Friday, May 27, 2011

A Guide to the Good Life, by William Irvine

The author, a philosophy professor, appropriately subtitles his book The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.This is unlike any book I've read and presents philosophy in an entirely practical way. 

 Sure, we've all read the standard Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, but Irvine begins by putting the study of philosophy into context. The ancient Greeks were the very first members of Western Civilization to have been afforded the luxury of time to actually think about the big questions of existence, happiness and metaphysics. As such they sat down and codified the nature of the human condition and it's relationship with the natural and the divine. Irvine points out that a leap occurred in human understanding in the 6th century BCE and over the intervening centuries philosophers had every intention of solving the mystery of why we were here and what makes us happy and fulfilled. To me, they were like the Google and Apple engineers of their day.

Various systems, or schools, were developed: the Stoics, Aristotle's Academy, the Cynics, the Epicureans, etc. They competed for followers by presenting true philosophies for living and not just presenting ivory tower psychobabble. Irvine concentrates on the Stoics and points out that the goal of this system was to eliminate or mitigate negative emotions, only in the modern vernacular has stoicism (small S) come to mean the elimination of all emotion. In jargon-free prose, Irvine presents a readable synopsis of philosophy and puts it into a context that makes it real.

There have been several famous Stoics, including Zeno, Epictetus, Cicero, Seneca and the Roman leader Marcus Aurelius. The Greek schools fell out of favor for various reasons as Christianity rose to political prominence in the first centuries after Christ.

Irvine says that humans are programmed to seek pleasure and this is a constantly increasing urge that saps our enjoyment of the world. He terms this adaptive hedonism: that no matter how comfortable or pleasurable our lives become, we soon adapt and need more, more, more. Without breaking this cycle of ever-increasing hedonism, we become miserable. Buddhists would call this attachment. Irvine presents psychological techniques developed by the first Stoics that are designed to increase our satisfaction with our current situation.

The first technique is negative visualization. The ancients would instruct their students to visualize, or imagine, the very worst case scenario or outcome. No matter how gruesome or disturbing, we should picture losing everything: our family, our job, our home, our health. This prepares us for the absolute worst and when these negative situations do not materialize, we gain more satisfaction and gratitude for the things we have. I would note that this is anathema to the usual teaching of modern Western society which instructs us to think positive! and avoid negative thoughts. Irvine points out that this attitude only increases our desire for more, and decreases our enjoyment of what we have.

Irvine admits that negative visualization seems counter-intuitive, but such active techniques are important especially in kids who can become jaded as they compete for the latest trendy consumer items or experiences. Just as a near-death catastrophe, such as a car accident or illness, can temporarily jolt someone out of their jadedness and put things into a cleaner perspective, negative visualization can do the same thing-- only it's actually more effective because it is done regularly, consciously and with discipline.

The Stoics also advocate a program of voluntary discomfort, such as fasting or wearing too little clothing in the cold, or making other physical sacrifices-- a practice which is done by many if not most religions in some manner...think hair-shirts and self-flagellation.  The Stoics taught that such practices, if done properly (and self-flagellation may not be considered a proper technique), have positive consequences on levels of happiness and satisfaction in life, and it also prepares us for the times when such sacrifices are necessary. As such, we become more confident that we could withstand hard times, if they ever were to come our way, thus increasing our joy and satisfaction in our current relatively plentiful situation.

Irvine also points out the power of self-deprecation (wisdom), self-denial (humility), concentrating only on factors that we can truly control (very few as it turns out), and eschewing worry about things we cannot change. The ultimate goal of the practice of Stoicism is to increase tranquility in our lives ... and to increase joy. Some individuals have natural tendencies toward Stoicism, while others would fight these techniques and view them as counter-productive or silly. Irvine points out that most, if not all, of Stoicism can be perfectly consistent with other religions and can easily be incorporated into Christianity, Buddhism and other faiths.

Personally, I tend toward many of the Stoic ideals already, and always have. Reading this book was refreshing... to know that some of my crazy behaviors have actually been codified by ancient philosophers and that more modern psychological techniques describe some of my behaviors; negative visualization does not lead to pessimism, and has been invaluable to me in my job. Irvine gives examples of meditations and practices that follow this philosophy-- and it is a way to live your life. True happiness does come from living within your means, knowing your limitations and practicing self-control, and as Irvine says, the most amazing-- truly amazing-- thing is that sometimes out of the blue a burst of unrestrained joy will come when you least expect it.

