on luck

Posting has been patchy lately because I find myself starting up the same pattern that precipitated my recent hiatus — too much to think about, too much to cover here, what to do what to do? I will have to find a better way to cope than throwing up my hands, but for now I just want to highlight this brief but important observation by Rafe Colburn:

One of the biggest mistakes people make in assessing their success or failure is discounting the effect of luck. People prefer to think that they are masters of their own destinies but the truth is that in large parts we are victims of circumstance. Yes, you should avoid problems that you see and make the most of the opportunities that you are presented with, but luck is the main factor. Heck, I was born a white male American with responsible parents who placed a high premium on education. Furthermore, I was born during the period of time when a natural curiousity in computers and the Internet could lead to a decent career. That alone makes me luckier than a huge majority of the people in the world. People are fools not to take those sorts of things into consideration.

Rafe is absolutely right. Failure to take such luck into account is a large part of what makes Republicans. I don’t mean conservatives, I mean Republicans — the modern kind, like Bush Mere: mean-spirited, narrow-minded, empty-hearted assholes with an empathy deficit that would be terminal if there were such a thing as abstract justice. Her son is another perfect, if extreme, example: born into privilege, shielded all his life by that same privilege both from hardship and from the consequences of his own mediocrity, he has nothing but contempt for anyone who does not share his good fortune, which he firmly believes is not fortune but the consequence of his own natural superiority. Less spectacular examples abound; as the spousal unit likes to say, this is why we can’t have nice things.

What thing do you value most?

Chris wants to know, what thing (material possession) do you value most? I like to think that I don’t place much value on things, but that’s an easy question anyway:
I know from experience that when there’s a fire alarm, this is the first and only thing I reach for (I don’t wear it around the house). Spouse, cats, wedding band, in that order. It’s platinum, and heavy; we liked the weight. Cat’s is an exact match. The inscription reads “Senn and Kitty 2002” — our online names, since that’s where we met. It’s getting a little beat up now, and I rather like that. It’s a symbol and reminder of the best thing that ever happened to me, and is the only material possession whose loss would cause me lasting sadness.

Testing Meme Propagation In Blogspace: Add Your Blog!

This posting is a community experiment that tests how a meme, represented by this blog posting, spreads across blogspace, physical space and time. It will help to show how ideas travel across blogs in space and time and how blogs are connected. It may also help to show which blogs are most influential in the propagation of memes. The dataset from this experiment will be public, and can be located via Google (or Technorati) by doing a search for the GUID for this meme (below).
The original posting for this experiment is located at: Minding the Planet — results and commentary will appear there in the future.
Please join the test by adding your blog (see instructions, below) and inviting your friends to participate — the more the better. The data from this test will be public and open; others may use it to visualize and study the connectedness of blogspace and the propagation of memes across blogs.
The GUID for this experiment is: as098398298250swg9e98929872525389t9987898tq98wteqtgaq62010920352598gawst
(this GUID enables anyone to easily search Google (or Technorati) for all blogs that participate in this experiment). Anyone is free to analyze the data of this experiment. Please publicize your analysis of the data, and/or any comments by adding comments onto the original post (see URL above). (Update: shorter GUID for narrow column formats: as098398298250swg9e; both will continue to work.)
To add your blog to this experiment, copy this entire posting to your blog, and then answer the questions below, substituting your own information, below, where appropriate. Other than answering the questions below, please do not alter the information, layout or format of this post in order to preserve the integrity of the data in this experiment (this will make it easier for searchers and automated bots to find and analyze the results later).
REQUIRED FIELDS (Note: Replace the answers below with your own answers)
(1) I found this experiment at URL: http://pharyngula.org/index/weblog/testing_meme_propagation_in_blogspace_add_your_blog/
(2) I found it via “Newsreader Software” or “Browsing the Web” or “Searching
the Web” or “An E-Mail Message”: Newsreader Software
(3) I posted this experiment at URL: http://www.sennoma.net
(4) I posted this on date (day, month, year): 03/08/04
(5) I posted this at time (24 hour time): 23:59:00
(6) My posting location is (city, state, country): Portland, Oregon, USA
OPTIONAL SURVEY FIELDS (Replace the answers below with your own answers):
(7) My blog is hosted by: uh, my wife set it up for me, I am clueless
(8) My age is: 35
(9) My gender is: male
(10) My occupation is: molecular biologist
(11) I use the following RSS/Atom reader software: Bloglines
(12) I use the following software to post to my blog: Movable Type version 2.65
(13) I have been blogging since (day, month, year): 29/12/03
(14) My web browser is: Firefox
(15) My operating system is: Mac OS X (at work), Windows XP (at home)

why do you care; or, if you don’t, why not?

