April 06, 2009

Why We use Mercury in Barometers and not Water

I believe in the opening of this clip, the gentleman is explaining why we use mercury to measure barometric pressure instead of water.  Barometric pressure was originally discovered using water, but the column of water rose so high (32 feet, if I recall correctly) that it made housing the apparatus unwieldy.  Mercury is used instead because its density leaves the column of liquid to just a smidge under 30 inches (29.92) at one atmosphere of air pressure under normal circumstances. 

Rising and falling barometric pressure is one of the factors that contributes to what we experience as weather. 

Falling barometric pressure means a storm is coming.  A pressure of around 28 inches is very low and usually indicates a violent storm, so you can just imagine what conditions were like when the lowest pressure of over 25 inches was recorded.

High pressure usually means skies will be clear, but can also mean a dip in temperatures.  The highest barometric pressure recorded was just over 32 inches and the temperatures were between -40 and -58 that day in Siberia.

I know this stuff thanks to a couple of books I've read in recent history, one being Connections by James Burke and another being Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson.

Anyway, the point of this post was to show this clip of a cannonball floating in liquid mercury, which is just plain cool.

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March 10, 2009

Reality is Probably Objective. I Wonder When Someone was Going to Get Around to Telling Me About This.

Again from Kottke.

Economist: I'm Not Looking, Honest!

Since its birth in the 1920s, physicists and philosophers have grappled with the bizarre consequences that his theory has for reality, including the fundamental truth that it is impossible to know everything about the world and, in fact, whether it really exists at all when it is not being observed. Now two groups of physicists, working independently, have demonstrated that nature is indeed real when unobserved.
So, basically, what I'm hearing is that existence exists.

You know what?  Someone should design a philsophy that starts with this as a fundamental premise.  It would finally be a truly objective approach to philosophy! If you know any PhD people in philosophy, you should suggest this to them.  They could be famous!

Of course, this is a little worrisome:
Dr Yokota and his colleagues went so far as to call their results “preposterous”.
Sooooooo close!

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February 22, 2009

Facts about Allergies

When I was little, I was allergic to the class of antibiotics that include penicillin. I outgrew the allergy and actually took penicillin and related antibiotics several times through my adolescence and teenage years.

Twice, while in middle school, I had an allergic reaction to some unknown substance.  I still don't know what it is, but I believe I was exposed in a pool.

These reactions came in the form of skin rashes.

In college, I got another rash.  And then another.  I went to the medical center where the doctor couldn't figure out what was going on and she gave me penicillin and a steroid.  Then I got a rash on top of my existing rash.  WOOO!

I pointed out that I had an early childhood allergy to penicillin and so she took me off of that and the steroid was able to stave off the other rash for limited periods of time.

I also discovered that if I could stress my body enough I could also get the rash to go away for a short period of time.  By "stress" I mean it would go away during tests and while I was playing racquetball.  My theory at the time was that the adrenaline my body was producing functioned in a way that was similar to the steroids and my doctor said that was plausible.

Eventually my rash just went away on its own.  To this day, I still have no idea what caused it, but I refuse to take penicillin and tell all my doctors not to give it to me.

I am not sure if I've re-developed my allergy to penicillin, but why take the chance?  If I am allergic to those antibiotics another dose could do worse than a skin rash.  There's no way to know how bad my reaction will be the next time I'm exposed or even if I will react at all.

This is just one aspect of allergies and Rational Jenn has a whole bunch of other things you might want to know!

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February 14, 2009

Cool Chemistry Experiment Videos on the Internets!

Kottke linked over to these videos and after watching a few I have to do the same.

It's just a series of videos of chemistry experiments.  They're very cool, like the one in which they use ice to cause water to boil or the "elephant toothpaste."

Science is cool.

