Christianity, atheism, and other boring arguments by mattsteinglass
April 25, 2010, 2:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Does God exist? Are atheists at fault for failing to attempt to understand the deep truths of the religious doctrines they disdain? Is this the most useless, worked-out, tedious argument in the history of Western civilization? For Pete’s sake. Allow me to express the point in a way believers might find congenial:

2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; 3 and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, `Vindicate me against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, `Though I neither fear God nor regard man, 5 yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Okay, here’s my question: who was this judge Jesus refers to? Did this judge actually exist? What do you mean it doesn’t matter? You say it’s just a parable? But if the judge didn’t even exist, doesn’t that completely invalidate Jesus’s point? No? You say the moral and spiritual weight of the story has nothing to do with whether or not it refers to a physically, historically real person?

I see.


Labor market flexibility vs tourism potential by mattsteinglass
April 21, 2010, 1:02 pm
Filed under: US

Matthew Yglesias comments on today’s NY Times article about North Dakota having lots of jobs (but few places to live):

One big advantage we have, economically, is that we have such a big country with a single language and it’s much easier to move from Arizona to Kansas than it is to move from Greece to Belgium.

True. But it’s much more interesting to move from Greece to Belgium. One big disadvantage we have, economically, is that we have such a big nondescript country with lots of places that are very similar to each other and don’t have much internal social cohesion, and when those places lose their key industries there’s nothing much to them and they sort of wither or dry up and blow away. Still, you play the hand you’re dealt; we’ve got lots of geographical mobility and not much geographical loyalty.

Are math majors better at reading than English majors? by mattsteinglass
April 21, 2010, 1:42 am
Filed under: Education | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Well, math majors do have the highest Reading SAT scores of any major, according to this study Kevin Drum pointed to yesterday. And this really isn’t surprising. That’s because, of all the majors in the study, math is the most selective on cognitive ability. In other words, basically anyone who can get into college can major in “soft” subjects like English or…economics. (Heh. It’s true; look at the data. Also, philosophy majors have slightly higher Math SATs than economics majors.) But just to do the coursework in math or physics, you have to have extremely high SAT scores, in both math and reading. In the researchers’ terms, math and physics seem to have a “cognitive threshold”: even if you’re very hard-working, without high SAT scores, you can’t “achieve mastery”, i.e. maintain a GPA above 3.5 and have a shot at getting into grad school:

To reiterate, SATM ≈ 600 seems to be the lowest score at which even a very motivated student has a chance for mastery. From the data one might guess that only for SATM well above 700 do students have more than a 50 percent chance of obtaining GPA > 3.5. That is, a student with average motivation or conscientiousness probably needs SATM well above 700 to have a high probability of obtaining mastery.

We were unable to find any similar threshold (either in SATR or SATM ) in other majors, including economics, sociology, history, philosophy, biology, chemistry, etc.

It’s amusing to note that math majors have higher English SATs than English majors, but it’s kind of a linguistic trick. The point is that math is simply the most cognitively selective major. Math majors also have higher Math SATs than physics majors, which isn’t particularly predictable and doesn’t tell us anything obvious about math or physics as disciplines. This is basically all selection effect. If you’re wondering whether studying more math will get your kid to read better…well, that’s entirely possible, but it requires a different study.

The high intellectual quality of the conservative opposition by mattsteinglass
April 19, 2010, 10:23 pm
Filed under: China, Conservatism, Obama, Uncategorized

A comment on a post at xpostfactoid:

You want placation? His “bowing” to saudi’s and chinese leaders is enough placation for me! This man HATEs America.

Chinese, Japanese, whatever.

Netherlands returns to sanity, prepares to elect moderate Jewish guy by mattsteinglass
April 18, 2010, 10:48 pm
Filed under: Judaism, Netherlands, Uncategorized

I’m extremely excited that the Netherlands is returning to form and preparing to elect yet another middle-of-the-road, unexciting, comforting, responsible fatherly mediator figure as Prime Minister. For a while there it really looked possible that they would give in to the temptations of Islamophobic whack-job-dom and elect Geert Wilders’s far-right pro-ignorance PVV. But a new Maurice de Hond poll has Labor in the top slot with 33 seats– the first time that’s happened since I moved to the Netherlands in 1999 — and PVV fading to fourth place at 20 seats, behind the free-market center-right Liberals and the Christian Democrats. Labor leader Job Cohen’s profile is much more like that of Wim Kok, the Labor centrist whose “purple” left-right coalitions with the Liberals dominated Dutch politics in the 1990s, than that of Wouter Bos, the younger somewhat flashy good-looking fella who stepped down as Labor leader two months ago. Cohen, who has been Mayor of Amsterdam since approximately forever, is also renowned for having fostered unusually good interfaith relations and kept the peace between Muslims and Christians despite the potential flash-point of the Theo van Gogh murder and the constant provocations of Wilders.

Tangentially, Cohen would also be one of a very small number of Jewish prime ministers of countries other than Israel. Currently, Czech premier Jan Fischer is Jewish. But going further back, I can’t think of any other Jewish PMs until you get to Pierre Mendes France, who was French PM from 1952-55. But of course the PM was and remains a secondary role in France, and Mendes France was subordinate to President Charles de Gaulle. Back in the ’30s when the PM really was the leader of the government, the French had Leon Blum. Then in an earlier era you have New Zealand PM Julius Vogel and so forth. Surely there must be more recent ones, though; anybody?

I write on Vietnam War fiction in the New York Times by mattsteinglass
April 2, 2010, 2:31 pm
Filed under: Literature, Vietnam

I have a piece in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review on reading Tim O’Brien in Hanoi. You can read it here.

In the days of my youth I was told what it means to be a man by mattsteinglass
April 2, 2010, 8:46 am
Filed under: Music, Uncategorized

A few friends dropped by the other afternoon and wound up staying for dinner, and I had to walk up to Xuan Dieu to the Italian grocery run by our neighbor Dominico to get some extra pumpkin ravioli. On the way home, I passed by our neighbor’s house to hear him blasting Led Zeppelin at full volume with all the windows open. I can’t quite communicate the effect this has in a little Vietnamese villagey neighborhood with houses separated by alleyways about 2 meters across, but it’s pretty funky.

The thing is, I have absolutely no objection to hearing Led Zeppelin blasted at full volume at pretty much any hour of the day. Nor do I have a problem with hearing the Grateful Dead on the days when that’s his ear candy of choice. I’m not sure what effect it produces on the rest of the neighborhood. On the one hand, most of our Vietnamese neighbors have never heard any of this stuff and probably find it rather strange. On the other hand, most of our Vietnamese neighbors seem to have a mind-boggling tolerance for noise, so maybe it doesn’t matter. Most significantly, the only neighbor who actual had a visibly irritated reaction was a fellow American who really doesn’t like heavy metal.

The point being I suppose that it’s striking what a powerful influence on one’s state of being this kind of acculturation can have. Here we’ve got this massive sonic input which to me is pleasantly nostalgic and to other American neighbors is just ghastly, because we’re on two sides of some kind of discrete cultural argument about what constitutes good or bad music. And to our Vietnamese neighbors I think it may just be anaesthetic gibberish, neither good nor bad but simply loud.

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