Thursday, November 20, 2014

big data and their epistemological challenge

springer |  It is estimated that humanity accumulated 180 EB of data between the invention of writing and 2006. Between 2006 and 2011, the total grew ten times and reached 1,600 EB. This figure is now expected to grow fourfold approximately every 3 years. Every day, enough new data are being generated to fill all US libraries eight times over. As a result, there is much talk about “big data”. This special issue on “Evolution, Genetic Engineering and Human Enhancement”, for example, would have been inconceivable in an age of “small data”, simply because genetics is one of the data-greediest sciences around. This is why, in the USA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have identified big data as a programme focus. One of the main NSF–NIH interagency initiatives addresses the need for core techniques and technologies for advancing big data science and engineering (see NSF-12-499).
Despite the importance of the phenomenon, it is unclear what exactly the term “big data” means and hence refers to. The aforementioned document specifies that: “The phrase ‘big data’ in this solicitation refers to large, diverse, complex, longitudinal, and/or distributed data sets generated from instruments, sensors, Internet transactions, email, video, click streams, and/or all other digital sources available today and in the future.” You do not need to be an analytic philosopher to find this both obscure and vague. Wikipedia, for once, is also unhelpful. Not because the relevant entry is unreliable, but because it reports the common definition, which is unsatisfactory: “data sets so large and complex that they become awkward to work with using on-hand database management tools”. Apart from the circular problem of defining “big” with “large”, the definition suggests that data are too big or large only in relation to our current computational power. This is misleading. Of course, “big”, as many other terms, is a relational predicate: a pair of shoes is too big for you, but fine for me. It is also trivial to acknowledge that we tend to evaluate things non-relationally, in this case as absolutely big, whenever the frame of reference is obvious enough to be left implicit. A horse is a big animal, no matter what whales may think. Yet, these two simple points may give the impression that there is no real trouble with “big data” being a loosely defined term referring to the fact that our current computers cannot handle so many gazillions of data efficiently. And this is where two confusions seem to creep in. First, that the epistemological problem with big data is that there is too much of them (the ethical problem concerns how we use them; see below). And second, that the technological solution to the epistemological problem is more and better techniques and technologies, which will “shrink” big data back to a manageable size. The epistemological problem is different, and it requires an equally epistemological solution.

it knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!

WaPo |  According to Google, I am a woman between the ages of 25 and 34 who speaks English as her primary language and has accumulated an unwieldy 74,486 e-mails in her life. I like cooking, dictionaries and Washington, D.C. I own a Mac computer that I last accessed at 10:04 p.m. last night, at which time I had 46 open Chrome tabs. And of the thousands and thousands of YouTube videos I have watched in my lifetime, a truly embarrassing number of them concern (a) funny pets or (b) Taylor Swift.

I didn’t tell Google any of these things intentionally, of course — I didn’t fill out a profile or enter a form. But even as you search Google, it turns out, Google is also searching you.

This isn’t exactly new news. Google has, since 2009, published a transparency tool called Dashboard, which lets users see exactly what kind of data the Internet giant has on them and from which services. But the issue of data collection has provoked renewed anxiety of late, perhaps spurred by recent investigations into personal data and search engines in Europe and Asia — as well as the high-profile hacking of celebrities’ personal data and the shadow of last year’s National Security Agency revelations.

According to a recent survey by the consumer research firm Survata, people care more about Google accessing their personal electronic data than they do the NSA, their boss, their parents, or their spouse. Which is unfortunate, given that your parents and boss will probably never see everything you search, e-mail and click — while Google logs that material more or less all the time.

“Google knows quite a lot,” said Ondrej Prostrednik, the author of a recent Medium post about Google data collection that has begun making the Reddit rounds. “People outside of Google can only guess. But it is important to realize that we are the ones giving it all the data they know.”

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

ethical heroism in the face of institutional religion and self-righteous clericalism...,

WaPo |  As a Protestant, I have no particular insight into the internal theological debates of Catholicism. But the participants seem to inhabit different universes. One side (understandably) wants to shore up the certainties of an institution under siege. Francis begins from a different point: a pastoral passion to meet people where they are — to recognize some good, even in their brokenness, and to call them to something better. That something better is not membership in a stable institution, or even the comforts of ethical religion; it is a relationship with Jesus, from which all else follows.

