Archive for October, 2008

International Action Needed in Romania

October 31, 2008

As more religious fundamentalists seek to undermine freedom of speech by demanding that others “respect” religious beliefs by doing nothing that would be considered offensive to those beliefs, action to defend open discussion is needed.

From American Atheists we learn that there is just such a movement in Romania to stifle freedom of speech and that the Romanian Humanists are asking for help.

From the second link:

An information release from the Romanian Humanists warns: “Should this article be adopted by the Chamber of Deputies, it would impose serious limitations on the fundamental liberties of the human being of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. Books, works of art, movies, plays, concerts and rock groups could then be easily banned. To all those who treasure the freedom, the critical intellect, and religious tolerance of values which have become dominant in Europe after centuries of religious conflict and persecution, this new censorship is unacceptable.”

Please help if you can.

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Questions for John McCain

October 31, 2008

As we finally near the end of this most ludicrous political season, there’s a few questions I’d love to see John McCain answer before people walk into the polls next Tuesday.

  • Why is it when you are called out on your lies such as Obama supposedly supporting sex education for kindergarten kids you simply stick to the lie? Question for the media: Why don’t you pursue the issue after he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that he lied?
  • Why is it that after Obama has repeatedly stated, and charts clearly show, that he plans on decreasing taxes (more than you in many cases) for the majority of Americans, you stubbornly insist the opposite? Do you have evidence to contradict Obama? If so, stop with the empty rhetoric already and show the evidence plainly.
  • Why do you think planetariums are foolish?
  • Recently on Fox News, you stated that choosing Palin was a “cold political calculation” and was pleased that she excited the base.  Was this an example of “Country First” or “John McCain First?”
  • In the same interview referred to in the last point, you stated that she is a “direct counterpoint to the liberal feminist agenda in America”.  Could you clearly state please, what you think the liberal feminist agenda in America actually is?  Why is it a bad thing? Back your answers up with evidence. Also how do you expect to see Palin oppose it?

Those are questions which, off the top of my head, I would love to ask McCain if I had the opportunity.  Feel free to add your own in the comments. My friends, 🙂 last I looked Obama seems to be dropping slightly in the polls. It baffles me why, after such campaign as he has run, McCain should have any significant showing in the polls at all. Are we, as Americans, really this disconnected from reality?

Day of Ba’al

October 30, 2008
Prayer to Wallstreet Ba'al

Prayer to Wallstreet Ba'al

From Wonkette, we should all have some more consumer confidence now as today is the “Day of Prayer for the World’s Economies”. I’m sure it will do a lot of good at shoring up the fundamentals of our economy. Considering that the last time God’s chosen people decided to worship a metal bovine (Exodus 32), they had to drink powdered gold (is this how banks will liquidate assets?) and 3000 people were killed, I’d be worried if I were these spiritual warriors. Perhaps Christians ought to read their Bible more often. I suppose though, that would just make more atheists.

Prophecies: The Virgin Prophecy

October 30, 2008

This is the first in a series of posts to show up now and then addressing biblical prophecy. One of the proofs earnest Christians have often used to try to bring me “back into the fold” is that of prophecy. Specifically, all the prophecies which were supposedly fulfilled by Jesus. What I find fascinating is that none of them seem to have considered the possibility that the story of Jesus could have been fabricated specifically to make various prophecies fulfilled. For the sake of argument, we’ll take as given that this is not the case. In fact, as we shall see, if it was the case, the gospel writers did a pretty horrible job if they thought their potential readers had knowledge of the context surrounding the prophecies.

Some traditions hold that biblical prophecies were meant to be taken at 3 different levels. One is the immediate or short term level, for which the prophecy is fulfilled within the context of the story. Then there is the moral lesson. Following that the prophecy is echoed later in a later far fulfillment, with the same moral lesson. Of course, the Bible does not have a user’s guide explaining that this is how one is supposed to interpret, so it’s not clear to me what justification is given. The example I’ve heard often was the virgin birth prophecy in Isaiah. So how does it work?

Apparently King Ahaz is not a good king (hint..not deserving of redemption), but God gives him the sign of a virgin birth leading to God being “with us” and saving him from his enemies. Supposedly, this happens. This foreshadows Jesus being born of a virgin and ultimately resulting in our redemption, although we do not deserve it. Obviously, this was probably not the specific example used by rabbis so long ago, but suffices to demonstrate how this method is roughly supposed to work. Of course, history often repeats itself and one can find similar events anywhere one chooses to look and draw whatever moral lessons wants therefrom. Therefore, I tend to think this interpretive method is rubbish. But since we’ve started talking about the most controversial Jesus prophecy, let’s dive right in.

