Monday, June 29, 2009

In Newmarket on Fergus, County Clare
The weather is nice here at Dromoland Castle. A little irked that the hotel IT system doesn't allow youtube uploading, so the videos will have to wait until the next stop or, if that doesn't allow for it, when we get back home.

The girls like feeding the ducks....

Friday, June 26, 2009

Science and Religion
Brandon Watson does a nice job picking apart the faulty logic behind Sean Carroll's recent post on the alleged incompatibility of religion and science. (That said, Sean's a lot more thoughtful than Jerry Coyne.)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Test Driving HD
Here's a brief view of "A" Street in Southie, using my new Flip HD camera. 1280 x 720 in H.264. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Spent the day down in New York at both the CBS archives and BBC America (pictured left), to discuss licensing of news and documentary footage for my company. CBS has news reel going back to the 1940s, as well as Kinescope of live programs from the 1950s and 60s. They're currently (like me!) converting 3/4-inch Umatic footage to digital. I still have two decks that work, and tapes I have dating back to the 1970s (see my Video Archive) still play. But it was nevertheless disquieting to think how little support the old format has. Sony has long since stopped supplying parts. CBS has its own internal engineers to clean, maintain, and salvage parts from other decks to keep the Sony Umatics working.

Makes me feel even more protective of my own decks. And I'm a little sentimental about Umatic since 3/4 was the first format in which I professionally trained and shot productions.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Forebodings
Things are not going well for the Perseus Book Group (which published my first).
The problem with YouTube.

Dan Rayburn nails it:
Maybe some of us simply want to see different things for the industry or judge the success of the industry on different metrics. For me, I want to see companies in the space last for ten years with a sustainable business model that actually generates revenue. To me, that is the only real way any company should be judged in any industry, Internet related or not.

But these days, especially with YouTube, many simply want to only focus on their "market share" or the number of videos being consumed as somehow equaling success for the company. That seems to be the same metric that was used in early 2000 when the vast majority of content portals said that all they needed was a lot of eyeballs to be successful and that the number of eyeballs was all that mattered. How well did that work out?

I've seen a few blogs posts this week that say it really does not matter how much money YouTube is losing since they maintain such a dominant share of the number of hours of videos viewed each month. While that's a nice stat, for me, it means nothing if you can't generate revenue around it. Would you rather run a business that can't sustain itself, but has a lot of market share, or run a company that is profitable, but has less of a market share? The fact that it's so hard to name a lot of companies that are still in business today, from just five years ago, shows that this industry has to be more than just about who has the most "market share" at any one given time. This has to be about creating a sustainable business and that is all that should matter. How many companies really care about their "market share" anymore when their company goes out of business? So when people say things like YouTube has "strategic value" to Google or is "part of the bigger picture", that's all just marketing terms. Try defining them.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Twitter is now doing its part to get new books reviewed, as mainstream newspapers continue to cut back.
News sure to please Aristotelians everywhere: Bacteria...with a sense of purpose.
Ken Miller with another salvo on Jerry Coyne's attempt to isolate and alienate religious scientists.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gee...
As for convicted criminals at his local, Perry admits there are many with troubling pasts and he said he deplores their past acts. “It does make me nervous,” he said, of having some convicted killers and attempted murderers within the union local.
Yah think? Jay Fitzgerald has the low down on the new pal-ocracy at the the South Boston Convention Center.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Andrew Sullivan is blogging up a storm about the 'elections' in Iran. He sends this along from an Iranian here:
I finally got through and spoke with my family in Tehran. My cousin, who studies at the University, had the following report:

"Life has come to a halt. There were at least 2-3M in the streets today. I've never seen such anger. We are not going let this go. They've closed all the universities (during final exams) and have started a purge. Many of our professors are missing and student organizers are moving constantly to avoid detainment. The police is just watching and the army has declared neutrality. The violence is 100% caused by the BASIJ and thugs who are roaming the streets. They seem to be targeting girls, swinging with clubs and chains. Its disgusting but we are protected by numbers. Get the word out-- the more of us stand together, the safer each individual will be. The reports of the university attacks yesterday are true. We don't know how many were hurt or killed."

