Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cassandra's curse and Destiny

The Cassandra metaphor (variously labelled the Cassandra 'syndrome', 'complex', 'phenomenon', 'predicament', 'dilemma', or 'curse'), is a term applied in situations in which valid warnings or concerns are dismissed or disbelieved.

[I particularly like this bit:]

The Marvel Comic characters Mystique and Destiny are two mutant super-villains driven to commit acts of violence and terrorism based upon Destiny's visions of the future. Comic writer (and creator of the characters) Chris Claremont often refers to Destiny as a "Cassandra" figure whose predictions of death for mutantkind are often ignored by the X-Men, with catastrophic effect. However, while Destiny often took her failures in stride, her lover and comrade Mystique would ultimately be driven to insanity after coming into possession of Destiny's various diaries, written with details of the future of mankind and mutantkind. Her madness ultimately leads her to fight the X-Men, who defeat her. Afterwords, Mystique gives the X-Men her copies of Destiny's diaries, promptly telling the X-Men that it was their time to "play Cassandra" with the information inside the diaries.

Cassandra's curse and Destiny

Melamine and Health

Toxicological and Health Aspects of
Melamine and Cyanuric Acid

According to a report from the Chinese Ministry of Health, 294,000 infants had been affected by melamine-contaminated infant formula by the end of November 2008. More than 50,000 infants have been hospitalized, and six deaths have been confirmed. Because of the large potential health impact, the World Health
Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) convened an Expert Meeting.

I apologize for not writing more but reading this report makes me too sad to be able to comment further for now. I haven't been myself for awhile. Forgive me.

Here's a recent correspondence N Engl J Med note on Melamine-Contaminated Powdered Formula and Urolithiasis with some cites to earlier articles. So I see that people of good will are working on this important topic. I leave it to the experts to solve these problems with my best hopes. I will follow the story as much as I can because I genuinely care about the people and my cats, in that order.

For my friends, see also:
世卫组织与粮农组织在加拿大卫生部协助下举行的 审查三聚氰胺与氰尿酸毒理问题专家会议

Updated and revised July 17 to reflect ongoing worldwide efforts to protect human health.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Surfeit of Donkeys

The blogosphere has been much abuzz of late with, stories about the mainstream media making asses out of themselves, whether it be Time getting owned by Greg Greenwald or the Washington Post frontpaging a story full of scurrilous rumors about Barrack Obama that had been debunked online months earlier.

These incidents called to mind something I'd noticed last month when Robert Redford's film Lions for Lambs opened. The title is drawn from a phrase purportedly used by a German general to describe the brave British soldiers being led by incompetents as: "lions led by lambs". As a number of reviewers in the U.K. (and my brother) have noted, the commonly used phrase is "lions led by donkeys", which seems better for emphasizing incompetence as opposed to meekness.

In checking out what appeared to be a misquote, I found Wikipedia's entry showed that the common attribution is to generals Erich Ludendorff and Max Hoffmann. There were also earlier usages by the Times of London. In googling the phrase, I did come across this entry on TimesOnline. "While some military archivists credit the author as an anonymous infantryman, others argue that the source was none other than General Max von Gallwitz, Supreme Commander of the German forces. In either case, it’s generally accepted to be a derivation of Alexander the Great’s proclamation, “I am never afraid of an army of Lions led into battle by a Lamb. I fear more the army of Lambs who have a Lion to lead them.”

In looking into this, I could not find even one "archivist" or "expert" who attributed this to either Gallwitz or Alexander the Great.

If you can't trust the MSM to do even such basic fact checking, what else might they get wrong? I know the result is trivial here but I recall seeing somewhere where they suggested Ambien as the indicated treatment for someone suffering manic depression. That's the sort of mistake that could cause someone to spend a long time hospitalized or to take their own life. I'm sure I've got that reference around here somewhere.

