Friday, January 30, 2009

Only in England

In my limited, but something more than non-existent, experience most countries have place names that are, well, just names. Anchorage. Bonn. Cincinnati. In the US, I can think of only one (although I am sure there are more) that achieves any sort of novelty: Dunmovin, CA.

Having lived in Oxfordshire, England for seven years during the 80's and early 90's, this story put WayBack Machine near its redline: English place names shocking.
CRAPSTONE, England — When ordering things by telephone, Stewart Pearce tends to take a proactive approach to the inevitable question “What is your address?”

He lays it out straight, so there is no room for unpleasant confusion. “I say, ‘It’s spelled “crap,” as in crap,’ ” said Mr. Pearce, 61, who has lived in Crapstone, a one-shop country village in Devon, for decades.

In the scale of embarrassing place names, Crapstone ranks pretty high. But Britain is full of them. Some are mostly amusing, like Ugley, Essex; East Breast, in western Scotland; North Piddle, in Worcestershire; and Spanker Lane, in Derbyshire.

Others evoke images that may conflict with residents’ efforts to appear dignified when, for example, applying for jobs.

These include Crotch Crescent, Oxford; Titty Ho, Northamptonshire; Wetwang, East Yorkshire; Slutshole Lane, Norfolk; and Thong, Kent. And, in a country that delights in lavatory humor, particularly if the word “bottom” is involved, there is Pratts Bottom, in Kent, doubly cursed because “prat” is slang for buffoon.

As for Penistone, a thriving South Yorkshire town, just stop that sophomoric snickering.
I once lived in Duns Tew, and always wondered what kind of thing a Tew could be that would allow it to come in the varieties of Great, Little, and Duns.

Many village names are picturesquely descriptive: Ascott-under-Wychwood (where I also lived), and Hinton-under-the-Hedges. Even the most cynical have a tough time dodging a wave of pastoral bliss when hearing them.

The article omitted a couple of my favorites. Whether for reasons of space or decency, though, it is hard to say.

For instance, Upper Dicker in East Sussex.

Or, my favorite for scaring the uninitiated, Horton-cum-Studley. Which is where, at the village manor-turned-restaurant, this picture was taken 19 years ago:
I have occasionally wondered about the etymology, only to conclude some questions are perhaps best not answered.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Just asking ...

In today's New York Times, I learned that 1987 was the first -- and last -- time a woman called the play-by-play for an NFL game.
[Gayle Sierens] does not have to think long about why no network has hired a woman for that position.

“Where are they breaking in at the grass-roots level?” she said. “That’s what you need to put a woman in the position to do the job."
And, in other breaking news, no straight guy has ever done figure skating play-by-play.

So, what's the point here?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I Blame Global Warming V

Thoroughly incensed by insults to Gaia (as documented by the IPCC), Mt. Redoubt looks likely to blow its top.
The ground at Mount Redoubt rumbled intermittently Tuesday, and the Alaska Volcano Observatory continued to forecast a potential eruption there "within days."

The 10,197-foot peak 100 miles southwest of Anchorage now appears ready to explode for the second time in 20 years, the observatory noted in a mid-day status report.

I recently took this picture from my office window halfway between Anchorage and Mt. Spurr.

Mt. Spurr is the conical peak near the picture's left edge, and is about 50 miles north of Redoubt.
If history is a guide, Redoubt should erupt in style, geologists say. Unlike volcanoes in Hawaii, which tend to ooze out slow-rolling lava, volcanoes in Alaska -- Redoubt included -- usually erupt explosively, shooting ash nearly eight miles high.

Were that to happen around 9 a.m. this morning, the forecast winds would carry the ash plume directly toward Anchorage ...
Great. Just great.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Words to warm Peter's heart

I couldn't resist posting this snippet from President Barack Obama's inauguration speech:
We will restore science to its rightful place

Of course, without an explanation of where that rightful place is, that is a statement that can't help but garner everyone's support, from those who see its rightful place in a dustbin to those who see it on a pedestal.

I prefer to see it in a reference library.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Here is an interesting point of view:

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mystery Wrapped in a Pup Tent

While sitting in the Frankfurt departure lounge this morning, en route home via Detroit, I noticed a half dozen women in Burqa Brand Pup Tents. Considering southeast Michigan is home to one of the largest Muslim communities outside the Islamic crescent, that wasn't particularly surprising.

However, on accidental inspection, this was: high heels on every one of them, which were barely visible with each step.

I have heard the empathy promoting exhortation to metaphorically walk a mile in someone else's shoes. Unfortunately, I would suffer a dentition destroying impact with the floor after only one step in the podiatric teeter-totters these paragons of Islamic virtue were wearing.

