Thursday, January 31, 2008

Gods Brought Down to Earth

I recall seeing an Open University program a few years back that attempted to reproduce the Parthenon of Athens as it would have been seen by the ancient Greeks, a program that transformed my understanding of classical art and antiquity. Further examples of such re-creations can be seen in the exhibition "Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity," based on 25 years of research by Vinzenz Brinkmann, former curator at the Glyptothek Museum in Germany. This is an exhibition that metaphorically brings the past to life and literally adds some colour to it in the process.

Barney With The Mrs.

I went to see Drawing Restraint 9 last night, a must for anyone interested in whaling and/or Japanese ceremonies. Fascinating, surreal, and even hilarious in parts, although I did notice a few people couldn't bare to watch the bit where Bjork and Barney cut each other's legs off.

No Oscar nominations mind.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Who Needs Big Brother?

From a special section in the December 9 issue of the New York Times Magazine on intriguing ideas and research from 2007:

Some anthropologists argue that the idea of God first arose in larger societies, for the purpose of curbing selfishness and promoting cooperation. Outside a tightly knit group, the reasoning goes, nobody can keep an eye on everyone's behavior, so these cultures invented a natural agent who could. But does thinking of an omniscient God promote altruism? The University of British Columbia psychologist Ara Norenzayan wanted to find out.

In a pair of studies published in Psychological Science, Norenzayan and his student Azim F. Shariff had participants play the so-called "dictator game," a common way of measuring generosity toward strangers. The game is simple: you're offered 10 $1 coins and told to take as many as you want and leave the rest for the player in the other room (who is, unknown to you, a research confederate). The fair split, of course, is 50-50, but most anonymous "dictators" play selfishly, leaving little or nothing for the other player.

In the control group of Norenzayan's study, the vast majority of participants kept everything or nearly everything—whether or not they said they were religious. "Religious leaders always complain that people don't internalize religion, and they're right," Norenzayan observes.

But is there a way to induce generosity? In the experimental condition, the researchers prompted thoughts of God using a well-established "priming" technique: participants, who again included both theists and atheists, first had to unscramble sentences containing words such as God, divine and sacred. That way, going into the dictator game, players had God on their minds without being consciously aware of it. Sure enough, the "God prime" worked like a charm, leading to fairer splits. Without the God prime, only 12 percent of the participants split the money evenly, but when primed with the religious words, 52 percent did.

When news of these findings made headlines, some atheists were appalled by the implication that altruism depends heavily on religion. Apparently, they hadn't heard the whole story. In a second study, the researchers had participants unscramble sentences containing words like civic, contract and police—meant to evoke secular moral institutions. This prime also increased generosity. And unlike the religious prime, it did so consistently for both believers and nonbelievers. Until he conducts further reseairch, Norenzayan can only speculate about the significance: "We need that common denominator that works for everyone."

Marina Krakovsky

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Ur-Guinness

In the December 2007 issue of Wired, Nadya Labi discusses the investigations being carried out by archaeologists Billy Quinn and Declan Moore into Ireland's ancient breweries.

Quinn and Moore got a crash course in ancient techniques by visiting breweries in Spain, Belgium, and Canada. Then they repurposed a cattle trough, filling it with water and placing it in a clay-lined hole. Using granite stones toasted in a nearby fire, the pair heated the water until it was steaming but not bubbling — according to the brewers they consulted, 153 degrees Fahrenheit is the ideal temperature for breaking down starch into sugar. Then they scooped in barley. After bringing the concoction to a boil, they transferred it to containers, added bog myrtle, meadow sweet, and, of course, yeast — all ingredients available to Bronze Age boozers. Three days later, the slightly fizzy copper-colored ale was ready for consumption.

Unfortunately, US restrictions on alcohol imports foiled Wired's efforts to get a taste. As far as Quinn is concerned, though, the beverage passed the only true test: At a party he and Moore hosted to share the fruits of their labors, people "drank it by the pintful."

