There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune



Review: Dennett

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Daniel C. Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, is a striking tour de force which synthesizes a great deal of past and current research in order to support the following thesis: All of life's complexity can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to the blind, algorithmic process of evolution via random mutation and natural selection. This idea, according to Dennett, is as dangerous as its critics suspect. It provides a hypothesis which, taken to its extreme, shows that the great miracles of life - including the human brain, the diversity of species, and nature's balance in the biosphere - can be shown to have evolved without any guiding intelligence of any kind.

This is strong stuff.

Dennett, a philosopher of science, writes as an analytical philosopher should - as an interpreter of the results of discoveries across various disciplines in a manner which provides novel insight. On the way, Dennett makes use of illuminating thought experiments, and explains the nuances of the "new Darwinian synthesis", pulling the reader away from many common fallacies:
  • He explodes the myth of the "great chain of being", noting that evolution only responds to selection pressure, and is not necessarily moving in a particular direction, good or bad.
  • He notes that a Darwinian "adaptationist" perspective does not imply Social Darwinism, eugenics or what he deems "greedy reductionism".
  • He explains the logical flaws of "group selection".
  • He emphasizes that evolution is a short-term algorithm; adaptations must have short-term benefits to survive. A corollary of this point is that original uses of adaptations may have no correspondence with their ultimate uses, as circumstances and organisms change over time.
Dennett's most provocative point is the idea that evolution is a substrate-neutral algorithm whose operation is not limited to the genome. He attempts to show how the original building blocks of life - enzymes and proteins - were the result of Darwinian processes. He speculates (and this is not science, as far as I can tell) that such mechanistic processes may have even resulted in the physical laws of our universe, which are finely tuned to allow complex matter and, thus, life. Further, he extends the process to the ideas, institutions and cultural artifacts which surround us (borrowing Richard Dawkins' word "meme").

This last point is important, in that he asserts what makes us human, and what makes us distinct from other species, is that we are not merely our own cells and the cells of the various bacteria which live inside or on us. Due to our ability to communicate through language, we are also, in a very important and real sense, made up of the memes which infest our minds. In fact, due to memes such as compulsory education, writing, modern farming techniques and the scientific method, the average person today is, in practical terms, far more intelligent than Pythagoras or Aristotle. In fact, because the changes of culture and technology have allowed us to evolve at such a rapid rate, I differ far more from my great-grandfather than he differed from Plato. (Obviously, Dennett is not saying that culture or science evolve randomly. Rather, he notes that these artifacts are themselves products of a brain that itself evolved from Darwinian processes. Hence, my "direct or indirect" loophole above.)

As I noted earlier, this is hot stuff. Politically-charged and philosophically controversial, the current dialogue regarding Darwin is impassioned precisely because so much of our world view is at stake. Dennett is an unapologetic materialist, atheist, Darwinian adaptationist who takes on opponents with the rigour of a good analytical philosopher. The challenge of this undertaking is enormous because of both the nuance and the sheer scope of these issues which have confounded so many specialists.

This is a tough book to read. It is replete with thought experiments, technical details and jargon that inevitably results from precise philosophy. It helps to have taken a course or two in analytical (that is, non-Continental) philosophy at the undergraduate level. Because I have forgotten most of that stuff, I found myself constantly referring to Wikipedia and to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The sheer density of Dennett's ideas and precision of his prose result in a book which is not the most accessible to the lay reader. However, for those who are willing to expend some effort in trying to penetrate the philosophy and science behind Darwin's hypothesis, this is an excellent starting point.


Juicy Fruit Skies

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Back in the dizzay, there was a Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum commercial which depicted skiers doing tons of tricks, jumping and carving through brilliant white snow. As the jingle played its hook - "Juicy Fruit is gonna move ya!" - the skiers flipped and spun in the air beneath a brilliant, cloudless blue sky. Since those days, Ace, his brother Poopie Loopie and I have always referred to perfect skiing weather as "Juicy Fruit Skies".