Given that limitation, I will defer to self-acknowledged experts, aka women I have known, that high heels are neither about mobility nor comfort; rather, their point is something else altogether.

That something else, sufficiently obvious to require no further diagramming, would seem to be rendered wholly beside the point while almost, but not quite absolutely entirely, under the burqulan cloaking device.

Leaving only the mobility and comfort advantages of high heels.

I had long since learned that women rate a 10 on the inscrutability meter.

Nope, better make that an 11.

Speaking of inscrutable -- I am completely baffled by the Islamic insistence upon depriving the world of feminine pulchritude. Just like a sunset over the Grand Tetons, the female form is a gift from nature. Did Allah really go to all that bother just to hide the results under a tent?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Gay Marriage Conundrum

Andrew Sullivan takes on Daniel Larison here and here on the merits/demerits of legitimizing gay marriage and its effect on straight marriage.

Larison: When endorsing a change, particularly one this radical, a conservative would need to show not only that it does not do harm to the institution in question but also that it actually reinforces and reinvigorates the institution. Whether or not “gay marriage” harms the institution of marriage, it certainly does not strengthen it. It is therefore undesirable because it is unnecessary to the preservation of the relevant institution, and so the appropriate conservative view is to leave well enough alone.
Sullivan: I think allowing gay couples to marry does strengthen the institution, because it ensures that everyone in a family has access to the same civil rites and rights, and so the heterosexual marriages are as affirmed as effectively as the gay ones. (It is not my experience that the straight siblings and families of gay people feel their marriages affirmed by excluding some of their own.) By removing the incentive for gay people to enter into false straight marriages, which often end in divorce or collapse, wrecked childhoods and betrayed spouses, heterosexual marriage is also strengthened. And the practical alternative to marriage equality - civil unions for straights and gays - presents a marriage-lite option for everyone that clearly does threaten traditional marriage in a way that gay marriage never could.

I agree more with Larison. I don't see that gay marriage strengthens heterosexual marriage, but I also don't see that it hurts it. I've been pretty lukewarm on this issue, but if I lean, I lean toward Larison's position. I don't see any compelling need to give gays parity with straights with regard to marriage. But if it is to be done, better through legislatures than courts.

Sullivan's argument that gay marriage will keep gays from marrying women just to get the social approval and benefits of marriage makes no sense. Once gays won widespread social approval for living an openly gay lifestyle, there is nothing to be gained from a heterosexual marriage. Gays can live in committed long term relationships without formal marriage, and can gain many of the legal benefits of marriage through domestic partnership legislation already in place. The incremental benefits to be gained by legal parity with heterosexuals seems mostly symbolic to me, and I don't see it adding any stability to gay relationships to speak of.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Who will replace us?

Matthew Parris of the London Times waxes wishful about the much anticipated decline of the American empire:
The accent throughout has been on the positive. Making things possible has marked the whole tenor of his campaign. Hope, optimism, ambition, confidence, reform amounting almost to renaissance - such has been his appeal. “Yes, we can” was a cocky, but not an empty slogan. A deep and swelling sense of the possible, focused on America's future but rooted in America's past, has dominated the struggle for the presidency. It would hardly be an exaggeration to call Mr Obama's promise transfigurative.

But maybe destiny has other plans. America's fate in the half-century ahead is not to be transfigured, but to be relegated. Steering your team through a relegation can be as important a test of leadership as handling a promotion, but it is a different test. Though he may not yet know it, the role for which the US President-elect has been chosen is the management of national decline. He will be the first US president in history to accept, and (if he has the gift) to teach, not the possibilities but the constraints of power.

The fate of his predecessor George W.Bush was to test almost to destruction the theory of the limitlessness of American wealth and power - and of the potency of the American democratic ideal too. With one last heave he pitched his country into a violent and ruinous contest with what at times seemed the whole world, and the whole world's opinion. He failed, luminously.

First off, America's recent economic decline is part of a global economic retrenchment. Noone is gaining on the US on a relative basis.

Secondly, the Iraq war, as much as wobbly internationalists wish to portray it, was/is not a disaster. Our war aims were acheived - Saddam was deposed, the possibility of Iraq serving as a base for the development of WMDs has been negated, a democratic government is in place in Iraq and the security situation is improving daily. In what way has the Iraq policy been a failure?

To answer my own question, Iraq has been a failure in the eyes of Parris and other wobbly defeatists for the same reasons that all wars, in their eyes, are failures. It was bloody, destructive, and didn't proceed according to the original, overly optimistic plans. It was a failure because mistakes were made. It was a failure because its unpopularity contributed to the defeat of the Republicans.

