15 April 2009

CFI 12th World Congress Day 2, 10 April 2009 Morning Analysis

Me and the indefatigable James "The Amazing" Randi.

This was to be the first full day of the 12th World Congress. Lectures, luncheons, panel discussions, and a big band concert were all on the agenda. Also, as luck would have it, a nicely laid out continental breakfast every morning. This came in handy as my second morning involved forgetting my wallet, and having to drive back to my brother-in-law's home to retrieve it. Had the CFI not had the foresight to provide that breakfast, I'd have been one grumpy, hungry bastard until lunch. So good on the CFI for that.

Patricia Scott Schroeder: The United States: A former Global Leader in Science, Apologizes for the 2001-2008 Service Outage!

I don't honestly remember much of this address. It was fairly generic, and rah rah. Schroeder has a long political history in congress, and she did discuss her influence and victories as such. She made some rather sweeping claims about how she and other women, and women's groups put the National Institutes of Health in its place, claims that at least one scientitst I spoke with contested vigorously. The thrust of her discussion though was the paucity of good science done under the Bush administration. This is certainly true, but almost obviously so. I suppose what I expected was less partisan chatter, and back patting and a more substantial assessment/analysis of the past eight years, as well as what the way forward might look like. Whether justifiably or not, I found myself somewhat underwelmed by the content of her talk. Maybe my coffee hadn't yet kicked in?

Susan Jacoby: Author of The Age of American Unreason, Keynote Speaker.
Paul Kurtz provided the introduction, which involved highlighting the convergent missions of CFI and Jacoby. Both saw the dumbing down of American educational standards as a danger, both were committed to free inquiry, and the promotion of science and reason.

I've listened to Jacoby before (Moyers, and on NPR I think) and she is a fine voice to have in the fight against the tendency toward unreason, and anti-intellectualism even though I don't agree with her entire analysis of the ills facing the US. The most interesting argument of her keynote was the suggestion that American anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism is the "flip side of core American values." More about that in just a bit.

There is a historical tendency of older generations to mourn the loss of high standards of their era while silmultaneously castigating the obviously low standards of the next generation. To note the deep values of their youth, while noticing, a little too eagerly, the lazyness, and overall moral decrepitude of their children, and their children's children. I'm not sure why this is, but it seems to have been going on since humans have had the capacity to look over their shoulder at the good ole' days. When ever I hear such talk, I find myself immediately on the alert, and somewhat skeptical. The flavor of Jacoby's talk was a bit rich in this department. And that seems more than mildly weird. It would be hard to avoid the conclusion that every generation has made numerous and meaningful contributions to culture, science, art (okay maybe that goes under culture), philosophy, literature (yeah under art, which goes under culture). This tone was, to my mind, somewhat histrionic.

Her complaint that people didn't read enough for instance was offered without a single reference. She further argued that actual reading of books was vastly superior to the use of Ibooks, and other text based forms of entertainment. Books, she thought offer the reader several levels of analysis and depth that nothing else can approach. This is a broad generalization based on her love of books apparently, because this charge too is without reference or study. Two of her most powerful and pessimistic assertions then are essentially baseless and stem largely from her personal tastes. She spent several minutes lamenting the popularity of video games. Anecdotally I noticed that you could agreement with this point would have been positively correlated with age. Looking at faces from young to old, Jacoby would have found agreement ascending with age. When asked about her thoughts on "text-based games" she was immediately dismissive.

"I hate the word text." She began her less than deep response. She lamented wikipedia, and the quality of information to be found on the internet. But consceded some games were probably okay. But in the end she maintained that movies, and games and the internet invited us to be passive recievers of information. How books do something different she did not really say. But the obvious rejoinder it seemed to me was that books invite such passivity as well as any other source of information. This is not a minor objection to her talk, but one that didn't diminish some of her more interesting points.

The most interesting of which is that American anti-rationalism, and American unreason are a by-product of some of the values we hold most dear, she argued that these tendencies have always fettered the American intellectual landscape, but that the past forty years has produced a boom in anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism, and lazy thinking. She offered a quote, (from whom is missing from my notes sadly) that she thought caught the spirit of much of the American attitude toward the life of the intellect.
"I like a man who can just read."

