Friday, June 23, 2017

Time-space vortex

So I'm not wrong, every time I come to Southern California, to feel like this is the future. Not that I live in the past. Apparently Brooklyn's among the few places in the north and east with a race/ethnicity/ gender/age breakdown like that predicted for the whole land post-2050.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Flower children

Canchalagua congregating at the TPSR Extension, while a wood at San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve is taken over by naughty nasturtiums.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Bones

 
Bark beetles have killed hundreds of Torrey Pines in the last years, including this collapsed pair, which used to across Carmel Valley to the
Reserve and the ocean - here's in a pic from 2013. Or perhaps it was just old age? Already in 2009, below, it was thinning. In any case, RIP.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Friday, June 16, 2017

Thursday, June 15, 2017

TPSRE

In Torrey Pines State Reserve Extension: an avalanche of coast buckwheat, lava sprays of scarlet larkspur - and hummingbirds!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Longest day

Views from airplane windows of our points of departure - Mount Macedon, VIC - and arrival - Del Mar, CA. The first picture was taken at about 9:45am of an Australian winter, the second ostensibly an hour later in Californian summer, diagonally across the vast Pacific!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sunset over the Mount

And so another Australian visit comes to an end...
I'm glad this part of the world is part of my life.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Closing the circle

It's been a long time coming, but I've finally been to see the "footie" at the "G" - an Australian Rules Football match at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds! I'd been told from first arriving in Oz that sport was the national religion, and, in Victoria, footie in particular. I've seen bits on television and made a half-hearted effort at understanding what was going on - there seem to be few rules, as there are few lines on the pitch. I've met people who've played (including my nephews as tykes doing Auskick), and a woman whose father was a famous footballer, who, she proudly told me, broke every bone in his body (the players have none of the armor of American football players), even his fingers!
But it really is different seeing it live, the vast oval below you, seventy thousand fans around you, and unbelievably energetic long-legged players racing one way and another far below, the ball changing sides constantly, the scale of things alternating between graceful long kicks, elegant passing and tangled scrimages. The word "balletic" recurs in people's praise of the game (at least among the people I know), and beyond the moments when a bunch of men rise, Kierkegaard-style, into the air to catch a kicked ball, there is a grace and a fluid joy to the whole thing - quite the antithesis of the US' static pointillistic national sports (except basketball and hockey, I suppose). The teams playing were Collingwood vs. Melbourne, and underdog Melbourne squeaked out a victory against the fearsome Collingwood, so that was nice, too.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Arch















Being in Australia with dear friends, delightful family and delicious food doesn't mean not missing home a little.

Saturday, June 10, 2017


We took the road over the mount to the Woodend Winter Arts Festival.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Proud brother

Photography was not allowed and I usually don't post pictures of little people I know on my blog, but I can't not let you know that at this year's primary school choirs eisteddfod in nearby Bendigo (no, I didn't know what an eisteddfod was), the choir my sister directs won gold! The staid other choirs have numbers, but the scrappy Warblers have swing!

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Memory lane

Took at peek at the place I lived in Melbourne ten years ago - the last surviving bluestone terrace on Lygon Street. I was not as surprised to see it looking just as shabby as it did then as I was to find the graffiti on its northern wall hasn't been updated in a decade. My main hangout during my Melbourneyear, the State Library of Victoria reading room, seems unchanged, too.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Moonwalk

How did it escape me that First Dog on the Moon is Australian? Many of its characters are marsupials, for goodness sake - though not Ian the Climate Denialist Potato. Luckily, my Fitzroy friend and host D has a complete set, as well as the monthly calendar, with its spot-on take-down of the month where National Reconciliation Week finishes.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

NGV

At the National Gallery of Victoria on Melbourne's Federation Square I was entranced by two oeuvres of extraordinary attention, Margaret Stones' botanical watercolors, and Gulumbu Yunupingu's Gan'yu (stars).
Vita Brits!

