Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for January 15th, 2012

Amazon frontlash

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In a conversation on Wicked_Edge, the movie Life of Brian occurred to me, along with a great desire to watch it. I went to Netflix, but not on Watch Instantly, so have to wait for DVD… but wait! I can purchase from Amazon for $10 and watch now via Amazon streaming. That’s steep for a rental, but this is a purchase and becomes part of my Amazon “Video Library” so that I can rewatch at any time. Pretty nifty. And it’s even better than I remembered. 🙂

Written by LeisureGuy

15 January 2012 at 4:39 pm

Amazon backlash

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I buy a lot of stuff from Amazon, but not shaving stuff. For one thing, poor selection. For another I like the stock choices offered by the independent shaving vendors. But I see that others are backing off from Amazon, as reported in the NY Times by Stephanie Clifford and Claire Cain Miller:

Harold Pollack used to spend $1,000 a year on Amazon, but this fall started buying from small online retailers instead. The prices are higher, but Dr. Pollack says he now has a clear conscience.

“I don’t feel they behave in a way that I want to support with my consumer dollars,” Dr. Pollack, a professor in Chicago, said of the big Internet retailers.

Giant e-commerce companies like Amazon are acting increasingly like their big-box brethren as they extinguish small competitors with discounted prices, free shipping and easy-to-use apps. Big online retailers had a 19 percent jump in revenue over the holidays versus 2010, while at smaller online retailers growth was just 7 percent.

The little sites are fighting back with some tactics of their own, like preventing price comparisons or offering freebies that an anonymous large site can’t. And in a new twist, they are also exploiting the sympathies of shoppers like Dr. Pollack by encouraging customers to think of them as the digital version of a mom-and-pop shop facing off against Walmart: If you can’t shop close to home, at least shop small.

“Folks are exercising their desire to support local stores where local is not just in their town, but anywhere in the country,” said Michael Walden, a professor who studies regional economics at North Carolina State University. “A large number of Americans have a general suspicion of bigness in the economic world — they equate bigness with power, monopoly.”

Lacy Simons, owner of Hello Hello Books in Maine, a small store with an e-commerce site, says she is seeing customers “cement their determination to shop local” — which on the Internet, means shopping at the smaller vendors — even when the big sites offer lower prices.

“We know there’s only so much that we can do to compete against them, so you end up relying on what hopefully becomes an emotional or personal connection with the retailer online,” Ms. Simons said.

The battle between supersites and small online retailers became pitched this holiday season, as . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 January 2012 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Business, Technology

Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers: “Dr. Jazz”

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Written by LeisureGuy

15 January 2012 at 9:02 am

Posted in Jazz

Resolving theological disputes: How do you do that?

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Without a benchmark for measurement, how does one decide the truth of theological issues? Or is “truth” the wrong word to use for faith-based beliefs? With the common run of statement, one can decide the truth or falsity by observation of the world around us: the method use by science (or, as it is called by those who dislike the approach, “scientism”) But with theological statements, how does one decide?

This article in the NY Times, written by Laurie Goodstein, discusses the issue in the context of the Romney presidential campaign in South Carolina, a hotbed of religious belief.

For example:

On the most fundamental issue, traditional Christians believe in the Trinity: that God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all rolled into one.

Mormons reject this as a non-biblical creed that emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries. They believe that God the Father and Jesus are separate physical beings, and that God has a wife whom they call Heavenly Mother.

Okay, that seems pretty clear cut: Are God and Jesus one? or are they two?

Normally a question like that is resolved by looking to the real world, but that’s no help here. The President of Union Theological Seminary offers, “God and Jesus are not separate physical beings. That would be anathema. At the end of the day, all the other stuff doesn’t matter except the divinity of Jesus.” Well, that’s pretty clear. But the Mormons don’t buy it (nor, for that matter, do the Unitarians, the Muslims, the Jews, and many other religions). And I don’t see any way to reach a decision, other than the usual route the religious follow: kill everyone who does not accept the belief your yourself happen to hold. That does work, to some degree, but not very well: we still have many, many different religions and many, many different views of the same religion (see previous post on the role of women in Israel: the argument seems to be occurring within a relgion).

