Interesting Stuff on the Web: 12/25/09

I sometimes feel critical of the New Atheists, but Dawkins seems rather moderate and reasonable in this video.  But, even with his more liberal use of the term ‘atheist’, I’d still consider myself agnostic.

Dreamy Sales of Jung Book Stir Analysis

This gives me hope for humanity.  The book that Jung considered the expression of his soul is selling extremely well.  It’s rather expensive, it’s the most massive book I’ve ever owned, and it’s as far opposite of light reading as a book can get.  It helps that The New York Times has been hyping it up, but the question is why has The New York Times published several detailed articles about it.  Carl Jung isn’t exactly a big name outside of the intellectual elite.  Even those who know of him rarely actually read his work and this book is a more challenging read than any typical book written by Jung.

I think it must be one of those signs of the times.

“I think that when times are tough, the people are very aware of what is ethereal and also what is peripheral, like all the little new toys that come out,” said Barbara Meade, an owner of Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington that has sold 25 copies. “Somehow books seem to be something that is a lasting value.”

The Power of Magical Thinking

“You want to find a balance to lets [children] be open to possibility but also to question,” says Dr. Woolley.

Fantasy play is correlated with other positive attributes. In preschool children, for example, those who have imaginary friends are more creative, have greater social understanding and are better at taking the perspective of others, according to Marjorie Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and author of the book “Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them.”

I love reading about this kind of research, but I’ve already read about similar research before.  I know a while back I posted about some research that correlated 3 factors which I think were maybe imagination, empathy (or emotional intelligence), and spiritual experience… or something like that.  It’s interesting how certain traits correlate.

From my studies of personality, the results of this kind of research is far from surprising.  But there is one aspect that does offer some possible new insight.  In MBTI terms, imagination and empathy would be considered separate functions, but from a pairing perspective our society often associates N with F and the NF types are the most imaginative and empathetic of the types (NFs certainly would be the kids with imaginary friends).

There was some other research I came across recently, but I can’t remember where I saw it.  The only part I recall was that there was a correlation between people who think in pictures and a lack of empathy.  This actually makes sense.  To picture something it is to externalize it which is different than imaginative role-playing where the perspective is inhabited.  So, it probably is important to distinguish imagination from mere visualization.

I noticed some nice comments to this article:

Scott Hadley: My kid knows the garbage man is real because he’s been looking at him as long as he’s been able to look out the window. The garbage man is the guy with the truck that has the hydraulic arm dumps the bins into the back. No mystery there.

He does have one helluva imagination though.

On an unrelated note does this research remind anyone of the movie Blade Runner?

I hadn’t thought of Blade Runner while reading it, but now that you mention it…

PKD was concerned about how empathy relates to understanding what it means to be human. Also, the androids had false memories installed which allowed them to experience themselves as human. Instead of having imaginary friends, their whole identity was imaginary. But oddly this allowed for the possibility that the androids could in some sense experience (or feel) even more intensely (such as the last scened with Roy Batty).

It’s in imagining that we learn what is real. Those who are deficient in this ability never fully learn to understand reality outside of their own limited experience.

Laurence Gebhardt: Related research suggests we go through three stages in belief development.

A first stage is time of naivete where in childish ways we literally believe in reality concepts told to us by adults and authority figures. Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, the magic star over Bethlehem, flat earth, ancient wisdom, fundamentalist concepts, etc. Some people get stuck in naive literal-realtiy beliefs throughout life.

A second stage is critical thinking where we discover that some naive beliefs are not literally true or real for us. Sometimes people get stuck in this stage and become cynical, as atheists, about anything that cannot be empirically-analytically and 100% proven to be ‘truth’ when suspected to be a false belief teaching of self-serving authority figures. Climate change may be considered a naive belief when critical thinking reveals that not 100% of scientists agree on precise causal factors.

A third stage around beliefs and reality may be called post-critical naivete. In this stage we recall belief in Santa Claus as naive after our critical thinking experience but then discover the profound truth about a spirit of giving to others symbolized by Santa Claus. Or the Tooth Fairy is an early-stage Bar Mitzvah rite of passage to be continued with our own children. Much ancient wisdom, scientific hypothesis not yet fully understood, and prophetic voices in all times and ages reveal post-critical profound truths that we should neither naively accept nor critically reject but rather search for ultimate reality as a strong basis for thinking and living.

