Friday, December 2, 2011


The main reason I have returned to school instead of studying mathematics on my own is because I have found with experience that absent the structure a university program imposes, I lack the discipline to stay as focused as the study of mathematics requires. Case in point: next week is finals week, I have several half-read books scattered around my apartment and a couple of high-priority ones that I have not yet even opened, yet it is all I can do, passing by the new-book display in the library, not to check out the book Invasive Pythons in the United States. That I will not be reading that book over this weekend is a testament to the focusing power of being in school.

But oh, will that book ever haunt me.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sartrean slip?

I use LaTeX to typeset my notes for my philosophy courses. I am working on my Sartre notes for Philosophy 101, and just discovered that where I intended to write "\begin{enumerate}," I actually wrote "\being{enumerate}." A simple transposition of letters, or something of deeper significance?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Template for unhelpful mail

Many people who send me critical feedback seem to be using variations of this template:


Dear Dr. Vuletic,

I read your article such-and-such. In it you argue for X. Since I disagree with X, I haven't bothered to read your article carefully, and instead have angrily attributed to you all sorts of things that do not follow from what you have written, and have responded with the most knee-jerk, sophomoric objections I can think of. Since I don't like your arguments for X, that also means that you haven't made any arguments for X, proving once again that people who say the things you say are too afraid, arrogant, and intellectually dishonest to write about what you have just written a whole article about. In conclusion, let me make a few rude comments to you, which I feel entitled to make simply because I disagree with what you wrote: rest assured, even though the article I am responding to was one of your polite works, it is perfectly fine for me to be a pompous ass in return, because I am one of the good guys.



Saturday, September 3, 2011


I'm just writing to let everyone know in advance that I am likely to severely reduce the amount of writing I do on this blog, even from its current low. As you know—since I have done nothing but rave about it for the last week—I have relocated to Portland, where I am soon to start studies in mathematics while maintaining full-time online work. On top of that, the city is so comfortable, and so full of interesting and welcoming people, that it is making a strong claim on such free time as I have. If I am dancing and jet-boating in my time off, something has to give, and this blog likely will be one of the weaker links.

I still will leave it open in case I have a lazy day, or my priorities change, or there is something that I absolutely must make an extended comment about, but in the meantime if you still want to keep up with what I'm reading and what I'm finding interesting in the news world, the best way to do so is by monitoring my twitter feed, which is much easier for me to work with. Any extended articles, as usual, I will announce to twitter and post on my web site at

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


If you use LaTeX and BibTeX, and are having trouble managing a bibliography, JabRef is a handy tool. My notes would pretty much be dead without it.

Portland is cold

When I got out of bed this morning, I actually shivered because it is cold. How exciting! I finally am back in my element. It's strange how comfortable I am with the cold, and how miserable in the heat: already I notice the people around me generally dressing much more warmly than I do, and I just came in from Phoenix. Anyway, just a little more personal happiness to share with everyone.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Another day in Portland

Every day I have had in Portland so far (all four of them) has been a great day, but today was extra-special in one respect. I must confess that there was one aspect of the last three days that I was not especially happy about. You see, one of the reasons I have fled here from Arizona is to escape the hideous glare of my nemesis, the Ancient One, who some people today call "the Sun." And behold, when I arrive in the Pacific Northwest, there he still is in the sky, mocking me. Well, this morning, I was in for a treat. This is the way Portland is supposed to look:

In your face, life-giving Sun! Where is your solar brilliance now?

(It actually came back later in the day. But I'm not bitter. At least it's not 116°.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011


I successfully completed my move yesterday to Portland, Oregon. I will be pursuing a postbaccalaureate in mathematics at Portland State University with some assistance from the GI Bill, while (in a major, major coup) continuing to teach my philosophy classes online exclusively. Moving to this city and returning to school are two dreams I have had for quite some time; I thought both would have to wait until retirement, but when you love something enough, you find a way.

I have been walking all around the city since I got here, almost in a daze, noting familiar spots, learning about some of the unfamiliar ones, and of course acquiring a library card and checking out books from the magnificent Central Library. I can see that it will take discipline for me to sit down and do my teaching and my studies when the streets pull at me like a magnet: Portland is the closest thing to a utopia I have yet experienced. It is as though someone took most of the best places in the Chicago area—the ones for which I still feel homesick—folded them together, and placed the result in a region with more hills, more greenery, and much better temperatures. Aside from the risk of apocalyptic geological activity, it is difficult for me to find anything here I don't like.

I still do have to wonder, in advance, whether I eventually will tire of living here. It seems as though I have a difficult time staying in one place for more than four years. At the same time, some cities just get in your blood, and no matter where you end up going, you always miss them. Well, only one way to find out.