This weekend a few buddies and I drove up to Kartalkaya ("Eagle's Nest") about 280 km east of Istanbul. Saturday I rose at 7:00 and hit the slopes shortly after the lifts opened. The visibility was poor, the mountain covered in a cloud which began to drop thick flakes in the late morning. This didn't matter to me, however, because there were no lift lines and, off-piste, we found plenty of untracked, pure powder. In the late afternoon when the wind made conditions intolerable we sat in a tiny lodge at the top of the slope, sipping mulled wine in order to fortify ourselves.

The next morning I awoke, bleary-eyed after the traditional evening of beer drinking, pool playing, beer drinking, eating, beer drinking, clubbing and beer drinking. I was about to roll over for another hour of sleep, when I noticed a peculiar light peeking behind the curtain.

I immediately bolted upright and drew aside the drapes.

Juicy. Fruit. Skies.

In less than ninety minutes we had packed up the car, checked out of the hotel, eaten a quick breakfast and found ourselves on top of the mountain. Under a gleaming blue sky, I surveyed an untouched expanse of powder. I dialed up my favourite ski tune on my iPod, waited for Eddie Van Halen's opening riffs, then, as "Diamond" David Lee Roth crooned "Panama, Panamaha!", I careened down the slope through several feet of beautiful, fluffy white goodness.

For some reason, the Turks prefer to stick to groomed runs, leaving the abundant off-piste slopes and bowls to greedy fellows like myself. It was an epic day. My buddy Brazilian Will went out despite suffering from a wrist that had either been badly sprained or broken the day before. On days like this, you just suck it up and play. (Once, back in high school, I fractured my thumb and kept quiet about it because I didn't want to miss a trip the following week to Mont Tremblant. Sometimes you need to sacrifice the body for the higher self.)

Days like yesterday are what make skiing and snowboarding the sports that capture such passion among their adherents. My buddy Mike D once turned down a job in Dallas because he couldn't imagine living far from a decent mountain. I have plenty of other friends (Ace, Captain Lou, Matt the Cat, BK, among others) who explicitly consider proximity to good skiing as a factor in their decisions regarding where to live. I wholeheartedly agree.

By the way, now that I've skied in Asia, Europe and North America, it's time to head down to a Chilean resort. Perhaps 2008? Anyone?


NFL Predictions Revisited

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We at "Taken At The Flood" believe in accountability. Therefore, with an exciting Bears-Colts Super Bowl coming up, let us revisit our pre-season NFL predictions:

1. Eli Manning will not live up to the considerable media hype.

Eli, in his third full season with the New York Giants, completed just 57.7% of his throws resulting in a passer rating of 77, 18th in the league. He threw 18 interceptions, tying Brett Favre (see below) for fourth place in this category of dubious achievement.

2. The Philadelphia Eagles will finish their season 11-5, winning the difficult NFC East. The hated Dallas Cowboys will finish second in the division, despite Terrell Eldorado Owens' antics. The aforementioned Eli Manning's Giants will not make the playoffs, due to their tough schedule and aging running game. The Washington Redskins will implode.

The Eagles in fact, miraculously, finished 10-6, winning the division. I also got the order of finish correct, and was right about the Redskins. The Giants, however, did manage to back into the playoffs despite a .500 record, due to the mediocrity of the NFC.

3. I shall once again win my suicide pool.

Sadly, the perfidious Jacksonville Jaguars screwed me by losing to the lowly Texans, and Double Barrel ran away with the title.

4. Raiders owner Al Davis will not be a very happy man.

The Raiders finished 2-14, worst in the league. What a catastrophe.

5. Cowboys coach Dick Parcells will not be a very happy man. This bet with Faceman is whisky in the bank.

According to Michael Lewis' article in the New York Times Magazine, Parcells literally choked on his own bile while attempting to sleep during the season. Handling Vanderjagt, Owens and Bledsoe almost killed the guy. And I won the bet with Faceman, of course. Let's not even mention Tony "butterfingers" Romo.

