Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Master of Puppets

Diebold Accidentally Leaks Results Of 2008 Election Early

Type rest of the post here


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Quick ideas

I think we're all pretty bogged down with work, so, of course, I'm taking a break to make a post about some science.

Go figure.

First, some basic figures, which I think are pretty cool.

The orbital speed of the earth is right around 30 kilometers a second. That's roughly 10 times the speed of a bullet out of a rifle. Yet, we do not feel the motion because we're in a relatively stable inertial frame of reference. Like being in a speeding car, as long as the car isn't accelerating or decelerating, you can't really "feel" the motion. This is partially why open country roads on flat land are really dangerous: without any reference frame (i.e. hills, telephone poles, houses, etc) in the near distance to gauge your speed by, you can slowly accelerate to huge speeds and just daze out, not even knowing how fast you're going.

Also, the earth rotates at just about a thousand miles an hour (at the equator). The poles don't really rotate much at all. For the same reason as above, we don't really notice it. But, you might ask, what then is the rotational speed of my location?

Well, it turns out you can take the cosine of your latitude (getting more complex: vector calculus! Figure out your orbital speed by combining your rotational velocity and the velocity of the earth around the sun!) to find out your rotational speed. For my location (roughly 41.8 degrees north), my rotational speed is right around 745 miles an hour! Nice!

More below the fold.

Okay. A little more mathematics, then I'll move on to more interesting things.

Homeopathy. Homeopathy. Homeopathy. When will the quackery end? Let's take one of the most basic principles of homeopathy: "less is more," in the sense that the more you dilute a solution, the more powerful it becomes.

Try and wrap your mind around that one for a little bit.

The extra bit that is required to make any sense of it whatsoever is that apparently "water has memory," and thus retains some "memory" of substances it comes into contact with.

Now, I don't know about you, but I find this thought experiment enlightening for this. Think about the 4.5 billion years of the earth. Try to imagine the water cycle. Statistically, there are probably a lot of random water molecules out there which have been floating around in someone's bladder at some point. Now...if we combine "water has memory" and "dilution makes it more potent," well...I think you can see where we're going with this.

Another thing: the 30C dilution. I'll link here for a humorous discussion of it (good to see that the first responder to the post was basically a shut down).

30-C basically means that one part "medicine" is diluted into 1 x 10^30 parts water. That's a really big number. How big you ask? Well, I've done some calculations:

If we create an arbitrary cylinder in space, defined with a radius of 1 AU (astronomical unit, the distance between the sun and the earth, 149,597,870,691 meters, or, if you prefer, 149.6 x 10^6, and the thickness of the sun's diameter (6.955 x 10^8 meters) (Bad Astronomer! Please don't kill me for this! And if any of the math needs to be updated, let me know!), then, converting our values to centimeters (we're going to discuss volume, and hence, cubic centimeters), we have have roughly a radius of 14,960,000,000,000 (149.6 x 10^11 centimeters) and a thickness of roughly 69,550,000,000 centimeters (6.955 x 10^10 centimeters). Thus, we have an area of 703,093,462,421,641,470,437,121,129 centimeters squared (7.03 x 10^26) (pi x r^2). To find the volume, we simply multiply by the thickness, leaving us with roughly 4.87 x 10^37 cubic centimeters of volume in an arbitrary cylinder between the earth and the sun.

Let's compare. 4.87 x 10^37 and 1 x 10^30. Now, there is a several order of magnitude difference here. One away from the difference between a millimeter and a kilometer. That's nothing to sniff at; but there is a very important point to be shown here. The pure volume which they are talking about (assuming they use milliliter drops, which, would seem reasonable) is comparable to the volume of space between the suns and planets. There simply isn't enough water on earth to dilute something that much! We have about 1.3 billion cubic kilometers of water on earth. That would be 130,000,000,000,000 cubic centimeters, or 1.3 x 10^14 milliliters.

Think about that for a second. There are many, many orders of magnitudes difference between the amount of water on earth and the supposed dilution ratio of homeopathic remedies. At this point, we are left with two conclusions. A) There really is no "medicine" in them at all - they're just some saline solution; or B) The dilution rate is actually much less, and by homeopathy's own reasoning, it shouldn't work very well at all. If it does "work" so well when the dilution is less...well, this is in fact a good sign that homeopathy's principle about dilution is simply false (how could it be otherwise), and that modern medicine is actually doing something pretty good for us. Thanks chemists and medical technicians!

I doubt this will convince any homeopathic users out there...most would still go on using it because they feel it "works for them." Well, as long as you admit it's nothing but a placebo effect, or some condition that can clear up quite naturally on its own, then, okay. But are you really willing to spend the often ridiculous amounts of money on a mere placebo?

Okay, on to different topics.

A good, brief abstract of research done on the Burgess Shale, one of the most fascinating fossil finds in biology. I'm sure some creationist is going to tout this as some proof of a global flood, never realizing how many problems there are with that.

1) If, as you say, everything was created just as it is now 6,000 years ago, then why the hell the funky body designs here? Granted, in the Burgess Shale we can see the beginnings of all the major body plans found today; but this simply tells us that there was a lot of experimentation in body plans early on. Go pick up Neil Shubin's book, Your Inner Fish. He has a great section where he discusses this. Also, catch him on a podcast talking about the book!

2) If, as you say, there was a global flood, why do we not see more evidence of these kinds of mass deposits of fossils all over the planet? Oh, that's right...because this was a pretty special case where a mudslide buried them to such a depth that normal decay couldn't occur and thus preserved them...and they just happened to be in that localized place. Sorry, no real evidence for that whole "global flood" thing. Come back later when you have some science to back you up.

3) Why are there no modern fish looking things (or, hell, a bunny rabbit) sitting in the Burgess Shale? Well, the quite obvious answer, for the evolutionist, is that those creatures had not evolved yet. This happened in the Cambrian period, before modern fish-type things had evolved, and hence long before mammals. Sorry, creationists, but no rabbits before fishes in the fossil evidence. You'd have us stumped if there were.

For a bit more frightening look into the mind of a creationist/fundamentalist Christian, check out Rapture Ready. They're so...happy...about it. It's a little sickening. Okay, I take that back, it's incredibly sickening.

Need a vaccine against mindless inanity? Check out Thuderf00t's channel on YouTube. It's quite excellent, especially the "Why do People Laugh at Creationists?" series. He's up to 17 right now, and they're all worth it. Thunderf00t, if you're anywhere near 41.8 north latitude, I'd love to buy you a beer sometime.

Lastly, someone's doing research into the great ape's representational cognitive abilities. This should be very interesting to follow, and if I catch anything else on it, I'll try to keep you updated.

Okay, that's enough for now. I must get back to the grind and study.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Dissident Aggressor

I urge you to read this article by Christopher Hitchens. I don't agree with Hitch on the war, but on this he is spot on.



Okay. So. Wasps. We all know them. Most of us also know there are a few species that lay their eggs inside a host insect/creature, where the larvae hatch and eat their way out. Gruesome, but most of us have gotten kind of use to the idea.

Then along comes Ampulex compressa. The Emerald Cockroach Wasp. Does it lay its eggs inside a host (specificlly a cockroach)? Nah. Not technically. Lays them outside, larvae burrow in. Is the host dead while this happens? Oh, hell no. Does the host struggle against this at all? Nope. Just lets it happen. Why does it just sit there, then, without a care in the world?

Simple reason, really. Because THE WASP HAS EATEN ITS BRAINS!!!

....okay, not really. It hasn't eaten the brains, oh no, no, no. It's actually much worse. Ampulex compressa inserts its stinger into the exoskeleton of the cockroach after temporarily paralyzing it, slowly works the thing into a specific region of the cockroach's brain, and then injects a second toxin that kills the cockroach's escape drive. But, the horror isn't over. Oh, oh no. The wasp then takes the zombie cockroach's antennae and...get this...leads it like a dog on a leash back to its burrow, where it then lays an egg on its underside and seals the thing up.



Neurotoxin stinger.

Zombie cockroach.

Wasp larvae in a sealed tomb.