Instead of being a participant in a cultural battle, Francis says, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” First you sew up the suffering (which, incidentally, includes all of us). “Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds.” The temptation, in his view, is to turn faith into ideology. “The faith passes,” he recently said, “through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus; in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. . . . The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.” 

The message seems simple. It actually highlights a complexity at the heart of Christianity: Its founder coupled a call for ethical heroism (don’t even lust in your heart) with a disdain for institutional religion and self-righteous clericalism. And this has been disorienting to institutionalists from the start. 

Francis has devoted serious attention to reforming the institutional expression — particularly the finances — of the Catholic Church. But he has chosen to emphasize the most subversive and challenging aspects of Christian faith. He really does view rigidity, clericalism and hypocrisy as just as (or more) damaging as sexual matters. Liberals want to incorporate this into their agenda. But the pope has his own, quite different agenda — which has nothing to do with our forgettable ideological debates. It is always revolutionary, and confusing to the faithful, when a religious leader believes that the Sabbath (including all the rules and institutions of religion) was made for man, and not the other way around.

is pope francis smart, conservative, or something less familiar?

NYTimes |  In Pope Francis’ most significant move yet to reshape the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, Blase J. Cupich took his seat in Chicago on Tuesday as archbishop of the nation’s third-largest Catholic archdiocese and called on the church not to be afraid of change.

In a multilingual installation Mass at Holy Name Cathedral, with American bishops, his large extended family and Mayor Rahm Emanuel looking on, Archbishop Cupich was handed the golden crosier, a shepherd’s staff, that belonged to a powerful liberal predecessor, Cardinal George Mundelein, who became archbishop of Chicago 99 years ago and served for 24 years.

“We as a church should not fear leaving the security of familiar shores, the peacefulness of the mountaintop of our self-assuredness, but rather walk into the mess,” Archbishop Cupich said in an upbeat and plain-spoken homily.

With Archbishop Cupich now seated, Pope Francis gets a media-savvy American communicator in tune with his message of reinvigorating the church by stressing mercy over judgmentalism, change over stasis, and the imperative for all Catholics to go to the margins of society to serve the poor, migrants and those without hope. It is a message that not every bishop has enthusiastically embraced.

contempt for conservatism, religion, and history among social scientists.., |  The analysis in (Duarte et al. 2014) of the bias in the social sciences against conservatives and conservatism is important and timely. (I am not at all competent to evaluate either the effectiveness or the reasonableness of their proposed remedies, and therefore will not discuss them.)  

If anything, the article understates the blatant, explicit contempt shown to conservative views in the published scientific literature. For instance, Wilson, Ausman, and Mathews (1973) wrote: The “ideal” conservative is characterized as conventional, conforming, antihedonistic, authoritarian, punitive, ethnocentric, militaristic, dogmatic, superstitious, and antiscientific.

After that long stream of insults, the reader is quite prepared to be told that conservatives also smell funny. Obviously, most or all of those adjectives could be have been replaced with equally accurate adjectives of a neutral or positive valence e.g. respectful of tradition, uneccentric, abstemious, forceful, stern, patriotic, and so on. They proceed to characterize conservatism as a “syndrome” that has to be “explained” whereas, by implication, being liberal is just the way normal people are, and as such demands no particular explanation. (Stankov (2008) also refers to the “Conservative syndrome”.) This kind of language would be appropriate for an article in Mother Jones, but seems entirely out of place in a scientific paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Duarte et al. are primarily concerned with the damage that this kind of bias does to social science research. Equally or more important is the poisonous impact of these kinds of publications on the state of political discourse, particularly when echoed gleefully in articles in liberal publications such as (Mooney 2014). First, such claims obviously increase the dislike and distrust of scientists and science among conservatives, and the sense that the pronouncements of science are merely a liberal conspiracy. Second, the last thing that liberals in this country need at this time — and I write as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal — is more reasons to feel smugly superior. Third and most importantly, democracy is based on political discourse, and meaningful political discourse depends on, to some extent, taking what your opponent says seriously and engaging with it on that basis. If liberals believe that conservative opinions are atavistic remnants of attitudes that were adaptive when we were all living in caves or on the savannah, and can therefore be dismissed out of hand, then no serious discourse is possible.

If these negative views of conservatism were in fact entirely valid, then the scientific community would be in the difficult position of balancing the scientists’ commitment to truth against the good of society. However, since, as Duarte et al. demonstrate at length and in detail, they are certainly one-sided, often exaggerated, and sometimes false, there is no justification for it.

