Archive for September, 2010

The Final Velvet Nail in Pavement’s Coffin

September 29, 2010

The only remaining parallel left to establish between Pavement and The Velvet Underground was drawn (for me) on September, 18th, 2010, at the Agganis Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. The legacy of Pavement, having broken up in 1999, was the only open question for the band, as their critical darlinghood and even-at-their-peak obscure status was already fact-checked and confirmed.

Someone once said, and probably more than once and by more than one person, that everyone who bought a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico formed a band. Kids today still listen to VU despite zero MTV presence, proving that the organic influence of cool older kids keeping great music alive by word of mouth and example can still compete with cynical and market driven forces.

Let’s do the math. The Velvet Underground & Nico charted at 171st, and Pavement’s best selling album 121st (that translates to a paltry 237 000 copies world wide). In other words, both bands barely registered on the cultural radar when they were still together. On September 18th, 2010, a reunified Pavement sold out the 8000 seat Agganis Arena.

The kids must be listening to Pavement. Pavement played clubs and not arenas when they were still producing new records, and in the week following the Boston show they were due to play four nights in Central Park in NYC. I doubt a single commercial radio station lent a hand.

So, if the word parallel had any ‘Ts’ or ‘Is’ they could be crossed and dotted with confidence when speaking of Pavement and The Velvet Underground, if the comparison wasn’t obvious enough already to anyone who has ever listened to them.

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For the Love of God

September 27, 2010

If you are like me, you will occasion to find yourself paddling through a fog in vaguely theological waters. Populated by schools of secular apologists and non-denominational spiritual types, these celestial rivers are by far the most difficult to navigate, and if you will forgive my stretching the nautical metaphor to the maximum, the fear of running aground and bruising the feelings of our slightly non-secular friends is ever present.

The obviously devout are considerably easier to fathom for you know where they stand. Catholics believe in the divinity of Jesus, in miracles, and in the apostolic authority of the church. Islamic adherents also have an Abrahamic tradition (as do Jews) and if you present me with a Zoroastrian I can safely assume he drives a Mazda.

However, those that mix and match and borrow from a host of different faiths and principles present a unique problem to those of us who wish to understand; they don’t come with a manual. A Christian is equipped with a Bible, and not only is their holy book a handy guide to living a Christian life, it is also a tool with which the rest of the world can understand the Christian. The spiritual aficionado, the non-denominational fellow whose worldview cannot be reduced to force, material, and time, but nonetheless rejects what is typically labeled “organized religion” is difficult to comprehend for the simple reason that he has no label, no manual, and nothing to point to so he might dispense with having to explain.

I call myself an atheist though I am strictly speaking an agnostic. An accurate summation of my point of view, is that I am an agnostic teetering on the brink of full blown atheism. I recognize the possibility of God, and concede nothing else. Most atheists are really agnostics in that sense, and Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are examples. For calling myself an atheist, you understand a great deal about me, and while my atheism is but a component of a rational and materialist worldview, it is a loaded stamp and its importance is overemphasized. That said, the label “atheist” is pragmatic despite the faults.

However, our spiritual but not religious friend must go to lengths to fully articulate what it is they believe about almost any subject you care to name, for little can be assumed or taken for granted in advance of most any discussion. That is no criticism, but it is an overwhelming task requiring a great deal of patience on the part of the non believer. That patience should be considered worth the while on the part of secular society, for it is ideologically driven religions and theocracy that are the enemy of reason and argument, and not personal notions of God or the numinous.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

Peep Show ist Rad

September 15, 2010

The marriage of Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong to David Mitchell and Robert Webb bore wünderfruit by the name of Peep Show. The oblong Mitchell was perfectly cast as the anxious and cynical Mark Corrigan, and Webb admirably portrays the arrogant and deluded Jeremy Osbourne. Whereas the ‘odd couple’ dynamic of the fastidious conservative paired with the slovenly liberal is older than television, Peep Show is nonetheless a breath of fresh air to all those in their 20s and 30s who pine for intelligent comedy. Fawlty Towers belonged to our parents, but this latest batch of Cambridge Footlights belong to us.

