Sunday, July 4, 2010

Tactile aspects of non-verbal behavior

More in the non-verbal behavior files. What we touch, how it feels, how much it weighs - these all effect us emotionally. Discover Blogs notes that, "In a study of 54 volunteers, those who clutched the heavier board rated a job candidate more highly based on their resume, and thought that they displayed a more serious interest in the job."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bruce Sheiman (An Atheist Defends Religion) on why the educated tend to be nonbelievers

Bruce's take on atheism is refreshing, and less aggressive than the so-called
"new atheists." Just because some people lack belief does not mean they must be at odds, unable to civilly engage each other.
As a counter to Richard Dawkins' rather insulting suggestion to relabel atheists as "brights," here is a quote from an interview with Bruce Sheiman:

I have a theory why education is associated with atheism (i.e., that atheists are more likely to have higher educational achievement than believers).
And it is not because religion is associated with ignorance, which is what
sanctimonious atheists would have us believe. Rather, it is because
education’s highest goal is the cultivation of critical reasoning, and too much
critical reasoning serves to undermine any Institution or Ideal. I call this the
“Opening of the American Mind” because it encourages, first, the transition to
relativism (based on the assumption that all cultural truths are equally valid
and that no ideal is better than any other). In time, critical reasoning takes
us a step further, to the view that all beliefs are equally dubious, equally
subject to criticism and skepticism. The result is an inability to see
anything important without great gobs of cynicism. The solution is to take
critical reasoning a step further – to the criticism of critical reasoning.
Whether that will ever take place is open to skepticism… and so it goes.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Poem for Tuesday

Deep calls unto deep in the chasm of great waters.
I watch the fish and remember they are the symbols of the children of God;
I stand in wonder as they surrender to the wave
and are crushed against the rocks where destiny brings pain.

Peace… is all I long for and all that I cannot find.
I rush into the temple where I light a thousand candles and I pray one prayer,
and I sing one song, and I heave one heart to the scales of mercy.

Crucify my vanity on the cross of high judgment.
Flay me to the block and unveil the guts of doubt.
Fix me with chains of regret to the steps of Your Calling,
to hear the lament of the Lady named Wisdom.

For I hear her in the city as she whispers from cold streetlamps
and frost-bitten bricks where the hunger never ends.
I call her from the mountains of the sea
where her song is heard by whales and echoed through the riptide and the reef.
I cry out from the sewers where her children wade and scramble,
where they sip from grey streams that trickle down from the noble houses.

I call her,
I cry to her,
I surrender to her flame.
I summon every shadow of remembrance, and I turn to her, flesh to the blaze.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hammes on Afghanistan: Maybe Joe Biden was Right

A key exchange that probably passed most people by on All Things Considered today:

Well, Colonel Hammes, if the fixed number here is the timeframe as opposed to the strategy, is there something the U.S. could achieve effectively in Afghanistan with a different strategy, as you see it, that could be consistent with starting to draw down forces a year from July?

HAMMES: Yes, because it is a very long process and a very expensive one.
So if we take the 10 years, let's say we're wildly optimistic and we can make this work in only 10 years, that will cost us about a trillion dollars and about 3,000 lives. And if we're very, very good and we get a superb Afghan government and the economy doubles in those 10 years, the best we can do is a country that is poorer than today's Chad. So from a strategic point of view, investing those kind of resources to create another Chad just doesn't seem to make sense to me.

Few have more expertise on this subject than retired U.S. Marine Col T.X. Hammes, and what he recommends sounds alot like what Vice President Biden was recommending during the policy review last year, namely, a much smaller force with a mission to maintain intelligence links and continue to target Al Qaeda and their affiliates through direct action raids and air strikes. This is not a great strategy, but it sure is better than the alternative: open-ended commitment to pour our blood and treasure down the endless chasm in the graveyard of empires. Isn't that why many of us voted for President Obama, so he would keep us out of quixotic campaigns with no end in sight? >

Monday, June 21, 2010

Open Letter to the National Pork Board - Protectors of The Only Other White Meat!

Recently, ThinkGeek reported that the National Pork Board in the United States brought forward a cease and desist order against a completely false product, Canned Unicorn Meat.

But I have been in contact with confidential sources who have confirmed that this report is not entirely true, and they have also revealed a truly stunning conspiracy. This hideous product, Canned Unicorn Meat - The Other Other White Meat, is not in fact a false product, but is very real, and is shipped all over the world. It is routinely consumed by Asian men seeking increased virility and by those enslaved to the black arts: witches, voodoo priests, tribal shamen, and marine biologists. And my source for this information is, believe it or not, the unicorns themselves. I was approached in a glade in which a rainbow appeared to end, where I was seeking a new species of clover. I was sought by these ethereal creatures in earnest desperation. And I promised to tell their story to the world.