Saturday, June 13, 2009


My favorite actor is now a knight of the British Empire. And about time, too. The bias has always been for stage actors only.
Congratulations to Sir Christopher.

Friday, June 12, 2009

In what is sure to be considered good news by people who like to mix the wrong cocktails with spicy foods on Friday nights, gastroenterologists have come up with a nifty new tool to help more effectively diagnose chronic heartburn.

The key to the technology is a tiny microscope at the tip of an endoscope -- a flexible, lighted device that's used to view inside the body. A blue light shines inside the body and the images are sent back to a computer. During the procedure, the doctors see the images on the screen.

"One of the advantages of the confocal laser microscope is that we can often make a diagnosis right then," Dr. Dunbar said.

Thanks to the new device, doctors can immediately identify pre-cancerous cells and other disorders and treat them more quickly.


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Larry Moran with a good post about what many scientists still get wrong about natural selection:
Most people think that beneficial alleles will always become fixed in a population. That's one of the most important misconceptions about natural selection and it's a shame that it was left out of the article.

This misconception is behind much of adaptationist thinking. To them it seems to be sufficient to postulate a benefit, no matter how small, and it automatically follows that the entire population/species will acquire it. The reality is that such adaptionist thinking requires two separate components: (1) the existence of a possible beneficial allele and, (2) the demonstration that the postulated benefit is of sufficient potency to lead to fixation with a high probability.1

There's one other misconception that's missing. Many people think that natural selection only occurs when the environment changes. This is formally equivalent to a belief that, in a stable environment, all species become perfectly adapted so that no further adaptation can take place. There's no evidence to support this concept. It requires that most species are sitting at the top of an adaptive peak.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Book Notes
Okay, I should've done this a couple of years ago, but better late than never...

Friday, June 05, 2009

New findings on feedback in the human blood clotting system, with "implications for the treatment of bleeding disorders."

Thursday, June 04, 2009

As a life-long resident of the People's Republic of Massachusetts, I do try not to despair about the commonwealth's truly pathetic political culture.

Then Jay Fitzgerald slaps me upside the head.
Fascinating new photos of Hitler have come to light. Life magazine features them.




We're so used to seeing Hitler in dusty, scratched black and white photos, it's jarring to see him this close in color, where even the texture of his clothes stands out. You can imagine him in the room next door now.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Book Notes: The Last Superstition
I read Edward Feser's excellent book a few months back, and rather than write a comprehensive book review in one post (which, given my schedule, would never happen before Ed was officially retired) I'd like instead to pick out one section of the book that struck me (and bearing in mind my background in philosophy is decidedly limited).

Feser's purpose in the book--and its major strength--is to look back over the evolution of philosophy in the West first, from the Greeks down to the present day, in order to more comprehensively explain a. where the new atheism derived from and b. why it fails.

In a sense, Feser had a predecessor in Etienne Gilson, whose Unity of Philosophical Experience also covered the evolution (or more accurately devolution) of modern philosophy from its classical roots.

But Feser's book, apart from being more up to date, is also more polemical. It's aimed at deconstructing the main arguments of the new atheists precisely by critically examining the sources of their arguments and venting a little healthy ridicule into the bargain.

Hume has long been something of a patron saint of atheists and materialists, because of his skepticism over the principle of causality. Visit any atheist blog and sooner or later the poster or one of his readers resorts to Hume the way Christian apologists resort to St. Paul.

I haven't read Hume in any great detail (or if I had to at some point for one of my courses in college, it's been so long I don't remember). But it always struck me as odd that many scientists were such admirers of his, since, to my mind the one thing Hume's critique of causality seemed to call into question is the very principle without which good science cannot be done in the first place.

But this seems to be one of the crippling presuppositions of modern materialists. To preface his argument about Hume, Feser pulls an excellent quote from E. A. Burtt's Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (still staring at me from one of my book shelves where it has sat since I bought it used, probably at Macintyre and Moore's or Harvard Book Store).