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January 27, 2009

Skewed Views of Science

Hat tip: Kevin

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January 08, 2009

Wisdom of the Ages: Don't Eat Slugs

Dr. Monica wrote to me today to tell me that no matter how desperate I am to pay off my credit cards, I should not eat slugs.  Especially Hawaiian slugs.  I don't know why she thinks I would eat slugs unless someone was offering to pay me for that, but I think it is important to recognize that there is a certain wisdom to her advice.  Being a couple of faithless heathens, she did also provide me with some evidence for her recommendation:

Scientific American: Watch out Hawaii: Veggies may harbor rare parasite

Three people in Hawaii have come down with what appears to be a rare parasitic disease called rat lungworm disease in recent weeks. Two of the victims (friends who had a meal together) told the Honolulu Star Bulletin that they experienced "agonizing pain" after eating raw vegetables – and physicians fear they may have accidentally swallowed slug larvae hidden inside folds of raw peppers.
There are numerous aspects to this story that are really just outrageously disgusting, but I think the most terrible part is imagining all those poor dead slug babies, or, as I like to call them, "goo guppies," with their cute, fat, little bellies and eyes all stalky and stuff.  Like little pink and grey bubbles with two pins sticking out of them or something.

Ok.  I made that up.  I've never seen a goo guppie before, but you can be damn sure I'm not trying to slaughter their cute little bottoms for a salad, which brings me to this part of the article:
The best way to avoid rat lungworm disease? Don't eat raw snails or slugs and wash your vegetables and fruit very well, Park advises
And lest you think he's being a smartass and just stating the obvious for you, please note that it is the job of the scientist to study reality and tell us about it.  It's right there in front of your face.  He's just doing his job.

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August 11, 2008

Book Review: A Brief History of Time

I finished reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes this evening on my ride home.

I loved the first part of this book with the discussion about relativity (both general and special!) and quantum theories.  But I am not very interested in Black Holes, the Big Bang or that other stuff.  My personal preference here led me to blast through the last half of the book, not fully absorbing the very complex concepts contained therein.

I thought I kind of understood relativity before I read it and now I know I didn't, but now I know more.

And also, quantum theory is more strange than I thought, but also not what everyone seems to think it is.

By and large, the book is very well-written and the ideas, though complex, are laid out in such a way that even non-science people like me can grasp it.

I did not appreciate his entertainment of the notion that God might could possibly exist.  No, it cannot.

I also did not appreciate his glossing over the role of philosophy in science, especially because many of the topics he discusses, like the Anthropic Principle, are easily addressed by philosophy.

But overall, I do recommend this book.

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August 02, 2008

Wrinkled Space-Time

I started reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time the other day and as I was walking home last night with my half a rotisserie chicken in hand from Chirping Chicken, I suddenly understood what relative time means.  Well, on a very basic level anyway.

It's incredibly hard to even envision relativity because, I think, Newtonian physics is so properly suited to the context of human existence.  We simply do not encounter blackholes often enough to worry about the impact of the singularity on temporal measurements.  And while we think we think of time as a dimension of existence referring to changing relationships between entities, trying to imagine what it means to say that two enties traveling at the same rate cover different distances in different amounts of time is simply mind boggling, especially because each entity would look at the other, check their watch and think something else.

I am not too clear on why the speed of light is a set limitation, though.  I understand how it's being used as a constant -- although it seems to me that when we calculate its change in speed when interacting with gravitational fields, we're saying that it is, in fact, not a constant -- but I'm really only a dozen pages or so into the book.

I also object to the idea of there being a beginning of time.  A beginning of time implies a beginning of existence and existence does not have a beginning.  When people like Stephen Hawking refer to the beginning of time, they're speaking coloquially, referring to a point in existence which is beyond our consideration because it sits at a point where observation is impossible... unless you can travel faster than the speed of light.

Sooooooo... that is what is going on in my brain right now.  I need to clean my room and find my passport.