They asked me to publish an open letter to the National Pork Board. I do so here.

Dear National Pork Board,
We want to make sure that you, the pork board, understand that we unicorns are in fact real. And we are also sentient! We do not appreciate being turned into canned meat.

Do not pay attention to the "sisters" at Radiant Farms. They are not "sisters" in the convent sense, but sisters in the coven sense. They do not ease and comfort us into our final stages of life as they claim - they poke and prod and measure us for coats. They keep us in chains and cages and then boil us in cauldrons. They are witches!

Please continue your legal efforts to stop their wicked enterprise. We fully and completely support your efforts to end this vile practice! Save us!

Wishfully Yours,
The Real Unicorns

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell on running

Malcolm Gladwell said, "I'm only snobbish about running. Competitive runners disdain listening to music when they run; I want to at least give the impression I am listening only to my body."

I refuse to run with headphones for different reasons - it's my idea time. I get more ideas during a run than atany other time. The rhythm of my pace and breathing has a similar effect as zen meditation. It clears the mind. Oddly, this very active time for the body is a quiet time for the soul. And, by concentrating on nothing, my mind is quiet enough to notice when new ideas arrive. I would lose that if I ran with headphones, whether for music or news radio. I often don't notice how loud life is, that is, how many people and items of interest or vying for my attention constantly. Life is so noisy, until I run.

Thanks Google - Terrain view is now in the drop down menu

Apparently Google reads this blog, because the day after I raised a fuss on these pages (as well as a couple other forums) they added terrain view to a drop down menu on Google Maps. My operative theory was that since google has no formal customer feedback mechanism, they were probably monitoring blogs and forums for mentions of Google. It probably has no connection, but it seemed to work. Of course, this is likely one of those incidents where correlation does not equal causation.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Google Maps - where is the terrain view?

Google, while a great (and free) product, I find it frustrating that they do not seek customer feedback when they implement changes. I use Google Maps terrain view all the time. Now it is gone. I would like to tell them how frustrating this is and that I will now seek out another browser that will allow me to see terrain. The satellite views are great, but the terrain view has altitude and contour lines that are necessaary for many of us in our jobs and hobbies. So, Goggle, if you're listening, change it back! Bring back the terrain view on Google Maps.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Quote for the day with commentary.

If we were to do away with the varying religions, we would find ourselves united and enjoying one great faith and religion, abounding in brotherhood. - Kahlil Gibran

While I doubt this is objectively true, that this would simply happen given our contradictory, selfish nature, this is what Karen Armstong is getting at with her Charter of Compassion. What is known as the Golden Rule is the underlying principle of all the world's major religious traditions. According to the ancient tale, Rabbi Hillel (in a time shortly before Jesus of Nazareth) stated that the heart of the law was "Do not to others that which is hateful to you." the rest of the law - he said - was commentary.

Artists such as Kahlil Gibran and John Lennon offered this observation to the world in various forms, whether through story, poem, or song. They asserted that the underlying notion of compassion for others is what is important, not all the extraneous dogmas the religions of the world pile on to it. In the 19th Century, Lew Wallace, author of Ben-hur, wrote a very long novel, The Prince of India, in which the protaganist seeks to reconcile the major world religions by showing how they are all based on the same philosophy of compassion. So the idea has been around for at least a couple hundred years, probably longer. I believe it speaks to the very passionate core of human beings, the need to identify and sympathize with others, and this is why it is so resonant. But, again, we humans are essentially self-contradictory. While we evolved the capacity for great compassion and charity for those in our tribe, we also developed the ability to practice cruelty and aggression towards those we see as outsiders. So, these yin and yang forces will continue to pull and prod at us, ultimately foiling our attempts to raise compassion on to a throne above us all.

Embracing Doubt

I just happened to catch Laura Ingraham on the radio a few days ago as she was ridiculing President Obama for speaking about his faith in starkly religious terms at an Easter observance. He was never so forthcoming, she said, using the name of Christ and being very specific about the overtly Christian aspects of his faith. Ingraham suggested that it must be a ploy, a play to manipulate the faithful, and her proof? Well, didn't he talk about doubt once, when speaking on matters of faith? Didn't he mention that America included "non-believers" along with Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. in his inauguration speech?

Apparently, her implication is that non-believers are not real Americans, that we don't mention those people. Apparently, talking about grappling with doubt in one's spiritual life is a sure sign of cynicism and dishonesty. Apparently, believers must be completely certain, with no reservations, no room for hesitancy. But what would Ms. Ingraham say to Mother Teresa, whose journal writings illuminated a life filled with profound doubts about the existence and nature of God? Would she cast Teresa to the inquisitor's rack along with the President? Of course, that is the logical extension of Ingraham's take on faith - inhuman adherence to an austere standard with no tolerance for dissent or disagreement. In short, the Inquisition. But, then, anyone who listens to Ms. Ingraham will recognize that game already.

