You can’t hear what you’re not listening for

One way of understanding “open-mindedness” is to allow the possibility of changing your mind. And yes, it’s a good idea to leave the door open a crack, listen to your opponents, in the off chance they may be right about something. But that’s only one dimension of openness. Another is not making assumptions about what your opponents are saying.

Windmill with birds
While cell towers, cats, and skyscrapers kill many more birds, research continues to make windmills safer. Image credit: Phys.org, click to read article

Recently on a thread about clean energy, I read this:

You never hear environmentalists talking about windmills killing birds #DirtyLittleSecret

This “gotcha” happens a lot in online discussions, where someone assumes the other side ignores their own problems.  I provided several links to environmentalists doing exactly that going back more than a decade; it’s a pretty hot topic and the subject of a lot of research. And a strange thing happened: the other fellow actually read them, and thanked me for the information.

More examples:

“You never hear atheists complaining about Islam, only about Christianity!” (Yes it’s true that in the US atheists complain about the theocrats closest to them, but I’ve read a lot of atheist discussion online and Islam definitely gets its turn.)

Oct 2017 march in London against ISIS
From massive Oct 2017 anti-ISIS march in London. Image credit: Guardian, click to read article

“You never hear Muslims protesting terrorism!” (Oh man, where to start. Mass demonstrations against terrorism, Islamic leaders issuing Fatwas against terrorism, Muslim anti-terrorist op-eds, and much more.)

“You never hear liberals going after their own for sexual harassment!” (There’s too much truth in this one, but it’s changing. And not a moment too soon, given the patchy record of white male leaders in our country. And I have seen a few conservative OpEds calling for change.)

“We’re not even allowed to say Merry Christmas!” (Nobody said you can’t say Merry Christmas. That’s not a thing.)

…and so on ad nauseam.  The worst thing about the “You never hear” gotcha is it tries to find moral cover in the idea that no one really cares about anything, that only tribalism matters.

It is true that tribalism matters. Our country is a feedback loop where ideologies split so close to the center line that neither side can afford to give an inch for a moment, for any reason at all.

But what if it didn’t matter so damn much? What if we could acknowledge worthwhile thinking on the other side? The acknowledgement would an act of rebellion in itself, tossing threads of communication across the divide.

A more relevant point is that it’s a waste of social opportunity to argue against a point of view that is not real or at least which your correspondent does not hold.

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Our lives are shaped by belief in the human soul

When an airplane crashes, the FAA somberly reports that “154 souls were lost.” Most religions have some doctrine of a transcendent personal essence that survives beyond death, perhaps to enjoy the eternal presence of God, the suffering of His absence, or another round through an endless cycle of re-birth.

The soul is often held to be the substance of personhood. In the United States, a seemingly eternal battle is fought over the personhood of human zygotes. Some white nationalists assert that neither black people or Jews have souls at all. Most people in the West take their own personhood for granted, never stopping to wonder if (as Buddhism claims) the self might be an illusion.

The soul is also a foundational concept behind punishment and blame. Personal responsibility for one’s own misfortune requires that there be a self to be personal – a “person”.

So you have a self? Your likes and dislikes, your gender, your religion, your ethical holdings – these are you? Are you sure?

What would it mean for “you” to grow up in a majority Hindu or Islamic country? Or a century when women were held responsible for the sins of mankind?

What does it mean to be “masculine” or “feminine”? If the set of expectations for men and women’s behavior is handed down by culture, then how much of your gender was simply assigned at birth, and not part of your “soul”?

Hang on tight, because we’ve been on paved road this far. Now we turn the wheel out into the wilderness…

The people who did things in the past that were culturally acceptable at the time, but not now… does your belief in the self influence your opinion of them? Are you a better person than they were?

Once you strip away culture, what’s left? Do you, for instance, dislike pumpkin? Could be the expression of a genetic allele that influences the development of your taste buds.

Once you strip away culture and biology, what’s left? What’s YOU? What’s the soul in there that deserves accolade for compassionate deeds or judgment for wrong behavior?

