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Sunday, June 26, 2005

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Australia - "Land of Lizards"

Over at my Biology Notes blog, I get a lot of people visiting who are looking for information on this lizard. It's known as the "thorny devil" or Moloch horridus. I suppose it is one of the more interesting of the lizards found here in Australia. But I think the "jewelled gecko" has a lot of charm. And the "spiny knob-tailed gecko" has an amusing, unfinished look. The "southern knob-tailed gecko" is quaint as well, and may be the species I saw once in the Reptile House at Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney. A very pretty lizard. And the only animal that I know that wears blue eyeshadow.


Julian

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Saturday, June 25, 2005

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Nobody's asked me ...

the question that people have been answering on the Internet about how many books one owns, and what are one's favourites, and what one bought most recently. However, here are my answers anyway. My wife and I would have several thousand books in our house. About two-thirds of them are mine. I have large collections on biology, social sciences and religion; smaller collections on physical sciences, technology, literature, history, sport and politics. I have something on most topics, with the notable exception of law. I recently received a nice birthday cheque, of which I blew 170 dollars on a book-buying splurge at Canberra's "Academic Remainders" bookshop. I bought books on a variety of topics: foetal alcohol syndrome, alcoholic liver disease, plastic surgery, nephrology, WWII German rocket planes, cryptozoology, Parisian roof gardens, the Jewish ghetto in Renaissance Rome, and so on.

Are there any particular books that have meant a lot to me? Not really. Nothing in the fiction line, although I remember a lot of science fiction plots and incidents for some reason, despite not having read much in that genre for decades. Most of the books that I have really liked have been non-fiction. I suppose CS Lewis would be a major influence, which is strange since I am a Catholic. Cardinal Newman is an inspiration, although I doubt I would have liked him in real life.

Julian

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Thursday, June 16, 2005

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The value of theorising in biology

Sometimes I wonder about the value of what I try to do here and in some of the papers I have published. But I found this from the Gene Expression blog to be a very good defence of the value of theorising in biology.

Julian

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

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Denying the obvious

Oz Conservative has a recent piece on a study being used to promote more maternal roles for men. I think he nails the problem with this kind of agitprop rather well. Social (cultural) anthropology is easily one of the most politicised of the scholarly fields. I used to spend a lot of time on an Internet discussion group ("Anthro-L") and it was extraordinary the extent to which denial of the obvious was the stock-in-trade of the field. To such people, Margaret Mead is still an exciting, cutting-edge scholar; instead of a woman who wrote some of the least reliable social science of all time. Tell them - for example - that human females do the mothering and they will find a scholarly footnote or an archaeological scrap or an obscure anthropological observation that supposedly invalidates this bit of common sense.

In many ways such people are profoundly reactionary, in the sense that their main aim is to defend the old tabula rasa theory of human nature. Anything that challenges this article of belief is attacked with a fierce intolerance. Their reaction to evolutionary psychology can be positively hysterical. They are being outflanked, of course, like most reactionaries; and hardly anyone takes their traveller's tales seriously any more. Oz Conservative is to be congratulated for deconstructing the latest huge edifice of political correctness built on a very small scrap of quirky observation.

Julian

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

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Life imitating art

In his novel Millennium People, English writer JG Ballard has a character who jocularly suggests that "spray-on mud" might be a good product to sell to owners of four-wheel drives (or SUVs as the Americans say). Off-road vehicles, in any case. Now someone in England is selling spray-on mud, to give one's vehicle that authentic look.

Julian

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Yes, Flores is really quite a big island

Some evidence and remarks at John Hawks anthropology blog, which tend to support my argument that "island dwarfing" does not really explain the small size of the "hobbits" (Homo floresiensis) who used to live there.

The media uncritically repeated the line that the tiny size of these hominids was due to "island dwarfing". This was despite the fact that the island where the early human bones were found (Flores) is over two hundred miles long. Don't journalists have atlases any more?

Julian

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Monday, June 13, 2005

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The Great Facade

I finally acquired a copy of The Great Facade. While it is not quite samizdat, I have had trouble obtaining a copy. Two Catholic bookshops more-or-less refused to order me a copy, and I don't have a credit card, so ordering over the Internet was never possible. But now I have been lent a copy by someone I know from attending the local Traditional Latin Mass. It's a good read, although I was already familiar with most of the arguments: the book is widely discussed in Catholic circles.

Do I think the basic argument of the authors is correct? Yes, I do, with some reservations. The basic problem the book addresses is the great question that puzzles most modern, thinking Catholics. What went wrong? There are almost as many answers as Catholics, but I find the solution offered in "The Great Facade" one of the most complete and compelling. Basically, the argument is that Vatican II will eventually be seen as a failed council - and not the first in the history of the Church. The authors of "The Great Facade" compare Vatican II to Constantinople II, a council that was later generally conceded to have made things worse. Perhaps for every brilliant Council of Trent, there has been a mediocre, inconclusive council. There is an Arab saying, apparently: "When the dust has cleared, you will see if you are riding a horse or a donkey." It now appears that we have been riding a donkey.

