Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We'll Meet Again

This blog will be on hiatus until January 3rd, until then I'll be somewhere in the middle of nowhere.  Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wandering in the Desert

I was glad to see the demise of the overgenerous bribe (propitiation?) that the Obama administration was offering Netanyahu...  Beinart scathes:
Yasher Koach, Bibi, it looks like the White House has finally given up. For close to two years now, they've been hectoring you about a Palestinian state. First, they tried sticks: They worked to undermine you politically by letting Israelis know you didn't have the president's trust. Then they tried carrots: offering to double Israel's stock of advanced jet fighters, veto any critical resolutions at the U.N. and give you carte blanche to build in the West Bank if only you'd freeze settlements for another three months and use that time to talk seriously about the borders of a Palestinian state. But you held your ground. You made it clear that you'd pocket the planes and conduct a three-month filibuster. No way were you going to be bullied into the kind of final-status negotiations undertaken by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. And so the Americans caved. They've dropped their demands for a settlement freeze. They've stopped trying to orchestrate direct talks. They've gone into a fetal position. Am Yisrael Chai!...
[Regarding P-state recognition and boycotts:]
I know, I know. You consider all this unfair, and in some ways it is. But when you've been occupying another people for 43 years, confiscating more and more of their land and denying them citizenship while providing it to your own settlers, it doesn't do much good to insist that things are worse in Burma. Your only effective argument against the Elvis Costellos and Hannah Kings was that you were trying to end the occupation. That's where Obama came in. As long as the U.S. president seemed to have a chance of brokering a deal, his efforts held the boycotters and protesters and Palestinian state-recognizers at bay. When Brazil and Argentina recognized Palestinian independence, the American Jewish Committee's David Harris declared it "fundamentally unhelpful to the Arab-Israeli peace process." But what if there is no peace process? What's your argument then?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Even if you think Wikileaks is the greatest thing since sliced bread, you should agree that hacking the websites of companies that choose not to do business with Assange and his enterprise is plainly engaging in thuggish criminality.  One can easily protest any corporate decision by advocating for a boycott of the 'offending' company.  On the other hand, engaging in gangsterism as revenge for a corporate decision that one disagrees with is close to morally indefensible.  So is hacking Sarah Palin's credit card information.  Grow up, "Anonymous."

Ayaan Talks 'Nomad' with Allan Gregg

(h/t Ayaan)

Monday, December 6, 2010


"How to Raise Your I.Q. by Eating Gifted Children"  - Lewis B. Frumkes, 1983 Book Title.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


"Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy?  I don't know and I don't care."  - William Safire

The Postmodernism Generator

To generate a completely meaningless though familiar-sounding critical essay of your very own, click here.

Irony Fail

"Environmentalists have a long history of believing and promoting exaggerations and myths,' says the man who claims redemption by taking a magical swim in the name of a Jewish desert zombie who was also his own father, sent from beyond to be scapegoated for the collective human sin of listening to a talking snake.

Friday, December 3, 2010

At Large

Christopher Hitchens speaks at length to Radio Free Europe's James Kirchick "about his left-wing revolutionary past, his views on America, Iran's nuclear program, Turkey's Islamist turn, Putin's Russia, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and sampled his views on a variety of international figures."

Lisitsa - Liszt Totentanz

The shit really hits the fan at around the seven minute mark.  Beautifully shot.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


"Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."  - Mark Twain

21 Years and Yet the Same Fears

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

10 Daily Consequences of Having Evolved

....detailed in Smithsonian Magazine:

2. Hiccups
The first air-breathing fish and amphibians extracted oxygen using gills when in the water and primitive lungs when on land—and to do so, they had to be able to close the glottis, or entryway to the lungs, when underwater. Importantly, the entryway (or glottis) to the lungs could be closed. When underwater, the animals pushed water past their gills while simultaneously pushing the glottis down. We descendants of these animals were left with vestiges of their history, including the hiccup. In hiccupping, we use ancient muscles to quickly close the glottis while sucking in (albeit air, not water). Hiccups no longer serve a function, but they persist without causing us harm—aside from frustration and occasional embarrassment. One of the reasons it is so difficult to stop hiccupping is that the entire process is controlled by a part of our brain that evolved long before consciousness, and so try as you might, you cannot think hiccups away.

3. Backaches
The backs of vertebrates evolved as a kind of horizontal pole under which guts were slung. It was arched in the way a bridge might be arched, to support weight. Then, for reasons anthropologists debate long into the night, our hominid ancestors stood upright, which was the bodily equivalent of tipping a bridge on end. Standing on hind legs offered advantages—seeing long distances, for one, or freeing the hands to do other things—but it also turned our backs from an arched bridge to an S shape. The letter S, for all its beauty, is not meant to support weight and so our backs fail, consistently and painfully...

8. Our brains squeeze our teeth
A genetic mutation in our recent ancestors caused their descendants to have roomy skulls that accommodated larger brains. This may seem like pure success—brilliance, or its antecedent anyway. But the gene that made way for a larger brain did so by diverting bone away from our jaws, which caused them to become thinner and smaller. With smaller jaws, we could not eat tough food as easily as our thicker-jawed ancestors, but we could think our way out of that problem with the use of fire and stone tools. Yet because our teeth are roughly the same size as they have long been, our shrinking jaws don’t leave enough room for them in our mouths. Our wisdom teeth need to be pulled because our brains are too big.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Salman, Storytelling, and Videogames for Iran


"As you journey through life take a minute every now and then to give a thought for the other fellow. He could be plotting something."  - Hagar the Horrible

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reducible Complexity

Telomerase Reversed Premature Aging in Mice

Ewen Callaway in SciAm:
Premature aging can be reversed by reactivating an enzyme that protects the tips of chromosomes, a study in mice suggests.
Mice engineered to lack the enzyme, called telomerase, become prematurely decrepit. But they bounced back to health when the enzyme was replaced. The finding, published online November 28 in Nature, hints that some disorders characterized by early aging could be treated by boosting telomerase activity. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)
It also offers the possibility that normal human aging could be slowed by reawakening the enzyme in cells where it has stopped working, says Ronald DePinho, a cancer geneticist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, who led the new study. "This has implications for thinking about telomerase as a serious anti-aging intervention."
Other scientists, however, point out that mice lacking telomerase are a poor stand-in for the normal aging process. Moreover, ramping up telomerase in humans could potentially encourage the growth of tumors.