Two shots facing downtown from the rooftop of my apartment building in the Goose Hollow neighborhood.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How people in science see each other

I can confirm that most of this applies directly to people in the humanities as well.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hummingbird video

I just uploaded my first YouTube video—it's a little under two minutes of hummingbird nest-building activity, shot about a year ago in California with a dinky Sony DSC-W30 mounted on a tripod:

Hummingbirds are awesome.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Protest for more cats

I apologize in advance to everyone except Jerry Coyne, but I woke up with this stuck in my head, and can't get it out, so naturally I must inflict it on as many innocent people as possible:

- What do we want?
- When do we want them?

That is all. Please return to your daily routine.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Pat Condell on Oslo, rape, and Islam

I like Pat Condell. He is extremely harsh, but usually appropriately so, given his standard targets—Islamism in Europe chief among them. I also appreciate that he holds the line against Islamism without jumping into bed with the lunatic elements of the European right, which, so unfortunately, is more than one can say for about half of the loudest contemporary voices against Islamism. However, Condell—like everyone—occasionally gets some things very wrong.

One of Condell's recent videos includes the claim that "all the rapes in [Oslo] over the past three years—all of them—were committed by Muslim immigrants using rape as a weapon of cultural terrorism." This is a truly extraordinary claim, which jarred me when I heard it, but not enough to make me fact-check it—which means I too, got things very wrong. Fortunately, Juan Cole's most recent post just linked (as a sidenote) to a post in Islamophobia Watch that takes apart thoroughly the Oslo rape claim. The blog clearly has its own agenda, but I can't argue with the figures, which are all that matters in this case.

Once again, a demonstration of the importance of not limiting our reading and listening to those who we know in advance will tell us things we will be inclined to agree with.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Another major Kindle book sale is having another big sale on select Kindle books. I have already tweeted the most important titles, but they deserve as much exposure as possible, so here are the ones I bought:

Loftus: The Christian Delusion $2.99
Stenger: The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning $3.99
ibn Warraq: Why I Am Not a Muslim $1.99
Pickover: Archimedes to Hawking $1.99
Jones: The Quantum Ten $1.99
Stenger: Timeless Reality $0.99

I rarely spend more than $3.00 on a Kindle book, but I made an exception for Stenger's book on fine-tuning because it is very recent (the hardcover came out on 26 Apr) and looks like something I am required to own in one form or another.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Second Law of Thermoromantics

On any book swap shelf, the quality of the books will steadily degrade until the shelf holds nothing but romance novels.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Independent Intervention

I do watch serious films, too. I just finished Independent Intervention, a critique of mainstream American media treatment of the Iraq war, and promotion of independent media like Democracy Now!

First, two things I didn't care for: (i) Suggestions that the US military deliberately killed independent journalists—charges which the film comes nowhere close to substantiating. (ii) The assumption, more or less taken for granted throughout, that war always is the worst possible policy, because it results in violent collateral civilian deaths. Although my own service in Iraq has left me with a far more cautious attitude toward warfare than I used to have, I still can't help feel that those with rigid anti-war sentiments care comparatively little about civilian deaths as long as they are not being caused by our military—what with 100K-1M Iraqi children alone dead from Iraqi misappropriation during the sanctions period arousing scarcely a whisper of protest compared to the rage over 100K civilians dead in a comparable length of war. I don't know whether OIF will have saved lives in the long run, but it cannot be taken as a foregone conclusion that the consequences of war always are worse than those of any alternative.

What I did agree with: (i) The major networks were abysmally uncritical of the war when we most needed the media to function as an independent check on the government. (ii) The major networks sanitized the war to the point that it became barely distinguishable from sports coverage, with no real sense of the human costs involved. (iii) Independent media offers a much-needed voice that people should tune in to.

I want to focus for a bit on the second point above, about sanitization. I think sanitization of the news is a serious problem with American media in general, not with American war coverage in particular. Furthermore, I don't think the santization has any particular political slant (I'm not sure whether the film meant to imply otherwise). I'm not sure whether the media think Americans have weak stomachs, or delicate sensibilities, or what, but they do coddle us, insulating us from brutal realities that we ought to know about. I think, for instance, that something very important is lost from public comprehension when the most graphic images from September 11 are filtered out, or when we are not shown photos of children who have been decapitated by jihadis. Likewise, something very important is lost from public comprehension when we are insulated from the most graphic results of our military actions. Again, I disagree with the film's suggestion that exposure to the latter images necessitates a particular stance on US policy, but I still think such images are critical data without which people cannot really make informed decisions. If we are to have a functional democracy, we need to see the way things are—which often is brutal, stomach-turning, and nightmare-inducing—so we know what we are making decisions about. We are ill-served by a de facto national V-Chip.

P.S. Curse you, George Lucas!

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog? More like Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Awesome. A slow first few minutes, but then it rockets to Olympian heights of awesomeness. I have to say, though, that the chief thing the movie did for me was to underscore, with a thick black marker, the complete incompetence with which George Lucas handled the Anakin-to-Vader transformation in the Star Wars prequels. When the bumbling protagonist-villain of a comedy musical makes a thousand times more sense, in every dimension of analysis, than the Dark Lord of the Sith, something is deeply wrong.