“OK, wait a minute”, you say. “I’ve been through thousands of experiences and that shapes who I am.”

OK, fine and good. Those would be the “culture” mentioned earlier. But it means that personhood can be an emergent property of body, brain, and experience. Does it emerge all at once? When? And how much?

We have not even got to the metaphysics of transcendence yet.

NOTES:

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  • This post isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive view of any religion’s view of the soul or the self. Or even the distinction, if any, between the two. It’s about the widely-held cultural belief that there is some kind of abstraction underlying each of our visible persona. That belief affects our daily lives in countless ways.

Really old stack cutter

Part of my day involved making a few adjustments to this old Triumph stack cutter. This is a machine that can cut through a whole ream of paper at once. Guessing at its age… 30 years? 40 years? Maybe 50 years since that is the age of our college.

But it’s still in use. Take a look at the front platform, where paper is loaded. It is machine-turned aluminum, which is made when a circular wire brush is machine-pressed in progressive spots down onto the metal, making a bright textured finish that never wears off. And you may notice… it’s worn off, where stacks of paper are slid into the clamp and blade assembly.

Depth ruler for stack cutter
Transparent indicator fashioned from Plexiglas and colored red with nail polish

The bolt that adjusts the alignment fence (which ensures a square cut) was rusted in place, so it took some doing to move that fence over about a sixteenth of an inch. And while I was in there, hey, let’s replace the ruler that the operator uses to set the depth of cut. I used a nice self-adhesive steel-ribbon ruler from the L.S. Starrett company.  The old ruler had literally been hand-made out of paper by someone a long time ago. Their markings were dead accurate (!) but only at one-eighth intervals and the machine operator had wanted one with finer markings.

In the past I’ve repaired the crank handle that moves the depth stop in and out, the poly cutting block, and replaced the roughly two-pound steel blade. Later I’ll get someone to help me turn it over (it’s mostly cast iron) and give its mechanicals some serious TLC. Maybe get another ten years out of it.

I just love old machines like this. The company is still in business, so I’d say there isn’t a penalty for making such high-quality machinery. When you make something right in the first place, maybe you don’t have to replace it every other year? (Of course that only applies to mature technologies like heavy machines. Not to, for instance, smart phones which are still a new product category in development.)

When I do the major service, I’ll make pictures of its impressive internal mechanism.

  • The big crank on top lowers the clamp that holds the paper in place for cutting. There is a similar crank in front that moves the depth stop in and out to set cut depth.
  • The machine is designed for safety. You can arm it with one button in the middle, but to get the blade to come down? Takes both hands, one on each side of the machine like the buttons on a pinball machine. You’d have to be really creative to hurt yourself.

New York Times goes to war against fake news

Carl Hulse chief Washington Correspondent for the NYT at Illinois State University
Carl Hulse, chief Washington Correspondent for the NYT, at Illinois State University

Today as part of the American Democracy Project at Illinois State University, I attended a talk by Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times. Among other topics he shared some things that the NYT is doing to ensure their reporting is as credible as possible, while combatting fake news.

The Times is providing links to source documents when practical. “You can argue with the story, but it’s a lot harder to argue with the source document. They have a Reader Center which allows readers to respond in a constructive way and even suggest new stories. They are revisiting stories later to examine if they turned out right or if not, what was right. They are making corrections more prominent and detailed. And they are taking part in the Media Trust Project, on media ethics.
Other tidbits from his talk included:
  • Trump refers to FOX as ‘my channel’
  • Mark Zuckerberg is taking a long look at what advertising Facebook sold during the 2016 campaign, and he is not happy
  • Seeing how WikiLeaks was manipulated, the NYT is taking a long look at the use of email leaks, and trying to develop better guidelines
  • Democrats need an economic message. They thought the Obama coalition was available to them, but it was only available to Obama. They are going to have to improve their connection.
  • The State Department is vital to maintaining world peace, and right now it is perilously understaffed.
  • 53% of white women voted for Trump.
  • Hulse is an Illinois State University alum. When he first started at the Times, he was “the mid Western guy”. He showed us a picture of his original Vidette press pass. “I’m not sure what that ever got me into,” he said. “But I loved going here.” He is in two Halls Of Fame on campus.

