Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I thought this Christmas I'd offer up a little bit of personal nostalgia. My favorite rendition of The Little Drummer Boy has always been the obscure rendition that was part of the Christmas Collection of music on LPs offered every year by Firestone back in the 1960s when I was a toddler. Yes, Firestone, the automobile tire manufacturer.

As far as I'm concerned, there's never been a better version. So a Merry Christmas to all, and by all means pass this on to your friends and neighbors. I took it right from the LP. Until recently, the LPs have never been officially re-distributed on CD. But some enterprising individual has now transferred them (whether this is authorized or not, I don't know.)

Happy New Year.

Razib is looking at a recent science headline that brings out the worst of evolutionary psychology:
One of the most tiresome aspects of evolutionary psychology is the paradigmatic straitjacket which many of the practitioners operate under; the only type of evolution that exists is unidirectional. Deviations from expectation are explained away. The importance of human universals mean that variation can not exist. These sorts of evolutionary psychologists resemble the caricature of the economist who holds to rational choice so that behavior which deviates from the model is explained by ad hoc contingencies.
He goes on:

In Demonic Males Richard Wrangham reports that orangutan males come in two morphs. A very large one, and a small one which seems to be a case of paedomorphism. Female orangutans prefer the normal large male orangutans as sexual partners. But the small ones do reproduce. How so? They ambush and chase the females and rape them. This is a behavioral strategy which can work well if the small variant morph is not extant as too high a frequency, because females will then not be "on alert." How these sorts of variations emerge is clear to anyone who is cursorily familiar with evolutionary game theory.

I use the orangutan "raper" strategy as an example for a reason: some of the press will no doubt spin the new research as a victory for feminism and a rebuke to heteronormative males or something of that sort, at least implicitly. But the intersection of biology and behavior is fundamentally value neutral; humans are the ones interjecting norms. The old paradigm of evolutionary psychology, which I must admit is justifiably "Just So" and rooted in an coarse and outdated understanding of biological science, should be rejected on scientific grounds. Not only are there many areas where it offers little insight, but it is no longer compelling on theoretical grounds.

There are certainly a core of human behavioral traits which exhibit little variance, and are extremely constrained by purifying selection which fixes the trait so that only one morph is extant at appreciable frequencies. But there are many which no doubt exhibit continuities, while a fair number likely can be modeled as discrete strategies across the adaptive landscape, buffeted by stochastic & frequency dependent dynamics as well as exogenous parameters. As simple as sufficient, but as complex as necessary, should be the maxim.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

Don't Drink and Drive. And for God's sake, don't do it in Russia!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Good-bye to Brightcove
As of yesterday, Cambridge "start-up" video delivery company Brightcove shut off the free service it started a few years back, in order to pursue high-paying corporate clients. As you can see from the comments section of their blog-post, a lot of their more entrepreneurial users are not happy.

I'm surprised frankly Brightcove did not have the wherewithal to offer an entry-level option for small producers. Or... perhaps I should say I'm flattered that they think independent producers can dish out $6000/year for the 'entry-level' service.

In any case, we at Farrellmedia have taken the opportunity to port our videos from Brightcove over to Vimeo. While it doesn't have as many features (yet) as Brightcove's player--I must say Vimeo's intuitively easier to use.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A rather nice thought of the day, from Just Thomism:
The simplest answer to ‘why something as opposed to nothing’ is ‘because of something that is not ‘’something as opposed to nothing”’. Something whose existence is not simply one side of a contradiction.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lab Rat, coming to the conclusion that scientists don't always have the answers.
John Wilkins on the problems with theistic evolution.
I have argued before that the only sense of theistic evolutionist that makes any sense without doing irreparable harm to science is something like Leibniz' notion that God has created or actualised the world that best serves whatever utility functions God has (i.e., whatever is in his Plan) out of a large number, possibly infinite, of worlds. The primary cause, in other words, lies in the choice of and creation of a world that through secondary causes (natural laws) results in the things and outcomes he Planned. This makes absolutely no scientific difference whatsoever, and so it consonant with the best scientific explanation. But because a great many theists seem to think of God as a kind of Great Pointy Haired Manager, who acts to micromanage everything in the universe, they insist that to be a theist is necessarily to give up some of the explanatory power of science in favour of a providential account (which we cannot know anyway, because God's Ways are Mysterious).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Whatever Happened to QuickTime II
I like to keep an eye on some of the media developer lists out there, and today I came across a fascinating discussion that could basically serve as the sequel to the article I wrote, this time last year, for Streaming Media, detailing the woes of developers who have watched Apple stop supporting the excellent tools and third-party applications that allowed them to build rich media/interactive programs and tools in QuickTime, which still, by the way, does a better job than Flash on so many levels.

According to veteran multimedia developer Jon Alper, "The way Flash handles video and audio, even in an MPEG-4 format is simply inadequate, period. The reasons why run the gamut from server taxes to sync."

He goes on: "The problem is, the way Flash does everything else is much more focused on what content authors needed than QuickTime's wired sprites ever were. Ironically, this was as much or more a result of insufficient tools and evangelism for interactivity in QuickTime than caused by any meaningful failure of the still vastly better underlying philosophy of QuickTime.

"Macromedia bought and then enhanced a file format and toolset, built a thriving developer and designer community around it by focusing on the tools and the ease and needs of the people who made the content."

This is not good news for Apple or Microsoft, but Microsoft seems more aware of the danger here than Apple does.

Alper: "Adobe bought Macromedia and Flash with it and now neither Apple nor Microsoft control the playback of rich media on their own platforms. Microsoft is volleying back with Silverlight and in a move I find, frankly brilliant, is even supporting the Mac as a target platform. I doubt it will work because I don't think Microsoft has what Apple and Adobe do in the way of a means of connecting to the designers, but Microsoft's creation of Silverlight and decision to support the Mac indicate they perceive the very real threat to their own access to the eyeballs using their own operating system."

I'll be keeping an eye on the discussion as it continues....

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Great interview with Vatican Astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Friday, December 05, 2008

A truly marvelous actor, Frank Langella, was on Broadway 30 years ago with the revival of Dracula, featuring a superb set design by the late Edward Gorey--and I was lucky to see it. Now Langella is back playing Sir Thomas More in the revival of Man for All Seasons.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Early Earth as Hell. Or not.

Geologists now almost universally agree that by 4.2 billion years ago, the Earth was a pretty placid place, with both land and oceans. Instead of hellishly hot, it may have frozen over. Because the young Sun put out 30 percent less energy than it does today, temperatures on Earth might have been cold enough for parts of the surface to have been covered by expanses of ice.

In a new analysis, published in the current issue of the journal Nature, the zircons, the only bits of earth older than 4 billion years definitively known to have survived, provide another tantalizing hint about the Hadean period. Dr. Harrison and two U.C.L.A. colleagues, Michelle Hopkins, a graduate student, and Craig Manning, a professor of geology and geochemistry, report that minerals trapped inside zircons offer evidence that the processes of plate tectonics — the forces that push around the planet’s outer crust, forming and shaping the continents and oceans — had already begun.

“The picture that’s emerging is a watery world with normal rock recycling processes,” said Stephen J. Mojzsis, a professor of geology at the University of Colorado who was not involved with the U.C.L.A. research. “And that’s a comforting thought for the origin of life.”

Monday, December 01, 2008

Unfortunately, the celebrity philosopher craze did not end with the death of Jacques Derrida. The latest raves are for academic bullshit artist, Slavoj Zizek, from Slovenia, who is every bit of the bill. (I'm reading one of his collections now.) He knows how to be 'outrageous' for the sake of drawing attention, careful to mix his declarations about Heidegger, Freud, Hegel et al with allusions to the latest Hollywood movie hit.

