Jon Aquino's Mental Garden

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Free online OCR service (image => text)

I like to use Free OCR when I have an image and want to extract the text from it. You simply upload a < 2MB pdf, jpg, gif, tiff, or bmp, and it will do a reasonable job of giving you the text from it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The "intelligibility of the world" according to Aristotle

I am trying to puzzle out what Aristotle could mean in declaring the world to be "intelligible", and how far it differs from the modern viewpoint. (I'm reading about these ideas in Jonathan Lear's Aristotle: The Desire to Understand.)

The example I'd like to consider is the "sodium-potassium pump" – this is something we learned about in high-school biology. It's basically a molecule that pumps sodium atoms in one direction and pumps potassium atoms in the other direction, across a cell membrane. I forget the details, but note that we speak of it as a "pump", as if it were a thing with a purpose. I think this illustrates the difference in thinking between the Aristotelian and the modernist. The modernist would say that it is is in actuality just a collection of atoms – that it doesn't really have a purpose. Any "purpose" there is ascribed by our minds as a convenience, a convention – just a way of speaking to make things easier to grasp.

On the other hand, the Aristotelian would say that the sodium-potassium pump has been assembled for a purpose. Not, indeed, by a Creator (Aristotle was not a theist), but by a weird thingy in the sodium-potassium pump known as its "form". All objects in the natural world (rocks, trees, moose, etc.) have this weird thingy, or form, that defines them, determines their structure, and, in the case of living things, makes them grow and mature. So for the Aristotelian, the sodium-potassium pump does have a real, objective purpose (not just in our minds, not just a convenience of speaking) that is given to it (by its "form").

This much I have been able to gather from Chapter 2 of Jonathan Lear's book. Many of Aristotle's ideas provide a framework for Catholic teaching (particularly that of Thomas Aquinas), so I am naturally quite interested in how it works. And yet classical philosophy is taught neither in the schools nor from the pulpit.

Click2Mail: A service that lets you upload a file to be sent via snail mail

Sometimes you want to send a message via snail mail and don't want to walk to the nearest letter box to drop it off. Click2Mail lets you upload a file (such as a pdf) and they will print it and mail it with a stamp. This is great if, for example, you are affected by the current Canada Post strike and want to send some documents to the U.S. Or you have a 75-page document to send and don't have enough paper or ink.

I have used this to send some documents (and scans of handwritten letters) to my aunt in the U.S. during the Canada Post strike.

Friday, June 24, 2011

History of the World on an index card

Here's a timeline of the history of the world that you can print on an index card and stick in your pocket. You never know when it might come in handy. You might be visiting a university and one of the professors invites you to try out a time machine – how will you know what year to choose? If you have this card on hand, it is not a problem – at a glance you know when to visit Genghis Khan's conquest of Asia, or the invention of the sail.

The dates come from here.

index card

Monday, June 20, 2011

Infographic: Some Key Moments in World History

I have often wished I had a big-picture view of the history of the world, or at least of Western civilization. If only I had a list of key historical dates that could serve as pegs on which to hang other historical knowledge.

Richard Overy's article "The 50 Key Dates of World History" is a great start, but it's hard to internalize a list of 50 things. But if we superimpose those dates on a map, it chunks up the list nicely and makes it, perhaps, a bit easier to grasp.

Check out the map (pdf):


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Job openings at has job openings for the following areas: software engineers, advocacy and support, marketing, designers, MySQL DBAs, and system administrators.

I've been a software engineer there since 2005 and quite like it. If you have questions about what it's like, drop me an email.

Western Civilization for people who never took a Western Civilization course

A good article/list.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Imagine If


Here's some philosophy that will blow your mind.

Imagine if the things around you – man-made things like tables and houses, and natural things like trees and cats and puddles – imagine if these things were not just made of matter, but also had another immaterial aspect to them called a "form". So a table would be a composite of matter (wood, nails, glue, etc.) and form (the form of a table). A house would be a composite of matter (brick, concrete, metal, etc.) and form (the form of a house). A tree would be a composite of matter (xylem cells, phloem tissues, etc.) and form (the form of a tree). A cat would be a composite of matter and form. A puddle would be a composite of matter and form.

Imagine if this were how the world really is – objects consist not only of matter but also of this weird "form" thing. Well this is actually a respectable position in the world of philosophy. It is Aristotle's theory of hylemorphism (hyle = matter, morphe = form), and in the philosophical arena its defenders include David Oderberg, Anthony Kenny, Edward Feser, Elizabeth Anscombe, and John Haldane.