Jared Diamond’s book Collapse describes societies that became stuck in both naivete and critical thinking when they failed to discover and take action on profound truths of reality in slowly-changing phenomena. Dr. Suess’ story The Lorax is a yet another fable of environmental overload but with profound truth in an age of consumerism in a linear (non-sustainable) material economy and global population growth.

Research and theory in this area is fascinating.

I’m personally a fan of Spiral Dynamics which is a similar model. It can be applied to both individual and collective development.

Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too

Just a nice article about how scientists are learning that plants aren’t as mindlessly passive as we once thought they were.  Whether or not they’re conscious in a human sense, plants are aware of their environment and respond to it.  When you go to pick a plant to eat it, the plant does it’s best to defend itself.  Like any life form, plants try to avoid death.  And, as plants can’t move very easily, they’ve become quite inventive in fending off predators.  This also reminds me of how scientists are starting to learn that more plants act as predators in a carnivorous fashion.

The Body Electric

Now this is very very interesting.

Two years ago, in his book “Rocketeers,” Michael Belfiore celebrated the pioneers of the budding private space industry. Now he has returned to explore a frontier closer to home. The heroes of his new book, “The Department of Mad Scientists,” work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as Darpa, a secretive arm of the United States government. And the revolution they’re leading is a merger of humans with machines.

The revolution is happening before our eyes, but we don’t recognize it, because it’s incremental.

I’ve noticed that about the incremental nature of technological development.  I live in a house that is more than a hundred years old and it’s filled with all kinds of new technologies, but even so the structure of the house remains basically the same.  Wires, cables and pipes run through the walls where once the walls were empty.  A kitchen, for example, doesn’t look that different from a kitchen in the past because new technologies are built to fit in with the old.

Climate Change: How Fast Is the Earth Shifting?

Writing in a paper published Wednesday in Nature, scientists describe what they call the velocity of climate change, or more specifically, the speed of Earth’s shifting climatic zones. As global temperature rises over the next century, the scientists argue, Earth’s habitable climatic zones will start moving too, generally away from the Equator and toward the poles. That means many species of plants and animals will also have to move in order to survive. Whether or not they do will depend on several factors, but two of the most important are how fast a species can adjust its habitat range, and how quickly that range is moving out from under it.

Until now, ecologists have mostly focused on these factors as they affect individual species, but the new paper takes a more global view. By combining temperature projections on a very fine scale with global topographic maps, researchers have predicted change not for specific species, but for the climatic zones they need to keep up with.

Indeed, because global temperature is rising now, ecosystems are already on the move.


More than intuitive, this new index could also prove very useful, especially to conservationists who work to keep species from extinction. While the average velocity of climate change may be a bit less than a half-kilometer per year worldwide, according to the paper, it can be significantly faster or slower depending on the local topography. In deserts and other flat areas, such as the Amazon basin, climatic zones will move faster, while hilly or mountainous terrain will slow things up. “In the Northern Hemisphere, for example,” explains lead author Scott Loarie, “north-facing slopes tend to be cooler and wetter than south-facing slopes.”

In short, opposite sides of a mountain may have different climates, even though they’re close to each other. In areas with varied terrain including lots of hills, therefore, hospitable conditions might be available relatively nearby. “That was the unexpected message,” says Loarie, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University. “There’s lots of buffering capacity in heterogeneous landscapes.”

That is fascinating.  The problem with countering such global problems is first to try to understand them using clear models.

The conclusion presented here makes a lot of sense.  I can think of a local example from the last global climate change.  There is a species of snail that lives in certain types of caves in Iowa.  This species was previously thought to have gone extinct after the end of the ice age, but it survived in small pockets because of the “heterogenous landscapes” around here.  Parts of Iowa are very hilly with cave formations, but these caves are unique.  The way they’re structured they capture ice in the winter and the ice slowly melts the rest of the year.  It never fully melts and so the caves remain very cool which is the ecological niche that the snails need.

However, with global warming, this ecological niche may disappear.  The article brings up the issue of whether scientists should try to move species in order to save them since “only 8% of the world’s national parks and other preserves will retain their current climate over the next century”.

