Tuesday, May 31, 2011

And Many More...

Today is the natal anniversary of a certain Shanna who regularly haunts the comments here. I asked her if she wanted anything for a gift, and, well, you know young girls -- she wanted a bunch of fluff that had to do with hearts, flowers, stuffed animals and the color pink. Thankfully, I managed to convince her that Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies cards might be something she can make use of for her woo purposes, and she was absolutely delighted by my perceptive thoughtfulness.

So there you go. A gift for Shanna, and an article on Eno for Noel. If only I could have worked in an angle on extreme Scandinavian metal, cycling or wine snobbery for Brian, this post could have had something for everyone! I'll keep aiming for that trifecta.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Action! Not Words

What’s all this stuff about motivation? If you ask me, this country could do with a little less motivation. The people who are causing all the trouble seem highly motivated to me. Serial killers, stock swindlers, drug dealers, Christian Republicans. I’m not sure motivation is always a good thing. You show me a lazy prick who’s lying in bed all day, watching TV, only occasionally getting up to piss, and I’ll show you a guy who’s not causing any trouble.

- George Carlin

Newly published research points to another factor that feeds this ingrained confirmation bias: Our “Just do it!” culture. In both overt and subtle ways, Americans are constantly being encouraged to take action, and exposure to such messages makes us more liable to ignore dissenting ideas.

“The growing need for activity in the United States may contribute to a loss of objectivity in the way citizens gather information,” University of Alabama psychologist William Hart and University of Illinois psychologist Dolores Albarracin write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. They found that when people’s minds are attuned to the idea of action, their opinions tend to harden, making them less likely to seek out opposing viewpoints.

So, you see, to the untrained eye, it may appear that I'm just a lazy ne'er-do-well goofing off on the Internet, starting pointless arguments over minutiae with the few people who bother to read my ravings, but my heterodox methods actually make me one of the most diligent truth-seekers there is!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

I Thought I Was Wrong Once, but I Was Mistaken

The surest way of ruining a youth is to teach him to respect those who think as he does more highly than those who think differently from him.

- Nietzsche

If argumentative theory is true, though, it seems like it would take quite a radical shift for people in general to start valuing the input of those who disagree with them:

Here we have a radically different idea that stands apart from the common wisdom in psychology, cognitive science, and even in philosophy. In Western thought, for at least the last couple hundred years, people have thought that reasoning was purely for individual reasons. But Dan challenged this idea and said that it was a purely social phenomenon and that the goal was argumentative, the goal was to convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.

And the beauty of this theory is that not only is it more evolutionarily plausible, but it also accounts for a wide range of data in psychology. Maybe the most salient of phenomena that the argumentative theory explains is the confirmation bias.

Psychologists have shown that people have a very, very strong, robust confirmation bias. What this means is that when they have an idea, and they start to reason about that idea, they are going to mostly find arguments for their own idea. They're going to come up with reasons why they're right, they're going to come up with justifications for their decisions. They're not going to challenge themselves.

And the problem with the confirmation bias is that it leads people to make very bad decisions and to arrive at crazy beliefs. And it's weird, when you think of it, that humans should be endowed with a confirmation bias. If the goal of reasoning were to help us arrive at better beliefs and make better decisions, then there should be no bias. The confirmation bias should really not exist at all. We have a very strong conflict here between the observations of empirical psychologists on the one hand and our assumption about reasoning on the other.

But if you take the point of view of the argumentative theory, having a confirmation bias makes complete sense. When you're trying to convince someone, you don't want to find arguments for the other side, you want to find arguments for your side. And that's what the confirmation bias helps you do.

The idea here is that the confirmation bias is not a flaw of reasoning, it's actually a feature. It is something that is built into reasoning; not because reasoning is flawed or because people are stupid, but because actually people are very good at reasoning — but they're very good at reasoning for arguing.

One of the things I like about having a tiny blog is that the conversations in the comments tend to be more nuanced and interesting. I keep saying I would much rather have a few people who argue intelligently with everything I say than a few dozen sycophants who tell me how great every post is. I mean, I know it's a fruitless, despairing job trying to find holes in my airtight arguments, but I certainly appreciate you guys trying anyway! Keep on keeping me honest!

Cool Green Grass on Forgotten Tombs

Jesse Bering:

Although the idea of green burials in wildlife preserves or park-like settings is not new, and it’s likely a desirable prospect for certain future dead soul who’d prefer absolute oblivion, it seems to me that this is not going to appeal to most individuals because we human beings tend to have a pressing need for "symbolic immortality." This was a term coined by the cultural anthropologist Ernst Becker in his book, The Denial of Death (1973), but which has since been empirically elaborated by scientists working on terror management theory. The basic idea behind the construct of symbolic immortality is that cultural artifacts that survive the individual’s literal death while also containing some reminder of the person’s special existence can meaningfully reduce human death anxiety.

That's interesting. On a personal level, I can understand wanting to have some sort of object to ground one's feelings in, something connected to the deceased, but as far as some sort of general object to announce to the wider world that I was once here, whether a typical tombstone or some other sort of monument? Nah. I'd rather go into that good night knowing that I had profoundly changed someone's thinking, indelibly influenced them in a way they'd always remember. That would be a nice sort of symbolic immortality for me. Music, too. Leaving behind some sort of recorded music would feel like part of me was still alive, still interacting with the living. The rest just seems like silly vanity.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

This is the End, My Only Friend, the End

Raw Story:

While discussing the failed May 21 Rapture prediction on MSNBC’s The Last Word Monday, Obery Hendricks of New York Theological Seminary said that people like Rep. Michelle Bachmann and Glenn Beck, who focus on the end of the world, divert attention from the real message of Jesus.

...Which was, as I thought to be common knowledge since Albert Schweitzer, that you need to act this way and that in order to be on the winning team come the violent end of the world, which, by the way, is going to happen any day now. If you're looking for some kind of role model for how to live humanely in the world with all its horrors and imperfections, there are millions of more worthy candidates than some ancient apocalyptic lunatic who spent too much time fasting in the desert sun.

You Wasted Life, Why Wouldn't You Waste the Afterlife?

Sean Carroll:

Adam claims that there "simply is no controlled, experimental[ly] verifiable information" regarding life after death. By these standards, there is no controlled, experimentally verifiable information regarding whether the Moon is made of green cheese. Sure, we can take spectra of light reflecting from the Moon, and even send astronauts up there and bring samples back for analysis. But that's only scratching the surface, as it were. What if the Moon is almost all green cheese, but is covered with a layer of dust a few meters thick? Can you really say that you know this isn't true? Until you have actually examined every single cubic centimeter of the Moon's interior, you don't really have experimentally verifiable information, do you? So maybe agnosticism on the green-cheese issue is warranted. (Come up with all the information we actually do have about the Moon; I promise you I can fit it into the green-cheese hypothesis.)

