Archive for the 'News' Category

…some say in ice.

December 23, 2013

A big ice storm swept through our area this weekend. A local rag has captured some photos from around the city. The biggest problem seems to have been tree branches falling on power lines, leaving many people without electricity. A good proportion of traffic lights are out, with massive traffic jams in consequence. The silver lining is that the ice on the trees is quite beautiful.

As for me and my house, we were fortunate that our power stayed on (despite some odd intermittent dimming in the evening hours). Our car was encased in a thick layer of ice yesterday; we had to chisel it out in order to open the door. And on our driveway and sidewalk the ice is an inch thick. But the kids love it, and they say that the temperatures will rise in the spring, so I’m not too worried.

Gehry’s Guide to Toronto

November 20, 2013

The celebrated architect Frank Gehry is in Toronto this week to smoke crack give advice to city council over an application to demolish some “heritage buildings” to make way for large towers (which he has designed).

Not surprisingly, Gehry is in favour of demolishing whatever is currently on the site of the proposed towers. But I was a little surprised when he began to enumerate the city’s buildings — just two! — which in his judgement should be protected from demolition: our old city hall (certainly not our new city hall!) and Osgoode Hall, home of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Now, this list is incomplete in important ways, but it is notable that Gehry did not list the Art Gallery of Ontario, which he himself designed to much mystifying fanfare a few years ago. This seems to be a case of refreshing honesty. His sketch for that project must surely be a minor classic in the annals of modern architecture:

At the Art Gallery of Ontario, one can actually buy souvenirs with this “design” on them. Did I mention that Gehry is a celebrated architect?

Later in his address, he let slip his reasons for saving particular buildings from the wrecker’s ball, and they may not survive public scrutiny. “I think you should preserve [Old] City Hall because I used to go there when I was a kid,” he argued. He then added, “the old General Hospital building I was born in should have been sacred. It was torn down.” He did not mention whether he used to lunch at Osgoode Hall.

Make room for Jack.

November 18, 2013

This Friday will be the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death. I’ve just learned that on that day a memorial plaque bearing his name will be installed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. This is obviously a great honour for any English author — and for an Irish one too. More.

Being, consciousness, bliss

October 15, 2013

It is not exactly a secret around here that I harbour a certain admiration for the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. Not only do I generally delight in what he says (insofar as I understand it), but I am besotted by the way he says it. I am therefore happy to discover today that he has written another book: The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, published last month by Yale University Press.

hart-small

I imagine I will not be too wide of the mark if I speculate that the book’s arguments are at least partly reflected in the following lecture, which bears a title matching the book’s subtitle. It’s a very good lecture in any case:

An aside: If anyone knows of a way to set an ‘alert’ which would notify me when a favourite author publishes a new book, I’d appreciate knowing about it.

The papal telephone game

October 3, 2013

From JasonBachCartoons (Via The Chant Cafe)

Although I’m not sure this sort of thing can entirely account for the odd things Pope Francis is lately said to have said…

Forthcoming

July 15, 2013

This is a pleasant surprise to me, and may be to you too:

Flannery

The publication date will be in November; I know what I want for Christmas. A brief description from The Millions:

When Flannery O’Connor was in her early 20s and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she kept a journal which focused on her relationship with her faith. Recently discovered, this journal should be a fascinating prospect for anyone with an interest in O’Connor’s writing, inseparable as it is from her Catholic belief in sin and redemption. It dates from 1946-47, around the time she was writing the stories that would converge into her debut novel Wise Blood. It looks to have been an exercise in bringing herself closer to her God through the act of writing: “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always fugitive. This way I have it every instant.”

George and his critics

June 26, 2013

There was an interesting profile of Robert P. George earlier this week in the New York Times. George is on the faculty at Princeton and must be counted among the more prominent conservative academics in the US. The occasion for the profile is the publication of his most recent book, Conscience and Its Enemies, but the piece is mostly providing background on his interests and concerns. I have never read one of George’s books, and perhaps I ought to; on those few occasions when I have heard or seen him in the media he has been unusually thoughtful and articulate.

The NYT profile throws out a few mild criticisms of George’s work. A more interesting critique came from David B. Hart a few months ago. George is an advocate for natural law theory, in that he holds that there are certain truths, including moral truths, which are discernable by natural reason to all persons of good will and therefore able to provide a suitable foundation for public moral reflection and political action in a liberal democracy. This view is in some ways similar to Thomistic natural law theory, which has informed so much Catholic moral and political thought, except that George (and others) contend that natural law is intelligible and (indeed) compelling even within the comparatively denuded metaphysical furnishings of modernity (as opposed to the lush Aristotelian metaphysics native to Thomistic natural law). In his critique Hart calls down a plague on both their houses, and it makes for bracing reading. (It is true that Hart never mentions George by name, but I have it on good authority that he is prominent among the supposedly plague-ridden.)

Be that as it may, the NYT profile is worth reading.

Notes on neuroscience

June 6, 2013

I am in no respect an expert in neuroscience, but naturally I am aware of the main technical developments of the past few decades — especially functional MRI — which now provide neuroscientists with amazing imagery related to brain activity. I am also aware of the broad effort in the field to establish correlations between brain activity and mental states.

I will not deny that I am mildly discomfited by this effort, not because there is anything suspect about such correlations but because they are so often conjoined with a strange presumption that somehow brain scans are particularly probative windows on human behaviour, whereas in fact they are usually just fancy proxies for things we already know by other means (as has been convincingly argued). One also routinely runs into a tacit neurological reductionism according to which minds are “really just” brains, and you and I are, at bottom, “really just” fleshy computers processing stimuli. In this view of things, the notion of persons as bearers of freedom, dignity, and moral responsibility tends to become, at best, occluded.

