29 November 2010

Dog lovers can gloat...

A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (S. Shultz, R. Dunbar, 2010) appears to demonstrate something that has long been suspected. The debate about the evolution of brain size, and thus intelligence and consciousness has been over the question of whether or not encephalization was universal (that is to say most lineages exhibited it) or whether the evolution of brain size affected groups differently and was correlated with certain biological and ecological factors. What Shultz and Dunbar demonstrat in their paper is that highly social species tend to have larger brains than solitary species.

This isn't entirely earth shattering of course. Because on one level it has been rather obvious that evolutionary encephalization (increases in brain size relative to body mass) hasn't been exactly uniform across the mammals. Predators have larger brains than their prey. Social species tend to have larger brains than non-social species. Omnivores tend to have larger brains than specialists. However researchers have, up to this point, drawn their conclusions by comparing extant species. What is unique about the current research is that it examines encephalization within evolutionary lineages rather than between extant species.

Click on the link to read the Sciencenet Daily summary. Also you can, and should read the abstract.


22 November 2010

And the winner.....

.....Wasn't me.
I'm referring of course to my entry in NPR's Three Minute Fiction: Round Five. The rules were simple, and the beginning and end predetermined. Every entry, no greater than six hundred words, had to begin with, "Some people swore that the house was haunted," and had to end with, "nothing was ever the same after that."

While my story wasn't selected the whole exercise was an incredible amount of fun. My first draft of the story was way, waaaay too long, and the process of cutting, and getting out the story in 600 hundred words was a real challenge. It isn't easy to cut things that you really like, but having that hard six hundred word limit made it a bit less brutal.
Only a bit less.

Since my story wasn't selected, I suppose I am free to post it here. Enjoy.
(Anyone wanting to see this house, and to see if my memories of it match as well with reality as I felt they did when I was describing the house in the story need only drive North on Round Barn Road in Richmond Indiana. Its just a few minutes, maybe five from I-40. A friend of mine once told me, at least I think it was her (she knows who she is), that it was a popular hang out for what would later probably have been termed the freaks and geeks of RHS. Or maybe they would have been labeled the alternative crowd? I confess I'm clueless. Oh well, its hardly germane. The house stands and is abandoned, or it did and it was, the last time I called Richmond home, and you should go visit it.

I've never been inside of course. Some people swore the house was haunted.....

Max Driffill II

Some people swore that the house was haunted. An empty house, big, and abandoned, represents a hole that cries out for explanation. When facts aren’t available, people often feel free to invent them.

That was how Matt and I always thought the house on that old road came to be haunted. Maybe it had once been pretty. It was big but not obscene, faded but still yellow, and the frames around the windows had once been white. North of the house, there had stood a massive tree. Its trunk was broken at the base and the tree, its bark long departed and most of its limbs stripped by nature and time, lay disappearing into the wild grass. A lone strip of gutter hung from the back of the house. The house had no neighbors but empty fields, and a dark stretch of empty road between a nowhere city and a nowhere town.

I only heard a few of the mutually inconsistent stories about the house. Their utility for us was that they served to keep people away. Such isolation, even creepy isolation, was ideal for two young lovers. We rode our bikes to the house several nights of every month.

On that night I was sitting on the kitchen counter, Matt standing in front me. We were engaged in an old, mostly wordless, debate when the door to the basement drifted open, and a man emerged from the shadows. Matt and I both screamed. I pulled Matt close and we looked in horror at the man lit only by dim moonlight.

He looked at us, as he put an index finger to his lips. He crossed to the kitchen window and peered into the Indiana night. It was impossible not to notice that he actively avoided standing fully in front of the window. He was tall and his dark jeans, Superman T-shirt, and green flannel seemed well worn. His feet were bare. As he bent to look out the window, his green flannel drifted upward, and revealed a huge pistol-grip glinting faintly in the dim light. He shook his head and then looked back at us, scratching at cheeks covered in stubble.
“Sorry boys, but you may be in this now.” He said. “Better get your clothes back on and head downstairs.” He cocked a thumb toward the basement. “You’ll probably be safe… tonight.”

A car pulled up to the front of the house as we descended. We watched from shadows through a broken window in the basement. The driver wore a dark suit and a wild beard and he oozed out of the car.
“Did you go and make friends Agni?” The driver shouted as he moved fast for something underneath his jacket. The night erupted in light and noise and the driver pitched backwards, lifeless.

Agni walked to the driver and crouched down. When he stood up he was holding two guns. He walked calmly toward us and crouched again, but this time in front of our window.

