A Treasure Trove for Autodidacts

dissecting a circle

Trevor Blake sent me this:

References & Resources for LessWrong

LessWrong is “community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality.” I’ve occasionally dipped into the blog, but never made much of a habit of it. But this reference page is excellent – the section on mathematics seems particularly useful. There are sections on artificial intelligence, machine learning, game theory, computer science, philosophy and more.

And via that resource page are two other amazing resources:

Khan Academy: A massive collection of free self-paced math and science lessons.

Better Explained: a site that, y’know, explains stuff. Like calculus.

Is Cosmology a Form of Theology for a Secular Age?


Why is cosmology so popular? Books by writers such as Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking on fine-tuning or the multiverse routinely become bestsellers. They’re good writers, of course. And there’s the aesthetic appeal of cosmology too, offering a ceaseless stream of heavenly images at which to wonder and gaze. But I suspect there’s more to it than that.

After all, many other branches of physics are progressing as fast, and arguably have a bigger impact upon our daily lives. But when did you last pick up a paperback on solid state physics, one of the largest contemporary research fields? Or who would choose a book about optics over one about the Big Bang? Chaos theory gets a look in, as does quantum theory — though that’s very close to cosmology, as the history of universe turns on the physics of the very small.

So here’s a possibility. Cosmology is so popular, not just because of the science, but because it allows us to ask the big questions — where we come from, who we are, where we’re going. It’s metaphysics by other means. If the Scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages liked to speculate about the number of angels on the heads of pins, we today like to speculate about the number of dimensions wrapped up in string theory. The activities are similar insofar as they feed the delight we find in awe-inspiring wonder.

Big Questions: The Mirror of the Cosmos

(Thanks Paul Bingman)

Does Atheism Offer As Much Comfort in Death As Religion?

Ever since I became an atheist, I’ve been struck by the fact that, even when people believe that death is no more than a temporary separation, they still grieve deeply and desperately for the people they love, as if they were never going to see those people again. Belief in an afterlife doesn’t keep people from mourning in terrible anguish when their loved ones die. It doesn’t keep people from missing the loved ones they’ve lost, for years, for the rest of their lives. And it doesn’t keep people from fearing their own death, and putting it off as long as they can. (And for the record: No, I don’t think this makes them hypocrites. I think it makes them human.) The comfort of religion doesn’t eradicate grief, any more than the comfort of atheism does. It simply alleviates it to some extent.

But does an atheist philosophy of death offer less comfort than a religious one? Honestly — I think that depends. For one thing, I think it depends on the atheist philosophy. A philosophy of (for instance) “Yes, I’m going to die, but my ideas and the effect I had on the world will live on for a while ” will probably be more comforting than a philosophy of, “Yeah, death totally sucks, but that’s reality, reality bites, whaddya gonna do.”

Plus, obviously, it depends on the religion as well. Many true believers in a blissful afterlife aren’t actually very comforted by this belief. It’s common for believers to be tormented by the thought that, even if they’re going to Heaven, the apostates in their family are going to burn in Hell… and how can Heaven be Heaven if their loved ones are burning in Hell? And many religious beliefs about death fill their believers, not with comfort, but with terror and guilt… and many atheists who once held those beliefs say that letting go of them was a profound relief. They would much rather believe in no afterlife at all than an afterlife determined by the vengeful, nitpicky, capricious, psychopathically sadistic god they were brought up to believe in.

Alternet: Does Atheism Offer As Much Comfort in Death As Religion?

(via Disinfo)

Illustrations for A Thousand Plateaus



More here

(Thanks Abe)

New York Times article on black metal

A mainstream newspaper writing about an academic conference on the subject of black metal:

You can imagine several orders of hostility toward “Hideous Gnosis,” a six-hour theory symposium on black-metal music that commenced on Saturday afternoon at Public Assembly, a bar and nightclub in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Not just because plenty of people like to make fun of academics discoursing on youth culture but because the subject was something like the music that dare not speak its name. […]

One commenter on the online-forum page of the metal magazine Decibel summed up a certain kind of black-metal fan’s attitude toward the symposium. This music, the contributor wrote, “has nothing to do with being intellectual and everything to do with not wanting to try and break every little thing apart” for analysis. […]

Was the afternoon humorous, ridiculous or at least ludic? Not really. (It could have used a few more dozen spectators and a temperature boost of about 15 degrees.) To the contrary, it felt necessary. Despite what black-metal musicians might proclaim — Ovskum, an Italian singer and guitarist, was quoted in one of the symposium’s lectures as saying, “my music does not come from a philosophy but from a precritical compulsion” — their work is basically philosophy. It is theoretical, a grid for looking at life, with ancient roots. It could use a critical apparatus, and though the afternoon’s many citings of Continental philosophers like Lacan, Derrida and Bataille might have seemed ludicrously distant to the practice of black metal, such writings relate to the subgenre’s big subjects: death and time.

