Malcolm X - The Ballot or the Bullet

Fifty years ago today, as he was preparing to deliver a speech to the Organization of Afro-American Unity in New York City, Malcolm X, the famous Muslim minister and human rights activist who made a name for himself in the struggle against social, racial, political and economic inequality in America, was gunned down and killed.

It's difficult to know exactly how his thoughts would have developed had he not been assassinated. As a member of the Nation of Islam, his philosophy was originally a condemnation of white supremacy, and it sought to empower black businesses and communities to attain the same economic power that whites had achieved. Over time, however, he slowly started to see racial inequality more as a function of the evils inherent in capitalism than as a purely racial question. In his fight for civil rights, he became more politically active and came to see the necessity of separating politics and religion, a move that led to his expulsion and renunciation from the Nation of Islam.

I agree with those who believe that Malcolm X (or Malik El-Shabazz, as he would rename himself after a pilgrimage to Mecca) was the greatest orator of his generation. Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., who, appropriately enough, sounds like a preacher, Malcolm X's thoughts may be less rhetorical, but for that same reason they are more fluid and less contrived, framed in such a way that they automatically dismantle most objections one can try to throw against them. As we contemplate the trajectory of civil rights, the progress that has been made so far, and how much further we still need to go, it is worthwhile to listen today to what is perhaps the best speech given by one of the best orators in history.

Animated Fibonacci Sculptures

When math is expressed aesthetically, and when art is expressed with the precision and rigor of math, things are bound to look stunning and inspiring. If you haven't checked out Vi Hart's amazing little doodles on the Fibonacci series, or the incredible animation Nature by Numbers, you need to go and check those out right now.

To add to that little collection of awesomeness, today we have a series of sculptures inspired by the Fibonacci sequence (or what ultimately amounts to the same, by the Golden Ratio). To produce this amazing sequence, the artist, John Edmark, synchronized things so that a strobe light would flash every time the sculpture rotated 137.5º—yes, precisely the golden angle. The final result, as you're about to see, is nothing short of spectacular and mesmerizing...

And if rotating animations are your thing, you could do worse than to check out and be hypnotized by the cyclotrope.

Pascal's Wager - Betting on Infinity

Blaise Pascal is, in my mind at least, almost always a mixed bag. Many of the thoughts he expressed in his appropriately titled book, Pensées, are decidedly parochial and antiquated, but for all that, it's also quite impressive to see how far ahead of his time he was in other respects, to the point that many of his philosophical and psychological insights would eventually inspire even the atheist existentialists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

And this, of course, is to say nothing about his mathematical brilliance, his contributions to physics, and his abilities as an inventor. As a highly devoted Christian, and as one of the founding fathers of probability theory, it should come as no great surprise that Pascal tried to work out a way to justify the rationality of belief in God through the rigor of a mathematical argument, which has come to be known now as Pascal's Wager, one of the more popular arguments theists use to justify their faith, and the essence of which is explained, and critiqued, in the animation below.

And if you want to listen to the creator of this animation explaining his criticism of Pascal's Wager, you can find it below:

Ed Yong - Suicidal Wasps, Zombie Roaches & Other Parasite Tales

By its very nature, philosophy is an iconoclastic discipline, dedicated to questioning and dissecting the basic assumptions we use to make sense of our experience, in order to get a better understanding of reality and of the human condition. It was the ancient Greeks who first posed the question about whether the nature of determinism and fate might preclude the possibility of free choice. The answer to this question, in my mind at least, cannot be completely answered either by philosophy or by science alone, but by a cross-disciplinary collaboration of the two, so that the empirical evidence discovered by the natural and social sciences can be properly interpreted in light of philosophical concepts, theories and arguments that cannot be settled scientifically (things like consciousness, intentionality, whether reasons can count as causes, etc.).

One of my favorite tags in this blog is the one on Mind Control. There's just something morbidly fascinating and interesting about the prospect that, at least some of the time, we may be little more than automatons or zombies blindly doing the bidding of forces that we might not even be aware of, and which may actually go against our own personal and collective interests. And as one of my favorite science journalists, Ed Young, argues in the following TEDTalk presentation, biologists are continuing to find instances of parasitic mind control that will make you want to put yourself under a microscope...

Bow down to our parasitic overlords...

Lawrence Lessig - We the People, and the Republic We Must Reclaim

The grand Enlightenment experiment in political self-rule and representative democracy that the United States was supposed to embody was dealt a potentially fatal blow some years ago with the Citizens United decision. Despite the rhetoric about free speech and the gross equivocation between free expression and money, the decision is one that essentially legitimized the bribing of political candidates so that, once elected, they could do the bidding of their corporate and capitalist overlords.

In the following TEDTalk presentation, Professor Lawrence Lessig explains and puts in context what this means for democracy, offers some insights into some possible solutions out of this political nightmare, and makes a powerful case for our moral obligation to overturn the corrosive power of money in politics, even if it feels futile sometimes.