It is this sentiment and the acceleration of the unholy trinity mentioned above that are responsible for the rise of something she referred to as junk thought. Political pandering, words like "folks" lowering the bar instead of elevating it is certainly one of the fuels adding to the fire. She used the nomination of Sarah Palin as the most extreme example of the worst in the American experience.

The three forces most repsonsible for the deep problems facing American intellectualism.
1. Triumph of video over print.
2. Quixotic religious fundementaism (highlighting a huge dissonance between the known and myth)
3. Failing public education.

No doubt there is some truth in each of these things, but her analysis of at least one and three needs a vast amount of extra depth. She said things like "Reason and eduction are the foundation of rationalism. Not science." I am not even entirely sure what that might mean. Education? In what? Her lament of print's losses seems a bit premature since books seem to be booming. I think her main worry is the loss of newspapers. She conveniently is forgetting a huge history of policital activism in print news organizations. Papers were often the bullhorn of the rich and politically motivated. This trend is nothing new. A larger concern is the uniformity of news coverage brought about by the fact that more and more news organizations are owned by fewer and fewer people. That should concern us vastly more than the delivery system of the news itself.

A valid concern is the twenty-four hours a day, infotainment industry that does encourage a bit too much lounging around and over all lazyness.

Overall, Jacoby's talk has me interested in buying her book, despite the fact I suspect she is guilty of an, at times, shallow analysis that favors her preferences. I am sure it will provide an interesting and argumentative read.

After this, we broke for an extended brunch (which I most assurdedly did not do)/lunch/special luncheon time till the afternoon panel discussion. Allow me to voice a minor, or perhaps major complaint.

Paul Kurtz Special Luncheon address, which I did not attend seems like a silly, silly idea. The lunch cost something like ninety-five dollars to attend, and seemed more than mildly self-serving. At the lunch I would've been able to watch Paul Kurtz get an award, and then hear him speak. Giving the leader of CFI an award at a CFI sponsored event, at ninety-five dollars a plate just reeks of gratuitous bad taste. And given the amount of asking for money that happened over the course of the whole weekend, (they were trying to get 250,000 by the end of the weekend) the whole affair at the Hyatt seemed vastly too expensive. My main complaint is that if CFI is going to hold an event and dole out awards (or friends of CFI are going to dole out awards) why not encourage wider exposure by awarding someone outside the organization who is furthering the cause of humanism, secular government and skeptical thinking? Keeping it in-house smells too much like a restricted club.

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13 April 2009

12th World Congress of the Center For Inquiry: 9 April 2009 My first day gets off to a rocky start.

Center fo Inquiry's 12th World Congress

9 April 2009 (Bethesday MD)
My first day of the congress gets off to a bumpy, thoroughly unpleasant start. Leaving my brother-in-laws house I discover a 25.00 dollar parking ticket on my window and a seven mile journey takes forty-five minutes to complete. The free tour of the capitol to be led by Toni Van Pelt? Missed it by a few minutes. Damn it. Having got the cheapest package available, I am left sitting around for several hours to wait for the first panel discussion of the congress. As if that wasn't enough, while going through my Welcome to the Congress letter, I note that Christopher Hitchens will not be attending. Damn it again. However after getting settled in, I was able to meet some very nice people. Anna R. Holster,(Executive Director, D.C. CFI), Jennifer Beahan (Assistant Director, Michigan CFI) happened to be around and provided a nice introduction to the event. The six hours or so of lag time do allow me to drive around Bethesda and take in the sights (and most importantly find Potbelly's and an Irish eatery, Ri-Ras), as well as write for a bit and read.

Panel: The Influence of Darwin (Moderator: Derek Araujo, speakers: Edward Tabash, Barbara Forrest, David Contosta, and Michael Ruse)

The panel, as I understood it, was to be a discussion of the influence of Darwin. This it was decidedly not. While everyone gave lively engaging talks, only one of them managed to be, sort of, explicitedly on topic. Everyone else seemed to have brought their favorite axe to grind.