Wasp later breaks out of cockroach shell a few months later.

Guys, seriously. What if this was in space? Some weird creature that can paralyze you and then lays an egg nearby where you can't escape...egg hatches, larvae burrows its way into you...later bursts out your chest...huh...this sounds so familiar. Oh yeah, that's right! ALIENS! They're right here...the whole damn time. Waiting.

Waiting for you.

(Two notes to take away from this...1) Zombie cockroaches is a friggen terrifying idea. Zombies. Cockroaches. Put them together. Feel scared. 2) Check out Carl Zimmer's other books, especially Parasite Rex. You won't regret it. Okay, maybe you'll be really freaked out and wish you hadn't read it, but you won't regret it. Promises. 'Kay.)

Some videos below the fold...

First, a short of the thing attacking a cockroach, linked to here.

I like (and I use that term loosely) how after the brain surgery the cockroach is just like "huh...well...Good time for cleaning the old legs. Oh, hey, it's a wasp. That's cool dude. Oh, you want me to go over there? Nah, I don't think it's a good idea...oh, oh, okay...I'll follow you. Hold my head." Just, amazing stuff.

Next, the "birth" of said scary wasp from a dead body:


Ain't science cool?!


Monday, February 18, 2008

Trading a little on the good and the bad...

Last post was really pretty depressing, and I'm still thinking about it. That being the case, I'm going to shift gears some and try to get some positive things in here along with the bad.

First off:

Pictures at an Exhibition!

I highly suggest checking the whole thing out. Recommended to me by a friend, and I have to say, I quite enjoy it. Then again, I played viola for many years (and still do occasionally). Gaijin, you may get a kick out of it. It looks pretty impressive. Love Salonen too.

So, now to leaven it with a little bad news. No Child Left Behind doesn't work. Granted, no surprise, and if you've been keeping up at all with the educational reforms going on in this country (I use reform in a loose, mostly negative way), then this should be quite obvious. Ah yes, drop your lowest performing students, or make their lives so miserable they want to drop out, and then your school gets instantly better. Great job, guys. I only marginally blame the administrators. Put them under a plan like NCLB and you can expect the most Machiavellian of tactics.

More below the fold.

Okay, so, a little more good stuff.

Rachmaninoff's piano concerto no. 3!

Also, an excellent performance.

And some bad stuff:

Tip o' the orange basket to Pharyngula.

I'm sorry sir, but, no, us "evilutionists" don't have a problem understanding that we are quite related to oranges. Distantly. Yes. Indeed. But related. Cut open an orange, and what do you see? Cells. Cut open a cat...cells. Inside? Organelles. Plants have chlorophyll, we have mitochondria; but basically we engage in the same metabolic processes. Oh, and DNA? Similar. Distantly related. Granted, cats use Hox genes and plants use MADS boxes (non-homologous), but, still basically a lot of the same sorts of things going on. We're related. Hate to tell you buddy. PZ Myers over at Pharyngula sums this up quite nicely.

I'm also going to steal one more from PZ, just for giggles:

And the sad thing is, they seem like such nice, regular people. These people are not extremists. They're just really committed to their faith, and it has completely warped their perception of reality. Granted, it's Tennessee, and those people can be pretty warped anyway...I lived beside them for many years...but still. I imagine going across America would produce many similar people: very nice and all, but completely in another world.

of other worlds...

A recent article of the Chicago Red Eye published an article on acupuncture.


Dowden attributed the growth spurt in part to a 1997 National Institutes of Health report, which stated that acupuncture is effective in postoperative and chemotherapy nausea, and in postoperative dental pain. Further, the report said acupuncture may be useful as an additional treatment for addiction, headaches and lower back pain, among other ailments. More recently, a report published this month suggests that acupuncture coupled with in-vitro fertilization helps increase a woman's chance of conceiving.

Now, I know, you may be saying "what's the harm?" Well, first of all, the studies that are mentioned really don't say what this article (and the ABC report) claim they say. More accurately, the report itself has a good deal of flaws (appeals to ancient knowledge, for one. Rampant. Plus, as a meta-analysis [always check to see whether they're doing an original experiment or just culling old ones...then study how well the old ones actually followed scientific procedures], it may be amplifying noise in the system). Look carefully, and you'll see the problem.

Let me spell this out some. First of all, three (of seven) of the studies this meta-analysis is based on are horribly flawed in that they included no blinding. They hypothesize that relaxation may help induce fertilization, while nervousness inhibits it. Well, acupuncture (as a whole know, face-to-face communication, maybe some soothing music, warm environment, etc) may just have some effect on relaxation...but this doesn't mean that acupuncture itself (as in, jabbing needles in your skin) has done anything. It's completely confounded! Also, looking at their subgroup analysis, only one grouping mattered: that which had low fertility rates anyway! Any effect here, with such low rates, could be due entirely to statistical noise, if there is an effect to begin with. There is also a publication bias to consider (in most journals, there is a bias to publish positive results...any positive both looks better than "no effect," and there are tons of reasons beyond there actually being no effect why you might not be able to reject the null hypothesis. I highly suggest picking up Keith Stanovich's How to Think Straight About Psychology for a good refresher course on statistics. Give it a good read-through...or ten.


"There is definitely still a lot of skepticism," said Dr. Melinda Ring, medical director of Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Center for Integrative Medicine. "As a new generation of physicians are becoming trained, complementary and alternative medicine education is being incorporated more and more into medical schools, at least to a small degree."

Another hurdle facing greater buy-in of acupuncture is a lack of medical research, said Dowden, of the acupuncture academy. "The biggest challenge with acupuncture is believability and understanding why it works, and is there evidence it works," he said. "For the real skeptics, there has to be a lot more research to back it up."

Well...yes, we are quite skeptical. Notice they carefully avoid saying "why it works." They leave that up to either to the woo-masters, or to general plausibility. I'm sorry, though, there is no evidence that there are chakras of energy in your body and that by sticking tiny needles into your skin you can "redirect" the flow of this energy. Again, I have to ask, "what evidence?" There really is no good research that comes from a blinded study and cannot be easily explained by placebo effects. I recall seeing a study a while back that actually included a control. The writer of the article mentions that apparently even fake acupuncture works, but doesn't follow this up, and totally lets a quote by one of the researchers sail by that acupuncture really works and is a valuable technique. Notice the numbers. 44% of the fake-acupuncture group improves (and this is subjective questionnaires...great), 47% of the real-acupuncture group...that's completely statistical noise. You've shown a placebo effect. Great. Acupuncture should cost a helluva lot less then.

This is one of the huge problems with "complementary alternative medicines" (CAM), they rely on "ancient wisdom," are rarely blinded, typically involve only conditions which can improve on their own, rely on subjective measures of experience (which may fall victim to cognitive dissonance, as in, "I paid how much for this? It has to work!"), and have no plausible means of explaining how the effect works.

Last bit:

Others just can't get passed those needles. "Once they're in, you realize they're just not that big of a deal. You really can't do harm with the needles unless you go to someone who really doesn't know what they're doing," said Jordan, who has been doing acupuncture since 1999.

Read that last sentence. At least two people have been seriously harmed by acupuncture, albeit one rather indirectly. I'm willing to bet there are a lot more who have had nerve damage or other harm through improper application of a needle. Let's not forget it is a rather sharp metal point entering your body.

Steve Novella already beat me to the punch on this one, with a much more in depth analysis. And apparently they covered something similar on the most recent episode of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, found here. Check out Steve's blog. It's very good for dealing with general quackery.

Alright, last little bit, I promise.

Flocking in humans. Just goes to show that we will follow even the most inane and banal actions of other people. I think there's a fair link between this and some of the other stuff mentioned in this post. Maybe I'll play this out later on.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Shootings, Nuclear Warfare, and Ethics

Alright, so, I'm going to talk about some pretty depressing stuff. If you don't want to be depressed, you should probably skip this one, but I feel like I need to get it down on paper (digital bits, what-have-you...).