According to Adam Kirsch, the same crowd in American academia is as happy to suck up to Zizek as it was to Derrida:

The curious thing about the Zizek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror--especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose "lost causes" Zizek takes up in another new book, In Defense of Lost Causes--the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult. A glance at the blurbs on his books provides a vivid illustration of the power of repressive tolerance. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Zizek claims, "Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy"; but on the back cover of the book we are told that Zizek is "a stimulating writer" who "will entertain and offend, but never bore." In The Fragile Absolute, he writes that "the way to fight ethnic hatred effectively is not through its immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance; on the contrary, what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred"; but this is an example of his "typical brio and boldness." And In Defense of Lost Causes, where Zizek remarks that "Heidegger is 'great' not in spite of, but because of his Nazi engagement," and that "crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not 'essential' enough"; but this book, its publisher informs us, is "a witty, adrenalinfueled manifesto for universal values."

In the same witty book Zizek laments that "this is how the establishment likes its 'subversive' theorists: harmless gadflies who sting us and thus awaken us to the inconsistencies and imperfections of our democratic enterprise--God forbid that they might take the project seriously and try to live it." How is it, then, that Slavoj Zizek, who wants not to correct democracy but to destroy it, has been turned into one of the establishment's pet subversives, who "tries to live" the revolution most completely as a jet-setting professor at the European Graduate School, a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana's Institute of Sociology, and the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities?

What's unfortunate about Zizek is, if he wasn't so caught up with performing cartwheels for the intelligentsia, some of his points about the importance of the religions of the West would be better taken. You can't help feeling he adopts the role of poseur precisely because he senses how little patience there is on the Left for anything substantive about religion.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Paul Gross eviscerates David Berlinksi's latest book. I have to say, of all the writers on the Discovery Institute's payroll, Berlinski to my mind is the most depressing. His Tour of the Calculus was a wonderful book. Since then, it is as though he was replaced by some horrible simulacrum. He must truly believe his readers and fans (at Commentary and other conservative magazines) are so stupid that none will make the effort to fact-check his assertions.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Long Arm of Terror

My wife and I are in Montreal over the Thanksgiving holiday. My father-in-law, who was diagnosed several weeks ago with normal pressure hydrocephalus, had undergone neurosurgery, and after several worrisome weeks has shown a rapidly advancing recovery.

So this Thanksgiving we have had something to be truly grateful for. And yet in the midst of this, the terror in Mumbai has struck home here. One of the three physicians who run the Julius Richardson Hospital here in Montreal, where my father-in-law was undergoing his rehab, Michael Moss, we have just learned was killed by the terrorists in the Mumbai attack. The story from the Gazette is here.
In his mid-seventies, Dr. Moss, a veteran of the British Navy, was on vacation at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai when the terrorists struck. God rest his soul.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

From a conservative professor at University of Denver to David Frum:
I find it astonishing that conservatives can discuss the election results and their path back to power without addressing the right wing's increasing estrangement from science. Religious conservatives have refused to acknowledge that evolution is the cornerstone of biological sciences and that the earth and universe are billions of years old, Free market enthusiasts have denied the efficacy and necessity of the Clean Air Act’s protections of the environment and human health. They have also refused to acknowledge Reagan’s leadership role in protecting the stratospheric ozone layer and the successes of the Montreal Protocol in addressing this global problem. It is genuinely difficult to find an adult discussion of climate change on any conservative web site. Conservatives find themselves arrayed against the National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society and the Academies of Science of many countries.
Good news for Publishing Industry newshounds: Pat Holt is back, in blog format.
In light of the Citigroup meltdown, Rod brings up what's on the mind of many of us:
OK, here's what I don't understand. Obama's new economic team -- Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Peter Orszag -- are all universally acclaimed as brilliant. But they are all proteges of former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, the Citigroup official who worked hard to break down the Depression-era firewalls that kept what's happening now from happening, and who stood shoulder to shoulder with Alan Greenspan to keep the government from regulating new financial instruments that helped cause this meltdown. Why is nobody asking why men with this kind of past being put back in charge of US economic policy? It's like a Republican president in 2016 bringing back Rumsfeld's proteges to run national security.
I'm looking forward to how this is explained--if the question is ever properly raised....
Hitch explains why Hillary is an unfortunate choice for Secretary of State.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Now...even I have a limit when it comes to enthusiasm for the Home Town Team...


Crunchy Con Recipes: Bourbon Lentils.
1 Can Organic Lentils
1/2 cup of chopped onions
1/2 cup of chopped mushrooms
Solid shot of Maker's Mark or your preferred Bourbon.

Saute the onions and mushrooms in a medium/large pan for about 5 minutes (till they start to get crisp around the edges) on medium-high. Add the can of lentils, keeping some of the water from the can. Stir. As the water evaporates, add the shot of bourbon and stir some more. Let simmer for a few minutes. Serves two.
And now, the Economist's post-mortem:

Republicanism’s anti-intellectual turn is devastating for its future. The party’s electoral success from 1980 onwards was driven by its ability to link brains with brawn. The conservative intelligentsia not only helped to craft a message that resonated with working-class Democrats, a message that emphasised entrepreneurialism, law and order, and American pride. It also provided the party with a sweeping policy agenda. The party’s loss of brains leaves it rudderless, without a compelling agenda.

This is happening at a time when the American population is becoming more educated. More than a quarter of Americans now have university degrees. Twenty per cent of households earn more than $100,000 a year, up from 16% in 1996. Mark Penn, a Democratic pollster, notes that 69% call themselves “professionals”. McKinsey, a management consultancy, argues that the number of jobs requiring “tacit” intellectual skills has increased three times as fast as employment in general. The Republican Party’s current “redneck strategy” will leave it appealing to a shrinking and backward-looking portion of the electorate.

Why is this happening? One reason is that conservative brawn has lost patience with brains of all kinds, conservative or liberal. Many conservatives—particularly lower-income ones—are consumed with elemental fury about everything from immigration to liberal do-gooders. They take their opinions from talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and the deeply unsubtle Sean Hannity. And they regard Mrs Palin’s apparent ignorance not as a problem but as a badge of honour.

Question for zealous proponents of ESCR. Why are you still talking about it like it's the only answer? This sounds much more promising than we were hearing even just a few years ago.
At long last, the glint in a researcher's eye has been turned into a significant advance in the clinic. Forget all the fuss about embryos and angst about playing God: this is unadulterated good news. We have proved that scientists can now fashion organs using a patient's own cells, eliminating the problems with rejection that have always plagued transplants. Today it is a trachea – tomorrow it could be a colon, even a heart.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Jay Fitzgerald points to this excellent summation of what went wrong with conservatism.

Back in the '70s, conservative intellectuals loved to talk about "radical chic," the well-known tendency of educated, often wealthy liberals to project their political fantasies onto brutal revolutionaries and street thugs, and romanticize their "struggles." But "populist chic" is just the inversion of "radical chic," and is no less absurd, comical or ominous. Traditional conservatives were always suspicious of populism, and they were right to be. They saw elites as a fact of political life, even of democratic life. What matters in democracy is that those elites acquire their positions through talent and experience, and that they be educated to serve the public good. But it also matters that they own up to their elite status and defend the need for elites. They must be friends of democracy while protecting it, and themselves, from the leveling and vulgarization all democracy tends toward.