...even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates. For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination? (pp.228-229)

Your metaphysics will be held uncritically, Burtt adds, and any glance at the posts of bloggers like Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, etc. will be enough to demonstrate this. (See Brandon Watson's excellent deconstruction of Coyne's presuppositions here, as an example.)

Feser goes right after the source of this metaphysical confusion by revisiting Hume, who famously attacked the principle of causality as his major argument against God as the primary Cause of all. (It's on page 40 of this edition of his Treatise of Human Nature.) As Feser summarizes, Hume claimed,
...that we can easily 'conceive' a thing coming into being without a cause, so that the principle is at the very least doubtful. What he has in mind is something like this. Imagine the surface of a table with nothing on it. Now imagine a bowling ball appearing--pop!--in the middle of it, 'out of nowhere' as it were. There, you've just conceived of something coming into being without a cause, right? (p. 105)
The conflation of conceiving something with imagining something should be an elementary philosophical mistake I should think, but apparently it's one that has escaped many atheists. As Feser points out, any math teacher can help you with the conception of a chiliagon, but I defy you to imagine the thousand-sided sucker at the same time. Your mind just can't do it. Any more than it can imagine more than three dimensions of space. Yet, as mathematical physicists interested in string theory have shown, we can coherently conceive of multiple dimensions. The intellect and the imagination are not the same thing, yet Hume's basic confusion of the two has become a basic talking point of those hostile to the principle of causality.

Of course, as Feser writes, even granting Humeans the right to imagine something appearing suddenly isn't even to imagine it coming into existence without a cause. No astronomer in his right mind, confronted with the appearance of something out of the ordinary, like for example the 1967 radio waves coming from the pulsar in the Crab Nebula, would just shrug it off Hume-ishly as uncaused and get back to his programming routine. No, she (and it was a she) began searching doggedly for the cause.

This is just one example of Feser's critique of the fathers of modern philosophy. It doesn't begin to touch on his excellent overview of Aristotle in the opening chapters and the development of medieval philosophy. But I highly recommend getting the book.

Note: some critics (in particular more than a few of the whinier reviewers at Amazon) take issue with Feser's tone. For myself, I found the sarcastic asides hit or miss. Sometimes they cracked me up, other times they seemed forced. Knowing a bit about writing and publishing, it would not surprise me if the tone of the book was encouraged by editorial and marketing, and may not have been part of the author's initial approach. But I would urge prospective readers not to be put off by this.

If Richard Dawkins can resort to ridicule in order to shore up the morale of his closeted hordes, why can't those who oppose him do the same for theirs?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Book Notes
I just finished Daniel L. Lewis's exasperating God's Crucible. Clearly a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Europe's origins and Islam's role in it, but it is a trial. What starts out as a fascinating narrative soon devolves into a hard slog thanks to the author's annoying habit of infusing his own anachronistic presuppositions into the history.

The central argument of the book, and a valid one I think, is that Europe might have advanced more rapidly in its development had the Franks not checked the advance of Muslim armies into Europe at the Pyrenees. Lewis' hero, Abd al-Rahman, the first self-styled Amir of Andalusian Spain, was the sole survivor of the Syrian Umayyads, once proud rulers of Islam in the East, overthrown at last by the Abbasids. The boy made one narrow escape from assassination after another until he reached Spain where he rapidly rose to become the sophisticated ruler of al-Andalus, the parts of the Iberian Peninsula and Septimania under Muslim rule.

Lewis is at his best here. His love for the culture of Andalusian Spain and his appreciation for the sophistication of Arab culture is contagious and I found his overview of the rise of Islam thoroughly engrossing. But it's fairly plain that Muhammad brought the new faith of Islam into a civilization that was already ancient, prosperous and sophisticated. And this certainly is a factor in the speed with which it spread.

