You may dimly recall media reports that the so-called “God Particle”, otherwise known as the Higgs boson, had been observed by CERN’s “large hadron collider”. Probably the clearest, most succinct explanation I’ve seen or heard of its importance to particle physics can be found in the the documentary “Particle Fever”. If you are the curious sort (and you must be to be here reading this), I highly recommend it. Here’s the trailer, which you can watch by clicking on “Watch Trailer” below. You can find the whole film on NetFlix (if you have a subscription), on iTunes, or rent it on Vimeo by clicking on the bouncing icon.
I’ve been pretty quiet over the last couple of years when it comes to commenting on Wisconsin politics. There seems to be very little left to say about the state Republican Party’s war on the public sector, and especially on public education at all levels. But what little there is left to say was well said by a couple of guests on Joy Cardin’s WPR show a few days ago, especially by the self-identifying conservative UW History Professor, John Sharpless. Here’s the first 30 minutes of that conversation-
Oh… and could someone please remind the Governor that Wisconsin Underpays Its Professors?
Here’s a great excursion into a 4.3 GB image of the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest galactic neighbor, taken 1/5/15 and brought to you by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Watch it on as high a resolution as possible; at 720p watching it fullscreen becomes reasonable. I recommend pausing the video playback every once in a while; when you get a stable, in-focus frame, you can better appreciate the density of the star field your watching.
If you’re having trouble watching it here, try clicking on the YouTube button and watching it there. (YouTube embeds have been hit and miss for some time now. I’ve found FireFox to be slightly more reliable than Safari or – surprisingly – Chrome in that department).
By the way, Andromeda is heading our way at about 110 kilometers per second. It is expected to merge with our own Milky Way in about four billion years…
It’s been fascinating to read the news stories on Sandra, the orangutan who an Argentine court decided has a right to freedom as a “non-human person”. Reporting it, UPI made one of the most revealing blunders, declaring-
On Sunday the court agreed with AFADA attorneys’ argument that Sandra was denied her freedom as a “non-human person” — a distinction that places Sandra as a human in a philosophical sense, rather than physical.
Well, no: the distinction doesn’t “place Sandra as a human” in any sense, and especially not “in a philosophical sense”. Rather, the court is implying that non-human animals have rights, not as honorary members of our species, but in virtue of their own cognitive abilities. Some animal rights activists might even take offense at this sort of “discrimination” by cognitive class (at what degree of cognitive impairment does a human cease to have rights?), but at least it avoids the – probably unconscious – speciesism that seems to lie behind the UPI comment.
That’s not to say it is philosophically easy to decide who has rights, and on what basis, partly because there are so many views of what a “right” is. What seems clear is that granting all and only humans rights (on the basis of their species alone) is objectionably arbitrary. An alternative approach is to argue that any sentient creature deserves moral consideration on the basis of its ability to feel pleasure or pain, but such a view has its own complications. While all of the philosophical kinks are being worked out (a process that is notoriously slow), it seems safest to “err” on the side of maximal compassion, which we can hope to be also the side of maximal impartial rationality.
Over the years I’ve posted several audio excerpts from Alan Watts’ talks, but I hadn’t seen any animated illustrations of his suggestions or parables until today. Here are a couple of short ones that draw from his lectures on Zen and Daoism (thanks to Tom via Berry for finding them)-
The second one, in particular, raises some interesting questions: is Watts – or the parable – suggesting that one should never judge an event to be good or bad, just because one can never know all of the event’s long-term consequences, and one can never be certain even of its immediate, short-term consequences? In the case of each of the events in the parable, instead of the farmer’s saying “Maybe”, could he not have said something just a little stronger: “Probably”? True, he would have been wrong about the improbable consequences of the events in the story, but if he made a habit of saying “probably”, wouldn’t he be right at least most of time? And wouldn’t that be enough to allow for the usefulness of at least some value judgments (the ones past experience teaches us we can be most confident about)?
I guess my point is this: yes, nature is very complex, and our minds are very limited, as are the data we use when we judge some event to be good or bad. But our minds are also part of the complexity of nature, and the somewhat predictable patterns of nature can and should inform our minds. I think the best lesson to be learned from the parable is not that one should never make value judgments, but that one should be very humble when making them, and act only on those judgments one has good reason to believe are true.