Banks Bundled Bad Debt, Bet Against It and Won

This article is just one of the many ways American culture has been corrupted.  Unfortunately, these issues will never get as much press focus as they deserve.  The financial interests who own the news are tied into mega-corporations that include these types of banks or else are tied through other various interested parties who have much control.

A major problem at present is that the the extreme rightwing is attacking any attempts at government regulation and so are making the problem worse.  I suspect nothing is going to change unless there is a revolution, but the extreme rightwingers most loudly calling for revolution are the mostly ignorantly clueless group in America.  Ignorant masses, manipulated voting public, controlled media propaganda… American democracy is dead in the water.

At this point, it’s probably too late.  If you try to reinstate regulation, the bankers and other powers that be will manipulate the bills as they get passed and will continue to game the system.  Big business and big government have essentially become indistinguishable and so any regulation becomes a pretense.

A culture war cease-fire

In this highly partisan year, we did not see a sharpening of the battles over religion and culture.

Yes, we continued to fight over gay marriage, and arguments about abortion were a feature of the health-care debate. But what’s more striking is that other issues — notably economics and the role of government — trumped culture and religion in the public square. The culture wars went into recession along with the economy.

The most important transformation occurred on the right end of politics. For now, the loudest and most activist sections of the conservative cause are not its religious voices but the mostly secular, anti-government tea party activists.

Especially revealing is the re-emergence of former House majority leader Dick Armey, a prime mover behind the tea parties and a longtime critic of the religious right. He once said that James Dobson of Focus on the Family and his allies were a “gang of thugs” and “real nasty bullies.”

I think what has happened is that the culture war has become muddied.

The rightwing Evangelists, Mormons and Catholics have banded together; and all of these true believer moral conservatives have courted the financial conservative libertarians and the anarcho-libertarian paranoid types. There is no single theme holding all of them together except a sense of outrage. These diverse groups (who oddly seem opposed to America’s diversity) have been forced to call a truce between their differences in order to attack a common enemy (which apparently is a vague, mixed-up sense of ‘Them’, the ‘Other’: mainstream media, Hollywood, intellectual elites, big government, big brother, illegal aliens, poor minorities, socialists, fascists, communists, Nazis, etc).  A black Democratic president has simply been a convenient symbol to focus all of this outrage.

However, the culture war of values isn’t over.  Those values may have lost their outward clarity in certain ways, but the emotional power of outrage has a way of focusing a group’s sense of it’s values (even if rationally they can’t be articulated).  They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore… that’s pretty much their message.  Between the Birthers, Climategate, and Death panels, they’ve proven they’re not overly concerned about objective facts.  Objectively defined and rationally defended values isn’t the point.  When you get down to the details, these groups disagree on many issues, but for now the details don’t matter.

Two things will happen with this extreme rightwing movement:

  1. It will magnify as the demographics increasingly shift (i.e., the shrinking of the fundamentalist white demographic).
  2. The movement will fall apart into competing groups as this demographic shift happens.  The libertarians and the paranoid fringe will continue on as before because they’re not limited to the fundamentalist white demographic.  The fundamentalist whites, however, will become louder and more violent as they shrink.  They’re our homegrown terrorism waiting to happen (as both the Bush and Obama administrations have realized).

Former NFL star Dave Pear is sorry he ever played football

This might seem like a peculiar story, but it can’t be dismissed as just a whiny former star athlete.  This is just representative of the general sense of disgruntled outrage that the American public is feeling.  People are beginning to realize that bankers and health insurance companies don’t give a rat’s ass about the average person, the citizenry is realizing that politicians don’t actually represent them, and even star athletes are realizing that they’ve been used and abused by others to make large profits.

Wake up, America!  It ain’t Obama’s socialism/fascism/communism/Nazism that you need to be worrying about… it’s the entire system which is controlled by the 10% of the population who own 85% of the wealth.  The labels of liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican are mostly meaningless.  If you want to support real change that helps real Americans, then protest about real issues rather than idiotic issues such as birth certificates.  And if you’re going to vote, then vote for third parties.

From John Birchers to Birthers

Next month will mark the 45th anniversary of the publication by Harper’s magazine of Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” a work that seems to grow more relevant by the day.