In this note, I want to add to the argument in Duarte et al. by making two further points. First, parallel to the contempt for conservatism, and related to it, is a pervasive contempt for religion in psychological studies of religious belief. This connection is explicit in works such as Kanazawa’s (2010) paper, “Why Liberals and Atheists are More Intelligent”. Second, the contemptuous views of both conservatism and religion are exacerbated by a lack of historical perspective and an uninterest in historical accuracy. I conclude with some general comments about the risks attendant in this kind of research and the caution that needs to be exercised.

you know who you are...,

WaPo |  Some people just can't seem to keep a beat.

You know the ones: They seem to be swaying to their own music or clapping along to a beat only they can hear. You may even think that describes you.

The majority of humans, however, do this very well. We clap, dance, march in unison with few problems; that ability is part of what sets us apart from other animals.

But it is true that rhythm — specifically, coordinating your movement with something you hear — doesn't come naturally to some people. Those people represent a very small sliver of the population and have a real disorder called "beat deafness."

Unfortunately, your difficulty dancing or keeping time in band class probably doesn't quite qualify.
A new study by McGill University researchers looked more closely at what might be going on with "beat deaf" individuals, and the findings may shed light on why some people seem to be rhythm masters while others struggle.

processing structure in language and music

springer |  The relationship between structural processing in music and language has received increasing interest in the past several years, spurred by the influential Shared Syntactic Integration Resource Hypothesis (SSIRH; Patel, Nature Neuroscience, 6, 674–681, 2003). According to this resource-sharing framework, music and language rely on separable syntactic representations but recruit shared cognitive resources to integrate these representations into evolving structures. The SSIRH is supported by findings of interactions between structural manipulations in music and language. However, other recent evidence suggests that such interactions also can arise with nonstructural manipulations, and some recent neuroimaging studies report largely nonoverlapping neural regions involved in processing musical and linguistic structure. These conflicting results raise the question of exactly what shared (and distinct) resources underlie musical and linguistic structural processing. This paper suggests that one shared resource is prefrontal cortical mechanisms of cognitive control, which are recruited to detect and resolve conflict that occurs when expectations are violated and interpretations must be revised. By this account, musical processing involves not just the incremental processing and integration of musical elements as they occur, but also the incremental generation of musical predictions and expectations, which must sometimes be overridden and revised in light of evolving musical input.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

can sing a note and a harmonic

a little air and sunlight'll clear up that nasty turner diaries infection...,

anonymous |  Anonymous has revealed a list of KKK members in light of the Ferguson protests as part of #OpKKK and a cyberwar against the organization. The ‘de-hooding’ of Ku Klux Klan members has spurred threats and attacks against Anonymous over social media, with @KuKluxKlanUSA stating “You messed with us, now it’s our turn to mess with you.”

The threat comes in response to the campaign Anonymous began online, to name KKK members in the Ferguson and St. Louis area after it was discovered that the KKK members have been distributing fliers. The fliers warn Ferguson protesters of the consequences of a continuation of their fight, stating they have “awakened a sleeping giant,” and that they [KKK] will use “lethal force” against protestors if they continue. The fliers handed out justify the lethal force as a form of “self-defense.”

Anonymous won’t tolerate racism in any form, or the suppression of the right to protest. Many of the names listed are also accompanied by photos of the members without their hoods. One member is a known police officer, while another works in education. An image posted, displays a KKK member standing quietly amongst the Ferguson protestors.

Anonymous will continue to monitor the KKK servers and disrupt their websites. [1]

The list, accompanied by images, can be found here.

pope francis new right hand man in america...,

HuffPo |  Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley wants the Vatican to move quickly to discipline bishops who helped cover up child sex abuse.

The Cardinal’s remarks came during an interview with 60 Minutes that touched a range of hot topics within the church -- including clergy sex abuse, treatment of the American Nuns and women’s ordination.

Choosing to wear the brown habit of the Capuchin Franciscan order instead of a Cardinal's red robes, O’Malley addressed the scandal surrounding Kansas City-St. Joseph’s Bishop Robert Finn. The bishop was convicted in 2012 of a criminal misdemeanor for failing to report a pedophile priest within his diocese.

The priest in question, Rev. Shawn Ratigan, was sentenced to 50 years in jail on child pornography charges, Crux reports, while Finn was given two years of probation. Finn is still holding on to his post as bishop.

