Saturday, August 30, 2008

Popping Kernels with Cell Phones

I have no idea how this is done, but I am eager to try it myself.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Lazy Summer Days

I truly have a hard time finding the motivation to post regularly on this blog. My hope was that it would encourage me to express my thoughts more effortlessly and improve my unrefined writing style, but thus far neither objective seems to have been achieved. Perhaps if I were to get in the habit of writing regularly I would find the flow of thought to arrive much more readily, cause at the moment it feels as though I have a logjam of thoughts that have built up unexpressed.

I've been reading a fair amount lately. Just finished Ron Suskind's book "The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism." Overall I thought it was a good book. I particularly liked the way he uses individual characters to demonstrate how US foreign policy (the decisions of the few) can directly affect and in some instances afflict the lives of the many. Which is why we should be deeply concerned when the pretenses that our FP decisions are made on are, or in this case, later found to be, false. This is of course what is causing the most buzz in the media, but I think the underlying message of the book, of overcoming cultural boundaries and ideological differences, finding human and humane solutions between different people and citizens, should not be lost to the more immediate reaction of anger and general frustration that many feel towards how the Bush administration has completely and utterly disgraced and disregarded the values and principles that America was founded upon. It is sad that this administration continues to be incapable of accepting responsibility, admitting failures and past mistakes, and just being honest with the American people.

But politics aside, in the end Suskind's book offers a brief glimmer of hope. While his book may not answer all of the problems in the world, it at least attempts to start a global conversation.

It invokes the thought that perhaps we the people really can overcome these cultural clashes of differing world views and prescribed life-styles, if we simply engage in an ongoing dialogue based upon mutual understanding, respect, and most of all, tolerance.

It doesn't take a genius after all to realize that only when we put down our guns and open up our ears, our mouths, our hearts and our minds to one another will we finally enjoy lasting peace.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Wearable Dog Toilet

I had to go in for surgery today and now Im laid up in bed, seriously considering buying this for myself:

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

My Brain Made Me Do It

I just came across this interesting discussion on the implications of neuroscience on policy and law held at the Institute of Ideas in London, which I recommend checking out (in particular chapters two, six, and seven).

Raymond Tallis opens the floor with what I think was a pretty fair rebuke of those 'who wish to blame their brains for their misdemeaners' using the recent research in neuroscience as proof. Tallis argues that this research does not answer philosophical questions pertaining to free will or legal questions about the allocation of blame. Moreover, Tallis continues on a more philosophical tact, 'if you wish to blame your brain for bad behavior, why stop there'? Since the brain is a physical entity it is therefore wired into nature and thus one could go so far as to say "the big bang made me do it".

I think Tallis makes good points. Previously I had been under the sway of 'well, we might as well hold criminals accountable for their actions, regardless of the free-will question and the obvious failures of our justice system, because it just might have a minor effect on their decision to commit or not commit a socially unaccepted offense or crime. An effect, however small, nevertheless beneficial'. But Tallis and Magistretti have helped clarify the personal responsibility stance for me. Holding people accountable for their brain's decisions is thus potentially beneficial (behavior modifying) and intellectually justifiable (at least until I'm swayed otherwise).

Anyways check out the vid. In chapter 6 there's some brief commentary on Benjamin Libet's interesting work, as well as some of the philosophical thought dilemma's such as the 'trolley problem'.

Feel free to share your thoughts on this topic in the comments section below.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Falling Slowly - Glen Hansard

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Adam K - Coconut Skins

Todays song of the day, is me covering a Damien Rice song:

(My voice cracks at one part and I fuck up a few times on guitar, but I'm too lazy to rerecord it and it also takes way too long to upload vids on youtube, so endure and hopefully enjoy.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Congressional Hearings on Executive Power: To Impeach or Not to Impeach

Yesterday I tuned in and out of the House Judiciary Hearing on the limitation of executive power. Summary: long, partisan, and unproductive. Bush has clearly flouted many of our constitutional laws, continues to circumvent congress on a number of national security issues, but so far as I can tell he has not committed an impeachable offense.

Bruce Fein (who was perhaps the most impassioned witness at the hearing) did a diavlog with Firedoglake blogger Jane Hamsher on recently where he overviews the President et al's crimes and why they should be impeached. Fein explains why the war on terror does not or at least should not classify as a true war by way of analogy, shares his hypothesis as to why the American public doesn't care, and proposes that we return to a constitutional government.

Also Rush Holt had a piece over at TPM cafe, though it seemed to gloss over much of the legal controversies.

Much of the news and discussion about this surveillance legislation has to do with immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies that may have followed the President's request and overstepped the law. Generally, I believe that people and corporations should be held responsible for their actions. More important, though, is the other part of this legislation that would set the law for surveillance in the future.

Any change to FISA must strengthen our ability to gather reliable, verifiable, and actionable intelligence on real enemies versus imagined or assumed enemies. I am not aware of any historical examples where a "fishing expedition" approach to intelligence collection has made our country safer. To the contrary, fishing expeditions are sloppy intelligence. There is an age-old principle used to avoid imagining someone is an enemy or a danger to society. The people who would seize persons, papers, and communications are not the same people who determine that the target should be suspect. A court considers the particular facts and then issues a particular search warrant. Neither police, nor intelligence agents should decide who is suspect. It is an important principle that is part of what makes the United States of America what it is: the government does not regard any American with suspicion first. Only after a due process is a person treated with suspicion. No individual, no class, no religion, no immigrant is lesser in the eyes of the government.

One of the commenters had a pretty succinct post below the article where he/she writes:

With respect, any bill that is debated that includes retroactive immunity for telecoms make a mockery of our laws, our Constitution and our values and so everything else you have to say is really academic and serves only as a distraction. That is the issue and it is an easy call. I am horrified and outraged that the bill is even being allowed on the floor of the house for one minute let alone being debated! It is an abomination, a sellout, and yet another examply of the pathetic cowardice of the Democratic Party at a moment that demands courage.

We, the people, understand quite clearly that this administration (with Democrats aiding and abetting at every step of the way) has trampled our Constitution and used "fighting terror" as the cover story and excuse for it. Time and again have Democrats capitulated in the face of the intimidation and lies of that pack of criminals running the White House and the Republican Party. Democrats did so when authorizing the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq which is itself a Crime Against Peace--the worst of all war crimes! Democrats have done so repeatedly during the reign of terror presided over by Bush and his henchmen.

But the sad truth is that at almost every turn, the Democrats could have stood in the way of tyranny and the destruction of our most cherished Constitution. Frankly, I don't give a damn about the rest of the details of the bill you and your colleagues will debate tomorrow. If it contains retroactive immunity for telecoms in any form whatsoever it is an affront to respect for the laws and Constitution of the United States and no Democrat with any spine at all should be caught dead supporting it. We Democrats are supposed to believe in the rule of law! Giving the wealthy, powerful corporations yet another way to avoid responsibility for their criminal actions is reprehensible to say the least.

You make some good points here, but it is all beside the point if once again the Democrats demonstrate how weak and craven and calculating they are. I am so disgusted with Pelosi, Hoyer, Reid and Rockefeller that I can't even put into words how I loathe them and their failure to stand up to that criminal tyrant Bush!

This is not a close call Congressman. You don't need to read what the "compromise" language is in the bill. The bill is a total and complete capitulation. It is a disgrace! Don't dance on this: oppose it. It is the right thing to do for America. If you or any Democrat votes for this bill it will constitute an open and willing failure to uphold your oath to defend the laws and Constitution of the United States.


Big Spanish Castle

I just came across this cool optical illusion today. Enjoy.

Brain Magic

Magician Keith Barry, who has made a number of appearances on various tv shows, recently did a performance at TED, in which he show-cased a number of cool 'mindreading' and 'mind-control/misdirection' tricks.

