Friday, November 30, 2012

Steely Dan beyond perfection

Finally got around to watching the Steely Dan documentary that's been sitting in my netflix queue forever, last night.

Outstanding! As one of their many hired session musicians says, their goal wasn't "perfection," it was beyond perfection. They wanted to create something we would want to hear again and again. Mere perfection is tiresome. Aja and "Deacon Blues" are better than that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


I'm still not sure why some atheists have such revulsion for that word. The root just means "breath," as I live and breathe.

Me too, Moses.


"...send them back into the dark ages of superstition, and ignorance, and fear? No!" STNG, "Who Watches the Watchers"

Long ago, our people believed in beings with great powers. These beings made the rains come, told the sun when to rise, and caused all life to be born, to grow, to die. -But those are just tales -- old superstitions.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Not an endorsement, just an appreciation:

Here's the mood I'm really going for today:

Just trying to keep my eyes open:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked -- as I am surprisingly often -- why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?
-- Richard Dawkins, excerpt from Chapter I, "The Anaesthetic of Familiarity," of Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1998)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Monday, November 12, 2012

Democracy and ignorance

My Vandy friends Aikin and Talisse* have another piece up on 3qd this morning. (Congrats to Scott for his ascendancy to the presidency of TPA, btw, and to Rob for being "inimitable").
"Public ignorance is disconcerting. But it also poses a serious challenge to democracy.  According to the most popular theories of democracy, the government’s legitimacy depends upon the freely given and informed consent of its people. So democracy requires there to be regular free elections; such episodes are supposed to reveal the Popular Will, which provides government with clear directives for the exercise of power, thereby ensuring political legitimacy. 
But if ignorance is as extensive as the data suggest (and losing parties comlain), elections could not possibly serve the function of expressing informed consent.  Lacking adequate knowledge of how government works, citizens are unable correctly to assign responsibility to particular office holders for public policies enacted in their name, and consequently are unable to provide the necessary directives. That is, under conditions of widespread citizen ignorance, elections do not express the Popular Will; rather, they simply place some in office and remove others, willy-nilly.  Elections, then, are exceedingly costly public events that achieve nothing more than what could be accomplished by a coin-toss..." 
continues at 3quarksdaily

*Also, don't overlook their Reasonable Atheism: a moral case for respectful disbelief, among many other masterful (and sometimes provocative) collaborations.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Carl Sagan Day

A cosmic celebration of Carl Sagan Day is in order, beginning with a brief rendition of just a few of his best words. I'm dedicating my next slice of apple pie to his memory, and to the future of his vision.
 “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”  
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” 
“Atheism is more than just the knowledge that gods do not exist, and that religion is either a mistake or a fraud. Atheism is an attitude, a frame of mind that looks at the world objectively, fearlessly, always trying to understand all things as a part of nature.” 
“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” 
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


For all who are displeased with the results of the election, or excessively pleased: keep it in perspective. The moment will pass. "We must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Democracy in America

It's election day, at last. I agree with Chris Stevens: the idea of an election is much more interesting than the election itself, especially when the the will of the people does not coincide with my own. But the act of voting is a defining moment in any case. It's Existential.

Then again, depending on how the balllot crumbles, I may find myself agreeing with George Carlin this time tomorrow. Hope not. But if I do, I'm sure I'll get over it.

Monday, November 5, 2012


Is the Book of Mormon benign or benighted? Guess it depends on how seriously you take it. Richard Dawkins takes it seriously enough to ask:
Bishop Romney, why don't you repudiate the Mormon curse on black people and the Mark of Cain?

Maybe he really believes...

The late great Hitch got the last word on why Mitt's faith is any of our business.

It'll be over soon

Promise, Mommy? Totally feeling the little girl's pain. Where's Bill Clinton when you really need him?

Wonder if Mommy got Michele's tweet: "It's 9 pm. Have you read with your child today?"

Our politics really has become an unpleasant partisan mess, as reflected in the latest episode of "This American Life." I hope the little girl and her generation will grow up and fix it. Time to consider a parliamentary democracy, maybe? Our two parties are no fun.

Too bad the little girl can't appreciate the humor of Chris Rock.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Nashville, then & now

I asked my students recently if they'd been watching the new ABC series "Nashville." No. Well, had they seen the eponymous classic Altman film?

No again.

I was surprised. If there'd been a popular show or film called "St. Louis" when I was 20 years old I'd for sure have been watching, looking for insight into the strange doings of my peers. (Judy Garland's "Meet Me in St. Louey," set in 1904, didn't quite provide that.) But I guess it's just all too familiar to them to sound entertaining.

Atlantic has an insightful piece on how pop country culture mirrors the changes in my adopted hometown. An interesting and occasionally, as they say, "surreal" place to live. I got here just after Altman, and was thrilled to discover "the city’s most eccentric civic landmark, a scale replica of the Parthenon." I love living in a place of such glittery excess, surrounding its own borrowed temple of wisdom. What would Socrates say? Accelerating Intelligence News