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The trip home

Our session at AAR yesterday was really interesting and I’ll try to post about it later, but don’t really have the time right now.  I’m just waking up in Oxford, Alabama, and will be driving through that state and Mississippi today listening to In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan.  Most likely flagrantly ignoring the advice of that book in my dining choices along the way.

Edited to add: That is an excellent book, one that I might be interested to hear rather than read even if I weren’t traveling because Scott Brick does such a good job as reader.  Definitely recommended. 

Tea Party leaders v. O’Donnell the fire-breather

Last night I couldn’t get to sleep right away, and stayed up watching Lawrence O’Donnell eviscerate some Tea Party leaders on his MSNBC show “The Last Word.”  I don’t know their names or those of the particular groups they represented, but that was one thing about which O’Donnell made a big issue– the fact that they were all separate groups with separate leaders which he seemed to view as strange and problematic.  They didn’t, insisting that they collaborated and had similar goals in mind but different areas of focus, which seems reasonable for a grass-roots movement to me.  What caused the interview to turn into a blood bath was when O’Donnell asked each of them to define what “socialism” means and ask what specific socialistic programs they would chooses to eliminate.  Naturally he asked specifically about Medicare and social security first, because those are two programs which are a) federal and b) healthcare, supposedly the things that tea partiers on the ground have been complaining and waving signs about most.  None of the four leaders said they would eliminate either of those programs given the choice, though one said he would dramatically overhaul social security.

On the “What is socialism?” question, nobody came up with a good answer– one said “the re-distribution of wealth,” which would be ridiculous even if that were a comprehensive definition as so far as I know, the tea partiers are not anarchists.  They all support government existing in some sense, and in order exist government requires taxation, otherwise known as redistribution of wealth.  Saying that you want x,y, and z government programs to continue but you oppose all taxation is like saying you want to mow the lawn but you refuse to put gas in the lawn mower– good luck with that.  And that’s not an argument along the lines that if want something done, it has to be done by government….it’s an argument that if you want the government to do something, you have to give it the funding to do so.  These two should not be confused.  One of the tea party leaders being interviewed, for example, said that given the choice he would scrap the Department of Education and have public schooling be handled at the local level.  Whatever you might think of this plan, that does qualify as a significant measure to make government smaller and reduce taxation!  For tea partiers, however, my overwhelming impression is that those aren’t the reasons they want to eliminate federal control over public schooling– the real reason, quite simply, is that they don’t like national standards for education.  They want “local communities” to be able to decide that their children don’t have to learn about evolution, can be forced to pray in school, and probably any number of things that the Supreme Court has decided are unconstitutional.   To give them credit, however, these particular tea partiers being interviewed did, when asked, all acknowledge that there is such a thing as a separation of church and state in the U.S., though a couple of them stipulated “according to the Supreme Court,” as though the First Amendment should only be interpreted as supporting such a concept because SCOTUS has said so. 

They did do– or attempted to do– quite a lot of fudging and dodging, however, but O’Donnell would have none of it.  I hadn’t seen much of him on TV before aside from little snippets from time to time, so I had no idea this was his “thing.”  I don’t know if it’s supposed to be his “thing” for “The Last Word,” but now I’m curious to see a few more episodes to find out.*  He actually put the female tea party leader on “time out,” effectively, because she couldn’t or wouldn’t spit out a specific government program she would eliminate.  He told her to think of an answer and he’d get back to her at the end of the show.  Damn.  That kind of thing reminds of me of what I so admired about television and radio news reporters on the BBC– they’re merciless.  They don’t allow interviewees to simply decide to answer a question other than the one the reporter actually asked.  If they try, the reporter will forcefully remind them of what the question is and demand that they answer it.  That’s what O’Donnell was doing, and I almost felt sorry for the people being interviewed.  But you know, “What do you consider socialism” and “What would you cut, if given the opportunity” are not exactly “gotcha” questions for tea party activists!   The “Last Word” was followed on MSNBC by Keith Olbermann rattling off a list of complaints against tea party candidates for office all over the country.  And those are horrible and reason enough to not support any of them, but my bigger grievance with the Tea Party is reflected in this interview with O’Donnell– none of them were clearly able to articulate what exactly they’re trying to eliminate, and none of them had an immediate answer of a part of government they would cut to significantly reduce the debt and the degree of unwanted control that government has over their lives.  The obvious answer if you think about it for half a second would be the defense budget, which is larger than that of every other country in the world combined.  But because these activists are really disenchanted Republicans, that’s not what they’re advocating for cutting– no, it’s all about Obama and healthcare, and not the trillions of dollars being poured needlessly into two “wars” with no reason and no end.  Sigh.