Nice work if you can get it.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Just to Keep Cakes Happy

Lifted from the brilliant KRS:

Every year, the listeners to Irish pirate radio station Raidio Siamsa (89.8 FM) vote for their favourite indie tunes of the year. This year’s selection was delayed, mostly because of the bad weather, but it would probably have been better off lost altogether. There’s a definite retro feel to this year’s chart, but not in a good way. It’s as if the generation brought up worshipping the Sultans of Ping F.C. and Half Man Half Biscuit had somehow spawned a febrile idiot child incapable of original thought. The once-strong possibility that the indie scene might break out of the student ghetto has never been more of a chimera than today: Three of the bands in this list are from the Royal Irish College of Surgeons, though not necessarily the ones you’d think. For better or worse (and let’s hope 2008 is better), here’s the chart:

10: “Betty’s Gone Bald (But Her Sex Life Goes On),” by Plasma and the Leukocytes (Quondam Records)

9: “Can You Feel the Plus Fours?,” by Milky Tipp (Brillig & SlĂ­the)

8: “(Are You Still) Mispronouncing Nee-Chee?,” by Werther von Goethe (Ledge Records)

7: “I Want It Now,” by The Stamps (Petulant)

6: “Charlie Cake Park,” by Sweet T (Millionaire)

5: “Weebles Wobble But Bebo’s Bobbins,” by the Baubles (Spent Records)

4: “Rathmines Is Rathyours,” by The Sketchlies (Puma Sick)

3: “Put It Back In Yourself,” by The Matrons (St. Vincent’s Sounds)

2: “Cooking with Rachel,” by Dermot O’Muirithe (Merengue)


1: “The People Have Spoken (The Bastards),” by Adolf Twat (Deaf Music)

Happy now, Cakes?!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Animal Politics

In today's New York Times:

Researchers who study highly gregarious and relatively brainy species like rhesus monkeys, baboons, dolphins, sperm whales, elephants and wolves have lately uncovered evidence that the creatures engage in extraordinarily sophisticated forms of politicking, often across large and far-flung social networks.

Male dolphins, for example, organize themselves into at least three nested tiers of friends and accomplices, said Richard C. Connor of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, rather like the way human societies are constructed of small kin groups allied into larger tribes allied into still larger nation-states. The dolphins maintain their alliances through elaborately synchronized twists, leaps and spins like Blue Angel pilots blazing their acrobatic fraternity on high.

Among elephants, it is the females who are the born politicians, cultivating robust and lifelong social ties with at least 100 other elephants, a task made easier by their power to communicate infrasonically across miles of savanna floor. Wolves, it seems, leaven their otherwise strongly hierarchical society with occasional displays of populist umbrage, and if a pack leader proves a too-snappish tyrant, subordinate wolves will collude to overthrow the top cur.

Monday, January 21, 2008

I Much Prefer FARK myself

From the January issue of Harper's magazine:

From the diaries of Tanja Nijmeijer, a twenty-nine-year-old Dutch woman who joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2002 while on a trip. The diaries were found last summer when the Colombian army raided the guerrilla camp where Nijmeijer was stationed. Translated from the Dutch by Geoffrey Garrison and Wies Ubags.

JULY 21,2006
Two comrades in our unit have AIDS—perhaps even more. Nobody here uses condoms. The infected girl doesn't understand what it means. She told me the news with a big smile. Her boyfriend doesn't seem to care either. Everyone fucks so much here that the whole unit will probably go to hell. Fortunately, my little Indian is healthy, because he was still a virgin—twenty-five years old! He was ashamed and never told me, but I suspected it from the start. Of course, I've turned him into a god of sex. I only hope he didn't get the taste for it and doesn't now get laid by other women.

NOVEMBER 22, 2006
I'm really disappointed in my comrade Karel. He's caught an STD from his girlfriend, who everyone knows fucks everyone. That fucking bitch is from the other side, I'm 99 percent certain. She's probably been sent to destabilize the leadership of this unit. I'm not the only one who thinks so.