I’m not sure whether I liked Whiplash so much because it managed to accurately portray the musicality and ambience of big-band jazz (a unique accomplishment, I believe), or because J. K. Simmon’s performance as the “conductor” was so deliciously over the top (imagine Kubrick’s abusive drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket times 10), but I do heartily recommend it, particularly to jazz and classical musicians. Yes, there are some scenes that could have been toned down a bit, and not all of the acting and writing is equally strong, but I’ll be very surprised if Simmons doesn’t win a few awards for his performance. Justin Hurwitz also deserves more-than-honorable mention for the music (not to mention the players who made it happen). Here’s the trailer, which makes the film look much tamer than it is-
The other similarly low-budget but high-quality film currently in theaters is Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Gyllenhaal has been getting much of the hype for this one, and his portrayal of a man (alien being?) with a “business plan” is impressive: highly controlled, consistently tense, and definitely disturbing. But for my money, the performance to watch here is Russo’s. Her subtle reactions to Gyllenhaal’s bizarre presence are shockingly effective; if she doesn’t win at least a nomination for best supporting actress, there is no justice. Watch the trailer on Vimeo-
Of all the rock “icons” whose talents peaked in the late 1960s through the early 1970s, Jack Bruce – bass player, songwriter, and remarkably polished vocalist – is probably one of the more under-appreciated. He certainly contributed more than one-third to the sound of Cream, the band he formed with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. But his solo work during a slightly later period garnered him relatively little acclaim, as I recall, probably because it was so much subtler and harmonically complex than his work with Cream. His musicality was not lost on me, however, just a high school senior at the time of his 1971 release, “Harmony Row”. That year, if you remember it at all, was a time of high historical drama and, for some of us, personal lessons learned. Bruce provided part of our common soundtrack, in an uncommonly sophisticated way. Here’s one of my favorite songs from Harmony Row: “Can You Follow”.
Hey can you follow,
Now that the trace is fainter
In the sand
Try turning your face to the wall
Can you still read me
Now that the chase is wilder
In your hand
Try losing your place in the sun
All the praises of the dream
Turned to tangles in the trees
All yesterday’s fine chariots
Turned to buses in the street
Can you still hear me
Now that the songs are moving
Try sleeping with the dancers in your room
Okay, so I’m pretty sure that there is a very simple answer to this question, but I didn’t think of asking anyone while I was in the neighborhood, and Google has been of little help. But, clearly, there are either terraces cut into, or walls set on to, the granite peak of this mountain just outside of Martigny Switzerland. The question is: who put them there, and why?
Update: a Swiss citizen who should know told me that those are actually large wooden structures that are intended to prevent avalanches. Fair enough, but there seems to be no one living on the slope beneath to protect… Maybe the Swiss just generally disapprove of avalanches, and stop them whenever and wherever they can?
Have you been interminably microtargeted by political interest groups that you’ve financially supported in the past? If so, perhaps you can relate to the cynical attitude I’ve developed about the whole process, and why I’ve opted out of four or five overlapping political-interest email lists over the past few weeks.
I don’t have anything negative to say about the microtargeting of undecided voters in the months shortly before an election. This allows campaigns to maximize the efficiency of their operations, and since I’m almost always well-decided well before election day, I appreciate being passed over by the in-person hard-sellers (and so does Katie, our dog, who freaks out at the slightest hint of a visitor at the door). But what has increasingly come to irritate me are the endless email invitations I receive from movements I’ve financially supported in the past – invitations that are clearly seeking ever-more specific information about my particular interests in order to follow up with more specific pleas for funds. If I thought that my signing a petition or taking a poll authored by these groups would have any political impact whatsoever, including altering the priorities of the groups themselves, I might participate. But since the petitions and polls are so transparently merely ploys to gather more data about me for further fundraising purposes, they just cause me to lose interest in the entire political process.
A brief web-search on the topic of political microtargeting indicates that even those who agree with me that such microtargeting “dehumanizes” individuals (by treating them as mere data-points and potential resources to exploit) seldom condemn it. Rather, they cynically accept it as a political necessity. But political parties and interest groups, as well as commercial corporations, ought to beware of the long-term effects their marketing practices might have. Politically conscious individuals may at some point say, “Microtargeted-to enough already!”, and find alternative ways to form political and economic alignments.