20/200 foresight

Two of Business Week’s worst predictions of 2008.

9. “In today’s regulatory environment, it’s virtually impossible to violate rules.” —Bernard Madoff, money manager, Oct. 20, 2007

10. A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, the title of a book by conservative commentator Shelby Steele, published on Dec. 4, 2007.

Here’s one from Foreign Policy.

“[A]nyone who says we’re in a recession, or heading into one—especially the worst one since the Great Depression—is making up his own private definition of ‘recession.’” —Donald Luskin, The Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2008

Barry Ritholtz has a collection of ’em.

Late update! Bonus prediction of the actual future! With maps!

Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar. Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces — with Alaska reverting to Russian control.

57510B02-02FE-46EA-9F92-721947170395.jpg

via Felix Salmon

The tricky relation between religion and IQ

Andrew Brown has a longish post on IQ and religiosity, among other things. It’s worth a look, but I’m reproducing a bit of it here for the Wesley quote.

The tricky relation between religion and IQ

… But could something similar be true of religion? In particular, could dogmatic and fundamentalist religion be more useful to the poor and wretched? Could it lift them to the stage where they could experiment with doubt, with nuance, with novelistic thinking? The history of the early Methodists suggests exactly this. Remember John Wesley’s reflection on his own success:

The Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.

Everything you know is wrong

Also: sugar doesn’t make kids hyperactive; snacking at night doesn’t make you fat (at least not any more than snacking elsewhen); hangover cures are bunk; poinsettias aren’t poisonous; and suicides don’t rise over the holiday period.

The paper is available at the British Medical Journal.

Guardian: Scientists debunk myth that most heat is lost through head

When it comes to wrapping up on a cold winter’s day, a cosy hat is obligatory. After all, most of our body heat is lost through our heads – or so we are led to believe.

Closer inspection of heat loss in the hatless, however, reveals the claim to be nonsense, say scientists who have dispelled this and five other modern myths.

The myth is thought to have arisen through a flawed interpretation of a vaguely scientific experiment by the US military in the 1950s. In those studies, volunteers were dressed in Arctic survival suits and exposed to bitterly cold conditions. Because it was the only part of their bodies left uncovered, most of their heat was lost through their heads.

And via a Guardian blog,

It’s not the first time Vreeman and Carroll have questioned common beliefs. Last year, they discredited a clutch of other oft-repeated statements, including that our hair and fingernails continue to grow after death; that shaved hair grows back faster; that reading in dim light ruins your eyes; and that we only use 10 percent of our brains.

via Yves Smith

Bleed the World

Bleed the World

At Christmas time we should always spare a thought for those less fortunate than us. After 20 years of bleeding the world, the global financial community has fallen on hard times. These people desperately need our thoughts, prayers and lots of our money. If you have any investments or savings left, or any money left over at the end of the month please, please give generously. Merry Christmas.

Air traffic video

A video simulation of worldwide air traffic over 24 hours has been making the rounds. The YouTube version leaves something to be desired, though. I think I’ve tracked down the original.
air traffic
The site is Swiss; here’s Google’s translation of the relevant text:

The AirTraffic team presents the global air traffic (simulation over 24 hours). You have 2 file formats to choose from:

This animation was created in collaboration with the Technorama in Winterthur.

This is sick

…in so very many ways.

bushWASHINGTON (AP) President Bush is set to deliver the final commencement speech of his presidency to graduating students at Texas A&M University.

Bush plans to offer some advice for the 3,700 graduates getting their degrees and looking for jobs in what’s the worst economic climate since the Great Depression.

Ayn Rand’s A Selfish Christmas (1951)

From John Scalzi’s evergreen 10 Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time.