I am getting acquainted with this view through Jonathan Lear's book Aristotle: The Desire To Understand. In the case of man-made objects, the form is transmitted from the mind of the craftsman to the table, house, or other object being made. In the case of natural things (cats, plants, people), the form is transmitted from parent to child. A third way in which form is transmitted is through teaching: form is transmitted from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the student.

I think it's a lovely way to look at the world – that the keyboard I'm typing on not only has parts of metal and plastic but also the form of a keyboard. And I suppose if I am imparting any ideas to you, the forms of those ideas are being transmitted from my mind to yours. And to think that forms are not a trick of the mind but a basic ontological feature of reality – what a wonderful world.

There are a lot of interesting ideas that flow from this – check out Lear's book for more.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Song for Voice and Google Logo

Today's Google homepage has a guitar that you can strum with your mouse, in honor of the birthday of Les Paul, the guitarist and inventor. It's pretty neat.

Here's a song I made by strumming it and singing along.

Unable to display content. Adobe Flash is required.

Give it a try.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

How to Carry on a Debate in a Comment Thread: A Case Study

Like most people, I am not fond of debating others. And I wonder how some people can do it while remaining calm and collected, whereas most people lose their tempers.

Here I do an informal study of how Father Robert Barron engages his commenters on his YouTube threads. Fr. Barron is a learned Catholic priest who takes the time to dialogue with people leaving comments. I wanted to know how he handles comments that are ill-informed or spiteful, so I examined a sampling of his responses on a thread on one of his more popular videos, on Bill Maher's movie "Religulous", with 7,966 total comments.

This may be a useful model if you ever find yourself in a vigorous internet debate on a topic that you are passionate about.

* * * * *

Fr. Barron typically answers objections using reasoning, from premises to conclusions:

But if the first cause is truly non-contingent, then it must be a reality which exists through the power of its own essence. And this means that it is the unlimited act of existence itself and hence perfect. The claims of Catholic theology concerning the attributes of God follow from this insight.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

He answers objections directly and concisely, drawing on science and philosophy:

The scientific consensus is that time and space came into being at the Big Bang. This in itself proves that they are, to use my language, contingent, dependent. Therefore, we must search for a cause outside of them. If we are to avoid an infinite regress of caused causes, we must come, eventually, to that which exists through itself, that which, in principle, has no cause. This is what Catholic theology means by God.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

He sometimes has to repeat points, which he does patiently:

Again, anything that comes into being, that oscillates, that proceeds from potency to act is contingent, according to the classical definition. And therefore it stands in need of an explanation. We can't just go back indefinitely through a chain of similarly contingent causes. And so we must come finally to that which exists through itself. This is what Catholic theology calls God.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

He acknowledges points of agreement, and clarifies unapologetically where he differs:

You're absolutely right in saying that the source of our trouble is sin. Religious people are sinners, and non-religious people are sinners. What I have resisted resolutely on this forum is the insinuation that religion is, in itself, the privileged source of evil.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

If someone says something dumb, Fr. Barron calls him on it. To save time, he points to relevant books. You can tell, too, that he is a lover of language:

Well, now you're just being silly. Take a look at Martha Nussbaum's book Upheavals of Thought in order to see how the visceral and the emotional can have a properly cognitive valence.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

Sometimes Fr. Barron gets exasperated, and he lets it show a bit with some mild sarcasm:

Ah, more tiresome binary options! It's either rational or emotional; it's either literal science or nonsense. Every real act of cognition involves a subtle blending of what one might call the rational and the emotional. There is no "purely rational" perception. Like all really great texts, the Bible appeals to the whole of the person.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

And sometimes his personal exasperation is more pronounced:

Oh come on! Why are you laying all of this on me? I'm proposing things that I think are true. Tell me where you think I'm wrong. Anyone--very much including yourself--who makes a truth claim is trying to bring others to his position. What's so surprising or objectionable about that?
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

Sometimes a quick word is all that is needed:

That's why you need the church!
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

He corrects misconceptions about Catholicism by stating accurately what the Catholic Church believes:

I saw Maher's movie and I have heard him for years. I'm well acquainted with his views on the Bible. I simply wanted to point out how naive they are. In regard to your question, the Catholic answer is "the church," which is to say a 2000 year tradition of conversation, reflection, and interpretation. The Bible is indeed a collection of complex texts. Why should we expect that they should be easy to understand?
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