Writing recently in the New York Times, David Brooks noted correctly (if belatedly) that conservatives' "disdain for liberal intellectuals" had slipped into "disdain for the educated class as a whole," and worried that the Republican Party was alienating educated voters. I couldn't care less about the future of the Republican Party, but I do care about the quality of political thinking and judgment in the country as a whole. There was a time when conservative intellectuals raised the level of American public debate and helped to keep it sober. Those days are gone. As for political judgment, the promotion of Sarah Palin as a possible world leader speaks for itself. The Republican Party and the political right will survive, but the conservative intellectual tradition is already dead. And all of us, even liberals like myself, are poorer for it.

Great to see them all again....

Hat tip: John Wilkins.
Andrew Sullivan is having some fun making sport of National Review's tacky predilection for annual cruises. I don't blame him. Honestly. Perhaps while the blessed WFB was still alive and up for this sort of thing, given his affection for all things nautical, maybe it made sense.

But really. If it's time for conservative journals to dig in and reach out to expand and engage more people with conservative ideas, may I suggest NR take a page from science fiction fandom and start holding annual conventions at a sporting hotel in a different US city every year? Not a bad way to broaden your appeal.
Dan Kennedy brings us up to date on what's rotten in the state of Massachusetts:

I am pleased to report that everything has returned to normal in the land of the bean and the cod. While the rest of America celebrates the election of Barack Obama and hunkers down for the economic apocalypse, we in Massachusetts have returned to snickering – and occasionally feigning outrage – at our venal political culture.

For a brief time, fully 5% of our 40 state senators were facing criminal charges. But that distinction was lost last week, when Jim Marzilli resigned after he was caught attending an environmental conference in Germany. Not much of a crime, you say? Let me explain.

Marzilli, who was arrested last June on charges of attempting to grope several women on park benches (he also allegedly came close to knocking over a hot-dog vendor while running from police), had not reported to work for lo these many months. So when he turned up on a European junket, his long-suffering colleagues sent word that they'd finally had enough.

Marzilli's departure leaves us with only one tainted senator, Dianne Wilkerson, who, according to the FBI, was recently caught on a surveillance camera stuffing $1,000 in cash into her bra – part of some $23,500 in bribes she's charged with taking on behalf of an aspiring bar owner in need of a liquor license.

Wilkerson has been an ethical disaster area for years, having served a sentence of house arrest during the 1990s after she, uh, forgot to pay her taxes. Her term's up in January, and she's promised to resign before then – but she won't say how long before. Meanwhile, she now says she needs a taxpayer-funded lawyer on the grounds that she's broke. Obviously she needed a bigger bra.

I could go on. So I will. The speaker of the Massachusetts House, Sal DiMasi, is under investigation for demonstrating generosity to his friends that would be admirable if he hadn't allegedly violated ethics rules – and possibly state laws – in so doing.

The charges against DiMasi – who, to his credit, successfully stood up to governor Deval Patrick (a friend of president-elect Obama's) and stopped his disastrous proposal to bring casino gambling to Massachusetts – may or may not end his political career. DiMasi has been adamant in denying any wrongdoing. But it must be said that both of DiMasi's predecessors as speaker, Tom Finneran and, before him, Charley Flaherty, resigned and pled guilty to federal charges in order to avoid doing time behind bars.

Have we hit rock bottom? Not quite. Both of the likely successors to DiMasi, Bob DeLeo and John Rogers, have ethics issues of their own. Give the nod to DeLeo, as his issues appear to be relatively trivial.

Taxachusetts is back.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sean Carroll has been perusing arxiv and finds it instructive that denizens of the steady state theory are still publishing:

For those with any lingering doubts, the Big Bang model — the idea that the universe has evolved from a hot, dense, smooth initial state — is correct, and the Steady State model should have been put to bed a long time ago. Evidence for the Big Bang is overwhelming. It’s a model that keeps making predictions, which keep turning out to be correct, while the Steady State theory made many predictions that turned out to be wrong.

But it’s an interesting case study in how science works. Reading Burbidge’s paper, the parallels with anti-evolutionists are striking. In both cases, one is repeatedly told that the establishment’s supporter’s can’t prove that their theory is correct. Which is undeniably true, as science never proves anything; it just accumulates evidence, and in the case of the Big Bang and natural selection, the evidence puts the case beyond reasonable doubt. Which doesn’t imply that there are no interesting questions remaining to be addressed. For both the Big Bang and natural selection, many of the details concerning the way in which the broad framework is specifically implemented in the real world remain to be answered. And in both cases, the skeptics like to pretend that open questions about the details are the same as open questions about the framework. But they’re not.

I'm well past the age of the gents in question here, but... it has not been that long since I was in the same phase, and way too much of what's going on in the 'dating' scene now is all-too-familiar.
George Will is even more blunt:

The answer? Do nothing that will delay bankrupt companies from filing for bankruptcy protection, so that improvident labor contracts can be unraveled, allowing the companies to try to devise plausible business models. Instead, advocates of a "rescue" propose extending to Detroit the government's business model for the nation -- redistributing wealth from the successful to the failed, an implausible formula for prosperity.

Some opponents of bankruptcy say: GM must not be allowed to fail before it perfects batteries for its electric-powered Volt, which supposedly is a key to the company's resurrection. This vehicle was concocted to serve GM's prolonged attempt to ingratiate itself with the few hundred environmentally obsessed automotive engineers in Congress. They have already voted tax credits of up to $7,500 for purchasers of such cars -- bribes that reveal doubts about consumer enthusiasm for them at a price that would reflect cost.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Jim Manzi on whether to bail out Detroit's Big Three auto-makers:
Let them Die.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Dogs and Cats Living Together Dept.
Well, here's something guaranteed to drive the PZ-ombies of this world up the wall:

Stephen Hawking allowing himself to be blessed by the...the...Pope???!!
What is the world coming to!

According to John Bohannon in the latest issue of Science (not online for me):
Scientists who gathered at the Vatican last
week for a closed-door conference on evolutionary
origins are giving the event mixed
reviews. Those who hoped for a clear statement
of support for evolution from the
Catholic Church went home empty-handed.
Others, expecting little, were happy with a
détente between science and faith.
Same old, same old. Cardinal Schoenborn continues to express doubts about "gaps" in the theory, and this continues to bemuse many scientists, but the Church not only didn't invite any of the shills from the Discovery Institute (very few of whom, anyway, are scientsts) the Cardinal continues to distance himself from Intelligent Design.
I think we've reached WTF time for what passes for the Massachusetts Republican Party. Jay Fitzgerald is all over it: "The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced a new party will have to be created to save what's left of the GOP here."


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nice video here of a new pyramid discovered in Egypt, dating back around 4,000 years.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Great Scenes from Otherwise Appalling Films (#2)
Okay...as I was saying...

Great Scenes from Otherwise Appalling Films.
Well, nice as the idea was, it was shortlived, thanks to this notice I got from YouTube when I just posted a new installment:

Your video "Great Scenes from Otherwise Appalling Films (#2)" has been identified by YouTube's Content Identification program as containing copyrighted content which NBC Universal claims is theirs.

Your video "Great Scenes from Otherwise Appalling Films (#2)" is no longer visible in some locations, because NBC Universal has chosen to block it.

You'd think by now, in the iPod age, the folks at NBC/U would see my "scenes" as a nice way to get a free promotion, no matter how modest, for movies well past their sell-by date.

Disappointing, but not unexpected. Maybe if I confine myself to films by Mario Bava, this will work. But in the meantime, I guess this series will be no more than an occasional text post...