My review has not done the book justice. Irvine is a gifted writer and philosopher and this book gets my highest recommendation.

Stand-Up: Long Story Short, with Colin Quinn

Funny. If you have HBO on Demand, watch it... if not then rent it.

Documentary: Inside Job, Director Charles Ferguson

An excellent documentary on the 2008 financial meltdown that brought down the world economy. It exhaustively outlines all the factors involved: the massive compensation packages, the lousy debt ratings, malicious financial engineering, lax regulation, outright theft and massive conflict of interest. Anyone who thinks the system is now okay is delusional.

One exchange:

Charles Ferguson interviewing John Campbell, Chairman Harvard Economics Department:

CHARLES FERGUSON: Does Harvard require disclosures of financial conflict of
interest in publications?
JOHN CAMPBELL: Um, not to my knowledge.

CHARLES FERGUSON: Do you require people to report the compensation they’ve
received from outside activities?
CHARLES FERGUSON: Don't you think that's a problem?
JOHN CAMPBELL: I don't see why.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Martin Feldstein being on the board of AIG; Laura Tyson going
on the board of Morgan Stanley; uh, Larry Summers making 10 million dollars a year
consulting to financial services firms; irrelevant.
JOHN CAMPBELL: Hm, ye-, well – yeah; basically irrelevant.

CHARLES FERGUSON: A medical researcher writes an article, saying: to treat this
disease, you should prescribe this drug. It turns out Doctor makes 80 percent of
personal income from manufacturer of this drug. Does not bother you.
JOHN CAMPBELL: I think, uh, it's certainly important to disclose the, um – the, um. Well, I think that's also a little different from cases that we are talking about
here. Because, um – um –

Yeah, right. Whatever faults the medical profession may have, we have not sold our soul for a house in the Hamptons. Ferguson interviews many of the big players and provides lengthy clips of poignant moments. The entire movie is well-done, if you can stomach it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Catholics make stuff up...

Jerry Coyne gets theological:

The Assumption—the Catholic “truth” that Mary was assumed bodily into Heaven—was proclaimed an official dogma of the Church by Pope Pius XII in his Munificentissimus Deus on November 1, 1950. This was announced ex cathedra, so it’s an irrefutable truth coming directly from God. The Pope said:

For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.


Now the Bible says exactly nothing about Mary’s death or fate. As the Catholic Encyclopedia states, “Regarding the day, year, and manner of Our Lady’s death, nothing certain is known.” The doctrine of the Assumption was made up centuries after the supposed death of Jesus. As usual, this fabrication rested on dubious interpretation of the Bible, Church “tradition” (i.e., stuff that Church fathers made up), and “reason” (i.e., theological “logic”).

Coyne reviews the dubious "evidence" used to corroborate this belief: spurious passages from Psalms and Revelation, and letters from various saints from the 5th century CE. Not convinced yet?

Finally, to Pope Pius, Mary’s assumption must be true simply because it makes sense:

Among the scholastic theologians there have not been lacking those who, wishing to inquire more profoundly into divinely revealed truths and desirous of showing the harmony that exists between what is termed the theological demonstration and the Catholic faith, have always considered it worthy of note that this privilege of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption is in wonderful accord with those divine truths given us in Holy Scripture.

When they go on to explain this point, they adduce various proofs to throw light on this privilege of Mary. As the first element of these demonstrations, they insist upon the fact that, out of filial love for his mother, Jesus Christ has willed that she be assumed into heaven. They base the strength of their proofs on the incomparable dignity of her divine motherhood and of all those prerogatives which follow from it. These include her exalted holiness, entirely surpassing the sanctity of all men and of the angels, the intimate union of Mary with her Son, and the affection of preeminent love which the Son has for his most worthy Mother.

That’s about all the “evidence” for a bedrock doctrine of Catholic faith. In fact, it’s considered such a solid truth that if you deny it or scoff at it, you’ll go to hell!

The presentation of "evidence" for the Assumption tries to mimic empiricism. I always find it interesting when various religions try to give a veneer of respectability to their beliefs by presenting “evidence” that their mythologies are real. They torture logic and reason and call their fantasies logical and reasonable. I would have more respect for them if they’d just just chalked it up to an article of faith and moved on. Instead their leaders say with a straight face that the Assumption makes sense.

