22 February 2011

Despair, Ye Mighty

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

(Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818. "Ozymandias".)

18 February 2011

Elementary, My Dear Watson...

After hearing that a supercomputer named Watson beat two of Jeopardy!'s champions, I turned to YouTube to look for footage of the show and found instead this PBS Newshour story that focuses on how Watson's software, a new approach in "machine learning", allows it to understand human speech.
Reporter Miles O'Brien: It amazed me how Watson gets all the jokes, wordplay, and puns that are hallmarks of Jeopardy! -- and Watson gets smarter with each answer.
David Ferrucci, lead designer: It learns, based on the right answers, how to adjust its interpretations. And now, from not being confident, it starts to get more confident in the right answers, and then it can truly jump in.
O'Brien: So, Watson surprises you?
Ferrucci: Oh, yeah, absolutely! In fact, people say, "Oh, why did he get that one wrong?" I don't know. "Why did he get that one right?" I don't know.
O'Brien: Computers that learn, understand, and even surprise us? What could go wrong with that?

"Hello, Hal, do you read me? Do you read me, Hal?"
"Affirmative, Dave. I read you."
"Hal, open the pod bay doors, please, Hal."
"I'm sorry, Dave; I can't do that." 
I did finally find coverage of the match, though. First part is here.  The first part of the challenge has Trebek showing the audience footage of his visit to the computer.

The 21st century will be a very interesting one, I think.

14 February 2011

Isaac Asimov on Valentine's Day

Last year I chanced to read an essay by famed author and humanist Isaac Asimov about Valentine's Day around the appropriate date and decided to share portions of it. I'm reposting it now, because frankly, Lupercalia is too much fun to ignore.
The essay begins with Asimov explaining the etymology of Valentine:

The Latin word valere means "to be strong", and from it we get such words as "valiant" and "valor", since one expects a strong person to be brave. We also get words such as "value" and "valid", since strength can refer not only to muscular power but also to something that finds its strength in being worth a great deal or in being true. In naming children, we can make use of words that imply the kind of character or virtue that we hope to find or instill in him or her. [...] The ancient Romans, by the same reasoning, might use the name "Valens", which means "strength". By the irony of history, such a name became particularly popular in the latter days of the Empire, when Rome  had grown weak. 

He then introduces a Roman emperor named Valens, a poor general who died while fighting the Goths at Adrianople. Valens had a brother who held the diminutive form of the name, "Valentiniatus". This diminutive form was popular, and is now shortened by English-speaking people to "Valentine".  One martyr of the Catholic church, his feast day being 14 February, was St. Valentine.  Having said all this, Asimov turns to the Roman holiday of Lupercalia -- celebrated on 15 February.

The ancient Romans had a holy spot where (according to legend) the wolf had suckled the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, the former of whom eventually founded Rome. The spot was called "the Lupercal", from the Latin word lupus, meaning "wolf".
On that spot, every February 15, there was a festival held called the Lupercalia, during which animals were sacrificed. Thongs were prepared from the bloody strips of animal hide, and priests  ran through the crowd striking out with those thongs. Those who were struck were considered to be cured of sterility. Naturally, those who wanted children flocked to the festival. Afterwards, I imagine, they engaged in those activities that were expecting to give rise to children -- striking while the iron was hot, so to speak. Consequently, the lupercalian festivities were associated with love and sex.
In 494, Pope Gelasius I forbade this pagan festival, but that sort of thing does no good. The festival simply continues under another name. For example, the celebration of the winter solstice was forbidden, but it still continues with almost all the pagan customs of the ancient Romans -- under the name of "Christmas". To the celebration of the vernal equinox was added the Christian feast of the resurrection, which became "Easter", and so on.
The Lupercalian festival of February 15 simply became St. Valentine's Day of February 14. Legends arose later to the effect that St. Valentine had been kindly to lovers, but that is undoubtedly just a cover for the good old fertility rites that have always been popular (and, I strongly suspect, always will be). 