But if the American foreign policy "empire" is gone, what has taken its place? America will continue to be the world's superpower by default, because no other nation or entity (UN or EU) can replace it. Parris wants the US empire gone because is wishful for a new world order of peaceful cooperation and coexistence through the rise of trans-national entities like the UN and its spawn of countless NGOs and CSOs. Parris thinks that its time for the soldier to give way to the diplomat, the combat boot to the wingtip. Ain't gonna happen.

Iraq has strengthened our position in Asia, it has not diminished it. Likewise Afghanistan. You gain no power or influence by being disengaged from the world's hotspots. Wingtips without combat boots are worse than useless.

Andrew Sullivan's neat and tidy world

Andrew Sullivan once supported the Iraq War, but went wobbly when he realized that war is a messy business of uncertainty that is won by the side that wants to win the most. Ever since then he's been in search of some neat, clean, "strategic" way of making foreign policy omelets without cracking any eggs or taking any risks. Now he is turning his wobbly sensibility on the Israelis and their ground invasion of Gaza:
I don't see how Israel "wins" in Gaza any more than I can see how the US can "win" in Iraq. Maybe this current leap into the asymmetric abyss is a necessary proof before neoconservatism really does commit suicide. The danger is: the neocons may take Israel down with them.

The only thing that will take Israel down is the perception in the Muslim world that Israel will no longer defend itself with whatever force is necessary. Hamas cannot be negotiated with, it must be destroyed, period. Gaza is not a very big place, there aren't that many places to hide. I don't see this being a very protracted affair. Round up or kill as much of the leadership as they can, find their underground hideouts and weapons stashes and destroy them. Then leave.

The Arab governments are making showy denunciations of Israel for local consumption, but secretly they want Israel to destroy Hamas.

Hamas may or may not be totally eradicated. It may grow again, or a new organization may take its place. But its cause will be set back. Israel will have re-asserted to the world that it will not allow its citizens to be attacked. That matters much more than "strategy". Israel's strategy is to outlast its enemies. In the end that is the only strategy that matters.

It's a Wonderful Life

Christopher Hitchens and Ross Douthat ponder a Yuletide scenario about how the world would be different had a certain man never been born, but in place of the fictional George Bailey they put the historical Jesus. How different would the world be had Christianity never taken root? Hitchens answered that the great philosophical trends of history would still be in play:
If all the official stories of monotheism, from Moses to Mormonism, were to be utterly and finally discredited, we would be exactly where we are now. All the agonizing questions that we face, from the idea of the good life and our duties to each other to the concept of justice and the enigma of existence itself, would be just as difficult and also just as fascinating. It takes a totalitarian mind-set to claim that only one Bronze Age Palestinian revelation or prophecy or text can be our guide through this labyrinth.

Ross offers a contrary claim, that Christianity brought into the world a way of thinking that could not have been obtainable otherwise:
The Christian story is not, for instance, a theological or philosophical treatise. It's not a set of commands or insights about our moral duties. Nor is it a road map to the good life. It has implications for all of those questions, obviously; certainly, Jesus of Nazareth wasn't exactly silent on "the concept of justice" during his lifetime, and Christians have been deriving theologies, philosophies and codes of conduct from his example ever since. But fundamentally, the Christian story is evidence for a particular idea about the universe: It recounts a series of events that, if real, tells us something profound about the nature of God, and His relationship to His creatures, that we couldn't have been expected to understand or accept in precisely the same way without the Gospel narratives.

Of course a philosopher could have come up with the formulation that God is Love without the assistance of the Gospel According to Saint John, just as Aristarchus of Samos could draw up the heliocentric hypothesis without the assistance of a telescope. But the telescope made a pretty big difference in our understanding of the heavens - and the Gospels, with their claim to bring the nature of God into clearer focus, likewise had a revolutionary impact on how human beings thought about the divine, by making the idea that the Author of the universe actually cares about individual human lives seem much more plausible to first hundreds, then thousands and then millions of people than it had before the evangelists put pen to paper. And just as we would be in a rather different position vis-a-vis our understanding of the universe if all our astronomical evidence were suddenly discredited, the conclusive discrediting of the Gospels would almost certainly provoke a slow-moving revolution in how the world approaches the idea of God.

I'm really not sure what Ross is getting at. He's saying that the idea of God as promulgated by Christianity is a unique event in world philosophy, but I'm left feeling it is a distinction without a lot of difference. No doubt the world would have followed a different path without Christianity, but I'm wondering if it would have been qualitatively different.

