In the Mood for Cuban? Skip Havana Central

Since moving to Manhattan, I’ve been overwhelmed by incredibly tasty food.

Most of my favorite foods from Taiwan can be found near Canal Street or St. Mark’s Place, and for a while it seemed like I couldn’t get through a full day without an intimidatingly massive slice of Koronet’s cheese pizza.

The bibimbop in K-town is amazing, and the fried chicken and gravy over syrupy waffles I had once in Harlem still make me salivate.

In fact, the only sort of food I’ve had and actively disliked in Manhattan is Cuban food. My first experience (a few months ago during restaurant week) was terrible. My bland jumbo prawns seemed the only meat dish on the table not overcooked by hours. The pork was hard and chewy, and the chicken was dry as a mouthful of sand.

But I figured we just had a bad experience. There was another Cuban place, Havana Central, not too far from Columbia. I wanted to give Cuban food another go. As hesitant as I was, it was regularly packed to the brim of happy diners, and I had a coupon, so what did I have to lose?

More than I expected, it turned out.

Here’s the shortlist of grievances:

  1. Our waitress was inattentive.
  2. My pineapple chicken tasted like it had been on a forgotten warming rack for 30 minutes and, trying to salvage it, the chef had decided to pour a bit of canned pineapple over the top and serve it.
  3. My girlfriend’s steamed shrimp could just as easily have been purchased pre-cooked at the supermarket across the street and warmed in the microwave.
  4. An obnoxiously loud group of students at the table next to us yelled at some friends passing by on the street (we were seated outdoors), and their two foreign friends then proceeded to step over the barrier and stand with their butts nearly pressed against our plates while they guffawed drunkenly with their friends at the table. Despite being unable to serve the tables beyond ours for the students standing in the aisle, the waitress said nothing and did nothing but wait. It wasn’t until I’d had enough and asked them to “stop sticking [their] asses in our food” that they finally left.
  5. I gave the waitress my coupon before we ordered, but she still gave us the full tab and had to be reminded that we’d given her the coupon.
  6. Havana Central, apparently assuming that it is worthy of immense tipping, adds an automatic after-tax gratuity (that we only just caught before adding our own tip).
  7. Worse, the receipt (see the photo at the right) even gives suggestions for how much more gratuity you should give (we gave none).

Needless to say, I’m done with Cuban food. And if you must try Havana Central, skip the food and order a mojito.

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Weiner’s Weiner

In case anyone missed it, I was right. It WAS Weiner’s weiner after all.

This afternoon, Rep. Anthony Weiner (of recent weiner fame) finally admitted that it really was his weiner in the tweeted photo.

In a statement, Mr. Weiner said, “To be clear, the picture was of me and I sent it. I am deeply sorry for the pain this has caused my wife Huma and our family, and my constituents, my friends, supporters and staff.”

Apparently realizing that denying this incident only made it worse, he also indicated that this is not the only lewd photo he has shared with women on the internet. He denies any extramarital affairs, but multiple women have claimed to have received dozens, if not hundreds, of texts, photos, and even phone calls from Mr. Weiner.

Am I surprised? No.

Should you be surprised? No.

Should this be news? Sure.

Ironically, his constituency (slightly more conservative than most of their neighbors) might be one of the few in New York City where extramarital sexting DOESN’T increase his street cred–and, by extension, his electability. He’s been in office since 1999 and is up for re-election in 2012. We’ll see if it matters.

That MIGHT Just Be My Weiner

Rep. Anthony Weiner

All he had to do was say ‘no’.

Instead, Rep. Anthony Weiner indicated that he cannot say “with certitude” whether the bulging underpants in the lewd photo sent from his Twitter account are actually his.

Which is to say that the photo is most certainly of Mr. Weiner—and also that Mr. Weiner is an idiot.

Does the weiner in question belong to Mr. Weiner?

The photo (which you can see here if you don’t mind looking at men in underpants) was sent to Gennette Cordova, a 21-year-old college student in Seattle. It’s a top-down shot taken from about shoulder height and only shows an obviously aroused man in gray underwear.

Either Mr. Weiner has taken a photo like this or he hasn’t. That he says he can’t tell “with certitude” whether it’s a photo of him is politician for “I have taken photos of myself in exactly that position.”

So the photo is definitely of him. Otherwise, there is absolutely no reason not to deny it.

Did Mr. Weiner send the photo, or was his account hacked?

Mr. Weiner joked about his account being hacked and has since insisted that he’s looking into the incident privately, calling the incident “a prank”.

