Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dark horizon

Another profound photo from NASA's Image of the Day, at its most effective when one uses it as the background for a 1920 x 1200 monitor. For me, this one succeeds in capturing both the bleakness of the scientific view of the universe, and the nobility of science, in a single shot. This image will definitely make an appearance in my mind the next time I listen to Where the Black Stars Hang.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Catastrophes

NASA has confirmed that an object has again collided with Jupiter, leaving an Earth-sized scar. The scar was initially noticed by amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley on the 19th (good for you!), and NASA followed up on his tip.

It's cool to be reminded that the entire Earth could be wiped out in an instant, with no warning. The problem of induction aside, it is strange how the default mode for most of us is to be positive that the things we are familiar with, though they may, perhaps, slowly deteriorate, will never undergo a catastrophic change. We are sure the biosphere will not be wiped out by a cosmic impact or environmental tipping point, we are sure that the splendor of our empire will not come crashing down, we are sure that none of our loved ones will suddenly become a different person on us, and we are damn sure we ourselves will never get cancer or have a stroke. All of these things are impossible, not because we have sat down and evaluated the probabilities—in some cases, we already agree that the probabilities are significant—but because they are unthinkable.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Schopenhauer on vanity and suffering

I have found myself feeling too foolishly happy of late, so I decided to read Schopenhauer's "On the Vanity and Suffering of Life" (The World as Will and Representation, Book II, Chapter XLVI) last night while listening to the soundtrack of life, Lustmord's Heresy. I think Schopenhauer went to even truer depths in the Parerga (see "On the Suffering of the World" in R. J. Hollingdale's selection), but I still got the corrective I needed. For the uninitiated, I would say the chapter is best summed up—Schopenhauer's own eloquence notwithstanding—by a passage he quotes from Shakespeare's King Henry IV:

O heaven! that one might read the book of fate
And see the revolution of the times
. . . how chances mock,
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors! O, if this were seen,
The happiest youth,—viewing his progress through
What perils past, what crosses to ensue,—
Would shut the book and sit him down and die.

Truth. It's fantastic.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Study suggests cats are the Antichrist

A little while ago, after a study came out that proved that cats were stupid, I wondered whether future research would show that they are little Satans. A new study brings us one step closer to that inevitable conclusion, demonstrating how cats use aural mind-control to coldly manipulate their human peers to fulfill their every whim. Fortunately for us, they are, for the moment, too stupid to extend their ambitions beyond cat food. But, when one of them finally grasps the concept of nukes... Zeus protect us.

Read Cats Do Control Humans, Study Finds.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hope against the tribal mind?

In the midst of all of the work for my summer class on logic (gotta learn my students good), I have found a few scattered moments to devote to reducing my cache of library books. True, most of those moments are earned by sacrificing sleep, but what's sleep compared to reading?

Anyway, my most recent read was David Berreby's Us and Them. I had to snap it up the instant I saw it, because it deals with the "tribal mind" as a source of conflict. Followers of this blog know that tribalism is one source of my pessimism about humanity. Berreby, however, seems to be optimistic; he stresses that there is nothing essentially tribal about people; indeed, whether we view a collection of other people as a foreign "them" or part of "us," has much to do with circumstances. If the circumstances are controlled well enough, tribal division can be overcome by prompting us to view all humans as part of the same tribe. This amounts to the "expanding circle" view that is set against such things as biological essentialism and the clash of civilizations.

I don't entirely disagree with Berreby. I think the attitudes and behavior of both individuals and groups are malleable and stimulus-dependent. I think circumstances can fairly easily prompt even seemingly good people to become liars, thieves, and murderers, but also agree that even the seemingly worst of people will become altruists under the right conditions.

However, I differ with Berreby on two points. First, I am not at all optimistic about our being able to control circumstances well enough to overcome tribalism except locally and over the comparative short term. This is not just a problem at the level of civilizations, but a problem within civilizations, where I think circles become increasingly unstable, and subject to violent fracture, with their expansion. Secondly, the mere fact of malleability is something that I would count as corruption. It isn't that I think people are inherently bad—I don't. But the fact that the goodness of good people is not robust—that even in a peaceful community, you must constantly be aware of shifting circumstances, and watch for the glint of the knife—that is sufficient for me to consider humanity corrupt. It is precisely because of this corruption that expanding circles are unstable.