I was not always a fan. When I first read it two decades ago, I thought Hofstadter was being needlessly insulting by equating political views with mental illness — despite his insistence that he wasn’t using the word that way. Besides, I thought, who really cared about the strange notions that occurred to members of marginal groups like the John Birch Society? Joe McCarthy’s day was long over, and even in the age of high Reaganism, I thought, the type of person Hofstadter described was merely handing out flyers on street corners.

As the historian himself admitted, “In America it has been the preferred style only of minority movements.” Why bother with it, then?

How times have changed! Hofstadter’s beloved liberal consensus has been in the grave for decades now. Today it would appear that his mistake was underestimating the seductive power of the paranoid style.

This reminds me of a book review I just read about another prescient work: The True Believer by Eric Hoffer.

When I first read Hoffer’s classic book, “The True Believer”, as a graduate student twenty years ago, I was shocked. I was astonished that a writer could openly suggest parallels among Christianity, Islam, fascism, and the KKK, and survive to write another book. Yet I was riveted by Hoffer’s observations, which seemed to jump off the page in spite of his straightforward and unembellished prose. But I also recall thinking that Hoffer was a bit too brash in his assertions; that he ought to have tempered nearly every statement with a qualifier–a disclaimer that left open the possibility that he was mistaken.

Upon reading Hoffer again, as a middle-aged and somewhat less idealistic professor, I find that several things have changed. First, Hoffer’s observations seem even more keenly relevant today, post 9/11, than they did in the post-Vietnam era.

Glenn Beck, Cult Leader

Democracy Corps did a series of focus-groups with movement conservatives in Georgia and found them happily living in their own special reality. “Democrats may joke that Republicans seem to live on a different planet sometimes,” their report says, “but in some important ways, these Republicans would happily agree.”

If you haven’t read the results, I suggest you take the time (PDF). It’s only a few pages long and confirms a theory I’ve held since last summer: the conservative movement has become a cult, and Glenn Beck is their cult leader.

More than half of the respondents in our conservative Republicans groups indicated that they try to watch or listen to Beck on a daily basis, with some going to great lengths to ensure they (and their families) do not miss a thing. (Emphasis mine)

Cults are personality-based, and therefore a natural fit for a movement built on charismatic politics.

I think the author is over-emphasizing the cult interpretation, but still it’s a good point he is making.  Research does show that the personalities of conservatives tend toward group identity and loyalty.  When this group mentality becomes exaggerated it can take on aspects of cult-like behavior, but that is different than actually being a cult.  Cult or not, it provides insight about the more worrying attitudes of the far right.

In the report itself, I noticed the following comment near the beginning:

Instead of focusing on these intense ideological divisions, the press and elites continue to look for a racial element that drives these voters’ beliefs – but they need to get over it. Conducted on the heels of Joe Wilson’s incendiary comments at the president’s joint session address, we gave these groups of older, white Republican base voters in Georgia full opportunity to bring race into their discussion – but it did not ever become a central element, and indeed, was almost beside the point.

I’ve only skimmed the report, but this particular statement seems to miss some underlying issues.  Yes, overt racism isn’t central to the far right as it once was.  No, racism hasn’t disappeared as a major influence on politics and society in general.  The far right doesn’t talk directly about racism any longer (except when calling liberals racist), but they do use racist codewords (‘white culture’, illegal aliens, welfare queens, etc).  Some prefer to call this racialist rather than racist, but the label you give it doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that it has a major impact on public debate.

On the other hand, the report pointed out how sensitive they are about being called racists.  This sensitivity is a positive sign.  There is a lot of unconscious prejudice left in the American psyche, but it is slowly decreasing.  In another generation, along with the shifting race demographics, racism/racialism even in this subtly pervasive form will be much more rare.

I came across an interesting set of facts:

The conservative Republican base represents almost one-in-five voters in the electorate, and nearly two out of every three selfidentified Republicans. […] But liberal Democrats are outnumbered by moderate Democrats (36 to 61 percent of all Democrats)…

I was trying to think what this means.  At first, I thought it shows how more moderate, how more centrist is the Democratic party… and, by implication, that Democratic policies more closely represent the general public at present.  However, this may be skewed as less people identify as Republican now and so the moderate Republicans may be the people who left the party in droves.  Still, that is important.  Obama did win the popular vote which included many moderate Republicans and conservative independent swing voters.