6. The Madden Curse will continue, resulting in an injury to Shaun Alexander.

Alexander broke his foot this season.

7. Kicker Mike Vanderjagt will miss a critical potential winning or tying kick in the waning seconds of a game. This will not make Mr. Parcells happy.

Vanderjagt, despite making $3.3 million this year, was cut by Parcells mid-season after missing two field goal attempts at home against the Colts.

8. My buddy Cooter will deep-fry a turkey before watching football on Thanksgiving Day.

I assume this happened. Cooter is insane.

9. My buddy ZMama will not become a Niners fan, despite having moved to the Bay Area.

ZMama had the pleasure of watching her Seahawks beat the Cowboys in probably the most amazing finish to a playoff game I have ever seen.

10. The Patriots will take the Deion Branch holdout and loss of kicker Adam Viniateri in stride, culminating in another successful season.

Despite much hand-wringing from the Boston sports media and key injuries, the Pats finished 12-4 and made it to the AFC Conference Final.

11. Brett Favre will end his career with a horrible losing season, due primarily to front office incompetence. Good offenses are built around the line, guys. The lack of protection will be ugly.

Favre actually managed to finish 8-8, primarily due to the lack of quality NFC competition. And his offensive line was surprisingly good at pass protection, allowing just 21 sacks (tied for 9th best).

12. Football remains a game of attrition, and injuries will have a big effect in December and January. This is not so much a prediction as an immutable truth.

Injuries undid the seasons of many teams, including my beloved Eagles. Football is a tough sport played by very tough men.

13. San Diego Coach Marty Schottenheimer, if he can make it to the playoffs, will make a boneheaded decision resulting in a loss and/or failure to cover the spread, making me lots of money in the process.

In this year's playoffs, this Schottenheimer fellow, in no particular order:
  • Challenged a clear fumble, losing a timeout in the process.
  • Went for it early on 4th and 11 at the opposing 30-yard line, costing his team a relatively sure 3 points and achieving nothing in the process.
  • Did not manage to drill into his defensive players that on a fourth down pass, you bat the pass down, instead of trying to intercept! This is high school level stuff. But somehow, Chargers safety Marlon McCree did not get this message, intercepting on fourth down in order to make the highlight reel and fumbling the ball back to the opposition. What a douchebag.
  • Called 32 pass plays for rookie QB Phil Rivers and gave only 23 touches to the League MVP and all-around stud LaDainian Tomlinson (whose name, as Jiggy Donuts would say, means "The Dainian" in French). This is just inexcusable. All Marty had to do was run the ball, and he could have won that game.
The result, as you know, was that the Chargers blew an 8 point lead, losing at home to the underdog Patriots. Marty is now 5-13 in the playoffs. However, the saddest part of this sordid story is that I did not make money on this game because I neglected to take my own advice and bet heavily against Marty. As Warren Buffett likes to say, "predicting rain doesn't count, building arks does". In this respect, I failed miserably.

Looking back, this NFL season and post-season showed once again why the sport is so popular in North America. It had moments of sublime excitement and drama. Now that it is all but over, I will turn my attention once again to hockey, and wait for the Ottawa Senators to break my heart as usual in May.


About me

  • I'm Sunset Shazz
  • Living the dream in Istanbul, Turkey
  • I grew up in the hardscrabble streets of suburban Ottawa, Ontario, committing petty crime, insulting the elderly - basically the classic misspent youth. When I was 19, I moved to West Philly, where I put myself through the Wharton School by dealing crack and hustling. After stints in Paris and London, I eventually graduated and moved to San Francisco, where I put in eight years hard labor working for The Man. But now I pop bottles with models, deciding cracked crab or lobster - who says mobsters don't prosper?
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