Update: I read a little more and now I see what he means by relative time.  This is absolutely incredible.  Ok, but for serious, we'll all live longer (in comparison to how long we'd live on Earth in Earth years) if we load up into a spaceship right now and start zooming along as close to the speed of light as we possibly can.  Who's with me?

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June 13, 2008

Next Stop: George Jetson's Briefcase Flying Saucer

Ok.  This is just awesome.

Wired blog: BMW builds a Shape-shifting Car Out of Cloth

Concept cars give automotive designers a chance to let their imaginations run wild, often with outlandish results. But even by that measure, BMW has come up with something as strange as it is innovative -- a shape-shifting car covered with fabric.

Instead of steel, aluminum or even carbon fiber, the GINA Light Visionary Model has a body of seamless fabric stretched over a movable metal frame that allows the driver to change its shape at will. The car -- which actually runs and drives -- is a styling design headed straight for the BMW Museum in Munich and so it will never see production, but building a practical car wasn't the point.

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April 13, 2008

You Know What's Neat?

People are pretty symmetrical right to left, but they aren't symmetrical top to bottom or front to back.

That might not SEEM very neat, but when you think about the fact that the vast majority of cells in your body all contain the same exact set of instructions and you start out as a perfectly symmetrical little ball of cells which some how figure out where they are in the ball and then start activating different parts of those instructions to become what they become.

SOMEHOW cells that make your head know they're becoming your head and not your elbow or pinky toe.

This would be amazing in itself even if people were like giant worms and symmetrical top to bottom, right to left, and front to back.  But people have faces only on one side of their body and arms on the top but legs on the bottom. 

I'm just saying, it's pretty neat.  I wonder what tells those cells where they are in the blob just before they start becoming belly buttons and ears and such.

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April 04, 2008

Ascaris lumbricoides

I know I haven't talked about it much in recent history, but a fun fact about me is that if I were a doctor of medicine of some sort, I would probably study parasitology.  This is because I find parasites REALLY fascinating.  And they're super gross.

Knowing that, a friend of mine sent me a link to this video of Ascaris lumbricoides being removed from a woman's GI tract.


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March 20, 2008

Happy Equinox, Y'all!

The earth went perfectly upright early this morning and day and night are roughly equal today.  Now, the northern hemisphere will start leaning toward the sun and our days will be come longer and warmer.

Ain't science grand?

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March 13, 2008

This is VERY Cool

New Scientist: Nerve-tapping neckband allows 'telepathic' chat

A neckband that translates thought into speech by picking up nerve signals has been used to demonstrate a "voiceless" phone call for the first time.

With careful training a person can send nerve signals to their vocal cords without making a sound. These signals are picked up by the neckband and relayed wirelessly to a computer that converts them into words spoken by a computerised voice.

A video [above] shows the system being used to place the first public voiceless phone call on stage at a recent conference held by microchip manufacturer Texas Instruments. Michael Callahan, co-founder of Ambient Corporation, which developed the neckband, demonstrates the device, called the Audeo.

Users needn't worry about that the system voicing their inner thoughts though. Callahan says producing signals for the Audeo to decipher requires "a level above thinking". Users must think specifically about voicing words for them to be picked up by the equipment.

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February 09, 2008

Shut it, Bill (a Little)

Bill Maher commenting on Heath Ledger's toxicology report said tonight (I'm paraphrasing), the lesson here isn't about the danger of mixing prescription drugs.  The lesson is that all prescription drugs are poison; everything in the pharmacy is poison.

And then he said he doesn't take anti-biotics now because he "learned how to be healthy."  He went on to criticize the use of anything "poison" for health.  He apparently doesn't agree with putting chlorine, for instance, in drinking water.  He also thinks that he won't get sick in India if he has a strong immune system.

The conversation went even further into Crazy Town from there, so I'm going to stop describing his nutty ideas about medicine.

On one hand, he's right: everything is poison.

If you drink enough water, you will die.  If you eat too much calcium -- strong bones and teeth -- you will die.