New York Times: Thank You, Professor, That Was Putrid

Matt Taibbi: Obamania

I was particularly struck by his analysis of the now-infamous video of Sarah Palin book-buyers explaining to a snarky interviewer how they support her despite the fact that they can’t really identify any of her positions. Greenwald notes the obvious parallel:

“The similarity between that mentality and the one driving the Obama [supporters] is too self-evident to require any elaboration. Those who venerated Bush because he was a morally upright and strong evangelical-warrior-family man and revere Palin as a common-sense Christian hockey mom are similar in kind to those whose reaction to Obama is dominated by their view of him as an inspiring, kind, sophisticated, soothing and mature intellectual. These are personality types bolstered with sophisticated marketing techniques, not policies, governing approaches or ideologies.”

I completely agree with Greenwald and I know that what he’s saying is true because I did exactly the same experiment the Palin interviewer tried — at Obama’s inauguration. I interviewed dozens of people and almost without exception the answers to the question “What specific policies do you expect the new president to enact?” were of the following character:

“I think he’s going to bring people together.”

“He really cares about us.”

“I believe that he’s going to help people.” […]

Anyone who wonders why the Obama administration seems to be bending over so far backwards to appease conservatives and industry leaders in the health care debate and Wall Street in the financial regulatory reform debate can find their answer there: those groups make Obama pay for their financial/political support with real actions and policy concessions, while Obama’s “base” will continue their feverish support in exchange for mere gestures and marketing hocus-pocus, for news about the new family puppy or an appearance on Jay Leno.

Matt Taibbi: Obamania

I suspect it runs a bit deeper than this – that everyone, including Taibbi and including me, chooses their politics based not on reason but on some calculus of social and cultural influence, personal preference, and individual psychological eneds and rationalizes it later (“what the thinker thinks, the prover proves,” as Bob Wilson said).

Searching for Steve Ditko

mr. a by steve ditko

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that Ditko sees himself as a real-life “Howard Roark,” Rand’s fictional architect in The Fountainhead, a man who refuses to compromise his vision. Rand’s influence was even more obvious in his right wing vigilante character Mr A, who would throw someone off a building for disagreeing with him. His work became didactic, shrill, hectoring and far-right his influence waned. Mr. A was like Bill O’Reilly as a superhero. What teenager wants to be yelled at by a moralistic superhero? In the opinion of many, his work degenerated into fascistic rhetoric and lunacy from the late 60s onwards.

There have been almost no interviews, ever, with Steve Ditko. While really not a hermit or a recluse, he’s an intensely private person and refuses all interviews, although there are stories of him speaking to a fan ballsy enough to ring his doorbell, but always standing in the doorway, never inviting them in to his studio. In his recent BBC documentary In Search of Steve Ditko, otaku British talkshow host Jonathan Ross tracked Ditko down in New York City and called the artist on the telephone. Ditko politely refused his request for an on camera interview. But when Ross (and Neil Gaiman) showed up on his doorstep, he did in fact entertain them, although not on camera.

Dangerous Minds: Searching for Steve Ditko


Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (Buy it on Amazon)

In search of Steve Ditko documentary on YouTube

I first heard about this documentary from Trevor a couple years ago, but I haven’t watched it yet.

How Ayn Rand Became an American Icon

Ayn Rand is one of America’s great mysteries. She was an amphetamine-addicted author of sub-Dan Brown potboilers, who in her spare time wrote lavish torrents of praise for serial killers and the Bernie Madoff-style embezzlers of her day. She opposed democracy on the grounds that “the masses”—her readers—were “lice” and “parasites” who scarcely deserved to live. Yet she remains one of the most popular writers in the United States, still selling 800,000 books a year from beyond the grave. She regularly tops any list of books that Americans say have most influenced them. Since the great crash of 2008, her writing has had another Benzedrine rush, as Rush Limbaugh hails her as a prophetess. With her assertions that government is “evil” and selfishness is “the only virtue,” she is the patron saint of the tea-partiers and the death panel doomsters. So how did this little Russian bomb of pure immorality in a black wig become an American icon?