The same simply cannot be assumed about Europe, the very idea of which simply did not exist, even as the young Charlemagne earned his spurs fighting back the armies of pagan Saxons, Slavs and the many petty dukes ruling in the regions that would become France. The land mass that would become Europe was a cauldron of barbarous fights for survival as isolated pockets of learning desperately fought to keep what little learning existed afloat. There was no economy to speak of, no single currency, and no established rule of law apart from that enforced at the end of a sword.

But Lewis cannot restrain repeatedly expressing his sneering contempt for this proto-society as he highlights the stark differences between Dark Age Europe and al-Andalus.

For all of his vaunted academic credentials, Lewis' writing style often leaves much to be desired.

In his New York Times review of the book, Eric Ormsby rightfully points out:

Lewis has a penchant for awkward turns of phrase. In discussing the translation of ancient texts into Arabic, for instance, he refers often to the “Toledo conveyor belt,” making the slow, meticulous translation of Greek treatises into Arabic sound like something carried out at an Ohio auto plant. Occasionally he goes even farther astray; in discussing the Prophet’s views on women, he writes, “Muhammad’s comparatively enlightened ideas (as explained by Allah) about gender roles positively distinguished the Koran from its misogynistic Mosaic and Pauline analogues.” It’s hard to know what disturbs more here, the factual inaccuracies or the personal opinions inserted under cover of jargon.

Lewis is not a historian of Islam. This gives him the freedom to pursue big questions with impunity — and he does this quite well. But it also leads him into many surprising errors. For example, no Shiite Muslim would call the first three caliphs rashidun, or “rightly guided.” In fact, Shiites consider them usurpers and to this day curse them in their mosques. Lewis cites the acerbic Spanish Muslim theologian Ibn Hazm as an advocate of “love Platonic, exquisite but unrequited,” although in Ibn Hazm’s delightful book “The Ring of the Dove,” his descriptions of the pleasures of sexual intercourse are quite unrestrained. Since Lewis wishes to show that medieval Muslim culture was overwhelmingly superior to its contemporary European counterpart — and certainly it was — a more scrupulous attention to the details of that culture would have strengthened his case.
It gets worse. On page 165 for example, Lewis ludicrously refers to the English monk and historian, the Venerable Bede, as 'the Einstein of the Dark Ages', an analogy so clueless this reader could only put the book down for a moment and shake his head. What exactly Einstein and Bede have in common is never made plain, but I soldiered onward.

Almost two hundred pages later Lewis describes the rise of the monk Gerbert, who we are told learned a great deal during his sojourn in Barcelona, particularly, so the author tells us, in mathematics and astronomy. He writes of this future Pope Sylvester II: "In 980, the priest published his revolutionary four-page textbook on the new mathematics. It was a pivotal moment in the intellectual history of the West, reminiscent of the four physics papers published by Albert Einstein in 1909."

1909?

For all his merits as an historian of al-Andalus, clearly the author is as unfamiliar with the life and work of Einstein (whose 'miracle year' was 1905) as he is with the 'mumbo jumbo' of church Latin which he repeatedly condemns.

The usual ignorance of medieval scholarship is also on display throughout the book. Thomas Aquinas is once again dismissed as an over cautious scholar only interested in accepting what was 'theologically safe' from the works of Maimonides and Ibn Rushd. Lewis fails to point out that, far from being acceptable to the Christian theologians of the time, Aquinas' careful synthesis was condemned as harshly as Maimonides and Ibn Rushd were by their own communities. His detestation of Christianity's role in Europe simply blinds him to the possibility that these intellectuals were three peas in a pod, not two.

At the close of the book Lewis repeats the standard cliches about the authoritarian Pope Innocent III and his stipulations, that Jews and Muslims dwelling in Christendom should be set apart with distinctive garb. This was a hideous practice...earlier instituted in al-Andalus by Abd al-Rahman. Europe certainly benefited from the mores it learned from al-Andalus, the enlightened and the not-so-enlightened.

As I said, worth reading, but with caution over the author's political correctness.
I guess it's a relief to know my church isn't the only religion with...er, problems adhering to the Ten Commandments.