Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Friday, July 27, 2007

Well, the folks at the Discovery Institute ain't going to be happy about this. The pope calling the debate between creationism and evolution an absurdity? And evolution a "reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such”?? There goes his free subscription....
Just how tired is Hollywood? Well, they're digging up Mr. Spock and digging up Indiana Jones. You wonder why they didn't decide to put them both in the same movie, just to save on the budget and maximize the hype.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

It's easy to misread this week's New Yorker Magazine cover. At first glance it looks like a standard jibe at traditional religion and how conservatively women are dressed, but as always, on closer inspection, the artist is hinting at something else. It's actually our own culture that hides something intimate, for all of our otherwise seeming openness, and you have only to take public transportation or walk the streets of Boston or New York to confirm this. We hide our eyes. Heck these days, you're lucky to see anyone who doesn't have three to four out of five of the body's openings covered up/plugged up with something: rings in the nose, sunglasses over the eyes, iPod plugs in the ears, wads of gum in the mouth. Makes you wonder sometimes what people have up their...well, you get the idea.

As a culture, we're not at all as open as we think we are.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tom Piatek makes a good case for future editors of Christopher Hitchens to, um, fact-check his dashed off tomes.

It's summer reading time and I remain pleasantly surprised by the pen of Robert E. Howard, as presented by Del Rey in their compilation of the complete Conan stories that Howard wrote in the 1930s. Howard was no literary genius, but compared to the hacks passed off in today's sword and sorcery market, his prose soars. Much as I appreciate what J.K. Rowling has done with her Potter books, she could've learned a thing or two from this Texan.
Scott Carson, on reading a review of a new book about the Greek soldier Xenophon and the eerie similarities of our current conflict with that of the ancient soldiers fighting pretty much right where our girls and boys are now:
I was struck by this because anyone who reads The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times knows that precisely this scenario was used to illustrate the "usefulness" of certain sorts of torture during times of conflict with unprincipled, morally depraved terrorists. The irony of turning into terrorists ourselves in our dealings with terrorists appears to be lost on some persons, but it is interesting, if not downright amusing, to find that things have changed so little over the centuries, and we ought to find it instructive that our cultural and institutional heroes, the Greeks, were every bit as nasty as we are when they needed to be. We are, perhaps, more like them than even we ourselves would care to admit.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Christopher Lee has just finished recording the audio book for The Children of Hurin. No surprise to anyone who loved the Tolkien books and the movies. He was almost the only member of the cast by the way, who not only pronounced all of Tolkien's invented place-names etc properly, but clearly enjoyed it, too.
I resisted rushing out for the fifth and sixth Harry Potter books when they went on sale (too much hype); but since this was the last, I picked it up Sunday from a huge stack at Stop & Shop while I was there to pick up my daughter's birthday cake. (Hey, if they're cheesy enough to sell it at Stop & Shop, don't blame me for being cheesy enough to buy it there.)

Finished it off last night. All in all, Rowling wrapped it up quite well, but I don't think in the last analysis she killed off anywhere near the number of major characters the media was hinting at. Mr. Weaseley? Give me a break. He had 'Star Trek security guard' written all over him from the get-go....

Saturday, July 21, 2007

In other news this week, in case you missed it, Mitch McConnell kicked Harry Reid's ass. And the whole Senate knows it.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Jay Fitzgerald backs Steve Bailey (and so do I). You really have to wonder sometimes what's going on with our Federal authorities.

Brendan adds a good philosophical point, however:
In a sense, it's interesting that in general the liberal side of the political spectrum in the US right now is in favor of lighter punishments for those who actually commit murder, but wants to confiscate one particular means of doing so; while the conservative side supports much stiffer penalties for murder, but keeping guns moderately available. In a world full of thinking persons, this would indicate some very interesting things about how the two side view the human person.
In reality, however, it may just be that the younger, more urban and childless demographics which are the mainstay of liberal activism have a personal distaste for guns, while the older, more rural demographic that votes most conservatively sees the benefits of guns as well as their cost.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Cool Science Gossip
Kenneth Miller was speaking this evening at Boston College's Clavius Symposium on Faith, Mathematics and Science, and I was lucky enough to hear about the event straight from Ken and get there in time for his talk. I've corresponded with him by email, read his book and seen his recorded appearances at universities as well as his stint on the Colbert report. But I'd never met him until today.

