Friday, February 26, 2010

At last it's official. I'll be going to Cambridge University in the UK in June and July:
NEW YORK, FEBRUARY 25 – Ten prominent journalists from the United States, the United Kingdom, and China have been selected for the sixth annual Templeton–Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion.  Inaugurated in 2004, the fellowships include a program of research and scholarship at the University of Cambridge in England.  The 2010 fellows were announced today by the New York office of the Templeton–Cambridge Fellowships, which are funded by the John Templeton Foundation of West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.

“The fellowships provide top journalists worldwide with an opportunity to engage in a rigorous and wide-ranging examination of the field of science and religion,” says Templeton–Cambridge Fellowships Co-director Fraser Watts, Reader in Theology and Science, University of Cambridge.  “With the deeper understanding that they gain through the fellowship program, these journalists will be better able to promote a more informed public discussion of science and religion.”

The Templeton–Cambridge Journalism fellows named today are:

Qanta Ahmed, Contributor, Huffington Post, and Broadcast Commentator
John Farrell, Freelance Journalist
Zeeya Merali, Freelance Journalist and Documentary Producer
Chris Mooney, Science Journalist and Reporter
Lisa Mullins, Chief Anchor and Senior Producer, BBC’s The World
Jane Qiu, Correspondent, Nature
Francis X. Rocca, Vatican Correspondent, Religion News Service
Carlin Romano, Critic-at-large, Chronicle of Higher Education
Ron Rosenbaum, Cultural Columnist, Slate
Peter Scoblic, Executive Editor, The New Republic
Boy, do I have my reading list cut out for me!
James Corum: One wonders how much longer the Obama Administration can get by without experienced diplomats.
Despite the acclaim that America’s mainstream media has heaped on Hillary Clinton over the years, her foreign policy background and experience before becoming Secretary of State was to accompany her husband on foreign trips and preside over “first wives” dinners for the spouses of visiting heads of state. One learns a lot about protocol and ceremonies – but this is no preparation for the real work of making policy. Clinton has no experience or education in foreign policy. She speaks no foreign languages and has never lived abroad. She lacks the intellectual temperament to be a foreign policy leader. Like Obama, she has long surrounded herself with sycophants.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Nice interview of astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter on his work in the 1990s revealing how the universe's expansion rate is accelerating.

If he were still alive, Fr. Georges Lemaitre would have been thrilled at this discovery.
(Not that he would have stuck his tongue out at Einstein or Fred Hoyle or anything...)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Humphrey Clarke is not impressed with Jason Rosenhouse's recent review of Galileo Goes to Jail.
Rosenhouse’s reaction to the book demonstrates the difficulties of refuting the set of comfortable myths that people on both side of the science-religion debate tend to subscribe to. Although you might succeed in denting them, you will commonly find that a smaller, yet no less weaker myth is erected next to them and asserted with just as much force. Our view of late antiquity –through the lens of Edward Gibbon – used to be that of a book-burning free for all with fanatical Christians running around destroying the fruits of the Greco-Roman world and replacing the rational thought of Hellenistic culture with obscure discussions about how three people could fit plausibility into one person and what angels get up to at weekends. This is such an appealing image that it’s a hard one to let go of. Eventually the view Rosenhouse goes for (which is similar to Richard Carrier’s) is that the early Christians did not kill science, they merely lost interest in it (although I don’t know what a figure like John Philoponus or Boethius would have made of that). This is in many ways as powerful a myth as the previous one. A concerted effort by Christians to kill all science for a thousand years is, well, kind of cool. Simply losing interest is just lame.
Well said.
I'm reading the Fodor/Piatelli-Palmarini book now, but John Wilkins is not impressed.
Jerry Fodor is a smart guy in his field, but if this is his argument, it is childish. This, which is called “referential opacity” in philosophy (“You know your father. You do not know the Masked Man. Therefore the masked man is not your father.”) is a comment or fact about us the theorisers, not about the way the world works. It is about (as I italicised above) what we can say. The masked man might very well be your father, and the disconnect is in your words, not the world. Likewise natural selection works on whatever class of properties happen to confer differential fitness on their bearers; that we may be unable to identify what those properties are is a fact about us not about the organisms.
Three things media publishers still don't know about how the digital future is going to go.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The temple begat the city.
Göbekli Tepe—the name in Turkish for "potbelly hill"—lays art and religion squarely at the start of that journey. After a dozen years of patient work, Schmidt has uncovered what he thinks is definitive proof that a huge ceremonial site flourished here, a "Rome of the Ice Age," as he puts it, where hunter-gatherers met to build a complex religious community. Across the hill, he has found carved and polished circles of stone, with terrazzo flooring and double benches. All the circles feature massive T-shaped pillars that evoke the monoliths of Easter Island.