Pretty much everything is poison -- if you get too much of it.

The dose makes the poison. And that's where he goes wrong.

I don't know where he got these crazy ideas about immunology, medicine, toxicology, etc., but they are crazy ideas.  He reminds me of that crazy guy at my work who thinks women shouldn't give birth to children in hospitals, children shouldn't be given immunization shots, and people should eat only organic food.

Who's manufacturing these weirdos?  I want to know right now.

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January 31, 2008

Turn Down the Heat!

So, this morning, some people were complaining about how cold they feel and, by coincidence, I had been complaining about the heat lately.

I'm not saying it's really HOT.  I mean, it is January and the temperature is really only in the 30's or 40's outside.  But I feel hot.  When I'm standing on my subway platform in the morning, I'm usually sweating under my jacket, which it usually unzipped to let some air in.

Anyway, our discussion turned to why people feel hot or cold.  My coworkers asserted that it must be due to my "high metabolism."

I hate when people talk about "metabolism" because it's one of those things that few people really clearly understand.  It's like the difference between price and cost (often that's just a matter of perspective) in economics that often sets me off on a rant.  I don't even really understand metabolism, but my basic idea of it is that the term "metabolism" refers to the life sustaining processes of the body and I have the vague notion that it refers a lot to eating and burning energy.  I have a very, very strong suspicion that "metabolism" actually refers to a LOT of different processes in the body.  And since I don't know what they are, it's rare that I will talk about my metabolism at all.

The truth is, however, that I am 6'2" and I weigh 190lbs now (w00t!) and I probably consume between two and three thousand calories every day.  I can get by for a couple of days on just a few hundred (this happens on the weekends sometimes because I forget to eat when I'm outside of my weekday routine and I'm also too cheap and lazy to go get food.) but in general I eat what regular people eat every day plus two snacks and an additional 700 calories from my weight-gainer shake.   The point here is that I do eat a lot, but I also burn off a lot of those calories in my day and so I don't gain weight easily.

It seems to me that my "metabolism" does probably contribute to my body temperature, but it also seems to me that there are other factors that can affect.

I'm particularly hot on the subway platform because if permitted I refuse to take the stairs at a rate of anything less than two at a time.  Yes, I am the guy who is breathing down your neck on the stairs when you do not step aside.  And I feel colder when I've just been sitting at my desk a long time.

Hot Shower / Hot Room
I take hot showers and I've noticed that after I've had a shower I seem to retain some of that heat for a short period of time after I get out.  My room is also often insanely hot, so I'm probably taking on some of that heat, too.

People have a hard time understanding this, but humidity does affect our sense of the temperature in the environment.  It's very dry here, though, and I would expect that to make it feel cooler, not hotter, but still.  It's a factor that is NOT "metabolism."

Body Fat
A person's body fat will certainly affect how much heat they store.

Muscle Density, Size, etc...

Further, certain medical conditions can affect how you feel heat.  You know how you get the chills and the sweats when you're sick?  Like that.

One of my coworkers is a young man of about 27.  He's a runner, so he's thin, but he also consumes a lot of food and so would be regarded as having a "high metabolism."  He, however, often feels cold.  He blames "poor circulation."  I have great circulation, I think.

My point here is that there are clearly numerous factors that affect how a person feels about the temperature of their environment.  Some of them are confined to that individual's particular biological situation and some are dependent upon the environment itself.  I'm not sure how many of those things are part of one's "metabolism" in the proper, scientific sense of the word, but I am sure that white-washing the issue by referring to one's metabolism does not increase anyone's understanding of the problem.

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October 30, 2007

Not Fat. Big-Boned

New York Times: Low Buzz May Give Mice Better Bones and Less Fat

All he does is put mice on a platform that buzzes at such a low frequency that some people cannot even feel it. The mice stand there for 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Afterward, they have 27 percent less fat than mice that did not stand on the platform — and correspondingly more bone.
So if you think you're getting fat, it could be that you've been standing on a vibrating platform that has actually made your bones bigger.