A number of psychologists and philosophers have started looking into these cognitive tricks to gain insight into the workings of the mind and have produced a pretty interesting body of literature (I just hope they're not putting magicians out of their jobs).

When I took theory of mind last year we read a good article by Dennet, Explaining the Magic of Consciousness, which was a rather valiant attempt by Dennet to dismantle or you could say dethrone Chalmers' so called hard problem of subjectivity. In the article Dennet uses a famous trick by Ralph Hull called 'the Tuned Deck' to demonstrate how words themselves can often mislead our minds.

The tempting idea that there is a Hard Problem is simply a mistake. I cannot prove this. Or, better, even if I can prove this, my proof will surely fall on deaf ears, since CHALMERS, for instance, has already acknowledged that arguments against his convictions on this score are powerless to dislodge his intuition, which is beyond rational support. So I will not make the tactical error of trying to dislodge with rational argument a conviction that is beyond reason. That would be wasting everybody's time, apparently. Instead, I will offer up what I hope is a disturbing parallel from the world of card magic: The Tuned Deck.

For many years, Mr. Ralph Hull, the famous card wizard from Crooksville, Ohio, has completely bewildered not only the general public, but also amateur conjurors, card connoisseurs and professional magicians with the series of card tricks which he is pleased to call "The Tuned Deck"...

Ralph Hull's trick looks and sounds roughly like this:

Boys, I have a new trick to show you. It's called 'The Tuned Deck'. This deck of cards is magically tuned [Hull holds the deck to his ear and riffles the cards, listening carefully to the buzz of the cards]. By their finely tuned vibrations, I can hear and feel the location of any card. Pick a card, any card... [The deck is then fanned or otherwise offered for the audience, and a card is taken by a spectator, noted, and returned to the deck by one route or another.] Now I listen to the Tuned Deck, and what does it tell me? I hear the telltale vibrations, ... [buzz, buzz, the cards are riffled by Hull's ear and various manipulations and rituals are enacted, after which, with a flourish, the spectator's card is presented].

Hull would perform the trick over and over for the benefit of his select audience of fellow magicians, challenging them to figure it out. Nobody ever did. Magicians offered to buy the trick from him but he would not sell it. Late in his life he gave his account to his friend, HILLIARD, who published the account in his privately printed book. Here is what Hull had to say about his trick:

For years I have performed this effect and have shown it to magicians and amateurs by the hundred and, to the very best of my knowledge, not one of them ever figured out the secret. ...the boys have all looked for something too hard [my italics, DCD].

Like much great magic, the trick is over before you even realize the trick has begun. The trick, in its entirety, is in the name of the trick, "The Tuned Deck", and more specifically, in one word "The"! As soon as Hull had announced his new trick and given its name to his eager audience, the trick was over. Having set up his audience in this simple way, and having passed the time with some obviously phony and misdirecting chatter about vibrations and buzz-buzz-buzz, Hull would do a relatively simple and familiar card presentation trick of type A (at this point I will draw the traditional curtain of secrecy; the further mechanical details of legerdemain, as you will see, do not matter).

His audience, savvy magicians, would see that he might possibly be performing a type A trick, a hypothesis they could test by being stubborn and uncooperative spectators in a way that would thwart any attempt at a type A trick. When they then adopted the appropriate recalcitrance to test the hypothesis, Hull would 'repeat' the trick, this time executing a type B card presentation trick. The spectators would then huddle and compare notes: might he be doing a type B trick? They test that hypothesis by adopting the recalcitrance appropriate to preventing a type B trick and still he does "the" trick - using method C, of course. When they test the hypothesis that he's pulling a type C trick on them, he switches to method D - or perhaps he goes back to method A or B, since his audience has 'refuted' the hypothesis that he's using method A or B.

And so it would go, for dozens of repetitions, with Hull staying one step ahead of his hypothesis-testers, exploiting his realization that he could always do some trick or other from the pool of tricks they all knew, and concealing the fact that he was doing a grab bag of different tricks by the simple expedient of the definite article: The Tuned Deck.

I am suggesting, then, that David Chalmers has (unintentionally) perpetrated the same feat of conceptual sleight-of-hand in declaring to the world that he has discovered “The Hard Problem”. Is there really a Hard Problem? Or is what appears to be the Hard Problem simply the large bag of tricks that constitute what Chalmers calls the Easy Problems of Consciousness? These all have mundane explanations, requiring no revolutions in physics, no emergent novelties. They succumb, with much effort, to the standard methods of cognitive science. I cannot prove that there is no
Hard Problem, and Chalmers cannot prove that there is. He can appeal to your intuitions, but this is not a sound basis on which to found a science of consciousness. We have seen in the past – and I have given a few simple examples here – that we have a powerful tendency to inflate our inventory of “known effects” of consciousness, so we must be alert to the possibility that we are being victimized by an error of arithmetic, in effect, when we take ourselves to have added up all the Easy Problems and discovered a residue unaccounted for. That residue may already have been accommodated, without our realizing it, in the set of mundane phenomena for which we already have explanations – or at least unmysterious paths of explanation still to be explored.

The “magic” of consciousness, like stage magic, defies explanation only so long as we take it at face value. Once we appreciate all the non-mysterious ways in which the brain can create benign “user-illusions”, we can begin to imagine how the brain creates consciousness.

Argument to Beethoven's 5th

I thought this was pretty creative:

The Zutons - Valerie

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Back to Blogging

After receiving millions of requests to return to blogging and occasional death threats if I don't, I suppose it is time to announce that my summer hiatus is officially ended. Im back!

Now I know many of you missed me, so I will try to make it up to you by posting as frequently as possible--at least sometime in the coming weeks, I promise.

In the meantime here are some of the books that I've recently finished and recommend adding to your summer reading list:

The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace
- Ali Allawi

The Brothers Karamazov - Dostoevsky

Collapse of Complex Societies - Joseph Tainter

Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies and Collapse - Jared Diamond

The Ingenuity Gap: Facing the Economic, Environmental, and Other Challenges of an Increasingly Complex and Unpredictable Future
- Thomas Homer-Dixon

Who's Afraid of Schodinger's Cat - John Marshall and Danah Zohar

Currently reading:

This is Biology: The Science of the Living World
- Ernst Mayr

PostWar: A History of Europe since 1945 - Tony Judt

Capitalism and Modernity - Jack Goody

What is Life? - Erwin Schrodinger


Sunday, May 18, 2008

When The Roses Bloom Again - Wilco

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Kentucky Derby: An Ominous Portent for Hillary Clinton?

Well after staying up late last night watching the results come in from the Lake County district of Indiana it seems the Kentucky Derby allegory is becoming more than metaphorical.

For all those who did not watch/are not familiar with the Kentucky Derby all you need to know is that a female horse, named eight belles, entered the race (not the usual sex of steed) and the day before the race Hillary, sharing a common sisterhood with the horse, decided to put money on her.

So the next day at the race Eight Belles ran an incredible race, came from behind, and ended up crossing the line in second place, behind Big Brown, a less experienced horse, who many said should not be in the race. Sadly, Eight Belles had to be euthanized because she broke both her ankles.

In other words, the best race that Eight Belles ever ran, would be the one that killed her.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Thought of the Day

So today I found Kierkegaard. I've only read a few of his journal entries thus far, but one of them in particular spoke acutely to where I am right now (excluding the Gods will and Christianity references, but replace that with life and it pretty much sums up my current existential crises).

What I really need is to get clear about what I am to do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find my purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. Of what use would it be to me to discover a so called objective truth, to work through the philosophical systems so that I could, if asked, make critical judgments about them, could point out the fallacies in each system; of what use would it be to me to be able to develop a theory of the state, getting details from various sources and combining them into a whole, and constructing a world I did not live in but merely held up for others to see; of what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points--if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life?