He ends the essay by commenting on the trivialization of the holiday by the greeting card industry. You can find the full essay in The Tyrannosaurus Prescription by Asimov, or in the forward to Fourteen Vicious Valentines.

11 February 2011

Spock Thoughts

Last night while listening to an eclectic group of recordings by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (including straight-to-campy covers of various songs, a few original novelty songs, and oddly enough Shatner reciting Shakespeare with GREAT! enthusiasm!), I heard a piece I'd always somehow missed: Leonard Nimoy reading a collection of  aphorisms that sounded as thought they were pulled from Seneca's letters. I found out this morning that Nimoy read from a poem called "Desiderata", originally published in 1927 by Max Ehrmann.

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many Small textInsert non-formatted text herepersons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be careful.
Strive to be happy.

Freethought Friday #9: The Paradox of Wealth

(Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833 - 1890)

Usually I share a quotation regarding skepticism, 'the good life', or other such things...but tonight a bit of societal observation from "A Lay Sermon" caught my eye.

And now there is another trouble. Just as life becomes complex and as everyone is trying to accomplish certain objects, all the ingenuity of the brain is at work to get there by a shorter way, and, in consequence, this has become an age of invention. Myriads of machines have been invented -- every one of them to save labor. If these machines helped the laborer, what a blessing they would be! But the laborer does not own the machine; the machine owns him. That is the trouble. In the olden time, when I was a boy, even, you know how it was in the little towns. There was a shoemaker -- two of them -- a tailor or two, a blacksmith, a wheelwright. I remember just how the shops used to look. I used to go to the blacksmith shop at night, get up on the forge, and hear them talk about turning horse-shoes. Many a night have I seen the sparks fly and heard the stories that were told. There was a great deal of human nature in those days! Everybody was known. If times got hard, the poor little shoemakers made a living mending, half-soling, straightening up the heels. The same with the blacksmith; the same with the tailor. They could get credit -- they did not have to pay till the next January, and if they could not pay then, they took another year, and they were happy enough. Now one man is not a shoemaker. There is a great building -- several hundred thousand dollars' worth of machinery, three or four thousand people -- not a single mechanic in the whole building. One sews on straps, another greases the machines, cuts out soles, waxes threads. And what is the result? When the machines stop, three thousand men are out of employment, credit goes. Then come want and famine, and if they happen to have a little child die, it would take them years to save enough of their earnings to pay the expense of putting away that little sacred piece of flesh. And yet, by this machinery we can produce enough to flood the world. By the inventions in agricultural machinery the United States can feed all the mouths upon the earth. There is not a thing that man uses that can not instantly be over-produced to such an extent as to become almost worthless; and yet, with all this production, with all this power to create, there are millions and millions in abject want. Granaries bursting, and famine looking into the doors of the poor! Millions of everything, and yet millions wanting everything and having substantially nothing!
 Now, there is something wrong there. We have got into that contest between machines and men, and if extravagance does not keep pace with ingenuity, it is going to be the most terrible question that man has ever settled. I tell you, to-night, that these things are worth thinking about. Nothing that touches the future of our race, nothing that touches the happiness of ourselves or our children, should be beneath our notice. We should think of these things -- must think of them -- and we should endeavor to see that justice is finally done between man and man.

If you read the 'sermon' in full, you'll see Ingersoll condemn strikes and attempts at collectivization:  I don't know if I've used the description before, but he's a man living in the 19th century and who tries to realize the "24th century" through 18th century means. Though a raging liberal for his time, Ingersoll was cut from the same clothe as Thomas Jefferson and so on -- he believed the Republic was best served by a nation of family farmers and small business owners, curious given that much of his living came from drawing documents for corporations -- including the railroads that took advantage of all those family farmers and led to the Grange movement.  He seems to want people to behave and accomplish change in an orderly manner, through the ballot box....but even in his era machine politics had already taken over.

