Archive for March, 2009

The usefulness of religion

March 31, 2009

Yup. That’s about right.

New OS

March 29, 2009

Sort of off topic from anything I’ve written here, but, hey, I think it was kind of fun. I spent yesterday afternoon installing the openSuSE 11.1 Linux distribution on a new system I bought recently. So, I can now give a brief review so far.

Seems like a pretty stable distro so far. The installation went very smoothly. I had to spend a little time mucking about with the partitioning, since the interface is significantly different than what I’m used to with SuSE (10.2 and going back earlier). But I managed to create the / mount, swap, and stick everything else into logical volumes (/home, /usr, /opt, /{and so on}) for ease of expansion later. Once that was done, everything went as smooth as liquid helium. The sound card (82801G ICH7 family high definition audio controller) worked perfectly. My last sound card worked as well, but I do remember the days when sound cards on Linux was kind of hit and miss.

One of my pet peeves in software design is poor user interface design. There were a few glitches in this area. I opted to use a static IP address (for some future DNS set up, and didn’t want to fool around with callbacks, being kind of lazy) instead of a DHCP (obtaining a dynamic IP). In spite of a perfectly valid IP I entered, it kept complaining that it was invalid. Turns out I had an extra space before the address. How difficult could it be to trim out extra spaces? This is what we do in our code all the time. The most tedious part was getting online updates near the end of the installation. We have a cable network connection to “the cloud” and this just took forever. Which is o.k., I’ve got things to read while this is going on. But, when one connection fails it would throw up a dialog asking to retry, ignore, or skip. I’d usually hit retry and everything would be fine. It would also give a little beep when pressing the “Retry” button. In fact, it would have been more useful to have the beep when throwing up the dialog. I don’t need audio confirmation that I pressed a button; I have visual confirmation of that. The updates take so long that I need an audio cue that the dialog came up. There were many instances where I’d look up from my reading and chance to see the dialog.

It is still painful to grab all software to install (all the optional packages and such). In the old days, after selecting all, you wouldn’t actually get everything but would still need to go and select individual packages. I didn’t actually see a select all option this time, but had to go in from the beginning and select everything individually. I do tend to want to get everything out there, all kernel source, all development tools, etc., etc., so I’m not sure how much of an issue this would be for the average user. But I will say that compared to previous releases, there was much less in the way of having to slog through dependency hell this time. They seem to have fixed this up pretty nicely.

With KDE 4.1, the task bar disappeared when moving to multiple desktops. After researching this for a while and finding no clear answer applicable to what I was doing, I found rebooting fixed the problem. Probably restarting the windows manager would have been sufficient, but oh well. KDE 4.1 does seem pretty sexy (yes, I opted for KDE instead of gnome, although I went ahead and installed all the gnome software). Infinitely configurable as well, there’s a whole lot to play with here.

But all in all, those complaints are pretty minor compared to the big changes that seems to have gone into this distro. The NIC (network card) drivers worked great. On the old SuSE 10.2, my NIC card would not work unless I have a noapic parameter to the kernel on boot. Took a lot of headaches to figure that out. With 11.1, the network connection came right up with no headaches at all. It came with a lot of cool apps and server additions. I’ll have to spend more time playing around with it to see everything they got, but so far, responsive and solid. If you want to try a Linux distribution, you wouldn’t make a bad choice to go with this one.

After backing things up and moving things around, I’ll replace the old SuSE 10.2 with Ubuntu to play with and see how that goes. I keep hearing good things about Ubuntu and guess I should see what the fuss is about.

All eyes on Texas

March 27, 2009

It looks like we have narrowly averted a major assault against science education in Texas, but that Champion of Ignorance, Dr. McLeroy continue the assault with what has been termed a death of a thousand cuts. One of his wedge arguments he tried to get in is to examine the sufficiency or insufficiency of a cell to have formed from natural selection. I touched on that a little bit here where I pointed out some plausible scenarios that could kicked off the whole shebang. Of course, to rigorously examine this far beyond the scope of high school biology. The only reason for wanting students to think natural selection may not be “sufficient” is to try to seed doubt. Normally, doubt is a good thing of course. Scientists doubt themselves all the time, and if not, they’ll get corrected later if need be. But the doubt McLeroy wants to sow is that evolution may not work, and this simply goes against everything we know in biology. Muddying the water with doubt about well established scientific principles is not appropriate in a science class.

Next, we had stuff on how the universe formed. Somebody named Cargill seems to have wanted standards with more “humility”, recognizing that there are “other theories out there”. It was laughable that she couldn’t actually name any other these relevant theories. I’m also not too sure that high school students are prepared to go into discussing anisotropies of the cosmic microwave background and relation to various inflationary models. Is this what Cargill had in mind? Somehow, I doubt it. And these are the people deciding the future of education for our country? I shudder in fear.