Good stuff, read the whole post.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Who exactly is Anti-American?

From Glenn Greenwald, presented without comment:

Obama's call for a peace deal ultimately "based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps" is not even arguably a change from past American policy. Though he's the first President to publicly call for such an outcome, that's been the working premise of American policy for decades. It's controversial in one sense -- it unduly rewards Israel for its illegal seizures of land by suggesting they should be able to permanently keep West Bank settlements (the "land swap" aspect of the formula) -- but it does not remotely constitute a step in an anti-Israel direction.


The Right Wing Noise Machine all but accused Obama of trying to destroy Israel, with the GOP's leading presidential candidates condemning the President for the crime of "disrespecting" and "throwing Israel under the bus," Glenn Beck denouncing him for "betraying Israel," and Matt Drudge exploiting ignorance to screech in headlines that "Obama Sides With Palestinians." Meanwhile, a former AIPAC spokesman demanded that Obama take a renewed public pledge of devotion to Israel, and circulated to the media statements of condemnation from numerous "pro-Israel" Democrats in Congress. The neoconservative Israel-devotees at The Washington Post editorialized against Obama and predictably blamed him for the resulting tension with Netanyahu, siding (as usual) with this foreign government over their own. And a Reuters article this morning claims that "some prominent Jewish Americans are rethinking their support for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election bid" due to that speech...


Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress - having been invited by House Republicans -- and David Frum :

I think a better question is whether the ovation will be longer and more enthusiastic than those accorded American Presidents. It is ironic indeed that the same GOP members who will stand and cheer wildly for this foreign leader in conflict with their own country's President are typically the first to scream "unpatriotic!" accusations at others.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why the GOP will lose the health care debate

From NPR:

"Congress has never crossed the line between regulating what people choose to do and ordering them to do it," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). "The difference between regulating and requiring is liberty."

But Hatch's opposition is ironic, or some would say, politically motivated. The last time Congress debated a health overhaul, when Bill Clinton was president, Hatch and several other senators who now oppose the so-called individual mandate actually supported a bill that would have required it.

But it's actually worse than this. Republicans in the House have voted to basically repeal Medicare and make it a voucher system. Who pays when seniors exercise their "liberty" to eschew health insurance either out of necessity or desire? If the Republicans want to trust liberty-- I mean really trust it-- then they would repeal the EMTALA statutes signed by Reagan that require hospitals and physicians to treat patients regardless of their ability to pay.

Only the most naive don't know how this is supposed to work: The result will be that healthy seniors will get insurance, with the GOP's overlords in the insurance industry taking their prodigious cut, and the sick who cannot afford coverage will just get treated for free in the emergency departments. Win-win for the plutocrats.

The fact is that the Republicans fetish for the language of "liberty" is all bullshit. Their desire for true liberty is as synthetic as Newt's Catholicism, John Ensign's family values and Arnold's marriage.

Fox News as performance art, right?


Conservatives enthusiastically argue that all news networks are equally biased and therefore any one is as good as the others. This is of course nothing but a defense mechanism, and an understandable one at that. We all watch what flatters our own ideological predispositions, but surely any sentient person watching Fox knows, on a very deep and basic level, that he is watching not actual news but performance artists doing their impression of news. Right? I mean, throw me a bone here. Tell me that people who watch this are self aware enough to realize that it's essentially entertainment programming. They don't actually watch this network and think "I'm watchin' the news! I'm learnin' important stuff!" do they?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Florida State University whores itself out

FSU has taken money from the Kochs and ceded academic freedom in return, all for $1.5 million:

A conservative billionaire who opposes government meddling in business has bought a rare commodity: the right to interfere in faculty hiring at a publicly funded university.

A foundation bankrolled by Libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch has pledged $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University's economics department. In return, his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting "political economy and free enterprise."

Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they've funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom.

Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it's not happy with the faculty's choice or if the hires don't meet "objectives" set by Koch during annual evaluations.

PZ Myers is diplomatic when he says:

If I were a faculty member who found my choice of colleagues dictated by Koch (or Soros, or Gates, or any similar filthy rich dilettante), I'd be a bit peevish, and I don't think the golden candidate would get much respect from his peers. On the other hand, if I were applying for a job and was rejected because I didn't fit the ideology of the Koch brothers, I'd feel darned good and also be well satisfied that I wasn't going to be affiliated with such a cheap brothel university.