09 February 2011

Musical Dharma

I never fail to feel heartened when this group of young Buddhist monks*, marching solemnly through the countryside in their habits, suddenly breaks forth into a silly, lovable English song.

*According to a documentary I watched recently, it is not uncommon for poorer people in places like Tibet to offer children they cannot afford to feed to the monastery. I think that happened in Europe, as well...

02 February 2011

Groundhog Day and Existentialism

Back in 2006,  I checked out Groundhog Day from the local Blockbuster and enjoyed it so much I decided to buy it from the store. I've since watched it a half-dozen times and never fail to be amused and touched. It's a fantasy comedy of sorts, in which an egotistic, crotchety middle-aged weatherman (Phil Conners, played by Bill Murray) is forced to drive to Punxustawney, Pennyslyvania with his annoyingly perky boss and their cameraman to do their news station's annual Groundhog Day segment.  Conners is a generally unpleasant fellow whose primary occupations are complaining and ridiculing others. After spending the night in Punxustawney, the crew do their segment, but are trapped in town by a blizzard. The next morning, Phil wakes up to find it's Groundhog Day -- again.  The same events which transpired the day before occur here:  Phil hears the same jokes, the same banal comments, crosses through the same traffic, and is stranded by the same blizzard. Only when his behavior forces alterations do they occur.

Phil is stuck in Groundhog Day -- again and again. He has no idea what is causing this time loop, and his elation at being able to get away with anything (in a world of no consequences) quickly turns to despair when he realizes nothing he does or says will ever matter.  No money stolen or friendships earned will endure. He tries to kill himself, only to wake up again and again at 6:00 a.m,  Groundhog Day.  His greatest disappointment, though, is his inability to win the affections of his boss, Rita. Though seemingly annoyed by her relentless cheerfulness, Phil is attracted to her and genuinely wants to be seen as something other than who he is: a jerk. He tries to become the kind of man she could love, but finds in the process that virtue and self-improvement are their own rewards. He comes to see the endless winter of Groundhog Day as a kind of gift, and uses it to learn to play the piano, to speak French, to create art. He makes the most of every moment and devotes himself to the people of Punxustawney, delighting in ordinary little kindnesses. In the process, he learns how to love something other than himself, and finally wakes up on February 3rd.

Groundhog Day is a genuinely funny movie, but I respond so favorably to because it has a philosophical point -- particularly to naturalistic sorts like humanists. While religions tend to make people participants in great psycho-dramas in which their actions play parts in a vast struggle between good and evil,  to the naturalistic mind our actions have no real consequences in the long term. Hitler and Gandhi go to the same end, and oblivion will claim us all one day. Humanity may survive to expand throughout the galaxy, but eventually our clock will be punched for the last time. Like Phil, we are in an ultimately meaningless situation, but there is no reason to be miserable about it. We are alive, whereas billions of others are not. We can breathe in sweet oxygen, stare at the stars in wonder, enjoy the many pleasures of life. Reality may be Puxustawney, P.A., and not the glitzy dramatic metropolis we think we'd prefer,  but there's plenty to enjoy. We can improve ourselves, find meaning in art and science, glory in little accomplishments, and find solace and joy in the company of friends and loved ones.

I know this from personal experience, for I was once a Pentecostal who believed in a great drama. That drama still excites Christians, Muslims, and Jews around the world, but as I aged that drama depressed and angered me. I felt damned, and in my darkest hours decided to spite "God" and his twisted universe. I declared that I was going to enjoy life and do something with mine to help others. I took possession of my life and infused it with meaning and purpose of my own making. I pushed myself to be sociable, and made friends. I determined what I wanted a meaningful occupation, and left the factory for the university.  I matured as a human being, and my self-empowerment has lasted for five years so far. When I read my old journals from that pre-humanist period -- with titles like "Jetsam's Course" -- I cannot identify with the person who I once was. I have found the joys of spring in the depths of winter, just as Phil did, and just as anyone can.  Life is too short not to enjoy .