I Should Like To Say Two Things

I Should Like To Say Two Things

I’m an admirer of the late Bertrand Russell — a philosopher, mathematician, and Nobel laureate in literature. This week, I came across an interview with the BBC where he was asked. “Suppose, Lord Russell, this film were to be looked at by our descendants like a Dead Sea scroll in a thousand years’ time. What would you think it’s worth telling that generation about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it?”

I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral.

The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only, “What are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out?” Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only and solely at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple. I should say, “Love is wise; hatred is foolish.” In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. And if we are to live together, and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

Here’s the full interview.

Beautiful Barista

Beautiful Barista

After a fifteen minute walk to the station, I enter The Cappuccino Bar, the coffee joint where I get my morning fix. The barista nods in greeting. I don’t have to say anything; he knows what I want. But when it’s time to pay, the penny drops. I am without a wallet. That’s half-an-hour lost right there. A thirty minute circular detour of hard, berating steps. The barista, seeing the anguish play over my face, saves me from this fate. “Here,” he says, handing me twenty bucks to go with my latte, “is this enough to get you through the day?” Yes it is, you beautiful man. “Thank you, you’re a life-saver. See you tomorrow.” #KindnessIsMagic

Band Forgotten

Band Forgotten

Let me tell you about Fanny.

In 1968, Alice de Buhr abandoned Iowa for California. She’s a drummer, a seventeen-year-old with a dream of rock stardom. Alice joined the Svelts, a cover band, and briefly toured the West. Later that year, she left the band and founded Wild Honey, a group that played Motown tunes. After a year of touring the Midwest, the band recruited the former guitarist and bass player of the Svelts, sisters June and Jean Millington, who had migrated from the Philippines to Sacramento only a few years before.

A secretary to an industry man discovered Wild Honey at an open-mic appearance at the renowned Troubadour Club in LA. Soon after, in 1969, Alice, June, and Jean were signed to Reprise Records, and before recording their debut album, they hired keyboardist Nickey Barclay to complete the new all-female lineup. They renamed the band to Fanny. June would later explain, “We really didn’t think of Fanny as a sexual term. We felt it was like a woman’s spirit watching over us.” When they toured the UK, they were somewhat dismayed to learn that Fanny was a “rude” word.

Fanny recorded five studio albums, and toured America and Europe extensively, becoming something of a go-to opening act for many of the great bands of the time. They achieved two top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, but sadly, the band never enjoyed wide-spread success. They disbanded in 1975.

All four of them continued to have successful careers as session musicians. June and Jean — now two elderly ladies — still rock out, occasionally playing gigs with young musicians that attend June’s music academy.

One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace. And that is Fanny. They were one of the finest… rock bands of their time, in about 1973. They were extraordinary… they’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever; it just wasn’t their time. Revivify Fanny. And I will feel that my work is done.

— David Bowie, Rolling Stone (1999)

They were described by Iowa Rock ‘n Roll Music Association as, “the first honest to goodness ‘real’ girl rock band.” Here they are performing on German television.

Parlour Trick of the Mind

Parlour Trick of the Mind

Think of two names.

Okay, now throw ’em away. Think of two more. Any two will do.

Got them? Good.

Now, choose one of them and think really hard about it.

I will now attempt to guess—

Just kidding. I have no idea what you’re thinking. It doesn’t matter. What I want to do is pick your brain.

How many names do you know in total? Hundreds? Thousands? Did you consider all of them to arrive at your final two? Obviously, you didn’t. Instead, a few names just popped into your mind. Why those names, do you think, and not others? The answer is complex, no doubt. The takeaway, however, is that you — your conscious self — do not have full control over the input that bubbles up from your subconscious.

But you did choose one name from two in the end. At least you had control over that, right? Well, maybe. Maybe not. By analysing brain function with fMRI, neuroscientists have demonstrated that they can accurately predict people’s decisions — say between pushing a ‘left’ or ‘right’ button — prior to the individuals’ actual awareness of having made the decision.