NOVEMBER 24,2006
I'm tired. Tired of the FARC, tired of the people, tired of living together, tired of never having anything for myself. It's worth it if you know you are fighting for something, but I don't actually believe in the cause anymore. What kind of organization is this when some have money, cigarettes, and candy, and the rest have to beg—only to be snubbed? It has been like this ever since I came here, and nothing ever changes. A girl with big tits and a pretty little nose can tear apart a leadership that has been working together for years! We have to work all day long while the commanders talk bullshit! I'm sick of being babbled to about being a Communist, being honest, being economical, being obedient, while watching how hypocritical the commanders are. They are merciless when someone criticizes them. And then there's my case: I'm training with Karel, supposedly for a city mission, but I know I'll never get out of this jungle. I want out of here, or at least out of this unit. But I'm stuck, like some sort of prisoner. I want to be in a combat unit. Instead, I have to keep watching, exercising, talking, and listening to others making a fuss. What's more, I feel useless. There's no way out anymore.

APRIL 13, 2007
Here, wives of commanders know everything and can give orders. They are allowed to have children. They even have beautiful clothes and shampoo. It doesn't seem fair. What will it be like when FARC has power? The commanders' women will have silicone tits, drive Ferraris, and eat caviar. Right now a commander's wife has underwear with lace still left, and, if you are lucky, you can get it if she doesn't throw it away first. I wonder if deep down they are ashamed. I should be glad that I'm not like that, that I don't care about nice things or power. But it hurts to see these things. I'm sad.

APRIL 15, 2007
I met such a nice boy—very innocent, unworldly, and kind to me. We were together for three days, but he was sent away to fight, and I'm alone again. I need a lover so I don't feel so alone and useless. All I do is keep watch, make beds, chop wood, and cook. And I sense more and more aversion to me. These people are envious and underhanded. They say it's from their “Indian blood”—they're proud of it. They make ambiguous comments, play tricks, stalk people—it's really fucked up.

JUNE 9, 2007
I'm bored and hungry. The enemy is nowhere to be seen, so for the umpteenth time we have to study FARC documents and repeat what has been explained thirty times. Things like: Why you have to be disciplined, or, Why you must not fall asleep when you're on guard. Aahh! The only thing I can do is remember that these things are a consequence of my choice to be here. I knew from the start this would not be a challenge intellectually.

JUNE 14, 2007, MORNING
Sometimes I dream about my mom and I wake up crying. Always the same question: Would I have been happy if I had stayed with my family in Holland? I don't think so. This jungle is my home. The FARC is my life, my family.

JUNE 14, 2007, EVENING
Today I was allowed to accompany a commander as a “guard.” The commanders go somewhere and make silly jokes, smoke, and buy us chips and soda, for which we're supposed to be grateful. I thought about my comrades here, the ones who carry food on their shoulders all day long and never even get a bag of chips from the commanders. Sometimes I don't feel like obeying orders-orders from sexist men who will punish me if I don't do as they say. I would like to return to Dutch society for a while—no sexists, no people assuming they know everything better than I do. What peace.

Friday, January 18, 2008

I.Q. Debate Over

Even the BBC could not resist describing Bobby Fischer as an "eccentric US genius," as though expertise in spatial pattern recognition conferred some sort of general brilliance upon all the man's thought processes. The man was a fucking nut and a paranoid narcissist to boot.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Look at the Eyes!

If you enjoyed Hitchens, Dawkins et al. on religion but prefer your atheism to be laced with humour, self-deprecating anecdotes and the empathy that comes from having been a god-botherer in his teens, then Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind is the book I'd recommend. I can imagine that he's not to everybody's taste, but personally I loved his TV shows right from the start, and this book, without being an extension of his performance, will contribute to your appreciation of it (assuming you appreciated it in the first place). But then, as a skeptic, I'm biased. There seems to be something about the Magic fraternity that encourages skepticism (Not just Brown but Houdini and even Paul Daniels!!); I suspect it's just that they know how easy it is to fake the miraculous.