It is frustrating dealing with Creationists, but I almost wish that they just went ahead and said textbooks needed to discuss strengths and weaknesses of evolution. If I were to write a biology textbook (which I won’t; I’ll leave that to actual biologists who know much more about the material than I), I would do this in the first chapter:
We will now examine the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.
Strengths of evolution: See the rest of the book.
Weaknesses of evolution: None.

Science education under assault again in Texas

March 25, 2009

Once again, somebody in Texas has decided that our science education is too good and wants to undermine it with nonsense. A dentist, Dr. McLeroy has decided to ignore a century and a half of observation, experimentation, all the overwhelming evidence in support of evolution, and the general consensus of every working biologist to say that there are “problems” with evolution and kids need to know this. Although active research continues on various mechanisms, and on particular details, there is no disagreement on the basic and central fact of evolution in general, or how it so comprehensively explains all the evidence in front of us. In one of the most ludicrous and inane situations ever, this has now come before the Texas School Board. This is extremely important because this may well determine whether or not future textbooks on a national scale will deal with real science or will get muddied up with time wasting nonsense. From the article:

The textbooks will “have to say that there’s a problem with evolution — because there is,” said Dr. McLeroy, a dentist. “We need to be honest with the kids.”

The vast majority of scientists accept evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life on earth.

Yes, they say, there are unanswered questions — transitional fossils yet to be unearthed, biological processes still to be discovered. There is lively scientific debate about some aspects of evolution’s winding, four-billion-year path. But when critics talk about exposing students to the “weaknesses” or “insufficiencies” in evolutionary theory, many mainstream scientists cringe.

The fossil record clearly supports evolution, they say, and students shouldn’t be exposed to creationist critiques in the name of “critical thinking.”

“We will be teaching nonsense in the science classroom,” said David Hillis, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The reporting here is not as good as it should be. A passing reference is made that “transitional fossils” are “yet to be unearthed”. Technically true. Making fossils does require a special set of circumstances and we are fortunate to have those we do. More fossils would be useful, and it is noteworthy that each new fossil discovered lends further credence to evolution. However, an unfortunate implication is that we are still hoping to find transitional fossils. In fact, we already have transitional fossils (and see here).

Again from the article:

The textbooks will “have to say that there’s a problem with evolution — because there is,” said Dr. McLeroy, a dentist. “We need to be honest with the kids.”

No Dr. McLeroy, there is no problem with evolution. There is no controversy in the science community on whether or not evolutionary processes are responsible for the immense diversity of life on our planet. There is a problem though and the problem is with your understanding of evolution and how the entire science process works. Do not inflict your willful and arrogant ignorance on Texas and the rest of the country. It may surprise you to know that having a scientifically literate populace will be a national strength. Going the direction you propose is to start on the path towards backwards medieval thinking, abdicating scientific leadership.

The school board is meeting this week, so Texans, do the right thing. I’ve lived in Texas for several years and know that there are some bright people there. Contact anybody on the school board you know. I can’t believe we really need to say this, but let’s fight to have actual real science in science classes. It’s the right thing to do.

Papal protection

March 24, 2009

It is kind of old news by now, but the Pope was found lying again and ignoring the basics of human nature. Essentially he stated that condom use does not help stop the spread of HIV, which leads to AIDS. In fact, it does help reduce risk, correct usage in fact reducing the risk by 80%. One is forced to wonder why the Pope would like HIV to continue spreading through Africa, thereby inflicting suffering on many more.

Of course, there is a book from which the Pope is said to derive his moral values. It is the same book from which many Protestants do as well, including the infamous Westboro Baptists. Many moderate Christians simply pick and choose which moral examples of the Bible they will claim as “Christian”. True, in many cases, the resulting moral set is superior to the Bible, though this is rarely recognized. But what do you do when you devote your life to living in concordance with the Holy Writ? What are the moral lessons that may be gleaned?

First, I’ll assume that when God issues orders, guidelines, and commandments in the Bible, it is because of their superior moral quality. After all, a benevolent, compassionate, loving and perfectly good ruler of the millions of light years and billions of years of space and time is not going get picky about completely petty and arbitrary issues, right?

First on our display is a little something from the loving, compassionate, and all merciful God of the Bible.

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations … then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.

(Deuteronomy 7:1-2)

Here’s the the Westboro Baptists favorite cherry picked verse.

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

((Leviticus 20:13)

Apparently you shouldn’t make fun of prophets, even if you are a child. Today, of course, I think most of us would consider this to be a somewhat disproportionate response.

And [Elisha] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.