Monday, June 05, 2017

Macedon ranges

Local pleasures - a genuine bona fide Aussie-made flat white, and my nephews' primary school, soon to be a place of memory, as the younger one will graduate out for middle school at the end of this year.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Winter in Australia

Snowy Great Dividing Ranges from the last leg of our trip down under.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

JFK-->MEL

This is a little bit of a simplification but we're going from Brooklyn (zip 11238) to Mt. Macedon (postal code 3441). With stops our journey will be more like 28 than 23 hours (well more than 30 if you include getting to and from airports), arriving Saturday though departing Thursday. But if our trajectory is enough like this simplification, we'll actually cross the International Date line 3 times. Trippy! Catch you on the weekend!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Our oyster

We're leaving town for a few weeks! First we're spending a fortnight with my sister and her family in Australia, then we stop in California on the way back to see my parents: weaving together our far-flung little family across hemispheres and seasons and across the great Pacific - which feels like a part of the family too.

(I post this picture of our lovely earth with heavy heart, since the Emir of Chaos is rolling his reality TV dice as we speak to determine which way best to profit from undermining the Paris Climate Accord.)

B&L

It's gratifying to find that some work I did a (long) while ago has found an appreciative audience. Even more so to have proved useful for an important argument about the very recent construction of "philosophy" as a distinctively western thing, born in Greece. As with the modern theory of race, this happened in German scholarship - with Immanuel Kant playing a major role - not the colonial metropoles and peripheries where it might seem the traditional story that philosophy began in Egypt and the "Orient" would have been more threatening.

Peter K. J. Park, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: 
Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 (SUNY 2013), 92

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Up on the roof

On a lark ,checked and found new graffiti atop our building (where we've just signed a lease to stay another year).

Monday, May 29, 2017

O Canada

I've finished the "Science of Religion" (really CSR: cognitive science of religion) MOOC. I even took the final exam (I got 33 out of 36). It was quite enjoyable, all in all, a nice way to make acquaintance with this burgeoning field.

Perhaps it was fun also because the leads are Canadian, able to look beyond models and problems which take the United States unproblematically as normative and universal. (The University of British Columbia, where Slingerland is based, is the home of the WEIRD critique of US psychology: studies carried out almost entirely on college students tell you nothing about the societies, past and present, that aren't Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic.) Slingerland and Shariff are as unmoved by postmodernist relativists as by militant New Atheists, the former too quick to abandon the possibility of a shared humanity, the latter too quick to think that religion and metaphysically-laden values can be left behind - and both, perhaps, more common on this irony-less side of the US-Canadian border. Our leads find the US's religiosity, anomalous for so wealthy a country, traceable less to the vitality of the American religious marketplace than to the insecurity of a society with a weak welfare state and inconsistent welcome of immigrants and diversity.

Although multiple research projects are introduced, disparate in their their methodologies and their hypotheses, a bigger picture about the nature and history of religion does emerge. It's summarized in the abstract to an article of which the leads were co-authors:

a package of culturally evolved religious beliefs and practices characterized by increasingly potent, moralizing, supernatural agents, credible displays of faith, and other psychologically active elements conducive to social solidarity promoted high fertility rates and large-scale cooperation with co-religionists, often contributing to success in intergroup competition and conflict. In turn, prosocial religious beliefs and practices spread and aggregated as these successful groups expanded, or were copied by less successful groups. This synthesis is grounded in the idea that although religious beliefs and practices originally arose as nonadaptive by-products of innate cognitive functions, particular cultural variants were then selected for their prosocial effects in a long-term, cultural evolutionary process. (https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X14001356)

What this means for the future is that religion isn't going to go away. "Promiscuous teleology" and the like will continue to shape human experience, leading even the most hard-nosed naturalists to sense purpose and meaning in events. Science is important but "scientism" - the view that science can answer all questions - is to be avoided. Science explains how, not why, and "radically underdetermines" the values we need to make decisions about how to live. That last point is made with the help of Canadian eminence grise Charles Taylor, though with a cog-sci twist. Here's the explanation of the penultimate question on the final exam:

According to Charles Taylor and Prof. Slingerland, we can’t avoid making strong evaluations. Whether this is due to the “transcendental condition of being human” (as Taylor suggests) or to the innate features of human psychology (as Prof. Slingerland argues), either way we can’t get around holding metaphysical positions on the nature of the universe. Even the most secular ethics, which tries to adhere to fact and reason, is committed to tacit metaphysical positions that can’t be empirically grounded or rationally defended. During the course, we used the example of human dignity, which is not a rational or empirical judgment. Instead it’s a deep intuitive commitment about the nature of the world. In short, holding these positions and feeling deeply committed to them seems to be unavoidable.