Monday, May 3, 2010

My President, Our President...and Confirmation Bias

A few posts ago, I noted the dangers of confirmation bias. President Obama seems to understand the dangers of succumbing to this phenomenon on a mass scale. As he said when he won the election, he is the president for all the people, not just black, or hispanic, or gay, or union, no, for everyone. And he shows what that means here, in his graduation speech to Michigan University, where he extols the students to keep themselves connected to different ideas than their own, and to people who believe differently than they do. Here is a highlight from the whole speech:

...if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York
Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If
you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the
Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be
changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for
effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.

And so, too, is the practice of engaging in different experiences
with different kinds of people. I look out at this class and I realize for four
years at Michigan you have been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars,
professors and students. Don’t narrow that broad intellectual exposure just
because you’re leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it. If you grew up in a big
city, spend some time with somebody who grew up in a rural town. If you find
yourself only hanging around with people of your own race or ethnicity or
religion, include people in your circle who have different backgrounds and life
experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and
in the process, you will help to make this democracy work.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The perils of rumor

Jayne Cravens, an expert in development studies and online volunteerism, provides a long list on her website of the damage suffered in developing regions due to rumor, superstition, and urban legends. One story describes an African village that could no longer sell their ginger crop because of rumors that one could be infected with HIV through their produce.
What becomes clear after a perusal of her list, is that these rumors and superstitions are reflective of an inefficient information system. The problem is that this is a huge obstacle to development and the creation of wealth.

As noted in the World Bank's "Where is the Wealth of Nations" report, most of the "wealth" in the developed world is intangible, existing in institutions and rule sets. The most interesting part of this is that this intangible capital is so vital because it actually allows the creation of more wealth. Think of the patent office and the court system that enforces copyrights: this is a system designed to encourage creativity and invention, which in turn enriches the whole society. In a cournty with no protection for inventors, there is little incentive to work hard at developin anything new and useful. The bottom line is these institutions are crucial for the developing world to achieve a better state. What's left to discover is how much this inefficient information distribution system (rumors and superstitions) hampers the development of these economic and social institutions and rule sets.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Pet Peeve: British to American

In the pet peeve department: I was about to buy a Nick Hornby book in the Chicago airport the other day, (How to Be Good, I think) and, while leafing through it, I noticed that "color" was missing the "u", which of course is inlcuded in the British spelling: colour. There were several other Americanizations throughout the book, such as spelling "realized" with a z instead of an s.
This kind of thing drives me a little nuts. What is the point of this? Do publishers think we don't know Nick Hornby is British? Are they trying to insulate us from foreign spellings?

Maybe I am being too sensitive, but I find it insulting. I read the Economist on most flights (it usually gets me through at least two hours, and as a bonus I get to catch up on what's happening in Sri Lanka or Malawi) and enjoy the fact that they don't make "American editions." On a similar note, I've noticed that some books are given different titles when they are released in the U.S. Maybe a few decades ago I would never even have found this out, but in the internet age of globalism, when I can find foreign reviews of books instantly, what are they trying to do? Why is Philip Pullman's The Northern Lights known as The Golden Compass in the U.S.? I think maybe its the idea that a bunch of publishers are sitting around thinking we Americans are too stupid or too insular to buy a book or product if we find out it has a foreign source. I'm not really sure why, but I don't like it. My thought is that anyone who would read a Nick Hornby book very likely knows he's a Brit already. And, anyway, in the age of Harry Potter, isn't that a good thing?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The hard truth about the budget

The truth that no American politician will say is that they can't cut the budget because we the people won't let them.

John Sides at the Monkey cage illustrated a recent Economist/YouGov poll on what people are willing to cut - against what the government actually spends money on.
I suspect that some of this has to do with how the questions were asked, but I am also fairly certain that most citizens have very little idea where the government's budget goes. The elephant in the room is the defense budget. Right now we pay not just to raise and keep a military to fight definable threats, such as the very real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (however questionable the strategy that got us there), we also pay for a lot of weapons, equipment, and capabilities based on wildly speculative definitions of "threat."
The military budget is bigger than the next 20 nation's budgets combined. Even cutting it in half would still leave with us a truly enormous military budget, and such serious cuts are going to have to be considered as the U.S. finds itself as one nation among others, as opposed to the power above all the rest. America will remain a mighty powerhouse, but economic reality will soon dictate that we cannot maintain this unquestioned hegemony for much longer.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