Wikileaks Reactions

conveniently aggregated by the Daily Dish.

Friday, November 19, 2010


"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration--courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth. "  -  H.L. Mencken

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Irony Fail

The famous-overnight term-quitting former governor turned TV personality Sarah Palin:
writes in her new book that it was "disgusting" to watch Johnston, the estranged father of her grandson, exploit his sudden fame after she was chosen as U.S. Sen. John McCain's running mate in the 2008 election.
Seriously.  (From AP/Huffpost.)

Harvard Biovisions: Mitochondria

(h/t io9)


"Religion and science have a common ancestor - ignorance."  - A.C. Grayling

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hitch on the Bitch, Ctd

Christopher Hitchens talks to Tony Jones for ABC Lateline (P.1, via Reddit).   (Parts 2, 3, and 4).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Darwinian Theory of Beauty

The Craven Deal with Israel

I'm with Hitch:
Now we read that, in return for just 90 days of Israeli lenience on new settlement-building (this brief pause or "freeze" not to include the crucial precincts of East Jerusalem), Netanyahu is being enticed with "a package of security incentives and fighter jets worth $3 billion" and a promise that the United States government would veto any Palestinian counterproposal at the United Nations. Netanyahu, while graciously considering this offer, was initially reported as being unsure whether he "could win approval for the United States deal from his Cabinet." In other words, we must wait on the pleasure of Rabbi Yosef and Ministers Atias, Yishai, and Lieberman, who have the unusual ability to threaten Netanyahu from his right wing.
This is a national humiliation. Regardless of whether that bunch of clowns and thugs and racists "approve" of the Obama/Clinton grovel offer, there should be a unanimous demand that it be withdrawn.
The mathematics of the situation must be evident even to the meanest intelligence. In order for any talk of a two-state outcome to be even slightly realistic, there needs to be territory on which the second state can be built, or on which the other nation living in Palestine can govern itself. The aim of the extreme Israeli theocratic and chauvinist parties is plain and undisguised: Annex enough land to make this solution impossible, and either expel or repress the unwanted people. The policy of Netanyahu is likewise easy to read: Run out the clock by demanding concessions for something he has already agreed to in principle, appease the ultras he has appointed to his own government, and wait for a chance to blame Palestinian reaction for the inevitable failure.
Full article recommended.

Monday, November 15, 2010


"There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise."  - Gore Vidal

Friday, November 12, 2010


"A magician pulls rabbits out of hats. An experimental psychologist pulls habits out of rats."  - Anonymous

Behind The Mysterious Fog

'Restoring Sanity' Not So Much

Jon Stewart holds a rally to restore sanity in Washington D.C. and who appears onstage?  Cat Stevens a.k.a. Yusuf Islam, supporter of the fatwa suborning the international murder of Salman Rushdie for the crime of writing a book, and an advocate of stoning women for adultery.

Of the spectacle, Rushdie said in a message to Nick Cohen, “I’ve always liked Stewart and Colbert but what on earth was Cat Yusuf Stevens Islam doing on that stage? If he’s a ‘good Muslim’ like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar then I’m the Great Pumpkin. Happy Halloween."

Rushdie then contacted Stewart to voice his disappointment.  Cohen:

Salman has messaged me again and says,
I spoke to Jon Stewart about Yusuf Islam's appearance. He said he was sorry it upset me, but really, it was plain that he was fine with it. Depressing.
"Pathetic" is the word I would use. If members of the Tea Party said that American intellectuals who renounced Christiainity deserved to die for their apostasy would Stewart be fine with that too? Of course he wouldn't. His eyes would roll, his voice would thunder and that charming schoolboy smile would vanish from his face. He would never forget, until they repudiated.
With intellectuals from the Muslim world, it is a different matter entirely. Stewart does not seem to mind that Cat Yusuf Stevens Islam has never apologized for his support for Salman's murder...
 So, in one of the only stunts presented without irony during a rally for restoring civility in the face of extremism, we got Yusuf Islam.  Andrew Anthony, of The Observer, describes an encounter to Cohen: 
He told me in 1997, eight years after saying on TV that Rushdie should be lynched, that he was in favour of stoning women to death for adultery. He also reconfirmed his position on Rushdie. He set up the Islamia school in Brent, which is currently undergoing council-backed expansion. Its mission statement three years ago explicitly stated that its aim was to bring about the submission of the individual, the community and the world at large to Islam. For this aim it now receives state funding. Its an incubator of the most bonkers religious extremism and segregation, and is particularly strong on the public erasure of women. Why do people go to such lengths to ignore these aspects of Yusuf Islam's character and philosophy?

I like the Daily Show, and the Colbert Report, but this criticism cannot go unmade.  The 'Rally to Restore Sanity' turned out a wet, masturbatory, false-equivalence-fest in which Stewart, by design, paraded himself the pied piper of sanity and civility, all the while happy to appear with an Islamist reactionary who is violently against freedom of speech.  It does wonders for that message of tolerance, doesn't it?

Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.  Freedom of speech is everything.

(h/t Book Haven)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Stenger, Stinger

Victor Stenger cross-publishes an interview he gave to Greek weekly EleftherotypiaQuestion 4:
So what is faith?

Faith is belief in something in the absence of empirical evidence or reason for that belief. It provides no information about reality and no basis for human action. Science is not based on faith since it relies on observations and reason.
Why should "people of faith" be deferred to on matters of morals? This deference is based on the false assumption that morals come from God. In fact, a study of history amply demonstrates that morality arises when humans, and even some animals, need to have rules of behavior in order to maintain the cooperative society necessary for survival. Believers have been led to think that morality comes from God and that it is not possible to be an atheist and be moral. The observed fact is that atheists are at least as moral as believers, perhaps even more so.
While the Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim scriptures contain some excellent moral teachings, they are not original with those writings. For example, the Golden Rule taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount goes back thousands of years earlier and can be found in the writings of many ancient sages such as Confucius and Isocrates, and in the Hindu Mahabharata.
Ethics and morality come from humanity, not God. They are rules of behavior needed for a functioning society. Even many animals have a primitive morality, such as altruism.
Those nations without dominant God-belief have far less murder than the God-smitten Unites States and are healthier in many other respects.
Not only can we be good without God, we can be better without God.

Young Man Arrested by Palestinian Authority for Atheistic Facebook and Blog Posts

Diaa Hadid reports for the Canadian Press:
Residents of Qalqilya say they had no idea that Walid Husayin — the 26-year-old son of a Muslim scholar — was leading a double life.
Known as a quiet man who prayed with his family each Friday and spent his evenings working in his father's barbershop, Husayin was secretly posting anti-religion rants on the Internet during his free time.
Now, he faces a potential life prison sentence on heresy charges for "insulting the divine essence." Many in this conservative Muslim town say he should be killed for renouncing Islam, and even family members say he should remain behind bars for life.
"He should be burned to death," said Abdul-Latif Dahoud, a 35-year-old Qalqilya resident. The execution should take place in public "to be an example to others," he added.
Over several years, Husayin is suspected of posting arguments in favour of atheism on English and Arabic blogs, where he described the God of Islam as having the attributes of a "primitive Bedouin." He called Islam a "blind faith that grows and takes over people's minds where there is irrationality and ignorance."

Scientology, The Quiz

Think you know Scientology?  Test your knowledge.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


"There's a mighty big difference between good, sound reasons and reasons that sound good."  - Burton Hillis

Fermi Discovers Huge Gamma-Ray Bubbles in our Galaxy

Image Credit:  NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

WASHINGTON -- NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has unveiled a previously unseen structure centered in the Milky Way. The feature spans 50,000 light-years and may be the remnant of an eruption from a supersized black hole at the center of our galaxy.

"What we see are two gamma-ray-emitting bubbles that extend 25,000 light-years north and south of the galactic center," said Doug Finkbeiner, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who first recognized the feature. "We don't fully understand their nature or origin."

Monday, November 8, 2010


"This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer."  - Will Rogers

Machines Mourn the Passing of People

Friday, November 5, 2010


"It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."  - Bertrand Russell

IQ2 Interview: Goldacre

Full interview here.

Monday, November 1, 2010


"This sentence contains two erors." - Doug Hofstadter

"Fucking Brilliant"

What gives swear words their effect?

Part 2:


SciAm reviews a study showing an emotional response to the minor third in both language and music:
Almost everyone thinks "Greensleeves" is a sad song—but why? Apart from the melancholy lyrics, it's because the melody prominently features a musical construct called the minor third, which musicians have used to express sadness since at least the 17th century. The minor third's emotional sway is closely related to the popular idea that, at least for Western music, songs written in a major key (like "Happy Birthday") are generally upbeat, while those in a minor key (think of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby") tend towards the doleful. 
The tangible relationship between music and emotion is no surprise to anyone, but a study in the June issue of Emotion suggests the minor third isn't a facet of musical communication alone—it's how we convey sadness in speech, too. When it comes to sorrow, music and human speech might speak the same language.

Hitch on the Bitch, Ctd

Hitch talks Tumortown with NPR.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Spiral Jetty


"Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow."  - Oscar Wilde

Nazi Self-Doubt from Mitchell and Webb

Enoch and Schroeder on Moral Realism

Video diavlog with David Enoch and Mark Schroeder.  From PhilosophyTV:
"Enoch and Schroeder are moral realists of different kinds: Schroeder defends a form of naturalist reductionism, while Enoch defends a form of Moorean non-naturalism. In this conversation, they compare their two brands of realism, discuss their shared opposition to error theories and expressivism, and address a few of the standard objections to realism. Then (at 53:40) they reveal their answers to a question that should be disturbing to any realist: If it turns out that realism is false, what would you believe instead?"

Thursday, October 28, 2010


"To my embarrassment I was born in bed with a lady."  - Wilson Mizner

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Spike Trains All the Way


“There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.”  - Daniel Dennett

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fry. Pedantry, with Words

Stephen Fry chides grammatical reactionaries:

Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography - Language from Matthew Rogers on Vimeo.

Data is Nonpartisan intellectual dishonesty is in full relief when opposition to and denial of a particular branch of science lists heavily to one political party.