The Holy Spirit can bring good out of bad, in an individual human life, and in the life of the Church. It seems to me that Vatican I was the council that confirmed the value of the Papacy. Vatican II has perhaps confirmed the value of the laity- and the limitations of the Papacy - in the thinking of the Church. Whereas the popes after Vatican I were generally excellent and sound, the popes since Vatican II have been less reliable. Certainly the hierarchy has been a mediocrity in recent years. It seems to me that the authors of "The Great Facade" have identified the important truth that we laity will have to learn how to think for ourselves, especially whenever clear and sound leadership from the papacy and hierarchy is absent. Maybe that realisation will be the lasting lesson of Vatican II.

Perhaps Vatican II was the poison that came with its own antidote. Sloppy and possibly untraditional teaching at the council and afterwards will necessitate the laity taking a genuinely proactive role, as suggested by Vatican II itself, in clearing up the mess. Fewer and fewer Catholics now deny that there is a mess. The clerical sexual abuse scandal has shown that. I don't accept the claim I heard recently on EWTN that the scandal is now a fading memory. On the subject of EWTN, I realise that they are doing something estimable with their televised masses, with their mixture of English and Latin and fairly traditional rubrics and lay practices. But one wants to exclaim, "Why not just have a Traditional Latin Mass? Isn't that what is really required?"

This is an interesting article on Cardinal Newman and the laity, which contains this well-known point on the terrible Arian heresy and crisis:

" Looking back over the centuries, Newman noted the importance the laity had had in either furthering or halting the work of the Reformation, and his earlier studies of the Arian crisis and St. Athanasius had already planted firmly in his mind the indisputable fact that the laity not only might be but actually had been the champions and preservers of the orthodox Faith in the dark days of the fourth century when Arianism was apparently set to triumph. "

So, the answer may come from the laity. Not the "liberal" laity, but the laity with a sense of true Catholic tradition, who can read the real "signs of the times" that the fathers of Vatican II frequently misread.

Do I agree with everything in "The Great Facade"? No. I think part of the reconsideration of what the true tradition of the Church is - and what are the limits to legitimate papal authority - may mean considering the possibility that it is not just recent popes who have overplayed their hand. As an evolutionist, I think there is room for careful reconsideration of the status of some past teaching on creation, for example.

But, on the whole, I think the only way ahead is for the Church to rediscover her tradition, and logic itself, and recognise that she has wandered from the path, not for the first time. There is no shame in honest error: but there is shame in not admitting to it once it becomes patently obvious.

The selection of Pope Benedict XVI was a moment of elation for many conservative and traditional Catholics. But I did not share fully in the euphoria. I don't feel that the papacy, which has been the source of many of our recent problems, can be regarded as the whole solution. For a traditional laity, who have suffered through decades of doctrinal confusion and abandonment of time-hallowed practices, it must be a case of "never bright, confident morning again". Surely we have learned by now to be wary of Roman moods, and to place our confidence in the wholeness of the papal tradition, not simply in the latest occupant of the papal office.

Julian

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Saturday, June 11, 2005

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"Brainfreeze"

My daughter tells me that "ice cream headaches" are also called "brainfreeze". She says that you get this when you eat too much ice cream or slushies or other cold food in too much of a hurry. I've never had this myself, but I don't like cold foods like ice cream.

Julian

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

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Ice Cream Headache

An article on Mind Hacks discusses "ice cream headaches".

Years ago, I discovered that the Hancock Library, the life sciences library at the Australian National University, was collecting the massive, multivolumed "Handbook of Clinical Neurology". Very heavy stuff. One oddity, though, was a lighter, short article on "ice cream headache". It seems this is a real syndrome, though surely one of the least serious of the neurological conditions, which tend to be very grim on the whole. As someone once wrote, neurology is a ton of diagnosis and an ounce of treatment.

Here is a nice little review of the Handbook of Clinical Neurology.

Julian

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Thursday, June 02, 2005

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The delusional architecture

" SILBERMAN: The delusional architecture is interesting. She believes a machine called a "terminator", which looks human of course, was sent back though time to kill her. And also that the father of her child was a soldier, sent to protect her... he was from the future too... "

[Terminator 2: Judgment Day]

Mind Hacks writes about modern psychiatric patients whose delusions centre around the Internet. Delusions based on the "high technology" of the day have been a constant theme in those who suffer from paranoid mental illness. Here is a famous example from right back in the eighteenth century, and here is an illustration of the technology that the poor man thought was being used to torment him mentally.

Julian

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