Currently my answer to the question what am I to do is: learn. But then if learning is the only thing I can believe in, the only thing I feel worthwhile, my fear is that, since living life doesn't appeal to me as much as understanding life, by the time I get to be old and gray, I may be wise, but I won't have lived in a meaningful sense, in a purposeful sense, because I haven't found an idea, belief, illusion, whatever to live for.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Via RadarMagazine:
In the late '90s, pop-culture historian Bill Geerhart had a little too much time on his hands and a surfeit of stamps. So, for his own entertainment, the then-unemployed thirtysomething launched a letter-writing campaign to some of the most powerful and infamous figures in the country, posing as a curious 10-year-old named Billy.

To his surprise, replies soon started pouring in. Everyone from Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (on tree-fort diplomacy) to Oprah Winfrey, Mister Rogers, Janet Reno, and members of the Supreme Court had words of wisdom for Billy. ("I like the Egg McMuffin," wrote Justice Clarence Thomas when asked about his favorite McDonald's food. "Actually, I like almost everything there.") Responding to Billy's idea for a "Hustler for kids," Larry Flynt wrote back encouraging the fourth grader to "Hang in there. You'll be 18 before you know it." As it turns out, no group hates to disappoint a child more than convicted killers, all of whom responded promptly to Billy's questions about dropping out of school.

Their letters, published here for the first time, range from criminally insane to downright sensible, offering snapshots of the personalities behind some of America's most hideous crimes. Recently, Radar asked Billy to follow up with his mentors as a college student. (Click here to skip ahead and read Billy's correspondence with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Larry Flynt, and other non-murderous celebrities)

Thought of the Day

So I randomly picked up Beckers Denial of Death today in the library and came across this gem of a passage:

The tragedy of mans dualism, his ludicrous situation, becomes too real. The anus and its incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only phsyical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.

I cant wait to see whats in store as I continue reading. So far Ive had a number of good laughs, but perhaps I shouldnt be so mirthful, since we are all just victims of the ideas of our intellectual era. The ancient Greeks, after all, despite all their rational insightfulness and thoughtful thoroughness, believed that the heart was where thought took place and that the brain was merely a cooling device. And no one needs to be reminded of the state of the universe before Copernicus...

Who knows what ideas and beliefs we hold, people in the future will laugh at us for.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

End O the Year

Well exams are over, the school year has ended, and my scheduled date of departure for home is this Tuesday. I had planned on spending my summer driving vehicles for my dad, teaching summer school special ed, earning money, and learning Chinese in anticipation for my voyage over there come August, where I would be teaching English in Shenzhen for a full year, but this exciting prospect has unfortunately faded into dark oblivion. Due to the Olympics, applicants (ie me) who are applying for teaching programs in China are required to have an undergraduate degree (ie not me). When I was informed of this I was devastated.

China was my warm, red, rescue beacon, the lucky break, adventure, change, that I had been waiting for and looking forward to. I had used the prospect of China to motivate myself to finish the year strong, after a semester of skipping classes, flunking tests, recklessness, drugs, despair, etc.

It worked too. I pulled myself out of the tail spin of failure, got an A in one class, and B's in the rest. But now there's no reward, nothing earned, nothing gained, nothing to look forward to for my effort.

I'm still planning on taking the year off, but I just have no concrete image of what I'll be doing. I'll probably go back to teaching autism again. Work for my dad. Maybe even find a job with state dept or the Smithsonian. The year off actually won't be that bad. I'll be able to indulge myself with subjects I want to learn about, not prescribed and required to read. I'll have some money in my pocket again. And Ill be able to escape to the woods and hills of Virginia again. Go kayaking, rock climbing, and hiking again. I have missed nature terribly since I moved to this city. The only escape is Mount Royal, which offers a serene view of the city skyline, but the park itself is too full of people, orderly, and welcoming. Its like central park, a quick escape from the hustle bustle of the city, but you still feel surrounded by it, an animal in a zoo cage. Its not the untamed wild of the wilderness.

I also hope to refine my writing this summer, as it has become an odious and painful activity. Words still have an appeal to me, as they are certainly incredibly persuasive and useful, when you have mastered the art of manipulating them, but words have somehow lost their allure to me. I want to write expressively, but there's this constant pressure to write impressively, and well to do that, it seems, you have to imitate or (to cover your tracks) synthesize the style of writing or writers that you admire, and I find that, (shameful is too strong of a word), unfortunate.

Bon Iver - Flume

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Assessing the War on (t)error

So it seems the main conclusion of a recent GAO report entitled "Combating Terrorism: The United States lacks Comprehensive Plan to Destroy the Terrorist Threat and Close the Safe Haven in Pakistan's Federal Administered Tribal Areas" is:

7 years and 10.5 billion dollars later, the US hasn't removed the threat of al-Qaeda, so much as relocated it...
The NIE, The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland, also found that al-Qaeda had effectively found replacements for many of its senior operational planners over the years. The NIE stated that, in the past 2 years, al Qaeda’s central leadership regenerated the core operational capabilities needed to conduct attacks against the United States. It also found that al Qaeda’s central leadership, based in the border area of Pakistan, is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the United States.

The 2008 DNI Annual Threat Assessment and other sources have concluded that the resurgence of al Qaeda terrorists on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan now pose a preeminent threat to U.S. national security. The assessment also examines the impact of not meeting the national security goals. It states that al Qaeda is now using the Pakistani safe haven to put the last element necessary to launch another attack against America into place, including the identification, training, and positioning of Western operatives for an attack. It stated that al Qaeda is most likely using the FATA to plot terrorist attacks against political, economic, and infrastructure targets in America “designed to produce mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the population.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Montreal Hooligans

So things got pretty wild here in Montreal after the Habs won their first round in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I came out of the library around 11 to see the celebrations. St. Katherine (the main artery of Montreal) was filled with exuberant fans and honking cars. Police soon showed up and lined up in front of the Concordia Fine Arts building. I assumed to protect people from breaking the glass windows and hurting themselves, but this soon showed itself to be a rather stupid move, since the crowd began to hurl empty beer bottles at them (thus increasing the likelihood of broken glass...). Things soon got even more out of control as word got out that cop cars on mcKay and St Katherine had been set aflame. When I got there everyone was stampeding away from the burning vehicles. I figured they were afraid the cars were going to explode, so I just kept pushing through the masses. When I got to the front I realized everyone was running from the riot police that had lined up at the intersection. You could walk right through their line though, so I slipped through and got a closer look at the burning cars and the rowdy crowd. Fire trucks showed up on the scene and started spraying the three burning cop cars. The police just sort of stood idly by, not really doing much of anything besides making a presence. A few kids near me started kicking in the glass of a reebok store and grabbed the mannequin in the display window who was wearing a Habs jersey and hockey gear.

Eventually more riot police showed up and the crowd started to disperse. I headed back to the library assuming the show was mostly over. When I finally headed home and walked down St. Katherine to see the damage, I was pretty shocked to see how many stores had been looted. A number of clothing stores had their windows broken into, some idiot smashed the window of a western union, then the two SAQ's (liquor stores) had had their windows smashed and looked severely raided. Broken bottles and trash littered the street. One guy I passed had manikin legs (presumably from the one I saw sabotaged)standing upright on his shoulders. A hobo had a manikin hand (presumably from the one I saw sabotaged) and asked me, rather wittingly, if I "needed an extra hand."

Anyways there's a bunch of videos on youtube of the whole affair. This one was shot further downtown from where I was (towards Peel and St Katherine I think):

Here's a recap that I saw them taping today, but it has some footage from last night (including where I was, tho I haven't seen me yet):

I think this just goes to show that mankind really is a synonym for stupid. Why you would want to destroy your town after your team won one for your town is beyond me. It was, confessedly, quite an entertaining spectacle however, since it was certainly something you don't see every day, but I feel bad for the shop keepers and officers who suffered at the behest of drunk, stupid, and unresponsible teens and young adults. Celebrating is one thing, but looting stores and lighting cars aflame is just plain senseless.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Weakerthans - "The Reasons"

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Tom Waits - Shiver Me Timbers

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

San Francisco Running of the Torch


It seems the running has been moved indoors...