The first two-thirds of the book are devoted to explaining, in not too great a detail, how Brown performs his impressive feats of memory, "mind control," hypnosis and so on, along with historical accounts of the development of the various techniques he uses (there's an invaluable bibliography at the back, which, incidentally, includes a few of the books mentioned in the post below on why people believe strange things). The remaining third is dedicated to topics closer to his heart, one suspects, if only by the emotional intensity that can be detected: Brown doesn't get all didactic on the reader's ass, but he is keen to be informative about topics like Cognitive Illusions, Alternative Medicine, GM Foods, and the current crop of anti-religious writers (He's a very big fan of Dawkins). He doesn't labour his points too much, despite what one reviewer at Amazon says, although he does slip into the kind of anecdotalism that he accuses his opponents of. No matter. The anecdotes are usually very funny, and useful, too, particularly his account of how one of his mates avoided being battered by a drunk in the street simply by a bizarre change of conversational topic. And the book comes with an appendix that contains samples of correspondence Brown has received from nutters who've seen his show, including one from the reincarnated Jesus, who tells him, "I believe you and I have some work to do."


The book is out in new improved paperback form, i.e. smaller and less unwieldy. A great train read that I'm sure will make you laugh out loud while educating you, too. Can't be bad.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lefort Marches On

My first book purchase of 2008, thanks to Paul Anderson over at Gauche, is Claude Lefort's Complications: Communism and the Dilemmas of Democracy. In the Comments section of the post below, I hubristically suggested one or two texts that might contribute to a new left for the 21st century. Even though Lefort's writing is frequently difficult, what he tells us about the past, what he knows, and what he remembers are essential to the creation of a new "new left" if it is not to make the same mistakes as both the old, "old left" and the old "new left." This is a book that I am sure won't receive the attention it deserves. Or perhaps it's fairer to say that the level of attention it receives is an indication of how much or how little we deserve.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Carlton Earns Our Respect

Further to the post below, the very excellent Mr. CBM has passed on an mp3 of the event described therein. There's a picture of "Thelma" from riot grrrrrrrl band Huggy Bear here, (that's Thelma from the Likely Lads, not, as S.Wells said, the Liver Birds). There are no pictures anywhere of Carlton. His image doesn't appear on photos.

This is the first mp3 I've posted to C&S, so bear with me if it doesn't work to begin with. I'll keep trying till we get it right. (If I have done it right, just click on the post title for the mp3).

*Update* It works in RealPlayer. You can right-click on the link and save it to disc in order to play it back.

Listen out for:

"The stage is a barrier invented by girls."

"You don't demand respect, you earn it."

and the classic

"We've got our knobs out and we're rioting."

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

¡No Pasaran! (But they might dribble and shoot)

Further to the discussion at the Cedar Lounge concerning Christmas presents for Lefties, here's a couple of gifts that the bestest brother in the whole world bestowed upon yours truly this yule:

Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It, by Ronald Aronson.

Stylish CNT shirt courtesy of the folk at Philosophy Football.

What a cool dude (him, not me).



Cartoon anti-hero Droopy
Real-life saviour Big Sam

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Suggestions Please!

Surely YOU can think of something better to put on the Fourth Plinth of Trafalgar Square than this shower.

'S Crap!

Steven Wells in today's Guardian music blog recalls memorable attacks on critics by rock musicians:

Perhaps the strangest artist vs hack attack came at a gig in Newport when "the one who looked like Thelma off the Liver Birds" from Huggy Bear gave a black eye to Carlton B Morgan, writer of the NME cartoon strip Great Pop Things.

Morgan and cartoonist Jon Langford had been unsettling the Hugs by shouting "Less structure in the music" and "You're better than Sting".

"Then they started ranting about men in the audience wanking on to female audience members' backs," says Langford, "and tried to get all the women to stand down the front while all the blokes had to go to the back. Carlton shouted "I am a transvestite, where do I stand?" then his bass player Miss Sass shouted "Show us your tits" and it all went bonkers. I think the surreal heckling really got to them."

There used to be an audio file of this online. It was absolutely hilarious. Carlton, if you're out there, please put up a link so we can all hear it.

