Saturday, June 30, 2007

Why Asians Are Good At Math And Revolutionaries Are Disgruntled Members of Society

I started two books recently, and I am on the verge of putting each aside. The first, The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett, has as its premise that Westerners and Asians possess such dramatically different conceptions of the world that the very nature of human reason cannot be considered universal. In his thesis, Nisbett argues that the Western sense of individuality and freedom is anathema to the Asian sense of inter-connectivity and community. I liked the title, I thought. It might be interesting.

Having read the first chapter, I'm not really sure what his point is. I guess he's trying to build a scientific explanation for the differences in cultural achievements of Asians and Westerners. In the first chapter he actually asks why Asians are better at math. I'm not kidding. I assume he's going to try to answer that question later in the book. But to me, this is not a very interesting or useful question. Like the other questions he seeks to answer, it is so broad and generalized that it doesn't seem like science.

By the end of the first two chapters, the book has set itself up to be nothing more than a collection of tired, flaccid assertions couched in new terms, with some opinion polls taken of random Westerns and Asians. Boring. In light of a program I just watched on human evolution, that pointed to evidence that every human being outside of Africa descended from a single small tribe, talking about the 'grand differences' between Westerners and Asians seems trite and misguided.

The other book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, arguably has more promise, but again I am hard-pressed to read on. Describing the nature of the titular faithful behind mass movements, it contains catchy sayings like "a man is likely to mind his own business when his own business is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business." A great quote, but it doesn't actually reveal anything new. I am reminded of nothing so much as the tautological musings of the Sphinx.

The stilted writing of the latter book and the reductionist nature of sociology and psychology in both make it unlikely that I will finish either of these books. Generalizing the behavior of millions and even billions of people seems really dumb. It is difficult enough to describe what it is that people do, never mind trying to theorize why they do it! I guess that's why these academic disciplines have always been lost on me. So if you want to know why Asians are good at math, you'll just have to read the book yourself.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Maude Squad

You heard it here first: there's a new sheriff in town, Southwest Minneapolis to be precise. A friend of a friend is the head chef at Cafe Maude, just opened this June. This is his first go-round as the chief, as he is a very young man. But don't let his age fool you! The food and drink are exquisite. Get yourself there for a meal, and make sure you have a reservation! The lads met there for dinner last night. But we didn't make a reservation, a poor but apt reflection of our planning abilities. Luckily, that didn't detract from the experience at all. We stood at the bar and visited with the friendly and accommodating bartenders.

I had a raspberry foam lemon drop while devouring a plate of perfectly cut and seasoned french fries. The importance of a french fry's texture cannot be overstated. And these were right on. In a gesture of friendship, the kitchen sent out a chicken flatbread, which was delicious. Thank you, Aaron! For dinner I enjoyed a delightful hamburger - juicy, tender, and flavorful, topped with avocado and mozzarella. One of my dining partners added a side from the menu's small plates - a sauteed spinach dish with a fried egg on a bed of fluffy basmati rice. Man, did that look good. I'm already dreaming about going back.

This place is going to be a permanent fixture. It's great to see a new restaurant starting out so well. I'm sure they'll be written up with much fanfare in City Pages and Star Tribune and Minnesota Monthly before long. Just remember, you heard it here first.

(postscript: man, do I have fun titling my posts. This one had such an embarrassment of riches that it was difficult to choose - Herald & Maude, You Heard It Here First, All Maude Cons, Maude-ify Your Dinner Plan, etc, etc. Do you love it?)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cowardly Dick

Seriously. Cheney acts as if he is the old-school Tricky Dick, wholly above the law, strutting around Washington and the world, pretending to have a big ol' brass pair. Alas, he isn't what he pretends to be. If this little Dick was as cocksure as the character he plays in this Administration, he would be running for president. But he doesn't really have the sack to do it.

Like a ventriloquist telling pathetic jokes with a dummy, he is not capable of making an actual connection with people, nor can he articulate any higher ideals. Instead, he is forever relegated to the role of putting his hand up someone's ass and hiding behind whatever artifice he can find. Hardly selling points for one who has such an apparent will-to-power and a major chip on his shoulder.

