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.

Confirmation Bias: A Testimony

I was on an airplane yesterday and a friend had given me a book to read, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, the fairly well-known, even infamous, New Atheist tome. As I sat in the waiting area I pulled the book out of my bag and the thought immediately struck me that some of the people around me are bound to make judgments about me simply because of the book I am reading. There, in a very religious, conservative city on the Southernmost border of America, where 67% of the population claim to attend church service weekly, I was mildly concerned about generating ill will in my fellow travelers. Now, the fact is, since my beliefs are decidedly in the undecided column, I probably do fit into most of these folks' definition of an atheist. But I do not consider myself in full agreement with Mr. Harris on all points in his book and I would not want to be painted with a broad brush in that manner. But here is a larger question.

Why did I think most of the people around me would assume that I was reading this book because I agreed with it? And was I wrong for thinking it? I will admit that I assume the same things about others, if I see someone reading say, the Koran, on a flight, I assume that the reader is probably not a Baptist minister. Of course, he could be, and I could come up with several scenarios in which a Baptist minister might study the Koran: to find out more about an increasingly important faith in the world, or in preparation for a sermon denouncing said faith, or simple curiosity. Who knows? But the likelihood is that the person reading the Koran is a Muslim. Why would I say that? Because of confirmation bias. What, one might say? Again, that is confirmation bias - the idea that most people willingly consume information that reinforces already held beliefs, and ignore or avoid contrary points of view.

Now, do I know absolutely that confirmation bias is widely practiced? No, I don’t, but I suspect that it is, primarily because of my own susceptibility to it and my observation of the propensities of others. In my own case, for years I read almost exclusively authors that I agreed with. I listened to speakers and preachers that I agreed with. I let a certain set of spokesmen and authors shape my beliefs to a great extent. Then I learned about confirmation bias, and realized that I had been guilty of practicing it. I then determined not to do so in the future. I assumed that what I believed at the time was true and would not seriously change as I examined other points of view. But, I also knew that whenever I had read far afield from what I was used to, it was a mildly uncomfortable experience. So I knew that I was setting out on a difficult course. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that my entire concept of the universe and my place in it was to change as a result of my newfound determination to erase my own ignorance.

In my case, I was raised around politically conservative Christians (those whom Andrew Sullivan calls Christianists), and when one is raised in these circles, a favorite past time is finding and excoriating enemies - nothing unites a group like a common enemy. So, my only experience with a lot of alternative view points to my own was through the lens of my group’s spokesmen. For instance, I heard a lot of denunciations of secular humanists (quite the bogeymen in my group) but I had not actually bothered to meet, read, or consider anything actually written by a self-proclaimed secular humanist. A clear symptom of confirmation bias. And I suspect that this scenario plays itself out in many different circles. If I had been raised by raging Leftist environmentalists, I could likely tell a similar tale.

Thankfully, I shed myself of this limiting and debilitating habit (not completely, but it is a work in progress). Over the years I have read hundreds of works by all the old bogeymen: secular humanists, and leftists, and socialists, and atheists, and evolutionary psychologists, etc. And guess what, encountering these points of view changed my own forever. And I don’t regret it in the least. Confirmation bias be damned. My life has become eminently richer by encountering a much greater swath of humankind. Of course, I have also been scared and alarmed in having to question many of my own assumptions, but I believe I would rather continually question and seek knowledge “to the utmost bound of human thought” than to remain in the shackles of group-think and confirmation bias.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dulce et Decorum Est


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

8 October 1917 - Wilfred Owen

It is an enduring truth that no one knows the price of war like those who have to fight them. The title, translated from Latin, means, “It is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country,” and, of course, the author writes to show the lie of that statement.

In the first stanza, the "Five-nines" are 5.9 inch mortars which impact behind them as they march away from the front. In this scene the soldiers are too tired and spent to even care how close they are. Then they turn out to be gas rounds.
This poem startles with its ghastly imagery, to drive home its point. In the second stanza, the use of the word, "ecstacy" to describe the frantic fumbling with one's gas mask when under a chemical attack is spectacularly inappropriate. His description of a luckless soldier who didn't get his mask on fast enough is a direct challenge to all those who were propagandizing war in Britain at the time. There is no way this awful, squirming death scene could be described as glorious.