For all those who posses a basic distrust of modernity and feel detached from contemporary youth culture, we have as our banner carrier one Mark Corrigan. While his depressed and lonely existence, habitual lying, and paralyzing fear of women is not to to be emulated, such lines as “She’s dragging me into the 20th century, with its meaningless logos and ironic veneration of tyrants” and “your lazy cynicism and sneering ironic take on the world encapsulates everything wrong with your generation” speak to what many of us think about kids today. Jeremy (Jez) represents the worst of those kids, and his unbelievable stupidity, good looks, and success with women, make him all the more loathsome and yet enviable as well.

Peep Show is an English comedy, and in ways not limited to geography. It is vicious, unfriendly, embarrassing, greedy, and any trace of warmth is noticeably and decidedly absent. This continues a tradition predating Monty Python, where the intense classism and fear of embarrassment inherent in English society not only informed the day to day lives of people, but provided grist for the comedy mill as well. Peep Show is archetypal in that respect, where the filth and unwelcome parts of humanity are brought to the fore so as to be poked fun at and laid bare – without a life lesson to be found.

Peep Show is the greatest situation comedy to date.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

Tabula Rasa

September 13, 2010

“Everyone needs a theory of human nature.”

– Steven Pinker

Free Will

I am rarely impressed by discussions about free will. Freedom of choice may be illusory, and we very well may be running through a narrow canyon whilst pursued by an irresistible force, incapable of veering right or left, or even acquiescing to our fate. Then again, some conceptual or linguistic weakness inherent in our species may be all that is preventing us from dismissing fatalism outright and without reservation. However, no matter if the answer to the riddle is forthcoming or forever denied to us, we must always proceed as if free will is a fact of existence.

Our legal system is rooted in the assumption of free will. In other words, we cannot begin to discuss what constitutes acceptable behavior until free will is already out of the way. In fact, if a defendant is determined to have acted without free will, then the defendant is not guilty, and by definition. Motive is everything, and that notion trickles into our daily lives as well, where we easily forgive accidents and rigorously condemn willful harm.

Lest I am accused of contradicting my very opening sentence, my interest in free will amounts to whether it need be bothered with, and not if “rational actors” is a non sequitur. Some questions only inform themselves, and if we must proceed in all cases as if free will exists, then free will is such a question.

Human Nature

Mega genius and coiffure revolutionary Steven Pinker wrote a very important book called The Blank Slate. I will defer to Wikipedia for a synopsis:

Pinker argues that modern science has challenged three “linked dogmas” that constitute the dominant view of human nature in intellectual life:

  • the blank slate (the mind has no innate traits) – empiricism
  • the noble savage (people are born good and corrupted by society) -romanticism
  • the ghost in the machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology) – mind/body dualism

Every discussion about pretty much everything is clouded by mostly unconscious assumptions about what our conversation partner thinks about the blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine. Most people I know subscribe to a mixed view of blank slate and noble savage with dash of materialism (biology). The rest cannot get past the ghost in the machine, and very often espouse non material theories of mind without even realizing it.

Relativism, especially, cultural relativism, has no legs without an almost fundamentalist adherence to the blank slate. The notion that we cannot judge another culture based on the values of our own assumes one of the following:

a) That genetically speaking, all people are not virtually identical.

b) Universal human values do not exist, and are the product of culture.

Choice A is manifestly false, as even the most rudimentary genetic science proves beyond any reasonable doubt. So we are left with B.

Universal human values do exist. It is never okay to steal your neighbour’s stuff. It is never okay to burn innocent children alive (as punishment, or if they are possessed by a demon, or to appease the gods, is another matter). It is never okay to set fire to the village on a whim. In all cultures, those actions will be condemned. Regardless of the specifics of religion or creed, economic conditions, or geography, the situation must be truly desperate before you can borrow your neighbour’s yak without asking.

Feminism

It is probably true that there is divide in attitudes in boys and girls when it comes to the blank slate. Feminists defend the lack of success among women when contrasted with the success enjoyed by men by citing inequalities that exist in culture. Equal capabilities are assumed in all fields, and when substantial gender disparity in a given discipline is discovered, a patriarchal explanation will be the default (and sometimes only) position of those who view the world as a feminist first.