Though not as large as Stonehenge—the biggest circle is 30 yards across, the tallest pillars 17 feet high—the ruins are astonishing in number. Last year Schmidt found his third and fourth examples of the temples. Ground-penetrating radar indicates that another 15 to 20 such monumental ruins lie under the surface. Schmidt's German-Turkish team has also uncovered some 50 of the huge pillars, including two found in his most recent dig season that are not just the biggest yet, but, according to carbon dating, are the oldest monumental artworks in the world.
 This changes things, to put it mildly.
Religion now appears so early in civilized life—earlier than civilized life, if Schmidt is correct—that some think it may be less a product of culture than a cause of it, less a revelation than a genetic inheritance. The archeologist Jacques Cauvin once posited that "the beginning of the gods was the beginning of agriculture," and Göbekli may prove his case.
This may not go over too well with the fat, angry, white guys new atheists.
Sean Trende takes Paul Krugman to the wood shed:
Let's also be clear that an awful lot of this spending is Obama's spending, not Bush's. The summary tables for Bush's last budget (FY09) can be found here. Bush wasn't doing ten-year budgeting, but his outlays for 2011 were $3.1 trillion, for 2012 were $3.2 trillion and for 2013 were $3.3 trillion. That represents a $700 billion, $600 billion, and $600 billion increase over the baseline for spending that President Bush was anticipating. Even generously allocating $200 billion for putting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan back in the budget (where they should have been in the first place) and $200 billion for increased interest on the debt from 2008 and 2009 for TARP/stimuli, that's a pretty significant delta in the final Bush baseline and the initial Obama baseline, and it occurs well after the "temporary surge" in spending has supposedly wound down. And while Obama can argue that spending declines from 25.4% of GDP in 2010 to 22.8% of GDP in 2013 (before beginning an inexorable rise), that is still substantially higher than the 18.6% peak that President Bush foresaw.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Walter Russell Mead today:
Anyway, as the Post now belatedly acknowledges, the movement to stop climate change through a Really Big and Comprehensive Grand Global Treaty is dead because there is no political consensus in the US to go forward.  It’s dead because the UN process is toppling over from its own excessive ambition and complexity.  It’s dead because China and India are having second thoughts about even the smallish steps they put on the table back in Copenhagen.

Doornail dead.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The confirmations of Eintein's General Relativity get more and more precise. This is extraordinary:
Now, a team led by Holger Müller of the University of California, Berkeley, has measured the time-shifting effects of gravity 10,000 times more accurately than ever before. They show that gravity's effect on time is predictable to 7 parts per billion (H. Müller, A. Peters and S. Chu Nature 463, 926–929; 2010). And they did it using two laboratory clocks with a height difference of just 0.1 millimetres — a set-up that seems quaintly small in this day of big physics. "Precision experiments on a tabletop are not something of the past," says Müller, whose research team consisted of Achim Peters of the Humboldt University of Berlin and Steven Chu, the US Secretary of Energy.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Forensic genetics and the pharaohs of Egypt:
After extracting tiny amounts of ancient DNA from the mummies' bones, the researchers amplified 16 short tandem repeats (short sequences in the DNA that create a genetic fingerprint) and eight polymorphic microsatellites (hereditary molecular markers) to testable quantities using techniques commonly employed in criminal or paternity investigations. They also looked for DNA sequences from the malaria pathogen.