I might be able to respect him if he ran for president. Then he'd demonstrate that he actually believes his own bizarro-world construction of himself: a warrior, judge and avenger, standing between us and the teeming evil horde. But he's really just another cowardly opportunist, as corrupt as anyone ever to hold his office, and as thin-skinned as a certain former governor of Minnesota. May he live out his days in a tortured, marginal state of existence. Good riddance.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Whence and Whither God?

I finished The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins a month ago while I was in South Carolina. I'd been working on it for a while. It is a lively and engaging and challenging read, and I recommend it to skeptics and believers alike. In this book, Dawkins systematically dismantles religion and faith, and I am still reckoning with all of its implications.

I did not set out to read this book. I seem an unlikely person to pursue an atheist's opus on unbelief. I grew up Catholic, a pious child. As a boy I was very attached to the knowledge that my name meant "heard by God," and that the prophet whose name I bear was called into God's service as a young boy. That story profoundly affected me, and I greatly desired that it would happen to me. I wanted to hear the Voice of God, and be given a sacred mission.

I was never really a "Jesus" person. After all, he was basically just a hippie, and I knew plenty of those. Peace, love, blah, blah, blah. That message was everywhere. It was God who called my namesake, God was the All-Powerful One, God was the Father and the King. And so I made God my surrogate parent and friend and mentor. And I needed all: I was a lonely, insecure kid - the second child of divorced parents. My older brother suffered from childhood leukemia - at that time a disease with dire prospects.

Though I was no saintly kid, I prayed a lot for all sorts of favors, big and small. But more importantly, I tried really hard to hear God's Call to Duty. I even remember telling my parents that I did, because I so desperately wanted it to be true. Faith lifted me above the earthly, the temporal, the mundane. Religion gave my young life special purpose and meaning. I even considered becoming a priest, and I endured some teasing for this desire. Of course, all of that happened before I developed an interest in girls. So much for that idea.

As I grew older, I drifted away from the church. I found its system of beliefs and rules arbitrary, the behavior of its agents hypocritical, and some of its doctrines downright appalling, especially in the areas of sexual behavior and preference. In spite of disillusionment, however, I still clung to deist beliefs long into adulthood. I was also drawn to alternative forms of spirituality such as mystical Christianity, New Age, Buddhist, and Native American belief systems. I broke and remade relationships based upon this continual striving for truth.

Gradually, my "religion" gave way to a kind of pragmatic agnosticism. My prayers seemed silly, and reason provided me more answers to the cosmic questions that puzzled me. But I couldn't become an atheist! The atheists I knew were among the most headstrong and disagreeable people I knew. I needed room for doubt and for faith - I could not completely turn my back upon spirituality, upon mystery, upon the human soul. And so I thought that I would live out my life in this state of unknowing.

Fast forward to earlier this year. Some friends and I were discussing Jesus Camp and a New York Times article which referenced Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. One of our number had already read Dawkins' book, and he loaned me his copy. It ended up being a book club of sorts: five of us were reading the book at about the same time. That was pretty exciting! I'd never experienced anything quite like it. The book, the film, and the article together sparked one of the most fascinating email threads I have ever read. Two members of this makeshift book-club led a forceful, beautifully-reasoned, but above all respectful debate on this most difficult of philosophical questions. It filled me with pride to know such men, and humbled me, and I resolved to finish the book in order to find a deeper understanding for myself.

Basically, The God Delusion can be broken down into four main parts. The first section is a series of pithy barbs hurled at religion. I found myself engaging in mental arguments with Dawkins and disagreeing with him on many points. In retrospect, this was probably the weakest part of the book, at least from a purely logical point of view. But I must admit that I was hooked: his writing style is stimulating and funny, and I found plenty of common ground with the author. And there is no small number of examples of religious excess to point out.

The second section is a close examination of the arguments that have been used to "prove" the existence of God. I actually covered some of these classical proofs in my freshman philosophy class! I recall being stymied and seduced by the Ontological Argument. Dawkins deftly exposes the fallacies in this and many other arguments. How come my professor didn't do that? Bastid.

