Sunday, June 3, 2012

Hans Rosling: Religions and Babies

I have been very concerned about population growth.  I cannot see how the planet can sustain us all if the population continues to grow exponentially.

So I was very encouraged to come across this fantastic talk by Hans Rosling which looks at the subject of population growth and uses statistics that I found very re-assuring.

In particular I found it very interesting that his talk dismisses the assertion of some on the Christian right who claim that Muslims are going to take over the world by default via their reproductive rates.  He does not address the difference in birth rate between religions within the same country - which has raised fears of an eventual Muslim 'take over' in some Western European countries.  However I think this talk presents a lot of good information.  And I particularly loved the presentations of the graphs over time.

If you have trouble watching the video you could watch it over on the TED site:

If you want to see more from Hans Rosling and his mind blowing charts then I recommend you head over to his website:  Gap Minder

Friday, May 18, 2012

Murderers, Tyrants and Madmen.

I have been reading "Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming." (Book review coming soon on my reading blog).  In this book Oreskes and Conway trace some of the scariest science denying trends in recent decades and expose the links to political ideology.

Some of the politically motivated organizations who are frequently found trying to refute widely accepted scientific theories are identified in "Merchants of Doubt".  One of the most prominent is the Heartland Institute.  It has the impressive record of using all its might to deny the dangers of second hand smoke, among other things.  Unsurprisingly, given it's free market MO, it also denies anthropogenic climate change and uses it might to try and cast doubt on this.

If you start with the premise that regulation by governments is wrong then you may be predisposed to overlook evidence that certain activities, promoted in our free market, are actually harmful.  And of course you will be set on a path of denying that one of the obvious and effective ways to curtail the harm is through regulation.

After reading about The Heartland Institute, in The Merchants of Doubt, I was interested to come across this billboard that was recently put but by The Heartland Institute. 

Here is a snippet from the Heartland Institute's web site that was issued with the unveiling of the billboard on 3rd May.
“The most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists,” said Heartland’s president, Joseph Bast. “They are Charles Manson, a mass murderer; Fidel Castro, a tyrant; and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Global warming alarmists include Osama bin Laden and James J. Lee (who took hostages inside the headquarters of the Discovery Channel in 2010).
Umm, what??

I have come across a lot of advocates of global warming in recent years; in the media, in books and on-line.  And I can honestly say that Manson, Castro, Kaczynski, bin Laden and Lee have never been prominent, or even referred to!

The public backlash to this offensive billboard caused them to pull the billboard after only 24 hours.  They issued a statement that you can read here on their website.  Did they apologise for their shocking tactics?  Read for yourself:
"We do not apologize for running the ad, and we will continue to experiment with ways to communicate the ‘realist’ message on the climate.”
I like this video response by Peter Sinclair, to Bast's murderers, tyrants and madmen claim.
Peter Sinclair’s monthly Yale Forum video uses historical footage to debunk an assertion that the most well-known climate change ‘advocates’ are … ‘murderers, tyrants, and madmen.’

Some interesting footage from the 80's and 90's.  You know, around the time that that anthropogenic climate change became almost universally* accepted amongst climate scientists, despite what the mainstream media, climate damaging industry and right wing capitalists would have you believe.

* Some sources re: Scientific Consensus on Anthropogenic Climate Change

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Memories and the Art of Rewriting the Past.

I have been think about memory a lot recently.

I got goosebumps and might have even teared up a little the first time I saw Memory performed live (if my memory serves me correctly).  But this is not the memory I am referring to, although the lyrics are relevant to my musings.

I have been noticing the very human tendency to re-write the past giving ourselves a more golden glow.  I see this tendency at work in other people, and have talked to people who have also witnessed this tendency in others.  This brings me to wonder how much I embody this foible.

What I find perplexing, and perhaps a little disheartening, is that the very act of reminiscing may change our memories.  On a neuronal level, accessing a memory pathway seems to have the potential to change that pathway, effectively re-writing our memories.  Which perhaps explains the mechanism behind why people often really believe their version of the past, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary.

I first read about this neuronal re-writing of memories in The Brain That Changes Itself - a book that I would highly recommend to anyone.  But if you want a quick peek at this idea you could check out this article on How Our Brains Make Memories.*  The researcher behind this article (Nadar) thinks "it may be impossible for humans or any other animal to bring a memory to mind without altering it in some way."  I really hope that he is not correct about this.  We rely on our memories so much.  I think that our view of our self and our place in our community/society largely hangs on our memories and the emotional and narrative meaning we attach to them.  If our memories are unreliable then how can we be certain about anything meaningful?

From a psychological perspective I think that we sometimes use this "coping strategy" to cushion ourselves from regrets.  But do we then reduce our chances of learning from the past? Without learning from the past how can our future selves grow into a more developed and mature version of our self?

I recently read "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes for book club.  I found the themes of the book very interesting.  I liked the way Barnes dealt with the unreliability of memories and examined how our version of the past may not be as accurate as we like to believe.  He examined the idea of corroboration of memories.  

As we move through time how can we look back to our past and recall events with any accuracy or objectivity?  Maybe we can't.  But maybe, with corroboration from others who were there, and even from our own writing at the time, we can discover truths about our selves and our history.  The big question though still remains: even with accurate reminiscing can we use the information to change those parts of ourselves that it would be beneficial to change.

I have been thinking about what steps we can take to minimize the corruption of our memories and preserve a truthful recollection of our past. 

Reading the book has lead me to want to journal more regularly so that I will have more of my own "in the moment" reflections to look back on in years to come.  I understand that my record of my thoughts, behavior and interaction right now will already be skewed and by no means objective.  But, being contemporaneous, any records I make now will surely be more reliable than my future memories of this present time.  

