Wednesday, November 28, 2007

...but I did read the book

On Saturday, in my post about high school biology, I failed to mention that even though I dropped out of the course, I did read Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in high school. I'm now wondering whether I read it after dropping out of biology (perhaps as some sort of atonement), or before and the book prompted me to sign up for the course? If the latter, then it appears that I must have found the actual task of acquiring the vocabulary of biology less exciting than reading the story of Darwin's discovery.

I have, in fact, always seriously doubted that I had a working scientist's temperament. Scientist after scientist has reported that doing science is mostly very hard work. The discovery of the structure of DNA (or of evolution by natural selection) comes to few scientists.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Killing for peace is like...

Yesterday in Chapel Hill, on a car with a Connecticut license plate and a big "CAROLINA" sticker on the rear window, I sighted the bumper sticker:
Killing for peace is like
screwing for virginity
Hmm, of course most screwing isn't "for virginity" but (unconsciously, of course) to relieve one's testosteronal imperative (so to speak). Could something similar be going on with man's (not so much woman's) bellicosity (whether on the field of war or on the field of sport)?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A (not really so) comic artist's view of Bush

From a far-flung correspondent (in Bulgaria):

The name of the jpeg suggests that the artist's name is Alex Ross, who may be the American artist described at

The trouble with being Brad Pitt

"Tough loss last weekend," the heavy, fifties-something guy said to me familiarly yesterday as I followed my wife obediently down an aisle at one of our local up-scale food stores.
      "Why is that?" I said.
      "Well...the game," he said, a little flustered.
      "What game would that be?"
      "Uh, Harvard-Yale."
      "What about it?" I'd finally understood what he was talking about, if not why.
      "Harvard won," he declared.
      "So...?" I countered, rejecting his invitation to get with the stereotype.
      "Well, it was a big loss, you know."
      "You don't say. For whom?"
      "For Yalies!" he emphasized, his eyes flicking down uncertainly to the insignia on my dark blue fleece pullover.
      I paused a moment for emphasis. "Not to me."
      "Well, it is for most Yalies...." He trailed off as he followed his own wife down another aisle.
      In the checkout lane, I felt distinctly uneasy, even if I had only the vaguest idea why. I had been accosted in a sort of a way, made to feel vulnerable. The onus was on the other guy for that. But he was probably just reaching out for a little man-to-man bonding, some recognition that he was in on things. Why had I withheld it? The interchange had never become a conversation in which we might have revealed something personal about one another. I would like to have told him what I really thought about intercollegiate athletics (and professional sports generally). And I was now wondering where he had gone to college, what he did now, what his values were. Was he someone I could like? What he had said to me didn't necessarily prove that he thought college football was a big deal...Was I someone he could like?
      In the car, I told my wife what the guy and I had said to one another.
      "You baffled him," she said. "He probably concluded you bought your pullover at a thrift shop somewhere."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

If only I hadn't dropped out of high school biology

I'm finding it a bittersweet experience to read Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. It's sweet because I trust that I can look forward to reading Dawkins's other books, and books he cites, and be continually rewarded with the intellectual thrill of evolutionary biology. But such reading is also bitter, in that if only way in which people can indulge when looking back on their lives.

I've been thinking about how I dropped out of high school biology after a week or two, mainly, I think, because I didn't want to work hard enough to learn all of its technical terms. I switched to physics, which turned out to be taught by an evangelical Christian who, though he let me write a paper on the relationship between religion and science instead of doing a standard science project, took the opportunity to put in a plug for God's divine plan or something. Mr. Wilson. I didn't realize until now that I remembered his name, and I can still see him—tall, blond, and boyish, and probably fifteen years younger than my children are now.

In dropping out of the biology course (of whose teacher I have no recollection, but I'm confident he or she was excellent), I effectively closed the door on what might have been an exciting life as an evolution theorist. Unfortunately, during those teenage years I came across no book like Dawkins's brilliant, creative work. (At the time I was dropping out of biology, he had just entered college.)

But I did in those years come across books on metaphysics—books that attempted to answer the questions, What is man? and Why? And they, at that time, I found no less thrilling than I find Dawkins now.

But now there's the bittersweetness that comes from reading this on page 1 of The Selfish Gene:
Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is Man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus: "The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely."
That was the year Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species.