Best be on the lookout!

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October 11, 2007

Coolest Periodic Table EVER


Thanks to Pharyngula.

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October 08, 2007

Man Plays God; Horseman Auditions to be Held Next Week

Guardian Unlimited: I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer

Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.


The Guardian can reveal that a team of 20 top scientists assembled by Mr Venter, led by the Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, has already constructed a synthetic chromosome, a feat of virtuoso bio-engineering never previously achieved. Using lab-made chemicals, they have painstakingly stitched together a chromosome that is 381 genes long and contains 580,000 base pairs of genetic code.

The DNA sequence is based on the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium which the team pared down to the bare essentials needed to support life, removing a fifth of its genetic make-up. The wholly synthetically reconstructed chromosome, which the team have christened Mycoplasma laboratorium, has been watermarked with inks for easy recognition.

This is actually a really huge step in genetics and microbiology.  Wouldn't it be cool if scientists could build bacteria that eat cancer?  Or arterial plaque? Or what if they could build a virus that adds telomeres to our chromosomes and thus extending our lifespans?  What about a virus that goes in and corrects diseases caused by replication errors?

It would be difficult to overstate the potential behind this discovery and this technology.

When huge discoveries like this are made, invariably there is a huge outcry about the lack of solid leadership in "bioethics." 

I saw Resident Evil last weekend and it's all about how scientists working for big, evil corporations created a virus that turned the largest part of human civilization into zombies.  In Jurassic Park, scientists run amok by creating dinosaurs in their labs. There are lots of other movies in which scientists are blamed for "playing god" and then people die and it's all unpleasantness and screaming.

I don't disagree that proper sterilization and containment methods should be practiced when dealing with dangerous or unknown organisms, but I have my doubts that Mr. Venter is proposing that his new bacteria be dumped into the water supply.  I also have my doubts that he would even consider anything that would allow his team's discovery to get away from them.

I will be watching this discussion cautiously for people who claim that this research should be stopped on the grounds that we don't know what will happen and that people shouldn't play god.

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May 06, 2007

It Would Seem that Determinism is Popular

I was just watching this week's episode of Stargate: Atlantis. In it, one of the characters comes into contact with a machine that speeds up the development of his brain (They say "evolution" on the show, but their use of the word is not consistent with biology which uses the word to refer to the change of a species through natural selection.) so that he can "ascend."

Ascension in this show is some kind of magical activity where people turn into energy and become omniscient and nearly omnipotent. Apparently, once that happens the ascended beings have a lot of rules they follow, not the lest conspicuous of them is that they can't interfere with mortal people's affairs.

Anyway, Rodney (the guy who is 'evolving' who is also a scientist) just said:

Look, when you get down to it, even mental states are actually only physical states, are they not? I mean, the brain is just a chemical supercomputer.

Rodney takes a distinctly "non-mystical" approach to things and rejects all forms of "spirituality." So, he talks about how everything is quantifiable, including his "mental states."

I had to use the quotey marks because either the show doesn't mean the words in the way that I mean the words, or I don't even know what they mean, exactly.

The Stargate series take a rather confusing view of metaphysics, however. Just as they make statements that would imply a determined existence, they insist that becoming an ascended being requires more than simply physically evolving to the point where ascension can take place. You have to be mentally prepared for it.

There is a distinct mind-body dichotomy going on in this show.

Rodney's comment quoted above struck me, though. I'm still trying to integrate the arguments and conclusions from our recent discussion about the physical origins of mental phenomena.

I really like the elegance of the argument Ergo presented, but I am having trouble thinking of other situations where an entity has characteristics that are so dramatically different from its constituent elements.

But I think I've come up with one: Crystals.