Anyway– it was a good interview, and I’d like to see more like it even though it makes me cringe to see people embarrass themselves.  I debated changing the channel a few times because it was becoming unbearable.  But it’s either this or allow the tea party candidates to just keep spewing nonsense and thinking “WTF?” which doesn’t do anything to highlight their hypocrisy or the frightening implications of a lot of their ideas.  These things need to be doggedly dragged out into the light by people like O’Donnell, so I’m glad he’s doing it. 

*If it seems odd that I’m wondering about this, bear in mind that I don’t have TV at home.  We have television sets, but they’re used for Netflix/DVDs and video games and that’s about it.  And for the most part this is fine, but I do miss out on a lot of political/news commentary, which is sometimes a detriment and sometimes a bonus.


When visiting a place that has a reportedly good aquarium, I can’t not go and check it out for myself.  For someone born and raised in Kansas, I have a strange thing for deep water and its inhabitants.  Going to visit the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta on a Sunday which also happens to be Halloween might not have been the best idea, but it does allow for the opportunity to get a lot of photos like this:

This aquarium is large and has much to look at, but is also a little too Disney-esque for me.  Yes, yes, I know..children are the life-blood of aquariums, zoos, and any other place where there are animals to be seen.  They have to be kid-friendly, or families just won’t come.  But I could really do without the loud music, flashing fluorescent lights, and announcers on loud speakers.   The main hall is like a movie theater, casino, and kid’s museum all rolled into one.  That’s not to say that the place wasn’t impressive in other respects, though– it’s reportedly the largest aquarium in the world in terms of sheer gallonage: “more than 8.5 million gallons of marine and fresh water housing more than 100,000 animals of 500 different species.” 

The majority of that is in their 6.3 million gallon salt water tank, which houses four whale sharks and four manta rays along with hammerheads, tiger sharks, and all kinds of other fish.

Giving TV a run for its money

Another tank houses two beluga whales, which I was happy and disappointed to see all at once– happy because belugas are just amazing creatures…they look like muscular slabs of marble.  Disappointed because their tank really did not look big enough.  I’m not actually sure what “big enough” would be– no tank at all, probably, because I really think it’s better for sea mammals not to live in captivity.  The whale sharks don’t bother me so much, partly because they have a lot more room, partly because these specific sharks were taken from Taiwan’s fishing quota and apparently would’ve been eaten if they weren’t sent to the aquarium, and partly because I perhaps incorrectly assume that as fish they are not as intelligent as the beluga whales are and therefore not as likely to feel frustration about their limited surroundings.  The two belugas seemed to me to be pacing restlessly in their tank, accompanied by a few seals who zipped around on their backs. 

Highlights for me included a big tank of cichlids from Lake Malawi in African Great Rift Valley, beautiful and colorful and numerous, and a tank containing weedy sea dragons, a relative of seahorses native to the southern coast of Australia who, like their cousin the leafy sea dragon in my profile photo, are classified as “near threatened.”  The Dallas World Aquarium has a few of the leafy variety, which is how I discovered them and later found out that they have their own festival in South Australia.  How cool is that?

In case of fire

Here’s an excerpt from the list of very detailed instructions about what to do in every kind of emergency posted on my door:

Attention-drawing red ellipse added by me

Most of these instructions make pretty good sense, but the “DO NOT JUMP!” in all-caps is a little boggling.  As mentioned previously, I’m on the 20th floor.  I’m pretty sure that jumping is something that wouldn’t even occur to me unless I were absolutely convinced that agonizing fiery death was, at maximum, about two seconds away.  You might as well instruct me “DO NOT FILL TUB WITH WATER AND THEN SUBMERGE FACE IN IT UNTIL ASPHYXIATION OCCURS” or “DO NOT INSERT HEAD INTO DRAWER AND SLAM IT SHUT REPEATEDLY.”  Okay, that last one would actually take a long time to kill me, if it’s even possible to die that way.  Plus it would probably require outside assistance.  But you get the idea. 