*Update* Over at Dumb Riffs, Karl has an interview he did with Nick Kent that's well worth a look.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Must Try Harder

I've been considering a post all through the Christmas period on a topic that has perplexed me for several months and which has struck me as germane to the entire Hitchens/Dawkins/Harris atheist assault on religion, the Respect-SWP debacle, this year's Edge question (nice, incidentally, to see the Guardian finally catching up with C&S in their appreciation of the Third Culture crowd), as well as a number of other topics that we Doubting Johnnies, heretics, and infidels enjoy examining, namely, "Why do so many smart people believe such stupid things?" I have postponed writing on this topic and will probably continue to do so for a while, but Norm has also touched on the issue tangentially here in wondering why it is that the humanities appear NOT to necessarily ennoble those who come into contact with it, so I thought I'd scribble down some quick, cursory thoughts and maybe examine the topic in more detail if I can be bothered or if anyone else displays any interest in extending the discussion.

I've been reading a number of books on the topic, most recently Michael Shermer's "Why People Believe Weird Things," Robert Sternberg's "Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid," and Thomas Gilovich's "How We Know What Isn't So," but my interest, I suppose, goes as far back as my reading of Denis Tourish's On the Edge. The short answer seems to be, as far as I can tell, that "smart people believe stupid things because they arrive at their positions for non-smart reasons," such as adopting a position because it suits some psychological need or because, given a set of facts, the determining factor in choosing between one interpretation out of many has more to do with what the particular individual finds comfortable, convenient, livable with, self-justifying, self-gratifying, or just less threatening to his or her already established views and values, than any willingness to weigh the evidence impartially. Moreover, what education and reading appear to do, rather than lead to any ennoblement or greater skepticism, is simply make people better able to defend the position they have determined to keep to. The arguments and evidence advanced in these books suggest that people frequently become so attached to a particular argument or worldview that they find it difficult to reject it, especially when there are social pressures to save face or avoid admitting error, and are instead more likely to seek confirmatory evidence and downplay the significance of any countervailing evidence they encounter.

Maybe I'll come back to this again. Suffice to say that, IMHO, it provides great potential in explaining why apparently well-educated and smart people continue to be Christians, or Marxists, in spite of the preponderance of so much evidence against them.

But for now, just to return to the "assault on religion" and one of the reasons why I think no amount of "evidence" and hectoring will convince theists to abandon their Gods, here's Scott Atran talking over at the Edge site about his psychological experiment on the "limits of rational choice with Muslim mujahedin on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi." If you have the time, check out all the responses to this year's Edge question. It's really fascinating stuff.

No Comment Needed

From the Associated Press:

Rapper Lil' Romeo is headed to the University of Southern California to play basketball. The popular hip-hop performer signed a national letter of intent to attend USC at a news conference at a posh hotel near Beverly Hills. Lil' Romeo, whose full name is Percy Romeo Miller, is currently a senior guard at Beverly Hills High. He averaged 13.9 points and 5.6 assists last season. His father, hip-hop businessman Master P., had tryouts with two NBA teams in the 1990s. “This is the most important thing I've had to do and hopefully it sends a message to kids across the country that education is more important than money,” Lil' Romeo said. “Getting a college scholarship is more important than winning an American Music Award, and I plan to be the best student-athlete I can be at USC.”

Friday, January 04, 2008

They Don't Just Make This Shit Up

I'm sure that Maclean's delights in the deaths of the obscure and unknown. What other explanation can there be for its obituaries column? Far from offering a tribute to Everyman/woman, it seems to revel in finding the most ironic or depressing story available. Take this obituary from its December 3rd issue: A bloke named Allison Koch marries a woman called Betty Ann Kuntz, gets a job at a fertilizer manufacturer, contracts cancer, survives it but then his daughter gets it, overturns his truck after storming out the house because his team is playing shite on TV. Sure, it's tempting to laugh, but the hypocrisy lies in the magazine's apparently reverential treatment of hard-luck stories, no doubt the only way they'd get permission to publish.

Give me the Telegraph obits every time. I'd much rather read about rich people dying.