Thursday, December 31, 2009

best of the decade

Happy New Year!

(I'm not up on popular culture enough to pay attention to only new things so this stuff isn't strictly from 2009 or the decade, just found by me therein...)

Favorite books in 2009: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, A Happy Marriage by Rafael Yglesias, Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

... and in the 2000s: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, and Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter.

Favorite movies in 2009: A Serious Man, and Fast Cheap and Out of Control

... and in the 2000s: Amelie, and Waking Life

Favorite music in 2009: Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Greg Brown, Derek Trucks, the Bowmans, Lucinda Williams

... and in the 2000s: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Tegan and Sara, Simon and Garfunkel, Third Eye Blind, and Brahms

Favorite TV show in 2009: Modern Family

... and in the 2000s: Friends and West Wing

Favorite hobbies in 2009: bluegrass music and natural hot springs

... and in the 2000s: amateur astronomy, motorcycling, camping, programming, math, and taking care of cats

Favorite economic theories in 2009: prospect theory, quantal response equilibrium, and probabilistic voting

... and in the 2000s: everything and only things micro

Favorite math subjects in 2009: Um I haven't exactly learned much math lately but have to include this for the decade category...

... and in the 2000s: Galois theory, algebraic topology, and all things combinatorics

Most exhilarating experience in 2009: seeing the Punch Brothers live at Night Grass at Telluride Bluegrass Festival

... and in the 2000s: bungee jumping, and all those startling near-death motorcycle incidents that I would prefer to avoid but sure are exhilarating in the strict sense of the word

Favorite place in 2009: Telluride, CO, and Great Sand Dunes National Park

... and in the 2000s: New York City (esp. Central Park), and the inner Grand Canyon

Favorite software in 2009: TeXShop (Stata is decidedly OFF the list despite the fact I'm forced to use it more than anything else. Take your stupid one-at-a-time rectangular data spaces and give me R any day.)

... and in the 2000s: R, Excel (yes believe it folks, Excel pre-2007 is unbelievably awesome when exploited in the right ways), Picasa

Favorite innovation in 2009: NFL game rewind online, ultra-cheap external hard drives, red bull

... and in the 2000s: wireless internet, the obsolescence of the traditional audible use of telephones, motorcycles, diet coke/diet mountain dew/red bull, google scholar/search/mail/earth/picasa/books...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

John Mackey

is awesome. (Even if the author of the piece doesn't fully realize it.)

paths to reason

As a child or young adult, one of the intellectual questions that most frequently possessed me was the existence of god. By college I had exhausted of the debate and considered the question totally resolved, so that by the time I developed this compulsive blogging habit, it no longer held my interest. However, issues of religion in general were not included in my original strictly epistemological contemplations, and my views on that wide of array of issues has continued to evolve over time and is most certainly not set in stone, so this is still interesting conversational fodder to me. Additionally, recent readings (Christopher Hitchens) have put me in the mood to lay out explicitly some of the earlier abandoned conclusions. So I'll probably be putting some chunks of religious philosophy (or just criticism, to put it less politely and more accurately) up here in the near future.

But there is a pretext that needs to be written first, which is my particular religious background and the path I took away from faith, which I think is sufficiently unique to be worth clarifying. Interpretation is always colored by the background of the speaker. So here's a brief description that can serve as a footnote to future religious discussion.

I was raised Presbyterian. My young life was more consumed by church activities than by anything else (except maybe music if you include the church-based music activities). My mom is the organist, my brother is following in her footsteps, and my dad sings in the choir. I went to church every single Sunday, multiple times on special weeks and every possible special holiday service. I went to Sunday school every single week and completed the confirmation class in junior high. I was in the children's choir, the youth choir, the handbell choir, the youth group, went to vacation bible school every year, and volunteered at the Wednesday after school program. I went to church camp, did all the fundraisers and projects, and spent countless afternoons just hanging out at church while my mom practiced, stamping envelopes and such.

Despite this extreme level of involvement at church, I never really got it into my head that faith was a truly important part of life. I took it for granted until I was 9 and went through the motions, with sincerity, of everything you're supposed to do, but I think the aura of "family business" that church had due to my mom's employment prevented any real sense of reverence from developing. Talk about church was about workplace politics rather than the meaning and importance of faith, which therefore never was something I held deeply personally and was horrified to abandon. But it was also not something I resented or was mistrustful of, it was just there, a nonnegotiable part of life like breakfast and spelling tests. (The eventual resentment was a result, not a cause, of atheism - after writing off religion, the high forced level of participation obviously got aggravating quickly.)