The author was a British soldier who was killed in World War I, then called the Great War. -PTR

Monday, December 7, 2009

Coffee is a drug, but some drugs are useful.

As a follow up to my earlier post on coffee, where I noted the drug-like characteristics of caffeine, I should give fair hearing to the other side of the issue. While caffeine does act like a drug in that we build a tolerance to its effects, that is only one aspect of caffeine. Many benefits have been noted over the years by medical researchers, including decreased incidence of diabetes and Parkinson disease, and, believe it or not, enhanced athletic performance. Of course, as with everything, it's a trade-off. Still, for me, just the smell of brewing coffee is electric.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Is the BBC the future of journalism?

John Nichols, veteran journalist, paints a very bleak picture about the future of journalism funded by free enterprise. Government subsidy of journalism is the only answer, according to him. We in the US already have publicly funded press outlets (PBS, NPR). But the UK has had probably the best record of a pubicly funded news service in the form of the BBC, historically very independent from government pressures. His assertion that the press in America began with government was a revelation to me. I will have to research more on the history of which he speaks. I suppose if George Washington and John Adams supported public funding of the press, it will be harder for people to oppose it.

Hat Tip to Hans at The Nordic Link for the video.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Caffeine Tolerance

On a recent podcast episode of Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, the hosts have an interesting conversation about caffeine. Apparently, caffeine does diminish in its effects as tolerance in the body builds, but the details are illuminating. This is especially important for those of us who partake daily. I drink both coffee and tea just about every day. Fortunately only a cup or two total, usually one or the other.

According to Dr. Steven Novella on the aforementioned podcast, caffeine is an adenosine inhibitor. Of course, I don't pretend to know what that means, but it seems that adenosine keeps the brain calm, so when it is inhibited by caffeine, the brain is more active, which is not quite the same thing as being stimulated, but the effect is the same. However, this effect diminishes over time, because the body simply produces more adenosine when the current amount proves inadequate. Then more caffeine is needed to inhibit the additional adenosine, then more adenosine is produced, and so on and so on. Thus tolerance for caffeine builds in the body, and apparently pretty quickly. Apparently after less than two weeks, users (which includes me) are simply drinking caffeine to return to normal.

Basically it is the classic definition of drug tolerance and addiction, and apparently it is an addiction shared by quite a few people. According to the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 80% of adults consume the caffeine equivalent of at least one cup of coffee a day. That's a lot of people just trying to get back to normal.

After finding out all this out I thought I might want to reset my caffeine tolerance, to go back to zero, and only use caffeine on those occasions when I actually need heightened mental acuity. And I am in the middle of this effort, but I confess I failed today - broke down and had a cup of tea. How long it takes to reset all this neural receptor business is somewhat unknown - it depends how long one has been using and how much. But I think in my case about 5 days should do it. We will see. If I fail, well, I will have a lot of company.

Carlene Bauer, former Evangelical

Carlene Bauer talks, in an interesting interview at More Intelligent Life, about her deconversion experience, "There was always a tiny voice inside me saying “That can’t be right” whenever I heard something that seemed to contradict who I understood God and Jesus to be from reading the Bible—all-loving, all-forgiving."

I am personally drawn to deconversion experiences due to my own startling experience. I have served in combat, lost my Dad to Cancer, been divorced, and generally seen alot of bad things happen in the most desperate parts of the world. But I still consider the most jarring event, the most inner-peace shattering event, in my short 40 years to be the moment when I lost belief in God. For a person who was raised in a very religious home, and accepted those beliefs fully, it was a very alarming experience. I didn't know where to go or who to talk to about this. Normally, when believers ("believers"-that's what we called each other) have a problem, especially some faith-pertinent problem, they tend to call other believers, or ministers, and get their faith "bolstered." But when I no longer had faith to bolster, I knew I couldn't call my fellow (or former fellow) believers anymore.

It was quite comforting when many others in America started to tell about their own faith-loss experiences. Those of us who are skeptics, or outright unbelievers, are a set-upon minority, at least in this country, and we can use all the company we can get.