Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why Ludwig Ought To Feel Happier About The One

0. We've generally been known to be somewhat (uncharacteristically) cynical about The One. "What's the big deal?", "How would things be any different if Hillary had won, or for that matter any Democrat?" etc. type koschans have been used to needle people their warmfuzziness about Him. However someone (who will mysteriously be referred to as The Giggler, on account of apparently uncontrollable gigglings at the thought of the Kwisatz Haderach in the White House), used this highly effective angle of attack to illustrate her point (chat transcript follows):
G: lets put it this way
G: it is like how your friends and family would feel

G: if you were dating a bollywood bimbo and then decided to date nandita das
G: she might not change the world
but atleast it is nice
very nice, warm and fuzzy

G: for everyone

G: so now you see the source of all the giggles

G: we are still making bollywood movies
but with nandita das
and not amrita rao
or kareena kapoor
Highly effective, non? Kinda see the point now.

May He bring balance to the Force. With or without mitochondria. Or is it midi-chlorians? WTF was Georgie Porgie smoking?

1. Ironic newspaper headline of the year award (via CSM) goes to this one:
Name your children in Tamil: Stalin

2. Cosmic Variance, has a highly readable piece called The Sacred. Sean Carroll writes about the problem he sees with using words like "sacred" and "spiritual" to qualify things we say about the wonders of the cosmos.
...When you start talking about “spirituality,” people are going to take you to mean something that goes beyond the laws of nature, in the sense of being incompatible with them, not just “hard to understand in terms of them” — something supernatural...
...The puzzles of human life, and our mutual sense of wonder, and a feeling of awe when confronted with the cosmos, are all perfectly respectable topics for discussion. And there exists perfectly respectable vocabularies for discussing them, that don’t come laden with unfortunate supernatural overtones: literature, anthropology, psychology, the arts, and so on. There is a huge disadvantage to throwing around words like “sacred” and “spiritual,” in that you will very frequently be understood (misunderstood, one hopes) to be talking about the supernatural...
...But there is a deeper point, which is consistently missed by the gentle-minded/accommodationist/agnostic/liberal-religious/sophisticated-theology segment of the debate: It’s Not About You. Richard Dawkins was not addressing this kind of touchy-feely non-interventionist religion, for the excellent reason that it doesn’t match up with what the overwhelming majority of religious believers actually believe...
There are lots of comments that argue both sides of Carroll's point, and are quite engrossing. There's a link in the article to another earlier and longer piece called The God Conundrum which is also quite interesting.

This is all apropos of a couple of weeks old post and back and forth (in the comments) at chez SVyas that one hasn't found the time, internet connection, or lucid thought to post a comment on.

3. The Mumbai Half Marathon was duly attempted again this year. Kenny has the dope. We did better time than last year, but Lud. lost the mindgame, as was widely reported in Indian media. The whole 2:00:00 mark is turning into an obsession. So we did precisely nothing about it and have been sitting and increasing the size of butt for the last week. Passing it off as post-event depression. The sandbagging dolphin also ran, cold turkey, and is rumored to have finished.

Post run, much fun came, in the form of beer and bowling in the company of Kenny, monster, CSM, and various other juntae.

4. One side-effect of having to pick up the bib was that we lost our way and somehow ended up in Strand Book Stall in Fort. They happened to be having their annual sale. Strange coincidence. 3 books that must be mentioned, since we haven't done lists in so long
  • Predictably Irrational - which came to us via NPR. Sounded fascinating on the radio, deals with such things as
    Do you know why we so often promise ourselves to diet and exercise, only to have the thought vanish when the dessert cart rolls by?

    Do you know why we sometimes find ourselves excitedly buying things we don’t really need?

    Do you know why we still have a headache after taking a five-cent aspirin, but why that same headache vanishes when the aspirin costs 50 cents?

