On Not Posting This Week, Or: Friday Failboats

2013 03 29 failboat 3

So… I haven’t done a lot of posting this week. Basically none.

Oh, there were a few posts in the beginning of the week, but I usually write longer posts a day or two in advance, so most of those were actually written before Sunday night. Sunday night… death visited my family. Well, OK, not death. But a horrific case of everyone being awake at 4:45am and throwing up that made me sort of wish for death. A little bit.

But to make things really fun, Monday was also my first day at my new job. So yeah… failboat time. 

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The Heretical Thomas Nagel

Resident commenter WalkerW has an interesting piece on his own blog about Questionable Metaphysics. The post is interesting (you should read it!) and goes into some of the philosophical issues that I also care about, from the New Atheists (“The problem is not that these skeptics disagree with classical theism…, but that they do not even understand the classical theist arguments.”) to epistemic humility (“Human limitation is a great reason for intellectual humility.”).

2013 03 26 Mind and Cosmos

Along the way, Walker also linked to an article about Thomas Nagel’s most recent book: Mind and Cosmos. Nagel is one of the most famous philosophers alive today, and he’s been a favorite of mine since I read his takedown of relativism: The Last Word. For that reason, I’m sad to see Nagel turned on by the critics and being virtually burned at the stake as a heretic.

The problem is clear from the book’s subtitle: “Why the materialist, neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.” Now, if Nagel was a religious person attacking materialist neo-Darwinianism, that would be bad and he’d be mocked. The trouble, however, is that Nagel is a staunch atheist. This means he’s betraying his own religion (yeah, I’m still calling this variant of secularism a religion), and that earns him a very special level of hostility.

The Weekly Standard is, of course, a conservative article so you’ll have to read past a certain amount of political slant, but the article is fascinating in how it describes the reaction from Dennet, Dawkins, and other New Atheists to Nagel’s heresy.

I know I’m definitely eager to get my hands on a copy of Nagel’s latest.

T&S Post: Giving Up On The Feminine Divine

Times And Seasons Logo

I have been ridiculously busy today. (I have also learned that females in my family are much tougher than males measured by tears-to-vomit ratio.) My weekly post for Times and Seasons is late, but it is there. And that counts for something right?

This is another post that is particularly Mormon, but I think the margon (Mormon jargon) is not as bad as in some previous posts.

Friday Music: Dustin Kensrue

Anyone that knows  me know that I love Thrice. From 1998 until they declared a hiatus just last year, they brewed a special blend of hardcore punk and authentic Christian yearning. Dustin Kensrue was the lead singer and the songwriter for Thrice, and the force behind their faith-fueled rock. In 2006 he released a solo album with a very different sound but a very similar message.

2013 03 22 Please Come HomeThere are a lot of great songs on that album, and I think two of the most appealing to listen to are I Knew You Before and Pistol. But I’m going to bypass those to talk about the songs that are the most special to me.

The first of those is the album’s title track: Please Come Home. It’s a simple, unadorned retelling of the Prodigal Son. I love that this particular video is a live performance from the US Open of Surfing. Not exactly the venue you’d expect for a song that is an unabashed Bible story, but that’s part of what I love about Dustin. It’s obvious from his songs, his attitude, and his choices that his Christianity is not an addition to his life. It’s the core of his life.

I’ll be honest, I have a hard time singing along to that song in my car ’cause I tend to get choked up near the end. The Prodigal Son’s father is the God I recognize. 

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Internet Commenters and the “Nasty Effect”

2013 03 22 Comments Bad For You

Slashdot summarizes a depressing bit of research:

Researchers worked with a science writer to construct a balanced news story on the pros and cons of nanotechnology, a topic chosen so that readers would have to make sense of a complicated issue with low familiarity. They then asked 1,183 subjects to review the blog post from a Canadian newspaper that discussed the water contamination risks of nanosilver particles and the antibacterial benefits. Half saw the story with polite comments, and the other half saw rude comments, like: ‘If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.’ People that were exposed to the polite comments didn’t change their views really about the issue covering the story, while the people that did see the rude comments became polarized — they became more against the technology that was covered in the story.