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Joan Vennochi scores John Kerry for his lack of honesty during the re-election campaign. Since we're stuck with a one-party state here, it's still refreshing to know we could soon have two new senators, if Kerry takes a cabinet position with the new president and Ted Kennedy's decline accelerates.

Friday, November 07, 2008

More archeological evidence that those strange people who wrote the New Testament...actually knew what they were talking about.
In the first place, the archaeological evidence removes the necessity for the argument that Acts reflects second century Jewish religious life, not first century conditions. My own observation is that time and again when people have questioned the historical accuracy of the remarks in the NT about buildings and historical locales, the NT has eventually been vindicated by the archaeological evidence. This should give pause to scholars who too hastily want to argue alternate cases, merely dismissing the evidence of the NT about things like: 1) where Jesus was buried, or 2) whether there was a synagogue of Greek speaking Jews in Jerusalem in Jesus' day and the like.
Thomas Aquinas Smackdown of Bonaventure.
Okay, not really. But Siris points to this nice video of Professor Ralph McInerny on why Aquinas was such an exceptionally broadminded philosopher.

Friday dose of Krauthammer:

Which is not to say that Obama did not run a brilliant general election campaign. He did. In its tactically perfect minimalism, it was as well conceived and well executed as the electrifying, highflying, magic carpet ride of his primary victory. By the time of his Denver convention, Obama understood that he had to dispense with the magic and make himself kitchen-table real, accessible and, above all, reassuring. He did that. And when the economic tsunami hit, he understood that all he had to do was get out of the way. He did that too.

With him we get a president with the political intelligence of a Bill Clinton harnessed to the steely self-discipline of a Vladimir Putin. (I say this admiringly.) With these qualities, Obama will now bestride the political stage as largely as did Reagan.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Have I mentioned that I live in a rough town?
(All that Garden City stuff you hear about Newton is a bunch of crap.)
George Will's post-mortem:
As this is being written, Republicans seem to have lost a total of 55 House and 11 Senate seats in the last two elections. These are the worst Republican results in consecutive elections since the Depression-era elections of 1930 and 1932 (153 and 22), which presaged exile from the presidency until 1953. If, as seems likely at this writing, in January congressional Republicans have 177 representatives and 44 senators, they will be weaker than at any time since after the 1976 elections, when they were outnumbered in the House 292-143 and the Senate 61-38.
The GOP had it coming. If conservatism cannot overcome its dependance on know-nothing candidates who wear their anti-intellectualism as a badge of honor ('fruit fly research in France? I kid you not...'), it will remain in the political desert.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

This is hilarious:

You Suck at PhotoShop....

Via Slate.
Rod Dreher sums it up:

This election represents not an affirmative embrace of neoliberalism but rather a repudiation of the Republican Party and a certain kind of conservatism. It's important for the left to recognize this in order to avoid the temptation to overreach in the heady Democratic days to come. One-party government didn't work out so well for the Republicans during the Bush years — and going further back, Bill Clinton's misreading of the meaning of his 1992 victory caused him to make several key political errors that Democrats paid dearly for in the 1994 midterm election. To be sure, Obama has an opening now to move the country to the left, but it's not clear that that's where we want to go.

That said, the Obama Democrats' greatest ally will almost certainly be the addled Republican Party, which will be wandering around for some time like a google-eyed Wile E. Coyote after he's had an anvil dropped on his head. The recriminations on the right will make the Night of the Long Knives look like a knitting-needle ticklefest.

The civil war among conservatives will be between an enraged rump of die-hard knotheads and a disparate group of reformers. The knotheads believe that Obama's victory came thanks to the treason of some conservative intellectual elites and McCain's failure to be more like Reagan, whatever that means 20 years after the Gipper left the White House. Sarah Palin is the standard-bearer for the talk-radio faction within knotheadism, and Mitt Romney will emerge as the GOP establishment's last stand.

Well said.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Thanks to Siris for putting us in mind of Plato on this election day.
Socrates, in Plato's Gorgias:
No, Callicles, the very bad men come from the class of those who have power. And yet in that very class there may arise good men, and worthy of all admiration they are, for where there is great power to do wrong, to live and to die justly is a hard thing, and greatly to be praised, and few there are who attain to this. Such good and true men, however, there have been, and will be again, at Athens and in other states, who have fulfilled their trust righteously; and there is one who is quite famous all over Hellas, Aristeides, the son of Lysimachus. But, in general, great men are also bad, my friend.

When Scientists Speak Ill of their Colleagues
Larry Moran has a great post on how John Maynard Smith embarrassed himself when he disparaged the work of Stephen Jay Gould.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Friday, October 24, 2008

On the other hand, Charles Krauthammer takes a closer look at 'temperament.'
Who do you want answering that phone at 3 a.m.? A man who's been cramming on these issues for the last year, who's never had to make an executive decision affecting so much as a city, let alone the world? A foreign policy novice instinctively inclined to the flabbiest, most vaporous multilateralism (e.g., the Berlin Wall came down because of "a world that stands as one"), and who refers to the most deliberate act of war since Pearl Harbor as "the tragedy of 9/11," a term more appropriate for a bus accident?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Richard Dawkins's continuing (rather sad) devolution from actual scientist to advertising flak continues. As Siris writes:
I see that the Atheist Bus Campaign finally managed to get off the ground and gather together its donations. According to the the campaign website:
As Richard Dawkins says: “This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think - and thinking is anathema to religion.”

I'm inclined to think that thinking is anathema to advertising slogans, inasmuch as they don't allow much room for things like evidence or argument; but insofar as there is a rational motivation for any sort of advertising campaign, it's not to 'make people think' but simply to establish a presence (which is all that advertising campaigns ever really do).
(Up Next: Atheist Action Figures.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ross is right. And I like Alec Baldwin lately the more I see of him.

Kissinger's mother, Paula, had died the month before, at the age of 97. She had lived in the same formerly German-Jewish community in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan for decades. Kissinger looked me in the eye and, with what I believed was genuine emotion, said, "Thank you for saying that to me." I mention this because I wonder, what did some of you people actually think would happen with Palin on SNL?

Saturday Night Live is a comedy show. It's not Meet the Press. It doesn't "ask the tough questions" or "set the agenda." It attempts, with varying degrees of success, to make people laugh. That's it. Whether they skewer and savage people in order to do so, they don't care. When you come on a show like that, you are prepared in advance to get worked over. Palin knew that. Palin came on to be a good sport. And she was. She was polite, gracious. (More so than some of the famous actors who come through there, believe me.)

However, I assume that, like Meet the Press, SNL feels an obligation to offer their special forum to any and all public figures and officials who are current. Headline making. And in SNL's case, would make for a hit show. Several people decried SNL for giving her a spot on the show. You're kidding, right? The woman is the Vice Presidential nominee of one of the two major parties in this country. Don't put her on SNL? With all of her exposure and the Tina Fey performance? What reality are you in?

If you think an appearance on Saturday Night Live would sway voters and actually affect the outcome of the election, you may have more contempt for the electorate of this country than the Republican National Committee does. And that's a lot of contempt.

A couple of weeks ago I saw him on Bill Maher's show. I was surprised, and perhaps shouldn't have been, to see him excoriate the Clintons for as much of the current financial mess as he did the GOP.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Well, they ran out of gas, but it was a great series. Indeed, baseball hasn't been this good in a long time, according to Roger Angell. Congratulations to the Rays--and good for them. Garza pitched a fantastic game.