Why is it that every time I watch a good movie, I end up cursing George Lucas?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The whole atheist elevator thing

For those of you who have thus far managed to remain happily oblivious to the ongoing Watson-Dawkins elevator uproar, Martin Wagner offers a nice summary of events up to now and, I think, gets everything in his analysis exactly right. Well, except that I wish he wouldn't refer to the whole thing as "Elevatorgate."

Saturday, July 2, 2011

4th of July atheist advert

American Atheists seems to be remarkably clueless when it comes to advertising. The organization's billboards (example 1, example 2) already are legendary for poor design, both in appearance and message. Now, AA has hired planes to carry banners nationwide before the fireworks this 4th of July. According to the AA press release, the banners will read:
God-LESS America -- and
Atheism is Patriotic -
I think these are terrible slogans.

The first slogan is so enamored with its own cleverness, which AA seems to think will sail over the heads of normal people unless they have their hands held—the caps are like repeated elbow jabs to one's ribs, accompanied by "Get it? Get it?" On a plain reading, the first slogan also seems to suggest that America is godless, which is just as absurd and insulting as the frequent claim that America is Christian. The only word that can be used to describe America's religious character is "diverse." Anything else is a slap in the face, especially on the 4th of July, which is supposed to be about all of America.

The second slogan is weird. I am an atheist and a patriot, but I haven't the slightest idea what to make of the claim that atheism is patriotic. Maybe AA is just trying to reply to the (equally bizarre) slur that atheism is somehow unpatriotic. If so, though, they need to be saying that atheism is compatible with patriotism, not that atheism itself is inherently patriotic. If such subtleties are not easily expressed through the medium of airplane banners, then perhaps airplane banners are the wrong medium through which to try to address the whole issue in the first place.

I have nothing in particular against the idea of advertising atheism on the 4th of July. But if you are going to do something, do it right. The AA airplane banners are just PLANE embarrassing. Get it? Get it?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Incredible excitement last night

Normally, the only thing that can make me pause in the middle of a run is loss of consciousness, discovery of a treasure chest filled with gold dubloons, or not feeling like running anymore. Last night, though, I ascertained a fourth reason on a late run near some wild terrain, as I was forced to come to a full stop to admire the cuteness of a friendly pocket mouse out foraging. It truly was a mouse-tastic experience, even though pocket mice, I learn, are not true mice at all: the former are heteromyids, the latter murids—same order, but different families—a bit of cladistic insight that you probably will not soon forget, even if you would like to.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The fourth seal is opened

Intelligent news analysis in the mainstream media, already terminally ill, finally died a miserable death this morning, as Ann Coulter took her seat as a panelist on Fareed Zakaria's formerly admirable GPS. This was foretold of yore:
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. (Rev 6:7-8)
The only silver lining: the commenters are rioting.

The Hawks and the Sparrows

I got a chance to watch Pasolini's Uccellacci e Uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows). My report: I had no idea what the hell I was watching, but I was entertained—probably more entertained, in my naivete, than I was supposed to be. I am especially glad for the exposure to Totò, who I am ashamed to say I had never heard of before. Wikipedia quotes Umberto Eco:
In this globalized universe where it seems that everyone's watching the same movies and eating the same food, there are still abysmal and overwhelming fractures separating one culture from another. How can two peoples, one of which unknowing of Totò, truly understand each other?
I have some inkling of what he means. I'm not sure I can take more Pasolini—if he goes wholly Seventh Seal and dumps the Life of Brian elements, I am sure I will find the result unwatchable—but I will definitely be on the lookout for Totò.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

On giving God credit for the purely human

If human friendship is the best argument we have in support of a benevolent God, then we must be living in the last ages of religion.
Bernard Schweizer, Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 167.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Stop all the downloading

Between my hundreds of books, two libraries, interlibrary loan, Overdrive audiobooks, iTunes podcasts, iTunesU, my Kindle, JSTOR, Netflix, Hulu, and basically the whole Internet, there are many days when I feel like Fenslerfilm's interpretation of Mutt:

But will I stop all the downloading? Never. Give me downloading, or give me death. Or both. Either way, give me downloading.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Shutting down Kindle book lending library

Well, never mind. I just found out that when the FAQ says that a lending-enabled Kindle book can be lent once, that means once in the entire lifetime of the book. I had interpreted the statement to mean that it could be lent only to one person at a time, so that one would be purchasing the digital equivalent of a normal book, which can be passed around from one person to another. Fortunately, I have purchased only three Kindle books; never again, until the lending feature changes to something worthwhile. Caveat emptor.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hume on antecedent probabilities and claims not worth investigating

Does a man of sense run after every silly tale of witches or hobgoblins or fairies, and canvass particularly the evidence? I never knew any one, that examined and deliberated about nonsense who did not believe it before the end of his inquiries.
David Hume, in a letter to Rev. Hugh Blair, 1761. [In Greig JYT (ed.). 1969. The Letters  of David Hume. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 350.]