I'm even questioning the uniqueness of the Christian idea of God. Contra Douthat, many earlier religious traditions (Mithras/Zoroastrianism) have portrayed a suffering god. Egyptian mythology tells the story of Osiris, a god who died and was resurrected:
A god of the earth and vegetation, Osiris symbolized in his death the yearly drought and in his miraculous rebirth the periodic flooding of the Nile and the growth of grain. He was a god-king who was believed to have given Egypt civilization.

The Christian idea of a suffering god is not unique, it is an archetype.

In the end it is impossible to determine how an alternate history would have panned out. I go on the contention that human social potentiality is constrained by, and generated from, basic human psychology. There are only so many forms that society can take, and given time human history will uncover them all. I fail to see anything attained by "Christian"* civilization that could not have been obtainable without Christian theology.

* I've quoted Christian because what we call Christian civilization is the result of many influences predating or originating outside of purely Christian thought or tradition for which Christianity unfairly takes credit. As with a patrilineal geneaology, only a tiny percentage of an individual's genetic makeup comes from the line of descent of the men with whom one shares a surname.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Pockets of sanity in unexpected places

While celebrity terror apologist Cynthia McKinney garners press for her high profile humanitarian relief attempt in Gaza, other "usual suspects" are withholding the obligatory knee-jerk denunciations of Israel over its campaign to knock out Hamas in the Gaza Strip:
Fourth, any realistic hope of progress toward a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a successful two-state solution requires that Hamas suffer a severe setback in the present fighting in ways that seriously damage its capabilities and weaken its political credibility among Palestinians. Leading officials of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority know this and, notwithstanding their formulaic criticisms of Israel, have explicitly blamed Hamas for the current violence. PLO and Fatah officials fault Hamas for the deaths in Gaza, and an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Nimr Hammad, told the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar: "The one responsible for the massacres is Hamas, and not the Zionist entity, which in its own view reacted to the firing of Palestinian missiles." Indeed, Hamas's position as a radical, terrorist, adventurist, Islamist organization is underscored by the absence of support for it by Muslim governments other than Iran and its surrogates.

Cynthia is running out of fashionable victims to demonstrate solidarity with.

Update: Iranian extremists call for a reward for anyone who assassinates Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for his support of Israel. How can the terror-appeasing Left continue to see Israel and the US as the primary parties responsible for unrest in the Middle East?

Word of the day: Hylomorphism

Today I learned a new word: hylomorphism. Okay, it's not a new word, just new to me, but encompasses a range of philosophical topics much discussed on the Daily Duck in the past: Platonism, Realism, Nominalism.

I came across the word in this discussion thread from Secular Right:
Another way of putting it is that matter is the principle of extension and form is the principle of order. All things require both extension and order to exist within spacetime. The materialist takes order (form) as a given to declare that extension (matter) is all that we need to understand. It rather like pointing to a pile of building materials while ignoring the need for a blueprint to explain how a house comes into being.

To wrap up, I will note that the hylomorphist is not necessarily a theist. However, hylomorphism, by allowing for form, does subscribe to the idea that entities and processes superior to nature do exist.

I think that the ToE has dispensed with the quaint notion of the need for "blueprints" for explaining seemingly purposive forms. The forms that matter can take are inherent in the properties of matter. Matter self-assembles itself into various forms - stars, raindrops, rivers, organisms, etc. There is no need to invoke some alternate entity to explain the process of aggregation of matter into forms.

Form is really nothing more than a mental category for classifying perceived objects. The problem arises when we attribute "thingness" to these mental abstractions. My car exists, my neighbor's car exists, but "car" has no existence. Only cars exist.

My take on much of Western philosophy, including Christianity is that it is mostly a futile attempt to impart "thingness" to non-things, which is a surprisingly materialistic notion for a class of thinkers that tries its hardest to eschew materialist explanations. The very notion of existence applies a notion of "thingness" that derives from the perceptual experience of material things. It seems to me oxymoronic to refer to the existence of the immaterial.

Our minds cannot escape materialism. All of our cognitive building blocks are built upon experiences of material existence. One cannot even think of alternative forms of existence without invoking materialist metaphors. Alternatives to materialism really aren't driven, I believe, by a need to find a more intellectualy coherent explanation for the world. Anti-materialism is an aesthetic judgment on the universe. Ultimately people don't really like the universe as it is, and would prefer to live in another. The notion of a perfect world of forms provides a more aesthetically acceptable alternative to the universe that we experience. But there is really no logical necessity to invoke forms as an explanation for things. It is only logically necessary given the presupposition that the universe is not what it should be.