The only version of the new Houllebecq novel I can read now is the one in German, Entwerfung., as the English edition does not come out until September.   I am about halfway through and can report it is excellent and a fun read as well, most of all when it makes fun of the vulnerabilities and vacillations of the West.

Here is an Anthony Daniels review, with lots of plot summary (and spoilers), part of the last paragraph shows he understands the work:

This novel is far from a crude anti-Islamic polemic, however, as many might have supposed it to be from its pre-publication publicity (Houellebecq has expressed himself very unfavorably on Islam elsewhere). It is rather a meditation, admittedly using all the author’s habitual tropes which fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, are susceptible to an infinite number of bitterly amusing variations, on the state of Western civilization and what makes that civilization vulnerable to attack…In other words, it is an implicit invitation to us to look inwards, to think of what is wrong with us rather than with them. Whether we or they will read it like this, I rather doubt…

This is one of the novels of the year.  Here is a good Adam Gopnik piece on Houllebecq and the book.

The wisdom that is Japanese

by on February 25, 2015 at 2:27 pm in Education, Religion | Permalink

Funerals are being held for ROBOTIC dogs in Japan because owners believe they have souls…

It is a funeral like any other in Japan. Except that those being honoured are robot dogs, lined up on the altar, each wearing a tag to show where they came from and which family they belonged to.

The devices are ‘AIBOs’, the world’s first home-use entertainment robot equipped with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and capable of developing its own personality.

And don’t forget this:

The only source of genuine parts are ‘dead’ robots, who become donors for organ transplantation, but only once the proper respects have been paid.

There is more here, with video, via Claire Hill.

The first Sacred Introvert Retreat Tour will take place this coming May, led by founder Lisa Avebury. Over ten days, participants will visit Glastonbury and other sites in south east England. Travellers will each have their own room and every other day will be a ‘local’ day, when visitors can rest and recharge in the peaceful surroundings of Glastonbury Abbey Retreat. The tour includes visits to mystical, historical sights such as the stone circle and the Chalice Well — where the Holy Grail is supposedly hidden. There are relaxed day trips to medieval churches and roman baths, optional yoga sessions and evening activities such as torchlit walks and bonfires.

Lisa Avebury, a self-proclaimed introvert, founded the retreat company to give quieter individuals a group travel option which catered to their needs, where silences are comfortable and socializing is optional, not mandatory. The trips costs USD 3,795 excluding flights and Avebury hopes it will be the first of many.

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank Michael Rosenwald.

“Highly specific pools of reputation information will become more useful in aggregate,” said Mr. Fertik, co-author with David C. Thompson of “The Reputation Economy,” a guide to optimizing digital footprints. “If you’re a really good Uber passenger, that may be useful information for Amtrak or American Airlines. But if you add in your reputation from Airbnb plus OpenTable plus eBay, it starts to get useful globally.”

There is more here, interesting throughout.  But will there be errors in these measurements?  As I wrote to Ashok Rao, fresh regressions are a public good.

Each monastery had its own estates, and all the people farming on these estates paid taxes in money and goods.  One of the main tasks of the stewards was to increase this income; for instance, by lending grain back to the peasants at high interest rates, or selling goods at market.  Before the destruction of the monasteries in the 1960s, they owned as much as half of Tibet’s farmland.

The description however is referring to the 15th century.  Another interesting part of the book concerns how, during Tibet’s “Golden Age,” the Tibetans tried to impose their language and culture on the neighboring regions of China, and with some success.

That is all from Sam Van Schaik, Tibet: A History.

Merry Christmas

by on December 25, 2014 at 12:18 am in History, Religion, The Arts | Permalink


Should you keep your kids in the dark about Santa not being who he says he is?  Who you say he is?  Will Wilkinson says he will:

Well, we’re atheists. I don’t intend to proselytize atheism to my kid, because I’m not interested in getting him to believe anything in particular. What I’m interested in is teaching him how to reason in a way that maximizes his chances of hitting on the truth. Now, one of the most interesting truths about the empirical world is that there are all these powerful systems of myth that are kept afloat by a sort of mass conspiracy, and humans seem disposed to pick one from the ambient culture and take it very seriously. But it can be hard to get your head around the way it all works unless you participate in it. Santa is a perfect and relatively harmless way to introduce your child the socio-psychology of a collective delusion about the supernatural. The disillusionment that comes from the exposure to the truth about Santa breeds a general skepticism about similarly ill-founded popular beliefs in physics-defying creatures.