But O’Malley agreed that Finn wouldn’t even be allowed to teach Sunday School in Boston. And as one of Pope Francis’ top American advisors, the Cardinal's opinions carry weight.
“It’s a question the Holy See needs to address urgently,” O’Malley said about whether Finn should continue in his role.

The Vatican sent O’Malley to the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002, with the task of cleaning up the sex abuse scandal that rocked one of the oldest bastions of American Catholicism. He admits he was “terrified” at first. Pope Francis gave his work a stamp of approval by choosing O’Malley as the head of the church’s new commission to protect children. 

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, told The Huffington Post that O'Malley's comments were "more of the same -- talk and speculation."

"We aren't hopeful [about the commission]," Clohessy said via email. "There have been hundreds of Catholic church panels that have created policies and protocols that are essentially public relations and that are honored most often in the breach."

As part of the interview, O’Malley also addressed the issue of women’s ordination. While maintaining that women can play important roles in the church as directors of charities and schools, O’Malley emphasized that he still supports traditional Catholic doctrine that bars women from the priesthood. 

“If I were founding a church, you know, I'd love to have women priests,” O’Malley said. “But Christ founded it and what he he has given us is something different.”

On the other hand, he called the Vatican’s crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious a “disaster.” The LCWR represents about 80% of American nuns, Crux reports, and has been criticized by the Vatican for focusing on social justice issues instead of advancing Catholic teachings on abortion and sexuality. The Vatican has appointed three bishops to oversee the organization.

surprise, surprise, demoted former highest-ranking american cardinal raymond burke was the archbishop of st. louis...,

usatoday |  In a move that reflects the loosening posture of the Vatican on major social issues, conservative U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke was removed by Pope Francis from yet another top post.
Burke, who has long been vocal about denying communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion, was dismissed as head of the Holy See's highest court and given the post of Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a largely ceremonial job overseeing charity to seniors.

At 66, Burke is considered young by church hierarchy standards. The dismissal is a set-back to his Vatican career as well as a clear message from Pope Francis to those not hewing to his progressive view of the Catholic Church.

The move was expected by Vatican-watchers given that Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis, had openly criticized Francis' less doctrinaire approach to the faith. Last year, Francis had removed Burke from the Congregation for Bishops, a group tasked with the appointment of new bishops worldwide.

demoted cardinal raymond burke of st. louis was so flamboyant he would've made liberachi blush...,

stpeterslist |  Listers, it is no secret that St. Peter’s List has great adulation for our Prince of the Church, Cardinal Burke. Previously, SPL published a list of photographs from when the Prince visited the Notre-Dame de Fontgombault, in which there are wonderful shots the the Cappa Magna.

“On the feast of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, September 15, His Eminence, Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, visited the foundation of the Sisters Adorers in Switzerland on the first anniversary of its establishment. Located in the Diocese of Basel, Switzerland, quite near the border with France, the House of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus is nestled in the Alps, which provide a very appropriate atmosphere for prayer, work, and community, in the spirit of the Sisters’ Patrons, St. Francis de Sales, St. Jane Frances de Chantal, and St. Madeleine Sophia Barat.” – Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest.3

Monday, November 17, 2014

the ineffable lucidity of school in a matinee..., accept no substitutes!

guardian | “I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it’s the right approach for this experiential film,” said Nolan. “Many of the film-makers I’ve admired over the years have used sound in bold and adventurous ways. I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue. Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound.”
One scene in which some viewers struggled to hear dialogue featured Michael Caine’s character revealing key information to Jessica Chastain’s from his hospital bed. “We are following the emotional state of Jessica’s character as she starts to understand what he’s been saying,” said Nolan. “Information is communicated in various different ways over the next few scenes. That’s the way I like to work; I don’t like to hang everything on one particular line.”

a wrinkle in time

Sunday, November 16, 2014

the myth of AI

edge |  A lot of us were appalled a few years ago when the American Supreme Court decided, out of the blue, to decide a question it hadn't been asked to decide, and declare that corporations are people. That's a cover for making it easier for big money to have an influence in politics. But there's another angle to it, which I don't think has been considered as much: the tech companies, which are becoming the most profitable, the fastest rising, the richest companies, with the most cash on hand, are essentially people for a different reason than that. They might be people because the Supreme Court said so, but they're essentially algorithms.

If you look at a company like Google or Amazon and many others, they do a little bit of device manufacture, but the only reason they do is to create a channel between people and algorithms. And the algorithms run on these big cloud computer facilities.