Virginia Heffernan on collective highlighting.  In the NYT:
What to make, then, of the latest kind of display copy — italics added right in books, postpublication, by readers, in a kind of wiki-italicization project? These are the so-called “popular highlights” that now show up in Kindle e-books. Marked by a dotted underscore that indicates that other Kindle users have found the passages significant, popular highlights constitute crowd-sourced literary criticism. Readers, on the spot and yet collaboratively, make meaning of what they’re reading. The effect is odd — even for those of us who see literature as something readers determine incrementally and collectively.
Click on the popular-highlight passages and you will discover exactly how many Kindle readers have singled them out. “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort,” for example, was evidently highlighted 1,626 times (as of this writing) in “Eat, Pray, Love,” by Elizabeth Gilbert. In Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone,” 1,547 Kindle users cottoned to “Life, too, is like that. You live it forward, but understand it backward.”
Sounds about right. But many writers don’t write aphoristically, and many readers don’t read for aphorisms. In a popularly highlighted world, we all may begin to. The dotted line, like the distinctive hue or underscore that signals a word is clickable on the Web, may be a new kind of punctuation that affects contemporary style.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Jerry Coyne laments the press' track-record on epigenetics:
This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered journalistic hype about epigenetics: last March there was a dire puff-piece in the Guardian asserting that epigenetics was the death knell of Darwinism.  I went after it, arguing that while epigenetics was a novel and important new phenomenon in genetics and development, it wasn’t poised to completely revise our view of evolution for three reasons.
First, epigenetically inherited changes in DNA and protein, like methylated bits of DNA, ultimately rest on “normal” mutations in DNA that affect those changes. Things get methylated because the nucleotide bases in DNA code for that methylation.  How can “nongenetic” changes in DNA reside in the DNA? Here’s one way.  There are genes whose DNA sequence tells them to do this: “put methyl groups on another bit of DNA if you detect that you’re in the body of a male.  Don’t do that if you’re in the body of a female.”  Males and females would thus have the same DNA code, but it would be used differently depending on the DNA’s “environment”—for example, different hormone titers in males vs. females.  The two sexes would then have produce different types of modified DNA even though their primary DNA sequences were identical.  These modifications usually last only one generation, and then are reset when the DNA finds itself in a new body that could be of a different sex.
Second, as I just noted, in nearly all cases the epigenetic modifications are not inherited past one or two generations, so they can’t serve as lasting templates for evolutionary change.  Insofar as those changes are important in evolution, they must ultimately reside in the primary nucleotide sequence of DNA, the genetic material.
Finally, those who tout the importance of epigenetics in evolution, most notably Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, keep trotting out the same handful of tired examples, like changes in toadflax and mouse coat color, that are inherited only temporarily and have nothing to do with evolution.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. "  - Saul Bellow


Jillian Rayfield in TPM:
Have you ever seen a half-monkey, half-person? No? Well neither has Glenn Beck, which is how he knows evolution doesn't exist.
On his radio show today, Beck wondered how many people in the country believe in evolution, and said he doesn't: "I don't think we came from monkeys. I think that's ridiculous. I haven't seen a half-monkey, half-person yet."
"If I get to the other side and God's like, 'You know what, yep, you were a monkey once,' I'll be shocked, but I'll be cool with it," he said. 
Beck's book cover,  apparently unconcerned with irony.

Breathtakingly stupid as this common creationist 'logic' is, it's worse for not even referencing apes, but rather hybrid monkeys.  Perhaps Beck should check with Christine O'Donnell to see if she has any secret information about half-monkey half-humans?

Science and Faith in the Black Community

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."  - Philip K. Dick

Monday, October 18, 2010


"What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist."
"Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself."  - Salman Rushdie

Lack of Belief

by QualiaSoup

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Ahmadi's response is to focus criticism at the film rather than at the stoning.  Still worse is the precautionary cowardice.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


"If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."  - Carl Sagan

Friday, October 15, 2010

Physicalist Anti-Reductionism vs. Reductionism

A conversation in the vein stemming from the Stuart Kauffman videos (and article) that I posted previously  -  Kauffman is barrels more fun to listen to, but this is a good conversation on whether emergent non-reducible factors act importantly within our universe - or, if not, whether the physical anti-reductionist is merely reacting to epistemic limitations within the science of physics (and not the actual physics of which the science of physics is descriptive).  Here for the downloadable podcast.

And another Kauffman talk, this one from TSN:

Thursday, October 14, 2010


"The murals in restaurants are on par with the food in museums."  - Peter De Vries

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Two Cultures, Ctd

Stuart Kauffman advocates a science and art based "sacred" that doesn't invoke supernaturalism in any way. He also wants to use the 'God' word to mean reality, or everything (the universe) that just 'is.'

If Kauffman defines (or rather redefines) God in that way, then of course such a God can be said, tautologically, to exist, though I don't see where the tactic gets him. To billions, the word already has a concretized meaning. Kauffman may see that as an advantage, a structure upon which a naturalistic cosmicview could be more easily built, but it seems to me the word is irreversibly infected with supernaturalism - even if in some deistic or teleological sort of way.

Update:  Here is a Kauffman talk in which he fully accepts the above criticism, and says it's entirely possible that it is a mistake to use a religious vocabulary in furtherance of naturalism - he has left the question open. The CFI talk is a rigorous exercise in thought from a brilliant man.