The torch has yet to leave the warehouse. Things are turning into quite a charade.

Cognitive Dissonance & Choice Rationalization Revisted

John Tierney has a good piece in the NYtimes on Yale economist Dr. Chen's recent findings that suggest some of the older psychology experiments which showed choice rationalization were really just showing the Monty Hall phenomenon:
The Monty Hall Problem has struck again, and this time it’s not merely embarrassing mathematicians. If the calculations of a Yale economist are correct, there’s a sneaky logical fallacy in some of the most famous experiments in psychology.

The economist, M. Keith Chen, has challenged research into cognitive dissonance, including the 1956 experiment that first identified a remarkable ability of people to rationalize their choices. Dr. Chen says that choice rationalization could still turn out to be a real phenomenon, but he maintains that there’s a fatal flaw in the classic 1956 experiment and hundreds of similar ones. He says researchers have fallen for a version of what mathematicians call the Monty Hall Problem, in honor of the host of the old television show, “Let’s Make a Deal".
Link to Monty Hall game.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Aeschylus' Oresteia: An Interpretive Approach through a Semiotic Analysis

What is the meaning of life? Why should we be good? What is being good? Why does suffering exist...?

These are all existential questions that seem to exist deep down in the depths of the collective conscience of mankind. In every culture we can see that various answers and explanations to these deep-seeded questions are provided handily to its members so that they might live in harmony instead of constant consternation. We need these answers to live, because without them life is rendered an imponderable mystery, of happenings and experiences, 'without rhyme or reason'. It is culture that orients us to the world by giving it meaning. As Shakespeare, in his inimitable prose, famously wrote “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances...” If we adopt this notion of the world as a stage, and life as a play, then we can think of culture as being our script—it is the thing that gives meaning and shape to our actions, thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and beliefs; it, in short, gives an essence to our ethos. In the same sense that music gives meaning to sound, dance to gesture, and language to utterance, it is culture that gives meaning to life. Man uses culture to make sense of the senseless, to rationalize the irrational, to establish order in the face of disorder, and to comprehend what is otherwise the incomprehensible. It is this process that enables man to act meaningfully. By attributing a particular meaning to, as Dewey eloquently put it, “the ongoing experience of things,” man is imbued with a certain drive, a sense of purpose to his life which he can therefore act upon and in accordance with.

In the Oresteia, the ancient Greek play written by Aeschylus, we can see just how influential culture is on both the minds and the actions of man. Moreover, the Oresteia serves as a snap-shot, a rudimentary ethnography if you will, of the world-view and ethos embodied by the individuals who lived in that time and place. In that sense, then, the Oresteia is clearly a play that was both written by and for its cultural context. For many this news is unsettling because it means that we can never quite capture the true meaning or interpretation of the play, since our interpretations will always be secondary ones, which, even more questionably, rely upon the reconstruction of ancient Greek interpretations based upon whatever texts we determine to be relevant. In other words, our interpretations will always be merely interpretations of interpretations. This need not, however, be cause for despair, for there are still deeper truths which we can extract from reading this play. Personally, this play is important because it documents a particular people and culture, which could have otherwise been lost and therefore forgotten. It is in this vain that I hope to gain, through an analysis of this play, rough insights into, not only the way in which these people perceived their world, but the way in which they acted, felt, and thought, which is to say, the way in which they lived within their world.

Much has already been said on the Oresteia and in this paper I intend to include a few of these interpretations of the play that have been provided over the years to support my own analysis. The literature on this play, however, largely consists of interpretations that have been reached through a literary or classicistic lens. Although most interpretations differ interpretively, which is to say, they reach different conclusions, the more recent interpretations, such as Goldhill (who is much more anthropological), do not substantively differ from my own, though I will reframe his conclusions hopefully in a more illuminating light.

The early and even more modern analyses focused their interpretations on things such as characters, events, structures, themes, moods, motives, attitudes, beliefs, and/or political and social messages intended by the author. Some interpretations are wide in scope, covering the entire Oresteia, while others are much more specific (to one of the plays in the trilogy, or a character, theme, ode, etc). The result of this myriad approach to interpreting the text is that their conclusions are, not surprisingly, as vast as they are varying. It is clear, however, that what they share in common is the fact that they all seek to ascribe some meaning to or explanation of each aforementioned concept to determine what, exactly, they play (or the author) is saying. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, for instance, in his article The Guilt of Agamemnon, offers an exceptionally well-written expose on the topic of justice in the first play, The Agamemnon, and shows the extent to which the characters in this play become tragically trapped in inescapable moral dichotomies of to do or to don't (Lloyd-Jones 1962). Another view, mostly eloquently expressed by H.D.F. Kitto, but best summarized by Goldhill, see in the Oresteia “a transformation from dike as revenge to dike as legal justice—a move from the bloody repetition of vendetta to the ordered world of the polis and its institutions” (Goldhill 1992: p.32). The Oresteia is thus seen as being a sort of myth of origin of an institutionalized legal system—“a charter for the city” (ibid. p.32). I find Goldhill’s analysis of the play, found in his wonderful book Aeschylus, the Oresteia, to be the most comprehensive because he uses the cultural context that the play was written in to shape his interpretation.

What is clear is that most of these interpretations clearly address the question of 'what is the play saying' through a literary or classicistic lens. My aim is to answer this question by explaining what the play is inherently doing from an anthropological perspective. Through an analysis of the play I wish to demonstrate the extent to which culture determines or at least heavily counsels the thoughts and actions of men.

Max Weber suggested that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance which he himself has spun. And I, like Geertz, “take culture to be these webs”. Culture is, in more definitive terms, and as Geertz put it quite simply, “a system of meanings embodied in symbols.” In this paper I will employ Geertz's symbolic analysis approach, which he used to analyze culture, to analyze Aeschylus' Oresteia, with the intention of constructing my own interpretation of the play. My interpretation will be thus based upon the interpretative representation and—judged by popularity—possible reflection of most of Aechylus' fellow citizens world-view and ethos. My interpretation, however, will be developed using the lens of modern anthropological insight. I intend to treat the Oresteia as a sort of Ethnography, a material document that is itself a symbol which can be used to reconstruct a people’s world-view and ethos.

The Oresteia is riddled with cultural symbols which I will try to point out, but my main goal is to render an interpretation of the Oresteia based upon its cultural background. I do not intend to offer a final verdict or conclusion of what the play is saying, but rather, through my contribution of yet another interpretive approach, hopefully add to the refinement of the ongoing debate. If nothing else I simply wish to show how the Oresteia offers a unique contribution to the ongoing social discourse, composed of the various and varying interpretations of man across time and space, regarding the true meaning of, and way of living, life. My interpretation will focus on many of the same things that Goldhill has focused on, in particular the construction of gender roles, metaphysics, and morality, but will differ in both scope and results (due to the formula of approach) from much of the other literary interpretations of the play.

Based on my reading of the Oresteia I have singled out three aspects which I think will usefully shape the rest of this paper's topics. The first aspect is that the play offers a model-of reality (the real reality of the world or a world-view). The second is that it provides or proposes a model-for reality (a specific life style and particular ethos). The third aspect is that problems or calamities all seem to stem from the apparent conflict between the first two aspects—between the approved style of life and the assumed structure of reality (not surprising of Greek tragedy in particular, and cultural systems in general). I will focus on each of these individually and show how they color the events, attitudes, feelings, actions, and beliefs that emerge as the play unfolds.