Obviously this is completely crazy. Our conviction that green cheese makes up a negligible fraction of the Moon's interior comes not from direct observation, but from the gross incompatibility of that idea with other things we think we know. Given what we do understand about rocks and planets and dairy products and the Solar System, it's absurd to imagine that the Moon is made of green cheese. We know better.

We also know better for life after death, although people are much more reluctant to admit it.

You don't even need to understand anything about physics to grasp this; many Buddhists have been reasoning their way to an understanding of the incoherence of the idea of a personal soul for thousands of years. The tragic thing about the belief, to me, is that it does nothing to alleviate a much more pressing issue -- that of people drifting through the life they're actually living with no curiosity, no deep appreciation of what they have; their thoughts mired in the future or the past, oblivious to the present. I don't even mean that a life well-lived has to be devoted to manic thrill-seeking, just that a sense of "magic" is perfectly attainable through mindful awareness. Some would have you believe that the concept of souls and afterlives are necessary to give life meaning; I would counter that metaphysical beliefs can just as easily act as narcotics, or as incentive to procrastinate. Why make the most of this life if you think you'll have endless chances for more? Why face up squarely to the fleeting impermanence of the most important relationships in your life and the imperative to not take them for granted when you can just assure yourself you'll meet up again at some point down the road? People talk big about all the things they'd like to do before they die, but look at the reality of how most people live day to day, and tell me why they think they need an indefinite extension at the end. What did you do with the several decades you already had?

I think the science in cases like this needs to be paired with something like therapeutic reasoning, though. Not that it's not vital to point out the nuts and bolts of why something like a soul couldn't exist, but it's probably more useful to try to show people why believing in one doesn't actually enhance their life anyway.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Don't Run Away from This, Dude! Goddamnit, This Affects All of Us!

I certainly hope IOZ's cryptic post is just announcing a hiatus rather than an end to his blogging career. He's long been one of my favorite writers on the web. His prose is alternately highfalutin and comfortably familiar, but always highly enjoyable and sometimes even breathtaking (I can easily find several instances in my own writing where I can clearly see his stylistic influence). I love his calm insouciance and even his disdainful sneering, especially when answering angry hecklers with quotations from The Big Lebowski. (I even watched that movie for the first time years ago so I could understand all the references.) And most of all, even though it was an acquired taste, I deeply appreciate the fact that he often forced me to think about things in a new way, not by being cheaply provocative or predictably contrary, but by being a genuinely iconoclastic thinker. I've often found myself uncomfortable and even pissed off by the things he wrote, especially early on, but I quickly came to realize that in many of those instances, it was because he was forcing me to confront my own intellectual laziness, that he had essentially zeroed in on something that I had been complacently accepting without careful scrutiny. It was the same sort of irritation that you feel when you're comfortable on the sofa, and you're asked to get up and move. Eventually, I came to eagerly anticipate and delight in the provocation, and even when I still disagree with him, I'm glad for having had the chance to be challenged. I imagine he must be a fun person to shoot the breeze with.

If you are done, IOZ, here's a heartfelt thanks for all of it. Best wishes.

Behold, I Will Corrupt Your Seed, and Spread Dung Upon Your Faces

Jonah Lehrer:

Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

...But here’s the catch: We still think we do care, at least in the abstract. That’s because power quickly turns us into hypocrites.

...The larger lesson is that Foucault had a point: The dynamics of power can profoundly influence how we think. When we climb the ladder of status, our inner arguments get warped and our natural sympathy for others is vanquished. Instead of fretting about the effects of our actions, we just go ahead and act. We deserve what we want. And how dare they resist. Don’t they know who we are?

This is why I enjoy self-depreciating humor. Not only is it just simply funny in and of itself, it keeps you from taking yourself too seriously, and it keeps people from wanting to give you any power. I'm fugly, stupid, boring and untalented. Don't ask me to do anything; I'll just fuck it up. In fact, I can't write well, either. Why are you even reading this? Don't you have anything better to do? Go away!

There. Now my immortal soul is safe. Socrates would nod approvingly.

Fortune Tellers Make a Killing Nowadays, Me Oh My

Jessa Crispin:

But the atheist’s statement was not simply about the Nobel-winning poet. Had I retorted with the information that I have a wonderful relationship with my tarot card reader, with whom I have sessions every three months or so, or that I know the house placement and sign of Mars in my horoscope and that I have had entire conversations complaining about that placement and sign, or that I am a lapsed atheist who has strayed back into belief and my belief is actually very important to me, his sadness would have spread to all of humanity and our silly, superstitious ways.

...And yet the atheists keep on, telling us that we don’t have to believe in God. It maybe never occurred to them that perhaps we want to.

...Informing neo-Druids of their falsified lineage is probably not going to do much to sway them, anymore than an advertisement on a bus proclaiming, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” — like the recent campaign that ran on London buses — is not going to do much to sway me. I’ll still be reading my Maud Gonne. In a time of great grief, having lost her son at the age of 1, right around the time Parnell died, she decided to use her will to fight against the current sad circumstances in her life. She began to research how she might reincarnate her dead son back onto the earthly plane. After a night of ritualistic sex on his grave (Yeats reports in his Memoirs, disapprovingly), a daughter was born nine months later. Maud was convinced that Iseult, as she named her daughter, contained the soul of her lost son. Those needs — for solace, for change, for order, for a little magic and irrationality — are not met with the ideals of the Enlightenment, and pretending those needs don’t even exist is not the way to win converts.

Would it surprise you if I said that I have no problem with people falling short of a rigorous standard of perfect rationality? For example, I pretty much agree with what Alan Watts said here:

Indeed, an exponent of the I Ching might give us quite a tough argument about the relative merits of our ways for making important decisions. We feel that we decide rationally because we base our decisions on collecting relevant data about the matter in hand. We do not depend on such irrelevant trifles as the chance tossing of a coin, or the patterns of tea leaves or cracks in a shell. Yet he might ask whether we really know what information is relevant, since our plans are constantly upset by utterly unforeseen incidents. He might ask how we know when we have collected enough information upon which to decide. If we were rigorously "scientific" in collecting information for our decisions, it would take us so long to collect the data that the time for action would have passed long before the work had been completed. So how do we know when we have enough? Does the information itself tell us that it is enough? On the contrary, we go through the motions of gathering the necessary information in a rational way, and then, because of a hunch, or just because we are tired of thinking, or because the time has come to decide, we act. He would ask whether this is not depending just as much on "irrelevant trifles" as if we had been casting the yarrow stalks.

In other words, the "rigorously scientific" method of predicting the future can be applied only in special cases - where prompt action is not urgent, where the factors involved are largely mechanical, or in circumstances so restricted as to be trivial. By far the greater part of our important decisions depend on "hunch" - in other words, upon the "peripheral vision" of the mind. Thus the reliability of our decisions rests ultimately upon our ability to "feel" the situation, upon the degree to which this "peripheral vision" has been developed.

