Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A bullshit free society

I recently came across the following statement in an online discussion on the topic of religion:

"I secretly dream for all religions to be eradicated so that one day we will be able to construct a bullshit free society and be able to do scientific research without being interrupted. [Religious groups] oppress, brainwash, burn for millennia, [and then say] 'We're a religion of peace now.' "
My response to this person was to take the "bullshit" sign and point it right back at his statement, following up with this explanation of how I think the world—and history—really work with regards to this issue:

What do Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism have in common? Each one, along with most other religions, is now and has always been "a religion of peace". Oppression, brainwashing, and "burning" (whatever that is supposed to be) aren't religious practices, but political practices. Religions don't do those things unless they become powerful enough that they have become political forces. When you have an institution such as the "Holy Roman Empire" as an example, it tends to be ruled by people thirsting for power rather than goodness. People of faith want to trust their spiritual leaders, but the more political clout your church/mosque/temple has, the more likely it is to attract the wrong sort of leadership. Jesus knew:
[Jesus] told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” -Matt. 13:31-32
As skeptics have pointed out, mustard seeds don't become trees. So what is Jesus talking about? You'll find in Jesus' parables, birds are usually symbolic of evil, and I believe this story is suggesting that Jesus fully expected the church He started would be host to evil men who would use it for their own interests.

Does that mean that if religion can be a tool in the hands of evil men, we should then toss it out? Right before the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus tells another that I think is closely related:
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.’” -Matt. 13:24-29 (my emphasis)
In other words, churches—just like all institutions—will have some "bad seeds", but that doesn't mean you toss the good for the sake of the bad.

We actually can know that removing religion from society isn't the solution because it's been tried before, in places such as Russia. The USSR under Stalin was strongly anti-religious. This of course led to "a bullshit free society..."
Stalin created a cult of personality in the Soviet Union around both himself and Lenin...towns, villages and cities were renamed after the Soviet leader and the Stalin Prize and Stalin Peace Prize were named in his honor. He accepted grandiloquent titles..., and helped rewrite Soviet history to provide himself a more significant role in the revolution. At the same time, according to Nikita Khrushchev, he insisted that he be remembered for "the extraordinary modesty characteristic of truly great people."
...freedom "to do scientific research without being interrupted."
Science in the Soviet Union was under strict ideological control by Stalin and his government, along with art and literature. There was significant progress in "ideologically safe" domains, owing to the free Soviet education system and state-financed research. However, the most notable legacy during Stalin's time was his public endorsement of the Agronomist Trofim Lysenko who rejected Mendelian genetics as "bourgeois pseudosciences" and instead supported Hybridization theories that caused widespread agricultural destruction and major setbacks in Soviet knowledge in biology. Although many scientists opposed his views, those who publicly came out were imprisoned and denounced.
...and of course, these enlightened atheists didn't "oppress, brainwash, burn..."
Researchers before the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union attempting to count the number of people killed under Stalin's regime produced estimates ranging from 3 to 60 million.
(The above excerpts are from the Wikipedia article Joseph Stalin.)

Does that mean atheism is evil? Of course not; it means that using political means to force ideology on people—regardless of the ideology—will be unsavory, to put it lightly. It also doesn't mean that communism is a bad thing, mostly because Stalin and the leaders who followed in his office were not practicing communism. In fact, as I wrote some time ago, communism and Christianity have more in common than either is likely to admit.

The point that I am trying to make with all of this in a nutshell is that it's power that corrupts people, not religious ideology. If the day comes when (as many atheists have been suggesting for centuries to be right around the corner) religion is somehow eradicated from the earth by the cleansing light of reason, does anybody really think that there will be no more hatred, stupidity, or violence? I've got to say, even as a Christian, I find myself doubting that would be the case if the whole world were uniformly Christian.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Rose is the new Black...or not

I recently came across a question on the Internet that I found very interesting. To paraphrase: Why did Rebecca Black become so much more viral of an Internet phenomenon as a bad singer (supposedly; remember some people do like her) than Jenna Rose (whom I had never heard of until a few days ago), CathyMay15, or Final Placement, any of which are arguably far worse than Rebecca Black?

I suspect it may have to do with a combination of several factors: Rebecca Black is bad, but not quite so abysmally awful that she's unwatchable; the lyrics of "Friday" are really, really stupid; the WTF/LOL reaction to the appearance of the considerably older My name is PATO Wilson, not PEDO Wilson!rapper who appears in Rebecca's video (Jenna had a semi-random rapper in her video, but he was another kid, at least); the fact that Justin Bieber and Katy Perry took notice of Rebecca; and really the most important factor that I think plays a part in the formation of every meme, a random chance snowballing effect of popularity.

That last one is the wild card that makes all the difference, I think. There are no doubt hundreds of bad singers on YouTube, but for one to become a viral sensation, I think they need to not know they are bad, and yet somehow attract viewers that will share the video link effectively.

On top of that, the "meme community" (that is to say, the people on the Internet who are the ones sharing links effectively; not really a cohesive, united community) will usually reject a new meme that's too similar to an existing one, and while Jenna's video was posted to YouTube first, Rebecca's was discovered first, consigning Jenna to be simply "another Rebecca Black". This is why I feel safe to venture a prediction that there will never be a "bad singer" memetically bigger than Rebecca Black, just like every attempt to brand some random video blogging girl on YouTube as "the new Boxxy!" always fails.

Here are some interesting graphs. Rebecca Black's video was posted to YouTube on February 10th, 2011, and started going viral March 11, 2011. Google Trends shows this growth in March for searches on "Rebecca Black":
Note that this graph is the only one with `News Reference Volume`.
The Jenna Rose video was uploaded to YouTube on October 1, 2010, but apparently pretty much nobody heard of her until about two days after Rebecca Black started going viral:

Furthermore, although CathyMay15 had videos on YouTube over a year before Rebecca Black came on the scene, her entry notes, "At least one interesting thread was spotted on 4chan on March 16, 2011, and her YouTube account was taken down the next day on March 17, 2011." So despite CathyMay15 being happy to stagnate in obscurity for over a year, (1) Rebecca Black appears, (2) somebody somewhere says, "You think Rebecca Black is bad? You should see this!" (3) CathyMay15 realizes she's being ridiculed and takes down her videos, but (4) it's too late and her videos are mirrored by others and she rises on the same tidal wave of popularity that's carrying Rebecca Black:

Nonetheless, it's clear these separately-trending singers are only receiving secondary attention as a comparison to Rebecca Black. There may be other bad singers/songs that got a "Rebecca Black bump" in popularity, and for that matter, this may be a phenomenon that happens with other types of memes, but I'm going to save that for another day's research and wrap this up.

When Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme", he did it with some comparison to biological evolutionary principles. I think there are some parallels in this analogy that haven't been explored as much as they could be, and this latter point of mine is one of them. Just as in biological evolution where a species will seek out and dominate a certain ecological niche and drive out competitors, memes similarly live in a sort of informational ecology. Once a particular meme occupies and dominates a certain niche of the Internet, it tends to block the growth of any others that would try to take the same space.

Notice that there may be tons of "Advice Dog spin-offs", but each one needs a specialized personality to survive. "Technologically Impaired Duck" may not be a huge meme, but it's prominent enough that we'll never see a "Technologically Impaired Goldfish" or a "Technologically Impaired Jackrabbit" take hold as a successful meme. And by a quirk of timing, every bad singer (female, at least) on the Internet will probably be referred to as "the next/latest Rebecca Black" for the foreseeable future.

Maybe he'd be better at computing if he had hands?