Ayn Rand’s A Selfish Christmas (1951)

ayn randIn this hour-long radio drama, Santa struggles with the increasing demands of providing gifts for millions of spoiled, ungrateful brats across the world, until a single elf, in the engineering department of his workshop, convinces Santa to go on strike. The special ends with the entropic collapse of the civilization of takers and the spectacle of children trudging across the bitterly cold, dark tundra to offer Santa cash for his services, acknowledging at last that his genius makes the gifts — and therefore Christmas — possible. Prior to broadcast, Mutual Broadcast System executives raised objections to the radio play, noting that 56 minutes of the hour-long broadcast went to a philosophical manifesto by the elf and of the four remaining minutes, three went to a love scene between Santa and the cold, practical Mrs. Claus that was rendered into radio through the use of grunts and the shattering of several dozen whiskey tumblers. In later letters, Rand sneeringly described these executives as “anti-life.”

Simple Simon Says

Below is NPR’s Scott Simon’s commentary from last Saturday morning (you can listen to it by following the link).

Setting aside the implication that we shouldn’t bother with terrorist motivations (that’s just silly; how, for instance, could Irish terrorism have been stopped without consideration of the motivations of both sides?), and setting aside the London Blitz, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Bible seems to me to be a very peculiar standard to introduce in this context, except perhaps as a cautionary example.

Two examples will suffice. The first is the hero and judge Samson (think Delilah—that Samson). Samson had an extensive career in terror, but let’s just recall his last act. He’s been captured (cherche la femme) by the Philistines, and eventually brought out to a temple full of civilians, “three thousand men and women”, says the Good Book.

And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.

Why? Revenge, we suppose, but let’s not inquire into his motives.

Now set the clock back a bit. Israel has just been delivered from Egypt, Moses is dead, and Joshua is the new leader. They’ve traveled to Canaan, and the city of Jericho, where they spend several days marching around its walls. Finally,

…the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.

And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.

“But there are times and crimes,” Simon says, “that remind me how often the Bible gets it right.”

Evil in Mumbai

I get increasingly uncomfortable with the convention of journalism that requires us to say that so far, we don’t know the motives of the people who carried out this week’s attacks in Mumbai.

A word like “motive” seems to imply there was reason or purpose. It suggests that, however profane their actions, the terrorists had the incentive of some goal in mind.

But after covering too many killings, as a reporter or host, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Oklahoma City or Somalia, I’ve come to the conclusion that the perpetrators of such crimes might just be … evil.

Evil is a word that many people of my generation shrink from using. It seems so imprecise and uneducated — biblical, rather than cerebral and informed.

But there are times and crimes that remind me how often the Bible gets it right.

At some point, someone might record a statement, credited to some group, claiming responsibility for the killings in Mumbai, and send it out to the world. At some point, someone might write some kind of screed, display his education by calling it a manifesto that gets quoted by the best news organizations, including our own.

Terrorists may rationalize their actions with political rhetoric. They may band together, train together, and, ultimately, die together, and thereby give each other the strength and reassurance to believe that they are not alone. Other people share their convictions and help shoulder their actions. So how can they be crazy, much less evil?

But Romeo Dallaire, the courageous Canadian general who tried to stop massacres in Rwanda, once told us that evil men and women see no innocents in the world. They will slaughter mothers without conscience and their children, too, because mothers give birth to children who can grow up to be their opponents.

Evil people are not dumb, he said. They simply use the power of their mind to cut off their conscience.

The people killed this week in Mumbai were not collateral damage, which has become an ugly enough term, but the very objects of damage: human beings who became the targets of a murder spree, however terrorists and apologists may ultimately embroider the assault with supposed political significance. Americans, Britons, Israelis, Indians and Jews seemed to be the particular targets. But those who died were from all over the world and at all stages of life: married couples, religious pilgrims, old people and young people, a father and his young daughter who were learning about meditation.

As investigations and analysis continue over the next few weeks, it may be good to refresh ourselves with the memory of their worthy lives.

The only warmth in my life is the toilet seat

I can tell you, from personal experience, that this is all pretty amazing stuff. The US is without doubt, um, behind in the field of toilet technology. Far behind.

BBC: The art of the toilet in Japan

FA5E6591-5A87-44E2-B188-1BB96AA372BC.jpgNo country takes toilets quite so seriously as Japan.