B.R. Myers on the great matron: Kim Jong Il - North Korea's pathology revealed

I remember hearing army Gen Bill Livesay (former commander of U.S. Forces Korea) say that the toughest thing about dealing with the North Koreans was you just couldn't ascribe any rationality to their actions. Livesay is a shrewd thinker who hides behind a southern good-ole boy facade, so it is quite an admission on his part that he could never figure the North Koreans out. They do not maneuver on the world stage in anyway similar to their communist forebears, such as the Soviets or the Red Chinese. As a long time cold warrior, Livesay and the other strategists of the cold war era were used to anticipating, or at least understanding, what the the Soviets and Chinese were up to. There was almost always method to their madness. But the lessons they gleaned from dealing with the two communist great powers proved useless against the North Koreans.

B.R. Myers, a professor in South Korea, recently offered a very unique perspective on why the North Koreans proved so inscrutable to the West, and even to their supposed allies, China, and Russia. His talk featured on C-Span's BookTV (BookTV - I freely admit I am addicted), was quite illuminating for those who've had to concern themselves with the situation.

He notes chiefly that North Korea is primarily a racist, nationalist regime built on militarism. It is communist only secondarily. They consider themselves to be a pure race, plagued by jealous, evil outsiders, meaning chiefly the U.S. and other westerners, but also including their Asian neighbors, the Japanese and Chinese. His observations about the matronly characterization of the regime in its own propaganda were completely new to me. And I have quite a bit of exposure to American strategic thinking on North Korea over the last couple decades. For anyone interested in the Korean Peninsula, his presentation is worth the time. I definitely intend to read his book.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Is There Free Speech in the U.K.?

Philip Pullman at an event plugging his new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, delivers a solid, and rousing, defense of the right to freedom of speech. I wonder what Pullman thinks of this case in Scotland, where a preacher was arrested and fined for speaking about his religious convictions regarding homosexuals (that they are going to hell.) While I find the preacher's views slightly offensive, and truthfully, rather silly, I don't like the idea of arresting people for voicing their opinions. I am fairly certain Mr. Pullman is in my corner on that one. Once down that road, there is no end to it. It seems quite odd that the country that germinated the idea of the rights of man, including free speech, should now be denying it to those within its borders.

The best April Fool's broadcast from Performance Today

Violinist Daniel Hope contributed to the best, most convincing, April Fool's gag on the radio yesterday. Here it is - I will admit, they had me going for a few minutes, until I realized what day it was.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Mormon fakes it

Here is a fascinating blog. A woman converted to the Mormon faith to marry the man she loved, but now is stuck with living in a faith community she doesn't believe in. She is finding it harder and harder to "fake it," and blogging is apparently her stress outlet. It's got drama, tension, tragedy - what's not to love?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Trying to eat healthily? The U.S. Govt isn't helping.

Here is a very illustrative graph depicting how the government subsidizes food in complete opposition to its own recommendation:

Friday, March 5, 2010

Unbelievable prescience - the Atomists

I remember vaguely hearing about the Atomist school of thought in Ancient Greece, either in college or high school, I don't remember. I do remember that whoever was teaching breezed past these guys to get to the Greek heavy weights, Aristotle and Plato, who rejected atomism. So, recently when I read the following passage by Edward Humes in his book, Monkey Girl, I was stopped in my tracks:

Atomists...theorized that all living things and all matter were made of
invisibly small particles they called atoms. In their view, the universe
was born through the random and purposeless combination, interaction, and
crashing together of these atoms, a cyclic and eternal process that did not
require divine intervention...undergoing continuous cycles of change, the
atomists dispensed with the need for a creator. The gods were dismissed as
the products of superstition and the all-too-human desire to blame others for
misfortune; the atomists preached that personal responsibility, not appeasing
false gods, was of ultimate importance.

Now, this was all more than 2500 years ago. Before the microscope, before the telescope, basically before almost all of science. Humes goes on:

The atomist point of view would turn out to be eerily prescient
anticipation of modern chemistry, particle physics, and the big bang theory,
complete with a suggestion that stars and planets condensed from swirling
clouds of cosmic dust.

I couldn't help but pause in wonder at these incredible seers - how they came to these conclusions with virtually none of the knowledge that would lead physicists to reach similar conclusions 2500 years later is baffling. and quite wondrous.

I should note that this observation is simply an aside in Humes' brilliant book, which is actually about the (so far unsuccessful) efforts to bar the teaching of evolutionary theory in high schools in America.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Rational Actor?

I took about 20 hours of Economics before I switched to Geography for my undergraduate degree. Not only because reading Toynbee and Mackinder is downright riveting compared to Keynes and Hayek, but because I started to get the feeling that the whole subject of economics is a house of cards. It's a bunch of models, which are only useful if tied to reality, but the assumptions economists make to build their models are based on half-baked, or outright false, theories of human behavior.