Again, Mr. Weiner is lying (poorly). In order for someone to hack his twitter account, someone relatively close to him would need to find the picture on his personal device (laptop/camera/phone/whatever) and either upload it from there or steal the file and upload it from somewhere else. If this were the case, Mr. Weiner would have been immediately outraged that someone (presumably on his staff) would illegally rifle through personal files and publicly embarrass him to this extent. The possibility that this could be a career-ending embarrassment alone should have sent him into a fury. That it did not, and that he is treating it like a private prank, should be evidence enough that he made a stupid mistake, got caught, and is doing an amusingly poor job of covering it up.

I’m entertained to no end. But it could be worse. Instead of Anthony’s weiner, we could be reading about Barney’s frank.

Happy Atheism

Often, the same individuals who argue belief in God because it makes them happy think that belief in no God should make me sad. They ask me—words gushing with sympathy and confident they know my answer before I give it—whether my worldview makes me depressed:

“If there’s no God, there is no right and wrong. So you don’t believe in morality, do you?”

“If there’s no God, then there’s no real purpose in life, is there?”

“Doesn’t it make you sad to think that there’s no life after death?”

Coming from theists, these questions are somewhat understandable, but what truly depresses me is hearing other atheists ask the same questions (or answer in the affirmative)!

But atheism does not imply absolute nihilism, and (rather than making me depressed) atheism makes me happy!

Atheism≠Nihilism

Nihilism is a multi-faceted concept with many meanings. Nietzsche himself described the concept in both positive and negative lights. I am a moral nihilist, as far as I understand the term. I do not believe there is a higher law that determines absolute right and wrong. And, consequently, there is no objective “good” and “evil”. But this is not to say I don’t believe in morality; I simply believe that morality is a subjective word, fluid in its meaning across national borders, situations, circumstances, and time.

I think most people (theists and atheists alike) are moral nihilists, though most theists would be loath to apply the term to themselves. Consider one of the great American moral debates: abortion. Moral conservatives (mostly religious) oppose abortion vehemently and consider Roe v. Wade an abysmal failure of the Supreme Court to protect basic human rights. However, the majority of these moral conservatives who oppose abortion agree that, in certain instances (e.g. if the pregnancy is a threat to the life of the mother, the fetus is nonviable, or if the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape), abortion should be permitted as a legal and moral option. Those who hold this view cannot claim that abortion itself is an immoral act; rather, it is circumstance and motivation that determines morality. Killing works much the same. If person A shoots person B and takes his wallet, it’s an immoral action. But if person A shoots person B while person B is holding a gun to the head of person A’s wife, thereby saving her life, it’s heroic.

But simply because we cannot establish clear lines between absolute right and wrong does not mean that we are unable to live moral lives or make moral judgments. As individuals, we judge morality mostly by the Silver Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”

I’ll wager that, were we to establish strict laws and punishments based solely on the Bible, most Americans would find Biblically-sanctioned practices (selling our daughters into slavery, killing everyone who works on the Sabbath or plants different crops side-by-side or wears clothing made from different thread) as abhorrent as they find the concept of Sharia Law.

In short, atheistic moral relativism is more moral than Biblical or Koranic law, and most Americans recognize that without thinking twice. The only attraction a theistic understanding of law and punishment brings to the table is the hope that evildoers who are never caught and punished in this life will get what they deserve later. (Which means that atheism, if accepted generally, would actually encourage a more effective justice system.)

Stepping beyond morality, atheism does not preclude the possibility for purpose in life. Asserting that if something ends (life in this case), therefore it is worthless, demonstrates absolute ignorance. Thousands of counterexamples to this sort of nihilism present themselves on a day-to-day basis—and none of them have anything to do with God.

Think about what you eat, what you wear, where you live, and the thousands of choices you made since waking this morning. Everything you do is, from your perspective, calculated to make you happy. Yet it is mostly transient. You enjoy and look for better sources of satisfaction. You want to wear more comfortable shoes or more fashionable clothing. You want to ride a roller coaster or play a video game. And yet, after the day is done, you have gained absolutely no long-term benefit from picking the apricot jam over the strawberry jam. The flavor lasts a few moments and fades. But because the flavor fades does not mean choosing the apricot was worthless. It made you happy.

If you were told right now that you have exactly one week to live, what would you do? Perhaps do what you can to put your family and financial affairs in order, but I’m confident you’d eat your favorite food, indulge in a bit more ice cream than usual, visit your parents and siblings.

We seek our own happiness in everything that we do—even when we don’t realize it. We choose to donate to charities because it makes us happy. We go to work for terrible employers because the long-term consequences are better than if we didn’t go to work.