Glad that none of my commenters here are like that, but it’s still disconcerting to thing that the ignorati of the world might actually be having a real impact. (Pic is from Salon, which also covered the story.)

Selling Your Soul (Or At Least Future Paychecks)

2013 03 20 Upstart Staff

This idea is simple to explain, but the implications are much more complex and murky. Take a young, 20-something college graduate and use the kind of information they would put on a résumé (college degree, GPA, etc.) to predict their future earnings over the next 10 years. Then, offer them a lump-sum payment now in exchange for a percent of those earnings.

It sounds a bit like science fiction (very good science fiction, in fact), but it’s actuallya real-live business named Upstart (that’s them in the photo) that is already earning candidates an average of $50,000 now in return for a slice of their future successes. On the one hand, it’s a great solution to a frustrating problem. Smart young grads have a ton of potential, but they are also liquidity-constrained. Borrowing from their future to kickstart their careers makes a lot of sense. It makes sense to investors, too, with a targeted rate of return in the range of 8-9%.

But it also looks a little bit like indentured servitude. Of course it isn’t, not today anyway. For one thing, there are safeguards: no more than 7% of income can be taxed, and there’s a cap on how much you have to pay out if you strike it rich and sell a business for $100m. For another, the entire dynamic is inverted: instead of down-and-out, vulnerable people the service is targeted towards those with the  best degrees and the most options.

Here’s a video from Upstart, the name of the company, explaining what they do.

This is one of those articles that I think catches a real glimpse of ways the future might be totally different from what we’re used to, but not based on what you normally think of when you think of futuristic inventions.

Dear Crazy Conservatives, Please Stop

So Vulture reports that Dinesh D’Souza is making a new movie. I really, really wish he wouldn’t.

2013 03 21 2016 Obamas AmericaHis last movie, in case you missed it, was 2016: Obama’s America and it is a perfect example of what happens when the American right decides that Michael Moore is a really awesome guy and theywant to be totally just like him. In fairness, I did not watch the movie. I did, however, have the misfortune of reading the entire book upon which it was largely based: The Roots of Obama’s Rage (also by Dinesh D’Souza). It was an educational experience, but not in the way that D’Souza probably intended. The central premise of the book is that Obama is suffering from an acute case of absent-father syndrome, and therefore he has become the spiritual reincarnation of his father’s exact politics. The problem with that, of course, is that if Obama Senior was totally absent from his son’s life, how did he manage to pick up his politics? It’s not as though his precise brand of anti-colonialism was readily available on bookshelves. The only way Roots of Obama’s Rage makes sense as a narrative is if you believe in literal ghosts (which, if you read the book, might actually be what D’Souza is saying).

The mangled thesis isn’t the worst crime of the book, however. The intentionally belligerent tone is. D’Souze quite deliberately hurls as many racially insensitive terms as he can, including some of his own invention. For example, his term “lactation man” (meaning: “a person who makes things white”) impresively manages to be both sexist and racist at the same time! At least Ann Coulter tries to be funny and clever (guilty admission: sometimes I think she succeeds). D’Souza’s provocative prose is just ugly.

So the near media blackout surrounding the film’s release struck me as a blessing. This is not a right-wing documentary you want to bring home to meet your parents. Depressingly, however, the film did astoundingly well. Only three documentaries have ever pulled in more than the $33,449,086 that D’Souza’s film scored: a Justin Bieber documentary, March of the Penguins, and Farenheit 9/11. At over $100,000,000, Michael Moore’s haul is impressive, but his film opened up in over 800 theaters, and Obama’s America opened up in 1.

The next installment is scheduled for release just before the 2014 midterm elections. I can’t wait.