Machines with heated seats, built-in bidets and a dynamic range of flushing options are almost ubiquitous in homes and public buildings.

A poem recently published by a stressed-out salary man captured their comforting appeal with haiku-like brevity. “The only warmth in my life is the toilet seat,” he mourned.

But lavatories here can do much more than keep you warm. One even sends a tiny electrical charge through the user’s buttocks to check their body-fat ratio.

The dignity of living beings with regard to plants

plantThe Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) and the citizens of Switzerland were awarded the 2008 Ig Nobel Peace Prize for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity. The report isn’t very long; here follow its (not necessarily unanimous) conclusions, along with a decision tree that illustrates their reasoning process.

Despite the Ig Nobel context, this is serious work, and the report is worth reading.

The Dignity of Living Beings With Regard to Plants. Moral Consideration of Plants for Their Own Sake

1. Arbitrariness:
The Committee members unanimously consider an arbitrary harm caused to plants to be morally impermissible. This kind of treatment would include, e.g. decapitation of wild flowers at the roadside without rational reason.

2. Instrumentalisation:
For the majority the complete instrumentalisation of plants – as a collective, as a species, or as individuals – requires moral justification.

3. Ownership of plants:
For the majority here too, plants – as a collective, as a species, or as individuals – are excluded for moral reasons from absolute ownership. By this interpretation no one may handle plants entirely according to his/her own desires. A minority concludes that no limits apply to handling plants insofar as they are property.

4. Genetic modification:
According to the majority position, there is nothing to contradict the idea of dignity of living beings in the genetic modification of plants, as long as their independence, i.e. reproductive ability and adaptive ability are ensured. Social-ethical limits on the genetic modification of plants may exist, but are not the object of this discussion.

5. Patenting:
For the majority the ethical justification of patenting plants is a question of social ethics. It is not one involving the consideration of plants for their own sake and therefore not the object of this discussion either. For a minority the patenting of plants as such is morally impermissible and contradicts the dignity of living beings with regard to plants.

6. Diversity:
Genetic modification of plants should, in the majority opinion, always involve consideration of conserving and safeguarding the natural, i.e. not man-made, network of relationships.

7. Proportionality:
A majority considers any action with or towards plants that serves the self-preservation of humans to be morally justified, as long as it is appropriate and follows the principle of precaution.

decision tree

Black Friday

James Wolcott.

“Blitz Line Starts Here”

Back from my whirlwind inspection of Maryland, which I’ve become convinced no longer exists except as a simulacrum of itself, as Jean Baudrillard might observe, were he ever to spend Thankgiving in Maryland, watching the shopping malls roll by through the passenger window. The mood was modestly upbeat among the kinfolk and the kind strangers who roped me into conversation, betraying little distress over the prospect that next Thanksgiving many of us may be living in rusty sheds and hunting squirrel for food, depending on how all those stimulus packages go. This morning, as I packed, I had the TV on the local stations and CNBC, where it was one fluffy report after another about Black Friday, an annual event I have come to loathe to the very marrow. I had the TV on mute and noticed that one of the female anchors was pulling a long face, unusual given the iron-baton upbeat tone that prevails on this most hallowed of shopping days. I unmuted, and heard the report about the temporary store employee trampled to death at a Wal-Mart in Long Island by a frenzied mob unable to contain themselves by the mad scent of deep discounts. “Suddenly, witnesses and the police said, the doors shattered, and the shrieking mob surged through in a blind rush for holiday bargains.” Jdimytai Damour was the victim’s name.