In Q&A, I asked if there was a popular movement to ferret out and tamp down fake news. He said he knew of some efforts, but no huge groundswell.

Just today, the NYT published a good article on How To Fight Fake News.

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Flat-out wrong

Photo credit: Second Nexus, click pic to read article “Flat Earth Society is not a joke; it’s real and it’s growing.”

Flat-Earth advocates say things like “we should be able to feel the Earth turning so fast”. But it isn’t turning fast; it’s turning at 0.00067 rotations per minute, which is barely perceptible. Watch the hour hand on a clock and realize the Earth is turning half that fast. The “speed” relates to the fact that the hour hand is nearly four thousand miles long and we’re sitting on the end of it. And all the physical objects in our frame of reference are in the same spot, riding along with us.

Suppose you’re a passenger in a car moving sixty miles an hour. You hold one hand 12 inches above the other and drop a coin. It falls for 250 milliseconds “straight” down into your other hand. But if you mapped the coin’s fall in reference to the _ground_, it would make a right triangle one foot high and 22 feet long. Instead of the 90-degree fall we perceived inside the car, the outside observer (who has x-ray vision and can see through the car door) perceives the coin falling at a long slope of just 2.6 degrees. This is seamless to us because it is the nature of reality.

The great advance of science has been to add analysis to multiple frames of reference – the microscopic, the relational, the cosmic, subatomic, deep time, bullet time and so on. Our senses evolved to keep us alive and for little else. We can get more out of reality by measuring it and thinking about it, performing experiments when possible to gauge the result. And then looking for falsification in other fields that impinge on the same phenomena.

Notes:

 

Kimball Reed Organ

This is the artifact I was photographing when the little butterfly landed next to me, posing. It’s an antique reed organ, discarded on the curb. Now, don’t feel bad for the instrument; it probably presided over a hundred years of weddings and baptisms and funerals and church services, surrounded all the while by people singing.

It might have been the only major instrument around for miles. And during its long existence, new instruments have been built, new KINDS of instruments have been built. Music has changed because people are alive and culture is alive and changing.

In the time this organ existed, two world wars and countless equally awful but smaller wars took place. Humans visited the moon. Video was invented and now everyone carries a video camera… incidental to other functions of the device.

I looked at the stop; “Vox Humana” and thought “That would be a cool name for a blog!” And… it is. For several blogs. I guess my blog will continue without a name for now.

Oh yeah… blogging was invented. I think about that when people face arguments and think others are curtailing their freedom of speech.

Anyway it didn’t seem right to give the instrument a sendoff without a moment’s appreciation and a few photos. You served us well, reed organ.

Vox Humana stop, detail.

NOTES:

American Experience The Great War

I’m watching American Experience:

Modern industrial warfare, and all its horrors. Popular heroes of battle. The flu. The treaty of Versailles, planting the seeds of another paroxysm of industrial war. And then racial violence driven by… fear that returning veteran Negros would be a conduit for communism into American society. Wilson’s reclusion, and his destruction of the treaty he had worked for, because of his hatred for HC Lodge. What if the US had been in the League of Nations, when Mussolini and Hitler had arisen?

What is it all for? What is a “just war”?

There are no just wars. Humanity, and humanity’s progress, are destroyed so men in power can strut and talk about ideals. That is in all wars, regardless.

If we need to fight a war, OK, fight a war. But don’t pretend it is a good thing. Don’t make believe the destruction and the loss of human culture and potential is in any way acceptable. It isn’t.

Let’s have done with trying to say any wars are moral, or good, or just. They’re not. Stop glorifying them. Even for good causes, they are a cause for shame.

Maybe if they are properly (de)valued, wars can finally be relegated to the last resort. Maybe then we can start thinking far enough ahead to see them coming, and ante up for a future we can be proud of.

Watch it online