My view is that, on the whole, it’s easier to advance in arenas in which issues can be settled by reference to an outside benchmark, and external reality turns to work out really well.

The article is interesting, though, and discusses how religions regularly revise their beliefs in order to reduce the shock they present to logic, real-life experience, and current cultural values. For example,

Another big sticking point concerns the afterlife. Early Mormon apostles gave talks asserting that human beings would become like gods and inherit their own planets — language now regularly held up to ridicule by critics of Mormonism.

But Kathleen Flake, a Mormon who is a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt Divinity School, explained that the planets notion had been de-emphasized in modern times in favor of a less concrete explanation: people who die embark on an “eternal progression” that allows them “to partake in God’s glory.”

“Don’t like that belief? Fine, we’ll just change it until you do like it. It’s all metaphorical anyway.” I imagine that’s the tack they will take. We also see efforts to revise beliefs to make them slightly more sensible (and more acceptable to current context) in the Israel story posted earlier, on the role of women.

I think the real challenge is to find which beliefs to revise readily—as Professor Flake demonstrated—and which to fight to the death: how does the poor religious zealot know which beliefs can just be rewritten wholesale—“It’s just a metaphor, let’s reinterpret in the light modern knowledge and culture”—and which to clutch unrevised, clinging to the literal meaning: “Noah’s ark was 135 m long” is seen as the actual truth—not 134 m, not 136 m. This is generally the position taken by fundamentalists of any religion: sticking to the literal meaning of words, without regard for consistency with daily experience. That approach has the virtue of a kind of consistency, but given the textual history of the ancient documents—the collation from various sources, the interweaving of various legends—that approach also leads to serious logical difficulties, though those have proved not to present a problem insofar as acceptance of the ideas is concerned—though I wonder whether logically contradictory notions warrant the label “ideas”.

This story, like most on Mormonism, avoids the other “translations” Joseph Smith did—those of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. That seems to be rather clear-cut to me; strange that it is so seldom mentioned. Are we not supposed to talk about it?

UPDATE: Still pondering the issues. In shaving, we have the “YMMV” factor: a shaving soap or brush or blade or razor that works well for me may well turn out not to work at all for another shaver: YMMV, so he happily uses the MĂĽhle R41 while I dote on the Slant Bar: no problem. The same approach holds for foods: I love the taste of cilantro, and to you it tastes like soap. So I enjoy and you avoid and life goes on quite well. This same approach could work equally well for religion—YMMV, in religion, shaving, cilantro—except that religions couch their assertions as matters of fact, rather than taste. And they do try to “settle” differences by killing those who disagree—which in a sense does work, in that only one point of view remains. And yet it’s not very satisfactory.

To take an example from math rather than science: Do I really establish that the square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides by killing anyone who disagrees? Is the truth of the theorem thus established? The problem, you see, is that with the same type of “argument” one can similarly establish that the square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle is NOT equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, but rather that it is larger, or smaller, or any other statement one cares to make about it: that it is cute, in a roguish way. All can be “established” by killing anyone who disagrees.

Doesn’t it seem that there should be a better way? We’ve found better ways in other fields of human endeavor.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 January 2012 at 8:40 am

Culture clash: Custom change—no more “Mademoiselle”

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Kim Wilsher reports in the LA Times:

What’s in a title? Plenty, according to French feminists who have persuaded a town to drop the honorific “mademoiselle” on official forms.

From now on, the women of Cesson-Sevigne, population 16,000, will be addressed as “madame” regardless of age or marital status.