He takes on the simplistic ideas of creationism, currently enjoying something of a renaissance here in the United States. In the creationist's view, wherever there are gaps in human knowledge, that is where God must be. The basic problem with this worldview is that as human knowledge expands, the gaps shrivel, and this has been a rather steady progression. Every phenomenon scientifically explained today was at one time a mystery. So why should science be content to cease its inquiries now? To Dawkins, mechanically filling these scientific unknowns with "God" is intellectually lazy. To be fair, not many serious theologians subscribe to this "God of the Gaps" hypothesis anymore. But its hold over fundamentalists is still strong.

He then posits that the existence of God is a scientific proposal about the universe to be proven or disproven. I had trouble with this idea at first. "God is outside the laws of nature, and belief in him is predicated on faith, not facts," I told Dawkins smugly. I win! OK, I just demonstrated that I talk to people who can't hear me. What does that say about my religious beliefs?

At any rate, Dawkins wasn't so easily cowed. He reasons that, as the supernatural entity that we call God can communicate with humankind telepathically through prayer, and can re-order the laws of the universe based upon these communications, there ought to be observable phenomena that point to his existence. In Dawkins' assessment, we are left with a highly improbable being. He is careful in this section to leave some room for doubt about the certainty of God's non-existence. But his message is clear: there is no evidence whatsoever that demonstrates the existence of God. None. Zero. This simple statement hit me in a profound way, a way that I had not felt before.

In this part of the book, he also spends time demonstrating the elegance of a scientific view of the universe. He contrasts the paradoxical complexity of creationism, which actually poses more questions than it answers, with the vast mountain of evidence that edifies Darwin's simple yet powerful Theory of Evolution. This line of reasoning is convincing, and provides a smooth transition into the next section.

In the third part of the book, Dawkins delves into his area of expertise - evolution and biology, and offers up some explanations as to how and why human beings evolved to have such a strong predisposition to believe in God. To him, this trait is not in itself a very useful adaptation on its face: belief in unobservable beings and events does not seem to help an organism survive and reproduce effectively, and can consume many resources that could be better spent directly on survival.

So where does God come from? In his view, belief in God is a by-product of other evolutionary adaptations. It is interesting to me that this part of his argument does not preclude the existence of God at all. It merely attempts to build an explanation based upon observable facts about the human brain and upon human behavior. The primary adaptations that he points to are a child's natural submission to absolute authority, and a trait dubbed simply "hyperactive agent detection device." Both of these are are strong survival traits: listening to adults unquestioningly is likely to keep a child alive until adulthood, while perceiving actors with the potential to harm oneself serves an individual throughout life.

The final section offers suggestions as to what might take God's place. Where should God go? Not to the children! Dawkins makes an impassioned plea to end the religious indoctrination of children. I think he'd argue that the manipulation of the children in Jesus Camp is simply an extreme example of what he sees as the typical religious training of young people.

So if God is banished from our children, and divorced from our public consciousness, what of the communities that are formed on the basis of religions? He suggests that our religious institutions remain as social networks and traditions. Ultimately, it is in science that Dawkins finds sublime beauty and rapture, and in reason that he finds universal moral truth.

While reading Dawkins book, I came across an unlikely debate between Christopher Hitchens and Al Sharpton. Hitchens, who also has a new book tauting atheism, took the role of the unbeliever, and Sharpton naturally took the mantle of God. As I perused it I couldn't help thinking that Dawkins addresses a lot of the points that Sharpton raised (and won) in the discussion. Which I guess only proves that Hitchens is still a twit. But I digress...

So that's it. Here I am. I have an overweening fear of death. And I find no solace in faith. Religion still feels like an instrument of control and the ultimate casus belli. I want to believe in a soul. But science is dubious of such claims. The universe is huge, and indifferent to us. We're stuck in this corner. We'd better deal with it: find a moral philosophy that does not rely upon an arbitrary set of texts and rules. Because I agree with Dawkins on this point: right now, God isn't really helping us master our more base tendencies. He's been pretty useless.

Functionally, I'm still agnostic. But this book has me asking questions again. I guess that's all you can hope that anyone else provide for you: the means and desire to ask questions.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Nutritional Assault

A friend of mine is iconoclastic when it comes to nutrition, especially dietary sodium. Most of his family is dead due to hypertension, diabetes, or heart disease. Though I am not as militant as he, his convictions have nevertheless rubbed off on me. While I consider myself to be in pretty good health overall, I do go through cycles of careful diet and exercise which give way to bouts with boredom, depression, and eating-for-gratification.