Monday, October 11, 2010


"The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."  - Oscar Wilde

The Two Cultures, Ctd

It would be really interesting to see Daniel Dennett's respond to Stuart Kauffman's recent essay "Science and Poetry,"  in which Kauffman suggests the mind is not algorithmic, and that our need for and use of metaphor supports a view of the mind as non-algorithmic, operating partially within the 'Poised Realm' of open quantum systems.
On the dominant view of the mind, the mind is a Turing machine. A Turing machine is utterly definite. Given a position of the reading head, the symbols on the tape, the rules in the machine for moving or not moving on the tape, erasing symbols on the tape depending upon the definite discrete state of the head, and moving to a new state among the discrete states of the head, the Turing machine is an abstraction of Descartes’ animal body as a machine, clockwork in the visions of his day. Our minds are algorithmic.  Artificial Intelligence is the offspring of this view. On it, science itself is an algorithmic activity needing no metaphor, the signal case of the fully definite, the
mind is nude of rich non-computable allusions, notwithstanding the very interesting connectionist strand in AI.
But is the mind algorithmic?  I think not, and think we need poetry to unite the Two Cultures and rediscover our deeper humanity.
Without presumption, I don't see how the 'need for' or use of metaphor evidences a non-algorithmic mind. Operating on the assumption that quantum effects affect cognition, which is by no means certain, there is, to my limited knowledge, no contradiction in an algorithmic process which incorporates structural randomness. Perhaps metaphor operates in the mind, and in understanding science, as a catalyst, increasing competence (computance?) which before the development of metaphor would have been vastly harder to attain.

Within cells, for instance, enzymes act as catalysts, greatly speeding up the specific reactions that need to take place for the cell to survive. Reactions within the cell would still occur without enzymes, but since cellular compounds are so weakly reactive to each other in the absence of enzymes, reaction would happen so infrequently as to be insignificant.

Perhaps metaphor is the enzyme of higher-cognition. In other words, metaphorical capacity functions as useful - even indispensable - software for our computers.

Though he cites the 'framing problem' of artificial intelligence, whereby robots have difficulty performing creative problem solving due to an inability - in practice - to know which information is most relevant without external human input, Kauffman doesn't venture as to why the 'framing problem' is not in principle algorithmically solvent.

Then there's this: "we need poetry to unite the Two Cultures and rediscover our deeper humanity."

I'm a little surprised to see Kauffman succumb to romantic nostalgia of some humanity lost - again, lost is what it must be if it has to be rediscovered. It isn't that way. Though the arts' and the sciences' perceived separation has for a long time greatly irritated me, I hardly think the emergence of this division could be described as having subtracted from any sum-total our 'humanity.'  To the contrary, the scientific revolution and logical positivism, greatly augments our humanity and epistemic heft as a species.

Of course art and science don't require that they be of each other. Art should however be more informed by science for its crowning achievement, an uniquely human endeavor that has revealed the most profound beauty of our true context. Science is often poetic; there is no reason the corollary should be understood as discrepant.

While I share the brilliant Kauffman's desire for d├ętente, bridging C.P. Snow's "two cultures," - which to aid in some small way is for myself a great ambition - doesn't entail uniting them. Rather, when the border is demilitarized, when these two powers acknowledge their overlap and encourage collaboration - art that is of science and science that is of art can inform and augment us further.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Friday, October 8, 2010


"In politics, absurdity is not a handicap."  - Napoleon Bonaparte

A Profile of Denial

Cordula Meyer bulldozes the wall of obfuscation engineered by disproportionately-funded climate-science denialists, and details their history and cherished tactics:
Whether it was the hole in the ozone layer, acid rain or climate change, Singer always had something critical to say, and he always knew better than the experts in their respective fields. But in doing so he strayed far away from the disciplines in which he himself was trained. For example, his testimony aided the tobacco lobby in its battle with health policy experts....
Whatever the issue, Singer and his cohorts have always used the same basic argument: that the scientific community is still in disagreement and that scientists don't have enough information. For instance, they say that genetics could be responsible for the cancers of people exposed to secondhand smoke, volcanoes for the hole in the ozone layer and the sun for climate change...
In 1993, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published what was then the most comprehensive study on the effects of tobacco smoke on health, which stated that exposure to secondhand smoke was responsible for about 3,000 deaths a year in the United States. Singer promptly called it "junk science." He warned that the EPA scientists were secretly pursuing a communist agenda. "If we do not carefully delineate the government's role in regulating ... dangers, there is essentially no limit to how much government can ultimately control our lives," Singer wrote.
Reacting to the EPA study, the Philip Morris tobacco company spearheaded the establishment of "The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition" (TASSC). Its goal was to raise doubts about the risks of passive smoking and climate change, and its message was to be targeted at journalists -- but only those with regional newspapers. Its express goal was "to avoid cynical reporters from major media."
Singer, Marshall Institute founder Fred Seitz and Patrick Michaels, who is now one of the best known climate change skeptics, were all advisers to TASSC.
More in Der Spiegel.

1st Deficient

You know you're a redneck if... you think you can get away with banning "inmates from having any reading material other than the Bible."


Hitch in VF:
In her famous essay on Hollywood, Pauline Kael described it as a place where you could die of encouragement. That may still be true of Tinseltown; in Tumortown you sometimes feel that you may expire from sheer advice. A lot of it comes free and unsolicited. I must, without delay, begin ingesting the granulated essence of the peach pit (or is it the apricot?), a sovereign remedy known to ancient civilizations but now covered up by greedy modern doctors. Another correspondent urges heaping doses of testosterone supplements, perhaps as a morale booster. Or I must find ways of opening certain chakras and putting myself in an appropriately receptive mental state. Macrobiotic or vegan diets will be all I require for nourishment during this experience. And don’t laugh at poor old Mr. Angstrom above: somebody has written to me from a famous university to suggest that I have myself cryonically or cryogenically frozen against the day when the magic bullet, or whatever it is, has been devised. (When I failed to reply to this, I got a second missive, suggesting that I freeze at least my brain so that its cortex could be appreciated by posterity. Well, I mean to say, gosh, thanks awfully.) As against all that, I did get a kind note from a Cheyenne-Arapaho friend of mine, saying that everyone she knew who had resorted to tribal remedies had died almost immediately, and suggesting that if I was offered any Native American medicines I should “move as fast as possible in the opposite direction.” Some advice can actually be taken.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Beethoven, Sonata op 27 # 2 Mov 3 - Valentina Lisitsa

"Recording in Beethovensaal, Hannover Germany, Dec 2009. Wilhelm Kempff recorded Beethoven cycle in the very same hall."


