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Archive for June, 2010

So all of the major news networks (and some not so major, such as NPR) in late April reported on a new study which links chocolate with depression.  The authors of the study are “not sure if eaters are already depressed and are self-medicating, or whether chocolate causes depression, or whether there is some complex interaction between chocolate and depression.”  Ok, the third option is a total cop out, I think.  Obviously, it’s either A, or B.

I noted that most of the comments totally pooh-poohed the entire study.  Why would this be?   A), because armchair scientists generally disagree with anything they don’t like.  There is also a more rationally defensible point B), which is that new studies are coming out all the time; some say chocolate is good for you, others bad, some say butter is good, others say it’s bad, some say margerine is good, others say bad, etc.  Of course, this will always be the case.  But one has to train oneself to pick out the propaganda (much of it paid for by a given industry–“tobacco isn’t bad!  offshore drilling is safe!, etc .”), and also to determine which studies are fad-based, and which are probably based on something more scientifically sound (e.g., cholesterol does cause heart disease–albeit they now know that some cholesterol is worse than others, etc).

Which brings us to the point, does chocolate cause depression?  And is it just chocolate, or do other cocoa-based, caffeine-bearing products such as coffee and coca-cola also cause depression? (more…)

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Why do people like Tolkien’s Middle Earth so much, and why do people like Star Trek so much?  And, for that matter, why do they like Star Wars so much?  These are clearly the top 3 fictional universes that were created in the 20th century; they are very much alive in the mentality of my entire generation.  In many countries of the world, they are perhaps the core mythology of thinking people under 50–more than any religion.  These universes are, in Lennon’s words, “bigger than Jesus,” and inspire much more, seemingly longer-term, devotion than any rock band, including the Beatles.  And they look to be equally captivating for the generation just now coming to consciousness.  So, why? 

Pundits have speculated endlessly, and you usually get the following answer:  They deal with issues of “good vs. evil.”  And they pose moral quandries. 

Well, yes, but then again, so have about 1,500 other fictional universes.  So that can’t be it. (more…)

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It’s a pretty taboo idea, these days, to suggest that someone in the US is a better person than someone else.  This has come about for very good reasons:  in general, society works best, and everyone feels most happy, when most people do not discriminate against other people, and tend to view them as the Declaration of Independence loftily put it, as being essentially equal.  In the past 30 years we have made great strides towards finally creating a society in which people who aren’t white males are not seen as inherently inferior; and the tendency throughout history has been so much in favour of the dominant male caste, that we are understandibly loathe to create distinctions between people.  However, in the process, we can forget how to talk about things which could arguably improve many, if not most people, such as education. 

In other words, it is one thing to say that people are inherently dumber than other people, or that some are uglier than others.  These things are facts which cannot be changed, and so it is best and most humane, until we can genetically engineer people to all be smart and good-looking, not to dwell on them.  But education, on the other hand, can be applied to improve almost everyone, even if the end results will vary widely based on one’s natural traits.

Still, there are many people, including many university students, who are quite foggy on just what education does, or why it might be useful.  Most people in our business-driven society tend to view things merely in terms of “utility” that is:  I learn stuff so that I can get a better job, and earn more money.  And that’s it.  But the fact is, that the very wealthiest and most talented people in our society mostly tend not to study things which are useful:  Prince William did not major in engineering, or veterinary medicine, or in being a computer technician; rather, he spent several years studying art history.  And at Yale, the most common major is history.  Why do all of these talented and very smart people waste their time on something which is not at all useful?  The answer is, of course, that it is useful, in a way that the wealthy instinctually get, but which I am attempting to articulate here, so that the less wealthy might benefit from it.  My purpose, then, is to convince you that it is worth getting a more general education, because it will put you on a par with the wealthy, who rule our society. (more…)

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Most people in the US, including college administrators, believe that the arts and the sciences are entirely different–basically opposite–fields of study.  Why in the Hades, then, are they always lumped together in the same “college”?  Throughout the US, the standard is to have a “college of arts and sciences,” a “college of engineering” and a “college of business.”  So what gives?  Why don’t they just separte the arts and sciences, since they are so radically different?  Many people suspect that the arts people just want to keep them together so that their college doesn’t seem entirely irrelevant, so that it gets phased out altogether.