Kindle book lending library

I am dedicating a page at to lending-enabled Kindle books that I own. My collection is very small right now, but I will be adding to it periodically, as I find funds. If you have a Kindle, and would like to borrow one of the books for fourteen days, please just send me an e-mail.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Reading list for June

As part of my attempt to downsize my library, and give myself greater focus, I am committing myself to returning all of my borrowed books on their first due dates. Here are the ones I have due toward the end of June:
  1. Mellor's Real Time II.
  2. Greig's The Letters of David Hume, vol. 1. [Finished]
  3. Greig's The Letters of David Hume, vol. 2. [Finished]
  4. Melnyk's A Physicalist Manifesto.
  5. Gendler and Hawthorne's Conceivability and Possibility.
  6. Kirschner and Gerhart's The Plausibility of Life.
  7. Psillos's Scientific Realism.
  8. Leplin's Scientific Realism. [Finished]
  9. Klibansky and Mossner's New Letters of David Hume. [Finished]
  10. Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will.
  11. Dawkins's The Extended Phenotype. [Finished]
  12. Fleishacker's A Short History of Distributive Justice. [Finished]
  13. Mackie's Problems from Locke. [Finished]
  14. Moss's A Concise Guide to Macroeconomics.
  15. Coyne and Orr's Speciation.
  16. Clack's Gaining Ground.
  17. Noth's Exodus.
  18. Cross's Canaanite Mythology and the Hebrew Epic. [Finished]
  19. Feyerabend's Problems of Empiricism.
  20. Leplin's A Novel Defense of Scientific Realism. [Finished]
The probability of my making it through this whole list, even with the head-start I have into six of them? Zero. What painful choices I have up ahead.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Real Time

I just finished D. H. Mellor's first book-length defense of the B-theory of time, Real Time. The book is surprisingly dense, even by philosophy of time standards, and left me with many more questions than answers. I am starting in on Real Time II, now, with uncertain expectations, but much hope. Best for me to reserve any commentary until I am done with the sequel, since it contains substantial corrections to the first installment.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lonely university

The school year is over, and ASU has emptied out. The Tempe campus will fill up again when the summer semester starts, but for now, it is like a ghost town. I find that a very nice change: one can walk around and absorb the academic feel in quiet contemplation. If only Tempe were twenty or thirty degrees cooler, there would be nothing left to want.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hitchens' voice

Yesterday I tweeted a Vanity Fair article in which Christopher Hitchens talks about the devastating effect cancer is having on his ability to speak. I will say this much: whatever happens to his vocal cords, Hitchens' voice will not fall silent until the extinction of the universe. Perhaps in a hundred years, his voice will cease to be distinguishable from that of Lucretius, Voltaire, and others, having merged into that millennium-long rolling thunder that makes the ignorant and vicious clap their hands over their ears in terror—but fade into silence? Never.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Why like this?

Some people think it is mysterious that there is something rather than nothing. I am one of them. However, I think it would be equally mysterious if there were nothing rather than something. The same goes for basic lawlikeness in the way things work, versus lack of any basic lawlikeness in the way things work: neither appears impossible, neither seems to merit default status. In each case, the reality of either alternative rather than the other, is mysterious; in each case, I would (contemplating each from the safety of my imagination) wonder, why like this?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


I'm twittering. I insist on calling it "twittering" rather than "tweeting," because this is one of the many ways I mark myself out as a fossil, rather than one of those hip, techno-savvy kids. I'm still at least twenty years away from referring (without irony) to Skype as "the Skype" or, like that unfortunate nice gentleman on Frontline, calling earbuds "earpods" (The Persuaders Chapter 2, 6:17—to be fair, he clearly was having an "oh s**t" moment), but yes, my bones slowly are being replaced with calcite. Soon, my beautiful form shall be frozen in time for all eternity. Nevertheless, I shall continue twittering until the bitter end, or until I lose interest or can't pay the bills or something.

Update: I just heard that one of the founders of Twitter says "twittering" is technically the correct verb, though he doesn't really care. Does this mean that he's a fossil, too? Has his invention turned against him? Or am I so far out of the loop that I can't even be out of the loop properly?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Kindle book lending

So, yes, I confess: I bought a Kindle 3 nearly two months ago, and it has proved to be as game-changing a device as the iPod. Between the two, the amount of information I can easily carry with me from place to place is staggering.

A wonderful feature that I just discovered is that some publishers enable Kindle users easily to loan their books to one another for fourteen days. This addresses one of the sore spots of ebook users, who have not liked the idea that they cannot pass around their ebooks the way people do with regular books. There is a site that facilitates lending among a very large community of users:—if you have a Kindle, check it out.

Update 23 May: The lending feature is not nearly as good as I had first thought: apparently, you get to loan the book only once, ever.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Another reason why I will never, ever vote for a Republican again.

I am unlikely to vote Democratic in the next election, because the Democratic Party has moved too far to the right,* but I definitely never will vote for a Republican ever again. That is a decision already made long since—the party went off the deep end quite some time ago—but I keep on getting reinforcement.