I like that the placard informs the hotel guest to “keep firefighting,” though.  It feels good to be proactive in an emergency– gives you a sense of purpose and reduces stress.  It might even elevate the person’s self-esteem.  If they’re very good at it, there might be a career opportunity waiting there…who knows?

AAR 2010

Thousands of smiling, mild-mannered people with blue tote bags have descended on the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta.  This is the 2010 American Academy of Religion conference.  I’m posting from my room in that hotel, using the wireless internet that they made me pay for on top of the room rate.  Why do expensive hotels do that? Oh right, because they can.

My spiffy bag

Anyway– I’m here because I’m on the steering committee for the cognitive science of religion consultation this year, and hopefully will be next year and as long as they’ll have me after that.  Even though the vast majority of panels at AAR aren’t for me, I just love academic conferences and the enthusiasm from all of these people– some wearing suits, some that look like hippies, some wearing Buddhist saffron, some in leather– is palpable.  And though the cognitive science section is just getting off the ground, it’s doing so fast.  Attendance has been really good in the past two years, which was a hard thing for me to imagine when searching almost in vain for science-related sessions prior to that.  In 2007 I was excited to attend a special session in an enormous ballroom dedicated to discussion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, only to find when I arrived in the heavily populated room that the talks would primarily be about the FSM’s status as a “new religious movement” and virtually nothing about evolution, intelligent design, or church and state issues.   Sigh.

This year, on the other hand, is a different ballgame.  A few hundred people attended a plenary talk by Frans de Waal, a noted primatologist based at the Yerkes Primate Center here in Atlanta.  He has been researching the capacity of chimpanzees and bonobos (and sometimes other animals) to practice empathy for decades, and based his most recent book, The Age of Empathy, specifically on that subject.  I haven’t gotten through the whole thing at this point so won’t review it yet, but I can say that it should be an easy and engaging read for a non-specialist.  If you’re interesting in hearing about the impressions of ape capacity for reciprocal exchange, altruism, and love from a person who spends virtually every waking hour around them, this book would probably be a good choice for you.  Be aware, however, that this is a contentious subject and de Waal definitely has his detractors.  For more on who they are and why, you might want to pick up Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved.

Oooh….TV.  Georgia TV

This morning’s session was on scientific approaches to religion and reductionism, which is going to be a topic that keeps coming up so long as there are people who don’t understand that reductionism is what science does, and that it’s necessary.  The third speaker gave what I considered the most interesting talk, making a case for something similar to what psychologist Bruce Hood calls “supersense”– the religious sensibility being something that views ordinary objects and behaviors as special for unseen reasons.  A believer who nonetheless devours scientific explanations for religion, he referred to the different kinds of knowing about religion: a) knowledge of the facts about religious beliefs and behaviors, b) introspective knowledge of what it feels like to believe, and c) a scientific understanding of the “how” of religious and behaviors.  The “insider/outsider problem” is a well-known one in religious studies, and people will always be asking whether a believer or a disbeliever is in a better position to give an authoritative description of a religion.  The answer, of course, is that it’s similar to asking whether something is nature or nurture: it’s both, depending on what you want to know.  However empathetic a person you are, empathy relies to an incredible degree on having experienced something like that which your subject is experiencing, or as close to it as you can get.  A person who has never believed in God is just not going to understand what it feels like as well as someone who believes or someone who used to believe and has the memories of that to draw on.  Our memories aren’t anywhere near infallible– it’s not like we have VCRs in our heads, let alone Tivo— but an edited and interpreted memory still beats no memory at all.     

20th floor balcony.  Taking this gave me vertigo.

(I’m working on very little sleep right now…probably should’ve mentioned it earlier, but didn’t because lack of sleep made me forget to do so.  Apologies if I’m not making much sense.)

So that’s the first day, and it has been all about empathy for me.  The bits of political commentary that have eked their way into the Q&A sessions on some of the talks irritate me, but I suppose it’s to be expected at this point– a conference full of herpetologists would probably find a way to work in some snark at some party/candidate or another at this point.  Our section still has some sessions to go, but luckily I have a bit more discretion over what to do tomorrow. I think the aquarium might be calling my name, and I can never pass up an aquarium that can speak.

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