It may be that even our decisions are injected into our awareness, just like the rest of the subconsciously-generated input that escape our conscious control. If that’s true, free will is an illusion. And to make matters worse, we may very well live in a deterministic world where events are necessitated by antecedent events. That is to say, Laplace’s Demon — a creature who knows everything about the laws of nature and the current state of the universe, such as the precise location and momentum of every atom etc. — knows what you’re going to do next before you know it. And if you could reset, you could not but do the same as before. Everything is determined.

While there is argument to the contrary, the belief that free will is a necessary condition of moral responsibility is orthodoxy. There’s an incentive, therefore, to save free will. Enter compatibilism, the philosophical thesis that free will and determinism are compatible. Free will is not an illusion, they say. Free will is just not the free will you think you have.

But this was all a parlour trick. In the end, we are more than just our awareness; we are our bodies. Are we driving and in control of it? That depends. But we feel in control, and that proves useful. Maybe that’s all that’s important. The decisions that we make matter, very much — to us and to others. We don’t, after all, possess the knowledge of demons.

Cosmically Speaking

Cosmically Speaking

I’ll tell you why you’re insignificant.

Time is old. Time is really, really old. Time, to be specific, has been alive and ticking for 13.8 billion years.

It’s tough to get an accurate perception of something like the age of the universe. Humans are bad with big numbers. I don’t mean in a mathematical sense — we’re pretty good at that — but rather, we’re poor at judging scale and perspective. Have you considered, for example, that there’s a 31 year difference between a million and a billion seconds? By the power of factors, a million seconds, being less than a fortnight, may as well be discarded.

In his book, The Dragons of Eden, and his TV series, Cosmos, Carl Sagan popularised a method to visualise the chronology of the universe. It’s simple. Take its current age, 13.8 billion years, and scale it down to a single year — the Cosmic Calendar — where midnight on 1 January marks the start of time (the Big Bang) and the end of 31 December is right now, this very moment.

The cosmic year is one to remember. Here are a few highlights…

1 January, 14 seconds past midnight: hydrogen starts to form — it’s cool enough now for electrons to combine with protons (previously, the universe had been a hot plasma of photons, electrons, and baryons)

10 January: the first stars ignite — for over 300 million years the universe had been dark

13 January: small galaxies

15 March: our galaxy, the Milky Way

End of August, start of September: our sun, the Earth, and the rest of our solar system

21 September: first life, single-cell organisms

5 December: multi-cell organisms — almost 3 billion years after single-cell organisms

14 December: small animals

20 December: land plants

25 December: dinosaurs — Merry Christmas

26 December: mammals

27 December: birds

28 December: flowers

30 December: dinosaurs die

8 minutes ago: humans

14 seconds ago: modern civilian — every person you’ve ever heard of from here on out

5 seconds ago: Jesus

4 seconds ago: Mohammed

In the last second: modern science and technology, American revolution, French revolution, World War I, World War II, Apollo Moon landing, and Donald Trump

Your life, if you are lucky enough to live to a 109, is a blink of an eye, a quarter of a second. You are insignificant in the grand scheme of the cosmos. But don’t let that get you down. You’re also extremely fortunate to have this fleeting moment in the sun. The average ejaculate has 250 million sperm cells, and you made it buddy. Best make the most of your day.

Why Do I Even Bother?

Why Do I Even Bother?

I’ve devoted a fair amount of time writing to Ben, The Militant Christian. I thought our conversation could actually prove fruitful. Despite his blog name, he’s actually a very “liberal” Christian that appeared to have a genuine interest in science and reason. He started the discussion by trying to establish things that we agree on. A good sign, right?

Stop the presses! The conversation turned sour. Shocking, I know.

Read the rest of this entry

That’s One Way to View It

That’s One Way to View It

Re: OWIRAA {E} The Bible, Part 1: Absurdities

Ben has written his second response, titled, Is the Bible Believable? For a history of our discussion, see God at the Helm?I See Your Expectations and Raise You an Open Mind, and An Open Mind and an Open Heart.

In his latest post, Ben analyses my stated expectation that the bible ought to be believable—lest its authority be questionable. Read the rest of this entry