I have watched this stupid birth certificate controversy, watched even Republican citizens who I otherwise respect get sucked into at least a casual skepticism: why doesn't Obama just release his original birth certificate, instead of the legal short form that Hawaii always provides? Why, indeed, does the President of the United States of America not drop everything he is doing to dance around like a puppet for a band of fanatical, racist lunatics? Surely, he has nothing more important to do, nor would it be beneath the dignity of even a private citizen, much less the highest office of the nation.

Now, with the whole matter having reached a frothing pitch in the echo chamber of the Right, fanned by the complicity of an entire opportunist Party, the Presidency gets bent to the will of idiots and madmen. So, how does the RNC Chairman respond?
In a statement after Obama spoke, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the issue a distraction — and yet blamed Obama for playing campaign politics by addressing it.

"The president ought to spend his time getting serious about repairing our economy," Priebus said. "Unfortunately his campaign politics and talk about birth certificates is distracting him from our number one priority — our economy."
The Republican Party is a party of children. The United States is facing some very serious problems, and some of the correct answers are conservative answers, but nothing good will happen while children have a prominent place at the helm. The country needs adults.

* Not in itself always problematic, since half of my views are right-leaning, but I think the Democratic Party too often has shifted to the right in precisely the wrong ways, and I certainly do not respect a party that takes its own base so much for granted that it feels free to betray it willy-nilly (actually something that can be said about the Republican Party, too, come to think of it).

Update: And the stupidity continues.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pale Blue Dot

Via NASA's Image of the Day:

How beautiful and serene, viewed from out there. One would never guess what a horrid mess exists on its skin. We, of the skin, desperately need the humility and perspective born of the scientific view of the cosmos. Tell 'em, Carl:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Another transitional form unearthed

From the American Museum of Natural History:
Paleontologists from the American Museum of Natural History and the Chinese Academy of Sciences announce the discovery of Liaoconodon hui, a complete fossil mammal from the Mesozoic found in China that includes the long-sought transitional middle ear.
Reminds me of Yanoconodon allini. If I understand correctly, the chief difference between the ear structure of the two species is that Meckel's cartilage is still attached to the jaw in Y. allini, but has detached from the jaw in L. hui—a fine gradation indeed.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How dare a student newspaper publish a photo of atheist students on their front page!!!!

Joe Geary gets completely bent out of shape over his school newspaper treating atheists like equal members of the student body. He also offers a couple of sophomoric moral arguments, which is sad, considering that he's a junior.

I appear to have landed the first comment.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Friday, April 8, 2011

Evolution of the eye

Put together a new Defender's Guide article on the evolution of the eye, expanding on material moved out of a different article.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

MS Republicans and interracial marriage

From Public Policy Polling:
We asked voters on this poll whether they think interracial marriage should be legal or illegal- 46% of Mississippi Republicans said it should be illegal to just 40% who think it should be legal. For the most part there aren't any huge divides in how voters view the candidates or who they support for the nomination based on their attitudes about interracial marriage but there are a few exceptions.
Palin's net favorability with folks who think interracial marriage should be illegal (+55 at 74/19) is 17 points higher than it is with folks who think interracial marriage should be legal (+38 at 64/26.) Meanwhile Romney's favorability numbers see the opposite trend. He's at +23 (53/30) with voters who think interracial marriage should be legal but 19 points worse at +4 (44/40) with those who think it should be illegal. Tells you something about the kinds of folks who like each of those candidates.
Perhaps not so WTF—but still, WTF?

I hope there's a serious flaw in this poll, or that it is a late April Fool's joke. I have for a long time now believed that beneath the veneer of civilized respectability that coats the United States, huge portions of our population still are so backward and medieval that they might as well have been coughed up from the blackest depths of Baluchistan. But I hate to be proved this right.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Why do atheists bother?

New article posted to Why Do Atheists Bother?

Losing My Religion

Former LA Times religion reporter William Lobdell caught some attention in 2007 when he announced his loss of faith. In 2009, he turned his story into a book: Losing My Religion (New York: Harper, 2009) recounts Lobdell's conversion to Christianity, his early, enthusiastic work reporting on the best representatives of religion, his gradual discovery of the magnitude of corruption in the religious world, and his eventual turn to what he alternately describes as deism or atheism.

One can effectively trace Lobdell's trajectory by reading his brilliant articles, which he has conveniently assembled at his book's promotional website, but the book is so compelling, and so well-written, that I would not suggest passing it up. By all means, read both the book and the articles.