Two new biographies of Rand—Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns and Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne Heller—try to puzzle out this question, showing how her arguments found an echo in the darkest corners of American political life.* But the books work best, for me, on a level I didn’t expect. They are thrilling psychological portraits of a horribly damaged woman who deserves the one thing she spent her life raging against: compassion.

Slate: How Ayn Rand Became an American Icon

(via Cat Vincent)

The author of this pieces identifies her philosophy with Nietzsche, but Max Stirner was probably a more important influence.

See also: Ayn Rand’s Revenge (Thanks to Bill)

One hundred years since the death of Friedrich Nietzsche: a review of his ideas and influence

World Socialist Web Site’s Nietzsche retrospective from 2000:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

(Thanks Nick Hate)

A very good set of essays, if unfair to Nietzsche’s work as a whole. The third part is the weakest. Steinberg obviously has an axe to grind with the post-structuralists et al. and that’s fine. But it’s perfectly reasonable to agree with some things a philosopher wrote and disagree with others. Nietzsche was clearly a reactionary, but does he offer nothing of worth?

Apologists for Nietzsche seek to distance him from the policy and activities of the Nazis. But is Nietzsche’s position here so remote from Adolph Hitler’s entreaty, in an internal NSDAP memo of 1922, for the: “most uncompromising and brutal determination to destroy and liquidate Marxism”? Adolph Hitler was certainly no philosopher, just as Nietzsche was not merely a political ideologue. But who can reasonably doubt that the former had little difficulty in seamlessly incorporating the latter’s thoroughly backward-looking programme of biological racism, hatred of socialism and the concept of social equality—together with his advocacy of militarism and war—into the eclectic baggage of ideas which constituted the programme of National Socialism?

Here Steinberg is correct: there’s no reason to put lipstick on a pig. Nietzsche held some reprehensible views and to pretend otherwise is either dishonest or naive.

I’m reminded of the conversation we had about H.P. Lovecraft’s racism: some racists get a pass, others don’t. I caught some flak about posting the complete text of Might is Right here, but I doubt I would have heard a peep if I’d posted the complete text of On the Genealogy of Morals.

Some Points About Pointing


“A few years ago I published a book, The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being, which identified the opposable thumb as one of the main drivers of humanity to its uniquely self-conscious state. Full opposability not only made the hand more versatile, but for a variety of reasons changed the hand into a proto-tool unlike any other organ in the animal kingdom. It was this that awoke the sense that humans have of being conscious agents and set them on a direction away from the condition of organisms which merely live, to that of embodied subjects who lead their lives. There was nothing particularly original in identifying the hand as the key to the exceptional nature of humans: Anaxagoras, Aristotle, Kant, Erasmus Darwin, had preceded me, to name just a few. What originality my thesis had lay in the details of my argument and the precise way in which I linked the hand to Man the Toolmaker, and, though this, to the development of a true sociality. This sociality is based upon what I characterised as ‘the collectivisation of consciousness’, from which emerged the community of minds that is the human world.

Some years after I had published this book, I received a fascinating letter from a reader. While accepting the main thrust of my thesis, they argued that I had overlooked the importance of another feature of the human hand: the relative freedom of the index finger. This observation fell on fertile ground. For many years, I have been fascinated by one of the primary functions of the index finger: pointing. Up in the loft I still had a manuscript, abandoned in 1973, called Studies in Pointish. Clearly the time had come to re-visit the manuscript and the topic. The result is a work in progress – Michelangelo’s Finger – and a good deal of fun.

One of the joys of philosophical thought is that it requires no equipment or any particular occasion. The necessary materials are always to hand – in the case of meditating on pointing, literally so. Something apparently trivial, if examined in the right spirit, can become a glass-bottomed boat, giving us access to the near-fathomless depths upon which everyday life floats. It was Wittgenstein who pointed out (the phrase is inescapable but I shall try not to use it again) that there is nothing obvious about pointing. It is not, for example, self-evident that the direction of the pointer is from the shoulder to the finger tip and not vice versa. It takes a Martian or genius to notice that (and Wittgenstein was of course both). In fact, the rules of basic pointing turn out to be quite complicated. This nails the mistaken belief that pointing is a natural sign – that it is transparent and requires no interpretation. It is highly conventional.”

(via Philosophy Now)

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