It's an irenic project, social science at its friendly best. Everyone is welcome, as long as they're prepared to go beyond inevitably biased "cherry-picking" to seek understanding of what's really happening in human nature and history as a whole. Is there space for believers in the mix? Slingerland and Shariff don't say so. But as psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann (remember her?) says in a TEDx talk included as bonus material to the course: I actually don't think we learn anything about the real nature of God from these observations. I don't think that social science can answer that question. (10:52) 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Summer's first tomatoes, oven dried with balsamic. (Ottolenghi, again!)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Science o' religion

For the fun of it (mostly) I've decided to check out the new EdX online MOOC "The Science of Religion." It's led by Edward Slingerland, whose translation of Confucius' Analects we used this semester, and a young cognitive psychologist named Azim Shariff, and features cameos by various people whose work I know, starting with Ann Taves. Taves' "building block" approach to religion, with which I end "Theorizing Religion," turns out to be foundational for the "science of religion," and is their way of dodging the question of the definition of religion.

I've finished half of the course now. (It's just videos, rather snazzily if sometimes snarkily edited and illustrated - no required readings, as in "World Religions Through Scripture," though each section has a bibliography and bonus videos.) Much of it is material I've encountered before, but it's nice to have it all presented together. Does it all fit together, come together? Perhaps not, or not yet. Lots of methodologies: Darwinian theory, big data analyses of ancient and contemporary social structures, a sort of folk philosophy about "intuitive" belief concerning existential questions (representative is the part of the text of a discussion above)...


And I remain a skeptic about psychology experiments, as when they claim to show that "priming" people with a reminder of mortality is more likely to make them report religious belief. Belief isn't a momentary thing, surely; no doubt it ebbs and flows in awareness and urgency in response to triggers great and small, but that's not what they claim to be showing. On the other hand, I was pleased to hear (in an explanation of "supernatural deterrence theory") that priming people with religion made them more fair and even generous with strangers - though I was also happy to learn that priming them with civil institutions of justice and order achieve the same! 

What to make of the finding that people who repeatedly choose the intuitive but false answer to word problems are more likely to say they've "had an experience that has convinced me that God exists"? Although the different researchers featured are talking about vastly different things and draw often divergent conclusions from them, the broader sense seems to be that religion comes naturally to human beings (more so than does science!), whether as a byproduct of evolved individual and group traits or as itself a selected trait. Of course not all individuals and societies are religious today - they discuss atheists, secularization, etc., too, along with Charles Taylor's idea that everyone needs "strong evaluations" of some kind - so opting out of religion seems a possibility, albeit with limits. 

These questions are close to those of Durkheim and Freud (mentioned early in the course): can social cohesion be ensured once religion is revealed to be an illusion? I'm curious to see where they end up... I'll keep you posted!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

To the library!

Did something I never thought I'd do today - took coffee into a library. Not that it's not allowed - libraries now allow even food, shocking my bibliophile self. But it was rainy today, so sitting in Washington Square Park wasn't an option. And I knew, the summer just having begun, that I'd have a table discreetly to myself.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Press

Some flowers from the Kailash trip, safely preserved in a diary...

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Meditations and Sacrament

Although we bounce rather promiscuously between three churches - two Episcopal, one Catholic - probably our favorite is the Sunday evening Service of Meditations and Sacrament at the Church of the Ascension. The first of this past Sunday's three meditations, generally related to the uncertainty of the disciples at Jesus' upcoming Ascension, was by Mary Oliver.

What is there beyond knowing that keeps
calling to me?

I can’t turn in any direction
but it’s there. I don’t mean

the leaves’ grip and shine or even the thrush’s
silk song, but the far-off

fires, for example,
of the stars, heaven’s slowly turning

theater of light, or the wind
playful with its breath;

or time that’s always rushing forward,
or standing still

in the same—what shall I say—
moment.

What I know
I could put into a pack

as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,

important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained

and unexplainable. How wonderful it is
to follow a thought quietly

to its logical end.
I have done this a few times.

But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing

in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.

If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass and the weeds.

This Service is interfaith in spirit, ecumenical. I don't know of Mary Oliver identifies in terms of any particular religion, or none. Most recently I saw her words featured in the masthead of the Religious Naturalist Association (along with Einstein and Kazantzakis). It hardly matters. It's bread and cheese for our journey.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Giobbe

Look what arrived in the mail today: yours truly in italiano!