First, the tragic shooting that happened at Northern Illinois University a few days ago. There is a fair amount of strangeness or irony to this kid doing it, but I guess it also is a reminder that medications, especially mood affecting ones, are very powerful things. If you need them, take them, and keep taking them. Coming off them, when your body has built up a B-response (here I'm referencing Richard Solomon's Opponent-Process Theory, which has a very good explanation here).

I heard about this when I was at work, basically in a bunker under the library. I'm in Chicago, so this isn't that far away. It's another violation of the sanctity of the university; the sphere of freedom and safety that is supposed to go along with the educational environment. I feel incredibly sorry for the kids who had to go through this, and I'm starting to wonder why things like this (in university settings) seem to be on the rise? Is it just noise in the statistical system (being so rare, any minor increase in occurrence seems huge)? What's driving this behavior? And seriously, don't waste your time on "they've abandoned God/It's just God pouring out his wrath on liberals." It's cheap and dirty, for one; doesn't explain anything, for two; and is just plain sick and wrong, for three.

More below the fold...

Russia and China are really stepping up their rhetoric and military action recently. Russia is threatening to target missiles at the Ukraine if it joins NATO, and is putting a lot of pressure on former Soviet satellite states to keep them from joining any treaty with Western powers.

Now, Gaijin, I said before I don't have a great, solid, sum-it-all definition for "rational" at the moment. I'm still sticking by that, but let me add this to it. In my opinion, no rational person would ever consider nuclear warfare.

Now, before you start telling me all about the Cold War and how our atomic weapon supply was the only real deterrent we had against the Red Army...I know. I agree. NATO did not have the man/machine power to hold off a full scale invasion of Europe. Nuclear weapons were the stop-gap and bargaining chip that probably held the peace for quite a while. I'm very glad to be living in a non-Communist country at the moment, because, honestly, economically, it so rarely works out. I kind of like going to a university and having freedom of speech. So, thanks be to nuclear armament for that.

That being said...has anyone ever seriously considered nuclear warfare? Mutually Assured Destruction doesn't really even begin to describe it. We have enough weaponry at this point to kill everyone on the planet. Not immediately, no...but within a few hundred years of a nuclear war, we'd be dead just from the spread of radiation. There is no "winning" a nuclear war. Everyone loses. Maybe not immediately, but if it becomes a full-scale trading of shots, everyone dies eventually.

Now, true, maybe a few isolated pockets of humanity will survive somewhere. Maybe they'll crawl out of the wreckage and re-establish something. But let me put it this way, it would be the end of civilization within a relatively narrow time-frame.

And that's terrifying. Absolutely, shit-your-pants terrifying.

The other thing that worries me is that there are people out there who would be quite happy to see such an event take place. It would be a revelation of their deity, or their principles, or whatever, for nuclear war to happen. Jesus is coming back sooner, we're getting closer to the final judgment, communism/capitalism has its final say...whatever. There are plenty of crazy ass people who would be perfectly satisfied by blowing up everything and killing every human being who walks this earth. Or maybe just certain people:

What do the other human persons here think ?
No doubt someone will object, saying something obviously ridiculous like, but atheists are persons.
But clearly this is mistaken because anybody without a well developed belief in God is obviously not a full human person.
What could be more obvious than that ?
How many full human persons do you know without a well developed belief in God. Obviously none, because if they were full human person they would have a well developed belief in God.
Now some people might object to killing atheists for there (and obviously it is there and not thier as they are not whos but whats ) organs but think of all the full human persons that would benifit from the organs and the medical research that could be done on these non-persons.
How could anybody object, they are not human persons and if you think we should not kill them then that is just because of out dated ideas and because they must really just want people to suffer. For shame on you !
So what do people think ?
Should we kill these atheist human non-persons for the benifit of fully human persons ?
Jason, TheologyWeb

(Taken from this website, which is full of other gems, like:

[in a discussion on whether the speed of light is constant (fundies like to say it isn't)]

Constants seldom are ... pi changes depending upon the strength of the gravitational field involved.

MHGinTN, Free Republic


I'm not one of these people. This may be an extreme statement to make, but I'll say it: I would almost rather see a nation surrender than result to nuclear warfare. If you want to start a conventional war and blow yourselves to smithereens with guns and tanks and bombs...okay. Not particularly happy about that either, but okay. Want to use nuclear weapons? No. Not okay. I repeat: NOT OKAY.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, as I've already said, it would pretty much exterminate the human race. I'm of the opinion "Guys, could you just hold off killing everyone until we establish a few self-sufficient colonies elsewhere in the solar system/galaxy. Honestly? Then, blow up the earth for all I care. We'll have our societies committed to surviving." Then again, I don't like putting all my eggs in one basket...maybe that explains my attitude.

For another, and here is where I briefly descend into the dreaded ethics, nuclear warfare has much greater collateral damage. Civilians die in wars...this is true, and should be minimized as much as possible. Nuclear warfare does just affect just a platoon of soldiers, or a single city, or a single nation-state. It affects the entire world, and a lot of people who don't ask for it.

So, why is this an ethical question?

Most of us, most of the time, have no need to consider ethics. We go about our days, bumbling around the way we do, and we get by. We may even do a little good for other people. Net effect, somewhat positive, at worst neutral. That's normal, every day life. Ethics don't come into it much. For me, most ethical questions revolve around questions of punishment and forgiveness. Is this a little different from our evolved predispositions? Probably. But there's absolutely no reason that we have to or should follow what our genes tell us to do in every situation. We're probably the first species to be able to accomplish that feat, and I think it's a positive thing most of the time.

So, what is the ultimate ethical question? Here I'm going to say it is the question of murder. To encounter the face of an Other and ask "Should I kill this person, or by my action/inaction allow them to be killed?" Fortunately, this question does not even occur to us the vast majority of the time ( you ever walk around wondering whether or not you should kill someone?) But, the question comes, sometimes silently, in some very important moments. Why is murder such a horrible crime? Well, to me, there are two reasons:

1) As an atheist, I don't believe in an afterlife. This one is the only one we have, and to forcibly remove a person's time in this life is the greatest offense you can possibly commit. Why do I value this so much as an atheist? Aren't I really sneaking in an absolutist moral that can only be based on God? No, not really. I just value human life, and my "in-group" net is flung far enough to encompass most of the masses of people I will never meet face-to-face. I think we have a pretty strong evolved moral set that, while certainly not perfect, does prevent most of us from murdering most of the time. So, I probably have a strong evolved predisposition against murder. It's just wrong, and self-evidently so.

2) It is the only crime that cannot be forgiven by the victim. Every other thing you could possibly do carries with it at least the possibility that the victim can forgive the offense. Murder is different in this regard. The family and friends of the victim might be able to forgive the offender, but this is not the same thing. Every person that you meet already makes a claim upon you, an ethical claim, and to murder is to absolutely disregard this in a way that cannot be "made up." You can serve your time for the state, beg the forgiveness of the relatives, but ultimately, the face of the other is gone and unreachable. This is part of why this is the ultimate ethical question.

What does this have to do with everything else I've been blathering about? Well, it has to do with the effects of nuclear war. To truly engage in full nuclear warfare is to commit murder against every human being now and in the future. Do we have a commitment towards unborn future generations? I would argue yes, but I'm going to be very careful here because this could very easily come into contradiction with my stance on abortion (I'm pro-choice, go figure). I'm going to bracket the issue of abortion for now, because it's quite thorny, and honestly I don't feel like engaging in that discussion and how it works into the semi-coherent ethics that I think about. Also note, I'm not an ethicist.

For one, we have a biological drive to continue to exist. We have children, and with our current society and resources, most of us stick around to make sure the kids grow up okay (or at least expend resources in the form of child support) and are able to have their own children. This has certainly caused a lot of population problems, so unrestrained reproduction is really not a good strategy for a wide variety of reasons that I may cover later, but...on a first basis, and the weakest, we have the evolved disposition to reproduce and care for our young.

Secondly, equally kind of weak, we are just so terribly, disgustingly lucky to be alive right now. I can't think of any better way to sum it up than what Dawkins has already said:

We are going to die and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they're never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place, but who will, in fact, never see the light of day, outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. ...In the face of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. Here's another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time, the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, the present century. The present moves from the past to the future like a tiny spotlight inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere on the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I.