The only difference between atheists and theists in this regard is that theists are impossibly optimistic in how long their happiness-seeking behavior will endure…and also in their ultimate effectiveness at achieving happiness.

Which brings me to my final point.

Life After Death, Unicorns, and Why Atheism Makes Me Happy

Asking if I worry that there is no life after death is like asking if I am actively dismayed that there isn’t a magical, time-travelling unicorn waiting outside my apartment. That more people believe in life after death than the magical unicorn does not make me regret its non-existence any more. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I have no recollection of existing for the billions of years before I was born, and it was of no inconvenience to me then. I don’t suppose I’ll care much when I’m dead either.

What I do care about is wrenching every last bit of happiness I can out of the world I’m in. This is where atheism makes life so much sweeter. Knowing that there is no tomorrow makes today particularly precious. Understanding the improbability of life makes me appreciate its impossible beauty. Believing that there is nothing about the universe that prevents us from understanding its mysteries makes me want even more desperately to satisfy my curiosity about quantum mechanics, the origin of our species, the history of human thought. And knowing that I’m too small, too short-lived, and too limited to learn everything I want to makes me yearn for a unified species of global intellectual cooperation and specialization.

Accepting and understanding my own atheism has driven me to a singular religious conclusion: Life is short. And then it ends. Happiness will not be doled out posthumously by a benevolent being to those who never had it here. Find it now. Cultivate it. And share it.

“Religion Makes Me Happy”

Not long after opening up (somewhat) to friends and family about my agnosticism, I was called into my bishop’s office after our regular Sunday meetings in the BYU 108 ward. The bishop was conducting interviews with members of the ward, and my turn was up. We chatted for a bit about life, school, and my post-graduate plans, and then he asked if I held a current temple recommend. I told him I didn’t, and so he began to ask me the standard set of questions associated with a temple recommend interview.

He asked, “Do you believe in God, the Eternal Father?”

And I told him no. It was the first time I’d given that answer to any bishop—and he was perhaps the fourth or fifth person I’d ever told I didn’t believe in God. He asked me why I felt that way, and we discussed it for a while. Surprisingly though, the interview didn’t end with that question. He asked if we could continue the temple recommend interview, and when I consented, he went through the questions one by one. And one by one, I denied faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Atonement, Christ as Savior and Redeemer, and the Restoration of the Gospel. I denied that there was a prophet on the earth, and I refused to sustain the leadership of the church. Finally, I told him I didn’t consider myself worthy to enter the temple. But when we reached the end of the interview, what he said caught me by surprise.

“Well, Ryan, I know you feel like you don’t believe in any of this, but you served a full mission, you’re active in the church, you do your home teaching, you’re keeping the commandments as best you can, and I feel like all of that demonstrates faith—even if you don’t recognize it.” Then he signed his name on the temple recommend and gave it to me to sign.

I almost laughed at him. Explaining my smiles, I said, “I can’t sign this. Signing means I think I’m worthy to go into the temple, right? I just told you I don’t think I’m worthy, and if I meant that honestly, I can’t sign this. If I do sign it, then I lied when I told you that I was honest with my fellow men, which means I shouldn’t sign it.”

He seemed frustrated, but he understood. And then he said something that really disturbed me at the time, though it took more than a year (and reading Richard Dawkins’ excellent book The God Delusion) to understand why. He said, “Well, Ryan, I understand where you’re coming from. I think we all have doubts sometimes—and particularly those of us who, by nature or by education, think critically about everything we’re taught. I’m a scientist, and I’m used to having concrete evidence before accepting hypotheses. But in this case, believing in God and following his commandments has always made me happy, and to me, that’s evidence enough.”

It’s been a few years since our interview, but I have heard his words echoed many, many times by those who believe in God. Not just “It makes me happy”, but “It makes me happy, and that’s enough.” It makes me want to scream, to type in enormous font—bolded, italicized, and underlined: That it makes you happy does not make it true! That it makes you happy does not make it good for you!

That believing in something makes us happy does not make it true.

Believing in Santa Claus as a child made me as happy as I suppose it makes any other child. And it’s natural, of course. Consider the idea: a single, magical, bearded, jolly man who, out of sheer good will and holiday spirit, flies about the world in a single night, delivering elven-made toys to young boys and girls (but only so long as their names are on the “nice” list).

But St. Nick is nothing but God dumbed down for children! Too young to fear death and wish for eternal life, they get candy and toys instead. Too short-sighted to wait till the end of their lives for reward, they wait till Christmas. More easily threatened than their parents, their naughty behavior receives lumps of coal instead of an eternity of burning and suffering at the hands of sadistic monsters.