The bottom line is don't believe everything you read in the papers and be sure to do your own research. For specialized topics, there are great search engines like scifinder and webofscience but it is truly amazing what, to paraphrase Brian Williams' immortal line, even someone who hasn't left the house in a number of years can accomplish just by using google and wikipedia.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

That which is of most importance

He who attends to his greater self becomes a great man, and he who attends to his smaller self becomes a small man. - Mencius

Saturday, May 12, 2007


By the West Pavilion, on a thousand feet of cliff,
Walking at midnight under my latticed window.
Flying stars pass white along the water,
Transparent beams of moonset flicker on the sand.
At home in its tree,notice the secret bird:
Safe beneath the waves,imagine the great fishes.
From kinsmen and friends at the bounds of heaven and earth
Between weapon and buffcoat, seldom a letter comes.
- Tu Fu

Monday, April 23, 2007

"It's the Rhetoric, Stupid"

The following initially appeared as a comment to a thoughtful and entertaining post by Michael Bérubé highlighting polling results showing that the American public is less willing to vote for someone who is an atheist than for just about any other category descriptor (humorously including the "GEICO caveman" and a "zombie"). In his post, he noted that some on the left side of the spectrum have been calling on atheists to show more respect for religious viewpoints in the political arena and questioned what motivates such critics. As always, he participated extensively in the comment threads of his post which make for good additional reading and, in particular, here is his generous response to my comment.

"It's the rhetoric, stupid"
I never imagined myself as a DLC apologist, but here goes:

I think that the sort of respect that some on the "left" would like us atheists to pay to religion in the public marketplace [of ideas] is illustrated, in its absence, by noted atheist author Sam Harris in an ongoing discussion with Andrew Sullivan, where Harris writes:

Where I think we disagree is on the nature of faith itself. I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason (and, therefore, that religion is necessarily in conflict with science), while you do not. Perhaps I should acknowledge at the outset that people use the term "faith" in a variety of ways. My use of the word is meant to capture belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence-prayer can heal the sick, there is a supreme Being listening to our thoughts, we will be reunited with our loved ones after death, etc. I am not criticizing faith as a positive attitude in the face of uncertainty, of the sort indicated by phrases like, "have faith in yourself." There's nothing wrong with that type of "faith."

Given my view of faith, I think that religious "moderation" is basically an elaborate exercise in self-deception, while you seem to think it is a legitimate and intellectually defensible alternative to fundamentalism.

By construing religious faith as not merely separate from, but also "in conflict" with, reason, not to mention distinguishing it from the kind of faith "[t]here's nothing wrong with," Harris demands devaluing faith by anyone who claims to value reason, which, given the poll data you presented, poses a bit of a problem in the electoral arena. Must we really force people to choose between faith, on the one hand, and reason and science on the other? People also do not generally respond well to arguments that they are engaging in "self-deception," and I expect they will not be thrilled to discover that atheists think that moderation in the opposition of fundamentalism is no virtue.

All well and good, so we shouldn't overtly invalidate the role of faith in moral reasoning or liken belief in a particular religion to false consciousness, but how does one respond to the conversation-stopping religious argumentation in your examples? I suggest that we merely and politely acknowledge the incommensurability of our systems of evaluating the validity of faith-based arguments, leave them our literature on why we support, e.g., abortion rights, shake hands and part ways on those issues while still making use of the valuable, religious concepts we can reach via secular reasoning, such as caritas and agape, of which you have written elsewhere.

Is this the respect that adherents of religion themselves want? No. As Stanley Fish has recently written (from behind the NYT subscription wall), "But religion’s truth claims don’t want your respect. They want your belief and, finally, your soul. They are jealous claims." We cannot give the religious right any respect that it will value. As for our leftward of the religious right friends who want us to grant religious claims more respect in the political marketplace, I suspect that they have little interest in our souls or even the souls of swing voters, unless souls get votes in addition to the ones bodies get. They just want us atheists to stop offending the rather large number of voters who value both faith and reason--ours is not to reason how--while conceding the hopeless cavemen and zombie voters. For example, if we don't force people to choose between their Catholic faith and supporting access to birth control for all the rational reasons, they might somehow find a way to choose both of the above, and, somehow, they did just that.

I think you may have underestimated the appeal of, and need for repeating, the "usual arguments about competing for swing voters and trying not to piss people off unnecessarily." While trying to gain the votes of the religious right is a hopeless prospect, not losing the votes of the religious middle seems like a valuable goal.