He thrust a cold pistol toward me. He regarded us both with sad eyes. “I hope you can be hard men because hard men are now after you.” He turned and walked to the dark sedan. He looked back at us before he got in. “It’ll always happen like this, when you are alone and away from prying eyes.” Agni got in the car and drove away.
Two ravens were sitting on the dead tree. They seemed to be looking at us in our dark hole. They called their bizarre calls and flew away.
Nothing was ever the same after that.

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21 November 2010

Christopher Hitchens and the ABC1

Here is the two part, oddly in four parts, ABC1 Lateline interview with Christopher Hitchens. Tony Jones is an excellent interviewer, and Hitch is in top form. I think Hitch handles the question of Pascal's wager, more concisely, and with more eloquence than I did.

The first two parts are largely concerned with how Hitch is dealing with his unhappy landing in Tumortown.

The second part of these interviews involves a discussion of his false journey from the intellectual left, to the right. I say false because his politics remains essentially unchanged, with two exceptions. Firstly he thinks the anti-war movement has become the reactionary political stance. Secondly he has rejected Marxism in broad forms, but would probably still favor some forms of democratic socialism. He appears to me, and indeed he says it of himself, a defender of the human mind's most noble achievement to date. I am referring, of course, to the Enlightenment.

18 November 2010

"New Trends" in Islamic Anti-semitism.

Below is a clip of Anti-semitism that seems to be over represented in Islam. My first response to the following clip, was to put the following question to a friend of mine, the blogger al Rawandi, who is an Islamic Studies major, and really the only authority I know on the subject of Islam. I was not sure how alarmed I should be by the clip. This was my friend's response.
I am not sure how alarmed one should be. It is an every day event in the Arab broadcast world. I remember watching an Arab show on a weekly basis, called "A Knight Without a Horse". I was shocked to see a secret cabal of Jews meeting and planning the takeover of the world and the murder of non-Jews. It was one of the most popular shows in Egypt for as long as it ran.

I think things are well stated; "Even if the Jews leave Palestine we will continue to hate them because our religion tells us to."

Now of course, there are people, mostly here in the West, who would patronize these thugs and say "No they don't really mean that" but I will take it from the horse's mouth.

Watch the clip. I would encourage anyone who has further insight, thoughts, critique, and commentary to join in the discussion in the comments section below. Also, by clicking on the title of this blog post, you can see a discussion of this video at Richard Dawkins website (to see the discussion simply scroll down past Richard Dawkins' opening statement). It appears that any discussion of Islamic anti-semitism becomes a referendum on Israeli policy. This seems to me to miss the point. The animus in the following clip rarely describes Israelis. The scholars in these clips primarily identify Jews as the object of their scorn and unapologetically state "Even if the Jews leave Palestine we will continue to hate them because our religion tells us to."

New Trends in Arabic Anti-semitism from Henrik Clausen on Vimeo.

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17 November 2010

A&E Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal. Credulity as entertainment.

It seems harmless enough, a cable station producing a reality show about kids who are alleged to have psychic powers, being mentored by three adult psychics who have been there and done that. Joining these three adult psychics is a psychotherapyst. Perhaps the producers are being led by some dim need to achieve scientific balance, or perhaps they are simply trying to recapitulate the popular late 1960s, early 1970s formula for psychic dramas, which constantly had several psychics and at least one scientific protagonist. For an example of this very specific formula, I would direct you to the dated but fairly engaging Hell House by the influential horror writer Richard Matheson.

However, shouldn't we suspect the motives of any network, or coven of producers that begins their program with the following disclaimer:
The views of the occult and the supernatural documented in this show are not necessarily those of A&E Network. (Emphasis added)

Shouldn't we be trained by this kind of disclaimer to realize that what we are about to see, at the very least, is purely a money making endeavor that will not be even slightly edifying? It seems likely that we might also expect that any specific claims made by any such program that follows such a disavowal are very likely to be bullshit of the most unadulterated variety. This is exactly the stance that we should take, especially given the subject matter. But judging by the comments on clips of the show that exist at youtube, there isn't as much reservation about these things as one might hope given that the year is 2010.

As cheap entertainments go, it would be difficult to imagine an endeavor more casually harmful to everyone involved from viewer to participant to producer. The only people who may benefit are those members of a profession that has been tainted from its foundation by charlatans of every concievable stripe.