Every exponent of the I Ching knows this. He knows that the book itself does not contain an exact science, but rather a useful tool which will work for him if he has a good "intuition", or if, as he would say, he is "in the Tao". Thus one does not consult the oracle without proper preparation, without going quietly and meticulously through the prescribed rituals in order to bring the mind into that calm state where the intuition is felt to act more effectively.

I think it may have been John Gray who used the metaphor of conscious awareness being like a penlight being used to scan a darkened warehouse full of information. Point taken. There should always be consideration granted to the "peripheral vision of the mind". There may be something to your intuition whether or not you have a coherent articulation of it. Much of what grabs our attention or motivates our action never rises to the level of being officially noticed or labeled. But this strawman atheism that says we're not allowed to enjoy music, art, literature, love or a feeling of the sublime in nature without being able to reduce it to its constituent atoms and define it in terms of chemical reactions is a little tiring. Who actually claims this? Would someone please point out the one brainy, obnoxious, newly-minted teenage atheist who delights in taking an empirical hammer to everyone's metaphysical fine china so we can all join together in solidarity and go kick the supercilious shit out of him and be done with it already?

You know, I don't think any of my offline friends are atheists. Most are what I call spiritual-not-religious. Some are into alternative healing and therapies, some are buffet-style spiritual dabblers, and some are what I think of as quantum mystics. Most of them have subtly imputed arrogance to me if they haven't outright accused me of it. I'm fairly sure they think my worldview is bleak, sad, empty, or lacking in joy, imagination and creativity. If anyone ought to be complaining about slings and arrows, you'd think it would be people like me.

But I love 'em all the same. I don't take our differences there any more seriously than I would if they were fans of different fútbol teams. It's something fun to argue about, but once the contest is over, there are more important things in life, and more significant contexts in which our beliefs may manifest themselves besides that of an official statement of dogma and principles. Why is my confidence unruffled by being the odd one out? Why am I not so defensive and thin-skinned about what they think of my lack of metaphysical beliefs?

I'm starting to wonder if it's because I have a sharper distinction drawn between objective truth and aesthetic truth. Objective truth about the world is pretty bleak and disheartening. You have to lead a sheltered life or a willfully blinkered one to avoid facing up to the unimaginable suffering that has always permeated it; the countless lives of people just like you, with just as much a feeling of importance and a desire to live, who died suddenly, terribly and anonymously without having fulfilled anything like what we think of as purpose. Aesthetic truth - at least in the sense that I define it - ameliorates that to a large degree, allows us to get on with our lives as if they matter. The optimistic prospects for Liverpool Football Club next season, the writings of my favorite authors, the new music on the horizon, the love of my girlfriend; they all give my life meaning in a way that couldn't necessarily be justified to anyone skeptical of them. None of them offset the fact that my ultimate destination is a crematorium, but they sure make the journey there a lot more pleasant. You either get it or you don't. It doesn't diminish my profound enjoyment of Nietzsche's writing if a friend thinks he's too bombastic, shrill and offensive. Why should it diminish their woo-woo beliefs if I point out that, strictly speaking, your personality is not conditioned by the position of stars in the sky at the time of your birth, that the nurse in the delivery room exerts more of a gravitational pull on you than the distant planets, and that paying careful attention to the specific details and circumstances of your individual life might perhaps serve you better than scrutinizing playing cards associated with a grab-bag of vague generalizations about human nature?

At the heart of it, most of us don't think much of ignorance, willful delusion or cowardice in others and certainly don't want to be thought of as possessing any of those traits ourselves. The problem seems to be, it's hard to claim honest belief in most religions or spiritual beliefs without harboring at least one of them. It would be one thing if people were clear on the fact that they're only using tarot cards, say, as a convenient means of enabling lateral thinking, but if they haven't clearly distinguished between "the way the world is" and "the way I feel and act within it", the hurt feelings are probably going to continue.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Help Me I am in Hell

American believers, then, need both clarity and humility about hell. Denying the reality of hell might suit modern tastes, but it doesn't stand up to the overwhelming weight of the Christian scriptures and historic tradition. But confidently asserting that bin Laden is now in hell also treats this fearsome, mysterious reality with far less sobriety than it warrants.

Emphasis mine, hee hee. Via Gawker, this is indeed amusing. On the other hand, though:

Treating fairy tales with sobriety: that's what makes USA Today the greatest newspaper in our planet's 6,000 year history.

Yeah, thank goodness it's just McPaper. It's not like prominent young intellectuals in serious news outlets would ever be given space to write about such... oh.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Saturday Shuffle

Got a new iPod recently, so I've been able to add a lot more music. Let's see what we get.

  1. Motörhead -- R.A.M.O.N.E.S.
  2. Sepultura -- Border Wars
  3. Elbow -- The Night Will Always Win
  4. Deftones -- Digital Bath
  5. Les Jumeaux -- Carroussella
  6. Fujiya & Miyagi -- Cat Got Your Tongue
  7. The Black Crowes -- Wiser Time
  8. Mark Sandman -- Patience
  9. The Crystal Method -- High Roller
  10. Orange Goblin -- Getting High on the Bad Times
  11. Daft Punk -- Da Funk
  12. Judas Priest -- Island of Domination
  13. Emalkay -- Battle Suit
  14. Queens of the Stone Age -- Tangled Up in Plaid
  15. Massive Attack -- Teardrop
  16. Sebadoh -- Tree
  17. Rammstein -- Rein Raus
  18. Awolnation -- Swinging From the Castles
  19. Sparklehorse -- See the Light
  20. 16Volt -- Burn

Feels Like Drivin' 'Round in a Slow Hearse

It looks like I might have a good job lined up. I go for a training session Monday and/or Tuesday morning, and assuming I like it (pretty sure I will) and don't prove completely incompetent (moderately sure I won't), I should be able to make the transition pretty smoothly from the end of the newspaper distributorship to this, fingers crossed. I might not have time to write until evenings and nights, but I can deal with that. Best of all, I should be okay financially, possibly even better than I ever expected.

Now I just have the final two weeks of the family business to see out. It's funny that it coincides with the end of the school year, because the feeling is pretty similar, other than being more downbeat in this case. I'm really going to miss it.


Being a homeowner, I thought I should look into a security system to protect my property from the roving hordes of barbarians, cannibals, zombies and other undesirables sure to be seen lurching around the post-Rapture hellscape (no sign of Jeebus around here yet, but it's still only late afternoon). I took an informal survey of the yard signs throughout the nearby suburbs, and a company called Vector was the clear favorite, but still, I ultimately decided to go with Brinks. I figured the people who make armored cars should know a thing or two about keeping your stuff safe, right? And installation was a snap, so now I can kick back and relax, safe and sound.