A step backwards, and a longer term point of view, however, will help us to understand the relations between these fields which tend to remain hidden to people who accept current dogmas on the subject.  Once we have understood the relation between these two general fields of study, we can then properly relate engineering and business to the arts and sciences.  But to start with the arts and sciences.  Most people come to the conclusion that the arts and sciences are entirely different because the sciences are based on math, while the arts are based on language.  That is broadly true, and it is a signficant difference (though in reality there are many crosseovers).   However, the methodology employed by both disciplines is the same:  they both employ systematic logic, that is, the scientific method.  They both accumulate knowledge based on the gathering of facts, and subject existing hypotheses to peer review, which then allows them to advance understanding further.

In this way, we can see that the arts and sciences are basically two branches of the same methodology.  In the middle ages, scholars understood this, in part because the sum of knowledge was so much less that it was easier to see the forest for the trees.  As it explains in the Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, both the arts and the sciences began life during the renaissance, as two branches of philosophy:  the arts were what we today call “philosophy” and the sciences were called “natural philosophy.” (more…)

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My motto when traveling is “soyez prudents,” as the French highway signs have it.  This can be roughly translated as “don’t be stupid.”  So, when I travel, I try and avoid doing anything obviously stupid.  I mean, I have invested going on 20 years in postsecondary education and job experience in order to get a middle class job in my profession, so I’d prefer to stay on the planet long enough for all this to pay off.  In short, I’m not an adventure seeker:  I don’t climb mountains, I don’t skydive, and I have intentionally avoided being a combat photographer.  Even though I do have some adventurousness in my veins:  my grandfather was a dive-bomber pilot and flight instructor for the navy, so that’s about as thrill-seeking as you can get.  Though lately, since I’ve had kids and a bit of money, I’ve both been more prudent (due to the kids) and able to insulate myself from “adventure” while travelling.  As a rule, the more money you have, the less “adventure” you have while you’re travelling — unless you’re intentionally seeking thrills, that is, which for reasons suggested above, I don’t do.

But when you’re travelling on a shoestring, and especially when you’re younger and people therefore respect you less, a lot more interesting things happen to you, interesting being a euphemism for things which are potentially dangerous, uncomfortable, or anxiety-inducing.  But they’re usually the ones that make the best stories afterwards.  As the poet laureate Morrissey would put it:  “I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible.”  

So, without further ado, here’s Trivium’s list of the top 10 unintended things that have happened on my travels.

1.  I guess that having a shotgun levelled at your chest probably counts as a fairly dire predicament.  (more…)

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The other day I heard a friend chide her husband for watching the history channel, and made fun of him for being all highbrow when he watched TV.  “I don’t watch any of that serious educational stuff,” she said.

Which struck me as, well, to be polite, funny, because in class, I make a point of calling it the “Hitler Channel,” since literally 75% of the programming is on World War II.  What the audience doesn’t seem to realize, is that there were in fact other years in history besides 1939-1945.  That was only six years.  There have been other years, sometimes.  And the other 25% of their programming is split between the Cold War, Vietnam, and maybe a bit of World War I here and there.  Was there more to the history of human civilization than the last few wars that happened to involve the US? (more…)

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A brief point about the recent spate of “children sailing around the globe.”  In an article detailing the finding of a 16-year old girl adrift in the Indian Ocean, after attempting to become the youngest person to do so, a few facts come to light.  One, is that her brother had briefly held the record a few years ago.  Another, is that their father owns a yachting company.  A third fact concerns the related story that last year in the US, a seven-year-old girl died, together with her father and her trainer, while attempting to become the youngest person to fly across the US.  She was attempting to land in a rainstorm, after a series of “celebrated stops” across the west, and crashed.  Now why didn’t her father and the trainer react in time to catch the plane?  Clearly, they were not allowed to touch the controls (which were presumably electronically monitored to prevent cheating), or else they would not get the world record.  So they probably waited just a second too late, and, quite literally, boom.  Just a few months back, an Austrailian girl, also photogenic, did manage to sail around the world; and also recently, a 25 year old (and photogenic) british woman set some sort of record for climbing mount everest… but, only after falling on the way down, becoming paralyzed, and having to be dragged off the mountain on a litter by a swarm of sherpas, all of whom had to risk their lives to save the celebrity climber. 

What do all these have in common?  For one, they represent an opportunity for fame and glory, and to make money.  People will always go for these.  With the 25 year old british woman, that was one thing.  She was a consenting adult.  But with the kids, even if they are 16 year old yachters, you will see in the article below that the father insists that the child “did it for the love of the sport.”  But er, yeah, her brother had done it too, and why?  Well many people immediately suspect that the vainglory of the parents had a lot to do with it.  (more…)

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