All those future generations of mankind, all the possible joys and wonders that they may experience, the progress and the tragedies, the tears that they will cry and the suffering that they will see, the full spectrum of life that could be theirs, puts a claim on us to at least hold out, inching by, surviving, just long enough for them to have their chance.

We stand at a peculiar moment in human history. We have the capability of utterly annihilating ourselves, and many have the will to do just that. We also have the capability of surprising generosity and progress, and many have the will for that. Most of us eek by, day by day, without thinking or worrying about it much; for the most part this works out. It is my fear, however, that there may come a day when there are not enough rational, good people to stand up and say "No, we will not take this step. We will not annihilate our species from this planet."

For me, the wonders of science and nature, what we uncover every day, the kinds of things that we are becoming capable of, sustain me and my sometimes wavering faith in humanity. I want to be proud of us as a species. I want to survey the world, for all its tragedies as much as its beauty, and say "yes, this too is a part of me." Would I do all I could to ease those tragedies? Certainly. This is one area where we have seriously failed. We're caught up in coalitional psychology, and "they" are just too different, too "out-there," for us to really care about.

Last bit, this has gone on far too long. We get our emotional heart-strings pulled whenever we see those commercials of poor children starving to death. It always focuses on a single child, or maybe a small group. While it's good that people are doing outreach for these children, it doesn't come close to representing the scope of the problem. For that, you have to go to statistics, and people just can't get excited about statistics. It's an emotional turn-off, and people have a hard time imagining the suffering of that many people.

Well, most people do. This is an area where maybe we need more geek philanthropists. Why? They're used to dealing with numbers and can get an accurate sense of scope. Maybe it's not as emotionally drawing as other charity outreach programs, but I guarantee it would probably do more good in the long run. So, thanks for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Okay, seriously far too long and meandering. I may delete this one later. We'll see. Goodnight, guys.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Seasons in the Abyss

Just wanted to take a break from the hell of graduate school to point out the list of philosophical questions in response to which religion, and Christianity in particular, gives facile and simple-minded answers.

1. Do you have a 'self'? Of course, you have a soul!
1a. What preserves your identity over time? Again, your soul!
1b. What about free will? Soul!
1c. So our consciousness is just our immaterial soul inhering in our bodies? Yup!

2. Does morality exist? Yes, because God says so.
2a. Ok, but what makes an action moral? It is prescribed by God, of course.

3. What are the bounds of our knowledge? Well, our knowledge is mostly bound by the limits of our reason and sense. For all other questions, consult this book. Keep in mind that whenever you learn something that seems to contradict the book, you are probably misinterpreting the book. Otherwise, just take the book at its word and stop asking so many questions!

4. What is the meaning of life? And what constitutes the good life? You haven't been paying attention! The meaning of life is not to eat certain foods, not to have sex with certain people and outside certain divinely ordained customs, not to murder (there are exceptions to this rule), and above all, not to say anything bad about the magic book and its contents. As for the good life, just stick to the book and you'll be fine.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hell Awaits

After spending a few years terrorizing Jewbiquitous, I have decided to become a real blogger. I would like to say a few words about myself. I was born on the darkest day of the year in 1982, baptized soon thereafter, and indoctrinated into the Christian faith. I was a bit of a Christian wunderkind as a child, my knowledge of the New Testament being impressive enough that I was put on public access television as a testament (pun intended) to my church's program of religious instruction. I can't say that I walked around in a spiritual haze, but I do remember fearing for my immortal soul after finding out what "goddamn" meant. Then something...happened. I started questioning things. At the age of 13 I began researching the fabled Shroud of Turin, in a vain attempt to locate a single piece of evidence that supported the supposed divinity of Christ. My stepmother took notice of what I was doing and self-righteously proclaimed that she "[did] not need evidence to ground [her] faith." And all I could think was, "Well I do." (Of course, I kept that sentiment to myself.)

Two other things happened. I became concomitantly obsessed with science and heavy metal music. Science depicted the world in a rational and parsimonious way. It responded to evidence and availed itself of the tools of rationality. The whole point of science, I found out, was to prove the old guard wrong. And, when it was done correctly, its theories were only taken as seriously as their rational coherence, responsiveness to evidence, and predictive power warranted. Meanwhile, heavy metal gave me a feeling of spiritual connectedness - a sense of transcending the confines of my corporeal existence - that religion used to provide me with but no longer did. "Observing the Sabbath" now meant listening to the thunderous bass lines of Geezer Butler and the pleading, demonic wails of Ozzy Osbourne.

I bring this up just to point out that I get it. I understand that people want an explanation for the way things are and a sense of spiritual transcendence. And I understand that's the function religion serves in many people's lives.


Religion is FALSE and MORALLY OBJECTIONABLE. And the two are connected: It is morally objectionable not to try to reach the most rational and justifiable conclusions based on the available evidence. It is a violation of your responsibilities as a rational and reflective person. We cannot morally deliberate to our best abilities unless we actively try to believe truths instead of falsehoods. And religion is so obviously false, so patently ridiculous and childish and silly and primitive, while at the same time being so ubiquitous, that it represents a particularly salient and pernicious mode of irrationalism. It is a grave evil, a blight on the common intellectual dignity of our species, and an impediment to our moral development.

I propose that as a society we stop defending the indefensible and start putting pressure on religion. For reasons beyond my comprehension, religion is enveloped in a sphere of protection that largely quarantines it from the rational scrutiny it deserves. What can we do to undermine this protective sphere? For one, let's all stop invoking platitudes about respecting faith. Faith in 'God' (a vacuous concept if there ever was one) is no more worthy of respect than faith that you hold the winning lottery ticket (perhaps less worthy - some people have actually won the lottery). Let's also point out to religious people that their beliefs do not hold up to rational scrutiny, and indicate the ways in which what they do to their children (brainwashing, arbitrary segregation, genital mutilation, etc.) sustains a self-generating cycle of abuse.

Not that I have strong feelings about this stuff.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Complete Randomness...Also...Valentine's Day?

Happy Valentine's Day guys?

I know what I'm going to be doing. Reading ScienceBlogs. Durn skippy. And instead of chocolates, I'll eat some pseudoscientists and woo-masters. OMNOM.

For you astronomy buffs out there, the universe (or at least Mars) says it loves you:

The Mars Valentine Crater.

Also, the Mars Valentine Mesa? Look for more at the Bad Astronomy Blog.

So, call up a geek for Valentine's Day. They're just socially awkward, and that may be a good thing? I'll look for some meta-studies on self-monitoring and romantic relationships.

More randomness below the fold...

You know I had to include a little skepticism tonight, and I think this sums it up pretty well:


Oh my goodness! How cute is that?! don't know Raptor Jesus?


He went extinct for your sins, guys. Extinct. Sigh...

And for the most awesome (terrifying) picture of the night:

Alright, have a good Valentine's Day, you people who are in relationships or want to be in one. I'm out for the night.


A Joke!

Seems there's some heated debating going on here right now...time to lighten things up with a joke!

A cab driver reaches the Pearly Gates and announces his presence to St. Peter, who looks him up in his Big Book. Upon reading the entry for the cabbie, St. Peter invites him to pick up a silk robe and a golden staff and to proceed into Heaven.

A preacher is next in line behind the cabby and has been watching these proceedings with interest. He announces himself to St. Peter. Upon scanning the preacher's entry in the Big Book, St. Peter furrows his brow and says, "Okay, we'll let you in, but take that cloth robe and wooden staff." The preacher is astonished and replies, "But I am a man of the cloth. You gave that cab driver a gold staff and a silk robe. Surely I rate higher than a cabbie."

St. Peter responded matter-of-factly: "This is heaven and up here, we are interested in results. When you preached, people slept. When the cabbie drove his taxi, people prayed.


