What if you couldn't recognize faces?

It's an amazing faculty, actually: try this optical illusion, and you'll see that you can easily recognize the faces even at extremely low resolution.

A great deal of the human mind is biologically ordered to focus on this, which means that we are normally very good at it. It is normal for animals to be good at particularly important adaptive traits, and incapable of others that would seem to be as easy. "It is fairly easy to teach a dog to walk on its hind legs, but virtually impossible to teach it to yawn for a food reward. Cats can be taught to escape from boxes by pushing a sequence of buttons and pulling strings, but cannot learn to escape by scratching themselvs."*

That latter claim is kind of surprising, since you'd think you could use the ordinary kind of operant conditioning to train the cat. Apparently not!

Neither can you learn to recognize faces, apparently: you either can or cannot. You can train to recognize different kinds of faces: when I first started dealing with horses, I couldn't tell any two brownish horses apart; eventually, I could not only recognize but read the face of a horse, determining its sex and so on from the facial structure. You can do that with higher animals generally. In doing so, though, you're not generating a new mental faculty: you're only training one you have by nature.

* Stephen Budiansky, The Nature of Horses (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 158.

. . . and Action

and . . . Action

The completed Christmas tree, two full weeks before the day. And all the ornaments boxes stashed back away, whew. Now we're off to a neighbor's house to pick sour oranges, to be made into vinegar, candied peels, marmalade, and anything else we can think of, then a historic homes tour, or at least what pass for historic homes in such a young area.

And tonight, caroling! Speaking of which: "Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow . . . ." Not here, of course, but it looks like much of the rest of the country is getting snowed in this week.


If You Must Filibuster...

...do it the old fashioned way.

Sanders began his speech on Friday at 10:24 a.m. and wrapped up just before 7 p.m. He has threatened to filibuster the Obama-GOP deal when it is brought to the Senate floor next week.
That reminds me of a joke.

A Texan walks in to an Irish bar in Boston. He walks up to the bar, takes a big wad of cash out of his coat pocket, and slams it down. "I've always heard that you Irish are big drinkers," he said. "I've got five hundred dollars here that says that not one of you can drink ten pints of Guinness back to back, without stopping. Who's the man who'll prove me wrong?"

The bar gets real quiet, and people look a little uncomfortable. Finally, one guy gets up and slips out the door.

The Texan smiles and puts his money away, and orders a bourbon. A little while later, though, the guy who had slipped out comes back. He walks up to the Texan, and says, "Is the bet still on?"

"You bet!" the Texan says. The bartender pulls the ten pints, and the little fellow starts to drink them.

He gets one down easy, and two, and three, and four... but he starts to slow down around five, and six... he's looking pretty unsteady by seven and eight... and he's barely holding together at nine. Still, with a great effort and some deep breaths in between, he manages to drink down the last, tenth pint.

"Amazing!" the Texan says, handing him the money. "I didn't think anyone could do it. But let me ask you this -- I saw you step out when I first got here. Where did you go?"

"Oh, well," the Irishman said. "I wasn't sure I could drink that much beer at once, so I went to the other pub down the street to try it out!"

Senator Sanders was trying it out today. I think he can do it.

Q of Day

Now That's Something You Don't See Every Day:

It's kind of amazing to watch this clip, and see (a) the current President of the United States cut completely out of the frame; and (b) the former President of the United States tell him to "please go," and then (c) carry on a press conference that was far more insightful and in depth than any we've seen from the sitting President.

Yet here we are.

The worst thing about this clip is the feeling that -- policy differences aside -- nearly all of us would be happier of the illusion of Bill Clinton taking over again were a reality.

Ode to the Gun

Ode to the Gun

A friend sent me a collection of gun sayings, some I hadn't heard before:

"Those who hammer their guns into lows, will plow for those who do not." -- Thomas Jefferson

"I ask, Sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people. To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them." -- George Mason

Firearms stand next in importance to the constitution itself. They are the American people's liberty teeth and independence . . . from the hour the Pilgrims landed to the present day, events, occurrences and tendencies prove that to ensure peace security and happiness, the rifle and pistol are equally indispensable . . . the very atmosphere of firearms anywhere restrains evil interference -- they deserve a place of honor with all that's good." -- George Washington.
The email also included this summary of post-gun-control extermination of citizens. The timing of numbers of exterminations sound right to me, though I can't vouch for the timing claimed for the various gun-control measures:
In 1929, the Soviet Union established gun control. From 1929 to 1953, about 20 million dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

In 1938, Germany established gun control. From 1939 to 1945, a total of 13 million Jews and others who were unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated.