Joi Ito, in one of his thinking-out-loud style posts, wondered about what it is that makes people care:

What is really striking to me and something that I’m trying understand is the process that people go through to reach a higher level of caring for human beings outside of their immediate circle. I think that this process holds the key for some of the important contributions that technologies can make.

This struck me as being a fundamental question. It seems utterly — viscerally — obvious to me that human need on the other side of the world, or down the block, matters to me; that it affects me, that I must respond to it. By way of rational explanation, I offer two observations. One, I’ve been up and down a bit through my life, and it’s not hard for me to see myself in pretty much any lousy situation; and I know that it’s all too easy to end up in the shite through no fault of your own, and fault doesn’t matter much anyway when you just need a hand. Two, I am always better off if those around me, whether next door or across the world, are better off: it means they are more able and more likely to lend me a hand if I should need one, and less likely to try to elevate their situation by climbing over me. In the long term, over many generations, sharing is the only real security. In the short term, over one lifetime say, that doesn’t really hold. There are plenty of assholes living well on other people’s sweat, and since I don’t believe in any form of life after death I don’t believe they will ever pay any material price for that. The price they pay, though, is in quality of life. I don’t believe you can be happy without awareness, and once aware you cannot escape empathy. Or to put it another way: like Honest Abe, I feel good when I do good things, and that’s my religion; and I don’t see how anyone can be really happy any other way. Money and power and all the trappings thereof are no substitute; not even close.
I didn’t always see the world that way, though, and it got me to wondering how I came to have the Weltanschauung I now do. About then, kevin of bastish.net joined the conversation with a careful exposition of his own journey into caring. It neatly describes my own, and so I reproduce it here with his permission:

1. Ignorance
—-Blissfully unaware of problems and plights of both neighbors and those thousands of miles away.
2. Awareness
—-Heard something on the news. Know it’s not good. Think “Someone should do something about that.”
3. Superficial action
—-Start making easy changes, that don’t affect my lifestyle. Requesting paper bags instead of plastic. Recycle bottles. “Adopt” a poor kid in Columbia. Begin to feel “I am good”, yet continue with my own irresponsible patterns of consumption, make decisions based on my own wants, rather than how they will affect other people.
My Tipping Point
3.5 Relatively satisfied with own economic / social condition
—-Realize that I don’t need to be rich, that my “quality of life” is not based on how much money I have, that I don’t need to own what TV, movies, and blogs tell me I do. Begin to have less-quantitative values. Spend less time trying to get richer, begin to have more time to read about both local and global issues.
4. Deeper awareness
—-Aware of how my life-style decisions are effecting other people in a negative way. Begin to seriously think about global / local inequalities and what it really means.
4.5 Dissatisfied with own condition as an irresponsible-consumer.
—-Realize that my superficial actions are worthless, no matter how many times I re-use a plastic bag, it doesn’t help if I am using it buy sweat-shop goods at Wal-Mart. In order to make change, I have to change my lifestyle first, because it is my lifestyle that promotes global inequality.
5. Despair
—-Overwhelmed with the enormity of the situation, and the impossibility of changing my behavior, yet remaining a member of a society that doesn’t share my values, and puts enormous pressure to put myself first.
6. Find examples / community
—-Begin reading, searching, eventually find a community and examples of people who share my values.
7. Resolution / Search for answers
—-If they can do it, I can do it too. Resolve that I will make consumer decisions based on a “first, do no harm” approach.
Research, research, research. What are the effects of my decisions? How much do I need to consume? What should I avoid? What can I cut out? What can I use as a substitute?
8. Implementation on a personal level
—-Live own life according to the information I am finding. Strive to make good decisions. This is a semi-active approach. While I am actively changing my own lifestyle, placing my wallet vote, I am not doing anything to actively influence others to make large scale changes.
9. Despair
—-Plagued with increased awareness, filled with despair that for every good choice or sacrifice I make, there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who don’t care, who are working against a sustainable, equitable earth, who can nullify a years worth of my sacrifices, with a single trip to the mall.
10. Implementation on a local level
—-Activism on a local level. First, setting an example to those around you by living in a way that promotes your ideals. Devoting time and money to help local institutions influence local policy.
11. Implementation on a global level
While I am not there yet, I have recently applied to a couple graduate programs regarding policy making for sustainability and global equity, in the hopes that I can use what I learn there to implement more wide-spread changes and influence more than my friends and family.