On the other hand, there are always people with no class, no real love of baseball, who can't resist being whimpering jerks about it.

Update: Looks like the fan in question decided to pull that post down. Good for her.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Staying Alive.
"We get to keep playing and that's truly thrilling," Terry Francona said of the draining victory.
Maybe it's because by the 7th inning, I was flipping back and forth between the Sox down by seven runs, and 'Return of the Living Dead' on IFC.

Some Zombie magic must've sneaked into Fenway.

What a comeback. At least one more baseball game in October.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

One of my favorite stops when we go to Montreal:
Patisserie de Gascogne. There are three in the greater Montreal area, but the largest is the shop at 237 Avenue Laurier. I'm not into sweets as a rule, but their coffee is superb, and the sandwiches excellent.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Short Fiction Dept.
It's been a couple of years since my last short story sale (to DoubleThink). And even longer since I sold a science fiction short story.

This one is called Venus Theotókos.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Well, as Grace Kelly once said (in To Catch a Thief), "That's Warm, Friendly France for you!"

Houellebecq, France's most controversial modern writer, was hailed as the defining voice of nihilism after his novel Atomised 10 years ago. But he now compares the chattering classes' hatred towards him to Nazism. He says his relationship with the French media is "total hatred", and a "war of extermination" is being waged against him.

He writes of a pack hunting him down and says his critics would love to drive him to suicide or stop him writing. He has no qualms about living in Ireland as a tax exile, and fears he can never again do public readings in France.

Despite trying to cut back on the habit of scouring Google for references to himself, he admits he is paranoid, adding: "If there is anyone in France right now with excuses for being paranoid, it is me."

Houellebecq also talks for the first time in detail about his parents, answering his mother, who recently published her own book calling him a "stupid little bastard".

Slightly new look to the web site and blog. In addition to an official Farrellmedia logo with which I can now brand the hell out of everything I post, I'm also shifting the delivery of all our online video segments to Brightcove's CDN and Media Player, which I think is the best thing since sliced bread.

The Video Archive page will remain firmly QuickTime based, mostly out of my sentimental attachment to Apple's media player.
Nice post by Moshe Rozali about the problems facing physicists trying to unify general relativity and quantum physics:

Alas, there are many indications (which I may get to at some stage) that quantizing the gravitational field is problematic: when going down to length scales for which the quantum mechanics of gravity is important, we simply don’t know what to do. Unfortunately, this distance scale, the Planck length, is tiny. If we are not extremely lucky, we probably cannot probe this length scale directly. Nevertheless, we have now an incomplete story, full of interesting puzzles and paradoxes, and making that story coherent is the problem of quantum gravity.

So, what can happen when we go to such short distances? in other words, what is the quantum structure underlying classical general relativity? There are exactly two possibilities:

1. The description of gravitational physics by a field theory involving the metric tensor holds all the way down to the Planck length. This is similar to what happens in QED: this field theory describes the physics accurately all the way down to distance scales for which quantum mechanics is relevant. In this case, in order to describe quantum gravitational phenomena, one has to quantize the metric tensor, something we don’t really know how to do.

2. The metric field shows some substructure already at distance scales larger than the Planck scale. That substructure is what underlies the physics of classical gravity. In order to describe physics at extremely short distance scales, such as the Planck length, one has to quantize that substructure. This is similar to nuclear physics, when we are interested in very short scales we look at the quantum mechanics of the quark and gluon fields, QCD.

That is the basic dichotomy of quantum gravity (and not background independence, as is often claimed). There are many clues, about which I will write at some point, that it is the second option that is more likely. Among those clues are the myriad of conceptual and practical problems we encounter when we try to follow the first route, and the fact that nearly 80 years of attempts have not resulted in much progress. On the other hand, after countless failed attempts, we do now have in string theory a few working examples of general relativity emerging as long distance approximation to something more fundamental, lending us confidence this is indeed the right scenario.

As a result, most researchers interested in quantum gravity (almost all of whom are labeled string theorists) have abandoned the attempt to quantize the metric tensor directly. There are still a few holdouts, who take at least some features of classical general relativity seriously all the way down to extremely short distances, I hope everyone can join me in wishing them good luck in their quest.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Talk about a guy with a Napoleon complex. Sheesh.
(Real Life: Better than any Parody.)
The Sox upend the Angels again. Here's the LA Times:
They are the Atlanta Braves for a new generation, an unhappy label not easily removed. This was their chance to stake their claim as an elite franchise, maybe their best chance, maybe the last chance before Teixeira and Francisco Rodriguez cash in this winter.

"You can't say we'll be in a position like this again," Torii Hunter said.

There was disappointment and frustration in every corner of the Angels' clubhouse, defiance and anger in some.

"We lost to a team that was not as good as we are," John Lackey said.
Actually, no. When you win 100 games in a really crappy division, you're not the better team. Lackey pitched a great game last night, and his defense let him down. That doesn't happen on the better team.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Evil of Frankenstein Scott Boras
Bill Simmons on why Manny got away:
If it did play out that way -- and I would bet anything it did -- would that explain Manny's uncharacteristic anger in June and July? I say yes. I say absolutely. Again, it's Scott Boras! The guy could convince a hemophiliac to give blood. Manny's heel turn (to borrow a wrestling term) never could have happened without an evil "manager" prodding him and poking him.26 For the life of me, I can't imagine how anyone could write a column, speak on television or give a radio interview within 72 hours of that trade without blaming Boras, as if the greediest sports agent of our lifetimes happened to be standing there idly while Manny's career in Boston imploded. You can't blame Manny just like you can't blame Lindsay Lohan for having awful parents or any Duke basketball player for turning into a whimpering crybaby.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

I think we're way past what this tells us about Sarah Palin. I'm starting to worry about what it tells us about Alaska....

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mark Levin chimes in:
Also, count me among those few here who want to thank the House Republicans for taking a bold stand against what had been a stampede on a scale I have never before witnessed on matters of huge consequence. Conservatism is more than a quaint belief-system to be embraced and debated over donuts at Starbucks. It is more than a list of talking points. It is the foundation of the civil society. The liberal uses crises, real or manufactured, to expand the power of government at the expense of the individual and private property. He has spent, in earnest, 70 years evading the Constitution's limits on governmental power. If conservatives don't stand up to this, who will? If they don't offer serious alternatives that address the current circumstances AND defend the founding principles, who will? The House Republicans have done both. And I, for one, thank them.
I think Jay Fitzgerald is on the money:
I've generally gone back and forth on the plan's merits, tilting toward the Warren Buffett/Andy Kessler view that it could end up making money for taxpayers, not to mention saving the economy from possible ruin. But the sight of jaws dropping on trading floors, as it dawned on them that the anger Americans feel is real and deep, and, well, it was a satisfying moment. Now maybe lawmakers will pass the bill after they've sent that don't-take-our-damn-money-for-granted message to those who, until recently, took our IRA,(401(k), pension, mortgage and taxpayer money for granted....

Monday, September 29, 2008

P.J. O'Rourke can find even his own cancer funny:
Furthermore, I am a logical, sensible, pragmatic Republican, and my diagnosis came just weeks after Teddy Kennedy's. That he should have cancer of the brain, and I should have cancer of the ass ... well, I'll say a rosary for him and hope he has a laugh at me. After all, what would I do, ask God for a more dignified cancer? Pancreatic? Liver? Lung?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Enough is Enough Dept.

Atheists love to dismiss belief in God as just a security blanket.

They may have a point.
Friday dose of Krauthammer:

I have little doubt that some, if not many, cases of malfeasance will emerge. But what we conveniently neglect is the fact that much of this crisis was brought upon us by the good intentions of good people.