Take the idea of the Rational Actor. Economists presume that human beings act rationally and all those thousands of small rational decisions and choices create unbeatable efficiencies in the marketplace. Now, by using the word rational, they mean simply that people weigh cost against benefit before taking an action. But they never address the fact that people often do not act rationally, even in this limited sense. People are social, emotional, hormonal, impressionable, tribal, and so much more, but rarely, oh so rarely, rational.

The American Scientist has a well-developed discussion of the problems with the rational actor theory in the context of game theory and other developments in the behavioral sciences. In the vein of E.O. Wilson's idea of consilience - where he suggests that the hard physical sciences and the life sciences need to converge their fields of study, so should Economists and other behavioral scinces, such as Psychology and Sociology, so we can gain greater insight into what is actually happening in the marketplace.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why people believe Conspiracy Theories

One cannot go through too many days on this planet without running into a conspiracy theory or two. My first experience with a believer in one of these theories was many years ago, when I ran into a John Birch Society representative. They actually believed in quite a few conspiracies at once, but the foundation stone of their theories was that Dwight Eisenhower was the chief communist agent operating in the Western World. How else to explain his meteoric rise from Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army to (Four-Star) General in three short years? Of course, the easiest explanation would be that he was good at his job, and that the U.S. entered the Second World War during that time which saw the need for active officers increase twelve fold. Additionally, lots of people on active duty in 1941 were quickly promoted after the war began in earnest. Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Patton, three of the most famous American generals of the war, all started out as (Full-bird) Colonels in 1941, before the U.S. entry on 8 Dec. 1941. All became Four-star Generals by 1945.

As I spoke with the Bircher, I suggested there were four simple, and believable, factors that influenced Eisenhower's quick promotion: there was a war; officers who fought and commanded well were needed; a lot of officers died, so those who lived were promoted quickly to fill in gaps; and finally, his reputation for exceptional personal and organizational skills - exactly what a high-placed general officer needed to put together such huge operations with multi-national forces. But this was too simple for my Bircher acquaintance: he preferred to believe a vast communist conspiracy placed Eisenhower in just the right positions, and ensured he was promoted quickly, so he would be in position to be President -as if anyone could predict all of the events that culminated in his ultimate election. I suggested that such a belief defies simple logic. But the Bircher would have none of it.

Many skeptics and debunkers, such as Michael Shermer, point out the obvious shortcomings in many of these theories. For instance, to pull off a faked moon landing would require that thousands of people were in on the hoax, and stayed quiet all this time. A similar problem plagues Kennedy assassination theorists.

As David Aaronovitch states, "After the JFK assassination, it was unbearable to many people that they could live in a country where a lone gunman could kill a president. In those circumstances, it’s not surprising that an overarching conspiracy theory emerges." In his new book, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, he posits that it simply makes people feel more secure to think that organized human agency was responsible for horrific acts such as the JFK assassination than to allow the chaotic power of a crazed gunman to intrude into their comfortable worlds.

Recent examples include the various 9/11 theories, which suggest everything from blaming Israel to blaming an enormous conspiracy within the Bush administration, and the Obama birthers, lest we be accused of partisanship, who contend that President Obama was not born in the U.S. and that his parents faked their announcement in the Honolulu newspaper in order to ensure he could be President someday. Numerous flaws can easily be demonstrated in all of these theories. Obviously, these theories fill an emotional or psychic need within their advocates, and very few will allow reason to intrude as long as their need is met by their conspiratorial claims.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

David Simon on the Drug War and the death of policing

In a compelling interview with Bill Moyers, the producer of The Wire, David Simon outlines how the drug war has destroyed the profession of the policeman. First, he points out how 25 years ago 30-35% of prisoners were incarcerated for violent crimes, and now violent crimes account for only about 7% of prisoners. He then explains how police get promoted by valuing "easy to go after" cases, and drug cases are easy. You find a guy who has drugs on him, and you charge him. Easy. And a cop can make an arrest every few days by just shaking up some guys in the right neighborhoods. So he can make a lot of arrests. Whereas the cop who spends his time investigating murders and rapes has to put in many, many hours to gather enough evidence to make a bust. So the guy who makes the drug collars (which is basically a non-violent crime) gets promoted.

And the guy who tries to solve crimes where citizens were actually hurt? He gets passed over and told to go make more arrests.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Poem for Monday

...The wild grass rustles over Babii Yar.
The trees look ominous like judges.
Here all things scream in silence,
and, baring my head,
Slowly I feel myself turning gray.

And I myself-
one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here-
I am each old man
here shot down.
I am every child
here shot down.
Nothing within me
will ever forget.