However, I wonder how these numbers may or may not change in 2012.  At present, the Republican party is doing little to court moderates (not to mention the large numbers of ‘minorities’) and so it doesn’t look optimistic for them.

The last part was heartening because the independents were differentiated from the conservative Republicans:

The independent voters in our groups clearly viewed these issues very, very differently. They share the conservative Republicans’ disdain for the current Republican Party, but their critique is not that the party has abandoned its conservative principles but instead that it advances the interests of the rich and big businesses at the expense of the middle class. They worry about the Democratic Party’s proclivity to spend tax dollars and provide ‘freebies’ to those who do not do their fair share, but they appreciate the Democrats’ focus on ‘the little people’ (among which they included themselves) and the fact that ‘it’s not all about the money.’

The real hope here are the independent voters because they seem to understand the real forces at work.  I consider myself an independent and I feel somewhat aligned with this sector of the movement.  It’s quite interesting that independents are more afraid of the Republican party than the Democratic party.  Even if Democrats sometimes have bad policies, at least they more often have good intentions towards ‘the little people’.

They view FOX News as another media outlet, decidedly conservative in its point of view but no more or less biased than any other media outlet; their assumption is that every outlet has a bias that reflects the interests of its own bottom line. FOX is no different, and certainly not a source of special insight and information that cannot be gained elsewhere. They generally laugh at conservative commentators such as Limbaugh (‘overbearing,’ ‘egotistical,’ ‘idiot’) and Beck (one man called him a ‘crybaby’).

I can somewhat agree with this view.  I’m not a fan of mainstream media in general.  But I disagree that the biases are all the same.  I do appreciate that these independents aren’t swayed by the far right pundits.

When it comes to Sarah Palin, there was almost universal agreement that she could never be elected president, with most citing her inexperience and baggage as obstacles too great to overcome. But even more important to them, most felt she was ultimately driven by greed and ambition more than anything else and would rather use her newfound fame to enrich herself than improve the country.

This demonstrates a split in this movement between the independents and the party conservatives.  I hope this split becomes more untenable because I think the independents have more in common with non-party liberals (and the more impartial Democrats who are critical of Obama).

All of which underscores how much the conservative Republicans are a world apart – with big consequences for the Republican Party.

Hell yeah!

Conservatives roar; Republicans tremble

Many top Republicans are growing worried that the party’s chances for reversing its electoral routs of 2006 and 2008 are being wounded by the flamboyant rhetoric and angry tone of conservative activists and media personalities, according to interviews with GOP officials and operatives.

Congressional leaders talk in private of being boxed in by commentators such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh — figures who are wildly popular with the conservative base but wildly controversial among other parts of the electorate, and who have proven records of making life miserable for senators and House members critical of their views or influence.

Some of the leading 2012 candidates are described by operatives as grappling with the same tension. The challenge is to tap into the richest source of energy in the party — the disgust of grass-roots conservative activists with President Barack Obama and their hunger for a full-throated attack on his agenda — without coming off to the broader public as cranky and extreme.

I wouldn’t mind these rightwingers taking out the GOP, but I’m too cynical to think that this would improve Washington politics.  I’m hoping that a strong libertarian candidate will run just to force real debate.

That last video makes me feel nostalgic.  That so perfectly captures a typical interaction of young boys… and then puts a hilarious twist on it.  I remember kids doing this hand vagina thing back in the 1980s when I was in elementary school.  It’s probably even older than that.

It reminds me of some books I’ve read about the culture of childhood.  Many of the songs and games that children play have existed for centuries and exist in various forms all over the world.  No one teaches kids to do these things other than other kids and older siblings.  It’s amazing how culture gets passed on… even low-brow culture.

5 thoughts on “Interesting Stuff on the Web: 12/25/09

    • I should be nice to the fundies just because it’s Christmas? It is true that, according to liberal theology, God loves everyone… even the fundies.

      Merry Christmas!

      Happy Happy Joy Joy!!!

  1. No, because they are likely to be talking of the unacceptable xmas practices of non-christians. Just cut em some slack is what I’m saying.

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