In 1935, China established gun control. From 1948 to 1952, 2o million political dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

In 1964, Guatemala established gun control. From 1964 to 1981, 100,000 Mayan Indians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

In 1956, Cambodia established gun control. From 1975 to 1977, one million educated people, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

Defenseless people rounded up and exterminated in the 20th Century because of gun control: 56 million.

H/t to Fascist Soup for the Safe Family Gun Guide.

Druid Fix Update -- Lights

Druid Fix Update -- Lights

Before I'd used up all the lights in the box, the NPH diffidently suggested there might be enough already. Bah, I said, you're a bomb-throwing anarchist. Everyone knows the rule at this time of year: if enough is enough, too much is just right. It's no time to be throwing tradition out the window.

Tomorrow I can start on the ornaments.

A Poem from China

A Poem from 中国:

The Nobel Peace Prize is a joke. Except when it's not.

I had imagined being there beneath sunlight
with the procession of martyrs
using just the one thin bone
to uphold a true conviction
And yet, the heavenly void
will not plate the sacrificed in gold
A pack of wolves well-fed full of corpses
celebrate in the warm noon air
aflood with joy

Faraway place
I’ve exiled my life to
this place without sun
to flee the era of Christ’s birth
I cannot face the blinding vision on the cross
From a wisp of smoke to a little heap of ash
I’ve drained the drink of the martyrs, sense spring’s
about to break into the brocade-brilliance of myriad flowers

Deep in the night, empty road
I’m biking home
I stop at a cigarette stand
A car follows me, crashes over my bicycle
some enormous brutes seize me
I’m handcuffed eyes covered mouth gagged
thrown into a prison van heading nowhere

A blink, a trembling instant passes
to a flash of awareness: I’m still alive
On Central Television News
my name’s changed to “arrested black hand”
though those nameless white bones of the dead
still stand in the forgetting
I lift up high up the self-invented lie
tell everyone how I’ve experienced death
so that “black hand” becomes a hero’s medal of honor

Even if I know
death’s a mysterious unknown
being alive, there’s no way to experience death
and once dead
cannot experience death again
yet I’m still
hovering within death
a hovering in drowning
Countless nights behind iron-barred windows
and the graves beneath starlight
have exposed my nightmares

Besides a lie
I own nothing

Liu Xiaobo, a poet and literary critic, is the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. China has forbidden him to travel to the award ceremony, which will be held on Friday in Oslo. This poem was translated by Jeffrey Yang from the Chinese.
That's the kind of thing that the prize was supposed to be about. The thing has power, if it is used wisely.

December Night Sky

December Night Sky

I've just found a fine site for guiding our night sky observations. I just enjoyed watching all three short videos about what we see with amateur equipment (naked eye or ordinary binoculars) in December. Not only will we have a full lunar eclipse on the night of the Solstice, but there is a good meteor shower on December 13 and 14. The shower starts in Gemini, which is in the eastern sky to the left of Orion. Many of the meteors will seem to fly right at Orion. The site also recommends to our attention this pretty double cluster just to the right of Cassiopeia, in the Milky Way in the northern sky.

Druid Fix

Druid Fix

I have to admit that last year I was -- just very slightly -- disappointed in my Christmas tree. The selection at the local tree-mart was poor, the tallest trees were not quite as tall as advertised, and my tree was a trifle skinny. Not being totally enthralled by my Christmas tree, an unusual experience, threw me off to a surprising degree. I felt disloyal and ungrateful.

Not this year! I chose a tree without unwrapping it, trusting in its generous height and thickness, and it has not disappointed me now that we've lugged it painfully upstairs and set its limbs loose. Oh, it was a heavy one! We almost had to call for help. Here it is, awaiting decoration, a full nine feet tall and more than five feet across at the base. Wait till you see it all done!

UPDATE: Don't let another minute go by before you check out Lars's link to some amazing nativity sets here. And I agree with Lars, the dog nativity is awesome.


Reasons for Hope:

Well. Isn't this interesting.