Based on their results so far, the researchers were able to name several mummies who were previously anonymous (referred to only by tomb number), including Tut's grandmother "Tiye" and Tut's father, the KV55 mummy probably named "Akhenaten". "This is the most important discovery since the finding of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922," Hawass says. The team also identified the mummy likely to be Tut's mother as KV35YL, not Queen Nefertiti as was once thought. "Now I'm sure that it cannot be Nefertiti, and therefore the mother of King Tut is one of the daughters of Amenhotep III and Tiye—and there are five," Hawass says, adding that he plans to investigate this further.
George Will with a good article today on Sarah Palin:
Populism has had as many incarnations as it has had provocations, but its constant ingredient has been resentment, and hence whininess. Populism does not wax in tranquil times; it is a cathartic response to serious problems. But it always wanes because it never seems serious as a solution.

Political nature abhors a vacuum, which is what often exists for a year or two in a party after it loses a presidential election. But today's saturation journalism, mesmerized by presidential politics and ravenous for material, requires a steady stream of political novelties. In that role, Palin is united with the media in a relationship of mutual loathing. This is not her fault. But neither is it her validation.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dan Rayburn says it's time to take stock of YouTube on its 5th anniversary:
In his latest post on YouTube's blog, talking about YouTube's fifth birthday, Chad makes all kinds of references to YouTube's "innovation", "experience" and how they provide the "revenue models", "tools" and just about anything else a content owner needs to succeed. The problem with this thinking is that YouTube didn't contribute to the technology of the industry at all. They haven't created any codecs, new delivery protocols, created any industry standards or even lead the pack by adding new functionality. While Chad talks about all of YouTube's "innovation" lets not forget that they don't even support streaming, don't support live, only recently starting supporting HD, have a cap on the size of file that can be uploaded and have plenty of other limitations of their service. Show me one feature of YouTube that they lead the market with or is something the rest of the industry has adopted.
 And, oh yeah, it doesn't make any money.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

You can always count on Jerry Coyne to uncritically applaud A.C. Grayling ...even when, as Brandon shows, the guy's logic leaves much to be desired.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Samuelson on how Obama's administration is handling...or not handling China:
It would be a tragedy if these two superpowers began regarding each other as adversaries. But that's the drift. Heirs to a 2,000-year cultural tradition -- and citizens of the world's largest country -- the Chinese have an innate sense of superiority, Jacques writes. Americans, too, have a sense of superiority, thinking that our values -- the belief in freedom, individualism and democracy -- reflect universal aspirations.
Greater conflicts and a collision of national egos seem inevitable. No longer should we sit passively while China's trade and currency policies jeopardize jobs here and elsewhere. Political differences between the countries are increasingly hard to ignore. But given China's growing power -- and the world economy's fragile state -- a showdown may do no one any good. Miscalculation is leading us down dark alleys.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Walter Russell Mead with a good post on the challenge of real health care reform:
Either we will ration health care much more aggressively than we do now, or we will find much more efficient ways to provide health care.  I vote for the latter, and I think most Americans agree.
This means that change, not stability has to be the number one goal of serious health care reform.  This isn’t about propping up the current system for a few more years, or even about getting more people under the tent.  It’s not even about ‘bending the cost curve’; it’s about whether the system will break down before today’s college students hit middle age.  We have to learn to do health care in fundamentally new ways in the next twenty years.  The changes needed are much more radical and sweeping than anything envisioned in the current legislation — and it will take  a very different mindset to make them happen.  The current bill is a classic example of steady state, blue social model thinking: it is more interested in keeping the status quo going by pumping more money into it than it is in the basic restructuring needed to build a system that will work in the future.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Stephen Barr today:
It is time to take stock: What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.
I absolutely have to attend this panel at Boskone this weekend.