Why the Atheists Always Win: A Dialogue

The Rooster:
you decry the "certainty" that atheists have
yet you yourself are quite "certain" that you do not have invisible
microscopic elves living in your adrenal glands
Zie: dude. im not saying God exists. im saying why does Dawkins have to spend all his time debating religious people? whats he trying to prove
im not certain of anything.. ever
its kind of a thing. i like options
The Rooster: religion demeans us
The Rooster: it's a form of intellectual degradation
and when people defend it they sound like the fucking lifetime channel
"it builds community!"
The Rooster: 'it brings people together'
so did the nazis
Zie: true
well i didn’t say that
The Rooster: I don't care about people coming together and preserving their insipid little cultures
see, with me my main target is not actually religion
Zie: i don’t particularly like religion in the majority of its forms. but i think its useless to make a career out of trying to bring it down. let people believe what they want
The Rooster: but irrationalism, of which religion is a noticeable and particularly virulent form
Zie: i have a bigger problem with creationists
Zie: dude. we'll always have this debate. rationalism is way more important to you than it is to me
The Rooster: no no no
I am not advocating rationalism
I afford plenty of space to the "non-rational"
it's the irrational I have a problem with
Zie: i dont think religion has to be irrational in all its forms
The Rooster: I think we should replace religion with art, science and philosophy
I think it does. give me one example where it isn't
Zie: ok. reconstructionist Judaism that views god as a metaphor and always approaches the bible figuratively
The Rooster: well that's hardly even religion
Zie: thats not true
The Rooster: more like a bunch of losers trying to get some life out of a dead horse
Zie: well it depends how you define religion. and that’s not a topic i want to start.. as i am sick of talking about that
The Rooster: why aren't they recontructionist Christians?
why single out a religion?
Zie: they're called Unitarians
The Rooster: and they are fucking pathetic
but that's not the point I am making. If we think god is a metaphor why would you care more about, say, the Jewish fake god than the Christian or Muslim fake gods?
Zie: i dont
The Rooster: well, then the "god" concept becomes so vacuous so as to be reconciliable with almost anything, including atheism
when God means something, it means something absurd
Zie: you are missing the point. the point is what God as a term stands in for.
The Rooster: at other times, it is simply meaningless
Zie: if God is a stand in for a person/groups beliefs about a whole range of topics.. then it can be a powerful thing
The Rooster: so can termites>
who cares?
Zie: listen. i have to get back to German. i dont even believe in a God figure
The Rooster: neither do I


dawkins? eh?

ok. I know there is already a fair amount of Dawkins love on this blog. Honestly, I know very little about his non-atheist related work so on that I have little to comment. I find the man interesting. He's obviously a talented speaker and debater and I'm sure he could make me cry, defeated. But when a man makes his living debating the most ridiculous religious figures in the world (just see the video a few posts down) and writing articles for magazines, I begin to question his methods.

In one sense, it is perfectly logical to fight the "enemy" where they are weakest, or in this case, not necessarily weaker, but more ridiculous to so-called "educated" people. But when I watch his videos I can't help but view him as the mirror image of his opponent: a person 100% certain in the absolute validity of his beliefs, willing to say or do anything if he believes it necessary to his cause. BORING. I don't know about you folks, but the God/no God "debate" fascinates me because I think its one of the few questions that by nature does not lend itself to empirical methodologies. If a scientist were to say that God is improvable by science, the theologian would just say, "exactly." But if the "modern" educated person needs proofs to back up their faith, then they will probably be waiting a really long time. Dawkins makes his name by having something at stake in this debate. But so does the Pope. Both are claiming some form of truth that excludes not only the other, but I would guess a large percentage of the world. You can't put all believers in one camp and say, "you are all believing in a false God." I'm pretty sure most of them think that everyone else is believing in a false God as well.

Dawkins largely paints this question in black and white: Religion=Bad; Science=Good. Religious fundamentalists would just flip that equation. That sort of absolute faith in only your own beliefs to the exclusion of all possibilities is exactly what makes religion dangerous, and by extension, Dawkins as well. The whole point of the "Scarlet A" campaign is to fight for the atheists right to pursue what they believe. Not to get all hippy on you, but is it so hard to just leave people to their own beliefs and go about your own life/work from whatever point of view you deem correct? I really wish everyone could just get over this. Its nothing new. Seriously.

Galileo was persecuted for his beliefs by the church because they conflicted with their dogma. Does Dawkins need to put religion on the chopping block (in everything he does) for his theories and positions to have validity? Is his goal to eradicate religion, or are these fundamentalists just dummy's for Dawkins to make his point to his real audience: the moderate religious types who go to church, etc., a few times a year but are largely secular. um.. me. I'm not going to launch into a long diatribe about "dialogue" (ahem.. because that term is as empty as "change" is in the current democratic race), but when did "tolerance" stop being an issue that mattered? If Dawkins or anyone else thinks religion in essence is so dangerous it must be eradicated, then they better figure out quickly all of our metaphysical questions. While they are at it, they should also tell us what happens after death, problem of evil, etc. My guess - people will still prefer God to finite death etc. Myths do have their place... but thats for another day.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I do what i want!

hello. i'm zie, another disaffected graduate student who has too much too do and has perfected the art of wasting time. though i am more interested in metaphysics than physics, in the interest of pleasing this blog's creator i will introduce myself with this moderately funny, but in no way hilarious cartoon:


Happy Darwin Day Everyone!

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is Charles Darwin's birthday (as well as Abraham Lincoln, for those American history buffs), and it's a good day to ask ourselves why Darwin matters. Richard Dawkins has an excellent summary. I just want to note that Darwin was 22 years old when he went on the Beagle trip. That's my age. Amazing.

And to think the man created a theory built upon solid evidence that has stood the test of time for 149 years. I'm jealous, I'll admit. I wish I had that kind of publication right now. Was he right about everything? No, of course not. He had no idea how traits were actually transmitted, as he knew nothing of genetics. Do we know now? Yes. Do we hold up Darwin as a prophet who must be trusted in everything? Definitely not. But he is a very important figure, and most people could really take a page from his book when doing research or writing papers. Evidence! Logical argumentation! Defend your thesis rigorously! Don't extrapolate!

I'm not a biology professor. I'm not currently a biology student. I'm not going to reveal to you any of the really cool stuff about biology, because it's out there and easy to find. Pick up a bio book today. Hell, go buy a copy of The Origin of Species. It's cheap, and while it isn't correct on a lot of stuff, it's a pretty good read for historical reasons. Go see the DARWIN exhibit at a museum! It's well worth it, just for the beetle collections and fossil exhibits! Cool stuff!

Go tell someone that you select them, naturally, for Valentine's Day. Win a geek's heart! We're good people!

Some pretty images and an excerpt from a novel below the fold...

Seriously. Most. Awesome. Picture. EVAH. Darwin rocks. Look at that beard!

I really imagine Darwin getting a bit of a kick out of this:
"Oh, really now lad, not quite like that. Yes, see, bit more o' a straight back. Chip, chip, there! Back to work and all. Got the orchid garden going, you know, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, all that. Cheerio, then!"

Guys, this is D.N.A. D.N.A., this is the guys. Get to know one another. It's kind of a big thing.

Lastly, quoted from George du Maurier's Trilby. in which Little Billee is wrestling with Darwin and God for the hand of a woman he loves (her father is a parson, and is very strongly against evolutionary theory). This is a little late in his considerations, just before he talks to the father, when he finally spells out the real problem he finds with religion:

"It is very wicked and most immoral to believe, or affect to believe, and tell others to believe, that the unseen, unspeakable, unthinkable Immensity we're all part and parcel of, source of eternal, infinite, indestructible life and light and might, is a kind of wrathful, glorified, and self-glorifying ogre in human shape, with human passions, and most inhuman hates--who suddenly made us out of nothing, one fine day--just for a freak--and made us so badly that we fell the next--and turned us adrift the day after--damned us from the very beginning--ab ovo--ab ovo usque ad malum--ha ha!--and ever since! never gave us a chance!