"An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support."  - John Buchan

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Wrong Kind of Help


"An intelligence test sometimes shows a man how smart he would have been not to have taken it."  - Laurence J. Peter

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tell Me it Isn't Racism

Go on, try. 

Brought to you by the "real American folk" that are the West Virginia Conservative Foundation.  BTW, Rehall is a lifelong Christian - not that it matters or that you'd come to know it from watching this filth.


"I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow."  - Woodrow Wilson

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Welcome to the (Almost) 21st Century

L.A. Times PolitiCal:
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes Proposition 19, which would legalize the recreational use of marijuana, but he offered a consolation Thursday by signing a bill that would downgrade possession of an ounce or less from a misdemeanor to an infraction.
SB 1449 was written by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who said it will keep marijuana-related cases from going to court-clogging jury trials, although the penalty would remain a fine of up to $100 but no jail time.


"So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence."  - Bertrand Russel

Friday, October 1, 2010


"Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices, but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence and fulfills the duty to express the results of his thought in clear form."  - Albert Einstein

Cordoba Redux

Image:  bobster855 on Flickr 
My reaction follows.  Robert B. Talisse and Scott F. Aikin at 3QD write:
We, the authors, are atheists.  Some will no doubt hold that since atheists abhor religion in all its forms, consistency demands that they oppose the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (which in fact is neither a mosque nor at ground zero).  The thought is that atheists must oppose the building of any new building devoted to religious observance.  But this view about what atheists must believe is false. Abhorrence of religion does not entail abhorrence of the freedom to practice religion.  Atheists indeed affirm freedom of conscience, even though they oppose the views to which many are led by their consciences.
We atheists are particularly well placed to speak to public matters concerning religious tolerance.  As we have no religion of our own, atheists are especially well practiced at tolerating religion.  More importantly, atheists are also keenly attuned to the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience for a democratic society.  And the controversy over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque is a clash over these very principles. Our view is that those who oppose the Mosque have abandoned fundamental principles at the core of the form of constitutional democracy originated by the United States.
This is exactly right.  In response to my previous post suggesting that Muslims might be well served by praying at ground zero in protest, I was met with some bafflement.  "Since you, an atheist, think that prayer is ineffectual and a total waste of time, how could you promote that anyone should perform it?" and so on.  My response to that type of question has been that I also think walking in a circle while waving about a piece of cardboard is a waste of time, unless in doing so one is effectively protesting a meaningful issue.  I would of course prefer that people not waste their time in prayer, but as such a preference is unlikely to be granted in the near future, Muslims might as well help show the stupidity of arbitrary no-Islamy-stuff-going-on zones by doing it there instead of elsewhere.

The sacrifice of pluralism on the Tea-Party altar is the (by now) old chestnut "of course, they have the legal right to build it, but that's not to say they should build it."  This 'argument' does not persuade me of anything except that the person saying it paints all Muslims with the brush of terror, or else that they hold the condescending and cynical belief that we should act as if such a libel was acceptable merely to placate a public insufficiently equipped to understand why doing so is irrational and wrong.

(when applicable, we should also note the sacrifice of true conservatism on the very same altar, for not everyone has been content to cede the right to build - N.Y. Gub. candidate Paladino promises, in a recent political ad, the laughable scheme of using eminent domain to stop construction of the center.)

Imagine an inexact but edifying analogue set in the 1960's:

"Sure, as a black boy you have the right to study here, but since nobody wants you here, and since there was violence committed near the school nine years ago by some other blacks, it would really be a slap in the face if you were to attend here.  We support your right to attend an integrated school system, we just would appreciate it if you would do it somewhere else and respect that this area should remain white, for emotional reasons of course... you understand, don't you?"

Quickly, Pat Churchland

Thursday, September 30, 2010


"I like a woman with a head on her shoulders. I hate necks."  - Steve Martin

The Pudding Has Not Enough Theme

 Beinart, Packer, and Hitchens discuss the president's foreign policy:

"Tea and Crackers"