Let the doer suffer . . . (Cho. 313)

The plot of the Oresteia primarily revolves around the two pervasive themes of revenge and justice. Revenge, in the Oresteia, appears to be a socially appropriate way of seeking justice. It is also seen as having a patterned and understood reason of occurrence, as opposed to being a random or barbaric act of passion. This conception of revengeful justice is clearly expressed in the choral ode of the Libation Bearers, where the chorus says “as she demands her due loud cries the voice of Justice; 'for murderous stroke let murderous stroke atone'. 'Let the doer suffer'; so goes a saying three times ancient” (Cho. 311-14). This pattern of revenge, where the doer suffers what he deserves, also creates, as Goldhill points out, a “pattern of reversal, where the very act of taking revenge repeatedly turns the revenger into an object of revenge” (Goldhill 1992: p.27). In other words, as a line in a song from a local Montreal band, the Stars, goes, “killers always have killers on their tracks.” This conception of justice is evidently subscribed to by the main actors in the trilogy and heavily influences their actions, feelings, and sentiments. I will thus treat revenge and justice (to the Greeks, two faces of the same coin) as a symbol and briefly demonstrate how it affects the structure and outcome of each play in the trilogy.

In the first play, the Agamemnon, the king, to which the play is named, is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra after returning home victorious from a ten-year siege on the city of Troy. The queen's motive was clearly anger, because her husband had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia. But the queen feels her act is socially justified because she is exacting revenge in the approved light of justice. The king killed their daughter, so she therefore has the right to kill the king. Her act is wrong, however, because her conception of justice is, as the Greeks always like to say, off the mark. Iphigenia was sacrificed to allow the fleet to set sail towards Troy in order to avenge the taking of Helen, Menealaus' wife (Agamemnon's brother) and thus breaking of the covenant of host and guest, by Paris, prince of Troy. It is clear from the chorus of this play that the mission the two sons of Atreus were sent out to accomplish was considered just. They compare Agamemnon and Menelaus to the Erinys, sent to exact justice on the “transgressors” with the support of the divinities, including Zeus, the guardian “of host and guest” and head honcho of the divinities (58-64). Thus, whereas Agamemnon's sacrifice is considered just because it was a necessary act that enabled him to accomplish divine commands and restore the social/cosmic order of host and guest, Clytemnestra's act is denuded of this divine garb of legitimacy and is therefore rendered a naked act of shameless passion.

The need to sacrifice Iphigenia not only shows an obligation to restore the assumed order, but also shows how this obligation to do what is considered right or just can, consequently, produce intense inner emotions of grief and lead to later troubles. This can be seen in lines 206-211 where Agamemnon expresses his extreme consternation over his seemingly inescapable moral dilemma: “A grievous doom is disobedience, and a grievous doom it is if I massacre my daughter, the pride of my house, polluting with streams of slaughtered maiden's blood a father's hands hard by the altar. What of these courses is free from evil?” Conflict thus arises because the the model-of reality, how the world actually is (its divine-social structure), does not match up with an agreeable model-for reality (Agamemnon is obligated by the former reality to carry out the act, however unwilling; there is a sense that he must do it). It is my suggestion that this ought that governs Agamemnon's actions stems from the is of his conceptual reality.

In the second play, the Libation Bearers, the pattern of justice through reciprocal violence is continued. Cytemnestra and Aegisthus, her adulterous lover and coconspirator in the plot to kill Agamemon, are killed by Orestes and Electra, the son and coconspirating daughter. In lines 298-302 we get a powerful sense of why Orestes feels he must commit the act of matricide “Such were the oracles; and I must not believe them? Even if I lack belief, the deed must be done. For many longings move to one end; so do the god's command and my great sorrow for my father' and moreover I am hard pressed by the want of my possessions.” These lines express the overlap between cultural concepts and personal sentiments and emotions. It is for both divine and personal reasons that Orestes feels obligated to do what must be done. (What he does not realize, however, is that his internal emotions are, if not sparked, at least shaped by the cultural concepts he has inherited regarding justice). Goldhill suggests that these lines express the fact that in the eyes of Orestes he “is fulfilling the god's command to exact vengeance,” but he has reservations and hesitancies because “he is also being forced to kill within his own family” (Goldhill 1992: p.24) My reading of these lines is that Orestes sees congruence between his personal wants and the decree of the divine command for revenge. There is, however, noticeable hesitation later on in the play at having to commit the matricidal act, but in the final climatic scene where he is about to deliver the final blow his intentions are clear: “You killed whom you ought not, now suffer what you ought not” (Cho. 930). Thus, once again the act of vengeance is carried out in the name of ought (the act ought to be done because it is seen as being right in the eyes of those who see revenge to be a just reality). And once again the act of revenge clearly has suffering consequences, as Orestes becomes haunted by the Furies. “The hunter is now the hunted” (Goldhill 1992: p. 30).

In the third play, the Eumenides, the Furies follow the blood-stained scent of Orestes all the way to Athens where a trial court has been established. A panel of judges hears his case, reach a stale mate in votes, and it is left to Athena to settle Orestes' innocence once and for all. Resting on her vote is the very concept of justice. The Furies represent the old mores of 'the doer must suffer', vendetta-type justice', whereas the trial that has been set up represents the new mores of Athens in which an individual is punished based on his responsibility and in the light of a socially approved considerations. Athena votes in favor of Orestes and gives what is, to the modern reader, a rather unsatisfactory explanation of why she voted to free him from the Furies, which thus allows him to escape death and the cycle of reciprocal violence. This outcome in the final play has perplexed a few and concluded for many what the Oresteia is saying, which is, as summarized by Goldhill, that “on both the human and the divine level there is in the final scenes of the trilogy a move away from bloody conflict where each victory leads to disastrous transgression towards an institution and practice that aim to resolve conflict without transgressive destructiveness” (ibid p. 30). I largely agree with this interpretation. The final scenes seem to represent a profound shift in the conception of justice from the 'doer must suffer' to the more legalistic 'doer must be tried'. This also pars well with the cultural context of Athens at the time this play was written. According to Goldhill an obligation or 'commitment to the polis' was a popularly held sentiment and the citizens of Athens in particular felt that there was an ought to act for the good of the polis instead of themselves. The establishment of a court system in which citizens voted on the outcome of fellow citizens clearly demonstrates this sense of communalism.

The female is the murderer of the male . . . (Cho. 1231).

Another pervasive symbol found in the Oresteia is the conception (or what we anthropologists like to call the construction) of gender. Every conflict that occurs in the Oresteia is between male and female counterparts. In the first play Agamemnon is sent by Zeus, a god, to lay siege upon Troy but is held up at port by Artemis, a goddess. As a result Agamemnon, the father, has to sacrifice Iphigenia, the daughter. Then King Agamemnon, the husband, comes home victorious, but is tricked and killed by Queen Clytemnestra, the wife. In the Libation Bearers, Orestes, the son, avenges his father and kills Clytemnestra, the mother. In the Eumenides Apollo, a god, takes responsibility for Orestes' matricidal act and protects him from the Furies, female divinities. The trial at the end of the play also turns on gender related issues, specifically kinship, a topic which I will address later on, because I find it particularly interesting. From these examples it is clear that in the Oresteia there is a clash of, not Huntington's civilizations, but Aeschylus' gender conceptions.

The clash of genders, however, is more a clash within the female-male gender constructs than it is between them, even though a quick reading of the play would make this statement seem erroneous. Based on my reading it is the characters who do not conform to their socially accepted gender roles, most notably Clytemnestra, that seem to be the most socially disruptive threats to the fabric of social order. In the first scene of the Oresteia Clytemnestra's apparent lack of conformity to the dispositions of her gender is suggested by the Watchman who is “watching for the signal of the torch, the gleam of fire bringing news from Troy, and the tidings of her capture; for such is the rule of a woman's man-counseling heart, ever hopeful, heart” (Aga. 10-11). Goldhill translates this passage to 'such is the authority of the man-plotting heart of the woman'. While these two translations seem to be different in tone they both emphasize a seemingly agreeable interpretation: Clytemnestra' command is unusual because she is, namely, a she. Goldhill's analysis of a female's status at the time under the patriarchal society would seem to support the interpretation that this authoritative command coming from a female would have indeed stood out as uncommon or unusual in the audiences' mind—as the words 'female' and 'power' were clearly not synonymous, nor were they even associated with one another. Moreover, according to Goldhill the adjective he translated to 'man-plotting' can mean both 'plotting like a man' and 'plotting against a man'. This “double sense is significant: for a woman to plot like a man – and thus aim at the position of authority – is inevitably to plot against man: against the established order of patriarchy” (Goldhill 1992: p. 37).