At the bottom of this cycle, when I start to notice how shitty I'm feeling, I begin to read the "nutritional facts" on food labels. Take Low Fat Nutri-Grain Eggo Toaster waffles. They sound healthy, right? Wrong. 430 milligrams of sodium per serving. What the fuck? Almost a quarter of your salt for the day, for a food no one would consider "salty." Only slightly less sodium per serving than a serving of Prego spaghetti sauce, the saltiest sauce on the market. Don't even mention Progresso soup. Or Chipotle, for that matter. One of those burritos has more salt than you should have in an entire day.

My favorite example: Jell-O Pudding Cups. I love those cute little things: a sweet, fun treat that makes me feel like a kid. Yummy! But they are more savory than you think: that tiny 113 g serving has 200 mg of sodium. A healthy rule of thumb for salt: you should eat no more than one milligram per calorie consumed. I'm doubling up my sodium intake when I indulge in a pudding cup. Damn that sucks.

Americans get only about 11% of their overall dietary sodium intake by adding a dash of salt to the food on their plates. A whopping 77% comes from convenience foods. These processed foods have become increasingly saturated with sodium over the last 30 years. Why is this? Not for reasons of taste. It has become a competition to create a more addictive brand. Focus marketing has determined that consumers eat more when the product has more salt. The result is hyper-food that people slavishly devour. The consequences? In part, epidemic levels of obesity, heart disease, and hypertension.

Where is my steamed kale and edamame?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Dog Nabit

I wish my sense of smell was as keen as a canine's. Then I could tell which one of my three mangy mutts pissed in my bathroom last night. And my two innocent dogs wouldn't be standing at my feet thinking, "hey shit-for-brains, can't you tell the difference? That ain't me! It's as obvious as the difference between golden smacks and beef barley!" and basically wondering why the fuck I'm such a dumbass for yelling at them.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I read this evening that Kellogg Company is going to phase out marketing their junk-food to children. This is a remarkable victory against the unbridled forces of the marketplace by two advocacy groups - Center for Science in the Public Interest and Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood.

Some countries have made it illegal to market unsafe and/or unhealthy products directly to children. When I first heard that a while back, I have to admit that I was downright confused. The marketing of products to children is so ubiquitous here in the U.S. that it seemed beyond question. So I applaud the efforts of these activists, both to raise our collective consciousness, and to help tame the more ruthless machinations of corporate capitalism.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A One Act Play

(scene: four characters walk onto stage: a young married couple, a tall, robust, white-bearded figure wearing a white robe, and a man in glasses and a lab coat. The bearded character walks to the center of the stage and stands upon a dais. The couple kneel before him.)

COUPLE: Dear God, please send us a child. We wish to have babies!
GOD: (makes no reply.)
COUPLE: God, we implore you, help us to conceive!
GOD: (remains silent. The woman's womb remains barren.)

(fade to black. The lighting changes, the couple gets up and walks to the man in the lab coat.)

COUPLE: Scientist, we have been praying for a year. Please help us to have a baby.
SCIENTIST: I have good news. By giving you fertility drugs, I can chemically increase certain hormones in your body. This will increase the probability of conception.
COUPLE: Thank you!
SCIENTIST: You're welcome. But you should know that there are risks, and this process could take some time. You will need to follow my instructions.
COUPLE: We are willing to follow your instructions.
SCIENTIST: Good, let us begin.
GOD: (stands mutely.)

(fade to black. When the lights come up, the woman is obviously pregnant.)

SCIENTIST: Congratulations. The fertility treatment has been successful. There are now six embryos in your uterus. We should extract some of these embryos to increase the chances that the others remain viable and grow to full-term, healthy babies.
COUPLE: NO! They are all gifts from God.
GOD: (raises eyebrows, but says nothing.)
SCIENTIST: The high-doses of chemicals that we administered to your body resulted in many ova being released into your uterus. It is not natural for a human being to gestate six fetuses.
COUPLE: It's life and God gives life and it's not up to us to decide to take it away.
GOD: (remains silent.)
SCIENTIST: There are many risks to you and your offspring if you elect to follow this course. I beg you to reconsider.
COUPLE: For us, there's no difference between a fetus that's undeveloped and a baby. These children are miracles.
GOD: (makes no comment.)
SCIENTIST: OK, well, here's what we need to do to insure your well-being and maximize the chances that your embryos survive.