Highlights from Matt Taibbi's piercing of teabags in Rolling Stone Magazine:
A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can't imagine it...
The individuals in the Tea Party may come from very different walks of life, but most of them have a few things in common. After nearly a year of talking with Tea Party members from Nevada to New Jersey, I can count on one hand the key elements I expect to hear in nearly every interview. One: Every single one of them was that exceptional Republican who did protest the spending in the Bush years, and not one of them is the hypocrite who only took to the streets when a black Democratic president launched an emergency stimulus program. ("Not me — I was protesting!" is a common exclamation.) Two: Each and every one of them is the only person in America who has ever read the Constitution or watched Schoolhouse Rock. (Here they have guidance from Armey, who explains that the problem with "people who do not cherish America the way we do" is that "they did not read the Federalist Papers.") Three: They are all furious at the implication that race is a factor in their political views — despite the fact that they blame the financial crisis on poor black homeowners, spend months on end engrossed by reports about how the New Black Panthers want to kill "cracker babies," support politicians who think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach of government power, tried to enact South African-style immigration laws in Arizona and obsess over Charlie Rangel, ACORN and Barack Obama's birth certificate. Four: In fact, some of their best friends are black! (Reporters in Kentucky invented a game called "White Male Liberty Patriot Bingo," checking off a box every time a Tea Partier mentions a black friend.) And five: Everyone who disagrees with them is a radical leftist who hates America.
It would be inaccurate to say the Tea Partiers are racists. What they are, in truth, are narcissists. They're completely blind to how offensive the very nature of their rhetoric is to the rest of the country. I'm an ordinary middle-aged guy who pays taxes and lives in the suburbs with his wife and dog — and I'm a radical communist? I don't love my country? I'm a redcoat? Fuck you! These are the kinds of thoughts that go through your head as you listen to Tea Partiers expound at awesome length upon their cultural victimhood, surrounded as they are by America-haters like you and me or, in the case of foreign-born president Barack Obama, people who are literally not Americans in the way they are.
It's not like the Tea Partiers hate black people. It's just that they're shockingly willing to believe the appalling horseshit fantasy about how white people in the age of Obama are some kind of oppressed minority. That may not be racism, but it is incredibly, earth-shatteringly stupid.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

O'Donnell, O Jesus

This from the woman who said she could not tell a lie, even with Anne Frank in her attic and Nazis at the door.

I wonder, now that she is a Republican candidate for national office, what her position is on the U.S. government practicing deception to capture terrorists.  What does she think of the CIA?  What of the broader 'troops' who fight our enemies?

Someone should force the question.


"To get something done, a committee should consist of no more than three men, two of whom are absent."  - Robert Copeland

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

This is a post about a news website article about a scientific paper.

In this sentence, I will set up a quote from another post that I find entertaining while also having no particular interest in adding extra commentary:
In the standfirst I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding?
In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of "scare quotes" to ensure that it's clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.
In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research "challenges".
If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.
This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like "the scientists say" to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.
In this sentence I will link for your reference the location of Martin Robbins' fun shot at science journalism while also linking for your reference a video production about making a video production for a news network that is very similar while not being repetitive.

That's Graphic

Since it is safe to assume that nobody thought Vice-President Biden was simultaneously giving an interview to other pundits, and it is likewise safe to assume nobody thought Lawrence O'Donnell's show was beaming live on networks other than MSNBC, I think it is also safe to assume that the producers of the show could have done with a SLIGHTLY LESS OBNOXIOUS CAPS-LOCK exclusivity graphic threatening to overtake your entire television screen. Come on guys, that graphic is on testicle-shrinking steroids.
What they really meant to say was "OMG it's Joe Biden!"


"By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece."  - G. K. Chesterton

Religious Familiarity Not Good for... Religion

An unsurprising, though edifying piece in the NYT.  Money quote:
Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.
On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.
Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.
More at NYT.

Monday, September 27, 2010


"In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.' I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms."  - Stephen Jay Gould

Training Our Expectations

Beinart details the intransigence of the 'yahoo in charge, and the U.S. community's indifference to it:
So let’s get this straight. When Netanyahu agrees to a settlement moratorium, it’s a sign of his commitment to peace. And now that he has let the moratorium end? It’s still a sign of his commitment to peace because, as AIPAC now insists, negotiations must proceed without preconditions. It’s back to “the problem isn’t settlements.”
But the problem—or at least a crucial problem—is settlements. Creating a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank could easily require moving 100,000 settlers—ten times as many as Israel removed in Gaza, on far more theologically charged land. All those settlers will have to be financially compensated (at least partially, judging from the Oslo discussions, with U.S. taxpayer dollars). Many will have to be violently confronted, a terrifying prospect given that militant settlers comprise a larger and larger share of the Israeli officer corps. (Yitzhak Rabin, remember, was assassinated for merely contemplating the removal of West Bank settlements). And even if all this can be done without civil war, any land Israel keeps in the West Bank will likely have to be traded for land within pre-1967 Israel, and there’s not much land to trade...
Netanyahu’s decision has empowered the settlers, strengthened Hamas and made it more likely that sometime in the next year or two, the occupied territories will again explode into violence. But there is one silver lining. By his actions, Netanyahu has laid bare the criteria that American Jewish organizations actually use for evaluating the behavior of an Israeli leader. To be labeled a champion of peace by the American Jewish establishment, it turns out, a prime minister of Israel only really has to do one thing: be prime minister of Israel.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."  - Niels Bohr


Matt Ridley in WSJ:
...we would be a very peculiar animal species if we did not have sex differences in behavior as well as anatomy. In virtually every mammal and nearly all birds, males are more aggressive, females more nurturing. It is a distinction that goes right back to active sperm competing for stationary eggs in the primeval ocean. It was only reinforced when the invention of the placenta and the mammary gland gave male mammals a gigantic prize to compete for: nine months and several years of somebody else's bodily efforts. Wombs are worth fighting over—and granting to favored applicants only.
So it's no zoological accident that in all societies, however peaceful or violent, men are about 50 times more likely to kill other men than women are to kill women, and they do so most in young adulthood, when most actively competing for mates. Likewise, it is no neurophysiological accident that women coo over newborn babies more enthusiastically than men do. Women who showed interest in babies left more genes behind than those who were indifferent; men who turned violent left more genes.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

525 Years Later, a DaVinci Aeronaut

The first human powered, wing-flapping flying machine has been built by a student in Canada.  The concept was first sketched by DaVinci in 1485.

HPO Flight from U of T Engineering on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


"What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left."  - Oscar Levant

Hitchens vs. Berlinsky

Parts 234, and 5.