Friday, November 23, 2007

I rate the movies

Starting today, I'm indicating by the abbreviations
    VG=very good
how I rated the movies I watch1. And through the end of the year I'll be listing all of the movies I've rated rather than the most recent ten. Each rating is just an indication of how good I considered the movie be, which of course depends in the first place usually on how much I liked it, where F and P indicate that I hardly liked it at all. In fact, I rarely finish watching a movie I decide early is F or P. If I go on to watch it, it's because there's something about it that gives me hope it'll redeem itself.

But be aware that the reasons I "liked" a movie can be complex. They include how good I felt watching it, how much I laughed, how true to life I felt the movie was, how much I enjoyed the actors' performances, the artistry of the plotting, my subliminal calculation as to how well the movie realized itself. The rating can probably only be useful to those who have seen a few of the same movies and would have rated them the same way I did. That is, they can expect to like other movies that I rated VG or E.

The rating has nothing whatsoever to do with G, PG-13, R, etc. You can always find out more about a movie listed by looking it up in the Internet Movie Database (
  1. They're listed at the bottom of the sidebar, which most browsers display to the right. However, if you've opened this post itself, you won't see the sidebar and will need to go to the top of my blog. Even then, in some browsers—such as older versions of Internet Explorer—you'll have to scroll or jump to the very bottom of the page.

Thanksgiving evening colors

I took the photo below early last evening (after sundown), with my little Olympus digital camera's automatic slow shutter, using a porch pillar on the front porch for support as a non-shake device. It was that haunting twilight time of day when the sky is sort of half-lit/half-dark and Nature can seem magical to the naked eye, if only pretty to an amateur photographer's inexpensive camera, whose automatic shutter speed and aperture opening can let in too much light and render the sky more overcast than twilighted.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The revelation of the prophet Saint James

James Madison (1751-1836), commonly hailed as "the Father of our Constitution" (and fourth president of the United States, 1809-1817), in 1793 saw ahead two hundred years and warned against the rise of the Bush administration:
In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department....War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war, the public treasures are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them....It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast—ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame—are all in conspiracy against the desire [for] and duty of peace.
I am indebted to Anthony Lewis for quoting Madison in his review of Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, by Robert Draper (Illustrated. 463 pp. Free Press. $28) and The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration, by Jack Goldsmith (256 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $25.95) in the November 4 issue of The New York Times Book Review.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Strong sequence of good movies

We've sequentially seen an unusually high number of good movies lately. Most
recent first:
  • The Hoax (2006: Lasse Hallström). Based on Clifford Irving's book about conning a publisher to bring out his fake biography of Howard Hughes during Nixon's second term. Richard Gere as Irving, Marcia Gay Harden as his wife, and Alfred Molina as Irving's assistant.
  • Tara Road (2005: Gillies MacKinnon). Touching story about two women, one American, the other Irish, who help one another deal with recent personal tragedies. Andie MacDowell as the American woman, Sarah Bolger as the Irish, Stephen Rea as her friend who befriends the visiting American. Brenda Fricker in a role pivotal for the denouement.
  • The Treatment (2006: Oren Rudavsky). Touching story about how a psychiatrist, played by Ian Holm, helps a young man deal with some personal issues and learn to experience intimacy. Chris Eigeman (of the 1994 movie "Barcelona") as the young man, the fetching Famke Janssen as the young widow, Ian holm as the psychiatrist.
  • Lonely Hearts (2006: Todd Robinson). Gripping true story of the role the director's grandfather played in capturing a pair of ruthless murderers preying on lonely women. John Travolta as the grandfather, James Gandolfini as his partner, with Jared Leto and Salma Hayek (much too beautiful for the character she portrays).
  • Flannel Pajamas (2006: Jeff Lipsky). Gripping story of a marriage's difficulty dealing with the wife's family/religious issues. Justin Kirk and Julianne Nicholson (from numerous episodes of Law and Order) play the troubled young couple.
While we enjoyed the next film we watched (last night), Severance (2006: Christopher Smith) is unlikely to appeal to most people, its macabre mix of satiric humor and mayhem being of the sort that makes for a "cult classic." A group of employees working for a British version of a sort of Blackwater USA firm go on a team-building retreat....