Clytemnestra's ability to walk, talk, and act like a man is mentioned on several occasions during the rest of the play. When Clytemnestra appears before the chorus in the Agamemnon they say “I have come, Clytemnestra, in reverence for your power; for it is right to honor the wife of a king when the throne has been made empty of the male” (258-260), which suggests that the only reason Clytemnestra is granted any authority at all is because her husband, a king, is absent. In line 351 the chorus again says to Clytemnestra “Woman you are speaking like a sensible man.” In the scene where Clytemnestra is trying to persuade Agamemnon to walk on the tapestries he says to her “It is not a woman's part to desire battle” (940). This repeated association of Clytemnestra with male attributes suggests that she is certainly not the ideal or stereotypical female that the audience would have expected.

Goldhill suggests that the role of the female in daily life at the time this play was written was indeed very limited. A female was expected to stay inside the house and the only time she could speak in public was during a religious ceremony or in a religious context (i.e. prophecy). Clytemnestra, then, is clearly not the ideal submissive stay-at-home mom and it is both her pursuit for power by deception, persuasion, and guile through the manipulation of language and her sexual corruptness that make her a threat to the social patriarchal order.

In the Oresteia it is always the woman who represents the catalyst of calamity. It is the female who lets her passions get the best of her, followed by a male who has to restore the order. Helen commits adultery and runs away with Paris, Agamemnon is sent by Zeus to lay siege upon Troy respectively. His leave allows Clytemnestra to “dare the undareable” by having an affair with Aegisthus. When he returns he is killed by Clytemnestra for an act that was caused by Helen. Thus, the main calamities that take place in the Oresteia can be causally attributed to the licentious female. This view of the adulterous female seems to have been a common one at that time: “The common ideological association of the woman with the inside of the house is represented repeatedly in Greek writing as a necessary response to the threat of women's desires leading to adultery' and this adultery is represented as a threat to the secure pattern of male inheritance within a patriarchal social system” (Goldhill 1992: p.39). Within the play itself we find evidence of this conception of the female gender: “the desperate passions of women without scruple, fellows of the spirits that wreak ruin among mortals? Unions in wedlock are perverted by the victory of shameless passion, mastering the female, among beasts and men” (Cho. 596-601). Clytemnestra is clearly the embodiment of this licentious threat of shameless passion.

Lastly, there seems to be another appearing pattern that emerges in the play: men act in accordance with and for the good of the polis, while women act in accordance with their passions and for the good of themselves. I think Goldhill puts this point best, so I’ll give him credit by quoting him in full:

“At each point in these conflicts the female tends towards the support of a position and arguments that are based on values of ties of blood to the point of the rejection of the ties of society, whereas the male tends to support a wider outlook of social relations to the exclusion of the claims of family and blood. Thus Agamememnon sacrifices his own daughter, 'glory of the household', to enable the panhellenic fleet to sail. He rejects his duties as a father to maintain his position in society as king and leader of an international military force. Clytemnestra rejects the social tie of marriage, both by killing her husband and by her adultery, in part at least to avenge her daughter. Orestes rejects that apparently most 'natural' of blood ties, between mother and son, to regain his patrimony and reassert the social order of patriarchy. Apollo is a god of state religion, the great civilizer from the international oracle at Delphi. The Furies are depicted as female who seem ready to ignore any claim of society in their pursuit of those who have killed their own kin, their own blood” (Goldhill 1992: p. 42).
This is not a surprising theme to emerge from a male writer who wrote in a patriarchal society. It is what anthropologists refer to as 'the myth of matriarchy overturned' which Goldhill defines as “a story that tells of the overthrow of female authority or female search for power as a way of justifying the continuing status quo of male authority in society (ibid p.45). Every sub-system in culture albeit religion, politics, ideology, etc. uses symbols such as these to maintain their own existence by providing an acceptable world-view and approved way of operating within the context of that world-view. In this case women are seen as untrustworthy and unable to control their passions, so there is a cultural need to restrain them by relegating them to the household and a need to lessen their power and authority. In other words, the maintenance of their oppression rests upon the myth of their gendered dispositions!

On a final, gender related note, I'd just like to draw some attention to the trial scene in the Eumenides where Apollo lays out his explanation for why the male is the true begetter of progeny. In anthropology we lump socio-family relations and relatedness into the category known as kinship. In this play kinship relations comes up, but I could not quite grasp their conception of relatedness. In line 606 Orestes ask the Furies “And have I the same blood as my mother?” And they respond in turn “How else did she nourish you under her girdle, murderer? Did you disown your mother's dearest blood?” The matter is finally settled by Apollo in lines 656-674 where he says “She who is called the child's mother is not its begetter, but the nurse of the newly sown conception. The begetter is the male, and she as a stranger for a stranger preserves the offspring, if no god blights its birth.” Apollo then uses the ancient story of Zeus and Hera to prove that man by himself can produce progeny. Whether or not this is an accurate representation of the audience's kinship system is questionable, but seeing as how it was a patriarchal society, the view that man is the genitor is certainly not an empirical surprise.

On his course by the counsels of the gods . . . (Cho. 941)

The last symbol I wish to focus on is religion. In the Oresteia the presence and involvement of the divinities heavily influences the actions and events that occur in the play. In the Agamemnon the expedition intended to lay siege on Troy is said by the Chorus to have been sent by Zeus “And thus are the sons of Atreus sent against Alexander by him whose power is greater, Zeus, guardian of host and guest; for the sake of a woman of many men” (Aga. 60-3). The portent of the two eagles feasting on the pregnant hare is interpreted by the army prophet Calchas to be a sign from the gods of the sacking of Troy by the two brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus (Aga. 121-5); before the fleet sets sail it is held up at port by the winds of the angry goddess Artemis causing Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter (Aga. 185-200). In lines 362-3 after Clytemnestra has informed the chorus that Troy has fallen they say “It is the mighty Zeus, lord of host and guest, that I revere, he that has accomplished this.” The herald also attributes the divine hand of Zeus to the expedition in lines 523-5 “him who has uprooted Troy with the mattock of Zeus who does justice.” When the herald continues his story he reluctantly tells the chorus of the storm that wreaked the fleet on its victorious return. The storm is implicitly attributed to the desecration of Trojan altars and temples and the slaughter of many men and women before the walls of Troy. When Agamemnon returns and speaks before the chorus his first words are directed towards the gods and the events that have just come to pass are all linked to divine purpose and approval (Aga. 810-30). After Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon she initially tries to convince the chorus that her act was derived from her own motives, but then argues that she is an agent of divine forces.

The Libation Bearers opens with both Orestes and Electra offering prayers to Hermes. In lines 269-285 Orestes explains Loxias’ (aka Apollo’s) oracle which supports his want to regain his possessions and seek vengeance on “those guilty of the murder” of his father. When Orestes displays reservations over killing his mother and asks the hitherto taciturn Pylades what to do, Pylades in his only lines of the trilogy says “ Where henceforth shall be the oracles of Loxias declared at Pytho, and the covenant you pledged an oath? Count all man your enemies rather than the gods!” (Cho. 899-903). After Orestes deals the death blow to Clytemnestra the choral ode that concludes the act suggests that it was an act both divinely motivated and ordained (Cho. 935-41).