Monday, September 20, 2010


"People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."  - Abraham Lincoln, written in a book review.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dawkins vs. Ratzinger

Full speech here (the actual speech had to be abridged).

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Friday, September 17, 2010

F.U.V.M. Your Holiness, Ctd

Like I said, keep it up. This time, Donahue:
The pope did not go far enough. Radical atheists like the British Humanist Association should apologize for Hitler. But they should not stop there. They also need to issue an apology for the 67 million innocent men, women and children murdered under Stalin, and the 77 million innocent Chinese killed by Mao. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all driven by a radical atheism, a militant and fundamentally dogmatic brand of secular extremism. It was this anti-religious impulse that allowed them to become mass murderers. By contrast, a grand total of 1,394 were killed during the 250 years of the Inquisition, most all of whom were murdered by secular authorities.
Why should atheists today apologize for the crimes of others? At one level, it makes no sense: apologies should only be given by the guilty. But on the other hand, since the fanatically anti-Catholic secularists in Britain, and elsewhere, demand that the pope—who is entirely innocent of any misconduct—apologize for the sins of others, let the atheists take some of their own medicine and start apologizing for all the crimes committed in their name. It might prove alembic.
Notice how snakishly he inserts that the Pope "is entirely innocent of any misconduct."

Sure, that is a true statement if one doesn't consider abetting the rape of children by way of a structural and systematized cover up "misconduct." But, while we may already safely assume that the church sees it that way, the right-thinking world doesn't.

Furthermore, it either "makes no sense" for atheists to apologize for the crimes of others, or it does (it doesn't). That doesn't change as Donahue invents another "level" at which he may forsake logic.

So, as Donahue evidently thinks that it is wrong for atheists (or others, Catholics included) to demand apology and consequence for Ratzinger's actions, what he is saying is that two wrongs make it right - or, if two wrongs don't make it right, do two wrongs anyway.  How Christian?

The Ministry of Truth, Ctd

The Texas State Board of Education is at it again.


"In the part of this universe that we know there is great injustice, and often the good suffer, and often the wicked prosper, and one hardly knows which of those is the more annoying."  - Bertrand Russell

Funny Job Interview

Here and Around is out with another fantastic photo series:

"A setting last quarter crescent moon and the thin line of Earth's atmosphere are photographed by an Expedition 24 crew member as the International Space Station passes over central Asia on Sept. 4th, 2010. (NASA) #"

"A 30-frame sequence showing Cassini's approach to the icy plumes of Enceladus on August 13th, 2010. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute) #"

This is the south pole of Enceladus, where tidal (gravitational) forces are creating enough heat to keep an underground body of water in a liquid state.  The geysers are spewing out organic molecules along with the water.  Incredible.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


"So the emotion that walks like a burglar through our house trying all the doors has found mine the only one unlocked, indeed wide open: for there are no valuables inside."  - Martin Amis, The Rachel Papers

F.U.V.M. Your Holiness, Ctd

Grayling on arresting the Pope, in Der Spiegel:
SPIEGEL: Wasn't that idea a little over the top anyway?
Grayling: Let me explain this in the most neutral terms. For decades, priests have sexually abused thousands of children, in this country and in many others. These are serious crimes. The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has been systematically instrumental in covering up these crimes, hiding people who committed them from public prosecution and in numerous cases allowing the abuse of children to go on. The conspiracy has gone all the way to the top. We know there are questions on Pope Benedict himself. When he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he knew about some of these cases and participated in the cover-ups himself. That is a conspiracy -- there is no other word for it. It is organized crime.
SPIEGEL: And you think the pope should go to jail for that, like any mafioso?
Grayling: If the head of a drug cartel was involved in a conspiracy, we would ask some very serious questions once he came to the UK. Why should we treat the pope any differently?

Fuck You Very Much, Your Holiness

The Pope lands in the UK.  The Pope gives a speech.  The Pope compares atheism to Nazism.

The pontiff's off to a good start in the most secular country on Earth.  Keep it up, Ratzinger.  It is for us pure schadenfreude to watch a flailing, old, pederast-protecting former member of the Hitler Youth moralize to the world on the perils of being insufficiently religious.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


"I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them."  - Isaac Asimov

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wonder from Unity

The Guardian recently paired up David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins for a short conversation.  Listen to the audio here.

What is the one bit of science from your field that you think everyone should know?  

David Attenborough: The unity of life.

Richard Dawkins: The unity of life that comes about through evolution, since we're all descended from a single common ancestor. It's almost too good to be true, that on one planet this extraordinary complexity of life should have come about by what is pretty much an intelligible process. And we're the only species capable of understanding it...
[Different question] - RD: There does seem to be a sense in which physics has gone beyond what human intuition can understand. We shouldn't be too surprised about that because we're evolved to understand things that move at a medium pace at a medium scale. We can't cope with the very tiny scale of quantum physics or the very large scale of relativity. 
DA: A physicist will tell me that this armchair is made of vibrations and that it's not really here at all. But when Samuel Johnson was asked to prove the material existence of reality, he just went up to a big stone and kicked it. I'm with him.

RD: It's intriguing that the chair is mostly empty space and the thing that stops you going through it is vibrations or energy fields. But it's also fascinating that, because we're animals that evolved to survive, what solidity is to most of us is something you can't walk through. Also, the science of the future may be vastly different from the science of today, and you have to have the humility to admit when you don't know. But instead of filling that vacuum with goblins or spirits, I think you should say, "Science is working on it." 
DA: Yes, there was a letter in the paper [about Stephen Hawking's comments on the nonexistence of God] saying, "It's absolutely clear that the function of the world is to declare the glory of God." I thought, what does that sentence mean?! 
More of the transcription.