For decades, starting with Jimmy Carter's Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, there has been bipartisan agreement to use government power to expand homeownership to people who had been shut out for economic reasons or, sometimes, because of racial and ethnic discrimination. What could be a more worthy cause? But it led to tremendous pressure on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- who in turn pressured banks and other lenders -- to extend mortgages to people who were borrowing over their heads. That's called subprime lending. It lies at the root of our current calamity.

Were there some predatory lenders? Of course. But only a fool or a demagogue -- i.e., a presidential candidate -- would suggest that this is a major part of the problem.

Was there misbehavior on Wall Street? The wheels of justice will grind. But why wait for justice? If a really good catharsis will allow a return of rationality to Capitol Hill -- yielding a clean rescue package that will actually save the economy -- go for it.

Capping executive pay is piffle. What we need are a few exemplary hangings. Public hangings. On television. Pick a few failed investment firms, lead their CEOs in chains through the canyons of Manhattan and give the mob satisfaction. Better still, precede the auto-da-fe -- fire is highly telegenic -- with 24-hour reality-TV coverage of their recantations, lamentations and final visits with the soon-to-be widowed. The ratings would dwarf "American Idol," and the ad revenue alone would make the perfect down payment on the $700 billion.

Whatever it takes to clear our heads.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I agree with Ross Douthat:
Both campaigns have clearly decided that they have an interest in keeping this pattern going. From the McCain camp's point of view, substantive debate could be fatal to their candidate, since he isn't all that comfortable talking about the issues - the economy and health care chief among them - that voters claim to care the most about, and the Democrats are trusted more than the Republicans on most domestic policy questions anyway. If the election is going to be won, McCain and Co. have decided, it's going to be won on trench warfare and intangibles, not substance. From the Obama camp's point of view, meanwhile, the election is theirs to lose, so why take any chances when you can just meet McCain blow for blow and run out the clock until November? With substance comes opportunity, but also risk - does Obama really want to talk about the costs of, say, the cap-and-trade program he officially supports? I think not! - and why would you take any risks at all when the Presidency is within your grasp?

So Barack Obama, who once claimed to embody sweeping, once-in-a-generation change, has ended up running a cautious, negative, and deeply generic Democratic campaign, while John McCain, who's supposedly all about honor and service and aching nobility, has offered a mix of snark, stunts, and manufactured controversies week in and week out. And the pundit class, deeply invested in the notion that the stakes in this election are stunningly, awesomely high, has responded to the fundamental dullness of the race itself with wild hyperventilation, unable to accept that this campaign just hasn't lived up to their round-the-clock hype - and that it may not even turn out to be the most important election of this decade, let alone of a generation or a lifetime.
The Discovery Institute is coming out with a new tome to "help" students understand evolution. I wonder if it will be as dishonest as the last one?
Phil Lawler reminds us why the corruption of the clergy abuse scandal is still very much unresolved.
Bishop John McCormack has been leading the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, for 10 years now, and that milestone earns him a remarkable favorable piece in the Union Leader.

According to a sociologist from the University of New Hampshire, the bishop-- severely tarred by the sex-abuse scandal-- has "won back, I guess you could say, his credibility to lead the diocese."

How? By striking a plea-bargain deal with prosecutors, ignoring demands for his resignation, riding out the storm of criticism, and... surviving? Is that what passes for leadership?

The same sociologist argues that the bishop's deep involvement with the shuffling of predator-priests will "be like a passing incident or episode that has to be noted, but it won't end up defining his legacy."

What does define his legacy, then? Read on; the information is in the article.

When Bishop McCormack was installed, there were 130 parishes and 37 missions in the diocese. Now there are 102 parishes and 16 missions. There were 158 active priests. Now the number is under 100, headed for 75.

That's one legacy: a diocese in decline. As in Boston (where McCormack had previously handled priest-personnel problems-- with memorable results), so in New Hampshire the diocese is contracting. The Catholic faith is in retreat. The scandal and the contraction go hand in hand.

But in New Hampshire there is more: As I explained in The Faithful Departed, Bishop McCormack reached an agreement with the state's attorney general, surrendering his own autonomy. The bishop accepted state supervision of ecclesiastical affairs as an alternative to prosecution because-- as he conceded in a legal document-- the state had evidence "likely to sustain a conviction" on criminal charges.
Don't think he's the only clever bishop to ride this out.
Overlooked in all the hoopla over the closing of Yankee Stadium:

Incredibly, there was also no meaningful mention of Joe Torre, who managed the Yankees to four World Series championships and 12 consecutive trips to the postseason. The Yankees’ director of media relations, Jason Zillo, pointed out to reporters that many great Yankees had not been mentioned. “There was absolutely no slight intended,” he said, “and perhaps, looking back, they should have been mentioned.”

Clemens, according to The New York Post, was watching the Stadium event on a television back in Texas; he was almost certainly seething and cursing, How could they not bring me back?

The Yankees wrap themselves so tightly in history, yet they let a whiff of history escape. I call it hypocrisy. The Yankees, I’m sure, call it good taste.

Clemens is up to his eyeballs in a steroids investigation, although nothing has been proved. Perhaps the Yankees wanted to spare Clemens the embarrassment of being booed. Let’s accept that explanation for the sake of argument (although, knowing fans as I do, Clemens might very well have received an ovation). What’s the excuse for ignoring Torre, who single-handedly resuscitated the Yankees?

Well, Torre's going back to the playoffs with a new team. But the Yankees aren't.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In his usual roundabout fashion, Steven Weinberg recalls what the Stoics pointed out: death smiles at us all; the best a man can do is smile back.
(Apparently this is news to some.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

You know things are going better over there when the boys and girls in uniform have time to clown around.
Cold Reality for a Monday Morning
Jay Fitzgerald quite properly points with approval to this excellent piece by Doug Bailey, recalling the downfall of Boston area banks twenty years ago, and all from the same problems plaguing us now.

There were lesser-known, though no less colorful, CEOs and executives that populated the banking landscape, all of whom tried to convince me and my readers they were smarter and savvier than the average banker. Like "Big Al" Holgerson, an S&L cowboy who jokingly told me during our first interview that the artwork and nearly everything else in his office was fake. I earned his undying enmity when I used the comment as a metaphor for him and his bank's finances.

There was a nerdy loan officer at a little bank in Lowell who astoundingly wound up as one of the highest-paid bankers in the United States because he duped his superiors into tying his compensation to the number and value of the mortgages he sold. He wrote thousands and made millions. The bank failed.

Eventually, they all failed or were swallowed up: Bank of New England, Bank of Boston, Boston Company, Boston Bank of Commerce, Boston Five, Shawmut, MerchantsBank, Elliot Savings, First American Bank, ComFed, Home Owner's Federal, First Service Bank, Home Federal, and on and on. I chronicled their deaths and tried to explain how we arrived at this loathsome point in the road and why we would soon have no big local banks.

Many of them, particularly Bank of New England, borrowed millions from the government during their last desperate throes (bridge loans to nowhere), passing the losses to investors and taxpayers while top executives walked away with handsome severance packages. Sound familiar?

There were blue-ribbon commissions appointed and 10-point plans presented for resurrection and a special agency created to dispose of all the abandoned assets. But there were few indictments, and the mess was largely left to time and the private sector to sort through.