Whether or not this particular store was negligent in providing security and crowd control will be determined following an investigation, but it seems to be that local and cable news also bear partial responsibility for this man’s death, for helping incite such trampling. For days preceding Black Friday the local and cable news outfits run item after item about “doorbuster sales,” stoking the sense of anticipation and making it seem like family fun, reminiscent of that old game show where contestants raced through a store stocking their cart with anything they could pull from the shelves. Local news stations position reporters–usually bright, chipper young women who joke with the anchordesk about how cold it is or how late they often wait until the last minute to do their own shopping, har har–to interview the idiots in line. The next morning more reporters are stationed out in front of individual malls, with cameras positioned inside the show to capture the store opening from the store’s perspective. One network had the camera sitting at a low angle for that thundering-hooves effect, and when the doors opened and the bodies piled through it did look like something out of Red River. The reporters later interview shoppers after they’ve snared their booty and it’s all done with this air of frolic, even this year, when the anchors made so many nodding allusions to the “bad economy” you would have thought it was a meteorological condition, an oppressive damp fog that had blanketed the nation’s midsection, impeding visibility.

What you don’t see in these Black Friday updates are interviews with the people who work in these mall chains, who have to show up at even more ungodly hours than do the shoppers in order to stock the shelves and prepare for the store openings. Openings that get nearer to the Thanksgiving meal each year, with some stores opening at midnight on Thanksgiving day and others at 4 AM on Black Friday, forcing workers to cut short their own holiday plans and put in exhausting zombie hours. It’s become an arms race between the major chains, and putting a stop to these excesses and exploitations is a stellar case for unionization. I see countless inane interviews with shoppers carrying bags full of booty, interviewer and interviewee competing to see who can be more effing cutesy, but nothing with the cashiers or shelvers after they’ve put in a long shift. How much does a security guard or greeter make at one of these malls? It never occurs to any reporter (or assignment editor) to ask; it would be a breach of journalistic etiquette to try anything that Studs Terkel. If nothing else, it would be nice if CNBC and the other cable networks would at least stop hyping Black Friday as if it were the Super Bowl, grinning and ruminating about it as if it were some durable and endearing national tradition. Quit treating shoppers loaded with merchandise dragging their fat butts across the parking lot as if they were some hardy breed of buffalo hunter heeding the call of the wild. For an ironic postscript, you can hardly do better than this:

About the time that Mr. Damour was killed, a shopper at a Wal-Mart in Farmingdale, 15 miles east of Valley Stream, said she was trampled by a crowd of overeager customers, the Suffolk County police reported. The woman sustained a cut on her leg, but finished her shopping before filing the police report, an officer said.

John Cole: Happy Thanksgiving, but…

What he said.

Abomination

One of the nice things about getting old is that you don’t have to deal with garbage like the Jonas Brothers until some scumbag at Fox decides it is what you need to see during the halftime show of a football game. In my case, I had never even heard of them until five minutes ago. I wish that were still the case.

I am not sure who is responsible for what I just endured, but Gitmo is too good for them. At least my turkey, despite what Yglesias thinks, was pretty damned good.

Andrew Brown: What is it that makes an embryo human, and when?

Andrew Brown’s account of a conference/debate on embryo research is worth reading, but too long to quote in its entirety. Herewith the beginning and end; follow the link and read the whole thing.

Andrew Brown: What is it that makes an embryo human, and when?

I don’t know any field of argument where the line between Christian and secular reasoning is so sharp as in embryo research. What I mean here is that the scientist proceeds from what can be done to reasoning about the nature of the things it can be done to: the Christian starts with an intuition about the nature of the subject, and then decides what may be done to it.

At a conference yesterday organised by the Progress Educational Trust, representatives of different faith traditions — and the secular philosopher John Harris — gave their views on what it is permissible to do with human embryos. The sharpest, and so the most valuable arguments came between Harris and the representatives of Catholic orthodoxy, whose champion on the panel (there were others in the audience) was Professor David Jones, of St Mary’s College, Twickenham.

This is where the God of orthodox Christianity comes in handy, because he is by definition the only being who can value everything entirely for its own sake. Everything else in the universe — possibly everything in the universe — finds other things valuable and worthwhile in as much as they serve its purposes. Certainly there is nothing and no one is supremely valuable to all human beings. No Martian anthropologist would conclude that our species thinks that other people’s babies have much value.