The distinction between a corporation and an algorithm is fading. Does that make an algorithm a person? Here we have this interesting confluence between two totally different worlds. We have the world of money and politics and the so-called conservative Supreme Court, with this other world of what we can call artificial intelligence, which is a movement within the technical culture to find an equivalence between computers and people. In both cases, there's an intellectual tradition that goes back many decades. Previously they'd been separated; they'd been worlds apart. Now, suddenly they've been intertwined.

The idea that computers are people has a long and storied history. It goes back to the very origins of computers, and even from before. There's always been a question about whether a program is something alive or not since it intrinsically has some kind of autonomy at the very least, or it wouldn't be a program. There has been a domineering subculture—that's been the most wealthy, prolific, and influential subculture in the technical world—that for a long time has not only promoted the idea that there's an equivalence between algorithms and life, and certain algorithms and people, but a historical determinism that we're inevitably making computers that will be smarter and better than us and will take over from us.

That mythology, in turn, has spurred a reactionary, perpetual spasm from people who are horrified by what they hear. You'll have a figure say, "The computers will take over the Earth, but that's a good thing, because people had their chance and now we should give it to the machines." Then you'll have other people say, "Oh, that's horrible, we must stop these computers." Most recently, some of the most beloved and respected figures in the tech and science world, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, have taken that position of: "Oh my God, these things are an existential threat. They must be stopped."

In the past, all kinds of different figures have proposed that this kind of thing will happen, using different terminology. Some of them like the idea of the computers taking over, and some of them don't. What I'd like to do here today is propose that the whole basis of the conversation is itself askew, and confuses us, and does real harm to society and to our skills as engineers and scientists.
A good starting point might be the latest round of anxiety about artificial intelligence, which has been stoked by some figures who I respect tremendously, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. And the reason it's an interesting starting point is that it's one entry point into a knot of issues that can be understood in a lot of different ways, but it might be the right entry point for the moment, because it's the one that's resonating with people.

The usual sequence of thoughts you have here is something like: "so-and-so," who's a well-respected expert, is concerned that the machines will become smart, they'll take over, they'll destroy us, something terrible will happen. They're an existential threat, whatever scary language there is. My feeling about that is it's a kind of a non-optimal, silly way of expressing anxiety about where technology is going. The particular thing about it that isn't optimal is the way it talks about an end of human agency.

But it's a call for increased human agency, so in that sense maybe it's functional, but I want to go little deeper in it by proposing that the biggest threat of AI is probably the one that's due to AI not actually existing, to the idea being a fraud, or at least such a poorly constructed idea that it's phony. In other words, what I'm proposing is that if AI was a real thing, then it probably would be less of a threat to us than it is as a fake thing.

What do I mean by AI being a fake thing? That it adds a layer of religious thinking to what otherwise should be a technical field. Now, if we talk about the particular technical challenges that AI researchers might be interested in, we end up with something that sounds a little duller and makes a lot more sense.

don't fear artificial intelligence?

slate |  But the biggest negative impact of AI fear mongering may not lie in the regulatory realm. Instead, it could very well reinforce and worsen the state of learned helplessness that characterizes the average Joe or Jane’s relationship to and dependence on complex technology. At best, computing is a necessary chore for many users. At worst, computing is bewildering and alienating, sometimes requiring intervention of technical specialists with arcane knowledge bases. Experts often lament that the mass public and the people who represent them are ignorant of technological details and thus make poor choices concerning technology in both day-to-day life and regulatory policy.

Technopanics didn’t create the divide between the Linuxless masses and the Geek Squad—but they arguably worsen it. When public figures like Musk characterize emerging technologies in mystical, alarmist, and metaphorical terms, they abandon the very science and technology that forged innovations like Tesla cars for the superstition and ignorance of what Carl Sagan famously dubbed the “demon-haunted world.” Instead of helping users understand, adapt to, and even empathize with the white-collar robot that may be joining their workplace, Musk’s remarks encourage them to fear and despise what they don’t understand. It is fitting that Musk’s remarks come so close to Halloween, as his rhetoric resembles that of the village elder in an old horror movie who whips up the villagers to bear pitchforks and torches to kill the monster in the decrepit old castle up the hill.
The greatest tragedy of the emergent AI technopanic that Musk fuels is that it may reduce human autonomy in a world that may one day be driven by increasingly autonomous machine intelligence. Experts tell us that emerging AI technologies will fundamentally reshape everything from romantic relationships to national security. They could be wrong, as AI has an unfortunate history of failing to live up to expectations. Let’s assume, however, that they are right. Why would it be in the public interest to—through visions of demons, wizards, and warlocks—contribute to an already growing divide between the technologists who make the self-driving cars and the rest of us who will ride in them?
Debates in AI and public policy often hinge on trying to parse precisely what machine autonomy represents, but you don’t need a Ph.D. in computer science or even a Github account to know what it means to be an autonomous human interacting with technology. It’s understanding (at least on some level) and being able to make confident decisions about the ways we use everyday technology. (Perhaps if users were encouraged to take charge of technology instead of fearing it, they wouldn’t need to take so many trips to the Genius Bar.) Yes, Musk is right that AI can’t be left purely to the programmers. But worrying about science fiction like Skynet could just reinforce the “digital divide” between the tech’s haves and have-nots.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