Edward Tabash gave an exceptionally lively talk on..well a lot of things. There was a lengthy discussion of Intelligent Design (ID) and its many scientific failings. He used evolutionary findings to refute the idea of designer. That is he made the case that the evidence of evolution does not support the idea of an intelligent designer. After that, Tabash disucssed issues of church state seperation, in what he continually referred to as, "a preview of the talk I will be giving tomorrow." All good, but not entirely on point. The closest I think he got to the topic under discussion was to echo Richard Dawkins point that it wasn't until after Darwin that one could be a intellectually satisfied atheist. Prior to Darwin the argument from design, most well articulated by William Paley, was the only decent explanation for the complexity and presence of life on Earth, and proved an objection to atheism very difficult to ignore. Tabash's talk was interesting, but all things I've heard him say elsewhere, and off point.

Barbara Forrest co-author of the well recieved Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design spoke after Tabash. I think her presentation was easily the best of the four panelists, but it was also the one most off topic. She recounted the unpleasant victory of ID/creationism in Louisianna, courtesy of the movement's facility with distortion, and an enthusiastic, powerful sympathizer in the form of Governor Bobby Jindal. It was a deeply depressing, talk. It was also utterly off point. Interesting to be sure, but was no panelist given an email about the subject of the discussion?

David Contosta, author of >Rebel Giants: The revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin followed Forrest. Contosta was the only commentor to offer a talk on the topic under discussion. Darwin and Lincoln, he argued, shared more than just a birthday, but many qualities that led them to greatness. Both left lasting changes on the culture, the reverberations of which we feel even into the present time. His analysis seemed a bit Freudian, strained relationships with their fathers, early death of mothers, depression, both men had some considerable disdain for slavery, and both men struggled with their agnosticism/atheism. In the modern era, Contosta argued that Lincoln probably wouldn't be elected in todays political climate. Contosta's talk while interesting remained somewhat shallow.

Michael Ruse mostly recaptitulated his argument with Richard Dawkins and Dawkin's book, The God Delusion. "It is the book I said made me ashamed to be an atheist." Ruse spent some time early in his lecture being slightly dismissive of the work of the Center For Inquiry, and its commitment to secular government. "Having given up one church, I'm not about to join another." He spent some time establishing his atheist bona fides, while at the same time more or less embracing Stephen J. Gould's non-overlaping magesteria (NOMA) concept, while never explicitedly identifying it as such. Gould's concept as you may or maynot remember was that religion and science are compatable so long as both respect the other's magesteria. NOMA works well on paper with limited progressive religious claims, but terribly in practice, because the believer assumed by NOMA is statistically rare.

Ruse's new philosophical move though, new to me anyway, was to suggest that if evolutionary biology did actually have implications that invalidated religious belief, that is if science actually does have something to say about God's existance then it follows that such sciences probably shouldn't be taught in classrooms. This is the weirdest of his claims, and one he was only willing to apply to the monotheisms. He had no problem with teaching astronomy, and physics even though they pose huge problems for believers in things like ESP, astrology, and the like. He and Tabash went round and roun about this. Tabash arguing that one needn't really spell out the implications of evolutionary theory, or astrophysics to satisfy the seperation criteria. The implications he argued are there if you care to follow the evidence, but not for teachers themselves to state. All a science teacher can do is teach the most current, well supported science and not worry too much one way or the other about the implications, Tabash argued. Ruse occilated on this point. At first he accused Tabash of intellectual dishonsesty then, as Tabash clarified, Ruse would come round for a bit, but then in the end seemed back where he started. The problem with his position of course is that since science often has broader implications that invariably step on the toes of ancient notions. If we were to follow the restriction of Ruse it would be nearly impossible to teach almost any science. Geology would have to go because it stands as a direct refutation of young earth creationism. Many other subjects would be disallowed by his criteria as well. He also thought that we gave characters like those we find at the Discovery Institute rhetorical weapons by suggesting that evolution in particular and science in general had broad implications about the likilihood of creators, and their religions. If science does have theological implications then he thought, perhaps it shouldn't be taught. Ruse suspects biologists everywhere ought to start suggesting that evolution has no implications for the presence or absence of a designer.

Ruse is an affable speaker, but undeniably, and perhaps deliberately obtuse. He maintained that something he referred to as basic christianity was perfectly compatable with evolutionary theory. He was not interested in defining this Christianity, nor discussing its frequency, or influence in the modern era. We were to rest assured though that it was quite compatable with science. I do not think that Ruse stuck around for the rest of the conference. I certainly did not see him again.