In the Eumenides, the first scene takes place in the temple of Apollo. The horrible (miscarriage-inducing) Furies appear before Pythia, who then flees, at which point a central door on stage opens revealing Apollo and Orestes inside the temple. The rest of the play demonstrates a continued and palpable involvement of the divinities (of Apollo, Athena, and the Furies). According to Goldhill, this “direct and constant involvement of divine forces in human action” has lead critics to conclude that “this trilogy represents human action as controlled and determined by divine authority” (Goldhill 1992: p. 75). This interpretation, I think, is somewhat dogmatic and oversimplified vis-à-vis the complexity of human actions and dispositions to other cultural concepts that we have seen in the play. It is not, as Denys Page suggests, simply “the will of Zeus be done . . . [man’s] part is to obey” (ibid 76). This play does, however, raise a number of questions concerning human agency. But these questions basically boil down to the following: is free choice and human motivations independent of a divine plan and determined purpose? A direct answer to this question is difficult to ascertain, because the play offers a number of interpretations. I’ll leave the myriad interpretations to the scholars and extract one thread of thought from Goldhill which I think is pertinent to my approach. Goldhill suggests that “the gods as figures become part of humans’ attempts at comprehending things” (ibid p.76). I think this acutely captures the essence of religion.

In Religion as a Cultural System Geertz says that “Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seems uniquely realistic” (Geertz 1973: p.93). Throughout the Oresteia ritualistic practices are performed for the gods, choral odes are sung to the gods, and characters seem to be acted through or at least, in their minds, with the approval of the gods. Thus the religious symbol has not only gripping affective properties, but also a binding or controlling effect on the actions of men. But the extent to which man is a puppet of divine determinism is somewhat obscure, which is certainly not surprising, since the obligation itself is an imagined reality of numerous puppets: both women and men.

Random occurrences are often dichotomized into good and bad in numerous cultures and the appearance of one or the other is usually associated with divinity. Geertz once again offers insight on religion’s role when he says “as a religious problem, the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering but how to suffer, how to make of physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat, or the helpless contemplation of others' agony something bearable, supportable—something, as we say, sufferable” (ibid p.90). In the Oresteia we see that suffering is made sufferable because it is explained as a grace, endowed by the gods, that puts men on their way to wisdom “there is, I think, a grace that comes by violence from the gods” (Aga. 182). In the line just above we read “Zeus who put men on their way to wisdom by making it a valid law that by suffering they shall learn” (Aga. 176-8). Thus, the attractive force of religion appears to be the fact that it constructs a reality in which, to quote Max Weber, “events are not just there and happen, but they have meaning and happen because of that meaning” (Geertz 1973: p. 96).

This notioin of man is represented even more explicitly in the scene that follows Agamemnon’s death where Clytemnestra attempts to construct a meaning to the events that have just occurred. First she says “this is Agamemnon, my husband, and a corpse, the work of this right hand, a just workman (Aga. 1404-5); she then shifts her stance and attributes the slaughter to more extrinsic forces “I swear by the justice accomplished for my child, and by Ruin and the Erinys, to whom I sacrificed this man” (Aga. 1432-3); then she claims she was motivated by “the thrice glutted spirit of this race” (Aga. 1475-6) after the chorus mentions the family curse; her final position is expressed in lines 1497-1504 where she says to the chorus “You aver that this deed is mine. But do not consider that I am Agamemnon’s consort! But manifesting himself to this dead man’s wife the ancient savage avenger of Atreus, the cruel banqueter, slew him in requital, sacrificing a grown man after children.” Thus it is clear that the act moves from Clytemnestra’s “right hand” to basically ‘this is the work of the ancient demon or curse on the house of Agamemnon’. As Clytemnestra’s explanations of causation shift, so too, do the chorus’ sentiments of sympathy—they actually point the finger of blame at Helen (Aga. 1455-61); then at the “spirit that falls upon the house and the two sons of Tantalus” (Aga. 1468-70). Thus there is much ambiguity with causation and no clear distinction between actions that would be seen as being derived from purely human motives and those that are seen as being derived from a divine plan. My own reading is that their conception of agency seems to be weighted towards the latter, but I’m not sure if this view represents the views of Aeschylus or the audience who first watched this play. What it represents though, I think, is a universal principle of culture: the human need to ascribe meaning to events. Without meaning we can’t function. For, as Albert Camus put it in The Myth of Sisyphus, “living means doing, no matter how much one attempts to disengage from the spectacle” and doing, I think, requires meaning. A meaningless world of happenstance and unexplained occurrences, of passions and unordered experiences, would render man absolutely functionless and incapable of meaningful, purposeful, conscious action. Clytemnestra demonstrates that the possible accounts of meaning can differ widely, but the fact remains, meaning must be ascribed.

Culture, as we have seen, tunes the actions of men to the cosmic conditions of his reality. It gives meaning to our environment so that we can live in harmony with it. When a crime is committed man immediately attributes meaning to it by rationalizing it. For Aeschlyus crime follows a pattern of revenge and reversal—for us today we look to psychological (motives and mental disorders) and socio-economic (race and poverty) explanations which can replace our ineffable consternation with concepts that explain why these bad things happen. Culture, then, gives both a model-of reality and a model-for reality. My aim was to understand, as Geertz put it “how it is that men's notions, however implicit, of the “really real” and the dispositions these notions induce in them, color their sense of the reasonable, the practical, the humane, and the moral” (Geertz 1973: p.84). I have tried to show this by analyzing conceptual symbols found in the Oresteia and elaborating upon how they lead (or even determine) actors to their actions. By analyzing this text I also attempted to reconstruct, as much as possible, the assumed structure of reality and the approved lifestyle within that reality and how these two aspects are related and to some extent interdependent. Believing, with Geertz, that it is only through the cultural context that we can interpret symbols I tried to use what I knew of the cultural background to interpret the Oresteia. Goldhill seems to take up this same approach and the fruitfulness of doing so is clearly evidenced by his book. I do not, however, think that this is the only approach to an interpretation of the text, but I do think it is a good one, because it gets closest to determining what they play is actually saying by recreating and trying to understand the ethos of the audience for whom the play was meant. I also hope that this analysis shed some light on the mechanisms inherent in culture and how man is both shaped and the shaper of these mechanisms. My scope was clearly broad and my page space, unfortunately, is limited, but I hope I revealed some important insights and offered a new way to interpret ancient Greek literature. I hold the opinion that the more interpretive approaches we have the better our conclusions will be. To conclude, and slightly emend a passage from Geertz, Greek literary analysis “is (or should be) guessing at meaning, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions for better guesses, not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape” (Geertz 1973: p.20).

Friday, April 4, 2008

Pilate - Alright

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

The Internet

Providing answers to all life's many questions:


Ride Monkey Ride

Monkey rides mini bike:

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Oasis - Don't Look Back In Anger

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Interesting Thought of the Day

I found this quatrain today, which I liked and felt like sharing. Enjoy.
The rain falls on the just
And on the unjust fella;
But mainly upon the just
Because the unjust has the just's umbrella.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Slideshow of Life & Death

I thought this was pretty eerie/cool.


Monday, March 31, 2008

Rocks & Thoughts

Mindhacks has a brilliant post up on his blog that unites elements of psychology with a personal observance that he had (and which I have certainly shared) while rock climbing. Make sure you check it out.

Muddy Waters & James Cotton - Got My Mojo Working

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Just Plain Creepy

Computer graphics are getting just plain scary realistic. (make sure you move your mouse around).


Some Good News From Iraq?

Via the BBC:

Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr has ordered his fighters off the streets of Basra and other cities in an effort to end clashes with security forces.

He said in a statement that his movement wanted the Iraqi people to stop the bloodshed and maintain the nation's independence and stability

. . .