Saturday 10am Harbor 3: The Suck Fairy, and Other Horrors of Rereading

The Suck Fairy takes old books you used to like and magically makes them, well, suck. Writer Jo Walton heard tell of this creature at last year's Montreal Worldcon; other participants deduced the existence of a Racism Fairy and a Sexism Fairy as well. Let's discuss particularly painful examples of the influence of these dispiriting sprites on our own (formerly) favorite rereads
Daniel P. Dern, Christopher Golden, Kate Nepveu, Jo Walton (m), Jane Yolen
 Should be pretty entertaining.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Steve Matheson pretty much nails the problem with Stephen Meyer (and the rest of the Discovery Institute fellows.)
Now, if you're not a biologist, you might think the error is trivial, purely semantic, a typing glitch induced by the proximity of the word 'virulent.' And that last part is probably right. But this biologist finds the error more significant, and I suspect others would agree. The difference, I think, is that I can't imagine mistaking a virus for a bacterium; it's like mistaking a pencil for a sequoia. A person who would make that mistake – and leave it in his awesome, groundbreaking treatise on 21st-century biological science – is a person who doesn't think very much about viruses or bacteria. A person who would make that mistake is a non-specialist. A layperson.

And of course, Stephen Meyer is a layperson. He's clearly not a biologist, or even a person who's particularly knowledgeable about biology. (That paper in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington became infamous due to political disputes; I thought it was most notable for being lame.) This is obvious from my reading of this book and his other work, and the mistake on page 66 just serves to remind me that despite the thunderous praise from fans on the dustjacket and in the ID-osphere, Meyer just isn't all that impressive as a scientific thinker. Call me a jerk, but I expect a hell of a lot more from someone who wants to rewrite science (and its history).

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Author's Guild on the Google Settlement:
But here's the thing: copyright victories tend to be Pyrrhic in the digital age. Our settlement negotiations went on with full knowledge of what happened to the music industry. The RIAA (the Recording Industry Association of America) won victory after victory, defeating Napster and Grokster with ground-breaking legal rulings. The RIAA also went after countless individuals, chasing down infringement wherever they could track it down.

It didn't work. The infringement just moved elsewhere, in unpredictable ways. Nothing seems to drive innovation among copyright pirates as much as a defeat in the courts. That innovation didn't truly abate until Apple came along with its iPod/iTunes model, making music easily and legally available at a reasonable price. By then, the music industry was devastated.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Is niche publishing the way of the future for the trades?
Not only is focusing on a specific niche beneficial in terms of selling books, it ultimately helps a publisher grow by establishing authority within their niche. Because niche publishers are focused on engaging with a targeted audience, they must concentrate on building a brand and a mission; they can’t just publish books.

Chelsea Green started off as a generalist, but they now publish books on “the politics and practice of sustainable living” and are firmly entrenched as a valued member of their community. Baldwin emphasized that it wasn’t only being niche that helped them grow, but realizing the importance of publishing with a mission – an overarching principal that pulls the company forward.

“We saw 7% growth over 2008 last year in an industry that is flat or down, so something (our community focus, newsletters, etc.) is paying off,” noted Baldwin.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Bill Vallicella takes a closer look at C.S. Lewis and the problem with his famous 'trilemma'. (He doesn't spare Peter Kreeft either.)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

I agree with Phil Plait. We should plan on returning to the Moon...and staying there.

I don’t want a repeat of the Apollo program: a flag-and-footprints mission where we go there, look around, and then come home for another 40 years. I want to go there and stay there. Apollo was done as a race, and the goal of a race is to win. It wasn’t sustainable. We need to be able to figure out how to get there and be there, and that takes more than just big rockets. We need a good plan, and I’m not really sure what we had up until this point is that plan.
Building a heavy-lift rocket that can take us to the Moon, Mars, and near-Earth asteroids is not really easy. It’s not like we can dust off the old Saturn V plans and start up the factories again. All that tech is gone, superseded, and we might as well start from scratch with an eye toward newer tech. This budget is calling for that, as well as relying heavily on private companies. 

Monday, February 01, 2010

Samuleson on health care reform:
Only leadership that persuaded people that the prospective benefits outweighed the risks would make the health care system's transformation possible. Obama hasn't provided it. He would mainly perpetuate the status quo and increase the number of insured. It's a missed opportunity that is a big reason why the nation's budget outlook is so dismal.