feeding the hungry vs. anti-gay activism: a double-standard for "religious" freedom?

religiondispatches |  If you’ve watched the news or been on social media at all this past week, you’ve by now probably heard that, along with two other ministers, 90-year-old WWII veteran Arnold Abbot, was arrested last week in Fort Lauderdale, FL for feeding the homeless, which he has done for over 20 years through his organization Love Thy Neighbor.

Created in 1991 as a tribute to his wife, LTN provides, among other things food, shelter, and counseling to Broward County’s substantial homeless population. The non-profit, interfaith organization cites as its motivation “two very simple concepts. We believe that ‘We are out brothers keeper’ and we should ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’”  Under the new ordinance, Abbot and his co-conspirators face up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Although the city has received much deserved criticism we also wonder why the ordinance, and Abbot’s arrest for allegedly violating it, haven’t been portrayed in terms of religious freedom. The whole situation has been labeled as silly at best and coldhearted at worst. Nicki Grossman, who runs the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, told the Sun Sentinel that she has received emails telling her that the city “has no heart.” But, at least as far as we can tell, it seems that virtually no one has pulled out the First Amendment in defense of Arnold Abbot.

We draw attention to this because, as RD has frequently noted, appeals to “religious freedom” have become commonplace in the face of perceived government overreach. Indeed, the weekend before last, thousands gathered at Grace Community Church in Houston for I Stand Sunday to draw attention to religious freedom in the face of perceived political intimidation. The immediate cause of the rally was the Houston mayor’s office’s recent subpoenaing of the sermons of five area pastors who supported a petition on a ballot measure to repeal an equal rights ordinance. The speakers at the rally widely interpreted that action—which, it is important to note, has since been limited—as a direct assault on their religious beliefs and violation of their freedom to practice them. Tony Perkins, president of the ultra-conservative Family Research Council, said that the mayor’s office was “trying to silence the voices of the churches and the pastors.”

Although we agree that the mayor’s office overreached, no one in Houston was or has been arrested, or even silenced. A rally is, by definition, a pretty loud, visible event, and if anything it draws attention to the fact that the freedom to gather and worship as one pleases is rather healthy in this country. And yet, when Arnold Abbot actually gets arrested for doing what he thinks his religion requires him to do, it’s unfortunate but not, for these same activists, a matter of religious freedom, despite the fact that Abbot seems to think it is. Commenting on the affair, Abbot has said, “It’s our right to feed people, it’s our First Amendment right and I believe in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and we should be allowed to feed our fellow man.” It’s hard to find a stronger—and more convincing—appeal to religious freedom and duty.

walk in another's shoes? |  The word empathy is derived from the Greek empatheia - em meaning "into" and pathos meaning "feeling." It is, however, a modern word. The psychologist Edward Titchener introduced the term into the English language in 1909, in an attempt to translate the German word einfuhlung. As it was originally used, empathy meant being able to relate to the experience of another person, by mirroring it in one's mind.

Most moral codes regard empathy as a fundamental concept. It is written into the golden rule shared by all religions and systems of ethical thought: you should treat others as you would like others to treat you. This maxim is, on its face, one about reciprocity. Yet to reciprocate implies empathising. Mutual respect would be impossible, unless people were able to place themselves in the position of others and to imagine another person as their own self.

Within the English-speaking tradition, we can trace notions of empathy to the Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. According to David Hume, practical reasoning was never about reason alone: "Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions." In Hume's view, the extended sentiment of humanity - what he called sympathy - is ultimately "the foundation of morals."