Carbon is just one element that, when the atoms are arranged correctly, can be transparent or opaque. Maybe it's basic, but, but crystal lattices are a curiosity to me. Why can't all elements be arranged to that they're transparent in a solid state? (Can they?) In the Star Trek movie where they have to save the whales, they made transparent aluminum. Why not? I just don't understand how transparency works, but still. Not intuitive.

Yeah, so anyway, just musing over this some more...

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May 04, 2007

Fallacy of Composition

So, Ergo made a really helpful comment yesterday.

The reason you find this confounding is because you have committed a logical fallacy. One cannot attribute the properties of the parts of a system to the whole system itself. To do this is to commit the fallacy of composition.

Again, in the same blogpost that I linked to in my earlier comment, I discussed this matter. It is a fact brain system processes run on a deterministic principle. Certain neural stimuli causes certain neural reactions. However, this is at the level of "parts" of the brain; the whole brain itself, including consciousness, has different properties and attributes, and thereby, its own identity.

So, at first, I was like, "Huh?"

I went and read about the fallacy of composition and I thought about it some more.

The idea here is that while the brain surely is composed of little atoms bouncing about which make up molecules doing their thing which making up cells which are shocking one another and absorbing things, the mass of which makes up the organ we call a brain. And while we might say that down to a certain point Newtonian physics apply flawlessly to these itty-bitty pieces, the end result is a brain which has as one of its characteristics volition or free will.

And then I thought, "Well, does it really have free will? Are we really volitional?" Which made me wonder how one might test a creature for free will.

If we look around the kingdom animalia, we see that most animals are imbued with volition at some level. Puppies choose to chew this shoe over that one. Cats choose to not pay you any mind even though they are quite able. Fish swim this way as well as that.

The evidence of free will and volition is so fundamental that I think it's probably a direct corollary of the axiom of consciousness in itself. (I have to think more on those concepts to be sure.) That one wants for a test for volition is, in a way, a demonstration of volition in itself.

Is it even possible to be self-referential in analyzing consciousness without volition? I doubt it.

But I still want to know how it is that these atoms make molecules that make cells that are equally capable of doing this as well as that. What fuels making a decision this way or that? As a machine, how does the brain work to give we animals this extraordinary quality of volitional existence.

I really ought to point out that the volition of puppies and kitties-- just a sec...

Thank you.

The volition of puppies and kitties is not the same as that of people. The volitional aspect of human beings is different from that of other animals and boils down to the option to think or not to think. For other animals, their volition is very limited in range due to their lack of conceptual faculties and the decisions that they make are always geared toward survival and largely based on the context of the current moment.

Squirrels bury nuts for the winter and they remember where they are. As far as I know, they aren't able to choose not to do that, but they do choose where they want to bury them at the moment.

By contrast, people posses a powerful conceptual faculty that allows us to make and execute plans that span and even exceed our own lifetimes. We have the option to do that or not. A person can choose to be rational and eliminate contradictions in his thinking or not. It's up to him. And that's the key to human volition.

I am made uncomfortable by the fact that I don't know how brains work. I realize that people have been working on that problem for a very, very long time, and given my extremely limited qualifications, it is unlikely that I will contribute to that in any way. But still. I don't like not knowing this stuff.

Anyway, much thanks to Ergo for bringing this up.

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May 03, 2007

On the Ethereal Screen

My best friend, Johndavid, referred me to a special new website, GodTube, today.

I really wanted to make a joke about the irony of Christian directors, but I couldn't work it out. You know how actors say, "Yeah, but what I really want to do is direct?" Something about that, but play up the whole "God is the director" thing they have going on. Anyway, it was a stretch.

So, GodTube. Crazy, right?

You don't even know the half of it:

Ridiculous, right?

Ok, but check this out:

Yeah. Insane.

I watched a couple of videos with that "Charlie" guy and he seems to have stopped his science education around the 8th grade.

I don't mind people arguing against evolution in itself. What bothers me is dishonesty.