07 April 2009

Book Review The Straight Lead: The Core of Bruce Lee's Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do

Tilting at Windmills in the land where confirmation bias is king

(Before moving ahead, the uninitiated may be wondering what a straight lead even is. It is punch delivered with your forward or lead hand, similar to the power jab, but with the fist vertically held at impact. Here is an example taken from Bruce Lee's Fighting Method Volume 4: Advanced Techniques.

Boxers would probably just refer to it as the power jab, and not pay much attention to whether the fist was thumb's side up, or palms down. However Lee liked the arrangement very much, and it became the core of his attack and defense.)

This is an ambitious book. Much more ambitious than its single focus subject matter might lead you to believe. It is after all a book focused on a single punch, and a few of its variants. What can it be trying to say other than throw the straight lead like this, in the following situations? For Tom a discussion of the straight lead appears to be a vehicle to argue a great many other things, not least of which is the nature of what is, and is not Jeet Kune Do.

Starting with the good points we find the following. Where she is instructing the reader on the hows and whens of the straight lead, Tom's book is excellent. Her discussion of Lee's "small phasic bent-knee" stance? Peerless. Though she could have used vastly more sequence photos, and more cues to demonstrate how her body was moving through space. The prose is very helpful, very detailed but the new student is going to have trouble translating the written description into action without more visual cues. Also adding a strong engrossing flavor to the book, is that Tom has a wonderfully strong voice as a writer. She is engaging, witty, and the book never suffers from dullness. Certainly this is a trap into which a 205 page book on a single punch could have easily fallen. However her lively voice, even where you disagree, will carry you through the material rather quickly. And where she isn't namelessly impugning everybody else's approach to JKD except for Ted Wong's, it is a wonderfully challenging voice.

Beyond the punch instruction though, the book full of problems. Besides instruction her aim is to convince the reader no less than the following, straight punching is a lost art and has been since Dempsey, the straight lead is better than all other leading punches, and that this is scientifically proven to be so, as well as that the whole of Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do is scientific in its approach to fighting, that anyone not doing/focusing on what Bruce Lee taught late in his life (that is to say the material that Ted Wong teaches) is either mis-representing, misinterpreting Jeet Kune Do, or using the name to justify, falsely promote themselves, and Jeet Kune Do cannot be anything like what the Jeet Kune Do concepts people think it is. June Fan Jeet Kune Do according to Teri Tom and Ted Wong is constructed of a core of fencing, boxing and a little Wing Chun.

It is hard to know where to begin with such a long list. So I will start somewhere else. The main problem I see with Tom's book is that her analysis is terribly, terribly faulty, and chalk full of confirmation bias, and one sided presentation. She dresses her analyses with a great deal scientific explanation about what is occurring during the lead. She loves to cite Newton's laws of motion, and discuss gravity and say see, JKD follows the laws of science. By which I think she means physics. But so do all martial arts techniques. Watch any show from Fight Science, to The Human Weapon and you can see why a martial arts technique works according to the laws of physics. Unless magic powers are being claimed any technique will have an explanation falling out from F=ma, or F=G(m1m2/r^2. This doesn't establish anything like scientific proof that one technique is better than any other in all instances in all ranges so much as it establishes that human bodies are as subject to the laws of physics as other bodies. Any sense of a scientific approach to these questions is ruined by her method of backing up her assertions, and ideas. The book is copiously end-noted but the end notes are useless in establishing meaning. Her arguments in a nutshell take the following form. Bruce Lee, or his primary sources, Driscoll, Nadi, and Dempsey thought straight thrusts were more economical, powerful, and efficient than curved swings or strokes. We know this because the lead is biomechanically efficient, and exerts more force into the target more quickly endnote. But when we look at the endnote, it doesn't point us to research that demonstrates this the case, but rather Lee, Driscoll, Dempsey or Nadi saying the same thing. She is using her sources to support her sources. Whatever that may be it isn't scientific research. All of her sources may have been smart men and fighters but none of them were scientists. And none of them conducted any research on the subject of leads that might be considered scientific, empirical certainly, but limited in the broadness of the generalizations that can be made.

