Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Insightful discussion on Obama's China visit

James Fallows of The Atlantic is discussing in much more depth and clarity than any other MSM (main-stream media) outlet, President Obama's recent trip to China. One of his readers who is based in China writes
,"...based on my observations of these things over the years I'm very much leaning toward the White House insider's view -- that the reach was vast and deep, in the many millions or tens of millions, though not necessarily entirely positive. But the comment from President Obama that I think will have the most impact inside the firewall was not the one about US principles that you quoted in your followups. It was this one:

'Now, I should tell you, I should be honest, as President of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time. I think people naturally are -- when they're in positions of power sometimes thinks, oh, how could that person say that about me, or that's irresponsible, or -- but the truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear. It forces me to examine what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States.'

"Wow! As a resident of China for two decades and a Mandarin-speaking China-watcher for three decades, I can say without any doubt that those words will resonate far more deeply -- and potentially more "subversively" or "destabilizingly" -- than any overt thumb-in-the-eye hectoring that any foreigner or foreign leader might muster, in public or private. Those words are ***precisely*** the kind that Zhongnanhai [Chinese term equivalent to "the Kremlin"] fears the most, and rightly so."

-This is exactly what I hoped to see from the man. I can't think of a better, more disarming explanation of the strength of societies that practice democracy and protect free speech. His whole approach sums up the word, diplomacy. It's subtle and it's slow, and the US media outlets can't squeeze it into a five second sound bite, so they deride it, but I suspect one day, in a few years, we will look back and realize that there has been quite a bit of incremental progress going on. In short, while the Nobel prize was a bit premature, I think he will earn it in the end, and for incidents just like this one, where he subtly wins, not just his point, but hearts as well.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


I watch I do
I study I copy
I rehearse I perform
Everyline prepared

I see I record
I play the tapes
I stand my mark
I enter on cue

I fear I act
Because I fear
An unprepared line


Alicia might remember this one.

A Poem for Monday

To Each in His Own Tongue

A FIRE-MIST and a planet,--
A crystal and a cell,--
A jelly-fish and a saurian,
And caves where the cave-men dwell;
Then a sense of law and beauty,
And a face turned from the clod,--
Some call it Evolution,
And others call it God.

A haze on the far horizon,
The infinite, tender sky,
The ripe, rich tint of the cornfields,
And the wild geese sailing high,--
And all over the upland and lowland
The charm of the goldenrod,--
Some of us call it Autumn,
And others call it God.

Like tides on a crescent sea-beach,
When the moon is new and thin,
Into our hearts high yearnings
Come welling and surging in,--
Come from the mystic ocean
Whose rim no foot has trod,--
Some of us call it longing,
And others call it God.

A picket frozen on duty,--
A mother starved for her brood,--
Socrates drinking the hemlock,
And Jesus on the rood;
And millions who, humble and nameless,
The straight, hard pathways plod,--
Some call it Consecration,
And others call it God.

-William Herbert Carruth

I think the strength of this poem is demonstrated by the diversity of its admirers. I've seen it quoted by Christian preachers in sermons against evolution and by scientists in essays stating that evolution does not make claims against belief in the divine. It's sweeping and startling imagery also bolsters its popularity, I am sure. As a skeptic I am comforted by the author's assurance that the overwhelming nature of life defies explanation. In fact, the author seems to be saying that labels don't matter, since their power to explain is ultimately wanting.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pets versus clean energy

This article on the World Bank site details how the world spends more on pet food than on research and development of clean energy sources. The comments following the article are worth reading as well. Let's hope that, at least, the author is wrong in predicting that we will "get the energy we deserve

Monday, November 9, 2009

Pre-Katrina Revisited

If you ever hear any politicians tell you that they had no idea such a thing as Hurricane Katrina could happen, please wave the bullshit flag. Here is an All Things Considered broadcast from 3 YEARS BEFORE Katrina hit that warned about the real possibility of a big storm hitting New Orleans and overwhelming the levees. Numerous experts are interviewed, even some from the Army Corps of Engineers, who were sending up reports warning of the increasing danger to the dilapidated levee system.

I know it's a bizarro world notion, but somehow I got the idea that our political leaders are supposed to be looking ahead and trying their best to protect the people from just exactly this kind of very foreseeable disaster. If an asteroid comes out of nowhere, or a solar storm flares up and grills the Earth, I will give them a pass. But for something that was so predictable, the lack of readiness is unforgivable. I realize that books full of outrage over this sad episode have already been published, but it still bears remembering, don't you think?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The wit of Russell Brand

Some things are funny because they true, sadly. Here's the English comedian, Russell Brand, while hosting the MTV Video Awards, "I should explain, we English are a little different from you [Americans], instead of truck we say lorry, instead of elevator we say lift, and instead of letting people die out in the middle of the street, we have free health care!"

The look on pop star, Pink's face said it all - achingly funny.

Google Tracker

Here's a bit of technical blog stuff I just discovered. I am not by any means a techie or IT expert so I did not realize that when I changed the background template for this blog, I would also have to repaste the google tracking code into the Layout - Edit HTML page of the blog.

I was wondering why I was seeing zero traffic on the site for the last 9 days or so, when I knew from a few emails and a couple comments that there had been at least a few visitors. Well, apparently the tracking code disappears, so one must keep that in mind when changing to another template.