This guy is all, "SOMEHOW the woodpecker gets a strong bill to break through wood..." He deliberately makes it sound as if biologists are just sitting around just saying "evolution" without bothering to suggest a mechanism.

Even if you don't know what that natural selection is accepted as the mechanism behind evolution, it's rude to suggest that other people are being so stupid. That is exactly the sort of situation to which the benefit of the doubt applies.

But this guy purports to be a man of science or at least one of scientific understanding. There is no excuse for such a base level of ignorance about what the theory of evolution says. The only explanation for his eye-rolling and exaggerated expressions and grotesque misrepresentation of the claims of sensible, reputable scientific sources is dishonesty.

It doesn't surprise me that a Christian would be dishonest in his counter-arguments, but it should shock and outrage them. That it doesn't only deepens the hypocrisy and self-deception required to subscribe to a religion.

I just started reading With God on Our Side. I expect it to alternately piss me off and give me nightmares.

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May 02, 2007

I, Newtonian

I have this idea that given knowledge of the present position and all facts relating to motion of every single atom and particle in the universe along with the complementary data on every quanta of energy there is, that a computer of sufficient computational power would be able to not merely describe the entire history of existence back to the Big Bang (further) but also project the course of things for the eternity to come.

This is nonsense.

I get the idea thanks to the fact that on my scale of existence and context of operation, Newtonian physics is pure genius and completely reliable.

Even though I find myself spending more time and energy fantasizing about omniscient Macbooks, I am pleased that it is not the case.

Do you even understand quantum physics? I don't.

That whole Schrödinger's cat thing is at best an imperfect analogy for whatever is going on at the tiniest levels we can get to OR it's an abomination to rational, reality-based epistemology. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think that damned cat misleads more people than it helps.

Oh! And you've heard about entanglement, right? Crazy amazing. I wish I knew how that works. It's like two atoms or particles or whatever are connected but they aren't anywhere near one another. Look it up.

If reality really did completely follow my Newtonian vision of things, the concept of free will would be found to be incongruent with reality, an illusion. (Not that some people don't already think that.)

Ergo mentioned two significant ideas in one of his recent comments: randomness and determinism.

The reason I read that book on genetics was because I wanted to understand how some people are attempting to integrate the concept of freewill with our rather young understanding of genetics. On a more fundamental level, I find that I also have the question of how free will can be reconciled with a broader view of the universe.

On any level, the concept of causality, which is a corollary to the axiom of Identity, can be seen as a challenge to the concept of free will.

In Objectivist philosophy, Consciousness is an axiom along with Identity and Existence. This means that Consciousness precedes causality in the hierarchy of concepts, but I am not very clear on how it can possibly be exempt from it.

We have brains and brains make choices, but how do brains make choices if not by the interaction of it's many parts? Those parts must also behave according to their identity, so how can the sum of these little parts all spin together to create a machine that does as it pleases without regard to any deterministic principle? (This time I mean determinism in the standard, philosophical sense.)

This all confuses me quite a bit.

Posted by: Flibbertigibbet at 05:21 PM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
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April 30, 2007

Determinism v. Fatalism

In that book Genome that I've been mentioning, the author asserts a definition for the term determinism. I don't have the text in front of me to quote it directly, so you'll have you live with my paraphrasing.

Basically, he says that in biology when a characteristic or behavior is "determined" we simply mean that it is a result of influencing factors up to that point. He is extremely careful to contrast this with the idea that characteristics are fatalistic, meaning that their manifestation could have been predicted at the start or that we could look to the future and know how the organism will be down the road. So, the difference, he says, is that "determinism" looks backwards while fatalism looks forward.

"Determined" according to him is an adjective that merely describes the causal relationship of the current state with a past state.

This is how he describes the manifestation of instinctual behavior such as homosexuality.

I do not know if he thinks it impossible for a person without the homosexual genes to become gay or not, but he gives language as an example of an instinct and proceeds at length to present the evidence for the biological foundations for language. If you don't have the genes for language or if your language genes are messed up, then you can't use language like normal human beings.