"All merciful Father, indeed! Why, the Prince of Darkness was an angel in comparison (and a gentleman in the bargain).
"Just think of it, Tray--a finger in every paltry pie--an eye and an ear at every keyhole, even that of the larder, to catch us tripping, and to find out if we're praising loud enough, or grovelling low enough, or fasting hard enough--poor god-forsaken worms!
"And if we're naughty and disobedient, everlasting torment for us; torture of so hideous a kind that we wouldn't inflict it on the basest criminal, not for one single moment!
"Or else, if we're good and do as we are bid, an eternity of bliss so futile, so idle, and so tame that we couldn't stand it for a week, but for thinking of its one horrible alternative, and of our poor brother for ever and ever roasting away, and howling for the drop of water he never gets.
"Everlasting flame or everlasting dishonor--nothing between!"

Of course, he makes a mess of his explanation to the father and things turn out badly. Though, later on, the father does actually sit down and consider science and winds up an unbeliever. This makes up for it a little bit. Of course, I'm also not idolizing Little Billee. Kid's a fool in a lot of ways...but that's for another time.

This last bit did remind me of something though. You often hear people say, "Oh, what's the harm?" talking about homeopathy, psychics, and what-not. Or, "well, it gives them something to believe in, so that's good. Why are you going to take that away from them?"

Well, number one, it's not living in reality when it matters most. For another...children die. Let me say that again. Children, among other people, die when alternative medicines are substituted for real medicine. Or when faith healing is substituted for real healing.

That website has a running tally of injury, death, and economic damages incurred by these kinds of practices. If you have a personal story, please submit it. If you still think that these kinds of things are harmless, well...I don't know what to tell you. I guess I hope you're never in the position where you have to choose between real medical treatment and alternative treatments because of your religious or New Age beliefs. And I mean that sincerely.


Quick Book Review I: Shadow Family

Miyuki Miyabe
Originally Published under the title R.P.G. in 2001

A quick, easy read (less than 200 pages). It took a couple of chapters for me to really get into it, but once the plot began to unfold and and the characters develop more I found it difficult to stop reading. The plot revolves around the murders of two individuals, linked through a previous affair. One of the victims, Ryosuke Tokoroda, is revealed to not only have had numerous affairs with much younger women, but also to have developed relationships with a small group of people in online chat rooms that forms a sort of second family, despite his having a wife and daughter.

The bulk of the story takes place in an interrogation room with the self-claimed desk jocky Takegami and the three members of Tokoroda's "shadow family" as Kazumi, Tokoroda's daughter, watches from behind a one-sided mirror, and as such the majority of action is through dialogue. About halfway through the book, the true perpetrator's identity is blatantly obvious, but this does not decrease the exciting rising action as the truth slowly unfolds at the machinations of Takegami's interrogations.

It's a pretty cut-and-dry whodunit, and as such the characters are all pretty flat and the plot doesn't leave you really thinking all that much. But, if it's a quick, fun read you're looking for, I could suggest this one.

(Note: this book review and more is also posted on my personal blog, The Dirty Gaijin)


Science Debate 2008


Please. Sign up here.

We really need to have a debate on scientific policy among the presidential candidates. If you have any desire to see the US stay anywhere near the forefront of progress in the sciences, please care about this, please sign up, and please inform other people.

Get in contact with the candidates or your representatives. Contact information is here.

Does this thing have any chance of happening? Yes! Check out the support that it has gotten and the letters sent to the candidates.

Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy, has an excellent summary to be found here.


Hitchens and Boteach Debate

Check it:

Hitchens debates Rabbi Boteach at the 92 St. Y:

Tip o' the hat to Dawkins' website.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Politics and Religion

I want to talk about a few things that have been on my mind recently involving religion, politics, and their intersection.

Very clearly, I don't think religion should have any influence on politics whatsoever. Having read more Bonhoeffer, even he, a Confessing Church theologian, agreed that religion should have no influence over politics. In his view, the Church's only job was the witness about Jesus. That's fine by me. They can talk about Jesus, Muslims about Allah, Hindus about Krishna (or whatever god they have in mind), and it's all peachy-keen until they try to step into the political arena and define policy. Religion, if it is to be practiced, should be practiced in private among consenting adults.

Religion, in my view, should be a semi-private practice. I say semi-private because I realize that there is necessarily an interactive element to religion. That's okay. Build your churches or meet in your homes. It's quite analogous to consensual sexual relations: I don't really want to see people having sex in public, or try to engage me with public sex; just as I really don't want to have people handing me pamphlets, tracts, or asking me about my relationship with the Jesus. Why? Well, this is partially part of the whole Enlightenment values, and something I think even Bonhoeffer, Mr. "the only basis of morality is Christ" himself, would agree on the basis that there is a necessity of private life.

Side note: this is why wiretapping and secret police are so disgusting: they utterly destroy any possibility of speech. Everything becomes public. Now, there are differences in the speech between parents and children, among friends, teachers and pupils, and between lovers. If a teacher asks a five year old student to publicly admit to the classroom that a parent is a drunkard, or in jail, or an "enemy of the state," is the child justified in lying? Ideally, this should never be asked of the child. It is an intrusion from one sphere into another. The "truth" of the family should not be exposed as "truth" in the school. As Bonhoeffer put it, the child's lie contains more "truth" than the teacher's asking. Now, normally, I'm all for openness and honesty. I don't like obfuscating language among friends, and if someone has a problem with me, I would honestly like to know it. I'm not a fan of the huge number of lies that we tell every day just to smooth over conversations. "Oh, you look wonderful!" "Have you lost weight?" "No, I think it's a great idea." In cases like the one mentioned above, however, it's a different matter - that of private life. And the state, the public, should have no intrusion into that. What does it matter who someone loves, or their personal family history (for the vast majority of cases...I realize there are exceptions to this), or what their personal religious beliefs are - so long as they are kept in the private sphere or among friends and are not forced onto the public. Here's a good article of the sort of all-encompassing paranoia secret police can produce.

Back to religion. The whole part about consenting adults is actually quite important to me. Children are programmed to trust parental instructions, and apparently learn by over-imitation, even when actions are unnecessary or inefficient. Children pick up on religious behavior probably in much the same way - they are indoctrinated into it, it is not a free choice. If a person freely chooses to follow a religion when they are an adult and can actually understands what it means (preferably after they've had some education in world religions and critical studies of religion), then...okay. That's fine. Don't force your religion on your children, however. You wouldn't identify a child as a "Democratic child" or "Republican child," but we're apparently at ease saying a child is a "Christian child" or "Muslim child." Well, no. They don't have the capability of fulling understanding exactly what their parents are getting them into, even though children do have a pretty well developed notion of predation/death from an early age. Dawkins and others have made this point very well, and I'd like to participate in this sort of consciousness raising.

More below the fold...

I assume most of you have heard about the Archbishop of Canterbury sticking his foot in his mouth. Money quotes:

But Dr Williams said an approach to law which simply said "there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts - I think that's a bit of a danger".

"There's a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do with some other aspects of religious law."


"That principle that there is only one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a western democracy," he said.

"But I think it is a misunderstanding to suppose that means people don't have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and that the law needs to take some account of that."

Dr Williams noted that Orthodox Jewish courts already operated, and that the law accommodated the anti-abortion views of some Christians.

Yes. The Archbishop is apparently calling for separate spheres of religious courts. I think he'd be perfectly happy to see a separate Christian court...unless, of course, he's assuming the British courts are already good Christian courts, which, I sort of think he is.

I'm sorry, maybe I'm too much of a Western individual, but I have the idea that when you are a citizen of a state, or when you choose to reside within a state, you are subject to that state's laws. Now, in addition, and maybe this is my colonial/imperialistic morality, but I think human rights should be universal and that it's generally not okay to kill or imprison a woman who has been raped, or to kill apostates. Call me crazy, but I really am not a fan of attempting to live under Sharia law. Probably because I would pretty quickly be killed. That's usually the dividing line for me: will this law put me to death for being a rational human being and arguing for universal human rights? If yes, not a fan. Oversimplified, for sure...but, so far it's been a pretty good guide.

Well, of course, the "good" Archbishop has responded. See? It's cool. He was just doing his Christian duty by talking about other religions. No, really, it's okay:

"If we can attempt to speak for the liberties and consciences of others in this country - as well as our own - we shall, I believe, be doing something we as a church are called to do in Christ's name: witnessing to his Lordship, not compromising it."