Continue on then

Oceans of Carbon

October 29, 2008

One may at one time have hoped that the contributions of carbon to climate change could be mitigated by the oceans, that is that the oceans could absorb some of the excess carbon. From JPL we have a dire warning about some of the consequences of climate change that the usual mainstream media is not paying too much attention to yet. Changing the acidity of our oceans. From the JPL site:

All that extra carbon dioxide, however, has been a bitter pill for the ocean to swallow. It’s changing the chemistry of seawater, making it more acidic and otherwise inhospitable, threatening many important marine organisms.

Scientists call ocean acidification “the other carbon dioxide problem.” They warn that because it causes such fundamental changes in the ocean, it could impact millions of people who depend on the ocean for food and resources. “The growing amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean could have a bigger effect on life on Earth than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” says JPL’s Charles Miller, deputy principal investigator for NASA’s new Orbiting Carbon Observatory, scheduled to launch next January.

There are various JPL projects mentioned in the article, like the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, that will help monitor the situation but we are seeing changes now. It is noted in the article that the average pH of the oceans (I’d like to see details of that) have changed from 8.2 to 8.1 since the beginning of the industrial age. This will effect coral, shellfish, and everything dependent on them. It should go without saying that this is pretty threatening to our already threatened food supply from the oceans. Already our oceans are under attack from runoff, plastic, and overfishing. I live in Southern California and a surfer friend who has been here his entire life says that the beaches here are like a desert compared to what it was like earlier. Earlier, according to him, you would always see fish, seaweed (strands of kelp) washed up on the beach, garibaldi in certain coves, but now, nothing. Of course, another problem under investigation is how the changing pH of the oceans will affect underwater sound, of some interest for various marine mammals. It would be nice to see mainstream media calling attention to the threats facing our oceans and fishing stocks a bit more often.

Stars, Bears, and Flies

October 29, 2008

For some time now, the blogosphere has been abuzz about the anti-science rhetoric emanating from the McCain campaign. Like agitated and erratic pit bulls in a china shop, McCain has crashed into astronomy, calling planetariums “foolishness”, toppled biological and conservation bear research, quipping that he doesn’t know if it’s “paternity issue or criminal issue” and more recently Palin toppled over basic genetic research with fruit flies.

Now I suppose one could make an argument that earmarks for planetarium equipment is not an appropriate means to obtain funding. However, the fact that he glibly equates such a noble enterprise as a planetarium as mere foolishness is something I find quite disturbing. Certainly one of the contributing factors for me entering into science was learning about science and astronomy at our local planetariums. The planetarium is an important feature of our educational landscape and deserves support. The Adler Planetarium, as you may learn from the link above, was using outdated equipment and in sore need of an upgrade, which, by the way, it did not get. This, together with the other items mentioned, portray a disturbing pattern of outright antagonism to the needs of furthering basic scientific research.

Why is this case? I suspect it may be in part due to pandering to a certain anti-intellectualism in this country. Based only on this, one could make a case that McCain and Palin have no credibility. But I also tend to think their problem is deeper and perhaps related to a more general public misunderstanding of one aspect of how science works. In high school, everything is often separated into different subjects which rarely intersect. Physics rarely, if ever, meets chemistry, which you probably don’t see in geology, and so on. Students often seem averse also to the idea of needing to use concepts learned in an earlier class. So, what does this have to do with anything?