What? Oh, no, you misunderstood me. I didn't actually install a security system. Jeez, you know how expensive those things are? I just stole a Brinks sign out of someone's yard and put it in my own. What burglar is going to call my bluff when there's so many houses without security signs around here?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Look at Our Magic Now

I don't have anything to add to it, but I thought this was a pretty cool essay:

We are surrounded by magic, some good, some evil and some both at once—an excess of magic, a confusion of it. Solitary Kenko brushed his cranky, acerbic thoughts onto scraps of paper that survived through the centuries only by luck; they might just as well have rotted on the walls or gone out with the trash. But look at our magic now: you can Google Kenko, and if you have a Kindle or Nook or iPad or some other e-reader, you can reassemble all of Kenko or Dante or Montaigne electronically upon a thin, flat screen—from which it may also vanish at a touch, in a nanosecond.

A trompe l’oeil universe: creation and un-creation—poof! Precious writers are miraculously diffused through the Web, you fetch them out of the air itself. And they may disappear more quickly than Kenko’s vanishing blossoms or shrouded moons. The universe is not a solid thing.

Writing is—we have always thought—a solitary and even covert labor. Of course a great writer need not be a hermit. (Shakespeare was not.) I have wondered whether Montaigne or Kenko or (God help us) Dante would have been on Facebook or Twitter, gabbing and texting away in the gregarious solidarities of new social forms. Are there such things as exile or retreat or solitude in the universe of Skype, the global hive? Does the new networking improve the quality of thinking and writing? It undoubtedly changes the process—but how, and how much? We don’t know yet.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I Walk the Corner to the Rubble that Used to be a Library, Line Up to the Mind Cemetery Now

Charles Simic:

I don’t know of anything more disheartening than the sight of a shut down library. No matter how modest its building or its holdings, in many parts of this country a municipal library is often the only place where books in large number on every imaginable subject can be found, where both grownups and children are welcome to sit and read in peace, free of whatever distractions and aggravations await them outside. Like many other Americans of my generation, I owe much of my knowledge to thousands of books I withdrew from public libraries over a lifetime. I remember the sense of awe I felt as a teenager when I realized I could roam among the shelves, take down any book I wanted, examine it at my leisure at one of the library tables, and if it struck my fancy, bring it home. Not just some thriller or serious novel, but also big art books and recordings of everything from jazz to operas and symphonies.

...I heard some politician say recently that closing libraries is no big deal, since the kids now have the Internet to do their reading and school work. It’s not the same thing. As any teacher who recalls the time when students still went to libraries and read books could tell him, study and reflection come more naturally to someone bent over a book. Seeing others, too, absorbed in their reading, holding up or pressing down on different-looking books, some intimidating in their appearance, others inviting, makes one a participant in one of the oldest and most noble human activities. Yes, reading books is a slow, time-consuming, and often tedious process. In comparison, surfing the Internet is a quick, distracting activity in which one searches for a specific subject, finds it, and then reads about it—often by skipping a great deal of material and absorbing only pertinent fragments. Books require patience, sustained attention to what is on the page, and frequent rest periods for reverie, so that the meaning of what we are reading settles in and makes its full impact.

How many book lovers among the young has the Internet produced? Far fewer, I suspect, than the millions libraries have turned out over the last hundred years. Their slow disappearance is a tragedy, not just for those impoverished towns and cities, but for everyone everywhere terrified at the thought of a country without libraries.

One of the best things about childhood for me was the amount of time I spent in libraries. I was just thinking about downtown Charlottesville this afternoon, with all its independent used bookstores and the two libraries I've been going to since I was a kid (plus the ones on UVa campus). That intellectual atmosphere means even more to me now that I don't take it for granted.

Funny story: when I went with my mom to get my own library card in my late teens, I got out my wallet when we got to the desk with the books we were checking out. She and the librarian looked at me quizzically. "Don't we have to pay for them?" They burst out laughing. My dad had never, ever been able to return books on time, so every time we went back, he had to pay a late fee. I grew up assuming there was a price to be paid here like everywhere else.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What Do I Want? What Do I Need? Why Do I Want It? What's In It For Me?

John Tierney:

As the investigation of happiness proceeded, Dr. Seligman began seeing certain limitations of the concept. Why did couples go on having children even though the data clearly showed that parents are less happy than childless couples? Why did billionaires desperately seek more money even when there was nothing they wanted to do with it?

And why did some people keep joylessly playing bridge? Dr. Seligman, an avid player himself, kept noticing them at tournaments. They never smiled, not even when they won. They didn’t play to make money or make friends.

They didn’t savor that feeling of total engagement in a task that psychologists call flow. They didn’t take aesthetic satisfaction in playing a hand cleverly and “winning pretty.” They were quite willing to win ugly, sometimes even when that meant cheating.

“They wanted to win for its own sake, even if it brought no positive emotion,” says Dr. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “They were like hedge fund managers who just want to accumulate money and toys for their own sake. Watching them play, seeing them cheat, it kept hitting me that accomplishment is a human desiderata in itself.”

...So what should be measured instead? The best gauge so far of flourishing, Dr. Seligman says, comes from a study of 23 European countries by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So of the University of Cambridge. Besides asking respondents about their moods, the researchers asked about their relationships with others and their sense that they were accomplishing something worthwhile.

...In his 2008 book, “Gross National Happiness,” Dr. Brooks argues that what’s crucial to well-being is not how cheerful you feel, not how much money you make, but rather the meaning you find in life and your sense of “earned success” — the belief that you have created value in your life or others’ lives.

Hmm. I like to think of it being about contentment rather than happiness. I'm content even while I'm not cheerful or energetic or getting shit done. I've done things that I know have mattered and created value in other people's lives, and I'm glad for it. But at the same time, things like writing and making music are essential to my contentment (and happiness), and I enjoy them regardless of whether anyone else appreciates the result. It certainly enhances the enjoyment to have other people get something from it. But I'm also fine with being useless in the Taoist sense of the concept -- useless to the wider world. Part of my contentment is in being able to just stop and do nothing important at all without feeling existential angst about it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Is This Thing On?

Wednesday, I guess it was, I saw an ad on my Blogger dashboard telling me that for the low, low price of $15, I could go to a site that would print my entire blog up as a book, hardcover or softcover, and all I had to do was pick out the cover image. Huh, I thought, that might actually be cool, partially for the ironic vanity of it, partially because I had actually worried recently about what would happen if some sort of tech problems ever caused Blogger to go down, or caused posts to disappear. I realized that I've put a lot of time and effort into this, and I'm actually proud of a lot of it. It would be nice to have some sort of durable copy of it, even if there would be no way to include all the links.