I’m just starting on #10. On a global scale I’m not sure what I can do, besides supporting worldwide charities and being politically active here in the US (Anyone But Bush ’04!); but that’s a start, and perhaps other opportunities will present themselves.
So to return to the point of this post, I’d like to hear from anyone reading this: do you care? If so, why; if not, why not? Answers on a postcard in Joi’s comment thread, of course.

and that’s a great name for a blog, too

If you like stimulating conversation, you should be reading Crooked Timber. These are just from the last few days:
How will history judge? Micah picks up on this post at En Banc and asks, What will the America of 2104 think of the America of 2004?
In this post, philosopher Brian Weatherson points with sensible trepidation to Peter Singer’s new book, The President of Good and Evil: The Convenient Ethics of George W. Bush. Given the timing of its release, I honestly suspect the book is aimed more at getting Singer back on TV than anything else. Nonetheless, Brian raises interesting questions that he’d like to see Singer tackle, and the comment thread has some interesting back-and-forth about Singer’s most famous ideas regarding abortion and infanticide.
Speaking of books, this post is a must-read. Harry wants to know of “two books you think every educated person should have read, published 1970 or later”. On another blog, this topic could be tiresome, but on CT I can almost guarantee that you’ll get some great reading recommendations out of it. For me, so far:
The History and Geography of Human Genes – Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza
In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust
Feynman�s Lectures on Physics
Maus – Art Spiegelman
Development as Freedom – Amartya Sen
Love in the Time of Cholera – Marquez
The Drowned and the Saved – Primo Levi
The Eighth Day of Creation – Horace Judson
Understanding Media – Marshall McLuhan
An Artist in the Floating World, Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
Sometimes a Great Notion – Ken Kesey
The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles
Finally, this post is a quick pointer to a book review, but the comments thread finds its way to the question “what is science?”, which I find endlessly interesting. Commenter Keith M Ellis does a bang-up job of making Kuhnians (Kuhnites? Kuhnts?) look ridiculous.
Update: that remark was unfair, the more so since I keep comments off on posts highlighting conversations on other blogs. My apologies to Mr Ellis; see the thread (in the next day or so; I’m really busy) for a more substantive contribution from me.
Update: see also here.

nader nader nader

It seems that Ralph Nader’s recent announcement that he is considering running for Preznit again has stirred up controversy in the blogosphere. Max has this to say, and Lawrence Lessig this; the comments threads on both are good. A while back, Patrick said this, which also begat a commentfest that I meant to feature.
The Nader issue is interesting to me because it highlights two potentially very different approaches to politics. Is your vote a tactical weapon in the struggle to improve society, or an expression of your political and ethical worldview? Is politics the art of the possible, or the arena in which different moral systems do unflinching battle? I’m something of a utilitarian and very much a meliorist, so I think you should write or paint or flash a boob on national TV if you want to express yourself; when you vote, do the most good you can and leave your ego out of it. (I should add: that’s not to say that even swing-state Nader 2000 voters were simply indulging their ego; it seems to me that it would have been possible, before the excesses of Gee-Dub and the Corporate Welfare Tribe, to be willing to risk electing Bush II in order to promote a strong progressive voice and a third party.)
(An aside: I note with pleasure that Max’s trackback window says “Continuing the discussion…”. As always, comments off on this entry; the conversation is happening at the end of those links.)

lost art

For me, weblogs are largely about conversation. With trackback and comments enabled, a blog can host some amazing conversations; see Making Light and Crooked Timber for just two examples. I’ll be using this category to highlight interesting conversations I’ve come across, starting now with this one on Making Light. From the (relatively uncontroversial) observation that PETA are basically nuts, it has ranged across vegetarianism, ninja tarantulas and questions of natural law and the ordered universe, by way of such arresting anecdotes as this:

You can, actually, feel a lot of pain without showing any sign of it. Or at least that was my experience when my grandmother kindly tried to shave my legs with an electric razor while I was in a coma. The funny thing is, after all the fuss of pulling the plug, I didn’t die. For those who have not tried this form of dipilatory torture, may I say it ranks right up there with hot candle wax on a sunburn and veterinary needles through mucous membrane?

(Note: comments to these entries will be turned off; it’s not my intention to become a blog-parasite!)