Let the "Internationale"
when the last anti-Semite on earth
is buried forever.

In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage all anti-Semites
must hate me now
as if I were a Jew.
And for that reason
I am a true Russian!

-Yevgeny Yevtushenko,
translated from Russian by George Reavey

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The truth about Haiti's deal with the devil

Reverend Pat Robertson explained, yesterday, how Haiti was in such bad straits these days because its founders made a pact with the devil. This is what passes for Christianity in America these days. Of course, not all Christians believe such drivel, even in the U.S.. There are compassionate and erudite Christian believers such as Dr. Cornel West, who espouses a quite reasonable and moderate Christian message. But Rev. Robertson is from the extreme rightwing of the Evangelical movement in America. Given recent events, I thought I would tackle this assertion that Haiti is poor and destitute because of its pact with the devil head on. So, first of all, is it true? Robertson offered no proof for his assertion, so I looked it up.

Just to see exactly what we are talking about, here is another version of this "historical fact" making the rounds in Evangelical circles:
It is a matter of well-documented historical fact that the nation of Haiti
was dedicated to Satan 200 years ago. On August 14, 1791, a group of houngans
(voodoo priests), led by a former slave houngan named Boukman, made a pact with the Devil at a place called Bois-Caiman. All present vowed to exterminate all of the white Frenchmen on the island. They sacrificed a black pig in a voodoo ritual at which hundreds of slaves drank the pig's blood. In this ritual, Boukman asked Satan
for his help in liberating Haiti from the French. In exchange, the voodoo
priests offered to give the country to Satan for 200 years and swore to serve
him. On January 1, 1804, the nation of Haiti was born and thus began a new
demonic tyranny.

But is it "a matter of well documented fact?" Here is the report of a Dr. Gelin, a Haitian scientist and minister, who researched this question because, as he notes, "the idea that Haiti was dedicated to Satan prior to its independence is a very serious and profound statement with potentially grave consequences for its people in terms of how they are perceived by others or how the whole nation is understood outside its borders." I appreciate that his concern is the consequences for Haiti in terms of its image abroad and not the "spiritual" ramifications of the curse itself, because that is quite a reasonable concern. You can read his whole article, but, in short, he found no historical proof for it. Furthermore, as a believing Christian he joined a group who decided to go to the fabled spot of this Satanic dedication and undo any curses that might have been activated, just in case. So, why didn't Robertson know this? Why was he not informed by God that the cursed had been lifted? Must have his wires crossed.

I have searched through several sources of Haitian history and found no proof of this pact with the devil. It was not the devil who set the slaves in Haiti free from their tyrannical French masters, it was some damned fine guerrilla fighting on the part of the Haitians themselves. In fact, in an era of increasing worldwide dominance by European military forces, the former slaves assembled a very effective military that repulsed three different European invasions (British, French, and Spanish.) The nation's troubles since then are due to a number of different factors, from American and European meddling to an acute lack of education, skills, and resources, all historically documented, and none attributable to Satan.

Haiti in the balance

A post of mine picked up by the Daily Dish:

I was on the ground in Haiti with the Marines in the 2004 peacekeeping operation. After what would have been a fairly mild tropical storm in the U.S., our peacekeeping op turned into a full-on relief and rescue effort near the town of Fond Verette. Because of deforestation the ravines in the mountains became swift-moving rivers of mud, swallowing up whole villages. Then, as now, news was slow to come in. What we thought initially was a few hundred dead turned out to be thousands within three days.

The only positive side at the time was that Port-au-Prince was spared.
We had staff estimates then on what the impact to the city would have been, and it was truly frightening. The abject poverty of the area, and the lack of resources to respond to something like this, cannot be underestimated. From that experience I can guess that we have only begun to realize the full extent of the damage. I suspect that the final toll will be in the hundreds of thousands. If the people in this country have any compassion for "the least of these," they will support quick and massive assistance to that beleaguered country.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A poem for Monday

O star above a starless world
O flicker in a cave of stone despair
O feather plucked from flightless love
Blow the rippled horns to the searchers

O sail danced on whispered wave
O petal stretching for the sun
O dream of boys beyond high fences
Blow the child’s dream a hymn of muscle

O errant knight on shadowed hill
O flavor on the tongue of fear
O message to the muddy trench
Awash in heaving death and weary moon
Blow the meaning clear
Blow the road before them
Blow the wayward home

Blow the wayward son
A song of true direction
To fly on strength of wood
And blaze into a vow

O leper chased from hollow streets
O judge above the bloody host
O diamond in a dungeon
Trapped in cages that lock beauty from the day
Blow dying eyes a promise
Blow the newborn to tomorrow
Blow the hero to the moment of his need

O god of earth and wind
Blow the storms of your decree
Through crackling trees and frozen bone
To burst into the artery of hope

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Jefferson Bible

It is fairly well known that Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. He was probably a deist, but he was definitely a skeptic, who advocated rigorous examination of the evidence for one's beliefs. He was also an admirer of Jesus Christ, but he found the Christ of the New Testament gospels to be unbelievable, a victim of mythmakers who distorted what Jefferson thought to be the prophet's actual philosophy with fantastic tales of miracles and divine fanfare.