And then Thursday, after having put up four posts, I went to start on number five, only to get a message saying Blogger was down, sorry for the inconvenience. Almost a day later, it was still coming up when I tried to sign in, and depending on when I checked the blog (which could still be read), the four Thursday posts were sometimes there, sometimes not. Friday morning, when I tried to go to the individual post URLs, I got a message saying those pages could not be found. I was ready to go on a killing spree at the thought of having to recreate them all from memory, but before I could gather all my weapons and head to Google headquarters, the issue apparently finally got sorted out. All the posts are back, but some of the comments from this week are gone, so if you want to try to repost them, go ahead.

Maybe I should think about making a book out of this thing every few months or so...

Friday, May 13, 2011

What Men Want


You would think a leader whose "gutsy" decision to take out the evil mastermind behind 9/11 would be getting high-fives all around — and from men in particular. But not according to the latest IBD/TIPP Poll.

In fact, men are one of the few demographic groups whose opinion of President Obama is lower today than a month ago, before the Navy SEALs' successful raid on Osama bin Laden's Pakistan compound May 2.

Didn't I tell you? Didn't I just tell you last week that we needed more balls in Myrrhica these days? I mean, come on. Killing a terrorist, dumping the body in the ocean and refusing to release the pictures? Pfft. Real men aren't so easily impressed. If Obama wanted a bounce in the polls, he should have filmed a bukkake video with the SEALs on Osama's bloody face. Hell, he should have personally skull-fucked him right in one of the bullet holes.

I remember when we had a real manly president who knew exactly what the situation called for:

Speaking of George Bush, with whom Sharon developed a very close relationship, Uri Dan recalls that Sharon's delicacy made him reluctant to repeat what the president had told him when they discussed Osama bin Laden. Finally he relented. And here is what the leader of the Western world, valiant warrior in the battle of cultures, promised to do to bin Laden if he caught him: "I will screw him in the ass!"

What? No, that's totally not gay. You just don't understand how real men think. Maybe you should get some testosterone supplements, you fairy.

You Keep Using That Word...

Behavior rather than belief seems to be the defining factor of the spiritual atheist. Those who call themselves spiritual are engaged in helping others, caring for the environment, enjoying the outdoors, and generally spending time meditating on central themes. We can't fault that.

No, but we can use a term that doesn't carry so much metaphysical baggage. I mean, I'm not trying to get all logical positivist wit' it up in here, but I wish empirically-minded people would think a little more about whether perpetuating the "spirit/matter" dichotomy, even as metaphor, is really what they want to do.

Besides, given that everyone and their mother self-describes as "spiritual" these days, I think it's fair to say that their behavior runs the gamut from benevolent to abhorrent, just like everyone else. I know quite a few of them who top off their all-too-human short-sightedness with an extra layer of self-absorption and a sense of divine mission that can almost make me long for the company of people who don't ponder anything more profound than beer and sports. I'm all for people being contemplative, reflective and philosophical, of course. But I will always stubbornly refuse to accede to the implication that those "higher" qualities are separate in both origin and character from the wretchedness, stupidity and suffering of the everyday world.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Fire Within Us

Scientists now know that, while introverts have no special advantage in intelligence, they do seem to process more information than others in any given situation. To digest it, they do best in quiet environments, interacting one on one. Further, their brains are less dependent on external stimuli and rewards to feel good.

As a result, introverts are not driven to seek big hits of positive emotional arousal—they'd rather find meaning than bliss—making them relatively immune to the search for happiness that permeates contemporary American culture. In fact, the cultural emphasis on happiness may actually threaten their mental health. As American life becomes increasingly competitive and aggressive, to say nothing of blindingly fast, the pressures to produce on demand, be a team player, and make snap decisions cut introverts off from their inner power source, leaving them stressed and depleted. Introverts today face one overarching challenge—not to feel like misfits in their own culture.

On the surface, introversion looks a lot like shyness. Both limit social interaction, but for differing reasons. The shy want desperately to connect but find socializing difficult, says Bernardo J. Carducci, professor of psychology and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. Introverts seek time alone because they want time alone. An introvert and a shy person might be standing against the wall at a party, but the introvert prefers to be there, while the shy individual feels she has no choice.

But extensive internal dialogue, especially in response to negative experiences, can set off a downward spiral of affect. And indeed, anxiety and depression are more common among introverts than extraverts. In general, says Robert McPeek, director of research at the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, introverts are more self-critical than others—but also more realistic in their self-assessments. Call it depressive realism.

In the united states, people rank happiness as their most important goal. That view has a special impact on introverts. Happiness is not always their top priority; they don't need external rewards to keep their brains in high gear. In fact, the pursuit of happiness may represent another personality-culture clash for them.

There's really too many good parts to excerpt them all, but those are some of my favorites. I wish that phrase "A Pathway to Success?" didn't appear up there, though. I don't want "success" as conventionally defined. That's a large part of what being introverted means to me. I don't want what you want. I don't feel like you feel. I just want to be left alone to do my own thing with the few people whose company truly adds something to my life besides distraction and chatter.

The more we think about all that has been and will be, the paler grows that which is. If we live with the dead and die with them in their death, what are our 'neighbors' to us then? We grow more solitary, and we do so because the whole flood of humanity is surging around us. The fire within us, which is for all that is human, grows brighter and brighter – and that is why we gaze upon that which immediately surrounds us as though it had grown more shadowy and we had grown more indifferent to it. But the coldness of our glance gives offense!

- Nietzsche

I don't feel limited by introversion and haven't since I was a teenager; I take a perverse pride in being a taciturn square peg in round social holes. But one interesting thing I've noticed is that you still have to beware of the way in which social convention can embolden people to try to bully those who are understood to be deficient by society's standards in some way.

My brother, as I've said before, is one of the most negative complainers I know. Always looking for something to gripe about, always looking for a chance to take a sneering cheap shot at someone else, especially when they aren't around to defend themselves. And yet, he is as convinced that I'm the one with an attitude problem as he is that the sun rises in the east. I stand in a room, rarely saying a word to anyone, just doing my task and moving along so I can go home and spend time doing the things I love. He comes in with his mouth already running and starts right in with his pissant remarks. I try to appeal to reason and ask him: which type of person would you rather be around in general? It's to no avail. He's absorbed it from the cultural atmosphere, the idea that people who don't go out of their way to fill the air with their voice are deserving of contempt, mockery and abuse. No one ever had to tell him explicitly, it's just an unspoken understanding that anyone who deviates from some mythical golden mean of personality type (or body type, or sexual habits, or entertainment preferences, etc.) is fair game. It may be senseless and unfair and irrational, but stupid people in large groups are still a powerful force to be reckoned with, and they will often try to destroy you, sometimes just for their sheer thoughtless amusement.

We Are Not Amused


Will Ferrell, the “Saturday Night Live” alumnus turned star of hit films like “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” will be the 14th recipient of the Mark Twain Prize, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts said on Thursday morning.

