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.