Mushrooms and mysticism

Over at HuffPo, Mark Kleiman has a piece entitled Mushrooms and mysticism in which he reports on a remarkably thorough study into the effects of the “magic mushroom” hallucinogen psilocybin. The team at Johns Hopkins confirmed what most people would expect: psilocybin reliably (over 60% of the time) triggers a “full” mystical experience.
The author then starts in on the public policy issues: the fact that the National Institute on Drug Abuse wants to drop the whole thing, and the question of what happens when freedom of religious expression collides with drug policy:

If taking a dose of psilocybin under controlled conditions has a better-than-even chance of occasioning a full-blown mystical experience, it seems fairly hard to argue that forbidding such use doesn’t interfere with the free exercise of religion…. [The[ treaty banning psilocybin… seems to run squarely into the internationally recognized human right to religious practice, belief, and expression.

OK, I’m sure that those are important topics. But to me this study is just another nail in the coffin of religious experience as “evidence” for the supernatural. Four hundred years ago most people from Europe (including those taking over the Americas) were hard-core dualists: souls and other spirit-beings not only inhabited bodies, but could even invade them. Today, most intelligent people accept that a neuro-chemical brain malfunction (with genetic predisposition) is a better explanation than demonic possession for what we now call schizophrenia. Perhaps the overwhelming evidence for the natural, non-mystical origin of religious experience, coupled with facing up to non-issues like this will eventually banish “soulism” too. It’s about time.

"Venus", Kabul, and a nice coincidence

I caught the No. 16 bus up to Wallingford this afternoon, to go to see the movie “Venus”. Peter O’Toole was wonderful; highly recommended. Peter O'Toole and Jodie Whittaker in VenusI got there 20 minutes early, so I prowled around a bit, and found that the Kabul, Seattle’s (?only) Afghan restaurant, was just two blocks from the cinema. Chris took us there a few years ago, but we’d come by a different route, at night, so I didn’t recognize the neighbourhood. I couldn’t resist the opportunity, so when the film was over I hung out at the local Starbucks until the Kabul opened, and then had a great dinner.
While I was travelling in both directions, I was listening to an old favourite album on my iPod. When I got home, I checked NetNewsWire for new blog items and was surprised to find this over at Andrew Sullivan:

Sully was using it to illustrate this piece by Norm Geras. Good stuff, up to a point, but then he has to go and take a dig at Richard Dawkins. Perhaps he should read Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza (which I’m in the middle of), and pay attention to the subject of the Inquisition. Racism and torture in the name of divine love. Nauseating. Dawkins has it exactly right, in my opinion.

UC stands up for science

From Sara at Orcinus:

I’ve been saying for a long while now that the power to end the Intelligent Design fiasco, firmly and finally and with but a single word, rests in the manicured hands of the chancellors of America’s top universities. The message is short and simple: “Teach what you like, it’s all fine with us. But if you put ID in your science courses, we will not accept those courses as adequate for admission to our campus.”
Making this kind of public statement would be one small step for a university chancellor; and one giant leap for American science education. Somebody, somewhere, needs to set a firm standard. If our universities — which bear responsibility for training our professional scientists, and maintain the labs and faculties responsible for much of our best research — won’t stand up and draw that line, then we really are well and truly lost.
It turns out that we may be in better hands than I’d hoped.

It’s an interesting story – the University of California vs. Calvary Chapel Christian School. No prizes for guessing which side is trying to pass off the products of Bob Jones “University” Press as science textbooks. Perhaps an equally unambiguous statement by UK universities would squelch the incipient ID movement over there, too.

My WP setup

Art wanted to know which WP plugins I used, and why. Here’s the current list:

When I get around to it, there are a couple of other widgets I want to configure, including the one for links and Christian Maniewski’s I Read Straight which is supposed to simplify the presentation of “what I’m reading”. (Right now I simply plug generic code from the Associates Central link-builder page into a text widget, which means that I have to hand-edit the ASINs.)
That’s it. Hope it was useful, Art.

OK, the upgrade seems to have worked – but be careful

I think this blog is back to a working state now after a slightly worrying upgrade process. Those of you who plan to upgrade tp WordPress 2.1 need to be careful. In particular, if you use the Sidebar Widgets feature, you must pay particular attention to the order in which you deactivate your plugins. I’m not exactly sure what I did, but I usually run about a dozen plugins, and halfway through the process of deactivation the WordPress dashboard stopped working. Oops. I worked around the problem by going into the httpdocs/wp-content directory and renaming plugins as Xplugins. Then I unpacked the new distribution, which overwrote the existing WP files and created a new plugins directory. (WP 2.1 ships with a new version of the Akismet spam-blocker.) Next I ran the upgrade script, activated Akismet, and verified that baseline operation was correct. Only then did I restore my old plugins from Xplugins to plugins, activating and testing each one. I didn’t restore those plugins that I wasn’t planning to use. (Before I began the upgrade, I printed out the Plugins dashboard page, so that I could see exactly which plugins were in use.)
The only other oddity was that I had previously organized my blogroll using a set of pseudo-categories that didn’t show up in the category list. Somehow the upgrade process merged these pseudo-categories into my main category list. I took the opportunity to recategorize my blogroll, and everything looks OK. I decided not to reactivate a few features that weren’t much used by my readers – things like registering for comment notification. Let me know if you run into any problems.
There are some nice features in the new release. The one that is most immediately obvious to me (as a Mac user) is that the HTML formatting controls which used to work only in Firefox now appear in Safari. Comment and post management is also substantially improved.
UPDATE: One last warning. If you use the “bookmarklet” technique [a fragment of Javascript invoked via a browser bookmark] to blog from your web browser, you’ll need to replace your old script with a new one. Delete the old one from your bookmark bar, then log in to the dashboard, choose Write, and scroll down. Then just follow the instructions.

Al Stewart reissues

For all Al fans out there: all of Al’s albums are being reissued with bonus tracks. Every one. They should be available in May-June. I think I have them all, but the remastering is likely to make me go for an update….
UPDATE: They may be out as soon as February – we’re getting conflicting information. And there are 32 bonus tracks altogether, and I know that there are some I don’t have, so…