A knowledge of art helps:

So there's no truth in the Illiad, The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, Hamlet, The Old Man and the Sea? These are, from a journalistic standpoint, all untrue stories. But are they therefore worthless? Aren't they in fact some of the treasures of our intellectual tradition? Come on, folks, let's get beyond fundamentalism!
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

A knowledge of influential thinkers helps:

Ah yes, another prophet of the end of religion. Please consult the similar prophecies of the imminent demise of religion penned by Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Auguste Comte, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mao Tse-Tung, and Sigmund Freud. They're all gone; religion is still here!
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

A knowledge of history helps:

Friend, do a little elementary research into the fathers of the church and you'll find that spiritual and theological readings of Genesis have been offered for nearly 20 centuries. And has it occured to you that God doesn't want to "work around our flaws" but rather to speak his Word precisely through our culturally-conditioned human words?
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

Fr. Barron sometimes takes the time to answer silly comments, when the questioner is merely uninformed rather than spiteful:

a library is big! with billion of books. the bible is 300 pages long! hello.!

scienceissexxxy 2 years ago

Well, my Bible is two thousand pages of very small print. And it's made up of over seventy texts, from a wide variety of literary genres and from different periods and written by a whole slew of different authors. That makes it like a library, it seems to me.

wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

Sometimes Fr. Barron sees beyond the question to a personal problem or block in the questioner, and pursues that:

Hmmm. Tell that to Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, Mother Teresa, John of the Cross, and John Paul II. They've all found a fair amount of truth in the Biblical narratives. Like so many others on this forum, you have expand your notion of what counts as truth.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

If the person is uninformed, sometimes the best thing to do is to tell them to read up:

Friend, you have got to read some basic theology. You're just talking nonsense now. Perhaps I shouldn't be, but I'm continually surprised how pervasive fundamentalism is, especially among the non-believers.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

Note Fr. Barron's tone. He is not a soggy towel letting people walk all over him. Neither does he resort to insulting or name-calling. The tone is that of the mildly exasperated, mildly sarcastic, though patient, intellectual:

Friend, please give me the chapter and verse where God is depicted in the Bible as "a magical man in the sky clicking his fingers?" As I've said now about a thousand times, the Bible often speaks the evocative, multivalent language of poetry. The book of Genesis, in sublime theological poetry, teaches that all reality comes from the creative power of an intelligence that stands outside of nature and finitude. What is ridiculous about that?
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

Fr. Barron doesn't have enough space in a YouTube comment to give a comprehensive explanation of some matters, so sometimes he will leave important concepts unexplained (for example, he mentions "intelligibility" which could be expanded into a whole discussion on Aristotelian teleology). Hopefully it sows a seed of a concept that the reader will look into further:

God didn't put fossils in place so that science could later "discover" them. But God did indeed put intelligibility in things. Otherwise, science would have nothing to know!
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

A micro-analogy can help to make a point:

So religion doesn't get questioned at all by its followers? Have you read any serious theology? Have you consulted any serious journal of religion? Some of the sharpest critics of religion I know are religious people.  Just as loyal Americans can be critical of America, so deeply believing people can turn a critical eye toward the problems within religion.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

* * * * *

The general tone is that of someone who is knowledgeable and trying to be patient. A little bit of exasperation, a little sarcasm, the occasional curt reply are all expected and fine. But it never degenerates into name-calling or insulting the other person. To save time, he gives a quick analogy, or gestures toward ideas that would require further explanation (such as intelligibility), or points to relevant books/authors.

Refocusing my studying

I like to spend my free hours reading. The trouble is, there aren't many free hours. And when I do read, I tend to pick up a book haphazardly, from my pile of books, without any particular focus. The result is that I don't finish what I'm reading - always hopping from book to book.

Sometimes I ask people how much free time they have in the evenings for leisure. It seems to vary from an hour and a half to three hours. For me, it's an hour and a half, often less. So I really need to make the most of this time.

I'm going to try focusing on fewer books/resources:

* Philosophy: The Last Superstition
* Theology: Introduction to the Devout Life
* History: The Catholic Church Through the Ages
* Scripture: Read the Bible and the Catechism in a Year
* Technology: Learn TCP/IP in 24 Hours
* Literature: Mark Twain's Joan of Arc

I could easily double the size of this list, but then I would get nothing done. Wish me luck.