(2 Kings 2:23-24)

Clearly, it is wrong to mix linen and wool.

Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.

(Leviticus 19:19)

And finally, God is Truth.

That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us:

(Hebrews 6:18)

Now therefore, behold, the LORD hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of these thy prophets, and the LORD hath spoken evil against thee.

(II Chronicles 18:22)

For this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.

(II Thessalonians 2:11).

My. I can see why the Pope is morally confused. He must be following God’s example.

Battlestar post mortem

March 23, 2009

Well, the Battle Star Galactica (embedded video) series finally ended this last Friday night. A fairly decent series. Perhaps a bit too much religious hocus pocus for my taste, and I think they could have made a better story without it. A more grand, ambitious and even human story. But I guess they were making a sort of Hindu-like, cycles of the universe type of thing as one of the central themes of the show, along with some “mystery” about behind the scenes “forces”. So, what about the ending?

Spoilers ahead (if you haven’t caught up yet)!

Quit reading this

March 20, 2009

and go outside for a walk. Recent research suggests that it is beneficial for the brain to go chill with nature for a while.

They found this out by performing an experiment that they published in the journal Psychological Science. They gave volunteers memory and attention tests and then sent them out on a walk. Sometimes they got instructions to walk in the university’s urban home of Ann Arbor and other times they walked through a nearby arboretum.

Berman says they then tested their memory and attention again and “found that when the participants returned from the nature walk, they showed a 20 percent improvement (in the tests) but showed no improvement when they returned from the urban walks.”

I’m not a psychologist, but what the report seems to be saying that when you pay attention to stuff because you have to, it tends to wear you out more, with the additional stress on the brain reducing optimization for things like memory. But the brain seems to be interested in nature without any artificial effort (one may speculate some evolutionary aspect to this, I suppose) and this seems to be more relaxing and thereby improving cognitive skills.

It would certainly explain why I’m so stressed out all the time. What was I talking about?

Scientific investigation of heaven

March 18, 2009

O.K., not quite heaven, but near-death experiences, anyway. Earlier, I posted about the possible physical bases of near-death experiences (or NDEs). Now, a study has been launched to investigate just this. Fortunately, some of the methodology seems to be scientific, more or less, in nature. They will be studying patients who undergo hypothermic cardiac standstill procedures and so are possible candidates to experience one of those NDEs. From the link:

The experiments are fairly rudimentary: In addition to monitoring brain activity, researchers will plant pictures near the ceiling that are not visible from the ground, and test the subjects’ memories by uttering random words in the room.

If patients report an out-of-body experience in which they claim to watch their operation from above — that is, if their consciousness separates from their dying brain — then the reasoning is that they should be able to identify the pictures.

“I am not a religious person so I am not trying to validate religion,” Dr. Beauregard says. “I just think these questions are the most fascinating questions for humanity, and they deserve to be investigated further.”

I think nothing conclusive will be demonstrated, although if done carefully enough, I rather doubt any evidence will be found for existence of the self outside the physical body. Further, although a good start, I think recollection of hearing random words uttered would not be conclusive as the brain may be picking up on it somehow. Putting up pictures out of view though is a better approach. So far, out of 65 patients, nobody has seen the pictures, which is, of course, exactly what we’d expect if it’s all the brain. Of course, it seems none them experienced an NDE either.

In addition to the photographs placed on the ceiling, a special sensor will be attached to the patients to test whether those who see tunnels and visions have minute levels of oxygen in their brains that previously went undetected. A doctor with the study will call out the names of cities or colours during the cardiac arrest to see if patients recall them upon reviving.

If no one can identify the visual or verbal cues, Dr. Parnia says, the experiment will confirm the “false memory” theory; however, if they are recalled, he says, the study will demonstrate that consciousness is something that can exist, if for only a short time, outside the physical brain.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the verbal cues will be conclusive of anything. They may not detect all the oxygen and it is not clear to me that the brain can be receiving and storing some sort of signal.

However, I think Dr. Parnia is completely correct when it is noted:

But at the very least, Dr. Parnia and his colleagues say, the phenomenon of near-death experience merits the search for a scientific answer to what is often deemed a spiritual event.

“People die; death is a biological process,” Dr. Parnia says. “And science should take over the study of death.”

I certainly don’t have a problem with a scientific approach to these experiences. As I’ve mentioned earlier, this has already led us to a better working knowledge of neural networks, etc. Dr. Parnia has taken, what appears to be at least, a rational mindset. Make a hypothesis about an external (to the body) existence of personality and, as rigorously as possible under the circumstances, test it. Of course, there are already a number of expectations I would have if this were the case. Out of the millions and millions of people who have died, I would expect at least one reliable communication from the beyond. There has been none. I would expect personality and emotions to not be so entirely susceptible to physical changes in the brain, as has been repeatedly documented elsewhere. I think it would be reasonable to expect at least one reliable success from people who have been trying to do “remote viewing”. There are none. I think it is a fairly safe bet what Dr. Parnia is going to find, or rather, not find.