If you've ever seen him give his presentation live, you know what a great enthusiast he is for science and religion. Catholic parents concerned about the whole hyped up science/religion wars ought to get Ken to give his talk at their church or their school--because whether we like it or not, science education in this country is pathetic, and Ken is a great antidote to the obnoxiousness of the 'new atheists' who love to beat church-goers over the head with the alleged 'indifference' of the cosmos and science's 'unassailable' role in proving the meaninglessness of life. (Note to Mark Shea and Amy Welborn, you've got to meet this guy!)

One of the things Ken pointed out, which doesn't surprise me, is the amount of hate mail he gets from fundamentalists: fundie Bible Christians who tell him he's going to burn in hell for teaching evolution, and fundie atheists who tell him what a traitor he is to science for even suggesting that you can accept evolution and darken the door of a church every Sunday.

I know some conservative Catholics who have read his Finding Darwin's God like to sniff about an alleged flirting with 'process theology' --but he couldn't have quoted more orthodox authorities in his talk, including the late John Paul II, Augustine, Aquinas and the current pontiff, Benedict, whom Ken reminded his audience approved this paragraph (63) for the document Communion and Stewardship for the International Theological Commission:
"According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the 'Big Bang' and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5 - 4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution." (paragraph 63, from "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God," plenary sessions held in Rome 2000-2002, published July 2004)
One can quibble with the current pope's use of the word 'controversy'--I think 'research' and 'argument continues' would have been more accurate. But his summation of what science has told us thus far is, as Ken pointed out, second to none.

Interesting note: Ken also alluded to the fact that he had heard directly from members of the Pontifical Academy that they were not happy with Cardinal Schönborn's ill-considered 2005 op-ed column for the New York Times tacitly endorsing intelligent design. The Cardinal has since...er, done his penance for that faux paux. As many suspected, he did not write the op-ed himself, but allowed it to be handled largely by flacks for the Discovery Institute with whom he is sympathetic.

As has been pointed out before (see the excellent Scott Carson) this kind of nonsense has only helped confuse Christians about the factuality of evolution and what it means and doesn't mean for religious faith.

Anyway, it was a great talk--and I was delighted and surprised at the close of his presentation, to not only see Ken cite Lemaitre and his philosophy of science, but show a picture of my book and kindly point out to the audience that the author was..ahem... in attendance.

It also turns out that the Brown professor and colleague of Ken's who introduced him to the audience was a graduate student in mathematics who knew Lemaitre when he was at U.C. Berkeley in the early sixties: Thomas Banchoff.

I wish I'd known that when I was writing the book. Maybe if I'm lucky enough to go to a second printing I can add Tom's firsthand anecdotes about the cosmology genius...
Mike Dunford has a good post on genes and their role in determining human evolution:
As you can see, different genes can have different genealogies even within a single biological genealogy. That's why it's not only possible but also unsurprising that the mitochondrial gene genealogy that traced back to "mitochondrial eve" and the Y-chromosome genealogy that traced back to "Y-chromosome Adam" don't lead back to individuals who were married to each other, or even lived within 50,000 years of each other. It's just part of the glorious complexity that you get to see when you look at the way genes get passed through populations.
Rod Dreher on Cardinal Mahony:
And you know, his job is safe. That's the thing that I cannot understand, and never will understand about the Catholic Church: why the Vatican continues to allow malfeasants like Mahony to remain in office. John Paul removed Bishop Gaillot, a far-left French bishop, for (thoroughly justified) theological reasons. But somehow, a Cardinal Mahony, who has done far more damage to the Church, skates. It makes no sense to me. I'm no longer a Catholic, as you know, and I'm not angry (anymore) at the Catholic Church, but honestly, this "stand by the bishop no matter what he's done, short of a crime" strategy is so damaging to the Church's authority. Yes?

Monday, July 16, 2007

I also need to do more of this...

I need to do more of this before summer ends.
Ten years after I left, turns out my home town is one of the top ten places to live.

7. Milton, Mass.


Population: 25,700
Typical single-family home: $440,000
Estimated property taxes: $5,900
Pros: Close to Boston; borders conservation land
Cons: Traffic, little commercial activity

A former actress who appeared on Seinfeld, Carissa Steefel has traded in her Hollywood dreams to raise a family in Milton. "We're not going anywhere," she says. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Just eight miles south of the heart of Boston, Milton borders the Blue Hills Reservation, a 7,000-acre park with hiking, swimming and skiing. "It's almost rural, but you have easy access to the city," says Jonathan Pincus, a physician and father who works in Boston.