Steven Pinker expertly points to a case of gender inequality in the sciences, and asks the reader to compare it to a case of gender equality. Within the field of physics, there are about nine men for every woman working. In biology, there is approximate parity. Now, whether one assumes the reasons women physicists are rare due to cultural conditioning of young girls to pursue other career choices, or that women are uninterested although still capable of completing physics related tasks, or that woman are by and large unsuited to a physics career, what is true, is that the physics establishment is not keeping women down.

To assume patriarchal domination within physics is to assume some enlightened feminist view within biology. Given that both fields were dominated by men until the very recent past, there is little reason to suspect either. Some other forces are at work, and our attitude toward the blank slate plays the dominant role in shaping our opinion of what those forces are.

Read The Blank Slate

Read The Blank Slate.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

TED is Making me Stupid

September 10, 2010

I love TED. Sometimes perfection presents itself, and all that is required of the interested is to passively accept whatever is on offer. Typically, such a soft effort is limited to the popular arts; music and film proving not only stimulating but readily digested and without a struggle. The same can be said for the daily upload of Ideas Worth Spreading, and no matter if the bite-sized presentations must gloss what is difficult almost by definition.

However, I fear for the TED ideal. It requires a rigorous mind and an abundance of spare time on the part of the viewer to investigate beyond the talk (i.e. buy the book). Single sitting science is fine entertainment, but the lay person must contend with a hodge podge of half understood concepts waging war for cognitive supremacy within the confines of their own brain. Without real expertise in difficult subjects, one can not do better than parrot the opinion of experts, and while I am titillated by minor revelations and inspiring ideas, I find myself growing more cynical about the spread of scientific knowledge and not less.

Watered down science might be worse than no science, at least when it comes to the goal of a “well informed general public.” The TED talk is perfectly analogous to a movie trailer – a teaser designed to present the potential buyer with an idea of what they can expect. The TED lecture is no substitute for genuine inquiry, and yet I suspect the confidence instilled in the general public in their grasp of many a talk is inflated, and I fear that same failing in myself. Either one believes that the 800 pages the science Titan is shilling is superfluous or necessary, and it *is* necessary.

Truth be told, I get a great deal more out of reading a difficult book on one narrow subject (The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker springs to mind) than 100 TED talks. However, the consumable TED lecture might be making me too lazy, confident, and poorly informed to tackle many more Stuffs. TED strikes as typically American in that way.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

How to Have an Argument about Religion

September 8, 2010

Preamble

What makes a religious moderate, moderate? From what well of sanity does the measured follower of Christ or Mohamed draw? The simple answer for the contemporary Christian or Islamic adherent, is their gentle and modest approach to spiritual life springs from a reinterpretation of their holy books – abandoning literalism.

Within the narrows of theology and the lay religious, a movement from blinkered devotion to a vague and sometimes personalized reckoning of scripture has resulted in vast tracks now comfortable skimming the parts about coveting asses. Furthermore, more relevant stories are taken as that, allegorical, and in combination with rich metaphor much if not all of the Bible or Koran is reduced to opaque and difficult ancient parables.

However, the very process the religious world has undertaken to excise the blunt interpretation of scripture parallels the same move secular society has undertaken when it comes to matters religious. Mainstream Christianity has not simply morphed from blinkered literalism to a fuzzy and warm spiritual love in, but has become more secular, i.e. less religious. Secular values, science, scrutiny, technology, and culture, have pounded religious truth claims to the point where only the most circumspect ideas about the physical world have any purchase on the flock. Christianity had no choice but to abandon its claim on the natural world for fear of being rendered utterly and totally outmoded. To continue to make claims on physical reality would be to risk its spiritual teachings rendered dumb for being clouded by manifestly obvious falsehoods about the nature of the universe.

Both the moderate and the atheist eschew literalism, and the process enjoyed by both groups is rooted in the sifting of abhorrent ideas, and abandoning those ideas which are no longer relevant. The arguments between moderates and atheists begin at this point; everyone agrees a literal interpretation of scripture amounts to insanity, and everyone agrees that religion has nothing to say about the natural world.

Rules

One can never claim to know something they cannot possibly know.