In the clip above Travis discusses the satisfaction he feels at giving up information to people, and is largely unconcerned if it is validated. "Maybe I help give a spirit some peace." He says. He also likes the idea of the sense of closure (almost as bogus a concept in itself as the psychic phenomena that are alleged to take place in every show)he helps people achieve. His favorite example of his talents is of a letter he recieved containing a missing person notice. He was compelled to loose his considerable psychic talents on the subject and "discovered" that the young woman had been attacked by an older man. He called the police, who it appears were nice, with this trenchant observation. After telling the viewer about this story he makes a pretty strange admission. I don't know if the information I gave helped in anyway, but he sure felt good having given it to the nice police officers. What a pathetic waste of time, and energy. Travis's vinette also doubles as a fine example of New Age solipsism. Does any one even need powers to make such a banal and obvious prediction? The statistics on missing persons makes Travis' "prediction" simply a safe bet. This prediction boils to this: young woman attacked by older man. It is possible to say less helpful or useful things about a missing person's case, but not easily. That is but one way Travis and his fellow psychics fail to help the police, and families. They also, when they can insert themselves into desperate investigations, waste investigators time. Given the horrid track record of these so-called psychics isn't that time that could be better spent following more reliable leads?

Here is one of the leading psychics proving why they should never ever be trusted.

Adding new levels of exploitation on top of old, Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal goes beyond the standard objections. Not only does the show often exploit victims of all sorts of traumas, it exploits the very children it purports to help in a manner that can only be described as callous. Of course the show exploits victims by dragging them through a suite of emotional pain for cheap ratings, while "demonstrating" the extreme powers of the kids and their mentors. It exploits the kids by essentially ignoring whatever kinds of real troubles they are having and affirms their dubious world views in absence of real evidence. In effect it condemns the kids to a life where, unless extremely lucky or bright, they will be largely marginalized, while teaching them how to part credulous fools from their money, and well-being.
PSYCHIC KIDS: CHILDREN OF THE PARANORMAL™, profiles children who live with an incredible secret: they have psychic abilities. Feeling scared and isolated, these kids have nowhere to turn...until now. Help is on the way in the form of psychic/mediums Chip Coffey, Chris Fleming and Kim Russo, who themselves grew up with these senses, and licensed psychotherapist Edy Nathan, who has more than 20 years experience. (Emphasis added)

Lets assume that this show has actually identified adolescents in crisis, and who suffer some kind of estrangement from family and former friends. Does this show help them? How could it? It reinforces their beliefs in the paranormal on nothing more than wishful thinking, and it insulates them from critical thinking. If the producers of the show at A&E, or Chip Coffee, Chris Fleming, Kim Russo and Edy Nathan were truly interested in the well-being of these kids, and the well-being of the lives they molest they would go out of their way to make sure that everyone involved who claims to have magical powers actually had magically powers. It would go beyond breathlessly stating on no evidence whatsoever, that "they have psychic abilities." A responsible show, operating under the umbrella of a responsible network would go out of its way not to be encouraging delusional thinking of such troubled kids. Because teaching the kids to believe any old thing on shitty evidence is no real help for them as they grow older. Maybe some of these kids are actually psychic, maybe none of them are, wouldn't it be better to know the truth than to be encouraged to live in a fantasy that could potentially harm them, or others? It seems the answer to this question has to be yes.

While A&E, and the grotesque Chip Coffee et al profit off of the troubled kids and the damaged families the show and the network also do an active disservice to the public at large by peddling such uncritical trash. The design of the show is all about reducing critical thinking in the audience. It presents the principles, Chip and his low rent, vaguery spouting X-Men, in the most favorable light possible. It is slickly edited, and scored. The kid's troubles are highlighted, along with their earnestness. It is a troubling exercise. And if it is as popular as A&E suggests, it is contributing to the overall credulity of our public. If the show's popularity rises, we may see increasingly credulous people turning to a profession that is historically not even remotely honest to solve very real problems. It isn't hard to imagine that as shows like this become more popular the resultant interest in the paranormal will hinder investigations into missing persons and hard to solve murders, waste valuable resources of law enforcement agencies who will eventually research the possiblity, find it lacking (probably) only after the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. But it gives some of the people involved peace of mind some might say. Is peace of mind so cheaply achieved worth even the potential cost of hindering one real investigation? Is it worth the expenditure of anyone's hard earned money? Do we want more tax payer dollars to ever fund men staring at goats (look it up)?

There is no evidence for the claims of psychics, they have no documented success at helping solve any case at all. All shows like this do is increase public credulity and Increasing the credulity of society is never a good idea. It often adds to the general misery.
Shame on you A&E.

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