Indeed, proximity to the city is what brings -- and keeps -- Milton residents where they are. Its loyal citizens do age, but even then they don't move. Fuller Village, a senior-housing development, is the town's single biggest taxpayer. In part that's because there are few businesses contributing to the tax base. East Milton Square is the town's Main Street, with coffee shops, a pizza place and a small grocery store. What's missing, most agree, is a destination eatery. "Everybody wants a restaurant but not in their backyard," says Kathleen Kechejian, a mother of two who last year opened Glory Daze, a consignment boutique. During the summer the big gathering place is the city swimming pool, built by a local family and open to any resident who pays the $75 annual dues.

Milton boasts a diverse population, with minorities making up 30%. And its schools, which rank among the state's top 20, offer an unusual French-immersion option. All six schools have recently been rebuilt, and the library is now expanding. Such projects require voters to approve special tax assessments. But "those decisions reflect what's important to the residents," says Inger Kwaku, a mother of four. "That's why I love it here.
I'm a conservative and NRO reader, though not as much as I used to be (their coverage of science is, shall we say, uninspiring). But even ten or fifteen years back, I remember looking at those ads for annual National Review cruises in the print mag, and thinking: are they serious?

How can you write about something like that and keep a straight face? Apparently you can't.

Now, I realize how notoriously easy it is for a journalist to crank out this kind of parody, and I'm willing to bet half of the conversations he's 'reporting' are made up...but still.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Krauthammer today:
We don't yet know if this strategy will work in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods. Nor can we be certain that this cooperation between essentially Sunni tribal forces and an essentially Shiite central government can endure. But what cannot be said -- although it is now heard daily in Washington -- is that the surge, which is shorthand for Gen. David Petraeus's new counterinsurgency strategy, has failed. The tragedy is that, just as a working strategy has been found, some Republicans in the Senate have lost heart and want to pull the plug.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I agree with Jay:
As for the whole withdraw-vs.-stick-it-out debate, I still want to hear the September report from Gen. Petraeus. I guess that makes me a stick-it-out guy these days. I don't want to abandon Iraq to possible 'ethnic cleansing, even genocide.' But at the same time I know there are military reasons for troop withdrawals of some sort next year. It's going to happen whether we argue about it or not.
I think the Iraqi soldiers want this soon, too--and I hope Michael Yon's latest (see below) is a harbinger of the locals' fight against Al Qaeda...so that they are more than ready when we do start pulling out.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Michael Barone:
In 1996, if Lamar Alexander had won 8,000 more votes in New Hampshire, he rather than Dole would have finished second to Pat Buchanan there and would have probably emerged as Buchanan’s chief rival—and thus the nominee, since in a one-on-one race any respectable candidate could have beaten Buchanan.
I can't say I'm a Michael Moore fan...not having seen any of his movies. On the other hand, I did enjoy watching him kick CNN's butt....

The Flight of Al-Qaeda?
Abu Ali said that on April 1, 2007, he and his people attacked al Qaeda in Buhriz for their crimes against Islam. He also said something that many Muslims have said to me: Al Qaeda are not Muslims. (Both Sunni and Shia have said nearly the exact same words, at times on video.) Abu Ali said they fought hard against Al Qaeda, and on April 10, they asked the Americans to join the attack. It worked.
Boy, do I hope Yon is right.
Thin-skinned Dept.

Dawkins has now dashed off a brief, condescending reply to David Sloan Wilson's essay. Note that he doesn't bother to address Wilson's main points. One wonders if this is just the first broadside from other scientists who are fed up with his demagoguery.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The ultimate problem with Bush. I think Derb gets it exactly right:
For future reference, here's that I think about the man's mind. He's well above average in intelligence. You don't get a degree from Yale—not even with a C average—unless you're fairly smart. Psychologist Linda Gottfredson, working from W's published test scores, estimated his IQ at 125, which would put him around the 95th percentile (meaning that W is smarter than 19 out of 20 Americans). Charles Murray pegged him a tad lower, but still up in the 90-somethingth percentile.
On the other hand, my rather strong impression is that while the president CAN think, he DOESN'T, much. The Iraq blunderings, the poverty of his off-the-cuff oratory, the endless repetition of tired, empty cliches long discredited, the Harriet Miers fiasco, the stupid squandering of his small remaining political capital on that major-stupid immigration bill... not much thinking there that I can see.
Because it's summer time...