So why do we think that they ought to?

How to run a con

Paul Zak, Psychology Today Blogs: How to Run a Con.

The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you. Conmen ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable. Because of THOMAS [The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System], the human brain makes us feel good when we help others—this is the basis for attachment to family and friends and cooperation with strangers. “I need your help” is a potent stimulus for action.

via Bruce Schneier

Sunday godblogging: Andrew Brown and William James

I first came across Andrew Brown through his fine 1999 book The Darwin Wars (jacket blurb from Daniel Dennett: ‘I wouldn’t admit it if Andrew Brown were my friend. What a sleazy bit of trash journalism’).

Much of Brown’s beat has been coverage of religion (in the UK), and he approaches the subject with considerable sympathy. The “wars” in the Darwin book are not centrally religious (well, not in the God sense), since the subject is primarily internecine intellectual battles, not evolution vs creationism. But buried in a footnote was a signal to me that Brown and I shared a particular point of view: “The clearest and most delightful example of how to think about religious belief is still William James’s The Varieties of Religion Experience” (p171 in the 1999 UK edition). Indeed.

Like Brown, I came to recognize the virtues of Varieties rather late. My undergraduate focus was on the later Wittgenstein, and while of course I encountered James, he didn’t really click with me until I reread Varieties (and subsequently a great deal more of James) decades later.

[A digression: there seems to me to be an affinity between the later James and the later Wittgenstein, though I’d be hard-pressed to define exactly what I mean by that. Russell Goodman’s little book Wittgenstein and William James is interesting, but to my mind too much focused on the less interesting early work of both philosophers.]

But I should let Brown speak for himself; you’ll find more of his on his personal blog, Helmintholog (he wrote a book on nematode research a while back).

(I do beg Andrew Brown and the Guardian to forgive me for my rather extensive, nay, wholesale, quoting of this piece.)

How I lost my unfaith

When I started to write about religion I had no doubt that the future would be more secular and no less rational than the past I had grown up in. I was astonished to discover that there were still educated people who believed that St Paul had anything of interest to say about anything. It seemed obvious that they would fade away even within the church as they had faded outside. I thought that people who had learned about science could not take seriously the possibility of a world which was, as Carl Sagan put it, “demon-haunted”. I made my 13-year-old son read The Selfish Gene, and asked Richard Dawkins to sign his copy.

I suppose it’s 15 years since any of those hopes seemed plausible to me. Today, there are more people calling themselves atheists in the US than ever before, but superstition – as distinct from organised religion – is also a huge and growing business. Astrologers are the highest paid writers on Fleet Street. Creationism is just as absurd as it ever was, but much better funded. Globally, there have never been more believers alive than there are today, just as there have never been more slaves than in today’s world.

So it’s obvious that my earlier faith in the progress of reason was misplaced. The future may very well be more secular, but it won’t be any more rational without a tremendous moral effort — and any collective moral effort will have much of the characteristics of a religion, including a tendency to objectify and later to personify the abstractions by which we orient ourselves in world.

I still don’t for a moment believe in petitionary prayer or an intervening God; as I have said earlier; I don’t even think that the existence of God is a very interesting question. What has changed is what I believe about belief.

The trigger was two-fold. One was reading William James with real attention, but what had provoked that was rereading The Selfish Gene after a prolonged absence while I had been writing about religion. What that book said about biology seemed to me luminous and profound. What it said (in passing) about Christianity was palpable nonsense. I don’t mean here the opinion of God. I mean the description of faith, and of the psychology of belief.

No matter how often is it repeated that religious faith is uniquely and by definition a matter of assent to propositions for which there is no evidence, this simply won’t do as a description. Quite probably some or all forms of religion do involve assent to untrue propositions but so does any programme to change the world. So, for that matter, does belief in memes, or supposing that we, uniquely as a species, can overcome the tyranny of our selfish genes.