Now, it's happening again, maybe on a grander scale, with bigger companies and more zeroes. But the root causes are identical: deregulation, no oversight, and a mistaken confidence that if the merry-go-round is giving you a good ride, it will never stop.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

John Wilkins is getting increasingly fed up with Richard Dawkins. And I don't blame him.

Dawkins wants to set up a false dichotomy under which he and all his cobelievers are on the Good Side, the sensible side, the rational side. And yet, these rational brights can call all religion ignorant and stupid without needing to know or appreciate the religious views they deride. Yeah, I know, Courtier's Reply, etc. Fairyology. Blah blah. But this isn't about what you and your friends think of religion, Richard; this is about whether what they think causes them to do with science. And guess what? Most religious scientists do great science. Most religious science teachers teach great science. I have known these "accommodationists" for forty years, and honourable men and women they mostly are; just as honourable as the atheists among them.

The division isn't Accommodationists versus the rest of you. It's between Exclusionists versus the rest of us. You want to exclude any religion from human society, including scientific society. You are whistling against the wind here. Religion is a fact of human nature and isn't going away any time soon, so if you want a science based society, and we do, learn to live with them.

Superb post. And check out the comments. All the usual suspects, of course, but some interesting points from many others.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Interesting conference in Rome planned for next March on Evolution to commemorate Darwin's achievement and discuss the science. Thankfully, according to John Allen, it looks like the Church is definitely distancing itself from "Intelligent" Design.

Professor Philip Sloan of Notre Dame, who took part in the Vatican press conference, told me afterwards that he's seen a clear shift in Catholic attitudes.

"When I started in the 1970s, my Catholic students said the following: 'God works by natural ways, so there's no problem with evolution,'" Sloan said. "When I taught Darwin, the only ones who had a problem were the Protestants. Now I get Catholic students who think it is impossible to be a Catholic and accept the theory of evolution."

"If you look at the condensed versions of the Catechism that end up in high school textbooks, it just gets stronger and stronger toward an almost literal kind of creationism," Sloan said. He attributed that development in part to "an alliance, sometimes an unfortunate one, between right-to-life groups and anti-evolution groups, often developing within Evangelical Protestant circles, which then gets transferred into Catholic discussion."

Ravasi and his colleagues obviously hope to offer a different perception of the church's message. During Tuesday's press conference, I asked Ravasi if one could say that neither creationism nor intelligent design form part of Catholic teaching.

"There is a doctrine of creation which is obviously part of the church's teaching, and which is elaborated in a strictly theological context," Ravasi said. "But if I use this doctrine ideologically in the scientific field, then it breaks down."

That's putting it diplomatically. Here's a taste of the Program:

First Session: The Facts that we Know

09:00 a.m. Addresses of the Authorities
10:00 a.m. Paleontological Evidences (Conway Morris)
10:45 a.m. Bio-Molecular Evidences (Werner Arber)
11:25 a.m. Coffee Break
11:55 a.m. Taxonomic Issues (Douglas J. Futuyma)
12:35 p.m. Discussion
01:30 p.m. End of the Session and Lunch

Second Session: Evolutionary Mechanisms I

03:30 p.m. History of the Evolution Theories (Jean Gayon)
04:15 p.m. The Standard Theory (Francisco Ayala)
05:00 p.m. Tea Time
05:30 p.m. Symbiosis (Lynn Margulis)
06:15 p.m. The Speciation Problem (Jeffrey L. Feder)
07:00 p.m. Discussion
07:30 p.m. End of the Session and Dinner

Wednesday 4 March

Third Session: Evolutionary Mechanisms II

9:00 a.m. Evo-Devo (Scott Gilbert)
09:45 a.m. Complexity and Evolution (Stuart Kauffman)
10:25 a.m. Coffee Break
10:55 a.m. Evolution and Environment (Robert Ulanowicz)
11:35 a.m. Title to be defined (Stuart A. Newman)
12:15 p.m. Discussion
1.00 p.m. End of the Session and Lunch

Fourth Session: The Origin of Man

03:00 p.m. History of the Research (Giorgio Manzi)
03:45 p.m. Molecular Approach (Olga Rickards, Gianfranco Biondi)
04:30 p.m. Tea Time
05:00 p.m. Palaeontological Approach (Yves Coppens)
05:45 p.m. Palaeontological Approach in the Hominization and Possible Philosophical Implications (Fiorenzo Facchini)
06:30 p.m. Paleontological Data (Robin Dunbar)
07.15 p.m. Discussion
07.30 p.m. End of the Session and Dinner

Apropos Darwin's post today on life and our expectations about it, one of his readers, Jennifer F., points to this funny chart.

song chart memes

Happy Friday.
After the scary week on Wall Street, Just Thomism gives me some pause with this:
It’s humiliating to notice the degree to which I’ve at least taken part in the kind of avarice that is commonplace in American life. I’m buried in a mountain of junk I never needed, I eat kinds of food and amounts of food at every meal that my parents and grandparents would have been happy to eat at a meal once a month, I think nothing of buying beverages for embarrassingly high prices, my kids have a floor full of useless junk that bores them, my family buys more clothes in a year than most middle class persons fifty years ago would have owned in a lifetime. Some portion of this is real prosperity and economic boom- but I have the nagging feeling that most of this is made possible by a vast, phantom economy that is simply not there.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I was surprised (and delighted) to see that my first published poem, from a 1991 issue of First Things, is now online.

I'd be curious as to Brandon's opinion, given the excellent verse he posts on a regular basis. Perhaps it's apropos I stumbled upon it again.

Monday, September 15, 2008

It's a common cliche that your children surprise you. That said, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that my 5-year-old daughter's favorite song isn't the theme from Dora, Max & Ruby, or any other lightweight jingle from the world of kids' programming.

Nope--it's the Non Nobis as presented by Patrick Doyle in Branagh's Henry V. And I mean, she sings it--and she gets every word right, even though she's never been exposed to Latin. Until now.

Go figure...

Friday, September 12, 2008

John Cleese demonstrates why the best way to deal with zealots (of any stripe) is to make fun of them. ('Well, what do we live for, eh? To make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn.")

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I guess the temptation for some militants to create straw men... is just too great. Guest poster Thony Christie over at John Wilkins' blog takes A.C. Grayling to the wood shed on a little understood episode in the history of science.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dan Rayburn speaks for all of us in the digital video delivery business with a good piece lamenting the standard misconceptions too often and easily perpetuated by media journalists.

The author says that, "Multimedia communication — particularly video — has caused a strain on public networks, degrading the quality, so privatized networks have become more attractive over the last few years." Where's proof that the public networks are under any "strain"? And what CDNs have "privatized" networks? CDNs do not have "private" networks. They have private cross-connects and things like private peering, but the networks themselves are not "private". They are all delivering content over the Internet, which is public. Yes, some CDNs own the pipes, but the content to the end user is not being delivered from a "private" network.

Berge Avayzian, an analyst with the Yankee Group is quoted in the article as saying, "Video is a huge game changer but its big and bulky, so sending video files over traditional Internet pipes is flawed." What are "traditional internet pipes"? Are there any internet pipes that are un-traditional? And what does Berge classify as being the flaw? The CDN space for video this year alone is north of $400 million, so the "flaw" does not seem to be stopping the market from growing or vendors from growing revenue.

Believe it or not, there are some places around the Matrix blogosphere where theists and atheists actually have meaningful debates...

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Closing in on the Dawn...before Darwin?

In a paper released this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mansy and Szostak showed that the special membranes, fat bubbles essentially, were stable under a variety of temperatures and could have manipulated molecules like DNA through simple thermal cycling, just like scientists do in PCR machines.

