Archive for September 13th, 2007
An interesting Web site with news and views from many countries. Could be invaluable to the insular US.
The essay is linked in this post:
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written a thought-provoking essay for Edge which charts the recent revolution in the psychology and neuroscience of moral reasoning and suggests that the current critiques of religion have mischaracterised its true nature, based on these new findings.
Haidt summarises the main tenants of the new science of morality as four main principles:
1) Intuitive primacy but not dictatorship. This is the idea, going back to Wilhelm Wundt and channeled through Robert Zajonc and John Bargh, that the mind is driven by constant flashes of affect in response to everything we see and hear.
2) Moral thinking is for social doing. This is a play on William James‘ pragmatist dictum that thinking is for doing, updated by newer work on Machiavellian intelligence. The basic idea is that we did not evolve language and reasoning because they helped us to find truth; we evolved these skills because they were useful to their bearers, and among their greatest benefits were reputation management and manipulation.
3) Morality binds and builds. This is the idea stated most forcefully by Emile Durkheim that morality is a set of constraints that binds people together into an emergent collective entity.
4) Morality is about more than harm and fairness. In moral psychology and moral philosophy, morality is almost always about how people treat each other. Here’s an influential definition from the Berkeley psychologist Elliot Turiel: morality refers to “prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other.”
The essay then goes on to discuss how the recent findings in then area apply to the ongoing debate between the ‘new atheists‘ (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and the like) and religion.
In particular, Haidt suggests that the recent criticisms of religion don’t always reflect the best psychological understanding of what are primarily social, rather than ideological, institutions, and notes research findings showing that religious people tend to be happier and more altruistic than others.
As a self-professed non-believer and high-profile social psychologist, Haidt makes some interesting points that are bound to cause controversy.
The first deals with a peculiar double standard endemic to the Right Wing of the GOP: strong support of the First Amendment to the US Constitution when applied to other countries, but a great distaste for the First Amendment when used in the US.
The second explores an odd contrary-to-observed-fact fantasy that’s not unusual on the Right, even though it’s easily contradicted by daily events.
Both are worth reading.
Millard Kaufman, a début novelist whose book “Bowl of Cherries” comes out this month, has been described by his publisher, McSweeney’s, as quite possibly “the best extant epic-comedic writer of his generation.” This is high praise, and would be higher still were it not for the fact that there are few, if any, epic-comedic writers extant from Kaufman’s generation. Kaufman, who turned ninety in March, is seventy-six years older than the hero of “Cherries,” who, through a number of compelling, if implausible, twists of fate, winds up in prison in the fictional southern Iraqi town of Coproliabad, so named for its specialization in turning human excrement into a kind of cheap, durable concrete.
“People seem to me to have a number of basic problems, and one of them is, What do you do with human waste?” Kaufman said the other day. “So I thought, What would happen if somebody took this stuff and did something positive with it?” The novel, which is equal parts “Catcher in the Rye” and “Die Hard,” is likely to offend Iraqis to the same degree that the work of Sacha Baron Cohen offends natives of Kazakhstan. “It seemed to me there was a lot of public interest in Iraq, which is why I set it there, but it could have been set in Oswego, New York, where I have also never been,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman grew up in Baltimore. After graduating from Johns Hopkins, he moved to New York and became a copyboy at the Daily News for thirteen dollars and seventy cents a week. When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted in the Marines, with whom he participated in the campaign to win Guadalcanal and landed at Guam and Okinawa. “I weighed a hundred and eighty-two pounds when I went overseas, and when my wife met me afterward she didn’t recognize me—I weighed a hundred and twenty-eight,” Kaufman said. “I had dengue fever and malaria, and I didn’t really feel like I could spend the heat of the summer or the cold of the winter in New York anymore.”
He moved to California, where he took up screenwriting, winning an Oscar nomination in 1953 for a movie called “Take the High Ground.” (He was nominated again two years later, for “Bad Day at Black Rock.”) He lent his name to Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted, for a movie called “Gun Crazy.” “The only time I ever met him was at a meeting of the Writers Guild,” Kaufman said. “It was such a bore, and I left and went into a bar at the hotel, and Trumbo was there. We met because some guy was standing between us who was fairly drunk, and he said, ‘What’s all that noise?’ One of us said, ‘It’s a writers’ meeting.’ He said, ‘What do they write?’ and we said, ‘Movies.’ He looked aghast and said, ‘You mean they write that stuff?’ ” Kaufman’s most enduring contribution to entertainment, at least thus far in his career, is as co-creator of Mr. Magoo, whom he modelled in part on an uncle. “That is what we thought the character was based on until, twenty years later, we were accused of being nasty about people with bad eyesight,” he said.