I say why not leave them guessing, hovering in a state of Bayesian Santa doubt?  My parents never told me Santa “was real,” but they didn’t tell me he “wasn’t real” either, so I slid rather gracefully into my Santa non-belief.  I don’t recall ever feeling disillusioned by a sense of loss and in fact those presents kept on coming.  I even had a clearer sense of the appropriate channel for making gift requests, what’s not to like about that?

Why not teach them some Walter Benjamin early on?:

The 99-cent App “Talking Santa,” in addition to allow children to talk to an animated St.Nick, allows them to run him over with a snowball and, when the “violence” setting is turned on, slap him.

Some sociologists and child-development experts warn the technology puts the magic of Christmas in jeopardy.  If children treat Santa as they would any classmate — constantly texting or calling or tweeting at him — then what makes Santa special?

Remember Smith’s diamond-water paradox, which in fact dates as far back as Galileo?

I recall sitting on Santa’s lap as a tot and being terrified by his rubber fingers (why oh why was he wearing rubber fingers?  Were his real fingers scarred?).  Thank goodness we have left those days behind, I would have preferred a simple text although I barely know how to do that either.

Scott Sumner asks a version of that question:

But here’s what I don’t get.  If America really is this weak and cowardly, then why can’t ISIS easily defeat us?  They could phone in threats against movie theaters just as easily as the North Koreans can.  And there must be 100 times as many Hollywood films that offend ISIS sensibilities as there are that offend Kim.  Recall that women get stoned to death in ISIS-controlled areas for things like wearing a miniskirt.  Then consider Hollywood films, which often show Arab terrorists as villains. So why doesn’t ISIS copy North Korea?  Why does ISIS let us insult them? I don’t get it.

There is more from the Scott on the question here.  This is hardly my area, but here are a few observations:

1. The United States will permit all kinds of mini-outrages against us, provided they are not seen as precedents.  If we were viewed as exploitable at this margin, our reaction, from both the government and private citizens, would be quite different.  In the meantime, pretending that North Korea is a fly to the American elephant may be an optimal response/non-response.  When Obama told Sony it made a mistake by pulling the film, that is exactly what he was doing, namely minimizing the significance of the event on purpose.  He wasn’t trying to scold Sony or even to defend free speech.

2. Often groups such as ISIS are much more offended by what “their own” women do than by what “outsiders” do.  They may even welcome the existence of a certain amount of Western and also Hollywood depravity, to aid product differentiation.  Additionally, don’t forget that some of the 9-11 terrorists seemed to enjoy strip clubs and the like.  Their motivations are not always strictly pious.

3. We don’t have a good understanding of why terrorists don’t attack more than they do.  Perhaps terror attacks can be viewed as belonging to two groups: a) the more or less replicable (Sri Lankan and Palestinian suicide bombings), which are allocated by some set of calculating authorities, and b) the “one-off,” which are governed by a kind of multiplicative formula, under which many things have to go the right way for an attack to happen at all.  9-11 is probably an example here, but without a fixed infrastructure for providing training and motivation and coordination, most terrorists aren’t actually that well organized and they can’t pull much off.  Read Diego Gambetta on 9-11.  Now that U.S. troops are (mostly) out of Iraq, the replicable attacks aren’t there any more either.

4. It remains possible that the U.S. still will retaliate against North Korea, or perhaps already has retaliated in a non-public manner.  It is also possible we have let news of such retaliation or pending retaliation leak to ISIS and other groups in some fashion.