So, other than this having something to do with the situation in Korea, why would you do that in December?

hat tip: Fark

RIP Elizabeth Edwards

Rest in Peace:

My condolences to the friends and family of Elizabeth Edwards.

No Longer Shocked

No Longer Shocked:

What happens when the art world can no longer shock us?

[O]nce you've seen Duchamp's "Fountain" and gotten the joke, is there anything worth revisiting in it? Whatever frisson it might once have delivered was used up in its first display. Once the shock is gone, all that's left is a urinal.

The heirs of Duchamp can't even count on the benefit of an initial shock. Pity the poor artist who would try to get a rise out of an audience these days....
On the contrary, this is a great time to be an artist -- if you're willing to do the work involved in mastering the skills of an artist. Once shock can no longer create a cheap and easy effect, what remains is skill and beauty. The artist coming up today, who is willing to put the work in to truly learn how to paint or sculpt, will find that the art world is finally ready to receive the things of value.



Cassandra asked for a link to the post I wrote last weekend at BLACKFIVE, Against DADT Repeal. The interesting thing about that post, I thought, was the quality of the comments: we had some excellent and insightful arguments made on both sides of the question, with relatively little of the bad manners that can often characterize this particular debate.


The Politics of Disgust and Humanity:

The American Spectator has a review of Dr. Martha Nussbaum's book From Disgust to Humanity (hat tip for the review to the always-excellent Arts & Letters Daily). The review is not particularly glowing. The reviewer has some good points.

To the consternation of secular liberals, much of this opposition is grounded in religious faith. But no one should exaggerate the intensity of this opposition; most Americans, for instance, do not hate homosexuals. Indeed, it is more reasonable to suppose that most religious opponents of the gay rights movement accept the words commonly attributed to Saint Augustine: "Hate the sin, but love the sinner."...

[S]he asks her readers to think of sexual orientation in the same way that most of us think of religion. That is, we may disagree with a neighbor's religious convictions, but we ought to respect his or her right to worship freely (or not to worship at all). This analogy has some value, but not as much as Nussbaum believes, because there is a fundamental distinction between religious belief and conduct, and the freedom of the latter must be less than that of the former. (So to cite an important Supreme Court ruling, there is no "free exercise" right to ingest peyote as part of a religious ritual.)

Nussbaum, however, briskly moves from "sexual orientation" to "sexual conduct" and wants us to accept them as essentially the same.
I'm not sure the reviewer is entirely fair to Dr. Nussbaum's core argument about the idea of a 'politics of disgust.' What she's really arguing is that feelings of the type broadly called disgust are often purely irrational, and not therefore good reasons for rules. Why not? A minimum standard for 'a good reason' is that it should be based on reason, which by definition isn't purely irrational. Indeed, most modern thinkers would say it should be purely rational -- but I don't think that's right, for as we've discussed, the ancient notion of reason was able to embrace both the true and the beautiful. We'll return to that, as it's highly relevant to this problem.

To give Dr. Nussbaum her due, then, what he characterizes as her "casual use" of the word is actually her point. The feeling of disgust does occur in children learning about sex, and also in India when some castes ponder the untouchables, and also in a wide variety of other cases. Some of this may be purely irrational; other things (like the reaction when seeing a person with a serious deformity) has an underlying reason we can grasp (a revulsion of that type might have helped our ancestors avoid a serious disease), but it is one that is irrelevant or useless in modern life. Furthermore, in acting out of disgust of this type, we are failing to treat those people who are 'untouchable' or afflicted with a deformity with the respect due to human beings.

That far, at least, her argument is surely a reasonable one: indeed, it's an argument which is wholly compatible with what the Judeo-Christian ethos that the reviewer is defending. This very principle is what took saints in to live among lepers.

So what about the true and the beautiful? I think Dr. Nussbaum goes wrong in failing to grasp that 'the Good Life' is about human flourishing; and part of flourishing is in structuring your life in accord with the true and the beautiful. The problem with her approach is that it concludes that we should embrace being disgusted, because that means we are challenging irrationality. A life in which I simply accept being disgusted is not a flourishing life; it's a miserable life.