This is obviously not a high traffic blog, but to go from 10 or 15 visits a day to 0 for more than a week was puzzling. So, I think the puzzle had been solved. I will find out over the next couple days I guess. Or maybe the entire webworld has given me the about-face salute for reasons unknown. Time will tell.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Case for God

In Karen Armstrong's recent book, The Case for God, she outlines how the great philosophers of the axial age (Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Rabbi Hillel - and by extension, Jesus) all came to similar great insights about the human condition. Out of this time we were given what is known as the Golden Rule, or the law of compassion - that we should "treat others as we would want to be treated," or, in another configuration, "do not do harm."

Armstrong asserts that these early versions of the world's religions were not interested in doctrine and the other most divisive aspects of religion, but in how to be good. They were reacting to the great waves of violence that were ripping the ancient world apart, trying to find a way out for mankind. She states that religion is at its worst where it draws up its standard and declares all must concede "this" or be wrong -and suffer the consequences, from shame to death to eternal hellfire (whatever it is is always bad.) She also contends that those who do so are acting in opposition to the original intent of the great sages. The point is not to be right, but to be good; not to believe correctly, but to act compassionately toward our fellow human beings.

She cites the famous quote where Rabbi Hillel (a Jewish scholar slightly before the time of Christ) was asked to cite the whole of the Torah while standing on one leg, and he replied, "Do not do unto others that which is hateful unto thee. That is the whole of the Law. The rest is commentary." This is the law of compassion that religions today should be teaching, if only they would be true to their origins.

I must confess I am a uniter at heart and I love Armstong's narrative. But is it true? I am not aware that the world has ever been particularly peaceful. In fact, from the dawn of human history, the world has been one long slaughterhouse from that day to this. I suspect that these great insights were simply logical extensions of behavior codes left over from a nomadic, tribal existence. We learned how to act reciprocally, even sometimes charitably, within our tribe. But as human civilization formed, the concept of tribe expanded beyond the 100-200 strong village-group to allied regions, then cities, then city-states, and empires, etc., and philosophies to incorporate previous enemies into the "in" group were hatched. The Golden Rule as we know it today evolved out of much more brutal codes, in fits and starts, slowly over the centuries.

But it was never pure; always the compassionate aspects of the religions came with a lot of cultural baggage that Armstrong rightly decries, but she also tries to wish it away. If the aspects of these religions that cause such trouble, such as clashes of doctrine concerning the role of the divine, the purpose of human existence, and the nature of the afterlife, are mistakenly over-valued by the great masses, where is the proof? To Armstrong, these matters are not important, and were not considered to be important by the original sages. But if that were so, why did those same sages teach anything at all about these subjects? Why lead everyone astray by allowing the chance of misinterpretation? Why not say, "all the rest of that is rubbish, concern yourselves with this alone." I suspect that Armstong herself has moved past these issues, and would like all of us to do so as well, but to say that the great religions also do so if only they are correctly understood is, I suspect, more a wish than a fact.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


This blog has been quoted in a new book on the human voice in the UK, The Voice of Influence, by Judy Apps. Ms. Apps quotes an earlier post on nonverbal qualities of the 2008 candidates for president that suggested how the resonant character of (then Sen.) Pres. Obama's voice favored him in the election.

Isn't the web world a remarkable thing? That an author in the UK can simply reach out and find a small blogger's post on a relevant subject in Japan (I was living in Japan at the time) - just fifteen years ago such a thing was basically impossible.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Sway of Irrational Behavior.

Here is a very thorough review of the popular book, Sway: The Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Rom Brafman. The psychiatrist-reviewer, Dr. Grohol lays out the core of the Brafmans' book in a clear and succinct manner, so I won't do that here. The gist of the Brafman brothers' argument is that humans are subject to irrational urges and fears which overwhelm their critical faculties, often at the most innopportune moments. No matter how reasoned and logical we think we are, we are not.

Of course, from the standpoint of Evolutionary Psychology this makes perfect sense. Since we are, after all, simply high-functioning cognitive predator-animals, it would make sense that we resemble hot blooded mammal predators in our decision-making processes.

Through several entertaining anecdotes, the Brafmans illustrate many of these irrational tendencies, such as overreacting to impending losses, and falling prey to diagnosis bias by acting as is expected of us.

Many of these "sways" are already known to most people as oft-heard maxims and proverbs. Value attribution, where people imbue something or someone with certain qualities based on perceived value rather than on objective data, is a concept well-known through the sayings, "take someone at face value," or "don't judge a book by its cover." Diagnosis bias refers to the power of a first opinion; we all know how difficult it is to see past our own first impressions and reconsider things upon learning new information; this is why we have the saying, "first impressions last."

It is likely (again, purely my guesswork) these behaviors developed in humans because they conferred survival value to those who displayed them. If I were to guess, I would suggest that, in a world of limited information such as in the small-group, tribal existence of nomadic plainspeople, one must learn to assess quickly whether others can be trusted, or should be feared. And holding on to a first opinion is probably wise when life is often violent and brutal and a single mistake can be one's last. In such a tooth and claw world, it is no surprise that irrational, or highly emotional, behavior held sway on humankind.

Given the likely source of these irrational impulses, I have to agree with Dr. Grohol that the weakest part of the book is the last chapter, where the authors suggest ways to overcome these tendencies. The solutions suggested by the brothers Brafman really amount to little more than an exhortation to do better, with little reason, and no proof, that we as a species can.