To give you a sense of his style, and his common-sense manner, here are a few of the many passages in the book that struck me:

On the hiddenness of God:

I felt angry with God for making faith such a guessing game. I didn't treat my sons as God treated me. I gave them clear direction, quick answers, steady discipline and plenty of love. There was little mystery in our relationship: they didn't have to strain to hear my "gentle whisper." How to hear God, love Him and best serve Him shouldn't be so open to interpretation. It shouldn't be that hard. (160-161)

On "miracles" wrought by God:

When a tsunami wiped out more than 225,000 people in Indonesia in 2004, the media featured several survivors who claimed God had miraculously answered their prayers and saved them. It made me want to scream. If He answered their prayers, why did He sit by and allow the killing of nearly a quarter-million people—many who were praying, too, as they were being washed away? (212)

On the comfort of believing in a random world:

At least now when I see injustice and suffering—my guitar teacher's beautiful boy, all of three years old, died of a brain tumor the day I'm writing this—the randomness is just that. A God in heaven didn't sit by while the little boy died. To simply know that tragic stuff happens is a much more satisfying and realistic answer. (277)

On what has taken God's place in his life:

So what has taken the place of God in my life? A tremendous sense of gratitude. I sense how fortunate I am to be alive in this thin sliver of time in the history of the universe. This gives me a renewed sense of urgency to live this short life well. (278)

People like Lobdell give me hope. Read the book.

Friday, April 1, 2011

More pre-pubescent, murderous rage in the Dar al-Islam

Twelve people murdered because someone completely unrelated to them, on the other side of the world, burned a book:
Stirred up by a trio of angry mullahs who urged them to avenge the burning of a Koran at a Florida church, thousands of protesters overran the compound of the United Nations in this northern Afghan city, killing at least 12 people, Afghan and United Nations officials said.

Update: Five of the twelve dead were demonstrators, hopefully among those who stormed the compound, and not anyone who tried to intervene.

Update: And the riots spread, and of course a large contingent of people are blaming Terry Jones for everything while saying hardly a word about the rioters themselves, or the mullahs or the Afghan President who incited them.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Happy Birthday to Richard Dawkins, Part II

Jerry Coyne has asked his readers not just to wish Dawkins a happy birthday, but to explain how he has influenced them. I think that's a very good idea.

One of my most vivid memories from my first year as an undergraduate at UC Irvine involves sitting for hours on a bench, in a part of the student center that no longer exists, absolutely riveted by replicators and hawks and doves and evolutionary stable strategies. I was, of course, reading The Selfish Gene. Dawkins taught me that evolutionary biology was orders of magnitude richer and more fascinating than I had ever before imagined—and I was a biology major at the time! His penetrating analyses and his gift for language helped urge me along from a premedical focus to the more natural, theoretical focus that culminated with my switching full-time into philosophy of science. Dawkins was not, by any means, the principal catalyst in this change, but everyone who helped kindle my burning fascination with the deepest questions about the way the world works contributed, and Dawkins definitely ranks among them.

Beyond that, what can one say, but what Dawkins already knows—that he is the most talented communicator of science since Carl Sagan, that his public defense of atheism brings solace to many who were formerly voiceless, that he is truly a great man, far more worthy of attention than the silly celebrities and brutal conquerors upon which everyone bestows their plaudits?

Happy Birthday again, Dr. Dawkins, and many, many more.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Materialism and meaning

One of my friends and I have been talking about the comfort religion is thought to bring, compared to a materialistic metaphysics, if one thirsts for meaning and solace. A materialistic universe can be a scary place: in such a world, the universe does not care about you or about anything else. In such a world, it is possible for random events to screw up your life completely and irredeemably, or for you to do so yourself. Decay and death are all but certain; unless you and those you love have the good fortune all to die together in the same instant, you face the torturous prospect either of your having to watch them deteriorate into nothingness, or of their having to watch this happen to you. Although life in such a world can—if one is fortunate, and has the right attitude—contain much happiness, such a world is not the kind of world anyone should be happy about.

Now, here come the preachers, telling you that the world is not like this, that you actually have a chance at a blissful eternity. The only price that comes with this world is that some people will end up in infinite torture for all eternity. This is a trade that selfish billions are all too happy to make; they even happily grab the preacher's ludicrous rationalization that people "choose" Hell, or "send themselves" to Hell. I say, however, that such a world is not just worse than the materialistic one, but infinitely worse. A world in which even one being must suffer for all eternity is an infinitely bad world; even a world in which the only beings who go to Hell are those people (and gods) who would send others to Hell, is infinitely bad—such people (and gods) simply should be shot, not inflicted with the same torture they would visit upon others.

The materialistic universe is a bad universe—it is a dangerous universe in which we must, with no assurance of success, scrounge for enough temporary happiness to make our brief lives worthwhile—but it is not nearly the worst of all universes. In the end, that is something to be extremely thankful for.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Poison King

I give my enthusiastic recommendation for Adrienne Mayor's extraordinarily written biography of Mithradates, The Poison King. Everything about the book is just right.

At the same time, I have to say that I feel unsettled by my own reaction to reading about great conquerers like Mithradates. It is so easy, looking back, to feel admiration for them; yet, whatever nobility they might at times possess, they invariably are soaked in innocent blood. Mithradates himself, early in his rise to power, orchestrated the murder of nearly one hundred thousand Roman citizens in Asia Minor—some of them surely deserving the death owed to oppressors, as many surely not. Reading such things, and still finding oneself romanticizing such men, one wonders whether, two thousand years hence, people will view Hitler in the same way.