Her analysis is further hindered because she is never very clear with whom she is arguing. Is it the "bear-cats" (wild, undisciplined swingers) that so vexed Driscoll and Dempsey? Is it the classical martial artist the Karate, or Tae Kwon Do practitioner, who chamber their punches on their hips before firing (incidentally this is the only comparison for which she offers anything like a scientific examination, and strangely it is the only thing that fails to make the list on her short bibliography). Is it the people who throw their lead palms down like a boxer? Likely it is all of them but she doesn't have any hard data to back up her assertion that the brand of JKD she practices is better than other methods. It is in this area that her argument strikes some of its most inarticulate notes.

Her explanation of Driscoll, Dempsey, Nadi and Lee are told in such away to favor her analysis. There is no talk of other explanations, no review of other hypotheses. Driscoll and Dempsey complained that straight punching was a lost art form, and their analysis did much to inspire Lee. But it is possible that they were wrong in major ways. From Dempsey's day to today, boxing has been changing, namely in the areas of defensive postures and footwork. Is it possible that changes in footwork led to the changing of the straight lead? Heavy lateral movement makes shooting straights as a fencer problematic. In the modern era, one of the best straight punchers was George Foreman (the old one) and he constantly had to use his hooks to get people to stand in front of him to take his two best shots of his second career, his jab and his cross. No mention is made of this trend in boxing footwork. Boxing is devolved is all we get from Tom on the subject.

Jabs, and straight leads are excellent in situations of matched leads (that is both fighters have the same side forward). It is important to note Lee advocated that all of his students fight strong side forward. This would mean that most people under Lee fought same side (right) forward if the statistics of such things are anything by which to go. Is it possible that lead hand straight punches like the jab, power jab, and the thumbs up straight lead work better in a matched lead situation like a boxing coach at any gym will tell you. Unmatched leads typically puts your opponent's hand directly in the way of straight punches to his/her head. No mention is made of this old boxing maxim, nor any real indication that the author has ever heard of the problem. But it is something all advocates of the strong side forward approach should consider. It probably means that you will be fighting southpaw, against orthodox (left lead) and this reduces the success of straight lead punches.

Tom also goes to great lengths to demonstrate the superiority of the Jeet Kune Do stance over alternatives found in boxing and Wing Chun. While demonstrating how structurally safe you are while throwing the straight lead. Let me address the last point first. When you throw a proper left or right straight lead, you turn your body sideways, in an effort to get your hips and lead shoulder into the punch. This leads to the conclusion that you suddenly present a smaller target area to your opponent. And you do, but only from straight punches. Hooks of either the hands or feet will come in perpendicular to the plane of your body, which is all there for the taking if you miss, or otherwise fail in some way. The lead even when thrown correctly isn't unbeatable as she over and over again implies.

So in what way is the stance she advocates superior? Compared to other stances it is, she argues, the most efficient way to deliver the straight lead, as an initial technique, as a counter, as a stop hit (countering the opponents preparation or initial action). Are there any weaknesses? Apparently not, or at least none that she can imagine or entertain. Any fighting stance is a compromise. Thai boxers have a stance that favors the speedy and powerful use of both legs along mostly curving lines. This limits other options. Boxing has several stances that maximize some qualities while minimizing others. Wing Chun is stance heavily predicated on blocking and simultaneous use of both hands, and its stance reflects that. Not every trade off is negative or positive. The Jeet Kune Do stance is no different. It may be superior at delivering its lead hand thrust, and involving the lead leg, but its structure reduces dramatically the effectiveness of its rear tools. Is there a scientific reason for this. Here is Lee (by way of Ted Wong) on the subject,
"…being able to hit an opponent with good combination is satisfying, but if you can hit the target with one shot, then that's a sign of greatness.(Tom 2005)" Not a terribly scientific rationale to say the least.

While I think her argument for the superiority of the punch, and the stance crumble under the weight of all she fails to address her book's usefulness as an instructional resource is not in doubt, and as a read, it is plucky, challenging, and engaging. This was easily the most engaging book on martial arts I've read in quite some time. I for one cannot wait for her next two books.

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