    Do you know why people who have been asked to recall the Ten Commandments tend to be more honest (at least immediately afterward) than those who haven’t? Or why honor codes actually do reduce dishonesty in the workplace?
  • Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India
  • Dreams of a Final Theory - The Scientist's Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature by Stephen Weinberg. Fascinating book, even if somewhat difficult to read in parts on account of the physics. From the Amazon page:
    In his celebrated book The First Three Minutes (Basic, 1977; 1988, reprint) Nobel laureate Weinberg wrote the ominous and oft-quoted remark "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless." This book can be seen as his response to that remark after 15 years of reflection and scientific progress. Weinberg writes with great hope and clarity about the possibility that science can find a universal theory uniting the laws of nature into a single statement that is mathematically, philosophically, and aesthetically complete. His writing is technical in places, and some of the first-person narratives come off as less than humble, but overall Weinberg offers excellent insights on how such a theory could be realized and what it would mean. Especially engaging are his chapters, "Beautiful Theories" and "What About God?" Other books have been written on this subject (e.g., Paul Davies's Superforce , LJ 11/15/84; John Barrow's Theories of Everything , Oxford Univ. Pr., 1991; and Barry Parker's Search for a Supertheory , Plenum, 1987), but Weinberg's is likely to have the highest demand. Highly recommended.
    Weinberg has some interesting cribs with philosophers and devotes the "Against Philosophy" chapter to it.
    The value today of philosophy to physics seems to me to be something like the value of early nation-states to their peoples. It is only a small exaggeration to say that, until the introduction of the post office, the chief service of nation-states was to protect their peoples from other nation-states. The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion—by protecting them from the preconceptions of other philosophers...

    ...Wittgenstein remarked that "nothing seems to me less likely than that a scientist or mathematician who reads me should be seriously influenced in the way he works."...

    ...Even where philosophical doctrines have in the past been useful to scientists, they have generally lingered on too long, becoming of more harm than ever they were of use...
    He writes about the problems he has with metaphysics (causing people to hang on to ideas/ideologies long after they've ceased to be useful) and epistemology (specifically logical positivism and it's demand that all aspects of scientific theories must refer to quantities that are (in principle) observable). The biggest problem he has, though, is with what he calls relativism.
    Metaphysics and epistemology have at least been intended to play a constructive role in science. In recent years science has come under attack from unfriendly commentators joined under the banner of relativism. The philosophical relativists deny the claim of science to the discovery of objective truth; they see it as merely another social phenomenon, not fundamentally different from a fertility cult or a potlatch.
    Philosophical relativism stems in part from the discovery by philosophers and historians of science that there is a large subjective element in the process by which scientific ideas become accepted. We have seen here the role that aesthetic judgments play in the acceptance of new physical theories. This much is an old story to scientists (though philosophers and historians sometimes write as if we were utterly naive about this)...

    ...It is simply a logical fallacy to go from the observation that science is a social process to the conclusion that the final product, our scientific theories, is what it is because of the social and historical forces acting in this process. A party of mountain climbers may argue over the best path to the peak, and these arguments may be conditioned by the history and social structure of the expedition, but in the end either they find a good path to the peak or they do not, and when they get there they know it...

    ...I suspect that Gerald Holton is close to the truth in seeing the radical attack on science as one symptom of a broader hostility to Western civilization that has bedeviled Western intellectuals from Oswald Spengler on. Modern science is an obvious target for this hostility; great art and literature have sprung from many of the world's civilizations, but ever since Galileo scientific research has been overwhelmingly dominated by the West.
    This hostility seems to me to be tragically misdirected. Even the most frightening Western applications of science such as nuclear weapons represent just one more example of mankind's timeless efforts to destroy itself with whatever weapons it can devise. Balancing this against the benign applications of science and its role in liberating the human spirit, I think that modern science, along with democracy and contrapuntal music, is something that the West has given the world in which we should take special pride.
    In the end this issue will disappear. Modern scientific methods and knowledge have rapidly diffused to non-Western countries like Japan and India and indeed are spreading throughout the world. We can look forward to the day when science can no longer be identified with the West but is seen as the shared possession of humankind...
    If this sort of thing interests you, the entire chapter is available for download here. (PDF) Phew. Too much cutting and pasting only. Lots of videos of Weinberg are also available.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Shit Happens

But there are ways of dealing with it, if you want to. Highly readable post at Siva's.

Happy 2009, all.