It often is a challenge to feel connected to suffering that is spatially distant from us; notwithstanding my donations to help Japan, it is not as though I am running off there to help with the reconstruction, much less impoverishing myself to help people even worse off elsewhere in the world. Yet, suffering that is temporally distant is even more remote; once we get into the ancient chronicles, where faceless thousands seem to die at the drop of a hat, even remote recognition of the sheer magnitude of the human suffering in question is next to impossible.

Climate Cover-Up

I have been wanting to read James Hoggan's Climate Cover-Up for a long time, and now, thanks to Interlibrary Loan, I have been able to. It is very similar to the outstanding Merchants of Doubt, which I have noted on this blog, though perhaps more readable on the run.

If you want to see how politics and corporate interest have conspired to manufacture a pseudo-debate about climate science, either book will do the trick. Both books are very upsetting. They highlight, again and again, how corruption and dishonesty are rewarded, rather than punished—how there is no justice, no accountability, and, in the end, no hope.

You want the world to be a better place? Then make sure you have more cash to throw around than the other guy. That's all there is to it. Stop hoping for some Batman to set things straight; even Batman wouldn't be capable of much without his millions of dollars.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How'd it get burned?

If one is truly fortunate, one may get to observe, just once in one's life, an event so profound, so extraordinary, as to transform one's view of the world. Such an event can take unexpected forms---even emerging from the unlikely medium of the arts. Acting can change everything; in the hands of a rare, gifted actor, the thespian craft can become nigh-alchemical, transforming a mere mortal into a living embodiment of humanity's full potential.

Ladies and gentlemen, for your edification, and for your ennoblement, I present to you a scene from the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, wherein Nicolas Cage---as though the Demiurge himself, impressing into formless celluloid matter the pefect Platonic Form of the Good---attempts to determine how it got burned:

Indeed, Mr. Cage, indeed. For, who among us has not, on more than one occasion, asked "How'd it get burned? How'd it get burned? How'd it get burned, how'd it get burned?"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

I have to report yet another enthralling Open Yale course: Steven B. Smith's Introduction to Political Philosophy. Smith covers some of the highlights of the political thought of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Tocqueville. His lectures, like those in every Open Yale course I have so far listened to so far, are clear and superbly organized. Moreover, Smith exhibits more than just enthusiasm for his subject (though enthusiasm would have been enough); listen to him, and you find yourself in the presence of someone who positively reveres his subject.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Defining atheism

PZ Myers at Pharyngula has come under some criticism after having denounced what he refers to as "Dictionary Atheists"—atheists who define atheism negatively, as simple lack of belief in god, rather than affirmatively, as belief that there is no god.

I'm with Myers part of the way: I think atheism should be used to refer to people who believe that there is no god, plus noncognitivists; as with Myers, one of my main reasons for this is that people who call themselves atheists nearly always have affirmative reasons for believing that there is no god. We can argue about history or etymology, but the purely negative definition is too loose to map properly (as far as I can tell) onto the people who actually apply the label to themselves. If I were still agnostic, I would not want constantly to have to say, "Yes, I am an atheist in the technical sense of the term, but I am different from most people who apply the term to themselves, so I don't want to use that word." Nor, as an atheist, do I want constantly to have to say, "Yes, I am an atheist, and, furthermore, I actually believe that there is no god." Best to reserve the term atheism for the narrower category of affirmative disbelief, and the term nonbelief for the broader category of lack of belief.

Where I part with Myers is that he seems—and there is a good chance that I am misunderstanding him, here—to be trying to push atheism into the status of a more comprehensive worldview, complete with a particular epistemology and a particular ethic. I think it is best to take atheism only as a component of many different types of worldviews—an affirmative component, to be sure, but not a worldview itself. Again, my argument simply is based on usage. When people say, "I'm an atheist," I don't think they are saying "I'm an empiricist," or "I'm a skeptic about the paranormal," or "I have liberal social and political views," even if most people who call themselves atheists actually fit into all four categories.

Where I come back again to Myers—and this, I think, was his real point—is that precious little depends upon this debate, and most of the time spent on it is time wasted. All that matters is that you are clear by what you mean by your terms, when you talk to others, so they can understand what you are claiming and what you are not. But that is just the groundwork—everything of interest comes after that, when you have to defend the position you have marked out for yourself.

See What is atheism? for a rehash. Well, actually, this post is a rehash. So, I guess the linked article is a prehash.

Phobos and Deimos don't count?

Stupid + sanctimonious = Bill O'Reilly. Fortunately, Stephen Colbert is there for the takedown. Hint to Bill: for once, have an ounce of humility, and do just a tiny bit of study before thinking yourself fit to talk down to people who are much smarter than you. There are people out there who have reasonably intelligent arguments for the existence of god; you're just not one of them, not by a long shot.

H/T: Leiter Reports.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Friday, February 4, 2011

The opacity of the mind

We like to think that we know our own minds—that they are transparent to introspection. We do not, and they are not. Oliver Sacks describes one of the consequences of a cerebral hemorrhage for one patient:

She could count ("one, two, three, four, five...") as a sequence, but could not say individual numbers or count backward. (Sacks O. 2010. The Mind's Eye. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 37.)