Palin did support genetic study of harbor seals, mating habits of crabs, and support for children with disabilities. Granted, her support was probably politically motivated (though probably with a personal interest in the latter), but it was support nonetheless. The problem with Palin and McCain is that they do not seem to understand that the scientific enterprise is a giant interconnected framework. Back in the days when I did my research a lot of my work was based on the hard work of others in many disparate areas. The nuclear models upon which my work was based were derived or inspired from several different areas ranging from classical mechanical models, quantum mechanics, and so forth. Radiation patterns were understood with a combination of quantum mechanics and electromagnetism. Electromagnetism was used to design and build the steering magnets to do the experiments. Superconductivity from solid state physics was used for the ion beam acceleration process. The results of years in research in chemistry was needed to understand the targets. Detection systems were used based on years of painstaking research in solid state physics. One type of work in one area is often dependent on the results of work in a different area. In the examples before us today, genetic research, likely done from the type of fruit fly research Palin now derides, lies at the basis of the genetic research on harbor seals she supported. This type of research she dismisses is also useful in studying the development of the nervous system, needed for helping with some special needs children Palin claims to support. The bear research McCain mocks was not only very inexpensive, but useful in understanding the bear population, its relation to the local environment, and from that to learn better how to protect that environment. Apparently they want the results while taking away the elements upon which achieving those results are dependent (Assuming they actually want results of course. The cynical view would be that they’ll just claim to support whatever will make them win or better hold on to power. I’m sure nobody thought that.). What harm could this attitude have?

The derision with which these two candidates consistently attack science targets I fear will undermine the support for basic science research in this country. This will not bode well in maintaining our technological (implying also economic) and scientific effectiveness in the global picture. My friends, that’s not change we can believe in. But how could a non-scientist politician, out to win votes, do better? I would suggest a little bit of curiosity about the world. Just ask a few questions. You don’t, as a politician, need to understand all the science or even all the dependencies. But you should, through asking a few simple questions, understand something of what scientists are trying to achieve, how it relates to the big picture in basic research, technology development (where applicable), and perhaps a bit more of the background on issues for which you have an active interest. Sadly, any type of curiosity seems to be largely in short supply for both McCain and Palin. Obama, on the other hand, has displayed such curiosity and shown at least a level of understanding which won the endorsement of over 60 Nobel laureates.

Computer Therapy

October 28, 2008

Fascinating. NASA has been working on a way to have private therapy sessions in space.. It looks basically like a keyword selection of video clips of an actual therapist to deal with specific problems related to depression or other problems. From the article:

Clinical tests on the four-year, $1.74 million project for NASA, called the Virtual Space Station, are expected to begin in the Boston area by next month.

The new program is nothing like science fiction’s infamous HAL, the onboard artificial intelligence that goes awry in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The Virtual Space Station’s interaction between astronaut and computer is far less sophisticated and far more benevolent.

In the project, sponsored by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, a recorded video therapist guides astronauts through a widely used depression therapy called “problem-solving treatment.”

The recording helps astronauts identify reasons for their depression. Then the program helps them make a plan to fight the depression, based on the descriptions the astronauts type in about their problems.

Astronauts also can learn strategies for handling conflict through interactive role-playing, and even read psychology books.

As a first step, not bad. I could envision going beyond pre-recorded video and have various rules based learning algorithms that could tailor solutions for specific individuals. That could probably only go so far for the forseeable future though. Still, it might be fun to have some Easter eggs. For example, if an astronaut types, “Let me in”, there would be the response, “I’m sorry. I can’t do that Dave.”

Or, if the astronaut’s laptop is Linux (though you could run this on Windows also), they could just use the emacs psychotherapist.

Science, Religion, and Pins

October 28, 2008

Over at Pharyngula a comment prompted PZ Myers to address the question (originally phrased only in the context of evolution):

I understand it as, “Does understanding science [it’s not just biologists who exhibit this phenomenon!] lead to an abandonment of religious beliefs?”

I agree with Myers that understanding science is corrosive to religion. But, at the risk of arguing about dancing angels on pins, I thought I’d take a different tack than he took in his post. I’ll try to be as brief as possible, since I think this has a tendency to be really overdone and irrelevant. So I’m not sure how useful it will be, but maybe it will have some entertainment value. Go ahead and throw rocks at it.

Being a Java coder these days, every once in a while I’ll abstract things out into the object metaphor. Take God for example. We need some suitable definition of God, say, something like transcending the laws of physics and having conscious will. This most abstract superclass doesn’t necessarily have any public interface we can access and isn’t necessarily interested in us. Then we come to specific implementations. The one I am most familiar with is the Christian implementation, so I’ll deal with that here.