The right approach is to recognize the beauty that comes from a life lived in love and service. That approach is transformative. It also shows the way that even a purely irrational disgust can be brought under the order of reason -- not, that is, of pure rationality, but of reason of the great and ancient type. The virtue of love and charity transforms disgust into beauty. That life is the good life, the life of a soul that is truly flourishing.

Finally, there are many disgusting things that are disgusting for reasons -- that is, not out of pure irrationality. When we come across such a thing, we may well be right to abhor it. Reason, far from being opposed to such a reaction, may endorse just that.

A cappella rhapsody

A cappella rhapsody:

I just don't seem to be interesting in anything late except food and singing:

I'm afraid this is a very silly arrangement:

Mahogany Duck

Mahogany Duck

We're thinking the recipe we remember was something like this one, which uses tea, of all things. We had forgotten the tea part until this reminded us. It turned the duck such a stunning color. It tasted something like Chinese spare ribs.

Another favorite duck recipe in this household, but perhaps not one that's particularly suitable for a Christmas feast, is from my personal hero, Mario Batali, who has never yet let us down with any recipe. This is a Duck Stew Foggia Style with Olives and Fennel Seeds, and a guest remarked that it was "good enough to suck on." Unlike the Mahogany Duck, it's troublesome but not ridiculous.

Now it's noon, and I've fooled around all morning with recipes, after playing hookey from church, when I meant to make this an "all grapefruit, all the time" day in the kitchen. I'm making a grapefruit pie (I know, you don't think it's sounds good, but it's delicious nevertheless) and a batch of candied grapefruit peels, also surprisingly delicious. So I'm off to work. Stop distracting me!

Soused Hog's Face

Soused Hog's Face

Nothing gets the NPH going in the morning like a request for an obscure recipe. He's been pulling all kinds of books down off the shelves in response to Grim's call to arms.

Our thoughts went immediately to Jack Aubrey, so we started with Lobscouse & Spotted Dog, the official cookbook of our beloved Patrick O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin series, which quotes the following exchange from Post Captain:

'It's all one, sir' said Killick. 'Miss told me to say the pig weighs twenty-seven and a half pound the quarter, and I am to set the hams to the tub the very minute I come aboard -- the souse she put aside in thicky jar, knowing you liked 'un. The white puddings is for the Doctor's breakfast.'

'Very good, Killick, very good indeed,' said Jack. "Stow 'em away.'

'To think a man's heart could break over a soused hog's face,' he reflected.
The cookbook then gives this "period" recipe:

1 pig's head, about 1 pounds, cleaned but not skinned
2 lbs. (6 cups) white cornmeal
3 cups white wine
3 cups white vinegar
1 cup water
2 bay leaves
1 T salt
12 peppercorns
1 knob fresh ginger, about 1 inch long, sliced
1 nutmeg, cut in half

Place the head in a large bucket with half the cornmeal and cold water to cover. Soak 2 hours or longer.

Remove the head from the water, rinse well, and place in a large pot with the remaining cornmeal and water to cover. Bring to a boil, covered, and simmer 3 hours. Remove from the pot. When it is just cool enough to handle, pick all meat from the bones. Reserve the tongue and ears.

Wring out a cloth in warm water. Put all the meat into the cloth and tie up as tightly as possible. Chill until firm.

Combine the wine, vinegar, 1 cup water, and the spices. Untie the cloth and pack the meat into a crock. Add the tongue and ears. Pour the wine mixture over the meat. Weight the meat to keep it submerged (a plastic bag partly filed with water works nice.). Seal the crock and store in a cool dark place for up to 2 weeks before serving. Serves 6.

(This recipe is followed by one for stewed boar with "well-tasting soft dark things" identified by the Catalan word "bolets" in Master and Commander, and translated as "porcini mushrooms" by the cookbook's authors.)

The River Cottage Meat Book I mentioned recently also has a section on "headcheese," a/k/a "brawn," that suggests adding a couple of "trotters" (pig's feet) to make sure there will be enough gelatin for the meat to set:

1 pig's head, quartered
2 pig's trotters
2 onions, peeled and quartered
A large bundle of herbs -- parsley, bay leaves, thyme, and marjoram
A cheesecloth bag of spices (1-2 t each of cloves, coriander seeds, and mixed peppercorns)
A handful of chopped parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the ears away from the head and scrubb them thoroughly under a warm tap (pigs have ear wax too). Remove any bristles with a razor or tweezers. Then place with the quartered head in brine for 24 hours. [From another page: brine should be 2 lbs of salt for every 3-4 quarters of water, cooled thoroughly after the salt is dissolved. A potato should float if the brine is salty enough.]