So, one day, he sat down and edited out all the things he thought invented after the fact, in an attempt to reveal the natural history of the sage, Jesus Christ. Here is his finished product. I find it to be still quite interesting and often profound, but not nearly as compelling without the mythological elements. But then, my reaction is probably a vestigial holdover from a fervent Christian upbringing. I wonder how those not inculcated as children into the Christian mythos react to it?

One thing is for certain, though. In the current political climate, we would definitely not be raising rapturous monuments (it is my favorite) in the nation's capitol to a man who figuratively chopped up the bible in such a way. Could you imagine if President Obama, in an effort to hone, say, St. Paul's message, had, in his student days, edited the epistles down to their bare philosophical bones? (Actually, I could see him doing this, simply as an exercise in intellectual rigor.) Well, he would certainly not be the president today, and probably not even a senator any longer. Such is the mob fervor gripping the populace.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Why Lean Six Sigma isn't good for everything

I have run into, now and then, very slick efficiency-improvement systems such as Lean and Six Sigma that are billed as the answer for every problem in an organization. They are always billed as brand new, the latest thing, but they are not. Years ago there was TQL, or total quality management. Before that something else. Even reading about these systems just makes my soul die in place. I am sure that these systems are good for running a factory, but managers and leaders in every area of life get swept up in the hype and start trying to apply these (to me) stultifying systems to every type of organization. Renowned Oxford Scholar and Tolkien expert, Thomas Shippey, while speaking of the state of academia, addressed these programs better than I could:
Managerial programs work best where there is a clear and quantifiable
outcome and an easy way of checking what the work-force is doing. Neither of
these apply to teaching, or research. Really productive researchers are often
staring at the wall, or going for walks -- and their product tends to turn up
ten years later. Good teaching is not measured by the number of degrees you turn
out, or even how highly the students rate you at the time. But unsophisticated
management systems (and those are the ones we have) insist on counting

Monday, January 4, 2010

Clarence Bass weighs in on coffee.

The fittest 71 year old on the planet, Clarence Bass, (he is 65 in this photo) has weighed in on coffee here, subject of recent posts on this blog. As on most subjects, he is well reasoned and advocates moderation. He drinks three cups a day himself, so coffee drinkers, rest easy. He covers all aspects of diet, health, nutrition, and exercise on his site. Anyone who desires to live long and stay agile, mobile, and healthy would do well to keep Mr. Bass on his/her must read list. See how he looks at 70 here

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A poem for Wednesday

Love rejected
hurts so much more
than Love rejecting;
they act like they don't love their country

what it is
is they found out
their country don't love them.
-Lucille Clifton

:Hat tip to Ta-Nehisi Coates for posting this on his blog. I understand his reaction, "this stopped me cold." It is a powerful piece and works on so many levels at the same time. So many things unsaid that the reader must bring to it: this effect in the best poetry allows the writer and reader to unite in a way prose seldom does.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A poem for Monday

From you alone to you alone, everlasting to everlasting, all that is not you is suffering, all that is not you is solitude rehearsing the arguments of loss. All that is not you is the man collapsing against his own forehead, and the forehead crushes him. All that is not you goes out and out, gathering the voices of revenge, harvesting lost triumphs far from the real and necessary defeat. It is to you I speak, solitude to unity, failure to mercy, and loss to the light. It is you I welcome here, coming through the coarse glory of my imagination, to this very night, to this very couch, to this very darkness. Grant me a forgiving sleep, and rest my enemy.

-This is from Leonard Cohen's Book of Mercy, a collection of personal psalms that are honest and profound. For believers of all stripes, the book speaks from a centerpoint of faith. For non-believers and skeptics, this collection of psalms in modern poetic form can speak eloquently to the power of human expression through art, as the master artist struggles with the ineffable.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ahmad Tea - A tea to remember

I am no connoisseur, but I do love tea. And I drink it both black and the Irish way, with full fat milk (in America we call it whole milk). But I'm not fussy about it, I'll even use cream. Now my English wife (half English anyway) will tell you that's properly called 'the English way,' but my grandfather called it the Irish way and that's good enough for me. Of course, if I were to apply reason to the debate, I would probably lose, because it is very unlikely that the Irish had enough money to splurge on milk for their tea, if they could afford tea, so it is probably more accurate to describe tea with milk as an English phenomenon, which the Irish adopted as they peered longingly at their richer English neighbors' milky tea cups. But why would one ever let reason into a marital debate?