On the third hand, if I were a graduate of the econ department of FSU, I'd be extremely embarrassed about my degree at this point.

Peevish? This is criminal, or should be. FSU alumni and faculty should be incensed, a labor strike and withholding of alumni contributions is certainly in order.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Pitzer College in California Adds Major in Secularism

From the NYT:

Starting this fall, Pitzer College, a small liberal arts institution in Southern California, will inaugurate a department of secular studies. Professors from other departments, including history, philosophy, religion, science and sociology, will teach courses like “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Anxiety in the Age of Reason” and “Bible as Literature.”

When I was at the University of Chicago, we called this curriculum "Liberal Arts", otherwise known as "How to think", but maybe the concept is due for a new name and a new approach.

What we can learn from economists

Greg Mankiw wants answers: “After more than a quarter-century as a professional economist, I have a confession to make: There is a lot I don’t know about the economy. Indeed, the area of economics where I have devoted most of my energy and attention — the ups and downs of the business cycle — is where I find myself most often confronting important questions without obvious answers

Barry Ritholtz gives them to him: "Let’s put aside the fundamental error of classical economics — that Humans are rational, self-interested, profit maximizing creatures. They are clearly not; Humans are actually irrational social animals with flawed cognitive apparatus. Frequently emotional, occasionally self-destructive, often times erratic, humans only rarely exhibit the traits that economics ascribe to them. If the study of economics begins with such a shaky foundation, is it any wonder they get so much wrong?"

Lesson: listen to economists at your own peril.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Perils of False Certainty

Jason Rosenhouse at Evolutionblog has an excellent post on doubt.

I find it galling that it always seems to be atheists who get lectured about false certainty, or who get likened to religious fundamentalists in their dogmatism. Unless the intention is to say that fundamentalists meticulously sift the evidence to assess the balance of probabilities, and then hold their conclusions tentatively pending the arrival of new evidence, the comparison is completely inapt.

On the other hand, I see considerably less criticism of statements like this: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.” That's from Pope John Paul II. It takes some serious audacity for the Pope, who claims to be able to speak infallibly at least some of the time, and who heads an organization that claims to be in a privileged position to interpret the scriptures, to scold others about false absolutes.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

David Koch, professional Douchebag

I'm no big war cheerleader and I classify the killing of Osama bin Laden as necessary but not sufficient for justice to be done. As an act of war I have no problem with killing an unarmed terrorist, it's his own damn fault that he didn't have the wherewithal to be armed. One more dead asshole who had it coming. And who gets credit? Who cares, but yes the entire community of intelligence and covert services, including two presidential administrations, deserve credit.

Bring on David Koch, billionaire dickhead and gadfly, who gives no credit to the current president:

"...all that Obama did was say 'yea' or 'nay,' we’re going to take him out or not. I don’t think he contributed much at all. He just made the decision, it was obvious where the guy is. He was one of the worst terrorists organizing attacks on the United States. I mean, no president in his right mind would not approve that decision to go eliminate him. So he’s getting a lot of recognition and his polls have jumped up, but his decision was the easiest of them all. The real hard work was done by the intelligence and the SEALs."

I don’t think he contributed much at all. How does he know? So before the anemones even have a chance to eat through bin Laden's dermis, Koch is dismissing the decision-making surrounding the event. You could be sure that if the mission had failed, Koch would have been the first to pin all responsibility on Obama.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

It's official: The White Sox are unwatchable

I've come to expect a bad outcome as the White Sox find a new way to lose most every night. If it's not bad baserunning, then it's sloppy fielding or atrocious relief pitching. Tonight was the final blow, whereby i swear off watching them until they can show some skill. A struggling Francisco Liriano of the Minnesota Twins faced a struggling Edwin Jackson on a cold night at US Cellular.

Not only did the White Sox hitters fail to help out Jackson's excellent one-run, 8-inning performance, but the White Sox failed to get even a hit. Yet another new way to lose, this time 1-0.

Kenny Williams (at right) should be beyond panicking at this point. He has spent more than most teams in major league baseball and is not only failing, but failing miserably. He's paid too much for his center fielder, his designated hitter and his left fielder. The bullpen, for lack of a better term, sucks, and Jake Peavy is still out.

The bright side: I'll have more time in the evenings to get other constructive things done.