He rails against the notion that individuals are doomed by their genes to be any particular way when it comes to things like instinct or even personality. Nature, it would seem according to him, is at least as important as nurture.

Ridley draws for us the analogy of a sea shore which has a random appearance shaped by the effects of wind, tides, people, rocks, and even the shape of each individual grain of sand. At least in theory, we could take into account all these myriad and disparate factors and see how the beach came to have its particular shape, but try as we may, we could never predict what the beach would look like in a hundred years, fifty years, or even next year. Sure, we could make a general prediction about things based on past events, but as time increases between the moment the prediction is made and moment about which the prediction is made, the probability for error increases.

Let's say you have a baby. You might predict that tomorrow he'll weigh an ounce more. That's not unreasonable especially if you gorge him full of ice cream and strained carrots today. But how much will he weigh a year from now? You could again guess, but for the sake of a meaningful prediction, you would do better to choose a range. And how much will he weigh in 20 years?

Again, let's say we have a baby, but this time we look at his genes. We see that he has the so-called gay genes. Will the child be gay?

According to Ridley, it's not possible to make that prediction is much confidence. Yes, the child has an increased likelihood of being gay, but the probability that he will wind up being straight is significant.

If the child turns out to be gay, we can safely say that his possession of these genes played a part in his development in addition to many other things, not the least of which are his own ideas, thoughts, and actions. If he does not turn out to be gay, we would conclude that other factors overrode the influence of those genes.

Feral children may be perfectly healthy in all other respects, but have a very difficult time assimilating into human culture. Many do not develop proper conceptualization and language skills.

They have the genes for language. Their brains can do it and their brains certainly attempt to do it, but the process is interrupted by external factors and they rarely ever fully develop these necessary, human, cognitive skills.

I'm still pondering many of these ideas, but there are certain aspects to them that appeal to me.

I do not like the sword of determinism (in the philosophical sense, not how this guy uses the word) that seems to loom over this line of thinking, but I would desperately like to integrate the scientific findings of genetic science with the Objectivist vision of man as a fully volitional creature.

Posted by: Flibbertigibbet at 11:14 AM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
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April 09, 2007

More Anti-Science on Enterprise

This show really gets on my nerves. Why do I keep watching it?

Just now, the doctor on their ship said, "The laws of biochemistry on this world may be just as unpredictable as the laws of physics."

First of all, the whole reason they're called "laws" is because they are predictable.

Second of all, you don't get to change the rules just because you've changed your location. I refer again to item 1 above.

Third, (Why do I bother? This show is beyond redemption) if the laws of physics and biochemistry are so unpredictable what -- as the doctor was arguing in the conversation -- do you hope to find out by studying the data further?

There are so many things wrong with that utterance that I am really shocked that it appeared in a Star Trek program. Once upon a time, (TNG) the writers of the show were genuinely interested in science and physics. Lots of time was spent on continuity and at least theoretical scientific accuracy.

P.S. It makes me curious to know what Dr. Harriman has to say.

Posted by: Flibbertigibbet at 03:29 PM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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March 21, 2007


I can't remember if I've mentioned this before, but I absolutely hate that show on SciFi channel, Ghost Hunters. It's so ridiculous.

If you're not familiar, basically it's a reality show. They take some guys and give them some random equipment, like watch that monitors barometric pressure, an infrared camera, and some other junk, and they set them about in a place where they think there are ghosts. Then, they film them in night-vision while they bumble around in the dark, acting like the see ghosts.

They do all kinds of stuff. They talk to each other about seeing moving shadows and lights and stuff. They try to film stuff, but you never really see any ghosts.

Here's why you never see ghosts: GHOSTS AREN'T REAL.

It's a stupid show.

Posted by: Flibbertigibbet at 04:36 PM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
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