The subtle melancholy of Williams James, drifting like a fog into the bright certainties of his Victorian audience and quietly rusting them with doubt, was – and remains – much more realistic. James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience addressed head-on the paradox apparent even 120 years ago, that some people need to have faith to live at all even while everything they know about science suggests it is misplaced or wrong.

This isn’t the only form of religious belief, or even the most important one. The temperament that finds James attractive is not all that widespread. But he does — like Marx — locate the wellsprings of belief in the human heart. Nor does he suppose, as Marx did, that we could transcend the present limitations of our hearts in a revolutionary spasm of enlightenment.

We are all such helpless failures in the last resort.

He wrote:

The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.

Now I submit that the only kind of atheist who does not feel like this sometimes is one who does not feel at all that they are one clay with the lunatics who believe; or else someone who, like Conrad in a letter of about the same period, feels confident enough in his own work not to care:

What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victim of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. To be part of the animal kingdom under the conditions of this earth is very well – but as soon as you know of your slavery, the pain, the anger, the strife — the tragedy begins. We can’t return to nature since we can’t change our place in it. Our refuge is in stupidity, in drunkenness of all kinds, in lies, in beliefs, in murder, thieving, reforming — in negation, in contempt — each man according to the promptings of his particular devil. There is no morality, no knowledge, and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen in a convex or a concave mirror, is always but a vain and fleeing appearance.

Both these grim visions are better and more cheerful than the religious prospect of eternal damnation. (I really do not think that anyone sane can contemplate steadily the Calvinist doctrine of eternal conscious torment.) But they are hardly cheerful ones, and they certainly don’t make one optimistic about a future of sunlit rationality.

Oddly enough, I think that James the psychologist was here more realistic about human nature than Conrad the novelist. Perhaps novelists can only make their points sidelong, by incarnation. But either way, when you carry the atheist programme to its conclusion, and naturalise religious belief, you are left with something which grows from the ineradicable desires of the human heart. Of course, a Buddhist might say it is our only hope to eradicate desire – but what is Buddhism but a religion itself?

I don’t doubt that it is possible to extinguish any particular theology and almost any religious community. But when they are gone, what stands in their place are different mythologies. William James was probably the father of the naturalistic study of religion: the psychology of religious experience is studiedly neutral as to the reality of whatever provoked these psychological experiences. But when the study of religion has been entirely naturalised, one of the things we can no longer do is to demonise believers. It may be that psychology tells us that we will continue to demonise our enemies whether or not we decently can: the trick has just proved too useful in the past. But in that case we will hardly have moved into a bright new world of rationality.

10 Most Annoying Phrases?

This list is purported represents “linguistic mangling and overused buzzwords in a database called the Oxford University Corpus”, as reported in a new book, Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare, by Jeremy Butterfield.

Oxford Researchers List Top 10 Most Annoying Phrases

1 — At the end of the day
2 — Fairly unique
3 — I personally
4 — At this moment in time
5 — With all due respect
6 — Absolutely
7 — It’s a nightmare
8 — Shouldn’t of
9 — 24/7
10 — It’s not rocket science

I dunno. With all due respect to the folks at Oxford, at the end of the day they shouldn’t of included “24/7”, which I personally think is a useful addition to the language.

Evangelical teen sex

Read all about it. Andrew Brown.

Teenage sex among American evangelicals: who knew?

Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas in Austin, conducted a survey of 3,400 American teens from which it emerged that white evangelical Protestants have sex younger than any other religious group but black Protestants. They are also less likely to use contraception than other groups, especially secular ones.

Other sociologists turned up some fascinating facts about the “purity pledge” movement, an occasionally creepy attempt to get teens to pledge themselves to virginity until they marry. It does, sort of, work for a while: it seems to postpone sexual activity for 18 months on average, and when I was a teenager that would have seemed several lifetimes. But this only happens when the pledgers are a minority who can feel themselves superior. Once the proportion of pledgers in a school rises above 30%, the success rate for all of them shoots right down (or up, depending on how you count).

The New Yorker has the story.