In another example of conservatives behaving badly, I’m flabbergasted at the way the following Cruz / Feinstein smackdown has been making the rounds among my right-of-center Facebook contacts and in the blogosphere. The video of the exchange between the two senators is here, and the conservative take on it is summarized with images like this one: 

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Confessions of a Mormon Bishop

2013 03 21 Church Building

Looking through his older posts, Russ Hill doesn’t blog very much. Only a couple of times a year. But when he gets to posting he doesn’t mess around. In this most recent entry, Confessions of a Mormon Bishop, he gathers the most important lessons he’s learned from his service:

I have learned that we believe it is a strength to conceal weakness.

I have learned that most of us bare scars from the failure, disappointment, and fear in our lives.  And, we prefer to wear long sleeves.

I have learned that the strongest among us are those with the cleanest mirrors.

He also explains, along the way, what  being a Mormon bishop is about to folks who might not be familiar with the Mormon Church:

I did not ask for this opportunity.  I never considered I might someday have an office in a church.  I have no professional training for this position.  I am not a scriptural scholar.  I have not walked through vineyards with robe-wearing monks.  And, if you’re wondering about vows of celibacy let me introduce you to my four kids. All I did was answer a phone call.  Show up for a meeting.  And nod when asked if I would serve.

Unlike Russ, I have considered that I might someday be a bishop. I sort of assume that I will for one simple reason: when you’ve got a lay clergy everyone who sticks around for a long enough time gets picked eventually. I plan on sticking around, so I’ll probably get picked. I’m a little apprehensive about that, but only a little. Some things are so far out of your league that worrying doesn’t seem appropriate to the scale of the problem. I’ve known bishops, my dad was a bishop, and it’s the hardest job in the world. So, when and if it comes, I hope God helps me out for the sake of anyone who might come to me looking for wisdom, like they go to Russ and like I’ve gone to my bishops over the years.

There’s no way I could ever do it on my own. I don’t think anyone could.

Reminder: Human Beings Are Not Commodities

Earlier this month, the New York City Health Resource Administration unveiled a series of posters designed to combat teen pregnancy. The posters have drawn widespread criticism, including drawing fire from both sides of the abortion debate. The primary complaint is that they stigmatize pregnant mothers, and that’s valid. There’s an even more sinister message, however, but it’s not drawing as much attention because it’s much more subtle.

2013 03 15 I'm Less Likely To Graduate

Think about the logic of that statement: “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because ou had me as a teen.” The unstated question is: As opposed to what? By waiting, could you have had this child at a later stage in your life, a stage when this child–this particular curly-haired kid–would have had a better shot at life? No. You couldn’t have had this child at any other time. You would have had a different child.

What the poster is implying is that human beings are interchangeable. If you get pregnant at 17 your kid is more likely to have a bad life. If you get pregnant at 27 they have a better chance. But it’s not the same child. Conception is the moment when a new organism is created. Unless you save that particular sperm and that particular egg for 10 years, we’re not talking about improving the life of a specific child. We’re talking about two entirely distinct children.

Does that matter? Yeah, I think it does. I think it does because Madonna going around and adopting children like they were Pokemon (“Gotta catch ’em all!”), parents in India and China sex-selecting their chidlren by killing off the girls, the fact that 95% of babies with Down syndrome get aborted, the entire industry of IVF that tends to treat children as an upgraded model of those purse-dwelling toy dogs, and the looming biothethical quandary of designer children all contribute to the commodification of human beings.  Implicit in all of this is the idea that–as long as you terminate the pregnancy before birth–you can have a do-over. As though a human being were like a laptop or a car or a cup of coffee: a purchase you can postpone by returning the merchandise or a transaction you can unravel if the situation changes.

Yes, I’m pro-life, but you don’t have to be pro-life to be troubled by this trend. Even those who think abortion should be legal can recognize that a living human organism has some moral value, and that we ought to treat them as something qualitatively distinct from products. I’m not saying that these posters are creating that perception, but they sure are disturbing reflections of it.