographic differences in the incidence of theistic belief?
    14. Why do only some people have religious experiences? 
    15. For those people who do have religious experiences, why do they pursue a variety of radically different religious paths, none of which bears abundantly more moral fruit than all of the others?
    16. Why do so many people report not experiencing God's comforting presence in the face of tragedies?
    17. Why does the the relatively new discipline of cognitive science of religion support the claim that forming beliefs about invisible agents including gods is very natural for human beings?
    18. Why does God allow such confusion or disagreement among people, including theists, about what is morally good and bad?
    19. If you believe humans have free will, why would humans have free will if God exists? Why are we able to exercise free will in some situations but not others?
    20. Why should we believe that, of the innumerable deities worshiped by human beings over the ages, yours is the one that really exists?  Why believe in Yahweh rather than Zeus, Odin, Marduk, Ishtar, Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, Madame Pele, Ahura-Mazda, etc., etc., etc.? (HT: Keith Parsons)

    Friday, June 01, 2012

    The Children's Crusade, Then and Now

    When I saw the video below of a child being applauded in a church (namely, the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle Church in Greensburg, Indiana) for singing "“Ain’t no homos gonna make it to Heaven”--

    I was reminded of the Children's Crusade of 1212. Wikipedia introduces it as follows:
    The Children's Crusade is the name given to a disastrous Crusade by Christian children to expel Muslims from the Holy Land said to have taken place in 1212.

    The traditional narrative is probably conflated from some factual and mythical notions of the period including visions by a French or German boy, an intention to peacefully convert Muslims in the Holy Land to Christianity, bands of children marching to Italy, and children being sold into slavery.
    The 1213 Chronica Regiae Coloniensis relates events this way:
    In this year occurred an outstanding thing and one much to be marveled at, for it is unheard of throughout the ages. About the time of Easter and Pentecost,4 without anyone having preached or called for it and prompted by I know not what spirit, many thousands of boys, ranging in age from six years to full maturity, left the plows or carts which they were driving, the flocks which they were pasturing, and anything else which they were doing. This they did despite the wishes of their parents, relatives, and friends who sought to make them draw back. Suddenly one ran after another to take the cross. Thus, by groups of twenty, or fifty, or a hundred, they put up banners and began to journey to Jerusalem. They were asked by many people on whose advice or at whose urging they had set out upon this path. They were asked especially since only a few years ago many kings, a great many dukes, and innumerable people in powerful companies had gone there and had returned with the business unfinished. The present groups, moreover, were still of tender years and were neither strong enough nor powerful enough to do anything. Everyone, therefore, accounted them foolish and imprudent for trying to do this. They briefly replied that they were equal to the Divine will in this matter and that, whatever God might wish to do with them, they would accept it willingly and with humble spirit. They thus made some little progress on their journey. Some were turned back at Metz, others at Piacenza, and others even at Rome. Still others got to Marseilles, but whether they crossed to the Holy Land or what their end was is uncertain. One thing is sure: that of the many thousands who rose up, only very few returned.
    Today, it seems the foundational events are apocryphal and the crusading group was made up of poor people in Germany and France, some of whom tried to reach Jerusalem. It's not clear how many, if any, bona fide children launched or participated in the crusade.

    Now, there is not much connection between the video and the crusadeoutside of the shared idea, "children," which, as we know, probably doesn't really attach to the Children's Crusade.

    In both cases, however, Christian belief establishes a context for seeing the "homos" or the Muslims as "other." The other can be the object of jokes, even jokes that delight in the idea of a group of people eternally receiving punishment and being denied love. The other can be the object of military and political action, as in influencing others through force to change their opinions and way of life.

    And although the Children's Crusade of 1212 may not have involved children centrally, we have no doubt that religious communities of all sizes love to put children on the front lines. Get the children believin' and prayin' and preachin' while they still accept doctrine on authority. While they still believe in magic. While they still care about gaining approval. This remains true today as it did in 1212.