Siris has an interesting post on one Father Hell, SJ, one of the greatest astronomers of the 17th century.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Via Mark Shea.

I've been away for a while, so I'm not sure whether any of the crew at scienceblogs have had a look at David Sloan Wilson's essay sent in the latest Skeptic email by Michael Shermer. He takes Dawkins to task for having little or nothing to offer to back up his claims about the evolutionary origins of religion.

In retrospect, it is hard to fathom the zeal with which evolutionists such as Williams and Dawkins rejected group selection and developed a view of evolution as based entirely on self-interest. Williams ended Adaptation and Natural Selection with the phrase “I believe that it is the light and the way.” Here is how Dawkins recounts the period in his 1982 book The Extended Phenotype:

The intervening years since Darwin have seen an astonishing retreat from his individual-centered stand, a lapse into sloppily unconscious group-selectionism … We painfully struggled back, harassed by sniping from a Jesuitically sophisticated and dedicated neo-group-selectionist rearguard, until we finally regained Darwin’s ground, the position that I am characterizing by the label ‘the selfish organism…”

This passage has all the earmarks of fundamentalist rhetoric, including appropriating the deity (Darwin) for one’s own cause. Never mind that Darwin was the first group selectionist. Moreover, unlike The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype was written by Dawkins for his scientific peers, not for a popular audience!

In reality, the case against group selection began to unravel almost immediately after the publication of Adaptation and Natural Selection, although it was difficult to tell, given the repressive social climate. In the first place, calling genes “replicators” and “the fundamental unit of selection” is no argument at all against group selection. The question has always been whether genes can evolve by virtue of benefiting whole groups and despite being selectively disadvantageous within groups. When this happens, the gene favored by between-group selection replaces the gene favored by within-group selection in the total population. In the parlance of population genetics theory, it has the highest average effect. Re-labeling the gene selfish, just because it evolves, contributes nothing. The “gene’s eye view” of evolution can be insightful in some respects, but as an argument against group selection it is one of the greatest cases of comparing apples with oranges in the annals of evolutionary thought.

The same goes for the concept of extended phenotypes, which notes that genes have effects that extend beyond the bodies of individual organisms. Examples of extended phenotypes include a bird’s nest or a beaver’s dam. But there is a difference between these two examples; the nest benefits only the individual builder, whereas the dam benefits all of the beavers in the pond, including those who don’t contribute to building the dam. The problem of within-group selection is present in the dam example and the concept of extended phenotypes does nothing to solve it. More apples and oranges.

Worth reading the whole thing. I think you're going to see more of these...excellent 'beg to differs' from specialists in the field who have had enough of the bomb-throwing on the fundie atheist side and who don't mind pointing out that much of the time, Dawkins doesn't even understand his own field as well as he lets on.

Monday, July 02, 2007

It's early July, and vacation thoughts take me to the Villa del Sogno, the villa of dreams...on the shores of Italy's Lake Garda. It also makes me think of William Trevor's short stories, because I was reading a collection of them the last time I was there.

Selling out Dracula?

Bran Castle was built in the 14th century to serve as a fortress to protect against the invading Ottoman Turks. The royal family moved into the castle in the 1920s, living there until the communist regime confiscated it from Princess Ileana in 1948.

After being restored in the late 1980s and following the end of communist rule in Romania, it gained popularity as a tourist attraction known as "Dracula's Castle."

In May 2006, the castle was returned to Princess Ileana's son, New York architect Archduke Dominic Habsburg. He pledged to keep it open as a museum until 2009.

Habsburg, 69, offered to sell the castle last year to local authorities for $80 million, but the offer was rejected.

On Monday, he put the castle up for sale "to the right purchaser under the right circumstances," said Michael Gardner, chief executive of Baytree Capital, the company representing Habsburg. "The Habsburgs are not in the business of managing a museum."

Big deal. The vaunted Vlad only spent one night in Bran Castle. I want to know why the government doesn't restore the actual Castle Dracula. I recall seeing pictures of the ruins from Leonard Wolfe's old book on the historic Dracula...