Monday, November 24, 2008

Express yourself with the Log base 2 virtual fridge


© 2008 Adam Barrowman.

You can't save your poetry, so be sure to do a screen capture. Or just write it down!

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Oh m'eye

My daughter has an eye for art:

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

False idols

The painting below is Golden Calf 2, 1985, by Irving Norman.

A recent post on Massimo Pigliucci's blog Rationally Speaking proposed a "classification of types of commitment, from the most ludicrous to the most defensible". Pigliucci started with "commitment to a symbol", and he didn't pull any punches:
This is the stupidest form of commitment ever invented by human beings. I’m referring to people who “pledge allegiance” to flags, or who worship religious symbols of torture, such as crosses. It seems to me that nationalism and religion in particular are among the worst causes of human misery, and that more generally it is profoundly irrational and highly immoral to “commit” to a symbol for the symbol’s sake. Flag burning, or making sculptures of crucified frogs, while not acts I have ever actually engaged in, ought to be protected and even encouraged forms of free speech.
He followed this with some interesting thoughts on "commitment to an institution" and "commitment to people" before arriving at "commitment to ideas":
Within limits, I think this is actually the most important and rational type of commitment one can make. Ideas like democracy, education, fairness, justice, and so on are actually much more durable than either institutions or individuals. If an idea is good, it remains good under a wide range of circumstances, and it accordingly deserves our steady commitment. Even here, however, commitment should not be absolute and unconditional
But there's a problem here, as commenter J pointed out:
I'm having a somewhat hard time seeing the real difference between the first level (commitment to symbols) and the last (commitment to ideas)!

I noticed you qualified it there, "it is profoundly irrational and highly immoral to “commit” to a symbol for the symbol’s sake". But is there such a thing as committing to a symbol solely for its sake? Isn't a symbol always the embodiment of an idea? There is no symbol without an idea behind it, is there?
I then chimed in:
I agree with J: commitment to a symbol usually means commitment to an underlying idea or set of ideas. For example, to Christians, the cross symbolizes love, redemption, justice, etc. Sacred symbols like the cross are typically the focus of ritual and worship. Note that the English word worship relates to ideas of worthiness and respect, which is, I think, a big part of what religious expression is about.

J goes on to point out that some ideas have associated symbols, "but we never see anyone worshiping those symbols, curiously enough". Perhaps, but consider the idea of materialism, which is widely admired. Its symbols could be said to be the logos of consumer brands, like Mercedes-Benz, Starbucks, Chanel, ... the list is endless.

When people walk around bedecked in corporate logos, perhaps they are expressing a form of worship of materialism.
Pigliucci responded:
I still think there is an important distinction to be made here. Christians, or patriots, get really worked up about their symbols, threatening violence or passing legislation in their defense. The symbol seems to transcend the idea.
And I replied:
Interestingly, this issue comes up in religion itself. The idea of idolatry is at least partly about confusion between symbols (images, objects) and ideas (about the divine). Differing ideas about the proper treatment of symbols have contributed to the divisions between branches of Christianity.

And consider that although we today use the term iconoclast to mean someone who attacks conventional ideas, originally it meant someone who destroyed religious symbols (art in particular).
The crash of symbols

It seems to me that when people treat a symbol as sacred (whether explicitly or implicitly), they are not only expressing a commitment to the ideas represented by the symbol, they are also identifying with it at a deep emotional level. They view an attack on the symbol as a desecration, and more: an assault on their identity.

The symbol par excellence

What is the most ubiquitous and perhaps most potent symbol of all? Language. Consider, for example, the Biblical injunction against taking the Lord's name in vain. Doing so is desecration of a holy symbol.

It seems to me that perhaps the greatest lie ever perpetrated is this one:
Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words can never hurt me

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The human right to peace

Thursday, December 4, internationally renowned peace and justice activist, Senator Douglas Roche, O.C., former Canadian Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament, will speak at a special public meeting in Ottawa. The venue is Southminster United Church, corner of Bank St. and Aylmer Ave., (just South of the Bank St. Bridge over the canal).