I will also be interested in corroboration from your memories and records of the past - so please try to lay down some accurate memories.

But then again, why would I want accurate memories?  Left to the natural effects of time and reminiscing, perhaps in the future I will remember my current self as much more witty, intelligent, beautiful, caring and happy than I really am.  Maybe that will be more comforting as I slump in my nursing home arm chair dribbling than remembering myself with more accuracy.  Is it that what happened to Griselda?  Is her memory of her youthful self is more glamorous than warranted?

All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days
I was beautiful then
I remember the time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again 

* The article includes a description of an experiment to test memory in rats that included administering electric shocks to the rats so I do not recommend reading past the first page of the article if you will find this distressing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

CHOGM Special Powers Act 2011

I just found out that there is a Special Powers Act that has been passed in aid of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that is being held here in Perth.

As part of the Special Powers the tough guys at the top have compiled an "Excluded Persons List".  Hmmm, maybe they should leave the list making to Father Christmas!

These people have received notice that they are not to enter any of the CHOGM restricted areas.  And that is a lot of areas.

Below is a link to a couple of news articles about this and a copy of the letter that these people have received.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Victorian Hangman Tells His Love

I don't often feel proud to be Australian.  But this week I have had reason to.  

The last time the Australian state sanctioned the killing of one of it's citizens was in 1967*.  Sure our human rights record is pretty atrocious in so many other areas, but at least we have this one sorted.  Not so America, as we have unfortunately witnessed this week.  

Image copied from here.
It feels like "unfortunately" is far too soft and common a word to describe the murder of Troy Davis by the State of Georgia.

As I have been thinking about this issue I remembered this poem by Bruce Dawe.  I remember how it chilled me when I first read it as a naive 16 year old.  And it still chills me now.

A Victorian Hangman Tells His Love**
Dear one, forgive my appearing before you like this,
in a two-piece tracksuit, welder’s goggles
and a green cloth cap like some gross bee – this is the State’s idea…
I would have come
arrayed like a bridegroom for these nuptials
knowing how often you have dreamed about this
moment of consummation in your cell.
If I must bind your arms now to your sides
with a leather strap and ask if you have anything to say
– these too are formalities I would dispense with:
I know your heart is too full at this moment
to say much and that the tranquilliser which I trust
you did not reject out of a stubborn pride
should by this have eased your ache for speech, breath
and the other incidentals which distract us from our end.
Let us now walk a step. This noose
with which we’re wed is something of an heirloom, the last three
members of our holy family were wed with it, the softwood beam
it hangs from like a lover’s tree notched with their weight.
See now I slip it over your neck, the knot
under the left jaw, with a slip ring
to hold the knot in place… There. Perfect.
Allow me to adjust the canvas hood
which will enable you to anticipate the officially prescribed darkness
by some seconds.
The journalists are ready with the flash-bulbs of their eyes
raised to the simple altar, the doctor twitches like a stethoscope
– you have been given a clean bill of health, like any
modern bride.
With this spring of mine
from the trap, hitting the door lever, you will go forth
into a new life which I, alas, am not yet fit to share.
Be assured, you will sink into the generous pool of public feeling
as gently as a leaf – accept your rôle, feel chosen.
You are this evening’s headlines. Come, my love.

The poem is about the hanging of Ronald Ryan.  He was the last victim of capital punishment in Australia.   I have lifted the poem from here .  It is a lecture given by Bruce Dawe.  In discussing his poem he says:
"Manners, conventions, customs are means by which the state seeks, at times, to legitimize the illegitimate."
The lecture was given in  2008 but these words apply perfectly to the State of Georgia.  They have tried to legitimize the illegitimate.  Moral discussions about capital punishment cannot center around issues of innocence and guilt.  If the taking of a life is unlawful for the citizens, how can it not be unlawful for the state?
 *Capital punishment was not abolished in Australia until many years later but no death sentences were carried out after 1967. 
** I have reproduced the poem in a font called "Georgia".

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Undermining my Teetotalism

I am not much of a drinker and it is pretty rare for me to have a drink at home.  However, for the last couple of nights I have been kicking back with a relaxing gin and tonic.

I grew up in a tea-totaling church.  This branch of the church (Assemblies of God if you're interested) gradually came to accept a bit of "sensible" imbibing over the years.  And so I got to graduate from Lemon, Lime and Bitters, to occasionally having something a little more potent.

I have spent a lot of my 4th decade unraveling the knots I acquired in this environment but I still have not acquired the knack of drinking very much.

I have found it interesting to observe how others relate to alcohol after deconverting from the same, or similar, religious upbringings.  Some continue to avoid it: "I have lived perfectly well for this long without drinking why start now?"  Others suddenly embrace alcohol, and by embrace I mean at every possibly opportunity as they try to rapidly make up for missing out on teenage hangovers and embarrassing lapses of dignity at parties.

I have tended more towards the conservative side.  Partly because I have a voracious sweet tooth and most alcohol still tastes crappy to me (though I don't leave your bottle of butterscotch schnapps lying around).  But probably it is mostly because I am a control freak and the thought of being drunk is scary.

I watched Paul last night (while nibbling on dips and bread and sipping my G&T) and had a good laugh.  I loved Kristin Wiigs character who undergoes an instantaneous deconversion.  She makes it look so simple.  All you need to do is find an accommodating alien to lay hands on you and impart his knowledge and experiences.

Below is a little promo youtube thingy.  I have included it here because it shows some of her post-deconversion antics.  It is a pretty predictable movie so I don't think it will spoil it too much if you have not already seen it.

I love the character's reaction to her suddenly altered world view and new found freedom.  Pretty different to how I have reacted.   There is a lot for me to think about right there.