And a final point: in the MR comments section Boonton wrote:

I think this illustrates a difference in perception between North Korea and, say, Al Qaeda. If Al Qaeda was offended by some movie (say the last Batman movie which featured some type of Middle Eastern prison that was nonetheless within walking distance of Gotham city), people would be up in arms about all theaters pulling the movie. Yet not so much North Korea, why?

Al Qaeda is recognized as having an actual agenda is is assumed to be a somewhat rational agent. Hence most of us will give credit to the anti-appeasement argument with them. If we pull one movie they will keep making demands.

North Korea, in contrast, is perceived as an irrational state lead by a child-man dictator. In other words, most in the west see it as essentially an entire nation that is literally mentally ill. We are willing to indulge them a bit because we are not quite sure how ill they really are and just like a deranged person may try to stab you over a napkin on the ground, this is the type of state that may start a nuclear war over a Seth Rogan movie.

Is this perception correct? Is North Korea not just mentally ill ‘on the ground’ but also at the top? Is the inner circle populated by cold rationalists cynically exploiting propaganda to control the masses or have they actually drunk the most Kool-Aid of the entire bunch?!

“Both” is a possible answer of course.

*Exodus: Gods and Kings*

by on December 12, 2014 at 8:49 pm in Film, Religion | Permalink

Call me strange, but if I were casting for the character of Moses, I would not have selected Christian Bale.  He looks like an Idaho mountain man throughout.  This film manages to take from the Jews the one thing the Egyptians did not, namely their Judaism; the word “Hebrews” is muttered occasionally but the rest is swept under the carpet in favor of periodic Christian references.  The emotional tenor of Moses’ self-confidence is closer to the Koran than the Torah.  The movie itself offers gnosticism, namely that the ten-year old boy with a British accent is not God but rather a messenger or perhaps the demiurge, don’t forget the subtitle of the movie or Scott’s own comments in interviews.  Embedded in the narrative are visual references to the Holocaust, a critique of the military policies of the state of Israel, and a slam on Western (American?) bombing and firebombing techniques and the killing of children.  The city, visuals, water scenes, and sense of scale are spectacular and worth the price of admission.  María Valverde is beautiful as Zipporah.  But to enjoy it — which I did — you must go expecting dreck because that is what you get.

I enjoyed this LRB piece, here is one excerpt:

All Jerusalemites pay taxes, but the proportion of the municipal budget allocated to the roughly 300,000 Palestinian residents of a city with a population of 815,000 doesn’t exceed 10 per cent. Service provision is grossly unequal. In the East, there are five benefit offices compared to the West’s 18; four health centres for mothers and babies compared to the West’s 25; and 11 mail carriers compared to the West’s 133. Roads are mostly in disrepair and often too narrow to accommodate garbage trucks, forcing Palestinians to burn rubbish outside their homes. A shortage of sewage pipes means that Palestinian residents have to use septic tanks which often overflow. Students are stuffed into overcrowded schools or converted apartments; 2200 additional classrooms are needed. More than three-quarters of the city’s Palestinians live below the poverty line.

Since 1967 no new Palestinian neighbourhoods have been established in the city, while Jewish settlements surrounding existing Palestinian areas have mushroomed. Restrictive zoning prevents Palestinians from building legally. Israel has designated 52 per cent of land in East Jerusalem as unavailable for development and 35 per cent for Jewish settlements, leaving the Palestinian population with only 13 per cent, most of which is already built on. Those with growing families are forced to choose between building illegally and leaving the city. Roughly a third of them decide to build, meaning that 93,000 residents are under constant threat of their homes being demolished.

And this:

The crucial difference between the mid-1980s and today is that Palestinian civil society is now much weaker, and so, too, is the likelihood of coherent political organisation of the kind that emerged soon after the First Intifada began. The groups that then channelled political activity have been supplanted, either by the institutions of a technocratic PA whose existence is premised on close co-operation with Israel, or by NGOs whose foreign funders make assistance conditional on the pursuit of apolitical development projects or vague peace-building strategies that explicitly rule out non-violent confrontation with Israel and any initiative likely to drive up the costs of military occupation. Palestinian society is afflicted with dependency, and it is dependent on forces that wish to preserve the status quo.