“Mademoiselle,” the Gallic form of “miss,” is normally used for young, unmarried women, thus, feminists say, openly declaring them either available or unwanted in a way that men, always referred to as “monsieur,” are not. A French form of “ms.” would solve the problem, but there you go.…

Exactly when a woman reaches the age when she becomes a “madame,” married or otherwise, is not only a matter of debate but a social minefield; women of a certain age will often ask themselves whether the waiter who calls them “mademoiselle” is being gallant or sarcastic.

French movie stars Catherine Deneuve, 68, once married, and Jeanne Moreau, 84 this month and three times married, prefer to be addressed as “mademoiselle” and, as a quirky exception to the rule, are allowed, as actresses, to claim that right. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 January 2012 at 8:13 am

Posted in Daily life

Culture clash: Religious requirements and modern life

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Fascinating article on religious requirements regarding subjugation of women encountering a modern determination to live a life of secular values. Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner report in the NY Times:

In the three months since the Israeli Health Ministry awarded a prize to a pediatrics professor for her book on hereditary diseases common to Jews, her experience at the awards ceremony has become a rallying cry.

The professor, Channa Maayan, knew that the acting health minister, who is ultra-Orthodox, and other religious people would be in attendance.  So she wore a long-sleeve top and a long skirt. But that was hardly enough.

Not only did Dr. Maayan and her husband have to sit separately, as men and women were segregated at the event, but she was instructed that a male colleague would have to accept the award for her because women were not permitted on stage.

Though shocked that this was happening at a government ceremony, Dr. Maayan bit her tongue. But others have not, and her story is entering the pantheon of secular anger building as a battle rages in Israel for control of the public space between the strictly religious and everyone else.

At a time when there is no progress on the Palestinian dispute, Israelis are turning inward and discovering that an issue they had neglected — the place of the ultra-Orthodox Jews — has erupted into a crisis.

And it is centered on women.

“Just as secular nationalism and socialism posed challenges to the religious establishment a century ago, today the issue is feminism,” said Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University. “This is an immense ideological and moral challenge that touches at the core of life, and just as it is affecting the Islamic world, it is the main issue that the rabbis are losing sleep over.”

The list of controversies grows weekly: Organizers of a conference last week on women’s health and Jewish law barred women from speaking from the podium, leading at least eight speakers to cancel; ultra-Orthodox men spit on an 8-year-old girl whom they deemed immodestly dressed; the chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers perform; protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.

Public discourse in Israel is suddenly . . .

Continue reading. I don’t know about you, but I have my own culture clash with the idea of grown men spitting on small children. Are we supposed to admire them? For what, exactly?

Written by LeisureGuy

15 January 2012 at 8:09 am

Red wine healthful? Or was the research faked?

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Could be that both are true, of course. Bob Grant reports on the second issue in The Scientist:

A University of Connecticut researcher who has conducted hundreds of studies on the health benefits of compounds found in red wine has been punished by the school for faking data on numerous occasions throughout his career. Dipak Das, director of cardiovascular research at UConn, fabricated data in 145 separate instances, according to an extensive, three-year investigation conducted by the school. The university has frozen all external funding to Das’s lab and has declined $890,000 in federal grants awarded to him.

“We have a responsibility to correct the scientific record and inform peer researchers across the country,” Philip Austin, interim vice president for health affairs at UConn, said in a statement.

The university has notified 11 journals regarding Das’s misconduct, potentially triggering the retraction of several published studies on resveratrol, a phenol found in red wine. Das’s work formed part of the scientific foundation for the claim that resveratrol conferred cardio-protective benefits and could even increase longevity by activating proteins called sirtuins, which regulate transcription, apoptosis, and stress resistance in the human body.

Apparently, Das cut and pasted western blot data from several experiments into single figures, and altered images connected to his research on numerous occasions in publications, grant applications, and communications with publishers. The investigation even turned up damning emails sent between scientists working in Das’s center. One such email referred to a “corrected picture.” In another, a student informed Das that “I have changed the figures as you told me.”

The center that Das headed has been “inactive” since January 2011, according to the Connecticut Mirror.


Written by LeisureGuy

15 January 2012 at 7:33 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Science

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