Who, introspecting, would think this even possible?

(For more of the impossible, see the second section of my How can we know anything at all?)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Fox News: self-righteous and oblivious

Finding examples of flagrant hypocrisy and rank idiocy on the eminently self-righteous Fox "News" is like shooting fish in a barrel.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
24 Hour Nazi Party People
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

But I'm not sure the critics really understand. Fox has never been concerned with truth, and that's not its fault; it came into existence because its product was in demand, and it continues to exist because its product still is in demand. If you want to place fundamental fault somewhere, blame the people who tune in to lap it all up. Just as with our politicians, we have exactly the media we deserve.

Update, 28 January 2011: Part Two:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Bill O'Reilly Defends His Nazi Analogies
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Yes, that's how it is: "But I was late!"

(Careful if you try to repost the video using the Daily Show's embed code: right now, it has several HTML errors that need repair. You can copy the source code from this page, of course.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Tiger

Every once in a while, I read something completely different than my standard fare. This time, it was John Vaillant's The Tiger. I don't think I have ever read anything like this before, and I mean that as a compliment. Vaillant's style is simple and competent—nothing extraordinary, but it gets the job done; his true gift, however, is his choice of subject matter: to read The Tiger is to step into a completely alien world. The central narrative of the story—the hunting of a man-eating Siberian tiger—could be told in ten pages; Vaillant stretches it into a 352-page book, with a steady stream of tangential sections giving context and background. Normally, I would find this irritating, but each of the tangents is fascinating. In fact, Vaillant could just as easily have switched the central narrative with nearly any of the tangents, and generated as interesting a book.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Shelly Kagan: PHIL 176: Death

Yale has video of a number of old, good classes online and also available through iTunes (as audio or video). I have already recommended Donald Kagan's course on ancient Greek history. I want to make another recommendation: a philosophy course on death, by a different Kagan: Shelly Kagan, who left the University of Illinois at Chicago for Yale right before I arrived at the former for graduate school. Kagan's course covers a lot of ground; if you never have had a philosophy course before, you will learn much about personal identity and philosophy of mind before getting to more attitudinal questions about death. The lectures are crystal-clear.

There was, incidentally, a curious coincidence when I listened to the course. In one lecture, Kagan started unsympathetically to dissect Heidegger's claim to the effect that everyone dies alone. As I listened, it seemed to me that his critique sounded surprisingly like Paul Edwards' critique in the savage Heidegger's Confusions, which I was just in the process of reading for unrelated reasons. Lo and behold, Kagan suddenly refers to an article by Edwards, which turns out to be in the course packet—his analysis does come from Edwards. Small world.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

As though it needed more refutation

Astrology has always seemed inherently absurd to me; the failure of of astrological predictions in double-blind tests comes as no surprise.

But people are more impressed by anecdotal data, so I have often had to listen to proponents gush about how uncannily they think everyone's personalities correspond to their sun signs. They even tell me, after (of course) discovering I am a Libra, that I behave exactly like a Libra.

Well, now all of the confirmations have become falsifications. I'm not even a Libra: turns out I'm a Virgo.

My guess: we'll be treated to a torrent of denialism and blatantly ad hoc rationales.

More detail from Neurologica.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Hell is other people

Sartre famously said that "Hell is other people." Here is what he meant:
…"hell is other people" has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because…when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. … But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.1
Yet another instance in which what a philosopher said is better than what he meant.

1 As quoted at

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A few good books

Here are a few of the good books I read while on vacation:

Matt Taibbi's Griftopia. Seldom have I seen someone do such a thorough job of documenting the conglomeration of stupidity and corruption of which the US financial world consists.

Leonard Susskind's The Black Hole War. Describes Susskind's long dispute with Stephen Hawking and others about whether black holes destroy information.

Gordy Slack's The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything. Nice account of the Dover intelligent design trial.

It was nice to have time to study, for a change. Fortunately, this semester looks like it will not be nearly as intense as the previous one, so I should be able to cram a lot more study time into it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Net privacy add-ons

If you use Firefox, there are two privacy/security add-ons that I would recommend, with the natural proviso that I am no techie:

NoScript blocks all executable content (like Java and JavaScript) and allows you, click-by-click, to activate only what you want on each page you visit. Naturally, this will slow down your web-surfing experience, and you will have to be extra careful about activating the right scripts when you fill out online forms, but it is worth the added security—you might be surprised just how much surreptitious executable content exists in most web pages. The developer, by the way, updates this add-on like crazy.

finds and deletes local shared objects placed on your computer by Flash (i.e. flash cookies). These are not deleted by Firefox even with the maximum privacy setting activated, and they appear to be able to track everything a normal cookie can. BetterPrivacy takes a few seconds to get rid of them every time you close Firefox. Again, you have to be careful with these if you like to store things like passwords or Flash game information, but it's worth the gain in privacy.