Again, I am no expert, but I have drunk thousands of cups, from quiet contemplative sips in the temples of Siam and Nippon to rowdy, roaring cups in the caravan tents of Jordan and Oman. I've even had the good fortune to enjoy traditional English tea service in my grandmother-in-law's delightful coastal bungalow on the South coast of England. The latter experience was probably the most self-conscious one, as the hostess was a very formal English Tory, and I am a lowly descendant of Irish immigrants to the New World, and thus completely out of my element in such rarefied environs. Fortunately my wife coached me through it and I emerged unscathed, but delightfully full on crumpets.

My favorite tea is Ahmad Tea of London. Their English Tea No.1 is a sublime riff off of the more traditional Earl Grey - there is just a hint of bergamot. Also, their fruit teas are phenomenal. Normally I don't go for anything like apricot or apple teas, not only because they are bit frilly for my taste, but also because the fruit flavor often seems a little off and overbearing against the tea. But Ahmad Tea makes a mango tea that is out of this world. And their apricot is also impressive. The fruit flavor is hinted at, but the experience is still a full black tea experience.

So, since I routinely buy their products, I looked into the company's background. One assumes from their delightfully designed tea caddies that the company has a history that stretches back into the time of the Raj and the height of the British Empire. Which, apparently, is exactly what the company is going for with their designs. The look and feel of the tins instantly recall an earlier era, and the label artwork is richly evocative of England, at least the England of myth.

But the truth is the company was started in 1985 by Iranian immigrants to the UK. Though apparently the family has some four generations of tea making experience in Iran, they capitalized on the worldwide reputation of English tea when they got to London. And good for them. I must admit, if their label had an Iranian theme and was named Ahmad Tea of Teheran I probably would not have given it a try, and would have been the poorer for it. As I look at their products, there is nothing that claims a long company history, but the impression is so strong, one assumes it. Which I suppose means they did their marketing well. Fortunately they also make their tea very well too.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Blue eyed devils on the wane

I remember years ago while reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, how the Nation of Islam preachers would constantly refer to "blue-eyed devils." It was alarming to me, first, because I have blue eyes, but secondly, I found it curious that they would single out a fairly rare aspect of (mostly) white folks. Surely, I thought, this particularly extreme group held grievances against all whites, not just those with blue eyes.

A recent article in the Associated Press shed some light on this. Apparently blue eyes are much rarer than they used to be. While nearly half the country (USA) peered through blue-tinged orbs at the beginnning of the Twentieth Century, only 10% of Americans do so today. So, back in the formative years of the Nation of Islam, the 1940's and 50's, blue eyes were much more common than they are now, hence the applicability of the "blue-eyed devils" comment. Otherwise, why would they single out only a sixth of the "white race," their stated enemy?

Thus it appears that my children and I are in a rapidly disappearing cohort. According to a study in Human Genetics the appearance of blue eyes in the human race began between 6,000-10,000 years ago via a genetic mutation in one single human being near the Black Sea. This characteristic was passed down through the generations, appearing mostly in Northern Europe, but also in a few areas in Africa and Asia as well. And now it is on the wane. Steadily disappearing in North America and Northern Europe, where inter-marriage and inter-cultural exchange has allowed the dominant brown eye color to slowly filter out the recessive blue.

While we blue-eyed individuals have been alternately favored and vilified, it appears that we can state, as a group, to the Nation of Islam, that soon, in the words of Richard Nixon, "you won't have us to kick around anymore!" And while I adore many brown-eyed individuals (my wife included) I would sorely miss the bright blue eyes of my children, as they dance and shimmer in the morning light. Alas, soon there will be no more debate about which are more beautiful, genetics will settle that score forever, as the succeeding generations of humanity slowly evolve into billions of copies of Tiger Woods (hopefully without the philandering!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

With a nod to Gully Foyle

Patrick is my name
And blogspot is my nation
Cyber space is my dwelling place
The truth my destination

-A quatrain of appreciation for Alfred Bester

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Poem for Monday

A Brief Encounter

We ride into life alone,
no horse,
bare ass;
chords singing to the wind.
We gather toys and buttons,
cat’s tails.
Soon we gather wisdom.
We stay away from electric sockets,
rabid dogs.

Days come with enough to share.
We learn about bank accounts and love affairs.
We give what we can,
We help whom we know.
It’s all we can do.

Even our children ride alone.
Free, but alone.
They may take our buttons and abide our wisdom.
They may not.
It’s all we can do.

We ride out of life alone.
We follow friends and we leave friends…
Riding into nowhere.