(fade to black. When the lights come up again, six one-pound babies are being tended by teams of experts. They are surrounded by millions of dollars in equipment and the experts are striving to keep these premature babies alive.)

SCIENTIST: Alas, this is exactly what I feared! We will try our best to save them, but their chances are low, and if they survive, they are likely to have severe physical and mental handicaps.
COUPLE: God has answered our prayers.
GOD: (still silent.)

(curtain falls)

The End

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Corn King

This is kind of corny. But what if all teachers had this kind of passion and conviction? I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. Maybe I will be someday...

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Things Fall Apart

A friend told me yesterday that J. R. R. Tolkien was "over-rated." That may be. But if it is so, then Tolkien is only over-rated in the same way that the Holy Bible is over-rated: widely known and admired, but too often its context and subtlety and true meaning are lost behind a mountain of superficial hype and hackneyed misapprehension.

His remark came on the heels of my announcement that I had finished Tolkien's latest posthumously-published opus The Children of Húrin, a deeply moving and tragic novel. In truth this is one of Tolkien's oldest tales: its outline took shape ninety years ago. The story follows the woes of Húrin and his offspring, most particularly Túrin, his eldest son. It was first published as a part of The Silmarillion, but the amount of material in Tolkien's archives surrounding this narrative gave Christopher Tolkien license to assemble the epic into its own volume.

Húrin was a mighty captain among men, and for his defiance of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, he earned a potent curse: "upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair." This is no mere invocation of malice: Morgoth, being one of the Powers of the World, possessed the ability to bend fate to suit his evil designs.

So began the tale of Túrin's descent. As a boy Túrin was not without wise counsel or love. He befriended an invalid, Sador, one of his father's loyal servants. "Let the unseen days be. Today is more than enough," advised Sador, when Túrin experienced the the first hint of the fate that was to befall him and his kin. His father, a high-spirited, open-hearted man found good and beauty and charity where he looked. But his mother was a proud and harsh realist, and his father was often away, and so his childhood was tainted with sorrow.

It occurred to me that the story of Anakin Skywalker parallels the tale of Túrin: a young hero driven to despair and evil by misfortune. But George Lucas would have done well to consider with more gravity how an innocent may be corrupted, because while his character's fall is clumsy and unsatisfying, my heart ached for Túrin and the ones who loved him. As injustice and unhappy chance follow him, so his frustration and pride grew until he was an unyielding, hateful man. His transformation is powerful and believable and tragic.

There are some terrific scenes in this book, and it has great villians in Morgoth and Glaurung, the dragon. It is also touched with a deep sorrow. Above all, though, I most enjoy Tolkien's portrayal of friendship, heroism, and honor. The love between characters is palpable for me, and it is what makes the torment and loss that the characters experience so poignant.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Nuff Said

Quote about Rudolph W. Guliani:

Rudy Giuliani is a true American hero, and we know this because he does all the things we expect of heroes these days -- like make $16 million a year, and lobby for Hugo Chávez and Rupert Murdoch, and promote wars without ever having served in the military, and hire a lawyer to call his second wife a "stuck pig," and organize absurd, grandstanding pogroms against minor foreign artists, and generally drift through life being a shameless opportunist with an outsize ego who doesn't even bother to conceal the fact that he's had a hard-on for the presidency since he was in diapers. In the media age, we can't have a hero humble enough to actually be one; what is needed is a tireless scoundrel, a cad willing to pose all day long for photos, who'll accept $100,000 to talk about heroism for an hour, who has the balls to take a $2.7 million advance to write a book about himself called Leadership. That's Rudy Giuliani. Our hero. And a perfect choice to uphold the legacy of George W. Bush.
Tip o' the hat to Evil Bobby for pointing out this essential article.

Friday, June 1, 2007


I was in the men's room today, and out of the second stall came a deafening sound, not unlike a high-pitched note from trumpet as blown by an absolute beginner. In the polite silence that followed, I wondered, "how in the hell do people fart like that?" His ass must be really, really tight.