Moqtada Sadr's statement said: "Because of the religious responsibility, and to stop Iraqi blood being shed, and to maintain the unity of Iraq and to put an end to this sedition that the occupiers and their followers want to spread among the Iraqi people, we call for an end to armed appearances in Basra and all other provinces.

"Anyone carrying a weapon and targeting government institutions will not be one of us."

The cleric also demanded that the government apply the general amnesty law, release detainees and stop what he called illegal raids.

Moqtada Sadr also told his followers to "work with Iraqi government offices to achieve security and to file charges against those who have committed crimes".


The NYtimes has a cool slideshow of scenes from various cities on International Pillow Fight Day.
Check it out by clicking here.

Stuff White People Like

I just came across this website gem, Stuff White People Like, which I highly recommend checking out. Some of the posts are hillarious. Like this one, for instance, on San Francisco:

White people like to vacation in San Francisco because it has beautiful architecture, fantastic food, and it is near the water. They like to live in San Francisco because of its abundance of Non Profit Organizations, Expensive Sandwiches, Wine, political outlook, and most importantly its diversity.

Since many white people either live in, plan to move to, or closely identify with San Francisco it is imperative that you know how best to deal with them.

The City of San Francisco has a very multicultural population that ranges from white to gay to Asian. Within white culture this known as “ideal diversity” for its provision of exotic restaurants while simultaneously preserving property values. The presence of gays and Asians is imperative as it two provides two of the key resources most necessary for white success and happiness. However, it is important to be aware of the fact that regions outside of San Francisco feature many people who are not white, gay or Asian. They are greatly appreciated during the census, but white people are generally very happy that they stay in places like Oakland and Richmond. This enables white people to feel good about living near people of diverse backgrounds without having to directly deal with troublesome issues like income gaps or schooling.

Mocking Atheists

This video is absolutely hysterical:

Interesting Thought of the Day

Geertz on Religion in "Ethos, World View, and the Anaylsis of Sacred Symbols":

Religious symbols, dramatized in rituals or related in myths, are felt somehow to sum up, for those for whom they are resonant, what is known about the way the world is, the quality of the emotional life it supports, and the way one ought to behave while in it. Sacred symbols thus relate an ontology and a cosmology to an aesthetics and a morality: their peculiar power comes from their presumed ability to identify fact with value at the most fundamental level, to give to what is otherwise merely actual, a comprehensive normative import . . . The tendency to synthesize world view and ethos at some level, if not logically necessary, is at least empircally coercive; if it is not philosophically justified, it is at least pragmatically universal.

. . .

The force of a religion in supporting social values rests, then, on the ability of its symbols to formulate the world in which those values, as well as the forces opposing their realization, are fundamental ingredients. It represents the power of the human imagination to construct an image of reality in which, to quote Max Weber, ‘events are no just there and happen, but they have meaning and happen because of that meaning.’

Btw, there's an interesting discussion between Paul Bloom and Joshua Knobe on the topic of religion and morality over at which I recommend checking out.

Quantum Sleeper

The bed that turns into a protective coffin:

The basic Quantum Sleeper unit consists of an aluminum bed frame and headboard with polycarbonate, bullet proof plating that is designed to provide a protective barrier (shielding) between a perpetrator or environmental condition and the homeowners or occupants.

The bullet proof polycarbonate barrier is designed to stop bullet penetration, blows from impact, forced entry and provide a sealed temporary safe room and environment from burglars, terrorist or harmful gasses and also provide protection from the destructive forces of tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and floods. The unit can also be fitted with defensive devices customized to the requests of the purchasers such as tear gas spray, robotic arms, or projectile weaponry. It is designed to enable the person(s) inside the unit to see out and prevent those outside from seeing in.

The unit is equipped with a bio-chemical filter in case of bio-chemical attack and a rebreather system to enable the operator to seal off all outside air and provide breathable air for a specified amount of time. This system is used in such a case where the unit operator may need to release tear gas or another form of gaseous material in defense against a burglar or terrorist. The rebreather system is also useful as the ultimate protection (safe room) from weapons of mass destruction that may be used during biological warfare, chemical warfare, bio-chemical attack or other type gas attack that could release an unknown or new form of hazardous gas. There are doors on either side of the unit next to the headboard that have an emergency release button that when pressed will cause the doors to pop open in case of mechanical failure or loss of power to the operating systems.


When A Maaan Loves a . . .Table

Trouble ensues:
BELLEVUE, OH -- A man in central Ohio is accused of having sex with his picnic table.

The investigation began when a tipster gave police three DVDs showing Arthur Price having sexual intercourse with a metal round table on his deck.

The incidents occurred between January and March 2008.

Police say the DVDs show Price involved in a sex act in his bedroom. He walks out to his deck, tilts the table on its side and has sex with it.


Black Crowes - She Talks To Angels

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Nasa's New Big Rig Space Buggy

Looks f*ing awesome:

It turns on a dime and parallel-parks like a dream. On the downside, it’s a little pricey (at $2 million or so) and its top speed is a pokey 15 miles an hour.

Still, there’s a lot to like about the concept car taking shape here at the Johnson Space Center.

Did I say car? The new moon buggy conceived by space center engineers is anything but a car or a buggy. Its official name is Chariot, and this, my friends, is a truck. A heavy duty workhorse of a truck.

“America basically created the truck,” said Lucien Junkin, the chief engineer on the project. And so, he says, why not take a truck to the moon if NASA, as planned, takes humans back, as early as 2020?

It is a beguiling idea, especially as realized in a vehicle infused with the lessons learned from the Apollo-era moon missions and the subsequent success of the Spirit and Opportunity robotic rovers on Mars.

This model took a year to build. It looks kind of like what you’d get if a monster truck had a ménage à trois with a flatbed trailer and a medieval siege engine.


Interesting Thought of the Day

In his lucid explanation of why it was that proletarians were more politically oriented than were peasants (though both were poor and exploited), Marx talked about how the individual cottages of each isolated peasant family looked out at the fields they individually worked. In effect, the peasants related to the world as individuals and simply had no effective "window" on the complex realities of social and economic organization. Their lives were neither urbanized nor sufficiently collectivized within production situations. They also resided at a distance from their neighbors; community thus was (in Marx's view) minimal. Television screens, arguably, are not unlike the peasant's window on the fields. They provide a glimpse (in this case a consciously controlled glimpse) of a small part of the world, but also isolate existence, reduce community, and narrow experience, both intellectual and actual.

Television rarely asks questions about the desirability and importance of consumption, or about the structures of society (or media ownership patterns). It just "entertains" in a mildly addictive sort of way, filling silences and providing a substitute for community institutions. It supplies amusing and undemanding friends and highly skilled athletic activity without the need for effort or the risk of injury or personal failure. It is also the ultimate selling machine for both goods and politics. In most developing nations it is, in effect, the advanced guard of globalization—it is at the heart of global-scale economic integration. Access to the airwaves (other than very locally) is all but unavailable to citizens, or to organizations without millions of dollars to spend.

- Robert Paehlke in Democracy's Dilemma

I personally don't think televisions grip over the masses is that intentional, since every day I am more and more convinced that people are just generally stupid and prefer the mindless entertainment that is provided to them on the airwaves over the more important and more thought-requiring topics or issues that they should be concerned about. Its unfortunate because I would much rather excuse their stupidity by saying that they are force-fed this stuff by the people in power, but the reality, I think, is that they actually enjoy this crap.

Interview with Alex Grey

Via the San Francisco Chronicle:

Alex Grey paints souls. His work shows human bodies — rendered with medical-illustration precision — wrapped in layers of sacred energy. Whether you believe Grey's work depicts the reality of divine auras or a particularly vibrant artistic license doesn't much matter. His paintings have an uncanny effect on viewers, making them sense — or at least consider the possibility of — the subtle energies that surround us and how these personal force fields might change depending on our intention, actions and moods. They are modern-day religious icons and mandalas for 21st century Westerners.


I want this tee-shirt so bad...