His topic will be “The Human Right to Peace”—the title of one of his recently published books. (Incidentally, I looked up some reviews of the book: here and here.)

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Twin delusions

Fascination with identical twins goes back a long way: think of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, and the astrological symbol Gemini. Our modern understanding of genetics has given us a scientific perspective on identical twins, and yet it too is accompanied by a mythology.

By virtue of being genetically identical, identical twins would seem to provide an ideal source of evidence concerning the heritability of traits. Since identical twins share physical characteristics, is it not conceivable that they also share traits such as intelligence and personality? There is, however, a fly in the ointment: the influence of the environment in which twins are raised. While eye colour has a purely genetic basis, couldn't intelligence depend on how twins are jointly brought up? There are two ways around this obstacle.

Twins: Take 1

The first depends on a rather unlikely occurrence: identical twins separated at birth. Which brings us, my dear Watson (and Crick) to the curious case of Sir Cyril Burt (1883–1971), an English educational psychologist. In "The Mismeasure of Man", Stephen Jay Gould writes that Burt:
... published several papers that butressed the [claim that IQ is inherited] by citing very high correlation between IQ scores of identical twins raised apart. Burt's study stood out among all others because he had found fifty-three pairs, more than twice the total of any previous attempt.
But perhaps this was too good to be true:
Princeton psychologist Leon Kamin first noted that, while Burt had increased his sample of twins from fewer than twenty to more than fifty in a series of publications, the average correlation between pairs for IQ remained unchanged to the third decimal place—a statistical situation so unlikely that it matches our vernacular definition of impossible.
Gould goes on to review further evidence that Burt faked many of his results. But by the time this came to light, the damage was already done: Burt's studies had influenced British educational policy for decades.

Twins: Take 2

A second way around the impact of environment is to compare identical twins with same-sex fraternal twins. If a trait is inherited, we would expect identical twins (known as monozygotes, MZ) to be more similar than fraternal twins (dizygotes, DZ), irrespective of environmental influences. A particularly disturbing example of this argument is in a 2005 paper titled "Evidence for substantial genetic risk for psychopathy in 7-year-olds" (Viding et al. J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry 46:6, pp 592–597). Measures of psychopathy were reported by teachers for each member of nearly four thousand twin pairs. A child with a high score (the "proband") was then compared with his or her co-twin. The figure below is a hypothetical example, but it qualitatively represents the study findings:
As depicted in the figure, identical co-twins (MZ) were closer to the proband than fraternal twins (DZ). In fact, the authors studied two traits: callous-unemotional (CU) and antisocial behaviour (AB). The reported "remarkably high heritability for CU, and for AB children with CU".

Megan McArdle cited this study (via a summary article) in a recent blog post:
Some years ago, I remember reading Jonathan Kellerman's Savage Spawn, a book on sociopathic children, and how nearly impossible it is to treat them. [...] It's truly heartbreaking: a child who doesn't seem capable of loving its parents, or anyone else. It seems to be mostly genetic, and nearly completely immune to any current treaments.
While I can't comment on the claim that it's "nearly impossible to treat" (though I wonder what the substantive basis for such a claim would be), I do question the claim that it's "mostly genetic". Do identical twins really grow up in the same environment as same-sex fraternal twins? I doubt it. As Lea Winerman wrote in A Second Look at Twin Studies in the April 2004 issue of the American Psychological Association Monitor: "... some research suggests that parents, teachers, peers and others may treat identical twins more similarly than fraternal twins." Winerman provides a balanced review of the continuing controversy about twin studies, raising a number of other problematic assumptions.

Time to move on ...

Back in April I expressed my skepticism about genetic determinism in the context of sex differences. I don't doubt that genetic factors can play an important role in a variety of traits. But the more complex the trait the trickier it is to sort out the relative contributions of genetics and environment. And the more likely it is that our own prejudices will swamp the evidence. We've been down this road before.

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