How we forget… I was obsessed with contract bridge for quite a while, and spent one trimester of my first year of graduate school playing more or less constantly, until I switched to Go. I even played some in high school and as an undergraduate. However, I’ve never played in a bridge club or at a bridge tournament. Still, it’s a mesmerizing game—from a recent article:
A passion for bridge is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t share it. One attraction is the sense of endlessly unfolding complexity: the more you learn, the less you feel you know. Computers have been able to beat the world’s best chess players for a decade, but—as Edward McPherson writes in a lively, somewhat haphazard new book, The Backwash Squeeze & Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer’s Journey Into the World of Bridge (HarperCollins; $23.95 [$16.29 on Amazon - LG])—they “still stink at bridge.” There are 635,013,559,600 possible bridge hands, and a vast catalogue of approaches and techniques and stratagems for playing them. (A backwash squeeze, by the way, is an obscure offensive tactic whereby a player, facing a certain arrangement of cards, forces an opponent to make a certain kind of self-defeating discard.) The best players are able to visualize their opponents’ hands after just a few cards have been played and to imagine strategies that would never occur to the less skillful, yet even they find the game inexhaustible. One player told McPherson, “For people who enjoy puzzles, this is one they will never solve.”
Also from the article:
Edgar Allan Poe, the great ratiocinator, viewed a passion for whist as a sign of mental acumen; the opening pages of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” are almost a stand-alone essay on the game’s superiority to chess:
Whist has long been known for its influence upon what is termed the calculating power; and men of the highest order of intellect have been known to take an apparently unaccountable delight in it, while eschewing chess as frivolous. . . . The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency in whist implies a capacity for success in all those more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind.
And it rouses the passions:
If you’re a large American company, that is. And what harm can they possibly do with just $1.7 million? The Justice Department don’t think it’s even worth prosecuting. (Wonder how much the company gave to Bush’s campaign and the GOP—that information is oddly missing from the report.) The story:
The Justice Department notified Chiquita Brands International yesterday that it will not seek to criminally charge its former top executive and other former high-ranking officers over the company’s payment of bribes to a Colombian organization on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups.
The multibillion-dollar banana company pleaded guilty earlier this year to making $1.7 million in illegal payments to a right-wing Colombian paramilitary group from 1997 to 2004. Until now, three of its officers were under investigation for authorizing and approving the payments to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC, after federal prosecutors warned them in April 2003 that such bribes violated the nation’s anti-terrorism laws.
Looks as though Petraeus is thinking of entering politics—which perhaps makes his rosy scenarios about Iraq more understandable. (Not just the current rosy scenario: he has a long history of making claims about how great things are going for the US in Iraq.) Here’s the story:
The US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, expressed long-term interest in running for the US presidency when he was stationed in Baghdad, according to a senior Iraqi official who knew him at that time.
Sabah Khadim, then a senior adviser at Iraq’s Interior Ministry, says General Petraeus discussed with him his ambition when the general was head of training and recruitment of the Iraqi army in 2004-05.
“I asked him if he was planning to run in 2008 and he said, ‘No, that would be too soon’,” Mr Khadim, who now lives in London, said.
General Petraeus has a reputation in the US Army for being a man of great ambition. If he succeeds in reversing America’s apparent failure in Iraq, he would be a natural candidate for the White House in the presidential election in 2012.
His able defence of the “surge” in US troop numbers in Iraq as a success before Congress this week has made him the best-known soldier in America. An articulate, intelligent and energetic man, he has always shown skill in managing the media.
But General Petraeus’s open interest in the presidency may lead critics to suggest that his own political ambitions have influenced him in putting an optimistic gloss on the US military position in Iraq.
So you can spend more time being afraid, eh? No, not quite:
Over at The Simple Dollar, there’s an intriguing post: “The Five College Classes I Took That Were Actually Worth My Time And Money.” For him, the classes were the following (read the reasons at the link):
- Basic English and composition
- Technical writing
- Public speaking
- Survey of American history
- An applicable foreign language
Let’s just talk undergraduate years here. What are your five, and why? For me (though this will probably be intelligible only for other St. Johnnies):
- Freshman seminar — woke up my mind and gave me lots of intellectual nutrition and taught me the skills close reading and analysis, listening well, and explaining clearly
- Sophomore seminar — continued the awakening, especially Shakespeare and the writing of the Sophomore Essay, where I learned to write
- Freshman math — Euclid and Ptolemy, logical reasoning and extracting implications
- Freshman language — learning how to study a language for the first time, and why translations tend to betray
- Sophomore language — learning the tools of grammar, rhetoric, and logic
Looking at the above, I guess I can see why (in my day) quite a few people attended St. John’s for only two years.