Ah. Yes. Now it's so clear. Talk all you want about other faiths because, of course, you have the truth of the Jesus on your side. And that makes it okay. And bring the faults of other religions to public focus. Now see, that last part...especially if it works retrospectively as well...would actually be pretty good. Let's bring it to public attention just how ridiculous this stuff is.

Moving on...Turkey is apparently divided over the headscarf ban. This is a fairly complicated issue: a division over a secular government and free choice. I haven't made my mind up on this one yet over whether I come down more on the side of "if they want to, they should be able to wear head scarfs" or "this would be the first step in a lot of backsliding for Turkey." Keep your eyes open for this one.

And in the Philippines, there's a huge row over contraceptives. The Church has a lot of influence on the government, and thus has stopped the free distribution of alternative contraceptives in favor of "natural" family planning - the cycle method.

Good job guys. You do realize that we have evolved so that females have hidden estrus and concealed ovulation. Now, there are a few studies (I'll try to dig them up and retroactively link them) that there may be some unconscious knowledge (both in females and males) of the exact timing of maximum fertility, but in general, it's a pretty iffy thing most of the time. So, no surprise, the contraceptive ban has led to all sorts of problems which have been seen the world over anytime the Catholic clergy is taken seriously on this. If you don't want abortions (especially unsafe ones), please, for the love of whatever god you claim to worship, allow contraceptives and promote good education about them. At least try it out. Test it. C'mon guys.

Now for something completely different: evolutionary politics?

Let me throw out some major problems with this.

First, their scale. Really guys? That's the best you can do? A semi-Likert scale? Just one? "Extremely" and "Moderately"? Please define these better and expand the questionnaire. I'm extremely skeptical as to the validity of this one.

Also, not a whole lot of info on the identical twin study. Reared apart or reared together? This is important. Need more info before I'm going to commit to this at all.

That being said, I think there is probably some genetic predisposition to level of xenophobia, or in-group/out-group affiliation. This might have an influence on politics, but of course, environment is going to have a huge influence on this. Show me the details of your study and the effect sizes (main effects AND interaction effects, please!) after you get a better questionnaire. Then we can talk.

Lastly, a little psychology. Why we are so bad at making decisions. I think this is a pretty good playful article with some good information to follow up on. The equation at the end? Hilarious. I'm convinced there tends to be regular mathematical relationships that can describe complex social interactions, so I guess this is a bit of my woo that I'll be convinced by. Plus, it's good to know about the biases and irrational decisions - they really help you rationally think about a plan or study that comes out.

Okay...really, finally. Why did I post the "Lisa's Father" video and links to the Chick Tract? Part of it was to show just how absurd and disgusting Chick can actually be. Another interesting thing to note is the characterization of the "atheist" characters. Notice they're all drunkards and child molesters. This is very common in the rest of Chick's work, and it's pretty common across most fundamental or cult-like groups, i.e. the despicable Westboro Baptist Church, and the crazies and wackos of the Church of Scientology. When you have that level of indoctrination - that anyone outside the group has to be horrible (a common example of extreme coalitional psychology) - you have made a very solid wall that will prevent any attempt at rational thought or help from the outside. This is a large reason why cults are so dangerous: they completely separate you from the outside world and buffer you with other people who seem normal. The most extreme people in the center don't even really realize that they are extreme, because they have so many levels of buffers they never interact with the real world at all. Hannah Arendt's The Origin of Totalitarianism has a very good description of this. I would suggest picking up the book if you have time to read it and want to feel a little depressed.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Second Enlightenment

A few notes before the night's out.

First, a map showing how religion spreads completely by the free choice and rational decision of its patrons.

Just kidding! Totally geographically/historically/sociologically bound. Now, I come from that unsightly red plague and am currently residing in a bit of the blue background, but I don't qualify for either as an atheist. That would be great to see, even just one county which was predominantly atheist. Maybe they could color it black for the horrible corruption of our souls, or have a little picture of Darwin. Either way, good with me.

Second, NOVA's program on the Dover it, learn it. There are certainly parts that could be stronger, and PZ Myers over at Pharyngula had an excellent liveblogging adventure with it, as well as a response to the public letters directed to the documentary.

Third, it's Darwin Day on Tuesday, and in response to a call for posts, I'll try to have something reasonable up. We'll see. My schedule is really hectic at the moment with papers and homework and real work (oh my!) So, we'll see.

Lastly, yes, I did post the Scarlet A on the blog. I'm fully behind the Out Campaign. Go to their site and read some of the blogs on the blog roll. Freethinkers need to come out of the woodworks, and recent events are only showing that more clearly.

I can haz a Second Enlightenment, plz?


Welcoming New Authors and Science

Alright, so, I'm going to try something out here and invite other people to be authors on the blog. Probably most all of them will be grad students, and I'm aiming for about four or five people right now to have a good variety. I, obviously, am mainly going to be posting on science topics, as well as whatever tickles my fancy. Occasionally I'll give updates on music and food (I play guitar and cook quite well, so maybe I'll post some recipes if I get bored).

So, in the interest of getting authors, I'd like to welcome Zie to the blog. I have no idea what she'll be posting about, aside from it will probably be the disaffected ramblings of a grad student like mine. So, welcome!

I also hope you guys will check out the Minnesota Atheists, they're a nice bunch and have gotten pretty good at putting on a good radio show. Give 'em a listen, and if you've got the capability, maybe a little contribution as well. Help the cause of rationality!

Science below the fold...

Alright, so, as I said, I'll be posting a lot on science that catches my eye. There will also be some posting on my life as a grad student in a Div school, but for right now, I'd rather just talk it out with science. So...

Neural Basis of 'Number Sense' in Young Infants
Hooking young kids up to fMRI's?! The horror!

No, seriously, this is a pretty interesting study for a number of reasons (hah, I kill myself with puns). First off, these kids are about 4 1/2 months old. That's young. Kids tend to produce their first vocalizations that are recognizable as "words" around 11 to 12 months, so, here, we're about 7-8 months early. Why is this interesting, you might ask? Well, it's a fairly solid nail in the coffin of linguistic determinism. The true Whorfian (or neo-Whorfian) hypothesis would say that we are not able to cut up the world into recognizable pieces until we have words for them. Hence, the Inuit can detect many varieties of snow because they have words for them, and not, as is more sensible, the other way around.

Now, is this to say that kids at 4 months of age don't have some rudimentary language skills that is allowing them to carve up the world at its joints? Well, no, not entirely. However, I think it's much less likely that they have had enough exposure and enough brain development to do this accurately and consistently at this point. I also tend to think that number sense (in an approximation type) and identification of objects as separate from one another and the environment is probably mostly hard-wired. Maybe some evo-devo people can help me out here.

I'm going to say some more holes punched in Linguistic Determinism (and can we please, please, get over this pomo hangover?), score another one for science.

In a related vein, Languages Evolve in Rapid Bursts:

Point to take away from this article and others like it, languages evolve quickly to differentiate among social groups and form an identity...also, when a part of a population breaks away, they tend to under rapid linguistic development, especially in accents because of the smaller pool of adults (who may have idiosyncratic ways of speaking). A good analogy can be found in the idea of founding populations in evolutionary biology. Small populations tend to undergo more rapid evolutionary processes because of the over-expression of genetic differences among the individuals. Basically, they don't have a larger population to average out differences and so whatever mutations are present tend to spread rapidly through the small founder population. Fun stuff.

Speaking of genetics, Three-Parent Embryo Formed in Lab:

Whoa! Major cool science here. Now, this does not mean that the embryo will express the genetic traits of all three parents. One woman donates an egg and her mitochondrial DNA. Another woman and male donate their nuclear DNA, and thus are the basis for the child's later genetic traits.

So, "why," you may find yourself asking? Because a lot of hereditary diseases are passed along through mitochondrial DNA (which is separate from nuclear DNA), which is transmitted only by the mother - thus, you can effectively trace your female ancestry through good ole' mitochondrial DNA - something on the order of about 50 diseases which can lead to disability or death. The mitochondria is an important organelle people. Incredibly important. Don't forget that.