First is the Bible inspiring guy who created the world in 6 days roughly 6000 years ago. Possible new Java methods might be doSmiting() and impregnateVirgin(). Of course, science (old age earth, evolution, etc.) has thoroughly trashed this implementation. We know the story told by scripture is wrong. Along with many of the scientific inaccuracies contained with the supposedly inspired scripture. One interesting side trail of this is that it takes away the story of Adam and literal Original Sin. Original Sin is the entire foundation of Christianity, the whole reason Christians say Jesus had to come and be sacrificed. From a literal fundamentalist point of view, evolution and everything else that comes with it absolutely derails Christianity. Now, I do know moderate Christians such as members of my family and even famous biologist Ken Miller who accept the reality we have painstakingly learned through science but believe that stories like Adam and Eve are metaphorical. But now Original Sin has dissipated into something more nebulous and the whole redemption story loses some punch. In fact though, where does one stop metaphorizing the Bible away? There’s so much wrong with it that before long, the whole thing has become unraveled and the emperor is naked. Indeed, how can one tie in the need for a blood sacrifice anyway, especially since God caused us to be this way via natural processes? Instead of belaboring that point, I refer, once again, to one of my favorite bloggers who explores the various angles on this. It does strike me that to accept scientific reality and hold religious views is to compartmentalize without subjecting the foundation of the religious views to critical examination. People may have interesting reasons to do this, but that’s a subject for another time.

But what else is there to support Christianity from a scientific point of view? Christians place great emphasis on the historicity of Jesus and the resurrection. Unfortunately, critically examined, this too vanishes (same aforementioned writer). There’s simply no evidence Jesus even existed as the person the gospels claim. Of course, that’s the science of historical investigation, not the natural sciences, but still a valid criticism.

So what about the ultimate abstract God superclass (I leave as an exercise to the reader to draw UML diagrams for this mess)? As it stands, this doesn’t seem to be a very useful God. But although this God does not have to interact with us, it might. A possible public method may be doSomethingThatBreaksPhysicsLaws(). In a talk given at Notre Dame, Sean Carroll had a pretty good sign this God could give. Create an electron out of the vacuum without a positron partner. Well, if we could set things up to detect that and get a positive signal, finally science could say something positive in favor of some sort of god. So far it has never been seen and perhaps this God simply chooses to not give this sign. In that case, science can say nothing about this noninteracting, useless God. But then again, we have as much reason to think that such an entity exists as for Russell’s teapot. That is to say, none. There is simply nothing hypothesizing such a god (or any implementation of it) answers. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin is not even a proper question.

Redistribute this!

October 27, 2008

Will someone please tell John McCain already that we have a system of redistribution of wealth right now? Income, property, and sales taxes are all a form of redistribution of wealth. It takes money away from those who are making money or have or purchase assets and distributes this money into infrastructure such as schools and roads, and into national defense. Having a robust infrastructure framework, along with providing jobs to those building it, allows people to build more wealth. For example, DARPA led to the internet which led to things like Amazon.com and you reading this post. When Colin Powell endorsed Obama, this existing system of redistribution was something to which he made reference. On an earlier post, a commenter stated that his endorsement was simply a matter of race. Based on Powell’s own statements made concerning his endorsement, I think this is not at all correct. In fact, not only Powell, but several Republicans have endorsed Obama, including Charles Fried, who earlier was supporting McCain.

If I was fortunate enough to be making over $250,000, I would not mind paying my fair share of taxes to maintain and enhance the infrastructure that gave me the tools to get to that level. As for businesses, Obama has some good ideas and, although perhaps not always in perfect agreement with the perspective of large business, does appear willing to work with them. and has surrounded himself with key pro-business advisers. That is all consistent with the pragmatic approach I’ve come to appreciate about Obama’s leadership. Some more talk about Obama and small business can be found here and here.

While we’re at it, could somebody please inform both McCain and Palin that socialism is a system in which the state controls and administers the means of production and distribution of goods. Although distribution of wealth is often part of it, socialism is not synonymous with increasing tax rates on the wealthy.

Update: As I slowly catch up on things, I noticed that nn identically named post appeared a while back at Cosmic Variance. A well written post with charts, video, and well thought out discussion. If you haven’t been there yet, I recommend checking it out.

McCain’s gonna test them

October 27, 2008

Say what you want about John McCain, but he does have a turn of phrase. In response to Biden’s remark about Obama being tested 6 months into office, McCain apparently wants to test them. From the link:

“I have been tested,” McCain said, with a certain gritted-teeth look at the state fairgrounds in New Mexico. “I’m gonna test them. They’re not gonna test me.”

So rather than respond to an international crisis provoked by others, McCain intends to provoke one himself? Why? Sounds dangerous.

I don’t know. Sounds pretty mavericky to me.