Happy as it made me, it was a lie—a lie that hid a much more beautiful and believable truth: my parents loved me dearly, buying gifts with money that could have been spent on themselves and giving them anonymously.

That the ideas of life after death and an all-powerful, benevolent being make us happy is no surprise. Of course these things give us hope and courage to face our own mortality. But that they bring happiness does not make them true…or even good for us.

Controlling the Brain with Light…and Downloading Memories!?

A different kind of post today. I might swing back into discussions of illogical proofs for/against God, but this is, without question, the coolest thing I have learned this week:

Ed Boyden, head of the Synthetic Neurobiology Group at the MIT Media Lab, shows how, by inserting genes for light-sensitive proteins into brain cells, he can selectively activate or de-activate specific neurons with fiber-optic implants. With this unprecedented level of control, he’s managed to cure mice of analogs of PTSD and certain forms of blindness.

In short:

  1. It is possible to turn brain cells on and off with light
  2. This makes it possible to “retrain” the brain to address harmful addictive behavior
  3. The SN Group at MIT is working on clinically effective cures to blindness
  4. Using their techniques described in this video, Ed suggests that they could download and upload brain activity (including memory) as binary code

Watch it. It’s worth it. Easily the best 20 minutes I’ve spent this week. Or at least watch the last 20 second, which blew my mind completely (but may not make much sense without the rest).

Einstein Believed in God and Hitler was an Atheist!

Perhaps one of the most frustratingly illogical (and yet commonplace) “proofs” of God is celebrity endorsement. Too often, if I cite reasonable, scientific doubt as to the existence of God, I’m quickly met with some comment about how Einstein believed in God or how Hitler was atheist.

Numerous other celebrities can be used to replace Einstein and Hitler, but the logical fallacy remains: Regardless of X’s qualities (good or bad), X’s views on the existence of God have absolutely nothing to do with God’s actual existence.

Reductio ad Hitlerum (The Argument to Hitler)

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the reductio ad Hitlerum in this case is its poor choice of example. Hitler’s religiosity is one of the more trivial (but interesting!) question marks in recent history. Raised Catholic, he alluded to his faith in God and particularly the Catholic religion in public speeches. And in Mein Kampf, he uses language that seems to indicate he is a religious man:

The folkish-minded man, in particular, has the sacred duty, each in his own denomination, of making people stop just talking superficially of God’s will, and actually fulfill God’s will, and not let God’s word be desecrated. For God’s will gave men their form, their essence and their abilities. Anyone who destroys His work is declaring war on the Lord’s creation, the divine will.

Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf. Ralph Manheim, ed. New York: Mariner Books, 1999, p. 562.

In private, however, Hitler’s views regarding religion were often conflicting and confusing. Goebbels’ diary notes that Hitler felt revulsion toward Christianity and wanted to express that openly. But Nazi General Gerhart Engel’s diary records this statement of Hitler’s:

I am now as before Catholic and will always remain so.

John Toland. Adolf Hitler. New York: Anchor Publishing, 1992, p. 507.

Much better examples of evil (and confirmed) atheists include Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, who both sought to stamp out religion and those who practiced it, killing millions of their own citizens in the process. (Both, by the way, were responsible for many times more of their own dead citizens than was Hitler.)

Reductio ad Einsteinum (The Argument to Einstein)

The most frustrating part of the reductio ad Einsteinum is that it displays exactly the same lack of research as the reductio ad Hitlerum. In his own time, Einstein was criticized by multiple American religious groups for his statements against religion, including these:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

quoted in Albert Einstein: The Human Side (1982) edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These…interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.

Randerson, James (2008-05-13). “Childish superstition: Einstein’s letter makes view of religion relatively clear”. The Guardian (London). Retrieved May 18, 2011.

If we are to credit Einstein for any contribution toward our understanding of religion, it is for his support of what I have been proposing with all these posts on the illogic of arguing for/against God logically:

I’m absolutely not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things.

Frankenberry, Nancy K. The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words. Princeton University Press, 2009. p. 153.

We are indeed like children in a massive library. The world around us is filled with evidence of the past and the true workings of the greatest forces in the universe. It would be naive to say that we can understand what, if anything, gave rise to these laws and patterns. And, if some of us must assume a creator, it would be a shame to spend our lives praising the creator without understanding the creation. My greatest worry regarding the religious is that they spend too much time in the library praising the author and too little reading the texts.