So how about you?
I wonder how many read the Nutrition Facts label and the Ingredients label on the prepared foods they buy. The food industry fought tooth and nail to avoid having to have these labels, so you can assume from that the labels benefit the consumer—but only if the consumer reads them.
The ingredients, for example, must be listed in order of the amount used, the biggest ingredient first. (That’s why, in looking at the ingredients for Megs’s food, I skip products that do not have meat for the first five products. Some have “rice” as the second in the list.)
Juices “products” are notoriously bad. Look at this:
A new consumer guide published on NewsTarget.com reveals that some pomegranate juice products sold in grocery stores are actually made with sugar water and “junk juice” blends. While pictures on the front of the juice products show pomegranates and blueberries, the juice inside the bottle is often little more than apple and grape juice, said
Mike Adams, nutrition author and producer of the free online consumer guide. Consumers can view the guide online.
The consumer shopping guide covers both pomegranate and blueberry juices, and it reviews nearly a dozen top brands to show which ones are telling the truth about their products vs. which ones are deceiving consumers with dishonest labeling. “The POM Wonderful brand is among the very best,” explained Adams, “And the Tropicana Pure brand is among the worst. Some companies are selling products primarily made with apple juice and grape juice as pomegranate juice.”
To create the free consumer guide, Adams reviewed pomegranate juice product ingredients, comparing them to the claims implied by the pictures and words on the front labels of such products. Some products made primarily with apple juice show no apples at all on the front label, instead depicting pomegranates and blueberries while claiming “100% Juice!” in big letters. “This misleads consumers into thinking these products are one hundred percent pomegranate juice,” explained Adams, “When in fact, they may only be five or ten percent pomegranate juice.”
Some pomegranate juice products were found to be made with high fructose corn syrup or sugar. These were blended with water, then color enhanced with purple carrot extract to make them appear like more substantial juice products. One was found to be nearly three-fourths sugar water, containing only about 25 percent actual fruit juice.
Surprisingly, one popular brand owned by Coca-Cola (Odwalla) performed very well in this consumer guide review, earning four out of five stars for its use of honest ingredients and product labeling. PepsiCo’s Tropicana Pure brand, however, fared poorly, earning a very low rating and condemnation for its “deceptive” photograph on the front label that fails to accurately depict what’s really in the bottle.
Consumers can view the complete guide, including information about the health benefits of pomegranate juice, here: Pomegranate and Blueberry Juice Consumer Shopping Guide.
A Bush administration program for improving climate research across 13 government agencies has clarified some scientific questions, but is saddled with delays and threatened by cuts in satellites and programs monitoring conditions on earth, an independent scientific panel said in a report on Thursday.
The Climate Change Science Program, created in 2002 at the request of President Bush, has also not focused enough on assessing impacts of a warming world on human affairs, said the panel, convened by the National Academies, the nation’s pre-eminent scientific advisory group.
Of the $1.7 billion spent each year on climate research, the report said only about $25-$30 million a year is going to studies of impacts on human affairs.
“Discovery science and understanding of the climate system are proceeding well, but use of that knowledge to support decision making and to manage risks and opportunities of climate change is proceeding slowly,” the report said.
The panel also said insufficient effort has gone into translating advances in climate science into information useful to local elected officials, farmers, water managers and others potentially affected by climate change, whether or not it is driven by human activities.
One problem is a lack of interaction between government researchers and officials, industries, or communities facing risks or opportunities in a shifting climate, the panel’s chairman, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, said in an interview.
“We don’t know what they need and they don’t know what we can provide,” he said, referring to the government’s science effort.
The program has helped resolve some disputes over lingering questions, like whether the atmosphere several miles above the surface is warming significantly or not.
Different groups of researchers had clashed over how to interpret satellite and balloon measurements. When the groups were brought together to share data and methods, some discrepancies vanished and the atmosphere was found to be warming.
In a printed statement, Dr. Ramanathan said the basic scientific efforts undertaken through the climate program have constituted “an important initiative that has broadened our knowledge of climate change.”
But the report appeared to highlight problems more than successes.
I used the Institut Karité shaving soap again this morning. Really great stuff: instant thick, creamy lather that makes your face feel good. The Simpsons Duke 3 was a fine brush for it.
The razor was, of course, the English Executive open-comb with the Treet Black Beauty blade: day 3, still smooth and sharp.
The aftershave was Floid, an Italian aftershave with a nice, cool feeling and fragrance. (Yesterday’s aftershave, which I inexplicably forgot to mention, was the redoubtable Booster June Clover, already a favorite—as I can tell the Floid will be.)