Friday, November 16, 2007

The 90-10 rule

The 80-20 rule states that for many events 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. The rule applies to everything from 80% of income's going to 20% of a population, to 80% of sales' coming from 20% of clients, to our wearing 20% of our most favored clothes 80% of the time, to our spending 80% of our time with 20% of our acquaintances, to 80% of a company's resources' typically being used by 20% of its operations, to....[Source for examples: Wikipedia]

But 90-10 might be the rule for religion. For example, 90% of the general population of the United States (which of course includes those who believe that the fall of the Twin Towers was divine retribution for homosexuality and other "sins") claim to believe in god, whereas only 10% of leading scientists (the ones whose findings about global warming are finally being acknowledged) admit to it. [Source: Scientific American Magazine, September 1999]

Religion is so polarizing and rancorous that polite company usually honors the unspoken rule not to raise the topic—so as not to occasion some people's going for other people's throats.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The consolation of religion and philosophy

A young Bertrand Russell (twenty-seven in 1899) wrote in the essay, "Seems, Madam? Nay, It Is":
It is true that Christianity, and all previous optimisms, have represented the world as eternally ruled by a beneficent Providence, and thus metaphysically good. But this has been, at bottom, only a device by which to prove the future excellence of the world—to prove, for example, that good men would be happy after death. It has always been this deduction—illegitimately made of course—which has given comfort. "He's a good fellow, and 't will all be well."
      It may be said, indeed that there is comfort in the mere abstract doctrine that Reality is good. I do not myself accept the proof of this doctrine, but even if true, I cannot see why it should be comforting. For the essence of my contention is that Reality, as constructed by metaphysics, bears no sort of relation to the world of experience. It is an empty abstraction, from which no single inference can be validly made as to the world of appearance, in which world, nevertheless, all our interests lie....
      There are, of course, several senses in which it would be absurd to deny that philosophy may give us comfort. We may find philosophizing a pleasant way of passing our mornings—in this sense, the comfort derived may even, in extreme cases, be comparable to that of drinking as a way of passing our evenings(!)....[emphasis and exclamation mark mine; pp. 78-80 in Why I Am Not a Christian, edited by Paul Edwards and published in 1957]
I of course do not know whether Bob Dylan or either of the two surviving members of the Beatles finds such consolation in philosophy, and I don't think that Jesus Christ drank in the sense Russell had in mind.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Religion consoles and empowers suicide murderers

In his essay, "Do We Survive Death?," Bertrand Russell wrote:
It is not rational arguments, but emotions, that cause belief in a future life.
      The most important of these emotions is fear of death, which is instinctive and biologically useful. If we genuinely and wholeheartedly believed in the future life, we should cease completely to fear death. The effects would be curious, and probably such as most of us would deplore. But our human and subhuman ancestors have fought and exterminated their enemies throughout many geological ages, and have profited by courage; it is therefore an advantage to the victors in the struggle for life to be able, on occasion, to overcome the natural fear of death. Among animals and savages, instinctive pugnacity suffices for this purpose; but at a certain stage of development, as the Mohammedans first proved, belief in Paradise has considerable military value as reinforcing natural pugnacity. We should therefore admit that militarists are wise in encouraging the belief in immortality, always supposing that this belief does not become so profound as to produce indifference to the affairs of the world. [emphasis mine; p. 72 of the book, Why I Am Not a Christian, edited by Paul Edwards; Russell originally published the essay in 1936. This is the 50th anniversary of the book.]
It appears that Russell might have had no difficulty predicting today's widespread phenomenon of suicide bombing in conflicts involving "Mohammedans."

By the way, Russell's answer to the question posed by the essay's title was: "It seems scarcely probable."

Oh, and I don't know whether or not Bob Dylan (or Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr) has read Why I Am Not a Christian. Or whether Jesus Christ has read it or what he thought of it.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

God the fictional character

To read a novel or a short story—one by Bob Dylan, say, possibly titled "The Saints Are Comin' Through"—we assume while we're reading that the world created by Dylan is real. It's the same when we read scriptures. But outside the mostly mythical scriptural world, the fictional trappings of its characters fall away, with only a few verifiable historical or scientific facts remaining.