As it was invoked by Hume and his contemporaries, sympathy is equivalent to our contemporary understanding of empathy. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith explained that sympathy involves observing someone and considering "what we ourselves should feel in the like situation." For example, "when we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm."

Empathy clearly has its place in our ethical and philosophical traditions, yet it is frequently resisted in our contemporary debates. Some commentators openly mock empathy. It is said to be an emotion only for bleeding heart do-gooders, who wish to flaunt their compassion for those in suffering. There can sometimes even be resentment when situations provoke feelings of empathy.

Consider the SBS program Go Back To Where You Came From. In the program's first season in 2011, a number of people were taken on a journey to recreate the experiences of refugees who came to Australia. In one episode, participants were placed on a leaky boat at sea. Conditions were simulated to replicate a sinking ship, which would be rescued by the Australian Navy. Not long after the participants were rescued, one of them protested that the exercise was illegitimate. The exercise was fraudulent, he said, because it had elicited his empathy without consent. The complaint was echoed by Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan, who slammed the program for involving "an empathy forced march." According to Sheehan, Go Back To Where You Came From distorted public understanding of asylum seeker issues. The debate was "not about empathy" but "about principle: control the borders."

cathedral castration: shirt ain't stop nobody from loving and doing science

theverge |  No one knows why Taylor chose to wear that shirt on television during a massive scientific mission. From what we can tell, a woman who goes by the name of Elly Prizeman on Twitter made the shirt for him, and is just as bewildered as he must be that anyone might be upset about her creation. Taylor apologized on Friday during a live ESA broadcast for wearing the shirt, stating that "the shirt I wore this week... I made a big mistake and I offended many people, and I'm very sorry about this." Still, Taylor's personal apology doesn't make up for the fact that no one at ESA saw fit to stop him from representing the Space community with clothing that demeans 50 percent of the world's population. No one asked him to take it off, because presumably they didn't think about it. It wasn't worth worrying about.

This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields. They see a guy like that on TV and they don't feel welcome. They see a poster of greased up women in a colleague's office and they know they aren't respected. They hear comments about "bitches" while out at a bar with fellow science students, and they decide to change majors. And those are the women who actually make it that far. Those are the few who persevered even when they were discouraged from pursuing degrees in physics, chemistry, and math throughout high school. These are the women who forged on despite the fact that they were told by elementary school classmates and the media at large that girls who like science are nerdy and unattractive. This is the climate women who dream of working at NASA or the ESA come up against, every single day. This shirt is representative of all of that, and the ESA has yet to issue a statement or apologize for that.

for some of us, disgust is half a click from violence...,

medicalxpress |  While feelings of disgust can increase behaviors like lying and cheating, cleanliness can help people return to ethical behavior, according to a recent study by marketing experts at Rice University, Pennsylvania State University and Arizona State University. The study highlights the powerful impact emotions have on individual decision-making.

"As an emotion, is designed as a protection," said Vikas Mittal, the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business. "When people feel disgusted, they tend to remove themselves from a situation. The instinct is to protect oneself. People become focused on 'self' and they're less likely to think about other people. Small cheating starts to occur: If I'm disgusted and more focused on myself and I need to lie a little bit to gain a small advantage, I'll do that. That's the underlying mechanism."

In turn, the researchers found that cleansing behaviors actually mitigate the self-serving effects of disgust. "If you can create conditions where people's disgust is mitigated, you should not see this (unethical) effect," Mittal said. "One way to mitigate disgust is to make people think about something clean. If you can make people think of cleaning products - for example, Kleenex or Windex - the emotion of disgust is mitigated, so the likelihood of cheating also goes away. People don't know it, but these small emotions are constantly affecting them."

Vikas co-authored the paper with Karen Page Winterich, an associate professor of marketing at Penn State's Smeal College of Business, and Andrea Morales, a professor of marketing at Arizona State's W.P. Carey School of Business. It will be published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

The researchers conducted three randomized experiments evoking disgust through various means. The study involved 600 participants around the United States; both genders were equally represented. In one experiment, participants evaluated consumer products such as antidiarrheal medicine, diapers, feminine care pads, cat litter and adult incontinence products. In another, participants wrote essays about their most disgusting memory. In the third, participants watched a disgusting toilet scene from the movie "Trainspotting." Once effectively disgusted, participants engaged in experiments that judged their willingness to lie and cheat for financial gain. Mittal and colleagues found that people who experienced disgust consistently engaged in self-interested behaviors at a significantly higher rate than those who did not.