My discomfort is only mild because I am aware that, whatever the merits of any particular scientific study, the minds-are-brains view is plagued by conceptual problems and, at least within the ambit of the reigning philosophy of nature in which matter is defined to be devoid of mental properties, is doomed to failure.

But, quite apart from the question of how we should interpret findings of correlations between mental states and brain activity, there remains the question of whether we should believe that such correlations exist in the first place. It seems that we should, but with reservations, for the evidence is not as strong or as straightforward as one might think.

For instance, a few years ago an important paper identified problems with common analysis techniques in fMRI studies. The authors showed that using such techniques they could produce nice correlations using data that were pure noise. Studies which avoided such confused methods uniformly showed comparatively low correlations. The authors speculated that a significant number of the findings claimed by the field might be illusory. I do not know what revisions resulted when (or if) the data were analyzed again.

And now, in this month’s Nature Reviews, comes another paper that criticizes the results of a wide swath of neuroscience work. The authors argue that a significant fraction of neuroscience studies suffer from low statistical power, meaning that both the sample sizes and the effects being studied are generally small. The problems with low power studies are many: the probability of missing true effects is fairly high, as is the probability of falsely “discovering” something that isn’t there. Even when a finding is true, low power studies tend to exaggerate it. Here is a popular level summary of the paper and the issues at stake.

Obviously it is up to the specialists to sort these issues out, and I have no doubt that they will. But there does seem to be warrant for wariness the next time you hear a claim that the neural correlate of this-or-that aspect of your mental life has been found. Sometimes things are just not that simple.

Meanwhile.

Roger Ebert, RIP

April 4, 2013

The news has come across the wire this evening that Roger Ebert has died. Just yesterday he wrote that, though his cancer had returned, he was nonetheless brimming with plans for the future: a new web site, his film festival, a documentary on his life. It makes for poignant reading tonight.

Like many people, I first encountered him through the television programme he hosted with Gene Siskel, only later discovering that he was primarily a critic in print. I remember being fascinated by the television show, principally, I think, because I had never before heard considered judgments and articulate criticism about much of anything, still less something as commonplace as movies. It was my first intimation that there might be more to the movies than just entertainment.  Those old shows, segments of which have made their way onto YouTube, still make for good viewing.

His print reviews make for good reading too. He could almost always be counted on to give a clear account of a film’s strengths and weaknesses, often with considerable wit. (Bad films, especially, seemed to inspire his muse, and his collection of critical pans, Your Movie Sucks, makes for terrific occasional reading.) High praise from him was often enough to convince me to clear some time for a film I might otherwise have passed over. I am going to miss my weekly visit to his site.

Readers of this blog might be interested in something he wrote exactly one month ago: a short essay called “How I Am a Roman Catholic”. Those who read him regularly will know that he grew up in a devout Catholic family, attended Catholic schools, but drifted — so I gather — from the practice of the faith in his adult years. Yet Catholicism remained in his bones, and he continued to circle around it. Indeed, in this recent essay he insisted that “I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock, and barrel”. True, this confession was confused to no small extent by his admission that he “cannot believe in God”. I take him to have meant that he had doubts, that he had no firm assurance of faith. If so, he would hardly be alone in that.

In that same essay he, rather surprisingly, staked out a position on a question of current moral controversy that was not calculated to endear him to people who matter. In other words, he was true to his critical task to the end: saying what he thought, with clarity and reason, and leaning into the wind when it blew contrary-wise.

Requiescat in pace.

Easter bustle

April 3, 2013

One or two people may have noticed that things have been a little quiet around here of late. This is because things have not been quiet elsewhere, and I’ve had little to no leisure.

I have been learning that selling a house is an all-consuming activity. We were advised to “de-clutter” prior to listing the house, and so, after several weeks of sorting and sifting and packing, this past weekend we moved a fair bit of furniture and about 80 boxes out of the house and into storage. I am still trying to understand the mindset of people who consider books to be “clutter”.

With that out of the way, we turn our attention to little matters like painting, scrubbing, staining, fixing, and generally beautifying the place. It’s a lovely house, and I can’t see why someone shouldn’t want it. But it will be even lovelier when we’re through. I hope.

Did I mention that the only time I have to do any of this work is when I should be in bed?

In the middle of all this was Easter: Happy Easter! It was the tenth anniversary of my reception into the Catholic Church, and I had really been looking forward to it. It turned out to be the worst Triduum that I can remember: we had to leave the Holy Thursday Mass early because the kids were crazed, we were terribly late for the Good Friday service, and I even missed the start of the Vigil Mass (which, if you’ve never been, is the best part). Between times, when I would normally want to think about Easter, I was instead thinking about boxes and tape and cleaning supplies and when I went to the church it felt as though I had parachuted in from another realm.

But there was much to be thankful for, all the same. Our wonderful priests, who delivered some of the most thoughtful and provoking homilies that I can ever remember hearing, celebrated all of the Triduum liturgies with great beauty and solemnity. Being there was a balm. We really are blessed to have found our parish (and now, of course, we will really miss it). We are thankful for friends and family who, in the middle of all of this exhausting activity, are lending a hand when and where they can. Mostly we’re just thankful for Easter.

Happy Easter!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 160 other followers