It is interesting (and controversial) throughout.

While cruising the internet I ran into this recent working paper (pdf) by Daniel Benjamin, James J. Choi, and Geoffrey Fisher:

We randomly vary religious identity salience in laboratory subjects to test how identity effects contribute to the impact of religion on economic behavior. We find that religious identity salience causes Protestants to increase contributions to public goods. Catholics decrease contributions to public goods, expect others to contribute less to public goods, and become less risk averse. Jews more strongly reciprocate as an employee in a bilateral labor market gift-exchange game. Atheists and agnostics become less risk averse. We find no evidence of religious identity-salience effects on disutility of work effort, discount rates, or generosity in a dictator game.

In the recent hullaballoo, it has been forgotten that perhaps the best paper on whether religion is good for you was written by Jonathan Gruber.

The story is here, his book is Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.  Previous MR coverage is here, it was one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year.

There are already more speakers of Aramaic in metropolitan Detroit (around a hundred thousand) than in Baghdad…

That is from Christian Caryl in the 4 December 2014 New York Review of Books, reviewing Gerald Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

China ghost markets in everything

by on November 6, 2014 at 1:03 am in Economics, Law, Religion | Permalink

Two officials in China’s southern Guangdong province were arrested after it emerged that they had bought corpses from local grave-robbers and had them cremated in a bid to fulfill state-mandated quotas for such funeral practices. The incident is yet another reminder of the awkward tension between Beijing’s edicts and entrenched traditions in parts of rural China.

The arrested duo were officials responsible for local funerary practices, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. One allegedly paid a grave-robber $489 each for 10 exhumed corpses. The officials needed to meet expected quotas for cremations reported in their jurisdictions (towns that state media has not specified). Many locals entomb their kin in secret to skirt state laws regarding burial, which probably made the officials’ job rather difficult.

“Pushed to meet their quota, the two officials sought to purchase the corpses and send them to funeral parlour for cremation,” Xinhua reported.

And here is a rather vivid two paragraphs:

Body-snatching is, therefore, a lucrative, illicit business, involving bribe-taking local officials who look the other way, specialists capable of dressing up cadavers, and middlemen willing to connect desperate families to organized rings of grave-robbers and body-snatchers.

The practice of burying “ghost brides” also remains very much in the headlines. The old ritual involves burying a deceased young female alongside a dead bachelor, so the male will not be without a companion in the afterlife.

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank Michael Rosenwald.

Religion in China.  That was the topic of a recent excellent Economist article.  Here is one good excerpt:

It is hard even to guess at the number of Christians in China. Official surveys seek to play down the figures, ignoring the large number who worship in house churches. By contrast, overseas Christian groups often inflate them. There were perhaps 3m Catholics and 1m Protestants when the party came to power in 1949. Officials now say there are between 23m and 40m, all told. In 2010 the Pew Research Centre, an American polling organisation, estimated there were 58m Protestants and 9m Catholics. Many experts, foreign and Chinese, now accept that there are probably more Christians than there are members of the 87m-strong Communist Party. Most are evangelical Protestants.

Predicting Christianity’s growth is even harder. Yang Fenggang of Purdue University, in Indiana, says the Christian church in China has grown by an average of 10% a year since 1980. He reckons that on current trends there will be 250m Christians by around 2030, making China’s Christian population the largest in the world. Mr Yang says this speed of growth is similar to that seen in fourth-century Rome just before the conversion of Constantine, which paved the way for Christianity to become the religion of his empire.

In the 1980s the faith grew most quickly in the countryside, stimulated by the collapse of local health care and a belief that Christianity could heal instead. In recent years it has been burgeoning in cities.

Read the whole thing.  You will note that when individuals engage in a “portfolio” approach to religion, social evolution can occur much more rapidly.  Not everyone has to fully convert to Christianity, or to embrace Confucianism wholeheartedly, for those approaches to suddenly acquire much more influence.