Why? I don't understand. I'm pretty sure I've never once laughed at anything Will Ferrell has ever done. I don't even actively dislike him, because he doesn't inspire that much reaction from me. He just bores me and I forget about him as soon as he's out of sight. Did I miss something? I'm really asking here. Was there an example of sparkling wit or perfect delivery somewhere along the way that justifies his stature? I'm open to being convinced here, though I'm skeptical that it can be done.

Jesus. What next, Keanu Reeves as Hamlet? Oh, wait...

Comma Suit Yuh

Ben Yagoda:

For at least two centuries, it has been standard practice in the United States to place commas and periods inside of quotation marks. This rule still holds for professionally edited prose: what you'll find in Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post—almost any place adhering to Modern Language Association (MLA) or AP guidelines. But in copy-editor-free zones—the Web and emails, student papers, business memos—with increasing frequency, commas and periods find themselves on the outside of quotation marks, looking in. A punctuation paradigm is shifting.

...But the main reason is that the British way simply makes more sense. Indeed, since at least since the 1960s a common designation for that style has been "logical punctuation.

By far the biggest fount of logical punctuation today is Wikipedia, which was started by two Americans but whose English-language edition is by and for all English-speaking countries. The site's style guide notes that "logical punctuation … is used here because it is deemed by Wikipedia consensus to be more in keeping with the principle of minimal change." That is, if you put a period or comma inside quotation marks, you are wrongly suggesting that the period or comma is part of the quoted material, and thus you have "changed" it.

I've been doing this for quite a while now, and I honestly had no idea I was part of a community of like-minded individuals! I knew what the official rule was about punctuation and quotation marks, but since I'm just a ruffian blogger, a cyber-street urchin, I figured I would do what made obvious fucking sense to me and damn the style guides and rulebooks.

I am Become Beard, Destroyer of Worlds

It's a common complaint among my fellow atheists that the majority of our countrymen think us to be immoral simply because we don't fear celestial punishment in a nonexistent afterlife. It's bordering on cliché to say that atheists have no chance of ever being elected to high office here. But I have even more cause to feel aggrieved, as it appears that 80% of potential jurors would likely adjudge me a criminal just because of my magnificent facial plumage. This, despite scientific evidence proving me to be the most trustworthy person you know. Imagine if I were on trial for a capital crime and refused to swear on "a book of Bronze Age fables", before smirking insolently and sitting back to stroke my hirsute cheeks and chin! Would I even make it to sentencing, or would they just draw and quarter me right there in the courtroom?

Funny, too, given that I just got the notice summoning me to be on standby for federal jury duty from June through December. I can tell you right now, anyone with even a few visible whiskers is going to walk as far as I'm concerned. I don't care if they're sporting a necklace of human body parts. This tyranny of the smooth-cheeked must be brought down.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

No One Sings Like You Anymore

More than any other branch of the pop-culture tree, music is associated with childhood. It's something many of us discovered as we were discovering ourselves, providing a set of attitudes, poses, and even clothes for us to try on during our formative years. It was like acquiring an instant personality kit. Music made us feel like individuals, and yet also part of a group with people we could instantly relate to, or wanted to relate to. Just as important, music drew a line in the sand against everything we didn't want to be, which was usually easier to figure out than who we really were.

I'm 33, which means many of my peers are married with kids, mortgages, and lots of other important real-life stuff that takes precedence over finding new bands to like. Even for a professional, following new music takes a lot of time and effort. Not only is there a lot to wade through—usually dozens of albums in an average week—but music trends are rapidly changing. Following new music requires the ability to appreciate many different flavors, and the willingness to go wherever the prevailing winds might carry you. Genres go through creatively fertile periods, buoyed by top-flight artists committed to exploring the possibilities of particular sets of sounds. You have to be willing to wade into unfamiliar waters to find the most exciting artists, and that can be tough for older listeners who are accustomed to music with firmly established parameters. Sometimes, it's just easier to stick with what you know.

I get that. What I don’t get is the hostility that new music sometimes engenders among aging fans. I've chided friends who grew up on punk and indie music for turning into what they always hated—nostalgia-happy, past-worshipping hippies—because they can’t consider the latest buzz band without going into the same tired rant about how artists today don’t have "edge," "relevance," or "originality" by comparison with some overly idealized group from their past. I find that this opinion tends to say more about the listener than the state of contemporary music, which is too vast to be summed up by such sweepingly reductive statements.

I think this whenever I read yet another broadside about how today’s indie rock "doesn't really rock" or whatever. Based on what? Based on your inability to locate bands that make you feel exactly the way you did when you were 15? Let me save you some time: You aren't going to find those bands, okay? Because you changed. I guarantee you that somebody somewhere is making a record just as transformative as anything you grew up with; it’s just that you have lost the ability to hear (figuratively and perhaps literally) those records for what they are.

The lack of interest in new music is one of the things that most dismays me about my own peers, and it serves as a nightmare vision of where I don't want to end up myself. I hardly go more than a few weeks without finding something new to listen to. Music facilitates thinking for me. It keeps my thoughts from feeling frozen in amber. I know I'm seriously depressed when I don't even want to listen to music; my brain is too sluggish to feel like processing new ideas and experiences. I shudder to think of staying in a loop, listening to the same handful of artists from back in those high school days when my world stopped turning. I would dread the thought of having to be a DJ on a classic rock or oldies station, having to act enthused about playing the same few dozen songs day in and day out.

It's not about a superficial search for novelty for its own sake, though, it's just about being open to the new perspectives and sounds that other people can express. There are still plenty of sentimental favorites for me that I'll return to time and again, wondering if anyone else will ever reach the bar set by this artist, but still, nothing can beat that feeling of being taken out of yourself by music that doesn't fit any of your preconceptions, that forces you to pay attention to every minute in order to get a grip on it.

Superficial Out of Profundity

One more section from Peter Watson's book that I liked:

Nietzsche called this condition, the absence of any moral purpose to the world, any direction, "nihilism," and it had three—at least three— important consequences: there is no meaning to events, we lose faith that anything is to be achieved, or can be achieved; there is no coherent pattern in history; and there is nothing universal that we can all agree upon or aspire to. Our world is motivated mainly by our own inner psychological needs, rather than any "truth" (a meaningless and malleable commodity, the only purpose of which is to enhance our feeling of power). He thought that our main psychological need was just that—the celebrated "will to power" and, for himself, felt that the only basis for any judgment, now that all other bases had disappeared, was the aesthetic one.

Even in making aesthetic judgments, since we have no grounds for agreement in any "deep" or universal sense, because there is no longer any basis for meaning, the only criterion by which originality or creativity or beauty may be judged is by their "newness." Even here, however, newness will be obsolete more or less immediately because it can have no meaning over and above the fact that it is new. This applies to changes in ourselves as much as in conventional works of art or developments in history or in fashion. There can be no direction in our personal development, only meaningless change, change for the sake of it.