Somewhere around age 9 I had an epiphany that god is nothing but Santa Claus for adults, an invisible threat/reward system designed to induce good behavior, and probably somewhere along the line one generation had forgotten to inform the next about the charade. I quibbled about epistemological details for a few years after that, sometimes preferring the 'agnostic' label, but that was basically it. (And I obviously modified the Santa Claus story to something closer to, as Hitchens so wonderfully puts it, "[Religion] comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge, as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs.")

The point is, I never spent much mental effort on questions of internal inconsistency of religious logic, or the reprehensibility of religious morality, etc. There was no reason to think supernatural things existed, and so the rest was a moot point. This was a convenient license to continue to ignore sunday school lessons and biblical teachings in church, so that I am to this day supremely and woefully ignorant of religious mythology, history and literature. The burden of proof is on the other side, so they can nitpick over Hebrew translations and Bible verses all they want, but I don't need to.

The other point is that it's somewhat unusual to go from extreme religious involvement to atheism in a sudden step. Society is absolutely becoming more secular, but this is a slow trend of lapsing practice reinforced over generations, rather than a slew of individual epiphanies. Either way towards society-wide skepticism is fine with me, but I (admittedly conceitedly) have a huge appreciation for the active step of breaking out of a philosophical system previously taken for granted. Most of my friends are not religious for one reason or another but it's the ones who were raised seriously religious and broke free independently that I feel I can really relate to on this subject.

Another notable aspect of my religious background is that I grew up in the buckle of the Bible belt. Religion is so taken for granted that aside from some quibbles over exact denominations, I had no idea there was a nonreligious option in life. When I finally got the nerve to mention my atheism in junior high, my friends were literally terrified for my soul. The cultural tide was so powerful I never even considered taking a real stand on religion, except for some isolated tirades in the 'gifted and talented' class at school, where at least one or two other people were reluctantly open to the idea that god was an invented concept, and there was even a jewish kid (ironically this class included most of my sunday school class as well.) It is simply unacceptable in Oklahoma to abandon religion, and while I didn't so much care about social ostracism among my peers (obviously... I worked successfully towards that in many other ways) I certainly didn't want to attract negative attention from the various people who held the reins on my life.

The other factor is that I really didn't want to hurt my true church friends by either insulting their entire way of life or by putting myself on a direct train to hellfire in their eyes. So I basically kept it to myself until I was more or less on my own and would still never confront friends from my hometown with this debate. There's nothing to gain from it. I don't require their respect or understanding to be happy, and I have no problem with their pursuing happiness through delusion, so long as they don't subject me to their lifestyle. (Obviously this last condition is the problem... so obviously so and so prolifically described that I don't have much to add on that point.)

And that's about it. More on the superiority of secular morality later.

Monday, December 28, 2009


When You Are Engulfed In Flames, by David Sedaris: Hilarious. His voice (listened to this on the drive back) is off-putting and took some getting used to, and the first few stories weren't great, but from then on were some of the most hilarious short stories I've ever heard. (In particular, Solution to Saturday's Puzzle.) I'm surprised he's on the radio with such a voice. The title piece was the worst.

Create Your Own Economy, by Tyler Cowen: I adore Tyler Cowen but this book was disappointing. It's hard to pinpoint why. Maybe it's that nothing was too profoundly true and unexpected, but it's very likely that I'm the exact wrong person to be surprised or even intrigued by what he is saying, so that that would be too personal a critique to be worth passing on. Maybe it's that a few things were frustratingly wrong or presented badly, in particular the entire discussion of autism as such (which is one of the unifying themes for the whole book, unfortunately). I may rant about that separately later but don't feel like getting into it right now. Or maybe it's just that he uses words in unorthodox ways and invented phrases without being specific enough about what he means, so that I spent a lot of time distracted by trying to figure out what "creating your own economy" means (I think I finally understand, and think even in hindsight that's a horrible way to put it) and figuring out which of the many meanings of the word "story" he is currently referring to, than actually being blown away by the discussion. But again, I have stronger preferences for precision than most, so who knows. Maybe you'll love it.

A Mathematician's Apology, by G.H. Hardy - Endearingly absolutist and haughty, in the sense it's very clear a mathematician wrote it. A fireside-and-cocoa of books, for the mathematically tickled audience. And it only takes an hour or so.