The entire line of research, though, begs the question: where would DNA, or any other material carrying instructions for replication, have come from?

Friday, September 05, 2008

My favorite physicist Stephen Barr makes a good point about the problem with single-issue politics:
There is in conservatives a strong Romantic streak that loves the lost but righteous cause. They want to ride over the cliff with all flags flying. But that went out with the Jacobites—or should have. I hear some of my pro-life friends saying, “Why did we fight for the Republicans all these years? What have they done for us? Look at Souter.” They seem to be half in love with easeful defeat. “To hell with mere politics,” they seem to say, “we’d rather be right than win a meaningless election.”
I would never describe myself as a theistic evolutionist, but John Wilkins (as always) has a thoughtful post on the implications of Darwin, God and Chance that is, as the late William F. Buckley might say, felicitous.

There is a simulation program called Avida, which simulates a process of evolution by selection on "animats" or cellular automata that simulate organisms in an environment. Suppose I want a particular outcome, and I have plenty of time - not an infinite amount, but enough to run simulations of "worlds" that will approach my utility function. After running several millions of simulations, I find the "universe" that serves my needs, and build it to the specifications drawn from that. If my needs include allowing a builder to make a house from rocks off a cliff, then I ensure that the universe I choose includes that outcome.

In this way, everything is the result of secondary causes, while the Neo-Leibnizian God remains the primary cause, including of each event that satisfies the God's utility functions. So Darwin is, I think, not correct in saying that one cannot reasonably maintain that the outcome is designed by the deity.

However, Darwin is entirely correct about the secondary causes - God is not a micromanager. Instead God has chosen the best available, or most satisfactory, world to create (note that this doesn't require that God is omniscient, or choose the best of all possible worlds; in fact it may even be that to choose that world God might have to abandon some of HisHer goals, unless the two are identical - that is, unless what God wants is the best of all possible worlds). So we have a difference of levels of causes here, not unlike the distinction made by some Neo-Thomists, between creation as the instigation of each individual event, which they rejected, and creation as the subsistence of every event as they unfold according to secondary causes.

Why does this matter beyond a bit of mental gymnastics, especially since I am not a theist? Well it has one rather significant implication: it means that those who criticise theistic evolutionists (like Asa Gray) for being inconsistent or incoherent are wrong: it is entirely possible to hold that God is not interventionist, and yet hold that God desired the outcomes, or some outcomes, of the world as created. In simpler terms, there's nothing formally wrong with believing the two following things: 1, that God made the world according to a design or desired goal or set of goals; and 2, that everything that occurs, occurs according to the laws of nature (secondary causes). In other words, it suggests that natural selection is quite consistent with theism, solving a problem I discussed earlier.

So we should not, as Dawkins and his fellow ideologues do, attack those who are religious and accept and even promote evolution. The primary cause explanation is entirely distinct from the secondary causes that are the domain of science. I don't for a second think that this is the way things are, but neither do I think that someone is just playing courtier's games if they think this.

Cynthia Ozick writes thoughtfully on why writers are--and should remain--invisible.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Responsibility of Journalists. Dan Kennedy has some wise words for Andrew Sullivan on rumor-mongering.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

I want to see more of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And now we can....
Too good to overlook. In which PZ Myers tries digesting James Carroll's Constantine's Sword, and comes up gasping for air:

I haven't finished it yet. It's agonizing to plow through. There are some good bits of history sprinkled throughout, but you have to suffer through the author's frequent, lengthy declarations of his Catholicism. Trust me, he's very Catholic. So Catholic that he feels guilty about his guilt over guilt.

You can actually skip the first 60 pages altogether, which consists of nothing but his personal history and his loud protestations that he is deeply Catholic. I have never before read a book where the author intrudes so obnoxiously.

It's the pop-science book meme, which I'm picking up from Steve:

Here's the deal, from originator Cocktail-Party Physics:
1. Highlight those you've read in full
2. Asterisk those you intend to read
3. Add any additional popular science books you think belong on the list
4. Link back to Cocktail Party Physics (leave links or suggested additions in the comments, if you prefer) "so I can keep track of everyone's additions. Then we can compile it all into one giant "Top 100" popular science books list, with room for honorable mentions."

To this I will add my own take: bolding the authors you've read, like Stephen Jay Gould, even if you haven't read the book on the list.

1. Micrographia, Robert Hooke
2. The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
3. Never at Rest, Richard Westfall
4. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman*
5. Tesla: Man Out of Time, Margaret Cheney
6. The Devil's Doctor, Philip Ball
7. The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes
8. Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Dennis Overbye
9. Physics for Entertainment, Yakov Perelman
10. 1-2-3 Infinity, George Gamow
11. The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene*
12. Warmth Disperses, Time Passes, Hans Christian von Bayer
13. Alice in Quantumland, Robert Gilmore
14. Where Does the Weirdness Go? David Lindley
15. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
16. A Force of Nature, Richard Rhodes
17. Black Holes and Time Warps, Kip Thorne*
18. A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
19. Universal Foam, Sidney Perkowitz
20. Vermeer's Camera, Philip Steadman
21. The Code Book, Simon Singh*
22. The Elements of Murder, John Emsley
23. Soul Made Flesh, Carl Zimmer
24. Time's Arrow, Martin Amis
25. The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, George Johnson
26. Einstein's Dreams, Alan Lightman
27. Godel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter*
28. The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, Lisa Jardine
29. A Matter of Degrees, Gino Segre
30. The Physics of Star Trek, Lawrence Krauss
31. E=mc<2>, David Bodanis
32. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife
33. Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold, Tom Shachtman
34. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, Janna Levin
35. Warped Passages, Lisa Randall
36. Apollo's Fire, Michael Sims
37. Flatland, Edward Abbott
38. Fermat's Last Theorem, Amir Aczel*
39. Stiff, Mary Roach
40. Astroturf, M.G. Lord
41. The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
42. Longitude, Dava Sobel*
43. The First Three Minutes, Steven Weinberg
44. The Mummy Congress, Heather Pringle
45. The Accelerating Universe, Mario Livio
46. Math and the Mona Lisa, Bulent Atalay
47. This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin
48. The Executioner's Current, Richard Moran
49. Krakatoa, Simon Winchester
50. Pythagorus' Trousers, Margaret Wertheim
51. Neuromancer, William Gibson
52. The Physics of Superheroes, James Kakalios
53. The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump, Sandra Hempel
54. Another Day in the Frontal Lobe, Katrina Firlik
55. Einstein's Clocks and Poincare's Maps, Peter Galison*
56. The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan
57. The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins
58. The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker
59. An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
60. Consilience, E.O. Wilson*
61. Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould*
62. Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard
63. Fire in the Brain, Ronald K. Siegel
64. The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas [I've read excerpts]
65. Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris
66. Storm World, Chris Mooney
67. The Carbon Age, Eric Roston
68. The Black Hole Wars, Leonard Susskind
69. Copenhagen, Michael Frayn
70. From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne [a long, long time ago]
71. Gut Symmetries, Jeanette Winterson
72. Chaos, James Gleick
73. Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos
74. The Physics of NASCAR, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky
75. Subtle is the Lord, Abraham Pais

Of course, I'm going to suggest my book be on this list!

I'd also add Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel; The Plausibility of Life by Marc Kirschner et al; Making of the Fittest by Sean Carroll; The Mystery of Conciousness by John Searle;
Darwin's Ghosts by Steve Jones; The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin; Our Inner Ape by Frans DeWaal; Cosmology and Controversy by Helge Kragh...I could go on.