This is, needless to say, arguably the bleakest analysis of the human condition there has ever been, and Nietzsche intended it as such. ("I am by far the most terrible human being that has existed so far," he said in a famous passage. "This does not preclude the possibility that I shall be the most beneficial.")

...But it should now be plain to what extent we are indeed living in a post-Nietzschean, post-Weberian nihilistic world—for example, in the realm of contemporary high art, where the only criteria by which it is no judged is by newness, where the big auctions have all the qualities of a game, and collecting has become for so many a form of salvation. The world of fashion, where again the defining criterion is sheer newness, is another nihilistic aspect of the modern world. In all these realms, money is a prominent feature.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Revenge of the Nerds

From Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit:

I'm not sure whether Bruce's sense of humor was "Chinese" or uniquely his own. Bruce used to act like a geek and let a street punk goad him. When the punk swung, Bruce would block it awkwardly and snap at the punk's groin and incapacitate him with a blow that appeared to be an accident. As the punk rolled in pain, Bruce would cover his mouth with his hand and titter effeminately, then walk off. "A person can accept getting beaten by someone who is stronger or bigger than he is," Bruce would explain, "but if he thinks he's been beaten by a nerd, he'll be pissed off for the rest of his life."

All the outbursts of nationalist machismo and talk of "balls" this week reminded me of this anecdote. I've always loathed that type all my life -- the knuckle-dragging, towel-snapping, rooster-strutting, macho meathead, obsessed with his dick and where he can put it. I studied martial arts when I was younger (a mixture of karate and aikido called niharate, mainly, plus some judo), and I used to harbor some intense fantasies of one day using those skills to humiliate jocks, rednecks and other testosterone-addled cretins. An artist friend of mine who had also dabbled in martial arts used to join me in dressing provocatively, with our super-long hair (I let mine grow from age 15-23), gaudy, dangly earrings and other jewelry, and slightly androgynous clothing. We got plenty of "Faggot!" jeers from across the room (and responded by blowing kisses just as often), but amazingly, never got any outright confrontations over it. Eventually, I realized that once I had achieved a certain ability to cause serious harm if I wanted to, the urge to do so faded. Most of that anger was born of powerlessness, and when you finally have the actual power to break bones easily or incapacitate someone with a few short moves, you feel a responsibility to not abuse that power. Dammit.

Still, I always thought that was the most deliciously awesome story. I love that kind of humor.

Instead of Bettering Myself I'm Crawling Deeper in My Shell

Heavy rain washed away the Internet for the last couple days. On the bright side, I took advantage of the downtime to finish the last couple hundred pages of Peter Watson's mammoth The German Genius. I liked this part near the end:

Another aspect of Freud's legacy is that we are now, to use Frank Furedi's phrase, living in a "therapeutic society." In the therapeutic society, as Furedi puts it, "there is an inward turn...The quest for personal self-understanding through the act of self-reflection is one of the legacies of modernity...the self acquires meaning through the experience of the inner, emotional life..." Especially among those who are no longer religious, there is a widespread belief in an alternative self, somewhere within, and it goes with the essentially therapeutic belief that, if only we can "get in touch" with this inner, alternative (better and "higher") self, we can find happiness, contentment, fulfillment. The "soul" has been secularized.

...This new narcissism means that people are more interested in personal change than in political change, that encounter groups and other forms of awareness training have helped to abolish a meaningful inner private life—the private has become public in "an ideology of intimacy." This makes people less individualistic, less genuinely creative, and far more fad- and fashion-conscious. It follows, says Lasch, that lasting friendships, love affairs and successful marriages are much harder to achieve, in turn thrusting people back on themselves, when the whole cycle recommences. Modern man, Lasch concluded, was actually imprisoned in his self-awareness. He longs for "the lost innocence of spontaneous feeling."

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Assumes Facts Not in Evidence

Joy provides emotional closure, which we never got after 9/11 and the distraction in Iraq. Maybe this joy at Osama Bin Laden's death can provide that for us. And maybe then we can finally have politicians say that we won, and so we can finally shut down the illegal prisons, the ongoing war, and maybe even the ridiculous security theater at airports. But if we scold and silence the joy away, we'll never get a chance to find out.

And maybe, and maybe, oh baby, just maybe. I'm not sure how Amanda manages to achieve such a dense ratio of WTF/word count, but let's just marvel at it anyway, what do you say? So, how many quantum leaps of logic and non-sequiturs do we have here? Let's tally 'em up.

• Gloating and exulting like barbarians over a revenge killing is one of the refined pleasures of life, like a good smoke or drink, or uninhibited sex. People who object to either are Puritans who are haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy, as Mencken put it.

• The tiny minority of people who do object to treating displays of military force like a college football game have the power to make the slightest dent in the fist-pumping, chest-thumping, dick-swinging AMERICA FUCK YEAH celebrations.

• Osama's violent death will provide emotional closure and allow us to declare "mission accomplished" and leave, uh, Afghanistan, I guess. Just like how the last declaration of "mission accomplished" and the emotional closure provided by Saddam's violent death allowed us to leave Iraq and let the flowers start blooming. Just like how Gaddafi's impending violent death will mean likewise for Libya. Etc.

• Politicians, out of the moral considerations that inform their every decision, actually want to close Gitmo and the black sites, end the occupations of however many countries we're currently bombing the fuck out of, and dismantle the national security apparatus, but have been forced to keep them going for lack of a clear-cut national feel-good moment. So quit complaining, Puritans, unless you love all those bad things which are totally aberrations and can in no way be shown to have predated the War on Evil Incarnate or to be reflective of our national character. On a related note, if there's one thing we can say with certainty about our political climate, it's that judicious, rational, humane decisions always manage to prevail, despite however they may contravene the interests of those in power.

But We've Got the Biggest Balls of Them All

You know, when I survey the last decade or so of Myrrhkin culture and foreign policy, one thought comes immediately to mind: Not bad, but it needs more testosterone. The cable news court jester agrees with me:

Last night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart broke down the deeper implications of Osama bin Laden’s death. Namely: America grew some balls, and we’re back.

“I suppose I should be expressing some ambivalence about the demise of another human being, but no,” Stewart said, before admitting that he was too close to the story of bin Laden and the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to be objective. “Last night was a good night, for me. Not just for people in New York and Washington, but for human people.”

Watch through the end to watch America literally grow a pair.

Ha! Ha! Ha! Yes, do! Balls are funny! And balls = courage! Men have balls! The bigger the better! Real men like to swing their balls around for everyone to see and rub them against things, don't they? Hey, you know who doesn't have balls? Wimps. And women. But I repeat myself. You know what women have? Pussies. Pussies = cowardice! Pussies are the absence of balls! The anti-balls! You don't want to be a pussy, do you, boy? Then show us your balls!