Diotima's Ladder - From Lust to Morality

Just about everyone has some idea about what platonic love is: a spiritual form of love in which what one loves is the essential nature and moral character of another human being qua person, irrespective of such accidental features as physical attractiveness, wealth, skin complexion, youth, body type or even sex or gender.

In Plato's famous dialogue Symposium, Socrates claims that one of the deepest lesson he ever learned on the nature of love he learned from the wise Diotima, who argued that our infatuation with physical beauty, if approached properly, could represent the first step in a process that could lead to some of the most important revelations about the relationship between the beautiful, the good and the true.

I highly recommend you read the Symposium, but just to whet your appetite about this theme, here's a little animated introduction to some of these ideas, thanks to a great and recent collaboration between the BBC and the Open University.

Now, in the Symposium there are various memorable speeches about love, quite heavy on symbolism sometimes, and some of which presuppose some previous understanding and familiarity with Plato's theory of the Forms. If you want a nice, thoughtful introduction to many of those ideas, and to how they all fit in with Plato's larger metaphysical account, the following interview from Entitled Opinions, should be pure intellectual delight:

Dropping a Bowling Ball and a Feather Inside a Vacuum Chamber

One of the ways in which Galileo revolutionized the world of physics was by challenging the Aristotelian notion that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. One apocryphal story claims he accomplished this by dropping various objects of different masses and densities from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and measuring how long that took, afterward arguing that any differences could be explained by air resistance.

During the Apollo 15 expedition to the moon, one of the astronauts dropped a hammer and a feather at the same time and, without any air resistance on the moon surface, they both fell at the same speed. But the footage was a bit grainy. Luckily, video resolution has gotten a lot better over time, as well as our ability to create large vacuum chambers where we can recreate this famous experiment in a much more dramatic and impressive manner, and without having to travel to the moon surface. Oh, and now we also have Brian Cox to guide us through some of the scientific significance of this simple demonstration.

Steven Pinker - Linguistics as a Window to Understand the Brain

One of the things I first enjoyed when I was introduced to philosophy was its recursive nature: we could use thought to investigate the nature, the rules, the structure and the limits of thought itself (and what that could tell us about the human mind). For a very similar reason I have a certain appreciation and fondness for linguistics. Most of our communication takes place through language, and linguists are hard at work trying to understand what they can about human cognition, nature and culture, by paying close attention to the way in which we use language.

In the following lecture, Steven Pinker provides a fascinating introduction to questions such as how syntax (the study of linguistic structure), phonology (the study of sound), semantics (the study of meaning) and pragmatics (the study of the social and cultural role and context of language), all help us to understand how language works. He also provides a lesson on the nature of the various rules of grammar and sound production, how language is first acquired, how it's processed and how it's encoded in the brain, the difference between language and thought, the ambiguity inherent in our use of language and the interesting and humorous consequences to which it can lead, and why it is so difficult for computers to understand language while it seems so easy and automatic for us.

Importantly, Pinker also touches on the major influence that Noam Chomsky has had on the field, especially his hypothesis of an innate, hard-wired universal grammar as an explanation for language acquisition in children, the open-ended creativity inherent in language, and the nature of syntax as separate from content and meaning, all of which can provide a window to understand certain key aspects of the human mind and human nature more generally.

Don't forget to check out a fascinating and delightful meditation on language by Stephen Fry.

Plato - Apology

In ancient Greece, when visitors went to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the very first thing they encountered there was an inscription chiseled on the entrance: "know thyself." While many people today think of this as an invitation to meditative self-reflection, this was simply a warning for humans to know their place, to understand that they are mortal, and that any pretension to wisdom, power or hubris would be swiftly punished by the gods.

Perhaps one of the contributing factors to the more introspective meaning of this phrase comes from the fact that Socrates argued, most famously in Plato's celebrated dialogue Apology, that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Human beings have the unique ability of contemplating their beliefs, values and choices, and of questioning the established order and trying to come up with novel solutions and alternatives to the reality and the tragedy of existence. Taking this maxim seriously, however, is no easy task. As you can hear in the wonderful dramatization of Plato's Apology below, when Socrates admonished his fellow citizens to wake up from their dogmatic slumber (to borrow a phrase from Kant), they decided it would be easier to kill him than to start thinking for themselves...

Will you dare to know yourself? To live the examined life? To question the status quo and risk ridicule, threat and loneliness?

Beyond Freakonomics: Musings on the Economics of Everyday Life

For most of its history, economics has been an esoteric discipline concerned with abstract concepts and trends about which only highly-trained experts could (or wanted to) discuss. But then in 2003, Stephen Dubner, from the New York Times, published a profile of Steven Levitt, a rising star in economics who was using the analytic tools of economics to answer strange questions, many of them having nothing to do with economics per se.

The profile was something of a sensation, and it led to a collaboration between Dubner and Levitt. Together they wrote Freakonomics, and the rest, as they say, is history. In the following highly entertaining presentation, Levitt discusses some of his background, his work, and a series of hilarious anecdotes, including one regarding his professional and embarrassing relationship with a prostitute, which eventually inspired one of the chapters of SuperFreakonomics.

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