In control

March 16, 2009

Coming in to work today, I saw a bumper sticker on the windshield of an SUV that said, “God is in control”. Of course, it is hard to accurately summarize an entire philosophical thesis in a pithy bumper sticker, but it does beg the question. In control of what exactly? Since I’ve heard this now from multiple sources, I thought it may deserve at least a minute of exploration.

The first thought was that God is in control of the driver’s vehicle. I wonder how secure the driver would be in letting go of the steering wheel on that on-ramp and just let God be “in control”? I’m guessing that his faith is not that strong. So, perhaps God is in control of falling objects and planetary motion? This is wonderfully described by general relativity already and there is no need for any godly control here. Now if all of a sudden we saw Venus just stop dead in it’s tracks, perform figure eights outside the plane of the solar system and then resume its orbit like nothing happened, that might give one cause to think. But we don’t see anything like that.

Perhaps God is in control of weather? Actually, we are pretty familiar with the water cycle and other factors that come into play when it comes to understanding weather and there seems to be no evidence for outside control here either. In fact, a benevolent, loving, and omnipotent being were in control of the weather is inconsistent with droughts in Africa (apparently contributed to by human activities) or droughts in the American southwest.

Perhaps this entity, with it’s mysterious ways, is in control of our planet’s biosphere? Again, the picture of a benevolent, loving, and omnipotent being is inconsistent with the number of parasites affecting humans (see also the beginning of this essay), various cancers, deadly genetic deformities and all the associated suffering. If this is his (or her, or its) domain of control, this entity is doing a horrible and incompetent job. Perhaps this God is charged with fixing the diseases he put in this creation? Well, actually that seems to be the work of dedicated human researchers and doctors. It would seem an incredible slap in the face to the hard work of these individuals to attribute their hard won successes to an invisible and likely imaginary entity that had nothing to do with it.

We’re running out of places to look where God can take charge it seems. How about the economy? Well, that actually seems to be a combination of human greed, poor or lacking regulations, and the cyclical nature of economies. Is God supposed to step in and start spending to stimulate the economy? Is God going to start hiring workers? Would that mean angel layoffs? It didn’t happen during other economic down times, so it seems perfectly reasonable that we probably will not see that now.

I don’t see anywhere where this “God person” seems to be in charge of anything. I do see a lot of areas where we humans seem to have some amount of control and responsibility. Medical advancement, climate change, biodiversity (trying to slow down or halt the rate at which we decimating species), and our own social structure, welfare, and economy. Not only is this pithy little aphorism, “God is in control”, totally useless and wrong, it is an open invitation to abdicate responsibility. To let go of the steering wheel and have “faith” that your imaginary friend will steer you through the freeway safely.

A great pyramid scam

March 15, 2009

After getting home this Saturday night, I popped on the ol’ television out of curiosity. The History Channel had a show on “Ancient Astronauts”. So, I thought this ought to be amusing for a few minutes. You could cut the credulity with a knife.

Apparently, the pyramid is an amazing structure. How could lowly humans possibly come up with it? Why are these mysterious pyramid shapes found throughout the world? It would seem that the narrators of this fine enlightening show had not gotten around yet to considering the possibility that a pyramid structure is, in fact, the most stable large structure, at least in a place with gravity (which most spots on the Earth have), that could be built with technology possessed by ancient peoples. This is discussed in more detail here. How they were built is not a mystery either, as discussed here.

The most hilarious bit though, was what was said immediately prior to my changing the channel (I just couldn’t take any more entertainment). Apparently, two of the pyramids have the same perimeter. How, some strangely unimaginative person queried, could this possibly be done? Clearly, the implication is that ancient Egyptians were utterly incapable of either working from a set design or even measuring the perimeter of the pyramid to figure out what to make the perimeter of the next one and plan accordingly. Amazing. By this logic, 747 jets are designed and built by extraterrestrials, along with cars, and cookie cutter houses. It was immediately after this I figured I should see what else was on.

Do they really think humans were so incapable of figuring anything out, even back in the days of the ancient Egyptians? Why is it that every time somebody can’t figure out how something was done, or sees some fanciful drawings, extraterrestrials are immediately invoked by some? Now, if they found a clear extraterrestrial skeleton (or its equivalent) in a pyramid, or some piece of alien technology clearly not of human origin, then we’d have something. Until then, give our a species a little credit, eh? We’re not perfect and are still learning, but we’ve always been pretty good problem solvers.