With this treatment, a woman with "healthy" mitochondrial DNA donates that (and her egg) to a woman who has defects in her mitochondrial DNA so that she might have a healthy child with a husband or through donated sperm. I don't think we've quite gotten to the parthenogensis point with humans yet, though I do wonder if we carried that over from our reptile ancestors. Ah, family drama would be so much more interesting.

On the other hand, there is a huge controversy over "designer babies." Now, I'll side with anyone who says that choosing hair/eye color and such as that for a child through genetic modification is excessive. But I think it's also fair to note that Mother Nature really doesn't care about us at all, and if we have the technology to prevent future suffering from diseases and disorders, then I say go for it. We are the first species that has the capability of improving our own genome artificially, and that's pretty exciting to me. Cue argument over what "improvement" and "standards of success" means.

And speaking of diseases, Insulin Grown in Plants Relieves Diabetes in Mice:

This guy proved the concept that an acre of tobacco could produce enough anthrax vaccine to inoculate the U.S. Now he's growing insulin capsules in lettuce that can be ground into a powder, put in a capsule, and given as a slow-release medication that seems to have the potential (in mice at least) to provide long-term relief of diabetes. I'm actually really impressed and glad for this. Of course, I'm also big into genetic engineering, as stated above.

Can we get some chemotherapy tobacco for cigarettes now? Please?

Lastly, The Columbus Laboratory Leaves Earth:

Yes! This is very exciting:

As a state-of-the-art research facility, the Columbus laboratory is the cornerstone of Europe’s contribution to the ISS. Once attached to the orbital outpost, this 7-m long, 12.8-tonne module will provide a shirtsleeve environment for astronauts to operate science equipment and conduct experiments in weightlessness across a wide range of topics in life sciences, human physiology, biology, fluid physics, material sciences, technology and education. It will also feature external accommodation for experiments focusing on space science, Earth observation, materials and advanced space technologies.

This is a great example of the world coming together over science and progress. I think the ISS (maligned as it is, and as much improvement as it could take) is a great symbol for the sort of world community that we want to develop. This is Europe's major contribution to it, and Japan's "Hope," or Kibo, module is set to launch in March and April. Keep your eyes peeled for it. Meanwhile, check out NASA's website for some good info on all the missions and updates on Atlantis.

And yes, I still want to be an astronaut.


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Kraftwerk Spoof


The most amazing version of the Hokey-Pokey I think you will ever see in your life.



In Which Science is Mentioned

So, cruising the ole Science Daily today and came across a few interesting articles.

First: Video Games Activate Reward Regions of Brain in Men More Than Women

Now, this article has some personal interest to me as I did research on video games for my senior thesis in undergrad (presenting on that at a conference soon). My research dealt with personality correlates, genres of games, and motivation for playing. As a senior thesis, I didn't have a huge amount of time or money, and so had to restrict myself to a male-only population and did not have access to a fMRI. Sad times.

I was worried reading the first two paragraphs (and to be honest, am still a little worried over the causative line taken in the article) with:

In a first-of-its-kind imaging study, the Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that the part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings is more activated in men than women during video-game play.

'These gender differences may help explain why males are more attracted to, and more likely to become "hooked" on video games than females,' the researchers wrote in their paper, which was recently published online in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

Having this as the opening to the article, it instantly makes you worry about the old saw of "correlation is not causation." Males feel more rewarded and thus tend to become addicted or more attracted to these games. Well, that could be the case. It also could go the other way. Or there could be other variables outside of these two: i.e. a host of social factors. Let's not forget that games like Halo tend to be relatively social in nature. A lot of guys get together and play the game cooperatively or competitively, and I think this changes the experience of the game. They do come up with some good neurological basis towards the end, though:

After analyzing the imaging data for the entire group, the researchers found that the participants showed activation in the brain's mesocorticolimbic center, the region typically associated with reward and addiction. Male brains, however, showed much greater activation, and the amount of activation was correlated with how much territory they gained. (This wasn't the case with women.) Three structures within the reward circuit - the nucleus accumbens, amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex - were also shown to influence each other much more in men than in women. And the better connected this circuit was, the better males performed in the game.

The findings indicate, the researchers said, that successfully acquiring territory in a computer game format is more rewarding for men than for women. And Reiss, for one, isn't surprised. "I think it's fair to say that males tend to be more intrinsically territorial," he said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out who historically are the conquerors and tyrants of our species-they're the males."

Okay, so, males are more wired to think naturally in terms of territory and aggression. Thus, they tend to be more competitive and receive more rewards from games that have a territorial or aggressive basis. I think this is largely in line with the popularity of genres as divided by gender. I'll say plausible.

More below the fold...

Second: Thin Bones Seen in Boys with Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Basically, the idea is that from lack of exercise and proper diet (autistic children often desire a very routine diet that meets caloric needs [or exceeds them], but is not very balanced at all; or have aversions to certain foods), autistic children (only boys participated in this study) are at risk for poor bone development. Their bones lengthen normally, but do not add more material in diameter. The researchers suggest that parents should consult a dietitian during medical checkups to make sure that their child has a balanced diet. I think this is a good idea, but there was also a note here about the dangers of the woo masters/pseudo-science quackery out there:

The researchers believe that boys with autism and ASD are at risk for poor bone development for a number of reasons. These factors are lack of exercise, a reluctance to eat a varied diet, lack of vitamin D, digestive problems, and diets that exclude casein, a protein found in milk and milk products. Dairy products provide a significant source of calcium and vitamin D. Casein-free diets are a controversial treatment thought by some to lessen the symptoms of autism.

I understand there's a huge emotional draw to anything which could possibly help a child. And I understand that this often overrides reasonable, rational responses. But here's the problem: at best they usually don't work; more often than not, they are actually harmful. This is an obvious example , as are HIV-denialists.

Guys, all the problems of the modern world are not attributable to diet. Sorry, just let me get that out there.

On a more positive side, this article made me remember a post by Afarensis, about what you can learn from bones. An excellent post. I have to agree with Afarensis on this: I was highly skeptical to begin with, but it seems like they have some good data. The article he references is itself a very good read if you get the statistics, check it out below the fold of the post.

This also reminds me of an excellent point which bears on the next article I link to: our genes often create bodily structures which are not fully predetermined. They are quite malleable to environmental influences. For example, we all have the capability of forming calluses on parts of our bodies that are exposed to repeated friction and pressure. We don't all just naturally form random calluses, however. And, callus distribution (frequency and location) can be reliably correlated to different groups. Guitar players have calluses on their fingertips, farmers tend to have calluses hands, and peoples who walk around barefoot all the time have callused feet (and apparently more robust bone structures. Nice.) This is similar to the "hard-body training" of martial arts. Repeatedly do minor fracture damage to the bones of the hands, arms, legs, and skull, and eventually, as they heal you get greater bone density (due to scarring, basically) and the ability to hit harder without fracturing an area.

That having been said, I now show you a third article: Genes and Environment Interact in First Graders to Predict Physical but not Social Aggression.

First of all, the study is a twin study. Unfortunately, they do not tell us if they are identical or fraternal twins, or if they were reared together or apart. This may be a part of the actual article (I certainly hope it is), so I'm a little upset at Science Daily for dropping the ball on this one. C'mon guys. Seriously.

Also, I'm a little skeptical that there is no genetic influence on social aggression. I'll freely admit that social aggression is much more a factor of environmental influences, but I feel that this is another case where genes load the gun, the environment pulls the trigger. We probably have genetic predispositions to both physical and social aggression, but the forms of social aggression may be much more malleable than physical aggression. That would be my basic response or "recoding" of this abstract. Of course, I'll wait till I read the full article to pass any serious responses to it.

So, lastly, a video from Alice Donut about perhaps the worst Chick Tract in existence, called Lisa. Chick has removed this one from his website and publications, but someone archived it. I mean, it's really sick. I think Alice Donut does a good job of showing how horrible it is while also sending up Chick in general. I don't think he'd like the music:

And now, back to Bonhoeffer for me, sadly. So much work to do this weekend. Ugh.