Break the above rule and you are off the island. Pack your bags and say goodbye to the rest of the contestants, for claiming access to information you cannot have is tantamount to dishonesty whether one realizes it or not.

One is never called upon to prove a negative

“You cannot prove it isn’t either” is never an acceptable riposte to any argument. Given that there is a literal infinity of concepts and things that one might posit is true, the only fair argument that can be made is one in the positive; “I believe in God because” and never “You cannot prove he doesn’t exist.”

One shall never argue from authority

Aside from being both boring and slightly rude, claiming that one’s position is solid because an expert says so is a no no. However, it is perfectly acceptable to point to the accuracy of predictions, e.g. “If I flip the light switch to off, the light goes out. Therefore, when it comes to the manufacture of light switches, electrical engineers can be trusted in the overwhelming majority of cases.” The same can be said for the motion of planets, quantum physics (the counter intuitive nature of the concepts might be mind boggling, but the accuracy of the predictions are breathtaking) meteorology, etc.

Avoid Linguistic Quagmires

Not so much a rule as a piece of advice, but you will save many valuable hours of frustrated shouting at cross purposes if you choose your words carefully.

Faith means: belief in the absence of evidence. If one insists on calling trust in science “faith” in the same sense that a devotee of Christ has faith in god, then the word “faith” ceases to have any meaning whatsoever. Get that out of the way at the outset.

God means: a supernatural being capable of suspending the laws of physics; the creator of the universe. If you are talking about a biblically revealed God, the definition extends to: a God that takes an active interest in the affairs of man. Other definitions of God, such as extremely personal notions of God, are perfectly acceptable, but need to defined well in advance of any discussion (and if personal notions of God are the discussion, pick something else to talk about, because there really is nothing to talk about in that case).

Religion means: an ideological prescription for living that gets its authority from God. This is in contrast to Buddhism and the ilk which bear many resemblances to religion, and in some fields of study are identical (such as in sociology) to religion, but are more aptly categorized as moral or spiritual philosophy. The important distinction, is that religions have a supernatural component.

Truth means: Something is only true when you can say why it might not be true. This notion is rooted in ‘falsifiability.’ Falsifiability does not imply that something someone might claim is false, but that if it were false, then its falsehood could be demonstrated. Therefore, while such statements as “it is good to help people” might be statements we can all agree on, we cannot call them formally true.

Personal truth might be a powerful motivating force, but it is much better and altogether simpler to call personal truth “belief.” Avoid this linguistic trap, and insist on it in others.

End Notes

The religion debate informs all other discussions, and without exception. Not only can you tell a great deal about another person by whether they believe they exist due to physical forces and the laws of biology, or due to the hand of God, the debate informs the very nature of how we go about interacting with the universe. Is there a purpose to life? What does it mean to be good? How should I raise my children?

The epistemological ramifications alone make the question of God the Primum Movens from which all other questions and conclusions spring. Enjoy it.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

Hitch 2011

September 2, 2010

Christopher Hitchens has cancer. Standing in for a prognosis are statistics, and those who play the markets demand 20 for 1 on money laid on his living another five years. Yet, the man’s voluminous scrawl bears no indication of limping, as dispatches from the cancer ward spew more like a torrent than a trickle.

The cynical, or perhaps, worrisome, or simply accurate, estimation as to why Christopher Hitchens has redoubled his efforts, is that his sense of mortality now has a fine edge – likely his only faculty to have grown more acute for chemotherapy. Cacoethes Scribendi was perhaps once both handsome and apposite phrasing to describe his work habits, but now “compulsion” seems less apt than “desperation.” Still, the quality of the output is still worthy and flush with insight and original metaphor.

However, boring and unoriginal and inane talk has inexorably inched its way into the discussion. Have Mr. Hitchens views on God or religion changed since his diagnosis? What needed only to be asked once, and for no other reason than to get it out of the way, has now manifested into a major talking point. Who, honestly, did not already know the answer to this obvious and bordering on trite question? “Of course not, next” should have been a more than sufficient response. To think otherwise is to think the endless passages Mr. Hitchens wrote on the subject of God disingenuous or perhaps only academic. It suggests that he is not a man of convictions. It suggests those who claimed to be listening carefully, weren’t.

Valuable time has been wasted.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com


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