Place the quartered head, ears, trotters, onions, bundle of herbs, and bag of spices in a large stockpot. Cover with water and bring slowly to a gentle simmer. For the first 30 minutes of cooking, skim off any bubbly scum that rises to the surface. Cook, uncovered, at a very gentle simmer for about 4 hours altogether, until all the meat is completely tender and coming away from the bones. Top up the pan occasionally as the water level drops.

When cooked, lift out the meat and leave until cook enough to handle. Pick all the meat, skin, and fat off the head bones (it should fall off quite easily). Peel the coarse skin off the tongue and discard. Roughly chop all the bits of meat, including the fat and skin and the tongue, and toss together with the chopped parsley and the lemon juice. (Everything except the bone and bristles can go into a headcheese, but if you want to make it less fatty, just discard some of the really fatty pieces at this stage.) Season to taste with a little salt and pepper.

Remove the herbs, onions, and spices from the cooking liquor and strain it through a fine sieve or, better still, cheesecloth. Stir a few tablespoons of this gelatine-rich liquid into the chopped meat to help the headcheese set as it cools. Pile the mixture into terrine dishes (1 large, or 2 or 3 small ones), or a pudding basin. Place a weighted plate or board on top and put in the refrigerator to set.

A headcheese can be turned out of its mold on to a plate to serve. Serve cold, in slices, with pickles.

The cookbook then adds a variation: fried headcheese. "Put a couple of slices in a pan and melt gently over a low heat. Pour off a little of the excess fat, then turn up the heat so the meat begins to fry. Add a little garlic if you like. . . ." This is what I call a cookbook.

And since the recipe recommends pickles, now would be a good time to mention the success we've been having this month with kosher-style garlic dill pickles. You don't use vinegar; the souring comes from the lacto-baccilli guys that live on the surface of cucumbers fresh from the garden. Grocery-store pickles have had all that scrubbed off of them and sealed out by wax. You just pop the cukes in a crock with dill and garlic in a very strong brine and a handful of grape leaves for tannin (to keep them crisp), and sure enough a week or two later they're starting to taste like kosher dills. The recipe ways they should be thoroughly sour in one to four weeks. We've enjoying these so much that I regret the short overlap in cuke, dill, and grape-leaf seasons. We didn't start trying the recipe until the cukes were almost finished producing. We got the recipe from Wild Fermentation, an altogether inspiring cookbook.

One final pig's recipe is from The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, and calls for more vegetables. It also recommends setting aside the ears to make Sorrel, Chicory, and Crispy Ear Salad, an "ideal accompaniment" and a dish surely destined to become a Christmas tradition in your household:

1 pig's head, rinsed thoroughly
4 pig's trotters
2 onions, peeled
2 carrots, peeled
2 leeks, cleaned
2 stalks of celery
2 heads of garlic, skin on
zero of 2 lemons
A healthy splash of red wine vinegar
a bundle of fresh herbs tied together
2 bay leaves
a scant handful of black peppercorns (tied in cheesecloth -- or you will be picking them out of the cooked meat forever)
sea salt

Place the head and trotters in a large pot, cover with water, and add all the other ingredients except salt. As soon as you have brought it up to a boil, reduce to a very gentle simmer, skimming as you go.

If using, extract the ears after about 1 hour, rinse them, and dry them carefully. When you can eel the cheek starting to come away from the bone (this should take about 2-1/2 hours), remove everything from the liquor and discard the vegetables. Return the liquor to the heat to reduce by about half, then season with salt, remembering this is served cold, which subdues flavors. While still warm, pick through the trotters and pig's head, retrieving the flesh, especially peeling the tongue. The snout is neither fat nor meat; do not be discouraged [Fear not! as the angels said], it is delicious in your brawn.

Line our terrine with plastic wrap and fill with the retrieved meats. Pour in enough of the reduced liquor just to cover, slamming the mold on the kitchen counter to shake out any air bubbles. Leave to set overnight in the fridge, and before you serve it, remove it in good time to acclimatize without being so warm it is soft and sweaty.