Sorry, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, whoever else we're attacking right now. Sorry 'bout all yr dead d00dz, but you understand, our balls. We lost 'em. We had to avenge 'em. It's what menfolk do! (The ones who aren't big gay pussies, that is.) It's like that whole sordid Osiris/Seth/Horus saga. Dicks being chopped off and thrown into a river to be eaten by fish, retaliatory castrations, what a mess. But we've got our balls back now, so we'll be content to sit around on the couch scratching them.

If we don't see some leaked photos of the Navy SEALs all taking turns draping their hairy beanbags on Osama's forehead right next to the bullet holes, I'm going to be severely disappointed. Maybe Wikileaks can get on that. For now, I'm going to photoshop a pair of bumper nuts to a picture of the Myrrhkin flag and have it airbrushed onto the back of my truck. FUCK YEAH WOOHOO....

Monday, May 02, 2011

Nepenthe (Slight Return)

Quinn O'Neill:

As an atheist, I sometimes get asked if I’m afraid of what'll happen when I die. Naturally, I'm not afraid of going to Hell or any other supernatural place and I'm not afraid of being dead, but admittedly, there is something that scares me. I'm afraid that I could someday exist in (or as) another body.

...While quantum hypotheses may reflect progress in our understanding they remain controversial. For the moment, at least, subjective consciousness doesn’t seem to be well enough understood to rule out the possibility of recurrence. Not knowing exactly what material entities or neurophysiological processes give rise to a unique subjective consciousness, we can’t affirm that it won’t arise again at some point in the future.

I find this possibility of recurrence frightening. Being somewhat cognizant of recent events around the world and the conditions in which some people live, I realize how lucky I am to have been born in a stable, developed country to parents who could feed me and send me to school. If my subjective consciousness were to arise again someday, I probably wouldn’t be so lucky.

While I don’t believe in a supernatural Hell, human suffering can certainly reach hellish proportions on Earth. If the threat of going to Hell after death is enough to inspire moral behavior, the possibility that one’s subjective consciousness might someday recur should be a powerful impetus for improving circumstances for people on earth. We might even want to rethink our treatment of animals - at least until we can be sure that we won’t someday see the world through the eyes of a circus elephant or a beef cow.

Ha. I used to worry about that as a kid, given that my mom made reincarnation seem like an accepted fact. But what would it even mean for "my" subjective consciousness to recur? What's the difference between "me" in another body at another time in another place with no memory of my former experiences, and a different subjective experience of consciousness altogether? None that I can see. Memory is what gives us a sense of a coherent, singular, personal narrative, despite what we know to be the fact that every cell in our body has died and been replaced over the last decade or so. When your memory is gone, so is your particular experience of being a solid "I" standing still in the middle of life's constant flow. You should want to improve circumstances for people and animals on earth not out of a narrow concern for your own particular consciousness, but because consciousness in general will endure long after you stop experiencing it in the context of your unique and unrepeatable circumstances, and recognizing what it is to experience life as a conscious being should make you feel empathy for all the others who do so.

I Read the News Today, Oh, Boy

Glenn Greenwald:

But beyond the emotional fulfillment that comes from vengeance and retributive justice, there are two points worth considering. The first is the question of what, if anything, is going to change as a result of the two bullets in Osama bin Laden's head? Are we going to fight fewer wars or end the ones we've started? Are we going to see a restoration of some of the civil liberties which have been eroded at the alter of this scary Villain Mastermind? Is the War on Terror over? Are we Safer now?

Those are rhetorical questions. None of those things will happen. If anything, I can much more easily envision the reverse. Whenever America uses violence in a way that makes its citizens cheer, beam with nationalistic pride, and rally around their leader, more violence is typically guaranteed. Futile decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may temporarily dampen the nationalistic enthusiasm for war, but two shots to the head of Osama bin Laden -- and the We are Great and Good proclamations it engenders -- can easily rejuvenate that war love. One can already detect the stench of that in how Pakistan is being talked about: did they harbor bin Laden as it seems and, if so, what price should they pay? We're feeling good and strong about ourselves again -- and righteous -- and that's often the fertile ground for more, not less, aggression.

In sum, a murderous religious extremist was killed. The U.S. has erupted in a collective orgy of national pride and renewed faith in the efficacy and righteousness of military force. Other than that, the repercussions are likely to be far greater in terms of domestic politics -- it's going to be a huge boost to Obama's re-election prospects and will be exploited for that end -- than anything else.

I don't care about Osama bin Laden, and to be quite frank, I never really did. Anyone can kill 3000 people, but it takes a willing nation to kill 1,000,000. 9/11 did not introduce the world to just one monster, it was a day that created two. So don't expect me to dance, or celebrate, I am not even going to smile. While one monster may have died, the other one still holds a knife to my back, a gun in my mouth, and collects my taxes.

Also, etc. I hadn't heard anything of this until this morning, when the usual morons at work started chortling about how "we got him." I assumed they must mean Gaddafi, given that we'd just killed his son and grandchildren over the weekend. But eventually I figured it out, and after listening a little while longer in silence, I was struck by something: all they were doing was complaining.

Complaining about liberals. Complaining about people who "probably wanted him to have a trial so we could put him on probation. Maybe sit down and talk to him about his feelings." Snort, haw, yuk yuk. Complaining about those liberals who are going to whine about how we have no right to be carrying out military activities inside Pakistan to begin with. Complaining that the NYT and WaPo didn't have big bold screaming headlines about it despite holding up the press runs for an extra hour (due to their Islamist sympathies, you see). Complaining about all the people who are going to call America evil. Complaining about how Obama doesn't deserve credit for doing what a six year-old could have figured out to do. Complaining about how, when attacked by all these bleeding-heart liberals for disrespecting Bin Laden's human rights, Obama was "probably going to blame Bush somehow, you watch." Sneering about Muslims in general who are probably wailing on their prayer rugs right now. Running their mouths about how liberals should be shot, or beaten in the streets.

This is how they celebrate something they're happy about. With nothing immediate to complain about, they imagine what a bunch of liberal caricatures might think and say and proceed to complain all the more venomously about that. They're really that addicted to the dubious joy of venting their neverending hatred of anyone who doesn't belong to their resentful tribe. They simply don't know what to do with themselves if they're not twitching with rage over some intolerable affront to their worldview.

I've recollected before some Taoist passage, perhaps from the Hua Hu Ching, that talks about how, when faced with the occasional inevitability of lethal violence, to treat it as an occasion for mourning, sad that it should ever have to come to this, not something to take joy from. I thought of it again this morning, while simultaneously nauseated and pitying over how bitter, miserable, rancid and hateful these people are. I composed myself with a grimace and a shudder and left as quickly as I could. They can have their political and military victories if this is what it leads to. I'd rather spend my time thinking about all the things I have to be grateful for.